Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss--we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
-- “What the Living Do,” by Marie Howe
It was barren, desolate, ugly; it was just long stretches of snow-dotted fields, empty except for the sheared-down dead stalks of corn, occasionally the smell of pig shit. Flat, unmemorable in just about every way. Sometimes houses, but mostly the sort of cookie-cutter new construction that spoke to the transition of farming from a subsistence profession to a corporate profit machine. It wasn't the kind of place that anyone would come on vacation. To visit. It was the kind of place you'd only come if you had a purpose.
He was here with a purpose. So was the person he'd come here for. The truck he was driving had no heat and the suspension rattled anytime he accelerated above 70, but it had been easy to steal, and he didn't think the junker he'd stolen it from would care enough to report it missing. At least not before he ditched it.
It was outside of Merrillville, what he was looking for. Getting close to Chicago, a city he wasn't sure if he'd ever visited. There had been a world's fair there once, but that was before either time he'd been born, so he wasn't certain how he knew about it. A world's fair, and a man using that world's fair as a convenient excuse to kill. The two things seemed to go hand-in-hand.
You wouldn't come here unless you were looking for something specific, because there wasn't a lot to find. He pulled off 65 and toward the Motel 6, turning off his lights once he got close enough. There was nobody else on the road, anyway, and he didn't want to be detected.
He'd come late at night. He knew the schedule that his quarry kept, and he knew that in the small hours of the morning, specifically between two and four, would be the time most likely that both his quarry and his quarry's companion would be asleep. Anyone who was awake around here at this time would most likely be looking for trouble, or causing it, and unlikely to disturb him.
He parked around the back lot of the motel, cracked asphalt with patches of grass starting to grow through it, the beat-up cars that must belong to the motel employees. He walked around the side of the motel and along its long path of doors all the same -- it reminded him of a hallway in a base, once, this faint snatch of memory that occurred completely without context or meaning. There was a car parked outside the room. Nondescript but nonetheless nicer than any of the other cars in sight. It was a rental. He knew because he'd used it to track them here.
His right hand twitched. They'd rented two rooms, and the soldier was relying on the fact that that wasn't just a cover to confuse anyone who might be looking for them. If the other man was in the room with the target, he'd have to leave. The other man couldn't know he was here. Couldn't know why he was here.
104 said the number on the door. He looked through the peephole, but it had been covered. He could get in this door easily, but part of this was the game he was playing, a game where he didn't want to cause undue alarm to the person in the room. There was a polite way to do this. There was a right way. A way that a person would do it.
He knocked on the door.
There was silence for several seconds. He counted them in his head, the way he was used to counting on missions, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. He couldn't hear any movement from inside the room, but then, his target had training. His target was perfectly capable of not making any noise.
The door opened.
He had gone to the museum, after the helicarrier. He didn't feel like he had a choice; it felt like he was being drawn there, inexorably, by the Captain's face on the backs of benches, the insides of bus stops, the billboards. The man was watching him; the man had known him, one way or another, with a sort of certainty that the soldier wasn't capable of feeling in any direction. He needed to know what the Captain knew, or thought he knew.
It was him, of course. Or rather, it had been him. He recognized that it was his face, and even his voice, but the fact of the matter was that he didn't have the memories of James Buchanan Barnes, and even in his current state, he knew that memory was a large part of identity, of psychology. Without it, he couldn't be the man that Steve Rogers remembered, even if he was traveling around in that same body.
He didn't quite know what to do after that. A large part of him was begging him, groveling even, to find Hydra again. Be returned to control. It would be easy. It would be simple. They would tell him what to do and it would take away the difficulty of choice, the difficulty of reality. It wouldn't matter if it hurt, because pain was just a simple fact of existence, and mostly only temporary. He'd learned that fact very clearly.
Something was keeping him from it, though. Maybe it was the fact that a different, smaller part of him couldn't stop thinking about Rogers' face and the fact that his expression had a certainty in it that even the soldier could recognize as being just as strong, or stronger, than the part of the soldier that wanted to go back. And anyway, the whole organization was in shambles. Nobody had contacted him, and the newspapers and televisions went on and on about government infrastructures being irrevocably shaken up.
He went to New York City instead. This was an aimless urge brought on by the knowledge that it was where his body had come from, where Steve Rogers had come from. It would be easy to hide there, anyway. Six and a half million people. Easy to blend in.
There were things he could reach for, and find them there without ever knowing how he had learned them, or why. Other things could be learned through observation. It should not be difficult to approximate a facsimile of an ordinary human life. And even if he couldn't quite manage -- he had discovered that New York City was full of a lot of people who were not quite ordinary.
Things that were easy: Stealing, directly and indirectly. On the train, civilians were absorbed in their phones, or their conversations. The soldier was excellent at insinuating his fingers into pockets, handbags, backpacks, without being noticed. Many people still carried cash. Those who did not often had a debit card which was good for one or two uses before being slipped into a garbage can.
Many things he did not need money for. He found an abandoned warehouse where he could sleep, and discovered that things like mattresses and food were easy to come by in dumpsters and garbage piles. It did not matter whether what he ate would have been considered appetizing or even edible by the average person; he knew from some kind of murky experience that it would not make him sick, even when spotted with mold or rot. And anyway he needed to eat very little. He did not eat until the pain in his stomach made him begin to feel dizzy and weak. That was as he could remember it always having been.
The level of independence he was able to maintain suggested that he had been trained for missions more complex than simple assassination, which made sense. Why create a weapon with a human face, if you did not intend to make use of that human face? It was true enough that he had become a blunt instrument within the years he could remember more clearly -- it had been obvious enough from Secretary Pierce's reaction in the bunker that he was malfunctioning, and probably had been for some time.
Sometimes -- he missed --
This purposelessness became exhausting, after a while. He would sleep when necessary, wake up, wander around the city, looking for something he couldn't understand or remember. Sometimes he ate. Sometimes he went to the big public library in Midtown with its marble columns, and used the computer. He learned about the past, the present. Things he had missed or forgotten. But there was no real reason for any of it, and he could feel something building and building inside him, an insistent and unignorable itch.
He needed -- he needed someone to tell him what to do. He was not meant to be without reason, without a mission. He didn't know what that meant anymore. He didn't think anyone did. All of these people, they were carrying out their own small missions, even as insignificant and stupid as those missions were. But the soldier couldn't bring himself to think of his own errands as missions; he was meant, he knew, for greater things than this. He could remember Secretary Pierce saying something to that effect, once -- many times -- once -- his hand on the soldier's chin --
The soldier needed, at times, to be able to operate independently. Before his behavior had become erratic, he supposed, he had not been tethered to a STRIKE team. He knew things. Passcodes, locations. He needed to dig them up; they were inside him, somewhere. They had to be.
He stayed awake for a long time trying to remember. He stayed awake until his right hand shook and his heart was beating very quickly. He had begun to hallucinate, though he couldn't say what it was, exactly, that the hallucinations were. Some formless shapes in the corner of his vision. People, maybe. Technicians. Someone's voice, telling him to go to sleep. A hand, stroking back his hair.
Someone whispered it in his ear. A word. He didn't know what it meant, but his hands knew. He was sitting at the library, at a computer. "Hey, buddy, your turn's up," said a voice from beside him. "Hey, buddy -- are you asleep? You can't sleep in here."
He jerked upright, looked over his shoulder, and his fingers moved across the keyboard. It was good that it was winter. It wasn't strange to wear gloves. Maybe indoors, but -- he wasn't exactly projecting the image of perfect normalcy. He was forced to admit that much.
He found what he was looking for. Google maps showed him an image. He committed it to memory -- he hoped he was committing it to memory -- "I'm finished now," he said, clearing the browser's history, standing up.
His legs were shaky but he made them take him outside. He got on the train and leaned back against the window, his vision blurry. The voice again, in his ear, whispering that word, over and over. He was meant to go there, maybe. He was meant to remember it -- in case. In case.
The building was empty when he got there. Hollow, a shell. It had been stripped of whatever gave it purpose, before. The soldier felt himself laugh, a sick feeling that shook his ribcage. Just like me, he thought. Just like me.
The computers all flashed, green text on black screens, nonsense. The soldier sat down heavily in one of the chairs and put his face on the desk. I just wanted you to take me back, he thought, closing his eyes. I just wanted to be nothing again.
His hair tickled his nose and mouth. It was dirty, like the rest of him. Not so dirty as to attract disgust, but James Barnes wouldn't have let himself get this dirty, if he had a choice. It didn't matter. These were nonsensical and unproductive trains of thought to have.
He did not realize that he had fallen asleep against his will until the sound of a faint, low beeping woke him. His hand went to his pants pocket, touching the handle of the nearest knife. He stood up slowly, listened hard, walked in the direction that the sound was coming from.
One of the computers had been interrupted in the process of being wiped, or it had simply failed to wipe completely. It was receiving a signal of some kind, just a notification that was flashing at a regular interval, a series of numbers. He watched it flash, listened to the mechanical beeping. There was something about it, he knew -- it made him want to act, but he wasn't certain in what direction to move. Something that had been wiped out of him incompletely, too.
He looked at the numbers on the screen. His mind rearranged them. Again and again. Anagram, anagram. Nothing. Nothing except the faint feeling that it meant something terrible. Something terrible, over and over. An S.O.S., maybe. A cry for help.
Abruptly, the beeping stopped, and the screen went black, and then began flashing green, just like all the others. The soldier jolted, turning to look behind himself, holding the knife at the ready. It had been foolish to come in here -- a trap, they would punish him, they might kill him, he had severely deviated from his mission, and had not immediately returned to base --
There was no one there. He relaxed, incrementally. He had cleared the base when he had first come in, walking down windowless cement-floored corridors, and he remembered that now. He cleared it again, to make sure that nobody had come in during the brief interval when he had been unconscious. There was something comforting about the fact that he was able to navigate the maze of the many hallways so easily but -- comfort was not a feeling meant for the soldier. He knew it.
He found a piece of paper and wrote down the sequence of numbers before his sleep-starved mind had a chance to forget them. His handwriting was poor. Shaky. It felt incorrect to have written down anything at all. Untraceable. He was meant to be --
He took the train to the empty warehouse and allowed himself to lay down on the old, dirty mattress that he had put in one of the corners. It was cold. His teeth chattered. He disliked these involuntary reactions.
The fingers of his flesh hand touched the piece of paper with the numbers written on it, in his pocket. It discomfited him.
Eventually, he didn't fall asleep; he passed out, a fall backwards into unconsciousness that, at least, felt familiar. He woke some time later. He had been too careless to note the position of the sun in the sky when he had returned to the warehouse, so the best estimate he could make was that it was several hours later. His stomach and head ached. His mouth was dry.
He reached into his pocket and felt the piece of paper again. He needed --
This would not be a job for a single operative, even if he was operating at full capacity, which it was very clear that he was not. He would need a second asset, of a similar caliber to his. And worse than that, he needed an asset who was loyal not to Hydra, because this was not specifically a Hydra mission, and technically the soldier was disobeying and disobeying terribly -- he needed an operative who was loyal to him, to the soldier himself, and -- there was only one person who could possibly fit that description.
He needed to find Captain America. Steven Grant Rogers.
It would be advantageous, he judged, to look more like the man that Steve Rogers had known. Haircuts were relatively inexpensive, razors even moreso. He left the warehouse, eradicating his presence entirely, and took to staying in a shelter where he could take a shower almost every day, alone. Where he could look in a mirror. Get used to his face in the mirror again.
He acquired a series of phones and computers. He would have thought, in this age, that people would be warier, that they would be more careful, and it was a little surprising that beneath the veneer of paranoia and suspicion, everyone still did stupid things, like leaving their phones on counters, setting their bags down next to their chairs at cafes while they ate.
He didn't use any one piece of machinery for very long. Everything could be tracked; he wiped his fingerprints before discarding the items, wiped the hard drives down to nothing. Again, he was uncertain how he knew what to do, but Steve Rogers in his casual, civilian life had a sloppy digital fingerprint that apparently his government handlers had not felt worthy of eradication. Now that the soldier looked more like whatever passed for a productive member of society, it was not difficult to smile at the girl in the mobile phone store, to keep his face turned away from the security cameras, to ask her for help finding a phone that had been stolen.
She did not, of course, know that it was Steve Rogers' mobile phone. It was registered under an alias. "I just want to get the photos back, you know?" he asked her. "Some photos of my dog are on there, and we had to put her down a couple of months ago. I should have backed it up, but --"
He was not watching her, not really, though her face was sympathetic. He was watching her hands, watching what she typed where. She asked him for far less proof of ownership than he had been prepared to give, and probably far less than she was bound by the terms of her job to do. But that was part of it, wasn't it? Part of how he had been trained. A weapon with a human face, like he had thought before.
The phone was in Indiana, which meant, theoretically, that Steve Rogers was in Indiana. He was technically no longer a part of any government organization, but it was clear that he was still being monitored, albeit from a distance, and by people who saw his current errand as benign, possibly somewhat foolhardy.
The soldier knew what Rogers was looking for, of course. Rogers was looking for him.
It was only a twelve-hour drive. The soldier knew himself to be more than capable of performing at an acceptable capacity for longer than that, but he felt, uncharacteristically, that he needed some time to prepare. He did not know for what, or why. It was just another one of those unnamed, directionless urges that he supposed was a human feeling, but nonetheless remained a feeling for which he felt only loathing.
He slept for a while before he left. He justified this to himself by reasoning that it would allow him to function more capably for a longer period of time, if he was well-rested, but the fact he knew his body did not need the sleep only served to disturb him more. He slept poorly. He felt chased, though he did not know what by. His heart beat heavily, rapidly, when he awoke.
He took the train and the bus out of the city, and then began on the first in a series of cars, older and nondescript, to take him the rest of the way. Part of him expected to be followed. Part of him expected that they knew, and that they would -- should -- stop him.
No one stopped him. This was for the best, as he did not have a driver's license, and technically speaking could not even remember having learned to drive at all. He stayed within a reasonable range of the speed limit, stuck to the interstate, and kept a weather eye out for law enforcement.
He wasn't sure what he had expected -- or rather, he should have had no expectations at all for the act of driving cross-country, because he could not remember ever having done it before. It should have felt like a void, or like more of one than it did. It did not feel like a void. It did not feel empty. Instead it felt simply like another thing that he could not remember, the space of it in his mind differentiated from emptiness by the sense that something had belonged there once, though chasing the edges of that feeling brought only a further sense of clarity that he was damaged, malfunctioning, acting incorrectly.
It was in Ohio that he got the truck. Ohio, the Western half of it, anyway, had been where that unending bleak flatness started. In a way, it felt appropriate, because the soldier thought maybe that unending bleak flatness was what he felt inside. Or what he wanted to.
The door opened. Steve Rogers was behind it, crouched defensively, his shield held in front of him.
The soldier could not blame him. The last time Rogers had seen him, after all, the soldier had put three bullets in Rogers and beat him nearly to death. He didn't smile; it would have seemed inauthentic, he judged -- it would have been inauthentic. He merely held out both of his hands, palms up, watching Rogers' face cycle through expressions, until Rogers backed away from the door, moving the shield down to his side.
The soldier walked inside, but did not move to shut the door. Instead, he waited for Rogers to do that, turning to watch him when he did. The weight of Rogers’ movements, like he was burdened in a way would be difficult to lay on a man of his strength.
Rogers put the shield down, and turned to look at the soldier. "I was looking for you," he said cautiously, at last, his voice very low.
"I know," the soldier said, though it was not precisely true. Rogers was looking for his friend; Rogers was looking for Barnes. The soldier was merely the man wearing that skin.
Rogers sat down on the bed. The other man -- Sam Wilson -- was not in the room, which meant he would be next door. Rogers looked up at the soldier and didn't say anything. He seemed to have healed completely from the wounds that the soldier had dealt him.
"I found a signal," the soldier began, "in the remnants of a Hydra base that looked to have been destroyed in reaction to the events of Project Insight. All the equipment was rendered inoperable. The computers had all been wiped. It appeared that one of the computers had been incompletely wiped, or prevented from shutting down completely, and that computer was receiving a signal. I need to find the source of that signal."
"Sam said you would come to us," Rogers said heavily. His gaze moved away from the soldier, down to his own hands, where they rested palms-up on his thighs. "Sam said we wouldn't find you. He said you'd find us, when you were ready."
"The signal ceased before I could decode it," the soldier continued doggedly. "I believe it can be traced, but I -- the mission requires a second operative."
Rogers' gaze snapped sharply up to him again. The soldier had, strangely, the urge to flinch, but he had long since been trained to withstand that urge. "I need someone of the same capabilities as me," the soldier said. "I need --" he swallowed, feeling weak. "I need someone I can trust."
This was a meaningless statement. He had no idea, really, whether he could trust Rogers, and as of right now, decidedly did not. He had come prepared for this to go either way. "You need my help," Rogers said slowly.
"We should leave tonight," the soldier said. "As soon as possible."
"Bucky, I --" Rogers said, not looking at the soldier. He shook his head. "What about Sam?"
The soldier shook his head. Wilson was capable enough, but couldn't operate on the same level as himself and Rogers. And he couldn't -- he didn't have the same loyalty to Barnes that Rogers did. There was no saying that he wouldn't see this fool's errand for what it was and decide that the soldier would be better off in the hands of the government, or Tony Stark, or whoever.
"No," Rogers said. "I won't leave him here. He came with me. He's been with me through all of this, I'm not just going to abandon him --"
The soldier said nothing. Rogers stared at him and set his jaw, and a long uncomfortable span of silence passed between them, until at last Rogers got up and went into the bathroom and started rattling around. The soldier moved just enough to see what he was doing -- putting his toiletries into a bag, putting that bag into another bag. Rogers looked too big for the tiny space.
