Cover Art by Sileya
When Thor suggested introducing Midgard to a pair of representatives from each of the other seven realms ruled by Asgard, not-so-dead-after-all Agent Coulson had agreed that it sounded like a good idea. Get folks used to aliens existing, in a totally peaceful, friendly situation. Of the fourteen visitors, four could easily be mistaken for human (and had been, at various times and places: the Middle Eastern jinn, European elves, and the Eight Immortals of China); two were giant, blue, and frosty; five were shapeshifters (only the female Dilhoa could shift), and two had tentacles (also appearing in Japanese mythology). Regardless, it sounded like a mild mannered, “get to know the neighbors” kind of picnic. It was held in Switzerland because Coulson actually did have a sense of humor.
And for once since the fall of SHIELD a few months ago, nothing went wrong. The visit was almost a non-event, totally calm. Everyone was well behaved, no one was accidentally poisoned by foods or beverages from the other realms, no one was deeply offended by innocent cultural misunderstandings. No one declared war on Midgard.
Well. Almost perfect. It went fine, really. The only tiny little drop of a hint of a hiccup was that the empathic pair from Qusul were horrified that humans spent so much of their lives seeking a partner to mate with. And the Qusullians were magic users. So of course, it seemed like a wonderfully generous parting gift for them to cast a spell on all the homo sapiens on Earth.
The homo sapiens had a slightly different opinion.
Darcy woke up Sunday morning, went to the bathroom, showered, and guzzled a fairly large cup of black coffee before she noticed anything was amiss. When she did notice, she assumed that the writing on her finger, 1) was Sharpie, and 2) that she got way more drunk than she thought she had last night. She puzzled over it for a moment, shrugged, and went to get the rubbing alcohol, when Jane called.
“OMG Darcy did you get one? I didn’t.”
“Did you just wake up? Turn on the news. And drink more coffee.”
The last part was universally good advice, so Darcy put the phone on speaker, turned back around to the kitchen, and flicked on CNN as she poured herself another mug, this time adding some caramel macchiato Coffee-mate.
“What. The. Actual. Fuck,” she said a few moments later, blinking at the TV.
“Right? I mean, it seems harmless, but God knows that’s never backfired before. Terrans and magic do not historically mix well. And it’s the whole planet, geez.”
“Those cute, kind of lavender-colored folks with the tentacles thought humans were lonely?”
She could hear Jane shrug over the phone. “Well, from their perspective, we do waste an awful lot of time on sex and romance. Spawning would be far more efficient.”
Darcy turned that over in her now very-much-awake brain. “True enough. Less fun though.”
Jane made a sound of agreement. “So…?”
“Duh, do you have a name on your finger?” Jane asked.
Darcy inspected her right ring finger, trying to make out the tiny script. “It says James—”
“Do you know a James?”
“¬and Steven,” Darcy finished.
“Do, uh, does anyone else have more than one name?” Darcy asked, feeling like she’d maybe done something wrong.
Jane cleared her throat and rejoined the conversation from wherever she’d gone in her head. “Yeah, actually, a few people have reported that they have two names. No threes yet. And a lot of blanks. And—”
“And apparently kids just have a smudge,” Darcy said, reading the scrolling bar on CNN as she drained her second coffee, and went to make a third. It was definitely going to be a three-coffee day.
Over the next several months, people started calling the magic names on their hands “soulmate marks” and similar bullshit. Darcy didn’t know anyone named Steven or James, and she resented feeling like she was supposed to be actively looking for these two dudes. She was only twenty-four, had her entire life ahead of her, and still no idea what she wanted to do with it once she finished her PhD. She wasn’t going to let these two hypothetical men affect her life choices. Fuck them; maybe she’d start dating ladies again.
The whole thing had caused a fuckton of problems, world-wide—big surprise. Married people who had built happy lives together were splitting up to find and be with their “soulmates.” As if there was just one (or two) people in the whole world that they could happy with. Something like one-fifth of the population didn’t have names at all; did that mean they would never find happiness with anyone? Some of the “soulmate” pairings had turned out to be platonic friends with no sexual chemistry or passion between them at all, and a rare few “soulmates” were siblings, who all swore up and down that there wasn’t any freaky incest thing going on. So much for “mating.”
A big segment of the American population who were under forty years old and not paired up, collectively decided that freedom of choice was more important that this weird alien magic, so fuck it. Getting a tattoo to cover up the names on their hands became a trendy thing.
Darcy considered a tattoo, but she didn’t want to make the mistake of rushing into something that would be on her hand for the rest of her life. She didn’t like seeing the names and feeling like she was supposed to be with this James and/or Steven, though. She compromised and went with the less-permanent trend, buying a ring wide enough to cover both names, and moved on with her life.
Huge thanks always to the best beta ever, ConnieBailey.
Cover Art made by the multi-talented Sileya.
The soulmates trope was too alluring to resist. As always, I’m both grateful for those who wrote such stories before me, and hopeful that my own twist on it is unique. Be warned, I write somewhat slowly, and this is a very long, slow burn. But I have 20+ chapters finished, and I plan to update weekly.
This story was started the February before Infinity Wars, and diverges from MCU canon after CA: Winter Soldier. The Avengers are as united as a team, just as they were at the very beginning of A2: Age of Ultron. The rest of that movie didn’t happen - no Ultron, no twins, JARVIS is the ghost in the machine, where he belongs. Coulson is alive, and the Avengers are still a bit ticked off that nobody told them he wasn’t dead for so long. SHILED is gone-ish, but Coulson has his team. Agents of SHIELD is happening but is largely irrelevant to this story.
Timeline for anyone who is interested, because I needed to sort things out:
1917, March – Bucky DOB
1918, July – Steve DOB
1943, January – Bucky drafted, age 25y 10m
1943, June – Steve enlists, age 24y 11m
1945, January – Bucky dies, age 27y 10m
1945, March – Steve dies, age 26y 8m
1945, September – WWII ends
1969, December - Bruce DOB
1970, May – Tony DOB
1971, January – Clint DOB
1984, February – Steve’s “new” DOB (date defrosted, counting back from monthly age at death)
1984, November – Natasha DOB (according to one of her many passports)
1990, June – Darcy DOB (if 21ish during Thor 1)
2011, April – Thor 1
2011, October – Steve defrosted
2012, May – Avengers 1
2013, November – Thor 2
2014, February – CA: WS/fall of SHIELD
HUGE THANK YOU to the folks at http://marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline who saved me from having to do quite so much work!
Chapter 2: Darcy - February 17, 2015
It was just an ordinary Monday. Darcy had gone to her office in the PoliSci wing of Cornell to work on her dissertation, stopped at the pho place to get dinner, and was now cleaning up leftover detritus from the Galentines party she’d hosted over the weekend. Okay, and some of the Hanukah/Christmas/NYE stuff that was still hanging around—what, it wasn’t even spring yet, she was totally fine. She had hauled out the inconspicuous wood box at the bottom of her dresser, where she kept the real jewelry that she mostly only wore for holidays and special occasions. She intended to put away the diamond earrings she’d worn for NYE, and her grandmother’s enormous ruby dinner ring from the V-day party.
But when she opened the box, right on the top, was something that had definitely not been there when she’d opened the box a few days ago. It was a big, green, hexagonal crystal thing, about the size of her thumb. When she picked it up, she felt a shiver go through her entire body, bone deep. It was definitely weird because she’d never seen the thing before, and it was big enough that there was literally no way she could have missed it. Also, her box of jewelry was supposed to be super-secret, and besides, who ever heard of a thief breaking into someone’s house to leave jewelry rather than take it? She put the rock aside and looked through the rest of the box; nothing was missing.
Shit just got weird.
So she finished cleaning up her apartment, took the gem, and carried it over to her kitchen table, and set it down to get a better look at it. It was kind of milky inside, which struck her as the sort of thing that probably meant it wasn’t a terribly high-quality stone, but it was enormous. And she had no idea how the fuck it had gotten there. Also there was some kind of static electricity to it or something, because every time she touched it, it made the hairs on her arms stand up and her bones feel like they were… humming somehow. When she put it down, she felt a strange release of tension in her chest, like her heart was suddenly beating too fast.
She carried it over to the window to get some of the last rays of sunlight on the gem, and noticed that it was oddly quiet outside. There were no traffic sounds, no wind, none of the usual sounds from a third-floor apartment in the serious student-zone of Ithaca. There were cars on the street, but they were all stopped. She blinked, but they didn’t move. Nothing moved. She put the stone down and went back to the window—the cars were moving, the wind was making a tree scratch against the side of the building, and everything was normal. Feeling very scientific, she tried it a few more times. If she was holding the stone, nothing moved. If it was sitting on the table, life outside continued as usual.
With a feeling of uncertainty, she went back to the jewelry box and took out her grandmother’s delicate diamond-chip fancy wristwatch, and wound it. She had to jiggle it a bit, but after a moment she could hear it ticking. Then she picked up the stone. The ticking stopped.
Well, shitballs. No bueno at all.
Since the only person she knew of who dealt with weird shit like time-stopping or whatever was Jane, she texted: “Hey girlie. I found a weird thing, and it’s making weird stuff happen, I think. Anyway, I don’t know what to do about it. Uh, call me, please?” (She’d have texted Erik too, but Erik and cellphones were like Erik and pants—they just didn’t work together.)
Not knowing what else to do, she finished cleaning up, reheated her dinner, and binge watched half a season of Bones before going to bed.
Two days later, as Darcy approached her building after another long day of research, she noticed that there were three black SUVs with no license plates parked on her street. A whole bunch of dudes (and a few dudettes) in suits were walking around briskly, and she’d seen enough scifi to know that when you find a weird piece of jewelry in your secret hiding place, and then the Men in Black show up, you’re about to get fucked, and hard.
Oddly, she’d started carrying the stone around with her, in a little silk baggie, nestled in her cleavage. It just felt like the kind of thing she didn’t want to leave at home alone, unsupervised, in case it got into trouble.
She ducked around the corner and stood for a minute, trying to calm down her breathing and figure out what to do. Apparently, Mister Sparkles (as she’d started calling it), had managed to start some trouble even while being chaperoned. Or the MiB could be here for her upstairs neighbors, of course. Those two dudes sold her pot every few months, but they probably sold harder stuff as well. So maybe this was NDA? TSA? No, DEA, that was it.
But no; a suit was walking toward her edge of the building, and wasn’t taking any pains to hide the wire he was talking into on his ear, and she definitely heard him say apartment 302, which was hers. And who knew if these were legit government dudes anyway, or some jerks like Hydra and SHIELD, but it was definitely about Mister Sparkles, because come on, she hadn’t done anything illegal in a super long time. (Except smoke some weed. Okay, and hustle a few asshats at the pool table. And did downloading movies even count, really? No.) Certainly nothing that would result in this kind of attention, government or otherwise. So this was either about her super-smart science BFF—who had still not called her, despite a half-dozen increasingly demanding texts and voicemails—and/or Jane’s godly boyfriend, or it was about the big sparkly rock that had magically appeared in her jewelry box less than forty-eight hours ago.
Okay, well. Whatever. This wasn’t her first rodeo, it was in fact her third rodeo, and she’d come out of the other two quite nicely, thank you. She’d get through this one too. She fished the naughty gemstone out of her cleavage, and dropped it from the silk bag into her hand. Instantly, all noise stopped, and no one moved. It was creepy as fuck, even though she’d already tested it out twice at the corner coffee shop that morning.
Darcy tucked Mister Sparkles into her bra cup, right up against her skin, telling him not to get any ideas about third base because that was never going to happen, and carefully made her way around the corner, inside her building, and up to her apartment. Tiptoeing around all the MiBs, who were clearly packing heat, was pretty adrenaline-making, and she cringed when she bumped into one of them outside her door. But the guy didn’t move, didn’t so much as blink, and while that just made her feel even more traumatized, she could freak out later. She picked up her pace and went to fill a duffle bag with a few essentials. She was incredibly pissed that three of them had her jewelry box out already, and were spreading the contents across her table, so she scooped up a handful: “Hah, make sense of that fuckers.” And then she thought maybe she saw one of them blink, and her bravado vanished, and she ran out of there as fast as she could.
Outside, she walked around the block, and up and over, until she got to a little park a few blocks away. She removed Mister Sparkles from where he’d been nestled against her boob, put him back in the silk bag and into her cleavage-pocket, and exhaled.
“Um, hey, Heimdall? Sorry to bother you up there on Asgard, but this is super important and really strange, and kind of seems like a Thor-thing. I kinda need some help, please, pretty please, with all the cherries and big burly gods on top? Could you please ask Thor to call me or something? I found this weird piece of jewelry, and it seems to stop time. I think. Anyway, it seems bad, and I don’t think it should be here on Earth. We like time to just go forward, with no pauses. And there are some possibly-bad guys looking for it. And me. So uh, help?”
She stood there, looking up at and talking to the sky like a total crazy person, hoping against hope that Heimdall was like a phone operator from the 1920s, continually at the switchboard. What the hell was she thinking?
Darcy got out her phone and started looking up train schedules to see if she could get to NYC or something, since Jane had been given lab space in Tony Stark’s Manhattan tower, after SHIELD fell apart. A moment later, the sky clouded over, there was a huge crack of lightning, and then Thor was there, tah-dah!
“Hey man,” she said with the most relieved grin on her face that she’d probably ever had.
“Heimdall sent me to you, Lightning-Sister. Are you hurt? I see no incipient danger,” he said, looking around the empty playground as he hefted his hammer.
“I’m fine, thanks. The bad guys are hopefully still a few blocks away. I’m one of those modern self-saving princesses.”
Thor grasped her shoulder and squeezed, in what he probably thought was a light, friendly way. Dude was ridiculously strong. People in Asgard must be much more durable, Darcy thought. Or at least non-bruising.
“Tell me of this stone you have found,” Thor said, pulling her back into the moment.
“I can do better than that,” she said as she reached down her shirt and into her cleavage, winked at a very surprised-looking Thor, and took out Mister Sparkles.
He took the bag she offered, and dropped the stone into his opposite palm. The next instant, like not even a micro-millisecond later, he was holding the stone in the original hand, on top of the bag so he was no longer touching it. So goddamned freaky.
Thor gave her a very concerned look. “This is an Infinity stone. It is the one we call Eilífðin on Asgard, an old word for eternity. How did you come to be in possession of it?”
Darcy shrugged. “I have no freakin’ idea, dude. It was just there, in my jewelry box.”
There was a bit of a pause while Thor studied her expression, possibly to see if she was lying or something. “That is most unusual.”
“Right?” Darcy nodded. “Usually things disappear from my jewelry box, not the other way around.”
“The Infinity Stones are gathering together, and Midgard seems to be at the center of it. If all six stones were in the same location, it would be a terrible thing. You are in grave danger, Lady Darcy.” Thor’s expression softened as he registered her reaction, and put his huge arm around her. “You are indeed mighty in your control of electricity, but I would offer you my protection. Will you allow me to provide you with a place of sanctuary?”
Darcy nodded, squaring her shoulders. She took Mister Sparkles from Thor’s hand, and put him away. Picking up her dufflebag, she asked in a doubtful voice, “Do you have a car?”
Thor laughed as he held up Mjollinir and began to twirl it. Before Darcy could even come to the logical conclusion of what was about to happen, let alone protest or scream or argue for how much nicer cars were or that she was sort of afraid of heights, a little bit, they were off.
On the plus side, travel via hammer was fast, really fast, so at least she wasn’t in the air, flying over New York from Ithaca to Manhattan, for more than maybe three minutes. So, it was useful; she’d give Mew-Mew that.
On the down side was a list that started with screamingly mindless terror, biting cold wind, and a high probability that she would have lost bladder control in about thirty more seconds. They landed with a significant impact, and Thor gently set her back on her feet.
Which was all chivalrous and nice and stuff, but her body hadn’t really come to terms with what had just happened, and she instantly collapsed to the ground, rolled onto her hands and knees, and puked.
Conclusion: Travel via magical hammer = no thank you. Jane was clearly nuts.
Chapter 3: Steve - July 19, 2014 (7 months earlier)
After five months, thirteen days, and about nineteen hours (give or take a few hours), Steve and Sam finally found Bucky. Well, maybe “found” was stretching it a bit, since they had been following Bucky as he took out what seemed to be every Hydra location he knew of—which was rather a lot. There was a great deal of crisscrossing back-and-forth across the globe, which Sam proposed might be because Bucky wasn’t remembering things in any sort of order; human brains weren’t known for being linear. Annoyingly, they tended to catch up with Bucky anywhere from seventy-two hours to less than one hour after Bucky had vanished from the scene. They were getting closer and closer, though, and in the last two weeks, Steve had been finding clues left at the sites, indicating which direction Bucky had taken off in. Bucky was intentionally leaving a trail, as if he knew Steve and Sam were following him, and didn’t mind.
Anyway, on July 19th, Sam pulled their SUV to the side of the road across from the remains of what seemed like it had been a farmhouse a few hours ago, outside of Dog River, in Saskatchewan. A few partial walls were still standing, and enough metal was strewn around to suggest several large machines that one wouldn’t typically find in an abandoned barn. Sam and Steve had heard a distant boom while they were driving, but no cops were on-scene—if there even were any in the area—and none appeared to be coming.
Off to the side of the rubble and gently-floating ash a grimy, long-haired figure was lounging against a rusted-out tractor, looking for all the world like he wished he had a cigarette to while away the time as he waited for them. An impressive arsenal lay on the ground beside him, although neither Sam nor Steve was stupid enough to believe the Winter Soldier was completely unarmed.
Steve help up his hands to show they were empty as he got out of the car. “Do you know who I am?”
Bucky looked at him and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “The punk who’s been following me around like a lost puppy for the last five months? Makes you seem a little desperate, Stevie.”
Steve’s heart lurched into his throat, and he let out a strangled “Bucky” as he ran forward, completely ignoring all of Sam’s warnings—both from over the last several months, and being yelled at him right at that moment. For once not hesitating even a moment to reign in his strength, Steve crushed Bucky to his chest, burying his face into the other man’s neck as if he would never let go. To his—and Sam’s—surprise, Bucky didn’t resist the overwhelming embrace, despite its forcefulness. To the embarrassment of all three of them, Steve was struggling not to cry as he whispered, “I missed you,” into Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky didn’t exactly return the embrace, but after a moment, he raised one arm and awkwardly patted Steve’s back.
“I knew you wanted us to find you,” Steve murmured.
“Well, it’s not exactly playing hard to get if I wait for you outside, now is it?” Bucky said.
The incredibly awkward silence stretched, but still Steve refused to let go. Couldn’t. He had Bucky—willingly—and he was never, ever letting him out of his sight again.
Finally, Sam cleared his throat until Steve released his long-lost friend. “If you two are done hugging, do you want to go back to the town and get some lunch? Maybe find a motel first, take a shower?” he hinted, probably trying to not sound critical but failing.
Sam had a point though, Steve realized as he finally let go and stepped back. Bucky was pretty much covered with soot—although, thank God, no blood—and thanks to his enthusiasm, now Steve was too. “And clothes,” he added, wiping ineffectively at the front of his T-shirt.
Bucky raised an eyebrow. “You some kinda cake-eater now?”
Automatically, Steve scoffed, “Don’t worry, pal, I left plenty of Brylcreem for ya.” Then he paused for a moment, and it hit him all at once—the Brooklyn accent, the slang, that voice, period. He had Bucky back. And all of the sudden he had a knot in his throat and felt like he couldn’t breathe.
Bucky looked at him with an old and familiar expression of concern, as he reached out to pat Steve on the shoulder. The touch was fleeting, so brief it may not have happened, like the gesture had been instinctive, but then Bucky caught himself at the last minute.
“I can’t believe you’re real,” Steve said in a choked voice.
The side of Bucky mouth twitched again. “Me neither. Maybe I’m not.”
Sam tsked. “Save the existentialism for later, guys. Let’s get you cleaned up and fed; one thing at a time.”
Bucky bundled all of his gear into the car, and then had Sam stop not far away, where he retrieved a dufflebag from behind a copse of trees. They headed into the town, and found a motel (the only one). Dog River was in the middle of nowhere, not on any GPS except the one from SI’s satellite. There was a gas station, a diner, and a four-room motel that looked like it had been there since the turn of the last century. At least it had hot water, though, and they’d definitely all stayed in worse places.
In an unexpected show of trust—after checking the room’s security—Bucky headed straight into the shower while Steve and Sam talked about what to do next.
“You thinking you want to stay here overnight or start heading to DC once we’re done eating?” Sam asked him.
“That depends on Bucky. I don’t even know if he’s going to want to stay with us,” Steve said, realizing all of the sudden that Bucky might not be within his eyesight forever and ever and ever, from this moment forward, until death did they part. Which made his insides feel squished into too small of a shape again.
Sam sighed, probably having already thought of this possibility. “Of course it’s going to be his choice. But we could present him with a few options, if he doesn’t already have a plan. What do you want to do?”
Steve shrugged and tried to pull himself back from the edge of panic. “Keep him within reach for the rest of my life and never, ever, let go?”
“Aw, that’s sweet and all,” Sam said, grinning, “but he’s a grown man, and he’s probably going to want to use the toilet by himself and stuff.”
“To say nothing of the occasional visit to the dry-mouthed widow,” Bucky said, startling Steve a little, and making Sam practically jump out of his skin.
Steve tried not to look at Bucky’s wet body and the ridiculously too-small towel around his hips. He tried to laugh or smile at least, but it got stuck as his throat tightened again. “You sound like you, the old you. I wasn’t expecting that,” he managed to get out.
Bucky turned to get some clothes from his duffelbag. “Well, that’s good because I feel like the old me is in here, sort of, but there’s a lot of… other stuff too. I guess seeing you makes the Brooklyn-part get to be in control of the mouth.”
“Well, it’s good to hear your voice,” Steve said, cringing at how awkward he sounded, “no matter who you are now.”
Some of the tension in Bucky’s face relaxed at that, and Steve wondered if Bucky had been assuming that Steve only wanted the old him back, the pre-war Bucky, the one with two flesh arms and a brain that had never been scrambled by anything more than a dishy dame . Steve knew better; that man was long gone, just like the 5’4” twerp Steve used to be. Too much had happened, and Steve had been working on trying to reconcile his hopes for Bucky with more probable realities ever since the Winter Soldier had dragged him out of the Potomac.
After they had all cleaned up, they went out to the local diner and made somewhat stilted conversation about the weather, Saskatchewan, and Steve’s impressions of Southeast Asia when they were there, trailing Bucky’s path of destruction. Bucky harassed Steve about his clothes, and Steve teased him back about his long hair, while Sam laughed at their give and take.
“You’re both little shits, aren’t you?”
