The flight from London landed at LaGuardia sometime before it had even taken off. Jane and Darcy staggered off the plane, both feeling the effects of jetlag something fierce. Since they'd had the foresight to ship all of their things to New York via UPS, their trip through Customs was mercifully simple. They were also able to bypass the baggage claim and head straight for the airport's main entrance, keeping their eyes peeled. Thor couldn't meet them personally, but he had promised to send someone he trusted to pick them up and bring them to Avengers Tower.
Darcy spotted him first; he was standing under the Delta Airlines sign, holding a piece of cardboard that read “FOSTER - LEWIS” in huge red letters and looking as if he felt like an idiot. She might not have recognized him at all had he not shifted just the right way; the fabric of his left sleeve parted briefly from the leather of his glove and she gasped. “Oh my gods, Jane,” she whispered. “He sent the freaking Winter Soldier to pick us up at the airport!”
Jane's head whipped around and she whimpered softly in the back of her throat. “Oh, wow.”
“I know, right? He's so pretty. Who'd have guessed?” Darcy grinned, then tugged on Jane's sleeve. “Come on,” she said. “I want to sleep forever.” She dragged Jane in the direction of the dark-haired man, waving at him as they got close. “Hi!” she said. “Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis, that's us!”
“Hey,” he replied, his lips curling in a slight smile. “Glad you made it okay. Flight all right?”
“Forever long, and turbulence most of the way, so I couldn't sleep and Her Majesty's Stomach couldn't keep anything down,” Darcy replied. “I'm Darcy, by the way.”
“Bucky,” the Winter Soldier responded. “Bucky Barnes. You gals need to grab any luggage?”
“We shipped everything ahead to avoid Customs,” Jane said. “It should already be here.”
“Might be; you'd have to ask JARVIS when we get to the tower,” Bucky replied. He balled up his sign and dumped it into a trash can on the way out the door. “C'mon; Stark sent a Town Car, so we're cruising in style.”
From what she knew of the man - which, admittedly, was very damn little - Darcy would have expected Bucky Barnes to be the strong, silent type; she would have also expected him to be an Alpha. He was neither. He was, in fact, a Beta, imprinted to someone who smelled like coffee beans. And far from being silent, Bucky was an absolute chatterbox, especially once he found out that neither of the women had been to New York before. He took great delight in pointing out the sights, and especially in telling them what used to be in certain places. There was an almost fiendish joy behind every use of the words back in my day that Darcy found deeply endearing. But then, she'd always had a thing for people with trollish tendencies.
The Town Car dropped them right in front of the tower, and Bucky escorted them in with old-fashioned style, opening the doors for them and letting his hand hover near the small of Darcy's back without actually touching her. It was kind of sweet, coming from a Beta, though if he'd been an Alpha she'd have suspected his motivations immediately.
He showed them into the private elevator in the hidden alcove at the back of the building's lobby - accessible only with a retinal scan, so until they were input into the Tower's security systems, they couldn't leave without an escort - and brought them up to the Avengers' floors, which were at the top of the building. When the elevator opened, it was onto a glass wall that gave them a gorgeous view of the city, and Darcy plastered herself to the window, staring in awe. Jane, on the other hand, fairly flung herself at her bonded Alpha, who had apparently just arrived via hammer on the landing pad outside, cape swirling and hair blowing in the breeze.
Bucky gave Darcy a minute to take in the view, then nudged her with his elbow. “Come on; I'll show you where you're staying.” Leaving the bonded pair to reacquaint themselves, Bucky led Darcy down the hall. They passed apartment door after apartment door, marked with name plaques rather than numbers: Romanoff , Barton , Banner , Rogers and Barnes , Thor and Foster . Next to Thor and Foster , nearly at the end of the hall, was another door marked simply Lewis . She blinked at it. “Really?”
Bucky nodded. “Stark's a Beta, but even he knows it'd be cruel and unusual punishment to make you bunk in with a bonded pair like that.” He reached out and turned the doorknob, pushing it open. “Go on, have a look.”
