James is twenty-six and on top of the world when he hears the rumors for the first time.
['Top of the world' might be a slight exaggeration. He’s only twenty-six after all, and for all that his body is in peak condition, when it comes to assassinations all the skill and training in the world can’t fully compensate for experience. James figures it will take another two to three years until he’ll reach is full potential. That’s alright though.
For the moment, James is a highly-sought after contract killer working almost exclusively for HYDRA — and as bothersome as international criminal organizations can be moral-wise, the payment makes up for a lot — with a steadily-growing network of contacts (working for HYDRA us one thing, relying solely on them is just stupid) and a price on his head that’s just high enough to ensure James is taken serious in certain circles, but not high enough for his most dangerous competitors to come after him unless provoked. In his chosen profession, it's about the most comfortable spot one can be in.
In a couple of years, James will be one of the best on a very short list of free-for-hire snipers. He has the talent, the training and at this point also the resources to know that for sure. That's why HYDRA has picked him up in the first place — an investment. They’d never say so to his face, but then they didn’t have to. For now, James is a talented recruit, a well-trained recruit. Just good enough to get noticed. In a couple of years, who knows?
Provided that he lives that long, of course.
But the point is, James is in a good place and he knows it. Maybe that’s the problem.
(He’s in a good place and he’s getting bored.)]
It starts with whispers of a kid getting tangled up in SHIELD’s business. Nothing concrete — there never is, when SHIELD gets involved because if there’s one thing that particular shadow agency excels at, it’s cleaning up its messes — and most of it blown shamelessly out of proportion — a single person blowing up the entirety of Hammer’s illegal R&D department in Alaska? Escaping armed security forces with four sledge dogs and no back-up to speak of? But there’s just enough chatter in the wrong places for James to know that there is something there. Something tangible and potentially dangerous. Still, most of the attention soon dies away as the world moves on to more interesting things as it is known to do. James gets sent to Argentina to eliminate the main witness against a local drug baron, whose empire will prove useful in HYDRA’s efforts to take over the local economy, and that ends any consideration James has been tempted to give the matter.
Only it doesn’t end with those first whispers.
Four months later, another rumor reaches James’ ear. He’s meeting up with old contacts in Naples because there’s something shady about his most recent hit that makes James nervous. And he’s long ago learnt to trust those instincts. His efforts are somewhat wasted on the simple fact that his target, renown neurologist Reta L. Menin, is killed in a fiery explosion days before he is even in the correct country. James never does find out how it happens exactly, only that the few things he knows for sure don’t fit the official story. It’s also the first time a name reaches his ears. A name James hasn’t heard in ten years and could have gone happily without ever hearing again: Stark.
It’s not the first time James finds himself teetering on the edge of an abyss, trapped on a crossroad, facing a choice that will define the road he walks for the rest of his life. It’s not even the first time his trusted gut instinct is pulling him into two directions, at once wanting to track the one holding that trice-cursed name down and eager to run into the opposite direction, to never walk that path down again.
In the end, James does neither. He pushes the damn name from his mind, ignores the way the persistent rumors disappear — which reeks of SHIELD’s involvement, means there’s some meat on this bone — and takes a plane to Egypt. James doesn’t much care for the heat there, but it’s one of the many countries that never runs out of uses for his services. It’s also fairly low on SHIELD’s list of priorities — HYDRA’s, too, but they recognize the potential in having some operatives running around where SHIELD isn’t constantly watching — which makes it perfect. From Egypt, James soon makes his way to Libya, where he disappears effortlessly in the restless chaos the toppled government has left behind. Not even HYDRA could find him now. It’s an absent-minded observation, but one that never quite stops niggling James in the back of his mind. He could just stay here. Maybe go further East. Maybe make his way back towards Europe or go towards Asia. There’s no country in the world in which he wouldn’t be able to make use of his skills — whether they admit it or not — and James knows how to disappear almost better than how to kill someone. If he didn’t want to, not even HYDRA would find him — not without using up more resources than even his ability and reputation is worth. There is an oddly final sense of security in that knowledge — that they couldn’t hold him, if he didn’t allow them to, that he choses, even now. But at the end of the day it’s also a hollow one.
