Extraction

January 04, 2017:

Seeing too many people sniffing around Jane's apartment in the wake of the disastrous auction, the Winter Soldier takes it upon himself to remove her somewhere safer until things blow over.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

He has been watching her almost constantly since that disastrous auction night. As constantly as he can, anyway, while still having work of his own to be done.

As he expected, after seeing her in his company, people began to come around, inquiring after Jane— or simply watching her, surveilling her from afar and tailing her to and from work. The Winter Soldier watched them as they watched her. He should not care, really, if a civilian he used for the purposes of a mission of his winds up suffering for his use.

He should not. And yet he does.

The latest incident just made up his mind as to what to do about her. It seems to have made up her mind, too, because when he checks on her next— late, late one night as he suits up in preparation to head over— she's nervously organizing her things, throwing stuff together as if determined to get out. Go… somewhere.

He frowns, and slips out into the cold winter night.

Minutes later finds him sliding open her bedroom window. There's no fire escape beneath it, but it's not like that's an impediment to someone like him. He eels through the partially-opened window, coming to rest in a soft crouch, making his way to the sitting room where he knows she's organizing all her papers.

There is no sound to indicate when he comes up behind her. In mind of that, he at least takes the courtesy to warn her about his presence this time. "It's me."

—-

Jane Foster is too used to freedom. Too used to three years without eyes over her shoulders, reporting to no one, answering to nothing, surrounded by only the vast desert, companioned by her data, and shepherded by the stars.

She doesn't know how to do… this.

She has no talent for it. No skills to handle it. No wealth of experience in her life to prepare her for a life layered in shadowy lies, necessary to /protect/ someone, a man she's only known a month and has promised herself she will somehow save… and necessary to protect herself, just as well, from the real threats of capture, imprisonment, or perhaps even worse.

SHIELD knows. Maybe others. Others who care about what the Winter Soldier does. Others that will, in turn, care about the woman who has helped him time and time again. They're watching her; they have to be. Even if she doesn't know how, or can't possibly see. Someone's keeping tabs on her, and well enough to send a /man/ into her home. So Jane, spooked into action, does the only thing she can.

She packs. She furiously packs all that is important, cramming all her available work into her backpack, thumbing through and collecting her paper notes, then digging into her drawers for her small repository of thumbdrives, counting their bounty under her breath. Everything goes in, her laptop too, her phone she first turns off — mental note, don't use, buy another — and a couple changes of clothes.

Jane does not notice the presence at her back; does not realize when the moment comes she is no longer alone. The Soldier can see her, dressed and boots-on like she intends to quickly depart, winter coat within reach to grab on her couch: perhaps meant to already be gone if not for this stalling moment of indecision. She stands before her still-open backpack, filled to bursting, held in her hands the framed photographs he saw — touched — that very first night he broke in.

She can't fit them in. But she also can't take anything in. On her face is pain.

Jane doesn't know anyone is there until the Winter Soldier's voice speaks at her back. She startles, turns, and startles again, not expecting the man to be /right here/, not in her apartment, not in her sitting room, not a foot away from her. She nearly drops the picture frames.

When she catches her breath, and the shock passes, what breaks out across her face is relief. If someone has to break into her home, she's happy it's him. "James," she says breathlessly, helplessly too, for lack of anything else. The word is a loaded as the guns on his back. Recollection comes back to her, and Jane fussily sets those photos aside, familiar bandages peeking out from her sleeves. Her eyes watch his face. "How — I saw you." Probably means the window. There's paper taped over the bullet hole. "Did you get everything done?" Everything to do with that book?

—-

The Winter Soldier is used to people leaping in shock at his sudden appearances. What he isn't used to is seeing that surprise turn into relief— and then, shortly afterwards, being called by a human name. James.

He hesitates. For a few moments, that stag-on-the-edge-of-flight aspect comes and goes in his features and posture. Then he seems to relax, as if accepting that this is simply what she's decided to call him. Like handlers giving him a new fake name. For some reason, this one feels better than the others— feels more natural. He likes it.

He lets her keep it.

Looking around, he takes in her semi-packed state— her one backpack filled to bursting with everything important— and his eyes eventually settle on the photographs as she puts them aside. "You bug out fast for someone who wasn't planning to," he observes. It might be the closest to a compliment he has ever paid her.

She asks him if he got everything done. His eyes flicker and avert. "Not quite squared away," he says. "Some other moving parts that need to click in place first." He couldn't be more vague. But there is a sense that he doesn't want to tell her more than she needs to know, doesn't really want to involve her; it's reinforced by the way he also avoids acknowledging her assertion it was him firing through her window, testing her home invader— ready to drive him off if necessary.

His gaze falls on the photographs. He picks them up and, seeing she has no room in her backpack, puts them in one of his own side pouches. "Come with me," he says. "Don't leave the apartment obviously ransacked. Make it like you left on a trip. Business. You should probably lay low a few days."

—-

Jane doesn't mean to keep using that name — his name. The name he does not profess remembering, much with the rest of his missing life, military record, and best friend.

But it slips out of her — the grounding of how she thinks of the Soldier in her head. He is James Barnes to her, if even yet he is not to himself. He hesitates, but in the end, does not correct her. He accepts it as something, while not familiar, feels far more natural than the array of Russian names afforded to his decades of cover stories. As for her, the name has stuck. It's who he is.

And who she is, at this moment, is someone who looks like she's halfway out her front door, with all the meaningful parts of her life stuffed into an overpacked bag that looks a good third of Jane's own weight. Her current dilemma, and possibly more symbolic of her life than she even understands, is where to fit the past amidst all her half-finished future.

She has no room for the framed photos of she and her father. Not without removing something equally important. Not enough space. Not enough —

Jane uneasily sets them down, her hand a little forced.

