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The Assassin

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The assassin

It was 9am and already it was one of the hottest days on record in Santiago. Pepper lay on her kitchen floor – the coldest surface in the entire apartment – and tried to move as little as possible. Nevertheless, sweat was pooling everywhere on her body. She felt sticky and gross.

The AC in her tiny apartment had been broken for over a month now. It hadn’t been so bad at the beginning, but by now Santiago was suffering under one of the worst heat waves on record and just being in her apartment was excruciating. Pepper had hunted down her landlord for weeks, but he’d evaded her pretty well up until last week. When she’d finally managed to get into contact with him, he’d promised to have somebody, “his guy”, stop by today and Pepper prayed that he’d be able to repair the damn thing.

Just then the doorbell rang. Pepper looked at it for a long moment, a little confused, because she hadn’t actually expected anybody to appear today. Then she jumped up to use the intercom. There was simply static on her end. She remembered that the intercom at the entrance had never worked. But it couldn’t be anybody else but the guy coming to repair the AC. So Pepper simply said “Come up,” and then pressed the buzzer.

She lived on the 9th floor, so it took some time for everybody to get there. Pepper listened for steps on the landing and when she heard heavy footsteps on the stairs and then somebody stopping in front of her door, she was sure that it must be him.

“Thank god,” Pepper exclaimed, throwing the door open. Just belatedly she realised that she should’ve said that in Spanish, not English.

He looked at her with something akin to surprise and then took her in from head to toe. His gaze lingered on her face a second too long.

“American,” he said in perfect English. Pepper thought she recognised the hint of a Brooklyn accent.

“Oh wow,” Pepper breathed, “I hadn’t expected that. The English I mean. You here to repair the AC?”

He squinted at her, then nodded slowly. “Yes.”

He stepped inside and Pepper felt awkward and a little intimidated by him. He was tall and built. His long hair looked unkempt. Despite the heat he wore a jacket. But Pepper decided to not hold it against him as long as he made her apartment inhabitable again. People had the weirdest perception of temperature.

“You live alone?” he asked, craning his neck to look around.

“I do,” Pepper confirmed automatically and then immediately regretted her answer because that was also the question a serial killer would ask before murdering you. She was the perfect victim, a single, lone female in a foreign country. It would be days, maybe even weeks before somebody realised that she was missing. “But, you know,” she added, cringing internally at how unconvincing she sounded, “my friends are expecting me later today and all that. I’m not lonely or anything.”

He just nodded. He sat down his bag; it made a heavy clunking sound on the floor. Pepper stared at it for a moment. That sounded… wrong somehow. And what kind of repairman carried his stuff around in a large canvas bag?

He looked around in the apartment but didn’t actually say anything.

“So, it’s the AC,” she gestured towards the window, “it’s been broken for a while, and it’s been unbearable,” Pepper babbled to fill in the silence, hating how whiney she sounded.

He just hummed in acknowledgement.

“Really, you’re wearing a jacket, you must be dying in this heat. And I’ve been waiting so long for somebody to show up.”

“Hmm.”

“You can’t believe how happy I am that you appeared.”

He bent down to retrieve something from his bag.

“I can’t wait for-” Pepper stopped abruptly when she noticed the gun in his hand. “You’re not here to repair my AC,” she realised.

“I’m afraid not.”

Pepper just stared at him in silence, expecting him to shoot her right there. Strangely enough, her next thought was that her mom would have a field day. She had been dead set against Pepper’s volunteering abroad in Santiago de Chile after college, citing that it probably wasn’t safe because the country was still reeling from its former authoritarian military government. The Pinochet era had only come to an end a few years ago. Presidential elections were scheduled to be held in a few months.

But the shot Pepper expected never came. “If you want to rob me, you’ve chosen the wrong person,” she finally managed to say. “I don’t have anything.”

“I know. But you do have a bedroom window that opens.”

“What?” Pepper frowned at him.

“I’m not here for you, or your possessions. I’m here for your view out of the bedroom window.”

“What?” Pepper repeated.

“You’ll find out,” he said ominously.

Pepper stood in the middle of her apartment in shock, while he bent down and got more stuff out of his bag. Pepper had never seen a sniper’s rifle in real life before, but there was no mistaking it now.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“What?” Pepper asked in surprise.

“What’s your name?” he repeated.

“Virginia.”

He looked up at her. “Do people really call you that?”

