Darcy met her soulmate during a terrorist attack at a nightclub. One moment she was dancing with some classmates, the next people were screaming and stampeding and she was being swept along in the human current.
She got separated from the others. Gunshots and explosions filled the air. Terror coursed through her veins. She shouted her classmates’ names, but she couldn’t even hear herself.
Someone slammed her against the wall, knocked the wind out of her. Warm blood sprayed her face. She couldn’t scream.
And then someone was pressed against her. Fists slammed into the wall on either side of her head.
The man pressed against her had blue eyes and a black mask and lank greasy hair. He said something garbled behind his mask. He grunted and rocked toward her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, turned away. No no no no -
But there were no hands or lips on her.
She opened her eyes, confused, and she was staring at his black sleeve and his pale hand. He was bracing himself against the wall. Protecting her from the stampede of people all around them.
He said that garbled thing again behind his mask.
His eyes were so, so blue.
Darcy shouted as loud as she could, “I don’t know who you are, but thank you for protecting me!”
His eyes went wide, and then he wrenched himself backward, spun into the crowd, and there were more screams and gunshots, and the room filled with smoke. Darcy closed her eyes, ducked her head and yanked her collar up over her mouth so she could breathe better.
Hands closed around her upper arms. She screamed and struggled, but smoke burned her throat, and someone was pulling her, tugging her.
Someone wearing a yellow fireman’s jacket. She stopped resisting, let the man haul her out of the building.
Her eyes were still watering from the smoke even outside in the dimness of the night. Strobing police and ambulance lights punctuated the dimness with sharp, painful bursts of color. Darcy still couldn’t hear. A uniformed EMT ushered her over to an ambulance, handed her an oxygen mask, and checked her over.
The EMT caught Darcy’s gaze, held it. Asked something.
Darcy shook her head, pointed to her ear.
The EMT asked it again, slower and presumably louder.
Darcy shrugged and pointed to her ear again, and shouted, I can’t hear you!
The EMT reached into her pocket, drew out a notebook, scribbled a message, turned it around for Darcy to see. What’s your name?
Darcy told her.
The EMT wrote another message. Who’s your soulmate?
Darcy shook her head, confused.
The EMT tapped the message urgently. Soulmates were automatically next of kin unless specifically otherwise designated. There were mountains of forms to change that kind of thing.
Darcy shook her head again. I don’t have a soulmate!
The EMT frowned. She reached out, tapped Darcy’s left wrist.
Darcy looked down and saw - words. On her skin. Where there hadn’t been any words before. They weren’t in English. They looked like they were in...Greek.
Darcy said, That wasn’t there earlier.
The EMT’s eyes went wide. She turned and gestured to someone else, and two more EMTs arrived to help bundle Darcy into an ambulance. She protested, but they were insistent. Brand new soulmate bond. Had to get her somewhere safe in case she bond-crashed without her soulmate.
In the ambulance, the EMTs checked her vitals, fired off questions, but she had no idea who her soulmate was or what the person looked like, because a whole lot of people had screamed at her. Could she read what was written on her wrist? Not even a bit.
One of the EMTs took a picture of her soulmark and texted it to someone for assistance with a translation. Soulmarks were intensely private things, but certain professionals were privy to that information to help preserve a new bond like Darcy’s.
Darcy was on a cot in the ER when the EMT returned, showed her his cellphone.
Russian. Means ‘look out’.
That could have been damn well anyone. Not even someone who was necessarily a Russian national, because that nightclub was popular with students at Culver University, and many languages, including Russian, were taught there.
Darcy tried to get them to call her parents, if not as next of kin then as emotional support, but she’d suffered from smoke inhalation and was headed for bond shock, so they kept giving her low doses of bond-suppressing meds and fretting. Darcy had just gotten her hearing back when she felt a searing pain in her wrist.
She looked down and watched in quiet horror as a line went through the neat cursive Cyrillic. Her soulmate was dead.
Her world went dark.
When she woke two days later, she was informed that her soulmate had never been identified, wasn’t among the casualties from the club bombing, which authorities were calling a domestic terror attack. Her mother, who had lost her soulmate before she’d met Darcy’s dad, held her and cried. Darcy let her mother hold her, but she didn’t shed a single tear. She was just numb.
Not everyone had a soulmate. Soulmarks only came in for a small fraction of the population. If Darcy never got to share a life with her soulmate, well, she’d be like most everyone else.
Students and faculty alike buzzed about the bombing for weeks, speculating about the attackers, who the target might have been. Darcy switched her watch to her right hand and wore a wristband on her left, and she didn’t join in on any of the conversations about the attack.
She needed to get away from everything, from her mother’s constant sympathetic phone calls, to the way the hospital staff looked at her whenever she went in for her newly widowed checkups.
Late at night, when she was staring at Russian grammar websites and wondering what her soulmark would have sounded like aloud, she saw a posting on one of the university’s internet bulletin boards for an internship. In New Mexico. Physics.
Political science, physical science. Darcy was a smart cookie. And she could get physical. She applied.
She packed a suitcase for New Mexico two weeks later.
As it turned out, chasing electrical storms across the desert was a great way to forget that her soulmate was dead. So was hitting a god with a Jeep. And knocking out the aforementioned god with her taser.
Darcy learned about wormholes and Einstein-Rosen bridges, Norse mythology and alternate dimensions. She learned about government tyranny and how to mourn the loss of her iPod. She learned about computer hacking and how easy it was to fake up a driver’s license.
She learned how not to hurt when Jane told her, softly, that she and Thor were soulmates.
“See?” Jane rolled up her left sleeve and there, on her shoulder, in spiky script, were words.
“What does it say?” Darcy kept her voice low, respectful.
“I had to ask Erik. It’s the first thing Thor said directly to me. Blue sky, one sun; this is Earth, isn’t it?”
No wonder Jane trusted him so implicitly.
“Do you think he’s crazy?” Darcy asked.
Jane shrugged, rolled her sleeve back down. “If he is, he’s my crazy.”
Those soft, fond smiles she and Thor had exchanged while making breakfast - Darcy understood them now.
Then Lady Sif and the Warriors Three showed up.
Darcy learned the true meaning of bravery, of sacrifice, of love, by watching Thor, still otherworldly handsome in jeans and a t-shirt, face down the robot that had destroyed the town Darcy had started to call home.
He’d been willing to die so Jane could live.
Darcy hung onto Jane’s arm with a white-knuckled grip. She knew what it was like, to lose a soulmate.
She had no idea what it was like, to be the soulmate of a god.
Mjolnir came to Thor’s hand, and suddenly he wasn’t just that crazy, really cut guy who served half-decent coffee. He was the God of Thunder. Erik had had bedtime stories about him.
Darcy had never had much in the way of scientific curiosity. She was more interested in people, culture, and music. Anthropology and sociology had been too boring, too technical for her. Political science - that had made sense to her. But she’d wanted to see this Einstein-Rosen bridge, the Bifrost, and as she stood beside Jane and gazed up into the sky, into another dimension where Thor had gone, she was amazed.
Horrified when light sparked across the sky, and she realized before Jane did: the bridge was breaking.
Jane couldn’t move after that, couldn’t speak.
Darcy and Erik guided her back to the camper, and they headed for the nearest town, the nearest hospital.
The nurses and doctors were puzzled at Jane’s near-catatonic state, because her soulmark was intact, still perfectly neat runic script.
“He’s gone far away,” Darcy explained quietly, “and there’s no way for him to come back.”
The nurse looked skeptical.
Darcy said to Jane, “You might want to see about some bond-suppressing treatments, like the kind they give widows.”
Jane pressed a hand to her chest, to her heart. “What good will it do? How could anything make this - make this go away?”
“Nothing can make it go away,” Darcy said. “But the medicine can dull the pain.”
Jane shook her head. “You don’t understand.”
Darcy pushed back her sleeve, tugged off her wrist cuff, and held her arm out for to Jane to see what no one else had seen in months. The skin around her wrist was so pale, the mark so stark in comparison. Neat Cyrillic cursive with a perfectly straight, neat line through it.
“Oh, Darcy. I never knew -”
“It’s not something I share.” Darcy replaced her cuff, fixed her sleeve, then reached out, curled her hand through Jane’s. “But I understand. We can be check-in buddies. Each of us can make sure the other takes her meds.”
Jane nodded. “All right.”
“Besides,” Darcy said, “there’s a chance you’ll see him again. While you pursue your research - we can find another way. You can span the same chasm with more than one bridge.”
Jane smiled. “Yes. Thank you.”
So they got their gear back from Coulson and SHIELD, packed up their lives, and moved.
Darcy could have gone back to school, back to her mainstream classes, but Jane needed someone by her side, someone who understood, so if all Darcy could do was sling coffee and deliver reports, well, she was there. For when things got difficult, like the two of them feeling hollowed-out and lonely and so tiny in the vast, vast multiverse.
If Darcy had thought her world was turned upside down when she learned the truth about inter-dimensional travel and Asgardians, a humanoid race revered as gods, her world was really turned upside down when Loki reappeared and kidnapped Erik.
Hot on his heels was Thor, and half of New York City was destroyed in an alien invasion.
Once the dust settled, Jane was summoned to Stark Tower (what was left of it) and Darcy was dragged along with her, because - because Erik.
And Darcy was Jane’s Unwidow Buddy. That was what they called each other, the two of them reminding each other to take their meds. They had to stick together, two young women in a world populated by older men and scientists in one half and grieving women in the other half, with their collections of stray cats and endless balls of yarn.
But then she and Jane stepped off the elevator in Stark Tower and Jane stopped short and Darcy ran into her back.
Jane stumbled forward with a soft cry - right into Thor’s arms.
He held her and kissed her, and it was like something right out of a storybook or a legend, the golden-haired warrior and his beautiful lady.
Darcy couldn’t watch.
She knew it was just her imagination, but the skin on the back of her left wrist was ice-cold, burning cold, and she had to get away.
So she dodged around them and moved further down the hallway - and crashed into something warm and solid.
Another man, another golden-haired warrior, though this one was clean-shaven and shorter-haired, wearing a t-shirt and cargo khakis.
“Sorry, Miss,” he said, stepping back.
Darcy raised her eyebrows at him. “No one calls people ‘Miss’ anymore.”
He started to say, “Sorry, er, ma’am,” but this time Darcy felt it.
That tingle on the back of her wrist that meant a soulmark was coming in.
She’d read about the event with only vague attention in health class as a kid, because not everyone got Soulmarks and only about a handful of her relatives had them. Of course she had read about them in stupid romance novels, where every book ended with a frenzied sex scene after the Marks appeared. After what had happened to her, she’d researched the event more extensively, wondering how she could have missed the sensation, but given the panic in the club at the time, she’d been focused on surviving, not recognizing her soulmate.
Now she was feeling it, that tingle, that warmth, that spark of life through her skin and blood and nerves.
The man stared down at her, eyes wide.
He had one hand pressed to his side, and Darcy realized - that was where his Mark must have been coming in.
Then he shook his head. “No. That’s impossible.” He tugged up the hem of his shirt, and he was pretty damn cut, but then if he was out there doing battle alongside the likes of Thor -
There, written on his hip, in Darcy’s sloping cursive, were the words No one calls people Miss anymore.
But below that, written in old-fashioned cursive, were the words, Hey pal, you okay? Only they had a line through them as well.
Darcy, hands shaking, shoved back her sleeve, fumbled off her wrist cuff, and there it was, above the struck-through Cyrillic, also in old-fashioned school teacher cursive, Sorry, Miss.
The man stared at Darcy’s wrist. She stared at the pale golden skin at the line of his hip.
“Ma’am,” he said, “what’s your name?”
“I’m not old enough to be a ma’am,” she said, “and my name is Darcy Lewis. What’s your name?”
Darcy blinked. “I read about you in history class in, like, junior year.”
He winced. Then he let his shirt fall back into place, smoothed it down.
Darcy’s second soulmate was Captain America.
“It’s not unprecedented.” The doctor who was looking them over, a pleasant man with a charming Scottish accent, smiled kindly. “Not every person has a soulmate, and not every person with a soulmate is limited to one. After all, there was Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.”
Darcy and Steve sat opposite Dr. Beckett with Jane, Thor, Tony Stark, Erik, a scary red-headed woman, and a nicer brown-haired guy crammed in behind them.
Beckett eyed the others behind Darcy and Steve. “Would you like to discuss this in more privacy, perhaps?”
“Yes,” Steve said.
“Why bother?” Darcy asked. “I mean, they all know we’re soulmates.”
Steve looked at her, and she remembered. Right. Even though he was built like, well, a god, he was from the 1940’s, and he was incredibly old-fashioned and prudish compared, to, well, everyone else in the room.
Darcy glanced over her shoulder, flashed Jane a tight smile. “Thanks. We’ve got it from here.”
Jane nodded. “Of course. Congratulations, both of you.”
Steve didn’t look like their being soulmates was something worth celebrating; he looked empty and hollow and exhausted. He’d been battling aliens not two days ago, so some of that was to be expected.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t, Doc,” Tony said as he herded everyone else out of the little room set aside for this consultation.
The top half of Stark Tower desperately needed repair, but for people like Steve who had nowhere to go, the lower floors were still habitable.
They were sitting in one of the empty rooms beside the ones where Steve was staying.
“That leaves me a lot of room to act, you realize,” Beckett called after him.
Steve looked alarmed, but Beckett smiled gently.
“I’m just joking.” Then he cleared his throat. “Now, Mr. Rogers -”
Beckett frowned. “What?”
“Sorry. Just - you said that and I imagined Mr. Rogers from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”
Beckett looked confused. Steve looked confused.
Darcy forced herself to look serious. “Apologies. Go on, Doctor.”
He nodded and turned back to Steve. “I understand your soulmate’s death was - quite recent for you, in the grand scheme of things. Only a few weeks ago, if that.”
“If that,” Steve said quietly.
“There is no requirement that two people who are soulmates actually become a couple,” Beckett said.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “But - even if Buck and I hadn’t wanted to -”
“Aye, back then you’d have had no choice, and as fragile as your health was when you were a wee lad, young Mr. Barnes abandoning you would have been fatal, but with modern medicine, you can go your separate ways if you so desire. How long ago did your soulmate pass, Miss Lewis?”
“About a year ago,” Darcy said. “I’ve been on widow meds the entire time.”
“Then you’ve had time to grieve? Have you seen a counselor?”
“No. I mean, I didn’t know him. Or if it even was a him.”
Beckett blinked at her.
Steve blinked at her.
“I was at this club, and there was some kind of terrorist attack. Whoever it was must have been there. Died there. Never did figure out who it was.” Darcy shrugged as casually as she could manage.
Steve’s expression turned grave. “So you never -”
“Nope. Only love of my life, or so I thought. There and gone in an instant. But now here you are, only you don’t want to have another soulmate, which I totally get, and I’m already on the meds, so if you get started on them too, you can go do your heroic thing and I can keep working with Jane and maybe she’ll turn me into a scientist after all.”
Beckett was right: not everyone who met their soulmate stayed with their soulmate, but that was rare. Soulmarks were about temperamental and intellectual compatibility (because IQ, as it turned out, was mostly genetic, and pretty fixed over a lifetime absent severe head trauma or substance abuse). Darcy had heard of people doing it (after all, people without soulmarks had no soulmates, right? And they found happiness with not-their-soulmates, so why not the soulmarked as well?). But she’d never imagined that for herself. As much as she thought all the rom-coms and romance novels on the subject of soulmates were stupid (fated to be together, love at first sight, happily ever after), she’d always dreamed of someone who’d get her.
Like her mom’s first husband had gotten her.
Someone who understood her love of music and her curiosity about people.
Here was the man who could get her, but he didn’t want her, because he’d had someone else, someone who’d gotten him, who he’d known since he was a wee lad.
Someone named Mr. Barnes.
And then Darcy remembered, from her eleventh-grade history class. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky Barnes. Sergeant Barnes of the 107th and the Howling Commandos. Captain America’s best friend. And apparently his soulmate. That hadn’t made it into any of Darcy’s history books.
As far as Steve knew, Bucky had died a few weeks ago. Steve had then gone to his death in an effort to save his hometown, New York City, the city he’d recently fought to defend again. He’d probably thought he was going to die, would join his soulmate in some kind of hereafter.
Only the supersoldier serum had kept him alive, and he’d awakened in a brand new world where almost everyone and everything he knew and loved was gone. Instead of having a chance to say goodbye to his old life, he’d been thrust right back into combat, and now he was being told that he had a brand new soulmate.
Like the universe was trying to replace his real soulmate or something. Some kind of consolation prize.
Was he her consolation prize, too?
Sorry Fate killed your soulmate before you could meet them. Have someone else’s tattered and battle-scarred secondhand romance.
Steve looked at Darcy for a long moment. Then he rose from his chair.
All right then. He’d made his choice. She swallowed hard, kept her expression calm. He was going to walk out on her. Totally understandable.
Steve sank down on one knee in front of her, grasped her hand in his. “Darcy Lewis, will you marry me?”
She stared at him. “No.”
“What do you mean, you said no?” Jane looked aghast.
Tony stared at her. “Way to kick the guy while he’s already down.”
Darcy crossed her arms over her chest and very decidedly did not look at Steve, who was sitting on a chair in the corner, elbows resting on his knees, head bowed.
“I’m not going to marry someone just because he’s my soulmate. We’ve known each other less than twelve hours.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Steve said quietly.
“Maybe it was in 1945. Were you married to Bucky?”
“As soon as we were old enough.”
Oh. Darcy cleared her throat. “Well, you two grew up together, right? You already knew each other. I mean - everything I know about you I learned in a textbook, and we can all be sure most of that isn’t right, since none of them include the fact that you had a soulmate or were married. What do you even know about me, besides my name?”
“You’re my soulmate.” Steve lifted his head and pinned her with his unfairly blue gaze.
“Besides that,” Darcy insisted.
He looked away, lips pressed into a thin line.
“Do we have anything in common? Will you even like me once you get to know me?”
He looked at her again. “Let me get to know you.”
“Carts and horses, pal. We should do that before we get married.”
“All right.” Steve scanned the room, finally settled his gaze on Jane. “May I court your, uh, friend?”
Darcy face-palmed. He really was still stuck in 1945.
Jane said, gently, “Maybe you should ask Darcy herself. She’s a grown woman.”
Tony said, “Just - assume Darcy’s exactly as badass as Peggy. Without the gun.”
“But with a taser,” Thor said.
Steve looked at Darcy. “May I court you?”
She said, “Yes.”
Being courted by Captain America was complicated, mostly because he spent eighty percent of his time off doing things for SHIELD and being Captain America, and also because he was Steve Rogers. Underneath all that golden skin and statuesque muscle and killer instinct was a young man who’d spent most of his life hiding behind his handsomer, more charming, more popular best friend who just also happened to be his soulmate. Bucky had stood between Steve and the world back when Steve was small and fragile and shy, and without him, Steve was kind of lost.
Unless he had his shield in hand and his uniform on, and then he was badass.
Luckily for Darcy, since he was gone all the time she wasn’t stuck hanging around in Stark Tower waiting for him to come home so they could do courting things; she could stay on with Jane as her (still unpaid) intern and help with her work (and help poor, healing Erik as well).
Once in a blue moon, between SHIELD missions, Darcy and Steve could go on dates.
Before their very first date, he called her up.
She stared at the restricted number on her phone, wary, but then she answered anyway, because she’d been in the lab with Jane all day, and maybe it was Erik, who sometimes called from strange numbers from his rehab facility.
“I’d like to speak to Darcy, please.”
“This is she.”
“Darcy, it’s me, Steve. Are you free this Friday night?”
Darcy knew that endless amounts of people were trying to teach Steve how to be modern, were trying to distill seven decades of history for his easy consumption, from music and technology to slang and social mores, but he was still very much himself. He’d literally never dated anyone before because he hadn’t had to - he’d always had Bucky.
But everything he knew about dating was literally historical.
“I am free,” Darcy said cautiously. The whole point of this dating thing was so they could get to know each other. And that meant her learning his old-fashioned quirks, right? Didn’t mean she had to like them or condone them. But working around them would take time.
There was a long pause, so long Darcy thought the call had dropped.
He took a deep breath. “Darcy, may I take you out on a date on Friday night?”
“Yes, you may.”
Since Darcy wasn’t being paid, she didn’t have official work hours, but as a rule she was in the lab when Jane was in the lab, and since Thor was gone all the time overseeing Loki’s imprisonment and basically being Prince of Asgard, Jane spent a lot of time in the lab still.
“Any time after five.”
“How about six?”
“Sure. That’s great. What are our plans? So I know how to dress.”
“Dinner and a movie,” Steve said. He added, a little anxiously, “I’ll have you home by midnight.”
Darcy bit back a laugh, because his nerves weren’t unjustified - she had turned down his marriage proposal pretty hard. “That sounds lovely. I’ll see you Friday.”
“Thank you.” He sounded unfairly relieved. “See you Friday, Miss - Darcy.”
And the call ended.
Darcy did what any girl who was about to go on a date with Steve Rogers would do: she hopped online, found the nearest Betty Page store, and went and bought a red dress that made her look awesome but wouldn’t overwhelm his very old-fashioned sensibilities (i.e. accentuated her curves and made her legs look miles long but had a fairly modest neckline, because Darcy had inherited both her mother’s generous bosom and her slender build).
Then she went home and spent hours on YouTube trying to figure out how to do victory rolls in her hair, decided that was taking it a little too far, and instead went shopping for a pair of sensible but cute shoes to wear with her smoking hot dress in the event that something crazy happened on their date.
Like more aliens falling from the sky.
At precisely six p.m. that Friday night, there was a knock on the door of the London flat Darcy was sharing with Jane.
Darcy answered the door, clutch purse in hand, bright smile on her face, because he was her soulmate and she did want to get to know him.
Steve stood on the doorstep. He was devastatingly handsome in a sports jacket, button down shirt, and chinos, his shoes military-shined. He was holding a paper-wrapped bouquet, which he presented to her, blushing.
