The Gordian Knot

June 17, 2018:

Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster, and Jessica Jones meet for one of their regular dinners out. Things get a little tense and awkward when the topic of registration comes up at the dinner table.

The Landmark Tavern, Hell's Kitchen, NY

Our true war is against these hipsters.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson, John Constantine, Deathstroke

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The Landmark Tavern is one of the oldest of its kind in New York, an institution of western Hell's Kitchen. Not that the pub really identifies strongly with Hell's Kitchen in particular, despite sitting in the waterfront areas of the neighborhood; when it first opened, it opened to cater to dockworkers plying the Hudson River.

It's one of Bucky's favored establishments in the city; perhaps because it was a place he's gone to before in the '30s, perhaps because it still retains much of its classic look from those days, and perhaps just because he likes the food. Perhaps because when he shows up, despite the lingering bad press of the trial, he's not really treated in any way other than with the natural dorky enthuse people get when they see two old-ass things put together.

It might also be because ever since Jane's DEATHSTROKE encounter, he's been somewhat antsy about random Slade Wilsons, and in a place as utterly public as this, there's marginally less chance of a random DEATHSTROKE dropping in.

Whatever the case, it was the spot picked for this particular instance of the two's semi-regular 'dates' with Jessica Jones. All their lives are busy, but they find time to keep in touch about the events circulating around all their lives. It's especially urgent now, in Bucky and Jane's perceptions, what with Matt Murdock making increasingly poor life choices…

The trio have some privacy, stashed at a small table near the back of the place by an exposed brick wall. "They still like me here even though I don't really get drinks while I'm here," Bucky is saying, even as he ushers the women to sit down. "That counts for a lot with me."

*

And yet, despite the nostalgic atmosphere of the tavern, danger nearly — nearly strikes.

In the form of a small throng of hipster millennials, fresh from the Village, sporting twisted scarves even in the humid, near-summer heat, skinny jeans so tight they may be a medieval leather torture, and bound manbuns.

"Does your establishment have a tasting room?" one is asking. The old school bartender looks confused.

"I don't see a selection of craft microbrews."

"Are the hops locally sourced?"

Jane Foster makes quick work to navigate Bucky Barnes away before Something inevitably happens. She shoots a look toward Jessica. Old Man Angry Ranting Story terror alert at orange.

Otherwise, she comfortably steals a chair at the table, settling in about as comfortably as 'comfort' gets for their type, these days. Especially after her informative meeting with a certain Rival of Winter Soldier assassin.

"You give them the broody rep points," Jane remarks back at Bucky, while checking out the table's posted specials on wines. "How've you been, Jessica?"

*

It's nice, more than nice, to just spend time with friends. Jessica Jones has been feeling increasingly frazzled lately, and these regular evenings help to keep her sane. Bucky is, of course, not the only one here who won't be drinking tonight. Jessica will wind up having a soda. This is getting less and less difficult as the months go by. She hasn't thought about drinking in weeks, and the wistful glances at the bar stopped months and months ago. It was like finally fighting her way over the course of a year and a half to six unbroken months without drinking was a serious turn of the corner for her, this woman who was an alcoholic from the time she was seventeen years old. And even if that year and a half didn't come without its falls off the wagon, the truth is she got ample opportunity to see what her life looked like without the stuff. Better, on the whole.

As is her custom for these outings, she's thrown on something a single-step above her normal clothing. That means the jeans are new, the women's navy blue Henley she's wearing has surprisingly feminine lacy sleeves, the clean pair of boots is on her feet.

Jane's Orange Alert glance has Jessica's mouth snapping closed. She'd been opening her mouth for some Snark at the Hipsters. One of the cutting remarks she can still be known to make, especially to obnoxious strangers.

Jane has stopped two crises this evening, it seems!

She likes the establishment too, food, view, vibe, and all. She usually gets the bangers and mash; creature of habit that she can be, she glances at the menu for all of thirty seconds in a way that indicates she's probably going to go right ahead and get that again.

Seated and asked how she is, Jess says, "I'm alright. Just wrapped up a missing friend case that was just him being a dumbass, instead of him being dead in a ditch or in dire deadly peril, so, you know, count that as a win. How are both of you?"

