It's past three in the morning when Oliver pulls his bike into its slot in the lair beneath Club Verdant. The music upstairs is still pulsing, but the parking lot was almost empty when he drove past it. Even the night owls are going to bed, and Oliver wants nothing more than to join them.
Since Slade, since his army’s mirakuru-fueled rampage through the city… sleep hasn’t been that easy.
Oliver refills the tank on the bike and starts stripping off his weapons, the movements nearly automatic by this point. The routine is useful; it says, you're safe, and you're home in a way words can't quite manage. It's about scraping off the Arrow and sliding back into Oliver.
There are plenty of nights now that he doesn’t want it to work.
“So that's three more dealers you've shaken down.” Felicity leans back in her chair, the lights of the computer screens gleaming off her glasses. She makes a face as Oliver passes close behind her.
He has blood on his gloves again. He strips them off and drops them in the decontamination bin, along with his armor.
“Think you're likely to get a break on that new gang any time soon?” Felicity tries again. “Or we could give it a rest for a couple of days, maybe ‘til Roy's wrist heals?”
“We've got them scared.” Oliver answers her first question and ignores the second. The police are still recovering; they can’t afford to let the gangs gain more control. “Another night or two will get someone to slip up.”
“As long as it's them and not us.” It's not a serious complaint; Felicity is shutting down her monitor and shrugging into her coat, her movements as routine as Oliver's. “Oh, I almost forgot – I got a hit on one of those credit cards you asked me to watch. James Connor.”
The name brings Oliver up short. He hasn’t heard that name for five years. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” Felicity picks up a note card from the table and hands it to him before brushing past him toward the stairs. “Connor rented a hotel room in the South End about three hours ago.”
Oliver closes his eyes for a moment. After all this time, it’s more likely that someone found the cards. That it’s a coincidence that they came to Starling City.
Still, he can’t help hoping. He grabs a clean set of armor and starts strapping himself into it. “That's interesting. I think I'll go say hello.”
Felicity turns back around, but she doesn't follow Oliver as he slings his bow back over his shoulder and stalks back to the bike. “Old friend?”
“It might be.”
“You don't usually greet your old friends as the Arrow,” she calls after him.
“Most of my old friends aren't HYDRA assassins,” Oliver calls back, then floors the bike before she can respond.
“As irritating as having you complain about it for four miles?”
This late, downtown Starling City feels like a movie set, with Oliver and the few other drivers rattling around like pebbles on empty four-lane roads. Flashes of neon glitter off the windshields of parked cars. The scars of boarded-up store fronts are barely visible in the night.
Felicity doesn't bother to answer. “You told us you never went up against HYDRA.”
“I didn't.” At her impatient noise, Oliver can't help smiling. “We were on the same side of an operation that went sour.”
“What kind of operation were you working with a HYDRA assassin?” she asks. “Never mind, don't answer that. This is while ARGUS was calling the shots.”
“I was undercover with the Bratva.”
“I'm sure that went well,” she replies, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Oliver comes up to a street light glowing red, but there's no one else on the road. He curves left against the light, half-hoping for a sudden blare of sirens. But no one’s on traffic patrol tonight; the only sound is his own engine.
“You know, the South End is actually kind of south of you. In case you weren't sure where you were going.”
“I know where I'm going.” The road loops past the mountains of skyscrapers and begins to edge out into an older, run-down neighborhood chopped into pieces by the freeways. The houses are small, but there are tiny yards and well-kept gardens, and basketball hoops set up in the driveways. There’s no sign here of the destruction that hit downtown barely two months ago.
“Care to share with the class?”
Oliver slows the bike down, the engine noise dropping to a purr. “And deprive you of the opportunity to snark at me about it?”
That gets him a laugh. “Take the snark as read, Oliver.”
“I keep a safehouse in this neighborhood,” he said. “That's the address I gave him.”
“When you gave him the credit card,” she guesses.
“There was a driver's license and passport there, too.” Oliver parks the bike in the shadow of an old RV and starts crossing yards.
“You gave him a fake ID?”
“It was supposed to be my back-up, if things went badly.” Oliver eases closer, trying to keep his hopes in check. Yes, Vanya could have used HYDRA’s disarray since the attack in DC to make his escape. But this could just as easily be anyone who found the ID and credit cards, anyone who needed a safe place to hide –
There aren't a lot of good sightlines on the house where a watcher couldn't be seen; that's part of the point. But as far as Oliver can tell, it's quiet. There's no sign of a vehicle, but there wouldn't be. He can see a single light on in the kitchen, with the drapes tied open. A shadow on the couch in the living room is probably a man. There's no movement.
“Wait, you gave him your fake ID?”
“He needed it more.”
Oliver can't see anyone else in the house, not without getting too close. Then again, he won't learn any more out here.
“I'm going in.”
Oliver slides into the shadow behind the kitchen door, the light over the doorway long since burned out. He uses his key in the lock and waits a moment, then slips inside.
There's a man sitting ramrod straight and silent on the couch. His hair is longer than it was five years ago, and darker, but otherwise he looks much the same as the last time Oliver saw him. But his eyes are wiped out and empty. He doesn’t look like a man who managed to escape.
He doesn't look up when Oliver steps into the room.
“Vanya.” Oliver tries the name. It may not even be the right one.
The couch creaks as the other man lurches to his feet, his face still blank, and it makes Oliver catch his breath. But Vanya just settles into a kind of parade rest, constrained by the gray sweatshirt he's wearing. It's incongruous, that posture in this setting, so much like the way Vanya had changed at the end of their mission. Oliver remembers the way his pulse had picked up then, the sense that the person before him was no longer entirely human.
Oliver finds the same words coming out of his mouth, the Russian familiar and foreign at the same time. “Stand down, friend.”
The answer comes in English, with no trace of an accent. “I failed.”
Oliver feels his heart seize up with guilt. This is bad, this is worse than the last time; Vanya clearly thinks that Oliver is HYDRA, that he’s reporting in. As if he’d already forgotten why he came here, or never knew at all.
He’d said they were wiping him more often, every time he tried to escape, taking more each time, but this –
Oliver slides a little further into the room, away from the light in the kitchen, and lets his eyes finish adjusting. The back of his mind is finding the exits, measuring his chances of escape if things go badly. But he knows he isn’t leaving. He’s failed so many people; he won’t fail Vanya again.
“I couldn’t kill him.” His gaze flicks up to Oliver's briefly, then away again.
“Steve.” The other man frowns slightly and hangs his head, his face smoothing out again. “I knew him.”
And that's interesting, right there. Vanya had said they wiped his mind clean of anything they didn't want him to know. They left only what suited them, so each time, he had to put himself back together from clues – notes he’d hidden, messages scratched on the inside of his boots and the sheaths of his knives. Finding someone he actually recognized would be rare. Having him act on those memories –
“You did good, letting him live.” Oliver feels safe in saying that; most of the people HYDRA wanted dead were good people. But in any case, Vanya’d broken their control. Even if he doesn’t remember it yet, even if he never remembers how hard he had to fight them – he’d finally succeeded. “From where I'm standing, that's a win.”
Oliver hesitates over using a name; the more he hears the other man speak, the more 'Vanya' seems out of place. An American accent can be learned, but so could a Russian one. Vanya hadn’t known how HYDRA recruited him; neither of them had wondered if he’d even been Russian to start with.
The answer seems to finally shake something loose in the other man’s head, because he actually lifts his head to look at Oliver, frowning. “Who are you?”
“I’m not HYDRA.” When that doesn’t get a response, Oliver goes on. “We met in Zagreb; I gave you the information you used to come here. That was my picture on the passport, do you remember that?”
Vanya nods once, still eying Oliver suspiciously.
“My name is Oliver. I want to help you – if you’ll let me.”
The other man takes a shuddering breath, his face twisting. “I don't want to kill any more.”
Oliver reaches slowly to place his hand on the other man's shoulder. “We'll make sure you don't have to.”
His posture shifts, uncertainty leaking into his voice. “I remember Zagreb. I don’t remember you.”
At least the cards, the address – they were enough to get him this far. “You told me you wouldn't.”
That earns him another moment of eye contact before Vanya sags back onto the couch. It isn't really trust, so much as the submission of a kicked dog. Oliver'd thought of him as a friend, and it hurts to see him so defeated.
But this time, Oliver can do something about it. HYDRA will never get their hands on him again.
“What should I call you?”
The answer takes a long time. “James.”
“James it is, then,” Oliver says, disappointed. It was stupid to think that Vanya – James – might remember his own name, but clearly, Oliver had hoped. One step at a time, then. “Have you eaten?”
The tables are mostly empty; it's too late for the club kids and too early for the truckers. With his unkempt hair and wild eyes, James fits right in with the homeless men who'd scraped together enough change for coffee. He also eats like a horse, the waitress bringing his third plate of corned beef hash with a grudging admiration.
When Diggle arrives, Oliver takes his coffee mug and joins him at the counter. The waitress gives them a distracted smile and refills the mugs before drifting back to the kitchen.
“Is this safe?” Dig jerks his chin at the corner, where James is glaring at his plate like every clichéd psycho movie villain.
“No?” Oliver shrugs when Dig rolls his eyes. “Maybe? I couldn't just leave him there.”
“Felicity filled me in.” Dig looks over at James again. “He needs help, Oliver. Professional help we aren't going to be able to give him.”
“I know,” Oliver says. “But no one can help him if he's dead, or back in the hands of the people who had him before.”
“I thought you had him in a safe house?”
“I did. But I’d have to leave him alone there until we could find him a new place – having me come and go would attract too much attention.”
Dig frowns down at his coffee. “What makes you think anyone will be looking?”
“I got that identity from Waller.”
Oliver doesn't bother to say the rest of it, that he was a fool to ever trust ARGUS in the first place. But with the fall of SHIELD, the congressional hearings, and everything else coming apart, one former HYDRA assassin won’t be a high-priority target. They’ll have time to find a way to convince Waller to leave James alone.
Diggle is nodding, his voice low. “Considering how plugged in HYDRA was to SHIELD, chances are good they've got a few ears in ARGUS, too. You think they'll know he's in the city?”
“They will eventually.” Oliver looks back at James again. HYDRA would come for him sooner or later; they’d invested too much time and effort in him to let him go.
“So what are we gonna do?”
When Oliver looks back at Dig, he sees the understanding in the other man's eyes. Even if Oliver fails, his team have his back.
“Felicity is looking into Stoneyhill.” His mother had suggested the facility to him once, after another set of his nightmares had woken the house. They were supposed to be excellent with trauma survivors – and completely discreet. James would be close enough to Starling City for Oliver to answer whatever questions he could, though he didn’t know much. He might even be able to use his contacts at ARGUS to get more information about James’s past.
