Time it took us to where the water was
That's what the water gave me
And time goes quicker between the two of us
Oh, my love, don't forsake me
Take what the water gave me
'Cause they took your loved ones
But returned them in exchange for you
Would you have it any other way?
But oh, my love, don't forget me
When I let the water take me
Lay me down
Let the only sound be the overflow
One moment Steve stood listening to Fury talk some nonsense to deceive the bugs apparently everywhere in Steve’s apartment, and the next moment a door opened where there hadn’t been a door before. Both Steve and Fury turned toward it, an entryway on a wall Steve knew for a fact had been solid. Even if the wall had somehow been knocked down, it would have only led to his bedroom rather than the long, institutional hallway now revealed.
In the doorway stood a figure, outlined in the fluorescent light pouring out from behind it. Steve made out arms, legs, a head, but around those were....other limbs, squirming and curling. His head ached when he tried to count them, perhaps three, perhaps twenty. His eyes shied away from understanding the sight of them, at once glowing with an oil-slick rainbow of colors while also being the same empty blackness of endless space.
The figure looked hard at Steve, meeting his eyes over a face-mask. The eyes were the same as those awful limbs, simultaneously a bright, mesmerizing gold and also holes into a place with no light at all.
Then the monster shot Fury three times in the chest with a handgun. The shots slammed into Steve’s ears, shocking him into movement, but before Steve could do more than step forward the figure closed the door behind it. When Steve’s hands connected with the wall, there was nothing left but plaster, dented where Steve had leapt to catch a doorknob that didn’t exist.
Seeing Fury laid out on the operating table did something strange to Steve’s head and heart. Waking up in a new century with everyone he knew dead or forgetting him had given him a forced and rapid introduction to coping with loss, especially so soon after Bucky’s death. But Steve found that there was a new and very particular feeling to watching a commanding officer he’d recently argued with laid out this way.
Natasha rushed into the observation lounge, her hands slapping against the door and the wall in her anxiety to see the OR.
“Is he gonna make it?”
Steve said nothing. He didn’t know, and he knew better than to offer empty reassurance to a woman like Natasha.
“Tell me about the shooter,” she demanded a second later, eyes fixed on the sutures in Fury’s bare chest.
Sighing, Steve tried to figure out how to phrase this. He hadn’t known what to say to Hill or ‘Agent 13’ either. Did he dance around the truth or just meet it head-on? Both Agent 13 and Hill had looked at him as if he were crazy, and he didn’t need that from Natasha too. But then Steve sighed, because Fury might die so now didn’t seem like the time for self-protective lies.
“He came in through the wall,” Rogers said after a brief pause. “And I don’t mean he busted a hole through it. He walked in through a door that wasn’t there a second before and which wasn’t there again right after. My height, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown hair….” he paused, aware yet again of how ridiculous this sounded. “One metal arm, along with a bunch of other limbs I can’t really describe.” Whether she believed him or not, at least Steve’s photographic memory allowed him to give reports whose accuracy he stood behind. Though even his normally eidetic mind rebelled against the image of those limbs. And those eyes.
Out of the corner of his gaze, Steve saw Natasha’s chest move as though flinching.
“He just appeared and disappeared?”
Then Nick Fury died, and the conversation with it.
Later--after the STRIKE team turned on him, and he jumped out of a high-rise building, and had been shot at by SHIELD men--Steve cornered Natasha in the hospital hall. The electrical burns on his belly and back throbbed, the bruises throbbed, and anger coursed through him like venom. He dug his thumbs into the tender skin of her arms, and watched her let him see her flinch.
There was nobody trustworthy, nobody good anymore. He didn’t want to have to kill her--if he even could after STRIKE. His reflexes were slow with exhaustion and pain and she was very skillful.
“I’m not gonna ask you again,” he growled at her, and hated being a man menacing a woman, hated how much bigger than her he was, hated that she could and might gut him with a hidden knife at any second. Hated watching her lips part as she played shocked and innocent.
Then the moment passed, and her eyes settled on his.
