Chapter 1: Messages in a Bottle
He crouched on a roof across the street from the Washington Parkway cache site, looking for signs that it had either been cleaned out or was being watched. He calculated at least an 83% chance that HYDRA's disarray would buy him enough time to pick up the supplies he needed but he felt . . . cautious (afraid? angry?). Feelings were difficult to pin down without the context of memory. One thing was certain: as the pieces of himself trickled back, he was more and more determined that he was never going back to that (goat-fucking) chair again. And that made him more wary than he might normally be. (Not all that wary, in Brooklyn; later, much warier.) He still wasn't sure how he had any sense of his own typical caution, given that his only clear memories were of the last two days.
When he was satisfied, he made his way to the basement of the parking garage of the cache site and used his strong hand to pull the drywall off the wall in the southwest corner. The cache held a black duffle bag containing a few thousand dollars in US twenties, a black case of small tools and oil for repairing the arm, three black fixed-blade knives of his preferred type (how did he know his preferred type?), a disassembled PSG1 sniper rifle with a scope, silencer and two boxes of ammo (not his favorite but acceptable), two MK23 pistols with four boxes of ammo and a silencer (better), four sets of US-issued ID with his face on them, two sets of spare clothes (black), a black nylon waterproof jacket (not warm enough), a pair of black leather gloves (expensive/nice), a liter of water, and four units of rations (they taste like cardboard if cardboard was disgusting). The ID was useless (HYDRA would be tracking it); he would dispose of it later (burn it). The black commando clothes wouldn't be inconspicuous but they'd replace his sodden (stinking, ruined) gear until he could purchase something else (less assassin-chic).
He zipped the duffle back up and was about to leave when he stopped (wait – one more thing – something important). He reached back into the hole in the wall, but this time with his more sensitive hand, feeling around (inside the drywall above the opening). He pulled out a pellet of paper, folded and rolled and attached to the wall with a little bit of chewed gum (Wrigley's spearmint?). He put slipped the paper into his pants pocket, and grabbed the duffle (get the hell out of there).
He stuck to the shadows until he found an abandoned warehouse where he could hole up in the (windowless) corner of an upper floor. It smelled like rats (you can't leave crumbs laying around, Bucky, how many times do I have to tell you) but that confirmed that no other people were squatting there (was he a person? how could you tell if you were a person?) and he felt safe enough to carefully smooth out the piece of paper in his pocket and try to decipher it.
It was actually several pieces, all odd sizes torn from larger sheets, some written on the back of receipts or business cards (Zemo Printing, For ALL Your Reproduction Needs). They weren't written in code or anything, just in pencil-scratch so light and tiny that it was hard to make out in the dim light in the warehouse. As his eyes adjusted, though, he recognized his own handwriting (how? he didn't remember ever writing anything). There were no dates at the top of any of the pages and no signatures at the bottom. The first page said:
They botched the wipe this time, somehow, or maybe they let me go too long out of the cold. They were waiting for me in Brooklyn but I gave them the slip. I think they're tracking me; I pulled something that looked like a tracker out of the arm. There were weird-smelling syringes in the arm, too, and I pulled them out and broke them. My head's clearer since but there might be other trackers that I can't get to, other countermeasures, who knows what. I have flashes of things – memories, I guess, thoughts. A blond kid, skinny little thing as brave as a lion, like a lion made out of spun glass, always coughing, or bleeding, and I wonder if he's bleeding because of me, but I don't think so.
Steve – he thought. Stevie. The next page read, in even smaller letters:
Sometimes I see him bigger, in this crazy get-up with a white star, running through smoke. Sometimes I'm falling away from him. At night, if I sleep, I always start to fall. I don't think I can keep them from getting me back. If I had some help, a group, there used to be some guys who would have helped me, I think, but I don't know where they are or how to find them. I think they might be dead. Someone told me they were dead, I think, that my friends were dead but maybe it's not true. Maybe none of this is real and I'm just getting colder but I can't feel it yet. Even if it isn't real, though, I'm seeing it through. Better to be free for a little while in my head if that's all I can get.
On the back of the receipt, the lines were uneven, in a shaky hand:
They had me tracing accounts on a mission and I bled some money out to a new account. Swiss Banque 9020312773. If you find this, or I find this, or whatever, maybe that will help. The newspaper says 1998, March 13. Friday the 13th. That's supposed to be unlucky but everything is all fucked up so maybe it will be lucky instead.
That might prove useful. The next page was a bigger piece and the writing wasn't quite so cramped. It said:
If you find this, or I find this, whatever, then they must have gotten me back but maybe you're remembering again now. Maybe you got away again, maybe I keep getting away and just can't remember it. Maybe if I can just do a little bit more every time I get loose, eventually I'll get away long enough to kill enough of them that they stop coming after me. Or just hide well enough that they can't find me, but then they'd just find some other poor sucker to do their dirty work, so I figure maybe I ought to make sure that doesn't happen. But I got to get organized, get my head set right, before I can do that.
