The routine is always the same: ice, fire, words, compliance.
They pull the Soldier from the cryo chamber with ice still in his veins and drag him down dark corridors and through bulk head doors to the chair. Coming out of cryo, he never remembers much, but he remembers enough to fear the chair. The bad times, he isn't finished screaming when his handler starts to say the words. There aren't any good times.
The Soldier may fear the chair, but he hates the words. He hates what they do, locking down what little is left of whoever he used to be, giving absolute control to his handler. Control his handler always uses for the same thing: death.
They fly him somewhere in the world, give him his mission briefing and his weapons, and then they make him kill. And once his mission is complete, he returns to his handler for extraction. And the pattern repeats: ice, fire, words, compliance.
This time, he's been sent somewhere warm, somewhere with jungle and sunshine and people who are friendly and outgoing. People who don't realize he's a predator among them. The mission is easy—friendly people are easy prey—and he makes his way, reluctantly, to the extraction point. (He wishes he could stay here longer. He likes the sun and the heat. It nearly melts the ice in his veins.)
But when he reaches the extraction point, the usual patterns have been disrupted. His handler seems disturbed, and there are two men with him, men he's never seen before. Men in suits who have a new mission for the Soldier.
"The procedure is in place for a reason," his handler says to the men. "One mission at a time, with time in cryogenic freeze and renewed conditioning between each one. And the Soldier is never to operate in the United States, especially not in New York City."
"But this is an emergency," the taller of the two men says. "The files must be retrieved and the woman eliminated."
"Have you seen the old reports?" His handler is insistent. If he didn't know better, the Soldier would think he hears fear beneath the handler's words. "Do you know what happened before we put the procedure in place? Do you know what happened the one time it was sent to New York?"
They talk as if the Soldier is not there, as if he cannot hear them, as if he is a thing. But he can hear them, and their words come with echoes, come with blood. He sees the metal hand crushing the throat of a handler, sees himself lining up a perfect shot on a target only to turn and shoot another handler. There were many handlers at the beginning, and most of them didn't live long.
"It's been years since an incident," the shorter man says. "And there's no choice. This must be done quickly."
The handler relents, and the Soldier is taken to a plane and given a new mission file en route. He studies the file as they fly. Target: female, age 54, British national, naturalized American citizen. Has worked for the enemy for decades. The words are black and white, one more target among many. But turning a page, he finds a picture of the target that sets off new echoes in his head.
The picture is black and white, taken on the street from a distance, but the strong personality of the woman is clear. This woman in a mannish suit and curled short hair radiates strength. The Soldier thinks the picture should be in colour, that the woman's lipstick should be deep red, the red of blood. He thinks she should be smiling. He thinks she should be younger.
Her voice whispers "Don't be late, Steve." in his ear, and he can't help but shudder.
"Is there a problem, Soldier?" his handler asks him, and he realizes he's been looking at the picture too long.
"No," he says, and turns the page to a blueprint of the target's home, memorizing entrance and exit points.
The sun has already long set when they land at a private airfield. The two men with them make bribes and threats to avoid any questions. The Soldier gears up in his tactical suit, the handler insisting this job requires the face mask.
"You may be recognized here," his handler says as he passes him the mask, even though the Soldier knows he's a thing that requires no explanation.
(He liked the assignment in the warm place so much better. He didn't have to wear the tac suit or the mask there. They let him feel the sun on his face for once. A few hours heat to make up for so much time in the ice.)
He makes sure he has all his weapons—guns, knives, garrotte—puts the mask in place, and then gets into the back of the plain black van that awaits them on the tarmac.
In the van, time seems to come to a standstill.
He closes his eyes and reviews his infiltration plan, how to pick the lock and shut down the alarm system on the target's house. Her security is far better than average, but he knows how to defeat all of it. He plans his route through the house, the rooms where the target is most likely to be found—kitchen, study, bedroom—the best approaches for each quadrant.
And all the time, he ignores the echoes in his head.
("You were meant for more than this, you know," says the young woman with red lipstick.)
