Altair

December 25, 2016:

Jane executes a new script without proper unit-testing. Someone shows up to help her with the result, ostensibly because she is a valued potential asset, but the act of saving her triggers something else entirely.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The long days since Jane last saw her errant soldier tick past. In those days, there is no sign of him save for the potential sign that is some whisperings of a murder done right in the streets of Gotham.

Of course, that didn't go quite as the Soldier expected, so in the aftermath he spends time moving his base of operations. It is regular protocol for him to do this every so often, especially for such an extended mission— it does not make any sense to stay in one place too long— but the choice of where to relocate is something that surprises even him.

He appropriates the top floor of an abandoned building that's waiting through the winter to be torn down and rebuilt into new condos come spring, a few streets down from where Jane lives.

Quickly, quietly, efficiently, he moves all his gear in. He puts down a simple sleeping pallet. He flips open a small tablet he carries to stream the latest news, because he likes to keep abreast of what's going on— particularly if people have started talking about him too much. And he's officially home away from home.

For given values of the word 'home.'

There's one final touch he makes here that he has never made before. He keeps his binoculars out, by the window. This in itself isn't terribly outside of standard procedure, except that when he picks them up, he occasionally aims them down the streets towards a certain window that is visible from his new foxhole.

Today he does it a little more often than usual. Couldn't say why. Maybe just restless. He's whiled away most of the day shut up, waiting for night to fall so he can move more easily. He's not had success trying to figure out what happened with Muller and the vanishing corpse on his own; he'll give it another search tonight, and if nothing turns up, he'll just have to look up John Constantine again. Who, coincidentally, has some splaining to do anyway.

Eventually dusk flattens out into the neutrals of night, and the Winter Soldier finally stands up and shuts off his tablet. With mechanical efficiency, he starts gearing up, prepared to do another search for Muller— and to do something about it if he actually finds the man.

—-

The last sight Jane Foster has of the Soldier — her soldier, she's come to think more than a little possessively — is his turned back, leaving her home, leaving her life, until the day comes he deigns to return.

Knowing there is nothing she can do to keep him, even hold him temporarily, and feeling weary from the repeated reminders of how little control she seems to possess at all, she shuts her door and returns to her life.

The long days see Jane abstaining from much save for her lonely little routine. If she is not at home, she is at her lab, pulling significant hours — and yet not with her usual momentum and impetus, distracted now in a way she's never been. Distracted in countless many ways. She leaves both lab and apartment on brief errands: one day it is to take the train for SHIELD's faceless building, possibly for one of her required meetings to share progress and request equipment. She does not dress up for those meetings, whether obliviously or just spitefully, and her jeans stand out against all their suits. Another day she goes into Queens to speak with a couple metalwork shops, asking questions about electrowinning certain alloys, and spends a good two hours late — lost on the trains.

Otherwise, she curls on her couch beside her left-leaning Christmas tree, and by the window, Jane keeps busy her restless, restless mind. She reads those strange books in her possession, page after page at a terrifying speed, absorbs them, and claims more to her odd collection. She works away on her laptop, either researching or writing code, or she draws on her left wrist, a slowly-building, prismatic-but-not, polygonal-but-not algorithm of countless parts, categorizing them, colouring their edges, and logging her equation down on paper.

Plates that do not simply attach and hold, but layer — in a shape that is not fixed, but many, reconfiguring into a thousand arrangements by a thousand movements, a moving orchestrate directed by its single maestro.

Sometimes Jane looks out at her window, head leaned back, hair winged along the back of her couch, and up at the stars. Late on the eve of Christmas, she dons her coat and takes the same ladder up the night she introduced him to her oldest, dearest, surviving friend —

— and the telescope still waits there. Jane slips on ice in her eagerness to reach it, ends up spread-eagled, on her back, along the roof of her apartment, and sighs a long, deep, foggy huff of breath into the air.

Christmas day comes and goes, and Jane Foster spends it alone, at home, working. She makes a couple morning calls, leaves a message that has her pacing around like she's rambling aimlessly, checks her contacts like she's thinking about sending a couple messages, demurs, and goes back to what is clearly safer. She has no visitors, has no gifts to open, and makes no grand dinner, though deep into the evening she uncorks a bottle of merlot and digs into a couple deep glasses.

She opens one of her newer books and props it on the arm of her couch, pages open. Jane reads and rereads one page, apparently captivated, because she never seems to need to scan anything more than once. She sits back, drinks her wine. And then she opens her laptop and pulls it closer.

Cursory looks in through her window see Jane unmoving from her spot, undeterred as her hands move across keys, the unfurling darkness bringing her to turn on lamps, otherwise lit by the glow of her screen. Hours pass and she still sits, still stoops, still types, line after line after line.

Then her Christmas tree falls over. Jane jumps, not expecting that. She leaves her laptop turned to the window as she leans to right the mess, the screen black with leagues of lined text — a programmer's script.

Standing, arranging the tree upright, she picks a fallen bauble and takes pains to arrange it back with care. Then Jane pauses, glances over her shoulder, and all the lights in her apartment go out.

—-

It is a lonely, single-serving sort of life the Winter Soldier observes. There is no judgment, however. The Soldier's own life is even worse: a lonely, single-serving sort of life conducted under duress and torture.

Not that he's even allowed to be aware of that. But slowly, some consciousness that things are not right is starting to seep through.

He does not set out to intentionally follow her, but there comes a point where skills are so ingrained and honed that they become instinct: a muscle memory executed without conscious thought, and without much downtime from other things that need to be done. His routes, coming in and out in the early mornings and deep nights, change subtly to track her own. His solitary rituals soon start to include cursory check-up glances at her through the lenses of binoculars. She gets lost for two hours on the train, and he detours softly from his own route home to trail her, watching her from rooftops until she gets back on the right track.

It is curiosity, also, that keeps him watching her. He has caught sight of her working on some ideas that could only be ideas for his arm. From a mile off, he studies her as she draws designs up her own arm, pens out endless strings of math, or simply sits and ponders— sometimes for hours at a time.

He watches as she looks at the stars. She falls once, going up the fire escape, and his heartrate leaps. Something about ice, something about falling, something about it being her— it all combines into something that leaves him far more unnerved that he can remember being in some time.

