Said What I Said

August 01, 2017:

After I Don't Want the World to See Me, Bucky stops by Phil's apartment to thank him properly for his assist.

Phil's Apartment, New York City

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster, Steve Rogers

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Two days after what happens to Jane, Phil Coulson gets a brief message from the number that Bucky Barnes gave to him.

It's not a very complicated message. It mostly asks for a couple of minutes of Phil's time, either at his office in the Triskelion, or elsewhere. Wherever the other man's most comfortable. But, you know, preferably not somewhere too public, where the Winter Soldier is going to get recognized.

Coulson is probably expecting this — if Jane herself didn't tell Bucky outright, a highly unlikely scenario, then it's not exactly hard for the Winter Soldier to figure out who exactly might have intervened on her behalf.

It's elsewhere again. Coulson doesn't trust the Triskelion these days. But it's not public. Phil asks Bucky to just go ahead and swing by his apartment at his earliest convenience. Phil actually had not really thought to predict the call one way or the other, though it would have been an easy prediction if he had. There's a lot on his mind, as there is on everyone's, and he had already mentally moved on from the nasty events on that subway car.

It's also a sure bet that he, himself, would have kept his mouth shut about it forever. Jane asked him not to tell. Therefore, it is Classified, Phil Level Only. He was never going to bring it up again.

He's working from home when Bucky arrives, but he shuts it all down and opens the door to admit the soldier the moment he becomes aware of the other man's presence. "Come on in," he says quietly.

Phil's apartment seems to be fine with Bucky — the man sends back no objection. He just shows up, exactly punctual, at whatever time Coulson agrees to see him.

The door opens, revealing — well, actually, not the familiar features of Bucky Barnes, because he's got them obscured by a pair of sunglasses. His eyes are probably the most striking part of his face — covering them up renders him almost instantly forgettable, his appearance otherwise generic in almost every way. Even down to the short cut of his hair.

He's got a bag with him, slung over one shoulder.

"Hey," is his brief greeting, as he steps in. His eyes take in the work-from-home situation. "I won't be long."

Phil inclines his head and says, "Make yourself at home." He can appreciate this forgettable Bucky. It is a great thing. "Can I get you anything?" His tone is calm and casual, as it always is, giving away almost precisely nothing. It's rare for Phil to allow any emotion into his voice that he didn't deliberately put there, and today is no exception. That Bucky is, as far as he's concerned, always welcome goes without saying. That him being at his apartment is ridiculously rare and that he never used to bring work here is something Bucky already knew. But neither does he often reveal information without extensive thought on the nature of what he wishes to reveal, and the soldier contacted him first. That speaks to Bucky needing to address something with him— and Coulson won't even begin to contemplate derailing that until he knows what has brought the legend to his door.

Bucky takes off the sunglasses, folding them away into his breast pocket, but he doesn't make himself at home much more than that. Not immediately. He glances around, taking in the fact they're at Phil's apartment at all and that the dedicated SHIELD agent has brought all his work home with him, and a thought runs behind his eyes, unspooling to its natural conclusion.

He says nothing, at first. That lingering military bearing of his, an ingrained habit that keeps him precise and drilled even seventy-five years after he first went into basic, finally relaxes a bit, and he places his bag on the nearest surface with a distinct 'clink.'

"No need," he says, to Phil's offer. "I got you something, in fact." He pulls out a small flask, placing it precisely in the center of the table. "You got shot glasses? Or you too all-work-no-play?"

A flash of a genuine smile is there and gone on Phil's face before it settles back into 'genuinely pleasant but very unreadable' lines. "I absolutely do," he says. He pulls down a pair of them— plain, tasteful, unremarkable, much like Phil himself— and puts them down beside the flask, hazel eyes warming and twinkling with appreciation. He pulls a chair over to said table. The flask adds a hint of mystery to it all, too. Bucky pouring seems only polite, but he waits with the unmistakable air of a kid who has discovered sudden Christmas.

