Five Seconds

August 27, 2017:

Rusalka Stojespal tries to deal with a traumatic event, and finds some wise words from Phil Coulson. Takes place the morning after Highway Robbery.

Stojespal family estate, Sokovia

Characters

NPCs: Dragana Stojespal

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

It's hard to sleep well when you wake up from a dream covered in someone else's blood. At least that part had been a dream as well, and her bedding isn't stained with someone else's life. Even if it's not there, though, she can almost still hear it crying out to God, accusing her. A long deep ragged breath follows a sharp barked cough, as her lungs finally manage to free themselves back into functioning. Sally glances around in the dark, hand fumbling for a moment before the lightswitch is found.

It's still the dark of pre-dawn mornings, especially so for the valley of the city of Polyuchyn. The mountains on both sides tend to make the sunrise a little later than normal, so the lamplight is the only real illumination in the room. And in all truth it hadn't changed all that much since she'd left. A little lighter on the personal touches, things Rusalka Stojespal had taken with her to New York, but the room has always been - and still is - hers. The window overlooks the far side of town, the view of a sleepy community just on the edge of wakefulness - barely a quarter after five in the morning, according to the softly ticking clock in the corner. The soft creak of wood floors speaks to a few people being awake…but the silence that lets those sounds be heard proves that it's no more than a few.

A few moments to change, the imminent autumnal Sokovian weather and early morning combining to require such things as jeans and a soft coat. Slipping out into the hallway, she's greeted by one of the house servants; an admonition that she shouldn't skip on sleep is met with a slightly quaky 'I've slept enough.' And really, she needs the walk more than anything else. Something to clear her head.

Outside. Away from the usual places, away from the family. Maybe just to be alone for a little bit, to stare at the stars. Stars she knows have changed, in the last few months - remembering, momentarily, the one time she'd been able to fly among them. But for now, they're just dimming points of light in the slowly lightening sky, as she stands across the railing. Once upon a time, it was a set of low battlements; as time and war changed so did the castle of the House of Stojespal. Now it's merely a stone protection to keep people from falling to the softer grasses below…and to provide something to lean on for a disturbed and shaken heiress, engineer, and SHIELD agent.

Phil Coulson has a Knack.

A knack for knowing where to be and when to be there. A knack for knowing when his people are going to need not a commander, but some empathy and guidance. In this case, anyone who knew anything about the rigours of first, lethal battles could make some of these determinations, though how he accurately picks the battlements is anyone's guess.

Nevertheless he's there, dressed for work as if he's been up for hours himself, holding on to a rather large coffee mug that has been prepared for him.

"As I understand it," he comments, always leading into things indirectly, "Sokovian sunrises are exceptionally gorgeous. This will be my first chance to find out."

His opening words get a jump from the girl standing, she'd thought, alone. Apparently Phil has a knack for being a quiet, sneaky person when someone's deeply lost in a recursive, well-tread path of thoughts. A few muttered words, things that of course Rusalka Stojespal would never say, slip past Sally's lips quietly before she sees who it is that surprised her.

"Agent Coulson! I'm sorry, sir." Blink. And then she gives a quirked smile, nodding softly. "They are. Though Polyuchyn is particularly special, I think. Absolutely not that I'm biased or anything." Soft english, matching Phil's own. The cool temperatures give the coffee in his hand a nice froth of steam coming off the top, fading into the air. "When the sun breaches the east hills, you'll see it there first." Sally points off to the western side of the valley.

"There is a little church up there, atop the mountain. The first thing that sees the sunlight; we jokingly call it the Piven' - the rooster. Once the dawn hits it, you'll hear the bells." She smiles, thinking back to many early mornings where she'd listened to the soothing tones from afar. "After that, the sunlight slides down the hill until it reaches the valley, but it's beautiful to see that early reflection off the mountain."

It's a lot easier to talk about a tourist's things, a beloved feature of her home. Still, she can't help the shiver - and despite having lived in New York City for the last year, she can't put that off to the cool weather. Or perhaps business. It isn't as if anyone's listening; if there's a single place in the world Sally can talk freely about anything it's on this estate. Besides, it means she doesn't have to think about the other night.

