Return

October 02, 2017:

Jane Foster and Bucky Barnes return from Wakanda, and discuss what happened to them respectively within the country's borders.

Brooklyn, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The end, after everything, was almost anticlimactic. The true enemy of Wakanda was handed up — and Jane Foster made one pivotal phone call.

Exoneration was not enough. Mere facts were not sufficient to quiet the Wakandan justice machine. In the end someone had to share the sins of the Winter Soldier, to take up responsibility for his evil, and who else but Jane Foster to carry that weight? Certainly there were others who were willing, but no one else with as much right.

Jane may not feel quite happy about the 'privilege' — why demand suffering of anyone for the crimes of the Winter Soldier but those truly responsible? — but Wakandans had their own strange ways. Even James himself could not wholly and truthfully say that he could easily separate himself from what his hands have done.

He strenuously objected, however, to the idea of execution by Wakanda when that country was perhaps the ONE place he HADN'T touched over the course of his long career. There were more productive ways for him to atone for the acts of his hands than submission to the judgment of a people and country who he does not know, has never owed anything to, and feels nothing for.

The judgment of his own American people was another thing entirely, to him.

Wakandans, he observes over the course of his 'exoneration' and release, are a fierce and prideful people — not precisely ingracious about relenting and releasing a man they had determined to put to death, but neither particularly copacetic. The people who treat him, in the state-of-the-art medical facilities in which he presently sits, still handle him with the cool wariness with which they would handle a dangerous animal.

He certainly looks feral enough; while he has been allowed to clean himself and regain some semblance of human dignity, the many weeks have still taken their toll, and there is a lingering wildness to him imparted by his long sojourn in the savage jungles of Wakanda. He is lean, leaner than Jane has ever seen him, seared dark by the relentless sun and hardened by countless messily-healed wounds raked across his body. He looks like a starved wolf, sinewy and taut and still predator-eyed even back in the heart of civilization. He sits on the table, bare to the waist, as techs see to these injuries. One good thing he'll admit, grudgingly, of Wakanda — they're too advanced for the crudeness of needles.

What they cannot — perhaps will not — see to is the most grievous injury of all. His left arm is … simply gone, torn from his body at a point just below his shoulder. The white star is ripped neatly in half, the remainder of the limb no more than a jagged, twisted mess.

There is little in the universe beyond Jane Foster's considerable understanding, but even now, she cannot understand Wakanda.

Perhaps that's unfair to herself.

She doesn't want to understand Wakanda. She doesn't want to understand how pride can hold priority over fact, over truth, over evidence — over what is right. She doesn't want to understand a system that holds her soul hostage for the sins of a man committed beyond his own choosing and consent —

— and for those fabricated out of nothing? To save the life of the man she loves, she makes herself accountable for lies.

Jane does not hesitate to do this for James Barnes. She does not regret it either. She knows he would do the same for her.

Some burdens must be carried, and she will at least choose the reasons for hers — and for Jane Foster, there is no better reason than love.

She does not sleep on the long drive to where they keep him. Her mind feels as empty of thought as her body does its blood, so much forsaken for the battle of hours ago. Her hands still shake from fatigue and adrenaline. Her eyes shadow black; they will not close until they've seen him.

Unrest coils like the restless lengths of a serpent under her skin. They tell her he is alive, but even now, Jane cannot fully believe the people who abducted James Barnes like a thief in the night, took him away to serve a sentence without a trial. It could be a lie, and at this point, the only anything she will believe is her own eyes. If they've killed him, if they've mutilated him, if they've broken him after all he's been through —

Technicians treat the man once known as the Winter Soldier. They do so coldly, dispassionately, no cruelty or malice in their hands — only the detached motions of engineers calibrating the parts of an unfeeling engine. They do not speak to him. For many reasons, they do not meet his eyes.

But someone does.

Through the sea of tall, straight-backed Wakandans, all dressed in pressed, immaculate white, stands a little memory at the door. The only point of familiarity for James Barnes's tired blue eyes.

It's Jane, suddenly here after so long, flushed and breathless like she'd been running the last five minutes, from the first moment she had her feet. She looks at him, him and nothing else, lean and hard and wounded and wearing twisted shrapnel where once was his left arm.

Her eyes shine dangerously. Her lips move, but no sound comes.

Jane moves forward to reach him. Some technician moves one step, unseeing and oblivious, and blocks her way. Bodies too big, too tall, erase something as little and inconsequential as her. So she plants both hands and angrily shoves one aside.

James' eyes turn to the door long before Jane reaches it. His senses are undimmed, and there is a sound he has been listening for ever since they brought him here. A sound by now as familiar to him as the steel murmurs of his own, now-gone left arm.

It is the sound of Jane Foster coming towards him, the particular cadence of her walk. Her steps are always hurried, light from her perpetual urgency keeping her poised on the balls of her feet, and to him they are as distinctive as the impatient murmur of her heart and the shallow wisp of her breath.

Yes… that is Jane. No one sounds like she does, barely-there tiny yet simultaneously larger than life. The smallness of her presence belies the beat of her life beneath her skin: barely-restrained, incandescent, a life lived at sixty miles an hour in a futile attempt to keep up with a mind that races many times faster even than that. He knows she is coming.

He is already watching when she arrives. She would know that about him; the way she can never, ever seem to sneak up on him.

He is alive. He is battered, wounded, hardened in ways both physical and mental, but he is alive. His arm is gone, and from what's left it looks like it was torn from his body, but he is alive.

He leans unconsciously towards her as she comes to him. Oblivious techs block her way, and she shoves them aside. The erstwhile Winter Soldier, himself, bristles faintly. The techs take the hint and conclude for the time being, packing up to go. Few of them were keen on working on the Winter Soldier, anyway.

Jane is left to draw near to him, unimpeded. He looks at her in silence, exhausted and wan, but with unblinking eyes that cannot seem to look enough.

"You are alive," he says, because he feared over the many weeks that — in coming for him — she would die. His remaining hand lifts to take her face in its palm, and he leans down to touch his forehead to hers.

Even from far away, floors and hallways distant, James Barnes can hear Jane's small, quick, triple-time heartbeat.

If all persons were a star, Jane Foster would be a pulsar — all the mass and intensity and burn of a star contracted into an infinitesimal point, condensed so tightly that it can do little but spin and spin and spin while fanning its unconfined energy out into the cosmos. It spins so ruthlessly fast that it always dies young, flickering out among the skies fast and bright while the greater and more patient stars burn on. The universe as it is now has no pulsars, and their memories shine galaxies distant.

And standing there, Jane is that unstoppable, axial spin, thought and feeling and everything else, and her face is an accretion shift, seeing James Barnes, from breathless relief to punched shock. No left arm, as was rumoured, as she was told — as she took with the simple hope he was not yet dead. It is different to see it with her own eyes.

Her James Barnes, still alive — how many times did she think the paralyzing thought of being too late? It haunted her on those long drives, when the darkness blurred into the movement of the road, and Jane could only see the shapes of her own, sleepless imaginings. A world where she was too late. A world where injustice took him from her. A world nothing ever again would stop her anger.

Eyes shining, she goes to him.

People step in her way, as they always do: the world is full of them. Bigger, taller people, and any patience Jane has left is long murdered. She shoves one tech, and the Winter Soldier tenses against the rest. The shift in his bearing is a barometric change.

The room empties for them.

Inside a breath, she moves for him. Jane comes in as close as she can, her little body fitting between his knees, and she reaches both hands for his face.

He touches hers. Jane leans into the touch, and to the press of his forehead, she shudders. Her tears run hot along his fingers.

She smells of blood, she smells of smoke and fire, and she smells of that thunderstorm ozone of magic. She smells of hope and grief and quiet fury.

"What did they do to you?" she whispers into the breath of space between them.

She has a distinct heartbeat, faster and more frenetic than the heartbeats of most. He's called her little pet names based on it at times, called her myshka and zaika and Mäuschen, all variations of tiny little animals who live life always running. Towards things — away from things.

Today, she's running towards him. He can hear her long before she appears in the door.

His gaze turns towards her instantly, as if magnetized. James Barnes, ever since they met, has always spun closely around Jane Foster's guiding star. Attentive as he is, he sees in her face the gutted-out relief, and he sees the moment when that relief transfigures into shock. His own expression turns wry. I look like shit, don't I, his eyes ask.

She comes to him, eyes shining, undeterred by the people who move obliviously into her path. There is — a change to the way she responds to people impeding her, a new impatience and violence, and he takes note of it, concern flickering in the back of his mind, even as he bristles up and silently drives the rest from the room with his greater practice in being an intimidating presence.

What did she do, while he was gone? What did she do to come to him here?

It is a question he can think about later. Now, he is tired and selfish, and he wants nothing but the smell of her — the feel of her nearby. He draws her in close, folding around her little form, and touches his forehead to hers. His eyes look into hers, blue and clear as ever. A moment like this calls for greater intimacy than the mundanity of a kiss.

What did they do to you? she whispers.

"Well," he ruminates. "They tried to kill me for a couple weeks." Wry as ever. His fingers brush the tears from her face. "They might have had better luck if they didn't let me fight back."

There is a brief pause. "I never thought I'd say it, but I'm ready as fuck to go back somewhere cold." And Jane would know how extraordinary it is for him to say such a thing; he who wakes from nightmares of ice, and sometimes needs to be calmed on cold, cold days.

