February 07, 2017:

Bucky tells Jane about the seal John Constantine placed on him, in the event the Winter Soldier is ever triggered again. Jane is emphatically not thrilled, to Bucky's surprise.

Brooklyn, New York


NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Steve Rogers


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

The low winter sun sets over Brooklyn.

The last few hours have found Jane Foster to her lonesome, her apartment empty of James Barnes, away one one of his necessary absences to mend the bonds so important to him. So important to her too, that she does not speak a word against how being without him grates, leaves her unoccupied mind to focus on other things — things she's not ready to confront, things she'd rather not think. Her passion stalled on her work, and her anxiety keeping her mainly confined to the claustrophobia of her home, the scientist does her best to deal. Her best to cope.

Admittedly, she finds his absences easier to tolerate as the days go on. She tries to keep her hands busy, her body busy, moving, acting, doing, if it's not cleaning, it's organizing, or taking apart her laptop to clean it, or dissecting the toaster oven to steamline its faulty, and admittedly, amateur electrical job. She goes through a year of work emails and does administrative deletions that, admittedly, is work best left for an assistant, or an intern, either which she sorely lacks.

She… she ends up running out of things to do, and paces circles, telling herself whatever she does, it won't be to nap. There will be no sleep when she's not alone. No dreams when James is not here.

She gets out on the fire escape and brushes away the newest sprinkling of snow, because even though she detests James Barnes' new habit, she'll try to ensure he has a bearable refuge out here. It's important to her he has some place in her apartment that, as she wants him to realize, is chiefly and solely his. Everything in her life is his, Jane would have it, but this is something else — a place that he can go even if he would wish to get away from her. A place to just… be alone, and be assured no one would intrude unless he should ask them to.

This work has her taking constant, meaningful glances up the ladder. And thinking of something Jane would be doing right now, if things were a little different. Should be doing.

It leads her to another idea how to occupy her mind.

For this, she's glad she's alone. Glad James isn't here, because she wouldn't be doing this with him watching; she wouldn't be bringing her telescope back down from the roof of her apartment, carefully disassembling it off its tripod, and packing its pieces into its casing. He'd probably have a lot of questions, and definitely a strained look in his eyes. The case latched up, she lays a hand over it, feeling the smooth plastic and leather, running fingers over seams she remembers tracing as a young girl. It's been with her a long time.

Jane clears out a spot in the back of her closet and stacks the folded tripod and case within, aside a few boxes and her summer shoes.

She organizes that closet now, well late into the day, first out of need to fit that in, and now just to waste time, wrestling with still-taped-shut moving boxes of her things never opened in New York, no time or space to, trying to punch their clattering messes backwards to get the doors shut.

It is a long, long day Jane Foster is without her errant soldier, because this is the day that James Barnes determined to seek out John Constantine. He'd already had success, a day or two previous, speaking to Zatanna— he'd come home with a grave look to him and that silver bracelet about his wrist, which he now refuses to ever take off— and he was still high enough on that energy to roll directly into one of the more difficult people he had yet to face.

Today, he left fairly early in the morning. He still had John's number, but it had not felt right to him to just call the man up for an audience. He had not been… certain of how the interaction would go, whether John would even want to see him; Zatanna had hinted at a greater compassion to the man than most would expect, but not for nothing does James frequently note that Zatanna reminds him of Steve. She can sometimes have an awful lot of optimism about things.

Mostly, he just wanted to approach John in a way such that there would be no implicit pressure to engage. He wanted a genuine reaction: the choice to cross a street or not. To willfully approach him or not when all he was presented with was the sight of a man standing across the way.

That meant finding John. And skilled though the former Winter Soldier is at the hunt, he knows it will take time to pin down a man like John Constantine.

Then there was the encounter itself— short, as expected between such reticent, taciturn men. It led to something more involved, however, something that kept James out until fairly late at night.

His return is at first, as uneventful as his departure, the quiet sound of the key in the lock heralding the door opening and shutting. But once he gets into the apartment, it's obvious that there's a difference to the energy about him. There is an excitement hanging about him, muted but palpable, as he drops the keys to an end table and starts to shed his coat.

His movements seem… freer, too, less restrained, less knotted up with tension and timidity.

"Jane?" he calls. "Got some good news."

There's one last, muted rattle as Jane, feet braced against her hardwood floors, puts her back into cramming one last, oversized box into the too-small compartment of the closet, making a silent promise that she will spend an entire weekend sorting and organizing and making sense of that entire mess —

— so long as she can just get the doors closed.

She latches shut the door and, with a windy sigh, leans back against it.

It's at that moment she hears the key in the front door. Head turned toward the familiar sound, Jane gentles, feeling some knot made of her insides give, and unravel free. No longer alone.

Taking a surreptititious look at the time — he's later coming home tonight than usual, she realizes, though she won't say anything about it aloud to him — Jane pulls off the closet door and moves through the hall, turned one last corner that bears her into James' line of sight, meandered into the foyer to greet him. Wiping dust off her hands on the legs of her pants, looking a little pink-cheeked and breathless around the edges, he's definitely caught her in one of her organization sprees, though one she is still all-too-delighted to leave behind and offer him her full attention.

"James," she greets, with a sincere smile to her face, suffused with warmth just to see him. Jane looks James up and down, and those she's no spy, no one particularly trained to notice the little things, even she catches the wealth of detail underlying his movements, tansforming his manner.

But even now she knows best to respect his reticence, stopped a few feet away, close enough to give James Barnes her warmth but not trouble him to trust his hands for anything more. Jane greets him back with her most eager of smiles.

He comes home speaking of good news. Her smile crooks with hopeful question, and her eyes sharpen, already curious — imaptiently so — to know. "Yeah? What's that?"

Distantly, James catches the sound of Jane engrossed in yet another bout of organizational madness. He frowns a little, his good mood dampening slightly— he can smell a coping mechanism that isn't actually fixing the heart of the problem a mile off— but eventually figures there will be time enough to figure out how to get Jane out of the roundabout of endless attempts to reorganize and reassert control, which ultimately can do nothing save make one's physical space a little cleaner.

The news he's coming home with, he thinks, will go a long way towards him actually being able to do that.

He shrugs his coat fully off at about the same time as she emerges to greet him. He smiles at her as he hangs the coat up— a rare thing, now, he does not often smile as broadly as he used to as a boy— and closes the distance. She might be respectful of his reticence still, politely mindful of his issues with personal space, but in these moments he is too ebullient to remember his own idiosyncrasies, and he gladly destroys the cordial space she leaves between them in order to sweep forward and put his arms around her, leaning down to kiss her.

This is new. As her own behavior shows, she's accustomed to him holding back as if certain his hands would lose control and kill someone any minute. Now he touches her with little fear at all.

That might also have something to do with the news he has for her.

She smiles up at him, wanting to know what his news is. "Well," he starts, "I spoke to John today. It went well. Most importantly, he had a solution for the fact I might fall back under the brainwashing. Start hurting everybody…"

He looks down into her eyes. His gaze holds a quiet pleasure in being able to hold her without fear for himself. "He had this sort of magic… seal he can create. Something that will put me to sleep if I start to lose it."

That smile is the sweetest thing Jane Foster has seen all day.

It warms her past few, chilly hours' of unoccupied, lonely listlessness in an instant, everything forgotten, as she comes to bask in the light of such a thing. He smiles so rarely that she says nothing, and does less, perhaps afraid of making the action that would end it too quick. Jane looks on, curious, quietly delighted to see this mood on James, though she knows better than to approach farther. It's been an unspoken rule in her house, now shared with him, to let him initiate most of their familiar touches, afraid of him tensing — afraid of him withdrawing.

So when he moves immediately for her, closing the distance in a heartbeat, and pulling her close in both his arms, Jane peeks up in undisguised, naked shock. Surprise widens her eyes. Her lips part as if to ask him why, what's this for — but James leans down and smothers the words from her mouth, and her eyes flutter shut.

