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Winter's Ending

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He spent the next several minutes watching Clint Barton pet his dog and listening to the man tell stories that were probably lies about how he grew up in a circus. There was a tap on the door, and Darcy went over to answer it, opening it up to reveal the red-haired woman from the bridge. The secondary target, he remembered: Romanoff, Natasha A. Darcy said, “I figured wherever Clint was, you wouldn't be too long after.”

The woman, Natasha, gave Darcy a very mild stink-eye, but didn't dispute the statement. Instead, she stepped into the room and placed her back against the wall beside the door. Здравствуйте, Яша,” she said.

He blinked. “Привет,” he replied. Then, because it seemed like the thing to say, he added, “Я прошу прощения, если я тебя поранил.”

And for those of us who took Spanish for the easy A?” Darcy asked, her voice mild as she shut the door and moved back to her seat on the couch.

He apologizes if he hurt me,” Natasha translated. She studied him. “Do you remember me at all?”

He looked at her carefully. He remembered fighting her on the bridge, of course. He remembered her name: Romanoff, Natasha A. Romanoff was a Russian name, and she had spoken Russian to him, and out of habit he had replied in Russian. Habit?

He looked down at his dog as he tugged on that mental thread. Why was it habit to speak in Russian? He wasn't Russian. He was from Brooklyn; the exhibit at the museum had said so. But he spoke Russian. He spoke Russian to the men on the bridge. One of the medic-techs who repaired him had spoken Russian as well.

He frowned. He looked up at her again. “Secondary target: Romanoff, Natasha A.” Then he shook his head. “That's not right.”

Romanova,” she corrected him. “Natalia.”

He blinked. Romanova. Natalia. Natasha. Natashenka. She was small, whipcord-thin, deadly, with a burning fire inside of her. She was a vicious fighter. She was a dancer. She was...

He looked up at her and said, “The Red Room. You were a child then.”

Yes, I was.”

Just like he had before, he felt the ghost of a shape slip in and hazily fill a hole in his mind. “I taught you how to use a knife.”

You taught me much more than that,” she said, but did not elaborate.

He shakes his head. “I don't remember.”

I don't expect you to,” she replied. “As many times as they've wiped you, Yasha, I'm surprised you're still capable of feeding yourself.”

He shuddered. “I don't want to talk about that.”

All right.” She came farther into the room. “I actually came for Clint. We're needed.”

He looked surprised. “We are?”

It's our turn for dinner.”

Oh.” Clint sighed, gave the dog a last vigorous rub to the head. Then he stood. “Thanks for letting me pet your dog.”

He blinked. “You're welcome.”

Clint gave him a smile - one that looked real and sincere and made him feel nice inside - and then he glanced over at Darcy and Steve. “Should we expect you tonight?”

Steve shook his head. “I think we'll lay low for a bit.”

Clint nodded. “We'll put back leftovers, if there are any.”

Thanks,” Darcy said.

The two of them started out the door, but Natasha stopped in the doorway and turned to face him. “Ты научил меня выживать. Я жива благодаря тебе.”

He stared at the door as it closed behind her. You taught me to survive. I am alive because of you. He reached down and rubbed at Max's head and wondered what else was hiding in the dark corners of his mind. Then he looked up at Darcy. “Is that everyone?”

***

Darcy gave him a gentle smile. “Almost. There's Sam and Bruce, still, and Pepper, but she's in Malibu and I'm not sure when she'll be back.”

You've met Sam,” Steve said. “The guy with the wing pack.”

Oh.” Bucky looked uncomfortable. “Did I hurt him?”

Steve shook his head. “Nah. Roughed him up a little, that's all. You did bust his wing pack, but Tony's building him a new and improved one, so he's probably not gonna complain.”

Bucky looked distressed at this, and Steve reached over, laying a hand on his right shoulder. “Buck, you were doing what you thought you had to do. Okay? We know you didn't want to do those things.”

Bucky shook his head, looking down at his hands. Darcy stood up. “Maybe we should do something about dinner,” she said, giving Steve a significant look.

Steve looked like he wanted to argue, to sit there and talk to Bucky until he forced Bucky to believe what he was saying. But Darcy reached over and tugged on his sleeve, jerking her head in the direction of the kitchen, and he sighed. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Bucky, is there anything you can think of that you'd like to have?”