He went to put his phone and his laptop, both sitting on the nightstand, into the bag, and the soldier shook his head. "Why?" Rogers asked.
"You're still being traced," the soldier said. "Too easy to track. Too easy to find."
Rogers looked at the phone in his hands, and then set it back down. He reached for the shield, and the soldier shook his head again; the movement made Rogers straighten up, taking in a deep breath and lining his shoulders up as straight as they would go. "It's too recognizable," the soldier said.
Rogers' fingers curled and uncurled, and finally he left the shield where it was, leaning against the wall. "At least let me leave a note for Sam," he said. "I can't just abandon him. I won't."
The soldier considered this for a moment, and then nodded. "Short," he said. "No details. Don't mention me."
"He's going to know," Rogers said, looking around the room, grabbing a napkin and a pen. He looked at the soldier for a moment, his gaze very sharp. Very clearly making a decision, trying to convince himself it was the right one. He wrote, Sam -- I'm fine. Don't worry. S.R. and left the napkin in clear view, right on top of the laptop, where it would be easy to spot.
He straightened up again, his chin tilted slightly up. "All right," he said.
The soldier went out the door, waited for Rogers to follow him. Rogers paused for a moment in front of the rental car. "Leave it," said the soldier, and Rogers barely hesitated before walking after the soldier, around to the back of the building.
The truck was parked where he'd left it, and Rogers threw his bag in and climbed into the passenger seat. It was now that the soldier was forced to confront the fact that he hadn't really considered what would come after this, in specificity. He had not been able to move past the moment of Rogers deciding or not deciding to come with him; it had been like a big blind spot, and he was only realizing that now.
It would be smart to head to Chicago next. A large population center. Easy to disguise themselves. Easy to get information. The soldier started the truck, and it coughed to life. Beside him, Rogers shivered a little; he was in his pajamas, the soldier realized, and had paused only to put on a jacket and shoes. The truck did not have heat.
The soldier turned the lights back on once they'd pulled out of the parking lot, and merged onto the interstate. He could feel Rogers' gaze on him, but neither of them said anything, and the soldier did not turn to look at him.
Rogers struggled not to fall asleep in the passenger seat for most of the hour-long drive into Chicago. He clearly didn't want to sleep, and it made the soldier wonder: Was this what he would be like too, without Hydra's training? He knew that his body, and therefore Rogers', could run on much less than the ideal amount of sleep an average human body needed, but was part of that just that they had taught him not to want to? If given the chance, would he return to comfortably sleeping six, seven hours a night, or more?
"Where are we going?" Rogers asked, twenty minutes outside of Merrillville, in the no-man's land that was the upper northwest corner of Indiana.
"Chicago," said the soldier.
"Anything more specific than that?" Rogers asked.
"For now," the soldier added. They would not be in Chicago for long. Only long enough to gain information and a plan of access.
Rogers fell silent again. Soon the outskirts of the city started to come into view -- the ruins of industry, big rusting warehouses and train tracks filled with empty boxcars. In the soldier's mind they were convenient; there were plenty of places to hide, to hole up if they needed to. He started to pull over into the exit lane.
"What are you doing?" Rogers asked, sitting up straighter from where he'd been slouched against the window of the truck, smoothing his hands down his pants.
The soldier pulled off the highway and onto the frontage road, slowing to assess the condition of the warehouses. "Some of these will be empty," he answered.
Rogers looked at him, frowning, and then appeared to realize what the soldier had in mind. "No," he said. "It's the middle of winter, and those places aren't going to have any heat. We should get a motel room."
The soldier stopped the car, pulling off the frontage road into a patch of icy mud. "You can't use your credit cards," he said.
"No, I know that," Rogers said. He reached into his bag and retrieved his wallet, opening it up and thumbing through a sheaf of cash inside. "I have enough cash. I can get more if we need it."
The soldier weighed the risks. It might be safe enough to have Rogers risk making one large withdrawal; theoretically, Rogers' bank account should have enough immediately accessible to more or less finance this entire operation, but he wasn't sure what the limit was on how much Rogers could take out in one day. Obviously, whoever was watching Rogers would know his location immediately if he used an ATM, but if Rogers discarded his card immediately afterward and did not use it again --
Rogers was still looking at him. A line had etched itself between Rogers' brows, and his mouth was downturned at the corners. It was a stubborn expression, the soldier thought, though he was not sure if this was memory, or simply a product of his knowledge of human microexpressions. "All right," he said. He turned the truck around and faced back toward the highway.
They'd have to get rid of the truck soon, too. Possibly if they had enough cash they could find a car to buy, instead. He'd have to think about that later, though -- it was about four in the morning, and nobody would be willing to do any kind of business for a couple more hours at least.
A few miles closer to the city, he pulled into a parking lot of the smallest and most run-down motel he could find, parked the truck by the front office. Rogers started to get out, but the soldier shook his head. "Too recognizable," he said. "Let me."
Rogers paused, and then shrugged. He rifled through the wallet for a moment and then just handed the whole thing to the soldier with an expression of defiance.
The bored young woman working the front desk seemed deeply disinterested in anything other than completing her transaction with the soldier as quickly as possible, so she could go back to watching whatever program was playing on the television in the lobby. The soldier paid for one night and went back out to the truck, where Rogers was waiting and peering out the window.
"Down at the end," he said, handing Rogers back the wallet, and climbing back into the driver's seat.
He parked the truck between two semis, one painted in glossy red flames, so that it wouldn't be visible from the highway. He didn't bother locking it - if someone wanted to steal it, they'd almost be doing him a favor. Rogers swung down from the passenger side, his bag over his shoulder, and followed the soldier to the room.
The soldier doubted that the room was anything that could be considered nice by anyone's standards; it certainly wasn't as clean as even the motel room that Rogers had been staying in when the soldier had found him. Rogers was still frowning, when the soldier looked at him, but didn't say anything, and he pushed past the soldier into the room after a few moments, setting his bag on the bed closer to the door.
The soldier walked in after him and looked through the place. It wasn't very secure. He doubted he would be sleeping tonight. It didn't matter if there were only two entry points; there wasn't good vantage from either of them. He sat down on the bed.
Rogers opened his bag and shuffled around in it for a minute, his face downturned. His shoulders were tight. "Bucky," he said, looking up. His voice had a clear question in it.
The soldier shook his head, slowly, once. Rogers' face changed again. The frown deepened, and the he turned back to the bag, rummaging through it, even though the soldier could see clearly through the pretense; he was just moving things around aimlessly. "Well," he said eventually, "what should I call you, then?"
The soldier didn't have an answer to that -- not one that Rogers would find acceptable, anyway. Rogers would not want to call him 'asset' or 'soldier.' It was too directly opposed to the idea that Rogers had of who he was.
"Barnes?" said Rogers, seeming to sense that an answer was not forthcoming. The soldier shook his head to that, too. It felt -- not right. Too familiar, like someone had called him that before, and he wasn't sure if it had been someone from Hydra, or maybe Rogers himself, but -- it wasn't right.
"Okay," Rogers said. "How about -- James?"
The soldier looked at him. He still wasn't looking at the soldier, his chin tucked and his face turned away. "Okay," the soldier -- James -- said. It was acceptable. He couldn't remember anyone else ever having called him that; it didn't bring up any of the dissonance that knowing someone had called him something and being unable to remember who did.
"Okay," Rogers said again. He sat down on the bed. "I think I left my toothbrush at the -- other hotel."
James said, "You can buy a new one."
"Yeah," Rogers said. "Tomorrow, I guess." He pushed his duffel off the bed. It landed on the floor with a thump, and Rogers lay back on the bed without so much as taking his shoes or jacket off. "I'm -- really tired. Is it all right if I get some sleep?"
"Yes," James said.
"Okay," Rogers said. "Wake me up when -- I don't know. When you're ready to go."
The soldier -- James -- nodded, and Rogers sighed and turned his face away again, pressing it into the pillow. James watched him until his breathing deepened and evened out, and then got up. He went into the bathroom and took a shower, fast, under only lukewarm water. It served to brighten back up whatever senses had been dulled from the length of time he'd been awake.
He only had the one set of clothes for now, so he changed back into them when he was finished and went back to sit on the bed again, pulling the slips of paper he'd been using to keep track of the information out of the inside pocket of his jacket and looking at them, arranging them all on the bed. The sun was rising, a weak, watery light.
After about three hours, Rogers woke up again of his own accord. He looked surprised when he woke, blinking and glancing around for a moment before his eyes settled on the soldier. James. "What time is it?" he asked, his voice thick.
"Eight," the soldier said. "Almost."
Rogers sat up, rubbing his eyes, rolling his shoulders. "Okay," he said. "I'm -- I need to eat something, but then we can go -- wherever." He got up and unzipped his jacket, pulling off the t-shirt underneath and rifling through his duffel until he found a different one, putting on a flannel shirt over the top of it. He glanced at the soldier -- at James, he had to keep reminding himself -- for a moment and then toed off his shoes and dropped his pajama pants too, changing into jeans instead and then putting his shoes back on. "If you tell me where we're going, I could drive for a while."
The soldier considered it, nodded. He glanced around the hotel room but felt no real necessity to wipe it down. It wouldn't matter that they'd been here -- the information wouldn't tell anyone anything real.
"James?" said Rogers, and the -- James blinked at him. "You have the keys?"
"Yes," James said, fishing them out of his pocket and tossing them to Rogers, who caught them easily, shouldered his duffel, and went out the door.
James followed him. One of the semi trucks had left, the one on the left side, but the one with the red flames was still there. Rogers spared it a curious glance and then went to unlock the truck's door, shooting James a surprised look when he found it unlocked. James shrugged, indicating the truck with his right hand -- if someone wanted it, they could have it -- and got in the passenger side.
Rogers started the car up and drove them to a McDonald's. "What do you want?" he asked, putting the truck in neutral and folding his arms across his chest, hands tucked under his armpits, as they waited in the line of cars at the drive-through.
James looked at him, and then at the menu, back at him again. "I don't know," he admitted. He wasn't hungry enough yet that anything had become an option and -- he didn't -- really know --
Rogers put the truck back into drive as the car ahead of them pulled up to the window, and pulled up beside the speaker. He ordered to James what sounded like an unimaginable amount of food, thanked the tinny voice that told them to pull forward to the second window, and handed over twenty dollars to the cashier when she opened the window. She passed out three bags that were hot and smelled like grease, and then handed over two cups of coffee that steamed in the winter air.
"No cupholders in here," Rogers said, gingerly holding one hot cup in his hand and handing the other to James, who took it and looked at it uncertainly. It smelled good, but he knew that the amount of caffeine contained in a single 16-ounce serving of coffee was certainly not enough to have any substantial effect on his metabolism, or Rogers'.
"Are you going to eat?" Rogers asked, parking the car at the back of the McDonald's lot and opening up one of the bags. "I don't know how much you need, but I got you about the same amount as I usually want." He offered something to James -- some kind of sandwich with egg and sausage, it looked like -- and James took it slowly.
He ate it quickly, in three bites, feeling nervous and uncomfortable; he couldn't teach his body to want more than he could reasonably provide for it, and -- it wasn't reasonable to have to eat every four hours, or even every eight hours, he had to be -- he had to be prepared for extreme physical conditions. He realized that he was shaking a little and opened the lid of the coffee, sipping it, ignoring the way it burnt his tongue. Beside him, Rogers seemed unconcerned; he'd made his way through one of the bags already, and was opening the second. "Here you go," he said, handing some kind of sticky apple pastry to James. "These are good. I mean -- none of this is good for you, not that it matters for us, but these are really good."
It was too sweet, but James ate it anyway. Somehow having the food in his stomach had the opposite effect that it should have. Suddenly he felt hunger acutely, a gnawing pain twisting inside him. He reached for the bag, opened it, pulled out another one of the sausage sandwiches, stared at it for a moment and then ate it, again in three bites, relieved when the pain subsided a little.
"Okay," Rogers said when he'd finished eating and had taken a few ginger sips of his coffee. "Where are we going?"
"Bank machine," James said. "We should -- find a bank machine. And a library."
Rogers nodded, starting the car again. "An ATM is easy," he said. "They're everywhere. What -- you want me to take out money?"
James shot a glance at him, and nodded. "All right," Rogers said. "How much?"
"How much can you get?" James asked.
"I think the daily withdrawal limit is ten thousand," Rogers said. "But for that I might -- probably would -- need to go into the branch. I mean, I can do that, I have my ID and everything, but I don't know if you -- want to risk it."
James didn't answer immediately. "As for the library," Rogers said, "If we stop at one of the rest stops I bet it has city information, and nobody will be paying attention to us."
He was already pulling back onto the highway, glancing over his shoulder to check his blind spot. "Okay," James said. "That first."
The rest stop had plenty of information, including a phone book, which had a lot of addresses in it -- Rogers scribbled a few of them on the back of a pamphlet about Chicago, and got out of the building as fast as he could. They were going to have to do something about him -- nobody was paying attention to them, but Rogers seemed to attract it, his height and the broadness of his shoulders. He didn't have as much practice being nondescript as James.
The ATM that they stopped at, outside a gas station, had a limit of $1,000 on it. Rogers took that much out and tucked it into his jacket, his body angled so that nobody walking by would see what he was doing. "I don't know," he said. "It's not a lot. Should we try the bank?"
James stood very still, looking down at his shoes and thinking. "No," he said finally. Introducing the human element to this was just likely to cause trouble. The general public didn't need to know that Steve Rogers was in Chicago, even if they would only be there for ideally another eight to ten hours. Information traveled too fast.
"What should we do, then?" Rogers asked. "You think a thousand is going to be enough?"
"No," James said. "We'll find another ATM."
They got up to twelve thousand before the card stopped working. "Throw it away," James said, watching as Rogers pulled out each of his cards, and then his ID, and dropped them in a garbage can at the latest gas station. He marked the spot in his mind, the exact location: This was the last place that whoever was watching would know they had been for sure.
"I feel like I should have kept the ID," Rogers said, once they were back in the car, headed toward the library.
James looked at him. "People will know you are who you say you are," he said. "If it comes to that."
"I guess you're right," Rogers said. He smiled a little. "I guess I can always get a new one."
The library was busy. They had to wait for a computer. James sent Rogers to wander the stacks; he didn't want Rogers in his current state standing in any one place for too long. The fewer people who recognized him, the better.
Eventually he got a computer, and sat down at it. Rogers saw him somehow and came over too, pulling up a spare chair next to him. He pulled out a few of the papers from his jacket and spread them out next to the keyboard.
"What's this?" Rogers asked, smoothing his fingers over one of them -- a list of names, what little James could remember. They were just fragments, incomplete; he rarely knew first names, unless they had been accidentally overheard, and sometimes not even last names. Sometimes just callsigns, or nicknames.
He started searching. It wasn't much, but it was what he had to go on, and it turned out not to be enough. None of the names by themselves brought up anything meaningful, just a bunch of Facebook pages and LinkedIn profiles that weren't even for the right people. He sat back, eventually, looking at the clock on the computer. Time was almost up, anyway.
"Wait," said Rogers from next to him. "Wait, wait, I have an idea." He leaned forward, his shoulder brushing against James's, and shifted the keyboard so that he could reach it. He typed more slowly than the soldier -- than James did -- but with confidence nonetheless.
What he typed in brought up a wealth of documents, a bunch of scans -- the leaked information from the SHIELD databases. "Here," Rogers said, double-clicking on an image that showed a list of active personnel. "Here, compare that with your list."
James scrolled through -- there was Rogers' name, and Romanov's, Fury's, all the rest of the STRIKE team. And there, Dr. David A. Karpinski; he'd written that down, Karpinski, right near the top of his list. He kept going, and found several others, notated their more complete forms on his sheet of paper. When they were finished looking through, he opened up a new tab and started searching again.
Some of the names were still a complete dead-end, but some of them had information attached to them. These had been real people, after all, not like the soldier, and they had real lives, houses, families. They didn't live inside bases, they went home at the end of the night. As he finished scribbling the last address down, the computer flashed a thirty-second warning, and he barely had time to clear the browser's cache and history before time was up.
He tucked the papers back into his jacket, and Rogers politely replaced the chair he'd borrowed. They walked slowly out of the library, casually, hands in their pockets. "What now?" Rogers asked.
"We need to leave the truck," James said, and Rogers nodded. He'd brought his bag in with him, and all that was left in the truck were their fingerprints -- or Rogers' fingerprints, really, since James had been wearing gloves more or less the entire time; James wiped it down quickly, and they left it sitting in their parking spot, probably destined to be towed.
It didn't take long to find a car, either. They took the train out to the suburbs and James found a beat-up station wagon marked $2500 OBO sitting on a side street; he called the number from a payphone, and told the woman on the other end he'd give her $1500 cash for it. They met her at the front door of her house, where she told them she was moving to Hawaii and wouldn't be able to take the car with her, and she gave them the keys, title, and registration. She hardly looked twice at either of them.
The car wasn't in the greatest shape. It had a few telltale shakes and rattles that let James know it probably wouldn't last them the entire mission, but he didn't think they needed it to -- hoped they didn't need it to, anyway.
"Where are we going?" Steve asked. He had put the passenger seat back as far as it would go, but still looked cramped.
James pulled the paper out of his jacket and ran a finger down the list of names and addresses until he landed on Dr. Gregory R. Thinesen, last known address in Arizona, data analyst and programmer. "Here," he said. "Here."
Somewhere in Iowa, Rogers shifted and said, "Hey, we need to stop for food again." There was a certain reluctance in his voice, as if he felt like he shouldn't be making the suggestion, or that he shouldn't have to.
