Sirius

January 15, 2017:

The newly reconditioned Winter Soldier is sent to do what he should have done a month ago: retrieve the one responsible for the upgrades to his arm.

???, New York

Characters

NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev, Mr. Smith(?)

Mentions: Steve Rogers

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

One day, James goes out early in the morning, instead of stealing out late at night as is his usual wont. Perhaps it is the wards now set around Jane's apartment that make him feel safer to go in and out during the day. Perhaps he just feels the need to avoid settling into any sort of pattern.

Whatever the case, as usual, he is reticent to tell Jane where he is going or what he is doing, but he leaves armed, and he promises her that he will return as soon as he can.

The long hours of the day pass. His task must be very involved, because no shadow darkens her window. No wraith haunts her door. The sun sets, and no assassin-in-recovery steals in, under cover of night, to give her one of his rusty half-smiles and a bag of fruit he picked up at the store for her.

It is not long enough to arouse any significant worry— he has been away from her for longer periods than this, and always returned. But it's a little nerve-wracking, nonetheless, to be alone. Ever since that auction gone wrong, it feels like something important shifted a few degrees off-center, throwing the whole world to a dangerous, distorted tilt, making everything around look twice as dangerous as usual.

It thrust Jane Foster into the kind of world where at any time there could be men following her— could be eyes watching her— could be danger on her doorstep. And James is not here—

Somewhere far away from her, under the earth, he is screaming, and screaming, and screaming.

He is remembering one hundred years of life, seventy percent of it lived in ice and torture. He is being re-educated on what those hundred years of life should mean. He is being told there is still work to do—

—but that he, in light of his many decades of service, has earned the right to pick out some few small things of his own to keep.

—-

In the meantime, Jane Foster tries to go on with her life.

Said life is stalled, however, without her work — without her lab. It bothers her all the way to an itch in the insides of her teeth to be bereft of what is precious to her — her log books, her equipment, her servers and all their data — but it was agreed too much a risk to go. It bothers her that SHIELD has not been knocking down her door, though the mark of them searching through her apartment is palpable, repulsive, and infuriating, and Jane knows she has to be watched.

Watched but not yet intercepted — not yet approached. Jane figures partially the reason are all the new wards installed around her home, care of John Constantine; wards which SHIELD must be aware in some way, because they always seem to know, always seem to find out. Partially she figures they do not want to eliminate the only lead they have to the Winter Soldier. Take her into custody and see him disappear into the night.

Perhaps, she thinks, they are waiting for her to leave and lead them to him.

So she stays. She feigns a flu, a bad one, caught from her few days' out of town. And she does what little she can do. She remotes into her work terminals from her laptop, and occupies her voracious mind with tedious data entry. She reads and keeps up her email correspondence with Ritchie. She paces a hole in her hallway, going quietly mad, and even begins to bother the perennial worrier, Erik Selvig, with her constant calls — though Jane prefers spending them poking at his work and dissecting his latest paper, until he gets that belaboured sigh into his voice and tells her to get out more. She packs away her Christmas tree. It falls before she can touch it. It unnerves her for some reason.

The rest of the time, Jane spends with James. She realizes the gala, terrifying as it was, has changed everything. Has changed him too, in many ways, turning him from that errant, intimidating ghost into something quite else — a man who seems insistent not to stray from her side. She welcomes his presence, enough that she even forgets work while he is near: she spends those hours with him, initiating more sessions of digging through the records of his past, and annoying him with her constant nagging to visit Steve Rogers.

He is reticent. But Jane is weaponized with an infinite patience to push. It gives her such hope to be able to push him, push too hard, and not see the man run away.

She finally makes him agree. After which, he tells her he needs to go. Not forever, not for long, but to tie more loose ends of his old not-life — Jane figures, or Jane believes, for how little detail James gives her. He withholds information and disappears into the daylight.

Agitated, worried, she settles in for the long haul.

Jane loses herself into work to pass the time. The hours pass, and when her concern creeps, she texts him intermittently. He texts back. She tells herself she's being paranoid, that he is the most capable man she's probably ever met, and lets the day gild to sunset. She thinks she's being overbearing at this point, but still she texts. He doesn't reply.

She thinks of sending a text to Steve, asking if James is there. Maybe he went without her. Maybe they're rehashing all their lost life. Maybe that is actually what he's doing, and he's being too polite to tell her he doesn't want her there — and honestly, why would he? It's a life they before her grandparents were even born. They deserve their privacy. They deserve her to respect them not to hover and pry.

The apartment still feels too silent. Small as its space is, it feels empty without James there. Jane busies herself with cooking, currying some rice and vegetables in a too-large portion, eats a couple mouthfuls and leaves the rest for James. She turns on her lamp in rote habit and works in front of the same window where he would watch her. She pretends to be interested in star data, but her eyes look away, down on her too-quiet phone, or out into the night.

She texts him one last time to please call her, and falls asleep waiting up. Jane Foster, dressed down to tights and a night shirt, curls tinily on one corner of her couch, her dark hair spread over its arm. Tucked up on herself with cold, she dozes, with her hand still hanging onto her phone.

—-

Despite full desire not to, Jane falls asleep waiting up for James to return.

Snow starts falling softly over New York, about half an hour later. It's one of those storms where the meteorologists wouldn't say for certain how severe it was going to be. Depending on conditions, they shrug, it could be no more than a dusting— or it could be the first true snowstorm of the winter, deep and blinding white, covering the city in a blanket of ice and snow several inches thick.

An hour passes, and it starts to look like it will be the latter. The storm scours outside Jane's windows with teeth of wind-driven ice, chewing and clawing to be let in. The building, old as it is, holds firm, however. Its walls keep out the winter. Its wards keep out less tangible dangers.

But the wards are not keyed to keep out the little fragment of winter that detaches from its parent storm, and starts to move— with an unhindered swift step— through the blowing snow and towards Jane's front door. The snow is thick, but the warm light beaming out the window guides him like a star.

A short burst of cold rushes in as the door opens and shuts. The brief howl of the wind is louder than the soft, near-soundless steps her visitor takes towards her as she curls so fragilely upon the couch.

He stoops down beside her, watching her. Frost-blue eyes study her, shaded under lashes studded with caught snowflakes that have not melted. After a moment, he reaches forward a gloved hand and takes the phone softly from her hand. That cool gaze turns downwards, considering its blank screen. After a moment, he puts it aside, face down, on a nearby nightstand.

His hand moves to her shoulder. Gently, he tries to awaken her. The first thing her eyes will see, on rousing, is the face and form of her James returned to her, eyes gentle. He's been out in the snow, it's clear; tiny snowflakes are caught in his long hair, his lashes, dusted all down the folds of his jacket: all of them still picture-perfect, ordered little geometric shapes that just stubbornly refuse to melt away.

"Dobroe utro," he says, with a faint smile, "zvyozdochka moya."

He stands. The light from the lamp behind him throws his shadow over her. "I am afraid we need to go."

—-

The phone comes easily free from her fingers, gentled from sleep.

The touch stirs her. Jane shifts, a small brush of her body against the fabric of the couch, and she exhales, slowly, peacefully blinking open her eyes. She comes back to the world, slowly and carefully, her awakening buffered by a familiar presence that stands avowedly close. She rouses in the sensation of perfect comfort, and her mind lets itself stay drugged on dreams.

She looks up, eyes focusing in the half-light, and sees James. James, leaning over her. James, with fresh snow in his long hair.

He speaks to her in words she does not understand, whether by language or by the thick blanket of sleep, but Jane does not mind. Does not mind because it is him, and he can talk to her for as long as he wishes. She greets him with a bleary smile.

He's here. He's back, and she remembers she was looking for him. She was sitting up for him, looking out the window, and worrying.

"James," Jane murmurs, voice steeped with relief. Blinking away the rest of her doze, she moves, pushing up against the cushions to want to sit up. She tries to find her bearings. What time is it? How long was she out? It's dark out the window. But he's returned.

He is saying something to her, something in a language Jane can understand, but doesn't listen — she's too busy pushing herself up to her feet to throw her arms around his neck. Her hands curl in to hold him.

"Oh god," Jane whispers, memory coming back. "James. I was — are you all right? Where were you? You're cold."

—-

A smile crosses her face as she sees him. His gaze tracks the lines of it, studying the way it curves; his hand lifts, knuckles touching the corner of her mouth, before brushing lightly across her lower lip. With tender absorption, he maps the shape of that smile she saves just for him.

She says his name, the syllable heavy with relief. He nods mutely, watching her slowly wake up. Despite his assertion they need to go, for some reason he doesn't seem in a hurry. He just lets his hand drop from her face and continues to study her,

His gaze is only interrupted, in fact, when she throws her arms around his neck and clings him close. Memory hits her then, and the questions start to pour out, her whispered voice brushing at his ear. "I'm fine," he replies. "I was… working. I was… getting my head on straight. Everything is clear now. Much clearer than I can ever recall."

His eyes close. "I can remember things now. Remember things I couldn't before. I can look back over the years. The decades. And it all makes a clear picture."

A beat passes. His unseen eyes, impossible for her to perceive from her vantage point, slowly open again, remote and resolute as the blue peak of a distant mountain. His body is cold against hers, and no matter how long she holds him, it never seems to warm.

"So… we need to go." He gently disentangles her from about his neck. "You should get dressed. It doesn't look like this storm is going to let up."

—-

His touches come so rarely, and even half-lost in sleep, Jane knows to savour them all.

She savours this one too, paused for the slow, patient brush of his knuckles take along her bottom lip. Its soft flesh bows slightly under the touch, before it pulls tight into the hopeful little smile she shines up. Jane's heart catches with something far more than relief.

Rising, she wastes no time to reach out for him, throwing her arms around his neck as her body leans in its little, warm weight. Jane tilts her head to tuck her face against James's neck, holding him in her arms desperately, possessively, dismayed at how icy he feels to the touch. How long was he outside in the cold? He's frozen.

He speaks down onto her bowed head. Awake now, Jane listens.

"Clear?" she asks. And he answers.

She tenses around him with surprise. "You remember? You remember everything? Everything we read about? All of your life?"

He is so cold, the winter breathing off his coat, his skin, his body. Jane hugs closer to thaw him, adamant to stay that way —

— until he reaches and carefully extricates her, loosening her hands and opening her arms. Letting go, Jane sinks back down to her heels, staring guilelessly up, her dark eyes on his face and always searching. Searching him for more answers. "When? Did it just happen? We can talk about it. I think we should talk about it. I made some —"

He tells her they need to go. Get dressed. There is a storm.

Jane glances out her window, then toward her bedroom, programmed by the last few days' and their hiding to be complicit. She rarely asked him a question then. She was nervous, afraid, out of her element. When he gave direction, she listened.

This time, however, she lingers. "Go where?"

—-

He interacts with her like a machine trying to study and capture human warmth for itself. His knuckle catalogues the way her mouth feels, the softness of her lips, the movement of muscle that creates that smile. His hand opens, fingertips trailing from the corner of her mouth up across her cheek, the touch eventually reaching the corner of her jaw.

His palm curves in to cradle her face in his hand. It is cold, cold as the outside air, even though he was wearing a glove just moments before.

She throws herself against him, arms around him, trying to offer him her heat to warm him. He's cold all over, frozen through, and despite her efforts he just seems to freeze her too rather than take up any of her warmth: draining the heat from her the longer he stands pensively still, lost in apparent thought.

He explains why it is he is distracted.

She tenses in shock to hear it. He remembers? Seventy years of amnesia, of confusion, all the painful last few weeks she spent trying to even figure out who he was… and just like that he's starting to remember? His progress had improved significantly after that incident with the book, granted, but he was only gone a few hours. A day. How could he remember everything in a day?

"Not everything," he corrects. "But enough. And soon I will have everything. I can feel it."

He pulls back afterwards, gently untangling from her and insisting she get dressed. She balks, wanting to talk first, to figure this out. His eyes flash briefly, the blue of them suddenly as unremitting as sea ice— when seen from below, trapped under its frozem implacability.

Then it is gone. But she hesitates anyway. Go where?

"Away from here," he says. "The wards are good, but we can't stay forever. SHIELD can watch this place until the day we both die." His blue eyes turn down to her. "I want to take you somewhere else. Somewhere you will be safe." He hesitates. "Somewhere you will be with me."

—-

James Barnes' right hand cradles her face.

