Chapter 1: Welcome to the Land of the Free
Era: Cold War
Status: En-route to mission start
Insertion had no complications, at least none that he was aware of, as he adopted a rather bored look and gazed listlessly out of the taxi's passenger window. He kept his thoughts running in English, as it made it easier for him to adapt and continue infiltration. Passing through Customs had been relatively easy, especially with the cover that he had been given. His luggage had been inspected with nothing more than a cursory glance through the contents by officials before he was sent on his way. Said luggage was in trunk of the taxi, as per the usual motions of a business traveler returning Stateside.
The only caveat in his mission: he did not need the luggage or its contents.
While his handler, Karpov, had told him that it was common for most business travelers to return home after a trip abroad, his insertion point and the city where his mission was to take place was anything but routine or common. Still, observing the locals – not the suited individuals – and their everyday routines would be most conducive to a successful infiltration.
“Here you are, sir,” the driver stated, as he felt the car slow down and pull over. Paying the driver the appropriate fare and extra for the tip as he had been ordered to do by Karpov, he got out and got his luggage out of the trunk.
Standing by the curbside for a moment as the taxi pulled away, he waited a few moments longer before letting his gaze roam up the facades in this street full of houses. Though it was nighttime, he could still see most of the details clearly, even with the orange-yellow glow of street lights illuminating everything with that sickly color. This neighborhood's neatly manicured lawns and iron gates screamed an excess of wealth that he remembered Karpov saying would have been better off being distributed elsewhere, but it was of no concern to him.
His lingering at the sidewalk, luggage in hand, was just enough for him to assess the situation – there was one car a half-block away that had looked suspicious. It's had no occupants inside, but a tiny sliver of reflective light sitting against the backside of the rear view mirror in the car had given away the fact that someone had planted an unusually small microphone in the car.
One of the residents in this street of wealthy houses was being watched by government agencies – most likely SHIELD. They were the only intelligence agency with the means to develop such an unobtrusive device thus far. However, considering where the car was parked, the person being watched was more than likely living a few houses down.
This house before him, was as much of a safe house as it was a residence for a pair of agents permanently stationed here. The mission briefing had stated that the male half of the agents was currently in California for a 'conference', and would not return until well after the mission was complete. He had been briefed to go to this particular address, drop the luggage off with the female agent, and begin his mission immediately after that. What reason that went behind it was not known to him, but it didn't matter. The operatives most likely had usage for the luggage he was about to drop off.
As he walked to the iron gate, he reached out with his left hand and grasped the handle. It unlatched with little manipulation and he stepped in. Closing the gate behind him, he made his way up the pathway and steps, and paused. Raising his gloved left hand up, he applied just enough force behind his knocking that it would be audible to the agent within.
He could hear some shuffling and movements beyond the door, but didn't have to wait long as a feminine voice asked, “Who is it?”
“Albert's cousin, Jonathan,” he answered using the contact phrase. “I'm a little early.”
“Yes, you are,” the woman answered after a few moments before opening the door, accepting the passphrase.
Unremarkable in every way, including her dressage, posture, and demeanor, the woman was as his handler had described: the perfect everyday infiltrator to ensure that information from the West kept flowing to the East. He didn't care for such descriptions though, as he could see that she was as wary of him as he was of her. However, niceties still needed to be had as she gestured for him to enter.
He entered with little formality, but only took the necessary three steps into the hallway to allow her to close and lock the door behind him. “Leave the luggage there,” she ordered as soon as she brushed past him.
He obeyed her command, and left the luggage he had been carrying leaning against the wall. Her American accent was impeccable, as he could hear absolutely no trace of any forced conditioning. He had not been given a dossier on her, but then again, they were both way points for each other; a way for their motherland to give their agents here the necessary assistance.
“First right, through the kitchen,” she said, continuing to walk down the hall and into another room. “Suitcase on the counter top has what you need. Out the back, through the trees forming a 'V' is the path.”
Acknowledgments were not needed as he merely strode through the directions given, picked up the innocuous-looking suitcase with his left, and proceeded into the backyard. High fences surrounded the small garden, giving him privacy, but that still did not preclude him from looking around to see if there were any cameras of the sort. Due to recent incidents, his weapon had to have been broken apart and shipped separately to various places within the region. That had included the slugs custom-made for the rifle.
Cautiously, but casually making his way to the 'V'-shaped trees that would lead him through and into the path out of the neighborhood, he slipped out of the way point house with no incident. Reaching up with his right hand, he pulled the tightly-glued wig that he had been wearing off, and dropped that into a sewage grating on the side of the sidewalk. Next came the flesh-colored rubbery piece that had been glued and formed against his jawline and throat to change its shape. That went into another sewage grating as well.
Piece by piece, he stripped himself of the disguise he had worn to enter here and to ensure that the way point contact did not know who he was. By the time he had finished removing every piece of his disguise, he was in a section of the city that any normal resident would consider 'seedy'. He was also now dressed only in the familiar weight of his black fatigues. The gleam of his silver left arm with its bright blood red star faintly reflected the flickering street lights.
Tightening his grip on the suitcase that contained his sniper rifle and cartridges, the Winter Soldier slipped back into the shadows of Washington DC, en-route to his target.
* * *
Location: Unknown location within the Siberian region, Russia
“When SHIELD goes missing, what do you do? Call in another SHIELD, or rather have another SHIELD call you by coincidence. From another reality no less, because quantum physics is strange.”
Steve flicked his eyes over towards Natasha for a brief moment, snorting softly in laughter at her murmured words. Breathing in the bitterly cold air that surrounded them at this latitude and region, he unfolded his arms as he saw the indicator light on the corner of the heavy bunker door turn green. Not a few moments later, the door to the underground disused Soviet silo that had formerly contained five Winter Soldiers, opened. Two people emerged, bundled up for the cold, with one of them carrying a small device that Steve did not recognize.