When the van stops and the handler throws the door open on a city street he thinks he should recognize, he can see the beginnings of light showing in the sky.
"You have ten minutes," his handler says.
Ten minutes to eliminate a middle-aged woman is more than generous.
The locks and alarms are as easily disabled as he'd anticipated. He treads carefully on the expensive carpet that lines the hallway, his pistol braced and ready to fire. He clears the first floor, kitchen, study, the living room, then begins his careful ascent up the stairs.
He doesn't make a sound—he's trained not to make a sound—but something must give him away, because the target isn't in the bed when he fires the killing shots into it.
Before he can turn, the target is firing her own weapon at him, one bullet striking him in the chest where his tac vest absorbs the impact. Her weapon emptied, she launches herself at him with the skill of one who has kept up her combat training.
He's stronger and faster than she is, but he has to concentrate to block her blows and get through her defences. He loses his own weapon early in the exchange. He's finally able to sweep her feet out from under her, and she goes down. He straddles the target, circling her neck with his hands. It will take only moments now…
But the target isn't done. She manages to get one leg up to his throat, to force him down and break the grip that's depriving her of breath. She almost manages to get away—no one has managed to come so close to escaping the Soldier—but he has her pinned again in moments. And that's when it happens.
The target begins to strike out with no technique, no skill, just blind panic, arms and legs flailing against him. As she gasps for breath that won't come, one of the target's hand reaches out and grabs his face mask, pulling it off.
The target sees his face, and she freezes.
The target knows him.
She stares at him in horror, and there are more echoes in his head.
"Gentlemen, I'm Agent Carter."
"I gotta put her in the water."
"Don't be late, Steve."
He strikes the target, needing to drive the echoes away, to kill them.
He thinks it's another echo, but it isn't. It's the target. She's calling him the name he only hears in echoes, in dreams, in the visions that they try to burn out of him with ice and fire. He can't listen to her. If he listens to her, the Soldier will be punished. He will be wiped again and again until the very little of him that's left is completely obliterated.
He can't allow that.
The Soldier strikes the woman over and over, until there's blood on his hands, on his face, in his hair. He only stops when she's still.
He has one last instruction to follow. He breaks into the safe in the study and retrieves the files he was told would be there.
His orders for extraction are clear. The Soldier will make his way over the rooftops to an address two blocks west of his current location where the van will be waiting. There's no reason for him not to follow his instructions. No reason except for the screams in his head telling him to escape.
He heads for the roof, turns to the south and runs.
He runs over the roofs of a city just waking up, a city that never really sleeps. He sheds his tac vest three blocks from the target's home, leaving it and the stolen files in a ventilation shaft where it won't be found for days. Two blocks from the river, he cleans the blood from his hands and face in a puddle that's formed on a rooftop, then descends to street level. It's hard without crowds, but he picks the pocket of an older man at a subway station, then buys a ticket to Brooklyn. (He can't jump the turnstiles, can't draw attention to himself. He can't be found by the enemy. He can't be found by his handler. He can't be found by anyone.
He leaves the subway as soon as he crosses the river, as soon as he's in Brooklyn. He doesn't know why, but Brooklyn calls to him. The streets look different than he expects (so many echoes) but the same as well. The Soldier lets his feet lead him through the streets, through places that are still here and places that aren't. Through echoes and shadows. By the time rush hour is well underway, he's sitting on the top level of a fire escape, his back against the rough brick wall, his hands clasped around his knees, looking at a vacant lot the echoes insist should be a building. The missing building is the strongest echo of all. Stronger than the woman with the red lipstick. Stronger than the market where he remembers painting signs. The missing building is home.
No, that's not right.
The missing building was where he lived.
The man who shared his rooms, he was home.
The Soldier can't remember the man clearly. Can only remember dark hair, a crooked smile, and a pleasant voice.
("Christ, Steve, do you like getting hit?")
He closes his eyes against the absence of the building and concentrates on the echoes.
("Don't you dare try to enlist again, Stevie. Don't you dare.")
He focuses on what he's lost, on what the ice and fire have taken from him.
("Knew you'd come for me.")