His skin is cold; his touch is ice. But that does not startle Jane so much as the simple act of it, him reaching out of his own volition, imparting one of his rare, touches — rare from a man who cannot trust his own hands. In the past few days they've spent together, since her first and only reckless kiss, he has kept his reserved distance, and touched her so warily, as if nervous or afraid of himself to linger long. They were not more than the guide of his hands on hers to teach her to fire a gun. Not more than to pass her food or her things, and sometimes yet their fingers linger.

Only now he touches her, along her mouth and up, tracking her cheekbone until his opening palm swallows half of her face. Gazing up, surprised and captivated both, Jane does not pull away. She does quite the opposite.

She has kept her own distance out of nervousness and respect. At least until now, when she throws herself at him, unable to inhibited against that paralyzing wave of relief. He's back. Here's here. He's safe. All is OK.

Even better, James returns with revelations. He returns with, what seems, the near full breadth of his memory intact. He gently pulls her away, and Jane lets go, wanting to lean back to look up at his face. On hers is surprise, fascination, and even guilt — an apology made with her eyes that she was not there at that moment. Not there to help him. She begins to bubble up with so many questions.

"Everything will come. This is amazing, James. This is… what happened? Did something happen to make it come? Was it something you saw? I made you dinner. I can warm some up, and we can go over anything you want," she begins to babble, along her mouth, the lower lip he touched, the beginning of a hopeful smile. Realization lights her eyes, and she reaches up to try to touch his face, her warm hands gentle. "Oh God, and how do you feel? How do you feel now? Do you feel all right? Do you need to sit? I can't even imagine — to take everything in — it has to — "

Somewhere, in the midst of all that, James wants her to get dressed. Wants them to leave. Jane lets him go and steps back, like her first response is trusting obedience, but the questions stack too high for her to ignore. She questions — and she receives a look.

For a moment, James' icy eyes go hypothermic. Jane pauses, uncertain, but it passes so fast she even questions what she saw at all. She lingers for a moment, trying to remember her words, thinking herself careless with them, perhaps said something too brusque and angered him. She needs to be more patient, more careful.

But he speaks again to her, stealing her attention, and Jane listens with searching eyes to James proposing they leave. John Constantine's wards seem to have lost his trust. He wants to take her somewhere safe. Somewhere… she can be with him.

He's never said anything like this to her, not out loud, and Jane's cheeks darken to absorb such forthright words. "I want that —" she begins nervously, taking a helpless look around her apartment once more. Leaving again. "I'll go with you, but — away where? How long? I've been trying to think — I need to get back to my lab. Get my things. And we shouldn't even be — I want to talk about you. Did something happen? What happened?"

—-

James Barnes does not trust his hands. But the Winter Soldier certainly does.

And it is the Winter Soldier's killing surety and steadiness that inheres in his touch now, as he brushes it along the bow of her mouth and up along her cheek. His hand opens, fingers spreading, its span easily encapsulating her slim jaw— half her petite face— and his fingertips apply a gentle pressure to tilt her head upwards. She gazes up at him, rapt, wholly seduced, her throat bare and exposed.

In other years, other decades, other half-remembered lives lived between the cold of the freezing chamber, he remembers being here before. He knows what this move is for. He remembers that the next step was always to slit that presented throat. To let the blood run out in his hands.

To clean up, after, and leave. Another job well done.

He blinks away the memories. She's speaking, her words tumbling out over one another. He can feel the soft buzz of her voice in her throat, through his sensitive fingers. She wants to know so many things. What happened? They can go over it, over dinner. She made him some. But how does he feel? Is everything okay?

He interrupts gently. No time for any of that. They must leave. Go out in the storm. She will need to pack. She has always trusted him before, but this time something makes her balk. The rabbit, for just a moment, smelled wolf in the air. He looks at her, and for half an instant his gaze is colder than the winter howling outside the door.

Then it is gone, and he is coaxing her, "I don't know how long. I can't promise that. But we can go to your lab if you want. Pick up whatever you like. You see— it's a new place I've found. A lot safer. Out of New York. I…" He hesitates. "I found another tracker on me the other day. I didn't tell you. I didn't want to worry you. I just took care of it. But it tracked me to Brooklyn before I thought to scan for it. They know we're somewhere here. It'll be a lot easier for you to continue your work, in this other place. You'll be able to do whatever you want."

Still she balks. He reaches and takes one of her hands.

"Jane," he says, his voice very soft. "Don't you trust me? You did before."

—-

It is with infinite trust she lets him touch her, lets his icy fingers tilt back her head to meet their eyes. Jane's are brown, brown veined with ambery yellow, that only someone needs to come so close to see.

The action bares the long, white line of her throat. In just one touch and a handful of moments, he has her vulnerable. It would not take much effort or much pressure to split that soft skin, and let it sigh hot, gouting blood, slick on his fingers. Phantom sensation itches his nerves; it draws forth old memory — memory accessible to him now — that he must blink away to dispel.

James Barnes comes back, and it is to Jane speaking to him, murmuring countless, worried words he can feel up through his fingertips. She asks him so many questions. Her eyes reflect back images of his face. Her expression pinches with concern.

The questions go on and on that he must interrupt her to make them end. How much does he remember? What happened to bring his memory? How does he feel? Does it hurt? Does it pain him to know? Does he have any confusion? Any questions? Does he know what happened after that day in 1945 when he died? Does he need anything? Does he need her?

James does not answer her questions. He speaks of other things, something so disparate that it compels Jane into brief, startled silence. He wants them to relocate again, leave even with the wards in place — leave now. Leave despite all that's happened. Doesn't he have an hour to spare to talk, tell her what happened, tell her how it feels to remember his missing life? He lacks the inertia she sensed on him the last time he was here, unfolding from shadow, helping her flee under cover of darkness. There was urgency she sensed off him. Something has happened. Something must have —

Frustrated at being denied information, Jane asks how long he intends them to go. How much should she pack? Is she taking leave from her life a few days? Is she packing for something permanent? What of her life? What of her work? What —

"A tracker?!" Jane echoes, shock, dismay, even outrage filtered into her voice. How does this keep happening? "From who? Did —" she rambles, interjecting, only for the man to confirm. Her scanner helped. Helped enough. She exhales noisily. "OK, OK, that's a good reason. I'll get my things together. I need my… work. Would it be safe to go to the lab?" She pauses again, her running train of thought making extraneous loops. "But they don't know you're here, do you? I mean, with you remembering — this is huge. It shouldn't have to wait, James. If we have to leave New York. If you need to talk. I think we should, I —"

He takes her hand. It pulls Jane out of her mind, and brings her back. Her turns her eyes up on him. It lets him see on her, clearly, palpably, the vibrant look of shock when he asks if she still trusts him.

Jane looks pained. Her eyes tighten with apology, afraid she's said something — saying something — to suggest she doubts him. "No!" she answers, dismayed. "No, I trust you. I'm sorry. It's a lot — I'm just worried about you. I'll go get dressed."

—-

He is not used to looking at something and having it trigger true memories. Not anymore. He is used to his mind being branked in the present, locked so he can see nothing but what is before his face, with nothing in his empty brain to reference back save the muscle memory of killing.

Now he can look down at Jane, at the way he tips her head up to show her throat, at the way he opens her to death with one tip of his hand, and he can remember back over the years, the decades. The many times he has been here before, and the many times he has ended this tableau with the edge of a knife kept so keen that his victim's eyes still smiled up at him, trusting, not feeling the blade, up until the blood started to flow.

He pulls his hand away. That isn't his aim with her.

She machineguns questions up at him until he stops her with more pressing matters. He can answer later, but for now they really have to go. She balks, unsure, not wanting to let go of this revelation— not sure why he can't spare just a few minutes to talk about the fact that he reclaimed his /life/. That he remembers all that he's lost.

His eyes flick towards her, gauging her. More effective persuasion will be needed. He tells her about the tracker he found.

"Who? I don't know," he says. "From where I was, I suspect SHIELD." He certainly keeps looking back and forth like he suspects them to come down on them at any minute, find a way to break the wards and take them away. "But it should be safe to go to the lab. You need your work." He seems oddly adamant about that. "If you really wanna talk, then we can talk on the way."

But she's still just not sure. This is huge. Why wait? She wants to know now, know how it feels for him to have a hundred years of memory in his head. Know if he's /okay/ having a hundred years of memories in his head. Especially when the memories must be of—

He takes her hand. He knows it will stop her. And he asks her if she trusts him or not. It has the expected reaction. "There's nothing to worry about," he says. "I was more broken before than I am now. Now, I…"

He shakes his head. "Get your things. I'll tell you on the way."

—-

You need your work, James Barnes tells her.

Jane lifts her head, and even in the midst of her own worry, concern, and her Perseid shower of questions, gives the man an indescribable look. No one in her life has ever granted that sort of attention to her work — dismissed it as something replaceable, or forgettable, and not realizing it's a part of her. It is her, all the parts that are important, the beating heart in her chest and the driving blood through her veins. One of the reasons she does not wake and feel hollow.

"Thank you," she tells him, and she means it. "I'll be fast. I didn't unpack everything from before. It shouldn't be long to get my stuff together. We'll talk on the way." She pauses distinctly, and her hand turns in his grasp, her tiny fingers curling around his. His skin is ice, and next to it, hers feels burning hot. Heat and light burning fiercely into the cold voice of space. His star. "I know. But I still worry about you."

She gives him a lingering look, those pensive eyes of hers thinking a dozen many thoughts. The James of many days ago is not quite this one, different in a way she can sense but cannot quite define; she spent days holed in that vacant apartment turning her energy into something seeking to soothe and calm his. Trying to be his patience and strength to see him through the painful, aggravating hours of him struggling and struggling to remember things — just not there.

And it's as if it's flipped on her, flipped in a matter of hours, with him seeking to calm her. Calm her from what?

It must be the shock of remembering. Maybe memory changes a person. Maybe it's brought him closer to the person he once was, seventy years ago; a person Jane Foster, frankly, and achingly, admits she does not know.

Her hand slips free from his. And, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she turns, striding quickly away in direction of her bedroom. She shuts the door quietly to allow herself privacy to change.

In minutes, Jane emerges, changed hastily to jeans and one of her sweaters, some spare sets of clean clothes bundled in her arms. Her eyes search first for James, to flick him a quick, nervous glance, before she beelines toward that familiar backpack of hers, stuffing it with her things.

"Laptop," she says to herself, and folds it up, cords and all, to pack. "Notes. Phone." That stops Jane. She cannot seem to recall where she last left it. Cannot seem to remember it was physically removed from her hand. She stands in place, frowning, then, distracting herself, turns again to peek her brown eyes up at James. "Something happened to make you remember. Are you going to tell me what?"

—-

Thank you, Jane says, and in those two words is all the earnestness of a woman who has been deeply touched by someone finally caring for what is most important to her. He hears the inflection. He makes a note. He nods, and presses harder on that discovered vulnerability. "Whatever you need, we can get."

He has to get her to come with him. He wants her. Contrary to being wiped, this time he was finally allowed to remember, in full: to recall the things he wants, that are important to him, that always swim back to the surface no matter how many times he is made to forget. All those little cornerstones of James Barnes' personality that have kept him, decade after decade, fighting his endless war against the cage bars holding him imprisoned.

They have finally figured out how to keep a wolf happy in its cage: let it bring the rest of its pack in with it. Make it believe it leads its most precious ones to security and safety in the order Hydra wishes for the world.

She promises they'll talk, because she still worries about him. He is silent, though his hand stays in hers without pulling away. It doesn't let go until she backsteps and turns to go get changed. She can feel his eyes on her back as she walks away, watching her as he always does, though this time something feels different about his vigil.

When she returns, it is to find him standing in the same spot, patiently waiting. She gathers together her things— up until she needs her phone and cannot find it. His expression does not change, though something flickers in his eyes. After a beat, he turns towards the nightstand where she left it, picking it up and handing it to her wordlessly.

He turns afterwards, towards the door, intent on ushering her out. But she has one last question for him, broached even as he reaches for the doorknob. Something happened to make him remember. What was it?

He is silent for some time, turning the question over in his head, debating how to answer. In the end he decides on a half-truth. "The book," he says briefly. "It… showed me my death when I touched it. Ever since then, it feels like things have been… unraveling in my head. Like a tapestry falling apart so I can see the stone underneath, through its holes. The process just… sped up, over time."

