Kept at Arm's Length

November 28, 2016:

After a long day at the office, Dr. Jane Foster returns home to find that— for once— someone is waiting there for her.

Brooklyn, NYC

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's nearly two a.m., and Jane Foster has officially given up on the trains.

She manages a good fifteen minutes of waiting at a subway platform, fidgets and toes a bit a garbage down onto the tracks, and finally determines her time is of far more value of this, the night isn't that cold, and she may as well walk. It's graveyard-quiet when she re-emerges back up on the empty Brighton streets, peaceful and eery, and she re-considers just doubling back to her lab and sleeping there for the night. Jane exhales a foggy breath into the late November air. She can't take a third night's sleep on that terrible couch.

So the woman crams her hands into her coat pockets and makes an executive decision, and walks the rest of the way. The air is brisk and the sharp, sea-wet cold keeps her alert and her step quick, shivering as the humidity cuts something mean through all her layers. Still not used to this, not used to any of this, after those three pleasant years of dry, desert heat. The streets of Brooklyn are stunningly silent, a different, picturesque look at New York in a brief window so devoid of life, and that is something Jane finds herself appreciating her long stroll back. She misses the space and silence of New Mexico.

She looks up at the night sky. She misses the stars too.

Eventually, Jane returns home to her brownstone walk-up, old and brick and humblingly working class, and fusses for her keys, and nearly suffering a quiet heart attack because it would be her to forget them back at the lab. But, to her relief, she recovers them with a noisy jingle.

She jiggles the old lock four times until it unsticks, and lets herself in.

Locking it behind her, the woman shudders agreeably against the rush of warmth, stripping off her coat and tossing it down to a chair, her keys deposited unceremoniously on top. Scrubbing a hand through her hair, she doesn't even stop to turn on a light, toeing off her boots mid-stride and leaving them to the foyer, taking an immediate beeline to the galley kitchen. Jane moves past a row of darkened photos. In one she is younger, with braided hair, laughing as she holds up some medal and hugs a man who looks like her. In another she and him are wearing matching Christmas sweaters, sharing an identical lopsided smile. In the third, she's standing neatly in graduation robes, a different man standing next to her, older and blond-haired and proud. Jane is still smiling, but there is something different in her eyes, and the way they simply stare dead forward. Something changed.

Light finally slants into the tiny apartment. Jane opens the fridge and finds herself a carton of milk, humming something tonelessly as she tiptoes up, straining to reach a top-cabinet cereal box.

—-

For days Jane Foster has gone about her routine, and for days she has, without noticing, grown an extra, disparate shadow. She was watched as she left her apartment in the mornings. She was watched as she worked. She was watched as she went home entirely too late at night. Her domicile was inspected from all angles while she slept, entries and exits noted.

Today they were used sometime in the hours between her departure and return.

Tonight she returns home to an apartment— plus one. Not that she would be aware, at first. Not a thing is misplaced, not a sheet of paper moved. No sound breathes through the empty rooms and narrow halls; no fleeting hints of movement tug at the corner of the eye. THe only thing that changed, in fact, between today and yesterday is the fact that one of those photos in the row— the one of her with that man who looks like her— is missing a bit of dust. A tiny patch of the glass is wiped clean in the shape of someone's curious, passing touch.

Not that she would notice. She rarely looks at those photos— she has been observed long enough for this behavior to be confirmed.

She is intent, as expected, only on one thing: unwinding after another long day of work. She usually enters the kitchen immediately; this, too, has been confirmed. Thus it is that as she enters a moment of distraction, her concentration locked on trying to open an overhead cabinet, a tiny sound that she herself did not make finally announces itself quietly in the dead air.

It is the smallest of sounds. One disparate little click, in between the notes of Jane's tuneless humming, that indicates the de-cocking lever of a SIG P220 being thumbed.

Wouldn't want an accidental trigger pull to scatter those much-needed brains.

Something has changed about the /feel/ of the space behind her. There is an anxious, electric certainty— that reptile-brain sixth sense— that she is no longer alone… and warning her, in abstract spatial ways, that there is something directly occupying the space at the back of her head.

—-

Her hands pause, fingers left curled around the handles of her cabinet doors. Jane freezes up on her tip-toes. %bHer humming stops.

If it were not so quiet in her apartment, she might have missed the sound, but here, now, in the darkness and at this late hour — it carries. The sound echoes in the tight confines of her kitchen and it carries up every bone in her back, laddering Jane up and up to the sharp chill she feels at the back of her neck.

Her eyes stare forward, into the dark. One side of her face, lit by her left-open refrigerator, illuminates the flickering tension of her gritting jaw. She has never heard that sound before, that de-cocking click, and yet at the same time she seems to know viscerally what it is.

And she can feel it. She can feel it without even touching. She can feel the presence of another person, and just like that, Jane knows that locked inside her own home, she is not alone.

She stares forward. She doesn't move. There's somebody here, she thinks. There's somebody in here, and she's not safe.

Her heart picks up and begins to pound. She thinks about where she's left her phone. Front coat pocket. She thinks of how many steps to the front door. Ten? She thinks of Erik, and of the lab, and how tonight she's probably going to die. Her eyes flicker. Don't think that. Stay calm. Stay calm and don't get afraid.

Jane hears herself speak. She doesn't even feel the words leaving her lips. She feels numb. "Whatever you want," she whispers slowly, her voice low, strained, tight, "just take it."

—-

Whatever you want, Jane whispers, just take it.

"I'm doing just that," a voice answers her, undeniably masculine. Wholly flat of affect, emotionless and cold, it contains none of the passion nor base greed that one would think should accompany such a declaration. "Turn around."

When she complies— as she must— the slow rotation of her turn will bring the barrel of a gun into view much in the same way the rotation of a planet brings the sun up in the morning. It is leveled squarely between her eyes, its stainless steel slide demanding all her attention with its cold, half-lit body.

It is hard to focus beyond it, but in the end it's not the tool in itself but the man wielding it that is more important. Her assailant is masked, shrouded in the shadow of her unlit apartment, but no amount of darkness can dampen the sharp gleam of his blue-eyed stare. He regards her as if she were a tool herself.

"You have tools here." It's not a question. It's a deduction, made after what is implied to be a long study. The indistinct shape of the man shifts, and a horrible sound groans from his left side. Metal screams against metal as machinery whirs wildly, and fails to properly catch. "I need repair."

The man takes one exact step back, opening that much room between them. The SIG P220 in her face recedes into a threat rather than an imperative.

—-

That answer briefly closes Jane's eyes. Her stomach makes a nauseated flip. She struggles to breathe through the panic, the panic that wants to well up, take her mind, and make her feel nothing save for the fear. She swallows against a throat gone painfully dry, breathing in and out, walking on the edge of her own adrenaline to remain under control.

Turn around, instructs that voice at her back, and the woman hesitates. She doesn't want to. She doesn't want to see his face. If she doesn't see his face, he has no reason to kill her.

But just as terrified of angering him — the whoever in her home — Jane slowly lowers her arms and pivots her weight back down to her heels. Holding her breath, she complies, turning a slow circle that bears her to the little, slanted light from the refrigerator. Tiny, button-down plaid shirt, dark hair fallen in her face. Hands gripping the edge of the counter, her face remains turned and her eyes averted. She does not even notice her assailant is yet wearing a mask; the clever little thing avoids any direct looks up at his face. She doesn't want to give him any excuses. She doesn't want to die.