The world is not kind to its little things, its weak things — and Jane Foster struggles within a world so large.

People so much taller do not even notice something as tiny as her, and step into the path months in the making — one last divide that separates her from James Barnes, pulled away from her hands, again and again.

And little Jane can no longer be so passive. With an angry impatience, she pushes, suddenly fierce to assert herself — demanding finally she is going to /take/ this reunion with him even if she has to bodily shove every last obstacle out of her way.

Fortunately, James needs only tense and stir to do ten times the work of Jane's angrily-pressing hands.

Finally alone, the star pushes forward to reclaim its errant, missing orbital, pulling it back from the cold void back to a place of light and warmth. And Jane has both, shining from her eyes and burning from her body, as she yields with hungry immediacy to how James's body envelops hers.

He feels leaner than before — hard, tired, hollow.

She wraps her arms around him and pulls all of it in. She smells the same, of memory, of that brief home he made again in Brooklyn. And her heart pounds its familiar staccato into the steel and bone of his body.

The feel of him — solid, alive — closes Jane's eyes, and her first tears fall, welling after weeks of denial and restraint. Not allowing herself to shed one in a single wasted moment until she recovered him, and had him in safety. Though she never gave up hope, she nursed the fear of never again seeing him, never again feeling him touch her: with his last words that his murmured Russian over their last call.

And he is alive. Now Jane can let herself finally cry.

It only gets worse when James answers her stricken question the only way he can, and it pulls a sharp, messy laugh from her, more tears falling to replace the ones he smears free.

"I laughed when I heard they did," she bleats shakily. "So stupid of them. But I'm so glad they did. I knew you'd hang on." Her voice cracks. "I wasn't too late."

He confesses a desire for colder weather; Jane's eyes soften, in both surprise and quiet understanding, and turns her hand to pet her fingers through his hair. Some pleasure after too much pain.

"I'm taking you home," she promises. Her eyes lash back on the emptiness of once was his left arm. The prosthesis what once drew her to him: gone. "Does it hurt? Any damaged hardware that confuses sensory feedback?"

Jane shoves angrily at the people in her way, yielding some success in the baffled parting of techs around her, but their movements are a little slow and uncertain, as if unclear whether she's actually supposed to be here and whether she should be barred. Little things, and moreover little female things, never really command much certitude, no matter how much they should.

Sometimes, all it takes for a little thing to get by in such a large world is for one of its big things to take notice. The techs might not move for Jane Foster, but they move for the visible hackling of what is still, to them, the Winter Soldier.

They are grudging about it, resentful, still cordially hostile towards him — but they go.

It leaves him alone with her, finally, for what feels like the first time in many months. Truly alone, with no more guillotines hanging over his head. No more nations calling for his blood: or at least, no more nations actively trying to bleed it from him. He folds around her, and she can feel instantly how he is different. Leaner, wilder, wounded and tired and scarred — and most obviously, missing on one side. Only one arm slips around her to pull her close.

He tips his head against hers, resting it there, his hand lifting to periodically brush away her tears. His eyes finally close to the feel of her hand in his hair. She knew he'd hang on, she says, especially since they let him fight. "I wonder at that, sometimes," he muses. "But then — no point in speculating now. It gave you the time to get to me."

He finally leans back after a few moments, once she takes notice of his left arm — or rather the space where it used to be. His features turn a little bleak, as he lifts what's left of the shoulder.

"I guess it hurts," he says, with the bemusement of a man who has had no time — up until now — to register such trivial details. "Not a lot of time to notice that, out in the jungle. Well, something internal must have been damaged when T'Challa tore it off." He shrugs, his gaze turning dismissive. "Nothing too bad, though. Just an ache."

He looks sheepish. "I guess I'll need that rebuild a lot faster'n I thought."

What feels for the first time in months: Jane lets her eyes close.

She shuts them and leans her heavy head against his, once and for all finally assured of James Barnes' life. He feels so different in her arms, harder, unyielding, missing his left arm but forged of steel everywhere else. Every inch of him strings taut with the war he fought, and won: this time not for country, not for duty, and not even out of forced servitude, but simply a man who would decide to keep his own life.

Jane, wound in his remaining arm, feels different too. She was always so little and brekable to his touch, and now she is even a wisp of that, barely-fed and underslept, the weeks of constant worry and movement and work borne on every inch and ounce of her. And yet, while she feels like a breath against him, she holds onto him with a fiery impetus, and her heart still beats strong.

Tiny, unstoppable Jane Foster. She could fight even more, if she still had to.

As he indulges himself with the patient wiping of her tears, she loses herself in a dozen small, meaningless touches on him, her tactile hands still greedy to touch — wanting still to be convinced James is here. She cards her small fingers through his hair, and soon that searching turns into a slow, roaming pet, gentle enough that the feral predator lets shut his blue eyes. She uses hers to look him over, cataloguing ever fresh laceration, scrape, and bruise —

They cover him. Out in the jungle, James clarifies.

Pain breaks out across Jane's face. She lowers one hand and covers one bandaged hurt on his chest, so perilously close to his heart. It's hard to imagine — but, no, she can picture it clearly. She can unfocus her eyes and see James, alone in the fatal Wakandan brush, surviving the wilderness as much as he survives its King who wants nothing less than his spilled blood, his stolen life. She can picture James fighting back, moving with every bit of the kinetic mathematics she scripted in her head, beautiful and terrible and deadly.

Her jaw tightens — T'Challa tore off his arm.

"He can keep it," Jane declares lowly, the promise of reconstruction thick in her voice. It's the last thing anyone will take of him. "What you'll have will be made of my hands."

Her brown eyes look up on him as if to seal the promise, gentle but intent, before they turn down as she turns her attention on his body. Jane cranes around James to see to his left side, and reaches carefully along his skin to feel along the metal plates and synthetic weave that grafts deeply into his body. She feels along them, trying to be gentle, but also trying to feel for the damage he so speaks. "Does this hurt?" she asks tenderly, as her fingers slide along his remade trapezius. "We don't have to travel until I look at you properly."

There is no longer any yield to him when she leans against him. There never was much, to be fair — a hard life breeds a hard man — but now he is as hardened as stone, unscratchable as steel. Ironic, given that now the part of him that was actually steel has been ripped away.

Such things were necessary to survive the harsh environment in which he was immersed for months. He will gentle again, no doubt of that… but it will take time for him to stop instinctually bracing to defend himself against the savagery of Wakanda.

In her arms, he still feels like a soldier, a warrior tense to defend his own life. She wraps her arms around him and leans in, and in the tension of his body she can feel the remnant of the war he fought against a country, for his very life. There is a brief hesitation before he reciprocates, putting his remaining arm around her in turn, but not for any reason but that he fears breaking her in a grasp that has known nothing but violence for many long weeks.

She remains. She does not break. But he is appalled to feel how close she seems to it. She was always tiny — now, she feels barely-there, a wisp of life carried solely on the strength of her fiery spirit and quick heart.

Eventually, assured he's alive and going nowhere, she lets go of him enough to explore how he has changed in his absence. She pets through his hair first, and the gentle contact soothes away the Winter Soldier. He shuts his eyes, nudging into her touch like a wolf come in to sit by the fire, and James reasserts to the surface, loosening his tension and relaxing him enough to trust her hands as they roam him for injuries. There are many.

Her hand lowers to touch a healing bruise on his chest. It is the remnant of a strike T'Challa made in an effort to discern how deep the metal went in his body. There is a bit of pain, and he opens his eyes.

She promises him a new arm, one built of her own hands, and he laughs a rusty chuckle. "For the best then, huh? I don't want to wear that Hydra tech anymore anyway. I want something you made."

He lets her go as she shifts away, moving towards his left side to inspect the damage there. He watches her with quiet blue eyes, eyes that tighten a bit at the edges when she moves the ruined metal in such a way as to agitate the flesh. "Careful," he says, probably unnecessary. "The edges are sharp."

Does it hurt? He cants his head back and forth, trying to decide. "It's not pain, really," he says. "Like an ache right down in its middle. From here…" His fingertips describe an area roughly close to the center of his shoulder, trailing down to a spot more near the middle of his chest. "To here."

He shrugs half a shrug, a lift of his right shoulder only. "It's fine to travel. I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to."

The Winter Soldier is a stubborn ghost, never fully exorcised from the body of James Barnes — and barely-bridled beneath his skin.

Jane would be a fool to think him gone, the man James was forced to be for decades, and especially when she can feel him under her hands: inside tension coiling in powerful muscles, those of a soldier never allowed to come in from the cold. His hesitation is palpable.

The Winter Soldier was the one who turned a gun on her that first night, and later twisted whatever the lost James Barnes felt for her into something dark and possessive — the only way the soldier would accept would be through ownership — and ended with Jane in that chair. She has every reason to be afraid. But she knows she cannot be, especially in the moments like this, and as others would take that tension as a warning, she refuses to let go.

Jane lets the wild wolf feel the touch of warmth, and remember it once chose to be tame.

Stroking a hand through his hair, slow and constant, she waits until she feels James come back again.

Leaving a light kiss to his temple, she retracts only to begin a careful inspection of his body, her gentle hands as much medical as they are that of an engineer, and she slants him a patient, humoured look at the warning of sharp edges — she has some experience with those, remember — and begins a careful appraisal, feeling out along his left side where internal metal seams into flesh. Her fingertips run his skin, new wounds on old scars.