But they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.
“In the meantime, I need you to keep an eye on James,” he says, feeling the solidness of Diggle's trust like a hand on his shoulder, “while I go muddy his trail.”
The Martin Hotel is a flophouse, dirty rooms by the night or the week, access to the rust-stained bathrooms for an extra ten bucks. Like most flophouses, no one asks any questions when you check in. Or out.
Oliver parks the bike two blocks away and spends some time scouting the area. There's nothing but the usual street noise, and no movement in the room.
He breaks in through the window. There's a toothbrush on the sink, today's paper on the bed. A car fob on the night stand. Under the bed, there's a duffel bag with mismatched clothes and the disassembled parts of a sniper scope. It's just enough to look like someone is really staying there, and just the right things to make a person think it could be James.
“I hacked into the security feed at the motel parking lot,” Felicity says over the comm in his ear. “There's a blue sedan with New Mexico plates parked near the office – it was reported stolen from the Santa Fe airport yesterday.”
“Is it his?”
“Checking now.” Oliver imagines that he can hear typing on the other end. “Oh, yeah. Unless there's some other bulky dude in a gray hoodie who checked in at the same time as our guy, it's his.”
Oliver grabs the car key and duffel bag, pulls the hood up, and walks out the room door to the hallway. “He's probably been traveling that way. Grab a car from the long-term lot, drive it to another state, and trade it for another one.”
“I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever on the run. So what are you thinking?”
“That I'll take this car to the train station and drop it off there.” Oliver takes the stairs down to the main floor, ignoring the smell of urine and bleach. “Whenever HYDRA starts trailing him, it'll look like Starling City was just another point on a map –”
“– Not his destination. I see you now, you want the third car on the left,” she says as Oliver steps into the parking lot and, apparently, into range of the security camera. “You know that won't fool Waller for a minute.”
“One problem at a time, Felicity.” The door unlocks smoothly. Oliver tosses the duffel bag into the back seat and settles in. The engine rumbles gently, easing out of the tiny lot with more power than Oliver would've expected from a car this size. James apparently has a good eye for getaway vehicles.
Half a block from the hotel, he passes a string of five black SUVs going the other direction. Oliver doesn't have time to curse before the lead car pulls a u-turn and they all start after him.
“I think –”
They're a hundred yards behind, but the first shot still takes out the rear windshield. If the second hits the car, he can't tell where. After that, Oliver stops counting.
“Was that gunfire?” Felicity's voice is sharp.
“Yes.” Oliver swerves around a slow-moving delivery truck and takes a quick turn that does nothing to shake his pursuers. “Five SUVs on Third and Oak.”
The streets are still mostly empty, but that won't last. Oliver blows past another delivery truck, this one with the gate down, the driver ducking back into the trailer as the sound of gunfire reaches her. Oliver has the pedal all the way to the floor, but the SUVs are still gaining on him. The gunshots are more frequent now; one of them gets lucky and breaks another window, glass exploding over the rear seat.
HYDRA shouldn’t have been trailing James that closely. After the events in DC, they should be regrouping, not hunting down an escaped experiment. But if these people aren’t HYDRA –
“You're near the Huan Xi industrial park. You may be able to lose them in there.”
“Left at the light.”
Oliver's already in the intersection. He slams on the brakes hard enough to make them screech; the tires lose traction and the sedan skids through the turn. He hits the far sidewalk with a jolt, but he manages to bring the car back to the street and pointing the right way.
The SUVs, of course, make a better showing. There are six of them now. But they're headed into the industrial park, dark warehouses interspersed with fenced storage yards and construction equipment. Oliver knows there's a rail depot back here, with stacks of shipping containers and a gantry for moving them off the tracks. It's his best chance to lose his tail.
They seem to know it, too, and the lead SUV speeds forward, ramming into the back of Oliver's car with a crash that almost sends him off the road.
“They've got a friend, blue SUV,” Felicity announces. “Turn right.”
“I see it.” There are more shots behind him as he makes the turn, and Oliver risks a glance in the mirror to see the driver of the blue SUV shoot out the rear window of the closest of the black ones. “I don't think they're friends.”
Oliver whips past a warehouse loading dock and into the rail yard behind it. The containers are stacked two and three deep, with clear gravel rows between them, the paths churned and furrowed by years of heavy trucks. It's a jolting ride, and Oliver has to slow down or crash. Two of the black SUVs duck into the row to his right, while two more slip left.
“They're trying to cut me off.”
The blue SUV is still behind him, the driver taking potshots at the car left between them. The blonde guy in the passenger seat pulls himself out the window and braces on the door for a moment – and leaps for the SUV in the next row when they flash past another break in the containers.
Oliver doesn't see him land, but a minute later, the black SUV on his right lurches and slams into one of the stacks of containers, the second SUV smashed solidly into its rear axle.
Oliver takes the opening and turns past the now-cleared row to his right, buying himself some breathing room. The black SUV behind him skids in the gravel as it tries to follow, and the blue SUV darts into the space. It's right behind Oliver's car now, and he risks another glance in the mirror. He doesn't recognize the driver; black male, military training from the way he's been handling the vehicle. Oliver files the information away for later.
“Dig's on his way to the east side with the van,” Felicity tells him. “If you can lose them –”
Oliver sees a black shape coming in from the left and swerves, but doesn't make it. Gravity slams him against the door as the car rolls off to the right. The night sky flashes past him once, twice, before there's another crash and everything stops.
Oliver pulls in a breath, dull pain climbing up from his shoulder where the seat belt caught him. He fumbles for the release; he has to get out of the car before –
Shots ring out, and he ducks without thinking toward the passenger door. The car's up against a shipping container, there's cover on that side –
More shots, and Oliver uses the side mirror to check. He's pinned down, a dozen assailants in black tactical suits piling out of the remaining SUVs and firing on the wreck of the sedan. There's a hail of bullets, gravel ricocheting everywhere. One of the bad guys has a weapon Oliver doesn't recognize, but if the blue glow is anything to go by, then he doesn't want to be near it when it goes off.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places for him to go. He's at one corner of a stack of containers, with nothing to hide behind if he leaves the cover of the wrecked car.
But the woman with the glowstick is pointing it his way, and Oliver gets ready to run –
When the passenger from the blue SUV drops out of the sky and knocks the weapon out of her hands.
The others turn their fire on the new guy, who's blocking their shots with some kind of disk –
“Holy shit, that's Captain America.” Felicity sounds as shocked as Oliver feels. He's in casual clothes, not his uniform, but the shield is unmistakable. What the hell is Captain America doing in Starling City?
The blue SUV comes barreling in from the front and screams to a halt – between the shooters and Oliver. Providing cover, while the driver ducks down and takes another shot at the attackers. Captain America wades into the group like he's invincible, tossing one man at another and spinning a third into a throw that slams him back into the door of the SUV and knocks him out of the fight.
There are only three of the black squad left standing, and Oliver figures that won't be for long. This isn't the time or place to introduce himself, and they definitely don't need his help. So he ducks past the blue SUV and runs east, slipping into the shadows behind another stack of containers.
But he can't help looking back.
All the bad guys are down, Captain America standing over them. But he's staring right at Oliver, despite the shadows and the distance between them. He reaches out a hand as if to call him back, and the expression on his face...
Crumples as Oliver turns to run. What the hell?
“That was Captain America!” Felicity still sounds shocked. “You were fighting with Captain America!”
“Technically, he was fighting the bad guys.” There are no footsteps behind him, and no one in sight when Oliver looks back. There are sirens in the distance, but closer is the van, on the other side of the depot's chain-link fence.
“Do you think they were HYDRA?”
“I hope so,” Oliver says as he leaps up and pulls himself over the fence. “James doesn’t need any more enemies.”
“Captain America,” Diggle is saying as Oliver climbs into the van. “What are the odds?”
“I have no idea.” Oliver has a bad feeling that his simple, solid plans to help James are about to get very, very complicated.
Barely ten minutes pass before Oliver's phone rings, the screen noting a blocked number. He glances at Diggle, who raises an eyebrow as Oliver takes the call.
“Do you have any idea who you're hiding, Mr. Queen?”
“Good morning to you, too, Ms. Waller.” He cuts another glance at Diggle, who startles at the name.
“I'm sure he spun you a brilliant story about being a pawn of HYDRA,” she goes on, her voice cool and relentless. “But I assure you that the Winter Soldier is not a victim. He's a cold-blooded killer who's been operating on American soil for more than a decade.”
The Winter Soldier. Oliver can’t place the name, but the fact that this phone call is happening at all means that James is more important to ARGUS than he’d thought. Who the hell is the Winter Soldier?
“Am I?” She pauses, and Oliver's phone chimes. “I've sent you security footage from Washington DC two weeks ago.”
“The Triskelion attack,” Oliver guesses.
“No.” Oliver can hear the hint of a smile in her voice, but it drops away as she continues. “This is from a few days before, when your 'pawn' assassinated the Director of SHIELD.”
Oliver scrubs a hand through his hair, a wave of exhaustion passing through him. “You're saying this Winter Soldier killed Nick Fury?”
He catches the shocked look on Diggle's face, but the other man doesn't say anything.
“Watch the footage, Mr. Queen. If you hand over the Soldier, we will make sure no one else in Starling City gets hurt.”
“And if I don't?”
She lets the question hang there, and Oliver finds himself tensing. Butting heads with Amanda Waller is never a good idea.
“He is a good story-teller, isn't he?” she says finally. “I hope you can live with the blood on your hands.”
She hangs up, and Oliver lets the phone drop into his lap. “Shit.”
“Did he?” Diggle asks, anger clear in the tense line of his jaw.
“I don't know.”
Oliver takes a deep breath and reaches for the phone. He already knows he doesn't want to see this, but the world just doesn’t care what he wants.
How the hell is he supposed to help James if ARGUS is after him, too?
And yet Oliver's gut keeps telling him that James isn't lying about wanting to stop.
Felicity meets them by the van, and starts talking in a low voice as soon as they get out.
“I've been sorting through the SHIELD data online for information about the Winter Soldier,” she says, glancing over her shoulder briefly at the weight machines, where James is lifting twice Oliver's record, one-handed, and barely breaking a sweat. He's taken off his shirt, his metal arm once again cradled against his chest.
“He's... really bad news,” she goes on, dropping her voice even lower. “The name first pops up fifty years ago, an assassination of a high-ranking UN officer. Intelligence agencies think he's a ghost, but the rumor keeps going around. Dozens of kills a decade. I don't know what James did to earn the title, but since he's gotten it...”