Just in general— she keeps her mind constantly busy. When she's not working, she's absorbing books. In contrast to her, the Winter Soldier is the epitome of glacial, empty patience. His life is full of stretches where there is a total lack of stimuli, but— whether because of programming, or simply because he is an old soul— the quiet does not bother him. She works frenetically.

He sits and watches the clouds, or cleans his weapons. Sometimes both at the same time.

Perhaps, in the end, those idle periods are just much-needed recharges to cope with the periods of time in his life where he IS active, because his brand of activity is so much more explosive— more violent— more deadly. One night, after hours of inactivity, he gets up very suddenly to get to it, and the change in energy is palpable.

He straps on weapon after weapon, rechecking and rechecking, gearing up in light armor, pulling on his mask.

He intends to go out on a search for his kill-that-was-not-killed, but something makes him pause at the last minute and check on a certain window again.

It is dark. Completely dark. It is the only apartment in her building, in fact, that is dark.

The Winter Soldier pauses. His mind spins, the sudden anxious thoughts so unexpected that the world briefly tilts. Then he rushes out into the night.

—-

The closing hour heralds the passing of Christmas Day. And under the black skies and slowly-falling snow, Brooklyn is a starfield of a thousand lights, each home bathed in the many colours of blinking lights. With families home and together, there is not one window that sits in darkness.

Save one.

Minute ago, Jane finishes her script and quietly suffers a heart attack to the abrupt tilt-crash of her tiny Christmas tree, spilling ornaments that roll across her hardwood floor. Muttering a curse, she sets aside her laptop and picks them up, the most precious of all of them first — and she breathes relief to find that old, glued-together glass star still intact. She frowns down at her fallen tree.

The strangest memory comes to mind, of the Soldier — of James Barnes — warning her this would happen. Her eyes hood with irritated humour.

Moving her work aside, Jane stands to pick up and straighten her crooked tree, tilting its broken back straight and looping on bauble after bauble. She rearranges them, deliberate in the way she places the ornaments, trying to add levering weight to its strong side, and thumbs along one ornament that finds its way into her hands. Greatest Daughter: 1991.

She reaches to hang its hook and the ornament drops out of her hand. Because Jane — stops. Because she feels something touch her. Light and cold and sharp, catching the material of his sweater, as it drags up the line of her back.

Voice caught, heart stopped, Jane whirls back. Nothing is there. All alone. For a moment, she wonders if she dreamed it, if between work and her strange week that her mind is playing tricks —

— and all the lights blink out. No popping or shattering of bulbs. No switch-off of a tripped breaker. It feels like all the light has been sipped from the air, drank down and ingested, stolen from every dormant lamp, from every bulb on her Christmas gree, even from the flickering-to-nothing screen of her laptop. Darkness moats her in every side.

Hearing nothing but her own shallow, panicked breathing, Jane backs up until she flattens against a wall, better to cover as her eyes search the total dark. In a heartbeat, her home is alien too her, too many blind, alien shapes, casting shadow in a dozen directions. The only light she can make out is distant, coming in through the window, wreathing in from a world trapped from her by brick and glass. Jane doesn't know what's happening, but she knows something is wrong. Little by little, she forces herself to move, following the wall as she feels it with her hands, moving carefully, silently, to where memory dictates her front door.

It's probably nothing, says her mind, her sensible mind, nothing more than a brown out, but maybe she can hunt for a neighbour, knock on a couple doors, see if it's just her — it's not just her. She's just spooked, and overreacting, and it was those stupid books she was reading, the story of the Demiurge and —

Jane finds her front door. And a voice whispers at her back, thin, papery, and corrugated, like spines slither by on each creeping word, "Talitha qum."

She tries to scream but has no breath. Has no breath, and does not know why, until her eyes adjust and she sees — darkness, just darkness, above and around and everywhere. Her floorboards eat into the bones of her back, and she's on the ground, so quickly, so violently, that her head spins and she still — can't breathe. Jane tries to suck air in through her panic, moving her legs, but something has them trapped, trapped together, wrapped around them, and then the darkness — shifts, an errant shadow breaking away, itching her skin with a closing presence, and cold, sterile air blows over her face.

Jane cannot see, but she can hear, a tap-tap-tap of so many sharp things framing both sides of her head, like the blades of knives dragging hardwood, and then something nudging her, her jaw, to push her head to one side, something that feels like bone and burns with cold.

"Ai-yt-eyh…" it whispers, almost like a coax, "Lilit…"

—-

The darkness breathes around Jane. It twists and slithers and writhes. Cold air blows in the open front door that she never made it through, yet she somehow doesn't feel the chill, because there's something around her, something wrapping her, something blocking the winter cold with its body…

It speaks to her— this unknowable monster. It whispers, enticingly—

— and several inches of hammered, razor-keen steel — a combat knife — slices through the air in an attempt to bury deeply into the creature's face.

Ironically, in contrast, the racing human shape which arrives a moment after his thrown weapon is completely voiceless, mute as the dead windless winter air.

It's not silent though. Not by a long shot. Because suddenly, as movement tears at the peripherals of Jane's vision, a familiar sound fills the air. A mechanical, machine whir that sings of the movement of many intricate moving parts. It heralds the sight of something silver and gleaming firing forward to grasp the thing— to bend it forcibly back, undoing some of those squeezing coils.

It is hard to see, between the darkness and the many moving shadows all around her, but one of the shadows moves disparately from all the rest. It seems a man's shape, but it moves much more quickly and powerfully than a man should, and its outline is not quite shaped right for a man. There are too many straight, manufactured lines— too many gleams of metal— too many indistinct shapes hooked at its waist.

Whatever it is, that shape moves among the coils assailing her, dipping in and out of sight as it is blocked here and there. Its intent is clear: to peel the monster off her and forcibly remove it from the apartment.

—-

Tears slide free from her stinging eyes. Jane tries to speak, but her voice escapes her, breath thinning from between her lips. She stares begginging into darkness. It feels like one of those waking dreams, the kind she's only ever had in her life once or twice, but terrifying enough to be remembered. Ones where she cannot move, cannot speak, and knows she is not alone, because there is something mantling her, pressing her, crushing her breathless —

Only it is real. Only they are tightening, sliding coils of something wrenching her lungs shut. Only they are reaching, needle-sharp claws that draw through her hair and stop to tighten on her crown. Only it is something, here with her, forcing her head to one side, painlessly but insistently, with malevolent tenderness, so it can lean down and exhale freezing air along her throat. Smelling her.

