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Skeletons (Never Stay Buried)

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Early April 1994

The Soldier's head snapped up as he was placing the male target back in the car; he could hear the cry of a baby. There isn't supposed to be a baby. His targets only had one child, and he was away at college. He had been for several years according to the briefing he been given on the targets.

He glanced into the backseat and saw a car seat tucked in carefully behind the driver on the floor of the car. He had precious minutes before his handlers would arrive to check on him. Before he knew it, protective instincts that were long since forgotten took over. 

He took the time to shoot out the security camera, knowing that someone would be monitoring the situation at the other end. He wanted Hydra to believe the assassination went off without a hitch or any unforeseen circumstances. It was part of his mission to shoot out the camera as soon as Howard Stark and any witnesses were eliminated. So it wouldn't be seen by the observers as out of the ordinary.

His handlers would be after the serum Howard had been transporting to SHIELD. So he popped the trunk and removed the briefcase before he carefully lifted the car seat from the backseat of the car. 

He gently rocked the crying baby as he walked into the trees on the side of the road. Eventually, the child stopped crying, so he placed the briefcase and the car seat behind a tree, hoping the babe would stay asleep while he dealt with his handlers.

The Soldier knew he had to act fast. So, first, he got Howard positioned in the car, so it looked like the older man died in the impact. He then searched the vehicle for any papers that would indicate there was another Stark in the car.

He hit pay dirt in Maria Stark's handbag. There was a torn-up application form to register the birth of Marco Collins Stark. It looked like someone had torn it apart and then shoved it in the handbag rather than use the forms to register the birth. There was also delivery paperwork torn up with the birth registration form. He straightened out the paperwork and pocketed it before he moved to stand where his handlers would be expecting him to wait.

They had sent a light crew with him this time, just the two handlers. So it was quick work to dispatch them both as soon as they arrived. 

The soldier worked quickly to move their car further down the road, and he moved baby Marco and the briefcase to the car before he got to work on setting up the scene. He knew instinctively he needed Hydra to believe he had died in the crash. 

The Soldier first moved all the trackers he could sense on his handler's car to the Stark's car. Then, he quickly positioned the handlers, so it looked as though they were looking in through the sedan's windows as if they were checking on the Starks. Finally, he stabbed through the car's gas tank before he walked to his motorbike.

He waited to give the gas enough time to spill. He wanted to create a large explosion that burnt hot enough to hide just how many bodies were involved. He used one of his knives on his flesh arm, so he could spray a decent amount of his blood all over the motorbike. He was hopeful that a few parts would fly off the bike in the explosion so they could use his blood to identify him as one of the victims. 

When he could see the puddle under the car slowing, he started his motorbike. With the kickstand still down to create sparks, he sent the bike careening into the Stark's car.

BOOM!

As soon as he let the bike go, he was off running to the handler's car. He wanted time to clean out the motel room of weapons and equipment before he planned his next move.

He ransacked the room to make it look like a simple robbery, making sure to avoid the single-camera the Motel Six used for security. He left his gloves on so there would be no evidence left behind from his flesh hand. The Soldier found several weapons, which he packed into a duffle. He also grabbed the two duffles of clothes the handlers had brought with them as he left the room. He left the door ajar to add to the snatch and grab theory. 

-x-

The Soldier knew he had one place he could go. There was someone he had saved a few years ago that owed him a favor. It didn't seem to matter how many times Hydra used the chair to remove unnecessary memories. That one memory was never erased.

After a quick stop to pick up baby formula and diapers, he drove through the night to get to Red Wing, Minnesota. It was where the woman in his memories had said he would be able to find her if he ever needed her help. 

She'd been caught in a wrong place, wrong time scenario during one of his assassinations, and he was able to hide her from his handlers. She said she'd owed him a life debt, and she would repay that debt any way she could. 

Her name was Claudia Gajos, and at the time, she had been in her final year at Stanford when he was sent to assassinate one of the psychology professors. 

The Soldier pulled up at the address she'd given him, and after a quick check in the backseat to see if the baby was still asleep in the car seat, he knocked on her door.

Claudia answered, and with a flash of recognition on her face, she asked, "You finally want to escape, Soldat?"

The Soldier nodded and said in a rough accented voice, "I need your help."

She could hear a baby start to cry and said, "How about you get everything inside, and you can explain to me what you need."

The Soldier nodded and went back to the car to grab the duffle bags and briefcase from the trunk. He piled them up beside the car, so they would be easy to pick up. He had put all the baby's things into one of the bags of clothes to make it all easy to grab if he was in a hurry. He reached in to pick up the baby carrier. He was grateful that the Starks had used a car seat that doubled as a baby carrier, as he wasn't confident he could hold a baby without hurting it.

