May 29, 2017:

Bucky urges Jane to take a break from her furious work in unraveling the workings of the conditioning machine. The subject of her first kill, in Germany, requires discussion.

Coney Island, Brooklyn


NPCs: None.

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

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

The Asset Conditioning Machine is an ugly, tumorous blot currently taking up the majority of Jane Foster's bedroom. Its associated displays, terminals, and support systems sprawl around it, like nerves or feeding blood vessels. In shape it is not dissimilar to an oversized dentist's chair, its extra bulk arising from a sturdy, spreading base, armrests bristling with powerful magnetic restraints, and an overhead array that arches over the seat like a scorpion's poised tail.

The array itself is two parts. One looks like a visor, made to fit down over the top half of someone's head, its internal screen and speakers suggesting some sort of private theater. The other can only be described as a clamp. This clamp, however, comes equipped with long, fine needles, current-carrying and very precisely placed. A few of them look like they are meant to feed — once the clamp is secured around someone's head — into the eye sockets.

James Barnes is standing in what little space there is left in the room, staring at it, arms folded tightly over his chest.

He's been there for a while. He hasn't moved or said much of anything as he looks at the instrument of the past seventy years of his life.

These past many hours, no different than any other, Jane Foster spends deeply absorbed in work.

The Machine prioritized to her most pressing project of many, the woman has already hit the ground running, spending the cross-continential flight back eye-deep in stolen data, breaking down the operational heuristics that comprise its software. In order to remake the device, she must first understand it: how it's made, how it works, and how it's been used on a man forced to undergo its procedure.

Jane Foster feels sick.

There once was a time, she thinks, a stupid, naive time, when she thought all knowledge was precious. She has learned differently now, and if she was too afraid to sleep now after being back in that base — she knows there will be nightmares, and she's terrified of them — now she wishes she had some serum to ensure she'd never need to sleep again.

But devoid of experimental serums, Jane mainlines coffee instead.

She takes a break from her laptop only on thought of James. He stepped away some time ago, into the bedroom — she knows where and for what. Jane thought privacy was best, considering much of this has nothing to do with her, involving memories and feelings far older than she is. It's probably necessary too, in that confronting-the-demons sort of way. Even still.

Eventually, soft, creacking steps on hardwood betray Jane lingering at the doorway, looking in on her rearranged bedroom — bed against the wall, desk turned and tools out at ready inventory — and James Barnes among it. It's necessary he do this, she thinks, but even he needs to surface from the darkness of his memory. She says nothing, but lays a hand on his right shoulder.

There were a few conversations Jane had to have with James in order to fully compile the data necessary to begin her work on the machine. Namely, details about how it was used on him. He had provided them faithfully, in a clinical sort of way that was in itself shocking given the content of what he said.

For all his discomfort around other humans, all his new inability to stand being among them for long (in his youth he was never that way, in fact rather the opposite), sometimes in speaking he is as frank and blunt as a vivisection — and what he exposes is just as raw and bleedingly private.

He's noticed her fear of sleeping, of nightmares, ever since their return from the base. He's had the same. The nightmares are nearly nightly for him ever since his escape from Hydra, so much a part of his life that he's almost acclimated to them, but ever since Siberia they have been worse. Such it is that often, when she wakes at night, it will be to find him sitting up in silence, a sentinel in need of far less sleep than she — and wanting to need none at all.

He has the quality of a sentinel now, as he stands there staring at the machine. He doesn't even move, at first, to the touch of her hand on his shoulder. A few moments pass… and then his head turns slightly.

"Wish there had been anywhere but here that I could trust to be secure," he says, his voice bleak. Probably not the greatest feeling, bringing this back to his hometown.

It is almost tempting, if just for a fleeting moment, to let go and join James Barnes in that dark place he occupies.

Jane knows hers will not be identical, unable to share his specific memories of pain and torture and objectification, but the theme is similar: shame, quiet, shameful horror, and the fury.

But her role comes more than to walk his world with him; every so often, she must dare those troubled waters, reach in, and pull him out.

Her hand squeezes his shoulder in a weary confirmation of sympathy and apology. If told a month ago her own bedroom would be housing the very machine that tortured James Barnes for seventy years —

"I know," she agrees. "But, I promise you, it's not going to look that way for long. Very few parts will be similar after I'm done. And when we're done, it won't be in our lives ever again."

Jane doesn't even slant the Machine a glance. Probably because she refuses to look at it, doesn't want to until she has to — until work will inevitably force her to live and breathe its re-engineering for days on end. For now, her eyes are only on James. "I think you need a break though. You can't spend all night in this room."

The idea that it won't look that way for long brings his head to turn to her in surprise. Somehow it had never occurred to him that she would re-engineer it that extensively. He is so inured now to how it looks and operates — how it feels — that it just doesn't occur to him that there could be any other way.

