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Ice and Fire

Chapter Text

 

"Do you miss him, Aunt Peggy?"

"Of course I do, Darcy." 

"Would you have married him?"

"Yes.  Steve was a good man, in every way possible.  He would have been a fantastic partner in life."  

"That seems really sad.   You never got a chance.  It’s not fair."

Aunt Peggy gave her an odd smile, one that she wouldn’t understand for another fifteen years or so. 

"When Steve died. I thought so too.   I was falling in love with him.  And I think he might have come to love me.  But after the war, I had a great deal of time to think.  One of his good friends became my good friend and I came to realize that Steve already had someone he loved very much.  He changed the course of the war--of history--because of that love.  

"If Steve had been in love with me, he would have found a way to come home.  But, you see, Steve had already lost his love.  I didn’t understand it then, but his soul had been destroyed.  He shaped the world, one last time, because that was the sort of man he was.  And then he went to be with his love.   I met him when he was only twenty-four.  He died two years later, far too young, like so many of the men I knew."

"Aunt Peggy, that’s awful."

"It is.  But Darcy, Steve taught me something.  We should all hold out for that kind of love.  It’s worth climbing every impossible obstacle to have it."

"Did you love Uncle Daniel that much?"

"I still do."  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The first time Darcy Lewis officially met Steve Rogers, she was 23, he was 93, and she wondered how Hell could have blue eyes, for that’s what she saw in them. He didn’t notice her that afternoon. He couldn’t. Not with loneliness and devastation clear in his expression. He’d been awake for only a handful of days.

She’d been helping Pepper that morning when Steve was brought to the Tower. All of Howard Stark’s research was in Tony’s (Pepper’s) hands and Tony (Pepper) was not interested in handing any of it over to S.H.I.E.L.D.. So any medical testing on Steve’s person was done at Stark Industries, ergo, Stark Tower.

But medical wasn’t Darcy’s job, and Steve didn’t see her anyway. Still, she felt for him. Probably appreciated his anatomy in an entirely inappropriate manner, given his condition. So she crossed her fingers that he would be okay and went on about her business.

Her current job was rather esoteric. She had a lab in the R&D department, right under Tony’s penthouse.  She’d finished her internship with Jane Foster and graduated with honors (naturally). Tony asked her to keep an eye on Jane’s research. So she did.  She liked Jane, especially whenever her friend eyed her suspiciously and accused her of being far smarter than she pretended. Most people didn’t notice. Darcy was never offended. Her privacy was more important than bragging about her accomplishments and connections.

Jane really didn’t need to know about Darcy’s fascination with robots and other mechanical objects. Maybe someday, when Jane wasn’t halfway around the world, Darcy would spill her secrets. For now though, she was happy when Jane asked her to help out here and there.

The arrangement worked for both of them. Darcy played in her own lab with shiny things in New York. Jane continued her research about all things space. Occasionally, Darcy would conveniently end up in town wherever Jane was and pull her out of her increasing funk over Thor’s inexplicable absence.

She saw Steve a few times over the next two months and may have overheard a couple of conversations (a couple is close to a dozen, right?). Tony and Steve avoided each other (Daddy issues), but Tony still gave Steve unprecedented access to the Tower (pretty much anything he could want) and even his garage so that Steve could come and go in relative peace. Darcy was certain she’d cleaned her fingerprints off the bike last time (and the time before that. The Harley was a prime piece of metal).

Still, Darcy listened. She was friends with most of the admin staff in the Tower, had inside intel from both Tony and Pepper, and tried not to drool too much whenever Steve crossed her path. The superhero tragic angel look did a number on her and she did not need that sort of complication. Tony was enough in that department and look how that had turned out. She still had nightmares.

Chapter Text

The second time Darcy and Steve officially met, she stormed into Tony’s garage intent on taking the Bugatti for a spin (if only to piss him off) when she came across Steve working on his bike. Or rather, she stopped mid-rant when faced with a pair of starched blue denim jeans, dark boots with nary a scuff on them, and a skin-tight shirt streaked with grease. It was not to her credit that a full minute passed before she realized the body holding all that up was changing the oil on the absolutely sweet ride currently parked in the garage. Or rather, he had finished changing the oil and was cleaning up. She stared (drooled) while he rolled to his feet and ran a cloth over every inch of chrome and paint, working out the dirt so that every last surface gleamed. His attention to detail entranced her as much as the view (okay, maybe not quite as much, but close).

Mussed blond hair was settled with a hand running through it.  He slanted a lazy smile in her direction that had nothing to do the Captain America screensaver on her laptop (double points for annoying Tony with that one). The terrible fires she’d seen before were banked, replaced with a sensual gleam that did all sorts of stupid things to her girl parts. "You've been patient. Want a ride?"

A lovely Harley between her thighs? Duh. "With or without you?"

He let out the first real laugh she'd heard in all those eavesdropped conversations.  The gleam turned into something more like real interest. "It's my bike. I’m sure I’m going to have to insist on riding with you or you might not bring it back." He stood, wiping his hands on the cloth and stuffing it into his back pocket.

“I do love shiny things," she quipped. “Darcy Lewis." She held out her hand. He took it, gave her a proper handshake.  Holy shit, he was tall. And big all over. A little like Thor with shorter hair, less Asgardian armor and more American farm boy. (Darcy refused to think of the tiny crush she harbored for the demigod. It was easier to ignore with Steve standing close enough to smell his cologne.)

"Steve Rogers. But you know that, I think. I’ve seen you in the tower. Do you work for Stark?”

Darcy tilted her head, flirting easily. “How about you take me for a ride, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee, and we trade carefully edited life stories?” When he let out a stunned bark of laughter, she fell a little bit in love. It was the most honest reaction she’d seen from him and was breathtaking. He smiled, really smiled, and she melted into a ridiculous puddle of goo.

Steve slotted the tools he’d borrowed into the proper places in the garage (warming her mechanical heart), wiped his hands down one more time and raised an eyebrow. “Helmet?”

She dug for one in the locker that was hers. It was covered in red glitter. “It matches my lipstick,” she offered.

“I’d be polite and say I hadn’t noticed, but I don’t like lying.” His eyes skimmed downward, then back up to her face. “Do you have a jacket?”

“Not here.”

“Borrow mine.” He picked up the leather coat he’d set to the side and held it out.

Darcy flirted again as she slipped it on. “Oooh, are you going to ask me to go steady?”

Steve grinned. “Something tells me that isn’t how things work anymore.” He settled onto the Harley, holding out a hand so she could balance while straddling the prime piece of metal. She had to admire the way he transferred her grip from his hand to his waist, patting her fingers so she would keep them there. She brought the other hand up to match.

She couldn’t decide if her drooling problem was due to man or machine, then mentally kicked herself for even having the conversation. The heat under her hands got her damp much faster than the vibration of the bike as Steve revved up the engine and they roared out of the garage.

The speed was ridiculous. Steve’s reflexes were perfect. Darcy held on, fascinated by the movement of the man on the bike. Well, that and the ripple of muscles in his back as he wove through traffic. The thin, incredibly tight shirt did nothing to conceal what was underneath (note to self: burn incense to the fashion gods later for the creation of such a thing).

When Steve brought the motorcycle to a quick stop at their destination, she was pressed into his back and got a good sniff of the maleness that underscored the cologne. (Yummy. Score another point for the hot guy on the bike.)

He reversed his earlier move, dropping his hand to hers on his waist and giving her a solid grip as she dismounted first. He followed her into the coffee shop, and when Darcy glanced back, she busted him checking out her assets.

Without an ounce of apology, he raised an eyebrow. “Nice boots.”

She grinned.  

Coffee was fabulous (caramel latte, extra shot, whipped and sprinkled).  Darcy was charmed by Steve’s old-fashioned manners, faint-but-unmistakable Brooklyn accent and his attempts to understand all the changes in the past seventy years. She learned that he spent a good part of each day surfing the internet and reading history books.

“It’s like joining the army, Darcy. I have a whole vocabulary to learn, a bunch of technology I’ve never seen, and a lot of new people to meet.” Steve was frank, and Darcy thought she heard a thread of anger. If it was, he shrugged it off and sipped his coffee (black, splash of cream).

“Seems lonely. I’m not a dictionary, I’m pretty good with modern tech, and I’m definitely new to you.  Think we can be friends?” she asked.

“I’d like that.” The sincerity in Steve’s reply did ridiculous things to her insides again. Hoo boy.

 

******

 

He’d seen her in the Tower, of course.  More than once.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Stark Industries, she seemed to appear often enough.  She must have serious clearance to get her on the levels where he usually ended up, but she had a relaxed air about her, as if Stark Tower was more her home than a workplace. 

He wondered how she had access to Tony’s garage.  He might have asked, but Darcy turned the conversation to his favorite music and they got lost in discussing blues versus jazz.  (He liked jazz; the blues belonged to B--)

Toward the end of their coffee (date? Did it count?), Steve was already hunting for reasons to go to Stark Tower. Darcy made it easy when she idly wondered if Howard Stark had kept any of Steve’s stuff. The thought hadn’t occurred to him, but made sense, especially now that he knew how long Howard had kept up the search for him.

Darcy helped him with a text message to Pepper Potts (CEO of Stark Industries and Tony’s dame) on his new cell phone (a very compact walkie-talkie of sorts). She assured Steve that he would have to go all the way up the ladder to get what he needed.  A few minutes later, he had a reply and an excuse to visit the Tower in two days. He wondered aloud how Darcy knew Ms. Potts.

“Let’s stick with the carefully edited version of the life story and we’ll say it’s because I have a lab near Tony’s. Will that work for now?” Darcy rested her chin on her hands, letting him see her candor and wide laurel green eyes. (Did they ever turn blue?)

But he called her on it.  One thing Steve couldn’t handle right now was deception, especially as much as he thought he might like this lady. “Is there any truth to it?”

“All of it.”

The truth. Just not the whole truth. “Then we’ll leave it at that,” he agreed. Her gorgeous smile was worth the concession.

With her arms around his waist and breasts pressing into his back, he was more than distracted as he zipped through traffic on the bike. Really, he was proud of himself. Beautiful dames usually tied his tongue, but she hadn’t seemed to notice how long he’d needed to work himself up to the invitation. Her sassy wit had caught him off guard and delighted him.

For the first time, 1945 seemed like a distant past rather than a mere ten weeks ago.  The two hours he and Darcy had spent drinking coffee had grounded him like nothing else since he’d awakened. His fingers itched for a pencil. He focused on the road in front of him instead.

Chapter Text

On Thursday, Steve took the express elevator to Pepper Potts’ office, somewhere in the top third of the tower. He’d sort of expected to meet Tony, but Pepper made polite apologies and helped him to sign for all the boxes.

She was a beautiful woman, all clean lines and the palest of shadows.  (He’d draw her later.) Darcy mentioned that she’d managed Tony’s personal affairs for years before he dumped Stark Industries in her lap.  She now graced covers of magazines as the CEO and had a reputation for being brilliant and ruthless at the conference table.  Steve still wondered how Darcy came to know Pepper Potts (need to know, pal). 

There were four good-sized boxes, more than Steve had expected, but Pepper had already arranged for a courier service to take them to his apartment in Brooklyn.

He thanked her, and then cleared his throat a couple of times before digging up the courage to ask if Darcy’s laboratory was somewhere close by.

Steve had to cram his hands in his pockets when he was subjected to unexpected scrutiny from rather piercing blue eyes. Pepper’s sharp look reminded him of when Peggy had fired a gun at his new shield (It was just a kiss and one he hadn’t volunteered for. Stark had to set him straight and Steve still felt like a fool over the whole thing).

His unease grew when she insisted on escorting him up a floor to the R&D department.  (Odd. He would have thought the CEO would be on the top floor. Then again, the Starks liked their research. )

Pepper explained something about an artificial intelligence system, called it JARVIS, and told the voice in the ceiling to offer Steve whatever assistance he needed.   

“Of course, Ms. Potts. I am at your service, Captain Rogers.”

“Uh, thank you. JARVIS.”

 

Loud music with a fast beat like nothing he’d ever imagined echoed down the hallway. The entire floor was empty with gleaming white floors, except for one portion of the far side that was glassed in.  Pepper rapped on the closed door then opened it without waiting for Darcy to respond. Not that Darcy could hear anyway.

Darcy flicked a glance at the movement, saw Pepper and smiled. Then she saw Steve. She turned the prettiest shade of pink and Pepper laughed, excusing herself.

“Good luck, Captain,” was her parting shot.

“Yes, Ma’am.”  

Barefoot, wearing shorts that showed every inch of her legs, and a t-shirt that clung in that sort of way that was meant to be casual but really clung to Darcy’s beautiful curves, she was still gorgeous.  Steve scraped his hand through his hair.  “Hi.”

“Kill the tunes, J.”

“Of course, Lewis.”

The sound disappeared and Darcy set down the … shiny thing she was working on.

“Did you get your boxes?”

“Oh uh, Miss, Missus—“

“Ms Potts. But you can call her Pepper.”

He shrugged. “Miz Potts is having them sent to my place later today.”

“You live in Brooklyn, right?”

“I do. It’s different now, but at least I know all the street names.” He glanced around her lab, not even pretending to understand all that was scattered about. There was stuff piled everywhere and interesting pieces of art hanging on the walls. “You weren’t joking about liking shiny things. This reminds me of Howard Stark’s place.”

She arched a brow. “Really? How?”

He shrugged and walked to the center of the room, conveniently ending up near Darcy. “He made my shield. It wasn’t even something he was considering for me, just something he’d made and stashed--” He tilted his head and pointed to the overflowing shelves under her workbench. “--there.”

Darcy bit her lip. “I don’t think I’ve ever been compared to Howard Stark. It’s kind of … interesting.”

“Howard is an interesting fellow. Brilliant. Plays hard. Tosses money around like popcorn. But a good man.”

She slanted a curious look in his direction. “That’s not the usual perception of him around Stark Tower.”

“Really?”

Darcy rubbed one foot on top of other foot, drawing attention to the green polish on her toenails. (Pretty feet. Better legs. The sketch he’d started of her hadn’t come close.) “Want to go to dinner with me and we can talk about it?” she asked.

He grinned, appreciating her direct approach, so he replied in kind. “Is this a date where I can pick you up at your place on the bike, or is this where we meet at a bar as a couple of friends drinking a beer together?” (He’d overheard a couple of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents saying something along those lines a couple of weeks ago.)

She wrinkled her nose at him. “A date,” she challenged. “And since I asked, I’ll pick the place. Dress nice.”

“Oh good. Then since you picked up the tab on coffee, I’m buying dinner. See you at eight.” He backed away.

“You don’t know where I live,” she called out.

“Sure I do. Pepper texted me your address and told me to skip the tie.”  He walked off, whistling. (Definitely earned a pat on the back.  Second date.  A first for him.)

He didn’t mention that Pepper also sent him four pictures with various options on how to dress for the date. An untucked shirt offended his sensibilities, so he opted for the black slacks, a button-down shirt in light blue with the collar open, and a dinner jacket in black leather. The latter was a nod to Darcy’s fascination with his brown one.

He kissed her that night, properly, right the doorstep to her place on 45th.  She wasn’t shy either, and by the time his brain convinced him to stop tasting that fabulous mouth, he was seeing stars.

 

*****

 

A whole week passed before Steve asked her to walk with him in Central Park on a Sunday. (She’d put her phone number in his cell phone herself over dinner.  Then built two ‘bots while she was waiting and debated dumping them on DUM-E for company.) The sun was shining, even if fall was in the air.  She found a floaty dress, sure that floaty dresses were an absolute requirement for walks (well, that and fabulous-but- comfortable boots).

When he arrived at two o’clock on the dot, she eyed his butter-soft leather jacket, decided high school (well, high school like she saw on t.v.) tactics would not be out of place here, and left her sweater in the closet. But before she could step outside, he neatly slipped in and closed the door behind him.  (Smooth, Steve.)  She put her hand on her hip.  “Hi.”

He reached for her. “I’ve been thinking about this since last week, Darce.”  His mouth hovered just long enough for her to slide her arms around his waist. (Did she mention she loved the nickname?)

God, he could kiss. She thanked whoever taught him the right way to nibble and taste and do that thing with his tongue. He seemed to have a fascination with her bottom lip and that was fine by her, he could stay all day.

But he didn’t. He broke it off with a swipe of his thumb across her mouth. She caught it, kissed it. His blue eyes absolutely glowed. Then he tugged her out the door and whistled them into a cab.

She discovered he was an artist. They walked until Steve was so distracted, he sheepishly admitted to bringing a sketchbook and pencil, both stashed inside his coat pocket. He coaxed her onto a bench and asked if he could draw her.

“Okay. But it’s cool enough if we aren’t walking.”

She eyeballed the leather and he raised an eyebrow. “I’m really stuck here, Darce. I’m gonna take my jacket off ‘cause it’ll be in my way when I draw. But if you put it on, I’m gonna miss some of your best assets.” He deliberately let his eyes wander downward.   

She cackled, absolutely thrilled by his snark. “Holy shit, Steve. Captain America, calling it like it is.”

He rolled his eyes. “You know, I think that’s the first time you’ve mentioned that.” He tried to laugh, but a flicker of pain washed across his face and Darcy lost her smile.   

She leaned in to brush her lips across his cheek.  “I don’t think of you that way,” she said softly. “You’re my friend.”

The light came back into his eyes. That sensual play of his lips should definitely have been classified as an unfair advantage. Darcy saw it coming and didn’t even try to get out the way.  “Just a friend?” He quirked an eyebrow. “Because I don’t recall having these kinds of thoughts about my friends.”  

He kept his eyes firmly locked with hers, and Darcy could not look away.  “You know, despite all of your polished manners, you really do have a dirty mind.” She volleyed, hard. “What category gets me naked under the covers with you?”

Steve’s jaw dropped, and he turned a dark red. “Darcy Lewis, point, set and match goes to the lady in the green dress.” He mimed toasting her with a drink.  She waited, drumming her fingers on the park bench. He considered as the blush faded.  Taking her fingers, he slid his lips across the tips, hot breath making them twitch.  “Girlfriend, three more dates, including a trip to Coney Island where I neck with you on the Ferris Wheel and one to the pictures where we’ll do the same. You?”

With her other hand, she twirled a lock of her hair and gave him an under the lashes look worthy of Scarlett herself.  “I’ll see your status and three dates, but I’ll raise a day with you in your apartment. Can you cook?”

“I’m a Brooklyn boy. I make a good spaghetti sauce. Thick enough to hold a spoon upright, sturdy enough to fill your appetite, and guaranteed to make your mouth water.”

“I’ll bring a bottle of wine. Did I mention I like your metaphors?”

“Not as much as I like your smart mouth. Now get comfortable so I can draw you.”  He shed his jacket, handing it to her.

Darcy used it for a pillow on the arm of the bench and leaned back into the sunlight.  She studied Steve as he drew.  She had it bad, wished she could slow down the slide (yeah, sure, see how well that works) because she knew Steve had more layers than a DaVinci painting. Still waters run deep and Steve was the epitome of shatteringly beautiful glass oceans.

She’d heard the rumors. Read the stories of his demise. Aunt Peggy was still alive and had told of her own similar fall for a young man named Steve Rogers. (Don’t think too hard on that, Darcy Lewis. It’s weird.) Sometimes she had to squint to put herself in Steve’s shoes and think of all he’d known as gone.

Darcy wondered if she was the rebound girl, the one who built him back up for his next relationship. (Okay, that idea sucked, but was probably true. It felt right and Darcy tended to trust her instincts. Didn’t stop her from making stupid plans to sleep with Steve Rogers as soon as three dates and spaghetti dinner were checked off the list.)

But Steve liked her, was never condescending even as he held doors open for her. In turn, she accepted his manners as genuine, appreciated his wit and didn’t act like he was a fuddy-duddy trapped in the forties. (Hands down, best relationship so far and all they had done was kiss.)  Of course, now she had a legitimate reason to think of sex. The anticipation was going to fucking kill her. (Holy shit mental note: buy new underwear.)

Chapter Text

The prerequisite three dates were over and Steve was putting together his mother’s sauce. He slid the meatballs in with a scant teaspoon of sugar and settled the lid on again to simmer for another hour.

He skimmed the apartment to make sure the fairy folk hadn’t sneaked in to scatter anything about. But it was as neat as a pin, just as he’d left it.  

After Tuesday’s movie, Steve had zero doubts about Darcy’s plans for tonight. She’d made her expectations clear and expected him to deliver the goods, so to speak. He had a box of condoms stashed in his nightstand, with a few tucked into the drawer of the coffee table for good measure (and one in his pocket, just in case).

Steve had caught the sly remarks both at S.H.I.E.L.D. and at Stark Tower regarding his supposed virginity. Surely Darcy had heard, but he’d done his level best to undermine that sort of thinking even before she’d asked how to get between his sheets. 

He wondered if she would spend the night and had no idea how to ask. But he’d cleaned his bathroom anyway, hung an extra towel and wash cloth on the rack, and left out the little bottles of soap and shampoo he’d picked up from the grocery store. A spare toothbrush was in a drawer.

He blew out his breath and sat on the sofa, head in hands. This whole dating with Darcy seemed too damned perfect. After the third one, he’d wondered if Fury had set them up. Darcy, with her curves and sass, fulfilled every secret fantasy he’d harbored. Certainly, she made the past more distant and less hurtful. In her company, he managed to forget—well, everything. (Not that. He would never forget that.)

The truth? Even if this was only a fantasy, he still wanted it for as long as it lasted.  If that made him a selfish bastard, then he was guilty as charged. But if Darcy wasn’t the real thing, then Steve’s instincts were off the mark.  Given that he’d spent two years living off his instincts, he didn’t think he was wrong.

The doorbell rang. Steve checked the fit of his shirt and rolled down his sleeves to button them again. He opened the door. Darcy had on a white dress covered in bright red poppies that skillfully navigated her figure. The hem hit just above her knee and her arms were bare.

“Curves like that should be illegal.”

She bit her red-stained mouth, her eyes dancing with anticipation. “Well, they aren’t illegal, but you do need a license to drive them.”

And with that, every bit of tension lifted away. He pulled her inside and rubbed his lips on hers, anxious for the taste. She smelled like—wow—something clean and breezy. (Spring, in that moment it becomes summer.)

“Steve Rogers, reporting for training,” he said, as his hands skimmed her back then pulled her in to make the kiss more. (Not yet. Dinner first.)

She melted against him, sealing every inch of those curves from his knees to his mouth.  notyetnotyetnotyet  “Darcy.” He stepped back, holding his hands up. “I’m not gonna make it past the couch if we keep that up.”

The laugh that bubbled up in her was pure joy, nothing devious about it. “You like tormenting the both of us, don’t you?”

But he slanted a look down at her, one he hoped she could read. “It’s only our first time once, Darce.  I don’t want to mess it up.”

“I don’t think you can,” she said. But she let him go and picked up the bag (giant purse?) she’d let slide to the floor. It was to her credit that he hadn’t noticed how big it was. Enough to count as an overnight bag and yielded a bottle of wine. “I brought a merlot,” she said, as she held it up.  “It’s a newer wine, softer than a cabernet and not quite as dry. If you haven’t tried it, it’s pretty good.”

“I haven’t.” He walked over to the table where he’d set out a pair of wine glasses and a corkscrew. The cork popped easily and he set the wine to breathe. He didn’t know much about them, but his time in France had yielded at least a little information that wasn’t related to the war.

Steve turned the flame on under the pasta water. While they waited, he touched Darcy on the back of her shoulder, slid his hand down to her wrist and brought it up so that he could lay a kiss on the heart beat pulsing through the thin skin. “I’m glad you’re here.”

 

*****

 

She shivered in anticipation. So she retreated, pivoting on a toe to stroll out of the kitchen.

“Damn it, Darce. Seamed stockings?” His voice was just a little strained.

She halted, throwing a glance over her shoulder. “Oh? See something you like?” (Booyah. Score one for Darcy. They had been a bitch to find.  Yay for Google and a little store in Georgia that still made them the old-fashioned way.)

Clearing his throat, he retrieved the bottle and began pouring it into both wine glasses. “You know, in all the time I was growing up, every dame I knew wore seamed stockings. Just got used to it. Until I woke up and none of the ladies had them anymore, I’d no idea how damned sexy they were.” His voice was unsteady, but held a hint of humor.

“Steve Rogers, tsk tsk, such language,” she admonished. She glowed inside. Finding an outfit that bridged Steve’s past without forgetting the present had been a challenge. She didn’t want him lost in the yesterdays, but she didn’t want him to feel ashamed for appreciating them either. 

Darcy wandered through Steve’s apartment as garlic and basil permeated the air.  The apartment seemed timeless, not old, with a few good antiques and fabrics that weren’t outdated a bit.  It was a far cry from her place, all decked out in colors and lines.  She picked up a sketchbook he had lying on the coffee table. “May I look?”

He shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”

The pages were yellowed on the edges. There were dozens of faces, mostly from the USO tour. Girls, outfits, dressing rooms, impressions of the cities where they performed.  “Wow.  I didn’t realize how many places you went.”

“All across the eastern seaboard to raise money for war bonds, then we went to the European theatre to entertain the troops. We ended up in Italy. You know the rest.” 

She flipped back to one of the pages that caught her eye.  “A dancing monkey?  Is that how you felt?”

Steve didn’t answer.  Instead, he reached out to her waist and tugged her back into the kitchen. “Sit.” He motioned her into the chair. His dining area adjoined the kitchen, and Darcy sat at the table with the wine he set down near her hand. “I feel tongue-tied when you’re out there and I’m in here.” He eyed the notebook. “You know, a couple of years ago, that was brand new.”

She hesitated, her hand hovering over the next page. She tried to make a witty reply and failed. “Steve. I’ve tried to imagine. I … stating the obvious .. but I don’t know how you’re dealing with all of this.”

He knelt in front of her. “I have bad days sometimes.” The honest admission and dark sadness in his face jolted her heart. “But you … you help.” Darcy leaned forward with both arms and Steve rested his chin on her shoulder. They stayed that way until the timer on the pasta dinged.

The spaghetti was good. (Official preparer of sauce for the foreseeable future: Steve.) Steve inhaled a couple of bowls, a healthy portion of salad and a half a loaf of bread, but Darcy was used to his appetite now. The conversation flowed easily though he smirked a little when she admitted to having a degree from MIT and another from Culver. 

“Explains the lab in Stark Tower.”  He poured each of them another glass of wine.  “Can’t imagine Stark letting someone like that out of his hands.”

Darcy muttered, “You have no idea.” He raised an eyebrow, but she changed the subject to the latest biography Steve was reading (Kennedy, yes, she had opinions).

They cleaned up the kitchen together. Steve was a little bit (understatement?) of a neat-freak, and Darcy figured it would be faster to dive in and help. When they were done, Steve draped the damp dish towel on the oven handle (folded in thirds).

“Now, how do I properly express my appreciation to Miss Lewis for her assistance in the kitchen?” He tilted his head, waiting, hand in pockets.  (Not fair.  Nobody should be able to look that innocent when asking for sex.)

“Did we check off our list?”

He nodded. “Three dates, including Coney Island, a movie, and a third non-specific one, plus a day in my apartment.  And I’ve introduced you as my girlfriend in public at least twice.”

“I’ve got you covered on the boyfriend thing.”

“When?”

“When I mentioned you to my parents.” She bit her lip, waiting for him to ask.

“How did Tony take it?”

She jerked. “Fuck me sideways! How did--”

Steve put a finger on her lips, grinning at her reaction as he slid his other hand around her waist. “I know--knew--your grandfather. You are more like him than you know.  And it explains why your lab is a floor above Stark Industries. Your half-empty lab floor that should be your apartment, right? If Tony had his way?”

“He hates that I have my own, non-Stark approved place to live.”

“Is Pepper your mom?”

“In all but biology.”

“No wonder she gave me the stink-eye when I asked how to find you.”

“She likes you.” Darcy frowned. “Have you even met my dad?”

“No. He’s still avoiding Captain America.”

“I’ll work on that.”

“Darcy?”

“Yes?”

“I can think about five different things I want to talk about, and none of them include Tony Stark right at this moment.” Steve’s gaze dropped to her rack. (Which looked absolutely magnificent in the sweetheart neckline of this dress.)

“Name them.”

