February 15, 2017:

After Cauterization. James Barnes returns from purging one of the minor Hydra outposts where he was kept as the Winter Soldier, only to find Jane awake and rather displeased with his secrecy.

Brooklyn, New York


NPCs: None.



Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

Jane Foster opens her eyes, and she's back in that room, and her head is back in that machine.

She freezes and she trembles and she calls for someone to make it all stop. No one does, though, never will, and her only reply is that familiar click, the one she heard every time before the activiation of the machine. She has no time to brace. Electricity surges through her brain matter, through her body, locking her up until her jaw vices down against the rubber btween her teeth. It hurts and it doesn't stop.

Then it does, though she can't remember when, how, or why. She's not alone, and there's a face in the dark, one that's visited her many times before. The one that watched her through every one of her tortures. He looks down at her now, his eyes sharp like scalpels, reflecting light as they look down. Then he sits down on her chest and chokes her, leaning down close, blood draining hot and wet out of the hole between his opened ribs. She can't breathe. She tries to draw air and cannot.

Poor Dr. Foster, he says, his voice worming into her ear. So unhappy, and nobody knows. But you told me everything. We can make you happy again. We'll cut out all the sadness. Put in the thing that will make you perfect. It's real.

Madness shines in his oilspill eyes. Madness and the slowly dripping blood, falling like tears, from his eyes, from his nose, from his ears.

Do you want to see mine?

Jane opens her eyes again, awake, gazing up helplessly into the dark. The sweat sticks her clothes and it's all she can feel, because she can't move, can't breathe, the room creaking around her in a hundred machine clicks. Click click click. She tries to run but cannot, tries to scream for help but has no air, and waits for the pain to start. She remembers James and tries to call for him, but cannot form the words, cannot find the breath, and it feels like hours she lies there, paralyzed, trapped inside her own body, trapped inside a nightmare without end.

Then it does. Just like that, her muscles relent, and she sits up abruptly, breathing in and out, searching out the familiar corners and walls of her own bedroom. Realizing what just happened, what this is, she rubs nervously at her face, smearing away the tears that come. It isn't real. She's in her place. Just more dreams.

The silence drones on.

It's too much to bear, and Jane pushes herself up to stand, rising on shaky legs. She shouldn't do this, shouldn't bother him with more crying, but she needs James. She needs it to be anything but dark, and quiet, and alone, and she heads on an anxious step to the living room. She knows already there's one place he'll be, and she'll find him on —

— the empty couch.

She stares at it in quiet askance, heart pounding in near-panic. She checks the rest of the apartment, fire escape and all, hunts for her phone and finds no new messages. It baffles Jane, checking the time, but her mind finds a logical answer. He probably stepped out for something, and didn't want to wake her.

Jane sits down uneasily on the couch, feeling the anticlimactic shiver of adrenaline in her limbs, and palms her hands over her knees to stop their trembling. She takes in a deep breath, and waits. And waits.

Time passes far longer than it should. She checks her phone, somewhat compulsively, and finds nothing. She nearly types him three messages, but with the passing minutes, Jane feels herself losing the will to. She reaches and reaches out to him — does he not think to do the same? It's a selfish thought, which comes and goes, especially when what follows: what if something's wrong?

The last time he failed to check with her…

She starts typing a fourth, then, for some reason, deletes it. Because she's overreacting. Because she's just going to panic herself worse. Because if something is wrong, he'll tell her. Because if she sends something and he doesn't answer, and it happens all over again, she'll…

Jane puts her phone away. She opens her laptop instead to occupy her mind with news reports. She looks for her charge cord back in her bedroom and finds, instead, on her desk drawer, that flash drive. The one Red Robin gave to her. She reaches for it, loses her courage, and closes the drawer again. She does find something else in her searching: a spare pack of James' cigarettes among his few, sparse things. She considers it a moment.

An hour later, she's smoking through her third.

Miles away, in Maspeth, Queens, something half the Winter Soldier and half James Buchanan Barnes finishes his own cigarette and stubs it out. He takes one last look at the flames, the rising smears of soot and ash, waits long enough to see the fire engines arrive before the blaze gets out of control… and then he turns and leaves.

The corpses he made, he'd already dealt with long before he set the fire.

He isn't really sure if it's an act that makes him feel good, necessarily, or better, or closer to recovery or anything like that. It's an act that makes him just feel grim and bleak, as if he'd crossed off something on a long, long balance sheet to get all the numbers that much closer to zeroing out. An act to start tearing down the entity that stole his life, murdered who he was, perverted him against everything for which he had ever fought.

An entity that made him nearly kill Steve Rogers.

An entity that made him drag Jane Foster to be twisted into a creature like himself.

An entity that put countless others who had come to care for him at risk.

An entity that, frankly, just needs to be wiped out of the world for all the wrong it has done. All the wrong it's made him do on its behalf.

Soviet Russia is long dead, its successor something James Barnes doesn't yet know the shape of. No matter. Hydra's still around. As Bucky makes his way home, he allows himself a bitter, humorless smile. Two heads may grow in the place of any one you lop off, but he knows how the myth goes. Nothing grows back if you cauterize the stump.

He's not expecting Jane to be awake when he returns. Banking on it, in fact. He'd left immediately after he was sure she was asleep, and he didn't take all that long. The entire ordeal was perhaps a little over an hour. The lights aren't on, and so there's nothing to indicate to him that his assumptions aren't correct. Nothing up until he quietly opens the door, key turning near-soundlessly in the lock, and lets himself back in with the furtiveness of someone who shouldn't have been out in the first place.

He closes the door softly, turns around, makes one step— and sees Jane very much up, very much awake, and very much smoking. And him in his full gear, armed and smelling of the fire he set…

He is motionless for a few moments, in the stillness of the very guilty. Then he's just indignant, as if to deflect impending chastisement. "You're always yelling at me not to smoke," he grumps, even as he starts the process of stripping the weapons from his body.

The woman of his memory always lit her tiny home for his return. Its beacon light would shine out into the bleak winter's night, seen by his sharp eyes, watched through his scopes, from even a mile away.

Tonight the brownstone waits in total darkness. Not a single lamp on. Dark and still, the only reason to suggest is that Jane Foster is still asleep. Still in that bed where he left her, just an hour ago, her closed eyes and slow, metered breathing oblivious to the decision he made.

He unlocks and opens the door, and comes home to darkness and quiet. He does not make a sound coming in; if even she were asleep, he would not stir her.

But not even soundlessness can save James Barnes now. Because there is only one place he can go, one place he can return, one place to reach that is the end point to tonight's secrets —

— and occupying it, swathed in darkness, and sitting on the very couch he uses to sleep, is Jane. She sits tightly, like a tiny knot, in just a camisole and underwear, having not even had the foresight or desire to dress herself. Light only flares in one single point, the lit embers of her smoking cigarette.

He stands there in silence and stillness, looking for the longest time like just another errant shadow, albeit one suited in full tactical gear and wearing the many, familiar shapes of his countless weapons. It's not often Jane surprises him in this way, it seems, and yet here she is.

Her head turns. Shadow wells in the features of her face, and in the dark it's difficult to her out — though James can feel Jane's eyes boring into him. She looks him over, up and then down, cataloguing and categorizing every inch of him, a flinch of her fingers around the cigarette as she smells in the air something that burned far more strongly and deadly than tobacco smoke.

There's a heavy silence about the woman. She's waiting, waiting for him to do something, waiting for him to speak. Waiting and testing him on the first crucial words he says to her. Important words after what he's just done.

He makes a remark about her smoking.

Jane's mouth tightens. Light burns in brief, bright embers as she takes a drag of one of his stolen cigarettes, smoke exhaling out through her lips, and she looks away in icy disregard.

Buckle by buckle, strap by strap, he unhooks his weapons and undoes his armor, shedding the accoutrements of a war it seems he has silently decided to fight. Bit by bit, James reemerges from the combat shell of the Winter Soldier. He says nothing to her and she says nothing to him. The silence stretches on like a highway through the heartland, interminable and featureless.

He can feel her eyes on him, watching him, making a critique of his every inch. His shoulders tense, back tightening under the scrutiny. He has been watched too many times before by critical eyes, weighed and measured and catalogued, and to feel such a regard again even from Jane— perhaps especially from Jane— puts him immediately and instinctively on the defensive. A hurt animal recognizing the usual precursors to pain.

No pain comes, though. Not the physical kind. Just the disdainful cold silence of a woman who apparently finds the cold shoulder a productive means of conflict resolution.

Already on edge from being watched, given a tacit test, and now ignored, James suffers a flare-up of temper. He drops his LBV on the table a little more emphatically than necessary. The ammunition stored in it makes it clatter loudly on the surface.

"Hydra has been withdrawing from the city— or just re-organizing to new locations. Slowly, but steadily," he finally says, in the silence after that jarring noise. "Not many of their known outposts are manned anymore. I burned out one that still was."

He picks up the pack, left on the table, and takes a cigarette for himself, figuring he's allowed if she's doing it. "I don't want to suffer them to exist."

It is a test. A test by Jane Foster to see if he will actually make her ask the question she should not ever need to say. A question that, if she ever says aloud, will only stand in bitter evidence how little she believes he resepects her: where were you?

That quip kills any patience she has. And though Jane does not consider cold, passive silence any kind of conflict resolution, she finds herself doing it now. She's so furious she cannot speak, and so hurt that she thinks if she tries in that moment, she'll cry. If she cries, it's all over.

She looks away and ignores him through the pounding of her blood in her ears, and gazes at some far safer point in the dark until her eyes stop burning. She takes a draw of the cigarette for quiet courage. The smoke burns down her throat.

Jane continues staring fiercely away, struggling to get her temper under control, as at that moment, James battles his.

The clamour of the LBV startles her, drawing back her face, her eyes, and though Jane does not jump, she tightens up everywhere, all of her muscles knotted into a hundred little nooses. It's palpable, even in the dark, she's on edge, and her hand slightly trembles around her cigarette. But she holds her position there on the couch, refusing to retreat or be spooked away, doubling down on her own anger.

She knows she needs to say something.

Only he does first, and that stops her, holding still, listening as James reveals his last missing hour into the dark. She hears it out, Hydra, a withdrawal, new locations, and tonight he burned one out.

After a moment, Jane speaks. Her voice is too-thin, too-tight, brittle. "I heard about it on the news."

She doesn't stop him from taking a cigarette. She doesn't seem to care whether he'll even light it up. Jane looks up at James, watching him, even now trying to search for something in his face in the dark. "How long has this been going on?" she asks.

There's a beat. "Were you ever going to tell me?"

She heard about it on the news.

He pauses minutely in the middle of lighting his cigarette. "They're quick," he observes, bitterly dry, as he finishes lighting and takes a pull. The cigarettes of now are all weak-tasting things to him, the filters cutting them down to something bland by his standards, but he smokes it anyway with a sort of grim perseverance.

Lingeringly angry still from the cocktail of emotions that welled up in him as he watched that outpost burn, he struggles to separate out that rage from whatever irritation he feels at being eyed. There is a long, long silence as he does this, as Jane struggles with her own anger, as she tries to decide what to say.

Eventually she asks two very important questions.

