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and when you see me for all that i am

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Bucky isn’t entirely sure where it comes from, this urge to analyze and list all the resources at their disposal. It must be from all that time under Hydra’s control; he doesn’t remember the old Bucky feeling this compulsion. Then again, there’s a lot of things he doesn’t remember about the old Bucky. 

The Avengers, at least as the world knew them, are now non-existent, but that doesn’t mean the threats will stop coming. Bucky knows - hell, even Sam knows it’s only a matter of time until another world-wide threat shows up. So he takes stock of their assets and waits to see how things play out. 

Stark Industries had rebuilt what Sam tells him were the old facilities in what must be record time, playing host to an independent Avengers Initiative in a smaller, but fully functional facility. Bucky isn’t sure if Stark arranged for this in his will, or if Pepper is doing it out of the goodness of her heart and a healthy serving of foresight, but the Accords fiasco more than proved that the Avengers, whatever form they take, operate best under their own power, without some government body directing them. The complex is pretty impressive, all things considered - a series of way more apartments than they need, training spaces, labs, conference rooms, and anything else they could ever need. It feels a little like overkill, especially after weeks of Sam’s improvised training course down in Louisiana and begging equipment off the Wakandans, but Bucky’s not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Or at least not this particular horse. Add it to the list of assets. 

The facilities might be state of the art, but their personnel roster leaves a lot to be desired. It seems like half the people he’d want on their side have taken themselves out of the running, whether by choice or personality or gallivanting off to space. Their numbers are nowhere near where he’d prefer them to be, but then again, beggars can’t be choosers. The team, such as it is, currently consists of an over-optimistic fool with a shield, an armored man with an honest-to-god day job, a guy with a serious size complex, and him, the mostly-stable super soldier who’d rather screech at his problems than fight most days - and there’s a big caveat on Rhodes and Lang. Scott’s got a daughter and a girlfriend and a weird agreement with Hank Pym, and Rhodey’s somehow juggling obligations to the Air Force and Stark Industries. Yeah, if shit hits the fan, they’ve got backup - but for the most part, it’s just him and Sam against the world. God help them all. 

Well, and a self-described “accidental astrophysicist and general their-girl-Friday”. Because Lewis would have his balls on a platter if he didn’t include her. 

(Technically, there are others - but Barton is not to be called unless the world is ending, Wanda is now wanted by the authorities for the whole New Jersey mess, Doctor Strange doesn’t play well with others, Banner may never fully recover, T’Challa and Okoye have their own shit to deal with in Wakanda, the spider kid hasn’t fucking graduated high school , and Thor, Danvers, and the self-appointed Guardians of the Galaxy are all off in space. Torres will be a great asset one day, but he’s still tied up with the Air Force until his enlistment is up. Bucky had hoped maybe what’s-her-face from SWORD - Rambo? Ramses? Rambunctious? - would join their ranks, but she’s disappeared off the face of the earth. Probably off in space too, with their luck.)

Darcy Lewis is there at Rhodes’ insistence; according to him, she’d been invaluable during those five years they’d tried to fix the world. She’s a scientist by trade, trying to use gravity signatures to somehow enable interplanetary travel and communication. Bucky doesn’t quite get the technicalities of her area of study, but it’s pretty obvious that she’s smarter than the rest of them combined. More than that, though, she seems to be everywhere throughout the new complex, handling so much of the day-to-day, anticipating their needs, and generally ruling everything with an iron fist and a brash determination that Bucky hasn’t seen since Peggy Carter. Personally, he thinks both women would appreciate the comparison. 

(She’s beautiful and fascinating too, he’ll admit if pressed - but he’s nowhere near ready to do anything about that. He’s got more than enough on his plate, trying to figure out everything that the 21st century continues to throw at him.)

———

It’s been hard, adjusting to the new century. The technology isn’t the problem, in truth; he’s always liked figuring out a new machine, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise and set that particular vein in Sam’s forehead throbbing. Everyone needs a hobby. 

The real issue in adapting to this new world is… everything else, honestly. The 21st century is loud and bold and confusing - different , and as much as Sam does his best to help integrate Bucky back into society, he so often feels overwhelmed. So much is going on all the time, news and media seemingly coming at him from all sides. Nothing makes him feel older than pulling a back in my day, but Bucky so often wants to, like he’s grasping at memories to try and make sense of this new world. It’s hard to know where he fits in, especially when he’s still trying to figure out who he is in the here and now. He’s no longer just the Asset, but he’s not the same Bucky Barnes who went off to fight nazis either. He’s someone else now - maybe a combination of all that, maybe not. 

For better or worse, Darcy Lewis personifies so much of the new world that he doesn’t understand. She’s opinionated and outspoken on everything, seems to speak in constant references, and likes her music loud and modern. She’s a good person, he knows - it’s not hard to see that - but the truth of the matter is that Bucky doesn’t know what to do with her. 

As a result, he tries to avoid her, to ignore her; it seems the best course of action when he’s still trying to make sure his head is screwed on right most mornings. One day, he’ll make the effort, but Darcy is just so much to process right now. 

Bucky quickly learns, however, that Darcy is a woman who doesn’t react well to avoidance. 

He goes up to the roof some nights, when he can’t sleep and the dark, enclosed space of his apartment makes him feel like he’s dying, no matter how luxurious. There’s a handful of chairs and small tables up here, and a telescope he’d love to use if he wasn’t so nervous about breaking the damn thing by fiddling with it. He’s the only one who comes up here, at least so far, at least at this time of night; he doesn’t know enough to really examine the constellations others can pick out in the night sky, but the fresh air and the vastness of it all helps. 

This particular night, though, the door clicks open and shut again after he’s already settled in, trying to calm his racing heart. 

“Am I interrupting?” Lewis asks, creeping into his field of vision. Something in his face must give away his thoughts on the matter - namely, yeah, kinda, though he’s too polite to say - as she immediately contradicts her own words. “That was a stupid question, wasn’t it?”

Something about her awareness melts a bit of Bucky’s own reluctance. “It’s fine.”

“I’ll come back later —”

“Really, it’s fine. You’re not interrupting anything. Come sit down, Dr. Lewis, you’re makin’ me antsy.”

“And we can’t have that,” he thinks she mutters, though he can’t be completely sure. The next words are clear enough, at least. “Just Darcy is fine.”

The correction surprises him a bit; he’d been present when she’d torn Happy Hogan a new asshole that one time for accidentally calling her Ms. Lewis , and they both know the man more than likely just forgot. 

“I don’t want to overstep.”

“Really, Darcy is fine,” she assures him, dropping into the next chair. “I’m kind of still getting used to being Dr. Lewis. I mean, don’t get me wrong, if people are going to get all formal on me then I want to be called by the right prefix, you know? But at the same time, it doesn’t really feel like me yet. I still feel like the poli sci student, some days.”

“Aren’t you an astrophysicist?” Bucky could have sworn her degree was in astrophysics; maybe he’s going senile, like Sam keeps claiming. He is an old man, after all. 

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” she hurries to assure him. “My undergrad’s in poli sci, though. When I started interning with Jane - Jane Foster?” She waits for his nod of recognition; Bucky probably would have pretended to know regardless, but he does actually recognize Foster’s name, as a scientist and as Thor’s former flame. “When I started with Jane, it was honestly a way to get out of having to take any science credits, but then a decade and change went by and here I am. Totally converted to the hard sciences.”

“Seems quite a change.”

Darcy picks up the question he’s not asking. “I like patterns,” she explains. “Figuring out how things work. Making the complicated understandable. Two parts curiosity, one part foolhardiness. Steve used to say that.”

He snorts at the revelation. “That’s rich, coming from him.”

“I know, right?” Darcy laughs. “I mean - if there was ever a man to barge into situations without thinking, it was Steve fucking Rogers.” Darcy smiles fondly at the reminiscence, but Bucky can feel himself falling back into memory and no small amount of misplaced guilt. Before he can get too far, though, she continues. “Anyways, I thought I’d take my poli sci degree and go be some kind of government policy analyst, try and make sense of people, but then Thor showed up in New Mexico and… kind of changed everything, you know? Space wasn’t just numbers, it was other beings and trying to figure out a way to connect with them. Which is totally up my alley. I’m a people person, if you didn’t figure that out,” she tells him like a secret. 