“These are for you.”
No one had brought Darcy flowers before. Ever.
She accepted them carefully. “Thank you. C’mon in. Let me put these in water.”
Steve stepped over the threshold and hovered just inside the door while Darcy tore through the cupboards in search of something that would serve as a vase, but of course Thor had never brought Jane flowers, because as an Asgardian he was capable of much grander romantic gestures, so Jane had no vase. Eventually Darcy found an old glass milk bottle that must have belonged to one of the previous tenants.
She filled it with water, set the flowers in it and, as an afterthought, snapped a photo of them with her phone, texted it to Jane.
Since Jane was head-over-heels in love with her soulmate, she wanted everyone to be just as blissfully in love, so she was always encouraging Darcy to be nice to Steve. As if Darcy had planned on being mean to him. Jane would be glad that Darcy was accepting Steve’s romantic overtures.
“They’re lovely,” Darcy said, smiling at him.
Then she went to stand beside him.
He offered her his arm, and she realized she didn’t actually know what to do in response, and apparently neither did he because apparently two guys didn’t do that even back in the 1940’s, and eventually they settled on tentatively holding hands as they left the building.
Steve had managed reservations at a small but upscale restaurant in Knightsbridge. They walked to the nearest Tube station, and on the train Steve absently put an arm around her waist and drew her into his side - protecting her from the buffeting crowds, she realized.
She wondered if Bucky had done that for him, when they were kids and running around New York City alone.
The restaurant was lovely, all soft candlelight and fine china and real silverware, crystal glasses and creamy linen tablecloths. The maitre’d showed them to a secluded table in the corner, assured them their server would be right with them, and vanished.
No one seemed to have recognized Steve as Captain America, but their sever, a pretty girl about Darcy’s age, was definitely impressed by how handsome Steve was.
As it turned out, from Steve’s time in the Howling Commandos with Dernier, he could speak pretty passable French, and he managed to order his dishes in French. Darcy ordered in French as well, smiling sweetly when their server was surprised.
Steve was impressed. “Did you learn in school?”
“I did. Should’ve taken Spanish, but oh well.” Darcy shrugged. “So, how’s work?”
“Good. Busy. Uh - mostly classified. I know you have pretty good clearance, but -”
“I get it.” Darcy smiled.
“How’s work for you?” Steve asked. “In the lab, with Jane.”
“Also good, and busy, and mostly classified. Though I’m pretty sure your clearance is way higher than mine.”
“It probably is, but chances are I wouldn’t understand most of that science stuff anyway. Bucky was always way smarter about that kind of thing than -” Steve cut himself off, stricken.
Darcy recalled that conversation in Dr. Beckett’s office. He’d asked Darcy how long she’d been widowed, if she’d had time to grieve, if she’d gone to counseling.
Had no one asked Steve that? Was he still grieving Bucky?
Darcy reached across the table, covered his hand with hers carefully. “Hey, it’s okay to talk about Bucky. He’s your soulmate too. And the whole point of this dating thing is for us to get to know each other, right? He was a big part of your life. I want to get to know him too. I bet I’d have liked him.”
Steve’s expression was uncertain, but then he nodded. “I - I think Bucky would’ve liked you, too. His mom and sisters were all spitfires. Jane said you - you tased Thor? How many women can say they’ve tased a god?”
“This woman,” Darcy said, preening a little, and Steve laughed.
Over the meal, which was delicious, Steve recounted how he’d first met Bucky, who’d joined him when he was fending off some bullies who were picking on a girl from their class at school, hence his soulmark. Hey pal, you okay?
He told Darcy about growing up in the Great Depression, how he and Bucky had gotten married and taken care of his mom in her last year of life, and then Bucky had gotten drafted and Steve’s only chance at following him and keeping an eye on him was the Supersoldier program.
They shared dessert - because of course Steve didn’t need to count calories - and then they went to the movie, which was good but not particularly memorable.
On the way back to Darcy’s flat, they talked more, Steve asking her about her family and her childhood. When she shivered, he shrugged off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. He was old-fashioned polite, opening doors for her, pulling chairs out for her. Given that he had once worked with the famous Peggy Carter and also with Agent Romanov, Darcy was pretty sure he didn’t think she was weak or incapable. He was just - making life easier for her. She wondered if he’d done that for Bucky, too - or if maybe Bucky had done it for him and he was paying it forward.
At her door, he kissed her on the cheek, bade her good night, said he had a nice time, and he’d call her the next time he was free.
Which was the next week.
Darcy only had a couple of days’ notice, but she took some initiative, said she’d make the plans this time, and Steve agreed, so on Friday night at six, they met up, both of them again in nicer clothes, but they went for dinner at a pub that some of Jane’s labmates recommended.
They ate local fare and had a bit of beer - apparently Steve couldn’t actually get drunk - and then went to an art gallery.
Darcy knew Steve had been an artist by avocation, and his sketches and drawings were displayed in a museum in New York, and she figured that these days most of the people he spent time with weren’t interested in going to art galleries. So she took him to one.
They did their best to keep a low profile, Steve with the collar of his jacket turned up to hide the line of his jaw, Darcy wearing a bit more of a demure black cocktail dress. While they looked at the art - photographs of paintings of stars and galaxies and other celestial features painted onto various human body parts - Steve told Darcy about some of the European museums he’d had the chance to see, and also about some of the masterworks the Howling Commandos had found when they raided Hydra bases.
Darcy stayed close to him so he could keep his voice low. He was a good nine inches taller than her (and once again she’d worn flats, because walking through London in heels sucked), so he had to lean down to speak softly to her, and she ended up pressed right against his side, enjoying his warmth and the gentleness of his voice.
By the end of the night, she and Steve were holding hands, fingers intertwined, and somehow they figured out how to do everything one-handed, though between them they had two hands, so they helped each other maneuver flutes of champagne and expensive canapes.
They managed to escape from the art gallery just as someone was saying, Doesn’t that bloke look like Captain America?
They hurried down the sidewalk, laughing together, and headed for the Tube station. This time Steve wrapped himself around Darcy from behind, holding her and protecting her as people jostled them during the bump and sway of the train.
On the doorstep, he kissed her on the mouth, soft and slow and lingering, before he bade her good night.
It was only natural the next morning, after she’d worked out and showered and dressed and made it to the lab with granola bar and coffee in hand, that she send Steve a simple text message.
Good morning, Sunshine.
Half an hour later, she got a reply.
It’s not morning here.
Where are you?
Of course it is. Well, it is morning here, and I hope wherever you are, that your day (or night) is going well.
Thanks. Was there something else you needed to tell me?
No. Just thinking of you. :)
O K. Thank you.
A moment later, Steve followed it up with a smiley emoticon.
She sent a winky one back, just to mess with him.
And then it was all business, slinging coffee for Jane and the other physicists in the lab - a cranky Canadian man named McKay, a fast-talking Eastern European man named Radek, and a nice Japanese lady called Miko - and finding reports and the occasional small, small spot of hacking.
On her lunch break, she sent him a selfie with her mug of coffee, winking bawdily.
It was a good two hours before she received a response, which was, You look beautiful. Also I really want some coffee.
She typed a response rapidly. Glad you’re still alive.
I’m not that easy to kill.
How are you looking today? Also beautiful?
I will have Agent Hill take a picture and let you know.
Or you could just send me a selfie.
What’s a selfie?
Ask Agent Hill.
A couple of minutes later, she received a badly-lit picture of Steve, frowning at the camera, what looked like the interior of some kind of military transport in the background, with Agent Maria Hill blurry over his shoulder.
He looked tired and there was a bruise on his cheekbone, but he was whole. In one piece.
Darcy texted him, Yep, also beautiful.
Because he really was.
There was no response after that.
And then she wondered - how many people who hadn’t given a damn about him before the serum had started treating him differently and sucking up to him after the serum had transformed him? Did Steve have self-esteem issues and body-image issues related to the serum? Was Darcy making them worse by calling him beautiful? Of course, he’d called her beautiful first.
She got back to work, and she pondered.
And she realized - she’d never really looked at pictures of him from before the serum. They existed. The internet was probably chock-full of before-and-after shots.
Pictures of just pre-serum Steve. What were those like?
Rare. The one in all the before-and-after shots was the one from the day of the experiment, Steve shirtless and pale in some kind of underground science bunker.
Darcy had to do a lot of digging, exercising more hacking skills than she liked, and finally she found one - of Steve and Bucky together, Steve tucked against Bucky’s side, arms around his waist, Bucky’s arm around his shoulders. Bucky was smiling right at the camera, but Steve was looking somewhere out of frame.
And Steve was - just as beautiful. Slender and delicate and downright pretty, but also beautiful.
Darcy wondered what he’d been like, the Steve who wasn’t a soldier. Now when he entered a room he commanded it, filled it with masculine presence and an undercurrent of thrumming energy that was like that first hit of caffeine from morning coffee. Back then had he been mostly Bucky’s shadow, or something more?
Darcy saved the picture to her phone and got back to work.
When Steve finally answered her, it was with another badly-lit selfie of him, sprawled on his side, shirtless and bruised, a bandage around one bicep, gashes along his forearm. He looked exhausted.
Day’s over. Need sleep. Hope your day is going well.
Darcy stared at the picture, eyes wide. Are you okay? Do you need a doctor???
Yes, I’m okay. No, doctor not necessary. Super serum. Heal fast.
Darcy sent him another selfie, this time of her with a concerned pout. Get well soon.
His final text was a simple, Good night.
Darcy forced herself to put her phone away and get back to work. He needed to rest and heal up, and she - she needed to separate McKay and Radek before they came to blows.
They were standing in front of the glass drawing boards, McKay shouting obscenities in French and Radek shouting in his own language while Miko and Jane looked on. Jane’s eyes were wide and she was reaching for the phone, possibly to call security. Miko was brandishing a meter ruler like it was a baseball bat, gaze darting back and forth between Mckay and Radek, like she couldn’t decide who to hit first.
Darcy flung herself between then.
“Hey! Knock it off. Both of you, separate corners. Now.”
They actually listened. They fell silent, stared at her for a moment, then glared at each other, turned, and stormed back to their respective desks, which were on opposite sides of the lab.
Darcy watched them go, waited to make sure both of them were going to stay there. McKay fired up a game of Galaga, and Radek opened up a browser to some kind of fancy civilization game. Neither of them were working, but they weren’t screaming at each other anymore either.
Miko lowered her ruler.
“Coffee break,” Darcy said. “Come on.”
Miko and Jane nodded, and together the three of them headed for the lab door, to the elevator, and down to the ground floor. There was a coffee maker in the break room, and since McKay was a coffee snob they had some fancy blends at hand, but the cafe down the street sold an even better blend and also delicious pastries.
“That was amazing,” Jane said to Darcy. “I’ve never seen them like that before.”
Miko pushed her glasses up her nose. “I have. It is very irritating.” Then she smiled up at Darcy. “Still, you were impressive. No one ever stands up to them like that.”
“Well, I did tase a god once, so a couple of puny mortals shouldn’t be a big deal by comparison.” Darcy shrugged and smiled lightly.
With that superserum in his veins, Steve was practically a god, wasn’t he? Maybe a demigod. Was that why the universe had picked him for her? Because she could handle a man that powerful?
She thought of that picture she’d found, of slender young Steve. If she’d seen him on campus, she’d have looked twice. Sure, she’d have whistled at Captain America, but Steve - she’d have talked to him. Especially if they’d shared a class. Would they have shared a class? What kinds of subjects had Steve been interested in at school?
She’d have to ask him the next time she saw him. And she did want to see him again.
Jane and Miko had moved on from the question of the men they worked with and their foibles, and Darcy scrambled to keep up with them. While they were waiting in line at the cafe to place their orders, Miko was letting Jane listen to music on her phone.
“It’s called Postmodern Jukebox,” Miko said. “Everything from old-school pop hits to newest pop hits, redone in a bunch of retro styles, everything from 1920’s jazz to 1940’s big band to 1950’s doo wop to 1960’s Motown.”
“I love the dresses the singers wear,” Jane said, peering at Miko’s screen. “Although, without the heavy bassline and flashy sound effects, you really notice how ridiculous the lyrics are.”
Miko laughed. “So very true. But also you hear the simplicity of the melody - very pretty no matter what. And this song here - sounds almost disturbing in the original, but this version is more melancholy and sensuous, no?”
Jane nodded. “What do you think, Darcy?”
“You’re right. I like the dresses the lead singers wear. The musicianship is impressive, too.” Darcy’s father was a high school band teacher. Darcy loved music. That was why her iPod was so important to her. “Whoever arranges these songs knows genre conventions inside out - and also has a great sense of arrangement in general, deciding which songs should be redone in which style.”
“If they ever came in concert, would you want to go?” Miko asked.
“Yes,” Darcy said.
Jane looked hesitant, because she’d rather get as far out of the city as possible and look at the stars, but then she looked at Miko and Darcy. “Are they coming?”
“Maybe,” Miko said.
“Sure.” Jane smiled. “If I’m not busy that night.” With Thor, she meant.
Miko flapped a dismissive hand. “We’ll know far enough in advance that you can plan around it.”
They reached the front of the line and ordered coffee. Darcy ordered herself a delicious pistachio macaron as well. Miko picked a flaky almond croissant, and Jane selected a bear claw. Once they’d ordered and paid, they drifted along the counter to pick up their orders.
Darcy said, “So, can someone explain to me the difference between Lorentzian wormholes and Einstein-Rosen bridges? Because they’re both types of wormholes, but there’s some kind of important difference, and no one has been able to explain it to me.”
Jane nodded, smiling brightly. “Sure!”
Miko’s brow furrowed. “I thought you were a physicist intern?”
“Intern for a physicist, yes. I’m a political science major, actually. Doing most of my classes remotely,” Darcy said.
“She was the only one who applied for the initial internship, but she’s invaluable,” Jane said.
Miko nodded fervently. “That she is.”
“Anyway,” Jane said, “it’s pretty simple. Einstein-Rosen bridges cross between universes. Lorentzian wormholes allow for instantaneous travel between different points in the space-time continuum within the same universe.”
“All theoretically, of course,” Miko broke in, because their work was highly classified.
Darcy nodded. “Of course. I appreciate the clarification.”
And they went back to the lab to keep on working.
McKay and Radek had calmed down enough to communicate via the instant messaging system installed on all the computers in the lab, were taking turns building an equation on one of the rolling glass drawing boards that were scattered all over the lab.
All of them went to a nearby pub for supper, and then Jane and Darcy walked back to their apartment, musing over the progress they’d made that way.
“Just have to move the needle forward,” Jane said. “No matter how little, as long as it moves forward a bit every day, we’re making progress.”
Darcy nodded. They settled back into the flat, kicked off their shoes. Jane put on a kettle for some non-caffeinated tea so they actually had a chance of sleeping, and then Jane set to emailing her family back in the States. Darcy put on her headphones, turned up some Postmodern Jukebox, and she also emailed her parents. She knew her mother had been worried when she took the insane internship in New Mexico, that her mother had been even more worried after the “satellite crash” and “freak tornado” that tore up the tiny town where she and Jane had been staying. Darcy’s reassurances had fallen on deaf ears at first, as she always had to promise her mother that yes, she was taking her bond suppressants and yes, she had an active social life.
Her mother appreciated stories about Miko and Jane, about Erik’s recovery. Darcy had told her mother about Jane being bond-widowed, but she didn’t tell her mother that she’d the been un-widowed (as a result of The Event that had rocked New York). Instead, she told her mother that Jane had met someone new. As someone who’d been bond-widowed herself, Darcy’s mother was very happy for Jane - and now even more worried about Darcy.
Darcy hadn’t told her mother about having a second soulmate or that she was officially allowing Steve to court her. She simply recounted McKay and Radek’s big blow-out, and how Miko had introduced her to new music that Dad might like. If he could big-band up some popular radio hits, maybe kids in band and orchestra would have some more fun as well.
Once the email was sent, Darcy curled up on her end of the couch with an anthropology book that had caught her eye when she and Jane were wandering the aisles of the little indie bookstore down the street from the lab. Dr. Daniel Jackson had some fascinating theories about the Romans as road-builders, the development of language in pre-Dynastic Egypt, and the pervasiveness of legends about gods who posed as humans or took human form for a time, sleeping heroes prophesied to return, and the underlying themes of transformation inherent in all myths, that humanity could become as great as the gods. Some people called it apotheosis, some people called in achieving nirvana or enlightenment, others called it sainthood, and yet some called it ascension. Science sought the same thing, to elevate humans to god-like status, with increasingly long lives, increasingly long periods of youthful vigor and beauty, improved health.
Where religion sought this elevation through adherence to strict codes of behavior, meditation, and insightfulness, science sought the answers in the bottom of a test tube.
They’d come close, with Steve Rogers.
What would the next step be, beyond him?
Darcy hadn’t expected to see a picture of Steve in the middle of the textbook, but in his blue uniform, with his shield in hand, he looked like a god.
What would Daniel Jackson make of Thor?
He counted Thor among other super-powered people who were emerging. Was it science? Was it evolution? Or were human bodies finally catching up to the mental enlightenment that spiritualists had reached decades, centuries, possibly millennia ago?
Darcy forced herself to close her book at the end of the next chapter. She brushed her teeth and washed her face, bade Jane good night, and then crawled into her own bed.
Just as she plugged her cell phone in to charge, it buzzed. Incoming text message.
Good morning. It was accompanied by a selfie of him in a plain white t-shirt sipping from a mug.
Darcy smiled, warmth creeping through her limbs. He was trying to meet her on her terms. So she flipped on her bedside lamp so she could take a half-decent selfie (in a faded Culver University t-shirt, her hair mussed from where she’d been lying on the couch) and sent it back with a Good morning, Sunshine text.
Then she went to sleep.
After that, getting to know each other was easier. Steve and Darcy sent each other text messages all the time, at first just time-based check-ins (Good morning! Lunch break! Coffee break! Hope your day is going well! How my day is going is classified but I’m still in one piece) but eventually questions (What was your favorite subject in school? Art and English - I wanted to be a comic book artist, write and draw my own stories) and then full conversations and finally phone calls. Steve called her whenever he had a moment, and sometimes they talked for a full half hour (Jane, glad to see she was spending more time with Steve, even if just virtually, always encouraged her to take the calls) or just thirty seconds depending on what he was doing.
Hearing Steve’s voice made all the chaos in Darcy’s life fade away.
Erik had been released from the rehab facility after he’d been mind-controlled by Loki, and he was back to work on a small scale. At Jane’s suggestion, he’d come to help out with the wormhole project, since him being near the Tesseract or any of the alien stones was dangerous. If having McKay and Radek in the same lab was bad, throwing Erik into the mix was worse.
After one terrible blow-up where McKay and Radek had started throwing things at each other and then Erik when he tried to intervene, enough was enough. Darcy banished all three of them from the lab for the rest of the day, took Miko and Jane out for mani-pedis, and then went to the lab director and demanded a job.
Which he gave her, with surprising equanimity.
That meant Darcy had to keep more regular hours, but nothing about her day really changed.
Her life in general had changed, though. She had a job. She was still doing her coursework over the internet, inching her way toward her degree. And she was seeing her soulmate on the regular.
The next time Steve was in town, Darcy took him out for Japanese food, which he’d literally never had before.
“You did study WWII in school, right?” he asked.
“Well - there was a lot of food we didn’t eat back then. For various reasons. Scarcity. Also politics and propaganda.”
Darcy, standing in the doorway of the adorable sushi restaurant with all of the cute anime paintings on the walls, stared at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Two words: Freedom Burgers.”
“Right. Well, embrace the present. The war is over. We’re friends with Japan now. Come on.” And Darcy tugged on his wrist.
He let her pull him over the threshold. She ordered for the both of them: edamame, a California roll, a Vegas roll, several different types of nigiri, mochi ice cream for dessert, and a couple of ramune sodas.
Steve’s eyes lit up when he saw them. “I remember these! We used to smash the bottles to get the marbles so we could play.”
“You remember them?” Darcy echoed, puzzled.
Steve nodded. “This is how they used to sell sodas when I was a kid. I thought that was over. Bucky and I had a pretty good collection of marbles between us. Ended up giving a bunch of them to Rebecca.”
He could talk about Bucky now without flinching or looking guilty. Darcy wondered if he’d made progress in the grieving process or if he was just better at hiding his feelings about Bucky around her. She wasn’t sure how to ask which it was.
Steve enjoyed the food though, especially liked the edamame. Afterward they went back to Darcy’s flat (Jane had willingly made herself scarce, out with Miko and Erik), and Darcy put in some anime for them to watch. She figured since Steve was an artist he’d appreciate anime. She picked Cowboy Bebop because it was still the best she’d ever seen, and she thought he might appreciate the soundtrack. Also the English dub sounded good, because she didn’t know how Steve felt about subtitles. They’d tackle that on another date.
During the show - they watched the first four episodes - they sat close to each other on the couch, sharing a bowl of popcorn. Steve hesitated before he put his arm around her, which was silly, because he held her whenever they were on a train, but once she snuggled against him, he kept his arm around her and relaxed.
After the fourth episode ended, Darcy asked, “So, what do you think?”
“I like the colors,” Steve said. “And the music. It’s just - a little overwhelming.”
“Japanese stories do have their own narrative pace that seems kind of weird to us at first, super slow in some places.” Darcy turned off the television. “But would you like to see some more?’
Steve nodded. “I would. I’d like to see how it all plays out.”
Darcy smiled up at him. “Good. Then we have plans for future dates. Unless you have something planned?”
Steve did. The Proms. Two weeks later, they were wearing the nicest outfits they could scrounge up on short notice, crammed into the nosebleed section at the Royal Albert Hall, on the opening night of Der Ring des Nibelungen.
“You said your dad was a band teacher, so I figured you’d appreciate this,” Steve had whispered as they’d followed the crowd through the doors of the concert hall and up the stairs to their seats.
