Spoilers & Desirable Foreknowledge: The Marvel Cinematic Universe up to and including Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Warnings: Comparatively dark timelines, branding, non-consentual body modification, and very very ill-advised coping strategies. Is there a way to warn for “harming yourself for non-self-harming purposes” that’s clearly distinguishable from the “cutting” kind of self-harm? If so, insert that here too.)
Characters & Relationships: Bucky x Jane & Helen Cho
Summary: Bucky still can’t walk unsupported when they finally bring Jane back in, but that doesn’t stop him from meeting the rescue party at the door. // 1548 words
Author’s Note: Enjoy!
Bucky still can’t walk unsupported when they finally bring Jane back in, but that doesn’t stop him from meeting the rescue party at the door. When she spots him, leaning heavily on Helen, Jane’s face scrunches up with a relief so strong it looks painful, and she rushes to him and knocks him into the wall with the force of her embrace.
“You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive,” she keeps repeating, face pressed to his right shoulder.
He brings up his right hand and buries it in her hair, heedless of the tangles and grease and worse. “Of course. Didn’t Steve tell you?”
“I had to see it for myself,” Jane says, and her shoulders start shaking.
Bucky takes in the rest of the group, the other rescued prisoners and the ones who did the rescuing. “Where’s Darcy?”
“She didn’t make it,” Steve says.
Bucky wraps his other arm around Jane’s back and lets her muffle her sobs in him.
“When this war first started, I thought it would be over in a week,” Jane confesses hollowly. Helen is stitching up a gash along her hairline and they’re so hard up on supplies even civilians like Jane don’t get painkillers for ‘little aches’ like that anymore. Her jaw clenches spasmodically. “That was the kind of world this had turned into since - since Thor first arrived.”
She swallows thickly against a grief that never seems to dull.
“Something huge and unprecedented and earth-shattering would happen and be over as quickly as it started, and in the aftermath, we’d be left trying to wrap our heads around how fundamentally our understanding of reality had just shifted. But the event itself never dragged out like this.”
Helen ties up her last bit of thread.
“In a way, it was even… exciting. The science underlying it all. Even the things furthest from my field, just - wow. You remember, right?” she asks, voice strained. “I’m not making it up, am I?”
“I remember,” Helen sighs. “Not all of those great things were terrible too. But it does all feel like a lifetime ago.”
Before Thanos came, and brought the Red Skull back with him, looking more like a piece of gruesomely melted children’s candy than ever before. Before, together, they prompted all the Hydra members and similar thinkers who’d been smart enough to maintain cover and keep their mouths shut on Insight Day to rise up and help usher in the next stage of evolution for human life - while ridding themselves of all the unruly, ungrateful excess waste in the process.
Jane talks about that time a lot. Bucky still can’t remember his first life as anything more tangible than a figment of his and Steve’s shared imagination, and there hasn’t been a day in his second and third lives that he did not wake up to one brand new war or another. But he likes listening to her. She makes peacetime sound like such a nice dream.
Helen takes Jane’s hand and starts untying the rag wrapped around it.
Jane startles violently and jerks her hand back. Bucky sits up straight.
“Jane?” Helen asks.
“It’s nothing. It’s not a wound.”
“Jane,” Bucky whispers.
Jane avoids his eyes and removes the rag with shaking fingers. Bucky wants to take her hand in his, but he can’t trust himself to be careful enough.
Hydra’s goddamn tentacled skull is tattooed across the back of her hand, along with a string of alien writing. Numbers. They gave her a number.
He can feel himself start to shake. “Who did this?”
“Just some faceless drone. If you got one, they didn’t kill you. Darcy didn’t get one.” Jane can barely keep her voice steady. “I wish they hadn’t given me one.”
“Don’t say that.” She never lets him get away with saying shit like that.
“I want it gone,” Jane whispers. “I want it gone.”
Scott knows how to make prison tattoos. He wipes down Jane’s hand with alcohol, disinfects a nail over a fire, and uses the ash to turn the hateful picture into a solid black ball.
It fades with unnatural speed. Within days, Hydra’s brand comes back even brighter than before.
