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Like A Caged Firebird

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PROLOGUE

 

22 September 2018, A Battlefield, Someplace Else

 

“I’m going high, Cap!”. Wilson swooped up dangerously and began shooting recklessly at everything below.

Throwing his shield as hard as he could, so it bounced off three of the creatures, Rogers jumped down and ran in the direction that Wilson had flown. “Buck! Do you see the ship?”

“I see it, but I don’t really believe it yet, Steve. Where did these bastards come from anyway?”

Wilson shouted desperately, “Stop worrying about where they come from, Bucky, and worry about how the h*ll to kill them!”

As he kicked out furiously at one of the enormous creatures, Barnes growled, “What do you think I’m trying to do? They just won’t die! What are they even made of?”

A panicked scream echoed across the valley and they all heard Stark’s voice croak through the comms, “Barton is down.”

Tossing his shield again and again, as Barnes stood at his back and sprayed bullets outwards, Rogers demanded, “Tony, is he…”

“Widow is down. They’re all over Big Green. I’m sorry, Steve, but I’m…”

His arm encircling the head of one of the creatures, Barnes shouted, “Ты умрешь ради Натальи!”

Wilson called out, “Watch out! Steve, on your…” He plummeted towards a group of five of the creatures and detonated his pack.

Barnes roared furiously and called out desperately as he lobbed grenades towards the surging horde, “Ради Клинт! Ради вилсон! Ради Баннер! Ради Старк! Трахни всех вас, отвратительные мешки с дерьмом!”

“Buck!”

“Yeah, I know. I know, Steve.”

“Buck, we gotta! It’s the only way!”

Barnes tossed two more grenades and fished the remote out of his tactical vest. “On three?”

His voice barely audible from where he lay slumped in front of Barnes, Rogers stared into his best friend’s eyes and croaked, “Nah, just do it, Buck. For Brooklyn.”

His fist gripping the remote, Barnes ducked as one of the creatures fired its weapon, which sent a stream of projectiles at him. He fell to his knees, then clicked the switch as he whispered towards Rogers’ now still form, “For Brooklyn.”

 

3 March 2013, Top of the Old Kvalitetan Hotel, Dubrovnik, Croatia

 

Fi-na-lly! It was about time the ugly bastard had gotten tired of hiding out in his mother’s apartment. Clint had been laying on the top of that derelict hotel for so long that he was pretty much a human popsicle at this point. It was probably going to take two gallons of coffee before he even felt his a** again. Which was why all missions before the beginning of May should be in Greece or Italy. Malta was fine. He’d accept the South of France if pushed, sure. But Dubrovnik was a stupid place to spend nine hours waiting on a very fat, very overdressed Albanian gangster. A gangster with bad taste in friends and even worse security. Honestly, his bodyguards hadn’t even tried to scope out the surrounding rooftops. Which was why it didn’t pay to be evil. So, AIM could s*ck it and Clint really didn’t like being sent after one of those weasels yet again. Unless they had a base in Bermuda, in which case he was willing to consider taking another op to put a bullet into another one of these bastards.

Clint slowly backed away from the ledge and slid his rifle case silently towards him. As he rapidly disassembled his weapon, he considered whether it was worth taking a slightly longer route back to the check-in so he could get a cup of sweet, heavenly (hopefully) properly-brewed goodness and maybe a Danish or something. Croatians did coffee just fine, thank you very much, and if the café had a nice slice of Mađarica on offer, then Clint was willing to indulge. Ugh. But, of course, he wasn’t going to dare risk making a quick diversion, since Nat would know. She liked to pretend that she had super senses that could tell just from one sniff where he’d been, but more likely it was just long experience with Clint-wrangling. And she would not appreciate it if he ate some Mađarica and didn’t bring her any.

What the…??? He spun around and flattened himself to the ground. What was that? He turned left and right and then left again, but there was nothing there. He reached up behind his left ear and turned his aid up. Then, he narrowed his eyes as he strained to hear any sign of someone or something else there—despite knowing it was essentially useless as both hearing aids were amplifying the sound of the wind so he couldn’t hear much more detail than he would have without.

Yeah, ok, maybe his mind was playing tricks on him. He was cold, hungry, caffeine deprived, tired, and cold. And he was cold. So, what if he was from Iowa? Just because he was used to the sensation of freezing his a** off, it didn’t mean that he had to like or be cheerful about it. He snapped his case shut and ran to the ledge. As he swung himself down onto the building next door, he raced for the red…what the…that door had been red. He knew that door had been red. A crackled, old, splotchy red that looked like someone had puked over it a few years ago, but still red. But it was black. Old, faded black with scratches all over the bottom, but black. Now he definitely knew that he was losing it.

