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Winter's Ending

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For the next few days, very little got accomplished. They were a team, and they had never felt more like a team than they did then - except for maybe that one time when they all gelled spectacularly and saved the freaking world - but they were a team made up entirely of action people. They had no back-line support, they had no logistical control, and they had no ears on the ground gathering intel. They were a finely crafted weapon with no target.

We're just as disorganized as HYDRA is,” Steve grumbled one night as he sprawled out on Darcy's couch, his feet in her lap. “Maybe worse. At least they have a structure that they're trying to rebuild.”

It had been a full seven days since the helicarriers crashed and the Triskellion burned. A little bit of information was coming out, and of course Tony's hard lines in were helping with that quite a lot. Just that day, the press had erupted with the scandal that Senator Stern, who had lobbied so hard to have Tony's armor confiscated by the government, had been arrested and was being charged with HYDRA-related activities; Tony had been crowing about it all afternoon.

From under the arm he had over his face, Steve gave Darcy his best puppy-dog eyes. She laughed, put some lotion into her hands, and began rubbing at his feet. “So let's think about this as logically as we can,” she said. “What did SHIELD give us that we now lack and need to recreate in order to function properly?”

He thought about it while her thumbs dug into the ball of his right foot. “Background support,” he finally said. “We're ready to go up against whatever threat there might be, but we don't have anyone to tell us what the threat is. We've got intel coming in, but it's only partial intel, and we don't have anyone to sift through it and tell us what's real and what isn't.”

Right. So, analysts and back-end support. Well, we can build that. Right? You said Fury's still alive, and Hill, and they had a whole underground facility. So we need to connect with them. Yeah?”

Steve nodded slowly, tucking his hands behind his head and watching her as she worked her way up to his ankle. “Yeah. If they're straight with us. Honestly, I still don't trust Fury as far as I could throw him.”

I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him, and that's a lot shorter distance,” she replied, switching to his left foot. “But it's a start for now. And this is just a thought, but I feel like we'll probably be best off if we avoid covert work. At least for now. If they want to work with us - and you know they do - then fine. We'll do like the Fantastic Four does. When Victor von Doom comes crashing up Park Avenue with bots, when Loki opens a giant hole in the sky, when Magneto tries to take over the world, we're there for that. But this cloak and dagger stuff, where we don't know who the real enemy is and maybe it's actually us? No. We don't do that.”

He scratched at his head as he thought about it. “I don't know how firm we can be about that,” he admitted. “A lot of the fight against HYDRA might end up being covert.”

She shook her head. “No. That's how they infiltrated in the first place. Look, what grows in the dark dies in the light, right? So when we find HYDRA, we don't lock them up in shady places - we expose them and their gross ideals and opinions to the light of public scrutiny. If we find incontrovertible evidence that, say, some Senator is working for them, we expose them that way. We're not going to win the fight against HYDRA with brute force. I hate to say this, but you tried that, and it didn't work.”

Cut off the head, two more grow in its place,” he muttered, his face twisting.

But listen to this.” She wiped her hands on his legs, rubbing the last of the greasy lotion away, and reached for her StarkPad. She began to read. “According to Wikipedia, which is of course not a scholarly resource, but it'll do for now, the Laernean Hydra had nine heads, poisonous breath, and blood so virulent that even its tracks were deadly. But Hercules, with the help of his nephew and/or plucky kid sidekick Iolaus, killed it. There's two versions of the story. In one version, Hercules cuts the heads off, and Iolaus uses a torch to cauterize the stumps. In the other version, though, after cutting off the first head, Hercules coated his sword in the Hydra's own poisonous blood, and used that to keep the heads from growing back.”

Steve considered that. “He used the Hydra's own venom to kill it.”

Darcy nodded. “Exactly.”

That's...” He paused, staring at her. “Tony said something the other day about using their surveillance against them.”

Darcy nodded. “That's one weapon in our arsenal. I'm sure we'll think of others.”

Steve nodded back. “And the logistical support...”

