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06 December 2012 @ 09:32 pm
Holding the Light - Chapter Five  

New York still felt like home to him. The sounds of the city were familiar, even from the back of the SHIELD towncar.

The female agent who had picked him up from the helipad didn't say much as she drove, beyond introducing herself as Grace Peltson, and so he didn't either. He was back in his civilian suit, and he sat in the passenger seat, looking at the people on the sidewalks and the shops as they headed toward mid-town.

He didn't smile but he felt more comfortable as they passed north of 45th. He knew all the streets on this part of town, knew the places to sleep, knew the soup kitchens, knew the restaurants who would give out their leftovers, the shop owners who would give him a couple of bucks to help unload supplies.

He also knew the gangs and thugs and the kids who wanted to be tough but were really only stupid. He knew the pimps and the dealers, and the innocents caught in the middle.

And here, apparently, Captain Steve Rogers was also living, which John hadn't known.

The car pulled up. "Do you want me to go with you?" she asked. "He knows me."

"No. It's all right."

"It's number three, in the back. And here," she handed him a card and a key. "The hotel next door is crummy but best we can do on short notice."

"It'll be fine." He pushed open the door and buttoned his suit jacket before heading up the short flight of stairs. The front door was open and there was someone dressed as a janitor who was cleaning the spotless floor with a gun at his waistband. He glanced up but didn't challenge him, which was both dedication to an unnecessary cleanliness and shoddy security. John was tempted to take the gun from him to teach him a lesson, but instead only shook his head and passed the manager's apartment and the stairs, heading for the back.

He knocked on number three. There was no answer, and so John knocked again.

He heard the sound of footsteps before the door was yanked open. "What?" an irritable voice demanded. "You usually let yourselves in." Bright eyes looked at John. "You're new. You a shrink?"

Steve Rogers was there, in the flesh. It was uncanny. He was wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, on a muscular frame, and stood a little taller than John in his bare feet. For a moment it was … stunning, to be in front of Captain America, leader of the Howlin' Commandos, which was the ancestor of his own Ranger battalion.

John shook it off, though. Rogers was a man, like any other, and deserved to be treated like one. "No. My name is John Reese," he answered. "I work for SHIELD. I used to serve in the Army. Director Fury thought you might want to talk to someone who has a little more in common with you."

"Army huh? What division?" Rogers asked, narrowing his eyes as if he suspected that John was making it up.

"75th Airborne Ranger." He considered adding Delta Force, but Rogers wouldn't know what that meant since it hadn't been created until after Vietnam. He should know what Airborne and Rangers were, though. "I separated as Sergeant First Class."

Rogers nodded thoughtfully and his gaze catalogued John's hair, newly short again, and his stance, which tended toward attention, given Rogers' rank and status. "You've seen combat."

John just nodded once, and after a moment, Rogers opened the door more widely. "Come in."

He started down the hall, and John shut the door and followed. The apartment was good-sized for the neighborhood and obviously furnished with the knowledge that Rogers was a man out of time - there was a Seventies' era stereo system and turntable with albums, and a push-button wall phone. So it wasn't the Forties but it wasn't modern either, except for the sleek, flat television, which seemed particularly glaring in its modernity. "They couldn't find a television with a picture tube?" he asked.

"It's part of my education," Rogers said but he gestured to the books piled on the shelves. "But I'd rather read. You want a drink?"

The real answer to that was 'hell yes' but John answered, glancing at the bottle on the table, "Beer's fine, thanks."

Rogers brought one from the refrigerator in the small connected kitchen, pulled off the cap and brought him a glass, indicating he could take the couch. John sat, poured out the beer and took a measured sip.

"So," Rogers said, watching him over the rim of his own glass, "Rangers. I remember the First Battalion. Brave men, every one. That's a legacy to live up to."

"It is." Which he hadn't, not really. The Ranger creed burned into his bones, which he'd lived by for those years, had proven to be ephemeral as his honor.

Rogers frowned at him. "I'm pretty sure everyone who's talked to me has been Army. And I can't believe you’re the only Ranger around. So, don't take this the wrong way, but why you?"

So, that meant he was going to have to talk about it. John studied his beer bubbles for a moment, before explaining, "The success of the supersoldier formula and your loss inspired a lot of people to try to recreate it. Including a man named Nathaniel Essex, who ran a boys' home in New Mexico where I lived while he tried to duplicate it. So, while it mostly didn't work on me, I'm your descendant, in a way."

Rogers seemed to hear what he didn't say and shook his head in pity. "I am so sorry."

"It's not your fault. You were sort of dead." He smiled a bit wryly. He knew what that was like, too. "I enlisted because of you, and I like to think that was the right thing to do." He regretted what his service had become, but he didn't regret the original decision: it had kept him out of prison and probably saved his life.

