“Okay, you got about fifteen steps to the power grid. And I’m talking man steps, not those little bitty baby steps you keep doing.”
Pooch rolled his eyes. Worst part about being on infiltration was not having any way in hell to shut Jensen up. Especially not a base as secure as the one they were busting into. So far, they were through the fences and the cameras were turned around, but that didn’t mean there weren’t guards.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re full of it?” he muttered into his comm.
“I think your sister did,” Jensen replied cheerfully. “Or maybe it was the other way around.”
“Oh, you did not go there!”
“I did!” Jensen’s grin was audible down the line. “Bammin’ slammin’, my frien… whoa.”
Pooch pressed back into the shadow. “Whoa? What’s whoa? Good whoa? Bad whoa?”
“Hold position,” Clay’s voice cut over the line. “Jensen, you got eyes on this?”
“Working on it, boss.”
Pooch’s shoulders were digging into the wall at his back. “Boss?” he breathed.
“We got a party crasher, Pooch. Hold position.”
“Shit.” Pooch hissed through clenched teeth, his hands tightening on his AK.
Whoever they were, they got to the power grid. The lights around the compound went black. Generators rumbled to life somewhere in the grounds, and back-up lights flared, sirens wailing on all sides.
“Pooch, get outta there!”
Pooch was already running and halfway across the grounds back towards the fence. “Ya think!” he yelled.
Guards popped up like ducks in a fairground shoot-out. Looked like they didn’t expect him and for damned sure they weren’t gonna expect anyone else after that. They went down one by one, and not a goddamned prize to be had.
He slung the gun over his shoulder and leapt at the fence, scrambling up.
“Pooch! Behind you!” Clay’s voice rang in his ear. “Cougar!”
Pooch dropped from the fence, rolled, and came up on his knees, fingers sliding to the trigger, as he heard Cougar’s shot.
It didn’t hit the target.
It hit the shield the man was holding.
Jensen was on his feet in the back of the truck, his hands on his head.
Clay leaned back from the screen. “Jensen…”
“Holy fucking shit! Clay! It’s him!” He was laughing. “Jesus Christ! This is like being ambushed by Santa Claus!”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Clay said, keeping his voice quiet. “Jensen, you might want to turn about ninety degrees to your left.”
“Why?” Jensen demanded, half-laughing. “Is it the tooth fairy?”
Clay could tell the second he saw the metal-armed assassin, who had guns trained on both of them from the back of the truck.
“Ohhhhhhh, shit. That isn’t the tooth fairy.”
The man’s mouth turned up in a smile. “You got that right,” he said. His voice was hoarse, like someone who’d been on covert ops too long and didn’t talk a hell of a lot to anyone. “Hands in the air.”
Clay complied at once.
He’d read enough intel reports to recognise the man in front of him. Urban legend in certain circles, but bloody fact in others. Could be he was the reason the second party was raiding the base. Could be a coincidence.
“Hands up,” the man repeated.
Clay risked a look at Jensen, who’d glanced back at the screen and looked like a kid at a toy store at Christmas.
“Jensen!” he snapped.
“He threw the shield,” Jensen said dreamily. “God, what I would give to throw a Frisbee like that.”
“Maybe you can get your groupie on later,” Clay suggested quietly, “when we’re not being taken prisoner by the Winter Soldier.”
Jensen winced, raising his hands. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”
The Winter Soldier didn’t move. “Call off your sniper.”
Clay wanted to groan. Of all the people to play dumb with, this wasn’t the guy.
“Codename: Cougar. Believed killed in action. Bolivia. 2010.”
Jensen hissed through his teeth. “Oh. That sniper.”
“Cougar,” Clay murmured, “you hearing this?”
Jensen didn’t like being captured.
Being captured sucked.
Especially when he didn’t know which side had done the capturing and whether or not there was an escape plan.
“So, who’s the tinman?” he said over his shoulder, his hands on his head.
Clay was right behind him and grimaced.
The one-armed bandit was right behind Clay, herding them into the base, and he snorted at Jensen’s words. Finally someone who had a sense of humour, Jensen lamented, and he was an asshole bad guy.
“Tell him,” Tinman said.
Clay’s face did that thing where he looked like he’d drunk a tequila shot and it turned out to be a glass of piss. “Codename,” he said, “the Winter Soldier. Soviet and KGB operative. Assassin. Credited with more kills than Cougar.”