It stops, its gentle whispers icing over, its careful touches stinging with a warning press of its claws. The monster pauses, then swings its narrowed, serpentine head, one black mirror eye turned on her, angled down as if forced to look, to see.

It does not like what it smells. It does not like what it sees. Whatever it expects, it is not her, not Jane Foster, and the creature — the demon — curls up its long, spinal body with disgust and outrage. Its body tightens and its claws turn on her, the imposter, the thief, and no longer whispering words, no longer speaking, it opens its jaws to rows of fangs, its breath ventilating in-and-out with unrestrained fury.

It forces back her head to bare her throat, and snaps down to — suddenly SCREAM, as a blade punches straight into its serpent's head, the monster thrashing, letting go as it claws desperately at itself, its raking claws too long, to thin, to easily catch the hilt of the knife.

Someone comes in and grabs it. It recoils, moving with strength that is not human, thin and sinewy and serpent-powerful, but a hollow grind of metal stops it, paralyzes it briefly in its sudden cage, twisting back and back against its flexible spine until even that must give. The demon howls with pain.

Its coils loosen to whip itself free, and Jane can breathe again, coming to with a low sob of air, kicking her freed legs as she desperately tries to crawl free from the that thing. She cannot see to know what's happening, just that something has set her free, given her life — and so much familiar noise. Noises she's heard before. Again and again. So many times…

Jane turns to the brief play of distant light on — metal. Tears on her face, she looks up, trying to see —

— and yelping with shock when both shadowy figures move against the dark, one forcing the other forward, man wrestling a nightmarish monster savagely out her front door.

The creature snarls and twists to turn its claws on him, their razor edges cleaving against his armor, catching on his kevlar. It thrashes and tries to kick itself away, hitting snow and kicking it aside, staying low as it circles along the holiday-empty street. It is more serpent than anything, a twisted image of a snake before a betrayed God cut away its legs, long and whip-thin, edged with bony spines, and spired with endless claws. It reflects the world in its black eyes, blinking with triple lids as it tilts its head, learning, absorbing this new world. It hovers close to light off a street lamp and backs away. The bulb goes out.

—-

The metal arm of Jane's soldier is unyielding. It snaps forward and locks onto the creature by the scruff, and there it grips down with punishing strength, wrenching the thing's head back. Another hand, flesh and blood, slips forward and reclaims the knife, pulling it free with a savage twist.

The knife blade spins, shedding whatever ichor this creature might bleed, and the weapon resheathes. The Winter Soldier grips the demon, for now, with his bare hands. It thrashes with strength that is not human, but its captor is not human either— not anymore. He hangs out grimly as it whips this way, then that, enduring with machine patience the pain that jolts through his body as he's slammed from wall to wall.

Jane struggles free. Blue eyes turn to make sure she's clear.

Then the Winter Soldier finally gets his feet back under him, braces, and starts backstepping, dragging the thing with him down the hall back towards the front door. It claws at him, and its thrashes score along his armor to catch him in more vulnerable places. They open up the back of his right hand— lay open a shallow gash down the left side of his face.

He ignores both. Instead, he focuses— with a massive effort and a whir of his left arm— on hurling the thing out into the street.

In the immediate aftermath, he is briefly framed in the door, standing immovably between Jane and whatever it is lurks outside. The streetlights outline him clearly: armored, masked, wearing what has to be at least fifty pounds or more of armaments.

He's already reaching to unsling and pull one of them free. It looks like an assault rifle. It's actually, more specifically, a carbine, but not like Jane will really care about the distinction… especially when his hand moves again, unhooking some kind of tubular attachment from his waist and mounting it calmly beneath the barrel of the weapon. He retrieves something else from another place on his belt, feeding it into the tube.

He glances briefly over his shoulder. "Stay behind something."

He steps down into the street, aiming, and the tubular mechanism soon reveals what it is when the Soldier calmly launches a grenade from it down the street at the creature.

—-

No matter how desperately the demon whips and thrashes, no matter how furiously it slams its silent aggressor against shuddering, paint-chipped walls, it cannot dislodge that metal arm. The creature strains against it, claws raking mercilessly against its plates, scratching harmlessly off, unable to catch any part of it soft, porous, or malleable enough to sink in.

With a patient hum of moving gears and locking plates, it tightens, and the thing howls with rage, arms outstretched and claws splayed, trying to catch anything it can and never finding purchase. Its lean, whip of a body rebows until its spine can no longer take the force, and then the soldier twists the knife out of its head, and with a furious scream of agony, it lets go, coils loosening its prey, its serpentine body twisting with a heavy slap of its tail beating on the hardwood.

It reaches for the woman in rage — the imposter, the liar, the falsity that summoned it forward and nearly tainted it — but cannot reach, its serrated claws scissoring pulled as that man with the metal arm pulls it away. It tries and tries and still cannot break the cage of that arm. It twists and turns on him, all rage and vehement bloodthirst, until the Soldier, gashed new in two places where this claws have caught and ripped, turns that metal arm, its humming, grinding strength throwing the demon brutally away.

It lands outside, avoiding light, flattening down as it finds its limbs and learns the feel of the icy cement under its claws, lids blinking over its eyes as it assesses and appraises and learns. New world. New habitat. New home until it finds Her. She who has not summoned it as it wants. Different smells, new smells, foreign and weak, surround it, sampled on the flicker of it's serpent's tongue.

For now, it rages; for now, it hungers, wanting the flesh of that who would taint it, taint its yearning for communion with Her. Moving like a wraith in the dark, a shadow among shadows, its steps bely a reptilian twitch-quickness, circling as it rakes its claws through fresh snow.

Jane struggles to breathe again, a hand pressed around her own collar bones, hanging on as if that would bring back her air — and she turns her eyes on the only source of light. Light that shines off a metal left arm. Her soldier fills the doorway, his back facing her, his body shielding any avenue between her and that thing that so nearly took her life. It's him. It's /him/. He's here. Tears fall, forgotten, from her blinking eyes. She tries to speak but cannot yet find her voice.

Stay behind something, he says.

He moves. Not to her, not anywhere — but toward that /thing/. Toward it, like he means to engage it, like he means to… fight it. Jane murmurs after him urgently, speaking the only word she can think of, her voice too-thin, "James —"

She stumbles up to her feet, still panting for air as she shoulders against her doorframe, forced to witness —

— the slow, machine-patient way the Soldier advances upon the monster. It turns its eyes on him, hissing, lowering down to the ground where ichor runs from the hole punched in its chitinous head. Moonlight gleams against its scales, legs tensing, tail whipping dangerously. It does not understand what he's holding, what he's assumbling; it understands only that he's caused pain, and it hates him. It recoils.