He visibly tries to picture it different. Not humiliating. Not painful. He can't, and his eyes turn tiredly back to the Machine. "It's just sad, having it here in Brooklyn. I grew up here."

He doesn't say more about it, though. If Jane is going to completely re-engineer it, then he believes that she can and will.

She suggests a break. He doesn't reply at first; after a few moments, he seems to process that she said something. His distracted eyes turn to her, and focus with some effort. "…Yeah," he agrees, presently. He thinks about this transparently a moment. "You wanna go out?"

That surprised look comes met with a gentling of Jane's eyes.

She says nothing out loud — no need to, and no heart to discuss particulars when already she's trying to encourage him a mental reprieve from all this — but communicated her returned glance, and in the same pinch of her eyes, is a promise.

If she will ask him back to sit in any sort of machine, even if for the very last time, Jane Foster will make sure it will be nothing like that of his torturers. She will never let them hurt him again.

Talk of it in Brooklyn, however, if even temporarily… her hand squeezes his shoulder again, saying nothing. Jane gets it. Some worlds are never supposed to collide. And even if Brooklyn may no longer even be a home for James Barnes, the fact remains: at one point, it was.

Either way, Jane knows he can't spend countless hours reliving seventy years of trauma. So when James suggests going out, her eyebrows lift; it's promising. It'll keep him from thinking. Keep her from sleeping. He needs to look at something that isn't that machine.

"God yes," Jane answers. "Anywhere. Even a walk sounds nice. I've always wanted to… always wanted to just walk with you somewhere you used to go. Somewhere that hasn't changed since you lived here."

"You know," James says, reading in Jane's silence her promise and her intentions, "I don't want to sacrifice speed or anything. If it would take too much time to totally overhaul it, there's no need. I handled this thing for seventy years. I can handle it one more time. I just… I just want to be handling it for the last time."

She probably won't like that idea. But he intends to distract her from it anyway. He suggests going out for the break she proposes, and her eyes light up. She wants him to take her somewhere he used to go. Somewhere that hasn't changed.

Half a smile crosses his face. "Not a lot of places that qualify for those criteria anymore," he says. "Everything's real different. Some things are still around though, sure. Like Keens. It was already old even when I was a kid. Man, I always wanted to go there, but it was too pricy for me back then." He contemplates. "Not anymore, though. Oughta finally go sometime."

He glances at Jane. "Not today, though. It's a nice day. Let's go to Coney Island. Take a walk. Steve and I used to hang out there in the summers. Not much is different, other than everything being a hundred times the price."

The look Jane slants James is unforgettable. Shocked, severe, and stricken he would even suggest such a thing.

Her answer comes clearly communicated by her expression alone: that is not an option. And that is a hill Jane Foster is willing to die on. Even if he could handle that torture one last time — and could does not mean that he should — she couldn't. She wouldn't live with herself.

But she has no time to say anything aloud, or find enough aggravation to argue this: James Barnes provides a convenient distraction in proposing they go out. Jane relents in every single way her tiny body can, something grateful shining in her eyes against the idea of a break away from the machine in her bedroom. She feels like she hasn't stopped since the flight out to Germany. Perhaps even before that. The weeks bleed together in her insomniac's memory, seamed by her constant push to work. Keep working, no matter what.

His half-smile brings her to soften. She listens fondly, even if Keens is something that escapes Jane's knowledge — not a local, and definitely doesn't get out enough. Coney Island, however, sounds perfect.

"You know, for having my lab around there, I've never actually… looked around," Jane admits sheepishly. "I want you to show me everything."

Jane gives James the 'this is non-negotiable' death glare. He lifts his hands in surrender and acquiescence alike. "Forget I even said it," he says, though he's smiling, clearly endeared. "I shouldn't question your ability to overhaul it anyway." Nor insinuate that she would ever be capable of willfully doing anything that would cause him agony.

Talk of going out mollifies, her, however. It's his turn to look shocked and reprimanding when she says that despite her lab being close to that area, she's never actually taken the time to look around. "Why am I not surprised," he groans. "You probably don't even know what's on the same street as your lab. You've all just got too many distractions these days. When I was growing up, there was no choice but to go outside."

He ushers her — and himself — firmly away from the machine. They're not going to think about it. Not today. There's plenty else to think about. "Get your things. It's not too far. Straight shot on the F."

It's a nice day, and the way isn't far, as promised. It's a weekday, so there aren't so many people swarming around, which is probably why James conceded to this place as a viable choice. He offers his arm to lead her down from the station towards the boardwalk.

"Boardwalk's more beat up than I remember, and everyone's wearing a lot less," he says. "But otherwise, doesn't look too different. There was a trolley that came down here when I was a kid. Five cents. Steve and I'd come down here with a quarter each. That was enough for the whole day."

He looks balefully at a sign advertising $3.99 Nathan's hot dogs. "Obviously not everything is the same."

