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This Is My Hand

Chapter Text

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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.

Perfect.

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.”

“...What?”

“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…?”

“What?”

“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.

Silence.

“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.

Chapter Text

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 Text

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 Text

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.

“Wait!”

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.

*****

Steve had driven first, switching with Sam after they stopped near the North Dakota border for breakfast. They’d crossed into the US, and were making their way East, with the vague goal of staying overnight somewhere outside of Chicago.

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 Text

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.”

“Who’s Rob?”

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 Text

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.

*****

The next week had Bucky taking a deep breath, pulling on more of the “old Bucky” persona, and cuddling up next to Sam and Steve like they were brothers. Pretending to be Bucky was… strange. Not quite uncomfortable, but sometimes he felt like he was acting in a play, in the role of jovial young man casually touching his friends, part of him always aware of what he was doing. Other times he’d be sitting next to Steve on the sofa and suddenly notice he had his arm around the guy, when he hadn’t consciously put it there.

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.

“That’s good.”

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.”

*****

And that was life at the funny farm (as he and Steve had started calling it), until about the seventh week. At that point, the team decided that Bucky was ready for visitors. He disagreed, but had been outvoted.

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.

*****

While he and Steve were out on their run the next morning, Bucky asked, “Why didn’t you want to tell Clint the other name? Maybe he knows her, this Darcy.”

“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.

*****

Sam moved back to his place in the city at the end of September, and Bucky and Steve found an apartment that wasn’t too far from him. The three of them took a few day trips into the city first, and they were not easy. Bucky didn’t like having so many people around, and instantly went back on high alert—which underlined how tightly he’d been wound up before. But he couldn’t hide at someone else’s farmhouse for the rest of his life. He hadn’t hurt anyone by accident since he took out the Hydra base in the Philippines, and he hadn’t had a black-out since connecting with Steve. Bucky still didn’t trust himself, but everyone else seemed to think he was ready to be let back out into the world.

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.

*****

It was an ordinary Thursday morning in early December, and he and Steve were out for a run. They’d gone out two hours earlier than usual, because neither of them could sleep, so of course Steve thought they should be outside in single-digit temperatures while it was too early for anyone else but bakers to be awake. Goddamnit, Bucky hated the feeling of sweat turning to ice on his skin. He couldn’t wait to get into a hot shower.

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 Text

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!”

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.”

“Um. Hi?”

“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.

*****

When she woke—after having relocated to the bedroom around one—it was morning. She got her toiletries and clothes out of her bag, took another shower, and found a coffeepot already going when she made her way to the kitchen. She had a cup of coffee, watched CNN to see if aliens had invaded again or anything, and made herself presentable. It was a bright-red day, she thought, and grabbed Ruby Woo. Grandma was absolutely correct: with her hair done and lipstick on, a woman could handle anything the world threw at her.

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 Barnes.” 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.”

*****

So it turned out that the coincidence part of how the stone ended up with Darcy was a teensy bit too much to ignore, and Darcy wasn’t allowed to keep pretending it was all just a random happenstance. No one knew who had put it there, and whether they had thought Darcy could keep it safe, or if they planted it on her for someone else to grab. Thor had murmured some rather unflattering opinions about the three Norns, which everyone had politely ignored because no one knew what the fuck he was talking about.

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?”

He nodded.

“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.

Fuuuuckkk….

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 Text

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?”

*****

It turned out Bucky did like soda bread. Also soup, and fortunately also helping in the kitchen. Darcy wasn’t exactly shocked that the former assassin was good with knives, and about as fast as just chucking everything into a food processor would have been. He didn’t say much, but instead of being uncomfortable, working together in the kitchen was more or less okay. At least, as okay as two people could be who didn’t know each other and were apparently soulmates and had some fairly impressive baggage.

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.

*****

A few hours later, Jane was banging her head on Darcy’s door, holding one bottle each of margarita mix and tequila, apparently having given up the fight against moping over Thor.

“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.

“Yeah.”

“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 Text

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, Sgt. 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, Sgt. 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.

“Oh shit.”

“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 Sgt. 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.

Hello Darcy,

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.

Yours,
James

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.

Chapter Text

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.

*****

Steve wasn’t sure if Darcy was going out of her way to avoid him or not, but he didn’t run into her in any of the common areas for the next couple of days. Tony and Pepper returned from their social event in Los Angeles—something to do with awards from some academy—and Tony’s presence drew Bruce and Jane out of their respective labs that evening. The next night, Darcy made dinner, and then again a couple of days later. Although Steve felt uneasy about joining in, Bucky dragged him along. Darcy acted like nothing unusual had happened between them at all, and eventually Steve “got over himself,” as folks said now. Over the next two weeks or so, seven o’clock turned into a fairly reliable group dinner time, usually take-out, but a few times a week Bruce or Darcy cooked. Steve and Bucky always did the dishes.

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.

*****

Darcy used his library account to do a little more research, and they sent someone back for more books. After two more rounds, Darcy mostly disappeared for a few days. She started showing up at dinner looking increasing rumpled, hair in a sloppy braid or piled on top of her head with a chopstick or pen, eyes unfocused. Apparently this was somewhat normal for a person writing their doctoral dissertation, according to Bruce. It seemed like a ridiculous strain for very little gain, to Steve, but what did he know?

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.

“Jerk.”

“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 Text

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.

*****

When Darcy ventured down to the labs with her afternoon coffee-and-muffins delivery, she was surprised to see Bucky there. As always, Bruce politely thanked her for the food, while Jane and Tony both merely grunted. Whatever—they’d eventually eat their muffins without even noticing. Whatever it took to keep them from getting hangry and designing evil robots, right?

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.

“Not to?”

“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 Text

“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.”

*****

It only took a few hours of working with Darcy for Steve to be impressed. After three days, he was mildly annoyed that no one else had thought to ask her to help until now. She approached the data from an entirely different angle than anyone else had, an almost neutral perspective, which helped her find links no one else had. Under her gorgeous exterior—which reminded both him and Bucky of ladies from their time—and oodles of pop-culture silliness, was an outstanding mind. Not unlike Tony, now that he thought of it….

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?”

“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 Text

“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.

*****

It was Friday night—and that definitely made it all right—and it was PAR-TAY time at Avengers Tower. She’d passed her dissertation defense, and was now free and clear to graduate—soon she would be Dr. Darcy Lewis. Suck on that, all the assholes who treated her like she was stupid because she had big tits and liked silly movies. Yeah, her PhD was basically just a big “fuck you” to all the people who thought she was ditzy or dumb—and to the tiny part of herself that had always worried they might be right. They were all wrong. She was fucking AWESOME!

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.

*****

Over the next few days, Darcy started to realize there was something a little off with her two friends. (Yes, they were friends; once you’ve sleep-groped someone and/or had drunk cuddles, they were your friends, if they were still talking to you the next day.) The dudes were acting weird with each other, ever since the party.

(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 Text

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.

*****

The days that followed were awful. Well, mostly.

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 completely. 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?”

*****

Darcy suggested they go to the main floor, but Bucky steered her toward his and Steve’s apartment instead, asking JARVIS to give them a little warning if Steve headed back there.

“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 Text

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?

*****

After dinner—at which Darcy was conspicuously absent—Steve swallowed his pride and asked JARVIS to ask her if he could come and apologize. Please. None of the others had acted like anything was wrong, and he doubted they’d spare his feelings if she’d told anyone what had happened. She must not even have told Jane, or he’d probably be bleeding, somewhere. Jane was feisty.

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.”

She nodded.

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.

Chapter Text

Steve’s conversation—apology—with Darcy gave him a lot to think about over the next day. Oddly, the one thing that really stuck with him was her use of the word “bisexual.” He’d never thought of himself as bisexual—or “bi,” he supposed, was what they said now. But he was attracted to both men and women, so it did fit, even if it didn’t sit well with him yet.

He’d never thought about it before now, with all of this soulmate stuff and Bucky—well, no. That wasn’t entirely true. More like he’d consciously avoided thinking about his attraction to men, both in the ‘40s and now. It was getting pretty hard to ignore it, lately, though….

*****

At school, Steve had listened when the nuns taught him and the other children what was right and what was wrong. He’d been a good Catholic boy in most ways: he would never have had premarital sex, homosexuality was a sin that good people didn’t talk about, and all sexual urges were temptation from the devil. In more practical terms, he was sickly so often that he didn’t have much of a libido, even as a teen, and when he did indulge in self-abuse, it exhausted him. That, combined with the humiliation of confession and the pain of kneeling on his knobby knees to pray the rosary as penance, made it not often worth it.

Ladies had never looked at him anyhow. Any admiring thoughts he had about men were simply that—admiring, not attraction or anything abnormal. Bucky was just… beautiful, and Steve loved him like some sort of ideal something. Steve always figured he would die young, and all he wanted was for Bucky to find a nice gal and settle down, so that the next time he got seriously sick, Steve wouldn’t have to fight so much. When Steve shuffled off this mortal coil, Bucky would have someone to comfort him. Steve’s life was never going to matter much anyway.

Then the war happened, and he’d thought that if the army would just let him in, his death might mean something, saving the lives of others. His wish was miraculously granted, and then in a matter of months, he was big and handsome. He met an amazing woman he admired, who was kind to him despite his awkwardness. Peggy had been kind to him even when he was still small. But the SSR had transferred her back to England, and he knew he’d probably never see her again.

Dames on the street let their eyes linger on him, and some were bold enough to come up and talk to him, but none of them knew who he was inside. The USO girls flirted, and a few practically threw themselves at him. He’d necked with a few of them, but never went below the belt. They admired his body, but they weren’t interested in him, and that mattered a lot more to him than the girls seemed to expect it to. Anyway, the doctors had tested everything pretty thoroughly, and the Vita-Rays had evidently made him infertile, so he probably wouldn’t get married anyway, and he didn’t want to lead some girl on.

After the procedure, Steve found that he had more energy than he knew what to do with and didn’t need more than a few hours of sleep. While he was touring the midwestern states with the USO, he’d taken to getting up in the night and going for a run. He didn’t avoid the bad parts of the towns and eventually started heading straight there to break up fights, walk ladies home, and generally try to help people. If it wasn’t fights, then it was usually women being assaulted by men, but one time….

One night it was different. There were three men in an alley beating up a smaller man and saying insulting, crude things—calling him a fag and threatening what they were going to do to him. Steve threw the bullies into the brick walls and left them to bleed, as he scooped up the injured victim and carried him away.

The kid couldn’t have been much more than twenty and was maybe a little bigger than Steve had been before the serum, but not by much. He felt good in Steve’s arms, in a way that was different from just doing the right thing and helping somebody out. When he had stopped shaking, he slid his arms around Steve’s neck to hold on better. Steve should have set him down, but didn’t want to. The guy had felt good in Steve’s arms, almost like ladies did.

He’d obviously taken a knock or two to the head, to judge by those bruises, but what convinced Steve maybe the kid needed to go to a hospital was when he put his hand on Steve’s jaw and said, “You’re pretty.” Steve hadn’t been able to help smiling a little. “You have such blue eyes. No hint of green or grey.”

Without meaning to, Steve had turned his head and kissed him. The kid had kissed him back, and Steve’s brain had stopped thinking about anything. If he allowed coherent thought, he’d have to acknowledge what he was doing, and he didn’t want to, so he just kept kissing him. He could have kissed him until the sun came up, but then the guy squirmed a little, and Steve gently set him on his feet. He could hear voices in his head calling him a deviant, and a sinner, and an abomination, but it was just a kiss. God could forgive him for something so small, couldn’t He? He’d go to confession in the morning.

Until that night, he’d never thought about whether he was a homosexual at all. He liked ladies, got turned on looking at their bodies, and anything else in his head had simply been his artistic side. But when that guy was in his arms, it had felt the same kind of good as when he’d made time with one the showgirls (Millie, he thought, was the name of the first gal who’d kissed him). So he’d found a priest in the morning, and then put the whole thing out of his head.

Then he’d finally made it to the European theater. He got to join in the fight and use the body he was given for what it was intended. And Peggy was there, and he really did like her, and she seemed to like him too: Steve Rogers, not just Captain America. He’d considered the future occasionally, and being married to her, but he knew it was just an idle fancy.

When he heard about the 107th, that Bucky’s regiment had been captured, it was like his brain was hit by a current of electricity. He couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t be reasonable. Rescuing the regiment, finding Bucky, was just something he had to do. Something he’d defy the US Army, and all other men, and even God, to do. He couldn’t continue to draw breath, his heart wouldn’t beat, unless he did this. He didn’t care at all if he died trying.

But he didn’t die. He didn’t fail. He found Bucky and rescued the men, and Steve still couldn’t think, couldn’t let himself. And there was Hydra and the torture they’d subjected Bucky to, and Steve had felt justifiable anger before when serving up justice to bullies, but what he felt now was almost indescribable. He was the Archangel Michael, full of righteous fury and God’s vengeance. He concentrated on that. And he didn’t let himself think for even a second about how much he wanted to kiss Bucky, the same way he’d kissed that kid in Kansas City. He subdued that thought, threw it into a steel vault, and slammed the door on it.

He continued working with Peggy, and she was a little flirtatious, and it was nice, though perhaps nicer still to be teased by Bucky about it. But it never did feel like something real, like something he could actually have. He assumed it was because he’d never imagined himself with a future, and all of his mind, body, and soul were bent toward obliterating Hydra. Bucky was the one who should have a future, who deserved it. Steve needed Bucky to have a future.

A few weeks later, the commandos were overnighting in a French village that only had one watering hole, with a brothel upstairs. Steve hadn’t been to confession in months. He’d killed so many people—even if they were the enemy—that if he died right now, he was surely going to Hell so why not try out this sin, too? If he was going to finish the war and marry Peggy, he’d want to know what to do.

Long after all the other faces he knew had disappeared from the bar, he went upstairs. And it was… fine. The lady was kind and had a gentle sense of humor about instructing him in the ways of l’amour. It was awkward though, and he felt strange afterward, knowing he’d lost his virginity—but not made love—with a woman whose real name he didn’t even know and who he would never see again. He went to confession at the next church they came across, and ignored his libido for the rest of the war.

And then Bucky fell, and Steve crashed Hydra’s super-plane into a wilderness of ice.

*****

Waking up after freezing to death in the wrecked plane and icy sea-water, to find himself in the future, had been horrible. Seventy years had passed without him. The scientific and technological advances were amazing, but the people were… baffling, at best. They were so rude, so demanding, and had no manners whatsoever. They treated each other so callously. There were none of the simple courtesies anymore, none of the care for one’s fellow man.

Even the way they dressed was a shock. Men dressed in undershirts, as if they were on their way to exercise, all the time. No one wore suits, except businessmen. Women were either wearing skin-tight clothes or were practically naked. Steve didn’t disapprove, per se, but it was a continual shock for at least the first year. He was all for liberation and freedom of choice, but it felt like the niceties of civilized society had been stripped away.

And sex! People—women and men—propositioned him left and right. Everyone talked about sex constantly, and the people who didn’t were considered prudish and abnormal. He eventually had a few encounters with ladies; hookups, they called them nowadays. He wasn’t a saint, and after having died and then come back to life, he had even less faith in God. A priest he met in a bar told him that sex wasn’t considered much of a sin in these times.

The real truth though, why he had so few hook-ups—and waited for as long as he could, until he got so unbearably lonely and needed to be touched—was that he felt empty afterward. No one else seemed to, but it bothered him. He didn’t understand how people did it all the time, have meaningless sex. People talked about love, but they meant sex, and they talked about sex like it was nothing, like love was nothing.

Love wasn’t nothing, to Steve.

Since it was legal now, and apparently even accepted, Steve let himself look at men sometimes. He thought about kissing that kid all those years ago, and had to admit that he was attracted to men. Except the only ones he gave a second look all had blue-grey eyes. The shadow of a thought that he wouldn’t let coalesce into words felt like a stab in the gut, like being disemboweled, every time. It was Bucky, of course it was Bucky, but there was no point in letting that thought come together in his mind, to putting that pain and grief into words that would destroy him. He already felt so destroyed.

Every time Steve had met a guy at a bar and had necked—made out—with him for more than a few minutes, he stopped. He just couldn’t. It felt so much more wrong, to be thinking about one person while he was kissing another. If it felt that wrong while they were only kissing, he knew it would feel even worse once they got naked. No amount of temporary pleasure would make that worthwhile. He felt awful after he hooked up with women, but at least he wasn’t picturing Peggy when he was with them.

*****

He remembered how finding out Bucky was alive had short-circuited his brain. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, didn’t care about anything after the three helicarriers were down and Hydra was exposed. There was a whole team of superheroes—let them deal with it. He had to find Bucky. He wanted Bucky back, needed him, with the same intensity Bucky would feel if someone said they could give him his real arm back. Bucky was simply essential for Steve’s existence, like air. He had to know that Bucky was okay, or if not okay, at least not miserable.

On the following five-month road trip with Sam, they got into a habit of sharing a hotel room, except on Saturdays. Saturdays were their day apart, so they wouldn’t get overly irritated with each other. Often, they’d run into each other at the closest bar, but they just nodded and gave each other some space. Steve talked to the locals, played a few games of pool, occasionally flirted with both men and women. He brought a gal back to his hotel room exactly once. He’d felt like utter shit the day after, when he realized the only thing he’d liked about her were her blue-grey eyes.

When they finally found Bucky, Steve felt like he literally could not let go, once Bucky was in his arms. Of course, he had to—damn reality, and Sam, and Bucky for not wanting to hold onto him for as long as Steve needed it (forever). But Bucky was skittish, broken, and in so much pain. He was a different man than the Bucky Steve had known over seventy years ago. He tried to be patient.

Mostly Steve thought he did a pretty good job of being patient, not pressuring Bucky to be the guy he used to be, to discover the man he was now instead. He just wanted his best friend back. He’d loved Bucky before, and he loved him now. Any attraction or other mixed-up feelings didn’t have to change anything. And Bucky had never seemed like a fairy in any way, in the past, so Steve put it out of his mind and avoided thinking about it.

That worked, for a while. Then Bucky had started touching Steve casually, like he always used to, until he noticed what he was doing. Then he’d get all self-conscious and stop. It was strange at first, but after Bucky stopped stopping himself, it was actually comfortable. Steve loved it, and wanted Bucky to touch him all the time. He wanted to sit together on the sofa, Bucky’s head in his lap while they watched TV. He wanted to wake up in bed together, curled around each other like they did in the winter, in their crappy little apartment in Brooklyn. He wanted so much.

But Steve knew he had to let Bucky find himself. Anything sexual between them could never happen, and Steve didn’t want that anyway, and if he repeated that enough times maybe he’d believe it eventually. He never wanted to put any kind of pressure on Bucky. Steve didn’t know how Bucky felt or what he wanted to do, with the whole “soulmates” thing. So, Steve kept his thoughts and words in the “Of course I love you, we’ve always been soulmates” range, and told himself that he was fine with it not being physical. He determinedly steered away from those thoughts any time they got too close. Their love was too important, too big.

And even if it wasn’t all mixed up and confused, Bucky was too wounded for that kind of relationship. Steve didn’t want to ever make life any harder for Bucky than it already was.

He wasn’t a saint, though. He wasn’t Captain America, all good and noble and pure. He had urges. He loved Bucky. He knew he liked men, even if he shied away from thinking about it. But once he, Bucky, and Sam left the farm by DC, he had a harder time suppressing his libido. He didn’t let his eyes linger for too long, he tried not to show how deeply he felt it whenever Bucky touched him. And he sure as hell kept his dick away from Bucky when he woke up hard in the mornings.

Steve would never forget the day Bucky had casually said, “You can fuck me, you know. I can smell the hormones, and you keep looking. I don’t mind.”

It was like a grenade in the gut. Bucky didn’t MIND? A wave of rage swept through what felt like every cell in his body, and he barely made it to the toilet in time to vomit. He wanted to scream, wanted to howl with anguish. But he couldn’t just leave Bucky alone, out there in the living room. Not after saying something like that. Not with how heart-breakingly casually he’d said it.

He took a few breaths, trying for an even tone of voice. “So, they used you for that too.” It wasn’t a question.

Bucky shrugged. “They created this body; they did what they wanted with it. I wasn’t usually inside it much anyway.”

“You’re in it now.”

Again, Bucky shrugged off Steve’s concern. “Yeah, and I’m mostly just trying to not think about the sadistic torture. Rape is torture, of course, but it’s not quite the same as having every bone in your hand broken or your fingernails peeled off one by one. My mind was already long gone. The things that were done to this body, the things it did…. I have the memories, but mostly it doesn’t feel like it was me.”

Steve had no idea what to do, or say, or how to act. He’d stood there, fighting back tears, unsure whether to comfort Bucky, or ignore it, or run to the nearest gym and destroy a few heavy bags. Bucky had turned on the TV, acting like nothing had happened at all. Steve sat down beside him, their thighs barely close enough to touch. At least it had killed his libido for the next several weeks.

Chapter Text

Darcy grunted as her fist hit the punching bag, right on target.

Her kickboxing class partner, Rigo, flinched a little, holding the bag steady. “You’ve got a lot of energy today.”

She shrugged, twisting to the side for the kick. “Guess so.”

He gave her a concerned look. “Everything okay?”

She landed another set of the kick-and-punch sequence. “No, not really,” she answered when she finished. She and Rigo—Rodrigo, the new assistant to Pepper’s PA—had met at the coffee cart a few weeks ago, apparently on the same caffeine schedule. If you’re going to stand next to the same person in line every day, Darcy thought it was only polite to make conversation. Also, he was cute. Lean and tallish, with adorably nerdy wire glasses and a mop of dark curly hair with white tips. He was in a band. Of course he was.

“I’m upset,” she admitted, panting. “Mostly at myself.”

He smiled. “Ah. So you’re kicking the shit out of yourself, in this session?” he asked, gesturing at the vaguely human shaped heavy bag they were using.

“Pretty much,” she agreed, turning for the final kick in the sequence and landing it firmly in the chest.

“Well, you’re doing an awesome job,” Rigo said. “I didn’t see anything to remind you about.”

Darcy nodded, pulling off her gloves. “Who knew being pissed off made you a better fighter?” she said, trying for levity and falling a bit short. As she caught her breath, she grabbed one of the water bottles and drank about half of it while Rigo put on his gloves. She took another drink while she watched the muscles in his arms move as he stretched and warmed up. They were nice arms….

She moved into position to hold the bag for his round. She didn’t find too much to critique on him either, but to be fair, she was a little distracted by his ass. What? It had been ages since she’d gotten laid. December, actually. If she didn’t get some action soon, her cunt was going to abandon her and go find someone to love it up properly. When he was finished, they separated to find new partners, but agreed to meet up at the cafeteria for lunch the next day.

*****

After her shower and a quick snack in her suite, she headed to the conference/work room. It had been two days since she’d seen Steve. She was still upset, but honestly, she was more upset at herself at this point. Yeah, he’d loomed and he’d scared her, and she fucking hated being scared. And yeah, she had to protect herself, but he probably wouldn’t have hurt her. Probably.

Then again, it wasn’t like she didn’t know what happened when big guys lost their temper…. And she had her own temper issues—she’d hauled off and socked her brothers more than once without intending to, but one punch from Steve would break her jaw. Whatever, it just sucked. She hated always having to be on guard around men—all of them, in general, and the muscular ones in particular. She liked muscles. It wasn’t fair that she had to be wary of them.

She should totally just date women from now on. Way less complicated. Well, until mutual PMS-week, anyway. And sure, it wasn’t just dudes who got physically abusive. Still, it was less risky, and goddamn, she missed the feel of soft thighs spreading for her hands. But she wasn’t going to go full Kinsey-1 just because a man had scared her. Fuck Steve. She wasn’t letting anyone have that much control over her life, ever. Whatever stupid names were on her hand, it was her hand. She would do what she wanted with it.

She’d worked herself up to another round of ire by the time she opened the door to the conference room. It spiked when she saw that, like yesterday and the day before, Steve wasn’t there.

She let out a disgusted noise and made a face at Bucky. “You can tell him he can work in here, you know. I asked for twenty-four hours, not three days.”

“What the hell going on with you two anyway?” Bucky asked in a fairly neutral tone. “He won’t talk about it. Just says he scared you and walks away.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s about the sum of it,” she said, hating that it made her sound like some frail little girl. Fuck Steve for making her feel like a victim.

Bucky’s brows knit together. “How? I thought he was being dramatic.”

Darcy held up a hand. “Nope,” she said. “Actually, I’m not gonna do the he-said/she-said thing. Ask him yourself. In fact, don’t tell him he can come back to working in here; I should do it myself, not use you as a go-between. I’m not playing those kinds of games again.”

He nodded, no doubt latching onto the ‘again,’ and gave her a piercing look. After a moment, though, his expression turned naughty. “So what kinda games do you like to play?”

Grateful for the redirection, she gave him the most innocent look she could summon. “Parcheesi? Monopoly? Solitaire?”

“Solitaire?” He raised a brow. “It’s so much more fun to play with someone else.”

Her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. “Well, I suppose I have occasionally been known to enjoy a bit of poker and blackjack,” she said, playing up the clueless ingenue-thing.

“Have you?” he said, grinning. “Just for fun or do you bet?”

She grinned, letting her eyes go sharp. “Where’s the fun if there’s no risk?”

He laughed, head thrown back, huge grin, eyes sparkling. Damn, he was pretty. And flirty, and kind, and incredibly honest, and overall good with people when he was comfortable and felt safe. She might be stuck in this stupidly wonderful tower for the foreseeable future, but at least she had made a few friends. Hot ones, even.

*****

Their couple of hours of analysis ended with Darcy realizing she was mentally dressing-down Steve and rehearsing what she wanted to say. Which was 1), almost never a good plan since the other person was rarely psychic enough to follow their part of the script she’d written; and 2) far less fun than un-dressing Steve would be. Might be. Someday. Whatever. He was too confusing to think about without getting worked up in the bad way, so she was calling it quits on the sexy thoughts, no matter how horny she was feeling.

She had a sudden urge to make something, and Bucky was unsurprisingly free for a baking project/lesson. She’d made challah with her Gram at least once during college, and tomorrow was the Sabbath, not that she was anything like observant. She picked a recipe, placed an order for ingredients with JARVIS, and made plans with Bucky to meet in the common area’s kitchen in an hour.

That settled, Darcy went back to her rooms to freshen up. She applied some mental armor-slash-lipstick and went to find Steve.

He was in the room he and Bucky used for their schoolwork, on his laptop, door open. He looked up before she had a chance to announce herself, because of course he must have heard her coming. His jaw was firmed, eyes sad, and he looked like he was ready to face a firing squad.

Good.

She made a quick mental side-note that she was going to need to learn to fire a gun at some point, and raised an eyebrow at Steve. “You interruptible?”

He nodded. Non-verbal, great.

“Why are you avoiding me?” she asked, trying not to roll her eyes. Goddess, grant her patience. “I said twenty-four hours. It’s been almost seventy-two.” She really wanted to ask if being frozen had put him on a different clock or something, but no—that was just being a bitch. Unhelpful. Probably not even that satisfying, getting into another fight with him. The extended tension was already pissing her off; she didn’t need to make it worse.

She waited, struggling to keep her expression neutral, while he figured out what he wanted to say.

“You said you hadn’t forgiven me yet.”

She couldn’t figure out what his tone of voice was, but she didn’t like it. Fine. He wanted to be hand-held through a grown-up conversation following a fight? She could do that. But the kid gloves were coming off. (Did anyone even wear kid gloves anymore? Where would you buy them?)

“I said it would take me a few hours. I don’t forgive instantaneously; it takes a while. I have to work through what I’m upset about, how I feel, what the other person did, what I think their intentions were, and if I think they’re going to do it again.” She paused a moment, then decided if they were going to do this, they were going full-frontal with the honesty. “My dad’s dad used to slap my grandmother around when he was drunk. My first big-and-muscly boyfriend was… cut from similar cloth. Physical intimidation a hot button for me.”

Steve nodded. “I get that, I do. And you said a lot of things that night that made me think about how I use my body, and how I’ve stopped thinking about what life was like when I was smaller and weaker. I don’t want to make you—or anyone—feel that way.”

Darcy nodded back, and resisted thinking about bobble-headed dolls for more than a millisecond. “Then it’s just going to take some time,” she finally said. “Things can’t go back to how they were if you keep avoiding me. It just pisses me off all over again, to be honest. And one thing I am is scrupulously honest, Steve. It can be a serious friendship-killer, and I’m not going to change. I demand a lot of honesty of myself, and of the people I let into my life. I want to be friends with you,” she said, waving around her marked hand, “but I’m not changing that. Ever.”

Steve looked away, and stared at the wall for a while, before sighing. “I don’t lie. But,” he added quickly, “there are subjects I don’t want to talk about or think about. I’m not used to as much self-analysis as folks are, now. If something can’t be changed, why spend all that effort—”

“Learning how to live with it?” she interrupted, giving him an incredulous look. “Because when you don’t think things through and make your peace with them, you end up doing them over and over again.” She barely held back the duh.

A muscle in his jaw twitched as he stared at that same spot on the wall again, before nodding. “Okay. I concede your point.” He paused for another long moment, then sighed. “You’re a great gal. You’re smart, and funny, and I do want to be friends. But there’s kind of a lot going on in my head already. It’s… hard enough for me, with Bucky. I don’t…. I don’t feel like I have enough left-over.”

The “for you” was unsaid but totally clear.

It was one thing to know something was true, all the way down to your bones. It was still jarring to hear it said out loud. Throat tight, Darcy nodded. “Yeah. I can see that.”

So…. that was that, then. She could get mad and be all fuck Steve, or yell and cry, but…. That sounded exhausting. Unproductive. And it shouldn’t have hurt, because he’d said the same thing two months ago, the day they first met.

Darcy didn’t have enough energy for this, either. She took a deep, steadying breath. “Bucky and I are going to make bread in the big kitchen, in about half an hour. You’re welcome, if you want,” she said, crossing to the door.

He made some kind of affirmative noise, but she didn’t look back.

“Stop avoiding the conference room and stuff,” she added.

And that was that.

*****

Darcy cringed at the knock on her door. “Who?” she mumbled to JARVIS, who was apparently fluent in Exploding Headache. Or Hangover, which was pretty much the same thing.

“Dr. Foster,” he supplied in a hushed tone. God, she loved him. And Tony. But mostly JARVIS. Sure, Tony created him, but writing code wasn’t exactly unlike supplying sperm, right? JARVIS was his own person.

Too much thinking. She waved her hand like a queen, granting entrance into her chambers. Which she was. She needed a fucking tiara.

“Are you okay?” Jane asked, once she’d take in the scene of Darcy in her jammies, surrounded by pillows on the sofa, some sort of cutest-baby-animals show playing with the volume way down. Okay, probably the stronger signs of her being upset were her blotchy face, Kleenex box on the coffee table, and confetti of used ones littered all over the floor.

Darcy didn’t bother to respond, so Jane sat down beside her. “You promised fresh bread.”

“Nope.”

Jane nodded. “Okay. What happened? You usually only cry at baby elephants, the rom-coms I make you watch when I’m sad, and that one time you lost an earring that belonged to your great-grandmother. Or heartbreak, and presumably death,” she added, giving Darcy a probing look.

She shrugged. “None of those, really.”

Jane was clearly not buying it, but after a moment she kicked off her shoes, shrugged, and went to get supplies from the kitchenette. Ice cream, wine, spoons, and tumblers joined the mess on the coffee table. Jane disappeared around the alcove for a moment, then came back in another pair of Darcy’s pajamas. It was such a blessing to have a friend who knew when to make you talk about your shit, and when to just be with you while you were sad.

They were on the third episode of the cutest-animals show, the pint of ice cream gone, and just over half the wine, before Darcy spoke again.

“Why did I think this would be a good idea?”

“Bucky and Steve?” Jane asked, getting a nod of confirmation. “This about whatever you and Bucky ‘talked’ about, day before yesterday?”

“Sorta.” Darcy sighed, then added. “They had a… hiccup. It was awkward. I just wanted to help, but Steve didn’t take it that way. We had a…. I don’t even know. Not a fight, really. I’m just… sad.”

Jane pulled her over, to cuddle. “He thought you were meddling?” At Darcy’s nod, she sighed. “He’s a difficult guy to get a read on. Touchy, but reserved at the same time.”

“Yeah.”

“And you thought you’d offer because you want to be a good friend, and they obviously need help, and they’re not getting it from anyone else. Like a professional,” Jane clarified.

“I guess. But why do I even care?”

She was glad she couldn’t see whatever expression was on Jane’s face, probably pity, as she patted Darcy on the back. “Because you’re a good person, and you’re trying to make the best of a kinda fucked up soulmates-situation.”

