Duel Citizenship

July 05, 2017:

Jessica Jones appears before T'Challa in a bid to gain access to the details of the investigation which has led Wakanda to accuse Bucky Barnes of terrorism at the Mizizi Conference. But poking angry panthers is a dangerous act that carries a high price.

Wakandan Consulate, New York City

Looks more like Birnin Zana every day.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster, Matt Murdock

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Jessica Jones was surprised to find herself back in the position of needing to arrange to meet with King T'Challa. Jane Foster had originally been quite firm with her.

'Let me handle it,' she'd said, and Jessica, feeling rather like a hardliner when it comes to matters of respecting the boundaries and choices of the Foster-Barnes household (or is it Barnes-Foster?) had backed off. With misgivings. But she'd done it.

But then Jane had called back and had said that more or less, she thought that it might be good for Jessica to pursue her own angle on this as well, for reasons she didn't entirely explain. Jessica still has no idea what the diminutive doctor even pulled, or wanted to do. And, respecting those boundaries, she hadn't asked. Though she'd wanted to know, and desperately.

Instead, she'd called Sizani, because she gathered that the proper way to make an appointment to appear before the King on his ground with a formal request or two was to reach out to the Dora Milaje. She'd already said she might help should such a meeting need to be arranged.

She has chosen her wardrobe carefully for this meeting. It's not scruffy, because she wants to show respect to his station. It's not constricting, because having done all she can to study up on the culture, she's not 100% sure she won't have to fight for what she wants. Even though she's dubious about 90% of what she's read.

It's not too dressy, because she's pretty sure just from her interactions with Wakanda so far that they take a dim view of American surface-level politeness and pagentry. They seem to prefer Jessica to mostly be who she is. So it's just a business suit, if a new one, cut sharply, with a crisp, starched white collared shirt beneath a tight-knit black jacket. None of it is Stark weave, as she'd feared showing up in bulletproof clothing might create some sort of subtle insult. She wants to walk out of here with an even stronger relationship, not a worse one, and she knows the ask itself could be insulting if not handled just right.

People rarely associate her with diplomacy. But nobody survives long in her line of work if they do not think and think hard about how they can approach people and get what they want out of them.

Now in the Embassy itself, she waits to be admitted to see the King.

*

This one is a world of boundaries. Politics is a maze made of frayed rope, made treacherous to cross, but even more so when the maze restrains a great bull at its center. The process of navigating it has become something of a vex to young king T'Challa during his times in America, even more so over the last months. Tentpoling failure has never been his favorite activity, but the outcome of allowing the Winter Soldier to return to the states had come somewhat out of his favor.

However, on another outlook, it merely means others have captured his enemy for him.

No matter the location, there is still audience to be held, and even the new Wakandan consulate in New York City begins to resemble Birnin Zana when the grounds are right. Receiving Jessica at the consulate was irregular, considering the young woman's moods and proclivities. But her ways do not mishandle T'Challa overmuch — honesty is a trait valued in Wakanda. At any rate, when the Milaje bring him news of her request, his consent comes shortly after his return.

It is worth noting that T'Challa rarely wears anything more elaborate than his street clothes even in an official capacity. Though the young king prefers the clothing supplied by his tailors in general, even when he has a choice to wear anything he pleases, he elects to wear the root brown, night black and forest greens that have by now become customary. The officious cut of his jacket does little to overbear the attitude he takes in reception — sharp-eyed countenance, that leans over in the seat at the foot of the panther mask.

Masks line the walls of the grand hall, one for each tribe of Wakanda, and presided over by am elaborately carved bench at one side of the room, dominated by a massive panther mask, whose teeth and jaws were large enough to eat a man whole and still have room enough for two more.

Since Jane, there have been some changes made. Now, there is a single chair at the foot of the podium that serves as platform to the desk. Though it is not a needlessly ornate thing, it is obviously Wakandan, hard-carved from purple heartwood, with erratic and undulating patterning to its construct, draped with the rich fabrics that are by now becoming a somewhat tongue-in-cheek staple of Wakandan craftsmanship abroad. A stand sits in front of the chair. Though it is proffered, hospitality is not an enforcement.

As established, the king is not mishandled by Jessica's protocol thus far, but his moods are not typically ones of warmth and understanding. Inclining his head when she is shown in, the king is currently perusing a card at his knee, reading a message cast holographically before him. The projection winks away before its subjects can be discerned. Though it is a moment before the man's eyes lift, the weight of his attention on many things.

The armed guard at either side of his so-called throne, on the other hand, are interested purely in the actions of the woman he holds audience with.

"Jessica," T'Challa begins, his nominally severe tone cut and measured mild for the occasion, "It is irregular for you to find yourself amongst my delegates handled in such a fashion." His observation matches his face, which is as always, cut whole from the stone. He stares, his sharp eyes holding focus. "I trust that you will not be asking me to end a foreign country with my fleet of battlecruisers today."
The Wakandan's expression does not change appreciably as he speaks.

*

It's a nice chair. And if hospitality is offered, well. Jessica's going to take it. She settles into the chair when it's indicated she can use it if she wants to, and folds her hands in front of her. It's a bit for the guards, because she wants them to see that she is unarmed, relaxed, and not trying to be more of a pain in T'Challa's ass than usual. And if that's a bit disengenous when one is a person who can lift a car over her head, well…she figures it's at least a peaceful posture.

And then holy crap, was that a joke? The quip— well, maybe it wasn't by his face, but it sounds like a quip— about the battleships causes a fast but genuine smile to rocket over the private detective's face. Humor lights her eyes up for just a moment. "No, your Majesty, your battlecruisers may stay at rest for all of me. Thank you for your sufferance and graciousness in allowing this irregular meeting."