One look from her convinces the ex-assassin to wave the white flag. Jane's dark eyes slant him dangerous approval: damn right he shouldn't question that. And damn right there are things she'd sooner die that have him suffer ever — ever again.

With /that/ potential argument already filed away, and softened by James Barnes' very ready concession, Jane all-too-gratefully takes whatever beautiful, brief distraction he has to offer off that machine. Even if said distraction is one of his familiar, old-man stories.

Led out of her bedroom, Jane can only answer the proto-lecture about 'distractions' and 'going outside'' with an over-expressive eye roll. Not this again. "I'm not /distracted/," she complains mildly. "I'm busy. I'm sure the ladies of leisure back in your dad got to corset and petticoat it up on Coney, but I work! And for someone who's so so judgmental of social media, you sure love to use it. I've seen your emojis, James Barnes."

A wry smile frames those parting words as Jane walks off to do as told. A few minutes later, she's ready, having shucked as much of her workaholic weariness off, in jeans and one of her brighter blouses, the ends of her dark hair tucked into one of her too-many scarves.

It still amuses her, in an exasperated sort of way, how easier Jane finds riding the trains with James in tow. For some strange, so strange reason, she's pushed around a lot less. It's a welcome reprieve.

Back on street level, and accepting his proffered arm with the same, endeared amusement she has for so many of James's anachronisms, Jane sighs under the welcome warmth of the sun. She walks along and listens contentedly to his stories.

"Seriously, a quarter? It even paid for the horse-cart you had to catch back home?"

And makes fun of them a bit too. Jane's smile crooks up at the same sign. "Which was your favourite part of all of it?"

"They didn't wear corsets and petticoats on the beach anymore even back in my day," James says patiently. "And I'm not judging. I'm just observing. Things are really convenient these days." A pause. "And emojis are very descriptive."

He lets her off the hook soon enough to go get changed and prepared, however, and before long they're on the trains and on their way. No one gives them a second glance. James finds his anonymity comforting in a way, because it's a normal sort of anonymity — not the facelessness of the Winter Soldier. He's anonymous because he's just another man, and not because he's on his way to a kill and cannot have his cover blown.

Still, there is a certain tension to him among crowds that never existed in the young James Barnes. He can move through crowds with aplomb, but not with ease; he passes through them like a shark, practiced but no longer at home.

He relaxes palpably once they're off the trains and on the boardwalk, soaking in the late May warmth. It puts him in a good enough mood to talk about his childhood. Jane returns with one of her typical teases. "You think you're clever?" he says. "I actually did ride in some of those once in a while when I was young. Most of the milk wagons didn't mind letting you hitch a ride on the back so long as you didn't cause trouble."

What was his favorite part of it all, she wants to know.

"Hard question," he says. "Probably the certainty. Knowing for sure how life was supposed to look." His blue eyes look out across the water. "Things aren't so clear cut anymore."

That tension is not missed by Jane Foster. Seated next to James on the train, at one point she briefly, purposefully rests a hand on his knee. She always tries to make each touch a grounding.

The sea breeze teases some of her hair free from her scarf. Jane breathes all of it in, the salt in the air, the distant smells of fried food, the moment. Hand in the crook of James's arm, she lets him guide them both on as she sneaks a curious look down on the boardwalk itself, and the hollow, old sounds the wood planks make under her slippered shoes. She wonders just how much of this is overhaul, and how much is vintage: perhaps she's walking the very same steps James took seventy years ago.

It gives her pause to even conceive such a thing.

Jane leans her head briefly on James's arm, comfortable, clearly drinking in his company. She smiles at his rhetorical question on the nature of her cleverness, wry, but actually laughs aloud when, seriously, joke's on her. Horses and wagons were seriously still his time. "Milk wagons," she echoes, tickled to comprehend it — not to patronize, but to consider a childhood just so absolutely alien to her own.

Eventually, the open water, and the distant smudge of blue where the sky seams into the sea attracts Jane's eyes. Landlocked for all of her life, she gazes out on the horizon in quiet, pensive absorption. There's a look to her reminiscent of the seafarers of old, brave men with no bindings but the call for exploration. That restless call to search.

It's only James's response to her question that draws back Jane's eyes. She searches him too. "They aren't," she agrees tentatively. "But it doesn't have to be a bad thing. DIfficult, but not always bad."

Memory is thick in his eyes, every time she looks at him. Not just for their surroundings — the sights, smells, and sounds — but for the feel of a woman on his arm, and the indolence of a long empty afternoon. Her periodic touches do palpably comfort him, coming as they do any time he seems prone to tense up from the too-close crowding of other people.

She pierces the tension with joking, as well. Except this time she reaches just a little too far with her teasing. His gotcha brings her to laugh. "It wasn't really that long ago," he says. "Not to me. Though now it's feeling like a long time ago, looking at your face. I guess horses in the street really are that strange to you."