She bugs out fast, he says. "I can't stay," the woman answers, uneasy. She listens on as he explains, with a suspicious lack of detail, his yet-to-be-finished mission. Her face frowns around the corners. "What other parts?"

She almost says it like she wants to know — wants to still help. The woman who was pushed into the portal.

Jane looks on, standing a little helplessly, all ready for a journey and yet shining in her eyes her absolute lack of a destination. So the Soldier steps in, pockets her photos in the space he does have, and tells her to come with him.

She can't quite hide her surprise. Not the words to expect from someone who has spent the last month keeping distance, holding back, running away. She stares through all his instruction on how to leave her place, how to pack, how to lose the tail she obviously has. "With you?" she asks, unable quite to hide the hope in her voice. She sounds so lost. "I won't — I can do that, I — you're really here."

—-

She doesn't mean to keep using his true name. He can't remember it. But he looks at her, askance, and then lets the topic go— lets her call him whatever she wants. There is a brief moment of resonance in his eyes that suggests he might even know why, a candle-flicker that snuffs out in a breath: there and gone, like so many of the other memories she has seen surface and drown in his blue eyes.

He seems ready to accept that to her, he is James.

There are more concerning matters at hand for him, at any rate. What to do with her, for one. Where to take her, for another. He looks over her pack— doubtless dubious if she can even bear its weight for long— and then to the photographs she is clutching in her hands with clear reluctance to abandon them.

Photographs. He dimly remembers photographs being important to him, very recently. It spurs him to pick up hers and gently place them in his own pack.

She insists uneasily that she can't stay, but she seems to have no idea where to actually go. She balks, too, at his vague answers to her queries about his work— the work she helped him with— and he looks at her ruefully, aware she deserves to know but finding it difficult to be explicit. He is not accustomed to sharing anything about his missions: they are typically conducted alone, with him never seeing another soul save the one he is meant to erase. "I have to meet with that man. John Constantine," he finally says. "I need him to remove the barrier to killing…"

He frowns. There was another name spoken. A true name. "…Hanussen."

He shakes his head. "Nothing for you to worry your head about. More important for you is getting back off the radar. Pretending you were coerced and all. Vanishing for a few days should reinforce the narrative. You ran scared. Stayed out of town a while." He moves around her apartment as he speaks, adjusting it and its contents to look like the fiction he's describing, an expert hand creating a wordless narrative from the scattered items in her home.

With you? she asks, obvious hope in her voice.

He turns back to her, picking up her pack, indicating for her to follow him. "With me," he confirms. "I will show you." She doesn't know what to do in this situation. But he does.

He leads them out the back window through which he came, going first; dangling from the sill by his clamped left hand while bracing against the exterior wall, he hands her down to ground level with his right: supporting and lowering her entire body with one strong arm. It might seem a too-obvious choice at first, until he murmurs, "Swept everything watching this window." The terrible implication that there were multiple things watching her window is left unvoiced in any explicit terms.

—-

Those photographs are of the few precious things Jane Foster would not let many touch — much less take into their own possession.

She does not stop the Soldier from packing them among his things. Making room for her past even while missing his own. Jane does not miss that.

By the look in her eyes, and the lingering surprise ensconcing the back-and-forth shift of her body, it's transparent she does not expect any of this. Does not expect /him/, James Barnes and Winter Soldier both, pulling free from the shadows to rejoin her little world. Jane knows he's been watching her, possibly even far closer and longer than she expects, and she knows that was him — sending that single, precise warning shot in through her window —

— and yet, at the same time, it's something else to see the wraith of a man here, his mission yet unfulfilled, and yet taking the time to help her. Though should Jane even feel surprised? Hasn't he been helping her from the start?

"Hanussen," she repeats. "That — asshole I saw hurt you. Who put me through that bridge. I'd love a chat with him, myself." Her voice is wan, thin, that of a woman still too far in shock to have properly sorted her feelings. Or dealt with her anger. "What if he hurts you? Or throws you through a — I still can't believe you're working with John Constantine," Jane babbles, a non-sequitur to betray how difficult she's keeping up with her spinning head. Her dark eyes watch his, deeply appreciative to be told this much. To be /given/ some sort of answers. "And his role in this. And why you two… no, I know," she cuts herself off, "no time for questions." Later.
Her eyes follow the way the Soldier sorts and adjusts her home, unable to help but watch, unable to be absorbed every single time she sees him /move/. Nothing to worry your head, he says, but Jane frowns like she's still going to worry anyway. But she listens, taking instruction where it's sorely needed, receiving an unlikely education in disappearing from the man who has lived seventy years as a ghost.

And not just an education — a way out. The Soldier is leaving, and is taking Jane with him. With me, he confirms, lugging on her pack like it weighs nothing.

Jane gives him a look she has before, those times he saved her life. Then she quickly shoulders on her coat, and on top grabs the rest of her things, her handbag already traded out for a more practical messenger bag that she throws over her shoulder. Pulling her trapped hair from her collar, she follows him into her darkened bedroom — and pauses. "Wait," she says, something coming to mind, and crosses the room to her desk, piecing through stray, leftover tools, and recovering… something strange. It looks a lot like her old phone, what was eventually broken — but not entirely forsaken.

It looks like a Frankenstein reimagining of a smart phone, torn apart by Jane's own hands and rebuilt, grafted on a new circuitboard and roughened electrical work. "After you said there was that — tracker. Gave me the idea for this. For you. Frequency scanner. It'll tell who's broadcasting nearby. It's… sensitive."

She offers it like a gift. And she wastes no time to join the Soldier, though Jane lingers, visibly confused, as he opens her window to use as their door. She knows there's no fire escape, only a significant drop straight to concrete, but voices nothing — shocked to silence when the man simply, deftly levers himself out, holding only on with that left arm of his. She can hear its plates moving. Deciding all she has left is trust, she eases closer to sit on the sill, looks down, frowns, then takes his offered right hand.