He lifts his head, tilts it back. "I guess the last knot undid itself. It's still all… confusing. But I'm making sense of it."

—-

His hand does not let hers go. Not until she moves away.

Jane's dark eyes flick down, once and briefly, where her fingers curl his. Where his, for the first time in the long month she's known him, does not gently untangle her, does not slip free, does not step away. Their touch breaks because of her, and her only, stepping away in her haste that pulls her hand free.

It makes her heart lurch in quiet hope. But it doesn't feel…

She isn't sure. She lets the thought go, turns away, and moves quickly under James Barnes' direction. Jane swears she does not feel his eyes pressing on her turned back.

Returned, she moves with obedience, compliance demonstrated if just to prove she does trust him. And Jane does, implicitly, with a ready willingness to pack up and make transient her hard-worked life if only because he's asked her. She's of two minds about it, casting lingering looks around her apartment, yet unable to completely reconcile why they would return just to leave again. The tracker, however, makes a compelling argument. She's never been so happy she spent the time building him that scanner.

In a matter of minutes, Jane Foster officially has herself — for the second time — packed, her life returned to the odd thirty-pounds she has sitting upright, filling to the brim her backpack. In quiet remembrance, she digs through her closet to find a second of her old, sizable duffel bags, proclaiming it large enough to store the worthy parts of her lab. Rising, she turns — and pauses, noticing James has proffered Jane her missing phone. She flares him a quick, grateful smile that warms her face all the way to her dark eyes, and, shrugging on her winter coat, stuffs it absently into her pocket.

She turns one last glance back at her apartment. Sorry, again, Jane's gaze seems to say. Some part of her thinks absently that it may be some time before she sees it again. He said himself he isn't sure when they may return.

It's her own realization: Jane Foster is absolutely willing to abandon her life for a man she's only known a month. Absolutely willing to turn her back on indeterminacy and walk away without regret.

Erik would kill her. Her father would understand, though, she thinks.

Ushered out of her warm apartment and into the night, the woman… winces. The storm James mentioned is all too eager to receive her, its first, sharpened greeting a buffet of icy wind that forces her to draw up her hood. Snow falls thickly down from the purpling sky.

She breathes deeply out, breath fogging into the air, head turned back to listen as James speaks. Jane is a hostage to every word. "Your death," she echoes. "The book at the gala. That must have been when I saw you… when I saw Hanussen." Memory comes as a blur, veined with all the red she could see. She wanted to kill him. She thinks she might have, if he were a man.

He tilts his head back to look at something far away. Farther away than Jane. She reaches, trying to touch his hand with hers, a curl of her fingers, a brush of their tips down his palm. "I'll help you. However I can."

—-

In all the short time she has known him, physical contact from him was rare and brief, and almost never initiated by him. It never felt particularly like he was rejecting her contact when he would inevitably pull free, or that he seemed to find it burdensome or— worse— undesirable. There just seemed to be a certain threshold where his ability to handle being touched would bottom out, and he would disentangle her to reclaim his personal space.

Of course, there was always one exception— when she was working on his arm, or otherwise tending to him. Now that she can make a much clearer guess of the things he has gone through in the last many decades, she can likely also guess how and why that conditioned response came to be.

Why he would sit so docilely, staring straight ahead, and endure anything she did until she was finished.

Now, though, not only is he tolerating touch… he is initiating it, holding it, hanging on until she herself makes the decision to pull free. Her hand leaves his, and his fingers curl a little. Enough that there's a slight tug of resistance.

His eyes follow her out of the room.

They are still watching when she returns, aimed towards her even before she comes in eyeshot. He holds his silence as she packs, and that at least is familiar, though he continues to watch her the entire time as she loads up her backpack. There is something too… fixed about the way he regards her. Something distinctly impatient, as though he were looking at a tool— or toy— left laying on the floor, out of its proper place.

Or maybe he's just anxious about the tracker.

One last thing— her phone. He thinks about that a moment, before some internal decision is made and he brings it to her unscathed.

He takes her pack for her again as they leave, and in another uncharacteristic gesture puts his right arm about her and traps her close against his side, shielding her slight figure from the brunt of the wind. It's rough going, but his strength keeps her firmly at his side. She probably couldn't be torn from it even if she wanted to.

He speaks briefly of his death, and she turns her face up to him. She knows which one he is talking about. "It was when I collapsed," he confirms. "I saw… Steve and I were on a mission. It was winter, 1945. I don't remember where we were. What exactly we were doing. There is a lot I still don't remember. But I remember him looking at me. I fell." His left arm moves a little, with a murmur of titanium and steel. "I lost this, falling."

She says she'll help him however she can.

"You will," he replies.

—-

It is so many small things.

The insistent brush of his hands. The implore of his voice when there is usually only silence, silence and so many short words. The resistance of his fingers on hers, with enough palpable strength it stops Jane — long enough for her to glance back and carefully pull herself free.

So many small things that catch on her better instincts, and make her wonder, make her think: something is wrong, something is wrong and must have happened to him —

But those many small things are not enough to stop Jane from complying. Even she, with some healthy objectivity, would question her own blind trust of someone she's only known weeks — who came into her life by holding a gun on her — but even she has become aware that not all things are so simple. Sometimes they are deeply and vastly complicated, and the dangerous man is actually the broken one, one who is begging her for help — one who has helped her, time and time again, without prompt, without complaint.

He saved her life. He looked down on her so many times, and kissed her mouth, all as a man. He crossed the bridge into an alien world to find her, well knowing doing so could have him lost forever. He looked up at its stars if only because she asked.

He came back, tonight, for her. He keeps coming back. And her heart… she knows she loves him.

Jane imparts him so many quick, worried looks, knowing something is wrong, and yet she still packs herself up and follows. How quickly things change in weeks, but she cannot comprehend a world where she cannot trust James Buchanan Barnes.

For the time being, she tries to bear all of his strange irregularities. Already anticipating his distance and usual remove, used to travelling either at his side or, usually, at his back, Jane inhales with surprise when James instead hooks her body with his right arm and pulls her close. His larger body blocks her from the wind, and she appreciates its sanctuary, and some part of her frankly loves his closeness, but she still looks up with the question she does not speak aloud, one beginning to ask why — and what has gotten into him.

But Jane does not try to struggle free, still trusting, perhaps even believing something's happened to spook him, perhaps even incite him to keep someone close… and grateful for some guidance against the blowing storm that she only needs to rely on his stronger body to know where to walk. She still wants to ask what's wrong —

— and forgets entirely the question on her tongue, as James speaks on, musing past Jane's questions and revealing something she knows is important — precious. He tells her how he died back in 1945. He does not remember every detail, but he knows he… fell. Jane stares up at him, quietly stricken, snowflakes shining like a starfield in her dark hair. What does she even say to a man who knows how he lost his life, his memory, his arm — had all three taken from him? She gives him her promise to help him. He agrees.

Colour warms Jane's face. "Are you really OK?"

—-

It's a funny thing when silence and lack of contact wind up being less unnerving than their opposites. But he has always been so reserved with her that this sudden urgency, this verbosity, this… basic willingness to touch her, is alien and confusing. Like some other personality living in his familiar skin.

It tickles at her better judgment. Warns her something might be off. But in the end, she just trusts him. Trusts him in the way a person inevitably comes to trust someone who has saved their life several times over, who has helped her without question. Who has held her and kissed her so deeply she could— for one fleeting second— feel the real him, hidden beneath the ice of the Winter Soldier— could taste him, sad and yearning. A long-lost young man robbed of his life, robbed of his autonomy, robbed even of the right to touch another human.

A young man who was used to kill so much that now he is afraid to even touch another human in affection, lest he suddenly black out and wake up with blood on his hands.

In the end, above all, she trusts him because he comes back. He always comes back. Tonight, he has come back for her yet again, taking her back out of the warded apartment and out into the teeth of the winter storm— yet this time, there is something new. This time, he puts an arm around her and traps her against his side. Nominally it is to block the wind, but there is something that suggests he is glad of her closeness. That in itself is strange; save for a handful of exceptions, he has always preferred to keep himself at a slight remove from her, as if carefully separating away a keen knife from the rest of the silverware.

They walk, and something about the winter around them inspires him to elaborate on his death. She looks up, clearly not knowing what to say. He glances down at her, studying the look in her eyes, before he looks back up. He is silent for some time, focusing on the walk. Her lab isn't really far. And with him guiding them, it won't take long to get there in the storm.

Eventually, as they draw near, she finally breaks the silence. Is he really OK?

"I don't know if someone can be really OK after being through war. After dying in it," he says, wry. "Do you think so?" He shrugs. "But I was found before I died. I was given purpose. A chance to really… matter."

—-

He comes back for her, but tonight, he is not the James Barnes that Jane remembers. Not the one, in fleeting hints and glimpses, she has had the privilege to slowly get to know.

It's all wrong, Jane somehow decides between steps, feeling his right arm curled around her like iron, and his body pressed close. The hope in her heart is doing flips, wanting to believe in all her optimism that something is fixed — something unknotted and solved in him that came with the miraculous return of his memory. That, realizing who he now is, he's reclaimed his lost life — reclaimed what has to be a lost personality, forsaken and buried under years of permafrost.

But it isn't. It isn't, her heart tells her, as Jane presses her cheek to James' chest, her eyes half-lidded against the sting of wind and blowing snow. His body feels like a furnace, she knows, in the few times he allowed her close — in that one, indescribable memory where he pulled her in to brand his mark over her mouth — but now he freezes her.

The way he speaks. The way he touches her. Every moment with James has been to encourage him near to her: why does it feel like he's now doing it to her? Something is wrong, but she isn't sure what.

The thoughts circle warily in her head. But Jane follows, complicit, refusing so much to even squirm against his arm. He says he is taking them to a safer place, and she believes him.

The cold eats into her skin by the time they arrive to the familiar, storehouse exterior of her hidden lab. Its familiar, long-missed sight puts Jane at considerable ease — though not for long, her attention turned up when James finally gives her answer. Is he OK?

His words tighten her eyes, on her face a mix of hurt and guilty fear she may have offended him. Do you think so? he asks rhetorically. "I didn't mean it like —" Jane interjects, uneasy, with it written vividly across her face that, no, there probably isn't being OK after experiencing something like that. Experiencing and remembering it all in the span of hours — maybe even heartbeats. "I still think we need to talk about this. Right now, even."

Her unease builds too strong, and she finally begins to tense against him, a light push to try to break free from his arm. Though it appears it's for the sole reason, at this moment, for Jane to want to step away, toward the coded entry on the door, and quickly tap them an easy way in. The door unlocks with a slide of metal, and Jane —

— isn't listening, not really at all to much, save for the way James tells her he was given purpose. Jane glances back on him, confusion writ across her expressive face. She heard it right, even in the blowing storm. She doesn't know every detail, however, such as his keepers of now being the keepers of his past — he hasn't told her, hasn't /remembered/ to tell her — all he said once was so oblique, spoken the night before that gala—

— 'who knows what is good work anymore.'

"Purpose?" she asks.

—-

Something is different. But it is not /fixed/.

There is nothing fixed about the way his arm wraps hers, trapping her against his body. Nothing fixed about the way he just won't seem to warm up, as if the howling winter around them were powerful enough to continually strip away even the prodigious heat of his quickened metabolism. Nothing fixed about the way he looks at her, speaks to her, initiates so many touches.

It's almost as if he's trying to do to her what she's been doing to him. Almost as if he's trying to coax her closer to him. Trying to ensure she does not balk and pull away. Trying to ensure she does not flee…

But even now, she still wants to believe him. Even now, she wants to hope that this change is just a product of his sudden return of memories, and his strange behavior is just an evening-out: a rough period while he remembers how to be the man he once was. Perhaps this is the man he was once. How would she know? She only ever got to know the strange patchwork mess that was James Barnes struggling to emerge from the Winter Soldier.

Eventually, they get to the lab door. He starts to reach for it— only to pause when she asks if he's OK. His answer brings her eyes to pinch in apology, but she still thinks they need to stop and talk. Right now.

"Now?" he says. "Out in this? At least wait until we're inside."

He looks back to the keypad. It's then that Jane finally, unable to contain her unease any longer, tries to tense away from him. Tries to extricate herself from his arm, if only for the excuse of reaching the keypad to open the door.

His arm does not move. Does not budge an inch. She pushes and she might as well be pushing steel.

