Answers

September 30, 2018:

Dated to just before Weekend at Tony's. Jane, tending to the comatose Tony, confides some of her fears and worries to Bucky. The age-old question of whether Howard or Tony Stark was a bigger asshole is answered.

Stark Tower, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tony Stark, Howard Stark, Steve Rogers

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

It seems James Barnes and Jane Foster have 'children' from their interlude with the Demon Bear — and not the good kind.

The kind you have to shoot in the face when they get a little too eager to hug their 'parents' hello.

Jane's been manic about fixing it all, and James can't blame her. There isn't much he can to do to help her in her work on Extremis itself, though, so he spends long hours pacing the Tower while she holes up in the lab. He helps with the repairs and with improving the security protocols. He keeps tabs on Matt and Jessica and their respective recoveries. He cleans and recleans his weapons. He watches the news until the fearmongering gets too grating.

Midnight rolls around, and James leaves off reading another registration opinion piece to head upstairs.

James has always had a tendency to see Tony not as 'Tony Stark' or 'Iron Man,' but as 'Howard's son.' Sometimes he even mistakes him for Howard, before he remembers what decade it is.

Natural consequence of having known the father, he supposes, though if asked James never claims aloud to have known Howard well. It's easier than the full explanation, which is hard to express to civilians. They weren't close in the usual way one thinks of two people being close, but fighting a war together makes a certain bond between men nonetheless.

Enough of a bond that James sits with Tony, every so often, where he lies in his coma.

*

These days, Jane makes manic look reasonable.

She's fighting a war, is the best way she can put it. Fighting a war on a thousand different fronts, while occupying both sides — fighting her axis, then switching sides, and turning on her allies.

Tony Stark's body is doing everything it can, within feasible, biological limits, to fight off the nanites like the foreign bodies they are. The nanites are doing everything they can, within logical, programmed parameters, to integrate Tony, down to the cellular level, into their system.

It's up to Dr. Foster to ensure Tony's antibodies don't battle the only thing keeping him alive; it's up to Dr. Foster to ensure the nanites don't ultimately destroy the same organs they're repairing — advancing.

The true lifesaver is JARVIS, imparting her a secret straight from the 1940s — possibly some intelligence Howard Stark kept for his own, as the US Government supressed any known documentation around Project Rebirth.

It's not everything, not by far — but it's enough to have Jane desperately wish she could have met Abraham Erskine. Long dead, there's enough of his collaborative work with Howard — bridged by math to link where the human biology integrates with technological engineering — to give her a foundation.

She's not recreating the serum that was used once to make Rogers, then again, in derivative capacity, to save the life of the man she loves back in 1945 — and then on, and then on. But she can program these nanites to think they are like the serum. Made to integrate, not overwhelm. Made to become part of the body, even if their capacity is to change it forever.

There are few words out of Jane as she changes specialization after specialization in the lab, learning as she goes — forced to become a bio-engineer in all of hours to save her friend's life. Few words, but so many thoughts — what does this make her? No worse than Hydra?

She's not sure. What she is, sure, is somewhere between overseeing the upload of her program into the nanite architecture, she needs to run to the bathroom and evacuate what little food she's eaten in the last day. Jane isn't sure where it comes from — probably a flu from no sleep, or the guilt she's been carrying for weeks now — but she gamely washes her face and avoids too-long looks in the mirror.

In her search for James, Jane doesn't need to look long. Through the closed glass doors, she looks in on him sitting with Tony as he sleeps. Her tired eyes are somewhere between soft and apologetic.

*

James hears Jane before she even reaches the doors. He doesn't look up right away, though. Some thoughts need to be finished and tied off — they can't be interrupted midway.

Presently, he finally glances up, beckoning Jane in wordlessly.

"You know his dad was an asshole and a brilliant idiot?" is his idea of a greeting. "Seems like the apple didn't fall far, after all."

He moves over on the bench he's occupying, making space for Jane to come sit on his right. "Have you eaten anything?" is the first question he asks, his critical blue eyes taking in her haggard look.

*

"They usually are," is all Jane says to that, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Rubbing a hand over her face, she pauses only to absorb a read-out of Tony's vitals — displayed helpfully in holo — and she seems satisfied with what she finds. Stable still, if not better than before — better now than even hours ago — if still comatose. That part eludes her.

Eventually, she sits where James invites her, tilting back tiredly into the bench. She squeezes-shut her eyes, digging fingertips into a persistent ache at the back of her head. "It's fine. I'm a bit nauseated."