James nodded. His mouth was dry; he needed water. And he could feel himself getting closer to the threshold where his body would demand sleep, as the hours wore on. He pulled off at the next exit and waited for Rogers to direct him.
"Let's try the IHOP, I guess," Rogers said after a moment. "I think those are usually open 24 hours."
James thought about protesting -- if they just went through a drive-through again there would be less chance that Rogers would be recognized -- but he also knew that he needed the opportunity for rest that sitting down for half an hour or so would provide. The IHOP was deserted, anyway; there were no cars visible in the lot, and when they walked in, there seemed to be only one waiter in the entire place, a middle-aged woman who was friendly but disinterested.
James picked a corner booth, mostly, he thought, out of instinct. As soon as the waitress had poured them each a glass of water, he picked his up and drank it down in one long go, setting the empty glass back down when he'd finished and looking after her where she'd walked away. Rogers wasn't paying attention. He was looking intently at his menu -- but when he looked up, he pushed his glass of water over to James's side too and said, "You can have that one too if you want. I'm all right."
James took that one too and drank it just as quickly, then picked up the menu and scanned it. He needed something with protein, something that would keep him going. Steak was too much though, would be too heavy. Better just stick with eggs and bacon.
Rogers ordered a cup of coffee, eggs, pancakes, and bacon when the waitress came back. James just ordered two eggs and a side of bacon -- how did he want them? The eggs? He glanced over at Rogers, a little lost, and Rogers said, "Scrambled." If the waitress thought anything was amiss, she didn't say. She filled each of their water glasses again, and then disappeared.
James drank a third glass of water and then leaned back against the squeaky vinyl of the booth, closing his eyes. Just for a moment. Just to get his bearings.
"--y" somebody was saying. A hand touched his arm, and he jerked, grabbing the hand with his left, squeezing. "Hey, hey, James, it's just me."
He was -- where was he? In the diner. IHOP. He uncurled his metal fingers from around Rogers' and ran his hand over his face. "You fell asleep," Rogers said. "Food's here."
James looked down at the plate of yellow eggs in front of him. He felt at once profoundly unappetized and also painfully hungry; his stomach clenched at the sight. He undid the rolled-up napkin and picked up the fork.
"Hey," Rogers said again, after a minute. His voice was muffled, and when James looked up at him, his mouth was half-full. He'd finished almost half of his pancake already. "How long has it been since you slept?"
James put some egg in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. He did not want to tell Rogers the answer, although he was uncertain exactly why. He shook his head, finally, shoveling egg into his mouth, bite after bite, so he wouldn't have to talk, and then shrugged.
Rogers craned his neck, trying -- trying to get a better look at James's face, it seemed. Whatever he saw there made him frown. "I think we should get a hotel room after this," he said.
James looked up at him and shook his head minutely. "I mean, I could drive for a couple of hours," Rogers said, "but I'm going to need to sleep too before we get much further. We might as well stop here, recuperate, and then we can hit the road twice as hard once we're both rested."
He waited for a response from James, who couldn't think of anything to say, not even an appropriate protest. Rogers leaned a little closer. "You look terrible," he said quietly. "You need to sleep."
Just tell me to, James wanted to say. It would have been easier if Rogers would just give an order. But he seemed unlikely to do that, so instead James shrugged again and admitted defeat. He mentally cataloged reasons that staying somewhere overnight would be acceptable: As Rogers had said, they could perform at a higher level to make up for lost time when they were both rested; it would give them time to formulate some kind of makeshift disguise for Rogers' appearance; perhaps it would allow Rogers to further build trust in the soldier -- in James -- if he acquiesced to this demand.
Rogers left some money on the table for the waitress when they'd finished eating, and he and James walked out just as a gaggle of drunk, giggling teenagers was approaching the diner. It made James tense up for a moment, but -- they were harmless. Just children.
Rogers picked up the pace of his steps slightly, got to the car before James, and settled himself in the driver's seat, looking at James as though daring James to challenge him. James met his eyes for a moment, and then got in the passenger side, leaning his head against the cool plexiglas of the windowpane.
The hotel Rogers chose was nicer than what James would have picked, more expensive. The room had a better vantage than the last. The beds were large, soft. Too large, too soft. The soldier -- James -- tested the give of the mattress with his hand.
"I'm going to go see if I can get ahold of toothbrushes," Rogers said. "You just stay here. I'll be back in a minute."
That, at least, was an order. James toed off his shoes and lay back onto the bed, gazing listlessly out the window in the direction that he had judged most likely for an assailant's approach. He didn't hear Rogers come back in, and in fact, when he woke again, startled and gasping, it was morning.
He sat up, tipping his head forward, one hand on his chest. His pulse rattled hard, like some animal shaking the bars of its cage. He didn't know where that image had come from, if he'd seen something like that before, or if the animal had been him --
"Hey," Rogers said from the other bed, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He was shirtless, in the pajama pants that he'd worn at the hotel where James had found him. He had bedhead, and a five-o-clock shadow coming in on his jaw. "Sorry, I -- came back last night and you were asleep. I didn't want to wake you."
James nodded jerkily, got to his feet. "Are you all right?" Rogers asked, and James nodded again, went into the bathroom and turned the shower on.
When he came out, Rogers had his shoes and a shirt on and was holding a couple of cups of coffee, the room key between his teeth. "From the lobby," he said, putting one on the bedside table nearer to James's bed. "'S it okay if I take a shower too before we leave?"
"Yeah," the soldier said, dropping his towel and going for his pants.
A minute later the shower turned on again. When Rogers opened the bathroom door, a cloud of steam rolled out, and James could see him inside, peering at his reflection. He rifled in his bag and came up with a razor. "Don't," James said, and Rogers, startled, glanced over his shoulder. "Leave it. Less recognizable."
"Right," Rogers said. James grabbed his jacket, went through the pockets, and came up with a pair of clippers. He tossed them to Rogers, who looked at them for a moment, and then said, "How short?"
James shrugged. "Short," he said. The shorter the better, but shaving Rogers' head completely would cause more problems than it solved, because baldness was a recognizable characteristic in itself.
Rogers turned the clippers on, adjusting the settings, and looked at himself in the mirror for another two or three seconds before running them over his head, shearing hair off, down into the sink. He was efficient about it, and then when he was done, turned to look at James. It wasn't precisely that he was much less recognizable, but something about the short hair served to emphasize the angles of his cheeks, nose, in a way that James doubted most people thought of as looking like Captain America. "Is it okay?" Rogers asked.
James went into the bathroom to get a better look. It was a little uneven. "Hold still," he said, running his hand over Rogers' head to brush off any excess clinging hairs, then trimming up the back. Rogers stood very still the entire time, his head slightly ducked so that James could reach easily, and when James finished, he realized that Rogers had been watching him in the mirror the whole time.
He turned on the sink to wash the hair down the drain. "Let the beard grow," he said. "Get a hat. Glasses."
Rogers nodded, and James walked back out of the bathroom, put on his jacket and shoes, and drank some coffee while he waited.
As soon as Rogers was ready, they got back on the road.
Driving was silent, uneventful. Rogers mostly sat in the passenger seat with his arms folded, looking out the window, or slept on and off. They switched after about four hours, and James took out his list of names, read over it again, hoping for something to come to him -- some small piece of information; he knew he had so much locked inside him, but not how to get to it, and the exercise only left him feeling empty.
Rogers got a sock cap and some sunglasses at a gas station, and looked less like himself, though a change in wardrobe would help with that too. When they got to Arizona, thought James; he'd be due for a new round of clothing himself. He hadn't brought any spares.
The flat, endless expanses of the great plains through Iowa and Nebraska gradually faded and changed as they entered the Southwest. By the time they entered New Mexico, there was hardly any grass left, just desert, which Rogers seemed to view with some interest -- for the first couple of hours, at least.
The road was eerily silent when it got dark. Except for the other cars, which were few and far between, there was nothing at all around them. Only flat, flat expanses of land, and the empty horizon. The only sound was Rogers' steady breathing -- he'd fallen asleep a couple of hours ago and seemed to be sleeping more deeply now than he had been during the daylight hours. Didn't matter, anyway; James could keep going for a lot longer.
When they reached Tempe, it was morning again. James pulled into a gas station to glance at the address he'd written down -- he needed to figure out directions somehow -- and Rogers stirred, sitting up and wiping his hand over his face. "Where are we?" he asked after a moment.
"Tempe," James said.
"How long did I sleep?" Rogers asked. He grimaced, shifting, rolling his neck and shoulders.
"About five hours," James said.
Rogers shifted closer, looking at the paper with the address. "We should get a phone," he said, and then, glancing up at the gas station, "I wonder if they sell them in there."
He got up and out of the car before James could say anything, went into the gas station and came out a couple of minutes later carrying two bottles of water and some snack bags. "They didn't have the kind I meant," he said. "But the guy said there's a place down the street that opens up at ten that should have smartphones. Just a couple of blocks away."
James nodded, waited for Rogers to get settled again, and then pulled the car out of the gas station parking lot. He found an unmetered spot about a block away and parked the car there, turned it off, and got out for a moment to stretch. The air here was so different - it was almost seventy degrees, and the air was dry. He took his jacket off and tossed it in the backseat of the car, leaning against the hood.
Rogers got out too after a minute and offered him one of the bottles of water, and a bag of what turned out to be trail mix. "Have you thought about what you're gonna say?" Rogers asked.
The soldier looked at him. "To -- Dr. Thinesen," Rogers clarified. "You want to ask him about -- what?"
"A signal," James said. He pulled out the piece of paper that he'd copied it down onto, and handed it to Rogers, who shaded his eyes for a second to look at it before remembering he had sunglasses.
"This doesn't mean anything to me," Rogers said. "It's just a bunch of numbers and letters."
"I know," James said. "To me, too." He paused, taking the piece of paper back when Rogers handed it over. "Hopefully not to Thinesen."
Rogers let out a deep breath, folding his arms. "You know, I know some people who probably could have helped with this too," he said. "Tony might have been able to help out with this."
He meant Tony Stark. James had nothing to say to that; if Rogers couldn't figure out that James wanted nothing to do with Tony Stark's elaborate network of surveillance and technology, then he wasn't as smart as James had thought.
The silence carried on for about a minute and a half, and then Rogers said, "I guess I understand why you wanted to do this on your own."
At ten, they went over to the cell phone place and handed over a lot more money than the soldier thought was reasonable for a phone -- but then, it came without a contract, without needing a lot of information from either of them, and in the end that was really what they were paying for. Rogers sat in the passenger seat fiddling with it, and then said, "What's the address?" and typed it into the phone when James handed him the piece of paper.
The phone gave them directions in a cheerful voice. James was forced to acknowledge that he found it grating, after such a lengthy period of silence, and that in itself also disturbed him. He was accustomed to ignoring far more irritating stimuli -- why should this, of all things, get under his skin? He put it out of his mind, and tried to picture Dr. Thinesen instead, but there was nothing there. Just a void, as usual.
The house was small, ranch-style, like all the others on its block. Modest. Unassuming. Inconspicuous.
James parked the car a couple of blocks away and rolled up his right shirtsleeve. He was forced to leave the left down, just like he was still forced to wear a glove on his left hand, which was definitely strange in this weather, but less strange than his left arm was in itself. Rogers had taken off his jacket and his flannel shirt and was in just his t-shirt and jeans now.
They stood at the corner of the street for a while, and James watched for any sign of surveillance. There was nothing. All of the people who came and went followed perfectly normal patterns of behavior, and unless this was a very dedicated deep-cover operation, nothing was amiss. James was highly skilled at spotting surveillance and reconnaissance behaviors.
At about eleven-thirty, they approached the house. Rogers looked at James, once, before knocking on the door, and in his face James could see the question -- are you sure about this? -- but whatever he saw seemed to answer it for him, and he rapped firmly on the door.
"I'm coming, hold on!" said a woman's voice from inside, and after about thirty seconds, a woman -- late thirties, dark hair, medium build -- answered the door, looking up at them with a slight frown. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"Hi," said James, smiling. "I'm really sorry to bother you, but we're looking for a Dr. Gregory R. Thinesen."
"Oh," the woman said. "Yeah, that's my dad. I'm Melissa Thinesen. I'm sorry -- what was this about?"
"He works in data analysis and programming, correct?" James asked. "We just have some data that we were hoping to get his expert opinion on."
She took a step back and looked them both up and down, her gaze lingering on Rogers, who smiled at her. "I'm sorry to tell you this," she said, "but my dad actually passed away a couple of years ago. This used to be his house, but I inherited it when he died. So I'm afraid I don't know if I can help you."
Her eyes were still stuck on Rogers, whose smile had become a little frozen. "Where did you say you were from?" she asked.
"Former colleagues," James said. "Classified, I'm afraid."
"We worked for SHIELD," Rogers said, taking off his sunglasses and holding out his hand to her. "I'm Steve Rogers. Would it be okay if we came in?"
"Oh," Melissa said, staring at him for a second, and then backing away from the door. "Yeah, of course, I -- thought I recognized you. You're -- Captain America." She closed the door after them and appeared to shake herself a little. "Sorry, this is a little surreal. I mean -- my dad didn't exactly leave SHIELD on the best terms, so the last thing I expected is Captain America showing up on my doorstep. Can I get you a glass of water or something?"
"Sure. Thank you," Rogers said, following her into the kitchen, where she poured them each a glass of water and then sat down at a small, cluttered table, covered in what looked to be a lot of partially-answered correspondence. "You said he left under -- strange circumstances?"
"He would never talk about it," Melissa said, putting her chin in her hand. "I mean, he couldn't really; it was all classified. And I don't think he wanted to scare me, but I just got the feeling that he left because he didn't feel like he could participate in whatever it was they were doing. Like an Edward Snowden kind of thing, I guess."
Rogers glanced at James, and they both nodded a little. "I'm not saying he leaked any information," Melissa said hurriedly.
"No, of course not," James said. "If you don't mind me asking, how did he die?"
"It was a heart attack," Melissa said. "Sudden. Really unexpected. He was always really healthy, but I guess that's how that kind of thing goes." She smiled slightly. "I miss him."
"I'm so sorry for your loss," James said.
"It's okay," Melissa said. "Thank you. I'm sorry I -- probably can't be of any help to you. I don't know anything about my dad's work. I'm a copyeditor, so it's all pretty much Greek to me."
"Do you mind if I show you anyway?" James asked.
"It's fine," Melissa said. "God, I hope you didn't travel far."
Rogers laughed a little, watching with keen interest as James pulled out the paper and showed it to her, laying it flat on the kitchen table and smoothing it out. She put on a pair of reading glasses read it, once, and then again, and then shook her head. "I'm sorry, I don't know what any of that means."
"It's all right," James said. "Thanks for your time, anyway -- you don't happen to know if your father kept any records or information about people he worked with, do you? Maybe an address book, business cards, anything like that?"
Melissa thought for a moment, and then sat up straight. "I actually think I do have his address book from his computer saved on my laptop," she said. "I used it to send out funeral notices when he died. Hang on, I can probably make a copy. I'm sure I have a spare flash drive around here somewhere."
She got up and went into the other room, and Rogers glanced at James again, raising an eyebrow. It had been a long shot that the first person on the list would know anything, anyway, and if they were getting any kind of new information out of the situation, it was a net gain. "Heart attack," he said to Rogers, raising his own eyebrow slightly, and Rogers' eyes widened a bit.
"Do you think -- they --" he said, and was interrupted by the sound of a young male voice, calling "Miss? Missy?"
"Yeah, I'm in the office," Melissa answered. The patio door slid open, and then closed, and a boy of sixteen or seventeen -- tall, tan, dark hair, lanky in a way which meant he would probably fill out substantially within the next two to three years -- peered around the doorframe into the kitchen.
"Hello?" he said, frowning, and -- the soldier sat straight up, all the plates on his arm involuntarily resettling in a way that made the boy stare, and Melissa too, where she'd come back into the room. "Melissa, what's going on?"
"Oh, these, uh -- they came looking for Dad," Melissa said. "Alex, this is Steve and -- I didn't get your name, actually."
"James," James said, holding very still.
"Steve and James. This is my younger brother, Alex." She glanced over at him. "Dad adopted him when I was twenty-two, right after I moved out after college." She laughed. "One way to get around empty nest syndrome, I guess."
"I can't believe the first thing you tell people about me is still that I'm adopted," Alex said, getting a glass of water, eyeing Rogers suspiciously. "Are you --"
"Yes," Rogers said, and James felt a cold weight settle in his stomach, at how easily Steve gave up the information, at how easy he still was to recognize.
"Cool," Alex said, breaking into a goofy smile. "Don't worry, I won't tell anybody."
"I wasn't worried," Rogers said, smiling too, and James just wanted Melissa to give them the information, so they could go, leave this place behind. Take themselves off the map again.
She held out a thumb drive, after a moment. "Here you go," she said. "That's everything that was on there. A lot of it is probably useless, but -- well." She looked down, the corners of her mouth tucking up. "After I heard about everything that happened, I thought I guess Dad was right, you know, but at the same time I was kind of -- glad to know that he wasn't here to see it happening, you know?"
"Yeah," Rogers said. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
"Well, there you have it," Melissa said. "I wish I could help more, but hopefully that takes you somewhere useful."
"I'm sure it will," James said, standing up, giving Rogers the cue, if he needed it. He reached out to shake Melissa's hand. "Thank you for your help."
"Thank you," Rogers echoed, shaking her hand too, and then reaching for Alex's. "I'm sorry about your dad."
They both smiled the same small, sad smile. "Thank you," Melissa said. "I appreciate that. Good luck."