Pepper didn’t answer, just stood next to him in silence.

“Which means, no,” he continued. “Ginger maybe? Because of your hair?”

“Only the bullies at school would call me that,” Pepper said quietly.

“Sorry.” He actually looked contrite for a moment. “Bullies…” he trailed off, then shook his head and got back to his work assembling his rifle. “I’m sorry, Virginia.”

He stood up and walked into her bedroom, motioning her to follow him. He opened the window and looked outside for a moment. Then he moved the chair to the window. He gestured at it. “For you,” he said. “Please sit down.”

Pepper complied with his request. “So you’re not going to shoot me then?”

“If you behave, no.”

“If I behave?” Pepper tried to clarify.

“Look, you’re not my mission. So, if you make this easy for me, there’s no reason for me to hurt you.” He looked at her earnestly and Pepper swallowed hard, then nodded.

He kneeled down at the window and put his rifle onto the windowsill.

“So, what is your mission?” Pepper asked quietly.

“You see that hospital over there?” He gestured at the hospital at the end of the block. Pepper walked past it on her way to the bus stop every morning. She nodded.

“In about 10 minutes, Hector Rodríguez López is going to step out the back entrance.”

Pepper thought for a moment where she’d heard that name. “Isn’t he the presidential candidate?” she then asked, sounding a little uncertain.

“So I’ve been told.”

“And you’re going to kill him,” Pepper stated.

“I’m gonna fire a warning shot,” the assassin said.

“Good.” Pepper sighed in relief. She could live with that.

“Into his head.”

Pepper glared at him, but he didn’t look up from his rifle. “No funny,” she then dared to say.

“Wasn’t meant to be.”

They were silent for the next few minutes. Pepper remained in her chair, he remained kneeling on the floor. Pepper asked herself how he wasn’t sweating to death in his jacket. She was wearing a simple shirt and shorts and was unbearably hot. She also had time to look at him a little closer and he didn’t look good. His hair was unkempt, his skin looked unhealthy, it almost had a deathlike pallor to it. His clothing was inconspicuous, but it wasn’t well-kept, didn’t fit him well. There was some stubble on his chin, but for some reason it didn’t look like a fashion choice, just… careless.

The phone attached to her kitchen wall rang. Pepper jumped. Nobody had ever called her on her landline before. She hadn’t given out the number really. She had never needed the phone.

“We should answer that,” the assassin said, getting up from his position. “It’s probably for me.”

“So I’m allowed to go?” Pepper clarified.

“Yes, follow me. But no funny business,” he answered. He left the rifle by the window but took his handgun and followed her to the kitchen.

He was on the phone for barely half a minute. He listened to what the person on the other end had to say, then said “Understood,” and hung up. The gun hung carelessly from his right hand. He never took his eyes off Pepper, who went to the fridge and filled two glasses first with ice and then some water.

She held it out in front of him and he looked at her puzzled. “It’s for you,” she said, urging him to take it.

There was a glint of suspicion in his eyes for a second, but then he probably replayed that he’d seen Pepper make this simple drink and there was nothing suspicious to it, so he took it from her.

“Thanks,” he said, sounding a little uncertain.

Pepper just shrugged.

“They’re running behind schedule,” he told her, nodding at the phone.

“Oh,” was all Pepper said. Then: “So, how much longer is it going to be?”

“Another hour or so.”

“Oh.”

They stood opposite each other in silence.

“How do you know?” Pepper then wanted to know.

“We have somebody on the inside. A girl. A nurse.”

Pepper nodded.

“Do you want me to take a look at your AC?”

“What?” Pepper stared at him in confusion.

“The AC, you said it’s broken. I’m good with… technical stuff. I think.”

It took a moment for Pepper to register. “Yes, sure,” she said hesitantly. “That would be great.”

He shrugged. “I have some time to kill, do I?”

“And other stuff to kill too,” Pepper couldn’t help but add under her breath.

He put his gun onto her living room table while he took a look at the AC. Pepper stared at it for a long moment.

“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to shoot you?”

He turned around and looked at her earnestly. “No, you wouldn’t. Not the type.”

Pepper frowned at him. “What do you mean?”

“For one,” he turned back around, so Pepper couldn’t see his expression, “you haven’t been trained. You wouldn’t hit anything. And the recoil would probably knock you off your feet.”

“And where have you been trained?”