*

There's a reason the places they pick are always pubs where the emphasis is as much on food as it is on simply drinking. The both of them try to stay conscious of Jessica's on-again, off-again struggle with the wagon of alcoholism. For Bucky's part, he just doesn't drink much because there isn't really any effect on him. Now, once they put Asgardian mead on the drink list, things might change.

Instead —

Millennials happen. The Winter Soldier's eyes narrow. He is dangerously close to saying something before Jane navigates him safely away with a reminder that they can't be late for Jessica. Propriety wins out over Bucky's outrage at the mistreatment of such a venerable institution by ignorant youth.

Still grumbling, he allows himself to be steered back towards their table. "I don't brood," he says, which is just a plain out lie, though it's clear Bucky is feeling a little contrary now. He settles down a bit as the women meet and greet and make the niceties, however, and mercifully the Orange Alert of Old Man Story does not come to pass. This time. He rifles through the menu instead.

"That's a pretty low-key case all told," he says instead, "considering the usual shit we're all dealing with." He frowns. "You heard from Matt lately?" Right to the point.

*

Whether or not it's got an ample menu, Jane — in all her careful perception — tries to keep half-an-eye on Jessica's discomfort, surrounded by liquor of all kinds.

And there seems to be none. Absolutely none. Nothing so outward that she can get a read off her friend, and among so much darkness treading their relationships these days — Jessica Jones is a significant beam of hope.

Enough so, that Jane still considers the wine list, before her own guilt chafes too hard. With one person not drinking by necessity, the other by choice, it won't kill her to follow suit.

Eyes on the menu, looking for some dish that sounds small and non-threatening, Jane opts for the Shepherd's Pie. Her mouth hooks up, mid-reading, at Bucky's absolutely truthful and not lying assertion against brooding, and her eyes finally lift to Jessica's question.

How are they doing? That could bear so many answers. Well, despite deciding to poke an extremely dangerous bear whom, at any moment, may force them to take any — if not all — of the extreme contingency plans they've prepared?

Jane holds her tongue to that, a silent defer Bucky's way whether or not it should be answered — if Jessica might get drawn into that. If not, somehow, already.

"Glad to hear he's just a dumbass," Jane replies, with a bit of a wince. And, tellingly, is silent a beat as Bucky brings up — in a roundabout way — the real answer to the "how are you." Matt Murdock.

She says nothing, but her transparent expression speaks it plainly: worry and concern and agitation.

*

Matt Murdock, indeed.

"Yeah, I went to check on him." Jessica says, sighing and leaning back. "I think he's pretty much depressed as fuck, and not just cause of those murder cases."

Blunt and to the point herself, where this is concerned.

"Got reason to think things are strained for him on a couple of interpersonal fronts on top of that. Foggy learned everything Matt's been keeping from him. Tried to help. Problem is, I don't really think he's ready to hear anything from anybody. I told him to go home, shower, eat, sleep, and see if things didn't look different to him in the morning. I hope he'll at least do that much. Not a lot that can be done when someone's in that place except…wait it out, remind him people care and hope there's a break in the clouds."

The twist of her mouth and her shrug are uncomfortable, if only because on this front, she's speaking from the experience of being in that deep dark hole. In a state where she not only did not want help but wouldn't have known how to accept it even if the perfect answer had appeared on a silver platter. That spot where pushing people away is the only answer that seems to make any sense anymore. Whatever her status today, she has been there more than once.

Along that discomfort is an undercurrent of profound worry, one no doubt matched by the two there at the table.

*

Bucky cocks an eye at Jane as she gives up on the wine list. His hand squeezes her knee under the table in a tacit 'I'll get you a bottle on the way home.'

His attention back on the list of food, the heretofore forestalled Old Man Rant makes its inevitable appearance as he regards the prices. It's not the first time he's seen how they've changed since seventy-odd years ago — that time he actually got rather upset — but still, he's clearly never going to be thrilled about it. "Twenty-five for a steak," he mutters. "I remember when you could get steak at twenty cents a pound. And that was already pushing it."

Of course, he gets it anyway, because what can he do? He's stuck in the 21st century now. He gets the lamb too, while he's at it. The server seems accustomed to this.

The mood sobers a bit, however, as Jessica asks how they are, and Bucky considers how to answer. 'How they are' is something that is usually related to how their friends are, and one in particular is having big problems. He can read Jane's silence loud and clear — she'll take his cue — and though he avoids looking at her, his body language shifts in a way that she'd know means he 'heard.' He doesn't want to tell all of the mischief they're up to, but… he does want to know about Matt from someone in a position to get a more recent and perhaps personal read on his state.