She breathes audibly through a little part in her lips, sucking in slow, deep breaths to keep her mind clear. The gun barrel in her periphery, staring down at her, keeps her cooperatively still. She's trying hard not to tremble, so very hard, but even the rigidity of her limbs cannot entirely hide it, and all of her little shivers around the edges.

He speaks of tools. Of repair. Her brow furrows with genuine confusion — unexpected question, and how does he know? How does he know that? — and she purses her lips. They part to speak —

— and Jane hears it. Strange and mechanical, groaning steel ringing so familarly she swears she can recognize the alloy: titanium? It's just so strange, so out-of-place, that curiousity flicks over her eyes, held low and searching the dark, trying to see what —

Her left-open fridge beeps and Jane jumps. She sobers out of her staring, and remembers her fear. "They're in the bedroom," she answers breathlessly, no questions of her own. "Please just take them." Jane pauses, and offers weakly, "I haven't seen you."

—-

The sight of Jane Foster is not a novel thing to these eyes anymore, but this particular view of her is: fearful, slight, and casually dressed in light clothing pitifully not up to the task of stopping the kind of bullet that would fire out of his gun. Hell, at this range, .45 cal would blow whole pieces of someone as small as her away.

Normal people would feel pity, seeing the way she hopefully keeps her eyes averted so she doesn't give him any reason to silence her. Seeing the way she holds so rigid, save for tiny trembles around her edges. But the man facing her is not normal people. The muted whir of broken machinery, emanating somewhere from his left side, only reinforces that.

He demands repair. He knows she has tools. Misunderstanding him, she tells him where they are, tells him he can just have them, can just take them and go.

Her assailant is silent for a too-long interval. The blank eyes regarding her shine with the passing of some brief bleakness. A half-second awareness of irony comes and goes. "I can't," he finally admits. "I need an engineer."

Something dark reasserts itself in his eyes. He doesn't step back forward, but his presence seems to unfold again, pressing out that temporary reprieve with renewed oppression. "Take me to them. All of them."

He finally moves enough, with a groan of metal, to show her what he has come to make her fix. The fitful starlight glistens up the lines of the metal where his left arm should be, the sculpted prosthetic visibly damaged in the middle from some crushing blow. Its innards screech complaints with every motion. "You will need all of them."

—-

The timbre of the man's voice seems to shift, but still he admits: He needs an engineer.

The words tighten Jane's jaw, her lips pursed as her overactive mind cycles a dozen simultaneous thought processes. He knows who she is, what she is — to a degree. This isn't a simple home invasion; this isn't a chance, unlucky robbery. Whoever he is, he's here for a reason: here for her specifically. She doesn't know how she's going to negotiate out of this. She just wants her phone. A way out the door. She should have slept at the lab. Should have locked herself in and never come out. Should have, could have, would have.

In the end, the intruder doesn't allow her much time or opportunity to think. That confessional moment ends, and behind the barrel of his gun, he orders her to her tools. To her bedroom.

Jane freezes again. She can't — she can't go in there with him. She can't allow herself to be confined in a room, with one way in, one way out. He gets her in there, and she's never leaving. Why did she say that? Why didn't she lie? Why does she keep her stupid back-up equipment in her apartment like a crazy person? Why does she repair sensors in bed? Why is she so pathetic?

"I don't…" Jane almost begs, panic and fustration crystallizing into a hard lump in her throat, choking her up briefly, making it hard to speak. She's afraid to tell him no, but she doesn't want to die. She doesn't want to go in there and never come out. She thinks about lying and saying she's not an engineer at all. She thinks about suggesting the light is better out there, or her lab — the lab, and she can call S.H.I.E.L.D, and —

He moves, not closer, but enough that the little light flares down plate after plate of banded steel. It catches Jane's eyes, and her mind goes blank. She stares, seeing it for the first time, metal moving not in the way it should, metal given life and reforged into a man's arm. "Holy shit," she blurts helplessly, "that's a corticospinal prosthesis!"

—-

The intruder gives no reassurance one way or another as to whether there will be clemency for her if she does a good job. He simply stands there, silent except when it is absolutely necessary to speak… a typically passive individual unused to giving directions to others.

Or just unused to giving verbal directions, anyway. Jane freezes up, clearly unwilling to go into her bedroom with a /home invader with a gun/, and those blue eyes flare as his gun lifts and steadies, his entire body priming for violence out of its resting state. The message is clear: she will do what she is told. No objections. No hesitations.

But she does have one small sliver of leverage, that being that he clearly needs her. What he needs her for finally becomes obvious as he turns, showing her what has replaced his left arm.

For a long, frozen few moments, Jane stares down plate after plate of finely-engineered titanium alloy and steel, cut and fitted so cunningly that it moves indistinguishably from a living, flesh arm. The only things that betrays it are, of course, the inhuman shine of metal, the joints between plates, the brilliant star stamped on the shoulder… and the way it hums and whirs every time it's moved, the arm murmuring to itself like a live thing with a voice of its own.

That voice is pained, now. The injured prosthetic moans with every gesture.

Holy shit! exclaims Jane, the consummate scientist. A corticospinal prosthesis!

She might expect her attacker to at least know the nature of the thing grafted to his shoulder. But he stares just as blankly through this declaration as he has through most of her others. He seems more startled at her sudden lapse in fear. "I don't care what it is," he eventually decides, in a completely baffling indifference towards this literal part of his body. "I need it operational."

—-

It's so impressive that Jane temporarily forgets her fear. Temporarily forgets there's a strange man in her apartment and a gun pointed at her head. Her dark eyes run the length of that metal arm, appraising it with the intensity of a medical scan, darting back-and-forth as she assesses and catalogues every detail. She's never seen technology like this; she'd think it absolutely impossible it'd actually be in her own kitchen, held just inches out of reach. Power suits are one thing, dime-a-dozen if you ask her, but this is something entirely different: some transcendent communion of person and machine. It's like witnessing the future of humanity.

Still holding a gun on her.

Jane is slapped out of her reverie by the gravelly return of the man's voice. What's even worse, he shrugs off her wonder as though it were just another circling gnat.

The arm is one thing. This blatant dismissal is another, and the woman reaches some stack overflow of disbelief, her eyes pulled up to steal her first, good look of her intruder and kidnapper's face. Jane stares up at him incredulously. Her brow twitches; he's wearing a mask.

She's not supposed to be looking at his face! Realizing her mistake, she looks away again, biting down on her bottom lip in a renewed rush of quiet horror. So he has a metal arm, one he can move like an actual limb, and it's broken, and he wants her to fix it.

Jane still doesn't want to retreat into a confined room with him. He'll have all the control and she'll have none. All she can think to do is stall. "I'm… I'm an astrophysicist," she stammers out. "This isn't really my field of expertise."

—-

Even broken, it is a work of art. Most prosthetics these days are clumsy things, barely resembling the lost limb they are meant to replace, and certainly not capable of fine manipulation. This one, though… in construction and shape, it looks indistinguishable from its flesh-and-blood twin on the right.

Which is still pointing a gun directly at her. Right.

