That Furious, Dangerous Love

April 12, 2017:

Seeing some issues that concern him deeply, Phil Coulson calls Bucky Barnes to his office in an attempt to convince him to take some courses of action…and to utterly abandon others. Misunderstanding the situation and perhaps in the grip of old grudges, Jane Foster shows up to explosively confront the SHIELD Agent for daring to interfere with her soldier.

The Triskelion, NYC

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name…and your thorny personal history…and some crap you haven't copped to yet…actually, wait. Nobody would want to go to a place like that!

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Melinda May, Captain America, Peggy Carter

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's a respectable 9:00 in the morning when Bucky Barnes' phone rings. The number shows up as a Triskelion number. Assuming he answered, he'd have gotten a switchboard operator asking him to hold a moment for Agent Coulson. And then a bright, pleasant voice was on the line, mild as Mr. Rogers pulling off his sweater before a beautiful day spent in his neighborhood. "Sargent Barnes, Phil Coulson. I'm doing some case reviews and your file crossed my desk this morning. I wonder if I could have you in sometime today to ask a couple of follow-up questions?"

Assuming Bucky said yes he'd have been given a visitor's badge that got him all the way to an office on the top floor, an office filled with historical doo-dads and replicas of every sort, some of them things that would have been contemporary to Bucky's era. The man himself is sitting at his desk when Bucky comes in, but he's not working any kind of holographic display, not shuffling papers or barking orders or reading files.

Instead, he is serenely working at the back of an early SSR-era watch, one of the ones that would have allowed agents to communicate with one another across a reasonable distance. He's got on a little set of magnifier glasses and he's slowly fiddling with the gears with a tiny tool meant for the task.

"They need tune-ups every now and then, but they're well-made," Phil remarks. "I think there were only thirty ever created. I can't help but wonder if the other 29 have gotten what they need."

—-

Bucky doesn't really check his burners 24/7 the way he might check his regular phone, but he still keeps them close enough that he'll hear it if one of them goes off. The one that does, bright and early this fine morning, is the one he gave to SHIELD for a contact number; this knowledge arms him for what to expect when he picks up on the fourth ring, holding his silence as the bright friendly voice of Phil Coulson chirps at him over the line.

Reviewing his file. Wants to ask some follow-up questions. A knot forms slowly in Bucky's chest, a sort of coiling tension that is the automatic response of all spies to the sensation of being slowly caged in.

What could he do but agree? He had no choice but to play along with SHIELD for the time being, especially if he wanted to stay close to Steve (something he still struggles with sometimes, admittedly, but which he's finally settled on tentatively allowing himself to have). He didn't have to be pleased about it, however; his reply was cordial but terse, an agreement to stop by later in the afternoon. Maybe around 4.

It's 4 on the dot when Bucky shows himself into the office. He's dressed indistinguishably from how any other young man of his age would be dressed in this era, apparently not having gone through that awkward stage Steve did where he was still figuring out how to dress in a contemporary fashion, and as one might expect of a man of his skills and reputation, the moment he gets in the door he's sweeping the room with his blue eyes, taking in entrances and exits and, afterwards, the historical flavor of the decorations.

Seeing things from his own time threatens to make him feel at ease. He shoves away the sensation.

His eyes fall, last, on what Coulson himself is doing. The watch is of a make subsequent to Bucky's 'death,' and he does not recognize it.

"I missed out on them entirely, I think," he says, shoving his hands in his pockets, not sitting.

—-

Coulson meets his desire to remain standing by standing himself, putting the tools aside. "A shame," he says mildly. He extends a hand and says, "Sargent Barnes, it really is an honor to meet you. I hope you're not too embarrassed by…"

The trail off is accompanied by a hand over his shoulder, where his framed Sargent Barnes, Captain America, and Howling Commando baseball cards hold pride-of-place on his wall. There's one that's of newer make that looks as though it comes from a print shop; the photo looks like it came from SHIELD itself…Phil went ahead and had a Peggy card made since he felt she deserved an equal spot. He gives a sheepish grin and says, "I'd love it if I were just luring you up here to sign yours, but I'm afraid ultimately I couldn't bring myself to bother you unless there was business to attend to."