She followed them back to the door and closed it after they'd left. Rogers didn't say anything right away, but when they'd gotten back to the car, he stood there at the passenger side just looking down at the door handle, and then he said, "What was that?"
James looked up at him.
"You haven't spoken a single sentence as long as the ones you said in there, the entire time we've --" Rogers's shoulders lifted and fell as he took a deep breath and then exhaled it. "'I'm so sorry for your loss'?" he parroted, mimicking James's tone. "You wouldn't even tell me how long it had been since you last slept. What was that?"
"Interrogation," James said, unlocking the car and getting in. "Non-violent. Cooperative civilian subject."
Rogers turned away from the car abruptly, walked about three paces, and stood very still, his hands clenched in fists by his sides. Then he turned and came back, got in the passenger side and put on his seatbelt. "All right," he said. "Where next?"
They needed to get a computer. It was becoming inconvenient to rely on libraries for public access, and they had enough money; it would be simpler just to get something cheap. A lot of places -- coffee shops, hotels, malls -- had wireless access. And their supply of cash was still holding up fairly well. James had been mentally tracking their expenditures.
An inexpensive netbook could be had, it turned out, for $200, at some gargantuan, corporate big-box electronics store that seemed to be the exact opposite of the wireless store they'd bought the phone from earlier. Employees milled around in their blue shirts and asked if they could help, with so little inflection that James almost felt a strange stab of familiarity. It didn't matter. He and Rogers didn't need help.
After the computer errand, they went to a Goodwill store to get some clothes. It was important to change Rogers' silhouette; his impossibly broad shoulders and narrow waist gave away more about him than James really wanted anyone to know. They had to get him clothing that was baggier, less like what he was used to wearing. James picked out a series of t-shirts and sweatshirts in dark, muted colors, all slightly too big, and sweatpants and jeans that were smaller than anything he'd seen Rogers wear, while Rogers watched with a baffled expression.
He bought himself a couple of shirts, too, a second pair of pants, a sturdy pair of boots, and a duffel bag to put it in. There was a Target store next to the Goodwill, so they went over there too, and bought some groceries, a bunch of packs of fresh socks and underwear. James didn't know how often they'd have access to a laundromat. Better safe than sorry.
Rogers wanted to get a hotel room for the night, and James was amenable to the fact simply because he wanted some privacy and space, to go over the thumb drive that Melissa Thinesen had given them. It was quite possible that the next stretch of their search might take them somewhere more remote, where they wouldn't have the option for a hotel room, so it made sense that they might as well take the opportunity while they could. He picked somewhere cheap, of course, made sure it had free wi-fi, and asked for a room on the back corner.
When they got up to the room, Rogers tried on some of the stuff that he'd bought at the Goodwill and looked at himself in the mirror for a while, quietly. They did make him look different, less like himself; he'd probably been dressing before in what he thought of as an "average" person's style, but it still had his sensibility behind it, his point-of-view, and with James behind his clothing options instead, he looked more truly anonymous than he ever had before. Big, certainly. Dangerous, if you knew how to look for that. But less like Captain America.
James glanced at him, and then back at the computer screen. He was in Google Maps, dropping pins on all the last known locations of Thinesen's colleagues. When he looked up again, Rogers wasn't looking at himself anymore; he was looking at James.
"What do you remember?" Rogers asked.
James had been anticipating this question with a sense of what might have been dread. "You said 'I'm with you till the end of the line,'" he said.
"No," Rogers said slowly, after a moment. "You said that to me."
"Yes," James said. "There had been -- a funeral. When you said it on the Insight helicarrier, you were repeating me."
Rogers waited, with an expression on his face which seemed like hope. James said nothing. There was nothing else concrete enough to report. He felt, perversely, the urge to apologize to Rogers; he knew what had happened, after all. Hydra had punched hole after hole into his mind, over the years, turning him into a sieve, through which all of Bucky Barnes's memories had escaped, and left only the Winter Soldier behind.
"That's all," Rogers said, his inflection halfway between question and statement.
"I'm sorry," James said, although it felt wrong saying it. A weapon was not intended to feel remorse or apologize. He didn't even know what the words meant -- what he was apologizing for, or what he was hoping it would mean for Rogers.
Rogers tore off the t-shirt he was wearing and changed rapidly back into his old one. "It's not your fault," he said, a little too loudly. He paused for a moment, and then, at a more appropriate volume: "It's not your fault. None of this is your fault."
James still did not know what to say. "I just --" Rogers said, pacing into the bathroom and then coming back out again, standing just in the doorframe, where James could see his profile. "It just makes me so -- fucking angry -- what they did to you."
James closed the laptop slowly and put both hands on top of it. He didn't know why he was doing it, showing Rogers his hands; he knew where the instinct came from, of course, the urge to show that he meant no harm. A pacifying gesture. But Rogers had just said It's not your fault. It didn't seem to be him that Rogers was angry with. "I know -- I knew you when you were just a kid," Rogers said. He sounded pained, wounded. "I've known you since you were seven, I watched you grow up, and --"
He cut himself off, let out a breath, went into the bathroom and closed the door behind himself. James could guess what he had meant to say next, though. The context clues were there.
And you don't know me at all.
They set off toward Los Angeles the next morning. Rogers was silent and stiff-jawed, but it somehow worked in his favor, at least in terms of recognizability. The car protested the Arizona heat, the steep inclines of the highways, and James had to turn the A/C off for fear it would stall, but it somehow stubbornly carried them over the border into California.
"I always wanted to go to California," Rogers said. It was the first thing he'd said all day.
This made sense; California was a nice place in many of the ways that Indiana had, at least superficially, not been. It was warm and sunny. There were green trees, grasses and flowers blooming, even despite the fact that it was winter. But it also had, to James, a sense of unreality about it -- a sense that it was all false, or at least that what was real was carefully hidden.
The greater Los Angeles area was where several former SHIELD scientists -- or Hydra scientists, or both -- had seemingly relocated, based on Thinesen's address book. It interested James that Thinesen had apparently kept contact with some of his former colleagues. Either he hadn't believed the organization fully and truly corrupt, and had endeavored to maintain relationships with those he considered good eggs, or perhaps his motivation for leaving SHIELD hadn't been as noble as his daughter had believed. Or these people had been keeping tabs on him. Or all three.
There was a certain sense that he might have been here before. It seemed familiar in a way that Chicago hadn't, although that could simply have been evidence that any errand to Los Angeles had occurred more recently than any trip to Chicago. Or -- he didn't know, really. There was no way for him to know.
At night, the city turned into a nightmarish maze of light pollution and traffic. They stopped to get food at some hole-in-the-wall Mexican place populated by lone men eating quietly and several large families talking garrulously among themselves. Everything smelled strange, unfamiliar. Watching Rogers tuck into his food with abandon only increased this feeling, until the discomfort reached a threshold where James was forced to make a decision. He ended up eating four tacos in rapid succession, all in two or three bites each, hardly tasting them, chewing as little as possible before swallowing.
The aftertaste they left in his mouth made his stomach growl, and he wanted more. It startled him -- he was used to his body demanding food, he thought, but not wanting it simply for the act of eating it. "There's another one if you want it," Rogers said, pushing a paper-wrapped burrito his way. Grease seeped through the paper, peppers and onions spilled from one end, and it smelled like --
"No," he said. He finished his glass of water instead, got up and went to the bathroom to take a piss. He stared at the wall while he washed his hands. There was a mural, poorly painted. Some kind of Mexican mythology, though he wasn't sure what or how he knew it.
When he came out, Rogers had finished up and laid out some cash on the table. "You ready?" he asked, tucking his hands into his pockets.
James nodded. They went outside; several small groups of people stood clustered around the area, at varying intervals. Most of them were smoking cigarettes, glancing around. They didn't seem to have a purpose.
"Hey," Rogers said. James looked at him. "They're not causing any trouble. Come on."
The car needed gas, which was more expensive here than it had been anywhere else that James had been so far. He sat in the driver's seat while Rogers filled the tank. In the dark, with his hood up and a couple days' worth of stubble growing in, Rogers almost looked like he belonged here. Like he was part of this world -- but he wasn't, and neither was James. They weren't really part of any world, now. They just happened to be living in this one.
"I'll be right back," Rogers said, leaning down and speaking through the open window. "I'm gonna go in and pay."
James nodded, tracking him as he went. A group of four men came across the parking lot and stood just outside the fluorescent-glowing windows of the gas station, bathed in the sickly yellow light from within. James twitched his left arm, his hand still on the steering wheel. The men were clearly unhealthy, most of them at least slightly underweight, with the telltale tics and nervous gestures of drug addicts. One of them, a man with a bony nose and a limp in his right leg, kept glancing inside, toward the cash register, where James could see Rogers paying for the tank of gas.
They wouldn't be that stupid, he thought. Desperate, maybe, but not that stupid.
Rogers came out the gas station door. An electronic bell rang: Ding-dong! He paused for a second, putting his hood back up, and then started back toward the car. Three of the four guys grabbed for him, took advantage of his moment of surprise, and dragged him around to the darkened side of the store.
James was out of the car while he was still processing the events. It took probably only five strides to get him across the parking lot -- one of the men, the one with the bony nose, had a knife in his hand -- and then he took the knife from the man with the bony nose easily, grabbed him by the back of the head and mashed his face into the concrete side of the building so hard that he heard a distinct crunch.
A second man was trying to hold one of Rogers' arms. James pulled him off with one hand on the back of his shirt, yanked his chin up, and drew a ragged line across his throat with the dull blade of the knife. The man screamed like a pig dying, a high-pitched shriek, and James barely managed to turn him away from Rogers as blood spurted from the wound. They had just bought those clothes; he didn't want to ruin them already.
Rogers had dispatched the third man and had the fourth in a neat sleeper hold. His face was intensely focused, and it wasn't until he let go of the fourth man and the man slumped to the ground that he seemed to realize James was there at all.
He looked at the knife, at James's bloody hands, and ran one of his own hands over his hair. "Let's get out of here," he said.
There would be cameras, of course. With any luck at all the cameras did not cover the side of the building. With any luck they would be poor enough resolution that neither he nor Rogers would be identifiable. The car, however, certainly would be, which necessitated new license plates at the least, and ideally a new vehicle entirely.
They walked back to the car in silence, got in, and drove away, off to the other side of the city. The better side, of course. Where the scientists, who had probably been considered good, respectable people by everyone that knew them at SHIELD, would have lived.
The first house was empty. It was for sale. James wiped his hands clean with a napkin from the glove compartment, wiped down the knife's blade and handle, and tucked it into his left pocket to discard it later. Rogers was very quiet. "Are you hurt?" he asked Rogers.
"No," Rogers said. "No, I'm -- fine."
James nodded, and looked out at the house again. The real estate agent's phone number was listed on the "For Sale" sign. "Can I have the phone?" he asked Rogers, who looked surprised for a moment, then pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over.
James dialed the number, let it ring, and left a voicemail telling the realtor that he was interested in the house and would like a little bit more information about it. If the woman called him back, it would be easy to get information about the house's former resident -- Naomi Gentz -- from her. He handed the phone back to Rogers, then, and got out of the car, staying to the shadows and walking along the curb.
"What are you doing?" Rogers hissed from the car, opening the door and starting to follow. James waved him off, and he sat back down, but James could still see him peering out as he made his way down the street.
He picked a car that was unobtrusively parked in a pool of darkness and crouched down, pulling a knife out of his pocket and starting to unscrew the license plate as quickly as he could. This was a nice neighborhood, and anything out of the ordinary was unlikely to simply go unnoticed or unreported.
He brought the license plate back to his and Rogers' car when he had finished. Rogers was still watching. "Cameras," James explained. "At the gas station." Rogers nodded once, slowly, and when James handed him their Illinois license plate, the knife, and the screws from the other car, he took it and crept down the block much the way that James had. Carefully, quietly. He wasn't inclined to be that way naturally, but it seemed he knew how when it was necessary.
They switched off to do the back plates next, an efficient system. James wondered if this was how they had worked together before, back in the time that he couldn't remember. He could ask Rogers, but -- but --
It was unnecessary, and irrelevant. He didn't need the information for anything, and it would probably only upset Rogers to remind him. He got back in the car, waited for Rogers to finish, and then pulled away from the curb when Rogers sat back down in the passenger seat and closed the door.
Rogers scrubbed his hands over his face, and James glanced at him. "Nothing," said Rogers. "Just -- tired." He looked out over the city, sending its yellow haze of light into the blue sky. You could see the Hollywood sign from here. "Do you think before we leave, we could -- I'd like to see the ocean."
James blinked in surprise, considered it. They were trying to move quickly, efficiently, but -- he supposed it couldn't hurt. The next place on their list was a corporate office building, which was unlikely to have any significant activity during the night anyway. Which -- maybe was the point; it would be easier to break in during the night, but were they trying to break in at all?
He exhaled, and turned the car onto a main road. "Find directions," he said to Rogers.
The beach was deserted. Technically, it was closed during the night, but James didn't see any law enforcement around. They parked a couple of blocks away anyway, and walked from where they'd parked down to the boardwalk. Everything was blue -- the water and sky a deep navy, the sand a sort of silvery-lilac color, and the water reflected the big round moon clearly.
He would have expected other people, even though the park was closed, but there didn't seem to be anyone here. Just the sound of the waves against the shore, and occasionally cars driving by. He watched as Rogers took his shoes off and put his feet in the sand. "Thanks," said Rogers.
James nodded. Rogers walked closer to the water, and then sat down, facing out toward the horizon. James glanced around and then followed him, sitting down next to him, a couple of feet away. "You know I still don't know what we're looking for here," Rogers said.
James nodded again, and Rogers turned to look at him, raising his eyebrows. He was expecting an answer. "The signal," James said. "The source of the signal."
"Yeah, I know that," Rogers said. "But what does that mean? What's at the source of the signal?"
James allowed himself to grimace slightly. "I don't know," he said, which was at the same time both completely true and completely untrue. It was the best answer in the situation, anyway, although it made Rogers frown and look away.
They sat in silence for a while and then Rogers shifted and said, "You're so quiet," though he was still looking out at the water, and it wouldn't have taken too great a leap of imagination to misinterpret his words as a remark to the landscape. James knew he wasn't talking to the landscape, though. He looked at Rogers, and Rogers said, "You didn't used to be. Not that you were loud, or that you talked too much, I mean -- I just don't think I'd ever have called you quiet, either."
James didn't know what he was meant to say to that. "I'm sorry," he said to Rogers, after a pause.
"No, no, it's -- it's fine," Rogers said tiredly. "It's just different." He sighed and lay back in the sand, put one hand over his face. He said something else, but it was muffled by his hand; it might have been, I miss you, or I missed you, or neither of those. James couldn't tell.
Eventually Rogers dozed off, and James sat up keeping watch. Nobody came around for a few hours, and it wasn't until the moon set and the horizon began to pinken with the glow of dawn that James reached over to wake Rogers. He blinked when James touched him, exhaled, and sat up, scrubbing sand out of his hair. "Puts a crick in your neck," he said, his voice rough with sleep, and stood up, offering James a hand.
James took it after a moment and pulled himself up. Rogers' hand landed on his right shoulder, squeezed, and then let go. Rogers turned and headed back toward the car, turning for a moment to look at the whole scene at the top of the bluffs surrounding the beach. "Would be nice to see a sunrise here," he said, and then shook his head and started down the street again.
The company they were investigating next at first appeared to be some kind of private security firm; its website offered very little in the way of concrete information. Office hours didn't start until 10 a.m., so Rogers suggested they find breakfast. It wasn't difficult -- there were such a huge proliferation of restaurants of all kinds around here, in this teeming, thriving metropolis. Rogers picked a donut place, some chain, and they got a dozen donuts and some coffee and sat outside on the hood of the car eating.
Well, Rogers ate, and James picked at a donut, feeling strangely nauseated by the sugariness of it. He had a feeling that he hadn't had anything that sweet in a long time. Even the apple pie he'd eaten at the McDonald's in Merrillville had been less cloying than this. It felt like he shouldn't be allowed. At least the coffee was easier. It was bitter, it went down scaldingly hot. That felt more right.
He realized that Rogers was watching him keenly; Rogers was halfway through his fourth or fifth donut. Rogers was watching every bite he took, and it just made him clam up further, the dough drying up in his mouth somehow. Eventually Rogers realized that watching James was making him uncomfortable, and turned slightly away again, looking out at the busy intersection instead.
"What did they feed you?" he asked James, as they got back in the car.
James looked at him in confusion. "I mean, I need..." Rogers blew out a breath. "I need a lot of calories a day to not just feel hungry all the time, you know? They had to have been feeding you, but it -- it seems like you kind of -- aren't used to food."
James wasn't sure why this was relevant, but it was something he remembered. Not something he particularly wanted to remember, but there were a lot of things he didn't particularly want to remember. Most of it. "NG tube," he said, starting the car.
"You mean down your nose?" Rogers said. He was grimacing.
"Yes," James said. "Protein shakes sometimes, on missions." When the NG tube would have been inconvenient, or difficult to administer. He figured it had been the most efficient way to ensure that he stayed functional, although he didn't know if he could even correctly identify the feeling of being not hungry anymore. There were a lot of sensations he had learned to ignore.
There was a period of silence, and then Rogers said, "When we were little, your mother used to make me an apple pie every year for my birthday. Only we used to joke that it was really a present for you, because you loved her apple pie. I think it was your favorite thing to eat."