Worst of all, the actual owner of such a masterwork of an arm doesn't even seem all that impressed with it himself. Or even interested. Outrage and confusion over this is enough to get Jane to finally forget herself and look up into the face of her oppressor. Perhaps fortunately, there isn't much to see, beyond long straggling brown hair and fierce blank blue eyes; the rest is covered by a muzzle of a mask. It's a wonder he can even speak at all.

Remembering her predicament, Jane tries the only thing she can. She stalls. Unfortunately for her, this is about when his tolerance for her expires.

The muzzle of his weapon is pushed flat against her forehead before she can even react, cold metal giving her a macabre sort of kiss. It is not painful, but the pressure it applies is terribly insistent, and the direction it wants her to go is 'backing up towards the bedroom where she said her tools were.' "Patience is not my field of expertise," the man answers, the situation made all the more terrifying by the continuing lack of emotional affect in his voice even while voicing that threat. He sounds as bored and coldly assured as if this were a normal transaction in his life. Perhaps the only kind of transaction in his life.

"What /is/ my field of expertise is assessing other people. I have assessed your skills sufficient." He backs her straight into the room, fully blocking the door before he takes the gun from her face. "I will put it a different way. It would not be necessary for me to remove something of use. But it would be necessary for me to remove something of no use."

—-

Jane tries to bargain. Jane tries to undercut herself. And Jane receives her punishment.

Her voice chokes out the instant the gun barrel stamps her forehead. Her eyes close and she goes very still. It's not a sensation people are meant to feel, that cold kiss of metal, and that terrible wrongness wrings all the air from her lungs. She feels her eyes sting with tears but the panic won't even let them well. Jane can't seem to think, but only remember things, old memories crackling forgotten synapses from the back of her brain, and she keeps seeing her father.

That voice again brings her back, the woman not even permitted the safety of her own mind, and the insistent pressure of the gun worsens until Jane retreats, stumbling backwards under the man's instruction. She moves slowly, haltingly through her darkened apartment, her forced, backwards march bumping her against the occasional corner or bit of furniture. But her attention does not pull; her slow step does not waver. He has her complete attention.

The man herds her into the room, his body filling its only doorway. Jane backs up, looking every bit a cornered animal, stepping backwards just to reclaim some vain sense of personal space, full well knowing she is trapped. The gun removed from her, she touches her forehead to rub away the sensory memory of that gun, then hugs herself, the gesture making her look even smaller.

There she stands, fixed to place, in the center of her bedroom. It's not especially large, like all things in New York, with just enough space for her small bed and a desk-with-chair whose surface is cluttered with a vast mess of mechanical bits and pieces, sheepdogged with an assortment of tools. The only personal effects seem to be a few framed photos, similar to the ones out front, and a necklace on her night table.

Jane is looking up at the man's masked face now. As if she figures now she has nothing left to lose. "All right," she concedes, her voice thin, like she's still struggling to stay calm. "I'll try. I'll cooperate. Can you just promise you won't hurt me?"

—-

Unrelentingly, inexorably, the man backs Jane into her room. It only takes half the strength of one arm to force her before him, his steps patient, his progress through her apartment like the steady creep of ice forming over water.

That pressure only relents once they pass through the doors and the man looks over to see her work desk, cluttered with the tools with which he is so obsessed. The sight finally brings him to lower his weapon… and then, probably much to Jane's relief, to fully holster it, apparently seeing no more need for it for the immediate moment.

It is a promising sign. So Jane agrees to cooperate. She just wants him to promise not to hurt her.

The man's head turns towards her, from his blank inspection of her desk. "There will be no reason to if you cooperate," he reasons, with that same flatness that almost feels like he's reading from a script.

His gaze pulls inexorably back to the tools, as if tugged. A faint line forms between his brows as he stands there, stock still, now devoid of his weapon. Something about the sight of a repair space seems to trigger a moment of internal processing in his mind. Then, without preamble, he pulls out the chair and sits at her desk. With methodical matter-of-factness, he clears a small area on the work surface, and carefully rests his left arm atop it, positioning it for her easy access. The plates grate and move with audible complaint, apparently under his conscious control, fanning open to permit her to reach a seam where she could remove part of the outer shell and crack the entire thing open.

It is a sudden, startling transition. Seated, no longer with weapon in hand, and awaiting her to lean down and repair him, there is something oddly docile about him now.

—-

Definitely to much of Jane's relief. Her sharp eyes track the movement of that weapon, and when holstered, she exhales, some of that fear dissipating, folding back into the tension currenting through her blood.

She makes no move to approach him, not yet, preferring to linger with the pretense of safety, arms wrapped around her chest protectively. Jane follows the masked man with her eyes. She cannot help but steal a glance at her bedroom door, assessing it, considering it, but ultimately deciding otherwise. She trusts many qualities in herself, and none of them are particularly her athletic prowess. How far would she even get? And how angry would he be when he caught her? The man with /metal/ for an arm.

Instead she watches and she thinks. She looks on, staring at the man as he stares down her desk and tools, before making a decision to appropriate himself among them. Just like that, somewhat mechanically, he helps himself to her chair, and clears a space in her organized mess to proffer his arm as top priority.

Some part of her would be silently outraged if Jane were not too busy staring. She doesn't miss that strange, light-switch-off change in demeanour, and when seated, he seems — not smaller. But a different man than a second ago.

Jane realizes what she needs to do. She may not be able to fight her way out. She may not be able to run and hope for escape. What is it they tell hostages to do? Humanize yourself? Farmers don't slaughter the lambs with names.

She exhales, and finally forces herself to move, walking nervously not to the door, but toward the man seated at her desk. Jane pauses, then carefully reaches to turn on her small desk lamp, knowing she'll need the light. It flares soft, yellowy light, and illuminates all her face for the first time, drawn and pale, with blinking eyes, and pulled-together lips. Rigid and distrustful.

Then the arm moves. Not as she's seen it move before, but in a new, wonderous way, and Jane freezes as she watches those plates unlock and open in a moving algorithm to expose its frame of steel and guts of circuits and wires. The caution slips momentarily off her face. It's beautiful.

She reaches without thinking, desperate to touch. Jane only realizes herself at the last moment, reminded by that man's lurking presence, and the now-lit, disturbing shape of his mask. "Do you have nociception?" she asks, not even thinking to layman out her language. Her eyes crease. "I don't want to hurt you."

—-

Sitting down changes his entire demeanor. Not completely— it would be impossible to completely erase the lethal threat that still inheres in every fiber of his being— but it shifts it ninety degrees, turning him to an angle where he almost seems… docile. Passive. Compliant to her handling.

But he is still an intruder in her home, and a reminder of that comes clearly when he indifferently moves all her personal effect, clearing them out of the way to install his own arm as her new top priority. Jane has to choke back a flicker of anger, but more effective in quelling that momentary outrage than fear, is the utter curiosity and awe that wells up in her scientist's mind at seeing his arm. In full. Under lights.

And opening up.

The arm's plates spread and unfold. Damaged inner workings become visible, circuits and wires and delicate machinery exposed in all their intricacy. Amazed, Jane reaches to touch; the man waits patiently, no reaction to her reaching for him. He seems more surprised that in the end, she holds back and doesn't make contact.