Darcy entered the apartment, unsure what to expect; the lights came up as she entered, and she gasped, looking around. “Wow.” The small entryway let into an open-plan living/dining area furnished in a very modern style with mostly neutral colors that could be easily enhanced by the addition of throws, pillows, and knickknacks. The walls were bare, clearly inviting Darcy to hang her own pictures and posters. The kitchen, off to the left, was small but gleamed with stainless steel; to the right, a doorway led into a bedroom; Darcy could just see the side of what promised to be a very large bed. All of the boxes Darcy had shipped - the entirety of her worldly possessions - were stacked against a wall in the bedroom. She smiled.
“Nice,” Bucky said, following her in. “Not my style, but nice.”
“I don't think it's really anybody's style yet,” Darcy said. “Give me a couple of weeks, though, and it's going to be fabulous.”
Bucky grinned. “I bet.” He watched as she gravitated to the windows again, then joined her. “Just so you know, it's a little weird around here. I can give you a rundown, if you want me to, just so you know what to expect, but I don't want to overstep.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean... the pack dynamics. If... if you want. I'm not trying to be personal.”
“Oh!” Darcy was struck by the sudden realization that this man was actually from the 1940s. She'd known it before, but hearing him say that drove the point home. Dynamics had been a really big, personal, private issue back then, and he was still acclimating to his changed circumstances. Having missed most of the Dynamic Revolution of the sixties and the Omega Rights movement of the late seventies and eighties, he was probably having trouble navigating the minefield that was modern sex. She gave him a smile. “I would actually love a rundown; whatever you feel comfortable telling me.”
Bucky blew out a nervous breath that Darcy hadn't realized he was holding. “Okay. So, first off, me and Steve. He's my Alpha. Since way before everything. I was all of seventeen when I imprinted on him; he was sixteen and thought I was nuts.” He laughed.
“Aw, I think that's great, though,” Darcy said, giving him a smile. “I mean, aside from the whole love story for the ages angle, just... you know, that you both still have each other, after everything, I think it's... great.” She shrugged helplessly.
He grinned. “Yeah, no, I get what you mean. And it helps a lot. Sometimes waking up to the future ain't what it's cracked up to be. Having Steve there, knowing he knows exactly what I'm going through? Keeps me sane sometimes.” He shook his head. “So, enough about me bein' gone on him. Stark's a Beta, like I mentioned earlier, but you probably know about him, since he's always on the news and such. He's imprinted on Pepper Potts.”
Darcy nodded. “Yeah, it was hard to miss that, when it happened. The tabloids went nuts.”
Bucky nodded. “So, the only full-time Alphas around here are Steve, Pepper, and Thor. But that brings us to Banner.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Banner's the Hulk, you know that, right?” When Darcy nodded, he continued. “So, Banner's an Omega. Super nice guy. But the Hulk's an Alpha.”
Darcy gaped at him. “What.”
“I know, I know. It's the weirdest thing. So he's scented for both.”
“Does he...” Darcy swallowed hard. “Does he... you know.”
“What, rut?” Bucky asked. “I have no idea. Don't really want to know, to be honest.”
“Gods,” Darcy murmured. “I can't imagine...” She couldn't suppress the involuntary shiver that went down her back at the very idea of turning into an Alpha, of having something else inside her body that was a different dynamic. It was beyond her comprehension; the very thought terrified her.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Bucky replied, shuddering slightly in sympathy. He let that sit for a moment before speaking again. “So that's Banner. Try not to freak out; he's really a decent guy, but he's kinda sensitive about the whole thing.”
Darcy nodded. “I'll manage,” she said. “Who else is there?”
“Barton,” Bucky said. “Hawkeye. He's a Beta, but he's independent. If he was gonna imprint on anybody, I think it'd be Nat, but... he can't.”
“Nat - that's Natasha Romanoff? The Black Widow?”
Bucky nodded. “Yeah. She's null.”
