Hex Breaker

March 09, 2017:

Jane uses everything she has learned, working with John, Zatanna, and Ritchie, to break the hex of weakness cast on Bucky by the servant of Papa Midnite. Bucky is bad at story telling.

Brooklyn, New York


NPCs: Papa Midnite

Mentions: Steve Rogers, John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Jessica Jones, Tim Drake

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

It was hard. Not impossible, but hard.

At first James had thought the hex on him only suppressed the serum running in his veins, reverting him back to the strength of his natural human self. A soldier and athlete even before the Soviets got their hands on him, this would have been manageable, if still requiring intense care due to the heavy metal arm and the trauma his body had undergone ever since the long-ago days he was taking championships in the boxing rings back in school.

The more he settled into his new state, however, the more he felt that this was weakness beyond a 'de-powering.' This was weakness that sapped at his very vital strength. A weakness that might kill, given enough time.

It was some time before they were able to leave. Not just because of his frailty, but because the scene needed cleaning and in the absence of his capacity to do it himself, he had to instruct Jane on how to do it. Once it was all finished, he was able to walk, at the least, though he needed Jane's assistance, and he needed to hold his own left arm up to prevent its weight from damaging his own spine.

His questioning as to whether she intended to do this for him all the way home was met with a few very frightening— by his measure— words: 'I took the car in. I can drive us back.'

It was a long car ride, for Bucky at least, because he spent most of it complaining about how he wanted to drive, and she should just let him because at least he could do that much. His current inability to physically resist anything much stronger than a small dog, however, had decided the matter, and he rode an extremely grumpy shotgun all the way back home.

Where, like it or not, he was promptly enforced to bed rest. Where he looked up at her, paler than usual and suddenly rather vulnerable, and asked:

"Can you remove this shit from me?"

There are a thousand other things he needs to go over with her— her stupid deal-with-the-devil, how she feels about what she just did and witnessed, the fact that he wants to crawl the fuck out of his own vile skin right now— but he cannot address them while feeling like he is falling apart from the inside.

In the end, this is not the first corpse Jane Foster has looked at, and not the first corpse she's touched.

That doesn't make this any easier.

Looking down on the body, her dark eyes are troubled, and her hands are hesitant. So she finds she has to compartmentalize this, this moment like so many moments before: take the feeling and put it in a box. Close the box — while knowing it cannot to be destroyed, cannot be forgotten — and simply file it away.

Under James's instruction, Jane cleans. She cooperates and obeys his directions without unnecessary questions, and while the woman is not entirely robotical, neither in shock or cold in the way he's seen weaponized people act, there's a certain forbearance to her, the austerity of someone who knows not to waste time. Her constant glances checking back on him, and his slowly-deteriorating strength, aggravate her urgency.

She collects and carries their things out, and staples herself to James's left side to provide a counterweight to all the too-heavy machinery in his body. Even so small and so fragile, Jane gives herself as something to lean on, and she accepts the added burden without hitch or complaint. The only betrayal to her calm is the blood-flush of exertion across her cheeks: otherwise, she holds strong, steely and resolute with adrenaline and protective care.

It is strange for him to be so close to her and not hear the pounding of her heart or the cycling of her breath. His dulled senses render Jane silent at James's side.

He complains about wanting to drive. Her only reply to that is the single, sharp look she needles him with, Jane's wordless warning that she's not playing. His worsening weakness does not even let her waste precious time on argument.

She is just relieved at her own foresight to bring and park her car. Partially, because Jane did not trust her own navigation of the trains to get here. Partially, because even she knew after doing this, she or him or both of them would demand privacy afterwards.

The drive home has her calm, composed, and with a clarity of self, though Jane speeds past the road limits and honks too many times at pedestrians. Her hands knuckle the wheel in little starflares of impatience and worry and fury.

He is ordered to her bed. And there, James Barnes looks so pale, so weak, and so lost, looking up at Jane as though he's lost the center to his world. Can she remove this from him?

"Yes," she promises, and though her words are soft, Jane's dark eyes still burn. She leans down to touch his face. Written across hers is a vow. "I can do anything."

Stripping out of her winter coat as she goes, the first thing Jane grabs is her laptop. She snags every one of those books lent by Shadowcrest's library, plus a strange medallion etched with the image of a bleeding eye. Returning, dumping it all to the foot of the same bed, it appears she's delegated James's bedside as her war room.

Every time she looks back at him, he looks a little more tired. A little more weak. There comes a point where most of the time she's looking back, his eyes are closed. His breathing is steady, but shallow, and sometimes his chest just doesn't rise as if he is forgetting to breathe.

It is a story that continues in the car, albeit with his thready objections to her driving in her ear. It's transparent he's trying to make a bit light of it all, his typical wry humor still present even in the face of what has happened to him, but there's a certain strain to his voice that suggests it isn't working. Neither on him, nor her.

Jane speeds through stop signs and honks at pedestrians. He objects fussily to each violation, as if inspired to briefly channel Steve for the duration of her drive.

By the time she gets him back to the apartment and safely into her bed. By this time she's been helping haul his two-sixty pounds around for at least an hour, and she's got to be exhausted, but she doesn't stop. Not for anything short of him looking up at her and asking her— wan and exhausted— if she can fix this.

Yes, she answers. She can do anything.

He believes her.

He leans back, wearied out even by that much, as she grabs her laptop and her books and hauls them all into the room with him. Left briefly alone to his thoughts, they stray inevitably to the events of the past few hours. "Motherfucker," he murmurs. "Killed her. I was never going to kill her."

He sighs. "Shit."

Jane Foster never stops.

She drags a chair over from her desk and sits herself down, crossing her legs and leaning over her opened laptop. It boots from sleep as she arranges the books all around her, thinking momentarily before decisively opening some tomes to specific pages.

It's transparent she's already read them all. Has memorized them all, and the rest is merely for her own reference. Arranging handwritten scripture as its own strange array, her laptop enveined to be the heart of it all, Jane gets to work.

Her attention only strays, brief and genuine, at the sound of James's voice. When he says he was not going to kill her, the psychic women tethered to the bed. Jane looks on him in perfect trust. "I know," she says.

She pushes her dark hair back behind her ears, her fingers curling and uncurling with nervous energy. She should be exhausted, and yet she is not, a woman honed by years and years to work, think, exist, survive on fumes. Her dancing eyes scour the pages of those magician's books, her forehead furrows a moment in thought, and then clarity opens up Jane's face.

With that, she leans over her laptop. The room haunts with the soft, muted sounds of her fingers machine-gunning the keyboard. After once vowing she never would try this again, the last time nearly bringing on her own death, Jane Foster begins to write a script.

Working away at someone's bedside. The aching familiarity of it worries Jane straight into the marrow of her bones. She's done this before, so many times, worked as someone lay dying, and the last time she —

"James?" Jane asks, glancing up, momentarily frozen. "While I do this, could you talk to me? I can't do it in quiet." Her eyes take him in, so weak and getting worse, and for a moment memory guts her open, hollows her out. "Tell me a story. Just talk."

Jane looks at him with perfect trust in his assertion he wasn't out to kill the woman. She knows, she assures him. Somehow, that makes him feel worse, that ready faith in his inherent goodness. Nausea swims up at the back of his throat, and he turns aside until the sensation quells. He's sitting up in bed, back braced by pillows, his left arm propped uselessly at his side, and he can see out the window: he stares off into the distance without seeing much of anything.

"I didn't intend to kill her children, either," he whispers. "Or her father. I only said that I would." His eyes flutter half-shut. "There was a time I would have, though," he admits. "There was a time I would have done every single thing I said I was going to do, and not just… said it."

She tries to interrupt his downward spiral, but he's having a considerably harder time shedding the cloak of the Winter Soldier than usual, and she can probably guess why.

Tell me a story, she pleads, this entire tableau calling up unpleasant memories of her own. Just talk. She can't have quiet.

His blue eyes blink slowly, haunted.

"You know what this makes me think of?" he says. "This whole thing, what I did. The persona I put on. I was in Beirut… 1983. Lebanon War. I had a job there to bomb out some US barracks. Kill some key personnel. Keep the blood flowing and the fingers pointing. It wasn't a short job. I had to be there about a week. So I stayed in the upstairs room of an old woman. It used to be her son's room, before he was killed in the fighting. I looked a little like him, she said, and I really doubt that I did so I figured she was just making excuses for why she liked me so much. I did odd jobs, helped her look after the neighborhood kids that she liked to feed. That kind of thing."

He licks dry lips. "Once I killed the last guy I needed to kill, the job was over. But I saw somebody I thought was maybe watching me, as I left. Somebody I thought maybe tracked me back to where I'd been staying. Somebody who'd turn up asking questions. So I waited until she was home, her and all the usual children who came to say hi to her, all the ones who had seen my face and heard my voice, and I used my last firebombs to incinerate the house with them in it. And then I went home."

He laughs a little. "Mission success."

That terrible incongruous smile fades from his face. "I don't know why this made me think of that. It was a long time ago. Maybe the fact children are still dying for things they had nothing to do with at all. Or the fact I'm still the one threatening them. I put that self on so easily."

A glance up at his face will reveal tears finally running down his face.

These books offer incomplete glimpses into curse breaking. Hints here, suggestions there, remarks in a dozen different places — no formula or roadmap to parse books little more than high-tongued, rambling mages' sprawling and inconsistent narrative.

It takes someone like Jane Foster to tie a hundred little ends into a functional knot of theory and execution. And there is only one way so far she has learned to code break the strange language of magic.

She translates it into a basic verbage of logic: on or off, yes or no, if else or never. Her eyes move past book to book as her hands fly over the keys. Her mind tunnels down into information, safe in it, sure in it, when the rest of her wants to fray and fall apart with fear. Jane knows certainty in her work.

But it reminds her too much of an old memory. An old mistake. Her guilt, and what she did not do —

— and what she forces herself to do now, looking up, her head turned to face James as he tries to convince her, tries to convince himself he never wanted to kill the dead psychic's faceless children.

Jane listens on, surprised, stricken. Her expression tightens when he says there was a time he would have. How many times does she have to tell him? Will there be the day he ever believes it? "Someone would have, maybe," she corrects. "But not you. That wasn't you. Why else did they keep having to erase you? Why else did you fight to come back? Because you knew it was wrong."

He looks worse than minutes ago. Her eyes search him in pained askance. She wants to argue more, fight him, reassure him, touch him, comfort him — but she needs to do this. Heart twisting, Jane turns her eyes back down on her screen, feeling the weight of time on her shoulders, looping through mental processes until she remembers work — remembers where she left off. She tries to type again, and though the work begins to flow out of her, all feels strained. Too quiet, too familiar, and she needs him to talk to her to remind her he's still alive. That she won't work and finish and look up, and it's an hour later and he's already dead. She was working beside another corpse and never realizing.

Obediently, James Barnes begins to speak. But not to tell the sort of story Jane hoped he would know.

She types feverishly, with an unerring quickness — until James says 'Beirut'. Her hands stop, and slowly, numbly, Jane looks up. Work arrested, she hesitantly listens.

She listens to the entire story.

Testament to something in her, Jane's gaze never falters. Her eyes never drop, never look away, never close. They watch James Barnes, holding him in a gaze that, with time, begins to shine. He used the last of the firebombs, he says, and her hands fall slack against her laptop keys, fingers uncurling. Her stomach twists. She hurts, just hurts, for those children, for the old woman whose face she can picture in her head, for him, the soul forced to ride passenger and see things no person should. See the things that can happen by his own two hands.

In just her short few months of knowing him, Jane has seen James Barnes in many ways, wearing many faces. Some his, some not. Some of the past, some of the present, some to suggest the future. But in all that time, she's never seen tears on his face.