He falls silent as they reach the sand and the wide, expansive views of the ocean beyond. Jane looks at the horizon, with the distant yearning of the consummate explorer. James just watches Jane. His gaze softens, and it's that expression that Jane will find when she turns back towards him to tell him things not being clear-cut doesn't have to be bad.

"No," he says. "I suppose not." He takes her hand, leading her along.

Landmarks pop up as they proceed down the beach. Both traditional… and the special kind only James would really notice. "That's the Cyclone," he says, of a rickety old wooden rollercoaster. "I made Steve go on it and he threw up. I felt slightly bad." He laughs. "Speaking of Steve, he got beaten up there — and there … and there… also there…" Indicating an alley — a stretch of beach — a parking lot — another alley. "The one on the beach was worst, they just let him wash out to sea afterward. I had to go out so far to fish him back."

"A little bit strange," Jane admits, with the half-crook of a smile, her eyes pinched with slight guilt. Trying to personally apologize for how the world went and advanced in his absence. "But you probably feel the same way about segways, so we can call it a draw."

He guides them eventually from the boardwalk and down to the long stretch of beach, where Jane struggles at first to keep up her stride on the too-soft give of sand. Not used to it. Between this brief awkwardness, and the too-long looks out on the water, the evidence is palpable: this is Dr. Foster's first time truly meeting the sea.

The cooling wind off the water whips up her dark hair, and she lingers a moment drinking it all in: sensory detail to store forever to her long memory. Amidst weeks filled with so much death and uncertainty of her own, Jane is recording a moment she will treasure.

She looks back only to find James's eyes on her. The attention flushes brief, bright warmth into her cheeks.

He takes her hand and she gladly accepts, only pausing a moment to slip off her shoes to carry them, indulging in the grainy feel of sand on her feet. And with that. Jane receives the rarity that is a guided tour by James Buchanan Barnes, listening in clear fascination and entertainment as he lists the distant-spotted amusement rides. She lets her own surprised laugh go at the idea of poor Steve Rogers throwing up, before her mouth twists with worsening surprise as site after site after site is listed off as Landmarks Wherein Captain America Got His Ass Kicked.

"You know," she intones, "if you told the Smithsonian about this, they'd probably put a few plaques down. Steve sounds like he was a full-time job. Not that I can judge." Jane doesn't plead complete ignorance of her own temper. "When you just get so mad, and your body is just so small — well. The cup runneth over."

James' expression goes flat when Jane brings up segways. "I had to kill someone who tried to get away from me on a segway once," he says. "It was not my most dignified kill. I'd forgotten about it until now."

And he seems quite happy to forget about it again. Especially since he's more interested, now, in watching Jane get acquainted with the sea and the grit of sand. "First time on a beach?" he asks, amused. "I guess that's the one thing I can say about being the Winter Soldier. I've been everywhere, and seen a whole lot of shit. Not all of it was bad shit."

Especially when he was with the Soviets. There were even brief minutes of contentment, then. A fake happiness, to be sure, and too soon cut short — but more than he ever had in the sole grip of Hydra.

Presently he takes her hand again, leading her along the beach. She's treated to a private tour led by a man who remembers a bygone time. A time filled with Captain America getting his ass kicked repeatedly, in varied locations. "No can do," he says grimly, when she jokes about how he ought to tell someone so they can put plaques down. "He'd bankrupt the government in plaques. Steve got beat up goddamn… everywhere. Peggy really needs to get on the ball. It's a full-time job I can't do alone, managing him."

He falls silent when she empathizes with Steve's anger, though. So much anger, in too small and inadequate a body. He pauses, walk drawing to a stop. They're standing in the surf, no one close by, the sound of the ocean enough to cover their words even if anyone was.

The cup runneth over, Jane says. "Does it?" he asks. "I've been meaning to ask. Killed your first man, in Germany." There is an unspoken question.

The segway story deserves every ounce of Jane's incredulous expression. Hesitation freezes her face in the tell-tale way people look when they don't know whether to laugh or look quietly sympathetic. Because it's absolutely ridiculous, and the mental image even worse, but it's still /a kill/ he made /under someone's control./

What a complicated life this is. Jane just rubs uneasily at her neck and gratefully accepts the change in topic. He correctly figures her for a beach virgin, and she winces in self-conscious sheepishness. "First time on a beach," she confirms, well-aware it probably makes her sound untravelled, or sheltered, or plain weird. "Never really had time to go see one." Or desire, or opportunity, or friends with vacation plans.

Of course, if Jane thinks her own life sad, she gets her regular hit of perspective with James Barnes admitting the upsides to being the Winter Soldier, and that it wasn't all bad. It makes her go strangely quiet. She can almost understand the agonizing stories, because pain is something perceived truly no matter the state of mind — always a constant — but there's something sickening about being happy on somebody else's terms. She feels sorry that happened to him. She doesn't even know what to say.

Jane holds that quiet as she's led by the hand down the beach, listening pensively to James's personalized, private, guided tour. She takes it all in, no disguising her fascination in the life he had decades before she was even born, and trying to help the recovery and rumination of memory with her light-hearted jokes.

