May 31, 2018:

Bucky and Jane talk registration, in mind of all the things which have happened to them in the past year and a half.

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn


NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

James Barnes still reads physical newspapers, in preference to the glossy screens of tablets, or the colorful blare of ultra-HD televisions. Copies have been increasingly popping up around the apartment, leafed through and left to sit atop various piles of research or quietly-humming servers.

It's not particularly hard to guess what he might be reading about. It's on every front page, and on most of the other pages now too.

Tonight's paper has the Rand press conference splashed across its front pages. It's been left on the coffee table, obviously thumbed through. It's a balmy night for May, the kind of night where one finally thinks about cracking open all the windows to let spring in. The windows of the apartment Bucky and Jane share are accordingly opened, though one is open much more widely than the others. Jane would know the one.

Bucky is out there, on his fire escape, his lean frame jammed into a corner where it meets the building's exterior wall. Drifting smoke from the burning end of his cigarette hazes him, shading his features in a faint grey-blue.

His eyes are aimed down, and it's not hard to see what he's watching once one draws close: a small knot of children, playing in the narrow side street between buildings, kicking a ball back and forth.

Surprisingly, Jane Foster doesn't dislike cohabitation with endless, constant newspaper copy.

For all she worships at the altar of technological advancement, seeing paper clutter around harkens back to simpler times. Jane, herself, was born into the millennial intermediary, and only ever witnessed the digital advent well into her adolescence. Childhood is paper to her, reams of it, from her father's data print-outs on tear-away inkjets, to countless, dusty science journals taking space in the garage, to the newspapers. A newspaper every morning at the breakfast table: so few things feel as fiercely as home.

Plus, newspapers are useful for a host of other things, which Jane prefers over actually reading; such as a level drying mat for her lenses to dry, balanced-edged, as she busies herself with cleaning and maintaining her telescope's optics.

Only upon replacing the last mirror and carefully tightening old screws with a muscle memory deftness, Jane's eyes stray absently to the front page print. She reads it in seconds. Rand's statement. Registration. What a world they live in.

For a few moments, James Barnes' smoking spot on the fire escape remains quiet, undisturbed.

Then, there is a rustling; he does not even need to look to recognize familiar sounds, Jane pulling herself halfway in, halfway out, sitting on the sill. She looks first at his lit cigarette — still doesn't like them, though she doesn't say anything — then at the distance in James's turned eyes. Something's there, deeper than merely being pensive.

She looks at him for a moment, considering. Then, decides to ease in with a tepid, apologetic smile. "Hey. Want to help me get my scope back up on the roof?"

It's about half her size and at least thirty-five pounds. Who knows how Jane used to get it up a rickety ladder alone.

If there is one habit James does maintain, it is the habit of a newspaper at the breakfast table with his coffee. It's an antiquated habit in the 21st century, this era of cell phones and tablets, but so iconic of days gone by that it attains sufficient charm to overcome its general inconvenience.

Not that Jane appears to mind vast sheets of paper being left lying around the apartment. She finds other uses for it. It winds up, in bits and pieces, in other areas of the apartment. James often finds himself surprised by the various places he finds it turning up.

Today's paper, once squirreled away and put to use, finally tells Jane a story that seems to coincide with one of James' moods. He always smokes when he's in a mood. He has the grace to grimace and put out the cigarette when she joins him, even before she has to shoot it a side-glance, but he doesn't at first speak to what might be on his mind. He never does.

Jane, well-versed in how to manage him by now, doesn't jump in either. Instead she asks for help, a guaranteed way to get him moving. "It'll keep you from doing it yourself," he grumbles, coiling back up to a crouch with his preternatural fluidity, and nudging her to get back in so he can get back in after her.

"You leave it lying around in the hallway again?" he asks. "I'd like fair warning before I nearly break my neck again."

Over the last year, it has been a long, difficult, and sometimes tedious study of James Barnes's face.

Not the first stoic man in Jane Foster's life; her father was hardly an emotional man, even took his own cancer diagnosis with little urgency or fanfare. James, however, makes the memory of her father look overdramatic. The man is a lock, she came to realize, some of them borne of his trauma, unable to let too much of himself go at once lest he get lost in the current, and the rest of it some remnant of a long-ago time when men were not allowed to emote, vent, feel — talk.

It's a miracle, or a testament to either his patience or love for her, Jane thinks, that he talks to her as much as he does. As privately and honestly as she entreats him to.