"I've spoken with Mr. Stark, about the, ah, the concerns you had. I had to suggest a few things, but it was what he suspected already. The ambush; someone had to know we were coming. I didn't…" Headshake. "I didn't suggest there was anything more. Or tell him what's really going on." Stark has plenty of experience with Hydra to see the obvious when he's presented with it - in this case, his apprentice had just kept his focus on that. "He finished a prototype unit that will let us look around completely untouched. I was going to give it to Agent Nakano when I saw her, but then all-"

Her voice hitches a moment before she locks it down and gets it under control. "All this happened, and I haven't yet had the chance. Sorry, sir."

Phil listens to all of this with the patience and attentiveness he's known for. A kind smile touches his lips as he's told about the Rooster; he finds that charming. It's one of the perks of this job. From time to time he gets to take a moment, learn those tiny little details of a place that make it 'home' to someone. Even the taste of the coffee has some meaning in that regard, wholly unlike what he'd find at home, but delicious.

As he suspected, starting with a relatively low-key topic produces a flood of words. He listens to the briefing on the molehunt, and if his face closes down a little it is only because someone is busy betraying his family, and he wants them found so he can make absolutely sure they are punished for it. But the look is there and gone. It's certainly gone by the time her voice hitches, and now he gently tries to steer her in another direction.

"Brief me on what happened on the ground yesterday, Agent Stojespal," he suggests, ever so gently. "There was a lot of visual interference, and other than being aware that you conducted your assigned mission beautifully, I'm woefully short on specifics."

In all fairness, coffee isn't quite the popular drink here that it is elsewhere - but the family is cosmopolitan and worldly enough to understand there are things that people drink that aren't tea. And if they're going to stock coffee they're going to stock good coffee. It wouldn't do to be any less.

Phil is an excellent icebreaker. He knows the easier ways to get people to talk, especially when they want to - and don't know how. Sally glances over at him at his suggestion, blue eyes a little less sure than they've been - a touch more haunted, a touch less well-slept. Some part of her is still back in that dream world. Meanwhile she nods, takes a second to frame her thoughts, and looks back out at the sluggish valley.

"Yes sir. Visual interf-oh. Ah, that. I didn't have a safe approach to the truck, the one you pointed out after we got clear of the jet. I needed a smoke-bomb of some kind, ah…I ended up gathering a few things. It worked. Um." She thinks back a moment, clarifying in her head. "After you left to…deal with the helicopter," she adds with half an eyebrow raised, wondering just how the hell that had happened, "I gathered some fluids and a few flares, and made a portable smoke bomb."

She looks back away, just talking softly. Almost emotionless, like reading an after-action report. "Something that would help cover my approach, but the hydraulic fluid burning would also potentially be toxic in large amounts. Like burning plastic pieces. I didn't see any gas masks, I thought that if they got a whiff of it they'd run." Shrug. "I would."

Sally would love to skip this part, but the shot-up, blood-splashed body armor was something she can't ignore. "I was about to use the smoke bomb when. You see, not all the guards remained around the truck, I think he was going to look over the Quinjet. One of the Kobra gunmen, I mean, that's…when he shot me." Her voice takes on a shivered quaver. "It was just like when I was attacked on the river, the mutated rats, just…I didn't…" Didn't have any idea it was going to happen. Surprised, both times. And put through a hellish moment, especially when she'd seen the bright muzzle flashes of the terrorist's assault rifle.

"I think…I dropped the bomb, oh god…thank god it didn't go off just then. And…I just bodyslammed him. I didn't even realize I still had the gun in my hand until I hit, and the knife - the bayonet, I mean…" Swallow.

They were all good, smart moves. Creative. Intuitive. Sally is showing even more promise than Phil could have dreamed. She was a Hell of a find, and he'd love to be able to tell her that. But he won't, for a host of reasons. He doesn't want to put her under pressure or make her cocky, and either could happen if he shared what he really, truly sees in her.