We'll build that,” Darcy replied. “From the ground up, if we have to. That's actually the new job Pepper has for me; she wants to put me in charge of herding superheroes.”

Steve hummed softly as he thought about that. “You'd be good at it.”

Are you kidding?” She grinned. “I'm going to be amazing at it.”

Naturally, it was the next morning that Maria Hill walked into Human Resources with her resume in her hand. JARVIS alerted Darcy a little after ten o'clock, as she was lounging in the lab with Jane and sketching out some ideas for her new department on a legal pad. “Miss Lewis,” he said, “I wish to inform you that one of the individuals flagged in the system as high priority has entered the tower and been granted access to the thirtieth floor.”

HR?” Darcy said. “Who is it, JARVIS?”

Agent Maria Hill,” he replied. Darcy bounced up out of her seat. “Please alert HR to have her shown immediately to an interview room. I'll be down there as fast as I can. Also, please alert Pepper and Tony.”

Miss Potts is still in Malibu,” JARVIS pointed out, his voice keeping pace with Darcy as she bolted up the hallway toward the elevator.

I know,” Darcy said. “Tell her anyway. Let her know I'm handling it.”

Very well,” JARVIS replied. He double-timed her elevator back to her floor, and once she was in her apartment, she raced upstairs to her bedroom, shucking her jeans and sweater and trading them for the pantsuit Pepper had helped her buy just for occasions like this. Her Stark Industries identification badge was already clipped to the lapel. She dashed into the bathroom to pull her hair up into a quick knot at the base of her neck and double check her makeup, then grabbed the shoes that matched the suit and, barefoot, hurried back out to the elevator again.

She slipped the shoes on as the elevator opened on the thirtieth floor, and strode up to the desk like she owned the place. She smiled at the receptionist. “Hey, Jared.”

He looked up and smiled back. “Miss Lewis!” he said. “I got your message about Miss Hill.” He offered her a faux-leather portfolio folder. She flipped it open and found Hill's resume inside, as well as the cursory background check that was standard for any Stark Industries applicant. She nodded. “Thanks. I'll be taking this one myself.”

His eyed widened. “Sure thing, Miss Lewis. She's in Room Twelve. Will you be needing anything?”

Nope. Thank you, Jared.” With a quick nod to the young man, she swept past him and down the hall to the indicated room. She stopped just outside the room and took a deep breath, trying to calm her pounding heart. She couldn't help but be excited; this might be exactly what they needed. If only. She smoothed her palms down over the soft fabric of her jacket, took another deep breath, and pushed the door open.

Miss Hill,” she said, greeting the dark-haired woman who sat in the visitor's chair. “I'm Darcy Lewis.”

Hill stood, offering her hand to shake, and Darcy shook it. They exchanged polite smiles. “Thank you for seeing me so soon, Miss Lewis,” Hill said. “I admit, I was kind of surprised when the gentleman outside told me to come on back here.”

Darcy moved around the empty desk and sat down in the chair, setting the portfolio to the side and folding her hands on the shiny surface as Hill seated herself. She leveled the other woman with a look. “Let's can the crap, Agent Hill, shall we?” Darcy said. “You're not here for a job. You're here about the Initiative.”

Hill blinked. “Have we met?”

No,” Darcy replied. “But I've dealt with SHIELD. I was in New Mexico for first contact with Thor.”

There was a moment of silence before the piece clicked in Hill's mind. “Foster's assistant,” she said. “You dealt with Phil Coulson.”

Yes, I did,” Darcy said. “Good man. Shame about him being dead. Or, you know, not being dead, as the case may be.”

Hill grimaced. “I told Fury that would come back to bite us with the Avengers.”

Yeah, well, you were right. Fortunately for you, we need you more than we need to hold a grudge. Or, more specifically, we need your connections.” She sat back in her chair. “Captain Rogers seems to be under the impression that you and Fury have a whole little underground network of loyalists who are capable of doing at least some of the job SHIELD used to do. We want access to that.”

Hill sat forward, smiling slightly. “I'm listening.”