Felicity shakes her head sharply, angrily. “You don't know. Nick Fury was just the latest in a long string of murders.”
“That's just a fancy word for murder.”
“I know!” All three of them glance over at James, but he's still paying no attention to their huddled conversation. The rhythmic clang of the weights doesn't falter. “But I don't think he ever meant to be. He told me they were brainwashing him. Making him forget.”
Felicity frowns over at Oliver, doubt written clearly on her face. Diggle just shakes his head. “And you believe him.”
“Yes, I do.” Oliver tries to put his certainty into his voice. “But neither of you have to. If you need to sit this one out –”
“Right, because we're going to leave you alone with a killer,” Dig says, his voice thick with sarcasm.
“As someone who was just left alone with him,” Felicity reminds them, “I have to say that bailing has its appeal.”
Her words bring a wave of dismay. Oliver needs his team, needs them to be with him on this. It’s too big for him to face alone. But he can't make them put themselves in danger –
“But I'm going to trust you.” At his obvious relief, she smiles, tiny but real. “Besides, if all he wanted was to kill more people, he could be out doing it. I've heard the pay is good.”
Diggle nods slowly. “Whatever Waller says, if James walked into her office tomorrow and offered to work for her – she'd jump at the chance.”
“Thank you.” Oliver puts a hand on each of their shoulders, gratitude sweeping through him. “Both of you.”
“Well, don't thank me yet,” Felicity says, before they have a chance to get awkward. “We’ve still got to get Amanda Waller to let him go. And somehow I don’t think she’ll say yes if we just ask nicely.”
Diggle starts toward the computers, his voice back to a normal volume. “Were you able to track Rogers?”
“Yes,” Felicity says, following behind him. “And may I just say for the record that spying on Captain America makes me feel like a dirty old man? Woman. Dirty, at any rate.”
“Noted.” Oliver catches himself matching her grin. “So where did he go?”
“He and his friend dropped the thugs off with the police and checked into a Motel 6.”
“What do you have on the friend?”
Felicity rolls her eyes at him and leans down to pull up a page on the computer. “Do you even watch the news? I'm only asking because he's been all over it. Sam Wilson, former US Air Force Tech Sergeant, pararescue. Honorable discharge, working for the VA in DC when all of this came down.”
“He's the one helping Rogers in all the footage of the Triskelion battle,” Diggle adds. “The one with the wings?”
“So what were they doing here?”
“I can check.” Felicity starts pulling up traffic footage of the blue SUV, tracking it backwards. “Do you think they were following James?”
“If they’re looking for the Winter Soldier, maybe.” Oliver shivers at the thought. Waller doesn’t care about revenge; if Oliver can convince her that James is out of the game, she might be willing to leave him alone – in return for a few favors. Captain America won’t be nearly so pragmatic. “But they weren’t at the hotel, and when they joined the fight, they were definitely trying to protect me.”
“Ah! Here they are.” Felicity taps the screen once. “Hanging back, but it looks like they were following the HYDRA agents. They’d been back there for a while, and didn’t move in until the shooting started.”
Diggle folds his arms, thinking. “So they thought you were a civilian, caught in the crossfire?”
Oliver suddenly remembers Rogers's face, that reaching hand. He wasn’t reaching toward a stranger. It occurs to Oliver that he might not be the only person James asked for help. “I think Felicity's right: they were after him.”
“I thought you said they were protecting you. Him.” Felicity waves a hand vaguely. “I mean you, as him.”
“They were.” Oliver walks over to the weight machines, Felicity and Diggle trailing uncertainly after. He waits for James to stop lifting and acknowledge him.
The acknowledgment doesn't come, but after a minute, James does stop. He slides slowly out of the seat, and just as slowly stands and moves into that same parade rest position, sweat towel dangling loosely from his fingertips. He doesn't make eye contact with any of them.
Without his shirt, Oliver can see the way his metal arm hangs useless, dented and burnt. Oliver add that to the list in his head of 'ways he wants to help,' but now isn't the time.
“You said you failed your mission, that you knew your target.” He pauses, hoping that James will fill in the rest, but the other man says nothing. “You called him Steve,” Oliver prompts.
“Wait, Steve Rogers?” Felicity takes a half-step closer, and James finally looks up. “You were sent to kill Captain America?”
When he doesn't say anything else, Felicity folds her arms and glares at him. “So why didn't you?”
Oliver worries for a moment that James will respond in kind, but the question obviously makes him uncertain. He drops his eyes again.
“I knew him,” he says finally. “They told me it was important, for the country. But when I saw him... I didn't believe that.”
Oliver watches the same shift in Felicity's eyes that he knew had been in his, the protective streak that they all had. She'd have helped for Oliver's sake before, but now – she saw what he did.
“Do you trust him?” At James's silence, she clarifies, “Steve Rogers. Do you trust him?”
“I... don't know.”
“What are you thinking?” Diggle asks.
Felicity turns back to him. “That we need some help getting ARGUS to back off. And who better than Captain America?”
“We’re not even sure he’ll want to help. Heck, maybe he’ll turn James right over to them,” Diggle argues.
Felicity turns to Oliver. “We should at least find out. If we have one of the Avengers on our side, we won’t have to worry about ARGUS. And if he’s not on our side... We can convince him.”
“At the very least, we can convince him not to turn James over to ARGUS. I’ll talk to him.” Oliver starts back toward the van, but Diggle catches his shoulder.
“In the morning,” Diggle says pointedly. “How long have you been up?”
“I can go longer.” It's true, but obviously unconvincing, from the way Dig raises an eyebrow at him.
“And how long has he been up?” he gestures to James, who hadn't moved at all.
Oliver rubs a hand across his face, trying to shift his focus. He’s gotten too caught up in solving the bigger picture again; James needs a friend at least as much as he needs the Arrow.
“Frankly, you both look like you could use a few hours of shut-eye,” Diggle adds, shooting another pointed look at Oliver, who sighs.
“You two head out,” he says, gesturing to Diggle and Felicity. “Get some rest. We'll talk to Rogers in the morning.”
Felicity doesn't move. “You're staying?”
Oliver starts walking toward the stairs, leading her toward the door and, not coincidentally, away from James. “I don't want him to wake up in a strange place with no one around,” he says quietly.
“Is that safe?”
“I'm not talking about the ninja assassin thing, I just mean –” she waves a hand, “vets with PTSD aren't necessarily safe, either.”
“No, it probably isn't safe,” Oliver admits. “But it's the best we can do.”
“Great.” Felicity gives a soft, forced laugh. “Now I'm never gonna get to sleep tonight.” But she goes.
It was what he'd needed, back when he first returned to Starling City. He'd learned to sleep at home, learned to feel safe there, but now that the house is empty... it's hard to want to spend time there.
He leads James to the shower, pulling off his shirt as he goes. They're both sweaty and grimy, and this at least is a problem Oliver can solve right now. He points out the soap and towels, the bench for changing, the laundry hamper.
“The plumbing's a little amateurish,” he says, pulling the shower curtain aside to point out the taps. “By which I mean I put the hot water on the wrong side. But it works.”
When Oliver turns, James is standing right beside him, a hair's breadth of space between them. Oliver starts to shift out of the way, but James catches him with a hand on his shoulder. The other man's face is so very still, but his eyes drop to Oliver's mouth.
Oliver remembers that face when it was smiling. Vanya'd had a sly sense of humor, and a way of telling stories that made everyone laugh. He was friendly, welcoming, incredibly smart – and Oliver had wanted him so much. He'd been surprised when Vanya accepted that first, tentative overture.
It wouldn't have surprised him, if he'd known then what he knows now.
“No,” he says, and steps deliberately away.
James doesn't move for a minute. When he does, it's to get in the shower and pull the curtain closed.
Oliver lets out a sigh of relief and goes to set up the cots. He doesn't want to be in there when James gets out.
It turns out not to be a problem. James is in and out of the shower quickly, dressed in clean sweatpants and toweling his hair dry shortly after Oliver hears the water shut off.
Oliver rushes through his own shower. When he comes back, James has rearranged the cots, with each one pushed against a different wall.
“No crossfire,” James volunteers, already sitting on the far cot, a rifle across his lap.
“Right.” Oliver hadn't planned to sleep with his bow at hand, but he knows what it feels like, to be unable to relax without a weapon. He goes back to the main room and retrieves one from the case before settling into his own cot and pulling the blanket up.
“You should sleep if you can,” he says as his eyes adjust to the dimness.
“They told me not to sleep.” James's voice is soft, but he somehow sounds more present than he has all night. Maybe it's the darkness.
The words make Oliver angry, but he swallows it, trying to give James the space to talk if he can. “That's... not good advice.”
The silence stretches out between them. He can make out the dark shape of the other man, still sitting upright against the wall.
“You should at least rest,” Oliver says finally.
The blankets rustle as James slouches lower in the cot. Oliver closes his eyes and starts counting backwards from a hundred, deepening his breathing and hoping for sleep.
He reaches seventy-three before James speaks again.
“Why did you say no?”
“You said you remember Zagreb.” Oliver keeps his eyes closed. “What do you remember?”
“The city. It was springtime,” James says slowly. “I traveled with Stjepan; he called me Vanya. We were supposed to be killing a traitor.”
“Sofiya Petrovic,” Oliver supplies the name. He doesn't remember her face any more, but he can still see the vivid blue of her dress as her security pushed her back into the car. “She was selling research on chemical weapons to the Chinese.”
“We were working with Bratva. They sent a man.”
“That was me.”
“Ah.” James shifts restlessly. “I can’t remember his face; it could be you.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“Stjepan let him take the shot. He missed.”
“Petrovic’s security shot back.” There were people near the car, ordinary people, and they screamed as the shots rang out. They scrambled for cover, pushing past each other to get behind parked cars or dart through open shop doors. Two bullets took out the windows in the hotel room where Oliver had crouched with the sniper rifle. Stjepan didn’t scream; he just bled, and sank to the floor, Oliver fighting hopelessly to stop the bleeding while Vanya packed up their gear in silence.
“They killed Stjepan.” James doesn’t struggle with the words; it’s just a fact, not something to get upset about. “You and I finished the mission.”
“We did.” Four more people died when the bomb went off; Oliver never knew the other three names. “And then we ran.”
“I don't remember that.”
“You told me they'd wipe your memories.” That conversation happened in the dark, too, he remembers suddenly. In a villa in Podstrana, waiting for the search to die down. “Once you stopped pretending to be Vanya. Once you thought you didn't have to be Vanya anymore.”
“You liked him. Vanya.”