Blue eyes flick up to her, confused. That confusion only doubles when she seems to express concern about causing him pain. He stares at her, clearly not comprehending this concept. "It does not feel," he eventually ventures, as if uncertain if this is the correct response for the inquiry. "It would not matter even if it did."

Those eyes, briefly confused in the way a dog's are when some unfamiliar stimulus is presented, form a startling contrast with the featureless inhuman mask below them. In the end he settles on simply repeating, "It needs repair."

—-

"No sensory reception at all? Fine motor control? Proprioception?" Jane jackhammers question after question, losing some of her inhibition the more her mind switches from aimless fear to a legitimate task on hand. She doesn't forget her anxiety; but even she admits this has the capacity to feel a little less like a home invasion and a lot more like work.

And work is safe. Work is soothing.

In the end, she pushes down her own complicated emotions and repositions her attention. Jane needs to concentrate on actually doing this, doing what he wants her to. Doing an adequate-enough job, God help her, that he doesn't deem her completely worthless and put a bullet between her eyes. Pursing her lips in a compulsive, nervous habit, she pushes her dark hair behind her ears and gingerly leans closer to look down over the man's opened arm.

It's hard to think he doesn't feel. She supposes she'll find out for herself soon enough. "What do you mean it wouldn't matter? Of course it does."

Either way, she cannot contain her fascination for very long, and slowly, slow enough to allow him to map her movements, Jane reaches to touch her hands down on that smooth, cold metal. Her fingertips trace the plates, tactile touch fed up into the movement of her reading eyes. Calculating the algorithm in her head.

"I'm Jane, by the way," she ventures with a quick glance. The mask keeps putting her off, so she tries to focus on his eyes. They are blue, she thinks. People have blue eyes. He doesn't act like a person. "But you must already know that. You're lucky, I guess, that I'm somewhat studied up on all this. I switched from medical school. Been a while, but I'm remembering."

She bites her lip, and gets to it, turning slightly to get a better vantage to move her fingers among all those wires, manipulating them, sorting them, learning their source routes. She is gentle, so gentle, and her hands seem practised for this fine-detail work. They do not shake. "Does this hurt? What happened to your arm?"

—-

Question after question hammers him. He looks more and more bewildered with each one. This is a familiar circumstance for him with decidedly unfamiliar stimuli injected into it. His brain wars between the imperative to ride along placidly in the usual passive grooves, and the constant way her questions try to pull him back out.

His programming is convinced that anyone in this situation with him, repairing him, should already know the answers to these questions. That she is asking them again anyway is putting a considerable strain on his conditioned mind.

Silence seems safest, so he remains silent. His blue eyes watch her as she works, though not with the incisiveness that would suggest that he was monitoring how good a job she was doing. It seems obvious by now that he bears a prosthetic he does not actually, himself, fully know the intricacies of. Something she says eventually catches his attention, though. Of course it matters if he's feeling pain.

His brows knit. He heard that idea somewhere else, recently. It surprised him then as much as it surprises him again now. Where did he hear it? He can't remember. Everything is so clouded…

His eyes lower back down. This time, they don't watch the arm. The man stares downwards at nothing, passive and permissive, a machine in sleep mode waiting for maintenance to complete. Yet when Jane looks up at him, it's to find that— this close— she can tell his eyes aren't pure blue. They're blue, shaded with grey, and ringed by lashes too long to seem real on a man. Beautiful, human eyes— for a man who doesn't even act like a human.

She's Jane, by the way— though he probably already knows. He's lucky she has some background in all this. Those lashes flicker as the programming that replaced his brain intakes and processes this information.

"I am aware," he says, of her semi-medical background. It would sound a lot more creepy if it weren't delivered so matter-of-fact. "If you did not, I would have passed."

Ah, but then the question of the hour. What happened to his arm?

An odd tic threatens the corners of his eyes. What did happen to his arm? He swears he didn't always have only one. He swears he had two real ones, once. What happened to it? What…

His head tilts slightly. A slight tremble runs through it, there and gone. His features smooth out. "No," is his only answer, as if her second question were erased from his mind, and he remembered— and replied— only the first.

—-

"Oh," Jane says to that less-than-innocuous confirmation. That's about all she can say to someone admitting, matter-of-factly, to stalking her. Oh. "How long have you been watching me?" She thinks about her work, her lab, and the possibility of being forced to protect both. She doesn't really have anyone in her life, not even Erik, who could be caught in the literal crossfire. At least that's a positive. "Actually, I don't think I want to know."

Soon enough, the woman becomes her own lesson in duality, switching back and forth between fascination and caution. She feels the pull of that open arm, and the rabbit hole it opens to carry her down and down — to get lost in its unforeseen technology — only be repeatedly grounded when realizing she's helping a man who stalked her. Invaded her home. Put a gun against her head. When she fixes him, it's only logical he'll kill her. He would have no reason to keep her alive. Not unless she can give him one.

Jane feels like she's living in a slingshot. It doesn't help she knows he has blue eyes. Metal armed attacker with blue eyes. Blue-grey eyes.

She needs to talk to distract herself. She asks about the arm. What happened to it? Jane means the damage, the trauma, the recent incident to make it warrant repair. Necessary to know to make a good diagnosis.

But the man is thinking of something quite else. What happened? There was once two, and then there was one. He can't reach the thought —

He trembles. Jane freezes, afraid her fumbling has somehow hurt him. She's afraid hurting him with warrant her a gun back in her face or a bullet in her body. She's also afraid of doing accidental damage to so beautiful a limb. And she really doesn't want to hurt him; she doesn't want to hurt anyone.

No, is all he says.

She watches him steadily, bemused. Her brows furrow. Finally, Jane looks back down on that arm. "I don't see any structural damage," she announces eventually. "The frame is… solid. I need to replace some pieces of the joint, there's some dead wires. I think some of these are extraneous." At this point, she is talking to herself the longer her fingers sort through circuitry and gently, almost tenderly, run down the skeletal steel frame. "This is really an exceptional piece of engineering. I've never seen… there's been no papers on anything like this. Your entire nervous system has a biocomputational analogue. I can't even imagine — they used mean field theory, right? Of course. The base algorithm for the plate movement — it's being advanced, right? There's weak points. I think I can find three. Who did this? The possibilities — this is. Jesus Christ," Jane rambles. And rambles. And rambles.

It ends when she just blows out a long, near-winded breath. "I'm sorry. Will you tell me your name?"

—-

Jane has so many questions. That's how people become scientists, really— they have questions, endless questions, and endlessly ask them in search of answers. Either this man is unwilling or unable to answer her questions, though, or perhaps both; each successive question gets more of that same silence from him, her invader suddenly inert. A puppet with his strings slackened.

How long has he been watching her? No answer.

What happened to his arm? He trembles slightly, but does not answer that either. Or at least, does not answer in the expected way— does not answer the expected question. Like a child, he decides on offering the lowest common denominator response to all this unwelcome input he does not comprehend. 'No.'

No is a safe answer.

Eventually she finally gives up, and starts to talk to herself again. He listens, the technical talk seeming to soothe him. This, he remembers hearing around him during these sessions. This is familiar. He is about as responsive as he was all the other times he was worked on and talked over, which is to say not at all. Not up until she finally asks him a question that is very dangerous. Will he tell her his name?