Darcy felt her eyes try to bug out. “What? But... but the neutralization process was outlawed globally in - ”
“1942. I know; I was there. Well, not there, but you know what I mean.” He waved a hand. “Not that it matters; she's null and that's just it. She's not sensitive about it, exactly - not the same way Banner is about switching - but still, it's not something she likes to talk about, so don't bring it up unless you're interested in pissing her off. Which, for the record, ain't something I suggest.”
Darcy nodded, a low horror pulsing in her chest. “Oh, gods. I would never.”
“Nah, I didn't think you would. Still.” He shrugged. “You seem like a decent enough kid. This pack... well, let's just say it ain't everything it could be. Not just yet. But we're getting there.”
“I'll be careful,” Darcy said softly, feeling a whine building up in the back of her throat. “I know where I stand.”
Bucky nodded. “I know you do,” he said. “I'm not saying you don't, or you wouldn't. In fact, I'm not saying nothin' except that every single person here is a very special brand of fucked up, and when you put that much powder into a keg...”
“It only takes a spark,” Darcy finished. “And an unbonded Omega just throws off sparks left and right.”
He reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “You need to understand something,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Nobody here will hurt you, and nobody here will let you be hurt. That ain't what I'm saying, okay? Last week, Steve and Stark damn near came to blows over pizza and movie night. It ain't you I'm worried about causin' a ruckus, see? I'm more worried about makin' sure you understand that there might be a ruckus. It's like walking in a minefield. I want you to know where it's safe. Okay?”
Darcy nodded. “Okay.”
Despite the fairly reassuring nature of that conversation with Bucky, Darcy was careful to tread lightly around her new acquaintances. She and Jane were both newcomers, but Jane had status within the pack as Thor's bonded Omega. Darcy had none; she was nothing more than Jane's intern. It would be very easy to upset the pack's already-delicate social dynamics, and even if she wasn't driven out, it could cause all sorts of problems that she didn't want to be responsible for.
The safest course of action, she decided, was to simply stay clear of the unbonded Alphas. Thor was safe; he had Jane, and the bond of Alpha to Omega was lifelong and unbreakable. He was as safe for her to be around as her own brothers. Pepper and Steve were an entirely different kettle of fish. Both of them had imprinted Betas, but the Beta imprint did not preclude an Omega bonding. In fact, it was widely recognized that an Alpha-Beta-Omega triad was a far more stable relationship, long term, than an imprinting or a bonding alone.
So she stayed away from the Alphas. Pepper was easy to avoid; she spent about half her time on the West Coast, and when she was in New York, she was usually either in her office or in the penthouse with Tony. Steve, on the other hand, was not so easy to avoid - especially since she and Bucky were starting to become good friends. When he had nothing else to do, Bucky would often come down to the lab to harass her and Jane - so Darcy started putting him to work when he showed up, which only served to make him feel useful, so that he showed up even more. Then Darcy started systematically teaching him about modern pop culture as they worked, starting with the music and movies of the late forties and moving forward chronologically from there.
The problem with that was that whenever Steve got done doing whatever he was doing for the day, he always came looking for Bucky, which made it a little difficult for Darcy to avoid him. Even so, it wasn't so bad when he came to the lab or the common room, filling up the area with the smell of coffee beans and healthy young unbonded Alpha. It was when Bucky and Darcy were in her apartment and he came knocking on the door that things got uncomfortable.
She refused to go to their apartment. It wasn't that she felt unsafe there - not exactly, anyway - but there was something about being inside Steve's den that frightened her. She refused to examine the feeling or the reasoning behind it; she simply put her foot down and said no. If Bucky didn't want to hang out in the public areas, it was her place or nothing. The problem with that was that when Steve came knocking on her door, seeking his Beta, suddenly it was her den smelling of coffee beans and healthy young unbonded Alpha - and that was a smell that lingered.
Bucky finally asked her about it one day about three months into her stay at the tower. She was standing out on the landing pad, leaning against the railing and enjoying the sunset when he joined her, standing downwind so that the smoke from his cigarette wouldn't sting her eyes. “Can I ask you somethin' kinda personal?”