His expression settles into a frown at 'depressed as fuck, strained on interpersonal fronts, and not ready to listen to anyone.' "Sounds familiar," Bucky sighs. "Yeah, I suppose when they don't want help, not much you can do." Except decide to help anyway without them knowing. "Keep an eye on, I guess. Things are finally a bit quiet for us, beyond stuff like that… so it's the least we can do."

Drinks arrive. Bucky accepts his coffee — it's late, but caffeine doesn't do much to him anymore either. "What about you? Anything more from those mutants that were after you?" In his eyes reflects the memory of having seen Jessica brutalized and wounded.

*

The weight of Bucky's hand on her knee makes Jane's eyes soften briefly at the corners. It's a deal.

Then, of course, he immediately segues that by launching into some other Old Man Grousing, which Jane responds to by tolerantly, if not tiredly, leaning her jaw into her hand and staring forward at Jessica. 'This is my life,' says her face, 'every day. Pity me.'

"He also had to walk a mile each way in the snow to get that twenty-cent steak," Jane continues, helpfully, to illustrate Jones the harsh 1940s Brooklyn life. "Even in July. Knee-high snow."

Her smile hikes higher into shit-eating territory, before it's quickly retaliated by Bucky ordering himself a few main courses. She pales, imagining the bill already.

Conversation, inevitably, chills the mood for Jane as well, as Jessica duly answers with her thoughts on the errant Matt Murdock. She listens quietly, her expression hiding little — mixed feelings there about whether he should be left alone, or anyone in that state — that melts into a long, exhaled breath at Bucky's agreement. She doesn't exactly disagree, but she also doesn't like it. "Don't give him too much space," she warns. "I can err on the pushy side, but — I learned something ever since I did the math, long ago, on his fighting style. He bottles."

He's a time bomb.

Similarly, Jane receives her own coffee, dressing it only with a slight touch of cream. Caffeine, thank god, is still her friend. Bucky's question holds her mid-sip. "Yeah, anyone been bugging you?" Her tone drips of protective warning.

*

Jane's quip at Bucky's expense produces an amused snort, and brown eyes briefly dance. "Damn that global warming," she says. "Now I'll never see snow in July!"

Through all the joking, Jessica looks a little relieved to hear they're keeping an eye on Matt. They can probably do it, to some degree, better than she can, both because of ability and…

Well. Two cases.

One of which is all wrapped up in this next question of Bucky's, a question that takes a hard left veer from Matt Murdock's questionable decisions to her own, coupled with Jane's follow-up that does the same.

"They haven't threatend me again," she assures them, an equivocation that sounds loud and obvious in her own ears. She shifts in her seat just a little bit.

Bucky and Jane have their own sort of secret language of face and body language, the way couples do. But they've always both read her well too, and she knows it.

And all this drives her to a point of indecision.

She has told some people the truth about her slow shift in stance, but it's a bit harder with the ones who picked her up, patched her up, and were ready to go to war for her over it. Are ready, by Jane's tone.

There's a slight, guilty twitch at her lips. A tightening of her eyes. Finally she hedges. "I…imagine…they'd rather see me working the case I'm on right now than in a hospital bed or whatever anyway."

*

"I did, actually," Bucky replies the girls' teasing matter-of-factly, his voice arch. "Thanks for bringing back painful memories for me. I'm still broken up about the lack of freak July snows."

As for the bill Jane's imagining? Joke's on her, after a previous incident went poorly, Bucky got wise enough to leave his card with the server this time, with an explicit instruction that it and it alone be charged.

On the matter of Matt Murdock… while Jessica and Bucky have the same impulse, Jane delivers her warning that Matt not be left too alone — a warning which has Bucky considering, then nodding his head. He won't disagree with that either, but his style personally? Leave 'em alone and fix the problem for them from a distance.

There's something else chewing on his mind, however, something else he gets to with that blunt question about the mutants which attacked her so recently. Her evasive answer lifts his brows, as he comes to the obvious conclusion: if they haven't bothered her again, then they've gotten what they wanted. And what they wanted was, one, her to stay out of their business, and two, agree with us.