Darcy wasn’t into opera, but there was something magical about live music, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle was a cultural marker, and also it said something about Steve, that he was willing to try something so decidedly German, given the way he had grown up and how he viewed the world.
He’d been living in the modern world for two years. WWII was fresh for him in so many ways.
Darcy could see why people were into opera. The sheer skill of the performers - singers and musicians alike - was breathtaking. The costumes were fantastic, and the production was magical, and Darcy was swept away to another world, no wormholes necessary.
Afterward, as Steve walked her back to her flat, he asked her how she’d liked it.
“It was amazing,” she said.
“Good. Because the entire production will be performed every night this week. We can see the whole thing.”
Darcy paused. “We? You mean you’ll be here? For the whole week?”
Darcy cheered and reached up, tugged him down into a kiss.
He was startled, because they hadn’t done much more than make out on the couch after watching anime last date. While their goodnight kisses had become increasingly long and lingering, Steve had always been discreet, waiting till they were at her door to kiss her good night.
Darcy didn’t care, because they were spending the whole week together.
She pulled back, breathless, and gazed into his eyes. “I get you for a whole week. This is going to be awesome.”
Steve was panting, eyes wide, pupils blown, face flushed. “Yes. Awesome. I - wow.”
“What, Bucky never kissed you like that?”
“Well, no - I mean, yes, he’s kissed me breathless before, but he didn’t kiss like you do.”
“How do I kiss?”
“I - don’t know how to describe it. But I like it.”
Darcy leaned up and kissed him again, briefly this time. “Good. I like kissing you too. Now come on, we’d better get home. You have to have me home by midnight, right?”
Steve started to nod, then eyed her. “I know that’s not actually a rule.”
Darcy shrugged. “Maybe not by modern standards, but you’re not all modern, and that’s okay. I can learn some of your rules too.”
“All right.” Steve laced his fingers through hers, and they resumed walking toward the nearest Tube station.
Darcy looked up at him. “Did you and Bucky wait till you were married before you had sex?”
Steve shook his head. “But, you know, we also couldn’t have kids.”
As far as Darcy knew, she was biologically capable of bearing children, but she was on birth control. “Can you father kids? Would they be half super-powered?”
That gave Steve pause. “I honestly never thought about it.”
Of course he hadn’t. Because it had always been him and Bucky.
“I suppose we could ask Dr. Beckett,” he offered.
Darcy shrugged. “Carts and horses, remember? We’ll wait till after we’re married.”
“So we’re getting married?”
Darcy squeezed his hand. “That’s the plan, isn’t it? Get to know each other better, and if we like each other, if our compatibility hasn’t been messed up by super-serum and cryogenic time travel and alien attacks and Einstein-Rosen bridges, we get married?”
“Yeah. That’s the plan.” Steve leaned down and kissed her. It was chaste and soft, like a blessing.
After that, everything just kind of fell into place.
They went out together every night that week, and after the final show, they hurried back to Darcy’s flat, the audience’s standing ovation ringing in their ears.
“So?” Steve asked, once the two of them were on Darcy’s doorstep. “What did you think?”
“I think it was amazing and wonderful and perfect and magical. And…”
“And I once heard someone say that experiencing the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is better than sex.”
Steve swallowed hard. “What do you think?”
“I think we should put that hypothesis to the test.” Darcy reached behind her and unlocked the door.
Steve’s eyes widened, but then he nodded. “Clearly being around scientists all the time has turned you into one of them.”
She laughed and drifted backward into the flat, towing Steve with her.
He closed the door, paused to shrug off his jacket and hang it up.
Darcy kicked off her shoes, shrugged off her own jacket. Steve hung it up for her. “It can never be a sound hypothesis unless it’s tested. Science demands it.”
“Not like I’ve never surrendered myself to science before,” Steve said, and then he winced. “That didn’t come out right.”
Darcy leaned up and kissed him. “That’s okay. We don’t have to be perfect. We’re already perfect for each other.”
Steve said, perfectly sincerely, “You’re perfect to me.”
Darcy froze. Because Steve wasn’t perfect to her. He was smart and funny and sweet and handsome, strong and thoughtful and compassionate, bold and direct, but he was also one-track minded, tended to see the world in absolutes, and half-frozen in another era so far away it might as well have been another dimension. Bucky had been the one perfect for him. Had Darcy’s unknown other soulmate been perfect for her?
Steve realized he’d said something wrong. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Did I offend you? I swear it’s not just a line.”
“I know it’s not just a line. You’re not that kind of guy, Steve.” Darcy wilted in his embrace.
“Was that - was that sexist? Or something? I -”
“No.” Darcy pulled away, drifted over to the couch, plopped down on her end.
Steve hesitated, then sat beside her, close but not quite in her personal space. “What’s the matter?”
Darcy looked up at him. “Look, we’ve been dating for a while, and we’ve talked a lot, and we’ve gotten to know each other, and I really like you. I do. But - have you grieved for Bucky? Have you had the closure you need?”
“You said you didn’t mind when I talk about Buck.”
“I don’t. Just - when this whole thing started, Dr. Beckett asked me if I’d mourned my soulmate, had grief counseling. And I never knew my soulmate. Did anyone ask the same for you? Or am I just some kind of patch, some bandage over a raw wound? Your second-string soulmate.”
“I thought the plan was to get married.” Steve gazed at her, expression unreadable, though she knew from the set of his mouth that he was nervous or anxious.
“If we really are compatible.”
“That’s not a guarantee.”
“But our bond -”
“I’m still on my bond suppressants,” Darcy said.
Steve was shocked. “What?”
“If I don’t like you without the bond, then I don’t really like you with the bond, do I?”
“Well, that explains it.” Steve sat back, one hand pressed absently to his chest, like people did when it was hard to breathe.
Darcy eyed him. “Explains what?”
“Why I can barely feel you.”
That made no sense. “What do you mean, feel me?”
“Your emotions. You. Across our bond,” Steve said. “That’s why I was confused by your text messages at first. You were always checking on me, but I always knew, faintly, that you were okay.”
Darcy said, “I still don’t understand.” She knew soulmates had a bond, that the bond gave them physiological advantages, and severing the bond could have serious health consequences, but textbooks had always been vague about the extent of the bond, and her mother had never spoken of it in detail. The bond formed when soulmates first met each other, made their connection so much stronger than the regular bond people formed.
Steve’s expression turned sympathetic. “That’s right - you never got to - not with your first soulmate. Soulmates have a bond, so they can sense each other at all times. We can close down the connection so we don’t pass on negative emotions, like when we’re upset with each other or doing something stressful or dangerous -”
Light fighting a war, he meant.
“But we’re always connected. I thought I couldn’t feel you because you didn’t really want me to feel you.”
Like she was hiding something.
“I guess bond-suppressing meds are for all bonds,” Darcy said. “I never went off of them. Dr. Beckett never said I should, and he knew about you.” She hesitated, then continued. “I guess I thought that the bond was kind of like...I don’t know. Sort of brainwashed us into liking each other? Being more compatible?”
“Oh no, not at all.” Steve shook his head. He said, earnestly, “It just allows us to sense each other, so we know the other person is okay. And if you really refine the bond, it can almost be like telepathy, which is useful in combat, but - no. With the bond, there’s still a choice. About liking each other. As for the physical effects - well, there was a lot less choice about that when I was younger.”
He didn’t say what most people said, though. Why wouldn’t you want to be with your soulmate? Being with someone other than your soulmate was a modern thing, thanks to bond-suppressing drugs.
“Oh. Well, I guess I better talk to Dr. Beckett about tapering off my meds.”
Steve smiled. “Yeah, maybe you should. I want to be able to feel you.” Then he blushed and shook his head. “That came out wrong. I’m sorry -”
Darcy reached out, curled her fingers around his wrist, and guided his hand to her waist. “Feel all you want, soldier.”
Steve’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never - not with a woman. I -”
“We can learn about each other together,” Darcy said, keeping his hand on her waist, and leaned in to kiss him.
He kissed her back, as soft and tentative as their first kiss, and then he pulled back and gestured for her to precede him to the bedroom.
After that their relationship was pretty easy. Darcy went back to visit Dr. Beckett, and he set her on a step-down regimen to wean her off her bond-suppressing meds. Whenever Steve was in town, he and Darcy spent every spare minute together. If he wasn’t doing paperwork at the SHIELD field office, he’d hang around the lab and help her, slinging coffee and reaching things she was too short to get and looming over McKay and Radek when they started to get aggressive with each other. In the evenings Darcy and Steve would go to restaurants and movies, exploring the city together. Since Steve had never had a chance to go to any of the tourist sites the last time he was in London on a regular basis (during WWII), on the weekends they went to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament, Stonehenge and Avebury and as many castles as they could stand.
Sometimes they’d order in and stay in, watch more anime together (they finished Cowboy Bebop and moved on to Wolf’s Rain and Samurai Champloo) or movies or make love till they were exhausted.
One memorable night, they went to a Postmodern Jukebox concert together. Miko, Jane, and Darcy went to Bettie Page and picked out the cutest swing dresses they could find. Radek and McKay and Erik assented to dressing up as well. Steve showed up at the lab looking like something straight out of an old war movie, in a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, neat slacks with suspenders, and loafers. His hair was slicked back, and he was clean-shaven and neat in a way most modern men weren’t.
McKay pulled the door open and came up short.
“Well, now no one is going to want to dance with you and me, Radek.”
Steve looked down at him. “I only plan on dancing with Darcy tonight,” he said.
Radek huffed. “Speak for yourself.”
Miko put a hand on Rodney’s shoulder. “I’ll dance with you.”
They took a cab to the venue together, then stood in line with a bunch of other people who were dressed up for the occasion.
“You excited?” Darcy asked.
“Nervous, more like,” Steve said quietly.
“But this band is us,” Darcy said. “Your kind of music and mine all in one.”
Steve curled his hand through hers. “I don’t know how to lead.”
Darcy blinked at him. “But -”
“But when Bucky and I danced, I was always the shorter one, and when we were finally of a height, well, we never had the chance to dance.”
Darcy lifted her chin. “That’s fine. I can lead.”
“Really?” Steve raised his eyebrows.
Darcy nodded and smiled and leaned up on her toes to kiss him, and then the doors opened and people poured into the venue. It had a foyer like an old-fashioned cinema, all fancy wallpaper and gold-leafed molding on the ceilings, big chandeliers and lush carpet, but the performance space had a stage, a sleek, ultra-modern metal bar at one end, tables scattered around the edges, a highly polished hardwood dance floor, and seating on an upper tier.
It was Miko who darted through the crowd and laid claim to a table, and the others followed, setting down their jackets and purses. Then they wandered over to the bar in twos and threes to show their IDs and get wristbands so they could drink, and then it was back to the table.
When the band came out - with a couple of different singers and also a live tap dancer - cheers rose up, and most people headed out to the dance floor.
Darcy hung back, letting Steve hold her, the two of them swaying to the music, waiting for a song she liked.
As it turned out, both Radek and Miko were very good swing dancers. When they danced together, they were amazing, all spins and lifts and turns and fancy footwork, laughing and smiling and really hamming it up for the crowd that formed around them.
“Kinda reminds me of - home,” Steve said softly.
Darcy glanced up at him. “Yeah?”
“Buck and I never got that good, though. If I did much more than simple two step, I’d start coughing.”
“Well, everything I know about swing dancing I learned from Miko and YouTube, so we’re in this together.”
Steve pressed a kiss to her hair. “I love you. You get me. Who I am under all this. When I’m with you, I’m still skinny little Steven Rogers, and I like it.”
Darcy turned in his embrace and leaned up for a real kiss.
When the song shifted to a bit of a slower one, she led Steve out to the dance floor. Miko was dancing with McKay and Radek was dancing with Jane, so Darcy and Steve joined in with the other couples on the floor, and they danced the night away.
Darcy had gone to her fair share of high school dances, and she wondered why this style of dancing had died away, because it was so much fun. There was a certain energy to creating something with a partner, even a simple two-step, and also being part of the bigger creation with all the other couples on the dancefloor, and the reciprocal energy between the musicians and singers and dancers.
Steve was right - he didn’t know how to lead, danced what was traditionally the woman’s part, so Darcy had to mirror his steps, and together they did their best, laughing and smiling along with the music - and apologizing when they accidentally steered each other into other couples.
After the concert, they all stumbled out to the pavement, hailed separate cabs to get home. Jane went to stay with Miko - and Steve went home with Darcy.
It wasn’t until she and Steve collapsed into bed, exhausted - she suspected more emotionally than physically - that she realized.
Steve had told her he loved her.
For all the fun they’d been having together, they hadn’t said the words.
But now Steve had.
Darcy lay awake in the darkness, staring up at the ceiling, and rubbing her left wrist absently.
Did she love him?
Yes, they were soulmates, but -
But Steve was called away for a SHIELD emergency in the middle of the night, and whatever it was meant he was out of cell phone range and had even shut down his end of their connection, and Darcy was a nervous wreck in the lab for a week, prodding their tenuous connection and checking her soulmark and her phone obsessively.
And then everything went to hell with interdimensional portals and dark elves and Jane getting infected by something called aether and Thor was there and Mjolnir was flying all over London and it was chaos. Darcy and Miko and McKay fought off the dark elves with meter rulers while Radek protected Erik with a fire extinguisher he’d somehow turned into a flamethrower.
When the dust finally settled, Jane was holding Thor, who was grieving the loss of his brother. An industrial section of London was destroyed, and Met officers were swarming the site, trying to contain the damage and corral rubberneckers and get the situation under some semblance of control.
Darcy was trying to convince Radek that it was safe now, he could let the homemade flamethrower go, when a commotion arose beyond the yellow police cordone.
“Sir, this is a disaster area, you cannot come in here,” an officer was saying.
“Look, I’m with SHIELD, I’m trained in disaster response.”
Steve stood on the other side of the barrier. He wasn’t wearing his Captain America uniform, but he was wearing a black uniform that looked like it was paramilitary and over it a SHIELD jacket.
“SHIELD has no jurisdiction here,” the young officer in the neon yellow vest said.
“My soulmate is here,” Steve said.
“Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so?” The officer turned, scanned the crowd, but Darcy was already across the parking lot.
She flung herself into Steve’s arms, and their connection blossomed into full strength between them.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I shut the connection down so you wouldn’t feel me but then I couldn’t feel you until it was too late and Natasha didn’t tell me until it was all over that anything had happened -”
Darcy cut him off with a kiss. “It’s fine. I’m fine. You’re fine.”
Steve held her tightly. “I’m here. Let’s go - somewhere safe.”
“I can’t - Radek and Miko and McKay -”
“Get them all. We can go to a SHIELD safehouse. What about Jane?”
“She’s with Thor.” Darcy pulled back from Steve, gazed into his eyes. “Steven Rogers, it’s been a hell of a day. In fact, it’s been a hell of a few weeks. But when we last saw each other, we went on an awesome date, and you told me you love me. I never got the chance to tell you I love you, but I do. So, I love you. Will you marry me?”
Steve said, “Yes,” and kissed her.
Darcy had never been the kind of girl who spent a considerable amount of brainpower on dreaming up her perfect wedding. But she also hadn’t been the kind of girl who envisioned marrying her soulmate, or that her soulmate was friends with the likes of Tony Stark, or that her mother was a crazy romantic beneath her calm pragmatism, so ten minutes after she introduced Steve to her parents, she was staring at a stack of bridal magazines full of dresses that would make her look like a snow beast.
“Honey,” Dad said, eyeing Steve like he’d tried to vandalize the house with a dozen eggs, “you never told us you were seeing anyone.”
“It was kind of sudden,” Darcy said. “We literally ran into each other. In the ruins of Stark Tower. While Jane was reuniting with her soulmate.”
Mom pointed to a dress that was a mountain of lace and pearls. “What do you think of this one?”
“Not really my style,” Darcy said.
Dad frowned. “I thought your soulmate was dead.”
Darcy pushed back her left sleeve. “Turns out I have two soulmates. Steve is my second one.”
“So you ran into each other and you’re soulmates and now you’re getting married?” Dad asked.
“Sir,” Steve said, “I have been courting your daughter for the better part of a year now.”
Mom blinked. “A year? Darcy, you never said! It was just all about Jane and the lab and your job.” She looked hurt.
Darcy winced. “Mom, I wasn’t trying to hide Steve from you. I’m not ashamed of him, or of you. It’s just - complicated.”
“Because he’s your second soulmate.” Dad fixed Steve with a gimlet eye. “My Darcy’s special, son. You’re lucky you’re her second soulmate.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve said earnestly. “I also had a soulmate before Darcy.”
“And where is she?” Mom asked.
“Oh, you poor thing.” Mom reached out and patted his hand. “I am so sorry. And so glad you found Darcy. And so sad she took so long to introduce us. You seem like such a nice young man. What is it you do for a living?”
“I’m a civilian contractor with the Department of Defense,” Steve said.
“What did you do before that?” Dad asked. “There’s always a before for that kind of thing.”
“I was in the Army. A medic.”
“Ah. Iraq or Afghanistan?”
“Germany, mostly. Other parts of Europe.”
Mom pointed to another magazine. “What do you think of these flowers?”
“Not to wear as a dress,” Darcy said, mildly horrified.
Dad said, “We’re not at war with Germany.”
“Not anymore,” Steve conceded.
And then Dad said, “Holy shit, you’re Steve Rogers.”
The awe on Dad’s face was immediately replaced by suspicion. “How old are you?”
“Technically? Ninety-five.” Steve winced. “But if you only count the time I’ve been awake, I’m twenty-nine.”
“Awake,” Dad echoed.
Steve smiled awkwardly.
Mom showed Darcy a dress that looked like a wedding cake. “What about this?”
“No,” Darcy said. “That’s not really my style. Listen, Steve and I just want a small ceremony with you and some of the family, and some of Steve’s friends, and some of mine. Nothing fancy, all very simple.”
“And then what?” Dad asked. “What about school?”
“Well, Steve has a place in DC close to SHIELD headquarters. I can transfer to a school there and finish my degree,” Darcy said. “We’ve got it all worked out. After the lab in London got overrun by dark elves, I need a new gig anyway, and so does everyone else.”
Mom patted Darcy’s hand. “That sounds lovely. What about this dress?”
Before Darcy could come up with a polite rejection of the hideous monstrosity purporting to be a wedding dress, the doorbell rang.
Mom went to answer it. She uttered an excited cry. Dad and Steve were on their feet immediately, Steve heading for the front door.
He returned moments later, followed by Mom, Tony Stark, and a bunch of models precisely Darcy’s build who were wearing fabulous couture wedding dresses.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, I’m just thrilled that my friend Steve is finally going to make an honest woman of your lovely daughter. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he doesn’t have the usual familial support typical for this kind of situation, so I’m here instead. I will do everything in my power to make sure their special day is extra-special.”
Tony flashed Mom his famous roguish grin. Dad looked shocked all over again.
Mom drifted over to one of the models. “What about this dress, Darcy?”
Steve looked aggrieved.
Darcy buried her face in her hands. “Not my style, Mom!”
In the end, Darcy managed to convince Tony and her mother that a small, private wedding was best. Darcy wore a vintage 1940’s wedding dress, and Steve wore an ultramodern tux. Darcy’s maid of honor was Jane. Miko, Pepper, and Natasha were her bridesmaids. Steve’s best man was Tony, with Thor and Clint as his groomsmen. McKay, Radek, and Erik acted as ushers for various of Darcy’s relatives and some of Steve’s other friends from SHIELD. The ceremony was in the same small church in Brooklyn where Steve’s parents had gotten married (Steve and Bucky had married in the church where Bucky’s parents had married), and there was a small luncheon after. They ended up needing some special assistance from Tony, because when word got out that Captain America was getting married to some nobody who was allegedly his soulmate (how no one knew about Bucky still was a mystery), the press went rabid. Stark Industries provided top-of-the-line security so the wedding party could celebrate in peace and privacy, and the press never did manage to get any pictures of the happy couple or Cap’s Mystery Lady.
Steve and Darcy spent a week in Hawaii for their honeymoon, and then it was back to DC and the daily grind, Steve going on missions with SHIELD, Darcy going to classes.
Darcy was sharing her life with her second-chance soulmate, and she was happy.
Truth was, being married to a superhero wasn’t easy, mostly because he was gone all the time and Darcy spent most of her time missing him fiercely and the rest of her time not quite sure what to do with him when he was home. Darcy had thought she’d worked through a lot of Steve’s cultural quirks, that they’d reached some kind of cultural equilibrium. Steve didn’t expect her to be perfect Suzy Homemaker, but that was because as between he and Bucky, he’d been the homemaker, what with Bucky fitter and stronger and able to take on multiple jobs while Steve stayed home.
When Steve came home, he tried to be the homemaker, because when he was home it meant he had downtime (once the paperwork was done, and SHIELD was a government bureaucracy in many ways). Because he was usually gone and Darcy fended for herself like she was a college kid (ramen and a lot of take-out) (because she was still a college kid), they never had the supplies on hand that he wanted to be able to do things. Also he was incapable of throwing anything away, and he was always hell-bent on repairing things himself, especially clothes.
They still did fun things together - art museums, movies, anime, concerts, trying new restaurants, because Steve made good money with SHIELD, and also had been saving money and raking in the interest while he’d been on ice - and in some ways it still felt like they were dating instead of married, because Steve often had to tamp down on their connection when he was on a mission, but Darcy was still happy.
They learned early on that Steve wasn’t allowed to give Darcy any fitness advice, because his fitness advice was useless. He’d been sickly most of his life and superhuman the rest of it, and he didn’t know how to work up to running three miles a day. He’d always had a fighting spirit, but his superhuman reflexes were also relatively new, and he didn’t know enough about combat techniques to be able to teach them. He could just... do them.
That he wanted Darcy to learn some basic self-defense was sweet, but he was not meant to be her teacher.
