Calcination

April 11, 2017:

Bucky and Jane travel to Virginia for the anniversary of her father's death. Jane convinces Bucky to search out his own remaining family afterwards. Finding his little sister to now be an old woman wracked with dementia and barely able to recognize him, Bucky gets real mad at the people who robbed him of his life — with predictable results. Jane insists to help.

Alexandria, Virginia

Characters

NPCs: Many

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Bucky insisted on driving for a good portion of their trip down to Virginia, and— despite some heckling on Jane's part— his reasoning was not just because he was a man and she was a woman.

He was mechanically good at it, surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, given the updated training he was given every time he was taken out of freeze), but there were aspects of driving that no dry Hydra info dump could impart. How people handled their cars these days, both in a vacuum and in relation to one another; how the highways were laid out in the modern day; how dense the traffic could get during rush hour in the Northeast Corridor, compared to seventy years ago.

They're somewhere in NOVA right now, so the answer is: really goddamned dense. That part Jane told him right up front.

As such, their travel plan included an overnight stop in a motel in Manassas. After a long day of driving even he was a bit visibly tired— and, unusually enough, a little bit withdrawn. He had been normal for her at her father's grave, on the anniversary of his death, normal and quietly supportive, but… ever since finding his little sister yesterday— now a frail nonagenarian in the early stages of dementia, barely able to understand her elder brother returned to her, young and unchanged— he's grown subdued.

His silences tonight have harsh edges. It doesn't take a genius to deduce it might be the result of mounting anger. Anger spurred by seeing, in the form of his sister— wasted and small after living a long life which he has missed in its entirety— physical proof of how much the Soviets and Hydra have stolen from him.

He is quiet up until they get into their room and put down their things. The silence stretches on, until he breaks it.

"It was good to see her," he says, the unspoken 'for given values of good' loud in the silence. He looks aimlessly out the window, transparently thinking, before he seems to commit to something.

"I want to make a few calls," he says, looking down, opening the case that emphatically does not contain the regular paraphernalia of travel, and turning up one of his many burner phones. "While we're here."

Jane lets James Barnes have his silences.

She neither pushes nor questions them at length; she does not force him into a state of mind she knows he does not feel. Because she knows what it is; she may not be acquainted with the shapes and colours and textures of what exactly James is feeling — she doubts anyone could know how it feels to be a man lost seventy years out of time and to find the memory of his little sister now an old woman, her mind trading places between now and the past — but Jane knows grief.

She also knows well of the anger inherent in grief.

So she allows him his. This past day is marked in her patience; she tries her best not to hover and she works even harder not to let him retreat. She tries to stay nearby, a proximal reminder he needs not endure this alone, and when his silences linger too long — too taut — she sometimes covers his nearest hand on the wheel with hers. Or she fills the car with her soft voice, and she tells James stories. Stories about her life, about Virginia, or even about the stars hanging in the sky.

The spring stars hang still overhead even as they make an overnight rest stop at a motel.

Jane keeps herself busy for the both of them. She moves all along James's periphery, occupying herself with the little things so that he does not have to.

As he stands quiet, staring out the window, she paces through the tiny interior of the motel room, unpacking, folding and unfolding clothes, making pains to transfer his formal suit to wooden hangers to keep pleats from the fabric. In her own moment of silence, Jane lets her fingers stray to one of the jacket's lapels, and her thumb traces its tailored crease. It's been years since she's touched or taken care of a man's suit, and it takes her back into memories of her own.

His voice fills the room and breaks her reverie. More than happy to hear James speak again, Jane encourages it with her turned head and full attention. Talk of his sister creases her eyes in quiet assent, but she says nothing. Nothing until he does some unpacking of his own.

She recognizes /that/ case. Recognizes one of the phones he takes in hand. Recognizes immediately what James Barnes means when he says he wants to make a few calls.

It comes so suddenly, this change in mood, but Jane forces herself into ready adaptation. She forgets the suit, the clothes, the attempt of normal domesticity, and watches him. She knows what he means to do. He's going on the hunt, just as he has a half-dozen times this past month. He makes his calls, he cleans his equipment, he disappears and tells her where to look. He returns smelling of fire and death.

It would be reflex tonight for Jane to do the same. Let him make his calls. Let him go. Let him expunge his anger with more blood. Deserved blood.

Not even she is sure what about this strikes discordant. Perhaps so soon from visiting her father's grave; perhaps what she feels is different now, a revenge she gleans is not so much for himself but on behalf of his sister, lived too far long without her older brother. Perhaps it is just that they are no longer in New York; this is Virginia, her home, her turf. Perhaps it's his anger, this one far different from the rest, and she cannot bide the thought of letting him go alone.

"I want to help," Jane says.

It is certainly a mixture of anger and grief driving him in these moments. For the life taken from him. For the sister forced to grow up without her brother. For the grief she and their parents had to carry, all their lives, along with the service flag with its two gold stars for two dead sons.

The first of that flag's blue stars was changed out for a gold one when the letter for Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes came. The other was changed when the letter for Captain Steven Grant Rogers came— the Barnes family would not accept the news until it came to them with Steve's name on it, rather than over the air waves cloaked in the fame of Captain America.

In one of her few moments of lucidity, Rebecca had told James that that service flag was buried with their mother.

Perhaps it was that last small detail that pushed James over the edge, only held back from straying even farther afield by the periodic touch of Jane's hand on his. The occasional story told about the stars in the sky and the years of her life here in Virginia. He is gentle with his responses, especially to the latter, but he is silent in between them, and transparently thinking.

That pensive attitude persists even as they stop for the night, leaving him to stand at the window in uncharacteristic unhelpfulness as Jane quietly unpacks them and lays out his suit over hangers to keep it neat. It has been years since she's had to take care of one, and it's similarly been years since James had to wear one for a function that would not end, somehow and some way, in death. Both of them found their eyes glossing with memory over so small a thing.

His memories are darker, and tell him how to do what he wishes to do next.

He finally breaks his silence, after a time, to insinuate to Jane what that thing is. He is better, these days, about giving her the honesty she wants, though still not perfect: much is left to her inference, though knowing him as she does it's not a hard inference to make. She knows full well what he carries in that case, knows full well what that phone is typically used for, knows full well what he typically does when he gets into these moods.

This time, she says she wants to help.

He pauses. He glances over his shoulder, one blue eye considering her. He looks ready to deny her, to close off and shut her out. But maybe there's something different about the way she's looking at him, or maybe something about them sharing in one another's families has opened him up, or maybe he's just finally learning to listen when she speaks to say things she's been saying over and over again. Whatever the reason, whatever denial he was going to automatically make dies out of his throat. He looks in silence at her a moment more.

"I suppose there's probably ways you could make it easier on me," he finally allows. "We'll see what I get before we figure out how you help."

Jane Foster is the sort of mind who knows far more than she lets on.

She infers from the miles of distance in his eyes. She hypothesizes from one opening of that particular case. She thinks largely in variables and outcomes, and the function of this sort of mood dressing James Barnes's face, one of his countless burner phones in hand, leads only to one conclusion. She knows what he means to do, and she can even go as far as to extrapolate pages of details how he means to do it.

She also knows intimately well that look on his face when she tells him she wants to help.

It's something Jane has never felt bold enough to ask before. A part of his life that made her feel not a trespasser to walk, but a tourist — someone new to a foreign land whose cities are alien and whose language she has no fluency. She's thought often about wanting to join James here — in those dark trenches dug down into his soul — but her own hesitation and knowledge of his denial has stopped her tongue countless times. It was as John told her; let a man have his secrets. Appreciate what keys he has given her for his many locks.

Perhaps for that reason Jane's single demand is so sparse and succinct. She could barrage him with what's she's already figured out; she could burden him with the details she's predicted and how she knows her own hands could help. She could aggravate him with what she truly wants to say: give him a list of reasons why, this time, she wants to join him. Needs to join him.

But she holds her hand close. She says her four words and holds still for the inspection of his blue eyes. Jane's face is neutral, and most importantly, patient, though James's sharp, surgical examination can find hidden notes of her familiar stubbornness troubling her eyebrows and the line of her jaw. She knows she is in a position she can argue him, but more importantly, she wants this to be his decision. It is his life and his secrets, however much her life has been interwoven into them, and she wants him to have all the power in allowing her closer.

She holds his eyes as he makes his decision.

He concedes. It is not surprise Jane feels to that admission: only relief. She feels a knot let go deep in her belly.

Jane crosses the room in a few steps and comes so close she has to tilt back her head to still hold James's eyes. Hers do that thing they always do: reaching out so immediately and effortlessly, her entire heart borne in one look. She lifts one hand to touch his jaw, and her opening thumb runs the line of his cheekbone. "I can do better than 'probably'," she corrects. Her eyes soften with something. Not a thank-you, not for something like this — but close. "All right. I'll get ready."

I can do better than probably, she says.

He laughs a little at that, leaning briefly into the touch of her hand, before pulling away. "Of course," he says, but though his mouth is smiling, his gaze is weighted and faraway. She would know that look intimately well: the wince of a man who knows well how bloody his hands are, and is infinitely reluctant to have that blood spread to the hands of those he considers much purer than himself. Least of all the woman for whom he cares.

It is an argument they have had time and again. Jane's insistence she has a right to vengeance against her tormentors just as he does, warring against his resistance against feeling responsible for making her… lesser. More brutish and violent than she was before he crossed her path and drew her down into the filth of his murderous life. It's only recently that he's even begun to cave, because he has slowly begun to recognize that whatever change he did not want for her has already happened and cannot be rolled back… and that it is hypocritical of him to expect her to let him continue to exact revenge while blocking her from doing the same.

Such it is that eventually, that reluctant look fully leaves his eyes, and he turns away his considering blue gaze. She says she'll get ready. "Most important is to get some rest," he says. "It'll be a long couple days, and probably with a lot of thinking fast."

He sits himself down at the small desk, laying his case flat on its surface. Another phone is taken out to join the first. He checks the first phone, then dials a number from memory and waits. The phone rings at least four times before he starts to speak, and when he does it isn't in English. His voice drones on quietly in fluent German, lifting periodically in inquiry, flattening out towards the end in assertive demand.

He picks up a pen, paws over a pad of paper, and writes down another number, along with something that looks like a name, in his even cursive. There is an interchange of farewells, and then he hangs up.

He gives it a few minutes, turning the paper over and over in his left hand, before he picks up the second phone and dials the number. This time he speaks in clear, precise Russian, easily forming the complex syllables of his forcibly-adopted, second native language. He speaks for a much longer time, establishing a false identity, then fishing for information, carefully navigating the many gatekeepers that keep Hydra able to function as a coherent whole even in its splinter cell state.

After a time, he hangs up. He's written down a few more things on his pad. Names, numbers. An address.

"Congratulations," he finally says. His voice is a little rough as it transitions languages, the syllables of English a little stiff in his throat after so much Russian. A wry smile pulls the corner of his mouth. "We are now what passes for Hydra 'personnel management,' and we will be expected at their Alexandria recruitment facility tomorrow. I told them we're there to pick out their best for assignment as deep cover agents."

He peruses the address, then— in lieu of just looking it up on Google— pulls out a bunch of actual physical maps, paging through until he finds the one for Alexandria. "Use the time to come up with a fake name you like," he says absently. "They haven't asked yet. Won't ask until face-to-face. That's how they work."

Getting ready, Jane finds, is more an internal process than anything.

The relief at James Barnes's consent comes and goes too fast. In its place come a myriad of emotions: apprehension, excitement, and a cold, preparatory sort of hollowness. The latter feeling comes strange and nearly indescribable to her, yet Jane thinks she knows why. She took ballet for a time in her younger years, and left only when the pains of performance started to become too much: she learned dancers, girls her age, soaked their feet in alcohol before dancing to numb the pain.

She figures her body is doing the same. Pickling her soul to numb it against what is yet to come. Because while Jane ran too cowardly from pain once before, this she refuses to do the same. What makes her feel lesser now is to be the sort of person to turn from the sort of vengeance which she is due — and to ignore a sense of duty she bears now not to have others share her nightmares.

For now, he tells her to rest, and Jane quietly assents. She retreats with one final, parting brush of her thumb along the bone of James's chin, then leaves him to his work. As he makes his phone calls, and speaks fluently in languages far lost on her, she sees to their life diligently in the background, sorting the rest of their things before retiring to the motel's only bed. She does not sleep — cannot find herself able to, not with the running thoughts in her head, not with the novel and fascinating timbre of James's voice changed into foreign Russian.

Instead, she opens her laptop and begins work of her own sort.

Time passes between his calls. Her fingers type keys in Jane's own white noise. It only pauses — stops — when James speaks English again for the first time in so many minutes, and she turns a glance over her shoulder. The old springs on the bed creak even under her little weight, her tiny body strewn there over the covered mattress, dark hair spread over the pillow, her laptop nudged up against her hip. The woman he plans to make his accomplice in a march into Hell.

Use the time to come up with a fake name, he says. That detail, among so many, is the one that raises Jane's eyebrows. It's so little a task, but it's hers. Already her mind races with the seeds of ideas as she listens to the rest of James's instructions. "I will."

She closes her laptop, sitting up only to hand it over to him. "Here. I've compiled you a list of, well, ideas. My kind of ideas. Things I can build. Things I can program. Most of my stuff isn't here, but — I brought some work with me. The rest I can assemble within a day. Any ideas you might have, add them."

Laying her head back down, dark eyes turned on James, Jane considers again his words. "Personnel management," she recites belatedly, with all the quiet amusement that should not belong and yet, in this moment, she finds she sorely needs. "Damn, James. Under an hour and you've already given us a promotion."

The next day goes by too slowly for Jane Foster. Too slowly and yet barely at all.

In that same motel room, she gazes into the mirror and finishes the end touches on her make-up, checking again her dark hair she's styled immaculately into a tight bun. Jane looks into her own face, hers and yet not, so unlike the one she wears every day, that woman with her let-down hair and gentle eyes and smiling mouth. Practiced austerity, what she's been trying to coach herself to wear the last few hours, holds tight her features.

She slips on her best dress, thin and form-fitting and a professional black, though either the low catch of the zipper or her own nervous-trembling hands has her unable to close it up over the bones of her back.

James gives her a long, searching sort of look in the wake of his consent to her help. He can recognize the emotions as they come and go on her features, and he can certainly recognize the cold, hollow numbness that eventually overtakes all the rest.

It is a reflection of resolution, to be sure. Resolution not to let what happened to them happen to anyone else. Resolution that she should engage the vengeance to which she is due. Resolution not to run from pain or fear, as she once did. But, he knows, it is also a reflection of a certain deadening of spirit. You cannot set out on something that will result in death, no matter how deserved, without first acquiring a certain emptiness of mind.

"If you intend to join me in this," he eventually says, an incline of his head at her indicating all her barrenness of emotionality, "you'll find yourself getting well-acquainted with that feeling."

It sounds like a warning, in a way. But he doesn't elaborate further. He just entreats rest, and turns away to make his calls.