Bucky exchanges a look with Jane.

"I assume the thrust of your case aligns with their goals, if they're holding back now," he says, no visible judgment in his eyes about that quite yet.

*

In that small window, before conversation is evitably turned to the more sober parts of their lives, Jane Foster is duly educated that there were knee-deep snowstorms in olden days Brooklyn.

She presses her face into her hand and exhales theatrically. It's the worst when her trolling gets his old man stories right.

Equally oblivious that Bucky Barnes has pulled a treacherous, deceitful, and otherwise villain move and swiped the bill beforehand (she wants to pay, he never lets her pay, unless she gets creative about it), Jane attends to her coffee, her mood growing sombre in reflection to two very difficult subjects: first, Matt Murdock and his sudden shift in violence, and second… this.

Jessica's answer earns a look from Jane, not quiet skeptical, but equally pensive — wanting to make sure she's not taking a page from Matt's dumb book and trying to lone wolf a problem away. Especially one that soundly bloodied her last time.

Jane returns Bucky's glance, silent, drawing her coffee to her lips.

Then, just enough, the PI relents. There's no judgment from Bucky, and only a thoughtful curiousity from Jane — no kneejerk frowns from her end, only a press of her lips that means she's not satisfied with so few details.

"Can you tell us the case?" she asks, a little carefully. Despite her own protective streak, Jane seems overly careful not to make demands of Jessica. The same, careful handling she uses with Bucky: they need autonomy, most of all.

*

Jane's look produces another uncomfortable one from one Jessica Jones. Because of course on some level Jess is taking a leaf from Matt's dumb book and is trying to lone wolf the problem away. Not all of it; but a lot of it.

“The thrust…of my case. I mean it's not a bad thing," Jessica says, answering Bucky's query in that same hesitant way.

Jane's request, to tell them more, has her lowering her voice and leaning in. The way she does it, free of any demand, is the right move for certain sure, producing more details than she might have given otherwise. She frowns pensively.

"I'm going after Trask Industries. Digging up all the dirt I can find. They're these assholes who are making metahuman slave collars. Who want to mass produce them and want the government to put them around the necks of anyone with an ability for sick, sadistic fun and profit. They're getting some government funding, too. This whole bullshit isn't just about some sort of…I don't know. Watch list or meta's driver's license or whatever anymore. I mean you know, whatever, it's not like I've ever hidden my powers. This has just now taken a turn into some nightmarish enslavement scheme. I'm not working with them or anything…"

There's a faint wince. Because what she's doing may not be working with them, but it sure is remarkably adjacent to them. On this case. That she's not getting paid for.

"But yeah, I doubt they're going to complain?”

*

Jane asks delicately if Jessica can tell them the case. Bucky's eyes turn to the PI. He wouldn't be surprised if she can't — confidentiality — but he obviously hopes that she can. What she says puts a thoughtful frown on his face. "I know you can judge how much to help, in what way, and when to pull out," he finally says slowly, "though I'd trust terrorists about as far as I can throw them. And what they've been doing has gotten people killed."

His features settle in a troubled look. "You sure all this is just for sadistic fun, and profit?" he asks, frowning. "I mean, if they are angling to take slaves and it's Genosha part two, that's one thing, far be it from me — of all people — to cheer on control devices. But… I'm not sure yet if slaves is the point. Right now it's pure fear."

He shrugs. "I don't think anyone is going to condone where Trask Industries is taking this, if they're going that far," he finally concludes neutrally. "I hope, though, that all this escalation doesn't obscure the actual point of registration. Or the potential benefits of developing some safe ways to shut off powers."

It is abundantly obvious his personal issues are playing into this.

*

Jane's eyebrows lift at first mention of "going after Trask Industries." There's little disguising the shock on her face.

Perhaps even a sudden reveal of 'going after a rogue, deadly team of metahumans' or 'going after a cell of HYDRA,' would garner less a reaction from her, given the nature of the fight: illicitly-done to an equally-illicit enemy, whose subtefuge beneath legal consequences allow someone to better sneak in and exploit that weakness. Keep it quiet, keep it shadowy. But this is an assault against a forward-facing, legal, government-backed corporation.

A strike that's also made some sort of — what? ally? asset? — to terrorists.