Here's what we're offering. We're a point team without any logistical or intel support. You're a logistical and intel team with no point. We think we can work together, but only under very specific conditions which are to be determined through negotiations with the entire team. The most important of those conditions are that the whole works comes under the auspices of Stark Industries, and I'm the funnel. Everything comes from your team to you, from you to me, and from me to the Avengers. And everyone - absolutely everyone - on your end gets totally vetted through our system. This is non-negotiable.”

I'm good with that,” Hill said instantly. “When do we start?”

Darcy smiled. She stood up and offered her hand to Maria. “Right now,” she said as Maria stood and shook it. “Welcome to the Initiative, Agent Hill.”

***

The man in the blue suit and his woman had gone up the street to a restaurant and had dinner, sitting in a secluded corner where it had been hard for him to see them. He had watched their silhouettes from a distance, though, while they ate and talked, looking very affectionate but also very serious. There was something about the man in the blue suit that was different when he was in street clothes. In the suit, he was forbidding and powerful, even when he refused to do battle.

(i'm not gonna fight you. you're my friend.)

In street clothes, he was still powerful, but... he was different. More ordinary. Almost familiar.

He thought about the pictures of the man in the blue suit with his friend, the one it hurt to think about. His mind shied away from that name

(james buchanan barnes)

but he thought of the two of them, in conversation, smiling, laughing at some joke. He watched the man in the blue suit as he talked with his woman over dinner. The smile was still there, but it was rarer. It was

(you've known me your whole life)

sad. He didn't like that. He didn't know why, couldn't understand, he reached for it, he struggled with his mind, but it was blank, there was nothing, there was just a door and it was locked and he couldn't break through no matter how he hammered on it.

(wipe him and start over.)

The dog whined at him. He looked down at it. Raised his left hand. Studied the metal.

He laid the metal hand on the dog's head. Felt the pressure, the warmth, the shape of the bones in the dog's head and neck. He brought his right hand up, rubbing at the underside of the dog's chin. Felt the scratchy-soft fur. The dog pressed into his side, and he petted it. Used both hands, since the dog seemed to like that. Felt the tension that had been building up inside of him slowly ease as the dog's tail rocked back and forth like a metronome.

He calmed.

He watched the man in the blue suit and his woman finish their dinner, pay, wrap their arms around one another and make their way back up the street toward the tower. He followed, in the shadows.

He stayed in the alley for three more days, sleeping curled up with the dog behind a Dumpster, eating food that he bought from nearby vendors and food trucks. He patronized the hot dog vendor every day, because the hot dog vendor had taken a liking to the dog, and would save dropped buns and wieners for the dog to eat. He remembered to say thank you, and the vendor would sometimes clap him on the shoulder and give him a sad smile.

He thought maybe the vendor had seen men like him before, men whose minds were broken. He didn't ask.

He watched for three days as people came and went by that hidden door. He never tried to enter; it required a digital code as well as a retinal scan, so that would have been pointless. But he watched. He saw the slender black man again, the stocky blond man, and a red-haired woman whom he remembered from the bridge. She'd tried to garrotte him. She was good; he wondered about her.

Once, he saw a second blond man, bigger than all the others, accompanied by a tiny brown-haired woman who could've almost fit inside the leg of his jeans. The contrast between their sizes made him snort softly in amusement, as did the obvious joy they took in each other's presence.

He never saw the man in the blue suit, though his woman came out two or three times a day, often going up the street to a coffee shop and coming back with trays of coffee and bags of pastries. He watched her closely. She wore glasses, jeans, and pretty tops that flattered her figure and showed off her chest. She usually wore her hair down, falling in thick waves around her shoulders and sometimes in her face. But what drew his attention was her smile. Her smile was bright and wide, quick and ready, and she used it a lot. She laughed freely and easily, and when that sound escaped her, it would drift across to his hiding place and warm him from the inside.

He thought to himself once that the man in the blue suit must value her greatly; she never seemed to leave the tower alone, and that was probably wise. She would be in danger if she did. He felt certain that HYDRA must know about her, and they would not hesitate to use her against the man in the blue suit if they thought the leverage would help them achieve their aims.