“The war,” he just said. “And two, you’re not the type to pull the trigger on somebody. It takes a special…” he trailed off.

Pepper asked herself what war he’d fought in. Maybe the Gulf War, she thought. Or the Falklands War. But from what Pepper had heard, there hadn’t been much need for snipers then. There weren’t many more conflicts Pepper could think of. He was too young for anything else that came to mind. Or maybe the Cold War had been a lot warmer than she’d been told.

Her thoughts were interrupted when he took off his jacket. Pepper gasped audibly. He had a metal arm. It was unlike she had ever seen before. His entire left arm was made out of metal, the prosthesis disappeared into his shirtsleeve. It looked like a high-end instrument.

He must’ve heard her reaction, but he didn’t turn around, instead, he took off the back of the AC unit, to take a closer look, giving Pepper the opportunity to stare at him unabashedly for a few minutes.

She marvelled at the beauty that was his left arm for a moment. It was clear that he’d had it for a while. He felt… he behaved so naturally with it. The metal plates shifted with every move. The dexterity was unbelievable. She couldn’t stop staring at it. If he’d really fought in a war, he’d probably lost his arm then, Pepper decided. And the army had managed to secure him this prosthesis. She’d never even considered that such a thing could exist.

It took him roughly 20 minutes to repair her AC. Pepper didn’t really pay attention to what he did, but when the broken unit sprang back to life, she couldn’t contain a squeal of excitement.

“Thank you so much!” she said. She was so happy that she almost hugged him, but she stopped herself just in time.

He just nodded curtly and stepped back. He unclenched his left hand, listening to the small clicks of his metal joints for a moment. Then he went back to the bedroom and sat on the floor once more. Pepper followed him mutely.

“What’s your name?” Pepper asked after she sat down in the chair once more. “I mean, you repaired my AC, so I think I deserve to know the name of my saviour.” It was a lame joke, especially considering their situation, but Pepper hoped that he might actually tell her.

“I don’t have a name,” the assassin said flatly.

So he didn’t want to tell her. For a second Pepper was disappointed.

“You could’ve told me that you can’t or won’t tell me,” she said.

“No,” he insisted. “I don’t have a name.”

Pepper stared at him for a moment. “Okay,” she then simply said.

She looked outside the window once more, trying to figure out the distance towards the hospital.

“Are you sure you’ll hit him?” she asked then.

“At this distance: No problem,” he answered confidently.

“What’s the longest distance-” Pepper trailed off, not sure if she really wanted to know.

“I’m…” he stopped and thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. But I think it might be around 2,000 yards.”

Pepper sucked in a sharp breath. “Holy shit.” She mulled over it for a moment. “So you really are a professional then. Aren’t you afraid of leaving fingerprints?”

“Nah,” he shook his head, “it’ll get taken care of. We have people everywhere. Also, you’d need a comparison and my prints are not on file.”

“Who do you work for anyway?” Pepper dared to ask. “CIA? Mossad?”

He didn’t say anything.

“MI-6? Is your name Bond, James Bond?” Pepper tried in an ill-conceived attempt at hilarity.

“Who?” He looked at her in earnest confusion.

“Very funny. Everybody knows who James Bond is.”

He just stared at her in bewilderment, then went back to staring out of the window.

Pepper looked out of the window, thinking about the victim. She didn’t know much about Hector Rodríguez López, other than he was a progressive candidate for the election and, if she remembered correctly, he might actually have a stab at winning. But she didn’t know anything further; if he was one of the good guys or not; if he had family that loved him. Why, in some people’s eyes, he deserved to die.

“Feels a little weird, letting you do this,” she confessed.

“Why?”

“The two of us, foreigners, messing with the fate of the country?”

“You don’t really decide.”

“I haven’t called the police.”

He pulled handcuffs and a gag out of his bag and put them down next to him. Pepper swallowed hard. “I mean, I could put up more of a fight? I’m making it easy for you.”

He looked unimpressed. “You know that you’re no match for me. And self-preservation will always win over.”

Pepper took a deep breath. “But I’ll feel guilty nevertheless.”

“You might be, but it’s not your fault,” he said, sounding surprisingly soft. “This will happen whether you’ll do anything or not. Save your own life, Virginia. Hector Rodríguez López’ days are numbered.”

“Why do you have to kill him?” Pepper asked, tears welling up in her eyes. “Why?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“So you’re not even a real believer?” In her eyes, that somehow made it worse.