The phrasing took her by surprise. They'd been friends for long enough that it was odd for him to ask permission. She braced herself. “Sure, I guess,” she replied. “I reserve the right not to answer, though.”
“How come you hide from Steve?”
She took a deep breath. “You don't pull any punches,” she murmured.
He held up his hands. “You ain't gotta tell me if you don't want; I was just curious. But it's none of my business.”
“No, it's okay. I just...” She shrugged, looking down at her hands. “I try to avoid unbonded Alphas as a general rule. Bonding is... not something I ever wanted in my life. I mean, like, I see Jane and Thor, and they're great, and I'm so glad for them, but Thor's from Asgard so he's different. Where I come from, it's not like that.”
Bucky cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
“I don't...” She swallowed hard, her hands trembling a little bit. “I don't want to spend the rest of my life just being someone's Omega,” she admitted. “I don't want to be nothing more than a housekeeper and a cook, spending my days minding the babies and waiting for my Alpha to come home so I can present on command. I love my life the way it is, and I don't want to give it up. Not even for someone like Steve.”
Bucky stared at her. “Is that what you think it's like, being bonded?”
She shrugged, looking away from him. “It's what happens. Sure, they tell you at first that they don't mind for you to have your little career or whatever makes you happy, but then maybe you get a promotion and you have to work later, or the first baby comes and somebody has to stay home with it, and the next thing you know, you're just a dinner maker and an incubator and a w-warm, wet hole to fuck.” She was appalled to realize that tears were making their way down her face; she wiped at them with her fingers and tried to make them stop falling.
“I don't know who told you that load of garbage,” Bucky said, his voice vibrating the way it did when he got worked up about something, “but that's exactly what it is. It's a load of garbage.”
“Nobody told it to me, Bucky,” she snapped. “I watched it happen. Over and over again. My mother, my grandfather, aunts, uncles, friends' parents. My sister. It almost happened to me, too; that's why I got the hell out of there when I had a chance.”
His face darkened. “What do you mean, it almost happened to you?”
“I mean, I had a boyfriend my senior year of high school who was an Alpha, and when I went into heat, he tried to mount and force a bond.” Her hands clenched tightly on the railing. “And the whole time, he just kept saying how great it would be when he bred me.” She shuddered hard and wiped at her tears again. “I won't live like that. Not for anybody.”
“Darce.” Bucky stepped up close to her, reaching out a tentative hand to touch her shoulder. “You gotta know how fucked up that is. That ain't right. I don't know where you grew up, but gods, it wasn't even like that when I was a kid.”
Darcy gave a soft, wet laugh. “Sure,” she replied, in a tone that clearly said what would you know; you're a Beta. She shook her head, then changed the subject. “Any particular reason you were wanting to know that, or was it just idle curiosity?”
He sighed and stayed silent for a minute. “Steve's interested,” he said finally. “But he said every time he tries to talk to you, you shut him down, and he can't figure out why.”
Her mouth went dry. “Steve wants to...?”
“He wants to know if you'd maybe be interested in havin' dinner or somethin'. He ain't lookin' to bond you, not right away and not at all if you ain't interested. And he ain't like those Alphas you grew up with, either.”
“So he, what, sent you to soften me up?”
“Hell no.” Bucky scoffed. “He has no idea I'm even talkin' to you about this. Probably have my head if he found out. I'm here on my own to let you know what the situation is, because Steve's never been any good at talkin' to dames, especially not pretty Omega dames like you. He likes you. He likes your scent, and he likes your personality, and he thinks you're smokin' hot, and I thought if you were interested, maybe you could let him know. But if you're really not, I'll put him out of his misery.”
Darcy struggled for a moment with the bone-deep desire to shut him down. To say a flat no and walk away. She knew that Steve was a different kind of guy than the ones she grew up with, that he would never try to force-mount or force-bond if she didn't want it. But could she trust Bucky's judgment when he said that bonding to Steve wouldn't be the end of everything?
