Armistice, pt 2

December 01, 2016:

Part 2.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

One building away, the sniper kills his radio. There is no question now, not from his vantage, not when he can see through his scope the broken corpse of his partner. It is the Winter Soldier, and that knowledge only affords him one, single recourse. He dissembles and stores his rifle with blinding speed, a oft-repeated motion that finishes in fifteen seconds. He secrets out of that vacant apartment and into another, opening a window and bearing his things, then himself, onto the fire escape. He is getting the fuck out of there.

And Jane, unhurt and still alive, stares at those unmoving legs and feet of what is undoubtedly a body. There is a dead man in her lab. He's dead, murdered, gone. He came in looking for her. She would be a dead body in her lab too.

Still crouched under her table, knees pressed to her chest, and hands pressed flat to the ground, feeling vibrations of movement and sound up through her palms — Jane holds there and remains silent. Her eyes gaze far away, lost somewhere in middle distance. It gets harder to think the longer the seconds tick by, with that body in her line of sight, and the Winter Soldier's voice in her ear. He calls her his mark. He speaks it like some sort of ownership.

Mark isn't a good word, Jane knows. It's a chilling word, one that invites only fear and worry, and yet… he didn't leave her.

The Winter Soldier appraises the threat of a sniper through the bullet-holed window. Then, logically, finally turns his attention level on the little astrophysicist, hunkered under her work table. Jane is already looking at him, and possibly has been that entire time. Her eyes are ever-searching, if a little unfocused. He's seen it well enough times before. Shock. It makes people think, do, say strange things, things they would normally not in moments of peril and danger, of life and death.

"You came back," Jane whispers, trembling around the corners. Things like that.

The Winter Soldier tells her he must kill again. He's going to take out the body, and then find the second shooter to join it. Jane listens, taking in every word — but with a numbness like they aren't quite leeching through, getting to all the parts of her that should react, be horrified, or care. At least not for now. There is only one thing that seems to get through, seems to pierce through the fog and reach her, and it is when the Soldier tells her he'll be back. Jane looks at him like she believes it, and trusts those words as law.

"I won't," she promises.

—-

You came back, she says, trembling.

The Winter Soldier tries to look away from the tableau. James Barnes makes him look back. He takes a second glance at her, eyes narrowed, his expression edging almost on worried, as if trying to puzzle out something about her. Something that he should remember. Something that should make him respond to this sight with… more. More emotiveness. More receptivity.

There's something he should do for people in this much distress, in this much shock… people who, in these traumatic moments, need him. He could swear he's been in a situation where he was the strongest among many weak, faltering people before, and he did something— helped in some way—

His eyes lower to the body. You need to deal with this, the Winter Soldier reminds. His identity falls back into lockstep, focused once more. You came back, she said. "I never planned on leaving," he replies, brief. "I needed him to come out in the open."

He reaches to his back, unslinging the dissembled parts of the hefty weapon carried there. It thunks to the ground with definite weight, fourteen kilos at least, and just as his distant counterpart starts to disassemble his own weapon… the Soldier methodically starts to assemble his own. He tells Jane just what he's going to do here. He doesn't expect a response; he knows the kind of shock that's on her face, and knows that it's not the kind conducive to much talking.

Which is why it's a surprise when she makes a point to promise him she won't go anywhere. This is another unusual thing— people usually don't agree to stay put anywhere he can find them— and he glances at her to find her regarding him with belief— with trust, even. Something about that bothers him, in some deep-seated 'shouldn't be happening' way. He grunts acknowledgement, uncomfortable, and clicks the last component of his rifle into place.

"Well then, keep your head down," he says, awkwardly, before he hefts the rifle in one arm, the body in the other, and stalks off as if he were not dragging with him a net weight probably close to two-fifty pounds.

Silence descends again. Silence, except for the persistent incongruous background hum of the music. It plays on, peaceful and slow in the dark.

After a few minutes, a cracking shot splits the quiet.

A few more minutes after that, the door to the lab opens audibly again. Tired steps announce her mysterious assassin's promised return.

"Probably safe to come out," he observes, placing his weapon heavily down on a desk— and on top of a bunch of her calculations— and starting to disassemble it again. The click and slide of metal is much slower now there is no urgency, the mechanical sounds almost soothing in their steady denouement. "There were only two."

—-

Jane Foster keeps her promise.

The Winter Soldier assembles together a rifle nearly as long as she is tall, and hefting its weight in one hand, towing a dragging corpse from the other, he leaves to tie loose ends. Keep your head down, he tells her, and not instructively — it reminds Jane of someone trying to fill an uncertain silence with comforting sound.

Either way, she heeds the advice. She remains huddled where she is, under the shadow of her table, drawing her legs in to press her mouth and chin to her knees. She feels her warm breath exhale back against her face. She listens.

Jane hears her father's favourite music play, a million memories contained in one of Howlin' Wolf's hundreds of songs. She focuses on it, the beat, the melody, and lets it take her back to somewhere safer. She lets it hold her there, in that comfortable place, until the single, and finalizing shot of a rifle brings her back.

Minutes later, the door opens and closes to her lab, and a familiar stride — slow amd measured and mechanical — brings the Soldier back in. Jane has not moved an inch from where he stowed her, true to her word, true to that promise off her lips. Perhaps she's promised him a little too well, because even as the man lays down his rifle to her work bench — with a solid, heavy rattle of steel that echoes down through her little sanctuary — Jane does not immediately emergy. Maybe she needs a few moments.

The Soldier tells her it's safe. Probably. Nowhere is ever perfectly safe — not a concept actually exists — to someone like him. There is no room for ignorance, and no comprehension of security. There is only what is here, and what is not.

After a pause, there's a rustle of woman under that table, and small, work-callused fingers curl around its edge to help hoist her up. Jane unfolds out of her hiding spot, her steps a little shaky, eventually righting her balance and pausing to wipe her dusty hands on the legs of her jeans. "Only two," she echoes, like she's certain there's a joke hidden there in those words, but hasn't gotten it yet.

Back to her feet, she looks up, her eyes immediately on that window, searching the far detail of bullet holes ringing the glass. Then Jane glances over, her full attention riveted on Orlov — on the Winter Soldier — and immediately lost on him. She looks him up and down, searchingly at first, trying to see if he's been shot or if he's unhurt, and cannot seem to detect any blood or wound against his dark clothes. Then her head tilts, and her appraisal changes from the modular to the gestalt, no longer looking in parts but /him/ — forced to gauge him in a new light. As a man who just murdered. As a man who also saved her life.

Then a worried thought seizes her, and Jane breaks away, backpedalling with an abrupt urgency that might make it seem like there's a third shooter, something she's seeing he hasn't, or a renewal of her old fear — to get away from him, and start running and never stop.

But Jane does none of that. Instead, she rushes over to another one of her tables, attention back on her beloved lab, and sorts through handmade sensors, assessing every single one and making sure there is no damage. She touches each little machine with palpable, almost maternal love. All seems all right, and the tension ghosts out of her turned back, posture slumping forward.

Jane then pauses, and glances back. "He was going to kill me," she says, voice low and wan and matter-of-fact. She wants a yes confirmation. It feels that way. Why would someone want her dead? "Am I your mark?"

—-

There is nothing about the Winter Soldier that suggests he is the slightest bit affected by what he did. He might as well have just faxed a few forms.

Jane is not so copacetic. She stays put right where she is even after he tells her it's probably safe to come out. At first he shoots her a glance, uncertain about this delay, but after a moment or two he seems to decide she's just being shy. A lot of people get really shy around him when he does his work.

He's not really equipped to get why. If he was, he would probably start to notice that killing on command isn't normal— isn't right.

He is equipped to be patient with this apparent frailty, however. He leaves well enough alone, concentrating on disassembling his weapon. He could have it broken down in less than a minute, but something makes him want to take it slow now. Perhaps because it's calming and familiar.

It's about that time when Jane finally tentatively emerges from her hiding place. Her huge brown eyes move from the bullet holes in the window, to a sweep of the darkness of the lab, to her companion himself. Orlov. The Winter Soldier. She inspects him silently, something he does not at first notice; after a moment he feels her eyes, and he glances back at her. He seems emotionless as ever, completely unhurt and completely unchanged. Even after saving her life. Even after killing two men.

He tenses when she suddenly jumps and starts to run… but she's not trying to run away. Nor is she trying to run at him. She's running to check on her lab, touching each and every precious sensor to make sure nothing is broken— nothing is lost. He watches her in bewilderment a few seconds, before his eyes glance upwards in a brief but eloquent roll.

He was going to kill me, she finally realizes. She says it like a question. She wants an answer. The Soldier is initially silent, thinking about that. He transparently considers several scenarios.

Probably," he concludes. "Those were kill shots. Kill shots to leave you identifiable. To show it was professional." He snorts, unscrews the gun's barrel, setting it aside with a gentle thunk. "Well Professional, after a fashion. Someone doesn't like your work, and they don't like SHIELD. Terrorists, maybe." He shrugs, removing the weapon's scope. "Terrorists all over the place nowadays."