He shook his head. “I go where I’m told.”

Pepper blinked her tears away, then looked at the alarm clock on her night stand. The hour-long delay was almost over.

“What do you do with me?” Pepper asked quietly after a moment. “Afterwards? Will you take care of me too? You going to shoot me as well?”

“If I’d wanted or needed to do that, you’d be dead already,” he pointed out in brutal honesty. He nodded towards the handcuffs and the gag. “I’m going to tie you to a chair. If the police will find you that way, they’ll get the right idea. They’ll question you, but that’s alright. They’ll never find me.”

“So you have an escape,” Pepper stated.

He nodded. “Fool proof.”

“You really have this whole thing figured out, huh?”

He just nodded again, silently.

“So you’ve done this before?” It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes, many times.”

“How many…?”

“I don’t remember.”

“So you’ve lost count?”

“No, I don’t remember.”

Pepper frowned at him for a moment. His insistence that he didn’t know or didn’t remember or didn’t have a name was getting weird. But she was pulled from her thoughts when there was movement at the back entrance and some people stepped outside. The assassin immediately went back to his rifle, his entire body alert. His brow was furrowed in concentration; he took measured breaths. He followed the entire scene through his rifle scope.

Pepper looked outside the window to survey the scene.

For a split second, she thought that if she tackled him now, he would miss and she could save a life. She would die in the process, but at least she would die doing something that was right.

Then the shot rang out. The target’s head shot back. Then there was a spray of blood, Pepper thought she could actually see the back of his head explode, before he sunk to the ground. Then the screaming started and Pepper looked away.

The assassin was already putting away the gun with ruthless efficiency.

“How much time do you have?” Pepper wanted to know.

“Usual response time is three minutes. But at this distance, it’ll take them a moment longer to figure out where the shot came from.”

He motioned her back to her living room, gave her both their water glasses to put them in the sink, and then told her to sit on one of the kitchen chairs. He got the gag and the handcuffs. He cuffed her hands behind her back to the chair.

“You should probably struggle against them for a bit,” he suggested. “To make it look believable.”

“Thanks,” Pepper said.

He crouched down, grabbed the gag, and held it out before her. Pepper swallowed once, then opened her mouth willingly for him to put it in place.

He looked at her earnestly once he was done. “You don’t have to lie on my behalf. They will never find me. And don’t hold anything back when they interrogate you; you don’t have to fear retaliation.”

Pepper nodded mutely.

He got up, grabbed his stuff and went from towards the door. He stopped in the doorway for a second and turned around, looking at her earnestly. “It was nice meeting you, Virginia.”

~*~

The police found her 20 minutes later. They stormed into her apartment, kicking the door down. They freed Pepper out of her constraints, made sure that she didn’t have any life-threatening injuries, and then she was accompanied to the police station.

They didn’t bring her into an interrogation room, which Pepper had half expected from the movies. They verified her identity, then two detectives just sat down with her and talked with her for a while.

Pepper told them everything, well, almost everything. She didn’t mention that she’d been in the apartment with him, unchained, for over an hour. That she’d made no attempt to escape or call the police. That he’d been nice and repaired her AC. That she’d given him some water. She thought best not to mention it lest any suspicion would fall onto her.

She provided a description: Tall, dark-haired, mid-20s, Brooklyn accent.

“If there is anything else, let us know.” They got up and went for the door.

“A metal arm,” Pepper said, quietly, almost to herself. She looked at her hands, folded in her lap, purple bruising was starting to form at her wrists. “He had a metal arm.”

Both of them turned around immediately. One of the interrogators sucked in a sharp breath.

“Are you sure about it?” the other one asked.

“Yes.” Pepper nodded. “I looked like a high-functioning prosthesis. It was part of him.” It was weird to talk about it now. She had forgotten for a moment that it was a distinct trait. He’d looked so natural with it, not like a prosthesis at all. “It looked very…” she trailed off, not really knowing what to say. “His left arm; he had a metal arm.”

“Well,” the first interrogator said, “I guess you’ve been very, very lucky then.”

“What do you mean?” Pepper looked up at him with wide eyes. “Do you know who he is?”

“Only by hearsay. And what we know from that is that he usually never leaves any witnesses.”

