Armistice, pt 1

December 01, 2016:

Desperate to keep the Winter Soldier from using her lab to mine information— and thereby drawing SHIELD's restrictions down upon her— Dr. Jane Foster makes a dubious pact. And gets to know the Soldier more than is probably good for her.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

In a world such as this one, a simple public killing isn't always front-page worthy news anymore… but when there's just enough details for the story to be more interesting than the norm, it gets to press anyway.

Only one man was killed, but shootings in Lower Manhattan always draw a bit of attention just by virtue of the location. Then, there's the fact that the man killed was a senior board member of a corporation currently resisting a hostile takeover. Then, there's the fact that an apparent assassin explicitly emerged afterwards to try to kill another senior board member, and was stopped only by the efforts of a bystander.

Yeah, that kind of thing gets a story run. Especially since some eyewitnesses are hysterically claiming that the assassin had some kind of metal in place of a left arm.

In certain circles, there are already whispers that the Winter Soldier has— after decades of silence— reemerged like a wraith from the antiquity of the Cold War. A stubborn Soviet leitmotif that just won't be killed.

Jane might or might not have heard. It ran on the evening news, but a lady like her would be excused not sitting down at six every day to watch. A lady like her who is, in fact, likely to still be in her lab working at insane times like one o'clock at night.

The Winter Soldier knows her habits, but nonetheless after midnight is still the safest time for him to try to make a run through her lab to crack into SHIELD information systems, and so one o'clock at night finds him outside her lab… studying ways in. There is a chance that, even if she still hasn't left, she's passed out again on her workbench, leaving him a small window to get in and out.

Besides, any other nearby SHIELD location available is far too heavily surveilled to be worth it, and he is on a timetable to find his latest mark.

—-

Jane Foster misses that very significant news report.

Obsessed, loner scientists, married to their work and holed up into their lab, neglect much of the outside world. Especially obsessed, loner scientists who have been deliberately avoiding going home to her own apartment the last few days.

She hasn't told SHIELD about her late-night home invasion and she's hating herself a little for it.

It's stupid. It's absolutely stupid. Illogical. Impractical. If it were anyone else in her life doing it, Jane knows she would have a righteous slap aimed to clear the cobwebs from their brain. SHIELD would want to know this. SHIELD would want to protect her — at least for the somewhat-legitimate asset she is. She should call them and tell them, hey, by the way, Mr. Agent? A man with a complete Rambo arsenal plus fully-functional metal arm that should not even be technologically POSSIBLE stalked her and held her at gunpoint and made her repair him.

They'd relocate her and lock her work down. They'd make her safe and probably even help all of her sleepless nights. They might even post a guard. And insist on security cameras. And an escort. And a safer location for her lab. In one of their incorporated buildings. Deep underground. Full of more agents and people who want to "help." Maybe they'll ask her questions. Maybe they'll ask her why this man found her, and what she did wrong to lure him in. Maybe they'll say she's a liability now, and now that they have her data, they no longer need her, you will be escorted out —

It's a stupid decision, and living like this makes Jane feel afraid. But the fear of losing her work, again, and forever…

It paralyzes her.

So taking a few changes of clothes and some of her things, Dr. Foster has made a temporary secondary abode of her lab. She tells herself it won't be permanent, won't be forever, just until she's absolutely evidenced that man won't return back in her life. She's already certain he won't. Why would he?

Late at night, and looking every bit a faceless, perhaps abandoned, industrial storehouse on the outside, lacking windows and signs of occupancy — save for an electronic lock on the door, reserved for key cards.

Inside is a different story. Contained in one single, main room, Jane Foster's lab is a physicist's landed heaven, walled in spectroscopes and gravitational wave antennae and resonant mass detectors, shepherded by a servered computer system that links on a dozen different screens, some idling and some moving with compiling data. Machines hum.

And someone breathes. Half-propped up as if she dozed without realizing, the lab's mistress keeps as predictable as schedule as her would-be stalker suspects. Curled in a chair at one of her many computer terminals — the main terminal he needs — Jane sleeps. Dressed down in jeans and another button-down, its sleeves long-left rolled up, she tucks her head into the crook of her arm, her dark hair fallen over her face. A paper notebook, well-used and left open, clutters with drawings of constellations, equations, and what looks like sketches of a very familiar left arm.

—-

It doesn't occur to the Winter Soldier that his previous encounter with Jane would have changed her behavior, caused her to avoid her apartment and sleep full-time in her lab instead. But then, he is not accustomed to seeing individuals again after he has revealed himself to them: has, therefore, very little data on the behavior of targets after he directly encounters them.

By the time he decides to explicitly interact with anyone face-to-face, it is usually in an encounter which terminates in their death.

He does have a lot of data on Jane's typical behavior, however, which is why he is nonetheless not terribly surprised when he gains entry— cracking the electronic lock without difficulty— to find her slumped in a chair, dead asleep at her desk. On silent steps he paces around her, examining her, then moves on to sweep the rest of the lab.

Empty, except for her and all her data.

Methodically, he moves through the various screens, searching for the proper terminal that would grant potential access to SHIELD networks. This search leads him, inevitably, back to the screen Jane herself sits before; the assassin pauses alongside her, silent, and slowly cants his head.

His eyes fall on the open notebook. The constellations give him pause.

Then he notices the sketches of a very familiar arm. His eyes darken, and he reaches softly for the notebook to tear out the offending page.

—-

The woman sleeps without movement or sound, still and corpse-like — save for the belying rise-and-fall of her breathing body and the sigh of air between her parted lips. Little rouses her, not the quiet, invasive presence returned to her lab, and not when it wraiths from computer to computer, searching for access on dummy machines — and quickly realizing they offer nothing but vast storage and power to calculate vast amounts of data.

Thousands of matriced coordinates, mapped in all the dimensions of the celestial plane, repeated ad infinitum.

His destination brings him close, close enough to look down at her in the half-light of her lab. Her dark hair fans over her shoulder, and one fluffed-up lock falls over her forehead. Her eyes twitch under her lids. In a dream. But she does not stir.

Eventually, he sees the notebook, dog-eared and well-used, and left open to suggest she was adding to its pages when exhaustion eventually overcame her. Jane has scribbled down some last day's calculations, notating equations and circling results with bold question marks. She's sketched a rudimentary star field to graph against some other notes. And then, as if losing perspective halfway in, or lost in some sort of reverie —

— began sketching someone's metal arm. It is a rudimentary drawing, sketched entirely from memory — concentrating detail first into the forearm. She's written extensive notes recalling the names and positions of nerves, and has begin appending them with strange calculations. She's remembered the way the plates opened and noted them. She's calculated that algorithm.

All from one night.

He tears free the page, and paper rips noisily.

Jane is up. She awakens, startled, murmuring something like an apology to someone catching her this way, before her blinking eyes focus and look up. Testament to her deep sleep, she gazes up at the man, the same exact one who is the reason she's even sleeping here — occupying the space next to her. In her lab. In her life.

Her eyes clear, and the blood drains out of her. She jolts, unrealizing she's still sitting, tangles an ankle in the legs of her chair, and almost falls over. The table catches her soundly, painfully, knocking Jane's breath briefly away. Struggling to stand, to make sense of this, she glances between him, the torn paper in his hand, up and down and up again. Questions shine free from her eyes: what?! You again? How is this possible? Why?

Instead of wasting breath on them, Jane sets her jaw, and makes a grab for her notebook to protective pull the rest of it close.

—-

The Winter Soldier pauses beside the sleeping scientist. He looks down, contemplating her: the steady rise and fall of her chest, the way a lock of hair slips down over her forehead, the flicker of her lids as she dreams.

A weapon materializes in his right hand, drawn so softly that the leather of his holster doesn't even creak. A tiny derringer: no more is needed, at this range. The assassin's head cants as he aims between the sleeping woman's eyes.

His gaze strays and falls on the star field drawn amidst her notes. His mind flickers like a light struggling to run on bad electrical wiring. He hesitates, and a different logic routine initiates in his mind. Well. Well. It would be messy if he killed her. SHIELD would be alerted. They would come looking. As far as he knows, this woman hasn't reported him in yet. He doesn't think she will. He watched her long enough to get an idea of what she values most, and reporting compromise would take that away.

The weapon vanishes back into its holster. But, the Soldier thinks as he turns back to the notebook, these sketches of the arm are unacceptable. Reaching down, he rips the drawing free.

The sound of the paper tearing is louder than he anticipates. The woman wakes, and for a moment— still half asleep— she gazes up at him guilelessly, eyes still shaded with dreams, her lids blinking a tired hello. Something— some memory— jolts across the Winter Soldier's mind so quickly that he freezes, his metal fingers closing down on the paper in physical reflection of the way he tries to snatch the memory before it vanishes.

Then it's gone, and Jane is struggling simultaneously to try to get away— and to try to snatch her notebook from him. He lets it go, expressionless, his lack of resistance no doubt sending her overbalancing back into her chair… and then he leans down, that very metal arm she repaired reaching towards her—

—to firmly push her, still in her chair, right out of his way. She dithers away in a small circle as the chair's wheels squeakily convey her off.

Satisfied, the assassin replaces her in her original spot before the terminal, stance widening as he settles in to type away at her machine. The action exposes his back to her. He has /even more guns/ than he did before: two standard sidearms, two compact pistols, a submachine gun, and what looks like an actual full-size rifle, partially broken down, strapped to his back.

How does he even get around?! It must be that he has some local base of operations where he can leave all this crap between MURDERS.

—-

A gun aims straight between Jane's closed eyes. She does not notice. She does not stir. It would be simple for him to pull the trigger. She would die still in dreams.

But his attention strays. He sees stars, charted on paper, their sketch revealed between Jane's sleep-curled fingers. The gun reshuffles back into his arsenal, a new decision made, and the woman sleeps on obliviously through all judgment of her life and death. She will never know how narrowly she survived.

Her would-be executioner, however, catches evidence that his once-hostage has been a little busy. Sketching evidence down that he exists in this world.

He tears it. She wakes, and just like that Jane looks up at him. Her dark eyes, glassy and faraway, gaze up at him for so many dreamy moments. She does not see the guns. She does not see the mask. She seems to see something past it, blinking slowly before her dream-soft eyes look into his. She recognizes them, and she looks on in comfort, relaxing to that familiarity.

Then the dream ends, and Jane comes back. Reality backhands her swiftly, painfully, and the woman goes pale, realizing and recognizing that same masked man — him, HIM — back in her personal space. Looking down over her. Holding her torn notes in his hand.

So many questions. Jane asks none, because there are more important things, namely her most prized possession HANGING out of his hand. Without thinking she grabs it, trying to pull — and entreats with a surprised huff the result. He cornered her, intimidated her, herded her around with a gun to her head, but had never given her any demonstration of… of just how strong he is. Even with all her strength, she cannot budge him. But she is nothing but stubborn, and if she's going to protect anything, it's going to be her work. She pulls hard, unwilling to give it up —

— and he lets go, and she tumbles back into her chair with a surprised huff. Jane holds more tightly to her book as that arm comes in, meeting the man in his familiar blue eyes, hers a mixture of affront, fear, and entreat — before she yelps in shock as he rolls her and chair both dismissively away.

Bouncing to a stop when she hits a wall, Jane looks on in silent disbelief, her brain on catch-up as she parses between the man at her computer and back toward the door of her lab. He puts his back to her, like she's already forgotten, and she has a clear way out. A better chance this time than before. She can run, because he FOUND her — again — and he's in her lab, and he's back, and he's here, and he's touching her keyboard, and he's going through her files, and he's wearing even more guns, more guns than she remembers, and he's —

Jane sits there innocuously, hugging her book, blinking in mindless stupor. Then something snaps. Everything comes together, everything in this INSANE moment, and it adds up so fast, too much of it, so much more than she can just bear and endure and allow and —

Something snaps. She pushes violently out of her chair, leaving her book behind, better to free her hands to curl into fists. "All right — enough!" Jane snarls, her voice the loudest he's heard it. "Get the hell away from my work!"

—-

A certain glamour and mystique is accepted— even encouraged— for the Winter Soldier. Half-seen images, ghosting across security cameras, dark shapes briefly captured at the fringes of photographs… some amount of both help keep the legend going strong, teases of his timeless existence circulated with a mixture of fear and disbelief over the long decades.

Just when the world is about to forget the Winter Soldier, there is always another small hint left to remind that there remains much to fear from that Soviet blade.

This, though? This dangerously perfect depiction of his arm? It cannot be allowed to exist. He did not expect, did not anticipate, that she could reproduce it from just a few minutes' worth of work upon it. The cleanest solution would be killing her, but that would draw more attention than he wants at this particular time. Best destroy it, and hope that as more time passes, the memory fades.

Jane, however, takes quite a bit of umbrage to this manhandling of her notes.