It's possibly the most verbose he's ever been with her. Expertise in something makes him reasonably talkative, it seems.

He's significantly less talkative about her second question, however, though he takes a lot less time to answer. A frown flickers over his features, and he glances her way. "No. That was theatrics," he replies. He points at her terminal with some piece of his gun she couldn't hope to identify. "I was after that, if you recall. You objected."

He shoves the disassembled parts of the weapon into its holding sling. "Strenuously."

—-

She misses that eyeroll, attention locked fiercely elsewhere.

Dr. Foster tends to her equipment — all rough-hewn Frankenstein jobs of circuitboards and wires — with the worry and care others impart their family and friends. But he has watched her long enough to know; Jane's tools and equipment and laptops all really the only family in her life.

She decidedly lingers close to it, perhaps still nervous enough to want to hover protectively close to her work. Perhaps still enough in shock that she wants to surround herself in something safe and familiar. It's obvious, however, Jane is not indulging in work, or doing anything more complicated past occupying three-dimensional space and time, her hands fidgetting uselessly with the hem of her shirt, picking and pulling at the threads in its seam.

Even realizing she's just survived some unknown attempt of her life, Jane still comes up with questions. Jane always has questions.

And, perhaps somewhat to her continued surprise, the Soldier deigns them answers. The woman looks back and up at him, surrounded in all of her lab and still looking painfully out-of-place, with dark eyes that seem to beg for something she will not say. Jane listens quietly. They are good answers, educated answers, but they don't seem to help the drawn distance in her features or the continued twitch-fuss of her hands. But she nods along in mute acknoledgment, though seems, strangely enough, to pinch her eyes with hurt when he surmises someone not liking her work. "That makes no snse," Jane rambles tonelessly. "It's meant to help everyone."

He calls him terrorists, and for a moment, she feels she might need to sit down. Thankfully, Jane takes in a deep breath and remains upright. Terrorists are things she hears about on the news; they aren't part of her /life/. She steals a glance at the Soldier. And would even he be considered one? Probably? Is she helping terrorists now?

Don't think about that. Instead, she must think about what she needs to do now. Tell the cops? How does she even begin to do that? Tell SHIELD, of course. Tell them… something. Which parts, Jane doesn't know. The fact she has to think of 'parts' to this makes her feel all the more uneasy inside. Does she prepare for more, if even there are? Or will be? Does she take a page from Darcy's book and carry a taser?

"Do you think there will be more?" Jane asks, honestly, sincerely, weakly. She may not know who the Winter Soldier is, but she trusts him to know far more about this than she does. He came back for her, she keeps thinking.

But even that leads into a new thought. A new question to ask. And Jane knows she has to ask this one. Is she his mark? Is she someone he's eventually going to kill when she's outgrown her use? Someone he probably will, now that she's seen his face?

He tells her no. Jane searches that same, revealed face, knowing it's not yet revealed to her any trace of guile. Orlov has been intimidating and frightening, absolutely, but also bluntly honest. Even though he does not need to, he even provides an explanation why. He was here for her access to information, not because of her, or any investment or importance or life or death has to him. It's been a long enough night she briefly forgot about that. "Oh," she says to that.

She objected. Strenuously. Jane looks down at her hands. "Yeah, I can do that. Thank you."

—-

Jane doesn't like the idea of someone not liking her work. It doesn't make sense, she surmises. Her work is supposed to help people. How could people not like that?

The Winter Soldier regards her askance, as if seeing something, in the slight form of Dr. Jane Foster, he has not seen in a long time. Innocence, perhaps. A person who knows too little, instead of knowing far too much. "Plenty of people out there who don't want to help everyone," he finally grunts. "You're in THEIR way if you do."

He resumes work on his weapon. He has no opinion or insight to offer her on whether he should also be called a terrorist. He'd probably be offended if she insinuated he was one.

In fact, he seems to forget about her entirely up until she asks that sudden question. Does he think there will be more? He doesn't look up, but his eyes blink slowly in evidence of thought. "Possible," he eventually concludes. "Always hard to tell how invested disorganized groups are in something." Disorganized compared to the monolith the Winter Solder serves, anyway. "I doubt it, though. They sent two, but not very good, and not very committed. I let the last one radio in before I killed him. They probably know I am involved. Another deterrent."

He sets down the last piece of his gun and starts packing it all away. Along the way, he calmly answers her blunt question of whether she is truly his mark.

No. He did not come here for her death. Not even for her in specific. She was just the most convenient vector by which he could reach something else he wanted. And now she is something else even more useful to him. A source of repair. A source of upgrades. Which, incidentally, he still hasn't gotten.

He slings the weapon back onto his back.

"You might want to get some tighter security around you if you're worried," he remarks. "SHIELD would probably do it." At first it makes no sense why he would suggest that— why he would advise her to do something that would make it harder for him, too, to get at her. But then the realization comes; he suggests it because he is confident that while it would filter out lesser operatives, it would not stop him.

—-

Jane Foster drips of innocence. An average woman who has led an average life, with her only differences being her above-average intelligence giving her brief experiences and vast insights of a future thought unattainable — impossible. Even then, with what she knows… all she seems to want to do is advance, improve. Help.

She keeps slipping glances on that innocuous-looking cement post, one of many in her storehouse lab, though now aware of the blood it's spilled. Tonight is not the first corpse she's seen in her life, but it's still the first one she was not expecting would die — and so violently. It shocks her, disturbs her too, but she supposes she doesn't feel anything else for that random man. The one who would have killed her if not for her keeping company with someone far more dangerous.

For now, she sorts hazily through her own thoughts. They circle around, over and over, in her head like a churning storm, enough that Jane even forgets why it is the Soldier is even here, and how she's supposed to be resuming work on his arm. It's the only reason he's maintained any sort of imitation of cooperation with her. Maybe in a minute she'll catch up with the rest of the class.

Instead, she watches him dissemble and stow his gun, every motion and movement absolutely novel to Jane's eyes. She knows nothing about such a weapon like that. She'd feel too intimidated to even want to touch one.

And she really dislikes the idea that it might be in her best interest to start, considering what just happened — the possible importance of her work, and the employers she now keeps. Jane frowns pensively against the man's strangely disaffected advice to include SHIELD. Get some security. Get some protection. This isn't what she wanted. She wants freedom, independence, total control over her environment. She wants to feel like a researcher and not a rat in a cage. "Probably would," Jane echoes, not sounding entirely convinced. She makes a decision to wait on it. She's shaky now, and can't make work-altering decisions while spooked. She needs a day to get properly angry about this, and find some other way to protect herself.

What she does believe is that, at least for now, things may be safe. He fixed it. He imposed himself as some sort of — deterrent. Jane thinks that over. Like a predator pack order in the terrorist world. Whoever Orlov is, he seems like some sort of alpha wolf. Unmoved about getting shot at. Unmoved about killing. Unmoved about even access to her were she to bring SHIELD in. And Jane thought SHIELD as impressive and terrifying as black ops organizations go.

"I mean that, too," she replies after a moment. "Thank you. I know you didn't have to do this." Jane pauses, a shine to her eyes. Another question. "Why did you?"

—-

Weapon stowed away, the Winter Soldier takes one last wide glance around the lab— presumably checking a last time for any other activity— and then starts slowly crossing back over to the workbench where he started. He settles back in the chair with a sigh, as if he never left it— as if between now and the last time he was in it, two men did not have their lives wiped out. As if Jane Foster's life hadn't changed completely within a few heartstopping moments.

He glances up at her as she insists she meant it. Thank you. He hadn't understood what the thanks meant the first time, so he had ignored it; she clarifies that she's thanking him that he didn't have to do this. Protecting her… installing himself as a deterrent… giving her advice about getting more SHIELD security.

Why is he doing it?

He looks more fully up at her. His head cants. Slowly, he lifts his metal arm and lays it back on the table at his side, palm down. Well, the gesture says very obviously, there's this.

His gaze averts. Something troubled flickers across his features, leaving behind just a vague grumpiness. "There are some kinds of missions I like taking on better than others," he finally adds, without really admitting anything at all.

For some reason, the Winter Soldier always resonated more with guard missions. Protection missions. Unaware, all the while, it was because such things were a call down to his real self.

—-

Most people, appreciative of a sinister force of nature that has somehow taken them into its deadly charity, would leave it at that. Some questions are best left unanswered.

But not to Jane Foster. She must know, and she must ask. And she asks this too: why?

The Winter Soldier, as they call him, looks at her. Jane looks searchingly back, never one afraid to meet his blue eyes, and especially not now. She knows he does not even need to answer her, does not owe her anything to satisfy her curiousity — her irrepressible need to know, really — but still she hopes. And to her quiet surprise, he does.

He answers it first without words, and merely the stoic, punctuant return of his metal arm outstretched across his workbench. The gesture speaks transparently: you promised me something.

