The Soldier stares at the ghost in the faded WWII reel and wishes the bottom of his stomach was falling out, or his head was spinning with the pain of recollection -- anything at all other than this empty, blank wilderness. He knows those eyes, that bone structure; he knows the freckle high on that forehead, but objectively, like a snapshot he had seen once in a book, devoid of emotion.
He watches the man who wears his face smile at the giant blond soldier next to him, dip his lashes to shade his eyes, tilt his head to hide the wistful twitch of his mouth. He watches the blond man look at 'Sergeant Barnes' with an emotion that The Soldier has never seen before directed at him, but recognises it from behavioural training on eliminating targets -- affection, deep and pure and true. Something in The Soldier twists, ugly and jagged, wanting to stab the man wearing his face right through his mouth for earning that. How strange. The Soldier does not remember feeling emotions. He doesn't remember what emotions that aren't fear feel like. He is cold and empty, like he has always been.
So why does that beaming, happy face look like the brightest star in the sky, immolating everything else all the way to the horizon?
The Soldier remembers nothing about this man. Nothing but the twist of urgency when he saw him fall, the jab of terror as he made the fingers of The Weapon release his hold and let him plummet down into the freezing water after him.
He now knows that the man is called Steven Grant Rogers, also known as Captain America, a relic of bygone days, a symbol of the American dream. What he doesn't know is who this man is to him.
What he doesn't know is who he is to Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Captain Rogers' best friend, the man who wears his face.
What The Soldier does know is that he has no place to go. No orders to follow. The connection in his mind has snapped, like it was wiped out, an explosion of static like a transmission gone dead. He feels nothing, no compulsion to obey, no need to act in any particular way. Something in the back of his mind directs him to stay hidden, off-the-grid. He knows enough about instincts to identify it as a particularly strong predilection for self-preservation. He wonders if it's a leftover from his programming, or from whoever he used to be before he was grafted onto The Weapon. Either way, it means he disappeared, just the way he was taught -- stole the clothes on his back, gloves from a table by an open window on the sixth floor of a high-rise apartment building, food from the rejects of a deli closed for the night.
It means he should not be standing here, in the middle of a crowded room with obstructed exits, risking discovery with every second he remains rooted to the spot -- but.
But. He'd had to know.
And now he does.
The facts are these:
1. He is wearing a dead man's face.
2. He remembers cold, freezing, all-consuming. He remembers it thirty-four times.
3. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes was clearly in love with his best friend, Captain Steven Grant Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, and died in the process of protecting him.
4. The Soldier's mission had been to eliminate Captain Steven Grant Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.
5. Captain Steven Grant Rogers knows his face. He called The Soldier 'Bucky'. He asked him not to make him do this. The Captain gave him a name, and looked at him with an emotion The Soldier had never known.
6. Captain Rogers was kind. It was a weakness that a soldier should shun and uproot, but it had run deep in the Captain's eyes when he looked at The Soldier, in his voice when he spoke to him, in his hands when he lifted the wreckage and freed him.
7. The Soldier could not kill him. It had been a direct order and he had disobeyed it. This had never happened before.
8. The Soldier is lost, and directionless, and no one is looking for him, and he has no purpose. It is terrifying.
9. It is possible that the man he was before The Weapon was Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, Captain Steven Grant Rogers' best friend. The Captain's weakness can be exploited in these circumstances. He did not kill The Soldier even though he thought The Soldier was his best friend who had thus turned traitor on him with every move he made closer to completing his mission.
10. The Soldier has had enough of darkness and cold to last him another lifetime.
Decision made, The Soldier dips his head, letting his long hair obscure his face in place of the mask he lost on the battlefield, and walks out of the building. He has never driven a car, always been taken places by his handlers, but he looks at a truck and somewhere behind his eyes gears shift and muscle memory makes his hand twitch. His mind tells him how to jimmy the lock and twist wires together until the engine roars to life.
"Nice job," someone says in his head, pleased and warm. The Soldier ignores it, just like he has ignored the voice so many times before. It did not help. It was not needed.
Before they brought him to this city, there had been talk about New York, a tower called by a name The Soldier remembers but does not remember being told.
Stark. "Write that down," the voice in his head says. The Soldier ignores it. He does not need a written record.
He also remembers his handlers planning another version of his orders, a hit in New York.
"That little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight," the voice says. The Soldier ignores it. Captain Steven Grant Rogers is not 'little'. It is not helpful.
New York. It's a mission or as good as one. It will not be the first time The Soldier has taken advantage of a weakness to achieve his objective – even if his objective is murky and unclear at this time.
No matter. It will come to him. He is good at being flexible. No deadline for this mission. (No target, no end goal. He ignores the shiver of fear at the unknown. At least it doesn't have the Cold at the end of it. Anything is better than the Cold. Anything.)
The Soldier turns the steering wheel and shifts his right foot forward.
Some time later, a sign advises, "Maryland welcomes you!" The Soldier's mouth twitches. He doubts that very much.
He drives on.