Operation Witch Hunt
Steve Rogers stood at the observation deck overlooking the training arena, arms crossed and watchful as he watched the New Avengers spar with each other. He silently noted all their moves and fighting style, mentally analyzing and cataloguing them to create useful fighting formations and combinations out on the field.
Life at the New Avengers Facility in Upstate New York had become somewhat routinary for Steve. Excluding the days when they were sent out on an odd mission or other, most of his time was spent overseeing the training of the new members of the team, and though he couldn't complain — their training was coming along quite nicely — he did sometimes yearn for a break in the monotony. While it was rewarding to see the new recruits improve, he was starting to feel sorry for Sam every time Natasha handed him his ass.
Just then, the automatic doors behind him opened with a smooth whirr, and Steve turned to see Maria Hill step into the deck, tablet in hand.
"Cap," she called, a business clip to her greeting.
"You got something for me?" he asked, turning to face her.
Maria nodded. "You'd better come with me." Instead of approaching him, she took a step back and gestured for him to precede her through the door. "Fury wants to see you in the control room. There's something you need to see."
Curiosity piqued, Steve walked through the open door as requested. Briskly, he made his way to the control room where the engineers worked with the satellites and computers, Maria on his heels. "Are we being sent out on-field?"
"Affirmative, we've detected aggressive HYDRA movement out in London" Maria confirmed.
Steve frowned at that. "Are we sure it's them?"
After the fall of SHIELD, the Avengers had been systematically raiding all the bases they could find and things on that front had quieted and slowed down recently. What was more concerning, however, was the fact that HYDRA usually operated in secretive cells in isolated areas to keep civilians away and from the local government from intervening with their activities. It was very rare for them to mobilize a public attack on a major world city...unless they were up to something big. Something as big as Project Insight.
"We're positive," Maria responded with a nod, then after a second's pause, she added, "It has something to do with the Winter Soldier."
Steve nearly skidded to a halt at those words. He cast a surprised glance at Fury's right-hand, noting the certainty in her eyes. Breath catching in his throat, it took all his self-control to resume walking and restrain himself from tearing towards the control room on an all out run.
If their pace had increased significantly since hearing the news, Maria never mentioned it.
Fury was perusing something on his tablet at the centre of the room, surrounded by beeping electronics, when Steve stepped into the control room, anticipation thrumming through his veins. The former SHIELD director merely looked up at his entrance, an eyebrow raised over his eyepatch at the sight of his second-in-command trying to catch her breath behind him.
When the rest of the team came rushing in less than a minute later, Steve shared a nod with Natasha and Sam as they took their posts on either side of him.
Satisfied at the assembly that had gathered, Fury got down to business, moving closer to the edge of the raised podium he'd been standing on. "Avengers," he began in that grand way of his that always drew people's attention. He gestured to the wall screen at the front of the room, where an audioless video was playing. "At approximately 5pm yesterday, civilians in London witnessed a shooting at Hyde Park."
Steve turned his attention to the screen, tense and on edge. A recording of the said incident replayed on the screen – chaos and gunfire sending civilians running everywhere in fear and panic. From the shaky footage, they could spy the gunmen, dressed in nondescript tactical gear.
"Shortly after, a house in the suburb was brought down by 3 military grade missiles." The footage changed to a different scene, one with firefighters, news cars and police, all checking the remains of a clearly wrecked house, debris and wreckage littered everywhere.
Sam let out a low whistle at the ruins that remained.
"We have reason to believe that HYDRA is responsible. Particularly because they were in pursuit of this man," Fury continued and the screen shifted to a still image taken from a CCTV camera. It zoomed in and the blurry likeness of the man Steve knew from a past long gone stood out front and center. Fury cast him a sideways glance. "Friend of yours?"
Steve drew in a sharp breath, lips pursing in consternation. There was no mistaking that it was Sergeant James Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. He'd recognize him anywhere.
