February 2021 - The Avengers Compound
Steve dropped down on the sofa, the common room was full of Avengers lounging around. It should have been comforting, but mostly he was remembering what had been compared to how things are now.
Bucky was sat up on one of the windowsills, high enough up that it would be difficult for a person to join him. Affording him a perfect view over the area and the television.
Natasha was in the corner of the kitchen, watching over everyone as she finished up making the snacks for the group meeting they had planned. Lately it was more a quiet lunch as they went over what had changed each week.
Her eyes constantly on Clint who was slumped in the corner, flicking through his phone. Barely noticing what was happening around him.
Sam was flicking through channels on the TV, rarely resting too long on any one channel to hear the bad news.
A feature of the last 5 years is bad news.
Wanda is at Steve's side, the most relaxed out of all of them, Reading a book and casually leaning against him.
This wasn't how it was meant to be.
At first, high on his victory, he'd taken Bucky and broken his friends out of that horrible, underwater prison. Thanks to T'Challa's kindness, they had travelled to and eventually hidden out in Wakanda. A tech paradise that brought his mind back to one person constantly. No matter how hard he tried not to think of him in those first few weeks.
After? There had been other things occupying his mind.
Wakanda was safe, but they couldn't leave. It was the perfect position to watch in horror as the events unfolded, and were unable to do anything .
Steve had always maintained in those early days, that something 'bad enough' would happen. Something that would wipe out the Accords. Something that would have people calling for them to be brought home.
In a way. He was right.
In a way. It was their fault.
Hydra capitalised on the uncertainty spread from the Civil War at first.
That Team Cap, terrorists in the wind...
That Team Ironman, shattered like ice...
The void it created added to the swirling mass of confusion and conflict that was the world without SHIELD. That the Hydra they had taken down had only been a cell, not the organisation.
The two voices that would have helped guide the Accords, Tony Stark and T'Challa were silenced in different ways. T'Challa was on thin ice after signing the Accords and proving that he would go against the will of 117 countries for his revenge. Making Wakanda's introduction to the world stage rocky at best.
Tony Stark? Well, he's been missing. Last seen officially at The Raft before the cameras mysteriously cut out.
Steve remembers the bunker...
Of that blue light dimming...
Of walking away and not looking back...
Pepper holds out that he is still alive, running the company as he wanted and has stated that she will block every attempt to declare him dead until 7 years have passed.
There was no map, no out right declaration of which country had fallen to Hydra's infections. But people knew . Laws started shifting in dangerous directions and the world was seemingly bigger and yet, smaller every day. News articles that looked like features from the past. Countries blacking out all media. People were scared, and they had every reason to be.
They'd been invited back when the UN started to realise the problem. Which meant the infection was massively out of control because Hydra was rarely noticed unless it was rushed, no, Hydra was noticed this time, only because it wanted to be noticed.
With no shiny Stark lawyers to argue their side, their pardons came with enough rules and regulations to tie them up in knots and force their hands to sign the Accords.
Accords that were much different than what he remembered Tony talking about. Different to what Natasha had explained to him. Tony's plans had died before they even had a chance to get off the ground.
He could still see Ross smirking triumphantly as the silver tracking bands snapped into place, tight, flush against their skin. With an end date not until years in the future, that, or jail. The Raft.
After they returned to America, they were almost immediately dispatched to different crime scenes across the world. The missions varied from assassinations to what looked like utter war and destruction. Refusal of missions was possible, but if they didn't meet a certain amount of hours each month, time was added to their sentence, so saying no was risky and Ross knew it.
They were barely given a second to get their bearings.
They worked each case in a subdued manner, the easy joking and camaraderie of the past seemed… hard to find.
Not when Clint was spitting mad about losing his family.
Not when Natasha could barely look at Steve without anger shining in her eyes over bringing Clint in.
Not when Bucky barely spoke, just moved through job after job, a silent wraith in the shadows.
Not when Sam missed his family with a palpable ache that hit him at the strangest times.
Steve wanted his family back, but he didn't know how to get it. Even though they were right in front of him. Wanda was the only one that always smiled at him now.