"Then we'll check it out when we get home," Jane decides, a furrow between her eyebrows at mention of an ache. "If you really are fine. None of that tough man stuff."

Her attention lifts to his left shoulder, and that shorn-off arm, and Jane cranes her head, her moving eyes making sense of the damaged, gutted hardware. "So long as there's no damage to the sensory pathways — doesn't seem so. Probably routes off the spine, and protected as hell. No matter. Most of this is unnecessary. So many processes to streamline."

Realizing she's half talking to herself, because it's been forever since Jane has just lost her mind to building anything — she meets James's eyes apologetically. "Let's get going. There's a lot of people here too, you know — who want to see you. Friends who came here for you." Her eyes shine soft, eternally grateful. "That can happen stateside. Right now, you're all mine."

It takes a long few minutes, but Jane is patient. She has sat up with him countless nights over their nearly yearlong acquaintance, bearing patiently through his night terrors and his many old traumas, and did so with an awareness that while they may improve, they may never go away. She has been steadfast through his confused moments, the times when he could not sort through the too many men which all live in his head. She has been there, no matter how shitty it was sometimes to be there.

As happened every other time, eventually the Winter Soldier recedes before her petting touch. The tension goes out of his body, and he leans into her. That lupine suspicion dissipates from him, and he closes his eyes: the last hallmark that the Soldier is gone for now.

Once he is calm, she pulls back to make an inspection of him and his broken arm. He sits with a quiet patience through it, his blue eyes watching her, and a flicker of amusement comes and goes in them when she chides him about 'tough man stuff.' "I'm fine," he says. "Really." An indignant pause. "'Tough man stuff,' as you call it, has its place."

She concludes eventually it's probably routed off the spine, and a hint of frustration shows in his eyes that he cannot either confirm or deny for sure. He paws at his own shoulder restlessly. "There's not a lot I know about my own arm," he admits. "A tool didn't really need to know how it worked. I was usually out of it anytime they talked about it in detail." He shrugs. "You don't need me to help you figure it out, though.

The moment she realizes she's rambling puts a fond look in his eyes. That's more like the Jane he knows. Her mention of the many people who came to get him, though, sobers his gaze.

"I want to see them," he admits, "but I don't. I don't want them to see me yet." His head bows in thought. "Maybe after a little while," he allows, "when we're home."

Her assertion that he's all hers finally puts a smile on his face that doesn't seem strained. It's brief, but it's there. "I am," he agrees amiably, sliding off the table and looking for his clothes. "Tell me everything that happened to you while we're on the way back." His eyes move to the thinness of her body and the whiteness of her face. It's a mercy he cannot yet see her arms.

The Wakandans are as eager to show them out as they are to leave. They're escorted quickly from the country, placed on a swift conveyance back to New York. It's almost anticlimactic, returning to the familiar city and all its sights and sounds and smells, and James transparently struggles a little with the clamor and noise after weeks in the Wakandan bush.

He struggles so much that they just wind up getting a car back, and hang the expense. He doesn't even object to Jane driving.

"It does," Jane concedes, of James Barnes's tough man stuff. "I miss it like hell, actually. Way too many emotions going on."

She glances away, concentrating as she feels along the framing metal long restructured as his bones and chest plate, trying to parse the engineering of those internals through touch alone. Her fingers are careful, ever aware of pain, but still searching — needing to feel for herself the state of James's body, that none of those grafts have come dislodged, that none of his synthetic muscles have frayed to the point of snapping.

In the end, there is truth in his toughened reserve: Jane doesn't feel anything offensively out of place.

Her eyes glance back to catch that note of frustration burned into James's blue eyes, a man who cannot even offer her any information about his own body. It chills her over, that realization, and again Jane stokes with quiet fury for everything Hydra did to him. "Well, that's gonna change," she decides. "I'm giving you an education every step through the rebuild of your new arm. You're going to know everything. Foremost, how lucky you are to have a girlfriend that's a genius."

His eyes shine fond, and that galvanizes Jane powerfully: it's really James Barnes here, alive, and unbroken. After everything that's happened to him, to them both, it's been so long since she just let herself hope.

It is an ache in Jane's own body, her left side, her heart — to let that sensation come home.

Her eyes burn, but after her remark about emotion, she doesn't let more tears fall. Instead, Jane lets go a shaky laugh, colouring in the face with surprised pleasure when James does agree: he is hers. Seeing him smile slides a weight off her back, one she's been carrying too far too long. She leaves it behind in Wakanda.

"They can wait," Jane says of their friends, taking James's one hand between hers and running her thumb over his battered knuckles. Wiping away everything T'Challa did.

She lets go for him to get up, though the woman keeps watch, not entirely assured of his health and strength, burned in her the reflex to move for him should James falter. Her watch is a quiet sentry, only faltering when he mentions wanting to know about her. Jane's dark eyes strain with that; all she's been is a single, constant worry for him. To think about herself again —

"It's a long story," she answers quietly. "Let's get the hell out of here. I'm so done with Wakanda."

And Jane is. Finally assured of James Barnes back beside her, she passes out on the plane beside him in her first real sleep in days.

Unable to acclimate again to the sheer density of everything in New York, and well aware of James's tension layering to too many people, too many sounds, too much stimuli — she rents a car and drives them home over the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Speaking of expenses, too," Jane remembers enough to remark, eyes on the road, one hand on the wheel. "That company Tony set up for me? He's… really good at that stuff. There's… money now. You and I — we have money. It's not stupid rich, but — say, if you wanted us to get a place instead in Manhattan, we could. Or we could stay in Brooklyn and get a house. An actual house. With rooms. And privacy."

Way too many emotions going on, Jane says. James grimaces a little. He can guess. "Another reason I'm not ready to see anybody," he admits. "I don't think I can pretend that hard quite yet."

He falls silent as she searches him, mapping as best as she can with her two hands the extent of the damage. There are points where he tenses to her touch, as if she's hitting something sore, but at no point does she seem to cause him significant pain, and nothing is palpably out of place.

And even so innocuous a question as the one she asks him forces him to admit — he really doesn't know much, if anything, about the details of what was surgically done to him over the years. He knows broadly where things are and what got replaced, just by feeling what is and isn't natural within his own body, but he has no idea of the specifics. It frustrates him and outrages her. That a man can be so completely overhauled without his consent and without fair knowledge given to him of the changes…

She promises him that from now on, he'll know. She'll educate him fully. "I don't know whether to be happy or scared," he says dryly, though he does nuzzle into her hair and close his eyes. "I am grateful for that stroke of luck, though. I picked right when I climbed in your window. The Soldier had some sense."

Only between them could they joke about such a thing.

His request she tell him everything darkens her eyes. He knows that look intimately — he has seen it in the mirror — and accordingly he does not even think of pressing. He only says, "All right. Let's go," and lets the matter drop. He watches her as she sleeps at his side, as she shields him from the discomfort of having to deal with transit by driving them both back, content in silence and the first sense of security he has felt in months.

He is in a half-doze himself, half-alert in that way soldiers always are, when Jane finally speaks up. He blinks at the news there's money now, money enough to get a place in Manhattan. Or a house in Brooklyn. "I'll get some pay myself if the paperwork goes through," he says, masculine pride a little pricked. "Formal discharge from the Army, pension, back pay." A pause. "A shitload of back pay."

He hesitates. "Not keen on Manhattan, unless you want it for your convenience. It's… noisy." The one short phrase encapsulates much. "But it's your money. Your stuff takes up more space than mine. You oughta see what works for you."

He doesn't know whether to be happy or scared.

"Both," Jane replies curtly, a brevity to her voice that promises future death by calculus. "Both is good."

That brief, flare-up of anger gentles to his own touches, and the woman softens the moment James Barnes makes a brief pillow of her hair. It kills her how much she's missed him, and that she hadn't even let herself realize: too busy moving, working, and never stopping. Missing him would have been wasted time. Missing him would have been his death.

The Winter Soldier picked right to break into her home, he says, and while anyone else in the world may tense up or even find quiet horror in such a remark —

Jane lets a short laugh go, pleased and embarrassed, flushing up to her ears. "You're smooth, James Barnes."

Seriousness threatens at the wings, however, a rolling darkness comes in on Jane's face, daring to shadow some of the light from her eyes. But no one better than him knows what it is, and, for now, lets that topic drop. She looks up at him, in her eyes a promise to give him honesty — the same she once asked of him — yet grateful she does not have to do that now. Not for a little while.

Thankfully, their travel is quiet and, for the first time in months, uneventful. Jane seems equally agreeable to drive the both of them back in from Newark, wanting privacy far more than the dread of manning the city commute. After everything they've been through, New York driving comes as a warm welcome. Home come to greet them.

Inching the car forward in the deadlocked bridge traffic, Jane tries not to smile, hearing the bruised machismo in James's voice. The 1940s is still strong in this one.

"Manhattan's off the table then," she declares instead, with a quick look turned on him. "My convenience is you being happy. Brooklyn's grown on me, anyway. I think you'd die without the chip shop."

Her eyes sharpen a little to hold his. "And," Jane continues, "it's our money. It's been a long time since I got to share anything with somebody. You gave me the idea, anyway, so it's technically half yours. A house sounds nice. Could have more work space. Space for your weird guy things. A balcony for my telescope."