Nat threw him a loaded look before she addressed Fury with a tilt of her chin towards the screen. "Who's the girl with him?"
As if on cue, the camera panned to focus on the person just running behind Bucky, brown hair wild and flying. Judging from the way the man pulled at her hand, there was no mistaking that they were escaping HYDRA's pursuit together.
"Facial recognition identifies her as one Hermione Granger," Maria answered for Fury. She had made her way to the front of the room to pick up a file at one of the desks and was now looking over the information listed on it. "She works as a junior lab assistant at the University of London with Dr. Jane Foster."
"Foster?" Steve voiced, the name tripping something in his brain. "Isn't that –"
"Thor's lady love, yeah," Sam interjected with a nod and a small grin.
"You mean ex-lady love," Nat corrected with a smirk when Sam balked at her. "They broke up." She shrugged.
"How do you know these things? He's not even here," Sam complained.
"How does someone who works in a university get involved with HYDRA?" Wanda interjected, wanting to know, curiosity in her voice. As someone who had been experimented by the very same organization, Wanda had confessed that she suspected she and her brother hadn't been the only people HYDRA had been tampering with.
Steve had to wonder if she was on to something.
"That's the thing. That's all we have of her." Maria handed the file to Natasha and Steve watched as the redhead's brows furrowed at what she saw. When she was done, Natasha passed the folder to him without a word.
Silently, Steve accepted the very thin file with a frown, eyes quickly scanning through the information on the single sheet of paper. Nothing of note besides her basic information was listed on there: just her name, age, occupation, job details and her address. Nothing else was listed beyond that; she didn't even have a mobile number, and in this day and age, even he had one. The second and last pages contained what Steve assumed was her résumé and a photo of her in a lab coat at what looked to be a laboratory.
"She's got a stellar résumé but none of them checks out," Maria continued. "According to the UK public records, she doesn't even exist."
Steve handed the file to Sam, who took his turn looking through the information.
"You think she's a spy?" Sam suggested, going to the most logical conclusion. "MI6?"
"Any organization worth their salt would have provided her with an airtight backstory. She has far too many blanks," Nat pointed out. "Something is definitely fishy."
"Then I suggest you start fishing," Fury directed them to the door, already turning on his heel to make his exit. "We need those two in custody. You're all bound for Europe. Jet's up in 10."
"Dr. Selvig," Steve, now suited up, called as he spotted the man waiting for them by the Quinjet. The rest of the team had gone to do their individual responsibilities before they took off, and it seemed that Steve was the first to arrive
Dr. Erik Selvig perked up at his approach. "Captain, I heard you were headed out to look for Jane's new assistant."
Steve nodded, remembering that Dr. Selvig was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Foster and not for the first time appreciating the efficiency of the flow of information in the complex. "Anything you can tell us about her?"
"Nothing beyond what Jane has told me. I've never met her myself." Selvig shook his head. "Jane says she's a private person, has got an interesting outlook on astrophysics and is quite brilliant. Jane likes her. The funny thing is, she doesn't quite remember hiring her, only that it felt right that she be there."
Steve pondered that with a frown. He'd never been in a position to recruit people based on their academic achievements, but even he knew you'd have to have done something memorable under your belt to earn a spot in a Nobel Prize winner's team. Not that he himself would be one to judge about faking credentials to join a cause nor the woman's motives behind it. But he did want to know what HYDRA has to do with it.
"Thank you, Doctor. We'll find her," he said instead, tapping the good doctor on his shoulder.
And Bucky, he added to himself with conviction, despite dreading what he might find in his friend's eyes again. It was difficult to reconcile what HYDRA had turned his best friend into, but Steve was determined to get him back.
Bucky was not all gone. He was sure of it.
With a nod and a wish of luck, Dr. Selvig left to make his way back down to the labs, and Steve turned just in time to see Natasha sidle up to him, pocketing her phone. "Tell me you've got something."