And though she knows he can with her, he has, she knows better than to push it. Let it come slowly, naturally, without the added aggravation of someone digging.

So instead of asking the question already haunting her mouth, Jane instead crooks a half-smile against James's grumbling. Her eyes never leave him; she enjoys watching the way he moves, looking up patiently at that first nudge. Teasingly, she doesn't immediately move. "I could do it myself," she counters haughtily. "I'm stronger than I look. Super tough."

Amiably, she shifts back inside, tossing a wry-eyed look over her shoulder, with the shadow of a smile, amused, and a bit impish. "Am I still apologizing that my telescope beat you up? It was just that one time." But, perhaps in unspoken mercy, the beast itself occupies the front room, reassembled after cleaning.

Most men are guarded. James Barnes is a veritable Fort Knox. At his surface he shows nothing of himself, and even in his internal landscapes it is doubtful he allows himself much in the way of indulgence or emotion. Over the course of his life, it's never been anything but weakness to him. Doubts, worries, and feelings… they'd just interfere with the decisiveness that had to be part of his life.

He's had more than any one man's fair share of them all, however. Beneath the outward calm, thousands of jagged broken pieces lay.

Jane's had a very hard time, over the past year and change, trying to even get him to show her any of those pieces, much less get her head around where to even begin trying to fit them back together. He's started to talk to her a little more frankly, however, and that's about as fast as the progress goes: one year, to get him to 'start talking.'

He is far more comfortable approaching her from a position of strength, both mental and physical. When he rises it's with his typical strong grace, his movements too fluid to be human. The look James slants Jane at her insistence she could do it herself, because she is 'super tough,' is drier than the Sahara. "Yeah," he replies. "I guess I misjudged you. I bet you could lift a whole breadbox."

She doesn't move to his first nudge, so he nudges her again, just a little harder. His shoulder stays pressed against hers longer than necessary, an affectionate little gesture.

The telescope greets him upon their return into the apartment proper. James frowns at it. "That's not fitting out the window. How did you — never mind." He doesn't want to know. He inspects it a few moments, as if contemplating taking it apart again, before he shrugs and just moves to heft it up wholesale. "Whatever," he decides, and starts to cart it right out the front door.

It's been a many-gated and arduous road, but Jane Foster is built for the long journeys.

It is the very shape of her soul, in many ways, that long road to nowhere. The destination is not important; the constant, forward momentum, heading toward something, anything, is all. And in exchange for James Barnes wanting to remain by her side this long, be a part of her life while others would have already left — in return is the gift of Jane Foster's patience, and everyday desire to understand him a little more.

She is impatient and impetuous in so many ways, but with this, with him, she will give him all the time of her life to see this through.

In just a year's time, Jane already has become a skilled hand with navigating the elusive James Barnes, and coaxes him with a plea for help. The look she angles him is warm, though at his first nudge, she seems mercurial enough to tease. Disputed in her declaration of being 'super tough,' she plants a foot up on the opposite side of the sill, making a barricade to hold against the second push of his shoulder. It is a laughable Alamo she makes, and physics tells her fifty ways she'll lose, and she laughs along, knowing this.

"I'm letting you win because I like you," she announces, sliding back into the apartment, though never too far away that James slips past the watch of her eyes. "And what's a breadbox?"

He frowns at her telescope. She looks askance. Then Jane realizes. "What? No, it totally fits! I actually did the calculations — it's not that involved. You have to enter on a very particular angle, and there's about sixteen pivots that — where are you going?"

It's got him off smoking on the fire escape — so good so far. Though it's also got Jane running out the front door after, remembering to close it behind herself, with a huffy: "Hey! James! You're not leaving it outside, are you?! James!"

It took an inveterate explorer like Jane to have the patience for navigating the sea James Barnes has become. A hundred years of history doesn't always sit well on the minds even of normal adults, much less ones who reached that age in such an unnatural and tortured way as did the once-Winter Soldier. He is a maze, but she has the wherewithal to walk it.

Even if it's sometimes a little annoying. Like now.

Nudging her neatly out of his way with the patience of a mastiff nosing aside a kitten, he scoffs at her declaration she's letting him win. "Very generous," he says, though he stops dead at her follow-up.

What's a breadbox? asks Jane Foster. James gives her the most unimpressed look in the history of unimpressed looks.

"Jane," he says, "it's exactly like it sounds."