One can be straightforward, after all, and still be polite.

Wait, if it's not a joke does that mean she could have come in here and— well, it doesn't matter. She'd never ask such a thing.

She takes a breath. Focus, Jones, game on. "That which I do come to request may prove equal in vexation, so I wish to say before I begin that while I recognize this, vexation is not my aim, for I have been honored by such favor and friendship as has been shown to me by the Nation of Wakanda," for he has spoken of himself as the whole of the nation before, "and would never seek to abuse the nation's good graces."

*

T'Challa does not smile in response.
If he is joking, you'll never know it.

Though his guards remain wary of the foreigner at this so-called court, the young king seems relaxed enough. At least, his alert stature does not seem overwrought with concern, his manner as he sits back in his own seating tepid, the weight of his station on his shoulders, but borne well. When he looks at her with sharpness in response to her word, it lacks the peculiar intensity that has come to earmark the Wakandan regent's moods. He is rarely in good cheer, but his moods are a tidal thing, and they are gentle by the time they reach the investigator.

For the moment as it pleases.

A dark brow arches as Jessica continues, choosing her manner carefully to buttress her reputation against his country's will. He doesn't show much surprise — it is out of the ordinary for Jones to bother with these things, but he has become accustomed to it by the means presented by many others. He doesn't bother to point it out, as he dislikes noting the obvious. "As I am always inclined to help those in her grace, Wakanda's many graces are as vivid as her natures. You should know by now that this grace and favor are never guaranteed, even to her Kings. If this request is as serious as you say, then you should also know how dishonor handles us. Do not make the mistake of requesting a thing that will bring you shame."

As her tone breaks formal, his own gains a dangerous lilt to match it, which seems to be the only formality he knows. Though his impatience for such things are as legend, only an amateur would respond so. T'Challa is something much more adaptable that that. Even so, he responds exactly to what Jessica says, the gravity of her request made clear in the slow and rousing severity of his response. If she happened upon him sleeping before, he is slowly rousing now. One hand is opened — his right, to bid her a free floor.
"I wish you discretion. May you choose to put voice to wise request…"

*

And talking like this is also exhausting. Jessica isn't sure how he can do it all the time, though she supposes it's just his way, something he's trained to do. Or perhaps he's just a poetic speaker. Either way, she simply nods, and moves into it. There's no good way to make this request, not really. The set-up is made, she's made the effort to do this right, and now there's nothing but to look him in the eye. Perhaps it's the dangerous lilt in his voice. Perhaps it's the open permission to really, truly have the floor and speak freely. Whatever it is, the manner of her speech changes.

Now she speaks bluntly. Boldly.

All that's missing is the coarse language which so often dances upon her tongue.

"I think Wakanda's laying the deaths at the Mizizi conference at the wrong feet. I think the people who did it are laughing and toasting each other while an innocent man takes the blame. So I wish leave to give the investigation a second look. I'm not saying your own Intelligence forces aren't great at what they do, because they are. Our enemies are just similarly great at falsehood, and an unusual perspective and a fresh eye they'll never expect might help to beat them at their own game. I wish to be given access to the existing investigation files, permission to use my own methods and resources to launch this follow-up investigation, and permission to drag the culprit or culprits to your feet if I find them."

She squares her shoulders and straightens her back, making it clear with her body language that she feels no shame. She's done all she can to soften the fact that she is essentially waltzing in here and accusing an entire group of seasoned people of being absolutely in the wrong. Yet what she told Sizani remains the truth. Sometimes the minority has to stand there and push back against the majority. Sometimes the people with the truth are the ones crying out alone in the wilderness. And if someone knows the truth, Jessica Jones rather thinks there is wisdom enough in being that voice. Even if the majority is seasoned and skilled, even if the majority may be right 99% of the time.

And if she has made herself a fatal error in stepping on foreign soil to do just that, well.

There are worse hills to die on.

*
T'Challa is seldom credited with an overabundance of anxiety concerning affairs yet to be realized. He is a man of anticipation, and one who is not easily overcome by the whims and wiles of emotion. His hands rest on the arms of the bench where he sits firmly, the nervous zeal to steeple his fingers that one would expect as he listens never reaching him. The manner is different; there is nothing there to catch onto, nothing to hold as meter of his mood as Jessica speaks, her terse accent reaching him. The hitch in her breath of saying one word too many with a thought that is one word too large is his interest, and the faintest incline of his head is the only movement he makes through this line. A request is not an invitation for conversation, and momentarily, Jessica has the whole of his attention, as an honorable man might.

A grim countenance like the foundation of castles belays and preempts any impression of imperiousness the king may show in his rancorous quiet. It is his nature.

"Though I am given to show kindness to those who have treated Wakanda well… you, Jones, opine with the wrong assumptions," T'Challa remarks, a low acid in his voice. His gaze narrows, his eyes something a little less than knives, but something a little more than soft. He leans forward slowly, as if to get the measure of the wind in a room without it. There is the distinct sensation that the body language Jessica shows is not at the core of his interest now. The idea that he can count her heartbeats from across the room is palpable in that moment. So too is the thought that the women that form his guard do not reply well to Jessica's assertions, their hands on their weapons.

Most of their conversations up until now have been calm, soothing. Talk of the winds and of the rains. Buckets to be filled, and burdens to be carried. With it, it is easy to forget that T'Challa never smiles, and that his voice sounds like a blade running across the whetstone, and for what purpose that it is so.

