December 30, 2016:

The Winter Soldier brings Jane some photographs given him by Zatanna, in the hopes of unraveling what they mean. It doesn't go well— but he finds something else he needs to get his mission done.

Brooklyn, New York


NPCs: Gottfried Muller

Mentions: Steve Rogers, Zatanna Zatara, John Constantine

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

Jane would be used to this routine by now. Days pass, but other than a few brief moments where he comes to her aid again— and again— the Winter Soldier has avoided showing up at her actual apartment.

He watches from a distance, though, stealing glimpses of her through her windows from his perch in his Brooklyn foxhole. He periodically checks on her between his own comings and goings. Her life remains quiet, so far as he can ascertain. Other than the demon outbreaks— other than the Russian mafia. But the latter was her own fault.

He tells himself he keeps watching her, keeping tabs on her, visiting her, because her profound intelligence is a definite potential asset to HYDRA. Tells himself it is because it's always part of his job to passively scout— searching for new talent— when prowling out in the world. Assuredly that is the primary reason his programming still allows him to circulate around Jane Foster, like a distant planet spinning around her star.

There's probably another reason, but his conscious mind will not think of it— will not allow him to fully grasp it.

But then there comes a day that it is the Winter Soldier who runs into trouble, though it is not trouble of the conventional sort. It is trouble in the form of ghosts from the past, phantom images in faded photographs that suggest he had a life years ago which he cannot remember. That he was, once upon a time, a very different man than he is now.

A different man than HYDRA tells him he is.

The constant physical proof worries away at his programming like the chew of a mouse at the corner of a grain sack. It does not allow his conditioning to scab over and force him to forget. It does not allow him to re-calibrate back to his normal Winter Soldier state.

He tries to ignore it. He tries to sink himself into his work. But there comes a point where he takes the photos back out, looks at them, and then shrugs his jacket on.

He does not even consider approaching her front door. No more of that. He is unnerved and restless by these new developments, wary and on edge, unsure of who might be watching. What it might all mean.

Instead, half an hour later, he is walking softly along the roof of Jane's building, past the telescope she once used to show him Andromeda, down the fire escape covered seemingly-perpetually with ice. He drops into a crouch beside her window, a dark silent figure that looks in briefly. If she is visible, he will rap the window. If not…

…well, he's letting himself in. He's good at that.


His little star burns with light.

The Jane Foster of a month ago would be locked into her lab through all the late hours of night, closed by its walls and surrounded in her work, with her little apartment left dark, unlived-in, forgotten.

However, as these days pass, and she comes home religiously for each of them, making her way from either work or errands or the strange passions of her life by late evening, where by routine, she turns on every light and lamp in her little apartment, opens the curtains to her expansive, fire escape window, and lets it shine out into the darkness.

Hers is not the only flickering light that studs the starfield of the brilliantly-lit Brooklyn, but Jane's beacon is only shining for one particular soul.

Three times he's helped her, all in a matter of days. Three times, all to disappear in the end like some ghost. She would not be the clever person she is to think them a coincidence. She would not be Dr. Foster to convince herself that the Soldier — with the soul of James Barnes — is her lucky protector.

He's keeping watch of her, she knows, though with what, or how frequent, Jane is not certain. All she is aware is that it's constant, and for some reason, aimed on her, and as silent and unobtrusive as he was when he first followed her, first learned her life, before the fated night he would make himself part of it forever.

The Jane Foster of a month ago would be frightened. However, as these days pass, and memory still has her lips burn with a phantom touch that will never go away —

— she opens her curtains and lets him look in. She waits with her work, and her lights, and her unerring hope, for the chance his lonely little planet makes its perihelion pass, coming close that he may be enticed to linger, try to reach, try to stay.

His footsteps cover hers on the roof, tiny, Jane-sized tracks she makes from home to her friend pointed at the sky. The fire escape creaks under his weight, but still he drops soundless, crouched on the other side of that familiar window. No curtains bar his view in, pulled back as if the woman inside deighed to watch the stars and forgot to lower them for privacy, and off to the side, her enduring Christmas tree still leans, not yet taken down, its light, starry lights blinking endlessly on.

Some has changed in her apartment. That stack of books are missing from her coffee table, relegated to the floor and left shut, a wary Jane taking a break from that particular pursuit. In its place sits her closed laptop, surrounded in a veritable table mine-field of metallic plates, shining silver, and notched with countless edges and curves and angles. They scatter in a slowly-amassing, chaotic jigsaw.

Jane Foster, however, is not visible.

She only becomes so when the window opens and shuts, turning a corner from the kitchen, wearing her usual jeans and a battered university tee, a cardigan shrugged over her arms. She carries a mug of coffee, and spills a bit of it with the tremble of her hands the moment she sees him.

She smiled once at seeing him, helplessly and unashamedly happy, her dark eyes lit with relief and hope. She does it again.


Very little escapes the notice of the Winter Soldier. Especially not details of the way the routine of a person he's watching changes over time. It has not escaped his notice that she comes home religiously where she did not before. That she leaves the curtains open so he can look in, unobstructed. That she lets lights burn out into the darkness where most would shutter up at night— too modest to let their little apartment life be too visible to the eyes of New York.

But of course, it's not New York Jane is inviting to see her. It's not New York Jane is hoping to attract with all her warm light.

Because it is obvious to someone as smart as Jane, someone whose life is built on seeing patterns. Stepping in to save her, three times in only a few days, means he is watching her, following her, keeping an eye on her from the shadows even if she never sees him there. And she would prefer that he simply come in from the dark and cold. Come in and let her help him. Come in and remember who he is supposed to be, as he almost seemed to days ago.

Whatever she has to do to make that seem inviting, she will.