“That isn't the point.” Oliver wishes desperately that he didn't have to say this. If he could only go back and erase all the stupid mistakes he'd made... “When we had sex in Zagreb, I didn't know what they'd done to you. I thought you were – I thought you wanted to.”
“Do you remember that?”
James doesn't answer, but Oliver has to make sure he understands. “You had sex with your handlers.”
The blankets rustle. “If they wanted me.”
“After Stjepan died, you treated me like your handler.”
The two words are nearly expressionless, but they still make Oliver flinch. A wave of guilt sweeps through him. He should have realized at the time. “I should have helped you.”
“You gave me a place to go,” James says, sounding confused. Maybe in his mind, that was enough.
Oliver knows he should have done more. He could have fought harder to keep Vanya with the Bratva; he could have found a way to smuggle the man back to the States. He should have done something when Vanya didn't contact him later. He should have.
But that's clearly nothing that James can hear right now.
“I'm glad that you were able to get away from them,” Oliver says finally, as gently as he can. “Now go to sleep.”
Oliver hears the other man's breathing even out, just like that. He doesn't know if James can actually put himself under that easily, or if he's just pretending, but it doesn't really matter. One step at a time. If they can get ARGUS to back off, James can still go to Stoneyhill, get the help that he needs… and maybe someday they can have this conversation again, and Oliver can apologize the way he needs to.
He just hopes he’s right, and Captain America is willing to help them.
Rogers and Wilson leave the motel together, on foot. In civilian clothes, they looks like two regular guys – if those regular guys had left the special forces recently and could go a few rounds with Ruslan Chagaev without embarrassing themselves.
They leave their luggage in the room; it's the best sign Oliver has that they're coming back, but he can't be sure when. He gives them ten minutes, in case they forgot something, and then breaks into their room. The housekeeping keycard that Felicity made for him works perfectly, and he slips inside without being seen.
He closes the curtains as soon as he's inside – both to hide himself from casual observers, and to tip them off that someone has been in the room since they left; he doesn't want them to think he's trying to sneak up on them – and does a brief search of the room. One king bed with a perfectly unwrinkled duvet, two suitcases with generic casual clothing, a pair of shaving kits in the bathroom. They have more items than James had at the Martin Hotel, but they're equally anonymous. Oliver doubts if either of them would miss anything they had to leave behind here.
He doesn't find the shield, though he knows Rogers wasn't carrying it when he left. Which means they have a more secure location somewhere that Felicity didn't find. Or they have a lot of faith in the lock on the trunk of their car.
There’s nothing here that suggests how they know James, or what they plan to do once they find him. Oliver wishes he could be sure before he talks to them.
They aren't gone long.
Oliver hears them approaching: two men talking, one laughing, sounding perfectly at ease. He can't make out the words, but the tone is casual and friendly. He doesn't know if they didn't notice the curtains or – more likely – they are just that professional. In either case, Oliver makes sure he's visible, with his hands out and open, as the door opens.
Rogers comes in first, the all-American, corn-fed look even more pronounced in person. But his eyes find Oliver's immediately behind the mask, and a faint tension finds its way into the set of his shoulders. Most people find the outfit disturbing, but Rogers barely takes notice.
After all, Oliver isn't his first costumed crime-fighter.
“You're the Arrow, right?” he asks, stepping further into the room. His own hands are loose at his sides. “The vigilante.”
“You were chasing a man through the South End last night.”
Rogers makes a face at the rough sound of the voice scrambler. “If you're here to tell us to get off your 'turf' –“
“Then why are you here?” Wilson steps into the room, pushing the door shut behind him. He has a gun in his hands, but he's not pointing it anywhere.
“The man you were chasing –“
“We were chasing HYDRA agents,” Wilson cuts in. He and Rogers bracket Oliver's position in the room. It reminds him of James's comment about avoiding crossfire. “As you already know, if you're paying attention to the police scanners.”
Oliver can't tell if that's the truth, or an attempt at misdirection. They’ve avoided his question twice now. But it doesn’t matter if he’s wrong about them; he still needs their help. “Why don’t you tell me what you want with the Winter Soldier.”
That ratchets up the tension in the room. But it also sends a flicker of something – hope, maybe – across Rogers's face. “Do you know where he is?”
“Maybe. What do you want with him?”
Rogers stares for a long moment, clearly trying to read Oliver behind the mask. Eventually, he sinks slowly to sit on the edge of the bed. “He's my friend,” he says simply.
He radiates the kind of sincerity that Captain America is known for – and it makes Oliver wonder exactly what happened. Rogers doesn't seem the sort to make friends during a fight, but all of Oliver's instincts say to trust him.
Not that he has a lot of other options.
“Then yes, I know where he is.”
Wilson finally holsters his gun. “Let's go.”
“I can take you to him,” Oliver says, “but first, you have to understand. I've already been contacted by ARGUS. They’re watching me, and probably watching you.”
They glance at each other, then Wilson shrugs. “We’ll just need to move as fast as we can, then.”
Oliver tosses a card at Rogers, who catches it easily. “Meet me at this location in an hour. Make sure you're not followed.”
They let him leave, but from the way Rogers's fingers clench around the card, Oliver imagines it must be hard for them to watch him walk away.
So he and Diggle pick them up at the location he’d given them and then drive in circles for a while. By the time they reach the lair, everyone is clearly edgy, impatience and distrust sitting heavy in the van with them.
Felicity is pretending to have randomly found herself by the van, but she isn't doing any better job at disguising her nerves. She smooths her hair back twice in the time it takes Oliver to park and open the doors.
Wilson, at least, seems to be taking it better. His gaze flicks around the lair – the vehicles, the weapons cases, the huddle of computers and exercise equipment – before coming back to Felicity. “Nice place you've got here.”
“I know it isn't SHIELD –” she bristles slightly, and Wilson waves a hand apologetically.
“No, seriously,” he says, laughing softly. “I've been in some dank hideouts in my time. This is cozy.”
Oliver isn't sure if Rogers even sees the lair at all. When he steps out of the van, he turns unerringly toward the far wall, as if drawn by a magnet. James steps out from behind a stack of equipment and stares back.
“Bucky?” Rogers moves forward cautiously, the way someone might approach a frightened animal. He has one hand outstretched, just like last night in the rail yard.
James freezes, but he doesn't turn away. “Steve.”
“Do you remember me?” Rogers asks, continuing to inch forward.
“No.” He shakes his head slightly, his eyes darting around the room before settling back on Rogers. “Not really.”
“That's okay. You've got time, you'll get your memories back.” Rogers finally gets close, but instead of the shoulder-clasp Oliver is expecting, he slides his arms around James's body in a hug. James stands still, passive but not confused.
Looking around, Oliver seems to be the only one confused by this.
“No way,” Felicity says quietly, nudging Wilson. “That's Bucky Barnes? The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes?”
Bucky Barnes. Even Oliver knows the name, and the gist of the story. Steve Rogers’s best friend. Served in the war together. But Barnes had died – or not. Had anyone known?
“Yeah, that was my reaction.” Wilson grins at her and holds out a hand. “Sam Wilson, by the way.”
“I know,” she says, still staring, but she takes his hand. “Felicity Smoak.”
“Are you sure you should be giving me your real name? Secret identities and all.”
That earns him a smile. “I have the feeling you can keep a secret.”
“So that's why they were after him,” Diggle says softly, coming up behind Oliver.
“We've been trailing him since he left DC,” Wilson says. “Or what we hoped was him. If we'd known he had friends up here, we'd have called first.”
“How is he still alive?” It doesn’t make any sense, unless there was a lot more than the history books told. Though why that should surprise him... Oliver suddenly remembers how long the Winter Soldier had been active. “Wait. Did HYDRA have him the whole time?”
Rogers finally releases – Bucky, James, Oliver isn't sure what to call him now – and steps back. “I'm so sorry. I should've gone back for you.”
At this, the other man looks confused. “It's okay. You were unconscious.”
It makes Rogers freeze, for just a moment, and Sam steps up to them.
“We're here to take you home. Or wherever else you want to go.”
And that’s it, Oliver realizes with a sinking feeling. They’ll take James back where he belongs, get him the care he needs – and they won’t need Oliver’s help, or even the Arrow’s. And that’s a good thing; with his track record, he has to feel sorry for anyone who actually needs his help. This is the best possible outcome.
If he were a better person, he’d be happy right now.
“Where are you planning to go, anyway?” Diggle asks. “Considering he’s on every covert agency’s wanted list right now.”
“Stark has the best security I know,” Roger tells him. “I intend to stay with him until we can find a more permanent location.”
“Tony Stark?” Felicity asks, her voice gleeful. “Iron Man Tony Stark?”
“I'm beginning to think you want to move to New York,” Oliver murmurs at her, and she grins at him. He tries to smile back.
“It's not that. It's just – you know, the Avengers! I’m kind of a fan.”
“If you'll let me make a phone call,” Rogers says, “I can make arrangements for the three of us to leave the city quietly. We’ll be gone before ARGUS knows we left.”
Oliver has to clear his throat. “Go ahead.”
“I'll get you a line out,” Felicity tells him, leading him toward the computers. He hesitates for a moment, clearly not wanting to get out of touching distance of his friend. But he goes.
James – Bucky? Oliver still isn't sure – doesn't follow.
“Should I be calling you Bucky now?” Oliver asks, only half-expecting a useful answer.
So he's surprised to get one, with a glower. “I told you to call me James.”
“Whatever you want.” But it makes Oliver feel a little better. “You know you don't have to go with them if you don't want to.”
James's expression evens out, but he only shrugs, his eyes tracking Rogers through the lair.
“As long as you know.” Oliver pulls a card from his pocket and hands it to James. “You can call me. Any time, and I'll answer.”
James glances at the card, then tucks it into his sleeve. “Thank you.”
Oliver reaches out to clasp his shoulder. After a moment, James does the same, a smile slowly stealing across his face.
Diggle parks the van near the doors to the five-car garage, where they have a clear view of the landing strip. A speck of white in the sky gradually reveals itself to be a small, sleek jet, which comes in for a perfect three-point landing.
“I'm surprised it isn't red and gold,” Oliver mutters softly to Diggle, then explains. “That's Tony's private jet.”
“Tony, eh?” Diggle says, equally quietly. “Do you mean he's flying it?”
“Well, that's one way to keep all this a secret.”
“I suppose so.” Diggle turns to the others. “Gentlemen, I think your ride is here.”
Oliver turns to James. “You can call me,” he says again.
James actually smiles. “I will.”
A matching smile spreads across Rogers's face, and he puts out a hand. “Arrow.”
“Captain.” Oliver clasps his forearm instead, grinning back.
“Don't be strangers, now,” Wilson says, grabbing his bag and heading toward the landing strip as the plane slows to a halt. James and Rogers follow him.