They are not, either of them, in English. One is conducted in German, the other in Russian. Both languages are spoken fluently, with little to betray that neither is his mother tongue. Russian, in particular, he handles like a second native language, smoothly enough that he need not focus unduly on the forming of the words, and can instead put emphasis on believably acting out whatever persona he has assumed, moving between imperiousness to outrage to questioning before settling on cool, polite demand.

He hangs up, eventually, turning and reverting back to English to relate his results. He gives her a task— a small one, for now— and in return she hands him her laptop. He takes it, blue eyes studying her list in thoughtful silence. "I'll think on it," he says. "I know I got a couple things I'm curious if you can make."

He huffs a laugh as she remarks on their new job description. "If I'm gonna be in Hydra again," he says, "might as well be someone reasonably important. I don't feel like skulking in this time."

The remainder of the day, and the next day, he spends in preparing his weapons and coaching on their cover identities. He instructs Jane quietly on how to behave, what names to drop, what to say and who to pretend to be related to. He's given her an old blood backstory. Fewer questions asked. "Your grandfather was a friend of Johann Schmidt," he says, with a twisted and brief grin. "An SS officer who followed him to his new branch, when he created it. Hail Hydra. You can fill in small details as you please.

"Though," he observes, a morbid flicker coming and going in his gaze, "the story only really needs to last long enough to get us down to the actual facility."

He draws up behind her, zipping up her dress for her. He studies her hairstyle, her makeup, the cut of her dress, then nods. "Looks good. Me, I'm not so esteemed, so I don't need to look so good. I was a former deep cover agent myself until I had to bug out because of the mess in New York, so I'm there to know which candidates to pick out to begin with. I'm there as your assistance." A pause. "And your protection."

True to his word, he's dressed more casually in a blazer and dress shirt, though still sharply enough he won't look out of place beside her. Assuredly he's packing, but it's hard to tell exactly where just from a glance.

"It'll be an hour or two, driving," he says, stepping away from behind her, gathering their things to take out to the car. "They'll be expecting us. The trick will be how long we can be who they think we're supposed to be. When one cell has an issue, they typically issue a call out so other cells know what happened. Cut one head, two more, so on and so forth."

He slants a glance at her. "I'd usually be multitasking stopping that process with clearing the floor, but it'll be a help if you do it for me. I prefer not to multitask when clearing the floor." It is quite obvious what that is a euphemism for.

That warning by James Barnes is one Jane will carry for years to come. She knows the moment she hears it off his lips.

It stays on her mind as she retires to bed and begins work on her laptop. It chases her doggedly over the next twenty-four hours, run down the highways of her thoughts, and it reflects back at Jane at every chance she catches her reflection — sees her own face staring back. In it is that warning, that question, that dual state within she exists these perilous hours. It is her face but not, Jane Foster lost to her own quantum state. The woman she has faithfully been the past thirty years, a woman she knows intimately down to the soul, and now a second woman overlain her.

She tries to imagine her own face with that emptiness of mind, of emotion, of spirit.

It is that expression Jane practices now, her face painted with make-up and framed by the elegant knot in her hair. Facing the full-length motel mirror, she looks passingly, deeply, into her own brown eyes, either searching them silently for something, or simply to bid a shine of something else in them good-bye.

James's careful hands close her dress, and Jane leaves her reflection behind to face him. Her head tipped back, all her features on display to his inspection, she is both achingly familiar and yet not — the peculiar creature he has come to know hidden under so many tailored cuts and long, graceful lines. She was always lovely, and hers is a chaotic, expressive sort, with her wrinkled button-downs and windblown hair and spontaneous, starflare smiles peeking down glimpses of her soul. The truth is her face seems to have been made for this restraint and delicacy; she is beautiful this way, pale and ornate, something meant to be looked at and never touched, met with the hollowness of her expression and the mirrors pretending life behind her eyes.

Perhaps, in another life, this glimpse could have been Jane Foster. Perhaps if Hydra found her sooner, kept her, cleaned her out of everything save this docility.

The only sign that Jane is here, the one he knows, is in the slight softening of her eyes when James gives his approval. Gratitude and relief. She listens carefully as he speaks, her face heavy with all the information he has allotted her the past day — names, companies, orders, legacies, she remembers it all — and similarly absorbs his own cover identity. "The assistant and bodyguard to Rhea Syrma," she announces in a low, hushed voice, reaching up to tame back a long piece of his dark hair. "I hope that name sounds all right. Don't ask how I thought it up."

That tugs a brief curve to her mouth, though Jane removes it just as quickly before it graduates into a smile. Her focus is already on. Focus to lose herself, however briefly, of all that is Jane Foster, a woman who would be nervously laughing even now, and unable to hide the disgust at carrying an artifice that holds ties to a monster like Johann Schmidt. It feels like a taint on her grandfather's — and grandmother's — graves to say the things she knows she must, and the only way to cull the feeling is to be someone new. Wear her skin, wear her sins.

Clearing the floor, he says. Jane knows well what those words mean. She just tries not to think too much of them. "I can do that," she promises, her schooled voice affecting someone else unable to entirely clot the bleed of her promise. She means every promise. "We'll need to make one stop beforehand for half of my plan. For the other… which would be targetting anything wireless with a direct satellite uplink — I have an idea. But you'll have to watch my back. I'll be working against time."

She lifts a hand to smooth his lapel. "So try to give me a clear space to work." She pauses, and her eyes pinch with something both strained and wry. "And don't do something that'll make me worry about you."

He sees to their things. After a vigilant appraisal that James hasn't forgotten any of her laptop, her tools, her supplies, and most strangely, her safety equipment bought for the use of handling and working with high-voltage power lines, Jane smoothes her hands down her dress, takes a deep breath, and follows.

The two-hour car ride brings them to a sprawling, colonial mansion centerpieced among the private roads and manicured lawns of Alexandria's Old Town. At night its blossomed trees stud with a starfield of white lights, and the front reception of the manor gilts with all the fanfare of some idle rich's luxurious party.

It is and it is not: that is how Hydra operates. Lies seed among truths, and from afar, expensive cars valet in well-dressed, ornate bodies who greet each other expressively at the door. Every time the front doors open, music trickles out from the den of serpents.

It is a warning he gives only once. He does not say anything more about it, as the hours pass. It is for her to consider now— for her to turn over and over in her mind and come to terms with. Nothing he can say or do will help with that process. In fact, his interference can only detract. It is personal and internal.

It is a decision to become two people: one the person she has always been, and the other someone new… spurred by her fateful meeting with a time-lost assassin, several months ago.

Instead of trying to have any input on that decision, James concentrates on the task ahead. It is not just weapons he prepares, though that is the first step. It is a set of identities. It is a mindset.

Jane seems to have settled well into her own cover. He lifts a brow at the choice of name, her fingertips passing within centimeters of its arch as she reaches up to smooth back a stray bit of hair that has escaped his careful combing. "I won't ask," he says, amused. "But it works. People of pedigree tend to like their drama."

His eyes gentle briefly. He knows it is difficult for her to wear this identity, considering her own family history, but she is managing quite well in his view. They stay gentle as she outlines what she needs for her part of the plan, though the gears of thought are obviously turning behind those blue eyes. "Whatever you need," he says. "Most likely they will be focused on me. Both because of who I am, and because of what I will be doing."

The gentleness leaves his eyes. "If anyone has the discernment to realize they need to stop you too, I will handle it." It doesn't sound like a promise. It sounds like certainty.

He doesn't say anything, however, about not doing anything that might worry her. He can't promise anything there.

Especially not at the kind of den of serpents into which James' calls gained them entry.

James shifts, perceptibly, into a sort of 'mode' as they make their approach, settling with practiced ease into a sort of professionalism that fits both his true and falsified profession. The two of them are greeted, at the door, by the hosts for this evening: a modern day lord-and-lady, Mark and Julia Costa, new money, a vulgar blot of ignorant trash wealth in the heart of Old Town Alexandria. Their neighbors, true American blue bloods, politely disdain them, and pay very few calls.

Which is perfect, as they are zealous financiers of Hydra. Zealous enough to allow their home to overlay and hide the recruitment and training operations dug into the earth beneath.

It becomes transparent James arranged this transaction over the phone in a deliberately opaque manner, securing the trust of the gatekeepers via passphrases and codes that have not yet been cycled; via information which could not be known save by anyone quite high on the food chain; via the dropping of names and which still carry significant weight. He told them to relay only that personages of importance were to be expected, for the purpose of selecting candidates for implantation in New York. After the fiasco, everyone has to be cycled out and replaced with fresh blood.

Thus it is that the Costas do not appear to know the details of either James or Jane's cover identity, treating them with polite puzzlement until James leans a little too far forward during the handshake with a perfunctory, "Hail Hydra." Then it's all sotto voce getting to know one another, the intricate dance of two mistrustful parties carefully vetting one another.

Like most new money, they are both fascinated and intimidated by true lineage, and too freshly come into wealth to know the names of the actual players in the circles of the wealthy. They are impressed about the lineage of Rhea Syrma, and even more impressed about it as it relates to the history of Hydra. These things become clear within minutes of initiating conversation, and it becomes equally clear how carefully James selected Jane's cover backstory to pry into their psychological quirks and slip past their expected gaps in knowledge.

"We would linger a little longer upstairs, for appearances," James eventually says casually, "but this business is kind of time sensitive. You know how it is."

He says he will handle whatever eye may turn her way. In his blue eyes is violent conviction.

Something in that cracks her carefully-prepared face, and all of those cool, unlined features shatter for a glimpse of Jane Foster. Her expressive eyes drink in James's face, and in a reckless act, she steps into him, lifts up to her tip-toes, and brushes her mouth in a brief touch to his. I know, says her kiss. I trust you.

When it ends, and she lets herself retreat down to her little height, visibly she retreats once more, packing temporarily away all of the Jane he knows, replacing her for tonight with Rhea Syrma.

She is quiet the entire ride over. When not working, struggling in the little light with her laptop or making last minute electrical touches on what looks like her smartphone, or what appears to be disguised as one, Jane concentrates on her breathing. She does not look up at the stars, as she has been wont to do their long nights of driving, watching the Virginia skies roll past with her arm leaned on the passenger door, her chin nestled in the crook of her arm.

Now she sits straight, moves only in the careful, deliberate curling of her fingers, and at some points, closes her eyes to better listen to her own heart. Jane Foster looks like a performer in the nervous hours before her first recital. A woman treading the dark sea between identities. It will be more difficult for her, James Barnes would know, know better than anyone. A creature cut from the purest honesty and now made to lie. Not forced to, either, but by her own voluntary choice.

He will know, and she will know too, it means Jane Foster cannot simply act. She must believe herself to be someone else, lest her frank, blunt little heart betray her.

Her first steps from the car to that looming, sprawling manor are rabbit-quick and nervous, and Jane looks up at the great house with all the undisguised shock of a woman who has never seen so much wealth. Then she presses her lips, forces out a deep breath, and gradually, her stride slows and loosens. She squares her shoulders, she lifts her jaw, and her fingers hold her clutch purse as though it were her weapon.

Though she does not move one step out of James Barnes' presence, Jane no longer imparts him a single glance. Perhaps because it is not favourable of the high-pedigree to look at their help. Perhaps because, in moments like these, a single glance up at his face will shatter her facade and make her lose everything.

But she can feel his presence, and for that reason alone, Jane Foster fights through the shot of terror that comes at that opening door, bathing them both in music and light. She is a tiny, ornamental glass doll of a woman, Rhea Syrma, cut with expensive lines and high-boned with exceptional breeding. The man at her side, with a solidity to his form that makes her look all the more little, makes her look all the more dangerously untouched. She does not smile upon greeting, does not give anything of herself that is not properly earned, and in a low, even voice, compliments the decor.

They are not acquainted with any Rhea Syrma.

Jane pauses, and then looks quietly bored. Mildly affronted.

Hail Hydra, her help says for her.

The Costas soften appreciably, though Miss Syrma gives them no favour of her forgiveness. To cover for Jane Foster, quietly anxious, Rhea looks on with cold disappointment, though her formal manner remains cordial. "No apologies necessary," she says breezily, with a vacant sort of impatience, "my reputation usually precedes me. I think I've grown too comfortable not introducing myself."

The tense, but smiling questions come. Jane's dark eyes do not flicker. She has rehearsed these words over in her head the last fifteen hours.

"Me? Born in California, but the family has never quite left Prague. Been there forever and a day. We deal in diamonds, diamonds and other things. It was grandfather who said fools only see diamonds for their pretty faces. He found other uses for them. Great and enterprising uses. My grandfather? Elias Syrma. Old friend of Johann. Helped him build his little Valkyrie."

Words like those, rolling off Jane Foster's tongue.

Eventually, her assistant steers the introductions back to business. Rhea does not slant him a look, though she goes quiet, no doubt just another idle rich who has hired another purely to manage the task of weighing and evaluating her precious time: the Costas, for all their wealth, cannot afford a moment more of her attention.

Downstairs, he bids them, already fully-aware what is scheduled to proceed, and a little red-faced at their own inelegance, Julia Costa is quicker to fix her failed hostess role, a little urgent in the way she zealously leads them through the party din.

Jane Foster, with her unfamiliar face new and unseen by Alexandria's powerful, earns a fair share of looks. Some among them, loosened by drink, seems apt to approach and introduce themselves mid-flight, stopped only by the sharp blue eyes of the man at her side. He earns looks of his own too.

She can feel him close. That is all that emboldens Jane to keep walking, breathing slowly, letting her eyes cant in quick, searching directions as she scans up and down the walls. James will notice with ease: she is learning, studying and mapping the manor's unseen electrical wiring in her head, pulling information readily into a mind that cannot forget.

He will see her fingers tense briefly on her clutch before they are guided into a private elevator. Her expensive heels click to step into the car's marbled floor.

Centuries ago, explains Julia Costa, this house was used for the smuggling and safekeeping of runaway slaves. A sardonic laugh trickles in between her words, because she gets the joke, gets the irony — for that same basement has changed hands to hold some of the powerful people who would try to enslave the world. The descent is not considerable, and opens to an immaculate basement framed in antique wood and red paint made richer under the glow of yellowy light.

The basement meeting room opens to a party in miniature, men and women alike, milling and conversing under the watchful guard of armed security.

One of the two stationed at the door has his eye on James. He stands straighter. "Wait," he orders. "You need to be checked —"

Not a moment is counted until Julia cuts in, red-faced, already trying to make up for her last mistake. "No need," she urges, voice hot and low and pleading, "she is a friend of Herr Schmidt."

That earns the eyes of so many heads of Hydra.

His eyes close for that brief kiss. I trust you, it says. He hopes the trust isn't betrayed.

James is pensive the drive over, as if worrying about that— or, more likely, psyching himself up so that he will not fail when the time comes to perform. Jane makes her last minute adjustments to her tools, working quietly on her laptop, and he makes some preparations of his own: all mental. His body is always ready, his physicality perpetually perfectly tuned. He cannot claim his mind to be in as good a shape, and besides it exists in a certain dichotomous state. There is James Barnes; there is the Winter Soldier.