Other men might have huffed amusement at her, or laughed, or made some pithy remark or threat. The Soldier is soundless, his masked face regarding her patiently as she leaps up and makes her first instinct trying to reclaim her work. All her strength goes into her attempts to move him, to dislodge him from her notes, and he remains utterly soundless: and completely unmoving.

It is a strength so far beyond hers that it resists her from a resting state.

Eventually Jane gets her notebook back when he elects to let it go. The momentum sends her right back into her chair— and shortly afterwards, a shove of his arm rolls both her and chair away in clear dismissal. She fetches up anticlimactically against a wall, already forgotten, this brash invader so overconfident that he actually turns his back to her— HIS BACK— in order to take her place and start messing with her computer.

Her home is one thing. But her lab? Her WORK?

She is treated to the sight of her erstwhile captor actually pausing visibly as she YELLS at his back. A slow turn of his head angles one critical blue eye at her. He seems to consider her threat.

"Do you really want that?" he suddenly answers. His voice, muted by the mask, is indifferent as ever, though with a shade of something that might trend towards wry. "If I get away from it, there's nowhere else for me to go but closer to you."

—-

He is a nameless man. He is a faceless man. He is undoubtedly a dangerous man, perhaps even a murderous one, who has reasons for every bullet on his back. And yet he is a man who turned his back to her, who is standing at her computer and using her keyboard — who is helping himself freely of all her systems, all her work, all her LIFE.

Afraid that Jane is of him, this man who seems unable to leave her alone, seeing him there, taking liberty over every important thing that she is…

She hits her limit. And she sees red.

When he looks back, that woman, tiny slip of a thing that she is, occupies her space fiercely, shoulders squared, hands curled, and dark eyes fierce. Jane hears her own voice snarl loudly off every wall and rafter in the roof. Perhaps later, far far later, in a reality where she somehow survives this, she'll wonder how in good God's hell she was stupid enough to do this, but for now she makes her first demand.

It earns an eye. She meets it firmly, taut with outrage, her temper snapped well beyond reason. And then, perhaps somewhat to her surprise, the nameless, faceless, certainly-dangerous, many-gunned, metal-armed stalker-home invader-note ripper replies her — with a rejoinder. Jane twitches her head against the incongruity of it all. That night ago, he was like a machine, with his brief and stuttered words. And now… is he taunting her?

Her jaw tenses briefly.

"I don't care," Jane decides spontaneously, even though she's pretty sure she does — outrage consumes her. Her eyes blaze. "You want to take this away from me too?! No! Enough. I've had ENOUGH. You're going to take your hands off MY things and give me some damn answers! Who the hell are you?!"

—-

He is a man who not only has reasons for every bullet on his back, but names for each of them. Targets into which they must be put.

That alone should stop Jane cold, keep her still and quiet as to not attract attention— or better yet, get her fleeing while the man is too absorbed in the computer to notice her. Yet something stops her. The sight of him casually pawing over everything that matters to her, everything that she is, everything she cares for— it's too much. She can't— WON'T— countenance it.

Jane Foster loses her temper.

It surprises him enough to get him to turn slightly. All her outrage and anger earns one single, critical eye, the heavily-armed assassin curious at this sudden outburst. He considers her for a few long moments… and then, to her shock, he replies. It's almost as if in the intervening time, the automaton that entered her home grew some semblance of a personality. …Albeit one still rather flat and sarcastic.

She doesn't care! she insists. She's had enough. He's going to give her some answers, like who the hell he is. The Winter Soldier gives this demand its due gravity and consideration— which is to say, he straightens and turns just a little more to give her a more direct look over his shoulder.

Who is he? For a moment, he stands in complete silence, looking through her, as if he is not able to even acknowledge this question— as if it entered his mind, lingered briefly, and then passed on with no imprint. He is not supposed to question who he is. He is not supposed to even try to figure that out.

His programming provides him an answer instead. A muffled laugh escapes him, along with a brief mumbled string of some foreign language. It sounds like Russian. "Nikto," he finally answers her, aloud, in a voice louder than 'under his breath.' His eyes stare briefly through her again, as if searching for the real answer to that question. "That is what I am. But it's none of your concern."

With that, he turns right back to her terminal.

—-

This Jane Foster is not the Jane Foster of several nights ago. Though she shares the same sleepless eyes and fraying jeans and nervous fingers and abject tininess, stands with that same, distrustful rigidity, and exudes that same, palpable fear, this woman is far more assertive. Far more fierce. Far more pissed off.

That little apartment is nothing to her, a forgettable place for a forgettable woman, but here — this is Dr. Foster's domain. This is her work. This is /her/, who she is, everything left in her life that's valuable — every piece of it her home, her family, her meaning. It's hers. Built by her hands. Calculated and compiled by her mind. She built this. She owns this. If she cannot protect it properly, then she does not deserve a lick of it.

She has little left to lose. Except your life, Jane, she tells herself, but even then — that fear seems distant and vague compared to the very real threat of having her research compromised. Stolen. Taken away from her. Destroyed —

Her jaw shuts with a click of her back molars when, to make it worse, that masked man sees her rage and meets her with curtness. It pauses her temper, as she lingers on the spot, frustrated and flexing her hands. In all a sentence, it's the most human she's ever seen him — her faceless stalker with the metal arm. It emboldens her fury, to see him this way — she may not know how to deal with some machine-like killer, but Jane has dealt with more than enough assholes in her life.

He laughs and her back stiffens straighter than the rifle on his. Jane bucks her stubborn law, dark eyes flaring bright. Then he speaks, and she doesn't understand — says a word she doesn't know now but will remember for later. Her eyes crease and her mouth crinkles with impatience. What the hell is that supposed to mean?

"I didn't ask what you are," she snaps, "I asked WHO you are. Name? Are you from the government? A corporation? Why me?!" Jane dares a half-step forward, anger encouraging her, no longer branked in place by her fear. She makes her own demands — for him to brush them off. To turn his back on her. To ignore her like some harmless mosquito.

"Excuse me?" she still tries to call after, when he has the chutzpah to say this isn't her concern. Jane huffs a skeptical sound, flinging up her hands. "You broke into my HOME. You broke into my lab! My concern? This is my LIFE!"

He goes back to the terminal. He touches her things. Her temper snaps, and before even Jane can realize it, she marches furiously forward, daring for the first time to approach him, to come perilously close to reach for the keyboard. "I said get /away/—"

—-

It is interesting how different they both are. Jane by a change in location; her mysterious stalker by a change in time. Being in the epicenter of her very existence, her life's work, makes Jane fierce and aggressive, desperate to preserve all she has done. To save all which she has yet to discover.

As far as the Winter Soldier… well, the passage of time naturally erodes away at the things that keep his natural self suppressed. With time, though, it starts to peek through. Always does. Soon enough, once enough of it has emerged through the cracks to be dangerous, some programming will trigger, and he will return himself to be docilely electrocuted until he is a shell once more.

Not yet, however. Not now. For now he remains free… remembering enough to seem a person again, but not enough to realize something is terribly wrong with the person he is.

For now… he seems almost human, like a man instead of a machine, and that emboldens her fury. She machineguns demands at his back; he glances at her, considers them, and then dismisses both them and her with a simple turn of his back to return to his work. That casual indifference, more than anything else— that callous remark from him that this is no concern of hers— makes her hit breaking point.

She APPROACHES the heavily-armed killing machine. And she tries to grab the keyboard away from him.

There is no warning save a soft, familiar whir and hum. The sound of all the metal and gears of the very arm she repaired snapping into fluid movement. Then, in the next instant, Jane would find herself staring at the world sideways, bent forcefully down over her desk on her side… pinned in place by the grip of the Winter Soldier's left hand on her neck.

"You are alive because it would be mildly inconvenient to kill you," he says calmly, returned to that mechanical state she first met him in. His eyes seem to have no spark or light of their own; the gleam of them is only the overhead lights, reflected in his blue irises. "You should keep that in mind. It could change." His grip tightens briefly… and then releases. "Now, all I want is a name, and I'll be on my way."

—-

It happens so fast.

One moment, Jane, drunk on her own outrage, reaches for that keyboard so she can violently rip it away —

— the next, she is gazing upwards, her dark eyes fixed on the rafters and overhanging lights of her storehouse lab. A man bends down and eclipses all she can see, so close she can remember texture in that formless black mask; so close she can see the veins of grey in his blue eyes.

Jane swallows desperately against that metal hand collaring her throat. Pinned into place, she breathes shallowly, in her face shock emulsifying panic and anger, and she lifts one tiny hand unconsciously on the arm that bears her down, pins her to place as though she were nothing. She tries to hold on, even though she knows it won't help her, won't save her, not from that hand that would snap her bones like chalk. Mulch her throat into hamburger. That same arm she saw opened before her — that same arm she thought so beautiful — still thinks so beautiful — turned on her.

She says nothing now. Her eyes only stare into his, in them all the questions she cannot say. The man speaks down to her, low, bored words that do not bely a tested patience — machines do not possess patience. She listens. She has to listen. She's aware she could die, right here, right now, all for her protectiveness and her pride. Held there, her dark hair winged around her head, her throat moving in his hand, Jane can no nothing but wait. Wait for his decision.

That steel hand tightens, just enough that her windpipe can feel the pressure of his thumb — and then lets go.

Immediately, she slides away, retreating out of arm's reach, reaching for her own throat guardedly. Jane never takes her eyes off the man, her stare watchful, afraid, questioning. There's no pain from his hold. He didn't even squeeze her airway. He called it mildly inconvenient to kill her. And he says he needs a name. She doesn't keep records of names—

Her eyes pinch with understanding. It's not her he wants, her he came for. It's SHIELD. He's reaching for them through her. This no longer makes her a liability. This makes her a /mole/. A traitor. They won't show her the door; they'll lock her up. She has to think. She can't stop him. She has to think. She has to —

"It would actually be extremely disadvantageous to kill me," Jane corrects, her voice soft, but not from strangulation. She's choosing her words carefully. "You have no idea how useful I could be to you."

—-

From this vantage point, he is all she can see. At first he pays her no attention, keeping her pinned down without looking as he finishes some command on the terminal; then, coldly, he looks over and leans down slightly. The pressure increases slightly on her throat as more of his weight leans on his arm, though it never once approaches painful.

He regards her closely enough she can see detail on his mask. Closely enough she can see the grey in his eyes. Closely enough that she can count strands of his dark hair, dangling long and untended around his face in a wild framing of his features.

She lifts a hand, struggling to hold onto his pinning arm. He doesn't react. He probably doesn't even feel it. He just informs her, low and harsh and horribly bored, of how inconsequential her outrage is, and how quickly the inconvenience of killing her could become worth it to him.

That hand tightens once, just slightly. She knows all the circuits and nerve connections that make it able to do so.

Then he lets go and leans back up and away. She slides down and back, guarded and silent, wondering at what he said— and what he didn't do. He didn't hurt her. Didn't even choke off her breath. He says he wants a name. Of course— he wants to get at SHIELD through her. She must have seemed unlikely to report him in, too fearful to jeopardize her own work, and so he made use of her as an entry point that he could leverage while remaining largely undetected…

But once he finds what he needs, inevitably SHIELD will find out. And she'll take the fall for it. She has to do something—

The Winter Soldier pauses visibly as she makes her bid. She could be useful to him. His head turns, a single eye considering her. He does not speak, but his gaze invites her to explain this offer.

—-

All activity at her terminal pauses. That masked face turns her way.

Jane swallows, hoping, but not quite expecting her words to earn the response they do. She knows it's a gamble. But it's a gamble between her work, her livelihood, her /research/ — and becoming the reason SHIELD needs to forget her forever. As much as she dislikes them, cannot still trust them, she needs them, and they're going to trace this intelligence leak back to her. Her life will be ruined. She could run, she could call them now, she could warn — but isn't damage already done? She didn't speak when she should have. If she did, this wouldn't be happening.

All she has left to gamble is herself.

Slowly, she lets her hand down from her throat, standing up straight and lifting her jaw, little by little picking up her pieces and finding her center. Jane tries to look the part, which is necessary, which is crucial to a man like him. She helped him before, and she knows she can do it again.

"Everything you see in here?" she asks, speaking aloud of all the equipment and machines that surround them, though Jane's eyes remain firmly on the masked man. "I either built myself, or took apart and rebuilt. Those notes you took? Are about five improvements I can make to — to your arm." Her gaze turns down on it, all its plates, all its metal. She looks back up at his eyes. "Do you notice sensory delay on some voluntary movements? Motor feedback loss on sustained actions, especially when it comes to grip strength? I bet the wrist breaks a lot, more than anywhere else, and more than it should. You hold it too straight when you need flexibility. These are just my ideas after taking one look."

She swallows, taking a long, deep breath, necessary after so many words, necessary to keep herself calm, her voice sure, and the panic at bay. Jane can feel desperation twisting all through her insides, wrenching up her stomach. She can't show it. Her hands lower down to her sides, guard down, the anger out of her, the fight gone. She looks him levelly in the eye, searching his the way she did, in the dark, some nights ago in her apartment.