Surprisingly, Wakanda had opted to keep the link between this reality and the other one open. For what reasons, he could only guess, as the technology was definitely beyond his comprehension. However, they had staffed the area under heavy secrecy and guard. The official story was that the Wakandans were ensuring that any traces of what Zemo had done here were gone. With the SHIELD-Inhuman alliance on the other side guarding it as well, Steve was relatively confident that nothing that bode ill-will would get through.
At the present though, Steve waited patiently as both people stopped for a moment, eyes focused on him, or rather, tracing across his appearance. Then those same pairs of eyes flicked over towards Natasha, with the female of the pair unable to contain her slight shock, though she did not drop the device in her hand. Taking the opportunity before anything else could happen, he closed the distance, extending a gloved hand out towards the two.
“Good to see both of you again, Captain Barnes and Agent Johnson,” he said, as the creaking of the door behind the two indicate that the silo was going to be once again, sealed.
James 'Bucky' Barnes, a US Air Force Intelligence operative liaised with SHIELD in another reality, warmly clasped his hand, giving it a good shake before letting go. “I thought we'd been through enough for none of that formality, Steve.”
“Eh, old habits die hard,” he answered, his grin matching that of the man before him. Though James looked exactly like Bucky had during the War, there were enough minute though distinct differences in personality between the two that Steve could not mistaken one for the other.
James stepped back and allowed Daisy Johnson to step up. Unsurprisingly, instead of shaking hands, she stepped in for an embrace, saying, “Good to see you Cap.” Steve returned the friendly hug and as they both let go and stepped back, she asked, “So what squirrel did you skin to get that on your face?”
Steve chuckled, shaking his head slightly as he said, “What? Is it too scraggly? I trimmed it yesterday. You should've seen the beard before then.”
“Yeah, but the beard, plus you growing your hair out... you're definitely going for that lumberjack look. I do hope you have at least one plaid shirt in your wardrobe,” she answered, smiling to show that she wasn't being literal with her words.
Steve just shook his head again, before turning slightly and gesturing with an open arm towards Natasha, saying, “James, you remember Natasha. Daisy, this is Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow of my reality. She's a former SHIELD agent and Avenger, and a member of my team.”
“Hi,” Daisy said, as Natasha gave him an indecipherable look before closing the distance.
“Agent Johnson,” Natasha greeted in a neutral, completely professional tone.
Steve could read some wariness off of Daisy as Natasha simply put a hand forward to shake the young Inhuman's hand. The gesture was returned, as politeness overrode her hesitation.
“Captain Barnes.” Natasha did the same with James, though the intelligence officer was either completely comfortable in differentiating between Natasha of this reality and of the other reality, or was extremely good at covering any sort of unease he had. Either way, Steve knew that the blond coloring and cut that Natasha had done with her hair was not helping the situation, but neither had Steve been inclined to have her change her hair color again. Black Widow may have been a HYDRA assassin in the other reality, but Natasha was a good friend and confidante in his.
“Ms. Romanov,” James answered in kind.
Her blond color and cut, along with his growth of a full beard and longer hair were their permanent disguises until they were no longer fugitives from the law. It was how they lived, and he placed Natasha, Sam, and Wanda's safety above everything else – even if people from another reality were uncomfortable. It was not his place to try to change perceptions that others had of counterparts who had fought on the other side. It was his place to ensure that his team – his friends – were safe.
“All right,” Steve said, breaking into the tension before it could fill even the cold Siberian air, gesturing for the two to follow him and Natasha back to the quinjet. “We'll head to where Sam and Wanda currently are and begin the search there. Anything you guys need to do or interface with the quinjet to get your device working?”
“Nope,” Daisy answered, nose deep into the screen of her device as they walked up the ramp.
Natasha hit the button to close the ramp, as Steve made his way into the cockpit. Because the quinjet was customized to Natasha's taste, it didn't have the usual bulkhead that separated the cockpit from the cargo hold. Instead, there were the usual pilot and co-pilot's seats, along with two seats behind that had similar interfaces as the copilot had.
Natasha's quinjet also had unusual weapons load out – more so than the usual missiles and single rotary cannon available in standard outfits. She had at least three different lockers of weaponry stored in the compartments lining the cargo hold's holds, and three rotary cannons operable by either the pilot, copilot, and the two sitting rear. Stealth and avionics systems had also been upgraded to be better than standard. The weight of every customization meant that the quinjet had forgone missiles. Thus far, Steve and his team had not had to use the rotary cannons – but then again, they were not looking for trouble with the authorities.
Slipping into the pilot's seat, he fired up the quinjet, and as soon as his board cleared green, he glanced back quickly to see that everyone else was strapped into the seats, and took off. As the abandoned silo-turned-Wakandan monitoring site slowly became smaller and smaller before it disappeared into a swirl of clouds and snow, Steve punched in the nav course for the last known location of where Sam and Wanda were.
Though he was not sure if they were still in the same area when he had dropped them off before heading here, when they got closer, they would notify the two. It ran less of a risk of interception in com systems if they announced their presence at the last minute, rather than now.
“So what's that?” Natasha asked, as Steve turned on the autopilot and spun his seat around to face the others. Natasha was gesturing to the device in Daisy's hands, whom was still nose-deep in peering at the screen.
“Something that Fitz had been working on before... well, before he turned double,” James answered.
There was nothing on James' face to suggest that what happened to Leopold Fitz in the other reality affected him, but Steve could hear the regret in the man's tone. Steve had had no words of comfort to give to James in the aftermath of Fitz's suicide at the other reality's silo, leaving only cryptic, possibly confessional words behind. He could see though, that James felt guilty for the route that Fitz had taken in life after being rescued from the attack on the Triskelion in the other reality.
Strike Bravo had been James' team – a team that had been trained under him. It's roster had included Daisy, Fitz, Bobbi Morse, and Montgomery Falsworth. Steve had seen and understood the pride that James had felt in his team; it was the same kind of feeling he had long ago, when training the new Avengers. To have Fitz do what he had done in the Framework and outside of it... Steve still had no good words for James, only sympathy.