He finally looks up. Those blue eyes meet hers. "No," he says again. "Just finish. I need to leave." There is some distant awareness in him that knows he has already been here too long.

—-

The woman looks like a deer-in-highlights, captured in a single glance of the man's blue eyes. Hers, brown and endlessly expressive, search his. Slingshotted again, Jane feels herself arrested, pulled from an almost-familiar moment and tossed back into very real danger. He needs to leave. When he does, he's going to kill her. Her stomach feels like lead.

"All right," she answers, far more lightly, swallowing back a painful surge of misery. For a moment, she almost thinks she's going to cry, just from the hopelessness of it all, but Jane stops herself short. It won't do her any good. Stay in control.

She retreats back to that opened arm, and her forced repair job, looking only away to sort through the mess on her desk. Jane pieces their her equipment and gathers an array of tools, all the while very aware of the man near her, and very careful not to look at him.

Jane begins carefully cutting wires, hunking in closer to get a better look at their connecting sensors. Her back is already beginning to ache something awful, and with a blown-out sigh, moves her mess again to help herself up onto the table top, sitting atop it to give her a better vantage point down.

She knows she needs to keep talking. He won't talk about himself, but she can talk about her. Try to engage him — if even that is possible. Jane's never been particularly much a people-person, and frankly feels like she's losing her mind in the crowds of New York, but even she feels bubbly next to this man. He doesn't act human. But he is one, isn't he?

"It's safe here," she reassures, as if she were the one consoling the man who's already threatened to kill her. "I live alone. You're actually my first ever guest. You don't need to worry about anything. You can relax. And I'm not going to rush this. I don't rush these things."

Jane begins soldering in a wire. She has only her shoulder to try to piece back an escaped lock of her hair, falling annoyingly between her eyes. "Probably not the best bedside manner. Dad thought I'd make the best physician too. Shows what he knows. He knew. 'There is grace in patience, Jane.' I'd get that a lot. And it's not really about impatience. It's just people are complicated. Unnecessarily complicated. And, I don't know, particle physics? At least you can make proofs from those variables. I think this is a motor pathway. Your hand might spasm, but only once."

—-

Blue eyes meet brown. Jane Foster's eyes are endlessly expressive; those of the Winter Soldier look as if they might once have been. They are ringed by slight creases in all the right places for frequent laughter.

He is not laughing now, though. He looks as if he has not laughed in a very long time. He simply reminds her that he is on a timetable. And, Jane remembers with a pang of renewed horror, the end of his timetable might also mean the end of her life. How did things change so suddenly? Just one night, one decision by a single man, and she might not see tomorrow…

The Soldier continues to offer no reassurance. He simply sits, something disciplined and patient about his stance, his aspect. He waits without motion or comment as she works. His only motion comes when she repositions herself to relieve her back, sitting up on the table right beside him. More into his space. His flesh arm tenses, hand turning and curling its fingers into a loose fist, before slowly relaxing again. It is a motion not unlike the nervous flexing of claws.

It's safe, she assures, trying to continue along on that one hopeful path of humanizing herself enough to avoid death. He doesn't need to worry. He can relax. The Soldier's head draws back slightly, as if he actually found the comfort threatening. Perhaps he does. It's alien and therefore frightening.

Her anecdotes of her father elicit even less understanding than the basic reassurances. His brow furrows as if he is trying to comprehend something held up out of his reach. The thoughts are so distracting that he does not even notice the spasm when it runs through his hand. Metal fingers twitch and flex, and he does not blink.

"There's… not usually… this much talking," he finally says, his voice halting, as if this sort of situation is frequent, and is convinced it is supposed to go much more differently.

—-

"Well, there is with me," is all Jane has to say about that, a polite 'tough titty' to the possibility of staying quiet. She can't imagine quiet right now. Quiet would give her more time to think. Think things like what does it feel like to get shot? Do you feel pain, for a split second, or longer? Does death hurt? Textbooks say it is a pleasant experience, usually physiologically euphoric. But what about fear? What about regret?

And what after?

Her long, careful fingers trace wire after wire. Every so often, her lips move, reciting the cervical nerve Jane is certain is the analogue. She catalogues as well as she can, learning as much as she is repairing, losing herself to momentary sanctuaries of knowledge she's never conceived possible — not in her lifetime. Practised by years of engineering work, her hands are a dance among the innards of his arm, snagging wires with her little fingers to allow reach for the rest of her hand to slide deeper to the frame. "Don't move," she entreats as she feels out the elbow joint, bringing her fingers inside gears that could mulch her bones.

The arm, she thinks, reminds her somewhat of a car. Parts designed deliberately to be weak to protect what is far more important inside. Sensible, Jane things, but incomplete. Incomplete design, and she could…

"I used to be pretty quiet, back in the day," she continues on, without invitation, without warning. "Pretty shy. Maybe not so much shy as never really having anything to say. No one understood me much. Actually, that hasn't changed. I guess, more afraid back then of having my fears confirmed out loud? About no one understanding me. I don't give a crap now. Too old, too cranky. Erik was the one who helped me a lot with that. He got me talking a lot, when I really needed to talk. He did it pretty much just like this. I screamed at him more than I talked, those first few months. He was making me crazy."

Jane shoulders back that errant piece of hair behind her ear only for it to escape again. She gives up and fumbles between three different screw drivers, holding the last in her mouth. The woman murmurs something around it, leaning in, forced into painful closeness to have to crane her head down to get into his joint. Her hair smells like salt from the sea, those cold Coney waters.

—-

There is with me, Jane says firmly. This confuses him even more, and he goes silent in bemusement. He simply looks back down and watches as her fingers move among the innards of his arm. She rewires pathways he doesn't understand, and solders circuits whose function he does not know. She speaks the names of nerves which mean nothing to him.

In some distant part of his mind, it occurs to him that it is wrong to be so deficient.

The thought comes and goes like a dropped flower down the current of a stream. It occurs to him to regret its passing, but that too is ephemeral.

There is a slight startle when she resumes speaking, though he does not interrupt or try to silence her again. He merely listens as she rambles, giving no indication whether her desperate tactic to make him see her as a human is working. Nothing about her speech seems to touch or connect with him in any way. Nothing draws any particular response. He only shifts slightly in his seat, as if restless after so many minutes of sitting in one place, and all the leather of all his weapon holsters creak.

She can count his armaments if she dared aim her attention that way. Just on the side facing her, there are three guns visible: one the familiar SIG P220 she already made acquaintance with, and two other much smaller ones strapped to his thigh. The tip of what seems to be a knife sheath is visible too, at the small of his back.

If she reached quickly enough, got one of those weapons loose—

His gaze turns slowly to her as she leans in close to get better access to the joint of his arm. Her proximity brings the smell of the sea, salt from the ocean tickling his senses.

She smells like Coney Island in the fall, a voice tells him. When the water's getting cold enough that only the locals go anymore.

His features twitch a bit, a passing tic.

"Who is Erik?" he suddenly asks. The tone of his question does not sound threatening. He sounds almost as if he is not sure if he should know this.

—-

The creak of leather reminds Jane of the man's guns. The man's guns, far too close than her liking; close enough to parse their shapes in her periphery. It's definitely the closest she's ever been to a gun. Never shot one. Never held one. Never touched one. No desire to. No need to.