A mere month ago, this would be unthinkable. This would be the stuff of nightmares. Being stalked, haunted, watched by a master assassin… never sure when or where he might appear, or what he might do? Any sane person would lose it, pack their things, and flee the state immediately. If not the country. But in the past month Jane has discovered… things about her errant shadow. Things that change everything.

And he has never hurt her. Far from it.

The Winter Soldier has, however, admittedly been avoiding her, and for the same reasons as she hopes he will appear. He is vaguely aware that if he sees her again, she will help him remember, and to /remember/ is too painful. Too frightening. Too potentially a complete upset of everything he believes to be true in his life. If he were too dig too deeply and find that the truth is his life is a lie… that what he is now is a complete betrayal of what he used to be—

—but a man can only run for so long. Especially a man of the caliber that James Barnes used to be.

So here he is, on her fire escape, looking in her window. It's shut, and Jane's nowhere to be seen, but this is not any kind of barrier to him; he has the window open in half a deft moment, sliding agilely in and slipping it shut after him. He only has a moment to appraise the apartment, its changed condition, the many metal plates scattered around—

— and Jane turns the corner. She startles— as well she might, seeing a strange man in her home— before she recognizes him. And as she did once before, on seeing him, her features break reflexively into a hopeful smile.

There is a pause. The last time she smiled at him, it went poorly, so poorly. He was angry and he swiftly punished her hope. A second or two passes as he looks at her.

Then he smiles back. It is uncertain, halting, and it transparently uses muscles that haven't been used in years. It's a little crooked, and it only lasts a second. But it's a smile. A little hint that maybe he's glad to see her too— even relieved to see her. For some reason.

One of his hands, in his pocket, tightens on something tucked there.

"Some… things came into my possession," he explains his presence, after clearing his throat and averting his eyes.


It would be the stuff of nightmares — and yet Jane Foster wears no evidence of fear.

Her lights are on. Her curtains pull open. Her window is left unlocked. She offers to the man she knows watching her an open invitation into her home, her life —

— and when the night comes he accepts, and she turns a corner, finding out of nothing him back into her world. Jane shocks with surprise, still not quite used to someone so soundless, to someone who simply will be /there/ out of nothing, utilizing all of the enhancements and skills given to him to make him deadly, make him a killer, make him the ghost story to be feared, and yet on her, there is none. No panicked hammering of her heart. No sweat of adrenaline. No fear, no terror, nothing… save for the way she looks at him.

And her hopeful little smile.

The relief comes like a swift hook in the gut, and leaves Jane breathless. /There/ you are, say her dark eyes, as they look him up and done, desperate to gauge that he's all right, that he's in one piece, and he's here. Her lips part, but she does not speak.

James, she wants to say. She wants to use his name — his real name. But will it bring that twitch to his eyes? Bring the pain through his head? She seems afraid to move for that moment out of worry she'll chase him off, as she has every single time before, too insistent, too desperate, too impatient, for him to abide and suffer her. He's just returned to her, and she doesn't want him to go.

She just looks at him. And she smiles identically to how she once did, days and days ago. The last time she did, he returned it with a soft-spoken, hypothermic interrogation. He broke her within minutes and a handful of words into tears.

And yet Jane does it again. Either one who does not learn her lessons, or simply possesses faith not so easily shattered.

She expects him to stare hollowly through her hospitality, to ask her about a repair, perhaps even demand an update on the engineering she has promised him.

He smiles back.

Jane tightens her hands around the mug of coffee she's already forgotten, helpless to look at him. The tiniest tic of his mouth has her captivated, the question burning against her lips: do you remember? Do you remember what happened the last time you were here?

She stops those words too, hanging onto them with the slight, sharp press of her teeth into her tongue, especially when, in her silence — the Soldier deigns to speak.

Is it the Soldier? Or James? Or both, Jane thinks, both in their battle.

"What sort of things?" she asks gently, moving in closer, not to try to immediately touch or overwhelm, but to offer him her untouched, just-made coffee. She takes hers similar to how she remembers he does. "I'm happy to see you. I worry about you… a lot. Want to sit down?"


It is yet another dissonant note in the lonely predator's life of the Winter Soldier. He is accustomed to watching prey draw in on itself once it feels itself to be watched. Used to seeing it close in and try to hide. He's accustomed to having to go in and get his quarry, pulling it out from its hiding spot, breaking down the defenses it's erected to try to keep him out.

This one opens her life, home, and heart to him. All the lights of her unlocked apartment invite him in.

It leaves him off-balance enough that he almost feels something other than the cold familiarity of a job he's done many times before, as he scales softly down the fire escape… almost feels, for a brief moment, like an impostor. He crouches briefly outside her window, in a posture he has assumed many times previous, scanning her apartment and his means of entry in the same way he always has done, and yet something feels… off.

He shakes his head. Shakes it off. And his deft hands open the window.

He slides in, soundless, like the ghost he has been mythologized to be over the many years of his operation. His entry is so seamless that Jane, coming around the corner, nearly loses her coffee to find someone suddenly THERE where moments before there was no one at all. Yet, interestingly, nothing about her shock speaks of /fear/, per se. Surprise, certainly, but no terror-sweat. No adrenaline-driven spike of her heartrate. Nothing.

Nothing except for that hopeful smile. Nothing except the way her eyes greet him in a glad hello.

His head tilts. He's seen this before. He responded as he was supposed to, last time. He brushed aside the display and broke her with no more than a few cold words. It was so recently that she must remember; so viciously that she could not possibly forget. Yet she does it again.

And this time, he finds himself smiling back. The expression is so rusty it pulls at his mouth, an awkward half-realized thing that comes and goes, but it is a tentative, welcoming sign that some humanity is struggling to resurface in the frozen expanses of the Winter Soldier's blasted psyche.

He tells her he has things.