One of them is not as easily accessed as the other.

He can feel her nervousness in so many of his senses: hear the pound of her heart, smell the fear off her skin. He glances briefly down at her as they make their approach, and in the last few moments while they still have some privacy, his right hand takes her left and proffers a small squeeze. He knows how difficult this will be for her.

Then he lets go, and sinks back into his appointed role. Not for him any high-bred names. Tonight he's just Jack Ryder, an ex-deep cover agent, now mid-level enforcer, and he's availing himself of the fact the Winter Soldier's fame and legend rested primarily on no one but his appointed handlers knowing his face.

Jane is fully in her role by the time they are greeted by the hosts. James keeps his features bland, disinterested, bored in the way all good bodyguards tend to look, but he is keeping careful track of her— what she says, how she says it— and his approval is mounting.

There is a brief moment where there might be a hitch— neither of their names are on the list— but he knows what to do about that. Three syllables say plainly who they are and what they are here to do, and gain them tentative entry.

Or at least, gain them the right to a careful drilling. Jane answers with perfect fluency, bored and regal and impatient. James continues to say nothing, as befits help that should be seen and not heard, but he's smiling to himself internally. For someone so honest, she seems a natural little liar— though that's not quite right, is it? It's more than she's shifted her own personal truth.

A truth that is deliberately difficult to vet. The higher-ups of Hydra like to exempt themselves from the facelessness expected of the rank and file, and arrogate for themselves the right to continued individualism and privacy. Like nobility of any other stripe, they like to consider themselves above such petty things as the regular process flow of vetting and cross-checking.

The Costas do not dare offend by deeper questioning, especially not when instructions to anticipate an esteemed guest did come through legitimate channels.

Such it is that the lady of the house takes them down in person, leading them through the noise and light of the party to the more illicit fare below. They draw looks, to be sure, but no interest is so keen that it cannot be deterred by one glance from the Winter Soldier.

A glance that hardens when Julia Costa remarks idly on how the subterranean levels once safeguarded runaway slaves. Her diffident laugh at her own ironic joke grates every last one of his nerves.

He says nothing, however. Nothing up until their progress leads them to a second little party, this one much more sober, much more dire, the conversations much more purposeful. Nobody here is interested in them, not the way people were upstairs. Nobody except the two guards stationed at the door leading farther in— deeper down into the heart of operations here.

You need to be checked, the guard says. Red-faced, Julia tries to atone for her previous mistake. She says the Name. James' skin crawls to feel so many eyes suddenly upon him— upon Jane.

So, of course, he laughs. "Das ist sehr freundlich," he says, addressing Julia. "We truly are on a rather tight timetable here. Fischer and Dolokhov are quite eager to see this inconvenient business in New York squared away and smoothed over as soon as possible."

The higher ranks of Hydra may be obfuscated, but that doesn't mean there aren't some names everyone knows. The mood in the room flattens out like a threatened cat. The other guard steps forward at Julia's pale-faced prompting, bidding the two of them to follow him through the door.

The atmosphere changes immediately on passing through, the richness and wealth lost into the familiar sterility that often characterizes Hydra facilities. For an organization which thrives on the suppression of individuality, such environs are key. The hallways are silent and empty, mere passageways between the actual hubs of activity, though that does not mean they do not have defenses of their own.

Such as the locked door to which they eventually come. There is a retinal scanner mounted beside it. The guard looks at them.

"Go ahead," he says. "If your data's in the central system, it should be recognized here. Did a fresh pull from the servers this morning."

James looks at Jane. His gaze tells her to behave as if this is a matter of course, and to step up to the scanner in as involved a way as possible to keep the guard's eyes on her. And the moment she does—

There is no warning. Just the sudden brittle sound of something snapping, and then the heavy impact of a body hitting the floor.

Without hesitation, James, features impassive, reaches down and hikes the corpse right back up again with his left arm. The man's head lolls at an impossible, horrific angle: he corrects it coldly with his right hand, enough to let the scanner read those staring eyes. The door hisses open.

"Now," he says, lowering the corpse again without actually letting it go, "we are really on a tight timetable."

The first of many rooms have all eyes on them. On him. On her.

They are a mix of many faces, men and women, and mostly young, sharing the same discerning eyes of watchful predators. Animals tasting the downwind current for any smell of fear, of weakness, of a mistake. They are faces not easily recognized by James Barnes, well-studied on the major players of Hydra digging their serpents' dens down the New England coast —

— because, it appears, this initial room are all the aforementioned recruits. Straight-backed, stern-faced, and more than eager to be inducted into the initial rings of this society. At first, they are so curious at that stand-off in miniature, where a guard presses this Jack Ryder for his weapon — which recruit among them would be so bold as to come armed?

Julia Costa desperately fixes that mistake, and with a frazzled wave of her hands, tries to urge the guard down.

The mood changes like a moving tide over the room. No longer assured that Jane Foster and James Barnes are among them, but superior to them — important beyond words — they look on in an expression mixed between interest and awe. Their eyes are sharp, and they murmur among each other, but those men and women move to allow Rhea Syrma and her bodyguard past.

It takes absolutely everything in Jane Foster to hold her brown eyes forward. She feels weighing down her shoulders, and spidering like walking fingers down her back, the watch of too many eyes. People who represent all that was done to her, done to James, done to so many others. People just like the man who tortured her, and even dead, still comes back to torture her more in her nightmares. They terrify her. She wants more than anything to reach back for James Barnes's hand. She wants to close her eyes and shake.

For a moment, Jane knows it's over, because if asked a question now, she would not answer. She cannot find her voice. She cannot speak. They're watching her, and she's trapped in all sides, and she cannot breathe to make a sound.

And then James speaks for them both. His voice, moving effortlessly in another tongue, opens the knot in her throat. He may not ever know, but he saves her life in this moment, because Jane can breathe again; she can put back on Rhea Syrma's dismissive face and step patiently, deliberately forward. Led by the guard, she treads through that den of vipers, with her chin high and her eyes forward. She does not meet a single one of their searching looks.

They are beneath her.

Her heels sound every stride that takes them deeper down the manor, where the halls soon change hands from marble columns and antique wood to something far more faceless: cold cement and shining metal that reflects their bodies, the cuts of their clothing, the lies in their eyes.

With each step, James will see the sea change on Jane. It is small, it is imperceptible, but it is transparent to eyes like his trained for decades to find secrets in the dark. Tension cords the pale skin at her shoulders, tying little nooses up the back of her neck. It is the low ceiling. It is the oppressive walls. It is the sweet cellar smell of earth. It is the concussive way sound carries so deep underground. It is three months ago, all over again, for him, and for her, and Jane tenses under too many reminders.

She hates every moment of this. She, quite possibly, may just be holding herself together, the woman who has not even come close to healing through from her trauma. But her face is calm, and her eyes are forward. Focused. Her decision to be here. Her decision to do this.

At the guard's instruction, there is a half-moment of hesitation, Jane who was not told specifically of this part; of her retinal scan being necessary, and how her false persona won't be on any recent server pulls. Instinctively, she looks over, finds James already looking at her. She reads the direction in his eyes. Remembering Rhea, the woman assents with a tilt of her head, and steps daintily up to the scanner. Knowing this is the moment that should and will damn them both, she glances up at the lens and —

— squeezes-shut both eyes, jumping, to the sound of someone's neck snapping at her back. A corpse hits the cement in the heavy crack of meat. Jane holds her breath, knowing immediately what happened, letting herself a moment to slowly reconcile the fact she now shares the room with a body.

He is impassive, James Barnes, and so Jane tries to be too, doing her best to ignore how the dead guard's head hangs in an angle that it should not. She thinks to herself, almost bemusedly, always how gentle that left hand of his feels every time it touches her. How careful that metal hand always is, and how powerful it can be. She says nothing, stepping back as he facelessly arranges the corpse to open the door for them. It sighs the way deeper into Hydra's lair.

Finally, Jane looks up on him, her eyes back how he knows them, a surprising slap of something so familiar, so out-of-place, entombed by these metal walls. He still has the corpse hanging by his left hand. He speaks something of their timetable.

She wants to ask if he's all right. The question is there in her eyes.

Instead, Jane says, low, urgent, "Did you hear that? About the servers? It means they're networked. I know — the plan, but we can't kill switch until I can look." Quickly, she glances around, then steps through the opened doorway, all to try to make herself helpful, to hold it to allow him — and presumably the corpse — through after her. Her eyes inadvertently avert down on the body, just for a beat. "If I can copy — even see their data. It'll save you on phone calls. Do you think you can do this?"

Eyes turn on them both, gauging them, probing for weakness. It is like being dropped into a shark tank, or thrown into the midst of a pack of hungry wolves. It is nervewracking. It is precarious.

James Barnes stands at ease, outwardly unaffected, expression unimpressedly dour. These children fancy themselves predators, but they are in training, and their entire lives span less than half the time he's spent in killing. He makes no secret of his certainty of his superiority to them, and like animals they are swift to pick up on that.

It breeds resentment, at first. Then Julia Costa speaks up desperately, confirming his apparent right to his arrogance, and that resentment is joined by grudging curiosity, envy, awe. Awe, especially, for Jane, pointed out as having some personal connection to Johann Schmidt himself.

They move aside. James lets Jane go a pace before him, following up behind and to her left in the traditional position of a trained bodyguard.

It gives him, also, a good vantage point from which to quietly keep track of Jane's composure. James has long since acclimated to the sorts of places Hydra likes to tunnel into— subterranean, sterile, claustrophobic— and he had forgotten that Jane has not had seventy years to similarly desensitize to such environs. To what was typically DONE in such environs. The memory of what happened to her the last time she was somewhere like this is still too fresh.

Concern flickers in his mind as he watches stress and tension and fear slowly weigh her shoulders and tremble her hands.

He cannot touch her to reassure her. He does the next best thing. He lets her hear his voice, speaking out with calm self-assurance, and lets the vague disdain in his voice— the dismissal he feels for all these people, who are so far beneath them both— be her strength.

It works.

The retinal scanner is another thing entirely, however, something that cannot be bluffed or blustered away. It is a complication James had suspected but been unable to confirm. His features show nothing of this— not his surprise, not his faint annoyance, not the thoughts that go through his mind as he processes this information and decides what to do.

'What to do' turns out to end in a neatly-snapped neck, and a corpse hitting the floor at the very backs of Jane's heels. The sound of it suggests he used his left hand. That same left hand that has touched her countless times with such gentleness that she could close her eyes and forget it was there.

James affords the body no particular special treatment, does not handle it in any way to suggest that it's anything more than mere baggage. This is intentional, to help Jane acclimate to the idea of being around someone who— mere moments ago— was alive, and now is abruptly dead. Murdered by the man she's chosen to be with.

"Your chip scanner works, by the way," he says, almost absently, as the door hisses open and Jane pops through. He lowers the corpse but does not let it go, letting it drag from his grasp, looking for all the world like a leopard searching for a decent tree to stash its prey. "I saw one or two people who were chipped, up at the party. I don't expect to see any more of those down here, though." He steps through the door and then a few paces past her, now electing to stay in the vanguard, though he doesn't yet draw a weapon. "Anyone in this kind of place is here by choice."

He doesn't look at the question in her eyes, the one of whether he's all right. There is no use in asking the question and no use in giving an answer.

He only looks around when she speaks of the servers. How they must be networked somewhere if they're doing data pulls. He doesn't miss the way she just has to look at the body, even for just half a moment. He doesn't react to it.

She asks if he can do this. This change in plan.

He laughs. Crossing the hall, he finds a storage room door, opens it, looks within, decides it's acceptable, and leaves the corpse there. "I can. Can you? They're not going to be connected 24/7. Risky. They'll only link up when they absolutely have to pull down from the servers. You'll have to establish that connection yourself. Not to mention finding this communications room to begin with, before they miss this guy—" He jerks his head in the corpse's direction, "and things go kinetic."

He shuts the door. "But I'm certainly not gonna say so to an updated data set. All of what I've got left over from when I was still in operation is ninety-nine percent obsolete by now."

It is a slow and gradual acclimation, helped in large part by James Barnes's prefunctory manner, by the urgency drugging her blood, and by Jane Foster's own ready adaptation. Certainly there are things she wants to think, emotions she wants to feel, to realize again he has had to kill for this duty —

— but she compartmentalizes all of it for later. Perhaps even for ever. She does not look on James with strain or revulsion, and she does not look on that dead body with any quiet sort of sympathy. If there was ever a time Jane would have done so, would have pitied a man who lost his life over the unfortunate choice of his work, that time is lost on her. It is no longer the person she is.

In the end, she cannot resist but to slip the corpse one, final look. Her eyes, in that brief flicker, seem to tiredly say: now look what you made us do.

The door opens for them, and James Barnes drags the errant body through. Jane ghosts at his heels, her first stop entreating the automated gate itself, following its smooth metal all the way to a panel. Her fingernail raps on it, the sound soft and hollow. "James?" she calls after, her voice an entreat. As if a dead man were not hanging from his fist, she slants him with her eyes a gentle, wordless request of service. A sort of service only his metal hand can provide. She needs that panel off.

When it does, she upraises one leg and hikes up the hem of her dress, pulling free where it is sheathed against her inner thigh a small pair of cutters. Jane peers down into the guts of the door, its wires and circuitboards, and makes a couple quick manipulations. "No one in, no one out — until you're ready," she declares.

She glances up as he takes vanguard before her. He would have long noticed, but she still says out loud, "It's weird that there's no cameras." Jane's brown eyes follow the metal-and-cement bunker's visible wiring, and her visual hunts seem to come constantly empty. There are no cameras, perhaps no need for them with all the security: perhaps no want for them in Hydra's strict, protective privacy. Added evidence does not help the keeping of secrets.

Either way, she seems to let it go, pensive while she watches James stow the corpse of a man as though he were just another object. Cleaning a thing away so others are not bothered by an unexpected mess. It doesn't escape her just how effortless he makes the process of dragging and arranging and hiding a body, made by hands honed by decades of bloody work. Jane sees for herself not just that James is good at this: he is /unparalleled/ at it.

Then comes mention of a potential connection to some centralized network cultivated by members of Hydra: Jane seems adamant not to ignore it. Her thoughts cannot stray for long. Enough to propose to James Barnes some severance of their original plan. The original path leads to the path of a full technological blackout here, in the manor, in the grid where she's rerouted the nearest transformer, all to give him the window he needs without the interference of distress signals or calls out for nearby cells to fold over and disappear. To begin the blackout, Jane knows, is to eliminate any chance she might have to retrieve precious information.

That it may exist within her reach is too much to ignore. Enough she proposes a change in plans. Can he adapt?

The body still hanging from his metal left hand, James Barnes… laughs. Jane looks after him, surprised briefly at that reaction, before wryness tugs up one corner of her mouth. His bleak humour in these cagey walls is an anathema.

He can. Can she?

In that single glance turned over the rise of his shoulder, Rhea Syrma brims with a drink of Jane Foster's familiar indignation. "Not sure," she bites back dryly, "I might ruin my nails."