Bucky's caution comes met with Jane's quick agreement. "Yeah, that's the thing about extremists. They can't moderate, or compromise — or they've lost the fight. If you get in deep with that, Jess…"

She's silent as Bucky speaks, no longer indulging in her coffee; the pads of her fingertips press absently into her mug. He skirts dangerously close to an opinion on the whole debacle, and she seems neither surprised nor ready to disagree. Her silence, however, is deliberate; she's watching for Jessica's reaction.

*

"I don't trust them," Jessica assures quietly. The warnings from both her friends produces a grimace.

She just. Weirdly. Likes them. These terrorists. Sees people. Can't quite fit them into the terrorist mold. Can't quite wedge them out of it. Isn't sure she's not already in too deep. Take your pick.

The look she shoots Jane almost contains every iota of the wrestling she's doing, all the questions that have plagued her since the twins dropped the collar on her desk in a visit she certainly never asked for and yet couldn't turn her back on after receiving.

"Believe me, I'm treading water real hard in the shallow end of the pool," she says grimly.

But is she? Where is she in the pool, exactly? She decides to tackle a comparatively easier thought line by circling back to Bucky's comment.

"Trask…They're not making Safe-T-Bracelets for adolescent metas who are knocking all the sinks off the wall," she says slowly. "I mean if it were something like that, like maybe a parental control, or something, I'm not sure I'd be as alarmed, but everything I saw when I went undercover there sure made it seem like slaughtering and enslaving was on the agenda. They're being backed by all sorts of Genoshan expats."

The fact that Bucky's personal issues are playing into it tempers Jessica's own response, but her brows are drawn down in concern and worry. Not that this issue isn't ripe for touching on the the personal issues of everyone at this table. Still, she asks:

"Buck, what do you think the actual point of registration is?"

*

Jane tanks the majority of the conversation about the dangers of getting in too deep with internationally-wanted terrorists, once Bucky gets too caught up in his own thoughts to continue. He is obviously troubled now, the way he always tends to be when the topic of registration comes up.

He's of two minds on it. The more extreme parts of it remind him of being leashed by the Soviet Union. Government control of powerful metas always was a frightening thing to him. It was done to him for seventy-some years. But on the other hand… the only thing Bucky fears more than that is the Winter Soldier. The thing he fears most is himself, and what he is capable of doing if he isn't properly controlled.

Jessica opines they're not exactly just making safety bracelets. "They aren't," Bucky agrees quietly. "And if they're working with Genoshan expats, they're already a few steps too close to the wrong type of people for an effort like this. Just seems a shame this will obscure the legitimate uses of these things. People with painful powers. People whose lives are made worse by what they are. People who need to be watched."

What does he think the actual point of registration is?

Salient question. Bucky looks like a man in a corner. He sighs, visibly trying to choose his words, before he gives up. "Some of us are dangerous," he eventually says bluntly. "And it's easier to manage a risk when it's known. Easier to shut it down when it gets compromised."

*

That look from Jessica — Jane may not know the entire shape of it, the nuances of the boundaries and lines the detective courts, but she has enough intuition to make a guess.

Intuition, and a terrible familiarity: Jane knows that look. She is that look, at times, when she's safely alone, out of eyeshot, and sometimes questioning the gravity of her own work. If, in a moment of doubt, the breakthrough she can sometimes taste may actually bear the world more ill than good. Especially if civilization is not ready for her mandatory advancements.

Always, always, her hope is victor to that fear — but, what if.

Does this mean Jessica knows she's straying somewhere too far? Knows well enough there may be no turning back, but hopes for a better road to take her forward into the dark?

Not that Jane can think long on that question; the pointed question from Jessica weighs on him, and she palpably feels his change in demeanour. She does not try to speak over him, does not try to touch or distract, but sits in silent understanding.

His words bear no consternation to Jane's face: Jane, a very loud opponent to systems of authority, who snarled in the face of a US Attorney, who breaks rules before conceding to them — isn't arguing.

"When you're properly prepared," she adds, gentle, shades of guilt in her own voice, "there's less collateral damage."

*

"Jane is dangerous," Jessica tells Bucky bluntly, if softly. With a glance towards Jane: "I mean I admire you, just making a point here. You can be hella dangerous. Without any powers."

