Punctuation

July 24, 2017:

Bucky Barnes meets with Phil Coulson to discuss the possibilities for the future should he actually make it through the trial.

Central Park, New York City

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster, The Black Widow, Steve Rogers

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Phil Coulson didn't really say why he didn't feel like meeting at the Triskelion today. Maybe it's because it's a nice day. It certainly is, with the sky one of those perfect shades of blue that offsets the color of the trees to absolute perfection. He's picked a tree out on the Harlem Meer, and there he sits beneath it, a fishing pole in his hand and a bob making its merry up and down motion in the water. Nothing seems to be biting— his ice chest is certainly empty, but he seems content with the exercise all the same. Who says semi-clandestine meetings have to be dull?

And at 9 in the morning on a Wednesday, the place is deserted. Most everyone is at work.

He's got on sunglasses, and he's in his shirtsleeves, pressed blue dress shirt devoid of a tie, with a few buttons unbuttoned. He could be any office worker sneaking off to play some fisherman's hooky. His kit does include other poles, and bait, and everything else, all sitting next to him.

He has, at least, forgone any sign of a dorky fishing hat.

*

Bucky didn't really question why Coulson didn't want to meet at the Triskelion. What he does question, upon arriving, is this: "Oh nine hundred? Couldn't have picked twenty hundred? I'm more of a night owl."

The older (younger?) man comes into view, circling around Phil's tree to lean against its trunk. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he regards the agent's 'clandestine' outfit with no expression on his face to say whether he finds it strange or not. He himself is dressed nondescriptly, a long-sleeved oxford and jeans. In deference to the heat, the sleeves of the shirt are rolled up to the elbow.

This should have exposed gleaming steel. That it does not, rather exposing an arm and hand like any other, says that Jane has probably taken care of that little problem.

He's got sunglasses on, himself. That and the hair shorn short into a rather standard cut for the modern day makes him instantly forgettable: just another kinda-good-looking young man in his thirties, like any of the countless others walking around New York.

He frowns at the empty ice chest. "How long you been out here?"

*

"By twenty hundred the kids are leaving beer bottles and condoms all over the place," Phil points out, that faint smile touching his lips in the way it so often does. "Besides, I feel like you might need some sunshine."

He eyes the change in the prosthetic with approval. It's a good upgrade, one Phil himself wishes he'd thought of suggesting ages ago. But he did not. Instead, he mentally credits Dr. Foster all due respect for that one.

"I've been out here fifteen minutes. Grab one if you feel like it." He nods in clear invitation to the other poles. "It's not about catching things, you know. It's about sitting in a quiet spot on a nice day for a little while. And speaking about whatever two people need to discuss."

*

There's a bit of a frown at the mention of careless condom and bottle litter all over the place, though Bucky doesn't exactly look surprised. "People used to be more discreet," he grumbles, but lets the topic slip away.

No comment on his need or not for sunshine.

Instead, there's a somewhat cagey look as Phil invites him to take a pole and cast a line himself. He glances dubiously at the equipment, a consummate city boy who promptly got thrust into a life where the opportunity for 'a simple afternoon of fishing' was never in the cards. "I haven't fished since 1927," he remarks, along that line of thought. "Absolutely no good. We did some hunting sometimes, though, when we were real far afield and tired of the same old C-rations." He frowns. "Or more like I did the hunting. I was the best shot."

He almost visibly refuses to follow that thought down its particular rabbit hole.

Instead, he folds his arms. The mention of 'whatever people need to discuss' has his eyes narrowing. "I made preparations for if shit goes one way," he says, baldly enough. "I guess I should make some if it goes the other."

*

Phil looks up at him, listening as he grumbles, listening as he shares a memory of the war. He's a good listener, hazel eyes alert, making it clear that he's focused far more on the man next to him than whatever is going on there in the water. Which…is still a whole lot of not much, but even if there were, right that second, as he hears about C-rations and hunting, he'd probably ignore it. He doesn't urge Bucky to pursue that thought down the rabbit hole either, aware of how touchy some subjects can get, but he hears it all the same.

"That sounds wise," he comments, as usual, giving Bucky really lots of space to talk. During their meetings at the Triskelion, where he had listened to the first set of preparations, absorbing freely given intel like a sponge, he'd done much the same thing. Issued statements like that which invited him to go on, but which didn't really make a comment on what he thought one way or the other, keeping the focus on Buck. He does that now…

But in a far more gentle, empathic fashion, something somewhat less professional. It's not the fishing pole in his hand that's doing that, either. It's just him showing that human side for a moment, that side that says he cares about what it must be like, to sit and not know if you're going to live or die, to try to plan for futures without knowing what one is, entirely, planning for.

*

Perhaps Bucky Barnes used to be the kind of man who could light entire rooms and carry conversations with five people at once. To hear it told in the books, he certainly was — he was the social success to contrast against Steve Rogers' early days of struggle and ostracism, and the narrative was sure pounded into the ground by decades of historians.

