No Bullet in the Chamber

June 15, 2017:

Jessica Jones finally gets her meeting with Juno Hart's mysterious handler, the woman known as Elena. Elena provides her with a little something that might just help Bucky's case, if she can figure out how best to use it.

Elena's Apartment, NYC

The dying roses are just for show.


NPCs: Oliver Pearce, Miss Elena, emitted by Juno Hart

Mentions: Juno Hart, Bucky Barnes, T'Challa, Azalea Kingston

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

It's a hot, rainy day, a swamplike combination that has cast the city into a generally foul mood. This isn't really new for one Jessica Jones, who has spent most of the month in a foul mood thanks to the arrest of one Bucky Barnes. Or Buiky Barnes, if one prefers. Nevertheless, she isn't one to neglect her responsibilities…and in a way, today's responsibility certainly touches on all of the issues surrounding the former soldier's case.

So when Oliver did whatever he did to pull her dossier or whatever, and then proceeded to ask a ton of questions over e-mail, Jessica answered them promptly and pretty frankly. And when he said, finally, that she would get to meet Juno's elusive "handler" she made sure to get to whatever place was indicated right on time. Soaking wet, because Jessica rarely thinks of mundane things like buying an umbrella until she actually needs an umbrella and has to get somewhere on time, but there, in (bulletproof) jeans and a (bulletproof) black t-shirt. She had suggested waiting until Juno was on one of her outings, to the library, or to McDonalds, or to whatever other thing caught the young woman's fancy, so that they might speak frankly.

Either way, she knocks firmly on the door.

Oliver Pearce is in the position he is in because he is very good at a number of things. One of those things happens to be data mining. Another thing is judging a person's character. There are many more, of course, but those are the two most useful in what he's been doing for a while now.

The place he'd asked her to meet him at is an older apartment building made of brick. It's a little bit shabby, to be honest… The hall runners are threadbare in places and incadescent lamps through yellow light against the walls. All the trim is the same dark wood that was here when the building was new. Most of the tenants are out for the day, and other than the drone of a television the place is pretty quiet. On paper the place mostly houses graduate students and singles, since the rooms are rather too small to raise kids.

On the top floor the apartments are larger and the doors farther apart. The one on the very end of the hall, apartment four, is the address she was given.

Pearce answers the door, his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow and his hands damp. "Come in. I trust you found the place easily enough?" He holds the door open for her.

The door leads to a vestibule with a row of hooks to hang coats. The entire place is dimly lit, though there's no real sense of eeriness. Narrow doors lead to a kitchen, which is unusual for the amount of light pouring into it from the windows, a small bathroom, and what might be a sitting room. It smells of tea and dusty books and faded roses in here, and the wallpaper is an unthreatening shade of green.

A woman's voice calls from around edge of the doorframe. "Come in, young lady. Don't let the air conditioning out." There might be a tiny smirk playing around the edges of the mystery woman's mouth.

"Finding things is what I do," Jessica agrees, when Oliver asks. She'd taken in the details, pausing to run her fingers through her hair as she'd walked down the dim hallways in a sort of half-ass attempt at drying it.

The woman calls out. An idle thought crosses her mind. It's simply this:

What's with these people and the AC?

But she dutifully closes the door and goes walking decisively towards the source of the voice. Her expressive features have settled into something polite (something she can manage, with conscious effort) yet neutral, the usual default face she adopts when she needs to interview people about a case and isn't sure, yet, how best to approach them. "Thanks for seeing me today," she comments.

The apartment is like 1,000 old lady apartments all over New York City. One Jessica Jones stands among the fading roses and unthreatening wallpaper colors and wonders if this is due to Elena's actual preference, or if it is all the elaborate subterfuge she's chosen, meant to foster certain assumptions, meant to ensure that nobody thinks anything about anything.

"I had no doubt in my mind," he replies with a smile, eyelids lowering fractionally. The whole place seems sleepy and still. Oliver shows her to the sitting room door before disappearing into the kitchen, if the sound of a running faucet and quietly clinking china are anything to judge by.