“I never would have guessed,” Bucky responds in the driest tone he can muster. 

“I know. I’m the very picture of introversion. Like, right there in the dictionary.”

It would be fitting to test that, let the silence sit for a moment, but Bucky can’t help himself. “You wind up here because of Thor, then?” He’s barely met the blonde god, but Thor is undeniably protective of those he views as his. It would make sense if he had arranged for Darcy to secure a position with the Avengers, in the wake of everything.

Darcy surprises him though. “No. I mean, kind of, I guess? But not really. The team knew about me because of Thor, but that’s about it. It was more because of Jane, honestly. Jane was…” The way she pauses makes Bucky know exactly what she’s about to say, but she’s stubborn, says it anyways. “Jane dusted. Right in front of me, actually, which was not at all traumatic, let me tell you. But anyways, Jane had - has been working on space travel for years. Einstein-Rosen bridges?”

“I’m not familiar.”

“Right. Well, basically it’s harnessing energy to create a door from one end of space to the other. That’s the gist of what you need to know. So Jane disappears in the world’s worst allergy fit, and Thanos fucks off halfway across the universe, but the Avengers and Co. still need to go chase him down. And wouldn’t you know - I’m the last person alive who can kind of decipher her notes. So, I get pulled in to try and help, even if they ultimately find other ways to go get the job done. And I just… kind of stuck around.”

“What about the rest, then? All the… non-science stuff.” It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that Lewis does a lot more around here than just work on her research in the labs, though she does do a fair bit of that. She handles communications with the government and makes sure they’ve got all the supplies they need and winds up sending Sam to a lot of childrens’ hospitals and veterans’ support groups in his free time because it’s good for their image. Bucky isn’t quite sure how he’d describe her contributions to the set-up they’ve got going here, but they stretch a lot further than just the science.

To his surprise, she blushes . It’s a good look on her, really - not that he’s looking. “I’m kind of in the habit of taking care of people,” she admits. “Jane won’t remember to eat if you don’t remind her, and in the middle of those five years, Natasha got kind of the same. I’m good at making sure everything keeps moving.”

“So you’re here to… what, mother us? Manage us?”

“I think the technical term is ‘handler’, but, like, in a less ominous way,” Darcy corrects. “But yeah, basically. Rhodes thinks y’all need supervision, and did not stop to think I would also be doing the same to him when he deigns to drop in. I come in peace, I swear.”

Shockingly, Bucky doesn’t have any reason to think otherwise. Yeah, he’s been avoiding her, but that’s more about him than her. Darcy is like… a well-meaning hurricane, sweeping through the facility and making sure life is as easy as possible.

He just hopes she’s including herself in those considerations. 

Still, even though he’s enjoying this conversation more than he expected, Bucky’s coming up at the end of his patience for chatter. Except: “Can I ask one more question?”

“Anything you want, Barnesy.”

(He… shockingly, doesn’t hate the nickname.)

“What the hell does ‘accidental astrophysicist’ even mean?”

She laughs - loud and happy. “Besides the fact that I didn’t intend to end up here in the first place? Technically, I had finished my coursework but not my TA requirements for my doctorate when I got called off to help out the team, post-Blip. Somehow, the notification that I’d be graduating arrived anyway. I suspect some intervention on Stark and Banner’s part, but there’s definitely an argument to be made that being tossed into the whirlwind of working with the Avengers more than proved me worthy of the degree. So. Accidental.”

“Don’t question a good thing,” Bucky quips back.

“You get it.”

She could be a friend, he decides. Lord knows he needs more of those.

(One day, this decision will be hilariously funny - but he doesn’t know that yet.)

———

Things with Sam are good, all things considered - or at least a hell of a lot better than Bucky ever expected. It would be a serious stretch to say they’re buddy-buddy, but there’s a mutual respect there that wasn’t there before. Sam isn’t Steve, but he’s a genuinely good guy, committed to doing what he thinks is right and open to hearing when he’s wrong. Honestly, he’s a lot less bull-headed than Steve ever was, which is a relief in so many ways. It’s nice knowing that there’s a legit reason for Sam to jump out of a plane without a parachute. Who knows; maybe in time they’ll be more than just a couple of guys, but they’ve got a good partnership for now. 

There’s certainly no shortage of things to do. There’s still super-serumed individuals running around out there, men and women who hadn’t been captured in the Flag Smashers attack in New York, not to mention increased activity from the Power Broker and their contractors. Darcy’s got some sort of computer program trawling internet message boards - because hacking and programming is just another thing she’d picked up over the years, apparently, not that they’re in any position not to take advantage of it - and he and Sam follow that chatter wherever it leads. For the moment, they’re ignoring less destructive activity, the handful of enhanced individuals who seem to be using their abilities to help people in some way. It’s easy to back burner that stuff, especially when the Power Broker is still on the hunt for a replica of the serum and has branched into selling state secrets.

In between, a kind of comradery has developed between the two of them. They see each other every day - strictly speaking, it’d be weirder if they didn’t come to some kind of agreement. Bucky finds himself enjoying it more than he expected, spending time watching football games on Sam’s couch and jabbing at the other man about his poorly-disguised crush on Sharon Carter. It’s not the same as what either of them had with Steve, but there’s a bond forged out of being the two people tasked with carrying on the other man’s legacy. It’s a foundation, and maybe one day they’ll even choose to build upon it. 

(In the meantime, it really is fun picking at Sam. Really - Wilson does not need to call in Sharon for help nearly as much as he does. Bucky isn’t sure Sam knows the meaning of the word subtlety, and he plans to take advantage of every minute of that.)

———

Technically, she’d warned him, with that talk about being in the habit of taking care of people . Bucky just didn’t expect that she’d extend it to him .

She’d found out, somehow, that he’s been sleeping on the floor of his apartment. He’s still not sure how, and he’s a little afraid to find out, especially considering the regular sweeps he does of the space for any unauthorized recording devices. He’s even less sure how she manages to drag him off to the nearest mall with a Stark Industries expense card, but here they are, standing in the furniture gallery at Macy’s, staring down a field of mattresses. 

(Sam later admits he was the one that tipped Darcy off about the whole thing, rolling his eyes as Bucky gets increasingly antsy. “She’s just trying to help, man,” he tells Bucky, paired with an elbow to the side. “Loosen up.”)

“Look, if the softness of your mattress is an issue, fine,” she’d said, somewhere in the process of bustling him into and then out of the car. “People have got different firmness preferences, I get that. But by god, you will sleep on a real mattress and not the floor, or I’m sending you to a chiropractor to make sure you haven’t permanently fucked anything up.”

He’ll never admit it, but she’s shockingly terrifying when she’s moving with this much determination. 

(Sam, of course, is along for a laugh. The rat bastard.)

“What about this one?” she calls across the room after what feels like hours of shopping around at different mattress stores (and why the hell are there so many?), being explained the differences between memory foam and pillow top and whatever the fuck else. 

“Look, man, just pick one,” Sam advises, speaking out the side of his mouth like that makes him more sneaky. “I legit don’t think she’ll let you leave until you pick something.”

At this point, a firm mattress is a firm mattress. There’s no real difference. Darcy just keeps insisting that he try just one more until… something. Until he gets excited about one of them? Bucky doesn’t think he’s even capable of that, let alone over a damn bed. 

Still - this is not the hill he wants to die on. So he goes over and lays down on yet another mattress and pretends he cares remotely about any of this, wiggling to try and get comfortable.

(Look, he’s been sleeping on the floor because the bed is too damn soft, something even Wilson had nodded knowingly about. He could swear, though, that things did not used to be this complicated. You got a bed and you dealt with it - none of this driving all over town business.)

“This’ll work,” he tells her, mostly in hopes this will be the end of the whole thing. 