She melts into the kiss, a little weak-kneed, lifting one hand in a brief, gentle touch to his jaw. Definitely a surprise, but Jane is not complaining. He can do this as many times as he wishes.

He ends the kiss and leaves her a little punch-drunk, her face flushed in a way it was not just seconds ago. Jane opens her eyes, unable, unwilling to hide the affection that mirrors from their lenses, and her mouth hitches up into a crooked smile. The gesture brims with quiet hope.

He says he spoke to John — and the talk went well. Jane's grin widens, because she knows — she /knows/ that would happen. She'd hoped, trusted, and everything is going as well as she so believed. But it doesn't end there, the smile paused on her as he excitedly continues on, and keeps relaying the story further and further.

Jane listens, blinking between words. A solution? Like the one he hoped for, talking to her? A solution that involved magic. A seal. A seal John Constantine put on James. That puts him to sleep? If he… if…?

She looks him up and down, as if she were trying to see this seal for herself. A magic /seal/ that /stops/ him if he /loses it/? What sort of seal? What sort of sleep? What is 'losing it'? When did this happen? Did he just do this now? John offered this as a solution?

Her head spins. She pushes lightly at his chest as if to be let go, to draw back and properly look at him. "What?"

She isn't reacting as he thought she might.

He hesitates as she pushes back against his chest. Before he would have let her go instantly, as if afraid any hint of disharmony in their physical contact might snowball into something worse, but now she has to insist twice on her release before he lets her go. It's both his arms, too, another unprecedented thing. Typically he avoids using his left, distrusting it even more than he does the rest of his body.

What he just told her is the likely explanation for this change in behavior.

His relief stutters a little as confusion interleaves with it. He steps back a pace himself now, unsure. The way Jane is staring at him is obvious, an up-and-down thing as if she could pick out this magical solution with her own two eyes. Well, he supposes to himself, he probably ought to slow down and explain. She's just surprised, that is all.

"It's an obvious problem," he says, shoving his hands in his pockets. "So we were talking about it. The chances of me… relapsing. The Winter Soldier coming back— or getting triggered by some mechanism I'm not aware of. He said he could put an… emergency measure on. Make it so if he feels my nature change again, I can be put to sleep before I hurt or kill anybody."

He looks into her eyes. There is a pleading for her to understand, but beneath that, a stubbornness that he will not be convinced out of this.

"He made it my choice," he insists. "Asked me over and over. I chose it. He wasn't happy about it either, but it's necessary. Up until we can fix this properly."

And Jane Foster insists to be let go.

It's something she's never done before, not the woman who seems starved for any of the rare contact he feels safe to give her, but this time she stiffens in his arms and draws back, pressing lightly but with the intent of someone who wants space. When he does, she backs up a step, not so much nervous, or uncertain, but just needing distance. Touches and closeness and all her empathy for James are liable to mollify her — and Jane doesn't want to be softened. She needs a clear head. One of them needs a clear head, but he's obviously not thinking with one.

She looks on, reserved, reproachful, but with eyes that expect an answer. James gives her one, and Jane at least has the patience or reason to give him the time and attention to listen, hearing him out — even as his words deepen the furrow between her eyebrows.

He goes on and on. Talks about emergency measures. Eventually Jane's expression catches, and she glances briefly away. She looks disappointed.

"Your choice," is what she says first, trying not to think too much about how she saw John Constantine persuade people before. Make them see things on playing cards. Even imply to her he could take her memories away.

Jane rubs uneasily over her right eye. "So now what? You share a body, or — a mind with John? He feels everything you do?"

Her arms draw up to cross over her chest. "This isn't… this isn't a /solution/. And he shouldn't have done this without giving you time to think about it properly. He can take it off, right? If we go right now and get that done? Because you know it's not right." Her dark eyes plead. "This isn't… you can't — this isn't how anyone is supposed to live."

Regardless of her motive for wanting distance, it is the first time she has wanted distance from him in a long time, and it disquiets him to feel her needing space from him. He lets her go, of course, but in her wake he looks a little lost for what to do with his freed arms. Eventually, they just move to shove his hands in his pockets, his stance going a little closed-in and defensive.

He does not like explaining to such a reproachful face— it makes him feel ten years old again, about to receive a reprimand— but he supposes he does owe a more thorough explanation, even if the quiet steel in his eyes suggests that this is all it is. An explanation, of his own personal choice on the matter.

One of the first choices he has made for himself in decades. It does not escape him, the irony that it is a choice to put himself on another leash… but this leash, he thinks, is different. It's for his own good, and the good of others.

So he tells her all about it. She glances away at the end, but he doesn't miss the catch of disappointment in her face. Your choice, she says, as if doubting that. His eyes sharpen. "Yes, it was. Do you not trust him? Or me?"

And she still has more questions, even after that. How does it work, exactly? "Nothing like that," he says. "It's only supposed to alert him if something about my nature changes. It's not… mind sharing. I wouldn't have said yes." He is, of course, aware this is all faith-based— all down to trusting John's word that he isn't peering invisibly over the tether— but James has reached a point where that risk seems worth it. Reached that point due to the uniquely horrible ordeal that has been his life—

—which is why Jane's last comment triggers a transparent loss of temper. He doesn't raise his voice, but edges grate onto every one of his syllables as he lifts his left arm in bleak summary of his retort: "It is /markedly/ better than how I /was/ living."

There is a pause. He inhales audibly, his eyes shutting and reopening, composing himself. His left arm drops to hang slack again by his side. "Of course it's not a solution," he says, his voice calmer, "but it's all I have until there /is/ a solution. Yeah, he can take it off anytime. He told me. But I won't agree to have it taken off."

Jane Foster is either gifted or cursed with total honesty. She cannot hide anything from her face. Cannot hide anything from the way she speaks.

"I trust you," she answers, the words brief, frank, and damning. She does trust John Constantine in many ways: trusts him enough to want to lean from him, to want to merge her work with his magic. But how long does it take to truly know a man? Truly trust the idea of him holding the keys to James Barnes' freedom? It commands a sort of trust even she feels uneasy giving.

For now, she shares James' disquiet. There's a bitter irony there in his solution — to graft on a collar to finally allow him the ease to touch her, and now the woman doesn't want him to. She stands apart, looking none too happy with her own personal space, but still resolute in knowing she needs it. Clear heads.

Her brown eyes watch him, pained, as he explains — tries to snuff out her unease at having some sort of relationship with John Constantine watching. Watching, or even passively receiving — the thought in itself makes Jane queasy. She especially seems loath of the idea of anyone in James' mind — friend or foe — and relaxes only slightly, subtly, when he reassures it's not the case. Still, Jane looks anything but convinced. She looks —

— shocked, interrupted from what next she wants to say by James' immediate loss of temper. It is not a loud or clamourous thing, but it wears the a knife's edge, each spoken word cutting deep. He lifts his metal arm in silent testament. Jane stares back, startled, hurt to have his past hurled back at her as if she'd forgotten it happened… but even to the first taste of his anger, she is not afraid. She looks him squarely in the face, meeting it head on.

It is fury that lasts an instant, and then he gentles, the steadiness back to his manner, to his voice. Jane listens without speaking.

"You weren't living then," is what she finally replies. "You can't let that be a metric that… tells you it's as good as it gets because at least it's not hell. You deserve more than this. You —"

Jane glances down at her hands, which are now fidgeting, trying to summon up the courage or eloquence to say the words she wants to, words that will bug her if she doesn't. "The only problem is that you can't trust yourself. That you're afraid, and… I'm afraid too." She looks back up. "It's OK to feel afraid. But we deal with it, we push back against it — we don't cover it up. It's not all you have. You have yourself, and your strength brought you here. You have me too. And Steve. And everyone else in your life. You don't need a seal."

I trust you, she says. The omission does not escape James, and he does not seem surprised by it. He doesn't even really argue with it. He is aware of how risky it is, trusting John with something as important as his very freedom. Even John is aware of it, judging by the fact he wasn't really keen to take on that burden to begin with. Judging by the fact he even said: and you don't really know me.