The sitting room is elegant, if old-fashioned - straggly potted plants sit on narrow pedestals around the edges of the room, the dim lighting in here apparently not quite enough to kill them. The center is taken up by a table made of dark wood, with four chairs surrounding it. One of them is taken up by a thin woman who must be in her mid-forties by now - certainly younger than the era of this place would suggest. Her hair is straw-colored and pulled back in a low ponytail, her face is fine-boned but starting to show little wrinkles around the eyes, which are the color of maple. She seems amused, or perhaps just interested - perhaps she's got the sort of face that is just accustomed to a small, private smile.

"Come in. Please, have a seat." Elena doesn't stand to greet Jessica, but pushes out a chair with one of her feet in invitation. "I understand that you're looking for information that I might be able to provide. Is that correct, Miss Jones?"

Jessica has a seat on the edge of one of the chairs, not wanting to get it irrevocably wet.

"That's right," Jessica replies. She looks briefly amused herself. This conversational dance is opening up like so many of her investigations do. She vastly suspects it's because Elena is trying to put her at her ease, inveterate spy that she is. Her eyes skip over the dying plants, then look back to Elena.

"You already know I've taken an interest in Juno," she says, deciding, as usual, on a straightforward, cut-the-crap approach.

"Bucky told me your plan was to rehabilitate her. Help her find her way to some semblance of free will. What's your plan for making that happen? Cause I'm 100% behind that s—shizz. And I don't wanna screw it up."

Who the Hell knows how the old woman will take her normal sailor's mouth?

If anything, Jessica's straightforward approach only seems to make the older woman smile a fraction of an inch wider. "Juno has been more than happy to tell me all about the activities you two have been partaking in. I think I may have to try fast food sometime, if just to keep her from talking my ear off about it."

Oliver returns carrying a brass tray set with tea things, filling the cups with tea at a large brass urn-like thing on the sideboard before bringing them back to the table. Elena stirs cherry jam into her cup from a small porcelain dish. "I have looked into your rather impressive record. Even the notoriously reticent Wakandan king has put his country's trust in you, and he is not one to make such decisions lightly."

Elena raises the cup to her lips, held between the fingertips of both hands. "I have chosen to trust Zimniy Soldat - the Winter Soldier, James Barnes. He has chosen to trust you. Therefore, I would like to extend to you that same trust." If she has any reaction to Jessica's near-use of the notorious S-word, it's hidden by taking a sip as she mulls over the most important question.

"Juno is, in a way, an experiment. She is not the first girl I've purchased from her particular origin, but she might be the first to manage what I'm asking of her." Elena fixes Jessica with a mild stare. "So when I tell you that my plan is as simple as 'to let her discover herself, on her own time, with my support', I will understand if you think me a bit mad."

Jessica Jones isn't a big tea drinker, but she takes some and tastes it. Huh. Not bad. She doesn't throw anything into it, preferring to take it straight, taking it for what it is. Much like her conversational style. She looks mildly embarrassed to be spoken of in glowing terms. It wasn't so very long ago that the thought of kings showing up to hire her would have been beyond ludicrous, after all.

Her eyes narrow a bit at Zimniy Soldat. "James Barnes," she agrees, firmly. He's not the Winter Soldier anymore, and while she'll tolerate all that from Juno, who doesn't know better, she steadfastly defends his real name here.

She listens to the plan. "No. I don't think it's mad. When your free will has been taken away, what else is there? But what happened to the other girls? What did you do with them? Are they okay now?"

She doesn't even bother to hide the intense concern for everyone from Juno's "particular origin;" as if an activist's or social worker's passion lies beneath the rough exterior.

The tea is mild - a black tea with a straightforward taste and just a little bitterness. Elena doesn't necessarily smile when Jessica insists on using Bucky's real name, but she certainly doesn't disapporive the gesture. "Juno was so thrilled to have met him. For girls like her, he would have been a myth. She did not come from the Red Room, which saw him oversee the teaching of many students."

The teacup is put down with a quiet click. "If she had, this would be easier. The girls like her are less adaptable. I have resigned myself to the idea that they were made to be disposable - like a gun with a single bullet." Yes, the others had been easier… "I have done this with more than a dozen candidates over the years. I had had only one failure with the girls from the Red Room, and all of the others have gone on to be their own people, to live their own lives, whatever they may be. The girls from Kindergarten are much less… adaptable. I have yet to truly free one of them."