She is full of questions immediately, though she remains gentle and unassuming; not wanting to startle the man. Not wanting to pile on too much, too fast, lest he break down and run for it— or worse, attack her in confusion. He looks down at the offered coffee, then shakes his head— it's hers— and moves towards the couch when bidden. He steps lightly for a man with fifty pounds or more of metal grafted to his shoulder, turning without sound to settle. Her assertion she's happy to see him— worried about him— draws only a blank glance, as if it's not anywhere within the landscape of his mind to understand such ideas.

He looks away again. His hand reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket, coming out with an envelope. "These," he says quietly, opening it— it's been neatly slit, presumably by letter-opener— and removing what looks like two faded photographs.

The Soldier places them carefully on her table. One is an image of the man himself— years younger, smiling— alongside the instantly-recognizable form of Steve Rogers. The other is a group shot, the both of them flanked by the unit that was known as the Howling Commandos. Both are faded with age, and look very much like originals.

"These were given to me," he says, staring down at them as if staring at a puzzle he does not even know how to begin solving.


He politely refuses her coffee.

Jane glances down at it, the mug in her hands, suddenly overcome with the minutiae of this unreality — that the Soldier would come back to her, and not for the role he has made of her, but something else entirely. She thinks, rather feebly, if it is polite she asks to make him his own cup, if he even wants coffee at all, or a meal, or something else. She's lost her own appetite, and, for the time being, taste for coffee. She just wants to hear why he's come.

In the end, after thinking far too strenuously over things that do not matter, are not important, Jane sets that mug of coffee down on her coffee table and immediately forgets it forever, left to steam into the quiet of her apartment. He hands fidget at her sides, and that ghost of a smile on her face has still not left her —

— and tries all it can to encourage the Soldier on.

Seeing that smile on his face, crooked and wan and impracticed, does such things to her heart. Jane feels her eyes sting, the hope welling up so blindingly fast it chokes her up, and grateful she is not speaking, not making a sound, she swallows down the feeling and steadies her breathing, deep and slow and smooth. Something's happened, and she's not sure what — but she'll take it. She'll /take/ this, and she'll work with it, and she'll adapt, and, perhaps, everything will be all right.

For now, she lends all effort and focus on being careful: not so tentative she treats him like glass, but not with the impatient recklessness her twisting, tearing heart so wishes her to do. Grab ahold and never let go, and do it now, because there's never enough time in this world — never enough time to simply hold someone close until you have to let them go. But Jane wills away that restless part of her nature, and asks the man to sit. He does, and she watches the way all his mass, all his weaponized self that, with enough power to smash down and snap a hellish creature's back… alight himself to her couch without sound.

She lingers, then makes a decision, pulling fussily on her cardigan before she settles at his side, not close enough to worry him or close enough to touch — but close enough to be there, her presence bleeding through his periphery, and to feel the warmth off her body. Jane is familiar smells, salt in her hair from the cold sea, metal, and coffee.

He answers her initial question, and without looking at her, rests an open envelope to the table. Jane looks at it with narrowed eyes, a part opened between her lips, but she speaks no question, only reaching forward to take it. She looks inside, head tilting, and catching its contents between two fingers, slowly pulls them free.

James Buchanan Barnes looks back at her.

Jane's heart catches. Her mouth draws to a thin line. She says nothing, does nothing… save for the slow, methodic way she looks through both photos, their grainy surface feeling as authentic as it takes —

— and stops on the photo of Barnes with Steve Rogers, two men like brothers in a time long ago, lost from home, lost from each other. She recognizes this photo. She saw its digital scan. And here it is, under her fingers. She brushes her thumb across James Barnes's faded, smiling face.

They were given to him.

Jane looks up, unable to help but look up at the man at her side, her own eyes filled with questions, with hurt — and still searching for something in his face. "I can help you, if you want to learn more."

She sets down the photos with gentle care. "Because… they're you."


It is a surreal moment when Jane realizes that the Winter Soldier is not here for the role he himself has ascribed to her. He is not here to have her repair his arm or work on its promised upgrades. He is here for something far more personal. Something is troubling him, something he wants a third party to look at.

It implies that he has some degree of trust for her. That her many small, careful steps in dealing with him have tamed him just enough to bring him in this close, like a cautious stag finally drawing near an outstretched hand.

He did go over it in his mind before deciding to come to her door. But the list of people he could consult was so small. He could not ask his handlers— according to this narrative, they are not his friends, but rather his enemies. He could not ask any of the other people he has met, because they are all the ones pushing this narrative upon him— this narrative he is so afraid is a lie.

His mind lingered on the blond man with the shield. Steve. Maybe he could talk to him. But what if Steve is a lie too?

He just can't be sure, So he comes to the one place where he has felt the least amount of… agenda. The one place that just accepts him in. The one place that might, just might, not… lie.

He sits on her couch now, nervous from having taken this first step, but knowing he can no longer go back. He reaches into his coat pockets and pulls out the photographs, turning them over to let Jane look.

The Soldier studies her face as she looks at them, reading her candid reaction with the practiced eye of a man very used to ascertaining whether someone is telling the truth. There is nothing in her features that he sees which suggests she is trying to hide something from him, but there is something there that suggests she knows things he does not.

He quietly reaches to reclaim the photographs from her hand, as she moves to put them down.

She can help, she promises. If he wants to learn more. He stares down at the photographs as she tells them they're him.

His thumb moves, brushing a light and thoughtful touch over the faded image of Steve Rogers. It might be imagination, the way his gaze gentles half a moment.

"Tell me," he finally says. He glances askance at her. "Show me."


No guile waits in the alleys of Jane's soft, honest features. She holds herself in quiet honesty, no capacity for duplicity, no great con, no natural poker face. The woman, for all the complexity of her work and depth of her mind, wears all of her heart on her sleeve. Whether it will give her strength or be what breaks her in the end, to look at her is to see straight down into where she is weak, where she is feeling, even hurting, where she is fragile.