Leaving her to puzzle over that, he slips over to the telescope. "Of course you did calculations just to move a telescope," he sighs. "I'm not pivoting any angles." And he totes it right out the door.

Once she's out, it will be to find her errant boyfriend matter-of-factly scaling the side of the building with the thing balanced over one shoulder, in a way frankly impossible for anyone without a bunch of serum running through their veins. Pulling himself over the edge of the roof, he nimbly disappears.

It is a talent how guileless Jane Foster remains through James's looks.

And then he has to get her back by bringing math into the picture.

"What — math is an important part of life and applicable to everyday problems," she narrates back, voice lofty. "I do calculations for most things. In fact, I can promise a lot of those calculations have benefitted you in very particular ways."

Jane doesn't specify what these calculations are, but her crooked smiling offers a good guess.

All in all, James is his stoic self, ever-helpful, if compelled to dress it up with his usual, reserved grunting, and wry comments. None of this seems to agitate Jane; used to it, even encouraging it in her own ways with her patient mirth. She probably loves it when he acts this way, gruff and impenetrable and yet not; there's reasons she's still more than happy to have the man around.

Though him toting her telescope straight out the front door without even a word of why is not one of them.

In a fluster that he might tease her by leaving it out on the curb — New Yorkers steal broken air conditioning units, they'd love her telescope — she bursts out in time to catch one last glimpse, in the dark, of the ex-Winter Soldier ambling up the side of her brownstone as if it's nothing. Scope and all.

Jane dedicates a moment of open-mouthed gawking. Then she huffs to herself, and calls after, "Why would you even put bread in a box!"

Certainly unable to mirror that feat of superhuman engineering, she rounds back to take the long-way up, making a pit-stop in the kitchen along the way. A few minutes later, the fire escape ladder clatters with moving weight, as the unfortunately-human Jane scales it slowly. Coming into sight, she's also doing it labourously one-handed, cradled in one arm a chilled six-pack of lager. "And — that's less work — than pivoting."

James gives Jane a deeply suspicious squint at her talk of calculations which have benefited him. "…You need calculations for that?" he eventually wonders.

He considers that a moment. "Nerd."

With that, he abducts her telescope. Jane makes it out the door only in time to see him nearly scaled to the roof of the brownstone. He vanishes over its edge just as she makes her indignant parting remark.

There's a pause. Then he reappears, peering over the edge of the roof. "To keep it fresh. We didn't always have the five thousand chemicals you people put into everything these days," he gripes. And he vanishes again.

By the time Jane joins him on the roof with her offering of beer, James has already set up the telescope in her preferred spot, and is making the final adjustments. "It is definitely less work than pivoting," he says. "Less thinking involved."

Declarations of her nerdity bother not a Jane Foster. She is proud of it.

A worse bother is having to crane her head back as James Barnes talks to her down the side of an apartment building as if they were both crazy people. She angles him up a flat-eyed stare, which dissolves into a squint as he talks of boxes for bread. It is hard to conceive of a world before plastic bags, before the human stain evolved into a landfill. "Why didn't you just wrap them in bandages, worked for the pharaohs and that would've been around the same time you —"

He vanishes. Jane's voice clips off in mild offence, then undertows into a murmur. "You can't just leave when I'm trying to be a smartass."

Nevertheless, spirits unfettered, she makes her way up to the roof with beer in hand. Something about the sight of James Barnes carefully adjusting her telescope makes her heart twist.

Jane dusts off the old heating unit they've often used as a bench — now shut off for the summer — and pulls out a couple lagers to sit at the empty place at her side. Drawing up her sweater over her shoulders — there's a slight chill to the air, barely felt — and letting the night breeze move her hair, her dark eyes are on James. "Come here," she invites softly. "Brought you up a thank-you."

She leaves him to open the beers. And then, finally, tests the waters. "The news been on your mind?"

Soberly, James listens to about half Jane's taunt about pharaohs and bandages. Then he promptly and very purposefully leaves before she has a chance to finish.

Only silence greets her indignation on his rude refusal to stay put for the punchline.

Yet when she finally makes it up to the roof, some hint of his true sentiments becomes evident in the way he is already putting the finishing touches on setting the telescope up for her. He touches it with the conscientious care of someone aware of the value of the thing he handles, perhaps thinking of a night — a year and a half ago, now — when the two of them were up here with her telescope before. She was trying to show him something much closer than the stars. Himself.