Darcy made friends with Sharon, the pretty nurse who lived across the hall, and they became fitness buddies, going running together and to a self-defense gym together. Unlike a lot of women, Sharon didn’t fawn all over Steve when he was around and act like Darcy didn’t exist. She respected that Steve wasn’t home often, and the intensity of her time spent with Darcy decreased so Darcy could spend more time with Steve when he was home.
Sharon bemoaned her lame dating life sometimes, like any regular girl friend.
Darcy nodded and listened because she wasn’t quite able to talk and run her three miles at the same time.
And then this one hot guy started running at the same time as them in the morning, along the Mall. He was very polite, would call out on your left as he passed them. One time they caught up to him at the end of the their run when he was stretching out. Sharon admired him but said nothing.
Darcy had nothing to lose by saying hi to him.
His name was Sam, and he was a counselor at a local VA hospital.
“That’s so cool,” Darcy said. “I really admire you helping people like that.”
“I know what it’s like out there,” Sam said, “and how hard it can be for people back here.”
“Air Force. Pararescue.”
Darcy nodded. “You guys are super hardcore, right? Way more than SEALs, but no one ever talks about you.”
Sam shrugged. “We do what we have to. What about you?”
“I’m still in school,” Darcy said. “It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, but I should be done in a year or so.”
“What’s your major?”
“Political science, but I don’t think politics are my thing. Not gonna change majors now, though. No rule that I have to be a politician. My husband was an art major, before he joined the Army.”
Sam nodded. “He still in?”
“He’s a civilian contractor now,” Darcy said, because that was the story she always told, even though Sharon had recognized him early on.
Sharon was nearby, also stretching, listening.
“He’s gone all the time, though. Which is why I’m grateful to have Sharon as my workout buddy.” Darcy beamed and gestured to Sharon, Vanna White style.
Sam flashed her a grin. “Hi, Sharon.”
She smiled back at him, and Darcy was pretty sure she saw appreciation in Sam’s eyes. Win.
“Say,” Darcy said, “are there any volunteer opportunities at the VA?”
“For a political science major?”
“Well, Sharon’s a nurse,” Darcy said, “and I was once an intern - and then a manager - in a physics lab, so I’m pretty adaptable.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “A physics lab.”
“Yeah, theoretical physics. Einstein-Rosen bridges and Lorentzian wormholes and stuff.” Darcy smiled at him.
“Okay,” Sam said. “I went to college and that was - okay. Way over my head. Cool, though. If you’re really interested in volunteering -”
“We both are,” Darcy said. “When my husband’s gone, I get bored, and bored me is - bad.”
Sam laughed. He was beautiful when he laughed. “Fair enough. Our veterans can always use a little more help. I’ll ask around and see what I can find.”
“Thanks.” Darcy beamed at him. “I really appreciate it. What’s your number? So we can connect.” She fished her phone out of her pocket.
He recited it for her. “I’m Sam Wilson, by the way.”
“Cool. Nice to meet you.” She shook his hand. “I’m Darcy Lewis. This is Sharon Carter. We’re neighbors.”
Sam shook her hand too. “Pleasure to meet you, Sharon.”
She smiled at him. “And you, Sam.” She cast Darcy a pointed look, but then she threw her shoulders back and lifted her chin, brightened her smile. “Can I get your phone number too? Because I would love to volunteer my services to America’s veterans as well.”
There was definite appreciation in Sam’s eyes. “Yes, you may.”
After that they went their separate ways, Sam to get to the VA to start his day, Darcy to get home and get ready for class, Sharon to get ready for her shift at the hospital. They walked back to their apartment building together.
“So that was totally transparent,” Sharon said, “but I appreciate it.”
“I had nothing to lose by talking to him,” Darcy said, “and now you might have gained a date.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said. Shadows crossed her face for a moment, but then she unlocked her front door. “You’ve been an amazing friend - a better friend than I expected or deserved, and I appreciate it.”
Darcy shrugged. “Obviously since I’m stupid in love with my soulmate I want everyone around me to be stupid in love too, including my new BFF and the hot guy we run with.”
Sharon laughed. “Good luck today, Darcy. Be safe.”
Be safe. That was always her final word. “Thanks. You too.” Darcy headed into her apartment, showered, and got ready for class.
She had signed up to be Jane’s intern at the end of her sophomore year, and she’d managed to do enough classes to qualify as a junior before she got hired on as an actual employee at the lab in London, so now she was technically a senior and in all her final classes, capstone classes and research classes, reading a lot and writing a lot and mostly working on her own. There were fewer group projects and more individual meetings with her professors and her guidance counselors so she would stay on track to graduate.
Her plan was to write her senior thesis on the impact of new superhumans on the global political scene. Given how some of them didn’t even come from this dimension, how should laws and rules apply to them? Not all of them were American citizens, but most of them seemed to be aligned with America under Tony Stark’s Avengers banner. Were the Avengers a private enterprise, given Tony Stark’s massive involvement, or were they a government entity, as their battle in New York had been with the ambit of SHIELD? Were the Avengers and other people like them even technically human, and did human rules apply to them? Should human rules apply to them? Given that Captain America had been created, not born, what standards should be in place before someone else was raised to supersoldier status via chemical means?
There were so many questions to ask and not a lot of answers to give so far. No one at the university knew who Darcy was married to. Steve was, of course, listed as her next-of-kin for insurance purposes, because he was her soulmate in addition to being her husband. But no one knew why Darcy was pursuing such a controversial and largely unexplored topic. Her professors had been skeptical at first, but Darcy had convinced them that the topic was worthwhile, and didn’t their institution want to be ahead of the curve, asking questions no-one else had thought to ask?
She had a lot of questions and lot of sources to draw on to see about analyzing those questions, but she didn’t have an answer, not for herself. Not a real thesis.
She wished she could talk to Daniel Jackson, see what his take on things was, but her repeated letters to his publisher had only yielded polite, generic denials. He was very busy.
Darcy sat through lectures, took notes. She ate her lunch on the lawn and read in the sun, and then she headed home to her apartment. She still wore a wristband to cover her soulmark, but she could shift it to look at it, make sure Steve was still okay. He was out on another mission, their connection dulled for her safety. He was more or less out of cell phone range, but he could send text messages once in a while, so she kept him supplied with cute selfies (and if that meant she was checking her phone often, oh well - she didn’t want to miss a chance to interact with him).
She was on the train back to her apartment to order sad, lonely take-out for one for herself when her phone rang.
Steven flashed on the screen. No one actually called him that.
She answered before the second ring. “Hey, husband mine. How are you?”
Warmth bloomed in her chest when Steve opened the connection, and she could feel him. How tired and sore and generally frustrated he was, and how glad he was to hear her voice.
“I am alive and in one piece and slated to come home on schedule,” he said, since she always asked how he was doing and when he was coming home. “How are you?”
“Hungry. Not as tired as you are, but - tired. Missing you.”
“I miss you too.”
There were muffled voices in the background, some Aw Cap, you’re so cute! and Shut up, it’s his soulmate!
Steve sighed, and then the voices vanished. “You’re not too bored or lonely, are you?”
“No, Sharon is still keeping me company. I might have gotten her a date with that cute guy who runs along the same route as us sometimes,” Darcy said. She kept her voice low, not wanting people on the train to eavesdrop too much. “Also, I’m looking at picking up a volunteer opportunity to fill my time a bit more.”
“Is that a good idea? With your senior thesis and all -”
“Yeah, it’ll look good on a resume for grad school if I choose to go that route, and also since it’s a volunteer thing I’ll have more flexibility than an actual job, so I can still be with you more when you’re home.”
“Fair enough. I trust your judgment,” Steve said. “What kind of volunteer work?”
“Not sure yet. The cute guy who Sharon might get a date with - his name is Sam, so you don’t have to keep hearing me call someone other than you cute - works at a local VA center. I figure I can go help out, sling coffee, shred files, whatever.”
“If Bucky and I had survived the war, he’d probably be in one of those places now,” Steve said.
“Well, you survived, and you’re not in one of those places, and if you were, I’d totally dress up as a sexy candy striper for you.”
Steve laughed softly, startled.
“Only for you,” Darcy promised. “And maybe Bucky, if he were still around.”
She knew they were in a good place, that Steve could laugh at that, too.
“I hope you find volunteering fulfilling,” Steve said. “Just remember that those guys - if they’re jerks to you -”
“Yeah,” Darcy said softly.
The supersoldier serum had not only made Steve stronger and faster and healthier, it had also made him smarter, remember better.
Sometimes he woke in the middle of the night screaming and crying.
“You’re a good person, Darcy Lewis.”
“You’re a good person too, Mr. Darcy Lewis,” she said, and he laughed again.
“So, tell me how classes are going,” he said, and she settled in to tell him the latest about her crazy professors, some of the inane things her classmates said, and the crazy things she’d read about the Avengers. She usually only told him the ridiculous things, the outrageous things, the totally silly things. She didn’t tell him the things that would make him upset, about the people who proposed locking up all superpowered people or, worse, exterminating them.
He’d probably heard it all before, but -
“Sorry, doll, I gotta go. Duty calls. Love you.”
“Love you too,” Darcy said, and for one moment she was enveloped in the warmth of Steve’s love and affection before the bond cut off and she was left cold.
She sighed, pocketed her cellphone, and trudged up the stairs to their apartment.
She watched some TV, listened to some music, read some more Daniel Jackson, and curled up in bed.
She sent one last love you text message before she went to sleep.
Maybe she ought to get a cat.
The next day, Darcy started a group text with Sam and Sharon to discuss volunteering for the VA, and over the next few days, they worked something out. Sharon would volunteer at an outreach clinic doing simple patch jobs for homeless vets, and Darcy would be at the main center where Sam worked, mostly slinging coffee and shredding old files and occasionally picking up donuts for group meetings.
“Kinda weird, for Sam to keep me close and send you far away, don’t you think?” Darcy asked while she and Sharon stretched out after their morning run.
Sharon shook her head. “No. The clinic is where I’m needed most, and the center is where you’re needed most.”
“So you think he likes you?” Darcy asked.
Sharon blushed. “We’re going out on Saturday night. Dinner and a movie.”
Darcy grinned and hugged her. “That’s so awesome! Need me to help you pick out a super hot outfit? Although pretty much all my hot outfits are from Betty Page.”
“I will take all the help I can get,” Sharon said, “because it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I went out on a first date.
On Saturday afternoon, Darcy helped Sharon pick out an outfit for her date with Sam, and then she spent the rest of the day talking to Steve on the phone and playing chess with Erik over FaceTime with a little worn travel chessboard Jane had left with her.
Darcy read some more, studied some more, made notes for her senior thesis, and then fell asleep on her couch waiting or either Sharon or Steve to call, Sharon for a date post-mortem, Steve just to say hi.
Steve was the one who called to say hi, let her know he was okay. Even though she was sleepy and barely coherent, she was subsumed in the warmth of his love and affection as he opened the bond between them for just a moment, and then he bade her goodnight and she dragged herself off to bed to sleep properly.
As it turned out, she didn’t need a postmortem with Sharon about her date, because when she arrived at the downtown VA center, Sharon was just stepping out of Sam’s office, smiling. His hand on hers lingered.
And then they both saw Darcy and straightened up, looking guilty.
But she beamed at them. “This is so awesome.”
Sharon was blushing. “I’d better get over to the clinic. Talk to you later, Sam.” She patted Darcy on the shoulder and then ducked around her, headed out the door.
Sam was still smiling bashfully, but he beckoned Darcy into his office.
“Today’s shredding pile,” he said, “and also some donut pickups for tonight’s group meetings.”
He handed her a box full of old files and several receipts from orders he’d prepaid for.
She nodded and grinned. “I’m on it.”
Even though she wasn’t really interacting with a lot of veterans, she wasn’t cooped up in the apartment unnecessarily, and she felt like she was helping, so she headed off to the little store room were the shredder was located. She could fire up the music on her phone, put in her earphones, and have her own little dance party while she shredded. Part of her job involved disassembling the files and keeping the parts - files, paper clips - that could be reused for budget efficiency, then shredding the rest.
She never read the files, but sometimes she looked that pictures of the soldiers and felt bad for them, hoped that wherever they were they’d turned out okay, gotten the help they needed, had long and happy lives.
The nice thing about listening to music on her phone was it drowned out the monotonous whine of the shredder, but if Sam needed her he could call or text and she would know immediately.
Once the shredding was done, she carried the box back to Sam’s office, and then she set off to pick up the donuts. Darcy and Steve didn’t have a car, because Steve had grown up with public transport and didn’t much see the purpose in owning a car they’d barely use. Darcy didn’t mind public transport, because it gave her the chance to people-watch. Luckily for her, Sam always ordered donuts from a place within walking distance of the VA center, so Darcy could mosey on down there, chat with the girl at the counter, and then bring the donuts back in time for the first group meetings of the evening.
Darcy carried the donuts into one of the group rooms, set them on a side table, and then set up a circle of chairs. She liked to make it an even dozen, was sad when some chairs were empty, was glad when extra chairs had to be shuffled into the circle.
Then she set the coffee to brewing - they had a little coffee pot just for the group room - and put out a stack of little foam cups. She went and found the napkins, set those on the table beside the donuts.
Even though she was a volunteer, she’d signed a confidentiality waiver, so anything she happened to overhear she had to keep to herself, but for the most part she tried to skedaddle out of the group room before Sam got started, because she’d never served, didn’t understand what any of Sam’s people had been through, and she didn’t want to intrude on their safe space. There were regulars at Sam’s group, which Darcy figured was a good thing, and a couple of them always showed up early, said hi to her.
The friendliest of the regular Early Birds, as Darcy had deemed them, was a former Air Force pilot, a woman named Alexandra, who’d been shot down over enemy territory - somewhere classified, she couldn’t say where - and been held captive, tortured, and permanently maimed. Her captors had done unspeakable things to her - she could discuss it now without freaking out, which she said was progress - but the worst part for her had been them cutting off her right arm at the elbow, because she’d been a gifted artist.
She was working on learning to write and draw and paint with her left hand, but it was very frustrating.
She showed up to group early every week, had a bright smile, tried a different type of donut, and chatted to Darcy, asked how her day had been. Apparently Alexandra was working as a surveyor for the city, spent her days on the streets in a neon vest and hard hat, getting honked at and sworn at by angry cabbies.
“I went to school for aeronautical engineering,” Alexandra said. “I could make money going into private research, maybe even at a tech firm with a military contract, but - it’ll be a while before I can be around test craft and test pilots without burning with outrageous jealousy.” Alexandra bit into the donut. “Mmm. Delicious. A Berliner. I’d make a JFK joke but you’re probably too young to get it.”
Darcy helped her get coffee, because even though Alexandra was pretty dexterous with her prosthetic arm and hand, she was pretty good about asking for and accepting help - though she admitted it had taken her a long time to be willing to ask for help.
“Thanks, doll,” Alexandra said, because she talked like a hard-boiled detective from a noir film. “See you next week.”
Darcy waved and ducked out of the room. She stopped by Sam’s office to let him know people were arriving, and bade him good night, and headed for the nearest metro station. It was time to go home. She stopped by her favorite Korean BBQ place on the way, and then she carried her hot food up to the apartment.
Sharon, wearing her hospital uniform scrubs, was just unlocking her front door when Darcy got there.
“Mmmm. Smells good,” Sharon said. “How’s Sam?”
“He seemed all right,” Darcy said.
“All in one piece, last I heard.” Darcy reached out, pulled Sharon into a one-armed hug, and then went inside her apartment.
Yeah, she really wanted to get a cat.
So she went to get one. One day after classes when she didn’t have a shift at the VA Center, she looked up the nearest no-kill shelter, and she took the train out there. The volunteer working adoptions, a teenage girl named Odessa, took her into the back to look at all the cats.
“Show me your oldest, ugliest, and meanest,” Darcy said, because cats like those were far less likely to be adopted.
Odessa looked skeptical for a moment, but then she nodded and led Darcy past all the pretty calicos and witchy striped tabbies and the Halloween-y tortoiseshell cats to a cage in the far corner.
“This is Walter.”
Walter was massive, with long white fur, black tips to his tail, ears, and paws. He was missing one bright blue eye, and part of his left ear was gone. He had patches in his fur, not from disease but from scars. He’d been through war. Just like Steve. He glowered at Darcy.
“Walter. That’s a nice, austere name for an old guy. I’ll take him,” Darcy said.
Odessa went to unlock the cage. “Do you want to hold him first?”
“He’ll let me hold him when he wants,” Darcy said.
“All right.” Odessa lifted Walter out of the cage. He let her hold him readily enough.
Darcy paid the adoption fee and the fee for Walter’s shots. He’d been fixed ages ago by some responsible owner in the past. Odessa affixed Walter with a cheap collar and pet tag, which Darcy also paid for. It took some coaxing to get Walter into the cardboard cat carrier, but then Darcy left the shelter a proud pet owner. She looked up the nearest pet supply store.
She returned home poorer but laden down with a cat bed, cat toys, a scratching post, a litter box, litter, a litter scoop, food and water dishes, and lots of food. She let Walter out of his carrier to explore while she set up his items in a corner of the den. He prowled around the furniture, sniffing. For a moment she was nervous that he’d start marking things, but thankfully he used his litter box.
Once he’d made an inspection of the entire apartment - Darcy following along behind him - he plopped down on his cat bed for a nap.
Darcy snapped a picture of him and sent it to Steve.
We have a new addition to the family! His name is Walter.
There was no response. Who knew what Steve was doing. That was all right. Darcy sent along, I love you. Going to bed. Miss you.
And then she crawled into bed.
She was startled, in the middle of the night, when someone sat on the bed beside her.
It was Walter.
He curled up beside her pillow.
She suspected Steve wouldn’t like the cat sleeping in their bed, but - she was lonely.
So she petted Walter very tentatively with one hand - his fur was tangled and she should take him to the groomer - and fell asleep.
Darcy woke the next morning to Steve’s voice.
“Darcy? Darcy! There’s a stray cat in our apartment, and...and I think he answered your phone.”
Darcy floundered upright and saw Walter sitting on the nightstand, washing his paws. Her phone was on. She hadn’t even heard it buzz.
She scooped it up, peered blearily at Steve’s image to see if he was okay. He opened the link between them, and she felt his concern - and that he was fine.
“What? Hey, handsome.” She smiled at him. “And no, that’s not a stray. That’s Walter. I adopted him from the shelter. He’s ours now. Well, knowing cats, we’re his now.”
“Oh.” Steve looked thoughtful. “We never had pets, but I used to feed strays sometimes, if we had scraps.”
If we had scraps.
Of course. He’d grown up in the Great Depression.
...Had they eaten dogs and cats out of desperation back then? That seemed like a kind of rude thing to ask.
“You take in strays, don’t you?” Steve gazed at her. “First Jane and Erik and Thor and now me.”
Darcy sat up straighter. “I wouldn’t call you a stray.”
Steve shook his head. “No. Just - you have a good heart, Darcy. I’m glad Walter will be there to keep you company.”
“He’s been pretty good company so far. We’ll see how long that lasts.” Darcy gazed at Steve, trying to memorize the lines of his face. She was no artist, but she thought, if she had to, she could recreate him, hold the image of him forever.
Not that she’d ever lose him, not like that. Captain America was easy to find - on the Internet, in history books.
Steve Rogers was much harder to find, though. Him in the white t-shirt and shorts he wore beneath his uniform, sipping coffee, smiling softly at her.
“How is your day looking?”
“Less action-packed and classified, that’s for sure.” Darcy hauled herself out of bed and made it quickly. She was capable of doing a lot of things one-handed for the sake of video chatting with Steve at the same time. “Classes. Studying. Writing. Volunteering.”
“It’s about time for you to go running with Sharon, isn’t it?”
Steve gazed into the camera. “I love you, Darcy Lewis.”
“Love you too, Mr. Darcy Lewis.” She winked and blew a kiss.
He blew a kiss back, blushing all the while, and then the call ended. He didn’t shut down the connection, though. Darcy felt his warmth all through her morning run, during which she told Sharon about Walter, and all through washing up and having breakfast and her first lecture.
She was on her way to her second lecture when she heard someone say,
“Look, it’s Captain America. He rescued that little girl from a burning building.”
Darcy froze in her tracks. Another student was holding out her phone, and several of her friends were clustered around her, peering at the small screen.
Darcy abandoned all decorum and shouldered her way into the group.
Sure enough, there on the screen was her husband, his face smeared with ash beneath his mask. He had a child tucked under one arm and was scanning the crowd that had gathered beneath a burnt-out apartment building that still had flames pouring from the topmost windows.
“Hey,” someone protested, but Darcy didn’t care.
“They’re in some Eastern European country I’ve never heard of,” the girl holding the phone said. She was kind enough to angle it toward Darcy. “Apparently there was an old Hydra base there and some unexploded ordnance was left around, plus maybe some dangerous chemicals? They haven’t released a lot of details.”
Darcy wanted to check her phone, but of course Steve wouldn’t answer, because he was working. She couldn’t track his location on his phone either, for security purposes, so people couldn’t find him - and so if he was captured by enemy forces they couldn’t find her. How no one had discovered her identity by going to the vital records office in New York and checking the wedding registry she didn’t know, but she was grateful.
“He’s so hot,” one of the girls said, sighing dreamily. “Even all dirty like that. He’s probably fantastic in bed.”
Darcy was startled, but - of course. Steve was kind of a celebrity. People speculated about celebrities like that. She’d done it before.
She stepped back. “Sorry for barging in on you like that.”
“No, I totally get it,” the girl with the phone said. “If you want all the breaking news about Cap, you should set your phone to send you Google alerts whenever he’s in the news. I’m still bummed we never got to see him in his wedding photos. I bet he was hot in his tux.”
“I’m sure he was,” Darcy said faintly.
Google alerts. She knew how to do that. Why hadn’t she ever thought to do that? It would be useful for her senior thesis.