Bucky shook his head. Steve bit his lip, hard, and then followed Darcy into the kitchen. She had a box of fettuccine out on the cabinet already, so he pulled out a pan and filled it with water. She came out of the pantry with a jar of pre-made alfredo sauce and came over to his side. “Don't push,” she murmured. “He just got here today. There's plenty of time, and he's not going to be fixed overnight.”

Steve sighed heavily. “I know,” he said. He put the pan on the stove and turned the heat on, then took her in his arms and rested his forehead against hers. “It just hurts,” he whispered.

I know it does,” she whispered back. “But pushing him might make it worse. You don't want him to run.”

He felt his stomach clench at the idea of Bucky running now, of Bucky breaking, of Bucky fleeing. Of spending the rest of his life wondering, knowing that Bucky was out there, broken, needing help, and not willing to come back to him because he pushed too hard. He swallowed hard. “No,” he managed. “I don't.”

Then just be cool,” she said, running her fingers across his stomach. “Be patient. Don't chase him; let him come to you.” She waited for him to nod and take a deep breath and then she said, “And maybe make some garlic bread.”

He blinked at the sudden change of subject, and she gave him a bright grin. “I'm going to throw some laundry on while you do that.”

Okay.” He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “Thank you,” he whispered.

She patted his cheek, then glided out into the living room. “Bucky, I'm going to throw some laundry into the washing machine. Would you like me to wash your clothes?”

Bucky looked up at her, blinking. He looked a little dazed, but she didn't want to just go into his bag without permission. She tried it another way. “Do you have dirty clothes in your bag?”

He nodded. She said, “Would it be all right if I opened your bag and took them out to wash?”

His eyes went back and forth between his bag and her for a long moment. Finally, hesitantly, he nodded again. She gave him a smile and reached for the bag, making sure to use slow, telegraphed movements. She couldn't help wrinkling her nose at the stink of dirty homeless man that emanated from the inside of the bag. “Phew!” she exclaimed, waving a hand in front of her face. “Dude. Jesus. What even.”

She was answered with a rusty, choked-off laugh, and she decided to consider that sound reward enough for handling a relative stranger's funky laundry. She dumped everything that she found onto the floor, then went into Steve's room to retrieve the laundry that was there. She found the tied up bundle of weaponry in Bucky's dirty shirt and decided to leave that where it was, but she gathered everything he'd left in the bathroom and brought it all out to the utility closet beside the pantry.

Never one to be too particular about laundry - unlike Steve, who sorted everything by color and fabric weight - Darcy tossed everything into the washing machine together with her own jeans and some of Steve's. She added some soap and turned it on, then came back out into the kitchen with a bottle of Febreze in her hand. She stalked over to Bucky's backpack and sprayed the inside of it with extreme prejudice. Then, for good measure, she sprayed the air around the backpack, the chair it had been sitting on, and then aimed a quick spritz in the direction of Bucky himself.

He sneezed.

Darcy bit her lip, her eyes sparkling, as Bucky managed to look both surprised and disgruntled at the little droplets of scent that fell around him. He glowered at her from underneath the fringe of his hair, and she grinned back at him. “Don't give me that look,” she said. “I'm not afraid of you.”

And then she sailed back into the kitchen to put the Febreze away, leaving him sitting there in the chair, utterly astonished.

***

She wasn't afraid of him? How could she not be afraid of him? Everyone was afraid of him. Even his handlers were afraid of him. When they brought him out of the cold, until he was unleashed on his target, he was surrounded by heavily armed men. When he returned after completing missions, he was surrounded by heavily armed men until he went back into the cold. Everyone was afraid of him. How could she not be afraid of him?

He sat very still, that single thought running around and around in his head like a gerbil on a wheel until he heard Steve say, “Bucky, will you come and eat?”

He stood automatically, moving into the kitchen. Steve was plating up some kind of noodles with white sauce; there was a basket of bread on the kitchen table already, covered with a towel, and Darcy was dumping tiny red tomatoes into small bowls of mixed green salad. Steve handed him a plate and nudged him toward the table; he went, seating himself and waiting.

Darcy brought the salads, as well as a bottle of some kind of red dressing, and Steve brought both of their plates, pushing Darcy's chair out for her with his foot and giving her a cheeky grin as he did so. She poked her tongue out at him but slid into the seat anyway, murmuring her thanks as the plate settled in front of her. She flicked the towel off the bread basket, taking a piece for herself and then offering one to him while Steve put down a bowl for Max.