"I can do this for you," Jane promises, quiet, like all deals with devils are. "You'll have my cooperation. But not if you do this. Not if you get that name and… do this to me. If you do this to my work, you get nothing from me."

—-

The Winter Soldier is stock-still at the terminal, head turned her way. The mask covers so much of his face that only his eyes are visible, and those are so flat and expressionless that they might as well be part of the mask too. He considers her, completely unreadable, considering her desperate deal-with-the-devil offer with dispassionate curiosity.

He did purposefully select her, initially, for her shaky relationship with SHIELD, using her deftly for the relative certainty she would not reveal him for fear of receiving even more oversight. Now, the fact his actions might actually result in her expulsion from SHIELD, once the leak is traced back to her terminals, has yielded this unexpected but even more potent angle of coercion. It is a perfect situation. He could not ask for better.

Yet internally, there is some corner of his mind that is screaming.

He blinks slowly, by now accustomed to ignoring that voice. Trained to view it as no more than meaningless noise. "I did notice," he finally admits, "that you made actual improvements on it. That was… counterintuitive. Not expected. Interesting." His head tilts back slightly. "They came in useful."

His hands pull back from the keyboard, as he turns more fully to face her. "Da… ya soglasen. I expect to be operating here for some time. I could use more reliable repair, at the least. I'll find what I want elsewhere."

As if to seal the pact, he finally reaches up and grasps his mask, pulling it free. It would be a nice, humanizing gesture… if not for the fact that it also means she now knows his face, and will therefore never again easily be able to escape this new 'relationship'…

"Let's see what you can do," he says, his unobstructed voice much clearer, yet just as coldly dour.

—-

Dimly, distantly, Jane can hear her own words, soft, thin, hollow, spelling out her promise. Her own voice has never felt so alien, offering herself up as a more appealing alternative than SHIELD intelligence. She feels numb.

How did her life change in just a matter of days? She will ask herself this over and over again. How did it get here, when just a year ago, things were so different, and she was chasing aurorae in Puento Antiguo and spending her nights heralded by the stars. She was free then, with no rules but her own, and so full of questions. Answers come with a price, Jane realizes, and she needs them so badly she will put herself to sale.

It is for that reason she does not watch the man with regret or misery; Jane knows she's backed into a corner, but every decision is her own. She makes this too — this proposal of hers — and awaits his answer with her searching brown eyes. He may laugh again at her. He may say something cruel. He may dismiss all she can promise him, decide she is worth far less than the intelligence he chases, and press the button to damn her life.

Then he speaks. His voice, rasped between two languages, draws Jane from her thoughts. She watches on, expression tight, features drawn, hope and dread forced to share a bed on her face.

He speaks of her craftmanship, and a brief furrow twitches between her eyebrows. They are compliments, but at the same time, Jane hears "came in useful." Her stomach twists. She decides she doesn't want to know for what.

The masked man comes to a decision. He leaves the terminal. And he pulls the mask from his face. Jane's eyes widen. She knows she should not look, and for all the reasons she told herself the first moment he cornered her in her apartment. Once she sees his face, she becomes his liability, and he is —

— beautiful. Jane damns herself as she gazes up at that face, momentarily lost in features she, in a thousand imaginations, would never expect. She tries to look away from him, and finds she cannot. That can't be his face, yet it is. This can't be her life now, yet it is.

Deal accepted.

"All right," Jane replies, strangely complicit, finally looking away from his face to try to focus on something far more neutral and safe, like her tools, like her workbench. Her lips press together. "And I want some conditions. No more guns on me. No threats, or…" hands on her throat, "other things. And tell me what to call you. I need to call you something."

—-

To put it lightly, the Winter Soldier tends to have a life-changing effect. It's just that usually the change is 'ending it.'

Jane probably still doesn't feel very lucky that this isn't the case with her, given what she's wound up trapped into: being gently, inexorably coerced into helping a killer, lest her life's work disappear. The man does not even seem willful, avaricious, or taunting about his use of her. Just cold. Just pragmatic. Just a man who sees opportunities, tools, and paths to his end goal, and leverages them without shame or remorse.

He could use her skill, he says. It's already been useful. Thankfully, he doesn't elaborate.

In acceptance, he reaches up and pulls the mask from his face. What is revealed is something too prosaic and human to be believed on someone so emotionless, so robotic, so merciless. When confronted with monstrous behavior, the face of a monster is expected. Not the fresh features of a man who can't be older than thirty, who looks like any other handsome young man who should not be here, doing this— should be living a normal life with a beautiful wife and probably one or two children—

All right, Jane says, to distract herself. It probably helps with her dissonance that those features don't vary and still show very little emotiveness. She wants conditions, though. No more guns, no more threats. And she wants a name from him.

A slight line forms between his brows at the idea. He frowns as if such a thing never occurred to him. He seems to search himself, pawing aimlessly through the dusty corridors of his mind, and confusion flickers briefly in his eyes, there and gone.

"I get called Orlov," he finally turns up. "That will do."

—-

What makes it worse, worse for her, is that Jane possesses something of an idea for the use of her ideas, of her work. She does not want to ask out loud, not at all, but she has an idea.

No one carries so many guns for no reason.

She's certain she's setting herself up for a future of sleepless nights. Nights when she's alone and letting her mind wander to what sort of ramifications may well be her doing — her fault. Nights when she wonders what led her down this path, and then answers same for her benefit: what led her was her own decision. She's supposed to be a researcher to make the world a better place. She always thought herself a good person. She doesn't want people hurt. She doesn't want people dead.

But what is she without her own work? The moral choice seems obvious, but then it ends with Jane stripped of all things important to her, integral to her… so is this selfishness? Does this make her a bad person? Even if she does build her Einstein-Rosen bridge, would all the good it would do negate the potential blood on her hands?

It hurts to think about. So Jane tries not to think about it at all.

She stares down at her feet, down at her hands, for a moment looking even smaller than she is — looking so tiny and brittle. But then Jane looks up, breathing in, her face locked with a new resolve. That man accepts her proposal and locks it with the reveal of his face, one that Jane knows upon first glance shall always be her cage. She knows what he looks like. She won't be able to escape this unless she's dead. It makes it all the more bewildering she finds that face beautiful. Not like an execution order, but just a man.

"Orlov," she repeats, testing the name. Jane knows nothing of it other than the vague sense it's Russian. Sounds like a surname, and that's good enough for her. She just wants some evidence to normalize this; perhaps convince herself she's not in collusion with some sort of metal-arm machine. "Works for me."

Then Jane manages a smile, the first he's seen out of her, small and wan and never reaching her strained eyes. She lightly claps her hands together to get herself moving. "I want a coffee. You want a coffee? Take a seat at that bench over there. I'll get started."

—-

He carries a full arsenal of firearms. He wears light body armor and a mask. The arm, in and of itself, seems more intended as a deadly weapon than just a mere prosthetic by the way he wields and uses it. He speaks, casually, of 'operating' in the area. There is no way Jane can fail to miss what he likely is… what he's likely here to do. The only uncertainties are in the nuances that ultimately don't matter: who he works for, why, and where.

His employers seem opposed to SHIELD. He has clear license to kill at the slightest provocation. So it's likely none of the answers to those nuances are 'good.'

Fortunately, for now, she remains in the dark about all those details. Fortunately, for now, she isn't quite so directly implicated in the atrocities he commits. Not yet. There is no choice for her now, or so she reasons: she always wanted to help the world, and to do that she needs her research. Research he could take away from her with one casual use of her systems.

No choice. Right?

The man seems indifferent to— or simply unaware of— her inner turmoil. It doesn't register, doesn't trigger any pity, doesn't move his heart. Yet nonetheless, in the next few moments, this metal-armed machine becomes a little more human as he reveals his face and a name. Not a full name, obviously, and one he doesn't even seem sure belongs to him, but a name nonetheless.

She manages a smile. The expression seems to confuse him, the man staying just slightly out of human-comfortable conversational range with a cagey wariness. The only thing that seems to get any marked response out of him is the offer of coffee.

For whatever reason, he brightens slightly at the idea. "…Yes," he says, obviously still suspicious— but with that suspicion now mixed with an odd hopefulness. He moves towards the indicated bench— sidewise, continuing to face her— and cautiously settles.

—-

Out of nowhere — somewhere lonely and bleak and afraid and maybe even self-hating — tugs up a small smile. It sits there on Jane's face, a little incongruous to that lost look in her brown eyes, like the world is revolving too fast and she can't seem to catch up, but definitely sincere — like she's trying to reassure them both. Stiff upper lip, and all that. She smiled at the first hospice nurse who came in to listen for her father's lack of a pulse. It's all she could think to do.

All she can think to do now.

So she smiles and suggests coffee. Coffee is normal. Coffee is life. Coffee will bring everything right back in, make it right, and not make Jane feel like the ground is going to open beneath her feet and swallow her in. She asks aloud believing the walking SWAT-team metal-limbed man named Orlov will scoff or dimiss her or give her another one of those thousand mile stares.

She gets another surprise.

Jane has a natural eye for detail. She has not missed any one of this strange man's tics or twitches — all noted and organized accordingly in her mind, even if she still cannot answer why — and she catalogues this instance as particularly significant among the mean. He reacts to mention of coffee. She looks at him, passively but also curiously, then nods confirmation and turns. He does not put his back to her, the tiny, five-foot woman with the sleepless eyes. But, figuring if she has anything left to lose, it won't be her life right this minute, Jane puts her back to him.

The action lets her, for the first time, hide her face. Her smile falls off. Her eyes shine dangerously. But she steps deliberately across her lab, making a straight beeline toward a lone coffee machine and testing the pot with two fingers for warmth. Jane breathes in slowly to hold it together. She closes her eyes and takes in a deep, long breath. The ceiling no longer presses down on her shoulders.

"I'm warning you now," she calls back, "I make a really mean cup of coffee. Epic cup, really, spanning years and campuses and college theses. I might ruin you for life." Jane tries to figure how a five-gun-wearing, metal-armed, once-masked man even takes his coffee. She doesn't really have the stomach to ask. She decides for him. Strong. Slight cream. No sugar. She takes hers somewhat similar, strong and bitter.

When Jane turns back, her smile's somewhat thinned out, but it has lain a levity in her face, something light and gentle in her eyes, a willingness to reach for something past the bleakness of this situation.

He finds her workspace. It's in a state of organized chaos, spattered with tools, one set for mechanical labour, another for circuitboard engineering. Its desk is covered now with star charts, all the familiar constellations in the sky — appended and circled with what looks like notes. She's added stars among them, and has circled others and categorized them: 'branch 1, twig 1-2', 'branch 2', 'trunk?', and so on.

Jane hands so-named Orlov his cup of coffee. The mug has a worn picture of R2D2.

—-

The Winter Soldier cannot discern the difference between the joyless smile she wears, and something genuine. To him, it seems only as if she has accepted the situation, and so he lets the matter rest and says no more.

Besides, he is distracted by the mention of coffee.

The life of the Winter Soldier is, unsurprisingly, completely joyless. There is no socialization. Few opportunities to ever see outside the laboratories and deep underground bunkers where he is kept. Not even anything so small as tiny creature comforts. In fact, the only time he is ever actually 'free,' in any sense, is when he is deployed on a mission.

His only opportunities to see, taste, or feel anything real are in that small window of time between his release from his cage, and the kill which he was released to perform. And sometimes… sometimes… it is pleasant to lag a little bit, when there is no pressing timetable, and to at least indulge in some tiny things before he is compelled to return to the cage.

Tiny things like coffee.

Still, he is suspicious, and he visibly watches her carefully the entire time she prepares the brew. While the tension has lessened slightly, there's no way it'll ever completely vanish. That much is obvious in the fact that as she chatters, he remains completely silent and unmoving, seated at the bench behind her, his watchful gaze boring into her back as his metal arm rests along the bench's surface. He is so fixated on watching her that he has not yet noticed the star charts, though that is bound to change.

Turning back towards him, she would find him there in exactly the same posture she left him in… something deeply menacing about his shadowed immobility. He manages it even without the mask. It makes the R2D2 on the cup she hands him even more necessary, to break up the heaviness of the mood: his eyes lower automatically as he reaches to accept the mug, and once his gaze falls on the picture he pauses in clear confusion.

He stares at it. A cornerstone of pop culture, and he doesn't seem to have even the first idea. It seems to jog the dormant curiosity circuits in his damaged mind. "What is that." He is also obviously waiting for her to drink first before he does.

—-

"He," Jane corrects emphatically, "is named Artoo. And he is my spirit animal." Any other person in the world, any other, possibly even Asgardian in origin, she may question how in God's green garden they haven't seen Star Wars.