But she’d never done that because she wasn’t married to Captain America. She was married to Steve Rogers, and when he was home, he was -
She headed for her next lecture and picked a seat in the far back, shoved back her sleeve and pushed her wristband aside. Looked at her two soulmarks, one struck-through Cyrillic, the other Steve’s beautiful old-fashioned cursive.
Steve’s mark was intact, the letters bright and clear.
With shaking hands, Darcy set a Google alert on her phone so she’d get breaking news about her husband. She wondered if that would make her worry more.
The answer was yes.
She fretted all through the rest of the school day, and then she ran home to check on Walter and see how he was doing.
He was doing fine, was curled up in his cat bed and napping happily when she opened the door to her apartment. Which was a disaster. He’d shredded the throw pillows on the couch, he’d knocked things off the shelves, chewed on a couple of books.
Darcy didn’t even dare go into the bedroom.
Except she had to.
She spun on her heel and went to yell at Walter, but - it was pointless. Yelling would scare him. Who knew how long ago he’d wreaked havoc like that. Even if she did think up some kind of appropriate non-scary punishment, he wouldn’t understand it.
She sighed, rolled up her sleeves, and set about cleaning up. Luckily he hadn’t destroyed anything that wasn’t replaceable, and he hadn’t abandoned use of his litter box, so she counted her blessings.
She cracked open the window beside the fire escape so he could get in and out if he wanted.
And then she headed off to the VA for her volunteer shift.
While she was on the train, she skimmed through all the articles about Steve and what SHIELD was doing in some obscure Eastern European country that had only come into existence after the Berlin Wall came down. All the stories said the same thing, which was what the other girl on campus had told her.
“You seem stressed out, doll,” Alexandra said while she served herself coffee.
“I’m worried about my husband,” Darcy admitted. “He’s - out on deployment.”
Alexandra nodded. “Yeah, that’s rough. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. When my man and I were deployed at the same time it was hard, but it was - different. Being back here alone is vexing, to say the least. But at least I know how skilled he is and what he really faces.”
“Also I got a cat from the shelter and he destroyed my apartment. I thought it might be because he’s bored so I cracked a window so he can get in and out, but now I’m worried about people breaking into the apartment,” Darcy said.
Alexandra served herself a cup of coffee and a donut, and then she poured a cup of coffee for Darcy. “You should get one of those cat doors installed.”
“Not sure how the landlord will feel about that.”
“Good point. Maybe get one of those fancy pet cams. That way you can check on your cat while you’re out of the house and also monitor activity in the house. I think they have ones that allow you to talk to your pet and maybe even play with them with a laser pointer and give them treats or whatnot. I hear it’s a real jive time for your pet.” Alexandra smiled and sipped her coffee.
Darcy said, “You’re a genius. Has anyone told you that?”
Alexandra laughed. “No.”
“Are the cameras expensive? No, it doesn’t matter. Cost is no object.” Darcy started poking on her phone to see about ordering one.
Alexandra laughed again. “Doll, I got kidnapped and tortured and had my arm cut off, and you seem far more discombobulated than me. Give me your number, and after I get done shooting the breeze with Sam and the boys, we should go get a drink, just us ladies. Unwind.”
Darcy’s eyes went wide. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean -”
“It’s fine,” Alexandra said. “Really. It’s terrible, but it feels good, to feel better than someone else for once.”
“No, I get that.” Darcy smiled at Alexandra. “Drinks sound awesome.” She wrote her number on a napkin and handed it to Alexandra. “Call me, and we should go out for drinks.”
“Swell. Bring a friend, if you like. If I can round up any, I will too. Make a real ladies’ night of it.”
Darcy nodded. “Thanks. That - that would be awesome.”
It was awesome. Darcy rounded up Sharon, and Alexandra rounded up her friends Laura and Cammie, and all five of them went out to a piano bar. They had drinks, they requested songs, they sang along, and they had a grand old time. Afterward, Darcy definitely felt better. Between the installation of a pet camera so she could keep an eye on Walter, fun times out with the girls, keeping up with her fitness routine, and buckling down to work on school, Darcy was definitely feeling better.
It was kind of embarrassing, but checking on Walter between lectures wasn’t just about making sure he wasn’t destroying the apartment - it was about seeing him being all cute and fluffy (or lazy and sleepy, which was more likely) and knowing he was waiting for her. She talked to Steve every day, sometimes even twice a day if she was lucky, but she was never guaranteed about when the conversations could take place, or where, or for how long, what with him being in different time zones and both of them being pulled in so many directions at once.
Darcy was so absorbed in texting with the ladies about their next night out (their group text on her phone was called Bombshells) and checking on Walter that she wasn’t watching where she was going and she walked straight into someone.
“Oh no! I’m so, so sorry.” Darcy backpedaled, lifted her head, horrified, because what if she’d sent some poor vet into a PTSD tailspin?
“Something on your mind, ma’am?”
Darcy gazed up at the man opposite her - and it was Steve. He was standing over her, grinning.
She launched herself into his arms. “You’re back! When did you get back? Did you stop by the apartment? I didn’t see -”
“I came straight here,” he said, and then he kissed her.
She kissed him deeply, and he opened the connection between them, and she was flooded with warmth and light.
“Hey, Darcy, you’ll never guess who offered to be a guest speaker at tonight’s group,” Sam said.
Darcy pulled back.
Sam blinked at her, eyes wide. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt - hang on.” He looked at Steve. “You know Darcy.”
“She’s my wife,” Steve said.
Sam’s eyes went even wider. “Oh. I heard you got married, but -”
“But we’ve been keeping it quiet,” Darcy said. “We like our privacy.”
“Of course.” Sam nodded vigorously.
Darcy smiled up at Steve. “So, you’re finally going along to Sam’s group.”
“You finally convinced me,” he said.
“I’m glad she did.” Sam clapped Steve on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you two to your reunion. See you in a bit?”
Darcy nodded, and then she reached out, slipped her hand into Steve’s. When he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and an ordinary dark blue jacket and baseball cap, he looked like an ordinary man, could have been any veteran who’d come by the center for help or to offer support to others.
“I’ve missed you,” Steve said.
“I’ve missed you too.” Darcy kissed him again. “Now c’mon. You can help me set up the chairs and lay out the donuts and brew the coffee.”
“Military coffee is something special.” Steve followed her to the group room.
“I promise you it’s better than what you had when you were in,” Darcy said. She showed him how to arrange the chairs in a circle, and together they fixed up the snack table.
Alexandra arrived. “Hey, doll, you never did respond to my last text. When are we going out next?”
“My husband got back in town ahead of schedule, so things are a bit up in the air right now,” Darcy said.
Alexandra smiled at her. “Good for you! The ladies and I totally understand.” Then she turned to Steve. “Haven’t seen you before.” She offered her hand. “Major Alexandra Lorne, United States Air Force, retired. Welcome. Your first time?”
“Yes.” Steve shook her hand. “Captain Steven Rogers, United States Army, also retired.”
Darcy helped Alexandra juggle her coffee and donut.
“Sit next to me, new guy,” Alexandra said. “So, how long were you in for?”
Steve did sit down beside her, his coffee in hand. “Just a couple of years. You?”
“Almost made it to my twenty before everything went sideways.” Alexandra lifted her prosthetic arm. “Where are you from originally?”
“New York. Fine city. I’m from San Francisco myself. My mother teaches art at Berkeley. I used to paint.” Alexandra’s smile dimmed, and she stared down at her prosthetic arm.
“I used to draw, too,” Steve said. “Always wanted to be a comic book artist. Was in art school before I joined up.”
“Yeah? You any good?”
Steve shrugged, blushing. “Some people thought so.”
Alexandra sipped her coffee. “So, where did you serve?”
“Germany, mostly. Europe in general.”
Alexandra’s brow furrowed. “Wait, what?”
Darcy leaned in, kissed him on the cheek. “I gotta go, shred paper and things. Come find me after group, all right? Sam will know where I am. We can go get dinner, you and me and Sam and Sharon.”
Steve nodded, squeezed her hand.
“Wait, what?” Alexandra said again. “Steven’s your husband?”
“You can call me Steve,” he said. “Darcy’s told me a lot about you. She says you have great taste in music. I’m glad she’s making friends here.”
Alexandra blinked at him. “Well. Swell.” She cast Darcy a look. “Welcome to our friendly little knitting circle. Have a seat. Have a donut and some coffee.”
Steve inclined his head politely.
Darcy fluttered her fingers in farewell and ducked out of the group room, headed for one of the archives. She fired up her phone - some Postmodern Jukebox - and set about shredding and dancing. Tonight was going to be a good night.
Darcy finished shredding some archived files and, right when group ended, hovered outside the door, waiting for it to open. When it finally did swing open, one man pushed past her, walking very quickly, shoulders hunched, hands jammed into his pockets, head bowed. He had his baseball cap jammed low and looked very upset. Darcy gave him a wide berth, sympathy tugging in her chest.
The rest of the group participants filed out at a more sedate pace, shaking hands with Sam - and some of them with Steve.
“Hey,” Sharon said, coming up behind Darcy and nudging her gently. “I hear your man’s back.”
Darcy smiled up at her. “Yeah. He surprised me.”
“Sounds like he surprised a whole bunch of other people as well,” Sharon said.
Finally the last person - a chatty little former Army sniper - departed, and Steve retreated back into the group room to help clean up the chairs. Darcy went to help him clean up the empty donut boxes, crumpled napkins, and unused coffee cups.
Sam kissed Sharon hello. “Glad to see you. Want to go out to dinner with Darcy and her husband?”
“Sure,” Sharon said, and added, “Hi, Steve.”
He smiled at her. “Good to see you, Sharon.”
Sam cast her a betrayed look. “You know him?”
“Remember,” Sharon said, “Darcy is my neighbor. As is her husband Steve.”
“Right,” Sam said, still looking a little dazed.
Steve slung an arm across Darcy’s shoulder and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “What do you feel like eating? I’ve heard there’s a good shawarma place around here.”
Having Steve back for what was apparently an extended period of time was the best, hands down. For all that Walter seemed to only tolerate Darcy’s presence at best, allow her to comb his fur and clean his litter box and serve him food and water, he adored Steve. When Steve stepped in the front door after dinner with Sam and Sharon, Walter was there to greet him, winding around his ankles and purring happily. Steve knelt to say hello, pet his fur and let Walter smell him some more, and from there on out, Walter was attached to Steve, rode around on his shoulders everywhere he went, curled up on the bed beside him, sat at his feet while Steve and Darcy had meals.
Walter protested mightily when Steve insisted that Walter sleep on his own cat bed and not on the people bed, but Steve closed the door firmly and then crawled into bed beside Darcy.
She drew him into a kiss and smiled. “Good plan.”
“He’s a good pet, but - no. Not in here. Not for this.” And Steve kissed her deeply, slid his hands up her shirt.
Darcy smiled against his mouth and arched into his touch, and everything was all right.
It was a solemn occasion, when he took her to meet Peggy Carter in her rest home. They rode on Steve’s motorcycle, and he brought flowers because he was a gentleman. Usually when he went to see Peggy he went alone, because she liked to talk about Bucky, and sometimes she talked about Bucky like he was still alive, and that was hard for him, but according to Peggy’s nurses she’d been more lucid recently, and Steve wanted her to really meet Darcy.
Darcy hovered in the doorway. She’d dressed up nice in one of her Bettie Page dresses and pulled up her hair, but she was nervous. Everything she’d ever heard about Peggy Carter was that she was a superhero in her own right, was a lady James Bond and Marie Curie all in one, had paved the way for Black Widow and other lady spies and fighters. The woman lying in the bed looked like an ordinary grandma, frail, with white hair and wrinkled skin.
She lit up when she saw Steve, pushed herself up.
“Hello, Peggy.” He handed her the flowers.
She accepted them with a smile, held them close and inhaled their scent. “Thank you, Steve. So lovely to see you again.”
She had a classy James Bond English accent, too.
Darcy slid in behind Steve. “Would you like me to put those in a vase?”
Peggy Carter smiled at her, and Darcy saw that her eyes were bright, fiercely intelligent. Something about her glowed. “Yes, thank you, dear.”
“Peggy,” Steve said, “this is Darcy, my wife and second soulmate.”
Peggy clasped Darcy’s hand in hers. “Lovely to meet you, darling. I’m so glad you and Steve found each other. He deserves all the happiness in the world.”
“Thank you. Steve has told me wonderful things about you.” Darcy set the flowers in an empty vase on the nightstand - someone else brought Peggy flowers on the regular and she had several vases - and then tentatively perched on the edge of the bed beside Steve.
“Steve, when did you get married?”
“It’s - new,” Steve said, and Peggy’s gaze darkened.
“Ah. You’ve told me before.”
“You haven’t met me before,” Darcy offered.
“Well, tell me all about yourself? You must be something special, because I cannot remember the last time I saw Steve smile like this.” Peggy winked at her. That she could make jokes about her own memory loss was unexpected, but then she’d survived multiple wars and the Cold War and all kinds of peril Darcy couldn’t even imagine (and she was married to a superhero).
“She tased a god,” Steve said.
Peggy’s eyebrows went up. “That’s one I’ve never heard before. Do tell.”
So Darcy did, talking about her time with Jane and Erik and Thor, and her time in London while Steve was courting her. She showed Peggy their wedding photos, and Peggy’s eyes filled with tears.
“Has Steve ever showed you his wedding pictures from his marriage to Bucky?”
“Pretty sure no one has those anymore,” Steve said.
“You always look dashing in a nice suit,” Peggy said, patting his hand. She smiled at Darcy. “I’m so glad Steve has you. You’re a wonderful young lady. And so lucky to have found your soulmate!”
“I’m her second soulmate too,” Steve said. “She also lost her first.”
Peggy squeezed Darcy’s hand. “It was kismet, then. So good for you to have Steve being supportive while you’re in school - and good for him to have support while he’s working for SHIELD. It’s not an easy path to walk.”
Steve’s expression sobered. “You left SHIELD in good hands with Fury, Peg.”
“Did I?” Peggy’s gaze went distant, and she looked away, and they sat in comfortable silence.
Peggy’s eyes started to drift closed, and Steve caught Darcy’s eye. She nodded, and they both eased off of the bed. Darcy went to disentangle her hand from Peggy’s.
Peggy’s eyes fluttered open. “Hello?”
“Sorry,” Darcy said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Peggy glanced at the window. “It’s the middle of the day. I’m sure I’ve slept enough. Are you a candy striper or volunteer?”
Steve’s expression went tight.
Darcy flashed Peggy a brief smile. “We brought you some flowers.” She pointed to the bouquet Steve had brought.
Peggy looked at the flowers, smiled, but her expression was vacant. “Thank you very much, dear. Young people are so kind these days.”
“We didn’t mean to disturb you, ma’am,” Steve said. “Good day.”
“So well-mannered, too,” Peggy said. “Unusual in your generation.”’
Steve’s grip on Darcy’s hand was tight. “Thank you, ma’am. Let’s go, Darcy.”
They headed outside, past the nurses’ desk, and Steve stood beside his motorcycle, shoulders tight, forcing himself to take deep breaths.
“I’m losing her,” he said. “The one person who remembers what it was like back then. The one person who remembers - us.” Him and Bucky.
“Do you think you could find your old wedding photos?” Darcy asked.
Steve sighed, shook his head. “I don’t know. I left pretty much everything behind when I enlisted, and I don’t know what happened to it after I hit the ice. Most of it was thrown away. Anything that survived probably ended up in that embarrassing display at the Smithsonian.”
“Do you want to go to the Smithsonian and see, maybe?” Darcy asked. “If they kept a book or something that has the photos stashed in it.”
Steve glanced at her. “Have you ever been, seen the display?”
She shook her head. Even though she’d learned about Captain America and the Howling Commandos in high school history and was writing about super-powered people for her senior thesis, going to the museum display always seemed invasive. If she wanted to know about Steve and his experiences during the Great Depression and the War, she’d ask him.
“Let’s go,” Steve said, and he was smiling again, if faintly. “I can give you an extra-special tour.”
He climbed onto his motorcycle, and Darcy climbed on behind him, put on her helmet (he didn’t wear one, and were he anyone else she’d have kicked up a fuss), locked her arms around his waist, and they roared away from the nursing home.
They ended up parking Steve’s bike back at the apartment and taking public transit to the museum, because trying to park around there was just a disaster and a half. They went to the American History Museum. They started in the WWI section, because that was where Steve’s father had fought and died. Steve talked about being a small child, hearing the radio updates, seeing the colored stars in people’s windows, the blue ones traded for gold as men passed away. He remembered his mother crying as she changed the star for his father.
He remembered the Great Depression, how the world seemed like it turned gray, how he was hungry and cold all the time except the height of summer, and then he was hot and sweating and miserable. He remembered the first time he met Bucky, and how he suddenly had someone who’d talk to him, listen to him, admire his drawings, offer honest criticism. No matter how cold or how hungry or how miserable or sick Steve was, everything was better when Bucky was there, walking to school beside him (hard wooden desks with affixed chairs, chalk on slate, heavy linen-based paper and scratchy pencils), sitting with him on the fire escape and listening to the city traffic, curled up in bed beside him to keep him warm and safe.
He remembered sitting beside the radio and listening to the announcement about Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war. And he remembered the first time he saw Bucky in that uniform.
In the Captain America display, there were pictures of the apartment he’d grown up in, the fire escape where he and Bucky had sat and sketched and read and listened to the wireless. Steve pointed to the edges of the photos, to where the streets led beyond the margins of the pictures to his and Bucky’s favorite deli, run by a cheery Italian man who’d give them scraps, and the drug store on the other side of the street where they could get penny candies and, if they saved and pooled their coins, a drink from the soda fountain.
Steve closed his eyes and described the smells and sounds of the city, the car exhaust and the smells from the bakery a block over that made his mouth water and his stomach rumble.
The Captain America display was separated into two parts: Steve Rogers, sickly boy to dreamy artistic teenager with a bit of a vigilante streak to a skinny army medic; and Captain America, fresh out of the super-serum machine, in his uniform, in newsreels. The photos from before were rare, Steve usually hiding behind Bucky. The photos from after were plentiful, usually artificially posed or artful candids.
There was a whole display on the Howling Commandos, and Steve told Darcy anecdotes about fighting alongside them, bunking with them, how Gabe told the best jokes, Dernier was a lousy cook but always wanted to cook, how Dugan had a great singing voice but Falsworth played the piano. There was a special section of the display dedicated to Bucky. Darcy had heard so many things about Bucky, mostly from Steve, but she’d never really looked at pictures of him like this - his old service photo, archival photos of the Howling Commandos.
The entire time, Steve held her hand, kept his baseball cap tipped low and his voice even lower.
“It’s okay to miss him,” she said softly.
Steve squeezed her hand.
They stood and gazed silently at the James Buchanan Barnes display for a long time. There were scraps of Steve’s old sketchbook, of the comics and other things he’d drawn over the years, but no pictures of his and Bucky’s reciprocal soulmarks, no pictures of their wedding day - and no pictures of his and Darcy’s wedding day either, even though there was a section of display about post-Awakening Captain America, how he was one of the Avengers now, worked for SHIELD.
The man in the shiny new uniform with the shiny new shield was a stranger. Darcy gazed at the old black-and-white photos of Steve, skinny and shy and awkward in his Army uniform, medic patch on one sleeve, and knew he was the man she was holding hands with, however much his body had changed.
Darcy saw the small details of Steve’s life, like his pre-serum uniform, the box of his favorite art pencils, and even the USO script that had been affixed to the back of his shield for performances. He showed her Bucky’s dress uniform, and the comb he always carried so he looked presentable.
Steve went still when they found his mother’s wedding ring.
“That’s labeled wrong,” he said softly, expression sorrowful.
“How so?” Darcy peered at it. It was a slender gold band, delicate, neither masculine nor feminine but mostly likely affordable for the era in which it was produced.
“That was mine. From before the serum. Bucky didn’t know about the treatment and after, we didn’t have the money or time to get the ring resized, so I wore it on a chain around my neck.” Steve pressed a hand to his chest.
Darcy had seen veterans in group make the same gesture many times, reaching for their hidden - or missing - dog tags.
He looked down at his ring, the bigger, more masculine titanium affair Darcy had gotten for him, because vibranium was out of her price range.
“One day,” Darcy said, “you can ask for it back.”
They stood looking at the ring for a long, long time.
Since Steve was technically on stand down, he didn’t have anywhere specific he needed to be during the day, but he didn’t like lazing around the apartment. Walter protested mightily when his human pillow and heater refused to stay still for very long, but Steve offered to take over domestic chores like grocery shopping, so he’d accompany Darcy to campus, recyclable shopping bags in hand, walk her to her first class, find a nearby grocery store (he liked to buy fresh every day), then meet her after her last class and accompany her to the VA where he schlepped chairs for groups while Darcy did other administrative chores.
It was domestic and bizarre all at once, but Darcy loved it anyway. She showed Steve how to check the pet cam on his phone, so he could also check on Walter while he was out and about.
She almost laughed out loud in the middle of a lecture when she got a Google News alert on her phone. Apparently someone had spotted Captain America taking the train like an ordinary citizen and he, like everyone else, watched silly cat videos on his phone. There was a clip of him gazing intently at his phone, expression soft and fond, his lips moving as he spoke to Walter, because Darcy had showed him the microphone feature. She hadn’t showed him the laser and treat functions yet, because she could just envision an enthralled Steve missing his train stop while he played long-distance laser tag with their cat.
Of course, he’d prefer to play the game at home, in person.
They were on their way to class one morning when a very fancy sports car pulled up to the curb beside them and the passenger window slid down.
A beautiful redheaded woman arched an eyebrow at them and said, “Can you give me directions to the Smithsonian? I need to pick up a fossil.”
It was Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow.
Steve sighed patiently. “Very funny.”
“Hop in,” Natasha said. “Fury’s waiting for us.”
“Must be an emergency if he’s calling us in while I’m on stand-down,” Steve said.
Natasha shrugged. “No rest for the wicked. Hey, Darcy.”
“Hey, Natasha.” Darcy offered a small wave.
