Apocatastasis

January 30, 2017:

Jane Foster and James Barnes, in the aftermath of their freedom from Hydra.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, Zatanna Zatara, John Constantine

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Delivered out of the coils of Hydra, Jane Foster is a shadow.

It's nearly two days' clear from her captivity, metered for her in a senseless blur of passing time, and she has only spoken all of a handful of words. Has committed only a few actions. She returns physically unharmed, her condition well-maintained by the people who caged and tortured her, the only benefit of a contrived health and happiness to maintain a false narrative. She wears no trauma in body save for fatigue.

The mind of Jane Foster, however, wears deep wounds.

But there is no demonstrative panic attack. No volume of tears. No emotional display. And, even more strangely for Jane, very few questions asked by her lips past the perfunctory.

Where is he? was the very first she asked. Then: is it over?

Is everything all right?

Everything is all right… at least, of a sort. It is over… at least, for the time.

He is here… at least, in a way. Here for as much as a man can be, staring through those hollowed-out blue eyes.

Awakened into SHIELD custody, SHIELD medical, among SHIELD personnel, it becomes immediately transparent that Jane only remains calm in the direct presence of James Barnes. Only for as long as she is able to see him, able to know he is here, she can cope.

She does not fare well in her very brief window of SHIELD custody.

Released tenuously to Steve Rogers' custodianship, the woman declared healthy but mentally rent, her unravelling breakdown only arrests upon the first, ghost-like hovering and wraith-like vists of a returned James Barnes. She imparts him deep and searching looks, as if to gaze down into the lost man he's reclaimed, and to reassure herself must witness this over and over. That he is alive, not dead at his own hands; that he is here, not lost to his masters; that he is found, and not forgotten.

Otherwise, Jane keeps to herself. One may expect different, perhaps the opposite of a woman in her position, to not withdraw from the same people who worked so hard to retrieve them both, and perhaps, some would think, not cling to the very man who stole her to that wretched fate. But even as one would think that — perhaps even as James Barnes himself would assume Jane to wither and violently reject his presence — it is not the case. It is not her heart.

She responds to food and sleep, though she doesn't partake significantly of either, and only gently asks her wish: to be given time to think. Too polite and grateful to her rescuers, Jane lets the rest of her request remain unspoken: because I'm not ready to talk to anyone, and I don't want to.

Those who try to are never met with a harsh, or unkind dismissal. Even now, the woman is strangely patient, and though reserved, tries even now to be gentle. The only signs she wears, when pressed, are a tension and deepening exhaustion when made to interact for too long, like someone who must strain to act normal. Otherwise, Jane spends most of it excused away, never truly alone — neither ready for that — but lingering on the wings of something that allows her enough quiet and privacy to think.

She needs to think. She needs to hear her own voice in her head. She needs to sort through all her memories, and make sure they are all there. She needs to come to grips with the memories of the last two weeks.

Her eyes keep checking to make sure James Barnes is there. Sometimes she jerks away from an exhausted doze, and he is the first thing her bleary eyes search for. Jane clings to every detail of his face. She does not miss his pain. His hurts make her hurt too.

The time comes when Jane gets back her bearing, and makes a decision. She asks — well, states, gently, that she wishes to go home. She is ready enough, and trusts in its wards. She understands the unspoken dictate that SHIELD needs to debrief her, but only under her permission, and when ready. It's understood she's not a threat, they are reviewing the video logs of her captivity and torture under Hydra, they have an eye on her, and it's not like she's going anywhere…

Neither is James Buchanan Barnes, for that matter. Jane asks if he could stay with her. It's a request, one he is allowed to deny: he has a choice now to deny things. But her eyes are pleading, and she turns them down self-consciously.

He reunites and goes with her. She gives a heartfelt promise to speak more to their friends when she feels far more ready. Jane manages a brief smile.

Her apartment opens to them, cold and unchanged, its only difference the two weeks' gathering of dust. At the beginning, she lingers, unsure what to do with it all, then Jane makes some decision not to feel like a stranger in her own home. She cleans and tries to inject some sort of life back to its darkness and stillness, until it's lit and warm again, only with the curtains drawn, no one allowed to look in, and no way for her to look out at the stars.

Like she did a long time ago, she offers him full reign of her small home. She takes a quick, scalding-hot shower to wash away the physical traces of what happened, and invites James the choice to do the same. Whenever Jane talks to him, it seems always to offer him another choice, another option, another decision for him to make. She never tells him to do anything. She invites. She tries to show him what is possible.

After her shower, Jane curls up onto her couch, possibly for another bout of her pensive silence. In this one, however, she manages to fall asleep. She dozes for the longest stretch yet since their liberation: two hours. She does not even shift in sleep.

It's a startle amidst her own dreaming that resurrects Jane, a nightmare image or phantom sensation jerking her awake. He is the first thing she looks for.

He has not tried to approach her since their liberation. If he had his way, he would not be in her presence at all, if not for the fact that his presence seems to be the only thing that keeps her calm. James Buchanan Barnes does not understand that, but he honors the need nonetheless.

At this point, he would honor her request even if it was for him to take one of his precious, prized weapons, and put a bullet into his own head.

That, too, he has considered doing. Only the thought of the way Steve's face would look— over his body, over his grave— stops him.

Death denied him, he hides in the only thing he has known for years: the familiar reclusive life of the Winter Soldier. He is only around as much as necessary to keep Jane from breaking down, and he avoids SHIELD as much as humanly possible despite the protections of Steve. It is a dry way to live, a desolate way, but it is preferable to the way he feels under so many accusing eyes, knowing there are so many justified reasons for the accusations.

Preferable to the way he feels seeing his own name on so many kill orders, spanning decades.

Preferable to the memories that keep welling up, unbidden, at the worst moments, threatening to break his composure at times he cannot afford to have it break.

Things get easier when they let Jane go home. He is sure they are watching her— them— even there, but there is at least some illusion of privacy. He still occupies the apartment restlessly, avoiding windows, avoiding the doors. He spends a great deal of time sitting and staring at walls, metal hand gripped on his flesh wrist to the point of pain— fearful of what he may do, unhappy he is close enough to hurt her, but unable to deny Jane her want to have him close by.

Jane tends him to some small degree. She offers him options, choices— frames everything in terms of his new autonomy. He responds listlessly, most often acquiescing to whatever she should want, or else remaining silent. His ability to make his own choices is vestigial with time, underexercised, pale from lack of seeing the light.

He spends time, sometimes, watching the clouds— or rooftops for snipers. It is hard to tell. When night comes, he acquiesces to her desire to have the curtains drawn, and stares at them mindlessly instead.

Eventually, even she is worn out enough to sleep.

From an armchair across the room, he watches her as she sleeps. Nothing in particular is on his mind. He does not want anything in particular to be on his mind. At some point, however, he stops, because when a flicker of nightmare jerks her out of her repose, looking for him will yield the sight of him curled in that chair, once again staring at the opposite wall, doing nothing.

His right wrist is red where his metal hand is clamped down on it.

It's that voice in her head that jolts her awake. A whisper that is not her own.

Violently rejecting it, Jane stirs with soft sound, returned to the small, embryonic darkness of her apartment, holding and echoing the airy, shallow noise of her own breathing. Everything feels soft around her, and her body curls on itself in a small pocket of warmth, surrounded in familiar textures and smells — and yet.

She knows immediately she is supposed to be somewhere else. Has been somewhere else, these last two weeks, somewhere that is not here, and her foggy mind twists in desperation to orient herself.

Jane's eyes search for the one thing that is her grounding. Even in the fog, the reflex is automatic, borne of two weeks' incessant thoughts of him, of James Barnes, to try to soothe the fear — to try to chase away the pain. The constant reminder she would tell herself on the threshold of losing her mind: she is not alone.

He would bring her back.

And he brings her back again, the distant, dim sight of James, his body occupying her armchair, safely across the room but still in sight. In sight and looking away.

Jane gentles at the sight of his face, but even that relief is momentary, just as any of her looks his way have been these days: that relief, and then to see him, worry.

Her eyes turn, following the shadowed line of his body, until she stops where his metal hand manacles his right wrist, as if he has determined to form from his own body a personal pair of handcuffs. Fetters to bind and lead the criminal away.

Her heart turns. She finds herself thinking this far more clearly — able to think far more clearly with the slow crawl of time, think thoughts that are largely only hers. And are about him. Jane decides to herself it is time.

She sits up with a shift of skin and clothes against her couch, exhaling, running a hand through her dark hair to brush it back from her face. Jane's bowed head tilts up, and she looks James pensively in the face.

Then she determinedly stands. She's a thin, lean line, dressed in one of her sweatshirts and knee-hole tights, indulging in the familiarity of old things. She lingers there a moment in the half-light, then steps forward, not to try to tarry on with the shadow of her life, but towards him, towards James. Even if he should tense, not wanting her near, it doesn't discourage her.

Jane stands close, looking down with sad, searching, worrying eyes. She says nothing, but reaches out like she wants to touch his raw right wrist.

James is far away in these moments, thinking. He might have reclaimed his memories weeks ago, but even then they were only shadow-memories: twisted facsimiles of the truth that were no more helpful in discovering who he truly was than nothing at all. He is still having so much difficulty sifting what is true from what is false, and there is a full century of time through which to sift.

He feels like he could sit and think for a decade straight, and still not be able to fully process everything in his head. All the ghosts. All the pain. All the blood.

A century. He had not been awake the entire time, certainly— passing many years and decades unaware in freeze— but it is still so difficult to wrap his mind around the fact he has… persisted— existed— over the course of an entire century. He read the files on himself and saw himself written as a monster whose shadow darkened several successive generations. A myth that had grown up around a man who did not even know he was being mythologized.

He became… something… while he was asleep, while he was sleep-walking. He became something so much more than James Buchanan Barnes: son to dead parents, brother to a now-dying sister, father to no one because his life was taken from him. He became something other than that army sergeant who served with surpassing skill and dutiful loyalty.

He became something that makes him want to crawl out of his own skin, so he does not have to share bodies with it.

Something he does not trust not to rise from the back of his mind and overtake him again. He manacles his own wrist with his steel hand so the pain will keep him in the here and now. He watches clocks also, blue eyes fixed on the second hand, relying on its regularity to tell him that he is not dreaming, not hallucinating, that the world around him is real. He stares at walls, knowing the moment they start to shift or melt is the moment he's losing his mind again—

Slight sound rustles on his right. His hand tightens until the bones of his own wrist creak.

Jane comes slowly into his line of sight. He does not move or respond, his body still in the same place and position it was when she fell asleep. The little light draws the distant, emotionless profile of his face into sharp relief. He doesn't look up until she reaches down to touch his right wrist.

He doesn't resist or stop her, but he doesn't let go of his wrist either. His eyes turn up to her in a flick of a glance, a glimpse of blue. His gaze is pleading and unhappy— and brief. It wavers and turns back down again after only a moment, ashamed to look.