T'Challa is seldom credited with an abundance of anxiety.
But at his core, there is something white hot. Something angry.

"You assume that we have laid the shoes of those who are lost and who are dead at one doorstep. And you assume that our justice will be done with Barnes' death. You assume that I will give consent if you avoid offending me or mine. These are pretty ideas you have. A theatre worthy of American applause. But hundreds of thousands of children in my country do not sleep tonight because they are afraid that a blue eyed devil will come from the fire and take their parents from them. With the weight of uncountable thousands of tears wetting the mantle you wear, Jones, can you still stand on the idea that Wakanda should overlook Barnes?"

A slow breath is taken.

"For each man molested, a dozen villains will die in the dark, bleeding. But only one will have the honor of having my people recount the sound of my breaking his neck and his spine with my hands in the stories they will tell around their cooking fires. That is the judgment I have handed down, a directive that pleases the Panther God herself."

Silence permeates the hall for moments, the animosity bleeding from the young man's frame as he settles back in his bench. It never quite runs out, his calm never actually having broken. But filling those moments with anything other than heat is hard. Too hard. He lifts his hand, inflicting only further silence as he continues. "Jane Foster came to me as well. The only reason I did not imprison her is because she should not bear the full weight of her lover's crimes. It is natural for many foreigners to come to Wakanda, seeking favor by dressing their need up as assistance. They try to sell their sand as water, telling us that we will profit, if only they are allowed the use of our lands. These men are not interested in helping my country. They come seeking earth and water, and are lucky to leave with their blood."

When he drops his hand again, it may as well have been carved from wood.
"You wish to save your friend. I know this. It is an honorable goal. But I will not give consent to anyone who will place a man over the nation. On this, our soil, tell me if you believe I am wrong."

*

Her heartbeats are a steady thrum-thrum, if a loud one, the drumbeat of a woman whose convictions are firm and clear in this regard. While she might have been a bit concerned over the offer of insult on foreign soil, the insult has been offered and taken now. He can count the heartbeats of a woman who will not back down and who offers nothing more than barest honesty now. Her vanilla-and-lavendar tinged smell does not carry the scent of lie or fear, though answering anger dances prickles along her own skin, temper that she tries and, for once, mostly succeeds in suppressing.

Now Jones listens, her own face a bit blank in the face of his ire. There are serious things in his words. His words paint pictures so vivid she feels she is nearly there, staring down at darkness and fires. The weeping of children. Snapped necks. She can all but hear the crack in the night. She can all but see herself as one of those children, fearing a blue eyed devil. It makes her heart break for those children, those families. But not enough to steer her off her course. Indeed, the picture he paints provides all the more reasons why she must doggedly pursue it without backing down.

Her body language never changes, for all that he's little enough concerned with it. What he paints for her is filled with enough conviction that were she anyone else she herself might find doubts in the corners of her soul. But she has none. She ignores hands on weapons entirely. She has eyes only for T'Challa.

"I don't deny this. I am friend to both the accuser and the accused. A position that speaks to the elimination of bias. As does who I am. I am a detective. It is my calling to seek truths in dark corners, no matter how painful, embarrassing, or disastrous they might be for anyone involved."

She lets that hang in the air.

"You might not see me as a friend, but fortunately friendship is not necessarily a two way street as many assume; one can be a friend without having those sentiments returned. And as your friend, I say you will not sleep at night if you find you've snapped the neck of the wrong man. I further say I am friend to one who never even gave my other friend a chance to speak in his own defense, and this strikes me unusual for one who was concerned enough with justice being done correctly to ever seek me out in the first place."

Her expressive face twists into something like a matching anger, a dark expression. "I don't want your earth. I don't want your water. I don't want your lands, your riches. I turned down riches from Wakanda several days ago, offered to me as they were— something for nothing, perhaps to buy me with a bit of sand. And if I were convinced James Barnes actually committed this crime, of his own free will and with malice aforethought— " well, that's a term she's been hearing a lot lately, "I would turn on him, for he would have shown himself a monster and not a man. I cannot know the burden of kings, but I know there is no compassion in wiping tears with an innocent man's shroud; it might, therefore, be a fine idea to do whatever it takes to be certain the right villians are dying in the dark."

She is a woman who has oft been accused of being an audacious soul. Perhaps no day will prove it more than this one. Her voice rings with conviction as she speaks.

"So yeah. On this. Your soil. I tell you, King T'Challa, that you are indeed wrong." And then, a reference to one of their earliest conversations. "Let the panther god weigh my sins if she must. There is no dereliction of intent in my soul this day."

*

She wants to fight him.

Not physically, though she is close. He can feel the heat in her voice, and the tension in her back. It is something that is in the ball of her fist, and the cut of her brow. T'Challa has always been dangerously observant, and her voice, if not her body, speaks of the lever of pride forcing her spirit from the chair.

Even in the aftermath of his point being made, composure comes easily to the young king. He is as polished and as sharp as ever, folding the enmity deep in him once and again until the blanket lies warm at the foot of the hearth. The blade of his attention scores across Jessica's fighting words, her retort clashing strongly against his ideology. She refers to him as a friend, even if he does not think so. Eyes narrow dangerously.
He does not rebuke the comment.

Slowly, the king contemplates her argument, favoring his armrest with raised fingers. It is a gunshot in a silent room. It is the only movement he has shown thus far that does not have a real purpose, does not mean something overt. It is uncharacteristic for T'Challa, who has no tells at all, to betray any nervousness at all. Of course, for a man whose face is without expression in spans of time measured by a child's height, is nervousness possible?