Time is of the essence, but even then, she pulls away from her books and her laptop, standing from her chair. The bed moves, the mattress bends, and Jane's small, light weight joins his, tucked in beside his head.

"James," she whispers, her voice like a plea. Her hand finds his face, and a brush of her thumb smears his tears.

He is a series of contradictions. He is an old man, in a young man's body, in an old man's tired bedridden posture. He's sitting up, at least, though his left arm is completely useless at his side, braced up on a pile of pillows. His back is braced by a similar number.

His right hand lifts and rubs across his face, as if trying to wipe away the nausea and weakness and general feeling of uselessness that weighs him down. It comes away to reveal a bleak look, an empty-eyed staring that looks aimlessly out the window without really seeing anything. James can hear Jane typing furiously away at his side, shuffling through books periodically, but he doesn't try to watch her work.

He has faith that she will do all that she can. Faith that she means it when she says she can do anything.

If only he had that kind of faith in himself.

Again, she tells him; it wasn't him. That someone who would have done everything he said he would— and more— was another man. "I guess so," he says. "But I have to share a body with that man. Share a mind. Share experiences." He smiles sadly. "Sometimes I let him drive, because I have to. Because he could get done what needs to be done and what no one else can do. It's… I don't know. It would feel better if it were less easy to slip back in his skin."

He lapses into silence, exhausted even just by that brief aside. She works on a little longer, up until an old fear brings her to glance up at him. Checking he's still there with her. Checking that he hasn't become a corpse while she was too busy working to notice.

He's still there. And he seems to have regained enough strength to tell a story, when she asks for one. But it's not the kind of story she had in mind.

It's the story that was on his mind, though.

He is silent once he is through. Silent, because tears are finally running down his face. Tears he has refused to let happen for over a month. Tears that are overdue, given how much horror and grief and anger are rattling around in the broken ruin of his mind.

He still has enough restraint that it is a soundless weeping, but it's weeping nonetheless, and it draws Jane like a moth to a flame. She tucks in beside him, reaching to wipe his face clean; anger crosses his expression, though not anger at her, and he lifts his right hand to try to scrub his eyes roughly himself. To try to stop this show of weakness.

"It's fine," he rasps out. "I'm fine."

He shudders in a breath. "It was just so easy to become him again."

Unwilling to make again that mistake what still haunts her, Jane looks up. Her attention fixes compulsively, desperately up on James, weighing him with her eyes, needing to be convinced he's still here.

And he is. Still alive. Still with her. And quietly, to the slow meter of his words, and that heart-breaking story he shares, falling apart.

Arrested in place, she can do nothing but listen. Her dark bedroom weighs with the rasp of his voice, low and thin and hollow, an unpractised cadence to it that makes Jane wonder if he's ever shared this sort of thing before — to anyone. Even let himself think it out so vividly and painstakingly to speak it aloud. Is she the first? Is she the only person he would dare say this to? The nightmares that haunt him so?

The tears on his face break her.

Jane cannot look away. She knows time is of the essence, and he weakens by the minute, but she cannot go back to her work, cannot find it in her heart to do anything but go to him. She's never seen this, not on James Barnes — stoic, reserved, bottled-up, and dry-eyed, always so dry-eyed — that even at first she thinks it a play of the light bringing the shine of wet down his cheeks.

But it isn't. She abandons her work and immediately moves for him, unwilling and unable to leave him alone with his grief, and her mattress creaks as she alights close to his side.

Desperate to reach for him, her careful hands lift to cup his jaw, to cradle his face, and Jane looks on sadly, soothingly, as a brush of her thumb wipes one of his tears away. It is such a gentle touch, achingly tender, as if wishing all his pain could be crystallized into that one bead of water, so that she can do something meaningful for it: reach out and decisively take it from him, share his burden, let it absorb into the flesh of her thumbpad. So that he does not have to carry this alone.

Even now, he is self-conscious, interpreting his tears as only weakness, and tries to displace her hands with his own, scrubbing impatiently, angrily at his own eyes.

Jane will not be deterred. She reaches, still patient, to curl her hand over his, and with gentle care, try to pull his away from his face. She leans in, eyes closing, nudging her forehead to his temple.

He's not fine, says the touch. He's not fine, and that's all right.

"If it were easy," Jane answers, her voice soft, her breath warm, "you wouldn't be doing this."

It is not a story he has ever told anyone before. It is one of his deepest shames, one of the darkest things he did as the Winter Soldier. He has the destabilization of nations and the instigations of war on his long bloody C.V.— has held countless great and important men and women dispassionately at the mercy of his trigger finger before deciding on their moment of death— and yet this is the thing he remembers. This is the one thing that he thinks of in his lowest moment.

The kind of cold-blooded deliberateness with which he destroyed an old woman and her flock of adoptive children: all of whom he had spoken to, shared bread with, touched gently in some grotesque facsimile of friendship.

He had thought he left that man behind. At least, he had wished and wanted to leave that man behind. But he had not. He cannot. The Winter Soldier is part of him, closer to the surface than he would wish, and in the end it only took a matter of moments before he was wearing that persona again. Threatening to do the same exact things for which he now feels such shame…

It is too much. The knowledge that he is changed forever, that he is tarnished in a way he can never escape, finally breaks him. For the first time, Jane sees the strength and reserve of James Barnes falls apart. And it draws her instantly to his side.

Ashamed now for a different reason, he tries to scrub angrily at his face, pushing away the tears. Jane isn't having any of it. Her hands lift to pull his down and away, replacing it with the close lean of her body against his. The touch of her forehead against his temple. The soothing warmth of her presence. He quiets, though he does not seem much more at ease. Like she's saying, without words: he really isn't fine.

If it were easy, she says, you wouldn't be doing this.

He actually laughs at that. It's a broken-up, rasping sound, full of grief, but it's a laugh. "I suppose not," he says. "Fuck your logic."

He sighs a long, shaking sound. "I have a hard time knowing how much of the Winter Soldier was fabricated," he admits, "and how much was already in me. I was not always told exactly what to do every minute of the day. What I did when I was off-leash…" He sighs. "Where did that come from?"

Fuck her logic, he says. He can feel, brushed against his skin, Jane's brief, sad smile. Lifting her head, she leans to nudge her forehead to James's temple, the touch lingering, not in it so much a reassurance as it is a repeat of an old promise: she is here with him, no matter what, and isn't going anywhere.

There she settles, braced up against his side, trying to give strength and support to his worsening weakness. Jane knows there is little time, and it presses on her to return to her work, but still, she finds herself refusing to leave him. She wants to hold him as he asks her such an important question. For several moments she is silent, thinking.

"I'm no behaviourist," she concedes, "but I think I might be able to give you some dry, textbook answer. A lot of people have asked that kind of question. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists, even entire courts. For the cases of people who suffered brainwashing, like defectees out of fascist governments, or escapees from ideological prisons, or victims saved from religious cults, or even hostages suffering Stockholm Syndrome. They ask it too: how is it anyone can change into a new person?" Jane pauses, glancing up. "The thing is, they didn't. You didn't either. It wasn't something already in you. It was put in you, I figure, over years and repetition, and the only thing a person can do is adapt. Most of how we even perceive the world is through unconscious processes, and our world conditions us to be the people we are."

Her hand, still on James's, his right hand, his flesh hand, pulls lightly to bring it into her lap. Jane looks down, her searching eyes watching the way her thumb runs his knuckles. "You were forced into a new world, and it was nothing like the one that made you. It was Hell. Full of pain, full of fear, and it conditioned you to have to survive it. It didn't come from you, James. It came from them. Came from there. It was put into you."

She pauses minutely, then looks back up, her dark eyes strained, but brave enough to meet his. "It was put into me too," Jane confesses, "in a way, but not like yours. When they made the pain stop, they made me feel relief." Her words slow and stutter, hard words to say, tiring, but still necessary. She does not let them hitch and falter. "They even made me feel happy. Grateful. Like I'd do anything to keep them happy with me. Even with everything I know, they would have broken me."

Her hands tighten around his. Jane forces out: "They did… a bit. It's not that hard to. The fact you were there gave me some time. But you were all alone."

And with those words, she looks back up. "That's what makes this next part so important, James. When I say how strong you are. How so very strong you are. After all that, the person I get to see right here is you. It's you, and everything you feel. It's so important you feel."

She's done this once for him before. Jane does it again, grasping his hand finally, lifting it, so she can absolve his knuckles once more with her soft kiss.

He can feel, across the back of his hand, her whisper, a fan of hot breath. "The first time I met you was that night, when I asked not to die until I saw the stars. It was the first time I ever saw you. That's what was already in you."

James listens silently as Jane hazards an answer to his unhappy question. Strangely he seems more comforted by the fact she's giving him some 'dry, textbook answer' than he would be by her trying to make some emotional or spiritual appeal.

And her answer is that… he didn't become a new person. What the Winter Soldier did was not some innate part of him finding expression. The Winter Soldier was entirely a construct, a personality built over decades by torture and pain and careful conditioning. It was beaten into him, until the only thing he could do was adapt to what he was being told to be.

Their whole purpose was to make a creature that would still operate on their behalf even when he would inevitably have to go off-script.

He soothes a little visibly, though his eyes are still exhausted and raw. That strain makes a reappearance, however, when Jane admits it was put in her too. When she speaks of the night they first met, when she asked for a last look at the stars before he would kill her. The gaze he turns to her is deeply unhappy, the look of a man listening to what he perceives as one of his greatest sins. "I'm sorry," he whispers. Sorry he frightened her. Sorry he hurt her. Sorry he did anything to break even the smallest part of her.

But he does ultimately seem to take her point. His aspect quiets down into tired numbness. She takes his right hand and leaves a kiss on it, absolving it of all the things it has done and has yet to do, and his eyes close.

"They kept trying to erase me," he says. "But I kept coming back. They took me when I was a man and had already had twenty-some years of life, so I guess that was why."

He turns his hand until it takes her face, cupping it in a caress. His featherlight touch lacks all the strength she's used to feeling. "There were many others who didn't have that. I saw them being raised from infancy, from childhood." His eyes open, muted anger in his blue gaze. "They had me train many of them. Teach them how to kill as well as I could. They were just girls."

He sighs. "Still, it was probably the only time I felt happy. There was something familiar about teaching someone smaller and weaker than me. I guess all along, I was thinking of Steve. They couldn't erase that."

He tightens his grasp, though his strength is so minimal that it amounts only to a vague pressure. It seems to want her to lean forward, and whe she does, he takes her mouth in a gentle kiss.

"Like always," he murmurs, "you make too much sense. You should get back to what you were doing without having to nursemaid me."

The dry, textbook answers help Jane too. There are few times in all her life she's found knowledge to ever detract, worsen, and make hurt. Science is how she makes sense of her world; how she makes sense of herself. And with that look of earnest belief coming as a sunrise in her eyes, the woman believes her science can help James Barnes make sense of himself too.

Even now he apologizes to her. The words off his lips, blaming himself for what Hydra did to them both — it draws a look from Jane's eyes. Her gaze is patient, level, and unaccepting. She cannot, will not, accept any apology he can try to offer, and she stands quietly resolute from any way James attempts to shoulder blame. You know better than that, chide her eyes. She has told him this time and time again. He has never hurt her.

Instead of repeating words he's long heard, Jane instead presses a silent kiss to his knuckles. If she can, she will take his guilt away.

"They tried and they failed," she confirms. "If you want to think there's anything innate to you, James, it's that. All those parts of you that refused to stay forgotten."