As soon as he turned the corner, Clint stopped where that run-down bar with the drooping awning should be and looked around wildly. He must have made a wrong turn. Except, he never made wrong turns. He…oh. Ok. It was the same bar. They’d just taken the awning down. And left no traces? Whatever. He was late.

By the time that he reached the old hotel and climbed the back stairs, he knew that Nat was going to be on his case. And he was just going to ride it out like a surfer coasting on a wave, since he was never going to admit to her just how exhausted he must’ve been today to see stuff like that. She had been pushing him to do something about his insomnia for months now, so she’d never let him hear the end of it.

 

1 March 2017, The Turbulent Airspace Above a Very Small Island, Someplace Else

 

“Steve, you know that we cannot keep doing this. It isn’t sustainable.”

Frowning at the controls of the quinjet, Rogers replied gruffly, “Maybe. Not sure what else I am gonna do right now, Sam. Can’t go back home unless I want Tony to arrest me for helping Buck, for everything in Siberia, for the disaster that was Bucharest, for not signing the Sokovia Accords, for betraying him in general, for whatever. You know that until the world realises that the Sokovia Accords were a serious mistake, then we are just going to have to remain fugitives.”

Romanoff, who had seemed to be sleeping soundly on the seat behind them, spoke quietly without opening her eyes, “Don’t forget Berlin.”

Wilson grunted with annoyance. “Not helping, Romanoff.”

Her smile spread and she stretched slightly, but kept her eyes closed and her arms crossed tightly over her chest. “I know.”

Rogers leant back into his seat and looked back at Romanoff. “Clint handling everything fine? Laura and the kids still doing ok?”

Finally deigning to open her eyes, Romanoff responded warmly, “Yeah, they’re all fine. I think Laura’s actually enjoying having Clint on enforced house arrest. They might actually get the floor in the dining room finished before the end of summer.”

Accepting his defeat with a fond, but frustrated glance at Rogers, Wilson asked dourly, “So, what are we doing next? We infiltrating Al Shabab? Taking down the government of a Caribbean island? What nice, safe little field trip have you planned for us, Natasha?”

“Nothing big. Pretty much a repeat of Kinshasa.”

Wilson slumped back and muttered, “Gonna get myself shot again.”

Rogers nudged his friend and added, “But we’ll be in Morocco.”

Raising his eyebrows, Wilson commented drily, “Ok, ok, so you’re tryna bribe me with promises of tagine and mechoui?”

“Maybe.” Rogers laughed and looked over at Romanoff.

She smiled at them briefly, then leant back to take a catnap again. “Don’t wake me up for another hour at least. Not unless you want me to be grumpy.”

“Flight should be at least six hours, Nat.” Rogers lounged into his own seat and gestured to Wilson to hand him the pack of cards. “No reason that you can’t sleep as long as you like.”

“No, an hour’s good enough. By that time, I can play whichever of you wins.”

“It’ll be Steve. Because he’s a cheating cheater who cheats.”

Outraged, Rogers insisted, “I do no such thing, Sam Wilson.”

Wilson laughed as he began expertly shuffling the cards. “Yes, yes, you do.”

“Sam! I really didn’t know that deck had extra cards mixed in and you know it.”

“Such an easy mark, Steve. So righteous all the time, buddy.”

“I’m no such thing, but I do hope that I’m honest.”

“Jeez, Steve, do you really think that I’d tease you about it if I honestly thought you’d cheated? Man, that would be like finding out my mama robbed a bank. You know that I trust you.”

Rogers’ face was still flushed brilliantly as he grabbed his cards up from the surface of the weapons locker and muttered, “You’re a real jerk sometimes, Sam.”

“Yeah well, what else is new, man? I thought you soldier types were manly enough to take a little ribbing.”

“Oh ho! Is that how it is now, Air Force?”

“Yup. That’s how it always is, Army.”

Rogers laughed. “Whatever you say, man.”

Romanoff snorted with amusement, but said firmly, “If you two children don’t let me sleep, then I wouldn’t recommend risking closing your eyes at all tonight.”

Both Wilson and Rogers immediately began quietly playing, as the quinjet continued on autopilot towards their destination.