All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. I went for a walk on a winter's day...
Gravel crunches under the tires of the Rolls Royce as it trundles up the country road. The Winter Soldier peers through the scope and adjusts his grip, his finger ghosting over the trigger. He's been in position for hours, has watched his targets for over two weeks before this. He knows their routine.
This is the first day of a long weekend in the Stark Family country estate. No one will think to look for them until at least Monday.
The Soldier takes careful aim. If he misses, he will have to eliminate his targets individually. This is much cleaner.
With the silencer, the shot is noiseless, but the blown tire is not. The expensive Rolls Royce had been on the final turn before a wide country driveway. It skids onto the soft shoulder, and flips on its side to slide down a steep ravine.
Carefully, the Soldier stows his rifle and makes his way down the slope, dragging piles of dry brush behind him. No one will see the wreckage from the roadway.
The Rolls Royce has rolled twice before fetching up against an oak tree at the bottom of the ravine. The Soldier sees that the woman has been ejected from her seat. Maria Stark. She is dead. He mentally crosses her off his list.
Ripping away the car door from its hinges, he peers inside.
Howard Stark has a trickle of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. His breathing is wet and ragged. He's stirring weakly, perhaps alerted by his four-year-old child who is screaming from the back seat.
Howard Stark opens his eyes and looks at the Soldier. There is no anger or fear in his gaze -- but something else. Something that gives the Soldier pause. This is not an expression he has seen from his targets before.
"Bucky," the man rasps. His hands claw weakly at his seatbelt, but his gaze is unfocused and vague. Dying. "Get Tony... Take care of my son."
The name rattles around in the Soldier's head for a few moments without purchase.
Howard takes a rattling breath, then shudders. He dies with his eyes half open.
The child is still crying, tear tracks running down his face. But he seems unhurt, and is unbuckling himself from his baby car seat with surprising dexterity.
The Soldier captures him just as he manages to free himself, and hauls the boy out of the car. His metal hand clamps over the boy's mouth and nose. The boy goes silent, his eyes big and terrified and staring.
One twitch to break the neck is all it will take.
In the Soldier's pocket is a lighter -- the authorities will assume the fire sparked from the car crash and caught dry brush. The flames will cleanse all evidence he was here.
Bucky... Take care of my son.
Finish the assignment, the Soldier thinks.
Bucky, take care of my son.
The Soldier drops his hand. The child screams, wriggles, and tries to bite him, but the Soldier has fought much stronger foes. Screams do not bother him. He holds Tony under one arm and starts the fire with the other. Then he turns and walks into the forest.
By the time they are a quarter mile away, the child has exhausted himself into tired whimpers.
The Soldier stops and adjusts the child to carry him on one hip.
The mission is finished. He must return to the rendezvous point.
Why? Why should I?
The Soldier stops in place, shakes his head. This second thought rattles around where before there had been only silence. Only the mission.
He moves on, but... where is he going?
He cannot return until he finishes his assignment. The boy is alive. His work is not complete. He will be expected to end him.
It's only then he realizes he doesn't want to.
He stops again. "Tony."
The word is odd in his mouth -- he isn't used to speaking other than to confirm his orders.
The boy stirs at the sound of his name. The Soldier places his hand on the back of the boy's neck, not to kill this time. He does not know why he does it, only that Tony sniffles at the touch.
"I want Jarvis," the boy whimpers.
"You are safe now," the Soldier says.
The Soldier owns no car, no transportation. He hiked into these hills and so he hikes out of them.
By now the fire has grown, and the fire department has been called. Tony perks up at the sound of sirens. The Soldier stops and turns the boy's head so he looks him in the eye.
"Keep quiet. If you scream, someone may hear, and then you will die."
Perhaps another child as young would not understand the concept of death, but he feels Tony tremble at his words.
"But... firemen are good guys."
The Soldier tilts his head and chooses his words carefully. "There are bad men everywhere."
He does not mention he is one of them.
Tony begins to cry again, but quietly.
The Soldier continues in the general direction of the closest town.
He forgets himself several times, and begins to return to the rendezvous point twice, three times, before he remembers he cannot.
No, the child should live. Tony. Bucky. Keep my son safe.
It helps that Tony periodically rouses enough to fight him. "Let me go! No! No! I want down. I want to go home!"
The Soldier stops every time, easily restraining the child and clamping a hand over his mouth until he exhausts himself and quiets. Then the Soldier moves on.
There is a small motel on the outskirts of town. The Soldier rents a room for the night using the petty cash given at the start of the mission, and sets the child down. Tony immediately skitters away, hiding under one of the desk chairs. There are several finger-sized bruises on his skinny arms.
The Soldier knows his own strength and the nature of injuries. He has not been restraining him long enough for bruises to form. He did not cause these.
Then he realizes the child has not been crying for his mom and dad. It bothers the Soldier, but only in that any signs of abuse will cause unwanted attention to himself.
The words are foreign in his mouth and slow to come. "Are you... hungry?"
Tony stares at him, wide-eyed and frightened.
"Thirsty?" the Soldier asks.
The boy nods.
There is an old plastic cup by the sink. The Soldier fills it and sets it beside Tony, leaning back. The boy snatches the cup and drinks greedily.
"Slow," the Soldier says. "You will make yourself sick."
The boy doesn't slow, and gulps it all down. As the Soldier said, he is soon sick.
The Soldier takes him to the bathroom and washes him the best he can.
"Where's Mommy and Daddy?" Tony asks, shivering under a cold shower spray. "Are they still in the car?"
"Then how will they know I'm here?"
"They know." This is the truth. The dead know everything.
"Can I go home?" Tony asks.
The Soldier says nothing, only hangs the boy's shirt to dry on the shower curtain rod.
Eventually Tony starts to cry again -- hiccupping, exhausted tears. The Soldier puts him to bed and sits with him until he quiets into sleep.
The next day, the Soldier steals a car from the business next door. In the parking lot, Tony tries to bolt from him. He is easily caught.
Tony shrieks and stabs at the Soldier with a pen he'd taken apart and remade into a sharp object.
He is quite intelligent, not only to make an improvised weapon, but to keep it out of the Soldier's notice until now. The Soldier admires it for a moment before he tosses it away.
Then he belts a struggling Tony into the back seat, ties his ankles together with his own shoelaces, and drives away.
Through the day, Tony's rebellion develops into full blown tantrums.
"I wanna go home! Take me home now! I WANT JARVIS!" he screams, beating his fists on the back of the Soldier's seat. "Now! Now! Now! NOW!"
But the Soldier is unmoved, and after several hours Tony drops into sullen silence.
They stick to the back roads.
By the third day the boy must realize his questions about his parents whereabouts won't be answered. Nor will the Soldier say where they are going (he doesn't know -- only away). It doesn't stop him from asking about anything and everything.
"Why do we change cars every day? How come you wear a glove on one hand? Can we eat? I'm hungry. I want hamburgers. Can I see Jarvis now? When are we stopping? Why do you have makeup under your eyes? I need to tinkle. Can we stop? Why are we driving, wouldn't taking the jet be faster?"
Finally the Soldier says, "There are bad people following us. We must get away from them and keep out of sight. I'm keeping you safe."
"What's your name?" Tony shoots back.
The word slips out, unbidden, and startling him so badly he nearly yanks the car off the road.
Tony starts to cry again, fearful, perhaps, of being in another car accident.
The Soldier clutches the steering wheel so hard the metal arm dents it. His heart is thundering in his chest and he doesn't know why.