Reflected off the lenses of his eyes, Jane catches a glimpse of the dark place he resides. Some of it she thinks she can understand, coming and going with those errant thoughts in her head, worst of all the whisper that tries to tell her she should miss it —

— and the rest she knows she may never understand. Will never know how it feels to live the life James Barnes has, forced upon him, made of him against his will. Decades of it. And he was all alone.

The thought that he could lose his mind again, here, now, with only that pain to ground him — it seems not to occur to Jane Foster. If it does, that worry does not deter her forward step. She moves through the dark and crosses her living room on soft steps, her body absent of fear, of distrust, of accusation. She only stops when she comes close enough to look down on him, though not by much, with her diminutive body standing matching his seated in height.

She is small next to him, one should think that she should fear — and yet Jane does not.

Her hands instead touch the way he's worried his wrist. The light brush of her fingers is gentle and cool.

Jane says nothing, but she meets the brief, pained look of his blue eyes. Hers are patient, seeking. There is no accusation in her, and even more strangely, not even a hint of forgiveness — as if no crime was done that would warrant apology. She only looks hurt, hurting along with him, made in silent vow that he will not be allowed to suffer alone.

His metal hand does not let go of his wrist. He needs the pain to remind him.

Jane has her own thoughts about that. Still silent, she persists, moving carefully, tenderly, to curl the fingers of her other hand over his metal knuckles. With hopeful encouragement, she pulls, wanting him to let himself go, wanting him to free his own wrist from a sentence of self-administered pain. She handles him as if he were made of glass. He is, in many ways.

If he relents, if he lets her, it will be for her to take his right hand in both her own. She shifts, and finds herself a perch on one arm of the chair, small and compact enough to make herself a seat, turned in to face him. To settle there, with his right hand still in hers.

Her grasp is light enough that he can pull away without much resistance. It is his choice. But it is her choice to show James that he is not alone. Jane bows her head to brush her lips over his abused wrist, kissing the red away.

He holds his silence as she stands there. He holds his wrist, too, unwilling to let go in paranoid fear that it may be all that is keeping him shackled down and grounded in reality. The one thing he can't hold is his gaze on hers; he looks only a moment before his will breaks and he drops his stare to the floor.

A shudder runs through him as he does. A shudder to remember what it was he did to her, and how little he understands why she will not excoriate him— will not avoid him— does not even look like he has done anything that needs forgiveness—

She touches his wrist. Her fingertips are cool and relieving on the reddened skin. He recoils a little, drawing back, not deserving anything that feels pleasant— and certainly not from the hands of one of his most recent victims.

She doesn't let him go. She just draws closer, perching herself up onto the arm of the chair. Her hands shift to gently pull at his left hand, encouraging it to release its shackling grip. At first she might as well be trying to move unliving steel, his fingers completely immobile in their persistent clamp.

Then a flinch comes and goes in his expression, a tightening of his mouth. A soft sound of articulating machinery heralds him caving to her desire and loosening his grasp under her direction. Titanium and steel fingers accept her direction, and allow themselves to be pulled back and away.

His face has been blank all this time, but when she lifts his freed right wrist and touches her lips to the abused skin, his expression fractures. Disbelief, pain, hope, desire, self-castigation, self-loathing— all these things move across his features as they shake on the edge of a total loss of control. His eyes gloss suspiciously. Confused sorrow writes itself into every stress line of his face.

Then his jaw sets, his eyes blink, and with a perceptible effort he pulls himself back together into schooled stoicism. But his voice is still raw when he finally breaks the silence to ask, "Why?"

Those steel fingers refuse to budge under her imploring hand. They are immovable, unimaginably stronger than her tiny fingers.

But Jane is patient. And Jane is persistent. Like the erosion of a mountain under a million years of gentle rainfall, this too she waits out, metered by the simple, encouraging brush of her thumb over the plated backs of his metal knuckles. She touches his artificial, weapon hand as if it were him, a piece of him, his flesh, the responsive hand of a man who can feel the soft stroke and imploring warmth of her fingers along his.

All that time she pulls, gentle but inexorable, refusing to let go, refusing to allow him to retreat back to that self-flagellating isolation. Her dark eyes study his turned face.

Something flickers along his features, and James concedes. That powerful hand loosens. Jane has seen it break things, break people, snap and powder bone into her fist, but still she curls her left hand in his, gently guiding it free. Her fingertips thank him in a brush of contact along his phantom nerves, before letting go.

She takes his right hand, and looks down on its wrist. Days of worrying and abrasion makes raw of his wrist. Heartbroken, but determined, Jane kisses his punishment away.

The effect of that one, little touch is palpable. She looks up as the man reacts, silent and watchful, his hand still held in both of hers. Her eyes watch the play of emotion over James' face, for an instant looking to bubble over into something she's never witnessed on him.

Jane doesn't look away. She cannot. He has her eyes. He has her heart. It's bleeding for him.

He does not cry. He only asks her one question — one word.

"I promised you," Jane answers. "I promised that you won't ever be alone. I know you're blaming yourself. Everything I went through… it happened to you first. For so long. And you had no one. It was never you, James."

Jane places her hand to his and pulls gently, conscious that the effort is wholly futile, but not terribly interested in actually succeeding by force. Only in making a point. Her grasp settles in with a distinct promise that it isn't going anywhere, the brush of her thumb accompanying her constant insistent tug.

Not a single finger of that weaponized hand will move a whit until James decides it should. She is hopeful to convince him that it should.

Eventually he gives in, and a soft whir heralds the loosening of his steel grip. The prosthetic which first attracted Jane to him in the first place undoes its clutching grasp, fingers articulating smoothly as they pull away under her guidance. Truly a work of scientific art. It feels almost natural and real in her hand, the way his moves.

She is conscious of the ways in which it is not natural and real— has seen it crumble concrete and bone in its grip— yet she still trusts her own hand in its palm up until he is the one to pull back.

Her hands move, afterwards, to take his freed right wrist, lifting it to her mouth to soothe the raw skin with her lips. Precious little in the last few days made his deadened, guarded composure break: this does, his expression briefly crumbling like dried clay to feel something he is so certain he does not deserve.

How can she bear to be near him? How can she bear to touch him? She knows full well what he is now. She had it happen to her. And yet…

She promised, she said. She promised he would not be alone anymore, after suffering alone for seventy years. She, at least, had him. He had no one…

It was never you, she says.

"No," he agrees, surprisingly. His voice is hoarse, hollow, sounding scooped out of his body only by a great effort. His eyes remain determinedly dry, his expression caught in a steeled resolve not to break and show emotion. "It wasn't me. I would never have done the things they used me for. But they're still done, aren't they?"

His right wrist moves in her grasp as his hands turn over, palm up. "I can still feel my hands doing them."

How could she bear to be this close to him? How could she bear to touch him, to hold his hand in hers? How could she bear to let her lips brush his flesh, and kiss away decades of spilled blood?

Jane Foster does not look like someone who is bearing anything. She wants to be here, seated little and light on the arm of his chair, with his hand in hers, with her dark eyes beseeching his. He has spent these days obliging her need not to want to be alone; this is her turn. He will not be lost in his grief and self-hatred. He will not suffer this alone. She wants to be here as she promised — as she remembers telling him one night, in that dreamy, drug-induced reverie, lost in Hydra's vast cage.

She wants to tell him that none of this — none — is his fault. She has not believed it for a second. And it's Jane's truth; the fact that man she thought she lost forever is finally back, here, beside her, able to be touched.

He agrees it wasn't him. Wasn't his decision. If left to him, he would have never committed any of the horrors his masters asked of him over the last seventy years. And yet —

He can still feel his hands doing them.

Terrible realization crosses Jane's eyes. It is not that he knows his body and hands committed every act forced upon him. He remembers them. He /remembers/ it all. He carries that memory, broken and corrupted as it is, as his own. They've made him carry it, carry the weight of all their sins. Take the burden so that their hands need never get dirty.

His hand turns in hers. Her light grip does not stop it, gentled enough to a light rasp of her fingers along his skin. She looks down at his palm.

Something hot and wet hits his skin.

She is crying. His eyes are dry, but hers are not, and Jane's tears fall as her jaw trembles to find the words. She shakes where she perches on the arm of the chair, her hands holding his, her dark eyes hot with rage.

"I hate them," she whispers, her voice soft, thin. "I've never hated anyone, but I hate them. I don't get it. I don't… I don't understand how this world just lets something — something like this happen. How someone can do this to someone else. How they can just — how they can use someone and — "

Her rambling words crack. More tears streak down her cheeks. Jane hitches with her first, quiet sob. "You have to carry this, and it's not your fault — "

This is the most coherent Jane has ever seen James Barnes. This is, in fact, perhaps the first time Jane has ever truly met James Barnes. Ever before this, he was struggling under the weight of the Winter Soldier, his true personality unable to be fully expressed while the Soldier held such predominant sway in his mind.

Even then, this James Barnes is nothing like she might have imagined the rakish young army sergeant of seventy years ago to have been. This one has yet to meet her eyes again after dropping his gaze. This one stares off into the middle distance, silent, hating himself with the sort of bleak determination that could last a lifetime.

Why? he asks. And she answers.

It's hard to say if he's convinced. Hard to say if he feels much of anything right now, numbed as he is by the weight of such sudden and vast recollection. He is back with her, but changed… altered by the fullness of his returned memory. He is beside her, his hand in both her own, and yet he feels a million miles away. His mind is clearly elsewhere.

He mentions something that suggests exactly where it is.

The realization hits her. He doesn't just 'know' that he did all these atrocious things. He REMEMBERS. He was not an insensate passenger in a body that was no longer his own. He was there, the whole time, watching himself go through the motions. Feeling himself kill. Experiencing, in full sensory detail, everything he did while not in control of his own mind. They committed sins and they used his aware body to do it. They left the weight and guilt of it all on his hands.

He can feel it on his hands even now. The greasiness of all the blood staining them. The weight of all the weapons he's used to kill. The feel of all the bodies he has broken in his bare hands. He turns his hands in hers, facing them palm-up. They look so innocuous, for the invisible weight that they bear.

Just thinking about it all brings her to cry the tears that he cannot.

He finally looks at her. It is nothing like the looks he gave her before, which were always edged with the cold and antiseptic presence of the Winter Soldier no matter how much of James happened to be there at the given moment. The way he looks at her now is gentle, exhausted, forebearing. All her rage and hatred seems lost on him in these moments. Those same emotions will come to him in time, the outrage of being raped and violated over the course of decades, but right now he has no energy to process anything but his hatred of his own self.

His voice is exhausted when he speaks. "I wouldn't start hating just on their account," he says. "Doesn't seem worth it. What's done is done." His shoulders bow, as if already imagining the weight. "Now I bear it."

The tears that roll down her cheeks seem endless. And Jane, who usually feels self-conscious of crying, who tries to hide her face away and sob into the safety of her hands, does not cover herself now. She does not try to wipe them away. She lets them shine wet on her face, the battlescars she's hard won and now owns: a visible testament too for how she has suffered, and how he has suffered even worse.

