Winter Solstice

December 21, 2016:

NPCs run by Jane Foster. The Winter Soldier is forced to report failure to his HYDRA handlers for the first time in decades. But the longest night of the year holds some surprises.

Gowanus, Brooklyn

Characters

NPCs: Leonard Felix, Richard Sylvester

Mentions: Jane Foster, John Constantine, Batman, The Dark Devil

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

He didn't get the card.

By the time he was able to extricate himself from the attentions of both the Batman and the Dark Devil, the Winter Soldier found himself without any idea as to the direction in which his quarry fled. It had been necessary to stage the attack in the crowded thoroughfares of downtown Gotham, it was not a decision he regretted per se— trying to attack out in the wide-open fringes of the city would have failed immediately— but the advantages provided could swiftly turn against him. And did, when Robert Carter made a sharp left and fled into one of the many buildings lining the street.

The Winter Soldier is not accustomed to returning to a HYDRA base to report failure. It has not happened in decades. There is a part of him that does not look forward to it, but it is muted and small beneath the much larger parts which compel him to do so because there is no conceivable alternative than to report in.

So he returns to New York, to the basement of a rundown building in Brooklyn's industrial-zoned Gowanus neighborhood. He submitted himself, tamely, to his handlers stationed there, and he made his reports.

It all concluded with one thing: he had a lead on Gottfried Muller. But he is still in need of something the man once possessed in order to pursue that lead. With HYDRA's existing interest in the man, it is not inconceivable that they might be able to dig something up… but the fact they must as a result of his failure to procure it on his own will doubtless be an issue.

—-

Once upon a time, a few decades ago before the recession of the eighties hit and hollowed-out New York City, this was a storehouse for a medical equipment wholesaler. Bankrupt and bought-out overnight, the place never even had time to fully vacate all its goods. The cemented basement has all the low ceiling weight of a coffin, built barely high enough to fit a man, aged with the stink of ammonia from years of stink from the Fourth Street Basin.

It's not the best of working conditions, but HYDRA's sleeper agents all know it can get much worse.

There's two of them, two doctor-engineers pulled from their lives by grace of location only, made to spend tonight freezing in that unheated tomb — now prepped out of nothingness as an emergency triage, reassigning a forty-year-old dentist's chair for the experiment to lay, and their lights and tools the only spots of cleanliness and newness. Men prepared to enter and leave inside a minute, leaving not a single trace.

Now they stand over him. One is a short man, youngish, small and thin with the look of a dagger about him, with sleepless eyes that are already irritated. The other is older, meticulous and kempt in every way, with something of a breeding to him, with a sort of patience to his hands in how he works.

"It's fifth protocol," the shorter man says first, and it's obvious he's talking to his fellow professional. Both of them avoid even cursory looks at the asset's face, because it doesn't have one. They were taught this years ago — imperative to be successful at what they do. "Hook the clamps onto the right hand. We shock it until it learns."

—-

It's not the best of working conditions, and a large part of why inheres in the sleek, deadly form laid out upon that repurposed chair. There is that conditioning, to be sure— a rigid system of mental control that keeps him docile to anyone perceived as a handler— but sometimes, just sometimes, people prefer restraints and safeguards that they can see. Especially when you're feet away from what's known to be HYDRA's preeminent black ops murder machine.

The Winter Soldier is pure weapon, in these moments: motionless and potentially lethal as a knife placed out on a piece of velvet— as one of this own guns, disassembled on a cleaning table. There is enough power in one arm to kill them both in one swinging bat. They both know it, and so does he.

Which makes it all the more incongruous, and sadly pathetic, when he hears one of his handlers speak of his right hand, and immediately offers it forth in tame obedience.

The plates of his left arm unlock too, slackened to make it easy for the engineers to pull it open. This is all rote routine to him, a protocol triggered by the right words, the right faces, and the right atmosphere. When broken down enough, even a man like James Buchanan Barnes once was can be rendered down into a thing that submits itself easily to corporal punishment.