“Where do you want to do this? Can I peel you out of that dress? Please tell me I can touch your breasts, and--”

“Shut up and kiss me, Steve.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He did better than kiss her.  His hands went everywhere too. She hitched her legs around his hips and he carried (carried!) her into his room and sat down on the bed without letting her go. He dragged the zipper on the back of her dress down with one hand and gathered up the back of the skirt with the other.

His mouth started on her collarbone as he nudged the fabric off her shoulder. She found the buttons on his shirt, fumbled at them a bit and then shoved it wide.

“Damn it, Steve, not fair.” She meant the extra undershirt.

He grinned and--still holding on to her ass--shrugged out of the button down.

“T-shirt too.”

He reached backward with one hand and pulled his shirt over her head. She helped, shoving it off.

“Steve?”

“Yes?”

“Where do I start?”

“Anywhere you want, doll.”

She dove in. Hard, hard muscle twitched and flexed as her fingers slid along his collarbone and down his pecs (“acres and acres, and it’s all mine”). She jerked when he pulled the dress off her shoulders, trapping her arms in place. “Not fair.”

“Oh? I thought I could do this.” He nudged her bra strap as he thumbed the soft peaks through the fabric. “Mmm. Red. Definitely my favorite.” (They were soft.  Now they were hard as rocks demanding more attention.)

“Then you’re going to love my panties.”

Steve stole a kiss as he dipped a finger inside the lace of her bra and stroked the tip of a nipple. “All in good time. I’m a very patient man.”

(Not what she wanted to hear.)“Fuck.”

“Darcy, doll, that’s what I’m trying to do.” He lifted her enough to take the nub fully into his mouth and laved it, suckled it. He pulled away, blew cool air across it. Her eyes crossed.  

“Come on, Steve, I wanna touch, too.”  (Don’t whine, Darcy.)

“Not done yet. Still one to go. You know, this front clasp concept is very handy. No fumbling, no missing the mark.  Just simple, easy access.”  He talked as he stroked the silky fabric, plucking a bit.  She twitched in time to his movements.

Darcy had zero idea that her boobs were sensitive enough to do anything more than be short stop on the way to victory. Never say she wasn’t up for learning new things.

With one breast in Steve’s mouth and the other trapped between his fingertips, he drew on them both, alternating intensity until she began to shake. “You are not seriously going to make me come that way. Oh!” (Yes, yes, he did.) She might even have let out a little shriek.

Steve let her back down into his lap, exactly where her very damp panties now rested against an extremely firm cock. “That’s one.”  He unzipped the rest of her dress and helped her push it down to her waist. She wiggled so that she could stand up.  The poppy dress of white and red tumbled to the floor.

She shook off the bra, biting her lip as Steve seemed a little distracted by the view. “You’re keeping score? Doesn’t seem like a very good idea, Rogers.”

“Says you, Lewis.  Your breasts are perfect.” One hand drifted to the top of her thigh to stroke along the silk and lace of the stocking. 

She inhaled, stretching her arms over her head and posing just a little, in nothing more than her garter, panties, stockings and pair of crimson heels.  “I know.”

“I’m gonna draw you, y’know.” She bit her lip when his voice roughened as he drank her in.

“Like one of your USO girls? I’d like that.”

Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah, okay. I really like the panties.” He shooed her hands away when she tucked her thumbs into the edges. “No, leave ‘em on.”

“Kay. But you’ve got too many clothes on.” She tugged at the belt and unfastened it. Steve shook off his slacks. Darcy choked back a laugh. “I don’t think those are holding very much in.” His cock was straining, and she just had to reach out and stroke the length of it.

He groaned, encouraging her as they worked his underwear off.  She pushed him backward onto the bed where he stretched out without a stitch of clothing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” she breathed.

“Darcy,” he admonished. 

“Whoops.  Just expressing my appreciation for divine gifts,” she said with a grin as she crawled on top of him to explore.  “Steve?”  She trailed her fingers along his sides.  “What’s this?” 

James Buchanan Barnes was tattooed in beautiful script over Steve’s ribs. The print was small enough that she could cover it with the palm of her hand.  And it looked new, though it had healed over.

“Had it done a week ago.”    

“Will you tell me about it later?” She dropped a kiss in the middle of the writing, smirking when Steve hissed with pleasure. 

“Only if you keep doing that.” 

“Hmm.  Okay, I can be talked into that.”  Darcy did her best to find the little places on Steve that turned him on, though really, she was hard-pressed to find anything he didn’t like.  Which said something about her technique, their compatibility, or he was that hard-up for sex. 

“Let’s go with the first two, Darce,” he muttered as he cupped her breasts again. 

“Brain-to-mouth filter disengaged, Steve,” she offered by way of apology.

“Just the way I like it.” 

She eased backward, trailing her nails along the ripples in his abs.  “May I?”

He smiled.  “Have at it.”

He was definitely proportional to his build. Darcy didn’t figure she was going to try to do the porn version of a blow job, (yeah … no.  Not choking here, not even for Captain America.) so she didn’t go that route. Instead, she explored. Gentle fingertips traced veins, the circle of her hand stroked along the velvet soft skin. Steve tucked a pillow behind his head so he could watch. She winked at him when she took him into her mouth.

She took her time, enjoying herself and the flavor of him on her tongue.  She breathed in the salty damp mingling with his cologne.  (Oceans.  It reminded her of oceans.) She swirled the smooth cap as she drew her hand along his length.  When she reached the base, tightening her hand as she did, he jolted. 

“S--so goood, Darce. Feels fabulous.”

She lifted her head. “That’s a lot of alliteration. Steve?”

“mmm?”

“Your cock is perfect.” She dove back in, wrapping her mouth around the head and sucking hard enough that he bucked up, wanting more.  She stayed that way until he reached down, nudging her off.

“Not yet. I want the first time inside you. M’close enough and it’s been a long time. Not gonna take much.”

She bit her lip because her nipples were still tingling, and she was definitely wet. “I thought maybe that was just me.”

Steve leaned up on an elbow and fumbled in his dresser drawer for a condom. He held it up. “Me or you?”

She nipped it from his fingers. “Definitely me.”

“Oh good, ‘cause these are a little different and I don’t want to break it.”

Darcy tore open the package and set the condom on Steve, taking the time to roll it down just right. “How?”

He blew out his breath. She stifled a giggle as he had to concentrate to answer.  “Thinner.  Darce—“ He reached for her, but she wiggled off the bed and out of reach. 

“Well, I’m on the pill too, so we’re good.” Darcy leaned over to strip off her panties. (Double points to the nice lady in Georgia for explaining that panties go over the garter belt, not under.)

Steve stole them off the floor, tossed them on his nightstand. “You can explain what that means later.  Heels?” 

She kicked them off.  “Nylons on or off?”

“On. Please.” 

She straddled him, taking him at just the right angle. And kept him there.  “Kiss me, Steve.”

He did. His hands tangled in her hair while he kissed her, open-mouthed, tongue reaching up into hers, only to retreat so he could rub his lips against hers and do it all over again. A thumb slipped down to pluck at a breast, and Darcy rocked down onto his cock, enough to take the head at the entrance of her slick passage.

Steve dropped his hands to her hips and nudged her. “Darcy doll--”

She relented, taking him in. She had to breathe through it, for Steve wasn’t small.

“‘I’m not hurting you, am I?” he asked, worry breaking through his pleasure.

“I can’t move,” she confessed. “It’s, it’s...I want to move. Gotta feel you.”

“Darce--let me.” He rolled them so that she was on her back, and he lifted her hips to give him better access.  He trailed a thumb across the peak of her breast, then down to her clit. He pulled back, keeping his movements shallow--stroking once, twice with his cock then circling the tangled knot of nerves until she involuntarily slid her legs apart a little more.

Whatever he did (don’t stop), her body gave into the motions, relaxing just enough. Steve must have felt it, because he flexed his hips, drawing out and in. She leaned up for another kiss. “That’s it. Don’t stop.”  

They found the rhythm. Steve slid in and out, touching/not touching her with his thumb to her center until she began to shake.  “That’s it, that’s it,” she chanted.  “More,” she demanded. 

He gave it to her, using his hand to brace himself over her until flesh was firmly touching flesh each time they came together. Darcy lost herself in the sensation, her body opening up, wanting, greedily demanding.   Impossibly so, he stiffened a little more, touching just there and she came apart.

“Darcy.” Her name was a whisper on his lips as he shuddered, as he pulsed inside her, as her body coaxed every last drop from him.

She discovered she’d been digging her nails into the slick skin of his shoulders.  “Whoops.”

“Don’t care, Darce. Can’t hurt me.” He pressed his forehead to hers long enough for Darcy to wish they could do it again. (Hey, first time with amazingly hot boyfriend, can’t blame a girl for wanting seconds.)

He rolled to his back, panting a little. Then he stripped the condom and dropped it into the trash on the other side of the nightstand.  

Darcy didn’t move. She was still breathing hard and her lady parts hadn’t quite calmed down yet.

Steve grinned. “Let’s see what we can do next.” He trailed a hand along the inside of her thigh, and ran his thumb along her swollen, terribly sensitive flesh.  

She blinked. “Are you for real?”

“Want me to stop?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then, no, we’re not done.” He settled so that he was between her thighs. What he did to her breasts was simply a precursor to what he could manage with his tongue. Her clit became his biggest cheering section, waving pom poms and all. Circles, licks everywhere but there, then there was something he did with his fingers and tongue that made her cross-eyed. 

“Are you writing your name on me?” she asked, trying to be at least a little blasé about his abilities.  (She did not squeak, really.)

“Nah, takes too much concentration.  I just like the way you taste.” 

Yeah, so much for that.  Then he moved.  Mouth covering her nipple, he drew on it until she pressed his head there to keep in place.  He suckled just hard enough and  kept a thumb on her clit, circling it and plucking it until she was shaking with the need for more.

Since when did her body decide that it was going to open up all on its own under Steve’s hand?  Surely that keening sound wasn’t her?  Her whole body shuddered once.  He slid a pair of long fingers inside, keeping the flicking against her clit as she came—hard.  He stayed with her through it all, taking her past the point of being too sensitive to touch to where she wanted it all over again. 

Then his mouth was on hers again, his hands still between her thighs coaxing her to do it all over again. 

She lost count. Darcy Lewis fucking lost count and she was sure that last one involved screaming his name.  She was clawing at the bed when he slipped inside her--no problems this time--as she jerked and twisted while he took absolute possession of her body--and maybe her mind.  She loved every fucking thing he did to her and when he was on the edge--she could feel it--

“Stay with me, Steve.”

He did, surrendering himself to the depths of her. They shuddered in synchronicity, Steve bracing himself on his forearms as he chanted her name. 

When she could breathe somewhat steadily again, he shifted, taking care of the condom again then laying down so that she could stretch out against him.

He waited a beat. “Wanna do that again?”

She groaned.

 

******

 

Steve had thought Darcy incredibly beautiful. She dressed for her figure sometimes, with a bit of sass. Other times he found the sweaters and jeans simple and pretty.  But Darcy, naked and sleeping in his bed, was stunning. 

He drew a hand along the line of her body.  She shivered, and wiggled backward until they were touching shoulder to knee.  He drew the covers over them and lay down so that her hair could tickle his nose. 

She got him.  With Darcy he didn’t have to watch everything he said.  She didn’t treat him as if he was a pariah or stupid.  It certainly hadn’t taken him long (coffee) to realize her flirty nature concealed a smart mind.  (Smart?  Try brilliant.  She was Howard’s granddaughter and gave him a run for his money.)  He’d sat in her lab a week ago (date number two) as she built a foot-tall robot and programmed it for sentry work.   She’d solicited his advice for that and when it was done, she’d let him work the robot in the empty area of her floor.  He’d read about dogs for soldiers on Google.  This wasn’t that, but Darcy said it might work for people who couldn’t have one for whatever reason.  

When they were laying naked, sweat still cooling on their skin, she’d asked about the tattoo.  She seemed to understand when it was his way of letting Bucky know he wasn’t forgotten.  There was more to it, of course, but she didn’t press. 

And then again, maybe he just liked having her here and he was stupidly infatuated with her curves. But he didn’t think so. This thing with Darcy filled a gaping wound. Not completely. That could never happen.

But this feeling he had, it was an awful lot like love. And he knew love.

 

 

Chapter Text

A bare month later, Darcy discovered what it was to love a soldier. It was a lot like loving Tony. And that was hell.

 

*****

 

They spent most of their free time in her box of an apartment (closer, just off 45th), a little converted carriage house with room for his bike in the old garage area, a bedroom, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and—the one good feature—a decently sized living room.  (Tony hated it.  Which was fine, it was hers.)

When she saw Steve in her small space for the first time, it seemed a little ridiculous.  But he just gave her that gorgeous, haunted smile that decimated her heart. 

“Reminds me of home, Darce.  Never lived anywhere that was big.  Last place I had was a tent with--” He cut himself off with a shake of his head. 

Darcy didn’t push.  (But she began wondering who Steve was rebounding from… Peggy or Bucky.)

They made it work, finding a rhythm of living that suited both of them.  She hunted up a fold-out dining table so they could eat sitting somewhere other than a sofa (Steve’s request).  He rebuilt the shelves in her bathroom and hung extra hooks so they both had a place for wet towels (she gave him the one up high.)  She rewired the carriage house doors so that Steve could activate them from a half mile away and be parked inside before they fully opened. 

Steve’s enormous appetite was always entertaining, so they worked their way through Betty Crocker trying to learn to cook a little more creatively.  The results were often questionable and they ate a lot of spaghetti and Chinese takeout.  But it was fun to try.  

She stumbled onto one of Steve’s demons when she surprised him in the middle of the night. Ridiculously excited over a new discovery, she’d called, not realizing it was well after midnight.  “Ohmygodsteveyou’ve gotocomeseethisIthinkIfiguredouthowtomakegrapheneinawaterbottle!”

He showed up a half hour later, while she was still dancing wildly in bare feet. His knuckles were raw (a feat given how fast he healed) and Darcy gave him a sharp look. He shrugged, ignoring her worry in favor of trying to understand the significance of what she’d discovered.

A discrete inquiry revealed that Steve spent the better part of the nights he wasn’t with Darcy pounding away at boxing bags in an old gym just a block from his apartment.

Trying to draw him out resulted in their first fight.  Steve clammed up, and Darcy got fed up with his silence.  But she didn’t dare leave him alone in those moments.  Somehow she knew that her presence was keeping him together. 

He was an ocean of glass and Darcy was peering into the dark blue waters, trying to see the man inside.  

Then S.H.I.E.L.D. called him up, asked him to help with the Avengers Initiative to fight a battle with Loki. Darcy was maybe the one person with enough intel (Thor) and security clearance (Stark, just sayin’) that Steve didn’t have to lie when he told her of aliens and gods, of technology they didn’t understand and how terrified he’d been when the creatures descended from the heavens.

He’d pretended nonchalance at first, especially in light of Darcy’s unabashed freakout at being three floors below the main event, trapped behind glass as she watched her dad, her boyfriend and various assorted friends take on aliens.  But she got it out of the way, by virtue of standing in line behind Pepper to harangue Tony for a solid hour and refusing to let Steve out of her sight for five solid days. 

After that, Fury tried to bribe her to look at interesting technology in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lab.

While she was debating the merits/family loyalty issues, it became clear that the Battle of New York had torn open the psychological wounds that Steve had bandaged with little more than time and his fascination with Darcy.

She begged off the tech work (Later, Fury) as the nightmares came. Steve’s art grew dark, depicting a thousand shades of war. For the first time, she saw Bucky when his face appeared in the shadows of trees and the blackest of clouds in Steve’s drawings. 

James Buchanan Barnes. She’d read about Steve’s best friend, of course. Ended up visiting Aunt Peggy for more intel as Steve was less than forthcoming (more like a complete shutdown).   She held him when he woke, crying out for Bucky. (Ice, falling. It was always the same.) He buried his face against her breast, pretending not to cry. By morning, he would suppress it all and refuse to discuss any of it.

“I’m okay, doll,” became his standard answer.  She grew to resent it. 

But he locked it all down once more as the world learned about Captain America and the Avengers.  And if Darcy wasn’t quite ready to let her relationship with Steve out of the box, at least she could tell Jane and let her know that Thor hadn’t forgotten her. (He’d asked Steve to look after her. That was something.)

 

Afterward, Steve joined S.H.I.E.L.D. to give him purpose. He did what he did best, stupidly heroic black ops missions with a better than average chance of getting him killed. He always came home to Darcy. But he moved to D.C. and gave up his Brooklyn apartment.

Hell’s eyes shouldn’t be blue.

They shuttled back and forth and she was amazed they managed to keep the relationship together in spite of his missions, her hours in the lab (okay, Fury, bring it on) and the distance. She taught him how to text.  She sent him pictures.  He sketched and sent her snapshots of those. 

Darcy learned to occupy herself during his missions.  Mostly she holed up in the Tower (Avengers Tower--Tony liked the ‘A’), preferring to be in her lab where she could keep the worry at bay.  (And closer to Mom and Dad, but she didn’t want to think about that too hard right now.)

It was on one of the longer missions (three weeks, seemed like forever) that she had time to investigate a memory from her childhood--a conversation with her Aunt Peggy that she’d almost forgotten. 

Finding information about James Barnes hadn’t been particularly difficult.  She found a surprising number of old promotional war videos that a historical society had uploaded to YouTube.  (And some more hilarious ones of Steve as Captain America in some truly dreadful movies.)

She was watching one while JARVIS played with her new software. She stared at the screen, trying not to see what Aunt Peggy had known all these years.

It was just a glance, seemingly between two friends.  She watched over and over again to make sure. 

But Darcy and Steve weren’t exactly advertising their relationship to the world, and she was entirely too familiar with the little ways her boyfriend let her know he was paying attention, even when half the world was watching.  Fingers on a wrist.  A pat on the shoulder blade that stayed a moment too long. 

The small smile playing on Steve’s lips, the echoing one on Bucky’s.

Darcy had always wondered how much Steve had loved Peggy. Not enough, that was clear now.  How could he, when he loved Bucky Barnes perhaps too much.  For certain, this was the love Steve had awakened to discover he’d lost all over again.  And no one living except Peggy, with her fading mind, Steve, where hardly more than a half-year had passed, and now Darcy knew. (Rebound, indeed.)

When Steve returned home, she cautiously broached the subject while they were basking a post-mission, welcome home, post-sex haze (in retrospect, not her best move).

“Steve?”

“Mm?” His eyes were closed, and he was lazily stroking her back as she sprawled against his side.

“Tell me about Bucky.”

The flash of agony was so powerful that Steve rolled away from her. Darcy followed, clutching his shoulders hard.

 

*****

 

With fingers trailing Darcy’s soft skin along the bumps of her spine, Steve felt the last ravages of the mission fade away.  It wasn’t terribly difficult, but there was mopping up to do after Loki’s stop in Germany. He and Nat had gone in to recover the broken nest of scientists that Loki had converted to his own purposes. The memories had been horrific and only Darcy (clean, beautiful, whole) had been able to dispel the visions. (Ice. So much fucking ice.)

A wisp of memory intruded and Steve firmly suppressed it (Not here).

“Tell me about Bucky.”

The violent retreat was involuntary. (Bucky’s name on Darcy’s lips.) Before he could stop it, a hundred memories broke through the careful lock he’d put on them.  Darcy breathed on his shoulder, clutching his arms as Steve shuddered.  

“Why?” he practically growled the words.

But Darcy held on. “Because he is your best friend, Steve. And I’ve never heard you say a single thing about him. That’s not fair to Bucky.”  

She sliced him to the core with her insight. (She said “is,” as if she knew.) Seven months, almost eight, and when he thought too much about Bucky he couldn’t breathe. He choked.

“Steve. It’s okay to miss him. You have to let yourself grieve. None of it was your fault.”

He pulled away, grabbing clothes as he went. He slammed the door on his way out.  (Too much. She asked too much.)

He came back later that day. She didn’t ask again.

Chapter Text

Darcy had a little bit of a love/hate relationship with Steve’s missions.  It always took him a day or so to shift out of Captain America mode when he came home. If she was around that first day, she was guaranteed the sex was going to be hard, hot, and fast. (Gosh, she figured she could take one for the team, so to speak.)

This time, he’d slammed the door behind her, pressed her against it, and (to hell with the prelims) dove his fingers between her legs. She wasn’t really ready, he knew it, and so he knelt down so that his tongue stroked flat against her clit. He licked, did that little pointy thing with the tip so that she practically danced in place. (Yep, okay, now she was wet.)

He still took care of her. Even though she’d learned how to deal with his size, he had her soaking, and open and all but begging for him (She never begged. Never.). She tugged his hair instead. “Damn it, Steve,” was as far as she got before he slid up the length of her, cupping a breast along the way and pressing hard and fast until she was full, full and aching.

He didn’t wait for her, just took what he needed, driving hard and fast until he began to shudder. As always, the press of his flesh in hers, that last thickening, was enough to push her over the peak as he pulsed inside her, taking, giving. She arched backwards, trying to pull him deeper (as if), while the knife edge of pleasure screamed through her.

Boneless, Darcy wrapped herself around him, holding on while his hand slipped down to her ass to support her. “Hi. I missed you.” She grinned. 

“Hi. I missed you too.”

“Are we going to do this again or is there food involved first?”  At the pained look on Steve’s face as he tried to decide, Darcy just laughed and shoved him toward the kitchen. 

He was mowing through the lasagna when Tony summoned him. Darcy rolled her eyes when she saw her dad’s text on Steve’s phone. “Good luck with that.”

“What do you think he wants?”

Darcy raised her eyebrows. “How long have we been dating?”

“Six months, if you count coffee.”

“He’s probably figured out that we’re serious.” 

“I was hoping to avoid that. Tony doesn’t like me,” Steve muttered.

“Tony has daddy issues. Not to mention that he doesn’t like most people unless they are geniuses and he can talk them onto his payroll. Good luck with that conversation. I’ll have beer and pizza when you get back.”

“Sounds perfect.”

 

*****

 

Pepper pointed him to Tony’s lab. She was barefoot, and Steve discovered where Darcy’s whimsical smile came from. Pepper brushed a kiss on his cheek, saying, “Tony will never approve of anyone dating his baby girl. But you have mine, for what it’s worth.”

“Thank you. It does mean a lot.”

He found Tony working on some kind of electrical panel.  “That looks sort of like the one on the helicarrier.”

“Well, again, you’re not wrong, Cap.”

“Steve.”

Tony gave him a sharp look.  “Is there a difference?”

“Maybe not to you.”

Crossing his arms, Tony gave him a dark look before reaching over to thump Steve in the chest.  “You and I have a problem.”

“Other than the fact I’m dating your daughter, what is it?” Steve stood, arms relaxed at his side, ready for whatever Stark was about to say.

“You know, I actually--surprisingly--do not have issues with my daughter’s life choices. Maybe it’s because she makes them with less drunkenness, less public awareness and, in general, less stupidity than I did at her age. However, I do have one small--large, really--problem with the whole situation.”

“And that is?”

“You. And Bucky Barnes.” Tony leveled a glare at him.

It took everything Steve had to not flinch. He did lower his head in grief. “Something tells me you didn’t learn that from my S.H.I.E.L.D. file.” He tried for bravado, and ended up sounding like a little kid kicking the dirt.

“Nope. Blame Aunt Peggy. You remember her. Peggy Carter? The lady everyone said Cap left behind to save the world? But wait, he didn’t.” Tony paced back and forth, idly picking up things off his workbench and setting them down again as he furrowed his brow in frustration. (Darcy had the same habit, and Steve filed that information away for future use.)

“You know, the thing that made my dad really angry--you remember my dad, he spent millions looking for you, thought you hung the moon, made my life a pain in ass when I couldn’t live up to your heroic ideal--was that he’d figured out that you could have--should have--survived the fucking plane crash.”

Tony stopped right in front of him. “I read the reports about how you were found in the wreckage. You did survive the crash. And you gave up.” He poked Steve in the chest again for emphasis. “You know, Peggy is a smart cookie. It didn’t take her long to put all the pieces together. My dad is the one who helped her get through it. He knew. The Howling Commandos all knew. And they all kept your secret.” Tony stared him down. “Does Darcy know?”

Steve shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I haven’t--I can’t--She’s asked about him. It’s hard to talk--” He stopped when his chest started aching. “Maybe. She’s not stupid, Tony.”

“It’s good that you remember that. Makes me, oh,  two percent less interested in punching your pretty jaw. Wearing the suit, of course. So what you’re telling me is that you and Bucky were the real deal.”

“Yeah. We are,” Steve admitted. “We were.”  

Tony raised his eyebrow at Steve’s slip. “Then what is Darcy to you?”

“That’s the real deal too.”

“Then you’d better find a way to tell her, Steve, or I will.”

 

*****

 

Darcy had no idea what her father said to her boyfriend, but afterward Bucky’s name came up in conversation for the first time.

It wasn’t easy, and Steve frequently stumbled on his words in the beginning.  But gradually, he began to speak of his friend. He told her stories of their crazy escapades. Stories of growing up together in pre-war Brooklyn. Stories of fighting side-by-side. How Bucky kept Steve alive when his body failed him. How Steve stormed through enemy lines to find Bucky. He began sketching Bucky, to show her what they had done and where they had lived. It was better than a photograph, for Steve could tell a story with his art.

She listened. Prompted him for more.  Darcy saw the tangle of their histories and began to understand what Aunt Peggy meant about love.

The process took months. Months of missions, months of sifting through the pain and loneliness to find the light and love hiding underneath.  Through Steve’s eyes, she came to care for the man Steve had lost.  In time, she found it was possible to ask a simple question and get an honest answer. 

 

Blue eyes softened and snarky humor reappeared.  The media began to catch wind of their relationship. (No confirmation, no incriminating photos, just a slow realization that Darcy was often seen in his—and the other Avengers’--company.)

The nightmares receded. The glass ocean began to clear and Darcy found the water dangerously deep. Her heart was utterly lost.

For every sketch of Bucky, Steve drew dozens of Darcy. Every time she stole a look at his sketchbook, she was awed. Because Steve really got her.

He listened when she ranted about Tony. He bit his lip when she dealt with idiots wondering if she’d slept her way to the top of the Tower (if only they knew). He captured her seemingly careless time in the lab where she would build something brilliant, with music blasting and little robots dancing around her feet. He sketched her with Pepper, as she learned to negotiate with corporations and governments. He drew her like a pin-up girl, making the best of her breasts and hips and lips that she sometimes wished were--less.

In his hands, she felt beautiful and smart and as if she could make the world a better place. If this was a rebound relationship, she was fucked. 

Chapter Text

Steve was on a mission for Fury when he was recalled without explanation. The director put him on a Quinjet and had him in New York as the world learned about the destruction of Tony and Pepper’s Malibu home.

Begging JARVIS for admittance from Stark’s landing pad, he sprinted through the Tower down to Darcy’s floor. She had every news channel tuned to the disaster and had chewed her lip so hard it was bleeding.

“Darce.”

He’d never seen her fall apart, not really.  Even after the Battle of New York, she’d found a way to deal with it all. He did now.  She cried denial between panting breaths. She rocked as she clutched at Steve’s shirt. He pulled her into his arms, holding her, wishing he could shield her from all this.

There was a harsh sound and JARVIS cut in, killing the screens. “Lewis, Ms Potts is on the line.”

 Darcy trembled. “Mom?”

Pepper sounded like she was hanging by a thread (which was still frighteningly competent by anyone else’s standards). “Honey, I’m here.”

“Oh god, I love you, Mom. Oh god, you’re okay.  Where’s Dad? Is he with you? Please tell me he is with you.”

There was silence, then, "I don’t know where he is, Darcy. The house—he was in the house—“ Pepper’s voice cracked.

Steve’s mouth dropped open as Darcy pulled herself together without a sign of her previous grief, though she had a grip on his wrist that would have broken that of a normal man. “What do you need me to do, Mom?”

“Stay there, Darcy. Keep Stark Industries running so I can find out what happened. I’ll find him.”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, Darcy.  Keep the line open for JARVIS. Can you activate your contact so I can reach you at any time?”

Darcy touched a spot behind her ear. “Done.”

“Don’t break your inheritance.”

“I won’t.”

In the silence that followed, Darcy peeled her hand off Steve’s wrist and rested her head on his shoulder. She took a breath, kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”  (He owed Fury a debt he would gladly pay.)

In the year and a half they had dated, Steve thought he’d discovered everything there was to know about his girlfriend. She was a mechanic at heart and chivvied those about her with love, affection, and a strength of will that surprised everyone the first time they ran into it.