If no one else should ever cry for the lost James Barnes, not even himself, Jane can at least say she did. Someone has to.

His words hang heavy on her.

He says it's not worth it to hate. Jane thinks, at one point, she would agree. Would say something naive like hate is not some fundamental force in the universe, and billions of years have passed empty of it. But it feels like it is worth it, if just to write into her soul a reminder that such wrongs are possible in this world, and that she can never forget that. She can never forgive it either, won't ever forgive it, won't ever attempt to understand or feel right with the monstrous decisions that make some men feel like they are allowed to be the masters of others. To steal someone's life. To go into their heads, into his, into hers, and try to take everything away that is precious.

To take something that does not /belong/ to them.

Her hands still hold his, absently, vacantly, as Jane gazes into her own middle distance and thinks. Thinks through the lingering whispers and only concentrates on the voice that sounds like hers.

What's done is done, he says. The statement is so simple, and yet it's the tightening noose that hangs her heart. It shouldn't have to be that way. It feels like to Jane that accepting such a thing is to give away a piece of herself. To watch James do the same.

But she doesn't know what else there is to do. Nothing short of surviving.

Jane gazes down at her lap. "You don't have to bear it alone," she says.

She is silent a moment, trying to find the words to a question she knows she must ask. "Does it hurt to be around me now?"

She lets the tears stream openly down her face. There is no attempt to wipe or cover them. There is no attempt to shield them from the world. He still avoids looking at her, but that does not stop him hearing her, and every quiet sound of her crying feels like another failure to his name.

He thinks she is crying because of how badly he has betrayed and hurt her. He does not know or guess she is crying on his behalf.

The shame in his features as he turns his head aside may advertise this.

He tries to remove her from the entire mess that is him. He tries to encourage her not to hate, because to hate Hydra would bring her deeper into his world, into the tangle of danger that is facing such a monstrous entity, and he is done with her hurting on his account. She goes silent, still holding his hands, still crying, but with the kind of silence that suggests that she is not convinced.

The kind of silence that suggests she is just plotting how best to destroy the object of her new hate.

In his opinion, however, there is nothing to be done now. Nothing but to accept that the dead are dead: including his soul. All that can be done is to find a way to bear it. Perhaps, someday, to start to atone for the wrongs he has committed. Perhaps even, someday, to in fact take on Hydra. To let himself feel the full breadth of rage and hatred for the organization which stole his entire life and subverted all he stood for. Turned him into a murderous mockery of his former self.

Those days are not today, nor anywhere close to today.

He does not have to bear it alone, she says. "I know. But some things," he says, "I do not want to share with you. I cannot. Not in good conscience." For a brief moment, his eyes reflect a bare few handful of things too heinous to be put into words.

Then she asks another question. This one turns his gaze to her, his blue eyes truly clear for the first time since they met. "No," he says. "Does it hurt you?"

Jane Foster does not wipe her tears. She is not powerful. She is not exceptionally skilled. She is not imbued with any supernatural power. She is as ordinary as her name, give or take her incredible intellect.

But in this moment she looks like someone who would command an army; who would declare war. Like someone who has the anger and ferocity to find and horde her strengths as they come; to wear her drying tears as her armaments. Her jaw tightens, and her turned eyes burn. he accepts, but she defies. Even now, there is everything to be done. His soul is not dead. They would have to kill her first, because she will never let that happen.

He tries to remove her from this, but she remains fixed in place, in body, in presence, in quiet sentry and the way her eyes look back on him.

If there is something Jane seems insistent on repeating, it's to remind the resurrected James Barnes that while he returns to a changed world — he will not face it alone. He only argues that there are some things he does not want to share. Will not share.

"If some day you do," she replies, "I'll listen. I'll help. I'm stronger than I look." But Jane does not press that point. And she absolutely does not force. James has been forced enough, and if she will do anything for him, it will be to protect his rights — protect his freedoms. He'll never be forced to do anything ever again, not while she's watching.

For a brief moment, Jane looks like she wants to say more. Implore more. But even she knows there is one important question foremost, because not even she can miss the resistance in his bearing, the reproach in his eyes, the shame underlying his voice. Even if she convinces him a hundred times he has not hurt her, not in the way he thinks he has, and that he is as much the blameless victim she is, if not moreso — it may do nothing for the potential trigger she could be. A reminder of something to always cause him pain.

Perhaps Hydra has taken James Barnes from her, and before she even could ever truly know him.

But Jame swallows the emotion down and asks the question. She cannot force him this way too. If it hurts him to be around her, then she needs to let him go.

He looks up. He actually looks at her. Looks, and does not avoid. Jane gazes back, her tears still running down her face. Her brown eyes, even now, still hope. It's still here. Not even Hydra could take the hope from her.

No, he says. Does it hurt her?

A sob wells up, rough and unexpectedly, escaping Jane in a tiny huff of sound. Fresh tears streak from her eyes. She tries to speak, but can't, can't form anything but a feeble murmur, and so tries to answer James the only way she can. She slips down off the arm of the chair, her tiny weight pressing down across his lap, so she can throw her arms around his neck and desperately hang on.

There are many things one could call Jane. Ordinary is not one James would use for her. Never in all the short time he has known her has she been anything he would call ordinary. To keep up with him and his fucked-up life is extraordinary enough, and that is before one even considers her intellect.

It means that in these moments, when she is incendiary with fierce rage, she becomes someone to turn heads. She turns his, his blue eyes pensive and sad, and though he tries quietly to shuttle her back out of his life and out of danger, she plants herself and refuses to move.

He gives in. But he insists that there are things he does not want to share. Things he has done of which he cannot speak. Cannot bring himself to say aloud. Especially not to her.

She accepts— for now. But she reminds him that she is always there if someday he should wish to share. She is stronger than she looks; she will help bear the load. But she does not force him. He notices that, and he is quietly appreciative. He has had his fill of being compelled. Commanded.

His eyes turn away afterwards. She catches the shame in them before they shutter away under his half-lowered lashes. He threatens to disappear again, pulling away into himself, and it brings Jane to ask a question that dogs at her. Does she hurt him? Is her presence nothing but a painful reminder?

The absurdity of the thought that she could ever be such a thing to him brings him, finally, to look her in the eye. It soon becomes clear why he has been avoiding this. His eyes are raw, even if they are tearless, grief and shame and self-castigation making them a tormented, painful sight to regard. His eyes reflect clearly that they have borne witness to a thousand murders. So many souls ended under those blue eyes, at his hands.

Those eyes watch her as he asks, fittingly: Is it not he that hurts her?

She stares. She sobs. Tears pour from her eyes anew as her mouth moves without sound. He withdraws visibly on himself, fearing this is his answer, fearing that this is the precursor to her breaking down and telling him it does hurt her, he does hurt her, let her tell him all the ways in which they hurt her because HE brought her to them—

—and instead, he feels only warmth and softness as she slips off the armrest and down into his lap, her small figure slinging across his chest to wrap arms around his neck.

He is quiet. A shudder escapes him, and then nothing more.

After a moment, his head lowers beside hers. It bows, weary beyond belief, his left hand lifting to support it.

It takes a long time, but eventually his right hand brushes a ghost of contact at her waist— a tentative feather-light bit of contact that suggests only the fingertips. It pulls away soon after, as if he feared some autonomic reflex that would turn his hand to a claw and his touch to something lethal.

The single look guts her.

Jane feels nothing but her own heart breaking, again and again and again, snapped apart at the simple, broken way James Barnes looks at her. A man cored out of everything he is, all he was, all he knew, and twisted into this cruel moment wherein he cannot even trust his own hands. Cannot trust a woman to look at him and see him as anything but a monster. Cannot believe himself capable of anything but hurting.

Grief chokes her up. She cannot even breathe to tell him no, no, never —

There is only one way she can tell him. Unable to bear any longer the breath of distance between their bodies, Jane slips down to join James in his armchair, slung unceremoniously across his lap as she reaches fiercely for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling her smaller body close. She tries to wrap around him, tiny yet desperate to close down on the man on all sides, her heart pounding quickly, demandingly, into his chest as her face buries against his throat. Her hands find his hair. He can feel her trembling, not with fear, but to try to hold in emotion near too much to bear, trying to keep her sobs light and thin where they murmur into the cradle of his shoulder.

But as she promised, Jane holds him fiercely, protectively, far stronger than she looks, a determined anger mantling her limbs, and steeling her shoulder to his bowed head. She'll take the weight. She'll take as much as he will give to her.

She hears him shudder. The sound makes her eyes shut, her hands tighten on him. She feels James' hand, flesh and warmth, haunt her waist in a fleeting touch, a rasp of contact without pressure, and it emboldens her to curl more persistently around him. She decides it's all right if he is afraid to touch her. She'll hold on for the both of them. She won't let go.

Jane's soft voice whispers up. "I'm going to tell you this now, OK?"

She does not move a muscle, clinging desperately down, her head leaned against his. Blindly, she lets his hair go with one hand to draw back, and cradle his face in her palm. "You've never hurt me," Jane tells him. "Not even the first time we met. I saw you there that night, James. I've seen you so many times after. I kept looking for you. Every time I needed you, you were there. You were always there."

Jane goes silent for the briefest of pauses, summoning courage, fighting the current of memory. And she confesses, "You kept me alive in there. You did. They wanted to… they talked over me like I wasn't there. I heard everything they said. They had to be careful with me. They would have done things… other things. Worse things. They were terrified of the part of you they couldn't control." She swallows. "I would think about you. It's how I did it, because I wasn't alone. You think you've hurt me, when all you've ever done is protect me."

She draws back, only slightly, and only because Jane needs to look up. Look up with her hopeful eyes. "I want you to stay with me. I want you to be a part of my life."

It is a look carrying seventy years of torture and forced servitude. It is a look that contains all his despairing, painful awareness of the rightful life that was stolen from him. It is no wonder that it is hard for her to bear the sight of it.

It is a look of raw pain. And even now, he still does not let himself break or cry.

Jane does that for him instead. It is too much for her to wrap her mind around, for her to handle— the enormity of what was done to him. Tearing a man from his life, from his entire existence, ripping out all that he was and replacing it with something monstrous. Something so murderous that even now, tentatively reclaiming his own identity, he still cannot trust his own bloody hands.

He has forgotten what it feels like to use them for anything but killing. There are too many terrible memories barricaded up between now and the person he used to be, long ago.

It is that inability to remember how to use his hands gently that keeps him fearful and tentative in his touches. He rests his fingertips lightly on her waist, knowing that her effusive gesture needs— demands some response— but he is terrified to give more than that. He is terrified of blacking out, losing control, and then awakening to find his hands once again covered in blood. Another corpse at his feet.