The man standing beside Phil Coulson now is, much like Steve Rogers himself, not really exactly as described by third parties. There is some truth there, some similarity to the narrative, but as with Steve, what is being described is more an image. Like describing Captain America, instead of Steve Rogers. Whether it's because the historians got it wrong, or because the man himself has been irretrievably changed by the last seventy years, or both… James Buchanan Barnes isn't really the light and life of the party he might once have been.

Phil Coulson gives him room to talk, his entire demeanor full of empathy and understanding. And after a brief essay at normal conversation, the former Winter Soldier falls silent.

The quiet stretches for an almost uncomfortable length of time. Bucky transparently does not know what to do with the freedom to talk, nor how to interface with empathy. Perhaps he does not even understand or register it as a cue to start unloading his feelings. It's certainly not what would be encouraged or expected of a man of his time period.

Eventually, completely glossing the wordless invitation — whether intentionally or not — he continues, "I was thinking about the SHIELD sanction. It's probably a good idea."

*

A few words fallen are just fine. Phil is an intelligence agent, and while he's willing to listen and certainly capable of feeling compassion, the room is as much to not talk as it is to talk. "I'm glad to hear you say that," he says quietly. And he is, because he hopes it will prevent any further 'misunderstandings' with governments, or the law. SHIELD sanction covers a multitude of sins. "There is an awful lot of Hydra out there to root out."

The bob goes under the water, and Phil reels the fish smoothly in. He tosses it into the ice chest, then chooses another bait and puts it on the hook. He expertly casts the line, sending the thing to sail far out onto the water, plopping some distance away with a smooth, soft sound.

"Do you still have some misgivings?" After all, 'probably a good idea' is not the same as 'I'm doing it.'

*

"It's… the practical thing," Bucky says. At least, presumably it's still Bucky talking. A wry smile haunts his face, but his blue eyes are not smiling. "Easier than ducking and covering and digging into old haunts to arm myself. And the funding. This stuff doesn't come cheap."

He glances out over the water. "Anyway, like you said, it's common goals. I have people to kill, and they're the same people you want dead. Why not?"

His mouth briefly twists with a bitter cast. "I understand that kind of MO, at least. People like you or Fury or Hydra or the USSR, whoever, they wanna make statements… I'm the punctuation on the sentence." There is little indication whether he feels revulsion or relief about that — that to be wielded as a weapon is all he has known.

He just moves on. Does he still have misgivings? His gaze turns back towards Coulson. "I'm not ready to fall in line like Romanova has," he says. "I want to retain most of my autonomy. I will come in because I can make what needs to happen, happen. Not because you ordered me as Agent Number so-and-so."

*

Phil considers those words. "I never see it as making statements," he says simply. And then, with the simple phrasing of a man who believes every word that's coming out of his mouth, he says, "We do what we need to be done to protect people who aren't prepared or equipped to deal with the things we deal with. There's no statement there but 'stop.' The problem is, those who choose to start hurting people usually don't unless they're made to. That's all."

But he listens to Bucky's conditions. A smile quirks at his lips. "I think if we were being techincal you'd have seniority over most of the organization, Mr. Barnes. Though I guess you, Cap, and Agent Carter can fight for who gets top spot there. The arrangement you're laying out, however, closely matches the one I envisioned. So it works for me."

The bob moves about in the water, stirred only by the wind. Phil watches it through his sunglasses, allowing his gaze to leave Bucky's for this next question. He saw that, the bitter twist of the mouth, and the way Barnes spoke of what they do…

"The question is…does it really work for you? Because you have some other options."

*

Bucky listens in polite silence to Coulson's rejoinder.

"You sound like Steve," he observes, at the end of it. "Which does not surprise me. I suppose I'll say, then, you're making a different kind of statement then the kind I'm used to punctuating." He tilts his head. "But there's still some kind of emphasis needed at the end of 'stop.'"

His brows lift, however, when he's told he technically has seniority, as one of the earliest members of the co-conspirator group that would go on to found SHIELD. "I did see my name on the 'honorary' wall," he says, wryly. "However, tempting as it would be to get to tell Peggy what to do, that's not a battle I got the energy to pick. She and I already went through that song and dance seventy-four years ago."

He falls silent when Coulson asks him — does it really work for him? He has other options.

"Such as?" He seems genuinely curious.

*

'You sound like Steve.'

It's not Bucky's imagination. Coulson actually blushes. 53 years old, and a bit of color dances along his cheekbones. "That is the highest compliment I've ever been paid. Thank you," he says simply. He actually sits up a little straighter too.

He will never. Ever. Shake the fanboy thing altogether. He just can't help himself. Though hearing it from Bucky has extra dimensions the soldier beside him doesn't even realize. It was, after all, Bucky who he became for his 8th Halloween. Steve's best and most trusted friend. Either way, it's a thing that matters to Phil Coulson to hear.

