Steve came to slumped against a rough stone wall and hanging by cuffs on his wrists.
His wobbly legs didn’t want to cooperate, but he bullied them into supporting his weight. The muscle burn in his shoulders faded as soon as he stood, his advanced healing erasing the strain of hanging in such an awkward position. He wasn’t injured anywhere that he could see. How long had he been out?
The cuffs looked sturdy, but he could break almost anything these days. If he was left alone long enough to recover a little more coordination--
The door swung open. Steve straightened and tried to look steady on his feet.
The man who stood in the doorway to his cell was imposing. His tall, broad-shouldered frame was covered entirely in black, relieved only by glints of silver where weapons were holstered. His left arm was protected by a metal sheath--no, Steve revised, watching in fascination as the man used that arm to close the door behind him, his left arm was made of metal.
Domino masks were popular with the vigilante set, but it was actually easier to identify someone based on their nose, mouth, and jawline than their eyes and forehead. This man seemed to know that--a pair of goggles hung loosely around his neck, leaving his eyes exposed, but he was covered nose to chin by a fitted black mask. From what Steve could see of his face, his expression was calm and controlled. His eyes were the cool gray blue of spruce needles.
Steve angled his jaw up, refusing to be intimidated. “Doctor Kingston, I presume?”
“Nope,” the man said. His voice was quiet but clearly audible through his mask.
Steve blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Doctor Kingston’s the boss. I’m just his head of security.”
“Oh.” Steve felt a bit put out. It had been a while since he’d gotten pawned off on a lackey. When he got captured these days, whoever was in charge usually came to gloat in person.
“Don’t take it personally.” The man sounded amused. He took one precisely measured step into the cell, clasping his hands behind his back. “If it helps, I think he was too intimidated to come himself. You have quite a reputation, Captain America.”
He said the title with the same hint of mockery that Steve gave it in his own head. It was probably supposed to be snide, but Steve found it kind of refreshing.
The whole “Captain America” thing was embarrassing. Covert affairs were supposed to be, well, covert. Steve had spent years as just another faceless SHIELD agent (albeit one with some very unusual abilities) before a single night in Vienna had torn his cover to shreds. He hadn’t even been there on a mission; an Austrian extortion ring had just happened to attack the Vienna State Opera House looking for wealthy hostages on the very same night that Natasha had coaxed Steve into attending the opening of Le Corsaire as her plus one.
Steve wasn’t sure who’d had the worse night: the terrified ballet attendees, or the criminals who’d had to face the wrath of a Natasha Romanov whose evening plans had been ruined. Really, he had done the criminals a favor by taking on most of them himself. Natasha had been looking forward to that night for months.
Hostages had filmed Steve knocking out seven armed attackers single-handed with nothing but an appetizer tray and his own bow tie, his superhuman strength and reflexes on full display. The shaky cellphone footage had streamed live to an enraptured global audience. Once it was all over, before the medics had even finished digging the bullets out of Steve’s leg, reporters had identified Captain Steve Rogers based on his old army photo, and within hours #CaptainAmerica was trending. There was no saving his anonymity after that.
Steve had adjusted. Officially, he was benched from his former STRIKE team and had taken a more advisory role at SHIELD. Unofficially, his new Captain America figurehead status gave him dignitary-level access to people and places that had been out of reach before, opening up a whole new world of covert ops. There were a lot of opportunities to gather intelligence at events attended by the rich and influential.
Which was how he came to be here, chained to the basement wall of a manor house in Lithuania owned by one of the country’s top scientists (and one of the top private sellers of next-generation biotech, according to SHIELD analysts) while a gala was in full swing upstairs. SHIELD had received word that the scientist had booked a one-way plane ticket to Guam leaving the next morning. Steve had seized on Doctor Kingston’s going-away party as one final opportunity to clone, confiscate, or at least sneak a peek at his research before he took it out of the country, but the security had been far tougher than expected.
Steve had only just set foot into the scientist’s lab before he’d caught a tranquilizer dart to the neck. Normally that would have barely slowed him down, but this time the dart had evidently been calibrated for his rapid metabolism, and he’d gone down like a sack of bricks.
“That’s me,” Steve agreed. “Captain America, the not-so-secret agent.”
“Not-so-retired, either, apparently.” The man’s voice was very dry. “Imagine my shock.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Steve made his eyes big and guileless. “I got an invitation to this party. I’m on the guest list.”
“Oh, my mistake. Did you also get an invitation to the basement laboratories?”
“I was looking for the bathroom, must have gotten turned around.” Steve kept his eyes on the man’s face and calculated distances. If the man were just a little closer, just a little further from the door--
“For future reference, Agent Rogers, most bathrooms aren’t guarded by steel plate doors with eight-digit combination locks.” The man took one more step, bringing him nearly within Steve’s reach.
Steve tore the handcuffs out of the wall, flipped across the room, and floored the head of security with a single round-house kick.
Or at least, that's what he meant to do. Instead, when he yanked on the handcuffs with every bit of his enhanced strength, he nearly dislocated both shoulders.
It was hard to tell, but Steve thought the man winced behind the mask. "Yeah, I wouldn't do that if I were you. Those are adamantium reinforced. Just hang tight for a bit."
Steve let his head thunk back against the wall. "How the hell did you get adamantium handcuffs?"
"You made them?"
The man shrugged, like obtaining and hand-crafting one of the most difficult metals on the planet was nothing special. "I saw what you did to Doom's holding cell last June. It was pretty clear steel wasn't going to get the job done. Your strength is, what, four times human baseline?"
Steve knew better than to give up that intel, but two could play at information fishing. "You were expecting me?"
"You've turned up often enough in the past. I had to be prepared for the contingency."
"We've met before?"
"Not face-to-face." The man raised an eyebrow in unspoken challenge.
Steve reviewed past missions, trying to think of which ones this man could have been involved in. He seemed efficient, competent. When had the hostiles been especially organized? "Zagreb, 2014?"
"That was one of them. Your response time after the gallery alarms went off was impressive."
"Thank you," Steve said. This was the most bizarre conversation he'd ever had while chained to a wall (and he had an unfortunately wide pool of comparison). "The laser sensors guarding the stairwell were a nice touch."
"Oh, well," the man said, looking down modestly. "If I'd known then that you could leap onto a second floor balcony from street level, I wouldn't have bothered."
"Naturally not." Steve pulled against the cuffs, trying to look like he was experimenting with the angle of force. He shifted his feet together discretely, tapping the nearly invisible panel on his left heel that would activate a screamer circuit and tell his team that he was in trouble.
"Yeah, that's not gonna work either," the man said. "The basement levels are surrounded by a Faraday cage. It’s good tech, though. Your support staff must be first-rate."
"Well, what can I say?" Steve slumped back against the wall. If he wasn’t getting loose anytime soon, he might as well get comfortable. "I only work with the best."
"Oh, yeah?" The man leaned forward and raised his eyebrows. "So if I need some extra muscle for a job, I should hire you?"
"I'm not muscle."
The man looked Steve over head-to-toe in a slow, lingering sweep. "Coulda fooled me."
Steve looked down at his chest, where his pecs were straining against his dress shirt, the white fabric drawn tight over his biceps and shoulders, and rolled his eyes. It had taken a while to get used to the attention his new body drew, but these days he could shrug off innuendos without turning brick red and stammering. It always felt more like people admiring a costume than Steve himself. "I'm not just muscle," he amended.
“Now that I agree with.” The man dropped the teasing and relaxed against the opposite wall, his voice more genuinely conversational. “I’ve studied a lot of your work from before you got burned, and your crowd control was state of the art. I’ve never seen anything like it. I bet your civilian casualty rate was the lowest of any STRIKE team operating, am I right? The parade diversion you used in Kosovo was a stroke of genius.”
Steve blinked, recognizing something about the man’s voice. It had the same restrained eagerness he’d heard from Bruce or Tony when they met scientists whose work they respected. The henchman was--what did Tony call it? Geeking out. Over Steve’s mission plans.
And now Steve was blushing.
While Steve was still trying to think of what to say in response, the man touched his earpiece with one finger and murmured a few syllables of Russian. The band upstairs was winding down as the party came to a close. Pretty soon, guests would start leaving and Steve’s team would get worried enough about his absence to send someone in after him.
If this guy was as good as Steve suspected he was, he and his client (and his client’s research) would be long gone by then. He only had a few moments to learn more about the mysterious man who already seemed to know everything about him.
“Duty calls,” the man sighed, pushing off the wall and moving to unlock the door. “Nice to meet you, Agent Rogers.”
Steve wasn’t great at reverse interrogation--that was Nat’s specialty--but he tried to think of what she would tell him to do in this situation. Keep the conversation going. Build off of what he’s already said and use it to push for more. “If you want to hire me, we should have a way to contact each other.”
“Aw, rats, I left my business cards in my other jacket.”
“Can I at least get a name?”
“You’re the super spy, I’ll let you figure it out.” The man opened the door and threw Steve a mocking two-fingered salute. “Good luck getting out of those cuffs.”
Maria Hill stood at the back of the SHIELD conference room, projector remote in hand, and tossed briefing packets to Steve, Natasha, and Clint while they waited for the projector bulb to warm up. When people asked Steve what it was like being a Real Live Secret Agent™, they never believed him when he said it was mostly sitting around at a desk. For every thrilling midnight infiltration of a secret volcano base, there were a dozen pre-mission briefings and post-mortems. Even spies used PowerPoint.
The flat blue projector square slowly faded into a black-and-white image, clearly a still taken from a surveillance video. In the background, a building was on fire, the flames stark white against the black sky. In the foreground, a man was caught mid-stride. A rocket launcher was slung almost casually over his left shoulder. The man was a blur of movement, but his mask, goggles, and metal arm were clearly visible.
“He’s known as the Winter Soldier.” Hill advanced through additional images of the Soldier, all of them taken long-distance. The Soldier was always fully masked. “He first appeared on SHIELD’s radar five years ago as a Hydra asset. His earliest encounter with one of our agents was an escort mission in Odessa, where he assassinated an Iranian scientist being escorted by Agent Romanova.”