Her eyes open again, dark and brown and the farthest thing from peaceful. "I think it's clear sailing on the way out. Rest is up to him. How're you doing? Hear from the others?"

*

"Not mine," James says, with half a laugh. "Mine was pretty down to earth. Finish school, get a job, find yourself a nice wife. Kids, picket fence, maybe a dog. That was about the extent of what he had in mind for me. It was the extent of what I had in mind for me too, so we got along."

He follows her gaze to look at the readout, himself. Nothing's changed since the last time he looked at it, a few minutes ago. "They weren't hard goals. Seems I managed to miss the mark on most of them, anyway."

He's got a very different set of skills nowadays, and a shadow of that crosses his eyes when he glances over to regard Jane: small and tired at his side. His gaze reads her status in one sizing-up glance. Clear sailing, she says — but at what kind of cost? "He's stable," James says. "You take it easy for a while. Nothing more to be done but wait."

Her question about the 'others' gives him pause. "They found Matt," James says, looking at his phone by force of habit. He's already learning 21st century ways. "Or rather, it sounds like Matt found himself." He frowns. "Didn't get a lot of the details on it, but sounds like he turned up again not long after he was taken. Jess is up and awake, far as I know."

He's quiet a moment, considering questions like 'how are you doing?' "It's like the serum, isn't it?" he finally asks, looking at his hands instead of at her or at Tony.

*

"I meant 'brilliant idiots', not fathers," corrects Jane, with the hint of a smile that reaches far enough to soften her eyes. "Yours sounds a lot like you. I guess there's something in that saying that we all become our parents."

Not that James Barnes still retreats back into that icy, eighty-year divide that widens his trajectory far past his dead father. Jane exhales at that, not annoyed, but serious. "'Miss' implies both culpeability and having no opportunity to try again, should you want it. So you're wrong."

But for as far as she minds him, he does just the same, veiling in his words the clear order that Jane needs to rest. And in clear demonstration of her own fatigue, she concedes. The usual stubborn streak is in absentia.

"You're right," she says, letting herself lean all the way back onto her head rests on the back of the bench, the action exposing the long, white column of her throat. Her eyes shut against the room's lights. "I couldn't do anything more if I wanted to."

There's apology wound into that statement, because it's not entirely true. Jane could turn to magic to expedite things, is seriously tempted to, but refuses to.

She does listen as James answers her, her shut eyes creaking open to dual mentions of Matt and Jessica both. "Thank god," she says. She should go see them. She should do a lot of things. She feels like a shadow of herself, these days.

James's voice draws Jane from that lingering line of thought. 'Serum' is all it takes for her to animate, sitting back up. "Structurally, no. Functionally, maybe. It's augmenting him. How do you feel about this?" She sees his attention on his own hands, half of them flesh and bone.

*

James blinks at the correction. "Guess I had stuff on my mind," he says slowly. "Been thinking about the past, some." It's incredible progress, earned by Jane's patient blood and tears over the past few years, that even gets James as far as to admit that much aloud instead of silently holding it in. Though he's still James Barnes, at core — he doesn't exactly say why he was thinking about the past, nor what specifically about it he was remembering.

He just laughs a little when she declares 'you're wrong.' "You like telling me that, don't you?" he observes, not offended, in fact seeming to find a brief moment of much-needed levity. "We could get a dog."

He sobers, however, to the sight of her leaning back in pure exhaustion and admitting there is nothing more she could do — even if she wanted. That addition turns his blue eyes to her. He knows what lurks unsaid. "No," he says. "You can't do anything more." He leaves it on that, full-stop, a complete declarative. Magic has done both of them too much ill.

As he tells her the news of Matt and Jessica, he sensitizes to a certain energy that animates her as her eyes open. His hand rests on her knee. "They're well enough," he says. "They'll keep."

He pulls his hand away after. The thought of magic, the sight of Tony in his bed, the clinical readouts… it all puts him in a certain frame of mind. Jane's answer about 'serum or not?' just puts him in it deeper. "He did it to himself, did he?" James says, turning his hands over as he regards them. "I guess maybe then he'll take to it more like Steve did. Though then again, it doesn't sound like he had much choice…"

He shrugs, folding his hands together. "I hope he's prepared for how it changes you. It wasn't even fully tested, was it?" A pause. "It wasn't tested at all, was it?"

*

"Not my fault you're wrong all the time," murmurs Jane, low, matter-of-fact, and with still-shut eyes, but with just enough levity in her voice.