His eyes close. He leans over, bracing his hands on the table, his shoulders slumping. A significant amount of his anger bleeds out of him.

"Not long," he says around his cigarette. "Couple days. Mostly just recon. This was the first time I got to do anything concrete."

Was he ever going to tell her?

"Eventually," he says. "It was… spur of the moment I even decided to start. Just sitting and watching them walk away…" The suppressed rage in his features says what he doesn't.

Those weak cigarettes of today still make Jane cough lightly between breaths. But she's always been intent on finishing anything she starts.

For the first time since he's met her, since he's probably known her, she senses but does not try to soothe the anger out of James Barnes. Jane lets it be, perhaps tonight too far occupied with her own, with a twisting, circling rage she feels build inside her, rage she struggles to calcify and control. It doesn't feel like her usual tempers, the ones she can yell out and talk away; too complicated when the fury is too twisted up with hurt, with something that feels like heartbreak, and if she's not careful, she won't yell or talk anything away. She'll just cry and not stop.

As he leans over, hands on the table, she summons bravery to look back up and find James' face. That fierce, cataloguing scruitiny has left, gone from her — where she was merely searching him bitterly for wounds, counting all the weapons on his body, trying to calculate what he would do to have to need them all. Now Jane just wants to find his eyes in the dark. The little, diffuse light in through the window reflects off hers, the distance in them, the anger, the bracing of a woman who's been familiarly hurt in a way like this before, and is quietly terrified for it to happen again.

She does appreciate honest answers, even if they rip her heart apart.

"Couple days?" Jane echoes, sounding winded. He hid this from her for a couple days? She had no idea, absolutely no idea, and something about it just makes her sick. She puts the cigarette out on a small plate she's brought out as an ashtray, and draws in her hand to cover, rub over her eyes.

Eventually, he says. Eventually he was going to tell her. Tell her something so fucking /important./

"And what if something happened to you?" Jane asks, her hand falling away, released to tremble where it curls between her bare knees. She looks up, and it seems in the end she just can't fight entropy, can't stop the tears that are now on her face. "You'd disappear without a trace. I'd never even know. You'd do this to me?"

He is finally honest with her, but even as he is, he still avoids her eyes— her attempts to meet his gaze. Instead he concentrates on his weapons, pulling them from their holsters and laying them down one after the other on the table. Smoke from the cigarette in his mouth rises with deceptive placidity in the silence.

And what if something happened to you? she asks.

The question gives him pause. He stops with both hands resting on the tabletop. His still-long hair, as of yet uncut, provides a perfect curtain that screens his features from sight, but the tension in his stance is obvious.

Then the anger just breathes out of him like a ghost leaving a corpse. His head hangs, shoulders slumping. "Not do it to you on purpose," he says. "I wasn't… thinking about that. I am sorry."

His shoulders weigh down under an invisible burden. "Sometimes I think if I keep it to myself," he admits, "it won't spill over onto anyone else. There's… so much of it that I can't…"

He palpably struggles to phrase it. "I don't know how to start, or where, and I think if I do start, I won't be able to keep control of it."

His apology is a hanged man, strung from silence and darkness between them, looking cold and dead-eyed, offering no joy to witness its guilt — only a certain hollowed grief.

Jane's anger cools over into something else, discomfort and worry, and even if James will not look at her or meet her eyes, it does not stop the way she tries to search for her answers on his face. Everything about him calls to her, from his soft, bleak words, to the heavy fall of his shoulders, and no amount of fury will hold her back.

She rises, unable to hold herself apart from him, approaching the man to stand before him. So tiny compared to him, especially in all his equipment and armor, and she wearing so scant little, but Jane looks up with a level authority, no fear and only concern.

Always reaching, even when she's furious, Jane lifts her right hand to try to touch his face, her skin and careful fingers overwarm.

"You have to listen to me, James," she urges up to him, dead serious, "but it can't go this way. I want you to have privacy, but this… you can't keep this to yourself. If you want to do this with me, then it's just how it's done. You don't get to choose what you handle alone. You don't get to choose when you get to shut me out. You have to let me be a part of you. Everything you're fighting, I need to fight it with you."

James only looks at her when she comes to stand beside him. He doesn't miss their incongruity in this moment— the forged, honed lethality of his body standing in sharp contrast to her slight, sparsely-clothed fragility— and it makes him transparently a little uncomfortable. He renews his efforts to shed all his accoutrements of combat, as if to do so might make him less dangerous standing near her.

The stern way she looks up at him makes up all the difference in physicality, though. She looks at him as if she were wearing some armor of her own.

She reaches up to touch his face. At first he seems inclined to step back, but ultimately he doesn't.

He doesn't look convinced at her insistence— that he doesn't get to keep her away from certain things nor shut her out at his choosing— but he doesn't exactly argue, either. He closes his eyes, perhaps wondering if it might be best if he just stays alone, but the idea of letting go of her support is a thought just as exhausting as figuring out how to fit her into his dangerous life.

"I'm of two minds about it. I haven't even really decided myself," he admits. He strips the last of his gear, leaving himself in shirtsleeves. "A large part of me is sick of killing, sick of doing things so similar to what I've been doing for the past sixty years. Knows all the people who directly hurt me are either dead, or soon to be."

He stares down at the assortment of weapons laid on the table before him. "But then there comes a point, after sitting still too long, when I find I'm just… angry. And I know they're out there, still doing all those things they made me do."

He shakes his head. "You say you want to fight it. How are you going to?" He sounds as if he is posing a genuine question out of genuine curiosity.

The way Jane Foster looks up at James suggests that whatever it is she thinks of him, at least right now — it is not that he is dangerous.

Even angry as she is, she reaches out to him, for him, unwilling to allow the sight before her: a man looking one decision away from seaming into the darkness around him, to let himself look like just another errant shadow, brief and cold and and mirroring the movement of a life never allowed to possess.

Her hand finds his face. He does not reject the touch, and it emboldens Jane to remain close, so close he can feel the slight heat emanating off her skin. She speaks of something not so much an ultimatum as much as it is… a promise, an insight into who she is, and the limits she can bear. Every person has their breaking point, and hers is the grief of being left in the dark. Her frank, honesty face cannot bear secrets.

She listens in earnest as he speaks. There's a look to her face that anything James Barnes could tell her Jane would find precious. All she wants is to be talked to; all she needs is to be informed.

"What you just told me you did?" she tells him, following with her eyes the way he divests of his gear, strips himself as if he could lay down all that makes him the soldier and quantify it all in a single glance. Jane looks at him as he stares at all his weapons. "What you did? I don't… disagree with it. I can't sleep. I keep thinking of… I can't — I don't want to think of a world with them in it. I hated them from the moment I saw you — that night." She swallows, and her voice goes thin. "They… the world doesn't need them."

It is her turn to look away, just briefly, not to hide, but to stare at the safer point of her own darkened hardwood, her hair falling over one of her downturned eyes. "Even if I wasn't here with you, wanting to help you — I think I deserve to be a part of it. I deserve to know. But I am here with you. And you making a decision like that, whatever it is… this is one of those things you don't get to do alone. It affects me too. You're my life now, James."

But now it's his turn to ask a question. It's a good question, a sincere one, a question Jane Foster is not truly ready for. She looks up, a lack of an answer clear across her expressive face. A bitter part of her thinks it unfair. If he'd asked her those couple days ago, maybe by now she'd have an answer. She'd at least have some ideas. So he keeps her in the dark only to put her on the spot?

"I guess it depends if I have to do it alone or not," she answers, quiet.

He does look as if he is considering it. Considering just receding back into the dark, walking away now he has spoken and squared with all the people he owes, and plunging himself back into a solitary life of vengeance. Into a one-man crusade against Hydra.

Why not? He does not deserve to stand beside Steve any longer. He does not belong to this time, this place. He feels it keenly as he walks the streets of New York and tries to navigate everything that has changed. He feels it in the quiet moments between his interactions with those he has come to know in this time, when his traitor mind whispers to him that he is only pretending to be okay— only pretending to integrate— and there is only one path possible for a man with as much blood on his hands as he has.

Only one path such a man deserves.

He has spent time in the past week or two just dedicated to catching up on the news— on everything that has transpired since 1945. Things that he ostensibly knew, but up until now was not able to parse with his own true mind. It's depressed him, looking at the course of history. In its contours, its sudden sharp twists and turns, he can see his own invisible hand on the tiller, guiding the century into a shape so much worse than if he had never touched it at all.

Of course, it was not his will to do these things, in the end. He was only the instrument. But it was still his hand.

All that he is stripped off and arrayed on the table surface, he leans over and takes a hard look as if to summarize himself in one glance over his armory. Jane tells him she does not disagree with what he did— will not censure him, because Hydra and all its ilk do need to be wiped from the earth— but she deserves to know. Because it affects her now. Because he is her life.

"I'm a very tenuous thing to hang a life on," he says, quiet.

That in mind, he wants to know: how does she propose to fight? How does she propose to join him in the dark? He can perceive she finds it unfair, having this sprung on her after the fact, but the weary look her gives her suggests that this is his own thing he must know. Her answer is not an answer, not really, and it makes his temper prickle a little again: justified or not. The anger comes and goes. "If I'm asking, you can presume 'not alone,'" he replies tiredly.

He says he's a tenuous thing to hang a life on. He says, in so few words, that what she's doing is a mistake.

Jane just looks at him, simply, helplessly. Then her eyes pinch with hurt, tears streaking down her face. Fuck you, says that single look, her voice holding its silence. Fuck you for saying such a horrible thing to me.

She retracts, pulling in, though the woman does not retreat; he isn't going to scare her off with his self-hating words and their vague interpretations. If he wants to be left alone to be a ghost, if he truly does not want any of what she's willing to give him — then he is going to be a man and tell her straight.

But it is a double-edged sword for Jane to hold her angry ground, because this close, even in the dark, is to see her unguarded and true, vulnerable down to the tiniest tremble of her hand and the way her throat catches to suppress a choked-back sob. She doesn't want James to see her like this, to see just how easily and candidly he can wreck her with his words, but even to that end —

— fuck that too, Jane thinks. Let her wear all her choices on her face. Let him see how she doesn't regret any of it. Doesn't, has not, has never regretted him.

She doesn't think he deserves an answer. But she'll give him one anyway.

"They broke me, James," she whispers. Her dark eyes burn like black suns. "So I'd break them right back. I can get into most encrypted systems and find names, addresses, information. I can learn where they operate, work, live. I can write a script to level the power grid to an entire neighbourhood. I can sabotage someone's car. I can make a gas leak happen." Her voice catches, hearing herself say words she'd never imagined, but that doe snot stop her. "I can find a way to make people go to sleep and never awaken." Jane goes quiet for a heartbeat. "Everything is a science. Even death. Manipulation of variables and observation of outcomes."

That quiet fury falters, and Jane bows her head, too heavy with too many dark thoughts. Tears run from her blinking eyes. "I don't like these feelings. I've never had them before. I've never hurt anyone in my entire life. I don't — I don't want to." It is at that point her words catch, her voice hitches, and the first, breathy sob wells up. "But if it," she still forces herself to say, "it — meant making sure no one feels what I did, I would."