The Soldier tries so hard to chase down the echoes, to find who he was before he was the Soldier that he gets lost in them. So lost, that it takes the rattle of the fire escape to make him realize his handler has found him.
His handler stands on the stairs, just out of reach, a pistol held firmly in both hands. It doesn't matter. The Soldier knows he could kill the man if he wanted to. He has a gun in his boot and three knives, and he wouldn't even need any of them. He could cross the distance between them and break the man's neck before he could pull the trigger or say the words. But he doesn't. The handler's controls are fraying, but they aren't quite broken yet.
"Soldier, report," his handler orders.
The Soldier doesn't even do his handler the courtesy of looking at him, keeping his eyes directed to the Manhattan skyline.
"You failed your mission, Soldier. I need your report."
That makes the Soldier turn to his handler. He couldn't have failed. There was so much blood.
"You left the woman alive."
"Impossible," the Soldier says.
"I would have thought so, but a SHIELD operative found her and called an ambulance. She didn't live long, but she shouldn't have been alive at all." The handler looks at him more closely. "Where are the files?"
The Soldier doesn't respond, but his eyes flick briefly in the direction from which he came.
"Боже мой!" says the handler, then delivers a series of rapid instructions in Russian into his phone. The Soldier waits until the handler has pocketed his phone.
"Who am I?" he asks.
"You are the Soldier," the handler replies without hesitation.
"And who was I before that?"
"You were nobody." The words are spit out, contemptuous. The Soldier clenches his fists, pushes against the controls binding him, and feels another strand break. "You are nobody."
("I'm just a kid from Brooklyn," the echoes tell him.)
"Who was the target?" he asks.
"She was an enemy."
"I knew her." Red lipstick on a smiling mouth.
"That is why she had to die. She would have exposed your existence. Your work is so important, we cannot allow that to happen." The handler is so sure, so confident. The Soldier hates him.
"But I knew her," he insists. He pushes against the controls again, and feels another strand snap. And then another. And then there's nothing keeping him in check. He sighs with the relief that flood his muscles, his bones, his sinews. Beside him, he senses his handler tense.
He rises to his feet and faces down his handler. The man is almost as tall as he is, if more slightly built, but the Soldier knows he can't be underestimated.
The Soldier balances on the balls of his feet. He knows the switch to Russian means the words are coming.
One word is not enough for the handler to take his will, but it's enough that for the Soldier to feel the strands of control begin to once more wind around him.
He launches himself forward with a snarl, sure of his own ability, but his handler is ready for him. He fires three times, and the Soldier feels three darts strike, in throat, arm and leg. He fights to keep moving, but can feel the drugs, the poison, overcoming his will. He has his hands around the throat of his handler, but his vision is fading and he falls. The last thing he feels before he loses consciousness entirely is a vicious kick to his ribs.
He wakes in the chair, and finds the routine has changed. This time, they start with fire, fire that burns the rebellion from his brain, and burns the echoes to cinders. Fire that leaves him screaming, that makes his limbs tremble. When the fire has burned the last fragment of his old self away, only then do they stop.
His handler approaches him, the hated red book held in his hands.
"And now, Soldier," his handler says, "we will begin again."
The first time they assign him to the Red Room, he thinks it's a reward.
For two months, he's in charge of training a group of youngsters, girls approaching the cusp of womanhood. He teaches them hand-to-hand skills, how to kill with clubs and knives and no weapons at all. He schools them on how to shoot, on the patience of the sniper. He coaches them on infiltration techniques, on stealth and tradecraft. He even gets to watch their ballet training, to see graceful young bodies stretch and leap.
It's in the dance studio one day that he finds the stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper the dance instructor had scribbled some impromptu choreography notes on. Not quite sure why, he palms them and brings them back to his room. That night, he finds himself working on a sketch of Zlata concentrating on the weapon range. The likeness of the girl isn't bad, but the perspective is slightly off. He'll do better the next time. He tears the paper into the smallest pieces he can manage and flushes it down the toilet, knowing that sketching would be forbidden. (Most things are forbidden.)