He is still studying the keypad. It's not clear whether he even noticed. What IS clear is that his arm was this impassable all along, and she just had not noticed until now— until she tried to escape it.

The man beside her, whoever he is— whatever he is— glances down at her, notices her trying to reach the keypad. His arm tightens on her as an amused look comes and goes in his eyes. "Let me do that," he says, brushing her hand aside with his own to enter the code. The code she never told to him, because he was always visiting her at her apartment, because she never wound up having reason to give him access to her lab—

The doors open. And the Winter Soldier speaks gently of purpose.

She echoes the word helplessly up at him. He ushers them into the lab, letting the door shut and lock behind them. "A man must have purpose," he says. "'Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings.'" He grimaces. "But people don't get those references these days the way they would, years ago."

The little light glances off the planes of his face. "Steve would, though."

—-

At least wait until they're inside, proposes the metal-armed soldier-turned-assassin at her side. It's the best idea Jane Foster's heard all night.

And it's a good excuse to allow her to try to gently, carefully squirm away from his arm. For as much as she has avowed, ever since that first night, to engage the Winter Soldier for the lost man trapped inside a cold machine, Jane has tested fate and risked safety to hover close. And with the slow tide-in of Jane's own trust, she's brought upon him her deluge of small, brief, but insistent touches: a starfield of encouragements to draw him from the dark and lead him on by their lights. That same part of her wants to exult in this, and wishes it could —

— but she cannot. Because it's wrong. It's wrong and she knows it. Too much, too fast, and it shouldn't be, not when all she's known of James Barnes is hesitation and reticence. The James Barnes who so gently and carefully disentangled her off him and told her not yet. The James Barnes who seemed to summon courage only to touch her hand for longer than a heartbeat. The James Barnes who, in the last week alone, has broken Jane's heart time and time again with his dawning awareness as a man resurrected, and yet not whole.

A man whom, even in the depths of his own confusion and amnesia, was never so lost as to neglect her — has always been aware of her, delicate with her, attentive to every single one of her actions and words and wants.

A man whose arm refuses to let her go. She tries to nudge away and finds she cannot. Perhaps fearing he cannot feel her through their layers, or the numbing cold, Jane tries again, somewhat more insistently, but his arm does not budge. It is flesh and bone, but with the equal yield of tempered steel.

Something is wrong. Jane, stopped while reaching for her own lab's keypad, looks on in surprised askance as James Barnes notices her, what she's doing, and simply tightens his arm to press her more securely to his side. Her heart beats on, and she breathes slowly, disturbed, trying to keep her wits — trying to figure out /what is going on/. She can't move, not with him holding her, and he's so strong — he is so careful with her that she forgets just how strong he is.

He moves away her hand and helpfully keys her lock code in for her. Jane watches on, lips parted but unable to form words, to realizes even this about her he knows. Maybe from the start, though she can't say for sure — and cannot think of it a moment longer as he guides them both out of the storm and into the building.

The door auto-locks behind them.

The lights are still off, everything dim save for the moving screensavers of her idle machines. They hum together their technological harmony, though Jane cannot hear it, cannot hear much save James' voice and the sound of her own blood rushing past her ears.

Talk of purpose. People giving him purpose. The people who found him after he was lost, fell, taken from Steve Rogers and their mission. The people who breathed life into his body. Made him that metal arm. That arm, she remembers, of titanium sealed against scar tissue, metal grafted directly into bone. When Jane saw it, her first thought was how much it had to hurt. How no one could have survived the surgery save for someone already strong —

Most people don't get his reference. Jane does. "That's from the Ketuvim," she murmurs, voice low, her childhood Hebrew classes not entirely forgotten.

She looks nervously up. In the wan dark, she is ice-pale, scattered with all the same, clinging snowflakes that dust his dark hair. Though Jane's searching eyes cannot see them, cannot make out James past the way light slants down his cheekbone, reflects the life and thinking intelligence of his eyes. She breathes up against his side, trapped there, knowing she's trapped. "You remember Steve," she says instead, voice soft, possibly would have been inflected with relief if not now for her worry. "I don't understand why you think that. Everything we learned together, about you. You always had purpose. You mattered."

—-

He finally lets her go once their shelter from the storm gives him no more pretext to hold on. But he replaces the shackle of his arm with that of his careful eyes.

They scan the darkened lab in silence, the man moving far enough into it that he can check its darkened corners and more distant reaches. It is a normal thing for him to do, one he has done many times before in her presence— the Soldier having long since left behind a life where he could afford not to be paranoid— but what is not normal is the way that his watchful eyes include her regularly in their roving sweeps.

It's been a long time since he needed to watch her as if she were a threat. …Or as if, maybe, she were something else—

Her phone is not with her. It's not where she left it. It's gone again somehow. It must be on his person somewhere. He's already carrying all the rest of her things, too.

His attention only turns fully back to her when she gets his reference. A pleased light comes and goes in his glacial-ice eyes. She does know it, though under a different name than he does, and his head tilts, his eyes studying her in understanding of what that implies. "That's right," he murmurs. "I forgot about your background." How did he even know it to begin with? Presumably the same way he knew about her keypad code, the same way he knew about Erik, the same way he's known about everything else.

His gaze goes distant. For a few moments, he stares off into the distance, looking across the span of years. "I died before most of the major liberations, but I remember seeing the first photographs and newsreels from out of Majdanek. The whole world saw them. We didn't get information out as fast back then as now, but for that kind of thing… we got it out plenty fast enough."

He looks down at one of her idling machines. His left hand rests down on the top of the monitor, its fingers tapping in an absent, nervous drum. Fine technology, almost as dextrous as a flesh hand. Fine technology… but made by whose hands?

"So I did have purpose, I guess," he admits. "Purpose to fight against that kind of thing. Purpose to /stop/ it. I gave my life to stop it. But then my life was given back. I needed a new purpose. A purpose to prevent that kind of thing before we'd ever have to fight back against it at all."

His eyes on her are wholly without emotion, flat and dead and pitiless as Atropos with her shears. "I mattered a bit when I was with Steve. But I mattered much more in everything else I have done since he let me die. You have no idea how much I have prevented."

The Winter Soldier lapses into pensive silence. He does not look up at her when he finally breaks it to say, "Get your things."

—-

Pulled in from the cold, the snow, the howling wind, Jane feels herself let go. That arm what held her unrelentingly like an iron bond — just releases, simple as that, as if it were never there.

She steps back, nervous, close to spooked, her hands fidgeting on each other as she tries to hold back the surge of adrenaline from her blood. Jane courts uncertainty, here in this moment, in the dark, and locked into a room with a dangerous man not acting the way he should. He makes her feel nervous, but she trusts him — and she doesn't want to feel afraid of him.

She can't — won't — quantify feeling afraid of James Barnes.

For now, Jane can feel his eyes on her. It rings familiarity in the worst way, reminding her of the first time she encountered him in this very lab: how she proposed her pact to save her work. How he watched her like a hawk as she worked on him, walked around, mixed him coffee, because there was no room in his tortured life for trust.

But he learned to trust her. Back in the bolthole, in those few days they spent together, James would put his back to her. Certainly she knew he was aware of her, could hear her from across a room, but there were times she could linger close to touch his shoulder as he read articles of his life, or cleaned parts of his guns, and he would not even twitch — not even turn to look.

He watches her again now. It makes Jane's heart sink, if even for reasons she's not sure why. What was it that he remembered?

She thinks briefly on her phone, where Jane believes is still left in her pocket. She should message Steve. Message John. But he quotes something and her attention turns — it's a quote that Jane remembers well. Something from her childhood, years since she read the Tanakh, but her brain does not ever forget the things it's been told. James answers her with a look that's something like pleasure, but does not sound too surprised. It seems he even knew this about her, perhaps vetted in the very beginning.

He shares one of his reclaimed memories. Tells of a time far before Jane Foster was even born, yet as his words speak of Majdanek, of the liberations that happened after it: this remains a time that affects even her. Her eyes glance briefly, tellingly away. She thinks about her grandmother.

Jane's attention only returns to his renewed mention of purpose. She listens, quiet and wary, as James Barnes concedes to a sort of purpose in his life, though he admits his resurrection made a transcendence of even that — of fighting and dying in a war to protect freedom.

He gives her a look, and she can't breathe — it's not that his eyes are not cold like the blowing storm outside, but empty. Empty when they should be so full. He says that Steve Rogers let him die.

Jane's eyebrows knot. What?

The rest of his words blur as she tries to parse that, parse how, out of nowhere, James appears to believe that. She doesn't know him that well, doesn't know Steve Rogers past their brief meeting and all of his public acclaim; Jane couldn't know if old memory has pulled back feelings, resentments that predate even her. She doesn't know the life they shared. Doesn't know what happened to them as they served. All she does know is one night, he remembered for the first time enough to beg her for his lost friend. All she does know is the pain and determination — and belief, dogged belief, not skeptical, not dismissive, but that he believes her, that he /already knows/ — when she told Steve that his dead best friend is still alive.

He tells her to get her things. Jane comes to, pulled from her uneasy thoughts, remembering well enough to slip the strap of her second, empty duffel bag from her shoulder. She steps away obediently, hands reached to collect the first of her notebooks, but the rasp of paper against her fingers bids her pause. She holds there, unmoving, thinking, deciding.

He will hear her. Not listening, not abiding, not getting her things, but taking slow, careful steps — steps towards him. He unnerves her, but she refuses to be afraid of him. Jane trusts who James Barnes is, all she's seen of him — all whom she believes is /hurting/, hurting in some way she does not know.

"James," speaks her voice softly at his back. Her hand makes a hesitant touch to his arm, to bid him to look at her. "Why do you say he let you die?"

When he does look, there stands Jane, drawn close, her gaze trying to capture his, trying to search in the dark the answers free from his eyes. She pauses, then recklessly reaches up to try to touch him, to take his face into her warm hands. "Tell me what's wrong. Something's happened and you're not telling me. You can trust me."

—-

She doesn't listen to him. But then, he did not expect her to. They have not known one another long, but it doesn't really take that long to get to know what Jane Foster is like at her core. She is forthright to the bone, straightforward, unendingly curious. She is on a constant search for understanding.

It's that direct, inquiring curiosity of hers that leads her to approach him and try to keep asking questions, when what she should be doing is escaping— running— calling for help—

Her hand touches his arm. His head is lowered, gaze pinned to the ground, but his eyes lift to regard her as she presses in close and begs him to tell her what's wrong. Something happened, or else he wouldn't be talking this way. Wouldn't be saying such wildly uncharacteristic things. Wouldn't be—

—looking at her the way he does now, head slightly tilted, as if trying to decide what to do with her.

In the next few moments, he blinks and that impression vanishes from his face. He just looks tired in its aftermath, tired from too long spent gazing across a span of too many years, trying to figure out too many memories recovered far too soon. Her hands lift to take his face in her hands, and it turns easily under her direction, his blue eyes listless and empty. He tolerates the touch a few moments, before he pulls his head away. "Because I lay in the snow," he says, "and I waited, and he didn't come."

He says nothing more about that. The memory is clearly still too painful. He just leans down over her, encapsulating her slight body with his own, his hands lifting in their turn to cup and cradle her face. His palms seat themselves beneath the lines of her jaw, and tip her face up to his. His fingertips rest along either side of the delicate curve of her neck. "Nothing is wrong. Nothing has happened, except I know who I am supposed to be now."

There is a deep urging in his voice, a pleading she has not heard before. "Come with me," he coaxes. "Come with me and you won't ever want for resources for your work. You won't ever be hunted again. You won't ever have SHIELD looking over your shoulder."

His eyes are so close. The hidden grey in them is clearly visible: like veins of hoarfrost crawled through all the cracks of blue, blue glacial ice. "And you'll have me."

He leans down farther. His mouth searches for hers, to take it in a slow, coaxing kiss. "You can trust me, too," he murmurs against her lips, as his fingertips shift to press down on all the vital arteries and nerves of her neck.

—-

Jane Foster doesn't listen. She also doesn't escape, doesn't run, doesn't call for help. She doesn't notice her phone missing from her pocket.

She doesn't notice that he's strategically arranged himself between her and any possible contact with the rest of the world, separating her from her active computers, her landline back to SHIELD, her locked front door.

She turns her head, and does not notice anything save for the bowed, dark cast of James Barnes' face. A single thought crosses her mind and decides everything for her.