None of the cases seemed connected on the surface, but many were pivotal in Hydra movements. They knew they were not even ten steps behind, it was much more and Natasha pointed out after several jobs, that they were likely only seeing what was intended to be seen. Which just made everything that much more frustrating.
Battling Pepper for more funding whilst filling out seemingly endless stacks of paperwork in between missions. Steve hadn't actually realised how much Tony did for them. They were also battling against Colonel Rhodes cold disdain when it came to equipment. The Colonel had not taken Tony's
death disappearance well. Each yeah he seem colder.
They skipped from disaster to disaster with a feeling that they were not even on the same playing field. Skipping channels as the news reported the grim facts of life of the world, held in a death grip of Hydra's New World Order.
It was… Disconcerting. Steve felt like his entire world had been knocked off balance. There was no one place to attack. It wasn't like back in the war, of the Howlies going from base to base. The targets never seemed clear cut. It wasn't even like the Battle of Triskelion. He felt like he was trying to catch sand as it slipped through his fingers.
The maudlin direction of his thoughts were thankfully interrupted by Clint.
"Wait, go back!"
Steve snapped his gaze to the TV as Clint pointed, half out of his seat. Sam fumbled with the remote as he flipped back and everyone crowded around. Except Bucky who had a perfect view from his favourite window much to Steve's ongoing irritation, and depression.
There was rubble and people.. No, bodies lying around, it took Steve a second to realise that they were dead, but not before he recognised the familiar uniform. Wanda recognised the place first with a pained noise.
"That's … That's Sokovia!"
Sam turned up the volume, there had been no media, no reports, no anything from Sokovia, for over 14 months now. All attempts at infiltration had been blocked. It was one of Hydra's greatest strongholds.
"I'm Janet Brice from BBC World News coming to you from Sokovia. We had an invite last night, a red carpet invite. As no one has heard anything from Sokovia is over a year now, we immediately accepted.
"As you can see, this is a familiar scene from what I've been told. 4 huge strongholds that appear to include factory's have been completely taken out.
"The Joint American and British armed forces have commented that its like Hydra has been removed by a scalpel. The munitions factories have been completely destroyed and looking at the size of them, not a moment too soon. "
"Holy shit, even we couldn't get into Sokovia!"
He nodded along to Sam as he started mentally preparing what they needed. Steve knew the call would come soon, and Ross had ordered them to Sokovia. The horrid man would probably be accompanying them again. Steve hated it when he did that, so many resources were wasted on him.
"Do we know who did this?"
"That's your job Rogers. This isn't the first attack on Hydra by unknown sources, but it is the largest. Who ever can take Hydra down like this is dangerous ."
"But they're taking down Hydra , surely we should be trying to get them on our side?"
"Of course, that's why we're sending you to recruit them, if you can find them. They've been active for 7 months now and have blazed a bloody, silent trail through the upper ranks of Hydra. How they got into Sokovia.. I have no idea."
"Wait, you've known a group has been combating Hydra for months and you didn't tell us?"
"Need to know Rogers. You didn't. We don't think it's a group, but rather a person. Which means he's probably like you freaks. Find him. We've been calling him Gold."
Ross smirked as he said the title, it was obviously something the general found amusing. Although Steve had no idea why.
"Anything else? Sir?"
Ross sat back smugly as Steve grit his teeth, throwing a folder that Steve barely caught.
“Bring me him. I want this Mr Gold, and you will get him for me, understood?"
Before he could say anything else, the general stood and sauntered off like he owned the place, his team of faceless, suited supers falling in around him. The man never travelled alone now, he was always protected. His paranoia had worsened over the last year, he noted. That, or his recruitment drive had paid off. Last year he only had 1 super following him, he wonders how many it will be next year.
He wonders how much good those Supers could be doing if they weren't attached to Ross all the time.
Clint appeared a few seconds after Ross left the meeting room, along with Natasha and Bucky as he opened the folder. Spreading everything out for them across the table. He didn't bother going over his conversation with the General, knowing that they all heard every word. Sam and Wanda entered last, she hated Ross and they'd learned early on to keep her away from the man after a few to many hints about how easy it would be to have her switched off the team.