(your work has been a gift to mankind. you shaped the century.)

That could not be allowed. He wasn't sure how, but at some point over the last seven days, he had come to the conclusion that HYDRA was wrong. The things they had told him were wrong. The things they had made him do were wrong. And they needed to be stopped.

He touched the canvas of the bag holding the shield. He knew the shield. The shield had protected him once. The man carrying it had

(you've known me your whole life)

refused to harm him; when given the chance to kill, had only disabled. When given the chance to let him die, had saved him.

The man in the blue suit could help him. And he felt sure that if he approached that man, that man would help him. But he didn't see the man in the blue suit any more. He only saw those others. He didn't know those others, and the ones he'd fought against might still be angry with him. They didn't know him, they had never said

(james buchanan barnes)

kind words to him. They might not. They might try to hurt him, and he was tired, so tired, of being hurt. Everything was pain and he didn't want pain any more.

The dog whined at him, and he looked down at it, rubbing its head and calming himself. He looked up as the door at the foot of the tower opened up, and watched as the blue-suited man's woman came out. She trotted up the stairs, leaning her head to one side and sticking something into her ears as she went, and he blinked in surprise, realizing suddenly that she was alone.

She was alone.

He watched her go up the block to her favorite coffee shop. He stood up. He crossed the road, his backpack heavy on his shoulders, the shield bouncing gently against his hip, the dog beside him. His eyes never left the front door of the coffee shop.

He waited. There was a concrete planter that held a couple of scrawny trees; he sat down on its lip. The dog sprawled down beside him. He watched.

Fifteen minutes passed. The door of the coffee shop opened. The woman came out. She was carrying two paper cups of coffee. She wasn't paying much attention to her surroundings. She strolled back down the sidewalk, smiling cheerfully at everyone she passed. He swallowed hard, looking down at the concrete.

She came even with him, stepping a little bit to the side to avoid the dog. He reached out with his right hand and touched her arm with his fingertips, pulling his hand back immediately after, curling it up against his chest, hoping to appear nonthreatening.

She stopped. She turned to face him.

He held his breath, staring at the concrete.

She tugged on the little white wires that were running from her pocket to her ears; when they came loose, he heard noise for a moment before it abruptly cut off. She spoke, and her voice was calm and gentle. “Are you okay?” she asked him, and he struggled to answer, but he couldn't make words come. She put the coffees down on the wide edge of the planter and took a tentative step toward him. “Do you need some help?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. “Yes.” It hurt, pushing the word out. He gritted his teeth. Then he scrabbled at the flap of the messenger bag. He looked around carefully without raising his head, and then he pulled the bag open for just a second - just long enough for her to see what was inside it. He heard her gasp, and he dropped the canvas again. There was silence between them for a moment before he managed to raise his head and look at her.

Her face was pale. Behind her glasses, her eyes were huge and shocked. She looked like she was about to scream. But then, quite suddenly, something changed. Her eyes searched his face, and her shoulders relaxed, and normal color began to return, and she said, very softly, “Hi, there.”

***

Bucky. It's Bucky. Holy shit this is Bucky fucking Barnes holy shit right here in front of me holy shit looking straight at me like -like - like I'm going to hurt him. Why does he look like that?

Darcy's mind screeched to a halt when she registered Bucky's expression. He looked genuinely afraid of her. Her . Her brain stuttered. And suddenly she thought of Natasha, sitting in the common room a few nights ago, explaining with a flat expression and an emotionless tone just exactly how assets were conditioned in the Red Room. No wonder he looks terrified , she thought.

And just like that, her paralysis broke. “Hi, there,” she said, using the kind of tone she'd use on a hurt animal or a lost child.

He looked down at the sidewalk again. She swallowed hard. “I'm Darcy,” she said. “That's my name. Do you mind if I sit down with you?”

