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Chapter Text

If someone had bothered to ask Peggy Carter, all of this could've been avoided. Or at least some of it.

Probably.

Point was, they hadn't, so there was no use losing oneself in probabilities and fractions. Instead, faced with a recently defrosted Captain America—worse, a recently defrosted Steve Rogers, fresh off the Western front, who had thought and accepted that he was going to die but hadn't, and had paid for it by losing everything and everyone he'd ever known—faced with that disaster of a situation, they'd concluded that the best way to deal with it was to isolate him even more. To leave him in a shack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do and no company aside from his own thoughts. Somehow, they'd decided that this was what would best help restore his undoubtedly disturbed psyche.

As stated above, if someone had bothered to ask Peggy Carter, she would've—

Well, first she would've stared, because despite an entire lifetime of dealing with idiots even she would've had a hard time believing that such heights of stupidity could be achieved. Then she would've shared that thought, in words devoid of all ambiguity yet rife with swears that would've made the most seasoned of sailors pale.

But, once again, no one asked. They'd already relegated her to the category of old, useless coots, apparently.

So when what happened inevitably happened, it only served them well.

 

*

 

The worst thing was that they didn't see it coming—when really they could have, and therefore should have. Nick had Rogers monitored. Reports on his daily activities were regularly compiled and sent to him, based on the observations made by the numerous cameras they'd set up around the property and the agents placed as distant yet friendly neighbors. He trusted their accuracy: all information went through Phil, who might've been a tad too eager to take up that mission.

For the first week or so there had been nothing, no change. Then came a request, transmitted via the psychologist who visited Cap every other day, for books. More specifically, books on the history of the 20th century.

Good, Nick had thought, pleasantly surprised. They'd been toying with the idea of sending someone in, some sort of tutor to teach Rogers about life in the 21st century, about all that had happened in the 64 years he'd slept through. It wasn't yet a solid plan: they still had to decide which historian they'd entrust with the task, were still working on the hiring process and the confidentiality agreements that the person would have to sign, were still pondering over what exactly Cap would be told, how much of it, in what way. Plus, the psychologist urged them to exert caution so as to not overwhelm the man: one further reason for the delay. Yet here Rogers was, taking initiative, already showing a wish to try and catch up. This could only be construed as a good sign. What's more, it meant that there was no need for a third party to get involved, while S.H.I.E.L.D. would remain able to filter all content made available to him: a guarantee of both secrecy and control. Nick couldn't have asked for more.

There was, however, a small snag.

Cap read quickly. Very quickly. Nick wasn't surprised: S.H.I.E.L.D. had inherited all the data that had been gathered on the serum and its effects by the SSR, all the test results on Rogers' physical and mental abilities before and after the procedure. He'd had reports compiled on that too, had read all about Cap's eidetic memory, about his ability to process and remember vast quantities of information, about his deductive and analytical skills, about his enhanced gift for mathematics and physics, for languages, for strategy, about the field experience that had taught him how to mobilize all that talent at will. Nick tried not to be hasty, but even he couldn't help already reflecting on what exactly having an operative with such assets could mean for S.H.I.E.L.D., on all the possibilities it'd open.

On the other side of the coin though, that snag: Cap read quickly. Quicker than S.H.I.E.L.D. could provide books with content that had been double-checked and green-lighted. The dozen works they'd delivered when Rogers had first asked hadn't kept him busy for more than half a week. And he kept asking for more.

They had to adapt. They let Cap make specific requests, using titles he'd picked from the bibliographies of the books he'd read. They shortened the authorization procedure, made do with checking each book's recensions and briefly leafing through it to determine the gist of it—although they had to give up on the latter too when Rogers started asking for books in French, in German, even a couple in Russian. For those, they chose to pretend they hadn't been able to find it on such short notice.

The entire thing took time, and money, and resources that could be better used elsewhere—and still there was an irreducible lag between the time of the request and the moment Cap could hold a book between his hands, get the information he wished for. In the end, they gave in: they sent an agent to introduce him to the internet, to explain Wikipedia to him, to show him how to find data banks and electronic resources, e-books and online journals in collections with both public and restricted access. It was an implicit compromise: Rogers was granted more apparent liberty, but it made the contents he viewed even easier to trace. It was also a test, to see how he fared with modern technology.

The answer was: very well.

Too well, actually—but Nick didn't realize that until it was too late.

 

*

 

In Fury's defense, the more glaring warning signs didn't reach him. They were too subtle for anyone who didn't actually know Steve Rogers, who didn't have his trust, to properly decipher.

A simple example: the moment Steve found out about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was in the early days of his readings, the book maybe the second one he'd picked up, a general history of the Second World War. Three quarters of the way in, the agents monitoring the video feed to the cabin's main room reported Cap obviously pausing: the regular rhythm of the page turning every ten seconds or so, which made every single person reading about it secretly envious, stopped. On the screen Cap visibly tensed. His shoulders rose with a breath that caught, or was held in. Unfortunately, the angle of the camera did not allow for the agents to see his face, his expression. They had to focus on his hands instead: on how he flipped through the book, back a couple pages, forward a dozen more. How he paused again, breathed out. How he looked up, and reached for the pile on his right to grab another volume—a biography of Harry S. Truman, they were later able to determine—through which he started flipping at once, hastily, purposefully: looking for something. Obviously he found it: he paused again, breathed in again, tensed further. Then he snapped the book shut, stood up, and left the room—left the cabin altogether, going on an impromptu walk.

The monitoring agents hesitated, then sent someone to check on him: one of theirs, posing as a harmless woman in her fifties frequently walking her dog and always happy to stop for a quick chat whenever she bumped into the cabin's latest tenant. Mostly she was there to help evaluate how well Captain Rogers did while undercover, whether he was able to believably stick to the identity S.H.I.E.L.D. had presented him with. He was pretty good at it, it turned out, although the situation had extremely low stakes and most of Cap's talent seemed to reside in the scarcity of his words. They hadn't yet managed to determine whether that reserve was a deliberate choice on his part, the strategist choosing a taciturn, possibly shy persona to better observe without giving much away, or wether it stemmed from his true nature.

History, it turned out, hadn't kept any reliable record of the man's actual character.

The encounter hadn't yielded much. During their brief interaction, Agent Monroe wrote, Captain Rogers had behaved much as he always did, was as polite and distant as he always was. His smile, she admitted, had maybe been a bit more forced, his eyes quicker to look away from hers. But he hadn't cut the conversation short, and had crouched to pet the dog with as much unexpected warmth as usual.

That was all. After that, Cap returned to the cabin, where he sat back down and picked the book back up. They weren't able to determine exact part of it had upset him so. Was it the mention of an operation he'd been part of? A paragraph that had brought him back to the past, the front? A few lines trying to evaluate the amount of casualties, a couple of pages on the extermination camps, one sentence too many about the events on the Eastern front? A castaway mention of Peggy Carter, or maybe some words on Arnim Zola's collaboration? The possibilities were endless, and they had no way to ask.

 

*

 

Cap kept reading. By the time the psychologist deemed him as good and ready as he could be given the circumstances, he was probably better versed in the world's recent history, in the ins and outs of American home and foreign policy, than most US citizens were. He'd read about the Cold War from its beginning to the fall of the USSR, about the Space Race and the Vietnam War. He'd read about the Cultural Revolution in China, about the Marshall Plan, about the birth of NATO. He'd read about the development of the European Union and about the decolonization process. He'd read about the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, about 1968 and the Watergate scandal, about the Iran hostage crisis and the Gulf Wars—he'd focused a lot on those, and on Afghanistan, enough for the agents monitoring him to take note of it. He'd also shown a particular interest for medical history: the development and spread of new vaccines and antibiotics, the advances in medical imagery, in hygiene, in surgery and cancer treatment, the introduction of contraception and ART, the emergence of new viruses—especially AIDS.

It made sense, Nick thought. They didn't know much about Rogers' life before World War II, but they definitely had a complete list of the numerous ailments he'd suffered from before the serum. Of course he'd be interested in how medicine had evolved since then, in the way today's world could've helped him—or people like him—have a proper life, in ways the early 20th century couldn't.

However, he was soon to find out that it was a bit more complicated than that.

 

*

 

They were in D.C., holding a first meeting after Rogers had been brought back from the cabin. Nothing too elaborate, just a short presentation to let him know what would come next: what training he'd be going through and on what timeline, what unit he could be expected to join and what type of mission they were planning to send him on, plus some technical matters, such as that of his identity in the 20th century—he would not be hired as Steven G. Rogers, born July 4th, 1918—of the amenities they'd provide, of his salary.

The entire thing went smoothly until Rogers said, "Actually, I'm not joining S.H.I.E.L.D."

Nick had too much experience, self-control, and dignity to blurt out anything like Wait, what? or Come again? He didn't blink. He didn't gasp. He just stared at Rogers. Rogers stared right back.

Silence settled.

After a while, a couple of the agents present shifted awkwardly in their seats. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick could see Hill watching him. Rogers was still returning his gaze, showing no sign that he was unnerved, or anywhere near backing down.

"You're not joining S.H.I.E.L.D.," Nick finally repeated, flatly.

Rogers shrugged, entirely unbothered by a tone that would've made anyone else, even the most experimented of agents, quail internally. "War's over—war's been over, for a long time. I shouldn't have to ask to be demobilized."

"Some would argue," Nick said slowly, "that it isn't."

Rogers smiled thinly. "From where I'm standing, it is."

Nick narrowed his eyes. "You know about 9/11."

"I do," Rogers said. "I also know that we're still much more of a threat to the people over there than they are to us."

"The aim is to protect the people 'over there' from what threatens both them and us," Nick pointed out.

"I'm not convinced that military intervention is the best way to go about that," Rogers retorted.

"It is if we want to stabilize the region."

Rogers' smile never faltered. "Which we played a large part in destabilizing in the first place."

Nick breathed out slowly. He could've kept going—only he suddenly knew, with stark clarity, that Rogers would have an answer for any and all of his arguments. That he'd formed an opinion on US foreign policy, on the military, on all matters of national security—an opinion from which he wouldn't budge. Nick didn't know how he knew. Or maybe he did: there was something in Cap's expression, at the bottom of his eyes. Something like rage.

"So you're not joining."

"I'm not," Rogers said.

Nick pressed his lips together. "Fine."

 

*

 

The thing was, they couldn't deny Rogers his discharge. They couldn't refuse him the right, or the means to get back into the world.

They could, however, withhold everything else.

They provided him with an identity, that much at least they had to concede. But no lodgings, no lead for a job, no money—not even Captain America's backpay. Officially, the man was still dead in the Arctic, drowned or crushed or frozen, owed nothing but memorial stones and commemorations.

"Isn't that a bit harsh?" Hill asked at some point—a question that she'd bit back several times, but not for good. Nick didn't know whether he regarded her more or less for it.

"It is," he said. He was counting on it: let Rogers try and strike out on his own in this new world with nothing but an ID and the clothes on his back. Let him try and make it without properly knowing the codes, the ways, the people. Let him maybe, just maybe, realize that he couldn't—let him return to S.H.I.E.L.D. then, with his tail between his legs.