James found himself wishing that he could remember the sensation, if only to have something to say to Rogers. Instead, he eventually said, "I think -- on missions sometimes, I think if I performed well I was allowed something else." He seemed to remember being offered something unfamiliar, something in a bag that crinkled, and the men chuckling at his uncertainty about what to do with it. You eat it, Rumlow had said eventually, taking pity on him. Rumlow, younger, his face unlined. You can eat it.
"Does it make you sick?" Roger asked. "Do you feel sick when you eat -- um, real food?"
"No," James said, and then, "yes, but -- it is...not a physical symptom."
Rogers stared at him. James tried to think of a way to explain it succinctly. "I can eat things that would make an unaltered person sick," he said eventually. "Microbes, bacteria -- do not affect me in the usual way." He looked at Rogers. "Or you, probably. But -- yes, sometimes."
"Okay," Rogers said. He was fiddling with the pocket of his pants, rubbing his finger along the seam, back and forth, back and forth. "If there's -- anything that's hard for you to eat, you know, or you don't want to, you can tell me."
They were still sitting in the parking lot, though the car was running. James looked out the window, back into the donut store, where the bored teenage clerk was on her phone. "I can't," he said, with some difficulty. Saying the words felt like pulling a rock up on a string, all the way from his stomach. The effort made him shake slightly.
Rogers' head whipped around again to look at him. "I -- okay," he said. "Yeah, okay." His hand left his pocket alone, and raised itself in the air, tentatively, abortively hovering near James, who glanced at it, and then at Rogers. Rogers' face was sad, his brows drawn together. For a moment the expression seemed unbearably familiar. It was probably just that he had seen that particular expression on Rogers' face multiple times since Indiana.
Rogers' hand touched his jaw and his face. The soldier held very still. Rogers' thumb swiped over the highest point of his cheekbone, heavily, and then he dropped his hand back into his lap and turned away again, looking out the window. The soldier followed his gaze; he was watching a young man spin a small arrow-shaped sign around and around. "Should we go?" Rogers asked.
The s -- James nodded, and pulled out of the parking spot.
It wasn't a private security firm.
He couldn't say how he knew exactly, just like almost everything else in his life. "What do you mean?" Rogers asked; they were parked at the far side of the parking lot, unobtrusively clustered in the middle of a group of cars, and Rogers was peering out the window at the people who were heading into the office building. It was a good disguise, really; the building, a big square thing with a shiny mirrored exterior, looked just like all the other office buildings around it. But it wasn't.
"It's a base," James said. He watched a young woman enter, pressing her finger to a keypad. "Active, I think."
Rogers blew out a breath. "What do we do?" he said.
James glanced at him. "Go inside," he answered.
Rogers smiled a little. "You know, I'm supposed to be the one who doesn't plan ahead and impulsively takes action," he said.
"I'll be able to make a better assessment when we're inside," James said.
"All right," Rogers said, getting out of the car and waiting for James, then following him across the parking lot, hood up and hands in pockets. There was a pretty decent chance, James thought, that if he acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary, this base might not have even received proper notification that the Winter Soldier had gone AWOL, and he and Rogers might be allowed to do as they pleased.
They reached the door; he took off the glove he was still wearing on his left hand and tucked it into his pocket. His left hand wouldn't work on the thumb pad, obviously; this was more for show and recognizability than anything else. He had no reason to hide it in there, and hiding it would just end up looking suspicious.
He pressed his right thumb to the keypad. It beeped, flashed red, and then green, and he heard the door click as it unlocked. He held it open and ushered a surprised-looking Rogers inside, then followed and pulled the door closed after himself. "Follow my lead," he said to Rogers, and Rogers nodded, sticking close, on his six at his right shoulder.
On the inside, superficially, it looked exactly like a normal office building, and James wouldn't have been surprised if some of the businesses in here were legitimate. He paused to look at the building directory; the security firm they were looking for was on the fourth floor.
He headed for the elevators, and motioned Rogers to take the stairs. Rogers understood his meaning without him having to say anything, and nodded as they split up. There was nobody else in the elevator, and they made it up to the floor at about the same time. Something about the logo of the firm -- the typeface, or something -- seemed incredibly familiar. There was another keypad, so James pressed his right thumb to it, used his left hand to open the door when it clicked.
The woman at the front desk, a beautiful dark-haired girl with a sleek ponytail, glanced up at them as they entered. She was on the phone, but her eyes changed a little when she looked at James, her gaze sharpening with recognition. She nodded and made a small, vague gesture with her hand. James followed the gesture, past the desk and through a door which buzzed as she unlocked it.
Behind the door the maze of corridors was familiar. He couldn't say whether it was because he'd been to this specific base before, or whether it was just that the layout was similar to somewhere else. Rogers still hadn't said anything, but James could feel his tension, and when he glanced back at Rogers, Rogers was looking around with a sharp-eyed, ready gaze, and his gait said that he was prepared for a fight if it came to it.
He led Rogers back toward where he knew the data centers would be located. Hydra had always done a lot of work with data transmission, collection, analysis, and every base had a sort of communication hub. It would be well-protected, toward the center of the structure. They'd be lucky if they could get there without any kind of altercation.
The men who shouldered by them in the hallways were familiar too, in the sort of way that all men dressed in tactical gear with an ex-military set to their bodies always were. James could probably recognize a strike team in a mixed crowd at a glance by now, he was so familiar with them. He could even pick out their respective ranks and specialties just by looking at them -- which was the leader, which the second-in-command, who had medical training. Who would have been the one responsible for handling him.
There were two guards stationed outside the doorway that led to the science and research wing, both of them holding automatic weapons and visibly armed with several other firearms. James walked right up to them, with Rogers at his back, and fixed them with a stare. "Sir?" said one of them, eventually, which was a good sign that he had no idea what the protocol was for dealing with the Winter Soldier. Only people who didn't know any better called him 'sir.'
"Orders," James said, and the guard craned his neck, peering behind him at --
"Is that Steve Rogers?" said the guard, and James turned just enough to throw Rogers a warning glance before grabbing the guard by the throat with his right hand and using the left to hammer a punch on him that left him unconscious. Before the other man could ready his weapon, Rogers had laid him out too, with a perfect right hook. James stripped the shoulder holsters off his guard and put them on, checking them for ammo and then gathering more of that too.
The guard had a keycard on him that James swiped and then pocketed. Rogers had gotten a gun too and tucked it away -- they didn't want to seem threatening to the people inside, not yet. It would likely be at least several minutes before the guards were discovered, and ideally by then he and Rogers would be gone.
The humming of electronics lead him to the room he was looking for, and beside him, Rogers made a noise. "There used to be a room just like this at the Triskelion," he explained after a moment, peering in through the big plexiglas windows at the people inside, typing a their computers, many of them wearing headsets. "Do you think these people know who they're working for?"
"I don't know," James said. It seemed likely, with an operation this far removed from governmental oversight, but it was hard to say for sure. He had a memory -- someone had said to him, once, "People believe what they want to believe."
"What's gonna happen when we walk in there?" Rogers said. James knew what he meant; they were very clearly combat operatives, and these were very clearly not combat operatives, and they probably didn't even have a lot of contact with combat operatives under normal circumstances.
James shook his head. "I'm going to ask them for help," he said. "If it goes bad -- they probably don't have any combat training. It won't be a problem."
Rogers nodded, but looked grim. "Maybe we can negotiate with them," he said. "Most people don't want to get hurt, you know."
James felt a small smile pull at the corners of his mouth. "I know that," he said.
Rogers gave a quiet, startled little laugh. "Okay," he said. "I'll follow your lead."
James swiped the keycard and the door beeped and unlocked. At first nobody turned to look at them at all; there was one man walking around who might have been overseeing the rest of them, and James walked toward him, feeling Rogers' presence very clearly at his back.
The man looked up at him, blinking owlishly, when he approached. "I didn't receive any notification that you were being deployed," he said to James, but he also didn't seem terribly fazed by it. "Where's your handler?"
"Compromised," James said. "Unexpected complications."
"Have you reported in yet?" the man asked, putting his hands into the pockets of his dress pants. He frowned when the soldier shook his head. "Well, I don't think you're supposed to be in here. I'm not the person you're meant to be reporting to. And who's this?"
James drew his gun and pointed it steadily at the man, whose eyes got very round. He put his hands up, palms facing out. His badge said, Michael Gerwin. "Michael Gerwin," said James. "I need to know if this base has been receiving a certain signal. And I need to know when that signal started, and where it's coming from."
"What are you -- put down the gun!" said the man sharply. He'd gone the color of milk, and then went very red when James didn't obey him. "This is completely against protocol, I --"
"Michael Gerwin," James said, "This is very far above your pay grade. If you don't do what I said, I can find someone else." He smiled at Gerwin, just to watch his face change, the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. "You know my record."
Gerwin continued to stare for a moment. Two droplets of sweat ran along his temples. He took a deep breath, and then backed up toward an empty computer station and logged into it. James reached into his jacket and handed him the slip of paper, which was a little worse for the wear now, but still legible. "All right," Gerwin said loudly, typing. The sequence of numbers projected itself onto a large screen at the front of the room, and James saw several programmers' heads lift. "Everyone who's on non-essential functions right now, I want you on this. Search the database for any matches within the past six months."
James had followed Gerwin back to the computer station, and he held the gun pressed against Gerwin's shoulder as he watched him work. The room was filled now with the sounds of fingers moving quickly, keyboards clicking. James felt Rogers' hand on his own shoulder, a light touch, and he turned to see Rogers pointing at a young woman who had lifted her right hand. "Sir!" she said. "Mr. Gerwin!"
Gerwin backed away from his own monitor slowly, eyeballing James, who lowered the gun incrementally. Rogers went over with Gerwin to the woman's station, giving James a nod, and James stayed by Gerwin's computer station, watching the screen to make sure nothing changed -- that they weren't tripping an alarm or something like that. "They've got it," Rogers called.
"I -- wait, wait," Gerwin said. "This isn't the source of the signal, this is just the last relay point. To find the source of the signal we'd need more information than this, we need time --"
They didn't have time, James knew that. He nodded to Rogers, pulled the cell phone out of his pocket, and tossed it across the room, where Rogers caught it easily. More people were looking at them now, nervous glances between him and Rogers, who they could surely recognize, especially if the guard outside the door had recognized him after only looking for half a minute.
Rogers put his gun away and typed rapidly into the phone, then took a couple of photos, too. He came back to James. "It's in Washington," he said.
North of here. James nodded, lifted his gun again. "Don't make me regret leaving you alive," he said to Gerwin, politely, pleasantly even.
He beckoned Rogers, and started off toward the other side of the room. Rogers raised an eyebrow in question, and James said, quiet enough that nobody else would hear, "Server room is this way."
Rogers blinked, and then said, "How much of this place do you think we can take out?" picking up his pace as they walked, until they were both almost jogging.
"Enough," James said. It was pushing it, but he'd more or less been planning on fighting his way out anyway. He opened doors with his thumbprint until he found one that wouldn't open for him, then nodded at Rogers, who had already braced himself, and kicked in the door neatly before James could do it.
It was funny how fragile all of this was, when it came down to it. All that information, all the systems, were actually pretty easy to destroy. Not that he was stupid enough to think that it hadn't all been uploaded onto the internet a hundred times, that it didn't exist elsewhere in a thousand different iterations, but at least they could incapacitate this particular branch, even if it was only temporary. He found himself wishing for a jet, for some weapon of mass destruction, so that he could just obliterate it all.
The only weapons he really had were himself and Rogers, though, and that was enough to leave the server room a mass of smoking, sparking wreckage after very long. The lights flickered, and somewhere he heard alarms blaring. There was no backdoor to the server room, of course. They had to go back out the way they came, and he and Rogers both drew weapons as soon as they emerged back into the hallway next to the communications room.
Most likely there were a lot of men waiting outside the door they'd come in, the one where they'd left the two guards unconscious, to ambush them. James was aware, though, that he'd faced worse odds before, and anyway it wasn't as if they had a choice. There was, to his knowledge, no alternate method of escape, and they were too far inside the building for there to be even a window to leap out of.
"On three," Rogers said to him. His face had that serious, concentrated expression, and he reached out with one hand to touch the door handle.
James pulled it back and put his own hand there instead. "Let me go first," he said, and Rogers looked at him for half a second and then nodded. "One," he said.
"Two," said Rogers.
On three, he opened the door, found someone's head, and took the shot. He couldn't see well enough to tell how many men there were exactly, but his rough estimate was at least a dozen. None of them were properly prepared for his and Rogers' sudden emergence, though, and the split-second advantage that his and Rogers' enhanced reflexes had on them were enough that half of them were dead or disarmed before they'd made it more than five feet out.
Rogers was out of ammo. Before James could toss him a clip, he instead threw the gun at somebody's face with tremendous force and engaged another man in close combat, disarming him and giving him a gun butt to the face, then shooting a guard taking aim at James, who returned the favor by kneecapping the man behind Rogers.
"Let's go," he said, and they sprinted the rest of the way out, back into the reception area. "Stairs, stairs," said Rogers. "Come on," and he held the door open for James and then pulled it shut behind them just ahead of another strike team running toward them.
They got down to the bottom of the stairwell and James crouched, watching the door open and picking the men off one by one as they came into his line of sight. Behind him, Rogers had one hand lightly at his back, and when James glanced at him he was looking between James and the ground floor door to the stairwell, his other hand holding his gun steady. James nodded at him when all the men were down, reloading, and then whirled to take Rogers' six as Rogers pulled open the door out to the ground floor.
It was clear; the only people there were apparently civilians, cowering from the sound of the gunshots. "Go, go!" James said to Rogers, and Rogers set off at a sprint toward the front door of the building with James closely behind him. Gunfire sputtered from somewhere, and James turned, spotting the muzzle flash, aiming, and firing. There was another strike team coming for them, and as Rogers reached the door, it was locked from the inside. Rogers rattled it a couple of times, kicked it, then glanced at James and shot out a window instead -- it didn't shatter, bulletproof glass, but it weakened enough that when Rogers put his shoulder into it, it all sort of crumpled in one huge sheet.
He didn't stop, just stumbled out into the parking lot and headed for the nearest parked car, taking cover behind it. James caught up to him; he was crouched with a hand to his face, picking out a piece of glass where it had hit him just next to the eye. "I'm okay," he said. "Let's go, let's go."
James nodded, turning around to let off a few shots of covering fire, and the two of them sprinted across the parking lot, darting between cars, until they'd made it back to the Subaru. Rogers got there first and got in the driver's seat, wiping blood from his face as James climbed in next to him. He hadn't even gotten the door closed when Rogers pulled away with a squeal of tires -- the sounds of gunfire and shouting followed them as they sped out of the parking lot, but once they were away, their pursuers had no way to come after them with any expediency; none of them had gotten into cars quickly enough.
Rogers slowed down considerably once they were several blocks from the office building, looking for a freeway entry and trying, it seemed, to drive as normally as possible. To avoid attention from law enforcement. He got onto the interstate going north again and lifted the hem of his sweatshirt to staunch the steady flow of blood from the cut beside his eye. "It'll be fine," he said, when he saw James looking. "It'll stop bleeding soon."
They drove for several hours on the congested California highway. As the sun started to go down, Rogers pulled off the 5 toward Antioch, and then followed the roadside signage toward the Motel 6. "I can drive," James offered; Rogers hadn't said anything about stopping for the night, and --
"No," Rogers said. "You need to rest. You look terrible, and I know it's been at least two days since you slept. It's fine. I'll keep watch."
James sat silently in the car while Rogers went in and paid for a room. There was a pool here, shiny and bright chlorine blue, juxtaposed with the dusty river visible from the parking lot. There also turned out to be only one bed in the room, but Rogers seemed unfazed. "It was all they had," he said. "Besides, like I said, I'll keep watch."
The cut on his face had stopped bleeding, but the sweatshirt would have to be washed; it had a couple dark, sticky patches on it. James stood in front of him and looked at the cut -- didn't need stitches, which made sense, considering how their bodies worked, but it did need cleaning. He went into the cramped motel bathroom and got a washcloth, soap, a bandage, and then a bottle of antibiotic cream from his own jacket pocket.
"Sit down," he said to Rogers, who sat down on the bed, looking at him curiously. He took Rogers' chin in his right hand and washed the blood off his face where it had run down his cheek and dried. He was more careful when he got to the cut, touching it as gently as he could. Rogers' eye squinted a little in superficial pain, but he held still until James had finished and put a bandage over the area.
"It would have healed on its own," Rogers said.
"I know," James replied. "They heal faster clean, though." He knew from experience.
Rogers nodded, and then stood up, put his hands on James's shoulders, and pushed him gently down to sit on the bed instead. He took the washcloth, the antibiotics, and the soap out of James's hands, took them to the bathroom, and then came back with a glass of water. He gave it to James, and James drank it obediently, then looked up at him questioningly. "Get some rest," Rogers said softly, reaching out for a second and running his hand heavily over James's hair. "I promise I'll keep watch."
That, at least, was an order. James took off his jacket and his shoes, and after a moment his pants as well. He curled up on his side on the bed and -- it hammered him suddenly how tired he really was. He lifted his head and saw Rogers sitting at the rickety, awkward-looking desk, his chin in his hand. Rogers smiled at him a little, and he smiled back, not sure why, then put his head back down on the pillow and fell asleep.
He woke the next morning terrified, shooting upright in bed, his heart pounding. "Hey," Rogers said -- he was awake but looked exhausted. "Hey, hey, it's all right, you're safe."
He wasn't; he would never be. He had this feeling that he was being chased, that something awful was nipping just at his heels, forever behind him, forever unseeable and unknowable. And in this moment, he knew somehow that he'd always have that feeling, that he was always just running. "James?" Rogers said, coming over and sitting down on the very edge of the bed, carefully, like he was afraid of spooking James. "Are you okay?"