She’d met Natasha in the aftermath of the Incident in New York, at the Avengers Tower, but they weren’t precisely friends.
“Sorry. Gotta steal your husband away.”
“Send him back in one piece,” Darcy said. She leaned up, pressed a quick kiss to Steve’s mouth. “Go. I have to get to a lecture. Call me when you can, all right?”
Steve nodded, kissed her back, slid into the car. Darcy forced herself to wave once, then turn and head for her lecture hall. She felt their bond go fuzzy and numb as Steve closed it down, and she paused, pressed a hand to her breastbone, then carried on.
The beautiful thing about a soulmate bond was that it kept people in contact with their loved ones over long distances. Of course, modern technology allowed for the same thing, so Darcy did her best to distract herself from sulking about SHIELD interrupting her time with her soulmate by reaching out to her other friends who were far away. She sent Miko a link to a music video from a new Kpop band she liked, bonus because the music video was also a very short sci-fi movie. She sent Radek an email begging for his sister’s kolache recipe again, because it was an ongoing joke between them. She sent an email to McKay, asking how things in the lab were going. That way she was guaranteed to get both the most pessimistic and most optimistic assessments of research progress and lab morale and could draw her own (more accurate) conclusions from there. By some kind of kismet, the team had been scooped up and reassembled in a lab in Nevada, where they were doing cutting-edge wormhole technology research for the USAF (and beyond that was classified). Erik was back to working full-time, but he was on vacation from the project in his homeland. Between classes, Darcy sent him a little video message, asking how it was going and for him to share pictures of the fjords and saunas and ice palaces and reindeer - and elfstones and useless random royalty if he saw them.
She also checked on Walter between classes. He was very attached to Steve, and who knew how he’d handle the man’s abrupt departure? Walter was a rescue kitty, and he probably had abandonment issues. Darcy had sympathy for him, and she also started considering all the things around the apartment she’d have to hide so Walter didn’t destroy them as an expression of his kitty abandonment issues.
All through the day, Darcy checked on the bond, but it remained in what she thought of as Mission Mode, numb to emotions but buzzing just enough that she knew Steve was alive.
She texted Sharon, asked what her plans were for the evening, and she had none, not even with Sam, who was at some kind of counselors’ training conference for a couple of days, so she also texted Alexandra, who had no plans either, and after lectures got out they met up for an early supper and then went to a movie.
When Darcy got home that evening, her apartment was intact, but Walter was curled up on Steve’s pillow in a tight ball, fairly radiating misery.
“I know, buddy,” Darcy said, petting his back tentatively. He didn’t even acknowledge her. “I miss him too. But that’s okay. He’ll come home. I know he will.”
She resisted the urge to peek at her soulmark, because she knew her soulmate was all right, but it felt like the thing was itching. No. She was imagining things. Steve was fine. If she closed her eyes and lay flat and relaxed her body and breathed deeply, she could feel the bond more clearly. Steve was still alive. He was fine.
Eventually, Walter slid closer to her, pressed right up in the hollow of her hip, and they both fell asleep.
The next day, Darcy woke, went running with Sharon, and then she headed off to campus for lecture. She had arranged her schedule so the majority of her classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she had short days the other three days of the week and could maximize her independent study time before she headed off to the VA Center. She didn’t get out of class till five on her late days, but she was done by two on her short days. She’d checked on Walter throughout the day, and he hadn’t destroyed anything. She’d put up the things she was most sentimental about, like certain items of clothing or mementos, but he was just moping anyway, either sunning himself on the windowsill or curled up on Steve’s pillow. She figured if she wanted to take herself out for some fun times, maybe go down to that little record store she’d found, pick up some vinyls, either ones off of Steve’s recommended listening list for her or some new ones (because they were making new ones now).
She headed for the campus bus stop that would take her to the train station, hands firmly on the strap of her satchel. Her plan was solid. Music and some special take-out and then home, where she could read, maybe reread her favorite Daniel Jackson book, or -
The familiar rumble of a motorcycle engine made her pause, turn. She knew what Steve’s motorcycle sounded like, but he wasn’t the only person in the world with that kind of motorcycle, so it was silly to get her hopes up. Only she recognized his black jacket and the baseball cap he wore when he wanted to be inconspicuous.
He pulled up beside her, and their bond flared to full strength.
She ran to him. “Hey! You’re back! That was fast. How did it go? I mean, you’re home, so -”
He pulled her into a hug and held her tightly, and she felt his worry through the bond, his anxiety and stress.
“Let’s go home.”
“Good idea. Walter misses you.” Darcy lifted the seat to get her helmet out of the storage compartment beneath (it had a star on it, like the one on Steve’s shield, because he had a strange sense of humor sometimes), strapped it on, and then climbed onto the bike behind Steve.
They roared off toward home.
When they went to unlock the front door, they could hear Walter mewling sadly inside.
“Hey buddy,” Steve said. “I’m home now.”
Darcy got the door open, and Walter launched himself into Steve’s arms. Steve cuddled him close, sank down on the couch. Darcy put up her bookbag, plugged in her laptop and phone to charge, then sank down on the couch beside him.
“I know you can’t tell me the details of the mission, but - are you all right?”
Steve sighed, and she felt frustration and confusion through the bond. “Yes. No. I don’t know.”
Darcy put a hand on his arm. “You know you don’t have to keep fighting for SHIELD, right? You don’t have to keep fighting at all. You want to be a comic book artist? You went to school, right? Maybe get some training on the new digital software and - and write and illustrate your own story, whatever it is.”
“Wasn’t that always your goal, after the war?”
“Yeah, but - that was Before.” Before he was Captain America.
“So? You’re still Steve Rogers. What makes you happy?”
“You,” he said, and it wasn’t a line, it was just the first thing he thought of when it came to happiness, and Darcy let him feel her surge of love and affection.
He smiled, kissed her cheek.
“You make me happy, too. Unfortunately, sitting around the apartment being in love with me won’t keep you busy during the day, and I know you’re the kind of guy who can’t be lazy.”
He nodded. “For the longest time I just wanted to do what was right. Guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.”
Darcy shook her head. “I’m sure it’s not. I don’t know what it was like back then. But you’re not the only person. No one knows what’s right anymore. I think because - because what’s right for one person isn’t right for everyone.”
“Some things are always right, like freedom. That’s why I fought for it, was willing to die for it.” Steve sat up straighter.
Walter looked at Steve, then at Darcy, and wriggled out of Steve’s arms, headed for the windowsill to sun himself some more.
“But what does it mean, to be free? Free from bigotry and hatred? Government censorship? Violence and war and fear? Can we be free from all of those things at once?”
Steve nodded. “We can be free from bigotry and hatred, but that’s not something the government can do for us. That’s something we have to learn for ourselves, teach each other. Same with fear and violence. Censorship and war - those are things we can and should be free from.” He sighed, shook his head. “I was always better at being hungry than being happy.”
Hunger had been a way of life for him, pretty much all of his life, even before the Great Depression, because he’d been sickly and raised by a single mother. He’d also had his soulmate with him most of his life, though.
“As a skinny medic looking to, I don’t know, sock it to a few Nazis, I was just a soldier. And then I learned about Hydra and SHIELD and it’s all so much bigger. The stakes are so much higher. Taking orders can be irritating, but in a lot of ways it’s easier, because for the most part you don’t have to think, just do, but now - now I have too much to think about.” Steve looked at her. “I’ve seen the books you read, the drafts of your papers. You think so much all the time. How does your head not explode?”
Darcy shrugged. “Thinking about things, about people, is what I like to do.”
Steve said, “I like to draw.”
“So draw. Hang up your shield and become an artist. Win a Nobel Prize for literature or - what awards do they give out for comics, anyway?”
Steve looked at her. “They give out awards for comics?”
Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I just don’t know what they’re called.”
“When I was a kid, comics were cheap thrills, kid stuff.”
“That’s why you loved them.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah. Turns out being a superhero isn’t what it’s like in comics.”
“So you admit you’re a superhero?”
“Well, a supersoldier. Not a hero. Just a man. A man who doesn’t know what’s right anymore.”
Darcy looked at him. “Well, maybe the right thing for you to do is start over. Stop being a soldier. Just be Steve Rogers.”
“I can never just be Steve Rogers.”
“You could be Steve Lewis.”
He looked at her. “That’s actually got a nice ring to it. How about we go get some food and think about it some more?”
“Steve Lewis? Really?”
“Why not?” Steve stood, offered her a hand.
“You could be Steve Barnes, you know.” Darcy accepted his hand, let him pull her to her feet.
Steve went to pet Walter, and then Darcy grabbed her wallet and keys and phone, and together they headed out the door.
They decided on sushi, which Steve really liked, and he regretted not having tried it earlier. They took the train to their favorite sushi place, walked hand-in-hand. Steve was always embarrassed about how much he ordered, but even he admitted that his maintenance calories were off the charts compared to non-super soldiers. Because they were eating a little earlier in the day than most people had dinner, they found a table in the back where they could spread out.
Steve really liked the sodas with the marble stoppers, so Darcy always bought them some with dinner.
She was about to steal a piece of Steve’s lemon sushi when a woman said,“Hey Darcy, weigh in on this.”
She turned and saw, at the table beside hers, three women from her senior thesis class.
“Gabby,” Tara scolded, swatting her on the arm. “Can’t you see Darcy’s on a date?” She looked Steve up and down appreciatively.
He smiled tightly.
“Hi, Darcy’s date,” Gabby said, entirely unapologetic. “We’re having a debate. What is the definition of freedom?”
Darcy tapped her chopsticks against her dish absently. “You know, my husband and I were just talking about this. I have always grown up with the sense that freedom is being free from things like hatred and fear and government control, but he grew up different, so he has a bit of a different sense.”
“You’re married?” Chelsea asked.
Darcy held up her left hand, showed off her ring.
“Not salient to the discussion at hand,” Gabby said. “What are the minimum things people should be free from, to be living in a free society?”
“I think people should be free to think and act as they please, short of harming others,” Darcy said.
“The question, of course, is what constitutes harm?” Gabby pressed. “Just physical harm, or emotional harm as well? Studies show that kids who are emotionally abused fare worse in the long run than kid who are physically abused.”
Tara shook her head. “The Constitution doesn’t protect us from hurt feelings. People are free to say what they want. People are free to ignore what other people say. The government shouldn’t be telling me what I can and can’t say. Someone somewhere is going to find it offensive.”
“Racism is always wrong,” Chelsea said.
Darcy said, “Is the soldier just back from Afghanistan who gets jumpy and tense whenever someone speaks to him in Pashto racist?”
“Yes, because that the person back home wasn’t the person he was fighting against,” Chelsea said.
“As long as the soldier doesn’t punch the Pashto-speaking guy in the face, he can think what he wants,” Tara said.
It was Steve who said, “The truth about freedom is that it has a price: consequences. We are free to do what we choose, but we aren’t free from the consequences of what we - or others - choose. Being free isn’t the same as being happy. When we were kids, our parents told us what to do, but we also had no responsibility. Now we’re the adults, and we have more responsibility - and also more freedom. Freedom also has a price: the lives of those who fight to defend it.”
“Peace isn’t peace if it costs lives,” Chelsea insisted.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “I thought we were talking about freedom.”
Gabby eyed him. “You a soldier?”
“Then your opinion is biased,” Chelsea said.
Tara rolled her eyes. “Everyone’s opinion is biased.”
“If you have enough facts -”
“Facts are open to interpretation,” Steve said. “If you met Hitler back during The Great War, when he was still a foot soldier, and knew what he’d become, would you take the chance to change history, kill him then?”
“If not Hitler, then someone else would have risen in his place, and we’d have had a second world war anyway,” Tara said.
“What about now? If you could look at a man and know he was going to commit a hate crime or a terrorist act, would you incarcerate him, kill him before he had the chance?” Steve pressed.
There was an undercurrent to his tone - and a tension across the bond - that made Darcy very nervous.
“Because that’s the price of peace, but I wouldn’t call it freedom.”
“Maybe not for the people who are going to commit the crimes, but yes for the rest of us,” Chelsea said.
Gabby shook her head. “But there’s no way of knowing that. Unless some new super-powered freak shows up who can see the future, we can’t know that, so that’ll never happen.”
Darcy snapped, “Don’t call them freaks. They’re people too.”
Steve said, “Hitler used to think Jews were freaks. Gay people, too.”
Chelsea rolled her eyes. “And you’re breaking out the Hitler straw-man.”
Tara’s phone buzzed. She checked it - a news alert. “Oh, look at this. Massive police shoot-out followed by a high speed chase downtown.”
The debate turned to the new topic, about Hollywood being responsible for more and more people trying high speed chases by glamorizing them and inaccurately portraying (or again glamorizing) how much danger and damage they caused. Driving that fast was negligent and unethical. The other problem, of course, was the increasing militarization of the police, who’d opened fire with automatic weapons in a busy urban area. Why did the police even need automatic weapons?
Gabby said, “The criminal could have been super-powered. Would explain why so many cops had so much firepower against one guy.”
Tara shook her head. “If the criminal was super-powered, SHIELD would have dispatched Captain America or one of the other Avengers to handle it.”
“Yes, because the Avengers are backups for local cops,” Chelsea said, rolling her eyes.
Steve said, “Can I see the news story?”
Tara eyed him. “You can look it up on your own phone.”
“Right.” Steve fished his phone out of his pocket. He tapped at it slowly.
Gabby said, “Is your husband a technophobe or luddite or something?”
“He doesn’t usually get signal when he’s out on deployment, so he doesn’t spend much time on his phone,” Darcy said.
Steve scanned it. His brow furrowed, and Darcy felt a spike of alarm through the bond.
She leaned in, lowered her voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Witnesses say the police used some kind of battering ram to break out the window of the SUV they were targeting - and then the man driving the SUV fired at them with some kind of mini gatling gun,” Steve said.
“That’s intense. And a badass car, to have a gatling gun.”
“I think,” Steve said, “that’s Director Fury’s SUV.”
“Do you need to get to headquarters?”
Steve took a deep breath. “Why don’t we finish our meal and talk somewhere more private?”
Darcy nodded. She barely tasted the food, could feel the tension pouring off of Steve in waves. Her classmates waved at her and left, and then it was just the two of them in the back corner.
“You know those ladies from school?” Steve asked.
“Also political scientists?”
She nodded again.
“I’ve never believed anyone deserves to get hurt,” Steve said, “but I know people are going to get hurt. Ma always taught me not to hurt others, but also to protect myself - and do to my best to heal myself. And Bucky - we’d protect each other from other people no matter what, and always do our best not to hurt each other.”
Darcy reached across the table, squeezed his hand. “I will always do my best to protect you and not hurt you.”
For a moment, love filled the bond between them, washed away all the tension and fear.
But then their food was finished and they bussed their tray.
Back out on the street, Steve slung an arm around Darcy’s shoulders, held her close, slowed his stride to match hers. He was doing that thing, where he walked on the outside, the defensive position.
He spoke in a low voice. “Earlier today, after I got back from my mission, Director Fury let me see SHIELD’s big project, one I didn’t have clearance for - had to use his director override to get it. I didn’t like what I saw.”
Darcy thought back to his comments during the dinner debate. Did SHIELD have some kind of statistical analysis system that could theoretically calculate who was going to be a criminal and wipe them out? She looked up at him with wide eyes.
He caught her gaze, sensed her emotions across the bond, nodded tightly.
“I wonder if someone didn’t like that he let me in on it,” Steve said.
“You think they went after him. And that they might come after you next.”
Steve nodded tightly. This was why he’d always done his best to not let Darcy know what was going on, so she wouldn’t be a target, but if he became a target, she was one too.
Fear curled in the pit of her stomach. Steve’s arm around her tightened protectively.
No matter. She’d tased a god.
“What’s the plan?”
“Your friend from the VA Center, Alexandra - she was some kind of special forces, right?”
“I actually don’t know,” Darcy admitted.
“Can you text her, see if she’ll let you stay the night? Tell her there was a gas leak in the building and everyone was evacuated,” Steve said.
Darcy nodded, fished her phone out of her pocket, sent the message.
“Let’s pack you some things and then you can head over there. Take Walter,” Steve said.
Darcy nodded again, pressed closer to him.
When they got to their door, Sharon was just stepping out of her own apartment with a basket of laundry.
“You know you can always use our machines,” Darcy said.
Sharon smiled. “Yeah, but I already have a load in downstairs, and I did a rotation on the infectious diseases floor, so you might want to keep your distance.”
Darcy nodded. “Fair enough.”
“Maybe next time.” Sharon started for the stairs. Then she paused, turned. “By the way, I think you left your stereo on.”
Steve looked at Darcy. Darcy looked at Steve. They hadn’t turned on Steve’s old Victrola in a while, and Darcy certainly hadn’t turned on her Bluetooth stereo. Without either of their phones being home or Darcy’s laptop being on, it wasn’t like Walter could accidentally put on a record and start it up.
“Thanks,” Steve said, his smile bright and totally insincere. He watched Sharon head down the stairs, out of sight.
He unlocked the front door, went first.
Darcy stayed right behind him, her steps matching his right-left-right-left as they crept down the hallway. The Victrola was on, one of Steve’s old big band records playing. He paused in the hallway, scooped up his shield, paused at the corner. Darcy flattened herself against the wall, heart pounding. Someone was in their apartment. Where was Walter? She turned the volume on her phone all the way down, fired up the pet camera. She showed it to Steve.
Director Fury was slumped in Steve’s favorite chair.
Steve sighed, straightened up, flipped on the light.
“I don’t remember giving you a key.”
Fury heaved himself upright with a wince. “You really think I’d need one?”
Darcy didn’t mean to be ableist, but his eyepatch kinda freaked her out. Maybe too many pirate movies as a kid.
“My wife kicked me out,” Fury said.
“Didn’t know you were married,” Steve said.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Fury said.
“I know, Nick. That’s the problem.”
“Since when do you have a pet cat?” Walter was sitting on the couch, staring intently at Fury.
“Darcy rescued him from the shelter,” Steve said.
Darcy peeked out from behind Steve, waved.
Walter ran to her, circled her ankles.
Fury flipped off the lamp, typed something on his phone, showed the screen to them.
Aloud he said, “I’m sorry to have to do this, but I have no place else to crash.”
His next unsent text message said SHIELD compromised.
Darcy’s blood ran cold.
Steve shut down the bond. “Who else knows about your wife?” He handed Darcy his shield.
Fury staggered to his feet, clutching his arm like it was sore, displaying another message on his phone.
You and me.
“Just my friends,” Fury said.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Is that what we are?”
“That’s up to you.”
Gunfire exploded in the apartment.
Fury hit the floor, bleeding.
Steve grabbed Fury’s wrist, dragged him away from the window. Darcy scooped up Walter, who’d gone limp, and headed for the the door.
She heard Fury say, “Don’t trust anyone.”
And then the front door exploded.
Darcy backed away, Steve’s shield in front of her and Walter.
Sharon stepped into the apartment, gun in hand, moving like a pro. “Captain Rogers?”
“Sharon?” Darcy asked.
“Agent Thirteen, Shield Special Service. I’m assigned to protect you,” she said, heading straight for Steve.
“On whose order?” Steve demanded.
“His.” Sharon dropped to her knees, checked Fury. She whipped a walkie-talkie out of nowhere. “Foxtrot is down. He’s unresponsive. I need EMTs.”
A man on the other end said, “We have a twenty on the shooter.”
Steve held out a hand to Darcy. She handed him his shield, eyes wide. She didn’t recognize the expression on his face, steely - and dangerous.
“Protect Darcy and Walter. Tell them I’m in pursuit.” And then he jumped out of the window.
“I thought you were a nurse,” Darcy said in a small voice.
Sharon said, “Pack a bag. We have to go. EMTs are on their way.”
Darcy packed overnight gear for herself and Steve, plus supplies for Walter, his food and bed and water shoved into his cat carrier. He insisted on riding on her shoulders. She grabbed her laptop as well, as if she’d somehow be calm enough to get schoolwork done.
“This entire time,” Darcy said, while she rode in the back of a black government SUV following the ambulance carrying Director Fury to the hospital. “Were you just pretending to be our friend?”
Sharon shook her head. “No. I wasn’t. I am a trained nurse. And also a SHIELD agent. I didn’t expect you to be so - friendly. And I figured I could keep an eye on you, even when Captain Rogers was out on missions.”
“Are you really dating Sam?”
“I do have a life outside my job,” Sharon said.
Darcy cuddled Walter close and felt lost and alone and confused, and she couldn’t feel Steve, not at all. When he’d shut down the bond like that, while standing right next to her going, into mission mode, it had been horrible. No wonder he’d been upset that she’d been on her widow meds while they were dating.
At the hospital, she had to leave Walter in his cat carrier. Sharon led her to where Steve was in the waiting room. Staff let Steve and Darcy stand in the observation room outside the operating theater where surgeons were rushing to save Fury’s life.
Natasha arrived. She looked ordinary, in jeans and an olive jacket. Pretty, but not deadly.
She looked almost heartbroken when she saw Fury laid out on the operating table.
“Is he going to make it?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said.
Everyone was talking in hushed voices.
Natasha’s expression went dangerously blank, like Steve’s had been. “Tell me about the shooter.”
“He’s fast. Strong. Had a metal arm.”
Darcy bit back a reflexive Harry Potter joke.
Another woman arrived, dark-haired, no nonsense.
“Ballistics?” Natasha asked.
The dark-haired woman said, “Three slugs. No rifling. Completely untraceable.”
“Soviet-made,” Natasha said. It wasn’t a question.
The dark-haired woman turned to her, surprised. “Yeah.”
Alarms started blaring in the OR, and the doctors and nurses scrambled. Darcy wondered if one of the nurses was Sharon.
“Don’t do this to me, Nick,” Natasha whispered.
Two more uniformed SHIELD agents arrived. Darcy wondered if anyone even remembered she was there.
Doctors put the paddles on Fury’s chest, shocked him multiple times, but there was nothing.