Jane gets the hint. "Sorry," she says, with a bit of a wince against her own absent-mindedness, rubbing briefly at her own face before moving back towards the man, her bench, her tools, her job to do. Wetting her lips and pushing back her dark hair, her fidgetting gestures betray that of someone trying to wring or something clean away. It's easy to guess what.

She fumbles back for her tools, stopped only when the Soldier speaks to her. The woman gives him a look as if she was neither expecting that, any sort of explanation said aloud. So she really listens to what he has to say. Her eyes pinch slightly at the corners. His words don't really make sense, not to her — but she makes a note to remember them. She'll think about it again, later.

Before, even forced to maintain closeness to repair or explore his very limb, Jane held considerable distance. Respectful distance. Fearful distance, really. Conscious distance that would keep her as unobtrusive as possible, and out of his other arm's length. This time she stands far closer, not even realizing, not even aware. That boundary of reticence and fear feels pulled down. She maintains respect where she lingers, but that prey terror seems to have misplaced — let go.

And without thinking, one of her hands reaches down to trace the plates of his metal arm, without permission, without one of her quick, apologetic, I'm-warning-you-ahead glances. Jane does not touch with that sense of propriety of his other handlers, bold and never expecting argument, but of someone who feels safe enough to touch something that is now familiar. She touches where she believes those bullets ricochetted off his arm. She thinks she can feel the scratches: the evidence of what happened.

Jane takes his metal hand carefully between both of hers. For a moment, it feels as if to hold, until she slowly encourages it to turn back over, and expose for her again the wrist.

"I can see that," she says after a pause, voice soft, "You're really good at this kind."

—-

The Winter Soldier might be memory-deficient in many ways, but apparently in this he has a crystal-clear recollection: he was promised something in exchange for him not squirreling into the SHIELD network through her servers. He expects delivery.

The resonant sound of his arm coming to rest on the bench surface says that clearly enough.

Sorry, mumbles Jane. She hurries back to attend his side as summoned, gathering her tools up. Some part of him feels a brief twinge, like he's done something to somehow diminish what was there between them for a very brief moment. The feeling comes and goes, evanescent, and within moments he does not remember that it bothered him at all.

He is thinking about something else by then. Something else that is true, which even his conditioning cannot suppress, and which answers her question. He prefers certain kinds of missions, he admits. There are layers to the vague statement Jane is not yet equipped to unpack. The Winter Soldier is not always a murderer. Sometimes he is a teacher. Sometimes he is a guard. Sometimes he saves rather than destroys.

These tasks are much easier for him to perform. They are far more in line with who James Barnes really is.

He is thinking about that still as she leans in to touch his arm— to take his hand in her own and turn it so she can expose the wrist to be worked on. There are differences about her approach that he instantly notices. She stands much closer, transparently much more trusting now. She doesn't keep out of reach of his other arm. She doesn't wince and beg permission when she touches him, though her manipulations still do not feel like that of his usual handlers.

His blue eyes lift, watching her from this new close vantage point. She says he's good at this kind of thing.

He misinterprets her. "I have practice killing," he says, with equal softness.

—-

Something does feel changed, and even to her. Whether consciously or not, Jane Foster dares to linger closer. She is still tentative in ways, and nervous in others, but it is hesitation not borne from fear as it is someone unused to prolong contact with others. It's been a pretty solitary year and a half.

But in the span of minutes, where he took two bullets off her and supplanted his role in her life from threat and potential coercer — to someone she could trust in a moment of life and death, someone on whom she could /rely/ —

Jane stands far within his arm's reach. She comes perilously close to the side of a killer, and within his presence seems to find some place of safety. She no longer fears for her life or the possibility of harm from the Winter Soldier. He has declared himself something else. She asked him not to leave her, and he came back.

Her fingers trace scratches of bullet ricochet, small, fine marks she would not notice if not looking for them especially. Jane's touch lingers there for a beat, a sliver of a moment, in something that feels both like an apology and a thank-you.

Then she takes his hand in hers, her fingers curling over his plated palm, to carefully turn that arm to bear its wrist. A press of her hand on his arm, direction without words, asks his limb to open itself again to her. She intends to go to work.

His handlers with their repairs and modifications do not feel like this. There is a sense of entreaty making gentle and light of Jane's hands — care that goes beyond appreciation for a beautiful machine. Something that was not even in her handling of him minutes ago. She looks down, so close beside him, very much here — and very much not. Pensive distance reflects from Jane's brown eyes, thinking of things that are not all her re-designs of his wrist.

He steals her away from those thoughts when he speaks. Jane turns her head, looking down, her dark eyes searching the Soldier's face. He has practice killing.

"I didn't mean that," Jane replies, attention rivetted, drawn to the way he speaks so softly back. It felt before like she was holding two separate conversations with him; now it feels like she's speaking to two different men. She likes this one.

"You have practice saving lives." Her mouth quirks up briefly on one side, and either concentration or shyness averts her eyes away, gazing back down on his arm. "Like you just saved mine."

—-

He can perceive that she trusts him now. Moreover, not just that she trusts him, but has some sort of faith in him— some idea she can rely upon him. That he provided her something which she needed.

It all speaks to her guilelessness and innocence. Or perhaps to an unmet need that runs far deeper than conscious thought will admit or acknowledge. One beneficent incident with easily explainable ulterior motives should not breed this trust. Even accounting for the natural way a prisoner will acclimate to their captor— look for anything positive about the person who has temporarily usurped their life.

He looks askance at her as she works, come trustingly in close and completely within his reach, and considers that if he needed to dispose of her now or in the future, it would be criminally easy. As simple as shooting a lamb raised from one's own hand.

Easy. Or at least, it should be. Right? Why wouldn't it be? You really overthink too much. Things are simple. Kill when you must.

He shakes his head slightly when the internal argument grows too noisy. For the time being, there are still things she is supposed to be doing for him. He focuses on that, unlocking the plates of his limb so she can pull them up and away. So she can get to work.

He only speaks once, and then to state a basic truth. She says he is good at something; he immediately states what it is he is supposed to be good at. Jane frowns back at him. She didn't mean that, she says. She meant that he has practice saving people. Saving them, like he just saved her.

The idea visibly troubles him. He looks away, as if searching for something in the distance long forgotten. His discomfort with the idea is palpable. He doesn't save people. He does his job. He kills. He doesn't save people.

Except once he did, didn't he? Except once there was someone who always needed saving.

Thinking about it all hurts. His head bows, his free hand pressing against his forehead, then spreading to push fingertips into his temples. "I don't do that," he says. "That is not—" He shuts his eyes. A shudder comes and goes. "I just do what I'm supposed to."

Therein, perhaps, lies Hydra's mistake. Since youth James Barnes was a killer for the state, true— just a different state— but the one core motive behind it that they never managed to reproduce was how much it was always about protection, in the end. Rewriting him into an emotionless killer motivated by obedience and hatred would always conflict with his core nature. Always lead to him breaking down, escaping, being caught again.

—-

Oblivious to the darker subroutines of his conditioned mind, Jane hovers closer than many have — than many should — to the Winter Soldier. She is not blissfully unaware to him; she is not forgetting how easily he broke a man only minutes ago… how he took two lives from the world and took along with their cooling bodies — but she has her faith.

There is something about him she thinks she is beginning too see, perhaps there, and she was too afraid to notice before. She's still in shock, still mentally sorting such a substantial eversion of normal, and which seems sourced from this same, strange, metal-armed man who forced his way into her life.

All Jane can do is adapt. Adapt one small step at a time. She cannot be comfortable with murder, but she can choose to infer it instead as self-defence. She cannot trust close a man who coerces and kills and refuses to free her of her usefulness to him, but she can have faith in someone who may have some instinct to protect — whom when all others left, came back.

Whatever the woman's complicated thoughts and far more confused feelings, one thing is now set permanently in stone: Jane Foster is no longer afraid of him.

That arm opens obediently to her, and with far more impetus now than before, she sets to work, carefully moving and clipping back sensitive wiring, beginning a slow and delicate reorganization to see down into the deep, hidden frame. She makes a note to invest in an endoscope. If this continues, she's going to need one. That and so much else. Tools possibly she's never seen, never possessed — will have to make solely to service that arm alone. It kills her that she can't speak to the person who made this. So many questions.

The scientist leans in closer, forced somewhat by the tight constraints of her work, voluntary in others with her newfound confidence to linger that much closer. Saving her back from an angle that would ache it worse, Jane hunkers at the Soldier's side. The ends of a bit of her hair rests on his shoulder.

She delicately unscrews bits of the joint — stopped only when, again, he speaks. Jane is a known multitasker, and even then, defaults to work over conversation. She's been known to ignore full lectures her way if tunnel-visioned enough: Selvig would attest. But his voice is so close, and she's so fascinated — fascinated by far more than just that metal arm — that she turns her head, cranes it just enough to reveal the dark shine of her eyes. I don't do that, he tells her.