And he launches a grenade. The demon strafes back, shrieking, unsure, then HOWLS as it's engulfed in an explosive torrent of heat and fire. The street shakes under the deafening blast, car alarms shuddering on before the explosion kills them just as quickly — lights turning off in apartments as families hunker down in familiar fear.

Jane just watches. Watches what the Winter Soldier can do.

The demon pulls free, clawing at its face, bleeding in multiple places as the heat and light scours open its skin, welting its scales, leaving ichorous footprints as it trails blood. It has enough, fangs bared, as it lunges straight at the Soldier, trying to snag him with its claws, jaws opened, barrelling down towards his face if not stopped —

—-

The Winter Soldier, in full operation mode, can only be described as implacable.

The demon thrashes, but he holds on. It twists and slams him against walls and ceilings, but he holds on. It claws at him, scoring painful grazes on the few parts of him not covered by protective armor, but he holds on. In fact, in the end… his grip only tightens even more, metal whirring unforgivingly as he vises down on the creature's scruff with inhuman, crushing strength.

Finally, it is forced to let Jane go. The Soldier immediately sets his stance, turns, and with a shriek of his metal arm… /hurls/ the creature straight out the door and down into the snowy street.

He follows after, at a slow deliberate walk, only pausing briefly on the threshold of her open front door to unsling a rifle and mount its under-barrel grenade launcher. His calm movements belie the intent, alert way his eyes watch and track his adversary, studying it and the way it moves. Its estimated strength and speed. Its potential toughness.

Framed in the doorway, he loads his launcher, and starts to step down.

James, she says at his back.

That stops him. He hesitates, glances back… and tells her to keep behind cover.

The reason why becomes evident as he walks out into the street and turns to advance on the creature, scenting its uncertainty and weakness. One pace, two paces, and he lifts his carbine. It is almost anticlimactic how quickly he aims and fires, how silently the projectile flies; even the demon is unsure, not knowing what to make of this little unassuming pellet.

Then it explodes.

Enraged, hurt, the demon rushes, leaping at the Soldier with preternatural speed. Speed too great for even him to get out of the way in time. The serpentine thing plunges down towards him, claws and fangs bared…

…and the Winter Soldier takes a stance-opening step back, no time to dodge— only defend. His left arm snaps up and he seizes one of those descending fangs even as it plunges towards his face, wrangling the monster and its lowering jaws into immobility by that grip. His arm strains, the metal moaning, but it holds firm. Firm enough for him to keep that murderous bite at bay, inches from closing around his body.

Firm enough that he tries to shove those jaws wider open still, to make an opening for the way his right arm— still holding the carbine— snaps up and one-handedly aims to burst fire the weapon straight up into those gaping jaws.

—-

The demon barrels into the man, bearing down on him with hellish power and mass, its claws curling in like meat hooks to hold him down. His kevlar takes their serrated lengths, stopping them where flesh and muscle would split like butter, and the armor holds the creature at bay — where only the glancing tips of those talons spear through, tearing shallow cuts down his torso.

It feels like ice, bearing down, wreathed with abominable cold, the chill of the winter brooking no contest to the way death, corpse cold bleeds out through its long, sinewey body. Its screaming breath does not fog on the air. The lash of its tail tries to bind his ankles to hold him still, and it burns like a cord of ice. The demon feels like death brought forth, an animal scaled by cadaver-flesh and breathed into by the void, a freezing, numbness, ancient nothingness that was all of time and all of matter before the advent of life —

However, as it is cold, he is Winter.

Jane watches. She hates that all she can do is watch, hanging onto the frame of her front door, trembling to bring both the air back to her lungs and the feeling back to her flesh. She feels like she has only the strength to call once the Soldier's real name. It made him stop. It made him look her way.

It makes her hope.

He came for her. She doesn't know how, but that he came, and is somehow here, and all of this, this…

She turns a quick look back into the darkness of her apartment. Her books. Her laptop. It was a script she wrote, because she would not think it could be real, she wanted to codify old, textual instructions as data, make it accessible, make it computational, made of it a model she could perhaps, someday, with more understanding, apply to her work: a program that could somehow thin the seams between worlds —

She did this. She didn't mean to. But she did this. She thinks. It's her fault. She did this, and now —

All she can see is the monster trap her soldier down, jaws opened —

She screams that name once again. "GET OFF HIM!" screams Jane, what sounds like far, far away.

The demon jerks against the sound, and the Soldier catches it by one of its very fangs, bearing with steel-forged strength against the forward push of its head, breathing ice as its jaws crown his head. It hisses, movement arrested, claws digging down into his armor in frustration as he begins to push back, its serpent's spine curling as plates lock — one after another — casting rigid that arm what fights back against its monstrous strength.

Pushed back, realizing it is engaged in a losing battle, the creature begins to thrash like a crocodile, whipping violently to be let go — only for the Soldier to turn his weapon down the blackness of its throat. He fires.

It SCREAMS, bullets ventilating out its back, letting him go in an instant as it tries to fight away, howling under the shock of pain — a creature forced to feel flesh-and-blood agony for its first time. Its limbs buckle and it hits the cement, bleeding, perhaps dying, before it rolls itself back up.

He still has his hand locked on its fang; it strains in the opposite direction now, desperate to escape — before its black eye sees HER, that thing not easily forgotten, stepped free from her house in desperate panic to witness the Soldier in the clutch of a monster. The monster sees her, hates her, and seems to blame her for it all, thrashing hysterically against that metal hand as its claws rake the cement, desperate to THROW itself her way —

—-

Cold bleeds out of every inch of this slithering demon. Not a sharp-edged cold, not a cold with a punch, but the sort of enervating bone chill that seeps into the body and numbs the senses. It is the cold of the void; the cold of death. It is the cold of inertia, of stillness, of total lack of activity.

It is a death-cold the Winter Soldier has felt hundreds of times before. It cannot touch or phase him any longer. He has spent three-quarters of his life locked in its grip.

And while it may be cold… he is winter. And winter is not still; it is not dead. It howls with merciless storms of blown snow, and it scours the land clean with its razoring winds. It can be still, menacing, an empty frozen waste… or it can be a tempest of raw, violent fury.