James nodded, pressing the back of his flesh hand against his sweating forehead. He couldn't say anything, though, couldn't get his breath to say anything and didn't know what he would have said even if he could. He got up and went into the bathroom, turned the shower on. Rogers stood in the doorway watching him as he peeled off his shirt and underwear, and then said, "I'm going to the lobby to get some coffee. I'll be right back."
James was shaving when he returned. Rogers must have been right that he looked terrible before, because he still looked fairly rough now, even after sleeping. His cheekbones were sharp, the skin over them thin, and there were purple hollows under his eyes. "Here you go," Rogers said, coming into the bathroom, setting a steaming paper cup on the sink. "You mind if I get a shower when you're done?"
His hand touched James's back, right between his shoulderblades, and rubbed slowly, with just enough pressure. It felt -- maddeningly good, it felt dangerous because he wanted the touch to continue, he liked it. His eyes were slipping closed before he realized it and jerked away. "Yeah," he said to Rogers. "Sorry. Just be a minute."
He finished shaving and brushed his teeth, took the coffee with him and sat at the desk while Rogers showered. The cut on Rogers' cheek was almost gone when he took the bandage off, just a thin red line. "You need to sleep?" James asked him, noting that he had dark circles himself, and was a little pale.
"I'll sleep in the car," Rogers said. "It's at least a ten-hour drive, right?" He was toweling off his chest and back, looking over his own shoulder at James's reflection in the bathroom mirror.
James nodded. "We should pick up something to eat before we leave, though," Rogers said. "I didn't get enough to eat last night, I'm starving."
They got a lot of food at a drive-through and then got back on the highway, with James in the driver's seat again. Rogers looked fairly alert for someone who hadn't slept the previous night, although maybe that was just the coffee. "Can I tell you something?" he asked James eventually, as they passed Sacramento.
James looked over at him. His profile was silhouetted by the morning sun, his expression thoughtful. "Okay," James said.
"When we were in Europe," Rogers said, "during World War II, there was this base we captured. It was just a small outpost, but the guy that was in charge of it thought he was really important -- and maybe he was, maybe there was more to it. I don't know. Anyway, I remember he wouldn't talk. Liebhauser, I think his name was. He had been given that post as a sign of honor or something, and he wouldn't talk to us. Or -- I should say he wasn't talking to me."
He paused and smiled to himself. "He'd just look at me and give me this little sneer, like he knew something about me. I think he thought that because I was Captain America, I wasn't going to hurt him, or I'd go easy on him. And anyway he was right, I was pretty squeamish about it. I remember you came in, and you somehow looked at me and him, and figured out exactly what was going on, because you came right over to him, you got right up in his face, and you said to him--"
He laughed. "You said, 'you may not be worried about him hurting you, but you sure as hell should be worried about me,' and you reached right out, grabbed his hand, and broke his finger. Just like that. And he did start talking, after you roughed him up a little."
James frowned slightly, blinking. "I'm just telling you because yesterday, in that base, the way you were talking to that guy -- Gerwin, I think -- it reminded me of that," Rogers said. The corner of his mouth lifted again. "Never thought I'd be remembering the war fondly, but here we are."
Rogers was quiet for a while, and then he said, "I got a little bit less squeamish as time went by."
"I could see that," James said. Rogers glanced at him in surprise like he wasn't quite expecting an answer, but then he just smiled again and went back to looking out the window, and when James looked at him next, he'd fallen asleep.
He slept for a while, and then he woke up as they were crossing into Oregon and said, "Jesus I'm hungry again." James reached into the backseat and tossed him a bag of trail mix, which he looked at sourly, and then said, "All right, but I'm actually going to need real food in a couple of hours still."
"We'll stop in a couple of hours, then," James said, and they did stop, about halfway through their journey, to get lunch. He needed protein, he could tell that, and somehow framing it as a basic necessity made it a little easier to wolf down a couple of low-quality burgers.
Rogers caught him looking with disdain at the wrappers and said, "I know, these are terrible. But they're fast and easy, and cheap." He shrugged. "We could get something better but it'd have to be at a sit-down restaurant, or a grocery store."
James shrugged too, aimed, and tossed the wrapper into a trashcan about twenty feet away. It would do. As long as his minimum requirements for functionality were being met, he'd be fine. "How far are we from Leavenworth?" Rogers asked after a few seconds' silence.
"Three hours at least," James said. "Maybe four."
"I'll drive for a while," Rogers said, nodding, and went around to the driver's side, sliding into the seat. He hardly ever needed to adjust it, James noticed. They were just about of a height. He started the car up when James got in the passenger seat and got back on the highway. "Do you mind if I turn on the radio?" he asked.
James shook his head, and Rogers reached forward to fiddle with the buttons until he came up with a classical music station. James didn't quite know what the point of it was; it was just another neutral stimulus. But Rogers seemed to enjoy it, tapping his fingers on the wheel a little bit as he drove.
The GPS on the phone took them right to where the base was supposed to be, but what they found instead was a state park, a huge expanse of dark green forest, snow, and grey sky. Rogers parked the car at the side of the road and craned his neck, looking around and then over at James.
James reached back and grabbed his discarded coat from the backseat of the car, then handed Rogers' to him. "I think we should go back to California," Rogers said jokingly, zipping up his sweatshirt and putting the coat on over it, fishing his sock cap out of one of its pockets. James didn't dignify him with a response, just got out of the car, his boots sinking into the untouched snow, and went over to the trailhead to look at a map of the park.
There were four structures on the map, and if they weren't going to start there, James didn't know where to start, really. Rogers came after him; he had that alert look again, and followed James when he started down the trail. They'd have to monitor their exposure, of course, especially Rogers, who had neither the benefit of an artificial hand nor sturdy gloves. But James knew from experience that they were both resistant to frostbite, and the temperature felt to be hovering somewhere around twenty degrees, which wasn't cold enough to be an immediate concern.
Rogers kept his hands in his pockets as they walked. It was slower going than it might have been ordinarily, because James was watching for any lookouts, anybody who might be deployed in the woods, and besides, the paths were poorly cleared and would have been better suited for walking in snowshoes. They got to the first structure in about twenty minutes; a rangers' station which appeared to be abandoned for the season.
James motioned to Rogers, and they each went around one side of the building, peering in windows. The front door was locked when James tried it, but one of the pocket knives he had made short work of it. Disappointingly, when they went inside, the structure appeared to be exactly as it had seemed from the outside.
There was a space heater, and Rogers turned it on. "Just for a minute," he said. "I just want to warm up my hands."
James nodded and sat on one of the desks, looking out the window, left hand touching a gun in the right side of the shoulder holster he still wore. "We should have gotten gloves for you," he said.
"Well, we were in Arizona at the time," Rogers said. "I don't think we were expecting this."
James glanced at him, and then took the glove off his left hand and tossed it over to Rogers. "Switch off with that," he said. "Tell me if you get too cold. I'm -- conditioned for it."
Rogers frowned for a moment and then nodded, slipping the glove onto his right hand and then turning the space heater off again. "All right," he said. "Let's move out."
The next structure was further away; it was some kind of research outpost, which also turned out to be abandoned. Rogers' nose was red by the time they got there, and he was shivering a little, though by looking at him James thought he was probably only superficially cold and not in any kind of danger yet. "Limnology," Rogers said, looking at the sign in front of the building. "What is that?"
"Study of bodies of fresh water," James said, glancing up into the trees. This place had better cover, would have been a better choice for some kind of base than the ranger station. He pulled the phone out of his pocket and tried to pull up the GPS again, but there was no signal at all out here, and the little blue dot just fluctuated in the middle of a completely empty map. He gestured to Rogers, and again they went around either side of the building and met in the middle.
"Well, it's...at least a research facility?" Rogers said, and James shook his head.
"This isn't it," he said. The equipment was all wrong, for one thing. And everything was too personal; there were photos of kids, drawings, all the detritus of a normal human life, posted up inside. Hydra hadn't been about that, except where it was hidden from any kind of public view.
He turned in a slow circle, and saw what might have been another building through the maze of trees, further off the main trail. "This way," he said to Rogers, and drew his gun, walking as silently as he could in that direction.
It wasn't that silence was hard, precisely; all the snow had a sort of dampening effect on sound. But remaining unseen was something else entirely. He and Rogers were wearing dark clothes, so he tried to stick as closely to the trees as possible, moving between them like a shadow, until they reached the building.
It was just a shack, really. A cabin. It was very small, but something about it struck James's unreliable, black pit of a memory. Something like -- he had seen something like it before. Not here, not in America, but somewhere, nestled among the mountains. He held his hand up to stop Rogers behind him, and looked to make sure Rogers had a weapon drawn too before advancing again.
The cabin looked like it had been abandoned for a while. There were the remnants of shredded papers strewn about the floor, a desk with a single computer. "This is it," James said, reaching for the door.
"It's tiny," Rogers said, and James looked at him and nodded. The door wasn't even locked; they had just left it, then, abandoned it purposefully. But it was still receiving the signal, which meant that it was still connected to the network somehow. It was still receiving signals and relaying them.
Inside it was dusty and cold. "There's got to be a generator out back," Rogers said. "Hang on, I'll go see if I can get it started."
"Not by yourself," James said, just in case, and followed Rogers out. The generator was small, probably just barely big enough to power this place, and it took several tries to get it started. When it finally sputtered to life, lights flickered on inside the cabin, and the computer's screen blinked on when James touched the power button.
"How was it receiving the signal if the power wasn't on?" Rogers asked, looking around. And in fact, the computer was flashing nonsense at James, just a green screen of errors and code. But this had to be it -- there was nothing else around, and James knew that they wouldn't have built another installation so close to this one.
"I don't know," he said to Rogers. Rogers leaned over his shoulder, gazing at the screen, and then blew out a breath.
"That doesn't look good," Rogers said.
"No," James said. He reached into his pocket and got out the piece of paper with the signal code written on it and started going through the bursts of code on the screen, looking for any similarities.
"What about those photos I took on the phone?" Rogers said, so James pulled out the phone and handed it to him. Rogers brought the pictures up and put the phone next to the computer's screen. It was like looking at night and day; on one hand, a clearly organized pattern, a recognizable string, on the phone. And then, on the other hand, the computer, which was obviously deliberately wrecked, a ruin of what it had previously been.
"I don't think I know enough to repair this," James said. He ran a hand through his hair, and beside him, Rogers laughed a little, bitterly.
"If you don't, then I definitely don't," he said. He paced back, walked the length of the cabin and then came back to stand behind James. "What do we do now?" he asked.
James sat down in the desk chair and put his hands in his lap, looking at the computer's screen, the piece of paper, the phone. "I need to think," he said.
"Okay," Rogers said. "I'll -- I think I saw firewood out back, I'm going to get some and start a fire, if we'll be here for a while. And I'll look for a satellite dish or something on the roof while I'm out there."
James nodded, and then, as Rogers turned away, said, "Wait." Rogers turned back toward him, looking confused, maybe a little surprised, and James handed him his other glove. "You'll want that."
Rogers took the glove, put it on, and went outside. James sat very still for a while, trying to call up something, anything at all that would help him. It was incredible, to know things and have no memory at all of learning them. He had no real context to know that it was wrong or unusual, and yet the strangeness of it was undeniable, even as adrift as he was.
He heard a humming, eventually, an electrical sound which wasn't coming from the generator, the computer, or any of the lights. He closed his eyes to get a better bearing on it, and then shut down the useless computer in front of him to eliminate the noise. It was coming from beneath him, from the floor; he got out of the chair and got down on his hands and knees, started rapping his knuckles on the floorboards.
There was an area about two feet by two feet that sounded like it had a space beneath it maybe four feet deep. He ran the fingers of his flesh hand around the edges of the floorboards until he found one that was loose, just loose enough for him to get the tips of his fingers underneath. As he did, Rogers came in the door, pink-faced and carrying some kindling and several small logs. Rogers looked tremendously confused for a second, until James's fingers found some kind of catch, and the floorboard sprung free to reveal a little trapdoor.
James opened it, reached inside, and pulled out a thin, state-of-the-art laptop. It was attached to some kind of cable, and James couldn't see much, but he would bet that it was linked to some kind of secondary power source a lot more powerful and much more efficient than a generator.
He pulled it out as far as it would go and opened it up to find that it was running a simple program to receive and automatically redirect incoming signals. Once upon a time some technician had sat up here and relayed signals by hand. He could imagine it, one man, stationed up here for months at a time with only park rangers and limnologists to keep him company, sitting there day in and day out, staring at this computer screen. And maybe that didn't compare to what Hydra had done to him, in most people's minds, but James knew in a way he couldn't hope to explain that it was some kind of form of punishment too. Of torture.
Whoever had been here was gone, though, and they'd left this laptop here to keep doing that work, to keep the network running. "Can I have--" he started to say, but Rogers was already handing him the piece of paper. He opened a search window and typed the string of numbers and letters into it, and then sat back a little to wait.
The status bar crept along slowly, slowly. Rogers had gotten a fire going and was rattling around the place. "Do you think it's safe to stay here overnight?" he asked, finding a pull-out bed, experimentally starting to pull it out and see how much space it took up. "You think the car'll be okay?"
Safe was one thing, but they weren't really safe anywhere they went. And judging from how slowly the search program was running, they might not have a choice about staying overnight. "I don't know if there's any food in here," Rogers said, poking around in the cupboards and coming up with a couple of cans of chili. There was bottled water in a fridge that had long since gone defunct, but the water was still cold by virtue of the fact that it was winter and the cabin hadn't had heat in a long time.
Rogers poured both of the cans of chili into a saucepan and went about figuring out how to suspend it over the fire. He looked like he had experience doing this, and James supposed that he must. The pictures of them together in the snowy Alps, back in 1943, seemed to suggest it, anyway. "I think those cans are technically expired," Rogers said after a few minutes, amused, looking over his shoulder at James as he stirred the chili with a wooden spoon. "You think we'll be okay?"
"Yes," James said. He refrained from telling Rogers he'd eaten food that was much, much worse than expired, and went over to sit on the bed instead. It felt surprisingly more comfortable to him than any hotel bed he'd sat on recently, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was somewhat stiff, springy to the touch.
They sat and shared the chili out of the saucepan when it was ready. It tasted fine, from what James could tell, and there was something familiar about it that made it easier to eat. The sun had gone down by then and Rogers was lit only by the warm yellow glow of the fire and, more faintly, the bluish glow of the laptop screen. He sighed, and sat down on the bed next to James, then lay back on it.
James started to get up, but Rogers said, "No, it's all right. Stay here, your body heat is nice." So he stopped and sat back down. It didn't seem likely that anyone was coming for them at this point, but maybe they were waiting for the cover of night, for the two of them to get complacent, to relax.
Rogers' breath slowed into the familiar rhythm of sleep, and James turned to look at him. He'd curled onto his side a bit, his hands both tucked under his armpits for warmth. His expression was blank, peaceful. James wondered if that was what he looked like when he slept, too. If it was, it was a hell of an illusion.
He lay down next to Rogers, carefully separate from him, and Rogers blinked his eyes open at the shift on the bed. Somehow that made James feel better, knowing how easily Rogers would wake at any change in the environment. Rogers moved a little, and James twitched away. "It's okay," Rogers said, his voice quiet, his tone carefully soothing. "I'm just getting closer. You feel really warm right now. I always got cold easy." He paused, and then added, "Tell me if it's not okay."
Rogers shifted until his knees were barely pressing against James's and then reached out and tucked his hands under James's arms instead. "You always were really hot when you sleep," he said to James, and James couldn't understand how Rogers having his hand pressed up against the fabric covering James's metal arm, which wasn't warm at all, could feel any better to him, but Rogers kept his hands there anyway and closed his eyes again.
Realistically there was nothing strange about it. Even with the fire and the generator going, the cabin was cold, and it made sense to conserve body heat. Some part of the soldier's mind was even protesting that they were wearing too many layers of clothing to be as effective as they could, but he silenced it. "It's peaceful, you know?" Rogers said, very quietly. "I thought -- I was afraid that winter would remind me of -- when you died, but it's not that bad. It's different. It gets so quiet out there."
The sudden, awful sucking sensation of falling, the sound of a train whistle, this feeling of wind stinging hard enough to cut, and then -- nothing, maybe. He did remember that, if it was a memory. He wished he could remember Rogers calling out for him, so that he could know it was real, but it was just that sensation, completely untethered and without anchor, like everything else that he could concretely remember. "I probably shouldn't have said that," Rogers said. His eyes were open again.
"Did you call out for me?" James asked. One of Rogers' hands had started to move, his thumb stroking against the seam of James's jacket.
"Yeah," Rogers said. "Of course I did. I said your name. And then -- I guess I don't really remember after that. I guess I kind of blocked it out." He smiled a little. "I always thought I was better off not remembering it, but now I wish I could."
"Why?" James asked him.
"So I could tell you," Rogers said. "You deserve to know."
Rogers removed his hand from James's right side and slid it down instead, taking James's flesh hand and folding their fingers up together, and then closed his eyes. James looked down at their intertwined fingers; the place where his skin touched Rogers' was the warmest place on his entire body.
He slept a few times in short, fitful patches, waking up to add more logs to the fire, a few times to walk around and check the perimeter, once to piss. Rogers woke up too, but stayed where he was, waiting for James to come back. They'd created a small pool of warmth that got gradually hotter through the night, the bedding on the pull-out gathering more and more body heat.
When he woke up for good, it was morning, a weak watery dawn sun peeking through the trees, and Rogers was pressed up against him, his breath washing hot over James's neck and his arm draped loosely over James's side. James looked at him for a moment up close, the patterns of his hair, his eyelashes resting against his cheeks, and then disengaged himself, getting up and going to check on the computer.