Another receipt next -- Gas N Go, March 14, 1998, $15 of unleaded gasoline -- the letters on the back vanishingly tiny:
God, I wish I had some help. I just need a little bit of help here; I'm not even sure where the fuck I am – how's that for fucked up? God help me, they're going to find me and take me back to that fucking chair again and I don't want to go I don't I don't I dont I dont I dont I dont
His hands started shaking too hard to read the chicken-scratch writing in the dim light then. He had to rest his head on his knees for a while, thinking, the poor bastard, that poor son of a bitch, over and over again until he realized that it was most likely his own self that he was pitying. Which, he supposed was okay because God knew no one else was going to do it, but he still felt kind of stupid that it took him so long to cotton on. Once his heart wasn't banging against his sternum like it wanted out anymore, he moved on to the next page.
Listen, you just got to find this blond kid. If you can find that kid, he'll help even if I'm not sure how some little wisp of a sickly kid is going to help but he will. He likes the Dodgers and you owe him a coke because you spilled his one time. Don't let him eat too many cracker jacks because it makes him sick and he don't have the sense to stop.
Then, another receipt -- Lindsey's Lingerie, March 15, 1998, $250 of silk undergarments – where the fuck did that one come from, he wondered. He supposed even HYDRA goons had girlfriends, or maybe exotic tastes. That made one corner of his mouth crook up, thinking of Brock Rumlow in a black lace bra and panties. The note read:
Christ, I don't know why I'm thinking about Stevie eating cracker jacks while I'm sitting in a fucking basement in DC, hiding like a goddamn cockroach, and I don't even know if he's still around or what. Maybe he is dead. They said he was dead but they lie like they breathe, constant and noisy. If he is around, if he is, he's looking for me, I bet. That's one thing. If he knows I’m still alive, if I am still alive and I don’t know if I am or not, but if I am and he is, he's looking for me. Maybe they got me back by now but if you're reading this, then you just got to hold on until he can find you.
The last bit was the business card, with rows of numbers on it. Maybe coordinates? More Swiss bank accounts? Measurements for silk stockings for HYDRA's DC personnel? He'd look into it.
For now, he was tired and he didn't know what to think of these letters from his past, these messages in a bottle from some lost self, the strangest kind of stranger. It made him feel (sad) for the dumb schmo who managed to get away once, to stay away for days, evidently, only to be caught again and brutally erased. Like the one page said, who knew how many times he'd managed to get away? Maybe some of these pages weren't even from March 1998. Maybe he'd been caching these here over and over, hoping that the next escape would be the one that stuck. (I don't want to go I don't I don't I dont I dont I dont I dont)
Jesus Mary and Joseph, what a world.
Chapter 2: At The Corner of Happy and Healthy
Drugstores in the future are a laugh riot.
He fell asleep sitting up with his head on his knees and woke up with the dawn light peeking in through the warehouse's high, (broken, mud-streaked) windows. The sun filtered through in wide beams, turning everything golden (like stained glass windows in a church, with the smell of the candle wax and his ma always lit a candle for Stevie when he was sick, which was mostly always).
He dug the tool kit out of the duffle and set about opening up the arm. If he didn't think too much about it, he knew exactly what to do. He found the syringes and tracker the note mentioned, pulled them out and crushed them into the concrete flooring with his heavy black boot. (The syringes did smell weird.) He found another tracker hiding farther up in the arm and crushed it too, but that was as far as he could get without taking the arm off to get a better view. He didn't know how to take the arm off, or even if he could. He knew that it had been upgraded at least once, but did it take surgery to get it off? He didn't know. He thought about the note that talked about needing help, about having once had a group with him, a team, and he suppressed the urge to break (and/or kill) things. He did stomp on the trackers and syringes a little more for good measure, but he didn't really have time for self-indulgence. With the trackers gone (he hoped), he needed to move to a new, uncompromised location. If there was still money in that Banque Swisse account, his next digs might be considerably swankier than an abandoned warehouse (hotel with a big bathtub).
He changed into the clean clothes, leaving the tac stuff in the bag and untucking his shirt and pants cuffs to look less military. He tossed the old clothes in a dumpster and stashed the duffle in a locker at the bus station, then found a pawn shop in a sketchy part of town where he wouldn't seem out of place (not hard to find in DC). He bought a laptop, then hit a drugstore for a burner phone, soap, a razor, deodorant, and rubber bands to hold his hair back (hygiene being evidently a low priority for HYRDA supply caches). It was a small store but the variety of stuff piled on the shelves was bewildering and there was no soda fountain or lunch counter. (He'd have to go somewhere else for food; the C rations were definitely a last resort.)
