Familiar Strangers

November 29, 2016:

The Winter Soldier has a mark, Peggy attempts to come in between him and his target.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Captain America

Plot:

Mood Music: [https://youtu.be/Mb3iPP-tHdA "Whiter Shade of Pale" - Procol Harum]


Fade In…

A lot of things change in seven decades. It used to be that the most important people in society were also the most visible. Princes, Presidents, and great politicians were the major players around which the world revolved.

Nowadays, the people who pull the strings are a lot more prosaic. They are nondescript suits who exit high rises in lower Manhattan, ringed by personal assistants and bodyguards, all of them largely indistinguishable from the flock of regular working men and women around them. They make their way down to the curb towards their cars, earnestly speaking, gesticulating between themselves as they discuss the finer points of a major merger between two international corporations.

There are three. One of them is entreating. He wants the deal to go through. The other two are recalcitrant, their body language closed, their minds already made up to block the acquisition.

One of those latter two men gets emphatic. He breaks slightly from the company of his assistant in order to get in the first man's face. He's pointing, impassioned, resolute. Nothing will move him.

Up until a .50 caliber round moves his head right off his body.

The group of people freeze. Half of them are covered in what's left of the man's head. Then hysteria kicks in, and they clump up like a disturbed anthill. Bodyguards start ushering their charges towards the dubious safety of the cars. The chaotic press of bodies makes clear sight lines impossible.

So, from not-actually-too-far of a distance, a masked man lowers his rifle, and gets slowly to his feet.

That things change is certainly a recurring theme of Peggy Carter's life now that she is in 2016 rather than 1948. She is not among the body guards of the these important men. Nor is she here on official SHIELD business. In fact, she is here to find a tailor to repair one of the few outfits of her past that she still has. The hem tore and she is not someone to throw something out just because it is torn. If she can't fix it, a tailor can. However, clothing tends to be flimsier nowadays and easily disposed. Apparently there isn't a pressing need for proper tailors who can handle vintage clothing.

The skirt is tucked into her bag and she is right on the corner as a .50 tears through the head of the men. A veteran of war, she knows the sound of a gunshot quite well. A quick glance at the gore splatter and the way people are turning gives Peggy a general sense of where the bullet would come from. Luckily, being a bit outside of the panic give shed a clearer view. Then, she just has to find where she would lay in wait with a sniper. It takes her a few moments, but she spots the masked figure and - more importantly - the glint of the gun's metal in against the lights.

There's no helping the man who no longer has a head and the other guards seem to have protection of the others on their minds, so her focus narrows to the assassin. Quickly, she uses the panic of the pedestrians to mask her intentions as best she can, she runs and attempts to either chase or meet him. Even if she had a clear shot, there is no way her concealed Walther would do more than annoy him from here.

It is not difficult to pick out the assassin, because for whatever reason, he is leaving his sniper's nest to come right out to finish the job. It is a little more difficult for him to pick out Peggy, however, as she blends her progress towards him into the generalized panicky tide of humanity scattering all around her.

And as his focus is wholly on the remaining target that has not yet been neutralized.

The assassin scales down from his perch on a nearby roof with preternatural speed, leaping the final few stories without incident and lapsing instantly into a purposeful advance. The guards have not yet gotten their charges to any means of escape, due to the mobs of people pushing in every direction; and so, the approaching killer does not seem to be in an especial hurry.

He is not obviously or overtly dressed, save for the mask obscuring the bottom half of his face. But people who get too close to him sure suddenly notice the firearms strapped to his side, and immediately give him plenty of room to maneuver in closer and closer for his remaining kill.

Peggy is used to being overlooked. It's what helped her in her espionage. However, this time it is a deliberate thing. She is a lone figure moving toward the center of the chaos as opposed to away. The assassin is easy to keep an eye on as he makes his way from the roof with almost inhuman speed and agility. However, once he is on the ground, every now and then she loses him when shoved one way or another by the panicked civilians.

Determined, she finds him again, moving as quickly as she can. A quick glance to the side is given to the guards and those still scrambling for cover. Her weaving starts to become more active as she starts to push and direct people away from her. While she is not yet close enough to notice the firearms strapped to his side, she assumes he has more than a sniper rifle if he is electing to get into closer quarters with his intended target.

"STOP!" she shouts at him, as if that will do anything. She knows it is mostly a useless gesture, but if she can draw his attention, perhaps that will give the others precious moments to get away. In the crowd, she draws her gun from her bag, immediately causing those closest to her to shriek in added panic and give her a berth.

The assassin is focused— but not, by any means, inexperienced nor unaware. As he moves, he starts to become aware of something disparate off to his right, a sense of motion that surges against the general direction of the overall tide. He does not pause in his advance, but he does start to glance over—

STOP, rings through the air. Though the assassin cannot yet see who shouted, the sudden shrieks and panicked scattering in her general vicinity gives him a very good indication of where she is and what she just did.