He tilts his head, birdlike. "You're welcome to sit. Would you like coffee? Water? A Snapple? People are kind of rough on Snapple, but I think it's pretty good."

His suit is a little rumpled, ill-fitting, a beuracrat's suit, the suit of a man on a government salary, the suit of a man who maybe catches naps at his desk instead of going home to sleep, contributing to an overall air of being the most boring, forgettable man on the planet.

—-

There is a pause, and then Bucky accepts the handshake. His own is, as might be expected, almost painfully firm. The pause might be attributable to the fact he has noticed the framed cards, and while he doesn't look embarrassed, per se, he does look a little bemused to be 'on memorabilia' of any kind.

"It's not embarrassing. It wouldn't have been a bother, either, if you did ask," he voices aloud, reclaiming his hand, which slips back into a pocket. "It just takes getting used to." There's the schism between how he's seen through the lens of American history, and how he sees himself as he truly is, but he doesn't get into that. Likely, Coulson doesn't need any help anyway to figure out that that's what's going through the head of Sergeant James Barnes right about now.

"May I?" he asks. If granted permission, he moves over to the wall to have a closer look, though he noticeably avoids looking at his own card. It's the cards of the others he's interested in, a distant melancholy glossing his eyes as he takes in the familiar faces. All of them, to a man, now gone, and only him and Steve left behind. His shoulders briefly slope, as if feeling the weight of his century of existence.

He turns his head only when invited to sit. He considers a moment, before he peels himself away from the display and walks back to take the proffered chair. "Coffee is fine," he answers, his blue eyes pinning sharply on Coulson as if trying to read the man: his appearance, his mannerisms, his intentions. His head cants, just slightly, his eyes measuring.

"You mentioned some follow-up questions," he finally prompts, with a bracing air of 'just get it over with.' No one could ever accuse Bucky Barnes of not being blunt. His abruptness is perhaps a bit at odds with everything written in the history books— this shrewd-eyed predator of a man is a far cry from the wholesome, spit-shined image sold of Captain America's right-hand man and trusted NCO— but then that's not likely to surprise Coulson, given what he knows.

It's not hard, either, to see why some historians liked to ruminate on how Steve and James were, in the end, like two sides of one coin: very different personalities that were nonetheless complementary, mirroring one another perfectly.

—-

Coulson of course steps aside to allow Bucky to view the cards all he wants. A look of empathy crosses his face as he watches the shoulders slump, maybe even a bit of brief remorse; he probably should have quietly taken those off the wall. Too late now though.

Phil pours Bucky coffee from an "ancient" percolator. Really, it's one of those pitcher percolators from the 1950s. It's white, with little green flowers on it. It makes really good coffee too. "Cream? Sugar?" He pours it into Shield-logo cups, and will fix it however Bucky says he likes it.

He settles the coffee before he gets to the point, despite Barnes' bluntness, despite his bracing for it.

He settles on the edge of his desk, half sitting, half standing, but neglecting to take the power side of it. He pulls over one of three files. Paper files, another anachronism in a room full of them, in an organization with the very latest in holographic computer displays and augmented reality databases at its disposal. He flips through it.

"I can't find a lot of fault in what Agent May did in regards to your case," Phil notes, putting on a pair of reading glasses and skimming over it. "Though I do notice some things which seem to be missing. She seems to have neglected to have assigned you any psychological support whatsoever. Given what you've gone through I'd expect some depression, some post-traumatic stress."

Pause. Beat. "Perhaps even some anger."

He looks over the rims of those little glasses. "To say nothing of the precautionary aspects of such services…"

—-

"Just cream," is his answer. He says nothing about the brief moment he had with the photos, and nothing about his history. There is no light conversation about how he never would have thought, as a young man enlisting in the World War, that he'd come out the other end a figure for the history books.

He already knows he's ensured an entry in the history books that is not what he wanted at all.

Instead, he just prompts Coulson— politely— to get to the point. The agent, mindfully, does not take up the power position of a seat behind his desk, though Bucky does not look like the kind of man who would be bothered or affected by such posturing to begin with. Typically, it's the unconfident who are bugged by that kind of thing, and for all his other issues, one thing Bucky doesn't struggle with is lack of basic confidence and self-assurance. It's all he has left to cling to, honestly, after being made a victim for seventy years.