Her hands fumble momentarily inside his metal arm. It's a thought. It's enough of a thought that lends her the brief visualization: she cuts all the sensorimotor wires in the arm, and reaches for one of those guns. He'll have only one arm to stop her. More than enough, but if she got a shot —

Jane's eyes crease. The thought turns so alien in her head that she has to stop it outright. Who is she kidding? Whoever he is, he is far more dangerous than she could ever be. There's a thousand ways he could stop her. A thousand more he would kill her, because he would. And that isn't her. She's not a killer.

So what does she do? Does she wait obediently for him to decide she's expended her use? Does she wait to die?

Jane doesn't reach for any gun. She continues on with her work, frowning mysteriously to herself.

She talks instead to exorcise the thoughts away. She prattles on between her careful repair work, removing joint brackets and examining their pieces. She searches among her mess, wishing aimlessly for her lab, and sure she's kept at home a handheld laser cutter. She only needs to make two needle-fine, surgical incisions to reshape the piece. Rehoming it brings her in fiercely close. Close enough that the sea is in her dark hair.

Focused on that incredible, wondrous arm, Jane misses the fissure breaking up, for a moment, the man's masked face. It's only his words what rouse her.

She starts, not dramatically, but shocked enough to hear him speak on his own — and ask her a question. Jane raises her head, realizing a second too late how close her face comes to his. Close enough she can count the colours in his blue-grey-very grey eyes.

The woman draws slightly back, her working hands stopped. Who is Erik? She pauses, not sure she wants to say, torn between obliging this curiousity and protecting her friend. Would he come to harm? No reason to? All this man seems to want of her is this — to fix, to repair.

"He's my friend," she admits slowly. "He was my dad's friend — his best friend. He's helped me." Jane pauses a moment. "He doesn't live here."

—-

The weapons are tantalizingly close. Right there, within her reach, as she leans over their owner to perform repairs under duress. Briefly she thinks of cutting the connections in his metal arm and reaching for one of those guns. She could at least hold him with it, maybe ward him off, even if she weren't able to fire—

He shifts slightly under the pause in her ministering hands, as if sensing the reason for the hesitation. His movements are fluid and strong, even with one arm open and immobile and gutted. His current lack of access to it seems to present no hindrance to him at all. It would present no hindrance to him stopping her instantly if she went for one of his weapons.

Besides, that's not who she is. She's not like him. Not a killer.

She returns to her work instead, and the man relaxes again by an increment. He, in turn, just returns to puzzlement over her continuing prattle. People like her are the reason Hydra has to periodically refresh his conditioning, periodically wipe his mind again once exposure to the wider world causes it to fragment up to the point it might crack open and let out the man still locked beneath all the lies. They talk to the Winter Soldier, and here and there… it is James Barnes that listens instead.

Like now. With the smell of the sea in his senses, with her close enough to see the exact way blue blends with grey in his eyes, he knots his brows and asks a question. He's never allowed to ask questions. But he wants to. Who is Erik?

His programming expects a punishment for the question, and his body tenses immediately in something very like a cringe. But he doesn't get punished. He gets an answer. Erik is her friend. Was her father's best friend. Something about those words seems familiar. Friend. Best friend. If he could just think hard enough—

He suddenly shakes his head. Anger flares in his eyes. He's not supposed to get answers when he asks questions! Maybe this just means the punishment is delayed, and it's going to be worse. "Enough!" he growls. "Enough… about… this. How much longer."

—-

No punishment comes. In fact, only the opposite.

Only the careful, gentle ministrations of small hands. Only the silence of an enclosed room, filled with nothing but an average woman's personal things and her curious passion, promising safety — the sense of a home. Only the searching, almost sad way her brown eyes keep watching him. None of it yields pain.

Just something far worse, far more confusing — far more frightening.

The man reacts. It's the most emotive he's been, even holding a gun to her head, and Jane jumps at his voice, tearing her hands away as if he were scalding. She braces, her hands held protectively close to her face, protecting herself feebly against her own threat of pain. Her heart pounds. She breathes shallowly, treading panic, waiting to be hit, or shot, or both, or worse.

But he doesn't follow through, and slowly, cautiously, she relents, turning her eyes away, holding her breath as, for a moment, they shine dangerously too-bright. But Jane gets herself under control, fidgeting her fingers to try to hide the way they're trembling. Enough about this. Sure, sure. She nods wordlessly. How much longer?

She looks down at that arm. It's not fair. It's not fair she only gets to discover something like this before she's going to die. Because she's going to. She's been convincing herself the opposite all night, but the evidence is staring her straight in the eye. She's not supposed to survive this.

Her lips part, probably to answer. To give him an obedient summary of all she needs to do: complete the joint, realign the plates.

Instead, Jane looks up. She meets those blue-grey eyes with her own, and does not look away. There is no anger in her eyes. No hate for him. Just weariness, acceptance, and realization that this minute she holds some sort of card. Possesses some sort of temporary power to force him to listen.

"If you're going to kill me afterwards, I only ask one thing," Jane says, her voice soft. "I don't want to die. I'm — not finished. But if I have to, then I won't have it this way. I don't mean alone; I'm not afraid to die by myself. But I don't want it to be inside. You have to let me see the stars."

—-

This is precisely the reason why Hydra must continually reformat their prize weapon. Out in the wild, doing his violent work, the Winter Soldier will occasionally run into people who speak to him gently, who treat him as a human, who do not hurt and punish him. Who talk softly to him in situations where soft speech is not at all expected. Who do not do any of the prescribed things that he is programmed to expect people to do when they encounter him. Scream. Run. Die.

It puts fissures in his psyche like roots splitting pavement.

He hits a mental tipping point, unable to handle the kindness, the lack of expected pain and punishment, and in confusion lashes out. His sudden anger makes his earlier mood and demeanor seem like child's play in comparison, and even though he doesn't reach for any weapon, the threat in the air is temporarily thick enough to slice with a knife.

Eventually he subsides— in part because now Jane is looking at him. Not at his weapons, not at his arm, not at the vague idea of him— the threatening shape he is— but at him. He balks a little, because it has been years and years since someone looked him straight in his eyes and spoke to him. She has last requests. Last demands. She's not finished, but once she is, if he means to kill her… he must let her see the stars as she dies.

The stars. The stars. Stars, he thinks. What a strange thing to focus on.

His lips part to reply, but nothing comes out. His gaze unfocuses, his brow knitting again at some internal puzzle that has suddenly presented itself. He seems to argue briefly with himself, his gaze cast off to one side, lost in a thousand yard stare. His jaw works silently once, and then he finally seems to find his voice. If not a certain unity of mind.

"I… am not going-" I don't WANT "-to… kill you. You…" Reminded me of something important "…have been useful. It would be-" WRONG "-a waste to eliminate you prematurely."

Talent is always in demand. /That/… is a good, approved reason to not want to kill.

That temporary struggle of conditioning versus emotion finally resolves itself, as his programming finds a way to crawl those flickering memories and impulses, and transform them into something much more acceptable to think. The Winter Soldier settles back in his seat, expression smoothing back down to calm. "So," he concludes, as if the conclusion he just reached had been easy and not seemingly arduous, "just finish."