The glare she gives him is brief and flat. Can she? Who does he take her for!

But then it is gone, her good-humoured agitation, as Jane listens and absorbs the many variables James lays out along their table. Risks and rewards. "Kinetic," she echoes, never hearing the word before used for a situation like this. It's errant enough to give her pause. Then she thinks.

"If they're smart, then this is going to be our only shot at access into a centralized server," she replies urgently, her eyes lifted up on James. "After tonight, they're going to lock everything up, and probably for a long time. It's risky, but more than worth it. Even if it's just names, or businesses, or even bank accounts — they won't have time to recover. I don't think I'll get another chance to try." Blowing out a breath, she looks back up, the action exposing the long, white line of her throat. Following the wires where they shunt in and along and through the cement underground. "Server room is not that difficult to find. You just need to know where to look."

Jane pauses a moment, her eyes forward, transparently thinking. Her mind, certainly not trained for things like this, tries to search her own grasp of logic to make some sort of plan. Information retrieval before — before the sweep he has planned. Stepping closer, she curls her hand briefly over his, her dark eyes fixed up on James. "How long do you think we have?" she asks.

And then her expression twists. He knows this look. Jane Foster trying to apologize for saying something he may not like. "They're waiting for me. Don't get mad, but here's an idea. We find that room. If I can network us in, you stay to see to the download. I'll go meet with… with whoever we're supposed to find in here. I'll stall. You… do your thing. And meet up with me at the end. And don't leave me too long in there."

If there is one thing about James Barnes that has become well-developed over the decades, it is his ability to shut off and compartmentalize. He is well aware he should feel something at having slaughtered an unsuspecting and distracted man from behind, by surprise, facelessly and honorlessly. Maybe once, he would have.

That part of him, however, died a very long time ago. Died long before the Winter Soldier, even. Died the first moment the US Army saw his skill at marksmanship, and shunted him into sharpshooting training. It was the polite, genteel way to say that he'd spend a lot of time watching men through sniper scopes, deciding the time of their death from half a mile away. Holding their life balanced on the curl of one finger, and the discernment of one eye.

Snipers were still cordially detested among most of the Allied Powers, during the war, despite their great value in securing and holding ground. So James got used to being looked down on for doing necessary dirty work a very long time ago.

Now the only thing he feels, looking at these people, feeling them die in his hands, swings between indifference and deep, hot rage.

Who asked you, his empty gaze says, to sign your life away to Hydra to begin with?

Pulling the body through the door, he turns at Jane's entreating call. His blue eyes glance over her hand on the panel, taking in what she wants in an instant: shifting his grip on the corpse to his right hand, he reaches up with a soft whir of his arm's internals, steel fingers clamping down like a vise and pulling the panel from the wall as easily as if he were ripping a pinned-up piece of paper.

"Sounds good," he says, when she declares no one will get in and out until he's ready. And that's all he says. He says nothing about the body, about the man's life, about his death. No eulogy. No acknowledgement save for James' careful stowing of the corpse— and the torn-off panel— out of the way. The process is effortless, matter-of-fact, practiced from long years of having done this over and over. He has hidden many thousands of corpses over the years.

It is her first time watching him work up close and personal. It's easy to see how he became a legend. There are people who are good at this— at the infiltration, the information gathering, the stealthy kill— but the Winter Soldier is mythical at it. Here is a man most of the world still barely even believes exists, even after sixty years of operation.

Closing the door behind him, he glances over at her as she observes it's weird that there are no cameras. "Not in areas like these," he says absently, as he scans the hallways, follows the wiring himself with his gaze, then starts to walk down one of the many halls. There's nothing really to say why he chooses that one— or at least, nothing obvious to eyes like Jane's. "The assumption is that if you're back here you cleared all the security— and there is a great deal of security before you get to this point— and nobody is really interested in the risks involved in keeping loads of video evidence of what happens back here."

He lapses into silence, however, when she entreats for them to steal all the information they can rather than embark immediately on their initial plan of full destruction. He immediately sees the sense in it— access to a controlling central server would provide more information, and more reliable information, than they could get from some branch or random outpost— and he seems transparently willing to give it a shot.

Her question of whether he CAN, however, offends him. So he slyly asks her if SHE can in return. Her reaction is predictably indignant. "Don't like your own medicine, huh?" he asks, when she hackles. The blue eye that slants at her over his shoulder is playful.

That moment of levity is short-lived. James listens in silence as Jane thinks aloud. "After tonight, they're going to cycle everyone and everything in Alexandria, at the very least. Handlers, gatekeepers, pass phrases, lists of who's authorized to oversee or operate in this area. If they get any idea you've been in a central server, they will cycle that also. It will take longer than just clean-cycling a branch, because they will have to propagate the changes out rather than just" a grim smile, "cutting off one head, as they would call it. But it will be done. So you'll have to get in and get what you can without leaving any trail."

A glance up would reveal that the hall James chose— the way he's taking them down— is already following the path of the wiring strung throughout the bunker, heading inevitably towards the server and comms room. "Yep," he says. "Besides, a lot of these places are set up similarly. Hydra likes uniformity. Their people spend less time trying to find stuff, which is important if your agents keep getting cycled between different posts—"

Smoothly, he takes her arm and guides her straight into a side room, nearly-shutting the door behind them soundlessly. He puts a hand over her mouth to ensure her silence, listening through the slight crack between door and frame, and after a few moments, what sounds like a pair of idly-chatting recruits passes by.

After a few minutes, he opens the door and ushers them onward. How long do we have? she wants to know. There's people waiting for her, and they'll get suspicious, so maybe he should just stay to see to the download while she goes to meet them and stall—

He slants the most unimpressed look in the history of the universe at her. "That's a terrible idea. You'll only be able to stall for a few minutes tops before they figure out you don't know anything about the function you're supposedly here to perform. Doesn't buy me time and ends with you dead."

The door closes on the first of tonight's corpses.

And, just like that, it disappears from both sight and mind. The dead man joins the leagues of dead boxed in the Winter Soldier's long memory, and James Barnes turns his attention too from this tally count. He puts the kill in its place, easily, effortlessly, and that, in its way, helps Jane Foster do the same. The door shuts that dead face away, and she finds herself able to forget it by the moment.

Able to turn her back and keep moving forward.

James Barnes takes point and leads them down the labyrinthine corridors hidden deep beneath the Alexandria manor — a maze of metal and cement forged of centuries' old catacombs once used long ago to hide liberated slaves. Jane pauses momentarily to slide off her heels, too loud now for them to move silently, and holds them in hand as she shadows his turned back.

He moves without sound, and with a sort of fluidity that not even Jane can resist but watch. It takes all of her focus to even try to match what comes so natural to him; an awareness of body and a deftness of movement, and she quickens her own step to match his longer stride. He commands their speed and direction; when James stops, so does Jane. When he slows, she rhymes him. She trusts him implicitly, and in moments like these, she learns.

In the meanwhile, Jane Foster courts the possibility of their changing plan. What was at first his — their — mission to simply clean some more of the Eastern seaboard free of Hydra's influence has become an operation to extract information: perhaps the opportunity the first in decades, if not ever, to have confidential data of present activities in outsiders' hands. It is a roulette spin in itself that someone may even be able to access such coveted intelligence —

— but Jane does not doubt her ability. Her frown is quick and sharp and hot when James Barnes questions her aloud, indignant to the possibility that something in this world may be beyond her intelligence… but when he turns that brief, playful smile over his shoulder, the woman double-takes. That flicker of humour comes like a gout of sunlight opening the darkness, and it warms her. Her mouth crooks up at mention of medicine. Touche.

She listens as he watches the hall.

"They cycle it that quickly?" she asks, not incredulously, but with considerable askance weighing her voice. Jane keeps her words to a whisper, a trickle of sound that licks up and around his nearest arm. She hovers in the safe shadow of his back. "For having no real formal structure, they're seriously organized."

But it means Jane has to exercise care even in virtual space: leave no trace of her access lest it make Hydra aware of her data mining and destroy James Barnes's little lead into Hydra's activities. Can she do that? She frowns to herself, eyes turned, writing the preliminary script in her head, weighing risk and reward. "No, I can do that," she promises. "Easier with my laptop, but I can. I have some tricks. It's possible."

The question remains: can she do it, however, in the little time alloted to them? Jane has broken into systems before. She's even done it on precise time frames. But never one so small; never before courting such a severe degree of failure. Tipped off, it means Hydra will know they're being hunted. It will change everything.

"Do you —" Jane starts to ask, her airy words lost to the air the moment James's hand finds her arm.

It happens so quickly, and he turns her with a fluidity that, for a moment, it feels like a dance; the lit corridor crosses into darkness as he pulls them both into the safety of a room. The door slides nearly-shut to the thinnest slant of light and ventilated air.

Jane pauses. She knows better than to speak, though the question itches her tongue. It is never given voice. His right hand clasps over her mouth, and in that moment, her world narrows down, folding in like origami sides to the size and shape of James Barnes all around her. She feels the heat and solidity of his body against the bones in her back. She hears his heartbeat, quick and unnaturally strong, thunderous in her ears as he fetters them both to stillness, silence, and scrupulous listening.

Two voices doppler past. Their steps take them beyond the door, turning down one corridor and disappearing deeper into the maze.

James relents first. Jane follows, let go, realizing only too late how vigourously her heart is pounding. She swallows against her throat gone adrenaline-dry. Even if he was aware this entire time, even if he heard them coming long enough to hide — still too close. They're already on so little time. Time so scant that they should not be thinking about a data pull from the servers, even if she knows well it's an opportunity that cannot be missed. They have to be expecting her now, minutes from now if not already. They'll send someone to look for Rhea Syrma and her ex-operative assistant. They'll find something amiss in a matter of time. There has to be a way around it.

She racks her mind. And, as James pulls them both back into the corridor, certain they are safely alone again, Jane's voice rises up at his turned back. She speaks with audible reticence the only idea she can muster.

Her plan apparently is enough to merit James Barnes to stop everything he's doing just to /look/ at her.

Jane's mouth twists up like a lock as he dissects just how /terrible/ her plan is. "Well, if you have a /better/ idea," she retorts impatiently, even with her voice still a whisper. "I think I can stall for more than a few minutes. You wouldn't need much time to secure everywhere around it. And we control who gets in through the door. How long until you think they send someone to —"

Her voice, already thin, diffuses into airy silence.

Because, nearly turned a corner, Jane's dark eyes steal a glimpse of what James sees. Where his meandering, chasing-wires path has taken him, and rightly so: to a room she knows immediately is what they're looking for. It's unremarkable and unmarked, and guarded by two heavily-armed men. She slants him a wordless look, the distant light mirrored in her brown eyes. Need her to act the part? Give him the means to get just close enough?

Many people over the decades have found their last resting place as just another name on the Winter Soldier's long, long list of kills. And what's worse, it is a kill list that James Barnes must now bear the burden of remembering. Three quarters of a century of privation, brainwashing and torture were not enough to damage his mind beyond the point of functioning memory.

It is a macabre collection so vast that he cannot even remember all of it at once. There are so many dead in his memory that he is sure there are some names that have not yet come to light in his conscious recollection.

Yet he also retains the ability of the Winter Soldier to simply compartmentalize and stay indifferent to the idea of having murdered another human— put an end to all their hopes, their dreams, and their lifetime of potential. It is difficult, but he can tap it— can shuffle off the body and shrug away this latest addition to his staggering body count. What does another raindrop really matter when you already have an ocean?

Not too much. The only thing that bothers him is that his indifference is rubbing off on Jane. Letting her grow callused to this, too, after only seeing a handful of corpses compared to his hundreds.

Yet if this makes her feel safer, then…

He shakes his head slightly, his only outward indication of the brief mental argument he has with himself, and moves on. He doesn't need to slip off shoes, as she does, to achieve the same kind of silent walk. Even with nine inches of height and more than double her weight on her, he still moves with even less noise than she, proceeding with the sort of wraithlike remove from his surroundings that makes it easy to see how he was labeled a ghost.

More than that, his movements are transparently not normal. The average human does not move with the kind of kinesthetic awareness that he does— with a full awareness and engagement with self that gives his stride a fluid, lupine quality. It is not something interrupted by conversation, either: he multitasks easily to give his answer when she questions their quickness of response. "Sure," he shrugs, glancing left and right as they reach an intersection, then choosing left. "Lacking a formal structure doesn't really mean there isn't a structure. There is one. There's certainly still a group of big important people that do run everything, as you'd expect. It's just that everything below that tier is generally opaque, and fluid as hell, and filled with redundancies so people can circulate between roles without too much of a hitch. Lacking a rigid formal structure is part of what makes them reorganize so fast. Traditional chain of command stuff has the head-of-the-snake problem. You cut off the head, the body dies, so on and so forth. Hydra always prided itself on the opposite, though."

He shrugs, apparently needing a brief recovery period from this uncharacteristic verbosity. "People get their orders and paychecks from anonymous callers, unnamed bank accounts. They pass it on to others through similar obfuscation: code words, passphrases, dropped names. Everyone knows what's supposed to happen where and when. If the people previously handling that stuff die or get cycled, the new ones rotate in without the lower levels ever knowing there was a switc…"

He trails off, because he's heard something. Jane, unenhanced, doesn't. She starts to ask something—

and he's turned to her and pulled her silently into a side room. His hand goes over her mouth as he mostly-shuts the door, ensuring silence. He has held her captive and muffled in this way before back when he was the Winter Soldier, and his intentions were not so benign. The brief memory of it, of the feel of him against her back, his arms shackling her against his body, might induce a brief moment of unpleasant deja vu.

He listens for many long moments. Voices eventually come into Jane's perception, walk past, and fade down the hall.

He lets her go after a few more moments have passed, opening the door quietly again and ushering them onwards. Once she's sure it's safe, Jane tries to field an idea that has come to her mind. James makes no secret of his opinion; undeterred, Jane insists she could probably stall at least long enough for him to do his work—

She'll have to stop before she runs right into his back, because he's halted again. The corner he refuses to go around is one that conceals them both from sight of the two armed men in front of the room they need, men who James is carefully observing. He glances back in time to catch the look she slants up at him.

For once, he doesn't demur or doubt or question her. He just nods minutely. "Try to get them both to face towards you," he says, before he backs up and fades into the dark of the half-lit halls.

There is a certain serenity in indifference.

In the moment, his matter-of-fact end of a life and dismissal of a body seem to help Jane Foster; his disinterest in the entire process of a murder keeps her calm and her mind focused. He makes murder look less of a moral sacrifice or the sin of a soul, and more like a transaction. And act of the hands not much different than a thousand other motions.

Of course, the question remains: is indifference something that will hurt Jane in the end? Will it give her strength or strip from her that certain light? The fact she slips the corpse that one look she does is evidence the woman wonders the same thing. Even before her torture at the hands of Hydra, Jane was never a creature of absolutes. Uncertainty is a function of the universe down to its quantum state, and there is no true yes or no, no true right or wrong. Her own moral reckoning came years even before James Barnes, and in the form of constant questions over good and bad, and the fear that just enough intelligence can rationalize a way neither can exist.