Not that such things ever last long with them.

Her last quip, what she's says entirely in light, comes met with a damningly serious question. Jane pauses, neither anticipating nor ready for it. The look on her face is absolutely someone who's not even had a moment yet to really think about it, and the mixed discomfort and guilt of that realization turns her face away. Maybe she worries he thinks less of her for it.

Jane stares down at the sand. "I don't even know who it was."

That conflict on Jane's features doesn't escape James. He looks quietly repentant he even brought it up. Stupid, James Barnes, he thinks. Who talks casually about 'that person they killed once while under mind control?' "It was all he had to hand, to be fair to him," he salvages lamely. "Though really no need to be fair to him. He was objectively not a great person."

He would never admit it aloud, but there are some kills he made that he can't honestly say he regrets, other than the fact they were made under the duress of mind control. He killed plenty of innocents, but along the way he also killed a handful of evil, and when you have a life like James Buchanan Barnes, you take your few silver linings.

It's still not helping, though. The clarifications. He takes one look at her expression and winces. "Right." And changes the topic.

First time on a beach, she admits, and James turns a scandalized look at her. "Never wanted to is what you mean. You can make time for anything you really wanna do."

Of course, James wouldn't be James without another slight misstep related to talking about his life as the Winter Soldier. At least the travel was great, he implies, and Jane just has to look at him, because what the hell? He falls silent again, briefly. "Yeah, I guess that is pretty fucked up," he says, apologetic.

He's not done saying uncomfortable things, either, though at least the last one is an entirely serious question he has been meaning to broach and does not think should go undiscussed. His blue eyes study her carefully, absorbing her initial reaction, the way he looks down afterwards, the silence that stretches on. She doesn't even know who it was.

His eyes gentle. "We never do, in war."

"No one who willingly rides a segway is objectively a great person," Jane concedes sagely.

Her jokes are back, gentle and light, in a shared effort to help salvage that particular topic. His own guilt doesn't escape her; Jane doesn't ever want James Barnes to feel like talking to her, and especially about his years as the Winter Soldier, as a bad thing.

Walking along the sand, she smiles a little uneasily to his declaration that you make time for the things you want to do, and Jane can't quite argue that away. It makes sense. Sounds right. And speaks all-to-closely to her priorities in life, where work comes paramount to all. It's hard to imagine not living that way.

It's kept Jane from being maturely travelled, while at the same time, James finds his own upside in that decades of assassin work gave him the ability to walk the world. Her sad silence speaks volumes, and he apologizes in his way — says it's fucked up.

"No," Jane answers, her hand tightening around his. She sidesteps through her walking to press her side closer to his in wordless reassurance. "No, it's not. It's fucked up what they did to you. But it's not fucked up that there's some things you want to tell me about. It's not fucked up to have feelings about your own memories. I'm sorry. I want you to talk to me about these things."

But it eventually brings talk to something that's not yet been broached: something Jane, in all her tireless, insomniac momentum and endless projects she's promised to others, had time to think about. Life lately has commonly been putting her own pursuits and interests in dead last, but not always for the martyr's sacrifice it would seem. There are upsides in not yet being able to think about some things, such as taking someone's life — thinking about something she doesn't even yet know how she should feel.

James calls it war, and Jane processes that. It doesn't sound like a war she's in, not like he was, but she supposes perhaps some things come similar.

Her eyes remain focused down on the sand, though the look in them in a million miles away. "I want to regret it. But, at the same time, I don't. I don't know. Maybe it helped keep one of us alive. Maybe it had no effect and I shot someone for nothing."

It is difficult for him to open up about his decades as the Winter Soldier at all. Jane is the only person who has heard the more shameful aspects of it. Not the shameful parts where he murdered innocent people: the shameful parts that there are emotions connected to it that seem wildly inappropriate to him, bordering on Stockholm, emotions that — if he admitted to them — would seem to make it sound like he was complicit, or even enjoyed it in a way.

Not all of the kills he made make him feel bad in retrospect. Not all the moments of his life as the Winter Soldier were painful or debasing or miserable. Especially during his time under the direct control of the Soviets. They told him more of a lie about who and what he was than Hydra did — primarily because they used him as a more delicate instrument than Hydra, and required a tool with somewhat more nuance than just to kill — and it was a lie that allowed for brief moments, in between the freezes, of feeling like… a man.

Of feeling like a soldier, like he was before… an infantryman turned black operative, for some cause in which he was made to think he believed.

Jane's gentle effort to help him salvage that awkwardness doesn't go unnoticed. He smiles half-heartedly at her as she presses closer. "The fucked-up part is the kind of feelings I have, I guess," he says. "But I guess there's nothing natural at all about the entire situation."