Steve didn’t know the story behind all of Natasha’s scars, but he’d heard this one. He, Natasha, and Clint had been cooling their heels in Lisbon waiting for transport after a successful mission. After a night of heavy drinking, Natasha, Steve, and Clint had tried to one-up each other with stories of missions gone FUBAR, and Natasha had won by pulling up her shirt to show off the bullet scar on her abdomen. “Bastard shot him right through me,” she had said, sounding almost admiring. Natasha had a true appreciation for ruthlessness. “Soviet slug, no rifling. Bye-bye bikinis.”
Natasha returned Steve’s questioning look evenly, then kicked his ankle under the table until he returned his attention to the projector screen.
“He’s been credited with over two dozen assassinations during his time with Hydra, most of them at long range. They used him for hits on heavily-guarded targets, world leaders and anyone important or rich enough to have constant protection details, but they also made him into a boogeyman to keep their own people in line. Betray Hydra, and sooner or later the Winter Soldier would have you in his crosshairs.”
Hill flipped through a few images of the Soldier standing near men wearing uniforms with the Hydra insignia. The Soldier’s head was angled down, his hands empty and slack at his sides, while the men spoke to one another. The men were turned away from the Soldier, excluding him from the discussion. Steve wished he could see the Soldier’s face--not just to identify him, but to analyze his expression, to see whether it matched the blank submission of his body language.
“The Soldier had a very public and extremely messy break from Hydra two years later, and his first freelance operations were all attacks on Hydra installations.” Hill’s next few photos were detailed and full color, startlingly vivid after the grainy surveillance stills. They showed razed sites all over the world, Hydra bases that had been blasted to pieces or burned to their foundations. “We still don’t know where he came from, but he has formal military training, probably American special ops, and is confirmed to be fluent in English, Russian, and Spanish. He’s proficient with any weapon you care to name, but he’s a truly exceptional sniper.”
Steve leaned back in his chair, thinking again of the puckered white knot to the left of Natasha’s belly button. The Soldier had used one precisely aimed bullet. It would have been easier and safer to riddle both the partially-obscured target and his protector with multiple rounds, but the Soldier had stopped at a single shot. Did that indicate arrogance, or restraint? “On a scale of normal person to Clint, how good is he?”
“Pretty close to Clint. On some weapons, he might be an even match.”
Clint let out a long whistle. Steve had to agree.
“Since going solo, he’s mostly done security work as an independent contractor, with a specialty in guarding people and installations. He’s worked with foreign intelligence agencies, independent research outfits, organized crime, you name it, but he’s notorious for turning down jobs that would involve civilian casualties.”
Natasha turned in her chair to face the others and rested an elbow on the table. She looked completely composed, which was its own kind of tell. “The CIA will deny it, but he was a contractor of theirs during the Mogadishu disaster last year. From what I heard, his last-ditch exfiltration plan was the only reason they didn’t lose their whole team.”
Steve scanned the briefing packet, zeroing in on the section about the Winter Soldier’s movements over the last three years. All of his post-Hydra confirmed kills were identified as Hydra agents. “If he’s that good, why haven’t we recruited him?”
“We’d have to find him first.” Hill looked annoyed; she took gaps in SHIELD intelligence personally. “He’s a ghost. As soon as the job is done, he’s in the wind.”
“He has to find work somehow, right? He must have a network in place.”
Hill tipped her head, acknowledging the point. “Two years ago, Coulson discovered we had a mutual contact and floated an anonymous job offer. When Coulson sent an agent to make the approach, the Soldier dropped off the grid and didn’t come back up for five months. We haven’t tried to reach out again.”
“Did he know it was a recruitment pitch,” Steve asked, “or did he think the agent was there to kill him?”
“I think he would have done exactly the same thing either way. The man’s paranoid.” Hill spread her hands in front of her chest before Steve could reply. “I’m not saying he doesn’t have reason to be, but he doesn’t trust SHIELD, and we have no leverage. It doesn’t make for a good position to bring in an asset.”
“We could try talking to him,” Steve said mildly.
“If you ever run into him again and he’s not shooting at you, you’re welcome to try. But I’d advise doing it from a distance.” Hill shut off the projector and made direct eye contact with Steve, commanding his full attention. “He might not want to start a war with SHIELD, but that won’t save you if you get in his way. The Winter Soldier always completes his mission.”
Steve knew Tony had finished hacking into the Venezuelan embassy’s surveillance feed when Tony’s gleeful laughter started crackling through the comms. He wished he could glare at the nearest camera without breaking character.
“Save it,” he muttered, barely moving his lips.
“No, no, it’s very nice! It’s a great look, the comics are really onto something. Those tights do wonders for your--”
“Can we concentrate on the mission, please?” Steve turned abruptly towards a portrait hanging on the wall, pretending to examine it closely while he waited for his cheeks to cool.
It was bad enough he had to wear tuxes to formal gatherings, but he’d gotten used to the monkey suits eventually. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan ambassador had decided to one-up the other D.C. embassies by throwing a masquerade for their crowning social event of the year, which meant Steve had to be in costume.
Natasha had suggested playing up the Captain America angle by dressing as, well, Captain America. Specifically, Steve was dressed as the Captain America character who had debuted in a popular line of comic books last year, complete with a tight leather cowl with stupid little wings on the sides (although it did neatly disguise his comms gear, which was a silver lining), a shield painted like a massive target on his back, and, yes, tights. Bright blue, silver-spangled, left-nothing-to-the-imagination tights.
Steve was never taking Natasha’s wardrobe suggestions ever again.
Take your own advice, Rogers. Focus on the mission. “Hawkeye, are you in position?”
“I’m in position behind the bar and staring enviously at the buffet line. Told you we should’ve stopped for pizza before we got here, I’m fucking starving. Are those shrimp puffs?”
Tony’s voice echoed a little off the sides of the surveillance van. He was parked a few streets over to provide remote support and act as a getaway driver if they had to make a quick exit. “They’re mini-pissaladière.”
“Is that French for shrimp puffs?”
“You are a philistine, Hawkeye. Ooh, Cap, grab me some of those chocolate mousse shells.”
Steve put a hand over his mouth as he pretended to contemplate the dance floor. “We can pick up snacks later, guys. Cut the chatter. Widow, are you in position?”
“Not yet,” Natasha said. “The junior consul is still getting his nerve up. He’s hitting the bar now for some liquid courage.”
“Do what you can to encourage him. Hawkeye, clone his phone if he stays by the bar long enough.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Clint’s accent and cadence changed as he slipped into his bartender voice, vowels suddenly flat with the midwestern drawl he usually suppressed. “Hello, sir, what can I get for you this evening?”
Steve exchanged wary nods with a hostile US Senator, ducked a journalist, and was cornered by a member of the Ukrainian Parliament who wouldn’t leave him alone until they’d taken a selfie together. Formal functions always made Steve really miss being covert.
Well, if he couldn’t avoid the attention his celebrity status drew, he could at least use it to his own advantage. He made his way over to the hostile Senator’s wife at the same time Natasha stepped onto the dance floor with the junior consul. “May I have this dance?” Steve asked, deploying his best apple pie smile.
The Senator’s wife gave him a suspicious look, but the social coup of dancing with Captain America was too good to pass up--Steve rarely danced, and if she and everyone else thought he was only dancing with her now to tweak Senator Stern’s nose, so much the better. The hint of petty conflict helped draw more eyes to Steve, pulling attention away from Natasha.
Steve counted waltz steps in his head and tried not to trip over his own feet. He kept most of his attention on Natasha, watching out of the corner of his eye as she relieved the junior consul of his keys, wallet, and composure, in that order.
“Nice work,” Clint said appreciatively. “I can see him sweating from here.”
“I didn’t know he could bend like that,” Tony chimed in as the song drew to a close. “I’m not sure he did, either.”
Natasha was only a little out of breath. “Good thing it wasn’t a tango, or his heart might have given out. His wallet’s leather. We should be able to lift a clean print.”
“I wouldn’t bother,” a new voice interrupted. “The Ambassador has tightened security since last week. None of the lower-level staff have access to anything interesting enough to be worth the trouble.”
The comms went dead silent.
Steve took a deep breath in. Let it out. "See, guys?" he said calmly. "This is why we keep chatter off the comms. You never know who's been listening."
"Or for how long," the voice agreed.
Steve didn't think of SHIELD operations as chess matches. It was a popular metaphor for spy games, and he understood the appeal, but real-life intelligence ops didn't reduce neatly into a game with clear rules and two opponents who had equal access to information. Real life was far more chaotic.
But just for a second, Steve let himself imagine that this operation was a carefully staged game of chess he was playing against the Venezuelan Ambassador, because that let him imagine a third player coming out of nowhere and flipping the table, up-ending the board and scattering pieces to the four winds.
It wasn't a useful mental image, necessarily, but it did help him feel better.
"Winter Soldier," Steve said.
“Agent Rogers,” the voice acknowledged. “So you did figure out my name.”
Steve wondered if that was a test. “‘Winter Soldier’ isn’t a name, it’s a title.”
If it had been a test, the Soldier didn’t reveal whether Steve had just passed or failed. “I won’t take up too much of your time, I can see you and your team are busy, but I thought it might interest you to know that mercenaries have infiltrated the catering staff. Not sure what they’re here for, but it’s probably not the mini-pissaladière.”
Fuck. “And you’re telling us this out of the goodness of your heart?” Steve asked, even as he made eye contact with Natasha and glanced towards the service doors. She melted into the crowd, already discarding her lace shawl and pulling her hair up into a no-frills bun, transforming from high fashion arm candy into forgettable wait staff.
“Oh, I don’t have a heart,” the Soldier assured him. “But I’m acting as a bodyguard tonight and I’d rather my client didn’t get poisoned, blown up, or whatever else these guys have planned. I can’t collect my fee if the boss croaks.”
“That would be a shame.” The ballroom had a second-story balcony that would offer a good view of the room. Steve cut through the crowd, telling Clint to stay put with a quick finger sign, and headed up the stairs. “So what, we’re supposed to do your job for you?”
“I could cut you in.”