It had finished, and he busied himself going through all the results it had found. Rogers got up after a few minutes, rubbing his hands over his face, and rattled through the cupboards again looking for coffee. He found a red plastic container that he opened and gave a sniff. "This is going to be terrible," he said, going outside and getting some snow to clean out the saucepan from the previous evening, and then sitting down in front of the fire, pouring grounds and bottled water into the clean pan.
Eventually he got up and found two unmatched mugs, pouring some of the coffee into each of them and pushing one over to James. "Did the search finish?" he asked, sipping his coffee and grimacing.
James nodded, turning the screen a little so that Rogers could see it. "Trying to figure out which one of these it is," he said, scrolling slowly through the list of items that the search had pulled up. The section of code that he'd written down seemed to have only been a fragment.
Rogers sat down next to him on the floor, sipping his coffee. "This is all Greek to me," he said. "I wish I knew more about it." He squinted at the screen. "What are you looking for?"
"Repetition, mostly," James said. He wondered how he'd learned this, who had taught him. If it was something he'd picked up on his own that he wasn't necessarily meant to know. He tapped the tip of his metal finger on the screen, pointing out a few places where sections of the code repeated. He wished he knew how to decrypt it, but even if there was a decryption program on the computer, he doubted he'd know how to run the decryption correctly.
Somewhere along the way something clicked in his mind and he started seeing the patterns for what they were, and eventually he found the thread of the signal and clicked on it, pulling up a window full of code and looking for the IP address it was coming from. "It's in Alaska," he said to Rogers.
Rogers huffed out a laugh. "Alaska," he said. "Of course it is."
They would need identification for the border crossing into Canada -- specifically, passports. James stopped at a truckstop outside of Seattle to look for likely candidates. He was nowhere near ignorant or stupid enough to think that either he or Rogers was 'average'-looking in any real way, but in shapeless clothes with a few days' stubble, there were enough men of around their apparent age, weight, and height that it shouldn't be too hard to find someone similar enough.
They went inside, into the 24-hour diner. Rogers looked glad at the opportunity to be in a heated area that wasn't as cramped as the car, and he ordered a lot of food, as he usually did. James sat quietly with his own dinner, slowly taking small bites, watching people come in and out.
This errand could potentially take a while. There was no guarantee that even if James found someone appropriate, that person would have his passport on his body. It might be in his vehicle, or he might not have it at all. And Rogers technically didn't know why they were here. Other than asking how long the drive was, Rogers hadn't said a lot the past few hours.
Finally, a man in his mid-thirties about Steve's height, with sandy blonde hair and a beard, came in and went to the counter to buy a pack of cigarettes. He had tattoos on his forearms, James saw, where his sleeves were rolled up, but nowhere that would be visible in a passport photo. He was talking to the cashier in a way that seemed like he was familiar with her. Maybe he came through here a lot.
James got up and got in line behind him. Rogers' eyes followed him, but Rogers wisely didn't say anything, just sipped at his coffee. "Pack of Lucky Strikes," he said to the cashier when the other man left, handed her a twenty, took his change and the cigarettes when she handed them back. He went outside, scanned the parking lot; the guy was standing next to his rig and lighting up. James went and stood by the Subaru and did the same, not really smoking the cigarette, just flicking the ash when it got too long. The smoke smelled unpleasant, acrid.
He drifted gradually back into the shadows, put out the cigarette, and made a long circuit of the parking lot, keeping to darkness. The man was unlocking the cab of his truck, and as he did, James climbed up the other side, got in the passenger side. The man looked at him in startlement and said, "Hey, what the fuck?!" and then went silent as James grabbed him around the throat with his left hand and held one finger of his right hand to his lips. Shh.
The man's fingers scrabbled ineffectually at James's metal hand, until his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp in James's grasp. He'd be fine; he'd wake up with a bruised neck and a headache, and by then Rogers and James would be long gone.
James rifled through the man's jacket. His wallet had his driver's license, some cash, a few credit cards, but no passport. He checked the glove compartment, found registration, insurance information, but still no passport. It wasn't until he opened the center console that he found what he was looking for, underneath a couple of packs of gum and a spare pair of sunglasses. He glanced at the information on the passport, tucked it into his own jacket, and then slipped out of the truck and walked back into the restaurant.
"What are you doing?" Steve said. "You -- don't smoke. Do you?"
The act of smoking would be not only counterproductive to operating at peak levels, but also completely ineffectual; the amount of nicotine in a cigarette was nowhere near enough to affect somebody with his or Rogers' metabolism. He shook his head, reached into his jacket, and passed Rogers the passport under the table. Rogers looked down at it; his mouth tightened with displeasure.
"We're going to need them," James said.
"Yeah," Rogers agreed, still obviously displeased. He put the passport in his pocket, and met James's eyes across the table. "Did you kill him?"
"No," James said. "No need."
"All right," Rogers said. "Good." He finished his cup of coffee. "Let's go. It's a better idea if we don't get both of them here."
James nodded, a little surprised; Rogers was right, but James hadn't expected to hear him say that. Rogers put down some money on the table and got up, walking out casually like nothing was wrong. And honestly, the only people who knew anything was different were the two of them, and the truck driver, when he woke up.
They drove to the other side of town, to a different truckstop, and James spotted a guy similar enough to himself to pass almost immediately. This man was with some people, though. He looked less like a trucker than he did some kind of tourist or vacationer, and it was a weird feeling, watching this person who was superficially so much the same act so differently.
He'd be harder to isolate, but he would also be easier to distract. They went inside the truckstop and sat down in the diner, and Rogers ordered them both a cup of coffee again. He'd noticed who James was watching, and was casually watching him too -- he might not have a natural knack for discreet surveillance, but he did clearly have practice enough not to be obvious about it.
"If I distract him," Rogers said, "you think you can pick his pocket?"
James nodded. It was unlikely to be the cleanest pull he'd ever made, but with Rogers distracting him it shouldn't matter. Rogers got up and walked over to where the group of people was standing, near the soda machine. They were messing around with it; they looked to be mixing up the different drinks, which -- these people were all in their twenties, it seemed ridiculously childish. James wondered what Rogers's play was going to be, but then he realized, watching Rogers's gait, and then hearing him say in a slightly over-loud voice, "Hey, man, is that the new Galaxy? Can I see that?" that Rogers was playing drunk.
The young man was a little bit taken aback, and Rogers was insistent. He was rattling off all these statistics, and he had gotten out their cell phone to compare the two of them. It was, actually, perfect: Everyone was uncomfortable, laughing with strain in their voices, but not uncomfortable enough to tell Rogers to go away yet, especially not as tall and broad a figure as he cut.
"It's cool," Rogers was saying. "How's the camera? My camera is so shitty, I hate it --"
James got up and half-jogged over, taking Roger's arm, handing the guy's phone back to him. "Dude, what?" Rogers said. "Look, he has that new phone I was telling you about." He shook James's arm off and bumped James into the mark, and as he did, James reached with his left hand into the guy's coat pocket where he could see the bulge of his wallet and lightly lifted it out, along with what was unmistakably, from its size, shape, and texture, a passport.
"I'm so sorry," James said to the guy, turning to the group of them at large. "He had a little bit too much, I was trying to get some coffee in him to sober him up." He slipped the wallet and passport into his own pocket and held his hands up in a pacifying gesture. "Seriously, so sorry. Jesus, come on, Charlie, leave these people alone."
"I'm not bothering anybody," Rogers said indignantly. James took him by the arm again and pulled him away. Rogers swatted at him but followed, cowed.
"I leave you alone for five minutes," James said over his shoulder while they were still within voice range of the group of people, and as he said it -- and he didn't know why he was saying it, it wasn't necessary to sell the con, but -- he had this sudden flash of Rogers' face. The same face, but in a much smaller body; he was looking down at Rogers, who had the back of his hand pressed against his nose to staunch the blood: I leave you alone for five minutes.
"Did you get it?" Rogers said, sliding back into their booth, looking up at James as he picked up his coffee mug.
"Yeah," James said, blinking. "I got it."
Rogers nodded. He smiled a small, satisfied smile. It had been easy -- too easy, James thought. But that was how it was, with people who didn't have any experience moving in the kinds of circles that he and Rogers did. They didn't expect it, they never saw it coming. He couldn't ever remember feeling that way.
He didn't risk a glance at the passport until they were back in the car. The man's name was Daniel, and he was from Iowa. "I have to be driving," he said, glancing at Rogers. "Since I'm the one with the driver's license."
It might have made more sense to wait until morning to cross the border. It'd certainly look less suspicious, but it'd also be busier, and it would give the people whose identities they'd just stolen a lot more time to report their passports missing. "We're on vacation," he said to Rogers. "We're going hiking in Alaska. Nothing to declare."
Rogers nodded, and James got back on I-5 and headed toward Seattle. Either this was going to go very well, or very badly - there wasn't a lot of room for a middle ground, and James was frankly used to preparing for the worst. And he knew that he and Rogers could handle it, as grim a thought as it was. He didn't want it to go that way -- it would be inconvenient trying to leave that large a body trail, for one, and for another, he knew that Rogers would be deeply displeased by any unnecessary civilian deaths.
There were a few cars at the border crossing, but not a lot. They were stopped at a red light with a group of other cars -- James wondered who these people were, that they were here in the middle of the night -- waiting to be let through. "Wait, wait," Rogers said. "What's your name?"
"Daniel Robertson," James said. "From Sioux City, Iowa."
"Okay," Rogers said. "I'm -- William Peter Wright." He glanced at the glove compartment. "What about the title?"
Frankly, James was hoping that they wouldn't ask for it. He pulled it out and saw that the seller had filled out her portion of the title transfer, but not the buyer portion. He filled it out now with Daniel Robertson's name and quickly came up with some only vaguely plausible story to tell the border agent, if asked. He didn't have long. The light turned green, and he pulled forward into the border station.
He had the license and registration, and both of their passports, and handed them over cooperatively when the agent reached for them. "What's the purpose of your visit to Canada?" the man asked, scanning the documents quickly.
"We're driving up to Alaska," James said. "We're going hiking up there."
The man glanced at them. "This is a title transfer," he said. "I see you just purchased this vehicle recently."
"Yeah, in Chicago," James said. "My car broke down right before we were supposed to do this trip, and then I realized I shouldn't mail it off, because then I wouldn't get the title in time. Is that okay?"
"Where's your destination?" the officer asked.
"Denali," James said. "We're both real big into the wilderness, you know?"
"Sure," the officer said. "All right, I understand why you didn't mail off this transfer of title, but you need to do that as soon as you're done with border crossings. Anything to declare?"
"Nope," James said.
"Kind of late to be out here," the border agent said.
"Yeah, our hotel is in Vancouver," James said. "We got held up earlier -- traffic -- but we figured we better make it there or else we'd have to pay for another hotel."
"Okay," the border agent said, handing back their documents. "Have a nice evening."
"Thank you," James said. "You too."
He sat back a little, and the gate went up for them to pull forward. Rogers hadn't said anything, but he let out a loud exhalation of breath and ran his hands through his hair once they were clear of the crossing. "I feel like it might have been easier just to go out into the forest and cross there," he said.
James nodded. It probably would have been, except that it was cold outside and weather conditions were unpredictable. Besides -- "We'll save that for the crossing back into United States territory," he said. Next to him, Rogers laughed, quietly, and ran his hands through his hair again.
After a brief stop in Vancouver, they drove straight through into Kamloops, a drive that took some seven hours. James's ultimate plan was to get to Prince George and from there commandeer one of the smaller commercial planes for his and Rogers' use, but Rogers couldn't go the entire fourteen-hour drive to Prince George without eating, even if they were to switch off driving.
It was considerably warmer in Kamloops, with no snow on the ground. Rogers straightened up when James pulled off the highway, glancing around. He'd been about half-asleep for the past few hours.
They had changed some money in Vancouver, and there was a McDonald's just off the highway that seemed like their best bet. James stopped there, and got out of the car. He needed to stretch his legs for a little while, take a break from the cramped car. They probably both could use a break.
"Where are we going?" Rogers asked him, as they walked into the restaurant. Nobody turned to look at them -- that was one of the nice things about these bleak chain places. Nobody cared enough to look or take note of much of anything.
"Prince George," James said, stepping up to the counter and waiting for Rogers to order. Once they'd made their orders and sat down at a booth near the corner of the restaurant, he continued. "The airport."
Rogers glanced at him. "I thought I saw a sign for an airport here," he said.
That was true, but the size of plane James was looking for would have a range of two or three-thousand miles at best, and James didn't want to try to refuel until Anchorage. He shook his head. "Prince George," he repeated.
"All right," Rogers said. "Well, I'll drive the rest of the way there, then, so you can get some sleep. Because I don't know how to fly a plane."
They would have to get cold-weather gear, too, somewhere along the way. Probably in Prince George. The location that the signal had given them was far away from anything that seemed to resemble civilization, and there was no telling how long they would be out there. The road system got very spotty once you got outside of Anchorage. "Shit," Rogers said, and James looked at him questioningly.
He held up the phone. "It doesn't have service now," Rogers said. "I guess we lost it when we came over the border."
James peered around the restaurant, looking for a likely mark. "We could just buy another one," Rogers said after a moment. "I saw a sign for a Best Buy when we came into town."
James considered it, and then nodded. He had gotten pretty good by now at eating the sausage and egg sandwiches, or maybe it was just that he had little energy to allow his mind to stage its usual protests about his body's needs. In the end it didn't matter. They went to the Best Buy Mobile in the mall and he let Rogers handle the purchase, spent the time instead watching people walk around the store. There was nobody have even remotely suspicious, but he couldn't shake the feeling that if anyone had come after them, it would be an operative skilled enough to remain undetected.
They got back in the car, with Rogers in the driver's seat this time, and James closed his eyes and tried to sleep while Rogers drove them north toward Prince George. It was difficult, though -- perhaps to make up for the relative ease with which he'd been able to eat breakfast. He had this sense that he hadn't been meant to sleep in a moving car. That it wasn't allowed, that he was meant to remain alert and at the ready.
Physical impulse did win out eventually, and suddenly enough that thankfully he didn't have to consider the fact that he was slowly, gradually losing his iron grasp over his own instincts. He woke with a start, as he always did, gasping for air as if he'd been drowning, though he couldn't for the life of him remember if that had been what he was dreaming at all.
"Whoa, whoa," Rogers said, pulling over to the side of the road as James clawed at his seatbelt; it felt like it was constricting his chest, holding him too tightly. Rogers unbuckled his own seatbelt and leaned over, taking James's face in his hands, forcing James to meet his eyes. "It's okay. It's okay. You were just asleep. You're all right."
He let go of James's face with one hand and unbuckled James's seatbelt too and James sucked in several heaving breaths, squeezing his eyes shut. Rogers's thumb stroked along his cheekbone, and his other hand came up to run over James's hair. "You're okay," he said again. "You're all right."
James leaned heavily into the touch, and Rogers just held him there, supporting him until he finally caught his breath and then jerked away again, covering his face with both hands. He was sweating, even though it wasn't very warm in the car. Rogers didn't say anything else, just pulled back onto the road and got back up to speed. "We're about twenty minutes away," he said when James looked up at last. "You going to be okay for this?"
James stared at him. It was a meaningless question. There wasn't any other choice, besides to be okay for it. There were no other options. "All right," Rogers said uncertainly, after a long period of silence had elapsed.
James fumbled the phone out, the Canadian one, and looked up sporting goods stores. "Stop here first," he said, handing it over to Rogers when he'd found the address of one. "Before the airport."
Rogers nodded, took the phone, and then didn't say anything else until they were in the parking lot. "What should we be looking for?" he asked, locking the car up and waiting for James before starting toward the store.
"Coats," James said. "Hats, gloves. Boots." He wiped his face, which still felt faintly sweaty. "A tent, maybe."
Rogers stopped just outside the door and looked at James again, steadily, assessing. The force of his stare made an uncomfortable, familiar prickle run down James's spine. "Maybe we should wait," he said. "We could rest, just for a few hours."
"No," James said. "No."
Rogers blew out a breath, looked up at the sky for a second, and then said, "Okay. You know, I'm going to ask somebody who works here what would be best. I figure they probably know. There's probably a bathroom in here. You should go in and splash some water on your face."
That was pretty close to an order, and as such James felt compelled to obey it. Once he was there, he could tell why Rogers had been concerned. He was paler than usual -- he looked sallow, even, and there was some quality about his expression that signaled danger. Some intangible quality of hauntedness.
He washed his face off, got his hands wet and ran them through his hair, watching it spring back to life a little. Then he pasted a smile on and went to find Rogers, who was talking to a pretty young woman. "Oh, this is him," Rogers was saying, indicating James.
"Billy says you two are planning a trip up north?" the girl said. Her name tag said “Hannah.” "That's pretty exciting."
"Yeah," James said, smiling broadly. "Yeah, it'll be a real adventure."
He used Daniel's credit card to pay for all the stuff, and then they took it out and loaded it in the back of the car. "You sure you don't want to stop?" Rogers said, one final time. He had his arms folded and was leaning against the side of the car.
James took the credit card he'd just used out of the wallet, wiped it off, and threw it away; it'd stop working in a couple of hours anyway, no doubt. He was surprised it had worked at all. It had been almost a full twenty-four hours, which was a long time to not realize or not care that your wallet had been stolen. "Yes," he said. "I'm sure."
"Okay," Rogers said. "All right. I'll drive. You tell me where to go."