Desperate times, though.

"Why do you think I'm telling you exactly what he did?" James finally says. "I certainly don't plan to spread it around to many others I have this weak point now. I don't think he will do anything, but in the event he does, I need someone fully aware of what's going on."

It doesn't escape him, either, that in collaring himself to make himself safe to touch Jane, he just seems to have created in her a reluctance to be touched. She stays back at a careful but pointed remove, not /happy/ with her decision not to come close, not to touch— but resolute in her belief that it is needed. He does not try to cross that invisible no-man's land she draws between them, himself.

"I do deserve more than this," he agrees. "And I intend to get it. But until I /can/, I want some kind of insurance policy." His left arm moves, a soft electronic whir escaping it as its hand curls and its fingers articulate. "The same degree of effort I used to use to open jars, I can use now to twist off somebody's head. I'm not leaving that just— lying around. Around /you/."

Still she argues that people have to face their fears, not just cover them up or seal them away. "It's well and good to have faith, Jane," he answers bleakly. "But I want a guarantee. Besides," and his gaze travels the overly-ordered apartment, "don't you think you should be taking your advice? You've barely gone out since then. You haven't touched your work." You don't look up anymore.

Why does she think he's even telling her?

Jane had not thought of that; the truth is evident in the surprised, pensive glance she turns up at him, into James' blue eyes. She expected a full divulge of honesty as simply the thing it is, the thing she would give him without hesitation no matter the consequences — and not even realizing what else it is. Insurance. Him having someone aware in case… in case something does happen.

She tries not to imagine it, but her overactive mind cannot stop the image, and the woman feels sick. Nausea rolls through her insides, and she presses a hand over her stomach, taking a tactical retreat to go lean against the arm of her couch. She wrestles with possibilities that even shouldn't be, with the idea that, for a brief and beautiful window, James Barnes was free. Free before he bridled himself back into fetters.

He at least agrees that he deserves more, and that statement earns Jane's too-bright eyes, a shine to them like someone holding back tears. She listens on, her hands twined in the hem of her shirt, to James reitering that this is temporary, that he means for more than to live in another man's cage. Her natural hope wants her to believe it should all be so easy. But isn't that what life is about? A lesson that nothing is easy? That ease always comes with a price?

He tells her in as much words that faith isn't good enough. Her face can't hide it: that hit hurts.

"Maybe faith is all we're allowed to have," Jane argues quietly. "Maybe asking anything more takes us into… into dangerous territory. Into things no one should ever, ever be allowed to control. Slippery slopes. If it starts with this, where does it end? Thinking of you like you're a weapon, and not a man?"

Besides, he says, shouldn't she be taking her own advice. He calls her too-clean apartment into evidence. Jane tenses, some of her hurt steeling over, on the defence and finally angering. "That's not fair," she warns. "This isn't about me."

She didn't think about that, it seems. The surprise in her gaze tells him that plainly. Looking up into his blue eyes, she'd find a telling… canniness there, the look of a man molded by necessity and force into a master of espionage. A spy who always has a contingency in place in case things go wrong.

He did tell her chiefly because it is the honest thing to do, with the woman you are with. Perhaps Steve Rogers would have done it solely as a matter of honesty and principle. But with James Barnes, there's always another layer. With James Barnes… he also told her because he is the Winter Soldier, and for all she sees his gentler, more human sides— sees him as simply a man— he is also what he is, what he was made to be. A man so skilled his black work he wound up training generations of other spies to follow in his wake.

Some of that calculating look softens back out of his gaze, however, when Jane looks so transparently sick and steps away, folding over. Unable to continue resisting the urge to touch her, he moves forward, reaching to try to lay his right hand to her shoulder.

He promises her that he knows he deserves more, and that this will be temporary, and that seems to help a little; but his lack of similar reverence for the idea of pure faith hits her visibly hard. He winces, and draws back his hand, regardless of whether it was ever allowed to make contact in the first place.

Maybe faith is all they get, she argues back. Maybe it's trying to be too sure about things that sends them down the slippery slope into muzzling a dog that /might/ bite. Treating a man as a weapon. "Maybe so," he allows quietly. "Maybe the principle is more important than the risk. Maybe the integrity of keeping that faith is more important than the possibility some day, you'll be punished for it."

He shakes his head. "Maybe those things are true for you. But I can't say they are true for me. If I decided to just 'have faith' there's no way they could retake control of me, rather than taking some necessary precautions, and I… wound up killing you because of it? I'd kill myself right after. I might as well have pulled the trigger on you myself in that case."

Besides, as he points out— all this advice is advice she really should be applying to herself.

That's not fair, she shoots back immediately. It's not about her.

"I suppose," he says after a long pause, "it's not."

Brief, vivid, horrible imagery guts Jane out. It leaves her feeling hollow.

Images all that do not come naturally to her. Images she'd never in a hundred years consider unless prompted, unless instructed by a man far more versed in a life of shadow than she. The idea of his 'solution' becoming his undoing, of their friends becoming weak spots, vulnerabilities, even enemies, and of her having to come to his rescue again in a fight for his freedom — and perhaps even then, being too late.

She hugs herself and swallows back a wave of sickness. She leans back against her couch, stooped slightly at the waist, her dark eyes boring a hole down on the hardwood between her feet. She doesn't want to think of these things. She doesn't want to consider a world wherein they may be possible. And yet, Jane knows well enough not to delude herself otherwise. She mentally prepares a silent what if.

The spy that he was raised and forged to be, even it gentles out of James to see Jane there, stricken, quietly struggling to regain her bearings. He cannot suffer their physical distance for long, especially in the wake of her spending days constantly reaching out to him — he does that now instead, his hand light on her shoulder.

Jane doesn't try to shrug or push it off. She only looks up, her eyes pained. A single look at her says it all: I don't agree with this. I don't like this. I will never accept this, not in this lifetime, not ever.

She speaks of blind faith. Blind faith is the cornerstone of her life — her being. Blind faith brought her to every important place she was supposed to be. Blind faith brought her here. It is God to her, in a way, a higher power rote in the act of simple belief, of reaching before seeing, of darkness first needing hope before it will ever have light. He cannot share it with her, not after the life he's lead, and Jane wears all of her quiet heartbreak.

The look on her fact takes his hand away. He concedes to her so many of her thin, wan words, but in the end — he needs so much more. He needs a life made certain he will never hurt her.

Jane repeats the same line she's said over and over and over. "You won't hurt —" she grates out, frustrated, but stops when she meets his eyes, arrested by… something in them. The way they look when James admits that he'd take his life on the spot if he killed her, if the Soldier killed her, brought out of him and enslaved by new hands. She pales, not in fear of this happening, but in a hitch of understanding: are these the things he's been thinking? Has she been going about stupid daydreamy future while he's ensuring suicide plans? Doing this all alone?

"James," she implores, her eyes searching, her voice small and tight. Jane reaches for his hand. But not even that is enough, and she surges forward to wrap her arms around him and pull them close, to bury her face into his chest.

They are not thoughts or images that come naturally to her. But they are thoughts and images that have consumed and overtaken James Barnes' entire life. Images of ways things could go wrong. Images of ways they could be betrayed. Thoughts of friends not just as friends, but as weak points— potential traitors— potential enemies— vulnerabilities that can be assailed, and which must now be guarded. Thoughts that must come naturally to a man who lives, now, in the shadows, and operates in a world made of lies.

James thinks of John as a friend. But he also considers him, clinically, both as an asset— the means by which he can secure his own sanity— and as a potential vulnerability. Another weak point at which enemies of the Winter Soldier might strike in order to attempt to seize and reclaim him. Or simply kill him.

His paranoid mind, well-trained in the convoluted by decades of shadow-work, can spool it all out. People discovering there is a man with a magical hold over the Winter Soldier. John becoming a target… and through John, Zatanna. They capture her again. Do something to her. Apply the kind of leverage to John that would make him choose— and of course, there is no choice at all for John where Zatanna is involved.