In these moments, the Winter Soldier is both, alternating smoothly, seamless in his inexorable advance. Except for one moment— one moment where she calls the name of the man beneath the symbol. He hesitates. He turns and looks, almost as if responding to a name he recognized. A name he owned.

Then he turns and is gone, stepping out after the adversary that must be destroyed.

His calm eyes never stop assessing: the effect of his grenade upon it, the speed at which it attacks, the strength it can bring to bear. He makes his decisions in a heartbeat based on a confluence of these analyses. It plunges forward onto him, and he does not attempt to dodge. He knows that it is faster than he is… but he also knows that his arm is stronger.

It lifts and locks onto one of its fangs, just when it would close its jaws down on his body. And it holds the entire creature at bay.

His arm starts to hum, to whir and sing with the strain. Plates visibly flatten down and lock along its length as the Soldier starts to push back, bearing the creature's head back up and away. It starts to struggle— and the Winter Soldier lifts his rifle and fires down its throat. He has observed the scales of this thing to be tough. He deliberately fires where it has none.

It screams and recoils. His hand opens and he lets it go, before his arm is torn from its socket. The creature thrashes— and sees Jane, come out of her home, come out from the cover where he told her to stay. He notices where it's looking.

The Soldier stops being slow and still.

He bursts into movement, running, going from zero to thirty in a heartbeat. He blurs as he darts across the street and uses his speed to go straight up the wall of the building opposite Jane's, a streak of blackness shot with silver. He races clear up the side of it, several stories, before his momentum starts to slow…

…and then he pushes off, executing an acrobat's turning flip through the air, spinning to throw extra momentum into his downward plunge. He aims to land himself dead center of the thing's back, using all of his greater-than-expected weight as a bludgeoning force against the thing's presumed spine, in an attempt to outright break it.

And if that doesn't do it, the paired knives that flash back into his hands to carve into it might.

—-

In the dark, under the moonlight, and interveined with a great serpent's countless, thrashing black coils, struggles the ancient picture of man against monster, as the Soldier girds his steel hand around one of those curving fangs, and with all the strength of his arm, holds its lethal jaws at bay.

It seethes and thrashes and pushes, desperate to get at him, desperate for the taste of blood, but that grinding, groaning metal arm locks its plates and strains against it, and even as it curls its long back and pushes with its back claws, even as it twists sinewy its body in desperation to test and weaken that arm, the demon cannot overpower it — cannot, for all its strength and fury, break the power grafted into so much steel.

The arm hums, cringing under the tension —

— and Jane watches, helpless to do little but look on, heart in her throat, as James Barnes struggles to keep a demon's jaws from closing over his head. She thought him strong, absolutely, stronger than she is, stronger than most people she's seen — but this? This? It's enough that it arrests her reckless, forward run to stand stunned in place, bare feet burning in fresh snow, when it's apparent to her he isn't lost under that writhing mass of the creature, isn't being close into its screaming jaws — but holding it back, matching it, with his single left arm.

She wants to go to him, but not even she is sure what she can do. He's fighting it. /Fighting/ it. Her eyes can't help but watch the movement of the plates, witnessing, calculating, remembering; Jane can't help but hear those mechanical groans of tension, a first, errant thought in the back of her head: I can improve that, I can do better…

The demon loses itself to animalistic madness and begins to thrash. The Soldier answers with his rifle down its throat.

It howls with pain and tears away, and let go, the demon stumbles and briefly collapses, its limbs flattening, its coiling body heaping along the street. It trembles, black blood oozing from openings in its body, pouring free from its gasping, frothing jaws. The blood shines where it pools, ice on contact, a creature made of cold inside and out.

It knows it does not have long. It is weak this way, far weaker than it thought, not itself — not whole. Not ready. And it knows why, why, why — the liar, the falsity — calling it here as She would, but it is not Her. The liar brought only a piece of it, and it hates —

It moves straight for her.

So does the Soldier, though not toward Jane, and so quickly that in the dark she loses track of him. Then Jane's world eclipses with the demon, her first good look at it, pulling itself with its curling claws as its whipping coils snap at the chill air. She can't look away, can't, from the opening of those jaws —

The Soldier pushes straight up brick, and lets go, twisting to arc backwards and nail straight down. It reaches for her one last time, jaws opening for one final snap — and cut short, the demon's head dropping to the earth as the man lands clean and snaps its spine. Knives puncture straight into its neck.

Ichor pours free. Its eyes blink its lids and go still.

The lights turn back on from inside her apartment, shining out the front door, backlighting the way Jane looks at him, at James Barnes, a shaking hand pulled up to cup over her mouth.

The creature begins to dust under his boots.

—-

It is an image older than written language. Framed in the thrashing coils of a monstrous black serpent, a man struggles back against the primitive and demiurgic, holding back chaos with one arm.

Not that the Winter Soldier is thinking about it that way. He's mostly thinking about how much his metal arm can take before he has to abandon his head-on stance and roll away.

It's not just titanium and steel at his beck and call, however— though both certainly show their strength in these moments, the rigid plates of the arm locking down into rigidity to increase resilience and resistance. It's the strength of the man behind it also, a strength shot up to inhuman levels by experimentation— painful, agonizing, but ultimately successful— done decades ago on his body.

It holds the creature and all its monstrous power back for several critical moments. Just long enough for him to lift his rifle and sight, with accuracy and precision also far beyond what a normal man should possess.

Lead hails down the creature's throat.

But it's not done yet. Far from it. Finally released, it writhes in agony and rage, smearing frozen ichor across the street, the snow… and its eye falls on Jane. The person who called it here. The person who brought it to this world for nothing but a LIE, and brought it so weak—

It rushes for her. Its jaws spread wide, eager to close on prey that will not be so recalcitrant. It comes in so close that she can feel the frozen caress of its breath.

Then the Winter Soldier comes crashing down upon it. All three hundred pounds of him, that metal arm and all that heavy equipment combining to make him a prodigious force indeed in his descent. And if its spine snapping weren't good enough to finish it off… the paired knives flashing in his hands, their deadly eight-inch blades catching the light, will when they cleave in to sever all the major connections in its long, serpent neck.

Afterwards, it is quiet.