Felicity takes a step after them, but Oliver grabs her elbow. “We need to stay back here.”
She frowns down at his hand. “But I want to meet Tony Stark. “
“Stark knows me.”
“Oh.” Felicity glances back at the plane. “Oh!”
“I see you're not worried about him recognizing me,” Diggle jokes.
Oliver has to fight not to smile. “He might.”
Diggle frowns, mock-sternly. “Really? Who looks at the bodyguard?”
“I do.” Felicity says. When they laugh at her, she grins. “Though actually, I do. Bodyguards scare me.”
They watch Tony coming down the stairs from the jet door. He claps Rogers on the back, shakes hands with Wilson – and clearly gets a glower from James. Oliver has to laugh; Tony's body language is easy to read, even from two hundred feet away.
Diggle cocks his head suddenly. “I thought this was a closed strip.”
Oliver can hear it, too – the hum of approaching helicopters. He turns to look back across roof line of the house, and sees them.
“Three choppers,” he says, automatically pushing Felicity toward the edge of the house and away from the sightlines of the pilots. “Two troop transports, and a – shit, that's a rocket launcher –”
A streak of smoke leaps from the helicopter toward the jet. Oliver ducks behind the van as fire explodes on the air strip. When he looks back, there are flames and debris on the far side of the plane, and some kind of smoke canisters filling the air on this side. He can barely make out the shape of two men through the smoke – James and Rogers, the thinks. Stark and Wilson are nowhere to be seen.
The troop transports are landing near the plane now, the soldiers on board in full tactical armor and gas masks. The third helicopter – the one with the rocket launcher – is hovering above them, ready to provide air support. Making sure no one gets away.
“I'm okay.” She's still crouched down, between the van and the wall of the house, but her voice is steady.
“Go into the garage and find whatever vehicle you can,” he tells her. “We're going to need another car.”
“Shit.” She takes off running toward the front of the garage.
Dig is already getting into driver's seat; Oliver tosses him a gas mask from the back while he puts his on. “I assume we're not taking on forty guys by ourselves?”
“No. We're going to grab the others and run.”
“If we don't get blown up first, you mean.”
“Just get us as close as you can.”
They barely start to move before Oliver sees Stark – in the Iron Man armor – flying past them toward the house. He's carrying Wilson, who might be unconscious; Oliver's not sure. Felicity will have to deal with that.
“At least Stark's okay.”
The smoke begins to clear as the soldiers from the transports swarm out. They're not carrying standard rifles; all Oliver can make out are large-barrel weapons that have some kind of shimmering lightning-like charge.
Oliver sees James get hit by one of the – electrified nets, maybe – and drop to his knees. He's immediately surrounded. Rogers has his shield out; he takes out two of their attackers, and James shakes the rest off like mosquitoes.
It's a capture mission.
Oliver leans out the window far enough to shoot an explosive arrow at the nearest transport. There's a soft pop, and then the ragged chugging of the helicopter's engine as it dies.
That's all he has time to do before the van screeches to a halt between the fight and the second transport. It's not good cover, but it'll have to do.
Oliver uses the door to take down one of the soldiers, grabs the second one and uses his momentum to send her sprawling at the others. It clears him a little breathing space. He hears the quick snap of Dig's gun, and the troops outside the immediate fray start to take cover.
For an endless time, Oliver's world narrows down: pick a target, fire, repeat. James is grappling with opponents, moving in too close for their shock weapons to take him out without hurting themselves. Even one-handed, he is utterly brutal. Oliver is pretty sure he's breaking collar bones and snapping necks, as well as stealing knives and throwing them. Rogers is a little more careful with his targets, but then, more of his take-downs are getting back up.
In the back of Oliver's head, he knows that the only reason they're still moving is that the soldiers don't want to kill them – and that advantage might not last. They need to take out the second transport and the support chopper without making themselves vulnerable. But he hasn't fought with these two before; he doesn't know how to maneuver with them, and he can't get a clean shot on his own.
As it turns out, he doesn't have to.
Rogers shouts, “Heads up!” and kicks one of the soldiers toward Oliver, who knocks her out with a blow to the windpipe. Meanwhile, Rogers swings his shield like a battering ram, knocking a hole in the fight and leaving Oliver a clear line to the second transport. He takes it.
From the corner of his eye, he sees James pull a pistol from one of the downed soldiers. James aims at the support chopper, mindless of the target his open back makes. Rogers is there, keeping him clear, but James doesn't seem to even notice. It's an impossible shot.
But he makes it. Oliver can see the shadow of the pilot slump over. The helicopter nose-dives into the pavement and explodes.
James has already turned back to the fight. The troops still on their feet are falling back toward the cover of the transports, immobile as they are. James follows, his movements precise and menacing.
“Let's get out of here before they send reinforcements!” Oliver yells, and Rogers nods.
“Bucky!” Rogers grabs James's good arm from behind, but James just shakes himself free. “Let's go!”
Oliver realizes that James will keep going until these soldiers are all dead, or someone stops him. The same realization is clear in the set of Rogers's shoulders.
Oliver hopes to hell that James is still listening to him.
“Vanya!” He lets his voice crack, his accented Russian snapping out. “Get in the van; we're leaving.”
James turns like a clockwork doll, smooth and effortless despite the chaos around them. He stalks back toward the van with the same menace he approached the soldiers. Rogers freezes for a moment, glances over his shoulder at the troops, and then double-times back to the van. They all climb in, Oliver slides the door shut, and Dig floors it.
Rogers rounds on Oliver as soon as the van is moving. “What the hell was that?”
“Russian.” Oliver tosses his gas mask into the decontamination bin and glares back at Rogers.
James is staring straight ahead, about as present as a marionette. His clothes are singed and torn, with a streak of blood across his cheek, but he doesn't look upset or even excited. If he didn't blink, Oliver would think he wasn't real.
“You gave him an order!”
“And he followed it.” Oliver fights to stay calm. He and Rogers are in similar shape, adrenaline still pounding, and emotions get out of hand too easily in these circumstances. “If you had another idea about how to get him out of there, Captain, you should have done it.”
For a moment, Oliver is convinced he's about to get punched in the face. But Rogers grits his teeth and visibly takes a breath, uncurling his fingers.
“No, I didn't.” He watches James in silence for a minute, the anger on his face slowly twisting to guilt. “We weren’t followed. So how the hell did they find us?”
Oliver doesn't have an answer to that, so he's relieved when his phone shows an incoming call from Felicity.
“I saw you take off,” she says in a rush. Her voice is hard to hear over the background noise. “Is everyone okay? “
“We're uninjured,” he tells her, refusing to glance over at James. “You?”
“I think so. Sam's still groggy, but Iron Man says he'll be fine. They were hit with some kind of fast-acting narcogenic; Sam just got a higher dose.”
“Iron Man is with you? “
“Yeah.” She lets out a choked laugh. “Guess I got to meet Tony Stark after all, huh? But I feel like the world's least inconspicuous getaway driver.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I'm driving around in a bright yellow stolen convertible with Iron Man in the back seat. We're probably visible from space.” There's some kind of noise, and Felicity chokes again. “Oh, really? Never mind, we are definitely visible on satellite.”
Oliver looks out the front windows of the van, but doesn't see them. “You'll need to ditch the car.”
“You think? Once Big and Flashy in the back seat is willing to disarm, we'll switch out with one of the back-ups. But we're going to be a little late getting home.”
“All right. Stay safe.”
It's a long, tense drive back to the lair. Oliver's thoughts keep coming back to Rogers's question – how had they been found? – and a second, related one: What in the hell were they supposed to do now?
Rogers starts after him, but Oliver grabs his arm. “Give him some space.”
It earns him a glare. “So now you’re giving me orders.”
“Do I need to?” Oliver puts himself physically in Rogers's path. “He’s not the man you knew.”
“You don’t know him at all!”
“If you two need to fight this out,” Diggle says coldly as he walks past them, “just get it done before he has to deal with it.”
They both stare at his back as he goes. Oliver feels the surge of his temper shift into shame; he really had been about to start a fight to make himself feel better.
From the flush making its way up Rogers's face, he isn't alone.
“Right. That...” Rogers trails off, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “That was uncalled for.”
“From me, too.” It isn’t his most gracious apology. “You want to protect him. I get that.”
“Thank you.” Rogers nods roughly. “So you’ll understand when I ask you – why the hell would he take your orders?”
Oliver looks away, guilt flooding through him again. “Because he did before.”
Rogers has him slammed up against the side of the van before he can take another breath. “You worked for HYDRA?”
Oliver doesn’t even try to fight. “Five years ago, ARGUS sent me undercover in Croatia. While I was there, I was loaned out to a HYDRA team. For the last two weeks, I led the operation.”
“You used him.”
“ARGUS used all of us. When he told me what HYDRA was doing to him, I tried to get him out. But they took him. And I didn’t go back.”
Rogers lets him go, abruptly, but doesn’t back off, anger clear in the way he moves. “Bucky says you helped him.”
“I tried,” Oliver says again.
“And you brought him to me, which means I ought to trust you.” Rogers finally steps back, relenting slightly. “But you break the law. You hide behind a mask.”
“And you’re a hero. But that comes with a spotlight.” Oliver isn’t sure how they ended up in this particular argument, but it’s fitting. “Your enemies come looking for you – and all the trouble that finds you will find him, too. Do you think he’s ready for that?”
Rogers is already shaking his head. “I’ll do whatever it takes. I won’t give up on him.”
Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of a car engine. A drab old Toyota Corolla pulls into the lair, Felicity behind the wheel. She waves as she shuts off the car. Stark and Wilson climb out of the passenger side, carrying white take-out bags. Considering everything that’s happened in the last few hours, the image is so normal that it’s almost surreal.
Felicity has three bags of her own, and the smell of beef and hot grease fill the room.
“You stopped for food?” Oliver asks, still a little dumbfounded.
Felicity raises an eyebrow at him, shaking one of the bags teasingly. “If you don't want any –”
Oliver snatches at it, suddenly hungry. “What I mean is: thank you.”
“We weren't sure what to get everyone,” she says, handing another bag to Rogers. “So we got some of everything.”
“Tony was just giving us the satellite report.” Wilson says, popping a french fry into his mouth.
“What I was saying,” Tony says, “was that they had people waiting at four different locations, all with transport helicopters. They're more mobile than planes; with that kind of manpower, they didn't care where I was coming in – they just covered all the private air strips within a hundred miles.”
“That's a lot of manpower.” Oliver glances over at Diggle, who nods. They're both thinking the same thing.