And to speak of that…

His grasp tightens visibly on the cup as Coulson starts to note the failure to assign any kind of psychological support. Depression. PTSD. Even… anger. Such services serve an important precautionary function…

James Barnes drinks his coffee. He might have nearly fifty years in age, objectively speaking, on Coulson… but subjectively, Phil has actually lived all fifty-three of his years and Bucky has only been awake for thirty-some, and the dynamic that inevitably starts to form in these silent moments is of an older man patiently trying to pry through the stonewall silence of a young rebel.

"I handle it," Bucky eventually says, with the stoicism one might expect of a man of his time period and age.

—-

Coulson is patient indeed. He puts the first file aside, and now the smile is gone. Instead, he's studying Bucky with no expression at all. Save for the eyes, which brim with a kind of quiet compassion, the kind that has come through seeing the very worst things humanity has to offer, all without losing his sense of wanting to serve and protect that humanity, to heal the hurts of the individuals he comes into contact with.

To make things better.

"I am sorry that you've had to," he says simply. "Handle it. Alone. That's a failure on our part. Perhaps not even the first that we've committed, SHIELD, in response to your case. Perhaps there are failures stretching all the way back to SSR, all the way back to the time when agents wore relics like the one behind me."

He takes off the reading glasses and puts them aside with a gentle click. He takes a sip of his own coffee, a mess of cream and sugar that's more like a cafe au lait than an actual cup of coffee. It's an absent thing, that drinking motion, perhaps meant to give him a moment to choose words, perhaps just a thing people do when they've taken the time to pour one.

"I'm not going to beat around the bush, Sargent Barnes. Not only do you deserve the support that medical care and evaluation could give you, it's probably more than necessary. Unless you can look me in the eye and tell me that you are 100% certain that neither the Soviet Union nor Hydra has maintained any fail safe, any mental control switch in there, any catch phrase or image or song they can play at you to ensure that the Winter Soldier is never going to get reactivated again. SHIELD psy-ops have the tools and expertise to find such a thing and help you remove it…but only if you take advantage of the services. Given I know that you've been working hard to build a life for yourself here in the 21st century, working hard to forge and restore relationships both with friends new and old, wouldn't you agree that kind of support would be wise, even if you find it personally uncomfortable in light of the values you've been taught about what you should and should not be expected to deal with?"

—-

"The SSR looked," Bucky says. "The Army looked. But there weren't many resources and there wasn't much time to spare, for just one man. The snow was deep, and the Soviets got there first."

That is all that he seems prepared or willing to say about the idea that he was failed by his allies. That their inability to find him after his fall led to the Winter Soldier and his seven decades of suffering. There have been times Bucky considered throwing the blame outward, sure, times of deep and silent rage where he considered hating the SSR and the Army and the entire god damned war that he had never asked to fight to begin with.

The war that would ultimately require his entire life of him, with no recompense given back save torture and pain.

He never really seriously entertains the emotion, however. It feels fruitless and pointless when all the damage has already long since been done. He does not necessarily reject the empathy Coulson offers, however— the apology given. It has been hard to handle it alone. But James has never felt as if he had any other option but to do so.

Coulson seems to think differently. He gets right down to brass tacks. Something very like a humorless smile crosses his face inappropriately as the agent explains that until Bucky can be 100 sure that there are no failsafes in his mind, no control switches or trigger words, the Winter Soldier will remain a very present danger. And wouldn't it be wise to avail himself of the services available to help deal with that?

"I have a failsafe in place. For now," he eventually says. He glances up, his blue eyes neutral. "Tell me how exactly SHIELD would pry any conditioning out of my head."

—-

"I'm not a psychiatrist," Coulson says apologetically, his expression remaining much the same, his posture staying where it was through his last quiet spate of words. "But…not in any way that involved pain. Or anything you did not consent to, Sargent Barnes. You get to have a say in your own medical care; that's how it works. Deprogramming isn't an unknown technique; but it's complex, and it works differently for every person and in every case. Nobody's seen a case like yours before. What could it hurt to at least speak to Dr. Gardner about it? Schedule a session or two, see what he has to offer you? You won't know until you go. The evaluations could…make a difference, later, if I'm accurately reading certain undercurrents in the waters surging out of DC these days."