The Winter Soldier settles slowly to the ground as the creature mists away. He tilts his head, cracking his neck, straightening up and slinging his knives in a gesture that flicks off the excess ichor. He examines them, sees the remaining blood upon them starting to helpfully dust and flake away, and foregoes the cloth to clean them, instead just sliding them back into their sheaths.

He adjusts his carbine to seat it more firmly back in its sling— it was stowed mid-combat, with the efficiency of long habit— and walks up to Jane with a quick, matter-of-fact step. As if he hadn't just fought for his life again some unholy monster drawn from nightmare. As if there aren't lines of blood cut into his face, the back of his hand… as if there wasn't clawing damage rent into the material of his light armor. He stops before her, looking down at her, studying her for injury.

His hand lifts, taking her by the chin, turning her face to check if she's hurt. "You get in a lot of trouble," he observes quietly.

—-

The demon's back, weak as it is, weak as it /feels/, mortal, and incomplete, snaps like chalk under the Winter Soldier's boots, back cleaved in halves under his brutal landing. His blades find their soft spots between those scales, and driven forward by unnatural strength, sheath into its serpentine neck. The creature tenses, clawed hands raking at cement, reaching, reaching — and going slack. Its whipping coils slump and go silent. Its head lowers to the slow, ichor pooling out through its fangs.

It dies. And its body, no longer able to maintain its twisted, mortal shape, begins to smoke and dust, losing form and mass, matter cooking like some fireless crucible until it sinks into scattered ash.

Jane watches it all happen through the tears rolling down her face. She shakes her head, though at what is a mystery, a hand clutched over her mouth. It is the sound of those steathing knives that brings her back, eyes turned up on the Soldier, watching him helplessly through each measured step he takes toward her. Soon, like a surrender, her hand drops and falls free, and he can see all of her face, all of her shock, and terror, and — relief.

In her dark eyes is only candid relief, relief for /him/ — relief to see him, the Winter Soldier, James Barnes… both and any name his broken mind will take.

He reaches for her face, and Jane does not tense or balk, coming down from shock that her head tilts briefly, heavily into his touch, which turns her head minutely to his inspection. Her injuries are none, her body intact, her limbs mobile, her skin not rent and cleaved by those claws, her throat not torn out by those jaws —

There are little nics cut into her hairline, sealing wells of blood from the momentary bite of its claw-tips, and all the worst is the way blood dries into the fine hairs along Jane's crown. Undamaged, unbruised, untouched, the way she stands here now, faces up, and looks up at him is evidence enough of what the Soldier has done. What the Soldier can do.

Jane Foster is trembling. But that does not deter her: deter where her eyes turn, stolen to the cut shining fresh blood along his face. It strikes her it's the first time she's ever seen it, seen it on this man. The Soldier can bleed.

Whatever he can do, whatever she just /witnessed/ him do, he's still a man, just a man, James Barnes — James looking down at her, touching her, being here for her. He was here for her. She tugs down her sleeve over her hand, and fumblingly reaches, desperate to press the soft material to his cut, and let the cuff of her sweater soak up the blood. Her sleeve pulls however, not as long as she would like it, and the cool touch of her fingers rasps free, wanting to touch —

He tells her she gets into a lot of trouble.

Jane hitches a sound, half-laugh, half-sob, and just answers breathlessly, "Shut /up/."

And she steps forward, closer if he'll let her, closer if he'll allow, to try to throw her arms around his neck, one hand tangled with his hair, and up on her tip-toes, wrap herself around him in a trembling, irrational, desperate hug. Her heart beats into his shredded kevlar. Her face buries into his shoulder. Her hands tighten like she needs to hold him, needs to hold on. And Jane doesn't let James go.

—-

In the denouement, the Winter Soldier is silent: a machine winding back down from frenetic activity, into the cool hum of an idling state. He scuffs ash from his boots, shakes it from his knives, resheathes them and performs a studious check of all his weapons and equipment. All accounted for. None missing. Nothing broken.

He doesn't unmount the grenade launcher yet. Time enough to do that later… and there might be other demons around. Who knows?

Eventually he turns to the subject of all this— shaking, teary, still holding in the shock with a hand over her mouth. Jane Foster, out in the snow in her bare feet, looking up at him in shock and fear and relief. The first two expressions he is used to seeing on the faces of those he approaches; the last he is not. It makes him stare half a second too long, studying her intently, his blue eyes searching her as if something in her could bring order to his shattered mind. Set it at ease and show him the truth of… everything.

Life has been extremely confusing for the Winter Soldier, as of late.

Here and now, however, there are very simple things that need doing that can immediately be done. The Soldier focuses on them, his hand lifting to take Jane's jaw and turn her head coolly, appraising for damage or winces that would indicate whiplash or trauma. He finds nothing, nothing except for slight scratches bitten into her hairline. His hand lifts, thumb brushing along those micro-cuts, wiping the blood away.

How long has it been since he saved a life instead of taking it? How long?

He ignores the gash down his own face. The slowly-rolling blood that proves that despite what he just did, in the end he is still a man at his core.

He tells her she gets in a lot of trouble. Her response is about as brief as the comment deserves.

The Soldier tenses up when Jane laughs out a breathless injunction to shut up, comes in close, and throws her arms around his neck, wrapping around him in a desperate, irrational embrace. It is a foolhardy thing to do, like hugging an armed nuke, hugging a blade, hugging a loaded rifle. But she almost just died, and he saved her, and she doesn't care.

The Soldier tenses up. But James Barnes recognizes this situation just fine.

It's him that suddenly gathers her into his arms. It's him that walks her back up into the apartment, kicking her door shut. And it's him that, back in the privacy of her battered entryway, leans down and tastes of her, taking her mouth in a kiss, with a muscle memory that even decades of pain and deprivation could not erase.

It is a kiss that tastes of bitterness, because it is fleeting— given by a man who has so little time with the world before he is inevitably suppressed again. But it is proof that the man is still somewhere in there, unbowed despite seventy years of attempts to wipe him away.

—-

His prey retreat to the advance of the Winter Soldier. They step away if they are the unlucky ones who get to see him coming.

Jane Foster goes nowhere. She stands there, backlit by yellowy light, her feet deep in fresh snow, and her hands relaxing, falling slack to her sides as she is swallowed in the Soldier's moving shadow. He comes to stand before her, looking down; she looks up, dark hair fallen over one eye, pinpricked with blood, pale, tears shining her face, and finds his blue eyes. Something in them arrests her, gentles with the slow passing of time the shock from her face. It is not surrender, not the inevitable loss of hope he has watched so many times before — but searching. And finding.