Though there is one thing he has to say—

"Mission will be completed," he says suddenly. His voice is too blank for pleading: it comes out of him like output from a program. "I require an item belonging to the target. Attempt to secure one met more resistance than expected—"

—-

The older man only asks, "Is it really necessary?"

The short man slants him a level look. "Say that again to me, and I'm including you in my report, Leonard." But even that warning comes inflected with a morbid sort of warmth in his voice, because he decidedly takes it upon himself — finding a real, raw joy in the way he clamps the ends of cables to the asset's outstretched fingers. He hands it like a butcher turns and carves a forgettable piece of meat.

"The last research is pretty indisputable among the other subjects. The increase in performance is enough to be considered significant. Just don't do it unless necessary. And we both agree — today it is. We'll get asked why if we don't."

The insinuation couched in his own words gives the short man pause. He rubs a little ferally behind his left ear. Then he walks aways.

Leonard, as he is called, simply adjusts his glasses, then, with a careful neutrality holstered across his face, works to secure the Soldier with a few ready-made straps, small and transportable, designed especially to secure convulsing, spasming limbs. Necessary for an asset with contracting muscles too powerful to control.

The shorter man rigs a cabling device to the building's breaker panel, one switch pointedly turned, at the moment, to off. He looks back companionably over his shoulder. "So my kid made honour roll. Taking him skiing as I promised. How's the wife?"

Leonard is quiet save for his toneless reply, his words somewhat automatic, "About the same."

Their conversation breaks only when it speaks. The asset, droning on about the mission. About what he needs. About how he failed.

Leonard pauses like he is listening, but does not look his way. The short man just snorts and flips the breaker switch on.

Electricity knives into him up through his fingertips.

—-

The Winter Soldier does nothing as the cables are clamped to his fingertips. He only stares forward, mute and passive, but with a sort of empty, directionless pleading couched at the back of his eyes: a look of utmost Pavlovian helplessness. It is the look of someone aware what is coming, resigned to it, habituated to it, and yet simply… unable to do anything save suffer it out.

Hands touch him, securing him down with familiar straps. The Soldier starts to breathe hard, tensing up, preemptively shuddering in futile attempt to prepare his body for the incoming pain. His hands claw down on the armrests. The left armrest creaks and cracks under the pressure.

The men say things, talking amongst themselves. The Soldier hears them, but does not process their words. They are, of course, not speaking to him; it is their birthright to have conversations, not his. Weapons do not talk. They hear nothing but orders. They do nothing except what they are drawn to do…

But… he wasn't able to do it, this time. That is important. Important enough he dares to actually speak— to finish his report. He failed— but he will complete the mission, if he could just—

The important part, of course, is that he failed.

The switch flips and the asset screams. He rocks back in the chair from the force of a voltage precisely calculated to be great enough to cause even something like him agonizing pain. Raw, painful incentive courses through him in carving electric currents. His body shakes until the whole chair rattles in its place. The screaming only stops when his throat, already unaccustomed to speech— to noise— gives out, leaving behind nothing but awful pants and subvocal sounds.

The current eventually stops. The asset slumps in his seat, tilted to the left from the weight of his own metal arm. He shudders from residual shocks jolting through his musculature, gasping for air.

And once he gets enough of it, he still pleads— conditioned and broken to harness— for the same thing. He does not dare grasp for identity this time: for all he knows, he was punished for calling himself 'I' as much as for his failure. It has happened before. "This soldier will finish the mission… this soldier only needs…"

—-

The two men wait it out. They act like they don't hear the screams. Like they don't see the twitch-convulse of electricity shot through every muscle of a human body, contracting painfully to the point of tearing, locking every joint, rinsing every nerve clean with pure agony.

The short man looks at his watch, hand on the breaker, counting down the seconds. He lets it go past the point of what would kill a man. This isn't a man after all.

Forty-five seconds is the scripted duration of protocol five. But, sharing with himself a private smile, he looks up off his watch and lets it go a few seconds more.

"Richard," Leonard interjects uncomfortably. Looks like he was keeping time too.

