Oh Dark Thirty

May 02, 2017:

Backscene: December 22nd, 1989. In the fading days of the Soviet Union, the life of twenty-five year old SHIELD data analyst Phil Coulson— dispatched to Romania for routine data analysis on a dismantled Hydra cell— gets a lot more interesting when revolution breaks out. The young agent undergoes a trial by fire as he finds himself caught in the middle of one of the Winter Soldier's last glory-day operations as a Soviet asset.

Bucharest, Romania


NPCs: None.



Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

BUCHAREST, December 22, 1989

It has been about twenty-four hours since the assembly in the Piata Palatului dissolved into rioting chaos.

No one can say what exactly triggered it all. Some say fireworks, some say gunshots. Some say a bomb went off. There is only one person who does know, and he is already long gone.

Many embassies, including the US Embassy, are now in full-blown evacuation mode as the country of Romania dissolves into violent revolution. Among the evacuees is a small detachment from SHIELD. The team was originally in the country for the purpose of performing data analysis on a freshly-dismantled Hydra cell operating in Bucharest.

It was starting to look kind of like they were in communications with covert Soviet elements in Romania. But there wasn't much time to dig more into that before everything went to hell.

A convoy has been organized to evacuate non-essential personnel from the embassy. That includes the SHIELD team, who due to their training serve a double function as evacuees and escorts. The Piata Universitatii is an unholy mess of protesters, most of them violent, so it's being given a wide berth by the convoy as it attempts to leave the city. Destination: the Bulgarian border, to the south.

It's oh dark thirty, and the sun's a long way from coming up, but even considering the dark, it's still the safest time to try to travel under these conditions.

25-year old Phillip Coulson sits in the back of the van, wincing a little every time he hears someone throw a bottle at the car, grimacing every time he hears a gunshot in the air. His tie is a bit crooked, his hair is a little rumpled, for all that is normally combed so very carefully away from his fresh, earnest face. Nobody's paying any attention to him whatsoever. Nobody told him to stop analyzing communications, so he didn't. It's the most useful thing he can do to keep his mind busy, and something is bothering him.

He's Level 2. The lowest ranking guy here. 'Something is bothering me' isn't enough to speak up about without some solid proof. So he searches for some.

Phil Coulson doesn't think it was fireworks, or a random gunman sparking a random event. Something about this tells his gut instinct that causing the riots was deliberate. Calculated. Maybe as a distraction, maybe to force an evacuation, maybe even to draw someone out, or to make something vulnerable.

He chews absently on a pencil as he goes searching for it, digging through every data source SHIELD can get its hands on. It's a nasty habit, pencil chewing; he's all but beavered this one to splinters and rubble, but he keeps at it, fingers flying. If he's right, if he can get evidence, maybe he can keep something bad from happening, which would be, all and all, pretty cool, and kind of what he signed up for, actually protecting people.

He's had precious few opportunities to do that since he started. But boy has he decoded a lot of stuff. It's all a huge honor, but kind of a far cry from walking in the footsteps of the Howling Commandos.

He hums very softly and nervously under his breath.

"Dun dun dunnnn dun dun dun nun, dun dun duuuun dun dun…"

The instrumental line for Smoke on the Water.

Unrest blooms across Bucharest like macabre flowers. There does seem to be a pattern to the way it spreads, a progression of violence that trends away from the Palace of the Parliament. It could be a diversion. It could be someone is going for the President. Or it could be something else. These things, after all, tend to have an energy of their own, and to propagate like wildfire in the direction of least resistance.

In this case, parts of the city that are still quiet seem to be the areas of least resistance.

Cries of "Timisoara!" and "Moarte criminalului!" mix with intermittent gunfire and the sounds of explosions and violent fighting. The noise is getting perilously close. The Level 6 with their group, an older agent who happens to be the only combat-trained member of the SHIELD team, quietly entreats the driver if he can find some other route because this isn't fast enough. The answer isn't too favorable; as if to distract himself, he looks over at Coulson as he takes out his pencil and starts chewing away.

"That pencil's gonna—" he starts, but he doesn't finish, because a stray bullet chooses that moment to shatter the window and tear through his left shoulder, ending its flight in the driver's head. The vehicle stops dead with a terrible jerk.