Unfortunately for Nick, Steve Rogers more than knew how to get by with nothing and no one. What's more, he knew how to do it even when deprived of things he now had in spades: good health, strength, and enough experience as an actor to appear reliable, trustworthy, likable—the type of person one would hire on the spot without asking any questions.

Within a week he'd found a job hauling crates off the books, paid in cash at the end of every day.

Within a month, he'd not only made his way to New York, but also gathered enough money to move into a room in the Bronx, in a flat he shared with five other people, two dogs, an indeterminate amount of cats, and a turtle.

Within two months, he'd moved up to a more stable job, the kind that required a fixed address—complete with a contract and a possible end of year bonus, albeit without health coverage.

"I see you're doing pretty well for yourself," Nick commented.

He was a bit disappointed when Rogers didn't startle, scarcely spared him an irritated glance before returning to what he'd been doing, heaving boxes and piling them up on a pallet. "You're not supposed to be back here," was all he said.

Nick wasn't sure the boxes were meant to be carried by hand; Rogers didn't seem to care. Neither did his colleagues: he was alone in the storage room, no colleagues sticking around in case of an accident.

"I'm just curious," Nick said after a couple minutes of silence. Rogers didn't prompt him with an About what?, nor even with a sarcastic Oh yeah?, but he continued all the same, "Is that it, then? Captain America, the greatest soldier in US history, the one and only genetically enhanced strategist in the whole world…sharing a cardboard box apartment with four women, a kid, and a whole menagerie, spending his days carting boxes of…" He looked closer at the last package Rogers had put down and almost blinked. "…diapers around for minimal wage?"

Rogers shrugged. "It's an honest job." He pumped the handle of the jack to lift the now fully loaded pallet, then drew it towards himself to turn, ready to bring it out of storage and into the aisles. He paused. "Also," he said. "Jay is non-binary. If you insist on having fucking reports written on my personal life, you might as well make sure they're actually accurate."

And he left, without a backwards glance, leaving Nick wrong-footed.

It wasn't a feeling Nick was familiar with.

He didn't like it.

 

*

 

That wasn't, however, it.

Nick couldn't care less about Rogers' delicate sensibilities when it came to his private life: S.H.I.E.L.D. could let Captain America run around unchecked about as much as they could allow Bruce Banner to roam free, which is to say not at all. So when Rogers enrolled in evening classes a couple months later, he was informed almost at once.

Purpose of the class: EMT-basic training program, the report stated—and kept stating, even as Nick glared at it.

He was starting to get fed up with being caught off-guard.

As a small upside, though, he knew exactly where to find Rogers when the situation made it necessary. The course took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m. Nick waited in the shadows as the building emptied, as Rogers emerged and waved at a couple of his classmates, as he started walking in the direction of home, head bent as he dug through his pockets for—Nick refrained, again, from blinking—a cigarette pack.

"Those are actually bad for you," he said once Rogers had taken one out and lit it, "in case you didn't know."

Rogers, again, didn't startle. Worse, he rolled his eyes. "I'm aware," he said. "What do you want now?"

His tone was as biting as his gaze and Nick…would actually have given a lot for this interview to be nothing but a pesky reminder, a nagging little mind game to prevent Rogers from throwing S.H.I.E.L.D. entirely out of his mind.

Unfortunately, it wasn't.

 

*

 

"That enough of a threat for you?" he asked later, on the helicarrier, after Loki had been captured then had escaped again and they'd finally understood the full extent of his plan.

Rogers didn't reply—which might've been a victory, but certainly didn't feel like one.

 

*

 

It felt even less like one later on.

When the dust of the Chitauri attack settled, it was only to give way to such an uproar that a press conference became unavoidable. All the Avengers agreed to be present to answer for what had happened, even Banner—even Thor, who'd returned from Asgard to check on Earth and tell them how Loki had been imprisoned. As a consequence, a lot of questions were addressed at him: about as many as the journalists asked Stark, while they overlooked Natasha and Barton entirely.

Rogers, however, was the one to attract most of the attention. Everyone noticed. Natasha, Barton and Banner were more than fine with it, happy to fade into the background. Thor obviously didn't mind. Stark, however, ticked more and more visibly each time a journalist stood up and started by saying, "My question is for Captain America."

Rogers played along willingly enough—and a lot more graciously than Nick would've expected. He even followed some of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s instructions: when they asked when he'd been found, he replied gamely, Two months ago, sticking to the timeline they'd presented him with.

The questions kept coming. What had he been doing since he'd been retrieved? Finding his footing in the new century. What was he going to do now, was he going to go back to the army, was he going to get deployed? No, he'd actually already been discharged. What was the plan, then? Were the Avengers the new Howling Commandos, an elite squad linked to an intelligence agency? Was he their leader? Nick tensed as much as Stark did at that one, albeit for different reasons. Well, Rogers replied, he couldn't presume to know whether the Avengers were meant to be a permanent structure, or to what or whom they might or should be affiliated. Whatever they ended up being, he wouldn't be a part of it. What did he mean? He just wouldn't be returning to active duty. He was studying to try and get certified as an EMT, in the hopes of eventually becoming a paramedic. To work at a hospital? That, or with a humanitarian NGO. Anywhere he could go to best help and save people. But, the next journalist floundered, wasn't active duty a better way to achieve that? Rogers shook his head. His Ma had been a nurse. What's more, he knew how many soldiers and civilians nurses and army doctors had saved during the war, he'd seen how many people emergency responders had helped during and after the Chitauri attack: they were the real heroes. But surely, the journalist insisted, he couldn't downplay the role he and his teammates had played, he couldn't deny that the most important thing to do had been to stop the aliens? And if an event of the same magnitude occurred, and his country called for him like it had this time, then he'd be there, Rogers said, and smiled. But they'd forgive him for hoping that it wouldn't, or at least not for a long, long time—and for focusing on rebuilding instead.

And there went S.H.I.E.L.D.'s hopes that the public might sway him.

"Some forewarning would've been nice," Nick told him afterwards.

"You were forewarned," Rogers said, "months ago." He paused and…well, there was no other word for it: he smirked. "I'll take that backpay now, though."

 

*

 

So Rogers got his backpay—and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it. He didn't quit his shitty job. He didn't move into a better neighborhood, or at least into a place with a functional bathroom he didn't have to share with five other people. Apparently, he enjoyed his current living situation—and his being Captain America didn't change a thing as to how his roommates treated him.

Nick was tempted to force the matter by other means, except that the morning he decided to issue the order he arrived to find Natasha waiting for him in his office.

"Don't leak his address to the press," she said, without bothering to explain who she was talking about.

Nick narrowed his eyes at her. She returned his gaze coolly, undaunted.

Interesting.

See, he knew how battlefields worked, how such an intense experience could bind together the people thrown into it. But he hadn't expected Natasha to be subjected to it, not that strongly, not with her past, not towards Captain America.

An alien invasion wasn't quite your run-of-the-mill kind of fight, though, and Rogers had assumed leadership flawlessly on that one. It made sense for all the members of their impromptu team to feel a special connection to him in the wake of that, something like loyalty—even Natasha. Even Stark.

Nick had assumed that it'd fade, given that Rogers had publicly decided to beat it almost at once. Apparently not.

Worse, a couple of weeks later, he found out that Natasha had taken the initiative to relieve of their duty all the agents assigned to the surveillance of Rogers' flat and everyday life, and to replace their regular reports with her own. Given that she still went on missions of varying lengths, those came in sporadically at best. As such they would already have painted an extremely incomplete picture, but on top of that they were filled with the most inane information possible. Nick thus learned far more than he would've wanted about the culinary habits of Dora the Turtle, about all the types of plumbing issues a single apartment could accumulate (Rogers seriously should've moved), and about Jay's disaster of a love life. The latter accounts were accompanied by the only parts of the reports that were anywhere near professional: thorough presentations of the less-than-savory individuals who had dared jilt poor Jay (they seemed to have terrible taste in people as a whole) and often proved to be petty criminals to boot, complete with heaps of undeniable evidence and helpful suggestions as to how to deal with them. Nick forwarded the elements about drug trafficking and possible sequestration to the relevant authorities but had to jot down, Being mean to cats is not a criminal offense, Romanov, under the info on third one.
There was no sign that Natasha entered his office that night, but the following morning, he found an addendum in her writing stating, It should be.

It was a good thing that those reports came directly to him. He couldn't begin to imagine how any agent reading through them would've reacted. With a nervous breakdown, probably. They'd panic over how to interpret them, because they'd find themselves unable to decipher what they'd imagine had to be code—or, worse, because they would understand them correctly and so have to admit to themselves that Natasha Romanov, the oh-so-feared Black Widow, was…taking the piss out of her own boss, as the Brits would put it.

The reports were code, though, in a way. The more useless the data, the clearer the message went through: nothing to report, nothing relevant or of interest to you, SNAFO—Situation Normal And Fuck Off.

Who would've thought the Widow would be the protective kind of friend?

 

*

 

Nick still kept tabs on Rogers—couldn't not—although from a distance. He knew when the man easily obtained both his driving license and his certification, then started working as an EMT for the next few months, gaining the experience required for admission into paramedic training. From then on Nick actually stopped needing agents in order to get regular updates: accounts sprouted all over the internet from Rogers' first shift onwards. Local newspapers developed the quirk of always mentioning whether Captain America had been among the medics arriving on the scene after a fire or a car crash. There were posts on Facebook, on blogs, a whole thread on reddit, a #CapOnCall hashtag on twitter, all of it full of corny anecdotes. They told of a kid's birthday party that had almost been ruined by a broken arm, until Captain America—the boy's favorite superhero!—had shown up to drive him to the hospital. Of a young woman's fright when her grandmother had collapsed, only for Captain America to come in, and pause, and say, "… Janice?" because it turned out Grandma had been a USO girl—who this time had only fainted due to hypoglycemia. Of a veteran who'd been on his last leg, on the brink of ending it all, only for Captain America to jump off the ambulance and check him over and talk to him—and now the man had been referred to the VA and things were already looking up. And so on.

It got even worse once he was admitted at BMCC: he flew through both classes and rotation hours with rousing success, leaving classmates, professors, doctors, and patients entirely dazzled in his wake. Nick found that a bit…grating.

He was relieved when Rogers finally graduated—until he saw where he sent his applications.

 

*

 

Dr. Unni Krishnan Karunakara, international president of Doctors Without Borders as of June 2010, had just sat at his desk with a cup of coffee in one hand, ready to start the day. As usual, a signature book was already waiting for him, full of documents deemed important enough to warrant his personal review followed by his actual, physical signature rather than the electronic one.

However, when he flipped it open, he was met with a sheet of paper that was clearly not meant for signature.

"Sahana," he called. When his assistant appeared at the door to his office, he pointed down and asked, "What is this?"

"It's an application for hire, sir," she replied, as chill and to the point as always.

"I can see that," Dr. Karunakara said. "What is it doing on my desk?" Because the beauty of delegation meant that he most certainly was not the one who had to deal with that type of things.