The flask truly is tiny. It's barely even the size of a man's palm. What on earth is even in there?

Uncapping the flask, Bucky pulls over the shot glasses… and pours into each what can really only be called a drizzle of the alcohol within. It's barely even half a finger, if that. Despite the miniscule amount, the smell is strong — sweet and cloying, with honey and spice notes. Maybe not what one exactly expects of a man like Bucky, up until —

"Some of what Thor brought me," he says, carefully capping the flask again. "Asgardian mead. That's why there's so little. Shit will knock you on your ass."

He slides the flask over. "Just don't pour more'n this at once," he says. "The regret will be acute."

Briefly silent, he reaches for his own glass. "Don't know what would have happened with Jane if you didn't step in," he says. "So thanks."

Surprise crosses Phil's features only briefly, and only when Bucky explains that he's bringing him Asgardian mead. He takes it up to smell it— it's a whole experience, after all, and one that should not be wasted, and takes the warning to heart. The question of Phil's true alcohol tolerance is a question for the ages; he has probably never in all of his life pushed it to its limit in truth, but has certainly had plenty of opportunities to fake having a lower one than he does.

But when a super soldier looks at you and says 'shit will knock you on your ass,' you get real respectful of the drink in your hand real fast.

So when he tastes it, he tastes only a little, and the surprised laugh of reaction that bursts out of him is as acute as his regret may well be if he doesn't listen to the Surgeon Sergeant's warning about portion size there. The laugh cuts off abruptly for a more sober reaction as Bucky explains exactly why he is receiving this quite precious gift.

"It's good, thank you," is the first thing he says, allowing his very real warmth and appreciation to make it into his voice.

But he forgoes drinking more for just a second while he contemplates what happened on that subway, a contemplation that tightens his eyes with a sign of subtle, remembered, and still-held anger. His voice drops a little as he asks, "I'm glad I could help. How's she doing?"

A flicker of a grin passes over Bucky's features at the reaction, and he takes a sip from his own glass. Placing it back down precisely on the table's surface, he lets the hit of the alcohol brace him for what he needs to say next — though the words themselves are not really the hard part. It's the memories that need to be dredged up in order to say them.

His features do not change, but his blue eyes darken.

How is Jane doing? "About as well as anyone who went through what she did can do," he says. "Not great, but she'll get through. She got through everything else that happened to her in the last ten months." It is telling that he specifies ten months. Someone as astute as Phil Coulson will notice quickly that's the date of Jane Foster meeting James Barnes.

He finishes what's in his glass. "No one else did a goddamned thing," he says, and the disappointment and bewilderment and anger in his tone probably say a great deal about his opinions on the American populace at current.

Phil is, as ever, a silent, solid presence, far more given to listening and reading between the lines than he is to speaking himself. The changes on his face, the ones that convey the deep empathy he actually feels, are very subtle, and mostly take place around his hazel eyes. But they are there. Jane has been through a lot in the last ten months, Bucky says, and when he's done speaking Phil takes another fortifying micro-sip of the best damned drink he's ever had. He offers two thoughts in response to this. The first is this.

"We can't know," he says, "what would be different if it were different. You're her anchor, James, not her albatross. As for the people on the train, well." He grapples, truly grapples, with what he can say.

"It's not entirely their fault," is what he says at last. "Between the 50s and the now, there were pretty powerful behind-the-scenes forces who decided it would be better to encourage people to become placid. Civilized. Obedient. The citizenry is mostly trained from the time they are born to leave things to the 'experts', not to interfere, not to get involved. Some of them did reach out to the police on their phones, quietly, but the police of course could not get to her in time."

It's an attmept to condense the effects of things like McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, the modern school system, certain decisions and messages in the media, lawsuits against people who defend other people, criminal charges laid at the feet of defenders, the vastly adrift nature of society with all the old rules and traditions broken— allowing more freedom, but also making everyone's responsibilities far murkier— and all the thousands of other factors at work to produce the modern bystander effect— into this one, short, succinct statement which casts broad strokes over social shifts James both missed, and, weirdly, probably helped create with a few well-placed bullets.