Very few (mostly Avengers) knew she was Stark’s daughter and came by the love for shiny things quite honestly. Not even Steve had realized how much she was Pepper’s daughter too (he struck his head – love, affection and strength of will—the very definition of Pepper Potts) and had a thumb on the heartbeat of Stark Industries. With all the flair her mother had, Darcy triaged the situation, handled the media, assured the employees, and kept the ship pointed in the right direction. That was just the first day.

Steve didn’t even realize she had an official company title--Vice-President of R&D--until she waved it around in front of the cameras to give her credibility. Where he and Bucky grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, Darcy had teethed on the corporate politics and resource deployment.

Pepper’s call that Tony was still alive was followed by the news that Pepper had been kidnapped.

Darcy held on, even reining in Director Fury when he tried to intervene.  Steve hovered.  Through it all, Darcy was a rock, holding on to hope with both hands. Her colossal faith in her parents' abilities was unnerving, to say the least.   He stayed with her.  She didn’t need him to help her do her job, but her eyes would wander over to where he was a dozen times an hour as she was spouting orders or drafting a new update for the media team.  During press conferences, he stayed to the side and out of uniform, though no one missed who was keeping an eye on Darcy Lewis.

When it was over, when Tony and Pepper walked back into their penthouse where Darcy and Steve waited, Darcy shed a handful of joyous tears and gracefully gave the helm back to Pepper.  She flung herself at Tony and quietly whispered threats into his ears. 

Pepper seemed so forlorn that Steve walked up to her and held out a hand.  She took it and let him wrap his arms around her.  Darcy and Tony snickered at them when they came up for air. 

He expected Darcy to break again after that, to crumble when it was all over.  But she didn’t.  Still, if she spent more time with her parents, he understood. If she tangled her hands in his while they slept, he knew why.

And if there were any reservations he still had about Darcy, they were washed away.  Steve Rogers put serious consideration to the long haul. He realized he still had to have that conversation, and promised himself to do it when she wasn’t reeling.

But Jane called Darcy and begged her to fly to London. One week here and there turned into four solid months and then the skies opened up again to worlds unknown.  A flurry of texts from Darcy was the only warning she could give him. 

Chapter Text

Thor and Jane were inseparable. Tony convinced Jane at last, with Darcy’s help, to work for Stark Industries, not S.H.I.E.L.D. and gave Jane seemingly unlimited funding. He made space in the Tower for them.

Jane had been astonished and dazzled to see Darcy’s real work. “You bitch. I knew you were smarter than you let on.”

“Tony’s wanted you to work for him for years,” Darcy replied, tapping her pencil. “How do you think a poli sci student learned about your internship? God, he made me learn astrophysics in a weekend so I could at least sort of keep up with you.”

“No wonder you were so good at keeping my equipment together. Don’t think I didn’t see you soldering that panel in New Mexico.”

“Which time?”

Jane just laughed.

One of the things Darcy really loved about Jane is that, fundamentally, Jane trusted her. Rather than being annoyed that Darcy had lied, she was flattered that Stark had taken such an interest. Darcy hadn’t passed on any of Jane’s research; she merely kept Tony informed on progress and outcomes. Which only whetted Tony’s desire to have Jane Foster on his payroll.

Darcy looked over the contracts for Jane, pointed out a couple of suggestions and kept both parties happy with the outcome.

The case of champagne in her apartment was definitely from Tony. She called Steve, hoping he would come up for the weekend from D.C. to drink it with her and celebrate her return.

He came. But his eyes were full, once again, of the hell she’d seen before. No matter what Darcy tried, Steve wasn’t budging. Whatever he’d seen or done, he’d locked up tight. The nightmares had come back. Steve would wake, shivering from the cold that wasn’t there.

It never occurred to her that she was the cause.

 

*****

 

Four texts from Darcy, and Steve was plunged into the ice again (Bucky/Darcy, it was all the same), watching with the rest of the Avengers as Thor and Jane saved the universe.

She came home. He was hanging on by his fingernails.

There was a common area that Bruce Banner’s and now Thor and Jane’s apartments shared. It was Friday night, Bruce was ensconced for the evening and Jane was still in the lab trying to get it settled. Darcy was with her and had begged, via text, for an hour or three.

Having received a similar message from Jane (though probably via JARVIS rather than text), Thor appeared in the common room. “Our ladies are much enamored of Jane’s new lab. I fear we will not see them this evening.”

Steve shrugged. “You’re probably right. Want to grab a beer?” (Seemed to be a safe enough choice.)

The Asgardian studied him. “Perhaps. But first, I’ve a space here where we can spar as warriors.”

Steve jerked his head. “No.  I’m not in the mood.”  Thor surprised him by laying an arm across his shoulders. He flinched, for the weight of it, the maleness of it, triggered too many memories (he’d been a shorter then).

“That, my friend, is why we must go.”

Steve had fought alongside Thor in New York and respected him as a soldier. He still had a difficult time believing the “Nine Realms” thing, even with the evidence standing in front of him. Nat had given him the rundown. Crown prince, a thousand years old, commanded magics, seemed to have a thing for Jane, and was willing to lay down his life for the survival of the universe.

For that last reason alone, Steve followed Thor to the gym.  

This was the first time they would spar, and he wondered if this would become a regular thing. There were few who could hold their own against him. Nat could, though if she wasn’t quick enough, he could pin her to the mat. Rumlow was fast and dangerous. He was damned good at knife work and Steve’s skills had improved exponentially since they’d met, though if he made Nat’s mistake it had the same results.  

They stripped to shorts, t-shirts and bare feet. Armor wasn’t needed here since both of them healed with ridiculous speed. Thor pulled his hair back with a rubber band to keep it out of the way. The two men faced each other over the mats, balancing on the balls of their feet.  

Thor rumbled, “JARVIS, engage privacy mode please.”

“Of course, Lord Thor.”

Steve raised his eyebrows. “Somebody else who doesn’t like being recorded all the time.”

But Thor shrugged, dismissing the concern. “One does not become a prince of Asgard without enuring himself to the eyes of others.” He advanced first, giving Steve a chance to block the test strike. “So tell me, Rogers, what is troubling you?”

“You flew all the way from Asgard to ask me this?” He countered with a foot to Thor’s knee, but the warrior dodged it and danced sideways. Far faster than a man of his bulk should have been able to move.

“No. ‘Tis your eyes, my friend. I’ve seen others such as yours, as if death itself would flinch from your gaze.”

Steve threw out a fist. Thor blocked it on his arm, taking the force of the blow rather than ducking it. “Nothing Captain America can’t handle, Thor Odinson.”

“But Steve Rogers is with my friend, Darcy. And she worries for him.”

Steve stood up, dropping out of his stance. “Darcy asked you to talk to me?” He was hurt by the thought.

“Do not be stupid. Darcy is the most secretive of persons. It is only that I know and care for her that I see the concern.”  Thor eyed Steve. “Are we not friends?”

“Sure.”

“Then tell me this thing that haunts you.”

Steve took a defensive stance once again.  “Anyone ever told you about my aversion to ice?”

Thor merely raised an eyebrow and motioned for Steve to take the next move. They traded jabs and punches. As his muscles loosened up, he told his story (highly edited version, thank you, Darcy). He exchanged flurries of strikes with Thor, and fuck, even the blows he took felt good. For the first time in a month, he began to feel a part of his own skin again. Steve worked his way backward through the story, hardly mentioning Bucky’s name but one or twice (three times, but he wasn’t counting).   

He absolutely underestimated the warrior. Thor worked Steve, gradually increasing the speed and power of the match, all the while drawing out Steve’s history.  He didn’t realize until he discovered he was barely keeping up with the talented fighter.  Thor had pushed him to his limits and pressed still more.

“Tell me about Bucky.” Thor landed a dirty blow to Steve’s solar plexus, taking the level up a notch again.

The combination of pain and the question blurred his thinking just enough that he blurted, “No.”

Thor was already there, flipping Steve over his shoulder. Steve rolled, getting to his feet—only for Thor to trip him again. “Bucky was your shield-mate, was he not?”

“What the fuck is a shield-mate?” Steve hopped backward, got his balance, and rushed Thor.

Thor stepped aside at the last minute, and Steve felt like a green idiot as he tumbled to the mats. Thor reached out, pulled him up. “As Darcy is to you. Your boyfriend? You lost him in the war a pair of years ago, did you not?”

Steve closed his eyes. And then unleashed all the pent-up rage he’d been holding in onto the Asgardian warrior. He rained blows and kicks upon the prince. “I loved him. He loved me. Don’t you dare question me. Or judge me.” Flesh met flesh as Steve drove hard fists into Thor’s chest. 

“Who is judging, Steven?” Thor counter-punched, sending Steve staggering backward a half dozen paces. “He was part of your soul, I think, and you miss him.”

Dumbfounded, Steve could only halt and stare at the man, this warrior of the highest order, who stated such a simple truth with firm conviction. Thor gave him a slow nod. “Go. Clean up. Come to my quarters and have more words with me on this subject. Over a good mead, I think.”

Steve shook his head.  “I can’t get drunk. I’ve tried.”

Thor flashed him a mischievous grin that seemed absolutely out of place on the warrior. “I might remind you that I am not from around here.”

As Steve showered, it occurred to him that since the moment the serum had transformed him, those around him had looked to him as a leader. Most of the time, he had no idea what he was doing and had stumbled along in his new body, with his new senses and new abilities, doing the best he could.  His skills came from preternatural reflexes in body and brain. Training had come later.

Not unlike the Asgardians, Steve thought, and Thor was a leader of such soldiers.  Steve had been ordered to take a drink with him. So he did.

It took two mugs of Asgardian mead to produce a blur that cushioned the sharpest pain of all the questions Thor asked of him. How they met. How long they had been in love. How Bucky had volunteered for the army after Pearl Harbor. How Steve desperately tried to follow. How Bucky had taken care of him. How he’d taken care of Bucky.

He didn’t realize he was crying until he reached up to rub his eyes and discovered the hazy vision came from tears. The heavy hand on his shoulder held him steady.

Finally, there were no more questions about Bucky. Just one about Darcy. “What is Darcy to you, Steve?”

He smiled. For the first time since Darcy had come home from London, he let himself really think of her. Who she was.  All the incredible pieces that startled and delighted him.  “She’s the light, Thor. When I’m with her, I’m me again. Steve Rogers. The skinny guy from Brooklyn who managed to score the prettiest dame in the neighborhood. The stacked bearcat with a sassy mouth and a hell of a lot of moxie.” He slurred his words and Thor raised an eyebrow. “Means she’s perfect.”

“Do you love her?”

“Yes I do.”

“Have you told her?”

“Every damned time I see her.”

“Have you told her about Bucky?”

Steve shook his head. “She’s not stupid.  She’s smart.  Stark-smart.”  He sagged in the chair, sinking low enough that his head rested on the low back.  “She hasn’t asked.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain of that.” Thor reached underneath the coffee table for one of Jane’s idea books she had strewn everywhere. He flipped to a blank page and handed Steve a pencil. “Draw.  Show me what you desire above all.” He passed over a full mug of mead.

Steve took, drained it, let the haze saturate his brain.  He drew.  

Chapter Text

Darcy crashed in her lab. Via JARVIS, Thor had told her he was taking Steve in hand for the evening and not to expect him before dawn. It was good thing, for she and Jane hadn’t finished until after one in the morning. Thor’s curious wording bothered her for the rest of the night.

It was far too early when he knocked on her door. She let him in, not caring about her stringy hair or Spongebob pajamas. Without another word, Thor pulled her in for a tight hug. She didn’t cry. She was out of tears by now in trying to figure out how to help Steve.

“I want to show you something,” he said. He set a notebook in her hands. She recognized it as one of Jane’s many idea books.

There was a sketch inside. Probably the most honest piece of art she’d seen from Steve’s hands.  

Darcy was kneeling on the bed, her hair trailing over a bare breast. Every mark, every fold of flesh she’d ever judged was revealed. Her lips were open, her eyes open, and Darcy suspected this is what she looked like when Steve was inside her. Her hand gripped a dark-haired leg.  It was Bucky sitting behind her in the drawing, a sheet still covering an arm as if he’d just settled there.  He kissed the line of her shoulder, one hand on her hip, as if his fingers were about to trail to her center.  He, too, had the dazed look of love that Darcy had seen on him before.  She and Bucky were focused on the artist.

Thor cupped her cheek and wiped away her tear. “I asked Steven to draw what he desired the most. You needed to see.”

He left her alone with Steve’s art.

JARVIS gave her a warning, but she was still curled up on the sofa when Steve appeared in her doorway an hour or so later.  He leaned on it, hand stuffed in the pockets of yesterday’s jeans. “Hey.” He rubbed the back of his neck, scratched his stubble. “I think I got commandeered last night.”

“Thor told me. I was thinking you guys were going to hit a bar, drink and bond.”

He grinned. “Well, there was hitting and drinking and bonding. I think the only thing we missed was the actual bar.” He sauntered across the lab, looking lighter than she’d seen him in months. “Let’s just say I’ll have a better idea of how much he’s holding back when we’re sparring.” He raised his shirt, and Darcy goggled at the line of bruises.

“You let Thor beat the crap out of you? How is this bonding?” she sputtered.

“I didn’t let Thor do anything. He worked me like a trainer taking a racehorse through his paces. How did I miss that he makes Fury look like an amateur when it comes to extracting information?” Steve stretched an arm overhead, wincing as he pulled something.  But he wasn’t grimacing with real pain or annoyed with her friend, so she let it slide.

Darcy sat up, shaking her blanket off. “He’s perfected the jock routine. He flexes his biceps and everyone forgets to check out his brain. Kind of like my rack. Works the same way.” She snapped her fingers. “I knew I liked him for a reason.”

“I’d wondered why a genius astrophysicist caught the attention of an alien prince.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s the only one of us who can keep up with him.”  

Steve knelt in front of her, his hands skimming up her bare legs. “Maybe that’s it.”

“So what divine revelations did you have last night? (Yeah, she had to go there.)

He started to laugh and might have answered, but then he saw Jane’s book where Darcy had left it beside her. He reached for it, flipped to the last page and stared down at his own work. “Thor brought this to you.” He didn’t sound mad. Or resigned. (Just--his long fingers drifted across the image of Bucky.) 

His jaw clenched. “I need to tell you something, Darce—“

Darcy tilted her head at the love and pain she saw in his face. She decided to make her own confession.  “Steve, Aunt Peggy told me about you and Bucky when I was eight years old.” Surprise—and hope—filled his blue eyes.  “I’d forgotten what she’d said until a few weeks ago, and it took me a while to remember all of the conversation.” She played with her fingers. “I guess I’ve always known. It doesn’t change how I feel. I just want to hear it from you.”

Steve sat hard on the glass floor, shoving a hand through his hair. “That I’m gay? Or bisexual? Or whatever people want to label it these days? I don’t know, Darcy. I’m not a label. I loved Bucky. We were kids, and then we weren’t. He was everything to me.  Things were different then. Oh, everyone knew there were guys like us. But back then, Darcy, it didn’t matter who you liked, you still got married, had kids and all that. I’m pretty sure Bucky took half the non-rationed dames in Brooklyn to bed. He was always saying they smelled better than me and had softer parts.”

“That didn’t bother you?” Darcy asked curiously.

“Huh uh. Dames were for Friday and Saturday night. I had Bucky the rest of the week. Not that I didn’t try for a taste, Darce, but the gals weren’t lookin’ at me.  Buck—Buck was looking for both of us.”

Darcy’s lips curved up at the Brooklyn slang and accent creeping into his voice. “What about you? I know I wasn’t your first girl, Steve.”

He turned pink. “ItraveledwiththeUSOforsixmonths.”

“Run that by me again?” (She heard it the first time. But he was blushing, so--)

“Darce, let’s just say when I toured with the USO I figured out what Bucky was talkin’ about.”

“Breasts and perfume? Did you take on the whole troop?”

“Hey,” he admonished. “Lot o’ those dames were rationed, ya know? Didn’t mess with anyone like that. I caught enough of that on the circuit.”

She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”

He sighed, pulling her off the sofa and into his lap. “Darce, I was in the army and I was 23.  With a body like this after what I had before?   It was the first thing I did once I had an evening off.  Picking up a girl for the evening while wearing an army uniform wasn’t hard in those days.  Won’t surprise you any to know that a lot o’ dames took advantage of a little freedom back then.  They all knew—I made sure they knew—that I was only a fling.”

“You didn’t feel like you were cheating on Bucky?”

“Nuh uh.  Just catchin’ up.”

The sensual twinkle in his eyes just about killed her and she felt her jaw drop.  “Wow.  Now that shocks me for some reason.” 

“Why?  Bucky had others until after--“ He looked away.

“After?”

“After I brought him back.  Then it was just us.  Now Peggy, I really liked her.  But she didn’t know.  Not about Bucky.  Not about the dames on the tour.  She liked thinking I was the innocent choirboy.”

“Yeah, she mentioned that she was rather appalled when she found you kissing another female officer.”

“That was not my fault. I will swear on my mother’s grave.”   

Darcy giggled. Peggy’s version was a lot funnier.  But when Steve dropped a hand to her shoulder, she asked softly.  “Why me?” 

He tugged her bra strap off her shoulder and nuzzled the line of her collarbone. “This, Darce. You’re beautiful. You’re real. Brilliant. I’m just a soldier with great reflexes. I’ll tell you what I told Thor last night. I’m me when I’m with you. I love you.  As much as I ever loved Bucky.”

She was more than a little stunned by his confession.  “So why did you shut down on me, Steve?”

“Finding out what happened in London with Malekith. I wasn’t there. I could have lost you, doll. I got the reports before you got back. I--fuck, Darce. I love you.” He said again as he sighed. “I let it get to my head. Guess I needed Thor to beat it out of me.”

Darcy shook her head. “I think I understand now,” she said softly. “When I first met you, and I know you don’t remember that--totally okay, by the way--for you, Bucky had only been gone for a few weeks. No wonder you looked like hell had swallowed you whole.”

“Way to pull your punches, Darcy.” But he nuzzled her hair. “Call it like it is.”

“Brain-to-mouth filtering system is definitely not engaged before coffee. You know that. God, we started dating, when what, three, four months later?”

“Had you for most of it and can’t imagine it any other way.” He peered at her. “Does that bother you?”

“Some.  Mostly I ignore it.”  She ran a hand along the collar of his shirt.  “You had Bucky.  You had a crush on Peggy any way you look at it.  Then you were here and I drew the lucky straw.” 

Steve searched her face.  “Kind of sounds like I went from Bucky to you without a breath in between.” 

She shrugged in acknowledgement.  “Now I understand about the tattoo.”

“What part?”

“You were asking Bucky’s forgiveness for going out with me.  It was your way of telling him you wouldn’t forget him.”

He sat in silence for a while, considering.  Darcy liked that he did that—really looked at a situation from all sides. “I knew from the beginning that you weren’t going to be fling, Darcy.” 

Quiet and sincere, he ran a hand along her calf.  “Growing up the way I did, sick half the time and getting in scraps the rest, I learned who could see me. Bucky used to complain that I was better at picking friends.  He was the opposite.  Everyone liked being around him, so it was hard for him to see who wanted to be with him.”  Steve wrapped a lock of Darcy’s hair around his finger and unraveled it again. “Peggy liked me.  She believed in what I could be.  After the serum, she still believed in me.  Yeah, I liked her.  A lot.  Might have even married her the way things worked then.” 

“What about Bucky?”

Steve shrugged.  “We always had each other.” Under his breath, he added, “Till the end of the line.”  He closed his eyes.  “I chose him, Darce.  There wasn’t enough--”  His face twisted up in remembered pain.

“I know.”

Blue eyes snapped up.  “You do?”

“My last name is Stark, hello,” she teased, trying to lighten the mood. “Aunt Peggy told me, remember?“

“What … what did Peggy say about me?”

“That we should all love like you loved Bucky. That it’s worth every impossible obstacle.”

Steve searched her face. “You’re okay with it.”

“I love you. Whatever you went through made you the man I fell for.” She winked. “Either that, or I really, really have a thing for your bike.”

“I’ll keep the bike then, ‘cause Darcy, I’ve really, really got a thing for you.” He cupped her face, tasting her lips before trailing a wet line to nibble on her earlobe, then down her neck to the hollow of her throat. HIs fingers followed.

One thing Steve did that she adored/despised is that he could be extraordinarily patient when it came to sex. At times like this, whenever he decided he’d fucked up something (often enough that her lady parts looked forward it), he would take it as his mission to see how many different ways Darcy could dissolve into a quivering mass of idiocy.

But right now, she didn’t want the strung out pleasure. (Later, she promised her lady parts.) She trapped his hands with hers. “Nuh uh. Let me have you, Steven Grant Rogers.”

He jerked back, widening his eyes.  Stunned, he lowered his lips to mesh with hers. “Darcy, the first time Bucky and I—the first time we—“ He blew out his breath. “That is exactly what he said to me.”

Darcy ran through a list of appropriate responses. (Um, she’s got nothing.) So she went with her gut. And flirted. “Probably because you were driving him just as batty.” She stripped off her pajamas, ruffled her hair to make it slightly less disastrous, and stood, hands on hips. “Give up the goods, Captain Rogers.”

He did, shedding his clothes with a speed that he’d perfected at S.H.I.E.L.D. (Superman in a phone booth had nothing on Cap). She nudged him to the sofa so that she could straddle him. He reached for the curve of her breast, but she moved his hand away. “No. This one is for me. You’re just along for the ride.”

Steve cracked a smile and let his hands fall to her hips, where his fingers drove her mad with the feather-light touches there. Still, she took her time. And if Steve was lost in the sensation of her, with the memory of Bucky, that was okay. Especially when she shoved him over the edge and her name was on his lips.

And if they fell asleep that way, still connected, with her head on his shoulder and his fingers clutching the sketch, that was okay too.

Chapter Text

The minute Steve escaped the hospital, he found Darcy in the tattered remains of his DC apartment. She was packing up the few things that had meaning--books, photographs, the odd antique he’d picked up that reminded him of home. Clothes. Happy, Tony’s driver, was helping her cart it all to the rental truck with the help of a couple of Stark Industries employees.

He dragged her into the empty bedroom to press her against the wall, burying his face in her hair, her scent. “Darcy.”

“How long will you be gone?”

He pulled back, searching her face. “I don’t know.”

“Go find him, Steve. Just--just promise me you’ll come home. No matter what happens, you’ll come home.”

He pressed his forehead to hers. “I promise, Darcy. No ice. No matter what happens.”

Chapter Text

Silent. Deft. Programmed for the mission.

Within an hour of dragging the man (I know him.) from the water, the Winter Soldier found a HYDRA safe house.  He took the time to set his arm.  A sheet wound around a set of doorknobs gave him leverage.  (Rule one: Assets do not feel pain.)  He bound it enough for the bones not to shift and shrugged on a sweatshirt from the closet. 

From the same place, he pulled out a backpack to stuff it with more clothing and the weapons he could lay his hands on.  A medical kit.  Papers.  Cash. 

He hit a second safe house and did the same. The papers he sold to a dealer who specialized in that sort of thing. From another, he purchased a bright new passport, complete with a photo and thumbprint (Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. I’m your best friend. You’ve known me your whole life).

Armed with only an impression of memory (I’m with you till the end of the line) and the visible evidence of HYDRA’s fall, the Soldier had the barest presence of mind to avoid his handlers. (Your work has been a gift.)

The trickle of memory (I know him) had been enough to override the last mind wipe. Loyalty had never been a part of the programming. (I know him) If it had, there would not have been a need to cryofreeze and clear his memories between missions. He knew that much now, if only that much.

With the shattered remains of the helicarriers and the Triskelion still burning, the Winter Soldier set off a trio of explosions in another location—a hidden basement known only to Pierce, Zola and cadre of scientists of the darkest arts. No one escaped (Change the world).

He knew this city. The layout. Traffic patterns. Cameras. Tech. HYDRA had made sure of it when he went after Fury. And his other targets (man on the bridge; woman with red hair).

But HYDRA wasn't a part of his mission now. Figuring out why Captain America called him friend was his mission (please don’t make me do this).

The hoodie with its handy front pocket covered him long enough to gather intel. A search for that name--James Buchanan Barnes--from an internet cafe revealed the exhibit at the Smithsonian. There, he came face to face with his past.

He didn't try to process it, just scanned and memorized the data at hand. He saw faces. The one of Steve ... both versions ... tickled his memory. He frowned.  Steve and .... Stark. Another hazy connection to think on later.

Weaving his way through the crowds, he cased the joint twice before using the exit.  He took his time wandering around the Mall before slipping out of camera range.  

The clean identification got him to New York via train, where he bought and sold his papers all over again, rendering him untraceable to anyone following a name. New York meant Stark Industries. The Avengers Initiative. His mission. Not his target. His mission.    

He hailed a cab, paid cash. He raided another HYDRA safe house in Queens and set fire to it. HYDRA had deliberately avoided upgrading the electrical system, making his job easy. He scraped a bit of the old rag wiring loose in the decaying living room wall. He lit a cigarette with his metal hand (leave no trace), let it burn, and then flicked it against the curtains. The ancient fabric smoldered as he walked away. Hours later, the brownstone collapsed in ashes and haze. The official cause would be squatters. If anyone was left to investigate, HYDRA would never suspect it was him.

In Brooklyn (I’m from Brooklyn?), he handed over a prepaid credit card he had purchased for a cheap hotel room near the bridge. The card held more than enough for the deposit, plus a full week, and aroused less suspicion. The clerk was nice enough when he requested a room away from the noise.

The young man made idle conversation to fill the silence as he slid over a card key. "Just leave it on the dresser when you leave, sir." He nodded, gave a ghost of a smile to the clerk, and shrugged his backpack a little higher with a sigh of weariness. The clerk thought no more of him as he turned away.

The door lock wouldn't keep a pickpocket out, much less the Black Widow--he wondered where the name came from. An image of red hair, a beautiful smile, and---nothing more.

From his backpack, he pulled out clothes and a bag of toiletries he'd purchased at the convenience store next door.  Nothing made a person stand out more than the stink of missing a couple of showers. But that could be useful too. Underneath all that, he’d stashed a pair of guns, ammo, EMPs, a trio of extra knives, and a couple of grenades.

He liked being clean. He wasn’t always given an option.

He dropped the earbuds he had bought to blend in on the bed and sniffed the sweatshirt as he pulled it off. Good for at least one more wear. He could get a new one tomorrow.

He booby-trapped the front door with a wire from his pack. Did the same to the bathroom door then stripped and ducked under the cold spray. He eyed the temperature controls, reached for the hot, and recoiled as if he’d been shocked before he laid a hand on the lever. He washed with the small bottles in the bathroom and the tiny cake of soap.

Fresh from the shower, he studied his broken arm (humerous, clean break).  Purple bruising ran the length of it.  He flexed it, frowned at the sensation, and rewrapped his bicep tightly enough to eliminate it altogether.

He dressed again, boots and all. He slept sitting up on the far side of the bed, a gun in his hand and the rest of his weapons within easy reach. 

He'd hoped to make it four hours, got five and felt better than--well, he didn’t know.  He pocketed the key card, picked up his backpack, and headed for a diner. One nearest the bridge, guaranteed to have a lot transient patrons.

Keeping one hand in his pocket, he dug his way into a loaded omelette and a stack of pancakes. And coffee.  Pure, black diner coffee that could dissolve the metal of his spoon if left it there too long. The smell took him back to an army camp. He had an image of the man on the bridge in a uniform. A brown one. Not a Russian uniform. American. The man’s shield seemed familiar. Steve. Brooklyn. A connection he couldn't trace.

He tossed a couple of bills on the table, taking the coffee in the biggest Styrofoam cup the waitress could find.  His friendly, tired smile made her relax. She wished him good day and dismissed him altogether.

Coffee in hand, earbuds dangling, hoodie, ballcap and backpack in place--not a single person looked twice at him as he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge by foot and wandered his way up to Midtown. Stark’s tower made an irritating point on the skyline.

He stopped by an electronics store, picked out a cheap netbook, and then headed for the coffee shop across from the building.

He didn't need much, just a scan of information and people going in and out. Eventually, he would find the right person, in the right company, who could give him the right sort of information.