He steals more scrap of papers, sharpening the pencil stub with a knife better suited for killing, and this time sketches Oksana stretching at the barre. Each day he steals more paper; each night he makes another sketch, only to destroy it. When the first pencil is nothing but a splinter of wood and lead, he steals another one, and hides it behind the sink in the bathroom.
For two months, he's not punished. For two months, he has no assignments. For two months he doesn't have to kill men ("enemies of the State") or women ("betrayers of Mother Russia") or children ("the whole family are traitors"). For two months he sketches every chance he gets. He draws the girls. He draws the harsh landscape outside the windows. He draws the soldiers that guard this place.
Once, and once only, he draws a man. A man with dark hair and a wicked smile and pain behind his eyes. The picture causes a pain in his chest so intense, he wastes precious lead scribbling over it until the image is obliterated before he tears it up. He doesn't draw the man again.
At the end of two months, the Red Room's director invites him to her office. Asks him to evaluate the girls. Which one is the best? Which ones need to improve? Which ones are, perhaps, not suited to the life of an asset? The conversation is civilized. Pleasant even. The handler offers him tea (no one has ever offered the Soldier tea before), and listens closely to his opinions. Then she thanks him, and shows him out of the room.
He has no further assignment for the day, so he goes to the dance studio. One of the girls is always practising. They're always striving for perfection. Mother Russia asks for nothing less.
Inessa is by herself this day, working at the barre. She's a thin slip of a girl, with dark hair and dark eyes, coming barely up to his chest, but she's strong. She does tendus, pliés. She goes through a port de bras exercise, then moves onto the floor. She does fouettés, pirouettes, and pas de bourrés, finally performing a series of grand jetés, flying through the air. Each movement is precise, exquisite, her concentration marked by the slight crease in her brow, the thin line of her mouth.
He's heard the dancing teachers comment on Inessa's technique, saying she's not as good as some of the others, but to him at this moment, she's beautiful.
He goes back to his room, to await instructions. He does not draw.
They come for him in the middle of the night, ordering him into his tactical gear, providing him with a Makarov pistol with an extra magazine. He's disappointed that he's being sent on another assignment, but confused they've given him so little armament. Not even a backup pistol or knife.
They lead him into the courtyard. The director is waiting for him there, along with half the girls.
He thinks for a moment that they're sending the girls on assignment with him, that this is some sort of graduation ceremony. But the girls are in their nightclothes, flimsy nightgowns with insubstantial slippers on their feet. They huddle in ones and twos, their arms clutched around themselves against the night's chill. And then he notices which girls are here. Zlata, who has a tendency to hold back during hand-to-hand drills. Oksana, whose accuracy on the shooting range isn't up to the other girls' abilities. Yelena, who lacks a sniper's patience. Inessa, who does her best but whose strength will never match the others.
He gave his evaluation of all of these girls to the director, outlined their weaknesses and their strengths, thinking that his honesty would help make them stronger. Instead it has doomed them.
"Soldier, you know your duty," the handler says.
He knows his duty, and he does it.
He knows another thing, too. The Red Room assignment is not a reward. It's a punishment.
"Wipe him," the director orders once he's finished.
As they lead him away, he wonders if he's done this before. He wonders how many Inessas he's worked with, how many he's killed.
It takes five men to get him into the chair, and three to get the rubber guard in his mouth. He swears he'll kill them all. If he remembers.
Ice. Fire. Words. Compliance. More fire. More words. More ice.
Every time they pull him from the ice, things have changed. Hairstyles. Cars. Fashion. Language changes. A phrase that would have passed unnoticed becomes old-fashioned while he sleeps. Who his handlers serve changes as well: from the Soviet Union to Russia to Hydra.
There are some constants, though.