He dangles her off his right arm like she weighs nothing. Jane exhales noisily into the air, tense, but even overpowering any fear of falling is just — her awe. And the way her eyes briefly find his, in the dark.

Let go, it's a harmless foot's drop for her to hit the ground, and she lands safely, backing up to allow the Soldier room to land. Jane hovers close to her building's brick wall, alert. A deliberate alertness he, too, has an answer for. Swept everything. Jane just stares, stricken. Implication not missed. "…Swept?" she asks in a whisper.

—-

There is something briefly pensive about the way he carefully stows her pictures. Some vague awareness he has that his own past is missing causes him to take care with hers. A thought had occurred to him that perhaps the past is something easily lost, if it is not clung onto with both hands. Perhaps he lost his own past that way. He isn't sure if that's just how things are.

He helps her keep hold of her own, just to be sure.

He moves through her apartment afterwards, his deft hand and discerning eye arranging her things, carefully reorganizing scattered papers and fixing items knocked askew. He arranges things a little too regularly, in fact, the precise rigidity meant to suggest a frightened mind that set things in order over and over in an attempt to settle nerves and try to reassert some control over a life temporarily co-opted by an assassin who forced her, against her will, to do things she did not want to do.

He leaves enough indication of fear to suggest that ultimately, such small gestures of control were not enough, and Jane Foster broke and fled the city.

He listens to her as he works, largely silent. He does not reply until her chatter is finished. "'What if' is not a question I typically ask," is his laconic response. "Hesitation is usually fatal." As for John Constantine? "I can't either," he says, in a rare show of dry humor. "But he has a skillset I need. What I can't believe is why YOU'RE doing anything with him."

Things set in order, he hefts her things up and beckons her to follow him to the back window. She starts to follow— but pauses, and grabs something else. Something she says she made for him. He takes it, puzzled, turning it over in a hand until she tells him it's a scanner. Something that will help prevent future tracker situations. "…Thanks," he says, after a lengthy pause. It vanishes into his jacket. "It'll be useful."

Without further delay, he levers open the window and helps her out of it, swinging her down to the ground with one-handed strength before dropping himself. Someone as unnaturally heavy as he is, carrying as much as he's bearing on his back, might be expected to make far more noise, but somehow he lands with little more than a whisper of sound, agile as a cat. He takes a moment to tell her why this window, in particular.

Swept? Jane asks.

He glances askance at her. "Two bugs and one man set to watch." Probably not hard to guess what happened to the bugs, but he doesn't tell her what happened to the man.

Instead he brings her quietly through the brush behind and between apartment buildings, down into the city's labyrinthine underside for a winding, circuitous trek meant to throw off pursuit. He navigates with surety, never seeming to lose his way despite the dark and the many turns; eventually, he leads them unerringly back up to street level through a manhole that comes up right behind the building he's squirreled away in. It's an old building, unused and marked off to be torn down sometime in the coming year to make way for new condos.

The power for the elevators has been cut, so it's hard to see how the Soldier gets to his roost up until he heads into one whose doors he has pried open. The top hatches of elevators are typically locked from the outside, but that doesn't mean much to someone with a metal arm, and the one in this car has long been knocked open. He motions Jane onto his back, hoists himself into the shaft, and starts climbing. He scales swiftly, the floors passing by, with no indication of exertion or strain despite the weight he bears on his back.

"Tell me if you get tired," he says after about ten floors.

—-

Mention of John Constantine among the shitshow that has become Jane Foster's life is the moment of levity she sorely needs.

"Same skillset," she answers the Soldier's question, with a tinge of apology that makes her rub weakly at her own shoulder. Her voice pinches with weary humour. "He needs mine too. I ask myself that same thing though. He's kind of a dick."

And not at all Jane Foster's strange choice in company as of late, led by the world's most dangerous assassin out of her home with an infallible trust. Her frenetic mind remembers a gift — strange as gifts go, and even stranger a gift given to a man who has spent all his memory as a ghost — and she hands it his way. It doesn't look like much other than an engineer's nightmare, a phone vivisected and sewn into her image, its case torn open, unable to hold in the thickness of circuitry and sensors. But something shining in the woman's eyes promises it works. Works well.

If him being tracked gets him tortured, she'll make sure no one can do it ever again. The little way Jane can help the Winter Soldier — until far larger plans can happen. Until he can remember.

She glances back at her apartment like a silent good-bye. Then Jane turns her back on it, and trusts the hold the Soldier has on her hand, and the careful way he single-armedly lowers her down to nebulous freedom. He lands without a damn sound. /Jane/ makes more of a scrape with her boots, all one hundred pounds of her, finding her bearing on the snowy cement. She watches on, continually awed: it's like Newtonian laws don't even touch him.

Much like anything else in the natural world, including two bugs and a man set to watch her. The Soldier does not imply what has become of the latter. Jane's face twitches up with the way her stomach flips over. She doesn't want to ask, but knows she needs to. She has to know if there's blood on her hands too. "Did you…?"

Her words whisper quietly into the chill night air.

The Winter Soldier leads them off without even a track left to follow, and with a pensive frown on her face, Jane follows with her own blind trust. She cannot move with the soundless skill he does, but she certainly tries, keeping her steps light, stopping when he does, and saying very little. He is in charge, and these are one of those rare times he has her full compliance.

He takes them underground. Jane's eyes twitch with quiet dislike against the uncapped smell of Brooklyn sewers, but she says nothing, and perhaps wisely, letting the Soldier's experience guide her through whatever hell means freedom — means safety. Down below, she cannot see, not like his eyes can, and her smaller hand finds the crook of his elbow, fingers curling down for blind guidance. Her presence touches close, her body at his side, no desire to touch anything else in this place, no desire for one wrong, tripped-up step to have her falling in the dark to somewhere she wouldn't be able to see.