She glances back at Bucky. "And nobody goes, hey, let's put Jane on a list and shut down her brain if she's just getting way too out of hand with that ferocious quantum math. That can't be the answer. Painful powers, out of control powers, okay, maybe, sure, create something to help them and put it in the hands of an individual that person trusts, maybe. With that person's consent."

She leans back and sighs, the lines in her face, the ones that live around her mouth and eyes and that she mostly conceals with make-up, expressing themselves. She looks from one to the other, noting Jane's lack of argument— probably not helped by Jessica using her as an example— and Bucky's own mien. The man in the corner.

Slowly: "When all this started," she admits, "I didn't care about registration much. It's not like I've ever hidden who I am or what I can do. Everyone who cares to know does. I wouldn't have even cared if they wanted me to certify that I know how to avoid breaking someone's hand every time I try to shake on something. I mean you know. I believe in reasonable and sensible gun control too. But the reasons people do things matter. I don't think reasonable and sensible precaution is the reason any of this is being done. That's not at the heart of these people's actions. They're not talking about checks and balances to protect us, either. They're making slave collars and are talking about violating our human rights with mandatory genetic testing which opens us all up to serious discrimination."

She hears the guilt though. Her brows draw down and she says, all softness, no heat: "Guys. The way to handle a person who has become a problem is to handle them when they become a problem. Not to treat them like rabid dogs and chain them up when there is no problem. And I mean. We all know it's damn easy to make someone who wasn't a problem into a problem with the right nasty control mechanism too. If I became a problem, for example, I also would have to trust that my friends— you guys, for example— would be there to help me stop being a problem, help me get my shit together and…just stop being a problem."

Which was what happened with the demon bear. And. What. Might really have to happen to her, she supposes, if she really does slide off the deep end.

*

Bucky listens silently as Jessica reminds him that simply collaring people with powers certainly won't cover people like Jane: those who are plentifully dangerous even without supernatural abilities. Though arguably, one might state her intellect as a supernatural ability.

Jane is among who I was talking about," Bucky admits. "I guess I figure once you have the kinda intelligence to do quantum magic, it falls under the powered definition."

He looks troubled as Jessica continues, however. About gun control. About checks and balances. About looking at the reasons people are doing things.

"Well," he says, "like I said, I don't condone how far Trask Industries in particular wants to take this. But you keep talking slave collars and being chained up like dogs when the base point of registration — not whatever Trask is doing — wasn't about that. It was about reasonable precautions. About making sure we know what is out there. About making sure there's an infrastructure to handle the fact that we got a lot of people out there whose capabilities go way beyond the standard human."

He sighs. "I think that's the position that should be pushed. People are skewing all-or-nothing, acting like it can only be either total lack of oversight or total dystopian enslavement. Nothing in between."

He shakes his head. "There are those out there who can kill a hundred people by thinking too hard. If we know where they are and what they can do, if they become a problem, then they can be rapidly stopped before a hundred turns into two, or three, or four. Sure, anything we can decide to enact has a slippery slope. Any reasonable intention can go bad. I just wonder what the cost is of doing nothing to acknowledge that some are far more capable of doing damage than others."

*

When the topic grants, briefly, Jane a hot seat as a hypothetical example, she looks a little self-conscious, a little uncomfortable, and a lot pained — but not out of offence.

Bucky answers it best, and Jane doesn't disagree.

"I am dangerous," she confirms Bucky's words to Jessica. Jane's voice shades with equal reponsibility and remorse. "I made the decision to advance a field that's very dangerous, and though I refuse to practice it — I have to honour the consequences." Like being used to continue it, being forced to impart her findings — being "solved" by John Constantine, as he so tiredly promised if she continued to be his problem.

"I understand that not for everyone, there's little capacity for a decision — I didn't decide for the Demon Bear to corrupt me like it did," she continues. "But, if it happened again… I hope to God it does not. Because, last time, I nearly murdered many. A next time, I would adapt. Account for failures and re-calibrate. Eliminate prior weaknesses. Execute program. There are many things out there we can't afford to handle when they become a problem."

Such as the Winter Soldier. Such as Jane's own mind. Such as many, many powerful people they know, with only virtues and emotional inhibition holding them back.

"It is a slippery slope," agrees Jane, whose anti-authority nature rankles still against some of this talk. But, even then, it can no longer dissuade away her own guilt. "But the choice between contingencies or reacting to a problem without adequate preparation?"

