Disclaimer: I own Hal. The rest belongs to older folks.
She shouldn't have gotten up that morning. She certainly shouldn't have got to work. And she should never have taken this job.
Fury and his confidence be damned, nothing was worth this. But at least she wasn't in the tower when it fell. Or the hellicarriers.
No, because she was in downtown D.C., stuck in traffic. She needed to reach the Old Stone House in Rock Creek Park.
Her rendezvous point.
Sunbeams cut through the windows of her taxi, like long celestial You Are Here pointers.
Wow, she was paranoid. She bounced her knee, pressing her face against the glass to see down the avenue. Solid taillights as far as the eye could see. And things only got worse as people stepped out of their cars to snap pictures of the smoky sky, evidence of the aerial battle which had only just concluded.
Glancing away from the road, Hal let her eye wander over the storefronts to either side of the cab. Cameras winked back from each and every one. Dozens of unblinking eyes, just waiting to catch a glimpse of her face. Just because the building and ships were gone didn't mean the enemy was destroyed. Maybe SHIELD lost the battle. She knew so much, but she didn't have the answer to that question, even though she'd give anything to find out.
Fury sent the activation code five hours ago. So whatever he'd led them to believe, he wasn't dead. He still needed her. He'd need her more than ever after the fall of the Triskelion. All those files – lost.
She sure didn't have time to sit around waiting in traffic. It would get her killed, and nullify her purpose.
With a last scowl at the cameras, which she prayed no one was watching, she admitted defeat and fished a wad of cash out of her bag. She peeked at the meter. Fifty bucks should cover it. When had a cab trip downtown gotten so expensive? Right. Since always. This was why she took the bus.
"Hey." She held a trio of twenties in the cabbie's peripheral vision, hoping to buy his good graces – and his silence – with the extra ten. "Thanks for the lift. But I think I'll just hoof it from here."
The cabbie tentatively pinched the money, not pulling it from her fingers just yet, probably hoping for a longer trip and a higher meter. "You sure?"
"Yeah. Like I said, thanks." She let go of the money and scooted to the door as her driver put the bills away. For a second, as her hand settled on the handle, she reconsidered. Fury picked the park because there were so few cameras, and even with the tourists, the place was pretty well isolated. She was downtown. If anyone was looking, they'd see her. Sure thing.
Lesser of two evils, she supposed. Flushed with determination, she popped the door and stepped into the afternoon glare. She spared one last smile for the cabbie. "Have a good day."
She shut the door and moved on, dancing through a second lane of traffic to reach the sidewalk. A few trapped drivers honked, because they had nothing better to do, but the gridlock held, and no one moved so much as an inch as Hal wove her way to safety. Which would be better – speed or stealth? The metro would get her where she was going faster, but the city installed dozens of cameras in the subterranean tunnels. For public safety. Which was almost funny. Maybe the street would be safer. Of course, there would still be cameras on the street. She just wouldn't always know they were there. And she was exposed to satellite surveillance should her prognosticated hunters get really ambitious.
There just wasn't a good option.
Now, a real agent could find her way through this mess, Hal reasoned. Someone with skills, like Maria Hill, or the Black Widow. But Fury didn't hire her for her skills. In fact, he made sure she didn't have any, besides that one important quirk, before he took her on. Her normalcy was her defense.
Until they realized she wasn't normal.
No, she didn't know that. Not for sure. Whoever blew up SHIELD's headquarters had let her walk out of there less than four hours ago. They let her go home, shower, change – pretend everything was normal. But Fury was alive, and he was calling for his Compendium, so for all Hal knew, the entire organization was compromised. She hadn't hung around to find out. She'd watched the tower crumble on her television as she grabbed an extravagantly large purse – stuffed with two changes of clothes, scissors, hair dye, a couple fake ID's, a modest lump of cash, and contact information for some very powerful (really scary) people. This was why Fury brought her into the fold. This was her moment.
She just needed to trust Fury's plan and get where she was going. He'd take care of everything, just like he'd promised, and all his careful scheming would pay off.
The prying eyes didn't drive her off the main roads, but all the pedestrians gawping at the devastation with their cell phones raised on high made for resolute obstacles. She'd meant to just stay on this street until she reached the next metro station, it was just down a few blocks – what normal people would do in the given situation – but she'd fallen behind schedule thanks to the traffic, and she didn't know what Fury would do if she showed up late. The man had an amazing gift for creative punishments when he started worrying.
A detour it was, then.