There is a silent moment. Then the sounds of chaos draw even closer. Rioters start to flood into the street, on foot and angry as hell. They've been wanting a conveyance to hijack to get to the Piata Universitatii faster, and here's one conveniently stopped in the street.

Hazel eyes flare wide. He had just isolated the patterns on one of the screens when the bullet rips through the air. The pencil snaps in his mouth as fear makes him bite it clean in half. For a terrible sixty seconds he simply freezes. Then he shakes himself out of the combat paralysis, his overloaded brain allowing him to react and act once more. This, he does with an explosive and articulate utterance of: "Ahhhhhhh— crap! Sir!"

Phil draws his own side arm, a small, pathetic little thing really. He keeps it pointed down at the ground of the van, lamenting his six whole weeks of qualification with the thing. A crack shot, he is not. He scrambles up help his superior down to the ground, reaching over to unbuckle his seatbelt for him, ripping off his tie to turn it into a compress for that shoulder wound. He glances in the direction of the marching feet, wincing; if they stay here they're toast. He pulls the dead driver out of the seat next, scrambling into the driver's seat. He gulps, buckles his seatbelt, leans forward to blast on the horn, fires a few wild shots out the window to show he means business, and then revs the engine a few times before surging forward, trying to get off this thoroughfare as quickly as possible.

He glances at the enormous bag phone between the seats and punches the speaker button, dialing HQ from memory. "Mayday, Mayday, we have an agent dead, one agent wounded, and I may have possible safe routes for the evacuation convoy. Direct them to abandon their current route in favor of navigating to the following areas instead." He rattles off routes towards those quiet areas he found from memory, trying to inject as much authority as he can into his voice so whichever dispatcher he's gotten ahold of actually gets these people to safety instead of bursting out with a 'and just who the Hell are you?' He sure hopes that's the right answer, too, that the quiet areas aren't the a trap, but…he doubts it. 'Analyzing data in the midst of a riot' is the kind of thing only nerds like him do. Any plan that relied on someone doing that would be a foolish plan. And he's more convinced than ever it is a plan.

The urgency also comes from the fact that his head might get blown off next, but he keeps it low as he drives, a slightly fearful wince wrinkling his forehead and baring his teeth as he tries to navigate.

And while it may be his priority to get people to safety, he can't help but track those blooming patterns of violence across his mind, comparing them to similar incidents in history, analyzing it furiously, as if by so doing he can find a point of significant action.

The Level 6, Agent Clark, he doesn't look so good. The bullet hit something important, judging by the rate at which blood's pulsing from his shoulder. The compress helps a bit, but the man's going rapidly into shock. The driver was the next most senior, unfortunately, and the remainder of the SHIELD team? Frightened data nerds, just like Phil Coulson himself.

It was probably a rather bare team to send out to Bucharest at this time, but no one could have anticipated how quickly the Romanian people's anger would boil over.

The rioting crowds draw back a little as Phil honks angrily at them and fires a few crazy shots out the window. None of them hit anyone (thankfully?), but it does draw some attention. The rioters aren't the only people out there anymore, after all— the Securitate is arriving, accompanied by both anti-terrorist squads and regular Romanian soldiers, and these forces don't seem to have any compunctions about firing on the crowd to put a stop to their protesting.

In the distance, there is the grinding sound of tanks and APCs, though they do not appear to be coming this way.

The dispatcher on the other end, when Phil calls in, does question him a little— 'Who in the hell is this?!' might have gotten said— but an explanation of the situation would have been taken in stride, and Phil's instructions relayed off to 'whomever it may concern.' He has no way of knowing, really, if his information is sound or if it'll help the rest of the convoy— from which they've been separated— get to safety, but…

Better than nothing. In the meantime, all they can do is keep peeling down the Drumul National 5 towards Bulgaria.

Suddenly, from amongst the milling crowd, there's the sharp whistle of something a lot more deadly than anything a rioter should be expected to have. A launched rocket plows into the front lines of the massed police forces, blowing it apart in a shocking display of violence. There is no hint of the shooter amongst the protesters, many of whom seem shocked themselves. The survivors radio in for backup, backup to the north end of the Parcul Tineretului. Backup which clearly includes the tanks, which start to come inexorably south.