Richard's smile widens, and he duly switches off the breaker, a hollow tic of the switch the anticlimactic end to the torture. "It can take it. Check vitals, we'll do a quick examination, and wrap it. Sound about good?"

Leonard just unclips the shock clamps from the Soldier's right hand. Then he begins to unhook the straps.

Many would think twice about taking the restraints off an animal freshly tortured. They do not. Compliance is expected. There is nothing else.

Well — save for those broken, rough, pain-parched words. Words from the asset when there should only be silence, and enough of them that it draws both men's eyes down. Even still neither of them look it in the eye. It has no eyes.

"A little fussier than usual, isn't it," Richard comments dryly.

Leonard doesn't look too concerned. "It's part of the process. Consequences of prolonged thaw."

Richard snorts at that. "Leave it to me, I'd leave it on ice. Gives me the creeps." His voice changes, less familial, more patronizing, like a man talking to a misbehaving dog. "This soldier is going to sit tight and shut up. My night's been wasted enough. You'll get what you need when we're done. I'll see to the burns. Run a full diagnostic of the device."

Needly eyes turned, Leonard slants a sharp breath out through his nose, appearing to relax now that the room is no long sufficed in a man's screams. He straightens his glasses. "This will go faster with more quiet."

Richard laughs. "What is up your ass?"

Leonard doesn't reply. He instead turns his complete attention down on the opened left arm, taking in hand his tools to sort its mechanical insides.

—-

It is not a man. Its endurance of what would kill a man proves it. But it sure screams like a man.

But only for thirty-five seconds. That's how long it takes before its voice gives out. The remaining fifteen are harsh wheezes, panting gasps, and animal moans. Sounds that make it so easy for the two men to detach from the act of torturing a third. …Well, for one of the two men, at least.

He prompts once the current has gone on five seconds too long. The Winter Soldier is too insensate to register that small kindness. He slumps in his chair, grasping for air with spasming lungs, cowed so thoroughly that— as expected— he does nothing while the restraints are removed. He just curls in on himself, as much as one can while laid out in a chair, and shivers.

But once the last restraint comes off, he does something a little unexpected. A little off script. He keeps talking.

The two men exchange a look: the kind of look programmers exchange when their perfect code fails to execute as expected. They talk over his head about it, dismissive, men conversing over a dog making unintelligible whimpers on a table; and when one finally does address the Soldier directly, he speaks as if to a dog. Sit tight and shut up. You'll get what you need when we're done.

The Winter Soldier submits to the insistence on more quiet. His head droops, body going slack, and his left arm turns and opens without resistance. Exposed within to the tools of his handler… is something odd. Multiple somethings that are odd, in fact.

There is something tiny lodged under one of the dermal plates: a small device that it doesn't take very long to recognize is a tracker. And just as bad as that… the interior of his arm seems to have been reconfigured in general, subtle improvements made to the mechanisms in the artificial wrist.

—-

It doesn't take much more than a couple minutes for this to be noticed.

Leonard takes up his tools into his gloved hands — his hands are always gloved, a rule for men like him doing the job he does — and bends patiently over the opened metal arm. He assesses damage to it sustained on mission failure, is gratified to find very little safe for surface wear, and runs a full sensory diagnostic as mentioned, tightening the frame then checking sensory node after sensory node for burnt circuits.

His hands are deft and practiced. He's done this before, more than once — his hands certainly never built that arm, are too young for that, but he's been trained specifically to see to its service. That and many other things. HYDRA saw to utilizing every bit of his skills.

He knows every gut inside that arm. So it stops him to catch something new — not spotted well at first, not until he takes a clamp to move some of the cabling aside. The wrist is different.

"The report never mentioned a recent upgrade." Leonard states out loud. It's enough he actually pulls away, double-checking notes within his nearby briefcase.

Richard slants him a look. "What kind of upgrade?"

Leonard frowns to himself as he reads. Reads over and over. Last one was in 2012. They would make him aware of any implemented designs. He has to /repair/ those designs. "The radiocarpal axis has been replaced."

Richard tries to lean over to see. "Was it London?"