The look of someone gazing endlessly up into the cold field of space, searching its black, dead horizon for one, certain star — and finally seeing it wink back.

He takes her by the chin and gently turns her face. He uses his thumb to smear her blood away. Jane's lashes do not even flicker, looking up, absorbing to her perfect recall everything about this memory, everything about this touch. She wonders how it is he found her, how it is he even knew — knew how to come at the most terrifying moment. Knew how to be there for her. But, in the end, and perhaps for the first time, she decides those questions do not matter. What matters is what he did. What matters is who he is.

What matters is she trusts him. Her face briefly leans into a hand that has killed.

But Jane sees James as no killer now, no cold machine, a man bleeding as men do — bleeding enough it compels her to treat it, pressing the cuff of her sweater close, pulling crimson into its white fabric. It recedes, pulling away from her outstretched wrist, and her fingers run his face, gentle where he bleeds, letting it happily stain her skin evidence that he is real. Real and here with her.

She does not expect those wry words out of him. Neither does Jane expect her own response, perhaps careful at any other time, careful and tentative, but now she cannot care, because she's alive, and it's only because of him, and she trusts him. She /trusts/ him, he will never hurt her, could never hurt her, he is James Barnes —

— and without thinking she is up on the tips of her toes and pressed to him, warmth and life and her tiny, hammering heart, losing her fingers into his dark hair as she pulls desperately close. He tenses, but Jane ignores it, willing to give and take the embrace for both of them, wanting to tell him, show him, without the words she cannot say just how much he means to her — how he, in all this new, strange city, has become her safe place.

He lifts her into his arms, and she makes the brief, soft sound of someone not anticipating that. But Jane's small, light body yields, weighing nothing to him, bearing in its lean lines not a feel of tension, though her arms tighten, unwilling yet to give up her embrace, and the feel of him inside him, so close, so warm, and /here/.

He moves, and it all happens so fast. So fast Jane can only vaguely follow what it is the Soldier does. She feels the air warm, and hears her door kick shut, and leans back, arms loosening just enough, to let into her periphery the familiar glow of her lights and lamps. She looks up, her face inches away, and takes in his face. She sees James Barnes looking down on her.

Her lips move like she means to speak.

He leans down and takes them, swallowing any sound they would make, drinking Jane's incessant questions down to the soft murmur she makes into his mouth. She goes still for just a moment, shocked, breathless, then closes her eyes and fiercely, impatiently meets his kiss, her hands slipping to cradle his face, as if she would hold him still, hold him here, hold him with her to tell him with the brush of her lips, the scrape of her teeth, the sigh of her breath: she knows, she knows, she knows.

James Barnes tastes of bitterness and Jane drinks it down. With fresh tears streaking down her cheeks, she takes it all.

—-

That in itself is new. Usually when he advances, people run.

Jane Foster does not run. She stands there, speechless, immobile, so shell-shocked she stands barefoot in the snow without noticing the chill. A poetic mind might contemplate that it is because she is, however, briefly, under the protection of the Winter Soldier, and so for those precious few moments, winter must have no power to harm her.

Poetic minds, however, don't stack up against reality. The Soldier aims to get her out of the cold and inside as quickly as possible.

First he checks her for injury that might be aggravated by him moving her roughly, his hands gentle but curt— she leans into his touch, however, and the curtness stutters, his hand faltering and forgetting itself to become something far more lingering. The feel of her under his fingertips is familiar somehow, a sensation he has felt many times before somewhere deep in the past. The sight of her, the feel of her, face upturned to his and body pressed to his own, is familiar too. Something he's seen and felt on many occasions. A woman looking to him to be the safe, grounding center of her universe.

It spurs something. For the first time since the 70s, James Barnes struggles back to the surface for a few scant moments.

He takes Jane up in his arms, pulling her out of the snow, bringing her in out of the cold. The door is kicked shut. He cradles her in close against him, looking down at her, finding in her features— the way she feels and looks in his arms— that elusive grounding that makes him briefly, temporarily able to tap into the core of who he is.

He is meant, at his core, to protect things.

There is not much time. He can already feel the clarity slipping away, sinking again beneath the muddled waters of his ravaged mind. He could say something, but she already knows the things he is likely to say. So instead, he leans down and does what he already remembered doing in just these situations.

He kisses her. He tastes like the blood that's run into his mouth from the cut on his face. He tastes like the bitterness of a man robbed of his intended life, a man aware that even this moment will soon be taken from him. He tastes like a promise to continue protecting her, even when he no longer remembers these few seconds, or why he made the promise at all.

Then, too quickly, it ends. His eyes slide closed. He pulls back, and a few slow steps bring him to the couch, where he sets her down.

He backs up a few, uncertain steps. His head hangs, like he is not sure where, when, or who he is.

"I should go," he says eventually, his voice faintly betraying the urgency of that internal voice looping in his head. Get out. Get away. Get back to an empty place where you can remember you are the Winter Soldier, and nothing more.

—-

Every taste in his mouth Jane takes for her own. She draws free from him the sharp taste of blood, the bitter urgency of borrowed time, and without hesitation, swallows them, opening her lips as if she would replace in his mouth all those cold savours — the only ones he knows — with something else, something different, something new. She surges back, not so passive enough to take, but desperate to give back to him the sweetness of her breath, her soft sounds, for him to have.

Her faith. Her hope. And her heart, Jane realizes, he has this too.

Tears lick down her cheeks as she drinks without comprehension, only understanding, the promise he imparts her; Jane breathes it in, and her body hitches, her voice catches, and with the smallest of murmurs, rasps her lips against his. Her moving hands map his face and card through his overlong hair. Her nervousness, and her worry, and her hope, and her indulgence — it is a knot in her that, in one moment, unravels. She has only known him among a few haunted words, a few phantom touches, and yet she wants.

The feel of him lingers, and begins to cool. It comes like a creeping coldness under Jane's wandering hands, a passing of seasons, and ever so hopeful, she preses closer as if to stop it. Her eyes squeeze shut and she crushes her mouth to his, her trembling fingers finding home at his temples, laying gentle pressure down as if it will hold him in, keep him here. He feels, in that moment to her breaking heart, the way a supernova looks a galaxy away in her telescope: a glimpse of flickering light, and then one night, dark forever.