…It's a pattern. Or it could be. This happened earlier, north of here… and even earlier than that, even farther north. It could be coincidence, of course, but for sudden escalations of force to appear amongst rioters in a manner leading outwards from the core of the city, drawing the brunt of Romanian forces along with it…

Phil flinches when that rocket launcher hits. He ducks down for a moment, gripping the steering wheel with a white knuckled grip. Shrapnel bounces and thunks off the hood of his car. He hits the brakes hard for a moment, not wanting to plow into police forces, not sure where to go that won't get him killed. He tilts the mirrors, trying to see better. "Don't die on me, Sir," he tells his superior, though he knows that's probably a futile thing to say.

Patterns of violence that suggest…what? "Single operator," he mutters. "Black ops, Agent provocateur…"

Which means what?

"Someone's giving him orders, and the handler would be stationed…"

At the beginning of the pattern. North. The air is full of smoke and ruin. But Phil just finished calling routes. He makes a hard left into an alley before it can be blocked off, spots a motorcycle, and stops the car. He turns to the other data nerds. "Keep giving Clark what first aid you can. Grab their guns, cover yourselves if someone marches on you, lay low. At this point this car isn't going much further, so defend your position and try to let everyone else have it out for now."

Two data nerds to defend a bleeding agent and a van. It's the best Phil can do. He's found the actionable point, and damned if he isn't the only one who can actually take advantage of it. His heart is pounding, his hands are sweaty, but he holsters his gun and sprints for that motorcycle, keeping his arms up and his head down. He sees the driver of the thing still half tangled in it, dead from another shot. He cuts the guy loose and hops on. Then he sends it careening down pedestrian walks and alleyways in the exact opposite direction of the evacuation. North and north and north, consulting his mental maps as he puts distance between himself and the guy with the rocket launcher, plays off on being the world's most forgettable and boring human being in a rumpled, white dress shirt as he goes in search of the one who can call that man to a halt, and perhaps in so doing, allow this cauldron of violence to simmer down once more.

Don't die on me, Coulson entreats. "Trying," Agent Clark answers with a pained breath, though it's transparent he's only semi-conscious, possibly soon to be unconscious. He's old to still be on active duty, and he was hit somewhere bad. "You just keep everything together…"

There's a pattern. It's so carefully constructed to seem random— just part of the natural chaos of violent revolution— that it would slip under the radar of most. But it doesn't slip under Phil's. There's someone out there instigating this, most likely, and most people who'd meddle in these kinds of affairs don't work in a vacuum.

Someone's calling the shots. Perhaps not guiding the actual actions, but certainly directing what this operator's ultimate motive should be.

Phil decides to do something about that.

Whoever is out there notices him, but pays him no real mind. He's just one man on a motorcycle, fleeing, likely to get himself killed. There are more important matters to which this ghost must attend.

Coulson is surprisingly unimpeded as he peels north, searching for anything out of the ordinary. Anything at all. Hard to tell, though, when the whole city is wreathed in violence, and everything is completely out of the ordinary. Most people don't seem too interested in a lone man, however— especially the rioters. It's the Securitate which are a greater concern, prone as they are to shooting at anything that moves.

One sharp turn takes him almost right into the middle of a small four-man team of them, in fact. They fire, but a bit wildly, taken by surprise.

Phil doesn't even try to fire back. He weaves the motorcycle through them. Small. Four man team. Out here…

Is that it? Is that the unusual thing he's looking for? His instincts scream at him to at least check them out. While…not getting shot. They're shooting at him, there are shots all over the city, so he feels no compunction about adding some. He barrels past them, spinning a U-turn. He briefly pauses the bike. He fires at the backs of two of them, aiming more to simply hit them than to try to be amazing. Center mass, Phil, center mass. It doesn't even matter if he hits or misses at this point; he's this unassuming crazy dude with no helmet and an increasingly Doc Brown-like head of hair.