Leonard gives him a flat look, annoyed at his proximity mid-examination. "Do I look like I know that?" Adjusting his glasses and squinting behind their lenses, his attention goes back to the wrist, wanting to give further investigation to that new design — when he sees something else. Trapped between opened plates. The man frowns, then picks up a pair of forceps. He digs in and carefully clamps something… and pulls out an active tracker.

His frown widens.

Across the table, Richard notices. The blood drains out of his face, knowing exactly what it is. Knowing exactly what it's doing. "You are fucking KIDDING me."

—-

The Winter Soldier sits in silence as he is inspected. It has happened enough in the past— a few times even by the hands of Leonard Felix specifically— that he is completely inured to it, trained to remain inert and tame as delicate machinery is repaired, inspected, and tuned.

Sessions don't usually go like this one is going, however. Even the conditioned passivity of the Soldier suffers a bit of a lapse when the two men find things unexpected in his arm. The upgrade to the wrist is troubling enough, especially when they double check the many notes kept on the maintenance of the Winter Soldier, and find nothing that could account for the discrepancy. Was it London? one of them asks, to which the other has no reply.

"Winter Soldier received no upgrade or alteration to design during or subsequent to London, September 9th, 2013," the weapon recites tonelessly.

So that rules that out. Nothing was supposed to be changed since the last thing done in 2012. But that problem quickly shrinks in scale when they find something even more troubling in that arm. Leonard digs in, frowning, and pulls it out. An active tracker.

Its lights flicker once, menacingly.

The Soldier still faces forward, obedient, but his expression tightens in uncertain anticipation of further punishment. He isn't sure what they just found, but he can hear the tone of their voices. A dog registering something bad happening with its handlers. "Winter Soldier requesting instruction," he says, his voice three-fourths passively rote, and one-fourth desperate.

—-

"You know what the fuck that is?! It's called being fucking COMPROMISED. Jesus Christ! I'm out. I'm so fucking out. I'm not losing my life over this piece of shit. Whose is it? Is it SHIELD?" Richard raves, snapping off question after question, hands twitching at his sides. Then he just balks, and mind made, begins to move, going for a quick and decisive evacuation. He palms together all his surgical tools, physical examination left incomplete, and begins throwing it all into his bag. He violently wraps up cabling around his arm and frantically packs it in.

Leonard, even know, seems to possess the patience of saints. He eyes the tracker closely, holding his glasses an inch forward to squint at its features. Seeing nothing incriminating of its construction, he sets it to the table, and flipping the forceps in hand, smashes it dead.

"You know we're going to be blamed for this," Richard is still raving, "they are going to put this on our fucking heads. We get out of here and I don't want to hear from you ever again. Ever again. When we send reports, yours had better fucking match mine. Where the fuck does this put the mission? You know what, I don't care. We're stopping this."

Leonard does not share his colleague's urgency. He is the epitome of icy calm, thinking, his eyes turned on the asset appraisingly. "We don't have the authority to make that decision."

Richard stands back up, slamming one gloved hand down on the table in a SMASH of emphasis. "The fuck we don't?! This is COMPROMISED. If someone doesn't already know we're here, then they're on their way. If you think I'm putting my ass out for this, you got one thing coming. If anyone SMELLS my involvement with this, you're going down with me. Your fucking wife too."

That earns Leonard's eyes. He stares reproachfully at Richard, some tension in his jaw. Then he twitches, adjusting his glasses. His attention turns when the asset, at that moment, also deigns to speak. Deigns to remind them of mission status.

Richard, ever so helpful, answers with a swift kick to the side of the dentist's chair to coax the animal up on its damn feet. "You want instruction? Get the fuck up. I'm putting in the call, and they're going to be expecting you back home. — Yeah, that's right," he asides to Leonard, noticing his colleague's eyes. "I'm going to call in /him/. He needs to know about this. He needs to know about how badly his fucking pet just /fucked up/ — "

Leonard's voice raises for the first time, harsh and hollow. "All right, enough. Finish cleaning up." He takes in a deep breath. "Soldier, we're invoking protocol 15-B. London will be expecting you within ten hours." He pauses. "Who upgraded you?"