His hand turns in hers, and all her fingers loosen, unwilling to restrain him in any way. James touches Jane's face, and she tilts her head into his palm, her eyes drifting briefly shut. He feels so weak, she thinks, in a way she never believed he could ever be. She can't linger for long.

Her eyes open — but he speaks, Jane's impetus arrested under the low timbre of his voice, and an old, so old fury that burns in his blue eyes. She listens on as he shares that the Winter Soldier taught as well as killed, and his pupils were persons — girls — not afforded the same taste of humanity he had. Raised from birth to be weapons, and never knowing what it would be like to be anything else. She feels sick. Sick, and sharing James's anger, and quietly resolved.

Jane doesn't even know what to say to that. Doesn't know the types of words to properly convey how wrong it is they did that, to children, to him too. That choice someone makes to take the humanity from a person — all she knows is there's no going back from that. Only monsters do those sorts of things. Only monsters /could/.

She feels him try to urge her forward, yet with a hand too weak to guide. She leans in needily and gives him her mouth, tries to let the tender brush of her lips speak the words she cannot say. She's so sorry, so sorry they did this to him.

Leaning back, knowing now she can no longer tarry, Jane twitches up a small, wan smile to her complimented sense. She seems reluctant to leave his side, but understanding the urgency, departs with a kiss to his forehead. "I think I like nursemaiding you," she answers. Settling back at her laptop, she tries for a bit of levity. "Wait, are you sure you don't want this to be permanent? I could keep a better eye on you. It'll really help the food budget too."

She goes back to her code, typing away, stopped only to ritually check James with cursory glances of her eyes. Minutes pass in that way — until Jane stops, checking one book. She blows out a gusty sound, and without explanation, stands to go sort through her nearby desk, hunting through tools before she finds an x-acto knife.

"This is going to be a little strange," Jane warns, wincing, before she pops the blade to cut into the skin of her thumb. "I swear to god I'm not being kinky."

Her stonewall refusal of his apology makes him smile ruefully. "Yeah, I guess we had that conversation already," he admits, letting it drop.

Trouble still weighs his eyes, though. He's thinking about those who weren't as fortunate as him to have an entire adult life to fall back on— who didn't have a full memory of being a human being to cling to in an attempt to resist the brainwashing and conditioning and control. He speaks briefly about them, if mostly in the context of how teaching them— in a strange way— reminded him of Steve.

"I met one of them again recently," he admits absently. "A former student of mine. She seems to have abandoned the life of a Widow. Started rehabilitating other girls who are still in. I saw the girl she's working on currently. Must be a new model… she even had a sort of on-off switch." He laughs, wholly without humor. "Alyosha seems reasonably genuine about her intentions for her, however." He sighs out a breath. "I guess even for those raised to it, sometimes there's just something inherent in a person that says it's wrong to kill another."

He is pensive a few moments, before he just shakes his head. He scrubs absently at his eyes again with the back of his hand, an automatic attempt to ensure there's no lingering signs of weakness on his face. He's just keeping her, though, he says. She ought to get back.

She does— but not without offering a few wry parting shots, likely in some attempt to keep the levity up. He smiles tiredly. "You'd get tired of it after a few hours. I'm not a graceful or patient convalescent. As Steve could tell you." Probably because he wasn't used to being in that position— it was always him taking care of convalescent Steve.

She shrugs innocently. It'd be easier on her budget if he just stayed this way. He snorts and leans back against the pillows. "I don't need an eye kept on me. YOU need an eye kept on you. 'Anything?' Really? I had it under control until you went and said /anything/." He casts a critical eye at her. "And you're not going to deprive a guy who had to grow up during the depression, are you? Back in the day we only got to have oranges once a year."

Fortunately, interest in Jane's activities soon enough forestalls more tales of 'back in the day.' His eyes follow her as she eventually gets up, midway through whatever script she's writing, and pulls out an x-acto knife. "Hang on a second," he starts, frowning, only to fall silent when she makes a small cut.

He frowns. Kinky isn't really the first thing he's thinking.

"Christ," he grumbles. "You're gonna turn into another John Constantine at this rate. I don't wanna think about him when I'm looking at you."

Jane glances up when James reveals a recent run-in with an old, decades-old pupil of his. Her face wears genuine, naked surprise, mixed with a bit of uncertainty, and a lot of concern — concern for him. It's a reflex of her own, it seems, a natural distrust and reticence of the life of the Winter Soldier crossing into his own.

In a way, she understands why it has to — for the sake of closure, the sake of catharsis, the sake of understanding and dealing with who he is. But the danger it all represents gives her unease; makes her think, briefly, of the worst fear that he one day disappears and is never found again. "Here in the city?" she asks of that, trying and failing to mask all of that same fear out of her voice. But Jane inhibits herself from saying any more, wanting to support him, wanting to feel things that are not just being afraid. "I hope she's genuine too. Please be careful about that."

And to his remark about something inherent in a person, something that would make them good — "That's what I try to believe," Jane says about that.

But she does try to bring back levity, and quirks up her own wan smile to how James promises to be a poor patient. Jane can't fault him; she's exactly the same. She doesn't believe in bedrest even when she's sick with the flu.

"It won't be anything to worry about," she assures, either way. "I'm going to have this fixed in minutes."

And as if to pledge some sort of blood oath to her vow, Jane does the strange and morbid and grabs a cutting blade off her desk. James offers caution, but still the woman carefully pokes its edge into the flesh of her thumb, biting her lip against the sting. It wells with blood.

At that time, James is saying something about — about 'anything'. He's obviously talking about the deal she made, cut with a mysterious Papa Midnite to secure their two friends' escape from hell, and to make it worse, he seems to believe that he "had it under control."

Selling that precious last piece of his soul, untouched by Hydra, to the first bidder.

Jane doesn't answer. In fact, she ignores that entirely, her first instinct to avoid that conversation for as long as she can. Instead, she answers him patiently about oranges, affection in her voice, "No, I don't think I could ever deprive you of anything."

She wanders back along his bedside, close to him, to briefly sit again where James Barnes is propped up, trapped by his left arm. She holds up her bleeding thumb, looking a little out-of-place, and a lot awkward, a cringe lain along the corners of Jane's features. It locks down when he accuses her of turning into John Constantine. "I am not," she huffs, somewhat defensive.

Jane frowns back. "If you start thinking of John while looking at me, you're about to get real celibate real fast. Now hold still. Yeah, this is weird, but it says I have to. I'll wash it off right after."

She reaches out to try to carefully, almost nervously, paint a warm line of her blood across his throat, where she once saw the curse flare thorny light. Then she returns to her laptop, frowns again, and smears her cut thumb along her key, anointing all of them. She types away, still bleeding, until it seems Jane hits a terminus point. "All right," she announces, sounding a little breathless. "Ready?"

Upon his assent, she hits execute.

James doesn't look that much happier with the idea of his past coming back to haunt him. Elena Kuznetsova was a woman he taught from girlhood and whose first blooding he supervised, but after that she left his life completely: not unlike a weaned kitten clinically removed from its mother, and sent off into the world. That was decades ago, and he had not thought of her once since then. Not her, nor any of the countless others he taught.

Not until now. "Yes," he says. "In the city. I will be careful with it. The Black Widows are trained to be whatever they have to be, so I can't be sure it's not all some elaborate lie to bring me in." he frowns. "If she tries to speak with you, or the girl she's training does— a young girl, teenaged, calls herself Juno— take care."

He leans back and lets her get back to work afterwards, however. She says she'll have it fixed in minutes, and he just nods as if that were completely to be expected. There is no sense that he doubts her vow or her prowess to make it happen. She's been taking tutelage with John Constantine and his cohort, after all.

Not to mention her own prodigious brilliance.

It seems she's too brilliant, though, to actually acknowledge things he says, especially when they happen to be rather inconvenient truths and words of caution. "You can deprive me fine of answers to my questions, I guess," he grumbles, but he lets the subject drop for now. Perhaps he's already privately thinking about how he might just take care of the problem himself.

He falls silent as she cuts herself, then starts to approach. Her reaction to the comparison to John Constantine draws a smirk, however: the self-satisfied look of a successful trolling. "Yep," he says, when she retorts that he's about to get real celibate if he starts conflating her with thoughts of John. "That's the problem. I'd rather not, thanks."

His humor sobers a little as she leans forward and makes her preparations, though, simultaneously apologizing for it being weird. "Eh," he says, his voice burring under her touch as she paints his throat. "I had to hold hands with John for a spell once. This is definitely not the weirdest thing that's happened." So THAT'S what was going on with the handholding that he never clarified for her!!

He eases back, however, as she finishes typing and asks if he's ready. "Yeah," he says, with the lack of hesitation of someone with full trust in her and her script.

She executes it.

He doesn't react at first. Then the blood on his throat lights up. He inhales sharply, his hands tensing into claws— even his left, which does so with a quiet whir of metal. The thorny shackles about his throat reappear with an ozone flare of magic, accompanied by the ones about his wrists, and Jane can see her blood visibly tangling with those ephemeral chains in some supernatural struggle to break the tethers suppressing his strength.

It does not appear to be hurting him. Yet.

Mention of potential lies, potential bait-and-switch games that his old life would pull to bring the Winter Soldier back to their fold, brings strain to Jane's eyes. It's not a fear she's just being acquainted to, he can well see across her face: she's been thinking about this, herself, worrying about it, keeping herself awake among her own insomnia with fears of what if. "I know you'll be careful," she tells him quietly. "Thank you for telling me about this."

She is quiet a moment, then her dark eyes turn up, a wan, unhappy smile ghosting over her mouth. "If anyone would," Jane promises, "bring you in. I'd come for you." It is a discordant vow coming from such a harmless, disarming sort of woman, small and slight in every so way, and with bloodless hands what have never held a weapon before. Yet burnt into her gaze are all the hells she would march into to find him.

When James gives her names and even to be watchful of what appears to be a teenaged girl, the woman shifts with the incongruency of it all. But she takes his warning seriously. "If I see anything, I'll call you."

Eventually, Jane comes close, armed with a bit of inopportune levity, trying to make something morbidly amusing about the way she needs to apply her own blood to James's skin to break the curse. He rants a bit about her own recklessness, that is her agreement with magicians speaking through murdered corpses, and she stays avoidantly mum. But James Barnes has something to say about that too.

Talk of deprivation makes her frown. Jane pauses a moment, searching his blue eyes, perhaps in her growing familiarity able to sense something forboding behind James's silence. She relents an inch, sighing out loud. "I'm not — we'll talk about this, all right? Just let me fix you first. This is important."

She paints on blood as he makes, in her opinion, decidedly /unfair/ references between her and John Constantine. Allowing James his look of satisfaction, and humoured in her own way, Jane graduates into a surprised, sputtery sort of laugh when he reveals hand-holding. She remembers this. "For a spell, huh?" she counters, unable to mask the amusement out of her eyes. "Once we get him back, I don't need to be worried about you two, do I?"

Looking satisfied with her weird blood-fingerpainting, and leaving with one last, reassuring touch of her hand to James's jaw, Jane escapes back to her opened laptop. She finishes some typing and checks her script, privately wondering how one even debugs a transferred hedge magic spell even if the damn thing decides not to work. She figures if that happens, she'll still find a way. Glancing up, asking if he's ready, her brown eyes soften against James Barnes's fast trust. The gesture means the world to her.

She executes the script.

At first, little happens. Then a sudden, fierce flare of light opens the darkness of her bedroom, and Jane jerks her head, eyes widening, as the curse reacts violently — glowing around his neck and wrists its lethal manacles and collar. It's magic, she realizes, magic crafted at her hands, though she cannot look on it with any sort of distracted, objective awe: busily she gauges what is happening, and tries to weigh James's response, worried he's in stress, terrified he could be in pain.