Darcy just stares, her face screwed up in unwarranted concentration. If Bucky looked at Sam, he’s sure the other man would be trying not to laugh again; it’s a great reason to ignore Wilson. “Go try the last one again.”

“That one was also fine.”

“I know, but you squirmed around less on the last one. Try it again, tell me which you like better.”

“Honest to god, Darcy, I don’t have an opinion —” Her sharp look stops him in his tracks. Even after all this time, Bucky knows better than to argue with a determined woman. “Alright, alright, I’ll try the other.”

She maybe has a point. Despite all the ridiculous cushioning, something about this option feels better, though he couldn’t put into words exactly what the difference is. 

“Well? Door number one, or door number two?”

“Whatever this door is.” Lord knows he can’t keep up with however her brain separated the two out. 

Darcy claps her hands suddenly. “Sold.” Oh thank god . “We’ll have you sleeping all comfy-like, Barnes. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“...Sure.”

(Infuriatingly, she’s right - though he never gets a chance to tell her. He’d meant to, wandering out of his apartment late one night to see about thanking her and apologizing for the hassle, only to find her in the common lounge with her laptop and a manic smile. Turns out, Darcy Lewis likes fomenting all the Steve Rogers is on the moon rumors in her spare time. 

“If you tell Sam, I’ll put salt in your coffee,” she’d threatened. Bucky doesn’t quite know what to do about that - but it seems safest to leave her to it.)

———

He’s still seeing a therapist - a nice and competent young woman about twenty minutes’ drive from the compound who has experience with PTSD cases. He’d taken a liking to her immediately when, after he’d asked if she was nervous around him, she’d declared that she’d decided not to be. He likes that - the emphasis placed on choice. It fits well with his own new outlook on life. Their sessions are more of an ad hoc thing than his pardon-mandated sessions from before, which works out well. It’s hard to promise he can keep an appointment when they’re all on standby for a call to help. Even with that in play, he still tries to manage a session every other week. It helps sort out all the confusion in his head, even if it does sometimes mean he arrives home afterwards emotionally wiped. 

(It helps, too, that these sessions feel like a conversation instead of a damn interrogation. The federal government should probably not be administering therapy in any form.)

Still - as much he appreciates, and even trusts the sessions with Dr. Berkeley, it’s Darcy who seems to bring out so many of the topics he thought he’d never talk about with anyone. There’s something… safe about her. Something that makes him want to open up on quiet evenings on the couch in front of the TV, watching some movie she insists is a must-see classic. 

“What do you think you would have done with your life?” she asks tonight. “You know, without the falling off the train and the getting brainwashed by Hydra and blah blah blah.”

It’s not something he’s ever really had cause to think about, not in decades and decades and decades. Stalling seems like his best option. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… ok, I’m probably not asking about whether you wanted a family or anything, but would you have stuck in the army, made a career out of it? Or gone off and done something else? Is this whole situation, going out and being asked to save the world, just living the proverbial dream?”

He can’t help but snort at that particular turn of phrase, even if he knows she doesn’t mean anything by it. “You think my whole situation is living the dream ?”

“Oh, don’t be an ass,” she says, shoving at him lightly. “I know that you know what I mean. C’mon, spill. I always want to know more about you. Get my blackmail material.”

With his head lolling back against the couch, Bucky takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “Serving was always Steve’s dream, not mine. Wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Mine served too, back in the Great War, but he came back and didn’t talk about it. Didn’t talk about it in that way I knew I didn’t want anything to do with fighting, you know? Not that way. Protecting Stevie, that damn idiot, was more than enough for me.”

“But you wound up in Europe anyways.”

“Drafted. Didn’t go out looking to join up, just… that’s how my cards played out. And then when Steve showed up all muscled up, and it was right back to watching his back all over again. I suppose if things had been different… if I never took my little tumble, and he never crash landed… probably would have wound up a lifer, yeah. Can’t imagine they’d let Captain America just retire, and I sure as hell wouldn’t have let him run off to save the world on his own. Can’t - couldn’t trust that bastard to save his own damn life.”

“Yeah, but that’s, like… obligation. I mean, yeah, you obviously wanted to because Steve was your bestie, but…” She pauses for a moment, scrunching her face up to get her thoughts in order. It’s cute - not that he’d tell her that in a moment like this. “Ok, say Steve never took the serum. Or, no, better - before you got drafted and everything after. Or after you got drafted but before Steve showed up all muscly and shit. What did you want to do?”

He sighs. “What does it matter, doll? Ain’t like I can change anything.”

“Two parts curiosity, one part foolhardiness. Humor me.”

“Would have been doing something with machines, something with my hands,” he finally tells her. “I always liked figuring out how things work. Who knows, maybe if things had gone different I would have taken advantage of the G.I. Bill, gone to school for engineering or something. Or conned Stark into a job. Or even just found some garage in Brooklyn that’d hire me. Go out and fix the world that way. I don’t know, though. I wasn’t going to come out of that mess the same man I went in, regardless.”

“You still could, you know,” Darcy points out. “I know you feel tied to this kind of life, but there’s no reason you couldn’t go back, get a degree. Fiddle with things. Do something that makes you happy.”

“Nah. And before you start fussing at me, this isn’t some self-sabotage thing. It’s…” The comparison slowly forms in his head. “You were studying political science, you said, right?” Darcy nods. “And then you took up with Dr. Foster, started looking after her, started studying astrophysics as part of that. And now, even though you’ve fallen in love with astrophysics instead, and you’ve got your doctorate and all these brilliant ideas, you still spend half your time taking care of our asses out here. It’s kind of… the same thing. Yeah, I still kind of like knowing how things work, but more than anything my job was always looking after Steve. And now I do that for Sam instead, make sure his idealism doesn’t run away with him. Gives me satisfaction, in its own way. That make sense?”

There’s a funny, teasing twinkle in her eye when she smiles - no, smirks back at him. “So what you’re saying, Barnes, is that we’re the same person.”

“Don’t push it, Lewis.”

(It does explain things though - the way he feels in many ways like they’re kindred souls. As far as foundations go, this isn’t a bad one to have built their friendship upon.)

———

It’s not a secret that the labs make him antsy. So sue him - Bucky thinks he’s earned that right after nearly three quarters of a century as a test subject. It’s not a debilitating thing - he can deal with it if he has to, and personally thinks he handled the whole situation in Madripoor pretty well - but he’s not going out of his way to wander through the lab areas of the compound. 

As with so many other things, Darcy’s lab is the exception. Half of it is the set up; it’s hard to get too worked up when she’s stuck googly eyes on the bigger machines and Lang’s doodled a rude drawing across one of the whiteboards. There are photos everywhere, too, of Thor and a tiny woman that must be Jane and Darcy tossing up bunny ears behind an unamused Natasha and even one of him and Sam, passed out on the couch after some mission he doesn’t fully remember. Her lab may be where the science happens, but it’s so far from sterile, her personality bursting from every inch. 

Of course, the other half of this is Darcy herself. Darcy, who smiles every time he shows up in her space. Who is unlike any doctor or scientist he’s ever met. Who fills her space with color and sound, because she claims she can’t think in a silent white box. She dances here too, sometimes, her music blaring over the lab speakers. Her hips and head bob more-or-less in time, but her arms always have a life of their own, and while the overall effect isn’t exactly graceful, it’s enthusiastic and somehow weirdly adorable and charming.

(She’d pulled him in one time, drawing them into something that might charitably be called a two step. Mostly, it had been Darcy manhandling him back and forth - but with her right hand in his left like she doesn’t even notice, and her left curled around his shoulder to grasp him close, he can’t bring himself to care too much. It’s nothing like the fancy footwork the old Bucky might have pulled out, but there’s a satisfaction in the way the man he is now can make Darcy throw her head back in laughter and pure, exultant joy when he spins her again and again.) 

(Sam probably has some very pointed opinions about the amount of time he spends trying to get Darcy to laugh, but Bucky has plenty of practice ignoring Sam.)