“We... Madam Hydra actually had a contingency plan in place, should she had lost Fitz, or he was killed,” James continue, as Steve saw Daisy tighten her hands around the device for a moment before continuing to calibrate or do whatever she was doing to it to get it working.
“We found the servers in that silo after you guys left,” James continued, “It was just a few hundred feet more buried underground in the same area where the portal was. We don't know how it was done, but the eggheads' best guess was that it was similar to how Stark was created as an AI. They estimated the size and power needed for the transfer. We've destroyed all but one of the servers racks and isolated that from every other network. As soon as we got an interface working, AI Fitz pointed out the device and a few other things his predecessor had been working on. He seems sincere, but Peggy isn't taking any risks.”
“That's why I'm the only one allowed to handle the device,” Daisy stated, finally looking up from the screen, grinning. “I can shut this baby down the moment something goes funny. Right now though, it's finishing up its calibration to your world. Once that's done, we should get a good lock on where your SHIELD is.”
“So why'd you two come?” Natasha asked after acknowledging Daisy's explanation with a single nod of her head. “I mean, no offense, and I can literally see Steve vibrating with happiness like an excited puppy in seeing both of you--”
To this, Steve gave a halfhearted protest of, “Hey--” but didn't follow through with it. Natasha was right, just seeing Daisy and James again made him feel oddly lighter and happier.
“--but we told you guys over the receiver that you, Agent Johnson, are wanted by the US government for apparently attempting to assassinate General Talbot. And you, Captain Barnes... well, I'm sure you got the story from Steve. The Wakandan scientists said that the message went through to your side. Did you guys not get it?”
“We got it,” James answered, as Steve saw Daisy shrug. “Whatever we're tracking, Daisy's the best at it with her powers and skills. Me, I volunteered... and also to evaluate her for command fitness.”
“Command fitness?” Steve questioned, as he gave a quick glance over towards Daisy, who again, shrugged as it were not a big deal, before poking the screen of her device again.
“Madam Hydra's death – both of them – released a lot of people from their chip implant control,” James explained. “Once people got their bearings, they wanted answers. SHIELD... Peggy didn't want SHIELD to become like HYDRA again, so we've kept a low profile. We posted answers on message boards, newspapers op-eds, the works. People still found us though, good and bad. Our ranks are growing again, but they need training. They've got me tapped for training new recruits, and weeding out HYDRA moles in the new recruits. Daisy will be promoted to a Strike commander – if she passes.”
“You're look a little blasé about this, Agent Johnson,” Natasha pointed out as soon as James was done with his explanation.
“I don't want to be in command of a Strike Team,” Daisy answered in a rather biting tone, sparing only a rather hostile glare over towards James.
“Orders are orders, Quake,” James said, not even reacting to the look that his teammate had given him. “I can say that you're not fit to command, but Peggy and Stevie will not buy that. They, and the rest of the field agents have seen you in action.”
“Then lie better. Sir,” the young agent bit out.
Steve frowned, feeling as if he had just missed something significant in the explanation that had been given to them. However, it was Natasha's throaty chuckle that drew his attention away from the two and onto her, as she said, “You're looking for an independent field assignment, aren't you, Agent Johnson?”
“Thank you!” Daisy half-sarcastically said, dropping the device to her lap. The look in her eyes was anything but sarcastic, and was instead quite pleased that someone understood her. “I'm all for team spirit, but a change in pace would be nice once in a while. There's still a lot of HYDRA operatives out there, and none of them are expecting a lone Inhuman agent.”
“So you want us to evaluate for fail in command, but pass with a recommendation for independent field work?” Natasha asked.
“Yes, please!” Daisy answered, looking quite enthusiastic again.
“Sounds like you've had experience,” James said at the same time, smiling slightly.
The look that Natasha gave James was not what Steve would call 'coy', but neither would he call it 'arrogant'. There was a smile on her face that on second glance, matched that of James – both of them slightly unsettling, though not predatory. He had experienced the predatory smile of Natasha before, though it was thankfully with Natasha's counterpart in the other reality.
“I was Director Fury's agent,” was all Natasha stated before Steve saw her jerk a thumb towards him, saying, “He was the 'ooh-rah' team spirit guy. Wasn't happy that I had trampled over his mission to fulfill Fury's orders.”
Steve couldn't find fault in her brief, oblique mention of the mission that became the downfall of SHIELD and HYDRA. He let the jab at his military background go, knowing that it was all in good nature. “She's the best,” he stated before turning his attention onto Daisy, saying, “so if Director Carter is willing to take our recommendations, she'll be the one evaluating you.”
“Aweso--” Daisy began, but then her device emitted a rather ear-piercing wail before it fell silent. It was pitched enough that even Steve's ears rung for a few moments, before he focused his eyes onto the device. He saw the Inhuman agent give the device a shake before glancing at the screen, asking, “What's our destination, Cap?”
“Last known location of Sam and Wanda is near Los Angeles. That was where the last confirmed sighting of several of Director Coulson's team were. They may not be there, but they'll hopefully be in the area,” he stated.
“Hmm,” Daisy said, before turning the device around to show them the screen. There was nothing except a dot blinking opposite of the arrow that he thought indicated their direction. No marker indicating north, south, east, or west was on the display. “According to this, that screech means we're headed in the wrong direction.”
“You got another destination?” Steve asked, frowning slightly. He knew that Sam and Wanda could take care of themselves, but he was not keen on leaving them for more than he already had in such a populated area.
“Coordinates,” Daisy admitted, looking sheepish. “Tech guys were a little wary about taking the device apart, and AI Fitz was not really helpful in explaining how exactly it worked – only that it detected the same 'quantum particles' that was blasted across the reality link.”
“Okay, so what coordinates?” he said after a moment, spinning around to face the front again and took the autopilot off.