—-

They are hard words to say: some of the hardest in all her life. Never has Jane considered she'd be bargaining the minutiae of her own murder.

They are so hard to say her voice nearly cracks, and it takes all her strength to keep her voice clear and strong, and hold back the fear and begging and tears that would not help her, would not help anything. But Jane manages it, just barely, with her hands shaking and her eyes burning bright. They mean that much to her: those stars.

The man seems to go still.

There's little of his face she can see, and even less she can parse, but Jane finds her kidnapper has strangely expressive eyes. Hers pinch slightly, confused, searching, as he reacts in a way she does not expect — in a way she cannot comprehend. She does not speak, or interrupt, or even move; she takes it in carefully, witnessing every beat of his brief, but telling, pause. His eyes look like they are searching for something. She's doubtful it exists in her bedroom.

Who is this man, with the should-not-be-possible metal arm, who stalked her and cornered her in her own home? Is he dangerous, or is he just desperate?

His words draw Jane out of her own head. She watches him steadily, waiting for this response, demanding with some flintiness to her brown eyes a response to her request. Even if he will not agree to her terms, he will at least acknowledge her, and give her the dignity of being treated more than some convenient tool.

Slowly, haltingly, he says he's not going to kill her. Her eyebrows slowly lift. Jane's expressive face floods with brief hope, at least before she can dam it, harden herself with sensible caution. He won't kill her because she's useful. And because she could be useful again.

It's something.

"I'm going to hold you to that," Jane replies. Hold him to his word, his honour.

Finally, her eyes let him go. He bids her to finish, and so she does. Looking down, a stray tear streaks from her right eye, and she uses her sleeve to rub it away. Without missing a beat, Jane reclaims her tools, and their familiar touch gentles the residual trembling from her hands. She does not speak now, not like before, perhaps trusting their morbid agreement enough not to keep rambling, and focuses completely on her repair. She bends back in close, daring not glance at that masked face, as she rebuilds the arm's broken joint, giving pause only to visually map its design.

She lacks the materials to completely replicate it. So instead Jane builds something of her own.

Satisfied with that, her attention turns finally on those opened plates, as she runs her fingers along smooth metal, feeling the catches and breaks in their locking algorithm. She loosens some, tightens others, and manipulates them into gradual realignment. Some wistful part of her pains the idea of never seeing this beautiful limb again.

—-

No amount of tears or pleading or fear would, for a fact, help Jane at all. The Winter Soldier has heard six /decades/ of begging, and none of it ever moved him in the end. None of it ever stopped that fatal trigger pull or flash of a blade that ended both his victims' lives, and another of the Soldier's missions.

The thing was, they always begged using pleas that revolved around themselves, the things they valued, the sights they would miss. Unknowingly, Jane Foster makes an entreaty that contains a component which speaks to /him/; and, unbeknownst to her, at a very lucky point in time when the Soldier's conditioning has already grown weak.

The thought of stars seems to completely stymie him for a few critical seconds. In that time, she is front seat to a brief struggle between two entities: the Winter Soldier, and James Barnes.

Ultimately the Soldier reasserts himself, but not without cost. His programming, forced to adapt lest the pressure rip the mental conditioning apart entirely, concedes one thing: the right to kill Jane Foster this particular night. She could be of use. Perhaps to Hydra. Maybe it will be the name Jane Foster who is next on the list to be taken and made to serve. Maybe.

For now, she says she's going to hold him to that. Blue eyes glance up at her which once knew honor, but have lost it.

They inevitably harden again. Even the sight of that lone tear streaking from her eye cannot make it through the reinforced programming. Finish, he demands, and so she does. She works in silence, and that quiet allows his brain to recalcify around its programmed routines. As she repairs him, she would sense him returning back to the persona of that cold automaton which first entered her apartment what feels like a lifetime ago. His momentary lapses of earlier attain the quality of a fevered dream.

He does not react even to the caress of her hands along the smoothness of his arm's jointed plates, though assuredly he can perceive the touch.

—-

It's an extra relish, and entirely unnecessary, but Jane cannot resist. Believing it the last time she'll ever be in such close contact with this kind of technology, she moves her fingers through those so-important wires and tries to codify them all to memory. Later, when she's sure she's not a corpse, or possibly having a panic attack, she's going to dig out her notebook and sketch her memory. Get as much of this down as possible.

But it's a double-edged sword. The more time she's afforded with this feat of engineering, the more she must share confined space with the lethal man connected to it — one who may not kill her now but acts like he's killed many others. Will leave and use her handiwork to kill even more.

Now that's a thought that will give Jane one or two good sleepless nights.

She finishes assembling and aligning the last of those smooth plates, and in a formal, declarative gesture, carefully sets her tools down. Her fingers curl, wanting to fidget when no longer in use, and she must bade them quiet.

Jane slips off the top of the table, looking briefly away, and then back again, remembering enough courage to meet the masked man back in his blue eyes. "I'm finished," she announces, low and wan, just like that. Her arms itch to want to hug herself. "I need a lab to do more… but I think I've repaired the worst of the damage. Test your arm. There might be more mobility in the elbow. I improved the rotation angle. I have so many questions about the design." But she does not ask them.

Instead, the woman lingers and waits. She watches the man carefully, cautiously, and not at his guns, his arm. Jane watches his eyes, in hers a nervous, but hopeful expectation — and an acceptance. He's seen that look before.

It's the same look she had in one of her photos, her graduation, missing the man who looked like her, missing a lost, integral piece that made her eyes smile. The eyes she had in the photo, she has on him right now, say one thing: everyone breaks their promises to me, and I am waiting for you to do it too.

—-

Ah, but there's the rub. It is beautiful technology, unprecedented, highly advanced… but even Jane can't lie to herself about the reason and purpose for which it was grafted to this dead-eyed, heavily-armed man's body. Even Jane can't lie to herself as to what use this arm— and all the work she does on it— will see.

Wouldn't it be the height of irony if he used it to kill her, in the end?

Best not thought about. Best not thought about, Jane. She puts it from her mind and just finishes her work, ultimately setting her tools down in the universal signal of a job done. The clink of metal against desk surface seems to trigger something in him, some other shift of the tectonic plates of his mind. He looks down at his arm, inspecting it, turning it slowly and working the fingers… lifting it to look in at the delicate work. Then, as if to accept the job, all those plates abruptly snap back into place, metal closing back up into the seamless sleek shape of an arm.

Still seated, he looks up and meets her eyes as she stands nervously in front of him. She has so many questions, she says, and she made some improvements. But she doesn't voice them. Her eyes search his, the look in them the look of a woman who hopes— but does not expect— that this time things will be different. This time, promises will be kept.

On an exhale, the man stands up. He uses his newly-repaired arm to lever himself up, and the prosthetic hums with the movements in a much more agreeable key. No more metallic shrieking. With him seated, it was easier not to feel so intimidated by him— as much as one could NOT feel intimidated by him— but standing, all hope of that falls away.

He looks down at her, as if trying to work out a particularly annoying puzzle. There are several potential forks in the road he could take at this point, several different actions that his programming will all accept as valid. The simplest is to kill her. More complicated, but also easily justifiable, is to report back in to the nearest outpost about her. Bring her, screaming, into the fold.