"Yeah, you do," Jane argues, unwilling to believe that strange argument. She's a woman of science, and has evidence now to support her claim. But she doesn't speak it at length, not now, partially feeling too reticent to rehearse reasons out loud why or why not she should be /dead/, and partially —

— stolen as she captures the way Orlov bows his head and presses fingers painfully into his temple. Jane's brow furrows with concern. Is it a migraine? Or something's she's missed, and he was hurt somehow?

"Hey," she calls gently, voice lowered to a hushed entreat. No longer believing she will be hit, or have a hand back around her throat, impulsively Jane reaches out, emboldened to lay light fingertips over the hand he has pressed to his head. She wants to see. "Are you OK? Are you hurt?"

—-

There is much about the Winter Soldier, in these moments, that really echoes his nom de guerre. Even seated, his bearing retains a faint militant erectness, the trained neatness of a career soldier inherent in the way he holds himself. His remote aspect easily evokes the relentless silence of winter: frozen, motionless expanses as empty as the look in his blue eyes.

Of course, in the end, those were not truly the reasons that he was codenamed Zimnij Soldat. His creators wanted to evoke something else when they gave him that appellation, and they had a sense of humor. The same sense of humor that inspired the handle 'Orlov.'

Silent, obedient, he is pitifully unaware of all those hidden meanings. He serves, simple as that.

He watches, maintaining his silence, as Jane leans over his open arm and gets working. He isn't sure what she is doing, but he is sure that at the least the more obvious kinds of sabotage she could try would be evident to him. Nothing about her or her gestures seems to indicate anything amiss, however. He supposes if he is going to trust in anything in the world, he can trust the refusal of Dr. Jane Foster to do anything to willfully damage technology like this.

Her insistences on his nature keep distracting him, however. Half of him insists, loudly, she is wrong. The other half whispers that she is saying the only right thing in his shadowed world

Thinking about it threatens a headache. He rubs absently at his head, then his temples, trying to push the discomfort out where conditioning wars with his true nature. Concerned, Jane touches him, laying fingertips on the back of his hand, and it says something about his level of distraction that he does not push her away. Is he hurt?

"No," he says eventually. His hand lowers again, his eyes staring off into the distance. "I am just what I am. I prefer not to try thinking of myself differently. Could have beens and hypotheticals are painful exercises with no point."

—-

Her fingers lay so carefully over his, and not the ones forged of metal and circuit. Jane leans in, hand touched over the flesh one the Soldier presses to his temple, reaching out with just the tiniest brush of contact to try to bring him back. For many seconds, she worries. There's the very real possibility he took some sort of concussion, or bullet, or — something. Something she didn't see when he was /saving her life/ out of sight. He looks to be suffering in some sort of pain, and she —

— looks on, curious and unsure, when he doesn't even seem to notice. His hand falls from his temple, and hers with it, drawn back to her side. Jane pauses, unsure whether to proceed, then decides sensibly not to press it. She goes back to work.

No signs of sabotage come from the hands of Dr. Foster. Every ounce of her reads a lesson of its own in classical mechanics: measurable, calculable, straight-forward exchanges of energy distributed along a concrete vector. Direct and forthright, Jane seems missing any sense of guile, wearing all of her emotions outward — even the ones she tries most desperately to suppress or hold in.

Now, she betrays nothing but nervousness and lingering nerves, the shock of a promised violence and sight of actual death pulling her ever closer for a renewed sense of normal. For a recovery of safety among so many dangerous unknowns. She hovers in with faith she will not be harmed, and goes to work with the belief she can do good — can and will improve on an existing design already advanced beyond known science.

"Keep the wrist relaxed for the next while," she directs, her voice a little foggy around the corners — spoken like an almost-too-late afterthought. "Don't move or tense it. You'll feel a — twinge, I think."

And he will, like a split-second of pressure and release, as she dissembles the wrist partially, extracting with care bits of metal that she turns in her hands and studies under her thought-creased eyes. Then Jane departs, just enough, leaving the proximity of the Soldier's personal bubble for her metal-working tools, unlocking and opening the vice of a hydraulic press.

She inserts those very delicate, unmatched pieces of his arm — of him — and painstakingly begins their permanent alternations. Eyes forward, frowning pensively a hundred miles away, Jane escapes into the vacancy of her science — thinking, measuring, calculating, and not talking. Perhaps not even listening. Several seconds count after his last, confused words to her.

Then, out of nowhere: "If you honestly believed that, you wouldn't be asking me to improve your arm." Jane doesn't look away from her precision work, but the slant to her eyes is palpably critical, skeptic, not believing for a moment. "Now sit-ups are painful exercises."

—-

Whatever strange fit temporarily took the mind of the Winter Soldier, it passes equally quickly. He closes his eyes and forces it back by effort of will, his hand lowering from his face tiredly.

He doesn't make any move, however, that would actively push her touch away from him. When her touch recedes, it will be by her own decision to remove it. Either he does not notice her contact, or he just does not mind it there. It has been a long time since anyone touched him in a way that was not the cold, cautious handling of men touching a dangerous weapon.

He lapses back into silence, opting to focus on watching Jane as she trundles along on her fixed path towards the end goal of his improved arm. She is easy to read despite her attempts to hold everything in, her nervousness and shock transparent on her face and in the way her fingers tremble just slightly. He holds his quiet, head bowing, eyes half-lidding, and his lethal presence blunts until it becomes something almost comforting in its sentinel stillness.

Keep your wrist relaxed, she instructs. It'll twinge a bit.

He obeys, resisting the urge to jerk his arm as she removes small pieces of the components of his wrist. She draws back, walking off with them towards a hydraulic press. For the first time, the Soldier shows a little uncertainty. He watches anxiously as she takes these pieces of him and reshapes them permanently, restless and cagey, his blue eyes straining to see what she is doing with those parts of his body.

Somewhere in there, far too delayed to be socially appropriate, she finally answers his commentary on how he views himself.

"Asking for improvement on a mechanical component is different," he grumbles. "Speculating on increases in efficiency can't be compared to a change in basic nature."

Now sit-ups are painful exercises, she quips. The Winter Soldier snorts in obvious derision.

—-

Even in her tunnel-vision, some part of Jane cannot miss the painfully palpable tension radiating off the Winter Soldier. It thickens the air in the room.

She makes a more declarative show of it that she's being careful. She's always careful, and especially with things as invaluable and irreplaceable as that advanced metal limb — but even she can admit her own reckless, impatient science. And it is in science's best interest to placate the very dangerous man involuntarily connected to that same metal arm.

Her sharp eye and steady hands ensure accurate folds and twists in delicate alloy. Jane is reforging a new joint, and she will bet her back it's going to make everything better. Going to be the start of a sure advancement —

A clever engineer knows how to operate her equipment with razor accuracy. And a genius engineer, like the self-declared Dr. Foster, can multitask it with a good argument.

"It's not different at all," Jane counters simply, briskly, a finality to her words like someone assured her logic is sound. "What are people if not machines? Instead of steel and oil, we have calcium, iron, and water. We are closed systems governed by all the same laws, and our efficiency is dependent on our design. We alter and redesign ourselves every day. We have to. The only difference is machines advance, while people adapt. It's what life is. Progression from one point to another. Nothing stays the same. Nothing in science predicates or justifies stagnation."

Jane opens her press and eyes the re-made joint, arranging seven pieces to fit into complex polygonal shape that — apparently she devised by eye alone. Perhaps sketched days ago in that strange book of hers. Who knows with her.

With that, she reinserts himself into the Soldier's personal space, her tiny little body slipping in and around his, folding for a vantage point. Her presence lingers perilously close but does not touch — not anywhere save the returned brush of her hands back into his opened metal limb. Jane bites her lip, head tilting, as she begins reassembly.

"But everything has a point," she continues. "Every thought, every possibility, every hypothetical. No such thing as pointlessness."

—-

His eyes remain on her for quite some time, watchful and alert, as she physically reshapes parts of his body. After a few minutes of this, he seems to decide that she is not going to try anything funny, and he relaxes enough to look down into his gutted wrist instead.

He has seen his own arm opened up many, many times before, but something about this time brings him to look longer— really look. Most of the time it doesn't really bother him that his left arm is gone, and in its place sits this metal thing that he can look straight into and watch work. But there are moments when he looks and feels a pang of shock to see a machine there— moments where he feels almost out-of-body, like all the rest of him had been replaced by a machine too while he wasn't paying attention, and he's only now just realizing.

The Winter Soldier stares down at his own disassembled arm. It occurs to him to feel morose about something, but he doesn't know what he's supposed to feel morose about.

Her voice distracts him. He doesn't at first look up, but he is listening from the moment she starts to speak. What are people if not machines? she ruminates. Both have components. Both run on fuel. Both are closed systems. Both upgrade, though they call the advancement by different names. His eyes narrow distinctly like he's hearing something he doesn't like— something that affronts him— but he holds his tongue until she's returned.

"People are not machines," he says flatly. "Can you look at this — " he lifts his arm slightly, in all its mechanical humming and hinged-open plates, " — and then look at yourself, and say you are just the same as it? I would find you full of shit if you did. You are no machine. Not like this thing is. I can tell you, I feel the difference between it," his arm lowers back in place, "and my other arm."