Freedom comes with that first beautiful breath of fresh air. Jane cranes her head back to see up the entire long line of the apartment building, reading the signs that have it expected for Spring 2017 demolishing. Is this where he's been?

She steps carefully over the leftovers of autumn construction work, slipping glances the way their shadows move on the walls. Her boots echo down the empty halls. Jane stands back as the Soldier brings them to an elevator car, sees the buttons disconnected down to wires, and tenses her brow with question — as he motions her to climb aboard. Climb aboard /him/.

"Are you…" Jane mumbles, peering up through the hole made in the elevator car, frowning at darkness that surrounds them up and up and up. She pauses, adjusts her messenger bag to the small of her back, and with a slight awkwardness, steps to the man's turned back. Her hands lay gently on his shoulder blades. He's tall. She braces, and has to hop to climb up, her body a quick, warm, light weight on his back, her arms hooked in to wrap loosely around his neck. She takes considerable pains not to accidentally choke the supersoldier. "You are."
%
rHe hoists them up. The first jerk of movement wraps her legs around his waist, and Jane presses her head close, leaned to his shoulder to avoid getting bumped. Her heart beats against his spine. Her breathing is shallow, quick — not afraid, invigourated. Her hands tangle in his clothing, hanging on. She shifts only to look down. She regrets looking down. Her cheek buries against his back.

In the end, she can't help but make a sharp, surprised sound as the man — as the /Soldier/ — just like that, with the combined weight of himself, his arm, their two packs, and her, begins scaling the elevator shaft, floor after floor, as if he were taking a leisurely stroll. Jane just stares, at him, at it all, shocked and incredulous, because as strong as she keeps believing him, he raises the bar. This is beyond the realm of human.

And he asks HER if SHE gets tired.

"You're seriously asking me that?" Jane bleats. "God, you better not be making fun. I'm… I'm OK." Her arms tighten briefly, as if to reassure. "And you're just… doing… this. How do you?"

—-

The Winter Soldier cocks an eye at Jane as she mentions that John needs /her/ skillset, too. "Wouldn't expect him to care about science," he says, still transparently a little annoyed at the very idea of John— though he's become increasingly sure that John probably didn't throw Jane purposefully into a hellhole. Funnily enough, that conviction increases in proportion to his increasing acquaintance with Jane Foster and how she operates.

Still, it's interesting information, that John Constantine 'needs' Jane. The Soldier files it, as he files most other information he receives that he finds potentially pertinent.

For the time being his focus returns to getting Jane out. He hands her out of the window without effort or sound, dropping beside her like a cat. It takes fine-grained control over one's own body to make no noise when one's built like the Soldier is, and carrying as much as he is. He manages it, somehow.

He only looks back at her when her wan voice asks that abbreviated question. Did he? Those blue eyes regard her with by-now dispassionate lack of affect. "I didn't kill him," he finally says, looking away again. "Killing leaves more evidence than I care to leave right now."

Well, it's something.

He leads them off whether she likes that answer or not, bringing her by circuitous routes to the place he's been hiding out for the past week or so. Ushering them both into an elevator, he makes clear indication for her to climb on and hang on, because he seems intent on making the long climb up. Is she serious? she asks. What does he have against stairs?

The Soldier, shifting Jane's pack so it dangles from a shoulder— making room for her on his back— shrugs at her disbelief. "I'm lazy. It's sloser than the stairs. Faster, when it's just me." He aims a severe look over his shoulder at her. "Faster when it's with you, too. Unless you want to climb twenty flights?"

The assumed answer is no.

Once she's secured, he swings up into the shaft with the sudden acceleration of his obvious strength, climbing so quickly and effortlessly that it becomes quite clear why he might find this faster and simpler than slogging up winding stairwells. Her arms tighten to hold on, and her little voice whispers breathily at his ear: is his question whether she's tired a joke? When he's doing /this/? How does he?

He scales three more floors in the time it takes him to think about an answer. Thoughts come and go in his mind, flashes of imagery, moments of pain and memories of bright lights. Needles in all the veins of his body, draining— something— into him. "Just made to," he grunts eventually. "I guess."

Eventually he bears them to the top, setting her back down in a dark hallway. It's not a far walk before he's turning the corner into what used to be the penthouse. For given values of penthouse, anyway— there's clearly plans to build something even more up-to-date and grand in this building's place, coming soon.

The first impression of the space is just… sheer… emptiness. In terms of furnishing, there is nothing but a derelict table, a random wooden bench, and a sleeping pallet spread on the floor. The only decor the Winter Soldier has, scattered over the bench and on the table, is gear.

Most of the gear is weapons: guns of all shapes and sizes, some neatly packed, others out and ready, still more in various states of disassembly or maintenance.

For the first time in a very long time, enough neurons fire in the brain of the Soldier to feel self-consciousness. "You don't really have to stick around long," he says, as he moves towards the bench in some presumed effort to clear it off. "Just long enough people stop sniffing your apartment."

—-

Jane Foster holds her breath in that moment. There are some things she knows her own soul cannot, will never, reconcile. For as much as she hates SHIELD, and holds her grudge against its faceless, suited men, the death of one for a sin no more than following orders —

— she'd take it onto her own soul, and let it burden her forever.

But the Winter Soldier who, Jane has learned, exists for no reason but to kill — did not in this case. Taking his word for it, trusting it, her expression folds like a failing poker hand, and her back slumps with relief. It is a moment's reaction — not allowed long when the man gives her his explanation why. It's a mechanical one.

Either way, Jane, the perennial optimist: she decides it's a start. It's more than a start. It's a return to, who she believes, he really is.

And steeped with that trust, she leaves both her home and life behind, ignoring all despairing thoughts of her lab — probably watched, even pawed over by SHIELD personnel, and no longer a safe place she can go — follows the Winter Soldier to his promise of safety.