On the twenty-fourth of July, James sets foot on American ground for the first time in four years, hired by Obadiah Stane via HYDRA to ensure the smooth transition of an arms deal with the United States’ leading weapons developer that will cripple SHIELD’s resources, keep them so focused on themselves they’ll be blind to what is happening elsewhere.
On the twenty-sixth of July, James meets Anthony Stark for the first time.
The mission is a cluster-fuck from start to finish. It starts with the briefing itself. Stane isn’t the first megalomaniac billionaire whom HYDRA assigns an over-trained assistant slash babysitter. The organization hasn’t come as far as it did by putting its trust in crazy assholes with delusions of grandeur and the kind of money to get away with mass murder. That doesn’t mean James appreciates being stuck playing bodyguard to a smarmy asshole who believes himself untouchable.
James allows none of those thoughts to emerge from his subconsciousness. There’s no point. Stane is both, the paying customer and the potential target, and James’ own impression of the man completely irrelevant. That doesn’t make ordering incompetent security details who wouldn’t recognize a Red Room agent if she stabbed them in the neck around all day any more interesting. But James doesn’t get payed for interesting and he follows his orders without complaint.
(He also shoots one of the truly incompetent guards to get his point across, but that’s neither here nor there.)
As with all his jobs, James is prepared for a number of foreseeable and unforeseeable complications. It’s his job to be prepared, to fix other people’s mistakes and ensure that HYDRA ends up the winner of any business transaction they engage in. Unfortunately, none of James’ skill and experience prepares him for running into Anthony Stark.
James will never admit it — HYDRA isn’t the kind of employer to forgive weakness — but seeing the fourteen year old son of his old mentor throws him off his game far more than it should. There are no remaining emotional attachments to the Starks — James would like to think he’s proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt ten years ago, but HYDRA is a suspicious lot — but that doesn’t make being suddenly confronted with the last living member any easier. The kid looks startlingly similar to his father, but James sees his mother’s influence in Anthony’s eyes and cheekbones.
Running into the kid — the son of Stane’s business partner and practically family — on its own is bad enough. But it’s the way Anthony freezes upon seeing him, takes him in with familiar, brown eyes too damn clever for their own good, that really causes alarm bells to go off in the back of James’ head. Stane introduces him as his newest bodyguard once he notices Anthony’s interest with the jovial air of an indulgent uncle that makes James’ fingers itch to shoot him. He’s not sure if Stane doesn’t notice or simply doesn’t care, but James’ gut tells him that Anthony doesn’t believe a word he’s saying.
Because James has seen eyes like that before and if there’s one thing he’s entirely sure of, it’s that Anthony Stark knows exactly who and what he is.
And really, that’s all James needs to add up the clues. There’s only so many kids with the sort of ties to intelligence agencies that could cause the kind of furor SHIELD would want to keep quiet. Only so many fourteen year old Stark’s that someone like the ever pragmatic director Nick Fury would waste resources on to protect. Only so many kids with the smarts and connections to get access to the sort of databases that contain information on men like James Barnes — because HYDRA can do many things, but even they can’t erase everything.
Truth is, James should have shot the kid on the spot. Anthony Stark is exactly the kind of complication that could fuck this sort of deal over — and, more importantly, a genius kid out for his blood is the last thing he needs.
And there’s no doubt the kid has it out for him. James reads people for a living and it’s surprisingly hard to conceal genuine hatred. Especially the intense sort he gets from the kid. James has a pretty good idea from where he’s picked it up too.
(He knows better than to leave witnesses behind, even those too small to understand or remember what he’s done. Children grow up, that much is inevitable, and James has no desire to watch his future enemies become strong enough to challenge him before they make their move. But Anthony Stark isn’t included in the mission briefing and there’s something that isn’t quite mercy that makes him walk past the nursery without a second glance.)