His gaze averts. "And if you want to see pointlessness," he says, "you only need to have seen the things that I have."

—-

People are not machines, keeps insisting the strange man with the moving metal arm. Jane points him an exasperated look like he's not listening to her, a silent accusation of: did you just not hear a single word of my better logic?

It aggravates her enough to pause her assembly work on his wrist, turning slightly to slant the Soldier back a beseeching glare of her brown eyes. Some part of her wonders how it's even come to this argument, or if it's even worth it to her to argue at all — and perhaps it's her newfound comfort in the moment to engage him this way. Perhaps Jane Foster just hates being told she's wrong. Perhaps both.

Can she say she's just the same as that left steel arm?

"Yes, I can," she counters breathlessly. And then her hands turn temporarily off his wrist to touch other parts of that arm, piece by piece, section by section, in careful brushes of her fingertips. Plates. Frame. Circuits. Sensors. "Skin. Muscle. Bone. Nerve. Perception. Movement." Her eyes crease with a sudden sting of empathy, when he attests how different metal feels from flesh, even to his own mind, but the scientist still believes faithfully in her own argument. Jane gazes silently at the Soldier, her eyes sad. "If you feel a difference, it only means your arm is imperfect — the design still needs improvement. But isn't that the same of the flesh parts of us too? Not perfect and never complete. Full of vestigial parts and self-defeating thoughts."

Her attention lingers back to the reconstruction of his wrist, but Jane lingers a moment to touch its open sides. "I'll do what I can to prove my point," she suddenly promises, like a vow of assistance that extends far past his initial coercion. Maybe it hurts her to think of him feeling a seam between flesh and steel, one permanently forged on his body — she never realized he could. But it's obvious, isn't it? To have to live with that? "I'll see if I can do something to take that… difference away."

Something about her own words brings Jane to pause, to frown. Her eyes change from only only sad, to slightly pensive. "Difference. I think I get why I'm seeing mistakes, despite how… unreal this engineering is. They were conceptualizing it all wrong. All wrong."

Her lips purse, and she breathes out, mind made. Jane returns to screwing in her newly-crafted joint. "Anyway, my point still stands. Your arm is a part of you, just like everything else. And if you say things like 'I am just what I am,' then I find you full of shit too." So there.

Then he speaks of pointlessness, and her argument that all things in the world serve to have meaning — as all things, matter and energy, exist to serve infinite answers to infinite questions. But the Soldier has witnessed pointlessness before, and often. Jane goes quiet, her work stopped a full five seconds, her eyes pinched as if to imagine what that could be. Whateer her mind comes up with leaves her looking pained. "I guess I can't argue you there."

—-

The Winter Soldier looks down as Jane breathlessly points out all the components of his arm, matches them to their flesh and bone analogues, and tries to explain to him that that is why people are simply complex machines. His expression holds in polite, stubborn disagreement, patiently refusing to accept that.

"A machine is a machine," he repeats, placidly. "You can make a perfect machine, a doll, with all those things you named, all indistinguishable in shape from a man. But it still won't be a person. Because they are not the same thing. It'll still be missing something. Some breath of life you have, that a piece of metal doesn't."

She promises to prove her point. She's improve the design until he feels no difference mechanically at all, and then he will see her argument and agree with her how it is no different. He glances downwards, pensive, courteously doubtful. "The difference I feel is not a difference in performance," he says softly.

Perhaps it is because he is from an earlier time, where man could not readily modify himself on the surgical table like some modular contraptation. Perhaps it is because he no longer feels human himself, and cannot see a way clear to regift himself that designation based on what he perceives as oversimplified logic. "Yes, I am what I am. What I am is part machine."

He looks at his arm. "I guess you have some kind of a point, though. If you want to be that reductive. Machines are just metal and gears. People are just pieces stitched together too. Disassembling one of you is not substantially different than disassembling a clock. I have done both things." He tilts his head briefly back and forth, considering. "I suppose in that respect, you have a point."

His head turns, his eyes briefly curious. "Though I'd then ask you: if a man and machine are the same, why it is I am able to put a clock back together, but not a man?"

—-

"You're talking about a soul," Jane answers of that mentioned "breath of life". "And if you convince anything it can't or won't ever have one, then it never will."

And that's all she has to say about that. She's a scientist, not a philosopher, but even then she believes so fervertly that all things can be evidenced — and perhaps people are not meant to be keepers of the soul. To resign it as something that exists only in flesh and blood feels to Jane like wilfully pulling out one of her own eyes. Half-blinding herself to a world of possibility. Here she is witnessing the future of anatomical engineering, something that could help people, bring back pieces of themselves thought lost — how could that ever be considered soulless?

But this man, whoever he is, seems as stubborn as she is, adamant to reinforce beliefs which she cannot source or easily understand. And Jane doubts she'd be able to ask him just what happened to him, who he is, to make him think this way. Even if he did tell her, she may not like hearing the answers.

What he is is part machine. He says it himself.

"Machines aren't this stubborn," Jane can't help but blurt. Her father always sighed about that mouth of hers.

But then the Soldier seems to concede something. Some point Jane makes, or has made. He speaks of the components of people matching that of machine, even if to him the gestalt is vastly different. He's dissembled both in his life.

The ease in Jane's bearing locks back up, and her working hands pause before they more carefully continue. Her lips press, dark eyes reflecting scenes she cannot help but think about, because a mind like hers must always imagine, always explore. What does it look like to dissemble human beings? Her lips draw together, and though she physically does not step back, her presence seems to draw back, close up, recede.

He proposes her a question. Why can he put back together a clock, and not a man?

Jane is quiet for the longest of time. She doesn't look at him. Then she speaks, soft and bleak, "Probably because you never tried to."

There's a pinch in his wrist of brief pressure and tension, something in its frame locking into place. "I'm finished," Jane announces hollowly, and steps back. "That's about all I can do right now. Test it out. The wrist will lock the way it used to, only now you can continue moving it."

—-

You're talking about a soul, Jane observes. His lashes flicker, and he looks away. "I guess I am."

Her follow-up is not intelligible to him, however; that implication that something can start without a soul, but can attain one if it tries and believes hard enough. Beneath the brainwashing, beneath the weight of so many decades, James Barnes was a creature of the early twentieth century, and radical ideas about the soul were not popular thought back then in the West.

Only God could grant the soul, and the most meaningful souls— the ones who could truly be immortal and enduring— were the province of men. There was certainly no talk of Him granting it to machines.

it is a stubborn bias that persists beneath the layers and layers of brainwashing. An odd antiquated beat in the personality of a man who seems too young for such conservative, traditionalist beliefs. Especially since, by his own rhetoric, he is mostly machine now himself, and therefore something without a soul. Something damned. Is that truly how he thinks of himself?

The bleak look on his features, as he stares off silently into the dark, seems to say yes.

Machines aren't this stubborn, is Jane's impulsive retort to that idea. He looks at her, startled at her sharpness, and then just tiredly amused.

He supposes she does have some point, he concedes eventually. Her victory is brief and bittersweet, because he then explains that the reason he can see her point is that he's dismantled both man and machine before. There was no substantial difference in doing either.

Jane's imagination goes into overactive mode before she can stop it. Her fingers tremble on his arm, the centerpiece instrument in the violent images in her head. She closes up a little bit, receding where before she was trusting and close. Somewhere, in some dormant part of his mind, it occurs to the Winter Soldier to feel a certain sense of loss at her withdrawal.

He asks what he feels to be the important question here. Maybe, she suggests in answer, after a distinct pause, he could never put men back together because he never tried.

The assassin laughs in response. It is such a rare sound, so uncommon and lacking in actual warmth or mirth, that it does nothing to loosen the mood. "You're right," he says. "I guess I never tried."

He lapses into silence as she finishes up. She steps back once she is done, asking him to test it out. The hollow sound to her voice is not missed, though he doesn't seem to know what to do about it. He just glances at his wrist instead, the plates of it closing back up and locking around the upgrade.

He tries it, as bidden. He locks the joint up, reinforcing all its many plates, and then subsequently attempts to continue bending it. He transparently does not expect to be able to— his joint was never capable of doing this before— and the look on his face when it flexes smoothly is no doubt all that a proud engineer could wish for at the conclusion of her work.

"This will be useful," he says quietly, moving his other wrist to see how closely his artificial one can now imitate his normal limb's movements.

—-

Jane Foster, despite her pious obedience to the altar of science, has some beliefs of her own. Science has become for her not something that competes with or stands contrary to the spiritual, but a tool to explain the unexplanable — a language to translate infinite unknowns into one, universal script. She believes in souls. She believes in goodness.

She believes in the application of skill and the grace of good work: knowledge is sought after and claimed through labour, so why not too the soul?