He took the bread as Steve seated himself. He smelled the rich garlic and butter, feeling his mouth begin to water, and took a tentative bite. The flavor exploded in his mouth, and he stared down at the bread in his hand for a moment. The question popped out before he even knew he was going to ask it. “Is this khale ?”

Challah,” Darcy replied. “I was in Flatbush yesterday and there's something about a Jewish bakery that I cannot pass up, regardless of how hard I try.”

I'm going to guess it's the rugelach,” Steve murmured.

Usually,” Darcy replied agreeably. “Sometimes it's the bialys, though.”

He ate his bread while they teased one another, letting their voices wash over him. He picked up his fork, feeling odd about it for some reason, but felt muscle memory take over when he spun it in the pasta and lifted it to his mouth.

It was delicious. He wasn't sure he'd ever had anything quite that delicious before in his life. Certainly he hadn't had anything that delicious in the last six days, and the taste of the sauce and the pasta did not fill any of the empty holes in his mind the way the sauerkraut had done earlier. But as the first bite of it hit his stomach, he realized something that he found equal parts astonishing and terrifying.

He was hungry . He was very, very hungry, and the food was delicious, and he knew, in a general sort of sense, that there were rules that he was supposed to follow when eating, but he was so hungry and the food was so good and before he realized it, his plate was empty and he was staring at it as though by staring hard enough, he could make it not be empty any more.

Steve said, “Bucky, do you want some more?”

He lifted his head and looked at Steve. “Yes,” he said. And then he said, “Please.”

Steve grinned at him, and he felt something inside himself grow very warm. Steve stood up, taking the empty plate to the stove, and he filled it up and brought it back. Bucky said, “Thank you.” And then he added, “What is it?”

Fettuccine alfredo,” Darcy said. “And if you think this is good, Pepper's lasagna is going to blow your mind.”

After dinner, Steve washed the dishes and Darcy moved the laundry into the dryer before saying, “Hey, Bucky, do you think Max needs a walk?”

He looked down at Max, who was sitting patiently near the front door, and said, “Yes.”

Well,” Darcy said, “We can't walk him on the street without a leash; if the police or animal control comes by, they'd ticket us and possibly impound him. But there's a little courtyard inside the tower complex; we can take him there tonight, and then tomorrow I'll find a pet store or something and we can get some supplies. Leash, collar, proper dog food, that kind of thing.”

He nodded once, because she seemed to expect a response, and Darcy opened a drawer, pulling out a plastic shopping bag and holding it out to him. “You'll need this,” she said.

He took it, looking down at it in confusion. “What for?”

Because you can't leave his poop laying in the courtyard, and I will wash your funk-nasty laundry but I am not picking up your dog's poop.”

He felt his lips twitch. Steve said, “He's gonna need shoes and socks to go downstairs.”

Oh, I didn't think about that,” Darcy said. She darted off into the bedroom.

Without turning around from the sink, Steve spoke again. “I know she's a lot,” he said softly. “When I first met her, she drove me insane. About half the time I was around her, I was restraining the urge to strangle her.” He shut the water off, dried his hands on a towel, and turned. His face was still and calm. “I know you've been through hell,” he said. “And you might have problems like me, or you might have different problems. But she's special, Buck.”

He stared at Steve, working to put the threads together in his mind, and then struggling for words. At last, he managed to say, “I won't hurt her.”

Steve nodded. “Okay.”

Just then, Darcy returned. She'd pulled on a hoodie - one of Steve's, judging by the way it totally swallowed her - and was carrying his boots and a pair of socks. She held them out to him. “Here you go.”

He took them, pulling on the socks and then his boots. He checked the heel on the left one carefully - he'd modified it in order to hide his cash there - and it was still secure. Then he stood up, ready to go. Darcy leaned in to press a kiss to Steve's lips as she passed him, and then she pulled open the door. “Come on, Max,” she said, and the dog followed her.

He stuffed the plastic bag into his pocket and followed as well, and although he didn't look back over his shoulder, he could feel Steve's eyes on him all the way to the elevator.

***

While they were gone, Steve went upstairs to see about where Bucky should sleep. The room he'd put Darcy in was still decorated and supplied for a six-year-old girl; it would hardly be appropriate to put Bucky there. The second bedroom - an analogue to the one Darcy used as the master in her apartment - was his art studio. The third bedroom was the smallest, and shared a bathroom with the art studio rather than having its own private en suite, but it would have to do for now.