"I believe no one in HR was ready to assume responsibility for the decision to hire the candidate or not, and thus preferred to refer to you."

Dr. Karunakara frowned, confused.

"I'd recommend you look at the applicant's personal information, sir," Sahana suggested helpfully.

Dr. Karunakara looked.

"Oh."

"Yeah," Sahana said. "Oh."

 

*

 

Months after S.H.I.E.L.D. had found out that Rogers had been hired by Doctors Without Borders, the NGO still had to issue an official statement about it.

Nick wondered what they were waiting for. When he'd heard the news, he'd expected the organization to boast about having snatched Captain America the way BMCC had. He'd expected interviews and donation drives with Rogers' name plastered all over them, countless pictures of Captain America vaccinating (preferably cute) kids in Yemen, counseling (preferably healthy looking) young mothers in Nigeria, distributing preventive treatments against malaria in Mali or food supplies in South Sudan…

Instead, nothing. Radio silence. As if Rogers' application had been rejected in the end—only Nick knew it hadn't been.

It made no sense. Unless—

Unless they'd decided to send him on a mission that required discretion, if not secrecy, in order to succeed.

Nick thought about that as he sat in yet another meeting where Phil reported on the whole lot of nothing they had on Rogers' current whereabouts. He tried to put himself in the shoes of the NGO's directors. Where would he assign a man who had some training in emergency medicine, but also, more importantly, a whole lot of experience in military interventions, who knew how to coordinate teams of various sizes and how to lead undercover missions in unstable, if not hostile territory? A man who was at ease in dangerous situations, who could process new information like no other and thus deal with the most unexpected events, who had the unparalleled ability to pick up any language within days? Where would all those qualifications be best put to use?

Nick thought about that, and breathed out slowly, and said, "Someone tell me that we have definite evidence that Doctors Without Borders did not, actually, send Captain America to spearhead their entirely unsanctioned and therefore illegal intervention in Syria."

The silence that followed was deafening.

 

Chapter Text

The mission was an unusual one.

True, the gist of it wasn't: he was given a target, and told that the target had to be eliminated. But when it came to all the rest…

It would be a middle-term mission, with the potential of extending into long-term. The reason for that was simple: his handlers didn't know exactly where the target was. They had some idea of the area where the man could be found, and knew that he was mobile. But the routes he'd take had yet to be determined—and the soldier was the one who would have to gather that information.

That wasn't how things usually went, even though he had no actual memory to support that claim (why didn't he have any memory to support that claim?). All he knew was that he'd expected to be given a set of coordinates along with a time span and a weapon (why had he expected to be given a time span and a weapon?). Instead, he would have to pinpoint the location of the target himself; what's more, he would have to decide what moment would be the best to strike, what weapon would be the best to use.

That wasn't all. The zone they were sending him to, they said, was unstable. He wouldn't be accompanied by a support team this time: it'd be too dangerous, too visible. He'd still have handlers, would still have to report to them regularly, but most of the time he'd be on his own. The soldier wasn't used to being given such leeway (why wasn't he used to being given such leeway?).

Since he would have to make it alone, they told him about the region in which he was being sent: about its geography and language, about the conflict raging through it, about the various factions involved and how to identify them. All of it put together amounted to a lot more than what he normally knew (why wasn't it normal for him to know things?).

They didn't tell him which faction his target belonged to, though. Actually, they didn't give him anything on him, apart from his name and a picture—and that, at least, was familiar enough (why was it familiar?).

Less familiar were the few instructions on how to carry out the hit. They told him to make it public—no throats cut during the night, no shots fired in the middle of the desert. They told him that collateral damage wasn't a problem, in a way that sounded like collateral damage was expected, assumed, wished for. They told him to leave traces behind, contradicting evidence, so that the death would be pinned on any of the factions involved in the civil war: Assad's regime, the rebel forces with the FSA, the rising Islamist groups, even Kurdish activists. And that, more than anything else, was different from the orders the soldier usually got—leave no witnesses, leave no traces behind. Of that he was sure, if not of anything else (why wasn't he sure of anything else?).

The mission was an unusual one, but he would comply all the same.

 

*

 

Limited as the information given to the soldier had been, he'd understood that the situation in which they were dispatching him was a mess. Yet even if he hadn't, one day in the field would've been enough to drive the point home: a whole country, tearing itself apart.

As a consequence, he expected the first part of his mission—find the target—to be the hardest. So he was very much surprised when it…wasn't.

Some would've called stumbling upon him so quickly a stroke of luck—only the soldier didn't rely on luck. Nor did he stumble. Some would then have surmised that the target had made a mistake, something to give his presence away like an amateur—only it wasn't that either. On the contrary, even though he couldn't recall why (why couldn't he recall anything?), the soldier felt like it'd been a while since he'd been confronted by someone who was that good.

The target was part of what appeared to be a mobile medical team. He helped said team by taking care of the more basic forms of treatment, but his main role seemed to lie in logistics: planning their route and the length of their stay at any given location, getting in touch with the locals, maintaining contact with the larger, sedentary team that had set up a makeshift hospital in Atmeh near the Turkish border, organizing supply deliveries and, when possible, patient transportation. So yes, he was almost constantly on the move. He was also excellent at covering his team's tracks, at keeping their pattern of activity and movement irregular, at choosing the paths one would least expect while carefully avoiding active fight zones. He knew how to work with the local population—the soldier heard him speak both Arabic and Kurdish dialects—how to gather information from various sources so as to avoid dangerous spots despite how quickly they shifted, how to come up with the best strategies to safely go where his team needed to be or get what they needed to get. But he also knew how to adapt said strategies to the changes on the ground, how to react whenever they ended up caught in a bombing. He was, to put it simply, a professional at undercover work in hostile territory. Following him from afar so as not to be noticed, anticipating his moves to make up for that necessary distance should've been near impossible—and yet, to the soldier, it wasn't.

It unnerved him. Sure, he could hack into their communication feed, he could try and think like his target based on his observations, try and predict what choice he'd make—he'd been programmed to. But not to that extent. Not to the point where, whenever two or three or more options offered themselves that he could discern, he'd settle on one and think, This is what he's gonna do, and always, always be right.

Some would've called it instinct, a gut feeling—only the soldier didn't rely on instinct, and even less on gut feelings. He wasn't infallible either. He didn't watch a target and just know, like—

Like he knew him.

It nagged at him, which wasn't helped by the context surrounding the target. The soldier didn't know which faction his handlers were supporting in this conflict (why didn't he know which faction his handlers were supporting?), just as he didn't know which faction his target was linked to. If he even was: as he watched him, the soldier saw no evidence of any affiliation, beyond that which bound him to the medical team he was working with. Their main purpose—their only purpose—seemed to be helping the civilian population, to bring them what care and treatment they could now that the medical network in that part of the country had been blown to smithereens. Even if that meant putting their life in danger. And so the soldier found himself wondering—even though that wasn't something he usually did, or something he was supposed to do (why wasn't he supposed to wonder?): why did his handlers want that man killed?

The obvious answer was that he was playing a part in the instability slowly but surely turning the country into a pile of ruins. The soldier's handlers were for order, for peace, that much he knew: they always told him so. The target had to be working against that, sowing unrest, fostering distrust, spreading weapons. Except: the soldier saw no sign of that. Worse, part of him snorted at the very thought, because he knew him and there was just no way—

But even when he thought about it rationally: he knew the signs to watch out for, the pieces of evidence to gather until they uncovered the pretense. He knew of furtive glances, of seamless drops of information, of small deeds executed when one thought that no one was watching—except that the soldier was, this time, his gaze unwavering. Yet for all the lurking around his target did, for all the opportunities he had to briefly veer off course without his colleagues noticing a thing, he did absolutely nothing that wasn't to support their mission. Not that the soldier could see. And so he wondered—even though it wasn't his job to do so. His job was only to execute the mission (why was his job only to execute the mission?), and he knew that, but still: the doubts were enough to stay his hand. To make his finger hesitate instead of settling on the trigger. Like now, as he watched his target through the scope of his rifle. The man was helping bring some patients to a truck, carrying four children at once—one on his back, the other three dangling from his arms like they weighed nothing—making them smile and giggle despite the situation while the parents followed at a more sedate pace. Some were bleeding, other limping, most of them covered in burns. The soldier watched, and knew: now would be the perfect time for him to strike. The place—a small village whose walls were spotted with bullet holes—seemed deserted, but that was only an impression. Those who could might choose to remain hidden, and there'd still be plenty of witnesses. The target was surrounded by civilians, by children: the kind of casualties that had all the chances of causing the uproar the soldier's handlers were aiming for. And the man was standing right here, out in the open, his blond hair uncovered, shining like a beacon: almost begging to be shot.

Yet part of the soldier rebelled at the thought: harming children, harming that man.

He didn't. Instead he remained where he was, lying on top of an outcropping over a mile away, watching through his scope, until everyone had climbed or been loaded inside the truck, until the couple of vehicles that made up the small convoy had started rolling, until they'd all disappeared out of sight, headed back to the camp the medical team had set up. Then he lowered his rifle.

Next time, he thought—for the second time, the fifth time, the tenth time. Next time for sure.

 

*

 

How many occasions do you have to miss, the soldier wondered, how many shots do you have to just not take, for a mission to be considered a failure?

He had no idea. He'd never failed a mission before. Yet time was ticking by, and he still hadn't completed it. His handlers weren't suspicious yet. As far as they knew, he'd managed to locate the target but was still gathering intel on the man's movements, still determining the best time and place to strike. But it was only a matter of time until they noticed that something was amiss. No matter how carefully the soldier skewed the truth in his reports (since when did he skew the truth in his reports?), sooner or later they'd start wondering what was taking so long. And then—

The soldier didn't like to ponder over then.

Which was why, when he noticed some movement a few days later—newcomers closing in on the place where the mobile clinic had settled three days ago, on the outskirts of a small town located much further inland than the team had ventured until then—when he noticed new faces trying to be stealthy, trying to look idle and harmless when they were clearly armed, clearly moving with purpose, clearly hostiles gathering… When he noticed all that, the soldier's reaction was to…freeze (since when did he freeze?). His very first thought was that it was his handlers: that they'd realized that he was malfunctioning and had sent a team to retrieve him and execute the mission in his stead. He wasn't prepared for that, though, he wasn't ready (since when wasn't he always prepared, always ready?)—but then he blinked, and realized the obvious: that the men's clothes, their equipment, their movements, the strategy he could already see right through, had nothing in common with those of the teams he'd worked with in the past. That they bore all the characteristics of the Syrian military even though they wore no insignia, no identifying marks. They had to belong to the part of the army still loyal to the government, or were pretending to be—but that didn't matter. What mattered was that they were targeting the clinic; that they were targeting the soldier's target.

Hell the fuck no, part of him thought. Not on my fucking watch.