For all that Darcy takes care of the lot of them, there’s no one to look after Darcy herself. That bothers Bucky more than he’d like to admit; Darcy takes so much on her slight shoulders, it feels ungrateful not to try and make her job a little easier. Besides, she’s awful at knowing when to quit and call it a day. 

Prowling the facility on nights he can’t sleep is a habit, and he always makes certain to swing by Darcy’s lab as part of his circuit. Her mornings may be for Avengers business, but evenings are for science - which often means, in reality, that the nights are for science too. She hasn’t fallen asleep in the lab yet, at least not that Bucky is aware of - but he’d like to keep it that way. 

It’s closer to morning than night when he comes across her this time, her hair twisted up into a messy bun and speared with some spare pencils as she works. Darcy has a tendency to think with her hands when she’s in the zone, moving around invisible numbers and sketching figures in the air with her pointer finger. There’s plenty of whiteboards about, and the best StarkTech available on or off the market, but she seems to like to sort her thoughts out before anything gets written down. It would be endearing, if they weren’t a few hours out from sunrise. 

She startles a bit when he knocks on the door, but quickly turns back towards the notepad in front of her, apparently ready to put something on the page as her mouth runs a mile a minute. 

“Ok, I know what you’re about to say,” she starts, “but I’m not Jane. I just want to finish my thought, and then you can drag me out of the lab. Besides, it’s not that late - it’s only, like, 12:30 —”

“Darcy, it’s three in the goddamn morning.” And apparently a good thing he’s here to intervene. 

Darcy’s attention jerks to the phone sitting on the desktop, evidently ignored until now, with wide eyes. “Shit,” she mumbles. “Maybe I am turning into Jane.” With the most dramatics he suspects she can muster at this hour, she kicks out from the desk in her wheeled chair, rolling across the room towards him with arms thrown wide. “Take me to bed, soldier!”

(Once upon a time, she might have said that in a very different context, the knowledge tickling at bits of his brain and body he hasn’t had cause to pay attention to in a long, long time. If that grin on her face is any indication, that’s exactly what she intended.)

“You know, this used to be my job,” Darcy comments as he gently herds her out of the lab. “Making sure Jane was fed and watered and put down for a nap. Forcing her to get fresh air every so often. I was very good at it, I’ll have you know.”

“Mmm, I’m sure. When’s the last time you ate?”

“... maybe around eight. I do see what you’re doing.”

Darcy rolls her eyes as he diverts them towards the kitchen, but there’s no real heat behind it. She even lets him sit her down and put a bowl of the least sugary cereal that she’ll tolerate in front of her. The milk should hopefully make her sleepy - or sleepier, rather, as he can already see the crash coming. 

“Sounds like we need to get you your own Darcy.”

She grimaces around her bite of cereal. “God no, don’t subject some poor intern to my batshit hours. That’d be cruel and unusual punishment. I’m not really down for breaking the law, at least not in that specific way. I’m feeling something more like a jewel heist, if you’re volunteering.”

He ignores the last bit. Obviously. “You gotta take care of yourself then, Darce.”

“From where I’m sitting, seems like I got you for that.” When he sighs and shakes his head, she plows forward. “Look, look, I’m eating, see? And I’ll go to bed afterwards. Anything to get that crevasse out from between your eyebrows. Or maybe it’s a canyon? Whatever, I’m tired.”

“Technically, you’re the one causing the trench right now.”

Darcy takes another pointed bite of her cereal. Absolute terror of a woman. 

(“Thanks for looking out for me,” she says when they finally make it back to her door, the tiredness setting in fast and making her words slur around the edges. He almost thinks for a moment she might be about to hug him, or more, but she just smooths her fingers over the ever-present crease between his brows and slips into her apartment before anything else comes of it.) 

(So no, he won’t be stopping checking in on her lab anytime soon.)

———

Consciously, he knows that Sam and Darcy know each other, might even be called friends. It’s not like Bucky has some monopoly on her attention; hell, Lewis might be one of the most social people he knows. That doesn’t mean he ever expected to walk out to the training fields one afternoon, planning to meet Sam for a little practice tossing the shield from the air to the ground and back again, only to find the two of them already waiting, Darcy with the shield strapped to her arm and grinning like a loon. 

“Finally, someone actually worthy of that thing,” Bucky calls as he moves to meet them - mostly to get a rise out of Sam. The brilliant smile on Darcy’s face is a nice bonus, though. 

“That’s what I said!” she crows. 

“I’m sorry, but who chased me halfway around the world trying to convince me to take that damn thing in the first place?” Sam demands at the same time. One day he’ll spot when Bucky is trying to rile him up, but he’s not there yet, thank everything holy. 

“Didn’t know Lewis was an option back then. When my options were you or Walker…”

“Oh, fuck that guy,” Darcy cuts in, like a compulsion. 

“See? She gets it.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sam grumbles. He’s smiling though; it’s hard not to smile around Darcy. “See if I teach you how to use that thing now.”

“That’s alright, I’ll get Bucky to show me,” she grins - and even though the shield is Sam’s, and he’s the one with the right to handle it, Bucky wants that - wants to guide her body through the motions of throwing the shield, positioning her to catch it. 

He shouldn’t, of course - should keep his distance, for both their sakes. He’s never been that reasonable, though - at least not when a pretty lady is concerned. So he moves in with a grin and ignores the way Sam wiggles his eyebrows. “Anything you want, doll.”

It’s the sweetest torture, adjusting her stance with hands on her hips and guiding her arm through the arc necessary to hurl the thing and send it bouncing back to her arm again, especially as her cheeks pink with the effort. Then again, maybe the flush is from his proximity, and her heart is racing in the same way - but Bucky isn’t entirely sure that’s something he should let himself wish for. In the meantime, it’s enough to see her wide smile when the shield finally boomerangs back to her grasp. 

(“You know, there were people who thought you’d wind up with the shield,” Darcy comments later as they’re sharing beers on the couch.

“Most people don’t know what they’re talking about,” he tells her between swigs. “Never wanted the damn thing.”

“Never once?”

“Steve and I talked about it, before he left,” Bucky admits, taking another swallow. “We both agreed Sam would be the best choice. Steve believed in me more than anyone, and even he thought I had a lot of… rebuilding to do before that could even be a discussion. And like I said - didn’t want it. That was his, now it’s Sam’s. End of story.”

“It would have been a lot of responsibility. Like - a lot. Can’t blame you.”

“Sam deserves it.”

“And you’re a better sidekick anyways.”

“It’s true. Though if you ever tell Sam…”

“Don’t worry, boo, your secret is safe with me.”)

———

So he likes Darcy. So what? She’s a beautiful, brilliant firecracker, and he’d have to be dead not to feel some kind of attraction. Doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything about it - not when he’s still trying to sort out his own mess. He’ll get used to her… everything, and it’ll pass. Besides, it takes two to tango, so to speak, and he’s not sure Darcy’s wanting to dance. 

“When are you gonna do something about that, man?” Sam asks as they’re getting ready to hit the ground running for another mission, going over final equipment checks before the new Captain America throws his dramatic ass out of a plane. He means well, honestly, but his timing is just as shit as Steve’s, and Bucky is starting to wonder if that’s some kind of weird prerequisite for the shield. 

“Who says I’m going to do anything?”

Please . We all see the way you melt when she’s around. Big bad Winter Soldier, turned into Darcy Lewis’ personal teddy bear. Not that that’s bad!” he hastens to add when Bucky directs a deadly glare his way, “But it’s definitely not subtle. Put us all out of our misery, dude, ask her out. She’ll say yes.”

“You don’t know that.” Sam opens his mouth with some kind of contradiction at the ready, but Bucky plows on ahead before Cap can voice it. “Besides, it’s… I’m not ready.”

“You sure about that?”

“I barely know who I am now, Sam. You really think tossing romance into that mix is gonna go well?”

“I’m just saying - a woman like that isn’t short on choices. I’d hate for you to miss your chance just because you’re being a stubborn ass.”