Moments like these, staring into a nameless someone's dead eyes, brings Jane back to those thoughts, ratified best in that conversation in her car with John Constantine. What should stop her from every becoming someone destructive? Even before Hydra, she answered it only as a trust in herself, a check-and-balance apart from her intelligence: an awareness of self that has felt the closest parallel of religious faith.

For that reason, she looks. Because though Jane cannot deny she's changed, made of someone new through the conscious decisions she made in her life — to let James Barnes into it, first as a ghost and then as a man, and then to survive Hydra rather than become its victim. She's no longer who she was for thirty years, and the person she's become she's still unfamiliar, unacquainted, but she has not forgotten or left behind that implicit trust. Trust in her mind. Trust in her /soul/. She knows she can do this, find the answer and walk the brink of what is right for her to do: and she knows she can do this for James too.

So she lets the indifference in. But she looks at death, and she forces her eidetic mind to remember.

And from there, follows James on deeper into the life he was forced to life for seventy years. Jane keeps to his back, letting his superior senses be their eyes and ears; she trusts him to guide them enough to allow herself to think: she's already thinking in terms of code and scripts, writing the preliminary of many in her own mental scratch paper. How does one access a network without leaving a data footprint? She needs to find a way.

In the meantime, she parallel-processes that with quiet listening, as James gives up a wealth of information only a handful of people in the world know: a glimpse into the slithery, many-headed body of Hydra, winding leagues of its body through countries, looping coils around corporations, militaries, governments. What he says quietly astounds her. It's effectively a terrifying survival strategy, and —

Jane huffs a light, soft sound of amusement, of consideration. "So it's an algorithm. If you want to get technical, probably Suurballe's algori—"

James hears something they don't. And with a reflexive grace, too quick and too strong for Jane to do anything but concede to his stronger current, she watches the world change to the darkness of a nearby room, pulled immobile into his arms and against his body, silent to the cup of his hand over her mouth. Memory does rise up, unbidden, to a moment he held — restrained — her in such a way, back when he was different, and she was different too. Months ago feel like years to Jane. Years, or images played from someone else's life that no longer feel entirely like her own. All she knows is she doesn't feel fear of him; if she did, if just for a moment, she wouldn't be here. Not in his life — comfortable, complicit.

Voices walk past, and Jane continues on in her bare-footed shadowing of James, glancing back once over her shoulder, her mouth frowning and her eyes pensive. It's beginning to mount just how many people are here, and with them a higher probability of making a mistake; the data she wants may already be one. Certainly the absence of Rhea Syrma must already be noted; certainly, this detour will be costing time neither of them have. A little hesitant, she comes up with a plan. James Barnes gives her a glance of instant veto. Something stubborn prickles up in Jane; but she has no time for further argument.

Not when James has stopped, right there, so abruptly she has to turn a foot not to stumble into his back. Jane goes cannily silent, not wanting to impede his senses, holding her breath the time it takes the ex-assassin to eye up two more marks. She peeks a look of her own, deliberates, and then looks up into his blue eyes. She's ready to help.

And he accepts. Not that she even has the moment to look surprised. Jane takes in her order, confirms it with a press of her lips, and watches James Barnes seam away into shadow. In a heart beat, she is alone, though she knows better than that — knows even if she cannot see, he is here. She quietly slips back on her shoes, smoothes down her dress, and closes her eyes for a silent moment of focus. She can do this.

A moment later, those sharp, noisy heels turn the heads of the two guards, and they share the same expression of disbelief and skepticism to see a petite woman, well-dressed, looking proudly out-of-place. The narrative is she is someone with the clearance to be among these halls, though, even then, whatever importance she is gives her no permission to be here. "Hold it," says one, as she tries to skirt past, and the other checks his automatic weapon, though it does not yet point on her.

Jane freezes for a moment, then summons all the impatience and exasperation and cold rage she's ever felt in her life to step even closer, to stand before them both, and to spit out: "Don't be so crude." Her eyes are withering between men twice her size. "You have no idea — my escort was asked elsewhere and told me to follow this direction. Is this normally how you conduct business?"

It's not often men of Hydra are stunned into silence, expecting many things but not to be disciplined by someone with the straight-backed confidence to back up every one of her terse promises. Jane strains to keep her eyes on the two men, to hold them, to keep their shocked attention facing her. "Would one of you see me to my appointment or does it take two of you to guard a door?"

His detachment and disinterest make the kill quick, and the mop-up afterwards matter-of-fact. He handles the erasure of a human life with little more fanfare than the average person would handle the killing and disposal of an ant. But this ease was bought at a high price, a price visible in the dead flatness of his eyes and the tight line of his jaw. The price was seven decades of his life, and the souls of countless people who the Winter Soldier methodically added to his graveyard collection of dead.

He keeps his more conflicted thoughts to himself. It is easy, because they are very few. Sergeant James Barnes, first blooded on the beaches of North Africa and the battlefields of Italy, grew inured to killing a long time before he ever became the Winter Soldier. Moreover, it will not help Jane's nerves if he treats these acts as out of the ordinary. He needs her calm, and the best way is— morbidly enough— to pretend that what he has just done is no more meaningful than the sweep of a hand to wipe up spilled water.

He does not know what the effect on her down the line will be, once she has been removed from the adrenaline-insulation that is 'the necessity of the moment.' James worries about it sometimes, about turning her into a monster like himself— tarnishing and ruining her until she is in the filth with him— because her insistence to be part of his life means that inevitably she will be drawn into things that could make her as heinous and broken a thing as he himself is.

Free choice is something important to them both, however, and Jane has repeatedly and freely chosen this path. He does not have the heart to be firmer with her, to force her away from something she has admitted is important to her emotionally as far as coping with what was done to her. Important to her as far as not feeling like so much of a victim.

He can empathize. One of the hardest things for him about it all is the shame of being so completely victimized. Of being made powerless. Of having been seen in his deteriorated state by people he respects— seen as something beaten down and enslaved so completely that he was no more than a mindless tool for malignant forces.

It is irrational, he knows, but to be turned into a dog licking the hands of his abusers is not the way he ever wanted anyone to see him, and he hates the implication of his own weak-mindedness which it raises.

So he finds it hard to deny Jane her catharsis to avoid that feeling of victimhood. And privately, though he knows he should not feel this way— can feel Steve shaking his head behind him every time he thinks this thought— he really… honestly… does not care about spilling certain kinds of blood, especially if it would make Jane happy, or protect those he does care about. There are many kills that keep him shuddering awake at night, but there are also many that do not bother his sleep at all.

In seven decades, James Buchanan Barnes has come face to face with a great deal of literal evil. He knows it exists. He is happy to be the instrument of its erasure.

Evil like the man he thinks of, when Jane talks about algorithms. How the structure of Hydra resembles one. His features tighten with faraway memory, and the recollection of humiliating, agonizing pain. "There are plenty of people in Hydra who loved algorithms well enough," he says, "to come up with one just to keep the organization purring along."

One close encounter and several minutes later, they find themselves near the end of their journey: albeit blocked off by two heavily-armed guards. James glances around briefly, though he does not seem surprised that the underground levels are— so far— sparse. The social event going on above-decks means that activity is low, most work temporarily suspended and personnel— recruits and their trainers, in the case of this particular location— given a brief reprieve to idle closer to the surface. He had counted on this sparseness. It was why he had chosen this day in particular, beyond the fact that the identities of the hosts made their cover story easier to push through.

Unfortunately, that pool of trainers and recruits might be nominally idle, but they are still waiting in expectation of inspection, as the owner of the identity meant to carry out said inspection points out. James makes an impatient handwave, watching the men flanking the door. "It hasn't been that long. It will keep."

It won't keep too long, however, which means they need to do something now if they're going to do something. It's perhaps for that reason that he agrees to Jane's idea this time, shooting her a last searching look before melting back into the dark of the winding corridors. Assuredly he's circling around, but how long will that take him? How long will she have to stall?

She seems prepared to stall a good long while. The men turn towards her in surprise and suspicion when she pops into their line of vision, and though they don't lift their weapons on her— the more ornamentally useless a person is the more important they might be, and she definitely looks like she might be important— they do block her from trying to go through the door right between them.

She demands an escort to her actual appointment, because the one she had before got asked away, and— well— surely one of them can be spared from the door, can't they? The men look between themselves. "You're not supposed to be down this way," one of them finally says. He glances over at his companion, in his glance a wordless command to stay put at the door, because he's going to get to the bottom of what's going on with this woman. The other man, acknowledging, settles in for the long haul, though he's still facing towards Jane in guarded suspicion. "No one is. We're going to go up to Ross and sort out who you are and what you were doing down here, is what we're doing."

He finally turns towards Jane himself, walking towards her with clear intent to take her— probably ungently— by the arm. Both men make a critical mistake: they both keep their eyes on Jane, and do not see the figure that detaches from the shadows behind them to close the distance in complete silence.

Jane can, though. And unlike with the retinal scanner, she has a point-blank view to the way the Winter Soldier suddenly rears out of the dark and latches his steel left hand about the throat of the man still at the door, palm flush to the back of his neck. With a whir of metal he vises his grip shut, stifling off any chance to scream, and yanks the man violently downwards to smash him facefirst into the floor, simultaneously crushing his throat and ensuring any spastic dying pulls of the trigger don't send bullets straight into Jane.

It happens so quickly that by the time it's over, the other man— shocked— has only had time to turn around. The Soldier straightens back up in one fluid moment, his left hand releasing his first kill to swing up and around in a piston-strike of a blow. It is an assault combining uncanny precision with violent brutality: he hits square in the side of the man's head, unerringly, but with enough force to cave the skull in and shred the brain instantly into pulp.

"Clean," he says to Jane, and he means her performance. His eyes are bright, maybe a little too bright— the adrenaline gleam of a soldier post-firefight, or a predator after tasting prey blood. "Me, not so clean. With two it's hard to keep at least one of 'em from yelling. That the second guy didn't is just luck."

He glances towards the locked door and its keypad. His head cants a little, listening to things outside Jane's perception. "Occupied," he explains. "Not surprising. This isn't the kinda place they ever leave unwatched. Well, trying to steal shit instead of just torching everything and everybody is always a lot harder. Once we go in there, we're going to be on a timer. You understand?" James certainly seems to understand something about that, because he finally draws a SIG P226 and starts screwing on a suppressor. "I can't kill fast enough to keep somebody from pulling an alarm. Then the party guests all get sent home, and all the Hydra folks come slithering down here."

He checks the weapon, pulls back the slide to chamber the first round. Probably best not to think too much about the recipient of said round. "Trick with the door should keep that group we passed earlier from getting downstairs at least temporarily, but I doubt it'll stop them forever." He flicks his gaze left, meeting her eyes. "And I doubt that was all of them. I'm sure the rest of them are down here somewhere."

"Of course I know I'm not supposed to be this way," Jane repeats, forcing just enough indignation into her voice to keep her words needle-sharp. She summons everything she has to hold that guard's eyes.

Hers are fierce and ember-bright, the strong glare of an alpha animal unused to be questioned, and unwilling to step a single pace into submission. It helps to breathe slowly, in and out, the mantra constant as it cycles through her thoughts; the first lesson James taught her. Breathing begins all and ends all. If she does not oxygenate properly, or does soo too rapidly, too shallowly, it will aggravate panic. It will rise to the surface the countless tells of an impracticed liar.

She can see the second man standing just at the wings of her periphery. She can trace the outline of that assault weapon in his arms. So badly does Jane want to look, want to stare at that weapon, because it is the instinct of all prey to want to look directly at the threat that may kill them. The reflex inches the corners of her eyes.

But she does not look. She steels her stubborn jaw and holds herself with all the pretend dignity of the fake Rhea Syrma. "Haven't you heard what I just asked you? I'm already late, and frankly appalled if this is how things are done in the East coast. I'm already late, so if you would —"

The guard, however, has other ideas. In one way, Jane Foster's farce is a success, because she is not engaged like a threat. She is not held at gunpoint, restrained, or even bound for further interrogation. But that healthy skepticism survives despite her charade, and no, she won't be going as requested. She'll be reporting to be questioned for her misstep. The blood ices in her veins.

She holds silence for a beat, trying to think, trying to adapt. In the end, only one thing and one thing only compels Jane forward. She trusts James Barnes.

So she does not become afraid. She shutters her eyes instead, and answers thinly, softly, "If that's what you wish."

The guard moves decisively for her. Rhea Syrma stands still, with a cold patience that's transparently tactical, but beneath her false skin, Jane Foster freezes in terror. This she cannot help and cannot stop, as memories surface without warning, dim and foggy and terrifying: Hydra people touching her, pulling her, dragging her, putting their hands on her. She swore never again. She doesn't think she can handle being touched by them, but it's going to happen, and she's not sure she's going to endure it.

She holds her breath as that hand reaches for her.

It never touches her. It is never allowed to touch her, as the Winter Soldier exists out of darkness, his left arm snapped forward to arrest the guard in his tracks. Stock-still, Jane sees it all; she sees those familiar metal fingers, the same she has touched, had touch her, and has even held delicately in her own two hands now manacle the throat of a man and crush fatally down. The articulated joints tighten with the patient grind of machinery, and he has no time to shout, to cry out, or even to breathe, as snapping cartilage seals his trachea shut.

The impact of his face to the concrete floor reflects in Jane's staring eyes. A single blink that betrays all of her faceless, timeless, waiting silence.

Even as she pauses, the Soldier does not. He capitalizes on the shared shock of the other guard and turns his left arm on him. That steel fist craters in his head, breaking every bone from his skull to cheekbone to mandible. His face sinkholes, and inside a beat, he transforms from man to body.

There is no report of gunfire. There is no time or breath for two men's pained screams. Only the sound of steel on flesh and bone, once and twice, and the noise of two corpses meeting their final resting places on cold cement.

It takes seconds. And Jane sees it all. Two murders committed only inches away from her, so close she knows now the sounds of bone splintering and cartilage folding; she knows the soft noises a man makes when he chokes for air from a throat that will no longer work. She pays witness to their last moments, two men whose only known sins were a single and regrettable decision they made, and she hates Hydra for it all the more.

Her dark eyes lift from those corpses and onto the face of their murderer; Jane looks up on James Barnes in a searching sort of relief. Her eyes shine with questions she does not say.

Because he does not give her time for them; he speaks quickly, pragmatically, and bypasses any personal questions to call her performance clean. His, not so much. He teaches as she works, and even if Jane's thoughts still replay those murders, over and over unbidden, she pays him the respect of listening. And absorbing.

It astounds her how murder is so simple an act. In all of one motion, someone's life can end. Her mind buckles to quantify it, so Jane sets the thought aside.

Instead, her attention turns on the door. The first thing taken into her focus is that keypad, and Jane studies the device with her eyes, already calculation the code's total permutations. She considers its engineering, thinking — it's not beyond her, not at all — with her eyes turned away only at James's single warning. Once they go into this room, there is a time limit. What he does not say is that if they go over that timer, they will be dead. Does she understand?