This man, however, with all his guns and all his tactical gear and all his faceless uncertainty, eyeing up her cup of coffee like she's added in a flavour shot of cyanide — Jane doesn't find herself too surprised. Instead of shock, she just looks a little sad. Sad for him. "When you find yourself with some free time," she suggests mildly, "and you'll be getting more of that with me helping you… you should really watch Star Wars."

Every ounce of this moment is absolutely illogical. Not a bit of it makes sense. So Jane appends it with a fierce swig of her own coffee, emptying half the mug in the most necessary reflex of her life. Swallowing it down, her dark eyes eye him a bit. She hasn't missed his suspicion. In any other circumstance, she'd feel a bit offended for someone to believe she'd poison them, or maybe even a bit hurt — here it seems par for the course. She just wants him to drink his damn coffee. Do /something/ halfway human.

Pausing a moment, Jane finds a clear place to set her own drink down. Freeing her hands, lingering a bit nervously, she eyes up the seated man before her — Orlov, with his outstretched metal arm. Face revealed to her and all, he palpably intimidates her, every rigid line of him, every dark swath of shadow. Her only friend, coffee mug R2, loyally brings lightness to the moment. She's thankful for it.

It gives her enough impetus to not think about anything except right now, and that is clearing off her bench to provide some approximation of a professional workplace. A little late, Jane notices her unfurled star charts with their strange notes and even stranger — sketches of a tree? "Those don't belong there…" she rambles to herself, awkwardly, reaching to begin rolling the first of them out of sight, out of the way.

Her eyes avert back. "Coffee's OK?"

It really is OK. It's more than OK. Dr. Foster wasn't lying.

—-

The Winter Soldier— the ghost legend of the Cold War, the phantom blade that carved out the entire shape of the 20th century— stares at Jane for a full quarter minute. Complete incomprehension: for her explanation of who the blue trash bin is, for her insistence that he watch Star Wars sometime, for the odd sadness in her eyes. He looks back at the cup, as if expecting some clarification from it.

It offers none.

"I do not have free time," he elects to say instead. He watches suspiciously until she takes a big swig of her coffee… and then, only then, takes a much more measured sip of his own. A keen eye would be able to detect the obvious pleasure he takes in the scent and taste of it, however. Would be able to realize, after a few moments, that he is pacing it out, savoring it, in probably the most human gesture she's gotten out of him so far.

It's very necessary. Because the rest of him remains terrifying, all sharp lines and hard edges and deadly constant readiness. His metal arm lays across the bench, at rest only in the way a coiled cobra is at rest. He doesn't move as Jane busies herself around him, the only motion in which he engages the periodic lift of his cup. Not up until she tries to move the star charts away.

A slight hum taps his metal hand down on the sheets, pinning them in place. He doesn't want them cleared away. He seems to want to look.

Coffee's OK? she asks, awkwardly.

"Yes," he replies almost automatically. His fingertips trace the stars of Andromeda.

—-

He does not have free time.

"Oh," Jane says to that, until five seconds of nervousness is five seconds too long, and she goes for humour. "Spoken like a true New Yorker, I suppose."

She makes great pains to busy herself otherwise. Without that crucial distraction, she'd be forced to linger there, fidget, try to avoid looking at Orlov, finish her coffee, pour another, finish that too, and greatly regret it all. In the meantime, she leans over her worktable and sets to organizing her tools, her long-fingered hands laying over every tool with an apologetic sort of fussing. She doesn't like others to see her messes.

Ultimately, Jane's attention strays to star charts. To her sketches of trees growing and spreading through the blackness of space. A little red in the face, mysteriously, she rambles and tries to roll them up out of the way.

Metal fingers tap down to arrest her momentum. The woman pauses, pursing her lips, swallowing against the lingering taste of coffee in her mouth. She looks — she always has to look — and sees Orlov paying full attention down on the charts, on the stars — her stars, as she likes to think them. Jane bites down on her bottom lip. She averts her eyes, standing there, with an unknown, very dangerous man taking a very clear appraisal of the heart of her work. It makes her feel exposed, vulnerable, like she's been dressed down to a forced intimacy. No one has seen this other than her, and it's strangely terrifying.

It's also silly. Jane gives herself a silent rebuke.

Exhaling through her nervousness, she lets her eyes creep back on him. And she does have a keen eye — she notices Orlov's small, but very consistent sips of her coffee. Whatever his thoughts, Jane knows they are definitely not someone forcing himself for the sake of propriety — not that he would do that for her.

Eventually, her attention strays. His fingertips trace the stars. Jane's eyes trace his fingertips. She pauses significantly, deciding whether or not she should ask what she wants to. What the hell.

"You like the stars too?" inquires her low voice. Jane tilts her head, so familiar with the constellations she does not need to look long to recognize.

"That's Andromeda," she supplies. Her hand reaches in, not close, and definitely not close enough to touch his, but making approximations of pinpoint marks. "That star is Alpheratz. Mirach. Almach. Rest have technical names. Oh, that's Gliese 905. It's a dwarf star, slowly dying. Its light you see is only ten years old. It's one of our stellar next-door neighbours. Oh, and this little guy? Think he's a star?

Jane's voice quickens the longer she speaks, words no longer halted, coming freely, genuinely, as she gets lost in her impromptu lecture. Her voice is low, soft, and measured — yet rich with audible love. She talks about the stars like some of his marks would their children, begging for their lives. "That's M31. Andromeda Galaxy. Bigger than ours. Part of our Local Group. So many possibilities in just that little blip of light. In about two and a half billion years, we're fated to collide with it. Our two galaxies will come together and become one. Sounds terrifying, but the current models project little happening to our system. But I suppose you never know. There's so many variables out there. Goes to show nothing is meant to stay the same in the universe, save for a few laws."

Her voice lingers off. She seems to realize, just like that, what she's doing, and to whom. "Sorry. I don't shut up easily about this." Jane's attention strays to the metal arm, the reason why she's even here. "Can I… um, touch you?"

—-

Spoken like a true New Yorker, I suppose.

The Winter Soldier makes that by-now familiar expression. The expression of someone trying to reach inward to grasp at something that keeps slipping away. His brow furrows, head turning slightly as his eyes stare off into the middle distance. He's supposed to identify with that. Somehow. But how?

It slides away again before he can put a finger on it. Something else tries to slide away, too, but this he doesn't let go. His metal fingertips press down with artifical clacks against the bench surface, pinning the charts in place before Jane can remove them. Stars. Stars, coffee, New York. It's a bombardment of things that all used to matter to James Buchanan Barnes.

He listens, dazed, his eyes as distant as the stars Jane tells him about. You like stars too? That's Andromeda. See? See all the stars in her?

He knows, though. He knows already.

"I know," he mumbles. "Brooklyn was too bright. Even way out in Brighton. But we used to see them from Bear Mountain in the fall."

The moment passes. His programming clamps down and forces him onto something else. Can she touch him?

He gives her a strange look. He doesn't seem capable of processing the question, nor why she would be asking it. "You're not supposed to… be asking," he mutters, confused, as if trying to compare his recollections and beliefs with this incongruent reality. He lets go of the charts and turns over his arm, proffering it without resistance.

—-

That expression of his, there-and-gone-again, doesn't escape Jane's notice. She recognizes it on him, especially in his eyes, even if she cannot understand why.

In the ensuing moments, she fills the silence with her voice. Truth be told, Jane isn't afforded many opportunities to ramble on about the stars, liberally and freely. It's probably been years since anyone's had the patience or pity to oblige her. She talks on with a passion that takes her away — away from this moment and back to a time long ago. Back when things were far different.

She's also not the only one who retreats to there.

He knows. Those words draw her eyes and attention both, visibly surprised. The man who had his metal hand around her throat speaks like a home-grown New Yorker. Brooklyn. Brighton. Bear Mountain.

She watched the fall stars in Shenandoah Valley, Jane wants to say in return. He watched them too? When? Is he really more human than he'd like her to think?

But the thought ends, and he seems to fold back into — whatever he is. And he looks at Jane like her permission to touch makes her a crazy person. She's not supposed to be asking that. What? What does that mean? Like he doesn't have ownership of his own body, flesh or strange metal?

"Asking to touch you? Of course I am," Jane answers, bemused. "Do people usually don't?"

But he takes his fingers off her charts and extends her that metal arm. Jane pauses, and lets the charts stay where they are, spread before and under that limb, appreciating them as a possible buffer. She pauses, then gently reaches for that arm, if just to guide with her fingertips to lie flat where, she presumes, he will open its plates. She never thought she'd touch that smoothed steel alloy again. It really is an unparalleled creation. "So you've lived in Brooklyn?"

—-

For half a second, the Winter Soldier recedes, and Bucky Barnes speaks instead. He talks, with startling reminisce and love in his voice, of the places he grew up, the things he saw as a child.

Then the Soldier snaps back into place. Blue eyes blink and forget all except his false lie of an identity.

He shuts back down, propelled in part by the unfamiliar request she makes. /Can/ she touch him? He looks at her as if no one has ever asked if they /can/ in his life. She's not supposed to do that, he blurts, confused into a loose tongue by the inquiry. It confuses Jane too. Of course she's asking, she says. Do people NOT ask?

He looks at her doubtfully, unsure what to really say about that. "No?" he settles on. "There is no reason to."

As if to prove it, he docilely extends her the arm. She reaches for it, after a hesitant pause, and runs her fingers along the cool metal. Titanium and steel. Strong and smooth and hammered to unparalleled lightness. It unfolds in the wake of her caress, her touch almost seeming to unzipper the mechanical limb… though that is merely an illusion generated by his obedient opening of the plates just as her fingers pass over them.

So you've lived in Brooklyn? she asks.

He gives her an odd look. "What are you talking about?" he asks, completely serious.

—-

Frowning to herself, Jane struggles to keep up. If just with this moment — forget about trying to keep up with this night, this week, this strange life of hers.

For an instant, she almost thinks she's speaking two different conversations — both he seems to relay back to her and only one he actually understands. This Orlov, he confuses her. Jane never studied to understand people. Give her stars. Give her mathematical constants. Give her physical laws, immutable and static.

It makes her uneasy to envision a life where others touch you without permission. Is that the same life that necessitates a man a metal limb and to wear guns on his back? If he's a killer, who does he even kill for? Questions among questions, and Jane bites her tongue. She knows he won't answer them.

He just asks questions of his own.

Her hands pause on his arm. The woman looks up, pinned by the questioning look he gives her. Jane is just as confused. "Brooklyn," she says, with furrowed brows, uncertain if she's being toyed with and appraising Orlov for any trace of guile. "You just said —"

Should she even care? Jane's eyes turn down when his metal arm opens up to her, its second time ever, revealing again its ingenious interior of sensors and wires. Not wanting to harbour confusion while working, she just blows out a breath. "Nevermind."

With that, she pulls up a chair, careful and nervous not to position too closely, and endeavours her attention lower on the arm than she did last time, giving a brief re-assessment of her own repair work before turning her attention down on the metal wrist. Her hands close in to try to manipulate the limb, even aware of its power and weight, Jane handles him so delicately, her tough feather-light. The man has never truly answered her — whether or not he can feel her — but she has her ideas.

Her motions brush the papery star charts left open, still lining the table. Jane eyes them briefly, and gets an idea. "My favourite constellation is Lyra," she speaks up, after a long half-minute of silence. "It was one of the first I remember ever picking out of the sky. I found Vega with my first telescope."

—-

This Orlov, he confuses /himself/. He is two men in one body, and only one allowed to drive at any given point in time.

It seems the Winter Soldier is firmly back at the wheel, however. Jane tries to make conversation along that abortive earlier thread— that hint that he had some kind of life, some human existence— only to be met with complete lack of recollection. He stares askance at her and asks what she's talking about.

It takes her visibly aback, Jane sitting back in her chair and trying to figure out if he's playing with her. He just said— she starts, only to trail off and ask herself if it's even worth it. If he can't remember, then there's no point, and if he's just toying with her in some sick mind game… well, there's no reason for her to play along.

The Soldier seems happy to let that conversational topic go too. He lays down his arm, lets it open up, and leaves it limp. She sits beside him— but not too close. No sense placing oneself right between the lion's paws.

Yet even that fear dims as she starts reacquainting herself with his arm. Slightly bolder than before, she grasps and turns it by the wrist and forearm, levering it up from the desk surface. It is obviously machined to be as lightweight as possible, but nonetheless it still weighs heavily in her palms— almost too heavily for her to easily lift. The palpable power in the limb seems as much sourced from its sheer weight and sturdy construction as anything else.

It begs the question how he manages to move it so swiftly and deftly.

He seems content with the silence, but Jane is not. After a moment she starts to speak again, telling him her favorite constellation. Lyra. He does not engage her quiet conversation, but neither does he tell her to stop. His eyes half-lid, listening, calm.