Steve made the Captain America face, and Sam started to laugh before Steve could even open his mouth. “I’m appalled that you would use such rough language in a place where ladies are present. Mind your manners, mister,” he managed to get out before he started laughing too.
He glanced at Bucky to see what he thought of the exchange, and found that they’d been ignored completely as Bucky stared at the menu. His mouth was pinched and his forehead wrinkled with concentration.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Steve asked.
“I just… I don’t… There’s too many things on the menu,” Bucky said, flipping the pages as he grew more and more tense.
Sam nodded. “So let’s simplify it a little. Do you want meat, yes or no?” Bucky nodded, and Sam continued, “Chicken, fish, or beef?”
“Beef?” Bucky asked, in a tentative voice that was like a knife in Steve’s heart.
“Great, okay,” Sam said. “It’s dinnertime, more or less, so would you like a burger or meatloaf or country fried steak? That means the steak has been battered and fried, like fried chicken, in case you haven’t come across that one before,” he added.
Bucky closed his menu and glanced outside the window as if he was hoping the answer was there. Sam gave him a few minutes, watching him bite his bottom lip. “I don’t know.”
The waitress was heading over, and ignored or didn’t see Steve’s scowl for her to go away. “Evening, boys. Today’s special is Mama’s Pot Roast, with potatoes and carrots. Nothing fancy, but a taste of home,” she said, the phrase clearly rehearsed.
Steve looked at Bucky. “You used to like that, want to give it a try?” Bucky nodded, looking relieved. “Great,” Steve said to the server, “two of those, please. And onion rings and the fried zucchini. And probably dessert later, too.”
Sam shook his head. “Some of us have to eat like actual adults, you know. I’ll take the grilled salmon, with a salad, please.” After the waitress left, Sam turned to Bucky. “When you haven’t had much control over your life—or have only had limited control for a long time—it can be pretty overwhelming to have a four-page menu of choices in front of you, to say nothing of walking into a grocery store or some place like K-mart. Or even just deciding how to spend your day. We see a lot of that in POWs, and in veterans in general. Right, Steve?”
Steve, who had been trying not to look upset at having just bowled Bucky over and ordered for him like he was a child, nodded. Maybe Sam was right; maybe he’d helped, not overstepped, after all. “Absolutely, I hate grocery shopping. I can’t find anything that looks familiar, and there are too many kinds of the same damn things. Who needs five kinds of apples? It’s even worse than clothes shopping.”
“Haven’t exactly done much shopping for the last seventy years. I just take whatever’s not going to be noticed,” Bucky said, shrugging.
“That’s three full rosaries, for stealing,” Steve said. “And an afternoon of helping the Sisters at the soup kitchen. Remember how Father Ryan would sigh and shake his head, reminding us that repenting only works if you don’t plan to do it again?”
He and Bucky shared a tentative smile, and the waitress returned with their food.
Chapter 4: Steve - same day
Back at the hotel, the three men stood in a moment of awkwardness, looking at the two beds. It wasn’t late, but all three of them had been running for the last half-year, with very few breaks longer than twenty-four hours. Emotionally, Steve was worn out. He felt like his insides were still shaking with excitement or something, and despite being utterly drained, he wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep.
“I’ll take the sofa,” he offered, despite the fact that it was at least two feet too short for his body length. He didn’t need to be comfortable. He just needed to rest, and know that Bucky was here.
Bucky looked him up and down and made a scoffing noise. “Not to sleep on, you’re not. I don’t care who takes first watch, but I’m sleeping on the floor,” he said, pointing to the narrow space between one of the beds and the bathroom wall.
“That’s crazy,” Steve said. "If only one of us is going to be sleeping at a time, then there’s no reason for you not to take the bed.”
Bucky’s jaw clenched. “No.”
“What, you’re too good for a hotel bed, now?” Steve couldn’t keep the sudden flare of anger out of his voice as he and Bucky scowled at each other.
A pillow hit him in the shoulder. “Stop being an ass,” Sam said. “The man can sleep wherever he wants, provided he’s not trying to share the bed with me. Let’s put some of the blankets in the closet down, and here, Steve, throw me a pillow.” Sam had a pallet set up on the floor in a few moments.
Bucky glanced at Steve, still angry, and headed to the door.
Bucky gripped the doorknob, making it creak, then took a slow breath and said, “I’m going to get a soda at the front desk. Is that okay?”
Steve swallowed. “Yeah, of course.” He felt like such a heel as the door shut behind Bucky, and he settled onto the corner of the bed under contention.
“A lot of guys back from the war zone feel more comfortable on the floor for a little while,” Sam pointed out. “This is all normal, Steve, we’ve been over this. This is day one. He may sound like the old Bucky, because it makes both of you feel better, but you and he both know he’s not. Let him be who he is.”
Steve bent over, elbows on his knees, face in his hands. A moment later, the bed squished down beside him as Sam sat.
“Haven’t you been paying attention to me for the last few months? I’m frankly shocked that he let us find him at all, and I’m impressed that he seems to have already recovered a lot of who he is. But you have got to be more patient with him. This is a big adjustment, remember, even bigger than when you woke up from the ice. If he’s not hurting himself or anyone else, let him do what he needs to do until he gets used to what’s going on.”
Steve scrubbed his hands over his face and sat up. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Sam laughed. “I’m always right. Man, you’re still pretty fucked up about some things—like shopping. Even though he’s been out in the world intermittently for the last seven decades, and even though he seems like he’s got it all under control, give him some breathing room.”
Steve nodded, getting up to pull his toothbrush out of his backpack.
“Maybe give yourself some breathing room, too,” Sam added. “This is hard for you. It’s okay that you’re not handling it perfectly.”
Bucky came back while Steve was in the shower, and Steve finally let himself relax under the hot water. Sam was doing everything he could to diffuse the tension in the room, but no one felt like talking, and they were all too tired for TV. They ro-sham-boed, and Bucky ended up taking the first watch, promising to wake Steve in three hours. Steve had no intention of waking Sam for the morning shift; his friend needed more rest than he did. Steve could doze in the car if he needed to.
The queen-size bed was too small; even diagonally, Steve barely fit. Still, it was what he was used to now, and it was comfortable. Despite the frantic circling of his thoughts, he managed to slow down his breaths using one of Bruce Banner’s relaxation techniques, and fell into a light sleep.
Like a film clip being played over and over again, Bucky fell. The piece of metal he was hanging from broke off the train. His cold, blue hands slipped off the icy metal. The pully on the zipline broke and he fell, never making it to the train. Each time, Steve was reaching out to grab him, but he never got there in time to do more than brush Bucky’s fingertips before he fell, screaming.
Every variation his active imagination could come up with played out through his dreams. Anguish and grief and crushing guilt ripped through him, fresh wounds every time. Yelling as he tried to fight off the faceless person holding him back from leaping after Bucky, Steve finally woke up….
…and found Bucky holding his wrists, attempting to keep Steve from punching him in the face. He was drenched in sweat, heart pounding, and embarrassed that he was visibly shaking. Bucky let go and went back to the sofa, and Steve tried to get a grip on himself. Deep breathing didn’t help. It was all too much; he felt too raw.
“You want to go splash some water on your face?” Sam asked, from his bed. “Sometimes that helps.”
Steve nodded, paused, and shook his head. “I need to… I think I’m going to… I’m gonna go for a run,” he said, reaching for his clothes and shoes, ignoring how difficult it was to tie the shoelaces with his hands shaking so badly. He scooped up his wallet and phone, and then turned to look at Bucky. Fear made his blood run cold, and the icy fist in his chest squeezed hard. He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” Bucky said, after a moment.
Steve swallowed around the knot in his throat. “Promise?”
Bucky shrugged, then nodded. Steve couldn’t read the expression on Bucky’s face; there was concern there, but distance too. He didn’t seem like he was lying. And even if he was, what could Steve hope to do about it?
Within three minutes at his top speed, he was outside the tiny little town. In another twenty minutes, he was in the middle of absolutely flat nowhere, with no lights shining through the darkness for miles, no one, nothing except a few cows. He kept going, racing through the dark, moonless night.
No matter how fast or how far he ran, he couldn’t escape the storm in his head or the feelings tangled in his chest that made it feel like his heart was being cut to pieces. Every pounding step made the noise in his head louder and louder, until he stopped. There was no one out there, no one to hear, no one to judge, as he yelled his wordless rage and marrow-deep relief into the empty night. His yells were angry, terrified, relieved, and mixed with some kind of happiness that he couldn’t possibly put into words.
The empty land and distant stars accepted the spew of his inner chaos. When his voice gave out and his throat was raw, he bent, hands on his knees, chest heaving. He tried to catch his breath but couldn’t. He walked over to a fence post and sat down on the cold ground and let himself fall apart until dawn.
When he returned the hotel room, Steve avoided the two pairs of concerned eyes and headed straight for the shower. He felt half-frozen and numb—inside more than out. Sam mumbled that the diner didn’t open until nine, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
Bucky… Well, Bucky was still there. As he’d promised.
They hadn’t actually talked about it, though, and Sam kept giving him side-long looks that it was time to do so. Bucky hadn’t said anything one way or the other about where they were headed, and with every mile, the pending conversation grew more ominous.
“Not that I don’t love increasing tension as much as the next guy, but maybe we should talk about what happens next,” Sam said, apparently giving up on him. Not without cause.
Steve scowled at Sam, then glanced at Bucky in the rear-view mirror. His face was hard to read, and the long hair and stubble made for a pretty effective veil . He wondered idly if Bucky was planning to clean himself up some time, or if the unkempt look was part of the new Bucky.
Steve’s fingernails dug into his palms as he struggled to speak. “We’re making for Chicago, with an end goal of DC. Sam has an apartment there.” Steve skipped over mentioning that he no longer had an apartment, just a small storage unit with the few items that had survived the shoot-out in February.
“Usually we go back to my place to regroup,” Sam added, after Steve had paused for too long. “But we could go somewhere else.”
Clenching his jaw, Steve nodded. “Sam and I have talked about some of the options you might want to choose from.” He took a measured breath and made himself go on. “One option is, of course, for you to leave. Go on to some place that’s safe and secret, and live your life.” He took another slow inhale and exhale, but it didn’t help; he couldn’t stop himself from adding, in a quavering voice, “But please, please check in with me every few weeks so I know you’re all right.”
He was afraid to catch Bucky’s eyes in the mirror, but sensed the movement of his nod.
“Or you can go back to DC with us, or some other city or town wherever you want. And we can help set you up with a place to stay and some job leads.”
“And introduce you to the local VA,” Sam added. “If you want. We’re pretty helpful with helping vets find apartment and jobs. And doctors and therapists.”
This time Steve did look back at Bucky, who shrugged and looked out the window. His lips were pressed together, hard, in an old, familiar way that meant he was feeling blue.
“Therapists who specialize in PTSD,” Sam continued.
Bucky made a sarcastic sound, glancing at Steve. “You think I need to talk to some doc about battle fatigue? That is so far down on the list of ways I’m fucked up. Like worrying about a loaf of bread in the oven when the house is on fire.”
Sam chuckled. “You are definitely a unique case. Still, the mental health professionals the VA works with at least have some experience with folks who are trying to put their lives back together, and live as—and with—civilians.”
“But you don’t have to,” Steve added, making himself hold eye contact. “Sam hasn’t managed to drag me in for psychotherapy, despite his constant nagging. I get by on my own.”
Bucky chewed on his thoughts for a few moments, then sighed and nodded. “I’ve kind of already done that. Even on the run, I had a lot of down time. I think I’ve done as much as I can by myself.” He took a slow breath, and then another, before he continued in a barely-audible voice. “I need help, or I don’t think I’m going to get better than this, and you haven’t seen any of the bad stuff yet.”
Steve wanted to twist to face the backseat, reach out to touch him, but held himself back from more than an affirmative nod over his shoulder. Instead, he hurried to get to the third option he and Sam had thought to prepare. “All right, so please don’t get upset, and we’re sorry in advance if we’re getting ahead of ourselves with this next option, but… well. We definitely don’t want to tell you what to do, not at all. But over the last couple months Sam and I, we started to put together ideas for a safe place outside of DC, about a fifteen minute drive from the nearest suburbs. Like an old farmhouse, with plenty of space and silence. Isolated, but close enough for help to arrive before it’s too late.”
Sam nodded. “I’ve also been reaching out to some of the trauma therapists I know. There’s general agreement that we think someone in your situation—not that I’ve been specific about you, or that anyone’s ever been in your situation—would benefit from a couple of hours of sessions, a few times a week, for a while.”
Steve rushed to add the rest before Bucky could say anything. “And Bruce, Doctor Banner, has helped out with some suggestions for doctors—including himself. And so then of course Tony Stark—Howard’s boy—jumped in to offer his services with the arm. He wants to build you a new one, maybe get Stark Industries pointed in the direction of robotic prosthetics. Or something like that; he kinda loses me when he gets all excited.”
Bucky nodded and was quiet, staring out the window. A few miles passed by in silence, and Steve tried to stay calm, let Bucky have some time to think. He was about to say that Bucky didn’t have to decide anything right now, when Bucky finally spoke.
“I think I like the third option. I don’t feel pushed into it, but thanks for giving me the other options first. I think that’s what I need. Cities are too loud, and I’m always looking over my shoulder for Hydra—or whatever’s left of it—to come and drag me back.” He paused. “I don’t trust myself. I don’t want to hurt anyone….” He shrugged at Steve’s confused look. “Sometimes I have… moments. I don’t know how long they last, but when I come back to myself, I have no idea where I am or how I got there. Not as often, now, but… I don’t ever want to come back to myself with blood on my hands again.”
“We won’t let that happen to you.” Steve couldn’t stop himself from turning back and putting a hand on Bucky’s knee. He tried not to take it personally when Bucky flinched.
Sam’s voice held an audible smile. “Great. We can start putting things in motion after lunch, if you want. My stomach’s growling thinking about all those fries you two devoured last night.”
Chapter 5: Bucky - same date
Either Steve and Sam had already done a hell of a lot of planning, or they had some pretty amazing connections, Bucky thought. Three and a half days after letting Steve catch up to him, the three of them pulled into a small, rural town near the border of Maryland and Virginia, drove to the middle of nowhere, and stopped at a farmhouse. It smelled like there was a dairy farm somewhat nearby, but distant enough that the cow shit didn’t overwhelm the general fresh-air smell. And apparently they were only about an hour’s drive from DC.
“This is the Reynolds’s farm, my brother-in-law’s aunt and uncle,” Sam said as they went into the house. “It’s more a home than a farm these days, but they’ve got some crops and a few animals that need taken care of while they’re gone. They went out to Denver to spend a couple of months with their new grandbaby. They don’t have a specific time they need to come back, so we have the place for as long as we need it.”
“Someone’s been here today,” Bucky said, trying not to sound challenging.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, Ryan came out to stock the pantry and move a few things to storage so we’d have some room.”
Meaning things that couldn’t be replaced, heirlooms and whatnot. That was good, knowing that if he wrecked the house, at least the folks nice enough to let him stay here wouldn’t have lost everything precious to them.
The key was in a flowerpot by the door, and Sam let them in. It was a pretty big, old house, but Bucky guessed that was reasonable, since farmers tended to have a lot of kids or farmhands around. After he stashed most of his arsenal in one of the bedrooms, he took off to scout out the other buildings. One of the barns was a garage, and the other housed four goats who reeked to high heaven. There was a hen house occupied by a baker’s dozen of hens—no rooster, thank god—and a pair of peacocks, for some reason. There were various farm cats, but no dogs or big livestock. The few acres of fields had corn, root vegetables, melons, and there was a decent size mixed orchard of fruit and nut trees. There were flower beds everywhere.
It looked like he and Steve were going to be earning their room and board, which made Bucky feel a whole lot better about staying there. Not to mention that having nothing to do made him feel like he was going to explode. Those times tended to end with black-out periods—not good.
After dinner, they called it an early night. Bucky knew he could use some privacy, to stop hearing Steve breathing down his neck. Not that Steve’s worries about him leaving were unfounded, but it was wearing on him after over seventy-two hours without a break.
Maybe they could get one of those electronic fences he’d run into a few times; they made his arm buzz uncomfortably but hadn’t shocked him too much. There had to be some kind of device that would let you not only track someone, but could send out an emergency alert. Maybe then Steve could stand to let Bucky out of his sight for a few hours. Being on the run for the last few months had been difficult, but not having anyone watching his every move had been fantastic. On the other hand, Hydra wasn’t gone, and they’d be coming for him eventually. Having some way to send a distress call would be nice. He’d bring it up tomorrow.
The morning brought the realization that even though there was no rooster to greet the dawn, there was a Steve, who was significantly more annoying than a few cock-a-doodle-doos. Sam had literally taped a note to his door warning Steve from waking him up for any reason other than an emergency. Bucky really wished he’d been smart enough to think of that, because Steve wanted Bucky to go for a run with him, “A nice long one—think you can keep up?” Steve had asked with a challenging grin. Fucker.
Two hours later—not even seven in the morning yet—they were back, both drenched in sweat. When Bucky protested that this was not going to be a regular event, Steve had just smirked at him and said, “It’s good for you.” So apparently that’s how it was going to be, Bucky thought. Steve was going to tell him what to do every step of the way until Bucky snapped and beat the snot out of him—or tried to, anyway.
After showers there were frozen waffles, and a carton and a half of eggs, and coffee—real coffee, better than anything Bucky thought he’d ever had before—and then there was a meeting that was apparently only a surprise to him. Bucky had heard the car coming once it turned off the main highway, and would have gone for his guns if Steve hadn’t put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Expecting someone?” he asked, making an effort to keep his displeasure out of his voice. He didn’t like secrets.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, Rob called this morning and said he’d had a cancellation and could come out today, instead of waiting until tomorrow. Sorry I didn’t prep you, he didn’t say exactly when he’d be here, and I thought I’d bring it up after we ate, which is, well, now.”
Steve nodded. “He’s—or was—a SHIELD therapist. I figure since he got wounded fighting on our side against Hydra, he’s probably trustworthy. Nat—Natasha Romanov—gave him the all-clear too. If you don’t like him, we can find someone else, though.”
The fact that it wouldn’t exactly be easy to find another therapist was obvious. Bucky nodded, and excused himself to go wash his hands and face, and try to calm the pounding in his chest. He stared at the reflection in the mirror, the haunted eyes, hollow cheeks, long hair, patchy beard. He had no idea who that man was, whose mouth trembled a little unless he was clenching his jaw hard enough to make the muscle flex. Taking a deep breath, he splashed a few handfuls of water on his face, dried off, and opened the door. He wasn’t going to get any further on figuring out who the man in the mirror was without some help.
Everyone had gathered at the dining room table, which had been cleared and washed. The seat he’d sat in for breakfast was open, so he took it and turned to face the newcomer. The guy was probably in his late forties, with slightly greying hair, casual clothes, and a wedding ring. He looked reasonably fit, but not enough to present any sort of challenge for Bucky, if he attacked.
“Great, um, Buck, this is Dr. Rob Collinson. Doctor, this is James Barnes,” Steve said.
The other man made an aborted move like he was going to offer his hand to shake, but Bucky’s hands stayed firmly on the table—in plain view, so no one would get nervous—and he didn’t move, other than to nod. “So you’re the doc that’s going to try to glue my brain back together?”
The doctor laughed a little. “I’m the lead therapist of a small team, who will be working to help you put it back together yourself. We have the glue and an instruction manual, so to speak, and we’ll coach you through the process.”
“A team?” Bucky asked.
“Of three, including me,” Sam said in a placating tone. “The other doctor is Evelyn Hall, who will be working with you from a different angle, and also providing support for Steve. And I’ll be staying here with you both until you feel like kicking me out.”
Steve looked pissed off, which made Bucky happy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so suck on that, Stevie. But he wasn’t happy about the idea of a lady doctor.
“Evelyn will be joining us on Wednesday, day after tomorrow. Today, I want to lay out the treatment plan we’ve been envisioning, and see what you think of it. We have reasons for everything we recommend, based on research and experience, but you are a unique case. Anything that you don’t like or feel isn’t working, can be changed. We ask that you try our suggestions first, even if they feel like they aren’t helping right away. Anything that’s causing you more distress, you have the right to refuse to continue. Does that sound okay?” Dr. Collinson asked.
Bucky held eye contact with the man, evaluating his words for sincerity, then nodded. “Okay.” Steve opened his mouth to say something, and then flinched when Sam evidently kicked him under the table.
Was it bad that Steve getting a dose of his own medicine was making Bucky want to smile? The thought made him twitch like he’d been zapped by a lightbulb inside his head. A shiver chilled him, as he remembered he didn’t know Steve. He wasn’t the Bucky who’d shared an apartment with the sick little guy, nor the one who’d shared a tent with this new big version in Europe. And Steve wasn’t either one of those two guys, now.
Bucky suddenly noticed no one was saying anything, and they were all staring at him. “Uh. I said okay.”
Dr. Collinson gave him an appraising look, then nodded. “Let me start by telling you that Evelyn and I both take a fairly casual approach in our counseling. We find that creates an environment that feels safer. That means that you can ask me anything you want during a session. My life hasn’t been fabulous on every level. I’m not perfect. And by sharing who I am as a person, I hope to encourage you to feel comfortable not being perfect either.” The doctor glanced across the table with a small grin. “Sam here is pretty even-keeled, but even he has his moments.”
Sam snorted a little. “That’s me, practically perfect in every way. No man, in all honestly, I’m always going to have scars from losing Riley, and my dad. But I’ve taken those feelings and issues out and looked at them, helped by a few professionals. I’ve made my peace with those losses. Some moments are difficult, when I’m reminded of them. But I know I can deal with it, I can be patient with myself, and not get lost in a downward spiral.”
Bucky had a sudden flash of envy. He wanted that. And Steve too, he thought, glancing at the big lug. Steve might not be falling apart in a way anyone else would notice, but Bucky wasn’t anyone else.
“During your first few sessions, Steve will be in the room with you. We won’t go into anything too deep in the beginning, and he can join us for as long as you want. I hope that soon you’ll feel comfortable with both Evelyn and I, one on one.”
“We’re working on a few different ideas,” Steve semi-interrupted, “so I won’t hear anything you don’t want me to, but I can be on hand in case you need me.”
Bucky nodded. “I was also thinking last night that the place needs an electric fence, and you could put a shock collar on me, so you know I won’t run.”
Steve winced, and when Bucky glanced at the other two men, they had very carefully neutral expressions on their faces. What? What had he said wrong?
After a couple of long, slow breaths Steve said, “Well, uh, that’s one possibility that might work. I don’t want you to run. But I won’t trap you here either.”
Bucky sighed, then nodded. “Fine.”