The idea seems to lift Jane's spirit; after so many months, it may be the first time James has witnessed her like that woman he first met: unfettered and quietly hopeful. "And so you still have a paycheque?" she adds, after a moment of thought. "What kind of back pay?"

The brevity of Jane's voice instills a quiet horror. James wisely says no more. Maybe she'll forget — !

He tries to distract her in other ways, nuzzling into her hair… making a remark that honestly could only be pulled off between them. "I'm glad you found that smooth," he laughs in admission of that, pulling back and looking down at her affectionately. "One: I haven't lost my touch. Two: I think anyone else woulda been like holy fuck, that's creepy."

A pause. "Most of the stuff we've been through has been weird as hell, though."

But though he plainly wants to know what she went through to get to him, the look in her eyes stays him. He does not force the topic. He more than anyone knows what it is to not want to speak immediately, to be left alone for a while to process rather than try to put things in words. She needs time, and he gives it.

They are accordingly quiet on the way back. The peace is a blessing after the past many months. James even relaxes enough to doze at periods, on the way back. Especially in the car, when there's no one but the two of them around.

Conversation only resumes once they're nearly home. James cracks open an eye as Jane speaks of having money now — enough to buy a place, should they want. His 1940s machismo hastens to remind that he gets pay too, something which Jane doesn't miss. In the interest of saving his masculinity, she doesn't comment.

Instead she teases him about the chip shop. He looks a little defensive. "It brings back some good memories," he says. "The Germans got most of London, but they couldn't trash ALL the chip shops."

He relaxes back into an indulgent smiling when she promptly sweeps Manhattan off the table at his discomfort. "I gave you the idea by mostly 'existing,'" he points out. "And it's not my weird guy things. It's my equipment. Wouldn't mind proper space to store and work on it all, though… shit's expensive and needs proper maintenance."

The real value of all this, of course, is seeing Jane visibly perk up. Now, he thinks, I just need to feed her and get that whiteness out of her face.

She asks pointedly about the money, and he hesitates a moment. He counts on his fingers silently. "I don't actually know," he says. "It depends what the Defense Department rules on it. I'm not exactly a conventional case." He shrugs. "The ranks have changed between '45 and now, and the pay scales with them. Don't know whether they account for normal rate of promotion either. But you think about it, seventy-two years of pay, adjusted for inflation, with interest…"

He shrugs, a little sheepishly. "Good thing I never got declared KIA."

"You are many things to me, James Buchanan Barnes," Jane must tell him, reaching up to steal the tip of his chin briefly, lightly, between her fingers. "But creepy's not one of them. Your face is way too pretty for that."

Humour softens all her edges, come with the relief that she can finally /laugh/ at something after months of black nothing. Jane adds, in a moment of sobered seriousness, "And I'm lucky too."

Lucky in so many ways, she thinks. Lucky to even be able to fly home, with James finally safe at her side. Lucky enough to sleep.

Lucky enough to share a private drive home with him, with the only conversation in the car something that isn't what was, or what is — but actually, finally, something that could be. How long has it been since Jane even conceived of her own future?

And how long for /James/? A man who spent over seventy years existing solely in the moment that never belonged to him?

"It's weird guy things," she concludes breezily, getting a little drunk on the little things, like teasing James Barnes beside her. "But I think it's unanimous. We'll find something nice. You can have a spare room — rooms — for whatever you want. Man cave, armory, or whatever you want to call it."

But Jane does come curious — it never hit her James would be owed money for his service, and yet it still makes a startling, damnable sense. The fact hits her hard, that even after all he's been though, he never had time to be properly paid for the war he fought and sacrificed and died. And the concept of seventy-two /years/ of back-pay.

Jane stare out through the windshield, eyebrows popped up. "Holy crap," is all she has to say to that. "Maybe I should make you buy the house then."

She eventually finds parking near to that familiar brownstone: home stands there where he left it weeks ago, a far cry from the jungle he fought and transversed and somehow survived.

Keying them inside, Jane opens up to home… left in considerable disarray.

The air is overwarm and stale from days of shut windows, and the rest lies in the remnants of some small, passing storm, Jane throwing bits of her entire life about as she scrambled to pack and get out onto the road, leaving the rest behind without a glance back. The main room is a congestion of disconnected drives and servers, and bundles of split wires, and most curious of all, a spatter-path of dried blood along the hardwood like someone moving through and uncontrolled nosebleed.

"It's a wreck," she says apologetically, as if that one word can describe everything that happened to them both. "I'll clean this."

Chin stolen, James slants a fond look at Jane as she turns his head to proclaim that his face is too pretty to be creepy. "That it is," he says, ego undimmed even after nearly nine decades. "Eighty years of having it beat in by various people, and it still looks good. Thank God."

He sobers when she does. Pulling his chin gently from her hand, he leans his forehead against hers. "I'm lucky," he corrects her, his eyes shutting. The gesture of trust, from someone who long ago had most of his trust beaten out of him, is telling.

That comfort persists throughout their trip home. He keeps his guard down around her in a way that almost no one else save Steve Rogers can boast. He even dozes in the car, briefly, though he wakens after a very short time, clearly inured to an inability to let his guard down for too long, after months of risking sudden death at any time.

He quickly enough regrets waking back up when Jane starts to make fun of him.

"I could as well call it your weird girl things, except girls don't do what you do," he grumbles. "Weird nerd things, more like. And what the hell is a man cave?" His mood will probably improve once he figures that out.

But he does have money, theoretically. Money of his own — and money he seems intent to use, because God damn it, he fought more wars than he ever signed up for, and he'll be damned if he lives in a house he needed a woman to buy for him. "I'll buy the property," he says, grouchily. "When it comes in. You buy whatever goes in the house."

He falls silent, however, at their first sight of home again. Home, after months of struggling to survive in the foreign and deadly jungles of Wakanda. It's almost alien by now, this place he has not seen in so long — and especially never in such a state of disarray. Quietly shocked, he moves through the familiar cramped confines, looking around, opening windows to let in air and stepping over various things scattered all over the floor, and —

"Why is there blood?" he says. He didn't see it, per se; he smelled it, and followed the scent to its source. He stands looking at the trail of spattered blood, his gaze troubled.

He's lucky, he tells her again — two times now. Jane gives herself up to something so small, so pure, as the press of James Barnes's forehead to hers, the shutting of his eyes. Her hands cradle his face. She takes his trust and shelters it.

"I love you," she says simply, and always with her quiet, candid honesty. She will not call him Altair here, not in enemy territory, and it's not a secret for them to know; instead, Jane seals the word as the kiss she gives his forehead. No more of this for him. She's bringing him home, and will never let him go.

The drive home is quiet, and Jane takes special care to temper her own impatience behind the wheel, because at this point, she'd sooner sacrifice her own left arm than see him disturbed from his much-needed sleep. James earns constant, assessing glances, some of them to appraise him, some simply to drink him in — let the reality sink in finally that he's safe at her side. Questions cross her thoughts between those many studies: what happened to him in Wakanda?

There's so much she wants to know. So much she wants to ask. That, too, can wait. James Barnes needs a break from war.

So when he does rouse, it's to Jane's soft and leisurely chatter. Her teases. Her talk of a future for both of them.

"A lot of girls do what I do," she counters huffily, feeling the momentary urge to defend the honour of a million STEM sisters. "But guilty as charged on the nerd label, I guess. Nerds can be cool." Jane frowns even as she says it. Nerds are never cool. "And nevermind on the man cave. Millennial talk. You'll hate it."

But his proposal to step up and buy a property earns James a laugh. "Deal," Jane says, still tickled by all this talk of a future. "But you're gonna so regret my taste in decor, just saying."

That light mood carries them both back to that little apartment —

— and when they close the door behind them, returned to the stale-air and mess left behind of a Jane Foster panicked well out of her mind — she goes sombre.

Feeling ashamed by it, and possibly not wanting either of them quickly reminded of what just happened to them both, she steps forward to begin seeing to the mess, bending down to pick up a few scattered wires, tying them on dormant, black-screened monitors she'd once linked up to her laptop.

Then James comments about blood and Jane goes still. She pauses a moment, not in wilful denial, but to try to gather up an appropriate answer. That beat of silence is telling. "Uh, it's from me," she answers, uncomfortable, with her arms full of hardware. "It's nothing crazy. When I — I couldn't fish through that Hydra data fast enough. There was just so much of it." Her eyes crease, and she looks briefly down at the ground, as if that fact shames her. "I used some magic to speed it along. Quantum processing type thing. It worked."

I love you, she says.

Once, James was fluent in endearments and sweet nothings. Once, he might have been able to say it back. But there is little that is a sweet nothing or throwaway endearment about those three words, and the years have carved away all his youth and joy until any kind of words catch in his throat. Much less the ones that most matter.

He answers her by taking her face in his one remaining hand. He answers her by tilting his head up, looking briefly into her dark eyes, and then taking her mouth with his.

"I walked through a goddamned jungle," he murmurs against her lips, voice humored, "for that."

The way home is quiet. He says little about his time in Wakanda, much for the same reason he does not yet press her about her own sojourn. Instead he watches her on the plane as she sleeps; then takes his own turn to doze as she drives them both home. He rouses somewhere before the Brooklyn Bridge, and the familiar sight of the edifice gentles his eyes.