“Here,” she answered, shoving the device in front of him. “I'm not a trained navigator, so I'm not sure how to read out the coordinates. I can find longitude and latitude on a map though.”
“Washington DC?” he questioned after a moment, frowning slightly. It was zoomed in now, though what was on it was pretty much still incomprehensible to him, except for the coordinates hovering next to the blinking dot.
“It's going to be difficult to get in and move around without someone catching wind of us,” Natasha stated, as Steve glanced over at her, while Daisy removed the device and sat back again.
“We have to find Coulson and the others,” he insisted, returning his attention to the cockpit panels to punch in the coordinates. “We need to find out what happened to the LMDs, the Framework, and AIDA.”
“Wait, you guys went back into the Framework... this reality's has a Framework?” Daisy asked, looking a little horrified. “AIDA as well?”
“What I could get from Piper before the military picked her up and sent her to a detention center, was that yeah, there was a Framework. There was also an AI named AIDA, and several LMDs imitating almost all of Coulson's primary team, built and deployed,” Natasha explained. “Piper claimed that they destroyed them all, except for your LMD, Agent Johnson. As we said before, your LMD shot General Talbot. He was the military commander liaison with SHIELD. Piper said that Ghost Rider came back from whatever reality he had been in, to stop AIDA and your LMD, and also retrieve some book called the Darkhold. She and the other personnel were evacuated before they could see the results.”
“Apparently, Coulson and his primary team stayed behind to set the trap. We need to confirm with him that AIDA and the Framework have been destroyed,” Steve picked up from where Natasha left. “There's unconfirmed reports floating around the internet that the Framework housed something similar to what we experienced in your reality – HYDRA resurgent. With the Avengers disbanded and SHIELD barely afloat, there's not a lot of resources we can use to destroy HYDRA, if they're about to rise up from the ashes again.”
“Geez,” he heard Daisy breathe out. James was silent, but Steve didn't need to look over at him to know that there was most likely a pensive look on the man's face.
“You guys have disguises, right?” Natasha asked after a few moments of silence.
“Photo-static veils,” Daisy answered, and this time, Steve glanced back to see her take a small box out of a compartment on her waist belt. She did something with the flimsy, transparent cloth-like object before placing it over her face. The image that resolved and projected onto the veil was that of a young woman who didn't carry the Asiatic look that Daisy had, but had mostly Caucasian features.
Steve furrowed his eyebrows for a moment – the young woman's face looked familiar to him, and it was not until James performed the same actions as Daisy with his own veil that it hit him. The two facial disguises on the agents were that of acquaintances that he had met before, during the war. He had seen the two mainly around the SSR Headquarters; the young woman mostly wherever Peggy was, and the young man wherever Howard was.
“You know them, Steve?” Natasha's question catapulted him out of his reminiscence.
“Yeah,” he answered, as he saw James raise an eyebrow of his disguised face in surprise. “Daisy's image is that of Emily Hattersfield, one of Peggy's code breakers. James is wearing David Brewster's face. He was one of Howard's engineers.”
“Carter suggested that we pluck the faces from images of her time during our reality's World War Two. She considered the time passed in your reality to be safe enough to use the images. We can try to find new images to upload onto the veils if they're making you uncomfortable, Steve,” James offered.
Steve shook his head negative, ignoring the indecipherable look that Natasha was giving him. “It's all right,” he said. “No one this day and age would recognize them unless they've lived through that time anyways. Peg—Director Carter has good intuition.”
Seeing that the matter was settled, Steve then turned his attention towards Natasha, saying, “Patch a secured line to Sam, we're going to need to tell him the news.”
“On it,” she said, as her hands flew over her portion of the cockpit console.
It took a few minutes to ensure establish a com line that was as secured as they could make it. In that time, Steve quickly perused the radio chatter, listening in for any sort of hint about any patrols from their current position to the DC airspace. While they would be able to easily dodge whatever the US military had, unless clustered to more than a squadron, it was mostly for sightings of the Iron Man suit that he listened for.
It was rare that Tony flew around in the Iron Man suit nowadays, as the last PR for Stark Industries had indicated that Tony was putting all of his effort into establishing scientific and engineering relations with Wakanda. Steve knew that T'Challa honored the agreement made, and would never reveal that Bucky was in cryo within Wakandan borders, but the PR had mostly alluded to Tony spending time on the West Coast at the Wakandan Science Outreach center in Oakland.
“Falcon, this is Home Base,” Natasha stated into her headset, alerting Steve to the fact that a line had finally been established.
“Falcon copies,” the extremely tinny, but still identifiable voice of Sam came through, as Natasha hit the button to change the feed from headset into speaker.
“Hey Sam, is Wanda anywhere near you?” Steve asked, keying the microphone.
“Yeah, sure, want it on speaker?” Sam answered. “Don't worry, there's absolutely no one anywhere near us for at least three miles.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“All right, hold on,” his friend said.
A few moments later, the equally tinny, but distinctly different voice of Wanda came over the line, saying, “Hey. Do we happen to have enough in our budget to let Sam and I check into at least a Motel 6? I could definitely use the shower.”
“Pasadena, near JPL, on the edge of the disc golf course,” Natasha stated. “There's an old cache there. It's almost depleted, but there should be enough left for the two of you to find some place to lay low for a few days.”
“Something come up, Steve?” Sam asked, his tone indicating that he was on guard and alert.
“Couple of travelers from that other reality I was telling to you about,” Steve explained. “We're headed to DC to follow on a lead.”
“Uh... Steve... DC is not a good place for either of you to go.”
“I know,” he answered, “but they have a device that may be pointing us in the right direction. It's worth the risk.”
Silence answered him, but he expected it. Sam was cautious about going anywhere near a heavily populated locale, including non-American cities. It had taken some convincing to get him to even go to Los Angeles. Though considering the hell he, along with Sam and Natasha had gone through with the fall of SHIELD and exposure of HYDRA, finding Coulson and his team was worth even their own potential arrests. Coulson was the only one who had more resources to send out against any potential HYDRA threat than Steve or his team.