One of the doctors called time of death.
Darcy slipped out of the observation room, went back to sit in the hallway. She’d let Steve, Natasha, and the other lady say their goodbyes.
Natasha emerged from the observation room first, Steve on her heels.
“Why was Fury in your apartment?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, which was a lie, but Darcy remembered - Fury had said not to trust anyone.
Should Darcy trust Sharon?
A SHIELD agent in some kind of tactical uniform said, “Captain, they want you back at SHIELD.”
“Yeah, give me a second,” Steve said.
“They want you now,” the agent said.
Darcy immediately bristled on her husband’s behalf, because as much as Fury freaked her out, he’d been important to Steve, and Steve had seen him get shot and then die.
“Okay,” Steve said sharply.
Natasha said, “You’re a terrible liar,” and she walked away.
Steve turned to Darcy. “I have to go. They need me.”
And just earlier today they’d talked about Steve getting out.
Earlier today? Yesterday. It was after midnight.
“Don’t shut me out completely,” she said.
He nodded, leaned in and kissed her, hugged her.
“I love you. Be safe.” Then he straightened up and walked over to that snotty agent. “Let’s go.”
Darcy watched him go and very carefully did not press a hand to her jacket pocket where he’d slipped her something.
Then her phone buzzed. Text from Alexandra. She was totally welcome to crash at Chez Alexandra. Her man Cameron was still out on deployment, and Alexandra would welcome the company. Including Walter.
Darcy ran down to the SUV where her gear was stashed, grabbed Walter, and then hit up an ATM in the hospital lobby for cash. She hailed cab, gave the cabby an address close to Alexandra’s place. She’d walk the rest of the way. Trust no one. Not Natasha. Not Sharon. Not Sam, if he’d been in contact with Sharon. Certainly none of the women in her classes at school.
She couldn’t call her parents or Jane or Miko or the rest, didn’t want to make them targets. Alexandra was a safe bet. She was an obscure connection.
But what about Jane? Maybe Thor could keep her safe. Could he take her to his dimension on the rainbow bridge? Was that a good idea? Would Steve need his flash drive back?
She shoved the flash drive into her bra. No one would be able to get in there without her noticing.
“The whole gas leak thing was a lie the cops are making everyone tell,” Darcy said when Alexandra opened the door. “There was some kind of shooting at my building. Massive crime scene.”
Alexandra’s expression went grim. “Jeez, doll. That’s real rough. C’mon in. Take a load off. Is this Walter?” She wasn’t wearing her prosthetic, but she took the cat carrier from Darcy anyway, set it down in the kitchen and let him out.
Darcy fixed bowls of food and water for him, and also his cat bed.
“Dime tour,” Alexandra said, and Darcy nodded, followed Alexandra around the house. It was lovely - master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, two guest rooms and another bathroom, a study with a drafting table and an upright piano and a computer, the kitchen and the laundry room, the den and the garage. It was decorated tastefully, had photographs and paintings and drawings on the walls - Alexandra’s own work. No wonder the loss of her arm had grieved her so. Also mounted on the wall was a shadowbox with a folded flag from Alexandra’s father’s funeral, and two shadowboxes full of medals, some her father’s, some her own.
“When Cammie retires, he’ll get his own display,” Alexandra said proudly.
Darcy could have the guest room till the cops cleared her apartment as a crime scene and repair crews had finished their work.
“Such a shame your man got called back up for a mission at the same time,” Alexandra said. “But hey - we can have fun on our own. And you can finally try my cooking.”
Darcy smiled and nodded. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
“I almost asked why you weren’t crashing with Sharon instead, but of course she lives in your building and got evacuated too. Want to watch a movie?”
Darcy peeked into the kitchen, but Walter was asleep. “Do you?”
“Sure. When I can’t sleep, a movie’s the best.”
And then Darcy looked at the time. “Oh, hell. Alexandra -”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m a bit of a night owl.” Alexandra smiled. “C’mon. Or do you need to sleep so you can go to class tomorrow?”
Darcy groaned. “Class. Oh, hell.”
Alexandra patted her on the shoulder. “Sleep. I’ll make you breakfast and a big pot of coffee in the morning.”
Darcy smiled. “You’re the best.”
“I know. Sleep!”
Sleeping in a new place was hard. The bed was soft and the sheets were crisp and cool and clean and the pillows smelled faintly of lavender, but Darcy could barely feel Steve, and she was scared. SHIELD was supposed to be good, supposed to be safe, supposed to be protecting the world from Hydra and people like them.
If it was compromised, what did that mean? How long had it been compromised? What had Steve done that he thought was good but was actually bad? How would he live with himself?
Walter nudged open the door, padded across the bed, curled up beside her. Darcy wasn’t sure what Alexandra would think about Walter’s fur getting all over her furniture and bedding, but she was too tired and worried to care.
She tried to sleep.
Sleeping in a new place was hard.
She didn’t sleep easily or deeply.
She came awake at the drop of a hat.
To someone reaching for her.
She didn’t think. She just tased.
There was a thump, a curse.
Then Natasha said, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Steve said, “Get away from her.”
Alexandra said, “Hands up where I can see them!”
The light flipped on.
“What the hell is going on?” Alexandra demanded. She was wielding her pistol one-handed.
“I apologize,” Steve said. “Urgent SHIELD business.” He eyed Natasha. “How did you know?”
“Like I said, you’re a terrible liar.”
Darcy said, “Alexandra, I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell you, the shooting at our apartment wasn’t a gang thing.”
Alexandra lowered her pistol. “All right. What was it?”
Natasha said, “Maybe it’d be best if you didn’t know. For your own safety.”
Alexandra studied her for a long moment. Then she sighed. “All right. Just - fix anything you broke.”
“Didn’t have to break anything,” Natasha said.
Alexandra looked perplexed and concerned, but she left the room, gun in hand.
“My taser has knocked out a god before,” Darcy said, eyeing Natasha.
“You didn’t get me full contact,” she said. “Where is it?”
Darcy pointed to herself.
Natasha raised her eyebrows.
“In my bra.”
“You wear your bra when you sleep?”
“Only when it’s an emergency.”
Natasha turned to Steve. “Where did you get it?”
Steve stepped between her and Darcy. “Why would I tell you?”
Natasha flicked her gaze over him. “Fury gave it to you. Why?”
“What’s on it?” Steve countered.
“I don’t know.”
“Stop lying,” Steve hissed.
The bond was still mostly muted but Darcy didn’t need it to know how angry and frustrated Steve was.
“I’m not lying. I only act like I know everything.”
What followed was a bizarre conversation about pirates and dirty ships that was probably super classified information Darcy wasn’t supposed to hear, but she listened anyway.
Steve grabbed Natasha, pinned her against the wall. “I’m not gonna ask you again.”
“I know who killed Fury.” Natasha’s voice was calm, measured.
Darcy reached for her taser again, worried. Would Steve really hurt her? Sure she was a super spy, but he was a super soldier.
Steve stepped back.
Natasha told him about an assassin named the Winter Soldier, who’d been assassinating people for fifty years.
“A ghost story,” Steve said, skeptical.
Natasha described how she’d once been shot by the Winter Soldier - with the same ammo that had been used to kill Fury. “Going after him is a dead end, I’ve tried. Like you said, he’s a ghost story.”
Steve turned to look at Darcy, nodded at her. She fished the flash drive out of her bra.
Steve said, “Let’s find out what the ghost wants.”
Darcy said, “I’m coming with you.”
Steve shook his head.
Darcy said, “I’m good with computers. You want to know what’s on that flash drive? You need me.”
“Fine,” Steve said, “but after that, you stay here, all right? Stay here with Alexandra and go to class like normal -”
“No,” Natasha said. “Not like normal. You email your professors, tell them you had a family emergency. You email your family, tell them you had an apartment emergency. You email you friends, tell them you had a life emergency. And you go dark. Till we come for you, all right?”
“What about Alexandra?”
“She knows how to take care of herself,” Natasha said.
Darcy got dressed, packed up all her gear, scribbled a thank-you note to Alexandra, packed up Walter, and out they went to Natasha’s car. She put her stuff in Natasha’s car but rode on Steve’s motorbike.
First stop: electronics store to buy a new laptop and some burner phones with some of the cash Darcy had withdrawn. Natasha made the buy, was better at avoiding cameras. Then it was all three of them in Natasha’s car while they prowled a suburban neighborhood looking for wifi to steal.
“You really are good with computers,” Natasha said, watching her work.
“I am more than just tasing a god,” Darcy said. “But I am pretty proud of that.”
She figured it was a good sign, that Walter warmed up to Natasha. Animals were good judges of character.
Of course the drive was encrypted. Of course it was going to send out a signal letting SHIELD know where they were. But they got coordinates for the file’s origins first. Darcy ditched the laptop.
“Love you,” Steve said, and kissed her. He patted Walter, and then he and Natasha took off.
Darcy took Natasha’s car - as the decoy. Steve and Natasha were going to boost another car and find the coordinates. All Darcy could do was wait.
She left Natasha’s car with Steve’s bike, and then she went and stashed all of her gear in a locker she rented at the train station - again for cash, which was dwindling even though Natasha had given her some extra. She followed Natasha’s instructions, sent out all the emails so people wouldn’t try to contact her but wouldn’t worry about her, and then she emailed Alexandra as well, let her know she was all right.
And then she took Walter, stocked up on cat supplies and food, and rented a room for cash at a cheap motel.
And she waited. She didn’t access her own email accounts. She didn’t call or text or email anyone she knew. She reread her favorite Daniel Jackson books, listened to music on her old iPod, the one with no wifi capability, and talked to Walter an awful lot. She taught him how to swing dance to her favorite Postmodern Jukebox songs, and also let him listen to the original versions of the songs.
She did a lot of deep breathing and meditating, sometimes lay still for hours and just sensed Steve.
Walter would curl beside her and breathe with her, and she wondered if he could feel Steve too.
She had finally almost managed to fall asleep when her bond with Steve opened and she felt a sudden flare of agony.
Darcy sat bolt upright with a scream.
A moment later, the bond shut down completely.
Darcy clawed aside her leather wristband and stared at her soulmark, terrified.
Sorry, Miss in Steve’s neat cursive was still perfectly intact.
Darcy stared at it, heart pounding, watching, waiting for that horrible moment when a line went through it just, like her other soulmark.
Just like -
Her other soulmark no longer had a line through it.
Darcy stared. How? That was impossible. What did that mean?
She did the only thing she could think of. She called Dr. Beckett.
“Who is this?”
“How did you get my personal number?”
“Doc, you gave it to me,” Darcy said. “It’s me, Darcy Lewis Rogers.”
“Ah, Mrs. Rogers. Hello. Can this wait till morning? Do you know what time it is here?” Dr. Beckett sounded very sleepy.
“My other soulmark isn’t struck through anymore.”
“What?” Dr. Beckett sounded much more awake.
“My first soulmark - it doesn’t have a line through it anymore. What does that mean?”
“Lass,” he said, “that means your other soulmate is alive.”
“How is that possible?”
“I’ve seen it before, when someone’s soulmate’s heart stops for a minute or two.”
“It’s been longer than a couple of minutes, Doc.”
“I know, lass.”
“What should I do?”
“See if you can reach out to them.”
“And then what?”
“See if you can find them.”
Walter was standing at the foot of the bed, back arched, hackles raised.
Darcy stared down at her first soulmark, with its perfect, unimpeded letters, and then she forced herself to take several deep breaths. She lay back, closed her eyes, and reached out.
She couldn’t feel Steve at all, and that was terrifying.
But for the first time ever she could feel something from her other soulmate. The connection was hazy, like she was coming out of anesthesia after surgery. She sensed - confusion. Puzzlement. And a deep, deep sense of loss.
She reached out across the bond, tried to send as much love and warmth and reassurance as she could muster to the total stranger who was part of her soul.
I’m here. I’m waiting for you. Where are you? Come find me! Or I can come find you.
The confusion deepened, the pain, the loss.
And then -
And the connection was gone.
Darcy sat up, scrubbed the tears off her face. Enough was enough. She wasn’t going to sit back and fret about Steve and her other soulmate. She was going to get something done.
So she gathered up Walter, checked out of her room, got back the money from the extra day she hadn’t stayed, and headed for campus. She fired up her phone, got online, checked the news. Another crazy car chase on a bridge, firefights and explosions, an overturned bus, another mini gatling gun. People had spotted Captain America, a woman who fit Natasha’s description, and someone who fit Sam’s description fighting off SHIELD agents.
Darcy checked her schedule.
Senior thesis class. Tara, Chelsea, and Gabby would be there. Tara was a closet Captain America fan.
Darcy ducked into the back, sat down beside Tara.
“Hey, I need your help.”
Tara turned to her startled. “Darcy! Hey, what’s up? You need to borrow my notes from the lecture you missed?”
“You’re big on social media, right? Your political blog is pretty popular on campus.”
Tara didn’t deny it. “So?”
“So what if I could give you the scoop of the century, or possibly the millennium?”
“You’re not a reporter.”
Darcy said, “SHIELD has been infected by Hydra since day one.”
Tara rolled her eyes. “How would you know that?”
Darcy unlocked her phone, opened up her photos app. “Because I’m married to Steve Rogers.” She showed Tara her wedding photo.
Tara’s eyes went wide. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a squeal. Then she snatched the phone from Darcy and scrolled through it some more, looked at the other wedding pictures, which of course included the other Avengers.
“But I thought Steve Rogers married his -”
“Soulmate?” Darcy asked.
Tara nodded, her eyes still wide.
Darcy tapped her wrist cuff. “I keep my soulmark hidden. Chances of anyone actually recognizing his handwriting are slim, but -”
“Can I see?”
Asking to see someone’s soulmark was very gauche, but Darcy wanted Tara’s help. If Tara publicized the truth, Darcy could help protect Steve. She pushed the cuff back just enough so Tara could see Steve’s mark and not the other, the one now unstruck.
Tara’s expression turned awed.
Darcy beckoned, and both of them ducked out of the lecture hall, found an alcove near the water fountains and restrooms.
“How did you meet?” Tara asked.
“In the Avengers Tower, after the Incident in New York. I was Jane Foster’s research assistant when she first met Thor, so after the Incident she was summoned, and I went with her, and we bumped into each other in the hallway. Literally.” Darcy gazed down at her soulmark and sent Steve a wave of love, wherever he was.
Then Tara frowned. “Wait, so that night, at dinner -”
Darcy nodded. “That was him.”
“Oh no. And Gabby said people with superpowers are freaks.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Darcy said. “You know that car chase we saw on the news? That was Hydra agents inside SHIELD trying to kill Nick Fury because he found out about them.”
Tara’s eyes went wide again.
“And the other car chase on the bridge today? That’s SHIELD agents trying to stop Steve and another SHIELD agent from trying to stop Hydra.”
Tara shoved Darcy’s phone back at her. “I have to tell everyone. That’s huge. But - SHIELD is our national security system. If Hydra has been part of them all along -”
“Steve will fix it,” Darcy said. She was sure of that.
Tara nodded, unlocked her own phone, and began to type rapidly.
Hey, fellow political enthusiasts! I’m no Lois Lane, but I do have breaking news for you. I’ve learned from a reliable source with connections inside SHIELD that the police and SHIELD violence on the streets of DC haven’t been crime-fighting at all.
Darcy listened, impressed as she composed on the fly, telling a compelling story about how SHIELD had been infected by Hydra and once Nick Fury, Captain America, and other agents who were true patriots found out, SHIELD had turned on them.
“Post,” Tara said, tapping her screen decisively. And then her eyes went wide. “No way.”
“What?” Darcy crowded in to peer over her shoulder.
“Someone just decrypted and dumped all of SHIELD’s files on the web. I need to update my post to include a link. This is proof.” Tara’s eyes went wide. “Holy shit! I got there first. Before anyone! Before the Washington Post or the New York Times or -”
She grabbed Darcy and scooped her into a hug.
“Thank you so much! You just turned me into an instant celebrity!”
“I told you it was the scoop of the millenium,” Darcy said, and prayed that she hadn’t just painted a target on Tara.
Tara looked down. “Hey, whose cat is that?”
Darcy had told Walter to stay outside the lecture hall. “Mine,” she said.
“Why is your cat here?”
“Got kicked out of my apartment. Director Fury was there when Hydra sent an assassin after him, so our apartment’s a crime scene.” Darcy leaned down and scooped him up.
“Shit. This is - this is serious stuff.” Tara’s eyes were wide, but she no longer looked awed. She looked - scared.
Darcy nodded. “Really serious. Some super hardcore Russian Hydra assassin shot at me. And Steve.”
Tara bit her lip. “Look, I know we’re not friends, but - do you need somewhere you can crash? Till someone can come get you.”
Before Darcy could answer, thunder boomed in the distance, and the building shook.
No, not thunder, an explosion.
Darcy dashed for the window. Tara followed.
Three helicarriers had risen over the Triskelion. Smoke was rising from the ground at the river, but Darcy couldn’t see the source.
People stared, pointed, took photos and videos on their phones. Yet others were searching the internet for news stories. Some kind of internal attack on SHIELD.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Tara asked. “Captain America going to fight Hydra once more.”
“I think so. Listen, I have to go,” Darcy began, and then she felt it, a bloom of agony in her chest.
Her soulmate bond was going haywire. She gasped and fell back. Walter clutched her shoulders too tight, claws drawing blood.
Tara cried out. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know - the bond - Steve is in danger -” Darcy stumbled.
Tara grabbed her, guided her over to a nearby bench. She carefully detached Walter, then sat beside Darcy, an arm across her back, holding her tightly.
“Breathe with me,” she ordered. “In for eight.”
“Hold for four.”
“Out for seven. Then do it again. In for eight.”
Walter was a whirlpool of fur around her ankles, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was calming down, figuring out what was happening, sorting out her bond.
Steve was upset. Terrified. Furious. In agony. But he was also - in love. So much love. He loved her. Was he saying goodbye? Darcy tore aside her wrist cuff and shoved it into her pocket, stared down at her soulmark, waited for that dreadful moment when a line started to draw through it.
She realized she could feel her other soulmate as well. They were confused and in pain and so, so scared. Were they nearby? Were they somehow caught in the disaster?
More explosions rocked the sky, and Darcy watched in horror as the three helicarriers opened fire on each other. One of them crashed into the Triskelion.
Someone nearby said, “Who’s the Black Widow?”
Agent Romanov. Natasha. She was supposed to be with Steve.
Tara said, “You have two soulmarks?”
Darcy fumbled to unlock her phone with shaking hands. “I need to find out about Natasha. She was with Steve.”
“SHIELD Agent Romanov.”
Tara stared at her phone. “The one they call Black Widow? Holy shit, but my blog just crashed.”
Darcy forced herself to keep breathing slow and steady as she scanned the news stories pouring out (unconfirmed, sources on the ground), searching for sightings of Natasha or Steve or Sam or even Sharon, because she was a SHIELD agent. Had she been in the building, the one that was burning now?
And then students started pouring out of the lecture halls.
Campus was being evacuated. Everyone had to go home and stay there.
Tara said, “Come with me. I live in the dorms.” She scooped up Walter, grabbed Darcy’s wrist, and Darcy made sure she had her pack before they joined the throng of panicked students streaming for the exits.
They made it to the dorms quickly enough.
Darcy said, “I don’t know how long we’ll be stuck here, but I have food and water for me - and supplies for Walter.”
“I have stuff too. Hopefully we don’t lose power.” Tara patted her mini-fridge nervously.
Walter hopped down from her arms and explored the small room - bed, desk, closet, a tower of electronic appliances with the mini fridge on the bottom, microwave in the middle, television on top. Eventually he hopped up onto Tara’s bed and curled up on her pillow.
“Walter! No.” Darcy reached for him. “Sorry. He’ll get fur everywhere -”
“It’s fine,” Tara said. She sank down in the chair at her desk, so Darcy at on the bed beside Walter, petting him.
Tara looked at her. “So you’re really married to Steve Rogers.”
Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I kept my own name. People refer to me as Darcy Lewis Rogers but it’s not my legal name. Sometimes Steve lets me call him Mr. Darcy Lewis.”
“Was it love at first sight?”
“Not at all.” Darcy laughed.
Before Tara could press for more information, her door flew open, and Gabby and Chelsea spilled in.
“How the hell did you know?” Gabby demanded, waving her phone where she had her browser opened to the error message on Tara’s blog.
Chelsea came up short. “What’s she doing here?”
“I knew because Darcy told me,” Tara said.
Gabby pulled the door shut but didn’t come into the room any further. “How did you know?”
“Because I helped,” Darcy said.
Tara raised her eyebrows. “You left that part out.”
“Start from the beginning,” Gabby said. She sat down on the floor.
Chelsea sat beside her. She reached up to try to pet Walter, but he hissed at her, and she recoiled.
“I think it started on Steve’s most recent mission, whatever it was. Afterward he came back upset.”
“Who’s Steve?” Gabby asked.
“My husband,” Darcy said. “Steven Grant Rogers. Other people call him Captain America.”
Gabby and Chelsea’s eyes went wide.
“Wait,” Chelsea said. “So that guy at dinner -”
Tara waved her into silence. “Keep going.”
So Darcy told them all about how Steve had felt conflicted about the moral ambiguity of his job, and how after they’d all run into each other at dinner he suspected someone was on to Nick Fury, and how Fury had been shot in their apartment but he’d given Steve a flash drive, and how Steve had chased down his killer. She talked about Natasha and how they’d worked to decrypt the drive, which was related to Project Insight, some kind of Hydra super-algorithm that would “predict” who would be bad before they were bad and execute them all, by the millions.
“How would a computer know that, though?” Chelsea asked.
“A computer wouldn’t,” Darcy said. “That’s why Steve and Natasha went to stop the program from launching.”
She told them how she’d gone to ground for a while, at Steve’s request, but now she was determined to protect him - and tell people the truth.
“So that night at dinner -” Chelsea began.