“Yeah, well, she deserves better anyways. Speaking of missing chances, though, you ever ask Carter out for that drink?”

The way Sam sputters about having the interrogation turned back on him is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

(The idea of Darcy with someone else puts a nasty twist in his stomach, but that shouldn’t be any of his concern - and it certainly isn’t Sam’s.)

Everything he says seems pretty quickly contradicted, however, when they touch down at the compound again later that night and Darcy comes flying at him as soon as his boots hit the ground, throwing her arms around him. He’s not about to be the asshole who doesn’t return the hug, even if he’s not ready for more. This mission had been a rough one; there’d been a point where they’d been dealing with enhanced former Flag Smashers and the Power Broker’s mercenaries on either side, and he’s still not entirely sure how they made it out at all, let alone with only minor scrapes and bruises. It’s the rare occasion Sam’s constant suggestion that they give Sharon a call probably actually would have come in handy -  not that he’ll ever admit it. And that’s not really even the point, except for the fact that Darcy presumably was watching from Ops again and heard everything that was happening over comms, despite how often he and even Sam have asked her not to. And - yeah, he can see where she might need a little reassurance that they’re ok. 

“You worried about me, Lewis?” He’s in the perfect position to drop a kiss into her hair, but that’s - no, he can’t. Not when he should keep his distance and not give her hope for something that may never come to pass. He tortures himself instead with breathing in the scent that always clings to her, a mix of her orange blossom shampoo and the whiteboard markers she uses in the lab that only manages to smell good because it’s Darcy

“No. Yes. Shut up,” she says into his right armpit. Bucky can’t imagine that smells particularly charming, but Darcy isn’t complaining, so. 

When she finally lets go, Bucky rotates his left arm as if to realign the plates in hopes that it’ll distract Darcy from the leftover anxiety still running through her system. Maybe, if he’s very lucky, she’ll roll her eyes and smile in that way that looks like the gesture was just made for her face. He particularly likes that one, and he’s always been a selfish man at heart. 

Bucky Barnes has never been very lucky, and this is no different, but the movement does set off an argumentative little spark behind her eyes, and that’s almost as good. “Ok, don’t even pretend I put that thing out of whack, absolutely no one is buying that, Bucky-boy. There is not nearly enough of me to manage that.”

Of course there isn’t; he’s been enlisted to lift up what feels like every one of her lab machines in the search for lost pens and pencils. Darcy’s nothing compared to that. But she’s damn cute when she’s all fired up, and that outrage has completely replaced the panic in her eyes, so really, he doesn’t have any true motivation to stop. “I don’t know, you’re the astrophysicist. Isn’t there something about transfer of force? Sounds pretty serious -”

“No, no no no. I know exactly what kind of force that fancy arm can withstand, that thing can total cars on impact - which I know because Samuel is still whining about his car -”

(“Ok, I am not five and y’all are not my parents and I do not whine about the car that much, even if it was new,” Sam mutters, not that either of them pays him much attention. Ignoring San Wilson may as well be an official pastime around these parts - especially since Darcy can mouth along to parts of the car rant like a ventriloquist’s dummy.)

“What can I say, you don’t know your own strength.”

“Asshole.” Despite the epithet, she still lets him sling an arm over her shoulders to guide them back to the comfort waiting for them inside - and what more could he ask for, in that moment?

(“Oh, you’ve got it bad ,” Sam says later.  

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”

He’s got it so bad. )

———

He forgets, sometimes, that Darcy’s seen shit. She’s always so lighthearted, so unbothered, but there are side effects to associating with Thor, so many chances to become collateral damage. Bucky’s read her file; he knows she was there when Thor first arrived, and witnessed the carnage caused by Loki’s metal Destroyer. She’s told him herself about the Dark Elves in London, how she’d wound up in the middle of that all and come so close to death. As often as he forgets this side of Darcy, it’s surprisingly easy to picture her in the middle of all that, fighting the unknown with science and her wit. God, she must have been a picture. 

It’s harder to imagine her in the midst of the Avengers those five years of the Blip. It doesn’t feel like their worlds should intersect, even when he knows they have. She’s… Darcy is a key link to his new world, his new life. It’s odd to imagine her interacting with those sparse remnants of his previous life, working alongside Steve and Natasha. 

Darcy misses them, though quietly. There’s a garden outside the compound now, with a winding path and bed of flowers and a pond at the center. There’s a bench between two trees that will one day arch over the water gracefully - one planted for Stark, and one planted for Natasha. On days where things hit Darcy hard, she comes out here to think and remember. 

(Bucky is never precisely sure what triggers these days, but he’s never felt compelled to ask either. He, of all people, knows how the memories can hit out of nowhere.)

Today, he takes a deep breath and walks out to meet her, to help in any way he can. Darcy’s smile is somewhat sad when he slides onto the bench next to her, but there’s no tears, which feels like a win. 

“Rough day?” he asks, already knowing the answer. 

“Pepper and Mini-Stark are coming to check things out with Rhodey next week,” Darcy tells him. “Got the email this afternoon. Just kind of…” Here’s the tears. “They deserved better, you know? All of them. Especially Nat and Tony.”

Bucky lets himself slip the metal arm around her shoulders to draw Darcy into his side. It feels… comfortable. Natural. “I know. I’d say it was their choice, but, uh… doesn’t really help.”

“No, not really,” she agrees with a wet chuckle. “I like this for them, though. Especially Nat. There was talk about a monument or memorial or whatever, but…”

“She would have hated it.”

Hated it! God, I can picture the look now. She would have haunted me for the rest of eternity, I just know it.”

Bucky hums an agreement. “You and me both.”

“This is better. Something growing and living and good. That feels right.”

Stark and Natasha both deserved a lot more peace than they ever got in their lives. It’s a not-so small miracle that they can give that peace to others under the trees that carry their memory, as Bucky holds Darcy just that little bit closer. 

———

The thing about a prosthetic, even when it’s a fancy vibranium arm crafted by the Wakandans, is that it doesn't react well to slamming into walls with super-serum fueled force. Say, after a fight with desperate, superpowered guerillas. 

Not that he’d know anything about that. Purely hypothetical. 

In this hypothetical situation, the gears that operate his fingers might be operating at a lag, and the whole thing might be a bit twitchy. And the hypothetical operator of said arm might willfully ignore it, pretending everything is fine, until (hypothetically, of course) a beautiful, brilliant scientist noticed something was up, and…

Oh, hell, there’s no beating around the bush. Darcy had noticed that something was off with his arm - apparently off his facial expressions, of all things, the miniscule bits of frustration he apparently couldn’t hide - and now Bucky’s got his shirt off and several of the plates loosened so she can get at the wiring. Something that doesn’t make him at all self-conscious, no matter how little she typically notices his arm. He’d seen the way her eyes had gotten all wide when he’d first stripped the cotton t-shirt off, even if she’d schooled her impressions back to something more neutral moments later. 

(“Look, you can let me fiddle with it, or we can call the Parker kid,” Darcy had told him, already pulling out a series of small screwdrivers. “And somehow, I feel like you’re not about to let an actual minor go digging around in there.”

She’s not wrong.)

This should be a fraught exercise; there’s something very vulnerable about sitting there and allowing Darcy into the inner workings of his arm. It’s a wonderful, warm realization to discover that he trusts her, in a way he hasn’t had to contemplate. This is Darcy, you know? Darcy, who only wants the best for him. Besides, it’s hard to get too concerned about a tiny woman wearing magnifying glasses.

“Another skill you just happened to pick up?” he asks. Yeah, she’d had Shuri email over the schematics and has the hologram up for her reference, but it takes some serious skill even just to navigate those. 

“Jane had a habit of Frankenstein-ing machines together. I picked up the basics.” She looks up from her work briefly; Bucky tries his hardest not to laugh at how comically large her eyes appear behind the glasses, but a smile slips through. “You got that reference, right?”

“Yes, Lewis, I got the reference. I was born in 1917, not 1817.”

“I mean, even if you were born in 1817, you still would have been able to read Frankenstein .”