Sometimes, when he's out in the world, the Soldier finds pen or pencil and paper, and sometimes he uses them to draw, to make small, precise sketches as he waits for a target. He destroys the sketches. (The echoes tell him keeping them is dangerous.) Only once does he save one: a miniature picture of two boys, one dark, one blond, playing in the glow of a streetlight at dusk. He notices the boys in a park visible from his sniper's nest on an assignment in Bucharest, and sketches them on a crumpled receipt while he waits for extraction. He can't force his himself to tear up that sketch, and his handler finds it stuck in a pocket that usually holds ammunition. They break his fingers before they put him in the ice that time, and again when they pull him out. (There is surprise when his bones heal in the ice, so they break them again to make their point.) The Soldier's fingers ache after that, a steady reminder not to get caught again.
The other thing that doesn't change is death. Whether his handlers are Soviet or Russian or Hydra, their orders always involve death. They burn out his memory, but death always follows him.
There's the Polish colonel in Warsaw who's selling troop deployment information to the West. The Soldier shoots him in the hotel room where he's waiting for his lover. He shoots the lover, too, the Englishman who'd turned the colonel for MI6.
There's the Cuban politician who's been subtly pushing for his country to talk with the Americans. The Soldier makes his death look like a heart attack.
There's the American businessman responsible for developing so many weapons systems for their enemies. The Soldier waits until he's on vacation in England with his wife, then forces his car off the road. It takes skill to make it look like the impact of the crash killed them both. (When he asks his handler why the man had called him Captain Rogers before the end, there's fire before the ice.)
And always, there's the Red Room. More girls to train and evaluate and kill.
Ice. Fire. Words. Compliance. More fire. More words. More words. More words. Stretching on and on into an infinity he won't remember.
The final time they assign back the Soldier to the Red Room, he knows it for the punishment it is.
Not that he remembers being in this place. But it holds shadows for him. When he watches the girls spar, he sees the shadows of other girls. When they dance, he hears the echo of other music accompanying them. And when he trains them, he feels other girls' fists strike him.
The Soldier doesn't allow himself to get close to any of the girls. They're assets, like he is. Weapons. Things. They're to be used or discarded as their handlers see fit. He knows that. He doesn't learn their names or their favourite foods or anything about them but how well they fight.
If you're not close to someone, you won't miss them when they're gone.
But there's one girl who manages to attract his notice, in spite of himself. She's small and wiry, but the most vicious fighter of all of them, her fiery temper matching her fiery red hair. She reminds the Soldier of someone from the echoes that are not-so-incinerated as his handlers believe. Natalia reminds him of a dark-haired boy he knows used to fight at his side.
At the end of two months, as he knew she would, the director asks him into her office. She offers him tea and asks for his evaluation of the girls. He cannot deny her request. The words are still in place, the controls on him are secure.
He tells her that the little blonde one has trouble with breaking holds, and that the tall girl with brown braids wound 'round her head will never improve on the weapons range. He tells her that two of the girls don't have the attention to detail that makes a spy. And he tells her that Natalia is the best of the lot of them, fast, stronger and unbeatable, but that she has problems with authority that will likely come to haunt them.
He doesn't want to tell her any of this, especially not about Natalia, but he has no choice.
When he goes back to his room, the barren cell, with only a narrow bed and a small dresser that holds the few clothes he possesses, he doesn't even wait for instructions. He puts on his tac gear and lies down on top of the bed clothes and waits for the knock that the echoes tell him is coming.
He takes the Makarov pistol and extra magazine he's offered, checking the magazine and pulling back the weapon's slide to chamber a bullet before he places the weapon into his holster. Then he marches behind his escorts, two soldiers he hasn't seen before, to the school's courtyard.
The echoes have been right again. The director waits in the snow-covered courtyard with half of the girls. Ten cold teenagers in flimsy nightgowns and insubstantial slippers watch his approach with wide eyes. He sees all the expected faces. The blonde girl. The one with the elaborate braids. Natalia.
He meets Natalia's eyes. She's the only one who shows no fear. She meets his gaze with her chin up, her hands in fists at her side.
He know she'll fight him.
The cords binding him have been fraying all through this long day. Now, they snap in an instant. He will not be the one to kill Natalia. To kill any of them. He may not be able to save all the girls, but he'll save as many as he can.
He shoots the two soldiers first, firing before they have time to suspect the Soldier is no longer their creature. The director is next. She has time to pull her pistol from her holster, but he fires before she can aim.