Jane gets her comeuppance for encouraging talk about feelings, however, because he turns it around on her. Now he wants to talk about hers. She balks obviously, and he watches her in silence, his demeanor sad and tired in that way experienced soldiers get, before they sit down to talk with younger ones about things they've just been through. Fittingly, he immediately relates it to a wartime situation, though Jane seems dubious to call it that. He has to admit himself it's not a traditional war, but…

She doesn't regret it, she says. There is no judgment in his eyes for that. "I don't really regret the kills I had to make in the war," he tells her. "People always ask a soldier if they regret killing. Most will give you the answer I'll give you now, and which you touched on yourself; you have to do it to protect your own men. You don't do it, one of your own may die. And do you want to gamble your squadmate's life on whether a kill would help or not?"

He stares out to sea. "It could have changed nothing. Or it could have meant the difference between Zatanna or John or Jessica or Red coming home alive."

"Nothing natural," Jane agrees about his decades of murderous slavery, "and nothing right."

But she lifts their joined hands briefly, just long enough to press a kiss to the backs of James's knuckles. It feels as much an absolution as an act of trust: she trusts his hands and every single feeling in him what guides them. "But there's nothing wrong with your feelings, and I won't let anyone ever tell you they're wrong. It just makes me angry you had to live on their lies. You're stronger than them, though, and strong enough to sort those feelings to what still feels true to you. I'll help you."

But all her gentle promises to listen and assist and help — come up as a two-way street. Jane, ever the provider and carer and still not used to having it returned back on her —

— predictably goes far more quiet. It's testament of her trust, however, that her quiet is not the stubborn or uncertain sort, and she knows many times before James Barnes has seen her weak. Even now, he still treats her as his equal. It encourages Jane to sort through her own scattered thoughts, to parse her own confusion, and find her honest, if still stilted, words.

The truth is she doesn't know how to feel. Her lowered eyes reflect guilt and apology, as if she's ashamed she hasn't let herself think of something so terrifying sooner, and if maybe her ability to push back and compartmentalize is indicative of something else — something frightening in her. Jane, at the same time, wears a contrary guilt that she also hasn't figured this out yet for herself, resolved and squared it away — to keep it from troubling James. The life he's led makes her feel like she shouldn't be allowed to have troubles of her own: how could she worry a man who's suffered so much?

But even as he talks, she listens. She walks with him, guided along by his hand, and lets her distant eyes trace the patterns the seabreeze has blown over the beach sand. Jane stares through it as James Barnes speaks to her about the cold moral calculus of war.

A question gestates along her features. Jane hesitates for several moments, perhaps afraid to ask it, perhaps uncertain if she is allowed to. But, in the end, she needs to.

"When was the first time you ever shot someone?"

Her brief kiss is a gesture of absolution. He knows that, but much of him still finds it hard to accept that unconditional forgiveness. Perhaps Jane forgives him, but what of the thousands others with reason to despise him and his killing hands?

He says nothing of that, however. He knows she is trying, and it feels insensitive and harsh to continually deny her acceptance and faith. Some part of him wants to believe, too, that he is as strong as she says he is. Strong enough to make it past all the lies and pain to reclaim some semblance of identity.

But it's a two-way street. Jane's problems may not be of the magnitude of James Barnes, but they are things he does not feel comfortable to simply not address. Especially since her entry into the world of killing, he unequivocally considers as being his fault. If not for him in her life, who knows what kind of gentle existence she would have led, discovering all the new and wonderful things there are to discover in the universe?

Instead she is taking lives, and he is here now asking her how she is coping with that. From the look on her face, she has barely even been able to give it thought. Perhaps she hasn't wanted to give it thought.

He offers what reassurance he can in the way he knows how: the same way he did with many younger soldiers who came to war and could not cope with their first kills. But she turns the question back on him, eventually. She has no other point of reference for this, no one else to whom she can relate. She needs to know how it felt for him. The first time he shot someone —

"The first man I shot," he says, "was during a ridiculous firefight in the surf somewhere between Oran and Algiers. I was in seawater up to my ankles that was already red with blood. There was a lot of screaming, a lot of machine gun fire. Not the best situation for self-reflection. I hit him, maybe I killed him, didn't have much time to think about it afterwards. Busy trying to keep my ass attached to my body."

It seems undramatic as a story. The reason why comes when he hesitates, and admits, "That wasn't my first kill, though."

For the brief story that James Barnes shares, Jane stays quiet.

Her eyes are not on him, averted and still angled down on the prints her feet leave in the beach sand, but she still listens. In fact, she listens closely, a needy focus to the way she absorbs word after word, fact after fact, feeling after feeling. James has it right; Jane is so many thoughts and emotions that she cannot single one out to steer how she will deal with this.

She trusts him absolutely. She needs his point of reference. She needs to know what she should feel — what is allowed for her. What is right for her.