“This might be a good subject for the two of you to brainstorm tonight,” Dr. Collinson suggested. “Perimeter security so that you can all feel safe but not trapped. Emergency alert options, etc. Something like a panic button for all of us on site, maybe. So if you feel unsafe, if you feel like you might lose control, if you need help, you can press it, and Steve will be there right away. If Evelyn or I feel unsafe, we’ll press ours.”
Bucky took a deep breath. “I don’t feel good about having a lady doctor.” The other three men froze instantly, as if he’d just said something outlandish or offensive. Again. His brow furrowed as he tried to figure it out; everything was such a goddamned puzzle now. It was exhausting.
“Oh, I see. I don’t mean I have a problem with ladies being doctors,” he said, and was a little annoyed that they all relaxed at that. “I mean that she wouldn’t be safe around me.” They seemed to be waiting for him to go on. His hands—still on the table—clenched and flexed. “In addition to assassination and murder, Hydra used me to torture victims, including raping women.”
He didn’t know what kind of expressions were on their faces now, because he wasn’t looking up from the spot he was staring at on the table. Maybe he should have been more… polite about it, but fuck that. They were here to help him, and damnit, they needed to know what they were getting into. Especially some lady.
Dr. Collinson slowly slid his hand across the table to rest gently across Bucky’s metal one. “Thank you for telling us that; I can see that it wasn’t easy. You’re right to worry, and I don’t think Evelyn will mind if I speak for her and say that we both appreciate your concerns about our safety. I have faith that you, Steve, and Sam can come up with some ways to mitigate the dangers, for all of us.”
It wasn’t the answer Bucky wanted, but it was an acceptable one. He hadn’t been dismissed, as Steve almost certainly would have done. And the doctor had touched him, touched his metal hand, like he was any other patient the doc was offering comfort to. After he’d just said he was a rapist, that he hadn’t only killed people, but had tortured them too.
Bucky left his eyes focused on that one spot, even after the doctor withdrew his hand. His throat had clamped shut, and all he could do was nod or shake his head. Steve jumped in when it was clear Bucky had gone silent, but that was all right. He was still listening, even if most of his attention was on the feelings fluttering around in his chest, light like feathers or helium balloons. He thought it felt familiar, something the old Bucky had felt. It felt a lot like hope.
Chapter 6: Bucky - July-December, 2014
The next few weeks were good. Well no, not good; they were hard and sometimes awful and Bucky was not fond of crying—to put it mildly—although he seemed to be doing a hell lot of it. But Steve had been with him for the first few sessions, and working with Evelyn was fine, so far. They’d come up with panic-button bracelets with GPS for everyone to wear. For the first time since 1943, Bucky felt like he could relax a little bit. Only a little, but still.
They’d come up with a fairly regimented daily schedule for exercise, therapy sessions three times a week, homework assignments, and chores around the house and farm. Bucky had expected to chafe at having his time so planned out, but after less than a week he was ready to admit that having structure and something to d, was comforting. After the first week, he said “no” to one of his chores for no reason at all—harvesting the melons—and Steve had simply traded one of his chores with Bucky and moved on. There was no punishment, no violence, no yelling, not even Steve’s sad-eyes-of-disappointment. He’d said no, and nothing bad had happened.
Wednesday mornings meant running with Steve at why-do-you-hate-me-o’clock. Bucky had managed to negotiate him down to four times a week, which had felt like a huge victory. Steve’s lips had pressed together in that way that said he wasn’t happy, but he’d agreed to the compromise, which wasn’t something Bucky remembered about Steve from the past. But like the chore-trade, Steve held his tongue and accepted it. Sam had slowly been working in a few more choices every day for Bucky to make, and had insisted on Steve following the same routine Bucky did. Which, not gonna lie, Bucky fucking loved. Mister I Saved the World TWICE was not fond of cooking, and loathed shopping for groceries, even online. But Sam insisted, and Steve followed orders.
Anyway, on this particular Wednesday Steve was having his third solo session with Evelyn, and he was pretty goddamn cranky about it. Bucky was fairly cranky, himself: his latest homework assignment from Dr. Rob was to touch people. Steve and Sam were the only people around, and yes the doc agreed that it was going to be incredibly awkward, as well as difficult. But apparently it was important.
By evening both Steve and Bucky were bitchy as hell, and Sam wisely decided to have dinner in town, alone. Steve sat down next to Bucky, who was flipping through TV channels in the living room, trying to find something that was on his list of recommended programs.
Steve reached over and took the remote control out of his hand.
Bucky very slowly turned to look at him. “You want to rethink that, bub, or do you want a sock in the jaw?”
“I want to watch Animal Planet,” Steve grumbled.
“That’s nice. Also, I don’t care. Give me the fucking remote, Stevie.”
“Or what? You’re going to punch me?”
“Oh, I’m going to punch you. The doc said to start touching people, even with the metal hand, and I’m going to ‘touch’ you until you bleed,” Bucky threatened, feeling his heart speed up. He was genuinely annoyed, but in a playful way, like this dynamic was something comfortable from his past. Which also made it a little scary.
“You wanna take this outside?” Steve taunted in pure 1930s gangster drawl.
Without thinking about it, Bucky grabbed Steve by the arm, flung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, yanked open the front door, and threw Steve outside. He started to say that Steve could come back inside when he was ready to behave like an adult, but instead found himself on his back, looking at the sky, as Steve loomed over him.
“Touch me,” Steve said, raising his fists in a typical boxer’s stance. “You remember the rules at that gym we used to go to?”
Bucky stood up, and carefully brushed himself off. “Sure I do.” He started pulling off his shirt, and relished the stunned expression on Steve’s pissy little face.
“Uhm, what, what’re you doing, Buck? We didn’t fight in the buff like the Greeks or anything.”
“No, but I’ve got at least four knives on me, and I can tell I’m gonna be tempted to stab you pretty soon. Strip down to your drawers,” he ordered. “Or are you afraid to show me some skin, soulmate?”
“Fuck you, Barnes.” Steve started pulling his clothes off too, and in moments they were standing there, barefoot and naked except for their shorts. (Bucky did have one small knife down a seam in his, but he wasn’t getting rid of every weapon on him, no matter what.)
They circled and feinted for so long Bucky got bored, rolling his eyes as he swung a right hook at Steve’s center. They were both whaling on each other after that, although they were holding back, trying to stick to gentleman’s rules and not hurt the other guy too badly.
God, it felt so good.
Bucky suspected that seriously beating the snot out of Steve would feel even better, not holding his strength in check—and a tiny voice from somewhere in his far distant past suggested that sex felt awfully nice as well—but he contented himself with their play. Maybe later, when Bucky could trust himself not to snap and try to kill Steve (again), they could spar for real.
Meanwhile, Steve landed a solid jab at his face, and oh, it was on now. Bucky wiped the blood from his lip. “You know, I think it’s not fair that you’re using both hands. Maybe I should get to use both of mine, too.”
Steve froze. He worked his mouth like was struggling to find a nice way to say No fucking way, so Bucky slammed his meat fist into Steve’s jaw, busting his lip.
“Or you could limit your left hand to blocking, like I am. Fair’s fair, right Captain America? I can’t believe these schmoes today, thinking you’re the picture of freedom, justice, and everything good. Did they lose all their notes about what a fucking shithead you are?” Bucky taunted as they traded jabs.
Later, they had leftover casserole for dinner, compromised, and were watching an animated movie about British sheep when Sam came home. It was a pretty good day.
Sam’s reactions to an arm slung around his neck were brotherly, a quick pat on the back or gentle shove, with a “Get off of me, you overly-muscled He-Man.” Playful. Comfortable. But then, Sam had siblings, so he had something to model his actions on. Steve had been an only child, and Bucky…. He knew he’d had a brother and two sisters, their names and dates of birth and death were in his file. But he couldn’t remember them at all.
Today Evelyn’s homework for both of them was nowhere near as fun as the last one, where they’d had to list ten things they remembered having eaten before the war, and ten things they would like to eat now. No, today Bucky and Steve got to talk to each other about their sessions, in as much detail as felt comfortable.
“The new eye-movement therapy’s working pretty good,” Bucky offered, after the two of them had sat there in silence for long enough that it was starting to annoy him.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “And how are your sessions going?”
“They’re awful, thanks for asking,” Steve snarked. “How does the eye thing work?”
Fine. Bucky could take the lead. “When I’m not doing anything, like lying in bed or just drifting off, memories come trickling back like pieces of a film. Every time it ‘plays,’ I get what feels like a mild electrical shock. ‘Brain zaps,’ Rob called them.”
Steve looked concerned. “Does that happen a lot?”
Bucky shrugged. “More than it did at first, which he seems to think is progress—something about pulling monsters out of the closet and into the light of day.”
He gave Steve some time to mull that over, while he checked in with himself. Pulse seemed normal, he wasn’t sweating, didn’t feel uncomfortable telling Steve about this. Seemed like he could check off his part of their homework assignment.
Bucky started to tell Steve to go ahead with his part, but Steve interrupted, saying “Hey, we should watch that Disney movie, Monsters Inc.”
Seriously? Bucky didn’t even have to say the word out loud, Steve was already sighing and rolling his eyes.
“Fine. Evelyn thinks I need to talk to her about myself, not just about how things are with you. I was on board for therapy when it was only about helping me because sometimes it’s hard to… be here for you. But now….”
“Now she says you’re fucked up all on your own, and maybe you oughta try to fix that?”
Steve made a face at him. “In a nutshell. This was all supposed to be about you, not me.”
Bucky kicked him in the leg. “Way to lead by example, Captain America.” (He really adored the pinched sour-lemon look Steve got when Bucky called him by his title.)
“You need a role model, Barnes? Are you not going to eat your veggies either, if I don’t eat mine?”
“You don’t eat yours, I’m going to eat them for you,” Bucky said.
There was a pause, and then Steve asked, “How does that relate to therapy?”
“Oh fuck off.”
Therapy had been really hard, and he still didn’t always feel like he knew who he was. The man in the mirror looked a little bit less hunted and a little more healthy. He’d trimmed off the scraggly beard and some of the hair. Steve had made fun of him for not shaving down to smooth skin, but Bucky didn’t feel like he was that smooth-shaven, short haired kid in the old photos. He didn’t feel like he was whole and put together, yet, but he did feel miles from where he’d been a few months ago, and that felt good.
As always, progress was rewarded with more challenges. Since trips into the town for lunch at the diner or to get supplies at the general store still put him on high alert, they decided having visitors would be a good in-between step.
He’d outright vetoed Natasha Romanov coming, and no one had seemed too shocked by that. Instead, Clint Barton was the first of the other Avengers that came out to the farm. They didn’t have an agenda beyond “don’t kill Clint,” and since the guy was apparently a pretty good shot, they ended wandering out to the range they’d set up out by the orchard.
Clint didn’t talk a whole lot, which was fucking refreshing. They’d eyed each other up for a few minutes, before Clint said, casual-as-can-be, that he’d been mind-controlled for a little while too, and it sucked, and Cap had mentioned Barnes had a Milkor MGL, and would he mind letting Clint shoot a few rounds?
During dinner, Clint brought up the soulmate marks, asking out of the blue, “What’s that second name on your hand, Cap?”
Steve self-consciously covered the names with his left hand. “Bucky is James. I don’t know the other person. Yet, I guess,” he added.
Bucky thought it was odd that Steve didn’t say the other name out loud, but the two of them hadn’t talked about the marks much at all. When he realized Clint was giving him an expectant look, he shrugged. “Yeah, mine says Steve. And, uh, also the same name that’s on his hand.”
“Come on, who’s the second person?” Clint kidded. “Are you embarrassed? Oooh, does it say Anthony? No, what about Virginia—that’s Pepper. No, it says Nicholas, doesn’t it?”
Steve made a face and shook his head. “None of those. I do know people’s actual given names, you know. I’m big and blond, but I’m not stupid.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “It’s called teasing, Cap. Maybe your pal here can help you with that. Geez, somebody woke up on the wrong side of the century.”
Bucky snorted. “He’s been as prickly as a hedgehog since we were kids. Teasing and that Irish temper don’t mix so good.”
“Isn’t Barnes an Irish name too?” Clint asked.
The discussion digressed to emigration, the potato famine, and how being Irish wasn’t an excuse for constantly picking fights, no matter what Steve or his ma said. Clint thought their banter was hilarious, and looked to be taking mental notes to use against Steve later. Bucky clinked beer bottles with him to solidify their alliance against Mr. Righteous-and-Good-and-Stubborn-as-Fuck.
All in all, it was a good visit.
“Could be a him,” Steve said. “I looked it up, and it can be a boy’s or girl’s name.”
They ran for about another mile until Bucky’s patience wore out. “Well?”
“I just didn’t,” Steve huffed. A few beats later he added, “Because this, with you…. There’s a lot going on. We haven’t even talked about it, just the part with us.”
Bucky felt his forehead wrinkle. “What’s there to talk about? Apparently when we said ‘until the end of the line’ we meant it. You aren’t getting rid of me. And God knows I’ll never have atoned for my sins enough to get rid of you.”
Steve knocked their shoulders together. Bucky knocked him back.
“Is that why you finally let me catch up to you?” Steve asked. “My name showing up on your hand?”
Bucky nodded. “Partly. And that was the last Hydra base I knew of, that I could plot on a map. I don’t know if I’ll ever remember where the other ones were.”
“So… being finished was the only reason?”
“And I felt bad for Sam, you dragging him all over the globe and back.”
“Good to know,” Steve laughed, and they continued on, past the nearby dairy until the Reynolds’s farm was in sight.
In his final session at the farm, Evelyn had had him look back over his journal entries and self-assessments from the last two months. His scores had improved significantly on the topics dealing with guilt and fear, flashbacks, and violent outbursts. “Huh. I haven’t lost control since spring,” he’d said, more than a little surprised.
Evelyn had smiled. “You’ve made so much progress, and worked so hard. Your recovery has been one of the most satisfying that I’ve been invited to help facilitate. You’re a remarkable man, James.”
Something about her brought out feelings of embarrassed pride that had him ducking his head and biting his lip, so he wouldn’t smile too big.
She’d patted him on the arm. “I’ve learned from you as well, you know. Folks from your time get a bad rap nowadays, for swallowing down unpleasant life events and soldiering on without dealing with them. But they also didn’t have the expectations of perfection or that they would be happy all the time. These days there’s a misguided belief that life can be perfect, and that people with imperfect lives have failed in some way.”
“That’s… kind of twisted up,” Bucky had said. “Everyone’s got their tragedies, my ma used to say.”
“Well, it sounds like Mrs. Barnes was a smart woman,” Evelyn had replied with a laugh. “And the fact that you’re not looking for perfection and constant happiness has put you a step ahead of a lot of other folks.”
“I’m happy just to get through the day with a breakdown, blackout, or anybody bleeding.”
“Exactly,” she’d said with a nod. “And that’s why you’re ready to go out and build a new life.”
The new apartment was small and bare, but still nicer than anything he could remember since he was a kid. He had small daily assignments to get him out of the house, which was annoying now that it was getting cold. On the plus side, he was deeply amused by the cheap Captain America Halloween costumes in the corner shops. The first time he’d seen one, he’d laughed so hard he had to go outside and sit down on the curb to catch his breath.
He and Steve settled into a routine of sorts: running in the morning, separate adventures mid-day (like weekly therapy sessions, or exploring the city, or going to a bookstore), and alternating chores like who made dinner each night. Tony Stark and Dr. Banner came to visit them about two weeks after they got settled, offering their combined biomechanical expertise for Bucky’s arm. Apparently the two of them had some significant concerns about it, and after a few video calls at the farm, they wanted to scan it and get some readings in person.
“Fuck, this this is amazing,” Tony said, spinning around the hologram he’d projected above the kitchen table. “Look at the neural interface, right here. This is light years ahead of anything else I’ve seen in terms of prosthetics. It’s so…. old-school and heavy, but I swear I’m getting a semi just looking at it.”
Dr. Banner made a pained face at Bucky. “You’ll learn to ignore Tony. At least anything sexual he says,” he offered.
Tony snorted. “You, Banner, are such a cockblock. This is a sleek, sexy piece of machinery. The guy it’s attached to isn’t bad either.”
“Lay off, Tony,” Steve warned.
“Sounds like someone’s not been doing much of the horizontal mambo lately,” Tony muttered.
Bucky couldn’t help laugh at Steve’s offended expression. “I think I can handle myself, punk. I know the difference between someone flirting versus making a move. Stark here just wanted to see how I’d take being hit on by a man.”
“Ooh, and he’s got a brain too, under that tousled hair and morning-after stubble,” Tony said, giving Bucky a leer. “But you can get your panties out of your ass, Cap, it’s mostly the arm I want to do dirty, nasty things with.”
After they left, though, Bucky couldn’t stop turning that part of the conversation over in his mind. When he and Steve sat on the sofa watching TV, they generally sat close enough to touch, and often sprawled all over each other—if Bucky didn’t tense up and realize what was happening first. He wished he could relax into it more often, but it wasn’t easy.
And they also shared a bed. They had separate rooms, but Bucky had been so on edge the first few nights that he didn’t sleep at all, and finally Steve all but dragged Bucky into bed and got in with him. The hushed sounds of Steve sketching finally soothed him to sleep, knowing he was safe while Steve kept watch.
The next night Bucky didn’t sleep, again, and after that Steve just herded him into bed and got in beside him every night. It was strange, but not. They’d shared a bed as kids all the time, and as adults in their own apartment, they’d put the mattresses and all the blankets together on the floor in the winter, for warmth. Now they both gave off tons of heat, thanks to their enhanced metabolism, but they still tended to wake up in the mornings with at least their hands entangled.
It wasn’t entirely platonic, but it was more like the quiet comfort he vaguely remembered from his childhood, seeing his parents together on the sofa in the evening. He had no libido whatsoever, couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an erection because he was aroused, although he knew all of the plumbing was still in working order thanks to a few awkward mornings.
Sometimes, though, he had to consciously stop himself from moving closer—in the bed, on the sofa, at the door before they separated for the day—and kissing Steve. His mind might still be messed up, but he knew that those thoughts, although part of the old Bucky, were daydreams, not something that had ever happened, except maybe as an occasional joke. One of these days, he was going to roll onto his side after they got into bed, pull Steve close, and bring their lips together. Although he remembered fantasizing about teaching Steve how to kiss, Bucky was well aware that such lessons had long since been imparted by someone else.
He loved Steve, always had. And he knew Steve loved him. But there was a line they didn’t cross—had never even acknowledged existed—and Bucky wasn’t ready. He knew how Steve looked at him. He was just waiting until he looked back at Steve the same way.
They had just turned onto their street when the windows of their apartment suddenly shattered outward from the force of an explosion inside. Gunfire perforated the exterior walls from assaults on both sides, at least four individual shooters from nearby buildings.
He and Steve hesitated for maybe half a second before turning and disappearing into an alley and down a manhole. Hydra had found him.
Chapter 7: Darcy - February 17, 2015 (back to the present)
After her super classy arrival, Darcy was shown to what kind of looked like a hotel suite. While she was busy trying not to barf again, Thor had talked to someone and asked them get Jane from her lab. So apparently they were in Avengers Tower, which was awesome, but also meant she’d puked on the patio of Avengers Tower. So now her stomach was heaving from misbalanced inner ear fluid, and also severe mortification.
Darcy was in the bathroom, having found a new toothbrush and paste on the counter. She was debating taking a shower to wash off all the panic-sweat, when Jane knocked on the outer door and came in without waiting for a reply.
Darcy spat out a mouthful of foam and water, and waved weakly. “Hey Janie.”
Jane rushed over and wrapped her arms around Darcy. “I’m so glad you’re safe!”
“Me too,” Darcy agreed, finally starting to feel human again. “What’s going on? Can I shower? I had a dufflebag, somewhere. Can I borrow some clothes from… someone?” she asked, giving Jane a look that communicated that any clothes would definitely not be loaned by Jane. Maybe she could wear Thor’s clothes; would that be weird?
“Do you want to sit down first? Have a drink of water?” Jane asked. “You, uh, you’re shaking.”
“Well duh! I was just whisked over 200 miles by Thor and Mew-Mew, with no warning! I’m lucky I’m not still puking.” She paused a moment. “Uh, is there someone I should ask for stuff to go clean that up, by the way?”
A polite British voice scared the bejesus out of her, coming from a small speaker near the ceiling. “It’s already been taken care of, Ms. Lewis, but thank you for thinking of it.”
Darcy blinked, mouth agape, with absolutely zero bandwidth to deal with more weirdness right at the moment.
Jane helped her out. “Darcy, this is JARVIS, the AI Tony Stark designed. He runs the tower, is the head of security, orders takeout, and sasses Tony. And kind of generally keeps everything going.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” JARVIS said, somehow conveying a bit of humor with his formal greeting.
“I need to sit down,” Darcy said, suddenly realizing Jane was still holding her, and it was because she was going to fall over if her friend let go.
Jane got her over to the sofa in the sitting room area, and brought her a glass of water from the kitchenette.
“So… what’s new?” Jane asked.
Darcy smacked her on the arm. “Answer your fucking phone.”
Cringing, Jane nodded. “Yeah, sorry. The battery ran down and I didn’t notice. I’m working on this theory that could pull galactic energy from other dimensions…,” and blah blah blah.
“I found a magical jewel that stops time, and Men in Black came to get it—and me,” Darcy interrupted.
It was Jane’s turn to blink. “That’s… bad.”
There was a moment’s pause, and then both women dissolved in laughter, Darcy’s turning a bit hysterical, and then there were tears and snot and she felt so gross from all that plus having been drenched in sweat from Thor’s Fabulous Adventure. She went to shower, while Jane promised to get her some clothes and order some take-out and find out where her duffle and purse had gone off to.
The shower was super nice. Being snuggled up in a pair of huge sweatpants and a T-shirt that smelled reassuringly like Thor, was great and not at all weird. It made her feel safe. Lasagna—still hot enough to burn her mouth—and Elementary with Jane had her drifting off into an unplanned, but much needed, nap.
The elevator was a short ways down the hall. There were no buttons, and after she’d stood there for a moment like an idiot, JARVIS prompted her by asking where she would like to go. She’d intended to hit a coffee shop for an upscale egg McMuffin, but JARVIS suggested she try the common floor’s kitchen instead. Given that an egg McMuffin in Manhattan was probably $15, and she was a grad student, she took the suggestion.
There was a guy in the kitchen, stirring some kind of mush in a pot on the stove while he read something on a tablet. They exchanged pleasantries, then names, but apparently neither of them was in a chatty mood. He offered Darcy some of his spelt-oatmeal-whatever, but luckily she found the frozen croissant sandwiches first, and was able to politely turn down his offer. She’d have plenty of time to eat mush after she lost her teeth, thanks.