Home.

Jane's chatting gives as much a sense of home, now, as the sight of a structure which has stood since he was a boy in the 20s. He smiles, humored, at her indignation over his light teasing. His silence is a damning enough rejoinder to her insistence that 'nerds can be cool.' Her sudden backtrack on the topic of a man cave, however, brings him to cock a skeptical brow. He's interrogated a lot of people. He knows the smell of someone trying to hide something.

"Oh really?" he wonders, and — pulling out his phone, returned to him by Jane — he starts Googling. There is a slight pause. "…I do not hate this," he says. "I'm gonna have one."

He flicks a glance up at her. "And if your decor is too bad," he warns, "I'll overwrite it all with mine."

The mood lingers up until they get home. Home — currently a dust-collecting mausoleum enshrining the panic and fear that was Jane's state of mind in the first few days after James was taken. He is sober stepping into it, looking around at all the obvious marks of her panic and terror, and he instinctively reaches for her before she can scurry off. He takes her hand, draws her in close, folds briefly around her to leave a soothing kiss on the crown of her head.

He lets her go afterwards — she is so hurried to clean everything up — and walks a little farther in. That's about when he sees the blood. His question draws a telling silence — and then an honest answer, if not a full one. James doesn't reply at first, looking at the spatter, head bowed and shoulders taut.

"It was a lot," is all he says, at first, absolving her of whatever shame she might feel at one mind not being able to parse it. Even if that one mind is Jane's.

She used magic, she says. He glances up at her, concerned, but seems to accept that. He's seen her cut herself before to generate her spells, and while he doesn't like it, it seems to be how the magic works. "I just… didn't want you to have to bleed at all to find me," he starts, moving towards her and resting his hand on her arm —

— and hesitating. He feels the telltale softness of gauze under his touch, nestled in the crook of her arm under her sleeve.

He is briefly silent, looking down at where his hand rests on her arm, before he clumsily and one-handedly starts trying to push her sleeve up.

A mind like Jane Foster's comes either gifted or cursed to remember every detail of her strange, unexplainable life. No memory she makes is ever missed, ever forgotten.

And yet, even despite that ability, the moment James, alive and returned to her, takes her mouth and whispers all those quiet words against her lips, Jane knows this moment especially she will never forget. It transcends all that eidetic noise to be one of her most favourite memories ever.

The look she gives him, touched and quietly overwhelmed, and the kiss she returns him, tries to seal the same for James.

There she remains a constant presence close at his side, never assured to let James Barnes out of her sight as long as they walk Wakandan soil. The tension only seems to exorcise out of Jane once they're safe in the air, with that horror far at their backs, and without warning, she falls into a deep, dreamless sleep. A woman exhausted in every so way.

She duly watches over James as he sleeps, knowing he would have had little in the last weeks — little to none, knowing his constitution — and provides him the quiet safeguard of the locked car and her own sheltering presence. After so many nightmares, after so much war, and so many awakenings into so many Hells —

— this time, James gets to awaken to the lull of familiar, Manhattan traffic, and Jane's soft, absent humming of something where she sits behind the wheel.

She looks apologetic at first to have him awaken, but cannot disguise how much she enjoys James's presence to fill out the car, and the how he does things like go to the lengths to google about man caves.

A laugh escapes her, rabbit-quick and delighted. "Crap," she says affectionately. "There goes my second office."

But as most things end, so does that mood — left temporarily behind at the threshold to the apartment. Jane has always kept halfway of a cluttered home, but has never let a mess go as far as this — a left-behind devastation that speaks so keenly to her state of mind.

Her eyes tighten, and for a time, she can't meet his. It's embarrassing. And for as Jane posits honesty and tries to give it, she's still deeply private, and this mess is a shocking, and deeply-intimate window into her mind. James is the only person she would bear to see it, and even then, she worries transparently what he must think.

She tries to fuss away, but he already has her hand, and pulls her into the warmth of his body. She takes the kiss nervously, then leans her head to his chest, silently thankful. He lets her go, and the woman recedes, off and away to absolve her own embarrassment with some rushed cleaning, already attending to the technological madness she left behind.

The ex-assassin, however, notices first and foremost the blood.

Sheepish with quiet explanation, Jane tucks away some things, clearing away some recovered couch space as she speaks. He didn't want her to bleed for him, James says, and she fixes him with a surprised look. It flips between apology and tenderness. Of course I'll bleed for you, says that look, though she doesn't say it aloud.

He reaches for her. His hand, by happenstance, finds the soft yield of gauze under her sweater sleeve, and Jane tenses up, sore to the touch. It's more than enough evidence.

"James," she entreats as he moves her sleeve, but doesn't try to pull herself away. She couldn't, anyway, if he's insistent, and it's not like she can hide it from him forever. He'll see her one way or another. She was just hoping not this soon.

The sleeve comes away and reveals her arm, a long, ugly road of bruising up and down the inside of her elbow. It swathes purple and black from what looks like multiple injection points, though with something far more thick and crude than a needle.

"It looks a lot worse than it is," she says quietly, feebly.

"You don't need a second office," James says, voice laden with amusement. "Give you a second office and you'll just fill it with crap. I do, however, need my own space to go hide in when you get all science-crazed. So I'm taking this."

Man cave claimed, he sleeps his phone and puts it away. The rest of the drive back is quiet in a companionable sort of way — two people just enjoying one another's company again — but like most good things, it cannot last. The apartment itself is too stark a reminder of what happened to them both. Jane is transparently embarrassed, and James is transparently guilty as hell for causing such a state of panic in her. Neither can meet the other's eyes, and each for their own reasons.

He shoves his hands in his pockets as she hurries to try to clean up. Or tries to — one hand is, of course, missing, and he skews a little towards his left before he compensates and regains his balance. Looking a little embarrassed now himself, he stays politely out of her way, walking carefully through the mess in search of a place to sit.

And of course, while Jane sees first to the technological mess, what the assassin sees and smells first is the blood. Concerned up until he remembers how she's had to power all of her spells with little cuts, he seems ready to acquiesce down to a mere grumble that he didn't want her to have to shed any blood for him — though his gaze is mutedly appreciative of her silent assurance: of course she would. He would for her. It is only fair.

That is, he was ready to acquiesce up until he touches something more substantive under her sleeve. He knows gauze when he feels it.

Her expression says it all to him, but nonetheless he does not stop until he has her sleeve rolled up. Without her cooperation, without her helping him, it is a slow, awkward, almost pathetic process — strange to see him, a perfectly-tuned supersoldier, lack his usual physical grace — but he gets the sleeve up soon enough.

He is perfectly silent as he looks at the ugly mottled bruising. Perfectly silent through her feeble insistence it looks worse than it is. His expression does not change or alter a whit from its controlled impassiveness.

His hand on her arm, however, is shaking. His gaze breaks and twitches away from the sight.

"What is this?" he asks.

It is a slow and pitiful process, and it breaks Jane's heart even more than it's him. Her James, whose innate grace is something that has always drawn her eye, her awe, and sometimes even her envy. There are no algorithms like that when he moves, none so beautiful.

It hurts her what T'Challa and his country reduced James to — it drives home a chilling reminder how close she towed the line to free him. How much longer would he have been able to fight, if he struggles with such a thing as moving her sleeve?

The awkward uncovering, though, brushes accidentally on what's hidden on her arm, and she tries to hide a small grimace of discomfort. Jane neither helps nor fights that process, busy holding her breath and turning down her eyes, trying to prepare the words to mitigate what he'll find. It'll disturb James to see. It disturbs her too, and for that she keeps it covered.

The battery exposed on her inner elbow, bruising colouring purple her skin around many puncture points, some old and healing, and the freshest hidden under gauze, brings him to silence. His face is a lock, holding in, holding out, and near-unreadable.

But there is no missing or disguising the way Jane feels his hand tremble to hold her.

Anxiety makes knots of her. She's not certain what it is or of it is distressing him, but she moves quickly to spare James any more of it.

Pulling down her sleeve self-consciously, the gesture imbued with quiet shame, she tries to pull her arm from his hand only to take it in hers, wanting to warm that shaking away.

"It's crude," is her apologetic answer to his question. "I didn't have time to —" Jane's hand tightens on his, and she looks down. "I didn't have time. For my proofs to work, it needed my blood. The process needs me. I ran a line. That's all it is. I had to get the data, and get there, and fix it, and find you."

An urgency crescendos in her voice the longer she speaks, longer she rambles, like Jane still hasn't let that narrow timeframe go, the constant, nauseating reminder that while she works, he's all alone — he could be dying. Already dead. "It was as fast as I could go. There wasn't time." Her eyes look on the emptiness of his missing left arm. "I still almost didn't reach you in time."

Adrenaline — the constant threat of death — it has a funny effect. It keeps people operating, past the point they should be able. It keeps them performing well, in order to avoid death.

Take away the adrenaline, and what a man was previously able to do, he will no long be able to pull off. Raw necessity kept James Barnes fighting and fit, even one-armed, when the choice was either that or death. Here in the safety of an apartment in Brooklyn, however, his grace is lost. His body has remembered the significant trauma done it.

It takes him a few tries to get her sleeve pushed up, and he almost pushes loose the bandaging when he does.