Bucky taps his metal fingertips along the shot glass as Phil tells him quietly he's not Jane's albatross. He doesn't look convinced, judging by the way his gaze averts and his mouth tightens. "Can't help thinking I created her need for an anchor to begin with." He shrugs, visibly regretting his empty shot glass. He looks liable to pour himself more, but either good sense or good manners to not take even more of what's supposed to be a gift.

Instead, he simply listens as Phil eventually finds the words to explain the cultural shifts that have transpired since the end of the Second World War. He looks both surprised and unsurprised at what he is told, probably because — as Phil surmises — it was his own hand that was indirectly responsible for much of the shift towards fearful complacency and obedience to authority. It was the end goal of Hydra, after all. A population that would be tractable and willing to submit, trained over the years to fear.

Behind-the-scenes forces who decided it would be better to encourage people towards placidity and obedience, Coulson puts it. James cracks half a smile. "That's a tactful way to refer to me," he says.

He shakes his head. "If there was a way to go back… but people don't really go back, once they've changed in some way. The only thing they repeat is bad cycles. Lived enough history to know that."

James finally lifts his head, glancing around at the work. He is a consummate noticer of common habits and patterns — a crucial skill for a hunter — and this is out of the ordinary. "This is new," he says, of Phil's sudden enthusiasm for working from home.

Gifts are best shared with friends. Phil simply carefully puts more of the mead in Bucky's glass. It's the chance to drink with James that is as much a gift to him too, and he doesn't really mind.

"Hydra created that need," he says quietly. "You've been exonerated, James. And yes, they were one of the forces, but some of it was our own government. The FBI. The CIA. WalMart. You wanna know why Joe Doe on the subway doesn't want to act? He might just be working three jobs to support his family because CEOs got greedy, and if he has to so much as go to court to testify he will lose one or all of them, and then he can't feed his kids."

Phil, historian that he is, sounds regretful as he relates these things, and takes another slow, contemplative pull of the drink. He holds the sip in his mouth for a long moment, really experiencing, before letting it slide smoothly down his throat.

"There are good things too," he says quietly. "I think nobody with any heart misses those whites only signs, for example."

But then he changes the subject, and Phil frowns around his own apartment. "Yes, we should talk about that," he agrees.

For this, he downs the drink. It's a spy trying to decide whether full disclosure or partial disclosure is necessary and good at this point. Phil, of course, trends towards partial-to-very-little disclosure whenever possible, but in this case…

"Some things went down behind the scenes at SHIELD, during your trial, that point to Hydra infiltrators. At least one of them outranks me, so. Now, we begin a very careful molehunt. And…the one that outranks me arranged to have Peggy suspended for revealing classified info on the stand."

Bucky starts to say something when Phil pours him another bit of mead, his brows furrowing, but after a moment he just subsides. He supposes it's down to a man what he wants to do with a gift once it's given.

He kind of needs it, anyway, considering where the conversation has gone. His blue eyes darken when Phil just says it aloud — Hydra. He says nothing to Phil's quiet insistence that he not include his exonerated ass as a Hydra perpetrator of the last century, perhaps because it's just one of those agree-to-disagree things, though he does sigh slightly when Coulson opines that part of the blame lies with their own government. "Steve and I have talked some about that, time to time," he says, just looking at his mead instead of drinking it for the time being. "Things have changed quite a lot since we were kids. Used to be a lot simpler."

He takes a sip, grimacing as Phil mentions that whole thorny issue of 'whites only' signs. He looks a little embarrassed, like it's something that he hasn't thought about. "Modern medicine is pretty great," he ventures instead. It's a bit obvious who he's thinking about.