Nat nodded, already walking towards the open hatch of the Quinjet. Steve matched her pace; Natasha was nothing is not efficient. "Two things actually – there's someone in Amsterdam, Stijn Jansen," she informed him, "Smuggler by trade. He operates a ring that takes people in and out of the continent for the right price. If you want your guy, you'll most likely find him with Jansen to evade HYDRA."
"And the other?"
"Corrine," she answered. Steve's confusion must have been evident on his face because Natasha continued, undeterred. "You know Corrine, from the receptionist at Veterans Affairs?" Before Steve could say anything, not that he even had any to say to that, Nat went on. "She's mentioned that she'd be totally up for a drink on Friday night."
As soon as those words were out of her mouth, Steve didn't even stop to wonder what his friend was on about and he swiftly proceeded to climb onto the jet, escaping yet again another one of Natasha's attempts at setting him up on a date.
"Good for you, Nat. I'm sure you'll have a good time."
"Not for me, for you!" she called out after him.
The following morning, the Scottish Highlands stirred to life, cool, muggy and windy, even for a regular summer day.
Hermione had always been an early riser, and despite being exhausted from yesterday's adventures, she awoke bright and early, body rousing reluctantly. Blinking into the sunlight streaming through the tent's canvas windows, she took in her surroundings and when the events of the day before filtered into her slowly waking faculties, she groaned, throwing an arm over her eyes in despair.
Hermione had been so exhausted last night that by the time she finished erecting her protection wards, she'd all but blackout on her bed, drained, and she hadn't had the time to reflect on the chaos that had followed her. At Hyde Park, the warehouse, herhouse...
Oh, god, her house.
Her landlord was going to kill her.
Letting out another unhappy groan, Hermione rose from her bunk and threw the blanket back, already mentally running through their next plan of action. If there was anything her experience of being on the run had once taught her, it was to always be on her feet, ready for every eventuality.
Outside her 'room', Hermione could already hear Winky puttering in the kitchen, no doubt preparing breakfast. She wondered if the only other human occupant of their little camp had already woken up as well.
James had mentioned leaving for Amsterdam the night before, where they'd be smuggled out of the continent. Hermione wasn't sure how to take having to be smuggled out of anywhere or what to think of the fact that he actually knew of someone who had the means to do that, but she didn't really have a lot of options at the moment. There were too many unknown variables involved, too many things she didn't know.
What were HYDRA's motives? What were James', for that matter? He'd hinted at a past involvement with HYDRA, but to what extent? Was he on the run, too? And if so, why?
Obviously, if Hermione wanted answers, the wisest thing to do would have to be to stick around and follow her reticent saviour a little while longer. She had never been one to go in blind, and having someone who at least knew who or what they were dealing with was better than nothing.
Hermione was ruminating on these very thoughts when she stepped out of the shower, dressed in her most comfortable pair of jeans and dragonhide boots she hadn't worn since she'd settled in London to concentrate on her research. She had a feeling they were in for another long day.
Shrugging on a light blue denim jacket over the white tank top she wore and her satchel, Hermione made her way into the small kitchen space where Winky was dishing up some sausages and eggs, several plates floating all around her tiny elfin form.
"Good morning, Winky," Hermione greeted as she approached.
"Good morning, Missy Granger!" Winky turned wide, watery eyes at her, smiling warmly. As she had done every morning since Hermione had hired her as a field companion a few years ago, the house-elf snapped her fingers and a steaming teapot and its matching teacup appeared on the table, just within Hermione's reach, already anticipating her needs.
"Thank you, Winky." Hermione smiled appreciatively, taking a seat and wondering if the house-elf even knew they were still currently being hunted. Not that camping in the wilderness was anything new to Winky; they'd spent so many days in this very tent together that this was probably just par for the course for the house-elf already.
Regardless, Hermione knew Winky would do whatever she could to help her and would follow her to the ends of the earth — even into another world entirely. Such was the loyalty of a house-elf, pure, unwavering and oftentimes misguided. It was what made their kind both so strong and so vulnerable to outside influences.