Darcy snorted, then wished she hadn’t, and reached for a tissue. Yeah, that analysis sounded about right. Why was she trying so hard to make this friendship-or-whatever work?

And when had she changed her mind about soulmates being a bunch of ridiculous bullshit, anyway?

Chapter Text

Bucky had felt good enough after his talk with Darcy that the tension between him and Steve—the tension on his part at least—pretty much went away over the next couple of days. The first night, Steve had hesitated before getting in bed and stayed all the way over on his side, until Bucky had grabbed his shoulder and pulled him closer. He and Steve didn’t talk about what happened or anything like that, but at least the oh my god, we massively fucked this up tension was gone. The tension that remained was more like good ol’ sexual tension, which Bucky quite enjoyed, thank you.

What he did not enjoy was whatever the fuck happened between Steve and Darcy the next day.

He’d missed Thursday’s self-defense session with Darcy so that he could meet with Bruce, Tony, and a neurologist formerly from SHIELD. The procedure to replace his arm was turning out to be far more complicated than they’d thought. Apparently, if you actually care about the risk to the patient—like them not dying or being paralyzed or brain-dead after the procedure—it was a lot harder to go in and mess around with their spinal cord. Hydra had done a lot of fucking around with his central nervous system, and getting it untangled without killing or maiming Bucky was confounding the doctors. Which really sucked because Stark’s shiny new arm was finished and gorgeous, and every passing minute made Bucky want to tear the Hydra arm off of his shoulder and just deal with whatever happened next.

It was a real struggle to not let the disappointment get to him. He’d built up getting the new arm into the final outward sign that he wasn’t Hydra’s Winter Soldier anymore. His last therapy session had helped him realize that, and that it wasn’t exactly a good thing, but the doc hadn’t exactly helped him figure out how to deal with it. Loss, rage, violation—those were feelings he was getting a handle on how to manage. Disappointment, though, was new. You gotta have hopes in order for them to be dashed.

So that stunk.

On the other hand, his arm-related gloominess was mostly countered by the buoyancy of something beyond ‘just friendship’ with Steve finally getting started. He was looking at Steve the way Steve sometimes looked at him, and was starting to want to do more than just look. They’d kissed—once—and while that had caused a ruckus, they were mostly past it and were touching casually again. Soon there would be a second attempt at kissing, and as per Darcy’s suggestion, Bucky would drive. He loved how giddy he felt, how much of the old-Bucky excitement he felt. Any day now, it would happen. And it would be great.

Except then Steve had to go and pick a fight with Darcy, or whatever had happened. Asshole.

Bucky waited a couple of days to let them work it out. After three days, he was getting kind of pissed off with Steve, too; he had no doubt at all that whatever had happened was entirely his fault. Steve was wound up tighter than an eight-day clock, and had that look like he’d accidentally stepped on a kitten. When Bucky asked again what Steve had done, all he got was the same answer: Steve scared her.

He gave Steve a look. “What? On purpose?”

Steve had the good grace to look embarrassed. “No? We were arguing, I got angry, and I took a step toward her. I guess I forgot how big I am, next to her.”

Bucky bit his lip so he wouldn’t say anything he’d regret later, and shook his head. “I’m not getting in the middle of this. You can talk to me about it if you want to, but I ain’t gonna pry.”

Steve had made a slight snorting noise and said, “Well, at least that’s one of you,” under his breath. When Bucky glared at him, he added, “I apologized, and well, it’s just gonna take some time, I guess. I’m giving her some space.”

Bucky barely resisted smacking Steve upside the head. “When two people have a falling out, you give them a little space. A little. If you give them too much space, all you do is increase the awkwardness of the rift, instead of starting to repair it.”

“Did you learn that in therapy?” Steve bitched.

“No, dickhead, I learned it by being a decent guy, once upon a time. You know, with a family, and friends, and dames.” No point pulling his punches with Steve; if he was going to be a punk, Bucky could give as good as he got. Captain America, his ass.

Honestly, Bucky was relieved that Darcy decided not to have him be a go-between. Steve needed to sort out his own goddamn problems for himself, for once. Bucky had enough going on with just himself, and his arm, and whatever was happening between him and Steve, to get in the middle of Steve and Darcy’s problems.

*****

It was nearly a full week later when he kissed Steve again. They were sprawled out on the sofa watching a movie. Steve was restless and kept shifting around until Bucky had enough, and manhandled Steve into the position he wanted. Steve huffed a laugh, and Bucky couldn’t help leaning in and kissing him. It was smooth and sweet. Steve smelled good and tasted good, and as Bucky started to shift closer, he knew Steve would feel good too. But Steve broke the kiss and pulled back.

Apparently they were going to take things slow.

Slow was fine. Bucky liked slow, even—it meant more time to tease and flirt and build things up until the dam finally burst. At least, that’s what he remembered…. Slow also meant being careful, only doing the things he felt comfortable with. It meant making all the stops along the way before they got to the final destination.

The next few days were hilarious. Steve started wooing him. He’d never seen Steve try to court a dame; doubted the guy had ever done so. But Steve managed to deliver at least one compliment every time he saw Bucky, from how modern clothes really suited him, to how he liked that Bucky almost always wanted to watch comedy movies, to how he loved Bucky’s laugh. He did cute little things like save the last blueberry muffin from the basket delivered to the common room, or share funny pictures or articles he found on social media, or wash the dishes when it wasn’t his turn. It was adorable and ridiculous and made something in Bucky’s chest feel as warm as a cup of coffee on a cold morning.

He debated wooing Steve in return, but decided maybe he liked being the dame for once. Plus, Steve was so awkward about it that at least a third of Bucky’s enjoyment came from watching Steve act like a lovesick boy. Maybe even half.

For his part, Bucky was having fun winding Steve up, especially if he could get the back of Steve’s neck to go pink with arousal or embarrassment. Bucky let himself look at that big, hard, still-strange new body, let his eyes wander not-at-all subtly while he thought about what he’d like to do to it, and let Steve start catching him looking.

And maybe he started clumsily bumping into Steve, accidentally-on-purpose. But it wasn’t a huge apartment, lots of furniture, not much open space for two big guys. It was purely an accident that his hand brushed across Steve’s tight little rear end so often.

One unremarkable morning they dressed for the gym and went to the kitchen to grab their usual quick snack of power bars, instant oatmeal, and juice. Steve was so focused on being extra polite—and a little flustered from Bucky asking Steve’s opinion about whether maybe his boxer briefs weren’t a size too small—that he moved out of Bucky’s way… at the same Bucky moved out of Steve’s. They did a little shuffling dance for about three steps, Bucky’s smile growing with each move. It was so sickeningly sweet, he was getting a toothache.

So he stepped into Steve’s space, put both hands on his waist, and pushed him back against the counter. Bucky kissed him, letting Steve feel all the anticipation coiled up in him, just waiting for the right time.

Steve pulled back, lips plump and pink, breath faster than it ought to be. Bucky grinned. “We’re gonna need some music if you want to dance, this early in the morning.”

Steve laughed and shook his head. “Is that what we’re doing, dancing?”

“Hey, rhythm and flexibility are important in all kindsa activities.”

“Yeah, well, so are strength and endurance.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who’s all outta breath from just a little kiss. Do you still have asthma, like when you were smaller? I don’t want you to keel over if things start gettin’ steamy.”

Steve laughed, and Bucky pulled him back in for another kiss. This time it was a slow press—not just of lips, but of bodies, from knees to chest. They felt so good together, Bucky couldn’t help his slight moan, which made Steve tighten their embrace and part his lips even more. Bucky ran his tongue along Steve’s lower lip, getting a gasp in return for his efforts. Their kiss evolved into both tongues tasting, slow and deliberate. Bucky closed his eyes and let himself feel everything, from the way their combined stubble rubbed against his chin, to Steve’s huge hands—always huge—gripped and held like he’d never let go, to the slightly odd angle of kissing someone his same height, to the feeling of Steve’s chest, stomach, and hips against his. It was exhilarating. Thrilling. Arousing.

Overwhelming.

His heart started pounding, and this time Bucky was the one to pull back from Steve’s lips, resting their foreheads against each other, breathing hard.

Steve’s hand came up and carded through Bucky’s hair. “All right?”

Eyes still closed, Bucky nodded, not loosening his grip on Steve’s waist, not moving, just... breathing. Feeling. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Very.”

He could feel Steve’s smile against his face. Steve shifted his weight slightly, as if to move, but Bucky resisted, getting a huff of a laugh in return. Steve leaned his weight against the counter and shifted so Bucky’s head was resting on his shoulder, as his fingers played with the long strands of Bucky’s hair, petting him, until the microwave beeped.

*****

The next morning Bucky woke up hot and bothered, and lay in bed dozing, enjoying the still-unfamiliar throb and pulse of arousal. It wasn’t something he’d felt much in, well, decades. Sex under Hydra—rape—was about violence, not arousal. They’d pumped his body full of whatever drugs they’d needed to for him to do the job. But this quickening of his blood, the building need as his hips flexed, pressing his cock into the mattress, this was his.

A hand smacked his ass, making his hips jerk, and he groaned at the friction.

“Get up, lazy-bones.”

Bucky smirked. He ground his cock into the mattress and made another obscene noise.

“Are you…. Of course you are. Stop humping the bed and get up, you filthy heathen.”

“No,” Bucky mumbled, moving his hips more obviously and moaning. He didn’t have to open his eyes to picture the look on Steve’s face: shocked, amused, embarrassed, and a little aroused. It was all there in his voice.

But maybe he didn’t know Steve as well as he thought, since Bucky was truly surprised when Steve’s hand returned to his ass and gave it a little squeeze.

This time, his moan was genuine.

Steve snorted. “Then I guess you’re staying here today, instead of joining Clint and I in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania.”

Bucky rolled over and grinned at Steve, whose hand had slid to Bucky’s thigh. “Move that hand up a few inches, and I’ll be ready for a shower real quick.”

Steve jerked back like his hand had been scalded. Bucky almost doubled over, laughing so hard as he grabbed at the blankets Steve was tugging off the bed.

It was going to be a good day.

Except, of course, that would be way too much to ask for. (See earlier, about how Bucky had a sock in the jaw that he owed God.) He and Steve had jumped out of the helicopter before Clint even had a chance to set her down and had taken off at top speed into the surrounding forest, racing each other to some unknown goal. Steve taunted Bucky about acting like a boy discovering his dick for the first time, and Bucky shoved him over a (small) cliff. Steve was back in a millisecond, tacking Bucky’s legs, and they were wrestling, tussling, getting out all the energy they could never completely release in the gym. Bucky had hated being on the run but being trapped hiding in Stark’s tower was rough.

Of course now, straddling Steve’s hips and pinning his arms overhead, Bucky was beginning to have some ideas for other things they could maybe do to release some energy. The two of them had stopped actually wrestling a few moments ago and were just catching their breaths, holding position. Bucky licked his lips, watching Steve watch him, and leaned over for a kiss, knowing Clint was miles away.

So of course, that was when the bracelets they always wore when they left the tower started to beep, before their noses even touched. It was the emergency alert. Bucky scrambled off of Steve, and they dashed back to the helicopter as fast as they could.

Clint met them with a grim expression. “Gotta get back to the tower. There’s another Infinity stone.”

Chapter Text

“So let me get this straight,” Steve said. “You opened the box where you keep your jewelry, and that,” he pointed at the purple stone sphere on the table, “was just sitting there?”

Darcy nodded. “Yep. Just like the first time.”

“Same box?” Steve asked.

Darcy nodded. “Yeah, although I moved my real jewelry into another box. Now I keep regular earrings and stuff in here.”

“And there’s no way it was there before your belongings were brought into Stark Tower?”

Darcy made an impatient noise. “No dude, I’m in there like every other day for different earrings. I think I would’ve noticed a bigass purple stone.”

He took a breath to steady his irritation at her snark. “So what does this one do?”

“I don’t know! Believe it or not, I’m not a total fucking idiot, and I don’t go grabbing every magical thing that just pops up in my personal belongings.”

“Okay, okay,” Tony said placatingly. “Simmer down there, Hot Stuff. I know you’re freaked, and we’re gonna figure it out. Yelling at Grandpa is not gonna help, though.”

She crossed her arms over her bosom and pouted, somewhere between sincerely peeved and caricature. And scared too, Steve thought, from the expression in her eyes. He really needed to cut her a bit more slack.

“All right, so let’s back up. You’re positive the purple stone wasn’t there the last time you opened the box, which was when?”

“Day before yesterday.”

Steve nodded and turned to Tony. “And JARVIS has no indication that anyone was in Darcy’s rooms except Jane and the housekeeping staff, and nothing odd?”

“Correct, Captain,” JARVIS replied. “Nothing whatsoever, from an electrical glitch to unusual shifts in air current. And upon review, the housekeepers dusted Ms. Lewis’s jewelry box, but didn’t touch—let alone open—it.”

“Great,” Tony sighed. “Fucking magic. In my tower. That is not allowed, JARVIS. Stop it immediately.”

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS replied. “Perhaps I could set up some sort of anti-wizard spell?”

“We don’t have much to report either,” Natasha said, steering the conversation back on course. “Barton, Hill, and I have been tracking down the unusual energy blips JARVIS found with the satellite system, similar to the one at Lewis’s apartment in February. Unfortunately, it’s a dead end. They could be magical energy; they could be something else. There’s no trace of them anymore, and no one’s noticed anything mysteriously appearing or disappearing, beyond the usual trivial items.”

“At least we got some good töltött káposzta out of it,” Clint said with a shrug.

“Shut up, Clint.”

He made a face at Natasha and flicked a tiny ball of paper at her, which she picked out of the air and flicked back, directly into his can of soda.

Steve cleared his throat. “All right, so no leads there. And no one’s heard from Thor?” he asked, just to make sure. “So to sum up, we still don’t have any idea who is doing this, how they’re doing it, what their purpose is, or why they’ve chosen Darcy. Correct?”

“Yup. So what now, Captain?” Tony asked, with his usual mix of sass and deference.

“Wait; there was one thing,” Agent Hill said. “We did manage to confirm that the agents sent to Ms. Lewis’s apartment to retrieve the stone were AIM, not Hydra. It seems they were monitoring her communications for information about Dr. Foster’s and Dr. Selvig’s work.”

“Who’s AIM?” Darcy asked.

“Buncha dicks who blew up my house in Malibu, Christmas before last,” Tony said. “And the reason I’m not bionic anymore,” he added, tapping his chest where the arc reactor used to be.

“Oh hey,” Darcy said, pointing at Tony’s chest excitedly, “Did you know you can buy Iron Man shirts with little battery-powered ‘reactor’ lights?”

Steve spoke over Tony’s reply; those two were way too similar to allow to collaborate. “SHIELD is keeping an eye on AIM, correct?” he asked Agent Hill.

She nodded. “Yes, but we’re pretty overextended. The team of eight that AIM sent to Ithaca didn’t make much of a blip on our radar, since they didn’t hit any of their weapons caches or do anything else to suggest a major action.”

Darcy snorted. “Oh good, glad to know SHIELD is fine with those creeps having just a few guns each, when they come to ransack a mostly-unarmed grad student’s apartment. They didn’t bring an arsenal with them, so it was all cool with SHIELD?”

Agent Hill sighed. “No. But again, we have less than one-eighth of the staff we had before the Triskelion fell, globally. We no longer have enough eyes to monitor every situation we would like.”

“And that’s why you’re here,” Jane said, giving Darcy a look. “Safe and sound, so you can’t get into any more trouble.”

Darcy snorted. “And yet, here we are,” waving a hand at the purple orb.

Everyone around the table looked at the stone with varying expressions: Natasha was coolly intrigued, Tony was annoyed, Bruce and Bucky were mildly curious, Hill was frustrated, and Clint wouldn’t look directly at the thing. And his face was carefully blank, which Steve thought probably meant either Clint was afraid or furious, or both.

Steve scrubbed his hands over his face. “Suggestions?” When no one answered, he tried not to sigh. “Tony, Bruce, and Jane, please run every test you can think of on that stone and the jewelry box to figure out what’s going on. Without touching the stone,” he added, giving Tony a stern look.

He turned to the agents. “You three see what you can find out about AIM, whether they were simply at Darcy’s place out of curiosity, if they’d been looking for the Infinity stones or hadn’t even heard of them before this, and what they’ve been doing about it since they learned that the Time one exists.”

He glanced at Bucky, then Darcy. “And I guess the three of us will keep looking through useless SHIELD files.”

“We haven’t been looking for anything about the Infinity stones or AIM,” Bucky pointed out.

Steve’s eyes snagged on a small piece of grass at the side of Bucky’s neck, and he tried not to think about licking it. He failed and had to clear his throat before he could adjourn the meeting.

*****

Now that that was finished, and it was back to business as usual, Steve’s insides felt shivery, like they were going to explode. The helicopter flight hadn’t been long enough for him to stop feeling Bucky’s body under or over his, them pressed together, their lips joined....

And how much it made him feel like he was going to throw up, thinking of things going farther. He was practically sick with nerves, like some stupid kid, not a man of approximately thirty-one. Bucky was the most important person in Steve’s life. He always had been, from the moment they’d met. He couldn’t fuck this up; they couldn’t have a repeat of their first kiss. And Steve wanted to go slowly, but he did still want to be moving forward. He wanted Bucky to crawl as deeply inside him as was possible, until he filled up every cell in Steve’s body. Including his heart.

Bucky hadn’t exactly pushed him to move faster or acted in any way like he was annoyed by Steve being so careful, but he didn’t want to tease Bucky. Steve just wanted to take things slow, savor every moment, every touch. He wanted to take hours and hours working up to sex, to know every plane and crevice of Bucky’s changed body, to merge so deeply with him that they’d never be apart again.

And apparently he wanted to write some poetry too, he scoffed at himself. But it literally choked him up, thinking about how important this was, how he couldn’t bear to make a mistake, how he was afraid to press Bucky for more than he wanted—or more than he could handle.

He knew Bucky loved him. He just didn’t know how to get from where—what—they were to, well, soulmates. Forget Hydra and aliens and saving the world: the thought of screwing things up and losing Bucky was the fear that kept him up at night.

Well, that and staring at that gorgeous face, watching the play of moonlight and shadows. The face he could spend the rest of his life looking at, forsaking all others.

But damn, it was so awkward, thinking about sex with Bucky. Steve tried to just follow his instincts, blundering his way forward as best he could.

The next evening that they started kissing on the sofa during a movie, and Steve was throbbing and aching for more, he pushed Bucky away until he could catch his breath. It felt like all he ever did was push Bucky away, even when he wanted more, and it was goddamned killing him. He grabbed Bucky’s hand, stopping it as it slid up his thigh with an obvious goal.

“Hold on, wait,” he panted. “Too fast; I don’t want to have sex like this. I want to do things right.”

Bucky pulled back at look at him, face a little flushed, mouth smirking a little as he watched Steve try to regain control of himself. “What, you wanna take me out to dinner first, show me a good time?”

Steve laughed. “Well, I don’t know about dinner, since we can’t leave the tower, but I’m definitely hoping it’ll be a good time.”

“Ooh, will you take me to the pictures and hold my hand like a gentleman?”

Rolling his eyes heavenward, he shook his head. “Pretty sure being a gentleman would be wasted on you, ya jerk.”

Bucky snorted. “Big words from the man who’s been courting me for the last week or so.”

He laughed and wrapped his arms around Bucky and squeezed until he got an oof noise. “Shut up, you love it.”

Bucky relaxed onto his chest, settling back into less-heated cuddling. “I kinda do.”

“I just… I want to… I want to try to do this right,” Steve said, feeling his neck and ears heat up.

“Well, good luck with that,” Bucky teased.

Steve laughed and restarted the movie. He had a hard time paying attention, though, the weight of Bucky on top of him both a comfort and a torture. His body wouldn’t calm down, and he felt like he was hard for the next hour at least. But Bucky respected his wishes—there was no way he could miss the tent in Steve’s pants—but he didn’t make a move, just cuddled and held his hand until the tension finally drained from Steve’s body.

*****

Steve got up from his seat at the table, stretching out the crick in his neck from staring at the laptop all afternoon. It morphed into a full-body yawn and stretch, with several joints popping. All this sitting around was driving him nuts.

“Study break?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah, I think so. The exam questions about smart alloys are tripping me up.”

With a laugh, Bucky pushed back his chair and got up. “I hear ya. I thought I was ready for my exam, but I’m going to have to study up and retake it. I can’t remember how neurons use sodium and potassium differently.”

Steve nodded. “Time for a break for sure, then. It’s not like staring at this for another hour is going to miraculously help me work it out.”

“Speaking of working it out, you haven’t sparred with me in a few days,” Bucky said, giving him a flirty grin.

Steve’s ears flushed a little as he shook his head. “Sparring, huh? Let me get my gym bag.”

Ten minutes later they’d finished stretching out on the mats and were getting down to it. When Natasha and Clint had visited, and the whole team had sparred together, Natasha had mentioned that Steve needed to work on his ground recoveries. Luckily (for some definitions of “luck”) Bucky had almost certainly been the one who’d taught her, so they were working on some Jiu-Jitsu techniques.

“It’s a small move,” he was saying as he grabbed Steve’s hip and pushed his body through the motion. “Shift your weight back here, perpendicular to the floor, and let your back relax into the bend. Then you can go down farther here” he said with another push, “and come up faster over here.”

Steve tried it and got an eyeroll for his efforts.

“It boggles my mind, how you ever got close to taking me out, with as little actual training as you’ve had.”

“What, you don’t think basic training was good enough?” Steve said, lunging at Bucky to grapple and throw him to the floor. “Or boxing, at that place down the street from the bakery that had those cannoli you liked?”

“What kind of boxing were you doing there, with full-body tackles?” Bucky snorted. “Try again, and see if you can actually make contact when you come up,” he taunted.

“Maybe I don’t wanna mess up that pretty face.” That got enough of a laugh that Bucky was distracted, and when Steve came up from the lunge, he managed to brush Bucky’s ear with his elbow.

“You manage to break my nose, and I promise I’ll be more proud than pissed,” Bucky offered. “I know you’re flexible enough to do this; you just don’t think you’re as flexible as you are.”

“Guess you’re gonna have to show me,” Steve teased. “Let’s see you do it.”

Predictably, that turned into wrestling, which then turned into kissing, and groping, and other things that were inappropriate in the gym. Especially one with security cameras. Oops.

They were still giving each other heated looks as they showered and changed, heading to their rooms for a post-workout meal. Steve could barely think for how much he wanted to shove Bucky up against the elevator wall—to hell with JARVIS (and Tony)—to pull Bucky’s damp and clinging T-shirt off, slide his hands down the back of those loose track pants, and—

Ding!

Thank god the elevator arrived at their floor before he acted on his urges. He headed for the kitchen, only to be grabbed from behind. Bucky’s arms wrapped around him, mouth latched onto Steve’s neck, going from a wet kiss to a deep bite that had Steve moaning as his knees buckled, in less than a second.

He twisted around in Bucky’s embrace, one hand working its way under that maddeningly tight shirt, the other going straight down to Bucky’s ass, inside the pants—to hell with finesse. He wanted what he wanted, and he wanted it now. Bucky was the one to moan this time, a whole-body shiver pushing him deeper into Steve’s embrace, as if they could be any closer together. There was only one way Steve could think of to make that happen. He took a step backward, pulling Bucky with him toward the bedroom.

He whined when Bucky pushed him away. He wasn’t proud of it, but that was the noise he made. He didn’t want to stop.

“We should slow down.”

Steve bit his lips to keep from pleading, and made his hands loosen their grip on the other man. He didn’t want to coerce Bucky into anything he wasn’t ready for, or pressure him at all. But he couldn’t keep his damned mouth shut as he let his forehead fall to Bucky’s. “No. I don’t want to.” He cringed. “I mean, do you want to slow down? ‘Cause it’s usually been me, putting on the brakes, but I just…. If we keep drawing this out any longer, I’m gonna explode,” he said with a bit of a forced laugh, his hands flexing on Bucky’s hips. “It’s already too big and too important. I’m fuckin’ shaking,” he admitted, squeezing his eyes shut with frustration. “And I don’t mean that I wanna get it over with—not at all—but I can’t…. I can’t handle drawing this out any longer. Unless you need to.”

Bucky shifted a little and kissed the corner of Steve’s lips. “Yeah, it’s already really… big.” There was a moment of pause before they both snorted. “Well, it feels pretty big from this angle, anyway.”

Steve felt nerves taking over as he laughed again, a little manically. “So what does that mean, then?”

“Well,” Bucky said, closing his eyes and thinking for a moment. “I get what you’re saying. It’s big,” he said, rocking forward to press against Steve’s erection, “but I don’t want to wait either.”

“I wanted to do things right,” Steve admitted. “Romance you, take our time, make sure you were ready. Go slow.”

“Any slower woulda been moving backward,” Bucky teased. “We’ve been going slow since last July. I’m ready.”

Steve couldn’t help shivering at those words.

Bucky’s hand cupped Steve’s cheek. “Hey. It’s us. It ain’t gonna be perfect, but we’ve got the rest of our lives to work on it, all right? You’re thinking too much.”

“Right, and that’s never been your problem.”

Bucky shoved him playfully toward the bedroom. “You watch that smart mouth, Rogers, or it’s gonna get you in a heap of trouble.”

Teasing and laughing, they fumbled their way into the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothes behind. The first touch of their whole bodies, skin to skin, made actual tears come to Steve’s eyes. Sex had never felt like this, and they weren’t even doing anything yet.

Bucky twisted around, and pushed Steve down onto the bed, then climbed on top. “Is this okay?”

Steve pulled him down, wrapping arms and legs around Bucky to hold him close forever and never let him go. “Yeah. So okay,” he whispered around the knot in his throat.

“We’ll take our time later, do things proper and slow next time, all right? You’re shaking.”

“So’re you.” He could feel Bucky smile against his face, the rasp of his stubble on Steve’s smooth cheek. He dragged his hand up Bucky’s spine, tangling his fingers in that still-long hair. “It’s gonna be fine.”

“Who’s reassuring who, here?” Bucky teased, and drew Steve into a kiss that was deep and slow, and left them both breathless. Or that could have been from their bodies slowly moving together, the feeling of so many years, so much barely-contained desire, so much longing. So much love.

They were both too far gone to mess around anymore, and when Bucky reached over to grab lube from the bedside table, Steve only had a moment to be a little embarrassed. Tony’s housekeeping staff was far too thorough.

“Relax, jerk, this stuff and condoms are in every bedside table in the place. No one’s assuming anything special about us.”

“Been in many other bedrooms here?”

“Just three or four,” Bucky quipped, as he pulled Steve’s leg up higher, and touched his entrance for the first time.

Steve tried to breathe. It was just sex. He wanted to be doing this—dear Holy Father and all the saints, he wanted to be doing this—but he was still nervous. Less about being fucked than about what it all meant. He wished his brain would shut the hell up, already.

It did, when Bucky swirled two lube-wet fingers around his opening and pressed inside. His hips lifted all on their own, as Steve took a slow breath in, feeling every millimeter of the fingers touching him inside. After a moment, he opened his eyes, wondering why Bucky had stopped.

“You look... overwhelmed.”

“Yeah. Kind of,” Steve admitted.

“’Bout to get more overwhelming,” Bucky promised, leering.

“Little less conversation, little more action,” Steve said, lifting his hips and pressing Bucky’s fingers deeper.

“I’ll give you more action….”

And he certainly did, withdrawing his fingers and pressing them back inside, the slide easier this time as Steve’s body reacted by itself, clinging desperately, not wanting Bucky to go. He really didn’t want to let Bucky pull out when he twisted his hand just a little, and pressed deeper, hitting Steve’s prostate, and Steve made the single most embarrassing sound he’d ever made.

Bucky paused. “Are you dying?”

“Sorta? You gonna keep doing that?”

“That’s the plan, if you think your heart’s not gonna give out.”

Steve pulled Bucky’s face close and kissed him breathlessly. “My heart is just fine.”

He would have sworn he saw stars when Bucky added one more finger, the stretch and pull uncomfortable, but not something he couldn’t bear. After a minute, the thing he couldn’t bear was having Bucky’s fingers inside him instead of his dick, because Steve was going to come, and he wanted to at least do that much right, damnit.

Finally, Bucky stopped, added more lube to the mix, and lined himself up. The slide in was slow, the pressure inside Steve’s body unbelievable, and for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was in agonizing pain or unbelievable ecstasy. Bucky shifted, and his cock pressed into Steve’s prostate. Ecstasy won, no contest.

They both groaned as Bucky slid in the last few inches, all the way home. “Need a minute, sorry,” Bucky panted.

“’S’okay; me too. Never done this before,” Steve agreed, feeling every cell in his body singing.

Bucky didn’t move. Didn’t move for long enough that Steve noticed and opened his eyes again.

“What?”

“Well, not with a guy,” Steve corrected. “So never this, obviously.”

The expression on Bucky’s face was hard to figure out. “Now is when you’re telling me this?”

Steve scowled and lifted his hips, hoping to get Bucky to move and get this show on the road. And because it was blindingly pleasurable; no wonder this was considered a sin for so long. He felt like he could be consumed by it, turned inside out, burn like an exploding star.

“Well, yeah,” he said when he got his breath back. “Didn’t think it made a difference.”

Now Bucky was giving him a very easily deciphered look. “You’re such a stupid fuck, Rogers.”

“Not like you’d know—you haven’t fucked me yet,” Steve said, raising his hips again. If Bucky wasn’t going to do it, well then, he would. He felt a flush of embarrassment and arousal, wondering what he looked like from Bucky’s point of view, under him, rolling his hips, letting out little stifled moans every time Bucky’s cock hit that perfect place. Fucking himself.

“Stupid,” Bucky muttered, pressing his face into Steve’s neck to bite down as he lifted his own hips, pulled back, and thrust back in.

Bucky didn’t slam in hard, but he wasn’t slow either, and the pace—and pleasure—seemed to increase exponentially. Steve hooked his ankles behind Bucky’s back, grabbing one knee to hold himself open as Bucky leaned more weight on him. It felt like Bucky’s every thrust pushed him further into Steve, like Steve was split open, all of him, open to Bucky. Finally.

They hit a rhythm that made Bucky groan with every thrust inside Steve, and it felt like the universe was expanding inside of him, he was full of stars and galaxies and pleasure and gratitude and love and love and love. And Bucky.

His orgasm kind of took him by surprise; he’d been so out of his head already that he wasn’t expecting that sudden, bright burst of the universe exploding.

When he finally managed to stop nearly-yelling and came back to himself, he opened his eyes to see Bucky staring. Steve wasn’t sure what Bucky saw, but whatever it was, it made him gasp a surprisingly quiet “Oh,” full of wonder and awe. His hips stuttered off-rhythm as he slammed in the last few frantic times, making aftershocks quake through Steve’s body until he felt like he was going to lose consciousness as Bucky shouted his release.

He clutched Bucky’s trembling body, as if it was possible to pull him closer still. He felt tears on his face, and held on tight as the universe slowly settled back into place.

Chapter Text

It was good to see that the boys had—evidently—managed to get past their little first-kiss fiasco.

The grins on their faces, the slightly flushed cheeks, the way they kept casually touching each other all week was super adorable. Steve was being extra nice to Bucky—chivalrous and stuff—and Darcy kept catching Bucky’s eyes and having to stifle her own grins while they were working on the research files together. Conversely, Bucky would make suggestive comments or jokes, making her laugh while Steve’s ears turned pink. She had to give Steve credit; he was attempting to seem unfazed and worldly, but it was pretty easy to tell that he was flustered by Bucky flirting with him. And aroused.

Anyway, it was cute.

And all right, yes, it hurt a little, seeing them moving forward, wading into this new phase of their relationship. But this was what she wanted for them, sincerely and truly, so it was stupid to feel jealous or whatever. She wasn’t jealous, not in the way where she wanted them not to be happy together, more like envious because she wanted something like that for herself, too.

Obviously not with them, though.

So Darcy was kind of trying to stay out of the way and not interact with the guys more than necessary for their daily work sessions. Self-defense training had been dropped after her unpleasant scene with Steve, and she wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up again. Besides, she was still going to her kickboxing class, and that was probably good enough. Plus, she got to flirt with a cute guy of her own, so maybe her love-life wasn’t on permafreeze until the old dudes decided they wanted her.

Wanted to be friends with her, she meant. Right.