“Yep.” Tony nods. “Probably not HYDRA, they're still running scared after shit went down in DC.”
“ARGUS,” Diggle supplies.
“Really?” Tony’s eyes narrow. “Which begs the question of how a quasi-legal government organization like ARGUS thinks they can get away with blowing up my plane. Do they think I won’t sue them? Because I’d be thrilled to bring them to court –”
“They tried to kill you,” Felicity shakes her head, “and you’re talking about suing them.”
“Please. They used knock-out gas. Try to keep up: no one uses knock-out gas when they're trying to kill you,” Tony points out. “Or, in this case, me.”
“They wouldn't have tried an action like that inside the city,” Oliver says. “Too many witnesses.”
“To a completely illegal attack on me and my plane.”
Wilson ignores Tony’s interjection. “Fine. But unless we're planning on bunking down here permanently, we need a new plan.”
“Maybe this is a good time to call in Romanov?” Tony’s hands are wrapped around a burger, but he wiggles his fingers at Rogers. “I’m sure she knows half of Amanda Waller’s dirty little secrets. They could go for coffee, sort the whole thing out.”
“I’ve left three messages already.” Rogers shrugs. “We weren’t expecting to need her for this.”
“It’s true, you were only bringing in the world’s most wanted assassin.” Tony rolls his eyes. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“If they don't want witnesses,” Rogers says, speaking right over him, “maybe we should go public.”
Oliver can see that the idea appeals to him; shine that spotlight on a situation and let the public take care of it.
But even Felicity is shaking her head. “Only if you want him brought up on charges. I mean, he might get found not guilty, but he'd still be put on trial.”
“And once he's in custody,” Diggle points out, “he's an easy target. For ARGUS or anyone else.”
Oliver doesn't even want to think about James in a cell. “If they think they've got a shot at him – ARGUS won't stop until he's captured. Or dead.”
“We won't let that happen.” Rogers glances over at the weapons cases – or rather, at James, who's doing a better job of blending into the shadows there than Oliver would've imagined possible. Rogers seems to have a sixth sense for knowing where James is lurking, but when he takes a step in that direction, James shakes his head.
Rogers turns back to the conversation, every line in his body tense until Wilson puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Right, we won't let that happen,” Tony says into that awkward pause. “We'll figure something out.”
As the others start tossing out ideas, Oliver takes one of the mostly-full bags of burgers and slips toward the sleeping area. He intends to just leave it somewhere James can find it without approaching the others, but James is sitting on his cot, staring at the floor when Oliver comes in.
“Um.” He isn't sure if he should say anything or not. “There's food,” he says setting the bag down. He waits uncertainly in the doorway, then takes a step back.
“I'm not hungry.”
“Okay. I'll just leave it there in case you change your mind.”
“You should've let them take me.”
James continues to scowl down at the floor. If this were Roy, Oliver would – okay, he still wouldn't know how to handle it, but at least he could call it a tantrum. He's not sure that thinking of James as a teenager is really the best way to help him.
“Why would I do that?” Oliver asks instead, and at least it gets James to look up.
“I'm good at killing people. You saw that.” His eyes flick away, and Oliver can't tell if that's anger or shame. “At least they'd use me.”
“They would.” Oliver sinks down onto the other cot. “But I thought you wanted to stop killing people.”
James shakes his head. “Doesn't matter what I want, does it? It's what I am.”
“I think you're more than that,” Oliver says, as gently as he can when all he really wants to do is punch everyone who hurt the other man. Starting with himself. “We all do.”
“Weapons are only as good as the hands they're in.” James tilts his head enough to look over at Oliver through the curtain of his hair. “Like yours.”
“I don't –”
“You could use me.” The expression on his face shifts into a sly humor. “Lead me.”
The thought is... shockingly familiar. Lurking somewhere behind Oliver’s vague plans of sending James to Stoneyhill was the idea that maybe, someday, they could work together again. They could be partners, protecting this city –
But that isn’t what James wants, and Oliver can’t give him any less.
“No, I couldn’t. You deserve a chance to be your own man. I won't take that away from you.”
“Hey! Arrow!” Tony ducks his head around the corner, checks out the room, then comes the rest of the way in. “Oh, good, you're both here. You wanna let me take a look at that arm?”
James's expression melts away, but after a moment, he nods and starts rolling up the sleeve of his shirt. “Steve said he can fix it.”
“Probably? I'm hurt.” Tony drops down onto the cot next to James and starts running his fingers along the plates, muttering under his breath.
But when Oliver stands to go, Tony waves a hand at him without looking up. “No, don't go wandering off yet. Your girl Felicity pointed me toward your toolbox, and I have to tell you, it is woefully lacking.”
“What do you need?” He's not surprised that his repair kits won't help with a cybernetic arm; trick arrows are more his speed. But anything that Queen Consolidated doesn't have, Star Labs will.
“I can make do for the moment, I'm a genius. But seriously. I know you're having money problems, but is this,” Tony waves a hand at the lair in general, “really the best you can do?”
“And hey – am I supposed to be pretending I don't know who you are?” Tony has pulled out a set of tiny screwdrivers and is poking around at James's elbow.
James is staring into space again, head turned away, and as perfectly empty as Oliver has ever seen him.
“Because I can do that –“
“Yeah, I can keep all kinds of secrets. But I don't see much reason to keep this one. Oh hey, there we go,” he says as the outer plates of the arm flare open, revealing the inner frame and pistons. “Wow, this is seriously old-school. Not the power source, of course, that's actually pretty good for something I didn't make, but – hey, do you like this arm?”
Tony doesn't seem to notice how still James has gotten, but when he doesn't get an answer, he raps on the open plates of the arm with a soft 'tink, tink, tink.'
“That was a question,” he prompts, and James turns his head to glower at Tony.
“Because you've got options.” Tony seems satisfied to have gotten James's attention. “I mean, I can just clean this up, if you're into this kind of thing. But I've been working on some prototypes while Cap tracked you down – three, actually, because I get bored easily – and they've got much better feedback than this relic – high-resolution texture sensors on the fingers, and –“
“Do they look.” James has to work his jaw for a moment before he can get the word out. “Human?”
Tony tilts his head, considering. “Well, one of them is all badass metal, in case you liked the look, but the other two, yeah, they're covered in a proprietary skin analog that I'm thinking of putting on the market –“
“I want it.” Even James looks surprised at the vehemence of that sentence.
“Okay, then. That's a decision.” Tony blinks at him a couple of times, then grins. “Good for you, I've heard you have a hard time making up your mind about things, but that one was easy. So let me take a look at your shoulder and make sure the new one can attach properly. I had to guess at the mechanism –“
James slips his shirt off, and then presses a series of otherwise unmarked points along the shoulder of his arm – and it disconnects with a soft click. His face goes impassive again as Tony pulls out a jeweler's loupe and starts examining the metal and circuitry that make up the socket of the arm.
The metal and circuitry that are embedded in his body, Oliver realizes. They can't just be skin-deep, not to support something as powerful as that arm. They must be bolted into his bones –
And somehow, the fact that the burns from earlier are gone, doesn't make Oliver any less nauseated.
“I think it hurts him.”
Oliver startles at the voice behind him; apparently, Rogers can move like a cat when he wants to. But it's the gentleness in those words that makes Oliver feel suddenly ashamed. Here he is, looking at what HYDRA did; Rogers is actually looking at the person in front of him.
“Yeah,” Tony says quietly. “But I can fix that, too.”
He sits back, James's arm lying open in his lap. “I'm going to take this over to the table and clean it up enough that you can use it while we're waiting for the new improved model. And then I'm going to make a few modifications to the attachment frame. If you'll let me.”
James's expression doesn't waver, but his fingers tentatively map the edge of his arm socket.
“In the long run,” Tony says, back to his former brisk tone, “I think that whole thing ought to come out. But that's surgery, and I've decided to leave surgery to the experts this year.”
There's another pause.
“That's very gracious of you,” Rogers says, finally.
“It is, isn't it? I'm a gracious guy.” Tony's voice doesn't quite reach his usual levels of snark. He pulls out his phone, apparently unaffected by the signal blocker they have in the lair. “Please tell me I can courier a package to this address. I know, I'm not supposed to know where we are, but really –”
Oliver can't take his eyes off James and the empty line of his shoulder. “Do it.”
“Thank you! Six hours. Eight, tops, and we’re good to go.” Tony taps out a rapid message. “Really, I can keep a secret. You should know that about me.”
“Of course you can,” Rogers says drily.
“Right.” Tony turns back to James. “So do you want me to fix this up right now? Or do you want to wait for the new one?”
James's finger still. “Do it.”
“Great! Why don't you come with me – you can tell me everything you know about your arm, and I'll tell you when you're wrong. How's that? It'll be educational.”
Oliver takes the opportunity to retreat into the main area, where he's sure the conversation has to be less fraught than that one. Diggle, Felicity, and Wilson are sitting around the computer table, crumpled burger bags piled around. Diggle takes one look at Oliver and kicks an empty chair his way.
“We'd need a body,” Wilson is saying as Oliver sits down.
Right. “Fill me in.”
“If we want HYDRA – and ARGUS, and everyone else – to think Bucky's dead.” While she's talking, Felicity reaches under the table to trace a tear in the arm of Oliver's shirt.
He's still wearing the clothes he was fighting in. Then again, so is everyone else. The van is riddled with bullet holes that need to be patched before the next time it can be used, everyone but James desperately needs a shower –
– and Oliver is losing track of the conversation.
“Not unless we keep him locked up somewhere,” Diggle says, but he's eying Oliver worriedly. “And that won't do him any good.”
“I'm pretty sure that would do him the opposite of good,” Wilson adds. “So. Let's say we have a drug that would make him seem dead, long enough for a doctor to declare it.”
Felicity leans back in her chair, skepticism written plain across her face. “Do you?”
“I know someone who does.”
Oliver stares at them. “Are you really suggesting that we pretend to kill James in front of Amanda Waller?”
Wilson blinks at him for a moment, while Diggle and Felicity freeze.
“Because we'd have to do it. Shoot him, or strangle him – something that would cover the action of the drug. We couldn't let ARGUS do it, or they might actually kill him. And if we want Waller to believe that we'd attack him ourselves, that we'd be willing to kill him –” Oliver has to cut himself off there, before he starts yelling.
Diggle sighs. “He'd have to be out of control. Or look it.”
Felicity slumps in her chair. “I don't think James is up for pretending to go berserk.”
“Shit,” Wilson says. “You're right; either he couldn't do it at all, or he wouldn't be pretending for long.”
“Okay, new plan.” Diggle gets up for a cup of coffee, gripping Oliver's shoulder briefly on his way past. “We throw Waller off the trail. Convince her that James has left the country.”