He spent a long time sniffing the wrappers of bars of soap trying to decide which one he liked (plain Ivory for Steve because he got a rash); he eventually settled on Irish Spring (hilarious, plus smelled good) and a bar of Ivory because it just didn't seem right to walk out of there without it. The deodorant aisle went beyond bewildering to completely fucked up. They had different deodorant for men and women now? Why were there so many different kinds? Was there Irish Spring deodorant? He couldn't find any, so he grabbed a bottle at random, and then actually had to stop himself from laughing out loud because he'd picked up Right Guard. (Drugstores in the future were a laugh riot.) It turned out they had special rubber bands just for your hair, in a predictably dizzying array of choices. He found a big package of black ones that said they were "ouchless" (whatever the fuck that meant – not a lot of experience with ouchless lately) and a plastic comb. Safety razors had also proliferated (why the fuck would you want five blades on a razor? Why five and not twelve, if you're just going to start shoving extra blades on there?) He picked up the simplest looking ones, which were also the cheapest but still ridiculously expensive (there better be some money in that Swiss account because at this rate the cash from the duffle wouldn't last very long). On impulse, he grabbed a plain, unmarked baseball cap (who the fuck were the Nationals?), a black marbled notebook and a pen, then he went to check out. The cashier sniffed and carefully avoided eye contact (looking homeless was an excellent means of invisibility).
By the time he was done with this shopping extravaganza, he was starting to feel strange, shaky and a little nauseated. Not too far from the Walgreens was a storefront with a few people loitering outside who looked like they were living rough. There was writing on the windows (Catholic Charities Emergency Shelter and Drop-In Center) that said that they had showers. He edged through the group on the sidewalk and went in. There was a foyer with a card table covered in a cheap plastic tablecloth with a coffee urn and cups and sugar and all, and a wooden counter with a big dark-skinned fella with long hair standing behind it.
"Hiya, brother," the fella said. "Come on in and get some coffee if you wanna. I ain't seen you here before, I don't think."
He had to clear his throat before his voice would work. "Used to be catholic, maybe," he said. "Was hoping to get a shower." He was surprised about the catholic part; he didn't know he knew that.
The man smiled. "You don't have to be catholic to get a shower," the man said. The man reached under the counter and his hand was reaching for a knife before he realized. The man just pulled out a little sack, though, and he relaxed. "Here's a towel and some soap and stuff for you," the man said. "Showers are just at the end of the hall."
He took the bag and went down the hall as directed. He'd thought it would be nice to be clean but now that he was looking at the big room full of white tile, with the shower heads at intervals (always so cold, and more cold, cold water, hard spray flaying his skin), he wasn't feeling so sure. At least there was no one else around (that could change at any time); he should probably try to hurry. He pulled his gloves and hat off and set them on a worn wooden bench along the wall of the room. There was a kind of button you pushed to get the water started and it was warm, at least. Once he started it, he couldn't figure out how to stop it, so he quickly shucked off the clothes and dug around in the little bag to find a rough white towel, a tiny bar of soap wrapped in paper, and a disposable razor. He set the towel on the bench, unwrapped the soap but pulled his new tube of shaving cream out of the bags from the drug store. The water stopped after a minute so he pushed the button again. The water was still warm (it felt nice). Not knowing how long the warmth would last, he hurriedly soaped himself up. The lather turned grey on his skin. He rinsed and soaped again, and the lather stayed white this time (so much blood, you'll never get clean). He used the soap on his hair three times before the lather stayed white. The water turned off every two or three minutes and he pushed the button to turn it back on. Every time, it came back warm. He used his new, good-smelling shaving soap and razor and shaved by touch (don't look in the mirror, don't look). Finally, he finished up and the water stopped again. He dried himself off and put his clothes back on, then found the plastic comb he bought and started combing out his hair. It was really tangled (way too long) and he pulled a lot of it out before he managed to drag the comb all the way through it without getting caught. There was a big tangle of hair on the comb (like something Ma's cat coughed up) that he threw in the trash can near the door. He opened the package of hair bands and pulled his wet hair back (tomorrow you can do pigtails for me, Bucky, before we go to school), replaced his hat and gloves, and gathered his bags together. He threw the wet towel in the laundry hamper next to the trash can on his way out.
The same fella was still standing at the counter, this time with a small brown paper bag. "Lookin' good, brother," the man said. "Feel better?"
He nodded but didn't trust his rusty voice or social skills to get any further than that.
The man held out the paper bag. "I thought you might could use something to eat. Just a couple of sandwiches and an apple but maybe it'll take the edge off anyway."
He took the bag and looked in the man's face, wondering why the man was being so kind. The man's mouth curled up just a tiny bit, (smiled) not quite a smile, though, but like the eyes were smiling but the mouth was still trying to make up its mind.
He tried to make his mouth do the same thing but he was pretty sure it didn't work. "Thank you," he said, having at least that much of a brain left.
"You take care, used-to-be-catholic," the man said. "Come back tonight if you need a warm place to sleep."
He nodded again and made his escape.