"I'd do it," Jane chokes out through her sobs, "I'd do it, because I — I wouldn't live with myself if I didn't."

Fuck you, Jane's eyes say. Fuck you for saying that to me. After all we've been through, fuck you for turning into a spineless shit, and wanting to run away to be alone.

Fuck you for calling my choice of you a mistake.

She doesn't say any of it aloud. But her eyes shout it, and in little more than that glance, Jane wounds James right back. His eyes are first stricken— then just exhaustedly shocked, not having expected her to find his warnings of what she's getting into, choosing him, to be horrible things to say.

He guesses his own judgment on how to comport himself around other humans isn't the greatest right now. He only has room enough in his mind for his own hurts, his own anger, his own worries. Worries that sticking close to him, wanting to be so involved in his life, will mean her death— or worse, mean seeing her strapped back into that chair, this time with no rescue in sight.

Her face makes plain she does not regret him. But, he thinks, it's still very early on in the game.

So he wants to know. What would she do?

The answer is plainly not anything he expected. His expression changes as she speaks, from tiredness to muted shock to a deep, abiding unhappiness. These are not things he thought her capable of doing. Not things he thought she should ever have to do. Not things he ever wanted to draw her into doing, being

"You could find a way," he summarizes, "to be me."

His silence, afterwards, is heavy in the dark.

"This is not what I wanted for you," he says.

"So rarely do we ever get what we want," Jane chokes out, her head turned up to shine her large, too-bright eyes up at him. There is a keenness to them even now, a clarity, that in one fell look he can see right down into her soul. He can look down and see it all. It is his to have, as she promised, her soul to keep until the day comes he can trust his own. Even now, after speaking aloud such darkness, there's a purity to her. Something not even They could strip away. Not even They could complicate.

Those same eyes pinch. "So you don't get to tell me I'm wrong at the choices I've made for myself."

There Jane swallows uneasily, fidgetting like she would try to smear the tears from her face… before she lets her hands drop to her sides, committed to wear them. She takes in a deep, slow breath, in and out, cycling air until the sobs gentle, loosen, let go. Until she can remember the strength that should be in her voice.

"This is where you're wrong, James," she says, even now still willing to meet his eyes, still searching, still reaching. "You think because your feelings are destructive, that they've put you at a remove. That they're some sort of… seal of your inhumanity. But what you did, what you want to do, it is very human. It's the most human thing I've ever seen." Her eyes burn with a plea to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted. To listen to her and not let himself fall into the dark. "It's a good, beautiful, necessary thing to do. To take something out of the world that will only ever hurt more people. It's like cutting out a cancer. Like the cancer that took my father away. Because Hydra, those people, they made their decision, and if all they want to do is… is hurt, and break, and turn people into objects? Into things? They lost their right to share the world with us."

Through the dark, she again steps close, a half-hitched brush of her body to come so close he can hear the pounding of her heart. Jane tilts her head to look up, lensed against her eyes a simple offering: all of her, little and small and imperfect. A bit broken, but strong, and wanting to be here. In a world so adamant to strip him and her of their ability to choose, she makes hers.

"I'm already you, James," she whispers. "Alive. Human. And here."

She speaks and he listens. At some point, too exhausted to remain standing, he folds to sit in the chair at the table, leaning back, resting his metal left arm along the table surface. She insists that though his feelings are destructive, though he feels anger, though he feels the urge to kill and wipe away all of Hydra he can find, such emotions are not a seal of inhumanity. Rather they are the most human thing possible. Not only a natural response to their torment, but in the end… a net benefit.

A necessity, even: to burn out something that does not belong in the world, and which can do no one any good.

I'm already you, she concludes. He assumes her to mean that she has already suffered at their hands as he has, and there is nothing left for him to preserve her from.

"Are you?" he asks. He is silent afterwards, but the kind of silent that implies he has more to say.

It would be easier if the Winter Soldier were where it all started," it comes eventually. There is an age to his voice, the tone he lapses into when speaking of old thoughts and older memories. There is a confessional-booth aspect to it as well. "But it's not. I think the last time I was certain I was a good person was seventy-six years ago. Life was tough, but it was certain. I was a good kid. Looked after my family. Looked after Steve. I was liked."

He pulls absently at his ID bracelet, the thing seeming both a comfort and a chain to him. "Things really changed after I enlisted. They found out fast something I never knew about myself. I had a natural talent to kill people. I was a good marksman, so they put me in sniper training. US Army didn't have good programs back then, but the Marines did, and the British. I spent a lot of the war watching people up close in my scope. I saw all their last moments. I made the decision on their life or death. All down to me and the trigger pull."

He exhales. "It didn't bother me then. If I didn't kill then my own men would die. But few saw it that way. I wasn't very liked anymore. And looking back now, there just isn't enough… divide between what I was doing as a soldier and what I wound up doing as the Soldier. I wish there were more. It would make it easier…"

He shakes his head. "I don't know what a life without killing feels like. I don't know if I'm capable. I think I made peace with that. Maybe. But…" But you will be choosing this.

With watchful eyes, Jane follows James' tired retreat to the chair. It creaks under him, if not to bear his weight, but his burden. She holds her own moment of silence, then makes a decision, deciding she will not let him retreat too far unless he tells her to.

A tiny thing like her can fold into most little spaces, and she helps herself to the edge of the table, sitting down in the scant space next to his metal arm. It brings Jane to sit opposite of James, facing him, her eyes still searching for his in the dark.

As he did for her, she listens to him. She offers no interjection, makes no sound, has nothing cross her face like she means or wants to interrupt. Jane holds herself with the stillness of someone who knows these words are precious, rare, and true: an insight down into James Barnes he would not give to anyone freely. She stoops forward, her arms braced along her bare legs, her hands loosely twined, their restless fidgets consigned to the absent way she rubs along her own fingernails. He tells her of his past, as a soldier before his long winter, a man who murdered and took lives long before he had masters to direct his hand. How it did not bother him back then, back when it was duty.

How he has trauma, she realizes, even before that fall off the train that took his arm, took his free will. How he struggles to even reconcile himself as a veteran of war to memories that must all still seem fresh to his mostly-frozen mind, a boy left behind somewhere on the beaches, never coming home.

"The only divide I can think of," Jane answers quietly, "is that then, being there with Steve, being there for him, that was your choice. Everything after wasn't. And that's a huge divide, James. It's a heavy weight to pick up a gun. But your sole right is that choice. It's a choice that saved a lot of lives. It's a choice that…" she looks briefly down, "I heard in stories my grandmother once told me. It might not help that burden you carry. But that burden is one you chose, and you carry it for so many people. It makes you a good man. It makes your soul beautiful."

Her lips press briefly together, but the shine to her eyes says that she is not finished.

"I know what you want for me." Jane reaches out to take his hand, his right one, the tips of her fingers running the links of his bracelet. "You want to give me a piece of you, the piece you feel is safe enough to share. That piece you've been showing to everyone. I know it's just one piece. Sometimes I see the other parts: bits of it, when you think I'm not looking." Her fingers slowly tighten. "I made this choice. I'm not here to be with that safe piece of you. I'm here for it all. I want to try, but you have to let me in. "

She sits there in the dark, silvered by distant moonlight, pale and fragile, but with eyes that burn. "You can't live this way. You can't take this on alone. And not just this… you. You can't take you on alone. If you can trust anyone to see you, it can be me."

In these quiet moments, James finds himself thinking about things he has not yet really had time to process with his own, unadulterated mind. Things like the work of engineering art that has replaced his left arm. Things like the fact he has woken after a seventy-year walking nightmare to find himself a war amputee. He stares at it in mute, bewildered silence, as if seeing it for the very first time. Perhaps he is. Up until now, he has treated it like a weapon attached to his body, without truly letting his mind approach the stark truth behind its existence.

His last clear memories of himself-as-himself, without the too-bright, artificial gloss of the conditioning cocktail that kept him the Winter Soldier, are all of himself with both arms. He has not had time to truly adjust to his one-armed state. He stares at it with tired blankness, and in his eyes is one resigned thought: at least it works mostly like the real thing, I guess.

He only looks up when Jane joins him, perching herself on the table edge. She watches him intently as he speaks. These are not things he would say to anyone else, things he can barely even say to himself, but there is something in her eyes that demands his full honesty, and so much in his mind that it seems impossible to exist without letting some of it out.

These are traumas older than the Winter Soldier, she realizes. The more mundane, but no less difficult traumas of a man who was compelled to deal death even before his life was twisted into something far beyond the pale of 'normal.' A man who did not have time to come to terms with what he did and what he saw before his mind was broken apart— his body used to commit atrocities so much worse than what he did in wartime, which at least came with a sense of duty. A sense that something heinous was being stopped. And to speak of that…

It was a choice, Jane says. A choice that saved lives. It is a choice I heard in stories my grandmother told me. James looks steadily at her, his blue eyes showing his slow realization of what she means. He read into her before he ever approached her for the first time. He knows the lineage of her mother.

She uses that to remind him that the burden he chose was a burden he took up on behalf of others. It makes him good regardless of what he had to do to discharge that duty. It makes his soul beautiful. The phrase brings his mouth to press into a thin line, memories flashing through his head, and his gaze drops to the floor.

She insists to have all of him. Not just the part he feels safe to give her, not just the parts he feels are good, but all of it. She made the choice to embrace all of it. Because he cannot face what he is alone, and she will help him carry its significant weight.

For some time, he is quiet. He lifts his right hand to scrub it over his face, palm rasping on several days' worth of untended stubble, ending with his fingertips pressed into his temples: as if he could wipe away his own thoughts and exhaustion.

Finally, he looks up. His right hand reaches for hers, taking it and holding it. He lets their twined hands settle in her lap.

"Tell me about your grandmother," he asks.

In the dark, Jane makes her plea. And it is a plea, desperate and crucial, because she knows if she cannot reach him now, she may never. If he makes his choice to carry his weight alone, there is nothing she can do. She just knows she can't fight him to keep him. She knows she can't do this alone. She knows if life with him means more absences, more secrets, more severance to watch him slowly break, it will kill her.

But even knows she can't command him. She can't force him. She can't do anything but reach, reach as she's always done: reach for the stars, reach for her answers, reach for a lonely soul who thinks he is nothing and possesses even less. In her quiet plea, Jane reaches.

And he reaches back.

Jane's eyes shine to so small a gesture, yet one that speaks tomes — one that says for him all the words he does not tell her. In one moment, her expression cracks, shining through all her features all of her raw hope. Her smaller hand curls in his, determined and strong, twining their fingers, and she braces her legs to hold their joined hands in her lap.

His request drops her eyes, not in resistance or uncertainty or any desire to deny him, but merely for her to gaze away in silent recollection, needing time to gather her thoughts. She looks down at his right hand, woven with hers, and with her other hand, covers his knuckles in a sheltering touch.

"It was Buchenwald," Jane begins, in a voice so light, so hollow, it seems to hang in the air. "She was just a girl. They kept her because she had small fingers. And she was quiet. Her mother died the first day they got there. Her two younger sisters. She tried to hold —" Her words catch at that. She goes quiet for many moments, then makes herself go on. "Her father died sometime later, but she didn't know when. She never got to see him."