It also wouldn't help, in the here and now, and would make it seem as if she were being rewarded for her first kill. Some COs and SOs might approach things that way, but while killing is part of the job, it's not the point of it. And never will be.

He leans against the battlements with her, and lets the sun make its gorgeous, glorious debut over the horizon before he says anything at all. "And now you can't get the smell of his blood out of your nostrils. You can't help but wonder about that guy's loved ones. It was him or you, but he was still human, and everything in you is telling you that you're a murderer, that you're a monster…and anything that isn't is still telling you that you're in danger, that nothing is entirely safe."

The sun crests, and the beels of the rooster begin to chime. As it does, the valley brightens in a diffused light; no early morning sharp shadows just yet. Those will come shortly, but for now it's time for the town to wake up - those who weren't already waiting for the morning. Something soft plays, an orthodox liturgical hymn from the bells, welcoming the new day. A new day to wash away the old, hopefully.

There's a long pause between them before he finally speaks, and Sally nods carefully and listens. A few blinks, as he speaks, each thought striking home and showing it in the flutter of her eyelids. "It almost was me. He came around the corner, and was faster on the trigger, if…if he'd just aimed a little more carefully. Or if I hadn't been wearing the vest." Shudder. Sally shakes her head softly as Phil continues, though.

"I never saw his face, the ah…the ski-mask, the…the balaclava - that's it. He had that on, but I can't stop wondering what he looked like under it. Blood…god, I can't…I still feel it. When I hit him, and the slickness. That smell, da. I want to…"

Hands clench into fists. "I want to forget him, I want to drive him out; he was just a terrorist. But the more I fight it, I can't…stop wondering. What you said." Knuckles whiten slightly as her fingers squeeze tighter. "That I really am a murderer, even though he shot first. I still…I was armored, I didn't need to kill him, did I? I didn't want to - and yet. And yet." There's a thud as she punches the stonework, the surface as unyielding as her family's claim of honor. The moment of pain in her knuckles is enough to finally crack what she'd had left, and Sally can't help but cry.

"I still feel like, if I come around a corner, he's there. And I'm not…" Her other hand rises to her chest, patting her clothes. "Not protected, and I have nothing. And there's no face, just…just a skull, laughing. As if I should have died, and it's come to finish the job."

Phil now turns to face her, eyes empathetic. It's a lot to put a 19-year old through. She was originally supposed to just be there for translation and her particular skillset, but the risk was always there. She's now been flung face-first into this world, something he takes responsibility for. But where some might feel guilty, Phil's form of responsibility is simply that he's going to do his best to guide her through it.

"You can't second-guess those things," he says quietly. "Because you don't get 5 minutes to sit and think about it and weigh implications. You get five seconds. And in that five seconds, one of you is going to live, and one of you is going to die. You did the best you could with what you had, and it was better than most would have done. It's better than most that you have compassion on your enemy, that you aren't dehumanizing him."

He sighs and says, "This is, sadly, part of the job. There will always be threats, and dangers. The truth is someone could be around the corner, at any minute. Those who are successful in our job simply account for it. They learn, they get better, and they become confident— not overconfident, but centered— in the fact that they have received the finest training in the world. Already, your training and instincts have put you a level or two above the average person on the street, people who would have frozen up…or died."

He looks back out to the countryside. "Remember, Sally. He put himself there because he was willing to steal uranium, willing to participate in the death, dismemberment, and terror of others for his own gain. You put yourself there because you wanted to stop that. He made his choices."

"Five seconds…if you're fortunate, I suppose. It…god, it seemed like forever that we stared at each other, and then the flash of light…and then." Headshake. "I was just atop him, and he was just…there. I don't even know if he said anything at the end." Being on the wrong end of a burst of assault rifle fire, even with hearing protection, is still going to be a deafening experience - not counting the shock and terror that had colored her actions.