“Gabby called my husband a freak and you thought Hydra’s idea had merit, yes,” Darcy snapped. She fired up her phone, composed a generic email to send to everyone she knew, telling them she was okay.
The other two women had the good grace to look sheepish.
“How long do you think we’ll have to stay here?” Gabby asked.
“Until campus authorities decide we can leave,” Darcy said, “or till rogue hydra agents kick down the door and take me away to torture and interrogate me about my husband’s whereabouts.”
The other three stared at her.
“Kidding,” Darcy said. “I’m kidding.”
They kept staring at her.
Darcy opened her pack. “Want some crackers?”
Finally, Chelsea said, “So that night at dinner, when your husband said he was a soldier and made a comment about Hitler -”
“He fought Nazis in WWII, yes.” Darcy sighed. “Do you want to see my wedding pictures? I showed them to Tara.”
Gabby said, “I don’t actually think people with super-powers are freaks.”
“What, you’re just jealous of them?” Tara asked.
Darcy unlocked her phone and opened up the photo library, found her wedding folder. “Here. Have a look.”
“Your dress is really pretty,” Chelsea said.
Darcy smiled at her. “Thanks.
To pass the time, Darcy told them what anecdotes she had about the other Avengers, but she didn’t tell them about Jane and Thor being soulmates. She also asked them questions about themselves, where they were from, why they’d chosen this major, what their thesis papers were about.
They talked for hours, sharing drinks and snacks, checking the news on their phones. As the death toll rose, Darcy’s heart sank. There was no news about Steve or Natasha or Sam, but then the media probably didn’t know who he was. There was no news about Sharon, either.
Darcy answered emails from family and friends about how she was doing. Fine. Safe. Fed and watered. Even took a selfie and sent it.
And then there was a knock at the door.
Chelsea scooted away from it, pulled it open.
The dark-haired female agent from the hospital was there.
“Actually, it’s still Lewis.”
“I’m Agent Maria Hill with SHIELD. Your husband’s in the hospital. Come with me, please.”
“I’ve got Walter,” Tara said.
Darcy thanked her, rose, and followed Agent Hill to a familiar-looking black government SUV.
When she got to the hospital, Steve was sleeping, and Sam was sleeping in the chair beside his bed. Darcy covered Sam with a blanket, and then she very carefully crawled up onto the bed beside Steve and curled up beside him.
Now that he was asleep, she could sense him, low-level, sleeping, and know he was alive.
And then she realized - she could feel her other soulmate.
She closed her eyes and forced herself to cycle her breathing like Tara had told her, and she sent her other soulmate waves of comfort and love.
Darcy came awake when a doctor came in to check on them. The doctor eyed the still-sleeping Sam with some consternation, sighed when she saw Darcy.
“What? I’m his soulmate,” Darcy protested.
Steve woke slowly, groggy. “Darcy. You’re here.”
She squeezed his hand. “I am.”
The doctor checked the readouts on the monitor hooked up to Steve. “Well, thanks to your superior healing abilities, you can be released later today.”
“Thanks, Doctor,” Steve said.
“Since you saved us from being murdered by Hydra, I guess I won’t say anything about the visitor policy - this time.” The doctor smiled briefly, then left the room.
“Darcy,” Steve said, “Bucky’s alive.” He tugged his hospital gown up and showed her his soulmarks, both of which were no longer struck through.
Hey, pal, you okay?
“What? How? Are you all right?” Darcy asked.
Steve squeezed her hand tighter. “Zola experimented on him. He must have survived the fall from the train. Hydra - they took him. Brainwashed him. Experimented on him. He was the Winter Soldier.”
Guilt and pain washed through the bond, and Darcy knew.
“No. Don’t blame yourself. You couldn’t have known -”
Steve drew her close, buried his face in her hair.
She held him tightly, sending him love and comfort.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Where is he? Did they capture him?”
“He’s gone. No trace,” Natasha said.
Sam came awake. “What? Did I miss the invite to the party?”
“Now that you’re here, the party’s really getting started,” Natasha said.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Darcy said. “My other soulmate is alive too.”
Steve pulled back. “What?”
Darcy showed him her bare wrist. Even though Tara had promised not to tell the Internet - and therefore the world - about her and Steve, she didn’t trust Chelsea and Gabby nearly as much. “See? No longer struck through either.”
Steve stared at her wrist. “Natasha,” he said, “as the Winter Soldier, would Bucky speak Russian?”
She held out a folder that was entirely in Russian. “Fluently. Why?”
Steve showed her Darcy’s wrist. “What are the chances that Bucky is also Darcy’s other soulmate?”
“When did your tattoo become unstruck?” Sam asked, peering in to look.
“I don’t know,” Darcy admitted. “I didn’t notice it till I was lying low, but - I do remember thinking my wrist was itching for a while. Sometimes I imagine my wrist is itching when I’m worried about Steve, so I ignored it.”
“Soulmarks are in people’s own handwriting,” Steve said. “Natasha - could you tell if the same person was writing in two different languages?”
She considered. “Best in English and Russian.”
Darcy said, “Do you have some of Bucky’s handwriting?”
Steve pushed his hospital gown up again. “Here.”
Natasha leaned in, shook her head. “I’d need a bigger sample.”
Steve sighed. “I’ve got nothing.”
“The museum does,” Darcy said. “Unless there are any in that file?”
Steve flipped it open. “It’s entirely in Russian.”
“Once you’re released,” Natasha said, “we’ll go to the museum. In the meantime -”
“In the meantime, we have things we need to sort out,” Steve said, expression grim.
Darcy’s heart was pounding. She stared at her soulmark. Could it have been Bucky, all those years ago, in that night club? She had to find out.
The key was research.
“Agents will help you get moved back into your apartment,” Natasha said to Darcy. “I’m needed at the Capitol. This has to wait.”
Steve looked pained. “I know.”
Darcy kissed him, then slid off the bed. “I’ll take care of the apartment - and Walter.” She turned to Sam. “Any news on Sharon?”
He shook his head. “No. I had no clue. She did volunteer at the clinic. I thought -”
“Like I said, I am a nurse by training.” Sharon appeared in the doorway. She looked sleek and professional in a gray pantsuit. “But Director Fury gave me a specific order, and I carried it out. Come on, Darcy. Let’s get you home.”
Darcy gazed at her for a long time. Then she nodded. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“I’m sorry, Sam,” Sharon said.
“Are you breaking up with me?” he asked.
“I don’t want to, but I know I was dishonest with you,” she said quietly. “And you and I both have things we need to do.”
He nodded. Then he reached out, offered her his hand.
She accepted, and they stood there, joined for a moment.
“Call me after,” he said, and she smiled.
Then he followed Sharon out to another black government SUV.
They swung by campus to grab Walter from Tara’s room. Tara had only convinced the RA to let her keep the otherwise illicit pet by insisting that Walter was Captain America’s cat. The RA was ready to yell at Darcy when she arrived to claim the cat, but Sharon flashed her SHIELD badge, and the RA backed down.
“Thank you,” Darcy said to Tara. “For everything.” For not telling anyone she was married to Steve.
Tara nodded. “Thank you.” For giving her the scoop of a lifetime.
Back at the apartment, the other agents went through first, made sure it was clear of any threats. Because Steve had been some kind of fugitive, repair crews hadn’t actually come to clean anything up, so the one window was still shattered and there was glass everywhere and bullet holes in the wall and blood on the floor.
“We’ll send a clean-up crew,” Sharon. “In the meantime, if you want, you can stay at my place.”
Darcy smiled at her. “No, but thanks.”
Sharon nodded, turned to go. “I’ll be next door, then. Keeping an eye on you.”
“Do Fury’s orders still stand even after he’s dead?”
“Don’t need orders to do what’s right. Besides - Captain’s orders now.” Sharon headed for the door.
Darcy stared at the wreck of her home, sighed. She let Walter out of his carrier, and he immediately went to climb atop his scratching post and sun himself. She swept up the glass first, because she didn’t want anyone to injure their feet. Then she unpacked all the emergency supplies she’d packed, sorted for the dirty clothes from the clean. She put away any unused food in the kitchen. Then she found a bottle of Diet Coke and set about scrubbing the blood off the floor with it.
She taped a piece of cardboard over the hole in the window, and finally she stood back.
“Almost back to normal, Walter.”
He’d slept through the entire process.
She could call her dad, ask him how to patch holes in drywall, but she didn’t think he’d cope well if she said they were from bullets. As it was her parents had been emailing her non-stop, panicking about Hydra being inside SHIELD, because Steve worked for them.
Not anymore, Darcy had written in her last email to them, and that had finally calmed them down.
She booted up her laptop, and she checked her other emails, from Jane and Radek and Miko, McKay and Erik. They were glad she was okay. Jane asked why Darcy hadn’t called, asked Thor or anyone else to help.
No time. Darcy’s world had turned upside down - again - in three days.
I need your help now, she wrote. With some research.
News articles about the terrorist attack at the club where Darcy had met her first soulmate were scant with details. Most of them didn’t report the same numbers of casualties or survivors, had sketchy eyewitness accounts. None of them listed the names of the victims.
Radek responded first. Half an hour later, he had what looked like an accurate victim count, plus a list of names cobbled together from local hospital records. Miko and Jane together managed to track down identities of victims. Most of them were locals or college kids. Only one of them looked like a target worthy of a Hydra assassination, the only son of a wealthy UN official.
It was Rodney who found the jackpot, security footage of the actual incident. Due to the smoke, most of it was hard to make out, but there it was. The moment Darcy met her soulmate.
A man wearing black tac armor and a mask over the lower half of his face burst out of the smoke, pinned her to the wall. He was protecting her from the stampede. His left arm was shining metal.
And then he spun away from her, plunged into the smoke.
Rodney sent her some stills of the moment when he had her pinned to the wall.
Darcy stared at them for a long time. The metal arm. It had to be the Winter Soldier. Had to be Bucky. She thanked everyone for their help, and she signed off.
Then she gathered up Walter and climbed into bed and slept most of the weekend away.
On Monday morning she went to her lectures, kept her head down, took notes and only spoke when spoken to. Gabby, Chelsea, and Tara cast her glances sidelong. Natasha’s testimony in front of a senate hearing committee was trending on the news and social media all day. There was talk of the student organizations combining forces to arrange a memorial for the lives lost during Hydra’s attempt to launch Project Insight.
Darcy checked on Walter whenever she could, because the SHIELD-funded repair crews had arrived at the apartment just as she was leaving for campus, and she knew Walter was very choosy about his human company.
Also she wasn’t sure that all the Hydra agents had been weeded out of the remnants of SHIELD.
Tara caught Darcy after their last lecture of the day.
Darcy glanced at her. “Hey.” She was headed for the bus stop.
“A lot of people are asking me how I got my inside scoop. I’m not a real reporter but I keep telling them that a journalist never reveals her sources.” Tara bit her lip. “People are going to find out about you eventually, right?”
“So far they haven’t,” Darcy said, “even though I’m listed on Steve’s health insurance through his job - might need to rethink that now - and he’s listed as my next of kin and soulmate for school.”
“But people probably didn’t look at your enrollment forms and think Captain America when you wrote Rogers, Steven G., spouse and soulmate,” Tara pointed out.
Darcy nodded. “Precisely. Hiding in plain sight. If anyone sees us talking, well, we’ve been in class together all year.”
“Do your parents know?” Tara asked. “Who you’re married to.”
“My dad is less than pleased that Steve is ninety-five years old this year, but given that Steve will probably outlive me and is very polite, he’s willing to let it go,” Darcy said.
Tara smiled. “Wow. That’s - what’s he like? Captain America?”
“Don’t know,” Darcy said. “I’ve never - well, I’ve only seen him in action a bit. And - kinda scary, really. He’s a soldier. He’s willing to injure and permanently maim and even kill people.”
The smile slid off of Tara’s face.
“That’s war. That’s combat. That’s the price of freedom,” Darcy said. “Steve, though - he’s a wonderful man. Sweet. Earnest. A little old-fashioned and strange sometimes, but - I love him.”
Tara’s expression turned thoughtful. “I guess I never thought of him as Steve. I mean, there’s that video of him watching cat videos on his phone -”
“Not cat videos. Remember Walter? He’s kind of destructive sometimes, so we have a pet cam installed in our apartment. You can use it to play laser chase and give him treats and stuff. He was checking on Walter.”
“Right! Walter.” Tara bit her lip. “I don’t want to ruin your privacy. But I -”
“Might have a solution that gives us what we both want,” Darcy cut in when she heard the rumble of a familiar engine.
She turned, waited, and saw Natasha’s very fancy sports car pull up to the curb.
The window rolled down, and Natasha leaned across the empty passenger seat. “You ready for this?” she asked Darcy.
The trip to the museum, to look at Bucky’s handwriting.
Tara’s eyes went wide. “Holy shit! You’re Natasha Romanov.”
“This is Tara,” Darcy said. “She’s in one of my classes. She wrote that blog post about Hydra being inside SHIELD right before you dumped all those files.”
“Oh. Nice timing.” Natasha smiled briefly, not quite friendly.
Darcy said, “In fact, people are wondering how she knew, and she would like to not tell the world about me.”
“Steve would probably like that too,” Natasha said carefully.
Darcy waggled her phone, smiled at Natasha hopefully.
“Sure,” she said, beckoned to Tara. “Lean in, like you’re talking to me.”
Tara leaned closer, hesitant, awed and nervous all at once, because Natasha’s entire service record was on the internet, and she’d done some scary things in her time. “You have a pretty cool car,” she offered.
Darcy snapped a photo of the two of them, then texted it to Tara.
“Nice meeting you,” Natasha said, “but Darcy and I have places we need to be.”
Tara jumped back from the car. “Bye,” she said, waving.
Darcy slid into the front seat, her backpack on the floor between her knees. She waved farewell to Tara, then rolled up the window and put on her seatbelt as Natasha pulled away from the curb.
“You ready for this?” Natasha asked.
Darcy nodded. She hadn’t been able to feel her second soulmate much in the last day, suspected they were sleeping a lot. If her second soulmate really was Bucky, he’d had a hell of a beating, so he probably needed to rest and heal. No wonder she’d felt so much pain - the first time Steve recognized him, and then Steve’s agony over having to fight him and possibly kill him, and then his confusion as he was overwhelmed by the emotions he was getting from two soulmates, one he no longer remembered and one he never knew.
It was almost routine at this point: deep breathing, calm, warm, happy emotions.
She sensed Steve before she saw him. Natasha let her out at the front of the museum, and she headed in, grabbed a little paper map from a docent, and headed for the Captain America display.
Steve was waiting at the entrance, hands jammed in his pockets, shoulders hunched to make him look smaller, ball cap tugged low, head bowed. Darcy flung herself into his arms, because she’d missed him. He held her tightly, pressed a kiss to her hair.
“Do you think it’s him?” Steve asked.
Darcy nodded. “I’m pretty sure.” She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, inhaled. Steve smelled like generic detergent, Ivory soap, and something else, something him.
Hey, soulmate, she thought, reaching out across the bond. It’s okay. I love you.
Even though she’d never really met him, she was pretty sure it was true.
Natasha arrived. “All right. Show me the handwriting.”
Steve nodded and led her through the display to the section about Bucky, which featured lots of photos of him with short hair and an old-fashioned Army uniform. Was he really the person from the night club, who had long hair and a metal arm? Included in the display were some letters he’d sent home to his family from the front, letters that his younger sister Rebecca had kept and donated to the museum.
Natasha nodded at Darcy, and Darcy pushed her sleeve back, held her wrist out. Natasha looked back and forth between the letter in the display case and the mark on Darcy’s wrist. “It looks like they could have been written by the same person,” she said, “but I’m not sure. Sorry.”
Steve looked crushed.
“I’m pretty sure,” Darcy said. She unlocked her phone, fired up the photos in her cloud storage. “I encountered my first soulmate during a terror attack on a nightclub where I was out dancing with my classmates. At the time I have no idea who it could have been, but now I’m guessing it was Bucky. The Winter Soldier. I got a friend to find the security cam footage for me, grab some stills. He doesn’t look like the guy in those photos, but does he look like the Winter Soldier to you?”
Natasha and Steve crowded in to peer over her shoulder.
“That’s him,” Natasha said. “I’d know that metal arm anywhere.”
Steve nodded his agreement. He swallowed hard, unable to speak.
“Do you remember what you said to him?” Natasha asked Darcy. “What his mark should say?”
“I don’t know who you are, but thank you for protecting me.”
The three of them spun.
Standing behind them, wearing a dark jacket and ball cap pulled low, was a man with shoulder-length dark hair and sad blue eyes.
He had one hand pressed to his chest - where his soulmarks must have been.
Steve’s eyes went wide. “Buck -”
Bucky’s eyes went wide, and he took a step back. “No. You’re my mission.”
Steve stepped toward him. “No. Not anymore. Hydra’s done for. And I’m not your mission. I’m still here, right? You didn’t hurt me. You fought it. I’m not your mission. I’m me, I’m Steve. I’m your soulmate.”
Bucky looked spooked. “I know you. I don’t want to hurt. But you - you’re my -” He looked pained. He turned away, started hurrying toward an exit.
At Hydra, heads had turned, and now people were looking at Steve. Someone recognized Natasha.
Hey, isn’t that the Black Widow?
Steve started after Bucky. Natasha caught him by the shoulder, shook her head.
“Don’t make a scene. If he freaks out - there are civilians here.”
Darcy darted after Bucky. “Wait!” She lunged, caught him by the wrist.
He spun around, and cold fury crossed his face for a moment.
Darcy didn’t let go, met his gaze and took a deep breath, projected love and calm across the bond. Here he was, in the flesh, James Buchanan Barnes. Steve’s first soulmate. Her first soulmate. She’d heard so much about him, how he was smart and funny and charming, how he always had Steve’s back in a fight. How he’d loved Steve no matter what, cared for him when he was sick, worked hard to make sure they had a roof over their heads and food on their table.
Hydra had taken him and tried to wipe that all away, ruin him.
But he knew Steve.
And whether or not he realized it, he knew her.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said. “For saving me that night. All those years ago.”
Bucky’s expression turned uncertain. “I - shouldn’t have done that.”
“But you did, and here I am.” Darcy smiled up at him. She squeezed his hand gently, laced her fingers through his like she did when she was walking with Steve.
Bucky stared down at their intertwined fingers. Then he looked at his metal hand, and sorrow crossed his face.
Darcy reached out, caught his other hand. It was cold to the touch, smooth, perfectly shiny. She laced her fingers through his - could he even feel her? He’d have to be able to feel through the thing, to be able to use it properly, right? - and looked up at him hopefully.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” she said. “And I know you won’t hurt me. No one ordered you to, right?”
“You got anywhere to go? Anywhere you need to be? Comfy hotel room? Hot date?”
He shook his head.
“Then come home with me,” she said.
He stared down at her. “Why aren’t you afraid of me? Everyone else is afraid of me.”
She shrugged. “Are you a god?”
He frowned. “No.”
“Yeah, well, I tased a god one time. Okay, more than once. Also I might have hit him with a jeep.”
Bucky peered at her. “Are you...crazy?”
“Nope. I’m just me. Darcy Lewis. People call me Darcy Lewis Rogers, but I’m too modern to change my name even though I’m married now.” She tugged lightly.
To her surprise, Bucky followed, so she slowly towed him back to Steve and Natasha, who’d stepped to one side and ducked their heads. Natasha had pulled her hair up into a bun so she’d be less recognizable.
“What’s the plan?” Natasha asked, eyeing Bucky, like her plan might be to tackle him and hogtie him and throw him in the trunk.
“The plan,” Darcy said, “is to go home.”
“Home?” Bucky echoed.
Darcy nodded. “You’ll love it. We have a super huge comfy bed, and a super huge comfy couch, and a cat named Walter. Right, Bucky? Home?”
Bucky cast Steve a wary look, but then he nodded.
Darcy beamed up at Steve. “You came on your bike, right? See you there.” She let go of Bucky’s normal hand and reached up, tugged Steve toward her, kissed him on the mouth.
When she pulled back, Bucky was staring at Steve, his fingers pressed to his lips, brow furrowed. Did he remember kissing Steve?
Natasha cleared her throat. “Why don’t you ride with Steve on his bike, and I’ll drive Bucky? We can chat, one former enemy agent to another.”
Darcy tugged gently on Bucky’s metal hand. “Is that what you want?”
He let go of her, stepped back, his gaze going distant, hollow.
Natasha spoke to him in Russian, and he turned to her, lucidity creeping back into his eyes. Whatever she said had him nodding, and when she turned to go, he followed.
Steve started to follow as well, but Darcy caught his arm.
“No. Let him go with her. Come on.”
Steve looked down at her for a long moment, and then he nodded. Hand-in-hand, they headed for the doors, stepped out into the sunlight. They’d done this a hundred times, maybe even a thousand times, climbed onto his bike, which he set to rumbling while Darcy buckled on her helmet. Then she wrapped her arms around his waist and held tight, and they sped through the city under blue skies.
When they got back to their apartment building, Natasha’s car was parked out front in one of the guest spots. Steve parked his bike in one of the resident spots, and then they headed up to their apartment. Sharon’s door was closed. When Steve unlocked the door, Walter was there to meet them, winding around Steve’s ankles and demanding attention.
The apartment smelled of fresh paint, and when Darcy ventured further, the window was fixed, and the wall looked good as new, though there was a little card with wet paint propped up on the back of Steve’s favorite armchair.
“Where is he?” Steve asked.
Darcy closed her eyes, took a deep breath, felt her connection to Bucky. She opened her eyes. “Give him a minute.”
One minute turned into two minutes turned into half an hour. Steve got more and more anxious, started pacing back and forth in front of his favorite chair. He was starting to make Darcy dizzy from all the back-and-forth, and then there was a knock at the door.
Darcy and Steve went to answer it together.
Bucky stood on the threshold clutching a little black backpack, ball cap in hand. “Hey,” he said.
Darcy said, “Welcome home.”