“Oh, yeah?” Most of the bodyguards present were wearing cheap black suits and domino masks. Steve tried to spot potential matches for the Soldier’s height and build in the crowd below, but it was hopeless--half the security guys in the room were built like the Soldier. “What’s my share?”
“Mmmm, say, twenty percent?”
Steve snorted. “Wow, twenty percent for me and my whole team? How generous.”
“I’d offer more, but they’re not particularly good mercenaries.” The Soldier’s voice was warm and amused. The comm transmission made it sound like he was speaking directly into Steve’s ear. “Besides, you don’t know my rates. I bet you an extra grand that twenty percent of my fee is more than your SHIELD per diem.”
Steve’s comm beeped, alerting him that a transmission was coming through on his direct line. “I traced the Winter Soldier’s transmissions to a hundred square meter radius centered on this embassy,” Tony reported. “Which doesn’t mean much, if he’s good enough to crack SHIELD’s encryption he’s good enough to spoof the signal, but the background noise in his transmissions matches up with yours. He’s definitely here. And as soon as we finish this, I’m rebuilding our comms myself, because this is just embarrassing.”
Steve tapped his mic twice, sending Tony two clicks to acknowledge the info, then switched back to the general frequency. “Widow, what’s your status?”
“Busy,” Natasha grunted. Steve waited patiently until the clanging and thuds on Natasha’s line stopped. “Head chef is ex-Moussad. He was the heavy hitter for that Kuala Lumpur heist in ‘09.”
“Ooh, that was a nasty one,” Clint said cheerfully.
“There was a two-man backup and get-away van parked in the alley out back,” the Soldier reported. The party background noise was gone and his voice echoed like he was in a stairwell. Steve itched to go looking for him, but it was more important to stay central.
“‘Was’ being the operative word?” Steve asked.
“They’re taking a nap. You can pick them up later.”
Steve watched the people on the ballroom floor circulate, tracking the patterns of movement. Most of the servers were moving naturally with the guests, heading towards clusters of people with empty glasses. Three particularly muscular servers were moving much more aimlessly, paying more attention to the bodyguards than the guests. “Hawkeye, I make three mercs at your two, nine, and twelve o’clock.”
“Got ‘em. Ready to engage when you are.”
“Not yet. We still don’t know what they’re--”
“There’s a bomb under the dessert cart,” Natasha interrupted. “Armed and counting down, six minutes and twenty-two seconds remaining.”
“Oh, great,” Steve said, and pulled the fire alarm.
The fight was over by the time the first responders arrived. The wailing sirens of the emergency vehicles provided a counterpoint to the Embassy’s still-blaring alarm. Guests were clustered together on the sidewalk outside, gossiping frantically and taking pictures of the broken windows, the sprays of glass in the street, and the mercenaries sitting in a disgruntled circle on the ballroom floor under the watchful eyes of the Embassy guards. Steve watched the whole scene unfold from two stories up, leaning on the railing of the Embassy’s exterior balcony and monitoring the crowd below.
Tony had talked Nat through disarming the bomb while Clint and Steve had fought the mercs, who had pulled guns once guests started streaming out of the ballroom. The only casualties were a marble statue that Steve had ducked behind for cover and several very expensive bottles of scotch that Clint had crashed into when a merc threw him over the bar. Clint had come out of the fight reeking of top-shelf booze, but unhurt aside from a pulled tendon and bruised shoulder, which was better than his usual track record.
The biggest surprise of the night had been sheltering reflexively behind the costume shield, knowing even as he ducked that it wouldn’t do him any good, only to hear the mercenary’s shots ping off the shield and drop harmlessly at his feet. Tony had made Steve’s whole costume, and Steve had assumed the shield was aluminum or tin based on how light it was, but no metal Steve knew of could deflect bullets without getting so much as a scratch. He was going to have a lot of questions for Tony once they all got back to HQ.
The threat had been neutralized, the mission was over, and usually Steve would be feeling a wave of fatigue as his adrenaline rush faded, but anticipation was still thrumming through him. He should be inside coordinating with the embassy guards, but instead he was standing out in the cold scanning the milling crowd below.
The dignitaries’ harassed-looking bodyguards were trying to usher them into their waiting cars, which had formed a line in the street that stretched a block in either direction. There would be an almighty traffic snarl once they actually started moving. The smart play, for someone security conscious who knew the party was going to end early, would be to position their car at the front of the line, so they could leave first and avoid being pinned in place. Someone who’d been listening to the whole fiasco unfold on comms could have easily called their car early to jump the rest of the line.
Steve blew warm air onto his cupped hands and thought idly of hunting blinds. There was nothing to hide behind on the balcony, no way to conceal himself, but people rarely looked up. He watched the street below, waiting for the guests to disperse.
A bodyguard in a black suit and domino mask successfully detached his charge, an elderly woman in a blue silk dress, from the rest of the crowd and started to lead her away. He kept a supportive hand under her arm as they walked alongside the line of waiting cars, not stopping until they reached the very first car in line. The bodyguard carefully handed the elderly woman into the town car’s backseat. The car rode low on its tires, evidence of armored panels weighing the suspension down.
The bodyguard was tall, his shoulders were broad, and, unlike most of the other guards, both of his hands were completely covered by a pair of white gloves.
Something bright and hot flared in Steve’s chest. Found you.
The bodyguard moved to the front passenger door and paused with his hand on the door handle. After a few seconds, he sent a two-fingered salute towards Steve’s exact position (side view mirror reflection, Steve calculated absently). He slid into the car without ever turning to show his face. The car pulled away from the curb at a sedate pace, blending smoothly into the normal flow of traffic.
The balcony was only two stories up. Steve could have leapt down, run after the car, probably even caught up with it--and then what?
Instinct held him rooted in place instead. Instinct, and the knowledge that the Soldier could have simply evacuated his client and ignored the danger the mercenaries posed to the other guests. It had been a gesture of good faith to contact Steve instead of getting himself and his charge away clean, and Steve didn’t want to repay that gesture with pursuit.
Steve was sure he would see the Soldier again. Despite the danger such a meeting would entail (or, if he was being honest with himself, partly because of it), Steve was looking forward to it.
A week after the embassy incident, Steve got a call from the mailroom. Somehow, a letter with no postmark or return address had turned up in the SHIELD office mail supply addressed to Agent Steve Rogers, and nobody was sure how it had gotten there, but they’d tested it for explosives and contact poisons and it had come up clean, and did Agent Rogers have any idea how it had gotten into their system? Was this, perhaps, an internal security audit? Or a prank? Or, please God, anything that meant they didn’t have to tell Director Fury that they needed to completely overhaul the mailroom’s security procedures?
The envelope, once the disgruntled mailroom staff finally released it into Steve’s custody, turned out to hold a piece of paper with numbers corresponding to a Swiss bank account set up in Steve Rogers’ name, which contained a considerable sum, and a post-it note that read: “Thanks for the assist. Have fun trying to trace the money.”
It took Steve two hours to stop grinning.
"Agent Rogers. We have to stop meeting like this." The Winter Soldier crouched in front of where Steve was slumped against the wall, hands and forearms glued to the stone behind him by some kind of sticky polymer. "Comfortable?"
"No," Steve lied. "My blood circulation has been cut off. I've lost all feeling in my hands."
"Oh, so I should probably cut you loose," the Soldier deadpanned.
"It's a medical emergency. You don't want to be responsible for me losing limbs, do you?"
"Tell you what, if you lose your hands, I'll make you some new ones." He held up his metal hand, smallest finger crooked. “Pinkie promise.”
Steve laughed, delighting in the way the Soldier’s eyes crinkled in response. “Did you actually make your own arm?”
“Not the first one,” he said, and for a second his eyes were distant. “But this one, yeah.”
“Tony wants to steal it,” Steve told him. “Not in a mean way, not like he doesn’t want you to have it, he just wants to play with it. He really likes tech. He’d build you a new one. I don’t think you need a new one, though. I like this one.”
The Soldier had gone still. There was a furrow between his eyebrows, and Steve didn’t like it. “Agent Rogers? You okay?”
“Was that a weird thing to say? Sorry.” Steve was sweating. Why was he sweating? The room had been cold a few minutes ago. “I think I’m babbling. I feel a little dizzy.”
“Steve.” The Soldier moved closer. He ran the fingers of his metal hand across Steve’s scalp, keeping the touch very light. “Did you hit your head?”
“No. But I did get gassed when I opened the safe. There was a canister of something. It rolled out and cracked open when I tried to grab it, poof, gas cloud right to the face. Knocked me off balance. I tried to lay low until it wore off, but this woman with a spray gun surprised me. Well, more like we surprised each other, I don’t think she expected me to trip and fall down the basement stairs and land right in front of her. But she got the drop on me, and her spray gun made this goo stuff and stuck me to the wall, and I can’t break it, so here we are.” Steve leaned into the cool pressure of the Soldier’s hand. His face was so hot. “That feels nice. You’re nice.”
“I’m really not. What kind of gas did you breathe?” The fingers migrated down to Steve’s neck, taking his pulse. Steve thought maybe he was supposed to feel nervous about the cool metal at his throat, but he was too preoccupied by the thought that this was the first time the Soldier had touched him.
“It was purple. Smelled kind of like chloroform.”
The Soldier hissed through his teeth. “Yeah, I know that one. You’ll be fine once it wears off.”
“What’s it do?” Steve dipped his head and nuzzled the Soldier’s palm.
The Soldier cleared his throat and stepped back, crossing his arms. “Lowers inhibitions, mostly. Compromises balance and trigger discipline. It’s used for interrogations, or to disorient attackers.”
“Huh. I wonder if Bruce knows about it. I should get him a sample. Are you going to interrogate me?”
The Soldier shook his head. “Nah. Not in my contract. You should probably stop talking, though. Your bosses won’t be happy with you if you let something slip.”
“Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Sure.” Steve lasted about two seconds before he blurted, “It’s just really hard not to talk right now.”
The Soldier shifted from foot to foot and ran a hand through his hair. It was the first time Steve had seen him look unsure. “Okay, uh. What’s your favorite food?”
“Mac and cheese.”