—-

The Winter Soldier sits dejectedly in his chair as his handlers flip his shit around him. Or, well, as one of his handlers flips his shit; Leonard remains calm through his inspection of the tracker, calm through Richard's diatribe, calm through his eventual decision to smash it into scrap.

He hears only scraps of what they say, really— his mind is not really permitted to fully listen to the conversations of his superiors, tuned specifically only to the frequencies of certain important words. Words like locations pertaining to recent missions. Talk of his last mission triggers him back into cognizance, and the Soldier asks plaintively for further instruction.

Richard gives his chair a swift kick in reply. A swift kick and a lot of choice words. The Soldier starts to tense up as he recognizes some of them. Back home. Call in him. Pet. Fuck up. Back /home/. Off the mission?

Off the mission, Leonard confirms. Protocol 15-B. The Soldier's tension turns into a slight shaking. He's never failed a mission so badly he needed to be pulled off it. He IS the last resort. He IS the final word. This is ALL he is. He can't fail.

Who upgraded you?

The question seeps into his consciousness— and hits a snag. The Soldier's lips part a little like he's going to answer, but his gaze dulls and his expression hitches into blankness as something fights against the natural impulse to comply. Who upgraded you? It's not a hard question. He should really answer it, he thinks— and Richard gives his chair another kick, intent on getting the damn animal on its feet.

The animal gets to its feet.

That left arm clamps back shut into its regular configuration with a whir of metal and gears, and the Soldier rises in one smooth movement too fast to follow. He has Richard flat on his back in a quarter of a second, pinned under the vise of his metal left hand, the heavy weight of it not quite enough to stop breath, not enough to strangle— enough conditioning survives for that— but certainly more than enough to make clear continued life or death is a matter of the Winter Soldier opting to lean down. Or not.

"No recall," he says, his body shaking with something that might be fear, anger, offense, determination, or all of the above. "No recall. I will finish this. Anyone who has followed, I will kill."

His fingers tighten, his entire upper body tensing. Crouched on all fours over his downed handler, he looks like the animal he is treated as. "Give me what I need. I do not fail. I will finish this mission."

—-

Something very important happens. Important enough that it makes Leonard go silent, his pulse doubled with a terrible, horrible realization: the asset is not answering as ordered.

He knows an instant before it happens that something is dangerously wrong.

Even then, neither man is fast enough to expect it. Fast enough to even see it, as inside the quarter time of a human heartbeat, tracked only with a blur of moment, Richard gets ripped off his feet and nailed violently down to the ground. His head smacks painfully against concrete. He writhes, panicked and furious, stopped only by the metal arm pinning him down by his throat.

His eyes round to their whites. He looks up in intelligent, thinking dismay. Like the sky has fallen. Because this should not be happening. This does not happen.

And yet, he here is. And yet, here it is, standing over him, the dog turned on the master.

No recall, says the Soldier, issuing orders of its own. Both man look back increduously. Richard's mouth trembles with fear, forced now and for the first time to meet the Winter Soldier's blue eyes. He finally looks at him. He has to, because no man can look away from what is about to kill him.

Leonard looks on, unspeaking, unbreathing, his hands twitching anxiously at his sides. He very much considers running, but he does not. He knows better than to trigger unwanted subroutines, especially if the programming is already faltering, failing, fraying at the seams. How is this possible? The asset should be able to tolerate at least another twenty-seven days before hitting a critical point in his thaw. This level of deterioration is possible, even expected, but not at so accelerated a state.

Even then, there should be failsafes. Failsafes in place to prevent — this. Right now they're trapped with a deadly animal.

Richard just trembles, possibly with outrage, and definitely with terror, staring up with unfocused, watering eyes. He grits his teeth against the Soldier taking control. Obsolete fucking technology that needs to be put down. "Let me g—"

The hand tightens and his words cut out.

Leonard speaks up, quietly, haltingly, from the Soldier's back. He has not moved a muscle. "It's at the drop zone. As promised."

