A box of saltines. Eight individual jars of baby food. A pack of apple juice boxes. Four one-liter bottles of Pedialyte. A digital thermometer. A bag of multicolored bendy straws. All of it clattered onto the counter, dumped from the shopper’s arms.
The Walgreens cashier—Catey, her nametag read—gave the man in front of her a dramatically sad look. “Uh oh. Yours too, huh?” she said, reaching for the first item.
Beneath the shadowy brim of a nondescript baseball cap, Brock Rumlow raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“Sick baby.” The scanner beeped rapidly as she ran the items. “I was buying this same stuff a few weeks ago when my toddler got sick. Must be something going around.”
“Yeah. Must be.”
“Good news is it’s fast, if it’s the same bug,” Catey continued, her hands moving with speed and precision. “Mine was over it in a week, and his immune system isn’t all that great to begin with, so maybe yours’ll get better faster.”
“God I hope so,” said Brock, meaning every word of it.
She bagged the last item and gave him his total. He paid cash and dumped the change in the little donation box on the counter. As Catey handed Brock his bags, she gave him a sympathetic grin. “Hang in there, Dad.”
Brock put on a thin smile, nodded his thanks, and passed through the automatic doors with quick, long strides. He had to slow himself down as he crossed the parking lot, feeling the obtrusive stare of every security camera he passed. Fast movement drew more attention, and even though it was unlikely that anyone would be running a facial recognition profile on a dead man, Brock didn’t want to press his luck. He needed to get out of Iowa as soon as possible. He’d be halfway across South Dakota right now if it hadn’t been for . . .
. . . well, lot of shit had happened lately that he couldn’t help. Nothing he could do but roll with the punches.
A silver Chevrolet Suburban with darkly-tinted windows stood in the farthest corner of the parking lot, underneath the partial shade of some neighboring pine trees. Brock unlocked it remotely and went around to the passenger side, which faced the trees and was angled away from the security cameras. He opened the rear door.
Curled up on the back seat was the Winter Soldier, dressed in a plain white t-shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants. His hair, a disheveled brown tangle that smelled of cheap motel shampoo, hung over his face like a veil.
Brock set the bags on the floor and pulled out one of the bottles of Pedialyte. He snapped it open and removed the safety seal.
There came a soft mumble.
“Sit up. You can’t drink layin down.” Brock rifled through the bags until he found the straws. He pried his fingers through the plastic, fished one out, and inserted it into the bottle.
The Soldier still hadn’t moved.
“C’mon, Barnes. Don’t make this difficult.”
A moment passed. Brock waited. Then finally the Soldier pulled himself up.
The man that used to be James Buchanan Barnes was pale, his eyes glassy and his expression wavering somewhere between drowsiness and nausea. The cuts on his face that had been fresh yesterday were already healing over.
“Here,” said Brock, holding out the bottle. “Drink.”
With a dull look of understanding, the Soldier leaned forward, opened his mouth, and clamped his lips around the straw. He sucked a few times before pulling away.
“You gotta do better than that,” said Brock. “Half the bottle. Come on. You need it.”
The Soldier made a pained face and shook his head. He looked like a sick child refusing bitter medicine. “Stomach,” he murmured, closing his eyes and wrapping his arms around his middle. His kept his gleaming metal arm pressed close to his body, as if he were trying to hide it. “Unstable. Don’t wanna.”
Brock’s eyebrows took a hike up his forehead. Well, that was new. A direct refusal. Might be a good thing or a bad thing. Could be his mind was slowly returning. If that was the case, how do you keep a handle on someone who could kill you in less than five seconds? What do you do when confronted with a force that was not only absurdly powerful, but emotionally unstable?
Better play it safe. Barking out orders and threatening physical punishment? Yeah, probably not the best idea right now.
Slowly Brock climbed up into the seat and sat down beside the Soldier. He removed his cap, making his face more visible, and slid close until their bodies were touching. He went still for a minute or two, allowing the Asset time to recognize his smell and his face. When there was no negative reaction, Brock reached out and very carefully put his arm around his shoulders.
“Hey, Barnes. It’s Rumlow.” God, he hated how meek his voice sounded. He didn’t even know he was capable of talking like this. “I’m here to take care ‘a ya. You gotta drink something, kiddo. You were puking all last night and ya need to rehydrate, or else you’re just gonna get sicker. I know ya don’t feel like it, but you need to do it anyway. Come on. Be a good boy.” Fuck he hated this.
Barnes opened his eyes and looked up at Brock pathetically. “I feel hot.”
No shit. Brock’s arm was getting sweaty just touching him. “You prob’ly got a fever, that’s why. All the more reason you need to drink. It’ll help cool you off.” He lifted the bottle to Barnes’s mouth. “Just a little bit more. Please.”
After a moment or two, Barnes lowered his eyes and accepted the straw, taking a few slow swallows. Brock got the weird, unpleasant sensation he was nursing a baby and had to consciously keep his upper lip from curling. It might alarm the Soldier. (Shh, don’t wake the baby.)
God. What the fuck had happened in the last 48 hours? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Everything had gone to shit. His plans, everything he’d been working on for a year and a half, none of it included playing nursemaid to a mentally unsound, 90-something-year-old super assassin.
Brock leaned his head back against the seat and sighed.
A dead man and a ghost, sitting in the backseat of a car with counterfeit tags, $500,000 in unmarked bills hiding under the folding rear seat in a metal briefcase, and a thousand miles between them and their destination. It sounded like the start of a bad joke.
Shit. How in the hell was he gonna pull this off?