"I understand," Jane answers.

With that, she kicks off her heels again, and this time for good. She levers one leg up onto the wall and hikes up her skirt. There, strapped discreetly to the inside of her thigh as they arranged, is a small pair of pliers and a coiled tether of wires. She opens her clutch and finds her smartphone.

Jane inclines her head to a panel beneath the keypad, the motion identical to the one she gave James for the retinal scanner. "Could you?"

With bolted steel removed by his left hand, she hunkers down and eyes up the guts of its circuitry. It's child's play. She finds and separates the alarm wires, cuts and braids on some connections, and pulls off the back of her phone. It cleared security upstairs, a phone that looks and scans identical to the countless many that exist, but Jane Foster's phone is a cunning little creature. She's re-engineered it with hidden connectors, and plugged into the keypad, she runs one of her personal scripts.

It quantum computes a few hundred million permutations in a handful of seconds, until it runs the correct sequence of numbers. The keypad lights green. The lock clicks audibly open.

Jane stands to give James Barnes, gun in hand, first rights to the door. Rising to her full height, she takes in a slow, deep breath, a deep, quiet, mental ratification of what is about to happen.

"The killswitch is on my phone," she tells him in quiet reminder. "Once we have the data. Choose when you need it to happen, when you need the advantage it will give you. There won't be power anywhere for a handful of minutes. Perhaps forever, unless they route their back-up beyond the transformer I rigged to go. They won't be able to see in the dark. You will."

There is a beat of silence.

"And James?" Jane implores, a look on her face like there is something more she wishes to say. She does not say it aloud. But it reflects inside her brown eyes as she gazes into his.

The door opens when he reaches for it.

It bears James Barnes first into a long, deep, low-ceilinged concrete room that exists in function just as he suspected: it rows with servers bound with countless wires, the operation of machines enclosing the room under a monotonous, ventilating hum. There are open terminals, and networked laptops and tablets. And then there are the four posted men, looking nothing like the guards throned at the door, their role instead seeing to the deletion and destruction of all data outlying tonight's meeting and soiree.

They heard the noise outside. Because the first thing one man does is pull his small sidearm to point straight at the man in the door.

Timer starts now.

Jane Foster, tiny and nonthreatening, serves well as a distraction. She is an irregularity, enough so to draw the eyes of both guards, but not an irregularity that looks so intimidating as to require physical force or rough handling. Especially since she carries herself as if she were someone of import.

So the guns don't lift. Neither man moves to restrain her. But it's really enough, for Jane's nerves, that they're moving to touch her at all.

Jane, frozen in terror, stands immobile. Easy enough to march upstairs and get sorted out.

The problem for both men is, she's really just bait being dangled by something a lot more threatening than herself. Something that steps slowly out of the dark behind them. Something whose presence is first announced only by the sudden killing sound of his left arm.

The cold efficiency with which he renders men to corpses is unnatural, taking less than five seconds from start to finish, and creating no more noise than the sick crackle of cartilage and bone being crushed— the dull impacts of slaughtered meat hitting unyielding floors. The Winter Soldier's indifference continues even after those lives have been taken, his blue eyes barely sparing them a glance before he's moved on to inspect the keypad.

The acts do not trouble him. He was made forcibly, through pain and privation, to be this way, by people these men chose willingly to serve.

The bodies can be handled later— if handling them remains something necessary at all to begin with. That's liable to become a nonissue, very soon. Canting his head and listening in the door, he can discern the faint sound of voices. Multiple voices, all clustered together in a room that doubtless also contains multiple alarms.

This is where the stealthy approach likely stops working for them.

He speaks quietly, pragmatically. The urgency is necessary for practical reasons, but it has the addditional effect of not allowing Jane to really stop long enough to start thinking about what she just witnessed. He teaches her verbally along as he works, with the reasons and rationales behind each of his actions, his voice sure and calm in a way that suggests he has taught this kind of thing many times before, to many faceless would-be assassins.

Just another inscrutable part of his bloody past.

In the end, the important thing for her to recognize is this: once they break in to start taking data, they will start a timer for themselves, and if they run that timer out they will die. He makes that quite clear. And looking up at him, she says she understands. Then she hikes up her skirt.

His eyes don't stray, but only because they're working and he has more self-control than to be distracted while in the middle of a job. He instead turns his attention to the panel she indicates, peeling it loose as if it were paper taped to the wall, and discarding it. Once that's handled, he spends the time while waiting for Jane to do her engineering thing in seeing to his own specialty: he draws and prepares his weapon: screwing on a suppressor, loading it, pulling back the slide.

The movements are so rote to him, by now, that he can keep half an eye on what Jane is doing. He's not a bad hand at cracking security himself, but what she's doing is several steps beyond anything he's ever done. A low whistle escapes him as her script keys the correct sequence in a mere few seconds. "Could get used to it being that easy," he says, amused.

He punctuates his statement by moving to the door, pistol at the ready, pausing only when Jane speaks up to remind him about the killswitch.

"Noted," he says. "I'll let you know."

And James?

He glances back when she doesn't follow up aloud. The look in her eyes softens his own intent hunter's gaze, momentarily chasing away the frozen wasteland of the Winter Soldier, and revealing that James Barnes is still the one in the driver's seat, in the end.

Then he turns back to the door and opens it.

Beyond is what he expects: a climate-controlled, spare room filled with humming servers, terminals, networked mobile devices, and four very apprehensive men. Men who really aren't fighters, but who seem to be expected to defend this room to the death anyway, because one of them pulls a sidearm to aim it straight at the intruder coming in the door.

James almost laughs.

He sidesteps right when he sees that trigger finger tighten, one flung-back arm bringing Jane along with him, in a smooth motion that predicts the shot so unerringly that it passes within heartbeats of hitting him dead in the chest. His own pistol is lifting, aiming and firing one-handed with preternatural speed. He drops the man wielding the pistol. He drops the man beside him, who was going for an alarm. He drops the third man, who was pulling a pistol of his own, a few seconds slower on the uptake than his compatriot.

But he can't drop the fourth before he's thrown himself at another alarm lever and pulled it.

The underground base howls slowly to intimidating, ear-piercing life with a droning, piercing alarm.

"Let's get started," he says, checking his weapon and kicking the door shut behind him. "It won't take people long to get here. They'll know exactly where the alarm originated."

He unshoulders the messenger bag he carried in, passed off as containing personnel files and a work laptop, and saved from inspection by Hydra's own tendency towards mysteriousness within its own ranks, and the resulting ability to lean on people with no more than vaguely threatening name drops. It emphatically does not contain either of those things. "Steal what you can," he says, opening it up, "but once we're done, I'm destroying it all."

Door opened, what greets them first is the barrel of a pointed gun.

She freezes. He doesn't.

James Barnes moves so seamlessly it may well be a dance. As immediately as that gun trains on him, he twists, and takes Jane Foster with him. His left arm turns her with his step in a patient, powerful guide, with a decisive strength that merely carries the woman along. She barely feels the ground beneath her nylon-stockinged feet. The air rushes past her ears in the only betrayal of the speed he moves her. The momentum is so steady, so sure, that Jane barely feels it.

Closed in his metal arm, she gains the momentary vantage to see down the long line of his other, right arm, where it terminates from his flesh hand to the gun clasped in his fingers. The suppressor elongates the barrel but does not impede his surgical aim.

Jane is able to watch, hear, feel, how James shoots.

It's all so quick and efficient. He takes three lives before she even draws breath. One bullet needed for one body. One bullet issued through all the necessary structures of the brain — mid-brain, stem, vital to living processes, and why is she thinking all of this now. Jane's jaw tenses to the sound of corpses folding and crumpling, no longer men, but malleable, cumbersome weight, with no strength or soul to bring tension to those muscles or manipulation to those bones.

Death all around them. Death she chose to become a part of her life. This is what she wants; this is what she convinced him to pursue. This is what she believes is necessary to them. In many ways, Jane concedes, these deaths are hers. She ordered them the moment she made her mind.

It happens in a handful of seconds; all too fast for Jane to move or speak. But her eyes, and by extension, her whirlwind attention, turn to the immediate, and deafening clamor of the alarm.

The fourth bullet finds its mark. The man dies with his hands still wound around the handle of the alarm. Corpse too fresh for rigor mortis, his limp grasp slides free and he too falls, murdered so efficiently he has had no time to close his eyes. They gaze uselessly forward, mirror-empty, into nothing and no one.

To Jane Foster, it ends only the moment James lowers his gun and ascertains erasure of their immediate threat. Only then, and with the alarm still ringing in her ears, she lets go the breath she has been holding. Her dark eyes stray on those corpses —

— but he does not let her consider them a moment more, immediately winging the door shut and setting their timer under the duress of what's the come. It snaps Jane from wherever her mind wants to take her; she glances away, back and up at James, no longer thinking of death but only the directions he has to give them both. Brought back to focus, she assents with a single nod of her head. Her voice is soft, barely heard over the roll of the alarm. "All right."

With that, Jane Foster moves to do as promised. She puts eyes on the server and decides on that first, moving purposefully forward to help herself to its wares. A corpse slumps bonelessly in her path, and the arrayed desks and little space in the server room make it difficult for her to ignore and simply move around. She pauses transparently, unsure. Then, some silent decision made, she steps over someone's body, unwilling to allow it to impede their little time.

It is a dichotomous sight, the picture of a woman, tailored and elegant, every long line of her luxurious, armed for the sort of world where appearance is one's weapon, and now bent into machinery taller than she is, no vanity in the way she sorts wires and digs deeper into the guts of the server. What Jane finds brings her visible pause.

"I've never seen anything like this," Jane muses aloud, with a sort of wonder that is temporarily ignorant of the little time they have. "This architecture. It doesn't even give off heat. I don't see… there should be storage devices. Why have a server farm if data isn't stored locally? This doesn't make sense. I don't get what they're doing. It's something else."

She lingers a beat, mystified. It's not often Jane Foster is rendered academically speechless.

But there is no time — as James will definitely remind her.

She forgets the quasi-servers. The woman backsteps, immediately switching course to one of the terminals, not even wasting time to help herself to a chair as she finds mouse and keyboard. Her hands only pause, only in rememberance, as she brings them up to her immacuately-bound hair, pulling out careful pins as she uncoils its careful knot. It comes free, falling darkly to her shoulders, and out of the bun Jane claims the data stick hidden inside. She inserts it into the machine.

Whatever security that previously shunted her at start-up overrides into a command console, no doubt wholly thanks to whatever script Dr. Foster has fed the network.

Her hands fly over the key, and just like that, she begins her dig.

Seconds pass. The alarm still sounds its measured cry. Past its noise James can hear through his enhanced senses the sounds of activity and response: guards taking point and receiving transmitted instruction. Doors being secured. Escape plans for the upstairs party to be vacated so the precious few necks of the HYDRA webs can be escorted safely free. Breach in security. Seek, surround, and suffer no last breath.

Jane still works away to data running a constant current down her screen. She bites compulsively on her bottom lip. "Just a minute," she keeps promising. "They don't have their data on-site as you guessed. But it doesn't mean — there's a /way/. I know there is. They're networked in, and even if the connection's closed, it doesn't mean it still isn't there. The way in. I just need to find it. Just a minute. A minute, I promise."

Time is dwindling. It's run out. It's past a return that could promise their lives, and he needs them to go, and —

— Jane's eyes brighten with fierce trimph. "Oh, you son of a bitch," she tells the machine. "I /found/ you. I /found/ it. There's a back door — whoever made wasn't trusting anyone. There's a back door, and I bet they never saw it, but I do, and —"

She stops. It takes a heartbeat. And she looks over at James. "We got it."

James Barnes has had hundreds of thousands of guns pointed at him by now, over the years. This latest one doesn't make him miss a step at all. He was always an excellent dancer, and combat is just another dance.

He sees the pointed pistol and turns instantly. One arm crooks to take Jane along with him. He sidesteps, shielding her with his own body, moving her so swiftly and assuredly that she won't feel a single jolt or jerk. That she can easily look up and down the line of his lifted right arm to see him take aim and fire.

He was an excellent shot to begin with. The long decades have made him peerless.

There is no fanfare to him. No flash. Just the emotionless, surgical efficiency of a man built and bred solely to kill. He kills three times in the space of a breath, without a single hitch in his own, and not even the shrieking alarm that sounds before he can make his fourth kill brings him to startle or flinch.

Even though it's loud. Really, very loud.

With a grunt of displeasure, he lets Jane go and ensures the area is secured. He shuts the door and warns Jane they're sure on a timetable now. He opens up his bag and starts to remove explosives, setting them deftly around the room with an obvious eye towards one hundred percent annihilation of data. He listens to Jane ramble with one ear as he does, placid and mechanical and efficient in his cold operation.

She seems surprised. "Hydra was always just a little bit ahead of the curve technologically," he murmurs absently, setting the last explosive. He circles back to his bag, pulls out a carbine, and closes it back up.

Just a minute, Jane promises. Ready and waiting by the door, keyed up and alert, James warns, "I hear them coming. They got through your jammed door."

Then— Jane tells him she got it. They got it. James doesn't waste time grinning or congratulating her. "Time to go!" he says instead, grabbing her and hustling her out the door. He goes first, and good thing he did, because gunshots come spraying down the hall from its far end, and only his reflexes get his metal arm up in time to deflect the bullets. Pulling Jane out the door and shoving her ahead of him— in the opposite direction from whence those shots came— he urges her into a run, following swiftly after her after a pause to return fire and force their pursuit back around the corner.

The reprieve is temporary. The people behind them can be heard resuming the chase shortly, rushing down the hall in their wake. James waits, waits, waits, hand in his pocket, still rushing both himself and Jane AWAY from the server room—

—and then the reason becomes evident as he triggers all the set explosives, many of which were incendiary. The walls disintegrate, and flames snarl hungrily out into the corridor.

"They always have at least one other way out of any of their bases, other than the 'front door,' so to speak," he says, indifferent to what he just did— and the fact there is now A SPREADING FIRE behind them— as he spurs her onwards down the winding halls. "The VIPs like having escape routes not everybody's privy to. Like rats, really—"

Their paths narrow down abruptly to just one dim corridor. James hurries them down it, slams open the door at the far end—

—and the twenty people gathering up in the large assembly room beyond, clearly having come down from the 'festivities' upstairs, still hastily arming themselves to deal with whatever threat has reared its head in their midst.

James shoves Jane instantly into cover behind a stack of unused, piled-up chairs and desks, and seizes their attention with the sharp report of the carbine. Short as the rifle is, it's still something that needs to be handled with both hands and a steady shoulder for a brace, yet James one-hands it in his left as if it were an oversized pistol. And achieves similar accuracy with it nonetheless.

The people who haven't outright died from his first attack rush to respond, some smart enough to get into cover— others, showing their inexperience, fumbling to load weapons and chamber rounds out in the open, where they can be shot. He picks these off first with the pistol still in his right hand, one bullet for one kill, carefully conserving ammunition with spare efficiency out of long, long habit.