She had finished eating and caught up on Facebook, and was trying to subtly brush the croissant flakes off her chest, when JARVIS spoke up. “The rest of the team has assembled, and are heading to conference room 83E, if you’re ready to join them.”
Darcy assumed JARVIS was talking to Bruce, and started to clear her place setting and take it to the kitchen to wash. The heavy silence behind her made her stop and look around at the guy and at the speakers-in-the-ceiling. They seemed to be waiting for her.
“‘You’ includes me?”
Bruce smiled a little. “I think you’re the guest of honor.”
Darcy swallowed and joined him at the elevator. “Good thing I brought my lipstick.”
A fresh coat of Ruby Woo and two minutes later, the elevator doors opened, and Bruce led her to the conference room. There were a few people she recognized (holy-fucking-shit-Tony-Stark, Captain-OMFG-America, plus the two Avengers who were supposedly regular humans but somehow kept up with these guys) and a man and two women that she didn’t think she’d seen before, but no one she actually knew. Bruce went to sit down next to HFS-Tony-Stark, and Darcy hovered awkwardly, wondering if she should sit down or what. No one was paying any attention to her.
Then Thor burst in, with Jane following in his wake. She gave Darcy’s hand a quick squeeze and headed to sit down. Before Darcy could follow her, Thor clapped his enormous hands like some kind of royalty, which oh right, he was. Everyone came to order and stopped talking, and Darcy was super glad she’d taken all that time with her appearance this morning. She might be blinking like someone smacked her upside the head with a fish, but at least she looked good doing it.
Thor put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Again, he was probably going for reassuring, but she was going to have to show him her bruises later to really get through to him about weak little human bodies.
“Lightning-Sister, may I present to you the Avengers: the Captain of America, the Man of Iron, Agent Hawkeye, Lady Widow, Doctor Banner. Also Agent Hill, Lady Pepper, and the Captain’s recently recovered friend, Sergeant Bucky.” Everyone nodded, and Darcy tried to smile a little as Thor continued formally, “Avengers, may I present to you my Sister of Lightning, the Lady Darcy.”
Everyone nodded and either smiled or made a pleasant face, except the four in the corner with Captain America. They didn’t seem upset though, just weirdly surprised. But then everything was super weird, so whatever. She had bigger fish to fry than some legit WORLD SAVING SUPERHEROS being a little less than outgoing and friendly to this random chick they’d just met. Even if her eyeliner was on fleek today.
Thor set his hammer in the middle of the table. “As I feared, Fate—or other nefarious forces—are assembling the six Infinity Stones. Already the Tesseract, the Mind stone, and the Aether have found their way to Midgard over the last few of your years. Two days ago, Eilífðin, the stone of Time, appeared in my sister’s jewelry box by means of magic. This is no accident.”
Ah okay, things made more sense now: the real guest of honor was Mister Sparkly. Darcy fished him out of her cleavage without a word, and looked up to see surprised and amused faces, plus two that looked lecherous, and two that seemed to be outright scandalized. “What?” she demanded, looking at Jane as she passed the bag over to Thor. “Where would you put something you wanted to keep safe?”
Jane hid her scandalized face in her hands as if Darcy was her embarrassing little sister.
“Well then,” Agent Hill said, clearing her throat. “Thank you for keeping it safe, Ms…. Darcy. Let’s get down to business.”
But it was all a lot of whatever, and Darcy didn’t really get why she needed to be there. She suspected they (Thor, probably) were merely being polite by including her and asking her to hand Mister Sparkly over to them, when they could have easily taken it. Still, she wasn’t going to miss him, the little troublemaker. Plus, now her boobs could have a bit more breathing room—and she’d regain her emergency pocket.
There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that she’d used her phone an hour ago to check Facebook and her email. And that it was turned on, with GPS and everything. What, she was a single girl and it just made good sense to have GPS on so the cops would be able to find her body, hopefully before she was dead. There were a lot of creepy dudes out there.
Unfortunately, she had to admit it made sense to surrender her phone and laptop. The Men in Black had already found her once, so it seemed she was going be a guest at Avengers Tower until further notice. Jane and Thor were there, at least, and she was given a tablet, with firm admonitions not to log into anything, anywhere.
The meeting adjourned with a loose plan in place. Thor and Mister Sparkly would go to Asgard to consult with Odin, and possibly three old ladies or something. Agents Romanov, Barton, and Hill were going to do some investigating in Top Secret Places that no one wanted to mention in front of Darcy. Tony Stark and Ms. Potts were going to LA, as they’d planned, for a “keeping up appearances” kind of ploy for the MiB.
Darcy, along with Jane, Doctor Banner, Captain America, his BFF that didn’t speak and no one spoke to, would stay in the tower. There had been some light ribbing that Cap wasn’t known for being stealthy, but it seemed like the real reason was because of his friend, who was apparently “recovering” from something. Super bummer, because he seemed pretty healthy and he was hot, but she definitely got an unbalanced teeter-totter vibe from him.
Meanwhile, it looked like Darcy was going to have an unplanned vacation in a seriously lush place, way nicer than any hotel she’d ever been in. Not being able to leave kind of sucked, but it wasn’t like she couldn’t use a week of mainlining TV shows in her jammies and eating takeout. There was, of course, the slight hiccup about her dissertation, but que sera, sera. She’d deal with it later.
After lunch and a nap, she and JARVIS made a list of essentials she would need for a week or so of non-euphemistic Netflix-and-chill. Sure, she’d snagged her sentimental jewelry, her favorite boots, her grandma’s faux-leopard fur coat, her expensive makeup, and toiletries while her apartment was being raided, but she’d only been at Avengers Tower for one day, and she didn’t have an extra pair of clean panties. Since her credit cards would be easily followed, she let JARVIS talk her into placing an order via Mr. Stark. She insisted on Target—she was still going to have to pay the guy back, so she was sticking to her budget as much as she could. He was housing and feeding her; he didn’t need to buy her undies and the kind of toothpaste she liked, even if he was a bazillionaire.
Jane and Thor were good-byeing (rather loudly—it was a good thing he had his own floor), so Darcy had dinner alone and decided to marathon House on the common floor’s wall-size flatscreen. After about an episode and a half, the elevator dinged, doors opened, and there was Captain America.
“Good evening, Ms. Lewis. JARVIS said I might find you here.”
She blinked and paused the TV. “Um, yup. Here I am,” she said with a finger-wiggling wave. “And it’s Darcy. What’s up, Captain?”
He cleared his throat and smiled a little. “Steve, please,” he said, oddly emphasizing his name.
Wasn’t a heart attack when your heart stopped beating, for like a minute? What was it called when it was just a few seconds but they seemed like really goddamned long seconds? Whatever it was, she was having one.
Captain America—Steve—looked concerned, but when she didn’t die or hyperventilate or run away screaming, he seemed to think it was safe for him to keep talking. “Yeah, um,” he said, glancing at the ring on her right hand, “Darcy’s a pretty unusual name, I hadn’t ever met anyone named that before, so it was a bit of a shock when Thor introduced you this morning.”
And he’d sat on this information all day? What the fuck? She was annoyed and confused and maybe a little bit happy or relieved and definitely fucking pissed off at those tentacled aliens again. Even for someone as prone to babbling as she was, it was a bit much to take in. Darcy blinked. He went on to say a few other words, but her brain had tuned out to white noise. She held up a hand to stop him.
“Captain America,” she said, pointing at him, “is Steven,” pointing at her ring finger, “my soulmate?”
“One of my soulmates,” she corrected herself.
He nodded again, looking relived for some reason. “You have two names also, then?”
She nodded and fumbled to remove her ring. “So if you’re Steven… who’s James?”
Captain America—Jesus fucking Christ, Steve—looked over at the elevator. There was a sigh, and his BFF from the meeting stepped forward from where he’d been out of view. “That would be me. James Buchannan Barnes, AKA Steve’s friend Bucky, AKA the Winter Soldier.”
Darcy felt her heart do that stopping thing again. Maybe she needed to make an appointment with a cardiologist; this couldn’t be healthy.
“Fuck,” she said.
She and Steve sat—Bucky stood—in silence for a few minutes while her brain sort of turned inside out and she broke into a cold panic-sweat. Captain America. Steve. James “Bucky” Barnes. Winter Soldier. There weren’t enough swear worlds in the world, and the only word she could think of that described the situation and how she felt was flabbergasted, like her great-grandma or something. Who was probably younger than these two guys.
She took a drink of her tea, glanced at the two men, and un-paused the TV.
“I really think—” Steve said.
She held up a finger. “Just. Give me a minute, okay? Please?”
It was more like five minutes of doctor drama before she paused it again and turned to face them. Bucky was still hovering behind Steve like he was ready to bolt.
“I’ve been looking into it,” Steve said, once it was clear Darcy wasn’t going to say anything. “And apparently a good portion of the matches are platonic, just friends.” He glanced at Bucky. “Some aren’t of course.”
“So, you two…?” she asked, wiggling her fingers at them.
“We have each other’s names,” Steve said, after a slight hesitation.
Her brain really wanted to turn itself inside out again, at that glance, but it was too over-strained from the last time and it would have to freak out about Captain Queer a bit later. She gestured for him to go on.
“Have you, um, heard of the Winter Soldier?”
She glanced at the man in question and nodded again. “A little. It was in the news.”
Steve sighed. “Well, there was a lot of news and most of it wasn’t accurate, but…. Suffice to say that it’s only been a few months since Bucky and I… reconnected.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “And then we spent about three months at the funny farm, trying to unscramble my brain.”
Darcy nodded, yet again. “How… how did that go?” she asked like an idiot.
“Well enough that they let me out, I guess,” Bucky said. “Still working on it. And so’s he,” he said, nodding at Steve. “Don’t let the perfect appearance fool you; he’s a mess too.”
Darcy was starting to feel like one of those wobble-head dolls. She cleared her throat. “Um, that’s good?” Which was probably the most insipid thing she could have said. “I mean, um, I’m glad you’re doing better?”
Man, she was so far in over her head that she wasn’t sure which way was up anymore, and she couldn’t think. Or word. She really couldn’t word-think at all. And she might barf again, because apparently she did that when she got overwhelmed now.
“It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” Steve said kindly, like maybe she wasn’t a brainless idiot. “The whole soulmates thing is….”
“So fucking stupid,” she said firmly. She had thoughts and words and opinions about soulmates that she had said before, so she didn’t need to think new thoughts to word about this topic. “It was rude and invasive—even if they were trying to be nice—and all it means is that those people might have a deep connection, if they even meet each other in the course of their lives. Which is bullshit. We have free will. I control my own destiny!” Or, well. She broke off her tirade to glance around at where she was, and why she was in Avengers Tower even having this conversation. “Okay, mostly. Kind of. I get to choose who my friends and lovers are,” she clarified, feeling like she might not be making her point.
“All right,” Steve said slowly, once it was clear that she was done with her word-spew. “That’s, um, good to hear. Not that either of us doesn’t want to be friends with you, but…. This isn’t exactly a good time.”
“No shit,” she said, and glanced up when Bucky chuckled. “Sounds like you’ve both got a lot on your plate. And that’s without all these creepy Infinity stones.” She made eye contact with them one at a time, and they each nodded. “I’m going to be here for like a week or whatever, and then hopefully get back to my life. And sure, we can just be friends. Or not. Maybe it’s another Steve.”
“And James?” Steve asked, giving her a look that made it super clear he thought she was full of BS.
She opened her mouth to argue, but gave up. “I…. I don’t know what will happen. It’s been a long, strange few days for me. Whatever will be, will be, right? Que sera, sera.”
They looked a little puzzled, and she was so done with this and needed to be alone, like an hour ago. “JARVIS, cue my exit song, please?” she asked. She grabbed her mug of now-cold tea, and got up, heading for the elevator. “Good-night,” she added, as the tones of Doris Day sang her out.
Holy. Fucking. Shitballs.
Chapter 8: Darcy
After a few days of watching terrible TV and eating crappy food, Darcy decided enough was enough. She wasn’t going to hide in her suite like she’d done something wrong. Sure, she’d embarrassed herself in front of her supposed-soulmates, but it wasn’t like that was anything new, and she was over it. Also she was hungry for something that wasn’t made of grease and salt, and she could see snow falling outside the window, and she really wanted comfort food. That meant chicken soup, the good kind, made in a pot on the stove instead of coming out of a can. The little kitchenette was nice, but for real cooking, she needed a real kitchen.
It wasn’t hard to find the tools she needed—apparently, someone in the tower cooked occasionally. She was talking to JARVIS as she gathered supplies, putting together a grocery list. Some stupid tall person had stuck the big stock pot in a top cupboard, though, so she had to drag over a chair and hop up onto the counter to get it down.
“I need a chicken carcass,” Darcy was saying as she stretched up on her toes to reach the pot. The next thing she knew, she was practically jumping out of her skin at the sound of a laugh behind her, socks slipping on the counter. Two huge hands grabbed her by the hips and held on until she regained her balance. She looked down into one of the sets of blue eyes she’d been trying not to think about. “Jesus!”
“Let’s go with James,” the man said, said eyes shining with laughter. “Or Bucky, whichever.”
Unfortunately, the few days that had passed hadn’t miraculously restored Darcy’s zen about the whole soulmates thing. “Sure. Uh, can you take this?” she asked nervously, pulling the pot down from the shelf and handing it to him. He did, but left one hand on her hip. Which she’d be a little peeved about, but she was still on the slippery counter in socks, so she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t being touchy-feely so much as trying to keep her from falling and breaking her neck.
“Um, thanks for the save,” she said, as he helped her down.
“No problem. Sorry I startled you.” He paused a moment. “What do you need a chicken carcass for?”
“Soup,” she said, trying to keep the “duh” out of her voice.
He raised his eyebrows. “You cook? I thought modern women didn’t do that anymore.”
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Well, we like to eat, so yes, we cook. And we clean and have babies and knit and bake cookies and everything. I mean, I don’t, because I’m in grad school. And to further rock your world, men do those things now too. Well. Not the birthing babies part.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Bucky said with an easy smile. “I’d hate to have missed someone telling me that men could do that now.”
She considered correcting herself and launching into a spiel about how being a woman didn’t mean you couldn’t have a Y chromosome, and that trans-men being pregnant wasn’t unheard of, but decided it could wait for later. Darcy shrugged. “Yup. Um, where were we, JARVIS?”
JARVIS helpfully read back the list of ingredients she needed him to procure, ending with “chicken carcass” in a highly skeptical tone.
“Actually, just get one of those whole rotisserie chickens or something, and some decent quality stock. I’ll use some of the meat and save the bones for making broth some other day. Or, uh, someone can just toss it out when I’m gone.”
Darcy rattled off a few more ingredients. Bucky started making a sandwich, and it was awkward, but not super weird. Like sharing a kitchen with a housemate. She stared at him for a moment, well aware that he knew she was staring—superspy/assassin—shrugged, and decided to be generous. If they didn’t want any, well, there would be leftovers in the freezer for whoever did.
“JARVIS, double everything, please. And I’m going to need another onion or two. And two loaf pans,” she added. “I think I saw some flour…. Bucky—James—dude,” she said, flailing her hand as he turned, his mouth pulling into a smile. “Whoever you are.” She bit her lip. “Do you like soda bread?”
The smell of the baking bread drew the others out of their rooms and labs, which was frankly impossible, given they were all on different floors and stuff. Still, she remembered from the dorms that people seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to fresh-baked stuff, and suddenly Darcy was making dinner for everyone.
Jane and Bruce took their soup back down to their labs. Darcy would have argued that Jane take a longer break, but Jane had that look on her face where she was throwing herself into a project so she didn’t have to deal with Thor leaving her again, and Darcy didn’t know Bruce well enough to mother-hen him. Which left Darcy having dinner with Bucky and Steve. Her soulmates (she’d started saying the word inside her head like a gag-inspiring swoony heart-eyes cartoon character).
She came back from the bathroom—having spent a long five minutes debating whether she should get cleaned up or just ignore who they were and be herself. She’d compromised by switching to a T-shirt that didn’t have flour on the bosom, and brushing her hair. When she came back to the kitchen, Steve was setting the table, and Bucky was ladling the soup into bowls.
“Uh…” she said, once again super impressed by her own intelligence and inability to wait to talk until she knew what she was going to say. “Um, this is just dinner, right? Not like a dinner date.” She wasn’t sure whether she was asking a question or making a statement.
Steve looked up from arranging the silverware on cloth napkins. “Just dinner. Did you… not want to eat together?”
Oh right—the old-fashioned thing probably meant eating at a table, not on the sofa while watching TV. Okay, she could roll with this. “No, it’s fine, I just wanted to check in, since you’re… setting the table and all.”
Bucky made a snorting noise from the kitchen.
“I thought it would be nice, as a way to say thank you for cooking,” Steve said, scowling at Bucky as he brought in the soup.
Annnd now she felt bad. “Sure, yeah. Thanks for that. And uh, you’re welcome.”
The awkwardness was followed by an even longer awkward moment—and she really needed to look up some synonyms because if she thought the word “awkward” one more time it was going to start sounding like a duck noise and lose all meaning—where the two men hovered while she sat down, before sitting too. Shit. Had she even met anyone with manners like that before? Certainly not her dad or grandpa.
Going with her favorite method of ignoring uncomfortable social interactions and moving on, she took a slow breath and decided to pretend like Bucky and Steve were just any two normal dudes she was sharing living space with and had offered to share her dinner. Maybe they could hypothetically be exchange students from, like, Belgium or something. To explain the politeness. Mmmm, sexy accents….
They ate in relative silence for a little while, until Steve said, “Okay, I’ve gotta ask: what is this round stuff in the soup?”
“Qunioa,” Bucky answered, pronouncing it quin-noah.
Darcy tried not to laugh. “Keen-wah. We went over this.”
“I saw the box, it’s q-u-i-n-o-a, quin-noah,” he said with a decisive nod.
“And I told you it’s South American, and it’s pronounced—” Darcy replied.
“Could one of you just tell me what the heck it actually is?” Steve interrupted. “I don’t care how it’s spelled or pronounced, I just want to know what I’m eating.”
That got an outright laugh from Darcy. “It’s a seed, from Peru, I think. It was all the rage with the health food crowd a few years ago. It’s kind of weird on its own, but I like it in soup. And it has more vitamins or something than potatoes or noodles.”
Steve shook his head, and took another bite. “It’s been over three years, and I’m still a little disconcerted by all the foreign food.”
“America—land of the melting pot-slash-stew,” she said.
Bucky laughed. “Yeah, in our day, the ethnics melting together were Irish and Italian. Strictly Europe.”
“Well, and then the Jews and refugees from Germany,” Steve added.
Darcy shook her head and put her spoon down. “Okay, sorry, but I can’t just let that stand. Words go in and out of fashion over time, and sometimes the shades of meaning change significantly. We don’t say Jews anymore, we say Jewish people—which I technically am, by the way, Jewish. Negro, Colored, Jap, and sodomite are also not said anymore. I’m not trying to embarrass you, just make sure you know what you’re saying before you get yourselves in trouble.”
Steve and Bucky both looked nonplussed by her sudden mini-lecture, and she sighed. “Look, I’ve had these conversations with my parents and grandparents. People are very sensitive to the words you use to describe them. And I suspect that’s the kind of thing SHEILD didn’t include in their Welcome-to-the-21st-Century classes.”
“True enough,” Steve said. “A lot of the cultural changes were glossed over, and I’ve definitely offended people without meaning to. Ladies especially.” He looked at Bucky, who nodded his agreement. “So, thanks.” He paused. “Do you work in PR or something?”
Darcy let out a rueful snort. “No, although that’s probably where I’m going to end up. I’m getting my PhD in Political Science. I have a feeling that by the time I’m done with my dissertation, I’m not going to want anything to do with the subject, and I’ll end up working as a barista. Because let’s face it, that’s probably where I’ll wind up anyway. There just aren’t many jobs,” she clarified at their looks, then waved her hand. “Let’s not talk about my depressing future. So… how ‘bout them Mets?” she asked, and then realized that the joke had gone over their heads as Steve launched into his opinions about modern baseball.
“He’s gone, and he always says he’ll come back, but he doesn’t understand how time feels to mortals. I hate this.”
Darcy made a sympathetic noise and headed to the kitchen for glasses and snacks, while Jane kicked off her shoes and got comfortable on the sofa. JARVIS queued up some child-friendly animal documentaries, and they cuddled up under a blanket. They were a kind of odd match for friends, but their exciting adventure meeting aliens in New Mexico had cemented their bond to what they both thought being sisters must be like. They talked about everything, seriously, everything. Which was fair—come on, like Darcy wasn’t going to ask about sex with a literal god, and alien penises, and Jane had wanted to know what sex with girls was like. They had no secrets, or at least not any big ones. (Darcy was never sharing that she was weirded out by the darkness of the hair on Jane’s pale arms.)
Two tumblers each and one documentary about turtles later, Jane paused the TV. “Do you think he loves me enough that this could ever work out? I mean, maybe not loves me enough, but…. He has a lot going on.”
“So do you,” Darcy reminded her. “Your work is important to you.”
“Yeah, well, I only have maybe fifty more years of my life left. I just…. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. I love him, but what seems like a short time to him is actually years for you and me. I don’t know if any amount of love is enough to overcome that.”
Darcy handed her some of the napkins she’d placed on the coffee table. “It sucks,” she said, wrapping her arms around Jane. This wasn’t a new subject, by any means, but it was one with no answer, no resolution. It just was, and every time Thor left Earth, it hit Jane again.
“Love is stupid,” Jane said, blowing her nose.
“So stupid,” Darcy agreed. “Should I get the ice cream?”
Jane nodded, and Darcy went to get the carton and two spoons. They watched a few more cute-animal videos, and eventually—once the ice cream and margarita mix were both gone and they were super tipsy and somewhere between maudlin and happy-tears-of-baby-zoo-animal-cuteness, when Jane kicked her.
“How was dinner with your soulmates?”
Sighing, Darcy reversed their position, so Jane could wrap an arm around her. “Weird. Awkward. Like so awkward that I need to google synonyms for it because I can’t just keep saying the same word over and over.”
“How so? Didn’t they like the soup?”
“They did like the soup. And we all sat around the table like… a family or something. And it was so….”
“Awkward?” Jane suggested with a smile.
“JARVIS, a little help, please?” Darcy asked.
“Distressing, disheartening, humiliating, mortifying, tedious, uncomfortable, dolorous, incommodious, melancholy….” JARVIS suggested.
“All of those,” Darcy said with a deep sigh. “It was like having dinner with two of your grandparents’ friends who you’ve never actually met, and oh by the way, you’re maybe gonna have to marry both of them.”
“Wow,” Jane said. “That’s some impressive drama-llama-ing.”