What if he's hurt? What if he's in pain? What if he remembered something too much, too quickly? What if it's making him act so strangely? What if it's making him question everything: who he is, who he was, and how much of that was lost? What if he cannot find a way to process it other than to blame Steve Rogers? What if he's letting himself believe those things?

Tonight unnerves her. This unnerves her, everything right here, right now, the way he's been acting around her, the touches he's been imparting, the words he's been saying.

But — it's James. He crossed worlds for her. He came for her. And Jane made him a promise.

A touch alights upon his arm, light and warm and beseeching. It is her, stepped in close, marshalling past all of her unease to come within a breath of his body. Jane reaches to take his face within her hands, her fingers so gentle, as if certain too forceful a touch will break him in a moment where he stands so fragile, but with a determined insistence, she turns his head to look down on her.

He has not known her long, but in her dark eyes is something so familiar it's almost grounding — even now Jane searches. Searching in James Barnes' pale eyes to find that dark place he's retreated to, so she can follow him in, so she can find him. She won't let him frighten her. She won't let him be alone. Her hands open to capture him in place for her questions, wanting even now to know — to understand.

He pulls away from her hands, but he answers. The words bring surprised pain to all the corners of Jane's face. She doesn't want to believe that. Her eyebrows knot, eyes pinched, and she parts her lips to speak —

— but he stops her, mantling over her, his presence closing her on all sides. Now he takes her face in his hands, her head tilted by his flesh and metal fingers. In his right hand he feels the softness of her skin, can time the meter of the pulse in her throat. In his left hand he knows the temperature warmth of her flesh, and the pressure he must apply not to snap her neck inside his fingers.

Nothing is wrong, he promises. Nothing happened. Jane looks up at him, gazing like she doesn't believe him, but he has her too captivated to speak.

She thinks, think how this is all wrong, and he — begs her, and Jane cannot think, gazing up helplessly, stricken, feeling, as his voice tightens in a way she's never heard. To come with him. Come with him and have resources. Come with him and never be hunted. Come with him and be free of SHIELD. Come with him and have him.

Inside a heartbeat, she realizes what he is saying. A dozen errant ends tie and knot. Understanding spreads like a supernova in Jane's eyes. But she can't move, can't speak, can't look away from the winter in his eyes, can't, can't, because James is here, everywhere, surrounding her, caging her, holding her with his hands and claiming her with his mouth.

She tries to speak, but the action just yields him her lips, and he drinks the sound away. He murmurs trust into her, words Jane can taste, and she struggles to think, struggles to keep her head above surface as all he does is drag her deeper.

His fingertips tighten. Her pulse slows and flags against his touch. Jane makes a sound, soft and confused, and her lips twitch under his. Her dark eyes gaze up in sightless panic. Her hands reach, her fingers curling into his clothes, tightening as if to tell him something, ask him something, beg him something: why?

They let go. She goes limp.

—-

Her failing, fluttering hands beg him with their futile grasps down upon his clothes. Her eyes stare up sightlessly, too terrified to close, full of the understanding that came far too late. She tries to speak, to protest, to plead. His eyes close, he tastes more deeply of her mouth, and he drinks her distress away.

Why? her clutching fingers beg wordlessly.

"This is a gift," he murmurs against her lips. He speaks into her mouth as if to infuse that truth down into her bones. "For you. For me. The greatest gift we may receive in our lives. Why do you fight against a gift?"

His hands find her throat. His fingertips find all the vulnerable places in it. And he starts to press, easing her down with an expert touch.

The world clouds and blurs instantly, her descent painless, her panic fading away into the generalized, incongruous euphoria of blood choke. His eyes open to a half-lid, watching her struggles snuff out, waiting for that moment when he must release before she suffers irreparable damage. The frost blue of them is the last thing she sees before everything goes dark.

She goes limp. His hands pull free of her throat. He moves to support her slight body, her drooping head, holding it up so she does not break her neck in her boneless unconsciousness. His eyes close again and he takes a last, lingering taste of her, kissing her deeply with unapologetic tenderness.

Then he pulls back, lifting her easily into his arms, placing her down on a table and arranging her carefully, ensuring no stray object digs into her back to cause her pain.

Quickly, efficiently, he goes through her notebooks, placing them into her duffel bag. He doesn't know which of them are crucial, so he takes them all. He glances over the machines, but seems to deem them way too much to handle. They can be processed later. Once Jane herself is first processed.

Shouldering both bags, he carefully gathers Jane back into his arms, tucking her against himself to share what little warmth he has to offer. With a last look around, he quits the lab, disappearing back into the howl of the winter outside.

When next she awakens, it is to total darkness.

—-

Total darkness, the chill, and the soft, cycling rasp of her own breathing.

Her eyes flutter. Her limbs shift. The dreamless shroud thins and rends, and her mind fights both the fog and the nascent throb of a headache to surface into consciousness.

And her own breathing is the first sound Jane Foster hears upon awakening: the sharp catch of her own breath, rough and raw, to awaken knowing something is wrong. She hears herself so keenly because all else is silence, thick and viscous, like a trapped quiet held down by a low ceiling. Her eyes blink to try to adjust, try to see, but she realizes the darkness of reality is just as staid as that of unconsciousness, with barely any light for her to know where she is, or what has happened.

Walls, she thinks she sees. A shine to them like glass.

The air tastes sterile, recycled, and it's parched her throat sore, and she swallows against it. The motion makes her remember phantom touches, fingers on her throat, fingers pressing down — and Jane lifts her own hand to her neck, feeling blindly along her windpipe and around to her spine, a swath of her palm to try to smear those memories away. There were hands at her throat, and…

Her chest tightens. James.

The panic comes back in an icy dunk, so hypothermic that Jane begins trembling, gazing sightlessly around her dark world with the dawning understanding she's not safe. James had his fingers on her throat, and she…

She inhales sharply to hold back the shock, concentrating on slowing her breathing, because she needs her mind. She needs to think.

Jane moves, discovering with time and the pawing of her hands that she's lain on some sort of flat, metal table; her coat is removed, left spread open as some sort of padding to buffer her from both its hard surface and the chill. A thought comes to her, and she scrambles to search its pockets, desperate for her phone. She can use it for light. She can call out, tell someone what's happened, tell anyone —

She can't find it in any of her pockets. The hope abandons her so quickly, so cruelly, that Jane feels her eyes sting. Fear gentles her like a paralytic. Something happened to James. Now something's happening to her. She's all alone.

So she grits her jaw and fights it. Don't get afraid.

She slowly, numbly, sits up.

—-

Total darkness shrouds her, deep and impenetrable. Up until Jane slowly sits up.

As if on cue, there is a slight rattle as a shutter opens just enough to admit a wan bit of artificial light. It illuminates her surroundings to some limited degree, exposing dismal concrete on all sides, a bare room, the metal examination table she was laid down on… and James, there with her, seated in a chair by the door.

Except it's not really James, is it?

His right hand slowly lowers from the shutter in the door, folding into his lap. He's leaned back in the chair, like he's been there for some time. There, in the dark that was too complete for anything to even be seen, not moving, not doing anything, not speaking. Just sitting and watching.

"I was waiting for you to wake up," he says, confirming that.

He looks transparently at her coat, at the way she's rifled through it. He looks at the fear in her eyes. He looks at how tiny she is on the exam table, a delicate creature not meant to exist in these harsh, hellish settings that have tortured him for seventy years. None of it makes him flick so much as a lash.

"The techs wanted to intake you. Do a physical, debrief, all that," he elaborates.

His eyes shine in the half-light. "I told them to go away."

—-

The shutters click open.

Jane twitches, head turned away, tensing up, though more from the suddenness of it than any painful reaction to light. He can hear her heart pounding from across the room.

Realizing there comes nothing for her but light, she turns back her eyes and relents her pulled-in arms. Light does filter in, wan, dim, and so soft it does not hurt her dark-adjusted eyes. It does not take Jane longer than a moment to look, to see, and to realize she is not alone.

James Barnes is here. In the room with her. Occupying a chair, and positioned very deliberately at the door. Perhaps to keep others from coming in. Probably to keep her from going out.

Jane stares helplessly into her face. Not even she can stop her first, gut reaction, that of reflexive relief to see him, a single point of familiarity and comfort to ground her against so many alien, concrete walls, the chill sting of the room, and the surgical taste of the air.

But it doesn't last long. And it hurts even worse, hollows her out with gutting dread, for reality to come in and take that hope — to remember he is not her safety, but the sole reason she is here.

He was waiting for her to wake, he says. The twisting unease makes Jane feel sick. He watches her, every bit of her, and she can't suffer his eyes a moment more, how alien they are — how alien he is. A different man wearing James Barnes' face. She looks away, her arms crossing to curl her hands around her upper arms, nervous, guarded. She holds her place, however, seated on that metal table, not yet encouraged to stand. Perhaps afraid that moving will make him move too.

He talks of techs. Physicals. Debriefing. Jane holds her breath, trying to will away the way her body wants to shake. It feels like the ground is opening under her feet, ready to drop her down, swallow her up for good. He's brought her to those people — those people she hates. Those people who highwayed burns up his right arm. Those people who made him twitch with distrust, look at her with empty eyes — who made him hurt, kill, forget.

It's the last words he says that draw back Jane's eyes. Dark as they are, they shine too-bright. Even now, she hopes. "Please. James. Let's go," Jane begs, her voice thin, raw, rough. "Let's go home."

—-

It is the Winter Soldier in the room with her now. But the Winter Soldier with all the long memory and— correspondingly— core drives of James Barnes. Albeit corrupted.

After many long years, one man finally realized that the most controllable subject is not one that is tortured, erased, wiped out over and over… but one whose existing memory is left alone, but simply perverted. Twisted until it is unrecognizable. Reseated at a new angle much more usable to those doing the reconfiguration.

It was not hard to turn the narrative of James Barnes' life into something that would naturally breed the Winter Soldier.

Now he sits before her, placid, so deadened he can sit in a dark room for hours with nothing to do save wait and stare into nothing. He looks blandly on her, her terror, her guarded nervousness, the way she refuses to move lest her movement bring him to get up and come closer to her. That thing that is no longer James—

The Winter Soldier watches her unblinkingly as he speaks, brief and antiseptic and precise. It feels like when they first met.

But even here, even now, Jane's hope can't fully be snuffed, and his admission that he told the techs to leave makes a little bit of it light in her chest. She pleads with James to take her from this place. She begs for them to just go. Go home.

The Winter Soldier finally uncoils from his chair. He stands and walks over to her, perhaps disturbed by her obvious distress, and stands looking down at her for a brief moment before trying to sit on the table beside her. Two little lab animals, comforting each other on the slab.

"This will be home from now on," he says. "You're afraid now, but soon everything will become very clear. Soon everything will be fine. I've been there before," he coaxes, reassuring a new recruit with his own experiences. "I—"

The very corner of an eye twitches, like a skip on a vinyl record. "—know," he finishes, not seeming to notice the minute interruption.

—-

He stands.

She tenses, sensitized immediately to the movement, steeling with nervous distrust for — for the Winter Soldier. Jane realizes it now, sees its evidence lining his body, toming his face. He moves differently. Walks differently. Looks down on her with a different pair of blue eyes.

James Buchanan Barnes is gone. There is only the machine that held him prisoner — that holds him prisoner again.

He crosses the room and comes close, close enough for him to stand and look down on her. Jane shrinks under the Soldier's attention, her own face a scorched, bleak no man's land of hope warring against horror. Her muscles tighten and her instincts scream for her to move, retreat, put distance between them, get away from him, but that last shred of faith holds her still. Her brown eyes plead, turned up, trying to find in his face any last trace of that humanity — that person he remembered, and then let go —

Let's go home, begs her face.

He sits down beside her. And the Soldier tells her they are home.

The words leave his lips in their quiet, measured instruction. Jane hears them all, forced to listen in a distant, dreaming way, breaking quietly apart before him as that last hope drains from her eyes. She bows her head and hugs herself, her next breath in sharp and sudden, catching in her throat as the tears streak down her cheeks. She hugs herself through her trembling. No, no, no.

Soon everything will be /fine/. She wants to throw up. He has been here before —

— and Jane turns her head, stricken, to look up at the Soldier, tears running from her eyes. His twitches, just at the corner, a catch to his words that is so brief, so little, and yet…

Abruptly, she moves, sliding off the table and standing, taking her first, shaky steps, and immediately backing away. Rejecting it, this home, and all of his promises. "No, James," Jane demands, "we're leaving. This isn't — this isn't happening. It's — it's /wrong/, and I'm — I'm getting us out."