With her eyes distant, unfocused, lost on the distant line of the beach, Jane lets herself see something else: she lets herself go to visualize the story he tells. She can see it, against the backs of her eyes, some chaotic scene staged in the French beach, cold and grey and bleak, the tide crashing in red and buoyed with bodies, and men — boys — trading bullets with strangers they've never met. And James, younger, afraid, and taking a shot that may or may not have saved his own life.

Even decades later — decades within which the entire world changed — James still doesn't know whether that first shot ever killed or not. The world is so full of unknowns.

How does one live with so many unknowns?

Her hand doesn't let his go. Jane hangs on as though James is a beacon light guiding her from the dark. "What was your first kill?"

She doesn't let him go. He doesn't let her go either. She clings, and he clings back, silent and pensive. They're walking a beach right now, feet in the surf, as he tells her what it was like to land on the North African coast in 1942. That must make the recollections all the more keen for him.

What must those memories look like? Blood and bodies washing out into the Mediterranean. B-24 Liberators screaming overhead, with only the judgment of the pilots and proper coordination to keep their ordnance landing on foe and not friend. Men — no, boys, really — screaming and struggling blindly against one another, salt water washing mercilessly into their open wounds. The smell of death everywhere. The ugly sound of war.

It is beyond easy comprehension, really, how violent a life James Buchanan Barnes has lived, and none of it by his own choice. At twenty-five years old, he was conscripted from normal young adulthood to become a killer, and he's never been able to go back. Seventy-five years of killing, death, and screams. Seventy-two of them spent as a literal slave.

It is incredible that enough of him remains to walk beside her now, offering her advice on how to cope with the life she has just taken. Her first kill. Does he even remember anymore what his first kill was, after so many?

The posed question hangs in the air. He is silent, dredging up the memory. "German machine gun nest had our unit pinned down for a while," he says eventually. "We didn't know it was there. It killed three of us and that was how we found out. One was a buddy from basic. His name was… James Cooper, but he made everybody call him Coop, 'cause every other kid back then was named James. Kinda like my reason for using Bucky — we'd bonded over that. Stupid." He laughs a little, but his eyes are sad. He hasn't thought of Coop in decades. "I watched him die. He asked me… he asked me to find his ma, after, tell her he died easy and it didn't hurt, which was a lie, of course — "

He stops. It was a lie he never got to tell, a promise he never was able to keep, because he never went home from war either. Another failure on the list.

They sent a few of us around to ambush," he continues, presently. "It was short and ugly. I wound up losing my gun. I killed the gunner with a knife. I wound up putting it through his eye. Didn't mean to. Just happened that way."

He shrugs. "After, I was glad. I was sick. I threw up. I sat by myself. Then I went back to doing my duty." He laughs. "I got a field promotion for it."

Just like the first, Jane listens to this story too. She makes no sound, no word of comment, until it is finished.

She does, however, pick up on that bitter note of James Barnes's broken promise, a vow left behind in the same mountain snow that caught his fatal fall. A vow left buried under decades of ice.

He calls it a lie, and she disagrees; lies imple culpeability, and he had no choice past the noble decision to join Steve on that last mission. With her hand still in his, Jane steps closer to wrap her other arm around James's, the action pulling her close. There are few words she can offer to something that happened so long ago, that promise sworn to a dead friend about as old as her grandparents; nothing she can tell him to soothe or explain it away. She's not even sure if some things in the world, like that, can be explained.

She can, however, offer him her own promise, and it is to be here for him for moments like these: when James Barnes deigns to speak aloud his stories, and share them with her. He does not have to sit alone with his memories.

But painful as those memories are, they too play a role: this one gives Jane a significant measure of relief.

She listens and absorbs his spoken memory for her own: what he did, what he felt. What happened after. She doesn't feel as lost.

"It wasn't anger," Jane finally confesses. Her voice, so soft, barely rides the distant noise of the surf rolling into the sand. Her eyes lift to look at him, searching James Barnes's blue eyes. "I didn't feel anger when I shot that man." She pauses, and amends, saying it finally aloud, "When I… killed that man. No anger for him, even though he was there to kill any one of us. I just felt afraid. And I felt terrible. And I felt like I had to."

He can see mirrors of himself in her irises, deep and brown and shining too-bright. "And glad. I was glad too. Glad it wasn't you hurt. Glad it wasn't one of our friends hurt. Glad I could protect them."

He had forgotten about that until now. There is a look on his face like he can't believe he'd forgotten something like that, though the intervening seventy-odd years of torment and damage to his memories and mind should be excuse enough. It's another thing to add to the pile of guilt, a pile that must reach to the sky by now.

Sure, all he would have been doing was telling a lie to some kid's mother, lying to her that her son died easy and painless when the truth was he spent his last moments shaking and holding his ruined torso together with his hands. But he had promised, and he didn't follow through. He hopes somewhere, his old friend understands.

At the least, the shared story seems to offer Jane some relief, or at least understanding. It's not just her. Once, even a man like James Barnes felt as she does, too.

His eyes turn to meet hers when she speaks again. Her confession is taken in silence.

