The unfortunate HYDRA minion standing in front of Director Pierce (Jones? John? Jack? Pierce doesn't really care) is sweating so much that it is starting to show through his tac gear. Which is impressive, really, because tac gear is designed to be sweated in and it's a reasonably cool day. Alexander Pierce resolutely does not pinch his nose in frustration, and in a very genial voice (considering the circumstances) says:
'I'm sure there is a very good explanation for how, exactly, the Winter Soldier went missing in transit?'
The minion (whose name is Dave) actually shudders, and desperately hopes that he survives long enough to become an anonymous hobo somewhere...
Darcy Lewis glares at the Fed-Ex box. The Fed-Ex box remains emotionless, huge, and un-openable by the merely mortal. She sighs. Janey is currently in the manic, scribbling-on-napkins-and-muttering-under-her-breath stage of scientific discovery (which comes before the manic, building-dangerous-machines-and-shouting-at-inanimate-objects stage). In Darcy's experience, this is not the time to interfere, especially with something so mundane as post.
'Jane, I'm just going to borrow this crowbar, kay?
Jane mutters something that sounds like 'supercharged entanglement science science science and photons' which means 'yes' as far as Darcy is concerned. It doesn't matter, as Jane is not going to start needing the crowbar until she gets to the dangerous-machine stage and that shouldn't be for another hour or so.
Darcy returns to the stupidly large box, and glares at it.
'Okay, nemesis-box. Prepare to reveal your secrets. By the power of Grayskull!'
She levers open the box, fully expecting lots of shiny bits of science equipment courtesy of SHIELD. She is not expecting a large, tube-like container with an unconscious man in it. Definitely not. At all.
Darcy drops the crowbar, which lands on the tubey-thing and hits a keypad. With an ominous sort of sshhhhhffffff noise, the tube rolls open. Mist and cold air seep out like a particularly expensive special effect.
'Thor's Holy abs!' Darcy swears.
The Asset comes-to in an unfamiliar environment. The Asset blinks, and assesses the body: currently uninjured, though not yet operating at 100% due to the cryostasis. With proper maintenance the Asset will be mission operational within 30 minutes. The Asset looks up, the programming preparing to imprint on the new Handler.
Who is apparently a short, white female of curvaceous build and zero combat experience, currently staring at the Asset with a strange expression. This seems... Odd. Outside of parameters. However, the programming clicks into place, and the Asset relaxes. The Asset will obey. The Asset will be given a mission, and the Asset will complete the mission. The Handler will tell the Asset what to do.
'Och crap oh crap oh crap.' Says the Handler. Something in the Asset's belly tenses.
'The Asset is prepared to receive the mission.' Says the Asset.
His Handler stares at him and blinks a lot. She appears uncomfortable, and is showing signs of distress. The Asset dislikes this: distressed Handlers result in unnecessarily painful maintenance. The Asset feels the urge to squirm, and squashes it. The Asset always suffers these strange little urges and desires after cryostasis, which is why there is maintenance. The maintenance makes it better, and also makes it hard to remember anything about the odd feelings later. The Handler still says nothing. Perhaps this Handler is new? Perhaps HYDRA is testing her?
'The Asset requires maintenance.' Prompts the Asset, still sitting in the cryo tube.
'Fucking Fed-Ex.' says the Handler.
When Dave's body has been dragged out of the room, to be disposed of in some unpleasant and permanent manner, Alexander Pierce sits down and carefully pours himself a drink. He knocks it back, and glares at the empty glass. The Winter Soldier. The Asset. The Fucking Fist of HYDRA, their best assassin, best-kept secret, the bogeyman of the intelligence community, has been lost in the post. By Fed-Ex. Due to a fucking mix-up involving a whole batch of last minute orders that SHIELD made all of a sudden. It's going to take days to track down which shipment went where, although as soon as they find out what's actually been sent to the Triskelion base they'll be able to narrow that down.
On top of that, the Winter Soldier had already been prepped for a new Handler imprint. Meaning that whoever opens that box has a deadly, obedient assassin at their beck and call.
Pierce grimaces. Maybe he can get those days down to hours if he scares the lackeys enough. At least, he thinks, it's not just HYDRA that's incompetent. SHIELD managed to lose Captain America only this morning (something else that he needs to look into), although Captain America had in fact been conscious at the time. He pours himself another glass before going to terrify people.
The thing is, once Darcy calms down, she remembers that she has skills. Total skills. It's why she still works for Jane (who is completely absorbed in science and has failed to notice the arrival of a man in a Fed-Ex box). She tased Thor. She faced the Destroyer. She can totally deal with a semi-naked man/cyborg who refers to himself as 'the asset' arriving in the post in a box. From SHIELD. Who are shadier than the shadiest shade to ever shade, and who have still not returned her iPod, Thor-damnit!