She's quiet for a long moment, looking down at her hands. "If they cannot become free, it is unfortunate. But if they cannot remain on the leash either, they must be prevented from becoming a liability." There is something final in her tone of voice, and she looks up at Jessica with the grave air of a pallbearer.

Anger sparks in Jessica Jones.

"Or, we could, you know, try harder. Let me ask you a question, though. If you want to free this kid, and you don't want her to become a liability," her tone says that she will stand and fight Elena, Oliver, and anyone else before she just lets them off Juno, "why the Hell are you still sending her out to kill people?"

Well, that was more hostility and swearing than she originally meant to allow to slip out, but there it is. Elena. T'challa. Everyone seems to think murdering these victims is just a-okay if they can't play ball fast enough. And while on some deep, logical level Jessica might be able to see that someone who has truly been turned into a psycho killer by the conditioning is not someone anyone wants to have around, this hits a deep hard wall of 'they didn't ask for this and maybe there's still hope if someone will just keep at it.' There was hope for Bucky. There was hope for her.

The anger has another purpose though, because she has also seen the death of that hope from time to time: certain Hydra operatives. Eventually, perhaps, Azalea Kingston. She has sat and faced it and grappled with it. It infuriates her, it makes her sad, it makes her want to rail against the whole of the world.

Really, in comparison to the depth of the rage she feels over the idea that the death of free will is a profitable institution for many, the sudden hard edge in her tone is pretty gosh darn mild.

There is a quiet shuffle from the corner of the room Oliver had retreated to under the pretense of playing with his phone, as if he's shifted from foot to foot. Elena looks on impassively at Jessica, but there is nothing smug or self-satisfied or even particularly righteous in her expression.

"Imagine, for me," she begins, as if choosing her words carefully, "That you have been raised to believe you are changing the world. That you will protect thousands of nameless but real people - people, not a doll like yourself - from terrible things. Imagine that you have been certain, since before you could even read, that you were going to do one thing, and one thing only, and you were going to do it by becoming a soldier."

She doesn't raise her voice. "Imagine that you had held your first weapon when most children were still holding their mother's hand. That you don't remember having a mother or a father, ever. Just people who showed you, over and over and with unbelievable creativity, how to murder people who were still begging for their lives."

Elena doesn't look particularly sad… only grim. Her lips thin. "Imagine knowing that the world is full of monsters and that you could stop them - were meant to stop them, more than anything else you could ever be - and that you were being lazy. Because dolls that don't do what they're meant to are worthless, and worthless dolls are thrown away. That that is the natural order of things. That to be worthless is worse than any punishment it could bring you."

Jessica exhales sharply and reminds herself that for all that she has some context for what Juno— and perhaps Elena too— have been through…

She doesn't know everything. Doesn't have the same depths of horrors lurking in her soul. She has just enough to give a damn, just enough to feel empathy that most people wouldn't feel, just enough to bypass all the fear and disgust and judgment the average person on the street might have when confronted with a killer doll's soulless eyes and the weapons she carries. Reminds herself that empathy, in and of itself, is a gun without a bullet in the chamber. She sure fires it uselessly enough half the time, or misfires it, or shoots it off just to find the bullet of action richocheting around and causing pain instead of healing. She has empathy, but not the skill to use it, and sometimes this realization makes her feel pretty worthless.

"Sorry," she mutters, rubbing the back of her neck, her anger draining away as quickly as it had risen up.

But she'll still fight them, if they think to terminate this kid. Or any other. The grim thought settles at the back of her mind. Inveterate spies that they may be, they may see it settle there. The life's weapon she has mastered is persistence— and how. A dogged stubbornness that will see her to her goals or force her to die trying.

"At least she's figuring out that you don't always have to off a bitch to protect people and change the world."

Jessica understands, and Elena nods once. "You aren't wrong to be angry. It is a horrible thing, to wake up from that. To see what you have done in the light of day, and how badly you were mistreated. To accept that the world isn't fair, and that people are the worst monsters of all - and that includes you, because you let yourself become one."

Elena pushes her half-empty cup away with a silent sigh. "The Red Room molded girls into killers - broken, but functional. Perhaps even still human underneath it all, and sometimes even fixable. The Kindergarten program turns them into things." She's quiet for a long moment, maple-colored gaze sliding away to stare through the curtains of the room's only window. There's only a brick wall beyond the narrow alley outside.