Darcy pinched her leg. “It was just…. Like, I get that the soulmates thing doesn’t have to be romantic—duh, I don’t want that anyway; it’s dumb and I don’t believe in destiny or anything stupid like that. But their names are on my hand. My name is on each of their hands. So we should at least try to be friends or something, I guess, but it just feels… really forced.”
“Awkward,” Jane agreed, making Darcy laugh a little.
“Yeah. I mean, they seem nice. But they basically said ‘hey, hi there, we’re your soulmates or something, but we’re really busy with our own stuff’—and dude, they have some serious stuff—‘and we’re not interested in you.’ I mean, I don’t, like, want them to be madly in love with me or anything; they don’t even know me. But….”
“But you want them to want you.”
“No, I—” Darcy cut herself off to actually think about it for a minute. “Maybe? I don’t want them to be my soulmates, but…. Well, yeah. I feel rejected, which is stupid.”
“Feelings are stupid,” Jane agreed, squeezing Darcy.
“Science is better.”
“In this respect, sure. Science is better,” Darcy said, smiling a little. Jane poked her in the ribs. “All right, jeez! Science is the best ever and the absence of feelings in science is the cherry on top.”
“Damn right,” Jane nodded. “Oooh, do you think we could make sundaes?”
Chapter 9: Bucky
When he finally thoroughly died and went up to Heaven and met God, Bucky was going to serve Him up a one heck of a knuckle sandwich. Seriously, what had he ever done to deserve all of this shit? Sure, he wasn’t perfect; he’d lied, and fornicated, and stolen. He’d killed people during a war (which the priests told him God would forgive, so that shouldn’t count anyway). He was learning to accept that he wasn’t responsible for the horrible deeds Hydra had done with his hands and body, and he’d fought every step of the way back to regain his soul.
He had finally got his mind most of the way untangled, when his inconvenient libido surfaced to remind him that his feelings about Steve weren’t entirely platonic. That was complicated, but he had started to sort that out a little bit, when Hydra blew up their apartment. Bucky had started to feel relatively safe with the Avengers, getting used to being closer to Steve, and then his second soulmate had been dropped in his lap.
Honestly, God had a lot of explaining to do, and Bucky didn’t care how blasphemous it was to say so.
Darcy made him nervous. Correction: she made him nervous when he was thinking about her. When she was right there, all flustered and sarcastic and smart as a whip, he felt like he was smiling inside. She was what his ma would have called a spitfire, back in the day. She was easy on the eyes too, even in sweatpants and a hoodie, her hair pulled into a sloppy braid, with no makeup. Maybe even prettier when she was relaxed and comfortable, just being herself.
He hadn’t intended to grab her, but then she slipped in the kitchen, and his hands had fit the curve of her hips in a way that made them tingle. And her food was good, simple but good. Compared to his and Steve’s and Sam’s cooking, she was a gourmet chef. She was kind and generous too, offering to feed everyone dinner. Unlike Steve, Bucky wished he had the energy—or ability—to deal with the second-soulmate issue, but she didn’t seem overly eager about it either, so he guessed he’d be patient and see what happened.
A few nights later, Bucky and Steve were watching TV in their suite when JARVIS interrupted. “Pardon the interruption Captain Rogers, Mr. Barnes, but Ms. Lewis is in need of some assistance. Doctors Banner and Foster are unavailable; they’re at a quantum anomalies seminar at the Academy of Science.”
“Yeah, of course. What’s going on?” Steve asked, as they both got up and headed for the door.
“Ms. Lewis is intoxicated, and is sitting in the open doorway to the balcony on the common floor, which I’m unable to close. While not unconscious, she is not responding to my voice, and her external temperature has dropped into the mild hypothermia zone.”
“It’s snowing,” Bucky said. “What the hell is she doing sitting in the jamb of an open door?”
“You would have to ask her that, Mr. Barnes,” JARVIS said as the doors to the elevator opened onto the common room. Darcy was indeed slumped against the door frame, arms curled around her knees, a light dusting of snow covering her knees and feet. She was in pajamas and bathrobe and smelled like booze. Bucky had a sudden memory of finding an old drunk who had frozen to death overnight, outside his building when he was a kid. His ma had clucked her tongue disapprovingly, but they’d still gone to chapel that night to light a candle for the guy.
“Darcy?” Steve crouched down next to her and called her name louder. She groaned and frowned a little, but didn’t respond otherwise. Steve got the same non-response again when he asked her if they could help her up, to come inside and get warm. Aside from one hand on her arm, he wasn’t even trying to wake her up.
Bucky scowled. “What the hell, Steve? You gonna wait for approval from every unconscious person before you get them out of harm’s way?” He shouldered Steve back and picked her up. She curled against him, her icy nose pressing into his neck, and made a small noise of relief.
Steve said quickly, “No! I was just… checking. You’re not supposed to touch a lady without her consent, you know.”
Bucky gave him a look that was quite clear about his perspective on Steve’s bullshit.
“Where are you taking her?” Steve asked, following them to the elevator.
He hadn’t really thought that through yet. “Our rooms? JARVIS, what do modern people do for mild hypothermia?”
There was a pause that could only be interpreted as sarcastic before JARVIS answered, “Warm her up.”
Her hands and feet were like ice, but not literally, not blue. Her bathrobe and slippers were damp from the snow, so they peeled her out of those and dried off her face and hair before they laid her down. Both men stood looking down at her like they had no idea what to do with a woman in their bed, which was so hilarious that Bucky started to laugh.
“Look, Steve, you finally got a dame in bed.”
Steve shoulder-bumped him hard enough to knock him over a few steps. “Fuck you.”
“Not tonight, dear. She’s in our bed.”
Steve looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but was too worried about Darcy, and too annoyed at feeling helpless.
Darcy shivered, bringing Bucky’s attention back to her. “Unless you want to strip her down and get her under hot water, and then explain that to her tomorrow, I think we should just go with good old body heat.”
“It’s going to spook her,” Steve argued.
“Yeah, but she’ll still have all of her fingers and toes, so hopefully she’ll forgive us for ‘taking liberties.’” Bucky stripped off his clothes and changed into sweats and a T-shirt, while Steve gave him a scandalized look for getting naked in front of a lady. God, he was such a worrywart.
Giving Steve a look that indicated he should do the same, Bucky moved Darcy to the middle of the bed and lay down facing her. He slid his metal arm under the pillow and pulled her close, trying not to flinch when her cold hands and feet and nose instinctively found warm places to burrow into him. The mattress shook as Steve got in, pulling a quilt over the top of the three of them as he lay down on his side.
“Steve,” he said, half a second away from smacking him.
Steve sighed and moved closer, pressing his chest against her back, throwing an arm over her waist and onto Bucky.
“See? Nice and cozy. She’ll be warm in no time.”
He didn’t have to see Steve’s face to see the eye-roll.
Bucky woke several hours later, when Darcy started moving around. He was sweating like a pig; there was a reason he and Steve didn’t cuddle all night long. On the plus side, all the heat they generated seemed to have worked, because her feet weren’t like ice cubes on his calves and her hands were warm. Her hands were also under his shirt. How the fuck had he not noticed that?
Her eyes were still closed, but her hands flexed and then slid up his chest and she made a barely-audible, pleased noise. He froze, unsure how to respond, but then she started to move her knee between his. “Hey, wake up, doll,” he said softly, as he grabbed her hands. Awkwardly, he inched away from the warmth of her body.
Darcy slowly blinked her eyes open, and he belatedly remembered that she wore glasses, which were on the nightstand on Steve’s side. Steve wasn’t there to pass them over, so Bucky quickly extricated himself from the bed, walked around it, and passed them to her. She slid them on as she sat up, still blinking slowly, and then appearing to wake up all at once as she realized she was in bed with a man she hardly knew.
“It’s all right, you’re safe, nothing happened,” he said, all in a rush. “We were, uh, just trying to warm you up. You got too cold.”
“Uh. Okay. Um, not that I don’t believe you, but JARVIS? Can you confirm that, please?” She reached up to rub her temples. “God, my head is killing me. You sure it wasn’t roofies?”
Bucky was dumbfounded, not by her lack of trust, but by her casual joking tone.
“It was definitely not roofies, Ms. Lewis. You came out to the common room at 1:37, appearing to have overindulged in alcohol. You opened the door to the balcony and sat down in the frame. At 2:04, you slumped against the door, and appeared to be sleeping. At 2:21, your external body temperature dropped to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the threshold for mild hypothermia. You were unresponsive when I said your name and tried to rouse you. I was unable to shut the door, as you were sitting in it, and requested that Captain Rogers and Mr. Barnes come to assist you.”
Bucky nodded. “We brought you back here, took off your slippers and robe, since they were damp, and put you in bed to warm you up. Steve and I both have pretty high metabolisms, and put off a lot of body heat. That seemed less invasive than stripping you down for a hot shower.”
Darcy gave him a look he couldn’t quite read, some mix of hesitant acceptance and embarrassment. She seemed to be struggling to find something to say. He waited. Finally, she came out with, “Thanks, I guess? I mean, yeah, thank you. That was… kind. Sorry I seem to have been feeling you up a minute ago,” she added, and then cringed. She scooted back across the bed without opening her eyes. “I’m gonna….” she made some vague gestures he took to mean ‘use the bathroom and try not to die of humiliation.’
He got dressed while she was in there and was folding the quilt they’d laid under all night, on top of the covers.
“Well yay, I wasn’t raped,” she said as she exited the bathroom, a funny twist to her mouth that he supposed meant she was kidding. That was one hell of a thing to kid about. He wasn’t sure what his expression was, other than shocked. She hurriedly added, “Gallows humor, sorry, not actually funny. I’m so fucking mortified, can I run away now, please?”
He shrugged, and followed her to the door, where she all but raced out down the hall to the elevator. JARVIS helpfully closed the doors as soon as she entered.
Yawning, he made his way back inside, used the bathroom, and started some coffee. It was a little after 7:00. Steve had probably been up for a couple of hours, and Bucky was never going to hear the end of it, that he’d slept through Steve getting up and out of bed. Or that he’d slept, apparently quite soundly, for over four hours, with Darcy in his arms.
Bucky poked around the kitchen, making breakfast, and then tidying up the apartment. After a couple of hours, he sighed. He rummaged around in a few drawers before he found what he was looking for—a pen and paper.
I wanted to be sure you understand about last night. Neither Steve nor I took advantage of you in any way. We both know what it’s like to have terrible things happen to you while you’re helpless. I’d never want you to feel like you can’t trust us, so I hope you’ll believe I’m telling the truth.
He hesitated for a long time, wondering what else he should say. He wasn’t going to scold her for drinking; she was an adult and knew she’d made a poor choice. Everyone fucked up sometimes. And he didn’t feel right apologizing in excess either, since he and Steve hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t want her to hide away in her suite because she was embarrassed, but it seemed wrong to invite her to spend time together. After fifteen minutes or so, he gave up.
I hope you’re feeling better today, and are staying warm, with no ill effects from last night.
JARVIS directed him to her suite on the guest floor, where he slid the note under the door. It probably wouldn’t make any difference, but at least he’d said what he needed to.
After not seeing Steve for several more hours, Bucky checked in with JARVIS, who confirmed that no, Steve hadn’t left the building. He wasn’t in the gym, wasn’t on the patio or in the common areas, and Bucky was getting pissed off. Fine. Steve would do what he would do, and Bucky would have to try not to let it get to him until Steve found the balls to come back and talk.
Of course Steve was never anywhere near that easy. Bucky didn’t see his missing soulmate until evening, hours after they typically ate dinner. He hadn’t seen any reason to alter his schedule just because Steve was pouting, but he had left a serving in the fridge to be reheated. Steve still had a pissy look on his face that made Bucky want to leave, but he took a deep breath and tried to be the better man. (Sometimes, Steve made it damn easy.)
Still, Bucky wasn’t going so far as to be the one to start the conversation. After a curt nod of greeting, he turned his attention back to the movie he was watching.
Steve heated up the food, then joined him on the sofa, with a mumbled, “Thanks.” He ate, and Bucky let him stew, until finally Steve sighed. “Can you stop the show, please? We should probably talk.”
Like telling Bucky why the fuck he was being such an asshole was pulling teeth or something. As if Bucky didn’t already know. But he turned the TV off and turned to face Steve.
When Bucky didn’t say anything, Steve set down his bowl and looked him in the eyes. “Yes, fine, I was a jerk today. I should have checked in.”
Bucky raised an eyebrow.
“All right! I should have come back and talked to you.”
That was more like it. “Go on.”
Steve sighed again and ran a hand through his hair. “I feel…,” he started, using the therapist-recommended structure for Important Talks. “I don’t know how I feel. Mixed up. I wasn’t happy about us sharing a bed with Darcy, but I don’t disagree that it was the right thing to do. But it’s our space, and we both have a hard time sleeping, and I didn’t like that you dumped her on our bed without talking about it first.”
Bucky bit his tongue, literally, so he wouldn’t say anything until Steve was done. The Rules for Important Talks sucked, but they did work.
“I thought we’d agreed we weren’t going to get involved with her yet. Again, not that we shouldn’t have done anything to help her, but…. I’m not ready for that. Things between the two of us are already….” Steve flailed a hand eloquently.
Well, Bucky couldn’t argue with that. He nodded.
Steve paused for a few minutes, picking at his fingernails so he could avoid looking at Bucky. He took a deep breath. “I feel jealous that you slept so soundly with her. You don’t even know her.” He swallowed, then added, “You don’t sleep that well with me.”
Annnnd there it was, the real issue. Bucky huffed out a breath. Steve’s insecurities weren’t something he could fix with a few words, never had been.
When it was clear Steve wasn’t going to add anything else, Bucky reached over and tapped his knee until Steve made eye contact with him. “I know that was hard for you to say, thank you for opening up to me,” he recited the scripted lines dutifully. He did mean it though and hoped Steve would know that.
He continued, “First, I’m pissed that you took off for the whole day and didn’t say a word to me. JARVIS would only confirm that you hadn’t left the building.” He started to add something about Steve pouting all day, but managed to swallow it down. “I get that sometimes you need space to figure things out. So do I. But you know I need to know where you are, just like you with me. Yes, it’s fucking annoying sometimes, but I put up with it, and you should have to too.”
“Second, I didn’t consider taking Darcy to her room because I simply didn’t think of it. You’re right that we should have taken a moment to talk about bringing her here. And maybe I should have taken her to the guest bed or something, instead of ours, but I didn’t think of that either.”
And the guest bed wasn’t big enough for him and Steve, let alone him, Steve, and Darcy. Still. Steve knew that, he knew that, and Steve knew Bucky was only offering it as an option for Steve’s benefit.
“You didn’t say anything, though,” Bucky added. “And I’m honestly not ready to get involved with her either, as anything more than friends. That’s hard enough for me. She was upset this morning, too, waking up in bed with a guy she hardly knows.” Bucky picked at a loose thread on his jeans. “And I don’t know why I slept so well; it was a surprise to me too, waking up and realizing you’d left the bed, and I hadn’t noticed.”
There were a lot of other thoughts swirling around inside Bucky’s head, but he wasn’t ready to say them out loud. He was overwhelmed—as a default—by Hydra, and SHIELD, and the Avengers, and the 21st century. He still had bad days sometimes, where horrible memories came rushing back, or he couldn’t figure out some new modern thing, or couldn’t remember something, or he simply had an anxiety attack for no good reason at all.
And his friendship with Steve was getting more complicated, with every night that passed in the same bed. Darcy was yet another complication. His brain was still a mess in a lot of ways. But doing something so simple, keeping her safe last night, had felt good. Easy. Right.
And fuck Steve for making it into a big drama when it didn’t have to be.
As usual, Bucky gave Steve a bit of a cold shoulder for the rest of the evening, but Steve figured he deserved it. Running away from problems was strictly forbidden, and he wasn’t exempt from the rules. Honestly, he’d have been pissed if the situation had been reversed.
And it wasn’t that he didn’t like Darcy—he didn’t even know her—or that he’d been able to come up with a better alternative to warm her up, in the moment. He was upset, though; she had literally come between them.
The trouble was that he simply didn’t have the energy to deal with her and everything she represented. He still felt like he’d barely gotten Bucky back, and their friendship had only recently started changing into something new. It was, frankly, fucking terrifying. Steve had no idea how to navigate his way through a relationship—he’d never been in one. What if he messed up and lost Bucky forever? The thought made his insides clench up like he’d been plunged into an icy ocean. More than half of him thought he and Bucky should leave their friendship as it was; that would be safer.
Of course, when had Steve ever gone for what was safe? Once he’d decided on the right thing to do, no amount of danger could stop him.
His therapy appointment this week was going to be awful, he could tell.
At Tony’s insistence, Sunday was movie night. JARVIS had compiled a long list of must-see movies and TV shows (specifically ones Tony had recently quoted or referenced) to help Steve and Bucky understand what the hell Tony was talking about. It was apparently going to be “most excellent.”
That night Darcy was withdrawn and somewhat irritable all though dinner. When Jane asked what was wrong, she huffed and said, “Indefinite vacations are surprisingly boring. It’s been over two weeks, and I want to get back to work on my dissertation, which is disturbing because I fucking hate my dissertation. I miss my place, and my stuff, and the tweaker dudes upstairs, and Professor Kirkham’s constant criticism. Seriously, ‘bored now,’” she said, in the tone that meant she was quoting something.
“Not that bored, I hope,” Jane snorted. “So long as you don’t log into your emails or anything, I don’t see why you can’t use a tablet or computer. You could at least get the last of your research done.”
Tony looked up from the conversation he was having with Bruce, which involved some kind of spinning, blue hologram. “Nope. Even if the Men in Black somehow missed that her cell phone was here on day one, they’d be monitoring the academic databases to see who’s using them, and trace it back to something that connected it to here. JARVIS would stop them, of course, but it would still raise a red flag, which we don’t want. Unless you want her to turn into our third princess locked in the tower?”
“What about books?” Steve suggested, getting drawn in despite himself.
Tony and Darcy looked at him, mouths agape.
“Made of paper? From trees?” she asked, trying not to smile.
“Paper,” Tony scoffed.
“Ordering books to be delivered here, or any of us buying several books in her area of research, would likely raise a few red flags as well,” Bruce said, amused. “But I do love when you traumatize Tony.”
Tony huffed and slapped Bruce on the knee. “Keep it up, buddy, and Foster’s going to be my best science bro instead of you. She’ll get all the best toys.”
“You’re not already giving me the best toys?” Jane asked, looking hurt.
Tony turned to her, to try and get his foot out of his mouth.
Steve ignored them. “Well, how about checking books out from the library?”
The room went silent again.
“The library is huge now, it’s really nice,” he added.
Darcy grinned. “Do you have a library card?”
“Of course,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “I needed a new one if I wanted to borrow books.”
Tony looked like he was going to die, and only Bruce getting him in a headlock with a hand over his mouth was keeping him from horrified screaming.
“What is your dissertation about?” Pepper asked Darcy, a contemplative look in her eyes.
“I don’t have a firm title yet, but it’s about grassroots organization, public versus private values, and economic conflict. I’m specifically focusing on the use of social media in the Occupy Wall Street movement.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. Although the academic jargon took him a moment to break down, he found himself saying, “That actually sounds pretty interesting.”
Darcy blinked at him. “It does?”
He heard Bucky snort beside him and tried not to roll his eyes. “I’m old, remember? I lived through the Great Depression, as the history books care calling it today. The comparison of the past with the present financial depression is of interest to me,” Steve said dryly.
She nodded, still looking surprised. “I… guess that makes sense. Maybe, if you wouldn’t mind,” and she glanced away from him over to Bucky and back again, “could I ask you both a few questions? Later, I mean. It would definitely give me a unique perspective.”
Pepper spoke, breaking the moment between the three of them. “Well, then, perhaps Steve could log into the library database, let you browse the collection from his account, and request a few books. We’ll send someone to bring them here for you.”
And that was how Steve found himself with a stack of books—three for Darcy, two for himself, and four for “cover”—the next afternoon. The grin on her face when he brought her the books, and her fleeting-quick hug, made something shiver inside him. Maybe he needed to reevaluate the situation with her.
Damn, he hated it when Bucky was right.
After she fell asleep with her head on the table for the second time, dinner half-eaten, Steve let Bucky’s accusatory looks guilt trip him into doing something. He shook her awake but ended up practically carrying her to her suite, which looked like a clothing and coffee-cup tornado had hit it. She fell face-first onto her bed, and after pulling off her shoes and dragging a blanket over her, Steve set to tidying up.
Bucky found him there a while later, while Steve was washing the sixth mug, with seven more to go. Bucky smirked knowingly and gathered an armful of dirty clothes to take out to the laundry chute. There was nothing at all edible in her kitchenette, so Steve and Bucky left her a note that they’d place a grocery order and would have breakfast waiting on the common floor for her in the morning.
The next day she made an appearance just before noon, making a beeline for the kitchen where she grabbed a banana and wolfed down half of it before she seemed to notice that Jane, Bruce, Bucky, and Steve were in the room too. She swallowed the bite in her mouth and said, “Thanks to whoever put me to bed. I guess I really needed the sleep.”
Steve nodded. “You’re welcome.”
“Did you send up Housekeeping or something, too? Someone did the dishes and cleaned up.”
“We cleaned up. Steve washed your dozens of coffee mugs. The laundry service is probably done with your clothes, if you need them,” Bucky said, smiling slightly at her rainbow cat pajamas.
“Wow, thanks. I totally owe you guys dinner or something, for that.”
“Maybe you could just take care of yourself?” Steve said, knowing he sounded like a nag but not caring. “I know you’re working hard, but you’ll work better with rest and food.”
Jane groaned and rolled her eyes. Bruce chuckled, saying, “I think Darcy’s picked up bad habits from her scientists.”
Darcy looked like she was going to protest vigorously for a moment, but then exhaled and nodded. “Yeah. I just want to get this stupid thing finished. Since I’m stuck here indefinitely, I don’t know if or when I’ll ever be able to hand it in or defend it, but I’m so sick of having it hanging over my head. Mocking me….”
Steve made a face. “I don’t understand what the point is. If you don’t think you’ll get a job in your area when you’re finished, why go through all of this to finish the degree?”
Darcy shrugged and picked up her fork to eat a bite or two of the omelet Bruce set in front of her. “Because I’m stubborn, I guess. I finish what I start. Even when it’s utterly pointless, at least I know I didn’t quit.”
“Good Lord, I’m doomed,” Bucky muttered, making Steve and Darcy turn to look at him. “There are two of you now! What’s so wrong with quitting? Don’t throw good money after bad, that sort of thing? Learn to let it go.”
Darcy’s eyes twinkled with humor, but as she opened her mouth, Jane reached over and clamped a hand over it. “Do. Not. Sing. I swear to God, you two, if she starts singing that annoying song all the time, again, I will find a way to get you back. I may be shorter and weaker, but I am meaner and very, very intelligent. You will suffer.”