Jane Foster is his strange little shadow all the way through their careful journey, doing her best to keep up, to match his unnatural silence, and to follow his lead. She studies his movement as much as she takes quiet awe in its possibility, wanting to learn all she can. Even if it is to better seam to the unknown life he leads.

The last leg of their midnight escape culminates in, well, a testament to laziness. Laziness is what he calls a dead climb up twenty floors of an abandoned apartment building. Laziness. /Laziness./

Jane Foster stares a hole into the back of the Winter Soldier's head. But the thought of a twenty-flight climb summons her closer, and with a small jump, brings her slight, petite body onto his back, wrapping her limbs around to be just another negligent load for him to carry. Just another rucksack. Just another firearm. Just another forgettable burden that his honed, enhanced body has been made to ignore —

— save for so many differences, as no gear or gun clings so warmly, betraying life with the distant pound of a fiercely-beating heart, with the close brush of her breath, slanting warming up the line of his neck, and with her hands, tightening down, knuckling in to hold on.

Jane, after all this time, summons the nerve to ask the Soldier how he is — like this. How he can move the way he does. How he can possess such strength. How he can survive, even to her disbelief, the surgical grafting and use of a limb made of metal.

Memories threaten to burden him. They come and go as quickly as the floors he scales, left behind at his turned back, with only Jane able to cast searching looks down at the lonely darkness welling below their bodies. Just made to. Made.

He bears them up twenty floors in a matter of minutes. In the end, the Winter Soldier does not even seem winded; does not even seem close to bothered. Jane's own arms ache from the strain of holding on, just holding on, and still he — it's unbelievable.

She slides down off his back, her boots hitting the floor. The woman spares her unlikely guide a reaching look, but in the end says nothing, following him silently to the place he calls home.

Home is stretching the word like a body on the rack. Let in, she stops, stunned, not so much by the darkness and disrepair of his bolthole, but its startling and gaping emptiness, a room not designed to keep and hole comfort a human being, but to supply and engineer a machine. Jane pauses, then steps in, glancing delicately around, her silence thin and very deliberate. The silence of someone out of kindness or pity to hold her tongue. Her eyes take in every detail, curious as ever, and she takes straying looks on his gear —

— before she, in a finalizing gesture, that of a transported seedling deciding to take root, strips off her messenger bag and carefully sets it down on the empty table. She pauses, then lets her winter coat follow, stripping it off her arms. In just the space of ten seconds and with two of her things, his vacant little life never looked this cluttered.

Even the Winter Soldier has enough humanity to be appalled for how he lives. Jane picks it up in his voice, stopped in her tracks, eyes turned back on him. "James —" she starts to say.

In one glimpse is everything. A broken man surrounded in vast nothingness, forced by higher powers to be reign king over this empire of nothing. And, what is worse, the James Barnes is aware. He is aware of what he is. He is aware of what he is not. He knows, and he is embarrassed.

There are so many words Jane wants to say, and yet cannot say any of them. They choke up into her throat, trapped there, caged within feeling that makes it hurt so much she cannot breathe.

She does not need to stick around long, he says.

Jane answers that the only way she can. With shining eyes, she crosses the room, slow, deliberate steps bringing her towards him — towards James. She looks up, up into his face. Then she reaches, slowly, carefully, to take him by the jaw, and pushing up to the tips of her toes, steals his mouth with hers.

—-

There is some vague part of the Winter Soldier that is aware that he was not always this way.

Ever since he touched that book, his mind has been… muddled. Something about it reached out and into his mind, instead of just reading it— pierced in and poked a hole in the identity as first a Soviet, then a HYDRA assassin which he has heretofore never questioned. The effect has been as startling as if he looked up one day to find the night sky torn open, revealing nothing but cameras and the cold steel beams of a ceiling beyond.

He is not ready to let go of the only identity he has ever known, but he cannot ignore that something else— that other-voice that sometimes talks in his head— is starting to scratch more insistently inside his skull, behind his eyes.

It wants to be heard. It claws at the cracks forming in his bland, mechanical, conditioning-enforced personality. It shines so brightly, so innately at the core of him, that it glows through the thin paper of the Winter Soldier narrative that currently governs his body.

It's glowing through now, in the way he looks at her looking at his empty bolthole— more an armory than any kind of home— and feels shame about it for the first time in decades.

He moves over to the table as she tries to put her things down on it, clearing it off in a silence that somehow seems a little more awkward than his usual silences. He shifts some kind of bolt-action rifle off it— probably what he shot through her window with— then starts picking up a partially-disassembled pistol and putting it back together, to get it out of the way also.

James, she starts to say, stricken.

He shakes his head, tense, not wanting to hear pity or sadness. The weapon— already reassembled in his deft hands— hangs slackly from his left hand. He has never felt anything negative about his life or what he does before— never felt that there was anything lacking about it— but somehow Jane looking at it makes him slowly aware of its hollowness.

He tells her she doesn't really have to stick around long.

Her reaction is to step up close. He tenses in that familiar way, cagey and stiff-legged the way wolves get when they are prepared to fight or run. She keeps her approach slow, however, and so he doesn't run. Doesn't back off even when she's right in his space, looking up and up into his blue eyes.

They avert. She won't have any of that either. She reaches up, taking his jaw, turning his face back and urging it down so she can reach his mouth with her own.

His eyes close. He is reticent at first, nonresponsive— the kiss is nothing like the one before, the one he instigated. But after a moment, he leans farther down. His right hand finds her waist, his mouth slowly exploring hers with a hesitant chasteness, as if remembering something he lost a long time ago. Feeling his way through something he has long since forgotten how to do.

He pulls away after a few seconds. The gun is still in his hand; he sets it aside, clearing his throat.