Prince George airport was a small, three-runway affair, but it was their best bet for getting to Anchorage. They drove around the back of the airport and ditched the car, went on foot toward the commercial terminal. James knew what he was looking for -- a small plane capable of being operated by a single pilot, a commercial route that was flown on a regular basis, so as not to arouse suspicion.
There wasn't a lot of security here, and nothing that would keep operatives of his and Rogers' capability out. They went in a flimsy chain-link fence at the back of the property, and walked across the tarmac toward where several trucks were parked and an older man was loading boxes into the back of his airplane. It was a bit smaller than what James had been looking for, but it'd have to do. "Where you headed?" James asked him, friendly.
"Anchorage today," the man said, and then, turning to look at them, "Hey, you're not supposed to be in here --"
James grabbed him by the jacket, spun him, and got his left arm around the man's neck. "James, wait, wait," Rogers said, and James relaxed instinctively, just enough that the man could breathe again. "I know this probably isn't going to matter to you right now," Rogers said, "and I don't blame you if you don't believe me, but my name is Steve Rogers, I'm Captain America, and my friend and I need to use your plane. I swear you'll get it back, there's just something urgent that we need to take care of, and this is the only way for us to do that."
It wasn't strictly true. It wasn't the only way, certainly not. The man stared at Rogers for a minute, limp in James's arms, and then started struggling again. "Sir, please!" said Rogers, but James just tightened his arm until the man passed out, and then stashed him in the hangar, amid several piles of bagged grains.
Rogers looked -- disappointed, maybe, but James didn't have time for that. "Help me finish loading it," he said. "It's going to look suspicious if we don't have all the cargo."
Rogers nodded, and together they finished loading up the back of the plane. The boxes, which had given the older man some trouble, went very quickly and efficiently in with the two of them working together, and once they were all loaded, James climbed up into the cockpit and examined the controls. It was an older model than what he was used to flying (used to flying?) but he could handle it. "Come on," he said to Rogers. "Get in, let's go."
Rogers tossed the last of their gear into the cargo area and then climbed up in front with James. He glanced out at the plane's owner, unconscious in the hangar, once more, and shook his head. "We don't have time for that," James said, and Rogers let out a heavy breath and nodded, buckling his seatbelt and putting on a headset.
James got the plane started and taxied it down to the appropriate runway with no time at all to spare. "Good morning, Jim," said the tower. "Getting a little bit of a late start today, I see. Arthritis bothering you again?"
James said in response, "YXS Tower, this is Cessna four five niner romeo foxtrot, request clearance for departure on runway 06/24."
"Chatty today," the tower said. "All right, Cessna four five niner romeo foxtrot. Winds two eight zero at eleven, you have clearance for takeoff on runway 06/24."
James took them down the runway and put them in the air; the tower sequenced them out of airport airspace, and then said, "Safe flying, Jim," before signing off. It put a guilty look on Rogers' face, but James knew he hadn't done any lasting damage to the plane's owner, and if the man had cooperated, he wouldn't have had to do any damage at all. He couldn't bring himself to feel any sense of remorse about it. He'd done worse and felt less.
The flight to Anchorage was about eight hours, and Rogers was more or less silent for most of them. It was just as well; James didn't know what there was to talk about -- even planning would have been useless, since they had little idea of what they were going to find -- and the weather could be unpredictable this time of year, so it was probably better that he remained focused on the instruments.
Once they had entered Anchorage airspace and gotten weather information, he prepared to land. The winds were strong up here and it would probably take just about the limits of his ability as a pilot to make a clean landing. The airplane was small enough that the bad weather was undeniably evident from every rattle and shake. Rogers looked nervous.
He didn't really need to be. It'd take more than a plane crash to kill either of them, which Rogers ought to know by now, both on his own behalf and on James's -- James had fallen from quite a height, after all, with less protection than Rogers. But human fear wasn't subject to rationality, and James knew that if he were to say anything about it to Rogers, it wouldn't be a comfort. More likely, it would only serve to make Rogers more uncomfortable.
He got landing clearance from the tower and took the plane down into the headwinds. Anchorage wasn't much of a city; there were only a few tall buildings, and from the air it mostly just looked flat and unwelcoming, nestled in its cradle between the mountains and the Cook Inlet. It didn't matter. They wouldn't be here very long, anyway. Just long enough to refuel and deliver their cargo.
Once he'd taxied the airplane to a hanger and parked it, a couple of people came out to help unload, a young man and an older woman. "You're not Jim!" she said, surprised, as James stepped down from the cockpit. Rogers was coming around the other side, slower, clearly wary.
"No," James said. "Daniel, I'm the new guy. This is Billy, he's with me for training."
"Hi," said Rogers. "Need to log some more hours before I'm comfortable with the controls, you know."
"Sure, sure," the woman said, smiling, reaching to shake their hands. "Those headwinds coming down can be a pain in the ass to land in. Jim's always complaining about it. I'm Nancy, it's nice to meet you boys. Nice to see young folks getting involved in the business. You staying here overnight?"
"No, no," James said. "We're off to Bethel after this. Just a stopover to get this cargo out."
"Well, let's get it done," Nancy said. The young man who was with her went around to the back of the plane, and the four of them started unloading boxes into Nancy's pickup truck. "The three of you working together, we could probably shave an hour off every day!" she said with a laugh, watching James and Rogers heave boxes.
"I bet Jim'd be happy about not having to pay us that extra hour," James said, and Nancy laughed again.
"You two better get out of here before you get us all in trouble," she said. "Have a safe flight up to Bethel. Those winds only get worse out on the coast, you know."
"Oh, I know," James said, reminding himself to check the weather report when they got back in the air and see just how bad they were talking about. Rogers would probably be unhappy if the airplane was damaged. He'd promised to get it back to his owner, and he didn't seem to be the sort of person to be overjoyed at the thought of breaking his promises.
They went into the terminal for a minute so that they could each get a cup of coffee and take a piss while the plane was refueled -- James felt grateful for the coffee for once, understood its significance, because regardless of whether the caffeine had any noticeable effect on his metabolism, the act of drinking the hot liquid made him feel more alert.
"How long is this flight going to be?" Rogers asked, adjusting his headset and looking out the window, his cup of coffee held in his left hand.
"Hour and a half, two hours, maybe," James replied, pausing to get his heading from ground control.
"Is the weather going to be worse up there?" Rogers asked.
James didn't know if he meant the weather in the air, or on the ground, or what. The answer to both was the same, anyway. "Probably," he said.
Rogers tightened his grip on his coffee and took another sip. "I didn't realize what it's like being in a smaller plane like this," he said. "It feels like being tossed around like a baseball or something. I -- don't get seasick, not anymore anyway, but it kind of feels like that."
"We'll be fine," James said, and then, switching frequencies, "ANC tower, Cessna four five niner romeo foxtrot, request clearance for departure on runway 7L."
The tower was less familiar with them here than it had been in Prince George, more businesslike -- they must see more flights here, it made sense. There was no banter, nobody called him Jim, just gave him clearance to depart and then sequenced him out of the airport in the direction of Bethel.
Once they were at cruising altitude, he changed frequencies again and asked for the weather out of Bethel. It wasn't good news: The weather there was worse, just like Nancy had said, but it was at least not worse to the degree that James knew it would be impossible to make a decent landing. It was bad enough that it might require a few attempts, but he didn't have a lot of pride left to lose, anyway. He'd do it as many times as he had to.
Despite being such a small, remote town, Bethel saw a lot of commercial traffic through its airport, and it was about the same size as Prince George had been. As they descended into the area, visibility decreased abruptly; there was a haze of snow in the air, whipping in the bitter wind, and James was thankful that he could at least see the runway lights.
The tower told him to circle around again on first approach, and the landing was a rough one -- the plane's nose didn't want to go down, and he didn't come down straight, more on a diagonal that required a sharp correction once they were out of the air. Rogers was totally silent, but once they were taxiing to the gate, he whipped his headset off and ran a hand over his hair.
It was coming on nightfall, and they needed to take some time to prepare their gear for the hike north tomorrow anyway. James got directions to a hotel and he and Rogers walked there in the blowing snow. By the time they made it in, his hair and Rogers' beard were liberally christened with ice, and Rogers was red-nosed and shivering. The hotel had plenty of rooms available, though, and Rogers' demeanor lightened a bit once he started to warm up.
"What time do you want to start out tomorrow?" he asked eventually; he'd gotten in the shower briefly and was toweling off, flushed from the hot water.
"Early," said James. He was tracing the best route out on a paper map -- cell phone signals were unreliable up here, barely present at all in the towns and more or less nonexistent once you left them. He glanced up at Rogers. "Not a lot of hours of daylight this time of year."
Rogers nodded, sitting down next to James and looking over the route on the map. He smelled like shampoo and his body was giving off a lot of excess heat, even in the warmer air of the hotel room. "It's how many miles?" he said, looking, tracing the index finger of his right hand along the path. "Twenty-five? We can manage that in a day, right?"
James nodded. It wasn't going to be an easy hike, but both of them were well above average standards of human fitness, and, also being considerably taller than average, had longer strides. "You still haven't told me what you're expecting to find," Rogers said. "And I know you don't know, but you must have some idea, or else you wouldn't be going after it like you are."
James looked at Rogers again. His expression was open, pleading, and James knew that it didn't matter if he told Rogers or not, because he would follow James into that base, regardless. And wanting to know, or deserving to know, had little to do with it. Wanting, deserving, were irrelevant in even the best of circumstances. "It's a distress signal," he said eventually.
Rogers ran a hand over his hair. "A distress signal?"
"Yes," James said.
"For what? From where?" Rogers said.
"I don't know," James replied. Rogers' gaze went sharp, and James repeated, "I don't know." All he knew was that not everyone under Hydra's thumb had wanted to be there, and the distress signal they were sending out was old, obsolete. It wasn't the signal that someone higher up in the chain of command would have used to signal an evacuation. It was a cry for help.
"Okay," Rogers said. His jaw set. He put his hand on James's shoulder, and squeezed. "I trust you."
Maybe he shouldn't. There was very little there to trust. James said, "It'll be a hard hike tomorrow."
"Right," Rogers said. "We should get some rest." He went back into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, and then came out and lay down on his bed, on his side. James brushed his teeth too, turned out all the lights, and settled down too, his urge to sleep fueled solely by the fact that he knew this mission would come to some kind of head tomorrow.
Rogers' eyes were still open. His face was illuminated only by the red glow from the alarm clock sitting on the bedside table between the beds, the lines of his nose, jaw, and cheeks all traced very faintly in the dimness. The whites of his eyes caught a glint and shone as he looked across at James. "Goodnight," he said after a while.
"Goodnight," James answered, but neither of them closed their eyes right away anyway.
They got up before the sun the next day and were already on their way north before dawn had cast its pink-gold glow on the sky. It was a silent hike, for the first few miles; both of them were concentrated on moving as quickly as possible, and that was easier to do without talking. The silence had started to feel almost comfortable between them -- or if not comfortable, at least normal.
"It's actually not as cold as I thought it would be," Rogers said, pausing to take a drink of water. He had a little color in his cheeks that was probably some combination of cold and exertion.
The terrain had been fairly flat so far, dotted with myriad tiny lakes, and there were only a couple of inches of snow on the ground, not enough to severely impede them. They were making good time. Rogers handed James the water bottle, and James drank from it too. "How far?" Rogers asked.
"About halfway," James said, and Rogers nodded, putting the water bottle back into his pack and continuing doggedly on.
By the time they were nearing the coordinates they'd discovered in Leavenworth, it was starting to get dark again. Sunset painted the tundra a pale blue, and then gradually purpled as it sank down toward the horizon. James began to look for signs of a base, anything, and eventually he found them -- a pair of small motion detectors peeking out of the snow. Easy to spot if you knew what you were looking for. He stopped Rogers with a hand held up and they made their way around, out of the motion detectors' range.
"I don't see anything else," Rogers said quietly.
James glanced around, looking for areas where the snow had been disturbed. "It's underground," he answered. It had been built to blend seamlessly into the landscape; this was probably a research facility, as opposed to the base in Los Angeles, which had obviously been meant for combat deployment if necessary. This was one of the places that was meant to stay hidden at all costs. "Over here," he said, gesturing Rogers to follow close, keeping an eye out for motion detectors.
It was built into a small hill nearby, nearly the same color as the rock and visible only due to the snow that had been disturbed around its entrance. James glanced at Rogers, who was looking back at him; Rogers drew a gun, and he did the same, then pulled his glove off with his teeth, reached out and pressed his right thumb against the entry pad.
Red. Red. Green. The door beeped, and James took the handle and turned it. Rogers' hand was on his back. He took three breaths and then opened the door, and Rogers shot past him into the entryway, a small, narrow steel stairway lit by cold yellow light. He cleared it and then motioned for James to come forward, and James did, moving past him, taking point. Down. Underground.
There were no guards in this antechamber, and James glanced at Rogers and blew out a breath. It seemed unlikely a base this intact would simply be abandoned, but maybe this outpost was better connected than the others had been -- or it had been compromised. He approached the big concrete bay doors at the other side of the room and pressed his thumb on the door pad there too. The doors gave a groan and then shuddered to life, sliding slowly open.
He and Rogers waited at opposite sides until the bay doors were fully open, and then crept inside when no Hydra personnel emerged. It was some sort of hangar bay; there were jets in here, little sleek craft, neat-looking, like the kind that James thought he might be used to flying. They weren't like the Cessna, they weren't made for everyday life. They were meant for combat, and combat only -- it was clear just from looking at them that they were weapons and nothing more.
They made their way across the room, creeping between the jets, staying in the shadows. Not that it mattered. There still didn't seem to be anyone here. These jets were valuable; it didn't seem like Hydra to simply abandon them, or leave them unguarded. It made something go sour inside James, though he couldn't say what, or why.
The door at the opposite side of the hangar was unlocked, and they went through it; James led, and he could sense Rogers behind him carefully pivoting, covering their backs. They opened all the doors along the hallway, one by one, and found weapons, flight equipment, what seemed to be a small aircraft control station, but no substantial communications array of any kind. Nothing strong enough to be broadcasting or receiving the signal.
There was an elevator at the end of the hallway -- no stairs, just the elevator. Rogers gave James a look, eyebrow raised, but James didn't see what their other options were. He hit the button, and the elevator slid smoothly up and open. The interior of it was mirrored, and his and Rogers' reflections in it were wary, pale faces and heavy winter gear. It was eerie; the elevator made almost no noises. There were no beeps or dings to signify where they were, just the soft sound of its movement and the air shifting as the door opened onto a central corridor that reminded him, somehow, of the Triskelion.
James glanced down briefly, and then started around the circular hallway, checking doors. It still didn't feel like they were deep enough into the heart of the building to find what they were looking for, and it was all -- abandoned. It felt so wrong. All the equipment was there, as he opened a door onto a lab full of microscopes and centrifuges, and it was so clean -- and -- he went inside and tugged open a refrigerator, found it steaming cold and full of vials and vials of blood -- was he here? Was he already here? Had he been here all along?
Rogers' hand touched his shoulder, and James pulled away, slamming the refrigerator closed and giving the room one last look before leaving, moving on to the next lab full of microscopes and samples. There were so many of them here, there was so much.
The next level was almost the same -- more labs, more machines that were terrifyingly familiar, but whose purpose or function he couldn't name. Then there were practice rooms, clearly meant for combat tests. Shooting ranges, weapon caches, all empty, and for some reason his thumbprint allowed him into all of them. Maybe that was what seemed the most wrong, out of all of it -- he knew that he wouldn't have been allowed here before. Not without permission. Or was it that his biometrics could be used, but only in the case of an emergency?
Was this an emergency? Who would have told him, if it was? There was nobody left to tell him that, now, except himself.
He was breathing heavily, though not from any particular physical exertion, by the time they reached what looked to be the bottom of the base. They had to be deep in the earth now -- it had the cool, slightly damp feeling of a cave's air, another piece of knowledge that he somehow had, completely unmoored and unconnected to anything else, any tangible experience. "James," Rogers said very quietly, and James turned to look. The door was labelled in Russian, but James could read it. It said Communications. A big, heavy door, slabs of concrete like the hangar bay doors had been. Something valuable was behind those doors. Something valuable, something secret -- one and the same, really, one and the same.
He reached out and put his thumb on the pad. Red. Red. Green. This door didn't groan: It whispered open, with barely a sound, and immediately James saw the huge array of blue lights as the door slid open, displaying to them a metal balcony with stairs on either side that led down, down, down deep into a massive pit of electronics.
There were dozens of Hydra strike agents down in the pit, amidst the computers. Maybe hundreds. All armed. All waiting. Waiting for them. For him, to come home.
He stood so still that he didn't even know if he was breathing, and beside him, out of his peripheral vision he could see Rogers looking around as the door slid closed again behind them. Looking for some way out, or to remain unnoticed. But there was none. There was no way.
Rogers inhaled quietly, a noise James barely heard over all the humming of the electrical equipment, all the computers running. He reached for James's shoulder, and James turned toward him, still hardly breathing. He put both of his hands on James's face, and leaned in very close. "I'm sorry," he said, and pressed their mouths together.
It was very obviously not an accidental kiss. It was very deliberate. Rogers' tongue darted out and touched gently at James's bottom lip for a moment, and then he pulled away. The expression on his face was -- something James didn't have the words, or memory, or experience to describe. "I'm sorry," he said again, and then: "I'm sorry I never did that before. I wish I had done it before. I wish I had that memory to tell you about."
He looked at James for a moment longer, just a moment, his brows furrowed. Then he grabbed the metal balustrade and swung himself over, vaulting down into all the waiting Hydra agents.
END OF PART ONE