Jensen turned, walking backwards, as he stared beyond Clay at the Tinman. “KGB?” he echoed. “We’re fighting the KGB? What is this? 1984?”
“You’re not fighting anyone.” Another voice, this one behind Jensen, made him spin around. “You get the last of them?”
“Oh em to the fucking gee…” Jensen breathed, staring at the man in front of him, all red, white, and blue. He was shorter than expected, but he was right there. “Captain fucking America.”
“Told you you should have left the outfit at home,” the Winter Soldier said.
Jensen turned sharply to look at Tinman, who still hadn’t lowered his guns. He frowned, holding up his hands in confusion. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back it up, fellas!” He looked at America’s best superhero in disbelief. “Since when did Captain America work with KGB?”
Behind the mask, Captain America looked torn between amusement and irritation, one side of his mouth curling. “Really, Buck?” he said, looking at Tinman. “You didn’t tell them why you were bringing them in?”
Tinman snorted. “Now why would I do that?” he said, and lowered his guns. “The looks on their little faces were precious.” He jerked his head towards the doors. “Their shooter is on his way in.”
Captain America nodded. “Gentlemen,” he said, “sorry about the rude interruption, but we couldn’t have you getting in the way of our raid.”
Jensen leaned sideways. “Clay,” he said under his breath, “don’t look now, but I think we slipped into some parallel dimension where Captain America is evil and working for the Russians.”
Clay just looked at him. “Sometimes, I wonder if you’re as smart as everyone says,” he said.
“Hey,” Jensen snorted, lowering his hands, “don’t look at me like that! You said yourself that Tinman over there is a KGB guy, and big old Blue here - no offence, sir, the colour really brings out your eyes - is raiding a Government facility. What part of that screams National Hero to you?”
“How about the part when they’re here for the same reason we are?” Clay murmured. He was looking at Captain America guardedly, and Captain America was looking right back at him, a small, cryptic smile on his lips.
“HYDRA?” Captain America said.
“Whatever you want to call the corrupt assholes who are running this place,” Clay replied. “Didn’t know you were doing vigilante justice, Captain.”
To Jensen’s surprise, the Captain’s smile widened. It was kinda hot and kinda terrifying all at the same time.
“This is less vigilantism,” he said, “and more… looking up old friends and tidying up after them. It’s a personal matter.” His smile remained, scary as hell. “So you gentlemen won’t mind sitting this one out, I’m sure.”
Bucky didn’t know what to make of the group of soldiers.
They had been easy enough to pick up, because they didn’t think anyone else was scoping out the base. Only four of them. Netted neatly. The leader was calm and quiet, watching them. The sniper - once he’d joined them - said nothing. The other two, though…
Steve had told him about the kids hunting him for autographs back in his movie-days. He’d laughed about it. They both had.
Now, there were two full grown men looking at Steve like he was Captain Movies again, all wide-eyed and dazzled. They probably couldn’t tell, but Bucky knew Steve well enough to know when to step in and steer the four into a holding cell.
“You think they’ll do what they’re told?” he asked.
“I think the Colonel knows when to go to the sidelines,” Steve replied, picking up his shield. He drew a quick breath. “Now the kids are safe, we better finish up here.”
Bucky fell into step beside them. “You going to let them out when we’re done?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Oh my god, Captain America! My grandpappy told me stories about you!” Bucky snorted.
Steve shot a glare at him. “Don’t even start,” he said.
Bucky snickered. “What about the blond?” he said. “You gonna show him how to throw the shield?”
“How about we finish off HYDRA first, then decide what to do with the guys?”
Bucky was silent for a moment. “Could be like the old days,” he said. “I’ve read the background on those guys. They’re as good as we were back in the day.”
Steve paused, looking at him. “You think we should use them.” It wasn’t a question.
“I think we’re both geriatrics and it’s time the kids these days picked up some of the slack,” Bucky replied. One side of his mouth turned up. “They were ready to go in here, just four of them. How about four of them and the two of us?”
“Five,” Steve replied.
Bucky frowned. “What do you mean five? There’s four of them.”
Steve tilted his head slightly. “You might have read their old files,” he said, “but things changed after Bolivia.” A shadow peeled away from the wall, holding twin handguns, aimed right at them. “Like I said: five.”
Bucky looked at the new arrival. A young woman, she raised her eyebrow in challenge.