*

Bucky counsels a moderate stance, and Jessica shifts uncomfortably. Killing a hundred people with a thought is bad, and yet even the possibility of total dystopian enslavement scares her so deeply, so profoundly, that her own fear is informing every one of her actions. And the flame of fear being fanned on both sides is perhaps tensions are running as high as they are. Fear that has her face paler and her posture a bit more tense even though she couldn't be safer, sitting right where she is and with whom she is.

None of what Jane says makes that fear abate, of course. The Demon Bear affair was equally terrifying. It's terrifying to think of her friends suddenly turning that corner again, improving on havok they already wreaked. Jessica herself hadn't had the capacity to stop them, had ended up imprisoned by them, however comfortably. Comfortably, she supposes, thanks to whatever fragment of them remained them, enough to carry perhaps some level of affection towards her, however warped. Or perhaps there was some logical reason she didn't consider. Maybe a control, a failsafe, someone who couldn't be mentally altered was necessary for…whatever.

She slowly moves her straw up and down in her drink, staring from one to the other. A disturbing conversation, between two people who would rather be enslaved again to avoid doing evil again, and one who would maybe rather do evil than ever be enslaved again.

And at last, she gives what may amount to a really weak response. "Maybe nobody's floated the right answer yet. The real happy medium," she says. "Or maybe it all is so ridiculous cause we already had a happy medium that was working okay. SHIELD. The DEO. They had watchlists. Also, we have a mess of powered vigilantes who like punching other powered people who use their powers incorrectly. I'm sure the Avengers keep some lists too. I'm just a PI, guys. I don't think I'm smart enough to come up with the long-term policy answer. I think I'm just good at stopping the obviously shitty things from happening. Or trying to."

*

Jane's discomfort doesn't escape Bucky. He glances askance at her, a little apologetic, but doesn't interrupt when she speaks to what was just said about her. About them.

That's the thing, I guess, for me," he agrees in the end. "I'd prefer to just handle people when they become a problem, too… and of all people, I'm not thrilled about the way to do it being a government keeping tabs on me. But some people, when they become a problem… they take out way more at once than others. Without some kind of preparation in place, the damage done is so much greater…"

He falls silent. It's certainly not an easy topic for him, and he has mixed feelings of his own on the matter. He's spent the majority of his life chained and used to do evil, and so it's not appealing to face the prospect of another chain.

And yet he knows full well what happens when he's taken off chains. Or more accurately… what happens when the Winter Soldier is taken off chains.

Jessica might find her response weak, but Bucky visibly grasps at it. The conversation has sailed into awkward enough waters for now. "Comes down to fear, I guess," he shrugs. "Maybe what we had already was working, but it's not infallible. One or two failures was enough to start people trying to search for what's perfect."

He shakes his head. "I guess stopping the obvious shit is all we can do for now."

*

With an eye keyed to the little things, Jane doesn't miss the subtleties: the apology in Bucky's brief glance, which she answers silently with a minute touch of her hand over his. No offence taken.

And the way Jessica tenses, and in a way it hurts her to understand: Jane knows why, knows from the first night she met Jessica Jones, who bore her own soul to help Jane through the pains of feeling her mind pulled apart. She hates to see her friend triggered — someone who was unspeakably violated in as many ways a metahuman as a woman, that any sort of restriction must feel like the terrifying weight of a familiar chain.

Same for James Barnes, whom Jane remembers going quiet when she brought up the argument of another government possibly putting different fetters on him. And, of course, same for her: who, in the last year and change, has had dwindling reason to trust any sort of government agency, institution — democratic legal system. A hundred corrupt roads all leading to the same end.

But what is the other alternative? What if a Demon Bear incident happened again, to her, to someone worse than her?

"I'd love a happy medium," says Jane to both of them. "I don't think the one we had worked. SHIELD's proven it has holes in it." Bitterness constricts up her voice, her thoughts on the price paid for that. Coulson. "Society's polarizing. Things like this usually have to be all for none. And now extremists are giving daily reminders all the things a part of our population can do, and aggravating the fear. I'm not sure what the answer is, either. Educating the fear away, maybe, at least for now. Knowledge never hurts."

*

Bucky opines people are searching for what's perfect. "Perfect never comes," Jessica says. "Or if it has, I've sure never seen it."