A pause, giving the man space to consider his first words before adding, "It's an hour of your time once a week. Four hours a month, should you really decide to start availing yourself of it. It's nothing SHIELD or I is trying to force on you. It's your decision. It just happens to be one of the better decisions you could make."

And with that, he puts that ball, and that issue, right into Bucky's proverbial court.

—-

It is certainly a delicate operation Phil Coulson has found himself in the middle of. Bucky is not hostile, per se, but his body language shouts clearly of his tension and guardedness, his posture closed off and his blue eyes wary in the way of a wolf that has been whipped one too many times, and is no longer interested in coming willingly close enough to risk the lash again.

No pain, Coulson promises. Just deprogramming sessions. Therapy. Completely under his own control. He'll get a say in what's done to him, and for how long. "Heh," Bucky laughs to himself. "Isn't that novel. No pain. A say in what happens to me. Novel."

He hasn't exactly said no, though, and he seems like he might almost be considering it. But then…

Shrewd, sharp blue eyes turn to Coulson. The eyes of a man who has survived decades to become one of the best killers on the planet. These are more familiar waters than talk about therapy or sessions or evaluations. This is the work he has done for years, and done well. "What do you mean, undercurrents out of DC?"

His aspect is that of a spy who smells that he's been made. He supposes it was inevitable— he could not keep his existence a secret forever, especially with SHIELD involved— but…

—-

Coulson is normally very good at people. It's one of his skills, these delicate operations. But this is as tense a negotiation in its own way as hostage situations he's talked through over the years. He handles it as carefully and as skillfully as he can, but in Bucky's sudden switch of direction he has cause to wonder if he's misstepped just a little.

Then again, he was going to address this in this meeting today, eventually. The seed has been planted. He will have to content himself with that. And really, to push farther than that is to push too far, to all but become coercive.

He folds his hands over his knee, a faint, apologetic look crossing over his features, worry lines deepening. "Foreign nations have gotten wind of your emergence," he says simply. "It was really only a matter of time. For the moment, it's all a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The US Secretary of State is working tirelessly on your behalf, navigating some very complex diplomatic issues. She is using in large part May's strategy, pointing out that you are basically a prisoner of war, one of our citizens returned, put to work against his will. I'm not sure how it will shake out, but I have faith in her skill. Nevertheless, doing whatever you can to position yourself in the best and most sympathetic light possible might be prudent. There have been several closed-door meetings with the Vice President, and US District Attorney Archer, and the Secretary of Defense. I'm afraid your name is being bandied about the highest eschelons of the United States government at this point, Sargent Barnes."

He picks up another file folder, tapping it thoughtfully against two fingers. This one is thicker than the first one, weightier. He doesn't address what's in it right away, but rather watches the soldier's reaction to the bomb that he's just dropped. It can't be a pleasant thing to hear. Far less pleasant than listening to a man past middle age go on about psychiatric care, in fact.

—-

Coulson is skilled. The Winter Soldier is also skilled. He has run enough interrogations to be confident in taking hold, forcefully, of conversations and rerouting them. Particularly when he hears something of particular concern and interest to him.

Particularly when the previous topic of conversation is something he already considers concluded. They cannot force him to do anything he does not want. Now it is his choice— or not. And he is disinterested in rushing this particular kind of decision. It puts him far more in bed with SHIELD than he has been to date, and that makes him wary.

Especially now he's hearing about an entire vista of information that SHIELD has already failed to share with him.

His blue eyes narrow at the news. For a time, he says nothing, his long cold silences doubtless strange and wholly at odds with Steve's peaceful, serene stretches of quiet.

"I wasn't aware of any of this," he finally says. "Though I obviously guessed something of this nature would happen eventually. The manner of my liberation was too… public." He sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. "There are kill orders out for me in dozens of countries." All of them for very good reasons.