There's a time when she blinks back tears, her hand brushing the wetness from her cheeks. Eventually a nod comes, as she listens to the experienced agent. And from her own past, draws a small analogy. "I've…seen terrible things before. Racetracks. So little time to react to things, and such terrible consequences. The moment between a clear path, and a fireball. I guess…I never thought I would see such a thing. Not personally."

It's not a bad analogy, perhaps. As rapidly as things can happen, only the best reflexes and instinct can find the split-second gap between life and death. And sometimes…there is no gap, the path having had one end since it began.

Sally listens to him about training, about those who would have frozen up…and nods. His words about dehumanizing the terrorist, and still understanding his motives…it gets a pause before there's a long sniffle. "Why is it that people decide such things. Hydra, and their copycats. Other groups. This faceless young man, whoever he was. "He had family, friends. He was a person, and yet…why did he put himself there? Why did he make me CHOOSE?" The last word is practically yelled at the universe - fortunately the courtyard is quite large; even if it were completely silent noone would hear her words.

Unfortunately the only answer she has is silence. "I did. I did want to stop that, I was afraid…uranium. Processed, refined uranium. Meant for weapons, and well. I did want to stop that." She'll finally meet his eyes, searching. Hoping. "Does it ever get easier…"

He tries to decide which to answer first.

Does it get any easier. "Yes. And that's when it gets dangerous. Because you can't let it get too easy. But you can't let each death rip you apart, either."

He takes a sip of his coffee and says, "A few months ago I ordered a facility bombed from the air. There were people in that facility that may have been volunteers, and may have been prisoners. Some sort of metahuman experimentation."

He puts his cup aside completely now, but his eyes never leave hers. "A tough call, because I couldn't find a feasible way to save them, and I couldn't let that research make it into the world. And a few hours before that, I shot several men dead without a second thought. It doesn't keep me up nights, but if I ever start to enjoy it? I'm out. Because that will mean I've crossed a line. And that's the real danger. That you'll start to enjoy it. That killing will become your go-to, instead of a tool in your toolbox. At the same time…it is one of our tools. Punctuation, as a friend of mine said, on a single-word sentance. Stop."

He sighs. "I don't know why some people think the way they think. I've never been able to figure it out. So I don't try, and I'd honestly advise you not to. There is what must happen, and what must not, so that all those kids you go to school with can get up and continue going obliviously to school again tomorrow morning. Think about them, and their friends, and their family. It's not about the people who choose to do bad. It's about protecting the people who just want to live their lives, but who aren't equipped to be protectors."

Danger. The danger of the easy answer, of the simple choice to take a life to silence a problem. "When all your problems seem like a nail…you'll only ever be a hammer." A quiet observation, not one of her own. But it makes sense, in some ways. Eyes close for a second or so as she listens to his story of the facility. That there was no other option, especially with a greater need.

"I understand how final it can be. My father, after all." A quiet breath, a moment of pause to let her mind settle. The tornado has blown through it, and it's intact…but there's a lot to reassemble and clean up now. "And…of course, my family. Being through the war, having to do so much. I never understood what it really was like for them, though…" Her hand, bleeding slightly from the knuckles, rests on the stone where she'd punched it.

"I don't…it is not as if I have been through so much, that they have. Or you have." She gives Phil a respectful nod, and a small smile. "But I think I understand a bit more. Baba's lessons of justice, especially. It's a little like the ways of nobility. We protect those who cannot, and they are truly 'our' people. Part of me…"

Her voice drops, only for the two of them - not even the ghosts of the castle are privy to this. "I want to run, to hide under my bed. To not return to New York, or SHIELD. But I cannot, of course. More than just being a Stojespal. I'm…god, I can't understand that kind of thought. That things like that uranium is just a toy, that life…" Oh. Now it kind of makes sense, and she turns to look at Phil fully, understanding.

"They are the ones for whom answering a question with killing became not just the only answer…but a fun answer. That's what we stand against. SHIELD, and nobility, and…well. And myself. Right?" A shrug, apologetic in a way. "However it must be done, I will protect people from them. If…" A long, deep breath. "If it takes it, then all the way. But I will swear to you now, on this stone, that I will never turn first to that answer. If there is a way to save someone, I will find it. Honor demands nothing less."