Speaking of friendship, she was not expecting it when Bucky asked her if they could make that bread together, like they’d planned to a week or so ago. They were finishing up the day’s pointless research into AIM and that stupid purple orb. Nothing had come of Team Science!’s tests on her jewelry box, so far. Finding nothing new in the data-dump, the overall mood was at a bit of a nadir.

“It’s kind of a little late in the day for bread,” she pointed out. “Yeast breads take around three to four hours, I think.”

Bucky looked disappointed. “Oh, okay. It was just a thought.”

“No, wait. I mean, let me think a minute. I know there are some breads that rise overnight….” After a few minutes, and a consultation with JARVIS, they settled on making cinnamon rolls with bacon and maple syrup. If you’re going to indulge, you should go all-out, in Darcy’s opinion. None of that low-fat froyo bullshit in her kitchen, thank you very much.

Or, in the common kitchen, anyway.

It was a little awkward at first, cooking with Bucky, with Steve sitting at the counter bar and sketching. Especially with the two of them making heart-eyes at each other. She hadn’t spent any “recreational” time with either of them in a while. And interactions with her and Steve weren’t exactly bad or anything, but they weren’t great either. It wasn’t his fault that hearing the truth had hurt her feelings, and she needed to get the hell over it.

Plus, the glances the two guys kept giving each other were hilarious. She wasn’t sure what stage they were at with their Big Storybook Romance, but they were still a little bit awkward and therefore highly amusing to witness. And those cinnamon rolls were going to be fucking awesome, if she did say so herself. Which she did.

She and Bucky had the dough prepped and rising in no time, and while that was happening, they fried a ridiculous amount of bacon—half of which ended up in the three of them. They ended up having breakfast for dinner, because Jane came up and demanded her share of bacon and then wanted toaster waffles, too. So then Steve thought omelets sounded good, and Darcy and Bruce threw in a bunch of vegetables so they could pretend it was a reasonably healthy adult dinner.

After eating, she and Bucky assembled the rolls and put them in the refrigerator to rise overnight. Darcy set her alarm for the ungodly hour of 7:00 a.m., and only the promise of impending yumminess got her down to the communal kitchen—before coffee—to throw the buns in the oven.

As it were. Snort.

It was a little bit past seven, so she was technically late. Which was typical. It was not typical to wander into the kitchen, and find Bucky and Steve making out against the refrigerator. Not just kissing either: like full-on pressed together, Steve’s hands groping Bucky’s (lovely) ass. And there was moaning. Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. Apparently they’d finally made whoopie.

Well. She was awake now.

Darcy cleared her throat and put on a smile that was only a little bit forced as the two men jumped away from each other. She’d apparently snuck up on them, despite their super-soldier hearing, but she wasn’t sure whether to be pleased about that accomplishment or not. Her heart was pounding, and she could feel that her face was flushed, but didn’t know if it was from jealousy/envy, embarrassment, or arousal—What? They were hot! Like anyone could see those two going at it and not get at least a little turned on.

She headed for the coffee maker, which was thankfully on the other side of the kitchen from the fridge. “Looks like things are getting hot in here—is the oven preheated?” she teased. She saw Bucky’s nod more than heard his reply, over the buzzing in her ears. They got the rolls in the oven, and then she did not run away, thank you, she very gracefully excused herself to go take a shower.

And if her eyes leaked a little bit in the shower, well, no one could tell anyway.

*****

Two days later was kickboxing class. Which meant Rigo. Which meant putting on the sexy big-girl panties, and no more moping about what she couldn’t have. Not when there was something perfectly lovely in front of her, and maybe she could have that. The two old dudes were her friends. She was totally allowed to date.

Not that anyone except her own inner voices had a problem with it. Stupid fucking soulmarks. Stupid fucking Qusullians.

“So…,” she brilliantly led off, no doubt impressing Rigo with her wit and charm. They were unwrapping their hands, sitting on a bench now that class was over. He didn’t turn to look at her, but he did seem to be waiting for her to go on and on she did go. “Dinner. It’s a thing I like to do in the evenings. Seems pretty common, so I thought that if you were a dinner-eater, too, we could have dinner together. If you wanted.”

Way to go, Darcy! Gold star for breaking heteronormative patterns and asking a guy out. And a smack upside the head with a dead fish for being the most awkward human on the planet. Just… wow.

Rigo turned to look at her, trying not to smile. Oh Goddess, it was the world’s worst date proposal. He was trying to spare her feelings, for some reason, like she didn’t already have a tiny inner part of herself trading out the usual self-flagellation whip for one made of fire. Like the balrog in LOTR.

“Like tonight? I’m free if you are,” he said.

Wait, what?

“But I thought you couldn’t leave the tower?” he added.

“It’s true, I’m such a pretty princess that they’ve locked me in the tower. But there are a couple of restaurants mixed in with the stores and stuff, on the lower levels. I think those should be okay.”

Rigo nodded. “Sure, that sounds good to me. Which one do you want to grace with your royal presence?”

Oooh, she should have thought of that before asking the guy out. To be fair, she hadn’t really planned on him saying yes, which was stupid, because she was awesome. Thank god someone finally recognized that.

“Um… There’s an Ethiopian place and a sushi bar. Got a preference?”

They ended up choosing sushi, and at 7 PM on the dot, JARVIS let Darcy out of the elevator, wearing lady-clothes and lipstick and everything. Rigo was already waiting.

It was good date. Rigo started out with an abundance of points for being punctual, as well as funny, smart, organized, and hot. It was nice to hang out with someone relatively normal, but not so normal that he didn’t know there was superhero shit going on upstairs. Conversation flowed, as did a reasonable amount of wine. It turned out that him being in a band was actually sort of interesting, and Darcy was looking forward to going to one of his gigs, someday, when all this whatever had blown over and she was released from her tower. Which could be any day now, really. Why not?

She’d been biting her lip and staring at his mouth for long enough that by the time they paid the bill and got in the elevator, they were kissing before the doors had shut. It was really goddamned nice. Being touched was good, the kissing was good, his hands on her body, hers on his—all good. When they broke for air, she thought why not? and asked him up to her room. JARVIS complied without more than a slightly disapproving tone—which she was probably making up in her head—and scanned Rigo for security reasons.

Rigo’s eyes were full of humor. “I kinda feel like the full-body scan puts us at second base already.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re still totally dressed,” Darcy argued.

“Want to remedy that?”

“I think I might…” she said, pulling him down for another kiss. This one left her breathless, staggering back to lean against the elevator wall while she pulled his button-down out of his pants, and wrapped one of her legs around his. The boy was not one to miss a hint, and was sliding his hand up her thigh, with a clear destination in mind. He was grinding what felt like a very nice surprise in his pants against her hip, and her hands were down the back of his jeans, squeezing that cute little tush, when they arrived at her floor.

The doors opened, and she pushed Rigo back enough to breathe again. “Think you can wait the thirty-second walk down the hallway so we’re not fucking on Stark’s security cameras?”

“If I have to,” he replied, rubbing his knuckles against her clit through her panties, “but you’re going to have to get your hands out of my pants first.”

“Don’t wanna,” she moaned, leaning up for another kiss, only to interrupted by the most sternly disapproving parental throat-clearing she’d ever heard.

It wasn’t JARVIS.

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and saw Captain America standing just outside the elevator door.

“Fuuuccckkkkkk…..”

Rigo jerked away from her like she was suddenly on fire. Honestly, she felt like it too—a sudden wash of embarrassment and adrenaline and utter blinding rage surged through her with such intensity that she wouldn’t be surprised to see flames all over her body.

She didn’t have time to say a word before America’s Dad said, “I don’t think this… gentleman is cleared for the secure floors.”

Oh no, he did NOT.

She opened her mouth to launch into Steve but was distracted by the rustle of clothing behind her. She turned to see Rigo hurriedly stuffing his shirt back down his pants.

“Ah, Captain America, pleasure to meet you,” he said, trying so hard to be polite. He offered his hand for Steve to shake.

Except it was the same hand that had been oh-so-wonderfully grinding against her utterly soaked panties, and yeah. Eau de pussy wasn’t a smell that was subtle. Rigo jerked it back when he realized, but that was it. Game over, called on account of not-quite-coitus interruptus, in the form of 6’2”, 200-something pounds of disapproving, angry superhero who also just happened to be one of Darcy’s dipshit soulmates.

She was going to fucking kill him.

But before that, she had to be a grownup.

She turned to Rigo and smiled apologetically. “Sorry about this. Raincheck, maybe?” He moved his head in a way that could have either been a nod or a shake, and she sighed. “Well, catch you in kickboxing on Thursday, anyway. I had a really good time.” She darted in to kiss him on the cheek.

“Good night,” she added, as she got out of the elevator and let JARVIS whisk Rigo away to safety.

Because she had a whole pallet of Costco-size cans of whup-ass, and she was looking to unload on Captain Cockblock.

Chapter Text

Bucky was having too many feelings all at once.

First, he still felt a little jittery from the minor adrenaline rush caused by JARVIS calling him up to “intercede” before the scene between Darcy and Steve got out of control. He hadn’t exactly expected physical violence—and there hadn’t been any—but he was still a little amped up. Raised voices put him on edge.

Second, he was angry. Angry with Steve, who never had learned to keep his goddamned temper under control. And who was also very well-versed in the damage one could do with words, from when Steve hadn’t had a body that could keep up with his smart mouth. Once the jackass decided he was right about something, that annoying “moral fortitude” convinced him he couldn’t back down, couldn’t minimize the injustice, couldn’t mind his own damn business. And Darcy about to have a tumble with another guy? Not Steve’s business.

Which led to Darcy. Bucky was pretty upset with her too. No, he (they) didn’t have any kind of claim on her. They weren’t dating, they hadn’t kissed, they weren’t romantic. Sure, he and Darcy flirted, but he told himself it didn’t mean anything aside from both of them appreciating what they saw when they looked at each other. And they were friendly, friends even. But you don’t get mad at your friends when they want to get laid, so long as everyone’s consenting. And Darcy sure as hell had been consenting. Inviting, even.

So while Steve was hiding his feelings behind disapproval and anger, Bucky was self-aware enough to know that feeling number three was hurt. He was hurt that she’d been about to fuck another guy, when she was their soulmate. He firmly believed that eventually she’d be “theirs,” so to speak, and it hurt to think that maybe she didn’t see it that way.

But he did understand. She wasn’t theirs yet. She was allowed to go to bed with whoever she wanted, and he (and Steve) didn’t have any legitimate cause to be upset. Her sex life was not currently any of their business.

But he still felt a little possessive, even it was wrong.

So yay, that was feeling number four: self-judgment. Upset with himself because he felt something he didn’t think he should feel. Nice to know some of that good ol’ Catholic guilt still lurked deep inside of him for times like this.

The irony was that Bucky had sent Steve to get Darcy to come down to the lounge and watch a movie with them. The three of them hadn’t hung out in a while—definitely not since he and Steve had finally had sex. He’d sent Steve because he thought it would look better for Steve to make the gesture, and he would tidy up and make some popcorn. JARVIS had told them Darcy was in the elevator on her way to her floor, but hadn’t mentioned that she had company.

He’d been cleaning off the coffee table when JARVIS had interrupted, “Sgt. Barnes, I believe you wish to be alerted if there was a situation in which Ms. Lewis and Captain Rogers were expressing hostility toward one another?”

“Shit! Yeah, thanks,” Bucky had said, tossing the pillow aside and heading to the stairs. He could run up faster than the elevator would take him, and he opened the door into the hallway to hear shouting like he hadn’t heard in ages. Not since the time when his sister had given Stevie a piece of her mind for scaring off her beau.

Yelling was one thing, but when she’d raised her arms and shoved Steve away from her as hard as she could, Bucky’d swooped in and grabbed her around the waist. “Let’s not do anything we’ll regret, sweetheart.”

She’d struggled against his loose hold, and when he dropped his arms, her fury turned on him. “Get the fuck away from me, both of you! You have no fucking right to interfere in my life in any way, you motherfucking self-righteous asshole,” she’d said, turning back to Steve. If looks could kill, he would have been dead and burned to ashes in a millisecond.

Steve had opened his mouth—to make things worse, apparently—but she’d lunged forward and shoved him again.

“Look at you, standing there, being so fucking perfect, and with everything in the world that I want but can’t have. So much for fucking soulmates, you assholes!”

For a moment it had looked like she was about to take a swing at Steve, who was standing there frozen, like the word soulmate had jarred him out of his ire. Bucky had started to say something, but she’d held up her hand.

“I’m not listening to a goddamned word you have to say.”

The sound of her slammed door had seemed to make the whole hallway reverberate.

*****

Bucky dealt with having too many feelings pretty much the same way Steve did—going to the gym and hitting things until the tightness in his chest loosened up. After they’d pummeled a few bags each, Steve had nodded at the mats, and they’d relocated. To think it had only been a few days since the last time the two of them had sparred—and then fooled around, and then went upstairs and had sex for the first time. Now there was a new Infinity stone, and no one still had any clue what was going on with those, and they’d made cinnamon rolls, and Darcy’d went on a date with another guy. And he and Steve were together, as easy as two puzzle-pieces slotting into place.

Plus lube, he added, somewhere deep in his mind where things were still funny.

It had been a hell of a week.

He and Steve weren’t talking, probably because neither of them knew what to say. And because they were probably both still going in circles inside their own heads, trying to sort out what the fuck had just happened. Steve, however, usually needed a bit of prodding to figure out his feelings once he was angry.

So Bucky socked him on the jaw.

“What the hell?” Steve rubbed his cheekbone.

Bucky grinned. “Just trying to get you out of your head.”

“Gee, thanks,” Steve replied, taking a swing at Bucky’s torso.

“Anytime, pal,” he said in a cheerful tone, and then went in for the kill. “Do you even know why you got so mad?”

Steve’s face hardened. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Bucky shrugged. “Fine, then you can listen to me. I’m so fucking annoyed by the two of you constantly talking at cross-purposes and flaring up at each other instead of working things out like adults.” He landed a kick to Steve’s thigh. “And I’m a little hurt that she’d take another guy to bed when she’s our soulmate, even though I know we don’t have any kind of claim on her.”

Steve opened his mouth to say something that it was clear Bucky didn’t want to hear, since his face was suffused with high-and-mighty indignation, so Bucky socked him on the jaw again.

“And I’m sad and worried that maybe she won’t ever want to be with us. And even though things are great between the two of us,” he said, landing a slap on Steve’s ass, “I’d like to give things a try with her too, eventually. But mostly I’m just pissed off that I didn’t even get a whole week of fucking you silly before another stupid blow-up between the two of you.”

Steve lunged at him, and they went down to the floor hard, grappling. Bucky won, pinning Steve, mostly because Steve was trying too hard not to laugh to fight back.

“Sorry,” Steve said, and Bucky could tell he meant it, even if he was smiling a little. “If it helps, I’m pretty upset too, about not spending the last few days in bed with you, doing nothing at all.”

“I am not nothing,” Bucky said, smirking. “Neither is this,” he said, rolling his hips so his dick pressed against Steve.

“Sorry, I take it back,” Steve laughed. “That’s definitely something.”

“You know, maybe if we took her to bed, the two of you would quit being so prickly around each other,” Bucky suggested.

“’We?’” Steve said, like he hadn’t considered such a thing before. Actually, given the shock on his face, it seemed likely that he hadn’t.

Bucky gave him a raised eyebrow. “Yes, ‘we.’ What, did you think I was just going to go watch TV in the common room while you two screw?”

“No! I just… hadn’t thought about three in bed at the same time.”

Bucky rolled his hips again. “Seems as if you like that thought, though.”

Steve cleared his throat. “I… guess I do. But I’m not going to have sex with her so we get along better—and I doubt that would even work. And yes, I’ve heard of ‘hate sex.’ I’m not doing that. And I don’t hate her.”

“No?” Bucky asked, rolling to the side and bringing Steve with him, so their positions reversed.

“Of course not,” Steve said, rolling his eyes, but with a hint of genuine frustration. “I don’t know her, not really.”

“Well gosh, that sounds like an insurmountable problem. I guess you two will never get along, then.”

“Ass.”

Bucky slid his hands from Steve hips to grab a perfect butt-cheek in each hand. “Yeah, you’ve definitely got a nice one.”

“I’m being serious, here.”

“Yeah? Well, you go right on ahead with that, don’t mind me.” Bucky squeezed, letting his fingertips press inward as he lifted his hips to press his erection against Steve’s.

“She’s rude and invasive,” Steve said, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“So’re you,” Bucky said, reaching up to pull Steve down for a kiss. “You two are a lot alike. Must be why I like flirtin’ with the both of you.”

Steve huffed a laugh. “You sayin’ you’ve got a type, Buck? ‘Cause I think you’re just a flirt. Always were, with every filly you met.”

“It’s fun. She’s fun,” Bucky shrugged.

“I’m not fun?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “You’re a pain in my ass, Rogers. Or at least, maybe you will be soon,” he said, squeezing Steve’s again.

There wasn’t a lot of talking, after that.

Chapter Text

Things came to a head the next morning during breakfast. Emotions were still running high, and while Bucky had been right to break up the fight between him and Darcy—especially since she’d gotten physical—nothing had been resolved.

Steve had had some time to think about things. It felt like a lot of animosity was growing between him and Darcy, and he was beginning to wonder if it might be his fault. Last night, he accidentally kind of implied she was a slut; she’d definitely taken his words that way—stupid modern vocabulary problems. And she’d rightly called him on his bullshit about his concern being about security. It wasn’t security at all—he knew JARVIS wouldn’t allow that, and the guy must’ve already passed some kind of clearance just to be having dinner with Darcy. JARVIS would have alerted them if there had been a real threat.

So he was sincerely trying to make things better, when he saw her at the coffeepot, fixing herself a cup.

“I’m sorry about overreacting last night. I know JARVIS wouldn’t have let that guy come upstairs if he hadn’t cleared security. And I’m sorry you took it the wrong way when I said whatever it was about ‘a dame inviting a guy up to her apartment.’ I don’t like arguing with you all the time, and I think we should make an effort to get along better.”

Darcy turned around, looking like she was about to throw her scalding-hot cup of coffee in Steve’s face. “You’re sorry I ‘took it the wrong way?’”

Steve could feel Bucky cringing behind him. What had he done now? He was trying, damnit. “I am,” he said, at a loss.

She carefully put down her coffee mug. “Do you even know how insulting you are? Implying that I’m at fault for taking it the ‘wrong way’ when you called me a slut? How fucking dare you,” she said, and turned the leave the kitchen.

He reached out but stopped himself before he grabbed her arm. “No, wait, please. I’d like to work this out. I keep sticking my foot in my mouth, and I don’t know what you want me to say.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, glanced at Bucky, and clenched her jaw. But she stayed. It felt like several minutes before she said anything, and he tried to wait patiently, despite being pretty keyed up.

“Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to be afraid to even yell at someone? It takes guts for me to stand here and even be in the same room with you when you’re mad,” she informed him.

He blinked, totally taken aback. “What? You can yell at me.” She’d certainly yelled at him last night.

Her eyes tightened with anger. “No, I fucking can’t. If you get all riled up and lose your temper for even a moment, one slap from you could break my fucking neck. And you just reached out to grab me! You’re lethal, Captain Rogers. You can’t ever fucking forget that.”

He opened and closed his mouth, trying to think of what to say to that. “Well, what am I supposed do about that?”

“You can fucking well act like you’re worthy of trust, especially around people who aren’t superheroes!”

“How do I do that?” Frankly, it sounded like the other person’s problem, not his.

“Learn to control yourself, dipshit.”

Why the hell wasn’t Bucky helping him out? But Steve didn’t want to turn around to look. “Maybe you just have to learn to trust me.”

She let out a mean laugh. “No, I goddamned well do not. I don’t feel safe around you. You want that to change, you change it. You know that guy standing behind you, with the same kind of serum-enhanced super strength, about your size? Got a metal arm that could kill me in a second? Has PTSD and a history of blackouts and trigger words? Why the fuck do you think I feel safe around him and not you?”

That hurt. “I…. I don’t know.”

She shook her head. “Because he’s in control of his temper. He knows he’s dangerous. He knows losing control could kill me—and anyone else—without even trying.”

Well, now Steve was getting angry. “That isn’t fair.”

“Oh, fuck you. Life isn’t fair,” she sneered. “Your body came with a responsibility to use it properly. More than that, you have to demonstrate that you’re in control of yourself, all the fucking time.” She held up a hand, glaring at him when he opened his mouth to rebut. “No, it’s not fair that I don’t have to physically put everyone at ease when I walk into a coffeeshop, and you do. Because you look like you’re a threat. This is exactly why you’re stuck inside this tower, you know, instead of out there blowing up Hydra. You can’t do incognito, you can’t blend in. You don’t know how to hold your body in a nonthreatening way. You are a threat, as a default setting.”

Steve clenched his jaw.

“That, right there,” she said, pointing at him. “How you’re holding in whatever it is you want to say, however it is you want to lash out. Barely restrained. You could slip any second. You didn’t have to control yourself when you were small, and you never learned how to walk through the world as a nonthreatening muscly man, because it happened instantly for you. And somehow, we’ve all just gotta trust that you’re not going to snap.”

There was a moment of silence, before she turned and grabbed her coffee, and headed for the elevator.

“I’m afraid of you. And I don’t like being afraid, feeling weak. It makes me angry. Part of that’s my problem; part of it’s yours. Figure your shit out, then maybe we can talk.”

*****

When Steve turned around to see what Bucky made of Darcy’s tirade, all he got was a sad look and shake of the head.

“I have an appointment with Dr. Banner,” was all Bucky said, as he too headed for the elevator, leaving Steve alone with his thoughts.

After successfully demolishing another one of Stark’s super-strength punching bags in an effort to get out his frustration, Steve went upstairs for lunch and house chores. Why couldn’t he figure out Darcy? Why did she push his buttons? Why didn’t she like him?

Why did he care?

He rubbed at the two names written on his hand and felt frustrated. Bucky had made it clear that he didn’t want to be a go-between, and as Steve mentally flipped through the list of people he knew and were still alive, he was hit with the realization that there were very few he could call friends. Sure, he had his team, but… no one he talked to about anything personal.

How could a guy with two soulmates feel so alone?

*****

“Hey man,” a familiar but unexpected voice said a few hours later, interrupting Steve as he put together some sandwiches in the common area. Bucky was still in their apartment, finishing the laundry.

“Sam!” Steve got up to clasp hands with his friend. “This is a surprise; is something going on?”

“Yeah, something’s going on: my BFF is apparently being a total dick lately. Which makes sense, because he hasn’t talked to me in months, and his head gets all twisted around when I’m not there to fix it straight.”

Steve made a face. “Bucky called you?”

Sam made a bitchy face back at him. “Yes, he did. Said you could use a friend whose name wasn’t written on his hand. Which hurts, man, because now I’m jealous that I’m not Captain America’s soulmate. Or I would be, if you weren’t a pain in my ass so often.”

Steve shivered, and felt his ears go pink, flashing back to saying those exact words to Bucky, and what had followed.

“Whooohoo! Someone got lucky, didn’t he?” Sam teased.

“Shut your mouth,” Steve said, turning back to the food, and ignoring Sam’s laughter.

“Well, I’m glad you two’re doing so well,” Sam said, patting Steve on the shoulder.

Sam stuck around for lunch, just visiting, no earth-shattering news to report. It was good to catch up, so good Steve felt a little bad (and stupid) for not reaching out to Sam himself. Sam was doing pretty well; he’d relocated too, after Hydra blew up Steve and Bucky’s apartment in DC, and was staying well out of the way with his uncle, in New Jersey. He was keeping himself busy volunteering under the name Sam Rogers, because he said it made him laugh. But he too was trapped, hiding like the rest of them until all of this mess could be resolved.

Steve was an awfully shitty friend, he realized. He’d talked to Sam a few times over the phone, and he knew Sam had known the risks when he joined in with Steve against Hydra. But it still ate at him that this was another man’s life he’d ruined, or at least interrupted. Sam had a career, not just a job, and had been between girlfriends, but was looking for someone to settle down with and eventually start a family. Until he’d met Steve, and goddamned Hydra had resurfaced.

“So, this Darcy,” Sam said, grinning as pushed his empty plate away. “She’s quite a looker.”

“Aw, thanks, Hot Guy I Don’t Know Yet,” she said, as the elevator doors closed behind her. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine, trust me,” Sam said in a flirtatious tone, making Darcy smile. “No, we haven’t met yet, but I see reports and videos. Good job kicking those elves’s asses in London.”

“Aw shucks, that was nothin’,” she said, flipping her hair over her shoulder and batting her eyes like a silver-screen ingenue.

Without a single word to Steve from either of them, Sam invited her to sit down and join them for lunch. It was like he was invisible, listening to the two of them flirt and banter, and he was working his way from mild irritation to silently fuming as she charmed his friend. Not that Sam wasn’t at fault; he was laying it on pretty thick, and Steve couldn’t fathom why Sam would do this. Was Sam trying to wind him up? What the hell?

When Bucky joined them, at least Steve had someone to talk to, sort of. Bucky, too, flirted with Darcy, he and Sam each trying to outdo the other with flattery and innuendo. It would probably have been funny if it was some other dame, but this was his soulmate, damnit—well, his and Bucky’s—and while he was used to sitting silently by as Bucky charmed the underthings off a dame, he couldn’t figure out what Sam’s game was. And Darcy, of course, just ate it up, laughing and having a grand old time while two attractive men flirted with her.

Okay, yes, Steve was pissed off. And, jealous, all right? Fine. He wasn’t a saint; he was jealous. He felt like the three of them were staging this banter in front of him for some reason, and he didn’t know what it was, but he knew he didn’t like it.

He tuned back in to their conversation about dancing in time to hear Bucky’s line about doing the horizontal mambo and huffed.

Darcy made a face at Steve—irritated, yeah, but at least not full of rage, for once. “You ain’t the boss of me.”

Bucky snorted. “He doesn’t want to be the boss, sweetheart, he wants to date you. He just gets wound up so tight, he can’t even see what he wants when it’s right in front of him.”

“Whatever; not my problem,” she said, rolling her eyes as she pushed back her chair to leave. “I’m not getting into this again.”

“Getting’ real tired of her always walking away,” Steve muttered, as the three men followed her with their eyes.

Bucky grinned. “Hate to see her leave…?”

“But love to watch her go?” Sam finished, laughing.

“How’d a nice guy like me end up with a pair of jerks like you two for friends?”

Bucky hit him on the shoulder.

Chapter Text

Before Sam left, he gave Steve an “assignment.” They hadn’t talked much more about Darcy, or the events of the last couple of weeks, so Steve was taken a little off-guard when Sam brought it up as he was putting on his coat.

“You seem pretty frustrated about how things are with Darcy,” he said, and then, “Are you still sketching much?”

“Some, yeah, I guess,” Steve answered, unsure where this was going.

“Drawn her yet?”

Steve shrugged. “No. Why?”

Sam shrugged back. “Just thought it might help you figure out why you’re so quick to anger around her. What it is that pushes your buttons.”

Steve gave him a look.

“All right, all right, but I’m saying this as a friend, not a counselor. You’re calm and focused when you’re drawing. I just had an idea and thought it might help.”

“That’s you, Mr. Helpful,” Steve said, smiling. “Now get out of here before I help you out the window. Got your wings on, right?”

“Ass,” Sam returned cheerfully, and then hugged Steve. “You gotta take care of you, you know. Bucky’s doing fine. I’m sure things between you two idiots are a mess in some ways, but it seems like a good mess, at the moment. Maybe you have some space in your head for other things now.”

Steve rolled his eyes, but clasped Sam on the shoulder before he got into the elevator.

And because Sam got into his head every goddamned time, Steve found himself alone in the study-room that evening, with his sketchpad and charcoals.

“JARVIS, bring up some social media pictures of Ms. Lewis, please.”

“Of course.” A half-dozen were projected onto the wall, of her in various candid poses obviously taken from her Instagram account.

Steve studied them for a few minutes, then asked JARVIS to keep two of them, and make them larger, while he settled back and started on her hair.

Annoyingly, Sam was not wrong. As he sketched, Steve realized that he hadn’t thought much about Darcy, ever, except in the context of problem-solving. Her name on his hand was a problem—and potential threat—to his relationship with Bucky. Then she turned up in the middle of this alien Infinity Stone threat, and he couldn’t ignore her. Although she seemed fine with the three of them only being friends, she was so…. Vivid. Alive. And so much more obviously part of this modern world than anyone else Steve had spent much time around, even though she wasn’t really all that much younger than the rest. What was she, about five years younger than Steve and Bucky, chronologically?

But ever since the fall of SHIELD and exposure of Hydra, all Steve had time for was Bucky. Finding him. Healing him. Helping him. Loving him. And romance was hard for Steve. He still felt unsure that he was doing things right. Were they spending too much time together? Were they talking about the right kinds of things? Making love too often, or not often enough? What was going to happen to them? And what kind of monkey-wrench was a third person going to throw into that?

He filled in the shape of her face, softening the lines with his fingertip, still undecided on which photo to use as a reference for her expression. In one, she was laughing with Jane and Thor. In the other, she was cradling a cup of coffee, lost in thought and totally unaware that her school-friend was taking a picture.

He resented her. A lot.

She was a problem he didn’t want to have to deal with. He didn’t want her name on his hand, with Bucky’s. He didn’t want anyone but Bucky. He was more than enough for Steve, all Steve had ever wanted, all the way down to the bone. Bucky was his soul’s mate, the perfect other half of him. How could another person possibly bring anything but complication, frustration, and pain?

Jesus Christ, he was angry. Who the hell were those aliens, with their magic, deciding he and Bucky weren’t complete on their own? He didn’t even know Darcy, for fuck’s sake!

His pencil broke with a snap, starling him out of his reverie.

He sighed. Sam, as usual, was right—ugh.

Steve knew he was a stubborn jerk, and this soulmates thing made him feel backed into a corner. Naturally, he reacted like he always did when trapped: by trying to fight his way out. How dare they force him into this? Love was the most private, most intimate thing that could happen to a person. Having a relationship with Bucky was hard enough—and new enough—for him to deal with. The issue of Darcy just felt like even more pressure from the outside, an obligation, and it frustrated the hell out of him.

And none of it was her fault.

He really was an asshole sometimes. As he thought about their fights, he realized that Darcy had mostly just reacted to him being hostile towards her. He was always prickly, always somewhat distant, even when the two of them had had friendly conversations together. She had a knack for asking him uncomfortable questions and making him think about things he would rather avoid.

So of course he was frustrating to her. He was in Captain mode around her most of the time they’d spent together, both researching or trying to teach her to fight. Non-compromising. He’d been told it was a little irritating, once or twice.

And then there was the whole physical intimidation problem. He didn’t know how to resolve that, but maybe he should try and figure it out, instead of making it her problem alone. He still couldn’t believe he’d taken a step toward her in the gym, and he’d reached out to grab her that very morning. She didn’t trust him not to hurt her, and Steve was ashamed to realize that he could see why. He didn’t think he’d ever acted like that before, with any dame, but certainly not a civilian. What the hell was wrong with him?

And yeah, he and Darcy both were incredibly irritable about being stuck in the tower (as was Bucky), and might be picking at each other because of it. She pushed his buttons, he pushed hers, and then there was shouting and destroying punching bags, respectively. A little bit of steam got released, but not constructively at all.

Steve sighed again. He thought about last week’s team-wide meeting, with the purple orb. She might be putting on a brave face, but Darcy was scared. She was essentially still a civilian—a college student, for Christ’s sake—and no one had any idea when (or if) she was going to get back to her regular life. In all probability, she wouldn’t.

And Steve was a huge, intimidating jerk, who resented her possibly, someday coming between him and Bucky. He hadn’t even made an effort to be friendly to her after they’d had their falling out at the gym a couple of weeks ago.

No wonder everything was blowing up in his face. No wonder she didn’t trust him.

But he didn’t trust her either, to be honest. He didn’t trust anyone. Not SHIELD, not the government, or any government. Honestly, he trusted the other Avengers, but there was a small part of him, deep down inside, that wouldn’t be 100% surprised if one of them betrayed him. Even Bucky could be turned against him, if there were still hidden trigger words or codes or something. The brainwashing stuff he’d read was fucking terrifying. But Steve couldn’t function without Bucky, and maybe Sam. All his faith in this brave, new world had been ripped away from him when he’d discovered that SHIELD was hiding Hydra.

Steve realized he’d been staring blankly at a spot on the table in front of him for the last several minutes and sighed again. It was beyond time for him to do the right thing with Darcy. He just didn’t know what that was.

“JARVIS, can you contact Dr. Hall to ask if she has time for an appointment soon, please?”