“So then my point definitely stands.”

This is what he really likes about Darcy - she doesn’t take anything too seriously, refuses to be cowed by anything. Even when there’s an infamous assassin sitting at her work station, letting her work on what is arguably still a weapon, she doesn’t get frazzled. Bucky is sure she’d say something about how it’s because she knows him; that doesn’t remotely minimize the awe he feels at the trust she gives him. 

And knowing that, seeing that - how could he not return the sentiment?

———

Darcy Lewis is comfort. She’s warm hugs and baked goods and insisting on checking everyone over for injuries after a mission because she worries. She’s sweaters and blue jeans and those tight leggings that always leave him a bit distracted and maybe tossing a blazer over her t-shirt if she wants to feel like the boss some days. 

Darcy Lewis is also, apparently, trying to kill him, if those spindly high heels and little bitty straps are anything to go off of. 

There’d been visitors today at the facility - senators from some defense committee. Or maybe representatives? He maybe knew at one point, but Bucky kinda tuned out during the glad-handing when Darcy had shown up in a gauzy blouse and a tight black skirt and those bedeviled shoes to supposedly keep him and Sam in line with one of her dangerous smiles. Those shoes are torture devices - for him. 

(The old Bucky liked dainty ladies, women who weren’t impossibly prim but still never had a hair out of place and would flirt with coy looks and minded their p’s and q’s. The man he is now mostly seems to have a thing for one specific scientist - but the sight of her ankles elegantly crossed in those shoes still does something for him. Go fucking figure.)

He can only assume things went well; he’s not in jail and they didn’t confiscate the shield from Sam. Today had been important enough for Maria Hill, who’s supposedly the director of their endeavor, to show up, which is just about unheard of. Who knows - maybe that was just a very convincing hologram. They do fine on their own, but the powers that be like to see that the monkeys aren’t entirely running the circus, so Hill it is. Between her air of authority and Darcy making them look good, the suits leave apparently reassured that they’re not trying to take over the world, and that’s what matters. If they asked him any questions, he was far too distracted by the shapely legs stretching below the bottom of the ruffle on Darcy’s skirt to remember answering. Again: didn’t wind up arrested, everything’s fine. 

She’d indicated he should follow her after - something about talking through how things went, probably because he was so obviously distracted - so Bucky had followed her back to her apartment. Still fine. It’d even been fine when she’d grabbed his left arm to stabilize herself as she undid those tiny buckles on her heels. There’d even been an odd pride associated with that, with seeing how he doesn’t have to view the arm as either a weapon or just a part of him like any other, but something that’s useful and special in a perfectly mundane way. He can be the steady arm she needs. What an idea. 

The real problem starts when the shoes have been kicked off and she goes for the blouse, lifting from the bottom to pull it over her head in one smooth move. Seeing Darcy standing there, still chattering away in nothing but that damnable skirt and her bra, Bucky has never been more aware that he is, still, a man. The bra may just be flesh colored, but it’s lacy at the edges and makes her breasts look deliciously plump and round and… 

A long buried sense of propriety spins him to face anywhere else. Somewhere, his ma is gearing up to give him the scolding of a lifetime. “Darcy, what are you doing ?” he manages to grind out in a strangled voice. She is trying to kill him.

( What a way to go , a foolish part of his brain whispers. Idiot.)

“Changing.” How the hell can she sound so casual about it? Christ almighty. “You doing alright over there, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Yep, just fine.”

“See something real interesting on that wall?”

“Nope.”

She manages to cross back into his line of sight because of course she does. That teasing smile does not bode well for him. “You know, it’s just a body, Bucky-boy. This is the 21st century, we’re a lot less uptight about these things.”

“Oh believe me, I know,” he grumbles. 

“I kinda feel lied to. I mean, the history books said you were such a ladies’ man, but here you are all twisted up because you can see my bra. I can’t believe I’m the first woman who took off her top for you.”

“No!” Oh, great, now he sounds like some overeager teenager. Nice turnaround, Barnes. “I’m just… I’m tryin’ to be respectful, Darce.” 

“Oh really .”

“Yeah. Ironically, Steve was more even-keeled about women casually stripping after all that time with the USO showgirls. My brain still went - goes straight towards sex. Which is not something I should be subjecting you to.”

“Maybe that’s where I want your brain going,” Darcy teases with a smirk as she finally - finally! - starts rucking up a sweater to pull on over her head. 

“Darcy…” The groan, somewhere closer to frustration than arousal but still a good mix of both, is something he’s absolutely not ready to think about yet. 

“Oh, fine . I’ll lay off before you’re stuck seeing a doctor for an erection that lasts four or more hours. Seems to be a real concern for old men.”

Bucky’s pretty damn sure he hasn’t blushed since sometime in the early 1940s, but the heat radiating off his face now could probably heat a small apartment somewhere. 

———

As good as Darcy is at taking care of him and Sam and whoever else wanders under her perceived purview, Bucky has learned that she doesn’t lend herself the same consideration. He’s not really certain how she keeps up the grueling schedule she does, between conducting her own research and managing the team’s public perception and all the little things about the compound she takes care of because she thinks it’s her job to make their lives easier. He knows how she got here - has heard tell all about her time caring for Jane, and later for Natasha and Steve - but that doesn’t do anything to lessen his conviction that she’s taken too much on her shoulders. 

“Take tomorrow off,” he all but demands of her one Tuesday when he knows she’s put in three late nights in a row. “Take a break. You’ve been running yourself ragged.”

“I’m fine,” Darcy says with an absentminded wave of her hand. “Did you guys ever fill out the paperwork from that mission last week?”

“Yes, and this is proving my point. C’mon, Darce. Take a day.”

She sighs heavily. “Fine. I will take tomorrow off. Where are you taking me then?”

He… hadn’t expected that. Mostly, he envisioned she’d want to spend some time alone, maybe laying around in her pajamas all day, but there’s a logic to the idea that it’s better for her to get off base altogether. Can’t get sucked into work if she’s not there in the first place.

Bucky makes the decision on a whim, and maybe a bit of instinct. “How do you feel about the beach?”

They wind up waking up early the next morning to drive the couple hours to the seaside, Darcy chattering in his ear the whole while and insistently offering him coffee and the breakfast sandwiches they’d picked up on the way. As much as she had tried to proclaim that she didn’t need a vacation, Bucky can see the difference when they finally hit sand, like there’s a weight off her shoulders and something more carefree in her eyes. They’ve got the place to themselves; he’d picked a stretch of shoreline within a state park on purpose, hoping the paid admittance paired with the fact that they’re here on a Wednesday would grant them some privacy. He’s… better now, mostly, where crowds are concerned, but it’s going to be hot as all hell today and the metal arm still attracts unwanted attention. This is better - where they can both relax and do whatever the hell they want without onlookers.

It’s a perfect day, really, even (especially?) with Darcy looking like temptation itself in a bathing suit that looks like something ladies would have worn in his first life. She somehow even manages to coax him into the surf with her. Bucky still feels a little ridiculous and exposed in the blue swim trunks he doesn’t remember purchasing - somehow, he suspects Darcy was involved with that - but it feels like reclaiming something he lost, to wade through the water and ruthlessly splash Darcy with a grin on his face. It feels like innocence - something he hasn’t experienced since before he shipped out. 

(It is reassuring to see that, as with so many other things, Darcy seems entirely unfazed by the sight of his body. Bucky almost finds himself wishing she’d have more of a reaction, would give some indication she likes what she sees, but that would be foolish.)

After dinner in a little hole in the wall diner in a nearby town, they walk leisurely up and down the streets, slowly making their way back to the car, Darcy pointing out constellations in the night sky above them on the way. Bucky wonders how long it’s been since she looked at the night sky just for the sheer pleasure of looking, without a dozen research questions in mind. Her eyes dance with all the stories there, and she’s impossibly beautiful. 

“I’m glad we did this,” she tells him as they finally make their way back into the compound shortly after midnight. Bucky had had to wake her up when they arrived, and sleep still clings to the edge of her voice. 