The survivors return fire. He picks up speed, turning and stepping through the gunfire like a dancer moving through his routine, moving too quickly to be easily seen— much less aimed at. He leaps obstacles to get at those hunkered in hiding. He twists his way through gunshots before deflecting back the final fired shots off the metal of his arm.

All the while, he keeps a careful eye on Jane. Any enemy that even looks at her becomes priority one.

It is not much of a contest. James Barnes would feel bad about it, if not for the fact it was Hydra that made him this way, and it seems fitting for Hydra to receive full demonstration of the perfect kill machine it has engineered.

For a chilling moment, Jane Foster courts the idea that she was wrong.

Even with her scripting, she cannot find entranceway into a network that, by all purposes, was designed not to exist. Was, by James's telling and her own understanding, a connection that, when terminated, functions to erase its own trace in a system: made by an organization what survives by their secrecy. There was just one glaring fact that forced her forward: even if it is made to /seem/ that way, it cannot be that case. It would be enough to trick a mind not aware enough to look, but Jane knows better, and she refuses to be outsmarted by the same monsters who tried to break her. She will not be made their victim — their fool — ever again.

But here, with a dead body half a foot from her left, and bent over a terminal, Jane runs into virtual dead end after dead end. She has none of her equipment and even less time, and she's going to fail them both. She's going to have four bodies on her personally tally — their blood on James's hands — for a promise she could not keep. James warns of something he hears, and jaw tightening, she does not reply, attention tunnelling deeper into the code running her screen.

She searches herself for the logic to try to force past these safeguards. Every clever attempt Jane tries is walled off by the work of someone just as clever. She cannot find a flaw in this code to capitalize upon. Of course she would not, because it was written by one of them, by someone either under duress or already having their mind torn open to wire in synthetic compliance, or —

Jane pauses, and her hands stop, quiet with realization. It's what she's doing wrong. Too far into her own head, and not thinking like one of them, and what would have she done if it were her? If they found her sooner, and put a gun to her head, and made her architect them a system with nothing but the thread-bare promise of her life upon success?

She looks for a back-door and finds it. It's such a vague, insidious slip inside the script that many would not notice. She didn't, but does now. A way in for someone who did not trust his masters. A secret leverage of someone certain he would need to stay alive.

Jane accesses it and, just like that, finds herself in. Leagues of data, most of it encrypted — not an issue, not to her — that she sifts superficially with her eyes. It looks like businesses. Bank accounts. Satellite uplinks. Coordinates. But there is no time for her to do anything but copy everything she can and download.

The system eventually locks her, but not after she has pulled most of what she can from HYDRA's distant server, and she pulls free her data stick. Jane stares at it as though it were precious, because it is. Precious beyond comprehension. Heavy with information that, to the world, does not and should not even exist.

Her eyes are shining when she tells James they have it. He, on the other hand, does not share in Jane Foster's quiet rapture; well-aware of the noise she cannot even hear, he grabs her and gets the hell out of the Dodge. Hand taken, the other clasping the data protectively close to her heart, she moves urgently after, forced into a run to meet James's longer stride. He bears them back out into the hall —

— and Jane cries out in surprise at the too-close ricochet of bullets against his shielding left arm. The look the gives him — she's never witnessed him do that before — is that of quiet awe and the fascination of an engineer given new ideas.

Ideas that can wait. James urges her to run, and with a minute frown of concern, Jane complies, throwing herself forward into a breakneck sprint. Breathing burns her lungs as she dashes down narrowed corridors, with only his voice at her back to guide her. She can hear the trade of gunfire. She can hear the urgency squeezing James Barnes's voice.

And then she hears the distant, deafening roar of detonating explosives, and stumbling against the shock wave that shakes the floor under her feet, Jane turns like Lot's wife, her face lit in the herald of fire. She can feel the heat of the conflagration burning her skin. It brings out the yellow in her brown eyes, glittering with shock, awe, and even excitement.

He pulls her out of that moment and them both forward, a dead-set pursuit on the VIPs scurrying their way out of an anticipated escape route out —

— into a room filled with them. Jane has not even time to count how many there are with her eyes. James shoves her into cover and swiftly introduces himself to company the only way he knows how.

And from all Jane Foster has seen in these last, strange few months of her life, her world twisted in more ways than one, she knows she has never in her life witnessed anything like this.

One soldier engages twenty, all armed, all deadly, and in the first breakneck moments, already culls half. He ends life after life even before they realize he's there, before they can find cover of their own, before they can even chamber their weapons. He moves without a single wasted step, and every motion is articulated with a reflexive function to kill. Jane has seen James fight before, but not like this, and he wasn't fighting at all, was he? He was doing something else, something implicitly holstering that killing intent, something made of his desire not to needlessly take a life. That was a patient, careful game. This is war.

It is effortless brutality. It is strangely beautiful. It is the side of James Barnes he tried so despairingly to hold away from her, and now Jane witnesses it in full.

It is, as well, a potential stall at the hands of HYDRA. Precious moments wasted for James to keep the two of them alive while the very orchestrators they came to execute escape alive. Jane thinks, reluctantly pulling her eyes off the massacre to desperately search the room. The data stick still inside her clammy hand, she conceals it in the safest hiding spot she can think of, inside her bra, ready to protect that precious cargo with her own body. Glancing up, she follows cabling with her eyes, and it pulls her attention to what looks like a fuse breaker on one far wall. It means it's a exterior room, she thinks, and it means any back way up to the surface is nearby. It means /they/ are nearby.

It means there's only one thing she can do.

He watches her position. So James notices the instant Jane Foster moves, recklessly abandoning the hiding spot he gave her, and determined to cross the room in a deadset run. His distraction is her cover, though she hears stray shots whizzing past, one so close it whistles loudly. She doesn't stop. She doesn't let herself stop. There's no time, and she can't freeze. She can't freeze. So when a stray woman crosses her path, attention flickering from the Winter Soldier and toward this errant Jane who should not be here, who cannot be here, who cannot even be alive —

— Jane meets her eyes but does not stop. She trusts something far greater than the woman turning her rifle her way… and that something is what puts a slug immediately through her head. Her blood paints Jane.

But Jane cannot stop. She feels it on her, all over her, but continues her dash, until it carries her frantically to the breaker, where she pulls off its lid and yanks free the cords strapped to her leg. She knows she can feed it into her phone and run her application to arrest nearby elevators, but without the proper equipment, near impossible without fatally electrocuting herself. Unless — killswitch now, work in the dark, compromise them before the generators kick on. It's sound. Save for one thing. He needs to know what she's about to do.

"JAMES!" carries suddenly over the fray in Jane's worst gambit. It pulls eyes and attentions her way that had never noticed her there. There she stands at one side of the room, blood spattered and holding her phone visibly for her partner to see. Her staring eyes communicate her intent. Be prepared to work in the dark.

She taps the button on her touchscreen.

The entire underground bunker abruptly shakes again, like the first explosion but not from inside — this one is far away but deafening enough that it guts the nearby transformer. Every light goes out.

Jane gets the data. But there's no time to celebrate her success, nor contemplate what exactly she might have just gotten.

James gets her by the arm and hustles her straight out the door, beelining away from the way they came in and deeper into the underground labyrinth of sterile, trackless corridors. He moves with a certain familiarity that suggests he knows the general layout: and he does, because it is broadly the same layout used in many other facilities to promote efficiency amongst a membership frequently rotated from location to location. Hydra isn't kidding about their slogan. They tend towards redundancy in everything.

He uses that to his advantage.

Still, there is pursuit. A clamor of voices rises at their backs as the people upstairs finally make it through the door Jane jammed, and catch up to the interlopers. Gunshots ring out, and with mind-numbing speed James turns and shields with his lifted left arm, bullets glancing with angry pings off the steel of it. It's a novel sight for Jane, though it is something James has done thousands of times over the years— so many times he's perfected the timing and angle of it— and he notices the brief look she gives him.

There isn't time to respond. He's counting steps as they recede from the server room, counting until it's safe to detonate— he does it the first moment he can, hoping to catch pursuit in the blast and the flames. From the rapidly-drowned out screams in their wake, he does.

He doesn't react to that, either.

Jane does, however. She twists and looks back, making that old Biblical mistake, and his grasp tightens on her as he urges her out of her shock and onwards faster and faster. The passageways narrow, condensing down, up until they burst through a door and into a room…

…where many of the people who were already downstairs have congregated, no doubt either to escape via the back… or to defend said exit so the intruders cannot themselves escape.

The Winter Soldier, however, means to leave whether he is allowed to or not.

He shoves Jane into cover without breaking stride. His demeanor, his movements, his carriage— all change like gears shifting, like the mechanisms of a gun chambering a round. James Barnes reconfigures into the Winter Soldier between silent, assured steps: one man against twenty, and yet not outwardly concerned in the least. There was never any room for concern or fear or doubt in the Soldier. Only the cold clarity of purpose, and the confidence in his power to achieve that purpose.

For the first time, he lets Jane see him in full operation. Not play fighting, not holding back and on the defense, not tossing off useless softened blows with no murderous intent, but fully in his element— all pure raw offense and killing intent— doing what he was built and honed to do for seventy long years.

He kills several before they even register he is there. One bullet per kill. To watch him is to audit a master class in perfectly-efficient destruction; there is no motion he makes that is not fully dedicated to the securing of a kill. He slides in as those closest to him turn, slamming into one and pincering him in the ruthless clasp of his left arm. The inhuman limb's internals whir audibly as he twists and uses the man's body to absorb the first fired shots at him, firing his own return salvos past his captive's shoulder to put down another few men.

He drops the corpse when done and moves on, zigzagging smoothly with preternaturally-quick steps through the spray of fire. He watches gun barrels track; he watches muzzle flashes; he moves accordingly, anticipating trigger pulls, always one step ahead or one behind of where his opponents are aiming at all times. When he turns his own weapons back to return their favor of fired bullets, they have no such ability to do the same. He can see faster than they can. He can think faster. He can act faster.

They made him this way. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the part of James Barnes that is deeply, homicidally, unendingly furious at what was done to him wonders if they regret that yet.

His concentration only breaks when he notices the movement of Jane breaking from cover to go for a breaker. He strafes instinctively to cover her by diverting attention, and it works to a degree, but there's one woman who notices her and turns towards her, lifting her rifle to pick off this small odd threat.

Jane doesn't miss a step. Doesn't stop. She trusts what she knows will come, and which comes with brutal surgical swiftness when it does: the bullet the Winter Soldier puts immediately through her aggressor's head, wiping the threat out instantly. Blood blows out in a messy arc over Jane, but the Soldier doesn't notice, doesn't care, it was inevitable with how close they were. He has already mentally moved on to the next target—

She calls his name over the screaming, the gunfire, the moans. The Winter Soldier blinks, remembering himself. The rest of the room takes notice too.

A moment later, the lights go out courtesy of another explosion.

It is despairingly dark. Nobody can see. But the Winter Soldier can. He holsters his noisy guns, and deft fingers draw a knife.

An odd, eerie silence descends, save for the pants and moans of those who have not yet finished dying, and the shallow frenzied breaths of those who are still alive.

The former tapers, naturally, with time; they finish bleeding out, sputter a last sigh, and die. The latter category shrinks more rapidly, more deliberately. Men and women, stumbling in the dark, assured there are others still alive only by the pants of their breathing, can hear their company dwindle with methodical inevitability, each individual gasp and breath of life silently erased one after the other.

No death is accompanied by any particular sound. But periodically, the Winter Soldier's left arm hums to itself in the dark.

Eventually, it gets totally quiet.

A few moments after that, cool metal brushes Jane's wrist. "Let's go. We have a little time, but not much, and I want to be well clear of here," the voice of the Soldier accompanies that touch, followed by a distinct dull thud: as of something being dropped. There is a sense of him leaning close, but it is too dark to see his face, much less the expression he might be wearing. His grasp closes on her to lead her, and when he moves to guide them towards the far end of the room, the smell of blood strengthens.

Someone dies and their last moment covers Jane Foster: hot, dark arterial blood that paints her dress, her arms, one side of her face. It is the first time in all her life she wears blood that's not her own.

Yet Jane does not pause. She does not hitch in her run, or stop, or even look down to see the gore spattered along her exposed skin. It is not out of coldness or cruelty on her end; she does not notice it. She does not feel it on her. In all the furor and traded gunshots, with James hanging his own life and safety in these moments to cover hers, she does not spare a moment to even register what has happened.

Tunnel-visioned by fear and adrenaline and the drive of unfinished work, Jane stops only when she reaches the fuse box and wastes no time to tear into it. Shots volley around her, and some come so close that their broken sound barrier whistles hurt her ears. Her hands shake as she sorts through cable after cable, breaking the false back off her phone to expose the circuit board she's built into its bones. She knows she can do this, but there's only step she needs to take to ensure she can. She needs to cut the power and trust James Barnes to protect them both in the dark silence between power failure and the activation of back-up generators.

So, with her single warning — one that proffers the entire room realization of Jane's position, existence even — she trusts.

A faraway explosion sighs a shockwave that moves through the bunker: it shakes the floor and webs cracks up the concretes walls. Some survivors make the mistake of pausing between shocks, attentions riveted to the distant clamour, unsure of that is just another depth charge after the first, and if more have been rigged and are expected to go —

— and it slows them enough for the Winter Soldier to feed a bullet into their brains. The rest make for cover, and the room swathes into darkness.

All goes silent, with the remaining HYDRA hires aware enough to brank stray shots before they become friendly fire. There is nothing they can see, nothing save — for a distant and single, small point of light.

It flares off the screen of Jane Foster's phone. It is a beacon, a deadly one, and she knows it, but she needs it now: she knows she could work without sight if it were all her own equipment, their designs stored to her memory, but she needs light now to make sense of the enemy's wiring job. It's sub-optimal, she thinks, whoever ran the electrical work in this monstrous place, as she pulls her wire-cutters free and begins surgery.

Her fingers shake with the little time she has. If she's touching any of this by the time they turn on the generators —

— it will be enough live current to have her become another one of Edison's stray dogs.

Balancing her phone between her chin and shoulder, both to point the light and keep her two hands free, Jane cuts and unbraids dead wire after wire, forced by necessity to keep her attention tunnelled and her back turned on the way she burns like a candleflame to the deadly things who hunt by light. She attracts the surviving, who have long realized she is attached to the man who is bleeding their ranks…

A man who can also see in the dark.

One of them lingers dangerously close, gun pointed Jane's way —

— and she pauses, and ever so minutely, when out of the darkness comes the soft, wet sound of something she's never heard before. A man trying to gasp his last breath out of his severed throat.

There are more sounds like that, so little and so light that Jane has to strain to hear them at all. But what follows them is something far more familiar, something far more comforting, and the machine hum of the Winter Soldier's arm shakes away her fear. She turns her eyes back to her work, feeling around sharpened wires with her fingers alone to make the careful, delicate work of connecting the fuse lines into her phone —

Just as she finishes and lets go of the wires, any second liable to be deadly to the touch, her homemade software beeps the warning of the activating generator. Live electricity braids her phone into the power. Jane does not even waste time to sigh with relief.