Maybe it's a start. But a vow is something she can hold on to, a keystone upon which to build a worldview. As keystones go, it's better than a lot.

"I suppose…a little time talking to a counselor is part of the protocol, yes? At SHIELD. Baba must have had it easier, with family to support and talk to. And share with." A soft snort of laughter. "I guess I have two families now, in that." And finally there's a long shuddering breath…and her other hand, the unbloodied one, reaches out for his. It's just seeking contact, something to hold onto for a minute, and remind herself that she's not alone.

He recognizes the gesture for what it is, and he allows her to take his hand. He squeezes it back. "Yes. And some get a rush of power. They feel exceptional. Like they've outsmarted the world. Or they're angry. 'Some men just want to watch the world burn', goes the quote. I've found it to be true. And you don't want to understand those men, Sally. You don't need to. You only need to oppose them."

He gives her a faint smile, and pat pats her hand in fatherly fashion.

"It is protocol, but I urge you to speak to your family too. We're staying here for the day, after all. Just try to focus on things like the Rooster, and your Baba, and the food you like, too. They're all part and parcel of what you're fighting for. What you're feeling, this desire to run— it's normal. Everyone. Everyone who ever tries to oppose an evil of any kind? They feel that. Sometimes every day, sometimes more than once. It's just that protecting others is more important to them than not having to feel that fear. It never goes away, not entirely. You just do learn to manage it better. To observe it— I am having feelings of fear right now— and then to focus on what has to be done instead. And eventually some of it really will become routine."

The squeeze is returned, though she lets it go after a minute or so. Just…the reassurance of someone else is what she needed just then. She nods, instead, taking in the wisdom. Don't try to understand them so much, don't try to find their ways of thinking. Recognize them as a danger…but never become comfortable with them. It's a razor-thin balance of mindsets, and Sally takes a look at this agent in a new light.

The mention of staying for the day gets a blink of surprise, and a sniff as she tries to clear her face. Crying is never pretty, even when one is alone. "All day? You - thank you, Agent Coulson." She listens to his words, thinking…and nodding, understanding the point he's making.

"Not to let what happened take over. To remind myself, that…that life does go on. Don't get too wrapped up, right? I will not do that." There's a long breath taken, the warming air comforting - all the smells of home that she'd grown up with. The grass, the forest, the distant town, the stable, the stonework, and all the tiny little things that blend together. "I am still alive. And everyone I fought for is as well."

Slowly she starts nodding. "And the threat has been ended. At least, this one. That is one reason to stay alive, is it not? There will always be another. But…this will do for now. Thank you for the day of rest, sir. I suppose I'll put it to good use." Suddenly she stretches, arching her arms as high above her head as she can and standing on tiptoe for a few seconds before pirouetting and settling back down. "And now, I think, it is time to see if the kitchen staff is awake. I am not going back to bed anytime soon, and I doubt you have eaten either. Breakfast will be on me."

Several stories above, watching from a darkened room, a smile of approval comes from the lord's quarters. Good. Her senses are still what they've always been, and she recognized the thick streak of wisdom painted upon Phil Coulson's soul. That he's been through the fire himself, she had seen in a heartbeat; that he was capable of dispensing sage advice to someone who needed it? That was something she waited to see. She who was known as the Scarecrow and the Walker in the Night nods her head. He has passed her test, and so has her great-granddaughter. What might have been a brittle steel, tough but breakable, has seen a forge and temper from someone who truly understands.

Yes, she thinks. This is the right man to entrust her to. And to our future. A long night with the elders of the family had come to an understanding, that tomorrow's future would not be what yesterday's future was. A new world was dawning, and it required a new mind to guide it. This Philip Coulson would be a fine teacher for that new mind, Dragana decides. "Vadim?" A call for her servant. "<I will take breakfast in my room today, I believe. Give the children their peace today, please.>"

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