Clint picked up a blurry picture, it was all they had of the apparent individual who was apparently systematically attacking hydra in the places it hurt most and the worst times. With a degree of insight that Steve had to assume that they were once part of the organisation. The face was blurry, long hair and facial hair obscuring what the generally bad quality didn't. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he didn't recognise anything about the man.
The only thing that really showed up on the image was the gold glowing at the man's eyes and the whisps around his hands. One held old in front of him and the other off to the side. Anything else had been cropped out.
The power reminded Steve of Wanda in a way, and wondered if there had been more like her hidden in the depths of Hydra. Unlike Wanda the gold stayed wrapped around the man's hands and wrists.
"Is.. Is he like me?"
Wanda tilted her head, reaching for the picture almost tentatively.
"It looks similar, do you remember anyone else back when..?"
Steve tapered off at Bucky's growl as the large man stomped out of the room on the quinjet. He couldn't exactly go far whilst they were in the air and Steve would try and talk to him later he decided. He was still harbouring so much resentment for Wanda and he just didn't understand why. They both came out the other side of Hydra, he'd hoped they could help each other heal.
"Only me and.. Me and Pietro. We were the only ones to survive the experiments and his abilities were nothing like mine."
"Hydra works in cells. Just because one unit was creating enhanced individuals doesn't mean a different unit might not do the same thing."
Clint added absentmindedly as he was reading one of the debriefs. Natasha frowned as she breezed through the files.
"This.. feels familiar."
Clint leaned forward as the rest of them backed off, when Natasha caught a trail that was how it worked these days. The only person she would communicate with was Clint.
"FRIDAY, bring up the reports for the last twelve operations we were on regarding The Operative."
"They're being uploaded to your tablet now Miss Romanoff."
She and Clint went through files, talking quietly whilst Steve was itching to question the pair but Sam kept him back. Sam and Wanda were engaging him in banal conversation to stop him from interrupting Natasha. Last time he had, he'd discovered first hand that Natasha was actually enhanced. Via his dislocated, shattered jaw.
"Shit, Nat your right. It's slight but.. It would make sense. The Operative dropped off the map months ago, around the time that small time technical hydra base was completely wiped out.. Where is the file... I remember that. It was a bloodbath."
Natasha swiped the screen a few times before handing it to Clint.
"You think he's gone rogue?"
He bit his tongue, he hadn't meant for that to slip out, but they'd been chasing The Operative uselessly for years now.
Natasha and Clint snapped to him, glaring slightly before nodding.
He remembered that mission, vividly. They had thought a unit of supers had been involved. That it was one person? That was definitely interesting. Disturbing, but interesting. How a single person could do that to people though? He had no idea.
Sokovia had changed a lot Steve thought when he finally got off of the quinjet, but it had been a long time since anyone had even seen inside the country and longer still since he had been here last. There was no sign that Ultron had ever happened.
Shockingly General Ross remained behind, and the quinjet was guarded on all sides with units from the army. The team rolled their eyes at the ridiculous nature of it before setting off to gather information. It was normal for Ross to have himself guarded as if he was the most important person in the world.
Apart from the destruction to the Hydra buildings, the place actually looked better in some ways. Without hydra destabilising the country things had evened out after Ultron. Unfortunately it was under the rule of Hydra. Which from the news and experience, he knew had not been a pleasant time. No matter how many videos turned up online of how 'great' things were. Sokovia had produced a lot of propaganda before it had gone dark.
Walls that they passed were coated with pictures and notes of separated families trying to find each other.
Candles and flowers lined the walls too, commemorating those who had died. The wall stretched far beyond Steve's field of vision and it look just as packed. He wondered how many other walls looked like this.