“We'll plan for a contingency in breaking you and Natasha out of prison,” Wanda surprisingly spoke up after a few moments.
“Wanda--” Steve began, annoyed, frustrated, yet oddly touched by her declaration.
“No, Steve, she's right,” Sam cut in, sounding thoroughly annoyed. “Shut up and don't get caught in DC. If you do, we'll get both of you out, no matter what it takes.”
“All right,” he said after a long moment, as he couldn't help the upwards quirk of the edges of his lips. He knew that Sam had plenty more that he wanted to say, but would not state it through an open com channel. “Keep searching for any sign of Coulson, and if you can, find Piper and see if she has any more information.”
“Will do, Steve,” his friend crisply answered. In a more casual tone, he said, “Pick up some of that shwarma thing that both of you keep raving about?”
“Yeah, sure,” Natasha answered, smiling. “Good hunting.”
“Good hunting to you guys as well,” came the answer before the line was disconnected.
* * *
“Treating this as a vacation from your day job, Captain Barnes?” Natasha said, deciding to open the approach with a cursory observation of the most curious of a man to sit in her quinjet's cargo hold.
It wasn't that she didn't know James Buchanan Barnes was – she really didn't other than what the dumped files, her own hazy memories of the past, and of the brief times she fought against this reality's Barnes, told her. She had absolutely no idea who or what made this other Barnes tick. Sure Steve's briefing and explanation provided her some context, but she knew that Steve was biased whenever it came to Barnes. It also seemed that her friend's bias extended to both this reality's Barnes and this man seemingly lounging across a couple of jump seats in her cargo hold.
The Winter Soldier was one she knew by reputation, hazy memories, and combat experience. Steve's Barnes was only through brief glimpses during the hunt for him and by Steve's stories about Barnes that had been told to her. Both pointed to someone that she strangely found kinship and a sense of camaraderie with, even though she had barely even met or gotten to know the man.
Captain Barnes though, by Steve's account and her own observations while briefly in the other reality, was an excellent operative and a competent leader. Yet, considering what she knew of the other reality, she wondered why such a needed operative was here. The excuse that Barnes had given earlier about evaluating Johnson was adequate, but she could sense that he was holding something back. The other reality's SHIELD could have easily sent someone else to accompany Agent Johnson – in fact, if their Director Carter was anything like the same woman here, Carter would have. Natasha didn't think that Carter would have even acquiesced to a request from Barnes to travel to this reality for such a relatively minor matter.
As she stopped a couple steps away from Barnes, she saw him open his eyes, a casual smile on his face in response to her words. While she normally would have taken a seat opposite to begin casual observations and evaluations of someone she didn't know at all, she was curious to see how Barnes would react to her. It didn't take a genius to listen between the lines when Steve had told her and the others what generally happened in the other reality's Framework.
“Building a profile on me, Ms. Romanov?” Barnes casually asked, not moving even a millimeter from where he was sitting as she took a seat directly on his left.
“You could say that,” she answered, noticing that his left arm did not twitch at all.
Had it been the Winter Soldier she just sat next to, she was quite confident she would have heard the minutest of the whir of gears and other things within the arm spooling up. Last she had seen Steve's Barnes gave her the impression that the man reacted to everything like a coiled cat. The lack of a reaction from this other reality's Barnes was telling, and it confirmed the implications that she had presumed had happened within the Framework. This James Barnes had been in a physical relationship with her counterpart within the Framework.
“Agent Johnson was clearly uncomfortable with my presence, so I decided to remove myself,” she stated, deciding to be straight forward.
Either Barnes was excellent at differentiating between her and her HYDRA-serving counterpart, or he expected her to be the same as her counterpart – minus the HYDRA mentality. Natasha had to put her money on the latter, rather than the former – given that Steve had admitted that it had been slightly difficult for him to stop reacting to Barnes as if the other man had grown up with Steve.
Steve seemed to have grown out of that mentality though, as Natasha remembered seeing a myriad of emotions flit across her friend's face whenever interacting with the recovering Winter Soldier. Here and in the now, Steve seemed to hold the other reality Barnes at a distance – friendly still, but a slight distance.
“I know what you're doing, Ms. Romanov,” Barnes said, giving her a slightly arrogant smirk that oddly irritated her slightly. It disappeared just as quickly as it appeared as he continued to say, “I would be doing the same in your shoes.”
“Would be?” she questioned, though it was not really one, as she stated it as fact. “You're doing it right now.”
“Touche,” he answered. Giving her a single nod, he said, “I can tell the differences, if you're worried. I know you're not HYDRA, and I didn't need Steve's defense of you all those months ago to see that.”
“And you're clearly what the Winter Soldier could have been, had he not become what he is today,” she said.
The cheerful, casual disposition that he openly wore disappeared instantly with her words. She knew then that she had touched a nerve. Just his reaction told her so much: how and why Steve found it initially difficult to not be drawn to Barnes, and how both Barnes boys reacted to each other. She had warned Steve not to pluck at the strings within the file she had received from her contacts in Kiev, but she had handed over that file knowing that Steve would have refused to leave the matter alone.
Steve had been a stranger in a strange world when he woke up from ice; desperately trying to stay afloat and not drown. Natasha was aware that even as elderly as she was, Margaret 'Peggy' Carter had been a steadfast anchor as had Barnes been during World War Two. However, with Barnes transformed into the Winter Soldier, he was now anything but an anchor. It had been and still was difficult for Steve to adjust to his life without his anchors. The consequences were something that she, Natasha, and Sam dealt with every day – and it had gotten worse now that they were fugitives from the law.
“Has Steve tried to contact Wakanda for any updates?” Barnes asked, recovering quickly, as his casual, laid back attitude reappeared on his face like a mask. “It's been a few months, and considering the tech I saw your reality's King T'Challa display with that bead of fire...”