“I know who killed Fury,” she admitted, and her breath smelled like bubblegum. Whatever he’d expected her to say, it hadn’t been that.
“Most of the intelligence community doesn't believe this assassin exists. The ones who do call him the Water Soldier. He’s credited with more than fifty kills in as many years.”
That’s a ghost story, Steve wanted to say, but he knew what he’d seen. What had been in his own apartment, however briefly. So he swallowed the words, and she continued instead.
“Five years ago I was escorting a nuclear engineer out of Iran. We were in a car, and then there was a man standing in the road where no one had been before. I swerved around him and kept driving, but he just....walked up alongside us, as if we were standing still.” Her nostrils flared. “He reached into the car with something that definitely wasn’t a human arm and just pulled the scientist out like you might pick up an object on a shelf. I circled back to them, but by the time I stopped the car the target was already dead and the assassin was gone. Just gone, like he’d never been there.”
Steve swallowed, letting go of her arms and pulling back. “Sounds familiar, yeah.”
“Going after him’s a dead end, I’ve tried,” Natasha admitted, sounding both angry and impressed. She tightened her lips. “He’s like a ghost story,” she added, as though she’d read his mind. “Something you’d tell to frightened children.”
Then she held up the flash drive, letting Steve take it. Her fingertips were warm.
“So let’s find out what the ghost wants.”
Chasing the ghost turned up a program even Natasha couldn’t decipher and an origin point containing regiments of his own ghosts. In the chilled night air of Camp Lehigh, Steve half-thought he could feel the men moving around him, cold fingertips just brushing him and faces that vanished when he turned to look.
The abandoned secret SHIELD base still somehow came as a surprise. In it, dust lay thick on everything in the empty rooms. The only sign of life was a single computer in one corner, its screen dim in the yellowy lights. It was one of those older models, with the big boxy monitors and code showing in green text on a black background.
A message lay written there, followed by a blinking underscore.
“‘Close your eyes and imagine the way down,’” Natasha read. “Well that’s helpful.” She peered around the back of the computer, and looked under the desk. “This thing is so old it doesn’t even have the capacity for internet, so this can’t be where the files originated.”
Steve’s teeth ached as he clenched his jaw, remembering the door in his living room that led to an unknown place and vanished when closed. Steve and Natasha examined the base, moving methodically through the rooms, but other than their own footprints, the dust of decades lay undisturbed.
Except for one place in the very back, where a single pair of footprints--from large bare feet--stood in front of a wall of shelves. Natasha said nothing about it, but Steve imagined that she felt as uneasy about those solitary footprints as he did. Air whistled from between the shelves, and when Steve pulled, the shelves slid aside.
Beyond them lay an empty ten-by-ten concrete space. And yet there was a wind, as though from the movement of air through to somewhere larger.
“Why hide nothing like this?” Natasha wondered aloud. “Unless they stored something here that’s been moved since.”
An awful thought crawled into Steve’s mind. “Close your eyes,” he commanded, and then rolled his at the look Natasha gave him. “I know it sounds stupid. But I told you, an assassin got into my apartment from a door that wasn’t there a second before, and wasn’t there again a second after. Maybe we shouldn’t assume normal rules apply.”
Natasha let out a grunt of displeasure, but she turned her back. “Fine, my eyes are closed. Happy now?”
No, Steve thought. Nothing about this makes me happy. But he closed his eyes too, and on the far wall he imagined an elevator and a button to push to summon it. The concrete chilled his palm as he felt his way along the room before his thumb bumped into the far wall. Fumbling along with his other hand, he slapped it onto a metal panel by accident, his palm pushing a single round button there.
When he opened his eyes again, the sight of an elevator where there hadn’t been one before made him flinch, a visceral recoiling from the button under his palm as though it were slimy or dirty. Half a second later, a light came on over the doors, machinery chimed to signal the arrival of the car, and then the doors slid apart.
Natasha spun at the sound, staring at the open carriage. Then she looked at him.
“This seems like a really bad idea, I’d just like to say,” Natasha stated.
Steve grimaced, privately agreeing. “What other choice do we have? There’s a secret SHIELD headquarters in a decades-abandoned military base, and the program on Fury’s drive came from here.”