Wow, Thor’s tiny scientist was scary, Steve thought. “I’m sorry?”
“Damn right you are,” Jane said, glancing at him and nodding. Slowly she removed her hand from Darcy’s mouth. “I can’t believe you licked my hand. Gross.”
Darcy shrugged. “You put something in my mouth, I’m going to lick it.”
Well. Steve couldn’t recall blushing in quite a while, but that certainly did it. The tips of his ears felt like they were on fire. He wasn’t bashful or shy, and people always forgot there was plenty of sex in his time, what with the flappers and gangsters, and then the rash of hasty war-marriages so no one would know the bride was already knocked up. But the thought of Darcy’s mouth—and tongue—made him flush.
On the plus side, Bucky didn’t notice Steve’s agitation, because he’d have ragged on Steve for the next month. Breakfast ended uneventfully, and Bruce said he’d make dinner as he got up to put his dishes in the sink. Darcy nodded, and although she disappeared into a conference room she was using as an office for the rest of the day, she showed up to eat with them that night.
After dinner, Jane declared that they were going to watch the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, so Darcy would have to take a break, since she couldn’t resist watching them. Darcy had whined that Jane wasn’t playing fair, but Steve approved; he wanted to see those circles under her eyes go away. He’d seen the three movies already—Tony had made sure of that—but Bucky hadn’t seen them, and Steve was going to enjoy watching him watch them. Bucky had loved The Hobbit; he’d always been more into fantasy and adventure stories, while Steve preferred space and robots.
Darcy had obviously seen the movie several times, and although Bucky would have smacked the hell out of Steve for talking so much during a movie, he didn’t seem to mind her wisecracks. He and Darcy seemed to have the same sense of humor. It made Steve uncomfortable, the ways Bucky and Darcy were alike. Well, now he had something to talk to Evelyn about for their phone call this week—hooray.
Jane and Darcy had been tittering over the Ranger character, who they evidently thought had quite a bit of sex appeal. Steve agreed, glancing at Bucky, and wondered if maybe he had a type….
When the blond elf paused and had a windswept cinematic moment among the rocks, both ladies hooted with laughter. “Still the prettiest,” Darcy joked, in that tone that meant she was referencing something.
“That’s the kind of guy you like?” Bucky asked, nodding at the slender, nimble elf.
She shrugged. “I like all the kinds of guys. Well, maybe not the dwarf, I’m not much of a fan of beards.”
Steve glanced at Bucky’s stubble as he asked, “And Aragorn?”
“Oh hell yeah,” Jane said with a grin.
Darcy nodded and fistbumped her. “Seriously! Swoon-splat. And Arwen, too. Who doesn’t want to at least make out with Liv Tyler a little bit? Those lips….” she said in a wistful tone.
Steve felt his skin prickle with a sudden, fine sweat, as his eyes froze on her lips. He swallowed hard as he imagined her lips on Arwen’s. Beside him, he could feel Bucky having the same reaction, and he shifted uncomfortably in his suddenly too-tight jeans.
“Oh my God,” Darcy laughed. “You two are hilarious. You’re totally picturing me making out with her, aren’t you?”
Steve wasn’t sure what the right answer was, so he kept his mouth shut, which turned out to be the best thing, because she continued.
“Well, to be fair, it’s not like I don’t imagine what the two of you—” she waved a hand at Bucky and himself, and bushed, and then apparently decided not to continue that thought out loud. Steve really wanted to hear the rest of that thought. But all she said was, “Ooookay, I’m gonna stop there before this gets more embarrassing.” Jane gave her an incredulous look, like that wasn’t even possible, and Darcy rolled her eyes. “Oh look, they’re fighting the giant octopus. I’m going to go get some more popcorn.”
Steve glanced at Bucky as she got up and left the living room. Bucky’s eyes followed her, focused on her round bottom, which was decidedly enticing despite the cartoon cat pajamas. Steve shifted again, and when he glanced at Bucky, Bucky was looking at him smirking.
“Punk,” Bucky said, knocking their shoulders together. He scooted closer to do so, but didn’t move away after. He spent the rest of the movie leaning against Steve, comfortable and warm. Steve wrapped an arm around Bucky’s neck and thought about what it would be like to kiss him, push him down into the sofa cushions, and press their bodies together. Do the sorts of things Darcy imagined them doing.
Not even the big battle scene at the end managed to calm his heated blood. He was going to need a very long shower tonight.
Chapter 11: Darcy
Darcy was going to finish this motherfucking turgid donkey-dick of a dissertation or die trying. Pepper had somehow cowed the Cornell PoliSci thesis defense committee into approving a video-conference meeting, so now all Darcy had to do was finish writing the goddamned thing. It was both harder and easier to be working without her advisor’s input, but she was going to need to find someone to proofread it. At least she was getting close to the end….
Lord of the Rings had been a turning point of sorts, with her and her soulmates. She stopped feeling quite so nervous around them, having now seen Bucky with severe bed-head and seen Steve blushing and fidgeting like an overstimulated teenager. Since she had something to fill her daytime hours, it didn’t seem quite so important to navigate her way through the whole situation with them. Anyway, it was looking less like a minefield and more like a field full of gopher holes now.
She interviewed Steve and Bucky with her list of questions about the 1930s depression and how protests and other social actions in NYC got organized at that time. Surprisingly (to her), it wasn’t so very different from now. Twitter and Facebook had replaced the daily newspapers that literally everyone read. Since few women worked outside the home, that meant a lot of social interaction face to face (gossip), which spread news fast. It wasn’t on a global scale, sure, but in a city as densely populated as NYC, “word on the street” was pretty effective.
After announcing that she was going utterly stir crazy one night, the team got together and decided that she still couldn’t leave the tower, but they did grant her access to the Stark Industries floors, since everyone had to go through two ID checkpoints to get past the front door. And don’t think Darcy wasn’t livid about being granted permission, like a child, but she swallowed her pride and said thank you like a polite little girl. She knew they were trying to keep her safe, but it felt like serious overkill in her opinion.
On the other hand, she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed seeing people. Just random folks, but it reassured her that life outside the tower was continuing on without her and there hadn’t been a zombie-apocalypse or anything. She started to be a regular at the SI coffee bar—no fancy espresso machine in the common floor kitchen was a replacement for a barista who knew what they were doing—and would spend an hour or so sitting on a nearby bench, reading on her tablet and people-watching. Making up little stories to herself about the guy who always got off the elevator looking flushed, like he was “living it up while he was going down.” Or the woman who wore such horrendously bland business clothing, but one day Darcy saw a lacy red bra strap peek out when the woman had leaned over to inspect the muffins.
It made her feel less trapped. She had also started taking dissertation-breaks by going to the labs and annoying Jane and Bruce—and Tony, if he was around. She saw Pepper striding down hallways, elegant but with an aura of deadliness that made the SI employees scurry before her as if she was the Red Queen. Stark Industries, Avengers division, was generously paying Darcy’s rent in Ithaca so at least she didn’t have to worry about practical things while she was stuck here. Her stuff—microwave, clothes, TV, etc.—was safe, although she needed to figure out some circuitous way to get her clothes brought over. Not that her suite here wasn’t nice, but she missed her apartment. She missed her life. She missed having more than two bras.
Bucky was sitting on a stool by Tony, shirtless, and Darcy almost crushed the remaining two muffins in her hands. She shivered, like some teenager who’d never seen a sexy man without a shirt. But God-fucking-damn, "what a man, what a man, what a mighty good man." She made her way to Jane’s desk first and took a few deep breaths to calm herself so she wouldn’t act like an idiot. More of an idiot, anyway.
“Hey stranger,” she said, winking at Bucky as she slid Tony’s muffin under his elbow and getting her usual grunt of acknowledgement. “Haven’t see you around here before.”
Bucky gave her a strained smile. “Stark’s been making me a new arm.” Which explained both his presence and the shirtlessness. And maybe his pinched expression, too.
“What did I say about calling me ‘Stark’?” Tony asked, scowling but not looking up from what he was doing to Bucky’s shoulder blade.
“That I would have JARVIS replace all your black clothing with pastels, as punishment.”
Darcy tsked. “I’m disappointed in you, Tony. I can definitely think of more interesting ‘punishments’ for this guy,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows.
As intended, they both laughed. “I can 100% see you as Dominatrix Darcy. You should seriously consider it as a career option,” Tony joked.
“Oh? Do you know some people who could set me up?” she asked. “Pepper, maybe?”
Bucky laughed harder. “Don’t answer that, Tony, I do not want to know the details of your sex life, please.”
“Yes, you do,” Tony said. “Everyone does. My sex life is legendary; everyone wishes they could be me.”
Bucky snorted. “You know that guy Steve and I aren’t allowed to mention to you? I could tell you some stories about him, back in the day….”
“Gross; no parental sex stories,” Darcy objected. “Also, I’ve seen your sex tape from the 90s, Tony. The legend,” she glanced at his crotch, “isn’t that exciting.”
Tony stared at her, mouth agape, then narrowed his eyes. “Why are you here, again?”
She smiled, batting her lashes as Bucky laughed. “You know I make your day, Tony. Plus, now you both get to imagine me in a corset and seamed stockings.”
Bucky looked like Christmas had come early. “Do you have a corset?” he asked, looking her up and down appreciatively.
Darcy winked. “Some things are better to discover for yourself, don’t you think?”
Tony flicked Bucky on the shoulder. “Stop moving, unless you want this thing connected to your ear.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“No? Think you can take me with just one arm, Barnes?”
“All right, all right. You two can measure dicks later,” Darcy interrupted. “Tony, eat your muffin. Bucky, tell me what’s going on.”
He raised an eyebrow at her and spoke slowly, tone heavy with sarcasm. “Old arm: off. New arm: on.”
“If I’d brought you a muffin, I’d smash it in your face right now.”
He laughed. “Genius over here’s been designing me a new arm for a couple of months. We’re all pretty sure there’s gotta be some kind of time bomb or deadly poison or tracking device or something else terrible in this one. Just haven’t found anything. Yet.”
“And it weighs almost twenty-five pounds,” Tony added. “Over double the weight of the other one. It’s slowly tearing his skeleton apart.”
“So, it’s not just because you don’t like the red star?” Darcy asked, trying not to look as freaked out by that as she was.
Bucky’s laugh was amazing. “The paint job is not all that high on my list of concerns, no. Why, do you have some ideas?”
“Nyan Cat,” she said immediately. You’d look super-hot with a rainbow arm and Nyan Cat.”
“You’ll be the King of the Pride parade,” Tony said, although the smile on his face faded quickly. “Okay, I’m about to give you the local anesthetic and start using the laparoscope. It’ll be just like last time. Ready?”
After taking a few deep breaths, Bucky nodded. When Tony reminded him not to tense up, he nodded again, but was clearly getting more nervous.
“Should I leave?” Darcy asked.
“No!” Bucky’s reply was immediate and a little desperate. “Stay here and keep talking to me. I mean, if you don’t have anything you need to go and do.”
His face was relatively impassive, but his eyes betrayed his nerves. Well, if she could do anything, she could talk the ass off a donkey, and it always helped her when the ob/gyn kept up a steady patter of conversation about current movies or local restaurants while they swabbed that motherfucking pipe cleaner around her cervix. Bucky sure looked like he needed distraction from whatever Tony was doing—she didn’t want to look.
Darcy put her hand on his, bringing his focus back to her. She cast around for a few lame conversational topics, and settled on her default go-to: sex. “So how old were you when you lost your V-card?” she asked in as casual a tone as she could muster.
“Oh God,” Tony groaned. “This is not the best time to make me—us—laugh, Double-D-Licious. I’m playing around in your boy’s spinal column.”
“You’re cramping my style, Stark,” she complained, winking at Bucky. “Fine. What kind of food do you like? I still owe you and Steve dinner for putting me to bed and cleaning up my suite.”
Grinning, Bucky said, “We’ll revisit that other topic later, don’t you worry. Uh, food…. Well, I like nearly everything. Not so fond of Mexican spices, but I like Asian ones just fine, especially Indian. Nothing that reminds me of Army rations or hotdogs. Can’t stand the smell of them since Steve upchucked on me at Coney Island….”
Darcy nodded. “Don’t make you hot dogs or anything with Spam—got it. But what do you actually like?”
“Fruit. All kinds, berries especially. Chocolate, the good stuff from Belgium. All right, all right,” he said at her glare, “I’m a pretty basic man. Meat and potatoes, although I wouldn’t weep if I never saw boiled cabbage again. Steve and I’ve been exploring all the new ethnic foods, and I really like Indian and Thai. And seafood when it’s fresh….”
“How about sushi?”
He shrugged, and got smacked by Tony, which he ignored—or maybe didn’t feel. “Why does everyone think sushi’s going to weird out the old guys? We lived through the ’30s. We’ll eat anything so long as it’s not too rotten.”
“High standards,” Darcy joked, “but I think I can promise you not-rotten food. Oooh, although, where do you stand on blue cheese?” He wrinkled his nose, and she laughed. “Noted.”
There was a lull, and she blurted out the first thing she thought of, “What the hell kind of name is ‘Bucky’ anyway?”
“Damnit, Sparky,” Tony mumbled around an involuntary laugh.
Bucky rolled his eyes. “It’s from Buchanan, my middle name. I was the fourth James Buchanan Barnes. Pop and Granddad were ‘James’ and ‘Jimmy’ already, so I got ‘Buck.’”
“Let me guess: when you were little, your mom called you ‘Bucky,’ and it stuck.”
He nodded, eyes going distant for a moment. “Except for the Sisters and Father O’Hare, who always used James. Everybody else called me that. ‘Lucky Bucky,’” he said, with a bit of a bitter twist to his smile.
Darcy laughed. “Yeah, you’re lucky all right. Still around after ninety-whatever years, aren’t you?”
“True enough. But Ma called me that because I was born on their first wedding anniversary. You know—well, maybe you don’t—how superstitious Irish folks are.”
She squeezed his hand. “That’s so sweet. Also, for sure the best reason for having what’s a super good-ol’-boy-loser nickname, nowadays.”
He squeezed back. “Do you have any nicknames?”
“Not really. ‘Darce,’ I guess, but that’s more laziness than a nickname.”
Tony gasped in outrage. “I am wounded, Ms. Lewis, that you aren’t including my many complimentary monikers. Fine, I’ll keep working on it; I do like the sound of Dominatrix Darcy….”
“See what you did?” she said, lightly slapping Bucky on the wrist. “This is all your fault.”
“I look forward to your creative punishments,” Bucky said, with a satisfied leer.
She raised an eyebrow and leered back. “I’ll start a list.”
Chapter 12: Steve
“What the hell do you guys do all day?” Darcy asked Steve and Bucky the next day, when they ran into each other in the kitchen around lunchtime.
He made a face. “Not much.”
“That’s not true,” Bucky said, flicking a piece of cereal at him. “Just because you’re not out running around the streets of Manhattan or at one of the SHIELD bases doesn’t mean you’re sitting around twiddling your fingers all day.” He turned to look at Darcy. “We’re analyzing the Hydra data from Agent Romanov’s info-dump last year. And we’re taking classes online.”
She looked a little more surprised by that than Steve thought seemed appropriate. “Oh?”
“Yes,” he said, firmly. “In addition to all of the ‘history’ that happened after us, and politics, and modern culture, Tony and Bruce suggested we study up and get a better sense of the basics for Bucky’s arm redesign, and possible complications.”
“Cool,” she said. “So, what are you studying?”
“Biology and psychiatry,” Bucky said. “Everything Bruce was talking about with the nervous system was way beyond me, and I wanted to know what he and Tony are going to do to my brain. Make sure they don’t scramble it all up again.”
Steve smirked. “Pretty sure you can’t unscramble eggs, pal.” Bucky flicked another piece of cereal at him, which he caught and ate. “I wanted to know more about the metal alloys Tony is going to use in the new arm, and uses in his suits, and the vibranium my shield’s made of. More about the mechanics of the arm in general.”
“Oooh, college boys,” Darcy said with a smile. “I guess that makes sense; the tower’s kind of a big frat house.”
“Does that make you, Dr. Foster, and Miss Potts sorority girls?” Bucky asked.
“God, I hope not, since the other two are already pinned,” Darcy said, rolling her eyes. “But seriously, that’s great. You guys have so much to catch up on and get used to. I can’t imagine the reverse, if I was suddenly in the 1930s.” She paused a moment. “Ugh, I’d look awful in those clothes, too.”
Steve snorted. “Mae West did all right.”
Darcy put her hand on her chest and pretended to swoon. “One of my idols. Sassy and curvy, with no fucks to give for anyone.”
Bucky laughed. “She was one hell of a dame, that’s for sure.”
Steve tuned them out as they continued to talk about actresses from the ‘30s. It wasn’t that he didn’t think the things he and Bucky were learning were frivolous or anything, but he still chafed at the feeling of being trapped. Once a week or so, at random times, a helicopter—usually piloted by Barton—took him and Bucky to various rural locations so they could get some fresh air and run on something other than a treadmill. The mental activity he got from studying was fine for his mind, but his body needed far more activity than it was getting, and after four months, it was starting to wear at him and make him irritable.
That was probably why Bucky flirting with Darcy got under his skin a little. It wasn’t like Bucky was being inappropriate, or like Steve felt he was violating their “let’s wait about Darcy” agreement. And it was nice to see that side of the “old Bucky” resurface—like Tony, Bucky had always flirted with any lady they’d run into, natural as breathing. And sure, Steve was still a little too awkward to flirt most of the time, but he didn’t feel jealous that it was so easy for Bucky to talk to dames.
He tuned back into the conversation when Darcy said something about not having anything to do now that her dissertation was mostly done. She couldn’t look for a job while she was in so-called “protective custody,” so she’d gone back to being Jane’s assistant over the last few days, just to fill the time.
“Having a schedule makes the days go a lot faster, for us,” Bucky offered.
Steve nodded. “Having a plan, even if it’s not for every minute of the day, helps to minimize the restlessness. Wake up at 5:00 a.m., gym until about 7:00 a.m., breakfast, study time, chores, lunch. Then SHIELD research, sparring, more chores, dinner, and learning about this brave new world.”
“’That has such people in’t?’” Darcy asked, her eyes sparkling. “Or just the media-as-soma part?”
There was no holding back the size of Steve’s grin. “People still read that book?”
“They do,” she said, smiling back. “In high school, even. As an example of dystopia, along with 1984.”
“JARVIS, please add that to my reading list,” Steve requested, glancing up at the nearest camera.
“Of course, Captain,” JARVIS said.
“All right, if you two are going to nerd out over science fiction, I’m going to do the dishes,” Bucky said as he reached for their plates and took them into the kitchen.
“Mentioning one book isn’t ‘nerding out,’” Darcy insisted, but Bucky made a noise of disagreement and stayed in the kitchen. “So, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty full schedule,” she said, turning back to Steve.
He nodded. “At first, it was for Bucky, ways to fill the day other than therapy and the related homework. We both need to stay physically active or we get, well, ‘super-serum cranky,’ as Sam says. We have too much energy to burn through it all with mental activity.”
Darcy smirked. “And you two don’t burn it off in more enjoyable ways? Or is ‘sparring’ a euphemism?”
It took Steve a moment to catch on to what she meant. “That’s a pretty personal question,” he said. He hated how nosy people were about each other’s sex lives nowadays. It was none of her business, not that anything that couldn’t fall into the category of “close friends” was happening with him and Bucky anyway.
Her brows shot up in surprise. “Sorry,” she said, putting her hand on Steve’s arm. “Didn’t mean to pry, just… teasing. But I won’t, okay?”
He huffed out a breath. “Yeah.” He cast around for the threads of the conversation before it got derailed with her bringing up sex—and sublimating his own desire to take a minute to imagine “sparring” with Bucky in a non-literal sense—and shrugged. “So yeah, a schedule helps.”
“I imagine so,” she agreed. “So far, I get up at a reasonable time, eat, make sure my scientists are fed and watered, do some of Jane’s paperwork, eat…. And then I’ve got nothing. That’s where my day falls apart, after lunch.”
“You’re good at research and analysis, right?” Steve asked. “Why hasn’t anyone asked you to help out with the SHIELD data?”
“Good question,” Darcy said, intrigued. “I’d hazard a guess that they don’t want me to know any more than I do because they think it’ll make me a bigger target. Which is pretty ridiculous, since I’m already apparently in mortal danger or I wouldn’t be stuck here.”
Steve’s instinct was to argue, but she had a point. After thinking a moment, he said, “Well. Do you want to wait for team-approved permission, or do you want to just come help us out?”
She laughed. “Look at you, circumventing the rules. You have layers, dude.”
“The uniform is just a costume,” he reminded her, smiling a little.
“Yup, he’s still the same ol’ belligerent asshole, always spoiling for a fight,” Bucky said as he rejoined them, evidently done with the dishes. “Except now he’s a foot taller and twice as heavy.”
“Anyway,” Steve said, mock-glaring at Bucky, “why don’t you join us and see if it’s something you want to help us out with?” At her nod, he added, “And if you don’t mind another suggestion, I’ve been thinking that you should learn some self-defense, unless you’ve already had some training. In which case, you should practice it—and I haven’t seen you at the gym. The danger you’re in isn’t an exaggeration. We still don’t know who was raiding your apartment looking for the Eternity stone.”
Darcy’s mouth twisted in distaste. She picked at her fingernails as she thought for a moment. “I want to argue, because I don’t like being told how to live my life. But you’re probably right. I’d be fighting all of this a lot more if I didn’t agree on at least some level.” She paused, then nodded. “Fine. I do feel like I’m turning into a potato, and I bet that kickboxing class I took as an undergrad probably isn’t going to save my ass against real bad guys. It was helpful for defending myself from jerks getting too handsy at bars or parties. Or on the bus. Or in elevators,” she added with a disgusted sigh. After a slight pause she asked, “Do you think if I asked, Tony would soup up my taser into something terrifying?” her eyes sparkling with mischief.
Steve smiled. “I’d bet $10 that he’s already got one made for you. Come on,” he said, getting up, “Bucky and I are set up in the conference room where we all met you for the first time.”
“And Mr. Sparkly,” she added with a sly grin, making Bucky snort.
“And him,” Steve agreed, ignoring the flash of heat in his face as he remembered his shock when she had reached into her cleavage and pulled the gemstone out. “Ready?” He glanced at Bucky, who nodded. “Let’s get started.”
She’d also taken his suggestion to get some exercise and had signed up for one of the classes at the employee health center on the SI floors. He figured he’d give her a few weeks to loosen up and build some endurance before he brought up self-defense lessons again. Unfortunately, the more he thought about it, the more he worried about her safety.