That is where Jane comes in. Jane, who he trusts to watch him, to know if he is… 'deactivated' without cause. Jane, who can bring in the cavalry if that does happen…

The implications all come naturally to James, passing effortlessly through his mind. They sit much less easily in the honest mind of Jane Foster, who has never had to live in such a world before. He glances at her, and his expression softens with remorse. He reaches for her, unable to hold apart any longer. "I'm sorry to have drawn you into this kind of existence," he says. A bitter sound escapes him— it could be a laugh, with some stretch of the imagination. "If you were to find it too much, I'd understand."

Even more of their vast differences come to light, in the increasingly obvious fact that blind faith is just one thing he cannot share with her. His eyes go bleak and tired, the eyes of a man who had faith once— might have believed in God once— but lost his capacity for that a long time ago. Whether in the hell of World War II, or the hell that came after, is unclear. The distinction probably doesn't matter.

Regardless of when, he has become a person who needs… something concrete. Assurance that the Winter Soldier will never re-emerge and turn on Jane. She tries to repeat that he won't hurt her. He is silent to that, transparently thinking. He makes some private determination.

His talk of how he would take his own life if he hurt her, however, draws her eyes in sudden stricken understanding. Unable to hold apart any longer herself, she darts forward to wrap her arms around him. He looks tiredly down at her, and that earlier determination falters a bit… but in the end, his mind does not change. She deserves to know what kind of monster she is so freely taking into her arms.

"I wasn't going to," he eventually says. He gently disentangles her, leading them both over to the couch, sitting them both down. He does not touch her. "But… let me tell you about the Winter Soldier. You met him briefly, but at a time when the brainwashing was already getting thin. There were already cracks in him. But the Winter Soldier in full operation, as he was intended to be… he had a mission, once, in…" his eyes glass, as he paws visibly through the depths of a century of memory, "…1963. Kill a KGB official planning to defect and flee to America. But first— find out how much he had already leaked, by any means."

His eyes are steady on hers. "It was a simple mission for him. He had a full dossier. He knew this man had a wife and daughter he was taking with him. He knew they would be there. He knew he would say anything to protect them." His head cants a little in a 'there it is' gesture. "And so he did. Especially once I killed his wife first to show him I was quite serious. He gave up everything, then, in the hope to at least save his daughter. Then I killed him."

He does not seem to notice the point at which his pronouns change.

"Those were the parameters of the mission. Just to extract information and kill him. No mention of anything else." His eyes are empty and faraway: transparently seeing it all again, in his memories, as if it were yesterday. "But the Winter Soldier, especially early on, always got a degree of discretion when on assignment, and he felt the girl was inconvenient to the need to make the deaths seem accidental. A fire. So he killed her too. No bullet, in case people combed through the ashes. He suffocated her."

He is quiet, for some time.

"That," he says, "is what I can't have coming back, is what I can't have laying next to you, at any cost."

In a better world, the sound that escapes him would be a bitter, humourless thing. With a bit less burden, a bit more spirit. In this one, the sound escapes him bleakly, like blood out of a venting exit wound. He apologizes for bringing her into his world. James Barnes tells Jane Foster that if she finds this all too much, he would understand.

It simply earns a sharp, frank glance of her eyes. The look in them is reprimanding. Even in the midst of their argument, that is not even something come close to her mind.

It is brief, and, in the end, Jane says nothing. Not when he speaks of nursing thoughts of his own suicide, made in cursory vow should the day come he hurts her — the Winter Soldier reappears and kills her. She knows it's been James' constant worry, to which she's answered endlessly the reassurance that he has not, could not, will not hurt her — but that he has imagined it? Pessimistically run tragedies through his head? Thought about this with enough concentration and detail to know, truly know, what he would do after?

While she preaches to him what must be some naive need for faith?

Jane wants no more distance, needs no more clear mind. It's nothing to her, unimportant in the face of needing to reach out and touch him, to try to pull James out of that darkness and back into her arms. She knows he is afraid, so afraid, but to be thinking those things?

Her fingers curl at his back, into his shirt. She clings fiercely, hurting for him — brokenhearted for James Barnes again and again. She just wants to tell him not to worry, over and over, until he believes it —

— and instead he touches her, not to hold her closer, but to disentangle her off, and Jane relents, her eyes drawn up with unspoken question. She does not resist the way he guides them both to the couch to sit, and she does so, curling one leg under her in uneasy perch, turned slightly inward to face him.

He wants to tell her about the Winter Soldier.

Jane looks on, transparently surprised. It's a subject he has not broached with her, and neither she ever feeling it her place to ask. It is something that nonetheless hangs over both their heads, a quiet guillotine blade, testament of a past he cannot — could not — fully excise, a part of him he did not choose to be, but nonetheless has lived, in a way, the last seventy years.

He tells her a story of three lives he took.

A story decades before Jane was even born. A story that happened while her parents were children. She does not reach to touch him back, and with her hands lain docile in her lap, sits, and quietly listens. Her face tightens under so many cold, bleak facts. Her eyes strain at the retelling of a murder. A man's wife taken, just to prove a point.

His pronouns shift. He does not notice, but Jane does, swiftly, tellingly, with a searching look of her eyes in his. But the story is not over, not even with mission completion, and she holds in perfect stillness and total silence, as James recites how to murder a child in a way that leaves no evidence.

She looks down at her lap. She fights the burn of her eyes. These are the things he sees. These are the things he lives with. Years of this. Decades. And then, today, he made something happen that let him come home smiling.

"I understand," Jane says quietly. "I still won't —" she tries, but the words catch. She looks up. "I'm always going to fight for you. But I understand."

She reaches for him, slowly carefully, to take his face in both her hands. Still wanting to touch him. Touching him only as the man he is. Her thumbs run careful brushes along the skin under his eyes, the darkness that always rings the sleepless — that would burden a man who was asleep for seventy years. Asleep and lost in his perpetual nightmare. How Jane wishes she could just soothe it all away.

Perhaps if Jane were different, he would not find it necessary to deliver such an apology or warning about his embroilment of her in his life. Then again, perhaps he still might. The Winter Soldier would be a lot for anyone to handle, even someone already immersed in the shadow-world of lying, spying, and murder. Most people are not lab rats, are not time-lost experiments, are not unwilling supersoldiers… they choose the life they lead, and cannot relate to the idea of it carried out under duress— cannot understand the trauma and guilt— cannot, most of all, grasp the vast span of time which was stolen from James Barnes, nor offer him succor for any of it.

He does not know how he can shoulder it alone— the pain, the blood, the recollections of how he was never strong enough to escape— but he is prepared to, even if ultimately the only means by which he can cope alone comes in the form of a bullet in his own head.

So he gives her the option of an exit. She returns it with the flash of her eyes, almost affronted, definitely repudiatory. James is selfish enough to feel intense relief at her refusal to leave, and that screws an uncomfortable twist of shame somewhere deep into his chest. He does need her— needs everyone who has, for whatever reason, come to help them both— and that seems to him the most self-centered sort of weakness. Especially when he knows what he harbors within him.

What Jane is really hugging, when she embraces him so closely. There is no longer fear to be felt in his body— courtesy of the leash which he trusts to do its work— but there is nonetheless a certain passiveness, a stoicism that says loudly: I am not quite worth this.

He closes his eyes and enjoys her closeness, anyway, until the shame grows too bitter for him to tolerate. Then he gently pulls away and sits her down. He needs her to understand who he was. Who he still is, in some dark repressed corner of him.

So he tells her about the Winter Soldier.

She understands, she says at the conclusion of it. She will still fight for him, for a future where he can live as a man and not a weapon— but she understands.

His features remain bleak and unresponsive as she reaches to take his face in both hands. She turns his face to hers, but his blue eyes lower, not wanting to meet her gaze at this point in time. The dark smudges beneath them speak of the sleeplessness that dogs him, that will continue to dog him even now he is leashed, because the nightmares never did solely source only from his fear of the Winter Soldier's return.