Hermione, of course, had no intention taking advantage of the devotion. Though she had once despaired at the thought of shackling a living creature to a life of servitude, after some re-education on her part — about house-elves, their magic and their nature — she had truly grown to appreciate Winky's presence in her life. Particularly in a world where they literally had no one else but each other.
And speaking of presence...
Glancing at the closed door down the short hall of the tent, Hermione took a sip of her perfectly crafted Earl Grey tea. "Winky, do you know where James is? Has he woken up yet?"
"Yes, Missy Granger." Winky nodded vigorously, ear flapping with her movements, before she set a plate of sausages and eggs on the table before Hermione. "Mister James goes outside really, really early this morning. Mister James is not even taking coffee!" the house-elf complained. "Winky is bringing him back for breakfast!"
"No need; I'll do it," Hermione volunteered instead, standing up from her seat after a final sip of her tea. "I have to speak with him anyway."
And with that, Hermione strode out of the tent, spotting Vulcan lying comfortably between the embers of his fiery nest. Hermione smiled at the dozing firebird, still not yet fully grown. He lifted his head at her approach, blinking bright crimson eyes up at her. She murmured a morning greeting and sent him three blue bell flames to devour as she passed by. She surveyed the brush around them, wondering where Sprig had gone off to and hoping to catch sight of the mysterious Mr. James.
Just then, the sound of splashing caught Hermione's attention and, acting on instinct, she followed the noise towards the Great Lake. Walking up to the large oak tree that stood tall, old and proud by the shore, Hermione laid a hand on its trunk, eyes searching. It didn't take long for her to catch sight of James swimming laps in the middle of the lake and she marvelled at his fortitude. She would have never been able to stand the cold this early in the morning; not without warming charms.
Hermione called out to him, raising her free hand to wave at the swimmer in an effort to gain his attention. "James!"
It took Hermione a couple more tries to catch his attention, but as soon as she did, she could see him change course, swimming towards the shore with strong, powerful strokes. She watched as he drew near, frowning in confusion at the sight of his metal arm, glinting silver in the sun. Before she could contemplate on it further, she was pulled from her musings when James pulled himself out of the water.
Hermione opened her mouth to greet her new companion, but was promptly, for probably the first time in her life, struck speechless, the words she'd meant to utter dying an instantaneous death on her tongue as she all but goggled.
Hermione had seen her fair share of shirtless men before. She'd, of course, seen Harry and Ron without their shirts on; there had been no escaping that when they'd been on the run. She'd obviously seen her short list of old boyfriends starkers, as well. She'd even seen Ron's brothers without their robes on one summer day at the lake by the Burrow.
But if she'd thought Charlie had been the fittest of the lot physically, the dragontamer definitely didn't hold a candle to what Mr. Mysterious James sported.
Sweet Morgana, the man was sculpted like a Greek god.
Mouth dry, Hermione bit her lip hard, unable to stop her eyes from trailing over the rivulets of water dripping down James' broad shoulders and his sleek mascular form, all taut and solid as a rock. His arms were thick bands of steel – one of them quite literally, it seemed – strong and powerful; he looked like he could rip anyone in two with his bare hands.
"What's wrong?" James sent her a questioning glance as he waded out of the water and towards the pile of clothes and fabric resting just a few metres away, muscles rippling as he moved.
Hermione squeaked, embarrassed and sputtering at having been caught ogling. "Oh, uh," she stammered eloquently, cheeks hot and rosy.
With his hair wet and slicked back like that, Hermione found it difficult not to notice just how attractive James really was. Not that she hadn't the first time, what with his piercing dark blue eyes, high cheekbones and a jaw carved from marble, but without the immediate threat of danger, her attraction came back three-fold.