James doesn’t shoot the kid. Stane insists there’s no need for it. That James is being paranoid — possible, but unlikely — and that Tony just has a hard time warming up to strangers. James resists snidely asking when exactly the kid is supposed to warm up to Stane (He reads people for a living and James’ supposed identity isn’t the only bullshit Stane tries to sell the kid that Anthony isn’t buying, that’s for sure) but above all else he’s a professional. What those conversations really tell him is that Stane has use for the boy still. He doesn’t wonder what kind of use Stane has in mind. He doesn’t wonder what will happen once that use runs out.
James is tempted enough to shoot Stane on a daily basis without adding to it, thank you very much.
Still, Anthony continues to be alive and makes a nuisance of himself by stalking James. He doesn’t even have the decency to do it covertly. No. He’s all up in Stane’s face about it, telling him he doesn’t like this guy’s resting murder face and proceeds to follow James wherever he goes. Stane finds the whole thing endlessly amusing, which is really just another mark against the man. When James tries to calmly explain that the kid is posing an unnecessary risk to the entire operation and can’t Stane just send the brat into a boarding school abroad or something, the man has the gall to tell him if he can’t even work around an underage kid, he’s not the man HYDRA has made him out to be.
That just pisses James off. Really, how is he supposed to do his job if Stane won’t listen to a damn word he’s saying? It really only gets worse from there on out.
Anthony continues to bother them until he — inevitably, not that Stane is willing to see it that way — trips over incriminating information. It’s pure chance that James catches him before the kid has the chance to call in the cavalry. And even so, it’s only a matter of time now.
For future references, James wants an 'I told you so' clause in all his future employment contracts that allows him to hit his employers over the head with a couple of harsh truths when they’re being utterly unreasonable idiots.
That is, if he survives the disaster that is Stane trying to cover his own ass whilst still gloating in front of a tied-up Anthony — who, like James, looks to be trying hard not to roll his eyes. Seriously, every time James turns around, Stane reveals yet another reason for why James would do the world a favor if he shot the man. Of course, James didn’t follow his chosen profession because he believes in such a thing as the greater good, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Anyways, for some reason that James won’t ever be able to explain to his supervisors later on, he lets Stane convince him that shooting Anthony isn’t the most logical course of action and that they should instead drag the kid along to one of the more off-the-grid Stane Industries faculties. They make it there without incident, which, in retrospect, should have made James suspicious. As it is, he’s too busy keeping an eye on the last of the loads being packed off as they are supposed to. And really, it can’t be more than fifteen minutes during which he leaves Stane alone with Anthony, but of course that’s when everything goes completely to hell.
James would be impressed with Anthony’s talent for setting things on fire and causing explosions, if he wasn’t so busy making it out of the damn faculty alive before the building caves in on him. He doesn’t know what Stane did, but knowing him it must have been both, incredibly stupid and incredibly personal.
Because when James comes across the bloodied and sooty figure of Anthony Stark — of course the kid made it out of that death trap alive, honestly, James isn’t even surprised — there are tear tracks on the boy’s cheeks and a vacant expression settling on his face that reminds James uncomfortably of himself.
He’s not sure if that’s the reason he doesn’t immediately pull his gun on the boy. But it definitely helps that Anthony is unarmed — and that there’s really nothing left of the mission to protect. The boy doesn’t move from where he’s kneeling in the dirt, stares blindly ahead, as though the barren desert surrounding them holds all the answers. Personally, James suspects that most of them come down to the simple fact that the universe is a cold-hearted bitch.
"You killed my parents."
It’s not so much that he’s surprised — he’s suspected that Anthony knows from the very first moment he realized that he’s the kid that’s gotten tangled up in SHIELD business because there’s no way Fury wouldn’t have ensured that Anthony would know the worst of James, and likely only that — but he’s been waiting for the boy to approach him since the kid first strolled into Stane’s office and froze at the sight of him. It’s been two weeks since that moment, and it seems oddly…silly to dredge up old sins now, after all this time.