He had nine more days to complete his mission. Nine days to disable the lethal dose hidden in his arm. (Assets require compliance) Stark’s name jumped again in his head.  (Mission: Howard Stark. Mission: complete. Spouse: Maria Stark. Acceptable loss, terminated. Son: Anthony Stark. Acceptable loss, living.) Knowledge that Stark could counteract the technology came from somewhere. Mission: Find man on the bridge.  Mission: Find Stark. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve dove into a record-short shower.  getwetgetsoapy getwetgetout.

“JARVIS? Do you know if Darcy is in the tower?” he asked as he scraped three days of beard off.  It had itched under the cowl and it felt good to be clean-shaven again.

“Lewis is in the garage.”

In spite of his weariness, he felt the corner of his mouth lift. “I’d ask if she’s playing with my bike but I’m fairly certain it’s in the Potomac River somewhere.”

“I have been instructed not to discuss this particular subject with you, Captain Rogers.”

“That’s probably wise.”

“Thank you.”

“You know, JARVIS, I keep forgetting to ask you why you don’t use an honorific with Darcy.  But you do with everyone else.”

“Captain Rogers, my apologies, but I have been instructed not to discuss that either.  You’ll have to ask Lewis.” 

“I will.” 

He dug through his locker for a pair of jeans, his boots, a t-shirt, and his leather jacket. Darcy had mentioned a time or twenty it was her favorite look, and he wasn’t dumb enough not to take advantage of that. Besides, he owed her. (A lifeline.)

The elevator was quick enough as it descended from the Avengers' levels straight to their private garage. Well--Tony’s garage, but close enough. Nat kept her ‘Vette here and Steve his bike. The former was gone since Nat and Clint had cleared the Tower a full hour ago. They would come up for air in a week or so. Clint mentioned something about the Bahamas, Nat contemplated Rio. (The true destination was sure to be neither one.) Sam had returned to DC to pack up his apartment after getting an official Stark invitation to move into the Tower too. Steve’s stuff was at Darcy’s while they figured out the whole living together thing.

So much had happened in the last eight days. (Not once had she suggested he do anything other than find Bucky.)

He needed time with her. He’d spent the better part of a week looking for Bucky and had come up blank. But one thing was certain, Bucky hadn’t returned to his HYDRA handlers unless they were buried so deeply even Nat couldn’t find them. She suspected Bucky would go to New York for answers. Maybe even to Brooklyn, depending on how much he remembered.

 

Then there was the raid on a compound in east Texas. The ATF had pleaded for backup since there were far too many children involved. Nobody wanted a repeat of Waco.  Two days of patience, infiltration, and a well-placed arrow from Clint ended the standoff. Nat and Steve had dropped in to protect the kids. Successfully. All in all, it was one of the better missions.

Helping the ATF had been Cap’s call. Though he hated to break from looking for Bucky, he couldn’t turn his back on the situation. And even though he hadn’t planned on it, the media coverage had painted the Avengers is a very good light—separating their identity from S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA in a visible manner.

He would pick up the search again tomorrow. For tonight, Steve wanted Darcy.  The elevator door opened as he debated what vehicle Tony was least likely to drop him in the Atlantic for borrowing. 

Then again, maybe he didn’t have to risk that outcome.

She was lying on his bike. He wasn’t particularly surprised to see it. Tony had probably fished it out of the water before Steve had cleared the hospital.

He imagined Darcy had kept herself distracted by restoring it herself. But any speculation he might have had on that subject took second place as he wondered how the hell she balanced herself like that. Head on the seat, long legs propped up on the handlebars. Boots, skirt that puddled on her thighs, button-down shirt with only a couple of them keeping everything together. The swell of her breasts clad in dark red (still his favorite). Her iPod rested between her legs on the gas tank with the red cord trailing up her body and into her ears. Dark lashes stayed closed as she hummed along to the song.

There were shadows under them, smudges that he knew he’d caused.  They probably wouldn’t go away anytime soon, but for tonight, he would chase them off. 

He whistled, long and low. She didn’t open her eyes yet, but those deep red lips stretched into a smile. He grinned, knowing he was toast and was perfectly happy to be that way.  She reached down to the iPod and touched the button to turn it off.

“Seems like the bike’s already in use," he teased. Yeah, the hand between the legs was planned out, all right. Never let it be said Darcy was stupid. Now her eyes opened, and she let out her own whistle.

“I have a boyfriend, you know. Dirty blond with a mouth that should be illegal. Shoulder-to-hip ratio somewhere in the comic book range. Good with his hands and a real smartass.”

“Sounds like trouble,” he said. He pulled the jacket off and draped it neatly on one of Stark’s cars.

“The best ones are.” She flicked a look at the leather. “Tony’s gonna be pissed about that.”

“Yeah, well, he’d better not look at the security footage for the next half hour.”

“Just a half hour?”

He lifted Darcy off the bike while she giggled, and flipped her around so that he could straddle it with her in his lap. “I want to take you home.”

She leaned in to nip at his mouth. “I missed you too.”

His hands ran under her skirt, finding absolutely nothing but damp Darcy under there. He groaned. She flicked the buttons of his jeans open, cupped him, and then shoved the boxer shorts out of the way.  “Darce,” he whispered as he pulled her to him. He had to have her mouth. Hot and sweet, the taste drove him crazy as his tongue danced with hers.

“Damn it, Steve, play later. I want you now.”

Her hand wrapped around his cock.  One, two, three strokes, and he was primed.  He didn’t argue, just tasted her mouth a little longer.  Darcy shifted so that he could slide in at the perfect angle.  He gave her leverage with one arm under her knee and the other anchored to her hip. He circled a thumb over her clit, needing to assure himself she was ready.

With the head of his cock, he pressed against her sweet, soft flesh.  She let out a little gasp. “More.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He pulled her downward all at once so that she surrounded him, her skin sealed to his. He bit the side of her neck, lightly, just enough to let her know he was there.  She squirmed, dancing on his cock.  “Damn it, Darce. I’m gonna embarrass myself in a minute.”

“Yeah, well, only if I don’t beat you to it.” Her voice was breathy, and she stuttered as she sassed him. She ran a hand under his shirt, flicking a nipple with her thumb.

He had enough presence of mind to keep making the little movements on her clit. She pleaded/ordered, “Now, Steve!” And he was gone. Her body rippled, clenching down on his cock as he let go with a groan of his own.  

Sweaty and a little dazed, he pulled Darcy to him, ransacking her mouth for minute or two until he could breathe again.

She grinned. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

“What do we do now?”

“Well, seeing as you’re already on my bike, I thought I’d take you home. We can do this all over again, maybe a couple of times, and then I’ll take you out to dinner.”

“How about I call in dinner and we can eat in bed.”

“Better idea. Have I ever mentioned I have a thing for sassy dames with a real smart brain?”

“Once or twice.”

 

*****

 

Darcy slid on a pair of jeans (still wet, kind of dripping, best feeling in the world), and stole Steve’s jacket for the ride. While he adored her in the skirt, he’d asked her ages ago--in that serious, solemn manner of his that always wrecked whatever argument she might have had--to please wear jeans and a jacket on his bike. He’d seen one too many cases of road rash and the pleasure of seeing her in a skirt wasn’t worth the risk.

So she did.  Not that Steve ran much of a chance of smashing his bike. His reflexes were far too fast for him not to anticipate and avoid problems-even at the ridiculous speeds he drove.

She loosened his shirt enough to run her hands underneath it the back of it and laced her fingers around his waist. The heat was enough to make her squirm already (yeah, commando under the jeans probably wasn’t too smart).  She closed her eyes, enjoying his crazy weaving and turns, the acceleration in the narrow streets. If she tried hard enough, she could not think for a little while.

He yanked the Harley to a stop inside her garage.  

Darcy laughed. “Get your fix?”

“Of the bike? Sure. You? Never.”

Given the way they sassed and flirted, both at home and in the Tower, a few people made the mistake of thinking they were fuckbuddies of the finest sort. Others speculated on a possible relationship.  Most couldn’t see past Captain America.

But here in her apartment, it was just Steve and Darcy. They played house, sort of, figuring out how to feed Steve’s constant appetite, arguing about what to watch on television, agreeing on going to the movies, and discussing just about everything under the sun.

They had made this work for two years now and there was nothing she didn’t know about Steve. Including the truth about him and Bucky, even the well-concealed fact that they had been lovers since Steve’s sixteenth birthday.

That bit of pertinent information had filled in so many blanks--about Steve’s need to follow Bucky into the war, his desperation to rescue him, the way he’d shattered when Bucky died. How lost he’d been when he woke. 

Darcy had come to understand something else. There would never be just the two of them in this relationship, for Bucky occupied a place in Steve’s very soul. With pictures and words, he taught Darcy about his other love.

But it was Steve who curved around her at night. It was Steve who found fifty different ways to make her come.  It was Steve who cheered her on when she made something cool in her lab, or brought her coffee when she’d been at it all night. 

It was Steve she loved with everything she had. And just a couple of weeks ago, he had asked her to move in with him.  

But when a mission failed, when she watched a manhunt take place for her boyfriend, when she watched S.H.I.E.L.D. fall with three helicarriers and Steve on board, Tony had to keep Darcy from clawing into the center of it. (Physically, it hadn’t been pretty.)

She’d found him in a D.C. hospital, lying next to his new friend. Over beeping machines and an impossibly pale Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson had told her that James Buchanan Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, was very much alive.

Now the remains of Steve’s apartment were stacked in her living room.

When she woke with sunlight peeking in her curtains, the sheets were already cold, and Darcy pulled Steve’s pillow closer so she could take in the scent that clung to it.  She trembled. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A week passed before he narrowed down his target to a pretty, dark-haired lady with the body and face of a pinup sketch he used to have on his bedroom mirror.

That sort of information came faster now. Places. People. But there were no events attached to any of it. No memories of friendships. Just Steve Rogers' face in a constant stream of pictures. Memories were darker and more recent. He shied away from them, not caring to examine their contents too closely. (Asset. Your work has been a gift.)

The lady had been seen in Pepper Potts' company too many times not to be important enough to warrant a second look. He did a quick search on Google and came up with the name Darcy Lewis, Pepper's VP of R&D (closer to Stark). And plenty of rumors that she was dating Captain America (I know him).

Darcy shoved her glasses up her nose as she exited to the south, a good-sized tote under her arm.  

He followed.  

He wasn’t alone.

 

*****

 

Darcy pressed the button on her Stark phone.  "JARVIS!"

“Yes, Lewis.”

"Get Steve or Tony, hell, get anyone!"

"Darcy?"

Steve's voice sounded really good right now and she wondered where the fuck he was that JARVIS could track him down so quickly. "Steve? I've got a creepy guy dressed in black following me around as if I’m not trained in basic surveillance techniques. I’m pretty sure it’s a very cranky and lightly toasted Brock Rumlow. He’s awfully spry for someone who should still be in the burn ward. So hey, I’m thinking HYDRA, and I would really, really appreciate someone coming down here to give me a hand."

"Where are you?"

"Courier run for Pepper down near Fletcher that turned into a stalker-pursuit thing. He seems to be herding me somewhere. The seaport district? Shit, I am not so liking this."

JARVIS interrupted. "I have Lewis' location. I am sending the coordinates to your Starkphone.”

Got ‘em. Sam is on his way and can have you out in ten, Darce. We got a lead last night out of DC, and I’m already on my way back to New York. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

She didn’t get that much time.

 

*****

 

He followed.  Found the trap. Dismantled it. She would fall but not break. The claw would not close.

He dispatched the HYDRA agent with a single clean stroke of a knife. One of the squad leaders this time around. (Wipe him. Change the world.) One of the many who would accompany him, set him on the trajectory (unleash the asset). This one would interfere with his mission (man on the bridge).

He would speak with the woman. (Darcy. Steve’s girl.) She would have answers (I know him).  Lead him to Stark.

But first he would clean (leave no trace).

 

*****

 

Darcy shoved her hair out of her face as she fumbled for her glasses.  Yeah, there they were. Yay for shatterproof lenses even if they were scratched all to hell. Her side complained, and she blew out her breath as she rolled up to sit. (Officially? This week sucked balls.)

Holy shit, that hurt. Darcy looked up as she remembered tumbling into the steam vent after a quick shove and a nasty laugh that echoed. She checked. Yup. Wrist and ankle both hurt like a son of a bitch.

She didn’t take well to Crispy Critter’s nasty threats about her boyfriend and little things like HYDRA agents waiting for him. (Traps were just not her thing. Really.) So she smashed her cell phone to foil that plan. Rumlow had not been pleased, to say the least. He’d shot her, caught her in the waist at a nasty angle, and she’d gone down. Did she remember someone else with him? The memory was fuzzy.

Damn. She reached up to touch the contact just behind her ear, the one her dad had annoyed her to let him put in. For once, she was really happy she’d gone along with his whims.  “JARVIS?”

But JARVIS didn’t answer.

Damn again. Okay, step one of getting rescued was out the window. Step two meant figuring out how in the hell to get out of the steam tunnel.  Which meant finding a way to get her waist to stop bleeding so much. Good thing she wore a belt today. She fished in her purse for a Kleenex pack, stuffed the whole wad in place--hissing at the pain--and tightened the belt down. She hoped it would hold. Her hands came away streaked with red. Crap. And she was killing this outfit today with her pencil skirt and knee high boots. (Whoops, bad analogy.) She winced as she gave in and wiped her hands on the silk. So much for this one. Being a Stark was hard on clothing.

The cell phone was crushed but Darcy had a flashlight on her keychain. That came out next and-- “Whoa, holy shit. There are like four dead guys in the tunnel. Recently dead. As in, still bleeding. Nobody I recognize, thank god.” Darcy eyeballed the angle of the bullet holes, figured the Crispy Critter wasn’t responsible (really? this is her takeaway?). In any case, sticking around for a rescue was not an option.

She came to knees, then to her feet. Fun doing all that one-handed in heels and a pencil skirt. But she could put weight on her foot (maybe, if she winced and cursed a lot).

She was in a vintage New York tunnel. Judging by all the damp, it led under the East River. It wasn’t the subway kind of either -- just an old steam tunnel. There were two exits, the one in the direction of all the dead bodies (bad idea, Darce. Just ... no). The one on the opposite side seemed to be the source of the steady wind. It was smaller, looked a little cleaner, (thumbs up!) and maybe she could limp to her next destination. That would work.  

So she made her way to the source of air. And begged to whatever deity might be listening that the tunnel wasn’t very long. (When the fuck was Thor getting back anyway?)

 

*****

 

“I’ve lost contact with her cell phone, Sir.”

“Did she have her locater on?”

“I am unable to make contact with it, Sir.”

Tony’s rant echoed through the lab, though there was no one else to appreciate it. “Get whoever is here to the war room, now.”

“Yes, Sir. Shall I notify Ms. Potts?”

“Yeah, do that.”

As Tony took the elevator, JARVIS came back on the line. “Sir, Lewis has activated her contact button.”

“Where is she? Put it on screen.”

“I do not know, Sir. She appears to be in close proximity to a disruptive mechanism which scatters the audio and GPS transmission of her contact device. I cannot track her exact location at this time, however, I can extract her voiceprint from multiple sources and rebuild the audio portion.”

“Bring it on line, JARVIS. And make sure my suit is ready.”

“Yes, Sir.”  

 

*****

 

Steve halted at the war room doorway when he heard Darcy talking, sotto voice, from wherever she was.  Nat had told her to keep up a running commentary if anything ever happened to her.  Though JARVIS could monitor and track her person, he didn’t have external visuals or audio feeds in the contact. Any information Darcy could give JARVIS was helpful, even if it didn’t make sense at the time.

“--derground. Stupid HY----kay this hurts.  Not good. --love to have a rescue about now. JAR--”

Tony shoved him out of the way, taking a seat on the far side of the table. “JARVIS, can you clean it up?”

“I am working on it, Sir. The scattered transmissions are bouncing across several countries. I’m delaying the audio thirty seconds for maximum integrity.”

“Do better,” Tony ordered.  Sam appeared, with Bruce right behind him.

“Tunnels. I can---------------------------------------------------------------------”

After a full minute of silence, Tony roared, “JARVIS!”

“I am sorry, Sir. I am searching.”

The room exploded with activity. Sam took the vocal feed recordings, listening for whatever they might have missed. Tony tapped on his pad to optimize JARVIS. Steve stared at the video feeds from a hundred different cameras covering the area.

Bruce studied the last known location of Darcy’s cell phone on the map, bringing it up to full zoom. “There.” He pointed to a pair of figures in the shadows.

“Sir, based on the last known contact with Lewis’ cell phone and extrapolating the data we have, I’ve put her location in this area.” JARVIS brought up a map on the screen with a red circle highlighted near the Brooklyn Bridge.

Steve rose and dug a transmitter out of the bowl on the table.  He set it in his ear. “I’ll take my bike. JARVIS?”

“You’ll have two sets of transmissions in that earpiece. I will keep Lewis on livestream.”

“Thank you.”

“Sam? Got the aerial view?”

“Done.” He took his earpiece and bolted, grateful to have orders.

 

Steve approached the seaport with caution. Sam was circling the area. Steve wished Nat and Clint were here. Though Sam could get to the ground faster than any of them, taking one or both if necessary, the three of them would make a hell of an aerial-to-ground combat team.

Steve killed his engine as he approached Darcy’s last location, near a steam vent in the ground.

Sir,” JARVIS interrupted. “Standby. I am patching in Lewis’ transmissions. I still cannot communicate with her.

“------can do this. Clint, how do you do this sh-----okay, light.  No more tunnel. Thank god. No street signs under here. Feels like I’ve stumbled to midtown. This hurts. Okay. Ladder.  Light. Dark? What time----no phone, no idea. I’m in a manhole in the tunnels. I see a ladder. How in the hell am I going to climb that? ----gotta stop the bleed-------------------re we go.”

She swore under her breath. “Oh shit, this hurts. Okay, channel Natasha. I can be Nat long enough to climb this latter. Count the steps, Darce. Forty seven thousand. Okay, one down, a million to go. Got--.”

JARVIS sharpened the transmission. They could hear her stuttered inhalations. Steve found himself trying to breathe with her as he peered through the grates into the steam vent. A studded blue phone lay smashed on the ground. His heart clenched in pure fear. He put that away to focus on finding her, though it wasn’t helping that he could hear the note of panic in her voice. It wasn’t like Darcy to let anything get the best of her.

“I can’t do this. I have to do this. Dad, if you’re listening, this was HYDRA--------tried to trap me, to lure Steve out. Guess it’s really not secret anymore who I’m dating.  Had to break my phone so no obvious GPS to track me.  Crispy Critter wasn’t happy about having his plan foiled.  Gotta keep you safe, Steve. Can’t let you walk into a trap. There were four, no five. They’re dead now. Not by me. Think somebody helped me, not sure. Kind of fuzzy ‘cause I took a bullet and it hurts.  Oh crap, this is not the time to get dizzy, Darce. Once more step. Oh god, I can’t. I can’t. I want to go home. Steve. This sucks. Ladders are not a good place to have to---------------------------”

He clenched his jaw hard, willing Darcy to hang on. “JARVIS? I can’t see an exit point. She was definitely here though. I can see her cell phone maybe fifteen feet down.”

“Acknowledged.”

There was a terrible silence, then--“Holy fucking shit, Batman. Steve, your old best friend is my new best friend right now.”

Steve’s head came up.

“Don’t let go, please. --------- Yes, I know your name. James Buchanan Barnes. But Steve always calls you, ‘Bucky.’

She hissed, and Steve winced in sympathy. “I don’t know. Don’t let go. --- Okay, I can do that. Just don’t step on anything soft on your way down.” A sigh of relief. “That arm really rocks right now. Just sayin’”

“Bucky?” Steve whispered. For long minutes they could only hear Darcy’s uneasy breathing punctuated by bitten-off groans. Bucky finding Darcy couldn’t be a coincidence. But what did the Winter Soldier want with her?

“Fuck this hurts. ---- Two more.  Okay, staying still.  Yeah, people crawl all over me every day. No biggie.  --kay. Got it. I’m out. Yay. No more tunnels. Ever. Clint is stupid. Hey--where are we going? Not exactly walking here.  Dizzy. Not good.” She hissed again then went silent.

JARVIS cut in. “Sir, I believe Lewis is no longer conscious from the injuries she sustained. I am monitoring her breathing and--”

JARVIS?” Tony demanded, “Where is she?”

“I still do not have a location, Sir. I am scanning all available transmissions.”

Sam’s voice broke the quiet. “Tony, if this is the Winter Soldier, he’s been slipping through tech like a shadow for years. The disrupter is probably on him.”

Tony said it first. “Two questions: why don’t I have this technology and just how long has he been tracking her?”

JARVIS answered, “If my calculations are correct, there have been various incidents over the past week outside the front of the Tower indicating a disruption in the transmission signals in the area.  Today, it appears Lewis was followed from the Tower.”

“Barnes and Rumlow were working together?”

Steve could hear tapping, and then Banner spoke up, “I don’t think so. Look. Back up the feed, JARVIS, to 15:42. There’s Darcy and Rumlow.  We can speculate the feed breaks at 15:45 because the Winter Soldier was near enough for Darcy’s phone not to register on GPS until … here at 15:47. See? We have her signal and she’s in the tunnel. And Rumlow is still on the street. We lose her GPS signal at 15:50. Then the feed breaks again at 15:55. But we know Darcy is alive and has a bunch of dead HYDRA around her. That doesn’t sound like a team.”

“You hearing this, Steve?” Tony asked.

“Yes. Now we know she got out of the tunnels. Where does this one go?”

“Sir, it appears that Lewis’ contact device may be pressed against someone else’s body.”

“Can we get any audio on the other person?” Tony asked.

“I will try, Sir.”

“Do that. And extrapolate how far Darcy could have gone in the time she was off the audio. Cross-reference with the old city tunnels and see what you get.”

 

*****

 

He carried the girl, keeping to the shadows. The motel parking lot was mostly empty, save for a dusty couch and a few stray cars. The masses weren’t on their way home yet. He set the girl on the bed and took a good look. Swollen wrist and ankle. The first was obviously broken, the second--maybe not. Blood soaked her waistline. He rolled her to her side for a better look.

There was a med kit in his pack. He dug it out, laying it neatly on the bed. With methodical precision, he washed, sterilized, and prepped as neatly as any surgeon. A knife under the waistband of her skirt separated the fabric, exposing a wad of tissues.  He pulled those away to reveal an entry and an exit wound on the outer edge of her waistline. The bullet passed through her flesh at a steep angle, narrowly missing her hipbone. He sponged up the mess and settled into sewing her back together, one careful stitch at a time.

 

*****

 

“Hurts. ‘Kay. Needles suck. Won’t look. But you’ve got to distract me. Need to call my dad. Or Steve. Yeah, Steve would be good.”

Sam spoke up. “Her dad? What, is he a senator or something? Does anyone do background checks around here?”

“Not that I’m complaining about your medical skills, but really, it all seems a little medieval. Needle. good. Clean, good. Lack of Novocain? Definitely an ‘F’ in your column.”

Steve and all the others could hear her keening softly.  

He picked up Darcy’s shattered cell phone as he took a good look at the dead HYDRA agents. He’d found that the bars on the street grate had been cut at an angle, so it could be lifted out and replaced without anyone the wiser. He pocketed five shell casings and pulled out his own cell phone. A handy blacklight app highlighted the blood splatter. He ignored that and stepped over the bodies, looking into the tunnels.

The metallic taste of rust was harder to put away. But it was the faint hand print on the wall that got his attention. Small, and yes---fresh blood.  Darcy.  Rather than try to follow the old vent, he memorized the direction of the tunnel, returned to the street for his bike and began searching for the other end. He crossed the Brooklyn Bridge after JARVIS speculated Darcy might have made it all the way under the East River.

He hunted for a good hour before he found her exit point, with blood stains on the ladder, in the center of hundreds of antique buildings. He looked up, looked across, and wondered where in the hell Darcy could be.

“S’ok. Jus’ cold.”

“Nobody likes the cold.”

Steve faltered as Bucky’s voice rumbled. Low and scratchy, it faded in and out.  

“You helped me. Why?”

“Need to know. About the man on the bridge. I know him.”

“Steve. Steve Rogers. He’s your best friend.”

“You’re his girl?”

“Yeah, I’m his girl.”

“He’s my friend?”

Softy, “Yes, Bucky, he’s your friend.”

 

*****

 

Bucky studied the lady. His earlier assessment had borne out. She was not a spy, nor did she carry any weapons beyond an electrical stimulant device. She seemed to have knowledge of him. Of … his friend. (Man on the bridge)

She was sprawled out on her side, taking shallow breaths as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She shivered.  

“Are you cold?” he asked when she awakened. (ice, falling)

“No. Hurts.”

Pain? Bucky glanced down at his arm. He rarely felt pain unless--(wipe him). He jerked, and Darcy echoed his movement. She cried out.

“What do I do?” he asked.

She opened her eyes—glazed, unfocused. “Guess you don’t have Advil or Tylenol in your kit?”

“What are those?”

“Pain blockers. Pain medications. Shit that makes other shit not hurt.”

“I don’t feel pain.”

She gave him look of disbelief. “Right.”  She shivered again. “Door number two, you hold my hand.” She reached out, caught his metal one because it was the closest, and dragged it toward her so that their clasped fingers were tucked under her chin.

(Red hair, pink lips, slim form in black.) He looked at his fingers. Heat. Vibration from Darcy’s breathing. (Man on the bridge. Hands clasped on his. But not this hand.) His fingers twitched, and hers tightened on his. Odd.

 

*****

 

Steve leaned back on his bike and crossed his arms as he listened. He’d found a good place to park. At the moment, Darcy seemed to be in Bucky’s care. She couldn’t be too far, no more than three or four blocks from the steam vent. (New York though, that’s a lot of ground to cover) Sam was going door-to-door to motels first, while Tony hacked guest lists and tax records.  So far they were blank on leads.

Bucky’s voice had an odd timbre to it. JARVIS told him it was because the AI was interpreting the vibrations via Darcy’s body and resolving them into speech--all while culling out the scattered transmissions and putting them back together.

“How long are we going to stay here?” Darcy asked.

“I have a mission.”

“Buster, you’d better get it out of your head that I’m giving up Steve so you can hurt him.”

“That’s not my mission.”

“What is your mission?”

“Find the man on the bridge,” he said. “I need to know. I know him.”

“Yes, you do.”

“How?”

Darcy’s breath hitched, either from pain or a reluctance to talk, Steve wasn’t certain.

“You met when you were twelve years old.  Both of you lived in Brooklyn, just a block between you.  You two were inseparable.  After Pearl Harbor, you both tried to enlist.  You made it.  But Steve was too sick and didn’t get in.  Not for almost a year.  Then he took part in a special program that made him better and he followed you in war.  HYDRA took you and part of the 107th Division prisoner.  You were one of the ones they experimented on.  Steve rescued you.  The two of you, along with the rest of the Howling Commandos, destroyed the remaining HYDRA bases. 

“On one of the last missions, you fell from a train and Steve thought you died. Hell, the whole world thought you died, Bucky. Steve stopped HYDRA, but had to crash a plane into the water to do that.

“Until last week, no one knew that you had survived the crash and a HYDRA scientist named Zola had taken you prisoner.  He didn’t do nice things to you, Bucky.  He gave you a new arm.  Experimented on you and it seems like you have some pretty cool abilities.  But he didn’t do any of it the right way.  You’re lucky to remember anything at all.”

“Man on the bridge. Why did he stop?” 

“You’re the reason he didn’t try to get out of the plane when it sank.  He tried to tell Aunt Peggy.  She and Howard figured it out later.  He really loves you, Bucky.  He was trapped in the ice for almost seventy years.  He only woke up a couple of years ago.”

“Aunt Peggy? Howard?”

“Peggy Carter and Howard Stark.

“Stark. You… know him?”

Darcy laughed, though with a shiver in her voice. “Well, he’s been gone for a while, but yeah, I know the Stark family. Howard and Peggy were Steve’s friends with the super serum.”

“Like me.”

“Yeah, only without all the creepy HYDRA stuff. Sorry. What they did to you was wrong.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah, it was.”

There was a rustling sound. Steve sat on his motorcycle, engine off, still listening.

“So cold. ‘Xactly how much blood did I lose, Bucky?”

“Not enough to kill you.”

“Need to call m’dad.  He can fix anything. Steve will keep you safe.”

“Me?”

“Need a safe house for you. Safe from HYDRA. -- Ow. Too tight on the hand there. --- okay that’s better.”

“He wouldn’t--Steve wouldn’t fight me.”