When he wakes screaming at night, shuddering and sweating in the sheets, it is almost always because of what the Winter Soldier has already done, and which his mind replays for him in the alleys of sleep.

"I would worry less," he whispers, "if I believed I could break back out of the Winter Soldier if he returned. You keep telling me that I did this time, so I can again. But you have to see what a miracle it was to begin with. Nonstandard handling by Golubev— you saw his… unorthodox views towards me— Steve's constant presence, a mission that went too long, the involvement of magic beyond what my handlers could anticipate or prepare for… it was a perfect storm of factors. This mission started wrong to begin with."

His eyes are haunted: staring pits of blue in a haggard face. "But before now, I never even came close, except once. Once… in sixty years, also under a set of unusual circumstances. Every other time I was the Winter Soldier, I never felt… powerless, or coerced, or enslaved. There was no… bad feeling for me to fight against. I never felt like anything was wrong at all. I was… proud," he admits, his voice breaking, "of my work. I felt implacable. I was ordered to kill people, but I decided when and where and how they should die. I thought I was the one with the power. It never occurred to me I was just a tool. I thought I was exactly where I belonged, doing work I believed in."

He does not pull out of her hands, but he does not take comfort in them as he usually would. "I can't go back to that. I might never get the footing to get back out."

With her face mirroring empathy and her eyes full of pain, her hands reach out to take him, to cradle his face in the gentle cup of her palms and fan of her ten fingers. Jane knows there is no single touch in the world that could comfort what James Barnes suffers, but still, she knows she needs to try. She has the look of a woman in a constant act of reaching, even if the world and its circumstances set her tragically too far, and no bridges of magpies to bring her close — she reaches.

He won't look at her. She moves her thumbs in a careful stroke over those black smears ringing beneath James' eyes. As if she had the power to clean them away.

He does not reject her touch, but at the same time, does not indulge in it either. James holds himself in a distant, shameful remove, and Jane can feel it, feel the limits of even her hands in a moment like this, and her failure to touch him. Afraid she may be doing more harm, or worse, forcing him, she carefully lets him go, returning her hands to curl uselessly along her lap. Without anything to occupy them, they fidget.

Jane looks away to gather her thoughts. It's the look in his eyes that makes her concession. She still doesn't agree, doesn't want to agree, but not even she can hold strong to such a hollowed-out look, something that mirrors decades of hurt — of pain. She feels like she is right, but even a doubtful thought comes: what if she's wrong?

These are important things he tells her, and Jane appreciates them. She will always choose knowledge over ignorance.

And perhaps it's the reality of her own ignorance, turned back on her, what makes this hurt the worse. Jane listens, her eyes staring forward, gaze lost in middle-distance. She listens to James Barnes explain it was no testament of his own strength, but luck, simply and facelessly, that set him free. Her heart fights to struggle against that, to hold tight onto her belief — and she truly did believe this, believe it to be nothing but love, and himself, to win this — but even then —

Something small releases inside her and lets go. Not all knowledge is a beautiful thing, Jane learns for the first time, as her universe loses a bit of its shine.

Is that all it really was? The perfect storm and nothing else? She had thought so deeply it was him, all him, and the people in his life, and the facet of him fighting to the surface enough to reach out to them — to bring them in to save him. And maybe it was her too, helping, though that's not the case either, was it? And that he believes, utterly believes, if lost again he will not come back. Not without a repeat of that luck. Not without a perfect mirrored manifestation of those factors.

He tells her that being the Winter Soldier was not all pain. It wasn't all hell. There were good feelings, positive reinforcement, constant rewards.

Her eyes close for a beat. Jane's heart twists, but still she tries. "But that wasn't you. They had to take everything that was you… out, just to make you feel those things. I would have felt them too in your place. I… do, sometimes. I keep telling myself I need to go somewhere, home, I think, to be happy. I know that's not me. That wasn't you proud. It was them. Proud of themselves."

She looks down at her own hands, her fingers, the blue veins in her tiny wrists. "You won't go back to that," Jane vows, her voice soft, final. "I get it. I'm sorry. I don't… I don't want to be the reason if it ever did happen, if it could. I don't want my stupidity to be something that'd do that to you. I couldn't — " live with myself either.

He doesn't realize he needs her touch until— unable to reach him, and feeling a bit intrusive— she curls up her fingers and pulls them away. Regret glimmers in his eyes then, regret and a deepening of shame. He hadn't meant to be such an ingrate about her offered consolation. Her constant willingness to reach out to him is, he thinks, all that keeps him connected to the world sometimes.

He doesn't try to get her to touch him again, however. Nor to touch her. He can see she still does not like the idea, still doesn't agree— but can't argue against the look in his eyes, his fear of his own darker half, his quiet and reluctant revelations.

It's those last things that hurt the worst to her— hurt because they reveal how much she does not know, still, about his inner landscape, and to Jane nothing in the world could ever be worse than ignorance. This is not something he has fully grasped about her yet, and he does not know that to wield new knowledge against her to win an argument is a tactic that will sting her worse than it would most.

Neither does he know that she construes his talk of a 'perfect storm' of lucky factors as exclusive of the human connections that brought him out of the dark, this last time. As exclusive of her. To him, the people working to bring him out were among those miraculous factors. It simply feels presumptuous to him… claim them, or to presume their degree of care for him. He has a sense something is troubling her, however: he cants his head, unsure of what it is, but sensitized to the fact she must be feeling useless.

So all he ultimately says is, "It wasn't really me breaking free. When it was just me, those sixty years, I never broke free. It was everyone else, helping me get out. It was you."

But he is unwilling to run the risk that this feat can be repeated. Unwilling to spend even another second in the Winter Soldier's cage. Because— as he tells her— it was not necessarily always a bad cage. "They made a different me," he agrees quietly, as she says that it wasn't him. "But I lived it for so many years, not questioning it. It was so similar to what I had been before, at the very core of the story. They told me I was a Soviet soldier who had been wounded, and had volunteered for this. That the cryo was necessary to keep the serum stable until they could perfect it. They gave me all the background I needed to feel that was… real. When I was working, a lot of the time, I still felt… like a soldier, doing the same things I had been doing before. I fought for a cause. I killed. I even led small units in the field, sometimes. Just on a different side, now, doing… more questionable, but necessary things."

He chokes a laugh. "Of course, I was conditioned to drop all that the minute I was in a lab for maintenance. To become a mindless animal. To not remember what happened there, afterwards."

He falls silent as she admits the effects of her own conditioning. That vague urge to go home. She knows it's not her. He should know that what he hears isn't him.

It is his turn to take her hands into his, very gently. His are roughened by his lifetime of killing, scarred where the serum's regenerative powers still couldn't heal old wounds clean. On his right wrist, the ID bracelet he never takes off gleams dully in the low light. "I won't risk any more of that ever happening to you," he says. "Least of all because of me."

She apologizes. Because she gets it. His eyes crease a little in tired reproach. "It's not your stupidity," he says. His right hand reaches up, touching her chin, lifting her gaze to meet his. "It's your faith. I wish I still had any. You will have to have it for both of us. Until we find a way to clean out my mind."

His right hand lowers again. He looks down, his left turning the bracelet until the plate gleams face-up. His name and serial number shine there, a perpetual reminder of who he is supposed to be. "Until I remember what it's like to be this man."

Every inch of Jane reflects how much she doesn't like this idea. It weighs on her soul to try to feel right with this, with John Constantine now in ownership of some portion fo James Barnes, solely responsible for him in a way no one should ever be. Even to trust the magician's inclinations and sense not to wield such a power liberally or wrongly, it makes everything feel so strange — it inserts him here, in the middle of this, sitting invisibly between them.

She has feelings for someone who cannot even trust himself with the most basic right of men: freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of action, freedom of choice, freedom of thought. Jane sits forward, elbows braced against her legs, unhappily rubbing her hair back from her eyes. She understands, will no longer try to stop him, try to convince James otherwise, but she just doesn't want to agree.