For now, she says nothing of it. Instead, the woman works along, compelled to speak only with her frustration and passion build enough that sharp words spit out of her. It's brazen close-mindedness, she thinks, and his stubbornness rubs like same-poled magnets against her own. If just to keep her temper at bay — and to her own surprise, she feels it building — Jane holds her tongue otherwise. And then, swiftly, it is held for her, mainly when the Soldier so casually refers to breaking and dissembling human beings with the same limb she works upon. Is trying to /improve/.

Unable to banish a dozen terrible images that come to mind, Jane feels abruptly sick. If souls are earned, she wonders if she's lost a bit of hers, doing what she's doing — improving a device that will go on to kill more. Has he tortured and killed? Is she being naive, or worse, wilfully negligent, to really convince herself she's helping? She keeps telling herself she is improving a piece of a man, or building a more efficient weapon?

He tries to pose her some sort of question — some sort of appreciation for the design of man referred logically by the inability to rebuild or repair a body. Jane gazes down into the workings of his wrist, her eyes dark, her gaze flat, offended in some nascent way to be asked such a thing. And she gives her answer, her voice as sharp as the blades carried on his body.

It makes him laugh. That earns Jane's eyes, and she watches the Soldier, quiet and discerning, uncertain how to feel about his reaction. Without a response of her own, she goes back to work on him. She continues it without pause until it is complete.

She thinks to herself if it would be best she just shut some part of herself down, and engage him neutrally. As the machine he wants. She tells herself she should, but even she doesn't believe she can. Trying to humanize him is so difficult, and it hurts, but the other option feels beyond her. Everyone has a right to their humanity.

She announces when it is, setting down her tools and stepping away, her hands rubbing nervously on each other, as if trying to wipe away phantom blood already staining her skin. Jane imparts Orlov one last, searching look, then breaks away, determinedly retreating to give them both some space. She returns to her CD player and turns it off, ending the moody blues serenading the room — and filling her lab with a return of that stale, white noise and settling silence.

Jane looks on as the Soldier tests her craftsmanship. He tests the joint, and she looks on, already with too much a personal stake in this to feign disinterest, and drinks in his expression of surprise when — it works. And a limb he had for so long suddenly progresses to something else. A great part of her is arrogant enough to revel in his surprise, because she's not surprised — she's more than intelligent enough to do this. But even she cannot revel completely in this moment of victory, because if there is a soul, hers is needling her with guilt and worry. This will be useful, he says. And she's terrified to wonder: for what.

"It's not finished," Jane continues, glancing down at her own hands, which seem to be fidgeting. She seems still relented enough to trust her eyes off him, and continues not to fear for her own survival or life — just fearing for something else instead. Something else important to her. "The other half will take some time. I have to design, find parts, build."

—-

The Winter Soldier watches Jane, eyes lidded, as she falters and labors under her doubts. Under the weight of the sudden surety that she's assisting in the creation of something monstrous. Something that will go on to kill. She struggles to reconcile what she is doing. Is there any way she can really rationalize this?

His steady, watchful stare begs the question: does she really have any choice but to rationalize it? What would he do to her if she refused? He saved her life before, but he saved it because he needed her to do what she's doing for him now. Perhaps it was foolish to ascribe any other kind of emotion to it. How could she have made such a mistake? She should know better…

She bows her head, trying not to feel sick, and just finishes her work, feeling a little of her own soul slip away. The assassin sits in patient silence, with no further comments.

Eventually she steps back, declaring the upgrade complete. She retreats to gain a little space, and briefly alone, the Soldier studies his wrist… then lets the plates slide closed over it. He tests it… and moves it in a way he has never been able to move it. He regains, in his left wrist, a flexibility he lost when he lost his flesh arm, decades ago.

Surprise crosses his features. Surprise, and a fleeting emotion that comes and goes before it can be identified.

It will be useful, he eventually concludes. He spares her any elaboration on what it will be useful for.

He just glances up at her as she tells him it's not finished. His eyes consider that— and her— transparently. "Are there parts you need you do not have here?"

—-

Sick of lingering in one spot, sick of fidgetting alone in her uselessness, Jane Foster retreats for somewhere safer. She's keyed-up and exhausted at the same time, and her back is killing her from too much bending over the mechanics of a metal arm, so she invites herself to the lone, solitary piece of furniture in her lab — what she calls her thinking couch. Her second bed, really, as she uses it far more than the one back at her apartment. It is soft and leathery, but still new — testament to how little time she's actually spent in New York City.

Tuckering herself at one arm, Jane folds herself into far more tiny an origami than she usually looks. She rubs dispondently at the work calluses on her index fingers. Across the room, the Soldier marvels at the new use of his hand. Dr. Foster just looks a little despairingly at her own.

She murmurs something about not being finished. More time to finish her grand plan on adding functionality to the wrist. And Jane speaks truthfully; the plan she has involves reorganization of the plates, which is no small task. She isn't even certain on its shape: everything she seems to think of comes up with obvious flaws. She'll have to think… think when her head is no longer spinning.

He asks her a meaningful question about parts. Jane blinks back, a little dumbstruck, then averts her eyes. She shrugs noncommittally, every bit of her body language disengaged compared to what it was minutes ago. She either cannot, or seems unwilling to, look back at the Soldier as he watches her. She can feel his eyes.

"I don't know," she answers. Jane instead gazes back up at that window, the same one with bullet holes ringed perfectly through its cracked glass. She stares at it like her eyes may put a fourth hole through it. "I don't think so. Not until the design is finalized, at least. I would want to reuse as many parts as I can. It's a strong alloy. Any step up would be, I don't know, vibranium. I don't have a billion dollars lying around."

—-

Eventually, he seems to run through the full new range of the adjusted arm's motion. Satisfied, he puts it aside, with the same attitude a man would take holstering a gun or sheathing a knife.

His eyes return to Jane. She's retreated, curled up on a soft couch which he immediately identifies as terribly new. He tilts his head, regarding it, regarding the woman on it, reading a great deal from a few seconds' worth of a glance. She hasn't been here for long. There's barely any wear on the leather. And she's having second thoughts about what she just did. He can tell from the way she wrings at her hands. From how she's shut off, closing in from the gentle way she was a mere hour ago.

He finds himself missing that earlier gentleness. It was new, it was novel, and it was oddly comforting. There is so little comfort in his austere, violent life.

He shakes his head. Not important to think about. Parts. Parts are important. He asks about any procurement he might be able to do; she looks dumbfounded, then averts her eyes and gives the most noncommittal of shrugs. A slight flicker of irritation comes and goes in him. He wants her the way she was before.

She's more interested in the bullet-holed window, he observes; she stares up at it as she gives her impartial answer. There's not really any parts out there better than what's already in the arm, she shrugs. Nothing short of, oh, vibranium. And she doesn't have a billion dollars. The Winter Soldier frowns, and his mind compiles a list of likely billionaires.

…Ah, nah. Too complicated.

There is one problem remaining, however. The Soldier eyes the window Jane is eyeing, with its three neat and very obvious bullet holes. He rises suddenly, fluid and quick as a spring, circling around through her darkened lab to stand beneath the window. He looks up, pensively.

Then he leaps, scaling agilely and impossibly up the high lab wall, eventually finding a bit of molding to cling to high up by the ceiling, right beside the window in question. He hangs from it by his right hand a moment, feet braced firmly against the wall, appraising the window as his left arm hangs ominously free.

Then he pivots, builds momentum, and fires his freshly-upgraded left arm forward and straight through her already-damaged window, shattering it outwards in a shower of broken glass.

Satisfied with his work, he lets go and slides gracefully down the wall, landing without incident.

—-

Sitting tightly, hands curled into her lap, Jane Foster stares off briefly into space. She was never a brooder, never had the time for it, never had the patience —

But here she is. It only takes about two hundred pounds of man, gun, and corticospinal-attached metal arm to make her do it. Her heart hurts for what she just did, what she knows she must still do, and worst of all — what she WANTS to do. She wants to devote her time to this Winter Soldier and his advanced left arm — wants to learn the breakthrough that made its engineering even possible. She wants to dig into its programming and its hardware and she wants to make it better. She wants to learn. She wants to improve. She wants to live life without regretting passing up on such an opportunity.

And worse is she cannot simply detach the man from that device. Because it's not as he says it is. He is not man and machine. He is a man whose body has simply been reproduced with different elements and heavy metals. It's no project, no piece of equipment she's bettering, but someone's life — and a life that may be used to hurt and kill others. Whoever this Winter Soldier is, she finds intimidating and fascinating both, and despite his proclamations otherwise: ultimately, a man.

Jane still wants to protect herself, but she isn't sure how. Safety would be treating him and any future interaction with him as neutrally and dispassionately as possible. It is dangerous to think him normal, and treat him that way — and easy for her to adapt to him. But would she not if something wasn't already there? He just saved her life when he didn't need to. He came back. No one else has. They keep leaving, and she keeps hoping, but she never expects otherwise. Her father, Don, even Asgardian aliens fallen from the sky. Someone came back, who is more than likely a god damned terrorist.

It would be easier to engage him as a machine. But Jane knows well that not all the right decisions in life are the easy ones. She just hopes she makes the right ones. Wetting her lips, she breathes in to prepare for the difficulty to come.