“No. He loves you.”

“You love Steve.”

“Yeah, I do. But I’m the mouthy brat with an attitude who reminds Steve of Howard. Maybe even of you. So he likes having me around. It’s always been you.”

Darcy slurred the last words, and Steve’s heart broke. Did Darcy really think he was going to give her up just because he found Bucky?

“You catch that, Steve?” Tony asked quietly.

“I did. I’ve got this one, Tony. I promise.”

“You’d better,” Tony ordered.

“How’d a … punk like Steve get a dame like you?”

Steve had to press his fingertips to his eyes. Though the words were slow, the cadence was pure Bucky Barnes.

“---sssayys he learned it from a jerk he knew. So cold. N‘ more talk. Kay?”

 

****

 

Dozens of images clouded his mind. He remembered ice. Remembered falling. Brooklyn. There was more.  Of Steve. He clutched Darcy’s hand, mesmerized as metal and flesh entwined. It seemed … off. He looked at his other hand, had an image of longer fingers.

Steve’s fingers. He knew. He closed his eyes and knew. Not the depth, nor the breadth of devotion. But he remembered enough to know that Pierce had sent him to kill the one person he loved (change the world. Wipe him).

And still he’d remembered.

Darcy began panting, her body twitching from damage done to it. Without knowing why, he moved her, pressing her head to his chest. “Breathe, doll. Listen to my heartbeat.” He rubbed her back in long strokes.

He counted, felt the stuttering of heart and lungs, and then--both settled into a slow, steady rhythm. He exhaled.  

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve had to wipe the tears from his face. How many times had Bucky sat with him through an asthma attack or a bout with pneumonia and talked to him the same way. Darcy must have slept, for they heard nothing for a good half hour.

“Still cold,” she complained when she woke. “And I’m gross from the tunnel. Can you get me to the bathroom so I can clean up?”

“Alone?”

“I can if you unbutton my shirt and keep your hands to yourself.”

“No promises.”

In spite of the situation, Steve chuckled at the pair of them.

 

*****

 

Darcy sat on the edge of the tub with a washcloth and soap to get the worst of the grunge off her. She didn’t even try to wash the crud of her hair. Or get up now that everything was wet. She wrapped a towel around her middle.

“You done?” Bucky asked from the other side of the door.

“Yeah.”

The door opened and he threw a clean t-shirt and a pair of sweats to land on the edge of the tub next to her. Darcy had another one-handed battle to get them on, but won in the end. Bucky didn’t bother waiting for her to call out. (Super soldier hearing, she was familiar with that.) He set her on the bed again and shoved food in her direction.

She tried eating, but the stabbing pain was too much and food only made her nauseated. “Bucky, we can’t stay here. We need to get a hold of my dad or Steve. You need a safe house and I need some morphine.”

“Who is your dad?”

“Tony Stark.”

 

*****

 

Sam dropped something that clattered in Steve’s earpiece. “What?” A string of polite curses from Sam filled his ear.

Bucky’s words were still faltering. “He couldn’t settle for a dame from Brooklyn … Had to pick the princess in the tower. Stark’s get.” There was dry huff, a laugh of sorts. “Can you use a screwdriver?”

“I know which end is pointy. What ‘cha need?”

Even in his exhaustion, Steve felt his own lips quirk up.

“My arm. Has chemicals in it. Need them out before I go … go to Steve. He’s safe?”

She was quick to answer. “No one will keep you safer than Steve Rogers. … Um… okay, get my bag—yeah, that’s the one, puts a Swiss army knife to shame.” Darcy whistled under her breath. “Holy shit, that’s sexy, Barnes.”

“My chest?”

“I’m not looking at your chest. But that’s nice too,” she quipped.

“My arm?” Bucky seemed confused. Then again, he didn’t know Darcy.

“I have a thing for shiny mechanical objects. You should see Steve on his motorcycle. Now that’s hot. Times two. Times a million. Promise me you won’t let anyone else touch your arm. Just me. I’ll take care of you, Bucky.”

“Yes.”

Tony swore in the background.

“My dad’s going to be pissed. Holy crap, this is some sweet machinery. Okay, here and here. Yeah, this panel comes off. Does it bother you?”

“No. Take the two vials out.”

“Gimme a second. Son of a bitch.” Steve raised an eyebrow. She sounded exactly like Tony in that moment. “Those bastards put timers on these things.” Darcy hissed her disapproval. “What did they put in these, Bucky, that you want them out so badly?” Her breathing turned harsh.  “Sorry, dizzy there. This sucks doing it one-handed. Can you tie my wrist a little tighter? ---------Oh, shit that hurts. Okay, concentrate, Darce. Second panel. Thing one. Thing two. Got ‘em. Anything else? What’s this? Looks like a disrupter of some kind. Kind of like an EMP but more controlled and less electrocuting.”

“Keeps me off the grid--------- how do we do this, Princess?”

Steve choked on a laugh, even as he rubbed a tear away. The nickname was pure Bucky.

“Go outside. I’ll bet JARVIS has every camera in the city under his command. Dad will find me.”

“JARVIS?”

“Trust me.”

 

*****

 

Bucky wrapped Darcy in his coat and buttoned it up against the cold. She shivered anyway while he stuffed her clothes and purse in his backpack and shrugged it on.

He held out his hands. “Ready?” She nodded and buried her face in his shoulder, panting from the sudden pain.

He shoved the door open, wincing at the bright sun.

 

******

 

“Sir, I’ve located an unusual pocket in Brooklyn where the street cameras are not transmitting as they should. Coordinates are on your phone.”

“If you can’t find what’s there, look for what is missing. Excellent, JARVIS.”

“I’ve got it,” Steve replied. He gunned his engine as Sam took to the skies.

 

*****

 

A motorcycle engine whined, coming in too fast for the narrow streets. But the driver was good and his stop even better. From her vantage point, she could see Sam drop to the rooftop of the motel they had been in. Even though his hands were empty, there was no doubt he was there for backup. He gave her a little salute.

Steve was off the bike and reaching for Darcy, but her rescuer backed up with her, keeping her out of his reach. Darcy sucked a lip between her teeth, not wanted to be caught between the two men. Steve stopped, hands in the air. “Bucky.”

In that moment, everything changed. Darcy looked away, not wanting to see the barefaced love on her boyfriend.

“Steve?” The uncertainty in Bucky’s reply broke her heart a little more (sheesh, how much can it take?).

She tapped him on the shoulder. “Can we ride three?” she asked, looking from one man to the other.

The two men had a whole conversation with face twitches (really? already?) and a shrug of Steve’s shoulder. Whatever was said, Bucky took two steps toward Steve, who reached out to touch Darcy’s lips with his thumb. She kissed it with dry lips.

Steve straddled the bike again without taking his eyes off of them. Bucky let her find her footing with her good ankle first, then held her upright while he wedged himself onto the back behind Steve. He pulled her down between them. As big as these two guys were, she had to sit on his lap, though she was pressed up against Steve’s back.  Warm and solid, Steve reached for her hand to kiss the fingertips.

She might have cried out of pure relief, but in truth, she hadn’t been afraid since Bucky had found her on the ladder. That same arm held on to her now, keeping her firmly in place as Steve started the engine and eased into New York traffic. She closed her eyes, determined to ignore the pain in her side in favor enjoying the wind and the sensation of the bike. Did she mention she loved the bike?

“You did,” Steve and Bucky said in unison.

Darcy shivered as she was abruptly reminded of the connection between the two men. “Let’s go home, Steve.”

He craned his head around. “Your place? Not the Tower?”

“Better than dad’s tower right now. Right, Bucky?”

 

*****

 

Mission: Find man on the bridge. Mission: complete. Mission: Find Stark. Mission: complete. New mission . . . new mission, he looked down at the girl in his arms. Mission: Protect Stark.

“That is acceptable.”

Chapter Text

Steve tried to talk to Stark. “JARVIS?” Then he swore under his breath as he remembered the disrupter on Bucky. Then again, maybe it would be nice not to have any arguments. “Stark, Wilson—I’m taking Darcy home. Her instructions, not mine, so take it up with her, Tony. Sam, can you meet me at the apartment with some decent pain meds? I’ll be there in twenty.”

Steve figured JARVIS could piece together his voice just as well as Darcy’s and get the word to Stark.

He pushed the bike, weaving in and out of traffic, to get to Darcy’s carriage house. Bucky’s disrupter forced him to code his way into the doors. They opened slowly, and Steve gunned his bike as soon as he had clearance. As he killed the engine, Sam flew just under the rafters to block the exit. The flyer reached out, found the controls for the doors, and closed them. Steve craned around to see Bucky and Sam staring each other down.

Sam produced a medical pack. Without guile or censure, he opened his hand to Bucky, showing him a clear plastic bag containing four sealed syringes. “For Darcy. They are all the same, but feel free to pick one and inject me with it first. I don’t have super soldier serum like you two do.”

Bucky folded up the package and tucked it into the pocket of his hoodie. He stared at Darcy until she held out a hand. He took it, sliding his hands under her shoulders and knees and lifted her from the motorcycle. Then he waited.

Darcy lost patience. “Damn, okay. Steve, Sam, get in the apartment. Bucky’s not going to turn his back to either one of you, and I really want that morphine or whatever shit you brought.”

Steve slid his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. He waved Sam in first. “Darcy’s room is upstairs.”

“Sure thing.” Sam’s voice was a little derisive as he stepped around boxes. “I thought you said Darcy had lived here for a while. What is all this? Oh wait. This is your crap. I recognize that chair.”

He kept an eye on Bucky as he brought Darcy through the door. “She likes the chair better than me. I think she wants to take possession of it then kick me over to Stark’s place to bunk with you.”

“Not a chance of that. I learned the hard way about how much hot water you use.”

Bucky’s eyes shifted at that, pinning Steve. Wondering what it mean, Steve pointed toward the stairs. “Darcy’s room—

“I heard.”

Wincing at the reprimand, Steve led the way through the tiny house. Bucky rounded the bed, setting Darcy down from the far side.  He sat next to her, not quite glaring but it was close.

She shivered again from the pain and Sam knelt beside her. “Can I look?” he asked Darcy—and Bucky. With nods from each, Sam pulled the shirt out of the way. He slipped on nitrile gloves and peeled the gauze back to reveal neat stitches. Lightly pressing to check for swelling and internal bleeding, he nodded. “This is good. Darcy, how are you feeling?”

“Tired, cranky and did I mention I really want morphine?”

“You don’t need morphine. I brought a local pain blocker to give you relief.” 

Bucky took two syringes out of the bag and opened them. The first he laid on Sam’s forearm and injected the full amount. Sam nodded. “Darcy will need about half that amount here and here.” He touched two places on Darcy’s side, and Bucky set the second needle in each of those places, leaving half of the medication in the syringe.

“Oh, holy shit, that feels good.” Darcy muttered. The tension in her small frame unwound. Sam moved to her wrist, rewrapping it with a good ACE bandage and a brace. The ankle got a similar wrap.

“You’ll need to see an orthopedic doc when the swelling goes down, Darcy. Think you can drink some milk so I can give you some pain meds for the rest of it? You’ll get sleepy, so don’t take them if you don’t want them.”

“Gimme,” she demanded. She turned her head to Steve, a thousand questions in her eyes.  

Bucky held out his hand for the medication. He inspected the pills while Sam retrieved a glass of milk. When he returned, he went to offer it to Darcy, but Steve’d had enough. He took it from Sam, who packed up his med kit and decided to hold up a door frame.

Steve knelt by the bed and slipped his own arm under Darcy. He pressed his forehead to hers. “Darce,” he whispered.

She let out a huff. “Stay with me?”

“I promise.” Steve held his hand out to Bucky, who laid a pair of pills in his palm. Darcy took them, drank the milk, and settled against the pillow again.  

“God, I hate milk breath,” she complained.

Steve smiled. “There’s my girl.”

When she closed her eyes, any trace of “Bucky” disappeared, leaving only the flat, assessing gaze of the Winter Soldier. The quiet man reached for the inside pocket of the jacket Darcy still wore and withdrew the four vials. He held them out, hand open flat. Steve took them. “What are these?”

“One of them will put me down. Not sure about the rest.”

Steve winced at the phrasing. As if Bucky was some sort of animal. “I know someone who can analyze these and tell you what they are.” He held them out to Sam. “Take these to Banner.”

Bucky’s hand was now covering Darcy’s, and Steve felt a lump in his throat rise up.  He swallowed hard.   “Bucky, this is Sam Wilson.” Sam jerked his chin in acknowledgement. “Sam, Bucky Barnes.”

“Am I safe?” the Soldier asked.

Steve’s heart shattered, more so than it had on the helicarrier, if that was possible. “Yeah, Bucky, you’re safe. I lost you once. It’s not going to happen again.”

“I know you.”

He looked up into the oh-so-familiar eyes. Ice grey, bordering on pale blue. Longer hair than he’d ever seen Bucky wear. Stubble that Steve could remember how it felt under his hands. But the voice. Pitched low, without inflection, it held none of the Bucky Barnes he remembered. Still, Steve answered, “Yes.”

“I remember you.”

Chapter Text

He guarded Darcy while she slept. Steve (man on the bridge) eyed him from across the bed. The man with wings hovered in the door frame. Flash of memory of himself and … Steve. (Forest. Weapons with blue fire.) He slanted a look to the winged flyer (Secondary target. Aggressive.)

Steve (little guy from Brooklyn) cleared his throat. “Bucky, this is Sam Wilson.” Sam jerked his chin. “Sam, Bucky Barnes.”

Bucky. James Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes. (The Asset. Change the world.) “Am I safe?”

“Yeah, Bucky, you’re safe. I lost you once. It’s not going to happen again.” Steve’s hands fisted together.

Images of Steve. Smaller. Shorter. “I know you.”

“Yes.”

He glanced at Sam then back to Steve. “I remember you.” He pinned Steve with his eyes, not letting his gaze waver. (Heat. Flesh. Devotion.) Sam seemed to take that as a signal and retreated, leaving them alone with Darcy. A door slammed moments later.

Steve shifted from the floor to sit next to the girl (Stark). He stroked her cheek, pressing a kiss to her forehead before exploring her injuries to his satisfaction.

“You were always good at this,” Steve said to him. “Lost count of the times we patched each other up. You have good hands. My Ma was a nurse.  She wanted you to be a doctor.” Steve (man on the bridge) traced Darcy’s fingers where they were locked with his.

The sensation startled him. (Touch) The feedback from the metal arm wasn’t consistent. Sometimes there was nothing beyond pressure in his shoulder and a feeling of dead weight. Most times he had full functionality and could activate a servo-mode that boosted the strength. Now, he was receiving sensory input from both Darcy’s slim fingers entwined with his own, cool and soft except for a pair of rings she wore, and from the longer heavier ones (Man on the bridge. Steve.) covering theirs.

Then there was the damp cheek that Steve had to scrub dry. “Bucky, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been so fucking scared as when Darce called me and I wasn’t close enough to help. Now you’re here. I’ve missed you so damned much.” He choked, turning his head away.

It was more emotion than he’d been subjected to (pain/fear/pain/anger/pain/rage) in years. “I have a mission.” The stark horror in Steve’s reaction gave him pause. “Not … that mission. My mission.” He halted again, trying to get the right words out. “I know you. I remember you. Us. Am I safe?” he asked a low voice. He didn’t want to go. But he would.

Steve (bridge) reached out with one hand, slow, as if not to alarm him. One forefinger brushed against a lock of his hair, nudging it out of the way.  The thumb traced the curve of his stubbled cheek to his jaw (touch).  Then, with only the lightest of pressure, Steve leaned in to press a soft kiss against his lips. The taste was familiar and elusive (touch/heat/flesh). “You’re always safe with me.”  (I’m your best friend. You’ve known me your whole life.)

“Holy shit, that’s hot,” Darcy muttered with drowsy annoyance. “Can you two go emote somewhere else? I really want to sleep.”

He didn’t look away until Steve murmured, “Give me a minute, Bucky. I’ll get her settled and then we’ll talk.”

He disengaged his hand from hers, slipped off the bed without another word, and walked out. He could hear them speaking as he took a chair on the far side of the living room (three exits--two front, one rear.) He waited for Steve.

 

*****

 

“Darce—I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Steve wanted to gather up her into his arms but didn’t dare for fear of hurting her more.

“I’m okay. Stay with me for a few minutes.” He did, and she dozed off while he cupped her cheek, leaving him a scintillating bottle of emotions—love and fear and terror and happiness.

What he wanted was for Darcy to wake up and tell him everything was going to be okay, via one of those sharp, sassy remarks that would set him on his ass and make him fall in love with her a little more.

Angry with himself for needing her so much in the moment she needed him…he screwed up his face, pressing his palms to his eyes to pull himself together … but, damn, the one time she needed him, needed someone to protect her (his one damned job), he wasn’t there. Obsessed with finding Bucky, he’d let her be found by the enemy. He should have known. The ties between him and Bucky were far too close for HYDRA to have missed them. And Darcy was a logical target to draw everyone in. (Stupid, Rogers. Think for once instead of barreling headfirst into an asinine setup.)

He wasn’t given to jealousy—he’d never minded the girls Bucky brought home. Never once questioned Bucky’s loyalty in all those years. But today, Bucky was the one who had intervened and given Darcy the help she needed (She never needed help. Never asked). Then again, Steve couldn’t be anything but elated to have them both home. Both. Darcy and Bucky. Here and now in this time.  

He’d had two years to come to terms with Bucky’s death, to put away his crush on Peggy. The latter was easier than the former, though he was still charmed by her whenever he visited. To know that she’d found someone who loved her in all the ways he might not have had been a balm.

Now Bucky was here. Remembering him. Remembering them.

He had no idea what to do.

Idly, he stroked Darcy’s hair, found it gritty, and decided he would help her wash it when she woke. He pressed another kiss on her cheek as her breathing changed to that of true sleep.

He went to find Bucky and discovered the soldier sitting in the corner of the living room, hands in his lap. He looked … lost. (sad?) But he had palmed a knife and held himself at the ready—mostly likely to escape if necessary. 

Steve stuffed his hands in his pockets.  He choked down a lump in his throat at the sight of his best friend.  Instead of his charming lover with knack for pulling him out of his own stupidity, a dark, almost feral man assessed his every move. 

So Steve went for the opposite, determined to treat Bucky as the man he’d been.  (Holding him when he woke from the nightmares of the experiments.  Pressing kisses into that dark hair. Laughing as they drew caricatures of the neighborhood gossips.)

“Are you hungry?” he asked. (You can take the boy out of Brooklyn …)

A faint beetling of the brow. “Yes.”

Steve headed for the refrigerator, a mere six steps in Darcy’s tiny flat. He had to step around boxes of his own stuff. (Yeah, he did ask her to move in. They hadn’t talked about it since and her apartment was smaller than his last one.) Over his shoulder, he called out, “Do you want a shower while I heat up spaghetti? I’m sure I’ve got some clothes in these boxes you can wear. For that matter, I need a shower and forty winks myself.”

Only silence met Steve’s question. He turned to set the container of sauce Darcy kept stocked for emergencies on the stove to defrost. And jumped. Bucky stood only two feet behind him. His hands were empty and his stance was—well, “at ease” is all Steve could call it, but his eyes were attentive to his surroundings. He waited.

For orders, Steve realized. And his heart broke, realizing how damaged Bucky might be—and what it must have cost him to defy his handlers.

“Shower first,” he decided for his friend. Bucky followed him into Darcy’s bathroom. It was barely big enough for the two of them. He and Darcy had perfected a little dance around each other, helped by the fact she was nearly a foot shorter than he. Steve set out towels, clothes and started the water, positioning the lever so that it would become hot enough for a sting of heat (the way Bucky liked it. Darcy—well, she preferred a hot bath, bubbles and a glass of wine). “Give it a minute for the water to warm up. Shampoo is on the shelf. Darcy keeps some decent smelling stuff here for me, but you can use whatever you want. You’ll like the soap. Top shelf stuff.”

“I can have warm water?” There was a thread of fear in Bucky’s question.

”Yes. As hot as you want it. Just don’t burn yourself.”

“I don’t want the cold.” The plea must have cost Bucky because he jolted as he said it.

Steve swore under his breath. “You’re safe. No one is going to hurt you. I won’t let them.” He pulled Bucky into an awkward hug. Bucky’s arms stayed stiff, leaving Steve to wonder if Bucky was scared to put his arms around him or if he was afraid to push Steve away. In any case, Bucky didn’t pull a knife on him and Steve decided to count that as a victory. “I’m right there with you, pal. I fucking hate the cold.”

Bucky shuddered. He swayed, leaning into Steve a degree or two. Then he began to strip without a word. Wanting to stay, unable to decide if was appropriate, Steve left Bucky to his shower.

The evening was miserable. He couldn’t pull anything out of the soldier that reminded him of his friend. Trying to prompt any sort of memory frustrated Bucky, Steve’s explanation of their timelines was met with blankness, and Bucky physically did nothing unless Steve told him to do it.

It was late, and Steve had been up for days. There on the sofa, across from the Winter Soldier, he slept.

Early the next morning when he woke, Bucky was gone. (Doors still locked, windows intact and locked.) He ascended the stairs. (Windows intact.) The Winter Soldier was on the chair, knife in hand. Ice grey eyes slanted to Steve.  (Guarding Darcy.) Steve settled on the foot of Darcy’s bed, watching Bucky.

Wondering. Hoping. Dreaming.

 

****

 

Bright sun woke Darcy. That and the ridiculous throbbing pain in her, well, everything. She tried to lie still, hoping it would stop.

A rough voice from across the room dispelled that notion. “Doesn’t help, Princess, when it hurts that bad.”

Darcy turned her head. Clad in a thin black shirt and a pair of sweats she recognized as Steve’s, Bucky sat with one leg up in the chair. His hair was tousled and there was more color in his skin. Did he sleep? She swallowed against the dryness in her throat. “Thank you for yesterday.”

He ducked his head in acknowledgement. His eyes flicked to Steve as he came through the doorway.

“Darce? How are you feeling?” Steve’s voice was deliberately calm. Almost his Captain America voice. (She didn’t like it and wondered what she’d missed.)  

So she groaned theatrically, laying her good wrist on her head. “Terrible. Gimme something.”

That elicited a smile as he cajoled, “You need to eat first. You slept through the night.”

“No wonder my hair itches,” she complained.

Bucky spoke up. “She’s hurting. Needs the injection first so she can sit up.”

“Good idea,” Steve agreed. “You want to do it?”

Well, that was unexpected. Bucky unfolded from the chair to sit on the bed. It dipped, and she winced from the movement. She had no idea where he pulled the syringe from, but he laid it against her side. A prick, a sting and then blessed numbness spread.

He pressed fingers to her wrist and ankle. The first hurt, the second was only annoying. “Wrist needs to be set,” he told Steve.

Steve nodded and knelt by Darcy. “Your dad has called me four times already and has a car waiting outside. In retrospect, we probably should have gone to the Tower. I could have saved you the lecture.” He looked up at Bucky. “Bruce should have the analysis done on the vials Darcy pulled from your arm if you want to know what was in them.”

Darcy waited for Bucky to reply, but he didn’t act like he heard Steve’s comment. Weird. So she held out her hand. “Help me up.” Bucky slipped an arm under her and practically lifted her in place. The metal was oddly flexible. Other than the cold, she might not have realized it was mechanical if it was covered up. She wanted (okay, that wasn’t a strong enough word but it would have to work because anything else was creepy) to take a better look. Soviet technology was often brilliant, though sometimes strangely glitchy.

Bucky must have agreed, because when he withdrew his arm, he gave it an annoyed scowl. He made a stretching motion that seemed to act like a reset movement. He stroked his thumb across his fingers and frowned.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

Blank grey eyes met hers.  Steve caught it and said carefully, “Bucky, do you want to get the soup we made for Darcy?” Without acknowledging the request, Bucky rose, the bed dipping again, to do Steve’s bidding.

She frowned. “Something tells me that isn’t usual Bucky behavior.”

Steve shifted to take Bucky’s place, burying his face in her hair before replying softly, “No. The Bucky I knew barely toed the line with orders. He was respectful when necessary, skirted rules wherever possible, and relied on charm to get out of breaking the rest.”

Studying his face, she nodded. “Did Natasha give you his file?”

He gave her an exasperated look. “How do you know these things?”

She shrugged. “Makes sense. I’ll bet she’s the only one who has a fair idea of what might break that kind of conditioning.”

He shivered. “I hate that word.”

“I know.”

Bucky returned, carrying a big plate with soup, crackers, and a spoon balanced on it in one hand, and a cup of hot tea in the other.

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like tea. That’s Steve’s stuff.”

“It’s good for you. Drink it anyway,” he admonished with a hint of annoyance.

Behind him, Steve paled. She wondered how many times Bucky had said the same thing to him. She drank her tea.

 

*****

 

Bucky retreated to his corner as Darcy (Stark) ate. He mentally ran through an inventory of his backpack (acceptable), and assessed the odd feeling coming from his arm (unacceptable). The fabric of the shirt rubbed (pain/irritation/soft?). He closed his mind to it (focus on the mission). Mission one, find man on the bridge. Complete. Mission two, find Stark. Complete. New mission. His head … hurt? He needed a mission. (Change the world.)

Mission: Protect Stark. (Protect the asset. Change the world.)

Mission: . . . Mission: . . . (Head hurts. I know him. James Buchanan Barnes. I know him. Bucky. Falling. Table. Steve. So much pain. Steve makes it stop. Steve makes it stop. Safe. I am safe.)

Directive: Stay with Steve. (Safe. No more pain. Change the world one last time.) 

Chapter Text

If Steve hadn’t faced the other end of a knife wielded by the man walking beside him less than two weeks ago, he would have never imagined that he and the Winter Soldier were one and the same. If Steve had not heard Bucky’s familiar cadence when speaking with Darcy, he wouldn’t have dreamed that his best friend was still in there somewhere.

This man followed Steve like an obedient dog—the terrible kind where the dog flinches when startled. He hovered over Darcy with a lethal protectiveness that Steve didn’t understand. (Why Darcy?)

They’d had a staring contest over getting Darcy to the car. She’d solved it with a snort of disgust and limped her way into the open door with Happy’s outstretched hand of assistance. Once inside, she’d admonished the pair of them. “I’m not a bone, you two. Barnes, yes, grateful for the rescue. Good job on patching me up. You are safe with me and I will wield the Stark sword on your behalf. HYDRA sucks and we are not letting them get their tentacles on you again. Steve, just because Bucky is here, I have not developed a rash. Hug me, damn it. I might even cry a little because yesterday fucking sucked, and I don’t like to cry.”

He did, and she did, making a mess of the shirt that he’d worn for the past two days. Bucky watched the pair of them without even a hint of expression to give Steve a clue as to what he was thinking.

Tony’s driver left them at the garage entrance while Steve gave Bucky a fast rundown on the building layout and introduced the Tower’s AI.

JARVIS greeted them. “Hello Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes. Welcome home, Lewis. Sir has insisted that I take you to the infirmary first, though I can assure him you are improving.”

“Thanks, J. I guess Tony is kind of freaked over everything.”

“As is Ms. Potts,” he said with a hint of censure.

“Hey, it’s not like I was planning the stalkerazzi thing,” she muttered. Darcy snapped her head up. “JARVIS? How are you getting around Bucky’s scattering device?”

“Sergeant Barnes disabled it this morning at 5:32 a.m. I have been monitoring you since that time.”

She gave Bucky a curious look. “How?”

He lifted his left shoulder in shrug and ghost of a smile lifted the corner of his mouth. As the elevator stopped, Bucky shifted so that Darcy was behind him.

When the door opened, Tony was there with Pepper.  He picked up on the defensive stance of the Winter Soldier and nodded. “You have my thanks for taking care of Darcy.” They had a little staring contest until Darcy nudged Bucky in the small of his back.

Very softly, Steve said, “Bucky, stand down. This is her family.”

Without acknowledging he’d heard, Bucky stepped to the side, letting Steve assist Darcy out of the elevator and into Tony’s hard embrace. Pepper stroked her daughter’s hair. For a blinding moment, Steve missed his Ma something awful. Tony led Darcy off to the infirmary, just a short walk away.

Pepper had tears on her cheeks, though she dabbed at them neatly with the handkerchief Steve produced.  “Thank you, Captain Rogers. And is this your friend who helped Darcy?”