“She doesn't even know what he looks like,” Felicity points out. “He's got that mask on in the DC footage. It's just the arm that's recognizable. I bet Stark could make a fake one pretty easily.”
Oliver doesn’t mention that Tony’s already made several real ones, but he nods along.
“So it's just a matter of setting up a decoy,” Wilson muses. “Have someone seen in the right place, by the right people – she'd have to look into it.”
“We could buy him some time, at least.” Felicity glances over at the work bench, where James and Rogers are standing shoulder to shoulder, watching Tony work on the arm. Suddenly her eyes get wide. “Wait. If ARGUS doesn't know what James looks like...”
Wilson turns around to follow her gaze, uncomprehending. “What are you thinking?”
But Oliver gets it. Rogers and James aren't quite a match, but in the dark, in the right clothes, if you were expecting to see one of them –
“I'm wondering if Captain America knows how to go berserk.”
He spends the next ten minutes staring at the shadows, trying to stay calm. This part is all him; he can't afford to blow it. Knowing that she's almost certainly using the delay to fray his nerves doesn't help. Waller likes to keep her opponents off balance.
As usual, she doesn't bother to identify herself. “I hope you're not wasting my time, Mr. Queen.”
Oliver closes his eyes, blocks out everything else – and focuses on the lie. “I can turn him over to you, no fighting. But I have a condition.”
“You take him to the holding facility on Lian Yu.”
“He doesn't deserve your mercy, Oliver. He's a killing machine.”
“That's why he deserves mercy.” He keeps his tone flat; Diggle and Felicity had insisted that he sounded more upset that way. “Whatever they did to him – there's no one home any more. He isn't a killer; he's just a machine.”
Waller pauses, and Oliver wonders if he's laying it on too thickly. They need her to think that she might just be able to control James herself – but it has to be her idea.
“I doubt if Captain Rogers agrees with you,” she says finally.
She's fishing. “He doesn't want to see what's in front of him.”
Another pause. “I'm surprised that you do.”
“He's docile, as long as he's following orders. We all saw what happens when he isn't.” Oliver decides to play the obvious card; she's probably expecting it. “How many of your people did he kill this morning?”
It still makes her voice sharper. “Fourteen.”
“If they take him to New York, how many more people will he kill? How many people have to die before Rogers realizes that Barnes is an empty shell?”
“Captain Rogers is an idealist,” she says slowly. “You and I can't afford to be.“
Oliver isn't sure if she believes him yet or not, but he thinks she's interested. “They're leaving tonight. In several vehicles, as decoys. I'm supposed to take Barnes to the old Bhilwara Textile Factory at 2 am, where I'll hand him off to Sergeant Wilson for the rest of the trip.”
“Not to Captain Rogers?”
“No. Rogers won't give him orders, and he's not safe without them.”
Oliver lets the implication sink in; Waller's too smart for him to spell it out.
“This sounds like a distraction play, Mr. Queen.”
Oliver can't help smiling at that. The whole thing sounds suspicious as hell, but she has to wonder if he's telling the truth – and she won't be willing to let anyone else take control of the Winter Soldier if she can get it. “I don't expect you to trust me, Amanda. But I'll be there, with Barnes. 2 am. If you're not there... we'll both regret it.”
For once, he gets to hang up first.
“You called me a machine.”
Oliver startles at the voice behind him. “I was lying,” he says as he turns around –
And has to stop and stare. Roy and Felicity had dressed James for the club; they slicked his hair back and put him in a tight red t-shirt and jeans, hipster glasses, and a fake tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve of his shirt –
“They made you a Marine?”
James grins, the expression too natural to be real. “You don't think I've got what it takes?”
“I think,” Oliver says, “that no one's going to question it. How's the arm?”
“Good.” James's expression softens as he pets the skin of his new arm wonderingly. Even in full light it almost looks real; in the shadows, here, no one would question it. “It doesn't hurt.”
This smile – this one looks genuine, and it reminds Oliver of exactly how dangerous tonight's plan is. “You know, if you don't want to go through with this –“
James is already shaking his head.
“I don't mind.” That soft smile stays in place. “The worst that happens, I'm really dead.”
Which is exactly what Oliver's afraid of. “That won't happen.”
“It's better than the alternative.” James rests his hand on Oliver's shoulder, for all the world like Oliver's the one who needs to be comforted here. “It's a good plan, too.”
Oliver grabs his wrist. “We won't be able to say goodbye, once this starts. Sam's made the arrangements – I don't even know where you're going. But it's not safe for me to see you.”
Oliver's trying to figure out how to explain – he's going to be looking at James's dead body, and he's not going to know whether the drug worked or if James is really dead, and this is a problem –
When Felicity coughs softly behind them. “It's time. Roy's upstairs.”
Oliver swallows hard, then takes a step back, and pastes a grin on his face for James's sake. “Are you ready to get thrown out of a club?”
James grins back at him, his whole stance loosening. The clothes fit, now. “You say that like it's my first time.”
Felicity comes over and rests her head gently against his shoulder. “He'll be all right.”
Oliver can't answer that; his mind is going over the million ways this could all go wrong. But he doesn't move away, and for a long time, neither does she.
Oliver takes the van, bullet holes and all, with Steve practicing his Winter-Solider hunch and glare in the back seat. It's disturbing to watch, as the streetlights play across his face and flash off the metal arm slung across his body. Dressed all in black, with the wig and the mask, Steve makes a decent ghost of James.
“You won't have a lot of time, once you go over,” Oliver says again, when they're five minutes out from the factory.
“Don't worry.” Steve's voice is completely at odds with his posture – friendly and utterly unconcerned. It's the voice from the Captain America newsreels. “This won't be the first time I've had a quick costume change between scenes.”
“And people think you're a terrible liar.”
Steve laughs softly. “I am a terrible liar. Ask anyone. It's a good thing this plan doesn't call for me to talk much.”
When they reach the turn-off for the mill, Oliver takes out his earpiece, and the world goes quiet. If anything goes wrong, Felicity won't be there to talk him through it.
“Good luck,” he says to Steve, and pulls into the dimness of the weed-strewn parking lot.
The Bhilwara Textile Factory crouches dark and empty over a corner of the old Regent industrial zone, a squat four-story brick building with boarded-up windows and graffiti-covered walls. The whole area is a wasteland of abandoned buildings and dead street lights, too far from the converted art galleries to have gentrified yet, and too well-secured for the vagrants to find a way in. Most of the doors of this particular building were bricked up years ago; only one access remains, over the loading dock – and it's usually secured with a heavy chain that even bolt cutters won't touch.
That chain has been sabotaged tonight, but it'll still look fucking spectacular when Steve goes through it.
Oliver has barely parked the van next to the loading dock before headlights flick on across the street, and three vehicles quickly close around them – another van, an SUV, and a black car with tinted windows. A half dozen soldiers with rifles pile out of the SUV and aim at the van.
Oliver makes sure his hands are in sight and opens his door. “Don't shoot.”
The door to the car slides open, and Amanda Waller steps out. Everyone else is in tactical gear, but she's wearing a gray business suit like armor, her hair pulled back in its usual severe bun.
“Arrow.” She doesn't step away from the car, though, and Oliver knows she's still prepared for this to be a trap.
Oliver shoves the van's back door open, showing that it's empty except for Steve, who doesn't move from his seat or even acknowledge the change. The pale strip of his face above the mask is ghostly in the shadows.
“Get out,” Oliver orders him, and he does, with the same easy menace James had shown on the video footage from DC.
Every rifle in the lot swings his way.
“If you attack us, he'll fight.” Oliver turns back to Waller. “I can't hold him through that.”
“You have him under control?” She steps closer, the tap of her heels clear and confident.
“I acted as his handler, in Croatia. He came to me to report.”
“Will he stay quiet, like this, for the trip to Lian Yu?”
“He should.” Oliver turns to Steve, and addresses him in Russian. “Soldier. This is Mockingbird. You will report to her.”
That's the first cue. If everyone is in place, Steve will say –
“Mockingbird?” The voice distorter works perfectly; Steve sounds like someone who hasn't spoken in months. He sounds nothing like himself at all.
“My codename is Mockingbird,” Waller prompts him, no hint of uncertainty in her voice. “You will report to me.”
“Mockingbird,” Steve says again, his tone flat, like he's reading it off a list. “Waller, Amanda. ARGUS –”
“Stand down.” Oliver grabs at Steve's right arm and is shoved aside as if he weighs nothing.
Waller steps back, and the soldiers tense, ready to fire. But Steve has frozen again, and everyone holds their breath.
Oliver pulls an arrow from his quiver and holds it in abeyance, not quite aiming it at Steve. He makes sure the syringe attached to it catches the light –
“What is that?”
– and Waller gives him the opening he needs. He doesn't take his eyes off Steve. “The last of the mirakuru cure.”
“Will that even work on him?”
It's a good question. None of the various Super Soldier experiments have ever had the same effect, so it's unlikely that a cure for one would work right on another. Waller would know that. In this case, there's no chance of it working at all, considering there's nothing in the syringe but saline solution. But that's not what they want her to think.
“I hope we don't have to find out,” Oliver says, approaching Steve cautiously. “Stand down.”
Steve shifts himself into the same parade rest position James had taken earlier, and it makes Oliver shiver to see it. He wants to protest; it shouldn't be possible for Captain America to look this much like the Winter Soldier, and it doesn't matter that it's all a trick.
But it's the second cue; it means everyone is in position, James is ready, and it's time to go.
Oliver turns his back on Steve to speak to Waller. “He's fine.”
Even expecting the grab, Oliver isn't prepared for the strength of it. He's hauled backwards, his feet leaving the ground entirely, as Steve uses him as a shield to get behind the van. Before Oliver can get his bearings, Steve throws him – he hits the ground a good ten feet from the loading dock, rolling automatically to protect his shoulder.
He looks back in time to see the chain on the door go flying in pieces as Steve darts into the building.
“Don't lose him!” Waller snaps at her soldiers, who take off running after Steve.
Oliver pulls himself up off the ground as the parking lot empties. There are a couple of gunshots inside the building, and the sound of boots pounding up stairs. “This is the only exit to the building. Everything else is bricked over.”
“Then they'll corner him on the roof.”
Oliver shakes his head. “I've seen this guy jump off a building this tall and keep walking.”
Waller glares at him coolly. “Then you'd better make sure he can't.”
Oliver fires an arrow to dislodge the ladder of the fire escape; he jumps onto it before it finishes unfolding and uses the height to set a grappling arrow into the roofline. As the ascender pulls him upward, he can hear sporadic gunfire inside, and the rapping of Amanda's heels on the metal steps below him. Good; they need her on the roof for the finale.