There’s no reason to deny it. And sure, James could add more, could explain or justify, but the truth is there isn’t much to say. The truth is, even if there was, it wouldn’t change anything. And for every crime James has committed, there is something about him that has never changed: James knows who he is, what he is. He knows what he’s done and he accepts the consequences of his actions.
This moment is just that; the consequence of killing Howard and Maria Stark. The consequence of letting Anthony Stark live.
(Stark snorts, and there’s none of the ever-present grace James has become accustomed to in the gesture. "The weak spend their whole life denying it, but we all are the makers of our own hell. Never forget that, James."
James doesn’t understands, but that isn’t relevant. He simply nods, accepts the advice, memorizes it for the day he will.)
On the ground before him, Anthony Stark takes a shuddering breath. His hands bury themselves in the dirt as though to ground him. James doubts the feeble gesture will help.
"Obi ordered it."
Like the first time the kid spoke up, his words could have been an accusation but aren’t. They’re empty shells, the matter-of-fact statements of someone who knows the truth and finds neither comfort nor value in it.
James neither confirms or denies the comment. He’s not in the habit of discussing his businesses, and certainly not with Anthony Stark of all people. Maybe the kid doesn’t expect an answer or maybe he realizes he won’t get one either way because after a moment he continues.
"Are you gonna kill me now?" Anthony Stark asks him. He appears disturbingly unbothered by the possibility.
James probably should. There’s no manual for situations like this — no manual for any mission that goes as fundamentally wrong as this one — but in general HYDRA is not a big fan of witnesses.
Hell, James probably could. He doesn’t make a habit of killing children unless necessary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Nothing ever sends a statement quite as clear as a dead family and HYDRA is all about making statements.
What James does instead is crouch down before the kid and take a hold of his shoulders, force the boy to look him in the eye.
"You knew that before today," James states with complete certainty. "You’ve been distancing yourself from Stane for the past eight months. You’re a smart kid, Anthony, but we both know you wouldn’t have figured this out on your own. You needed help for that. The kind of help that always comes at a price."
The kid furrows his eyebrows. His pupils are blown and he’s probably suffering from a concussion at the very least, but he remains fairly coherent and James is confident that he’ll remember this conversation later on.
"What are you saying?"
"I’m saying we both know SHIELD doesn’t do anything for free. Maybe they noticed something suspicious in one of Stane’s dealings. Maybe they didn’t ask you to do anything, just visit a little more, keep your eyes open, pay attention, hm? With how smart I suspect you are, I’d have thought you’d figured out by now that what they do give you is never worth what they demand in return. So for once in your life, be smart. Go back to your house in Malibu. Go to school. Get a job far, far away from anything intelligence related. And the next time Fury calls you? Tell him to go fuck himself."
Anthony snorts weakly. Sags a bit more into James’ grip. "You make it sound easy."
"It is." James shrugs.
The kid blinks his eyes open again, visibly struggling to stay conscious by now. "Sure. For you maybe." He smirks bitterly. "Not like you’ve got anything to lose, right?"
James narrows his eyes but he doesn’t get angry. He knows who he is, what he is. And he also knows this: "No matter how much you give them, they’ll always come back for more. They’ll always be a bit more demanding, a bit more greedy than the last time. You need to get out now, Anthony. While you still can."
Anthony tilts his head to the side — actually, he tilts his entire body to the side. James lowers him to the ground a bit more gently than he perhaps should.
"Why do you care so much?"
James pauses. Considers. Adds: "But you’re a kid. I don’t know what SHIELD’s playing at, dragging you into this, but I don’t like it one bit. You don’t belong into this world, Stark. So get out and don’t look back."
"Or?" The word is barely a whisper. James is reluctantly impressed by how the stubborn boy’s still clinging to consciousness.
"Or we’ll meet again." And I’ll have to kill you.
James doesn’t add those last words. And Anthony Stark, who has finally given in to the inevitable and passed out, wouldn’t have heard them anyways.