'O-kay.' Darcy says, waving her hands around more than is strictly necessary. 'How about we get you out of that terrifying tube-ma-thing and into some clothes. Yep, clothes sound good. I don't know if we have any clothes that will fit, though, because you are totally ripped. Are you related to Thor? Like, are you his earthly relative or something? And holy shit, metal arm!'
'The Asset has no relatives. The Asset is a weapon. The Asset does not know of a Thor.'
'Well that's terrifying.'
'The Asset is supposed to strike fear into the heart of enemies.'
'Well, the Darcy is not so into that, and suggests that the Asset sit down over there while the Darcy finds the Asset some clothes.'
The man (Darcy is torn between calling him Ripley or Aang - the tube looks kinda Alien, but the whole being frozen thing makes her think Avatar) tilts his head slightly at her. He has gorgeous blue eyes, which would be making Darcy's lady-parts melt if it wasn't for the fact that he is clearly deadly and very confused. He follows the direction that Darcy indicated, and then sits on the floor. And looks at her expectantly.
'Are you just going to sit there?' Darcy wants to know.
'The Asset is obedient.' Asset Ripley (she went with Ripley. She knows Ripley is a woman, but Aang is way friendlier than this guy) sounds almost petulant.
'The Asset obeys the directives given by the Handler.'
'And I'm the Handler. Right. Of course I'm the Handler. Okay. Stay. Right. There. I'll be back in a minute. Do not disturb Jane.'
Darcy runs out of the room. In a very dignified, not-at-all panicking way. She takes a few seconds to breathe deeply, and then goes in search of clothes for Asset Ripley. During which she does some serious thinking about SHIELD, and how they ended up sending Janey a seemingly-brainwashed assassin dude rather than the sciencey stuff that they were meant to. She has the horrible feeling that she's going to have to call her brother.
Handler-Possibly-Darcy returns after 4.5 minutes, bearing clothes. The second woman, Designation Jane, appears not to have noticed the Asset. This is fine, as she appears to be a scientist. Scientists noticing the Asset is never a good thing.
The Asset resists the urge to squirm again: the Asset should not be thinking about good, or not good, or being noticed by scientists. The Asset is not supposed to think. Surely Handler-Possibly-Darcy will perform maintenance soon (maintenance involves a chair, the Asset thinks, and possibly electricity), and then the Asset will not have to worry about anything at all.
This thought worries him.
Handler-Possibly-Darcy gives the Asset clothes, and helps him when she realises that he's not sure of how to put them on. The Asset thinks there should be more buckles, and his face feels oddly exposed. She also talks a lot, and the Asset struggles to keep up. The Asset worries that there will be a directive hidden in the babbling, and that the Asset will miss it and be punished. This does not appear to be the case, and Handler-Possibly-Darcy steers him into a chair (it is not the chair) and then stands and surveys him. The Asset sits very still, because Handler-Possibly-Darcy has been very pleasant so far, has not mis-handled the Asset or given the Asset pointless-yet-painful tasks to do (and the Asset does not remember, exactly, but the Asset thinks that this may be important) and has not reprimanded the Asset at all. The Asset wants to be good for Handler-Possibly-Darcy.
'Okay, Asset Ripley, I'm guessing that solids are a no-no, what with the cryostasis and all. How do you feel about milkshake?'
'The Asset does not have feelings.'
Handler-Possibly-Darcy rolls her eyes. Handler-Possibly-Darcy is very expressive with her body, and yet half the time the Asset still has no idea what Handler-Possibly-Darcy is thinking.
'If I gave you a milkshake, would you be able to drink it without throwing up?'
'Yes.' The Asset says, despite not knowing what a milkshake is.
Handler-Possibly-Darcy walks out of the Asset's field of vision. The Asset does not turn, because the Asset has been placed here and the Asset is good and will stay. Handler-Possibly-Darcy returns with a drink in a colourful bottle, which she hands to him.
'Drink slowly, okay Ripley? I have to go science-wrangle for a minute.'
The Asset drinks slowly. The Asset enjoys the taste of the drink, and feels guilty about enjoying it. The Asset did not know that nutrition could taste good. Clearly the Asset is being rewarded. For something. The Asset has no idea what.