—-

James always held himself so carefully around her. His movements were the gentle, reticent movements of a man aware of his own lethality and afraid to cause harm. His walk was silent, unobtrusive and shy, lightfooted in the way of a man unused to existing too vividly in the world anymore. His eyes were… so fluent with so many emotions, confusion and anger and sadness and longing taking turns— even from minute to minute— in his blue irises.

But the Winter Soldier's movements have the lethal machine precision of a gun's many, intricate components. His walk is the silent step of a predator. His eyes are as remote and impersonal as glacial ice grinding away a distant mountain peak: faraway, featureless, and blue.

They look down at her now, distant and dead, from the prison he has been placed back into: the fifty-year murder machine that is the Winter Soldier. And she shrinks down and back in a way she thought she would not have to do, ever again.

The Winter Soldier considers her fear. He rises, coming over to her, joining her on the table. He leans close enough until his left shoulder is a hair from touching hers. And he tells her they are home. Both of them, right where they belong. Both of them, together.

She stares up at him, shaking, tears running from her eyes. She listens to him speak as if soon she will not mind this at all, though there's— just a slight twitch when he speaks, right at the end—

Unable to stand it anymore, she finally retreats, taking shaky steps away from him. He does not try to stop her. He remains sitting there, on a table he himself has no doubt occupied many times before, watching her with sad surety. It's wrong. It's not happening. They're leaving. She's getting them out.

He says nothing at first. He just looks at her, his eyes timeless and patient as falling snow.

"I want to stay here," he finally says. "There is nothing for me out there."

—-

Shrinking away, gaining the necessary distance to keep her sanity, Jane Foster trembles through terrifying realization.

She both does and does not know what is going to happen. She has never met these people, does not know them, but still she hates them: she's witnessed their work in all they've done to break and twist and corrupt the soul of James Barnes.

And she's sure they're going to do the same to her.

The tears roll down her face, heartbroken and horrified at the same time, and Jane gives up on trying to wipe them away, unable to coordinate any fine movements with her shaking hands. She cries in that same way he witnessed once before, grief wrought from despair, from complete hopelessness — a woman whose faith is being tested.

Then, amidst her quiet panic, she manages a quick look back on him — on the Winter Soldier. Still seated on the metal table with the reflexive obedience of a trained experiment. Jane realizes, trained and yet still aware enough to comfort her. Provide as much comfort as a /machine/ can, the empty, hollow machine they made him. He remembers, though, knows who he is, knows his name is James Barnes, and yet… has rejected every bit of it —

"What did they do to you? Did they hurt you again? Did they hurt you?!" Jane begs of him, low, desperate, urging. The tears streak from her begging eyes. She's crying for /him/.

Because it's not him. It's /not/ him. Not after how hard he worked, how much she saw him struggle trying to remember, trying to reclaim, trying to /find/ in his mind the man he could only read on paper. He wasn't this. He isn't this.

She shakes her head in defiance when he says he'll stay here. Jane fiercely disagrees.

"No," she argues, voice thick, "no, there's /everything/ out there. There's a life, and people who care about you, and Steve Rogers! And me."

Jane casts a quick look on the door, the thought in her head to wonder how clean a break there is. Most sensible, life-affirming people would take a run for it. She takes a desperate step back toward the Winter Soldier. "Please! Just trust me. We have to. I'm not leaving without you."

—-

She still doesn't know who it is has them both. Who it is so completely destroyed the soul of James Buchanan Barnes, until he is nothing but the patient, idling murder-machine sitting quietly on the metal table before her.

She will likely learn soon enough.

Tell the truth, though, it was not wholly Hydra's doing. Certainly they were part of it, were there at the beginning, have always stood in the background of it, but much of the responsibility lies also with an entity now dead: the Soviet Union. An entity whose ghost lives on in the red star stamped across his shoulder.

It shines dully in the half-dark when he moves, like a still-wet spot of blood. He turns his head away at her questioning and it catches the light, coming into prominence even as his face is lost in shadow.

"It hurt," he whispers, his smothered voice conveying without words the magnitude of the agony, "but it was necessary. I wanted to remember. And they let me remember. Now everything is clear." Among those things the simple fact that there is nothing left in the world for him. A world seventy years away from the life he knew. A world where everyone he cared about is now dead.

She insists that's not true. There's people who care for him. And Steve! And her—

It's impossible to see the movement he makes that has him off the table and standing back in front of her. It's too fast. Too smooth. "I said 'not leaving without you' once before too." His features shake with barely-restrained distress, though it is impossible to say what the source of it truly is. "I didn't say it to have it reciprocated. I said it because I meant it… and I did it. And now… here I am. Here, I have been. And I wonder—"

A horrible spasm crosses his features for the space of a second. He clutches his face until it passes, and then afterwards just leaves his hand there.

I don't have to be out there to have you," he says eventually, muffled through his own fingers. "I will have you here. And here is much… safer. Much less… painful. It is better than anything the world can or will offer you."

His head tilts a little, as if he's listening to something. His hand lowers a moment later, grasping her wrist in an unbreakable grip. "They want me to bring you now," he says, already starting to pull her along. In sharp contrast to the force of his hand, his voice gentles audibly. "I will stay in the room with you though."

His left arm reaches, with a whir of lifeless metal, to pull open the heavy door. "You are lucky. There was no one to stay in the room with me."

—-

It hurt, he confesses, and more of Jane's tears fall.

She gets it. She gets what happened. While she was waiting, while she was cooking, while she was giving him the respect of space, he was being hurt. She's not sure when. She's not sure how. All she knows is James Barnes left that morning, and has not returned. He is gone from the Soldier who watches her from across the room, sharing in memories, sharing in experiences, maybe even sharing in connections —

— but otherwise absent.

She spent an entire day waiting, and he was hurting. He was hurting, and she had no idea.

Everything is clear, says the Winter Soldier. Jane trembles, hugging herself, trying and failing to hold her gasping sobs at bay.

"I'm sorry," she tells him, her voice cracked like a broken bone, nothing but splinters and dripping marrow. "I'm so sorry… I wasn't there…"

Wasn't there to help him. Wasn't there to save him. Wasn't there to stop it, and it hurt, and James Barnes was all alone.

Never again, resolves Jane Foster, through her tears. A sensible person would be trying to outrun him to the door. She takes a step in the direction of the Soldier, because she's leaving and he's coming with her, and she'll never leave him alone, he'll /never/ be alone ever again, and as terrified as she is, she's not going to try to move one inch out of any door without him at her side. And she, and she, and she —

— freezes in shock when he moves, and with such a liquid seamlessness that he blurs through the dark and simply exists in the space before her. Jane stops there, her heart still pounding, in that moment remembering nothing but the feel and pressure of his fingertips on her throat. Then her expression steels with quiet determination. Like a decision made, she looks up at him through her tears, lips parted to speak.

But he speaks first, a softness to his voice that compels silence. Her promise to him takes him back in his newly-regained memories, searching them until the cadence of her phrase has him seeing seventy years ago, distance hollowing his blue eyes. Jane listens, alert, tense, nervous, already wanting to move, to get out, and him with her. Again she tries to speak through his reverie.

But pain strikes him between words. It makes him grasp down on his own face. Jane's face opens with shock, hands reaching out, her first instinct to touch.

He says he will have her here. Safer. Less painful. No, no, no, Jane thinks, impulsively reaching for the Soldier's right hand. "We can't. We can't, please. We're getting out, trust me, I won't le—"

He takes her by the wrist. Jane pulls automatically, but his hand is iron. Her face pales. Her eyes plead. "No, James —" she tries, but he's already moving, already pulling.

She tries to dig in her heels, but she can't slow his momentum. She tries to struggle, tries to curl her free hand on his fingers to pry them off, but they won't move. She fights him, but she's patiently dragged along, past the opened door where their darkened cell opens to a cavernous hallway that, in two directions, seems to extend forever.

Its walls are concrete and brick. Its ceiling domes intimidatingly high. The hall runs with impressive cabling, man-made lights studding the walls — old lighting, decades-old designs grafted onto the new. Deep and subterranean, the air cloyingly sweet with earth and clay, and Jane gasps against the chill air — and looks up, stunned by her environment that she momentarily forgets to walk.

The forward stride of the Soldier commands her forced march. Pulled after, heart hammering in her chest, Jane looks on helplessly at everything that walks by: doors, labyrinthine halls that vein off of this, extending out in what must be a maze. A maze somewhere, somewhere she's not certain —

Beckoned by his masters, the Winter Soldier leads them both to one nondescript, unlabelled steel door, closed but unlocked. It opens easily by his metal hand.

Inside there is scant little, the room shallow and circular, centerpieced with only a single metal table and two chairs. An armed guard, wearing formless black, stands at faceless attention.

And a man, young and short and sickly-looking, dressed in only a suit as ill-fitted as the lopsided smirk on his mouth. "Dr. Foster," he greets magnanimously. "It's a pleasure."

—-

It hurt. Just thinking about how much it hurt makes the Winter Soldier's cold eyes glass with empty, bleak recollection. Yet it was all for the good, in the end. It was… necessary.

Now he sees clearly. So clearly. There is no need for Jane to cry. Everything has fallen into place now.

She tells him, through her gasping sobs, with a trembling voice, that she is sorry. Sorry she wasn't there.

"I'm not," he replies, blunt and soft-voiced. "It is nothing for a lady to see."

She says something else, though. Something that digs down until it hits him somewhere deep and half-remembered. It triggers a newly-routed response, a hot new emotion keyed into old memories. His temper flares, anger lighting in his veins, and he is in front of her in an instant, speaking in ways he never has before, feeling things he has never felt—

—and it hurts. Like scratching a nail on a chalkboard. Whatever new paths have been made in his mind, some of them have settled in less easily than others.

The distraction does not last long. Something murmurs in his ear— a little device to convey his masters' commands to him— and his hand lowers and his expression hardens. He takes her wrist and she resists, pleading, frightened, but neither her struggle nor begging have any effect. If she does not walk, she will be dragged.

The door opens into a kind of place that should not exist— not here, beneath a city of so many people. It is a subterranean maze of tunnels, a maze meant to lose people who do not intimately know its corridors— or are not privileged to have any sort of map. The Winter Soldier navigates it effortlessly, almost as if by instinct, operating off memories formed over so many years that they have become rote.

He takes her to a heavy steel door. It looks heavy. Soundproofed. His metal hand rests against it with a quiet clang and pushes it open.

The Soldier ushers her in and shuts the door behind them. He lets Jane go once it's ground closed, turning to stand silently before it almost as facelessly as the armed guard. He holds his silence, perhaps not wanting to speak— perhaps not authorized to speak— but when the young man comes forward to greet Jane by name…

…his blue eyes shift to rest on him, unblinking and watchful.

—-

He drags her the entire way.

"Please, James," Jane begs her entire conscripted march down that endless hallway. She stares at it like it's her own green mile. Last march until death, because it will be death, death of a sort, death of everything she is, death of everything she knows.

She pleads with him through her tears, each forward step worsening her panic, deepning her desperation. "Let's just go, we can go," she says, like it would be so simple, so easy: it could be, for someone like him, and he wouldn't have to think, wouldn't have to do anything. She would be his eyes, she would be his impetus, she his night star's navigation out. "We can go right now, and I'll — I'll fix this. I'll make it better. I'll bring you back. Please don't, James, please — please —!"

He stops at one door. It has no labels on it. No words. No marks. But Jane seems to know.

She begins to shiver.

"I don't want this," she begs. "James, don't let them —"

He guides her forcibly in. Jane cannot even dig in her heels to stop it. He's too strong, and she's too small, too light, too human, pushed into the room with enough force that she stumbles on her own ankles. She glances back, dark eyes terrified, seeing just in time the way the Winter Soldier ensures it shut. That finalizing sound makes her twitch, sensitized down to an exposed nerve, trembling in place without stop, without ration.

Jane feels the Soldier let her go. She takes back her wrist, hugging down on herself, tiny and uncertain. She paws up along her own throat until she grabs uneasily onto the small, silvery chain around her throat, her necklace like her last comfort, her last handhold to ground her.

She doesn't want to look, not into this room, but she knows she must.