It didn't take long for them to start feeling a familiar pattern, just like all their other missions chasing the elusive Operative these last few years. They found nothing useful. Nothing at least that Natasha and Clint were not utterly sure they were not meant to find. If they could get a message to this person, Steve was sure that they would come in. Like Wanda and Bucky, they could do real good as an Avenger. They obviously didn't like Hydra, which was a good starting place. They needed help and he wasn't sure Ross was the place for it.
They were deep in the largest building, Steve was sorting through documentation left behind in an office. He hoped that something useful would be found in the mountains of paperwork. A sardonic part of him was amused that Hydra officers apparently had more paperwork than himself.
When Natasha signalled them he was greatful to have an excuse to step back. having heard something in the main office, they all gathered to find out what. When he arrived, they were searching for a hidden door before Wanda got tired of waiting. She stood in the centre of the room, eyes closed with an arm out. Red Mist wrapping around her fingers as she span in a slow, lazy circle as the tendrils skated out, brushing across the walls before stopping and pointing at a wall by Bucky.
"Someone is there."
It didn't take Bucky long to find the catch and the smell as he opened it was utterly disgusting. It was clear that there was a person in the panic room. Holding his breath he opened the door wide as Bucky had backed off, clipping the muzzle across his face. It always made Steve frown to see him wear it, like all the distance they'd come these years was erased. For this circumstance however. He could understand it.
There was a man tied to a chair, the chair was.. Melted into the ground and there was no way Steve could see that the man could have escaped. Bucky's eyebrows were raised slightly so he wondered if he'd noticed the same thing. He was both gagged and blind folded, but he'd obviously felt the door open.
The man stated speaking but his voice was muffled so Steve sent Sam to notify one of the generals people as he undid the bindings of the gag. He knew Sam would take the long route whilst still being able to truthfully say they informed someone as soon as possible. He undid the gag which came away bloody as the man spat something blood covered out. Blood dribbling down his chin. Wanda ducked back out of view, not that he could blame her.
"Untie me, immediately."
"Why don't you tell us about how you got here? Your name?"
The man however ignored Steve, blinking and looking at the others. Catching sight of Bucky and focusing on him. Making Steve want to step in between them.
"The Asset? Huh. Should have known. We should have given up with you, but no, they wanted to create the perfect asset. So they kept trying . This one, oh he was good too, oh you should have seen him move, like water and completely lethal.. I can tell you all about him, every detail. As soon as you untie me. The longer you wait, the less you'll know."
Steve touched his com to tell Sam to maybe hurry up, this guy definitely had something but was surprised to find his com didn't work. The few officer the captured always sang a tune that they'd tell all, and then tried to force someone to kill them first change they were able. With him secure like this, they maybe had a chance.
"Get me out of this contraption immediately if you want to know anything useful."
Clint smirked, obviously not feeling remotely bad for the man.
"Or, we could leave you there, you could tell us some things and we might untie you long enough to cuff you.."
"I'm no use to you dead now, am I?"
Steve backed up a little, leaving Clint and Natasha to ask questions whilst he backed out of the room, trying his com repeatedly until he finally heard a crackle several rooms away. Wondering what could block their coms. Sure they were 5 years old, but they were still developed by Tony. The idea that the world was catching up on their tech was an uneasy feeling.
"-EVE, STEVE! He's dead! Fuck, Steve! Answer me! "
"Sam, calm down. Who is dead?"
"Ross! It's fucking chaos down here man. They told me to tell you to keep the guy where he is. They'll get to him in time.. They're trying to find whoever is in charge under Ross and apparently no one can decide."
Before Steve has a second to process that someone had apparently killed Ross somehow, Clint came jogging from the office to find him.
Steve sighed, turning to a frantic Clint, this mission was already a mess. But he found himself struggling to find much in the way of pity for Ross.
"What's wrong Clint, we have a serious issue here."
"Yeah, well, our Hydra in the hand is dead."
He dashed back into the room following Clint and skidded to a halt, finding Bucky stood next to the man that had been alive and talking to him barely a minute ago. Now.. Now he didn't even have a head.
Bucky pointed out the timer and the contraption that had been concealed at the back of the man's neck. Steve couldn't get his head around it. He'd been alive and yelling and now… Natasha had her gloves on, putting the red thing the man had spat out when they'd ungagged him. Gathering evidence to for later assessment. He heard a soft huh from her that drew his attention.