“We’ll have to do it again sometime,” he suggests.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

(Bucky can tell himself this is only a platonic gesture all he wants, but his heart lurches at the prospect at another day like this all the same.)

———

He’s not stupid in love, no matter what Sam tries to claim - both because he’s not in love, and because he’s seen and done too much to walk into anything with blind optimism. It’s just that Darcy… Darcy makes him feel like a man , not a memory or a weapon. There’s no expectations on who he’s supposed to be, just an enthusiastic acceptance of who he is now, warts and all. 

As for his feelings about Darcy… well. She’s a looker, of course, but he likes the way she constantly has a quip at the ready and refuses to take anything too seriously and so genuinely wants everyone in her orbit to be happy. She might genuinely be the best person he knows - at least in this day and age. 

He’s in the lab with Darcy when the latest call comes in, willingly helping to distract her from science by letting her ramble on about movies she swears he must see to live anything like a complete life. They do the usual dance of goodbyes and I’ll let you know when this gets resolved , and that’s typically it. He rushes down to the locker room to swap his t-shirt for more serious gear, meets Sam in the hangar, and it’s off to save the world another fucking time. 

Today, though, Darcy meets him outside the lockers, propped against the wall and fidgeting like she forgot something. 

“Something else come in, doll?” he asks, steering her along with him toward where the jet is waiting with a hand at her back. 

“No, no - I mean, let’s be honest, I’ll probably go up and look over the intel in a moment, so don’t be surprised if I call -”

“Again.”

“Right, again, but - no, I just -” Darcy breaks off suddenly, biting at her bottom lip. “Be careful, alright?”

It’s unexpectedly touching to hear coming from her lips. Bucky wonders a bit what brought this reminder on. “I’ll do my best, sweetheart.”

(And that’s a new one - he calls her doll pretty regularly because she says it makes her feel saucy, but sweetheart is more genuine, and he can already see in Darcy’s eyes the way she’s turning the endearment over in her head. Bucky hopes she likes it; now that that particular gate is open, he’s not sure he’ll be able to stop.) 

There’s a minuscule pause, before Darcy presses up on her toes to drop a kiss on his cheek, short circuiting Bucky’s brain. “I’ll see you when you get back, Buck. In one piece, please, or so help me god I’ll make you regret it.”

He thinks he nods. It’s a bit of a pleasant blur, really, which is probably not great when he’s about to have to go out and deal with some mercenaries or terrorists or whatever again. 

Of course, it’s too much to ask for that to be a private moment. Sam’s shit-eating grin can probably be seen from space, though he’s latched onto a different detail than Bucky expected. 

“Oh, Darcy gets to call you Buck?” he jabs. “I’m definitely calling bullshit on this situation, because I distinctly remember you telling me I didn’t get to call you Buck even though Steve did because ‘Steve knew me longer.’” Sam’s voice turns to a high pitched, mocking whine at the end, though nothing but mischief gleams in his eyes. “All I’m saying is I, your buddy your pal your partner, have in fact known you for longer than Lewis. And I resent the fact that she’s getting special privileges I don’t. You know, unless she’s special in some other way you want to ‘fess up to…”

“I also said Steve had a plan, in case you’re too senile to remember that yourself,” Bucky points out. Making a final check of the straps on his uniform jacket is a great way to avoid making eye contact with his asshole of a partner. “You can’t deny, Lewis always has a plan. Or at least a hell of a lot more plans than your ass ever has.”

“Don’t think I don’t see you dodging this, man, because I do. Even if she really does have plots on all of us that I don’t want to know about.”

“Think she’d probably say something about letting a girl have her secrets. Let me know how it turns out if you kick that particular hornets’ nest.”

Just when Bucky thinks he’s in the clear, Sam poised to throw himself out of the airplane, Wilson turns back. “Still not going to do anything about that?”

“Get out.”

(The ghost of her lips lingers on his cheek, the impression only fleeing when he forces it out of his head so he can focus on the job at hand. Later, he’ll take the time to hope this isn’t just some one time thing - for now, there’s work to do.)

———

“Hold still ,” Darcy hisses, poking at a cut along his hairline with a cotton ball and antiseptic. Personally, Bucky thinks the whole thing is rather futile; he’s got super serum running through his veins, after all, and the scratch will be gone in a couple hours like it never existed. But Sam is over in the medbay being examined for a possible concussion, and Darcy gets to be an anxious mess when facing things beyond her control. It’s easier to let her play doctor on his own minimal injuries than watching her pace back and forth, wearing a path into the tiled floors.

“I’m trying ,” he mutters. Apparently, talking counts as moving through, because Darcy shoots him a dirty look. So. Shutting up until she’s done. Bucky still remembers enough of this dance to know not to piss off the pretty lady. 

“Anywhere else?” she all but demands once she’s satisfied with his forehead. He should probably be grateful she pulled out the normal, flesh toned butterfly-style bandaids; she’s got a stash of the ones with cartoon princesses on them somewhere in the lab, and he wasn’t looking forward to having one of those stuck on his forehead. Not that he’d ever tell her no, especially when she’s upset like this. Still, no matter how quick he heals, she’s fixing him with that one stare, so he holds out his right hand to let her dab at his busted, bruised knuckles. 

“We’ll be alright,” he tells her cautiously as she applies bandaids to his knuckles - Avengers print, this time. There’s something weirdly fitting and metaphoric about having Steve plastered over his fists. Darcy’s currently badgering the company about switching the design now that Sam is Cap, but that’s a work in progress. “I’ll be healed up in no time, and honestly Sam’s just being cautious because he’s got some deal with his sister. He wasn’t showing any concerning symptoms when I dragged him back, I promise. Give us a day and we’ll be good as new. We’re fine, Darce, I promise.”

“Yeah, but you might not have been.” Her movements as she packs the first aid kit are jerky, frustrated. 

“True. It’s not what happened, though. You been listening in from Ops again?”

Obviously .”

Bucky sighs. “I’ve tried to warn you about that before.”

“Yeah, well, what am I supposed to do? Sit around twiddling my thumbs when you boys are called out, trying not to imagine all the gruesome ways you might be dying?” she snaps. He deserves that - less so the way her voice softens when she sees what must be guilt on his face. “I’m always going to worry,” she tells Bucky. “As long as you’re out there fighting the forces of chaos and evil, I’m going to worry about something happening to you. That’s what happens when you care about someone. So, as long as that’s the case… I’m gonna keep listening in. So, like - deal with it.”

(She mentions caring for him - and though Sam must be implied somewhere in there, Bucky’s traitorous heart latches into the sentiment all the same.)

(She can plaster him with as many damn princess bandaids as she pleases.)

———

It’s all a constant work in progress. A year ago, Bucky never would have expected to find himself here - back fighting the good fight, a (mostly) valued partner and friend, a man again. There’s still progress to make - Bucky doesn’t know if that’ll ever not be the case - but he doesn’t feel quite so much like a stranger in his own body anymore. Yeah, he’s not the same guy he once was, not anymore, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a new world out there, and he’s slowly turning into a man to match it. 

As he settles more firmly into the life he’s crafted for himself, Bucky’s thoughts increasingly turn towards finally doing something about his feelings for Darcy. It feels like the last frontier in this journey of rediscovery, but it takes a particular kind of courage to make a move. It’s just Darcy , he tells himself. It’s just dinner . But Darcy isn’t just anything , and he’s never been hoping for just one dinner. Somehow, there’s always something else going on - a mission or some new bit of information to chase down or a sudden breakthrough on Darcy’s research or…

He doesn’t ask. 

(Turns out, the new Bucky is a coward. He tries not to linger on that too much.)

——— 

They’ve got a routine, using Darcy’s webcrawler to pick up patterns and chatter about the remnants of the Flag Smashers and any activity by the Power Broker. They’re used to suiting up and shipping out, knocking heads as needed and gathering more information where they can.

This particular Tuesday, it’s just that the routine fractures, and so much falls apart.