She seems tired, somehow, the way an old injury might exhaust anyone else. "She is learning. Already, she's told me that she had doubts on an assignment. That she was unable to make the kill because of what you had told her. Juno may have intended to recover and carry it out anyway, but that she hesitated at all is a good sign."

Hearing Elena call it a good sign relaxes Jessica Jones a little more. The truth is, she likes Elena. It's just that liking someone is no bar to Jessica bristling at them, snarling at them, and calling them on their bullshit as she perceives it.

It sounds like all she can do for Juno is to keep doing what she's doing. But.

"This Kindergarten program," she says. "Obviously in play as early as 18 years ago. These asshats operating in the States at all? Are there people who are or were involved nearby? Because there's helping Juno, and there's also doing something about the sons of bitches who think it's a great idea to turn people into things."

And if that wasn't a line of questioning they expected, she can't help it. She knows they're spies, she knows they're connected, and more than that, she knows they know.

T'Challa, of course, had tried to hire Jess to find these very people. But since Bradenburg, she's become more than uneasy about the idea of turning them over to the Wakandian King. It would just be aiming him like a weapon, and her being there just makes her into an accessory. And certainly she doesn't need to be engaged in either activity now.

But there are multiple ways to bring people to justice. Moreover, this Kindergarten criss-crosses in and out of Bucky's case. It hasn't escaped her that there might be exculpatory evidence in there somewhere, if she can only figure out how to use it.

Ample reason for her to hire herself, and pursue the information for her own purposes and in her own way, in a way that creates justice without drowning them all in more rivers of endless goddamn blood. The spots of it on her hands already make them itch like Lady MacBeth's every time she contemplates it, every time she contemplates the fact that she might be called upon to make that choice for the safety of the little guy yet again. It turns her stomach, but the only medicine she can give herself in this regard is to keep right on seeking a different way, and choosing the different way when she identifies it.

It's a kind of honesty that Elena approves of, truly… and envies in her own way. She will never know what it's like, that kind of impulsivity, that brashness. That confidence. She is too used to rethinking everything a dozen times over. Too set in her ways.

She returns her gaze to Jessica when she asks about the history of the program. "It isn't as old as the Red Room, but it's old enough to have 'graduates' older than Juno." Elena watches the detective for a moment, weighing her own decision one last time. "I had thought you might ask about that question in particular. It seems to be your way of doing things, after all…" A small USB key is placed onto the table between them; there's no telling where Elena had been hiding it, because she never reached anywhere to retrieve it.

"There are several names on that, as well as all the information I've been able to retrieve. It's easy enough to reach their brokers. The rest of it, of course, is much better-hidden." Elena leans back in her chair, fingers steepling. "You will have any help I can give without undermining my own position. It shouldn't be any surprise to learn that I am persona non grata with the Red Room and its ilk these days…"

Up her sleeve, maybe? Assassins and concealed things. There's a trick Jessica will never master. But she's quick enough to snap up that USB drive, lest Elena change her mind.

"Well," she says, with gratitude. "Let me see what I can get done without your help, first, to protect your position."

This. Could be big. Big not just for bringing these guys to justice, but for Bucky's case. What she's holding is pure gold for a variety of reasons.

But she has her own offer to make. "You pick up any more kids like Juno, I wanna help with them too," she says. "The jury's still out—"

She winces. What a shit phrase. But she moves on.

"On my ability to quote-unquote 'people'— but I guess I got some unique bits about me that maybe help a bit." Like them, but not like them. Enough to have a different perspective. Enough to avoid judgment and horror when a former assassin does what a former assassin was trained to do, and pulls a gun on someone.

She shrugs, uncomfortably.

Where indeed?

Elena closes her eyes. "I trust you will do your utmost, Miss Jones." If nothing else, she's done her part in the attempt. Neither is she particularly surprised to hear Jessica's own request. "If I feel it will be safe for you and for her, I will ask for your help. After all, even knowing almost nothing about Juno, you were able to impact her emotions. If that can be repeated, it would be a very useful ability for you to add to our efforts."

"And if you question your ability to 'people', just remember that you are the most human of all of us - myself, Juno, James Barnes, and even Oliver."

The man in question looks up from his phone. He totally wasn't playing Farmville. Nope.

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