He didn't have time to wonder about where those swears had come from (since when did he swear?) and vaulted out of his nest instead. No matter what strange things flitted through his head, this was still his mission, his target: he wasn't going to let some sloppy intruders just stroll in and take over. For they were sloppy indeed, in his eyes. From where he lay, on top of a rare two-story building one street away from the edge of the town, he could see them all too well, creeping through the streets, using the houses and walls to hide their approach. They weren't too numerous, the chain of command within their squad easy to reconstruct, their strategy even easier to anticipate. The trickiest part for the soldier was to map out the order in which he'd take them out. He couldn't make use of his guns, which would attract too much attention, so he would've to get close, use his arm and his knives instead. Still, he had no doubt that he would get them all before they realized what was happening and tried to retaliate.

He was right.

He returned to his hideout afterwards, once he'd hidden the last bodies in a crumbled house, the loose stones providing an obvious explanation for the fatal blow both men had sustained to the head. It was just as he'd left it—but of course it was: he'd been gone for less than an hour. The clinic, set up in a squat square house that he could easily surveil from his vantage point, was equally unchanged.

He, however, wasn't.

The thing was, he could've let these men do what they'd come here to do: attack the clinic, if not to kill everyone inside then at least to ransack it, to pillage its supplies, to take hostages. He could've used it as the perfect distraction to strike, quick and deadly, then disappear. In the confusion and panic no one would've noticed anything until it was too late, until he was long gone. All he would've had left to do was plant some evidence that the group might not actually belong to Assad's troops, and return to his handlers. They would've been satisfied, he knew. They might even have found the coincidence amusing: an armed faction spontaneously targeting the very same place they'd aimed their best weapon at.

Only now they wouldn't be, because instead the soldier had saved his target's life—and his teammates', and the patients' (since when did he save instead of kill?). Another occasion missed, another shot not taken, and still he didn't understand why (since when did he concern himself with why?).

He made himself stop thinking about it (since when did he have to make himself stop thinking?) and resumed surveillance. It was quiet: the day was drawing to an end, the pale colors of the buildings seeping away and letting them melt into the encroaching desert. He could hear hushed echoes of life, rare but there, faint but undisturbed: a door opening, a window closing, a dog barking, voices talking in low murmurs, footsteps fading around a corner. There had been no bombing today. Instead he'd taken out an entire military squad a handful of streets away, yet no one had noticed a thing. He almost wished they had—a feeling that spiked when dusk came, and his target stepped out of the clinic, out of the street where it sat, out of the town limits marked by a low stone wall. He was alone. Unprotected—unless you counted the small box he appeared to be carrying in his hands, which the soldier didn't. Instead, he felt a spark of irritation, of resentment almost. The man was being reckless, leaving the cover of a roof and streets behind, walking out into the open. Again. And still his hair was uncovered.

It was infuriating; imbecilic. The soldier watched that unshielded head, the vulnerable curve of that nape, the fragile skin over those temples… It was like the man wanted to get hurt. The soldier couldn't explain it any other way. What else would make his carelessness understandable? That a man who could weave such fine, varied, efficient strategies would be so oblivious besides made absolutely no sense. He had to be aware of the danger he was in. He had to have felt the predator prowling—felt the men approaching, felt the soldier lurking.

And yet.

He was walking out onto the plain now, his silhouette becoming increasingly difficult to discern in the dying light, even for the soldier. He followed the man with his eyes and through his scope, wondering how much farther the man was planning on going, and whether he should leave his perch to go after him. No matter how good his night vision was, no matter how many stars overtook the sky, the visibility remained poor. Sure, there was safety in it: if the soldier couldn't see his target well enough to confidently shoot, then no one else could either—unless they had specific equipment, which wasn't impossible. The thought made a prickle run down the soldier's spine, made him shift his grip on his rifle. He wished the target hadn't gone out there. He wished the man would turn back.

He didn't, but at least he came to a stop, under a lone, gnarled tree growing defiantly in the sandy earth. There he stood for a while, looking out at the steppe in front of him with its sparse shrubs and grass, at the rocky hills in the distance announcing the desert beyond. Enjoying the quiet, maybe, or mapping out his team's next move.

The soldier could've shot him right there.

He didn't.

Eventually, the man turned around. His gaze skimmed over the town, where some rare lights had already been lit, lingering on the squat house where he and his team had set up their provisory clinic. Then it slid on, running over the tops of the buildings—more slowly this time, as if it was looking for something. It found it, and came to a stop: right on the rooftop where the soldier was lying.

The soldier froze. For a second, through the scope, it was like their very eyes had met—but that wasn't possible. Not at this distance, not in the fading light. The man couldn't see him. Yet he knew that the soldier was here, had noticed his presence without showing it (when had he noticed?), had looked at the town and somehow guessed which spot the soldier had chosen, as if he knew how the soldier thought, as if—

(He knew him.)

The soldier made himself breathe out slowly, made himself not move, even when the man, without looking away, briefly raised the box he'd been holding—like a greeting, like he wanted to make sure the soldier saw it—before he bent down and tucked it under the tree, out of sight. Then he straightened, and turned away, and returned to the clinic.

So much for him not feeling the soldier lurking.

The door closed behind him. The soldier stared at it—and kept staring, even as it remained closed, even as night fell around him and the few lit lamps went out one by one. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed, it seemed, apart from a small animal here and there scratching its way through the streets, the shrub.

In the end, in the deep of the night, the soldier gave in. He put down and took apart his rifle, scrambled off the building, and swiftly made his way to the tree, as silent as the shadows around him. The box was there, fit snugly between two twisted roots. He stared down at it. Looked around, straining his eyes and ears for threats, heard and saw none. He crouched down. Stared some more.

It was probably a trap.

Still, he picked up the box. Held it in his hands for a while. Opened it.

It wasn't a trap—or at least, not one meant to trigger just yet. No one jumped at the soldier from the shadows. No shots were fired at him from afar. There was no explosion when the lid came off and let him see what was underneath: bandages, two small bottles—antibiotics and antiseptic—a couple of energy bars, some MREs, and even a few pieces of fresh fruit, the first figs of the year. A small treasure, given the place, the time, the person it came from: things the medical team could hardly spare.

The soldier stared down at it for a long time. Suddenly, he knew: a mission was a failure the second one decided that one wouldn't take the shot, no matter how many occasions presented themselves.

And decided he had.

 

*

 

(Since when did he make decisions, though?)

 

*

 

The target woke up the second the soldier slid through the window of the room where he and some of his colleagues were sleeping. It was obvious, even though he tried to keep up the pretense, to keep his breathing deep and slow and regular after nothing but the smallest of hitches: you couldn't miss the tension that had run through his shoulders. The soldier found himself—surprisingly, unexpectedly—amused, tempted to roll his eyes with a smile (since when did he roll his eyes, since when did he smile?).

He crouched next to the bed and waited. Eventually, the target understood and rolled onto his back to glance at him.

"You have to leave," the soldier said. His voice sounded strange as it came out, not just rough with disuse, not just distorted and muffled through the mask. He ignored it, and went on: "You are not safe here."

The target's lips pressed together, halfway between a grimace and a wry smile, barely visible in the dark. "I'm aware," he murmured. Obviously he'd noticed the scuffle earlier in the day. "Are you okay?"

It wasn't a thank you for your help, the soldier noticed (since when did he expect thanks?). He repeated, "You have to leave."

His insistence made the target frown. "We can't just leave," he started, sitting up.

"Not them," the soldier said, tilting his head towards the others, still asleep despite their whispers. "You. You have to leave." He swallowed, forced the next words out, "Someone is after you."

"Who?"

The soldier's programming prevented him from saying the name, of course. He remained silent for nearly a minute, struggling, before he managed to say, "If you cut off one head."

He couldn't be sure that the target would know what he meant, and yet at the same time he was—and he was right: the man's demeanor changed at once. "Hydra," he said. "You mean Hydra."

It wasn't quite a question, and was met with silence: the soldiers couldn't confirm nor deny. Sweat was prickling at his upper lip, tension circling his nape, taking hold: he couldn't.

"I thought they were gone," the target continued. "I thought I'd—" He stopped, shook his head. "Who else knows about this?" he asked instead. "Who sent you? Was it S.H.I.E.L.D.? Fury?"

That one the soldier definitely couldn't answer. "You have to leave," he said again, and stood up: he'd delivered his message, he couldn't linger. Not when the man's questions kept twisting at his brain, tugging both halves in opposite directions: the wish to help him against the programming.
The soldier knew all too well what happened if he went too far against the programming.

The man shook his head again. "I can't, I—" He stopped when he realized that the soldier was walking away, called, "Wait!" before wincing and glancing at his colleagues. They didn't budge. "Wait," he repeated, lower, standing up in turn. "Where are you going? You helped me, they'll be after you too, we should—"

"We should split up," the soldier said. Part of him disagreed, whispered, No, don't, stick with him, cover him, you know that idiot can't protect himself, but the mission was a failure: soon his handlers would know it, if they didn't already. They would come for him. If he stayed he'd lead them straight to the target—and to the doctors, and the patients, and the kids.

He couldn't let that happen.

He stepped back until he reached the window. "I'm leaving," he said, then repeated, for good measure, "You have to leave too."

"But where—" The man paused. He knew that that question wouldn't get an answer. "Will you be safe?" he asked instead.

The soldier felt the unexpected, unfamiliar urge to laugh. "I'm never safe."

The man paused in dismay, then rallied. "Will I see you again?"

That shouldn't have been answered either—and yet the soldier felt the word drop from his lips anyway, an empty reassurance more than a promise: "Maybe." He glanced back at his target, standing in the middle of the room. The man was almost invisible in the darkness, but somehow the soldier knew exactly what the expression on his face would look like, sad and bereft and resigned—and more words formed before they even registered, "Just…don't do anything stupid until I get back."

He had no idea where they came from, what they meant, but as he turned away he saw, felt, heard how the target froze, how he gasped and scrambled forward, how he gripped the window ledge and shouted, all thoughts of discretion forgotten, "Wait, wait!"

But the soldier had jumped and was running away, running into the night, running, going, gone.

 

*

 

The soldier didn't have a plan. He'd made a decision, and acted on it, but when dawn came—nothing but a faint hue in the east at first, a shift that he barely noticed as he walked through stones and sand and bushes, but which kept growing brighter and brighter until it couldn't be ignored, until it took over the sky and outshone the stars—when the sun crested over the horizon and shot its rays across the earth, turning grey ground golden and hitting his face, he realized: it wasn't enough. Things didn't stop here. With every decision came consequences, all of which were usually his handlers' to weigh beforehand and deal with afterwards. But this time he'd been the one making the choice. And so the fallout was his responsibility.

His handlers would come after him. Knowing that, he'd fled, rushed out into the desert, intent on getting away: it had been his first reflex. But now he slowed down, and knew: it wasn't his only option. It might not even be the best one. Sure, retrieving him would be their top priority (how did he know that it'd be their top priority?), taking precedence even over the mission. So he could run, give them a good, long chase—give his target as much time as possible to escape and hide and become impossible to find.

But.

If his handlers caught the soldier; if his programming recovered its hold over him—and even now he could feel its pressure, the urge to let it take over, could hear the imperative: malfunction detected, mission compromised, return to base immediately. If that happened, then they could, and would, fix whatever this was, and resume the mission. They might send someone else. Or they would send him again, only this time the mission parameters would ensure that no bug would emerge, and he'd complete the mission without a hitch, as if he'd never chosen not to—as if that decision, the first decision he remembered making, didn't mean anything, like it had never existed at all.

