despite the threatening sky and shuddering earth (they remained)
Joyful friends, mostly loyal, they hadn't abandoned their protector before the gathering storm; and despite the threatening sky, despite the shuddering earth, they remained, smiling, considerate, and as devoted to misfortune as they had been to prosperity.” Alexander Dumas
“Benzos, methamphetamine—” Hill flipped the page, “—Haloperidol, that’s an antipsychotic, and, yikes, we’ve got an anti-androgen here, too.”
“A what?” Sam leaned over her shoulder. She pointed at the readout, and Sam carefully pronounced: “Cyproterone acetate. The hell is that?”
“Well, it’s as much proof as we’re gonna get that he wasn’t exactly a volunteer.” Hill’s mouth twisted. “He’s chemically castrated.”
Sam hissed in a breath through his teeth and rocked backwards on his heels. “Jesus.”
“All those other drugs, they’re…?” Steve scrubbed at his face. He’d showered twice since the Triskelion, since the helicarriers, but his skin still felt gritty, like the blood and dirt and smoke still clung to him, invisibly, permanently. “What do they do?”
“Well, they should be killing him,” said Hill bluntly. “According to the lab, anyway. They’re all in concentrations about 15 times what’s recommended. And, yeah, the readouts from his scans are showing at least three subdermal devices that could be delivering the drug cocktails directly into his bloodstream.” She flipped another page. “And, this is exciting, we should be glad Stark suggested the Faraday cage. The mask is rigged to blow.”
“Don’t tell Stark you said that,” Natasha commented blandly, her voice tinny. On the video-screen, she was examining her nails. Steve thought he knew her well enough now to see that she was, as ever, performing.
“Oh, I’ll erase it from the surveillance.” Hill’s tone was light.
“Rigged to blow,” Steve repeated flatly, his gaze pulling to the one-way glass, where the subject of this awful conversation still remained in his corner, in the same pose as yesterday. He probably hadn’t moved once. “If it’s tampered with, or...?”
Hill hummed in assent while Sam shook his head. “He’s wired with explosives? That is fucked. Who does that? What the fuck?”
“They really didn’t want the mask to come off.” Hill thumbed through the scans, and pulled out a film that she then handed over to Sam, face mostly expressionless but for the flat line of her pursed lips.
Sam accepted the film and held it up to the light, angling so both he and Steve could see it, squinting at the outline of the Winter Soldier’s skull, and the blips of unnatural white that showed up, God, in his brain, not to mention about half his teeth, plus the mask, with its thin protrusions—
“Those are pins,” Steve realized. He looked over at Hill. “The mask—it’s nailed to his face.”
Hill’s face was as unmoved as ever. “Like I said. They really didn’t want it coming off.”
The thing about the Winter Soldier, Steve had realized later, the thing that made fighting him so unsettling, was that he didn’t make a sound. In the heat of battle, as it took Steve everything he had to avoid the fast, precise strikes and vicious slashes of his knife, he could hear his percussive breathing through the mask, the sounds of his bodily exertion paired with the whirring and spinning of the mechanical arm, but that was it.
No sound when Steve landed a hit, other than the thump of his fist on his body; no gasps, grimaces or explosive grunts; nothing. Even the moment Steve had gotten him with a solid blow with the shield that had sent him sprawling, the only sound had been the scrape and spark of the arm against the asphalt and the thud and slide of his mass hitting the ground.
Later, when Natasha was explaining (“he’s a ghost story”), Steve asked: “but he is—human?”
A lifted brow. “As much as you are.”
“What, he’s a super soldier too?” Sam had asked.
“It’s one theory.” Natasha’s face was paler than usual, the lines and planes she normally molded into softness made hard and sharp by the pain of her shoulder. “It makes sense. Especially if the “Winter Soldier” is a name, and not a title.”
“Like James Bond,” Sam offered. Steve blinked. “You know, that’s the reason there’s been so many different Bonds. ‘James Bond, 007,’ it’s a title, not a name.” He waited for Steve to get it; Steve didn’t get it.
“Jesus, Cap, add Bond to the list.”
He hadn’t made a sound on the helicarrier either; he’d just been waiting.
“I won’t hold back,” Steve had told him. He’d felt compelled to warn the guy, because whoever, or whatever he was, something about this silent, single-purpose creature struck a discordant tone in Steve’s brain, a niggling sense of we are missing a part of this story.