It's the voice that forces her to, and she jerks, glancing up, her dark hair stuck to the drying tears on her face.

The man in the suit affects a deep look of sympathy, though his smirk is unmoved. He loves this part best. He looks down on her, Dr. Jane Foster, so wan and pale and small, absolutely vulnerable in the way she holds herself in, tries to make herself invisible.

He puts on his civility and pretends like nothing is amiss. "We've heard so much about you, Jane," he continues, stepping intrusively forward. He either doesn't notice or doesn't care about the Winter Soldier's eyes on him. "And your work! All good things. Please, why don't you take a seat and we can — "

He doesn't see it coming. He doesn't expect it to happen in a hundred lifetimes.

Not when that shivering, trembling, withering thing looks him up and down, narrows her eyes, and just —

— suddenly swings her left fist straight into his face.

Cartilage snaps. He shrieks in surprised pain, and blood drips through his hands to stain his expensive suit.

"Fuck YOU!" Jane snarls, fury burning hot through the tears on her face, her hands still fisted like she's not finished. Because she isn't, she ISN'T, and it's her first good LOOK at those sons of bitches she's hated for long and have never met, and now there's a FACE to put to all of it, and she'll BREAK that face in her fucking hands. "You PIECE of —"

The guard rushes in, grabs her painfully to stop, and Jane's threat breaks into a cry.

—-

He does not cause her a lick of pain. But none of her resistance is tolerated in the least. If she will not walk by herself, then she will be dragged, and though he does it gently… dragged she is, the entire way to her metaphorical death.

Her pleading falls on deaf ears. The only thing he can hear right now is the whispering written into his own head, telling him that soon she will be happy. Soon she won't feel any pain. Soon she will have all the freedom she could possibly want to create all the things she dreams of making. All the things she told him about.

All the freedom she could want— within Hydra. With him.

For all his years of service, finally he will have his memories… and he will have something of his own.

He stops at a door. Jane knows what it is, with the unerring instinct of unfortunate livestock led to the slaughter pen. She makes a last plea up at him, begging him not to let them do this, not to do this to her, begging him by the name she went through such pains to learn— to teach back to him over the many nights they spent together—

The Winter Soldier pushes her in. Her resistance does not register at all: not even as a flicker of the eyes. Not even as a tensing in his arm. He shuttles her in and lets her go, turning to shut the door behind them. It grinds home with such weight that she would know, deep down, even if she got back to it, she'd never get it back open by herself.

He settles his stance in front of the door and seems to root there. He does not approach Jane again, not to touch her, not to comfort her. He leaves her there, in the middle of the room, small and alone, reduced back down— here in the seat of his masters' strength— to little more than a tool that waits to be used. His commands did not include comforting her.

The suited man, sensing presumed weakness, saunters forward. He makes his disingenuous greetings. And Jane greets him back in a way he never expected.

The Winter Soldier's eyes flicker with interest at the sudden fury Jane displays, but he doesn't move. Doesn't do anything to defend the now-bleeding man, even as he looks up in rage and astonishment that the dog of Hydra isn't rushing to his aid. In fact, not only is that mongrel not helping, there's something about his expression that even suggests a smile. He watches Jane with the indulgence of a wolf watching its cub bite at prey.

The guard, at least, remembers his duty. He rushes in, seizes Jane, pulls her back a step. She cries out—

There is no sound of the Winter Soldier moving. No visual cue but a dark blur. His /effect/ is visible far earlier than even he is: both the guard's arms broken before he can scream. Metal whirs softly, an impersonal killing sound, and the man is lifted bodily off Jane and slammed back against a wall, nailed there by a titanium grip. The impact alone knocks him out.

There, the Winter Soldier finally pauses. His eyes are disaffected and empty as a fresh snowfield. He considers… and then he drops the unconscious guard in a heap, turning his back and walking away as calmly as if nothing just happened. He returns to his initial spot, resumes it, and holds his position.

His eyes return to the now-bleeding man, as if expecting him to continue.

—-

Weeks of helplessness, of lingering at the wings of his confusion and torment, of the slow burn build of impotent rage —

— and Jane hits flint and ignites. There's finally a face to put to everything she's witnessed on James Barnes, from the haunted absence in his eyes to the electrical burns running his left arm. A face to those people who've hurt him. A /face/ coming dangerously close, smiling at her, speaking aloud her name —

Something snaps. She doesn't think. She doesn't /see./ She moves with the first and only violent impulse of her life, and SMASHES her knuckles into his nose.

Jane inexpertly stumbles, weight imbalanced in the furor of her strike. Her entire body shakes with fury. Her knuckles HURT. But it's the best feeling of her life, all of it, to see /blood/, to feel herself HURT the thing that has done nothing but make someone SUFFER —

She doesn't realize someone has stopped her before her arms are painfully yanked back, her shoulder joints straining at their jockets. Her eyes water and she cries in surprised pain, anger broken, that sweet moment of victory cleaved through. But Jane only has time, in the end, for one feeble struggle.

Because something happens, something too quickly for her to even see, and she feels those grasping hands let her go. The woman turns her head — and jerks still, hearing only the sickly two-count snap of broken bone. One arm after another.

The guard has neither the time nor the breath to scream. That metal arm grabs him, twists him, and smashes him into silence. He pulls off Jane Foster like a too-quick snap of a pulled tablecloth, leaving her unruffled, unmoved, standing where he left her, and staring on in quiet dismay. Her widened eyes take in the sight of the Winter Soldier, standing over the unmoving, unconscious body of a man who dared to touch her.

The intake officer in the bloodstained suit is similarly silent. He holds the gouting mess that is his nose, but his own shrieks of pain are silenced, noosed into silence at that specific display. His watering eyes slip between both woman and her erstwhile protector, settling finally on the Soldier a withering look. On his face is the look of a child who just witnessed the docile family dog rip apart its first rodent.

He glances up. There's a camera on all this, linked to cabling running the ceiling of the concrete room, its glass lens fixed on everything — and everyone — within.

He gives it a glare. Are you serious?! Are you SERIOUSLY leaving me in here with this?

The camera records on in silence. Apparently so.

Exhaling, his breath whistling, the man tries to straighten, pulling a handkerchief free from his pocket to bring to his face, to his broken nose, dabbing the blood away from his face. The man tries to affect composure, but coils small and tense like a cornered rat, his dark eyes hungry with the urge to bite. He fixes Jane with a look that's entirely retaliatory, but eyes the Soldier again, and holds himself still.

"Is that all out of your system then, Dr. Foster?" he asks tersely, words curled with dislike. It doesn't help that his voice is muffled by his crooked nose. He steps past the unmoving body of the guard with naught a glance, pulling out a steel chair for himself to take. "Take a seat. We have things to discuss."

Jane, slipping glances between the Winter Soldier and her would-be interrogator, holds herself in stillness and silence. But her jaw sets stubbornly. No.

—-

The Winter Soldier stands in inert silence over the motionless body for some long moments, as if not even sure himself where that impulse came from, or whether he shall be punished for it. But after a few seconds, slow recollection comes to him: it was justified. She is his. He is allowed to have this one thing now. A reward for his loyalty: one woman, with whom to share his gift.

As such, nothing happens to him. He considers the entire situation for a few dispassionate moments. He glances up, finds the officer looking at him. The Soldier's empty, unblinking eyes stare blandly through that shock and dismay, watching the man with the air of a wolf that is obedient only because it so chooses.

Eventually, the Winter Soldier turns away and walks back to his original position. He takes up his spot by the door again, reinforcing the answer to the officer's question. Yes, he is to be left in here with the creature. And its new mental modifications have not even been beta tested yet!

He IS the beta test.

It is not an encouraging thought. The man struggles to regain some momentum, but simply falls flat in light of this unexpectedly rearranged power dynamic. His face changes like he wants to do something, but then he cuts a glance towards the Winter Soldier. The Soldier returns it calmly, nothing in his eyes save dead certainty and promise: if you try it, I will end you.

The officer decides against trying to retaliate. He just tries to move forward with the process, considerably more disgruntled than before, and always with an eye on the Soldier. He bids her to sit.

Jane sets her jaw in a stubborn no. She looks to the Soldier first, perhaps hopeful to be backed— hopeful she will continue to be backed— but there are some things not even she can get around when it comes to him. She must be processed, and to be processed…

He answers her glance by moving forward. Whatever hope she might have felt dies fast, however, as she feels strong hands shackle her wrists and manhandle her around to her designated seat. He forces her down into it with unopposable strength, holding her there far more inescapably than even steel cuffs could have held her.

"It will be easier if you just cooperate," he murmurs. "Then you will be happy much sooner."

—-

And Jane does look back and up on the Winter Soldier, a stubborn hope yet refusing to vacate her eyes. He is the reason she is here, and she knows, knows, knows something was done to him, something injected into his head or something stripped out, and still some instincts are hard to fight.

It's clear that even here, even now, she trusts him, and glances back on him as her touchstone to comprehend all that is happening. He remembers her, knows her, seems more than anything to /care/ for her, and it's still James there, some phantom image of him, pulling that armed man away the instant she is touched. Still she looks at him like she's certain he's going to snap out of the dark place he's in, realize what is happening, and put an end to it all.

His blue eyes mirror emptiness.

Her hand throbs with pain. And that son of a bitch who is clearly one of /them/ keeps talking to her, keeps asking for her cooperation like it's something she can and will freely give. Jane may be trapped in every definition of the word, cornered and helpless with no way to call anyone, no way to get out —

— but it doesn't mean she's going to be complicit. Not with the monsters who punish people with /torture/.

Fortunately for the officer, and unfortunately for Jane, the Soldier offers assistance. He moves, and gets another look from her, one bathed again in that unbreakable hope, until he takes her by the wrists and forces her physically toward and down onto that steel chair. The woman struggles, but her fight holds no candle to strength like that, and sat there, she feels her heart knock in her teeth and her eyes burn. She turns her head against his words, rejecting them. It won't be easy. She won't be happy. Her jaw trembles until she tightens it.

Do not cry in front of them, Jane, she thinks. If you do anything, don't let it be that.

The man greets her with a superficial smile, though the look in his black eyes is scouring. He sniffs lightly, breath still whistling, and reaches down to retrieve something leaned against a leg of the table, swathed in shadow. It hits the table with audible weight.

Jane sees her familiar duffel bag.

"Please call me Mr. Smith. Now, the Soldier is correct," explains the office, "you should actually count your blessings, because you've found yourself in a rare and admirable position. One of negotiation. Clearly anyone else who has witnessed what you have would not be alive to attest to it. It's not often we…"

He pauses, glances once toward the Winter Soldier, then twitches a corner of his mouth in derision. "Lose our things. But you've taken care of it. You upgraded its arm — "

Jane corrects, "His arm."

Mr. Smith leans back in his chair. "His arm," he accepts graciously. "Of course. My apologies. But there is a reason you're even talking to me, and not someone else. A reason why you're being… interviewed, rather than interrogated. We hope to learn of you before we persuade you to join us."

—-

Jane keeps looking back at her soldier. But whatever it was in him that she was previously able to reach, it seems to now be gone, glassed over and buried back down until his blue eyes watch her with nothing but emotionless patience.

Except that's not quite accurate, is it? He's not gone. She was touched— she was hurt— and he came to her aid. He protected her. There has to be something of James Buchanan Barnes still left in him. More even than before— because he remembers things. He remembers /everything/. It's more as if he is James, just— twisted. All the thoughts in his head scrambled up until he's come to believe completely in his torturers and oppressors. Become completely loyal to their creed and cause.

Become a bitter enemy of all he, as James Barnes, used to love and represent.

He stays there for her, as he promised, his eyes always there to meet hers when she looks back at him for reassurance. But he does not help her. In his mind, she is already being helped, and she is resisting it.

She waits. But he does not put a stop to any of it.

Instead, he just enables it forward. When she shows recalcitrance, he steps forward, taking it upon himself to grasp her by the wrists and usher her firmly to her chair. She struggles, but he does not seem to even notice; he forces her down, before circling around behind the chair to keep her in place with his hands on her shoulders.

They rest there as the intake officer finally— a bit emboldened to finally receive assistance from the misbehaving dog— gets to work.

The Winter Soldier has no comment on any of the proceedings. He does not even react to being called 'it,' or 'thing'— merely stares emptily through both. He offers no protest. His hands do not even tighten on her shoulders. He merely urges of Jane herself to cooperate— to make it easier on herself.