Hal glanced around to check her bearings, then turned off the main road. D.C.'s side streets weren't friendly territory by any means, and Hal smelled enough tension in the air to make her worry about a riot. One could never predict how people would react to a disaster. That was what made them so dangerous. Luckily, most of the other pedestrians had moved to the wider streets and boulevards to better see the smoke from the hellicarriers. She almost had the street to herself.
After another block, she had to turn again, and she eyed the alley she meant to use warily. Wasn't this the kind of place girls got set upon by rapists in the movies? Muggers purported loved these little niches. If she took the chance, though, she could shave at least ten minutes off her travel time. Otherwise, she'd have to round the block and head back south to reach the nearest station. Well, there was her answer. She didn't have time for that.
She spared one glance over her shoulder, to ensure no one had followed her (like she would know if they had), and plunged into the shady lane.
Five steps in, the hairs on the back of her neck rose. She did her best to ignore them, but found herself picking up the pace. She chanced a peek over her shoulder. No one there. Halfway along, and she knew she'd made a mistake. She could just feel eyes tracking her, but no matter how many times she glanced back, she saw no one. Promising herself that it was the last time, and struggling to not sprint the rest of the way, she looked back. Nothing there. She kept going, and looked forward.
A man stood in the alley, blocking her way.
He had a metal arm.
Bits and pieces of information and rumor rose unbidden from the back of her mind, and Hal drew a hazy impression of someone with a Bad Reputation. A dangerous man. As if the scowl and the metal arm weren't hint enough.
The Winter Soldier
And yet, his face drew a rush of data completely unrelated to the star-marked arm. A different soldier. A hero. Long dead, fondly remembered.
She shook her head and retreated two quick steps, one behind the other. The soldier with two profiles followed, advancing two brisk paces to match her. While the man in the second profile nearly always wore a smile, and the first had no face, this man followed with a stone-cold scowl. His intent was clear, sliced clean and clear from any emotion. What remained seemed a bit… bored, really. Maybe even irritated. An assignment like this must be below his usual pay grade.
Was she the assignment?
With a whoosh that thundered in her ears, her heartbeat spiked. Adrenaline trembled in her fingers, and she clutched her bag closer, torn between using it as a shield or ditching it in the name of speed. Speed was the better option. A couple of shirts and some old canvas would do nothing to stop that metal hand from tearing into her. But what good was running? How far could she get before he caught up and made sure she never ran anywhere ever again?
What would Director Fury think when she never came to the rendezvous point?
"Give me the Compendium."
The Soldier waited for her to answer, but Hal could only just remember how to stand upright, and her stuttering breath would've made speaking difficult, anyway. After a few long moments, the Soldier ceded to her silence and took a step forward. That faintest of threats restored her powers of speech.
The Soldier stopped in his tracks, and the frost in his eyes cracked – just a fraction, but enough to reveal a trace of fear beneath the cold. "How do you know that name?"
Although the Soldier's eyes never left hers, Hal found herself looking anywhere else rather than meet his gaze. She put it down to checking for escape routes, but the truth was that she'd never been so frightened in her life. Where were all those awful cameras now? Wasn't there anyone to look out for her? Didn't anyone notice her duck down this alley? The Soldier began to advance again, and the words came pouring out.
"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, member of the Howling Commandoes. Childhood friend and colleague of Captain America. Born March tenth, 1917. Died… well, I guess that's corrupt data now."
While she kept busy flapping her mouth, he got close enough that, if she wanted, she could reach out and touch him. Her breathing stuttered, and she nearly choked herself trying to get it under control again. One foot moved back of its own volition, preparing for a race. More than one agent had submitted reports of alleged assassinations by the Winter Soldier. The work was always brutal, but efficient.
How efficiently would he kill her?
She looked up, expecting to find the same frigid mask he'd presented before. But while she'd been looking away, the crack had broken into a flood. He had a face built for emotion, she realized. Everything he felt fluttered across his eyes, pulled around his lips, crept into the miniscule features that made his expression. She'd never seen a man so vulnerable.
And it scared the shit out of her.
"Do you… know me?" Even his voice was different. Curious, almost timid. Nothing like the way he'd spoken before.
Couldn't he tell?
"Not personally," she said. "I just – I know a lot of things."
He closed his eyes, and Hal watched his body language as the Soldier re-emerged. Shoulders back. Chin up. Mouth hard. When he opened his eyes, they still had the lightest touch of emotion, but the man was clearly in control of himself again.