So he tells her a little more. He speaks of his greatest worry, and it sounds no longer that of a fear but a brittle fact, and that it would be a long reach — an impossible miracle — to repeat everything that saved him once from the Winter Soldier's programming, from Hydra's claim. That it was not a test of his strength or will or determination to remember, to reclaim himself, to be set free. That it was not all bad to be the Winter Soldier. Hell in some places, a pretty lie in many others.

It runs so contrary to what Jane thought, what that dogged but fraying part of her still clings on to believe, that the knowledge hurts. It slides into her belly and twists, and she holds tense, her face turned away, her dark eyes angled straight down.

She would never have thought of such things, realized the possibility they could be true. She had no idea. If it were up to her, she would have demanded the seal gone. She would have challenged and fought for the choice that would do him the most harm. She feels ignorant. She feels naive.

Jane feels quietly devastated, her overactive mind forcing her to envision the worst case scenario: him captured, him twisted back into that hollow weapon, and with no perfect storm replicated to set her free. Him again forced to do the things that would scatter the last of his soul, and it would be all her fault.

He senses her troubled, senses her lost in her circling thoughts, and assures Jane of her usefulness. That she, among everyone else, were reasons for his freedom. She listens enough to nod quietly in response, gazing down at the movement and fidgets of her fingers.

Those little motions go quiet when he again speaks, and though Jane does not look towards James, she listens. He explains the foundations of the Winter Soldier persona, the beginning of a decades' long narrative, and it makes sense — to use truths to forge the strongest of lies. To use all his core, formative parts to make an obedient soldier, and gird and strengthen old loyalties for new masters. To make it feel seamless from his muscle memory as a fighting American volunteer — give or take the sessions that reduced him to a lab experiment.

James Barnes laughs humourlessly to tell that. Jane's frown deepens at the sound, wearing all his pain on her face in the moments he does not.

He determinedly takes her hands in his. His are scarred and roughened, and hers smaller, breakable among his flesh-and-metal fingers. Her skin is chilly to the touch, her fingers loose and slack, unresisting, trusting. She tells him she gets it. No longer just understands, no longer just passively concedes — but agrees. This is the smarter choice. Jane, with quiet grief, alludes to what could — what could not — happen if he were to fall victim to her misplaced ideals.

But it's not stupidity, he says, and touches her chin. The action tilts up her head, but Jane resists a moment more, her eyes turned away. The reason can be read along her features; her face is his face. She is ashamed too.

Eventually, her composure breaks, and her eyes turn, lifted timidly to meet his. She looks at James as he says he needs her faith, that she'll have to bear it for them both.

"You keep worrying about hurting me," she confesses quietly. "What if I end up the one hurting you?"

It is not something that sits right with James Barnes either. That much is transparent in the heavy slope of his shoulders, the tired hang of his head. Yet at the same time, knowledge that there is some kind of emergency brake on him gives him a certain peace also: a freedom with his hands that he did not possess before. The freedom of a deadly killer whose many blades have finally been safely sheathed. For now.

As such, he would gently argue with her thought that he has signed away all his most basic rights to the freedoms of man. He has gained one small but significant one through this transaction: the freedom to move and act without fear of his hands turning murderous.

She comes to understand that, eventually. She still does not agree, but James does not try to make her agree. It is enough if she understands.

She does not understand without pain, however. His eyes sober to see the realization settle in so hurtfully. To see her so transparently feeling stupid and naive.

He tries to assure her that she— and everyone else— were reasons for his freedom. Far more effective reasons for his freedom than he himself ever was, trapped in a corner of his own mind as he was. She does not look entirely convinced— and she wears his pain for him transparently on her own face, when he keeps his own determinedly stoic— but she seems to accept it. At the least.

She still does not look happy.

He reaches out to her. His hands, one scarred flesh, one pristine metal, take hers, folding her small fingers into his palms. He touches her freely, affectionately, and in that at least there is some small blessing. Prior to this, he had rarely ever been so unrestrained with his physical contact. She keeps her face turned determinedly down, her eyes cast to the floor, and he insists she lift it to look him in the eyes.

She does, eventually, and he can see she finally agrees with his decision. But that comes with a price: the thought that her initial stance must necessarily, then, have been wrong. And she almost advocated something that would have—

What if I end up the one hurting you?

The idea is so preposterous that he stares at her blankly a full fifteen seconds, before an incredulous laugh escapes him. His right hand lifts to scrub through his hair in a nervous, puzzled gesture. "Hurt me? How could you ever?"

Jane Foster looks the farthest thing from happy. She looks… strained, a woman in the midst of some private battle, an entire worldview put on trial. Weighing herself and trying to figure out — how much of what she believes is wrong? Just over a year ago, it was so simple: just her, and nothing else, and every night that desert field of stars.

What's worse is she knows she's overthinking it. She's grieving something that was never even real, like a thought about something — a thought about /things/, and she just needs to pull herself together, adapt, and gird herself for life's next punch, whenever and however it shall come. She needs to in order to be a better person for James — for herself.

Because, she wonders briefly, painfully, against the feeling of her hands curled in his, what good does she possibly offer him? He says he needs her faith, but is it faith or gullibility? She believed from the first night of meeting him his humanity, and was willing to bet her life on engaging it, chasing it for more and more glimpses. And he called it, what, a miracle? Could it have been different without that? Would it? Would the Winter Soldier had murdered her in this very apartment, that night two months ago?

Her mind spins in one, same vicious circle, one that keeps Jane from immediately meeting James' eyes. When she does, hers well deep with shame, with guilt.

Looking into his face, the confession bubbles out of her before she can even stop it. Is she too naive? Does she occupy some dreamy world he can neither touch nor understand? Does she hurt him by offering his personal hell her stupid ideals and pointless salves? Will she be the one who actually hurts him?

He doesn't seem to understand.

For the fifteen seconds he stares at her, Jane's eyes are searching and her face pleading, stripped down to miserable honesty, lain bare with her strange, sudden question. Then he laughs, and of a hundred responses, she doesn't expect that one, going quiet, shocked out of her grief to simply peek up at him in stunned confusion. He asks her, somewhat literally, how she could ever hurt him.

Jane pauses. Then she exhales, and averts her eyes, enough morbid levity to hitch up her mouth in a brief smile. "I don't know," she says, confession arrested, feeling her courage dry up, and all too happy to use James' confusion for what it offers — a quick escape route. She shakes her head, a wordless request to downplay the moment, ask him to ignore what she just said. "I should salvage something of today," she offers instead with another one of her smiles, sincere, if somewhat strained. She shifts as if to stand free of the couch. "I should make you something to eat."

That strain hurts him to see. It looks too much like a ghost of the strain that haunts his own face when he looks at it in the mirror: the strain of someone trying to wrap their mind around something entirely new and familiar all at once. He doesn't /like/ looking at himself these days, generally tries to avoid it— he concentrates only on his jawline when shaving— because when he does, he doesn't know who it is he's really looking at.

He's not looking at the innocent, jaunty face of James Barnes, pre-war. That boy died seventy-four years ago, when he was first blooded on the battlefields of Europe: when he made his first kill helping to take down a German machine gun nest, and earned his stripes.

He's not looking at the weathered, resolute face of James Barnes, mid-war, the man who fought tirelessly for his country, looked after his soldiers, and backed Steve Rogers tirelessly as his NCO.

He's not even looking at the cold, implacable face of the Winter Soldier, the fabled monster who oppressed the past seven decades with the threat of swift, silent death.

He's looking at something else. Something new, some… jigsaw, hacked-together synthesis of all those different incarnations of himself. He's looking at some kind of jumbled mess: a man with the lethal body and powerful, precision movements of the Winter Soldier, the burdened, tired features of the war veteran, and… the suppressed rage and pain of whatever new creature emerged from the experience of both men.

His features carry the wear and tear of seventy years of killing and agony. The shame and guilt of it. So it is intolerable to him, here and now, to look up and see those same things welling in Jane's dark eyes.

What if she winds up the one hurting him?