—-

Her hands, smaller than his, and thousands of times more breakable than that prosthetic metal clasped in her fingers, are strangely gentle, and deliberately careful. Enough so that even Jane wonders it of herself, and why she is being so attentive with a man who held her down by the throat and reminded her coldly of her mortality. She supposes, just the same, is that man who hasn't yet killed her — who could have by now assured her cooperation with effortless violence, and yet has not.

In the end, she can neither find a reason in herself to handle him coldly, or dispassionately, or roughly.

That arm opens itself to her, and she find herself rewarding such a rare gift by easing her fingers so delicately among its circuitry and wires, making exceptional pains not to worry its hundreds of — what she knows — are sensory nodes.

Jane's eyes flick up, and steal a momentary glance of the man's — of Orlov's face. It's rude to stare, she knows, but she weighs his features with her gaze. Is there a man in there? Who couldn't see the stars in Brooklyn?

Did he look for them once the way she did? Her father took her to the Blue Ridge mountains on autumn nights to set up their telescopes. It's hard to imagine this man, with all his guns, with all his metal, with all his — vacancy in his face, to share something like that with her. Do they really have something in common, her and him?

And why is Jane so curious to keep testing it?

She tries a new angle. No questions. No digging. She just decides to talk about her stars.

"Thousands of years ago, Vega was our pole star," Jane continues her lecture. "Twelve thousand years or so. So three times predating recorded civilization, our ancestors were travelling North by that star. I feel like I've been travelling by it too. Maybe not North though, but somewhere." She turns her head, attention riveted the moment she gets her first good look at his arm's opened wrist. She didn't look this closely before. Every guess she made was just that — a guess. Jane tries to gently, so gently sort through the wiring to feel down to its joints, its gears. "Kepler's got its eye on Lyra now. Discovering new exoplanets every week. Some in systems just like ours. There are millions of Earths alone in just that small patch of sky. Earths, or realms, I guess some call them."

—-

It is hard to remember that he did do that. That mere minutes before, he did pin her by the throat and tell her that to him, her continued life was no more than a determination of convenience or lack thereof. Hard, because there are moments where he swings between extremes of personality and emotion and becomes as he is now: quiescent, docile,

Hard, because no matter the extreme he occupies at any given time, he has yet to actually, truly harm her. He clearly has the strength to— she has felt that clearly enough the few times he physically corralled her— but not a single one of his touches has hurt.

One could say it was simple self-preservation instinct. Be kind to your captor, and gentler treatment will follow. But it's always tough to say where the lines on that begin and end. Where the behavior stops being self-preserving and starts being something done because you want to. Because it's just your nature. Because sometimes your captor talks, so gently, about his childhood…

…only to not remember a bit of it a minute later. It is an odd, sad moment. But even if he cannot seem to recollect what he just told her, that apparent interest in hearing about the stars remains.

It is hard to imagine having commonality with him, especially now his expression has returned to being so… empty. How could one have commonality with a man who seems only a few steps removed from being an armed robot? There is a despairing, vacant passiveness about him as he sits and lets her work on him — the same that he showed the last time she put her deft fingertips into the guts of his arm. It is equal parts a conditioned reflex to being worked on, and an apparent interest in the things she has to say. She talks about the stars, about other worlds out there, and he quietly absorbs.

"Kepler?" Maybe not so quietly. The only Kepler he knows was a man who died centuries ago. Her fingertips brush something in the metal bones of his wrist, and his fingers twitch.

—-

Realms, Jane repeats in her head. The thought takes her away, and her soft-voiced instruction lingers off into silence. She still works, patiently and reflexively, fingers sorting through the interior of his arm, but her brown eyes gain brief distance, pensive, almost wistful.

Then a question brings her back. Stirred back out of her head, and looking more than a little surprised to hear this Orlov speak again — ask her a focused question on some of her aimless rambling — that Jane's mouth opens for a speechless beat. He was listening to her.

"It's a space telescope," she quickly clarifies, almost happy to answer. No one, not even mysterious men that coerced her to complicity, are deserved knowledge. That, and Jane appreciates the opportunity to simply… talk. Not many listen to her. "It trails us in the sky. It has a photometer — a device that detects distant light. We use the differences in light intensity, like a subtractive method, off distant stars to measure their planetary systems. So they aimed it at Lyra and let the light tell their stories. We've found planets similar to ours, in habitable zones, perhaps with water, perhaps with life. All that separates us is time."

She sneaks a quick glance of his face, and then turns her eyes back down again, all to mentally tally a true count of his arm's wires — finally allowed a long enough opportunity to begin imagining how they modelled his sensory system. Jane has so many questions. She just wants one conversation with the people who built this. Who are they even? Have they built other things like this? Do they have room for someone like her?

Her fingers brush something. His fingers twitch. The woman pauses, lips parted, face frozen in visible dismay. "I'm sorry," Jane blurts, finding herself apologizing — she doesn't like the idea of manipulating machinery that is still /someone's arm/. This isn't like doing repairs on one of her auroral sensors. She stops. "Actually — "

Then, head tilted, she reaches to lightly lay her hand over his, and repeats the accidental brush of contact.

—-

It is a surprise. He didn't look like he was listening, with his eyes faraway and his body slack. But it seems that he was. Enough to pick out one strange word in all her ramblings. Enough to ask about it. Kepler. Kepler was a man. But she spoke of 'it.' Why?

Thinking 'why' tends to hurt. But lately, it hurts less and less, and he wants to ask it more.

She answers, happy to do so. His head cants back, gaze watching the ceiling, as she explains it's a space telescope. He considers this information, brow furrowed. "A space telescope," he repeats. "Seems redundant. Unless— they put it… /in/ space?" His head lowers again, shaking, as if such a thing is beyond belief. Put it in space, he mouths silently, to himself. "Ah. But they put a man on the moon, too. I remember… I remember that."

He didn't get to see it. That was a year he spent in stasis. He only got to read about it, years later, when he was unfrozen for a job.

Thinking about that is depressing. He lapses back into silence. Jane does, too, absorbed in getting a much better look at his arm's internals. She's certainly in a less panicked frame of mind this time, able to properly appreciate its workings now she isn't in her own home. Isn't vulnerable, with no devil's pact to give her dubious protection. Her fingertips explore deeper— and hit something. Make some unexpected connection. It makes his hand jump, the fingers twitching shut.

She apologizes immediately. The man is silent in the face of her remorse, only blinking up at her with that same indifferent patience. He doesn't seem to care at all, which emboldens her.

She lays one of her hands in his. Then she repeats that initial contact. His fingers close again— this time around hers. The longer contact seems to trigger his hand to clasp down and stay clasped, holding hers lightly. It is a grasp she could escape trivially if she wanted, but the power inherent in those titanium-steel fingers is extremely palpable.

—-

They put a telescope in space?

"Sure did," Jane replies, matter-of-fact, not trace of bewilderment or patronization in her voice. She's learned well, through painful trial-and-error, that the general folk aren't as read-up on science the way she is. There was a time, when she was far younger, more immature, and haughty with her degrees, that she'd punish that sort of ignorance with a remark or two out loud. Did not win her any popularity contests. The Dr. Foster of now just tries to reward anyone with the interest enough to ask questions.

Because, essentially, degrees and letters behind her name aside — isn't that what makes a researcher?

"Kepler and Hubble and Chandra and many more. Some orbiting us. Some off on journeys of their own. Or like Kepler, just chasing us in the sky, following the sun forever. The atmosphere limits measurements, and even near-Earth orbit messes with other readings. Best pictures we get are from what we send way out."

For now, the man with the metal arm seems to reconcile this new world around him, this new age — one that freely sends its satellites up into space. As they should, right? He remembers them sending a man out there, to the moon.

Now that gives Jane pause. Her lips open but she can't quite find the words to say. Does he mean Apollo 11. Her father told her that story. He was a child when he say it. Got to stay up late and see Armstrong take his giant leap.

Why does Orlov remember it? It's common knowledge. Primary education save for maybe some of the home-schooled bunker crazies. He says it like he's forgotten it was a fact. Who /is/ this man?

"There's been quite a few men," Jane answers carefully. "No women, though, at least the moon. But in EVA. Up in ISS too. Next will be to Mars. Maybe even on an asteroid." She looks back down into his arm, eyes half-hooded, her expression cryptic. "Or perhaps even farther —"

Among her rambling, she triggers a reflex she did not expect. It's a mistake; Jane is visibly appalled, not one for having her engineering link back so directly to human experimentation. And that is what she's doing, isn't it? Calibrating a limb, not a machine, but a feeling part of a man, that — wait.

An idea crackles among her synapses. Jane triggers the reflex again, this time deliberately, feeling with her own hand to measure the response. Eyes turned aside, she mentally calculates the upward flexion of his metal fingers against hers, interested, fascinated, and —

— a little flummoxed, really, when his hand decidedly folds down over hers. Jane stares down, bemused, at the strangest sight of metal fingers curved in among her own. She can feel the cold smoothness of countless plates. This is so strange. Strange and something else. That was the hand around her throat. It's so gentle now. Gentle enough she could pull hers away. And she should, because this is weird, and he is dangerous. But the fine dexterity of those fingers is so engrossing to feel. And the gesture seems to keep him… calm.

"Nobody goes to the Moon anymore," Jane hears herself saying out loud, and she has no idea why.

—-

He listens to her explanations with no small amount of bewilderment. The finer points of which satellites orbit where are completely lost on him. The Winter Soldier is kept up to date on basic information that is required to allow him to pass, briefly, in society. He can work a smartphone when required, was taught the use of the Internet. He is informed of the current state of world politics and of all the major leaders every time he leaves the ice. But the finer points of science were not things Hydra ever really felt were that important for their prize weapon to know.

He only knows what he has picked up himself while on missions. Things like the fact he missed the moon landing. He mentions that, melancholy about the fact, and Jane gives him a look askance. He 'remembers' it? That's a strange phrasing. Why is it notable to remember that? Everyone knows about it.

Why does he say it like he somehow forgot about it? Perhaps he's been under a rock all his life. He certainly acts strangely enough for it.

Quite a few men, she says carefully. But no women. He grumbles at that. "Too dangerous for women." The rest seems to roll off his back, his mind having reached its limit of unfamiliar acronyms.

They are both distracted when she hits something that makes his fingers jump. At first apologetic, Jane's curiosity soon takes over, and she tries it again with her hand in his. She wants to test the flexion. It's a good thing she doesn't engage those circuits to apply full grip strength, otherwise she'd find herself trying to do science less one hand; as it is, his fingers close rather firmly, and this time stay closed.

Jane looks down, not sure how to feel about her fingers trapped in a cage of steel. Not sure how to feel about the alien physical sensation that is a hand holding hers— while being cold and hard as ice. Not sure how to feel about the fact that hand had her by the throat, not too long ago, could have KILLED her, and now she can bid it open and close with a prod of her fingertips. Now she could pull herself free as easily as breathing.

Not that she wants too. The dexterity of these engineered digits… she has to know more.

Nobody goes to the Moon anymore, she finds herself saying. Her odd companion does not respond for so long that at first it seems he just won't.

"A lot of things have changed," he eventually says, cryptic. "So much is different."

—-

Her home invader, work-destroyer, and opportune coercer, with his five guns and coricospinal metal arm and vacant expression, comes with his host of surprises. Jane finds herself acclimatizing to the strange climate that is Orlov.

And then he says something like the moon being too dangerous for women.

"Are you shitting me?!" Jane blurts, the words falling out of her before she can think to rein them back in. Under better circumstances, she'd watch her tongue even despite her offended pride, but that remark strikes a little too close to home. She'd just been explaining basic astronomical concepts to him, and yet space, even the moon, remains out of reach for her? It's like her life has rewound back to her post-doc fellowship, her field populated by nothing but men — and they sure love telling her at the grad mixers how she's just too pretty for physics. "Too dangerous? Too dangerous how? Is it the stellar radiation doing a number to our make up? Or are we just gonna fall prey to the advances of moon rock?"

Her jaw clicks shut and she stews with a punctuated huff of breath. Fortunately, Jane's temper doesn't seem to last long, a brief and vivid solar flare across her face of its own. She's too busy trying wonder how in the hell anyone can still think that way, never mine yap it out loud /in her lab/ — and reconcile that with the face it belongs to the same man whose impossible metal limb is currently lain dormant beneath her hands. Nothing makes sense of tonight, and this shouldn't make sense either.

Though Jane keeps wanting to figure it out.

Fortunately, perhaps to her own benefit, her attention absorbs back into the work he wants of her — into the arm that really does not need to coerce Jane to be drawn back to its beautiful design. She falls into a blissful tunnel vision of testing its wrist, and quick manipulation already rewards her with a reflex link between its build and a grab reflex. It's not something she expects; it's certainly not something she'd design. She is thinking differently, so much differently, as she presses down her smaller, lighter flesh fingers against those of plated metal.