Movement takes her eyes off the window, and lifting her head, Jane looks on placidly as the Soldier seems stirred by a decision of his own. Her brow furrows with question — and then she stops, arrested of motion, word, or thought, simply to watch him /move/ in a way a human being should not. He leaps and scales the flat, cement wall without even a discernable sound, hanging by the fingers of one arm in an effortless display of strength. Her jaw drops as she stares. No longer can she sit up and question he the hell he keeps getting /into/ places.

She's so engrossed she doesn't even think to ask the million dollar question. What the hell is he even doing?

Then his metal fist recoils and smashes straight through that same, bullet-holed window. Jane jerks at the shatter of glass.

He lands with equal, effortless grace, hitting the ground in time for her to rise from the couch, hands upraised, flexing with the hundred different WORDS Jane cannot seem to choose to say first. "Why — how — why are you breaking my lab?!"

—-

The Winter Soldier is blissfully oblivious to the difficult, morals-rending decisions circulating in Jane's head. He has no idea how badly he has upset her worldview— how devastating a choice he is forcing her to make. He is innocent in that way… a man beaten down and erased and reprogrammed until all he knows is to see to his own needs— so that he may serve the commands of others.

She is good at upgrading and repairing him. This is good for both his primary directives. Therefore, he will maintain her.

To maintain her, he must prevent suspicion from falling on her. If security is increased around her, his access to her will be limited. His eyes are drawn immediately to the incriminating bullet holes in the window high overhead, just below the ceiling. He considers it a few moments, before abruptly rising. His own decision is made quite easily, with no deliberation or moral agonizing required.

He crosses the lab quietly… and then scales up the wall with such ease as to erase any question of whether he is preternaturally enhanced. Strength and agility alike are put on display as he settles into a tenuous perch just alongside the window: strength in his ability to hang on by only a few fingers and lightly-planted feet, and agility in the fact he is able to do this in complete silence. No wonder he is able to get in everywhere. No wonder she never heard him before he was upon her, either this time or last.

Her dumbfoundedness is shattered in tandem with his metal fist shattering the glass of her window.

Jane jerks up from the couch in shock, not understanding the act. The Winter Soldier does not at first explain. He simply skids down the wall lightly, landing with feline grace, walking back towards her as if nothing untoward just happened. Fortunately it's not that cold yet in New York, but a draft is already coming in.

Why? Jane sputters.

The Winter Soldier walks with such deliberate silence that he is back in her space, directly before her, before she can properly focus and track him. "I did you a favor," he points out, voice low and dispassionately instructive. "You want SHIELD finding bullet holes in your window? I guarantee you that's how you get more people up in your shit than you could ever want." His eyes hold hers, direct and frank. "You get the window replaced tomorrow. You tell them it was an accident. Experiment went wrong. Blew out the window."

He stares intently down into her face a few moments more, before he glances off to the side. Towards the exit where he dragged out the body. "There's not going to be anything to be concerned about as far as not getting security. I doubt there will be other shots taken at you." This close, she might suddenly notice something shoved into one of his ammo pouches. It's the radio one of the men was carrying, along with an ID card— no doubt false. Both items are lightly spattered in red.

"Still," the Soldier decides, "I'll take care of it."

—-

As if to top off the perfect ending to her most incomprehensible night ever, Jane looks on helplessly as the Winter Soldier punches out one of her windows.

His display of unnatural agility, his declarative strike, and the noisy shriek of breaking glass — there's just so much that she cannot even focus on what is most jarring. The woman pulls herself incredulously up from the couch, body back on her feet, dismay back on her face, and almost comical the way her face twists between outrage and her final act of surrender. An acceptance that she's just never going to get the normal back.

It feels so arbitrary. So random. He broke in. He scared her. He coerced her. He saved her. He /killed/ for her. He argued with her. He broke her window.

Jane throws her hands up in the air. Her eyes pinch with fatigued disbelief, a look in them just begging: why? why now this? what did I ever do to you?!

Why do you hate me so much!

She sputters the only question she can think, so disbelieving that it bothers Jane she cannot even sound genuinely angry. It's just too weird. Her window!

He jumps down, boots scraping the wall, and lands just as effortlessly. And he moves toward he, deliberately, with such a quickness that Jane has little time to even prepare. The only expression she can arm herself is something reflexive and totally genuine, no opportunity to steel or gird herself appropriately. He has never approached her, not since he cornered her into her bedroom nights ago, and she isn't prepared for this.

But it isn't fear that awaits him; Jane freezes with nervousness, but she is not afraid.

He comes in close, past the comfortable boundary of her personal space — so close Jane has to tilt back her head to meet his blue eyes. Her lips part like she intends to arrest him with some sharp words the first moment she can —

— but he speaks first, and decisively. He calls it a favour, and her jaw clicks shut. Jane's eyebrows knit, but she is otherwise forced to listen. And she does to his explanation — to his instructions on what she needs to do. They surprise her at first. He speaks of something what before he did not appear much to care. He seemed to dismiss the idea of SHIELD urging her farther into its fold. What changed his mind? She hadn't even thought of that window. She is sure she would have decided to hide from them all that's happened tonight — she's already damned where she's concerned — but she would have forgotten that window. Perhaps realized it, if too late. He just helped her.

"—OK," Jane blurts helplessly to every single one of his instructions. Her brown eyes gaze askance. He knows best.

As far as not getting security — as soon as the Soldier says that, her stomach turns. She flinches up at him a whipped look, for a moment half-convinced he's able to read her mind. She'd never suggested doing that out loud, but surely Jane thought it — resolved already to herself that she'd have to make some terrifying compromise to protect the freedom of her work. She had to put the thought out of her mind for how badly it was unnerving her, weary thoughts about how she could get her hands on some pepperspray, maybe a taser? Not a knife. Certainly not a gun.

She feels frankly uncomfortable even to take the trains home. And yet that man who once held her hostage says she need not be concerned. He doesn't suspect more bullets aimed at her head. And he seems dismissively sure.

Jane turns down her eyes uncomfortably, staring at her feet, reminded of her fear, and unsure what he even means. How does he know? There might be more shots. She has no idea who those people were, why they want to stop her work or her alone, and how many they could be. She'll have to be careful, because she's all alone, and that means —

— he'll take care of it. Her eyes double-take. She does notice something — or somethings — new to one of his ammo pockets. That same radio. She heard frequency static off one being used, with those two men talking to each other. Talking about how to kill her. Jane realizes it's now switched possession. She captures the Window Soldier's face and eyes with hers, gaze stunned, searching, forced this moment to look among his features for something she thought was not there.

It happens so fast, so recklessly, that not even she thinks it entirely through. Jane is just so relieved — so, so relieved — that she takes that single step forward, closes the last distance between their bodies, and throws her arms around the man to hug him desperately tight.

—-

At the least, the Winter Soldier's suite of contradictory behavior towards her does not seem intentional. It doesn't seem like a purposeful attempt to gaslight her or drive her insane. It seems like the inevitable byproduct of a man reacting to a series of disparate necessities as they arise.

He needed repair. He needed information. He needed her intact. Now he needs her unwatched, to continue filling in the future all the previous outlined needs.

Why? she finally sputters. His actions seem so incomphrehensible to the layperson, to the lifelong civilian who has not had to confront the facially-bizarre behavior that extreme circumstances will necessitate. He comes back, looking down into her face. And he answers.

As he does, he notices something; she tenses, but unlike the last time he approached her so directly, she is no longer afraid.

He changed his mind, it seems. The utter efficacy of the upgrade she created for him— done in so short a time, too— seems to have impressed him sufficiently to drastically jack up her importance. No SHIELD security for her. Keep SHIELD out of it. He's apparently decided, instead, to handle this apparent attention she's attracted personally. No telling if they would get it right or not. Probably not, given what he knows about them. Best do it himself.

Also… it'll be easier, for future potential actions he might need to take with Dr. Jane Foster, if she doesn't have a swarm of SHIELD around her.

He gives her his changed instructions with brevity. She stares helplessly upwards, confused but without recourse but to agree. But she remains apprehensive, afraid, unsure— up until he drops that last bit. He'll take care of it.

The appropriated radio and ID seems to indicate he already has somewhere to start.

He's already thinking about how he's going to do it, distracted with thoughts of the hunt and kill, when Jane has her very impulsive reaction to that morbid promise. Relief catapults her forward to throw her arms desperately around the source of that relief.

The Winter Soldier did not expect this at all.

He interprets it as a threat at first. He startles, his arms clearing his body so she can't pin them down— not that that would do her much good— and his center of balance shifts until he is poised on the edge of leaping back. Something stops him, however: some deep familiarity with the feel of a woman against him— some forgotten and unmet need for human contact.