Her dark eyes turn back up to capture his, to search James' eyes that burn so pale in the dark. He has stars for eyes, she thinks. She thought so the first night she ever saw him.

"She talked about the day you saved her," she says, tenderness filling all those hollow spots in her voice. You, she says, even if it were not James Barnes specifically, not his company, not his direct men, but still his people. "American soldiers. They even kept her from the panic, gave her chocolate. It was just her and her older brother alive. She said he was so different after."

Her thumb strokes over his knuckle bones, a slow, unconscious sweep that repeats again and again, running over old scars, old calluses, absorbing the feel of them all to memory. After a brief silence, Jane continues. "When she was older she came here," she says, and for the first time tonight, a brief smile haunts her mouth, brought back by memory, "she said it was her love affair with America. She loved my grandfather. She never told him, though, about this, and I'm not sure why. She told my mother, but my mother — I never got to know her. Baba and I were always close, and when I was old enough, she told me. She didn't want it to be forgotten."

And Jane does not — does not ever forget. From that gift she is able to repeat the words she does, to him, in the dark. "She said the reason I'm here is because people are beautiful and kind. And that I must be that way too."

Her little body holds still, then she exhales raggedly, venting out so much in one breath: like a quiet burden of her own. And shakily, Jane admits the reason why, "I never even told my father about this." The implication stands strong. If not him, she has not told anyone this story. James Barnes is the first.

And it's that thought that brings her eyes back to him, stolen out of reminisce and back before the man, the veteran, the soldier, Jane looking into his eyes. Both her hands cradle his, moving down from his knuckles to touch his wrist, to cover his bracelet to press its cool metal flat to his skin. "You're part of something, James. You're part of a choice that millions of others made. They're still making. It's the right choice. It's the hardest choice to make, and probably even worse to bear. But if it was never made, I wouldn't be here."

There is a long silence. In that silence inheres the risk that he will withdraw. That he will decide to bear the weight of his long, unhappy life alone, keeping her at a remove in some misguided desire to keep her safe. Keep her far from his bloody existence, untouched by the things he has committed and may yet commit in the future.

Jane waits, because she knows this is his decision. It is not something she can force. It is not anything she can demand. All she can do is offer herself and wait to see if he will take her outstretched hand.

It takes a long time, but eventually he reaches and takes her hand. He does not say anything, but his fingers curl gently about hers, and he rests their twined hands in her lap. It is only demonstrative— a suggestion of his acceptance of her support and company, rather than anything aloud or concrete— but it is enough to start.

It is enough to tell her that for now… he accepts not being alone. That he accepts letting her see all of him. He accepts her being near.

It may ultimately be what he needs, because without her he would have nothing but the silence. Nothing but the memories. Nothing but the blood, and the screams, and the nightmares. Nothing but his own self, filled up with recollections of the monster he was forced to become. And all together, it would be enough to bring him to put a bullet in his own head to quiet the ghosts.

He forces his thoughts away from that, and tries to focus on something else instead. He asks about her grandmother. He thinks he wants to hear about something good he may have been part of.

Her answering story comes in a hushed voice— the voice one uses for intimate stories that have never been told to anyone else. He is silent throughout in respect for that tone, but his hand tightens on hers as she describes the atrocities that were committed. The atrocities he went to war to stop. His eyes are bright enough the blue of them still shines visibly in the dark, lit from within by anger and revulsion and self-hatred that he could ever have been twisted to serve people who would do this—

She talked about the day you saved her, Jane says. You.

"I died before any of the major liberations," he shakes his head. "I only saw Majdanek, and passingly. I wish I had lived long enough to be part of the liberation of more. Instead, by then, I was… on the wrong side."

His eyes close to the stroke of her thumb over his knuckles. Her fingertips caress the places where calluses have formed from the grips of countless pistols, the hilts of many knives. He thinks about love— a woman loving a man, a man loving a woman, neither saying it aloud because that was the way of people back then, so often: to not say what was assumed to be known. He thinks about Jane being here in the world, at al, because the kindness of men who went to war to save a people from being wiped out.

His eyes only open again to the feel of her hand pressing his bracelet to his skin. "I am glad you are here," he says quietly, his voice wry, "though I don't know how much part I had in that personally. I take the point, though."

His eyes turn aside, staring off into the distance. "Trying to remember how to fight for some decent purpose. How to distinguish that from feeling too much like the fighting I did for the last few decades."

When her voice catches, his hand tightens on hers.

It's Jane's turn to let her mind walk her away, to be lost in memory and reliving a time she'd not brought back to the forefront of her thoughts in years. It's not the decades of distance he feels, and her reveries do not hold the nightmares that James Barnes sees, seared on the backs of his eyes, but in her silence and downcast eyes is something familiar — a glimpse of the particular weight of memory. How quickly it bears down and how easily it cripples.

But he provides her a grounding, and even though she shows no outward sign that she feels it, feels his fingers, Jane still does. She's able to find her voice again and fill the darkness with a story she's never spoken aloud before.

It hurts to say it. But Jane knows she needs to. She knows she wants to, because if there's anything she can say, do, be, to keep James Barnes from receding into the dark. She needs him to believe that the only place he belongs is here — here with her.

'You' is a particular word she chooses, meaning imbued into it — a symbolic you to join James with the cause that eventually outlived him. But his interpretation is far more literal.

Jane knows not to let that stand. Her eyes capture his, their lenses mirroring distant light, their gaze sharp, serious. "There's so much you know that I don't," she tells him, "but not this. And if you think you exist in a vacuum, James Barnes? With your thoughts and actions unable to affect others? You are so wrong. Every star we see in the sky is light from millions, billions of years away. An infinite number of lonely bodies, so far we may never reach them, and yet in the darkest hours we see their light. That light gave us our first constellations to map and guide our way. People are like that, those too far away, those we never meet, shaping our lives in ways we can't imagine."

She pauses only for breath, to collect her thoughts, though Jane's eyes never stray from their silent vigil of James' face. Her voice softens. "Your choice, your sacrifice? It's shared by countless others. So even if you weren't there, your choice was. So yes, you idiot. Yes, you. Your choice was a constellation for so many others to see, and they were guided by you. Just to do something. To protect. To save."

Jane goes quiet again, but only for a beat. Don't think she missed the self-hating implication of his other words. "It wasn't you on the wrong side," she insists. "Not you."

But James says he gets her point. Even if he is not certain if he has any connection, directly, indirectly, to the simple fact of her existence. Jane answers only in the way she lifts their joined hands to rest James' knuckles against her cheek. Her faith knows so.

Then he looks away, looks away and admits to the darkness that troubles his eyes. Eyes that have seen so much blood that its fresh, arterial red may paint his world, may colour his heavens, that he does not remember a life of blue skies and quiet beauty, a life without murder and horror. So much murder and horror that its act repeats an endless cycle, cold and constant, the element of choice made pointless. Jane glances down, pensive, searching her heart for what feels true to her to say. "It can't be easy. And it won't be figured out tonight." Now her hand tightens, a promise made. "But it will happen. With work and time and help, it'll become clear. Whether you decide to pick up a gun or you don't, I'll support you. I trust all your reasons. I trust you."

Her head turns. He can feel Jane's eyes, gazing at James, even as he looks away. %b"Just… please," she begs him to hear, "if you do anything for me, believe me when I tell you you can't do it alone. You can't.

"You have all of me, you know," she confesses. "I'll never keep anything from you. I'll never keep a piece of me away. Everything you see… it's yours. For as long as you want me." And it is, seen all in a single glance, Jane who wears her heart on her sleeve, freely, fearlessly, vulnerably. Yet something shines against her eyes: perhaps the first and true request she's ever made of him. "But I need to have it back. Maybe it's selfish, or too much to ask, but it's the only way I can do this. There's only one way to really… hurt me, and it's to keep me in the dark." Her eyes part, gazing down. "Or leave me behind."

She chides him about whether he thinks he lives in a vacuum, with his actions unable to affect others. He smiles at that, but the expression is nothing like it should be; the look is haunted and distant, a sardonic expression to accompany the way his eyes stare off somewhere faraway.

"I have rather unique proof that that isn't true," he says, "so you don't need to convince me."

He probably does need convincing that he has had far-reaching good effects rather than just evil ones, however, and Jane does her best to convey that through the touch of her hands, the quiet words of her story… her insistence that even if he was not there, his choice was. And his choice mattered. The battles in which he fought, on the shores of Algeria— in the forests of Italy— in the snows of the Swiss Alps. The lives he happened to save. The men he looked after. His choice helped carry everyone else who outlived him forward, so that they could one day save a woman who would go on to have a family.

She makes it a metaphor. Some people are stars, comes together in constellations to guide others, even though they themselves are light-years apart: never knowing one another, never meeting, never knowing those who look up at them and use their light.

He looks askance at her at that, but whatever he is thinking, he doesn't immediately say.

She insists, too, that it wasn't him on the wrong side. Never him. His hand tightens on hers. "I know," he assures. "I know it wasn't me. I know the actions weren't mine." He exhales, and another wry half-smile pulls at the corner of his mouth. "The problem is that I still have to live with them. I know what it feels like to do so many things, and in the vast majority of cases… the knowledge is unwanted."

He seems to accept her insistence to be there with him, though. To ensure he is not alone when he does whatever it is he chooses to do. He does not know how to gracefully carry it yet, judging by the way his eyes glance away, lashes lowering, but he does not push her away.

The line of his jaw tightens when she tells him he has all of her— everything, nothing hidden and nothing kept in the dark. It is not a look of rejection or revulsion. It is the look of someone given a gift he does not know if he can handle or deserve.

But it's give and take. She needs that back. She can't give all of herself and be walled off or kept in the dark in return.

He is silent for some time. Perhaps trying to search himself to see if that is even possible. He has lived a compartmentalized life for decades, a life of lies and half-truths and things not spoken, and to try to be fully honest and aboveboard again is like stretching a muscle that has not seen use in decades.

"All right," he eventually says. His voice is gentle. "I don't think I am… good at it anymore, after how I have had to spend my life. But I will try."

He lapses into quiet. Jane may regret her insistence on perfect openness between them when he eventually broaches, "You put away your telescope."

He doesn't need convincing, and some of her argument relents. But Jane looks on in quiet sentry, something there in her face, in her eyes, to promise that she will always keep trying — always be reaching to James Barnes to show him his place in the world was not always to kill, to hurt, to take. A gentle tidal surge trying to erode down the implacability of a mountain.

The moment of askance Jane sees, but does not quite understand. And she forgets it a moment later when James admits to knowing the actions of his Winter Soldier aren't his, but all those memories he still bears as its own responsibility. Her lips draw together, and her eyes crease, because it's unfair to her, unfair he has to keep this. Unfair that there is no way even she can think of him escaping that weight. "Well," she concedes, "you're not going to live with them alone."

With that certainty, she gives James, well — not a term. Not an ultimatum. Just herself, Jane Foster, and the only way she can be with another person. The only way she can give of herself and not be ripped apart, pulled open, by too many secrets that would eventually wear down her heart. And if this way of living is enough for him.

That long silence speaks tomes.