"But you do want something."

The counterpoint is quiet, concise. Language measured and cut specifically for the moment. T'Challa shows no further anger, but he also makes no show of softening against the private eye's anger. Winds cut across and against the mountain. "You have spoken of the soul, and of honor," T'Challa observes coldly. "You have said that you do not believe that a killer who flees my country in ill favor can be responsible for a killing. You think we are wrong. You wish to supplant our judgment and our authority — in contravention of the very reasons for which we solicited you to begin with. You say that if Barnes is guilty as we say, that you would turn on him. You say you are a seeker of the truth."

"It is.. a uniquely American idea of justice."

One hand opens, and a holographic flickers into being before it, a set of ghostly controls illuminating the young king. "In the end, these are pretty words, Miss Jones. But only just," T'Challa judges.
"No consent," the young king repeats, "will be given for one who puts a man — any man — before the nation."

Though Jessica tries to gain his sympathy in a personal manner, there is no man left for her to find purchase with. "Against the lakes and fields of Wakanda, there can be no personal pride. Our culture which spans ten thousand years, and the honor of every beating heart within the country will not abide any murderer to cross its borders and live. This is the promise I have delivered as King of Wakanda, and as Black Panther, highest under the Panther God."

"The time for words has past," T'Challa decides. "You say you act in our honor. That you will be a better steward of our culture than our appointed guardians. Your audacity will not be overlooked. If these are the assertions you wish to press on Wakandan soil, then you will prove it," T'Challa orders, with the swing of an executioner's sword. He engages the controls hovering before his hand, lifting a single finger to highlight a glyph.

He says something, in Hausa.
"I ba da muku na izinin."
I give my consent.
He is not talking to Jessica.

Every door in the hall locks, four inch vibranium battens sealing in silence.

*

Something strikes Jessica as he speaks his words, even as he does not refute her friendship.

A, that he didn't.

B, that the way he speaks of her actions really makes her sound like a real asshole. It's even a fair rejoinder. (You're wrong, T'Challa. Well, you're being an asshole, Jessica Jones.)

And maybe she is being an asshole. Certainly every one of her actions could be read as typical American arrogance. From the outside looking in, from the perspective of anyone who didn't really know her, they might assume an exceptionalist, someone standing in a percieved superiority over another people, another culture, another skin color, waltzing in to tell them all how it is done, waltzing in to tell them she knows better. It sparks the same discomfort that made her choose her words so warily when she first arrived, because the implications were certainly dancing around in her head, making her feel a little icky even as she barrelled ahead anyway.

She can't even begin to stand here and undercut what Matt Murdock is doing, perhaps spoiling his defense in the courts by going into all the reasons why James is not a killer. A warrior, but not a killer. She can't get into mind control. She can't get into what it feels like to be a puppet in one's own body, something she knows all too well. She can't get into why he is innocent of everything, but especially of something that happened in April, an act of terror which swept innocents away, which he had no reason at all to commit. She has seen him kill. But she has only seen him kill those who would do worse to others.

So if she has to be an asshole to defend James Buchanan Barnes from the panther, even as the eagle also rages above and tries to take him, then that is what she must be. Matt must tangle with the eagle for now, and she can give but little help other than to move as he directs her. She must tangle with the panther today, and no one can help her here at all, or will.

So be it.

She will prove it.

She takes off the suit jacket and lays it neatly across the arm of her beautiful heartswood chair. She rolls up the sleeves of her crisp, white shirt. She pauses to pull out a rubber band and shakes her hair back, pulling it out of her way with a tight, efficient twist of her fingers. The doors close. She does not, as some might, look at them with any apprehension. This lack of apprehension is as uncharacteristic for her as the show of it is for T'Challa. Many think her fearless; in truth she is a woman who grapples with many, many fears. But today she is blessed with absolute clarity of purpose, and today fear and even apprehension are far from her. She's never even really felt this way before, like someone has sharpened the blade of her mind and polished the shield of her heart until there is no room for anything, anything at all, except doing what must be done.

She doesn't look at them at all, those doors that ring closed with such ominous finality.

"How will this work, then?"

*

Somewhere in the room, the air shimmers, the first sign that something there all along has remained hidden. It does not move like other mechanical apparatus, fluid in a way that would make it seem more like one of Jessica's mechanical friends from another dimension, than one of Tony Stark's suits. Shedding the cloaking veil, the being of metal and energy steps from a place very nearby her King, advancing on Jessica with a meaningful poise.

Plates peel back, sliding away from the woman underneath, who is immediately familiar to the investigator. Sizani is not dressed as she was that day she met Jessica, instead wearing a form fitting suit of black that has what appears to be circuitry of dull silver running through it. The suit she shed in her wake reforms to become a stoic guardian without it's operator.

"In your country, justice is depicted as a scale. In your culture, justice seeks to restore balance. In ours, justice is a blade that cuts deep. Those who survive remember the texture of it on their insides. The screams of those who do not survive it echo forward from the text of history: Let it be known, none who wrong us escape us. You do not understand this, or you would not be so bold. I will teach you, this, your final lesson." She stalks now, much like the languid cat eyeing something to play with, circling around Jessica without scrutiny. She knows all she needs to know about her.

"To advise my King, to stand in a place that would protect my country as if it were your own is to stand in my place. To stand in my place, you will have to kill me. To leave this hall alive, you will have to stop me from killing you. There are no rules. There is no recourse. You have set your path, and I know your future. Pray now to what Gods you hold dear, I give you only this moment, a final gift to pair with your final lesson."