And now he looks down into her, and in Jane, the Soldier can see she hides nothing: it wells into her brown eyes all she's wanted to tell him, all she's wanted to say. All Jane feared she could not, for the worry of losing him forever — a ghost lost back into a world she knows not where to follow.

But he is here, in her house, surrounded by its warmth and beacon light, suffused with the smell of coffee, the yellowy glow of her work lamps, and the starry blinks of her crooked little tree. He sits, and carefully Jane joins him, all of her body language a careful balance not to overwhelm him, and yet, at the same time, pressing a clear refusal the idea he is alone.

The photographs gut her. To see the evidence, distant and sterile on the screen of a computer, is one thing. To hold in her hands palpable evidence James Barnes was real, whole, happy — a life that should have never crosed into hers, should have been lived out decades ago, peacefully, happily, meaningfully — and smiling. Her heart aches with desperate hope. No more of his confusion. No more of those torture marks up his arm. No more of those lost looks. If she can really help him, just enough, find some way home —

— to claim for his own reach, the stars that she still cannot touch…

Jane Foster goes over the hundred things she wants to say. She sits at the Soldier's side and chooses her words carefully. In the end, she chooses not what she has done in the past, insistent argument and showcase of fact. She does what, she heartbrokenly believes, no one else in his remembered life has ever done before: she asks him for his wishes.

And he gives them to her. His decision.

Jane looks up at him, not missing, in the brief corner of her periphery, the way he looks down at the photograph in his hand. Her eyes meet his, and in silent confirmation, she gives a single nod.

She reaches out, shifting briefly on the couch to pull closer her laptop, bringing it to the end of the table and opening its lid. The machine stirs out of sleep.

"You've said some things to me," she begins, "over the weeks. When I took you… up, to see the stars." Jane looks briefly away. "I don't know if you remember. It… you talked to me. You said a name."

She taps its trackpad and pulls up a fresh webpage, something as simple and informal as Google, and silently, with a finality about her fingers, types in the words she does not say out loud: Captain Steve Rogers.

The page blinks with gathered millions of hits. Wikipedia is first. Digital Smithsonian is second. The rest are war memorials, government records, fan pages, an online repository for people to just leave him a message of thank you —

Jane leans back, giving her laptop to the Soldier. It's his step to take.


He looks searchingly into her face, her eyes, but finds no guile or trap there. Only the earnestness of a woman who wants to help. The fragility of someone who sees before her a great tragedy, and is deeply affected by it— deeply hurt. The tenderness of someone who is aware a gentle touch is all that will work here, on a man so damaged that pushing too hard could have him lost forever.

He looks. Then he looks away. He closes his eyes briefly, feeling unaccustomed warmth around him, hearing nothing but the quiet of a winter evening, and smelling the homey scent of coffee. The soft sense of companionship as Jane joins him, hovering silently at his side. If he blanks his mind enough, he can almost reach a spot within it that holds many memories of times and settings similar to this.

He opens his eyes again, and that phantom sensation vanishes. But then, there— before his eyes sit those damning pictures.

He takes them back, turning them over in his hands, like a dog trying to understand its own reflection. His eyes crease as he touches gently over the preserved image of Steve. In those pictures is represented a… potential, of sorts, a potential story that was long ago ripped away. Two men who grew up as brothers. Two men saving the world together. Two men who should have gone home after that, lived their lives, and who should have— by the time Jane herself came around— long since passed the world along to her fresh new generation.

Instead both of them have been torn out of the natural order of things. One was fortunate, in a way— he slept all those many years, unrecovered and lost— and when found, was found by the right people. The other was not fortunate. He was taken. He was twisted. He was used.

He is still being used.

He sits at Jane's side now, a man who should by rights be older than her grandfather would be— still young as the day he went to his last battle in the waning days of World War II. Young— but marred. His skin bears the mark of physical torture. His eyes, lost and empty, bear the marks of the tortures inflicted on his mind. He was lost in 1945. Has he been suffering that, all this time? Ever since then? Decades and decades of it? Is this the first time he's ever managed to break up to the surface enough to question why his life is what it is?

He asks her to tell him.

She nods in silent affirmation, and reaches over to wake her laptop. She tells him he's said… things to her, before. Things he probably doesn't remember. The silent way he looks at her confirms that those words have already long since slipped through the sieve of his mind.

She remembers, though. And she pulls it up for him. Millions and millions of hits.

She hands him the laptop afterwards. He handles it awkwardly, much the way one would expect of a man not well versed in this technology, displaying in these moments just how circuitous and odd a route development has taken; he seems to find the use of a touchscreen more intuitive than a trackpad and keyboard. Eventually he gets the cursor moving, however, and winds up clicking through to the Digital Smithsonian because that link has a picture, and the first one doesn't.

He reads slowly, but surely. His features are blank as he scrolls through pages and pages of stories about Steve Rogers and— and the man named James Barnes.

A line starts to form between his eyes. He goes back to the search result and clicks through to Wikipedia. He combs Steve's page, and then his own. The Internet tells him about his own life. Perhaps if his handlers and programmers had anticipated what the Internet would become, they would have programmed him to be unable to even see these things, forced his eyes to skate over them and see nothing but a blur, but some things move too quickly for people who think in decades and centuries rather than years.

Growing visibly upset, he clicks back out of that and goes to the third result. Then clicks back and goes to the fourth. The fifth.

He stops eventually on the page where the common man can leave their thanks. The empty box invites him to reach out to Captain America.

Instead, he drops his face into his hands.


Her eyes watch in silence as the Soldier, the assassin, the ghost, the lost friend, the broken man… takes her laptop into his hands, flesh and metal, and makes his final decision. His decision to reach out, and with the touch of his hand against the machine, claim for himself something denied for seventy years.