His touch pulls away, too soon. And he listens as she tells him that he has never hurt her. Never once. He has only ever protected her. He was there every time she needed him. He was there with her when she suffered under Hydra. He was the only reason they did not do worse, because they feared the part of him they could not control…

There is a slight but significant change in his demeanor. She can feel him tensing, his change in attitude and aspect transmuting his body from flesh to pure weapon. None of it is directed at her, however. Not one bit.

Anger finally burns in his voice, low and unyielding and keen as ground steel, when he says, "As they should be." It sounds equal parts fact and future promise. They do not know what they have /made/.

It is a short-lived fury. It swiftly drains away from him again, James not liking to remain angry when he is still so unsure of his own mental state. Still unsure that his own anger won't trigger some murderous fugue state. He drops his head on an exhaled breath, supporting it on the crooked second and third fingertips of his left hand, a gesture that makes it easy for him to reach his temple to rub the headache away.

He only looks up when he feels her eyes on him. The hope in her gaze sets a dull ache to pulsing in his chest.

"I will be," he answers in a whisper, "If that is what you want."

He touches her so carefully, so sparingly.

Jane's heart twists with the bittersweet evidence that James Barnes truly is back, truly is here with her — returned and still unable to handle her for long, to trust his own hands. She pays that little mind, instead leaning closer to curl her body to his, her arms wrapped fiercely around his back, as if she were trying to give shelter to the man in the form of her warmth and pounding heart. She will provide enough contact for the both of them, refuse him from withdrawing, and trust him implicitly until he learns to trust himself.

Slung over him in the armchair, wrapped desperately around him, in the moment all one hundred pounds of Jane tries to give James everything she is, her outrage and her protection and her ferocity and her comfort. And her soul, happily outstretched, for him to borrow, for his to use, until the day he is reassured of his own. Her eyes close briefly, and though she tries to take very little — afraid to take from a man newly reborn after seventy years of being lost — she indulges in the safety he provides.

He's chasing the nightmares away. It makes it easier for her to concentrate on her own thoughts, and not those false whispers, with his presence close by.

She holds him as the words fall out of her. Holds until as he listens — as he tenses.

That draws Jane's attention, looking up, at first worried she's somehow hurting him, or perhaps physically imposing too hard on someone not ready, but soon her eyes catch the source of James' tension. It's an emotion on him she's never truly witnessed before. Fury.

None of it at her, and Jane watches, safely held in the eye of his circling storm. She wanted to convince him away from his guilt, not anger him — and yet she still has difficulty looking away. Looking away as James Barnes tells her Hydra should be afraid of him. As all of his many frayed ends braid together into something dangerous, something lethal — something vengeful.

It ventilates just as quickly.

Jane's eyes just watch him, equal parts worried and fascinated. She tries to gently touch where his metal fingers rub the tension from his temple, wanting to help, wanting to make better. She confesses up to him what it is she wants. Him with her, in some way or another. In whatever way he prefers, whatever way will help him most. But not to go away. Not to disappear.

He will be.

His words change her face. Jane's eyes are ringed with black, exhausted in every way and unable to sleep, and probably to stay that way for weeks to come — but they shine with such spirited hope. Her lips crease with her first smile in so long. "I do," she answers.

Her smile goes a little shy. "So long as you want it too, James." She pauses. "I guess everyone calls you Bucky."

Unhappy as he is, scattered and shattered and broken as he is, there is one thing that manages to pull his many fractured pieces together into one temporary, focused whole. The idea of vengeance on Hydra. The idea of destroying them. The idea of counteracting all the evil they and the now-dead Soviet Union have made him do for the past sixty years.

That sharpens him to the focus of a razor edge. That finally focuses his blue eyes to the hard, lethal ruthlessness that they possessed while he was the Winter Soldier. James is back… but he has not left the legendary assassin he became behind, nor all its many skills.

Hell, like it or not— he still IS the Winter Soldier. That is an identity that will never leave him now. One he does not think he even wants to have leave him. To run away from it would be to disavow what he was, what he did, what he became, and that feels too much like shirking responsibility: something neither he nor Steve Rogers ever did. It is part of who he is now.

Now he must just find a way to reconcile James Buchanan Barnes with the Winter Soldier.

Jane looks up at him through her tears, and her eyes promise that she will be there with him, helping him, supporting him. Letting him share the purity of her soul until he refinds his own. His eyes gentle, and— very tentatively, very carefully— his right hand lifts, touching fingertips to her face, tracing her features with disbelieving wonderment. He cannot believe she is still here, telling him she wants to be here with him.

His touch drops away too quickly, afraid to harm.

Her smile goes shy afterwards, and the topic turns more prosaic. He realizes, too, she's still curled in his lap, and realizes that he doesn't mind that. As long as he doesn't hurt her.

I guess everyone calls you Bucky, she says.

"Well," he says, "all my friends did, back in…" He hesitates— thinking of them and how dead they all are in painful, "…when I was a kid. When I was younger. Everybody was named James back then. I wanted to stand out. Doesn't seem like James is as common anymore, though. You can call me that, if you want."

His head turns aside. His eyes are faraway, looking across the span of time. "My mother always called me James, though. My sister, too."

The broken man before her lays in pieces, two disparate lives lived decades without congress: the war hero and brother, James Barnes, and the Soviet weapon, the Soldier. One of those he made, the other forced upon him, but he cannot deny either are grafted pieces of his person, parts of his wounded mind. How does he even try to reconcile them?

In just one quiet, wordless glance, Jane offers a bridge. That's what she does, that's who she is, someone here to build bridges, if not between realms, but between the errant shards of a man's soul. It is offered up to him through that hope burning in her eyes. Let her soul be the bridge he needs until he is strong enough to rejoin his parts alone. He can share of her, partake of her, and she promises to be strong enough to bear them both. She promises her little soul with have enough beacon starlight to guide him from the dark.

And maybe she is right. She burns with something even Hydra could not take from her. Burns with the same thing that brings her here, wrapped around his body, both trusting and wanting to stay close, believing since her first night knowing him that he is a man — and refusing to treat the Soldier, or James Barnes, anything but.

His right hand touches her face.

Jane's eyes shut in quiet trust and starved relief, unable to hide along her face just how badly she needs this — even if it's just the tentative rasp of his fingertips mapping her features. Her hands tighten on him unconsciously. Briefly in the grasp of SHIELD, but too long for her, too long away, and it's left her desperate, more than willing to take whatever he feels ready to give.

Even some part of her realizes she's still in his lap, clinging to the man; she knows it cold be awkward, but frankly does not care. Two weeks of feeling so cold, and all Jane Foster hopes is to be warm again. He explores her face carefully, and she indulges in it all, eyes lashed shut, head tilted slightly into the roam of his fingers. It ends far too soon, and though she wishes for longer, she accepts, does not dare press or force. She is just happy to feel the heat of his body. He doesn't hurt her; in fact, he seems to do quite the opposite.

Finally, it occurs to Jane that perhaps, all along, she's been calling James Barnes by the wrong name, one he does not prefer. Insinuating shyly if he'd rather her use the other, call him Bucky as everyone else and Steve Rogers tends to do, she listens quietly to his explanation. He offers her, patiently, tolerantly, free use of his given name. The name his mother and sister would call him.

It occurs to her. His mother, his sister, his family — they would all be long dead. Living and dying and never knowing as he was tortured and controlled for years and years. There's a hitch to her body against his, though Jane does not make sound. He would have to look down to see. She's crying, silently, mournfully, for him, and all he's lost.

He cannot even remember what it felt like to be that war hero. To be someone respected and looked up to by his country and his companions. It was so long ago, so distant in his past, and there has been so much blood since then. So many people who looked up at him in terror and disgust and hatred instead of admiration.

Someday he may go to the exhibits about himself, read the articles, finger through the relics of his past life. They will feel alien to him, like the life of another man, a life that he left behind six decades ago.

He never asked to be the Winter Soldier. But somehow the identity clings on, fitting him like an unwanted glove, hanging off his shoulders, stalking in his wake like a shadow he cannot rid. Somehow it has become so much part of him that he cannot go back to being whatever he was before he was one of the world's greatest assassins.

The two identities are so different that he might never have been able to reconcile them if not for the grounding presence of someone like Jane. Jane, whose purity of spirit will serve for their magpie bridge. She has the soul and hope he no longer does.

She draw in close to do just that, curled in his lap, against his chest. He is reluctant, so afraid to touch her lest he black out and wake to find his fingers running with blood, but he cannot resist reaching to touch her nonetheless. He is equally afraid that she is not even here, and that she will vanish once he tries to stroke her face.

She does not. She is warm. She is trusting. She shuts her eyes and leans in like she actually wants the touch of something as wretched as him.

Too quickly, his hand pulls away, satisfied she is real. His head turns tiredly, eyes staring off at the wall. She asks what name she should call him, and— thinking about it— he finds he likes her calling him something a little different from what most other people do. Something the women of his family always used to call him.

The thought of that— his family— sobers him visibly. He falls silent enough he can hear Jane start to cry again— cry for him.

"I'm a long way from where I'm supposed to be. But so is Steve, I guess… and Peggy," he says. "2017, huh…?" He emits a sound that could be a laugh. "Exactly a hundred years out from when I was born." He drops his face into his hand, scrubs at it in his palm. "I hope my family died still thinking I gave my life in the war. I hope nothing ever happened to give them any idea…"

Jane does not vanish. She does not fade away cruelly, like some chased reverie of forgotten warmth, and bring back the cold that is his life. The unending winter.

It does not come. Only this, here, the surrounding walls of her apartment, and the little spot of heat she makes along his lap, against his chest, curled there even against her own self-consciousness and better sense of propriety. She is so tired, and just wants to feel safe again — safe for a little while. For as long as he'll tolerate her close.

She trusts James to touch her. She leans into his hand for as briefly as it lingers, parched to feel something gentle, something kind, after so much pain. Something she believes will not hurt her.

But he still cannot quite trust himself. His hand pulls away, and she settles her head back against his chest, her cheek over his heart. Jane feels the reverberations of James' words as much as she hears them spoken, giving her tacit permission to call him by his given name, and then — remembering. For the first time since she's known him, truly relaying facts of his life back to her, little pieces of him lost so long and finally reclaimed. Reclaimed and properly felt, free of Hydra's venom.

He speaks fadedly of his family. Lost in time, the memory of them, because after so long, it is possible, even certain they would be dead. Jane's heart husks out, and with a rough catch of breath, she quietly breaks down. She's cried so many times these past weeks, cried too many times to count, and it seems she still has tears even now, tears that fall purely for him. It makes her feel sick to realize all he's lost. To wake up from a long nightmare and see the world did not wait for him. It just turned on, on and on, taking the life he should have had with it. His family would have died mourning him.

She's so sorry.

"They wouldn't have," Jane whispers, voice thin and raw. "They wouldn't have had any idea. No one did. Either way, we'll find the answers you need. Everything you need to know about… about what happened. We'll get it." The 'we' of that is important to her, essential, a staunch promise made to James Barnes that he does not have to be alone in the reclamation of his life. She's willing to be with him every step of the journey.