"I don't have anything to give you," he says. He checks the concealed weapon in his jacket, then gives the rest of his attire a once-over for general normality. "I'll go out and bring some stuff back."

He's ostensibly talking about coffee, food… even just a blanket and sheet to sleep on. He seems to have none of those things at the moment, conjuring mental images of him simply shutting down into sleep mode, like a computer, before booting back up again once it's time to work.

He might also be talking about something else. Something far more indefinable, which he has even less capacity to offer to her.

—-

He doesn't want to hear her pity or sadness.

That Jane understands, and to a vast degree — she of the unrepetant pride. It's not her pity that she wants to give him. What good could her sympathy do to a man who has suffered so much?

But she needs to do something. She sees him standing there, looking no more than an object whose purpose is to occupy space and time. A set piece to his own ghost story. Another tool among tools, the unlucky one able to wake up, stand free of ignorance, look down at his hands, and see something is wrong. It rips Jane apart.

Because it's not right. It's not /right/. It's not true. It's not him. It's a lie, a falsity made out of a human being who died decades ago — who isn't dead, because she's seen him, felt him, tasted his mouth, and found it all real. They've tortured him to believe in the lie, and so much so, that any dissonance from it, any return of his soul —

— and he looks like this. Embarrassed to be seen. Embarrassed for her to witness him like this.

It hurts so much she cannot think the right words to say. Sound catches and traps in Jane's throat. Not in a million years could she ever believe this world would do this to someone, break him in this way, dehumanize him, make him an object and then make him ashamed for being an object. There's literally nothing she can say to him to /fix/ this. There's no words in all her years, all her life, all her world, that Jane Foster can even think to say.

She does the only thing she can do.

Crossing the room on soft, sure steps, impetus troubling her brown eyes, Jane advances on James Barnes. He tenses but that does not stop her. Nothing will stop her, save for his hands, stronger than hers, and decisive to keep her away —

— but those hands, flesh and metal, do not turn on her. They do not hold her back, push her away, or make her stop. And she steps into the fatal, point blank range of a living weapon, reaches one hand to touch his face, and pushing up onto her toes, Jane takes his mouth. In just one touch, she tries to pull him away from this emptiness and make him feel like a human — like a man — once again.

Where he is reticent, she is insistent. The line Jane tows is fragile, she knows; she does not force, and she does not take more than she just tries to give. Tries to give something to a man who has nothing.

Her eyes close, and she kisses him with all the feeling she cannot say. Her fingers brush the line of his jaw, tentative at first, feeling through her nerves his hesitation and quiet holding. Then he leans down, and though with none of the passion she remembers before, Jane accepts this too, tastes in in her mouth, deems it beautiful. Her hand encourages him, sliding up to cradle his face, and she tilts her head to the slow search of his mouth on hers.

She can feel his hand on her waist, the ghost of a touch. She steps closer into him, a small pocket of warmth amidst the chill air around them, with her straining, little height and quick, racing pulse. Leaning in, Jane leans up and offers her heart. She is certain it may well already be his. She can do nothing but feel for him. Feel until it all may tear her apart.

It ends within quiet seconds. Not with any flourish, but a quiet lingering, and the way the Soldier retreats, taking himself away. Jane never notices the gun in his hand.

He pulls back, and she sinks back down to her heels, her hand taken off his face, her dark eyes opening. Jane stares up searchingly through the way he speaks to her, the man who has saved her life again and again, and has done it again now — taken her into /his/ life, and let her see him at his weakest and most vulnerable, if only to make her safe. He says he has nothing to give her.

He says other words too, but she's not listening. She holds there, even uncertain now how far one can push, and if it is even right of her to do so. She's let him slip away so many times, to fold back into the dialogue that suits him, into those broken beliefs people burned up the length of his right arm. Jane is so tired of it. Tired of letting go. Tired of being the one left behind.

Her hand tries to find his, his right one. Tries to take it now, before he leaves, before he disappears and she can't find him. "What if you do?" Jane asks quietly, softly. "Would you… want to?"

—-

The Winter Soldier is the living, breathing result of a war crime. It is unfathomable that something this atrocious could have been done to a man in this world— that his simple capture, in the course of a war, could have led to a seventy-year imprisonment in his own head, and a rape of his character to commit acts so contrary to his innate nature.

But there he stands, his present so different from the past she's read about that it is dissonant just to look at him. Like looking at two completely different men, except for the shared face.

Yet there are connections one can make between the man and the weapon, if one thinks about it. A twisted, corrupted path one can see between the starting point of James Barnes and the end point of the Winter Soldier. The records were clear that James Barnes was always the covert operator of the team. Where others— particularly Steve— went in hard and fast, up front, often it was James who had already scouted the way through a long, silent advance run, slipping knives in the backs of sentries. Often, it was James hanging back, providing covering sniper fire: a deadeye shot with any weapon put in his hands.

It is not hard to see how that man was honed and refined and forged into the silent killer that is the Winter Soldier, all those existing skills sharpened into human-transcedent, razor deadliness.

Other men might have crumpled, over the many years, under that much forced reprogramming. Might have broken and come to accept their new identity, building themselves a new self around what they are so constantly told they are. But not James Barnes. The Bucky that grew up alongside Steve, and followed him into war, is still there. Even seventy years later, he still periodically struggles to get back out.

The book seems to have provided him the crack he needed to get through his conditioning to some degree. But there is a certain tragedy to that as well. With that comes horrible awareness— a realization that something is not right. Not right with him. Not right with the world. Not right with what he has been doing for the past many decades…

Not right with the state in which he is living. He looks around, scales partially fallen from his eyes, and feels shame for the first time in decades.

Hurt to see him this way, Jane fixes it the only way she knows how. She draws in close, taking his jaw to turn his head down, submitting herself into the firing range of a weapon with an unfathomable kill count… all to stretch up and try to remind the killing machine that he is actually a man. A man that has something, after all.