There are no screams from the girls, no panic. (Echoes tell him how odd this is, young girls who don't panic in the face of death.) They all stand quietly, clutching each other's hands, waiting for his next move. All of them but Natalia.
Natalia moves to the soldier who's fallen closest to her and grabs his gun, then searches him for ammunition.
"Come on!" she says to the other girls. "He's helping us, but we need to help ourselves." Two others grab the last two guns.
The Soldier begins calculating strategy. How many instructors are there? How many more soldiers? Where are the weapons stored? What is his exit plan?
He and Natalia lead the girls through the building, first to the weapons locker where each girl takes a pistol and a Kalashnikov and as much ammunition as she can carry. There's spare winter clothing in a nearby storage locker, and each girl takes a coat and boots to go over her nightgown, kicking off her useless slippers. They might be the rejects of the Red Room, but these girls are as well-trained as any of them. Now, they're fighting for their lives, not the glory of Mother Russia.
They don't encounter any resistance until he begins leading them out the back, to where he knows the transport sheds hold the trucks they'll need to escape. A phalanx of teachers, red-cheeked women holding automatic weapons block their path.
There's no time for subtlety, for tactics. The Soldier knows that speed is their only chance of success, so he charges at the teachers, his young army behind him. The blonde girl falls in the first volley of bullets, but then he and his army of children manage to cut down the rest of their opposition.
There are soldiers awaiting them between the building and the sheds, and they put up stronger resistance. This is where they lose the girl with the braids and three others, but with the Soldier leading and Natalia on the flank, they fight their way into the sheds. Two more girls die as they run for one of the trucks. Three girls left the Soldier thinks as he grinds through the gears and pushes the truck to its top speed.
Three girls left, and one of them is Natalia.
They'll have a slight head start—the girls put volleys of bullets into the engine blocks of the trucks they did not take, so their pursuers will have to call for help—but he knows it won't be enough. Escape will require all his skill and their own, and more luck than he think he thinks the universe will grant him. But he's come too far, now. He won't surrender; he won't give up on the girls.
They've made weapons of him and the girls. He'll use those weapons against them.
An hour's hard drive gets them to a city. Voronezh, the signs tell him. As they enter the city limits, he can already see signs that their enemies are closing around them. Troop transports on main streets. Police and soldiers already on the streets and checking papers. He needs to move fast, to get them all out of here, out of Russia.
Voronezh. He begins to calculate as he looks for a place to ditch the truck. In a fast car, he can make the Ukrainian border in four hours. Four hours, and only one road he can take. They'll never make it. Commercial flights from a place like this will all go through Moscow. Even if they could steal passports and tickets for the four of them, he doesn't want to go that deep into Russia before getting out. They could find a place to hide in the city. He estimates they could last a week, but that would only be waiting while the noose was tightened around their necks.
No, there's only one way out, and it will require boldness.
They'll be checking the airport, the train stations. They'll have checkpoints on every road out. But he hopes that they won't be expecting them to do the impossible. (He's done the impossible before an echo tells him.)
He parks the truck in an industrial area where other trucks like it sit idle on the streets. Then he joins the girls in the back.
Three girls left.
The first two girls look at him nervously, their jackets and boots too big for them, their guns held loosely in their hands. Natalia, though, wears her stolen jacket and boots like combat armour. She nods at him, giving him the confidence to give them their next orders. The other two girls turn pale at his words, but Natalia takes a deep breath, checks the pistol in her pocket, and then leaps out of the back of the truck, waving the other two girls to follow.
He waits five minutes, then sets out to complete his own mission.
He wishes he didn't have to send them out on their own, but their enemies will be looking for a man with teenaged girls. He doesn't want to give them what they're looking for. He realizes he doesn't know the names of the other two girls. He'll ask their names when they return.
He jogs through the streets, breaking into a market he saw on the way in and breaking in to get food for them all. Then he steals a car, a rusty little Lada, but its engine seems reliable, and it will do. Then he returns to the truck to wait.
One hour he gave the girls. One hour to find suitable clothes and return to the truck.