She tests the reflex again and the hand reacts against hers. Jane does not even think of the latent danger in her play; that even accidentally it could mulch her hand inside his grip. She's thinking of other things. Calculations. Errors. And then why his hand seems yet unwilling to let hers go.

She doesn't know what to think of that. She also doesn't know why she's not taking her own hand back, as she could, as she should. Instead Jane rambles aloud the first non sequiter to come to mind.

So much has changed, he says.

"Since when?" she asks.

—-

This 'Orlov' seems just as surprised that Jane is outraged about his statement. It seems normal to him. He sits there, bemused, as she pelts him with 21st century norms. It doesn't really look like any of it is sinking in.

Well, his name DOES sound Russian. They aren't very progressive out there in Russia. Maybe that's it.

At the end of it all, he frowns. His fingers flex a bit, sending a ripple of movement up the plates of his arm. Does that mean he's angry at her outburst? Is he going to shut off into his murderous state again? Maybe even hurt her?

"…Whatever," he concludes, clearly disinterested in trying to keep up with the hysterics of ladies.

He gazes away again, off into the distance, as she works at the wrist of his arm. Something in there is clearly tied to the grip reflex, the same way it is in flesh and bone. Curious, already thinking of a better way she'd design it, she tests his grasp— with her own hand. That draws his eyes back, the assassin looking down at her hand in his. A frown crosses his features, not because he dislikes the contact— he is trained not to feel one way or another about being touched by handlers— but because he finds it a little foolish for her to be using her flimsy little hand to /test/ things.

Whatever she's pressed, it only seems to control the grip reflex. Something else must be controlling release, because he doesn't let her go. He could himself, of course, but it's not in his conditioning to be proactive or volitional when being manipulated.

He says something eventually, idly. It's a passing thought that comes to him of a sudden, from seemingly nowhere, like a cloud in a clear sky. A random, dissonant thought that comes and goes. Jane takes it seriously, though. Since when? she asks.

He blinks. He tries visibly to think of what he meant. He can't quite get a grip on it. His programming routes him somewhere else similar, but less dangerous. "I dunno," he concludes. "Things didn't use to change so quickly. But the past forty years… every new decade is radically different."

—-

That woman's temper strikes like fork lightning, brief and bright and burning-hot, but gone again in an instant. Cooling off, trying to decide if she will hold a grudge against that remark and deciding she is just too tired to try, Jane lets it go, and continues on with what she's agreed to do. That flare of anger does not even translate into the careful touch of her hands. It probably takes levelling an entire American city to incite Jane to get a bit physically violent.

When it comes down to it, though she's earned herself the shared designation, the vague, conditioned touches of all his handlers are certainly not the touches of Dr. Foster. Cold, surgical, and with clear objective remove, while they may be careful and delicate with the valuable experiment, at the same time they handle him no differently than an expensive object. They never look into his face; they never even notice his eyes. He is never spoken to, never talked at, never acknowledged. He is a motor that powers the exquisite machine of his left arm.

The ones who do acknowledge him only do so with fear.

Jane handles his metal arm with, what seems at the surface, that same scientific care — but she cannot even pretend objectivity. Hers is tainted absolutely, unable to mimic that same precise, flat-affect handling, and her attention breaks a hundred times to ask glances of Orlov's face. Checking for his opinion on what she's doing. Looking to see if she might be causing him pain. She is gentle too, but not out of reverence entirely to preserve an expensive machine. But because she's aware for as much as she's handling a device, she's also handling part of a man.

Jane finds herself also thinking far too deeply about the way that metal hand has closed lightly around hers. At first, she fools herself into accepting it as a way to test the flexibility and fine control of those fingers — as well as to just relish in how metal built so exquisitely feels to the nerves of her fingers. But then it goes on too long, and she runs out of excuses.

She gently pulls her hand away, eyes turned down, and then in some decision, reaches instead to take that same metal hand between her own, urging those fingers straight with a press of her thumb so she can examine them more closely. And Jane does just that, her head tilted, her head craned down close, as she eyes up the shaping of the plates that make those fingers, how they move, how the interlock. She carefully nabs his ring finger by the tip and moves it to study the joints.

Her question merits some silence from the man. Jane eyes Orlov briefly, not entirely expecting an answer. He's never actually answered any of her questions, she recalls — either shoots her down or gives her one of his strange looks. So it shocks her doubly when, after working through some strange bout of hesitation, he answers this.

Things didn't use to change quickly — but the past forty years sure did. Now Jane doesn't know what to think about that. Her eyes pinch, though her forward stare looks on into space. "Things changed quickly then too," Jane replies, "but more so for the people used to things forty years before that. Perspective is relative. And you… make it sound like you're a seventy-year-old man."

—-

It'd probably take leveling a city to get Jane violent. With any luck, the Winter Soldier won't be asked, someday, to do just that.

So far, at the least, that isn't on the horizon. His purpose here in the tri-city area is, for now, much more prosaic. A simple hit of the kind he's been doing for seventy decades. The only complicated thing about it is the fact that the man he's seeking has proven extremely hard to pin down. He was warned it would probably be a several step process, that the mark had the resources to hide behind multiple identities and the canniness to avoid being pinned down too easily. He hadn't been expecting just how difficult it would be, though.

This is already the longest he has been out on assignment, without a return to the fold, in many years. Usually, he would have long since rendezvoused with a handler by now. Perhaps that's why he so readily identifies Jane with one of them now.

Yet she has her inevitable differences from his usual handlers— a fact he cannot help but notice, and one which erodes continually at the stern fabric of his programming. He is accustomed to being manipulated like an object, ignored as surely as they ignore the tools they use to repair his arm. One would not look in the face of an engine. One would not meet its eyes. And that is all he is to them: an engine.

It chafes him, sometimes, in some primitive predator way. It chafes him because as he sits there, silent and compliant, he can smell their fear of him. He can feel the fear in the way they constantly hold themselves poised to jump back should he turn erratic. He can see it in the way they don't want to work on him unless there are multiple armed guards in the room. It chafes him because despite all these signs of his superiority to them, he is the one that must sit and suffer being nothing but an object to be maintained…

…and there is a tangible block in his mind that forces him to remain submissive in that way.

Jane, however… everything feels a bit different with Jane. He finds himself meeting her eyes far too frequently, his glances at her often finding her brown eyes already looking back at him. Her gaze asks permission constantly. It apologizes for the small pains it causes. Her hands treat him with precision and care— but respect. She works on him alone, no armed guards or armor to assure her protection, yet at the same time he does not feel any of the fear from her that he does from his handlers.

It is puzzling. He is conditioned not to grow attached to things— there is no use in an assassin who gets to liking anyone— but he nonetheless finds himself wanting to keep her around, for the simple fact that this experience is so much more agreeable than his usual repair sessions. He is a machine learning to express preferences.

He lets her hand go when she pulls it away, though. His head turns, eyes lowering to watch her delicately manipulate his individual fingers, checking the dexterity of the joints.

She asks an idle question… and for once, he actually answers. The fact he replies doesn't mean the reply is actually understandable, however; Jane looks up, bemused. It's all a matter of perspective, she says. It's all relative. Things always change more quickly if you're used to a slower, more sedate time. And that implies…

You make it sound like you're a seventy-year-old man.

His brows crinkle a little, troubled. He does not immediately deny the comment, nor laugh at it. He tries to think for a long few seconds, before he just shakes his head and laughs it away. There is a touch of uneasiness in the tone of it. "I feel like one sometimes," he remarks. "It's strange."

—-

There is no scientific reasoning for her to do this, no need for recalibration or repair just this moment — Jane Foster just needs to satisfy her curiousity.

She has to touch. She has to know. And so she finds herself slipping her hand out of his, all so she can collect that same metal hand between both her own. She handles him so carefully, as if impatient or improper handling will take this precious opportunity away, and steals away Orlov's hand into her temporary possession. Its weight is heavy, too much for her to bear for long, so she cups her own left hand over its knuckles, hers buffered between his and the hard table, as if to offer a far more yielding surface for a metal limb to relax. It allows his palm to open to her inspection, where Jane helps herself happily, using her right hand to brush and press her fingers against his.

Some part of her wants to remind her that this hand, the one that's won her full attention, was not so long ago manacled around her throat. But Jane ignores it. It is one of the advantages of scientific curiousity — that easy, effortless sense of disconnect. All she finds herself caring about is that last time, she never got to see the build of the hand up close. He needed her to fix the arm, and she was frankly too busy reconciling her own survival. This time? Jane has time to look. And time to touch.

Those constant, surrepititious glances still happen, countless ones she slips up his way, peeking at Orlov's face to reassure she still has his permission — and patience to simply have her exhaust her endless fascination with his limb. In her brown eyes is simultaneous apology and appreciation — he doesn't have to indulge her, and yet he is.

If he is even doing that, something in her head wonders. Perhaps it's more than he seems resigned to it, and that is a thought that turns Jane's stomach. For all he's coerced her — and even now, her desire to learn this feat of engineering isn't exactly a forced thing — but there's still something so inherently wrong about a man who has never learned body autonomy.

Realizing then she may be some unwanted contributor, Jane reluctantly ends all of those gentle, exploratory touches: the careful way she bends his fingers, and the curious way her fingertips follow the plated seams of his palm. She's overstepping something, she knows, and guiltily sets that metal hand back down, taking hers away.

Instead, she glances up, her moving eyes reading Orlov's face, studying his expression as he searches for the words that do not seem to come easily. Instead, he laughs, and that is somewhat unexpected too, the sound lifting Jane's eyebrows. Nervous laughter, she wonders? Or awkward. He feels seventy sometimes.

She smiles, and this one briefly touches her eyes. Jane finds some humour in that. "Nothing strange about it. You and me both."

With that, she rises to stand free from her chair, reflexively checking her sleeves to make sure they are still rolled up to her elbows. Time for work mode. "Anyway, I think I can do something for the wrist right now. Maybe not everything. I might need more time to prepare. Mind if I turn on some music? Habit of mine. I can't build without music. Lucky for you though, I have my dad's taste in music. It's all really good stuff."

Stepping backward, eyes on the man, as if silently asking herself whether it's the best choice to be /normalizing/ this as much as she is —

— Jane decides, yes, yes it is, and turns her back to the man with the guns on his back and left metal arm. Trusting him enough to do that, she detours to another table and turns on a small, battered, and entirely obsolete CD player, one that looks old, well-used — and quite sentimental. "Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf?" she asks, glancing back. She gives him the same look when she was deciding his coffee. She makes an executive decision. "Howlin' Wolf."

She taps a button and old Delta blues begins to grind tinnily off the speakers, slow and smooth and liquid.

—-

Eventually, the Winter Soldier becomes aware that what Jane is doing is not part of any repair or calibration technique. He glances at her, uncertain, as he realizes slowly that she is just looking. Just learning. Just exploring.

He isn't really sure what to make of that, but he is trained to let whatever happens happen, so he does not object. His limb is so slack that she has to exert her own strength to hold it up… something that becomes impossible so quickly that it is hard to imagine the kind of strength necessary for him to even wear this arm— much less to use it as swiftly as he does.

Her fingertips explore its smooth, finished plates, hungry for knowledge— for insight into this never-before-seen technology. Jane steals constant apologetic, appreciative looks up at him as she does— remorseful even towards a man who coerced her and put this very hand about her throat— but her glances often find themselves going unmet, the Soldier not seeming to be affected at all by her inspection. Not seeming to find it any kind of violation.

Eventually it becomes too much, and she reluctantly lowers his hand. She can't lie to herself anymore about how wrong it feels— to pull, prod, push, and manipulate the limb of another being as if handling machine, or a slab of meat— even if the subject in question does not care. It doesn't seem like he cares because he was never taught that he was supposed to care, and that in itself is monstrous.

He blinks as he feels her touch pull away, and his head turns to study her. She mentions that he acts seventy; after a pause, this elicits a laugh, though the sound carries no joy and no particular emotional inflection. It just sounds bleak. Seventy? He certainly feels that. If not older.

Jane commiserates. As if in proof, she stands up, declaring she can probably do something for the wrist, and heads to switch on some old school music to work to. She turns her back in the process, something that raises his brows, but he makes no comment.

She turns back, shortly, and asks his opinion on the musical choice. He stares at her blankly long enough that she decides for him, as before.

The music comes on, and something buried in his mind catches. Some remnant of Bucky Barnes that loved music, that danced to it, that knew all the up and coming talent of the 30s. Both her choices were his contemporaries, though she could not possibly know. He first listened to them when they were still nobodies.

So she'll turn back to find him frowning again, distinctly because of her music, that thinking line between his brows. Something sounds familiar about the music, but he can't put a finger on it.

Instead, he focuses on the CD player. That bothers him too. He thinks about it for a moment, digging through recollections of countless dry briefings about current technology, before he realizes, "Why do you still have a CD player?"