—-

"I'm making you aware of it now. I've been playing catch-up. I've only been back about a month. I think May believed the matter to be settled, but I have a little bit of seniority, for all that she's running things here brilliantly, and a little bit of…access to the rumor mill that she might not have," Phil replies quietly. "As I've taken a personal interest in your case, well. It was one of the things I always planned to share with you at this meeting. Please don't read it as an attempt to keep anything from you. I'm not sure if Cap even knows yet. I felt it important to come to you with the information first. SHIELD is, after all, not a national organization, but an international one. It blurs the lines of communication, tangles them. Rest assured that I do not think letting any of those countries have their way with you is on anyone's agenda. Least of all mine."

He pauses, and pushes off his desk. He begins laying the contents of the file folder on the desk so that Bucky can see them clearly. "To that end, let's address some very interesting coincidences that have been cropping up since Captain America lead his team to come and find you in Ozone Park. A series of curious arsons. Now…we have absolutely no evidence as to who might be committing said arsons, not really. Just a series of unfortunate coincidences."

He picks up one crime scene photo and shows it to Bucky. "Martin Secorse, age 49. Was under surveillance as a possible HYDRA asset. One involved in certain programs with curious intersectionality." He picks up another one and shows it to him. "This one was under surveillance as a possible HYDRA asset too. We were actually on the verge of bringing him in and interrogating him before he died horribly, his assailant gone in the night, vanished without a trace."

He picks up a third. "Hmmm. Same story. Very curious, wouldn't you agree?"

He steps away from the files, and goes to refill his coffee cup, his back to Bucky for a moment. "Of course, I'd never make assumptions. Never make accusations. But…I would throw out a theory. And my theory is that if someone is out there hunting down HYDRA personages involved in mind control programs, the Winter Soldier program specifically, and perhaps foreign agents who were also so-involved, that you would know how to get in touch with such a person. You'd be able to tell him that it's not a good idea for him to be doing that right now, especially given these currents in Washington, because circumstantial evidence can put nails in coffins politically even if it isn't much legally. You'd be able to tell him that I haven't shared any of these conclusions or patterns with anyone other than you, yourself, yet, because I have faith that you, Sargent, in the course of 'working things out', will work things out so that these attacks end, and so that justice is left to the people who currently have legal authority to enact such justice. I would say…James Buchannan Barnes is a patient and reasonable man, who knows how to make good plays, and who can recognize for himself that these aren't good plays…particularly if someone with the ear of Nick Fury is willing to make a promise that when certain dust settles in Washington, DC, God willing, he will be willing to make sure he gets the opportunity to go after these sorts of targets to his hearts content…without having to do so in a vigilante's fashion that points a big, flaming arrow at his head for anyone smart enough to look at the patterns."

He turns, then, stirring his coffee, the look on his face verging on a frown of terrible concern, deadly serious, meeting the eyes of one James "Bucky" Barnes as if he could impress the seriousness of what he's asking upon the other man through sheer emotional weight alone.

—-

Coulson's slow shedding of his mild-mannered identity is somewhat akin to the gradual emergence of a big cat's claws. Bucky is by now quite aware that the other man is someone with some considerable clout, someone so versed in spycraft that even he— as the Winter Soldier— never became fully aware of him as an opponent over the course of the long, age-old dance of death between Hydra and SHIELD.

The more he realizes this, the more visibly on guard he goes. The suggestion that not even Steve knows about any of this yet, however, brings a brief flicker of relief to Bucky's eyes that cannot be missed. The one part of Bucky that will never fade or die is the part of him that exists to keep Steve safe. To protect him from the harshness of the world. "Steve doesn't need to know," he goes so far as to say. "Not yet." Not until I've figured out what to do about it, Bucky does not say. Perhaps he ought to go on the run again…

The mask goes back up, however, once Coulson gets up with that folder in hand.

James Buchanan Barnes is completely expressionless as Coulson starts laying out the contents of the file. Not a twitch or flicker crosses his features as the man ruminates on a strange, coincidental series of murders and arsons related to personages already tagged as possible Hydra assets. His eyes turn to the photos as Coulson presents them, in turn, his gaze betraying no recognition. Nothing but bland indifference.