*****

Steve wasn’t sure that talking to Darcy face-to-face was the best plan, no matter what Evelyn said. So—old-fashioned as it was—he wrote her a note. Yes, email would have been more practical, but for this…. Well, he thought more clearly with a pen in his hand than typing at a computer.

Dear Darcy,

I would like to apologize. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I react to you, and I know I’ve been unfair. The following isn’t an excuse, at all, but hopefully some insight into my thoughts—which I don’t always share very well—may help.

A year ago, when I found out the person I’ve been in love with my whole life was somehow miraculously still alive, the only thought my brain had space for was getting him back. For months, I chased after Bucky, not knowing if I’d ever catch up—or who I’d find if I did.

Then one day I woke up with his name on my hand, and also the name of someone I didn’t know, so I ignored it. I didn’t want to know who the new person was; it wasn’t part of finding Bucky, so it didn’t matter. Then Bucky let Sam and I catch up to him, and I’ve been exclusively focused on him getting better. Not back to his “old self,” but healthier, with more of the pieces put back together. I haven’t been able to think about anything else.

I don’t think about the future, or the Avengers team. I don’t think about the world out there, or Hydra and SHIELD and all of that, as much as I can. Just Bucky.

Then two months ago, I met you. Suddenly there was another person in the world, and I didn’t like it. I resented you for breaking the bubble Bucky and I had been living in.

I regret that I blamed you for that. I haven’t been friendly, and I’ve barely even been polite at times. You don’t deserve that, you deserve so much better.

I still feel angry about this “soulmate” thing, and I still feel overwhelmed by the changes to my relationship with Bucky. I’m frustrated, and I’m trapped, and Hydra is going to never give up looking for him. Replacing his mechanical arm has become complicated, everything is complicated, and I don’t understand anything. I’m tired. And I’m sorry.

I’d like to be friends with you, I’d like to have another chance if you will grant me one. But I understand if you can’t. I’ve been pretty horrible to you.

If you’re willing to give me another chance, I’d like to do something together, just the two of us. No Captain America, no space aliens, and no expectations. I can’t meet you anew again, and earn your trust—or give you mine, which I now realize I haven’t even tried to do. How about something you would enjoy, but we could still talk during? Coffee, dinner, or Jane says you like to bowl? Or a video game, if you don’t mind teaching me.

Please take all the time you need to reply. I’m not going anywhere.

With Sincerity,
Steve

He didn’t take any time to edit it, or he knew he’d cross everything out and end up saying hardly anything at all. And the point was for him to open up a little, share where he was coming from, and try to make amends. Apologize, but also make himself vulnerable, no matter how uncomfortable that was for him.

He slipped the note under her door, feeling like ten million kinds of a fool. It was probably a bad idea. She was right to dislike him, and she had no obligation to give him another chance, just because he asked. She seemed as hot-tempered as he was, to be honest, and Steve wasn’t sure he’d be willing to give someone another chance, if the shoe was on the other foot. He’d probably read the letter, tear it up, and to be polite but reserved any time he saw them.

Well. If it came to that, he could at least encourage Bucky to keep making overtures to be her friend, even if she and Steve never got along. She was all alone here, trapped and scared with all that was going on, and she needed a friend. If Steve couldn’t be that for her, maybe Bucky could.

Chapter Text

The last few days were not among Darcy’s favorites. There was a lot of yelling and tension, and she was in a shit mood about what a jackass Steve was, and grumping at everyone else. No, it wasn’t fair to take her bad mood out on Jane and Bruce and Tony—she wasn’t perfect. She was fucked up in her own ways, but at least she was working on it.

Unfortunately, her ire had rubbed off on Jane, whose project was stalled out at the “so we’ve maybe figured out the math; now what?” stage. And Thor was still gone, so Jane was crabby about that too, the way Darcy was missing no one, but still wanted to get laid, geez, she was so horny. Anyway, they’d been snapping at each other all morning when Tony blew something up in his corner of the lab, in an I-have-an-announcement-pay-attention-to-me kind of way. (And JFC, how did she know Tony Stark well enough to read the tone of his explosions? Her life was so weird.)

Tony clapped his hands, in case the ka-boom hadn’t been enough. “All right. There is too much moping and grumbling in here, it’s getting in the way of my science. Everyone’s feeling trapped, lonely, horribly undersexed, and needs a night out on the town. I can’t give two of you that,” he said, looking apologetically at the ladies, “but I can do the next best thing. I may have had to stay behind and miss out on a night with Pepper at a three-Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong, but I can have one of the three-stars right here cater a fancypants meal for us. What do you think, Eleven Madison Park? Or Per Se? JARVIS, check it out. Offer an obscene amount of money, and we’ll do it on the impress-the-president balcony. So get tarted up, put on your diamonds and furs, ladies, and a suit that actually fits you, for fuck’s sake, Banner. Although you are also welcome to wear diamonds and furs; whatever floats your boat, makes you feel special, big guy.”

He paused for a breath while the other three blinked at him.

“Actually, let’s not go black-tie, tuxes, evening gowns, just cocktail party clothes, so we can relax. Shit, what was I thinking; you’re all refugees. JARVIS, get their measurements, analyze everything they’ve worn for the last decade, and get these people some clothes. Tom Ford for Banner, I think; he’s not allowed any input, but we don’t want to scare him with anything too exciting.”

“As you wish,” JARVIS said.

Tony clapped his hands again. “Great, so, dinner, 8:00 p.m. I’ll schedule some masseuses for around 4:00 p.m. so you can all loosen up and have a good time. Be there or be… well, not square, I think Cap has the market cornered on ‘square’ in this building, but beware my wrath. I’ll have JARVIS permanently turn your showers to cold or something.”

There was a very long pause while the others stared at him. Darcy looked at Jane. Jane looked at Bruce.

Bruce sighed, then shrugged. “This is him being somewhat restrained,” he offered in an apologetic tone.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Well, it beats another night of pjs and Animal Planet, I guess.”

*****

JARVIS had three designer-label cocktail dresses delivered for her, which had somehow been tailored to fit like a glove. Not an easy feat given the size of Darcy’s boobs. It was a teensy bit invasive, thinking of JARVIS knowing every detail of her body, and she could see why the two superspies didn’t live here in the tower. But no point in fussing about it now. She and Jane rock-paper-scissored so they didn’t both wear red dresses, and after their massages, stylists arrived to assist with hair, make-up, nails, and whatever else they wanted.

So this was how the other half lived, apparently. She could get used to this.

Please, she’d really like to get used to this.

Jane wasn’t too disappointed with losing, since her actual favorite of her three dresses was a turtleneck sheath, covered in dark multicolored sequins that mapped out all the known galaxies in the universe. It was the perfect combination of feminine-but-conservative, and 100% Science Geek, and Darcy was making sure Jane kept it for later. Her own chosen dress was an off-the-shoulder burgundy number, that made her look like she was naked with a bit of satin wrapped around her, trying (and mostly failing) to cover her tits. It was just this side of trashy, and only the length of the skirt kept it decent. It was fabulous. She was betting she could make Bruce get all flustered, and Tony lose his train of thought at least once.

She grabbed her vintage leopard-fur coat, and JARVIS politely escorted her to the penthouse terrace, which had been all done up with fairy lights and flowers, heat lamps and windbreaks, and a half-dozen servers.

Darcy was pleased that all five guests—and two of the wait-staff—appreciated her “charms.” That’s right, super-serum boys, she was hot property. Clearly, they were not ready for her level of sizzle. And yeah, it was nicer to be appreciated for your brain, but she had a pretty fabulous rack, and she wasn’t afraid to use it to inspire jealousy or lust. It was fun.

She was, however, more than a little surprised to see the boys there, and apparently didn’t keep that out of her expression. Tony took her coat, making appropriately sleazy remarks about her “World-class ta-tas, seriously, those deserve at least one Michelin star apiece, don’t you think?” When he didn’t get a response, he looked over to see what had her attention. “Ah, the geezers. Couldn’t not invite them, that would just be rude. Try not to blind Steve, would you? Or distract him so much he falls off the roof? We kind of need him in case of aliens and stuff.”

“No promises.”

Tony had put Darcy and Jane at opposite ends of the table, with Bruce and himself flanking Darcy. Thank god. Or JARVIS, probably, but still. It was always endearing when Tony did something thoughtful that reminded you he wasn’t even close to the dick he pretended to be—even as he was trying to calculate the volume of her boobs in cubic liters. Regardless, it was easy to avoid talking to the geezers without seeming rude.

Dinner was, as expected, fabulous. There were amuse bouches, sea scallops, quail, and a billion tiny little French things only Tony could pronounce. The wine was older than Jane, the chocolate was exquisitely dark, and the conversation was lovely. Until, with the après-dîner drinks, Tony declared that it wasn’t a party without presents, and a server brought out packages for her, Jane, and Bruce. The three of them looked at each other and shared a cringe.

Darcy unwrapped hers first. “Aw, Tony, you shouldn’t have. No really,” she said in a bland tone, pulling out a box containing the Ina Wave, proudly promising to deliver “an overwhelming blended climax.” To be fair, it looked pretty fucking amazing. But. “You should not know what kind of vibrators I like.”

Tony held up his hands. “I didn’t place the order! JARVIS is the all-knowing god around here.”

“Thank you, sir,” JARVIS answered smugly.

“And now we all know what kind of vibrators you like,” he pointed out with a grin. “Was that toy on your wish list, sweetheart?”

When it was her turn, Jane braced herself and was not surprised to also receive a sex toy. She was surprised that the dildo was named Möan-Inir and was in the shape of Thor’s hammer. Like, the literal one. Sort of. She held it up with an expression between dismay and aplomb.

Darcy laughed until her sides hurt, gasping, “I told you! I told you they made those. That’s what you get for not believing me—weird surprises from Tony Stark.”

Jane cleared her throat and put the “hammer” down. “It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you, so much as that I didn’t want to.”

“Never underestimate the weirdness of the interwebs,” Darcy counseled, still laughing. “There’s a whole collection of ones themed after the guys, and I think even a little vibrating butterfly thingy that’s actually in the shape of a spider, for Black Widow.”

Tony pouted. “Well now you’ve ruined everyone’s Christmas surprises, Lewis. Good going.”

Bucky had his phone out and was clearly looking for the toys online, while Steve was feigning deafness, even though his face, neck, and ears were colored with a fierce blush.

Bruce shook his head, mystified. “I can’t believe this is a real thing….”

“Now, now; don’t begrudge people their little fantasies,” Tony said. “Or huge fantasies, in your case.”

“There’s seriously a Hulk dildo?” Bruce asked, looking to Darcy.

She shrugged, having had more than enough wine to be blasé. “Yup. It’s somewhere between impressive and terrifying.”

“Does Steve have one?” Bucky asked, excited like a kid in a candy store. “Why can’t I find them on this thing?” he said, still poking at his phone.

“I believe you have safe-search turned on, Sgt. Barnes,” JARVIS said helpfully. “Shall I turn it off?”

Bucky nodded without looking up and kept tapping, until he let out a howl of laughter and shoved the phone at Steve. “A vibrator, a dildo, and a plug!” he crowed.

Steve took the phone, turned it off, and put it on the ground. “No.”

“Yes!”

“There’s still one more gift to open,” Tony said, nudging Bruce under the table.

“Do I have to accept it?” Bruce asked.

“Yes!” everyone except Steve chorused.

Bruce shook his head but unwrapped his package. He stared at the contents for a moment, then closed the box back up, shaking his head.

“If you can’t figure out how to use it, I’d be happy to give a hands-on demonstration or guide you through it,” Tony offered, wiggling his eyebrows at Bruce.

Bruce failed to accept his generous offer, and seemed extremely thankful when Bucky diverted Tony’s attention by asking, “What, don’t we get anything?”

“No. You’re both being punished for not being single.”

“Uh, you’re not single,” Darcy pointed out.

Tony pretended to look around. “Did Pepper come back, and I didn’t notice? No? Then I’m single.”

She wisely decided not to ask for clarification. She didn’t need to know the details of his relationship with Pepper, and whether it was open or not. And even if she did want to know, Pepper would have her murdered. She was a scary lady.

A scary, sexy lady.

Those legs….

“You’re drunk again, Double-D; your thoughts are slipping out past your lips,” Tony helpfully pointed out. “Although Double-D is nowhere near big enough, what are those? Gs? Geez, for sure.” He laughed and generously helped Darcy up, giving her boobs a final appreciative leer that was somehow almost sweet.

Yeah, she was seriously tipsy. Wine always went straight to her head.

Darcy yawned. “Time for bed.” She wrapped her arm around Tony’s waist and let him escort her to the elevator, trying not to trip in her ridiculously high heels. “Thanks for the new boyfriend,” she said, kissing him on the cheek as she held up her present and grinned. “Might finally get lucky tonight.”

A backward glance showed the gratifyingly scandalized faces of the remaining dinner guests. Tony grinned back at her as JARVIS closed the doors. “Sweet dreams, babe.”

And she did have sweet dreams, preceded by a lovely orgasm, which she’d be willing to attest was both blended and overwhelming, just as the package promised.

*****

Not all that much later, Darcy’s beauty sleep was rudely interrupted with a loud bang and a blaring alarm. She grabbed her glasses and bathrobe, and made for the hallway and then stairwell, where she yanked open the door to find Jane.

They were both was freaked out at hearing JARVIS’s voice as an automated message, rather than a wryly amused butler: “All occupants on levels zero to eighty-two, please report to basement A. Occupants on levels eighty-three and above, report to the common room. The tower is on lockdown.”

“Lockdown? Is that what the noise was?” Jane asked, looking down the hallway, behind Darcy. The hall was much darker than usual. It took Darcy a moment to notice that the window was gone, replaced with some kind of metal wall.

“Well shit.” Not her wittiest remark ever, but it summed up the situation nicely, she thought. “All right, let’s go,” she said, tugging on Jane’s sleeve. Of course the elevator wasn’t running, or wasn’t opening at least, so they had to take the stairs. Geez, she hoped it was working for anyone lower than them, who had to get underground.

The stairwell was freezing, and Darcy really wished she had grabbed some socks, or you know, clothing. In her world, jammies were for lounging, but sleeping was done au naturel. Thank God her robe had a belt, is all she was saying. Well, and she was also saying rather loudly that the cement stairwell was fucking cold on her bare feet.

JARVIS was repeating the same message on a loop, which probably meant that something was wrong with JARVIS, and JARVIS was the tower’s god, so that was definitely not good. They’d gone down less than half a flight when they heard a door open below them, and froze, falling silent in case it was intruders. What the fuck was she going to do, if it was? Run? That was pretty much her only option.

“Don’t let me wuss out on self-defense training again,” she whispered to Jane. “Let’s get to the next floor and hide there somewhere.”

But then a familiar voice called, “Is that you, Darcy? Is Jane with you? You do know stairwells echo, right? I heard you before I even opened the door,” Bruce oh-so-helpfully pointed out.

“Yeah, Jane’s here. I take it we’re not in immediate danger, since you’re pink and sassy instead of green and grumpy?”

Bruce’s chuckle was a relief. “Yeah, pretty much. JARVIS is in lockdown mode, which means all processing power is diverted to protecting the tower and to Tony. Come on down, I’m going to start a kettle for tea.”

“Is there cocoa?” Darcy asked. At Bruce’s affirmative, she and Jane shared a look, making it clear that joining Bruce in the common area was entirely their choice, and they were only coming because cocoa.

“I literally cannot feel my toes,” Darcy whined, as they headed to the living room. JARVIS had stopped the loop; they were apparently the last to arrive. Tony, Steve, and Bucky were at the far wall, looking at various projections and schematics of the building. There wasn’t anything she could do to help, so she found a blanket to wrap up in, and joined Bruce and Jane in the kitchen.

“So what’s all the brouhaha?” she asked, sliding onto a bar stool.

“They’re still working on it,” Bruce said, nodding at the others. “All I know is that JARVIS very calmly and politely woke me up, and not until I was moving did he mention that the tower was in lockdown.”

“Hulk’s awesome and all, but science-you is probably more helpful right now,” Darcy said with a nod.

Her cocoa had barely cooled off enough to drink when the rest of the gang came over to demand their own hot beverages. Tony immediately started the espresso machine, even though it was nearly 2:00 a.m.; he clearly wasn’t going back to bed. It turned out someone had sent over a drone with a cannister of some kind of gas. It had exploded when it hit Tony’s super-secret safety barrier and crashed on the big flying-people arrival balcony. And then it exploded some more, because it had a self-destruct button or whatever.

“Sounds more like Get Smart than James Bond,” Darcy sighed, disappointed.

“Boring is good, Lewis,” Tony pointed out, and the others nodded.

Ugh, they were so reasonable; sometimes it was really irritating. Now was one of those times. Probably because it was 2:00 a.m., for fuck’s sake.

“So what’s this barrier thing?” Jane asked, nudging Tony out of the way to get a shot of espresso, adding it to the remains of her cocoa.

Darcy somewhat smothered her laugh.

“What?”

“You keep saying ‘barrier’ and I’m picturing a giant, invisible condom over Avengers Tower,” she said, snickering. What? She was tired and punchy. And still feeling sexy and satiated in the lady-areas from that fantastic orgasm earlier, now that she wasn’t distracted by being freezing or terrified.

Bucky laughed, and Steve seemed to be trying to hide a smile. Tony was less amused, pointing a finger at her as he said, “My highly sophisticated, Star Trek-inspired, light-years ahead of anyone else on this planet security barrier is not a ‘giant condom.’ And you are never, ever allowed to talk to Marketing, for reals.”

Darcy held up her hands in surrender. “Fine. My dirty mind is entirely your fault anyway,” she said with an innocent smile.

“JARVIS chose well?” Tony grinned and gave her a thorough once-over. Bruce and Steve were attempting to look like they weren’t listening, Jane had an exasperated expression on her face, and Bucky was grinning like he had a special interest in her answer.

Well. Better give the boys what they were waiting for. “So good that I’m naked under this robe.”

“Oh my god, I’m taking you back to your room,” Jane groaned, and dragged her over to the elevator as Tony gave her a fistbump.

She was so winning at life.

Chapter Text

The sweat on Bucky and Steve’s bodies had barely cooled when the alarm sounded. Bucky had been teasing Steve for at least an hour, talking about Darcy and how luscious she’d looked that night, and how good it would feel for Steve to be fucking her tight, welcoming pussy, while Bucky fucked his ass. Up on all fours, with soft pillows bunched up under Steve, and with their active imaginations, Bucky had managed to get Steve to come twice without even trying. Stark’s sex toy for Darcy had turned out to be a gift for all three of them.

Unfortunately, the post-orgasm lassitude was gone in a millisecond as they heard the steel blast panels slam down over the windows, and JARVIS begin giving instructions to evacuate. He and Steve were up and armed in moments, pulling on clothing as they headed for the common floor (or penthouse, depending on where Stark was).

Tony had evidently been up and in the kitchen when the drone hit. JARVIS’s video feeds on the top floors were out due to something similar to an EMP blast, but the heat signature readings clearly showed that there were no intruders, and all the people in the tower were identified and heading to shelter. By the time he and Steve got there, Tony had already directed JARVIS to scan for unusual movement in and around all the buildings in a 500 foot radius. If someone had sent a drone to gas them, they would have wanted a human team to infiltrate immediately. Unfortunately, JARVIS found nothing, not even on the various security cameras in the surrounding blocks. Likewise, the drone’s flight path was unreadable, as it seemed to have dropped straight down from above the tower, and the only thing above them was the sky.

“What’s the gas and who was the target?” Steve asked, once they’d determined everyone was safe and there were no immediate leads. Bucky wanted to get out and start hunting down the team of unknown attackers but stayed put. He and Steve were too smart to let the enemy flush them from their hiding place. Still, it chafed to sit on his ass and do nothing.

“JARVIS is scanning for satellites,” Tony ordered, before turning to answer Steve. “There’s no goddamned way that thing just fell out of nowhere.”

Bucky glanced at Steve, eyebrows raised, but before he could say anything, Tony held up a hand and forestalled him.

“First we rule out all the other variables, and only then will I start listening to theories about magic portals.”

“Someone’s touchy,” Bucky muttered.

Steve shrugged. “Chitauri.”

Good point. It wasn’t like he and Steve had the market cornered on PTSD; there was plenty for everyone.

The next few hours were only brightened by the too-brief appearance of Darcy in her fuzzy bathrobe, and the announcement that she was naked underneath it. Hey, she brought it up; it wasn’t his fault that it gave him a thrill, after thinking about her in bed with him and Steve. The two of them might be having problems but goddamn, that woman was a looker.

Otherwise, despite the fact that Tony’s electric barrier-thing had foiled the attack, and everyone was safe, it was a long night. A robot retrieved the remains of the drone and brought it in for testing. He and Steve couldn’t do much without more information, so they were stuck until JARVIS summoned them down to the lab.

“You aren’t going to like this,” Tony said as they entered, not looking away from the display he was fiddling with.

“How could I not like someone attacking the tower?” Steve asked dryly.

“Well, because you two were definitely the targets,” Bruce said, making a sympathetic face. “The nerve gas residue seems to have been tailored to knock out super soldiers, probably for a few hours. I’ll try to recreate it and test it, but I’m pretty sure that was the goal.”

Bucky looked at Steve. Steve looked back. Bucky shrugged. “Not like we ever thought Hydra would give up.”

“And the gas would also have killed any unenhanced humans, so if they sent a recovery team to nab you, they’d have to have some seriously high-tech gas masks,” Tony offered. “It would have worked in less than three minutes, which makes me think it’s actually something like a virus, self-propelled, not just passively waiting for the air filters to disperse it.”

“But none got inside?” Bucky checked.

Bruce shook his head. “Not a molecule. We were lucky.”

“We were not lucky,” Tony huffed. “We were protected by my amazing genius; you’re welcome. And before you ask, yes, we traced the drone. The pieces were Soviet made, and as unlikely as it seems, appear to have been dropped from a satellite sent up into orbit in 1973.”

They all pondered that for a moment.

“It was up there the whole time?” Steve asked, doubtful.

Bucky rolled his eyes. When would Steve ever learn not to underestimate Hydra? They probably had more satellites up there, too, just waiting to be directed to a target.

To him.

Well, him and Steve, now. Hydra had had several plans in place in case their Winter Soldier needed to be taken down. And with Steve turning up alive again, they’d probably been trying to figure out how to reprogram that satellite for the last few years.

“Should I send out the call to assemble?” Steve asked, looking at Bucky. “Or do we run? What do you think?”

Bucky paused a moment, then shook his head. “Neither. We need to lay a false trail or two. Make it look like we either ran or weren’t here to begin with. Or both.”

“And if they try again?” Steve pressed. “It’s not safe for Darcy and Jane. Or Tony,” he said, with a note of apology in his voice for the man. “Out of the suit, you’re pretty vulnerable. Dr. Banner’s the only one here who would have survived if that barrier hadn’t worked.”

“Hey, all my stuff works,” Tony protested. “I haven’t had a chance to fully test it out, but that barrier should be able to withstand a helicopter, quinjet, or other smallish aircraft smashing into the tower.”

Bruce gave Tony a long, slow blink. “Seriously?”

Tony shrugged like it was no big deal. “Been thinking about it since that little event a few years ago, early September, I think it was? It was all over the news. No, shut up,” he said, glancing over at Bruce before turning back to his holograms. “Yes, it could be used for hospitals and schools and so on, but it’s still a few years away from that. This is the only prototype, and I’m still considering the risks of making it available publicly. Yes, I know it’s selfish,” he said, holding up his finger to point at Steve without looking, “but every now and then people take my toys and make them do bad things, so I have to figure out how to make it work to protect hospitals, but not a terrorist’s bunker. All right? All right. Back to Hydra.”

“Teleconference,” Bucky suggested, making the others turn to look at him. “What? That’s what it’s called, right? ‘Assemble,’ but virtually.” Bruce nodded, and he continued. “The rest of the Avengers are already scattered around the globe looking for those magic pebbles; have them lay some false trails. Get some kid in Bejing to buy a thousand dollars of video games using Steve’s credit card number. Have Romanov or Barton let themselves get caught on camera with a big, blond guy. Just a few hints, or they’ll know it’s a ruse. You’re going to want to give the others a report about tonight anyway.”

And so a few hours later they were in the big conference room, going over it all with Romanov, Barton, and Hill as the sun rose. No one had a better plan, and all agreed Bucky and Steve should stay where they were for right now. It was frustrating to sit still, but it was the smartest move, to make it look like the attack was misdirected in the first place.

Except that it wasn’t. Hydra had to know where he was. They’d found him in DC.

*****

Bucky managed to wait for a few hours, until everyone had settled down. Once Steve was fully absorbed in learning more about satellites and the advancements in chemical weapons, Bucky went back down to the labs to see the scientists.

“Take the arm off or I’ll do it myself,” he said by way of greeting.

“I would strongly advise against—” Bruce started.

“Yeah, I know what you advise, and why. Which is why I’m offering to let you do it instead of just ripping the damn thing off by myself. I would rather not die. But there is something in it, something they can trace. And yeah, I know you both keep telling me there isn’t, but you’re wrong. They’ve found me twice, each time I’ve stayed somewhere for longer than a couple of months. And even if you’re right,” he interrupted as Tony started to speak, “I don’t care if I’m being paranoid, it’s coming off. I’d rather be one arm down trying to fight Hydra than have it on me for another second longer. Get it off, now.”

“Slow your roll, man” Tony said, holding up his hands. “I understand where you’re coming from, trust me; I’ve got your back on the non-con body-mods. Let’s look at the options,” he added, pulling up holograms.

Bucky’s tone was as cold as ice. “Get it off and blow it up.”

Tony looked away from the glowing blue schematics, mouth agape. “What? No, it’s so… retro-sexy.”

Bucky glared, letting more of the Winter Soldier’s tone creep into his voice. “Blow it up or I will destroy wherever you store it.”

Tony’s eyes widened as he took a step back. “Hey now, I’ve got nothing against explosions, obviously, but come on. Think of the research!”

Bruce nodded, and the two of them started nattering away about isotopes and how the arm didn’t have anything actually radioactive inside and re-hashing the mechanics of untangling it from his spinal column, and Bucky did not give a fuck. After a few quiet words, JARVIS provided him with a schematic, and he started making notes on where to cut.

After a moment, the other two stopped talking, and turned to look at him and his hologram in shock.

He glanced over at them. “The arm is leaving the tower within the next twenty-four hours. Whether or not I am attached to it is up to you.”

“You’re scary,” Tony said.

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “No shit.”

“No, like really,” Tony added, taking a step closer to Bucky and his schematic, and then hesitating.

Bucky sighed, closing his eyes for a moment to push down on his rage and desperation. He thought of Steve and reminded himself of who he was now. Who he wanted to be.

“Look. I don’t mean to scare you, except that yeah, I do. You’re gettin’ this motherfucking thing offa me, and you’re doing it now. Today. Please,” he added after a slight pause. “I ain’t threatening you, but you’ve gotta do this, or I will.”

“That’s still a threat,” Bruce pointed out.

Please,” he said. He really would cut it off himself, if they wouldn’t. All he needed was a welding torch; he probably couldn’t get enough leverage with an axe…. His only worry was how far up he’d have to go. Remove the whole shoulder joint? Everything metal that those evil sons of bitches had put inside him?

Bruce managed to talk him down and get him agree to wait until he and Tony could make preparations, and everyone could get some rest. They seemed to think doing things right—trying to not kill him, as much as possible—was more important than removing his arm ASAP. Tony must have a hell of a lot of faith in his electric barrier thing, if he was willing to wait and see if Hydra would try to blow up the tower again.

Ugh. And now he was going to have to tell Steve.

*****

Steve was predictably rather upset that Bucky had gone down to the labs and demanded his arm be removed immediately, without telling Steve first. Fine, sure, the punk had a point; he’d have been sore if the tables were turned. He just…. He knew Steve was going to have kittens about it. And he honestly just didn’t want to deal with Steve; he was busy dealing with himself.

It wasn’t exactly his favorite thing, imagining himself trying to defend Steve and Darcy and the others, with only one arm. And those thoughts were swirling around at the forefront because Bucky really didn’t want to think about the surgery itself—the anesthesia that might or might not work (he didn’t know which was more frightening), this unknown neurologist being brought to mess with his nervous system, or the pain itself. Sure, he was used to pain, but the thing about agony is that the body never got used to it, so long as the nerves were still alive.

“Do you honestly think I’d do this if I couldn’t fight without the arm? You don’t think Hydra trained me for that possibility? I’m lucky they didn’t cut off other body parts, to see if I could do it with just one leg.”

Steve shook his head. “Don’t even joke about that, Buck. I’ve lost enough of you as it is.”

It was like being slapped across the face. Steve had never implied that he felt like Bucky was damaged goods before.

“No! I didn’t mean….” Steve rushed to add, seeing Bucky’s face. He sighed. “I mean I lost you, I lost all those years we could have been together. And all those pieces you still don’t remember from before the war. I know; it’s not about me. I’m just saying I can’t bear thinking about them having taken even more of you.”

Bucky made himself relax and managed to pull up a flirtatious smirk. “Sweet-talker.”

Steve’s shoulders relaxed a little. “That’s me. Soon I’ll have all the ladies lining up for a dance.”

“Not until you learn to not step on their feet so often.”

“Hey, modern dancing is way easier,” Steve chuckled. “You just sway and grope each other a little. It’s like a moving hug.”

“Kids these days.” Bucky shook his head.

“No, it’s great,” Steve said, his smile growing as they both unwound a little more. “Something slow, JARVIS,” he instructed, as he got up and held out his arms. “I’ll show you.”

Well. It was damn hard to say no to that embrace, with Steve looking so sincere. He moved in to Steve’s body as the music started, arms entwining each other like modern couples did. They swayed a little, and Steve surprised him by actually staying on the beat. It was pretty nice.

“Lacks finesse,” he complained, resting his cheek against Steve’s.

Steve chuckled. “Wanna come to the bedroom? I think I left some finesse in there.”

“Nah. Let’s finish the song. Wouldn’t want you to use up all your moves too fast.”

“Maybe when I run out, you can show me some of yours.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said, turning his head to whisper against Steve’s lips. “I got moves for days.”

The sound of Steve’s soft laugh would stay with him forever.

Chapter Text

Darcy spent what remained of the night after the drone attack in Thor’s “chambers” with Jane, since Thor’s bed was enormous and neither of them wanted to be alone. They stopped at Darcy’s suite to grab her jammies because sharing a bed with your friend wasn’t weird, but if one of you was naked, it definitely was. They both crashed hard once the adrenaline wore off—the sugar and caffeine didn’t stand a chance—and they slept until almost noon.

The common floor kitchen was oddly vacant when they got there—the others must have stayed up and not even taken a break for food. The ladies placed an order with JARVIS, went to take their showers, and attempted to get ready for what was left of the day. God only knew what it would bring.

Half an hour later, dressed and laden with a tray and basket of breakfast food each, they headed down to the labs to make the menfolk eat. Ugh—so gender-normative, but Tony didn’t allow housekeeping or delivery-people access to the labs, so the Science! guys weren’t going to eat unless she and Jane brought them food. Neither of them had the sense God gave a rabbit, except maybe Bruce, if he wasn’t caught up in a project, which he probably was, since last night had been a little eventful.

It was a bit of a shock to find the labs empty.

“JARVIS, dude, are we in the Twilight Zone? Where the fuck is everyone? Do they still exist on this plane of reality?”

JARVIS sounded amused. “You are all still in the same plane of reality, as far as my sensors are able to detect. Of course, I cannot be certain that it is the same reality as yesterday’s. It tends to change from moment to moment.”

“Ha ha, funny man. Stop freaking me out; where are they?”

“Sir and Dr. Banner are in the medical wing on the 84th floor—”

“What?” Darcy and Jane simultaneously interrupted. “What happened? Are they okay? Who’s hurt?”

“I assure you that everyone is fine; my apologies for causing you to worry. As I was saying, Captain Rogers and Sgt. Barnes are with them.”

“Not cool, JARVIS,” Darcy grumbled, as she and Jane set down their trays of food and turned back to the elevator. “Take us to them.”

“Please,” Jane, the goody two-shoes, added. Darcy rolled her eyes.

When they got to the medical wing, there were too many people in scrubs rushing around for everyone to be “fine,” in Darcy’s opinion. Part of the space had been screened off in plastic and looked like a quarantine zone.

“What the hell is going on?” she asked, when she and Jane had made their way over to Bruce. Tony was perched on some odd piece of medical equipment with a screwdriver in his mouth, doing his mechanic impression, while a very pretty Chinese woman yelled at him.