Darcy didn’t talk a lot while she was working, but her results so far had made Steve realize that both he and Bucky had focused their work on what Hydra had been doing for the last seventy years. She was significantly more focused on the future, what directions Hydra was likely to head in, both in terms of their plans and projects, as well as physical locations.
“So, this ‘making the best of it’ thing you do,” she said one afternoon during lunch, totally out of the blue. “Is that because you were in such poor health before the serum?”
Steve frowned, and took a large bite of his sandwich, giving himself time to think while he chewed. Bucky was in the lab with Dr. Banner, and this might have been one of the first times Steve was alone with Darcy. Bucky was usually the one who bore the brunt of her random questions. On the plus side, Steve had gotten more comfortable around her over the last several days.
Finally, he said, “I never thought about it, but that seems probable. I know being sickly meant I had to develop strategic planning skills at a young age, to make the best use of my energy.”
She nodded. “My aunt has MS—multiple sclerosis—and she does the same thing. I think anyone with long-term physical or mental health problems learns to do that, to some degree. Remind me to send you a link to the spoon theory. Although it’s more of an analogy, really…. Anyhow, it must drive you batshit crazy to have so much energy now and nowhere good to direct it.”
He snorted a laugh. “Not how I’d have said it, but yeah.”
“So, if-slash-when Hydra is totally eradicated, and the world is at peace, and everyone is living in perfect harmony,” she paused while he snorted again, “what will you do, after?”
“Yeah. Like, once this mission that you’ve been on since the ‘40s is over, what will you do with yourself? Go back to being in the regular army? Become a military advisor? Train spies at the CIA? Or retire to the middle of Wyoming and have a well-earned vacation from the rest of the world?”
Steve was surprised at how unsettled and upset her question made him feel. “I… don’t know. I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” he finally answered. He felt vaguely embarrassed that he didn’t have much of a plan for his life.
She gave him a penetrating look. “You’ve been defrosted for, what, three and a half years? And you haven’t thought about it? Interesting.”
The way she said that word definitely made his hackles rise. So he did what he always did and counter-attacked. “Well, what about you? Now that you’ve finished your PhD, you don’t sound like you have much of a plan for yourself, either.”
“Not a clue,” she agreed. “My interests and ‘life experiences’ have changed a lot in the last few years, with all of this,” she said, waving a hand around that indicated the Avengers Tower, superheroes, aliens, and magical stones. “I’ve actually been thinking about taking a few career aptitude tests and seeing what the results are. I don’t like feeling aimless.”
“They have those for civilians now?” he asked. In his day, no one thought about what career they’d be best suited to—they took whatever job they could find. As a sickly a young man, he’d felt angry and bitter that Fate had dealt him such a bad hand, that he wasn’t going to have a very long life, thanks to his frail body. That was part of what had made him such a fighter; if he wasn’t going to live very long, then he was damn well going to use all the time he had to make the world a better place. He’d always wanted to be a hero, even when that simply meant defending weaker people from bullies. A martyr complex, Natasha called it.
“Yup, lots of them,” Darcy said, pulling him back into the present. “They take into account what you’re good at, but also how you interact with people, what kind of environment you work best in, and what gives you satisfaction.”
Steve stared at her like she had opened a door where he’d thought there was a solid wall. “Huh.”
When he’d been “defrosted”—as she said—he’d been overwhelmed, both with grief and by the rush of the modern world. SHIELD had tried to help, some, but they’d also intended to use his skills from the very start. He’d accepted their directions without much thought, after the Battle of New York, training up their agents and working with Natasha on assignments.
He’d never even thought about questioning Director Fury. He hadn’t particularly wanted to be alive in the 2010s, but he’d been raised to consider suicide a sin, and although he’d vehemently wished he had stayed dead, the best he could do to try and escape this life was be reckless.
Now that SHIELD was gone, and Hydra unmasked, well, he had Bucky. The rest of the world could go hang, for all he cared. Sam had warned Steve that he was throwing himself into the hunt for Bucky so that he didn’t have to deal with SHIELD’s betrayal. Instead he’d turned his rage into determination, as he always had.
And for the last eight months, he’d been focused on “fixing” Bucky—and himself too, as much as he’d fought having therapy sessions that were just for him. Bucky had improved leaps and bounds from where he’d been as the Winter Soldier last summer. Aside from needing to work on social skills and being in public—which they couldn’t do until Hydra stopped hunting them—Bucky was doing really well. There was some physical tension growing between them, and of course Bucky still had bad days sometimes.
Steve was working on being less controlling and treating Bucky as his equal, if he wanted to stay in Bucky’s life. Now, he realized, he needed to build himself a life for Bucky to stay in with him. Neither of them owed the United States—or any other government—anything more.
Now if only the goddamned planet could learn to save itself without him….
Chapter 13: Darcy
“Argh! All that work for a PhD, and I’m doing the same damn ‘job’ I had over four years ago: scientist wrangler,” Darcy groaned, rubbing at a papercut on her thumb as she joined Steve and Bucky for lunch the next day.
“Any job is better than no job.” Steve shrugged.
She made a face at him. “Yeah, yeah. Be grateful for what I’ve got. I know.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I’m just feeling woeful because life is so hard for me, trapped here in a glass tower in the middle of Manhattan, with everything I could want paid for by a billionaire, surrounded by hot guys, yadda, yadda. I just… I have ennui,” she said dramatically.
Ennui was such a good word, seriously, even if it wasn’t strictly accurate. She wasn’t bored so much as bouncing between relief that she was finished writing her dissertation and nerves about her upcoming defense. It was scheduled as a video-conference in a few days, thanks to Pepper, and would be broadcast from one of Stark Industries’ jets, so her whereabouts would be less traceable. So actually, not ennui at all, more like some kind of brain-numbing emotional exhaustion.
“I’m nervous,” she admitted, not making eye contact with either of them.
Apparently she missed some exchange between the two of them, because Steve cleared his throat and said, “Maybe it would help to take your mind off it? We talked about having someone teach you some self-defense moves, a while ago. Today might be a good day to get started.”
She made a face. “Yeah, okay. I just…. I don’t want to take advantage, you know? Teaching me to not die isn’t your job.”
“No, it’s us making sure our soulmate—our friend—knows how to protect herself,” Bucky said. “If you wanna make it more equal, you could teach us some stuff, too.”
“Like what? What could I possibly know how to do, that you’d want to learn?”
Steve snickered. “Bucky wants to learn to cook. He’s tired of being your sous chef all the time.”
Without turning, Bucky reached out and flicked Steve’s ear. “The punk’s not wrong, I would like to learn more in the kitchen. Cooking seems a lot more fun, now that you can actually get decent ingredients. Can we make bread?” After she nodded, he added, “Steve wants to learn how to use Tweeter.”
She choked on the bite of food in her mouth, laughing so hard at both his error and the utterly clueless look on his face. “Twitter,” she corrected, once she managed to stop. “And sure, I can teach you the ins and outs of social media.” She caught the look Steve was giving Bucky, and knew he’d gotten the name wrong to make her laugh. “I assume you meant yeast breads?” she said, and got a nod of confirmation. “I don’t have a whole lot of experience with those, but we could learn together. I helped my grandma in the kitchen during the holidays, sometimes. She’d let me punch down the dough after it rose.”
“Speaking of punching,” Steve said. “Why don’t you come to the private gym up here, with us, and start learning some self-defense, after we clean up these dishes?”
Ugh, exercise. In front of two hot guys. Getting all sweaty, looking like an idiot…. Them getting all sweaty… touching her, showing her how to move her body right….
“Sounds good,” she said, feeling a little overly-warm already. Thank God someone had finally packed up her clothes and brought them to the tower. “Two floors up, right? I’ll change and meet you there.”
Bucky looked her up and down, and then at Steve, brows raised.
Okay fine, so she was not exactly glammed up today, in sweats and a T-shirt and a hoodie. She rolled her eyes. “Sports bras are a thing. My girls need strapped down or they get a little too rambunctious.”
The tips of Steve’s ears turned a lovely bright pink, and she laughed all the way back to her rooms. Embarrassing him was becoming one of her favorite things.
And also, super trashed. Pepper had brought her a celebratory bottle of champagne, and that had kicked off the amazingly novel idea to get absolutely smashed in celebration. Jane was with her 100% on this plan, as was the amazing Iron Bartender, and this time even Steve and Bucky were joining in. Apparently, several months ago, Thor had brought Tony and Bruce a flowering plant from another planet with intoxicating powers that Thor thought might work on the super-soldiers. That project had been right up Tony’s alley. He was so smart.
Tony laughed. “Thanks, Lewis, that means so much coming from you, right now.”
So some of her words were coming out the mouth instead of staying in the brain. Whatevs; not like that was new. The filter was the first thing to go. It was Friday, and she was a fucking doctor, and she deserved some respect, motherfuckers!
“It’s not even real science!” Tony protested. ‘It doesn’t count the same way; you should have another title. Only real scientists should be called doctors.”
Pepper gave him a look. “You really do enjoy sleeping on the sofa, don’t you?”
“Aw, Pep, come on. I didn’t say the humanities and social ‘sciences,’” he shuddered as he said the phrase, “were dumb, I just said they needed a different word for the highest level of achievement. Like… ‘Procurator’ or something Latin.”
“How about ‘Mistress’?” Bucky joked, making Darcy laugh.
“Technically,” she said, turning to face him, and then turning in a circle because she’d gone too far and missed. She grabbed the table and carefully adjusted to focus on him. “I’m already a Mistress. Had my Master’s degree for a while now.”
“Well, who outranks a Mistress? Headmistress?” Steve suggested. After a moment his ears turned pink and he started to giggle to himself.
“See, that’s the filthy-minded punk I remember,” Bucky said, patting Steve on the knee.
“Aw, Steve!” Darcy grinned, launching herself (okay falling, fine) at Steve and ending up sprawled across his lap and the armchair he was in. She patted his cheek. “Who knew all you needed was a little booze to loosen that naughty tongue?” She stuck her tongue out and wiggled it at him. It was not meant to be sexy, which was good, because Steve curled forward, laughing harder, pulling her more firmly onto his lap so she didn’t slide to the floor. She’d never seen him laugh like that. Looked like he needed it.
“You have no idea,” Bucky said, laughing too.
Wow, they were both really beautiful when they laughed. All the years and worries and grief lifted, and they looked like any other dorks in their late twenties/early thirties, out having fun. Sizzling hot dorks. With really nice laps. So comfy….
“Seems like the test run of our decoction is a success,” Bruce said, grinning. “No way Steve would be lettering her wiggle around in his lap like that otherwise. She almost kneed him in the crotch when she landed on him.”
“Wait,” Jane interrupted, levelling a pointy finger at Tony. “So Thor brought you two a medicinal plant from outer space, and you thought booze was more important than working on some kind of anesthetic, for if these guys or Natasha need surgery?”
“I’m shocked. Shocked and stunned,” Pepper said.
Tony looked at Bruce, who shrugged. Seeing that he was all alone in this one, Tony deflated. “Uh. I’ll get right on that?” he offered.
Darcy patted his hand. “No worries, Daddy Warbucks. I’m sure you’ll figure something out, now that you have a basic molecular—mole-eck-you-ler, that’s such a fun word to say, maybe I should be a biologist….” She paused for just the teensiest of moments to relocate her train of thought. “Oh right!” she said, raising her arms in triumph at how fucking brilliant she was. “Basic molecular structure to start with. Plus you have these two monkeys to experiment on,” she said, picking up Steve’s hand and waving it around. “Bet they’ll be more willing to try it, if it might get them hammered.”
Steve reclaimed his hand—which she was still waving around—and poked her shoulder.
“I bet Steve would have sexy zombie hands,” Jane said, in a totally serious voice. Drunk Jane was the best.
“Oh Oh Oh!” Darcy shouted. “We should totally watch Shaun of the Dead and do the drinking game. Cornettos forever!”
Sadly, the idea was vetoed, since apparently Darcy and Jane were trashed enough already, and Bucky and Steve didn’t have any idea what the hell they were talking about. Instead they all ended up watching the next Lord of the Rings movie, with Darcy and Jane cuddling and giggling on one sofa, Bucky and Steve doing the same on the other. The two of them were adorable. Like little deadly racoons.
Bucky lifted his head from Steve’s lap and slowly turned to look at her, WTF written all over his face.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. They have claws and are all bitey and cranky. But also smart and adorable.”
Bucky shook his head slowly, then laid it back down on Steve’s thigh. “Are we adorable?”
Steve ran a hand through Bucky’s hair. “Well, I am. Maybe you get some adorableness by proximity?”
“I am a super soldier,” Bucky argued. “An assassin.”
“Don’t worry, you’re still a total badass,” Darcy added, from her couch. “Just cute together.”
Steve and Bucky looked at each other, nodded, and smiled. Darcy’s heart melted into a puddle of goo that—somehow—almost hurt.
(The old-timey dudes? The super-soldiery dudes? Even in her head she couldn’t decide what to call them. Spending more time together over the last couple of weeks meant she was getting to know them better as Steve and Bucky—as neither men from another era, nor as soldiers. Although the self-defense training did make her see more of their soldiery sides….)
Anyway—focus up, Brain, she thought, I’m not above bribing you with chocolate espresso beans—today she’d been able to pinpoint it: Steve and Bucky weren’t making eye contact with each other. Which was super noticeable because they were together, like, 24/7, practically.
So, to recap—now that she’d eaten a few chocolatey buzz-bombs—the boys were acting strange and not making eye contact with each other. Not like they were angry, though; that wasn’t the vibe. More like they were embarrassed. Maybe something embarrassing had happened in the bedroom? Maybe they’d had bad sex? Maybe one of their little soldiers failed to salute?
Was it wrong that that idea was amusing her? Yes, yes it was wrong and bad. She should be a better friend than that. Having suffered through a third afternoon of research in the Room of Avoidance, she’d had enough. Enough of the tension—and enough caffeine—to butt in with all the subtly of a bull in a china shop. If that bull was also neon green, and on fire. What, she knew her strong points—subtlety was not one of them.
“So…” she started, breaking the silence that was making dinner more fraught than burritos ever should be. “How are things going with the two of you?”
They glanced at each other, and then both quickly looked away. Steve shrugged.
Darcy sighed and made a token effort to not roll her eyes. It was just the three of them at dinner, and she wasn’t backing down. “You know, one thing I totally forgot about you old folks is how shitty your generation was at communicating. You just knuckle down and get through crap, but you don’t actually talk about any of it. Everyone came back from WWII with serious PTSD, and the two of you have gone through the most horrifically traumatic things, like ever. I don’t even know the details because I don’t need more nightmares, and because I haven’t hacked into the confidential files. Yet.”
The guys did not look surprised by the qualification. Or they were just stunned at her sudden lecture. Yeah, that was more likely. She’d shocked them into silence with her total absence of tact—yay! They were looking at her as if she was the bull, referenced above.
“Anyway, how do you expect things to get better between the two of you, if you won’t talk about it?”
Steve’s brows drew down into a scowl, with a hint of embarrassment. Bucky looked torn between discomfort and resignation, with a healthy dose of irritation thrown in for spice.
“Who the hell do you think—?” Steve started, but she derailed him by holding up one hand to show her marks, and pointed at the names on his.
“Your soulmate, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. I like you guys, we’ve been hanging out for almost two months, you’re my friends—even if that’s all we ever are, platonic friends. So I’m claiming the right to meddle, based on those freaky lavender aliens saying we were all supposed to make each other happy. I care about you. And Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, the tension for the last three days has been like trying to ignore one of those aliens, sitting right here on the table, waving its tentacles at us. Oozing.”
“They didn’t ooze,” Steve said, apparently having some trouble wrapping his head around all those words she’d just said.
Bucky kicked Steve under the table. His expression was now mostly irritated, although not with her. More with Steve, actually. Bucky had a very expressive face, when he wasn’t blanking it out. And/or she’d spent a little too much time staring at it on account of the Serious Pretty.
“Let’s go sit somewhere more comfortable, if we’re going to talk,” he suggested, and gestured at the living room area. Darcy got up to follow him, and after a moment, an oppressed-looking Steve did too.
“You two have known each other for almost literally a century,” she said, settling into an armchair and leaving the sofa to them. “You trust each other with your lives, so you ought to be able to trust each other with your emotions. Your outsides are hard-body candy shells, but your insides are gooey chocolate, that you should share with each other. Oooh, JARVIS could you please put M&Ms on the grocery list?”
“We talk,” Steve protested, while JARVIS confirmed her request.
Bucky snorted, a glimmer of satisfaction in his eye, which amused her. Maybe he’d tried talking to Steve, but gotten nowhere? Or maybe he just liked watching Steve twist in the wind. Either way, he didn’t seem to need convincing that the two of them needed to work out whatever was going on.
“I talk! I do,” Steve continued to protest. “We communicate. We talk about hard stuff.”
“We talk about my hard stuff,” Bucky corrected. “Because my guts were all spread out on the table for everyone to see, and I needed help shoving them back in where they belong.”
“Gross. You should stick with candy analogies,” Darcy said, making a face of disgust.
Steve glared at her for interrupting. “The point is, we don’t have a communication problem.”
“Uh-huh. Do you talk about your feelings for each other?” she asked.
“We don’t have to! We’ve always been soulmates,” Steve argued. “It just wasn’t written on our hands until now. But it was there all the same.”
Aw, that was so sweet. But irrelevant. “Haven’t things changed?” she asked.
Steve paused—obviously she’d hit a sore spot. “Well. We’ve both changed.”
“Understatement,” Bucky muttered.
“What?” Steve said, turning away from her to finally face his for-reals soulmate. He rolled his eyes when Bucky waved a hand at Steve’s chest. “You can’t seriously still have a problem with this body. You were around it for over a year in ’44, and almost a year in this century.”
Bucky made a face. “It’s still weird. You’re not the Stevie I knew. It’s still strange for me that you don’t look like the guy I knew for twenty years. Every memory of you that I have, you’re in a different body than this one.”
“Yeah, well. That body was defective and weak.” Steve scowled.
“I liked that body. Shut your mouth about it,” Bucky said, poking Steve in the chest.
Steve poked him back, and there was a moment where it looked like they were about to start rolling around on the floor in a (mostly good-natured?) brawl, but then Bucky turned to face her. “See what I have to put up with? There’s no communicating with that.”
“Oh, come on,” Steve objected, even though it was obvious Bucky was teasing.
“You could use some therapy,” Darcy said, and they both made faces at her. “Or at least to learn some better communication skills. Ninety-nine percent of all relationships fall apart because the participants don’t have the tools to talk to each other and aren’t willing to trust the other person with their most vulnerable parts.” (She was proud of herself that she didn’t snicker over the allusion to their parts.)
“You just made up that statistic,” Steve said.
“Yeah I did,” Darcy answered, nodding seriously as she tried not to smile. “Therapy: get some. Both of you. Separately and together.”
Steve crossed his arms. “We have, twice a week for three months at the farm. And we still have video sessions every other week or so.”
Bucky nodded. “And we have guidelines for having difficult conversations with each other. But I’ve kind of had enough of doctors and other people poking around in my head at this point—I’m fine. We’ll work things out ourselves.”
“Trust issues,” she said with a world-weary sigh. “All right, then you need a friend to talk to.”
They both looked around the room, then back at her. “Who?” Steve asked. “Dr. Banner? Sam?”
“No,” Bucky said immediately.
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Me? I could listen. I’m supposedly your soulmate, and all, and my shoulder and bosoms have comforted many a lovelorn friend. I know you haven’t known me for very long, but I can keep a secret. And who would I tell anyway—I can’t even leave here.”
The guys glanced at each other again, but neither of them said anything.
She shrugged. “I know opening yourself up like that is one of the scariest thing in the universe, but I also know you’re both too brave to let fear hold you back from doing the right thing. And I like you guys. I want you two to be happy,” she said, around the sudden lump in her throat. “That’s what friends do.”
Chapter 14: Bucky
It had been about quarter to five, or maybe earlier, the usual time Steve got up every day, even without an alarm. Bucky and Steve had been getting more touchy at night—not in public or even on the sofa in their living room, only in bed. It wasn’t a friend’s hand touching a friend casually, and it wasn’t quite sexual, but… it was something. Fingertips mapping the muscles of arms and shoulders and chest, learning the shape of each other’s bodies. They were definitely straddling the line between friendship and something more, and only the tips of a few toes were lingering on the friendship-only side.
Anyway, it had been goddamned early, in that grey time before sunrise but after the sun lets you know it’s on its way. Steve had rolled over to face Bucky at some point, and his free hand was on Bucky’s chest. His own hand was on Steve’s hip. Steve’s thumb stroked over his nipple, and he’d twitched a little in surprise. He’d been a little aroused, and could tell that Steve was too, but he’d still been half-asleep.
Steve had moved in slowly, holding his gaze as he’d closed the remaining space between them, and kissed him. Steve’s lips were soft, his mouth closed, the kiss—their first kiss—innocent and brief.
Even mostly asleep, it had been too sweet to bear. Bucky had pulled back a little as he smiled. “If that’s how you kiss dames, no wonder you never managed to keep one,” he’d teased in a sleep-rough voice. “You gotta show a little more passion.”
Steve’s eyes had flashed with humor, and he’d picked up the challenge. He’d slid his hand to the back of Bucky’s neck, pulling him in closer, and kissed him again. This time Steve was close enough for Bucky to feel their morning stubble catch briefly in a way that was oddly thrilling. Their lips were parted, and the kiss was still slow and gentle, but there was a destination in mind. This wasn’t the kiss of a blushing schoolboy, barely out of short pants. This was Steve, as a lover.
Well, Bucky hadn’t been about to lay there and let Steve do all the work. He’d kissed back, and things had gotten more heated. Steve’s body was pressed against his. Both of their dicks had jumped when they’d brushed together for the first time, and they’d both made soft noises of pleasure.
And then Steve had rolled Bucky onto his back and leaned over him, and that’s when everything had gone to Hell. The move was a little quick, and Bucky’s body had automatically reacted as if the man on top of him was a threat. He’d thrown Steve across the room before he’d even registered what was happening.
He’d ruined everything.
With both the nocturnal touching between him and Steve, and Darcy being Darcy, Bucky’s libido had definitely started to rise from the dead over the last month. It was easier for him to feel a little hot under the collar around her, less confusing, less fraught with dangerous feelings. She was a nice gal, female curves were soft and familiar to him, and she had one hell of a gorgeous, round bottom that his hands longed to squeeze.
He’d been getting more used to having sexual urges overall; he’d even stroked himself off a few times in the shower. And then the other night Steve had kissed him, and it had been amazing—until he’d freaked out.