There is something else floating around in his mind, however. Something rebellious that draws strength from Jane's own illogical behavior: to improve something she cannot be sure won't kill her at the end. "…You improved it," he finally remarks.

He looks down at it, pensive. "Interesting," he says, before he simply turns to leave.

—-

The arm closes itself together in a dozen simultaneous movements, plates layering and interlocking until that apparent seam is lost to the eye.

But not to Jane's. She can't help but watch. Even terrified out of her mind, and adamant to reassume her personal space, she keeps her dark eyes fastened on the man's left metal arm. Her gaze tunnels down into thought. Sons of bitches used mean field theory. She knows it. She'd bet her favourite scarf. They modelled the sensory system. They /made a closed system/. How did they calculate the adjacency matrix? Direct Cayley graph?

Her eyebrows furrow. Her lips move, soundless words metered with the tap of her own fingertips against her thigh. Jane calculates eigenvalues in her head.

Then it ends, and her eyes focus, her mental calculations stalled as the masked man moves to stand. In just a push of his body, he unfolds and fills her tiny bedroom, brought back to his full height — which is significant compared to hers. Maybe it's his presence, but Jane feels backed a little against the wall. She holds there, cornered, balancing fear and bravery, her mind and body in argument toward which to commit.

But his arm moves without those groaning, broken sounds. The lenses of Jane's eyes mirror upside-down images of his flexing hand its metallic-plated fingers. Watching a device move like a man engrosses her.

He looks down. And, in response to that, Jane looks up. Her heart quickens, and anxiety rolls in her stomach, but she meets those blue eyes in her own level stare. She has the littlest idea what thoughts circle in a man like him, faceless to her, nameless, no more known to her than some shadow on the wall — but she can recognize that look in his eyes. It's that look her father would get, she would get, trying to sort out some improbable equation. Sorting through data and finding no connections.

She wonders if he's deciding whether he'll kill her. Or how. But she doesn't look at his guns. She doesn't glance back down on that arm. Her eyes search his, as if she were trying to find something in them — something she wants to be certain is there. She looks so deeply down into him —

You improved it, cuts his voice in the space between their bodies. Jane says nothing. She knows she did.

Interesting. He calls it interesting. Her head tilts. Her lips part as if she wishes so badly to speak… but, in the end, Jane does not, instead frozen into quiet surprise when her stalker, intruder, and kidnapper… simply steps back out.

Jane stays where she is, warring survival instincts against curiosity. Relief and hope flood in so fast they tremble her legs. He's giving her space. Is he leaving? She pauses, can't bear it, and takes three steps to hide on the side of her bedroom threshold, too nervous to follow, but determined to listen.

—-

It is odd, ironic, and pretty sad that Jane— a stranger— knows far more about how his arm actually works than the actual owner… though arguably, in terms of actual use in the field, the Winter Soldier certainly will not come up short in mastery of this prosthetic. No complex thoughts of matrices or graphs dance in his singleminded head as he tests his repaired limb. To him it is a tool which is supposed to operate in a certain way, and his experimental gestures all test for those certain use cases he needs.

A lot of those use cases look violent. His metal fingers claw experimentally, form fists, wrap around invisible throats. The entire arm thrusts forward, with a responsive soft whir, in a strike that visibly carries behind it the force of several tons.

The final test: it dips and draws a weapon. Another of his far-too-many guns. Fingers test their renewed agility in a spin of the firearm… and then, too quickly for Jane to properly feel fear at the renewed appearance of a sidearm, they replace the weapon in its holster.

Seeming to conclude something, the man emits some vaguely approving noise and pushes back to his feet. His alien appearance in her familiar room exaggerates the scale of his presence, making it some monstrous thing that presses her back against a wall of her own domicile, waiting for… whatever he's going to do next.

He seems to think about that too, for a while. It is not hard to imagine that he is deliberating whether to kill her. The indifference in his eyes calls to mind a butcher handling yet another carcass, determining boredly the best spot to make his cut. But then he glances her way, more closely, and notices her looking at him. Really looking at him. Looking down into him for something she hopes or believes is there.

For whatever reason, it makes him uncomfortable.

Ultimately he decides something, for the first time in many years. Decides something for himself, in a way he would not have been able were he not so long out of the ice. And then, without preamble, he turns and walks right back out of her room. Presumably right back out of her life.

Jane stays where she is, too terrified to follow, but listening hopefully for any sound that will confirm he is gone. Unfortunately for her, the Winter Soldier is a wraith, able to leave in equal silence as he arrived, and it will take actually exiting her room and checking to fully be sure he truly is gone.

Gone— after making an autonomous decision for the first time in a decade.

—-

That arm tests its newfound strength and mobility. It runs diagnostics through the man's deadly arsenal.

And Jane just watches, steadily and wordlessly, with a vague sense of surreality. She's never seen weapons like those with her own eyes. She's never witnessed anyone move like that, with speed that even her eyes have trouble tracking — it almost feels like a dream. A strange dream and not inside her bedroom.

But it is real, this is real, and every inch of that masked man who invaded her home and held her at gunpoint — he is real too. And the only defence Jane has left is to look him straight in the eye and meet this reality head-on. It is a display of bravery even on a bed of fear, and she is so very afraid — he can see it on her, sense it palpably off her — but the woman can control her fear enough to keep open her eyes and stare death directly in the face.

At first it is a silent face-off. Then, as the seconds count, and her could-be killer lingers, almost seeming to weigh her with his eyes, Jane's expression shifts, opens, and turns into something else. Her eyes crease, and their gaze goes sharp and discerning. It's not so much hope as it is some scientific inquest: searching for meaning in so much data. And certain she's found something —

And then the man speaks and he leaves. Just like that. So concisely that Jane reels where she stands, left behind, not sure if it's some cruel joke or — if this too is real, the equal surreality of her home invader leaving her behind without a glance back.

'Is that it?' a sputtery thought dares her to say. After all he's put her through? But Jane dares not say it. She's too busy hoping she may just survive this, and if he no longer needs her, no longer cares for what she can do for him — he might just go. He seemed in a hurry.

Fear wants to lock her in place and refuse even to breathe should that much change his mind, bring him back, and put that bullet in her brain. But Jane can't pretend inaction; she needs to know. She lingers at the doorway of her bedroom, holding the frame, and listening. She strains her ears for the sounds of movement or the terminating noise of her front door. She hear neither.

After two minutes, Jane shakily emerges. Her eyes scan darkness. Darkness and emptiness. "Hello?" she calls, just to be certain, just to be complicit, in case he's still here. No one replies. She checks the main room. She checks the kitchen. She toes open the door to the bathroom. She looks out the windows. She paws a hand through her hair. Empty. Empty and gone. That means —

She huffs and takes a dead run to the front door, nearly stumbling on the way, locking the front door in every way it can be, pulling on the deadbolt until her hands hurt. She grabs her coat, her stupid coat, off the chair and rips fumblingly through its pockets. Jane's shaking hands drop her phone.

Hurry. Hurry hurry hurry, runs through her head, and she drops to her knees to snatch it up, crouched on the floor, hitting the wrong buttons over and over because her hands won't stop trembling. The screen illuminates her face, and she furiously taps it on —

Jane's hands stop. She doesn't even have anyone she could call.

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