Grateful for her gracious opening, he made the introductions. “Yes, ma’am. Bucky? This is Pepper Potts, Darcy’s mother. Ms. Potts, this is Sergeant James Barnes. Bucky is from his middle name, Buchanan.”

Bucky took her hand, kissing the fingers with a hint of his old charm. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Sergeant Barnes.” Somehow she admonished him and thanked him with no more than his name. “Please come with me.”

She took them to the first room of the medical suite, though Steve stopped Bucky at the door and pulled him aside to watch through the window. Something dark flashed in Bucky’s eyes, enough that Steve tightened his grip on his friend’s shoulder.

Tony spoke to Darcy. Whatever he said made Darcy cry again, though he wrapped his arms around her. Pepper rubbed Darcy’s back.

A whisper of air was the only warning that Thor had returned from Asgard. Steve still hadn’t grown used to how silent the warrior could be, especially given his size. Thor radiated calm as he flanked Bucky and considered Darcy through the window. “She is precious to us,” he said as he turned and held out his hand. “I am honored to meet the shieldbrother of my friend, Steven.”

Again, Bucky extended his hand. Thor clasped wrists, warrior to warrior. “You have my thanks for your role in protecting Darcy. She is as a sister to my lady. We would be a poorer people if not for her company. And we are made richer by the addition of yours.” He nodded formally. “I would be honored to know your name.”

Bucky gave Steve a confused glance. Steve nodded. “It’s okay. You’re safe. Thor is a friend to Darcy. And to me.”

“James. James Barnes.” He glanced at Steve, again. “He calls me ‘Bucky.’”

Thor nodded again, this time with a smile of satisfaction. “Then I will call you ‘James’ until you give me leave to use your more familiar name. Will that be acceptable?”

Bucky gave him an impossibly slow nod of agreement. Steve was sure that Thor didn’t miss the clenching of Bucky’s fist as he did nor the flash of fear in his face when he was asked his name.

When Bucky turned back to the window, an echo of thunder rolled through the atmosphere, loudly enough to be heard through the tower. Steve raised an eyebrow. Thor was furious, something he’d never seen in the warrior (patience, frustration, annoyance. Never anger).

Steve let Bucky stare at Darcy for a while then pulled him into the common area where JARVIS had ordered in enough Chinese food to cover both coffee tables. Thor was already there, sampling a variety of boxes. Bucky took the seat where he could watch Darcy and the elevator. He ate neatly and efficiently, not shoveling his food, but not wasting anytime with it either.

“I didn’t know you liked sesame chicken and fried rice, Bucky,” Steve asked lightly (Bucky hated fried rice).

His friend stared down at the box and the chopsticks in his hand. “It’s sustenance.”

“Better than army rations, that’s for damned sure. Stark feeds us better than anywhere I’ve been.”

“Stark?” Bucky snapped his head up.

Steve waved to Tony, who was just coming out of Darcy’s room.

“Me. Tony Stark. You might know me as ‘Iron Man’.”

Bucky shifted until he was sitting bolt upright and put the box of Chinese food on the table. He didn’t draw a weapon, but Steve got the uneasy feeling Bucky was only seconds from it. “What is it?” he asked.

“I’m safe?” Bucky asked, staring at Tony. “I had a mission. Mission was complete. I’m safe?”

Steve crossed over to crouch next to Bucky. “You’re safe. What was the mission?”

Somehow, Stark interpreted Bucky’s ramblings and made sense of them. “Son of a bitch.” Tony stared back. “My parents. Your mission was my parents.”

“Not both. One. Wife, son, acceptable collateral damage.”

“So you killed them. But not me.” Tony strode in to stand just feet from Bucky, anger in every line of his body. “Why?”

Bucky jolted again and pinned Steve with fright lining his face. “I’m safe?”

He nodded. “You are.”                                         

“Child was not a target.”  Bucky hunched his shoulders, the first tell Steve had seen him indicate. “I’m safe?” his voice rose.

“Yes, Bucky, you’re safe.”

“Child, girl, was not a target,” he repeated. “Mission was complete.”

Tony crossed over to Bucky to stand in front of him. “Are you trying to tell me that you chose?”

“Child was not a target. Mission was complete.” Bucky jerked again and snapped his head around to Steve, almost wild in his expression. He flexed his hand just over where one of his knives rested.

“Stand down, Sergeant Barnes,” Steve snapped, far more forcefully than in the elevator. As if he’d turned off a light switch, Bucky stilled, utterly lax in his face and body, hands dangling on his thighs as he stared off into space.

Tony recoiled in horror. “What the fuck did they do to you, Barnes?”

Bucky didn’t answer. Neither did Steve. Never had he wanted to punch a bag quite so much. Or take down HYDRA with his own bare hands. Steve had to order Bucky to eat after Pepper drew Tony back into Darcy’s room. Any ideas Steve had about moving into the Tower with Bucky were swept out the door. He wouldn’t do that to Tony.

(Later on, Darcy would be a little more pragmatic about the whole thing with her grandfather. She hadn’t known him, and Pepper had Tony in hand for the night. In truth, Steve was more devastated than Darcy was. Howard had been his friend. )

Through it all, Bucky kept to a chair between Darcy’s room and the exit, saying nothing at all.

 

Later that evening, Thor motioned to Steve to come out into the hallway. “I understand this group, called HYDRA, is responsible for your friend?”

“Yes,” Steve replied.

“Then they have earned my ire. You will need assistance bringing your friend back. I will offer mine, if you will have it.” Shaken by his support, Steve braced himself against the wall. He was too choked up to say anything at all. As before, Thor rested his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Steven, there is more to being a warrior than fighting. On Asgard, we are trained to help. As a prince of my people, I would be a poor leader indeed if I could not help those suffering from the aftermath of war.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Steve admitted.

“It would be a wondrous thing if you did. To have two loves and have both of them laid low would be hard on the most intact of hearts.” The sincere comment gave Steve a chance to pull himself together as Thor continued, “Darcy will be well soon, yes? They will keep her overnight to make her father happy, and then she can go home?”

“Yes. But that’s a whole different thing, Thor. We were going to move in together. We hadn’t really talked about it yet and now what’s left of my stuff is crammed into her place. You know how small it is.”

“Aye, but it is pleasant, nonetheless.”

“Not with all my boxes everywhere. And now Bucky is there. I don’t know if I should get a place with Bucky for a while to help him—but that doesn’t seem fair to Darcy.”

“And therein is the larger problem. You have two loves. It seems James is fascinated with Darcy enough to not want to be separated for now. But Darcy has yet to express her reservations or delights with the situation. What you want may have to be secondary to your friend’s recovery.”

Steve slammed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw hard enough to ache.

“Steven?”

“Darce is mine.” He held up his hands before Thor could growl at him. “Not—not her person. I don’t own her. But this thing we have—it’s gorgeous and beautiful and pure. She gives me a place to stand, Thor.”

“Yet, you already know you will not give up James for her. Nor her for James.” Thor’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “This is not your decision, Steven. Speak with Darcy tomorrow.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony and Pepper stared through the window of Darcy’s recovery room. With the Avengers frequently in and out of medical, Tony had installed an infirmary near the common area with plenty of seating and easy access. It was stocked for anything from a headache to major surgery, but nobody stayed there long in any case.

Darcy slept, after the doctor had pronounced Bucky’s stitching good and injected her with a dose of antibiotics to ward off an impending infection.

Bucky occupied in the chair next to her, a knife tucked under his right hand. Maybe he slept. Tony wasn’t sure. His eyes were closed, though JARVIS privately speculated that the Sergeant was listening more than he was dozing.

Steve was on the floor, his head resting against Bucky’s knee and one hand holding Darcy’s. Steve, JARVIS informed him, was soundly sleeping. Bucky’s metal hand covered both of theirs.

“Is this how it’s going to be?” Pepper asked. (Pepp had an open mind, but this was their baby girl. Well, his. But hers. Twelve percent? More. Theirs.)

“Looks like it,” Tony muttered.

“She knew? About Bucky and Steve?”

“Yeah.” Tony shrugged. “A while back. I knew. Peggy told me a long time ago.”

Pepper sighed. “Should I be mad?” She wrapped her arm around his middle and rested her chin on his shoulder. (Tall men didn’t get how perfect it was to have a woman there.)

“Would it have mattered if Steve hadn’t found him?”

“I guess not. Are you okay with it?”

Tony fidgeted with his lip, pulling at it. “No. But I didn’t want her with Cap either. She has enough neurotic, broken egos around her already.”

“Yes, she does. What’s one more?”

“Honey, you know Barnes is even worse off than Natasha was. And she came in of her own volition”

“Bruce told me.”

“Does he tell you everything?”

“Yes. Including what was in those vials Darcy pulled from Bucky’s arm.”

He’d heard. (Was it still okay to blindly hate a group of people?) “Monsters. Everyone damned one of them.”

“HYDRA is on the list,” she reminded him, “and I’m wielding the Stark sword.”

“It’s a good sword.”

“Yes it is.”

“Pepp? I can’t protect my baby girl any more, can I?”

“Not from this.” She waved her hand toward the window.

Tony pressed his forehead against the glass. Bucky’s eyes opened at the whisper of sound. Soldier to father, eyes slid to the trio of clasped hands then tracked back to Tony’s. The Winter Soldier never blinked, resolute in his stillness.

“Son of a bitch,” he murmured. “He’s protecting her. Darcy’s got the goddamned Winter Soldier as a body guard. Why?” His mind raced with a dozen scenarios, discarding them as quickly as they popped up. None of them made sense.

Pepper pressed a kiss to his neck. “I don’t know. Come sit on the couch with me.” He pouted, just a little, then let her take him to the sofa in the common room—just a few feet away. She waited for him to settle against the soft leather, and then curled up into his side. He didn’t sleep, but she did. He waited. And worried. And wondered.

Chapter Text

The Winter Soldier glared at Steve, following his movements. “Where are they taking her?” he demanded in a flat monotone.

“She’s with Tony and Pepper. They live just below this floor. Remember how Ma used to fuss over me whenever I’d be sick?”

Instead of replying, Bucky growled, “When is she coming back?” This time, he was somewhere between protective and petulant.

Steve wondered at the odd attachment Bucky seem to be forming with Darcy. Not that he minded, particularly, but it didn’t make sense. “We’ll take her home tonight,” Steve assured him. “In the meantime, Dr. Banner wants you to know what Darcy took out of your arm. Some of it wasn’t all bad, but it’s got to be your call.”

Bucky merely blinked, waiting for orders again. Having his best friend look at him that way was disconcerting. (Pissed him off, every single time.)

“JARVIS, will you have Dr. Banner join us in conference room B?” Steve asked.

Bruce was probably the least intimidating and most self-effacing member of their team. He seemed to pose little threat, yet the Winter Soldier recognized him anyway. He watched. Assessing. Considering.

“Rogers.”

“Banner.”

“Who is your friend?”

“This is James Barnes. My best friend, Bucky.”

Bruce waved with glasses in hand. “Nice to meet you and all that. But really, let’s cut to the chase. You don’t look particularly comfortable with me in the room.”

“Bucky doesn’t feel comfortable with anybody in the room.” Steve’s comment prompted a flash of recognition in the Soldier’s eyes, though they didn’t soften any.

Banner brought the four vials out of the case he carried and set them on the table, along with a report.  “I’ve written down all the details, but the basics are fairly straightforward. You’ve got four pretty good cocktails in those vials – an all-purpose narcotic, an anti-depressant/anxiety drug, a nice mix of amphetamines in the third one, and my least favorite and the one that was causing Mr. Barnes serious concern is a lethal combo guaranteed to kill him in thirty seconds or less.”

“You knew ‘bout them?” Steve asked.

“The last one. Not the others,” Bucky quietly replied.

“Yeah, well, here’s the problem. I’m guessing you’re pretty well used to the rest of them. Not that addiction means much with the serum we all seem to have various varieties of around here.” He waited for a response from Bucky, got nothing, and continued. “The amphetamines will clear your system quickly enough, though there can be some nasty side effects. It’s possible—likely—that the serum in your body will counteract a lot of that. It’s the anxiety drugs that are causing me the most worry. Coming off those too fast can mess with your head.”

Bruce paused, clearing his throat uncomfortably. “I’d like to do a blood test to see how high your levels are now that you’ve had a day without them. I can get an idea of how fast your body is metabolizing the chemicals.  We don’t have to put the vials back in your arm, but you might want to take a lesser dosage in a pill form to wean you off of them.  All that depends on how much healing your brain has to do.”

None of this information seemed to register with Bucky. Steve scooted his chair over to him. “What do you want to do?”

Bucky’s face went blank as he laid out his arm out in preparation for a blood draw, slouching a little in the chair to give his head some support.  

Stifling his instant fury, Steve reached out.  By instinct, he cupped Bucky’s face, the strands of hair dangling over his fingers as he nudged him to sit up again. “No, Buck. Even for something as small as a blood sample, this has to be what you want to do.” When the soldier still didn’t respond, Steve waived off Banner. “You’re safe.  No one will hurt you.  Not here.  Anyone who tries will have to go through me.”

Bruce slipped out as he spoke, leaving the report. He also left a simple blood draw kit on the table—easy enough for even Steve to use (a pin prick, not a needle, he wasn’t good at that kind of thing.)

A flicker of something in the grey eyes he loved so much gave him hope.  Casting around for an idea, he latched on to something basic and easy.  “JARVIS, can we get something to eat in here?” With a last brush of his thumb across the stubble on Bucky’s cheek, he let go—turning away in an effort to keep his composure. 

“Captain, I took the liberty of ordering Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. They will be delivered momentarily. Also, Lord Thor and Ms. Foster have requested to join you for lunch, as have Ms. Romanov and Mr. Barton. How shall I respond?”

“Sure. Nat and Clint are back? Maybe we should move this to the kitchen?”

“I will make the appropriate arrangements.”

The short conversation gave Steve a chance to regroup before he faced Bucky again.  When he did, the test strips were saturated in blood and had been inserted into the protective glass covers.  The soldier had his forefinger and thumb pinched together. 

“Buck?” he called softly. “I’ll get these to Banner for you.”

“I’m safe?”

“Yes, you’re safe.  Will you come with me to the kitchen so we can eat?” 

“You’ll stay?”

“I promise I will. There will be four at lunch, and you’ve already met Thor. JARVIS, can you put a request in to limit any other guests?”

“I will. Captain, Sergeant, if you will leave the test kit on the table, Dr. Banner will be here in a few moments to retrieve it. He has asked me to let you know that he will have the results by the time you are ready to take Lewis home.”

 

 

Lunch was … interesting. Thor and Jane were already there. Bucky stayed behind Steve and shifted to the right. (Keeping his back to the wall and his eyes on both exits.) He acknowledged Thor and Jane only when his gaze skimmed across the room, halting briefly for Jane, longer for Thor.

So when Nat and Clint strolled in and Bucky’s demeanor changed, Steve went on full alert. Thor did too, though how he did it without moving a muscle flabbergasted Steve.

Nat stood her ground when Bucky saw her. “Natalia Romanova.” He walked straight to her and kissed both cheeks as he slid his hands to cup either side of her head. “Milaya.” Even his body language was Russian, and Steve wondered how many more versions of Bucky existed.

Clint stood with his arms crossed behind Nat, one step closer than necessary. Bucky ignored him as he stroked her hair, speaking to her in Russian. (Steve raised an eyebrow. Anyone else who touched Nat like that would be on the ground, most likely twitching.) She replied in kind, her eyes drinking Bucky in with a small smile. She jerked her chin back to Clint. Bucky sneered (in Russian, if such a thing were possible), and mimed holding up a shot glass to salute her.

She said something else, and he frowned. His eyes dropped to her middle. He reached out and flipped her shirt up to reveal the scar Steve already knew was there. Recognition and shame flooded Bucky’s face. “I did this,” he said, turning to Steve. “My precious Natalia. I had a mission. She was in the way.” He shivered. “I had a mission. I didn’t want to kill you, Milaya.”

“I know. I didn’t give you a choice.”

“You left me a target.”

“I gave you one that wouldn’t get me killed. Or you.” She brushed her lips across both of his cheeks. “The guy was a prick. Not worth either of us dying.”

“You came here?” His brow wrinkled, as if he were trying to put the pieces of memory together. He reached out, lightly brushing the wound in her shoulder.

She caught his hand. “I came here. You did that, starshi prepodavtel. You taught me everything I needed to know to survive. And how to fly free. For that, I have red in my ledger.” She gave him a beautiful smile. “Now I can wipe it out.”

Bucky and Natasha made low conversation throughout the lunch, all in Russian, so Steve had no idea if they were trading training stories, comparing weaponry or exchanging recipes. But whatever it was, the conversation opened something in Bucky.

After everyone left, Bucky asked—haltingly, with long pauses and stuttered questions. “How—how can you—I’m not—I’ve hurt people. You. Natalia. Stark.”

“Till the end of the line, Bucky.” Steve countered. “I promised. You’re safe with me.” He considered Bucky’s state of mind. Wondered if his next words would push him too far. “I won’t lie to you. There’s a shit ton of fallout from all of this HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D. thing. I’m covering you, and nothing will change that. But any intel you can give us on the people who did this to you will help.”

Bucky’s face blanked, and it was the Winter Soldier who nodded.

 

 

Steve insisted they keep the interview casual, refusing the conference room. He wasn’t sure what would trigger Bucky. Nat suggested Tony’s penthouse.

They found Darcy napping on the sofa with her headphones and an iPod.  Her hair was damp, and she had on Iron Man pajamas. The cast on her wrist was like nothing he’d seen before. Thin ribbons of electric blue plastic crisscrossed the arm, woven closely enough to support it, but open enough to shower or scratch an itch.

Bucky took a seat close enough to her that Steve frowned.  He was still in Winter Soldier mode, and his hand made a twitch. Checking the placement of the knife he had strapped to his wrist, Steve decided.

Tony came up behind Steve. “You brought him here.”

“My idea.” Natasha slipped out from behind Steve. Both men turned to face her, Steve opening his mouth to back her up.

But Darcy’s father put a hand up to shut him up and fired at Nat, “You bring Ice Man 2 into my house and you think I won’t have a problem? What’s he carrying, an arsenal?”

She shrugged. Steve silently agreed with Nat. Trying to disarm his friend seemed pointless. They backpack had stayed home but, by Steve’s count, Bucky was still carrying at least three knives, a semi-automatic pistol, a spare clip, and no telling what surprises stashed here and there around his body. (Kind of like Natasha, come to think of it. She put on weapons like perfume.) “She isn’t?” He jerked a thumb at Nat.

Tony gave him a dirty look in return. “What’s your ploy,” he asked Natasha.

The red-headed spy shrugged again, probably to annoy Tony. “He needs to be with Darcy.”

“Um, I believe I’m going to require a better explanation that that, Ms. Romanov. One with a little less spy talk.” He wiggled his fingers at her.

She smirked. “Just because he left HYDRA is doesn’t mean he isn’t operating by their rules. He needs a mission and a handler. Darcy is his mission. Steve’s his handler. It’s going to be that way for a while.”

“Didn’t I say something about less spy talk?” Tony quipped.

But her phrasing got Steve’s attention. Softly, he asked, “Fury was your handler?”

She nodded.

“So what happens now?”

With a studied casual air, Natasha strolled over to Tony’s bar. From the freezer, she retrieved a bottle of vodka and poured herself a shot. “I find a new one.” She knocked it back. Then stared at Steve.

He gave her his Captain America look (Darcy was threatening to patent it) and tried to decide what in the hell he was going to do with two assassins (HYDRA came to mind). She flashed him a smile, poured a second shot and took it to Bucky.

Tony stroked his beard. “Did I miss something?”

“No more than I did. I’ll let you know when I’ve got it figured out.”

“And for now?”

“Bucky’s agreed to give us what intelligence he can. We can use it to start digging out some of these HYDRA cells.”

“You trust him?”

Steve looked him straight in the eyes. “You don’t?”

Tony snapped, “The Cap thing is a sham. You can be a real bastard, you know?”

“Your daughter tells me that once a week.”

“She’s smart.”

“Yeah, she is.”

Glaring at him, Tony advised, “Assume this is a continuation of the conversation you and I had a while back. I have one concern in all of this--my daughter. And if I have to tear apart whatever is left of this Avengers thing we have to keep her safe, I will. You don’t get to make mistakes here, Cap. Capiche?”

Steve softened. For all that they knocked heads, when it came to Darcy, he respected Tony. With quiet deference, he answered, “Yes, sir."

Tony seemed to accept it. “Do I have to stay for this?”

“Only if you want to.”

“Then I won’t. I’ll be back in time for dinner. I expect you—and him-- to stay and eat before you take Darcy home.” Tony pivoted and walked out, leaving Steve to figure out everything that was—and wasn’t—said.

“Cap?”

“Coming, Nat.”

Natasha did the interview, JARVIS recorded it, and Maria Hill would later analyze in the information. The Winter Soldier answered every question asked of him, his eyes darting from Natasha to Steve to Darcy. His perception was terrifying.

The interview convinced Steve (as if he needed more proof) that Bucky had been injected with a variant on the serum he’d been given. Even though there was no physical increase in size for Bucky, they shared other aspects. Speed healing was obvious, as was the strength Bucky now had.

The changes in the brain were similar too. For one, both of them had enhanced reflexes due, in part, to increased mental processing speeds. Steve had discovered not long after the serum had been injected that he saw the possibilities of a situation faster than most. In battle, the ability had been priceless. (In everyday life, he had a tendency to be dull as he bit his tongue. No one liked a know-it-all.)

For two, Steve simply couldn’t forget. Once he learned something, the knowledge stayed at his fingertips. (Not thinking was different, and a survival tool for his sanity.)

He wondered if this is why HYDRA used a combination of electroshocks and cryofreeze to contain Bucky between missions. Having a serum-laced soldier thinking too much would have been dangerous. Natasha implied as much. She wouldn’t speak much of the Red Room, only that the Winter Soldier had been one of her trainers. Long enough for both of them to develop an attachment.

He’d been frozen. Resurrected. Shocked and drugged. The next time he didn’t recognize her.

And still his brain tried to repair itself. Whatever they did to him, Bucky managed to remember enough to break from his handlers. To know that there was something more.

For that, Steve was willing to do anything it took to help Bucky. To what end, he didn’t know. The man who sat inches away from Darcy was nothing like his old friend. Except that he was. Steve alone knew the darker side of Bucky Barnes—the anger, the self-doubt. Most people only ever knew the good-hearted young man with a wink and smile for the girls, who offered a helping hand around the neighborhood.

They might have picked up on his protective nature—heaven help those who went after Steve. Or the stubborn side when he would nurse Steve into better health or nag him into having a little fun. But they never saw the boy who crafted himself into the epitome of a soldier so he would be promoted to a Sergeant even before he was shipped overseas. Others never saw the fury as they hid their love from the world. 

The Winter Soldier was the distilled essence of all that. Whatever was left, something of the two of them had stayed. For that, Steve would do anything at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

After the interview and a horribly uncomfortable dinner with Stark, where Darcy was cranky and Bucky wasn’t talking, Steve took his … well, he took Darcy and Bucky home anyway.   

Darcy’s energy, what she had, flagged, and he could see the pinched lines of pain on her forehead by the time Happy dropped them off. 

Bucky stopped them at the door while he did a recon of the house to make sure it was clear.  Steve held Darcy lightly in his arms, with her head resting on his chest, until the soldier returned.  He kissed her on the forehead.  “Wait for me, doll, and I’ll get a glass of water so you can take your medicine.” 

But Darcy was stubborn and didn’t want to wait.  She made it up three steps on the stairs before Bucky scooped her into his arms and carried her up the rest of the way. “Damn it, I can walk,” she protested.  Steve followed on Bucky’s heels, while Darcy gave him a dark glare over the soldier’s shoulder.  “You two are NOT going to cart me up and down the stairs all week.” 

Bucky set her on her bed, retreating to the corner as Steve passed her the glass of water and a couple of pills.

“Are you going to watch me sleep?” she snapped at Bucky.

“Yes.” 

She sputtered until Steve shooed Bucky out to use the shower, giving him time enough to help Darcy into fresh (non-Iron Man) pajamas. “Is he really going to watch me sleep?” Darcy’s voice was muffled as she shed the red and gold shirt in favor of his Mets jersey (he had to root for someone and it damned well wasn’t going to be the Yankees).

“Probably.” He pressed a kiss to her temple. “I’d argue but it’s been a long day for all of us.”

It might have mattered, except that the medication made Darcy drowsy, and she crashed before Bucky returned from the bathroom. He’d picked out another pair of Steve’s sweats and a t-shirt from the pile left on the counter. He wasn’t visibly armed, but Steve didn’t believe that for a minute.

He dug out Darcy’s extra sheets and blanket from under her bed then stole one of her pillows.  “Where do you want to be?  I can make up the couch for you.”

But Bucky took the chair in the corner and settled in.  When Steve held out the blanket and pillow, the soldier seemed to flinch before he cautiously took the pillow.  The rest he ignored and Steve ended up setting them on the floor next to his feet. 

When he stood, Bucky caught his hand at the wrist, not hard, just enough to stop him.  “Thank you.”  He didn’t quite look Steve when he said it. 

“Don’t be a jerk.  You don’t have to thank me.” But it was said with a smile, and Bucky looked at him this time. 

“Go … to sleep… punk.” He let go of Steve’s wrist to stuff Darcy’s pillow under his chin. 

Steve wanted (ached) to kiss him goodnight.  He didn’t though.  “Jerk,” he said again as he straightened.  He stripped down to his boxers and climbed in bed.  As he fell asleep with one hand on Darcy, he realized what he done in front of Bucky.  (Then he didn’t care.)

 

 

Somehow, seemingly no more than two minutes later, it was dawn.  He’d shifted in the night to sleep on his side.  Darcy was still on her back (not normal, not by a long shot).  He lifted his head to discover Bucky was still keeping watch from the chair. “Did you sleep at all?”

“No.”

He rolled out of bed.  “Good grief, Buck, there’s no need to push yourself like this. I can stand guard if you need.”

His friend didn’t answer, and Steve scratched his stubble out of habit. “I like to run in the mornings. I don’t need much sleep, and Darcy is a happier person if she wakes up to coffee. Sam will be here in a few minutes. He offered to stay with Darcy if you want to go with me. We’ll swing by the coffee shop on our way back.”

There was a flicker in Bucky’s eyes. “Darcy?”

“She will be safe with Sam. We’ll be gone for less than an hour,” he confirmed.

Finally, he nodded and Steve scooted him off to the bathroom again. He could hear the toilet flush and Bucky brushing his teeth. He was grateful his friend had retained that much autonomy.  Steve dug around for an extra pair of running shoes in Darcy’s wardrobe. They would be a half-size too big, but they could rectify that later today.

A knock on the door announced Sam’s arrival.  Bucky popped out immediately.  He must have found Steve’s straight razor, because his skin was smooth and flushed from the hot water.  He wiped his face with a towel as Steve gaped. (--gorgeous. This was his Bucky.) 

His friend held out the towel with a faint questioning look until Steve stopped staring long enough to point out the laundry hamper. Bucky chucked it in and followed Steve down the narrow stairs.

Sam was damp from his own run that morning. “Nice to see you have a running partner who can keep up with you. Please tell me you have coffee ready.” He slipped off a lightweight backpack and handed it Bucky. “I think we have the same shoe size. Ten and a half?”

Steve shook his head. “Not yet. I was going to pick some up after our run.”

“Coffee, black. A big one. None of that crap in it. I get to use your shower and I’ll make breakfast.”

“Darcy’s still asleep. She won’t mind.” He reached into his pocket and punched in a text. “She checks her phone before she breathes. She’ll see that and know you’re here.”

Bucky held the bag after pulling the shoes out of it. After a moment of hesitation, he gave it back to Sam.

Steve encouraged, “Go ahead and try them, Buck. Wear whichever ones feel better.”

After considering the pair, Bucky kept the ones Sam had brought.

“Ready?”

With the familiar hint of dawn and the breeze from the water keeping them company, Steve fell into his rhythm easily. He steadily increased his pace to see how Bucky kept up. A faint smirk from his friend had him stepping it up until they were pushing his fastest pace. Five miles. Seven. Twelve. At fourteen and less than three blocks from Darcy’s, he waived off Bucky, pulling up to a walk.

“Damn that felt good. Haven’t been out for a good run in weeks.”

“You like it?”

Steve smiled as Bucky asked the question. “Yeah, I do. It’s nice to be running without chasing someone down and I like the fresh air. Want coffee?”