Jane immediately understands it for what it is: something crucial, the time needed to make an important decision. She averts her eyes and bows her head, face slightly hidden by the fall of her hair. She can feel her own nerves, her anxiety against the possibility of losing something she knows she so badly wants, but she fears any bit of anxiety on her face may bias James' right to free choice.

She stares down at her feet and waits for him to make it. Because it is his choice, and it wouldn't be her place to argue him or stop him. What she wants might be too much to ask of anyone, and perhaps absolutely too much to ask of a man still raw from a lifetime of bondage and experimentation and forced amnesia. If he's unwilling to be in something that asks he share himself so deeply, it's his right to say no. And Jane, as she sorts through her own twisting heart, thinks: it will hurt, it will hurt so much, but she'll accept it.

She might not be in his life the way she hopes, but she'll still want to be there, still want to help him in the way she promised the man over and over.

The silence goes on, and Jane bites down on her bottom lip, trying so hard and failing to hide her unease. She prepares for the worst, orders herself that when he tells her he can't, when what she's offered isn't enough, isn't what he wants, she's going to smile and she's going to say —

Absolutely nothing, not a word, as Jane glances up, shocked, when James consents. She wears on her unguarded face the transparent surprise of someone not expecting this, definitely never before this moment ever hearing a yes to her unconventional terms for clear honesty. Maybe at some times doubting if anyone ever would.

Jane's eyes search James' face, deeply, indulgently, not because she doesn't believe him, but that she wants to save this moment to memory, a precious one, a beautiful one, something to keep for herself against so many lonely moments. Her eyes shine dangerously bright, too bright, and she looks away, smiling to herself in a quiet moment of happiness.

It means he wants her enough to try. That he thinks her worth it. And to her, that means the world.

That is why Jane dismisses any of James' warnings that he may not be good at honesty, good at sharing all the parts and pieces he is. "That doesn't matter to me," she promises. Her shyly-averted eyes gentle, and she smiles to herself, timid to even fully show him all the undisguised hope burning across her face, lest that be enough to truly scare him or anyone away. "I'm sure not perfect. Trying is enough for me."

The quiet descends again, but without the dread or tension of the last. Jane resigns to it too, needing the moments just to sort the thoughts in her head, so many of them, turning her mind around and around so quickly she feels weightless. Her hand still holds his, unwilling to let him go.

She gentles as the moments go on, relaxing bit by bit, never at any moment anticipating or expecting the next question that follows.

Jane looks up, all her thoughts forgotten. She doesn't quite regret, never could, but she definitely winces, taken off-guard. She knew he'd notice, sooner or later, maybe even with enough awareness to ask her about it, and by then she would have thought it over in her head — had a list of reasons composed to wave it off. She just didn't expect him to notice this quickly. She shifts in place, her hand loosening a bit inside his, not at all inclined for this conversation. "Yeah," she answers, honest, but tries to skip on saying more. "It's — this is about you."

It is unfair. But neither of them can deny that it is reality. None of those actions were truly his own, but they will be his to bear until he dies. The memory of what his hands have done will revisit him in sleep for the rest of his life.

Some hint of the sheer weight of that burden is obvious in the blank, tired stare of his eyes off into the middle distance. They only sharpen back into focus when she speaks, telling him that he's not going to live with them alone; they look at her, surprised and then grateful and then just sad.

"You're a brave woman," he says wryly, though the flip humor is an obvious cover for his gratitude and the still-mixed emotions he has about… well, everything. "I'm sure there are any number of undamaged men closer to your own age that won't require you to help them with the fallout of 'international war crimes.'"

He doesn't keep protesting, however. As she seems determined to give him his free will and free ability to choose, so he supposes she has the right to choose as well, even if he thinks perhaps she could be making better ones. She has terms for him now, though, something which brings his head to turn to regard her. She believes in offering all of herself, no secrets and total honesty, and she wants the same in return.

He is silent. He would be lying if he said the idea of sharing everything didn't frighten him on some level. He is not sure he even remembers how to be honest, nor that he knows enough about what is true about his life to discern what is lie or reality to begin with. It is a vulnerable position to be in, especially for a man who has had no ability to maintain his own privacy or sanctity of thought for seven decades.

In the end, though, he accepts it. Accepts her. He warns that it will be hard and painful— he has forgotten too much about being honest, forgotten too much of how to be a normal man: not compartmentalized, not controlled, not burdened with too many conflicting narratives in his own head. But he does not say no.

The quiet happiness that glows from her, the assurances that trying is enough, gentles the troubled look out of his eyes.

Unfortunately for Jane, however, this means that it is now her turn. She cannot expect to live with a master assassin and have any of her actions go unnoted; he noticed that the roof lost a certain fixture almost immediately after its removal, though he has not brought it up until now.

His choice of timing may be making a gentle point.

She looks up, transparently unprepared to be quizzed on this. Vaguely amused, James regards her with the patient eyes of one awaiting an explanation. She tries to hold to their pact of honesty by only providing the most bare minimum of responses: yes. The amusement in his features increases with the slight lift of his brows.

This is about you, she tries to deflect. "It was," he says, implacable, "but we resolved that, so now it's about you."

"I'm sure there are," Jane confirms, of all those nameless, faceless men out there, men without his history, his tragedy, his age —

— and leans forward, one hand braced on James' leg, to shut the rest of it up with a brief, light brush of her lips over his. That is how important all his listed reasons are to her. I want you, says that kiss. You have me if you want me too.

Settling back down to the table, seated there in the dark, Jane looks on with quiet, determined eyes. Her wilful face proves her decision has been long made, cut with askance that hopes he will not question her for long. Question her choice, question her faith in him, question her desire to want to keep James Barnes near, as an integration into her life. She does not want to hear excuses that he is somehow unworthy of something she has already, for a long time, wanted to give him.

But even then, she understands. Not with any familiarity of what James has been through, or his life past what she's gleaned, felt, learned — that he may not be prepared to fight for them, together in the way they've come to be. May rather, and feel more comfortable, to have her resign herself of him and leave James to the ghost-like existence he believes he deserves. Jane thinks, however, that she may have to bear the brunt of this responsibility too. She's not certain, but she must gird for the possibility. Being the one who struggles just a little harder to hold them together in the moments he may try to recede.

She thinks she can do that. If, even in the end, she runs a boundary even she admits she cannot suffer alone.

Jane is certain she can endure a lot, but another relationship full of secrets and ignorance and someone living a second life away from her? Accepting only what is given to her, and living in the shadow of his truth? Being left behind?

She knows she can't do it. She can't bear it again. To give all of herself and know she can only possess a safe, allowed piece of someone else — it will break her. She has to let him go now before some point, long away and maybe far too late, it would be a heartbreak Jane would not so easily recover.

So Jane speaks her terms and looks away. She cannot bear the thought of James seeing her, and a potential glance of her face swaying his decision — keeping him with her out of guilt, or pathos, or worse, a sense of duty. She also avoids looking at him, wanting to see his face, because privately, she fears the worst. She cannot imagine her need for openness and disclosure something he even wants, after decades of having all of his thoughts an open showcase to his torturers, and she is not sure what she even offers him to reconcile or sway that sort of fear. She's not sure, at times, if she's particularly anything anyone wants, an unusual woman too involved in her work, living inside her own head, without family or roots in this world, and now damanged too, in her own way.

Her moment of surprise is transparent, clear and frank, when James Barnes accepts. Accepts her too, and thinks her enough to try.

It breaks down so much of her quiet self-deprecation, and fells Jane enough she has to avert her too-bright eyes and smile in a moment of raw, unguarded joy.

Of course, however, he follows it up. All the ease she possesses, encouraging him, coaxing him, advising him — dries up when James turns the spotlight back on Jane. She shifts under his regard, visibly uneasy, not someone used to attention on her, and definitely not expecting to be asked this. It almost feels wrong to her, in a way, after all he's been through. In comparison to that, is it even fair to have to worry about Jane Foster and her boxed up telescope?

She stares down at her feet, her mouth pursing, read on her face the clear realization of someone trapped by her own terms. Jane knows, after all she's convinced him, she'd be a hypocrite to fight James on this. Even if she isn't ready to talk about. Even if she just doesn't /want/ to.

"I don't know," she admits, ever so eloquent. "I don't know why I did. It's just… it's hard to look up."

James cuts off with a surprised, muffled sound as Jane lets him know what she thinks of his demurral. It's not a deep or involved kiss, but even just the touch of her lips is enough to silence him. She leans back afterwards, and he looks down at his hands, a little rueful but quietly, selfishly pleased. "Yeah, I take the point," he says.

It will be difficult for him— he has become a person that lives in shadows, in lies and half-truths, in deceit— but he seems willing to make the effort. He could reject it, walk away from Jane, be alone, but that would be abandoning her after hurting her deeply and making a ruin of her life…

…and moreover, he doesn't really want to. He supposes it's selfish, he supposes it's not really something he deserves, but he wants her comfort and her validation. He wants the ability to be honest again, with someone else. He wants her, because without her, there would be nothing but the voices in his head— the screams that would eventually drive him to use a bullet to silence them for good.

But honesty goes both ways, and he soon demonstrates that to her with an observation he made a while ago but has not, to date, brought up: the matter of her missing telescope. His shrewd gaze stays on her as she falters under his scrutiny, transparently not expecting to be put to the question.

"Can't take your own medicine?" he teases lightly. "It's a simple question."

Simple— but not easy. In recognition of that, he doesn't push her too hard after that initial prod, lapsing into silence and waiting for her to talk to him about why the most important passion of her life has been relegated to a broom closet. Her eventual answer is not unexpected, but it brings his mouth to thin.

She doesn't know.

"Did they do something to you in there?" he asks quietly. "Related to it?"

Jane Foster most assuredly cannot take her own medicine.

She rankles visibly under the question, every bit of her body language someone who desperately does not want to be where she is, does not want to be sitting here under the interrogation lamp of James Barnes' patient stare, even as much ass he trusts him, even as safe as he makes her feel. It is natural for her to be the one who care for others, who fusses over errant fathers, who cares for them when sick and dying. It shows, in a brief glimpse, how singularly one-sided is Jane's relationship with caring, and being cared for, and the latter is something she's never been used to.

Someone solitary, quiet and mature, who liked it best to care for herself. Even, if at times, she's lapsed to do it particularly well. Times like now.

And he takes notice.

Anyone else in the world, Jane knows, she would be trying to politely escape. But her own vow to James keeps her grounded, knowing that to keep her disomfort from him would be committing the same act she asked him not to do to her. It would be more than unfair; it would be an assault on his promise to trust her, to show himself to her.

He teases her silence in his gentle way. It earns her eyes, wide, always expressive, an overfilled drink straight down to her soul. Jane gazes at him with quiet apology that, in the end, tries to narrow into exasperation, but cannot seem to find it in her to feel that. It's true, he's called her on it, and she finds some humour in that.

Still, she says nothing, little despite the small, nervous uptic of her lips, a smile in lieu of words she cannot quite say. Words she searches her mind to admit.

He asks a very good question. Did they do something to you?

That quiet moment of embarrassed levity freezes out of her. She goes very still, corpse-still, her brown eyes suddenly changed, familiar only in a way James knows. So full of memory.