Bruce took off his glasses and polished them on his shirt, a sure sign of nerves. “Dr. Su Yin will be removing Bucky’s current arm shortly, and Tony will be assisting her with putting the new one on.”

Well, that was unexpected. Then again, someone had attacked them less than twenty-four hours ago, so Darcy could see why maybe the timeline had moved up. Still….

“Did she come to an acceptable resolution about the vertebral grafts?” Jane asked.

“She said she had done as much prep as she could without actually getting in there and seeing what was going on,” Bruce said. “She was in D.C. for a conference, so this is kind of a carpe diem situation, with the attack yesterday, and Bucky’s demand to get the old arm removed finally.”

“Demand?” Darcy asked.

“Shockingly, the ex-Winter Soldier can be kind of scary.” The lift to Bruce’s mouth wasn’t completely a smile. “Said he was going to do it himself, if we wouldn’t. Tony’s been—well no, I’ve been talking to Dr. Yin about the procedure for a while. She and Tony, uh, have a history.”

“She’s not going to kill Bucky just to get back at Tony for being a dick, is she?” Jane asked, making Darcy smile.

“No, he actually remembers dating her,” Bruce chuckled. “And she doesn’t seem the vindictive type, to me, certainly not the kind of person who’d hurt a patient just to get back at an ex-. Also, she’s literally the only neurologist Tony trusts, so here she is.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Jane asked, with all the generosity of someone who knows there’s not a damn thing they can do.

“Probably not,” Bruce said. “I’m sort of in the way, myself. They’re about to start scrubbing up, I think.”

From across the sealed room, Bucky looked up and smiled at them. Really smiled. Like, a sort of goofy smile.

Darcy snorted. “So, you’ve already started the drugs, I’m guessing?”

Bruce laughed. “He was getting pretty agitated by the surgical preparations.”

“He certainly seems to be doing fine now. Maybe you should give some to Steve too,” Darcy joked. While Bucky looked loose and, frankly, drunk, Steve looked like he was vibrating with tension.

And apparently that wonderful super-soldier-serum was allowing them to eavesdrop, because they both got up, exiting the sealed-off area, and came over to them.

“So, new arm, huh?” Darcy asked Bucky, pulling up a grin. “Did you decide on a paint job yet? Do I need to re-start the campaign for Nyan Cat? Or are you feeling more like cartoon bears?”

“Assumin’ I live, you can do whatever you want to it, doll,” Bucky answered with a flirty smile.

“You’re going to be fine,” Steve countered. “No chance of fatality. Someone gets a little melodramatic when he’s tipsy.”

Darcy reached out and poked Bucky in the chest. “He doesn’t seem tipsy at all, very solid. Just happy. You glad to finally be getting that hunk of junk off your shoulder?”

“You have no idea.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Darcy said, pretending be serious. “I had braces for two whole years.” Bucky, Jane, and Bruce all got a laugh out of that, and Steve even managed to crack a smile.

“Sorry to break up the comedy routine,” Bruce said, looking at Bucky and Steve, “but I think they’re about ready for you two to get scrubbed in.”

“What will the recovery be like?” Darcy asked, not wanting them to go yet. Her chest felt squeezed, which was stupid. Maybe she’d hooked her bra too tight.

“We’re not sure,” Steve answered. “Due to the serum, probably not too long, but we don’t know what to expect about pain levels.”

“Well, at least you have Tony’s happy-juice,” Darcy offered. “Must be nice to basically be immortal. And I’ll make you cookies.”

“Sweets from our sweetie.” Bucky grinned, a little dopey. He reached out to touch her shoulder, then pulled her in for a hug. She couldn’t help tightening her arms around him in return. She shouldn’t be worried. He’d be fine. He’d survived a hell of a lot worse, and he was going to be just fine.

But she still stretched up onto her toes, when she felt him starting to let go, and kissed him on the cheek. “Get through this, and I’ll give you anything you like,” she said in her most suggestive voice, lips brushing his cheek.

“I’ll start a list,” Bucky said, grinning.

Steve groaned, shaking his head at her. “You’re going to regret that.”

Darcy reached out to smack Steve on the arm but ended up patting it instead. “You’re going to be here the whole time?”

“Yeah. Bruce is on duty if someone attacks the tower again.”

“Good. Take care of him,” she ordered Steve, the tightness in her chest moving up to her throat. Whatever; she could be emo later. She needed to send them off with good thoughts and promises of cookies and porny fantasies.

There were noises of agreement, and the boys turned to head back to the surgery area. Bucky hesitated, came back to kiss her on the cheek, and then rejoined Steve.

Apparently, she’d been standing there in a bit of a haze when Jane took her hand and tugged her toward the elevator.

“Come on. Let’s go look up insane cookie ideas on Pinterest.”

*****

Seven hours and fourteen dozen cookies later, Darcy and Jane had every surface of the big kitchen covered in platters of snickerdoodles, chocolate chip-everything cookies, not-very-snappy molasses snaps, and buckeyes. They might have gone a little overboard. Darcy was proud of herself for putting her foot down and refusing to make iced sugar cookies, though, because that way lay madness. (A little madness may have snuck in anyway.)

Now they were both tired, a little cranky from sampling far too many cookies, covered in flour dust from when Jane was trying to explain something about particles and threw a handful up in the air to watch it fall, and (mostly Darcy) strung out from waiting for JARVIS to let them know when the surgery was finished. He’d given them an update when the old arm had been detached, when the metal reinforcements had been removed from Bucky’s bones, and when the neural wiring had been untangled (Bruce’s paraphrasing—he’d stopped in to sample the goods). Now they were just waiting for the new arm to be hooked up electronically, and then physically attached. Easy-peasy.

So why was she a nervous wreck?

Then again, it hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since the HYDRA drone-thingy. Being a little jumpy was probably not unexpected. When JARVIS finally announced that the attachment was completed, Darcy, Jane, and Bruce (who’d been back and forth between the medical wing, his lab, and stealing cookies from the kitchen) headed downstairs. Dr. Yin had left a few hours ago, and a fatigued-looking Tony replaced the three of them in the elevator with barely a grunt of acknowledgement, looking to be asleep on his feet.

That left a few nurses monitoring the patient, who was sleeping and apparently doing fine. He looked shockingly young and vulnerable with the canula under his nose, face pale against his dark stubble. He was bandaged from jaw to elbow, the fingers of the new arm poking out from under the sheet.

Steve—still in scrubs, hat, and the ridiculous booties—looked like he could use a nap too. His fingers were enlaced with Bucky’s, and it was pretty evident that he was about to nod off right there in his chair.

Darcy poked Bruce until he helped her scrounge up a cot, blankets, and a pillow, and then all but shoved Steve onto it. So what if she was being pushy; the idiot needed taken care of—Bucky’s recovery was about to begin, and Steve would need his energy for that.

Bruce settled into a chair to keep watch. Darcy and Jane went back upstairs for a quick dinner and early night. Removing that too-tight bra had never felt like such a relief.

*****

Once again, Darcy—and everyone—was awoken in the wee hours of the morning by a booming crack of thunder, almost literally scaring the pee out of Darcy.

“JARVIS?!”

“Prince Odinson has arrived,” JARVIS replied in his most formal tone.

Jane and Darcy burrowed back under the covers.

“Not getting up,” Darcy moaned.

“Thor,” Jane replied in a happy-sleepy murmur, sneaking one hand out of the covers to make reaching motions. In what seemed like just a few moments (but maybe she’d drifted back to sleep), Thor was there, pulling Jane away from Darcy to embrace with all of his…. Thor-ness. Jane made more happy noises but didn’t respond much beyond that.

Thor chuckled as he returned Jane to Darcy’s cuddling embrace. “Sleep on, my love. I will be here when you arise in the morning.” He kissed Darcy on the cheek, and she returned to the Land of Nod.

*****

The jostling of the mattress woke Darcy up the next morning. She groaned and covered her eyes. “Dudes, no. Come on, you’ve gotta ask first if you want a threesome. Sleeping people can’t consent.”

“Go away,” Jane said-slash-gasped.

“I’m going, I’m going," she mumbled, grabbing her glasses from the bedside table and trying not to look at Thor’s ass. His godly ass. Perfectly round and…. Okay yes, she failed, but it was right there, and if he and Jane didn’t want her looking at it, they should have found another bed, is what she was saying.

Clearly, she was going to be having quite a lot of dates with her new friend Ina, courtesy of Tony Stark.

With a sigh at her pathetic horniness, she went back to her suite and got ready for the day. Clearly Jane was going to be “busy,” so that pretty much left Darcy with nursemaid duty to fill her day. So she got just a little tarted up, and went down to check on the patient.

Bucky was sitting up in bed, awake and happy, but strapped in with restraints around his head, chest, and shoulder. Darcy assumed it was so he wouldn’t move while things were healing, since kinky games didn’t seem to be on the table at the moment.

In fact, she should make a mental note that someone with his past trauma probably wouldn’t be much into bondage, from either side. Bummer. Also, she should not be thinking about sexy times concerning someone who’d just had major surgery, geez. Inappropriate, Darcy, no cookie.

Well, maybe just one cookie, since there was a mostly-empty platter sitting between Bucky and Steve, who were playing cards. For cookies. For her cookies.

“Those are for eating, not gambling,” she said, leaning over to grab one with granola in it, so she could call it breakfast. If she happened to lean over in a way that gave the patient a peek down her blouse, well, that was just a happy accident for him, wasn’t it?

“Better than pennies,” Steve said, giving her a brow raise. “There are kind of a lot of them.”

She made a face at him. “So I got a little carried away.”

“Aw, were you worried about me?” Bucky asked, batting his eyes.

Darcy snorted. “See if I share my cookies with you.”

“Little late for that,” Steve said. “He’s already had about a dozen of the peanut butter ones—”

“Buckeyes,” she interrupted, still proud of the pun.

Steve raised his brows, amused, but didn’t comment. “—And maybe two dozen of the chocolate chip ones.”

“Have either of you eaten real food since yesterday? Because I am not going to go all domestic and cook for you, but I bet we can have some boiled cabbage soup delivered, if you ask nicely. I hear it’s an old favorite,” she teased.

“I recall a certain promise to give me anything I wanted,” Bucky reminded her.

“Well then you sound like man who needs his pillows fluffed,” Tony said, walking in with his tablet. “And I do mean that both literally and euphemistically. Oooh, I should get you a nurse’s uniform? JARVIS, get one of those for Ms. Lewis, would you?” he said not looking up from his tablet, where he appeared to be doing something related to Bucky’s hand, since one of the fingers gave an apparently involuntary jerk.

“Watch it, Stark,” Steve said.

“Chill,” Tony said. “I’m just calibrating some of the finer details of his fingertips, now that he’s awake.”

“And you couldn’t have warned him—” Steve rebutted, getting worked up.

“You mean one of the slutty Halloween nurses, right?” Darcy asked, talking over Steve. “Of course you do, why am I even asking. Sure, if I’ll wear one—so long as he does too,” she added, nodding at Steve.

Steve surprised her by backing away from the argument and shrugging at her. “Sure. Coulson’s uniform was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever worn in my life. This can only be an improvement. Besides, my mother was a nurse.”

Tony almost swallowed his tongue, trying not to laugh. “Better make that two uniforms, JARVIS.”

*****

“Goddamn it,” Bucky said, trying to look angry as Darcy returned to his recovery room a few hours later. “You all lied to me. I’m dead, aren’t I? I’m in heaven; that’s the only explanation.”

“I dunno,” Darcy said, reaching up to adjust her weird little hat. “I feel a little too naughty in this to be mistaken for an angel of mercy.”

“I don’t want any mercy if you’re wearing that,” he joked as he leered at her. But then, seeing something behind her, his mouth fell open in shock.

When Darcy turned around to see what had distracted him from her cleavage, hers fell open too. Although the silly, white, zip-front dress was short and tight, and showed her boobs off to their best advantage, it wasn’t exactly risqué.

On Steve, though. Well.

The same dress on him was neither silly nor feminine, and had taken a huge leap from sexy-cute into shockingly-kinky-hot.

While the fit-and-flare dress was short on her, it barely covered Steve’s goods, and if he bent over, there was no way it was going to cover his ass. The top didn’t gape open on him, since apparently boobs could be replaced with pecs, and the red stripe down the side accentuated the shape of his body just as well as it did hers. The arm and leg hair didn’t actually detract in any way, and the little hat was like the cherry on top.

She would not mind being on top of that. Damn, son.

While usually neither for nor against cross-dressing, Darcy had never actually been turned on by it. Fucking Steve, he made everything so complicated.

As for Bucky, his expression kept switching between laughing at the unexpected surprise and looking kind of pained (aroused maybe?), before finally settling into a huge, shit-eating grin.

“Good thing I’m already in the hospital,” he drawled, his Brooklynn accent heavy as his eyes darkened, “because you two bombshells are making my heart do the jitterbug.”

Bucky wasn’t the only one. Darcy felt a little fluttery in the chest—and points southward—herself.

It wasn’t that suddenly remembering that Steve was super-hot made Darcy forgive him over the course of the day, not at all. It was that Steve had stayed in the costume long enough for Tony to see and laugh, and orchestrate a pin-up photo with the two “nurses” on either side of Bucky. It was that Steve let it happen in the first place. He was like a different person, during that day, with Bucky. And Darcy didn’t have anything better to do than hang out with them, since Jane and Thor hadn’t appeared since their reunion-sex marathon had started that morning.

She loved hanging out with Bucky. He was charming and hilarious, and a teensy bit loopy since they were keeping him on pain meds for the first day. Apparently, what the docs really needed was to slow down the healing, so the nerves and bone could repair before the muscles and skin did. As a patient, he was adorably rumpled, hair a little sweaty from being in bed, pouty rather than whiny at not being able to move his head, and extremely appreciative of his two sexy nurses. He kept making old-timey comments like “Those gams, look at them; they go all the way up!” and Darcy cracked up every time.

And Steve, well. Captain America wasn’t here in this hospital room: not giving orders, not bearing the weight of the world—and nearly a century—on his shoulders. The only thing that mattered to Steve today was making Bucky as comfortable and happy as possible. He laughed, he made terribly dry jokes, and he was even a little self-deprecating. He was totally different from the jerk she thought she knew.

Not that she’d come to know Steve particularly well over the last two or so months, she realized. She’d met Captain America during the conferences and research on the infinity stones, and during their unfortunate attempt at self-defense training. She’d seen Steve pissed off about having a second soulmate, having people meddle in his personal life, scold and slut-shame her in front of another guy, and generally be a giant dick. She knew he was sorry. She believed in the sincerity of the letter he’d written her, where he admitted he was angry and had been taking it out on her. But she hadn’t exactly planned to forgive him, after all of that drama.

But, well. Maybe there was more to Steve than she realized. Maybe he could prove himself to not be such a jackass, now that he knew what was going on inside himself.

And seriously, carpe diem, right? Hydra had attacked them less than two days ago. She could have died. He and Bucky would have worse than died—she couldn’t even think about what Hydra might do to the two of them without wanting to throw up, but it probably started with horror-movie torture and vivisection. Gross.

So she decided to give Steve another chance—not like she had anything else to do. Life was too short to hold a grudge. If Steve had meant what he’d written, and treated her better, then it was up to her to let go of their past and not be such a grouchy bitch.

Chapter Text

Steve had two options. One, he could get clamped down tight and shift into battle/crisis/Captain America mode because of Hydra and the attacks and lethal gasses and goddamnit-Bucky-surgery-NOW? and friendships and housemates and hiding in the tower and and and. Or he could try to ease up.

Frankly, there was just too much to be in Captain mode. It took a lot to overwhelm him, but this? This had done it.

And Bucky needed Steve right now, to take care of him, and that was something Steve had almost never gotten to do. He’d literally daydreamed about taking care of Bucky, tucking him into a warm bed, and feeding him soup, and healing him with the power of love since the 1930s.

There wasn’t anything he could do about the rest of it anyway.

Steve had been knocked for six when he finally went upstairs to get some food from the common floor and saw all the cookies Darcy and Jane had made—dozens and dozens of them, enough to open a bakery. A small bakery, at least. It took him a moment, since he was admittedly not at the top of his game, having only had a few hours of sleep in the last forty-eight, to realize that that much baking must have taken the entire day, and served no purpose at all. A couple of dozen would have been a sweet gift to the patient, but this…. This was the work of someone who was upset. A person who was keeping their hands and mind busy to stave off fear and worry.

Darcy really liked Bucky. No, it looked like it was more than that—Darcy loved him. As a friend at least, if not more.

That took a minute or two to process. Steve admitted he had a flash of jealousy, wondering if the two of them had gone and fallen in love behind his back, but it was only for a moment. Bucky would never do that. Heck, Darcy would never do that: she was a straight-shooter, didn’t tolerate lies, and wouldn’t be a party to that kind of thing.

But she did love Bucky, in some way or other.

That was a bit too much to think about on an empty stomach and very little sleep, so Steve made himself three sandwiches and filled a platter full of cookies to take down to the patient for when he woke up.

They were damn good cookies. Especially the peanut butter balls.

Several hours later, he and Darcy received packages containing their nurse costumes, and left to get changed. In the privacy of his bedroom, Steve took out the dress and laughed so hard he had to sit down. His ma certainly never wore anything anywhere near so scandalous. The nod to the nurses’ uniforms from his war wasn’t lost on him, despite being highly sexualized and skimpy. It was kind of cute.

The zip-front “dress”—and he used the word generously, given how short the thing was—fit him surprisingly well. He tucked up the legs of his boxer briefs so they didn’t stick out at the bottom, and shook his head at the shoes Tony/JARVIS had included: ladies’ white pumps, with a heel that had to be at least four inches. It took a few minutes of wobbling before he got the hang of it, and his opinion of women’s abilities to balance on the ridiculously tall, spindly things went up a notch.

He felt pretty silly in the dress, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad. It would make Bucky smile, and that was worth any amount of teasing Steve would get from whoever else saw him.

What he hadn’t considered was that Bucky would look at him in the dress—having already taken in the generous serving of cheesecake Darcy presented—and be turned on. Sure, the drugs kept Bucky from any embarrassing tents in the bedsheets, but Steve knew that expression in his eyes pretty damn well. Bucky was extremely hot and bothered. Now, that was hilarious.

And Darcy, well. She was a bombshell, that was for sure. While the fancy dress she had worn to the dinner party had been glamorous and alluring, the nurse’s costume was equally spicy, but in a playful way. It made her look like she’d be a lot of fun in bed. (Steve tried not to let that thought fully form before he squashed it, but it didn’t work. It was there; it was in his head. He was blaming Bucky.)

The way she and Bucky flirted that afternoon was hilarious. To his surprise, Steve didn’t feel a pang of jealousy all day, watching and laughing at the two of them. He still needed a bit of quiet time to consider those cookies and the depth of Darcy’s feelings for Bucky, but for the first time he didn’t feel threatened by her. Bucky was his, and Steve had faith Bucky wasn’t going anywhere. If Darcy also made Bucky happy, then so be it. He would learn to share.

It wasn’t that difficult. She seemed to be having a good time. He didn’t want to interrupt that, so he mostly sat by, listening and laughing at their banter, but not really talking to her directly. It was only a little awkward.

He and Darcy had both changed back into regular clothes by dinnertime, although Darcy’s hair was still pinned up and she had her bright red lipstick on. There was no arguing that she was a beautiful lady; Steve bet she and Bucky would look fantastic dancing together.

Because he was an idiot, he turned and asked her, “Do you know how to dance?” before he could stop himself.

She turned to look at him, eyebrow raised. “Sort of? How do you mean? I can definitely shake my bootie on the dance floor, if you’re proposing going out clubbing.”

“That does sound like a good time.” He smiled. “I was just thinking that you and Bucky would look good dancing with each other. The kind of dancing from our day, but I’m sure anything would be nice.”

Bucky gave him a look. “You trying to set me up on a date, punk? Getting tired of me already?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “So tired. Thought maybe I could pawn you off on Darcy, since I can’t shove you out the door to hit up a dance hall and go fishin.’”

“Fishing?” Darcy asked. “Like for girls? Am I a fish in this colloquialism?”

Steve froze, hoping he hadn’t just offended her and screwed up what had been a pleasant day so far.

“You’re a gorgeous mermaid, sweetheart,” Bucky said.

“Damn right I am,” she agreed, with a nod. “I’ll lure you into the sea and drown both your sorry asses.”

“Spare me, and I will forevermore be your loyal servant,” Bucky teased. “In fact, I seem to recall you need a servant—remember that afternoon you carried her to bed and cleaned up her rooms?” he asked Steve.

“Over a baker’s dozen coffee mugs with dried, sticky remains in all of them? Not likely to forget that,” Steve said, steering away from the bed part.

But no, Darcy wasn’t going to let him get away with that. “You put me to bed?”

“You sort of walked; I didn’t really carry you,” Steve said, hoping to placate her. “I only took off your shoes and glasses and covered you with a blanket.” He tried not to squirm under her gaze.

“Huh.”

“You were going to make us dinner in return,” Bucky reminded her.

“One, I’ve made dinner lots of times,” Darcy said. “And two, what did you do? Sounds like Steve did all the work and you’re just trying to horn in on his payment.”

“He collected your laundry,” Steve offered.

“And I helped make breakfast the next morning,” Bucky added, wanting to get full credit.

Darcy laughed. “Fine. I owe you both dinner, then. You’d better get well fast, though, or I’m just cooking for Steve.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky said, with his old grin that had charmed the unmentionables off several ladies in their day. “And will you dance with me after?”

She shrugged. “I can sorta do a box waltz for weddings, and I know the basic moves for swing and salsa. Oh, and the hustle. And that 20s dance with the kicking.”

“The Charleston?” Bucky asked, eyebrows shooting up in surprise.

Darcy nodded. “I think so? But I mean, I only kind of know them. Like the very basic steps, not anything even remotely fancy like turning.”

Bucky made a dismissive gesture. “It’d still be fun to take you for a whirl sometime, if you’re interested. I used to like dancing….” His expression turned wistful.

Steve tried not to smile too big, but Bucky caught him anyway. “He loved it.”

“And Stevie can sit by the bar, nursing a pint, looking on as we cut a rug.”

“Looking at me or you?” Darcy asked.

Bucky’s delighted laugh made Steve’s heart flutter. Maybe both of you, he thought.

*****

The next day, Thor and Jane finally joined all the rest for breakfast. Bucky was there too, torso wrapped in a heavy-duty brace, to keep him more or less immobile and the weight off his collarbone. But his relief when they’d said he could leave the medical wing had been obvious to everyone, so Steve hadn’t argued.

After, everyone made their way down to the labs. Jane wanted to show Thor something she was working on related to the Bifrost, and Darcy tagged along. Tony wanted to check on the sensors in Bucky’s new arm. Dr. Yin was videoconferencing in, while Steve listened.

A short while later, Thor’s voice broke through the low murmur of conversations. “What is Mother’s jewel casket doing in the lab?”

To Steve’s surprise, when he glanced over, Jane had frozen. “Uhhh….”

Darcy swooped in to save her friend. “Jane passed it along to me, since everything was kind of awkward after her trip to Asgard to get the Aether-stuff removed. You know, with your dad calling her a goat and everything, and then your mom being killed while she protected Jane.”

Steve tried not to roll his eyes. Geez, someone around here needed to learn some tact. Unfortunately, he was just as bad. Maybe Sam could come visit and teach a class….

Thankfully, Thor didn’t seem too perturbed. “Ah. I had not considered that receiving a gift of her belongings would make you uncomfortable; it is very common among my people. Frigga chose to protect you, knowing what might happen. She could see the strands of fate, shifting and weaving together, and did not make choices lightly. I believe she would have grown to love you over the years.”

Jane managed a small smile, despite the tears in her eyes. “I just… still feel guilty. She wouldn’t have died if I hadn’t been there. So I gave it to Darcy to hold onto for me. I’m sorry if you’re angry.”

Thor pulled Jane into an embrace. “Your short lives make death harder for you. I miss her, but I will see my mother again in Valhalla. The Norns have told me that she is there, singing and weaving her webs of magic, as she watches over her husband and sons.” He cleared his throat. “I found the casket with your clothing after Mother’s death, and thought that she meant you to have it. Perhaps when the loss is less poignant for you, you will accept it then? Meanwhile, I am glad my Lightning-sister is it’s custodian.” He gave Darcy a look, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “Although I question the wisdom of keeping it here in the lab with our Midgardian scientists.”

Darcy laughed.

Shoot, no one had talked to Thor about the purple stone, had they? It wasn’t like he had a cell phone when he wasn’t on Earth. Steve left Tony and Bucky to keep working on Bucky’s fingertip sensors, and joined the trio.

“Thor, sorry we haven’t updated you yet. The Hydra attack and Bucky’s surgery have me in a spin. Twelve days ago, a purple gemstone appeared in Darcy’s jewelry box. Er, Jane’s. That’s why it’s down here, so the science team could run tests on it. They didn’t find anything, though,” he said, glancing over at Bruce, who nodded his agreement.

“It’s made of ash and rosewood, and well-constructed, obviously. The white-gold inlay isn’t particularly rare, at least not on Earth,” Bruce added, somewhat apologetically, bringing the box over to Thor. “We examined it in every way we could think of but didn’t find anything unusual.”

“Ah, but your sciences do not test for magic, do they?” Thor asked. “The wood and metal are of value on Asgard because of their symbolism.” He traced one of the swirls in the design with his fingertip. “If I were more versed in magic, I would be able to read the spells woven in here, but alas. I was a poor student in that regard. My brother….”

Steve tried not to cringe. The subject of Loki was one the Avengers avoided discussing. Thor had never mentioned what had happened to his brother on Asgard, and frankly, Steve didn’t care to know, so long as Loki never came back to earth.

“This I can say,” Thor added, as he passed the jewelry box to Darcy. “Mother’s foreknowledge was great and her magic is woven into this. Perhaps I made an error gifting it to you, Jane. If the box is calling to the Infinity stones…”

Darcy accepted the box and then flinched as if she’d received an electric jolt. She looked down at the box in her hands, eyes wide and afraid. “Um….”

Thor carefully took it from her and opened it to reveal a deep red stone that hadn’t been there a second ago. Not a ruby, Steve didn’t think, although he was the first to admit he wasn’t terribly familiar with gemstones. It was about the size and shape of a large grape. The inside of the stone looked like gray smoke, swirling slowly, but it must have been a trick of the light.

Thor looked at Darcy, eyes wide. “It is the Aether. This magic seems to be keyed to you somehow, my sister. I cannot understand why Mother would have done this, when the story of the Infinity stones is one taught to children, warning them of great power beyond the grasp of all but the most ancient, the Celestials.”

“The who?” Jane asked, putting an arm around Darcy’s waist to comfort her. Or herself; it was hard to say which of the ladies looked more distraught.

Thor closed the box and set it aside, giving Jane a worried look. “They were the first sentient ones, after the creation of the universe. First there was Nothing, then the One created All. The firstborn, the Celestials, were mighty beings, who gathered the mist-like powers of creation and consolidated them into the gems, restraining their energies to protect the universe. Since that time, the Celestials have disappeared. The Infinity stones cannot be destroyed, and whenever one is found, mass destruction follows.”

“Like the Tesseract,” Steve said, getting a nod.

“Indeed. The stones have proven unable to be wielded by mortals for good, no matter the intentions of the holder, and have destroyed any who attempted to control them.”

Steve hesitated a moment, to see if Thor was finished. “So your mother, Frigga, made this box to draw the stones together, knowing that they couldn’t be used?”

Thor looked troubled. “I can but guess at her reasons.” He sighed. “My brother is the only one I can think of who would know. She and her ladies, the völvur, would only allow him into their circle once he had mastered shapeshifting to become a woman. Magic is not for men.”

“So…. if one of these things is seriously bad-news bears….” Darcy said, as she bit her lip, “and we have two of them right here in the lab, and you have two on Asgard…. What the holy fuck is going to happen?”

Thor looked troubled. “The Tesseract is in the vault under the palace, guarded by the Destroyer. The Time stone is now there as well. And long before all of this, Asgard has been the custodian of Soul stone, although it is physically on Vanaheimr.”

“And one of these things can take out a planet?” Steve asked, just to be sure, really hoping he was wrong. He got an unfortunate nod in return.

“The stones are assembling, whether of their will or Frigga’s, I know not. But they have never been wielded by any individual, and by the Celestials only once, as a group. With—or even without—someone to direct their power, they could wipe out the universe in a blink of the eye.”

“And we can’t destroy them?” Steve clarified.

Thor had never looked particularly worried or concerned about even the most dire of news, taking space-whales and magic and all of it with a grin. He was over a thousand of his planet’s years old, and would likely live to be another few thousand more, unless slain. Only the Hulk, of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, was as difficult to kill as Thor.

The same man—being—who was standing before Steve looking as scared as a child just woken from a nightmare as he shook his head.

“Then we’ll have to scatter them,” Darcy said, shrugging. “Easy-peasy. The box calls them here, we— you, the god-dude with the space-bridge —take them and hide them as far apart as you can.”

“What if they come back to the jewelry box again?” Steve asked. “Can we keep them from returning?”

Thor’s brow was furrowed. “It is unlikely, unless the container is destroyed. Which may have disastrous effects of its own.”

The group stood in silence, trying desperately to think of a simple solution. They’d take it to the rest of the team of course, but Steve didn’t have much hope that they would come up with anything better.

As folks said now, they were fucked.

Chapter Text

It seemed like everything changed in the week after Bucky’s surgery. The drone attack and Thor’s wonderful news about the Infinity stones factored in, sure, but for Bucky, it was all about the arm. And Steve and Darcy, of course.

But especially his new arm.

The surgery had not been his favorite day ever, but it could have been (had been) worse. The anesthesia worked to a surprising degree, although it never knocked him out completely. Hearing the doctors talking while they worked was unsettling, to say the least, but Steve had been there the whole time, holding onto his real hand when the nurses would let him, and holding Bucky’s attention with babble about everything he could think of. Up to and including off-color limericks from the war.

Bucky had been terrified, all right? There, he said it: terrified. He’d been adamant that the arm was gettin' offa him, and he’d trusted the docs and Stark as much as seemed reasonable. He knew they’d do their best—Steve would make sure of that. No, he’d been afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get everything out of him, whatever Hydra was using to track him. That he’d go through all of this for nothing, and still be leading Hydra right to him, to the tower, to his friends. To Steve and Darcy.

Fortunately, everything went better than expected. Dr. Yin, Tony, and Bruce had sampled every piece of metal left in his body—clavicle, ribs, scapula, and parts of a few vertebrae—and were positive that only standard medical-grade steel and titanium remained, enough that they were willing to bet their lives on it. Eventually, Bucky wanted that out of him too—every trace of Hydra out of his body—but he felt reassured for now.

And the recovery, well, that had been wonderful. His two soulmates were hilarious, keeping him entertained, and the pain levels didn’t get so high that he couldn’t ignore it. Of course, they’d have had to be pretty damn high to distract him from Darcy and Steve, all gussied up in those nurse outfits. Damn, but her tits were amazing. Steve’s tits were amazing. He couldn’t stop having flashes of what the two of them would look like in just their underthings and the little hats. Together. Thank god the drugs prevented him from getting an erection, because otherwise he’d have scandalized everyone. Who knew he had a nurse fetish?

It had actually been a kind of pleasant day, full of cookies and laughter and titillation. Add in the inappropriate-but-thankfully-unseen arousal, and the relief of seeing a different arm where the Hydra one had been, and this was one of the best days of his life.

They let him out of the surgery wing the next day, thank god. He’d agreed to the restraints and the braces and everything, been a good patient, in hopes that he’d heal fast. The docs wrapped him up in a contraption that immobilized his entire torso and neck, but they let him out, so it was fine by him. He got to feed himself breakfast and use the toilet without help, and Steve was hovering to assist with anything Bucky couldn’t easily do by himself.

God damn, the punk was annoying.

Darcy was too, but she was also wearing a low-cut blouse and leaned over often enough to get away with her mother-henning, giving him a sly wink when she caught him. Steve, god bless him, was trying so hard to get along with Darcy. She remained a little distant around him but was giving him room to try to be less of a jackass. Bucky didn’t know if Steve had had a change of heart or finally realized what an asshole he’d been or what, but he wasn’t complaining. It was good to see them getting along. Like they had been, before Darcy’s date with that other guy.

Someday they were going to have to talk about that. He and Steve had finally gone to bed together, and practically the next day she’d had a date with someone else, and the tentative friendship between her and Steve had gone to hell in a handbasket. And Bucky hadn’t really ever heard her side of the whole thing, aside from what she’d yelled at Steve….

But not today. Today was for walking around, admiring his (immobile) new arm, eating cookies, and being ridiculously happy.