Bucky nodded as he shook his hair out of his face. The shop had a walk up window. They took advantage of it and each of them carried a pair of drinks back to Darcy’s place.

She was still asleep when they returned, but Sam gladly took a cup and thumbed toward the stove where he had bacon sizzling. “You have enough time for a shower, if you make it fast,” he offered.

“You go first, Bucky. And make the water hot enough to feel good.” Steve and Sam made small talk until they heard the water turn on.

“You’re his new handler?” Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Apparently. Natasha said something along those lines. Doesn’t feel right at all.”

“For now, it’s fine, but yeah, long term it’s a bad idea.” He waggled his finger. “Don’t even think about bringing sex into this until that’s squared away.”

“No. I wouldn’t do that to either of them.” Steve reached for his coffee. Though he appreciated Sam’s frankness, he wasn’t ready to talk (Yet. Sam would get it out of him). “How’s the Tower?” he asked, deliberately changing the subject.

Sam let him dodge for now. “More fun than I thought it would be. Guess I’m sharing a floor with Nat and Clint. You know, I did not realize Bruce Banner lived in the Tower.”

“You okay with that?”

“Hey, he’s sharing a floor with Thor and Jane. If a big Asgardian prince is good, I’m good.”

“How’d you find out?”

“Thursday night is game night and Sunday night is family night, which means everyone not on a mission is required to attend.” Steve snickered as Sam waved his spatula at him. “No. You do not get to laugh at me because the observation was made that just because some of the Avengers do not live in the Tower, it doesn’t mean they aren’t required to be in attendance.”

“Let me guess? You?”

“Works for me.” Sam grinned.

Not for the first time, Steve decided Sam was a class act and was proud to call him a friend. He gently teased, “You know, that means Stark is going to be there.”

“He’s paying for it, right? I’m good.”

“So you want to put Bucky, Nat, Darcy, and Stark in the same room? Potentially with alcohol? You’ve heard the stories. They’re all true.” Steve raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, shit.”

“Throw in Jane, who is Darcy’s best friend, and Banner, who is a nervous wreck but needs friends he can trust and relax with, and Clint, who has a prank streak a mile wide. So that leaves you, me, Pepper and Thor to be Mommy and Daddy for the evening.”

“I don’t want to be daddy.”

“Keep it to Nat, Clint, and Jane so Thor and Bruce can babysit,” Steve suggested.

“This deal keeps getting worse and worse all the time.”

Steve lit up as the line sounded familiar. “Hey, I got that. The Empire one.”

“Nice. Sounds like Bucky’s done. Go get your shower too.”

Bucky hovered outside the bathroom. His eyes were clear enough, though he looked exhausted.

“How’s Darcy?” Steve asked, knowing Bucky would have checked.

“Waking.”

“Good. Go on down and get something to eat. I’ll get a shower and bring Darcy with me when I’m done.”

As his best friend followed orders, Steve had to resist the urge to punch something breakable (save it for the gym, pal). He showered, dressed, and turned to find Darcy holding up a door frame.

“Hi, doll.” He swooped in for a kiss and a very, very careful hug. “Should I ask?”

Her hands came up around his waist and her fingertips slid across the fabric of his shirt to lace together behind him. “Yes, it hurts. I smell coffee and bacon. Is there anyone here who is going to care that I look like crap?”

“Me, but I’ve already seen you this morning,” he teased.

“Shut up.” Her voice was muffled as she said it against his shirt.

“Yes, ma’am. Sam’s downstairs with Bucky.”

“Sam’s a really nice guy. Is Dad working on his wings?”

“Probably.”

“Damn. He gets all the good stuff.” Then she looked up with a beatific smile. “Except for Bucky. He promised.” She looked down at her side. “Will you help me change the bandages? They itch.”

“That I can do.” While Darcy leaned against the counter, Steve peeled away the gauze, cleaned up the mess and replaced it. Bucky had done a neat job of putting her back together, impressive considering he had only a field kit and barely that. He told her as much.

“That’s what the surgeon said yesterday. He was curious if Bucky had ever trained as a paramedic.”

“We all had basic instruction, but he was always patching up the Howling Commandos. And me.”

Darcy traced the edge of the bandage, lost in thought. Steve caught her fingertips and stepped into another hug. “I love you, Darce. And I really don’t know what I’m doing here, okay? I’m still tryin’ to wrap my head around Bucky being alive. Messed up, but alive. I don’t even know where to start with him, doll, but you have to know that I love you.”

“I do.”

He didn’t like the hesitation at all. “Then own it, Darce. ‘Cause I heard what you said to Bucky. JARVIS picked up your voice. You’re not a placeholder. You never were. You’re my girl, okay?”

“Steve? Darcy? Food’s getting cold and Bucky’s still hungry,” Sam called up the stairs.

“Feed him. We’ll be down in a second,” he called back. (He needed more time. Time he didn’t have.)

He caressed Darcy’s cheek. “We’ll talk about this more, I promise. Now, what do you need to do before we go downstairs?”

 

*****

 

Not that it didn’t have romantic potential at another time, but really, a two foot wide staircase was hardly enough for Steve’s shoulders to fit through, much less while carrying Darcy. The tight fit wasn’t any more comfortable with Steve doing the lifting over Bucky, but at least she felt less awkward about holding on.  

The past couple of days (weeks) had been something out of a weird dream. But undeniably, Bucky Barnes was here, in the (gorgeous) flesh, trying his damnedest to hold on to something so vague it was a wonder he hadn’t snapped out of frustration.

“Morning, Darcy Stark.” Sam’s cheerful voice and the smell of bacon got her out of her musings.

“There’s a name I don’t hear very often,” she laughed. “Mmm, smells like heaven. Wanna move in and you can be the official chef? You’ll have to sleep on the couch though. Or the floor. We’re a little cramped here and even Bucky’s only getting a chair,” Darcy quipped.

Bucky had one of the chairs at the table.  Darcy got the other one. (Mental note, find extra chairs.) Steve and Sam held up the kitchen counter as they transferred pancakes directly to plates, Steve dumping a couple more onto Bucky’s.

Sam laughed. “I’ll consider it if living in the Tower gets to be too much. Gotta say, Darcy, your dad builds a hell of an apartment.”

“Nice views too.”

“Maybe you should crash at my place.” He gave her a comical look.

“I’ll consider it. Better yet, I’ll introduce you to Club Stark on a Friday night.”

“But Thursday night is game night and Sunday is family dinner night—at least, according to Nat.”

“That’s because she doesn’t know about Club Stark. Keep it in your back pocket for leverage.”

“Done.”

Darcy eyed Bucky, who was making his way through a stack of pancakes sans butter or syrup. With his damp hair hanging loose and smudges of blue under his ice grey eyes, he had a feral, exhausted look to him today. She wondered if he’d slept last night. She reached out to touch the metal wrist that was resting on his knee. It was the closest part of him she could reach. He stilled, fork frozen in place. “Bucky? I like my pancakes with stuff on them.” She pointed out the dish of butter, the syrup, and the blueberry jam on the table. “Do you want to try any of them?”

The soldier flickered a look to Steve, who nodded. “You used to like butter and blueberries when we could get them. Don’t think we ever got much maple syrup though.”

After studying the trio and eyeing the blueberry jam Darcy had spread on her pancake, Bucky copied her. He was slower in eating the new version, taking his time to taste the berries. When he was done, he drained his coffee and set the cup on the table. His ice grey eyes caught hers. “Thank you.”

The words took effort, and even though she knew she looked like crap this morning, she gave him her best smile in return. Behind him, Steve silently mouthed the same words to her. She winked.

Bucky rose to find a place on the couch. Sam finished off his bacon and dropped his plate in the sink, jerking a chin at Steve. “You guys got cleanup?” He didn’t wait for an answer.

The pararescue-turned-VA-counselor sat in the chair near the former HYDRA agent. If Bucky was listening, it was hard to tell, but his eyes darted from Sam to Steve and back again. Sam talked about conditioning, what it meant, and what they were willing to do to help him work through it.

Sam passed over a small packet of medication. “Banner made these up. It’s fraction of the doses of narcotics and anti-anxiety drugs you were on, but he thinks it will blunt the edges of withdrawal until your body catches up. The serum you have in you—just like Banner, Rogers and Romanov—will heal you better than medication.  He thinks it will take no more than one or two weeks to get you off them safely.”

“Natalia has serum?”

“All of you have different forms of it. Hers isn’t much on the strength and healing side, but she has a boost on the longevity and endurance end. You ever notice she doesn’t look any older than you?”

“I don’t … remember.”

“Well, she’s got more secrets than all of us combined, but I’ve seen her file dating back to the eighties.” Sam said.

“How?”

“She gave it to me. Thought maybe I’d find a few things that could help you.”

“Who are you?”

“A soldier. Just like you.”  

Sam took off after that, reducing the number of people in the cramped apartment from four to three. Darcy curled up on Steve’s chair even though it was in the middle of everything. Bucky hadn’t moved from the sofa since Sam left.

Steve had finished cleaning up the kitchen and was doing all the little household chores. Laundry for one.  “Bucky? Can you get me whatever you want me to wash from your backpack?” he called down the stairs.

But Bucky wouldn’t move. He was trembling. Darcy stumbled over the chair (ouch, son of a.. damn) and sat down heavily next to him. “Bucky?”

 

*****

 

 

He (Asset) tried to focus on the words. The man (wings, could fly) spoke but he couldn’t make sense of them anymore. A grey haze blurred his vision.

The man stopped speaking and left the premises. (Mission. He had a mission.)

The sofa shifted as Darcy sat next to him. “Bucky?” (She still hurts. Protect Stark.)

Steve (man on the bridge) spoke. “Bucky, what’s wrong, pal? Need you to let me know what’s in your head. You’re safe here. You’re safe with me, with Darcy.”

(Safe. No pain.) “Sleep,” he pleaded. “Need to sleep. No cold, please. I will follow orders.” He felt shame for his weakness. (Asset. Change the world. Assets do not feel pain.)

“Go to sleep, Bucky. Sleep as long as you need. You’re safe with me. No cold.”  

The grey haze thickened as he reached for Darcy’s hand. A shimmer of energy rose from his fingers and then he was gone.

 

 

*****

 

“Oh my god,” Darcy stared at Steve. “How long--” she asked in a low voice so as not to wake the soldier. He’d fallen asleep sitting up, head still balanced on his neck. Steve picked up a pillow and tucked it behind Bucky’s head. When he trailed his fingers along the sleeping man’s cheek, Bucky relaxed just enough to rest his head on the cushion.

Steve shook his head, fury in every line of his face. “I’ll bet he hasn’t slept since he started following you. I should have known.  I never gave him orders.  Damn it, Darce, I don’t think I even made a direct suggestion.”

“Hey,” she reached out to caress his face.  “We’re still figuring all this out.  You can go, what three days before you start losing it?”

“If I’m pushing, maybe a little more. But I’m not flushing chemicals out of my system or trying to break conditioning. You know, Darce, I don’t hate much of anything, but I think I hate HYDRA. Nat and Clint gave me the rundown yesterday of the fallout at S.H.I.E.L.D. I cannot believe there were that many sleeper agents. But they were there.”

“You want to go after them,” she said, knowing him as she did.

“Nat and Maria are putting together a target list based partially on Bucky’s intelligence. Stark set Maria up with a vetted data team and they are combing through everything Nat dumped on the internet. The list isn’t pretty.”

Darcy nodded. “Mom’s been cleaning house. There are a lot of vacancies at Stark Industries--some were really good at their jobs too. Thank god for JARVIS,” she added. “He told me yesterday that even he was hard-pressed to copy the data stream as Natasha released it, but he got it. Still, I wonder where they physical files ended up. Anything up through the mid-80’s is going to be on hardcopy.”

“Maria might know. Any chance JARVIS was able to grab data before it went public?”

Darcy flashed him a wicked grin. “I like the way you think, Rogers. There might have been a file or three.”

“Then why did Nat’s file go online?”

“You’re familiar with Natasha’s hacking skills. Do you really think her file was complete to begin with?”

“True. What else did he pull?”

“Anything related to the Winter Soldier or Bucky Barnes. Any suggestions made by Stark Industries in the last two years, including the work on the helicarriers. Zola’s algorithm. Everything related to Banner and the super serum that S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to get right. JARVIS left all the speculative stuff so it’s not like people can’t find anything at all. Jane’s work. I think those are the highlights.” 

“Huh, so if anyone starts speculating on Bucky--”

“--They’ve got inside intel,” she finished.

“I think I’ll pass that on to Maria.”

“Let her know the rest. If she knows what is missing, it will help her sort through the mess.” She sighed, idly moving her fingers along Bucky’s. “Why did he take my hand, Steve?”

“It’s his way of protecting you while he sleeps. If he’s holding on to you, he knows where you are.”

“I just hope I don’t have to go the bathroom anytime soon.” She tugged a blanket off the arm of the couch, and Steve rearranged it over the both of them. “A nap sounds good anyway. Think he’ll mind if I borrow the rest of his arm for a pillow?”

“A beautiful dame holding on to him? Sounds … normal.”

“We have normal around here?” she asked as she settled in place. The metal was cool under her cheek. She closed her eyes and felt Steve caress her face. She kissed the palm of his hand as she went under.

 

 

******

 

 

Steve couldn’t tear his eyes away from them for the longest time. Darcy and Bucky. Together. The sketch he’d drawn seemed prophetic (not the first time that had happened).

He looked over Bucky’s new build and had an inkling of what his friend had felt when he’d first discovered Steve’s new body. They hadn’t had much time to explore all the differences and here there were all these changes again.

The faint strain of discomfort faded from Darcy as she relaxed against Bucky.

Her words from the other day were eating at him. Darcy had teasingly suggested on one or two occasions that she was the female version of Bucky (she wasn’t) or Howard (definitely not). There was an undertone there that had set off warning bells at the time. Obviously his assurances hadn’t assuaged her fears.

That was Darcy’s secret. She adored her parents and appreciated the efforts Tony had taken to ensure her privacy growing up. But, as with anyone raised in the shadow of a legacy, Darcy’s biggest fear was falling short.

And for once, Tony couldn’t be blamed. Tony did his best to praise Darcy for her successes and never, ever compare her to anyone at all. Darcy had a natural drive that led her to subtly compete with her dad, though usually by subverting his ideas and expounding on them. They made a hell of a team.

Darcy had a skill Tony lacked. She’d proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she could lead Stark Industries. Only Steve and Natasha had any idea that Darcy ran SI hand in hand with Pepper now.

She’d tethered Pepper’s computers to a workstation in her lab. She triaged her mom’s messages as they came in. Pepper was a morning person. Darcy took the late shift.  They had developed a system whereby either could log in and see the day’s issues and resolutions. Mother and daughter tag-teamed to create answers, though Pepper was still the face of Stark Industries.

So if Darcy didn’t quite have Tony’s sheer brilliance when it came to thinking up new stuff, she possessed every bit of Howard’s acumen for leveraging cutting-edge technologies into real business opportunities. Steve saw it, even if Darcy didn’t understand the scope of her own abilities. And, like her father, she picked at her flaws until they bled.

Somehow, she couldn’t see that he was as in love with her as he was with Bucky. And Steve had no idea if Bucky would recover enough to return that love again.

Sam had cautioned him about precisely that when he’d realized exactly what sort of relationship they’d had. It was possible, even likely, that Bucky would never be able to trust anyone at all. Natasha didn’t, though perhaps she was close to it as she would ever be with Clint. 

It occurred to him to be grateful to Tony for insisting he talk to Darcy … even if it had taken him months to work up to it.

Still, they were both blindsided and Steve had no idea how Bucky would impact their relationship. All he could do was hold on to Darcy while they treaded across uneven ground. (Though, really, in the smallest corner of his mind, he had a wish.)

Dinner was almost ready when Bucky began to stir.

 

*****

 

 

He breathed in, the tangle of garlic and cheese prompting a vision of a small woman at a kitchen stove. Her hair was in a neat bun, blonde and streaked with gray, wearing a printed flower dress. Steve’s mom. He wondered why he couldn’t remember his own. “Smells like your ma’s Alfredo sauce,” he said.

“Mmm. My favorite.”

The sound vibrated through him before he discovered that the warmth in his arm came from the heat of Darcy’s body. Her black lashes swept up. (green).  “Beautiful dame on my arm. Can’t ask for better.”

She stilled at the compliment (or maybe it was his voice?), then replied with a smile did something to his insides.  “Really? That’s what Steve said. How predictable.”

The warmth went away as she tried to scoot to the edge of the couch. He frowned as the cooler air hit the metal.

Steve came to help, giving her a boost while she braced a hand to her hip. “Bucky? How are you doing?”

He did an internal check. No injuries. Hungry. Not tired. Cool but not cold enough to affect the mechanics of his arm. “I’m ….” (acceptable was the answer, but it seemed … off) “Good?”

That elicited a smile from Steve. “What do you need, Bucky? More sleep?”

“No.”

“Shower?”

He shrugged. Still felt clean. “No.”

“Hungry?”

Yes. He nodded in agreement.

“Okay. Go wash up and you can set the table.”

“Warm or cold?” he ventured to ask, not daring to look at Steve. (I’m safe?)

Fingers on his cheek. “What do you want, Bucky? You’re safe.”

“---------Warm.”

“Then make it warm, Bucky.”

He’d been holding his hands under the hot water, feeling the contrast between his two hands when Steve appeared in the doorway. He jerked his hands away and palmed a knife by reflex, though he kept it low and to his side. (One exit. Blocked.)

“You’re safe, Bucky.” Steve stepped backward two full feet, his hands open. “I was checking on you to see if you were hungry. Dinner is ready. You want to turn the water off?”

Keeping his eyes on Steve, Bucky sheathed the knife, reached out and shut the water off (skimming his fingers under the heat), then dried his hands on the towel (soft).

In the kitchen, Darcy handed him a stack of plates and flatware. Without thinking, he placed them around the table, knives on the right, forks on the left, pasta spoon on the right. Napkins under the forks. Water glasses at two o’clock over the knives.

“Your ma would be proud, Buck.” Steve grinned as he set the pasta bowl in the center and dished out for all of them.

There were three chairs at the table now. They bumped knees as they ate, but nobody seemed to mind. Bucky experimented with the best way to load the pasta, found it, and demolished his portion. He tasted his food. Inhaled the spices. Finished and wiped his mouth with his napkin.

“Still hungry?” Darcy asked. “You can have more.”

“No … no, thank you.” He brightened. “I remember.” He did. Images of dinners with Steve, his ma. His family? “I had parents. A sister?”

“Rebecca.”

“Miss her?”

“She missed you. Her two daughters are still in Brooklyn. You have a couple of nieces who are both married now.”

“You’ve seen?”

“We write. They sent pictures once. I can show you. Youngest boy looks a little like you. Named him for you anyway.”

“Bucky?”

“James.”

 

*****

 

Darcy listened at the banter. Steve seemed to understand Bucky’s odd way of speaking, carrying whole conversations for the both of them. After dinner, she handed the soldier a dish towel. “You get to dry.”

He frowned at it. “No.”

Steve shot him a happy grin. “There is no chore Bucky hates more than drying dishes. We argued about it all the time.”

Speculatively, she studied the towel. And held it out to Barnes.

“No.”

“Trade. One chore I don’t like for one you don’t like.”

He peered at her suspiciously. “Which?”

“You can round up all the trash and take it to the back alley.”

He nodded. Darcy handed him a trash bag. She grinned as he poked through her house to find all the trash cans and found the Dumpster by himself, locking up as he returned. (She’d trade drying dishes for that any day of the week. She also deserved bonus points for giving him a free pass to do recon on her house and alley.)

He washed his hands again, this time at the kitchen sink. Darcy could see steam rising as he held his hands under the water.

“Do you want a hot bath, Bucky? You can soak as long as you want.”

“A bath?”

“Hot water up to your elbows.”

He looked around for Steve (for permission, she guessed), but he’d already gone upstairs to gather up clothing for the night. “I can?”

“Yes, if you want one.”

“I … do.”

Flashing him a smile, she started up the stairs and had to stop to put a hand to her hip. She was tired from helping Steve with dinner, the ibuprofen had long worn off, and the stitches were pulling again. He started to pick her up. 

“Not this time.  I’ll get there myself.” 

Bucky waved at her to stay. He slipped past her and came back with one of Steve’s t-shirts. With a jerk, he tore one of the seams so that he had one long piece of fabric. He held it in his teeth and reached for Darcy’s shirt.

“Yeah, no.” She pushed his hands away. “I’ve got it.”

And by all that was holy, Barnes fucking smirked at her. He crossed his arms, waiting.

“Steve, your friend is an ass.” She rolled the waistband of her yoga pants down, exposing the bandage. Then she held her shirt up, gathering it so that it was just under her breasts and out of the way.

“Tell me something new.” Steve poked his head around the top of the stairs to see Bucky carefully wrapping her hips and pulling the fabric tight. Really tight.

He gestured and she dropped the shirt. Then he held his hand out. “Try it, Princess,” he demanded.

She did. It still hurt, but climbing the stairs was manageable. “How did you do that?”

“Pressure stops pain.”

“All right, I’ll buy that.”

He nodded. Darcy was grateful for the wrap, especially when she knelt down to plug the drain in the tub. Then she ran the water as hot as she could stand it. Bucky hovered behind her, waiting. Even if he didn’t shift from foot to foot, nervous energy still emanated from him.

When the tub was full enough, she shut off the water. A hand was waiting to help her to her feet. Still, she cursed when the bending was too much and she flinched. Bucky caught her, holding her in a tight hug (all muscle-y and hard) until she had her feet again.

The intimacy disconcerted her. Especially when Bucky sniffed her hair. No, that wasn’t right. He inhaled, like a chef over a pot of soup, savoring each flavor.  Moreover, she felt a frission of … something (don’t think on it), as his hands (metal and flesh) slid over and down her arms, all the way to her fingertips. She shivered from the caress. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He let her go, and she eased by him to find Steve on the other side.

 

*****

 

Bucky soaked for a good three-quarters of an hour. Steve got it. There were times he simply couldn’t get enough hot water to chase the chills away, real or imaginary.

He took full advantage of the privacy and navigated Darcy into his lap while she scrolled through her phone’s messages and texts.

“I need my laptop. Mom’s got some things for me to look at.”

“Can it wait?”

“Maybe. Probably. I can answer a couple of emails here and do the rest in the morning.” She tapped one-handed at the keys for a few minutes before setting her phone to the side.

“All good?”

“For now.” She relaxed her head against his shoulder. “Thanks for bringing me home. I didn’t want to stay in the Tower.”

“I know.” (But they would have to talk about that. Not now.) He ran slow strokes over her arm. “Why did you want to come here?”

“Afraid everyone would want to stare at Bucky. And you. And me. Just want to give us a chance to breathe and help him get his bearings first. Yesterday was bad enough. Can’t imagine weeks of it.” She nestled her nose into his neck. “God, you smell good. I really hated you living in DC.”

“I’m here now, but I’m unemployed and sponging off my girlfriend, so it’s a tradeoff.”

She giggled. “I hadn’t thought about it like that. The Avengers are going to have to negotiate a contract with somebody so you can collect a paycheck now and then.”

“We’d better not. They’ll bill us for New York.”

“Good point.”

The banter between them did what it always did, made him feel as if everything would be okay. She didn’t even tense up when Bucky walked in, dressed, though still damp from the shower and rubbing a cloth over his metal arm to work the water out of the joints.

The shirt clung in all the right spots and the sweatpants rode low on Bucky’s hips, just enough that as he worked the towel, the shirt rode up here and there, revealing hard flesh that Steve remembered far too well. His fingertips twitched against Darcy’s arm.

Maybe she tried for casual, but it was too studied when she pushed off him to get to her feet. “God, I can’t wait until I can take a bath again. Showers are good, but nothing is like a good hot soak, right Bucky?”

He nodded, frowning just a little as she crawled in bed, snatching a book off the nightstand.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Your boyfriend is ogling you. Which he’s not wrong, there’s a lot to ogle and I’m an expert with chiseled hot abs. But it’s awkward and there are a million questions and I’d much rather avoid all of them right now, so I’m going to pretend I’m sleepy and read my book until the Advil kicks in and I really am sleepy and then I won’t have to think about any of it until morning.”

The look on Bucky’s face was comical as he worked through Darcy’s spiel. He frowned again when he looked down at his own body then stared hard at Steve. “You were smaller.”

“I joined the army.”

“I …. know. I—want—“ He stilled. Breathing heavily, he tried again. “I want—to sleep.”

“Okay. Where do you want to sleep?” Steve asked.

With a small turn of his head, he looked at Darcy. “There.”

“You want to sleep with me?” her voice came out a full octave higher and Steve firmly squelched his laugh at her reaction.

“Yes.”

She gave him a dark look and waggled her good finger at him. “Just because you two had.. have.. whatever the fuck it ends up being … you do not get to partake by association.”

Bucky flashed a look of confusion at Steve, and backed up. There was real fear in his eyes. Darcy saw it and scrambled out of the bed to catch his hands. “No, look, not the way I meant. Come on. You get in first.”

Steve pressed his lips together. “Get in the bed, Bucky.”

With the order came obvious relief and the soldier went around the other side of the bed to sit against the headboard. He tugged off his shirt and dropped it on the side table. He moved his gun from his waistband to rest on the shirt, setting the safety as he did so. One knife went in his right hand.

“You’re going to sleep like that?” Darcy asked, though she knew full well that Steve too slept with a sidearm within arm’s reach.

He nodded. And held out his left hand. She eased down onto the bed, swearing lightly as her side pained her. Then she curved her hand around his, leaving her broken wrist outstretched on the mattress.

Bucky stilled, his eyes seeking out Steve.

“It’s okay, you’re safe. Get as much sleep as you need.” And just like that, the Winter Soldier was out.

Darcy used a thumb to wipe away tears as Steve knelt by her side. “Why me?”

“You’re gorgeous and smart and real.”

“But I thought he’d want to be with you.”

“If it’s too much, Darcy, I’ll find a place to take him for a while.”

“No. I can deal.  Steve, my heart breaks every five seconds with him. How in the hell are you holding up?”

He pressed his forehead to the mattress and had to take several breaths to choke down the feelings. “I’m okay, doll.”

She stroked the back of his neck. “Bullshit,” she said softly.  “But I’ll give you a pass for couple of days because I’m sleeping with your boyfriend. Dream on that.”

“Darce?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, idiot. Now the Advil has kicked in and I’m going to sleep now. Don’t ogle too much or I’ll wake up and be cranky.”

“Deal.”  

 

He waited until he could hear the rhythmic rise and fall of breathing from both of them before he gave into want. He wasn’t oblivious the tears spilling down his face, he just didn’t care, nor did he try to stop them.  Braced against the doorframe, he drank in the view.

Bucky was here.  Dark lashes, full and long.  The jaw still the same.  He was better muscled than before.  Dark, twisted scars where skin met metal branched out into smaller ones lacing into Bucky’s shoulder and chest. Like Steve, the rest of his body was relatively unscathed (serum, most likely, not lack of injury).

Bucky had been gorgeous before. Now he was work of art, as if an artist had skimmed fingers along his muscles to outline each one. The longer hair suited him, reminding Steve of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures.  It wasn’t hard to remember how those hands felt on his body, or the way Bucky kissed. Or how he nagged Steve into taking care of himself.

As he looked his fill, Darcy rolled to her side, leaving her hand entwined with Bucky’s as she pressed her face into his thigh. Her hair, black in the night, spilled across the pillow. Full lips, pale cheeks and long dark lashes of her own—yes, she was easy on the eyes, and the pair of them—he was staggered. (He wanted to see them dance.)

Bucky and Darcy. Together. He craved. (He didn’t dare pull out his sketchbook now)

Steve slept on the floor after commandeering the pillow Bucky had left in the chair (smelled like her, like him).

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The next three days were a shampoo-rinse-repeat that wasn’t easy on any of them.

Steve was worn out. Physically, he’d recovered from the damage Bucky had done to him (and vice versa--he knew he’d broken Bucky’s arm), but mentally he was wrecked. Both of the people he loved the most were hurting and the process of picking up the pieces had to start with him. Steve wanted—desperately wanted—to gather his family and go somewhere safe. (Nowhere to go) Instead, he did what he always did, gathered his courage and barreled head-first into battle, determined to salvage both Darcy and Bucky out this nightmare. But it was a war he’d never fought, he didn’t know where to begin, and he wondered if he wouldn’t destroy this precious thing in the process.