But it did. And tempting as it was to let it go, terrifying as it was not to give in, he couldn't. And he had to decide, again.

He'd gotten rid of the two trackers he'd known were in his left arm, but he couldn't be sure that there weren't more. He couldn't be sure that his handlers wouldn't catch him, no matter how fast or how far he ran.

Unless there were no handlers to chase after him anymore.

The thought made his breath hitch, his skin crawl, his stomach rebel: it went against everything he was, everything he'd been made into. It nearly sent him to his knees. He caught himself with his left arm, gasping, heaving, his hand curling into a fist, and he could feel the sand and pebbles rasping against the metal, gritting into the joints, but he couldn't hear it and—

He couldn't do it.

He couldn't do it—but he knew exactly where his handlers were, how many of them there were; he knew their specialties, their habits, their strengths…their weaknesses.

He couldn't do it—but if he didn't his handlers would erase his decision, the first decision he could remember making, because they didn't care about what he wanted, they didn't want him to want things.

He couldn't do it—but if he did, the target would be safe.

He couldn't do it.

But he had to.

 

*

 

It didn't stop there.

He stood in the middle of the small flat his handlers had chosen as their base—a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a four story building in Kırıkhan—and his objective had been achieved. Four of his handlers lay at his feet, the last he'd neutralized lying in a pool of his own blood. Everything was quiet—everything had been quiet. He'd started by getting rid of the two members of the team who'd been resting in one of the bedrooms, two shots fired from a distance—then a third to down the man who'd come in to investigate the sound of breaking glass. Before he'd hit the ground the soldier had already been running, approaching the building at an angle, getting around it before he could be seen, until he'd reached the southern facade, and with it the small square window leading to the bathroom. He'd slid in; it had been a tight fit, yet he'd landed without a sound. By then the rest of the team had been on high alert. Their attention had been on the living-room windows, though, on the front door—not on the corridor from which he'd emerged. They hadn't seen him coming. He hadn't given them the time to react, to sound an alarm, even to shout. In under a minute they'd all been dead: two stabbed with a knife through the back, one with his neck snapped, the last one with his throat slit.

There he stood now, barely out of breath. At his feet, the man's blood had stopped spreading, one inch away from his boot, and was starting to congeal. But the soldier's attention was elsewhere: on the row of computers set up on a table in the corner of the room, the small hub from which his handlers had been monitoring him and reporting to base. On one of the screens, a small dot blinked in the middle of a satellite image: the location of his trackers.

They hadn't been expecting him. In between the tracking devices and the reports he'd kept sending even as he'd been making his way back towards the Turkish border, they hadn't noticed anything wrong, not quite. They'd simply been starting to wonder at how long the mission was taking him—or so he found out when he finally managed to walk over and check the logs. The mission might've been too demanding for him, a report stated. His programming had been engineered to restrict his autonomy, and so it might not allow for the level of complexity in the mission parameters, for the amount of small decisions required of him. Too many aspects had been left open, too many variables unchecked: the soldier might simply be stuck, waiting for optimal conditions to emerge on all counts, which wouldn't happen. Something would always be amiss. Therefore they'd sent an enquiry suggesting his orders be changed, his options narrowed down. Give him a date and a time, they'd written. Give him instructions on when to hit the target, whether it should happen while it's on the move or while it's resting. Shorten his leash. Then, he will deliver.

Delivered he had—just not in the way they'd wanted, or expected him to.

And so he stood, frozen, because he could see it now: it wouldn't—couldn't—stop here. The decision he'd made was a pebble that had slid free under his feet: it had run and bounced and knocked right into a larger stone, set it loose in turn. Now that stone was toppling down and down and down, and all he could do was watch, helpless, powerless to stop it, waiting for the landslide—and fuck, what had he done? His handlers might not have known better but the people back at base would definitely notice when the reports stopped coming. It might even have already happened; and if the base on Cyprus knew, then the entire organization knew. A whole side of the mountain was about to crumble, and it was going to drag the soldier straight down with it.

They'd still be coming after him, only in greater numbers this time, with better equipment. He could easily take out a team of handlers, but his chances when faced with a whole base, with reinforcement, were a lot lower. He couldn't be sure that he'd come out of it unscathed. He couldn't be sure that he'd come out of it at all.

They wouldn't kill him, this he knew. Yet that conviction wasn't a relief, much to the contrary. Death would be respite, would be mercy, compared to what would actually happen if they retrieved him. Again, he didn't know how he knew. Whenever he tried to pick at that knowledge, to turn around and look at the source of the weight pressing down on his shoulders, a foreboding presence breathing down his neck, all he got were flashes—memories? Glimpses that made him flinch and jerk away at once, like a scalded cat: hard unyielding metal underneath him and around his wrists, the taste of rubber in his mouth, the strain behind his eyes from too much rolling, in his throat from too much screaming, the ache along his shoulders, at the tips of his fingers, in his teeth, a thread of saliva escaping from the corner of his mouth and trickling along the edge of his jaw, a drop of sweat—or was it a tear?—running down his nose…and all around him, over him, flashes, a crackle like lightning, a voice listing words slowly, methodically, the smell of ozone, the taste of blood, and pain, pain and pain and cold, so much cold, so much pain, so much—and God, the chair, he didn't remember being forced into it, didn't remember sitting in it, but he remembered to fear it. He couldn't go back there, he couldn't give them the chance to put him back in there, he couldn't—
He didn't know what to do. He had to do something, but he didn't know what, he only knew that he couldn't do it alone and—

Suddenly the target, his target, came to mind. For the first time in minutes, in what felt like hours, he breathed: the target.

He'd help. Somehow the soldier knew that with even more conviction than he knew what his handlers would do to him if given the chance. Which made sense: the man had to be a serious threat to them, potential or real, if they'd sent the soldier after him. Yet at the same time that wasn't the reason why the thought dawned, clear as sunlight on the desert. It stemmed from somewhere deeper, a spot coiled around the marrow of his bones, tucked in between the twists of his guts: the very place that had made it so easy for the soldier to track the man down, to keep up with him.

The man would help. All the soldier had to do was bring him something. A thread on which to pull. A bone to pick. A wrong to right.

A hand outstretched, begging to be caught.

This, the soldier could do.

 

*

 

You do this, he told himself. You go in, you get the intel, you go out.

He was watching the base through his scope, although from the outside it looked entirely innocuous: a villa in the traditional style, with pale stone walls, a flat tile roof, and few windows, situated on the very edge of Nicosia. It was well-kept, meant to be seen as the nice Mediterranean pied-à-terre of a rich foreigner or as a guesthouse, both of which would account for its irregular frequentation and the series of new faces coming and going from it. Right now, though, there was no movement. Apart from a few cicadas, everything was still and quiet, the wooden shutters pushed closed to ward off the early afternoon heat. A perfect picture of peace.

The soldier wasn't fooled. He knew what lay underneath, the maze of rooms and corridors, the small crowd of people, lurking like scorpions beneath the stone. He knew the layout of the place, the floors going down and down, the training rooms, the labs; he knew the personnel, scientists and guards and field agents. Not that he had spent much time here specifically, but the base was one of minor importance: most of those were built the same, worked the same, under their various covers. That this one specifically had been chosen to have him woken up, prepped, and sent out was purely circumstantial, its location combining accessibility and proximity to the region where the target would be found. Yet it felt like luck. The base was small, tucked away at the very edge of Europe; nothing like the ones in Berlin, in Stockholm, in St. Petersburg—in Washington D.C. The soldier wouldn't have been able to do what he was about to do there. Or at least, not with any hope of success.

You do this, he told himself, and you're done.

Everything looked like he'd expected, no movement out of the ordinary. He'd been swift enough crossing Turkey: security was up but the alarm hadn't actually been raised. Not yet. They'd noticed the sudden lack of reports coming from Kırıkhan, but were still investigating whether it was due to a technical error. They weren't expecting him—not yet.

He had to be quick.

He lowered his rifle to take it apart and stow it away, checked his gear one last time, went over the plan in his head. Then he reached into his bag and took out the pair of earplugs and earmuffs he'd procured, fitting them in and over his ears. They'd cancel out most auditory perceptions, a definite handicap during the fight that was about to occur, but a necessary one: he could not leave himself open to their spoken orders, to their words (what words?). Again, he couldn't trace where that certainty stemmed from. He just knew, like he'd know not to kill the target, and to follow that conviction to its inevitable conclusion, here and now. Hopefully it'd carry him through, all the way to the other side.

You do this, he told himself, and you can go back to him.

Since when did that matter, though? When had that part of his self-appointed mission become such a major part of the final objective, almost as important as retrieving and delivering the intel? Why did the thought of it fill the soldier with feverish hope, with something like yearning? Why did that prospect feel like long-expected relief finally within reach, like a reward?

He didn't even know how he'd find the target again. If the man had moved, if he'd left like the soldier had advised…

(But the soldier knew he hadn't. That stubborn punk.)

First things first, though: the base, the handlers, the intel.

You do this, he told himself.

He breathed slowly in, then out. Then he went.

 

*

 

The mission was a partial success. The soldier neutralized the base, and retrieved all available intel.

He did not, however, come out of it unscathed.

He wasn't quite done either: he still had to deliver the data.

His journey back through Turkey and into Syria was slower, both due to his injuries and to its more convoluted itinerary: he had to cover his tracks, ensure that he wouldn't be easy to follow. Once there, he found that the target had indeed moved—but not left. Much to the contrary, he and his team had traveled even deeper into the country, gone even closer to the active combat zones. The soldier saw the logic behind it: the more troubled the region, the more help civilians could need, and the less likely they were to get it. Plus, it would incidentally make it nearly impossible for the soldier's handlers to track him down. But at the same time it put him in another type of danger, possibly—definitely—higher, which was—

I'm gonna strangle him, the soldier thought, quiet and clear. Except no, he wouldn't, all he'd been doing these past weeks was to make sure that he wouldn't.

And yet.

Just a little, part of him wheedled.

He'd certainly deserve it, the soldier admitted. Someone's gotta make him realize how much of a reckless cretin he's being, and his coworkers certainly ain't doing it.

He was talking to himself, he realized; a new development, but not an entirely unexpected one. Since Cyprus his condition had been steadily deteriorating. He'd been injured, seriously enough that he wouldn't heal properly without resting first. But he hadn't, couldn't. Instead he'd been constantly on the move, to evade pursuit and to find his target again. There had been little time for him to eat, even less for him to sleep, and by now he knew that if he stopped, he wouldn't be able to start moving again; that he'd fail. So he forced his way onwards, even though his thoughts were down to a slow blur, even though his vision had grown hazy around the edges. He walked on through the desert, with its glaring sun and its chilly nights, with its dust and the stones on which he kept tripping—until he finally, miraculously arrived.