—-

Dog turns on master. And in an instant, fragile humans are very pithily reminded that just about everything in the world is stronger than they are. Especially an animal tormented beyond endurance.

The Winter Soldier rises, pounces, seizes, and pins— so quickly that it all seems one unbroken, fluid movement. His target is nailed to the floor before his brain even catches up with his eyes to register any kind of motion at all. Richard is flat on his back before he can breathe— and then he can't breathe at all, metal vising off his throat in a merciless death squeeze.

A moment passes. Those fingers relax incrementally. The Winter Soldier finds his handler looking him straight in the eyes, master forced to acknowledge servant in this moment of reversal. The Soldier's own eyes widen, fascinated and curious to effectively find his god finally looking his way.

It is easy to dismiss a cowed, tamed dog; but it is impossible to dismiss one's own impending, personified death.

The Soldier finds it, somewhere within himself, to express a desire he was not expressly commanded to have. For once, the slave demands of the master. No recall. No retirement. This is his mission. He is the Winter Soldier. He was the last and greatest blade of the Soviet state; he is the final word of HYDRA when its many heads speak the command to kill. This is his mission, and he will finish it.

No one denies him; no one says anything at all. The Soldier twitches briefly at this unaccustomed, new ground, the flicker running through his body a visual representation of the glitching in his programming to receive… no orders at all. His eyes focus down on his trapped prey, his erstwhile master.

It says something. The Winter Soldier finds himself curious. Metal fingers tighten, and it stops saying things. Fascinated as a newborn feeling his way through entirely new stimuli, he tightens his grasp more, watching with a child's sadistic inquisitiveness the result of his attentions—

Leonard speaks.

The Soldier lets go and rises. He is in front of Leonard within seconds, examining the man, slowly walking around him with a big cat's prowling steps. It's at the drop zone, he says. The Soldier pauses directly behind Leonard, considering.

"The Winter Soldier will report again on confirmed elimination of target," he says tonelessly. And then, unbidden, unordered, he turns and walks for the door.

—-

That metal hand tightens with all the machine patience of a turning vice.

It stops his words, branks his voice, and, finally, cuts his air. His eyes widen. Panic set through him, man reduced to fumbling animal in seconds, his hands scraping and knuckling and clawing feebly at smooth metal that offers no purchase, no grip, no mercy. What is worse is he stares up into those blue eyes the entire time his windpipe his squeezed, as his carotid arteries are shut, as his brain stutters and slows as it's slowly denied air.

He stares into eyes, not of a machine, not of an animal — and he /sees/. He sees.

Then Leonard speaks, and that metal hand lets go. He reanimates with an awful, whooping choke, sucking air so desperately it burns its way down his lungs. The man collapses there, broken so easily, reduced to a shivering thing strewn over the ground.

While Richard gags and heaves, Leonard maintains his icy calm. It is an artifice, a layer, thin and cracking, easily betrayed by the quick hammer of his heart and the rush of blood into his skeletal muscles. His legs itch with adrenaline.

It gets worse the closer the asset comes. It walks toward him, unleashed and free, a domesticated dog not so far removed from the wolf, and finally remembering its instincts — and the taste of fresh blood. The Soldier circles him identically, predator testing an unknown variable, waiting for the right response to forever deem it prey. Leonard is a clever man. He knows to remain still.

Even as his mind races. This is bad. This is very bad. The Winter Soldier is no longer functioning — no longer passive to direct orders. His programming is breaking apart. It is the possibility he was trained for but convinced would never happen: the asset is going rogue.

He says no more. His eyes follow that metal arm, staring at it, piercing through it. He has so many questions, but they are not to be answered now. Now he only must survive.

The Soldier lingers close… then lets him go. And with one last comment — a promise, the Soldier is not programmed to feel conviction — it leaves.

The room goes silent with the shared horror of two men.

Leonard reaches up, his hand trembling, and shakily adjusts his glasses again. Its wire arm scratches on the shared scar behind his own ear. Swallowing, he looks down at Richard, who still sprawls there, hand curled around his own throat.

"I'll call him," Leonard says.

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