“No,” she answered, deciding to be honest. It was quite clear to her in the few minutes that passed in her close observation that perhaps Barnes had just used the excuse of both the quantum oddity and Johnson's evaluation to come here. “But you can ask him the details yourself, you know.”
“I can,” he answered, “but he'll give me a bullshit excuse that will probably make me feel guilty. Then there will be some strong words, maybe some yelling, and then both of us will feel even worse for doing that to each other.”
“Ah,” she said after a moment, the edges of her lips quirking up in a slightly amused smile. “I always thought alternate realities always came with completely different personalities for the same occupants. But it seems that your Stephanie Rogers—am I right?”
Barnes nodded and Natasha continued, “Your Stephanie Rogers is exactly the same personality-wise as Steven Rogers here.”
“The only difference is biological, but yeah, that doesn't even factor into their personalities,” Barnes answered.
“Hmmm,” she said, nodding once. “So you're here mainly because you want to see how Steve is doing?”
He shook his head, saying, “That's an elementary assessment, Ms. Romanov. Why don't you just come right out and say it?”
“Why are you so curious about what my own analysis about you and your purpose here, Captain Barnes?” she asked instead.
“I like you, and I want to get to know you better,” he bluntly stated.
She couldn't help but chuckle, finding the verbal sparring interesting and entertaining at the same time. “You know, for all that Steve's said about both you and Sergeant Barnes's abilities to charm women with words and looks, that was by far, a terrible pickup line.”
“I'm a little rusty,” he said in a defensive tone.
“No you're not,” she countered. “You just made it clear to me that you are unwilling to emotionally hurt Stephanie Rogers again, even though you've clearly taken an interest in me because I look like your Framework's version of myself.”
“If that was spoken by any other woman, I'd say that she was full of herself,” he said, finally shifting to sit up in a less casual fashion. “But you're right. I like you, but I made a promise to Stevie – to be with her until the end of the line. I'm not going to break that promise again.”
“And yet, here you are, taking an interest in Steve.”
“Jealous?” he asked, that arrogant smirk back on his face.
Were she any other person, she knew that that was designed to completely irritate and fluster someone who didn't understand the double-speak that Barnes employed. She had to admit – he was good at what he did – deflecting, twisting words, and playing with people's perceptions and assumptions. But she was not fooled at all by what he was doing. First, she herself had been trained by both the KGB and SHIELD to see through such things, and do the same things as he did. Secondly, she knew the subject matter they discussed within their sparring – Steve.
There were times in which Sam jokingly called her the 'work wife' of Steve, and Steve her 'work husband'. It was true in a sense, but that was not how she or Steve saw their friendship or relationship. If she had to put a better label on how she saw Steve and how Steve viewed her, they would have to be brother and sister. The irony was not lost on her for thinking along that vein, since both of them had no siblings while growing up.
She also knew that Steve had been the most generous, open-hearted person within the Avengers. Even the old-fashioned sensibility that he carried endeared him towards more than a few people at SHIELD. Apart from the argument against Stark on the Helicarrier that had been influenced by Loki's scepter, he never judged people for what they had done, and always kept an open mind and heart. Steve wore his feelings on the sleeve, and Natasha had seen just how the years of coping with the abrupt end of the war for him, along with the displacement in time had done to him. It had slowly made him more insular, and dare she say it: a little more selfish and less generous.
Sure Steve had friends in his life – close ones that she knew included her, Sam, and Wanda, along with Clint. But loved ones were incredibly sparse. She could count on one hand just how many people Steve truly loved. What kind of meaning that 'love' indicated was quite debatable, in her opinion – and it didn't help that Steve never stated his preference to her. She had just gone with the assumption of at least trying to encourage Steve to reach out and begin to live in his new world, when she had started suggesting various women in different SHIELD departments for him to go out with.
“Hardly,” she answered in a blasé tone that dripped with sarcasm. “Word of advice though: I don't think Steve's ready for polygamy. He certainly wasn't ready to ask out a girl with a lip piercing. Plus I don't know if he's truly likes Sharon, since he hasn't contacted her after what happened at the Berlin Airport. He also has this thing with his best friend from the war, whom we all thought was dead. Don't even get me started on whatever went on between him and Stark... it's pretty complicated.”
She saw him shake his head, an amused smile replacing the smirk. “I'm here because someone's got to make sure that counterparts of mine do not break promises made,” he sincerely stated. “Or make the same mistakes that I've made.”
“Well then,” she said, deciding that she was able to extend a small sliver of trust towards the man, “the answer to your question is still 'no'. Steve doesn't want to run the risk of our com lines being intercepted by anyone, so he hasn't contacted Wakanda at all. Given what little I know and understand what Sergeant Barnes went through, and what technology Wakanda has at their disposal, it will take time.”
She fell silent, but the silence between them didn't last long as Barnes said in a quieter, more serious tone, “I also apologize for any bad memories that may have been brought up with that.”
“I didn't go through what Sergeant Barnes or what apparently your reality's Black Widow went through,” she answered after a moment. “I do remember parts of my past, but all of the conditioning that made me who I was in the KGB was due to training. They didn't want to tamper with any Black Widow's memories, since our assignments and missions tended to be cyclical. At that time, we needed to remember what we had done to a previous target, if we were ever deployed to the target again.”
“Sergeant Barnes told us as much, with the title being inherited and all,” Captain Barnes answered. “I presume that Steve at least filled you in on what transpired in my reality?”
“Some,” she said, nodding. “Not all, but enough for me to understand that SHIELD in both realities really shouldn't leave their 0-8-4's out in the open. Even under lock and key, someone's eventually going to get to it.”
Barnes barked in laughter, loud enough to catch the attention of Steve and Agent Johnson, both of whom were sitting in the cockpit. Before either could inquire what was the cause of the laughter, the proximity to destination chime rung across the interior of the quinjet. “Guess that's our cue to strap in and get ready,” Natasha heard him say, as she turned to see Steve strapping himself into the pilot's seat before calling up several displays on the HUD.