The first thing he did was lock the art studio; it wasn't that he didn't trust Bucky - though this wasn't Bucky, not really - but he didn't want anyone rifling through his work without supervision. Especially since there was more than one sketch of Bucky in the studio. Some he'd done from memory; some he'd done with reference images from history books and videos. He didn't want Bucky seeing any of them until he was ready.

That done, he retrieved Bucky's toothbrush and a set of spare toiletries, setting them on the countertop. He put out a clean towel and wash cloth, made sure there was plenty of toilet paper, and then went into the bedroom. He looked around and wondered, not for the first time, who had done the decorating. The whole place had been furnished when he moved in, and it looked like a hotel: attractively bland and unassuming. Everything was done in mostly neutral shades, with splashes of color here and there, but nothing that really indicated personality at all.

He'd changed that in his own bedroom, of course, as well as the living room and the studio. This room and the one he still thought of as Darcy's room, though, had been closed off and unused until very recently. He was glad to see that changing. He liked it.

He and Burke had been talking recently about his social connections - or the lack thereof. He'd spent his first year or so post-wakeup in abject misery, angry at the world and at everyone in it, mostly because they were not the world and the people he knew. After New York, he'd reached out and reconnected with Peggy - for all the good it did, since she had trouble remembering from visit to visit that he'd come back - but he'd struggled with forming attachments to other people, especially his teammates.

It was, ironically, Darcy who had finally managed to bring him out of his shell - Darcy standing in the hallway and telling him that he hated her, Darcy sitting on Stark's jet and calling out all the ways he'd made her feel small and miserable and worthless. Darcy who never treated him like a burden or a celebrity; Darcy who tried to make him food that reminded him of home because her granny had taught her to show her love by feeding and caring for people. Darcy, who he turned around one day and found himself desperately in love with.

Darcy who Bucky felt safe enough to reach out to; Darcy who apparently had a soft enough touch to charm the wounded animal his best friend had become; Darcy whose gentle hands could soothe the savage beast inside both of them. He shook his head. He didn't deserve her, that was for sure. But he was damn glad to have her, and he was just selfish enough that he wasn't going to let her go, either. He'd do whatever it took to keep her.

He'd told that to Burke, just a few days ago at his last appointment, when the doctor had asked how he was doing with his new social connections. Burke had just smiled.

Steve wondered if Burke could help Bucky. He decided to ask at his next appointment; if Burke couldn't help him, maybe he knew someone who could. He thought about Clint, and the SHIELD psychologist Clint had gone to; he made a mental note to find out if Clint had still been going, and to suggest Burke if Clint needed someone new. That was something friends did, right?

He shook his head. This room needed some damn color.

The door opened downstairs and he heard Darcy chattering at Bucky about something; the door closed again, and Steve came out of the bedroom, stepping into the shadows to observe unseen. Darcy moved into the bedroom, talking over her shoulder to Bucky about Thor's abiding love of pancakes. Bucky, after a quick glance around, moved across the room. Steve recognized the expression on his face: it was one Bucky had worn many times as a child, when he was about to engage in some kind of mischief that he knew might get him into trouble.

Steve watched as Bucky crossed the room on silent assassin's feet and looked at the canvas by the window. He wondered how long Bucky had been burning with curiosity about what was on that canvas. It was the kind of thing he'd be interested in; he was just as much of an artist as Steve was.

A remarkable change went over Bucky's face when he saw the portrait and realized who it was. The blankness that was so much a part of him seemed to vanish, and for a moment, the only thing Steve could read there was shock. But it changed - and Steve knew why. The original portrait had been done in pencil and then gone over in oil pastel; when he had added the changes that the years had made, the scruff and the longer hair and the wounded expression, he had done those in very light pencil and left them that way. The image as it was now - unfinished - was eerily like an optical illusion, with the ghost of the Winter Soldier overlaid on top of the Bucky who used to be.

The look on Bucky's face now was hard to read. There was recognition there, of course, but also confusion, and a little bit of pleasure as well. Steve stepped out of the shadows and started down the stairs, and Bucky's head came up, his eyes meeting Steve's. He didn't speak until Steve stopped walking in the center of the living room. When he did, his voice was very soft. “Why?” he asked.

I thought you were dead,” Steve explained. “And I wanted to honor you and remember you. Because you were my best friend - my brother. And you deserved that.”

Bucky's hand reached out, his fingertips gently brushing the image. “Oh,” he said softly.