“Looks like I got the drop on you boys,” she said. “Where are my men?”
“Your men?” Bucky echoed, amused.
“Clay, specifically,” Steve said. “He seems the type, doesn’t he?”
Bucky considered it, nodded. “Mm. Like Duggan. It’s always the big guys who fall for the pretty face.”
The woman’s guns clicked as she cocked them, one pointed at each of them. “I’d hate to spoil your uniform, Captain, but I want my men back.”
“Did she… did you just threaten him?” Bucky shook his head. “This is the strangest night I’ve had in a long time.”
Steve was watching her thoughtfully. “You picked this location,” he said. “Care to enlighten me as to why?”
“You’re not the only one with a personal vendetta, Captain,” the woman said. “Now, are you going to get in my way or…”
Bucky was the one to make the move off Steve’s wink, and the woman was disarmed and on her back on the ground, looking winded. Bucky turned over the guns in his hands, then tossed one to Steve. “You were saying?”
“C’mon, Buck,” Steve said. “Help the lady up. Be a gentleman.”
Being a gentleman got him a kick in the balls and a roundhouse to the head, and a third gun under his chin. The woman’s eyes were blazing, but Bucky couldn’t help smiling, as he flicked the cartridge out of her gun with ease.
Steve glanced at his watch. “If we’re done here,” he said, “we were going to see if your little club wanted to work with us on this job.”
The woman scrambled up. “With you? Why?”
“Fun? Pleasure?” Steve replied, offering her the guns back. “Or just because it’s been a hell of a long year and clearing this rat’s nest out before sun-up sounds very tempting.”
“What’s the catch?”
Bucky and Steve exchanged looks.
“Well,” Bucky said, “you have to work with us.”
All things considered, the mission could have gone worse.
Another cluster of HYDRA operatives were taken care of. Data was secure. The base was burned to the ground and gutted from the inside out.
And Bucky had made a new friend, which - after everything he'd been through - was practically a miracle. True, they were bonding over the best and highest-calibre sniper rifles Steve had ever seen, but it was a start.
It wasn't that Steve didn't like working with a team, but working with a new group of people had opened up too many variables for him to feel at ease right away. Even now, in a bar a dozen miles from the base, he was still on edge.
The woman - Aisha - strolled back towards him from the bar, two glasses in her hand.
"We still under a white flag, Captain?" she said, holding out one of the glasses.
"For now," he said, accepting the drink.
She smiled, sitting down at the table opposite him. "I know the boys appreciate getting their pound of flesh," she said. "What about you? Get all the vengeance you wanted?"
He didn't look at her, his eyes on Bucky and the sniper codenamed Cougar. "This wasn't about vengeance," he said. "This was about cleaning up."
"Mm." She propped her elbows on the table, balancing her glass between her fingertips. "It looked it."
He looked at her. "And you'd know about that?"
She smiled like a cat over the rim of her glass. "With interest," she replied.
"And how'd that work out for you?"
She shot a look in the direction of the Colonel. "Not quite the way anyone expected," she admitted. She curled her fingers around the glass. "I heard about your friend's reputation. Everyone on our side had. Didn’t think he’d be fighting with you.”
“Not the way anyone expected,” he observed, and she had the grace to incline her head. “You finished here?”
She took a sip from her glass, grinned. “Not like we left much behind,” she said.
“Blondie was playing with their computers,” he said, nodding towards the fair-haired man at the bar who was talking in furtive whispers to his other fan. “Something you were looking for? Or someone?”
Her face gave nothing away, as she took another sip of her drink. She set the glass down. “Cards on the table, Captain?”
He turned to face her fully, resting his forearms on the table. “If you like.”
“We’re looking for a man,” she said. “We have… history.”
She inclined her head. “You could say that.”
“He got a name?”
She mirrored his pose, forearms on the table, glass cradled between her palms. “I’ll give you a name if you give me a reason you’re hunting runaway bad guys. We all know about SHIELD. We all know about what HYDRA did to it. HYDRA’s finished. You’re chasing down the boogeyman. Why?”
He gazed at her. There was a fierceness in her eyes he’d seen before, and hell, he always did have a weakness when it came to capable women who could take care of themselves, as well as a whole troupe of men.