In fact, the Asset is increasingly confused - he has been dressed in clothes that are soft, has not been given a weapon or a mission, and has been given sustenance that tastes nice. The base is very small and disorganised, and appears to only contain Handler-Possibly-Darcy and Designation Jane, who are currently having an argument in low voices. The Asset counts all the visible exits, and everything that could be used as a weapon, because it is better than being confused.
The Asset is still counting weapons when Handler-Possibly-Darcy returns.
'Right, we are totally blowing this popsicle stand. Come on.'
'The Asset has not been equipped with explosives.'
'... Note to self: activate Thor-speak. I mean that we're leaving in a hurry. Come on.'
Director Pierce rarely interacts with Agent Coulson, although like anyone else in SHIELD he has heard the stories (some of which have undoubtedly been made up by Agent Barton, because there is no way that anyone can take out an entire drug cartel armed with a pair of underpants). And because he's part of a secret, evil organisation, he also has access to a coded file on the man. Apart from the information that they've simply lifted from SHIELD, it contains a post-it note that reads "Chance of recruitment: 0. Will at some point have to assassinate. Suggest Asset." and in much less professional handwriting "we could probably bribe him with rare Captain America cards" Pierce doesn't know what it says about his organisation that they think bribing someone with collectors cards of their sworn enemy is a good tactic.
Right now, he's reading through reports of the manhunt for Captain America, which of course is being overseen by Agent Coulson. It makes getting his HYDRA people into the right places a lot harder, and Director Pierce makes a mental note to have the man assassinated. Soon. As soon as they have the Winter Soldier back, because they've tried to assassinate Agent Coulson before and it went very, very badly. Agent Williams had to be retired early, because she kept having nightmares about paperclips. She currently oversees the HYDRA recruitment program, and never goes near stationery.
Pierce does get some joy out of the fact that at least he's not the only one having a terrible day. That minion that he shot earlier, for example, had a much worse one.
'I want everyone we can spare split between finding Captain Rogers and tracing the Winter Soldier.'
'We must take full advantage of this opportunity to prevent Captain Rogers from becoming a thorn in our side again.' Alexander Pierce continued, copy-and-pasting the same email to the twentieth raving HYDRA member. He believed in his work, he really did, but sometimes it seemed like all his underlings were a little bit mad.
'Under no circumstances are the two allowed anywhere near each other - the last thing we need is the Winter Soldier imprinting on Captain America'
'And someone put together a memo that our operations don't stop because a man from World War Two was defrosted. He's not hunting them down through some kind of super sense; he's barefoot and lost somewhere in New Jersey.'
'And get some deodorant man, you stink like a pig.'
Designation Jane, the Asset thinks, should not be driving. Designation Jane drives as if the vehicle has personally insulted her. The Asset is, of course, unlikely to be damaged in case of an accident. Handler Darcy might be though, which is unacceptable. He supposes that Designation Jane could also be damaged.
'The Asset is capable of operating a vehicle.' The Asset says.
Designation Jane nearly steers them into a tree.
'Jane what the hel?'
'He talks! I didn't know that he did that!'
'Seriously? Seriously Jane? That's what's freaking you out right now?'
'I was surprised! He's just been sitting in the back with his caveman-face.'
'Shut up Darcy, I blame you for my depleted vocabulary.'
'I think your driving scares him.'
'If you are to be believed, he's some kind of brainwashed killing machine that SHIELD have been keeping in cold storage. Why would my driving scare him?'
Handler Darcy squirms in her seat so that she is facing the Asset.
'Hey, Cro-Magnon man! Does Janey's driving scare you?'
'Designation Jane's driving style will draw attention to the vehicle.'
'You know, Ripley here makes a point. And her name's just Jane.'
The car swerves dangerously.
'Ripley?' Designation Just-Jane appears shocked. Handler Darcy rolls her eyes again.
'Like Ellen? You know, because of the cryo tube? Alien?'
'I know Alien. I just thought you'd go with something more obscure.'
Handler Darcy appears to ignore Designation Just-Jane, and looks back at the Asset.
'Can you do better?'
'Affirmative. What is the mission?'
'Erm, get to New York undetected by SHIELD I guess? We've got a contact there.'
Hawkeye is a professional. He's a fantastic agent, he's the best marksman in the world, he brought in the Black Widow and he survived Budapest. This is why, when he watches the video of Captain America making his escape, he does not laugh or even grin. At least, not on the outside. Besides, he heard that Deputy Director Hill gave Agent Clarkin a raise for putting it together, and he can see why.
Agent Coulson outlines his mission, which is to hang around in New Jersey and keep an eye out for any lost-looking blond super-soldiers. There's a bit more detail than that, but it basically boils down to 'get high, keep your eyes open, report in and for god's sake, Barton, do not try to make friends with the pigeons this time - it never ends well for you.'