Perhaps it was his silence. Perhaps it was the way his eyes tracked Steve, the way they had on the freeway, the way they did the moment Steve appeared on that catwalk, the odd lack of malice in his focused gaze, that tinge of curiosity mixed with fear and—
(“I dunno, Steve, you do remember he kicked me off a helicarrier, right? That don’t seem a little malicious to you?” Sam had asked later, incredulous. “C’mon, man.”)
Still, it had been enough to make Steve doubt. He’d fought Rumlow, and Rollins, and the rest of those two-faced traitors who’d made up his team over the past months, he’d heard the slick, smarmy “it’s not personal” from a guy who was a true believer, even if the only thing he believed in was violence and power—but this guy? This ‘Winter Soldier?’ It wasn’t the same.
Steve was convinced he wasn’t the same.
In the end, hauling an unconscious man as heavy as himself (or heavier, as it would later turn out) from the wreckage of the helicarrier, though Steve was bruised and weary and bleeding and tired, hadn’t been a difficult decision.
Steve had just done it.
Later, the justifications came, and they fit neatly into a set of rational arguments that Steve had only vaguely considered when he’d saved the Soldier from the helicarrier.
“We can’t give him to anyone,” Hill had said once their small team had regrouped in the underground bunker that had been their temporary headquarters, and the only place Steve had thought might be secure enough to hold their prisoner. “We don’t know who to trust, not until we go through the data dump with a fine-toothed comb. And if they do get him, the CIA or FBI or Homeland, there’s too high a risk he’ll be made into a patsy. He’s got intel we need.”
“He ain’t very talkative though, is he?” Sam had observed sardonically, scratching at his stubble. “And I gotta say, I’m not down for any Guantánamo shit.”
“I doubt that will be necessary,” Hill had replied to him, crossing her arms. “There are better ways.”
“If he has been HYDRA for fifty years,” Steve had said, and didn’t that thought just eat him alive, “then he knows who gave his orders, who he killed, where their bases are.”
“We think he’s the one who pulled the trigger on your parents,” Steve had told Tony bluntly. “I want to find out who told him where to point his gun, and end them.”
It hadn’t taken long for JARVIS to reach out, to arrange the quinjet and the drugs, to give them access to a part of the tower that had been Tony and Bruce's joint project, a panic room, a prison cell, that was meant to withstand the Hulk.
Of course, they hadn’t heard from Tony, not yet. “He’s on a bender,” Natasha had told him matter-of-factly, over the phone, once they’d arrived in New York. She’d remained in DC, as the improbable new face of government transparency. “I wouldn’t expect to see him for a while.”
Sam stood shoulder to shoulder with Steve, looking through the one-way glass at the figure that was huddled in the corner of the sterile, empty cell.
The Winter Soldier was inside. With his tactical gear removed, barefoot and dressed in overlarge scrubs, both arms locked inside magnetic cuffs in what Hill had assured Sam “was not a stress position, though it may be uncomfortable," he looked almost like the former captive Steve suspected him to be, and not a legendary wetwork operative.
The mask was still on. They still hadn’t been able to figure out out to remove it, not in the limited time provided by the sedation. He’d burned through the stuff faster than even Steve.
“You sure about this, Cap?” Sam nudged his elbow into Steve’s side. “This could go belly-up pretty quick.”
“Hill wants to observe,” Steve replied. He rubbed at his jaw. “And even if he’s restrained, I don’t want anybody else in there. Certainly not her.” His lips twitched. “She’s too important.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mr. American Icon,” Sam muttered. “Jesus, those feet.”
Steve glanced back to their prisoner. The toes on the visible foot—the other was tucked up under his body—were misshapen and knobby. The fourth toe was missing. The stretch of skin between his heel and the ball of his foot was slightly discolored, striped with scar tissue, a match for the keloids at the attachment point for the prosthetic arm that Steve had glimpsed when they’d been wrangling his unconscious body into the scrubs.
Steve exhaled a long, controlled breath. “I guess it’s time to see what he’s got to say for himself.”
“You got your earphone?” Hill asked, and waited for Steve’s nod. She tapped the transmit button twice, two brief clicks in Steve’s ear. Steve gave her a thumbs up. “All right then. Go get him.”