He held the baby carrier with one hand, and he picked up the three duffles and the briefcase with the other before he headed inside through the door Claudia was holding open.

Claudia looked at the baby in the carrier and asked, "Is this little one yours?"

He shook his head, "No, he's not. I'm not sure why I took him."

Claudia looked at him sympathetically, "He's like me? Collateral damage that you saved?"

The Soldier nodded, "I don't know why, but I knew I had to take him and escape. I was sent to kill his parents; Hydra didn't even know he existed."

Claudia sat heavily, "Right, so you want help to what? Disappear with the kid?"

He shrugged, "I don't know. All I know is that I want to protect the kid and that the memory of you owing me a favor was the only one that ever survived Hydra's mind wipes after my missions."

She suggested, "How about we give the little one a feed then a bath, and then we'll get him settled on the sofa for a few hours sleep while we figure out how I can help you."

The baby was fussing, so Claudia got him fed, and she offered to show the soldier how to bathe him. He shook his head, "I'm too strong. I'll hurt him."

She smiled, "You won't. Your first instinct when you heard him cry was to protect him. You broke through Hydra's programming to keep him safe. You'll be fine, come on, just follow my lead, ok?"

He nodded silently as he followed her instructions on how to gently bathe the baby. She showed him how to correctly put on a diaper; he'd made a good go of it earlier, aside from it being on backward. They finally got him settled on the sofa surrounded by cushions so he couldn't accidentally roll off in his sleep.

Once they were sure he was asleep, she asked, "Before we make any plans, can I scan you with my magic? It will give me an idea of what I have to work with to get you back to an even keel, and I want to make sure Hydra hasn't left anything new in there to trigger you. I also want to see what the chair you mentioned has done to your memories."

The Soldier nodded, "It's just a scan, right?"

Claudia nodded, "I won't do anything without permission. And if there is something that needs to be done, it will be gentle, and I'll explain it thoroughly before we do it." She looked at him thoughtfully and asked, "You're still wary about magic? I remember when we met, you balked at me using magic so you would remember the debt I owed you."

He nodded, "Hydra has vicious magic users, they first tried to use magic to wipe away my former life, and it was brutal. Then when it didn't work, they developed the chair. The chair is painful, but at least it doesn't feel like my brain is being torn apart."

"Right," She said with a huff, "Just to solidify the fact that Hydra are Nazi bastards. So what I plan to do is just a scan; I want to see if it's as much of a mess as when I added the memory. I won't do anything invasive, and I'll discuss any treatments with you before we do them. Ok?"

The Soldier nodded and sat back on the sofa so he could see baby Marco while she did her scans. After a while, he looked up when he couldn't feel anything, and he asked, "Are you actually doing anything, or are you just staring at me?"

Claudia smirked at him and confirmed, "I'm scanning. Frankly, it's still a huge mess in there. To put it into terms that someone without magic would understand, each time they used the chair, it put all those memories they wanted to hide behind a door. Well, dude, you have a metric fuck tonne of doors. There are also some pretty clear triggers wound up tight in there that will take a while to unravel."

The Soldier shrugged, "And?"

She sighed, "It will take us years to sort it all out. The triggers I can see look like a set of words to set off a preprogrammed response. Returning you to a base personality. Then there are the doors, there are literally hundreds of doors, and I can already tell that some have to be opened in the right order. Add to that, you will be unlocking what will likely be traumatic memories if you've been with Hydra for as long as you have, so you're going to need all the therapy." She considered the issue for a few minutes before she slowly grinned, "So, I think I might have an idea." 

He raised an eyebrow in challenge, which made her chuckle. She explained, "The easiest way to hide from an organization like Hydra is in plain sight. I have a friend who can create a really good set of false identities that would even pass a federal background check. He can create a background legend that will hide us as a married couple with a newborn. We move to a smallish town somewhere that's not here, anywhere that's not here. Smaller than a city but big enough that we can get lost, if we want to. We can spend the next few years working to clear your memory issues as we blend in."

The Soldier frowned, "So we need to get married?"

Claudia shook her head, "No, god no. We'll just look married to those in the town we will choose to live in. Share a house, but not a bed. I have less than zero interest in a relationship like that. I can create an amulet that will hide you with a glamour spell, so you'll look completely different. It will even hide your arm."

"Why?" He demanded, "Why are you so willing to help me? What do you want in return? This has to be worth more than the debt you say you owe me."

She decided the best way to answer would be blunt. "You did me two favors that day, you saved my life when you hid me from your handlers, and you saved me from being violated by the professor you were targeting that day. I owe you more than my life. Getting me out of this dead-end town, where my parents expect me to get married and have a brood of kids, is just the icing on the cake."

He nodded. "Fine, I don't care where we end up, long as it's warm; I'm sick of the cold."