The subject change is nominally welcome, though Bucky can clearly recognize when someone is hemming and hawing about his level of need to know about something, and his mouth thins a little. It tightens further when Phil finally decides on disclosure. The substance of what Coulson says…

His gaze is the hard gaze of a brother who has just seen a sister picked on, and more besides. A wolf that smells some old hated foe. The look in his eyes suggests little has changed about his base nature despite his exoneration at trial. To declare a man innocent isn't to make him innocent, after all. "You know who to call once you need someone killed," he says, with perfect bluntness.

"And let's face it. You love your cell phone just like everyone else does," Phil quips, his voice momentarily taking on lighter tones, the lilt of it a bit like a rock skipping boyishly over the water. "More than most, since yours doubles as a storage closet for guns." He doesn't miss much, does Phil Coulson.

But all talk of then versus now, old versus new, is soon moot and silly. He looks gravely at Bucky. "I do," he says. "I'd like to see the perpetrator caught and prosecuted."

He tilts the glass back, just to get that one final droplet of mead without having to do anything too rash or foolish.

"But if that doesn't work? A bullet from 2.5 miles as he— or she— thinks he's getting away Scott-free works just fine." And he would want it from that far off, because as they both know…Hydra is very, very good at making adjustments if you let them see you coming. Phil, being Phil, has been layering contingencies over contingencies and wheels within wheels for a long time himself precisely because of that very tendnency.

James has to chuckle at the quip about the cell phone. He takes his out of his pocket, turning it over in one hand. It looks facially like an iPhone of some kind, though assuredly the innards are nowhere near Apple anymore. Jane got ahold of his phone early. "These things are pretty nice," he has to admit. "Back in the day to do what this one thing does, you'd have needed a newspaper, a calculator, a rotary phone, a bank teller, a full-on camera, a phonograph…"

He shakes his head, amazed anew. "I was always updated on the new tech every time I came out of freeze, but knowing isn't really the same as experiencing. Or having the opportunity to really… wonder at it." He looks pensively at his phone. "I like that one app," he shares. "Where you read stuff. Readit?" Hopefully Jane has properly curated his subreddit subscriptions.

Tactfully, nothing is said about the Stuff app when it comes up.

The topic shifts, inevitably. Bucky doesn't look like he thinks much of this mole being caught and prosecuted, though he's willing to let people try to do that first. "I do have softer skills if you wanna go that route first," he allows. "But I know where my strengths are."

Phil has his reasons. Prosecution is a special kind of hell, after all, as Bucky well knows. And there's some level of poetic justice to it, given the agent tipped his hand by hiding evidence from Bucky's case. But he says none of this. Prosecution could also involve black sites and never actually seeing anything but a tribunal, for someone like that. The thing about just letting Bucky shoot the mole is that any information in the mole's head dies with him. There are a lot of different considerations going into the decision. As it is, displeased or not, Bucky is offering to use his softer skills, and he thinks on that.

"Rest assured the call will come when I know where to best make use of all your strengths," is all he says, and that is, of course, nothing but baseline truth. Arranging players on the chessboard and clicking them seamlessly into place to make things work is, arguably, one of /his/ greatest strengths. But, for now, he lays out no greater plan, issues no suggestions on what Bucky could be doing. Bucky is a powerful piece on that chessboard, one of the ones one starts moving about at midgame or endgame rather than at the opener.

He also adds, "I'm lining up some other targets for you in the meantime." They will be Hydra too. Phil is pretty serious about mostly aiming James at the very cancer that harmed him.

James has been positioned by enough handlers in his life that he doesn't much argue, object, or even question when Coulson holds his silence on his reasoning for preferring prosecution to a kill. He's been in the game more than long enough himself to have a pretty good idea why they do things the way they do or make the choices they make. Generally he came by that knowledge by seeing the effects of his own ordered actions after they were completed: the reasoning for such orders usually became quite apparent by then.

There's been more than enough people he couldn't outright kill due to the need for the knowledge in their head. He typically always got to have them in the end after their use was exhausted, however. A faint smile touches his features, thinking about it.

It's an expression that fades when Coulson mentions he has some targets lined up, what replaces it something avid and intent and more than a little hungry. "Once this is over," is all he says aloud. He frowns. "Though even if I am acquitted, I expect trouble from Wakanda.