The gauze is not enough to hide the ugly bruising surrounding the punctures in her arm. No needle makes holes that big, and he blanches to imagine whatever it was she used going in. The sight is too close to what he saw on his own arms, after every round of Zola's brutal treatments, after the Soviets finished reconditioning him for the next freeze, the next defrost, the next mission, and for a moment his eyes unfocus and stare beyond her arm and across the years — remembering.

His hand shakes with the memory, the only visible sign of his stress.

He doesn't resist or respond when she rolls her sleeve back down and takes his arm in her hands. His head is bowed, his gaze fixed on the floor, his thoughts a thousand miles away. Her voice comes through to him eventually. The things she's saying. He focuses on her, with an effort.

"I am alive," he eventually says. "It was fast enough."

He shakes his head. "I don't like this phrasing. It 'needs' you. How much of you. More than just blood? How much blood? If you — if you cut off a piece of your soul, or damaged your health, or — " He makes a mental note to touch base with John. "I wouldn't forgive you. Your arm… it looks like mine did. After being experimented on."

He frowns. "What did you do in Wakanda?"

It's transparent how much it hurts him to see her this way — and for more reasons past the empathy of seeing a loved one bruised and battered.

Jane wastes not a moment more to hurriedly pull her sleeve back down, desperate to pull James back. This she recognizes immediately and all too well: the dark place he sometimes goes, and always against his will. To be the reason it happens makes her feel sick, makes her feel shameful.

She slips her arm away to instead take his, wanting his hand, to hold him sure like the ways she has before when his eyes go distant and his lost mind wanders. A grounding touch so James can find his way back.

Her nervous torrent of words hits the surf of his attention, James Barnes pulled so far away —

— until he does return, to tell Jane she saved him in time. Her eyes shine, and her hands tighten around his.

But with his return come more questions, some Jane thinks she can answer, and others she's not so sure. All she can do is try. "It's not like that. I'm still me, I wouldn't let anything take me away. I promised you I'd be sticking around."

Her fingers run his knuckles. "I made proofs, and the magic brought my scripts to life. Little things — I joined my mind to data. I astral travelled. I tunnelled Matt in from miles away, when Hydra sent some woman after me — he saved my life. I even made a singularity with my hands. It felt good, and then — like exhaustion and a bad hangover. I did what I could to bring you back to me. I know you'd do the same. Night there, I could see the stars. I could see our star. I wouldn't forgive myself if I wasn't fast enough — if I didn't do enough."

He asks her a good question.

Jane makes a quiet decision, and pulls on James's hand, to lead them both through her apartment, and to her couch. Both to sit, with her at his right side, seated so close in quiet, constant reminder he's still with her — really actually here. "I'll tell you everything from start to finish. I want to know what happened to you too."

During the moments her arm is exposed, James goes… somewhere else. His eyes dim, and his thoughts fling out away from the sight. The serum was a blessing in many ways, and a curse in many others. His memory is photographic. He can remember perfectly the details of his own overlong life, and what he sees on Jane's arm rhymes with too many of those recollections.

Repentant, she covers her arm back up and takes his remaining hand in both of hers. He does not come back immediately, but soon enough he blinks back to reality with a quiet assurance. The way her eyes shine chases away the last of those old ghosts.

He remains concerned… but he thinks he knows how that particular issue can be handled, and he tables the thought for later. In the here and now, he just nods to her assurance she wouldn't do anything that would take her away. His gaze is hesitant, but he asks no more questions about it.

His gaze attains a bewildered cast as she tells him all she managed to do with the magic. Half of it he barely understands, and the other half… "I have my hesitations about any magic that gives you a bad hangover," he says. "I mean… I guess I would do the same, at the time. But now, let's have no more of…" His hand shifts back to the crook of her elbow. "Let's have no more of this."

Firm as he is on that point, he is quiescent on others. She takes his hand and leads him to sit, and he follows obligingly.

"I want to hear it," he says. "All you and the others did. There isn't much to tell on my end." He shakes his head. "I was held in a prison for a while, largely ignored, and then taken out to their ceremonial grounds. Warrior Falls, I think they call it. It was a beautiful place. It wouldn't have been a bad place to die. I've come close to it in many worse places."

He rests his remaining hand on her knee, thumb moving in an absent caress. "We fought there. No armor and weapons. Just bare hands. He took my arm off, but i took him off the edge of the falls."

James cracks half a dry smile. "Then it was a couple weeks of slogging through the jungle trying to get back to some kind of city. Not a fun time, especially not with him periodically trying to kill me during. But I got back to Birnin Zana, eventually. We fought there for a while. Then, well… he got a call. And he just left."

He looks bewildered about that, still.

Through the worry and hurt that it was technically her, her choices, that sent him there — Jane waits patiently for James to return. Back from the hell of his own mind.

She knows from memory, from months and months of his terrors and nightmares and screams, there is little she can do to force him out of it. But she can guide him, with persistence, and a constant presence, be it her words murmuring to him through the dark, or her silence and close presence, or her hand on his, his face in her hands, or his head bowed broken to her belly, her womb, as he convulses with traumas that cannot let him go.

This time is subdued enough that it demands an equally-subdued response, and she holds him by the hand until she can see James Barnes back, filling out the vacancy in those blue eyes.

Jane holds him with silent patience, her thumb running the bones of his knuckles, still healing their bruises away. He returns, and it's with an uneasy acceptance of her explanation, though James does not hold back his reservations. "Yeah," she says softly of the hangovers. Wasn't a fan herself, though it usually negated into the sheer beauty of the logic she created.

He doesn't interrogate, but it's because he gives her a request. Maybe more than a request. Jane glances up to the touch of James's hand on her bruised arm.

Reluctance burns briefly along her face; she understands, but doesn't want to acquiesce. Just because this field she's discovering comes with consequences, it doesn't mean she can't advance it — can't look into ways to mitigate those things and streamline the process that she never has to wear puncture marks again. It feels wrong to close an entire avenue because of something so minor —

But she can't argue in the face of how he looked, gazing down at her arm. Not this way. Not now. She surrenders to compromise. "All right," Jane promises, heaviness in her voice.

Wanting too this topic to drop, especially because she doesn't want James stressed this way /just getting home/ — and wanting to speak, she leads him to sit.

She is still so petite at his side. His hand covers her knee. She yields to the touch, and her head leans against James's shoulder, still indulging in him near and alive. This way, she can feel the slow cadence of his words as much as she can hear them — telling her what became of him in Wakanda. Of course, in his vague way.

"You walked an entire jungle missing an arm, fighting some mad king the entire time," she says, with quiet amusement, "but there isn't much to tell."

He can feel her exhale against him, trying and failing to conceptualize it all in her head. "And you did that for two weeks. And you're here. You're the strongest man I know."

But as he tells of T'Challa taking a call and mysteriously abandoning that execution by combat, with nothing but confusion in his voice — of course they wouldn't tell him. That galls Jane. The great, advanced nation wielding ignorance like a weapon. It makes her sick.

"I — have an answer for that," she offers.

Her head turns to lift her eyes up on him. "Jessica's the one who figured it out. It wasn't enough that we put down the Hydra cell. It wasn't enough we gave them evidence that the footage they had of you was fabricated. It's some cultural thing. They can't admit they screwed up."

Jane's face wears irritation, apology, a bit of a wince, but no regret. "They wouldn't let you go until someone took responsibility for the things you didn't even do. I wasn't going to leave you to some stupid technicality built on bullshit absolutism. So I assumed responsibility."

There is a lot that goes unsaid in her brief replies and long silences. James hears those unspoken things clearly enough. He frowns absently, not liking what's implied by those omissions, but in the end he does not understand enough to do more than forbid her from — from mutilating her own arm like this. He won't look at it. He won't have it.

She is reluctant. He sees that, and his eyes turn just a little more severe. Eventually she agrees, however, and he lets out a breath and pulls his hand back.

It is not minor to him, and not just because it's her harming her own flesh.

Happy enough to drop it once she agrees, he makes a mental note to talk to someone later about all that, and lets her lead him back to take a seat. She wants to know what happened to him in Wakanda, and he tells her. Or… tells her as far as James ever tells anyone anything, which is 'tersely and unremarkably.'

He makes months of surviving the Wakandan jungle and the rage of its king sound as dry as a hike in the woods. Jane points that out, amused, and he turns an equally amused glance on her. "You don't want the filthy details," he says. "Or a blow by blow of how many bugs I had to kill or throw off myself. Or how many crocodiles jumped out at me when I was trying to get a drink."

He is still at her side, solid and unyielding, but still very much a man made of flesh and bone. It's hard for her conceptualize him roughing it through such dire circumstances, and she tells him so — tells him he's the strongest man she knows for enduring all that. "Plenty other boys went through shit as bad, for longer, and without the benefit of the serum I got that helps me cheat," he reminds. "They did in the World War. They did in Vietnam."

He stares off into some unspecified middle distance. "I've known a lot of strong men, over the years."

He doesn't return up until she offers some answer to T'Challa's mysterious disappearance. He turns to her, surprised, as she lays out what Jessica figured out about Wakanda's demands — and what Jane did to fulfill them. She took responsibility for his sins.

Hot anger flares in his eyes. It isn't directed at her, but it's close and fierce enough for her to feel its heat. "That they think any one person could just take what I've done, and somehow clear me of it by so doing," he says, "is the dumbest fucking shit I have ever heard."