“Guess so,” she agreed.
The Washington skyline was something that Steve always found comforting, familiar, and calming – even at night. It wasn't as chaotic as New York, with all of its skyscrapers and transformed buildings from the 1940's. As the HUD highlighted all the small pinpoint dots, marking where airplanes were either landing, taking off, or in a holding pattern, he eased on the throttle and began to descend. The cloaking module was active, but he didn't want to rush by and disturb the air in the path of any of the airplanes or tourist helicopters.
“Can you get me refined coordinates other than the city, Daisy?” he asked, as Natasha briefly placed a hand on Daisy's shoulder to keep her from giving up the co-pilot's seat. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw her slip into the seat behind Daisy, while James took up the fourth and final seat. He didn't know what Natasha and James had been discussing, but they had looked at ease with each other, and thus he left it alone.
“Give me a few seconds,” she answered, as he saw her frown and poke at the screen. That frown turned into a more mild look as she spoke up, saying, “Looks like the coordinates are pointing to somewhere in the southwest waterfront.” She showed him the screen again, saying, “That building right here.”
“All right,” he said, keeping the unease he was feeling from bubbling up. It was not from the fact that they were in extremely dangerous territory at the moment, but more of the fact that it was near where the Triskelion used to be. That and the Navy Yard was next door, and the Pentagon right across the river. There could not have been a worse place for the device to lead them to, but it was as he said before: finding Coulson and his team was a larger priority than his or Natasha's own safety.
“Prelim scans show that it's your standard office building,” Natasha said, switching seats with Daisy before pulling up several schematics. “Used to be owned by Roxxon Corporation up until the mid-80's before Hammer Tech moved in. Some environmental lobbyist corporation now owns and operates from it.”
“We'll land on the rooftop,” he ordered. “Get your masks on, Daisy and James. Secure channel thirteen, Nat. We'll be using the usual call signs over com – James, you get the Nomad call sign. We're going lightly armed – I do not want to cause a shootout and attract any unwanted guests.”
“Copy,” both Daisy and James answered in a crisp tone.
“Channel thirteen, copy,” Natasha answered after a moment as she reached over Daisy, and began fiddling with the various cockpit dials and switches to secure a com line.
As Steve concentrated on maneuvering and landing the quinjet on the building that Daisy's device had indicated, he only reached over to pluck the offered com piece after Natasha extended her hand to him. While he was glad that it was night time, he was also worried. With this much advanced tech in the area, especially with regards to surveillance, it was still going to be difficult to canvas the building. He was also additionally glad that snow had not begun to fall yet, even though it was quite cold. Snowfall on a cloaked quinjet would essentially render the cloaking mechanism useless.
As soon as they touched down, he ran through the post flight checks quickly as the others unstrapped themselves from the jump seats and made their way to the armory to pick up the light firearms. Steve joined them, as he saw Natasha forgo the pair of pistols she usually carried and opted for slotting several electrical discs into her gauntlets and two eskrima batons. Daisy and James both picked up one 9-mil each, taking his order to be lightly armed seriously. He'd rather they run and escape, than entrench themselves and try to fight anything out.
He picked up a small cylindrical object that was the width of a bou, but the length of his palm. It was a bou, but telescopic and built quite strongly. He remembered Natasha saying that it had been one of the last experimental weapons she had picked up before SHIELD had collapsed. The only experimental portion of the bou was that it was collapsible and easily hidden on his person. He had already used it once before a few weeks ago, and after inspection, there seemed to be no damage to its integrity.
“I have point,” he quietly stated, Natasha stepped over and hit the button to lower the ramp. As he crouched at the lip for a moment, listening carefully for any odd noise, all he heard was the sounds of the DC traffic.
Daisy followed him as he made his way across the rooftop, followed by Natasha. James took up the rear, but Steve clamped down on the brief moment of nostalgia that rose within him. James's action was the same thing Bucky had taken before whenever the Howling Commandos traversed into dangerous territory. While normal units would have placed a sniper on a perch as the rest of them swept and cleared ground level, Bucky always insisted on sweeping with them – always taking the rear position. Steve didn't know how he saw them, but there were times in which Bucky sniped from the ground and into the trees, felling ambushers a few hundred yards ahead.
“Anything, Quake?” he quietly asked Daisy as the four of them pressed themselves against the brick wall perpendicular to the lone door on this rooftop.
“Nothing,” Daisy answered. “The device is still giving me the same coordinates.”
“All right,” he said, keeping the sigh of frustration he wanted to let loose to himself. It was definitely not ideal, but it was the only way for them to canvas the building quickly. “Standard office building, one central stairwell, and most likely four main ones on the corners leading to the ground. Widow, take north. Nomad, you're east. Quake, west. Call out anything unusual such as security cameras where there aren't supposed to be.”
“Copy,” the others acknowledged. Entering the building, the four of them quickly and quietly made their way down to the top floor and began their mission.
Steve kept a tight grip on the collapsed bou as he quietly but quickly made his way down this particular set of halls. It was opulent in taste, catering to the head of whatever organization operating from here. Fortunately, none of the windows showing the offices were tinted too much. Most of the blinds on the windows were pulled down, but the always-on emergency lights at either end of the hall gave him enough of a light source to scan the area. Nothing jumped out at him, and he made his way down to the next floor.
It was only on the fifth floor from the rooftop, while traversing through a cubicle farm that he heard James whisper into the com, saying, “You said that this building was owned and operated by some environmental lobbyist, right, Widow?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Why would a lobbyist group need something like this massive door?”
“Position, Nomad,” Steve immediately ordered.
“Sixth floor from the rooftop, east-sou-east. This entire thing takes up almost half of the quadrant,” James answered.
“I'm on the same floor as you, and the device is localizing in your direction, sir,” Daisy confirmed.