Martin Secorse. Age 49. The Winter Soldier's eyes are clear and empty as the midday sky, showing nothing. Certainly not the fact that he remembers Secorse, or more accurately the way he screamed when his spine was broken in three. Cried like a shot dog. Eminently satisfying. Next.

Boris Illyich Metchnikoff. Age 52. Coulson doesn't give the name, but the Winter Soldier clearly remembers it. He pried it from Secorse's choked mumblings, moments before the man's death. Metchnikoff was a strangling. Garrote. Standard issue for any number of other Russian killers who might have also wanted a defected former KGB officer dead. Next.

Joseph Gunther. Age 61. Old blood Hydra. Whole family was in. The Winter Soldier has the names of his remaining relatives memorized. They're next, whenever he gets out of this—

James' eyes refocus back on Coulson when the other man suggests that maybe, just maybe, if someone were out there vigilante-murdering Hydra personages… he might just know them, might be able to talk to them, tell them it's not such a great idea to be doing that right now, ask them to maybe sort of just dial it back until all this nonsense in Washington blows over. Tell him to just wait until the shitstorm has calmed down, when he can go after these people in a nice, non-vigilante fashion that wouldn't create a whole bunch of negative circumstantial evidence…

Could convince him to just leave these matters to people with actual legal authority to enact justice.

James Barnes just looks at Phil Coulson. His expression remains bland enough, but there is seventy years of death in the stare of his frost-blue eyes.

"Maybe I could," he says eventually, his voice and expression lax and casual. "Maybe I'd try to convince him. Anyone's guess whether he might listen. He gets stubborn."

—-

There is a holding silence after James Barnes's last words. Just a heartbeat's worth, a split second, too short and let still long enough to let tension pull too-taut —

— and the intercom beeps on Agent Coulson's desk.

His secretary's familiar voice fills the office, soft and apologetic and absolutely tired. "Sir?" she asks. "Terribly sorry. There's a young woman heading your way. Couldn't make her sit. Really short." There's a beat, and a hitch of humour in her voice. "I could probably take her if you want."

As if on cue, there are fierce footsteps bearing a noisy herald to the way the door swings open. No polite knock. No gentle hello. Nothing save for Dr. Jane Foster, all five feet and scant hundred pounds of her, framing the doorway in all her abject tininess. And yet she holds her space in perfect fearlessness, looking someone James Barnes has only glimpsed sparingly — here and there — but never like this. Corded and coiled with transparent fury, her expression nearly apocalyptic, she sweeps the room with her gaze, assessing first James, and then finally landing her attention on —

Agent Coulson. Jane's gaze burns with balefire. Her back straightens and her shoulders square. She looks no different from that little hellcat scientist he met, though her eyes are different from the way they lit amber under the sun of New Mexico. They are darker now, different, changed. He'll have read the report to know why.

"Just what the hell is this, Coulson?!" she demands, her voice low, but steeped in warning. "Because whatever this is? It's sure taking a little long for a few 'questions'! What is it?! Interview? Interrogation? Last I heard, he was /cleared/ by SHIELD! This is TOTALLY unacceptable!"

—-

The secretary offers to take her. Phil says simply, "That won't be necessary, Irene."

The frowning, serious lines melt into a faint, almost dorky smile. "Hello to you too, Dr. Foster. Sargent Barnes and I are having a friendly discussion, man-to-man. I haven't stolen him. You can have him back whenever he's ready to go. He's not research, after all."

He takes the photos, one by one, and puts them back in his file. He slides them away and puts them in a file drawer, which he locks with a thumb-print scanner. "Speaking of research, I hope you're enjoying Tony's lab. I actually have a young woman from another dimension I plan on bringing by in a week or so, perhaps two, as time allows. I promise not to touch anything if you promise not to throw anything at my head. I'm sure it will be an edifying time for all of us."

He fixes her coffee. He has found out, somewhere along the way, how he likes it. He brings it over to her, a peace offering, looking mildly baffled as to why she'd come storming into his office like the raging thunder. After a moment he says, "Gosh, that was anti-climactic, wasn't it?"