Her already-gentled humour mollifies all the more, knowing full well that James Barnes is admitting out loud, with her and Tony Stark's comatose body as witnesses. For all her fatigue, black thoughts, and foreboding mood, it feels like a small sunrise peeking through a too-dark night. "The past deserves to be thought about."

His humour reflects on her, Jane the ever-ready, emotional sponge. "We could," she answers his proposal, not entirely against it. "Never had a pet before. Other than Tony."

She goes quiet for the next moment, head back, eyes shut, looking by all pretenses to fall asleep on the spot. It usually takes a significant lot to knock out the nigh-hyperkinetic Jane Foster, especially when she seems apt to run on guilt as her neverending fuel, so she's probably just resting her eyes.

Not that it lasts long, with talk of their friends on the mend.

Jane seems apt to lose herself back into thought, though James's hand on her knee pulls her back to the here and now. She looks at him, the look in her eyes reflecting an implicit trust in what he says. A constant truth, for her; he'd never couch his words to her, and she's endlessly appreciative of that.

Instead, she tilts closer to him, better to settle her weary head to his arm, greedy for both its warmth and stability. Jane seeks anything that will help soothe her constant migraine.

"He did," she confirms quietly of Tony's dying intent. "And he was going into cardiac arrest. I don't think, even with the arc reactor back online in him — that his heart would have survived for very long. It was that or death." What's left unsaid: of all three of them, it seems Steve is the only one who had a choice in the matter.

He can feel Jane breath, in and out, very pointedly, at the question of 'wasn't tested.' Answer enough, right there.

"He'd just developed it, looks like. Off their reassembly of my program. I don't even know if —" Jane arrests the thought. "Erskine's serum came from a good place. It was meant to elevate us, eliminate sickness — meet our potential. What I made — it came from — it's nothing like that."

*

"I am not wrong all the time," James grouses, though he seems apt to tolerate the barb. It means Jane's still Jane, under all the frenetic work and worry and guilt.

Certainly still Jane enough to make a quip about Tony being a pet, which brings James to smile. "He's certainly as much trouble as a dog," he says. "Minute you turn your back he's getting into the trash or getting skunk sprayed."

There's an opening for them to talk about what exactly James was thinking about, when he talks of reminiscing, but James doesn't bring it up and Jane doesn't press him. She knows him well enough by now to have a good guess at what he was thinking about, if he was sitting here by Tony's bedside thinking about fathers, and he doesn't really want to talk her ear off when she looks so exhausted. Not that he's really the sort who would ever 'talk anyone's ear off.'

He does make a good pillow, however, if you use the right side of him. He holds still as she settles against him, and is silent.

Something does trouble him, however, and it's the fact Tony has now flown himself unexpectedly close to a certain topic that has long haunted James' own heart. To suddenly awaken different, and through no real choice of one's own…

Jane's doubts turn his eye. "What's in my blood was nothing like that, too," he says, his voice low. "Mine didn't come from any good place."

He looks back down at the floor. "But it doesn't inform who I am. …I try not to let it. Maybe it will work out."

*

"Most of the time," Jane concedes, in all her magnanimous charity. But, despite her exhaustion, it's a bit of playfulness out of her. It's enough.

Especially as she does know James, knows him well — knows that for all the brief islands of his actions, there's a deeper, undersea mountain of thought beneath it. Something that would compel him in stillness at Tony's bedside, and bring him to comment on the late Howard Stark —

Jane does not immediately press, even though the thought still circles her mind. Instead, she lays her head to James's arm, and reaches to take his closer, right hand in hers. He can both watch and feel the play of her smaller fingers over his knuckles, tracing old calluses. Far older than anything else in this room.

All through her cloistered work in the lab, Jane could never step too far from the shadow of a single question. How did James feel about her doing this?

"You came from a good place," she confirms, but with a shift of her head to his arm that communicates it: she gets his point.

Her hand closes over his.

The question comes softly, but clearly. Leave it to Jane to cut to the chase.

"Do you think I did the right thing? For Tony? Or maybe 'to Tony'? I want to know if it feels to you — like — " Jane stumbles to phrase the words. What happened to you.

*

Most of the time, Jane teases. James grumbles audibly but lets it go. Maybe he just likes hearing her in the mood to tease again, after all the pain and stress they've gone through.

She takes his hand, and visible proof of that pain rasps roughly under her fingers. He tenses a little as she brushes past old calluses, made many decades before she was even born — in the commission of acts that still stalk his nightmares even now — but he has long since learned not to flinch away. Or perhaps, more accurately, he has long since learned there is no need for him to flinch away. Not with her.