Eventually deciding it's good enough, he leaves off and comes back towards her as she invites him close. He sits beside her, cracking open a pair of beers, though he hesitates on the second when she broaches the topic which drove him out to think over a smoke.

He doesn't immediately answer. He hands her the opened beer, and finishes opening the other.

"Been on everyone's mind, I would wager," he says presently. "PR disasters all around. If there's a point to be had in all this, it's getting drowned out in poor phrasings and Trask muddying the issue with this collar business."

Jane Foster's personal telescope is not an expensive, flashy thing. Certainly not worth its cumbersome weight, or even the level of care it receives.

Nearly as old as she is, the reflector has not aged well either in design or its materials, is tediously manual in its adjusting where most telescopes these days are digital, and it requires more rigourous cleaning and upkeep just to function — but, at the same time, it is her most precious possession. It is Jane's childhood, her passion, and her life course all in one; something she keeps jealously close and does not allow others to test and touch.

James is the exception. What he did not already know, remnant memories of his own stargazing days, she taught on those rustic controls. And she looks on silently, touched at the way he employs both care and understanding with her telescope. Perhaps, too, reflected in Jane's dark eyes, is the memory of that same night. It feels so long ago. Under the unchanging constellations, so much has changed.

Where Jane's concerned, the telescope is as much his now as it is hers. It helped James Barnes find his way home.

Beckoning that same man close, and welcoming him with a bump of her shoulder to his side, Jane takes that opened beer, tracing a fingertip absnetly down the condensation on the glass. Deciding now's the time than ever, she broaches the subject. He is silent, as expected, and she doesn't push the time he needs to answer. If he may even answer her at all. Sometimes, he doesn't, and she's learning to be fine with that too.

But he does. Jane turns her eyes, listening, absorbing, and ratifies her own moment of silence with a first sip of beer. "I don't remember the country always acting like this," she says, and there's something like apology in her voice, as if forced to answer for her generation. "Or maybe it did, and I was naive, or ignorant. All I can think of what the endgame is supposed to be in that. Because it doesn't just stop once it gets started. And it ends with everyone who's — not average — on some list. That's a lot of people we know."

As a kid, before times got tough, James and his family used to take trips out of the city. Relatives upstate. In the 1920s, light pollution wasn't what it was today. Even within a fifty-mile radius of New York City, it would still get dark enough for a boy to see the stars. Especially from the tops of mountains, far from the lights of civilization.

They didn't have a telescope back then. Prohibitively expensive. They couldn't afford such a luxury, even before the crash and the Depression. Maybe that's why James treats even Jane's beat-up, unremarkable old telescope as if it was made of gold; or maybe it's the history between them that the simple object embodies. Probably both.

Whatever it is, he operates it with care. It didn't take Jane long to teach him; the serum enhances everything about a man, speed of learning included.

Once he's finished, he leaves it where it is and comes to Jane, settling beside her with a sigh and a grateful acceptance of those beers. His demeanor sobers, however, as she broaches the topic hanging in the air between them. He drinks some of his beer in silence, nothing about his behavior to say whether his quiet is him thinking over an answer — or just a refusal to give an answer at all. Sometimes he just doesn't. Such recalcitrance wasn't always true about him, but it is true about the person he is today.

Eventually he does opt to answer. Her response has him turning the beer in his left hand, watching the way glass clinks against the metal. It's been a long time since he considered the dexterity of his own prosthetic, and it seems to briefly captivate him.

"The country is better than I left it in the 40s," he says wryly, to the apology in her voice. "Make no mistake. It's acted much worse than you recall."

He is briefly silent. "Maybe some of us ought to be on lists," he finally admits.

With sharp eyes, and perceptive when it counts, Jane does not miss the way James Barnes stares at his own prosthetic.

Even with her infinite faith in her own ability, her eyes briefly, shyly, flicker away, before curiousity inevitably pulls them back. James Barnes is, as ever, a man of few words, even on the topic of the limb she built for him. His praise has been powerful, unforgettable, but rather than taking the time to speak more words to her, he instead applied into learning his new left arm, testing and retesting its differences from what he carried on his body for over seventy years: an immediate and startling adjustment to take.

But, even to Jane's overactive mind, is always a far-reaching, searching question of: is it enough? What could be enough for her design is not for someone who must use it as a limb, take it into the homunculus of his body, and live with it every day. Her eyes look on, and silently hope. She designed it all, every plate, every algorithm within which they sort, fold, and lock. Her own hands press her palms flat against her lager, until the refrigerated-cold begins to numb her skin. When it does, she shifts her grasp and picks it up to steal another drink.