For a brief few seconds, his eyes close, and he loses himself in that fantasy— the fantasy of being a man, like any other. A man who can be with a woman: who can enjoy things, preserve things, instead of ending them. He tries, yet at the same time… he feels her tininess against him, her delicate petite figure easily encapsulated by his own; he tastes her quick breathing, hears and feels the rabbit-quick fluttering of her heart, beating close by. And imagery flashes in his mind, savage imprints graven, over the course of many years, into his brain by long conditioning. Violent images that urge a predator's instinct to catch and kill something so vulnerable and small.

Unnerved, he pulls back. His left hand twitches, remembering the gun he's been holding all along, and he nervously puts it away out of his reach.

He reacts predictably, trying to make excuse to leave, but this time Jane isn't having it. He glances at her as she takes his hand; he doesn't try to shake it off, but neither does he come back closer to her. What if he does have something to give? she urges. Would he want to?

Perhaps surprisingly, it does not take long for him to render an answer. "Yeah," he sighs, the breath on which the word emerges sourced from somewhere deeply buried: the man beneath the outward murderous facade. "But I just don't. Not now. Not… yet. I have too much learning about… myself… to do, yet."

He pulls a little, wanting his hand. "To do that, it'd be helpful if you didn't starve first."

—-

While most people so far would lose themselves to reserve, or perhaps even social protocol, Jane Foster tenaciously hangs on. She's not so easily to give up and let go on the things she deems important. And she's pushy, she knows she is, always has been, always will be — pushy with people, pushy with colleagues, pushy with herself, pushy with scientific law. Can't be passive. Can't wait and bide. She must push, push, push.

Reasons she cannot guess make the Soldier pull away. Jane looks up with that candid obliviousness of prey ignorant or unseeing the impulses of a predator. She may well be that mouse climbing indulgently all over the strike-tight coils of a snake. In the moment, all that is apparent to her is that single-minded desire to do something: help in what little way she can, try to show him with herself he is as human as she believes.

Jane may not sense what draws the Soldier back or even notice the gun he holds in his hand — he sets back outside long reach of his hand — but she picks up the meaning in his words. Something so very wrong that she cannot suffer him to believe. She refuses to let him leave with untrue thoughts. Her hand catches his and clings determinedly.

Her eyebrows lift like she does not expect him to answer her question. But he does, and James Barnes's hesitant words reflect in the shine of Jane's eyes. She listens very carefully. A man slowly assembling his pieces, yet still does not feel whole. He has too much learning to do.

She looks on for a beat. Then it hits. When his hand pulls, this time Jane lets go.

"Yeah," she agrees, getting it. "God, I'm sorry, I — yeah."

It's her turn to avert her eyes, and look a little shame-faced, because it feels like every single person in the world was designed with a set of brakes /save for her./ She feels pushy, far more pushy than is right, and forceful, and a bit of a creep. And what the hell is she even doing? What is she even putting on a man who, by all records, was declared dead seventy years ago and cannot even remember his own life? She always does this, blunders in, unthinking and only feeling, and /reckless/. Always so reckless. She feels and doesn't think, and she's supposed to be a scientist, and all that was circling in her head was a dogged desire to just make someone feel human again, in any way possible —

What are even her own feelings? Jane isn't even certain what they are, other than 'there'. And strong. And admittedly complicated. And she's probably just compromised her life, definitely her lab, maybe her work, and while she doesn't regret, knows in her heart she does not — she does know she needs to think. Needs to just find her own brakes, whether they exist or not, and… think.

Her eyes flick back up, tight with guilty apology. She twitches up the brief, awkward flare of a smile. And then Jane retreats, lingering a little before she spots a lone chair at the room's lone table, and retreats to it, settling down. Jane looks too-small, sitting there, a woman out of her element, trying to distract the way reality is setting in by brushing the dust off her jeans.

She looks back up at his remembered mention of her not starving. Her dark eyes gentle with appreciative warmth. "And you've already done a lot," Jane replies. "A lot for me. If it's dangerous, don't go on my part. Be careful. Was never a big eater. Thank you for all this."

—-

Jane never did know when to put on the brakes. Her life has been one long rush, one long fear of someday winding up standing still: trapped in place. It drives her forward into situations where she really doesn't belong, eternally eager to see, to discover, to /know/.

It drives her forward to try to give of herself to a predator engineered for decades to want nothing but the kill. A greyhound in man's form, eternally given that ever-receding mission to chase and catch.

Semi-aware of his own nature, nervous, he draws back and pointedly puts his gun aside, far out of reach. His right hand pulls free. Jane shrinks on herself a little, realizing, apologizing, shame coloring her features. He pauses mid-turn, and his hand lifts back up to touch fingertips lightly to the arch of her cheek. He trails his touch down the side of her face, brushing a lock of hair from the corner of her mouth, before his hand pulls back again.

That touch forgives her. The accompanying look in his eyes tells her that right now, he cannot give more because he simply cannot trust his own hands or mind.

She settles in to wait for him, telling him he's already done a lot. That if it's too dangerous, he doesn't have to go— it's not like she eats much anyway. He shrugs, looking over his collection of weaponry, picking out one of the compact pistols and slipping it into a concealed holster under his jacket. He never seems to go anywhere unarmed,

He's picking out another of the compact pistols when she thanks him for everything— all this. His shoulders tighten visibly, his head lowering at the same time. Thanks him for what? These uncomfortable living conditions? His confused, volatile, dangerous company? His very action of bringing her here, of involving her in his mission, which has derailed her whole life?

He didn't care about that last part when he made the decision. There was a leash in his mind demanding he do whatever it took to complete his objective. Now it's loosened, he finds himself realizing he despises his own choice.