She may be observing the silent signals between her friends. It's hard to say, sometimes, what she picks up on, what she doesn't, what she willfully avoids seeing. She certainly notices Jane's bitterness over SHIELD, but is too far removed from certain people and events to really know why that might be so. There's a faint quirk of curiosity in her eyes, that goes (for once), unvoiced.

The reminder that the very extremists who came and dropped the collar on her desk maybe sort of stirred this pot in the first place…at the gala of her friend and client, no less, causes the woman to wince. Of course, her friend and client is working against Trask too, is most assuredly not on board with collars, and many of their friends have spoken out about registration, including the aforementioned Matt Murdock.

It's a Gordian knot of conflicting loyalties and needs, and it all goes back to the roots of reasons why Jessica has been questioning her actions, her direction, and whether there will be anyone left in her life who can stand her or her decisions after it's all done, or if they'll all wind up feeling betrayed by whatever it is she feels she has to do to keep even one person from being enslaved.

And she can't solve it. She hasn't solved it in the weeks since it really came to her attention, and she's probably not going to solve it here, at this dinner table, with two of her dearest friends who are grappling with the same issues. Thorny, sticky, every moment that passes an opportunity for her to carelessly say something she ought not say.

It is, as Bucky has already silently observed…awkward.

And so she smirks and looks towards the kitchen area, allowing her tone to lighten.

"Actually, I take it back. Perfect comes sometimes. Because food at this place, man. Pretty close. If they'd ever get it out here."

She turns a grin back to them, wan but genuine after this, her attempt to give them all an out with the power of a dumb joke.

*

A troubled look passes through Bucky's eyes at Jane's mention of the fact even SHIELD's proven full of holes. That debacle's still on his mind, and it seems to him with none of them any closer to resolution. Yet can such things truly be solved in a matter of months? Can they be solved at all? Perfect never comes, after all, as Jessica points out.

"I've lived, before, through a generation where America was in search of perfect," Bucky ruminates. "The perfect man. The perfect soldier. They wound up with Steve, at the end of it all, after some terrible prices were paid… and even he's not perfect."

He considers his coffee. "Education's a good way to start, but first you need people who want to learn." And that's the problem nine times of ten, isn't it? Learning takes time and open-mindedness and some amount of risk, and with terrorists running about, all that's in short supply."

And that topic is one Jessica is a little wary about. She quietly insinuates an out into the conversation, and ultimately, it's an out that is gratefully taken. Bucky doesn't look like he wants to ruin some time spent with two of his favorite ladies with debates that have no true right answer.

"Good things take time," he says, amusedly, the aphorism unintentionally relevant to their preceding conversation. "You kids need to remember to slow down once in a while…"

*

And to Jane Foster, where knowledge is starlight: a metaphoric celestial path that has every capacity to guide and elevate civilization to new destinations —

Bucky bears the ill, but true, reminder that not every one in the world wants to learn.

She exhales at that, exhausted even to think deeply of that statement, even as she concedes its veracity. She's been dealing with close-mindedness all her life, to her frustration: it may has well coloured the impetus of her darker side to forcibly reformat mankind out of its aimlessness.

Morose thoughts best saved for another day.

With no real solutions presented among the three of them, friends occupying both sides of a contentious debate — Jane ultimately goes quiet. She feels the awkwardness just the same. Uncomfortable topic, and now gone so personal it's hard to even get academic about it, and similarly fearful of expressing her side without hurting Jessica, testing the trauma in her past — the physicist returns to her cooling coffee, sipping away.

At least until Jessica provides an out. And Bucky immediately capitalizes on it.

Jane usually hates leaving a conversation, debate, argument unfinished. She likes solutions. She likes issues sorted, dealt with, packed away. This may never be one of them.

So she takes both of them up on it, settling down her coffee and leaning her jaw to her hand, smiling with equal appreciation and relief. "And yet," she remarks back at Bucky, "you never seem to say that when I want to stay at Stark's to triple-check my data."

*

"I said 'good things,' Jane," Bucky says, though entirely good-naturedly, because that's when the food arrives.

*

Jane's eyebrows hike right up. Not even the arrival of the Shepherd's pie flickers her stare. "Oh. Well, then," she huffs.

Then she starts on her food. "Need anything built, Jess? Because someone isn't getting his modular assault rifle for a long, long time."

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