"I just," she continued but had to pause and turn away, equal parts embarrassed and discomfited, when James started to wipe himself dry, though he didn't seem at all bothered by his near nakedness, and Merlin, did he look good in nothing but his boxer briefs.
Stop it, Hermione!
Darcy was a bad, bad influence on her.
"I wanted to talk to you about Amsterdam, but, uh, you were – I mean," Hermione closed her eyes painfully. Oh, my god, shut up. "breakfastisready," she rushed out in one breath before she scurried away as fast as she could, completely missing James' bemused smile, far too wrapped up at praying for the ground to swallow her whole to notice.
Jame had to admit, magic was convenient. Strange, but certainly efficient. It had taken all of two seconds for the elf and Hermione to pack their things and round everyone – firebird, twig insect and tent and all – up again and before he knew it, Hermione was presenting him with an old piece of orange and yellow striped sock.
Confused, James stared at the innocent yet ratty piece of cloth with a deep frown.
"This," Hermione began, holding the sock in her palm, raising it between them, "is a Portkey. It will activate in 2 minutes. Hold on to it and don't let go."
"A sock?" James raised an eyebrow.
"Well, yes," she answered plaintively, "but I've turned it into a Portkey. It'll take us to Amsterdam."
James pursed his lips, eyeing the bright thing warily. "Why a sock?" At the confused tilt of her head, he expounded, "Couldn't you just teleport us like last time?"
Hermione shook her head in response, wisps of curly hair flying. "Holland is too far for me to Apparate; it's too dangerous. We could end up getting Splinched."
James wasn't sure what Splinching was either but it didn't sound pleasant. With a sigh, he nodded his head and hesitantly laid a hand on the sock. He would have much preferred to travel the...traditional way, but there was no denying that doing it the magical way was faster.
Besides, it couldn't be any worse than 'Apparating', could it?
Hermione checked her watch, counting down the seconds, and bent down to pick up her suitcase. When she looked back up at him, she gave him an encouraging smile. "No matter what, don't let go."
It was the last thing James heard before he felt something pulling him by his navel, dragging him into a whirlwind through time and space.
Apparently, it could get worse.
It was worse.
A moment later, James found himself staggering on the ground, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. He shook his head, disoriented and not a little queasy. He took a deep breath, trying to settle his roiling stomach.
When he was sure he wouldn't be regurgitating his breakfast, James allowed himself to look around, taking in the copse of trees they were surrounded in. The general area looked to be relatively secluded, away from prying eyes, but he could hear the sound of activity close by.
"All right, James?" Hermione asked, a concerned wrinkle on her brow.
James nodded, slightly disgruntled, as he straightened up from where he ended up crouching on the ground. "Let's not do that again."
"You get better at it with time," Hermione responded reassuringly, though there was an amused twitch at the corner of her mouth.
"Where are we?" he asked instead, knowing full well that unless HYDRA lost their scent, they would still most likely still use it again for a quick escape.
"Vondelpark." Hermione answered as she picked up her suitcase from the ground, shrunk it to the size of a walnut in her palm and deposited the miniature thing into her satchel.
James strode out into the road without blinking an eye anymore, spying quite a few people loitering about, some lazing away on the grass, others riding bikes a short distance away. It was a bright and cheery day in Amsterdam, as bustling and colorful as the last time he'd been there; a stark contrast to the chilly winds of Scotland they'd left behind only moments before.
As James considered their next move, he had to admit that teleportation was a handy ability to have, despite it being unpleasant. It would certainly come in handy if in case they ran into more trouble, especially when dealing with Stijn Jansen and his kind, on top of HYDRA breathing down their necks, of course.
"Let's head out," he finally said, grim at the prospect of having to deal with the seedier folks of the world yet again. He headed in the direction he assumed led to the exit, Hermione close behind.