He hesitates, still cagey and suspicious, his body still taut with potential energy. Periodic, involuntary trembles that shiver his skin suggest that physical contact has a painful and negative association in his brain: he's wound tight as if bracing for some inevitable and impending harm. His features register little but shock, alarm, and confusion. After a moment, he seems to relax slightly when nothing happens, but his lifted arms still don't seem to know what to do with themselves other than to desperately try to avoid touching her.

—-

Jane Foster did not want to think about it — the possibility that some part of her is terrified. Terrified of her life spiralling off into some trajectory she can no longer predict or control, and forces her either to become a passive passenger to her work or be violently murdered.

Both prospects scare her. She doesn't want to die, no more or less than any other person in this world, but she really does not want to live in some cage of her own creation. Picture herself as some dedicated lab animal of SHIELD or whoever else simply because she dared to chase an idea. Her work is to /free/ mankind from its current boundaries — the spatial limits of space and time — not confine people or herself into smaller cages.

She knows she wouldn't compromise her work for her own safety. She knows she wouldn't call anyone in for help, anyone she thinks she has — out of fear of bringing them within reach of the storm.

And so Jane, with all her intelligence and all her academics, struggles to think of what to do. She's guileless of this new world, the one wherein the Winter Soldier seems to live, that seems to contain only a predator's chain of threat against threat, clamouring against each other for first rights to the lambs. As a lamb, she isn't sure how she may even be able to fight back. If it was those men targetting hr. If it was someone wanting her, or her work, stopped. If it will be someone trying again, and she wouldn't have the least idea to even expect it —

He'll take care of it.

Stunned, Jane looks up into the Soldier's face. In just five words, he has solved her problem. Five words, and all that certainty behind it, and she doesn't feel afraid anymore.

She staggers under the crushing relief. Her eyes sting, her thoughts briefly blur, and then the woman does that thing she does so often when emotion overwhelms her. She just doesn't think.

Jane sure doesn't think about the way she steps forward and just breathlessly and gratefully wraps her arms around a very deadly assassin and thanks him with a clinging hug. She pulls close, close enough he can feel the press of her arms around his sides, the warmth of her body, and the quick beat of her heart. His body goes like banded steel beneath her, but the woman seems not to notice, not for so many moments feel like an eternity.

He braces, conditoned only to expect the pain that will come with human contact. Pain that will be fierce and twisting and agonizing, carried through the blood in his body, leeched through the nerves in his head — an acid that burns away memory after memory, thought after thought, wiping all clean —

There is no pain. Only warmth and someone's smaller body, small and fragile enough he could snap it inside his hands — and still possessing strength enough to reach out and embrace a monster. Embrace him as if he were a man. Trying to tell him through touch alone just how thankful she is, and what his promise means to her.

Some seconds pass. Jane comes to. She realizes what's just happened, and what she's done. She feels like she's holding metal, and it's because — because he's holding himself so painfully tense he might just pop his own head off. What is she doing. What is she DOING. Did she just seriously — is she seriously —

Gently, apologetically, Jane lets the Soldier go, stepping back to give them both space. "Sorry," she blurts, visibly and audibly cringing. "Thank you. I should — let me give you my phone number. In case of emergencies? If you ever need me to help you?"

—-

It is a horrible, no-win situation Jane finds herself in… a sudden introduction to the shadow-world that the Winter Soldier occupies. A world where the normal laws of men are suspended, and where the only rules are the ones dictated by the strongest monsters capable of wresting control through subterfuge, violence, and death. Whether by their own hands, or through tools such as the man standing before her now.

How is she going to survive in such a world? She hasn't the first idea how to defend herself against unknown assailants who snipe from so far away she can't even see?

The Winter Soldier dismisses it with five words. He'll take care of it. But oddly enough, as they leave his mouth, he gets a distinct feeling he's said them before… or at least, felt the sentiment behind them before. Many, many times. It feels like there were always things going wrong in the past, and he was always taking care of them, often simply by showing up at the right time, when needed, to make the things troubling those he cared about go away—

He frowns, his gaze averting, shaking his head slightly. No. That's not right. People he cares about? He is not supposed to care about any.

He's just got that idea resettled back in his mind when Jane does one of the most inadvisable things it's possible for anyone to do. She jumps forward and wraps her arms around him, clinging to him in an impulsive hug. Her relief is the mindless relief of someone who was terrified for their life, completely out of their depth, only to suddenly find themselves saved from the most unexpected of vectors— a relief so potent it can drive people to… unwise decisions.

He tenses up so taut that he can feel her every movement against him, down to the slight rise-and-fall of her breathing and the flutter of her heart. Frozen, he waits for the inevitable thing that always follows human hands making contact with him: pain. Pain powerful and scourging enough to sear through his every thought and wipe his mind pitilessly, malleably clean. But no pain comes, and eventually he looks down to contemplate— confused and alarmed— the image of a woman in his arms. It seems, for some reason, familiar.

Then she comes to. She jerks back, horrified with herself, regaining distance. The Winter Soldier lets her go, watching her warily, seeming troubled by her display. Sorry, she stammers. She should… she should just give him her phone number. Just in case?

He regards her a few more moments, his eyes narrowed, his head tilted, a frown lingering on his features as if he is trying to recollect something that just will not come to mind. Eventually, he just shakes his head and visibly clears his mind, accepting that whatever he was trying to remember is lost. "Not necessary," he says with a vague shrug— no more than a lift of a single shoulder, really. He looks down at his left arm, as if checking all the pieces are back in place and everything is ready to go. "I already have it."

Well, that's not creepy at all.

His head turns towards the exit. He seems ready to go. "I don't have one to give you," he says, his voice dry. Is he capable of humor after all? "But you should not be trying to contact me."

—-

A few seconds of reckless relief ultimately will end in a solid week of mortified disbelief, Jane knows. She'll be wondering what the hell she just did for days to come.

For now, sobering to the reality that she just let herself hug a deadly, machine-armed, probably-a-terrorist that easily KILLED two men just tonight, Jane invites some severance. Real, physical severance to make it all better, as she awkwardly steps backward to give them both back their personal bubbles.

Averting her eyes, swallowing, the woman searches for the first viable thing to say, anything to fill this embarrassing silence. He felt like tempered steel, Jane thinks, and that wasn't even the metal part of him. Like if she'd held on a moment longer, he would've torn every tendon and ligament straight off his own bones. Definitely not someone used to it — which is likely, obviously, and strange, and a little sad — but also something else.

Jane thought herself pretty tense as people go. She has no idea. So she fidgets instead and blurts out something about exchanging phone numbers, because that's what normal people do in normal situations, and Christ, does she want maybe one bit of this strange interaction, this strange night — this strange MAN in her life to be just one iota normal.

She even includes a reason to make it more normal. She wants his number in case of emergencies. In case he needs her, if just for his arm. Something she could do to fix it. But couched in Jane's averted eyes is the better reason deliberately left unspoken: she'd like a way to call him in case some emergency happens to /her/. Because he might be the only person she could reasonably reach out to and hope for that specific brand of help.

The Soldier says it's not necessary. Jane glances at him in silent question. And he answers why.

She stares dumbly at him for a beat and a half. "Oh," Jane says, looking and sounding identical to how she once responded, nights ago, to him neutrally admitting to following her. Oh. He has her number. Oh. OK then.

Not creepy whatsoever.

She follows the man's glance for her lab's exit, taking the hint, and stepping back, disengaging as to allow him easy opportunity to leave. Jane has more than enough to sit and think about. He doesn't have a phone, he tells her, like between the guns and assassin skills are justification enough, and she replies with a shaky laugh and a rub of her hand at the back of her neck. "Yeah. I really shouldn't."

—-

The Winter Soldier has not moved since she let him go and stepped back. He stands there as if graven from stone, remote and troubled, arms folded and head lowered. He looks closed-in, defensive, as if the sensation of physical touch brought back some unpleasant memory he has to guard himself against while it dissipates away.

The silence is fine with him. It's not fine with Jane though, and eventually she blurts out something about phone numbers. About giving him hers in case he needs her for something, or more practically… in case she needs HIM for something. In case people come back for her, trying to kill her. He's the only person she knows that could specifically help with that. SHIELD could too, of course, but then she'd have to explain everything, and what would happen to her work then?

He glances askance at her. Part of him agrees because she is a current and potential asset that he should retrieve, if something happens to it. Part of him agrees for some other reason, a reason he cannot put his finger on. A reason that hurts dully in the back of his mind if he thinks about it too hard.

He stops thinking about it.

With a sigh, he finally unfolds. It's not necessary, he says. He already has her number. Dug it up in those first few days he shadowed her like a ghost, watching her routine, learning everything about her before he first emerged to demand her help with his damaged arm. She stares up at him, dumbfounded, more than a litte creeped out. He doesn't appear to notice her distress in that regard.

He just turns towards the exit and starts to walk right back out of her life— for the time being. The way he examines his left wrist, engrossedly exploring its new range of movement, says plainly he'll be back. "Get that window fixed," he advises, just before he opens and steps out the door. He glances over his shoulder to punctuate the instruction. "It'll get cold tonight. Winter's here."

He pulls the mask back up over his face, and is gone.

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