He exchanges a glance with Bucky, not commenting on his stubborness. Bucky acknowledges he's stubborn, but he also said he doesn't know for sure. That means he's giving it real thought. Under the circumstances…both the circumstances of Bucky, and the circumstances of the appearance of his Endless Source of Amusement, Phillip Coulson decides this is the best he is going to get.

He suddenly blink blinks at her, and motions to a small end-table with a little lamp on it, both actually modern. "Would you care to flip something? That might be nicely managable. The desk is really heavy…you can put as much emphasis into it as you want. Please don't throw the lamp though, it will really upset Irene. She's nice, wouldn't you agree?"

—-

James Barnes might have said more. But whatever he might or might not have said gets lost in the tornado of Dr. Jane Foster's furious arrival.

Bucky turns bemusedly in his chair, slinging his left arm over its back, to regard Jane as she charges in to his rescue. He doesn't say anything, but he briefly looks amused and endeared at the utter fury with which she is flying to his defense.

Not that this ruffles Coulson. Nothing ruffles Phillip Coulson. Bucky's eyes turn wry when Coulson says they're just having a 'friendly' discussion— is it really? he hadn't noticed— but he still doesn't say anything. His mind is still mostly on what Coulson has told him. The rage in him is something he can't deny, something that burns so hotly in his blood that it is difficult sometimes to just sit— difficult not to act in some way to purge the evil that destroyed his life out of this world.

Yet he can't say that the agent doesn't have a point, as well.

He makes no decision, not yet. Not now. He just glances quizzically at Jane as she's offered an alternative to the desk to flip as a demonstration of her rage. He's kind of curious whether she might actually do it.

"It's OK, Jane," he remembers to say after a moment. "I was learning quite a lot from the agent here."

—-

Two years ago, when things were different and she were far more naive, Jane Foster's infamous temper did not falter under the magnanimous patience and famed hospitality of Agent Phil Coulson. All of his gracious courtesy did not charm her away from the fact that he was threatening all that was most important to her.

Two years later, he's doing the exact same thing — only not to something but now to someone — and Jane remains just as disdainfully unconvinced. She holds her ground, watching with sharp eyes, every ounce of her hackled in countless sharp, unyielding edges. She watches the way he removes and locks up a file, jaw tightening, only taking her eyes away the moment she decides to give James Barnes a second deliberating glance. Jane weighs the man with her eyes, familiar with him enough to try to glean his bearing, his face, his features, his eyes, searching all that is trained by long decades to show little.

It's Phil Coulson's words that draw back her attention. He comes bearing coffee, all prepared artfully, but Jane looks down at the cup with all the revulsion of someone proffering carefully-prepared poison. He even speaks of Tony Stark — of course he knows — and women from other dimensions, and perhaps in any other circumstance, on any other day, even Jane would forget enough of her dislike to warrant this an ear and some cooperation purely in the name of scientific discovery —

— but it's here, it's now, and he's messing with James Barnes, and so Jane Foster rears back one hand and violently SLAPS the cup straight out of the ranking SHIELD agent's hand. Hot coffee paints the carpet and the wall. Porcelain shatters. It's one snap of her arm that could merit Jane Foster a long wait in a detention cell, but she just doesn't care, will NOT care, is BEYOND that reasonable place that feels nothing but protective fury.

"Don't even START!" she snarls. "That nice guy crap — I know it's just an act, and it's not going to work with me! Whatever angle you're pulling, whatever the hell THIS is, it's NOT going to happen here, you got me? We're DONE. You're going to back the hell off James, and give him the respect you wouldn't even give ME. Because I swear to GOD I will — " Jane hears James saying something. "No, it's NOT OK!"

—-

Phil watches his coffee fly.

It doesn't ruffle him.

He's told that he's not a nice guy, that it's all an act, that it is just an angle.

This doesn't ruffle him either, much. Though for one, brief moment anger tightens his jaw, his mouth, turns his eyes deadly-dad serious, rendering them more on the flinty grey shade of his hazel-eyed spectrum than the blue-green they normally display.

He steps for a SHIELD-themed hand towel from the adjacent bathroom, which he gets to by virtue of just touching a button to open up a wall. He deliberately wipes his hands. He ignores the coffee-flavored stain spreading slowly across his shirt.