Swallowing thickly, blinking away the last of her shed tears, Jane glances up. "Do you know what you want to do?"

It is hard to understand that the winter is finally over. He keeps expecting the reality around him to dissolve between blinks, fading back into the unrelieved steel and glass of the stasis chamber— the agonizing cold that freezes him back into quiescent silence.

He expects to sleep and wake up in another decade. To close his eyes and reopen them, this time in 2027, with another mission ready for his killing hands.

But the warmth and slight weight of her does not abate or fade away. Her face, leaned trustingly into his hand, does not melt under his touch. He caresses her until he cannot trust himself any longer— a point which comes too soon— but neither can he bring himself to tell her to leave him. To get up and dislodge her.

He lets her lean her head to his chest. She can hear his heart, its beat stronger and faster than a normal man's, driving the way his body burns faster than any human body should. He is a perfect engine, much like his brother in arms: but unlike his brother, he never asked to be. He has had so many of the same experiences as Steve, but with none of them ever truly his own choice.

His voice speaks on. She feels it in his chest more than she really hears it, his tone subdued and quiet. He speaks of a family he assumes long since dead, recalls their habits— speaks of small little recollections to her for the first time since they met. He hopes that they never realized what he became. He hopes they never found out that he never died bravely, in service of his country, but rather became a monster opposed to everything for which he once fought.

No one had any idea, Jane assures. They wouldn't know. Either way, they'll find the answers to everything. His head lowers a little, in something that could be a slow nod. "I don't even know where to begin," he confesses. "It's possible Rebecca is still alive. My sister. Her children, if she had any. Their children. Theirs. But do I want them to know me?"

He shrugs. The gesture looks like a tacit no.

"I may just walk away. I've hurt everyone here enough already." His eyes go tired and bleak. "Zatanna trusted me and I ripped out her soul. The way John looked at me, realizing… I remember it. The way he sounded. Everyone else I put at risk to clean up what I did."

His eyes shut. "The things I said to Steve. I can't face him."

The slow cadence of his words. The strong meter of his heart. Jane hoods her eyes and lets herself be surrounded in it. Safety, after so long. Just to feel safe again. Just to feel, if just for a little time, like no one is going to step out of the dark, put their hands on her, arrange her against her will, bind her without her permission, and watch her. Watch her have no control and be helpless. Watch her be afraid.

Her lashes lower until her eyes briefly shutter, though in the end, she cannot keep them shut for long. Too terrified to open them again and realize all of this is a dream.

The whispers still walk the alleys of her thoughts, a little voice begging to remind her how lost she should feel. Lost and without meaning. Instead, she concentrates on James, on his presence, on everything he says to her. How he speaks of a sister he had, one named Rebecca. The possibility that even if she is dead, she may have left a legacy. A family that has made generation after generation, unaware that one of their blood was suffering half of a world away.

Does he want them to know him? Know about him? What's become of him? He sounds like he does not.

"That's a choice you'll have to make," Jane murmurs, in subtle reminder of his new rights, and that with his life, the eventuality he'll have to exercise them. "Maybe not today, but eventually."

She is quiet a moment, pensive. "Sometimes it might feel safer that way, if they don't. And in many ways, it might be true. But speaking from experience, it's… it's worse when you don't know. When you're left wondering."

He goes on to name the shared friends they've made — Zatanna, John, and how he's hurt both. How, in the end, he should just walk away. Walk away from it all. Walk away without even a last word to Steve Rogers.

Jane stirs, a twist of discord knotting up her insides. It's enough to sober her, because it's not right — those thoughts in orbit around his mind. She shifts up, pulling slightly away, turned off of him enough to straddle his lap, because she needs to face him. Needs to see his face, needs to look into his eyes, for something as crucial as this. She looks weak and wan, tired, and still dismayed.

"You can't walk away, James," Jane argues, her searching eyes moving back-and-forth, studying the expression welled in his half-shadowed face. "Not from this. Believe it or not, before you even had memory, there was a part of you reaching out for them. Reaching out to all those people, hoping for something to take. It did, so walking away from them is as much as walking away from you." Her eyebrows knot. "You just got yourself back."

He talks of ripping souls. Of betrayals. She doesn't know much of what happened, but what she does — "Those actions weren't yours," she fiercely promises. "They'll understand. They know. They came for you."

When James closes his eyes, Jane reaches, carefully, gingerly reaching to touch his jaw, to bid them open. Hers are urging.

"You can face him. He's a really good man. Him and Peggy Carter, though she scares me a bit. They made SHIELD back off on me." A ghost of a smile haunts her mouth. "He loves you. You're his brother."

He takes comfort in her proximity too. And even that, he feels guilty about. How can he deserve to comfort himself with someone he dragged to hell? Someone he forced to suffer what he has suffered? By rights she should be hating him, hurting him, throwing him out of her life.

He asked her why already, and she answered, but he finds it so hard to believe. So hard to believe she could forgive so easily.

He knows that it would be insulting to keep questioning her, and so he tries not to think about it. But trying not to think about that just leads his mind to think about other things. Things like his lost family. His lost life. He thinks he remembers dreams, once, of going home from the war. Starting a family. Or alternately, continuing to fight alongside Steve in whatever else the world would need them for. Choices he once had.

Choices that were taken from him, because evil men had other plans for his life, for his skills, for his already-deadly hands. Plans to make them deadlier still.

He shakes his head. He is not ready to try to find a family that must know him only as an uncle, a great-uncle, a famed ancestor who died young in a flash of glory alongside America's first superhero. Let them think of him that way, and not as what he became: a skulk in the night, a dirty blade in the dark, a monster preying on the weak from the shadows in stark opposition to all he once was.

He tries to do the same to the friends they've both made. To Steve Rogers. That, Jane is less willing to tolerate.

She shifts and sits up, twisting to straddle his lap. He looks up at her, tired but obstinate, ready to turn his back and take his destructive presence out of the lives of those he feels he has hurt. But she tells him he can't. He can't just walk away from those he reached out to even while in the grip of captivity. Those he touched. Those who, it seemed, touched him. He just got himself back, and part of that is connecting with others again.

Besides, his actions were not his own. They understand. They came for him.

"They came for you," he says gently. "And you will need them. I don't want to jeopardize that… don't want to be in the way." He does seem placated at the news Steve and Peggy protected Jane, though does not express it in more than a flicker of emotion in the eyes.

His features tense when she persists on how much Steve loves him. That Steve is his brother. "I failed in that," he whispers. "I've always taken care of Steve. You know? Then he stopped needing me to take care of him, and I never adjusted."

A suspicious shine crosses his eyes. "I got to a point I was telling him he let me die, instead."

He shakes his head to dismiss thought of his family, and for now, Jane lets it go. For now, surely, but not forever.

But mention of him melting back into the darkness what brought him into her life, letting guilt abandon any lingering chains and binds with the strange group of friends he's made — comrades-at-arms, accomplices, kindred spirits — and the centerpiece of them all, Steve Rogers. His best friend. His brother. For James Barnes to turn his back on all of that, condemning himself unworthy to even give a last goodbye, and disappear —

Jane Foster is less tolerant. She turns, sitting compact where she shares the armchair, sitting back on her heels, she takes her head off his chest to face him. Her dark eyes, even ringed with sleepless shadow, have not lost their ferocity. A stubborn frown locks up her mouth. She looks up at him, directly in the face, directly in the eye, ready to argue and battle every single one of his words down.

His arguments meet the stone wall of her face. She shakes her head through all of it.

"They came for you too," she counters. "You don't jeopardize anything." His last statement hurts her, bringing a pinch of pain to the corners of her eyes. How could he think such a thing? "You're not in the way."

Jane tries to tread the waters of his self-destructive tide, so much guilt and shame and sorrow that even she feels as if she's being dragged under, pulled with a current seventy years strong. How can she convince him otherwise? How can she tell him that everything he thinks is wrong, so wrong?

"James," Jane tries, her voice soft, desperate, "I can hear it too. In my head." She goes silent a moment, her eyes reading every flicker of emotion crossing his face. "I didn't get it as badly as you, and sure as hell not as long as you, so I'll never be able to understand, but… I know. There's something in there and it's not me. There's something in there and it's not you." She swallows thickly, emotion wanting to edge into her voice, but she dispels it to keep her clarity. "You can't do this to yourself, all right? You can't take all their sins.

"I know it's not that easy," she adds, quick, not finished, afraid even to be interrupted too soon. "But you have to start somewhere. If you really believe you're some failure, or a monster, then you're letting them take this last piece of you too. The part they couldn't. The part they couldn't hide forever. Couldn't replace."

Jane's mouth twitches with a broken smile, shattered and still full of hope. "I won't let them. You won't let them either. After all that time, you're here."

She does not miss that telling shine of his eyes. It breaks her heart, and bids her closer, reaching to brush his dark, overlong hair from his face. At his talk of failing Steve Rogers, failing to be needed in the way she once read with him, learned some weeks ago — the sickly boy who chose to be remade a hero — she hitches out a shaky, breathy, patient laugh. "You're such an idiot. Everyone needs someone to take care of them. Even the strong ones." Jane meets his eyes. "Especially the strong ones."

He glances up at her and the stone wall of her expression as she sets herself to fight him and his self-loathing. They came for him too. They put themselves on the line to rescue him also, seeing his past, understanding his pain, knowing that he was as much victim as perpetrator. For him to turn his back and leave their lives without a word— especially Steve's— would do them the greatest injustice. They deserve a word from him. And he deserves them.

His gaze flickers. His shoulders slump, James staring at the floor.

"I guess," he finally says, after a long, empty pause, "I do owe them all debts." It's clear he is thinking about it in terms of what they did for Jane, and what he owes them for coming to save her and fix his mistakes. His atrocities. It would be ungrateful to never acknowledge their sacrifices for his errors, would it not? It's not quite what Jane was going for, but it's a start.

He lapses back into silence afterwards. Not a peaceful silence, though— the silence of the guilt that undercurrents all this, a guilt and self-loathing that has built up over a period of time over twice as long as Jane's own lifespan. Longer than her parents' lifespans. Long as her grandparents' should have been. It is a tide that threatens to overwhelm her, one she is not sure she can even fight.

But she will try. She will try, because she can't bear to see him dragged under by shame and sorrow he should not have to bear.

She can hear it too, she starts. His gaze flicks up to pin on hers immediately, and the look in his eyes is stricken to the heart, as if he heard the worst possible thing he could ever hear. She knows. There's something else in her now that isn't her, just as there's something in him that isn't him…

She rushes on, trying to tell him he can't do this, can't just let himself burn for the sins of those who victimized him in the first place. That if he lets himself believe he is a monster, then they've truly won, and there is nothing left of James Buchanan Barnes.

But it's hard to say if he's listening.