So yeah, there was some tension between them, which they were avoiding talking about. Bucky knew that Steve wasn’t going to start the conversation, and this time, he didn’t much want to talk about it either, so it was just sitting there. He didn’t know what to say. It had been three days, and he still hadn’t figured out how to apologize. He was full of contradictory feelings—nervous and scared that he’d fucked things up already. His biggest fear was that if he fucked up badly enough, he’d lose Steve complete. At the same time, he was also hopeful and excited to see where things were going. He felt a little more like the “old Bucky,” in love—and lust—with two people who were very easy on the eyes.
While the idea of talking to Darcy about Steve—to admitting how he’d screwed up—wasn’t terribly appealing, sorting out what was going on in his head was beginning to feel more and more necessary. He could feel staticky energy building up in his head, and he could recognize the warning signs that led up to a stress-related meltdown.
After breakfast the next day, Bucky squared his shoulders and went to find Darcy. As expected, she was in the labs, drinking coffee with Jane and blithely ignoring the small explosions coming from Tony’s part of the space.
“Good morning, ladies,” he said in a light tone that was only-slightly forced.
Darcy smiled back. “You look awfully chipper this morning. What’s new and exciting?” she asked with a wink.
Jane shook her head. “No flirting in the lab. Go somewhere else if you’re going to be all adorable.”
“The other night you said me and Steve were always adorable,” Bucky pointed out, with a more genuine smile.
It got a smile out of Jane, and Darcy laughed. “You down here to check in about the exciting new arm?”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you,” he said, trying not to let his nerves show.
Darcy raised her eyebrows.
“See?” Jane said. “Go ‘talk’ or whatever, and I don’t want to hear any details about your sex lives, after.”
Darcy smacked her on the shoulder. “We’re not having sex, and besides, yes, you totally would.”
Jane shrugged. “Fine. Your sex life—when you have one—is more interesting than most of what’s on TV. It’s not even close to more interesting than Science, though, so go away. It’s Science Time now.”
Bucky smiled, and offered a hand to Darcy. “Buy you a cup of coffee?”
“Wow, a Serious Talk, then,” Darcy said, curling up on the end of their sofa and tucking her feet under her. She took a sip of coffee and set the mug aside. “Things still…” she waved a hand, “yucky between you two?”
He made a small noise of amusement. “Yeah, things are still 'yucky.'”
She nodded. “Do you want to tell me what happened?” There was a bit of a pause while he thought it over, and she added, “You don’t have to share anything you’re not comfortable with. I can listen, so you can get things off your chest, or you can stick to the broad strokes and we can brainstorm and do problem-solving.”
“All right,” Bucky said, and then faltered. He cleared his throat, scrubbed his hands over his face, and twisted around so he was looking at her reflection in the TV screen, rather than meeting her eye to eye. “A few nights ago, we—uh—kissed. And it was fine, until suddenly I’d thrown him across the room. I fu— messed everything up.” He tried to keep his voice neutral, but he was sure his shame was evident.
“I ain’t no lady,” Darcy said, reaching out to poke his shoulder. “You can say 'fuck.'” As intended, he smiled, a little of the tension relaxed from his shoulders. She gave him a moment, and then asked, “What was different about that kiss, from any others?”
He turned to her, surprised. “Well, it was the first time we’ve kissed. On the mouth,” he clarified. “That made it pretty different.”
She blinked. “Wow. Okay, uh, I did not expect that.” She looked like a dam about to burst forth with questions, but after a few long moments, she managed to hold them all back. “I’m guessing the kissing was fine, but then your body reacted automatically? You didn’t throw him across the room on purpose, right? He wasn’t like, ‘getting fresh’ with you?” she said, a slight twinkle in her eyes.
The corner of Bucky’s mouth pulled up into a slight smile again. “No, he wasn’t ‘getting fresh.’ He wasn’t doing anything I didn’t want him to do.”
“Hm.” She pursed her mouth in thought for a moment. “Do you often react unintentionally to physical touches or being startled?”
He shrugged. “Not as much as I used to, with touching. I don’t… do well with surprises,” he admitted, hoping he wasn’t scaring her off. He liked when she touched him, but guessed maybe she should know what she was getting into. God, what if he backhanded her someday, if she somehow snuck up on him? One hit from his metal arm would shatter her jaw. Or skull.
“Hey,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “Take a few slow breaths for me, okay? You’re getting better, right? It just takes time. Your body had decades of learning one thing, and now you’re undoing that. It may take more than a few months, or even a few years. It’s okay. You have as much time as you need.”
He couldn’t get a deep breath in, but he still managed a snort of disbelief. “And if I hurt someone in the meantime?”
She shrugged. “Cross that bridge when you get to it.”
He shook his head, and got up, crossing over to the kitchenette. He got himself a glass of water and drank most of it, only glancing her way occasionally while his thoughts spun around. His metal hand clenched and unclenched the edge of the counter, but at least nothing cracked. He took a few slow breaths and came back to the sofa. “If I ever tell you to get away from me,” he said, making sure she was holding his gaze, “you go. No arguments,” he added, holding up a hand. “No matter what. If we’re talking, or whatever, and I feel like I’m about to lose control, you need to get away from me as fast as you can. JARVIS will help.”
Darcy’s brows drew together in a frown of concern as she turned that over. “All right,” she said, surprising him by not arguing. “And if I tell you the same thing, if I’m screaming at you during a fight and I tell you to get out, you go. I say really mean, hurtful things when I’m angry. Things I can’t take back later, because they’re true. So if I tell you to go, you go. Deal?”
Bucky blinked at her for several breaths. She was always surprising him, saying or doing the last thing he’d expect. “All right.”
She nodded. He nodded back. They sat in silence, both looking at the other person as if they were seeing something new.
“So,” she finally said. “First kiss, huh?”
Her nonchalance amused him. “Yeah.”
She wiggled her eyebrows, smirking. “Must have been pretty good, if you were that taken off-guard.”
Bucky laughed out loud in surprise. “Well, yeah. It was… goin’ real well,” he admitted with a wink.
“I bet it was.” She grinned at him for a second, then sobered a bit. “Have you reacted like that when Steve’s surprised you, in the past?”
“Not quite like that. But… I guess, yeah.” He’d certainly thrown Steve across several rooms at the farm, and he’d broken Steve’s ribs a couple of times when a few objects had proved to be more solid than Steve was. The first time Steve had come up behind him and tried to hug him, he’d broken Steve’s wrist. “Not since we’ve been here at the tower.”
Darcy nodded. “So things are definitely improving, right?” He raised a shoulder, allowing that that was maybe true, and she continued, “You’re getting better at controlling those automatic reactions. And in general, people move fairly carefully around you, making sure not to startle you.”
He nodded. He hated it, hated that people felt like they had to coddle him to keep him from accidentally killing them, but yeah. And he wasn’t exactly going to tell them to stop, because he didn’t know how he could live with himself if he ever injured a civilian again.
She made a face. “Don’t do that,” she said. “I can see what you’re thinking, and it’s not like that. The therapists you worked with told you all about PTSD, right? The friends and family of people with PTSD make accommodations for them, the same way you’d make accommodations for someone with, oh I don’t know, asthma or something,” she said, poking him again. “We take care of each other in little—and big—ways. That’s what humans do, to live together in a community.”
“You sure that degree wasn’t in psychology?”
She laughed and poked his shoulder. He raised one hand, slowly, and poked her upper arm. She grinned, raising her brows in challenge, and lifted both hands. She paused a moment before coming at him with a double attack, and suddenly they were having a poking war and laughing like idiots.
She called a truce, even though he was maybe poking her once for every three times she touched him, because she was laughing so hard she had to stop and catch her breath. Eyes streaming with tears, hair disheveled, her chest heaving with each breath—bringing her bosom to his attention…. She was gorgeous. He couldn’t have stopped himself from grinning at her if he’d tried.
Finally sobering up a little, she wiggled around on the sofa, making them both realize how close they’d gotten without realizing. She raised an eyebrow in question, then slowly moved to lean her head on his shoulder.
He froze, heart beating in a moment of fight-or-flight, before settling. If she was testing him, with casual touches, to make a point… well, that was risky, but she’d made it. And he guessed he’d passed.
“Can I ask you a question—you don’t have to answer?” she asked, and waited until she felt the movement of his nod. “Did the soulmates thing from those aliens change how you felt about Steve?”
He huffed part of a laugh; that was hardly the kind of shocking question he was expecting from her. “No, not at all.”
She was silent for a second, then asked, “How do you know it wasn’t the spell?”
Bucky closed his eyes and let his head fall back to the wall behind the sofa. “Because I felt the same way before it. And before Hydra. Before everything.”
There was quiet while she thought that over. “So you’ve loved him for a long time.” He made a noise of agreement. “When did you know?”
He thought about not answering. It was ancient history—almost literally—and it wasn’t any of her business. But then, she was one his soulmates, too, whatever that was going to end up meaning for them. And he wasn’t ashamed of love, never had been.
“I think I always knew,” he said. “I had other friends, but even from the beginning, Steve was different, more than that.” Bucky let himself relax, eyes still closed, thinking back to their boyhood. “I wanted to protect him, take care of him, be with him all the time. In grade school, people started sayin’ we were as close as brothers, but I had a brother, and I didn’t feel about him the way I felt about Steve.”
She made an encouraging noise, and after a minute, he decided that if she wasn’t a lady, he didn’t have to be a gentleman, or at least didn’t have to treat her like a blushing virgin.
“I sure never woke up, uh, bothered, dreaming about kissing Eamon. As we grew up, I started noticing girls, their curves, their pretty hair.” He smiled, briefly recalling Ida Mae, with curly, dark hair, who sat in front of him at church. “But I noticed boys too, their lean muscles and strong hands…. Steve’s hands always made my heart speed up.”
“Awww, that’s so sweet.” She wiggled again, and took his hand that was between them. Although he didn’t move to protest in any way, she hesitated before giving it a squeeze. “Go on?”
He let himself drift in memories, thinking on mornings in the single bed in their tiny apartment. Picturing Steve still asleep, with sunlight spilling through threadbare curtains, making his eyelashes and hair glow. That feeling of longing for more, while at the same time being satisfied simply to be there, with him. Of feeling so full up with love that it threatened to spill over….
“When we shared a bed sometimes we’d wake up bothered,” he said, after clearing his throat, amused to feel her shoulders shake with quiet laughter at the euphemism again. “But Steve never seemed even a little interested in doin’ anything about it, at least not with me there. Since he was small, he got picked on a lot, and called a fairy, got in a lot of fights. I never wanted to imply that I thought he was less of a man. I was pretty sure he’d take me putting the moves on him as an insult, the prickly little bastard, so I never said anything. I dated a few gals, took some of them to bed. Necked—and more—with a few men from the bars that no one admitted existed, down by the docks. Not often; it was risky and… they weren’t Steve.”
She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb. “And then the war happened?” she prompted.
Bucky nodded. “Leaving him felt like leaving my guts behind. I never wanted to be in the army, but I wasn’t going to whine about it when I got drafted. Especially not in front of him, when he’d have given anything to go in my place. And then I was in Europe, and unless you were on leave you were generally too terrified to even get it up, so there wasn’t exactly much hanky-panky going on. I was always in a war zone; it turned out I had pretty good aim, and that’s where they wanted snipers…. It felt like I was unravelling for quite a while by the time Hydra caught the 107th….”
His mind wandered off, to the front, to the sounds and smells and horror of it all. To the blood and mud and rain, how war made no sense, how it was the exact opposite of righteousness. Remembering his unit getting captured, so many of them not being put back in the cells with the others at the end of each day. Him quietly crying, huddled against the concrete, as he prayed for their souls and silently thanked God that the drugs Hydra was pumping him with made him feel so numb, inside and out….
He wandered there for several long moments, until she shifted against him, bringing him back to the present.
“And then some guy who kinda looked like Steve, but couldn’t really be him, was there. But it was Steve. And he was so different. His outsides finally matched the insides I’d always known—powerful, righteous, and a pig-headed punk. His body was beautiful, but he wasn’t my Stevie…. And he had a gal, a pretty one who’d keep him on his toes, and I wanted him to live happily ever after with her, ya know? So I never said anything, figured I never would. Still think maybe I never shoulda, it’s all such a goddamned mess now.” Bucky sighed, feeling the weight of the past and present crushing down on him.
“My head’s still a battleground, me just trying to make it through the day, one day at a time. I’m real glad to have him back in my life, of course. I love him. He’s my home. And I guess now we’ve even got the marks to prove it.”
Darcy squeezed his hand. “It’s gonna be fine, with Steve. I’m not going to try to tell you that love conquers all; you’re not an idiot. But this is just a hiccup, not something big. It happened because he moved too fast, in just the wrong way—nothing that can’t be fixed. Not because of the kiss itself. I bet if he lets you drive, the second kiss will be a whole lot better,” she said with a naughty eyebrow-wiggle.
Bucky smiled and felt the knot of tension and fear in his chest loosen a bit. He took a deep breath in. “Yeah. I think you might be right.”
Chapter 15: Steve
Steve was annoyed. No, Steve was pissed. Steve was 100% done with other people sticking their noses into his business, no matter how well-intentioned they were. He was managing his life just fine by himself, he’d seen a therapist regularly at the farm, and he and Bucky would work things out. They always did, and he was confident they would now.
He knew Darcy had meant well, but all she’d done was ruffle his feathers with her unasked-for advice and make every new interaction he had with Bucky feel like someone was watching them and judging him. And now Bucky was down at the labs, going over the results of the latest round of neurological tests. That meant it was just Steve and Darcy, for her self-defense training this afternoon.
“What’s on the agenda for today?” Darcy asked, after arriving more than a few minutes late.
“Well, we were going to go over some options for when there are multiple assailants, but Bucky’s down with Tony and Bruce, so I guess we’ll have to shelve that plan. Why don’t you go get warmed up at the heavy bag, and then move into the boxing ring, and we’ll work on dodging and weaving.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, giving him a ridiculously sloppy salute.
It irked him, even though he knew it shouldn’t. She didn’t mean anything disrespectful by it; people joked and were casual about things like that nowadays. But damnit, salutes were meant to show respect. Pretending to copy one sarcastically wasn’t funny; it was insulting. (Never mind that the USO showgirls had “saluted” during their dance routines—often with the wrong hand. That wasn’t the point.)
He corrected her stance in front of the bag, then made her stop a minute later so he could re-lace her gloves because they were too loose. She kept punching too low, missing the region he’d marked off for where an average man’s face or throat would be.
“Higher! Ninety-nine percent of all men are taller than that,” he sassed.
She clenched her jaw. “You weren’t.”
“I wasn’t a hired thug, either.”
She glanced at him, irritated but also puzzled, probably wondering why he was trying to get a rise out of her. He wasn’t sure why either, and he made himself turn away and take a few deep breaths, not looking at her.
When he turned back, she was landing a solid uppercut that was at least two inches below the target. “Are you even trying?” he snapped, before he could stop himself.
She froze, not turning to look at him, or even glancing over. Her eyes were closed. After exactly fifteen seconds, she took a long breath and let it out before glancing at him. “Is there a reason you’re being such a dick today?”
“I just want to know if I’m wasting my time, trying to teach you this stuff. If you’re not going to take it seriously, then there’s no reason to keep doing it.”
“Did I do something that pissed you off?” she asked, seeming genuinely clueless.
“Always such salty language for a lady,” he said, hearing the sneer in his voice but unable to stop it.
What was he doing? Why was he trying to pick a fight with her? Conversely, why wasn’t she trying harder to hit the target, do things right, show up on time, for God’s sake? He had legitimate reasons to be upset.
She turned around fully and gave him a very long, penetrating look. “Is this about what’s going on with you Bucky?”
Steve threw his hands up in the air. “It’s none of your goddamned business, what happens with me and Bucky. Unless we’re trying to kill each other or are fucking in the living room in front of everyone, butt the hell out!”
She raised an eyebrow a him, disturbingly reminding him of Natasha. The parallel was reinforced when she cut to the chase by saying, “You’re not mad at me, you’re mad at yourself because you’re worried, and you know you need some help. And now that Bucky’s talked to me, you’re extra cranky because you’re embarrassed about what he might have told me.”
“You’ve got some nerve, telling me how I feel,” he said, taking a step toward her.
“JARVIS, call one of the guys, please,” she said. Her voice was completely steady, but her eyes were angry and scared.
Steve caught a glimpse of himself in the mirrored wall. He was pulled to his full height, shoulders squared, fists clenched, his expression visibly furious, and he was advancing on her, poised to take another step closer. He looked like he was about to attack.
He stared at his reflection. He was a good foot taller than she was, double her weight. Genetically enhanced. And he was being a bully. A wave of shame flushed through him, leaving him nauseated.
“No need, JARVIS” he said, turning around and making for the door. “I’m leaving.” He didn’t hear if JARVIS responded, since the door had already shut behind him. He made a beeline for the other section of the gym, to work out his bad temper. What the hell was he doing?
Bucky had been a little distant all afternoon and evening, because Bruce wanted to run a few more tests before he went poking around with Bucky’s spinal cord. Steve didn’t want to let things fester with Darcy, and he’d been a real jackass. Much as he hated to admit it, she was right. He was embarrassed. He was worried. And he’d taken it out on her. He hadn’t meant to physically intimidate her, but he was way out of line even without that part. He definitely owed her an apology, if she’d listen to him.
She opened the door, looking skeptical, and didn’t invite him in. Nor should she; this was her space. Maybe he should have offered to meet her in the common area. He was royally screwing this up before he’d said a single word.
Before he could suggest it, she raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
All right, so she was angry. She had a right to be. Getting defensive was not how he needed to react right now. “I want to apologize for this afternoon. If you’ll let me. We could go downstairs, somewhere more public, if you’d like? I should have thought of that before barging into your space.”
Darcy tilted her head to the side, considering. “JARVIS, you’re monitoring, right? If things get heated, you’ll call someone?”
JARVIS replied neutrally, “Of course, Ms. Lewis. The safety of the residents of the tower is my highest priority.”
She nodded, then looked up at Steve. Before today, he’d never noticed how much smaller than him she was. “Yeah, okay. You can come in and sit down,” she offered, pointing at the sofa, while she sat in the chair.
Steve sat, giving her as much space as he could without it seeming rude. “I’m so sorry I scared you. I was upset, and you were right—embarrassed about what’s going on with me and Bucky. I should never have taken it out on you, even verbally. I crossed a line, and I feel terrible that I intimidated you, made you feel threatened.”
Darcy sat for a moment, considering. “You’re a big guy.”
He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I am. It’s not like I forget, exactly, but sometimes…. Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll try to be more aware of what I’m doing with my body when I’m upset. I would never have hurt you, but I guess I haven’t given you much reason to trust that.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. “I don’t know how to make this up to you,” he admitted. “I thought about flowers or sweets, but those don’t seem like things people do nowadays.”
Her mouth lifted at the corner, in a slight smile. “Not so much. Plus, it feels like bribery, to me. So I’m glad you didn’t.” She gave him a searching look and was quiet for a long few minutes. “Okay. Everybody gets a second chance,” she said, and then clarified, “A second chance overall. You ever physically hurt me, and it’s game over, man. I will not stand for that.”
“Nor should you,” he said, nodding. “Can you forgive me?”
To his surprise, she frowned. “I don’t know if I’m ready to yet. I appreciate the apology, and I get that it wasn’t easy for you to come here and say all of that. But I’m still kind of pissed.”
Steve had no idea how to react to that. It simply hadn’t crossed his mind that she might refuse his apology. Or at least, not be ready to forgive him. He was doing a real bang-up job all around, forgetting about her needs and feelings.
She got up, crossed to the kitchenette, and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. She held one up, silently offering it to him, but he shook his head. He didn’t like the kind of beer you could see through, and it was confusing to have her say she was upset and then offer him a drink. Why hadn’t she thrown him out yet?
He fidgeted while she had a few swallows and stared at him. “You can go, if you want to,” she said, finally. “Because I’m about to start talking and you may not want to hear what I’m going to say.”
He felt his hackles start to come up but managed to squash those feelings down. She had every right to be upset and to express herself. He’d apologized, but making amends meant listening to her, too. He needed to be better at that. He nodded.
“I know it’s hard for you to open up. You’re used to being assertive and determined, and a little bit authoritative. You’re Captain America, and people listen to you and do what you say. And maybe that’s partly what went wrong today, in the gym—that’s your arena, and you were more Cap than Steve.”
He shrugged. He hadn’t considered that, but it might be true.
“But if there’s no emergency, you’ve gotta be Steve with me. Steve and Bucky, not Captain America and the Winter Soldier. I’m not part of that world, and I don’t want to be. I’m just your friend-slash-soulmate.”
That didn’t quite sit so well with Steve, but he tucked it away to think about later. “Okay.”
“I get that talking about feelings makes you uncomfortable, and maybe it’s not a thing you’re used to, despite having had some therapy. Opening up and being vulnerable can be scary.” She paused until he nodded. “But damnit, I’m vulnerable with you—I’m vulnerable all the goddamned time! You remember what that’s like, don’t you, Steve? Being smaller and weaker, and having nothing but bravado to get you through life?”
He did. It wasn’t something he thought about too much these days, but, well. He probably should think about it a little more often. That was why Dr. Erskine had chosen him, after all, why he wasn’t stuck in that small, weak body anymore. Why he wasn’t dead.
“You don’t have to talk to me about your relationship problems if you don’t want to,” Darcy said. “I made an offer, and I was probably over-enthusiastic, but I didn’t mean to push you. I’m here if you need me. And I know things will get better with you and Bucky, without my involvement. I just wanted to do what I could to help.”
He barely managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes—God save him from people trying to “help” with his romantic life. Her offer had probably been coming from a caring place rather than one of prurient interest in his and Bucky’s sex life, though. “I appreciate that you had good intentions,” he finally said.
“Yeah, I’ve usually got good intentions,” she said with a bit of a rueful smile. “It’s just what comes out of my mouth isn’t always what I meant to say. So—with no pressure—I want to be clear that you can talk to me about anything. Modern life, romance, being bisexual, whatever. Any time.”
Steve nodded. “Thanks.”
“But not tonight. Tonight, I need you to go away and let me think about all of this. About whether I should trust you or not, physically, and why I kinda do anyway, even if it’s not the smart thing. And why you should—or shouldn’t—trust me with your feelings.”
“All right. Should I make myself scarce tomorrow, let you stick to your usual routine and have lunch with Bucky and then work in the conference room?”
She tiled her head to the side, thinking about it. “One day,” she said. “Give me twenty-four hours from now to cool down, and… reflect, I guess. Okay?”
“Of course.” Frankly, interrupting his usual daily routine just for one day was him getting off lightly. He nodded again, wondering if he should say anything more, but decided to just go. She didn’t get up, and he glanced back at her as he opened the door. She looked thoughtful, and a little bit sad. He felt another wave of shame and said good-night as he closed the door behind himself.