The crowds clear. Their parting, very suddenly, gives Peggy a fantastic view of the assassin, not more than twenty feet away. He is still advancing towards his target, but now he's looking at her, staring straight at her, blue eyes fixed over that muzzle of a mask— and he has a drawn gun, aimed directly at her. Without a single scrap of hesitation, he pulls the trigger, attempting to put a swift stop to her interference… and then cuts into a lope, pursuing his actual quarry.

She made him pause, however, and in that pause half of the panicky, blood-covered group have piled into the car, whose driver has started the engines in preparation for immediate flight. A few of the bodyguards close with him, firing their sidearms— and the man turns and lifts his left arm, sparks flying with metallic pings as the rounds somehow glance off it.

Luckily for Peggy, she was - if not expecting - hoping to draw the aim of the assassin to give those struggling nearby more time to escape. Even as the assassin's gun is trained on her, she is moving. Aware of the standby civilians, she attempts to shove them out of the way as she is already in motion, tumbling across the sidewalk and against the brick stone building nearby and its trash cans. She is not hit by a bullet, but she did land a bit hard on her side.

There's a clatter of metal as Peggy crashes into them, scattering a few bits of garbage and exposing the black trash bags the cans hid. While most places across the city have switched to the large plastic cans, the Lower East Side still has some hold outs. Seeing that the bullets are bouncing right off the man's metal arm, she pauses. There's a bit of a wide eyed look at that, as the echoes of the bullets off that metal are eerily similar to a sound she certainly knows - bullets rebounding off of Steve's shield.

Speaking of shield, her diversionary tactics have given the people more time, but it doesn't seem to be enough yet. Wincing, she propels herself upward, grabbing the nearest object she can find, which happens to be the lid of the metal trash can. Using it like a discus, she flings it forward toward the assassin's head with remarkable aim.

He didn't hit— but Peggy is sent into retreat, pushing aside bystanders as she dive rolls into cover. He temporarily loses sight of her amidst a line of trash bins, presenting him with a slight dilemma: does he turn away from a potential remaining threat, or does he complete his mission?

The broken mind of the Winter Soldier spins for only a fraction of a second before it decides. The kill is paramount. The mission must not be failed. He turns on the bodyguards attempting to engage him, his metal arm deflecting their fire like a rudimentary shield. They hesitate, dumbfounded, just long enough for him to close distance with them and bat them aside with a violent sweep of that metal arm. It hums with deceptive softness as it moves, its machinery a gentle whir in its housing even as its unyielding titanium breaks bones.

This leaves him a clear path. He lunges, left hand snapping forward, vising shut about his target's throat with the inexorability of a clamp. With a rough, crocodilian savagery he lifts and slams the man against the back of the car, leaning in, the whir of his metal arm intensifying in volume as its many gears grind down in mechanical imitation of tightening muscle.

It is enough pressure to throttle a man to death within half a second.

Fortunately, within a quarter of a second, something the Winter Soldier did not expect slams him across the side of the face. He staggers to one side, surprised enough to let go; his released quarry, gasping for breath, is dragged into the car by many panicked hands, saved at the very last moment. The driver slams the gas; the car peels off, fishtailing slightly in panic. The Soldier registers at the last moment what happened to him, aided by the sight of that disc-shaped lid spinning off into the street at an angle. He could—

he could swear he's seen that before

Something about that line of thought sends pain crackling through his neurons. Rage rips open whatever recollection was struggling to surface. The assassin turns sharply on Peggy, dislodged mask dropping away.

Familiar features regard Agent Carter, leapt out of time and memory to stand— improbably and shockingly— right before her face, in the present day. But while James Barnes looked at her in many ways, in the distant past, he never looked at her the way he does now: with total lack of recognition, and total desire to tear out her throat.

Holding and arm across her waist with a small grimace of pain, Peggy watches the arc of her makeshift weapon. It lands true, hitting the hit man right in the face. It's just enough to let the target get away. There's an exhale of relief that she prevented a murder right in front of her. That relief shifts as she realizes that she is now the sole focus of the assassin's wrath. Standing straighter, she squares her shoulders and slides a foot slightly backward in a defensive stance as the assassin turns. Her demeanor shifts from guarded and ready for an attack to one of genuine and complete surprise.

"Sergeant Barnes?" It's rare for Peggy to shift her attention from the focus of a fight. However, seeing the youthful and unexpected face of Bucky Barnes in front of here in modern day Manhattan startles her into stepping forward toward him. This can't be possible. She sat with Steve as he mourned Bucky from the fall on the train. Bucky Barnes died seventy years ago.

The step forward is immediately retracted as, belatedly, she recognizes the expression on his face is pure rage and without a hint or recognition. The grip on her gun is readjusted, but she can't find it in her to shoot Steve's best friend without an attempt at a parlay. "Sergeant Barnes, it's Agent Carter. We worked together during the War. I'm friends with Steve Rogers." While her voice has a hint of pain from her fall, it's clear and authoritative. Her shoulders tense as she waits for a response.