Then he kickstarts the bike again, sends it squealing about in another direction, trying to remember what he saw when he first ran into them, even as he tries to confuse them so he can live a little longer to think. What were they guarding? Building? Alley? Something specific? Why are they way out here? He looks over his shoulder briefly though, just trying to keep track of them. It won't do him any good to be right if they slaughter him here and now. He'd have loved something more subtle, but…he basically made his entrance by nearly scattering them like Securitate bowling pins. Subtle got taken right off that menu about 30 seconds ago. Insane is the only play left on the young Agent's menu.

It is odd, isn't it? The Securitate should all be concentrating towards the south, where the rioting is the thickest. Why is this small team back here, alone?

Who are they talking to, when they speak into their radios? Is that Russian they're speaking?

Coulson's sudden returned fire takes them by surprise. He hits his shots; one man goes down and does not move again, while the other is hit in the leg. The remaining two drag their injured compatriot behind cover, taking up a defensive position in front of what looks like a small corner shop.

…why are they holing up there? Why not radioing for help? Why not getting the hell out of dodge?


Coulson rounds the corner of a different shop for just a second, panting and sweating. He doesn't have time to tangle with these guys. He needs to get in and get to the handler.

He whips his belt off his pants. It's just there because wearing belts is the professional thing to do. He steadies the bike, considers it, looks out in the direction of the faux-Securitate or turncoat Securitate or whatever they are. If he hesitates, they're going to get un-dug pretty soon, and he'll be up a creek. Working quickly, he uses the belt to bind down the throttle even as he holds the bike upright and steady, keeping one hand on the handbrake until he's ready to do his thing.

He wheels the bike to what he hopes is a great spot for this given there's nobody on it, eyeing how long it will take for the thing to capsize and hopefully continue to spin out of control right into them.

He lets it fly.

Then he takes off running, not waiting to see how his distraction performs, running for the back of the building, where this guy will either be coming out because he's been radio'd that something is wrong…

Or where one tiny, determined Data Analyst is going in, side arm up and ready.

The two Securitate(?) still up are splitting their attention, trying to keep track of Coulson and also to check on the status of their shot compatriot. In a moment of distraction, they lose track of the young SHIELD agent as he rounds that corner. It's enough to give him time to set up his plan.

It works, amazingly. The motorcycle stays upright just long enough that when it inevitably slams over, momentum keeps it going straight into the two men. The cover they're behind actually prevents them from seeing what's barreling at them, and they can't get out of the way in time to not get hit. It doesn't kill them outright, but from the sound of it, they're not getting up anytime soon, either.

It gives Phil time to dash around to the back door of the building, which is in fact just in the process of opening.

A harried-looking man hustles out. He's empty handed save for a communication device of some kind; if he had any actual equipment, he probably left it to make a run for it. Of course, he doesn't get very far, because the first thing he runs into on turning the corner is Phil Coulson, sidearm out and at the ready.

The man gasps, hands lifting in some reflex to protect his face. "D-don't shoot!" he stammers in Romanian. It's not native, though. There's a slight Russian accent to it. "I just wanted to get somewhere safe!"

Phillip Coulson isn't buying it.

His mouth stretches into a grim, tight line. He holds the gun steady, though at center mass, not at anything fancy like the head, or legs, or hands. And it's good he's holding a communication device, because Agent Coulson wants him to do some communicating.

His Romanian is actually even worse than his Russian, so he switches the language he's pretty sure this handler speaks. His Russian is sing-song, childish as American-accented Russian always is, but his tone is hard and resolute.

"<Call off your operative. Now. Or I will kill you. It would be my—"> He casts around for the right word. He's pretty sure the one that's on the tip of his tongue is the word for orgasm. Not the one he wants. After a moment he gives up and says, <"I'd really like that a lot because of all the death and destruction you've both caused today."> He wouldn't, killing causes him no pleasure at all, but he's already shot people today. It's regrettable that he couldn't manage 'It would be my pleasure', which would have sounded a little more menacing, but…c'est la vie. When he writes the report, he promises himself he'll make it sound cooler.

There is a brief moment where the man seems to consider pretending he doesn't speak Russian, but it seems obvious to him that this American has already seen through THAT. His eyes dart, from Phil's face to the gun to Phil's face again, and he makes a rapid decision.