James's remark back on the country — the one he was born to seventy years before she would be — draws a grimace around the corners of Jane's face. "True," she concedes briskly, but the word comes with the weight of over two hundred years of history.

She can think of more than a few examples. Slavery. Suffrage. Civil rights. The country is better, and yet — does it not realize what it's doing?

She holds with a pause, perhaps to say more — and that is when James speaks.

Jane looks at him in silence. Surprise transforms into pain. "You mean like you?" she turns on him. "James. I don't think that's fair. You didn't ask for anything that happened to you. And then to have that get decided for you too?"

The prosthetic is as dextrous as his lost limb ever was. Even more so, in fact; it was designed to surpass all of the flaws and imperfections of flesh and bone. It is clear James has no complaint with it, from the way he watches it effortlessly turn the glass between metal fingers — from the way he lets it ruffle those carefully shaped and fitted plates, like the flare of a bird's feathers. He knows how Jane slaved over it. He knows she cut every one of those plates by hand, and that shows in his eyes too.

But there's something else behind his gaze when he looks at the arm. Not related to its construction, nor the woman who made it, but more related, perhaps… to what it represents.

Eventually, he hints at some of what he's thinking.

He expects her response, judging by the way his eyes tighten around the edges. "I didn't ask for it," he agrees, "but it doesn't change what I am. It doesn't change what any of us are. I don't go in for forcing these collars on people, but…"

His left hand tightens until the glass creaks. "Seems to me there's some as might choose it. At the least…" He hesitates. "Seems to me there's some as should be registered, on a list. So you can stop them faster if you have to."

Memory triggers in of yet another night; this is all too familiar, a continuation on an old argument never truly laid to rest.

Jane cannot forget James's look of relief to willingly submit to John Constantine's collar. The very idea repulsed her, a step away from autonomy to allow another that much power over your mind, your actions, your hands — but even her fierce, fevered argument reached a stalemate.

He was afraid to kill her. He was afraid to kill others. He was terrified, and it was not a perfect solution, but one that could give him sleep. She relented, even if her heart still hated the idea of wearing a fetter — like some sort of feral animal — until she made sure a solution came to free him. And Jane slaved over that solution, gave herself a month to little else but the calculations to strip all of the Soviets, all of Hydra, from James Barnes's mind.

All for what? Another entity to take him, anyway, attacking not through mind but soul. The bear was an unknown in every way, and Jane would not have even known how to prepare. For all her argument, can she even promise certainty? Can she go person to person and erase any venom from their mind? She could not give a perfect safety to James, nor anyone else on this world —

Nor even herself.

Guilt surges up, like a riptide that drowns, undertows, and pulls violently back to sea. All those actions made by her mind, and Jane remembers them all. She calls that entity 'it', 'that thing', but it's her, part of her, and already too much had happened when the city conspired finally to put her down. If she were offered a way to never have that happen again?

Over a year ago, there may be a louder, steely argument out of Jane. Now, she only sets her half-finished beer down, and folds her arms, pensively drawing in. She's not saying no. She's not telling him he's wrong. Instead, she offers, voice soft, "Governments, even SHIELD — when they have the power to take something, they take it. They make you feel helpless. How do we know they'd do right by us?"

It is a strange Scylla and Charybdis that James Barnes finds himself caught between, every time this comes up.

The primary fear circulating in his mind is always fear of himself — fear of the things he is capable of doing when his mind is stolen from him, his body hijacked to do evil acts. The memory of nearly engineering the destruction of New York — of the world, perhaps, if they were not stopped — while under the influence of the Demon Bear is still very fresh in his mind, but even if it were not… the weight of seventy years of being used to kill is a weight that never eases from his mind. Perhaps some part of James will always seek some kill switch for himself… a way to shut himself down should he go out of control again.

And that was a reason James was so relieved to have himself collared by the magic of John Constantine. The reason that he might have willingly chosen another cryogenic sleep if he had not had any way to regain some control over his own mind. James Barnes, after years of watching what his own hands are capable of doing if he is overtaken by some malign force, is desperately afraid of himself on the loose with no failsafe.

Yet Jane brings up another deep-seated fear in him, with her counter-argument. A fear that does not appear as immediately in his mind as his fear of himself, but nonetheless gives him distinct pause.