 

~*~ 20 years later ~*~

Pepper tried not to stare at the man sitting on the table opposite her. She tried to pay attention to the meeting, but she didn’t hear a word of what was discussed.

He was sitting right in front of her.

She still couldn’t believe that the assassin in her apartment that had killed the presidential candidate with a single shot to the head and then vanished into thin air, had been the ruthless Winter Soldier.

Pepper had never told anybody about that fateful January day in Santiago.

They had never caught the killer.

She had returned to the US a week later, much to her mother’s relief. But it had taken her more than a year to get over it. Sleeplessness had haunted her for months; the nightmares had lasted even longer. Occasionally, they still surfaced. Pepper had felt anxious in big cities with tall buildings for a long time, thinking that maybe behind some window was sitting another ruthless assassin taking a shot. Even now she preferred apartments and hotel rooms on the lower levels. She had never told Tony the truth about why she preferred the Malibu mansion to the penthouse in the tower.

Once Bucky’s return had been publicised, she’d been briefed of course, and she had recognised him immediately. She hadn’t said a word though. Then she’d read up on his story. Tony, for obvious reasons, couldn’t leave the topic alone and had researched every little detail about his parents’ killer. Then he’d shared all the information with her.

Now she knew what the police officer had meant when he’d told her that she’d been lucky.

Pepper could barely believe that the soft-spoken man before her and the ruthless assassin she’d spend a morning with twenty years ago were the same person. He looked well now, his hair looked better, his skin was no longer sagging and pallid. His clothes looked comfortable and worn.

He looked haunted.

But other than that he looked exactly the same. He hadn’t aged. Pepper thought she’d read that it was either because of the serum or the suspended animation Hydra had kept him in – or both.

All his reactions that had seemed so strange 20 years ago, which she had chalked up either to aloofness or a very strange sense of humour, made terrible sense now: His lack of pop culture knowledge, his insistence that he didn’t have a name, that he simply went where he was told, the fact that he couldn’t remember how many people he had killed.

She had made her peace with the situation and she was glad about it now. Bucky was even more of a victim than she was. But there was one question that continued to haunt her.

It felt like bad taste asking him about it. She knew that he had been wiped countless times, that he suffered from memory losses and if he remembered, then the memories would probably be as painful for him as for her. Still, she needed to try.

Once the meeting was over, she followed the group out of the room and trailed behind. Steve and Bucky were walking together, talking quietly, a few steps behind the others. They made it into one of the common areas and Pepper caught up with the two.

“Steve,” she approached him, “would you mind leaving Bucky and me alone for a moment?”

He frowned at her in confusion for a second and then looked at Bucky questioningly, who nodded. “Sure,” he then said.

He went to join the rest of the Avengers at the other side of the room. Pepper looked around to make sure that he was out of earshot.

Bucky looked at her expectantly.

“I know you’ve been wiped,” Pepper began awkwardly, “but…” she wrung her hands nervously. “Do you-”

“Chile, January 16, 1993.”

“Yeah,” Pepper breathed.

“I’ve always said that you didn’t look like a Virginia.” He smiled softly to himself.

Pepper mirrored his smile. “So you remember.”

His smile fell, he grimaced and looked away before answering. “In excruciating detail.”

“Sorry,” Pepper began, “I didn’t mean to bring up bad-”

“You didn’t,” Bucky interrupted her quietly, staring at his feet. “I remember all of them. All the time. And that day in Santiago… That was one of the… nicest times I’ve ever had on an assignment.”

“Oh,” was all Pepper managed to say.

“You gave me some cold water… Thank you.”

“It was really hot that day,” Pepper said quietly. “And you repaired my AC.”

He nodded quietly. “I’m really sorry,” he whispered, looking up to meet her gaze for a second before away down again. “That can’t have been a pleasant experience for you.”

“It’s alright,” Pepper tried to appease him. “It was pretty tense, I was afraid for my life, but… I got over it. I didn’t die. People told me how lucky I’d been. Now I really know how lucky I’ve been.”

“Yeah, usually I didn’t leave any witnesses,” Bucky said flatly, still refusing to meet her eyes.

“Yes, look,” she took a deep breath, “that’s what I’ve always asked myself. I don’t want to be… I don’t mean to open old wounds or anything, but I’ve always wondered. Why did you let me live?”

He stared at her for a long moment and then looked over her shoulder, to where the other Avengers were standing. “I’ve always had a weakness for redheads.”