He shook his head, and she sat down beside him, leaving about a foot of space between them. She wondered what to say next, and then remembered the coffees. She reached over and grabbed Steve's, feeling fairly certain that he wouldn't mind. She offered it to Bucky. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

He looked at the coffee, then up at her face. She smiled encouragingly, and he reached up with his right hand, taking it. He sniffed at the lid, and she said, “It's mint mocha. It'll taste like coffee, peppermint, and chocolate, and be pretty sweet. If you don't like it, that's okay. It won't hurt my feelings.”

He tasted it, and she watched his expression go blank in surprise. “It's good?” she asked when he took another sip. He nodded, and she said, “I'm glad you like it.”

They sat there for a few minutes, sipping their coffees, and she didn't speak, instead waiting to see what he would do. He occasionally reached down to scratch the dog's head with his left hand - she noticed that it was covered with a glove - and he occasionally glanced in her direction out of the corner of his eye. Several times he took a deep breath, as if he was going to speak, but he didn't. Until he did.

Can you help me?” he said softly.

Yes,” she told him, her voice gentle but firm. “I can absolutely help you.”

There's a man in a blue suit,” he said.

She nodded. “His name is Steve.”

He said, “I knew him.”

Yes, you did,” she said. She tilted her head, studying him. “Do you want me to tell you about him?”

He shook his head. “Not yet.”

Okay.”

They sat for a few more minutes in silence, but it was broken by her phone ringing. He started slightly, but she just reached into her pocket and pulled out her StarkPhone. “Don't panic,” she told him, reaching out to touch his shoulder gently. “But if I don't answer this, they'll come looking for me. Just stay here, okay?”

He nodded, and she answered the phone. “Lewis.”

Darcy, where are you?” Steve's voice came out of the phone, and from the corner of her eye, she saw Bucky startle a little bit at the sound. “It's been almost an hour!”

I'm fine, Steve,” she said. “I just ran into a friend and I've been sitting here right by the door having a very nice chat. I'll be up in a few minutes; I'm just giving him time.”

Are you sure you're okay?” Steve asked. “You sound strange.”

She sighed. “Everything is chocolate-chip cookies, Mr. Rogers,” she said firmly. It was a simple code they'd thought of months ago, that translated to I am not under duress and everything is fine. “I will be up in a few minutes, and I will be bringing my friend with me. Okay?”

Steve was stone silent for a moment. “Darcy,” he said, his voice low, “JARVIS just pulled up the security camera outside the door. Are you sitting with who I think you're sitting with?”

If you come out that door, I swear to God,” she told him. “You stay where you are and you let me handle me. Do you understand?”

He let out a slow, shaky breath. “Darce,” he whispered.

I know,” she murmured. “I know, babe. Just give me time, okay? Stay at your post.”

Okay,” he said, his voice thick.

She hung up, slipping the phone back into her pocket and giving Bucky a sideways look and a grin. “He's so overprotective.”

Bucky nodded. “He's right. It's not safe to be out alone.”

But I'm not alone,” she said. “I'm with you.” She smiled at him.

He stared at her for a long moment. Then, hesitantly, he smiled back. Based on that, she took a risk. “Will you come inside?” she said. “Bring that shield home where it belongs, and maybe talk to Steve?”

He stared down at his feet for a moment, his left hand scratching at the dog's head. She added, “Your dog can come, too.”

He looked up at her. He struggled for a moment before saying, “Will you stay with me?”

Absolutely,” she promised. “I'll even hold your hand if you want me to.”

He smiled slightly. “Okay.”

Okay.” She stood, and so did he. She cast a quick glance in the direction of the security camera, knowing full well that Steve was watching. Then she went down the steps into the door alcove. Bucky followed her, the dog right at his heels. She punched in the code, scanned her eye, and the door hissed open, revealing the interior of an elevator. She gestured for him to go first. He went, the dog trotting along, and she stepped in beside him, standing on his right. The door slid shut and she said, “JARVIS, floor eighty-seven please.”

The elevator began to rise, and as it did so, she felt Bucky's warm fingers tangle with hers. She smiled.