"I'm glad to hear that." Rogers set his beer down on the side table on top of a book, which looked like a history of the American military. "You said mostly it didn't work?" Rogers asked. "But that means it did, a little bit?"

John shrugged. "A little above average physically, nothing like you. Mostly I survived the treatments. There were others who weren't that lucky." The beer made a bitter but pleasant warmth that promised forgetfulness, and he drained his glass.

"The evil of some men to make children suffer…" Rogers murmured. "I hope Essex was brought to justice?"

"He's dead." John said, though he thought of it more as a relief than justice. Essex wasn't the first blood on his hands, and definitely had not been the last, but it was still the most satisfying.

John straightened and changed the subject. "Have you seen much of the city? They told me you ended up in Times Square, but I can show you around this part of town. I know it pretty well."

Rogers made a sad little smile. "I used to know it myself."

"Hell's Kitchen? Really?"

"Grew up here. Back, y'know, when it was all in black-and-white and sepia," he muttered, with a narrowed eyed glare at the books on the end table.

"There was color back then?" John asked, getting a look from Rogers until he realized John was dryly kidding.

But John decided that talking was probably not either of their strong points. Rogers would adjust if he saw the differences, not if he was holed up here in his time-warp apartment. And maybe he could also see that not everything had changed. There was still a lot of this part of town that wasn't that different. "Let's go. I'll show you the city as it is, and you tell me what it used to be." John stood up and waited until Rogers looked up to see that he was serious.

"They're not going to let me wander the city, on my own."

"You won't be; you'll be with me. Besides, what are they gonna do? Stop us? They can try."

Rogers brightened at hearing that, as if this was the first time someone had reminded him he could go where he wanted. He grabbed a leather jacket off the chair at the dining table, and slicked a hand over his hair. "Ready?"

"After you." John followed him out into the hallway, where he saw with some amusement that the 'janitor' was still pretending to clean the floor, except he looked up and stared at them in horror as he saw them both emerge.

"Where are you going?"

"Out," Rogers declared and stared at him. "I'm not a prisoner. Fury told me I wasn't a prisoner. Am I?"

"Uh, um, no, uh, no, sir," the fake janitor stammered staring at him.

John moved up behind him and took the Glock off his waistband. "I need to borrow this."

"But… wait.. sir… you can't just take…" The SHIELD kid faltered into silence, eyes flickering between Rogers, whom he knew, and John, who was a stranger, but apparently dangerous enough to make him be quiet.

In any case, John wasn't listening. "I already did. I might need it." He checked the clip automatically and then put it back in his waistband. At the door he turned to glance over his shoulder to see the agent was talking urgently to himself or to some phone or earbud, by his mannerisms he was reporting that Rogers was on the loose.

On the steps outside, Rogers asked, "Did you really need the gun?"

"I don't know. But I'd rather have it in case I do."

"I can take care of myself."

"I'm sure. Though you should know you're not the only target. I have some friends, who aren't going to be very happy with me, if I'm spotted."

"Friends?" Steve asked, doubtfully, lifting a brow. "They're going to shoot at you? Why?"

"I left."

Steve frowned. "The military?"

"I joined the CIA after the military. They now know I'm alive, and let's just say they like to keep their former assets very quiet."

Rogers looked disturbed, casting glances at John as they walked, and shoved his hands in his pockets. "This is a government agency approving of your murder?"

"The same agency told me to kill other people, Captain. To protect American interests. Men, women, children…" He paused, throat dry, remembering the dark eyes of the boy in the house. … All of them, John. No witnesses. No survivors. No matter who is there. All of them

He had to clear his throat. "I don't know the government was really better back then, but you should know it's certainly not better now. I have blood on my hands, Captain Rogers, and the government has more because they wouldn't let me leave when I balked at the evil they wanted of me. I'm not sure that SHIELD doesn't want the same. Hiring assassins, even reformed ones, as spies strikes me as somewhat … dubious."

"Why are you telling me this?" Steve asked.

"Because you should know. SHIELD claims they're benign, but so did the Agency, even when I was sent to torture and kill. And not all those people were guilty of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You're… good. You don't have the same stain on you."

"But you don't have any proof they're not benign."

"No one with power and money is ever completely benign. Or without their own agenda. I've been on a leash most of my life and it's always turned… corrupt. I'm hoping Fury and SHIELD are different, but… they hired me. How benign can they be?"

Rogers seemed troubled as he nodded thoughtfully. Then he sighed. "I'd hoped things would be better in the future. Less hate, less violence…"

"Well, that depends on your measurement, I suppose. There's more freedom in the world. Wars are smaller. But there are always bad apples, and power always corrupts. That's never going to change."

"That's a cynical view of human nature."