Neither seem to register. Heat travels through his skin, prickling along it, an unseen force pushing the blood through his veins. Magic wars with magic, and the battlefield is his very bottle, the curse struggling to assert itself, to feed its parasitic mouth into his very life force, to continue drinking him down in its patient, fatal siphon.

The medallion on the bed begins to glow, light cutting out of the etching of the bleeding eye. In one last thought, Jane grasps it, pressing her bloodied thumb down onto its power source, and reaches her other hand to grasp James's, to twine her fingers with his.

Her blood burns his curse from the inside-out.

He cannot rule out that his old masters might be seeking to bring him back to the fold. He admits as much to her, and the strain that shows in her eyes reveals that she's been thinking about this same thing too. "I don't think they would," he moves to assure her, his gaze pensive. "I think Hydra is off its game and has more to worry about from SHIELD right now. As for Russia… so many of those Cold War era programs are now dead or have taken on different forms. I doubt reaching out to try to reclaim an old tool, which they sold off to begin with twenty-odd years ago, is high on the priority list."

A pause. "Even if I was the best they ever produced."

It's strange, sometimes, looking into his eyes and realizing that he holds some lingering sick pride in his status and prowess when he was the Winter Soldier. The things he did were abhorrent, but at the same time they were things that were so impossible and of such wide-reaching magnitude that no one could have done them save someone of surpassing skill. Perhaps it's a way of somehow owning what was done to him. He might have been the punchline of a sick Soviet joke, a victim tormented and twisted into some monstrous and unrecognizable shape, but at the same time his skills and his power were his own. It was his own talent that made him the finest the USSR had to field.

He had his own personality while brainwashed as the Winter Soldier, his own fabricated life— the Soviets let him roam more freely than Hydra ever did, though the leash was still very much there even if it was long— and in that life he was a man whose mere name was feared. A man who, even if he was a slave in the labs, in the freezing chambers, was in command and gave the orders when out in the field— when it was important. A man who ostensibly had power.

Of course, it was a lie, but it was his perception which was important, and in his perception, even powerful men had shaken in his presence, because they knew his purpose and what he could do.

Her promise to come for him, if every anyone brought him in, rouses him from those distant thoughts. He looks on her with affection and full faith in that vow. "Well, I hope it doesn't come to that," he says. "I don't think so, for the reasons I mentioned. I feel for anyone who would try, honestly. God knows what kind of bizarre machine you'd cook up to make their day hell."

He might have had more to say, in particular about her ill-considered vows, but Jane says in her again-strained voice that they can discuss that once he's not dying, and even James has to see the logic in that. He gives her a look, a look that says 'all right, but later,' loud and clear, and lets it go.

But there's one more important thing. Does she need to be worried about John Constantine? James snorts eloquently. "Too much baggage for me," he says. "Put us together and we'd have a 747's worth of baggage. No good."

He falls quiet as she gets to work, however. He doesn't seem perturbed or unnerved about any of it— the blood, the thrown-together script, the fact that it's all hedge magic cobbled from an unholy mix of technology and sorcery. He trusts Jane to know what she's doing. He has no hesitation at all when she asks if he's ready.

The script executes. And the hex reacts poorly.

At the least James doesn't seem to be in pain, though it doesn't look terribly comfortable judging by the way he's tense and trembling, his hands clutched into the sheets and his eyes sliding shut. The curse doesn't want to go easily: it latches to him like a remora, its needle teeth sunk into his very life force, trying to drink it down. Jane's counterspell yanks at it, and it latches tighter; the very nature of hexes is spite, and it seems prepared to rip off pieces of James' very life along with it if it must be forced to go.

Jane takes his hand. His fingers twine hers, shaking palpably as her magic-infused blood sinks visibly into his skin, seeping into him to burn out that hex right at its very roots.

The thorny shackles about his throat and wrists glow fiercely bright— and then break in a soundless shattering. His hand in hers jumps horribly and goes limp, even as the rest of him slackens and starts to slump over to the left.

Jane Foster does not miss that glimpse of pride. It doesn't seem sick to her.

Not without her own arrogance, which even she can admit is vast and suffocating at times — it made her impossible to work for others, and even more impossible to work with them, people who are just too ordinary, too average, too slow, not of her wits and intelligence, and she cannot disparage her gifts to slow down for the /mediocre/ — Jane cannot judge the pride of James Barnes. Even if he was made into something against his will, and beyond his choice, there's no denying he was made into someone extraordinary.

Most of all, she she realizes this now more than ever, it's painful, exhausting, and… crippling to be thought of nothing more than a victim. To think of yourself as nothing more than a victim, made, used, toyed with, broken. It is his right to have his pride.

"You are the best," Jane concurs softly, almost shyly, though with her interpretation of the word.

His explanations, and reasoning for Hydra, even the Soviets that created the original Winter Soldier, actually do much to reassure her. It seems facts and reasoned explanations go far to help them both. Jane just exhales noisily, trying to put out of her mind the mental image of James one day disappearing. "But, good," she says, with deliberate lightness. "It's really for the best you don't go anywhere. I'm kind've not finished with you yet."

It touches her that he believes in her vow. That he fears for the people who would take him and earn her wrath. That he has askance for the machine she'd make. Jane says nothing, but her small, wan smile speaks volumes.

For now, she offers an initial taste of her own gifts, within which she holds her own pride, and returns to her self-forged union of hedge magic and technology.

It's her first, wilful, deliberate step into a world Jane has never known. And the burden weighs down on her shoulders: this first step is to save James Barnes's life. All she has with her is not honed skill, not years of experience, not anything but a driven faith in herself, and her will that she is not going to lose him like this — not after everything that's happened, not now, not ever.

With the medallion to power her intent, her script to invoke her will, and her living blood to conduit her demand, Jane invokes her spell against that killing curse.

It glows the banded hex off of James's flesh. The thorny light flares angrily as it tightens around him, desperate to remain, desperate to /feed/ until nothing remains. Magic reacts violently against magic, to the point that in her panic, Jane reaches out to steal James's hand, hers fierce and tight, fingers threaded together, forcing herself as a grounding point as his weakening body tries to endure the war of two opposing forces. She watches on in dismay, her grasp tightening, unable to think, to breathe, as she stands helplessly and witnesses him yoke under that curse.

Her hand wrings his until her knuckles bleach white. Jane feels her heart pound inside her ears. It's not enough, she thinks, in a moment of doubt. It's not enough, it's not strong enough, it's making it /worse/, and she —

No. She refuses to believe it. "I've got you, James," she implores, her voice a plea. "Stay with me. /Stay/ with me. I've got you."

Her jaw grits. Both her hands capture his. She holds on with despairing strength, as if certain something so far stronger will rip him away —

— as those shackles break, their formless light snuffing out like candleflame. His hand loosens. His body goes heavy, and starts to tilt.

"JAMES!" Jane shrieks, letting him go, her violent push from the bed dropping some of her books. She rounds it violently in a breathless dash, bodily pressing herself to his left side, metal arm and all, planting her feet and trying to press her little weight as a counterbalance to keep him on the bed. He's so heavy, but she barely feels it, barely feels anything. "James?!" is all she can think to say. She begs his name over and over. "James?! James!"

That is, perhaps, the crux of it in the end. No one can long endure the thought that all along they're nothing but a victim, an object, a joke cooked up by some Komitet bastards. In the end, they search for whatever small sense of autonomy and pride they can still have even in the midst of that grotesque kind of ill use, and they hold to it.

For James Buchanan Barnes, that one thing was the knowledge that he was the greatest killer the Soviets ever held in their pen of murder machines.

You are the best, Jane affirms sadly. It is obvious from her voice that she means something different than he does, and he is grateful for that small distinction he can hear in her voice.

Assured that there's few reasons for either Hydra or the Russians to come after him, Jane gives him a wan smile and gets to work, bolstered by his quiet trust. This is something he watches with interest; he knows his own gifts in combat and killing, can evaluate those in others, but has little understanding of her gifts: gifts that reside in the realm of the creative and innovative rather than the destructive.

Her preparations eventually complete. She looks to him to start the spell. And he agrees.

The last thing Jane would ever want him to feel is pain, but inevitably… pain is what James Barnes eventually feels, as the thorny hex shackling and draining his strength struggles violently against the counterspell Jane has targeted onto his body with her own drawn blood. She lunges forward to his bedside and seizes his hand in a panic, wringing it as magic continues its fight over his strength and vitality. His own grip is slack and feeble, Jane for the first time so much stronger than him with her white-knuckled grasp and clinging hold.

She begs him to stay with her. "Trying," he mumbles through the pain.

It is less than a minute, but it feels much longer, before Jane's spell finally wins out and tears the hex from his body and soul. Those shackles break visibly, their angry red light breaking apart into so many drifting impotent motes. But James doesn't immediately throw back the sheets and rise from his bed. He doesn't leap up and proclaim any regained strength.

Instead a shudder runs through him, full-body and harsh, and then he goes limp and starts to slump over to his left.

Terrified, Jane cries out his name and races around to try to brace him up with all her little strength. He's nearly three times her mass; there's only one way this is going to go if he falls out of the bed. For a few moments there does seem to be a very real danger of that, which is problematic as Jane is under him right now—

And then with a familiar whine of metal, his left arm suddenly moves fluently and braces himself, his body swaying with the sudden motion but staying upright.

"I'm… fine," he says, sounding not very fine at all. "I'm good."

Jane tries to hold James's hand through the pain. Grief and horror make bedmates across her stricken expression. She looks on, lost to helplessness, at this point unable to do anything but fiercely hang on, and have faith in her own novice hedge magic.

It is hard to have faith when she has to watch him seize in agony before her eyes. Her eyes shine and her breath chokes up. She just hangs onto him, desperate to be his only anchor point.

And, just like that, it ends. The war of magics proclaims its victor. Though Jane is not even sure what has happened, if what she did worked, or even what to expect: James does not surge back to life. He does not grip her hand with all the familiar strength he once possessed.

On the contrary, his hand goes slack. And his body succumbs, no strength to keep it, bowing to the weight of his left arm.

Her first instinct is borne of pure desperation.

Desperation because she knows, she knows, if he falls: if he falls out of that bed, and if her spell didn't work, if he's still weak, if he's still dying — the action is going to sever the muscle from his spine. It's going to break his back, and she'll get to watch, get to stand there and watch as James Barnes painfully dies.

Jane skids to his bedside, grabs the frame of her bed, plants her feet, and levers her chest against James's left shoulder, trying to counterweight his tipping body, refusing to let him fall. The mass of him winds her, but adrenaline runs like fire through her veins, and she feels weightless. She even finds air to yell, yell for him, calling his name over and over in panic.

He tilts farther, and her feet skid back against her hardwood. Her voice breaks, the last cry of James's name rent in the way she shudders under the exertion to bear him, as more and more of his weight presses down, too much for her to hold, too much for her to match. The physics of it nettles her thoughts, Newton's laws telling Jane in clear, cold fact that she's going to fail, but even now she refuses science, because she's not going to let him fall.

Her legs wobble, and she takes her hands off the bedframe to wrap her arms around him, as she bows worse and worse under James's slumping weight. Maybe, Jane thinks, she can soften the fall; if she does that much she can save his back. Maybe she can mitigate the damage —

Jane's heart pounds fiercely against his metal shoulder. Her hands tighten and her jaw grits. She holds on, wrapping herself around him, bracing as —

— his arm moves, plates shifting noisily, as it turns and grasps down onto the bed. James levers himself upright and holds.

Jane remains curled around him, panting shallowly, her legs trembling, muscles burning with tension to take a weight no longer necessary. He removes his own burden, very much awake — very much alive.