But as she's been his support these past many years, sometimes she reaches back to him for support too. He recognizes that something is troubling her, but it's not until now that Jane finally puts it in words. Does he think she did the right thing? Does it feel like she —

She can feel him tense under her pillowed head.

"You stabilized what he did to save himself," he says. "You made sure it would save him. What happened to me was I was put on a table, cut apart, and turned into a perversion of everything I ever stood for. How would those ever feel the same?"

*

While she must feel him tense, the slow, constant movements of Jane's fingers linger on.

Taking no offence by it — it may always be a part of him — she lets her thumb run the bones in his hand. The touch neither offers judgment nor pretends to forget the history that surrounds those hands: those by the will of James Buchanan Barnes, and those committed beyond his memory and control.

It Jane's touch is only the simplicity of acceptance. She knows who he is. And he knows he never needs to flinch with her.

But even at rest, she is still the farthest thing from peaceful — something waits on the wings of Jane's thoughts, a patient darkness that never allows her more than than a few moments' retreat, before she must look back. See it, again and again.

The unfortunate combination of troubled, reckless, and honest, words fall out of Jane before she can even think them through.

James tenses beneath her in a different way. She goes still, stricken she's made a mistake — insulted him, or worse, crossed some line to bring him too-close to his own trauma. The way he turns her phrasing back on her stings Jane — it's absurd to hear her own worry out loud. But it doesn't make her feel any less sick in the stomach, any less guilty.

"It doesn't," Jane answers quickly, trying to undo that mistake. On a table. Cut apart. She takes her head off his arm, sitting up straight, both restless and apologetic. Her eyes look down. "I don't know what I'm saying."

*

James Barnes could have gone down a dark road after being freed from Hydra control. How easily do most men recover after waking to find they were used for over seventy years to commit heinous acts? He almost didn't, in fact… but each time he started to spiral into an isolated and vengeful place, each time he almost turned his back and simply walked away from any thought of trying to resume a normal life among friends —

— Jane was there, reminding him there was some humanity left in him worth saving.

It took a long time, much patience, many sleepless nights, but at the end of it all Jane can boast this: the fact that James no longer flinches when she touches his hands. He no longer flinches when her fingertips cross the calluses formed by seventy-five years of killing. He no longer recedes when she comes willingly into the darker parts of who he is.

He does tense, though, when Jane says something which is frankly, in his view, rather silly. Did she do the right thing? Or does he think that maybe what she did to Tony was a little too close to what was done to him?

His answer is sharp — perhaps a little sharper than he means it to be. Jane gives up and demurs, and James is quick to relent. "You're working on a man who isn't awake to consent to it," he says, "but that doesn't make it the same as what happened to me. It was the assholes who almost killed him who forced this choice on him. You're just the one making sure it doesn't kill him."

*

The question of the Winter Soldier's little, remaining humanity has been asked countless times — has been tested by the Courts, weighed on the scales of justice. Even now, most people do not believe it possible.

Some, with cold malice, speak that no amount of conditioning or mind control could force them to do such a thing; they speak of all the years he spent free, and ask: why did he, for decades, never try to remember? Other speak with a more reluctant empathy, but attest that after eighty years of killing, there would be nothing good left even in the best of men.

The warmth and light weight of Jane's hand believes none of it. She knows exactly who James Barnes is; she knows exactly which parts of him intersect with Yasha Morozov.

She loves him, knowing entirely the man — the men — he is. It's just her own self she's having trouble with.

Restless even while seated, Jane leans back and draws up her legs, small enough to fold into whatever space she occupies. James's words reflect against her face, expressive to the end, unable to conceal anything. From the dark, sleepless rings under her eyes, to the constant, background beat of a headache that keeps her eyes tight at the corners. He says reasonable, logical words, and she can't dispute them. But.

"What about the rest of them?" she asks. "Whether they volunteered, or didn't, for Extremis. It emptied out their minds." Jane's hands move uneasily, tightening fingers down on her opposite thumb, pulling anxiously on the joint. "It came from me. I didn't — but it came from me. I wanted to do something for this world —" she stresses, and that's when her voice cracks. "And I just gave them another Hydra."

*

After the trial exposed his entire life to public scrutiny last year, James can confidently say he has heard it all.