Still in the dark, she quickly opens her app and hacks into the modulator, not taking her long to parse its numbers and find what she's looking for. Jane squints down obliviously at the screen, never once looking up, never once realizing what goes on in the dark around her. She arrests all power from the elevators. And then she —

Jane stops, drawn momentarily out of her work to realize — the room, still dark, has gone silent. No gunshots. No stumbling sounds of footsteps. No sucking, blood-wet gasps. No more low, distant moans. She stands there, unsure, holding her own breath, suddenly and violently aware of everything and yet nothing around her. She holds herself in standstill, chilled by the sudden sensation of — no one. Alone and with no one. Where is —

That touch stops her heart, just for an instant, because her first, terrified thought is: what if it's them? It finds her and closes her wrist, not someone's warm skin and knuckling bone but cold steel curling a deadly manacle. Jane exhales in breathless relief, because she can, and by touch alone, recognize that engineering anywhere. She looks up, her eyes searching the dark, looking for the face of the man she cannot see. The light off her phone shines the line of him, framing her, but nothing more. His words soak into her, and knowing he can see her, she nods wordless understanding.

Jane uses her phone to reroute power off the fuse box and disconnects from it, pulled away by that guiding metal hand. In the dark, she cannot see where or how they go, and trusts blindly in James's lead, how he instructs her to move left and right to avoid her bare feet to step on a sprawling someone or in a pooling something. She smells blood, thick and tinny, all along the roof of her mouth, and the sensors circuiting his prosthetic register the way her hand turns to take his.

The way out leads to a single, narrow hall, lit sparingly with rusty back-up lighting, the corridor terminating into a single elevator. With the stairs long removed for desire of security, it is the only back way in and out. The car sits in a machine's death, dead of power and silent, lifted two feet off the ground before Jane's work seized it into place. Its shut steel doors promise something inside.

"They're in there," Jane says at James's back.

Men and women die in the dark all around Jane, as she works. They die as they try to run. They die as they try to attack her, drawn by the light of her phone. They die as they try to see through the heavy blackness, futilely attempting to draw some kind of bead on the killer inhabiting the dark around them.

The killer makes few sounds that would assist them with this. The only noise to be heard that is not the noise of blood spilling and people dying, is the periodic murmur of a metal arm's lullaby to itself in the dark. And by the time that is registered— it's much too late.

Eventually, it grows completely silent.

The first cue Jane receives that she is not completely alone in the dark is the touch of metal around her wrist. It is a familiar touch— there is no mistaking that smoothly-jointed steel— and James used his left hand on purpose for that reason. A flesh touch could be anyone, could be a stranger— an aggressor— and only one man could take her wrist in a gentle manacle of metal.

He can see her, even if she cannot see him. He sees the nod she gives. He drops something to the floor and leads her on, his guidance nudging her left and right accordingly to keep her from tripping over bodies or stepping into pooled blood— or worse. He takes little care with avoiding the gore-spread minefield that the floor has become, himself.

He is silent as they make their way down the halls, farther and farther from that horrific dark room. He seems to be counting under his breath again, judging some distance; after a while, he glances back, and triggers something. The pack he dropped on the floor, in the middle of the room, erupts with his remaining incendiaries, and the bodies, the blood… all of it goes up in sheets of flame.

"We should really get moving," he says, unnecessarily.

Finally they come to a narrow hallway, with an elevator at the end. The one way out for a place too paranoid for stairs. It's arrested a few feet into its attempt to ascend.

They're in there, Jane says. Slowing to a prowl, James regards the closed doors with a restless, hungry look.

Steel doors present no difficulty. With a shriek of his left arm, he punctures clean through the weak point where the doors seam together, closes his grip down, and tears them clean off with little more effort than if he were peeling open a can of fish. The act shreds the left sleeve of his jacket on so much twisted steel, exposing the inhuman prosthetic hidden beneath.

The people within are likely to recognize it, even if they do not recognize the Winter Soldier's actual face.

They are a soft, important-looking bunch. The VIPs who fancy themselves a little too important now, in the ranks of Hydra, to run about fighting and dying as the faceless soldiers are supposed to. Among them is, interestingly, Mark and Julia Costa. James smiles humorlessly with recognition.

"This is good," he says, as he lifts his pistol. "They've seen our faces."

Left behind at their turned backs, the distant, spreading inferno moves their hair in a lashing wind, sucking air like the deep, slow inhale of a rousing beast. It exhales searing, melting, burning heat.

Cleansing fire brings light to darkness. The room swallows into the roar of the spreading conflagration, engulfing the bodies of the dead.

This time, Jane does not look back. Her hand tightens on James's, the touch registered through all its synthetic nerves. She lets the left arm of the Winter Soldier guide her safely away. Out of that room, a pushed door closing them from the fire, it frees the two into a long corridor — dendrite-long and ending on a single elevator. Dimmed lights, reduced to low lighting under the rations of the generator, cast them in ruddy light that stretches long shadows.

Smoke escaping through the cracks of the door behind them travels the ceiling in a black current, rivering long before them, following the hallway toward the only source of ventilation: the exposed crack of the elevator tunnel with the car trapped feet up from the ground. Stopped and turned by Jane Foster's meddling from escape into a cage.

In a way, it almost looks a gift-wrapped prize. Especially as Jane, voice hooded with quiet knowing, tells James in few words what waits inside.

He does not waste time ripping the steel doors straight off the elevator car as though they were paper; Jane hangs back, silent now, and watchful. This is something she needs to see.

The doors shred off the car with a shriek of tearing metal. And revealed in the low interior light are the familiar faces of the Costas — and accompanying them four of Hydra's many heads.

They carry no guns, and their sophisticated clothes and genteel manner promise none of the training of their soldiers: they look as plain and harmless as professionals walking down Manhattan's Monday morning streets. The faces anyone would see, and forget, a hundred times over a day. Four predators in sheep's clothing.

Now they share the same, stunned expression as they gaze upon the man who just manually ripped a steel door from its bolts. Who wears on his clothes countless murders. Who is flanked by the supposed and blood-spattered Rhea Syrma, watching them with cool eyes. Who has reduced them to crowding rats trying to flee their burning nest.

He is a popular Congressman. She is a distinguished Federal Judge. He is old money from Denmark.

And the fourth: he is an overseas broker who invests a third of the foreign arms deals made by the American Military, and he is old enough that Mark Costa has to support him not to fall, having lost his cane somewhere in their flight. He is old enough and enmeshed with Hydra enough to recognize, if not the face, but the metal arm reminiscent of the old stories of their trained dog: the Winter Soldier.

The old man is the one who looks the pistol in its barrelled eye, his narrowed, before he lifts his jaw to take back his dignity before death. There is only one last thing to say, to try to say, before James Barnes pulls the trigger.

He spits defiantly: "Hail Hy —"

Hail Hy—

A 9mm bullet cuts the old man off. There is nothing in the Winter Soldier's glacial eyes as he watches the body drop.

"I've heard that one before," he says. "Too many times."

He takes in the remaining five, shell-shocked and freshly splattered with blood. Recognition flickers in his gaze as he registers a Congressman, a federal judge, a Danish noble among them.

"W-what do you even want?!" the Dane stammers. He was not privy to the inner circles; he knows little of the Winter Soldier. "Money? You could have—"

The Soldier's arm shifts to the left, and the pistol fires again. "Heard that as well," he sighs, words underlined by the thud of another body.

The rest dissolve. The judge tries a plea; she is the next to die, a neat hole between her eyes. The three remaining try to get out the only way they can— past the Winter Soldier blocking the way out— and in turn he executes each one with the dispassion of a man at fall slaughter.

Julia Costa is the last, and she gets the farthest. She's almost past him when his steel left arm lifts and squarely blocks her path, barring her so swiftly that she nearly folds herself in half over it. His head turns to regard her, and that hand snaps forward to seize her by the throat, dragging her right back into the killing room where he intends her to die. Her forced backpedaling trips her over the body of her husband.

She stares up at the Winter Soldier, eyes so wide the whites are visible all around, too strangled to speak. Her lips part mutely in an attempt to try, anyway.

He breaks her neck and leaves her slumped over her husband's body.

There is no particular joy or satisfaction in his stance as he stands there in the elevator, staring down at the erstwhile heads of Hydra he has cleaved off. There is only a short pause, an empty moment of vengeance taken and justice meted, before he lifts his head and remarks, "Still waiting for those 'two more' to show up."

He glances over his shoulder, one eye aimed at Jane.

"Come on," he says, voice hollow and barren of life as the halls full of spreading fire behind them. "I'll carry you up this."

Bodies fall, one after another. Each execution reflects against Jane's lenses.

She does not twitch a lash against any of those gunshots. She does not shut her eyes to the boneless drops of dead bodies. She does not turn her head when Julia Costa, hooked over the Winter Soldier's outstretched left arm, looks up and stares Jane dead in the eye.

It is a searching look that woman first imparts Jane, in her face confused askance that makes her look anything but complicit in the sins of monsters. Julia Costa looks small and pale and terrified, and for several nauseating moments, all Jane wants to do is look away. Look away, ignore, deny.

Her insides twist with sickness. It's sharp and visceral, the condemnation of the soul, crying against the sight of something so wrong. Everything in Jane's heart begs mercy to see someone, a person, look so helpless and so frightened, stumbling on the corpse of the man she married in desperation to shrink away from the promise of pain.

Jane's eyes shine, but in the end, she does not look away. There is no mercy in her, only anger, hot and fierce and virulent, to witness the woman look and act as if she were a victim. That guileless question, that pleading, that quiet horror: she is not allowed to have those things, and monsters and slavers are not permitted to die with the same stricken innocence as their slaves.

Her neck breaks under the metal hand they forced onto him. Julia's body slumps to join the others. All her faithful service and famished ladder-climbing affords her a single victory in the end: her corpse gets to heap on top of those far more important than her in life.

Silence wells in the moments after that last death. Silence, and the distant sigh of fire.

Jane holds the eyes of those bodies for just one moment more — a moment of acknowledgment, of release, of liberation — before she lifts her head to dismiss them forever. She will never spare any of them another look. All of her attention centers on James Barnes, and the sparse way he looks at her. His voice, emptied out, reminds her too much of many months ago.

The crawling fire licks at the hall at her back. She steps toward him, into the elevator, in what appears to be quiet obedience —

Until Jane stops before James, occupying the space between two fallen bodies, her back to the fire and her face tilted up to look at his. Blood paints her, none of it her own, flecked along one side of her face, drying where it weeps down her throat and paints her left shoulder. Yet, beneath that gore, shines her familiar brown eyes, the look in them something this place cannot dirty, cannot profane, cannot take away.

They do not have much time, but they have enough; they have the moments Jane takes to reach up to take James's face in her hands. Her touch brings warmth. "James," she implores. "Look at me."

In the decades-long experience of the Winter Soldier, just about everyone looks wondering and small and innocent right before they die. It is what makes it hard to take a life unless all emotion and compunctions have already been scooped out of your soul. The conditioning always took care of that part before.

He does not have the benefit of it this time. This time he must make do with anger.

On their way down, Julia Costa had made some quip about how these underground passages and elevator shafts had once been used in the transport of escaping slaves. She had laughed then at the irony. The thought carries James forward, through her pleading wide eyes and her terrified panting, keeps his arm steady and implacable as he drags her in to ensure she dies right in that same elevator.

It is quick, at the least. As quick as all the other kills he has made tonight. It is equal parts his skill— a skill so great that it would require more effort for him not to kill efficiently— and whatever goodness is left in the broken, furious husk of James Barnes.

He does not have to kill as cruelly as he could when he was the Winter Soldier.

The Soldier is still very close to the surface in these moments, however. This work always inevitably dredges him up, its execution tied to a certain state of mind. It is the Soldier's familiar laconic, machine voice that addresses Jane, beckoning her in so they can make good their escape, and at first it seems she will silently obey. The flames are already licking their way down the far end of the hall, after all. It is imperative they go.

Yet Jane seems to find something more important than that urgency. She stops before him, reaching up, taking his face in her hands and making him look down at her. His eyes are empty at first, their gaze aimed off a thousand yards away, reflecting only the distant light of the fire and the tired numbness of seventy years of death. His fingers curl slightly, familiar stimuli bringing up memories of thousands of other moments like this. The smell of fire, the smell of blood. The feel of it greasing his hands.

Then he frowns. He seems to ground again under her touch, his eyes focusing on her, the emptiness filling with muted concern as he sees something he does not like. He reaches up to brush it away. Blood wipes off her face, and onto his hand instead.

"Come on," he urges again. He sounds more like himself now. "We don't have time."

He pops open the top hatch of the elevator, and gathers her in the crook of his right arm to pull her up and through.

To Jane Foster, James Barnes and the Winter Soldier are two separate persons. But as one man gave rise to the other, not even she can think them independent entities, waxing and waning in his mind like phases of the moon.

Both exist in him, and both are him, and for her to keep him, for her to love him — she must accept the man and the soldier. For that reason, Jane moves, on quiet, bare feet, stepping over someone's corpse to bear herself before James Barnes.

He wears the Soldier now, and Jane does not think James lesser for it; she feels if it were her, she would be need something like the Soldier too. Something that brings ease of mind and efficiency of the hand; something she will never know how it feels but, in a way, can hypothesize how it must be: a clarity of mind and a suppressor on the soul.

At the truth of it, she does not fear the Soldier. She has never been his mission; he has never possessed reason to harm her. Even crippled with amnesia and lead by the vaguest compass rose of James Barnes's soul, the Soldier has been both dangerous and barren of humanity, and still a comfort to her. He too was, for a time, someone who kept her safe in so many ways.

It is why she touches him too without hesitation. Her hands come as a yielding warmth amidst a world of cold reverie, reaching for his face to gently tilt it down. It is not to chase away the Soldier, but it is to beseech the man lost too distant in his chill. There is safety in retreat, but she understands her own duty not to allow James to stray too far. Jane's brown eyes reach for his.

There are stars in her eyes. His little astrolabe made to guide him home.

He returns to her. Something flickers in his blue eyes and changes them, makes them crease with disapproval —

— and his fingers swathe the blood from Jane's face. Even as fire burns at her back, she leans into that brief touch, happy to have him back.

His flesh arm hooks her close, and Jane does not waste time to wrap an arm around his shoulders, bracing herself as he climbs.

He bears them both to the roof of the elevator, as growing fire ventilates hot, black smoke through the panel, wafting around their bodies as it sighs into the elevator tunnel. Safety and escape are a promise only one climb up.

Fire eats into the bodies below.

He talks of little time. The words earn Jane's dark eyes. Her other hand covers her heart, cupped to protect the data stick she still has stashed in her clothes. It is precious cargo, priceless to both of them, and she holds the buried shape of it with palpable reverence.

"No," she answers him, through fire and smoke and death, all that data clutched in her hand, "now they don't have time."

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