Still, this isn't about him, or his lifelong quest to be just like the heroes he grew up reading about. He tilts his head in acknowledgement at the emphasis needed at the end of stop. He has certainly pulled that trigger enough times himself, putting that exclamation point (or is it just a period?) on the end of that particular sentance.

His shoulders also shake a little as Barnes describes his dance with the formidable Agent Carter. "You notice I wasn't too successful at it either," he says, amused, but really…it's time to talk about the 'other' option, as Phil sees it.

For this, he sets his pole on a forked stick meant to hold it, and stands.

"You could stop," he says, softly. "You fought a war. Liberated us from Hitler and Red Skull. You went through 72 years of horror. And then the first thing you did when you came back was just start trying to liberate and protect people all over again. But that doesn't have to be your life. You win this trial, you've got backpay coming. Lots of it. You and Jane could go anywhere. Down to Virginia to be close to your family, maybe. You could rest. Take up a hobby. Sit and do nothing for awhile. Pass the torch and leave Hydra to us. And moons as blood, and leviathon too."

He pauses to let that sink in, then says, "At this point I'd even be willing to release all of Dr. Foster's research back to her. Every scrap. Assign some Agents to keep an eye on any property you choose from a discreet distance so you'd never be bothered again. You've earned the right to start over, if that's what you want."

*

The blush actually makes Bucky laugh. It's not really at Coulson so much as it is as Steve, because come on, Bucky remembers when Steve was really kind of a tiny derp, and now just being compared to him makes adult men all giddy? Not that Steve isn't strong enough of character to merit it, but seriously.

"Tough wrapping my head around getting that kind of effect just from comparing somebody to Steve," he ruminates. "It's like I just compared you to Abe Lincoln. Meanwhile I've seen him in — well. He'd kick my ass if I said, and he could actually do it now, so I guess I won't."

The brief levity drains away quickly enough, however — his expression especially tightening at the name Red Skull — as Phil outlines an alternate path Bucky could take with his life. It's effectively retirement. Phil correctly points out that the first thing he did, even upon recovering from seventy-two years of torment, was start trying to protect people all over again — but that that doesn't have to be his life.

He could pass the torch, Phil says. For a while, Bucky makes no reply.

"I got asked a while back to consider this," he eventually says. "Got told that not everyone gets a chance to hit a reset on their life like I have now. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, after what I've done, I haven't earned any kind of rest yet."

*

Phil has the grace to look just a little embarrasssed as Bucky, who Knew Steve When, says that, but he doesn't back down on it either. It is what it is, and having met Captain America has done little to dilute his opinion that he is a standard that should be lived up to. Which is a little strange, given his profession as a spook requires him to take a 180 from Cap's methods more often than not.

He looks a little apologetic as he sees Bucky's expression tighten. Maybe it wasn't really necessary to lay them out name by name. But he did, and he can't undo it. He just listens, instead, to what Bucky says.

He's not particularly surprised. He even admires this, the need to pay back and atone, even though to Phil's mind there is little enough to atone for. Still, who can say what it takes for a man to live in the world, to face himself in the mirror, to sleep at night? All he can do is respect it.

"Then please allow me to be the first to congratulate you on entering SHIELD's Authorized Freelance Consultant Program, pending the successful completion of your current legal matters."

That thing is actually a thing, and it's basically what Phil would be using to extend all that sanction, without making Bucky into Agent Number Number.

And then, after a moment, he decides to address that tacit bit of information that Bucky gave him.

In a tone drier than a dry county on a Sunday afternoon:

"Romanova. Falling in line? It's good to know you haven't lost your capacity for comedy, Mr. Barnes."

*

It's strange, Bucky's reaction to the name Red Skull. It's not really just the reaction of a man to hearing the name of an old enemy, but something deeper and more visceral. Old nightmares and older fears. Time has abated some of them, but some things not even the decades can erase.

He moves on quickly. What's past is past, and the important thing now is what Phil says next. Amusement flickers in his eyes. "That's a mouthful," he says. "You got a catchy acronym for that one too?"

He hesitates half a moment when Phil circles the conversation back to Natasha— signaling the point has been taken. His head cants slightly, half a smile crossing his features.

"Miracles have happened before, Agent," he says, lightly. And with that, he unfolds his arms and straightens up, pushing away from the trunk of the tree.

"I won't take up any more of your time," he says. "Though I'm sure Jane will take up as much of your time as she wants if you're serious about releasing her research to her again."

*

"AFCP doesn't spell anything good," Phil quips mournfully. "Though I guess it sounds kind of cool. Like a gun. Or a helicopter."

Cue dorky smile.

He watches Bucky push off the tree, and mention Jane's research. His smile deepens a little, laugh lines sinking into his flesh in a pleasant way. "Don't tell her," he suggests. "I think I'll be saving that for your Happy Acquittal Day gift. See you soon, Mr. Barnes."

And at that moment, his bob starts dancing. He strides forward to grab up his pole, all to ensure that he gets that fish reeled in and seen to before it gets away.

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