"You don't tend to see the good parts in the places I've been." But that wasn't true, not really. He had seen goodness in some of those places, and it was that goodness that continually reminded him what he was supposed to be doing all of it for. For the bodega owner who let him move boxes for him to put a few bucks in his pocket, even knowing John was going to drink it all away, because John had once stopped an attempted robbery. For the deli waitress who gave him sandwiches because she knew he was a veteran and because her husband had shot himself after Vietnam. For the farmers who had nursed the tall stranger shot and abandoned by his own people and who had smuggled him out of the country and away from the people hunting him. That was who - not the faceless warlords who sent him to kill.

Not that he had a problem killing other faceless warlords and their punch-clock minions who had the ethics of hungry sharks. He was just tired of killing the innocent to protect the predators.

After mulling it over for awhile as they ambled along the sidewalk, Rogers said, "You don't think I should be with SHIELD."

"I'm just saying, keep your eyes open. Don't swallow what you're told. You have the moral authority to do the right thing, in a way I never have. So use it."

"You say that, and yet, here you're telling me about it. I don't think your soul can be all that damned."

John shrugged and shook his head. "Damned long ago, Captain. And I've come back too late."

Too late. Too late for Jessica. Too late for so many others who didn't have to die. Too late for those who deserved to die but who was I to make that choice?

"You really think there's no such thing as redemption?" Rogers asked. "I don't believe that."

"For some, maybe. The rest of us, best we can do is try to remember there's a line at all." His mouth made a sad rueful grimace. "I dishonored the Ranger creed a long time ago."

Rogers looked at him as if he wanted to disagree, but kept quiet. At the next intersection, he glanced up at the signs and realized where they were. "I remember this corner. The kids sold papers here and there was a cleaners and a butcher, and a … a shoemaker, I think he was. Hm, I don't remember. Shoes or leather goods in general, maybe. Hats next door. But the building there on the corner was the same."

Steve stood there and looked at it for a moment, his mind far away. "One of the guys I hated lived in the building next door. He used to beat me up and steal my pennies." He chuckled a little. "Back when a penny would actually buy you something. I look at the prices of things today and I choke."

"I find it hard to believe anyone would beat you up," John observed.

"Oh, they did. All the time before the serum."

John was scanning the street, as he always did. There were two sketchy guys on the curb, across the street, and even though they saw the two men, one of them pulled a gun in plain view. Robbery or shakedown probably and a great deal of overconfidence in his intimidation skills.

John hadn't quite decided to intervene, until the two thugs went into Lema's grocery. Mister Lema had once given him a quart of milk, and John didn't forget kindness.

Without a word to Rogers, he darted across the street. Cars honked at him but John barely noticed, enough to go around them and vault the back of the trunk of one that was slow.

"John!" Rogers exclaimed behind him.

John didn't reach for his gun, not yet, as he entered the open door of the store. The two thugs were at the check out counter, where Mister Lema's son Danny was standing. Danny's eyes were alarmed and concerned, to see this stranger enter.

John smiled a little and kept moving toward them. "Hey fellas. Nice day, isn't it?"

"The store's closed," one of them ordered him harshly, but he had pulled the gun, so it no longer aimed directly at Danny. Amateur.

"I'm just here for apples. I won't take long." John grabbed two apples as he passed the produce display. They were small and firm, probably tasty too, but right now he had a better use for them.

"Stop, man. Or I'll shoot." Now the one with the gun turned it in John's general direction, which was all he was waiting for. He kept approaching and smarter criminals would've known he wasn't impressed because he outclassed them, not because he was a fool. But being fools themselves, they figured he was one, too.

"No, you won't."

"What do you mean? I will. You need to get out of here. This ain't none of your business."

"Well, actually, you're roughing up the son of a friend of mine, so that makes it my business. It's you who needs to get out of here, or I'm going to get real unfriendly."

"Mister, don't-" Danny protested, and it was the perfect distraction. The gun-toting dick on legs glanced at Danny, and John threw both apples. The first hit the gun, knocked it off target, while the second took the other in the face like a baseball. He lurched backward with a shout.

John was already moving against them. He could feel Natasha's training adding to his usual moves as he grabbed the gun hand and slammed that elbow against the counter, so the gun sprang free and fell to the countertop as his fingers went numb. Elbow back and into his throat, then grabbing him and holding him in front, as the other one tried to hit him and struck his friend instead. Tangling them together, so they knocked over the small display stand of chips and gum on the counter. Another hand to the solar-plexus to drive the air out of his lungs, and a hard strike to the back of his neck so he dropped like a stone. Then John grabbed the gun and put it against the other's head as he held it against the counter. "You didn't come here on your own. Tell me who your boss is, and I'll let you walk out of here."