So of course then Thor had to fuck it all up.

*****

There was nothing they could do about the Infinity stones. They’d caused mass genocide whenever they were used, no matter the purpose originally intended. Every evil son of a bitch in the universe would shit themselves trying to get even one of the Stones, and all of them together might well destroy the universe all by themselves. Yet that was exactly what Frigga had cast a spell on that box to do.

Thor was, as you might expect, pretty upset. Sure, women were strange, and mothers had mysterious ways even when they weren’t actual witches, but this was beyond the pale. Thor took off to some Well of Sight somewhere in Europe to get some answers—apparently this one well was kind of like a telephone to a bunch of cranky grandmother witches or something.

Unless Thor came back with something wonderful, there wasn’t a thing they could do but sit around and wait: for Hydra, for outer-space bad guys, and for the rest of the Infinity stones to show up and end the universe. The situation was pretty much the textbook definition of SNAFU, and there was nothing for the Avengers to do except prepare.

But at least his Hydra-arm was gone, right?

By the fourth day after his surgery, life sequestered in the tower was back to normal—almost. After taking it easy for so many days, Bucky was bursting out of his skin to get some exercise, and Bruce approved a visit to the gym, so long as he was there to monitor. It was all going great, until Bucky fell off the treadmill. He was fine, his shoulder was fine; his pride was mortally wounded.

And Steve’s eye was very, very black due to a broken orbital bone. How did Darcy say that? Sorry not sorry, pal.

“I suppose it isn’t surprising that your balance is off,” Bruce so helpfully observed. “The new arm weighs less than half of what the old one did. That will take some getting used to.”

He and Steve traded a look. Hydra—and god knew what else—was coming. He didn’t have time to “get used to it.”

“How soon can I start training?” The original agreement for him to use the gym had been limited to jogging, and if that went well, maybe some lower body exercises. No weights, nothing that used his arm or shoulder, and “Absolutely no sparring, I’m serious, Hulk will not like it, and you won’t like him when he’s angry.”

Bruce sighed. “Let me run some scans. The goal was for you to keep it immobile for at least another two days and then slowly let you start working on moving it, gently. We don’t have any concrete reason to expect Hydra to attack again so soon; it hasn’t even been five days since their failed attempt.”

“Sure, that’s Hydra,” Steve said, beating Bucky to it. “But there’s also AIM, and the Ten Rings, a bunch of other terrorists on Earth, and a whole damn universe of bad guys out there who could be looking for the Stones. They’re going to be delighted to find them on this little planet that hasn’t made it out of our own neighborhood yet, as far as space travel is concerned. Just because I didn’t agree with Director Fury using the Tesseract for his Phase Two doesn’t mean I didn’t understand his reasoning.”

“We’re screwed,” Bucky summarized. “I ain’t got time to sit around, waiting. I need to be ready.”

“We all need to be ready,” Steve agreed, face grim. “The tower needs to be on high alert. We need a plan.”

*****

He and Steve had sketched out some tentative plans for guiding a fight away from the Tower—and New York City—and had moved onto outlining a training program to get Bucky used to the changes in his body as fast as possible, without overdoing it. Bucky had some fantastic ideas for testing out the new hand’s dexterity—several that made Steve squirm and kick him under the table, murmuring, “I swear to god, Buck. Not now.” Teasing him was never going to get old.

That was about when Darcy wandered into the kitchen. He hadn’t seen as much of her the last day and half, after her being glued to his side right after the surgery. He stacked up their notes around the table and pulled out a chair for her.

“Hey sweetheart, you doing okay?” She looked tired.

Darcy shrugged and sank into the chair. “Fine. Just… scared,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “There’s nothing we can do but sit around here and wait. I’m utterly helpless and I hate it. I’m so thoroughly fed up with being stuck in here that I’ve been fantasizing about running away. I know,” she said, holding a hand up at Steve, “It’d be reckless and stupid and I’m not going to do it. I just can’t help thinking about it.”

“We’re all in the same boat,” Steve pointed out, more patiently than he would have before. “But it just takes one sniper, with one bullet. It’s not safe out there for the three of us.”

She made a face. “Why would they bother shooting me? I’m not important.”

Bucky shook his head. “They’re Hydra. They don’t care if you’re important to their plans or not; they like killing. Although they’d be more likely to kidnap you. You are important to some of us.”

“Thanks, Barnes, I feel so much better now.”

He shrugged. “Not going to sugar-coat it, doll. No point in lying to you.”

“No, I guess not. I’m just…. I’m not like you guys,” she said. “I’m not a superhero, I’m not a genius, I’m not a spysassin or secret agent. But damned if I’m just going to sit around here and wait to be killed.”

Steve smiled a little. “That’s all it takes to be a hero. Not being willing to go down without a fight.”

She snorted. “Yeah, like when you were small? Shit, you were, like, my size, weren’t you?”

Bucky laughed. “You’ve got more meat on your bones—and that’s a good thing. Stevie looked like he’d blow away in a strong wind. Made lotsa folks underestimate him, but he turned that to his advantage. All of this,” he waved a hand at Steve’s “new” body, which was still how he thought of it, “This ain’t what made him a hero. And you’ve got that same fire in you.”

Darcy shrugged. “But I’m scared.”

“That’s because you’re not stupid,” Steve said, smiling. “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, just that you don’t let it stop you.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “Captain America is afraid?”

He outright laughed. “Heck yeah I am; I’m no idiot. But when the time comes, I put that aside and don’t let it stop me. I’m terrified that I could lose all of this,” he said, gesturing around the room, and settling his hand on Bucky’s atop the table. “Again.”

Sometimes Bucky forgot how much Steve had gone through. It’s wasn’t a competition of who had suffered more (he won!), but Steve had still suffered. He lost his best friend. He went on a suicide run to save the world. And then he woke up, and everything and everyone he’d ever known was dead and gone. Bucky still had no idea how Steve had made it through those first two years; he didn’t think he would have.

Darcy cleared her throat. “So yay, I’m allowed to feel afraid and still be counted as brave. But what do I do?

“Make plans,” Steve said, gesturing at the papers on the table. “Gather intel. Rehearse and train as much as you can, so you don’t freeze during the chaos.”

“And try to enjoy the time you’ve got,” Bucky added. “You should come with us, next time we get smuggled out of here to go run around in the woods and wrestle with each other.”

Darcy snorted. “Not that I wouldn’t love to watch you two ‘wrestle,’ but I can’t.”

“Why not?” Steve asked.

She blinked at him. “Uh, because Thor would shit a brick if I left here? And Jane too.”

Bucky looked at Steve. Steve looked back. They shrugged at each other.

“So don’t tell them until we get back,” Steve said.

“But—”

“Excellent,” Bucky said, cutting her off. “We’ll plan a picnic. Stark’s already taken the Hydra arm out to the middle of nowhere, upstate. In a couple of days, when they’re sure I won’t keel over without medical supervision, me and Steve are goin’ out there and blow it to smithereens.”

“Oooh, fireworks!” she said, only half-sarcastically.

“It’ll be fun,” Steve said, looking like he was trying not to smile.

“Who knows, maybe we’ll even put on a wrestling show for you,” Bucky said, delighting in the slow spread of pink up Steve’s neck and ears, while he and Darcy laughed their asses off.

*****

Two days later, Bucky, Steve, and Darcy headed out with a car and driver. After about an hour and a half, they pulled up at a lakeside manor house. The driver went inside, and he, Steve, and Darcy made their way to the shore. Steve spread out the blankets and set up a small folding table, while Darcy took charge of the picnic basket, refusing to let him help.

“So I’m just supposed to stand around and look pretty?” he protested.

“Yes,” they both answered simultaneously, and shared a tentative smile with each other while he laughed.

“Kinda hard to look my best in this thing,” he said, gesturing to the sling his arm was in.

Darcy shook her head. “You even looked hot in the hospital gown. It’s appalling how good-looking the two of you are.”

Both of them, huh? Bucky tried not to grin as Steve looked sheepish and uncomfortable. Under the discomfort, he could tell Steve was pleased by the compliment.

By the time they were finished eating, he and Steve were practically vibrating with the need to move around, although Bucky really liked the idea of spending a lazy afternoon in the sun with his soulmates. He put it on the list of things to do after, and he and Steve took off to run laps around the lake. Darcy had laughed when they invited her to join and lay face-down on the blankets, kicking off her shoes. The yoga pants she was wearing were extremely flattering to her behind. They were kind of doing it for him—and Steve too, if Bucky wasn’t misinterpreting that look in his eyes.

They made a few laps around the lake, then diverted to the main house to pick up the key, then back to Darcy, and the three of them headed out to the boat house. Apparently, Pepper had objected to having the arm at the main house, in case Hydra came. Nice to know someone took his concerns seriously.

Bucky had gleefully assembled a small explosive the day before. Playing with Tony’s toys actually was his idea of a good time, for the fully clothed options anyway. He was looking forward to this like nothing else. It was good to have both of his soulmates with him to share it.

When he’d finished molding the Semtex around the arm, and they’d all retreated to a safe distance with the detonator, Bucky paused. No one had been able to tell if Hydra had cut off his arm for the express purpose of attaching the metal one, or if his arm had been mangled by the fall. The numerous surgeries over the last seventy years hadn’t left much of a clue. Either way, that had been part of his body for over half a decade. Longer than he considered himself to have been alive, even, since he didn’t count the frozen time.

Steve put an arm around his shoulder.

“I’m not sad,” Bucky said. “I just…. I’m relieved. That was the Fist of Hydra for almost a century; I’m fucking thrilled to see it go.”

Darcy came up on his other side, taking his hand. They stood in silence for a while.

“Sometimes you defeat your enemies, but find the kill less satisfying that you’d hoped,” she said. “Metaphorically,” when he and Steve twisted to look at her. “Geez, I haven’t killed anyone.”

“Elves,” Steve said, coughing a little.

“Whatever,” she mumbled.

Bucky squeezed her hand, smiling as he shifted his weight into Steve’s arm. He took a deep breath. “All right, safety goggles on. Let’s do this.” On the exhale, he pushed the button.

“Make a wish!” Darcy yelped, muffled by the blast.

“It’s not his birthday,” Steve teased.

That made Bucky laugh. “I wish everyone who touched that arm before the fall of SHIELD died slowly, painfully, and pissing themselves with fear.”

“Yay! Me too!” Darcy said. “Burn in Hell, motherfuckers!”

He and Steve shared a grin. She was one hell of a dame.

Once the dust had settled, he and Steve went to gather up any remaining shards. Darcy found a spade in the boat house and dug a small hole, where they buried the handful of fragments.

“Jump up and down on it,” she said.

“What?”

“You know,” she said, going over to the mounded earth and jumping angrily a few times. “Fuck you, Hydra, you can’t have our Bucky!”

Our Bucky? Oh, he was tucking that away to think about later, for sure.

After neither he nor Steve moved for a few moments, she sighed. “Fine. I’m going to go back to the house, so you can do the man thing.”

He couldn’t interpret her hand motion. “What man thing?”

“You know, piss on it.”

“I’m down for that,” Steve said, nodding as Bucky laughed.

He shook his head and gave Darcy’s hand a squeeze. “Great idea, doll.”

It was immensely satisfying.

Chapter Text

While the drive upstate had been tense, the air of relief on the way back was nearly tangible. They stopped at a drive-through, and the guys put away literally a dozen burgers in the time it took Darcy to finish her milkshake.

And then she had to find the milkshake song and play the video for them on the screen (because of course Tony had screens in all his cars).

Damn, girl!

She’d forgotten how the sexy ladies and the music’s tempo made her everything throb. And she wasn’t the only one, to judge by the quirk of Bucky’s mouth and Steve’s blush. And no, she did not check out their laps to see if they were that aroused. Not because she was a lady, but because she didn’t want them noticing that her nipples were as hard as pebbles and totally visible.

Yeah, ain’t no ladies in this car, Mister Driver.

JFC, you couldn’t take her anywhere.

Except to Pound Town! argued one of her inner voices.

Really, Darcy? Come on. You’re better than that.

What? Fuck you, I am not better than that. I’m so fucking horny I can’t stand it; look at those two motherfuckers sitting next to you!

Those two motherfuckers were, in fact, playing with Bucky’s new hand. Which shouldn’t be porny, but really, truly, most sincerely was 100% porn.

1000%.

Sure, she’d been flirting with Bucky lately, and they had gotten a lot more overt since his surgery. And she was trying to let Steve’s assholishness in the past not contaminate the present (even if it was also a 100% his fault that she hadn’t gotten laid in so long).

But come on—all four of their hands were tangled up, feeling the new silicone glove/sleeve Tony had just given Bucky, and how similar it was to real skin. It was asking too much not to have naughty thoughts about all the places those fingers could go, all twenty of them….

God, she hoped all their super-senses didn’t include supersmell, because she needed a change of panties.

“So are you going to wear that all the time?” she asked, trying to pull her brain out of the gutter.

“Not sure,” Bucky said. “The silicon has a myoelectrical coating, but it’s still not as sensitive as without it. But I could probably get used to it.”

“Worth giving it a try, and then you can compare after a few days,” Steve said, his fingers still stroking against Bucky’s.

She wiggled a little, feeling more moisture. “Oh my god, you have to stop,” she said, reaching over and forcibly separating their hands. “You’re killin’ me.”

Steve laughed at her.

“My sorry state is entirely your fault,” she pointed out, leaning more toward humor than recrimination. “Now stop fondling each other before I explode.”

She could almost see the comments Bucky wanted to make in reply, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. He also took in a long, slow breath. Which maybe could have been centering, attempting to squash his laughter, but the way he licked his lips after, glancing her way….

They were going to kill her.

Maybe she could get Rigo to give her another chance. Not that she’d braved going to kickboxing since their date—had that only been ten days ago?—and she hadn’t seen him at the coffee cart. Argh. Maybe Black Widow would come back and have her wicked way with Darcy, except no, she didn’t literally want to die. Although fucking Natasha Romanov might be worth it.

Or maybe someone slightly less lethal, like Agent Hill? Geez, was she really just going to go through the list of everyone she was allowed to talk to and hope one of them would be willing to do her? Tony Stark had certainly enjoyed her cleavage at their dinner party. Maybe she could have a threesome with him and Pepper. At this point, she’d willingly take a pity-fuck.

Maybe she ought to stop thinking about sex, because she was starting to sweat and her breathing had sped up. And the boys were looking at her. Great.

Topic change! “So… how ‘bout them Mets?” she asked, and then laughed her ass off when the boys exchanged confused looks and Steve asked if she was a baseball fan.

*****

The next afternoon, when Darcy went to the conference room for more research, trying her best to get back to a “normal” schedule, she was surprised to find Bucky and Steve there already.

Steve looked up from the file he was reading. “I wondered if Hydra and the other terrorist groups were connected. Or how, rather, since it seems logical that they would be.”

Darcy quirked an eyebrow at him. “Yeah. They are. I found a bunch of those connections when we added AIM to the list of research topics. Ten Rings, too. Do you want me to show you what I found?”

Bucky gave her an impressed look, then turned to see how Steve would take the news that she’d figured out the answer to his question weeks ago.

“Yes, thanks.” He looked a little taken aback, but mostly pleased.

Well that felt nice, being appreciated. She sat down and started scrolling through her research. She’d made a note of where she’d found mentions of terrorist groups, but not the details of what was said. Still, now they knew exactly which paper files to pull, and could make a list of the bad guys and when they first started showing up in the timeline. It was super obvious they were all connected to Hydra in some way or other, from all the way back in the 1930s to now.

By the end of two hours, Darcy was ready for a break. She and Steve had sketched out a diagram of groups and connections and dates, and wow—it was like a spiderweb, with one big fat spider in the middle of it. Once she’d enlisted JARVIS’s help tracking the money, it was so obvious.

Unfortunately, Stark’s weapons had been a major player until Iron Man started “cleaning up.”

“Tony is not going to be happy about this,” she said, looking at the diagram JARVIS had projected onto the wall.

“Sir is aware,” JARVIS said. “Not of all the details, but of the ‘broad strokes,’ as he says.”

“Yeah, but there’s a lot more to it than just the arms distribution,” Darcy pointed out. “Corporate takeovers, money laundering—or whatever you call it when it’s millions of dollars. Money dry-cleaning?”

Bucky snorted.

“They really made an apt choice with their selection of mythical monster,” Steve said, bitter. “Cut off one head….”

“And all they have to do is shift the remains of the money and resources to another head, to continue their work.” Where Steve was angry, Bucky’s voice was… cold. Factual, arms crossed over his chest, and not seeming in the least bit surprised.

“I’m finding it terrifying that the Nazis were an off-shoot of Hydra, not the other way around,” Darcy said, thinking about her great-great grandparents She’d never considered the reasons behind their emigration in the 1930s, but if they hadn’t left Lithuania, she probably wouldn’t exist. So thank you, Great-Grands, because she liked existing.

All in all, it was a fairly pleasant afternoon of research. Bucky was a little flirty with both her and Steve, Steve was friendlier than she could remember him being in ages, and she felt good about it. Sure, them both looking hotter than habaneros roasting on the sun was nice and all, but it didn’t make her like them. Steve’s sense of humor kept surprising her, and she wondered if this was what he was really like. You know, when he wasn’t cooped up hiding from Hydra, wasn’t stressed out about magical stones, and wasn’t silently falling apart over how terrified he was about taking things beyond friendship with Bucky. Which wasn’t an excuse for being a dick, but…. It was something to keep in mind. His apology had apparently been sincere, and life was too short for grudges.

As for the soulmates thing…. Maybe they’d be a good fit eventually, maybe not. She was doing her best to put it all out of her mind and just focus on getting to know each other better, at least for now. Be friends. Sure, she was attracted to them, but maybe their soul-match was platonic or something. Who knew? And even if it was swoony love at first sight—which it obviously wasn’t—passion and romance didn’t make things easy or fix problems.

*****

As Darcy was getting ready to put away the files she’d been perusing a few days later, she took a deep breath and decided it was time to bite the bullet.

“So…. Remember when we all thought it would be a good idea if I learned some self-defense stuff?” she said, stacking papers and not looking up at either one of them. She hadn’t been anywhere near their gym since Steve had loomed at her that one day, but well. Hydra had tried to kill everyone in the tower. They might try again, and she needed to be as ready as a civilian could be. She’d probably never be able to take out some lumbering thug, but she could at least try to help when the superheroes were superheroing, or just not get in their way.

Unfortunately, she had to look up when her comment was met with silence. She focused on Bucky. “I, uh, I’d kind of like to be better prepared. For whatever.” She glanced at Steve, then back to Bucky. “If you’re still up for that.”

She wasn’t only asking Bucky because she was afraid of Steve or some bullshit. But she didn’t exactly want to be alone with Steve in that same dynamic again, either. She wasn’t the fastest learner, and they were sure to get frustrated at each other at some point. Steve had been trying, though, and she appreciated that. She didn’t want to just blurt out, “I don’t want to be alone with you” or something—that would be shitty.

But, well, she didn’t.

Bucky hadn’t looked away from her gaze and nodded slightly. “I think that’s a great idea. I’m going over all the basics again, myself, to get used to the changes with the new arm. It’d be great if you wanted to join us.”

“Thanks,” she said with a weak smile, and then glanced at Steve. He too was tidying up papers and not meeting her eyes. She took a steadying breath. “Steve?”

He looked her way, brow raised in a question.

“Uh, you too. If you want, I mean. You don’t have to.”

He gave her a searching look, then nodded. “Are you sure?”

She shrugged. “May as well try. If you get all... loom-y, Bucky can be my bodyguard,” she said, shoving her nerves aside and flashing Bucky an only-somewhat-shaky flirty grin. “Please, guard my body.”

Both guys laughed.

“Sure. After dinner?” Steve asked.

That gave her a couple of hours to work up her nerve. Or lose it. Nah, she wasn’t that delicate a flower. She’d be safe, she just had to remember that. And to keep her cool if Steve started losing his.

When she showed up at their gym a few hours later, it was immediately clear Bucky was in charge of her training this time. God, she hoped Steve wasn’t there just to stare at her; she was nervous enough. Which was dumb, she was all about being a self-saving princess. (And getting out of this dumb tower.)

“We’re going to take a different approach this time,” Bucky said. “You’ve been kickboxing—”

She opened her mouth to correct him, but he continued.

“—so you know how to throw a punch and give someone a good kick. Not that you shouldn’t still be practicing those, building your strength and muscle memory, but those moves aren’t always possible in an attack. We’re not going to teach you how to fight; we’re going to teach you how to survive.”

“That sounds… intense. But okay, yeah,” she said in response to his and Steve’s questioning looks.

“Great.” He nodded. “Tonight we’re going to ease you into things, just give your brain something to think about. Steve’s going to be the pretend attacker.”

Steve nodded at her while making a face at Bucky.

“We decided you’d appreciate a chance to whale on him a little, after what a jerk he was,” Bucky said, grinning. “When you do the moves right and actually hurt him, you get a reward.”

“Oooh! What is it?”

“We’re still thinkin’ about that, but I’ve got some fun ideas,” Bucky drawled, giving her a flirty look.

“Naughty boy,” she scolded, laughing. She glanced over at Steve and was relieved—and a little surprised—that he was clearly amused. He’d always tolerated her and Bucky flirting with each other, but this was a little different, tonight. He seemed relaxed.

And yeah, despite the mending of bridges the last week or so, she was looking forward to landing a few hits on Captain Perfect. He deserved it.

“So, first off, no more punching at the head or torso. If your thug—Steve—is worth his salary, he’ll have a toned midsection, and if he’s smart, he’ll be wearing body armor. Don’t bother hitting that, you’ll just hurt your hand. Even with your full body weight, you’re not going to take him down with a blow to the solar plexus, even if you get it perfectly right. Since you’re probably going to be shorter than your thug, aim at his throat. If he bends down to your level, gouge his eyes, or grab his ears and twist and pull, or break his nose. If you can’t reach those places, aim for his balls; no one wears a cup on a mission, and since guys don’t hit other guys in the balls, he won’t be expecting it. He might block a kick, but he’s not going to think you’re aiming for his crotch with a punch.”

“Fight dirty,” Steve said, nodding.

As Bucky had talked, Darcy felt her insides twisting up. Sure, she wanted to defend herself, and these were bad guys, not some handsy schmuck on the train, “But isn’t that kind of… unfair?”

“You want honorable, learn a martial art,” Bucky said. “This is hand-to-hand combat, doll. We want you to live.”

Well, she wanted to live too. And she couldn’t fight like the guys, big and strong and covered in muscles. “Huh. I guess Black Widow fights differently than you—is that how you’re going to train me? I mean, watered down, of course; I’ll never be a badass like her.”

Bucky gave her a searching look. “You could be if you wanted, but you’d have to train full time for a couple of years. I didn’t think being an Avenger was your chosen career path?” he said, raising his eyebrows.

She shrugged. “No, I guess not. I’ll have to be a different kind of badass.”

Bucky smiled. “You already are, sweetheart. Now come over here and try to punch Steve in the throat.

Chapter Text

The second round of training with Darcy, under Bucky’s instruction, was going much better than last time. As always, Bucky soothed Steve’s harsh edges and Darcy’s irritation, making learning fun for all of them. They had her practice getting out of various holds, hitting vulnerable areas, and Steve was unashamed to say he was damn glad to be wearing knee guards and a cup by the end of about the first week. She’d managed to impress him, showing up on time, listening, and trying her hardest to do things right. Then again, he supposed a threat to her life, indirect though it may have been, was good motivation to learn how to take care of herself.

And Bucky was a great teacher. He’d taught Steve to throw a solid punch, way back when, and had disclosed that he’d trained troops as the Winter Soldier. Children, Steve guessed, given how little Bucky wanted to talk about it, and that Natasha had flash backs of sparring with the Winter Soldier during her Red Room training. Regardless, with Darcy, Bucky was patient and playful, while remaining deadly serious about teaching her everything he could to help her stay safe.

As planned, Steve was the attack dummy. He didn’t complain, not even the first time she managed to land a solid hit to his nose. She didn’t break it, but it had hurt like hell, and she probably would have knocked out an unenhanced man.

As for Bucky…. Steve was a little worried about him, to be honest. Ever since the attack on the Tower—which Steve secretly thought was most likely aimed at him, on the off-chance that he’d be hiding there—Bucky had been driven, almost to the point of obsession. Maybe not obsession, but extreme focus, for sure. He trained several hours a day to get used to the weight of his new arm and sparred with Steve as much as Steve would let him. Which was pretty often, since a lot of sparring sessions ended with the two of them rushing back to their rooms to fuck on the nearest available surface.

Not that Steve was complaining. It was amazing what regular exercise and somewhat athletic sex did for his overall mood. He almost felt a little bad for breaking up Darcy’s date with that guy. But only a little.

Once the sessions ended and Darcy had left the gym and it was just Steve and Bucky, something would shift in Bucky. Teaching her stressed him out, although he managed to hide it from her fairly well. His jokes were a little forced, his endearments a tiny bit insincere. It was clearly bringing up his past, although whenever Steve mentioned it, Bucky shut him down.

In an effort to maybe help Bucky relax, Steve had suggested movie nights a few times. Jane and Darcy cuddled up on one of the sofas in the communal lounge, with Steve and Bucky on another sofa, touching but not exactly cuddling. Sometimes Bruce and Tony and Pepper joined them. The viewings had gone fairly well, overall, although there was a bad moment where Bucky froze up when Jimmy Stewart was shoved out the window in Rear Window. That night Bucky’d thrashed around in bed so much Steve had to hold him still, and the first few moments after he’d opened his eyes, the Winter Soldier had stared out.

The next evening, Darcy made dinner. The smell of beef stew wafting around the common floor was enticing, even though it was late spring and starting to be a little too warm for soup. She had also made a huge, fruity green salad, red sauerkraut, spinach kugel, and had ordered in a dark rye bread from a Jewish bakery.

Steve noticed that Bucky was quiet through the meal; it was hard to miss, since it was just the three of them and Jane. He tried to fill in the silence by being a little more chatty than usual, although it wasn’t all that odd that he and Bucky were fairly quiet while they were shoveling down their food. It was a bit odd, though, that Bucky was eating so slowly. Neither of them tended to leave so much as a crumb on their plates, and Steve thought the meal was delicious. Not fancy food, but hearty and comforting. And abundant.

About halfway through the meal—after Steve had eaten about a third of the kugel and two bowls of stew, while Bucky and the girls were about halfway through their first—Jane politely offered the platter of bread to Bucky. Bucky flinched violently, turned white as a sheet, pushed back his chair, and bolted for the nearest bathroom where they could hear him vomiting before the door shut.

“Uh….?” Darcy said.

Steve shook his head. “No idea. I think the food’s great. I’ll go check on him.”

Bucky was upchucking repeatedly, which was strange. Neither of them had weak stomachs, and even if they had before the war, their serums would have changed that.

Steve knocked. “Buck? I’m coming in,” he said, opening the unlocked door.

Bucky was shaking like a leaf, his eyes shut, face and hair damp with sweat, and gasping to catch his breath in between bouts of vomiting. The ceramic lid of the toilet tank had cracked from the grip of his prosthetic hand. Pieces were breaking off as Bucky struggled to get his nausea under control.

He spat into the toilet bowl without turning to look at Steve. “Go finish your dinner. I’m fine.”

Steve hesitated, but remembered what Sam had said about not coddling Bucky. “You sure I shouldn’t get Dr. Banner?”

“I’m fine,” Bucky repeated, turning to the sink to rinse out his mouth. “Just triggered a memory.”

Ah. Well, that would make sense. Tonight’s meal had been family recipes, Darcy had been saying to Jane, and since she was Jewish and presumably her great-grandparents were immigrants, it would be logical that they were probably from Eastern Europe. Steve wanted to kick himself for not realizing the potentially fraught implications of a menu from that region; he’d been too busy stuffing his face like a thoughtless idiot. Some friend he was.

But he could beat himself up about that later. He squeezed Bucky’s shoulder, then went back to the table.

“Well?” Darcy asked.

Steve wanted to say that Bucky was just under the weather, but no one was going to buy that, no matter how hard he tried to sell it. He settled on, “One of the tastes or smells triggered him a little, but he’ll be fine. And the food’s really delicious; I know he’d be upset if you took his reaction as a criticism of your cooking.”

“Well, on the plus side,” Darcy said, “It looked like it was the bread that set him off, and I didn’t bake that, so no harm, no foul.”

“I think it’s really good,” Jane added, sopping up the remains of her stew with a piece. “I wish my family had recipes like this. Our traditions involve opening at least one can of this, a packet of that, and a boxed mix of something else. No fresh vegetables aside from iceberg lettuce. You could break a tooth on Grandma’s homemade cookies. I think my great-uncle Elmer actually did, once….”

They heard Bucky’s footsteps as he went to the elevator, not looking back at them. Which was probably for the best; Bucky wouldn’t want Darcy to feel bad, and he probably needed some time to calm down.

“JARVIS, would you mind keeping an eye on Bucky, please,” Steve asked, “and let me know if he needs me?”

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” came the reply from the nearest speakers. “As always, I’m happy to assist.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, echoed by Darcy.

The rest of the meal was uneventful, and Steve was unsurprised to find Bucky in the gym later, destroying more of Tony’s heavy bags. He offered to spar, but got a curt headshake, so he taped up his hands and went to assail some punching bags himself.

Bucky was still at it when Steve left to shower. He’d set out some water bottles, towels, and asked if Bucky wanted him to stay or leave.

“Get out,” was the unambiguous reply, so Steve went back to their apartment. No point in pushing the guy if he didn’t want to talk. Sometimes a man had to wrestle his demons to the ground before he was willing to name them. He’d talk to Steve about it when he was ready.

Apparently Bucky had an awful lot more demons to contend with than Steve had realized, because four hours later, he still hadn’t come back to the apartment. JARVIS had confirmed that Bucky was still in the building, but that was all. So around 1:00 a.m., Steve put his shoes back on and went to look for him.

After almost an hour, nearly certain Bucky was leading him on a goose chase, Steve finally caught up to him in the kitchen. Bucky was staring at the remains of the loaf of bread with such fierce rage that Steve almost expected to see a cloud of noxious greenish-yellow gas surrounding him. Then Darcy, who had apparently been reading a book in the adjoining living room, got up and went to see Bucky. Steve hung back, thinking maybe she’d have better luck than he had.

Bucky had to have known she was there. It wasn’t like him—any part of him, either James Barnes or the Winter Soldier—to be taken by surprise. Steve had known she was there, and he wasn’t wound up tight like Bucky was. Unfortunately, Bucky recoiled when she put a hand on his arm, turned, and had her pressed against the wall with his hand on her throat, before any of them could react.

Steve rushed in shouting—clearly not surprising him—and Bucky blinked a few times as he stepped back, releasing Darcy immediately as an expression of horror settled on his face.

Darcy’s hand came up to her throat, which was blossoming with what was going to be a dark bruise, but she seemed more concerned with Bucky’s well-being than her own. “Bucky? Are you okay?” Her voice was barely above a whisper, but Steve couldn’t tell if that was because her throat was damaged or because she was trying to soothe Bucky.

Bucky shivered as his hands came up to cover his face. “Oh my God. Oh no. I’m a monster—I’m always gonna be one. I’ll never get this out of my head; it’ll always be there, it’s who I am now. I gotta get out of here.” His voice had started in a soft, horrified whisper, and ended with a strangled sob of agony. He turned, shoved past Steve as if he didn’t see him, and bolted out of the kitchen into the stairwell.

“Are you all right?” Steve asked, putting his hand on Darcy’s shoulder. Like an idiot, obviously, as she flinched away, not wanting to be touched or hurt. Again.

“Fine. Aren’t you going to go after him?” she asked.

Steve shook his head. “He needs to run it out of his system before he’ll be able to stand anyone else in his space. This has happened before; I am so sorry I didn’t move fast enough to stop him. I was hoping you’d be able to soothe him better than I would, but I put you in harm’s way instead.” Steve shifted his weight, uncertain what to do. Yeah, there was going to be a lot more self-recrimination later, but right now he needed to take care of Darcy.

“Um, would you like to sit down? How’s your throat? I’ll get you an ice pack. Or I could make you a cup of tea?”

She was shaking and wasn’t making eye contact. Shock for sure, even if it was mild. After a moment, she took a seat at the dining room table, struggling to keep herself together.

He took one of the many ice packs from the freezer and wrapped it in a kitchen towel before he passed it to her. Even though she hadn’t answered, he made her a cup of the herbal tea Bruce drank frequently, listening to her take long, slow breaths, gradually calming down. “Should we have Dr. Banner take a look at your throat?”