So they stepped into the elevator and let it seal up around them like a mouth.
As the metal box sank down, down, down, the hairs rose on Steve’s forearms and nape, cold sweat prickling on his forehead and throat. Natasha shifted from foot to foot beside him, letting out an audibly shaky breath, and then drew closer to him. Steve couldn’t escape the notion that the elevator was bringing them to Hell, or to another underworld so deep and dark that it had no name.
When the elevator doors at last opened, the light from the dim bulb touched nothing beyond the threshold. A yawning open space lay beyond, perfect in its darkness, and yet clearly a single room. Rather than being visible through light, the shape of the walls, ceiling, and floor formed themselves by a tracery of red sigils, which throbbed and pulsed in time with an unheard heartbeat.
Steve’s skin tried to crawl right off him to escape into the furthest corner of the elevator. Every time he tried to look at the sigils to determine if they were writing or images, his eyes wanted to close, his neck already aching with the urge to turn away so that he would not see that awful place. Natasha stood to his left, but there was the feeling of someone else standing near enough to Steve’s face to breathe upon him. When Steve finally forced himself to inhale, he expected to smell someone’s sour teeth, but there was only a whiff of something familiar and chemical.
Natasha murmured something in Russian, and clutched at Steve’s sleeve as he stepped forward.
“Steve--” she began, but then his shoe landed on a sigil. The room throbbed, a rapid arrhythmia that forced Steve’s eyes toward something in the middle of the room: a single darker patch, an absence of the language his eyes refused to see. He fixed upon it automatically, his feet leading him toward it. Natasha let go of his sleeve, the warmth of her touch fading behind him as he crossed to the thing on the floor.
His eyes saw nothing, but the knowledge fell chilly into his mind anyway: a body lay on the floor, prone, with its arms crossed over its chest. A dead thing, the seawater of its blood and tears long since fled to leave behind a dessicated husk. A dead thing in whose beating heart he stood.
“Steve!” Natasha called out from behind him. “Steve--” But no words followed after.
Steve knew this dead thing, he realized. Knew its name and the face it had worn before the waters left it.
“Zola,” he breathed. “What did you do?”
The answer came in images, dropped into his mind like shards of ice: an ancient being called from outside the universe, summoned by death and pain and fear and bound to human flesh; Zola binding its will to himself as its summoner, keeping it controlled as long as he remained alive; and then a second ritual, performed without Zola’s consent, to tie his soul to the world even after his body died, so that the monster he’d brought to Earth could be kept tame.
The heartbeat in the walls sped, desperate.
Kill me, the corpse begged. I called the ocean and it came. Call down fire, drop bombs to destroy me, let no water touch me ever again--
Steve collapsed. The room was drowning him, the taste of blood in his mouth suffocating him. He sank into it.
Then small hands closed on his arms, and Natasha dragged him backward away from the dead thing.
“Fire,” he whispered. “Imagine fire.”
She must have, because the room burned, and they fell from it up, up into the office above, landing hard onto the concrete floors. Dust fountained up to meet them, and Steve wheezed, choking as though he were once again small and asthmatic, tears running down his face before he passed out.
Further down the coast, the tiny vial of blood that Secretary Alexander Pierce wore around his neck cracked open with a small puff of hot air as it evaporated. He clutched a hand to his chest, excusing himself from his meeting with a plea of sudden indigestion.
“Oh dear,” he breathed, undoing his tie and pulling the silver chain out from under his clothes. The metal vial had split open along the bottom, and all that remained of its contents were little red flakes.
Normal procedure dictated that Pierce not do anything as foolish as using his own cell phone to call a Hydra base, but this was beyond normal procedure, so he called the main base in DC. The call rang and rang, and no one answered. Which meant The Asset had already broken free.
Pierce stood and looked out the windows of the Triskelion, briefly allowing himself a thought of escape. If he told no one where he went--
But that wasn’t how The Asset worked. It didn’t matter who Pierce told or where he went. Every room had a door, and he couldn’t survive without water. So it would find him.