“The real kind or from a box?”
“The fancy kind from a box with the pasta shaped like rabbits. It doesn’t really taste any different than plain Kraft noodles, but. Rabbits!” Steve forgot his hands weren’t free and tried to make a hopping motion. He probably looked really stupid. “I like how cute they are.”
The Soldier hid his face briefly in his hands and muttered something in Russian. A second later, he looked up and asked, “Favorite sport?”
“Baseball. Do you like baseball? I bet you do, I bet you like all the stats.”
The Soldier’s eyes crinkled again. Steve wondered what his smile looked like. “Yeah, I do. I bet you heckle the whole time, don’t you? Critiquing the coach’s strategy, second-guessing all the umpire’s calls?”
Steve grinned at him. His whole body felt warm and fizzy. “Guilty as charged. You want to catch a game sometime?”
“I don’t get out much, buddy.”
“Maybe you should,” Steve ventured. “Nat keeps telling me to get out more. We could get out together. Do you like the Dodgers?”
The Soldier turned abruptly and headed for the door. “I’m going to get you some water, okay, Steve? Just--sit tight.”
“Okay,” Steve said sadly.
The Soldier left the room. Steve knew he wasn’t coming back.
Half an hour later, the orchestra music from the party upstairs cut off abruptly, piano and cello notes replaced by the insistent blare of an alarm. Steve shook out his legs, limbering up.
Clint slipped through the door on silent feet and crouched in front of Steve. He pulled a spray bottle out of his jacket and misted the hardened goo encasing Steve’s hands. The goo dissolved slowly into a yellow foam that itched, but didn’t hurt.
“Extraction in thirty seconds,” Clint said, looking over his shoulder. “We’re going out hot. You okay to run?”
“You don’t think the Winter Soldier is a Yankees fan, do you?”
Clint stared for a second, then angled Steve’s face towards the hallway lights to check Steve’s pupil response. “Did you hit your head on something?”
Several hours later, Steve had escaped SHIELD medical and fled to the relative sanctuary of Tony’s workshop, only to be cornered there by Bruce, who wanted to take periodic blood samples as the interrogation drug disappeared from his system, and Natasha, who wanted to review his latest interaction with the Soldier. Letting Bruce stick him with needles every fifteen minutes was the far less painful option.
Steve had metabolized most of the gas already, leaving him with nothing but a nasty headache and a lingering cloud of mortification. He’d managed to stash the microfilm from the safe at the library drop-off point before he fell down the basement stairs and got taken out of play, so the mission was, technically, a success. He would be celebrating if he hadn’t also asked, no, practically begged, the Winter Soldier to go out with him to a baseball game.
Jesus, maybe Nat was right and he really did need to get a life, if his loneliness was so close to the surface that it spilled out during missions. He wished he could forget the whole thing ever happened.
Instead, Steve had to review the whole interaction, this time with his team watching over his shoulder. They had known going in that comms would be unreliable, so Steve had worn a lapel cam to record everything he heard and saw for the team to analyze later. He just hadn’t expected the analysis to include assessing what information Steve’s own drug-fueled ramblings might have given away to an enemy agent.
Natasha cued up the video footage and gave Steve a sympathetic look. “It’s standard procedure, Steve.”
“Yeah.” Steve ran his hands over his face and sighed. He waved Bruce and Tony over, too--the more people they had reviewing the tape, the greater the likelihood that they would pick up on something that would otherwise be missed, and his dignity was already beyond salvaging. “Okay, play it.”
By the time the playback ended, Natasha’s eyebrows were nearly up to her hairline.
“I know,” Steve said, hunching his shoulders. “I shouldn’t have said any of that stuff.”
"Steve,” she said. “He was flirting with you, before he realized you were drugged. And you flirted back."
"What? No, he wasn’t. And no, I didn’t."
Tony stared at him. "You don't even know how to recognize flirting, do you? No wonder they never use you for seductions, even with," he waved a hand over Steve’s face and torso, "all that going on."
"It wasn't flirting! He's an enemy agent, I was pumping him for information!"
Tony leered. "Bet that's not all you'd like to--"
Bruce clapped a hand over Tony’s mouth without even looking up from his notes. His aim was impressive, but then again, he’d had a lot of practice.
“That’s not--” Natasha shook her head. “Steve. You were primed for interrogation, and he didn’t tell his superiors. He didn’t ask about your mission or look for personal weak spots. He didn’t even ask about SHIELD or what intel we have on him.”
Tony kicked off from the work bench and shot across the room, flinging his arms and legs out as his roller chair spun in a complete circle. “So, duh, your giant secret agent crush is mutual! I’ve seen your intelligence evaluations, how can you possibly be this dense?”
“Tony,” Bruce said mildly, “it took you two months to realize I was hitting on you.”
“That’s because you’re terrible at flirting,” Tony retorted. “You kept taking me out for coffee, how was I supposed to know those were dates? I’m an engineer, I live on coffee, if all my coffee dates were date-dates I’d be the busiest polyamorist in D.C.”
Natasha tilted her head and gave Steve a tiny, impish smile. “Congratulations, Steve. You’re officially running an unsanctioned honeypot.”
Steve went pale.
Six weeks later, Steve saved the Winter Soldier’s life.
Steve stood in the middle of the abandoned airfield and double-checked his shield harness, making sure the shield would be easy to pull in a hurry. He’d been practicing with the shield in combat simulations since Tony had explained what it could do, although he hadn’t used it in the field yet. Its weight on his back was unexpectedly comforting.
Steve sent a brief salute to the airfield gatehouse where his SHIELD backup was positioned and opened his comm line. "Rogers here. Do you copy?"
The earpiece felt large and clunky after months of using Tony's new design. True to his word, Tony had rebuilt their comms from the ground up to his own exacting and intensely paranoid specifications after the Soldier’s hack. Fury had eventually badgered him into sharing the specs with the rest of SHIELD’s R&D division, but they hadn't mass-manufactured the new design yet. On this op, since Steve was working with two agents borrowed from the closest STRIKE team instead of his usual crew, he had to make do with second-hand equipment.
“Loud and clear, Cap.” A signal light flashed in the gatehouse. The agents had set up a sniper stand that Steve was hoping they wouldn’t have to use. If they were lucky, this mission would be a milk run.
The rest of his team was surveilling an art theft ring in Thailand, but Steve had been pulled off of that mission and onto this one as a special favor. He wasn't here as Steve Rogers, Agent of SHIELD, but as Captain America, neutral third party.
A week ago, the Latverian military had captured an intruder who’d broken into a secure military base. They had been contacted yesterday by an associate of the prisoner who was offering an exchange: the prisoner for a former Latverian minister who’d embezzled millions in government funds and vanished after fleeing the country. Offered the choice between a low-level possible spy or a high-level definite traitor, the Latverian government had opted for the traitor. Somebody’s higher-ups had called somebody else’s higher-ups, and somehow Steve’s name had come up as a neutral but respected figure who could oversee a prisoner exchange and ensure that neither side stepped out of line.
Naturally, the elite Latverian security team guarding the prisoner was just thrilled that a hulking American was nominally in charge of their current operation. None of them had so much as spoken to Steve, and Steve had received a notably cool reception from the Latverian diplomatic escort sent to monitor the exchange.
“Captain America,” the Latverian escort had said when he’d shaken her hand. “I hope you understand your role here is not to provide heroics, but simply to stay out of the way and allow our security personnel to do their jobs.”
There was nothing like being called in as a diplomatic favor when nobody, especially Steve, actually wanted him to be there to underscore the privileges of being world famous. Steve plastered a dutiful smile on his face and tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
The prisoner turned out to be a skinny kid with dyed platinum blond hair who seemed completely undaunted by the squad of Latverian security surrounding him. If anything, the guards were the ones looking frazzled. Steve subtly positioned himself between the prisoner and the guards under the guise of briefing the prisoner about the exchange.
“Your pick-up will be arriving any minute now,” Steve told the prisoner, who was jiggling his leg and ignoring Steve in favor of making faces at the guards over Steve’s shoulder. “Once the Minister’s identity is confirmed, the exchange will take place. We’ll walk towards your pick-up vehicle at a slow and steady pace. Once you reach the car, you get in. Is that clear?”
“Whatever you say, G-man.”
For fuck’s sake, how old was this kid? Nineteen, twenty? What was he doing sneaking into secure military bases when he looked barely old enough to drink? “How’d you get mixed up in this, anyway?”
The second he actually looked at Steve, the kid’s face went from cheerfully antagonistic to shocked. “Holy shit! You’re Captain America!”
Steve sighed. “That’s me.”
The kid spun around and extended one of his cuffed hands. Steve stood there, nonplussed, until he realized the kid wanted Steve to shake his hand. Cautiously, he took it; the kid pumped his hand up and down vigorously before spinning back around.
“It’s an honor, Captain,” he said, grinning. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed. That wasn’t just the usual celebrity gossip watcher reaction. “Who from?”
“Oh, just your Number 1 fan.” The kid had a generic Eastern European accent, but he spoke English easily and almost too quickly for Steve to follow. “He’ll probably be here to pick me up. God, he’s going to be pissed. Is it too late to just disappear into a secret island prison somewhere? It might be less painful than the lecture he’s going to give me.”
“You are very fortunate indeed that our government has allowed you to avoid prison,” the Latverian escort said stiffly. “One would think that, rather than mocking this generosity, you would show proper gratitude.”
“Oh, for sure,” he assured her. “I’m, like, super grateful.”
Mercifully, Steve’s comm crackled with a notification from the SHIELD agents at the gatehouse that the other party had arrived before the escort had a chance to respond. Steve gave them the go-ahead to approach.
Steve moved to the center of the tarmac, shield harnessed on his back, taking up a symbolically neutral position between the Latverians and the new arrivals.
Two black SUVs with the industry standard armor plating and blacked-out windows rolled to a stop a healthy fifty feet away from where the Latverians and their vehicles were parked. Steve watched the first SUV’s driver-side door open and felt a frisson of shock as the Winter Soldier stepped out. (It must have been shock, because delight would have been entirely inappropriate.)
“Winter Soldier,” Steve acknowledged.