"Ah," he says, as he turns and walks back towards her, "well, don't thank me too soon. You may come to hate me yet for what I did."

He reaches to take her hands, opening them and putting one of his pistols into them. It's familiar— the gun he had at the auction. It's so tiny that it fits well even in Jane's miniscule hands. "This is a Kahr P380," he says. "You hold on to it. I'll show you how to use it when I'm back. For now…" His hands move on hers, one familiar warm flesh, the other surreally-dextrous metal, positioning hers until they hold the tiny weapon properly. He catches her trigger finger and eases it straight along the slide. "Finger off the trigger at all times, unless you're gonna shoot. There's no external safety on this thing, though it won't fire unless you pull the trigger all the way back."

He slowly lets her hands go, leaving her holding the weapon as he turns back to the door. "It's got six shots. Hopefully you don't need to use any of them."

—-

He touches her so rarely of his own volition that Jane freezes to the brush of his fingers on her face. It is not fear that stops her, not nervousness, and her heart does not hammer with the prey fear uncertainty it perhaps should; instead, on her is the stillness of someone aware that this moment is eminently precious. Afraid to move or speak in fear of ending it, and simply captivated by the light, too-gentle rasp of the Soldier's fingertips, she watches his eyes as he brushes her hair from the corner of her mouth.

She too often trips on her own momentum, too much velocity and too little finnesse, and crashes into all that's too close. Ruined her first real relationship. Scared off an Asgardian god. And now this, Jane isn't even sure, too desperate to fix a man who has not yet even decided who he is, and for all her good intentions, she knows it's wrong. It's wrong, and she's wrong — and he forgives her.

That touch drifts away. Jane looks up into his blue eyes, on her face so many emotions that she cannot pick which to wear — and then takes a page from a book she does not commonly care to read, and retreats back. Gives him space. Gives her space. Him space to remember. Her space to think.

For all she hates to sit still in one place, Jane makes herself do it anyway, easing down onto a chair, and feeling, quite possibly, like it's the first time she's actually, finally stopped in so many days. Stopped moving. Stopped thinking. She's not even sure the last she's slept.

He shrugs off most of her words rambling his way. Jane Foster glances around, still feeling lost within the spartan walls of his hideaway — lost but confident she'll find her bearing. She's roughed it before — but she won't dare say that aloud, say that his life is 'roughing it': she can't take another glance of James Barnes looking ashamed — and can do it again, instead of living out of a trailer she can this room, for as long as is necessary. She can rationalize away comforts readily, and distract herself from the rest given a healthy amount of work. Work may be in short supply, save for the precious bit she brought with — and she can make him work, too, help him try to find his way — but Jane can adapt.

The rest is details. Never had much an appetite. She's slept many a night in her coat on the roof of her trailer, or even the desert ground, waiting for fickle aurorae that would never come. Anything else in life is negotiable, things meant to keep people inactive and still, and the Soldier does not need to worry himself to supply her.

Jane remembers herself enough to thank him. She catches how her words make his turned back go briefly still, but does not know why. She means it. She feels lost. Without him, she would not know what to do. She knows that, despite what little he can provide her, James Barnes has given her the feeling of safety.

And speaking of safety.

"Hate you?" Jane echoes dubiously, her dark eyes raised on James Barnes' approach. For a moment, she looks offended by the insinuation.

But then he's leaning in, and taking her hands, and she goes quiet, confused and slack to his touch, trusting even when she's unsure what it is he wants of her. Cold metal finds her fingers, the touch on them feeling identical to the smooth chill of his left hand. Brow furrowed, Jane looks down, staring at the gun in her hands. It's the first time she's ever held a gun. She balks. "Oh, I don't need —"

Yet the Soldier is insistent, and Jane's voice thins out, argument forgotten as he patiently arranges her grip, showing her with his hands how hers should hold that weapon. Her smaller fingers curl and uncurl under his direction. Jane's expression is reluctant, but she watches, learning despite herself. Finger off the trigger. Won't fire unless she pulls it all the way. It's heavier than it looks. Cold metal warms quickly to the touch, especially hers when she's this nervous — metal of his gun, of his left hand.

He promises to teach her more when he returns, and lets her go. Jane, left where she still sits, gun left where she holds it, glances back and up. "Use them on what?"

—-

His touch is gentle and reverent. The sensation is soaked with guilt, with longing, with fear— not of her, but of his own self, his own hands and what they might do under the control of a mind he does not trust or understand.

Because of that fear, it is also fleeting. He pulls his hand back again presently, clearing his throat and moving off towards the table to fetch some weapons— one for himself, and one, surprisingly, for Jane. He returns to press it into her hands, his fingers insisting when she tries to give it back.

She doesn't need it, she claims. What would she even be using the bullets on?

He gives her a sidelong look, like he isn't sure whether she's joking. "On people," he says, as if that were obvious. "Hostiles that might come up here looking for you. You're not gonna be blowing my ammo on /rats/. My supply isn't unending."

Admonishment delivered, he takes a last lingering look at her, and then vanishes silently out the door.

It is an hour before he returns— a nervewracking hour— but soon enough the familiar sound of his steps sounds in the hall. He comes bearing basics— nonperishables, water, even a sheet and a blanket for her to use. And as promised, once he gets back, he starts teaching her how to use that gun.

Several days pass in this fashion. The Winter Soldier works intermittently, still chained to promises he has made that he cannot in good conscience abandon— conscience, a novel sensation to the mechanical killer. Between work, he teaches Jane to shoot, and in return she teaches him about his life.

They spend hours just looking through pictures, watching grainy recordings, absorbing so many vignettes of the life James Buchanan Barnes led.

He tries to supply them such that they do not have to venture out frequently, but inevitably trips out are required at times. He takes them all on himself, reluctant to let her risk herself, and his talents ensure that he always returns without incident.

Up until one day he goes out, and does not return.

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