At fifty-nine minutes, he starts up the car.
At exactly sixty minutes, Natalia runs up to the car and hops in the passenger side. She's wearing new boots that fit her better, jeans, and a sweater underneath her stolen coat. Her lip is split and she avoids his gaze, concentrating on the battered dashboard in front of her.
"The others?" he asks.
She shakes her head.
She doesn't say anything, and he doesn't ask for an explanation. He just pulls away. If the girls are still alive, they won't be for long. He'll never know their names, now. It's better that way.
Beside him, Natalia begins to shiver. The Soldier turns up the heat until the car is wheezing like an asthmatic.
"Thank you," she says.
He shrugs. He doesn't need thanks. He does what he has to, just like she does. They're both weapons. They're both survivors.
(If they're caught now, neither of them will survive. The best the girl can expect is a bullet in the back of the head. The Soldier will face ice and fire. They will burn him until he screams, until there's nothing left of him but bone.)
He turns the car to the last place he should: the Voronezh Malshevo airbase.
It shouldn't be possible to steal a military patrol plane inside a Russian installation, but the Soldier and Natalia have better training than any soldier on the base. They sneak onto the plane and kill the crew once they're in the air, then crash land it just outside Kiev. From there, they hopscotch across Europe, sleeping rough and staying one step ahead of their pursuers. Staying beyond the reach of their executioners.
At first, the Soldier has no plan beyond not getting caught, but the longer he stays out of the control of his handler, the more the echoes come back.
The strongest echo is of a man. Dark hair and a wicked grin. An arm around his shoulder. The boy Natalia reminds him of grew into that man, he's sure of it. He remembers a sketch of the man, and the pain it had caused him.
That man is his friend.
Or at least, he was his friend.
He steals a laptop at a roadside restaurant and starts searching the internet for signs of the man. (His handlers have always kept him up with the latest technology, and he's grateful for that now.) He runs secure searches and breaks into protected databases, and he finds a name: James Buchanan Barnes. The name gets him a picture. And the picture creates echoes so strong that Natalia tells him it takes her ten minutes to pull him out of their currents.
He'd half feared Barnes might be dead. But an American database of former covert operatives finally gets him a status and an address. Barnes is alive. And he's living in Brooklyn.
The Soldier steals a notebook and pencils and begins sketching every time they hide away, in an abandoned flat or an old warehouse or a shack on the outskirts of yet another city. He draws Natalia, and he draws the landscape, but mostly he draws the man. Barnes. He fills up page after page with sketches of Barnes. Barnes smiling. Barnes laughing. Barnes frowning. Barnes firing a rifle. Barnes falling from a great height. (The Soldier destroys that last sketch. It makes a never-ending scream tear across his nerves.)
They hide in trucks, they travel by foot, and they even risk buying tickets for one journey by train. Finally, the Soldier signs onto a cargo vessel as crew, sneaking Natalia into his cabin as a stowaway. The thought of being trapped on a metal boat for ten days makes his teeth itch, but it's the safest way for them to cross the ocean, and Brooklyn is waiting for them on the other side.
He's on deck as they come in sight of New York, the Statue of Liberty waiting to welcome them. When he goes below deck to warn Natalia to get ready to leave, she touches his face and her fingers come away wet. She doesn't say a thing to him—neither of them is much for talking—but she does give him a quick hug, her cheek briefly pressing against his chest, his hand resting awkwardly on her shoulder. One of the echoes supplies a memory of another teenage girl, another gentle hug.
("Aww, Becca, leave Stevie alone, wouldja?")
The ship docks at the Red Hook Terminal—the Soldier had signed the crew contract immediately when he'd seen the ship's destination— and they gather together their belongings, one meagre duffel bag to hold everything they own. The only things the Soldier truly cares about are the notebooks will all his sketches buried at the bottom of the duffel.
The Soldier disembarks with the crew while Natalia makes her own way off the boat. They meet outside the gates of the terminal, and the Soldier is overwhelmed by echoes of a familiar past hovering over the strangeness of the present. He'd known these docks. Barnes had worked these docks, along with hundreds of other men. He stops at the gate and looks toward the water, his heart beating faster than it has in years. He only starts moving again when Natalia finally touches his arm and gives him a worried look.