“Agent Rogers.” The Soldier was fully equipped, mask and goggles firmly in place, but all his weapons were holstered out of deference to the peaceful intent of the meeting. His body language gave nothing away as he took in the line of Latverian security standing behind the prisoner and diplomatic escort. “Shall we proceed?”
The Soldier opened the back door of the first SUV and pulled out a rumpled-looking man with his hands cuffed behind his back. He was wearing a suit that had seen better days, but wasn’t visibly injured.
The Latverian escort’s eyes lit up with a predatory gleam. “Ah, yes, there is our missing Minister. The exchange may proceed, Captain.”
Two of the Latverian soldiers walked the kid towards the center of the parking lot to meet the Soldier, who towed the minister along with a firm grip on his elbow. Once they met in the middle, the Latverian soldiers took custody of the renegade minister. Steve watched their retreat from the corner of his eye as he followed the kid and the Soldier back to their own SUV.
The kid was actually looking more nervous now that he had been rescued. “Is she in the car?”
“You think she’d stay home for this?” The Soldier’s voice had more animation now. Steve thought he read relief in the minute loosening of the Soldier’s stance now that he could see for himself that the kid was unharmed. This clearly wasn’t just a business transaction, and Steve made a note to dig for more information on the prisoner later.
“Aw, man,” the kid groaned. “She’s going to tear me a new one.”
“It’s no more than you deserve. Get in the car.”
“You don’t want to take a minute and have a chat with Agent Rogers?” he asked, bouncing on his toes.
“Pietro,” the Soldier said warningly.
“Okay, okay, I’m going, sheesh. Nice to meet you, Mr. Captain America, sir.”
Pietro shuffled towards the second SUV, the Soldier tracking every step until he was safely inside with the armored door closed behind him. Steve kept his attention on the line of Latverians; two soldiers were shoving the renegade minister into a transport van and strapping him in while the diplomatic escort watched in satisfaction. All seemed to be in order.
Steve relaxed a little. “If both parties are satisfied, I believe that concludes the exchange.”
“Agent Rogers,” the Soldier nodded. “Pleasure doing business with--”
Steve could never say, later, why he went for his shield. He must have heard something, a minute scrape of metal or an indrawn breath through his comm. There must have been a sign that sent his instincts screaming.
He only just got his shield up in time to intercept the bullet that would have hit the Winter Soldier right between the eyes.
The Soldier didn’t hesitate. Even as Steve was calculating the trajectory of the shot--high, north-north-east, from the gatehouse SHIELD was occupying, shit--the Soldier was rolling smoothly back, eeling under the first SUV to open the driver-side door from behind cover.
The Latverians soldiers were yelling and scrambling for position in and around their own vehicles. Steve crouched behind his shield and flung a hand palm-out towards the soldiers, praying they wouldn’t start shooting in the confusion. If the Latverians fired on the Winter Soldier, this could turn into a bloodbath, with Steve caught in the crossfire.
“What the hell is going on?” Steve shouted into his comm. Both SUVs screeched into motion. A second shot cracked the Soldier’s passenger-side window, but the bulletproof glass held.
Miraculously, the Soldier didn’t return fire. Even more miraculously, the Latverians didn’t start shooting, although most of their guns were now pointed squarely at Steve. The SUVs roared past the gatehouse and onto the main road. A third shot punched through the first SUV’s tire, but the tire held, and both vehicles soon raced out of range.
For a long moment Steve heard only silence. He had enough time to imagine the gatehouse overrun, an unknown adversary stepping over the bodies of the SHIELD agents to commandeer the sniper rifle, before his comm line finally clicked.
“Target lost,” his SHIELD backup reported. Meaning it had been one of his own agents shooting the whole time.
Steve was going to strangle someone.
“You were not cleared to engage, much less use lethal force. You wanna tell me what the hell happened out there?”
The agent stuck his chiseled jaw out. For Christ’s sake, he wasn’t that much older than Pietro. Were SHIELD recruits getting younger, or was Steve just getting old? “I saw a shot and I took it. Sir.”
They were standing in front of Fury’s desk, with Fury himself silently watching their exchange like a spectator at a tennis match. Steve was pacing back and forth, too worked up for stillness. The other agent was standing upright and rigid, like he was facing a firing squad.
“That was not your call to make!”
“SHIELD has a standing kill order on the Winter Soldier. The prisoner exchange was completed, the Latverians were happy. The mission was over.” The agent had the nerve to glare at Steve. “If you hadn’t blocked my shot, I could have eliminated a level six target.”
If Steve clenched his teeth any harder, his molars would crack. “You could have turned a prisoner transfer into a massacre, and killed someone who wasn’t a hostile.”
“He’s an assassin!” the agent snapped.
“No, he’s not,” Steve snarled. “He doesn’t do that anymore.”
“Agent Ward,” Fury broke in. “Go report to Coulson. Explain to him why you decided it was a good idea to turn a prisoner exchange into an improvised assassination. You’d better hope he finds your explanation convincing.”
“Sir.” Ward turned stiffly and closed the door a little harder than necessary on his way out.
Fury sighed, tented his fingers together, and eyeballed Steve. “Rogers--”
“Don’t,” Steve said, breathing hard. “Just don’t, Nick.”
“I’m not defending what he did. That was a shit show, and we both know it--”
“Is it true?” Steve interrupted. “Does SHIELD have a kill order on the Winter Soldier?”
“It was issued after he shot Romanova. It seemed like a reasonable response at the time.” Fury’s face was unreadable. “If you have an argument for why it should be lifted, I’m willing to hear it.”
These were dangerous waters. Steve pulled himself together, striving for calm. “He could be an asset to SHIELD.”
“We’ve tried to recruit him before. Didn’t have a whole lot of success. You think you can do better?”
“Possibly. The Soldier and I have established a rapport.”
How Fury could convey so much skepticism without so much as twitching, Steve would never understand. “A rapport.”
“Yes, sir.” Horrifyingly, Steve could feel heat starting to climb up his neck. “Our previous encounters have not been hostile.”
“Am I misremembering your reports, or did the Soldier not subdue and capture you in half of those previous encounters?”
“Didn’t it take Stark four hours to cut you out of those adamantium handcuffs?”
“Yes, sir. But you can tell a lot about a man by how he treats you when you’re at his mercy,” Steve said, and now he was on solid footing, because this was nothing but unvarnished truth. “I don’t think the Soldier is our enemy.”
“Hmmm.” Fury let him sweat for a few moments, then spread his hands flat against his desk. “I’ll lift the kill order, contingent on the Soldier’s continued non-aggression. You keep working on that rapport.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve said, and got the hell out of Fury’s office before he could change his mind.
When Steve’s phone rang later that evening, he almost ignored it. His team had finished their surveillance op and were on their way back to the States. Steve had a rare chunk of free time while they waited for new orders, and he had been planning to succumb to jet lag and emotional exhaustion and spend the next twenty-four hours face down on his bed.
He had already brushed his teeth and changed into sleep pants when his phone buzzed with an incoming call. It was tempting to just reject the call and pass out, but the list of people who knew his personal phone number was very short, and the fact that the incoming call was from a blocked number didn’t make it any less likely to be one of his teammates. He sank onto the edge of his mattress and picked up the call.
“So that could have gone better,” a familiar voice said, and just like that Steve was wide awake.
“I’m sorry about this morning.” He couldn’t assume this line was secure, so he wasn’t going to give details, but he couldn’t let the Winter Soldier think Steve had set him up. “That didn’t go how I’d planned.”
“I didn’t think so. If it had been your plan, you wouldn’t have missed.” There was a brief hesitation. “We need to talk.”
The Soldier rattled off an address. “Come alone.”
The line went dead before Steve could ask when, so the answer was probably ASAP. He switched his pajamas out for jeans and a t-shirt, grabbed the keys to his bike, wrote a hasty note about where he was going and why (just in case he disappeared and Natasha had to chase him down--Steve was reckless, but he wasn’t suicidal, and Natasha would have strangled him herself if he’d run off to meet an enemy agent without leaving so much as a breadcrumb trail), and was out the door in five minutes flat.
Steve didn’t try to scope out the Waffle House before he went inside. The Winter Soldier was a world class operative, and Steve was voluntarily walking into his crosshairs. If the Soldier was planning an ambush, it was going to work, simple as that. So Steve didn’t check the vantage points, and he didn’t sweep the building, and he didn’t keep an eye on the perimeter.
The Waffle House was almost deserted. The only customers were a lone trucker plowing through a stack of pancakes and a table of teens playing a card game that involved a lot of slapping and giggling.
Steve found a booth away from the windows and sat with his back to the door. The server on night duty smiled at him, brought him a cup of coffee, and went back to reading her mystery paperback at the counter. Steve wrapped his hands around the mug and waited.
Seventeen minutes later, the bell hung on the door jangled. Steve’s whole body lit up with adrenaline, but he didn’t turn his head, just sipped his coffee.
A man slid into Steve’s booth. He looked startlingly civilian in a red henley under a drab olive jacket, long hair swept back from his face and loose under a baseball cap, his jaw a little stubbled. His left hand was tucked into his pocket. The way he carried himself was foreign; gone was the military carriage Steve was familiar with, replaced by a careless slouching grace. Only his eyes, calm and assured as ever, marked him as the Soldier.
He was more attractive than Steve had dared hope for, and the instant Steve realized he’d had hopes about what the Soldier looked like was the instant Steve admitted to himself that he was in very deep trouble.
“Hey, Soldier.” Hello, Sailor, Steve thought, immediately followed by don’t blush don’t blush don’t blush.
“James,” the Soldier said easily, as though it were no big deal, as though this weren’t the most personal thing he’d ever told Steve. “My first name is James.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? Is your last name Bond?”
“Fuck off,” James said, but he was laughing, just a little, just around the corners of his eyes. “Is that your big recruitment pitch? Cheap cracks about my name?”
“Recruitment pitch, huh? Is that what this is?”
“Well, I’m not just here for the hashbrowns, pal.” James signaled the waitress with a raised hand and a smile. Steve watched his lips curve and matched it to the deepening creases at the corners of his eyes. He’d never seen James smile without his mask on before, but he was certain James had given him deeper smiles than this.