“Do you understand English?”
“Nod if you can understand English.”
Slowly, his unfocused gaze unmoved, the Soldier nodded his head.
“Good,” said Steve. “So here’s the deal. HYDRA is done. Destroyed. You failed your mission. You’re now in my custody. Do you understand?”
“Are you going to cooperate?”
“Good. That’ll make things easier.” Steve stepped over to the bolted down chair in the center of the room. It was made of some sort of shatterproof plastic, according to JARVIS.
“His vitals are climbing, Cap, watch yourself.”
There was no demonstrable difference in the Soldier’s behavior, but Steve gave the camera a thumbs up to indicate he’d heard the warning. “We’re not going to hurt you. But we need you to communicate with us. We need to know some things.”
This time Steve could see the Soldier’s anxiety ratchet up, in the way the hair that hung over his face and over the perforations in the mask began to react to his rapid breathing. His disconcerting blank stare grew more unsettling as the whites of his eyes seemed to catch and reflect the harsh fluorescent light. He still hadn’t blinked, not that Steve had seen.
“Calm down.” Steve lifted both his hands to show they were empty. “I’m not going to hurt you. That’s not how I do things.”
In the corner, the Soldier seemed to press himself even more tightly to the wall.
“Can you talk through that mask?”
For a second, the Soldier glanced at him before his gaze skittered away. It was the most unprompted acknowledgement so far.
“Can you talk at all?”
The fingers of the mechanical arm — the only part of it that could move, restrained as he was — made a series of complicated movements, almost like a sign language. Steve’s eyes narrowed, and he waited for the team behind him to comment.
“No sign language we know, Cap, not ASL or Russian. JARVIS is checking.”
“I don’t know what that means, I’m sorry.” Telegraphing his motions, Steve slowly folded his hands together and let them hang between his knees. “Can you speak?”
Again, the Soldier looked at him, something desperate and wild there before his attention skittered away.
“Nod if you can, and shake your head if you can’t.” Steve performed the motions as he described them, for all the good it did since the Soldier wasn’t looking in his direction. “Can you speak?”
The Soldier shook his head.
“Okay.” Steve’s mind flew through the implications—was he being stubborn? Could he physically not speak, because of the mask? Was it something else altogether? “You’ve got nodding for yes, shaking your head for no. I want you to make this—” he formed his hand into a loose circle, and waited for the Soldier to see it— “if you don’t know. Do you understand?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Did you report to Alexander Pierce?”
Circle. I don’t know.
“Did you you report to Brock Rumlow?”
I don’t know.
“Did you report to Nick Fury?”
I don’t know.
“Did you report to Arnim Zola?”
The Soldier flinched. It didn’t seem possible, but somehow he seemed to become smaller, as massive as he was. The metal arm strained against the cuffs.
“Cap, watch it.”
“He’s gone too,” Steve said, very quietly. The visceral sense of wrongness, of conviction that this man with his missing toe and masked face was the hammer, and not the smith, grew in his chest. “Destroyed.”
“He is. I saw it happen.”
The metal hand twisted its fingers into an odd shape, index and middle crooked, thumb extended, and it shook back and forth.
“I don’t know what that means, I’m sorry.”
The metal fingers flexed, and then went limp.
“Do you know who I am?”
Circle. I don’t know.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “You tried to kill me twice.”
Again, the metal hand made the same sign from before, the crooked two fingers, the purposeful shake.
“I don’t know what that means, but I think I remember it pretty well. Both times.”
The hand sign changed; now it was just his index finger, straight-up—
“Once? So you weren’t trying to kill me one of the times, it just felt like you were?”
The Soldier’s gaze roved anxiously—the mask made it difficult to guess at what he was thinking, but in this case, the distress was easy to perceive.
“Change the subject, Cap, his heart rate is about two seconds from needing a fin to stay on the ground.”
“My name is Steve Rogers,” Steve tried after a moment. “I’m Captain America. That means that I’m about as far from HYDRA as it gets. Do you understand?”
He didn’t respond. If possible, he seemed to compress himself even further. Steve could hear the gears and servos of the arm whirring.
“Do you understand?” Steve repeated.
The Soldier blinked. No.
Steve swallowed. “The point is that you’ll be treated fairly. We’re the good guys.”
art by quietnight