The guy whined and started to say something stupid and full of bravado, until John seized his hand and yanked at his thumb in the wrong direction, until he let out a cry, "Okay, okay. Caparelli."

Which was not surprising for this neighborhood, so John leaned down and told him, "Listen to me very carefully. The Lema family is off-limits. If you or any of your friends fuck with them again, I will find you and I will kill you." He said it flatly, a statement of fact, because he meant it. He didn't need a big production of it, only to be believed, and given the guy was quivering with fear, John was pretty sure he'd be believed. "Now take your friend and get out."

He released him and stepped back, gun at the ready as he watched.

Rogers was at the door, watching it all curiously. "You letting them go? Shouldn’t we call the police?"

"I keep a promise," John said. "And they need to deliver a message. Right, boys?"

They didn't answer, though one sort of grunted, and neither met his eyes as they stumbled out. Rogers stood aside and watched them go, frowning.

"Thank you," Danny said to him. His hands were shaking as he tried to right the display. Reflexively, John helped him by gathering up all the little chip bags and gum packs that had spilled on the counter and floor. Rogers came forward to help pick things up as well.

"No need to thank me. Your father helped me out once, I was repaying that," John said.

Danny nodded and swallowed hard. "They come in for money once a month. I don't know if they'll stop."

John acknowledged they probably wouldn't. These men might believe him, but the boss was going to test it unless he was warned personally. But that was for later, in the evening, when he'd have some more room to maneuver without Rogers around. "If anyone bothers you again, leave a couple apples on your fire escape, and I'll take care of it."

Danny seemed worried. "These are bad men."

"I've dealt with worse."

Danny took him at his word, seeming relieved, which firmed up John's resolve to do something about it. This harassment and threats had been going on for awhile. "How do you know my name?" Danny asked curiously.

"I've been around the neighborhood."

Danny paused and then asked, "That looked like eskrima? You were fast, like one of Papa's old movies."

"I trained a variety of styles, including that," John confirmed. "You ever think about learning?"

Danny shook his head. "No, never had time for that old country stuff. Maybe I should have."

"You still can. Good to defend yourself though it's not for everyone." He picked up his two weaponized apples and held them up. "They're a bit bruised now. Can I have them?"

Danny smiled. "Sure. With our thanks."

John tossed one to Rogers as they left. He made sure to take both guns tucked in his waistband, safeties on.

"So, you rescue shopkeepers from protection rackets?" Rogers asked when they were out on the sidewalk again. "Is that why you wanted to walk?"

John shrugged. "No, that was a bonus." He scanned the street - no police but that woman in the jogging outfit taking a breather on the opposite side was almost certainly SHIELD, there to tail them. He wanted to lose her on general principles, especially since she'd witnessed his intervention and was probably calling it in right now on the phone in her hands. He bit into his apple and turned away before he was tempted to wave at her, which would earn him a switch of tails and the next one might be less easy to pick out.

"Why didn't you want to call the police?" Rogers asked. "You know those creeps may stop knocking this place over, but they're doing it to others."

"I don't want to be a witness." He especially didn't want his file connected to the Lemas officially or leave too much of a paper trail about his whereabouts. Though he had inadvertently confirmed to SHIELD that he could still fight and even that Natasha had been right - he was still a sucker to try to help.

He wanted to sigh, knowing how that instinct was always exploited by his handlers, but hopefully not this time. But in any case it didn't really matter since he'd do it again, and slamming that asshole's head to the counter had been the most alive he'd felt in a long time, with the adrenaline push and the delight in punishing the guilty and getting to use his talents on behalf of the innocent.

That, if he were honest with himself, was why he had little interest in letting law enforcement take it away from him. It wasn't as satisfying, and given he was not likely to die in his bed of old age, he might as well get the most out of what he had.

"And if they come after that shopkeeper again? Are you really going to kill them, like you said?" Rogers asked, his voice heavy with disapproval.

"Did you believe me?" John retorted.

After a moment, Rogers nodded. "I did."

"So did they." Which implied a lie, but Rogers believed it, nodding in relief.

"You're not as bad as you think you are," Rogers said eventually.

John decided he might as well let Rogers think that. He'd have to evaluate once he talked to Caparelli. The boss might be intimidated into leaving them alone, or if he was especially terrible, John might have to take him out. It wouldn't be the first time he'd undertaken what his bosses had euphemistically referred to as 'regime change' or taken out certain crime bosses. When he hadn't been working for those crime bosses, at least. But it was an independent project, nothing to do with SHIELD, and now that he'd given his word, he had to make sure he followed through. Because if he didn't, it was likely that Danny would be the one at the bottom of the Hudson and his blood on John's hands, even if he brought his killers to justice after the fact.

It was liberating, though, to realize that he was doing this on his own. No mission orders, no handlers - just himself, his skills, and his choices.

Chapter Six