Jesus, Rogers, get your head in the game. Enemy agent, possibly looking to defect. Focus on the fucking mission. It would be easier to focus if Steve had any idea how flipping an agent was supposed to go. He should have asked Coulson for tips; the man who had brought in Hawkeye and the Black Widow could probably have had the Winter Soldier signing HR paperwork before the check came.
James ordered steak and eggs, and Steve added a pecan waffle to his coffee order, more to have something to do with his hands than because he was hungry. The waitress took their orders to the kitchen, poured James’ coffee, and left them sitting in an awkward silence.
After a minute of James staring at him expectantly while Steve stared back, James snorted. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”
“Uh, no.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve never tried to bring someone in.”
“I’m your first? Aww, don’t I feel special.” James gave him an exaggerated leer and Steve bit back a smile. “You’ll do fine. Just pretend it’s a job interview.”
Steve gave him a dry look. “So, James, why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
James’ teasing look fell away. He took one last gulp of coffee before his shoulders squared as his back straightened.
Steve had given him an excuse to talk, and he was going to take it. This was James reporting in.
“I was an Army Ranger. We were on a classified op when my unit was captured by a group affiliated with the Ten Rings. The Army denied all involvement. No ransom, no rescue.” James turned his coffee cup in a full circle, touching the white ceramic rim with just the fingertips of his right hand. Never wobbling, not spilling, hand perfectly steady. “After a few months, they turned the survivors over to Hydra.”
Steve swallowed down the bile that was trying to climb up his throat and matched James’ dispassionate tone. “Is that when Hydra recruited you?”
“Hydra didn’t recruit me.” James said each word slowly and deliberately. He didn’t put any particular emotional emphasis on them, but they sent hot fury flaring through Steve anyway. Steve knew what Hydra was capable of doing to prisoners. He could read between those lines just fine.
I’m sorry, Steve thought. God, James, I’m so sorry. “I’m glad you got out.”
James gave him a half smile. “No fucking kidding. I’m not anxious to go back in.”
“SHIELD isn’t like that.”
“They’re all like that, Steve.” His voice was so unexpectedly gentle that it gave Steve pause. “You work for an agency, you’re an asset. Disposable. It’s how they operate.”
Steve had to be careful about what he promised. He wasn’t here as a representative of SHIELD, not officially. But he was free to speak for himself. “I don’t consider you disposable.”
“Your bosses do.”
James looked up sharply. “What’s that mean?”
“I spoke to the Director after our encounter this morning. He updated your status to do-not-engage. The moment you hurt one of our people, the kill order is back on, but you’re clear until then.”
“Holy shit.” James leaned back against the booth cushion, drumming the fingers of his right hand against the table. “They really do want to recruit me.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. If James was honestly surprised by that, why had he set up the meet? “Well, yeah.”
“I’ve run missions directly opposite SHIELD. For Christ’s sake, I shot Agent Romanova. Does she know about this?”
“She’s the one who suggested I bring you in,” Steve said, which was a rather liberal translation of their honeypot conversation, but close enough to count as honesty among spies. “And SHIELD prefers to have operatives at your skill level inside the tent pissing out, whenever possible.”
“I’ve killed a lot of people.”
It wasn’t a non sequitur. Steve heard the implied how could you forgive that, how could you ever trust me? loud and clear.
“Did you want to? Did you have a choice?”
James closed his eyes. It was such a startling display of trust that Steve wondered if James was aware he was doing it. “Doesn’t matter how I felt about it. I still did it.”
The words brought Steve back to a conversation he’d had on an overnight stakeout in a Louisiana marsh. For a moment he could feel the humidity pressing on his skin, hear the bullfrog calls nearly drowning out Natasha’s voice, uncharacteristically quiet as she recounted memories like confessions. Steve sent Natasha his silent thanks and borrowed one of her phrases. “You wouldn’t be the only one at SHIELD with red in your ledger.”
The waitress arrived with heaping plates of food before James could respond, interrupting the tense moment and giving them both a chance to regroup. Steve had barely noticed the time passing. He hadn’t set out to recruit the Winter Soldier, that wasn’t why he’d blocked the shot that morning, but now that the seed of the idea had been planted, it was hard to dismiss. They could be good together.
James was quiet while he ate. He snuck glances at Steve, but kept his mouth too busy for conversation, taking aggressively large forkfuls of potatoes and eggs. Steve ate his waffle in methodical bites and reminded himself not to push.
The table had a little chrome stand full of individual jelly packets next to the ketchup and fake maple syrup. James had cleaned his plate and sorted all the jelly packets by flavor, strawberry and grape and orange marmalade each going into their own neat columns, before he spoke again.
“Do you really trust SHIELD?”
“Not entirely,” Steve said honestly. “Sometimes SHIELD makes the wrong call. But I put my faith in individuals. The people I work with, my team, they’re solid. Together we do good work.”
“It’s been a long time since I had a team. Not since the Rangers, and they--” James stopped abruptly and just shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said softly.
James made a curt gesture, dismissing the sympathy. “I don’t know how to work as part of a team anymore. And I won’t kill on anyone else’s orders. I can’t do that, Steve, not ever again.”
“You have skills far beyond assassination. If you were,” one of mine, no, ease up, Rogers, don’t spook him, “on my team, I’d put you on security analysis. You wouldn’t have to touch a gun to be useful.”
James stared at Steve, then rubbed his hand over his face and slouched back against the bench seat. “You want to know why I came to talk to you, the first time we met? Because of what you did in Tokyo.”
Steve frowned as he thought back. His STRIKE team had been sent to capture a very successful and utterly amoral arms dealer. She’d given them the slip, and SHIELD had wound up chasing her around southeast Asia for the next two months before they had finally brought her in. “In 2015? That mission was a bust.”
“And why was that, Agent Rogers?” James asked neutrally. It was an uncannily good impersonation of a SHIELD higher-up running a debrief after an op went to shit, and Steve found his chin rising as he slipped automatically into With All Due Respect, Sir, That’s Bullshit mode.
“We cornered the target in a popular nightlife district. As we made our approach, a tour group exited a karaoke bar and unwittingly provided cover for the target. We were unable to isolate the target before she entered a subway station and disappeared.”
“You could have engaged before the target reached the subway.”
Steve dropped the formal debrief style to give James an exasperated look. “She was surrounded by drunk twenty-year-olds, and she’d been known to take hostages. Someone would’ve gotten killed.”
James nodded. “You get in trouble for that?”
Steve shrugged and picked waffle crumbs off his plate with his finger. “You could say that.” He had gotten reamed out by Director Fury for a solid hour until Steve’s patience had finally snapped and he’d started shouting back.
Maybe Fury had been right and it would have been worth getting a few bystanders killed if it meant stopping the target earlier--who knew how much damage she had done with her extra two months of freedom, how many deals she’d brokered and what kind of body count they had resulted in--but that wasn’t how Steve worked. It was one thing to put his own life or even his teammates’ lives on the line, they were all volunteers and they all knew the risks, but civilians weren’t part of the game.
You can’t save everybody, Fury had said. It was true, and Steve wasn’t an idiot, he knew it was true--but how could he live with himself if he didn’t try?
“What happened?” James asked, jolting Steve back to the present.
“I got put on administrative leave for a week. When I came back, my first op was a hostage rescue. I think it was a peace offering.”
James toyed with his fork, drawing curving patterns in the ketchup smear on his plate. “You ever think about getting out?”
Oh. A number of small puzzle pieces suddenly clicked into place; James’ probing questions about trust, his reticence to sign on with SHIELD, why he asked about Tokyo, why he’d set up the meet.
Steve was trying to recruit James, and James was trying to recruit Steve, or at least detach him from SHIELD for his own good.
It was sort of touching, in a really frustrating way.
James must have seen from Steve’s face that the penny had dropped. He leaned forward, speaking intently. “You have to know that with your skills, you could work anywhere, for anyone. You don’t need SHIELD. You could pick your own jobs, set your own terms. I have enough freelance contacts to find work for you.” His voice was quiet as he added, “For both of us, if you wanted.”
Steve didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It wasn’t like the offer wasn’t tempting. God, it was tempting. He could go rogue, work with the Winter Soldier, put SHIELD’s bullshit behind him, answer to nobody but himself.
But if he left, what would happen to Clint, who’d been passed around STRIKE teams like the world’s most annoying hot potato for ignoring bad calls and substituting his own? To Natasha, who had warmed to Steve so slowly he didn’t even remember when she’d started treating him like her slightly hapless little brother instead of an obstacle to be worked around? To Tony and Bruce, who were weird even by the standards of the other SHIELD scientists, who only followed Steve’s orders because they trusted Steve to actually listen when they had objections? His paranoid, reckless, rebellious, brilliant people--how long would they last under a leader who was used to being obeyed? How long would Steve last without them, the only people guaranteed to call him on his shit, his ragtag workaholic family?
In the end, there was only one answer Steve could give. “I can’t leave my team.”
For a moment Steve thought James was going to argue with him--he could see the gears turning in the other man’s head, stratagems and techniques being considered and discarded--but James just sighed and sat back. “Yeah, I see that.”
James shook his head. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re a good man, Steve.”
James quirked an eyebrow, but didn’t argue. He dug a battered leather wallet out of his pocket, dropped a few bills on the table, and slid out of the booth. After a moment’s hesitation, he rested his right hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve wished he could feel the heat of it through his jacket.
“Take care of yourself, Agent Rogers,” James said.
Steve raised his own hand to cover James’ hand before James could move away. He didn’t put any force behind his hold, he didn’t want James to feel trapped, but he wanted to feel the warmth of James’ skin under his palm, if only for a moment.
“Until next time, James,” Steve said, because he was a stubborn son of a bitch.
James gave him a long-suffering look, and Steve took the playfulness of it as a gift. He chose to focus on that, and not the sinking feeling in his stomach when James gently pulled his hand back and walked away without another word.
The Winter Soldier dropped off of SHIELD’s radar.