Not the most adept with the nuances of speech, he takes it rather literally. It shakes a surprised laugh out of him, one he immediately regrets as she closes up and makes good on her escape. He stammers a bit, not sure what to say to salvage this, before she's already deciding to salvage the day and get up. She should make him something.

"I— sure, but…" he says, not sure how to get the derailed train of the conversation back onto its tracks. "You really /couldn't/ hurt me. There's no way I could ever picture that happening." He struggles to put it in words. "You were a cornerstone to me, from the first night you… talked to me like a person. Like more than just the Winter Soldier. More than just…" He trails.

"It was always you doing the opposite of hurting me," he finishes, softly.

The laugh visibly surprises Jane.

She doesn't take it as an insult; does not think it malicious whatsoever, because she doubts there's a single malicious bone in James Barnes' body, least of all one that would be directed towards her. It simply serves to reflect her seriousness back at her, like a good, hard look it may sorely need — that she's probably overthinking it, taking this too hard, too deeply, even though her heart feels like it's been locked in an iron maiden, needled in a hundred places. It humiliates her just how wrong she believes she's been, especially in regard to /him/ — to the point that her error could have hurt him.

Maybe did hurt in, in a way, overlooking how long and how deeply he may have been suffering alone. Staring at his own hands and thinking of tragic contingencies should they turn on him.

He laugh is sudden and abrupt, startled out of him, and Jane turns her head and smiles weakly along, preferring to join any potential joke rather than put herself at the butt of it. She's always so honest, can do nothing until she's fully spoken her mind, but now she feels her bravery betray her. She just wants to hide.

Because it is silly. It's a silly thing to wonder, her hurting him, and yet her heart is in her throat, and now Jane is wondering about her own hands, and if they deserve to touch anything.

They can at least prepare some food, and she shifts up, with one last apologetic smile, for a hasty retreat.

Jane doesn't look angry, not even outwardly hurt, but James knows something is amiss. The way her eyes immediately avert. And along her profile, her face slightly turned from him, the strain in her smile. His strain, what should be on his face, reaching to infect hers. His guilt and shame haunting where they don't belong.

She pushes against the couch, moving to stand — and stopped by the call of James' voice.

Jane glances back at him, arrested in place, listening, her eyes searching his. He says she couldn't hurt him, and not because he's stronger than she is, not because he's been made a forged weapon and she is tiny and harmless. Only because he cannot picture it happening. Only because she's been his cornerstone.

He confesses she's only ever done the opposite, and her watchful eyes shine too-bright.

She swallows thickly, then makes a decision, moving not toward the kitchen, but back to him, back to James where he sits on their couch. Jane alights down, not to sit beside him as before, but to nudge one knee down on its cushions and lean in, down over his body. Always reaching for him, she decides to trust her hands to do it again, to cradle his face into her palms. To hold him as she bows closer, tilts her head, and gives him the ghost of a kiss.

It's a miracle he can laugh at all, really, after everything he's been through. It surprises him as much as it surprises Jane. And while she's wrong about there not being a single malicious bone in his body— he has plenty, especially now— there's certainly not a single one malicious towards /her/. His laughter isn't cruel or mocking.

She joins him in levity, but weakly. He can tell she's upset from a mile away, though he can't really fully guess at the shape of it. She's obviously worried about hurting him in some way, but he still can't put together the shape of how she's thinking she's going to do that.

Then it occurs to him to think about what she was arguing against. She didn't want him leashed up. And he just told her that he is sure if he isn't leashed up, he might become the Winter Soldier again, and hurt her, and he'd probably hurt himself…


She tries a tactical retreat, but his words catch her on the threshold and hold her. Words to prove how little he could ever contemplate her being a source of hurt for him. They draw her slowly back, eyes shining, guilt and shame and decision to retreat forgotten. She eases down, leaning over him, her eyes watching his up until the moment she takes his face in her hands to initiate a kiss.

By his standards, it is quite forward of her, but he finds himself not minding. He closes his eyes and his hands— both hands— find her waist, his touch much more assertive and confident than it ever was before. Assured, now, that even if they were to turn traitor, there is some contingency in place.

It is some time before he breaks away and leans back an inch. His eyes half-open. "Does this mean I don't get food?" he quips, mostly joking.

His joke elicits a fond pinch of her eyes. But Jane does not quite smile; her mind is on other things.

If he thinks that gentle, lingering brush of her lips is forward —

Encouraged by the touch of his hands to her waist, Jane pulls herself forward. She swipes her thumb tenderly down his cheekbone, then lets go, alighting her hands to his shoulders, using that brace to carefully pull herself closer. She bends her knees and slips in to straddle James' lap, her lean light weight perched across the tops of his thighs.

The movement bears her immediately close, the press of her body and its warmth, and welcoming his eyes to drink the detail of her face, from the slight part between her lips, to the shine of unshed tears lensing her brown-and-gold eyes. Jane has asked for too much distance in one night, is sick of holding herself back, and is starved to return to what is right for her — a woman of many, constant touches and a constant, encouraging presence, imploring, guiding, reaching. There is a carnality now in the way her body hitches close, but even then that comes overwhelmed to a more powerful, wanting intimacy.

She just wants to be here with him. If it's true she's never hurt him, has only ever done the opposite, then Jane wants to keep it up.

Her dark eyes track him, enrapt, absorbing every last inch of James' face. "I promise it'll be temporary," she whispers, in her last bit of seriousness. "I'll do everything I can."

He is solid as a cliff face when she takes him by the shoulders and levers herself closer. There is no sway, no shift— he does not move under her pull. He only looks up at her as she slips up close, straddling him, perched lightly with her soft weight, her gentle hands, her sad shining eyes.

There is a want in her gaze, but not necessarily a carnal want— just a want for closeness, for intimacy, for someone to comfort with her presence, and to be comforted by.

His gaze returns that want, but muted— reserved in the way he typically is. He closes his eyes and leans back into the couch— not to avoid her, not to try to get distance from her, but just to relax and let her lean down to lay across his body. His arms go around her once she does, his right hand cradling the back of her head to tuck it to the hollow between his jawline and his shoulder.

She can feel the cold smoothness of his bracelet against her nape.

She promises it'll be temporary. She'll do all she can. His head tilts until it rests againsts hers. "I know," he says. "It's for your sake, too. I don't want you hearing any voice in your head but your own."

A few moments of silence pass. "John wants to see you," he says, eventually. "But he wanted me to ask you if you… wanted to. If you were ready." He chuckles rustily. "Good chance to punch him in the face if you were inclined, I guess."

There is no sway in his body, no give to the grasp of her hands; on the contrary, Jane's body yields naturally, sinking down to cover James with her light, warm weight. The only thing about her that rhymes with his immovability are her eyes, hooded and gentle, but fixed on him, unwilling to let his own eyes go for a moment.

He leans back and she follows, with a smoothness he can feel under his walking fingers, the roll of her many tiny vertebrae. Jane settles as a slight and negligable burden curled along the length of his body, moved only by the man's slow, strong breathing, hitching up with a roll of her hips to seal to him, chest to chest. She feels his arms curve around her, warm flesh and cold metal, and relaxes to the guide of his right hand. Her hair, long, always left down, fluffs up, soft under his fingers.

James nudges Jane's face to the cradle of his neck, and she sighs relief that fans brief, wandering warmth down his skin. In opposition to his decades of memories, of blood and murder and war, he can add against them this single memory — that of a woman relenting completely in his arms, pliant in total trust — and wanting to be there. Wanting to be touched by his hands. Wanting to take shelter under the mantle of his soul.

In her lowest of whispers, she gives him her promise. Her hands tighten on his shoulders, before one lets go, slipping back to cradle the back of his neck. Jane inhales tinily, closes her eyes, then lets it all shudder out of her, her unease, her tension, her worry — does not let it go, not completely from her — but into its box. A precious one she will file and soon revisit. One that has become her very duty: to see to James' Barnes protection, his freedom, his reclamation as a man.