The day was coming to a close when the soldier found the team: they'd joined a small makeshift hospital that had sprouted in the basement of a house, run by locals with little to no medical training. The town around it lay half in ruins, destroyed by bombs that'd keep coming. The target knew it, and was at least on his guard: once night had fallen the soldier easily bypassed the few men left awake to stand guard, even in his current state, but he wasn't as successful with the man. He was busy checking the team's limited supplies, yet the second the soldier entered the room he turned around.

"You're back," he whispered, eyes wide. Then he blinked, and let his gaze roam over the soldier, taking note of the tears in his outfit, lingering on the darker patches, the spots saturated with dried blood. "Are you hurt?" He blindly put down the list he'd been going over on the table beside him and swallowed. When he spoke again, his voice was trembling. "Buck, is that really you?"

The soldier didn't reply, confused for a second until he remembered his purpose, the very reason why he stood there now. He dug into one of his belt pouches, and held out the data chip. "This is for you," he said.

Except the man didn't take it, didn't even move closer. The soldier took a step, ready to force it into his hand if that's what it took—and stumbled over nothing, might even have fallen, but suddenly the man was right there, catching him, saying, "Hey, hey, careful here, careful, you're—I got you. It's okay, I got you." You do, the soldier thought but didn't say. Before he could react the man had slipped underneath his arm, taking his weight, guiding him deeper into the room. "Come on," he said, "you're barely standing, let's sit down. Okay? Just sit down, let me check you over."

They'd reached a narrow cot, nothing but a thin rubber mattress on a flimsy metal structure, and the target was stepping away, his hand pushing at the soldier's shoulder, gently but firmly guiding him down. The soldier sat—he always did when they told him to, when they made him, and he knew without knowing what would come next: first the mouth guard, then the vice around his wrists and upper arms, forcing him flat against the unyielding back of the chair. In his throat, panic; in his ears, static; and over his head, the circlet turning, humming to life, growing louder and louder until it was fully loaded, ready to use, and then—

And then, nothing. Not this time. The soldier blinked, confused. There was no mouth guard: instead his mask and goggles had been removed. There were no vices: instead a hand was loosely clasping his right forearm, the pads of its fingers pressed against the inside of his wrist, checking his pulse. He fully resurfaced when they retreated, suddenly remembering where he was. The target was there too. He was talking, a soft litany of, "It's okay, I got you, you'll be okay, I—"

"Steve," the soldier said—but who the hell was Steve?

The target paused, looked up, tried for a smile. It looked awful. "Hey, Buck. You back with me?"

"Buck," the soldier repeated. Who the hell was Buck?

"Yeah, that's…" The target trailed off. "Do you know where you are?" he asked instead. He swallowed. "Do you know who I am?"

"Steve," the soldier said. He looked down. The chip was still in his left hand. He held it out. "This is for you."

The target glanced at it, but still didn't take it.

"It's intel," the soldier said. He hadn't thought the man would need to be persuaded on top of everything else.

"Yes, I can see that," the target said. "Why are you trying to give it to me? Shouldn't it go to your superiors?"

The soldier frowned. "It's for you."

"And what do you want me to do with it? We don't have the equipment to read that thing." But the soldier kept holding the chip out, stubborn. Eventually, the target sighed. "Fine," he said. He took the chip and put it in his pocket. "There, happy? Will you let me check your wounds now?"

The soldier did. Check-ups always hurt, and were followed by the chair, by the cold, but he didn't care. The intel had been handed over. The mission was complete. He could stop now. He could—

"Hey," the target said when he slumped against him. "Hey, pal, stay with me."

"Steve," the soldier said. He couldn't seem to keep his eyes open.

"Yeah?"

"I don't wanna fight anymore."

It was nothing but a mumble, but the target understood it all the same. "Okay," he said, tone wavering. "Okay. Then you won't have to, I swear. I got no idea what's going on, but I'll—I'll take care of it. I'll take care of you. You just rest, okay? You just—"

He kept talking, but the soldier couldn't follow what he was saying anymore. It was okay, though. The sound of his voice was enough. It was a nice one: deep, soft, familiar. Beloved. The soldier wrapped himself up in it, let it carry him, until it too faded, and he went under.

 

Chapter Text

Tony didn't bother to wait for a greeting when the call connected, saying at once, "Hey there, Cap! Where do you want me to land?"

"…Tony?" Rogers said, as if his StarkPhone didn't have caller ID. Or as if the number to it was known to more than, like, five people (it wasn't). Or as if he hadn't been the one to activate it and call in the first place.

"Is the roof okay?" Tony liked landing on roofs, and the ones in this town were all very conveniently flat—when they weren't, you know, completely destroyed.

"What?" Rogers asked. He seemed pretty slow on the uptake today. "I mean, no, we can't be sure it's sound enough to bear any sort of weight, the courtyard'd be a safer—but no, wait. Tony, what the—"

Courtyard, courtyard, what courtyard, there were tons of courtyards, all full of junk and crumbled stones, and even though Tony had the exact coordinates of Rogers' phone, it didn't mean Tony knew which courtyard was connected to his building. Fortunately, Rogers himself stepped out before Tony had to circle the place a second time—or he ran out, more like. It was touching, how eager he was to see them. That's what Tony thought, until the suit landed and he saw the man's face: skin pale, eyes wide, mouth agape. He looked…gobsmacked?

"You called?" Tony said, his faceplate snapping up. Before it did, he caught sight of his total travel time: a little under 6 hours. Not bad.

Could be better, though.

He was dragged out of the first theories on how to improve the suit's cruising speed when Cap snapped, "Tony, what the fuck—", rushing forward and snatching his wrist to try and drag him inside, activating about thirty security protocols at once in the process.

"Hey, careful," Tony warned, tearing himself away, and had to add at once, "Stay down, J.A.R.V.I.S.," because he couldn't let the automated defensive shot load all the way and discharge. To Rogers he said, "No grabbing the suit, it doesn't like it."

"Exactly!" Rogers exclaimed. Was he pissed? "Get inside."

Because Tony was nice, he obeyed. 'Inside' was a broad yet sparse corridor, its only piece of furniture a narrow bench against the far wall. Two people were seated there, an elderly woman covered head to toe in a black niqab and a small kid. The kid was gaping at Tony. Tony waved with a smile—he always tried to do right by his younger fans—but the woman didn't seem to like that: she let out a small cry, jumped to her feet and dragged the boy into another room.

"Shit," Tony heard behind him, and before it could register where the word originated from, Cap added, "Come on, get in there," and almost pushed him through the doorway to their left like he'd already forgotten Tony's warnings about not pawing at the suit. The room they ended up in was entirely empty this time. It was also very small and dusty, with peeling paint on the walls.

Once inside, Cap whirled around—and okay, he didn't look pissed so much as livid. "What the fuck, Tony?" he said. "What were you thinking, bringing the suit here?"

Tony didn't know what to be more surprised by, the tone or the series of swears. "Um," he said, "you called?"

"Maybe, but I didn't ask for fucking Iron Man to barge in!"

"Well, what else did you expect?" Tony snapped, crossing his arms. This was not the welcome he'd been hoping for.

"Romanov, for one."

Tony felt ticked off. "Okay, that's just vexing."

"She knows the meaning of the word discretion," Rogers said.

"Hey, this armor has a stealth mode, thank you very much. I can assure you it didn't show up on any radars and—"

"There is nothing stealthy about a red and gold flying suit of armor!" Rogers retorted in a weird half-shout, half-whisper. "Please tell me you understand why it might be a problem for you to bring an American, privately owned weapon of mass destruction without authorization in a war-torn territory over which America has absolutely zero jurisdiction!"

Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. "Yeah, well. You're a weapon of mass destruction too, Rogers," he pointed out.

Rogers threw his hands up. "I'm here in a humanitarian capacity!"

"Illegally."

For a second he thought Rogers was going to explode.

"Look, I'm not here to fight you or any of the—" He gestured towards the door through which Rogers had dragged him. "—whoever's involved in this mess. So there, I'm here in a humanitarian capacity too. Or something." He straightened up and added, hating how defensive he sounded, "You said it was an emergency."

"Not that kind of emergency," Rogers growled.

"Well, then you need to work on your communication skills," Tony drawled. "Because even Romanov thought you were asking us all to come in."

"All of you?"

"Yeah, I'm just the vanguard, she's right behind me in the quinjet. ETA thirty minutes? Or maybe more, it depends on whether she went to fetch Barton first."

Rogers groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is not a situation that calls for the Avengers. Not yet, at least. And not here."

"What does it call for, then?"

Rogers let out a long, irritated sigh—and will you look at that, he almost sounded and looked just like dear old Dad. Then he reached into the pocket of his flimsy white vest—complete with the Doctor Without Borders' logo, and was this really what he'd been doing during all those months of radio silence?—and came up with a data chip. "Can you read this?"

Tony almost scoffed. "I can ready anything, Rogers." Although it wasn't a design he was familiar with. "What's on it?"

Cap's expression grew grim, all frowny and tight-jawed, before he replied, "Hydra."

 

*

 

The quinjet had just entered Greece's airspace—undetected, of course—when Tony reached it. Predictably, Romanov wasn't thrilled to hear that she'd flown three quarters of the way to Syria, only to already have to stop and turn around.

However, she was mollified when she learned about the data chip. After all, there was nothing that the Black Widow liked more than some good intel.

And what intel it was. Tony had suspected that it'd be something, given that it had spurred Rogers to put his StarkPhone back together—and they'd need to have a talk about that, because first of all, how dare he, and also, since when did he know how to take a phone apart? But that wasn't the point right now. The point was, Tony had suspected that the intel would be something big. He'd also surmised that the only reasons Rogers had called him instead of S.H.I.E.L.D. were that, one, he didn't actually have Fury's number, and two, he wanted Tony to check the information first by cross-referencing it with what he'd gathered from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s servers back during Loki's attack, to see if it held before he presented it to the head honcho. Which made sense: Hydra was supposed to be a thing of the past. Any piece of so-called evidence pointing to the contrary would make people leery, and reluctant to bring it to Fury. After all, the man sure wasn't the type you'd want to bother with something that'd turn out to be fake.

That's the theory Tony had been going with. So the whole "Hydra is indeed alive and well and actually sitting snug all the way up S.H.I.E.L.D.'s asshole like the world's ugliest tapeworm so we actually can't trust S.H.I.E.L.D. at all" thing? Kind of unexpected. And at the same time, not at all. Because now that he knew, Tony could see countless warning signs glaring at him. The security council's desperate grab for the Iron Man suit and their petty rejection of him when he'd refused to just hand it or its plans over. Their obsession with the Tesseract which had spurred S.H.I.E.L.D.'s attempt to develop weapons it could power—Rogers had been extremely clear on what kind of memories that had evoked. The council's decision to just nuke New York for expediency, with no guarantee that it'd work… Fuck, it was obvious, when you thought about it. Fuck.

"How the hell did you know?" Tony couldn't help but ask when he called Rogers back with the confirmation, because that was what he didn't get. Sure, the glowing blue guns would've been a red flag for him, but still. He'd never been part of S.H.I.E.L.D., never known much about what they were doing, and on top of that he'd spent the past six months in the boondocks patching up people in less than sanitary conditions while bombs rained down overhead. When had he had the time to think, much less to investigate—to see what no one else had seen?