Steve told himself it was for the best. Sometimes he even believed it. He couldn’t seem to stop looking for him, though, couldn’t stop pouring over other teams’ mission reports, searching for impervious defenses and silk-smooth retreats. There was never anything conclusive.
The Winter Soldier was a ghost, Hill had said, and Steve hadn’t understood what she meant, because the Soldier had always been so vividly real to him. He understood now.
Steve looked for James, and didn’t find him.
Seven months later, on an op gone catastrophically wrong, Captain America found the Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier stood at parade rest. His eyes were dispassionate above his customary mask, his face as immobile as if it were carved out of marble.
Someone who didn’t know him would probably take his stillness for indifference. Steve wasn’t sure how he could tell that James was furious.
His employer certainly didn’t seem to notice. His boss, a high-level fixer for a quasi-legal business empire that SHIELD suspected of trafficking in alien technology, was practically dancing with glee, delighted by the sight of Captain America crumpled on the floor at his feet.
Steve’s thoughts were a little slow, bogged down by a shocky haze of pain, but he tried to figure out what was making James upset. There were no civilians around to worry about--the organization had taken over a defunct military base just south of Rio, and it was empty of everyone but the boss and security personnel. James’ security had worked perfectly: Steve hadn’t even gotten to the server room, much less had time to plant the USB Tony had given him, before walking into an ambush. So why was James so angry?
Steve coughed a mouthful of blood onto the polished wood floor, and James’ eyes were briefly murderous before that unnatural calm reappeared.
Oh. Maybe James was pissed that his boss had shot Steve in the chest.
“Sorry,” he said, a little fuzzy on who he was apologizing to, but knowing he should. To Hill, for fucking up the mission. To Natasha, for not listening to her warnings that he was going to get himself killed if he didn’t start being more careful. To James, for becoming another stroke of red in his ledger.
The boss seemed a little taken aback by Steve’s apology, but he rallied quickly. “You’ll certainly be sorry by the time I’m done with you! Take him to the interrogation room. Use the heaviest restraints. Make sure he doesn’t die until we’ve finished our...little chat.”
If the boss had had a moustache, he would have twirled it. Steve giggled at the mental image, and giggled again when the boss glared at him. Steve was wrecking his dramatic moment.
It was possible he was a little high on endorphins. Even with the serum, gunshot wounds hurt.
“Sir,” James said crisply. He motioned two of the guards forward to take point and had the other two pick Steve up by the arms. They didn’t walk him so much as drag him down the hall.
Steve didn’t try to support any of his own weight. It was petty of him, but he hoped they threw out their backs.
“Med bay first,” James directed. “Once he’s stabilized we’ll take him to the cells.”
That wasn’t what his boss had ordered, but the guards obeyed James without question. Steve was hauled into a side room, dropped roughly onto a gurney, and strapped down at the wrists and ankles before a very nervous medic approached. The medic sliced his uniform top down the middle and started to bandage his chest wounds. Steve had been hit at least three times, but he thought one of them was just a graze.
The med tech tightened a bandage, putting pressure on the wound below his collarbone, and Steve bit back a scream. His left collarbone was definitely broken. Then again, if the shots had hit his heart or aorta directly he’d already be dead, so it could have been worse. This way he would live long enough to be tortured.
There was a line in the SHIELD manual in a section about surviving capture: Maintain a positive attitude. Steve would get right on that, as soon as he was done trying not to bleed to death.
“Give him supplemental oxygen,” James ordered the med tech. “If he passes out, we’ll lose valuable interrogation time.”
There was a certain brutal efficiency to that, Steve supposed, but something was off. James was too tense. He kept checking the positions of the other guards, flick, flick, flick, eyes cataloging everyone in the room while he bent over Steve and double-checked his restraints. Steve tried to shake off his confusion and focus. He needed to pay attention.
Did James just loosen his wrist cuffs? Steve tried not to think about it, tried not to let the hope blooming in his chest show on his face.
The med tech put an oxygen mask over Steve’s nose and mouth, standing as far away as he could get. James snorted and elbowed the man aside.
“For God’s sake, he’s strapped down. There’s no need to be skittish.” James pressed the mask more firmly onto Steve’s face, holding it down with his thumb and index finger, leaving his remaining three fingers curled over Steve’s cheek.
James made eye contact with Steve and pressed all three fingers down. He paused for a second, then pressed only two down.
Steve took a deep breath and held it.
James pressed just one finger down, then gave Steve a slow blink.
Steve closed his eyes.
All hell broke loose.
First there was a searing flash of light that burned even through his closed eyes. A concussive boom so loud that Steve interpreted it as pressure rather than sound followed.
Flash bang grenade. The room seemed to spin as his ears whined, his sense of balance reeling as the fluid in his ears whirled. Steve focused on breathing without throwing up.
Steve pulled hard on his wrist cuffs. The right popped free almost immediately, but his collarbone flared into such agony that he nearly fainted when he tried the same trick on the left. He fumbled for the cuff’s buckle one-handed.
He opened his eyes to see thick white gas spreading up from a cannister on the floor. Guards, their mouths moving frantically with yells he could barely hear over the ringing in his ears, dropped slack to the ground seconds after the cloud reached them.
Steve abandoned the task of freeing his left wrist to clap his right hand over his face, holding the oxygen mask in place and sealing the edges as best he could. The whine in his ears and the thumps of the guards both faded into silence.
James reappeared over him, his own mask firmly in place. He grabbed the gurney handles and Steve braced himself against the sudden acceleration. James towed him rapidly out of the room and into the hallway.
Steve waved his right hand. “Gonna get the rest of these straps off of me?”
“You can’t run right now anyway. This is faster.” James pulled the gurney into a freight elevator and punched the button for the basement level. The elevator rattled down agonizingly slowly.
“Could so run,” Steve muttered.
“You have a sucking chest wound, Steve!” Suddenly James was yelling, his cold calm replaced by anger and something wilder. James was scared. “You could have died. You could still die.”
“I’ll be fine,” Steve ventured cautiously. “I have a healing factor.”
“Thank fuck.” James pressed a hand over his face. The elevator dinged incongruously cheerfully as they creaked to a stop. “Just--stay there and don’t get shot again.”
“James, c’mon,” Steve whined. He went back to tugging ineffectually at the wrist strap with his free hand.
James ignored him. The elevator opened onto a garage, and James wasted no time in loading Steve into the back of a van. He anchored the gurney rails to the van’s floor, rummaged through a supply compartment, and uncapped a syringe.
“What’s that?” Steve asked.
“I’ll just burn through it in ten minutes.”
James glared at him. “Then I’ll give you something else in ten minutes.”
Cool numbness spread out from Steve’s left arm as James pressed the plunger down. The burn of his broken collarbone faded, and Steve couldn’t hold back his sigh of relief. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore, which could have been from the morphine or just blood loss.
James slammed the van’s back doors shut and stomped over to the driver’s seat. Just as he was buckling his seatbelt, the elevator dinged again. A squad of armed guards fanned out into the garage.
“Fuck.” James threw the van into reverse. Bullets knocked against the armored back doors. The van rocked forward from the impact.
“Are you mad at me?” Steve called. James gunned the engine and Steve jolted hard against the gurney’s straps. Okay, maybe the morphine had been a good idea after all. “I feel like you might be mad at me.”
“This job has gone to shit.” James drove straight at the closed garage door. The van’s interior lit up as they crashed through the wooden door and into sunlight, startlingly bright after the base’s gloom. “Do you have backup en route?”
“Dunno,” Steve said. The guards had stomped his earpiece into tiny metal and plastic shards as soon as he was captured. The locator beacon in his stealth suit’s chestpiece might still be working, if the taser hits he had taken hadn’t fried it. If his beacon wasn’t transmitting, would his team still be able to find them?
The question seemed distant, almost academic, until a lucky shot from behind punched through the glass of the driver-side window. There were shooters in pursuit; James could get hurt. “My team had an outpost to the south. Past the river.”
“River’s a choke point. They’ll set up barricades on the bridges.” James took a hard left and an immediate right, swinging through a busy intersection in an inelegant zig-zag. Car horns blared behind them, but James was already accelerating. The van bounced roughly over some obstacle, a curb or speed bump, and Steve’s vision went gray. “I have a safehouse past the commercial district. We can lie low there.”
“Okay,” Steve said, and passed out.
When Steve woke up, the back of his left hand was trying to heal around an IV line. He reached for the needle reflexively. Warm fingers caught his wrist, halting his hand in midair.
“Don’t you dare. You need the fluids.”
Steve opened his eyes and gave James a grumpy look. He was lying on a twin bed in a small bedroom, his feet cold where they hung over the edge of the mattress, with a bag of something clear feeding into his left hand. His legs were covered by a faded patchwork quilt. The room’s only window showed a deep blue sky; he’d lost about five hours.
James was sitting on the edge of the bed. He’d taken off his mask and goggles and buttoned a flannel shirt over his tac vest, and his black pants and boots were nondescript enough that he could pass for civilian at first glance. Steve guessed they were in a residential apartment building.
“It itches,” Steve said, and tried to stretch the fingers of his immobilized hand out far enough to reach the IV.
“Swear to Christ, Rogers, I will strap you down to this bed if I have to.” James shoved a tall cup into Steve’s hand and angled the straw towards his face. “Drink this.”
“What is it?”
“Vanilla milkshake, extra calorie-dense. I figured your system could use the boost. Your entry and exit wounds have closed up, but judging by the bruising your body is still repairing a lot of internal damage.”
Steve sucked cautiously on the straw. The milkshake had the slightly chalky texture that Steve associated with protein powder, but as soon as his stomach registered how much cream and sugar the shake had, it demanded more. He felt a lot more awake after his first few sips.
His chest and left shoulder ached, but in a more remote way than he would expect for how badly he’d been injured. “Did you give me more morphine?”
“Not morphine, but a painkiller, yeah. It’s in the saline drip. Which is another reason you’re going to leave it alone,” James added pointedly.