The Dora Milaje's hands open and her eyes narrow in sharp focus as she finishes her roundabout to stare down the Private Eye turned Soldier's Advocate.

*

Well, killing Sizani isn't going to happen. That would be a fuck of a waste, but Jessica's eyes harden with resolution. She can sure make Sizani stop fighting, she's sure. But she's aware that her attempts to both fight the woman down to a clear loss while simultaneously keeping her alive puts her at a distinct disadvantage. And aware that the issue might get forced. What will she do then? How will her morals resolve that dilemma, should failing to kill her be declared a forfeit, even should Jessica pound her into paste?

She supposes if that's the case, she will die, and Bucky will require a different champion.

Again, she has the thought.

There are worse hills to die on.

She lets the woman circle her.

As I taught you. The words rumble in her head. Quiet. Kind. Resolute.

As you taught me, she agrees, with the voice in her head. I hope you won't be too dishonored by my performance today.

Brother, father, mentor, member of the Shittiest Club. Soldier, warrior, teacher.

The voice of memory pipes up again. How about…friend?

Friend. My friend.

She inclines her head and slides into a fighting stance. Sizani tells her to pray.

Dear Heavenly Father.

And then she launches herself up into the air until she lands behind Sizani, Daughter of the Kupaa, Dora Milaje, a foot lashing out for the woman's head. She fights like the man who taught her. Fluid, brutal motions. Strikes coming without any sparing of strength, knowing that armor is going to be better protection than most, trusting Sizani knows how to fight someone of superior strength.

Please don't let me fuck this up.

Sizani thought she saw everything that day, but she unleashes with a whole host of maneuvers that she never showed to that punching bag. Fists and feet fly, open hand strikes, all moving with a speed and grace the detective has kept hidden until now. Combinations that target, for those paying close attention, limbs in particular, aiming to shatter the armor and break the arms and legs beneath.

Amen.

*

Though she did not know how Jessica would react, it will be clear to her King alone how impressed Sizani is in that moment, her eyes falling shut as she dips and rolls, a calculated risk that lets Jessica's foot graze her pinned up hair. When she rises again, the would-be hero is upon her, and the Dora Milaje backpeddles as each and every practiced blow rains in.

There is not a counter, a full focus on defense present in the way she is forced to block the immense strength with her forearms, a ripple showing in the fabric that covers them, indicating near failure of the material. Her arms are swept aside by a kick, and then she begins her dance.

For the Kupaa, combat is about knowing one's enemy. Feeling the sting of the enemy is to know it's cost, and Sizani knows it in blows that are turned into something glancing, in lieu of losing a limb to a strike that could obliterate concrete. It will become clear in the moments that pass, that Sizani is learning her opponent's speed and agility are easily a match for her own, but doing so in a way that will become ever frustrating, demonstrating with every sweeping block of her arms or evading sidestep of her nimble feet.

The battle will move towards the King, and a sidestep will put Sizani and Jessica in profile, one that will put on full display the power of Jessica Jones as a punch aimed to dislocate a shoulder instead is forced low and right into Sizani's ribs. The blow lifts her, and something certainly cracks beneath that armor.

A moment later Jessica will feel pressure on her wrist, the Wakandan's left hand lashing something to it as she steps under the follow through of that blow and and past Jessica entirely. The line she hooked to her wrist is mundane enough, but the piton she left behind in the floor will serve, at the very least, a momentary anchor that is meant to briefly confuse, disorient, for Sizani knows it will not hold. Even now, with such little effort, Jessica will feel it give.

More concerning is the sudden burning sensation at her back, the feel of vibranium searing south to north, west to east, as it cuts an line that will nick bone, flay capillaries, and and pull blood from veins. Blood that immediately sprays the place where T'Challa sits, across his lap and chest, but falling short of his neck and face. Blood that drips, down Jessica's back, a wound hidden from view, hidden from inspection or rumination. How bad is it? How long does she have? Only the blood that leaves Sizani's dagger gives any clue, and a small pool of it drip-drops as she circles her foe, slowly bringing the blade up in an underhanded grip, to make sure that Jessica understands that this was the cut of someone who needed a distraction to escape certain, bone-crushing doom.

"I suspect you heave the heart of a warrior, Jessica Jones. But I will not know until I cut it from you, and inspect it myself."

*

Jessica Jones is also duly impressed. Sizani is a beautiful fighter. She's aware of it distantly, aware of the moment when the fight becomes a dance. She allows herself no frustration. Her mind is singing bowls of water, clear and calm and focused.

Emotionality is distracting in combat. There's a romance about being driven by it, being energized by anger or whatever, but I've only ever found it makes me sloppy.

This is the first time this has ever happened. Even when Sizani's rib cracks there is nothing but a shimmer over those pools. A cracked rib is not a completed battle, and Jessica has raised her foot in another hard, high kick towards the Dora Milaje's head even as the woman pulls her surprise.

The pain is immense. Justice is as a knife, and here the detective feels her punishment for her insult, for her presumption, for her audacity. It is a price worth paying, but it is still a high price. It hurts. It sends her reeling, groaning, feeling blood transform her crisp white shirt into unblemished crimson. It trickles down her hands, renders them slick and wet. It pools in her shoes.

For all she knows, she's bleeding out.

The first big, pitched battle I was really in was the Allied landing at Oran, on the coast of Algeria. We were told to assume little to no resistance. What we got was a swarm of Vichy French bent on blowing us away. We didn't have the choice to back off or take some other route. The problem was twice as big as we thought, and our only option was to deal with it. That was constant, through the war. You got where you were going and things were twice, thrice as bad as you thought. You adjusted.