"My mission is to recover the Compendium. I wasn't ordered to kill you; give it to me and I won't have to."
Faintly, hardly aware of what she was doing, she said, "Sorry, I don't think I can do that."
He lowered his chin, took an ominous step forward, and Hal knew he was moving in for the kill.
"Wait! Please!" Before she could really think it through, she tossed her bag at the oncoming soldier. He batted it aside with his metal arm, annoyance scrawled clearly across his face. Hal held up her hands, like she could stop him by pushing the air. "No, really, I don't have anything! Everything is in that bag." The only remotely compromising in there was Fury's list of contacts, and it was nothing more than a list of cell numbers. The names were all well known. She wasn't risking anyone else with this little gamble. "See?" She held out her arms and twirled. In her snug jeans and thin tunic shirt, it would've taken some skills to hide anything. Hopefully, he could tell she had no idea what the crap she was doing. "I'm not carrying anything valuable, I swear."
Fortunately, Hal had always been a bad liar. And she was telling the truth. The Winter Soldier would be able to read her if she was lying. Or he could assume she had training. It would take an awful lot of training to fool him, though. He clearly didn't think much of her when she threw her purse at him – hopefully he didn't think too much of her now.
He stopped for a moment and glanced at her pack. Though his face didn't move, his eyes darted across the bag, sweeping it, and Hal could tell he was weighing his options. For some reason, this seemed to be a new experience for him – having options.
When he finally looked up again, she held her breath.
His face remained utterly stoic, and when he gave no further response, Hal nodded to herself. She backed up a step. Another. He didn't pursue. Trying not to think about what he could do to her when she had her back turned, she spun on her heel and fled back the way she came. Her bag stayed where it landed, a scant yard from the Winter Soldier's feet.
She was fast, he'd give her that. Nearly as fast as he was. Fortunately, a foot race wasn't part of the plan. He gave her a head start, plenty of time to glance over her shoulder a few dozen times, and occupied himself going through her little peace offering, just in case she was trying to be clever.
If she didn't have anything to hide, she'd still be in her apartment, sheltering from the chaos outside, instead of throwing a paltry collection of belongings into a sack and running for it. She hadn't lied when she'd said she carried nothing of value, but she'd been flirting with a half-truth. He could see it in the way her thumb rubbed across the base of her knuckles, her compulsive swallowing. She'd wanted to keep something down, leave out a piece of information. So, she didn't have the Compendium on her person, but she was on her way to retrieve it.
Once she had it, he would take it from her. If she resisted, he'd kill her as quickly as possible, take the Compendium, and consider this damned secondary mission a success.
Peirce had stopped to speak with him, just before he was deployed aboard the hellicarrier, with a photo of a young woman and an exasperated smirk. "Once you're done here, find this girl. She's carrying something called the Compendium. Get it. It may be important." Then his superior had left, shaking his head and muttering about Fury and his little projects. The Soldier took the photo, took the order, and continued with his mission.
Then the fight. The man from the bridge. "I'm with you… to the end of the line." The fall. The rescue.
Memories. He'd forgotten how to hold them, how to study or dismiss them. They roared through his mind, thundering in his skull until he almost missed the rubber mouth guard between his teeth and the burning crackle of electricity shivering through his sinuses…
He'd needed a distraction. Without a point to focus on, he would lose control completely. And then his secondary mission appeared, bustling along like she knew she was hunted. Alone. Unarmed. In the open. So he obeyed his instincts and pursued. This would be an easy assignment.
And it would've been if she hadn't said that name.
Did everyone know that name? Why? Who was Bucky? Who was this girl to know?
He'd been angry.
You were terrified, a little voice whispered at the back of his mind. He shook his head, like he could dislodge the murmur of dissent.
He'd been angry.
But she didn't have the Compendium yet. So he would have to wait. In a moment, he would follow.
He found nothing of value in her bag except a list of numbers and names. Emergency contacts, perhaps, in case something went wrong.
Well. Something had certainly gone wrong.
He valued the list, because he recognized the first name: Steve Rodgers. His mission was in contact with the man from the bridge, or she would be soon.
Maybe this mission could serve as more than a distraction after all.
A/N: Ladies and gentlemen, if you could all please look to the right and shout "Shrubby, this is all your fault" on the count of three, I'd be much obliged. Ready? One. Two. Three.
Shrubby, this is all your fault!
Very nice. Thank you.
Welcome to the show!
I like making new friends, and I always reply to reviews, so please leave your donations in the box below. Thankies much!