And Jane, sitting patiently at his side, her arms leaned against her legs, her hands clasped together… does nothing. Says nothing. She makes no word, no sound, no touch on his body. She stays with him, wanting to give the Soldier her proximity, her presence — a grounding to encourage him to seek. Her heart pounds away in her chest, nothing able to stop that, or the way the ache in her chest or the twisting of her stomach makes her feel like she's walking an emotional tightrope, but the woman stays calm, desperate to help, desperate to be here, desperate to be a safe place for him.

In her eyes keeps playing the nightmare of him closing her laptop, throwing it aside, and losing himself back to the night, far more quickly than Jane can catch, far more powerfully than Jane can stop. Far more lost than she can find. She tries to allay her fears, breathing them slowly away, her clasped hands opening, stretching flat over her knees.

His eyes gaze into the screen, and Jane's eyes gaze into him, James, looking only at him, watching him, memorizing every tic to his eye and twitch to his jaw, a rapt and heartbroken study of a man forced to read his own life like a stranger. She wonders how he feels. She has no idea how it could feel, to have your mind emptied, to be forced to live as something else, and yet dogged by a ghost that cannot be exorcised. She wonders how deep that pain must run. She wonders if there is healing from that sort of damage. She wonders how this world could let that happen, let someone fall through its cracks, twisted, suffering, forgotten.

He goes from page to page. She lets him. She stays quiet. Discreetly, she wipes a rolling tear from her face. Jane gives James Barnes all the time in the world.

The Winter Soldier stops on a page, swathed in red, white, and blue, where it holds the scroll of countless thousands and thousands of entries, names of men and women, American and not, all wanting to say their turn to the world's first hero. The black box invites his murderous hands, flesh and metal, to do the same.

The cold machine breaks.

Jane animates the moment the Soldier moves, clear heartbreak written across her face, eyes creased and lips parting, as she watches his face disappear into the span of his ten fingers. Skin and steel. She reaches out before she can even think, her first instinct that of desperate reassurance; there's no way she can bide that amount of pain and not do something, not do something to fix, or solve, or help.

But her hand stops, held in the air, stayed — not yet. It's what she wants, but it may be the last thing he needs. Swallowing roughly, she thinks, searching earnestly her mind for something to do, something to say, the right action, the right words — the pain he's in. She has to do something.

Jane takes back her hand. An idea comes. Pushing her hair behind an ear, she stoops forward, elbows leaned against her knees, a motion that brings her closer to him, the almost-brush of her shoulder against his, the heat off her skin, and the quiet call of her voice. Like a hand reaching down through stormy waters, insistent and reaching, for him to take.

"You look up at the stars like I do," she begins to speak, every word low and hushed. "What did they tell you to do, at the very start? The stars are such faint points of light, and the more you look directly at them, the dimmer they shine. The way the eye is made, and the arrangement of rods in the retina… we have to look slightly away from the light to see it best. When we're not looking directly at it, the stars, or maybe something else, they brighten."

Jane looks at him, James Barnes, lost inside the tension of his hands. "Just look away. Let it come to you."


For at least fifteen minutes, the Winter Soldier reads about James Buchanan Barnes.

His frost-blue eyes reveal little of what transpires in his fractured mind as he does. It is hard to tell what he thinks just from trying to read such guarded eyes. But there are other hints that what he sees is bothering him. The line that forms between his brows. The flicker of a muscle in his jaw drawing tight. The way the edges of his eyes tighten as he scrolls, reads, clicks back, scrolls, reads again.

He looks like he is reading about a stranger. A stranger he might have known once, but can no longer clearly remember.

Eventually he stops on a page full of little messages and tributes to Captain America. It takes him an eternity to scroll through everything people have left for Steve Rogers. For the man everyone tells him was, in another life, his best friend.

He stops there. The box invites him to reach out. His right hand starts shaking, just slightly, a periodic tremor that comes and goes.

Pain jolts through his head: a harsh, stinging corrective for him daring to tread these mental waters. It is a conditioned pain, a triggered one— but it comes with a cocktail of sudden confusion so intense it makes him temporarily dizzy. It erupts behind his eyes so suddenly that it brings his face to drop into his hands, the Soldier having looked too long and too deeply at things he is not permitted to explore.

He remains in that position for some time. He does not respond even when Jane edges closer, leaning in as close as she can without actually touching him. He does not react, either, when she starts to speak. It is impossible to say whether he is even absorbing anything she says.

Then his hands slide from his face. His elbows come to rest on his knees, hands folding loosely between them as he leans over in a defeated hunch.

"I see nothing," he says, staring at the floor.


That jolt of pain Jane Foster sees, evidenced on the retreat and curl of the Soldier's body, the way he needs to frame his head into his hands as if — not to hold anything in, but in some telling reflex to keep something out. It kills her not to reach out. It kills her, because all she can do is sit there, quiet, helpless, pressing together her lips as the tears sting her eyes. She fights them down.

She speaks. He does not move, and more than possibly, may not even hear. He may be miles away and decades long ago, before she was born, before she was real, before she even mattered. But that does not stop Jane.

She does not know the mind. She does not know memory. But she knows light, and the stars, and if it could help…

His hands pull free, dropping like the weights they are, as if both were metal. He bows forward like a man broken.

The Winter Soldier sees nothing.

Jane can no longer hold back. It's the look of him, the flatness of his voice, and she's broken right beside him, not sure how she came to feel so deeply and painfully for someone who literally broke his way into her life, not sure when it began, not sure when she knew, but now it brings her hand to reach out, touching lightly on his, the hand of flesh and feeling, insistent to curl her fingers around his.

The touch pulls her closer, her knee brushing his, and Jane leans down, leans in, and with her free hand dares to touch him, brush of contact if he'll let her, if he'll tolerate her so close, to brush back the dark curtain of his hair and touch his face.