Any other time, Jane knows she'd be able to handle it better, handle that question, but with her head so full of her nightmare, she shuts her eyes and tries to grit down. Her hand tightens on his, and her breathing deepens, that soft, laboured way of someone pushing through old panic. Her eyes burn as she takes several moments and many deep breaths to get it under control.

"When I did good," she says lowly, tonelessly, "when I made them happy, first it was no pain. After it was a reward, and they'd talk to me about them — the stars." Jane stares down at her feet. "I don't feel like I'm good enough for the stars anymore."

Jane squirms under the scrutiny of the spotlight turned suddenly upon her. James doesn't look very sympathetic to her lack of interest in taking her own medicine. Here is a man who has run many an interrogation in his time: getting an answer out of a recalcitrant Jane Foster, who is very aware of how hypocritical she would be to not answer him, requires no more than mere patience.

For all her blather about his refusal to let others care for him, she certainly does not seem interested in or capable of letting others care for her in turn.

Eventually she breaks, though not into a state where she precisely knows what to even say just yet. She struggles visibly to quantify her emotions, to put an answer into words that she feels safe to say. Perhaps sensing that, he prompts quietly with a more direct and focused question. Did they do something to her, specifically, to cause this refusal to even look up?

She freezes in a way that tells him the answer long before her mouth does. Her eyes look like his own when he forgets himself in front of the mirror, lost in some decades-old recollection.

Her hand tightens on his. His squeezes in answer, strong and assured.

She admits, finally, that during her conditioning, her passion was taken from her and twisted. It was turned into a reward for her good behavior. It was turned into an instrument of their control. It was corrupted, her love for the stars, and now she does not feel that she is good enough for them anymore.

James is quiet, processing that. He looks down at their joined hands. "You know that isn't true," he begins. "They were the ones not good enough to touch what was precious to you."

Easy to say. Hard to to internalize. He knows. He knows that very well. His eyes gloss a little, distant with memory. "Being under Russian control wasn't always pain," he reveals after a short silence. "The Soviets were not always as dehumanizing as Hydra. There were sometimes rewards for good service. A short time outside of freeze, an opportunity to speak to humans who weren't my handlers. Being allowed to read something. Have a drink. Touch a woman."

He looks up at her. "I didn't let the fact they were just scraps, thrown on the floor for me, ruin any of those things for me here and now."

He asks the one question that, for so many moments, forgets Jane how to breathe.

It is not because that question is unexpected, or comes at any particular surprise: them, Hydra, have been here with her this entire night, courting her through her dreams, haunting her through all the panic of James' brief, paralyzing disappearance. That he would speak of them does not catch Jane unaware.

All she does is give him everything she has so promised. No artifice of feigned strength, no muster of bravado: her turned eyes and patient calm. Even if Jane had wanted to, she cannot hold, not to the surgical implore of that simple question, and she lets go. She splits open, not to tears, not to any loud, affecting display of sadness or grief —

— but the squeeze of her hand as she closes her eyes and struggles to find air.

The sound that cards from her parted lips is light and wan and hollow, rough shudders, an uneasy push through a panic attack that makes the apartment close in on her back, makes the ceiling seem to hang down heavy on her shoulders. For a moment, it's all so much, too much at once, her telescope, Hydra, the stars, and everything, a feeling she's been running from for weeks, avoiding, hiding —

James' hand squeezes hers. Jane feels it. Her eyes open, though they still gaze distantly into nowhere, pleading some far-reaching stare as she remembers, feels, and suffers. But she feels him, and she follows that guide, lets it anchor her, lets it hold her as she struggles up against the fear and — breathes.

The panic gentles just enough for her to find herself, find her mind, and think. And soon, Jane is able to find her voice.

She speaks vacantly, bleakly. And James Barnes understands every word.

He tells her it isn't true. Jane says nothing, but her body language does not close, does not suggest disagreement. She is listening to him. Listening to his story.

There's a timbre to his voice as if he is for the first time speaking this aloud. Speaking that, as the Winter Soldier, life was not seven decades of pain. Sometimes there were other things, rewards for a weapon that fired correctly and killed truly, and for his service he was allowed fleeting and controlled tastes of the rights of all men. It makes Jane sick to comprehend it — that level of dehumanization. Her hand tightens on his as she fights back against the anger.

But what follows is most important: he did not let their attempts to corrupt the beautiful parts of life rob him of wanting them now. Jane meets James' eyes, absorbing his implication. If he had, he would not be here with her. Any good she could give him would be twisted, ruined.

"I'm afraid," she whispers. "If I look, I might not feel anything." Jane's eyes cannot even cry, sleepless, haunted, terrified. "I won't know what to do. Won't know who I am."

Just the thought of it all threatens a panic attack. He can see it in her sqeezed-shut eyes, in the pallor of her face… hear it in the way her breathing starts to shudder as it draws in-and-out through her lips. She has been running from these feelings for weeks, and to have them all drawn out and laid bare at once is just too much, too much at once—

James's grasp tightens down on her hand. He leans forward, watching her intently, and his presence seems to ground her. Her shaking calms as she finds her way back through the panic via the anchor of his touch.

She speaks, eventually. He listens and understands.

In answer, he offers a small insight into his life under Soviet control. He, too, was given rewards on occasion for good behavior and swift kills. Every so often, just to keep the narrative believable, they'd give him small tokens… little tastes of things that all men, by rights, should get to enjoy, and not just as doled-out privileges from a controlling hand.

It temporarily grounds and focuses her. If only by the vehicle of reigniting her sick rage against people who would do such things to a man.

He pushes past her anger, however. It's not the focal point of his story. What he wants to show her is that despite the fact such things were used to control him by his enemies, in the end he did not let them wholly take his pleasure in such things away. And neither should she let them take the stars from her.

She tells him she is afraid she won't feel anything.

He stands decisively. His hand slips from hers as he turns away. A few steps carry him towards the door, where he fetches her long coat for her. "We're going to go look right now," he decides, returning to her side to patiently start putting the coat on her. "And even if you don't feel anything right away, I'll be there, and it'll be one step closer to feeling something again."

He does ground her, and the evidence of this moment that James Barnes has an effect on this world, affects those around him is palpable.

Jane's hand holds his tightly. She leans forward, head slightly bowed, drinking his presence like a bent flower searching for light. For so many, crucial moments, metered by the shallow, hollowed rasp of her breathing, she tows the dangerous line of panic but never falls in. Were this moment to come up, creep in, and claim her, and without him, she would fall apart.

Her eyes stare far away, lost to some distant, far-reaching point, their lenses full of ghosts. Full of memory, full of pain, full of fear, full of the whispers still haunting the alleys of her mind. They took my stars away, is the thought Jane's been avoiding for weeks, and confronted with it now, confronted not only to engage a recent, traumatic past, but too a changed future — her changed self — she quietly unravels.

But James speaks, and the sound of his voice finds her, reaches Jane even in the dark place she's retreated. Her eyes lift, soft and slightly unfocused, tracing his features in the dark. She listens to his story, her hand white-knuckling his, her body held so tense, so taut, it trembles.

He guides her back from the panic with a telling of what happened to him, what they gave to him, the twisted narrative of men letting a weapon believe it is alive, it is a man. Jane forgets her own thoughts, lit with a familiar fury that brings a nascent light back to her eyes, but James does not stop there. It is not her anger he wants, but her understanding. He took back all the rights of humanity, its feasts and pleasures, where they would poison and corrupt its sensations forever. He found a way to fight back, and she can too.

Jane still listens, pulled out of panic, calm, centered enough to speak. Her whispery voice confesses her fear. And he says nothing. He only lets her hand go, stands, and walks away.

She gazes after him, confused, uncertain, even for a moment afraid she's offended him. She says nothing, held in silence, until James reaches for her coat and Jane immediately understands. A moment's relief crosses her eyes, before it knots into quiet strain, and she remains sitting, her hands gripping the edge of the table as she looks down. When he returns, coming close, decision made, she at first holds still, unmoving. She doesn't want to do this. She's afraid to. At least there's safety in a holding pattern, and the chance that maybe not, maybe nothing is different, maybe she isn't changed. But if she knows for sure…

Still, it is difficult to resist James Barnes' decisiveness. Jane tries, looking uneasily away, trying to disagree without saying no, until his words reach her. He says he'll be there. He speaks like it's OK if she doesn't feel, like it may not be permanent.

Her hands let go. Her muscles ease, and reluctantly, Jane stands, easing on her coat under his insistence. "No one's ever done this," she murmurs absently.

He holds his silence as she clings to him and takes several long moments to come back down from the edge of panic. He is not unfamiliar with this state of mind himself. He knows the best salve is often just peaceful silence, and the presence of another human being.

He knows from experience. He would have succumbed to this state of mind often enough himself, in the past many weeks, if not for her comfort and the comfort of others. Without her, without them, the ghosts of the past seventy years would have been unendurable. In these moments, he silently returns the favor.

It is helpful to him, too, in a way. Helpful because his own means of coping with things tends to be a projection outwards: a focus upon helping and protecting those around him. James Barnes has much to sit and brood about, but he was never one to feel any better for doing so. His only solace is in action, in work, in momentum.

So when she finally confesses what it is she so fears, his immediate response is to get up and fetch her her coat. Jane may find the silent, avoidant holding pattern the most safe way to be, but for James? Inertia is anathema.

No one has ever done this, she murmurs. "There are many things that were done to us, and that we have done, that were unique," is all he replies, as he insists her into her coat and leads her out the familiar route up the fire escape and to the roof.

It is a fine night for the stars, nearly March, the bite of winter fading from the air. There isn't a cloud in the sky: helpful, when the city is already so hostile to the viewing of any stars at all. James leads Jane to the middle of the roof, where a sloping bulkhead provides a rudimentary place to sit.

He looks up first. His expression is wistful.

"Vega is out, Lyra," he notes, his quiet voice briefly playful on the pet name, his shoulder leaning into hers. "It's sad how dim she looks these days with all the light pollution, though. …Not that it was much better when I was a boy." His eyes gloss with memory. "We used to take regular trips upstate when I was young, before the great crash in '29. Had relatives up in Stony Point. You could see everything, out there, especially up in the mountains."

He is briefly silent. "Ninety years, and the same stars are still there to look at. There's a comforting thought."

Unique, he says, and Jane thinks the word over, rolling it among her thoughts, as she threads her bare arms into the sleeves of her coat.


Dressed against the night, she does not fight the way James Barnes leads her out through the window exit of her apartment, out onto the fire escape. The night touches chill, but it's lost its winter bite, a taste in the warm breeze the promise of spring thaw. Jane takes a moment to look out into the dark, over the rows of Brooklyn brownstones, as the wind tosses a fallen lock of her hair.

While she does not resist, does not physically assert herself against James, every inch of her smaller body speaks of reluctance. Jane does not want to be here. She does not want to be doing this. She lingers, and her movements are passively slow, somewhat strained, as she ascends each rung of the creaking ladder.

Soon she finds herself up on the roof with him, the concrete, the distant city clamour, and the close presence of James Barnes immediately unfocusing Jane's eyes with memory. She realizes she hasn't been up here with him since that night, the night she lured him up, teased and encouraged, and brought him to the eyepiece of her telescope. It was cold that night, and it feels like a lifetime ago, years and years of difference. The night she first saw him broken and so afraid. The night she learned his name.