—-

As the moments pass, something worries at the edges of Jane's obsessed tunnel vision. He is being unfathomably patient with her, the strange and deadly man that broke into her home and held her at gunpoint out of desperation to have back his limb. He is being patient, and tolerant, and indulgent beyond a degree than even beyond most human standards. He is sitting there and allowing her, a virtual unknown, sit and play with the joints of his metal fingers, and most certainly not out of the goodness of his heart. He is a little too passive. He is a little too docile.

His hand is strangely slack in hers. He had told her that pain does not matter. He had questioned her for asking his permission to touch him.

Fact after fact links together in Jane's mind. It's transparent something is rotten in the state of Orlov, and it's somewhere between his weapons and unexpressive eyes and missing left arm that's been entirely replaced with metal, but even then — a man should not act this way. The fact that he does curdles her insides with a twist of wrongness. And the fact she is contributing to inspire it now makes her feel sick.

So fascinated as she is in that arm, she ends her exploration and gently sets his hand down, all of her many light and reverent touches receding guiltily away. Apology stings Jane's brown eyes. Even if he has forced her by gunpoint, threatened her work, even played a part to coerce her — it doesn't negate or make better her potentially treating him like some sort of device or scientific discovery. She may not know what sort of man he is, other than mysterious and dangerous, but he is still a man. And she has morals, boundaries, rules.

He studies her when she withdraws. In this moments, Jane has trouble meeting the man's blue eyes after managing countless ones before. Her gaze remains diverted, her lips pursed with shame. Only his remark back at her seems to bring her out of whatever that is — whatever those thoughts in her head — and she answers with a minute, but sincere smile.

He feels old. She does too, sometimes. So Jane proposes a bit of old music to fit the mood.

All at once, the lab itself seems to reshape under that roaring music, old blues filling all the empty space and ceilinging the room under the stomp of percussion, and the meandering call-and-return of guitar and piano. Jane plays with the volume, increasing it just noisy enough not to overwhelm, and pleased with her choice, makes her way back to the workbench. Music has its immediate effect even on Dr. Foster, her stride a little less rigid than before, her nervousness lessening, and the rest of her desperate for the return of normal.

Or as normal as it gets, with Orlov sitting there, just as armed and just as out-of-place. He's also frowning to himself, and that draws Jane's eyes and slows her step. Her first thought is that she's made a mistake. It's probably too much for him, whatver 'too much' is for a man like that, and he doesn't like it.

She really doesn't want him disliking things. It might bring the gun back out. It might return that metal hand of his back around her throat. "Is it…?" Jane starts to ask, lingering, afraid to step too close. "I can turn it down. Or off. Actually, I'll turn it o—"

Then he comes in asking her questions again. Actual questions. And this one is about — her CD player.

Jane stares a good five seconds with her jaw hanging open. Then she sobers, and jokes feebly, "Why, are they really that obsolete? It was a gift." She pauses, and then seems to make a decision, continuing her path back to the worktable and letting the blues sing on at her back. She fumbles for her tools. "From my dad. Way back when I was in high school. All his music is on CD. He wanted to hear them all, so I had to carry it into —"

She stops, realizing she's doing it again: rambling when nervous or put on the spot or just so far lost in a memory that it's hard to come back. "I guess it just goes where I go."

—-

It's truly baffling. There's transparently not even any purpose to her current manipulations of his metal hand, and yet he does not seem to care that she's playing with it— with him— as if it were just a particularly fascinating tool or toy. He sits quiescently as if this is simply to be expected. And from what he's said before— how little pain matters to him, how strange it was to him that she would ask to touch him— it probably is just something he expects.

Which begs the question— what is he? How does a man this lethal become so passive? It's as if someone reached into him and scooped out everything that makes a man thinking and alive.

Slowly Jane starts to get the idea something is deadly wrong with his conditioned docility, and refuses to contribute to or benefit from it any longer. She puts down his hand— it settles with a clink to the desk's surface— and that earns his eyes. He glances up at her, puzzled but unquestioning, as she recedes to put on some music.

The music draws out one of his rare responses. He frowns visibly at the sound, as if spontaneously recalling something that— with equal suddenness— faded away again into the haze of memory. It doesn't escape Jane's notice. She can turn it off, she says. Actually, she'll do just that—

He doesn't want her to. But he can't seem to bring himself to say that. So he remarks on the CD player instead. That elicits the story of it from her. It was a gift from her father.

When she returns to assemble her tools, she will find that he has appropriated one in his right hand. It's one of the smaller spanners, about the length and width of a good blade, and he handles it like one nervously in his hand, the motions an apparent nervous tic as he listens to that music she should know.

"It's not just that it's obsolete," he says, softly, his mind preferring to tread back into more familiar thoughts. "It's that the obsolescence is notable." She's rambled her thought processes any number of times at him before, talking out her thoughts and conclusions in her areas of expertise; it seems now she's being given her turn to get a glimpse into the mind of a master assassin. "Everything else about you is obsessed with high technology. The latest. The most cutting edge. And then… there's that."

The spanner flips deftly in his hand. He lets it point at the CD player. "When things stand out, they're important. Important to their owner. The one thing they'll always notice." His blue eyes are half-lidded. "The one thing they always go looking for if you move it."

—-

In the end, Jane lets the music play. Distracted instead by the question off the man's mouth — a legitimate question aimed on her — she tentatively returns to where he waits, at her workbench and among all her scattered tools. He looks like just another scattered tool among them, and that feels so wrong to her. Wrong that a man should be that way.

One of her spanners spins nervously but dextrously among his fingers. She follows it with her eyes, unable to look away. His restlessness makes her restless. But Jane is also so fascinated.

He asks her a question that, even she knows immediately, is unusual. It has nothing to do with their arrangement; no bearing on the new and strange relationship she's forged with the man to his favour. It offers no insight or answer on how well she can work for him, or how she may be able to mechanically improve his advanced metal arm. It's a nothing question, and obviously, past whatever knowledge or skill she can impart him, Jane means nothing to him too. So why?

Even more bewildering is how she answers him honestly. She supposes she has nothing to lose to lie. Nothing that can be harmed or taken from her by sharing that the CD player, old and worn and scratched, was her father's gift to her. It's not like he or anyone could even hurt her father now. But not even that answers why Jane pauses a moment, collects her thoughts, and lets the frank honesty well out of her. Maybe because it makes this moment less innocuous, and feel more like a genuine conversation between two people. Maybe because it feels nice to speak that memory out loud, and possibly out of some future sad dream. Maybe…

Ultimately, Jane gets caught up in the thought and the words spill out. More and more until she stops herself. Too much information, and seriously not in the right place or time. Or to the right person either.

Deciding a strict return to work is the best bet, she finally takes her eyes off Orlov, and faces the table again to fumble through her tools. Jane thinks she has found a solution for that wrist. Not the joint entirely, not as she first thought — its replacement will only be tertiary to the design. It's the plates. She knows they are fitted to lock, or so she has calculated, and he cannot lock them at the wrist when he needs movement. What about a design that can do both? The structural version of an ergodic transformation?

Clarity comes to her brown eyes. And for that reason —

— Jane looks over one moment too late, blinking away her engineering breakthrough and hit with the surprise sucker punch of Orlov speaking. Speaking again to her. She tilts her head, looking down on where he remains seated, looking a little deer-in-headlights. He's talking to her, but it's not warning her to stay focused, or reminding her she should work quickly, or threatening her compliance. He's speaking to her — really speaking to her. The affect to his words makes her think of her stories to him, about the stars, about the the constellations he seems to like. It's his turn, and for some reason she cannot explain, he is imparting her his knowledge.

She just has no idea what to feel about it.

Listening, gazing on with eyes that seem to plead, Jane just imagines him in her lab, looking through her work and selecting the CD player as disparate. She imagines him moving it. She imagines herself looking for it, unable to work without it there, worried and angry with herself for being so absent-minded. She imagines how easily he would kill her, luring her predictably to where he wants her. She'd never even need to see him there.

Jane looks down to where her hands are nervously gripping the edge of her desk. She realizes her heart is pounding. At that moment she realizes she can't do it — she can't bear another moment of not asking him the one question she's been avoiding. She needs to know.

Her dark eyes turn back up, nervous, but resolved. "Do you kill people?"

—-

The Winter Soldier remains right where she left him. He is so still, his arm so prominently displayed in all its inhuman metallicness, that he looks like just another dropped tool among her many others. It is a disconcerting sight, one she doesn't want to think about too much— but cannot stop herself from worrying over in her mind. The same way his hand can't stop itself from its restless patterns of killing, that spanner spinning exactly as a knife would in his grasp.

She expects him to say something impatient to her, looking at that restlessness. Expects him to demand why she isn't working faster, to threaten her again, to force her to get down to business. Instead he says something… without purpose. Something meaningless, in the grand scheme of things, except as… small talk. Simple bonding conversation.

Or so it seems. He talks on, and soon it becomes clear his observation of her CD player has a darker application. Perhaps in some strange attempt to meet her stories to him about her expertise— the stars, the sky— he offers her, in turn, a little narrative about his own expertise. A little story about how a career killer works.

Jane can picture it. How he would observe her until he realized that one disparate thing among her possessions. How he would deduce its importance. How he would move it, hiding it somewhere, driving her to distraction searching for it because she couldn't have lost it— can't have lost it—

How she would eventually find it, right where he wanted her for the easiest kill, placed dead-center in the metaphorical web he wove for her. She would die before she had time to feel anything but joy at having found what she thought she lost.

Her hands white knuckle on the edge of her desk. The question that she cannot help but ask finally bubbles up. She straightens her spine, resolved, and looks him in the eyes. Does he kill people?

She might be a little peeved to find that her moment of resolution doesn't even seem to merit his attention. Something has him staring off beyond her, alert as a wolf that has heard a rabbit, his eyes scanning the dark around them.

Everything happens so fast, in the next few seconds— simultaneous events stacking up into one confused flurry of motion. There's a muted pop, at just about the same time the Soldier leaves his chair and closes the distance in a lunge straight at her. He moves too quickly for her to even comprehend, much less do anything about, and before she knows it he is beside her, his metal arm snapped up in front of her.

Two bullets glance off his arm and off into the dark. Their trajectories were aimed straight for her chest. One ricochets so narrowly it passes through Jane's hair.

The Soldier grunts with dissatisfaction, his right arm gripping Jane's shoulder and pushing her down. "You're popular," he remarks, as he urges her into the dubious cover beneath her desk. One sidearm is already unholstered and ready in his free hand. "Or maybe I am."

—-

He does not answer. He does not even look her way.

Jane Foster waits with breathless expectation, hoping for the best and bracing for the worst — waiting for the answer that will surely free or damn her. She regrets asking it, because it's going to change everything; she can force compliance inside feigned ignorance. But if she knows she's contributing to something terrible, something or someone who freely spills innocent blood… perhaps even the threat of her work and her freedom will not be enough to bind her. She has limits not even her heart can bear.

She would die for her work, for her dream to become real — but would she sacrifice another life to ensure it?

Only silence meets her demand. Jane's eyebrows tic, all the rigid resolve on her face revealed for the crumbling artifice it is. Her lips part, because it means she must repeat the question to make it heard… but asking it just once is already too much. Her hands tighten on the table edge and she feels her temper brew. He isn't even /looking/ at her.

Jane snaps open her mouth to speak —

— and freezes, seizing taut, as the man lunges at her.

Jane can't move. Jane can't speak. She doesn't even have the moment to contemplate her mistake. All she can do is hear it — a pop in the air and a shatter through glass, following by two shrieks of glancing protectile ricocheting off that extended metal arm. One whistles past her ear and wings a dark lock of her hair.

She does that thing people do in situations like these — when they don't understand. When they don't want to understand. She freezes.

She stares placidly down at that outstretched metal limb that just saved her life.

It takes that heavy, forceful hand on Jane's shoulder to make her move, and snapped back to reality, she folds, pressed into a crouch as both her hands lay flat on the concrete ground. Looking up, her pale face is written with incredulous shock, drawn only to latch onto familiarity in a moment of danger. Her eyes lock on Orlov's face. "What?!" she blurts back at professions of her popularity, more than a little in shock. "What that just?" Did he just?

Something occurs to her. Something very important. "My lab!" Jane cries out, struggling against that hand on her shoulder, trying to force against it as if desperate to get back up. "My sensor nodes! My server! I can't —"

He can trace the trajectory of the shot in a fraction of a second. There are no windows in Jane's storehouse lab — none save for high-up, vestigial leftovers of an ancient ventilation system, little slivers of awning windows located so high they run ajacent to the roof. One with dusty glass shapes the holes of two bullets, and reflects the darkness that still waits outside — though he would only have to spatially recall that a taller apartment building sits in that direction, occupied by the near-destitute: people who would neither notice nor care of a sniper taking spot in one vacant apartment, at one darkened window, pointing a rifle down.