Sizani wants to cut out her heart, and Jessica suddenly smiles. Oddly, it carries real warmth.

"You're one Hell of an opponent, Sizani, daughter of the Kupaa," she compliments, keeping a defensive stance.

She adjusts.

Suddenly she's moving again, and she's switched styles once more. She's been taught several, and while her instructor was fine with her picking one dominant style and sticking to it, he made sure she had a full toolbox to play with. Abruptly, the defensive stance isn't. She barrels fearlessly towards the knife. For two seconds it looks like the most ridiculous maneuver. Like a bull rush, a shoulder check. But then she pivots, twists. One arm comes high towards Sizani's shoulder, the other comes to seize that wrist. Her body moves in a tight circle, one foot stepping rapidly behind the other. For a moment she's got Sizani's arm straight out, held in that grip; seconds later the knife is in her hand even as she sends the Dora Milaje across the floor.

She holds the knife up to show that she has it. That she could choose, if she wished, to cut as she has been cut. Instead, she whips the thing up to let it stick good and hard in the ceiling, out of the other woman's reach unless she has more tricks up her sleeve. Which she might, but Jessica will deal with them too.

Expediency would have demanded she kept it. She's breathing hard by the time she's finished with that maneuver, feeling strength flowing out of her. Sizani, with her cuts, might well have closed the gap of Jessica's most major advantage between them, halving her strength now, perhaps quartering it in five minutes. Depending on what she cut into, the Dora Milaje might only have to outlast her now, in order to win this battle.

It does not matter.

Her course is set.

*

The battle is the same as dance.

Such was the training of the Dora Milaje, first hands to the king of Wakanda. War in Wakanda was an art practiced by man and woman, adult and child, all the same. Honed until the thrown spear lands in a fly's eye from a hundredspan away. In this end, the young king T'Challa is not contemplative of the great skills on display between his warriors and the investigator. Their intelligence serves quite well to demonstrate why Jones fights like ten men, and Sizani of the Kupaa avails herself well of the task that her king asks of her.

T'Challa does not make any moves to prepare the hall further for battle. The great masks are not taken down, the chair cut from Wakandan-cultivated heartwood is not moved. His guards, sisters to Sizani, remain as a safety against the battle being taken to his bench, ut this in itself is no great protection. Whatever is done, is done.

Even if blood is drawn.
The king reacts on instinct, his lightning movement enough to draw the glance of the warrior women at his call. He is not one to shy away, to flee or to flinch at the sight of blood. Instead, it emboldens him. One hand cuts through the blood mid-spray, deflecting crimson across it, and painting the dais upon which his bench is set, painting it at his feet. The movement is beyond fast. His hand stripes with undulating, stippled patterns of the American's blood. Copper silks its way into his scent.

He never favors the handkerchief, returning his bloodied hand to the rest with a cold disposition. T'Challa never shows fear, nor any impression of remarkable transgress. Approval never flickers across his features, nor disapproval. Only the crushing weight of his attention, and the words which form the pitch of the brutal fight.

"This is no sport," T'Challa reflects, his voice drug across rough stone. "A soul is in measure today. When one has nothing left, and there remains only the chance of damnation, a person of reason decides who they are. To dare to have the right to speak for us, the price is to bleed as a Wakandan. To suffer as a Wakandan. And to die as a Wakandan. Any other allegiance is to be a traitor to this country. The panther god will accept nothing less.."

*

There should be no response but terror. To see such brutal strength, to experience it, is a first for Sizani. She has faced larger, stronger opponents before, but not like this. It is the kind of thing that bends one's paradigm, that raises hackles, and forces the mind to falter with implication that this simply should not be. And yet, it is. It does not leave her mind unscathed, does not fail to leave an impression, but it is one she must wait to dwell on.

It is instinct that draws one of Sizani's hands towards the wrist lock, years of training telling her to flip her body, to break the lock, but she simply cannot. A misstep that costs her a weapon, and as she's sent flying her momentum carries her into a work of art, a hand made chair that has spent decades or more in the company of Wakandan royalty.

It shatters and breaks under the weight of Sizani's fall, and it takes both of her hands planting to bring her momentum to a stop. First her gaze goes to her opponent, to the dagger that has been in her family for generations, and she follows it to the ceiling, her jaw setting as her opponent throws her advantage away and allows Sizani's to set in.

The cut across Jessica's back is long enough, deep enough, that she can feel it gape when she walks. Feel it sag as muscles are forced to work through pain and motion that is no longer natural. Was it fortune that it did not sever her spine? It does not feel like a wound held back, and Sizani does not treat it like one. She does what Jessica would not do. She presses. Her left wrist is broken from the throw, but not useless. Just beneath the cuff of her suit, she pulls a bead, tossing it at Jessica with a fling of her good wrist. The sound that cracks from it's detonation sends a disorienting shockwave through the room. Those who have practices with these devices have learned to work through their effects. Those who have not will know only the spinning of the world as their inner ears revolt.

The Dora Milaje follows her lead with sudden spring from her crouched position, leading with a flying knee towards Jessica's chest. She wants to drive her to the ground. Wants the weight of gravity behind her aching muscles, and the weight of the world at Jessica Jones' back as she straightens the fingers of her good hand and prepares them like a dagger, poised high for a strike meant to rip through Jessica's windpipe.