She removed the ice pack and pressed her fingertips into the bruise, flinching a little, then shrugged. “Pretty sure it’s just bruised. If it hurts tomorrow, I’ll see if he’s around.”

“Okay.” Steve would have pushed just about anyone on his team to see the doctor, but Darcy knew her own mind, and she was nowhere near as reckless with her own well-being as the other Avengers. He sat down with her, pushing the mug of tea closer to her. “You know he would never—”

She gave him a withering glare. “I know. And I’m not mad at you either,” she added, after a pause. “I’m mad at myself for not being more careful. Not like I didn’t know he has PTSD and was on edge.”

“It didn’t occur to me that he could possibly not know you were there,” Steve said. Not as an excuse for his own mistake, just sharing his thoughts. “You might be the only person in the last century to surprise the Winter Soldier,” he said, aiming to lighten the mood.

She smirked for a moment, then said, “Sometimes I forget he’s both of them, Bucky—the guy I know now—and the Winter Soldier. I decided I wasn’t going to be afraid of him, but… I guess I didn’t think through all of the possibilities.”

Steve slowly reached across the table, giving her plenty of time to move away, and covered her hand with his. It was so little compared to his; her personality was so big that he forgot how small she was compared to him and Bucky. “If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Captain Martyr. Fault doesn’t matter anyway. Although I’m sure he won’t see it that way either….”

“He won’t,” Steve agreed. “He holds himself accountable for everything he’s done, even though he knows that’s not logical. Or fair.”

“Dumbass.”

Steve chuckled a little. “Yup.” There was a long silence. “Um, did you want to finish what you’re reading, or go back to your rooms, or…?”

Darcy shrugged. “I don’t feel tired.” She bit her lip, darting a quick glance his way, then back to her mug. “Uh. If you’re not going to go find him, do you want to watch TV or something?”

Something warm happened inside Steve’s chest. She didn’t want to be alone, and she was asking him to stay with her. He felt honored. “Sure. How about one of those Pixar movies I haven’t seen yet?”

He could see her shoulders relax as she nodded. “Thanks.”

A Bug’s Life turned out to be pretty good. Darcy falling asleep next to him on the sofa, trusting him to keep her safe and cared for, was amazing.

Chapter Text

When Darcy woke up to a deafening crash, alone in an unfamiliar place with the floor shaking, she almost peed herself. What—she’d been through a lot lately, and frankly, she was getting a little tired of it all.

“Prince Odinson has arrived,” JARVIS announced.

Darcy blinked a little, sitting up on the sofa and finding her glasses on the coffee table. Goddamn, lightning was loud when it was only a few feet away.

Thor yanked the balcony door open with his usual enthusiasm, striding into the common room as JARVIS said, “Dr. Foster is in the elevator, heading up.”

“Very good!” Thor said with a nod, although his usual grin didn’t quite reach his eyes. He turned to see Darcy on the sofa. “Lightning-sister!” She got up to hug him, and he froze. “Who has harmed you?” he asked, touching her throat lightly with a fingertip.

“It was an accident,” Darcy said and cringed. Way to sound like every abused woman in the history of ever. “It was, though, honestly. I accidentally startled Bucky when he was having a really bad time in his brain, and he reacted before he realized what he was doing.”

Thor scowled, but said nothing as he pulled her into what was—for him—a gentle embrace. Well, at least he wasn’t going after Bucky to defend her honor or some bullshit like that. “Are you well?” he asked, when she struggled to move away enough to breathe.

She was glad no one else was around to see their exchange, and the way he didn’t let go of her, because her eyes welled up and her throat tightened. She nodded. “Just bruised.”

The elevator dinged and Jane ran in to join them. “Thor! I didn’t think you would be back so soon.” She launched herself into his arms.

To Darcy’s surprise, Thor caught Jane with one arm, but didn’t release her. “I was unable to contact the Norns through the Well of Sight. What I saw while immersed made no sense to me.”

“Well that’s shitty,” Jane said, patting him on the arm and seeming to suddenly realize Darcy was right next to her. “Darcy! What happened to your throat? Are you okay?”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “You know how my dinner triggered Bucky so badly he puked? I somehow snuck up on him later, and he responded automatically.”

Jane’s forehead crinkled and she bit her lip. It didn’t matter; Darcy heard all the things she wanted to say but wasn’t.

“I’m fine.” Jeez, everyone, overreact much? “I’ll ask Dr. Banner to take a look if you’re all that concerned. It really doesn’t hurt that much. I think Bucky realized it was lil ol’ fragile me before he could hurt me.”

Thor nodded, but Darcy was unsurprised to be led to his chambers with Jane. Thank Yahweh, she was put to bed in a guest room on the opposite side of the apartment. At least her friends’ reunion wouldn’t keep her awake-slash-jealous-slash-horny.

*****

The next morning, Thor and Jane came to wake her up—wearing clothes and everything!—at an unexpectedly early time. “Up, up,” Jane said. “You’re going to want to look nice today.”

“Muh?” she said coherently.

“I would be honored if you and Jane would accompany me to Asgard. I have questions which must be answered. Perhaps the Norns or völvur will speak to one of you. Or perhaps Father will deign to assist us; he is familiar with magic, though he uses it but rarely. There are no answers about the Stones for us here on Midgard.”

Darcy rubbed her eyes, grabbed her glasses, and then squinted suspiciously at Thor. This had nothing to do with her being choked last night, of course. Sure, and she had a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. Then again, she’d been stuck in Avengers Tower for eighty-four days—not that she was counting or anything—with the exception of the trip to the lake house with Bucky and Steve, and flying around the Atlantic in SI Zeta with Pepper Potts to do her thesis defense.

“When do we leave?” she asked, all but jumping out of bed. “Do I pack a suitcase? How long will we be there? Are there going to be formal dinners with fancy clothes or are we trekking through forests to find your weird grandmothers?”

Half an hour later, showered, made-up, and wearing her job interview suit, Darcy met the other two on the patio. Plus Steve, Tony, Pepper, Bruce, and Natasha Romanov. Bucky was lurking off to the side like an ashamed puppy; she’d have to deal with him later. The other five looked like they wanted to argue with Thor about taking her and/or Jane with him to Outer Fucking Space, So Cool!, but they couldn’t actually stop him.

Darcy gave his (literal) hammer a skeptical look. “Mew-mew isn’t driving, is she?” Maybe she’d stay on Earth after all.

Thor grinned. “Not today,” he said as he lifted his hammer. “Heimdall!”

And then Darcy went blind. Or she thought she did because an intensely bright light that she could somehow feel on her skin enveloped her, and Jane and Thor. She felt dizzy, weightless, and was surrounded by light that was every color of the spectrum, all swirled together.

Traveling via sparkly light bridge was way better than Thor basically throwing his hammer and letting it pull him along as it flew. It was, sadly, just as nauseating. When her feet hit the ground, she immediately let go of Thor’s hand and collapsed to her knees. Only by the grace of Goddess did she not repeat her specular arrival at Avengers Tower. Especially since this hugely gorgeous, dark-skinned man with a sword was standing there watching them.

“Prince Thor, Son of Odin,” he said, crossing his chest with one fist and bowing.

“Heimdall!” Thor replied with a grin and slight bow of his head. “Well met, my friend. How fares Asgard, and my father?”

Heimdall glanced toward the door of the round room they were standing in, at a JFC-Sincerely-Rainbow-Bridge with a shining gold castle at the end. “He is not himself. I believe he was not expecting your arrival.”

Thor nodded. “I am most grateful to you for opening the way for us. You have met my lady, Jane Foster. This is Darcy, my sister-in-lightning. She, too, wields the power of electricity.”

Heimdall looked like he was stern-faced, like, ninety percent of the time, but right now he was trying not to smile. “Welcome, Midgardians. Lady Jane, I see that you are relieved of the powers which possessed you when last we met. Lady Darcy, I am honored to meet one so fierce as to be made Prince Thor’s honorary kin,” he said, bowing.

Darcy glanced at Jane. Were they supposed to curtsy or something? She was wearing a skirt, but, you know, not a curtsying skirt, and Jane was in jeans. (Goddamnit, she was way overdressed. Fuck Jane, for not telling her what to wear.) Regardless, they both kind of bobbed up and down, sort of bowing, sort of curtsying, and embarrassingly half-assed. Where was Miss Manners when you needed her?

They were saved from walking however many miles that bridge was by the appearance of a flying boat-thing, piloted by an amazingly buff hot lady, and Darcy literally drooled a little. Not outside her own mouth, but the knowing look she got from the woman—Lady Sif—meant she was well and truly ready to die of embarrassment. Thor and Sif made friendly chit-chat, while Jane alternated between glaring at Sif (was she Thor’s ex- or something?) and gaping at the palace coming into view as they got closer.

When they arrived, a servant guy wearing more gold ropey decorations than the other servants greeted Thor, bowing low. “The king, your father, will see you tonight at a banquet to celebrate your visit.”

“Excellent,” Thor replied—not bowing at this guy— “Please convey to my king that I have a pressing matter to speak to him about. I and my guests will adjourn to our chambers for refreshment, and then we will speak to him before the banquet.”

It wasn’t a request, but it wasn’t an order either; the way Thor spoke, it was just a fact. This was what he would do. If his dad decided to be a jerk, and call her and Jane goats or other livestock, Odin had better watch out because Thor didn’t look like a guy who was happy about coming home to get some answers.

Well, it was his home. She mentally shrugged. It was always complicated, wasn’t it? It was kind of comforting to know that even if you were the heir to the throne and a thousand years old and lived in an actual gilded palace, parents and kids still had problems. Odin didn’t agree with Thor’s life choices and didn’t approve of his girlfriend. She felt a little better about never knowing what to say to her dad about her love life or when to interrupt her mom’s racist rants about immigrants.

They were shown to seriously fancy rooms and had some snacks, and then some servant-ladies came and turned Darcy and Jane into princesses. Like, they would have washed Darcy’s body if she hadn’t shooed them out of the showering room. Then she had to just stand there like a mannequin while they dressed her, and then sit still as they arranged her hair and makeup. Being royal was weird.

They were shown to a hugemongous throne room, where Odin sat on a fucking gold throne the size of… she didn’t even know what. There were like two-dozen steps up a huge dais to the actual chair, which had wings, and the back was at least twice as tall as Odin, who was Thor-sized.

Well. She supposed he was a god, after all. And there were two ravens, which she made a note of, to tell Erik next time she saw him. He’d be amused. She bet there was bird poop on the throne.

Thor strode forward and not-so-humbly knelt on the bottom step. “Father.”

Darcy glanced at Jane, who looked equally confused about how to act. Should they kneel too? Bow? Curtsy? At least these dresses were appropriate for curtsying.

“My son.” Where Darcy expected Odin’s voice to boom, filling the whole huge and empty throne room like the Great and Powerful Oz, he was surprisingly soft-spoken. “I see you have brought your… Lady Jane. And who is this?” he asked, looking at Darcy.

Now, Darcy wasn’t exactly a timid, quivering little bunny. She’d tazed Thor, helped kill a bunch of Dark Elves, and lived with real motherfucking superheroes. She had her red lipstick on. But the way Odin looked at her made her want to crawl into a hole. His eyes were full of power, almost crackling with it. He could probably disintegrate her with a flick of his fingers. Where Thor was kind of a dork with fabulous abs, and Loki had looked like a greasy-haired goth kid on CNN, Odin was actually a god. Or near enough as to make no difference; turns out the medieval Scandinavians weren’t ignorant peasants—this guy would make Steve wonder if he was God the Father of All.

She curtsied, hoping she was doing it right. “Darcy Lewis, your Highness.” Her voice didn’t wobble at all, thank you very much; that was just the echo in this huge room. She tried not to sigh in relief when Odin turned his gaze back to Thor.

“To what do we owe the honor of your visitation? I assume it will be brief?” Odin asked.

Dude! Could he be more rude? That was totally royalty-speak for What the hell are you doing here, go away.

Thor’s hands clenched for a long moment, then forcibly relaxed. “The Infinity Stones are gathering on Midgard, in a jewel casket of Mother’s. It was with my lady Jane’s clothing when we last visited, and I thought Mother intended it as a gift to her.”

“It’s spell-woven?” Odin asked, looking intrigued.

Thor nodded. “Yes, I believe so.”

“Have you brought it to Asgard?”

Darcy didn’t like the way Odin was looking at them. She didn’t know why, but Odin should not have that box. He shouldn’t have the stones, shouldn’t have anything near the scary amount of power Thor had told them the stones had. Fuck.

But she nodded anyway; dude could probably tell if she was lying, since he was magic and all, and she didn’t want to get turned into a potato chip. “Yes, it’s with my stuff.”

Stupid. She shouldn’t have left it unattended with her dirty underwear and hiking boots. This was Odin’s palace; she wasn’t surprised when Odin lifted his hand and said “Fetch it” to some previously unseen servant. And fetch it they did. They were back in a moment, and Darcy really didn’t like the avaricious look in Odin’s eyes.

So she was super gratified when the jewelry box zapped him with some kind of electric jolt when he tried to take it from the servant. Ha! Take that, you grouchy, greedy god-dude. Beside her, Jane snorted a tiny laugh.

Odin sat back and scowled at the two women. “What is it you propose to do here?” he asked Thor.

“I tried to reach the Norns through the Well of Sight on Midgard, but was unable to see them,” Thor said.

“They have withdrawn to the Well of Urðr, as they do when Fate is in flux.”

“Then I would speak with the völvur and hear what they will say.” Thor hesitated a moment, then said, “I wish my brother were alive; he might have been able to read Mother’s spellcraft.”

An odd expression flickered over Odin’s face, but was gone so fast Darcy must have imagined it. Odin shrugged and said, “Try your luck with Frigga’s ladies, then, although they are no more likely to speak to you than those three old hags.”

“Maybe they’ll talk to me or Jane,” Darcy found herself arguing.

“Perhaps.” Odin gave her haughty look and glanced at the servant holding the jewelry box. “Return the cask to the mortal woman. I will see you at the banquet,” he said to Thor, standing and striding from the throne room, not looking back.

The banquet was pretty much what Darcy expected, based on the horse-guys in Lord of the Rings. It was loud, filled with people dressed like they were at a Renaissance faire, huge platters of food covering the long tables. Darcy spent the evening beside Jane, as they listened to Thor’s friends boast about adventures that couldn’t possibly be true. The blond guy, Fandral, oh-so-smoothly offered to escort her back to her chambers. She told him she already had testosterone poisoning, thanks; she might be horny as hell but she still had high enough standards to not fuck the obvious Casanova of Asgard. God only knew what kind of space-herpes he’d give her.

*****

The völvur were scary as shit. Like, Odin exuded power and was cranky and a total dickhead. But these ladies were apparently the nerdy version of valkyries like Lady Sif, and Darcy wanted to grow up to be them or something. Serious academic geek-boner. And they were tall and gorgeous too, of course.

And they were genuine motherfucking witches. They hung out in a two-sided pavilion surrounded by gardens, and at first it looked like some hippie-Amazon commune, with fancy flowing dresses and a lot of arts and crafts. The solid walls were floor-to-ceiling books, and the main area was filled with women embroidering, weaving, spinning, making designs in what looked like trays of sand, and singing. They were not what you’d call welcoming; they’d seen Darcy, Thor, and Jane approaching but gave no sign of caring.

They were met at the entrance by a frowny-faced woman who looked like maybe she was Darcy’s mom’s age. Well, at least you knew what people thought of you around here. “Son of Odin.” She glanced briefly at Darcy and Jane.

“Well met, Elin of the Völvur,” Thor replied, bowing low and with much more sincerity than he had to his father. “I have come to ask for whatever knowledge you may be willing to share about a jewel casket I believe my mother spell-bound.”

Elin turned to Darcy, who had the box in her shoulder bag because no way in hell was she leaving it where Odin could steal it or something. It wasn’t even a little bit visible though, WTF. How did the witch know what Darcy had in her bag? “May I see it?”

Darcy got it out and offered it to her, but she didn’t take it. “I am familiar with this object,” Elin said.

Thor looked annoyed. “May we come inside to discuss it?”

She made a face. “Males are not allowed in our hall. Not even Odin. We are without a queen, and we follow no king.”

“You taught Loki,” Thor argued.

“Only once he could shift into the form of a woman, as you well know from your youthful ‘teasing.’ Even then, he was forbidden from our hall. We will sit in the gardens,” she said, gesturing to a side-path.

“Father says that the Norns have withdrawn and are unreachable,” Thor said, once they were seated in a pergola of marble columns and wild roses.

“Yes,” Elin said.

There was a hilarious pause when it was clear that was all she intended to say, and Thor struggled to find his patience. “What will you tell us of Mother’s casket?”

Elin smiled, not quite laughing at him. “May I have your hand, Son of Odin?” Thor shrugged and offered it to her. She took it and gazed into his eyes for several long moments. Finally she let go. “You have changed greatly since we last spoke. Grief and humility have softened your brutish edges. Perhaps you are almost worthy of being named a Son of Frigga.”

Darcy tried not to laugh at the emotions crossing Thor’s face from the backhanded compliment. He settled on, “My thanks, Lady Elin. Perhaps you would grace us with answers? The Infinity Stones are gathering together. The fate of all worlds rests upon them not being used by mankind.”

Elin’s eyes twinkled. “Exactly.” She turned and gave Darcy a penetrating stare, then did the same to Jane. She closed her eyes and hummed, barely-audible, and swayed a little as she sat.

Darcy and Jane exchanged WTF-glances, but Thor seemed to think this was all normal, so they waited as patiently as they could.

When Elin opened her eyes, she gave Darcy the same piercing gaze she’d given Thor a few minutes ago. “Come back after the noon meal,” she said. “I will speak to the Keeper of the Casket after I have had time to reflect upon the matter with my sisters.”

Surprisingly, Thor didn’t argue. He stood, bowed, and thanked Elin for her time.

Well that was disappointing. Darcy and Jane stood and gave Elin a quick bob up and down that could maybe be called a curtsy, making the older woman smile. “Wander through the gardens,” she suggested as they made their way back to the main path. “It’s a lovely morning.”

Thor mumbled his thanks, and the three of them took off through the winding paths of a garden that was the size of a park. There were trees and flowers, paths and bracken. It wasn’t so much a garden as a wild bit of forest, but with tidy paths and more flowers that were probably natural. Then again, she was on a Totally Different Planet, so maybe this was natural for Asgard. Honestly, she kept forgetting she was in Outer Space, since it all looked like a movie set or Ren Faire or something. Also, was the whole planet just this one city or what? It had to be a sphere, right?

They wandered back to the castle, Darcy trailing behind Jane, who wanted to know what all the plants were for and took samples to study on Earth, and Thor, who was looking a little irritated. Darcy couldn’t tell if it was from the lack of answers about the Infinity Stones so far or with Jane’s botanical questions. Probably both.

Chapter Text

After lunch, Thor, Jane, and Darcy retraced their steps back to the völvur, and were escorted to the same pergola. Elin joined them after a short wait.

“The fate of the universe—known and unknown—rests upon you.”

It took Darcy longer than it should have to realize Elin wasn’t speaking to Thor; she was speaking to her. Darcy. Darcy Lewis, Science Assistant, Political Science PhD, Accidentally Sucked Into Avengers Stuff, Really Not Anybody Important. She raised an eyebrow at Elin. “Are you sure?”

Elin threw her head back and laughed, literally until tears had to be wiped from her eyes.

Darcy waited patiently, smiling a little at the joke. Ha ha, witch-lady, but I’m not that dumb.

Finally, Elin got herself together. “Quite certain. Thor is male, through and through. His Lady Jane is a scientist, full of curiosity, who would rather do what she wants than ask permission. Her samples of our plants will not be permitted to leave Asgard,” she said, giving Jane—who looked like she wanted to argue—a stern look.

“But you,” she said, turning back to Darcy, “who are still struggling to find your place in the world, all aspects uncertain and undecided, you are the Keeper of the Stones.”

Darcy could hear the capitals. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, I’ve got a good resume and all, but I’m no superhero.”

Thor started to protest, but subsided when Elin held up a hand to silence him. “How much has Thor told you of the Stones?”

Darcy shrugged. “Enough that I know they mean trouble. They destroy everything, no matter who tries to use them or if their intentions are good.”

“And yet you, a mortal from a primitive planet and little knowledge of what they can do, have held them.”

“What?” Jane all but shrieked.

“Uh, well. I mean obviously I held the green one,” Darcy said. “I wouldn’t have known it was something weird if I hadn’t. But I barely touched the purple one. I wasn’t looking when I reached into the box for some earrings, and my hand kind of ran into the Orb for a second. I didn’t hold it,” she said, hoping that counted for something. “And I haven’t touched the red one. Like, at all.”

Clearly, it didn’t matter to Elin. “Obviously, touching them hasn’t harmed you. The Stones hold the powers of Creation and Destruction, yes, but it does matter who holds them and what they will.” She turned her attention to Thor. “Can you not remember any stories of the Stones being used for anything other than destruction?”

Thor closed his eyes, trying to recall his memories. “Mother… When Mother told the tale, she added that the Stones, each by itself, were terrible forces of evil. But they could do good when they were together, like six poisons balanced by each other can be a remedy. But the knowledge of how to balance them was unknown to man.”

A slight smile curved Elin’s lips. “Have you not solved the riddle yet?”

“We did not come here for riddles and games,” Thor said in a stop-fucking-with-us tone.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Everyone keeps saying men can’t wield them. But I don’t think that means people, it means males. So can women wield them?”

Elin nodded, looking like she wanted to give Darcy a cookie for her cleverness. “It is still quite dangerous, but yes, women have used the Stones for creation and protection many times. Was not the creation of the universe similar to giving birth? Tearing the elements apart to bring new life?”

“Huh.” What—so she wasn’t eloquent all of the time, sue her. “So all this time men have been using the Stones and even if they want good things, it all goes wrong and shi—stuff gets destroyed anyway? But women have been doing the opposite, only no one told anybody about it, and the power of our mighty vaginas couldn’t cancel out or fix the messes the horrible penises made?”

Seriously, that’s what this lady was going with? No fucking way; Darcy called bullshit. Thor also looked skeptical.

“In all civilizations where men concluded that their larger bones and musculature meant they were superior to women, women have learned to keep secrets, big and small,” Elin said.

“Like using certain herbs to miscarry an unwanted pregnancy?” Jane suggested.

“Okay, fine, I’ll give you that,” Darcy interrupted. “But what the ever-loving heck does this all have to do with me? You want me to do what? Hold all the Infinity Stones and make the universe better? Put men in their place, beside and not above women? I’m supposed to end the battle of the sexes?”

Thor and Elin both laughed at her for that. She was totally going to throw out all his poptarts as payback, when they got home.

“Fine.” Darcy pouted a little. “So apparently I’m not ending the gender-war. You said the fate of the universe was in my hands, though. What does that even mean? If you aren’t going to tell me what I’m supposed to do, then I’m just going to go back home to Earth.”

Jane and Thor looked appalled that she would talk to the high-witch lady like that. Whatever, honestly. This chick could turn Darcy into a frog if she wanted to, but she was getting tired of the games.

Elin gave her a stern, then searching look. “The spell has been activated by you, whatever Frigga’s intentions may have been with the casket. The Stones are coming to it and will continue to. They want to be together—let them. Some objects need to simply be kept safe, not used. Perhaps a purpose for them will become more clear as the Norns twine together the threads of Fate. Keep them safe.”

The Or Else wasn’t spoken out loud, but it still thundered through Darcy’s head. And not Or Else I’ll turn you into a frog, but Or Else the universe will end. So, no pressure.

Darcy couldn’t think of anything to say. Thor and Jane seemed equally caught up in their own thoughts. After a moment, Elin smiled again. “Go. Let us see what part you will play in the changing of the fates.”

Thor made polite words and kind of bowed, Jane did her half-assed curtsy, but Darcy stayed behind.

“What is it you wish to ask me?” Elin asked when the other two had gone

Darcy cleared her throat. “So, this is kind of random and is totally 100% not related to all this stone-stuff.”

“Yes?”

“What can you tell me about soulmarks?” she blurted. “The Qusullians gave them to all adults on Earth, and holy crap is it not the gift they seemed to think it would be.”

Elin rolled her eyes. “We don’t believe in using magic for such frivolous ends.”

Not the answer Darcy wanted. “So are they real? Or are they just random names?”

Elin sighed. “They are as real as any other means of matchmaking. A pair is happy together based on what they bring to each other, not on magic. The names you received are simply two individuals whom the Fates think you could be compatible and happy with. There are no guarantees.” She gave Darcy a searching look. “May I see yours?”

Darcy held out her hand, after removing the ring that covered the names most of the time.

“How do you feel, having the names of these two people on your hand?”

“I didn’t like it,” Darcy answered immediately. “It’s so much pressure, when I don’t really even know them. I just met them, and it’s like there are all these expectations.”

“Would you have me remove them?”

Darcy pulled her hand back, and shoved the ring back on, as if it was going to protect the marks from whatever magic the völvur might do. “No. I mean, thanks, but... I don’t think I want them gone. It feels weird to think of them not being there, now.” Darcy took a long moment before deciding yeah, she wanted to keep the names, at least for a while longer. “So are we actually soulmates or what, then? Am I meant to work things out with them?”

“Fate doesn’t care about your love life,” Elin shrugged. “Unless your affair is a critical component in the unfolding of the universe, it’s irrelevant. You will find happiness where you look for it, where you plant seeds and tend to their growth.”

Well, that made sense. But, “There’s no connection to this and the Stones though, right? It’s just a coincidence that I met the guys around the same time.”

Elin laughed as she stood. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Keeper,” she said, bowing her head a little. “Try to remember that Fate will unfold as it will.”

Darcy blinked like an idiot. Did the head witch-lady of another goddamned planet just fucking tell her to not stress about the fate of the whole goddamned universe—which she’d just said was in Darcy’s hands—and take life as it came?

Goddamn, she needed a pitcher of margaritas. Or to punch someone. Maybe both.

Fuck magic-users, honestly.

*****

They didn’t linger overlong, once the consultation with the witches was finished. Thor and Jane were impatient to get out of Asgard and get back to the lab, respectively. Darcy rounded up her things—how had her fancy princess clothes ended up in her totebag?—and they were off down the yellow brick road. Er, rainbow bridge. Whatthefuckever.

As they left the taxi-ship and approached Heimdall, Darcy suddenly got a little paranoid that Odin might have somehow taken the jewelry box from her, so she rummaged around until she found it in her bag. She breathed a sigh of relief and withdrew it. Her short-lived relief was quickly cancelled out by a soft thud and sudden increase to the weight of the box in her hand.

“Fuck. There’s a new Infinity stone in here, isn’t there?” she whined. She opened the box and a fairly large blue cube nearly blinded her with light, making her yelp and shove the box at Thor.

“That is the Tesseract,” Heimdall helpfully pointed out.

“Indeed it is.” Thor shut the box and passed it back to Darcy to stow in her bag.

“You’d best be on your way, before our king finds out,” Heimdall said, gesturing them inside the chamber.

“Agreed,” Jane said, taking Darcy by the elbow and Thor by the hand. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Heimdall turned his sword-in-the-stone and a door opened. Thor, Jane, and Darcy stepped through, back to the nauseating swirl of colors and wind. Her stomach turned inside out, and they landed back on the roof-patio of Avengers Tower, likely in the same exact spot they’d left from. This time Darcy did fall to her knees and hurl up the contents of her stomach.

“Sorry, JARVIS,” she said, once she’d stopped heaving. God, she was so classy.

A small robot bumped her arm. “No need for concern, Ms. Lewis,” came JARVIS’s smooth voice. “Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

Bucky idly considered jumping off Avengers tower that morning, after Darcy, Jane, and Thor had left. Probably it would just hurt a lot, not actually kill him. Not much short of a bullet or blade slicing through his brain or removing his head would take him out. Not that he wanted to die, really, even though he deserved it. He was drowning in guilt.

All right, that was a little dramatic—he didn’t want to die, he just didn’t want to be alive. What he wanted, truly, was to get the fuck out of this tower, away from Darcy and Steve, away from anyone he could possibly hurt, crawl into a cave somewhere, and live like a hobo in Hooverville. Maybe with his phone though, so Steve could check up on him. And possibly stop by for conjugal visits. Not that Bucky deserved them.

He spent the first day Darcy was gone sitting in his closet. Steve knew where he was, so he wasn’t hiding. It was just nice in there. Dark, cozy, and utterly free of anyone he could accidentally strangle, crush, or otherwise murder. Perfect.

He spent the second and third days in there, too, only leaving to use the toilet. Steve brought him food. He didn’t deserve a bed. Or light. Or company.

But try to tell that to Steve, that punk. He’d sit outside the closet door, talking to him while Bucky ate, babbling on about whatever exciting events had transpired during the day—Romanov was back and out for blood for whoever had drank her vodka—and generally keeping him company. When he finally yelled at Steve that he didn’t deserve human contact, he could hear Steve roll his eyes.

“It’s not about what you deserve, remember? It’s about what I deserve, and I deserve you, being a thorn in my side, from now until…” There was an expectant pause.

Bucky sighed. “Until the end of the line.”

“Exactly. So are you going to come on out of there?”

“No.”

There was a long pause, and a small sigh. “It’s okay if you’re not ready yet. I’m just worried about you.”

“Yeah, I’m worried about me too. I thought I was past this. But it’s never gonna go away, no matter what.” Bucky could feel his throat closing up as his eyes welled with tears.

There was a pause. “I hear you, and I get that you feel that way right now. But you’ve come so far. Hydra had you, fucking with your brain for seventy years. It’s only been ten months since you started undoing all that damage, working so hard. I think you’re doing real well,” Steve finished.

Bucky couldn’t speak, and Steve couldn’t see him, but he shook his head anyway.

“And Darcy’s fine, you know? A little bruised, but nowhere near as bad as it coulda been. You pulled your punch—so to speak—at the last minute. And I know she’s not mad at you. Neither is anyone else.” Steve paused again. “You want me to stay here and reassure you, or babble about baseball games, or do you want me to go away? Knock once to go away, twice for baseball.”

Bucky heaved a sigh, knowing Steve could hear him. He turned over the options, then knocked once.

“All right,” Steve said. “I’m going to go away for a couple of hours until dinner. Just tell JARVIS if you need me, okay?” He got up and put his hand flat on the closet door. “I love you.”

You shouldn’t, Bucky thought. But there was no arguing with Steve, even if Bucky felt up to it. Stubborn bastard.

On the fourth day, Steve knocked and then opened the door about three inches, standing well out of the way while he propped up a tablet in the opening. “You have a phone call,” he said. “I’m gonna go out to the living room. I’ll put on some music so you can have some privacy.”

Bucky sighed and wished he’d run a comb through his hair at least once in the last four days. He probably looked like shit. Then again, he felt like shit. He was shit.

“I hear you had an extreme episode a few days ago,” Dr. Hall said from the StarkPad. “It sounds pretty bad, from what Steve said.”

There was a pause, until Bucky figured out she was waiting for him to make eye contact with her on the screen. He couldn’t quite manage it, but he nodded.

“I understand why you’re still in a bad place; it’s awful to feel like we’ve failed or let ourselves—and others—down. If it’s all right with you, I’m going to talk some, ask questions. You don’t have to answer. You don’t even have to listen; you can end the call any time. But I think I have some tools that might help.”

Bucky listened to Evelyn for a little while and found himself relaxing to the sound of her soothing voice. She left long pauses after her questions, and eventually he started answering them. They talked for about an hour, until Bucky reached a point where his eyes weren’t so much leaking as he was outright crying. When it seemed clear the storm wasn’t going to pass quickly, Evelyn encouraged him to get it out of his system. If he felt up to it, they could talk more tomorrow.

He managed to whisper “Thank you” before she ended the call. He asked JARVIS to tell Steve he needed some space, and then gave himself over to the anguish inside, all of his fear, his despair. He sobbed until his eyes burned and his throat hurt. He fell asleep curled up on the floor of the closet, wrung out, but maybe a little bit lighter than before.

*****

When he woke up, it was dark and there was a bottle of water outside the door. After a quick trip to the toilet, he downed the water, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and realized how grungy he was. Although it was a monumental effort, he started the shower, stripped, and got in. He wasn’t terribly surprised when the bathroom door opened, and Steve joined him in the shower.

“Is this okay? You can kick me out.”

Bucky shrugged, still not ready to talk.