Because he's a brilliant agent, he also does not laugh when Agent Coulson's phone rings, and he answers it to the sound of Tony Stark giggling like a teenager on a nitrous oxide.
'Stark.' Agent Coulson manages not to growl his name.
'You lost Captain America!'
'Those files were classified.'
'Classified, schmassified. Seriously though, your firewalls are shit. You should get a consultant in to look at it. I hear SHIELD can almost afford me these days.'
'Stark, unless you have anything useful to add I am going to hang up on you, and if you call again I will inform Miss Potts that you were wasting SHIELD time.'
'Agent, I'm hurt! Wounded. It's as if you don't like me.'
'Cold, Agent, cold. So does SHIELD want my help finding the Capsicle or not?'
Agent Coulson's face twitches, which is the equivalent of a full body sigh, and he glares at Hawkeye until he gets the hint and leaves. Hawkeye waits until he's out the door, down the corridor and in the back of the van taking him to his perch before bursting into laughter.
After four hours driving the escape vehicle, the Asset has learned the following things:
1. His new designation is apparently 'Ripley', which makes Handler Darcy laugh for reasons that he does not understand, and "just" Jane sigh.
2. Handler Darcy and "just" Jane are surprisingly adept at subterfuge.
3. Handler Darcy and "just" Jane are also almost certainly not HYDRA.
4. Handler Darcy and "just" Jane think that Asset Ripley is 'cute', 'adorable in a caveman way' 'sort of like a duckling if ducklings could kill with their eyes', 'only a bit crazy, come on Jane, you are dating a Norse god' and 'brooding'. These all appear to be positive attributes.
5. Handler Darcy will provide Asset Ripley with food, drink, clothing and rest freely and without any indication on his part that he requires any of those things. She does the same thing for "just" Jane, although "just" Jane argues a lot. Handler Darcy also touches Asset Ripley in a manner that could be termed 'friendly', with apparently no consideration for the fact that Asset Ripley could kill her in approximately 522 different ways. It is... pleasant?
6. Without intending to, Asset Ripley has formed an increasingly long list of reasons why returning to HYDRA would be detrimental to the long-term operation of Asset Ripley, helped along by Handler Darcy's occasional rants (Handler Darcy seems to think that HYDRA is called SHIELD. Asset Ripley intends to double-check this intelligence as soon as he can. He also intends to find and return Handler Darcy's iPod, as soon as he discovers what an iPod is - Asset Ripley thinks it must be vitally important, with how much Handler Darcy mourns its loss).
7. There is a voice in the back of his head that Asset Ripley recognises from somewhere, encouraging him to 'get the hell out godsdamnit, we do not want to stay with fucking HYDRA. HYDRA are seriously messed up and also Nazis. Stay with the dames. And find out what happened to Steve. And get a haircut because we look ridiculous.'
8. He is 90% certain that Handler Darcy's contact in New York is Tony Stark (aka Iron Man, threat level: 8, designation: enemy, orders: do not currently engage). He's not sure what to think of this.
Asset Ripley feels a little overwhelmed. There is too much data, and the frame of reference is too small. The mission makes little sense, and he feels uncomfortable about the apparent breakdown in his programming. However, despite this, Asset Ripley thinks that he might be having... Fun. Yes, fun. Handler Darcy is loud and ridiculous and currently singing a song about a child with a large back, "just" Jane is trying to write scientific formulae on her trousers using some kind of colourful marker pen, and Asset Ripley is, possibly, having fun.
In the back of his head, the voice cheers, and also says that they might have more fun if they killed some HYDRA fucks. Asset Ripley doesn't know if he trusts the voice yet, but he's not certain that it's wrong.
The thing is, Darcy's brother is a bit of a shit. He's also twenty-one years older than Darcy, which is awkward. Darcy never met their dad, and is eternally grateful she escaped the clusterfuck that was his attempt at parenting. Darcy always knew she had a brother, because her Mom was great and didn't lie to her. Her Mom also wanted her to have a relatively normal life, so Darcy never told anyone who her dad was. Even after Mom died.
When Tony tracked her down back in 2009, he'd been a bit surprised that she already knew they were related.
'You absolutely, 100% cannot send a suit. We're trying to be sneaky. Your suits are not sneaky. Your suits are a towering monument to your ego and your sad, sad desire to be a Gryffindor.'
'I'm insulted that you think I couldn't build a sneaky suit. And Gryffindors are clearly the best.'
'Keep telling yourself that. I'm serious, though. We're in New York, we're nearly there and you swooping in right now is not going to help.'