Sergeant Barnes? the woman in front of him asks. She has so many names to pelt him with. Agent Carter. The war? Steve Rogers?

There is no response on the face of the Winter Soldier. No recognition. No indication that he even heard. But then the silence stretches on a little too long, the assassin remains standing a little too still, and it becomes evident that something about the sound of those words, those names, snared him in some mental tangle. Almost like his body is being run by some kind of programming algorithm that encountered a condition that would never resolve, and got stuck in a loop forever…

A break condition is hit— the memory that he has a mission to complete. He glances around, only to find his target gone. This realization transfigures his features with rage. His left hand curls, the fading sunlight glancing off the shining chrome of it.

Faster than she can perceive, faster than she can respond, he is upon her. It is incomprehensible. Bucky was never this fast. Steve was this fast— not Bucky. But then, the Bucky she remembers didn't have a metal limb, either. The Bucky she remembers wouldn't be using it to try to lift and strangle her to death, steel-cold fingers closing down inch by ruthless inch to seal her carotid arteries killingly shut.

No witnesses, his programming whispers. Especially the ones that call you names that make your head hurt…

Even now, there is no recognition in his features as they lean in close. Lovers-close. The kind of close Steve should have been with her. There is only that horrible familiarity turned twisted, James Barnes' expressive blue-grey eyes lobotomized down to little more than the cold deliberation of a machine.

There is the long pause and Peggy hopes that somehow this James Barnes that shouldn't be James Barnes understood her. However, then, the hand closes around her neck with a speed she should have known he had from observing him earlier. However, the Barnes she knew in World War II has started to meld into this assassin that wears his face, muddling her judgement.

As the hand streaks forward in a glimmer of metal, Peggy attempts to avoid it, but there is simply no way. She doesn't have the enhanced speed or strength that Bucky now has. A hand reaches up, gripping on the metal tightly, but ineffectively. Her fingers slip and slide off of the polished surface as she gasps, air unable to make it to her lungs. Bucky's face moves in close and she blinks, the whites of her eyes starting to turn red from the lack of oxygen and the pressure on her throat. It's like she's trying to speak, but is simply unable to get the words out through his clenched fist.

Then, however, there is the loud and unmistakeable sound of gun fire. The Walther PPK that Peggy kept in her hand had shifted into position, slow under the duress. Her aim is low and toward is abdomen or leg, whichever is closer, in an attempt to mask the movement beneath his own murderous intent.

There continues to be no recognition in the face of the Winter Soldier. Peggy's eyes redden, her face paling, her hands clutching at his wrist ineffectually as he makes his slow way towards snapping her neck… and all the while, the assassin wearing Bucky Barnes' face never does anything more than tilt his head, very slowly. The curious cant of a predator watching its effect on another living being.

"What you said," he seethes, and his voice is familiar too; exactly the voice of Steve Rogers' lost best friend, "I don't know ANYTHING about what you just said!"

He sounds like he's telling the truth. And yet, that pause he had on hearing all those names…

His features twitch, and something clicks in his mind— the determination to squeeze his grip shut and snap her neck. At the same time that decision flickers through his synapses, however, Peggy finally gets her weapon into a good position— and fires.

The bullet tears a deep furrow in his side; the jolt and searing pain of it shocks his hand open, letting her drop as he hisses in pique and recoils. His hand moves for his sidearm— only to hesitate at the distant sound of sirens, as the NYPD finally gets cars through New York's everpresent traffic and towards the scene.

The Winter Soldier pins Agent Carter a last time with those familiar blue eyes. There is briefly something searching in his gaze, something that struggles for expression— and then he simply turns and fades away into the crowd, one hand stanching the blood welling up from his wound.

The words Bucky tell Peggy are heard around the sound of her own heartbeat slowing in her ears. The thrum is loud as she continually tries and is unable to get a breath. Her dark brown eyes meet his as his words land and his decision is made to kill her. There's both fear and determination met there as she stares straight at James Barnes as she pulls the trigger and shoots him in the side to save her own life. She doesn't wish to hurt Bucky, if this truly is him, but she will not risk her own life on a premonition.

The hand opens and she drops to the ground in a painful crumple. Immediately, she gasps for air. It's a choked sound as air fills her lungs again in coughs and sputters. The gun remains clenched in her hand, but she is in no state to shoot again. It remains pressed against the sidewalk in Peggy's attempt to keep herself semi-upright. Her face lifts toward Bucky's as he looks back at her, the sound of sirens a musical interlude to their reunion. Even if she had words to say, they are trapped in her bruised throat.

The SHIELD agent in Peggy wants to follow, to track his movement to try and find him later. The more information she has about him, the better. But, she is simply unable to move. Instead, she takes a few more grateful breathes, watching James Barnes fade into the crowd like a stranger.

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