Oliver vaults over the roof ledge in time to see Steve bat the fire door closed and wedge a crowbar through the latch. The hinges on that door are reinforced steel; it should hold the soldiers back long enough.
Steve turns to see Oliver blocking the fire escape and freezes. The hazy red clouds of the city sky cast a dim light across them both, but Steve's expression is unreadable above the mask.
“Vanya, please.” Steve's fist clenches at the name, but he doesn't move. “I'm your friend.”
“I have no friends. There is only the mission.”
Oliver risks a step forward. They need to have enough space between them, but he can't be too close to the fire stairs – “Stand down.”
Steve stalks forward a step, menace radiating off of him. “I will destroy ARGUS.”
Finally, Oliver hears Waller make it to the top of the ladder behind him. The timing for the next part's on Steve –
Who tilts his head slightly and shifts his stance deliberately. They'd practiced this part, but even so, Oliver's heart is pounding.
Steve runs straight at him.
Oliver nocks an arrow and shoots; he doesn't have time to think before shooting again.
Steve bats the first one out of the air without slowing, weaves slightly away from the second one – and Oliver takes the opening to send out the third arrow, this one with the syringe. It lands solidly in the flesh of Steve's thigh. Oliver just has time enough to drop his bow before Steve is on him.
Steve punches to his throat; Oliver ducks. Foot stomp; Oliver rolls away. He blocks the next punch and almost goes over backwards; Steve grabs him, and Oliver spins them around, grappling for a better hold. Steve still manages to throw him hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
Oliver rolls up to one knee, nocks the next arrow, lets fly – Steve ducks it –
– and staggers. He pulls the syringe out of his leg and lets it fall to the roof with a clatter.
Oliver holds the next arrow nocked, but doesn't advance. There are gunshots and pounding behind the roof door; it won't hold much longer.
It shouldn't have to.
“Finish it,” Waller calls out, and Oliver cuts his eyes in her direction without loosening his grip on the bowstring.
“Not if I don't have to.”
She turns to Steve. “Turn yourself in. There's nowhere for you to go.”
He shakes his head, and staggers again. Oliver lowers his bow and walks forward slowly, stopping his hand outstretched. He doesn't realize he's mimicking Steve from last night until he sees Steve's eyes widen.
It isn't incidental that he's standing right in front of the spent syringe –
“Let me help you –“
The explosion erupts just in front of him, scorching the rooftop and turning the empty syringe to slag. The force of it throws him backwards, though he manages to keep his feet this time. Suddenly, the roof is awash with light as Iron Man swoops down to hover between Oliver and Steve.
Steve steps back to the far edge of the roof, but there's nowhere else for him to go.
“I have to say,” Tony's derision is clear even through the speakers, “that I'm highly disappointed in your life choices, Arrow.”
In the shadows behind Tony, Oliver can see Steve shake his head again, list slightly to the side –
– and crumple into a perfect faint, right off the roof.
Iron Man, oblivious, aims his repulsor at Oliver when he lunges forward.
“You just stay right there, while I have a word with Miss Blew-Up-My-Plane.”
Oliver doesn't listen; he ducks under that upraised arm and runs to the edge of the roof to look down.
James's body is lying limply at the base of the wall.
It's the plan, Oliver knows it's the plan, but he can't see Steve anywhere and James is so very still. He latches a grappling hook to the edge of the roof and uses it to rappel down the wall.
“What? You've never seen a super-soldier jump off a roof before?” Tony floats over the edge and looks down himself. “Oh, no. No no no.”
When Oliver gets to the ground, he checks James for a pulse, breathing, anything. Knowing this would happen didn't prepare him for seeing it, for being here.
It isn't in the plan, but he starts CPR on James – Sam said that short of cutting him open, nothing is going to harm him with the drug in his system – and he has to do something.
“What the fuck did you do?” Iron Man lands beside them, joints whining as he moves
“Drugged him,” Oliver says between breaths. “Supposed to make him vulnerable. But not this!”
“Get away from him!” Iron Man lifts Oliver by the shirt front and yanks him straight up into the air. In a heartbeat, he's dangling four stories over the drop, too far from the edge of the roof to reach it.
“It wasn't supposed to hurt him, I swear!”
They spin slowly, and past Iron Man's shoulder, Oliver can see Waller taking the same rappel down the wall – perfectly done, even in her skirt – and bending over James's body.
In a much softer voice, Tony asks him, “Think she's buying it?”
Oliver answers equally softly. “So far.”
“Cap's ready; time for the closer.”
Sam is running along one side of the building, Steve from the other. He's made the costume change, his white t-shirt practically glowing in the light thrown off by the Iron Man suit. No one would mistake him for the Winter Soldier. It's not just the clothes, but the body language – he's running flat-out toward James's body, but he has none of the menace he'd projected when he lunged at Oliver on the roof.
This might just work.
Iron Man brings them down in a rush, and drops Oliver next to Waller. “Both of you, stay where I can keep an eye on you.”
Steve is bent over James's body, Sam crouched over him.
“The fall didn't kill him,” Waller says quietly. “It must have been the serum.”
“It shouldn't have. It wasn't meant to kill.” Oliver can't keep his eyes off the shuddering line of Steve's back. Is he crying? He wasn't supposed to try to fake that –
“It was developed for the mirakuru. It must have interacted differently with whatever they gave Barnes.”
There's a note of speculation in Waller's voice. Oliver knows she's wondering if she's found something that could kill Captain America, too. It's one of the things that Waller does – she collects weapons against the unstoppable. The fact that she's thinking about killing Steve, even if she'd only do it in what she thought of as dire circumstances –
There are so many reasons Oliver can't work for ARGUS any more.
Waller's soldiers finally make their way from the front of the building back here. They mill around, confused, but ready to take orders. It's time for Iron Man to threaten Waller and give Steve a chance to get out with the body without blowing his cover.
But Steve shakes Sam off faster than Oliver can track. He's just a streak of movement, ending with Waller pressed against the wall, Steve with one hand around her throat and the other fist pulled back. He looks like he's going to kill her – he's shaking, breaths heaving, with tears streaming down his face.
If he's faking, it's worth a goddamn Oscar.
“He was my best friend!”
The sound of a half dozen rifles swinging into position is loud in the sudden silence. Oliver has time to wonder if Steve's gotten caught up in this like he did, if seeing James dead was just too realistic for him –
When Iron Man flies closer and flips open the face plate on his suit. “She's not worth it, Cap.”
Tony's obviously worried, and Oliver doesn't think he's faking it, either. Amanda is struggling to breathe around the hand on her throat, but she signals her soldiers to stand down.
Sam eases closer and places a hand gently on Steve's cocked arm. “Stark's right. She's not worth it.”
Oliver isn't sure what's happening any more. If Steve has lost the thread of it, if he's really going to attack Amanda – and how much he'll pull his punches if he does... Oliver shifts closer. He'll only have a moment to intervene, considering how fast Steve moves, but none of this plan will work if Steve gets himself locked up –
“You're right.” Steve drops his fist and steps back. He's still shaking. “She can go to prison for murder. Iron Man, call the police.”
Amanda coughs out a breath, sagging slightly against the wall. But her voice is only a little rough. “Are you sure you want to do that, Captain Rogers?”
“Don't even speak to me!”
“The world remembers Sergeant Barnes as a hero.” She pulls herself away from the wall, straightens her jacket – and meets Steve's glare with no expression at all. “If you drag this into the light, the press will smear his name. He spent decades murdering innocent people on HYDRA's behalf. History will brand him a monster.”
And Steve actually falls back a pace. “He didn't know what he was doing!”
“The man you knew died in 1945. Let him go.” She lets the offer hang between them.
“While you distort the truth?” Tony snorts derisively. “I can make that call any time, Cap.”
“No,” Steve says finally. “Not this time. But there will be a next time, Ms. Waller. People like you, there's always a next time.”
Amanda nods. “I'm sure there will be.”
Steve turns his back on her, ignoring Oliver entirely. He lifts James gently from the ground and walks away, Sam following quietly. The soldiers part to let them through.
Tony flips the face plate closed and brings the Iron Man suit to hover a few feet off the ground. “Cap may be above petty revenge, but I'm not. Watch your back, Ms. Waller.”
She smiles coldly. “Watch your own, Mr. Stark.”
“Oh, and I called the cops anyway. Feel free to stick around and explain everything.” He shoots into the sky, a bright streak of light that leaves the night darker in its wake.
Oliver turns the other way.
Oliver pauses, but he doesn't look back.
“Regardless of the outcome, you did the right thing.”
He can't help shaking his head. She's right, of course, but this doesn't feel like a win. “Did I?”
James was free. For the moment, at least.
So Oliver threw himself back into shaking down dealers and keeping pressure on the new gang trying to take over the southern edge of the Glades. With all the federal disaster money around, they were moving into construction fraud – and keeping the Arrow busy. Felicity suggested, once, very gently, that he could try talking about his feelings instead of shooting arrows at people... but she wasn't surprised when he turned her down.
But he did start sleeping at home again sometimes. Some nights, the mansion seemed like a giant mausoleum to Oliver’s failures, the damage Slade had done to this family as inescapable as the scars on the city. But others – it was the house Oliver grew up in, and the smell and feel of it managed to make him smile.
He finally makes it there two nights in a row, two good nights, when the pillows are just soft enough and the lamplight is warm enough to block out the night. He picks up the novel he started months ago and starts over again, not quite ready to sleep.
When his phone rings from an unlisted number, he almost ignores it. But it's his personal phone, not the Arrow's, and he hasn't given himself much chance to be Oliver Queen lately. “Hello?”
He can't quite place the voice for a moment; familiar, but not usually so relaxed... “James. I – thought there wasn't supposed to be any contact.”
“No visits.” He can practically see the smirk on James's face. “Stark gave me a phone.”
“Of course he did.” But Oliver can't even keep up a pretense of disapproving. He would never have looked for James himself, but if the other man wants to call, Oliver won't stop him. “How are you?”
“And the new place?”
They fall into a long silence, broken only by the whirr of the house's air conditioner coming on, and the soft sound of breathing on the other end of the line.
It's more soothing than the novel Oliver had been reading. Or maybe it's just that hearing James's breathing is reassuring, a visceral reminder that he's still alive.
“Tell me about you,” James says finally.
It makes Oliver laugh softly. “I wouldn't know where to start.”
“That's okay. Just. Talk for a while?”
“All right.” Oliver turns off the lamp and settles back against the pillows. He knows how it feels, not wanting to be alone. “Let me tell you about my city.”