They could take the subway, but ten days at sea has left the Soldier reluctant to spend any more time in a steel box, so they begin walking. It's approaching mid-day, at the streets get busier as they move away from the water. The Soldier hears more languages than he expected, sees more variety of people: African, European, Asian, Latin American. At first, Natalia stays close to his side, but soon enough she's darting around and back, fascinated by everything she sees.
He half expects Barnes to live in a run-down tenement like he sees in his echoes, the sort of place where the windows are drafty in the winter and stuck closed in the summer, and there's never enough hot water. But as they approach his building, the Soldier can see it's nice. Really nice. So nice that the Soldier finds himself stuttering to a halt at the door.
He doesn't belong in a building like this. This place is for people, and he is a thing. Heart thudding in his chest, his breath catching in his throat ("Breathe for me, Stevie. Just breathe.") he grabs the back of Natalia's hoodie and pulls her into the alley that runs beside and behind the building. Natalia flails against him, but he barely notices, only letting go of her when they're out of sight of the street.
He dimly registers Natalia crouching beside him, her back against the crumbling brick wall, her eyes wary. But he pays no attention to her. She doesn't matter. The building doesn't matter. Brooklyn doesn't matter. He's lost in echo after echo, all of them spiralling around Barnes.
Barnes rescuing him from a fight with three bigger boys.
Barnes sitting with him when he was sick.
Barnes so Goddamned handsome in his Sergeant's uniform.
Barnes strapped to that shitty table in that shitty Hydra base, looking so small.
Barnes and his rifle, saving him for the first time, the tenth time, the hundredth time.
Barnes falling, falling, falling from that fucking train.
Barnes in a hospital bed, one arm missing and still the most handsome guy he's ever seen.
He's pulled from the echoes by a clattering sound. Natalia has pulled down the building's fire escape, and now she grabs his wrist and begins dragging him up the rickety ladder. He towers over her, but at the moment, she's the strong one, and he can't help but follow her. Up, up they go, Natalia keeping a firm grip on his wrist as if she's expecting him to bolt. Maybe he would bolt, if she weren't here. He's becoming more and more aware of how much he doesn't belong here. Every echo tells him what a good man James Buchanan Barnes is. Barnes doesn't deserve the Soldier and his shattered memories of the evil he's done.
They reach the top of the fire escape, five stories above the streets of Brooklyn. Natalia tightens her grip on him, and taps on the window, quietly at first, then louder and louder, until the Soldier is afraid the glass is going to smash under her fist.
The Soldier begins to struggle in her grip. He can't do this. He absolutely cannot do this.
But then there are footsteps from inside and the window is thrown open and he's staring at James Buchanan Barnes, with the dark hair he remembers and a metal arm he doesn't.
The Soldier is made of ice, unable to move. It's as bad as when the handler uses the words. Worse, even. Because he knows this time there are no cords of control binding him. The only thing stopping him from moving is himself.
Barnes doesn't look much better, he leans on the window sill, his mouth trembling, his eyes tear-filled and glassy. The Soldier can see a vein pulsing in his throat, can see his breath coming in violent heaves in his chest.
They're useless idiots, the both of them.
Fortunately, Natalia is not a useless idiot.
"You are James Buchanan Barnes," she says to Barnes, not quite a question, not quite not. The Red Room taught her well; there's barely a trace of accent in her English. "You are the Soldier's friend?"
Barnes jerks back as if from a flame, but then he leans forward again, a moth drawn to its own destruction.
"Yeah," Barnes says, and his still trembling mouth curls into a smile that the Soldier knows from a thousand echoes, a smile that they couldn't burn from his heart, however much they tried. "Yeah, I'm the Soldier's friend." He blinks, and tears flow down his face unnoticed. "I'm Steve's friend."
Barnes holds out a shaking hand, the flesh one. The Soldier pushes against fear and fire and control and ice, and takes it.