"I'm pretty inclined," she tells his throat, dry, though he can feel her lips quirk against his skin. "I'll talk to him. I know I need to… leave the house more."

She is quiet a moment. Thinking still on his ruminations, on the way he told her: he doesn't want any voice in her head but hers.

"That voice. I know it's not mine," Jane assures, steadfast in the defence of her own mind. "It's…" she pauses a moment, as if deciding whether she should say this, whether it's right to, fitting to, something anyone in the world wants to hear. She confesses, "There's a reason why I knew, even from the beginning, even though it tries to sound like me. It tells me to go home, but I… don't have a home. I haven't had one for years."

Blue eyes look up into hers and are snared. Unable to look away, he watches her as he lays back and lets her make a mattress of his body.

That eye contact only breaks when she settles herself across him, her slight body laid across his chest. His arms fold around her, right hand guiding her head to the hollow of his throat. She relaxes there, lulled by the feel of his steady breathing beneath her, the sound of his heart: both strong and slow, engines within a body tuned to perform beyond that of any mortal man.

Tuned against his will. The thought is sobering, a reminder of his long and unhappy life.

Yet it doesn't linger. Jane in his arms is a small, warm counter to all that, her trusting body in his embrace a direct opposition to years of war and pain and death. In comparison to this, the many girls he's held in the past pale, fading to no more than the adolescent nothing-trysts that they were in the end.

None of them ever saw the true him. Much less saw it even when it was buried beneath layers and layers of blood, frozen beneath the cold dead stare of the Winter Soldier. None of them ever promised, in a small voice wrought of steel, to save him from his own traitor mind.

his head lowers a little. After a moment, he speaks of John— who she no doubt wants to punch. She agrees, dryly, but also agrees to go see him. She knows she's gotta get out more. "You do," James murmurs. "I'll go with you. Me… I have trouble staying in too long. I've been in for seventy years. I wanna see everything. How it all changed. Just wanna walk without anywhere to go. Breathe air that hasn't been recycled five hundred times."

He quiets as she speaks of the voice in her head, however. His eyes half-shutter, his gaze troubled. There's a reason she knows the voice is never hers. It's because she doesn't have a home, and hasn't had one for years.

James is silent. He doesn't say anything even close to 'I thought this was your home.' He knows what she's really talking about. Eventually, he draws breath and says, "There's one small blessing, at the least, to know from the beginning what they were trying to put in your head was a lie."

He tilts his head against hers. "I don't have one either. Not anymore. I used to. But it passed away while I was sleeping. Home isn't really a place, I think. Just your family. The people that matter."

A tiny, but fierce little branding against his body, Jane brings warmth to pull James back from thoughts of that unending winter. She is irrepressible life, folded easily into his arms, and yet at the same time impossible to be contained: her own heart not strong in the way his is, not beating blood fiercely, efficiently, into a body imbued to peak perfection, but strong to play that rabbit-quick meter in defiance against death, cold, hopelessness.

But even to him, it is not just that Jane is warm, soft, solid, and here. There have been those before her who felt the same, ghosts haunting memories of decades ago. It is that she is all those things, and remains them so earnestly, in full knowledge of who he is. The man that service and salvation, slavery and suffering have knotted together the patchwork of his soul. She is aware of it, she accepts it, and she trusts it.

She promises in a voice that transcends fearlessness to give James back his freedom, his mind. Jane cannot, will not conceive of a world that leaves him in chains.

She settles along him, heart-to-heart, eyes shut, face nestled to his neck, his own little warming stone curled in his arms. Jane's own hands, however, bely any docility, any notion she is a weak thing, the way she touches him as if to protect James right back, her fingers curled to hold him close, one hand carded up through his long hair to cradle the back of his neck, shield the vulnerable point on all human beings, all men, and even this one, running fingertips down the thousands of nerves running his cervical vertebrae.

He speaks of the disquiet of staying indoors. Jane runs with a guilty pang, wondering how long she's kept him trapped, a tiger pacing in a cage, if just to have to watch her refuse to leave these walls. "I know that feeling," she reveals. "I live that feeling." I miss that feeling, she thinks. She is wanderlust. She was, and wants again to be. "I'm sick of staying in here. Starting tomorrow, I go places. We go places."

He says he'll go with her. It makes her heart quicken. Her hands tighten on him, breathing sharply in, then out, so surrounded in James' presence that the words eventually babble free. Enough to confess of the thoughts in her head, and how they — their torturers — in one way failed. She tells him, with some self-conscious pause, she has no home. Jane knows this is something she must tell him. Must insinuate what he's getting into, because if he's needing someone who has roots — is hoping for someone with a family, or a home to share with him, she has nothing to offer in her scant life.

His life is scant too. She feels the gentle nudge of his head, and along the nerves of her lips, her cheek, hears the timbre of his voice as he tells her his home passed while he was sleeping. He calls it sleeping, and it breaks her heart.

"I like that," she says to his definition of home. It's the most hopeful thing James has said, and Jane is desperate to hear more. He can feel her lips rasp the skin of his throat as she speaks, low and honest. "I don't… really have family. We were just so small, and it's only me left." She is silent a beat. "I haven't really… I've had people, here and there, to help, feeling indebted to my father, or trapped by my work. But," she says, voice halting, "I never felt —" And then that catches and breaks off.

Jane Foster, in too many words and too little eloquence, tries to tell James Barnes that he makes her feel like she could have a home again. That she hopes she can make him feel the same too. But it's so much to tell a person, after knowing him for so short a time, and what they've both gone through. And she's impulsive, too impulsive, Erik always told her, impulsive like her father. Her courage falters, but even then she still tries, reaching blindly forward.

"You matter," she tells him softly.

Her hand runs down the back of his neck. It is a vulnerable spot, a spot he has been trained and bred to go for himself as part of his existence as a killing machine. He jumps minutely when she touches it, the wary instinct of a man who has spent so long in a kill-or-be-killed state that he no longer remembers anything else, but it is a passing twitch that soon enough settles into relaxed calm.

His eyes close, a final gesture of trust from someone finally, tentatively, stepping out of a pure predator-prey existence.

Curled against him, she is feather-light and seemingly fragile— especially compared against his tremendous physicality, the perfect efficiency of his heart, the ruthless cycle of his too-quick metabolism— but there is an intangible strength, too, to the way she touches him, her hands laying against him not to comfort herself, but to assure him. Assure him that she will find a way to see him freed of an existence in chains.

He's already halfway there, he assures. Just being able to roam outdoors is a gift after the life he has led locked in Soviet bases, caged in ice, never seeing anything of the outside world except the snippets that passed by as he ghosted through the changing world. He doesn't seem to be implying that she has anything to feel guilty about or that she's kept him cooped up, and so the brief look of guilt she does express draws a sharp look. But she confesses that she's sick of staying in, that starting tomorrow they'll go back out again. His eyes gentle. "I think that'd be good for you. Quill still has to take us to space. He promised."

He pauses. "I think we have to pretend to make him, though."

He sobers at her talk of home. His eyes gloss with memory, this time not of bad things— of the life he had before war and the Winter Soldier. His mother and father, letting their eldest son go with awareness he might not return. His younger sister, freshly eighteen and already getting eyed by the boys. Steve as he used to be before the serum, unofficial fifth member of the Barnes family. A whole extended family… now gone.

"Your mother died early," he remembers quietly. "And your father later. I remember you saying that, even though I was… not myself. No siblings?" He is silent, sober to think of a woman left alone in the world. "That's familiar. It was Steve's life, except reversed. He lost his father first, in the Great War. Then his mother of illness. We were still young. I looked after him, after that."

He leans his head against hers. It is a tacit way of saying that he will look after her, too. Give her some sense of family.

She tells him he matters. His eyes open, tired but no longer quite so bleak. "Yes," he says. "I have mattered. Now I want to matter in a good way." He laughs mutedly. "Maybe someday see if Rebecca left any children."

His head lowers tiredly. "Someday. Until then, us is enough."

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