-x-

They eventually settled on Northern California; they would explore the area to find the right town when they got there. It was warm year-round, with snow maybe every five years if they were lucky. There were plenty of small towns for them to settle in with the kid, each with several school options once he was old enough. Several of them were just the right size for what they were looking for. 

Claudia worked on the amulet that would disguise the soldier. She left the living room while he was going through the duffle bags. She had suggested he look for clothing that would be less' tactical chic' than what he was currently wearing. 

He pulled out a bundle from the slightly heavier duffle bag he was inspecting. He discovered it was a bundle of cash, used American currency; it would be harder to trace. "Huh," he started to pull out several more bundles from the duffle, and he stacked them in front of him. He called out, "Claudia, when you have a minute can you come here?"

She walked in a few minutes later, and her jaw dropped when she saw the stacks of cash on the floor. She handed over the amulet and explained, "This will change your looks to something fairly non-descript. It will age the longer you wear it to add to the appearance of being a normal human with normal human aging, since I have a feeling you won't actually age like a typical human." 

She looked down at the cash and asked, "Where did you find all that?"

He gestured to the duffle bags and said, "It was hidden in with the clothing, I guess as emergency cash. A lot of emergency cash, there's over two hundred thousand." 

He stood and looked around for the car keys, "Do you have a garage?"

She nodded, "Yeah, but my Jeep is in there. Do you want to swap them?"

He nodded, "I want to strip the car down and check it out. Often they hide weapons and cash in the cars they use for jobs."

She grabbed the keys from him and said, "No one drives my Roscoe, not even to get it out of the garage. Stay here and watch the kid."

She eventually came back in and threw over his keys, so they landed beside him on the floor. She commented, "I have some basic tools in the garage that will help you strip it down. I was thinking, while you're working on the car, I'll take the kid to the next county, and I'll get him some clothes and other essentials. Just enough to last a few weeks until we get settled wherever we end up settling down. Once you're done stripping the car, try out the amulet so you can get used to it, then get some rest. I shouldn't be more than a few hours."

She could see he looked hesitant to let her leave with the baby, so she said, "Soldat, I vow on my magic I'll bring him back to you in one piece."

He saw a flash and asked, "What was that?"

"It was the vow I made sealing with magic," she reassured. "It's certainly not something I do lightly, and something I doubt your Hydra magic users would be willing to do. Especially if they were willing to rape the mind of a prisoner. It means that if I break the terms of the vow, I'll lose my magic."

Deciding to trust her, he nodded and picked up his keys. As he passed her in the doorway, he said, "I'll see you in a few hours. Drive safe."

The Soldier spent several hours stripping down the interior of the car. He found several more handguns that would be useful, as well as several more large bundles of cash. It was quick work to put the car back together so they could dump it on the drive to California.

By the time Claudia and the baby returned, he'd counted all the cash, cleaned all the weapons, stowed them in one of the duffle bags, and tested the amulet. 

He wasn't sure about his new look, but he did appreciate the work that Claudia had put into crafting the amulet. The amulet was in the shape of an eagle, similar to the eagle on Poland's national coat of arms. When worn as a necklace, it made him appear to be a few inches shorter, blond, and he was a lot less built than he was used to. He was especially surprised at how his metal arm seemed to look like an ordinary flesh arm and how the clothes he was wearing seemed to shrink to fit his new form. 

He went out to the backyard and tried a few of his training exercises with the amulet on, and it seemed to only affect how he looked. He still had the muscle memory for most of the combat training he'd been through, as well as his advanced strength.

When Claudia got back, he helped her bring all the bags in before he said, "We have just under four hundred thousand in used US currency, and just over fifty thousand in Swiss francs. That should be enough to help us hide."

She beamed. "That's great. The francs will actually help with the new IDs. My... umm... friend prefers European currencies for his not-so-legal endeavors. He said we just need to give him names and photos, and he'll create the background and IDs for us."

"You choose the names. The only thing I know is that Howard Stark called me Sergeant Barnes as I was killing him, it might be my name, but I don't remember. But maybe a new name for a new start, huh." The Soldier pulled the papers out of his pocket and said, "I found these in the woman's purse."

Claudia went through the papers and said, "Well, we're in luck. It looks like they had no plans to register the birth, if the way these are torn up is any indication. It looks like she delivered privately under a false identity. The names on the delivery paperwork aren't the same, but the dates and times match the application. I guess it's a common way for those who are famous for avoiding the press. I can register the birth with a spell, so the records stay hidden until I release the spell. That way, when the kid wants to meet his older brother, there is a record of his birth."

"Ok," The Soldier agreed, then he asked, "So, when are we leaving?"

Claudia said, "Help me pack my essentials, and we'll leave tomorrow. We need to go via Durango in Colorado. My ID guy is there; he's agreed to have the new backgrounds ready for us by the time we get there. He's also agreed to have his memory of the transaction erased entirely."