Can one trust the leash-holder? It was a government who held it while he was the Winter Soldier. As easily as it could operate benignly to be the control he wants, it could operate malignantly to take his free will. He could spend another seventy years as a weaponized slave, killing on demand.

He thinks, and in those moments of silence, takes note of Jane's lack of considerable argument this time.

"I don't know," he finally admits. "The only thing I do know is how much damage I do when I lose it." He stares down at his beer. "It's a risk either way. One way hurts me. The other way hurts everyone else."

In the wake of James's words, Jane is silent.

When it comes to Jane Foster, silence is never a default state — she is not a brooder, not a reminiscer, preferring thoughts with a destination over those maudlin things that have lost their legs — so when they come, it is always with equal significance and rarity. Very few statements are able to seize her so still even she cannot be sure of the next step forward.

She doesn't touch her own beer, perhaps its half-finished existence already lost from her mind. Her dark eyes stare forward, and up — up on the night, Brooklyn-starless sky — as if to beseech answers from her faraway friends who cannot even shine. Eventually, she exhales.

"Around when I first met John," Jane begins, "he posed me some sort of question. I still remember it. He asked me: what if my life's work, the problem I'm trying to solve — what if it culminated in me destroying all of everything? By letting something through, or having someone weaponize my advances? And the answer I gave to him? That those are the reasons why I have to do it. Why it has to be me. Because I don't trust anyone to do it but myself."

Her eyes come down off the stars, wiser now than they were a year and a half ago, more burdened. They turn to James. "And now I've learned there's not really even trusting that. Not when there's things out there that can literally take our minds away, or turn us into hollow — monstrosities of ourselves." She is quiet a moment. "I'm not even sure what my point is. Maybe it's that I don't disagree with you. There was a time I would have. But now I'm not so sure of anything. Least of all, myself."

She runs a hand through her hair, pawing it back; its dark mass falls back forward, escaping the bind of her ear, especially when Jane bows her head to look her eyes down on her lap. "Surety feels like a risk, these days. Surety in any absolute. No one can keep a tight ship — not even SHIELD. Dangerous to allow people like us free, dangerous to give into some agency that's already been compromised. I don't know what the solution is, other than some check-and-balance. I could tell you what I wish it was, though. I wish I could just build, and be — and never have it hurt anyone."

James listens, and doesn't interrupt. Everything Jane has to say, he absorbs with the quiet silence of fresh snow.

"I learned that a while ago," James observes eventually. " — That I can't trust my own mind. That it can be taken away from me. I learned it for seventy years."

He turns the beer in his left hand, watching it articulate. "I would've rather you were able to take the lesson just from looking at me, not from living it," he says, "but I guess life only ever teaches anyone anything by personal experience."

He finishes the beer, puts it aside. Metal fingers let the glass go with the precision of their long-lost flesh analogues. "I know you would've disagreed with me a year ago," he says, voice dry. "You did, in fact. Over the leash — which I think was a mistake to take off."

He laces his fingers together. "Maybe I think registration can be another kind of leash. Maybe I'm just thinking of myself when I consider this issue. Maybe I'm a little too… biased." James lifts his left shoulder in a shrug, with an accompanying hum of metal. "I know there's no reason to trust the government or some similar organization any more than I would trust myself, but when it comes to that stuff with the Bear, I kind of wonder… if I'd already been tagged for what I did as the Winter Soldier, would there have been a special team ready to rein me in before I got anywhere?" James glances up at the sky. "We want to trust ourselves. But I don't know how bad it is having a failsafe when our agency's taken away."

She just wants to build, and never have it hurt anyone. He slants her a glance, his shadowed blue eyes pensive. "I wish I could've gone home from the war," he replies.

He calls the leash's removal a mistake — and pain crosses Jane's face.

The scientific process comes writ with failure, which is why it requires objectivity, and Jane courts professionally dead-ends often. However, there are always slips, and this hurts deep: she poured all her heart in wanting that fetter broken, in wishing James Barnes free of any chains — even benevolent ones, watched by the spectre of John Constantine. She thought herself more than capable of doing that for him, thought herself if not competent enough — careful enough — to bestow a broken man the right of his own mind.

And, then, that happened.

Jane picks at her own cuticles to help her through that wave of guilt. "Yeah," she says quietly.