"I've seen it," she insists, her voice tight, but held in control, even as more tears escape her eyes. He won't cry, so she'll cry for him. Cry for how this shouldn't be real, and yet is. "Because you've shown me. If you trust me, then you can believe that. It will come."


It is hard to say why she came to feel so strongly for him. The Winter Soldier— James Buchanan Barnes— a man who, no matter his appellation, first came into her life with a gun to the back of her head. Who twisted her arm into helping him, lest he destroy her life. Who threatened those she loved. Who has put his hands on her, with furious violent strength.

Who may… ultimately… not truly be responsible for any of those actions. Because his life is no longer his own. It has been stolen, warped, twisted beyond recognition. He has been made a monster against his will.

And the man who still exists somewhere beneath still lives. Still struggles, periodically, for brief fleeting moments in time, to try to stay his own hand. To stop his own destructiveness. To act upon what was always the core drive of James Barnes. To protect those who could not protect themselves.

To protect those he loved.

To try to think about that man— the person he once was— hurts. It triggers tearing pain in his head, the pain of someone repeatedly tortured until agony was tied irrevocably to any thought of the man he used to be. Those pathways are netted in conditioned pain— ten thousand memories of electric shocks administered whenever he would insist too loudly that he was James Barnes, he was Bucky Barnes, and he would not do any of the things they wanted him to do— and they are mined so thickly, so densely, that now he can no longer even approach them without a remembered torture session exploding in his head.

He holds his head until the pain passes. It always does when he clears his thoughts.

He slumps over afterwards, hunching over his own knees, looking more frail and broken than she has ever seen him. She tries to guide him in these quiet moments, to remind him that stars are clearest when you don't look directly at them. Look askance, she prompts. What does he see then?

Nothing. He sees nothing. It is closed to him, and he is nothing but a broken lab animal so lost in learned helplessness that he will not even look at the cage door.

He is slack and unresponsive under her touch. Her hands brush back his long, unkempt hair, touch his face, feel the roughness of a week's worth of beard starting to stubble the line of his jaw. He does not react. Do they even let him groom? Is he even enough of a human to them that they bother to do that much?

She comes in so close he can smell the salt off her tears. He does look at her then. His eyes are tired and dull, the blue of them almost translucent with exhaustion… the grey of them standing out even more in his empty state.

She's seen it. It will come.

"Maybe someday," he says. "Today, I am tired. And there is work to do." He laughs a little, the sound so empty of actual happiness that it just sounds frightening. "It may even be good work. Who knows what is good work anymore. Killing a man trying to get a world-ending book. Sure."


He lets her touch him, his face wan and coarse where Jane's hand is careful and soft, desperate to brush aside his overlong hair to glimpse a look into his eyes.

They are flat and matte and tired; she remembers the glass eyes in her grandfather's taxidermy animals to have more feigned life. Jane has seen tired eyes before, knows and lives tired eyes, but this looks nothing like insomnia. Not a tiredness of the body, but that of the soul. Souls are real, she's been told, and his must be battered and twisted and tortured beyond belief. She hurts for him. And she thinks she hates… absolutely hates… someone who would do this to another.

But he lets her touch him. Whether it's that exhaustion, or passivity, or indifference, or a somatic insensivity to her hands on his skin, Jane lets it embolden her further; she lets it believe it's trust. It's not James Barnes, remembering his lost life and reclaiming the memory that belongs to him, but it's a start.

Her fingers touch him, gentle, but with a firmness to prove someone is here, from a swath of her thumb along his temple — the source of all this pain — to a turn of her hand to cup his jaw. She can feel the rough rasp of his stubble. Does he groom? Is it part of his programming? Did they torture that out of him too, the right to even the most basic pleasures? He was so interested in the meal she made once. So interested in just a simple cup of coffee.

Her insides turn with sickness. The tears blink free from her lashes, and Jane turns her eyes briefly away just to breathe through her fury.

When he looks back — he meets her eyes. So close, Jane wears every bit of her heartbreak in her face, none of it disguised, none of it hidden. Maybe someday, he says.

"It will," Jane vows, "I promise. I'm going to help you. You won't be doing this alone." Her hand lifts away from his face, but she does not let him go. She leans closer, not on him, but enough there is no ignoring the brush of her body, and her insistent, metal-stained hand clings to his, her fingers curled with all the fierceness to counter his fatigue.

He talks of being tired. Of work to do.

Jane shakes her head no. Her hair brushes his shoulder. "Today, you stay here. I won't take no for an answer. You're going to rest, and let me help you a bit. I'll get you a meal, and we can talk. Or not talk. I'm not going to leave you alone." Desperate to do something, something good, something helpful, something meaningful for him, she leans forward, taking only a beat to rub away her tears with her free wrist, then reaching that hand out for that left-forgotten mug of coffee.

"Here," she orders, almost pleadingly, "you can start by drinking this. It'll help." Jane clears some of the clutter from her table, bits and pieces of metal shoved aside for her to set the cup down on a paper invitation like some haphazard coaster.

That's when his last words sink in. Jane tries to claw up some cognizance back from, moments ago, silently crying away his missing life. "World-ending book?"


Taxidermy certainly has more lifelike eyes than the Winter Soldier right now.

His hair, brushed aside, reveals dulled eyes, staring without seeing, profoundly exhausted beyond all endurance. Eyes that have seen more years than they were meant to see, and far worse things than they ever wished to witness. Eyes that lack that vital spark of humanity. They do not express a physical tiredness— the Winter Soldier keeps himself in optimal condition in that regard, sleeping often and regularly to maintain himself at peak capability— but rather a soul-tiredness, a spiritual weariness that suggests there is not much left of his soul to even have shine out through his eyes.

It has been rendered down, battered and broken and stripped apart, over the many years of his captivity and service.