“That might be our smoking gun then,” he stated. “Everyone, hold sweep and make your way to Nomad's position.”
Acknowledgments rang across the com line as Steve finished up his portion of the sweep of the fifth floor and made his way down. Hooking the collapsed bou against his waist belt, he jogged the rest of the way and found that the others were already gathered near the area where there was a console. James was not kidding when he had stated that the massive door-like structure took up nearly half of this area of the floor. Daisy was already sitting at the computer, gloves still over her fingers, while Natasha was peering at the device that was set on the table next to her, but was not touching it.
“Before you say anything, Cap, no, I don't have the door hacked yet. It's not like the movies where I type a few commands and bam!” Daisy immediately stated, as Steve brushed by James who was poking random places on the safe with the barrel of his 9-mil.
While he usually would have stated something about gun safety to any other operative doing the same thing as James was doing, he didn't. James knew how to handle firearms, and knew better than to leave fingerprints on the safe wall, or whatever this thing was. Going over and stopping next to Daisy, Steve saw her continue to type things into a window on the screen.
It was Natasha who suddenly stepped forward, reached across and over Daisy, and plucked a sticky note from the underside of another keyboard. “Huh,” was all she said, as she handed Daisy the sticky note.
“Crappy ops sec,” was all Daisy answered in kind before standing up and took the device with her.
Steve only had a momentary glance at the sticky note, but he had to agree with Daisy on her blunt assessment. The digits written on the sticky note were long faded, but they were still visible. And the code that was on it proved to be the necessary digits needed to input into the lone keypad plastered against the metal wall.
With a beeping confirmation of the correct digits input, the safe or containment unit hissed open, as the four of them withdrew their weapons and slowly stepped over the threshold. Inside was just a long corridor of metal, though in the center of it was a rock-like object. Steve wondered if Coulson and his team had been shrunk to the size of Ant Man and were stuck on the rock, or perhaps were hiding in a pocket reality within this containment unit.
“Aw shit,” Natasha swore, “It's a 0-8-4--”
* * *
Era: Cold War
Status: Reconnaissance of target area
Explosions never caused him to flinch, as he always moved out of the way before it could do any harm to himself. However, this particular noise that sounded like an explosion, was much larger and powerful than he expected. He felt the rooftop of the building he was currently perched upon rattle. Drawing his eyes away from the binoculars and shifted slightly to look back towards where the noise had come from.
In the dark, it was extremely difficult to see the smoke billowing out, but the building a few blocks from his current perch had the entirety of one of its floors blown out. The mission briefing had stated that Roxxon Corporation owned that particular building. Yet, it was an administrative building, not one that housed any engineering or science experiments. He didn't care for what had caused such a massive explosion, but he did care about the fact that this particular perch and at least two blocks up and down were now completely useless. Federal agents would be swarming this area within the hour – and the sirens of the fire department were already beginning to wail.
Stowing the binoculars back into briefcase, he snapped it shut and slung the makeshift strap on it across his back. While he would have gotten rid of the briefcase as soon as he could, in this particular city, he didn't. Most people were expected to walk around with briefcases, not duffel bags. If he needed a different extraction route than the primary one, then he needed the briefcase to blend in.
Glancing back every so often towards where the explosion had taken place, he could hear the sirens getting louder as he took off at the run and leapt to the rooftop north of where he had been. It was only after he was half-way across this particular rooftop that he thought he saw movement on the Roxxon building. While he normally would have not stopped for such a thing, he was rather irritated at the fact that the explosion had happened. He wanted to take note of who exactly had destroyed the most viable perch he had reconnoitered.
Pausing, he drew the binoculars out again and peered through them. He could make out four people, two of them male, judging from the broad shoulders and the way they carried themselves. The other two were female—he frowned. He didn't peel the binoculars from his eyes and focused solely on the female with what he could barely discern as light haired. Facial resolution was difficult with the binoculars and dim lighting, and he was not about to take out his scope and recalibrate it for this. The other three were milling about the rooftop, looking for something that should have been there, but the light-haired female—she concerned him.
No one except certain agents were supposed to know those hand signals that she was making.
While she was swearing up a storm with her hand signals, it took him a moment to realize that she was merely communicating to herself, expressing her displeasure at whatever had happened during the explosion. It seemed that the other three companions of hers didn't even notice or understand the signals – most likely mistaking them for wild hand undulations. Worst yet, it seemed that she didn't realize or could hear the sirens approaching.
That crossed the female operative off the list of the Black Widow and her potential successors. There were other operatives who knew of the hand signals, though all but one of them were female. However, the build and gait that the female operative carried upon herself did not look like the operative aliased as Katherine Rosen. He knew where that operative was, as Karpov insisted on him knowing when and where all other operations were taking place during his mission. That knowledge allowed him to incorporate any assets near by to ensure mission success for his mission.
Whomever this female operative was, she was a nuisance, not an asset. It was not in his nature to help out another operative unless he was ordered to. However, considering the criticality of his mission, if he did not get rid of this fellow operative and whatever her motley team was, his target would go to ground. There would be no meeting happening between his target and SHIELD in a few hours. It would be mission failure for him until he could hunt down the target himself, but Karpov had ordered that SHIELD be present for mission success.
SHIELD needed to witness the target assassinated in front of them, and not find the body in some back alleyway.
непри—nuisance, he corrected his thoughts back to English.
Placing his binoculars down, he withdrew one of his knives in his left arm and drew the arm back. The whir of his mechanical arm rose in pitch and volume as he applied the full force and power behind his throw. The knife flew through the air and landed precisely three inches from the left foot of the operative. He briefly looked back into his binoculars to see her staring at the knife before looking up and around, trying to identify where it came from. Without binoculars, he knew that she could not see him, but she got the message.
Lowering his binoculars again and stowing them, the Winter Soldier continued on his way, his irritation slowly bleeding back into cold ocean of calm drawn from a contingency plan being enacted.