He asked, "Is it safe? For him. He won't end up like me?"

She shook her head. "No, I'll basically be stripping out our identities so he will just see generic faces. It's something he offers to magic users he trusts."

The Soldier nodded, "Good. Ok, I want to dump the handler's car on the way there."

-x-

They toured California for a few weeks before settling in a small town outside of Sacramento called Beacon Hills. It was about the right size for what they were after. The houses were reasonably cheap, and there was a large preserve on the edge of town the soldier could use for training out of sight of the residents.

Claudia had decided to keep her first name for their new identities, and she had been hoping to do the same for The Soldier. However, he had no memory of any names other than Soldat or Asset. He told her he could still hear Stark calling him Sergeant Barnes, but it didn't ring a bell for him any more than Soldat or Asset did.

She decided on Claudia and Noah Stilinski for their names. Stilinksi was an old family name from back when the family lived in eastern Europe. Following the same trend, she used her great grandfather's first names for the baby. He became Mieczysław Genim Stilinski, born on April 8th, 1994.
 
They bought a nice house on the edge of the preserve, which Claudia was quick to add wards for protection. The wards she used would hide her magic from anyone outside the house so she could live in the area mostly undetected. For the first two years, they kept pretty much to themselves. Claudia worked with a combination of magic and therapy to unlock the memories that the chair had locked away.

-x-

They'd been working slowly unlocking memories over the first year in Beacon Hills. The latest memory he'd unlocked had revealed that the serum he'd been given was the first generation of a serum the SSR claimed to have developed. The serum Howard had been transporting that night was the final version of the serum he had been developing in secret. 

His memories showed that Hydra had plans to use the serum Howard had been transporting to fix him and the four other Winter Soldiers, or as Noah called them, the Defective Soldiers. The agents Hydra had selected for the program had volunteered for the Winter Soldier Program,  and they were all loose canons. 

The four of them had been kept on ice due to their volatility and unpredictability after they had been given a different version of the knock-off serum. 

The laptop that had been in the bottom of the briefcase had all the research on the new serum, as well as much of Howard's other research. Between the two of them, they discovered that the new serum didn't require the large machine that Dr. Erskine had used to create Captain America. Based on the data, it seemed to be designed to gradually change the subject over the course of around a year. 

Claudia said, "The serum Howard developed should give you even more control over your senses. So it should prevent the intense sense blowouts you've been having."

Noah nodded, "What else? I can see it'll give me more strength to put me on par with Captain America, but there must be more to it?"

Claudia pointed to a few of the charts, "It's hard to say, the serum doesn't look like anything I've seen before, and I did an advanced biochem track at college. I do wonder what they used to create it. It looks like if we use it, it will give you increased intelligence, eidetic memory, faster reflexes, and better healing."

Noah asked, "Will it help unlock more of my memories? The faster we can unlock the bulk of my memories, the sooner we can start phase two."

Claudia chuckled, "You just want to be able to walk around armed without everyone giving you the stink eye again."

Noah nodded, "Essentially, yes. Plus, it would be nice to remember who I am. Some of it's come back, but I know there is more of the old me buried somewhere back there."

With a shrug, Claudia said, "My worry would be the memories unlocking faster than you can process them. You have some pretty traumatic memories buried in there. I get that you're a super-soldier, but even super soldiers need time to process. And remember what I said when we started, I might not be able to get all of your memories back. Between the chair and what the magic users did to you, there is still a fair bit of permanent damage in there."

Noah shrugged. He had enough of a sense of self now that he wasn't overly concerned. He had lost most of the memories from his early life, but he had the most important memories. He knew who his family had been, his sisters, and his friend, Stevie. He commented, "The report said the changes would be gradual. It will mean spending some time in the preserve getting used to my new abilities without the amulet, though." 

He could hear their adopted son playing in his room, and he asked, "How's Mischief doing?"

She had a grim expression when she said, "He's going to be on par with his older brother's intelligence levels. I did a fair amount of research, and Tony was building functional circuit boards at the age of four. We will have to impress on him how important it will be to keep his intelligence mostly hidden as he gets older. He will need to be clever enough to skirt the line of being smart but not too smart. Else we run the risk of him being discovered by Hydra. We can work on homeschooling him ourselves, then we can enroll him in high school classes once he's a bit older. I can use magic to hide his registration for his higher-level learning." 

She looked down at the briefcase, "How about we sort you out with a dose of the serum, then we can put the rest somewhere safe."

"I'll also need to make a plan," with a determined look on his face, he explained about the four defective winter soldiers that were in cryostasis in Siberia. "They'll need to be eliminated before Hydra gets desperate and lets them loose on the world."