"James?!" she asks breathlessly, loosening one shaking hand to try to touch his face. Jane's voice is noose-choked with dangerous hope. "What happened?! Is it…?"

He clings to her hand through the wracking agony of having magic war with magic in his veins, but his grip has no more strength than that of a child's. That in itself is almost as horrifying as the obvious pain he is in.

Fortunately, it is not a long struggle. Jane's brilliance produces first-try hedge magic that cuts to its purpose quickly. The hex shatters, and for a moment there is hope that James will immediately resurrect back to the strength she remembers him having. The kind of strength that could break concrete and bend steel.

Instead, he goes limp, and starts to slump.

Jane rushes around in a panic, desperate to catch him, to support him, because she knows if he falls— in the condition he's in— the trauma will tear his heavy left arm from its moorings and shatter his spine. She'll have to stand there and watch him die because her spell failed, because she couldn't catch him, because she couldn't hold him up…

She plants her body against his shoulder and tries to brace him up. But he is heavy, far too heavy for his height and build, and it's all the solid weight of his prosthetic: solid titanium and steel that altogether weighs in half her own body weight. She struggles, calling his name even as he slumps farther, and even then he is unresponsive. All she can hope is that there's something happening in him, some process of recovery that's still invisibly working to completion, and that he'll wake soon from it, because she can't hold him up and her only remaining option is to just lay down and try to cushion his fall with her own body—

—and a familiar whine and click of metal plates heralds his artificial arm suddenly moving. It turns and clamps onto the bed in a distinctly mechanical movement, its usual fluidity to imitate human smoothness completely absent, but at least it's moving, and apparently with the strength it's supposed to have.

Yet that in itself isn't really an indication that all is well.

Still clinging onto him, Jane implores of him what happened. "Just got real dizzy for a bit," he murmurs, sounding the part. He sits back up, pushing with his left arm, and the act drags Jane along with him if she doesn't let go. It leaves her in an awkward position, and after a moment his left arm curls to lift her easily to sit on the bed beside him. "But I think… that you did it."

He seems both pleased and melancholic about the restoration of his enhanced self.

In a last-ditch decision, Jane wraps her arms around James, aware of her own failing strength, and aware there is one thing she can do. With all the power left in her body, she tries to clinch tight around him, her chest braced to his shoulder, so that when he falls, it will be onto her. And she'll hold him together. Keep that metal arm from being ripped off his body, his muscles, his spine.

It's going to hurt, but she doesn't care. She doesn't even consider the cold calculus that this is logical, that she must because she still has a higher chance of surviving this than he does unassisted. The only thought in Jane's head is her vow to protect hin. She's lost too many people already.

He tilts. She hangs on. She rearranges one arm to let her hand cup the back of his neck, to shield and support those fragile bones —

— and his arm moves on its own, with grinding plates and noisy steel, to grasp the bed. Almost immediately, he takes the burden off Jane's body, her trembling legs, and she almost slips clumsily, nearly falling herself, to counterbalance against nothing. Her knees hit the side of the bed and she grunts in surprise, still left folded around James.

To her own hope, he pushes upright with a strength he did not possess — could not possess — minutes ago, and she goes with him, pulled along until her back stretches straight and her feet lift to the tips of her toes. It's awkward, but Jane refuses to let go, afraid that once she does, he'll fall anyway — afraid to trust fully yet in something like magic.

With her heart still hammering on his metal shoulder, Jane tries to breathlessly beg answers. Dizzy, he tells her, and his voice sounds thick and raspy, and she tries to recall if she heard of residual symptoms in those books. They mention nothing, nothing that should be so important, maybe she'll have to add her own notations. She still clings to him, with a panicked strength enough to make her arms shake, her words guttered with a hitched, shallow breathlessness that sounds like strain or terror or both.

Finally, and with a mobility and strength both to attest that this worked, that he is back to his abilities again, James curls his metal arm around Jane and pulls her effortlessly up onto the bed beside him. Convinced little by little to let him go, her arms unhook to give him back his freedom. Told she did it, that her magic worked, one would think Jane would slump herself in tired relief, but even now she refuses to stop.

"Are you sure? No pain? What are your symptoms?" she asks again and again, leaning in to try to look at his face. Jane doesn't miss the melancholy, and though well aware she's hovering, probably being a little smothering, tries to cup James's jaw in her hand, desperate to get a good look at his face, his eyes. Her thumb is still slightly bleeding. "Are you all right?"

Even through the pain, it occurs to him what she is doing even as she's doing it. She's going to use her own body to cushion his fall, should he slip from the bed. Desperation flickers in his foggy mind; he can't allow that. It would hurt her gravely. It might even break her, kill her, if his left arm lands on her with his full weight behind it—

But there's not much he can do. His body will not obey him. All he can do is trust that she can keep him upright for the critical moments it takes for her spell to work. All he can do is trust that the spell will work in the first place.

Soon enough, his faith is rewarded.

The shackles break, and there is a sudden sense of being able to breathe again, able to move and stretch out his limbs. He does so almost immediately in a spasmodic motion, his left arm clamping down and bracing to lever himself back up and off her. The sudden lack of resistance makes her stumble, banging her knees against the side of the bed, and with thoughtless strength he puts his arm around her and lifts her up beside him.

That would seem to be an indication of whether his natural state has returned. As much as his enhanced state could be said to be natural in the first place.

He's lingeringly dizzy, though, his voice hoarse and ragged. Jane releasing her stranglehold on him helps a little with that, but she presses close afterwards nonetheless, machinegunning questions at him. No pain. What are the symptoms? Is he all right? He doesn't feel bad, does he?

He is silent for some time, concentrating on breathing. "No pain," he finally confirms. "I just feel tired, but more like myself again. For given values of 'myself.'" He smiles sardonically. "Not the myself I was born with, but the one I became."

His blue eyes, when she looks into them, are clear, though exhausted. He lifts his hand to take hers, pulling it gently from his face so he can brush the blood from her thumb, then place a light pressure on the cut. "I think it's fine," he assures again. "I think it worked."

A pause. "Unless you did mix it up along the way, and tomorrow I turn into a rabbit. But one way to find out."

Pulled up onto the bed and to his side, not even that obvious act of strength is enough to assauge Jane.

Some people would sag and lie backward in candid relief. She holds still with palpable tension, perhaps afraid the first moment she looks away, drops her guard, or lets go — she'll lose him for good. It's happened too many times before. Jane stays prepared.

At the very least, her vice grip loosens to give James some space, some air, though she hovers too-close, armed with a barrage of frantic questions. She leans in, her searching eyes hopeful to see his face, to check his health, his life, him — though Jane is not certain what one can even check when dealing in the strange realm of curses and fatal hexes.

No pain, he attests, and her expression sifts with hope. Jane listens carefully to James, her attention firmly fastened on him, the stress in her eyes keeping her from returning his humourless smile. Given values of 'himself.' The value for her is the that what keeps him alive.

He takes her hand, and with a bit of resistance, it falls away, palm opened and fingers loosely curled, looking like they have no idea what to do with themselves in the denouement of such a panic. James lays pressure on her cut thumb, and even if it stings, Jane does not notice. Her hand trembles palpably inside his, still tense, still on the ready — still sweat with adrenaline.

James says he thinks it worked. "Good," Jane answers breathlessly, "good. Good."

She sounds calm at his side, direct and with a knife-edge sharpness to her eyes, that it's easy to miss it. Easy to overlook what troubles and pulls taut Jane's features: she's absolutely terrified. She, for a moment, was convinced she was going to watch James Barnes die.

He makes a joke about a rabbit, and even though she's not quite hearing, Jane lightly snorts her response to that. She doesn't let it stop her momentum. "Do you need something to drink? You need something to eat. What can I get you? Are you sure you're OK?"

Her continuing nervousness softens his eyes. He knows the reason she won't blink or look away: she fears that if she does, he'll vanish, or the cure will stop working, and all this will be for naught.

She did, after all, just nearly watch him die.

He is patient beside her, at the least, letting her crowd close beside him and check everything she can about his vitals with the enduring, resilient tolerance with which she's long since become familiar, and whose return indicates that her counterspell really and truly did work. He says nothing, not at first, but his hand does take hers and turn it so he can apply gentle pressure to the cut that is still leaking blood.

His mouth quirks a little with a sad smile at the adrenaline still trembling her hand in his. Good, she says. Good, good. It worked.

She asks if he needs something to drink or eat. "I think we both do," he nudges gently. "You're shaking like a leaf. Come on— I'm sick of being in goddamn bed—"

With a grunt, he levers himself up. Though his strength has returned, it seems it's taking a bit of time to settle in, and he is shaky at first until he gets his feet under him and takes a few experimental steps. "We don't have a lot of time," he says, transparently frustrated with his own slowness at current. "At least gotta send out what we got to everyone who needs to know."

That little bit of patience goes a long way with Jane Foster. She transparently appreciates it, appreciates him, and his permission of her closeness, his hovering, her rapid-fire questions keeps her panic from graduating into something worse — something far more demonstrative and desperate.

There are the types of persons whose fear locks them up: keeps them immobile, unable to move, unable to think, unable to act for the belief doing so will make it worse. Jane is a different sort, who keeps her terror under control and leashed into industriousness: as long as she can keep herself busy, keep herself useful, she holds it together.

The shock still has yet to dissipate. He almost died, she thinks. When that curse went supernova on his skin, and he tightened up with pain, and his hand was so weak, so very weak — he was dying. He was dying, and it was so close.

For now, James Barnes appears on the mend, back to some road of health, and he stops her bleeding thumb with a press of his fingers. Jane just looks helplessly up into his eyes.

He wants food and drink for them both. And he's sick of being in bed.

The moment he's up on his feet, so is she, Jane cringing all the way, perhaps believing it far too soon for James to be testing fate. She staples herself to his left side, one hand touching his back, perhaps just out to make herself something of a tiny human crutch that can easily be transformed into something yielding to break his fall — should he. Please don't die on me, silently begs every bit of her body language.

"I know," she says quietly about time, or the lack thereof. "I'll send out a text with the address to Jessica. She can round whoever's able. Right now you need to focus on you."

Jane's eyes watch James's slow, shaky pace like a hawk. She presses closer to his side. "Be careful," she entreats. She is quiet a moment. "Maybe you shouldn't — you shouldn't come on this one. We'll be able to handle it."

It is not just permissiveness, it seems. It calms James transparently too, to have her hovering so close by. It appears he's just not the kind of guy to be perturbed by being fussed over by a lady. Perhaps he even enjoys it, to a degree. Maybe it reminds him of when he was young and much less burdened… when he was carefree and cavalier, and women revolved around him with the sort of fluttering chatter Jane evinces now.

Well, not exactly the same sort. Unlike those long-ago girls, Jane's fluttering is sourced entirely from fear.

She almost lost him. It was close. He could have died and there would have been nothing she could do except watch. Her only solace would be that this time, her eyes weren't down in a book this time, missing the whole thing…

But the worst seems to have passed. He recovers enough, even, to frown with concern at her cut and start to absently tend her in turn. He takes her hand in his, tamping the bleeding until it stops. This one small victory seems to embolden him to more; he pronounces sustenance for both of them, not just him, and that he is quite sick of being bedridden, even though he was only so for a little while, all things considered.

Still way too long for his tastes.

He levers himself up and out of bed. His first steps are shaky, but his strength seems to return readily enough, until she can feel her assistance is no longer needed and not being used. "Yeah," he says, when Jane promises to text Jessica. "Should contact the kid too. The Robin kid. I have a feeling he'll explode if he doesn't get them back soon."