A few moments pass before he visibly grits himself back under control. "What does that put on you? What do you have to do?"

With him, it reads more than a request of her: James's voice is firm, and Jane can't miss the severity in his blue eyes.

She's not a woman commonly denied things; at least, one who allows others to submit their rulings onto her back. The reckless explorer rankles at all forms of chains.

But James Barnes is the exception. If it were him, she would be furiously making the same demand. If it were his arms wearing those marks, she knows she'd be appalled, and she'd try to impose whatever finality she could. And now is not like she could be a year before: free to do whatever, with little reprecussion on the world around her. Now is the sobering fact that what she can and cannot do may very well hurt him — may force his mind to relive horrors in the one place and with the one person who promised him safety.

She does not say it out of relief to spare them both further conversation, but she squeezes his hand to convey it: she's sorry.

Now tucked at his side, Jane listens to James's brief, starflare-quick story. Despite its terrifying detail, one that has her imagining him fighting for his life alone in a jungle, the way he tells it brings a moment of levity. As much as she loves detail, she loves even more his brisk manner of saying things, even his own life-and-death combat with the King of Wakanda. Makes it all sound like so simple.

"No, you're right," she says to his remark about boys fighting and surviving and dying alone in jungles. Imagining it turns down her eyes, her cheek nudged to his arm. "Though I don't see your serum as cheating." To her, it's seemed to make his life that much more difficult.

But, stealing in a deep breath, Jane begins by telling how it all ended — how, to the law of Wakanda, she now comes to bear the supposed sins of the Winter Soldier.

He reacts as much as she predicts.

James turns on her, and Jane looks up, witness in that moment to all the fury burning like blue fire in his eyes. In that instant, he looks murderous, and tiny at his side, she is never afraid of him for a moment. She knows him well enough to understand.

"That's Wakanda for you," she asides grimly, demonstrating her entire opinion for the country within those four venomous words. "And you did nothing. This was something forged — /put/ on you by the same monsters that used you. There's no /sense/ about this. They won't /listen./"

Weeks of frustration — a woman whose very meaning is the execution of reason — mount in her voice. Jane, so far out of her element in Wakanda, and brought to the last threads of her long patience. Her jaw tightens, and she stews in silence, happy to let James's rage speak for her too.

Eventually, he asks two good questions. She breathes into his side, considering them. "I'm not sure. Some sort of symbolic tie to T'Challa, at worst. At best, probably nothing: probably no more than some fancy procedural so they can giftwrap and ribbon their bullshit and send it off. If we stay far away from Wakanda, maybe nothing will never come of it. Honestly, if it ever lets me get close to T'Challa, the only thing I'm going to do is slap his face off."

It's not often James takes this sort of tone with her. Typically relaxed and tolerant and indulgent, unlike many of his peers from his native timeframe — or any timeframe, to be frank — he has never been one to be overly authoritarian with any woman with whom he was involved.

Yet he is drawing a line with this. He expects her to listen to him in certain categories, and those categories include his lifelong business of killing, and those certain things that remind him too keenly of what he has been through. Needles, the marks they leave, the hallmarks of medical experimentation… those are some of the biggest things that make him freeze just on sight.

He tells her: no more of this. And Jane agrees to compromise. She's not used to being reined in, but for his sake — for his few vulnerabilities — she will.

Her agreement brings him to let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. This his relief is obvious at all is indication enough how much the whole thing was bothering him. His back bows, head slumping, and he lets the tension go slowly. His hand shifts after she gives it that apologetic squeeze, resting it over her knee.

She wants to know what happened to him, but in his mind there isn't much to say. It is no surprise, if one thinks about it, that a man whose life has been a confusing jumble of extraordinary circumstances and endless wars would want, at the end of it all, to just keep things sounding simple. Trying to delve into all the complexities of it, trying to think about it too hard… that would drive a man insane. So his travails in the jungle are reduced down to merely that: we fought, we traveled, and in the end neither of us died.

Even her praise is taken with wry graciousness. Before he was anything else, James was a soldier, and the compatriots lost along the way are never far from his mind. Ordinary boys, ordinary men, who were not as fortunate as him, but every bit as valorous — if not more. Jane points out she doesn't see his serum as cheating, however, and he takes her meaning immediately. A shadow crosses his features. "No," he says slowly. "It's a double-edged sword, for sure."

It's Jane's turn to relate a bit of what she did, though, and when she gets to the part about what she promised in order to set him free… his reaction is predictable. Perhaps the exact reasons for his rage are a bit more nuanced than most would guess, but the fact remains: the very idea pisses him off.

"It was put on me," he says, "but it was put on me. This idea that you can trade around sins, as if… as if — " He shakes his head, lost for words. "Maybe I'm not fully understanding it. But it's bullshit to me. I answer for what I did. You can't just take someone else and make them responsible."

He settles into an unhappy silence as Jane admits the repercussions include some symbolic tie to the King of Wakanda. Staying away from the country sounds like a good idea, though he can't resist adding, "I would pay to see you slap his face off."

He shakes his head. "Meantime, we'll just… stay as far away as we can, I guess. I guess we'll need to accelerate on that new arm…" His features darken. "And we need to go finish overhauling machine." A pause. "I mean, you will, I'm fair useless for both," he admits sheepishly. "I'll make you eat, at least."

It bothers Jane to be limited in any way, and she knows why: it's selfishness, because discovery is selfish, it's about you and nothing else — not a care past you and the single thing you've dedicated your soul.

But as much as it bothers her, she complies. Because she isn't the person who she was a year ago, when she could drop and ignore whatever she wanted to chase her selfish passion. She spent time begging James Barnes, hurt by so much, to open up to her, and give her his vulnerabilities, and what sort of monster would Jane be not to make them her first priority? The compromise chafes, but she does not argue. She makes her promise with full truth: no more marks on her arm, nothing more than would, in the end, hurt him or bring back his memories of hell.

After all, some part of Jane's mind reasons, because it can be very clever about these things, about the details, about the semantics: he's making the demand in specific to her arm, and not so much to the magic. Closing a door on this doesn't mean she needs to close one on the entire field. She just needs to figure out a better system of it: a way to progress without hurting herself, and having her wounds hurt him.

This she does not say, not in deceit, at least not the way Jane intends: she picks her battles, and this one can be waged some time distant, when she's already solved the problem, and can present her solution with confidence.

For now, she settles at his side, not missing the way James's hand covers her knee. With quiet, indulgent love, she nestles against him, taking in the smell of him, the sound of his voice, all finally returned.

Even his sudden, visceral rage directed upon T'Challa and the rest of the Wakanda does not move Jane. James's fury is terrifying, but knows well her position, safe in the eye of that storm. Her hand finds his leg, the gesture not a staying one, because he's more than allowed this anger, but a gesture to tell him he's not alone in all he feels. She's been done with that country for a long time.

"Agreed," Jane says to that, no desire in her heart to ever touch Wakanda, or let James come within breathing room of its boundaries. "And you're not useless. You're never useless. Your arm is my first priority. It won't be as long or difficult as I feared too — I've been working on this for a long time. And now Tony has given me resources. I'm going to start immediately. That machine —" that thing comes back as a sickening lurch of memory, how much she hates it, how much it bothers them both, "I'll get it calibrated and get that done. And get it out of our lives forever."

A smile comes to her lips, not humoured but hopeful, though on Jane, it just looks wan. Something still troubles her, a large reason why she's brought James over to sit and has not yet said. %bAnd she has to.

"There's something else I need to tell you," she says, very quietly.

Jane is silent a moment, both for James to take that in, and also to sort the thoughts in her head. There is nothing else for her to do but talk to him. "When the data, when I got through it — there was a company in D.C backed by Hydra that had ties to the Mizizi conference. I had to get a way in — a woman. She worked for them. She looked like me."

It's a strange non-sequitur, but one that seems to disturb her immensely. Jane, probably thinking of Hydra's own plans for her. How easily, by now, it could be her in that role, in that different life, one she never chose. "I found her so she'd give me access in. She had no chip. I looked. She told me how. When I was — driving down, and I had the plan in my head, I was going to get what I needed and go. Do the things to buy myself enough time."

But. Jane stares down at her own lap, her dark eyes distant. "She made money doing terrible things. I saw it in the data. They'd never catch her. She had politicians — lobbyists, all in on it. She got rich — they were just children. I asked her why. I was going to make her give me an answer.

"And she wouldn't," she says, and that makes her voice finally crack. "They just say that /line/, what they tell you — it's all they say and I don't /get it/. I just knew if I saw something on the news, when it happened again — then it would be my fault too."

Jane is quiet a beat, tears in her downcast eyes. "Whatever way I chose, it was always going to be my fault."

If James is aware of the ways in which Jane might try to eel around the letter of her promise later, he seems content to cross that bridge when they come to it. For the time being, he is assured she will not continue making those ugly track marks in her arms, continue mutilating herself in that way. It would be unconscionable to imagine her ignoring his wishes on that matter, when she knows full well how much such things bother him — and why.

He is distracted, at any rate, when Jane explains the nature of his release. His anger is swift and abrupt, but it passes over Jane and her lamb's blood immunity.

Her touch does calm him, but more in the sense it banks the coals rather than extinguishes the fire. He shakes his head, amused, to her assertions he's never useless. "Objectively, there isn't that much I can do to help with either of those things," he says. "I'll stand guard, that much I can do." He scratches at his jaw. "Keep Stark from bothering you too much while you're at it."