“HYDRA took my best friend and turned him into the Winter Soldier,” he replied, “and they took the organisation that one of my other friends built to protect people and poisoned it.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t like it when people do that kind of thing.”
She leaned back in her chair. “That was surprisingly honest,” she said.
“What can I say?” he said, leaning back too. “I’m an honest guy.”
She swirled her drink in her glass. “Two men against HYDRA? You ever thought about reinforcements? We might be going in the same direction.”
Steve couldn’t help smiling. There was something familiar about the ladies taking charge. “Your boys don’t know you’re volunteering them,” he said.
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug and smiled back. “I’m persuasive,” she said. “They haven’t killed me yet.”
Steve couldn’t help laughing. “You remind me of… well, far too many people I knew,” he said. He drained the glass, and slid it back across the table to her. “Right now, I could use another drink.”
Her smiled turned wicked. “I’ll send Jensen over with it,” she said, rising.
Steve winced. “If you have to.”
Cougar was easily entertained.
A lot of people couldn’t tell it to look at him, but he was, and the second he saw Jensen get up from the bar, he nudged the man beside him. The Winter Soldier - like him - appreciated the value of silence, and followed his gaze.
Jensen let his mouth run too fast when he was sober, but after a mission, and drinks, and in the presence of one of his heroes? It was amazing how much a boy could talk.
“Hey, Cap, sir,” Jensen dropped down into the seat beside the Captain. “I just wanna say this is a real honour. Really, a really, real fucking honour. Fighting side by side with you.”
The Captain looked at him, then looked at the man beside Cougar.
The Winter Soldier just snorted, shook his head. Not his fight. A wise man always picked his battles.
“How badly do you think he’s about to embarrass himself?” Clay asked, sitting down at the table with them.
Cougar glanced over at Jensen. He did things that would make normal men embarrassed, but he never was. He held out his hand, swaying it from side to side.
“I don’t know,” Clay murmured. “He’s a pretty big fan. How often have you seen him make a fool of himself in front of his idol?”
That was different.
“Should we help him?” he asked.
Clay smiled lazily. “Not yet,” he said. He glanced at the Winter Soldier. “How’s your friend’s temper.”
The Winter Soldier just grinned.
Cougar looked back over at Jensen, who was leaning right into the Captain’s face. “I dressed up like you, y’know,” he said, pointing a finger. “Twice.” He grinned wide. “My mom said I was the cutest little Cap she ever saw.”
“That’s great for you,” the Captain said, glaring straight at the Winter Soldier. He started to rise, but Jensen tugged his arm.
“But the second time!” Jensen exclaimed. “The second time! Oh my fucking god! It was, like, three weeks after the battle of New York, and they were selling costumes in the street and I figured, hey, why the hell not, and do you know how many girls hit on me that day? I swear to god it was like someone cracked open the Pussy Pinata and it was raining girls all over me!”
“Oh boy,” the Winter Soldier groaned as the Captain sat slowly back down.
“You’re Jensen, right?” The Captain was smiling, but it was the smile of a shark.
“Yeah, Cap!” Jensen put his hand up in a salute.
“And you’re the smart one? Computers? Tech? All that stuff?”
Jensen beamed. “You bet!”
The Captain leaned closer, and when he spoke, it was too quiet for anyone but Jensen to hear. Jensen’s eyes widened, and he stared at the Captain as if his favourite toy had just been stolen.
“Oh god! Oh god, I’m so sorry! I’m so, so sorry! I’ll take down the photographs!” He scrambled to his feet, saluting again. “I just… over there. I’ll be over there. Taking all the pictures off my facebook.” He hesitated. “It was a compliment, you know that, right?”
He fell over his own feet, running towards the truck.
The Captain watched him go, then got up and walked towards the table. He moved like a cat, Cougar noticed. A hunting cat. His eyes were on the Winter Soldier, and didn’t leave him, even when he leaned down and pressed his knuckles to the table.
“I suppose you think that’s funny, Buck.”
The Winter Soldier was shaking. It took Cougar a moment to see he was laughing, silently laughing, so hard tears were rolling down his face. He slammed his hand down on the table, and choked out, “Your face!”
The Captain, hero of America, leaned across the table and slapped his friend across the head, but not so hard. “You’re still a jerk.”
The Winter Soldier was still laughing. “And you’re just jealous because some mook with a fan boy crush got more ass than you did in that costume.”
That made the Captain smack him again.