Right now he needs to focus on himself, she insists. Maybe he shouldn't even come on this one. They can handle it without him.

He stops in his tracks. The look James Barnes angles down on Jane is deeply unimpressed.

Little by little, even Jane registers the sea change in James Barnes's body and bearing: the slow, trickling return of his strength after something unseen and supernatural was siphoning its draught. Drinking his life dry from the inside-out.

His first, initial steps are shaky and she presses close, visibly still fussing, and just about to lose her patience and start yelling at him not to take it too fast, he can /stand/ to rest for once —

— when James's pace slowly smooths out, and en route out of her bedroom, down the hall of her apartment to the main room, finds his steadiness. His sureness.

Feeling his gradual independence, she slowly, reluctantly lets him go, though Jane keeps her eyes fastened on James. She won't repeat a mistake of years ago — a mistake that still haunts her, still makes her feel monstrous in her lowest moments — and look away.

It seems, in the end, her spell did work. He is a world's difference from even minutes ago. It's a delicate crawl back to his full strength and health, but it appears Jane Foster has officially broken her first curse.

Well, shit, she thinks, with a sensation Jane thinks will be pride once she unknots her insides.

"Can do," she says airily to James's direction to share the information with Red Robin. Jane wonders briefly for her phone. She doesn't even remember where she left it. She barely even remembers getting in the door. He was dying, and making all these dumb jokes in the car —

The thought gives her the courage to suggest James Barnes sit this one out. It feels like a reasonable, even logical thing on Jane's part. And yet he gives her this /look/.

"What?" Jane argues back up at it. Stubbornness turns her face into a lock. "I'm serious. What if there's any lingering effects? What if it comes back? Someone has to keep an eye out for you. Us three can just go in, go out."

The hex might be broken, but it takes time for the suppressed serum to reassert itself again. Not much time, fortunately— within a few steps he's walking almost normally again— but time enough that Jane nearly vibrates with the desire to tell him to just go back to bed and rest.

It seems that being up and about is helping him get back into form more quickly, though, judging by the way he quickly regains his independence as he proceeds farther down the hall. He tests himself visibly, feeling out his body as his strength slowly returns. It feels a little disconcertingly like rising from the numb stupor of cryo-sleep, something which makes him look briefly intensely disturbed, before the expression fades.

He shakes his head. No, it's not cryo-sleep. It's Jane, who just… wrote magic on her laptop to break the hex on him. He turns a frankly astonished look on her, shaking his head again. "You are full of surprises," he pronounces. "And it took you… what? A month to learn enough to do this? A few weeks?"

He sighs out his disbelief, and just gets back to business. He speaks of how they'll need to contact Jessica and Red immediately, pass on the information, make ready to pull John and Zatanna out. Jane agrees, but she has another stipulation. A suggestion, in fact. What if he just, you know… sits this one out? There's no telling if the curse might rebound, or if what she did might have lingering effects, or…

He just turns his head and looks down at her. His expression is profoundly unimpressed.

What? Jane asks. A stubborn look plants itself on her face, and James experiences a brief moment of intense deja vu. "Don't do that," he grumbles. "You look like Steve when you're making that face. That's a comparison I don't need."

But, she insists, the three of them can just go in and go out.

His expression deteriorates even further, if at all possible. "You what," he says. "Did you just say that the three of you will just… pop in and out of HELL? No, Jane. No fucking way. Red's smart as shit and he's got gadgets coming out of his asshole, but he's a kid and probably running on fumes by now. Jess is strong and resourceful but…"

He grimaces, thinking about their last training session. "Let's just say I got a long way to go to get her shaped up combat-wise."

Still struggling to give herself permission to think thoughts that aren't solely dedicated to James Barnes's present condition, and a slow-burn, panicked worrying over whether or not she's perhaps only stalled him dying —

— Jane looks a little deer-in-headlights when he looks down on her, and says she's full of surprises. She fidgets around the corners, her own pride at odds against receiving too much attention, and especially from James. She's gotten a little safely used to his laconic way of dealing with the world, himself, and her little gifts.

A few weeks? A month? She shrugs, slightly sheepish. "It was just those books Zatanna lent me. And the ones Jessica gave me a couple weeks ago. All I did was read them."

Though maybe all that study has just brought on a misplaced feeling of confidence in Jane Foster, or perhaps the idea of 'going into the fires of Hell' hasn't really hit her yet — after all, most of her life she never even believed in a Hell — that she suggests James Barnes tagging out. At least for this one.

The man gives her a look that literally crumples that idea and tosses it nearest waste bin. He chides her for her own stubbornness.

Jane's frown deepens. He was on death's bed minutes ago!

"No, I didn't just /say/ that," she blurts back, pique bringing a slight flush to her cheeks. James makes her suggestion sound so /glib/. She tries to cut in, interrupt, but she can't find a weak point in between James's fierce, determined words, and the way he, factually, mechanically, breaks down both Jessica Jones and Red Robin to a severe undressing of their weak spots.

Jane glances away, agitated, but finding it difficult to argue cool logic. She's never seen either of the two directly in combat, herself, and cannot profess any wisdom that James could not already shoot down. She also doesn't fail to notice he hasn't made a thorough dissection of the remaining member of the three — namely, herself — and wonders if he's just holding that back out of kindness. Or — or that he may not even consider her on par with the rest of the team, rather than some civilian piece of carry-on.

"Is it more than you just don't trust us to get it done?" she hears herself asking, wanting to know. "Or you just don't trust them to protect me? Someone needs to protect you too."

"I read books too," he grumbles, reverting back to his usual reserved, laconic self: perhaps to Jane's private relief. "That doesn't make me a sudden genius in whatever it is they're about. Christ."

Perhaps there's another reason he's dialing back on the effusiveness, though, and it might have to do with the fact he can sense her getting a little confident in herself. Overconfident, even. Certainly 'not properly appreciative of the fact that they're going into Hell, as in HELL, as in demons and damnation and Satan.' There's still enough of a good old Christian boy in Bucky Barnes to be deeply appalled about the idea, but Jane doesn't seem to be taking it with the proper gravity.

Only proven when she blithely declares that she can just go ahead and tank Hell, it's fine, he can stay home and recuperate.

Succinctly, with both the trained eye of an Army sergeant and the cold, weakness-homing discernment of the Winter Soldier, Bucky takes apart the reasons that a threesome comprised of Jane Foster, Jessica Jones, and Tim Drake are not nearly enough to take on HELL by their lonesome. Or at least— he dissects Jessica and Tim. Jane he doesn't say anything about, and though the omission isn't malignant or negative on his part, Jane could easily take it as such. And promptly does.

He blinks, visibly drawing back slightly, when she accuses him of not trusting them to get it done— or not trusting them to protect her. Implicitly, he can hear her asking: do you not trust me to get it done, either?

Her assertion that someone needs to protect him too is easier to confront, so he tackles that one first, his voice shading with an annoyance that only grows more pronounced as he realizes she just saved his life, and he doesn't want to be immediately annoyed with her after the fact. "You just did," he points out tersely. "And I was expecting the rest of you to watch my back in there, also. I'm not carrying you all for a free ride."

As for the rest? He sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. "It's not a matter of trust, Jane," he explains, in a voice calmer than he feels. "It's a matter of bringing a realistic amount of force to deal with going into fucking HELL."

Little by little, her own body language closes off, and Jane crosses her arms to mask the fidgets in her hands, staring down at her feet. She hears James Barnes's voice, his words, his argument boiled up against hers, and at the heart of it all, she finds herself unable to even feel properly angry. At her most honest, she just feels so relieved she hears him at all, that he's still here if just to fight with her.

The thought is a final turn of the rack around her heart, like all that shock finally wearing off, reality hitting hard — what just happened, what will happen — and she tightens her jaw. Her mouth purses visibly as her eyes burn and sting and shine.

Jesus Christ, she doesn't want to cry.

She summons enough strength to bottle it back and enough courage to look up, to let her dark eyes meet his. She stands there, holding herself tightly, too much residual adrenaline and no way yet to ventilate it out, absently scratching at the sting on her thumb pad like her restlessness wants to urge the cut back open.

James speaks of bringing realistic force down to Hell, and the look Jane gives him is both impatient yet imploring. Does he not understand what she means? What she's saying? Why she is even suggesting this to him? What it's natural, normal, expected for her to be this worried when moments ago he was dying? Dying, and tilting over, and she was trying to lever every ounce of her body just to keep him upright?

"You scared the shit out of me, OK?" she blurts out breathlessly. "When someone asks something of you, the first thing you say is to offer to kill people. Or when you've been cursed to die, you say that you deserve it. You scare the shit out of me."

You scared the shit out of me, she says.

He stops so suddenly that if she's still trying to follow him closely, she'll run straight into his back. His back, which is so tense and taut that she might as well have just run into a brick wall.

He says nothing for a long few moments. She might notice him restraining himself from trembling.

"Sorry," he finally says, his voice taut. "Thank you for saving me, but— sorry."

He hangs a right instead of the left that would take him to the kitchen. Off to the right is the front door, which he heads silently towards.

Unwilling to let James Barnes far out of her sight, not on the threshold of a near-miss with death's door, Jane does stumble into James's stopped, rigid, too-taut body.

It's the first contact with him, usually so yielding, that tells her something is wrong.

It's a desperate plea on her end, a bid to make him understand where it is her fears source, and why it's not so unreasonable Jane asks James to mind his own body, his health, his life, because if he won't protect himself, then she has to. Because he terrifies her, absolutely terrifies her, that indifference he has to himself because of his own guilt — the belief he can be so monstrous that his life is a lesser thing or his death is something to be expected, even deserved. And that while he may have been kept a weapon to his torturers and would-be masters, he's that no longer, not to her, not to her friends, not to anyone, and Jane will not see him sell himself away.

She stands in quiet shock when, in face of all that, James Barnes responds in the way she least expects. He apologizes.

His apology sounds a lot like a broken good-bye.

And then he walks away. He leaves her and turns the corner, and it confuses Jane, because he's supposed to be heading into the kitchen. Where they eat and have their stupid fight and figure out what next to do, and just — not, not this. For such a sharp woman, sometimes she realizes the obvious so slowly. Why is he heading for the door?

Her heart chokes her up.

An instant later, Jane dashes after him, her eyes full of that memory months ago when he walked out of her home. Pushed her aside, walked away, and she could never find him after. She cannot let that happen again.

She grabs for his right hand in both of hers, her grasp vice-tight, no different from the way she wrung onto his hand as he fought death minutes ago. Jane's face is bone-white. "James!" she begs, shocked, and so confused. What did she do? "What are — don't go! You can't go!"

She grabs his hand as he goes and he stops. He makes the classic Orphean mistake: he looks back.

The stark whiteness of her face hurts worse than the words she just said, and that is enough to get him to stop. He halts there, halfway to the door, looking down at her as she tells him he can't go. He says nothing, makes no reply, shows no real emotion other than a blank-eyed bleakness.

And then he loses it.

"I scare you!" he snaps suddenly. His hand pulls sharply out of hers as he turns on her, and for a stark moment it feels like several months ago, and she's just small, fragile Jane Foster, trapped in her apartment with an unstable monster engineered to be a peerless killer. "I SCARE you!" The very idea of it transparently guts him out.

"And you're right," he whispers. "That's what I am. Someone whose first offer was to kill. Do you know why? I had nothing else more valuable to offer. That was the best I had."

He shudders out a breath and drops his face into his right hand. "Now you see me quite clearly," he murmurs, his voice muffled. "Someone who's done so much that they can feel they deserve to die. And it scares you."