Phil does look troubled by that. "I know," he says. "And on that front my hands are frustratingly tied. SHIELD doesn't have any presence in Wakanda, no authority at all, and I suspect we will be barred from entry. I've been trying to figure out how to head that one off at the pass, but…"

Even Phil isn't enough of a Magnificent Bastard to stop this one.

"I'm also working on extraction strategy if they decide to pull something." With the slightly grim air of someone who has not yet found an extraction strategy they think will work.

A faint, grim, smile that is nevertheless tinged with Phil's own brand of soft-served wry humor: "Don't suppose I can just convince you to not let them throw any bags over your head? That's probably the simplest solution of all. I will say the State Department won't hand you over to them; that would put us right back at square one with the nations who wanted you in the first place. I just don't think they'll say much either, so. Don't get kidnapped, and don't get assassinated, probably is actually the go-to strategy."

"Don't think there is any heading it off, really," James says, and his gaze is faraway. "They've always done exactly as they please. They need very little that the rest of the world has, and have everything the rest of the world wants." He shakes his head. "Not even the Winter Soldier was sent to Wakanda. Not for anything significant. Nobody ever deemed it worth the risk."

He drains the remainder of the mead in the glass. "I'm not interested in letting them throw bags over my head," he says, with equal wryness, "but I think they're gonna show up with more than just a sack, when they do."

His head shakes. "The assassin hasn't been made that can best me at my own game," he shrugs, with both a pride, and a profound bitterness at the means by which he acquired the right to said pride. "But what with how the king's tried it before, I think he's got massive firepower in mind instead."

His gaze slants off, out the window across from them. "A life spent dodging some pursuit that won't quit isn't much of a life, anyway."

Briefly and coldly, Phillip Coulson considers simply assassinating the King of Wakanda and making it look like an accident. But that would be like kicking the next of fire ants. Soon they'd all be swarming, and a very deadly war would start just as the nation is sticking its big wet nose out of doors to try to join the International Community at last. Which begs the question of why they are doing that, if they are so very self-sufficient, but…there could be any number of reasons. Global warming. The need to have a voice as people saber rattle nuclear weapons at one another. Because an ancient prophecy said they should. Anything.

In the end, he gives a resigned sigh and half shakes his head. "You've more courage than any man I've ever met," he says. And from there, he keeps his own counsel, because the realities of the world both of these men live in says that he's about to have to go and spin some scenarios for dealing with some serious fallout on multiple levels if the USA acquits James Barnes only for Wakanda to murder him instead. Many of those scenarios, his predictions for how certain individuals will react and the messes they'll make as a result are not pretty. Not pretty at all.

To say nothing of the potential fallout of a friend that in this, he honestly will have no power to help at all, no matter how much he'd like to puppeteer a back door out of the shadows.

Suffice to say that whatever complex feelings James still bears towards his lifetime spent as a shadow operative, despite the fact that killing kings — or the twentieth-century equivalent of such — has been his specialty for many decades, he would be mortified if he knew the consideration even existed for half a second. The man he is now could not countenance a king struck down on his behalf.

Even if said king is being a stubborn douchebag about not even listening to what he has to say, in his view. But Wakandans are not known for putting much stock in the words of non-Wakandans. Why would they? Their nation is a strong one.

Coulson says, then, that James has more courage than anyone he's ever met. He has to chuckle at that, a sound more self-deprecating than anything else. "Me? Not Steve?" he asks. "I heard he's pretty good, you know."

He shakes his head again, before pushing back the glass. "Either way, I should get going. You got too much work for me to be distracting from it."

"I said what I said," Phillip Coulson says, even as he politely walks James to the door. A man who is known for being an unabashed Steve Rogers fanboy to the point where half of SHIELD teases him about it. The words are delivered with one of those smiles of his, one of the ones that is both inscrutable and genuine all at once.

He said what he said.

And…

He meant what he said.

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