Unable to bear the sight, she touches him. One might be tempted to say that he allows it, if not for the fact he seems too far gone even for that; he seems, rather, to just endure it as he does so many other things, passive because there is just nothing about the outside world he registers or wishes to react to at the moment. Her fingertips, her palms, brush past uncut hair and the growth of a week's worth of stubble.

Put that together with his interest and pleasure in the simplest of things— real food, a sip of coffee, the basic warmth of a home— and Jane gets a pretty bleak picture of the kind of existence he inhabits.

He finally turns to her eventually. The Soldier's dead eyes stare through her heartbreak, not seeing it— as unable to comprehend it as he was unable to comprehend or process the raw truth placed— too fast— before his face. She promises to help him, to not leave him alone— says that whatever work he has to do, he will stay tonight. She won't take no for an answer. She gets started with the simplest thing: the forgotten mug of coffee. His eyes turn to follow her movement in the basic instinct predators have to always watch for twitches in the brush.

She notices what he says about the world-ending book.

He grunts, clearly about to brush off her curiosity. His shoulders slump another inch or two. "Forget it. Shouldn't have said anything." He reaches for the cup— only to pause visibly, lift it, and set it aside in favor of taking the invitation /underneath/ the cup.

He stares at it. His eyes slowly resuscitate— to a degree. They don't really become expressive again in the way human eyes should be, but they do intensify back to something much more vital than the dead stare he had previously. They attain the laser focus of a hunting dog that has caught scent of prey.

…Yeah. World-ending book. I gotta get it." He turns the invite so she can see it. GAC Centennial Auction. "From this."


There is no denying the way the Winter Soldier exists to seam over any last, lost traces of James Barnes. His eyes are empty. His hands are slack. His body unkempt. His soul dead.

Most people, given any length of time in his moving-machine proximity, forced to tolerate his cold cadaver passivity and dead eyes, would want to retreat, balk back, return to the parts of their life that carry the reminder and comfort of humanity.

Jane remains stubbornly attached to the Soldier's side, her hand in his, holding on if even he cannot feel her, or worse, is programmed to simply not care. Tolerate and ignore what is not a threat. Eliminate what is. To her, it is those decades of vacancy what have to reinforce the way he is, and what was done, and if she must, she will try to provide her own contrary evidence. She decided at the very beginning only to treat him as a man, and that promise has not changed.

James Barnes is not lost to her: that is Jane's belief. That is her faith, her hope, and she would wager her own soul to bet he is still here. Absent, but not dead. Weak, but not defeated. She's seen him. She's met him. She will do as she just said, and persist until she meets him again.

For now, she thinks, he stays. He stays and she takes care of him. She's let him push her aside and disappear too many times, and she's had enough. If tonight she cannot help him remember, then she can at least help him feel again what it means to be human — be a /man/.

It starts with one cup of coffee.

He talks about work. The mention brings Jane to frown. But it even may be good work, says the Soldier, with an irony he knows well enough to well up a humourless laugh. It starts with a book.

And it ends with the strangest of coincidences.

"No, no 'forgetting it'," Jane persists. "You need to talk to me. I just —"

Her voice carries into silence as he reaches for something. Goes for the coffee, but not, and moves the cup aside — it leaves a faint, wet ring on a mailed invitation to the GAC Centennial Auction. It bears Dr. Jane Foster's name.

He stares at the invitation. She stares at him. Jane's expression turns, drawing in, confused, uncertain, and nowhere ready to approve of someone being murdered. "I got that in the mail. I don't… can you please explain this to me? World-ending book?"


It is remarkable how far an average, good-hearted 20th-century young man can be forced to sink. How much of his humanity can be stripped away. How much can be /done/ to him until he is reduced down to the hollowed-out killing machine before Jane now, sitting slumped on her couch— no longer looking as if he belongs in such a domestic setting at all. No longer looking as if he belongs in human society.

It should be unnerving just to sit beside him. Like sitting beside a corpse, a robot, a creature with all the humanity programmed right out of him. It probably is unnerving for Jane. But she ignores it, persistently lingering at his side, holding onto him even if he does not feel her— or simply does not care.

He does not respond. James Barnes is, for now, gone again. He comes and goes so unpredictably that it is impossible to say when Jane will see him again.

She insists that he stay tonight, at the least. He does not agree, but does not object either. He just glances down at the coffee when she prompts him with it— her first tiny step on the ten-step program to reclaiming a man from a machine. He reaches for it, even as he tries to brush Jane off, try to discourage her interest in his work—

—only for a very odd coincidence to suddenly involve Jane in his work whether he wants to or not.

He lifts the invite, turning it over and over in his hands. His eyes linger on the "…and one guest" wording on its rear face. His deadened eyes have resharpened, revitalized by the sudden presentation of a next step in his programmed mission. Even the photographs are temporarily forgotten in his newfound killing focus.

Can you please explain? Jane pleads, with a definite 'not helping you murder someone' slant to her voice.

The Soldier sighs, transparently considering how much to say. Eventually he seems to determine that Jane is the strongest in he has to get within spitting distance of the book, because he elaborates, "My target is a man like the one you met. The blond one. A magician with some… curse of immortality. I have killed him once already, but he uses magic to simply revive himself.

"He was a Nazi and confidante of Hitler. He has persisted since that time, I am sure, due to that spell." His eyes remain fixed intently on the invitation. "There is some kind of book of magic at the auction he is trying to get, which I am told is the likely key to unraveling his immortality."


A month ago, Jane Foster would be unnerved. A month ago, and never seeing those initial twitch that stayed his hand from killing her that first night, never witnessing the breaks that would soften his voice into dreaming and wander his fingers along the images of her star charts, never knowing the honest, guileless pleasure he shows when claiming the things she takes for granted, like hot meals, a quiet apartment that isn't much, coffee, a simple cup of coffee, never feeling the way he touches her, his hands on her possessing such strength she knows full well, but gentle, always gentle, aware he could break her, and not even allowing negligence or carelessness to bruise her skin —

— never forgetting the way he looked at her, with James Barnes in his blue eyes, and kissing her in a way no one has.