Those small, breakable hands of hers grit down in a surprising, devastating show of strength, as Jane grapples down onto James Barnes and refuses to let go. Even to him, her fierce little fingers curl close to the point of pain. She knows if he manages to leave, he'll disappear. Disappear because he can, and Jane will be left not even knowing why.

She holds on until her pleas beg him back. He catches one glimpse of her face, and it's tilted up, her dark eyes fixed on him, her every feature opened and undressed to the most wrenching point of vulnerability. Jane Foster facing her worst fear: being left behind.

And then he speaks. The furor in his voice shocks her silent, and he rips his hand away, not even her strength a breath against his as it slowly, gradually recovers. There the woman stands, stricken, and utterly confused, as he rages back her words down on her. That he scares her.

Her lips part in quiet disbelief. Emotions change hands across her face, mind reeling, because all of this is happening so quick, and that's not how she feels at all. How could he even beg the belief that —

— of course. Of course.

The sight of James Barnes, unpredictable, chaotic, does beg the memories of months ago. But Jane still sets her jaw and steps forward into the storm, undeterred, daring to come within a breath of him. There is no fear in the way her hands try again to touch, to reach again for his right hand to try to disentangle it off his face, so she can try to capture it in both her hands. They tremble to hold him. Twice, twice she almost lost him tonight, and she suffers not to let him go.

"I'm scared of you DYING!" Jane answers fiercely. "You /stupid/ piece of — I'm not afraid of you! How could I ever be?! That's not what you fucking are, it's not your fucking best, and you're so dumb you think that —"

Now there are tears on her face, and she can't make them stop. "I'm scared of losing you because I love you!"

She clings on so tenaciously tight that even he feels it. The tiny prickle of pain surprises him, and he looks around. The terrified pallor of her face stops him, and with a thinning of his mouth he halts and turns back to face her.

This is her worst fear, isn't it? Being left? What a monster he is…

Yet he doesn't know what else to do. She has just said something he cannot countenance or face, cannot even respond to without needing time alone to just process it. He desperately wants to leave, to get space, to clear his head, but she won't let him, and it reaches a point his temper breaks—

He has been so gentle with her, ever since he shook off his shackles and freed himself from his brainwashing, that it is almost surreal to see him angry and chaotic again. Surreal to hear him raise his voice. He rages at her: he scares her. He SCARES her. How can he stay when he frightens her?

Dumbfounded enough to be foolhardily brave, she grits her jaw and steps straight up into the teeth of his anger. She realizes how he's misinterpreting her. And she means to set him straight.

It's his turn to be dumbfounded as she loses her temper in turn. She reaches up to pull his hand from his face, to take it in both of hers, even as she clarifies: she was scared of him DYING. Not scared of HIM. And he's stupid if he thinks that's all he is, that's the best he can offer, how dumb IS he—

—she's afraid of losing him because she loves him.

He looks down at their joined hands. "Well," he eventually gets out, sounding as if he's been punched. "Well. Then don't scare me by saying I scare the shit out of you. I've heard that far too many times in the context that is not positive. Never wanted to hear it yet another time, from you."

There is a period of silence, wherein the empty space where an answer for her declaration stretches on.

"I hope there is enough left of me for it to be worth it," he whispers.

His temper breaks, but it does not scare Jane away.

It is no stand of strength or test of courage that plants her to the spot, standing still, mirroring James's snarled words and tempetuous movement against her brown irises. It is faith — beyond faith, trust — what roots Jane. She has nothing to fear from him. Why would he ever hurt her?

He is the reason she survived HYDRA. He is the reason she held herself together, and fought their breaking, and kept her very mind: he was her single point of safety in a living Hell. Even in the drugged out, still-unsorted, faint memories of her captivity, Jane only ever remembers James holding her. Touching her with gentle hands. Making sure no one hurt her inside his presence.

It enrages her how possibly wrong he can be. How he can misinpret her words to conceive of an idea so untrue, so egregious, so wrong —

— that she braves his anger, Daniel in the lions' den, stepping forward with such fierce testament that none of James Barnes's terrifying fury will or shall ever touch her. Jane comes in so close to take his hand and cradle it shut between both of hers.

The words fall out of her. Impulsive, reckless, never thinking, and just like her father, Erik Selvig would say: always like her father. She raves and snarls back and calls him names, because how can one man be so wrong about so many things, Jane does not know, and if she has to fight James for his own self-worth, so be it.

So desperate for him to BELIEVE her, to not run away, to not leave her behind on some belief that could never be true, Jane hears herself blurt three words. Three words she has not told to anyone in a long, long time. They come too soon, she knows, sooner than anyone would want to hear them, and they strip her raw, but still she finds she cannot regret.

Tears run down her cheeks. Jane's pleading eyes burn, gazing on, until James looks away, looks down at their hands. It breaks some of her anger, and so does her gaze avert, every bit of her stripped down, opened, exposed. Never has she looked so vulnerable, and yet she makes no effort to hide. No fear of him, not even to see her like this.

His chide for her not to say those words strains her turned eyes. Not to say that he scares her. "I didn't —" she answers, though her excuse sounds feeble. Jane's voice softens. "I'm sorry."

The silence that follows her fevered, reckless three words hangs on and on. And then James's whisper. As if there is only one piece of him, one scrap, worthy of love.

Jane tilts up her head to find his eyes. "I love all of you."

It is no trivial thing to face up to the Winter Soldier when his temper is up. It would have been easier to face Bucky Barnes, or even Sergeant James Barnes: the former was little more than a charming, callow youth, the latter a man hardened by war but still a relatable young man.

But James as he is now, as the Winter Soldier… is something else entirely. He is a man whose every line is written in lethality and blood. It is transparent from his haunted eyes and hard-edged presence that he has killed more times that can be counted— seen and wrought more chaos and atrocity than he can even recall.

This is a man whose demeanor states that at all costs he must not be provoked or made angry. But now that he is… even then, Jane holds firm. She trusts— has perfect faith— that none of that lethality will ever touch her.

It doesn't. Stronger than his bleak history as the Winter Soldier is the grain of truth at the heart of him: he is a gentle man, a good one, and that core nature managed to find expression to care for and protect her even when they were both locked deep in the grip of Hydra's captivity.

So his anger is evanescent. It fades even as Jane angrily rants right back at him, fighting his own self-loathing.

It is not her arguments that stop him, though, nor her impugnments of his intelligence or her raging raised voice. It's those three words she says. Three words that make him look touched and stricken and frightened and hopeful, all in one fleeting moment.

His gaze settles, eventually, on apprehension. "Don't apologize," he says tiredly, when she says she's sorry for saying he scared her. "I shouldn't be sensitive about that to begin with. Probably going to get a lot more of that."

Apprehension devolves, slowly, into fear. He hopes there is enough of James Barnes left to even be worth love. And Jane looks up and says she loves all of him.

His eyes are sad and tired as they turn to her. "The parts of me that killed children? The parts of me that killed parents while their children cried and watched?"

At the heart of him, James Barnes is a gentle, good man. And at the heart of her, Jane Foster is a scientist. She gathers her evidence from the world and tests her hypotheses, then makes her conclusions.

He has given her no evidence to fear him. No evidence, despite the brief, vivid magnitude of his fury, that he would ever hurt her. Even witnessing him lost in his programming, serving his false memories and heeding the commands of his masters, Jane remembers the Winter Soldier nothing but careful and patient with her.

In the same night he held a gun to her head, she spoke to him as if he were a man and he responded. The only time the Soldier even came close to hurting her, hurting her truly, was through that cursory threat to Erik Selvig. And even then, Jane does not forget, even banded with the pains of his recent torture, he still apologized. He showed regret, remorse.

Despite all his fears, and his terrified misinterpretation of her words, Jane cannot even find it in her to be afraid of him. She's afraid of so many things in this world, especially in these last two months — but not him.

For that reason she hangs on to his hand so tenaciously. Jane, who has been the staunch supporter of James's freedoms, his rights, his choices, imposes for the first time against them. She doesn't want to hold him anywhere against his will, but she can't — she can't — she /cannot/ — let him leave thinking such a falsity.

Reckless words fall out of her in Jane's panic, words even she knows not to say so quickly even if she feels them — words to try to make him stay.

Her eyes watch the play of emotion across his face, trying to parse them in all her own vulnerability. Jane thinks she catches some, others she isn't sure, and ends up glancing down, feeling the unmistakable urge to apologize for it all. She apologizes, at least, for saying that he scared her. Though he refuses even to accept it as her doing anything wrong.

"I say things without thinking," Jane admits the obvious, and guiltily so. "All the time. It's OK to be sensitive. I'll try to help, so long as you tell me if I said or did something. Just please believe me. I've never been afraid of you."

On the contrary, she says she loves him. All his parts, all his pieces.

His reply takes one of her hands off his, so Jane can reach one gentle hand to James's face. Her eyes are sad too, sad that all that happened, sad that he thinks this way. "The parts of you that cares so much you're trying to answer for sins that aren't even yours."

He is a confused and ill-fitting jumble of four men in one body. He is Bucky Barnes, a jaunty, great-hearted, callow youth with a soft spot for the underdog and a moral character beyond reproach; Sergeant James Barnes, a war-hardened young man of depthless loyalty and unflinching valor; the Winter Soldier, a nightmare, a cipher, a killer that wrote the shape of the twentieth century in chaos and blood, while countries struggled in vain to even gather evidence enough to believe his existence; and… whoever he is now.

Whatever of him is left to try to reconcile, after those other three personas have all made use of his body, his mind, his spirit.

He does not know who that man is yet. Sometimes he's someone almost like he used to be in childhood, or in wartime, and he feels almost like himself again… but sometimes he, whether by accident or necessity, finds himself inhabiting the Winter Soldier again with more fluency that he feels comfortable having. Wearing, once again, that mantle much more easily than he ever wanted to be able to re-wear it.

In between there is always this confused state of mind, this limbo of a mindset where he questions himself, backslides on determinations he had made on his previous go-around in this state, has to once again work through problems and issues and nightmares he had thought he had long since settled for good. It is a frustrating way to be, he knows, and he also knows that it is likely how he will be for some time.

He keeps convincing himself it's okay to be happy, that nothing is his fault, that Steve will never look at him with disgust in his eyes, but then he threatens to kill someone's children and it all comes crashing back.

He is surprised Jane is not already tired of it all. But here she is, clutching onto his hand, holding him with her, apologizing to him. For speaking withut thinking. Telling him that it's all right to not want her to say certain things, she just has to know what. Telling him that she's not afraid of him— that she loves every part of him.

He asks her a question he has likely asked before, but whose answer he has lost the certitude to believe. And she answers the same way she did the previous time, no doubt: she loves the part of him that is such a decent man that he is punishing himself for sins that are not his own.

James pulls his hand from hers and walks away from her, but not to the door. He goes to the couch and sits dazedly, dropping his face into his hands, his fingers pushing into his hair. "They aren't mine," he says, as if trying to convince himself. "They aren't mine." He exhales a heavy breath, and his voice is tellingly rough when he says, "I wish my memories weren't all written as if they were."

In his memories, he views from the lens of the perpetrator; in nightmares, he experiences everything he ever did as his own.

When he pulls away, this time she does not try to keep him. Jane lets go, and watches with her dark, searching eyes as James walks away. Even if his aim were still to head to the door, she knows she wouldn't try to stop him, not wanting to barrier his steps or guilt him back into some other unwanted set of bindings. Instead, and a bit to her surprise, he retreats to her couch — to their couch, as she thinks it now.

She looks helplessly after him, still standing in place, looking tiny in every way. For a woman gifted with her intelligence, even she has her moments left looking painfully lost, doubtful of every word she's told him, of every action she's made, and whether or not it's ever helped or simply made worse. Her empty hands twine together, fidgetting, pulling on the hems of her sleeves.