Where there was the telescope is only vacancy of space. Where there was a lost ghost, desperate for connection, is now the man who leads her to sit. Where there was Jane, desperate to share with James her stars, insistent to beacon him home with the same light that has always guided her, is —

— she isn't sure.

She sits down at his side, compliant, if strangely resigned, her dark eyes turned down, not yet possessing the courage to look up. But Jane responds to the moment he gives her, and the comfort James provides, her side pressed to his, taking of him, of the promise he gave her that he would be here. Because she's unsure, and she's afraid.

He calls her Lyra, the name he gave her, and Jane rests her cheek down on his shoulder. She nestles her head there, quiet, listening to the way he describes the starry sky. "I told you Vega was my first star," she says. "You remembered."

James Barnes tells a story and Jane listens, eyes still downcast, her hands fidgetting in her lap. "I remember too," she says of his words. "You told me that. You'd go see the stars on Bear Mountain."

Jane is quiet a moment. "Up on the roof of my dad's house, back in Virginia. There was a place I could go from my bedroom window. He would have killed me if he knew I was doing that, so I never told anyone. I'd take my telescope up, and I looked at the stars. The first time I ever did, I knew who I was. The last time I did was the night before I sold the house. I wasn't even sad, because I knew I'd be taking them with me." She pauses a beat. "You took them with you too."

Her eyes close. She tilts up her head, and with a deep breath in, lets them open up on the sky. She sees the stars. She sees Vega.

Jane's body loosens beside his. Her eyes shine.

Unique. It is probably the least loaded word he can find to describe what they went through. Unique. There is power, sometimes, in vastly understating things: in relegating things like decades of torture to the mere curiosity of something 'not before seen.'

James sometimes finds that minimizing things helps him cope, at least.

Directly confronting them is another way he tends to cope, and he seems determined to have Jane share that with him this night. She is obviously reluctant, but he is insistent, and ultimately he gets her up onto the roof without much protest, though she is passive the whole way and needs, often, to be pulled gently along.

She is not the only one who remembers the last time they were up here, and how different everything was then. There is a moment where James too pauses, pensive, looking at the empty spot where the telescope once was and recalling his state of mind when he was last here. He was two people at the time, one so certain of himself— the other so confused and broken.

The sight of the stars broke the power of the former, and brought the latter back out from decades of sleep.

He shakes it off soon enough, guiding her to sit and pointing out the first and most visible star: her favorite, her first, her namesake with him. She lays her head to his shoulder in tacit appreciation of his remembrance, his quiet voice, the entire role reversal that has now transpired in these quiet moments. She remembers what he told her, too, she says: the stars, on Bear Mountain. "I have half a mind to go back, sometimes," he admits. "Though the thought doesn't last long. It was a family thing." And there is no family left.

He quiets as she speaks of her own childhood. The father she lost. The home she sold. But she took the stars with her, and so did he.

"They're still here," he says.

She looks up, then. Whether or not she feels anything is answered, for him, by the way her eyes are shining.

"You have doves' eyes," he quotes, his voice indulgent.

With her head nestled on his shoulder, with her eyes turned down, with the ends of her hair tossed in the moving wind of the warming night, Jane listens.

His voice brings her, for the moment, to close her eyes. Even pulled in this current of uncertainty, and what feels like her purpose to be decided in moments, James Barnes makes her feel safe. Safe enough to think she can do this.

He speaks faintly of his own past, one story among countless left lost to the ice that took him. On summers he stargazed with his family, and sometimes he thinks about going back. Though nothing and no one one waits for him if he should.

"It's a good idea," Jane insists, soft, at his side. "Every May I go back to Virginia. I try to visit my father on the day he died. I have no reason to be there; I'm the only one left, but it helps. They live on through us, and maybe it's the duty we bear, being the last. We have to carry them. They would want you to go back." Her hand reaches to cover his. "I'd be with you."

It is something for him to think about. As Jane thinks about what James says, that the stars she took with her, that he took with him, have not gone from them. They are still here, hanging the heavens, waiting to be looked at. Waiting to be reclaimed again.

Her hand tightens on his. She is so afraid, but she lifts her head and turns her opening eyes up on the sky.

Vega, shining soft blue-white, flares hello from twenty-five light years away. Its gentle light welcomes her back. She looks on it, on the star — on her star — and feels…

Not empty. Not completely like before, not whole, but something. Something in the catch-flutter of her heart tells Jane her love is not gone. They did not take it from her. They did not take her soul.

Her eyes burn as she looks up, at her past, at her future, at herself, who she is, what she is — every atom in her body borne of those stars, a child of the cosmos, last of her tiny Foster family and still part of something old and enduring and always —

— and James Barnes sees her, sees her eyes, and speaks of them. Stolen from her thoughts, Jane looks up, her eyes searching, before they gentle with understanding. She recognizes his words, knows where they source, and she glances down shyly, a helpless smile lighting up every feature of her face.

"In his shadow, I sit with great delight," she says back. Her eyes look back up, darkly, deeply, no more shyness there. There are moments such as this when Jane has inescapable eyes, gazing up and into James Barnes like he is the only point in her universe. "I wish his left arm were under my head," she whispers, "and his right arm around me."

As Jane looks up at the stars, James takes a few quiet moments to close his eyes and simply be present. To simply soak in the feel of her slight body curled against his. It has been so long since he had a moment like this— peaceful, safe, secure— that he barely knows what to do with it. His body keeps wanting to tense against expected threat or pain; his mind keeps wanting to race, going over and over the ugly thoughts and bloody memories in his head.

With a force of effort, he pushes those thoughts and impulses away, and blanks his mind of anything but the sound of her voice.

She encourages him to go back, even if there is likely no family waiting for him there anymore. She still revisits her father, after all. Being the last, they have a duty to carry their loved ones forward, a duty not to forget them. To honor them, year after year, though they have passed on beyond all reach.

"Maybe," he says. His hand does not pull away from hers. "Maybe I'll… I don't know. Look for Rebecca, or any family she left behind. I should feel more urgency— she'd be… I don't know, mid-nineties by now, if she's alive. But…"

He struggles to put into words how strange it is, the idea of him reappearing in her life like a ghost: her older brother who went to war and never returned, somehow alive and back and aged only a few years since she last saw him. "But I don't know if it would be good for her to see me," he eventually finishes. "I don't know. I'll think about it."

He lapses into silence, letting her soak in the sight of Vega winking down its familiar distant hello. His eyes gentle with indulgence to watch her: something comes into his mind, a brief quote that seems apt for the moment and for the way her eyes look, turned up and full of peaceful hope.

She recognizes it. He grins, amused, as she answers in kind.

His left arm murmurs gently as he curls it around her, drawing her in close. "My beloved is mine," he answers, tilting his head against hers and closing his eyes.

Passing time sobers him. When his eyes reopen, they are resolute. "I have to tell you. This will not be the last time. Cannot be. I know that you want to help. Maybe I'll even take help, sometimes. But not always."

As James Barnes speaks again of his sister, who could be dead, who could be alive, who should be a decision he must make, Jane listens in silence.

She says nothing, but her hand covers his, her palms and smaller fingers warming his knuckles against the night air. That single touch speaks all the words she does not need to say. It is his decision to make, and though she knows, he knows, it is not the sort of decision he can tarry long, he can spend too much time making — it is nonetheless his. She will support his wish. She will promise to be there, promise to help, if that too is his wish.

The pressure and light weight of her hand over his, however, is Jane's only advisement: you bid me to search and reach rather than sit in darkness, and so you know that you must do the same. When you are ready.

As for Jane, she is ready. Her heart tries to convince her otherwise, her fears try to make her balk, but with James at her side, solid and strong and here, she finds her courage to open her eyes and look up.

She looks up to see if she can find the lost piece of her battered soul.

Jane's eyes shine. Because she does. She may not be able to touch it, may not be able to take it back, and be tonight that whole woman she was months ago, but she can see it. Her love for the stars is not lost, and still they call for her. Call for her to a home she's never quite felt, but thinks exists, waits for her — out there.

His murmured words bring her back. Jane breaks apart, rent, split to something so achingly vulnerable, to James quoting the Song of Solomon. It's been years, but her mind does not easily forget, and she speaks her verses back. Her dark eyes, gazing up, beg him to touch her.

He curls his metal arm around her, cool through her coat from the air, but Jane can only feel her own warmth. He calls her beloved, and her heart catches, and as James draws her in, she gladly helps, easing over his lap to face him. Jane leans into his body, looking up, her eyes as dark as the night sky behind her, and lit with their own stars. She gazes up into his eyes, reverent, as both her hands reach to cradle his face. She holds him as he bows down his head to lean against hers.

Soon, he speaks. The first words draw open Jane's lidded eyes. She listens through — not a warning. A promise. A vow of what will be. Her face weighs emotions, though in the end, she appreciates the honesty James gives her. "I understand," she replies.

She goes quiet. Her fingers shift against his cheekbones. And Jane speaks up, low, quiet, "I do want to ask if you could do something for me."

She tries to meet his eyes, tries to hold them so valiantly, but in the end, she looks away, afraid of what he'll think of her. "The next time it happens, I want to see it." Jane's hands tremble once. "I need to see it."

It is telling how often James speaks of his sister. Every once in a while, perhaps without even being aware, he brings her up again, wistful and a little longing and more than a little afraid. He was the one looking after her, more often than not, after the crash forced his parents to range for work and kept them working long hours, and so they were close in that way, up until he went to war and never returned.

But he seems closer to getting to a point where he will search, at the least.

Jane covers his hand with hers, a tacit promise to be there if and when he decides to look. He closes his eyes. "I want to, eventually," he confesses. "But the last time he saw her, she was twenty. Just a girl, expecting me to come home and keep looking after her. She'll be ninety-four now, if she's still alive. Ninety-four, and maybe bitter her big brother never came home to be there throughout her life."

It's kind of an irrational thing to say, but he at least seems aware of its irrationality… and aware of Jane's unspoken nudge that he's got some hypocrisy of his own there, pushing her to confront the stars but still transparently afraid to confront his own blood.

She is more ready than he is to confront some of her own demons, at the least, and her leap from the safety of hiding is rewarded. She looks up and sees the same stars that have always given her peace. It's not quite the same as what she felt before, but there's enough there that she knows: what she loved and who she was isn't lost. It's just out there, waiting, ready to be reclaimed in some newer, wiser form.

He puts his arm around her, drawing her close. He uses his left, perhaps more at peace with the thing— or just more confident now there's a failsafe in place— and though the strength of it is palpable, it's so restrained that Jane has to move of her own volition to seek the greater intimacy she wants. She turns to ease over his lap, taking his face in her hands, and he leans in to nudge his head against hers. His eyes close.

He cautions her, eventually, that this will not be the end. That he cannot sit idle with Hydra still out there.

Her answering request brings him to sit up, leaning back, his eyes opening and lips parting a little in surprise. He considers her, but there is little of the judgment she fears in his face. Only a bleak sort of understanding that this is the resolution she needs. Just as he needs the catharsis of acting, she desires the catharsis of seeing that act. Witnessing that which hurt her so badly be destroyed.