One month later, she sits at his side, and with a stubbornness testament to a fierce and unrelenting trust, keeps her hand curled around his. Jane Foster is going nowhere.

She does not stir even against the talk of his work, and though it makes her uneasy, the inevitable talk of murdering a man. He's killed before her, but always defensively — and so far, always for her protection — and this is a candid, close-up look to what he actually does. What they /force/ him to do, may have been forcing him all along, since the day James Buchanan Barnes was lost to the world.

Her eyes track between him and that invitation bearing her name. Dr. Jane Foster plus one. She listens and…

Two weeks ago, Jane would be looking on with a brick wall sort of finality, a skepticism bordering indignation with a crease to her eyes, asking without words: how much of an idiot do you think I am?

Two weeks later, she just looks on with the sort of askance and quiet resignation of someone absolutely willing… to believe… every word he just said. Target is a man. Magician like John. Cursed. Immortality. Why would immortality be a curse? That is Jane's idea of a blessing, a gift, to have a million years at her disposal to court every single star in the sky. The Soldier has killed him once. She winces. But he revived. She blinks.

Jane looks painfully uncertain to be the accessory to a murder. Her lips purse in a telling way. Her features cringe—

He's also a Nazi and an old friend of /Hitler/.

"Oh," Jane replies, a little weakly, "I guess that's OK. If it's a Nazi." She leans back against the couch, a good, full-bodied flop, her free hand hiked up to paw through her dark hair. Why wasn't she told any of this? How much goes on that she's missing?

"I still don't understand why you need me," she continues. "I don't think I'm even serious about going. Or I was. World-ending book. He's going to, I presume, try to end the world, if that's possible? You're going to get it? What then?"


Not even he is sure how he got here. A month ago he would have killed her without a second thought. Without more effort than a sharp backhand.

Yet circumstances kept staying his hand, over and over. At first he thought to use her for her skills, but that slowly and gradually evolved into a tentative interest in her gentleness and openness with him. Her offerings of simple pleasures he has not experienced for decades. He came to have a trust in it. Then a want for it. Then, in the end, a need. He has no idea why she touches at deeply-buried parts of his mind, but she does. Something about the feel of her in his arms, the rush he experiences when he protects her from something, the light of the stars she shows him, briefly lights up his dead mind and shows him the silhouette of things that once were.

Each passing glimpse addicts him to seeing more. If he sees enough of them, perhaps someday they will form a full picture, and he will finally understand all of this. Why he keeps losing chunks of time. Why he keeps feeling as if something is missing. Why he keeps remembering names and faces that he is sure he does not know.

Why he leaned down, one day, and kissed her. It felt like someone else was in his head in that moment, controlling him, guiding his actions. Someone he has long since forgotten, but who has not gone away.

That man is not here in those moments, though. He is back under, asleep, pacified under layers and layers of impenetable ice. It is only the Winter Soldier beside her in these moments, the Winter Soldier looking at her invitation with intent focus and speaking of the murderous work he does.

The murderous work he is forced to do.

She is obviously reticent to assist him. He anticipated this. He looks askance at her a long few moments, transparently deciding what to say, before he ultimately just says everything, telling her exactly who and what the target is: figuring that offering that little sugar-spoon of incentive will make the idea of killing go down easier.

It does.

He exhales a breath, putting the invitation back down. "Just to get in," he says. "I need to get close. Get the book away from him. Get it to someone I know won't use it to fuck over the world. Have him use it to remove the immortality curse."

He turns a severe eye on her. "Maybe use it as leverage to get him to stop throwing you in dangerous situations. I don't know."


The man Jane Foster continually reaches for is not here. Not here with her.

That does not deter her. It does not lay waste to her hopes; it does not cool or hurt the easy trust she has grown for him, that to simply sit at the side of the world's most feared assassin, let brush her body against his, and hold stubbornly onto his hand. He may not always remember, and be sometimes may be so submerged under what they do to him that even Jane cannot easily pry James Barnes free, but still she believes, with unbreakable, infinite fate —

— he is around.

It is helped all the more when the Soldier decides to be honest. Jane takes in that unspeakable dump of information, and while most people would deem to punish it — go straight to the harsh edges of a plans to MURDER a human being, on behalf of the impulse of some master, and coldly, facelessly so, for a mission —

She tries her best to rely on her open mind. She struggles with her own feelings, and, in the end, decides to trust — decides to place faith in that small, bitter, ironic laugh the man let out: when he revealed a mission that may actually mean him doing good for the world. Giving back rather than taking away.

It's the reason why, instead of recoiling back with the sensible fear and dismay one sound — and disapproval does mantle in Jane's eyes — she… pulls up her legs and tucks more comfortably into her couch, as if to prepare herself for a long discussion ahead. There is no immediate rejection. There is no flat no.

In her face is the quiet appreciation of someone who values honesty above so much else — needs honesty. He presents a sinker of a story. Nazis. Friends of Hitler. World-ending books. Immortality curses.

And, on top of that, the insinuation that the Winter Soldier means to deliver the book into the hands of John Constantine. He couples that with an arched look that speaks volumes. Jane's eyes widen with a hundred questions. Questions she will ask. Questions she /needs/ answered.

"He doesn't throw…!" she begins, a little petulantly, because the way the Soldier phrases makes her sound a bit too much like some passive party — the last sort of role Jane wants to take.

She exhales out, and makes a decision. "All right," Jane answers, her hand tightening on his. She makes a decision to trust. "Just tell me what I need to do."

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