*

It's a bit of an irony. James is on trial for being a traitor, and here, suddenly, so is Jessica, as if she'd been born Wakandan herself. But to die suffer, bleed, and die as a Wakandan is a high honor. So, too, would be to live as one. It is no sport. For all that she discarded the knife. That is, in fact, also about deciding who she is.

In fact, it solidifies something that she's been grappling with for months. A choice that might kill her, but a choice that matters. She is a defender of life. She will kill in defense of that life if she must, but she will make absolute certain sure that is her last and only option before she does. She will not waste life. And lastly, that it is her purpose to offer aid and comfort to those who are hurting as she has been hurt.

And though she had pulled bits and pieces of this into her mind and heart at other times, even seconds before this battle, she didn't know for sure that's who she was until she gave up an advantage that might have helped to definitively save her.

When nothing has nothing left, one decides who one is. It is a glorious thing to know. To know is to have peace. For she has not known. She had been changing into someone. The demons of drink are being driven out from her. She has abandoned the choice to live wallowing in yesterday's pain and self-pity. It was better. But nevertheless, she'd been frightened by the surreal feeling that she did not know who she was, that it might have been better to return to her drunken state just so she would. Frightened, until now, when it all seems so clear.

This moment helps to forge something in her heart towards Wakanda, something strong she did not have before. Something that perhaps truly does make her friend to both accuser and accused. In a way that was true before…but perhaps not as true.

And then Sizani is moving, pissed off and throwing…bombs?

It's safe to say that the expression on the wounded detective's face pretty accurately conveys the 'seriously?' sentiment pretty well, even as she is staggered from the shockwave. She has a knee in the chest. The ground is pressing into the wound in her back, washing her world in blood in pain. There is an angry cat atop her, about to crush her windpipe and finish her.

Hands raise, open and flat, to clap onto either side of Sizani's open knifehand strike. She wrenches them sideways, meaning to break that hand too. Then her own knifehand strike whips up the length of Sizani's arm, carried not directly into the centre of her throat, but towards the lefthand side of it. She whips that hand over Sizani's head and strikes at her right side again, forming a fist, hammering that fist towards her broken rib, knowing the weakness is there. Once. Twice. Three times. She hopes against hope that she won't crush the woman's heart, puncture a lung, kill her. She hopes what will happen is that Sizani will pass out from the pain and that she will end this in a fast, humane fashion. She likes the woman. Already part of her is regretful for the broken bones she's already caused, the fact that she's unleashed her full strength as never before. Normally she doesn't. She takes no pleasure in it, in harming others.

Then again, she's laying in a growing pool of her own goddamn blood, so there's that.

*

The Investigator will not know the true desperation in the actions taken against her until she acts against them. Training goes far, but not as far as the chemicals that changed Jessica Jones into bastion of power she is now. Worse, she is catching up. Barnes and others have shown her how to harness this power, a power Sizani cannot know herself. Not without mechanical help. Her gambit to surprise her enemy, to end this fight, has failed.

There is a snap, first when Sizani's arm breaks. The cry she lets echo in the hall comes after that strike to the side of her neck, light exploding behind her eyes. She ragdolls much to hard, perhaps hard enough that the third strike to her ribs should be a pulled one, should be merciful. But it is nothing but the strike of a warrior pressed to a corner, nothing but the brutality Jessica is capable of even when she is doing her best not to destroy her enemy.

The final blow dislodges the Dora Milaje and sends her tumbling to a roll that ends only at her King's dias. Unmoving. Perhaps unbreathing. It will only be then that Jessica will feel the moisture on her cheek from the blood she forced from Sizani's mouth when she pummeled her ribs. It is only then that she will know the silence in the aftermath of personal, deadly combat.

It hangs in the air like death itself, as if all in the room were waiting for the hallowed ancestors of Wakanda to speak first, before the living are able to give their peace. Somewhere very near Sizani, a mechanical panther very much the size of the real thing moves, it's texture and glowing eyes marking it as the same suit that had delivered Sizani to this room, now reformed. It rises, and though it is not living, the shift in it's parts account for tension, as if it were waiting for an order. As if, perhaps, it were waiting for vengeance.

*

Jessica Jones rolls to her belly for a moment, dazed. Sizani has aquitted herself well, despite the power inside of her. The Dora Milaje is a dangerous woman indeed, and Jessica admires her. Hopefully she hasn't also killed her. She pushes to her feet, then takes a few pained steps to kneel down next to the woman, to very gently check her pulse. She breathes a sigh of relief when she finds one. Bruised and bloodied, she looks up at Wakanda's King. She remains on one knee as she speaks.

"Sizani, daughter of the Kupaa, will not end my life this day," she says. Conscious of the sticky shirt holding bits of her together back there, conscious of the fact that really, a case could be made that Wakanda could just wait for her to bleed out if she's not interested in ending it, however long that might take— Jessica has fought on while mauled still worse than this, but it all depends on what actually did get cut back there, and how. She knows it.

Or perhaps that Sizani's…whatever that is? Robot panther? Counts? Maybe she'll have to fight the little robot too. Which would be a shame. She likes little robots. But she'll smash that thing without hesitation if she has to.

"But if she has to die today it won't be because I hit her again. Wakanda has lost enough daughters. I see no reason to light another funeral pyre when a hospital bed proves the point as well."

Breathing hard, voice shaking with pain and emotion alike, she looks up at him, silently asking if it is enough. If he will end this, and grant her request. She will not cast off mercy to escape the damnation of her own soul. She feels no joy over what she has already done. In fact, it makes her feel a little sick to have harmed Sizani so, for all that she had no other choice.

He stands.