He pulls away and sets her down. Jane's eyes flutter open, and she looks up, body boneless and yet trembling with a razor-fine sensitivity, her breathing shallow, her cheeks flushed, and her lips stung. She looks on, watching James retreat, from her, from here, sinking back into the Soldier who duly grants them both their space. She understands what is happening, even if she refuses to believe.

I should go, he says.

"You can stay," Jane argues, voice raw, its sound pulled open skin and muscle and bone, cracked straight to its marrow.

Unable to suffer staying in one place, unable to suffer inaction, she pushes back up to her feet, a tiny woman encircled by her tiny apartment, a lost, forgettable corner of the universe offering him home. Jane stares up at the cage of the Winter Soldier holding James Barnes within, in her brown eyes a promise of her own. She is meant, at her core, to find things, and she promises she will find him again, again and again. His blood dries on the fingers of her left hand. "You can stay here with me."

—-

It is a brief reprieve that he gets, and he takes every inch of it he can. James Barnes may not be strong enough to fully manifest, but enough of him is there to be aware that his time is short. His mouth is desperate on hers, instinct and animal urges driving him to try to struggle back to life by sinking himself into the one thing that makes men feel most alive: the passion and tactile sensation of a woman, her mouth receptive and her body compliant, her answering passion proving that he is alive, and not dead, not dead, not dead.

He drinks deeply of her, as if to bank her for the long winter ahead.

Eventually the inevitable happens. He cools and starts to slip away, his demeanor changing, his real self suppressed again beneath so many layers of conditioning and corrective torture. Like the change of seasons, the James she so briefly shared time with withers back into the austere barrenness of the Winter Soldier, his mandated persona growing back over him like frost despite the efforts of her pleading, grasping hands.

He pulls back. Jane is placed back down to her own couch with quiet lack of fanfare.

He backs away, falling into a restless pacing, back and forth, like an animal that once again finds itself suddenly in a cage much too small. The Soldier knows something just happened, something that should not happen, something that mandates he must leave immediately. Immediately leave the site of whatever the stimulus was.

He says he should go.

His eyes turn when she argues back. He can stay. Stay here with her. She pushes to a stand, all five feet of her, tiny and yet implacable, and her eyes promise to find him— again and again— until she finds him for the last time and brings him back home.

The frost-blue eyes of the Winter Soldier regard her vow with tired lack of comprehension or recognition. Her vow skates along the surface of a brain shattered by seventy years of hell on earth. In these moments, he looks just as lost as someone who would merit such a strong vow would be expected to look: painfully and wildly adrift. "I can't," he refuses. "I am not… finished."

He turns towards the door. "There are still men to kill."

—-

She still feels him on her lips. She still tastes him in her mouth. Jane carries on her body the evidence that James Barnes still exists, was here, is here, is alive —

Like a sea change, the tide pulls in, and he is gone. The Winter Soldier reasserts himself, a decades-old program lit back to life, spreading cords and circuits to strangle the life out of repairing neural nets. It silences memory beneath the constant, self-affirming cycle of PEACE, ORDER, NORMAL; it strangles off feeling, wanting, and claiming, locking them away to the fever dreams they are. It presses patiently down on familiar struggles and holds a man under cold water, suffering out every kick and thrash and seethe, and looking on with inexorable witness, until the fight must end — until the churning waters calm, and ice freezes its surface.

Jane watches the comprehension leave his eyes. It breaks her heart to know he will not remember. Not that she believes it is gone, all those moments before, because she knows well enough of the mind — no information can be removed, replaced, cut out, she knows, she knows, she knows, she believes, she believes —

And if even he cannot carry the memory, she will, for them both, defying the incongruity of the Soldier's bearing, posture, hands, face, eyes, and fiercely standing against its denial.

Jane stands, unable to remain sitting, unwilling to take anything in life — much less this, much less /him/ — sitting down, passive, receptive, cooperative. He should go. She offers her argument, choosing every word deliberately. He CAN stay. For as long as she exists, she will be his choice, an offering away from the programming, a weight willing to step its foot down on dangerously thin ice.

He tells her he cannot. Not finished.

He has men to kill.

Jane's expression hitches. Shock and pain, even a twitch of heartbreak, take her — hurting for the lives he may take, hurting for him, his hands, blood on them, so much blood — but she pushes it down, finding something deep, familiar, and angry, angry enough it sharpens all the features of her face and locks her stubborn jaw. She watches him leave, unable to stop him, no power in her to block or barrier his way, even if she wished — and sometimes, especially now, she wishes.

He opens the door. And he — will hear her, soft footsteps coming close, no way she can move or disguise all the sounds of life from his weaponized senses. But still Jane lingers, daring it, one hand outstretched like she wants to touch his arm, touch him, but not yet close enough to. "You do more than kill —"

—-

He comes and goes like a small surprise thaw in midwinter.

He is not strong enough to stay. Not strong enough yet to fight against decades of implanted memories and false thoughts in his head. Not even with all the evidence gathered… not even with the regular lapses that leave him confused, trying to account for the lost time in which he did things that were not dealing death.

He is only strong enough to claim tiny moments, here and there. Moments where he warns her. Moments where he protects her. Moments where he acts on the longing impulses of a man that the Soviets and HYDRA tried to kill for seventy-five years, but in the end… never could.

Then he is gone. Countless layers of conditioning take James Barnes and push him back down, ignoring his struggles and thrashes, suppressing him beneath his mandated identity as the Winter Soldier. Snuffing him back out until he goes still, murdered yet again at the hands of those who have so completely rewritten him and all he is.

James Barnes dies again, as he has died countless times since he was lost to the world in the furor of global war. His struggle for freedom fails, and his locked-in nightmare continues.

That nightmare stands silently in Jane's apartment: the murderous husk of a personality that calls itself the Winter Soldier. It is all that is left to her now. The expressive light is already fading out of his blue eyes, his features steeling down into familiar indifference. He has… work to do. Work to do. It is not finished. He cannot go home and sleep until it is finished.

He tells Jane as much. There are men yet to kill. The Winter Soldier is far from done using James Barnes' copious skills to kill: far from done covering his hands in blood.

She lingers after him, trying to reach out to him. He can detect that without even turning and looking. He keeps walking, and he doesn't glance back.

"Sometimes," he says, of her plea that he does more than kill. "But not this time."

He says no more. He only slips down the steps and vanishes into the dark, as only he can.

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