"<M-my operative?>" He affects a nervous smile. "<I-i really…>"

He's keying something on the communicator, frantically. "<I… all right. I'll… call him…>"

It's up to Phil Coulson to trust that whatever codes he's inputting on that communicator actually mean 'abort mission and return to me.' But what else is there, really, to be done?

As Phil watches he starts to sweat. There's a great chance this is a duress code. He can't be sure. He doesn't know their codes. And that duress code could mean anything from 'kill every civilian you see' to 'come back and kill this upstart kid with a gun to my head.'

And the bitch of it all is…it is a risk that he has to take, because if he interrupts the operative will still be out there, causing chaos. But he doesn't have to take it stupidly.

When the codes are inputted he says, "Now put down the communicator. Kick it to me. Hands on your head, feet apart."

Assuming the man complies he grabs the communicator, wanting to hear if anything is said which might indicate an abort mission, steps in and does a swift pat-down, looking for other weapons. More to the point, he then puts a hand on the man's shoulder and forces him backwards. He will put his own back against the wall of the building across the way, his gun to the man's head as he holds him hostage, his pulse pounding. He's definitely having a 'now what, hotshot' moment, aimed at himself, chest tight.

He didn't think any farther ahead than this moment, right here, and now he's deeply regretting it. Now he's well and truly improvising. It's a sensation akin to realizing he's stepped off a cliff, and has fallen into choppy water that is dangerously close to closing over his head and pressing into his lungs.

The operator looks sullen about having to give up his communicator, but give it up he does. He obeys. The communicator says and does nothing when Coulson picks it up. Whatever message went out was sent and received without any verbal communication necessary.

Coulson will find that this man only has a small sidearm on him; it's easily removed, and there's nothing else of note on his person. He's forced easily into that hostage stance, pale and sweating but otherwise calm, his eyes darting about to search through the dark. "<There's no need for this,>" he tries to bargain. "<It is finished. I sent an abort order…>"

Coulson is, wisely enough, not exactly willing to trust this. Minutes pass. In the distance, the sounds of violence echo on throughout the city.

There's still some things that can only be picked up through experience, however, and one of them is to not try to wait in an area surrounding by many buildings, some of them quite high. The instinct to put his back to a wall is good, but ultimately whatever protection that affords is canceled out by the fact that there are numerous perches around from which a man could fire.

The slight sound of articulating metal whispers through the dark.

Coulson wouldn't know the sound. The operator does. His stance goes taut, caught somewhere between recognition, relief, and terror at that telltale noise. "<What are you waiting for?!>" he barks, his voice tight and high with fear. "<Get me out of this—>"

"<You called me only for this? I had work to do,>" The answering voice speaks perfect Russian, fierce and cold and harsh as wind whipping across a frozen wasteland. It is almost impossible to tell where it originates, what with the acoustics of the surrounding buildings and the clamor of the riots around them distorting everything.

The operator stammers. "<I—>"

A crack shatters the quiet. Inches from Coulson, a bullet blows apart his captive's head with awful precision.

"<Weak,>" the voice sneers. There is only silence afterwards… though that fired shot, that second spoken word, gives Phil an impression of the direction of the shooter.

He is doubling back towards the Parliamentary Palace.

Coulson goes dry-mouthed as he recognizes his mistake. Sweat stains his shirt, conveniently hidden behind the handler, as he starts to contemplate whether it's going to be his last mistake. The voice he hears is terrifying, the metal sounds don't entirely make sense, and Phil wonders what manner of nightmare he's brought down upon his own head. And yet he stands there with the gun to the man's head, listening to them argue with one another, listens to the handler lose control of his asset.

There's an unmistakable intake of breath as the bullet splatters brains and blood all over his face. For a moment all Phil can see is dark and dizzy spots; some part of his brain frantically telling him that he just died. It takes precious seconds for his breath to restart again; his knees weaken, and he slides down the wall panting. It would be nice to say that he leaps up and engages in some fantastic heroics, but the truth is, for one moment he's just happy to be alive.

Eventually his mind and will reassert themselves, the direction of the shooter whispering its way through the near-frozen analytical parts of his brain. He looks down at the tiny gun, even as he continues to taste viscera on his tongue. Whatever the solution is, that is not it.