His hands come up, reaching to take her face into his palms. One warm flesh, the other cold metal, they cup her jaw gently, fingers spreading in vanishingly careful tenderness along the planes of her face. He holds her with such care that she can feel the tension in his right hand: a tension that does not apply any pressure, but rather shakes with the effort of holding itself harmlessly still.

His eyes stare into hers, the look in them gutted out. "I've broken you," he says. "I destroyed you. I made you like me."

The words pour out of her like a sieve. Jane cannot stop them, cannot think to stop them. They rush free, fierce and impatient, a woman never taken seriously enough, always prepared to be interrupted, talked over, ignored. She wants him to know this. She needs him to know this. That even if every sin committed by Hydra were executed by his hands, it's still not his fault. He can deal with the fallout, work through the pain, and she will help him, but she will not let him forsake the last untouched track of his soul.

It was enough to bring him back. It may be small, but it is precious, and she will fight to protect it. He won't let it be twisted and withered on the guilt and shame of the monsters who used him.

But even Jane senses something amiss, something in the way he looks at her, fixed on her face like her words are moving uselessly through him. Not touching him when they should, when she wants them to, because he's bowed his head into another noose. Taking all of her hopeful words and knotting them into something with which to hang himself.

To her surprise, not expecting him to touch her, least of all with both his hands, Jane goes briefly still under the disparate touches of flesh and metal, his ten fingers cupping her jaw and framing her face in trembling care. His blue eyes are heartbroken. She looks helplessly back, fearing the worst, fearing his mind down somewhere so deep and dark she'll never bring him back.

His words break her. Because they're so wrong. They're so wrong, and she hates the world that would make him believe such a thing.

"You're not /listening/ to me," Jane begs him breathlessly, her own eyes shining, too-bright, angry and frustrated and desperate, so desperate to be /understood./

"You didn't. You didn't break me. I'm not destroyed," she urges, reaching up one hand to cover his, her skin warm, alive, to emphasize the point, "and neither are you. We're not that. Because we're still here."

Jane's eyes burn. "James. The only thing you've made me is feel safe. Like I'm not so alone, and I was. You saved me over and over. You pulled me off that ice, when I thought I was going to die all by myself. And no one would ever find me." Her gaze flickers, and fresh tears fall, more of them, neverending, cutting her cheeks and beading wet and hot against his fingers. Her voice drops to a whisper. "You held me together when they were in my head. That was you. I remember. The magpie bridge. They wanted to break me, but they couldn't. I had you. Everyone… everyone I've ever known has left me behind. They go places I can't follow. And maybe — maybe it's why I look at the stupid stars, because maybe I'll finally get to go somewhere too, finally be able to follow someone — but you came back for me. You keep coming back."

Her face leans into his hands, trusting even now, and her brown eyes mirror Jane's inward light — a burning, shining star of her own faith. She looks briefly away, then back up, gazing with only a singular honesty. "There's a part I don't regret," she confesses. "A part of me that is glad it happened, because I got to be there with you. Instead of being left behind, never knowing, at least for a little while I got to help you. If being made like you means I get to be there for you, get to… keep you from being alone, I want it."

Memories rise, unbidden, at the feel of her delicate face in both his hands. They are violent memories. Memories of how he has held people this way before— only to twist, turn his wrists, and break their necks. Memories of how he has held them this way before, to smash their heads into something, over and over, until the twitching stopped. Memories of how, on one hurried occasion when he was startled midway through and had no time to think, he simply closed his hands together and crumpled a skull into broken shards of bone.

His right hand shakes. His right arm trembles. His left, however, never moves a whit. It waits patiently for direction.

"If you knew the things in my mind," he whispers, "just holding you this way. The things I remember doing."

But he does not do them. And isn't that the important part?

He doesn't seem to think so. He doesn't seem aware of anything except his grief and self-hatred. He only slowly becomes aware she's angry at him as if through a thick haze, as if trying to see underwater, distantly becoming aware that she's frustrated. Because he's not /listening/ to her. His eyes crease in remorse. And he listens.

He didn't break her. He didn't destroy her. He saved her, over and over. That part of him that could never die, that could never be erased— that piece of him that remained James Buchanan Barnes, too written into his bones to be burned away. That part of him which stayed what he is at his core: a good man. A man who protects those who cannot protect themselves. A man faithful and loyal to the end.

She tells him the essence of them is still here, unerased. In her case, it was because she had him. And if she was able to help him, in turn— keep him from being alone as he has been for seventy years— then being made like him would be more than worth it to her. She would want it.

He says nothing. His expression is saying it all, as he tries his hardest to control it. To keep it from breaking visibly. He cannot speak. He is visibly unable, without letting go of that one unsteady support holding all his composure together, but the feel of his hands speaks silently of gratitude, disbelief, and need.

His hands tighten on her, drawing her forward, and his forehead touches to hers. She can hear him breathing raggedly, struggling to contain himself, forcing himself to remain strong.

In the low light, Jane's eyes shine. Like stars they cast their light, a beacon to draw James Barnes from the darkness to the starlight flare of her confession. If she's been made like him, so be it. She accepts it without regret. She wants it, and lets it be the evidence that for once, he was not alone. That she was there for him, if just for this brief window in his decades of loneliness, a burning Sirius against his bleak, eternal winter.

His hands, flesh and metal, pull her forward. Jane yields in perfect trust, drawn forward until her body leans into James Barnes, little and light and burning warmth, her head bowed to touch his.

She shudders likely, a quick, sharp intake of breath, need of her own, a need just to feel him, a need just to be felt. To let in a single bit of contact come the truth to set her free, that the nightmare is over, that she is safe, and that, in a way, Jane Foster kept her quiet promise. Not to repair an arm, but to save a man, and here he is. Broken, left in scattered pieces, but not lost.

Her hand tightens briefly over his, his right, the hand on her she feels trembling, shaking. She can hear it, a secret betrayed in the dark quiet of her apartment, the laboured catch and hitch of his breathing, and what a man struggles so hard to hold in. She says nothing of it, the tears she knows he fights back, giving no judgment whether or not they happen. He can here, if it is his choice. He can with her.

Jane has been so afraid to close her eyes, for fear of awakening back to a nightmare. But here, surrounded in James' presence, her forehead nudged against his, she lets the fear melt away, lets her eyes lash trustingly shut. Her so-close breath spreads warmth over him, and she lets her hand slide off his, pulled in to brush her palm down the line of his neck, her thumb stroking patiently over his pulse.

Her face pulled both a breath from his, Jane's whispered words are felt as much as they are heard, a rasp of her lips along the nerves of his skin. "You have never hurt me," she tells him, simple and true, the truth to save his tormented soul.

"Please don't walk away," Jane murmurs, with a catch to her voice — all that strength, all that ferocity faltering, stripped weak, stripped raw, to make her plea. "Stay with me."

They do not happen. James was not a man raised to find it acceptable to cry or break before a lady. Or, for that matter, at all. He was raised to internalize it, to sit in silence, to fix it via the work of his hands and the sweat of his effort rather than useless emotion.

But he comes close. His reclaimed memories, the enormity and atrocity of his life, are too much, too soon. Too great for a mind to easily process. He shudders on the edge of it, before pulling himself back from it for what feels like the final time.

Weeping is useless. There is only what he must bear, and what he must do. The things he has done for which he must atone.

With that thought, his aspect changes. His hands become cradling, his presence soothing: something strong to lean upon. Her eyes shut and she pleads with him not to walk away. To stay. In answer he lifts his head and shifts his hands, drawing her down into his arms and against his chest. He settles her head to the hollow of his throat, resting his chin on her crown, eyes pensive. He folds around her to guard her with his own body.

Perhaps the only way he knows how to cope, in the end, is to be strong and protect someone else. It is what he has always done. It is what he knows.

"If it's what you want," he promises, "I will stay."

He sighs into silence, thinking. "I remember it," he says, after a pause. "I remember everything I did. I wasn't in control, but I was there. I could watch. I could feel what I was doing. I remember the lies I told you to get you to come with me. I remember how long you trusted me before you began to question. I remember how long everyone trusted me before they began to question. I don't know if I will get that trust back."

His eyes go distant, staring across the decades. "There are thousands of other things I've done. Things I'm only just starting to remember. Things that would have me prosecuted in dozens of countries. Get me the death penalty many times over. You need to be aware of what you're choosing."

He walks a dangerous precipice, reaching for her, holding onto her, pulling her close until her forehead leans against his. Jane closes her eyes, holding still, wanting so desperately to support James Barnes, wanting so badly to feel solid, safe, strong. She cannot even imagine how he must feel. She cannot imagine waking up to realize she's slept her entire life away, her home and any people she would have loved, and was forced to witness herself become a monster, something she's not. Forced to sit back-seat to a living nightmare.

It would have happened if they had longer with her. They would have twisted her. Took out everything in her that did not appeal to them, and replace it with a woman she is not. She hates them.

He shudders against her. Jane touches James in every way she can, to tell him without words he is allowed to let go. Allowed not to let go. Allowed to do whatever he wishes, so long he doesn't walk away. With an ache in her chest, she realizes even then if it were his wish, she couldn't stop him, wouldn't want to force him, but she knows it's wrong. He'll give up whatever grounding he has, turn his back on the bit of man they couldn't take, and be a ghost.

The thought of that happening shatters her. It hitches all of Jane's strength enough to let the plea escape her lips, soft and light.

He does not weep. He does something else instead, acts in the stoic way James Barnes used to, and in his touches come a sea change. He gathers her in and draws her close, until Jane fetches up against his chest, cradled into the larger curve of his body. Her face buries against his throat, and she lets go the deep, shaky breath she's been holding for two weeks, for longer, as her hands curl to tangle into his clothes.

It's not what she asked for, not what she expected, him to reach out as if to protect her, but some part of Jane seems to feel James' need to. He spoke of Steve no longer needing care, even if she thinks that wrong too — but if he needs to care for someone, she won't fight him wanting to care for her. She'll care for him right back. Mantled in the fierce gripping of her hands is her promise to protect him too.

"All you can do is try," Jane replies, listening to all of James' soft words. "You haven't lost my trust. I have faith you won't lose theirs. Those you knew you well enough, knew what you were going through.. they saw the same person I did and trusted him. They'll understand."

She pauses, head tucked against his throat, exhaling a deep breath that slants warmth. "If they don't — we'll handle that too," is her promise. "But trust them too, all right? They came for you. I know Steve misses you."

It's only then James begins to speak of conditions, conditions and warnings and red dawns that come with knowing a man like him. That come with lingering close to the stormwinds of his tortured life. For many seconds, Jane is silent.

Then she answers, simply, firmly, "I'm aware."

Her right hand loosens to lay over his heart. "What's more important to me are the things you do now. And what you want. I don't… want this as another thing you have to do. Or you feel forced to, like a debt."

She wants to help him. To protect him, bolster him, give him a place of solidity and safety. And for a few precious moments, that is exactly what she does. Exhausted, hollowed out, James Barnes leans on her, forehead to forehead, hands cupping her face, and she supports him in a place of perfect nonjudgment and peace.