The sun was creeping up over the horizon when the truck rumbled into town.
Sam squinted through the windshield for any sign of Steve, and waved when he spotted him standing on the sidewalk. Behind him, there was a beat-up bar, and a courtyard that looked far too busy for so early in the morning.
“Raid went okay?” he said, as soon as he scrambled out the truck.
“Better than expected,” Steve admitted.
“So you needed the truck to pick up useful stuff?” Sam asked, as they shook hands. It had been weeks since they’d seen each other. “Or is there another reason I had to find you a big ass truck and drive it out to the middle of nowhere?”
Steve nodded back towards the courtyard. “We’ve got some good soldiers,” he said. “They might be useful.”
Sam closed his eyes, counted to five. They were in some dust heap of a town in the middle of nowhere, and of course, Captain America managed to find some soldiers who would be useful. “This is just like the Commandos all over again, isn’t it?” he said. “Just without the Nazi camp?”
Steve shrugged. “Not a bad comparison,” he said with a smile. “But it was a HYDRA camp both times. And technically, I released these guys too. But only after I locked them up.”
“Dude,” Sam said, taking him by the shoulders, “we need to get you a hobby.”
Steve just laughed, slinging an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “C’mon, meet the guys,” he said. “The Colonel and I did some talking during the night, and according to some of the data they mined, we’re all heading in the same direction.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “You’re gonna trust a bunch of guys you just ran in… and I’m not even going to finish that sentence, don’t you even try and tell me I was going to finish that sentence.”
“Didn’t say a thing,” Steve said.
“Can’t prove it.”
“Will you shut up already?” The grumble came from a heap of leather and hair that was slouched over a table. A second figure, this one in a hat, was dozing against his shoulder. “Goddamn it, it’s early o’clock in the morning.”
Steve leaned down and mussed Bucky’s hair. “Too much booze, Buck? Aww. Poor baby.”
“Got to say I’m not disagreeing with Tinman there.” Another voice came from under the table. A bleary-eyed man crawled out, squinting in the light. “Cap.” He peered sideways. “Who's your buddy?”
“Pooch, Falcon,” Steve said, waving from one to the other. “Falcon, Pooch.”
“Sounds like we’re in a petting zoo,” Barnes grumbled, rubbing his face with one hand. He peered around. “Where’s your kicked puppy, Rogers?”
“Do I want to know?” Sam asked, looking at him.
“The guy Steve housebroke last night,” Barnes yawned.
Steve put on his best Respectable Cap face, that anyone who knew him could see through in five seconds flat. “I just had to educate a kid about respecting the imagery that goes with the uniform. It’s all about integrity and honour and respect and…”
“Bullshit,” Barnes coughed into his fist.
“That too,” Steve agreed. He chuckled. “Don’t worry, Buck. I’m going to play nice. I’m even going to let him have a selfie with his hero.”
Sam shook his head. “I can’t believe you know the word selfie,” he said.
“I can’t believe I’m still friends with him,” Barnes said, stretching, “but here we are. Us and all our new friends.” He scratched at his head. “You going to drag the Colonel off Miss Pistol-whip?”
“I think you’ll find, Barnes,” a woman’s voice said, “it’s the other way around.”
Sam looked up towards the bar doors. A woman was standing in the doorway in an oversized shirt, a belt cinched in at the waist, and her hair in disarray. Sam reached out and back-handed Steve’s arm. “Dude, how the hell do you know so many hot people?”
Steve looked solemnly at him. “Sparkling personality,” he said. He looked back at the woman, who was smiling. “Wilson just delivered the wheels. You and the Colonel ready to roll?”
“Always,” she replied. “Jensen’s getting us a target.”
Steve looked at Sam. “Thanks for getting the wheels here so fast,” he said. “You can head back to DC when we’re done.”
Sam rolled his eyes, and shook his head as he laughed. “I just drove that damned truck two hundred ks to get to you,” he said. “You really think I just came to bring you your new wheels?”
“Sam…” Steve began.
“You remember the last time you said I didn’t have to do anything? You remember how that went?” Sam raised his eyebrows. Steve shook his head, smiling ruefully. “Okay, good, because if you’re going to surround yourself with badass attractive people ridiculous nicknames, I’m going to be there front and centre.”
Steve looked around at the faces in the courtyard. “And Wilson makes eight.”
“You’re damn right.”