He falls silent, however, when Jane tells him she has something to confess. The look in her face and the quality of her silence gives him an inkling of the topic before she even begins. He has heard such things before, from young men coming to confide with him after their first experiences with death.

Nonetheless, he does not interrupt her. He lets her talk until the conclusion of what she has to say. His blue eyes are pensive, reviewing what she says of this woman. The one thing she says about herself. 'She looked like me.'

His thoughts track to Jane, in Hydra captivity, being groomed to become one of them.

She mentions something key at the end. 'Just children.' A woman who made money, served Hydra, off the suffering of children. Could Jane really let her go? It would be on her hands if she killed a woman in cold blood. But it would be on her hands, also, if she let her go, and days later saw the next incident appear in the news. Hydra would disguise it, but Jane would know.

"You killed someone who needed killing," he finally says. "After this long, I've found that with some people… there is no 'why' that a normal person will understand."

With that settled between them, and Jane giving James her promise she will not continue mutilating her own arm — it was an extreme action to merit an extreme situation, but it's over now — it all should be /over/ —

The rest is left to be discussed, informed, and suffered with fierce wrath.

Jane keeps a steadying hand on his leg as James Barnes soundly rejects what Wakanda has done — made a non-negotiable rule where someone must take on the sins of the Winter Soldier, whether real or fabricated, as their own. And in strict refusal to have anyone bear that weight for him but herself, in the laws of that country, now she is answerable.

Hope only comes with the passing of that anger, speaking again on what they still need to do — what /she/ still needs to do for him, and James's suggestions bring a hint of levity to Jane's face.

"I'm sure he'll have a lot of opinions," she says of Tony Stark, with the brief curve of a smile. Jane's amusement, however, seems strained, her thoughts elsewhere. "Maybe we can set up a code: whenever I touch my ear, it means to get in and distract him a bit. Bore him with one of your old man stories about how you had to cut down a tree to make a pencil."

Teasing him brings a note of life to her brown eyes, but even that does not last long. Jane isn't finished. And she has something to tell him.

Her story is slow and halting, and at the same time a ramble, a hestitation in her voice that suggests Jane hasn't thought deeply about this as much as she wants to — probably had no time to in Wakanda. But the mind has a way to compensate for such things, and an overactive mind such as hers can be turned on itself so easy.

She stares down at her own legs. Even certain of her choice, Jane Foster is haunted by it. The catch-22 of most soldiers at war. There is no choice they can make that will not end in death. And though she made the choice that still feels right, it's a choice made.

Jane listens quietly to every word James says to her. Her eyes lift on him, hanging on that wisdom.

It's not quite absolution, but it's an answer. He agrees with her. Something unknots out of her, and she sags an inch forward where she sits, running a hand through her dark hair. "I don't understand how the world can be so beautiful — until it suddenly isn't. I don't know how it can be both."

"Stark has opinions like snakes have scales," James says, grumpy. "He's like his father in that way. Howard had that same mania and insufferable arrogance." There is a pause. "Same love of the ladies, also. Apple did not fall far from the tree."

James says all this with a full awareness in his voice that Tony would kill him if he heard any of this.

"In fact, that'll be an easy way to distract him, easier than any kind of story," he realizes. "I'd just tell him he reminds me of his father. He'd be locked onto me for the rest of the day and you could finish in peace."

A pause. "We did not cut down trees to make one pencil."

He can sense that strain in her voice, the distance to her thoughts. Perhaps that's why he teasing her, trying to reintroduce some normalcy back into her life. Her admission will not be deterred, however, and when it comes he realizes why. He sits slowly back in his seat as she speaks, listening in silence as she confesses killing a woman. A woman who needed killing. Who would have gone on to destroy more lives, if Jane had not destroyed her first.

He is quiet a few moments, ruminating. He knows what it is to be certain of a choice, but still dogged by its ghost.

It is a situation much like those soldiers face, and that is how he approaches it. He has counseled others through their kills before. Her remark afterwards, though, about the world being so beautiful and so ugly, and all at once…

"Vietnam was both one of the most beautiful and the most bloody places I've ever been," he says. "It was both of those things at once. I'd never seen jungles so green — up until they went black with napalm fire. The lotus ponds were prettiest when blood was speckling the water." He shrugs. "Shit like that. Funny what you notice in a warzone. What strikes you. It makes men think about things they don't usually."

He takes her hand in his, turns it over, palm up. "That's the thing. Whatever reason there is for the war, whatever politics puts a soldier out in the field to kill, when he's out there… when he kills, it's to save the man next to him. The men in his unit. The whole idea is flawed to begin with, the whole concept of men lined up to cut each other down over… what? Nobody should be out there to begin with. But you are, at the end of the day."

He lifts her hand and presses a light kiss to her palm. "And you're firing to save the people out there with you."

Time and time again, Jane receives constant, varied reminders that James Barnes is truly a relic from the past: a man who lived all of his true life, free and as should have been, decades long ago. In an ideal life, one where he was never hurt, never used, never abused and stripped of his freedom, she would have never known him.

He would have lived well and died just the same, with so many years separating their different walks of life. Maybe, at best, he would be a brief aside in a high school history textbook, some factoid Jane Foster would have read, memorized for an exam, and never thought of again.

And yet here he is, alive and at her side. Here he is, having become an integral piece of her life. The man with whom she fell in love. Brought forward from years ago and countries away, from a life that professes him knowing the dating life of Howard Stake, and set here by the whim of fate — here on her couch.

His battle strategy in regard to deflecting errant Tony Starks brings earns something he's not heard from her in months: Jane laughs, quietly, but truly. "And this is why you are, and will always be, my hero, James." Play passes in her eyes, but Jane's glance lingers. Those words she means.

Eventually, her bearing falls to shadow, as Jane confesses she has more to say. Something in particular she, in her vow of honesty, must tell James. Something she needs to tell him, too — wants to tell him. As much as the prospect unnerves her, she needs him to know. This is not something she'll tell anyone else, not for as long as she lives, and Jane needs James's reaction. She needs his understanding, whether or not he may extend it. She needs his thoughts; she needs his wisdom. She needs his judgment.

It's not so simple that relief crosses Jane to James's summary of it — that she did right, as right can be, that her act cleansed a monster from the world. But relief definitely factors into it; Jane did not choose wrong.

Quiet with thought, she listens as he speaks of landscapes and images she'll never see herself, will never know with her own eye, except now: to stare down at her own lap, with let her brown eyes try to visualize it for herself. Green jungles. Blood shining in beads along blue water.

"I guess it's about finding beauty in whatever you can," Jane says, a reconciling of the world that needs not let her lose her faith in things — that innocent joy of discovery that is so deeply a part of her. Who wants to discover a universe if it's only filled with pain, and grief, and more monsters? She needs to believe that among it, there will always be something worth the journey.

She looks up when he takes her hand. It holds pliant in his grasp, her trust implicit, her palm opened. He speaks, and she listens, needing every word: needing an answer for how even the right choice still hurts, still feels hollow. And James Barnes gives Jane the closest she can to peace: he gives her a way she can understand.

The kiss anoints it. She breathes in, and her hand moves, slipping out from his only to reach for his face, her fingertips brushing a line from his temple to his hair. Jane looks up on him.

Then she moves, silent but deliberate, to cross one leg over both of his, facing James, rocking her hips into his, threading both hands into his hair, and leaning close with shining eyes. They stare straight into his, level and never blinking, only to shut the instant before she claims his mouth.

Sometimes he does think of it — how strange it is that he is living life as if he were a man born of her era. A peer, spawned of the Eighties, instead of the child born amidst the First World War that he truly is. She should, by all rights, be decades apart from him — should not have ever met him except as a few lines in a textbook, or at best as a man crumpled and withered with age.

She is generations removed. They already have a name for him and his true peers, a label by which to call a cadre of men and women largely passed into history. They call them the Greatest Generation. Any time he hears it, he shrugs and gives the same answer: we did what we had to.

He misses being among his peers, sometimes, but the few times he's come in contact with those from his era, he's felt like a monster among them — an aberrant creature, still young, while all those who might have been his friends or lovers sit ravaged by age. He doesn't know how Steve does it. Maybe he doesn't.

A man truly out of time, no longer part of his own generation, certainly not part of the generation to which he appears to belong, he clings to the few people for whom none of that matters. First among them, Jane. Jane, who he hears laugh for the first time in months. "There's a sound I missed," he says, though his reaction to the word 'hero' is complicated, a knot of disparate emotions coming and going in his eyes.

The mood sobers soon enough. A confession is made. He considers it in silence, weighs it, and eventually responds the best way he knows how. After a lifetime of war, he frames it as a soldier would. Right or wrong, in the moment — in the heat of things — there is what one does to protect others. Sometimes that act is terrible in and of itself, but the price of not doing it?

"Sometimes we bear things so that children don't have to," he says. "So they can still go see what is beautiful out there."

She moves towards him, afterwards. He is still as she comes in close, and when she leans down his mouth is waiting for hers. His eyes close, in a few brief moments of indulgence — and then a moment later he rises, carrying her up easily with him despite the lack of his left arm.

"C'mon," he says, an impish light to his blue eyes, before he bears her away.

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