Steve thought about that while he finished the milkshake. It had taken Bruce weeks of testing to create a painkiller that worked for Steve’s body; James had already had an effective painkiller on hand. The very first time they’d met, James had hit Steve with a tranquilizer dart that had actually been strong enough to knock him out. And James had known enough about how much energy accelerated healing burned to hand Steve a calorie bomb as soon as he woke up.
“You’re enhanced.” Steve struggled to sit up, hissing at the flare of pain from his left collarbone. The blanket pooled at his waist; his uniform top had disappeared at some point, and his chest had acquired an impressively large swathe of bandages. “Like me.”
James busied himself with shoving pillows behind Steve to support his torso. He avoided meeting Steve’s eyes. “Not quite like you.”
“Close enough.” James ran a hand over his hair, which he had tucked up into a neat bun at the nape of his neck. “It’s not common knowledge. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Okay?” James repeated disbelievingly.
“You don’t want me to tell anyone, so okay, I won’t tell anyone.” Steve smiled at James’ flabbergasted look. It was cute. A lot of things about James were cute.
James reached out and smoothed Steve’s hair away from his eyes, making Steve’s breath catch. “How are you even real?”
Before Steve had a chance to reply, the door frame splintered inward. Natasha appeared in the doorway like an avenging god, a pistol in each hand, both aimed squarely at James’ chest. James had pulled a huge gun from out of thin air and was standing by the bed drawing a bead on Natasha’s forehead.
“No shooting,” Steve ordered as authoritatively as he could while sitting in bed shirtless. They both ignored him.
“No shooting of any kind. I mean it.” Steve swung his legs to the side, preparing to stand.
“Don’t you dare, Steve,” Natasha snapped, overlapping with James’ growled, “You stay in that fucking bed, Rogers.”
“Put the guns down and I will,” Steve retorted. “Look, Nat, I’m fine.”
She didn’t even spare him a glance, keeping all her attention on James. “We found your uniform top halfway down a storm drain with three bullet holes punched through it. You’re not fine.”
“I didn’t shoot him.” James lowered his gun very slowly, offering it grip-first to Steve. Steve immediately removed the clip and ejected the chambered round. James laced his hands together behind his head.
Then, and only then, did Natasha actually look at Steve. Her eyes darted across his chest. Steve knew she was mapping the holes in his uniform against his bandages, trying to estimate the extent of his injuries.
“I’m fine,” Steve repeated. “I got myself captured, his boss shot me, and he got me out and patched me up. The worst of the damage is already healed.”
“We thought you might be dead.” Natasha said it like she was commenting on the weather; she wouldn’t show any weakness in front of James. Steve resolved to get her alone as soon as possible, so she could smack him upside the head, call him a reckless idiot, and ruffle his hair like she usually did after his close calls.
“Glad to hear it.” Senior Agent Coulson stepped delicately around Natasha, his polished wingtips out of place against the grimy floor, and looked around the small room with mild interest. “The hiring committee we’d have to form to replace you would be frankly alarming.”
“Have I mentioned that I’m fine?” Steve asked rhetorically, but nobody was listening. Coulson and James were sizing each other up like alley cats, all ostentatious unconcern. Steve took the opportunity to remove the IV drip from his hand and pinch the tiny wound closed.
“Agent Coulson.” James slowly dropped his hands to his sides. Nobody shot him, which Steve was taking as a sign of progress.
“Sergeant Barnes,” Coulson replied.
Sergeant Barnes? James didn’t correct him, just winced slightly before he smoothed his face back to blankness. Because Coulson knew his name, or because of the title?
Coulson waited politely for James to speak first, but continued after James let the silence hang. “I heard Steve had been making new friends. I did a little research, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting for getting to know someone.”
“I won’t work for SHIELD,” James said abruptly. There was a beat long enough for everyone to get very tense--Natasha’s balance shifted, and Coulson’s body went dangerously relaxed inside his nondescript suit--and then James pointed at Steve. “I’ll work with him. Exclusively, no outside contracts, no conflicting loyalties. I’ll match my fee to whatever you’d pay a SHIELD field agent for the same work. But I stay independent. If there’s a job I don’t like, I don’t take it. Are we clear?”
Coulson tucked his hands into his pockets and offered his most benign smile. “Your terms are acceptable, Sergeant Barnes. I’ll file the paperwork.”
“Great.” James flashed him a wide, sarcastic smile. “Now get out of my house.”
Steve hauled himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against the burning stretch in his shoulder and chest as his left arm swung down. “I thought this was an apartment.”
“Get out of my apartment,” James amended. He still hadn’t blinked or taken his eyes off Coulson, but he reached out unerringly to steady Steve when he wobbled. “Not you, Rogers. What did I tell you about getting up? I wasn’t kidding about tying you to that bed.”
Coulson’s eyebrows crept upwards, and Steve discovered that his body had already regenerated enough blood for him to blush. The serum was both a blessing and a curse.
“Agent Rogers, would you rather stay here, or hitch a ride back with us? The rest of your team is waiting at HQ.” Coulson paused meaningfully. “Somewhat anxiously.”
Steve was tempted to stay, but his team had just found his uniform riddled with bullet holes and soaked with his own blood--if he didn’t let them verify for themselves that he was okay, someone would sedate him and drag him back to SHIELD medical. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Give me a minute,” he said instead. Natasha shot him a warning look and he did his best to look innocent. “I’ll be right down.”
“Five minutes,” Natasha said. She didn’t quite turn around as she followed Coulson out of the room, not willing to show James her back. Steve held in a sigh. They were going to have to work on that.
Later. There would be plenty of time to figure out how the Winter Soldier would fit into his idiosyncratic team later. For now, he had James standing in front of him, looking a little uncertain now that they were alone.
“Is that okay?” he asked. “Me working with you?”
“It’s a lot more than okay,” Steve said honestly. “But is it really what you want to do? SHIELD still has you under a do-not-engage order. If you just want Coulson to leave you alone, you can tell him to fuck off.”
James relaxed, the corners of his mouth turning up. “As entertaining as that would be, I think I’ll stick around. Someone’s gotta watch your back.” He frowned at the bandages covering Steve’s chest, and Steve fought the urge to cross his arms.
“It’s not like I make a habit of getting shot.”
James did not look reassured. “Steve. I’ve studied your past missions, remember?”
There wasn’t much Steve could say to defend himself on that point. Time to go on the offensive.
“So. Barnes.” Steve stepped forward a little. “Not as catchy as Bond, but at least the initials match.”
James sighed and held his right hand out in the small space between them. “James Buchanan Barnes.”
Steve took James’ hand instead of shaking it, curling his fingers around James’ knuckles and holding on. “Steven Grant Rogers. But everyone calls me Steve.”
“Most people who have heard of me call me the Winter Soldier.” James stepped forward, resting his left hand on Steve’s right shoulder. The metal was cool and smooth against Steve’s bare skin. “My very few friends call me James.”
James leaned in, his mouth only centimeters away from Steve’s ear. Out of range of mics and lip-readers, Steve thought fuzzily, most of his brainpower focused on the feather-soft glide of James’ hair across his cheek. “But when we’re alone,” he breathed, “you can call me Bucky.”
Steve tucked his head and mouthed Bucky against the side of James’ neck, not voicing anything, just feeling the shape of the name on his lips. James--Bucky--squirmed and tightened his grip on Steve’s hand.
“Are you ticklish?” Steve asked, delighted.
“No. Can I kiss you?”
Steve knew a distraction gambit when he heard one, but in this case he was entirely willing to fall for it. “Yes, please.”
The first brushes of Bucky’s mouth against his were just soft grazes, an exchange of hellos. Steve let his left arm hang at his side and slid his right hand up Bucky’s arm, moving his palm to the muscled plane of his shoulder. They drifted closer, creating a pocket of warmth where their bodies weren’t quite touching, until Bucky moved his hand to the back of Steve’s head and deepened the kiss.
It was like a dam breaking. Steve surged forward, months of longing and frustration driving him to get closer. He wrapped his arm around Bucky’s back and fisted his hand in Bucky’s shirt like he would disappear again if Steve didn’t hang onto him. Bucky groaned and shifted his stance, sliding a thigh between Steve’s legs, and Steve reached up to grab Bucky with his free hand--
Steve yelped as pain flared outward from his shoulder. They both froze, panting into the gap between their mouths, and then Bucky snorted with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Steve asked indignantly, but that just made Bucky laugh harder, until Steve couldn’t help cracking up too, trying and failing not to jar his collarbone. “You’re a jerk.”
“You little punk,” Bucky wheezed. “Can’t even kiss without hurting yourself, Jesus Christ. What am I gonna do with you?”
Steve elbowed Bucky in the ribs so weakly Bucky didn’t even bother to dodge it. “I can take care of myself.”
“Maybe you don’t have to,” Bucky said, and kissed Steve again before he could argue, light and careful this time. “Are you free this Friday afternoon?”
“Yeah,” Steve lied. He wasn’t doing anything he couldn’t reschedule. “Why?”
“Meet me in Chicago?”
“What’s happening in Chicago?”
Bucky grinned at him, sly and a little sweet. “The Dodgers are playing.”
Alexander Pierce poured himself a glass of water. Renata had left a pitcher in the fridge just how he liked it, plain tap water with a few whole lemon wedges floating on top. The water was clear, untainted by pulp, but the sharp tartness of the lemon had permeated the whole pitcher.
“A pity,” he said at last. The young agent standing at a reflexive parade rest in his kitchen was doing well--he wasn’t shaking, and his expression was calm. The only sign of his fear was the sweat-darkened hair at his temples. “It would have been nice to tie up loose ends. But the Asset won’t be a concern once Project Insight launches.” He set the water glass on the counter and looked at the agent. “Thirsty?”
“No, sir,” Agent Ward said. His voice was steady. Good.
“We’ll just have to accelerate the timetable.” The water was cold enough to collect condensation in the warm room. When Pierce picked up the glass, it left a halo of fog behind on the granite countertop. Even as Pierce watched, the halo evaporated as if it had never been there at all.
“The world is at a tipping point between order and chaos.” Pierce gave Agent Ward a genial smile. Sweat beaded along the collar of the agent’s shirt, staining the fabric just below his throat. “And in a few months’ time, we’re going to give it a push.”