(So much comes together, too - but that’s further down the line.)

They’d been tipped off about a planned transaction by the Power Broker’s intermediaries - some exchange of government information. That part had still been routine. So had the ensuing fight, the struggle, the eventual handcuffs. Just another day at the office.

The moment where it had gone wrong was when Sam had picked up one of the hired guns’ ringing phones, only to hear Sharon’s voice on the other end, barking out orders and incriminations. 

He’d hung up before saying anything; no one but the two of them know for the moment. But Bucky had watched something break in Sam’s eyes to find out Carter wasn’t all she seemed. Teasing aside, he knows how long Wilson has been nursing his feelings. Sam deserves a lot better than how this has played out. 

They wind up in a bar, an hour or so out from the compound, because that’s what you do for a broken heart. Bucky can’t get drunk anymore, not in the same way he used to; he can manage a pleasant buzz, which is better than Steve ever got, but he never tips beyond that pleasant looseness into something less inhibited. Sam, of course, has no such issue - and a good thing, too, because he’s really the one who needs this drink. Bucky is just the commiserating ear. 

(It’s foolish to say, but it’s this moment where he realizes that he and Sam are no longer just a couple of guys. They’re friends in their own right, and in moments like these, the best thing a friend can do is order the next round.)

“Someone’s going to have to stop her, Buck,” Sam says eventually in a quiet voice, staring into the remnants of his whiskey. “Someone’s got to. But god, I don’t want it to be me.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Bucky promises. A year ago, he never would have expected they’d be here, with him consoling a man he used to never want to see again. “This isn’t something we have to tackle tonight. And this doesn’t have to be the end, you know? People can come back from anything. I gotta believe that - hell, I’m proof of it.”

“Yeah, well, let’s hope Sharon doesn’t come out of this as much of a grumpy bastard as you.” Sam’s joke is weak, but Bucky gladly latches onto it. 

“Hey now, some people find it endearing.”

“Yeah, that’s just what they tell you, bud,” he tosses back, accentuating the exchange by tipping the rest of his drink down his throat. “Speaking of which, though, you oughta get home to your girl.”

“Darcy’s not my girl.” These days, the words are almost like autopilot, after months of teasing from Sam. 

It’s the wrong thing to say today, apparently, if the way Sam slams his glass back on the worn counter is any indication. “Oh, that is such bullshit, Barnes, and you know it.”

“We’re not dating,” he tries to insist, but Sam just rolls his eyes. 

“Fine, you’re not dating. Y’all are something , though. I see the way you two are always together and the way she’s started kissing your cheek before we go off on missions. And don’t even try to start that ‘she’s just affectionate’ crap, because I ain’t getting any of those kisses. That’s just for you, man. You may still be waffling about whether she’s your girl, but from what I’m seeing, she’s long since decided that you’re her man. So whatchu gonna do about it?”

“I don’t know that it’s the right time, if I’m even ready. I don’t know that I’m the man she deserves me to be, at least not right now.”

Sam sighs heavily. The eyeroll is implied, especially when he lifts his finger towards the bartender for another drink. “Look, man, there’s not going to be a perfect time. Angels aren’t gonna come down from the heavens, start singing, and proclaim you a healed man who’s ready for the world of romance. You’ve just got to decide for yourself that you want it more than you’re scared. You want control of your life back, want to make your own choices? Well, here’s an opportunity. It’s like I said before: you gotta put in the work. Life is too damn short not to take that chance. If you decide that you really aren’t stable enough for a relationship, or you’re barely keeping a handle on everything that’s on your plate already, fine. Don’t ask her. But I don’t think that’s the case. And that woman has seen everything you are, and still wants you to be her someone.” He takes a sip of his fresh drink, somehow managing to avoid breaking eye contact like they’re back in that fucking interrogation room again, having a staring contest. “So, I repeat: whatchu gonna do about it?”

That’s the question of the hour, isn’t it? 

He wants Darcy - is probably more than halfway in love with her, if he’s being brutally honest with himself. She shines brighter than any of the stars she studies, with her wit and her brilliance and her kindness. And maybe Sam has a point - because Bucky’s been trying to live up to that shine for months, turn into someone worth being around on an extended (permanent?) basis, but it’s not his opinion that matters, is it? It’s hers - and God help them both, but she’s apparently seen something she likes in him. 

It’s hard to justify denying her anything - especially when it comes to something he wants just as badly. 

Abruptly, he stands up, abandoning the half-drunk beer on the bar and frantically patting at his pockets in search of his phone. Sam’s face is set into a kind of exaggerated confusion brought out by the whiskey that mostly looks cartoonish. “What are you doing, Barnes?”

“I’m going to go do something about it.”

“Damn, I’m good,” Sam mumbles to himself as Bucky heads for the door - something he only picks up due to his super-serum hearing. Tonight only, he’ll do Sam the favor of pretending he can’t hear it.

The night sky out here really is something, Bucky ponders as he slips out the door to the bar and around the corner. New York didn’t have nearly the same light pollution problem it has now when he was growing up, but there’d still been too many buildings in the way to see anything properly. And then, between his deployment and the endless decades as Hydra’s weapon… he never thought to look, in truth. There’s a simple freedom in looking now, in observing the vastness of the universe and everything unknown that’s out there. It reminds him that he’s not alone - that there are billions, trillions of souls floating around out there, and he’s just a tiny speck in the middle of this. His influence is limited, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean he can’t work to make this particular corner of the world just a little bit better.  

(It helps, too, that every time he looks at the night sky now, he thinks of Darcy and her endless curiosity. She’s there, between every bit of far-off light, anchoring him in all things. Two parts curiosity, one part foolhardiness - and maybe, hopefully, one part his .)

It takes three rings for Darcy to pick up the phone, just long enough to send an uncharacteristic burst of nerves shooting through his body to settle in his stomach. “Hello?” Faintly in the background, he can hear the distinctive chime of that one machine in her lab - a sure sign she’s settling in for a later night that she planned, especially paired with that distracted note in her voice. 

“Hey Darce, it’s me.”

“Oh, hey, Bucky!” The nerves from before are soothed immediately by how purely happy she sounds to hear it’s him on the other end of the line. “Are you and Sam on your way home, then?”

“Yeah, soon. Or maybe not, we’re at a bar. It was a rough one today. Got some bad news.”

The happy tone is gone immediately, replaced by concern. “Are you both alright? Oh god, nothing happened with his family, did it?”

“No no, nothing like that. They’re fine, and not a scratch on us. Just… not the news we wanted today. I’ll give you the full story when we’re back at the complex.” While they’re still figuring out what to do with the Sharon bomb, he doesn’t want to discuss any of it over the phone. Too much risk of someone listening in. 

“Well, thanks for checking in. I will… ok, to be honest, there’s a decent chance I’ll still be up when you two get back, so I’ll see you then.”

“Self-awareness is the first step in admitting you have a problem.”

“Oh hush, it’s all in pursuit of science. The pursuit of knowledge. That’s noble . Now, if you’ve got nothing better to do than tease me about my enviable work ethic and brilliance…”

Moment of truth, then. “Actually, I was calling about something else.”

“Oh, never mind, then. What’s up?”

God, he can’t remember the last time he got so antsy about this - asking a pretty dame out. Must have been in school, nearly a century ago. Like so many other things, he suspects the difference is Darcy. “Wanted to see if you’d like to get dinner sometime.”

She pauses - very uncharacteristic. She’s always a woman with something to say, always with a quip at hand. “Like a date?” she finally asks. 

“Yeah. I mean, only if you want to —”

He’s cut off by her laugh, and for a moment, all the courage he’s worked up crashes back into his stomach before she speaks again, the words reassuring and teasing. “Been waiting for you to catch up, Barnes.”

“Sorry to leave you hanging, sweetheart. Let me make it up to you?”

“I’m counting on it.”

———

(Her lips taste like wine and the curve of her hip feels like it was perfectly made for his hand - and Bucky Barnes finally, finally thinks he’s found where he fits in the new existence shaped around him.)