She rubbed the blood of metal through the bag, showing the gold underneath. It was strange, like someone had mashed together some gold jewelry or something, leaving spiky edges that sliced up the man's mouth judging by all the blood. He wondered how long he had been trapped like that. Unable to move, eat, speak.
"He was a handler."
"I know Buck, but he's still human."
"He. Was. A. Handler."
Bucky turned on his heal and stalked out of the room, the matter concluded it seemed. Then he remembered what Sam had told him.
"This isn't our only problem either. Sam says that General Ross is dead."
"What? Apart from the president, he is the most protected man in America, practically on the damned planet."
"I don't know, Sam said its chaos down there."
It took them awhile to be allowed access to the quinjet again. It really was chaos given Ross wasn't exactly one for caring about who would take charge if he wasn't available.
No one knew what had happened, all of the units guarding the jet and Ross' personal quintet were completely unharmed. None of his personal guard had been bothered, they had been stood outside his room as Ross had gone to make a private call to the president.
Ross was sitting at his desk, his throat had been slit deep enough to completely sever his vocal cords. Steve could see the white of bone as his head was tilted back, and after the decapitated Hydra officer if left his stomach roiling.
There wasn't a shred of evidence, not even on Friday. The video didn't so much stop, it played as normal, just one second Ross was reaching for his phone, then it flickered like a bad horror movie and the damage was done.
The only thing that gave them a clue was the gold that was clutched so tightly in Ross' hand that it was actually stuck. They had to wrench it open.
Later it turned out to be the gold from Ross' watch. Crushed together. That was pretty much all they had, and a small note scribbled and stuck to the generals tie, that read - 'Hate the name.' in a block script.
Steve didn't know what to make of this, neither did the team. They finished up and returned home on a different jet as the other was officially a crime scene. Leaving with more questions and no answers.
For the next 17 months, things followed a pattern as the world watched, holding its breath as Hydra was taken apart as ruthlessly as it was put together.
Whilst some members of his team were impressed, Steve found himself holding back. Some Hydra bases held thousands of people that were alive one day and dead the next as this elusive Mr Gold cut a bloody swathe through the upper echelons of Hydra.
Some bases were simply dismantled, a few times they got a call to a base with hundreds of Hydra operatives handcuffed and waiting for them.
There was no telling which country he would turn up in next. Even the extremely restricted zones and flights into America didn't seem to stop him. Members of the senate were found dead in their houses with all the evidence of their collusion laid out neatly in front of them. Other governments in different countries faired the same.
There was never anyol evidence that anyone had set foot in the building. Sometimes it was a single death, sometimes entire buildings were rendered into craters.
More than once Steve wondered if there were multiple people involved. Sometimes there was a pattern, other times even Natasha had no idea what was happening.
Who ever was doing this had a lot of knowledge of Hydra and was using it with extreme prejudice.
As they started to draw close to 2 years post the Release of Sokovia, things began to slow down. They were getting less and less work when it came to Hydra. Other bad guys were starting to come out of the wood works now that the megalithic boogeyman of Hydra was being systematically wiped off of the planet. It burned Steve a little that he had no part in it, but looking at Wanda and Bucky. He was just happy it was happening. Even if he didn't agree with the method by which it was being done.
The Operative. Mr Gold. He returned none of their requests to join them. No more notes, no nothing.
Natasha posed the question again of did they even know how much this man was doing. In the past, she was sure the only cases that had come to them, was because he had wanted them too. Even though they never found any useful evidence.
Back then, he had thought The Operative, or Hydra, had been toying with them.
Now.. He wonders if they were cries for help, but all he could manage in the set perimeters Hydra gave him. Bucky had seemed pained at the idea but agreed at the possibility. They had taken in two former assets, that there might be who knows how many more out there, looking for help.
They'd been asking The Avengers for help, asking anyone to help, but they'd failed. So now they were cleaning up Hydra on their own.