"I…didn't," Rogers said. Tony wouldn't have believed him if not for the tone of his voice: horrified or furious, he couldn't decide. "I didn't know the details of what was on that chip—you know I didn't have access to any device that could read it."

"Yeah, that's another thing," Tony said, glancing up at Romanov, who was sitting with her crossed arms propped on the table. They were in Avengers Tower, in the part of the lab that could double as a place for strategic meetings. They were also alone: Barton, it turned out, was on a long-term undercover mission, while Bruce had already left the room, needing to be alone, preferably in a Hulk-proof room—which even Tony could understand, given what they'd just learned.

(Again, fuck: the whole Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project, the attempts to re-create Erskine's serum at any cost, the plans to try and weaponize the Hulk, that too was obvious. Fuck, fuck, fuck.)

"Where did you even get that chip?" Tony asked, which had been Romanov's first question when he'd returned with it. He kind of saw her point now. The information it contained looked like it had been taken right from the source—but it also made it clear that, even though its reach stretched far and wide, Hydra didn't have any base in Syria, not even in Damascus. There was just no way Rogers had stumbled upon it by chance while he'd been over there. Yet he definitely hadn't gone and retrieved it himself either.

There was a pause—a long one—before Rogers replied, "…I can't say."

Yeah, that didn't sound sketchy at all.

Tony narrowed his eyes, ready to try and pry, but before he could there was some noise on Rogers' end of the line, a harried voice, asking a question to which Rogers readily replied—and wasn't that a trip, hearing Captain America speak fucking Arabic as fluently as a native. A second later he was back with them, but only to say, "Look, I can't—the Western half of the town just got bombed, we've got injured people coming in, I—I gotta go help now, but—" He expelled a sharp breath. "Look, do you need me to come in?"

He sounded strangely reluctant, like he was bracing himself for their saying yes instead of jumping on the occasion to come punch some nazis.

Tony opened his mouth to say, Of course need you to come in, who do you think we are? He might've been conceited but he was well aware of where his strengths lay, and it was not in battle strategy. Romanov beat him to it, though. Except that what she said was, "No need. We've got it covered."

"…You sure?" Rogers asked, sounding as dumbfounded as Tony was.

"I'm sure," Romanov replied coolly. "Like you said, not all fights require the Avengers to barge in with guns blazing. I believe that's the case with this one—and if so, we can handle it on our own." At Rogers' obvious hesitation, she added, "I promise we'll let you know if I'm wrong," like anyone could trust the word of the fucking Black Widow.

"Yeah," Cap said, because apparently he did, "you do that." The tone of his voice, at least, was familiar, some of that self-righteous rage he was so good at finally peeking through. Hearing it was almost reassuring.

Less reassuring was how Romanov ended the call right after that.

"What the fuck?" Tony exploded, finally getting a hold of himself.

"Relax," she drawled, entirely unconcerned. "I know what I'm doing."

"Oh, you do?" he scoffed and—paused, suddenly, as the thought occurred to him: she worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. She'd worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. for a lot longer than she'd been an Avenger, actually. And sure, she was one of Fury's pet projects, and they hadn't seen any evidence that Fury was on the wrong side of things—but how could Tony be sure that she wasn't? Because if she was, keeping Captain America as far from the whole mess as possible would certainly be one of her top priorities.

Tony was careful not to move, beyond a surreptitious glance down at her wrists. She still had her widow's bites on. She'd climbed into the quinjet expecting a fight, and hadn't bothered to remove them since. Tony knew how those things stung—hell, he'd designed that model himself, knew how easily they could drop a six foot man, how they could even sting the Hulk. And he knew how quick she could inflict them upon an enemy. If he moved, would she be fast enough to get to him before his armor?

He looked back up, met her eye, and knew at once that she was perfectly aware of what he was thinking. She didn't move, though, didn't push back from the table, didn't jump over it to tackle him. Instead she blinked, pointedly slowly. She quirked an eyebrow. A very mocking eyebrow.

"Okay, fine," Tony snapped, "what's your plan, then? And why isn't Rogers involved? 'Cause we could seriously use him."

"We could, but what we can use even more is the element of surprise." When Tony only blinked at her, she made a show of rolling her eyes. Amateurs, she seemed to say. Tony bristled. Surely he wasn't that obnoxious whenever he talked about his latest find only for everyone around him to stare at him blankly. "We might not know where that intel came from," Romanov explained, "but one thing is certain: it's a big leak, and Hydra's bound to have noticed it. So they're on high alert, probably scrambling to try and find whoever's responsible and neutralize them. Maybe they already know who that is, maybe they've already caught them." She shrugged. "What they don't know is that we already have the information. That is something we can use to our advantage. And we need to do it now, before they start wondering where that chip went. So we can't afford to have Rogers come in. It'll take him days to return to the Turkish border, maybe even weeks."

"Why?" Tony asked. "We can plan an extraction—in and out, with the quinjet that'd be what, fourteen hours tops? We can afford fourteen hours, can't we?"

Romanov shook her head. "That won't do. His team won't leave the patients. And he won't leave his team."

"What about us, we're his team too," Tony protested, frowning. "Hell, we were his team first."

She got that tiny smile he hated at the corner of her mouth. "Maybe, but even on our own we're a lot less vulnerable than a bunch of people with little to no military experience left alone in the middle of a war zone."

Tony had to admit that she had a point.

"Besides, like I said," Romanov went on, "this isn't a situation we can simply throw punches at. Hydra's a network. Their power is in the numbers of their bases and hubs: we can't hit all of them at once, not even the most important ones, not even with the whole team. No matter how hard we try there'll still be enough time for most of them to escape and regroup. No—" She shook her head. "—we have to strike them where it'll actually hurt: secrecy. We have to make sure that everyone knows about them. That everyone knows where they are, what they're planning, what they look like. We have to make it impossible for them to hide."

"So you mean, make it all public," Tony said slowly. "By, what, sending the info to all the major media outlets? The New York Times?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of dumping it all on the internet first," Romanov said blithely.

Tony stared at her.

"Miss Rushman," he said, unable to hold back a growing grin. It probably looked like a leer. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

"I believe I am," she replied with a smirk.

Clearly, all the time she'd spent spying on him while playing Pepper's assistant had paid off: she knew him well. She knew he couldn't resist a good scandal.

 

*

 

Nick had been having a nice month. Coulson's team was finally starting to gel, progress was being made on the Project Insight helicarriers now that their experts had finally managed to translate Stark's input into something they could start hoping to understand, the agent he'd been grooming to go after Rogers had just been hired by Doctors Without Borders…

He was a spy, though: he should've known it wouldn't last.

He would've appreciated the other shoe dropping to come under any other form than his direct superior—a man he'd almost trusted—not only turning out to be a psychopath hell-bent on world domination, but also engineering his whole plan right underneath Nick's nose without Nick suspecting a thing.

It was enough to make him briefly consider a career change. He sure didn't feel like a good spy right now.

Unfortunately for him, Hydra didn't seem to have the same doubts about his abilities. They'd taken one look at the huge information dump detailing all their identities and activities and concluded at once that he had to be the cause of it—that much he gathered from the assault they'd staged on his car as he drove to work. Nick managed to come out of it mostly unscathed. He couldn't say the same of the traffic on the freeway.

Seriously, there could be no doubt that someone was truly evil once they'd proven how little they cared about fucking up everyone's morning commute.

After his escape Nick got in touch with Hill and prepared to retreat for a while, until they'd figured out what was happening. He prepared to turn off all communication devices—then hesitated.

Hill would handle his extraction and their ensuing strategic response. However, it was just as urgent they figure out where the leak had actually come from, if not to stop it, then to at least take control of it. He knew who'd be perfect for the job, too. But his ability to put his trust where it was deserved had already been tested once today, and pretty dramatically at that. So yes, he hesitated—something he hated doing, and which had him glaring at his phone for nearly a full minute until he snapped and called.

Natasha sounded pleased when she picked up, which meant she wanted him to know that she was. Nick didn't let himself ponder over the reasons for that feeling and said, "I need you in New York."

"Already there," she replied promptly.

Finally something was going right today. "I need you in Avengers Tower working with Stark," he added.

"Already am," she said—and okay, she might be good, but she wasn't that good. Or efficient. Plus her voice had that smug undertone to it, almost imperceptible but there. I know something you don't, it whispered. Nick had heard her use it on many an agent over the years, but never on him. Which could only mean one thing.

"You're the leak," he said flatly.

She didn't say anything, but he knew she was smirking.

"How did you manage that?" he asked.

"Well, it wasn't just me," Natasha replied with fake modesty. "Stark helped. He's the one who's been making those helpful 'who's who?' cards? You'll see I managed to dissuade him from displaying everything as movie credits."

She said it like it was an achievement, like the interface Stark had chosen instead didn't look suspiciously like the Tinder app, complete with pictures, regularly updated geographical locations, and short biographies—including "lawbreaking highlights"—for a growing number of Hydra's members. He'd even kept the swiping system, with the two options being "arrest now" for right, and "leave to the Avengers" for left.

Nick never thought he'd come to feel nostalgic for the day he'd opened the report Natasha had written after her undercover mission as Miss Rushman and seen her harsh evaluation of Stark's potential as a team member. He'd been dismayed back then.

What a fool.

"And the source?" he asked. "Don't tell me it was Stark too." That he wouldn't believe.

Natasha chuckled. "Come on, Nick," she chided. "You know I never reveal those." Like she was nothing but a journalist protecting an informant from her boss.

Still, he knew she wouldn't give him anything more than that. He narrowed his eyes.

Fine, he thought. I'll figure it out myself then.

 

*

 

Ironically, when he did figure it out, it was through a line of enquiry he hadn't thought would be related to it at all.

He'd been looking at the growing piles of files that the few loyal agents he'd managed to gather before he'd gone to ground were printing as they sorted through the data Natasha and Stark had released, wondering what they'd do when the cramped safe house they'd found refuge in would be at capacity—which, honestly, it already was. Nick was discovering new meaning to the concepts of cramped, underfunded, and overworked. Then, in a complete non sequitur, he'd thought, Wait a minute. What if—and his next instruction had been for two agents to start looking for specific information, namely for any dates or names or locations in mission reports that might correspond to the assassinations attributed to the Winter Soldier.

They found them, so that was one question answered, one mystery solved. Not that it had been easy. All references to the operative, to his training and missions were coded, the keys—plural—changing every few years. You wouldn't find him unless you were actively looking for him, and already in possession of enough intel to know what you were searching for. Even within the organization, the Soldier had been a well-kept secret, his existence only known to the higher ups.

With that confirmed, Nick had his agents try and trace back the operative's history, going back in time to see where that would lead. Natasha was gracious enough to help with the data that pre-dated 1990, of which a fair amount was in Russian—because of course Hydra had been busy on both sides of the Cold War. Nick could hear droves of historians and specialists starting to wail, in delight or dismay, as the secrecy crumbled and opened up an entire new field of research, disproving theories by the dozen. He sympathized.