"You have the power to perform many miracles, Dr. Foster," he says, once he's gotten his temper under control. His voice is measured, even, not entirely warm or friendly anymore, but resolute. A man who will do the right thing, as he sees it. "You cannot force me to avoid speaking to anyone I choose to speak to. For that matter, if Sargent Barnes chooses to speak to me, I'm sure you would be the last person to attempt to undermine that choice. My 'angle', as you so crassly put it, is to look out for the best interests of a man whom I admire and honor with all of my heart."

He drops the towel in a hamper. It's automated. It whirrs quietly, already laundering the thing, a bit of modern technology off the coast of a room full of anachronisms. He turns and meets James' eyes, his mouth still a bit hard around the edges, his impugned honor and the importance of the entire affair serving to reveal a bit of the man's steely side, the one that almost everyone misses because it only comes out when matters have gotten very serious, indeed. "You are both of course free to leave at any time. I have in fact said all that I wish to say today, as it happens. I do hope you will consider all I have said, Sargent Barnes. Whatever Dr. Foster thinks, whatever anyone thinks…I am, and will remain, on your side."

—-

Coffee goes FLYING. "Jane!" Bucky sputters, wincing pointedly and leaning back just a little in his chair. Then Coulson appears to actually get mad, and Bucky's brows lift, because now that is something you don't see every day.

The situation de-escalates, however, though Bucky still looks pretty scandalized about the flung coffee. He shakes his head taughtly at her when she glances at him, a small gesture of 'please do not make this worse than it is,' though she certainly doesn't pay attention, so he tries words next.

It's NOT OK! Jane barks unhelpfully in response. To which Coulson argues back that she certainly cannot and should not stop Bucky from making his own choices, particularly if said choice should be to speak with someone who has his best interests at heart.

That's about when Bucky stands up out of his chair, forcing his expression back down into neutrality after the short flicker of emotion that crossed it at hearing someone speak of admiring and honoring him. "Yes," he says shortly. "I've heard enough."

He steps forwards to attempt to collect Jane. "I'll think about it," he allows, his blue eyes briefly meeting Coulson's.

—-

For those tense few moments, tense enough to make even the world's most preminent assassin lean back in his chair, Jane Foster holds her half in a silent stand-off.

Tiny as she is, and wielding zero bureaucratic power against a man ranked high in a powerful, powerful organization, at the same moment she holds rooted in sheer fearlessness, a reckless sort of fury borne of something Coulson would recognize: furious, dangerous love, and how it has somehow brought that strange little scientist from New Mexico to square off protectively for a soldier thought lost to the horrors of the second world war.

Her loss of temper even comes close to fraying his, and Jane gets her first look at Phil Coulson looking something — briefly — other than his unflappable self. In better spirits, she would count that as a moral victory. Right now, she's too outraged to care. Outraged at the very idea of James held hostage in some suit's office and forced to answer for sins that aren't even his. That is her fear, and she's ready at this moment not to let it happen.

You have no IDEA the miracles I can make, she wants to say, and so, so badly. The words itch Jane's tongue, but she grits her jaw to hold it in, enough sense even through her rage not to damn either of them further. She simply goes quiet, icy, listening to Coulson speak, her brown eyes hot and intent to watch his face. She has to crane back her head against their height difference, but even that does not deter her.

He speaks of admiration and honour, and though her eyes narrow against Coulson's remark that she can't force him not to speak to James — bet I can't? answers her glare — she does hesitate at the latter half of that. The implication that even her protective indignation could yoke James's choice gives Jane pause, cooling some of her anger, though her guard stays up.

The boundary is that of trust, and very plainly, Jane does not trust Agent Coulson. Could be her skepticism of authority. Could be her lingering bias. Could be that infamous grudge she carries. Could be just her sheer overprotectiveness of James Barnes, his regained life, and that, according to her, the belief he has no obligation to answer to anyone.

Her gaze flickers when James rises to his feet, and Jane doesn't fight his movement to collect her, to see them both out of the office. Her more demonstrative fury has tempered, though her hackles are still up.

Coulson says he's on James Barnes's side. Jane calls after that, indignant still, "If you are — then act like it."

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