Peace, after sixty years of killing and war.

She cannot imagine what he must feel. He himself cannot even imagine what he feels. There is too much there to parse— too much he himself has barely gotten his own head around. It is hard to wake from a long nightmare and realize that, all that time, it was real. It is hard to know that what you did in that long horrible dream is now something you'll have to live with all your life. It is hard to realize that everything you knew and loved is gone now… stolen from you by the same hands that seized your own and washed them in six decades of blood.

Hard to realize that there are countless people who will never know you as anything but the monstrous Winter Soldier.

He shudders in those brief moments of weakness. And then, as he always has, and he always will… James Buchanan Barnes straightens his spine and copes. He changes around her, responding to the frailty of her plea, hearing a need in her voice to which he cannot help but react. Even decades away from the young man who never could let someone small and weak stay afraid, that part of him is still strong and alive: a deep core to his nature that cannot be removed.

He shifts to comfort and protect her in turn. She is a victim too, and he will see her safe.

She promises to protect him too, in her way. Her way, it seems, lies in the soft words she angles up to him. Quiet reassurances that people will understand— and that if they don't, the two of them will handle it together. And Steve misses him…

He goes silent at the name. How he failed Steve seems to cut more deeply than anything else, to him.

He has warnings for her, as well. Reminders of the consequences of staying close to an internationally-wanted assassin. He did not choose to be one, but it's not likely everyone else will be so understanding as she confidently assesses their personal friends will be. She looks up at him like he's a fool to even question. Like it never crossed her mind as an issue at all. What's more important, she asserts, is what he wants. He has to truly want this. She doesn't want to be a debt, nor to force him.

"It isn't," he says, softly. "I want it. More than I should, given what I've done. People are dead. People are orphaned. All because of me. And I get what I want?"

He moves beneath her, wanting to be let up, too restless to remain sitting. If allowed, he turns to replace her in his original spot in the chair, settling her gently before stretching up to a stand with a sigh. It's hard to say how long he was sitting there, but it seems like it's been a while judging from his apparent relief.

For all the frozen winter he's lived, he's become, Jane Foster is a burning bit of warmth among so much cold. Running against the current of his bleak realism is her unfettered idealism, star-bright even now, refusing to concede to a world, a state of things, that does not exist the way she sees it. A place of hope.

It may be naviete, but even then, after the last two weeks, should that ignorance be broken — fallen to pieces at her feet? She has lived an innocent life free of the chains and trappings that have bound him to unwilling slavery for a century, and yet…

It feels on her more than a civilian's life of moderation. Like Jane Foster and her place of deep faith — faith in all things, it seems, in the matters of morality, the matters of the soul, the matters of the flesh, the matters of scientific law, the matters of human drive and human momentum and the human stain above all, what it means to be here, real, and alive — are an essential handhold. Something that, if ever broken, would destroy the person she is.

Something that, possibly, no matter how sheltered or how worldly she will live, will never make her let that hope go.

It's what holds her stubbornly, refusing to accept or surrender to the hopeless things James Barnes says, or bow to the idea he is less than a complete man. Even in his arms, against his chest, she's a tiny little knot of resistance, not tense in his arms, not unyielding, but refusing to join him in despair. The steel in her tiny, breakable hands is her denial to lose him to that same despair, to pull him out, kicking and screaming, if she must.

Eventually he grows restless, the turn of conversation something he can't do sitting down, sitting still, gently shifting for freedom. Jane moves, quick to give him freedom, appalled at the idea of James allowed to feel even a second's worth of restraint. It's a laughable thing, seeing how easily he could move her if he so wished, but even she knows physical strength can be rooted by the fetters of guilt. She would feel sick to know if guilt has bound him anywhere near her.

Reseated to the armchair, looking small, especially when Jane bends up her legs to curl up tightly, she remains seated, her dark eyes following, watching, the way James Barnes stands. His restlessness is lost on her. For all her ferocity of will, she's physically drained. Two weeks of fighting to keep her mind, and now unable to sleep, and she's left so tired.

The rest of her strength wells to keep the sharpness and clarity in her eyes, listening on as he speaks. Says words that aren't right. Hasn't he been listening to her? Listening, perhaps, but not believing? Maybe it's too soon, and he's still too lost to hear her hope. Maybe it's gone on so long that anything she says is meaningless, running off the slick grease of hands run with too much blood.

Jane still tries. She doesn't give up easily.

"You get to live your life," she speaks up at him. "The life they took from you. You're a victim too." Jane's eyes tighten, lips pursed too, trying to search for the words she honestly does not sure, is not sure would even be heard, would even work.

She looks down at her lap. "I don't know what you see. I don't know what you feel. I can't… I can't image it. But what it sounds like you want to do, it's not right. It doesn't feel right. You don't cure loss with another death. That's what you'd be doing, if you don't try to take back your life. You'd be giving up, and for nothing."

James settles into a steady pacing once standing, stretching his legs, transparently restless. Like a wolf in a cage several sizes too small for comfort. It doesn't seem like any particular marker of distress: just a habit, a tic, a thing to do for lack of anything else to occupy his mind or body.

To speak of the frozen winter that's been his life since 1945— there's a bottle on the mantel, some kind of whiskey— bourbon, looks like— something he showed up with the other day, but hasn't yet touched. He crosses over and picks it up now, looking at it pensively. "You got a glass for this? —No, don't get up."

He pauses. "You want a glass too?"

Whether or not she wants one, he's getting one for himself. He cracks open the bottle— pours first for her, if she wants it— and then starts pouring for himself. He pours a full glass even though it's whiskey, and he drinks it fast. The blazing internal heat of it seems to alleviate some of the cold that's seeped deeply into his bones over the seventy years he's spent freezing in ice.

He listens even as he does all this. He doesn't seem someone apt to sit quietly for long, preferring to keep busy even while conversing. His deft hands don't look like they're meant to sit idle long. You're a victim too. He laughs a little, a rasp of sound, and pours another full glass. "I suppose I am," he says, but though he apparently accepts that as fact, he doesn't seem to find much comfort in the belief.

He finishes his second glass. The warmth feels relieving after years of cold. "I guess you're right, in that way," he says frankly. "I got no right to take my own life or decide my own punishment."

He starts pouring another. "But I won't live a life forgetting what I did, nor pretending I don't have to account for it in some way."

His eyes darken. "Or that there aren't others out there I'd love to make account for what they've done." She wouldn't have noticed it earlier, but now he's standing it's hard to miss the gleam of his familiar sidearm, holstered at his back. "There's plenty of motivations I can find for living life, if I sit down and think about them."

Uneasy, and yet at the same time, patient, Jane tracks James' pacing with her eyes. It feels like a building storm, in a way, and she's no expert when it comes to this: a scientist, yes, but not a psychologist. On the contrary, someone who has forsaken social ties to chase the solitary nature of her work, and let her passions keep her pitifully alone. All she has are the familiar ties of grief, though her griefs are not his, not anything like his, and her pressing need to want to do something — to help. To be there.

So she keeps trying, keeps watching, keeps thinking.

He asks for a glass. She plants her hands down against the chair, no doubt to pull herself up and fussily get it herself, but James requests her to stay put. Jane does so, left sitting forward, seated but no longer able to relax in any sort of manner. The worry in her watchful eyes stops that. She watches him uncap a bottle of alcohol, the sort of hard stuff she hasn't ever bought or tried to drink since undergrad.

Does she want a glass?

Jane parts her lips. Her first instinct is to say no. But she pauses, figures why, not. If anything she's learned, it's that life may be about seizing last chances. "Sure," she calls.

After another moment of quiet lingering, and against his request, she decidedly stands, pulling herself up to her not-so-significant height. Jane tries to make a weary show of it that she's stretching out her own kinked muscles, exhausted but still too-long spent sitting and laying and not moving, but the real reason is she doesn't want to be left alone. Even across the room of a too-small, Brooklyn apartment feels like too much room, too much space, too much darkness to hold her in at all sides. The woman lingers forward to take her own glass, looking down at it, smelling the fierce bite of alcohol.

Jane takes a short sip and lets it scour out her mouth and burn down her throat. Not her poison, but it makes her feel warm too.

She keeps a concerned, quiet vigil on the seconds and thirds James Barnes pours for himself, pours and knocks back. She doesn't comment on it, perhaps thinking it's his right to. Maybe it's all someone can do in a screwed up situation like this. Get pissed.

"It shouldn't be about punishment," she argues, quiet, but with enough candor that there's no mistaking the volume or intent of her words. "Punishment isn't what brought you back. It was strength. And love."

She looks up at him. "I'm not saying you should forget. I couldn't ever tell you whether you even could. It's not my place. But you have to protect who you are. Or I will, if you won't."

He pours more. He talks of retribution. Jane frowns, not in disapproval, because not even she can find it in herself to disagree. Something furious inside of her wants the same. He eyes catch the glint of light off his gun. "I can help you think of as many as you need."

There is nothing in his pacing to suggest he will run off on her, nor that he intends anything rash. But there is plenty in it to suggest frustration: a man trying impatiently to reconcile a seventy-year shattered mind in the space of a few days.

He seems, at some point, to decide that if he cannot comfort his mind, he can at the least dispel some of the persistent /cold/ that still dogs his body, and he heads for something he picked up expressly for that purpose. He gets himself a glass— gets Jane one too— and starts pouring.

He pours her a very conservative finger. He pours himself a glass, in defiance of all convention on how to properly drink. He thinks he has an excuse.

He turns to hand it over— only to find her standing beside him quietly, in defiance of his injunction to stay put. A brow raises, but he hands over her glass without verbal complaint, taking up his own with a tired sigh and leaning against the mantel. The warmth of the whiskey is much-needed, though he takes it much faster than he should be.

Takes much more of it than he should be, too. Though it doesn't really seem to be having much effect. His expression darkens more and more as this becomes evident.

He keeps pouring. And he speaks, finally, of the few things that could give purpose back to his life. Atonement. Vengeance. It shouldn't be about punishment, she says. "I'll see what happens when they face me," he says wearily, finally submitting to her insistence. "Whatever they choose, however they respond to me, I'll accept."

He sighs into his glass. He has to protect who he is, she says. "I don't know what that is," he says. "I know who I used to be. I know who I became. But now?" Is he something else? Is he both? His gaze is pensive. "It would've been easier if I hadn't been conscious all those years," he murmurs.

He keeps drinking. "This shit isn't working," he finally says, frustrated.

Contrary to his compulsive filling-and-emptying of his glass, Jane nurses hers carefully. She sips it slowly, letting the too-long-ago, remembered taste of whisky pull her back to years ago. Distance comes back to her eyes. Raiding her father's liquor cabinet the night he died. She came home, had so much to do, so many people to tell, and couldn't do either. She got so shitfaced. It seemed like the right thing to do.