Bucky finds Jane in their quarters with a knife in her hand, shit-faced drunk and shaking all over, as the tries to make herself cut out the defiled skin. When he takes the knife away, he meets no resistance.
They try tattooing over it again, with proper ink this time. The tentacled skull started out black, turned purple after their first try, and comes back bright red after the second. If they ever get hold of her again, Hydra will undoubtedly take note of this.
“The good news is, it doesn’t triple as a tracker. Because that would’ve just been typical, wouldn’t it?” Jane says at the end of the week. She’s studying her marred fist with her chin propped up on her other hand.
“Wear a glove,” Bucky suggests helplessly.
“Not permanent enough. Cut it or burn it, those are my only options. But the bad news is, last time I tried that, I failed. Miserably.”
“I want it gone.”
Bucky doesn’t tell her that getting rid of the skull won’t undo everything that happened back there. He’s been where she is, that tipping point where a visible reminder is the last straw, making all the difference between bearable and not. Just looking at her hand gives him the urge to shave his head again.
“Sure, but don’t - you -” He barely knows what he’s trying to articulate. “Not to yourself. Not this. You shouldn’t have to do that to yourself.”
“You think I want to do it by myself? I just…” Jane looks stricken by what she sees in his eyes. “I can’t ask you -”
“Okay, then who? Helen? Sam?”
“They already said no.”
“So I’m offering. You’re right, I don’t like it, but I do know the difference between hurting and helping, Jane. But I don’t think I could take just standing by and letting one of the others do it.”
Jane stares at him for a long time.
“Okay.” She presses the balls of her hands into her eyes and heaves a shivery sigh. “Thank you.”
He asks for a couple of days, and then she hands him a blowtorch, a big metal spoon, and more trust than anyone but Steve has ever put in him.
“Actually, I was thinking…” He holds something out to her and suddenly feels self-conscious. “Since you’re an astrophysicist, and all,” he finishes lamely.
It’s the metal star off of an old sheriff’s badge. It’s just the right size and he’s used the force in his metal fingers to smooth down the embossed lettering.
“Where did you get this?” Jane asks breathlessly.
“My morning limping route.”
“This is much better.” She sends him a watery smile. “Now can we get this over with?”
They wipe down with alcohol. Bucky squeezes Jane’s wrist until the lack of circulation leaves her hand numb and aims the blowtorch at the badge until it glows red hot.
“This is gonna hurt,” Bucky reminds her for the hundredth time. “A lot. For a long while.”
“Worth it,” Jane says.
And then she bites down on a rag and he replaces Hydra’s mark with something better for her.
The tentacles do not return.
Helen yells at them long enough she runs out of English swear words and reverts back to Korean.
“I can’t say I am completely without regrets,” Jane says with a wince, and switches her pen to her left hand. “But it was worth it.”
Jane becomes ambidextrous by sheer force of will and cracks the equation Hydra kept her alive for before her hand has even stopped itching.
One day, the war ends. One day, they can even say they’ve won - and that they both helped make it happen. The people build a monument and hold a ceremony, and afterwards, Bucky and Jane walk home clutching at each other. They count their losses and their blessings, and they’re free to breathe and look forward again - if they let themselves.
Jane traces the red star on Bucky’s metal biceps with the hand bearing her own white star.
“Why did you keep this?”
“Because you liked the stars.”
She laughs. “Bullshit.”
“I don’t remember. There were other things that bothered me a lot more,” he says. It’s not entirely true, but it’s not false either. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” And that - that is true. “It didn’t mean anything to me when they put it on, but now I match with all my favorite people.”
He smiles and winks, and she ducks her head with a smile of her own. Then she lowers the star on her hand from the one on his arm and tilts her head up toward the real deal. Bucky studies how the little lights reflect in her eyes - tired now, compared to when they’d first met. Hurt, and guarded.
Another way they match, he supposes.
Suddenly he needs to know: “Do you still like the stars?”
She looks at him incredulously. “What, you mean after they -” She mimes one crashing down and exploding.
“Yes.” Jane laughs again, and stands on her tip-toes to kiss him. “Always.”
Peacetime looks like it’ll be nice.