Still. He had no intention of giving up so easily. Contacting several other bases in rapid succession and sending out an alert, he gathered his operatives from the building into the massive hangars where the Insight helicarriers lay.
Just because nothing had been able to kill The Asset yet didn’t mean they wouldn’t try.
Steve awoke in the passenger seat of the truck he’d stolen, Natasha’s eyes fixed on the road as she drove. Blurrily Steve read the signs along the highway--they were headed north, back to D.C.
“Don’t ask me, I don’t want to talk about it,” she spat. Smears of soot ran along one side of her face, and scorch marks marred her jacket.
“Okay,” Steve rasped. “I don’t want to think about it either. But please tell me you--” He hacked, his lungs feeling like they were full of fluid, and he somehow expected to cough up blood. “--That you carried me to the car,” he finished. You and not someone or something else, he didn’t say.
At this Natasha laughed, but the smile was brittle and didn’t reach her eyes.
“You are unnecessarily heavy,” she stated. “You really oughtta lose weight.”
It wasn’t much of a joke, barely a token effort, but he let out a little half-hearted snort at it anyway, because neither of them wanted to think about the horrible tomb below the earth.
Pierce knew The Asset was coming by the creep of gooseflesh up his arms, body responding to danger well before his conscious mind detected anything wrong. Around him, the STRIKE team shifted, too disciplined for nervous chatter but showing their fear in the shifting of their feet, the tap of a fingernail on the trigger-guard, a shaky exhale. To Pierce’s right, Agent Rumlow swallowed audibly. He’d had a post-nasal drip for weeks since taking up smoking again, and an irritating habit of clearing his throat in a truly unpleasant way that emphasized his phlegm. He thought Pierce didn’t know about the smoking, because it was only a single cigarette per day, but Pierce’s sense of smell had been keener than human baseline for more than a decade since he’d first been given the vial of blood. The flaking remains of it still stuck to the hairs on his belly.
In a distant sort of way, Pierce considered feeling anxious. But what would be the point of it? Likely he would die very soon, or (far less likely, given the battery of tests they’d subjected The Asset to) the team would kill the greatest threat the world had faced since the atom bomb. And curiosity took the sting from his impending death, because he knew The Asset wouldn’t just kill him. Not with the wealth of information stored in Pierce’s mind.
The Asset stepped into the room through the floor, curving up into the space through one of its doorways. They had all expected it to use a wall, at least--but instead one of the STRIKE team fell down through the world with a small yelp of surprise, and then The Asset filled the room.
Watching as the STRIKE team died inspired a bitter spike of regret in Pierce. The Asset was called The Asset, capitalized article and all, for a reason. No other person or weapon before or since could do what it did. Close beside Pierce, an agent went from firing her gun to falling down with a limb-sized hole through her torso in less time than it took to blink. Even through the industrial noise-canceling radio headphones Pierce wore the gunfire was as deafening as the end of the world, and the floor became a single huge pool of blood, the shore of a red sea.
The air in the room squirmed, filled with limbs and eyes whose gaze cut through him and the others as they died and died and died. A beautiful thing, The Asset, and a monstrosity beyond words. The legendary Hydra from which the organization took its name could not hope to compare to this.
Blinking, Pierce surveyed the suddenly-still room, what could still be seen of it around The Asset. The meat of what had been the STRIKE team glistened in the unflinching electric lights, and Pierce let out a long breath. So this was how he died, surrounded by the spilled contents of some of Hydra’s best fighters. He didn’t envy whoever found this and had to attempt forensics on it.
The Asset said nothing, and they regarded each other, his single pair of eyes to its endless legion of them. No need for it to speak, they both knew how this ended.
With slippery hands Pierce removed the headset, dropping it to the ground beside him. In the sudden rush of auditory awareness as his ears were exposed, Pierce grimaced at the wet thump the headset made as he dropped it into whoever lay to his left.
The horizon of teeth opened for him, and Pierce was earnestly glad he didn’t have to see that for long. “Time to answer one of the big questions, then,” he said, and a moment later silence fell.