Jane's attention sharpens only at the disant, broken drag of James's voice, and those bleak, battered words that fall out of him. Every one of them twists her heart. She wishes too. She wishes this more than anything. But wishes are meaningless, she's known a long time, since a long, drunken night long ago she wished her stupid stars for her dead father to be alive again. Things just aren't meant to be so easy.

She hangs there in place, reticent to approach, but afraid to retreat. She's not sure if he wants her nearby, or wants his own space. If it were her, she wouldn't want to be alone, but, as Jane knows well, she's a stupid girl with abandonment issues, and doesn't know the first thing about what James Barnes has gone through. All she knows is she doesn't want to leave him alone like this, not in this way, this state of mind.

Jane comes closer on very soft, careful steps. He can hear them, hear her, with his extrasensory ease, but he can also hear the deliberate care she takes not to want to disturb him. She stops only to linger at the arm of the couch, giving him some space from her hovering, her empty hands slack at her sides. In her eyes is hesitation and hope, that patience of hers, and a constant, running current of grief, the sadness of so badly wanting to /do/ something to help and finding herself helpless.

"There's a way to get past this," Jane speaks, her voice so quiet. "Even if you don't know it. Doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and it's not out there. There's a way for everything." She looks down at her feet and up again. "You're not alone. We're all here for you. If there's anything you need me to do. I'll do anything for you."

There comes a point, in the midst of his own misery, where James notices that Jane isn't coming to him. She's standing where he left her, timidly still and silent, looking tiny and miserable and helpless. Her hands twine together, fidgeting nervously, pulling at the sleeves of her shirt.

It hurts to see her this way because of him.

He lifts his face out of his hands and, very visibly, pulls himself together. The anguish and confusion and pain are pushed down, forced beneath a veneer of strength and calm, and his shoulders square up as he reaches up and tries to take her wrist to draw her close. Out of her hesitant hovering, and to his side.

"Poor doll," he sighs. "I told you there were easier men to be with than me."

His hand tries to tangle with hers. The gesture contrasts sharply with his next words: "There is a way past it, but I'm gonna understand if it's too much for you."

He winces. "I won't ask you to do 'anything,' for me. Just what makes sense for you to do."

In the end Jane does come to James Barnes, but still, at the last step, she lingers at the wings of his personal space, uncertain whether to disturb it. It is not fear that holds her, but simply indecision that holds her after her last, ill-chosen words — the worry that she may misstep again. Misstep at a moment he looks so devastatingly vulnerable.

It's enough a pause that he notices. And he assigns fault for it too, blaming himself, pulling himself together, and though it looks superficially like a man recovering his strength, Jane feels no relief. She sees the action for what it is; he's girding himself for her sake. She made a mistake. She needs to /fix/ this.

She doesn't fight his grasp on her wrist, and comes tamely close. For a moment, Jane simply stands before James Barnes, seated on the couch, their heights even in this position still close to matched. Her eyes find his, apologetic, sad. "I picked you. Stop trying to tell me I chose wrong. I didn't."

His hand tangles with hers, and she moves to join him, sitting down at his side. Her fingers squeeze back, strong, determined, hanging on when James admits understanding when Jane would leave him for the difficult case he is. "It's not too much," she counters. "I want to be here for you. I want to help you." After a brief pause, Jane looks up. "I hope I do help. I did ask you to do this. I asked you to show me everything, and it's not too much. I'm not afraid. I guess I just worry in case I'm doing the right thing for you."

Something in his eyes squeezes hers. Jane exhales out a decisive breath. And then she shifts, shifts back and away from him, almost as if she's made the choice to leave his side, but then she's tugging on their joined hands, and reaching out with the free one to try to snag his opposite shoulder. "C'mon," she orders. He's always so stoic, always in control, but she's refusing argument, insistent to pull him along with her. She curls back into the couch, braced against its back, pulling in her legs, and tries to draw James with and down to make a pillow of her, to lay his head to the soft give of her lower belly.

"It makes sense to try," she says, her voice mantling him. "Keep trying. Whatever that way is, I'm going to do it with you. I wish I knew… I'm so used to having answers for everything. I'll find yours with you. Do you want me to tell you why I picked you?"

As always, James Barnes blames himself.

Her hesitation and helpless unhappiness break him. He angrily shakes away his weakness, visibly steeling himself with a deep inhale and a scrub of his hands over his face, and his shoulders square as he sits up straight. His expression visibly pulls itself together from its scattered misery, sealing back into a calm facade of strength. In his time, men were expected to be strong.

He even smiles, though it is a brittle expression.

Reaching out, he takes her wrist to pull her closer. She comes docilely, slight and small and sad, though when she speaks what she has to say is anything but fragile. Stop trying to tell her she chose wrong, because she didn't. "Yes," he says, his voice dry. "I've noticed it's hard to argue with you. Especially about that."

He glances sidelong at her when she sits beside him. His expression is pensive as she insists that it's not too much, because she wants to help him. Hopes she does help him. He laughs at that, the sound disbelieving that she could think she doesn't. "I don't know where I would be right now if not for you," he confesses.

His hand tightens on hers. "I think I would be running," he muses. "Running from everyone. Running from Steve, especially, because I wouldn't be able to face him. Wouldn't be able to stand the possibility of seeing any disappointment in his eyes. I would be alone and in hiding." His eyes gleam briefly. "And I would still be mostly the Winter Soldier. I wouldn't know how or what to do with myself except continue to kill, except this time it would be Hydra, and I would kill them until eventually they killed me."

He shakes his head. "You shouldn't worry if you're doing the 'right thing.' There is no right or wrong thing. You couldn't do any 'wrong' thing."

He hesitates when she moves suddenly. He lets her hand go immediately in case she wants to leave him, but she doesn't do anything of the sort. She just turns and reaches to tug him down into her lap. He leans down slowly and hesitantly, settling more because she wants him to and less because it's what he actually wants to do, though once he's pillowed on her he relaxes.

Does he want her to tell him why she picked him?

"I am curious what kept you interested after the whole gunpoint hostage thing," he remarks dryly.

It's the laugh that draws Jane's eyes, its rough, quiet sound still enough to drive its nail through her attention. She looks up, surprised, but not offended, perhaps not even expecting even so much demonstrative energy out of James Barnes enough for humourless levity. He laughs away her words because they are incomprensible to him.

And then he tells her why. His hand tightens to mark his words, and sensitized to even that small touch, her smaller fingers curl in, folding down, wanting to grip back. Words like these, numerous as they are revealing, are so rare from him, a man usually so reserved of feeling and concise of expression. Jane listens all the more for how precious it is, like a drink down to the heart of him, where he tells her truthfully her importance and place in his life.

He speaks only knowing what it would be like without her. A different life, cold and lonely and marked with fear and distrust. Fear of how the world would see his nature. Distrust of that same nature waiting inside him. He would dress himself in the suit only familiar to him, the Soldier, and let it be the shroud to bury himself.

Jane sits in quiet thought, trying to comprehend this: comprehend how she could have such an effect on someone. She'd never considered she would. She always felt like an outlier to this world, and the people in it: a transient soul forced to wander because it has so far to go.

She makes a decision, and pulls away. He lets her go, thinking only of giving her freedom — perhaps freedom to leave, freedom to leave him — but Jane does nothing of the sort. Inside she shifts to curl against the back of the couch, her legs pulled up, and with encouraging words and insistent hands, encourages James to recline and pillow into the yielding curve of her body, and lay his head on the softest part of her.

It's a position not common to him — one that speaks to his passivity and his decision to yield for comfort — not as a man born decades ago, not as a Winter Soldier, and he eases down dubiously, hesitantly. Jane remains patient but determined. She settles him, and small as she is, in these moments she's the one mantling him overhead, surrounding him on all sides, and looking down with her dark eyes. They offer no judgment to look on him this way; the smile lingering at her mouth promises him his privacy.

He's been the strong one for so long. The austere one, the resolute one — the crumbling artifice he walls up to hide the storms of his thoughts. So Jane supports him, even if it's just in her lap, in the curve of her body, in a wordless testament that she can brace and hold a man who cannot be strong forever.

He can feel her breathing into him, in and out, a slow, sopprific meter, rhymed with the way she lifts one hand and pets her fingers through his hair, slow, rhythmic strokes to bid him to relax. And with that, Jane speaks. "Well, the interest was a lot of things," she says, mouth quirked still from his quip. "All the many pieces of you I glimpsed at so many different times, and like a puzzle, I found I couldn't easily put together. But that first time you spoke of the stars, I wanted to know you."

She looks tenderly down on him. "Picking you, however, came of different things. It's not just that you were there for me every time I've needed someone — needed you. It's not just that you let me feel safe. It's that you try. You reach out, more than I've ever seen someone… even when you weren't you, I saw it from the start. You reaching. It made me… that's all I've ever done, to… to everything, and that's all I saw in you. I'm still learning who you are, and I love every bit of it so far, even the parts that make me mad, or crazy," her smile crooks, "or say jerky things. But I picked you because of your soul. Because I can see it, and I know it's real. It's a little lost, but so is mine, and that's OK. I know it, and I'm going to keep it safe."

His eyes are glassed with distance as he speaks, because he can very vividly picture the life he would be leading if he had no connections waiting to catch him out of the clutch of the Winter Soldier. He can picture days spent waiting in motel rooms, the dull hum of an unwatched television and all its foreign, twenty-first century media the only backdrop to his patient waiting— the only thing to mark the passing hours. His only company would be his weapons, his thoughts, and the journals in which he tried to record his life as fragments of recollection returned to him, piecemeal.

He can picture nights spent killing. Bodies everywhere. Human prey slaughtered at his hands, purposefully hunted of his own will and not because another hand guided him to it. Sometimes he dreams of it, even now, even in his current state when his waking hours are crowded with more friendship and offered hands than he deserves. He dreams of vengeance, of walking through all the facilities he has been in, finding all the faces he remembers seeing over the course of seventy years…

…and killing them. Tearing them apart. Burning them to ash.

It is not always nightmares of the atrocities he committed which wake him, panting, in the middle of the night. Sometimes it is these nightmare fantasies that do it, too, dreams that awaken him in his sheets to question what kind of man he has become, and whether he can ever reconcile that man with who he now remembers being before.

Jane grounds him. For many reasons, but one reason is certainly because she is proof. He has been with her for months and has not hurt her, and he thinks that means there might be something recoverable of himself. Something that can still do things other than kill. Something that can return to the purpose of protecting, and not destroying.

That is the reason he tells her she cannot do anything right or wrong. What she does is simply exist, showing him he is capable of being near someone without harming them. Of being wanted, even despite the state he is in.

She beckons him to lay down, and after a hesitant pause he obeys. It is not a position he is accustomed to, whether in his life as James Barnes or his life as the Winter Soldier, and he is palpably tense up until her hand settles in his hair. The steady stroke eases some of his tension. His body does not relax easily— it has been literally seventy-five years since the last time he was able to exist without his life being in some kind of immediate danger.

She starts to tell him why she chose him. He holds his silence throughout, not speaking until the end.

"I think I was always there in the background, even as the Winter Soldier," he says. "It just took seventy years for me to come back because until now, there was nothing to reach out to."

Something that reactivated the parts of him that were his absolute base nature: a protector.

She'll keep it safe, she says. He laughs quietly, eyes closing. "I trust that," he says. "You already have."

A few moments later, perhaps exhausted from the curse— perhaps just soothed— he seems to be asleep. It is not an insignificant thing: like a wild animal, being vulnerable in this way is perhaps the highest expression of trust he can now make around another human being.

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