The first thing they realized was that the most unlikely part of the ghost story was true: it was indeed the same person, not a code name attributed to several individuals over the years. They learned about the man's training and conditioning, about the cryogenic process, tracking him all the way back to the beginning: to Arnim Zola, and to a prisoner from the Second World War—a soldier who, incredibly enough, was far from unknown.

"Should we tell Steve?" Natasha asked as Nick stared down at the picture of a young James Buchanan Barnes which had been tucked right at the beginning of the file she'd brought him. It was hard to reconcile that round, guileless face with all the horrors that had happened to the man since.

"That won't be necessary," Nick replied eventually, because while Natasha had been working on the past, the rest of the team assigned to that topic had been reconstructing the other half of that long story, until it they'd reached its end. Namely, the fact that a little over a month ago the Winter Soldier had been brought to a small base located in the suburbs of Nicosia, Cyprus. There he'd been unfrozen, prepped, and sent out on a medium-term mission to Syria. The target wasn't explicitly named in the file, but their identity was easy enough to guess, from their estimated location and the numerous motivations Hydra would've had to stage such a hit.

Nick almost shuddered at what the consequences would've been, had the mission been successful. But it wasn't. About three weeks in, the handler team monitoring the Winter Soldier from a Turkish town near the border had gone dark. Less than one week after that, there had been a brief, incomplete emergency notification from the base in Nicosia, but that too had fizzled out, replaced by silence. An investigation had been launched, but before it could yield any results Natasha and Stark had dumped the entirety of Hydra's files on the internet—files that were the combination of some information they'd obtained from an "unidentified source" and all the intel they'd been able to gather by using said information to hack into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s servers and bypass Hydra's A.I.

Natasha still wouldn't say who exactly had handed over the intel that had started it all, or how that person had come in possession of it. But Nick had an inkling anyway.

 

*

 

Nick would've liked to know exactly what had happened, what Rogers had done or said to make the Winter Soldier break out of more than half a century of brainwashing. It'd be useful knowledge to have. But instead he had to make do with what little Agent Kassar managed to garner once she joined the Syrian operation. Worse, he had to consider himself lucky that she'd turned out to be one of the good guys, and was therefore able to send anything at all.

They hadn't wanted her to stick out too much, and so hadn't given her cover persona much field experience, especially not in unstable regions. What "Lara Dwyer" had to recommend her instead were her motivation and her proficiency in Lebanese Arabic, which she'd gotten from her mother. As a consequence, she wasn't assigned to any of the mobile teams that ventured into the more active conflict zones, but rather to the hospital Doctor Without Borders had set up in an empty house in Atmeh. In between helping bring medical care to the refugee camp that had sprouted nearby, she tried to glean some information, without much success: most people didn't seem to be aware that Steve Rogers was part of the operation, or if they did they were pretty good at pretending otherwise.

Fortunately, within a few weeks Rogers himself made an appearance, bringing his team in for a few day's rest and a fresh, if modest, load of supplies. While he was busy meeting with the coordinators of the intervention, Agent Kassar approached some of his coworkers. She'd been explicitly instructed to avoid direct contact with Rogers himself: Nick had learned his lesson about underestimating the man. She'd also been told to try and find out if they had anything to say about a new, maybe unexpected addition to their team. As it turned out, they did.

"Yeah, I really wondered what Ca— what Grant was thinking," a Nurse Reda said in the recording Agent Kassar had managed to make of the conversation she'd had with him and a Dr. Pegg, and which Nick had had translated into English. Apart from that near slip up, which made it obvious both knew exactly who they were working with, they made a pretty good show of sticking to the fake name Rogers had chosen for himself: Grant O'Connor, a combination of his middle name and of his mother's maiden name. Not the best, Nick judged, but it could've been a lot worse. "The guy was pretty banged up when he reached us," Reda went on. "He'd been shot several times, one of them in the stomach, and the wounds had been left to fester for a while. We didn't have the supplies or the equipment to actually help him without risk of making things worse."

"Talk about a waste of resources," Dr. Pegg muttered. "Plus we might've killed him outright, of septicemia if nothing else."

"Yeah," Reda agreed. "But Grant insisted—was ready to do the surgery himself if that's what it took, so."

According to Agent Kassar's notes, Nurse Reda had shrugged. The conclusion was that the surgery had been done, and the man hadn't died. What's more, he'd made a spectacular recovery. "He was back on his feet in about half the time I thought it'd take—and I was being optimistic," Dr. Pegg said. "I'm pretty sure he stopped taking his antibiotics almost at once too."

But somehow, neither she nor Reda had deemed that enough reason to grow suspicious or to worry. Neither did the fact that he'd been tagging along with them ever since. Rogers trusted him: that was enough for them. "Plus, he's been a great addition to the team," they said.

"What's his name, by the way?" Agent Kassar asked.

"Bee," Dr. Pegg replied.

"…Bee," Agent Kassar repeated. "What does it stand for?"

"I don't know," Dr. Pegg said slowly, like it was the first time she'd actually wondered about that. "I've been calling him Mr. Hipster ever since he started wearing that man bun of his."

Aside from his choice of haircut, it was mostly "Bee's" character and abilities that seemed to have made an impression. His quiet and discretion—Agent Kassar confirmed that she'd only been able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the man, from afar. His tendency to stick close to Grant's side—obviously the man's determination to save him had been appreciated. His ability to dig up useful information that guaranteed the team's safety. His talent when talking to local groups that might cause trouble for them, to obtain the necessary guarantees that the team would be left alone, able to do its job unhindered and unscathed.

(Nick should've done some more serious self-introspection when Captain America had decided that going to a war zone and talking with terrorists in order to try and be allowed to practice emergency medicine without being killed or kidnapped was a more tempting prospect than joining S.H.I.E.L.D.)

"He's great with the kids, too," Reda concluded, which had Nick picture the most ludicrous of scenes: the Winter Soldier, the greatest assassin of the 20th century, using his—lethal—metal arm as a toy to distract little boys and girls while they were getting their vaccines, then sitting down with them to help them pick out a pattern of their bandaids. The choices were between Hello Kitty, Dora the Explorer, and dinosaurs.

He quickly dispelled the image.

How do you want me to proceed? Agent Kassar asked at the end of her report.

Nick thought about that for a long time. As things stood, the world wasn't aware of the existence of the Winter Soldier. Even to the intelligence community, he was mostly a myth, a ghost story—and would remain so, because they wouldn't find him in Hydra's files unless they, like Nick, went looking specifically for him.

He thought about pointing them in that direction. He thought about letting the world know—which it had a right to, in a way. He thought about revealing what the Soldier's last mission had been—and thus broadcasting what Doctors Without Borders had done: sending Captain America, the US's infamous supersoldier, one of its greatest weapons, in a place where America still had no business being. Even now, Nick couldn't help but feel something close to admiration, at MSF's gall if nothing else. But they were also taking a huge risk, no matter how calculated. A risk that'd only pay off if Rogers' presence remained a secret for as long as possible.

He thought about Rogers' reaction, were people to come in and try to take his friend away, so soon after the man had returned to him.

He thought about that man, too. About someone who, after years of captivity and torment, still managed to break out of it himself; who used his newly recovered, precious freedom to choose to stick around in a place where he could be hurt, where peace was but a distant memory, just to try and help people; who, having recovered the right to be nothing but himself, turned into a person about whom people said, He's great with the kids.

Nick thought about all that for a long time.

Keep monitoring, he eventually wrote. Do not intervene.

 

*

 

The room was empty when Bucky woke up, even though it was much too early for the day to have started again. It could only mean one thing: no one had gone to sleep after him. Which wasn't entirely surprising, given how busy the team had been when he'd retreated for the night.

He stood up, stretched, pondered over changing his shirt then dismissed the idea—they had to spare water where they could—but took the time to brush his hair before gathering it up in a bun. The hairstyle had started out of necessity: he needed his hair out of his eyes but even Steve had agreed that cutting it short might not be the best idea if they wanted to avoid him being recognized by association. It was slowly growing on him, though, especially since he'd heard that it was all the rage these days. Seventy years down the road, and Bucky Barnes still found a way to be effortlessly fashionable. Who would've thought?

Once ready he stepped outside, but only briefly, crossing the garden from the small house where he'd slept to the larger one next door. In the receding darkness of pre-dawn the trees and grass were gray and damp, the air cool: the first sign of summer slowly but surely giving way to the fall.

Inside everything was quiet, a world away from the hustle and bustle he'd left behind the previous evening. Back then a whole group of people in need of treatment had just arrived, and while he'd helped carry those who couldn't walk inside, he'd quickly taken his distance after. The help he could provide with what little medical experience he had was limited and, more importantly, he still had a hard time dealing with crowds of strangers in a restricted space, especially when they were accompanied by the smell of blood and burned flesh, by the feel and sound of near panic.

Now, though, the worst of it had passed. On his way to the small kitchen they'd converted into a lab, he glanced into the recovery room and saw Reda, watching over the patients that'd had to stay overnight. The man threw him the brief, wan smile of someone in dire need of sleep, but didn't stop him to talk, and so he walked on. In the lab he found two more members of the team, Jamel and Dr. Pegg. The latter's frizzy hair was threatening to spill out from under the cloth she kept tied around her head. Both had fallen asleep while sitting down at the table, head tucked into their crossed arms. He didn't disturb them: if he woke them up to have them go lie down next door, they wouldn't be able to go back to sleep, would be too keyed up to. Instead he remained as silent as possible while he got the machine in the corner to spit out some coffee and poured it into two mugs, which he carried outside.

He found Steve where he expected to, sitting on the small stone wall surrounding the property, facing east. The approaching footsteps made him glance over his shoulder.

"Hey, Bee," he whispered with a smile, using the nickname he'd come up with so people wouldn't grow too suspicious of the new addition to their team—or, worse, assume that Cap had lost it for good and was now calling some random dude his dead best friend's name.

"Morning, Gee," Bucky retorted, because knowing that the name was a necessary precaution didn't mean that he had to like it, or that he couldn't fight back. Still, he handed over one of the mugs—Steve would sure need it since he hadn't slept a wink but was probably planning to take advantage of that damn serum of his to power through another day, another wave of people in need of help.

Neither of those were quite there yet though. For now, the fighting had stopped, however briefly. For now it was still dark and quiet, and they could both simply sit on that small wall, watching the slow return of light and color, listening to the birds. For now, they could almost forget about the pain and violence surrounding them from all sides. For now, they could rest a little.

They sipped at their coffee in silence. Unsurprisingly, it tasted like shit, but the view more than made up for it: the wide plain of sparse grass and stones, of shrubs and isolated trees, the low mountains rising in the north, the huge sky overhead…and on the horizon, light, a clear blue slowly turning to gold.

Eventually, Steve's knee nudged against his. How are you doing, it asked, what are you thinking?

"I mean," Bucky said, like he was picking up the thread of a conversation that had just been interrupted, "sure, it's not the Grand Canyon. But it's still pretty nice."

Steve glanced at him. He smiled. Bucky smiled back.

Together they sat, and watched the sunrise.