"That's good," he says eventually, of the fact she felt no anger: only fear, necessity, and a gladness to protect others. "That's how you should feel, when it comes time you have to kill a man. Means you're not a killer. Means it still don't come easy to you."

He says nothing of whether it's still the way he himself feels. As of late, there's been nothing for him but anger.

He says nothing of his own anger, and the hidden insinuation does not find Jane.

In this instance, she mentally groups James and herself together. She is not thinking of Hydra, of the men who tried and nearly succeeded in tearing her own mind apart; men whom she found at the wrong end of her gun, would not be immune to her own significant degree of fury. Instead, Jane thinks of those cultists, and those men only — men she detests on objective levels for what they want to do and the danger they present to her friends —

— but that is a protective outrage, not a personal wrath. Different things, they are to her. Far different things.

She accepts James's words to her with a look that shines quiet gratitude, and disengages off his arm, letting go to just the link of their joined hands. She walks quietly along at his side.

"It doesn't come easy," she confirms, her voice let out into a quiet sigh. "It feels like a weight. Like the weight I know you carry. For good reasons, but still a weight. As it should be, I guess. Life is precious."

Jane's eyes glance out at the sea, briefly pensive, before they angle back up onto James. You're not a killer either, she tells him with her eyes. If she believed for a moment he was, empty and soulless, she would never have asked him for his story: never would have sought him for the humanity to guide her true. "It means so much for you to tell me this. I felt lost."

It feels like a weight, Jane says. Beside her, James' head bows. If just one life is a weight for her, how much weight must he carry on his shoulders?

"It is a weight," he says. "The weight of every life you take, is the sum of everything a person is and could be. And not just them, but all their family, and all their friends. What you do radiates out to them, too. One kill becomes this big… web of unhappy, broken lives. It's… not trivial."

He gazes off to sea. How vast is the web of influence he has had upon the world? None of it by his own volition? He has an idea, from the memories living in his head, but he is afraid to truly bend his thoughts towards the task of grasping how much harm he has done.

He only looks back when he feels Jane's eyes on him. Her gaze begs him to understand he is not a killer. That missing intent makes all the difference, to her. The proof is in how she still asks him to be a guide for her own humanity. He, who has gone before her on this path, and knows its pitfalls.

She was lost, but he guided her back to some kind of peace — or at least, some kind of understanding.

He smiles, a little sadly. "If what I went through can help somebody," he says, "maybe in some way it was worthwhile."

Eyes on the water, Jane's mind thinks of nothing but James Barnes's words. It is powerful advice he gives, none she knows she will ever forget for the rest of her life. Let it guide her through this new world she must walk — this world she has chosen.

Any kills she makes at her hands is a burden. That burden affects far beyond her and the life taken; it is a beat of butterfly's wings, invoking change that spreads and spreads like ripples in a pond. Just the one life she stole may pose unseen ramifications far more than Jane can imagine; even worse is for her to conceptualize James behind her, and over seventy years of kills forced of his own two hands. You're going to carry that weight, she thinks, with her eyes out on that water. He will. She will too.

Her acknowledgment comes with a squeeze of her hand around his.

And with her gaze turned up on his face, Jane imparts, in her way, a quiet thank-you. It is a complicated gratitude, because if it were up to her, he would have never suffered —

— he never deserved the lot life handed to him, and he does not deserve its agonies and the guilt he carries for the sins of monsters. She cannot thank him for having the memories he has, of war, and then of slavery — but she can thank him for sharing a piece of it, his stories, to give her some understanding. James Barnes may think so little of his soul at times, but even Jane sees its immeasurable worth: at times, just like these, he gets to be a compass for her.

His sad smile and hopeful words twist Jane's heart.

She faces him as the sea wind moves her hair, her free hand brought up touch James's face. "You are starlight, Altair," Jane tells him.

It is advice bought through decades of his own blood and pain. His own long years of lost autonomy and innocence. He passes it, now, to her. Let what he has learned, from the many lives he has taken, help her through this one kill she has found herself forced to make.

She has created a butterfly effect through her one single kill. Who knows how many great hurricanes he has made over his hundred years of life? James does, to some degree, and that is the reason he wakes up so many nights screaming. The reason he has not had a sleep without nightmares since he was freed from his seventy-two years of slavery.

He would like to preserve Jane from that if he can. If he cannot, let him at least equip her to face what lies ahead.

Her thanks is nonverbal a simple squeeze of the hand that somehow says all that needs to be said, and connotes all the nuances of it without words. He looks down at her, and for a brief and rare moment he does see that he has some value left. Some positive left to his ravaged soul. It's there in her eyes, the way she looks at him, his life and stories and experience able to be some sort of guiding star for hers.

She touches his face and tells him so.

He smiles. So few of his smiles are untouched by the sadness of the life he has led, but this one is. "So are you, Lyra." He closes his eyes. "So are you."

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