She listens on without argument, a distance to her eyes like she's running mental field tests on his hypotheticals. If he'd been registered before the Bear? "Maybe there would have been," she concedes. "Maybe early enough to stop you before you went looking for me. Things would have gone differently. I wouldn't have been able to survive that thing alone. But that's the deal with what ifs. You don't want to stew on those for long. They never line up the way hindsight hopes them to be. That being said, I agree. More preparation had been had, there would have been less damage done."

Of course, even Jane cannot help but hear herself utter some old habit: even weighed under reality, her idealist heart still hopes, still wishes. And James Barnes wishes too.

Jane meets his glance, and those few words have her stricken. She's not sure of the meaning of it, if just for him to prove to her how empty wishes are, that as much as they are wanted, they can change nothing of what is real —

Or if it is him simply sharing something with her, a hope as simple as hers is, and that a century of torture has not yet stripped that from him. There are no words she can think to give James, though her eyes shine with heartbreak for him.

James' gaze slides to the right to take in the pain that crosses Jane's expression. Yeah, she replies eventually. He doesn't say anything back, but presently he looks back forward and down at the rooftop again. He drops that particular topic.

He does reach over and separate her hands from picking at one another.

He does shoot her a sharper look, however, when she admits that if he had been registered prior to the Bear… maybe it'd have stopped him from coming after her. Maybe he'd have been locked down before he could go off the grid and get himself taken by a malignant entity. He's not wholly sure what she's saying, but it sounds like maybe she thinks she'd have been the only one to be hurt under that scenario. The only one to die —

"No," he says, his voice tight. "I don't want to stew on that. Or talk about that."

Some of that mood, that upset merely to think about being kept away from Jane as she suffered the Bear's thrall alone, carries over into the bitterness with which he answers her expressed wish. It sounds naive to him, overly innocent in a way that has not been a part of his life in decades, and it makes him briefly impatient. Impatient enough to respond with a short remark on his own wishes, which fate and circumstance have obviously never bothered to heed.

Her answering heartbreak purges that mood in a wash of guilt. He turns away from the look she gives him. "No sense giving up on trying to realize your wish, anyway," he says.

And in that brief silence, Jane despairs.

Never one made for brooding, when the urge comes, she never seems to know what to do with it — other than let it carry her thoughts off far, far away. When James reaches for her hands, Jane is so distant that they resist for a moment, stubbornly insistent to keep up that compulsion —

Before something gives way, and her fingers fall slack, docile, movable.

Jane's jaw tightens. It doesn't have to be that way. She didn't fail him — not entirely — her process was perfect, if narrow. Constrained to his past. She didn't open it to unknowns, unaccounted variables. Could she? All things are doable. She took the conditioning from his head, could she not also install failsafes against future attacks? Eliminates John from the equation. No third party assuming the leash. No leash. No leash needed. Just a lock. A perfect lock.

Her fingers tighten around his in a brief, absent squeeze. Yet another theory begins for Dr. Foster.

But it is a plan on hold, sidelined as James speaks — as Jane comes to, her rambling verse of hypotheticals shot down in that baleful look he aims her. She answers it with a pinch of her eyes, contrite, before his own wish, spoken aloud, knocks her breathless.

He turns away, but she doesn't allow that for very long. Insistent, Jane reaches for James's face, undeterred even by his words — she catches the way he means her, and never himself.

"Who said anything about giving up," she replies, trying to encourage him to look back on her. "On either of us."

Jane might not be made for brooding, but James could carry off the championship in it. He wasn't always this way, but the years have turned him into a veritable minefield of triggers and sore spots that, once stumbled over, can pitch him down into the most silent, seething moods.

It makes life with him difficult at times, but at the least he usually recognizes he's being an asshole and walks back some of his snappishness, as he does now.

In tacit apology, his hand tightens on hers with his final words. He delivers them, wholly unaware of what truly is transpiring in her mind. Jane Foster's endless plans and schemes. She de-conditioned, him, once. Could she not go a step further? Encrypt his thoughts? Go beyond a leash into a complete lock?

If he knew, James might actually approve this plan.

For now, however, he turns away; or tries to. Jane turns him back to her quickly enough, though his blue eyes still avoid hers slightly until propriety forces him to look. Her words bring a rusty half-smile to his features.

"Yeah," he says, transparently thinking of when they first met. "You were never the giving-up type, even from the start. All right. We won't."

He turns her hand in his. "But we can start to think about some precautions."

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