She will join him sooner or later. She will be assigned as his. She will improve his arm. The Winter Soldier was promised this. He knows it is not every day someone is offered an actual conversation first, and in his mind Jane should be so grateful, so privileged for this special attention…

—-

Two familiar hands, flesh and metal, curl over the bones of her shoulders.

And they apply pressure, never harsh, never painful, but with enough inexorable firmness that Jane knows there's no escape for her. Nothing she can do but remain seated and bear the conversation that will begin the ending of her life.

She puts up a brave front, stubborn even after physically forced, with her jaw grit and her dark eyes venomous. She holds onto every last precious bit of her anger to keep her looking fixed, and strong. But, even then, the Winter Soldier will feel Jane trembling under his hands.

But she keeps quiet. Quiet to all of Mr. Smith's calm, bored words — bored even despite his broken nose.

He holds her eyes a moment, then with something just sort of a sigh, reaches into the displayed duffel bag. He tosses to the table, rather casually, a stack of Jane's very familiar notebooks.

That gets a reaction. Seeing her work here surprises her, even despite her last memories being of her own lab, and she looks away, breathing through something that burns up in her chest, a stab that almost feels like betrayal. Her work is here. He brought her here, /and/ her work. She'd give her life to protect her work, and yet here it is, in the possession of these men.

But it's not James' fault. It's theirs, Jane tells herself. All them.

"Don't touch that," she warns, though somewhat feebly.

Failing to listen to a prisoner in any way whatsoever, Mr. Smith reaches and does touch one book, flipping it carelessly open. He sets it down, opened to a page — a page that tomes impressibly in equations and the sketches of a mechanical arm. Sketches of metal plates that layer three-dimensionally… and move.

"While you were asleep, our engineers have looked at this," says Mr. Smith. "They don't seem to understand. These are brilliant men and women we hire, Jane. The best of their fields. I find them myself. Find and recruit. It's my job. And I take it as somewhat a… professional failing that I missed you entirely. You're an asset, give or take that little anger problem of yours."

Jane doesn't look at him. They can hold her down in a chair, but she doesn't have to listen.

Mr. Smith doesn't notice her defiance. His indifference is of a man long, long-used to this. And one can only wonder why. "You can continue that work, Jane," he tells her, voice soft, that secretive way people get when they want to reveal a surprise gift for their beloved friends. "You can bring it to life. Every whim in these books of yours, and more. I read about how you've struggled. Even lived out of your van, was it? I'm sorry I didn't find you sooner. A mind like that, ignored. Starved."

He rubs at a bit of drying blood on his lapels. "But the perfunctory questions first. I'd like to do this without drugging you. Who knows about his?" Mr. Smith closes and taps her book. "Darcy Lewis? Erik Selvig?"

Those names earn her eyes. Jane looks slapped.

Mr. Smith smiles. "SHIELD?"

"None of them," she answers, too-fast, finally convinced to be cooperative. "No one knows. I haven't. It's been hidden — I've kept it all to myself. Everything I did. I —" Jane's demeanour flips like a light switch. "James, please," she urges, squirming against those hands on her shoulders, past her limit, unable any longer to bear and deal. "Please, please, James, don't — please remember —"

—-

His hands curve over her shoulders like the claws of a roosting eagle. They do not cause pain, but their weight and strength is undeniable. For as long as he holds her still, Jane Foster will not be going anywhere.

She trembles under his touch. His eyes turn downwards, watching her, and his fingertips move, brushing along her slight collarbones, stroking her gently in a clear attempt to soothe her.

The kind gesture is wildly incongruous to the fact he is keeping her trapped in dire circumstances.

That incongruity only worsens as he listens to the offers being made Jane, and almost seems to smile down at the top of her head. Look how generous they are, Jane. How kind. They'll let you do everything you've ever wanted to do. They'll give you everything you ever needed to make it reality.

"You wouldn't have to struggle, Jane," he puts in. "No more looking over your shoulder."

Jane isn't having any of it, though. She starts to struggle, even despite his steel grip on her shoulders. Her breathing kicks up into panicked pants, the strained desperation of a trapped animal pushed beyond the limits of endurance. Please, she begs. Please James— remember— don't—

His hands shift slightly. His fingers find familiar arteries in her throat.

"Shhh," he soothes, still looking down at her. His head tilts a little, concerned. His fingertips apply a slight pressure, thinning her blood, tamping her fight down into drugged dizziness. He lets go long before she would slide into unconsciousness, but long after her struggles have been muted down. "You will hurt yourself."

—-

Those fingers, flesh and metal, stroke her. /Pet/ her in morbid reassurance. Comfort her that it will be all right, that the best thing that will happen to Jane Foster is to be delivered into the arms of people who tortured James Barnes with fatal electrocution.

It makes her feel sick. What did they do to him? What did they /do/? She had no idea. If she knew, she would have been there. She would have found a way. She wouldn't have let him go through that alone.

That touch does nothing to soothe her. Those words from the officer do nothing to lure her. Jane rejects it all. Because it's wrong, it's all wrong, and she will never accept a world where any of this would be right.

It's proven when that man mentions names from her past. Jane takes the implication like a slap across the face, in it the same stunned pain as that night when the Soldier threatened Selvig to ensure her truthfulness and compliance. The thought of taking others down with her; the thought of anyone hurting for the decisions she's made. She snaps under the fear and guilt.

And she begins to struggle. It is a valiant fight on her end, but still pointless, and even the worst of Jane's squirms cannot move or unseat those hands holding her own. Her trembling graduates to a full, frenzied shaking, and she begins to speak — begins to implore the only person left she can.

She looks up at the Winter Soldier, desperate to find some shred of James Barnes in his blue eyes. She pleads. She begs. And then, lost in grief, Jane just begins to apologize. "I'm sorry," she cries out, "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't there, I'm sorry I didn't — save you, I'm sorry, I'm so —"

His fingers press her carotid arteries. Jane can breathe. Jane can still speak. But, after a few seconds, she seems to have forgotten how, her words breaking and softening to a whimper. Her struggles and straining gentle and relent, and she leans into his hands, her muscles letting go. The world tilts, and her eyelids slip down to hood her gaze. She forgets how to panic. She forgets everything.

Mr. Smith watches this go on with his black, lidded eyes. It fascinates him.

Those flesh-and-steel fingers gentle off her pinched arteries, and Jane slowly fights back to cognizance, breathing slowly, gazing off and away as fresh tears blink from her eyes. But now she no longer fights.

"We're going to make this as painless as possible, Jane," says Mr. Smith. "We have a tried-and-true system. I believe you, you know, that you're telling the truth. But, as you know, no one can survive on good intentions. I'd hoped you more agreeable for this discussion, but we'll have to continue it after you've begun compliance training." His smile widens. "You'll actually be apologizing to me by then. We'll have a laugh about it."

—-

These people— people, in the loosest definition of the word— have tortured James Barnes for decades, rendered him down to no more than a trained dog. They have treated him as nothing more than a trained dog.

Now, in some macabre callback to a child learning from its parents, the Winter Soldier in his turn pets Jane Foster as if she were a trained dog. A shivering, frightened animal that only needs to be stroked, soothed, and told it is all right, even as it lays on the surgical table in anticipation of a procedure that will be good for it… but which it will not understand.

It does not comfort her in the least.

His hands only hesitate at her stung reaction to the invocation of Erik Selvig's name. She can almost feel the frown on his face as something… rattles in his mind, something he should remember. Something about this is familiar— the name, her reaction. He's supposed to do something now—

She starts to struggle. His attention focuses back down on her, and the thought vanishes like mist touched by the sun. He holds her firmly as she shakes, his blue eyes looking down at her— through her— as she pleads up at him. The only person left she has that might, might help her.

The look in his eyes never changes from its vague disappointment at her refusal.

"There is nothing to be sorry about," he murmurs. "Nothing hurts anymore. Everything is clear. I only want for you to have the same."

His hands start to tamp down her struggles. Fingertips choke the blood from her brain. She forgets everything but peaceful, drugged docility.

He lets her go just before she would pass out again. His hands slip back to her shoulders, a gentle rebuke against further struggle. We're going to make this as painless as possible, Mr. Smith promises.

The blue eyes of the Winter Soldier turn to him. This is unusual: the dog is never supposed to look anyone in the eye.

"Don't lie," he says, his voice quiet as the rasp of a knife from a sheath. "Make it painless."

—-

The dog meets his eye. And the dog makes a /demand/.

Mr. Smith returns the look, his own features melting into a practised passivity, a man trained well on when and where to choose his battles. Trained extensively not to show his own hand, which right now is shock, and annoyance, and outrage when it — it of all things — questions him like an equal.

It should not. It cannot, and for a moment, he thinks of passing a private report on about Golubev, about how those unorthodox methods of his are now too much, and how, and how —

Something whispers him until he forgets the edge of his outrage. He ignores the itching behind his left ear.

He thinks — yes, the dog is upstart for showing its teeth to a proffered hand, and he will have to be careful. As careful as he always is, broken nose withstanding.

"Of course," replies Mr. Smith, with a twinge of apology crossing his face, briefly tightening the corners of his eyes. He smiles, deeply and sincerely, and then looks back on Jane. Jane who is gazing mindlessly away, her eyes far and distant and crying without sound.

"Dr. Foster," he promises, "we will make this painless. For now, please take more time to rest. We will feed and show you to your room after your initial check-up. Just a precaution to make sure you are and will remain healthy."

One of his hands twitches. It wants to reach out and touch her. This is what he always does to his invokees. Touches them before they are lost into the machine. Everyone feels so different after, all to his endless fascination. This one, he wants her tears. His fingers twitch like he would reach, but — he remembers.

The dog is no longer collared.

Mr. Smith twines his fingers together. "Soldier," he offers, "you should take her to medical. Don't tarry either, because he wishes to see you immediately."

—-

The Winter Soldier hackles. And he manages to get one of his masters to back down.

Another step is made in the progress from mindless dog to willful man. The kind of servant that will serve not because it is collared, not because it is whipped, but because it so chooses that it will serve.

Now, if the facts upon which it bases this choice should be… just a little twisted… what does that really matter?

He looks back down on Jane. Jane, silenced of her fury. Jane, crying without sound, without hope, her gaze already almost as faraway as his own. His gaze softens, and he lets go her shoulders to circle around in front of her. His right hand moves to gently cup her face, fingers brushing at her tears.

"I'll be here with you," he says, not realizing that fact is half of why Jane Foster is crying.

He only looks back at the officer when addressed. His earlier confidence seems to suffer a puncture when 'he' is invoked; his hand on Jane's face stops, going a little tense. This is one command to which he cannot object.

His hand lowers, taking one of her wrists. "Understood," he acknowledges bleakly, pulling to draw Jane back up from her chair and take her away.

—-

Jane Foster remains seated as told, as forced, and even as those manacling hands come off her shoulders, she does not struggle, does not fight, does not try to escape.

She remains there, trapped by far more invisible bonds, slumped in the seat, head bowed down, and with tears streaking hot paths down her cheeks.

The Soldier moves in front of her, but Jane does not seem to notice. His right hand comes in to cradle her face, her skin warm where he is freezing, her tears running hot where they track wet between his fingers. He patiently rubs them away.

The touch animates her, and her dark eyes turn, gazing up, her eyes focusing where they stop on the Winter Soldier's face, on his blue eyes. Her mouth moves; he can feel her lips brush his thumb.

She cannot make sound, too breathless with grief, her voice betraying her, but Jane mouths a very familiar word. James, she tries to call even now.

She won't give up.

But his hand stops, not for her but the mention of Him, a man whose invoked presence locks the Winter Soldier with total obedience. He takes Jane Foster to her first step in processing — first step in compliance training. Wrist taken, she does not fight. Even if she wanted, she could not. She follows his lead out.

When that too-heavy door closes behind them, Mr. Smith leans back into his steel chair. The sigh he's been wanting to make the last ten minutes finally escapes him. He leans, just enough that his chair creaks on its legs, until he catches a glance at the guard, still unconscious, still heaped uselessly along the ground. His eyes roll.

"You should expect him shortly," he says, glaring up into the ceiling camera that still records the room, the table, and him left alone.

He touches carefully, tenderly at his broken nose, jaw gritting with pain, and tracks the break in the cartilage. Annoyance darkens his eyes.

He glances up again, petulant. "And I get to oversee /this/ one."

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