For a moment, it is easy to believe that the battle will not end. That instead of Sizani's body, it will take the body of T'Challa himself, and however many of his guard to prove her ingenue. It would be characteristically Wakandan to present a threat with no end, a battle that cannot be won, and a death that paints Jessica Jones across the entirety of the Wakandan consulate.
But this was not the sunrise which Jessica should have said her goodbye to.

"You have tasted the spirit of Wakanda for only a moment," T'Challa notes, descending from his bench. Gesturing to the guard and the sentry panther with a single motion, he silences and chokes off any other response. He bears no visible equilibrium disruption from the earlier shock grenade, his steps sure and proud. "At the end of the day, you will return to your apartment at the end of the hall, with the useless lock and the cheap windowshade. Perhaps you will consider what it means to live and bleed for a nation who only knows enemies and scoundrels. Perhaps not…"

He favors the downed form of his Milaje, crouching deeply at her side. He rests two fingers just at her collarbone, his knuckles settling on her warmth, both of flesh and blood. Counting her heartbeats and measuring blood pressure, he absently continues. "Life purchases life, and in so doing, you have earned your right to survive your audacity," the young king judges finally.

"But do not be mistaken."

Seemingly satisfied with the Kupaa daughter's state, he stands again, only now taking kerchief to his bare knuckles, daubing blood from them as he murmurs something in the foreign language he speaks only with his adored ones. The bolts slide back from the doors, allowing entry and escape from the hall once again. The medician will be along for them both soon. "Your warrior's composure only grants you the right to make such a request, not to have it granted. My consent," he repeats, "will not be given to any one who puts a man ahead of the nation."

His words were as the mountain before. Now they are as banded iron.

"The price to act in Wakanda's will and in Wakanda's faith is that there will be no half measures. You will be harder on the invader Barnes than any other, including myself. Your heart will not be soft to him or any other. Irrespective of any other enemy facing Wakanda, the mountain Barnes has built is as steep and as wide as the nation itself. I will not overlook a single transgression. If I find that he is a villain, it will be my will that he be brought before me. If I wish him to be brought before me, you will do your duty as an agent of Wakanda above all else. I will not accept any negotiations or interpretations of that duty. Understand. If I find you ill handling the responsibility and charge due to you, you will be the next face my people see after Barnes, Jessica."

The handkerchief ties, as T'Challa winds it around his hand.
"Or you can choose to go home."

Cold brown eyes lift to face the young woman, still bleeding across his floors. T'Challa does not show any undue aggression in saying what he says, as someone familiar with the sidewinding ways of thinking that Americans often find quintessentially heroic. He speaks his mind and the price of things matter of factly. As if he didn't just mind the idea of killing the student right after the master. Again, the mildly edged words do not bear the aggression of a rancorous threat from an angry king. A king's anger is a juvenile thing, easily pacified. A threat is a temperate thing, easily neutralized.
The price and penalties that T'Challa requires for his consent are simply law.

*

For a moment she does believe it. She was bracing herself to have to fight every last Wakandan or die trying. It's…really fine with her that she's wrong.

For one moment as T'Challa begins his speech Jessica Jones actually scowls a moment. It's a scowl of…

Hey. Don't knock my fucking apartment!

It's a stupid thing to worry about. He's rendering judgment here. Her freaking apartment is the least of her worries. She meets his eyes, still there on her knees, and swallows as she listens. He might send her after James if he is not satisfied, and it will be bring him or join him. She will have to work this investigation as if she and Bucky are not friends. She has a sick sensation that Bucky wouldn't let her run interference for him if he knew, either: if it comes down to 'go to T'Challa or let her die' he's going to walk into the panther's waiting claws himself.

Or she will have to abandon it, and him. A second chance for Wakanda to judge, or no chance at all. Does she have faith enough in her friend to turn the cold light of reason on him and still walk away satisfied?

That question doesn't even bear asking. Of course she does. But does she have faith enough in herself and her ability to work a case to shove all her chips to the center of this table on the idea that she, and perhaps some of the other friends she can call upon for help, can find what nobody else did? She might well have to be the next Sherlock Holmes to make that happen. She's good, but is she that good? And does it matter? Sherlock Holmes isn't the detective on call here. She is.

There is enough gravity and weight to the choices that he lays before her that she doesn't speak. Not right away. She bows her head for a second, letting the weight settle upon her, letting it sit like a cold thing in her stomach. She kneels there, a woman wondering. Has she mishandled everything, has she made a terrible mistake…or has she purchased with her audacity the one shot that they have to make peace between James Buchanan Barnes and the nation that has declared war on him?

She looks up at T'Challa. Her own brown eyes are not cold. Not hard. Aware, though.

There is nobody in this who isn't standing knee deep in a really shitty situation. Nobody who isn't doing the best they can. Bucky. Jane. T'Challa. Matt. And now me. We get no guarantees in this life, no guarantees we get what we want. We can only decide who we want to be. I don't want to be the person that just nearly broke a woman only to walk away from this. I either have faith in myself, faith in my friends— all of them, T'Challa included— or I turn a slim chance into a slimmer one…or worse, a zero one. I have no idea what Jane did, or what she's doing, only that she gave her blessing for me to show up here and do this in my own way. Which means whatever it is, she thinks it's necessary to work both angles, or she would not have called back.

She exhales sharply. The sound is gusty and too loud in the quiet hall.

When she speaks, she speaks simply. This, too, she knows could change her life in other, unintended, unfathomable ways that she can neither predict nor control, just as Matt's ready acceptance of the American case is already changing his.

And so she rolls the dice.

"I will do my duty as an agent of Wakanda."

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