The Soldier can see what others cannot so easily. Like the play of light off a lens four hundred yards away.

—-

The Winter Soldier fails to answer her question for long enough that Jane starts to feel a resurgence of irritation instead of apprehension and regret. Is he even listening? This was an important question she asked him. Doesn't he get how important? It will inform everything about how she feels about their terrible pact. The answer could mean her life or death— could mean the life or death of others. Why isn't he paying even the slightest hint of attention?

Eventually she snaps. She opens her mouth to say something— anything. And very suddenly, he answers her by springing from his chair like a catamount.

She does the worst thing she could possibly have done, were he actually aiming to attack her. She freezes up, locking in terrified place, as her vision fills with his dark frame. The metal of his arm whirs loudly right by her head as he snaps it up, reaching it around her. This is the moment— she asked too much, pushed too hard, and now he'll wrap her in that arm and break her in half in its closing grip.

Except he doesn't. Instead, dumbfounded, Jane watches as he saves her life. Two bullets ping off the metal. One kisses her hair in parting.

The next minute she'll find herself under the work bench, shoved there by his insistent right hand. Her eyes lock on his face, but his is turned away, already calculating trajectories and angles. No windows, except for a few right near the roof, high up. The ones with bullet holes in them face an apartment building. He can see the play of light off a scope.

So of course, Jane blurts something about her lab and tries to get out from under cover, right back into the sniper's line of sight.

The Soldier scruffs her with a growl, hauling her back and lodging her even more deeply under the desk. His head turns, his blue eyes narrowed. "The fewer opportunities you give them to shoot at you, the fewer chances they'll have to accidentally blow your shit up. You get it? Stay here or I swear I'll kill you myself after all."

With that dubious instruction, the man ghosts off. He slides out and around the corner and is gone.

The sniper takes a shot at him as he goes. He glances it off his arm again, letting the gunman plainly see him making a beeline for the door of the lab that will let him out closest to the apartment building. He ducks back into cover afterwards, but the last the sniper sees of him, he's still heading for the exit.

—-

Most people are genetically-imbued with some sense of survivability. Some sense of knowing what to do, or what not to do, in the crosshairs of clear and present danger. Sensible people. Rational people. Smart people.

It appears Dr. Foster is not one of them.

For an instant, she sees only that metal arm reach for her. Turned on her again, is all Jane can think, because she said something wrong. She asked the one question she should not have, and stepped past the last boundary the man had set for her. Even all she can do for his arm is insufficient, because now she's become his liability. Maybe it is for the best it happens so fast. No time to regret. No time to be afraid.

All Jane has time to do is squeeze-shut her eyes, and hope that it won't hurt.

It doesn't. It doesn't seem to hurt at all, no shock, no momentary pain — nothing. Jane opens her eyes, large and brown, and focuses them up… on him. The man who calls himself Orlov, standing closer to her than he's ever been — so close she can feel the warmth off him — eclipsing her sight with his face, his blue eyes. She hears the ring of metal on metal, sharp and deafening, the noise making her jump, head turned and reverie broken in time to realize his outstretched metal arm is —

— protecting her?

In the next instant, he wrangles her down beneath the table, into safety out of the sniper's line of sight. Jane folds down mechanically, too shocked to resist, before her first fearful thought races to mind. Most people worry for their lives.

She just blurts something about her lab and tries to desperately struggle back up. She hasn't backed up today's calculations! Her sensors are in the open. They're going to get shot apart! They're going to get broken! It's years of her work, and she can't go lose it! She can't lose all that precious time and effort and —

He grabs her and thrusts her right back down. Jane fixes the man with an incredulous look, bright and vivid with its outrage. Did he not HEAR her? She's talking about her LAB! "They're after you, right?!" she asks, her voice a little winded. She's still catching up, not even fully realized she should have two bullets in the chambers and ventricles of her heart. Of course they're after him. People don't target her. People have never targetted her. She's just a researcher. "Who are they?! Wait —"

Jane moves like she wants to scurry back out. Her spectroscopes. They are NOT destroying her spectroscopes. But he stops her with a fierce look and far more fierce words. Stay there or he'll kill her himself.

At any other time, she might look properly cowed, even genuinely afraid. Now, Jane Foster just looks up with begging eyes. Her fear for him is temporarily evacuated. He's the only familiar face she has, here and now, in between bullets, and she looks at him as if grasping for safety. So she only looks all the more shocked, even stung, when he turns and walks away.

"Wait!" Jane calls on a rough whisper. "Where are you going?! You're going to get shot at too! Don't leave m —"

He leaves her. Jane reaches after, dismayed, but hearing another popped shot startles her back under the table, forced to hide, forced to wait. Her music still distantly plays.

Distantly, one building over, the sniper tracks him with his rifle, exhaling frustration at the third deflected shot. The target goes out of sight. His own perch is insufficient, he knows, as he's compromised clear view of the exits to maintain the height needed to position shots out the only awning windows. All he is aware is that the man — the Soldier, as they recognize — is out of the building. And as he hopes, heading his way. He radios the OK to his partner.

Not even minutes later, slow, purposeful footsteps track through the lab. Slow and unhurried and tracking straight towards that same work table. Jane blows out a relieved breath. He came back for her. She hopes she's OK. She heard another shot.

Legs, half-shadows, come into sight from her hiding spot. Jane freezes. She doesn't recognize those clothes, this boots, those —

A man crouches down. Strange to her, faceless, unremarkable, with hard eyes that recognize her. He has a gun in one hand. He reaches for her with the other.

—-

He almost doesn't get ahold of her before she worms her way past him and right back out into sniper fire. It was the last thing he expected her to ever do, because it's just not— what sane people— do—

He bodily thrusts her back into cover, and she has the audacity to look angry at HIM. Her sensors! Her data! The Winter Soldier gives less than zero fucks about either. They're after YOU, right?! she demands. He gives her a searching look, not quite sure. "Maybe," he says. "Hard to tell. People usually go after me if they see me, even if I wasn't the first target."

He doesn't explain that even the least bit before— with a unique threat to ensure her safety— he starts to turn away. Something about the look in her eyes stops him temporarily, however, his sharp cold gaze hesitating at the pleading in her eyes. It has been decades since anyone looked at him as if holding onto something safe. Decades since anyone wanted him NOT to go.

Something about that seems familiar.

He shakes his head slightly. No time for that. The thought drops away again as he slips out into the dark. He vanishes, with only another attempted shot from the sniper to indicate where he wound up going. She doesn't even know if that shot hit or not. If she's alone now, her life gone back to being blissfully uncomplicated.

Several minutes pass, in relative silence. Music distantly plays. And eventually, slowly… something else mixes in with the music. The sound of someone approaching, stealthily, hunting about in the dark. At first she thinks it's him, up until someone distinctively unfamiliar stops by her hiding spot. Up until unfamiliar voices crackle over a radio, muted but just barely audible to Jane while she's this close. "Yeah. That was the Winter Soldier. Shit, I'd bet on it. But he's out of the building."

The man right beside her hiding spot acknowledges the information. Then he leans down, gun in hand, and reaches to extract Dr. Jane Foster.

A slight noise shivers in the air. Jane would recognize it by now. It's the sound of a metal arm moving…

…and a moment later, the man in front of her simply vanishes, yanked clean off his feet by something clamped onto one ankle. He claws ineffectually at the floor and then is gone.

His sudden disappearance opens up her field of vision, no longer blocked by his looming body. It gives her a great view of the moment when the so-called Orlov, crouched low to the ground out of line of sight, with his metal hand locked around her erstwhile aggressor's ankle, whipcracks his body and slams his victim full force into a support pillar, snapping him in half with a horrific whine of metal and gears.

The body crumples. Still crouched, the Soldier leans in over it, finding the radio and pressing transmit.

"This mark is mine," he informs, voice cold and remote. "Fuck off."

—-

They all leave her in the end. Father or friend or failed ex-boyfriend, man or alien or descended god. They pass through her life like changing seasons, with beginnings and endings, and never stay. They promise her they will, Jane has come to expect nothing else.

So not even she can knows why she calls those words after him, the man with the guns and the metal arm and the threat to destroy her life, beginning him not to leave her alone. He looks down at her, where he's stashed the scientist under her own workbench, and meets her eyes, dark and wide and hopeful. Jane begs him with a gaze that seems to reach past the distance between them: a look that feels like a hand slipped in his, hanging desperately on. Please don't leave her.

But he does. He turns away and melts into the darkness, as if turned into just another errant shadow. Jane, for as much as she's wished that strange man out of her life, feels his painful absence the moment he's gone, loneliness creeping in like a stinging chhill. He did leave her. Did he even say he'd be back?

Curled under her hiding spot, keeping low to the ground, Jane waits through minutes that feel like tiny eternities. Over the distant, tinny sound of her music, old Delta blues switching song after song, the woman strains to hear. After that third shot, there is no sound she can pick up — no sign Orlov is here or gone, alive or dead, or that the faceless sniper behind that pointed gun is still on watch.

Silence is the worst sound of all. A mind like Jane's, overactive and torturous, forms a million terrible possibilities.

Then she hears footsteps. Jane holds her breath. Her swell of hope is unexpected and intoxicating: he came back! He —

A radio crackles with a voice she's never heard before. Jane's hope poisons over into dread, and she goes still, staying low to the ground and forced to listen. Someone's conversation trickles past her, and makes mention of someone named the Winter Soldier. Her eyebrows knit. They mean Orlov. She's never heard that name before in her life. What does it even mean?

Not that Jane has long to wonder. Someone's legs and feet come into sight, strange and unfamiliar, and slowly closing in. Eyes forward, she frowns to herself. No way out. She's cornered, alone and unarmed, unless she can make some kind of run for it. Realizing that may be her only shot, the reality slowly sinking in that she's truly in some sort of danger, with only herself left to stop it —

A man crouches down and blocks off her escape. Sinked on bended knee, a heavy gun held in one hand, he meets her with a sharp, discerning eye. He looks at her like he recognizes her, like he's seen her face before — studied a hundred times the photo of his mark. He reaches for her and her blood goes to ice.

His hand stops short of ever touching her. Its fingers flex in the air, shocked, arrested.

And Jane hears moving metal. Then, just like that, so snakestrike-quick it makes her cry out in surprise, that man rips free from her, pulled back by a force too strong to be human. Able to see again, and see the woman does — so much her brain struggles to parse it all at once.

Her first thought is it's Orlov, he came back, he didn't leave her, /he/ came back for /her/ — and she's so relieved, so grateful. Her second thought is that it's his arm — he just used it and he protected her — he helped her. Her third thought —

— there is no third thought. Because the strange man, whipped uselessly away, snaps in half on a concrete pillar. Jane hears bone pop, and claps one hand over her mouth, horrified. Her vantage point is hampered, and she can only see the shoes, the legs, of that man moments ago reaching for her, no longer moving, no longer… something. Is he dead? Did she just hear someone die?

A voice pulls her back from her thoughts, low and cold and completely familiar, as the Winter Soldier, still low to the ground, takes the radio of the corpse and makes direction to the sniper. He calls her his mark.

The frequency crackles with static, signal alive with someone listening, someone taking in every word, realizing what has happened, realizing /who/ is speaking. He says nothing. He cuts his radio and the line goes dead.

Jane remains hidden under her table.

—-

Never has the Winter Soldier confronted someone who was upset about him leaving. Who pled for him to come back. Never, in all his remembered existence, can he recall someone being distraught to see him go. Usually, they're distraught that he showed up. Usually, they want more than anything to see him gone. To escape him.

Except sometimes, he feels like this isn't supposed to be the norm. Sometimes, he feels like people are supposed to miss him. Sometimes, he feels like he was lost before, with someone crying after him. And then it was cold…

He shakes away the feeling of unease with a grunt. His attention refocuses on the new corpse he's made. It sprawls brokenly along the ground, spine shattered, bent at an unnatural angle. Now that is familiar. Now that makes him feel calm. This is what his life is supposed to be. He's sure of it.

Still crouched low, mantled over the body in an animal way, he reaches for the radio and plants a very unequivocal flag of possession. This is my prey. Not yours. And you should fuck off.

Silence descends afterwards. The Soldier cocks an eye up at the window without raising his head, looking for that telltale glint of light off the lens. It's not there, but he's too canny to think that means he can freely stand up yet. Rocking back on his heels, he contemplates the body… and then, finally, glances at Jane.

"I probably should kill him anyway," he remarks, wry, the humor in his voice clashing with the dead matter-of-factness in his eyes. Nothing about this entire situation seems to affect him any more than filing or faxing papers would faze the average office worker. Just another part of the job. "No use in loose ends that'll probably just make another try." He turns back to the corpse and seizes it by an ankle, preparing to drag it out. "I have to take this out anyway. I'll be back."

He eyes her. "Don't go anywhere."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License