It doesn't this time. The alcohol sits dangerously on top of her too-empty stomach, appetite long lost and not about to return, and letting go spells danger. The last thing she wants James Barnes to do, in his first few days back to humanity, is to clean up after her. Jane doesn't finish her finger. She looks down, pensive, the whispers in her head telling her it's all wrong, that she's lost and should be trying to find her next handler. She sets her unfinished glass aside, and fiercely focuses back on James, letting him occupy all of her, letting him bring her back.

Jane eventually takes a half-sit on the arm of her couch, hands braced against her legs, her turned head and upraised eyes focused up on the man currently trying and failing to drink himself to death. Drink himself to life. One of the two. Maybe both.

She looks at him with the pained helplessness of someone wishing she could fix this, fix it in in word, one action, one moment, and knowing she cannot. She watches him drink, already knowing he's imbibed far too much, too much for a grown man to suffer without dire consequences. Her expression tenses, perhaps in quiet preparation and planning to caretaker him, because he's going to be sick —

He speaks bleakly like he expects, or perhaps wants, to be punished by the people he would call his friends. Jane goes still, the helpless inaction of someone standing on too-thin ice, because even she of her great faith — still worries. Would any of them retaliate? John she trusts in a way, but does not know so well. Zatanna even less. Steve, she knows would not. Agent Carter? "I'll be there with you," she offers, or perhaps tries to order, whether or not to his liking.

He keeps pouring. "James," Jane finally begins to intone, weary. "I don't think you should —"

But he keeps speaking with the same clarity. Anyone who drank so much alcohol in one sitting, even without the proper time to get drunk, wouldn't be upright. They'd be doubled over, sick, the stomach only able to tolerate so much. And yet he is —

This shit isn't working, James remarks, glum.

Jane looks on him searchingly. Then she realizes, and a wince tightens all the corners of her features. "You may be metabolizing it too quickly."

She bows her head, tucks her dark hair behind her ear. "It isn't easy. It's going to be really hard. I don't even know how hard. Harder than anyone should deserve." She looks back up. "And you don't need to know who you are. It won't be figured out in a day. Maybe not for a long time. All you need to know is that you're here. And you won't be doing it alone."

Those same whispers circulate in his own mind. Except for him, they are not whispers. They are shouts. Where are you? You're not where you should be. You should go home. You should wait for someone to get you. You should submit. You should kill—

His hand tightens on the glass. It creaks, and he lets up hastily.

Jane sits nearby, in sentinel silence. She looks so helpless that it hurts him to glance at her: a twist of his heart that comes and goes. "I apologize," he says, trying for a lighter tone and failing miserably. He merely sounds like he's making sardonic mockery of his own misery. "Not very fun to nursemaid me, is it." He can hear her silence too, her telling worried absence of response when he speculates on what the reactions of others might be to him.

He knows it means not even Jane, Jane of the endless faith, can muster up enough faith to be one hundred percent sure of their forgiveness. But she promises to be there with him.

His head lowers. He nods, after a moment.

He keeps drinking. He has long since passed the point where he should still be operational, should be upright— passed the point where he should now be on the floor, sick, no man capable of taking in that much poison in one sitting without paying dearly for his hubris. Yet his eyes are clear. His voice is steady.

It doesn't shake when he complains that it's not working.

Understanding crosses her eyes. You're metabolizing it too quickly, she says. James laughs a little, starts to pour out the last of the bottle— then just stops. "They took even this from me, huh?"

He puts it aside and drops his face into a hand, scrubbing tiredly at his own features as Jane speaks. He doesn't have to know who he is, she says. Not immediately. Not even soon. He just needs to know that he's his own man again, and that he's not alone.

He emits a sound, a muffled hint of noise stifled by his hand. A moment passes. Then he lifts his face from his palm, sighing out a breath. Enough whining. "Thank you," he says. The two words say volumes.

His eyes close, James centering himself briefly in the dark. They reopen again after a pause, his hand flexing briefly like he wants to lift it— reach out— but decides against it at the least moment. "Enough about me. I want to see that you're all right."

"Don't apologize," Jane says as quickly as he dares the words, quietly, in a tone that brooks no argument. Her eyes shine with all the expression he refuses on his face. "Not for this. Not ever."

Not very fun to nursemaid him. Her face is equal parts yearning and exasperation. "You don't know how I wished even to be able to see you this way," she confesses. She frowns at her own phrasing. "I mean, not like this. But here. Here with me. Talking to me. Remembering. I'll do whatever I can to help."

And she seems to be certain of that promise. Certain that that promise even means her to stand her, watch over him, and hover at the fringes as he struggles with emotions he hasn't felt in so long — struggles and tries to deal with them all through drink. Jane worries but seems unable to stop him, unable to want to stop him, far from it her place, or the place of anyone else in all this world to tell James Barnes what to do. To ever restrict or control him again.

It is his freedom to feel however he wants. Act against his own anger and frustration in the ways he knows, or wishes to learn. It's his will to even drink himself sick in her apartment, and she'll care for him — only attempt to advise him otherwise when it seems he may be endangering himself too much.

He hits that point fast. Fast enough Jane puts on her own brakes. And even then —

— nothing seems to be happening. Not even a slur to his words. Not even a slight spell of sickness. He drinks hard liquor like water.

She doesn't have to search her considerable mind long for an answer. James Barnes burns to the touch. He is abnormally strong, enhanced, imbued in every physical way. Of course he'd metabolize whatever poison his body would drink in too fast to ever feel it.

They even took this from him, he says.

Again, so many times she's lost count, Jane's heart breaks. It's something so trivial, something so vestigial, the ability to get drunk, and yet stripped from him. Another choice taken. She wipes uneasily the fresh tears from her face.

She looks back up, seeing James, his face lost in his hand. She shifts, and even across the room he can hear her, the woman moving lightly but with no means to ever sneak up on someone like him. She moves toward him, he will know, and when he uncovers his face, Jane still looks up at him, closer than before, lingering helplessly a few feet away. Wanting so badly to touch him again, hold him through his pain, and unsure if his restlessness also means he wants space.

Jane doesn't miss the aborted gesture of his hand. She moves, as if reflexively compelled closer, but arrests again, when he decides otherwise. She stands uneasily. She looks on with overt disbelief when he tries to turn attention on her, because enough about him? Enough about the man who's only just reclaimed his own life? "I'm fine," she says, even though she isn't, but two weeks is not seventy years. It is a drop in the pond.

"I'm really all right," she promises, summoning up her last of everything into a reassuring smile, while her eyes search. "I just want to be here for you."

Don't apologize, she cuts him off. He goes silent, looking at her, before he acquiesces to the demand and holds his silence in the face of her ironclad tone.

He just returns his attention to his glass, looking at it morosely, examining the way the low light refracts in the amber liquid. He has no idea how she wished to be able to see him this way, she insists; he glances at her, cocking a brow, before she hastily amends— not like that. Just… liberated. Freed. Able to remember all his long life. Restored to the man he used to be.

Or some version of the man he used to be, at least.

"You help by existing," he eventually says, a little too lightly. "If you weren't here, I would have nowhere else to be but out there hunting and killing some more. It'd be more justified killing" vengeful killing, "but still killing. And I feel like I've had enough of that, for now."

The bottle is practically empty. He should be sick, collapsing by now— but it doesn't seem to register with him any more than plain water would. Jane stares a moment, before she diagnoses the issue. In capabilities, he seems similar to his brother in every way— a human, except made better in every way— and it's a known fact Captain America's metabolism burns so fast that weak poison like alcohol could never make headway in his system.

James finds this humorlessly funny, scrubbing his face with a hand in tired amusement. They even took the ability to get shitfaced from him.

He hears Jane start to approach him, but does not look up until she is directly before him. She is still hesitant to touch— as, clearly, is he— but she comes as close as she dares. Feeling self-centered, overly self-pitying, he tries to turn attention back to her and the way she suffered too, at his hands. She looks at him like he's daft. She just wants to be here for him.

His eyes gentle with a look of resignation. Closing that last bit of distance, he very carefully takes her jaw in his right hand, leaning down into a kiss. It is a chaste thing, a caress that does not linger long for fear of causing hurt, but neither does it pull away too soon.

"You are a lot more than I deserve," he murmurs, as he pulls away. "And you're right. I should… face the people who came." Whatever they intend for him.

She helps by existing.

Hope and a tired sort of relief shines through her face. It brings life back to Jane's black-ringed eyes. If those same eyes already didn't burn from too many tears — the hundreds she knows she's cried for him, will probably still cry for him in the days to come — she thinks she'd lose a pair more. He speaks of the life he would be leading even with his reclaimed memory: not a life at all, but a demonstration of vengeance. All the vengeance he rightfully deserves, Jane knows, and yet —

One cannot heal spilled blood with more blood. He wants to break the cycle, and she wants to help him.

"You've had enough of it," she concurs. "It's time for other things. So many things I want to show you. I'm glad that you found me that night. I'm glad that I found you back."

Even among her fatigue and her many worries, one of them the empty bottle in James Barnes' hand — her concern that he should be sick before it becomes apparent he is far from it — Jane records this as a victory. Perhaps her greatest victory to date. The rescue of a man. The recovery of his soul, returned to him after so long lost. Only two months ago, here he stood, cornering her in this very room, holding a gun to her head, demanding help. She couldn't even see his face.

Then she spoke of the stars and his blue eyes were lost.

Now Jane comes in close, looking up into those same eyes, intent, watchful, pensive. He tries to turn talk back on her, and her expression folds into patient exasperation. She feels — numb, she thinks, probably shock, probably a blessing for as long as it lasts. Perhaps not, perhaps it's her already coping, perhaps her mind knowing well to try to think as far away from the memories circling the back of her mind. It helps not to be alone. It really, really helps that it's him as her company, James Barnes whose presence has become a promise, a necessary shelter from all her memories and nightmares.

She really doesn't know how she is, if it's even well, or healthy — but she's alive, she's here, and she's /her/, and Jane will cling to all three to keep the darkness at bay. And she doesn't want to talk of herself now when he's suffered so much worse. When he refuses to even cry. She draws dangerously close, wanting to touch, and holding back.

He closes the distance for her.

Stepping forward, James is treated to a brief, sweet little sight, a window of genuine surprise as Jane's eyes widen, as her lips part, seeing him do the last thing she expects of him — the last act she'd think him well or willing enough to do. He takes her jaw and tips back her head. She gazes, lost in his face.

He kisses her. Carefully, chastely, in a brush of his mouth and a sigh of his breath that tastes of whisky. Jane melts into it, eyes shut, far from hurt. She reaches up with her right hand, fingers curled in the air, before they alight in a brief, feather-light touch to his face.

She knows this kiss. It's a kiss hello.

"Let me be in charge of what you deserve," Jane proposes, pulling her bottom lip in between her teeth to briefly taste it. She looks away, shy, before her eyes find his again. They soften to James' decision. "Good. I guess this is the first thing you'll learn. I'm usually right."

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