He should have been prevented from being over-exposed to the court of public opinion, but that's hard in this day and age without a total media blackout. Even then, it's still hard; a man still has to go out on occasion, and the nonstop 24/7 news cycle is pervasive everywhere one might choose to go. After the trial was resolved, after they all got back from Wakanda, the talking heads still liked to go over it on occasion.

And why not? It was a scandalous topic. Captain America's best friend, found to have undergone a similar baffling extension into a future neither of them ever should have inhabited — found to have spent the bulk of that time as a Soviet operative. The very definition of an enemy of the state… a state he was previously famous for laying down his life to serve.

He's heard himself called a liar. He's heard himself called weak for not fighting himself free. He's had men come up to him and spit at his feet for being nothing like the childhood hero they wanted to emulate. He's changed, they say, no matter whether he wanted it or not. Those eighty years stained him forever, and he won't ever be what he was again.

If he had to face that alone, he would have walked away from society long ago. But he had Jane. Jane, who understands how he is both James Barnes, and the Soviet fiction that he lived as for nearly eight decades. Yasha — the Winter Soldier.

For that reason he listens intently, when Jane now needs him to understand her.

And the rest of them? she wants to know. They lost their minds, and all because of something that came from her.

"The day you stand up and decide, of your own will, to intentionally do those things to people," he says, "then I'll call you Hydra. Until then, you were a victim."

He looks at his hands, this time focusing on his left. "If I agree with you, say you're responsible for what you did while you were warped by that Bear, then I have to say I'm responsible too for everything I ever did as the Winter Soldier." His left hand flexes with the soft hum of metal. "There's a line between having done a thing and being responsible for it. It's hard to see. I didn't find it for a long time, myself. But it's there."

*

The answer he has to give — James Barnes and Winter Soldier both — drop Jane's dark eyes. A pair of tears streak her face, and she rubs them away, discontent. Opening her eyes when she's certain she's not going to cry, she looks away; her lenses reflect her faraway look, miles away and deep, down into her own mind. Gone to contemplate this. Gone to think.

In the wake of his words, she holds, still and silent, no sound in the room save for the chirps of machines that diligently read, meter, and count Tony Stark's vitals.

Then, Jane exhales.

"Dirty play, Barnes," she says, her voice still brittle, but not yet empty of its quiet humour. "Using my own words against me."

She looks back up, eyes raw, but the rest of her thankful. Thankful for being able to reassess this from a place not within her own head — because she knows, even now, she stands by everything she ever told him. And she did, again and again. It was not his fault. It was never his fault. So often easier to indict herself for similar crimes, and be her own judge, jury, and executioner.

Is that a glimpse into James's mind, Jane wonders — only amplified? Amplified by decades, instead of weeks?

"I get why I had to convince you more than once," she tells him. "Even when you know it isn't your fault… you still remember. You still can't deny it came from you. I can't let this be the only mark I ever make on the world. I wanted to do so many things. I wanted to give people answers."

The movement of his hands attracts her eyes. Jane follows the articulation of those metal fingers. Fingers she built. Their every movement began as calculations in her mind, and now she can witness her work —

She was wrong. She has done things. Made a mark — and some of it, so far, is good.

Jane reaches to cover both of James's hands, skin and steel, tangling her fingers with his. "So, tell me, who was the bigger asshole. Tony or Howard?"

*

Dirty play, Jane says. A smile haunts his features. "That's my wheelhouse," he says, with a self-aware sort of humor. "Besides, they were good words."

The smile is brief, however, and by the time Jane looks up at him he is sober again, his taciturn features seen only in profile as his attention remains on the machines representing Tony Stark in beeps and dotted lines. It's not a guarantee he's thinking about Stark in particular, though; he has that faraway gloss to his eyes that he gets when he's thinking, and the topic could be anything.

Is he thinking of his own past, his own struggles with the guilt which even now haunts Jane's mind? Very likely.

"Yes," he confirms, when she says she gets now why it was so hard to convince him. "You know you never wanted to do it… but your hands still did it. That's one of the worst parts of it." He looks down at his hands. "Hydra, or the Russians, or the Bear… they decided to do the acts, but it's you who has to live with the memories of committing them."

He watches his left hand move. Re-engineered entirely, now completely Jane's work. She wanted to do so many things, give people so many answers… "You have," he says, his left hand cool under her reaching fingers. "And you will."

Of course, all that leaves the most important question unanswered. James blinks — and hesitates markedly. It's a hard question, and for a few moments he visibly weighs back and forth.

"…Howard," he finally concludes. "If you thought Tony was bad, take that and multiply it by about five."

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