She swallowed hard, looking up at the rising moon, and took a deep breath, then another, then another. She closed her eyes and forced herself to relax, forced herself to stop instincting and start thinking . Bucky was asking, on Steve's behalf, for a date. Not a mating, not a bonding. Just a date. A date wasn't a promise of anything other than a (hopefully) mutually enjoyable evening out, doing something other than sitting around listening to Tony congratulate himself. And Darcy Lewis, despite everything, had never before allowed fear to rule her life.
She opened her eyes and turned to face him. “All right,” she heard herself say. “I'm not promising anything, but dinner sounds good.”
It was rare that Bucky used his wide, real smile - but he did then, practically beaming at her. “It'll be great,” he said. “You'll see, Darce. I promise.”
Darcy smiled back reflexively, already wondering if she was making a mistake. But Bucky didn't give her time to take it back; he turned and went inside, no doubt hurrying to go tell Steve the good news. She turned back to the darkened city, her worry settling like a rock in the pit of her stomach. She thought about fleeing to the safety of her apartment, but she didn't. Firming up her chin, she reminded herself that she was not an animal and she would not be ruled by fear. She gripped the railing and stayed where she was.
And sure enough, she'd only been alone for about twenty minutes before the door slid open behind her, and the smell of coffee beans wrapped around her brain.
He didn't come close to her; she was grateful for that. He moved away from the door, giving her a clear path to escape, which told her that Bucky had at least given him the Cliffs Notes version of what she'd said, and he leaned against the railing about thirty feet away from her. She struggled not to drown herself in his scent; she struggled to control her own emotions.
He said, “I don't want you to feel like you're obligated to go out with me just to keep peace.”
“I don't.” She glanced his direction; he wasn't looking at her. Instead, he was staring out at the city.
He nodded. “Bucky said...” He paused, clearly trying to work out the words in his head. “He said you've had bad experiences with Alphas in the past.”
That was actually kind of funny; she gave a soft laugh. “Yeah, that's one way of putting it,” she agreed.
He sighed, finally turning to look at her. There was something in his eyes that touched Darcy to the quick - something small and vulnerable. “You reek of fear,” he said bluntly. “Just standing here talking to you, that's all I can smell. If you're afraid of me, Darce, then say so and I'll leave you alone. I won't...” He paused, swallowing hard, and shook his head. “You know Bucky. What we have, me and him, it's special. And if I was gonna bond... I just... I don't want an Omega who's afraid of me. So if you are, if you're just going along with this because Bucky asked you to, because this pack is still so fucked up and you're afraid of saying no and making things worse...”
“I'm not,” she interrupted. Her cheeks went red at her own temerity, but she managed to repeat herself, and to sound firm when she did it. “I'm not. I mean, okay, yeah, I'm scared. No point in lying about that, since you can obviously tell. But the rest of it, I mean. Going along to get along and pack dynamics and all. No.” She took a deep breath. “I don't want to let my fear dictate my life choices. And Bucky's a good guy, and he's head over heels for you, so clearly you must be an okay kind of guy yourself. So I'm... I'm willing to take a chance. I told him, and I'm telling you, I'm not making any promises about anything. But he asked me to dinner on your behalf, and I'm saying yes to dinner. To see what happens.”
Steve studied her face for a long moment, then gave her a sudden, shy smile. “Okay,” he said, nodding once. “Dinner it is, then. Tomorrow?”
She smiled back. “Sure. Tomorrow sounds great. Nothing fancy, though, okay? I don't have anything fancy to wear.”
Steve laughed. “Nothing fancy. I promise. Seven?”
“Seven sounds great.” Darcy straightened up. “I guess I'll see you tomorrow.” With a smile, she turned and headed inside. Once she was alone in her apartment, she flopped down onto the couch and dragged her favorite afghan over her face. “Oh my gooooooooooooooooods,” she moaned. “What am I doing?”