Having regained most of his memories during his 'time' with HYDRA, James knew of how Europe's criminal pipeline relatively worked, and while Stijn Jansen wasn't one of the head honchos of the continent, his reputation as a smuggler was known to many in the Underworld. James had no doubt, however, that HYDRA would probably catch on or get wind of their dealings with Jansen sooner rather than later, but getting out of Europe and into the wilds of Africa would give them a better chance of evasion than staying close by like sitting ducks.
Finding the touristic places of Amsterdam was easy enough, and after convincing Hermione to wait at a café in Dam Square so he could do his first order of business, James had no trouble picking off a young pickpocket off the side of a hidden alley; the city was crawling with them, after all. With his intimidating stature and maybe a slight show of strength, he had no trouble coercing the teen to take them to a nondescript brownstone building in the outskirts of Bijlmer, Stijn Jansen's 'office' apparently.
Hermione stood on the street beside him, looking at the unassuming structure hesitantly. James could tell by the tense line of her shoulders that she was apprehensive, and while he was loathed to be the one to drag her around unscrupulous places, they needed them to stay under the radar.
Placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder, James nodded at her and led the way, dragging the reluctant young thief with him up the walkway to the door by the scruff of his collar. After a moment, Hermione followed behind them, cautious.
Once at the porch, the teen rang the intercom, fidgeting nervously.
Someone answered on the third ring. "Ja?"
"J-Jansen, iemand wil je zien," the pickpocket answered in Dutch, stammering and glancing at James anxiously. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt. "Hij zegt dat het belangrijk is."
"Wie is het?" a thick, gruff accent emerged from the intercom, demanding.
This time, it was James who spoke up, wanting to get down to business and sparing the boy who looked about ready to wet himself. "We hebben een doorgang naar Afrika nodig." From the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione's eyebrows rise in surprise, and a tiny part of him took pleasure in reversing the tables on her for once. "Ik heb gehoord dat je ons kunt instellen."
There was a long moment's pause, the intercom crackling in the silence before they were buzzed in, the door creaking open with an ominous whine. James stepped back as the young punk bolted, skidding down the street and out of sight. He held the door open so Hermione could step in.
She glanced up at him curiously as she passed. "I didn't know you could speak Dutch."
"I speak several languages," he responded off-handedly, following her in.
"How many?" Hermione asked, an inquisitive sparkle in her eyes, glancing back at him over her shoulder, a hand on the balustrade as she climbed the first set of stairs.
James shrugged, lips pursed, not entirely sure of how he felt about this particular ability. "Thirty."
"Thirty?" She gaped at him, stumbling in the middle of the landing and actually missing a step. "You're joking!"
"I don't know if you've noticed," James said casually as he hedged around her and took the lead up the second flight of stairs, "but I'm not really the joking type, doll."
A speculative gleam shone through Hermione's caramel brown eyes. "You're a curious man, Mr. James."
Considering this came from a woman who could teleport and shrink things – among other things – James decided he'd take it as a compliment.
Ja? - Yes?
J-Jansen, iemand wil je zien - J-Jansen, someone wants to see you
Hij zegt dat het belangrijk is - He says it is important
Wie is het? - Who is it?
We hebben een doorgang naar Afrika nodig - We need a passage to Africa
Ik heb gehoord dat je ons kunt instellen - I heard you can set us up
So, what did you think of Bucky's...guns? :P
Thank you all so much for the love, reviews, comments, faves and follows you gave me in the last chapter! They make me feel warm and fuzzy inside! I'm so glad you are all enjoying this story so far, it really motivates me to write knowing that I have you all cheering me on! I hope you stick with it until the end! I can assure you it will be quite a ride! ;P
If I could actually find a way to make this story write itself, things would move along a lot faster!
This chapter is unbeta-ed so all mistakes are my own. Chapter three has gone through the approval of my beta BlondeTyche, though, so shout out to her, the amazing queen! Thank you so much!
Please leave a review or comment if you liked this chapter! I always look forward to hearing your thoughts and theories. They are usually the highlight of my day!
The next chapter will be out next weekend again, so until next time!