"I won't take you in with me," he says. "But you can see it from a distance."

A whisper of metal betrays the slight movement of his arm. "I have something I want to ask, also," he says. "This star… on my shoulder. I want it removed. Or at least recolored."

He speaks of a brother who never came home, and a sister who might have spent decades waiting. Though Jane has never had a sibling of her own to recognize that particular sort of grief, her heart still squeezes to imagine that sort of pain. Leaving before you're ready. Being left behind. Some feelings, no matter the source, are universal.

"I can promise you," she answers, her voice low, honest, "she won't be bitter. To have just one chance back with someone you believe is dead, whom you never got to say good-bye? It won't be bitterness, James. If she's alive, she needs to see you." Her cheek nudges into his shoulder. "And you need to see her too. This is your decision, but don't wait too long."

That squeeze on his hand is an unspoken promise: that should he decide, he does not need to do it alone, and if he should ask she will accompany him every step of the way, and that he knows his own answer without her even saying it out loud. James Barnes is a man of action, and inaction is not his way.

His decisiveness is what bids Jane the courage the look up and find the stars. Find herself, still there, among their heavenly bodies, the piece of her soul HYDRA could not take.

Her eyes shining, Jane yields into the careful, inhibited way his left arm — cold and moving with the audible grind of metal — wraps her. The touch is so light, aware of its power, perhaps broken with time and the seal on his soul that he can now see it as a limb, as his limb, but at the same time can never forget it was first forged to be a weapon.

So she takes the initiative and seeks more of him, shifting over to help herself over James' lap, needing nothing more of this moment than to look at him, to see his face. Her eyes travel his features with the same reverence she gives the stars, the only anything Jane Foster deigns to take her time and savour around her impatient little life. She slows to a standstill for this man too, reaching up to cradle his face inside her hands, and shut her eyes when he bows down his head to lean to hers. Her smaller body steeps with life, warm against his, and he can feel the beat of her heart against his chest.

She can feel his too, quick, sure, powerful.

James Barnes opens his eyes, and looks down at Jane to give his warning. His promise, in a way, that tonight does not end his reprisal against HYDRA. She looks back up, her eyes searching his, and emotions change a hundred hands across her expressive face. Hesitation, uncertainty, askance, dismay, worry, fear, and then, at last, and most strongly, understanding. She is not sure if she either approves or disapproves. She is not sure if some things in this life can be weighed so simply. There is no simple right and wrong. She does not want him hurt, she does not want his hands bloodied with more murder, and yet she cannot comprehend a world that allows those monsters to live. Live and hurt more.

The thought of them being taken from this world makes something twist in her gut. Jane's hand slides from James's face, down to cup the side of his neck. She averts her eyes to ask a request of her own, needing to say it. Even if he thinks less of her for it. Someone not pure. Someone not whole.

He obliges. The words lift Jane's eyes again, surprised, expecting in a way he would forbid her to come with him, and at the same time unsure if she would want to — but to allow her a safe place away to watch cleansing fire burn. Those same brown eyes close in wordless gratitude.

Silence mantles them for a moment. Silence, and then a request of his own. With the rasp of moving metal, he asks Jane to scour that red star from his left shoulder. Jane opens her eyes again, an urgency to her gaze like she would do anything he asked her. Her thumb traces the line of his pulse.

"There's been something I've been meaning to tell you," she confesses. "I want to rebuild your arm. Replace every bit of them with me, with you — with us. I've been looking into it, and I know I can. I can make your arm better, but, most importantly, I can make it yours. Something you chose. So it'll only begin when you tell me yes, you want me to do this.

"In the meantime," promises Jane, with a turn of her eyes on his left arm, "I can change that. I can do either. Have you decided what you want?"

James is silent as Jane reassures that it won't be bitterness. It won't be anything but the joy of a little sister once again seeing a brother she thought dead for decades. "Once I get my affairs more in order," he finally says, "I'll look for her. It'll probably… I need to be a person again before I go see her. Not a guy on the run that might bring her trouble. Not a walking corpse that nobody's realized isn't quite as dead as they thought."

He shakes his head. "I know the risk of waiting, but I don't want to… do it too soon and cause trouble, either."

It is a decision made— in all the time she has known him, he's never been anything but fiercely decisive— and Jane seals it with her unspoken promise to be there with him when he goes to look. His decisiveness helps her make her own decision to gaze up and reclaim the stars, and while it doesn't feel the same as it did— she could not go through such an ordeal unchanged— there's still that familiar thrill in her soul to see the familiar lights winking down from the heavens.

He puts his arm around her. Tellingly, it's his left, a thing initially engineered only as a weapon, and now hesitantly reclaimed as a limb. He is infinitely gentle and careful, not used to using it for such delicate work and struggling to tamp back decades of killer muscle memory. It curves around her without incident, settling about her waist, and he tentatively relaxes.

It is one small step towards him accepting it as a part of his body rather than as a weapon. Even if it is still designed only for the purposes of the latter.

That much is obvious in the way it still grinds and whirs and murmurs when moved, its every sound seeming designed to remind of its inhuman nature. Perhaps even designed purposefully to intimidate. It murmurs when it loosens to let Jane shift to face him. She has a question she needs to ask, a request. It is one that both does and does not surprise him, and he is quick to assent: so long as she remains at a distance.

His entire reason for embarking on these quiet assaults is to purge his anger through action. To engage a sort of catharsis by ridding the world of a sickly cancer. He cannot deny Jane her own similar need.

His arm tightens again to keep her close. Its metallic whir reminds him of something else, something he wants to ask her. He wants that mark of Soviet slavery gone from his shoulder. Her answer widens his eyes— she wants to rebuild his entire arm. He had entertained thoughts of her upgrading his arm, certainly, making improvements to it. But to replace it completely? Rebuild it into something better?

He believes she can do it. That much is obvious in his eyes. "I'd like that," he says. "I already know a couple ways in which it holds me back. No doubt you can get rid of those problems."

Meantime— she can definitely get rid of the red star. Does he know what he specifically wants? He supposes he could remove it, but perhaps it would be better… "Make it white," he murmurs. "White, in a blue circle. That's the color of the stars, isn't it?"

It is also two-thirds of the colors associated with Steve Rogers. But he tellingly leaves the last one off.

The segue of James Barnes's hesitation with his sister only has Jane one thought, one question she asks herself: if she had one chance to see her father again, would she feel bitter to look on him?

The answer is no, never. There would be no room for it, no room for anything beside the joy of having the universe bent to her will to grant her the impossible. There is one truth she knows, and that no one but Jane knows what she would give to have that one chance, that one minute, that one last good-bye. And for his sister, should she be alive, it has to be exactly the same. Grief narrows the entire world to only the pain of wanting.

Her hand, small and warm over his, pressing the pads of her fingers to walk the calluses of his knuckles, try to impart this in a single touch. Words Jane may not want to say out loud, at least not yet, not wanting to taint James's decision with further guilt — but to press the importance of time. And to stress that whatever may await him, if he has any family left alive, they will not receive him with bitterness. She bets her entire faith on that.

He seems to understand. Jane makes her own quiet vow to keep a second mine of this, and should James continue to hesitate, perhaps she'll have to lead him to his roots the same way he led her tonight to the stars.

And he does, and she looks up at them. It terrifies her to see her own reflection, in a way, cast in their blue-white light: the indeniable evidence that she is changed. She is different. She is not and shall never be that woman of only two months ago, a woman ignorant to how the world can be, a woman untouched by the horrors it holds in its hands. Jane has been avoiding this fact for so long, too long, and now she confronts it, and sees her evolution mirrored in the way she feels, looking up at the night sky. Differently than before, and yet…

It's still her. Different, but always Jane Foster.

She'll take it.

And she'll take this too, this unlikely gift the universe has given her, in the shape of a man with troubled eyes and an arm forged of circuitry and steel. Jane eases herself over across his lap and nestles her body close, to give James Barnes her warmth and to take from him the strong, constant drum of his heart. His metal arm holds her, no soft yield to its touch, and cold, and yet she finds herself wanting nothing else. Just this. Just him.

He gives her a touch of metal and, where some men would whisper sweet, weightless, beautiful nothings in her ear, James speaks to Jane only of the murders he will yet commit. Of the destruction he will make to clean the world of its monsters.

To some women, it would be a chilling moment. To Jane, who she is now, comes only relief. Relief when he allows her into this part of his life, if even at a distance, but no longer at a remove. No longer in want of beautiful nothings, all she seeks is catharsis for her nightmares.

In exchange, Jane promises to give James Barnes his own star. Her face gentles at his acceptance, a woman no doubt given purpose by her ability to work, and already tired of feeling helpless. This she can do. This she will do. And with his consent, now she can finally begin. As for now, however, she listens to how he wants her to repaint that red star of his old masters. "It is," she answers him about the colour of the stars. "I'll do this for you."

She leans in, head tilted up, to press her lips to the corner of his mouth. It's a kiss of thank you. Jane's eyes close; he can feel the rasp of her lashes. Her next words come so soft they are a sigh lost to all but the road up his cheekbone, to his ear. "I want you, James," she says. "Under the stars."

He watches her as she stares up at the stars. He can tell that they are changed for her— the look in her eyes, as she regards them, is not as pure as he remembers it being mere months ago. It breaks his heart to know he is the one responsible for this change (he will not, may never accept her insistences it is not his fault). That he is the reason some of the joy and light have dimmed from them for her.

That he is the reason she now knows raw evil exists in the world.

Yet the past few months also gave her this: a man with tired, haunted eyes and a missing arm. A man whose eyes reflect that familiar troubled sadness as she turns to curl against him. He curls his arm around her— his metal arm— pulling her close, and the lingering chill of March melts away before the strong, slow meter of his heart and the warmth his perfected body produces.

He tells her he does not intend to stop. That while he is tired of killing, he is more tired of suffering such evil in the world, and there are moments where his anger at what was done to him is so great that nothing will soothe him but to act, to remove, to cleanse.

It should be frightening to hear, especially when clasped so close in the crook of one of the very weapons he intends to use to enact such destruction. Yet for Jane, they are love notes, little assurances that bring her nothing but solace and sweet relief.

And catharsis. Her eyes burn as she thinks of watching her own nightmares burn away.

But even though he is willing to let her into this part of his life, it is still not something he cares to discuss overlong. He shifts the topic to his arm, wanting his star… perhaps not removed, but changed. To transform it would, he thinks, make a more powerful statement. Instead of trying to erase it, he will make it his own.

Blue and white. Like the stars. Like Steve— though not fully, not yet.

She promises to do it for him. "That," he murmurs. "And much more. I want you to make it something I can trust. Something I know everything about. This thing…" His arm murmurs. "I just woke up one day and it was grafted to my shoulder. I know how to use it. But I don't know it."

A brief silence cloaks down between them. He leans into the small, sweet kiss she places at the corner of his mouth, his eyes shutting as his head tilts. Whatever he was expecting her to say next, however, it definitely wasn't what she does say. It's forward by his standards, but not exactly unwelcome. His eyes open and he turns to smile down at her, briefly looking every inch the rakish young man he once was, a century ago.

"If you can handle the cold," he challenges, "then let's go."

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