Steve seemed okay with that, though, and took the soap and cloth from Bucky’s hands, where he’d been trying to work up the energy to clean himself. Instead, Steve lathered it up and washed him. Steve was slow and careful—and thorough!—and Bucky let his eyes close and surrendered. Not that it was easy; he’d rather be beaten to a pulp than accept Steve’s loving touches. He didn’t deserve them. But he was too tired to let those thoughts back inside his head, so he simply stood and let Steve bathe him and wash his hair.

He let Steve dry him off, too, feeling remote and detached from his body, but calm for the first time in days. Steve sat him at the table and put a sandwich and soup in front of him. Once he’d eaten, Steve escorted him to the bathroom, put a toothbrush in his hand, and left him alone. When he’d finished, flushed, and opened the door, Steve steered him into bed. Steve wrapped Bucky in a loose embrace, kissed his shoulder, and let him fall asleep without a word.

*****

The next few days were rough, but better. Dr. Hall had called him every day. She’d suggested he seek out the other residents of the tower, one at a time. He had questioned the wisdom of that, fully expecting to be smashed to a pulp or fried with lasers or have his throat slashed—he wasn’t sure what Ms. Potts would do to him, but he had no doubt it would be just as fatal.

Still, he did it. He deserved whatever they threw at him. To his surprise, the interactions had gone far better than anticipated.

Dr. Banner had given him a searching look. “I’ve been there. Sucks. Next time, try to remember there are safe places you can go until you calm down.”

No one had ever specifically mentioned the possibility of Bucky—the Winter Soldier—using the Hulk Room, but it was comforting to have an invitation. JARVIS had added that he would happily follow the same protocol for Sgt. Barnes that he had prepared for Dr. Banner.

Stark had been a little more difficult. He let Bucky into his workshop but didn’t initiate conversation and didn’t make eye contact as he worked on… something.

Finally, Bucky squared his shoulders and said, “I wanted to come and check to see how you want to handle this. I can go, if you think I should. I’m working with my therapist again, but I can’t make any guarantees. I’m sorry.”

Tony snorted. “I’m not the one whose throat you could have crushed; don’t apologize to me.”

Bucky flinched.

With a sigh, Tony put down the soldering gun and wires, although he stayed on his side of the workbench. “Look, I get it. Things happen. I have panic attacks. Usually I just hyperventilate until I collapse, but one time I flew the Iron Man suit over two thousand miles while not really conscious. I could have…. Well. I could have hurt people is the point.”

“But you didn’t. And I did.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, you win the PTSD competition, geez! You’re always going to win, I can’t fucking understand how you’re even here, how you’re Bucky Barnes instead of the Winter Soldier. You must be the most mentally resilient bastard ever born.”

“Watch what you say about my ma,” Bucky said after a slight hesitation, aiming to match Stark’s lighter tone of voice.

“Right, right,” Tony said, grabbing a wrench and fidgeting with it. “The point is, I understand, as much as I’m able. Shit, everyone here has probably had similar things happen, where they hurt—or almost hurt—someone. Similar-ish things, anyway. I think we’re probably all on our second, third, or eightieth chance. If you’d hurt her, this conversation would be different. But you almost managed to hold yourself back; I watched the security footage. You’re doing better. Now get out of my workshop; I have things to do. Important, genius things.” He tossed the wrench across the table, glared at the soldering iron, and picked up a welding helmet.

Bucky found Agent Romanov in the kitchen. She punched him in the solar plexus. He looked up at her from the floor, unsure if she was going to continue but willing to let her.

She raised an eyebrow, then smiled a scary smile. “We’re good now.”

He would have said “Thanks” but was too busy coughing as she walked away.

And Ms. Potts was in Buenos Aires.

Now he just had to face Darcy, whenever she came back.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that Steve wasn’t worried about Bucky or that he thought Bucky was being melodramatic, but he’d talked to Darcy right after it happened and he knew she wasn’t upset or angry. And there wasn’t anything he could do about Bucky’s mental state until he came out of the closet. So to speak.

After several days of Bucky’s self-imposed solitary confinement, Steve called Dr. Collinson, who referred him to Dr. Hall; Bucky had always seemed to have a good connection with her. On her advice, Steve planned a few ways to show Bucky that he was loved and trusted, even (especially) if he didn’t think he deserved it. He was less enthusiastic about the plan for Bucky to seek out the other tower residents one-on-one and had made JARVIS promise to alert him if Bucky seemed overly upset during or after any of those talks.

And then he had words with JARVIS about how even though Bucky hadn’t been “overly upset” about being punched by Nat, Steve should still have been notified. Geez.

All in all, it was a damn long week. He was worried about Bucky in a hundred different aspects: him shutting down, refusing to touch anyone again, or even disappearing. Everyone else in the tower was worried about why Thor and Jane and Darcy had been gone so long, when Thor had made it sound like they were just popping out for a quick drink and some conversation. Steve was worried about them too. After five days, Steve was ready to admit that he didn’t just miss the trio, he missed Darcy herself. She made Bucky smile and laugh, and Buck really needed that right now. He needed Darcy; they needed Darcy. She could help Bucky in ways Steve couldn’t.

He was a little surprised to find that thought didn’t sting the way it would have a month ago.

Her name came up one evening as he was flipping through movie options, Bucky’s head on his shoulder. Steve had paused over the animated kids’ movies list, reading the summaries. Darcy would know exactly which one Bucky needed right now. She had picked up on reading his moods quickly and knew when to push, when to comfort quietly, and when to distract or cheer Bucky up with something ridiculous.

“I think she mentioned Shrek recently,” Bucky offered.

Steve made a noise of agreement. “She is the cultural expert. Want to give it a try? JARVIS, what do you think? Any heavy themes?”

“Ms. Lewis has Shrek tagged ‘mind candy’ on her list, which I believe means she considers it to have no alarming content.”

“Good enough for me,” Bucky said. Steve shrugged and started the movie. About halfway through the picture, out of nowhere, Bucky said, “I’m worried about what’s gonna happen, when she comes back. But I miss her.”

Steve tightened his arm around Bucky. “We’ll handle it together.” And then, “I miss her too. She makes you happy.”

“I am pretty miserable with just your sorry ass hangin’ around.”

Steve smothered a chuckle, twisting a little to press a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “Everyone’s got their role to play.”

*****

The next morning there was a crashing boom and JARVIS announced the return of the space travelers. Steve, Bucky, Natasha, and Pepper were having breakfast in the common area—Tony had been there too, but then he got a manic look and started talking a mile a minute to JARVIS, and ran off to his workshop with half a waffle in his hand. Pepper had totally ignored it, like that was normal in her world. It probably was.

Darcy followed Thor and Jane inside, ignoring Jane’s shout of delight, “Yay! Breakfast for dinner, awesome!” Instead she went straight to the kitchen sink, where she drank, swished, and spat a glass of water, before joining the others at the table. She must have upchucked upon her arrival again, poor kid.

Once at the table, Darcy stared at Pepper’s silky dressing gown for a moment. “This isn’t breakfast-for-dinner, is it? It’s actual breakfast for you guys.”

Bucky seemed to be trying to become invisible—unsuccessfully, thank god—so Steve answered. “Yeah, it’s a little after 7:30. What time was it on Asgard?”

“Seriously? JARVIS?” Darcy asked, ignoring his question as her eyes widened.

Why on earth would he lie about what time it was? But he decided not to take it personally when she turned white as a sheet at JARVIS’s answer.

“It’s 7:38, Eastern Standard Time, on Tuesday, May the 18th, 2015 C.E. Would you like the weather forecast and news highlights?” JARVIS asked politely.

Thor and Jane, who had been steadily eating pancakes and bacon drenched in maple syrup, both paused, forks mid-way to their mouths.

“We were gone for like, thirty-six hours at the most!” Darcy yelped. “I mean, I know we arrived at the palace a little before the dinner banquet when it was still early morning here, but still. What the fuck?”

“I’ve told you before that time runs differently across the realms,” Thor said, shrugging as he reached for a carafe of juice.

“Huh, I wonder if that has anything to do with the actual milliseconds ‘inside’ the Einstein-Rosen bridge, like maybe time halts or stands still to the subject, even though it only felt like the barest blink of an eye. At least to a human subject, anyway…. I wonder if we could measure….” Jane trailed off, her food forgotten. “Uh, excuse me,” she said, pushing back her chair and practically running for the elevator.

Thor smiled, shaking his head. “She will figure out the mysteries of our universe someday, I have no doubt. Perhaps now she will better understand how time passes in my perception.”

“So we were gone for almost a week?” Darcy asked.

“Six days exactly, in about an hour,” Steve said.

“Holy fuck.”

He tried not to laugh out loud at her bewildered expression. She’d gone to another planet after all, what did she expect? But then maybe his—and Bucky’s—experiences with losing time made it less of a big deal than it was to regular people.

“Have a seat and drink some coffee,” Pepper suggested, as she passed the carafe to Darcy. “You’ll want to get reacclimated to this time zone and the caffeine will help. Although I wouldn’t advise it on an empty stomach.”

Darcy’s cheeks turned a light pink. “Yeah, of course. Good point. Sorry, again, about the barfing; I never used to get motion-sick….” She fixed her coffee, and Steve passed her the basket of muffins, since she’d seemed put off by Thor and Jane’s syrupy concoctions. She nodded her thanks, took one, and passed the basket to Bucky, who was sitting across from her.

Bucky, who Steve didn’t think had actually exhaled since the trio had come inside, had his gaze fixed on her throat, still colored with fading bruises. Which of course it would be, if it had only been a day and a half for her. When she passed Bucky the muffins, he drew back, and that caught her attention.

She reached her hand across the table, palm up, inviting Bucky to take it but not pressuring. “Okay, no. This,” she gestured at her throat with the other hand, “was an accident. For both of us. I knew you were having a bad time after your meltdown at dinner and should have broadcast my movements more; I know better than that. And you didn’t do any actual damage, because you caught yourself, because you’re getting better. So don’t be an idiot about it, okay?”

That, right there, was why Steve had missed her. She didn’t dismiss Bucky’s actions or feelings but didn’t give any openings for unnecessary guilt either. Straight to the point.

“No promises,” Bucky mumbled, making Steve snort.

Natasha cleared her throat. “I’ll set up a debriefing for your return this evening,” she said, nodding at Thor. Then she turned her attention to Darcy. “Until then: in one hour, in the private gym, Steve and Darcy. Barnes, you’ll watch from the sidelines.” Darcy opened her mouth to protest—it was evening for her, after all—but Natasha quelled her objection with a look. “Enemies don’t wait until you’re rested and ready to go.”

Darcy sighed. “Point.”

“I would like to watch as well,” Thor added, the protective tone in his voice clear.

“Great, there’ll be a whole audience,” Darcy said, rolling her eyes. “Fine. But only because I agree that it’s a good idea; you don’t get to tell me what to do,” she said, giving Natasha a look.

Natasha slowly raised one eyebrow.

“Uh. Maybe you do?” Darcy said, intimidated. She reached for the platter of eggs saying, “Steve, pass the coffee again, would you? I’m going to need all of it.”

*****

The two hours with Natasha were mostly focused on awareness and how to predict an opponent’s moves. No one was implying that Darcy could have evaded the Winter Soldier or anything, but it was still a good lesson. One Steve wouldn’t have thought to teach, since he’d been dodging punches since he was a boy getting his butt kicked in alleyways.

He and Thor had taken turns attacking Natasha and then Darcy in slow motion, freezing, and holding the position while she lectured Darcy on their styles of attack and how their bodies were broadcasting their intentions. Apparently, this reminded Darcy of a game called “freeze tag” and made her laugh frequently. Steve was pleased to notice the occasional smile from Bucky as he watched from the sidelines.

“Eventually you will have seen the attack patterns enough times that your eyes will register the movement and your body will react instinctively,” Natasha said as they wrapped up the session.

“Eventually? Like, are we talking days or years?” Darcy was sitting on the mat, stretching her shoulders and back. “It’s not like I’m looking to start Avenging or anything.”

Natasha snorted. “No one is thinking that.” Darcy made a face at her. “What we’re hoping is that you won’t be so much of a liability.”

“I’m not even going to be at the battles or whatever,” she protested.

“Your student-home was invaded, and you were here when the tower was attacked,” Thor said.

“Our names are on your hand,” Bucky said, speaking for the first time. “Someone will find out eventually, and you’ll be a target.”

“Great,” Darcy said, slumping over. “Maybe I could just wear armor 24/7. Or Tony could make me an Iron Woman suit…. I bet he’d put enormous boobs on it.”

That surprised a laugh out of them all, including Bucky. Steve had been right; Darcy really knew how to cheer people up, not by trying, but just by being her regular effervescent self. It was like the cloud of gloom that had been hovering over Bucky for a week suddenly lightened. Skies might not be totally clear, but the clouds were fluffy white cotton-balls with just a little bit of grey now.

*****

Over the next couple of days, Steve could see the tension in Bucky’s body start to relax. His movements as they sparred were looser, he had more of an appetite, and he smiled more. Steve didn’t think he’d seen Bucky laugh yet, but it was still a big improvement from the man who had hidden himself in a closet for four days, afraid to interact with the world.

So he was somewhat taken aback when Bucky asked him, out of the blue, “You got a real razor blade somewhere?”

Steve had no idea what to do with that question.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “I want to see what I look like without stubble, and I hate those fiddly little disposable things.”

Bucky’s appearance was kind of a big deal, but one they never talked about. Steve understood that Bucky didn’t want to look like the clean-cut, charming young man he’d been before the war, and he’d tried not to indicate that he had an opinion one way or the other.

He gave Bucky a searching look. “I don’t, but we can get one. What brought this on?”

Bucky shrugged, trying for dismissive and missing by about a mile. “I just want to see… if I… need it,” he said, haltingly.

To hide behind? Well, Steve could understand that. Sometimes he’d thought about growing his beard, hoping it would make him less recognizable. But it felt one step too far removed from the man he’d been before the serum, and he hadn’t given it a try beyond the scruff he sometimes grew during a long mission.

“How about your, what’s it called, man-bun?” Steve asked, smirking. Bucky had cut his hair a few times himself, and had Steve try to neaten it up after. He’d suggested Bucky go into a barbershop one of the times when they went out to the middle of Nowheresville but hadn’t had much success with that. And he wasn’t exactly one to speak; it had taken a long while before he’d been ready for a more updated haircut, despite Tony’s teasing.

The man-bun had sort of grown on Steve, actually. He liked being able to run his fingers through Bucky’s long strands of silky hair, when he took it down at night. These days he was wearing it pulled back from his face most of the time; neither one of them could fathom why Hydra had washed every inch of Bucky’s body and shaved his face, but not cut off his hair, which was obviously a vision barrier. Idiots.

But Steve had been letting Bucky get to it in his own time, no pressure, no urge to see Bucky look like his “old self.” Bucky was a different man now, and it made sense to Steve that he’d want to see that difference in the mirror. How he looked, presented himself, was one of the things the docs had made sure Steve understood to let Bucky handle on his own.

“Ass. I know you like the bun,” Bucky said.

“I like your buns.”

Bucky laughed. “That’s seriously the best you can do with that? Pathetic, old man.”

Steve moved close, wrapping his arms around Bucky until he could squeeze a handful of the buns in question. “I’d rather save my energy for what I can do with this.”

“Oh yeah?” Bucky asked, pressing a leg between Steve’s as he brought their bodies and lips together. “Got some big plans for my ass?”

“It’s not that big,” Steve said with fake modesty, pressing their crotches together. “You can take it.”

And then he realized what he’d said and tried not to cringe. He and Bucky also hadn’t ever talked about the fact that Steve always bottomed, or at least was always the one penetrated. He got that it made Bucky feel too vulnerable, and he was fine with that, honestly. He’d be blissfully happy for the rest of his life even if he never fucked Bucky’s gorgeous ass. He wanted to, of course, but it wasn’t a big deal.

To him.

To Bucky, it was more of an issue. He wasn’t surprised when Bucky sidestepped the subject with humor instead.

“I dunno; you’re a pretty big fella now,” Bucky teased, sliding a hand between them to palm Steve’s burgeoning erection. “Sometimes I wish we’d tried this out when you were still little, so I could see how much this changed,” he added with a squeeze.

Steve snorted. “Some. My hands were already kind of big for my body, though, if you know what I mean.”

“They were indeed,” Bucky agreed, moving his head to mouth at Steve’s neck. “Spent a lot of time watching those hands, you drawing. Wondering what they’d feel like.”

“Sorry I got all big,” Steve joked.

Bucky took his comment seriously, though. “I like this body, too. I just… knew the other one for longer. I get that one is ‘perfect,’ healthier, stronger, and has kept your stupid ass from getting killed. But I know the little guy is still in there somewhere. Sometimes it’s him I want to touch.”

“I woulda died of an asthma attack if you’d so much as kissed me back then,” Steve pointed out. “But… thanks. Sometimes I need a reminder that I’m still that guy. Sort of.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Bucky agreed, embracing Steve more tightly. “Between us, we’ve got, what, at least six people in our heads? Younger selves, Captain America, Winter Soldier, modern you, recovering me. We need a bigger bed.”

“I don’t mind the crowd,” Steve murmured, bringing their lips together. The kiss started off with an edge of tenderness but was quickly eclipsed by the need to show Bucky how much he wanted all of him. In all ways. Always.

“Seems like there’s plenty of room in this bed, to me,” he mused quite a while later as lay together, sweat cooling and heart rates returning to normal.

Bucky hummed in agreement. “Although….”

“Yeah?”

“Well, things were maybe a little crowded that one night we slept with Darcy, to warm her up.”

Steve made a conscious effort not to tense up. “Is that… something you want to try again?”

Bucky shrugged a little. “Eventually, I guess. Not tonight or anything; gotta give a gal some time to warm up to you.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah, that might take some work, after the last couple of months.” He paused. “I’m tryin’, though.”

“I know you are.” Bucky twisted a little to give him a kiss. “I just…. It’s not that anything’s missing with you or that you’re not enough, okay? Let’s be clear about that. But she adds something, when we’re around her. Things seem easier.”

“She smooths out the edges. When I’m not being an asshole,” Steve added.

“She’s so…. normal. And real. She makes the world seem like maybe it’s okay to be here, even if we skipped over half a century.”

“Yeah.” There were a few minutes of silence while they both turned that over in their heads.

“I think we should date her,” Bucky said, not actually surprising Steve in the least.

“She might not be interested, after everything.”

“Nah, she wants us.”

“She’s lusty and she wants to have sex with you,” Steve clarified.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short. She wants to fuck you too, darlin’.”

Steve laughed. There was another pause. “You sure you’re ready for this? We’re ready?”

“I ain’t sure of a lot, but I’m sure about you. And if some weird aliens thought we’d be good with her, too, I think we should see if they were right.”

“Now, though?”

“You got something better to do than court her?”

Steve laughed. “No, I guess you’re right. And we’ve taken greater risks than this.”

Bucky snorted. “Yeah, that’s sure true.”

“They’ve mostly worked out.”

“Exactly. There was that one time that I fell off a freight train in the Alps and got my arm torn off and was captured by Hydra and tortured and turned into an assassin for seventy years. I mean, that was only once, but....”

Steve rolled his eyes and squeezed Bucky tight. “Going to hold that over my head for the rest of our lives, aren’t you?”

“That’s my plan,” Bucky returned, a soft smile on his face that Steve had to kiss away. It took a while.

Chapter Text

“Is it just me or are the old dudes acting weird?” Darcy asked.

Jane didn’t look away from the wall-size screen she was standing in front of. “Weird how?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, but it’s making me feel… twitchy. Like, they keep asking me if I want to join them for dinner or movies. Which we do all the time anyway, so why ask like it’s special?”

“Maybe they want to do something special,” Jane suggested, still only half paying attention to Darcy. Well, maybe a third. A quarter; she had a quarter of Jane’s attention, at least. Probably.

“Whatever; it’s weird. I mean, I’m with them like almost all day anyhow, what with the researching evil dickheads and the training to be a badass. Ugh—so much training, Janey, it’s like my second job.”

Jane made a sympathetic noise as she scribbled some numbers on the screen with a light-pen.

“How come you don’t have to spend hours learning to punch people and get out of grappling holds and running, so much running. Have I mentioned how much I hate running? I mean, I hate it, but my boobs? My boobs loathe running. Anyway, why aren’t you suffering with me?”

“Because no one’s going to kill me; they’ll want me for my big brain,” Jane answered. A silence long enough for Jane to finally notice followed. “Not that you’re not smart too!” she stumbled, trying to get her foot out of her mouth. “I just mean, everyone knows about my genius. Yours is yet to be discovered by the public.”

Darcy harrumphed. “Nice save.”

“Bitch, you have a PhD; no one thinks you’re stupid. And if they do, it’s only because they’re looking at your tits and they’re stupid. The bad men, I mean. Not your tits. They seem… very intelligent?” Jane concluded in a hopeful tone.

The chuckle that had started as soon as Jane had addressed her “bitch” turned into full out laughter; the kind that had Darcy bent over gasping for air. It took a long time to stop, and by then she’d thought of and rejected several comebacks. Jane had, predictably, gotten reabsorbed in her equations, ignoring the giggle-fest behind her.

“So what do I do?”

Jane finally turned around to look at her. “Seriously? Ask them why they’re being weird. Ask JARVIS if he thinks the guys are being weird. Ask Tony. Why in the cosmos would you think I’m the one to ask about your soulmates? They want to hang out with you. Hang out with them if you want to, or don’t if you don’t.”

“So helpful,” Darcy mumbled. This was what she got for having a BFF who wasn’t great with people.

Of course Jane heard that, and flipped her off without turning around.

That night she and the boys watched Steven Universe with Hawkeye, who was visiting. The old dudes were utterly confused by it, and that made Darcy and Clint almost cry from laughing so hard.

Bucky threw popcorn at them. “Hush up, I can’t hear what’s going on. Why are his fingers turning into cats?”

“I can’t breathe,” Darcy gasped, falling sideways onto Steve. “I’m dying.”

“You’ll live,” Steve said, pushing her back upright. “Why doesn’t anything in this show make sense?”

“Just sit back and soak up the awesome,” Clint advised. “It’ll make sense later.”

“Sort of,” Darcy qualified.

“Why are we watching a cartoon that doesn’t make sense?” Steve asked.

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Where’s Tony hiding the super-boy booze? Cartoons are better when you’re drunk.”

“Or high,” Clint added. “Or on painkillers.”

“Anything where your brain is mostly off,” Darcy agreed.

Bucky made an exasperated noise, got up, and tossed the remains of the popcorn at her and Clint. “Whatever. I’m heating up the leftovers,” he said as he stomped off to the kitchen.

He’d been in a mood ever since Clint had joined the three of them for dinner, and Darcy had no clue why. Steve seemed a little irked as well. Clint was clearly amused by their grouchiness. Whatever—men made no sense.

*****

It started to make some sense the next day, when Bucky cleared his throat at the end of their research session. “Darcy, would you like to have dinner with us tonight? We’ll cook.”

Darcy’s brain took a few seconds to recalibrate.

You’ll cook?”

“Nothing elaborate,” Steve said, “but yeah, we can cook. We’d like to. In our apartment.”

“Oooooh-kay. Should I bring something?”

“Just yourself, gorgeous,” Bucky said, his eyes lighting up at her acceptance.

“Okay.” She stacked up some papers. “Is this, like, a date or something?”

“We’d like it to be,” Steve answered.

“Huh.” That was…. unexpected. Sort of. Was it, though? She’d have to ponder it over. And decide what to wear. If she wanted it to be a date. Did she? Fuck.

“You’re not going to change clothes, are you?”

Bucky and Steve shared a glance. “We’ll probably put on buttoned shirts, if that’s all right?”

She nodded. “Of course. Your place, your rules.” Goddamnit, did she need to get Jane to wax her brows? “Is this fancy?”

“No,” Bucky answered, cutting off Steve, who’d opened his mouth to reply. “No, it’s casual. We just want to have dinner with you and have you all to ourselves.”

Darcy honestly had no idea how she felt about that. It was a pretty big 180-turn from the last time a three-way romance had been discussed. Then again, a hell of a lot had happened since then. Then again, not all of had been good, either. Did she want to date them?

Well, it wasn’t like she had anything else to do. And playing it safe was so boring.

*****

Darcy made herself a vodka martini and flopped down on her sofa to give the whole “dating” thing some thought. About three sips in, she realized she was far too twitchy to sit and calmly ponder, so she got up to start tidying, because what’s more fun that tipsy tidying?

Also her rooms were kind of a pig-sty, so two birds, one stone, and why were people throwing stones at birds anyway? Geez, give the birds a break, man.

So, right. Dating the superguys.

Maybe this was all just because of being stuck in this stupid tower for so long. They were the only singles, and they were around each other all the time. Like, on some levels, it wasn’t all that different from going to a small school and being limited to the same people every day. That was how she’d met most of her exes, anyhow, and maybe it wasn’t the meet-cute a girl dreams of, but…. Maybe it wasn’t that contrived after all.

Maybe it was just convenience, but maybe that was okay.

Too many maybes.

She had a big swallow of the martini. Try a different approach.

Okay, so, it wasn’t like she was still getting her knickers in a twist about becoming friends with Tony Stark of all people, so if you get rid of the OMG famous person part of Steve and Bucky and them being fucking living legends, maybe it wasn’t that weird? Maybe she could kind of see how Fate would throw them together?

Stupid Fate. Elin of the völvur hadn’t been terribly helpful. She’d basically said that they might be compatible or they might not. That it depended on what Darcy wanted to do.

Which was actually a huge relief, feeling like this was her choice again, no matter what was written on her hand. It was still hers, to do with it as she wanted.

And maybe she was just borrowing trouble because this could all be a platonic friendship soulmates-thing anyway. In fact, that’s what a good relationship was supposed to be like, right? So it wasn’t like she was obligated to do anything. Even if she was, it would just be making an effort to be friends. That wasn’t a huge ask, right?

Plus she was already doing that. She was friends with Bucky—flirty friends—and she and Steve were… working it out. He’d made a sincere effort to change his behavior in the last month, and while she wasn’t 100% comfortable being alone with him, she was reasonably sure he wouldn’t hurt her. Bucky was the one who’d actually hurt her, after all, even if it was an accident.

And maybe she’d needed to be a little more conscious about what the two of them were dealing with. Not that she was excusing Steve for being an unequivocal dick to her date, or for looming at her, but…. It seemed like he maybe had just needed a kick in the ass that that wasn’t how you treated a woman, nowadays. No looming, no sex-shaming, no avoiding responsibility for being a jerkface.

Okay, so she was still a little leery around Steve. And the boys definitely came as a package deal….

Of course, they were both fucking gorgeous, and she would do them in a heartbeat, if not for all that baggage. But she had her own baggage too. So she could take things as they came. She could roll with it. That’s what she did, roll.

And she was going to save the motherfucking universe apparently, so she was quite capable of handling two silly little soulmate-friend dudes, right?

Right.

*****

Dinner went well and was only slightly awkward. Darcy amused herself by bringing the boys a bouquet of daisies, which made them both laugh a little—although Bucky had looked rather pleased. Dinner was simple but tasty: steak, potatoes, fresh peas, salad, and ice cream. Hanging out mostly felt like any other evening they were alone together in the common areas. They ate, they watched a movie, and she went back to her place. No big deal.

Completely not a big deal at all that she’d had a date with her soulmates. Sure.

A few days later, JARVIS figuratively cleared his throat mid-morning and said, “Sir has an announcement.”

This was followed by Tony muttering, “You could have just done it without the fanfare, you know.” Then, louder, “This is your landlord speaking. In honor of my birth and continued existence, there will be a small soirée tonight—a soirette, if you will. Dinner will be prepared by an off-site chef and delivered to our home. A motion picture with full color and sound will be selected for the guests’ viewing pleasure. So basically, any other take-out-and-a-movie night, but with cocktails, and I get to pick the food and movie. Penthouse, 7 pm.”

Then, “Correction, Pepper will be selecting the movie so that it isn’t a porno. And apparently there will be cake.”

Darcy snorted, thinking of Steve and Bucky’s responses to watching a porno in mixed company. Then she wondered if they ever watched porn together. Then she needed to splash her face with cold water because it had suddenly gotten very warm in her panti—apartment! In her apartment. Yeah.

Dinner turned out to be pizza. From Naples. Because billionaire, apparently.

Pretty much everyone showed up for dinner, although Bruce made his excuses and returned to work on his current radiation-neutralizing mold project or whatever it was. It seemed he couldn’t leave it untended for too long or something bad would happen that Darcy didn’t want to know about. She spent all day in that lab with that mold. It had better not eat her.

The rest settled into the penthouse living room, which was much smaller than the one on the common floor. Natasha, Steve, Bucky, and Darcy were squeezed together on the sofa, while Thor and Jane claimed one loveseat, with Tony and Pepper on another.

When the movie started, Darcy and Jane both cheered.

Tony groaned. “It’s my birthday, Pep, not yours. Unfair.”

Darcy turned a quizzical look at them.

“Tony had a fling with some of the cast,” Pepper explained, grinning. “Most of the cast. Baz berates him about it every time they see each other. It’s hilarious.”

“To you,” Tony muttered.

“Yes. To me,” she said, raising her glass of champagne at him in a toast.

How that woman put up with Tony Stark was a mystery for the ages. At least she seemed mostly amused by his slutty past, rather than upset about it, Darcy supposed. It wasn’t like she’d been at all surprised by it when they finally got together.

Anyway, Strictly Ballroom was one of Darcy’s favorite movies. It was hilarious and cheezy and touching, and a gorgeous spectacle of music, dancing, sequins, and feathers. Plus Australian accents. And life lessons about being true to who you were. And did she mention the dancing?

She accidentally (sort of) kept wiggling in time to the music, which seemed to amuse Bucky to no end. They’d cuddled a little bit before, the distances between them growing smaller over the last week or so. Tonight they were crowded so close Steve and Bucky had their arms over the back of the sofa to keep their stupidly broad shoulders out of the way for Darcy and Natasha.

Or Bucky was the smoothest motherfucker this side of the 1950s, and had just found the perfect way to get his arm around Darcy and make it seem chivalrous. Either way, it was a good arm to have wrapped around her, and he was comfy to lean against. And he and Steve had nice laughs, when they really let go.

When the movie ended—amidst cheers and laughter—Bucky got up and held out his hand to Darcy.

“Come on, doll. Dance with me?” he asked.

Darcy felt her cheeks flush as the others laughed. “I don’t really know how.”

“I’ll show you. JARVIS, you wanna play that ‘Perhaps’ song?” When Darcy still hesitated, he added, “You can’t be any worse than he was,” nodding at Steve.

“Well, if I’m going to be better than Captain America by default, how can I resist?” She laughed, taking Bucky’s hand and letting him pull her up.

He put one arm around her and held her hand with the other. “It’s a rhumba, a simple box-step pattern, one-two-three-hold. Side, together, back, hold, side, together, forward, hold. And then just let your hips go.”

“Sure, easy-peasy. I can do this.” Sure.

He grinned. “Trust me, you’ll have it in no time.”

And she did, actually. At least, once the rest of the crowd stopped staring at them.

“I wish to dance with you, but I’m afraid I don’t know this style,” Thor apologized to Jane.

Jane got up, laughing, and held out her hand. “I’ll lead.” She gave it a valiant effort, and Thor seemed to get the steps fairly quickly, from what Darcy saw, but Jane admitted defeat after just a few tries. “You are way too tall for me to lead.”

“Steve, want to show Thor?” Bucky joked.

“Maybe next time,” Steve answered. “They look pretty happy just swaying.”

Bucky turned her, and apparently she’d missed Pepper asking Natasha to dance, because the two women had joined the other couples.

“I thought this was my birthday!” Tony protested.

Pepper let out a sultry laugh as Natasha matched her sinuous hip movements perfectly. “It is.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Tony acquiesced, settling back to enjoy the view.

“They’re good,” Darcy whispered to Bucky, as if it was a secret that Natasha and Pepper were sexy as all fuck.

“So are you,” he said, looking into her eyes.

She kind of wanted to look away, aware that they weren’t exactly alone, but the others were all busy, and probably weren’t staring at her and Bucky anymore. Still, it felt very intimate, and it made her heart flutter a bit unexpectedly. She hadn’t spent much time thinking about how she felt about him, really…. Them….

Every step seemed to bring them closer together, Bucky’s embrace relaxing into something more casual as he glided them around the small space. The words of the song—one of her favorites—were getting to her, making her throat close up, making it harder to breathe. Maybe it was time to get things started.

Perhaps.

Her heart was beating fast, insides feeling all aflutter as her head spun. He pulled her even closer, their noses almost touching for the final beats of the music. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to stretch up onto her tiptoes as she reached around his neck and pulled him down for a kiss.

END OF PART 2