'Alright fine. SHIELD's busy at the moment anyway. Lost something very important and just can't seem to find it.'
'...That's not exactly reassuring right now.'
'Wait, you didn't tell me what actually happened. Have you stolen something of theirs? Are you thieving from SHIELD? I demand to know!'
'We're on the phone!'
'And it's completely secure. I know it is because you're using the StarkPhone I gave you, and I'm me. So spill. Tell me your secrets. Let me in on your SHIELD thievery. I'll help'
'We didn't steal anything.'
'Because people are not things.'
Tony actually shuts up for several entire seconds. Darcy wishes she could see his face.
'Gotta go, see you soon.'
She hangs up with no small amount of glee, and pockets her phone. A quick glance tells her that Tall Dark and Deadly is driving the van with terrifying focus, and Jane has started writing on her shirt. So pretty much as expected. And they are less than fifteen minutes away from Tony's place.
'I need coffee' Darcy mutters. TDD Ripley (she can't keep calling him 'Asset'. It's weird) tilts his head towards her, and Darcy has a sinking feeling that everything is about to go wrong.
The van swerves and screeches to a halt. Jane squeaks, Darcy yelps and TDD Ripley rolls out of the van and vanishes. Just vanishes.
'What just happened?' Jane asks.
'Really no clue.'
'Do we wait for him?'
They wait. Darcy crawls into the driver's seat and glares at everything. Jane fidgets, and then worms her way into the front to sit next to Darcy. Neither of them talk. After eight minutes of intensely silent waiting, TDD Ripley returns. With coffee, and an expression that is nearly hopeful.
Darcy faceplants into the steering wheel. She takes the coffee, because she is not a cruel woman, and says thanks. TDD Ripley blinks in surprise, and climbs into the back. Darcy downs half the coffee (it's that sort of day) and hands the rest to Jane.
'Okay, we're on the home stretch now folks, buckle in.'
'We're ten minutes away - what could go wrong?'
'JANE, WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?'
Steve is loitering in an alley. It has been a long, weary day. It's nearly evening, and it's apparently 2012. He still hasn't figured out how that works, and if it was a dream he thinks he would have woken up by now. He's managed to avoid all the agents chasing him so far, and he's now looking for somewhere to sleep. Another letter writes itself in his head:
How do you always end up in these messes? Seriously? You get to the future, and become a fugitive within a day? Really?
Also, we are disappointed with the lack of flying cars.
the Howling Commandos
He probably should have paid more attention crossing the street. In fairness, it is a tiny street. He thought it was pedestrianised. The van driving into him is a total surprise , and Steve hits the pavement hard.
Steve is aware, vaguely, of two female voices arguing. Someone nudges him.
'Do you have something against perfect specimens of manliness? Do you just see blond, blue eyed hunks and think "hey I'll tap that ... WITH A VAN?'
This voice belongs to the woman prodding him. She has surprisingly gentle hands.
'He looks okay.'
The other voice is further off, and sounds anxious. The woman close to him sighs.
'Okay, let's just... Oh Odin's balls, just get him in the back of the van. There's a medical floor where we're headed. Hey! Ripley! Can you get this guy into the van?'
Steve tries to open his mouth to tell them that really, he'll be fine in a minute. It's only a van. He's been hit with a tank before. Then someone lifts him up, and they must be strong to do that so easily. Steve thinks they smell familiar: homely, somehow. He's put down with a lot of care, and someone reaches over him to do up his seatbelt. The engine starts, and the vehicle lurches into motion.
Steve cracks his eyes open and turns to face whoever lifted him, meaning to say thank you. For the billionth time today, he feels all the breath leave his body.
Agent Barton, watching from the roof, tries to figure out how he's going to put what just happened into a report. He imagines it going a bit like this:
Found Captain Rogers looking remarkably lost in the street, like a big dopey golden retriever. Then watched as he was hit by a van. Two women exited the van, who on further inspection turned out to be Dr. Jane Foster and Miss Darcy Lewis. This was surprising, because they are meant to be doing some weird SHIELD assisted science some way out of the city. Rather than calling, say, 911, they decided to take Captain Rogers with them. An unidentified man exited the van and assisted. They then drove a short distance to a building with an insanely intricate security system, and entered with zero questions asked. Preliminary research suggests the building belongs to Stark Industries.
He snorts, and continues:
And I would like to hand in my resignation, because I let Captain America get hit by a van, kidnapped and taken to Tony Stark and I value my balls.
He sighs, wonders how Natasha always manages to avoid this shit, and dials Coulson.