His hand hurts. He looks down. It's white, covered in red flecks, it's shaking, it's gripping…the communicator.

He drags himself through the doorway of the shop he'd been leaning against. He hides under a table, away from the windows. He licks cracked lips. Then he reprograms the communicator, tapping into the channels of the real Securitate.

He switches to Romanian, just as accented as his Russian.

"<This is SHIELD operative 9962.>" Because his number is way more impressive than his name, because it could be any rank, not the piss-ant rank he actually is. <"Be advised. Russian operative approaching. Armed and extremely dangerous. Sniper, assassin, black ops. Advise increasing security on the Parlimentary Palace.">

It is possible the operative will shatter his skull for daring to intervene a second time.

But…intervening is his duty. And if calling him off won't help…issuing a desperate warning will have to. He just hopes it's enough, because that's the only intel he has to give them. There's no way he can catch up now, and if he sees that man again today he's sure it will be his last sight.

Another lesson for Phil Coulson to learn: the man holding the radio is not always the handler. His captive? A supporting operative whose purpose was to be an ear on the ground, relaying information back to the actual handler directing the asset's movements.

The monster loose in the dark works his murderous jobs alone, but does not necessarily travel and operate alone. Attached to him is a supporting infrastructure dedicated to staying out of his way and enabling his bloody work. And they certainly do their best to stay out of his way, because most of them know the outcome of slowing him down or disrupting his mission—

That outcome is splattering gore all across Coulson's face, right now.

Fortunately, for whatever reason, the killer out in the dark does not see a reason to use another bullet to waste Coulson as well. Perhaps he considers the matter sufficiently dismissed, the young man inconsequential enough that it's not worth leaving even more evidence of his presence here tonight.

It just so happens, though, that Phil has a handy skill in reprogramming small electronics.

The Securitate, when he reaches them, are harsh-voiced and skeptical, hard men harried by the chaotic night and suspicious of this upstart SHIELD agent. But at this point, they were going to ramp up security around the Piata Palatului anyway, so they agree to do it.

Remains to be seen whether it will stymie the assassin sufficiently…

Phil tosses the communicator aside for the moment. It takes him a little bit to consider that, about the handlers, and the teams, about how he might simply have gotten the wrong guy.

The fakes are still out there. Phil wipes his face, grabs his gun, and creeps back out to see if he can't spot what's going on at the front of the shop where he'd mistaken a guy who probably was really just the Phil Coulson counterpart for the actual player of the game. He can't even waste time feeling stupid.

He's still driven to act. He can't stop himself. To at least try, though surely there will come a point where he can't do anything else, because he will run out of leads or useful actions, because holing up until things blow over, until he can make contact with his own superiors, will be the only thing he can do.

But he doesn't feel he's reached that point just yet. Now, there are people piled under a motorcycle, people with communication devices of their own; there's the building to look over, there's another chance, perhaps, to impact events for the better.

He gets to it, with the dogged determination that is his hidden, but defining, trait.

The men, when he reaches the front of the building, are by now gone. The one he had shot previously seems to have died and been left behind as a presumed casualty of the riots. Whether his death was from the gunshot wound or from additional injuries from the motorcycle is rather unclear. His communicator is still functional, though it doesn't seem linked to anything except the communicator of the now-dead operator who was the presumed charge of these men.

Phil's own radio starts to crackle. It's the data nerds he left behind, telling him in nervous shell-shocked chatter that backup arrived, that they're back to being on their way out of the city, that he's wanted back with the group by SHIELD brass. Who will doubtless want an explanation of why he hared off by himself.

It will all, likely, become clear later, in the aftermath. When it comes out that the Palatul Parlamentului was not, ultimately, hit… but the minister of defense, holed up some distance from it farther out in the city, was found dead instead. It's ruled a suicide, but these things are usually lies. Phil Coulson would know what likely actually happened there.

His death is the eventual catalyst for the overthrow of the Romanian dictatorship, the one domino that sets the rest falling. But God knows what more would have happened if that assassin had gotten straight into the Palace of the Parliament.

Lucky for Phil Coulson, SHIELD sees it that way too.

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