Every morning, Sam showed up to stay with Darcy (Bucky was having none of leaving her alone for any length of time.  Steve agreed wholeheartedly) when they went for the run, coffee, shower routine.

After breakfast, Steve wrangled Darcy in the bathroom. He discovered that she could get downright snotty when she wasn’t feeling good. He tried to hide his smile at her smart mouth, rarely succeeded, which either pissed her off more or put her in a better mood. (Kissing her definitely helped nudge her to the latter.)

Sam got Bucky. Sometimes the soldier would only listen. Other times he would give one word answers or short explanations.

He was recovering whole chunks of memory now, and either Sam or Steve would help him work through them. If it was mission based, the Winter Soldier recalled names, dates, targets--entire assignments with perfect clarity. Notes were passed on to Maria.

All of them held their breath over what might happen if the Winter Soldier was triggered, until Clint clued them in that loss of control wasn’t really an option. Complete shutdown was far more probable.

Some of Natasha’s quirks made better sense now.

Personal memories were more fragmented, though around Darcy some of Bucky’s signature charm came out, especially when they bickered. He still had trouble verbalizing his opinions, but could indicate with gestures well enough. Darcy, of course, had zero compunction about establishing her own space and the house rules.

Sam would stick around for lunch and give them the lowdown on living in the Tower. Half the stories involved Clint and Nat and whatever trouble they’d managed to get into that day.  The other half involved the science gang (Tony, Bruce and Jane). Thor was the odd man out, but didn’t seem to mind--even relaying a message through Sam to bring Bucky to the tower for a sparring session. (For certain, no one but the Asgardian could be trusted to handle whatever the Winter Soldier dished out.)

Afternoons meant putting Darcy and Bucky down for a nap. After that first day home, Steve figured out that Darcy lasted about three vertical hours before the pain of the gunshot wound got to her. And with all of the information slamming into him, along with coming off the chemicals, Bucky needed sleep simply to allow his brain to process and heal.

In any case, Darcy could be a brat about going to bed, (she had things to do, damn it, or so she said), and Bucky waited around (pacing even) until she was sound asleep before covering her hand with his to do the same. (Did Steve want kids? After this, he wasn’t so sure.) After dashing through house doing chores, Steve spent whatever time he had left drawing as he watched over them.

The evenings were … interesting.  

He got the job of trying to feed two serum-laced soldiers and one Darcy Lewis. He was passable in the kitchen, but it took him time and well, he had to listen to Bucky and Darcy arguing.

They argued about everything. The remote (hers, don’t fuck with the programming). Washing dishes. (Wash AND dry them, damn it.) Putting the toilet seat down. (Steve winced at the memory.) What time to go to bed. (When she was tired.) What time to wake up (After coffee was made). Who was taking all the hot water every morning (whoever was last had to wait an extra hour for the hot water tank to fill back up. Darcy had found out the hard way and let both of them know it).

But mostly they argued about Darcy wanting to look over Bucky’s arm. He refused to let her touch it, except when he held her hand as they slept. Darcy thought the narcotics were hiding how sensitive the arm really was and wanted to take a look before the drugs wore off. But Bucky was adamant, even to the point of retreating to the corner of Darcy’s bedroom when she pushed too hard.

Except that made her feel so guilty she went to bed that night and waited for him to hold her hand before falling asleep.

On the fourth day, word came out at the highest levels (from whom was noted and tagged for further investigation) about Steve’s old friend, and Steve was promptly dispatched to a closed-door Senate hearing that week on HYDRA activity.

Steve Rogers—in full uniform--defended Bucky and his status as a POW. He never confirmed that he had actually seen James Barnes or the Winter Soldier. He merely used his eyebrow and Captain America voice when he speculated that if a decorated soldier (venerated in the Smithsonian itself) had been taken prisoner by the very people responsible for the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., then he would be greeted with welcoming arms and all the help he could get from those who had sent him off to war in the first place.

The Winter Soldier never appeared on the public radar as anything other than idle speculation.

That trip had required a Stark helicopter and leaving Darcy and Bucky alone for the day. Natasha had offered to babysit and Darcy’d turned her down flat (to Nat’s everlasting amusement). Sam checked in once or twice, that was enough. It might have been a good day (a win, in his book), except when he got home, they were arguing again.

“Damn it, Barnes, stop getting me wet and wash the damned dishes.”

Steve set his shield down and sagged against the front door.  He wondered if he could sneak back out again.

“Swearing isn’t very lady-like for a dame,” Bucky noted as he dumped too much soap in the sink.  Steve recognized that smirk, and while it gave him a little jolt of happiness, it did nothing to endear him to Steve’s girlfriend.

“You want lady-like? I’ll introduce you to my mother. Holy shit, Barnes, are you trying to wash everyone’s dishes on the block?”

“She’s nice. You told me to put soap in it.”

“Don’t piss her off. You ever heard the phrase, ‘a little goes a long way’ or was that before your time?”

“I’m gonna put a swear jar in the kitchen, Princess. Make you put a quarter in it.”

She crossed her arms. “Really? JARVIS makes me put in a ten dollar bill and donates the proceeds every three months to Dad’s party fund.”

“Sounds tragic.”

“You haven’t been to a Stark party yet. Don’t go. Ever.” 

Bucky crowded her, leaning over her head to put the dish soap back in the cabinet. “Is there dancing? I’m good at that.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“You’re lying, doll.”

Darcy poked at his chest with her fingertips. “Am not. You cannot call that excuse of a drunken revelry dancing. Back up, Barnes!”

“You want me to wash dishes or go away?”

“Oh my god. I can’t kill you. It’s like trying to threaten Nat. All it does is amuse her when she knows six different ways to kill you with her pinkie.”

“Seven, but who’s counting,” Bucky shot back with a lazy grin.

Steve fled up the stairs and hid in the bathroom. It was the only place of retreat in the ridiculously small house. (Captain America, defender of the weak, first patriot, the man with a plan, and he was hiding from his girlfriend and … and … shit, his boyfriend? in the bathroom.) 

Three solid days of this and Steve was about to lose his mind.  The gentle teasing he and Darcy engaged in (or he and Bucky) paled in comparison to the sharp repartee ringing through the house from the time the pair woke up to the time they went to sleep.

The apartment was too small for any of them to have privacy, and the fact that he and Bucky had invaded Darcy’s space was clearly a lot for her to take in. They had only talked about moving in and he was sure there were going to be negotiations on location, space, privacy and—damn—he wasn’t even sure what her normal work hours were these days. (DC had been good for his psyche, not for their relationship, hence wanting to live with her since she’d taken marriage off the table for the time being.)

Clearly, he was going to have to do a better job of negotiating the peace. 

Taking a deep breath, Steve went once more into the breach. “Hi guys. What’s for dinner?” At the dark look on Darcy’s face, and the faint smirk on Bucky’s, he knew he’d stepped on a land mine.

“Jackass here burned the tacos. How do you burn tacos, Steve? So dinner … is going to be out. I am going out. And if I am going out, that means Barnes is going out. If Barnes is going out, that means you’re going out. So get your jacket, we’re going out. I don’t care where. You pick. Just make it in walking distance so I can get there without Barnes thinking he has to pick me up and cart me everywhere.”

“Corner bar. It’s two-for-one wing night,” Steve offered.

Darcy looked up as if in prayer. “The voice of reason.” She turned her hands out, and Steve used it as an excuse to wrap his arms around her in a hug. For a moment, she trembled, but she steadied and just rested her head on his shoulder while Bucky picked out her coat from the hooks near the door and passed it to Steve. 

Steve helped Darcy into it (old habit, his ma would have twisted his ear if he didn’t help a lady with her coat). As he set it in place, he ran his hands under her hair and pulled the locks free with a kiss to the nape of her neck.  Some of the tension drained out of Darcy and she leaned backward so he could hold her again for just a moment.

Bucky had on his hoodie by that time and looked away from the intimacy. He didn’t quite slide all the way into Winter Soldier mode, but he was subdued, his eyes noting everything about their surroundings.

Actually, Steve did too. Given that HYDRA had tried to trap Darcy once already, he didn’t feel particularly safe venturing too far, hence the restaurant just a few doors down the street.

The corner bar was exactly that, a little dive with lots of booths in a narrow building. Bucky took one side, slid all the way to the wall and stationed himself to see the restaurant and the front entrance. Steve handed Darcy into the other side and blocked her in. He had the view of the back. It was rare these days for him carry a weapon beyond his shield, but he did now with a knife tucked into his boot and a Glock under his coat.

In spite of all that, dinner was easier. Steve didn’t really want to talk about the hearing, but he kept them amused with all the fans who had camped out near the Capitol waiting for him to come out. (He still felt awkward signing autographs, and limited it to the younger kids.)

Darcy picked up on his tone and countered with a couple of funny stories of growing up with Tony. Bucky made it clear he was listening, but his eyes skimmed the room, looking for the extraordinary as he pretended to drink his beer.

When the check was paid and the three of them scooted out of the booth, Bucky paused, for just a fraction of a section, on a man and woman near the front door. In a low voice, almost on an exhale, he muttered, “Ten o’clock. Nearest table to the entrance. Spotters. You have her?”

With the excuse of helping Darcy into her coat again, he turned them around to note the not-quite-unassuming party. “Stark’s. I recognize them.”

As they passed, one the security guards nodded, “Cap.”

“Williams. Appreciate the backup.”

“Boss’s orders, but nice to do a good turn for you. All clear on the outside. Got two more across the street.”

Darcy kept quiet all the way home, even when Bucky canvassed her flat with his semi-automatic pistol in hand. He returned to the living room, sliding the gun into a hidden holster in his pocket.

Without another word, she climbed the stairs. “Darce?”

“I’m going to bed, Steve. I think I’ve had enough.”

(Enough of what?)

 

 

Darcy put her foot down the next morning, after yet another morning of stumbling over each other in the small space and Darcy’s first successful foray in the shower without help (to Steve’s chagrin. They’d figured out how to do shower sex yesterday. She’d started it with soapy stroke to his cock and had insisted he do all the work).

Sam was still there after Bucky’s morning therapy, but had the sense not to interfere with the showdown in progress.

Bucky blocked the front door. She stood toe to toe with him, poking him in the chest. “Move it or lose it, buster. I’m cranky. I want five minutes of silence and it’s not going to happen here.” She hefted an overnight bag on her shoulder.

“I can be quiet,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I know. Super-secret spy thing. Steve’s good at it too. But come on, Barnes. It’s not the same and you know it.” She softened just a little. “Look. Give me a couple of days. The weekend. I’ll come back on Monday and we’ll try to figure something out. You guys can have poker night or go to a bar and get a beer. Just don’t smoke cigars in my place. I’ll smell it and then things have to get ugly.”

“You can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving permanently. I’m going to my lab. Where there won’t be a single human being to annoy me.”

One Tony’s drivers pulled up to the curb and waited for Darcy. Bucky just crossed his arms and leaned against the door.

Even though Steve didn’t want Darcy to go either, he’d been aware of the tension radiating off her frame these past two days. Bucky and Steve had lived in an apartment a little smaller than this at one time.  Neither of them minded, really.  But the tight quarters were getting to her.  His boxes were crammed in a corner of the living room. With the extra chair, the three of them were stepping over furniture just to sit down. They couldn’t all sit at the little table for dinner without bumping knees and plates. Same went for the living room. Bucky really needed somewhere to sleep other than sitting up and Steve wanted a (Darcy’s) bed.

He really didn’t want to do this, but neither one would give in and the tension was beginning to sizzle. “Let her go, Buck.” He hated having to give orders.

Bucky’s expression didn’t change, but he shifted to one side, saying, “I’ll follow you and see you to the Tower. Can’t do it any other way, Princess.”

“Fine. Get in the car. You too, Sam. No sense in not giving you a lift.” She’d turned around to Steve and snapped, “You coming?”

He retrieved his jacket and followed them out the door.

As soon as Darcy stepped into the Tower with Sam as her escort, the Winter Soldier fell into place. It was a curious thing, a carefully neutral mask that hid whatever Bucky might have been thinking. Any pretense of humor vanished. He had more trouble articulating his wants or needs in this mode, but as the week had worn on, there had been improvement. Whether it was healing from the serum or the effects of the drugs were lessened, Steve didn’t know.

“Why?” Bucky asked.

Used to the shorthand now, Steve motioned for Bucky to get out of the car and dismissed the driver. “I want lunch. You hungry?” Steve asked.

Bucky settled his hoodie and ball cap in place then jammed his hands into the front pocket. He stilled, considering. Steve counted a full sixty seconds. Then—“Yes.”

He wanted to pump his arm in victory. Instead, he replied mildly, “Good. We’ll go to the sub shop on the corner.” As he headed that direction, Bucky fell in step beside him. Steve was fully aware of the security team falling in place around them. Bucky noted them as well, his ice grey eyes picking them out of the crowd.

“Why?” he asked again.

“Why did Darcy go to her lab? Because there are three people living in an apartment hardly big enough for one, and because the two of us were talking about moving in together before all of this went down. And moving in was probably not going to be at her place because her lease is up soon. D.C. wasn’t logical for her, but in any case, it’s not an option now.” Steve elbowed Bucky. “I didn’t get my deposit back. Thanks for that.”

The gesture must have been familiar enough that some of the soldier-face went away and Steve saw a faint twist of the lips that might have been either a smile or a scowl.

The day went … better. Without Darcy distracting Bucky, they ate lunch in peace. Stark’s team kept them company but did a decent job of staying in the background. The soldier relaxed enough to keep up his end of the conversation. 

And he was curious.  The freeze-thaw cycles had resulted in Bucky gaining an odd assortment of memories and places that had few links to each other.  Steve found it ironic that he was the one giving Bucky an overview of the past seventy years.  Bucky had a better grasp of technology though, and Steve had been surprised when he’d dug out a little netbook out of his backpack to bring up Google.  (Along with a fair amount of cash and the sly admission of knocking over the HYDRA safe houses.  Which prompted more memories and another list of targets for Hill.)

They walked all over Midtown doing little errands. Mundane enough, but maybe that’s what they needed. Post office for stamps, the bank where Steve withdrew some cash for the week, (He had a debit card, but still liked paper money for the little things) and the newsstand for a paper.

There was a row of shops and a clothing store where Bucky picked out a few more things.  As he browsed, Steve fought for composure.  Bucky fucking loved clothes. He’d bullied Steve into dressing far more modern (at the time) than he preferred and Steve had few doubts that his wardrobe (such that it was) would undergo another transformation once Bucky figured out the current fashion trends. 

Sure enough, a new shirt for Steve was held up for inspection, and to his surprise, a sweater that even he could see would be to Darcy’s taste.  All that and a new wallet (the kind that went in the front pocket, rather than the back) went on the counter and Bucky paid for all of it with a smirk of satisfaction.

As they walked home, Steve veered a block out of the way to an art supply store he’d found months ago. He didn’t really need anything, but he wondered if any of it would prompt a memory. More than once, Bucky had picked up one of Steve’s drawing pencils, only to put it back down.

The art shop was no more than four rows of supplies, but they were of good quality and Steve liked the proprietor. They chatted while Bucky prowled around the shelves.  He stopped before a display of pencils, and Steve broke off the conversation to stand beside his friend.

“We were drawing. In a classroom?” Bucky asked, his voice full of uncertainty.

“We did that a lot,” Steve agreed, careful not to give away too much information.

“That day. Something happened.  A bombing.” Bucky reached for a 4B pencil. His favorite and one that Steve didn’t particularly care for. “Pearl Harbor. We were in art class. Sunday evening.”

“Yes.”

“I remember?”

“You do,” Steve confirmed. “Do you remember what we were drawing?”

Bucky jerked back and his eyes opened wide. “Supposed to be drawing hands and feet. You drew a pinup girl. Looked like Darcy.”

“I did.”

“My mirror.”

Steve laughed, and it felt good to have a simple memory without any dark edges. “You liked it so much that I stuck it into your mirror in the bedroom. You left it there until you shipped out and took it with you. I still have it, by the way. I can tell you the long, convoluted story of that as we walk home if you like.”

“Is that why you like her?”

“One of the reasons.” Reaching for an eraser, Steve turned it in his hands, surprised by how easily Bucky had taken that line of thinking. “Bucky, after all that we’d been through, I needed something to hold onto. Something good. The first time I saw Darcy, I thought of … well … that drawing, for one. I guess, maybe—shit, Bucky-- I thought you were dead and maybe it was sign and you had sent her my way.” He shuffled his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets. “So I took a chance. I was drowning and—I think she knew it. She’s my light, Bucky.”

“You love her.” Bucky seemed disconcerted.

“No more or less than I love you, jerk. I don’t know what you remember, but for me, we’ve only been apart for a couple of years. We did nearly that when you joined up. Three months of basic, another six or seven months stationed here then you shipped out to England. A year later, I pulled you out of Italy. Doesn’t change the seven years we had before all that.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She doesn’t know what to make of you. Do you want the pencil?” Steve asked.

“Huh?”

“The pencil. A sketchbook. An eraser. You might like the watercolors too and some of the new colored pencils. We’ll talk about the rest on our way home.”

Bucky nodded. Guided by Steve, he made his selections. The proprietor checked them out with a cheerful smile and encouraged them to come back.

“I might have her look at my arm. It itches.”

Steve’s eyebrows flew up. “She’d like that. She’s worried that no one here knows how it works, so if something goes wrong, she wants to know how to fix it. Said something about synapses and feedback, but I didn’t catch all that.”

Apparently Bucky did, because he got that contemplative look. They walked for a good block and a half before he nodded. “She’s right.”

“Can you wait until Monday? I think if we invade her space before then, she’ll make both of us take a swim in the Jersey River.”

Bucky shivered. “Don’t like cold.”

Damn. “Sorry, that was a joke. You’re safe, Bucky. Darcy won’t do anything to hurt you. Neither will I.”

It took a few minutes, but Bucky seemed to recover himself. “She doesn’t like me,” he said again.

“She’s not a skirt, Buck,” Steve sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was give Bucky a reason to be skittish around Darcy.  “She’s used to guys hitting on her all the time because she’s gorgeous. Half the time we go out, I’m staking my damned claim behind her back so some little shit won’t spend the night staring at her breasts.”

“Is that what I’m doing?”

“Some,” he admitted. Bucky flinched, and Steve cautiously laid an arm across his shoulder. “Under different circumstances, Darcy wouldn’t give a damn. Especially because I’m no different than the next idiot when she’s dressed to the nines.  But right now, she’s scared about what all this means. She knows about us.”

They reached Darcy’s flat, and Steve pulled out his keys to unlock the door. When they were inside, Bucky repeated his inspection. “Clear,” he announced. He flicked his eyes to Steve. “You told her? About us?”

“Peggy did.”

“Peggy?”

“Agent Carter. She wouldn’t give you the time of day in 1945.”

Bucky considered. “Dark hair? Brown uniform?”

“Same one.  She’s close enough to the Stark family that Darcy and Tony both call her ‘Aunt Peggy.’”

“Small world.”

“You’re telling me.”

 

*****

 

The memories slammed into him, ripples of scenes, some moving, some not. By the time they reached Darcy’s place, his head was pounding (Rule one: assets do not feel pain).

Steve led the way into the apartment.

He cleared it though, taking it room by room until he was sure no one else was here. With that done, he holstered his weapon and sat on the living room sofa. His vision hazed (Pain--Assets do not feel pain).

A voice. (Rule one) Blurred vision. “Bucky? I need you to tell me what’s in your head, pal.”

(Rule one.) “I’m okay.”

“You’re not, Buck. You used to get these bad headaches. I can help if you let me. You’re safe. I won’t hurt you. Take your hoodie off.”

He stripped to the waist. (Rule one.) “I don’t feel pain.”

“Tell that to someone who doesn’t know you, Buck. I’m going to put my hands on your face.”

Fingertips to his temples. Pressure. Rule one.

He swayed, tried to keep himself upright. Felt arms catch hold. “Easy, Bucky, I’ve got you. Lay on the sofa.” Arms turned into hands that stroked his head, shoulders as his face was cushioned. His legs were shifted until he was prone.

Memories of other pain rippled. Hands forcing him into a chair. Lightning in his head. Rule one. He began to slide into the space of nothing. Retreating.

Then a thumb dug into a knot on his shoulder, the relief distracting him from the stream of pictures in his head and pulling him back to the here and now.

More pressure meant more relief. A voice murmured. “I’ve got you, Bucky. It’s me, Steve. I’m going to take the pain away. You’ve got some bad knots in your shoulders. I can get them out. Used to be so weak I couldn’t help much until I was older. But I can do this now. Your head is healing.  Gotta be too much and we’ve had a big day already.”

Hand slid down his spine, bringing relief in places he didn’t know were hurting. His head began to clear as Steve kept up a steady monologue.

“There you go. I felt that. You’re relaxing. It’s just me, Bucky. I love you. You’re safe. I’m going to take the pain away.”

He began to drift as Steve methodically worked the muscles in his neck and back, encouraging them to unknot. “Used to get headaches like this. Bad ones. I’d get you drunk half the time ‘cause I couldn’t rub hard enough to loosen the knots. Don’t have to do that now. Now I can do this and do it right.”

Accompanied by Steve’s stream of comforting words, he dozed. Maybe for a few minutes, maybe for a couple of hours. When he woke, he was back in his own mind, with only a residual ache to keep him company. “Steve?” he forced himself to say.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up and don’t stop.” He wasn’t sure where the words came from, but they felt right.

There wasn’t another word spoken, but warm hands continued to work the smallest tension from his neck and back. One hand slid up into his hair to massage his skull, while the other stroked along the scarred knots.

Something wet dropped onto his back. Then another. Curious, Bucky shifted to look, rolling to his side. Steve only adjusted, keeping up the pressure on his neck and spine. But Steve’s face was wet and his eyes were red.

“Don’t mind me.”

He knew there was something he should say, something that would make Steve not cry. But he didn’t know what it was. “Don’t stop. Please,” was all he could muster. (Warm. Devotion. Flesh.)

“I won’t.” 

 

*****

 

 

That night, Steve stripped to a pair of boxer shorts, collapsed on Darcy’s bed (smelled like her), and promptly fell asleep. Exhaustion overrode his need to monitor his friend (dozing in front of the television anyway).

Not even an hour later, Bucky staggered in from the sofa. “Steve,” he croaked.

He snapped awake. “Bucky? What is it?”

“M’arm hurts. Cold. Can’t get warm. Don’t let them take me back. Wanna be with you. Knew you. Knew you on the bridge. Can’t kill you. Failed my mission. They’ll wipe me again. It hurts. Please, no. Don’t make me kill him. Don’t make me do this. I know him.”

The cadence and the accent was all Bucky Barnes. The litany rippled from his tongue until Steve closed his arms around him, skin against skin. Bucky shuddered from the touch and Steve tried not to react to how good it felt to hold him once more. Metal and skin stroked up his back to clutch hard. They might have stayed that way, except Bucky pressed a kiss to Steve’s shoulder.

Steve’s eyes drifted shut as he inhaled. The sharp tang of skin and sweat pulled at him, so familiar. Bucky shivered. As softly as possible, Steve coaxed, “Come on, Bucky. Get in bed. I’ll keep you warm. And safe.”

“Steve?”

“Yeah?” he asked.

“I want—“

“What do you want?”

“Us. I want the ice to go away.”

As difficult as it was, Steve only pressed a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “Come on. No ice tonight. Get in bed.” Bucky took the right side, as he always had, lying on his side so that he could rest a hand on Steve’s chest (a habit stemming from making sure Steve kept breathing until morning). The familiar intimacy should have sent him reeling (Darcy. Had to tell Darcy.). Instead, once Bucky’s breathing even out, he fell asleep, hand resting on top of Bucky’s (flesh on metal). Their feet twined together.

Neither of them woke until well into the light of the next day.

 

They woke together, with Steve skimming his middle two fingers along the length of the metal forearm still weighing down his chest (old habit).

It had taken him months to get used to sleeping with Darcy. Unlike Bucky, who rarely twitched once he settled half-sprawled against Steve, Darcy shifted from back to front, sometimes on top of him, sometimes on her pillow. Eventually, he’d learned all her sleeping positions and figured out how to best accommodate them. On days Steve came back to bed after his morning run, she would spoon with him until she woke up. (Sex was always involved, giving him a damned good reason to crawl back in bed after coffee and a shower.)

Waking Bucky had always been a chore until Steve discovered that the lightest of touches did the trick, rousing his friend in a way that caused the least amount of protest.

Ridiculously long lashes lifted, revealing ice blue eyes, not grey. The clarity in them made his breath catch. Bucky’s hand came off Steve’s chest to scrape the long locks of brown hair out of his face as he shifted to lean on an elbow. “Hell of a lot better way to wake up than a tent and a dirt floor,” Bucky noted wryly.

Steve smirked. “Lost your taste for camping?”

“Lost my taste for a lot of things. Not for you, though.” Bucky caught his bottom lip between his teeth, unsure if he’d gone too far.

Rolling to his side, Steve buried a hand in Bucky’s hair. “Same here. But let’s take this slow, okay?” He pressed the lightest of kisses against that swollen lip (taste it, nibble it, lick it, own it, fuck). Still enough to have his heart pounding and a twitch in his dick.  “I can’t get drunk, at least, not on anything produced locally, and by locally I mean on this planet. But Bucky, tasting you is the headiest damned drink and I’m going to get in trouble if I stay here.”

Steve sat up to put a little distance to temptation. “I want you. Don’t think for a second I don’t. But I’m thinking about Darcy too and I’ll be damned if I mess this up for all of us.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, only reaching out to skim his fingers across his name inked on Steve’s skin. “Me?”

His fingers might has well have burned, they felt so damned good.  “I found her, Bucky. I thought … I thought it was too late for you. So when she’s with me, she has both of us.”

“When?”

“We were dating. Before I took her to bed.”

“Why? You … other dames.”

“That was different. They were fun. Just like the dames you had before you shipped out.” Steve reached over to brush the hair falling into Bucky’s face back so he could feel the slide of the thick strands. “Darcy is more. Felt like I was stepping out on you until I did this. Didn’t know I could fall in love twice. Never figured it would be me who found her.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“Makes you smile.”

“Yes.”

“Keep her. Won’t mess this up for you.”

“Not going to happen.” He took in the drowsy blinks, the way the sheets were still tucked in around Bucky. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be downstairs making breakfast.”

“Sam?”

“He’s got plans for the weekend. Has a girl he thinks nobody knows about.”

“Good. Just want you.”

“When you wake up, we’ll take a ride on my bike.”

“She’s right.”

“What’s that?”

“You look good on the bike.”

Steve grinned. 

Chapter Text

For twenty-four hours, Darcy spoke to JARVIS and JARVIS alone. The silence was breathtaking. So was having the ability to move around without tripping over anyone (‘cept her ‘bots but mostly they got out of the way unless they crashed into each other). She played music Steve disliked and cranked it up as loud as she could stand it. She would have danced except her side wasn’t having any of it. The ankle was up for it though, so she tapped her feet as she sat on the stool, happily soldering a new circuit board with JARVIS (virtually) hovering over her shoulder.

The sentry ‘bot needed a better voice command system so she worked on that too. A dog was still better at this, but she was making good progress on the simple AI. The laptop was open on her workstation. When she had to rest, her fingers flew across the keys, coding as she went. (Until the wrist started hurting, then she’d switch back.)

Immersing herself in her workshop centered her, keeping her hands occupied while part of her brain processed the fallout of the past couple of weeks. (No solutions, just slotting everything in place and cataloguing data.)

She crashed on the sofa. By herself. Yeah, she could admit now the she’d been a little freaked out when Bucky wanted to sleep next to her. (Even when she didn’t catch him at it, she had metal joint impressions on her fingers.) Darcy wasn’t exactly going to tell a Russian assassin-slash-Steve’s best friend that he couldn’t, but it was weird. Definitely awkward. Especially because she kind of liked the way he smelled. (Tangy).

With their hands entangled, Darcy couldn’t accidentally roll on her side (probably a good thing), though yesterday morning, she’d woken to discover her face smashed against Bucky’s hip (again). He didn’t seem to mind. And Steve, good grief, the look of want just destroyed her.

No, Steve didn’t mind her being snuggled up to Bucky at all.

But she did. Sort of. Enough that she’d escaped here.

She’d bought Sam a coffee yesterday and begged for an explanation of Bucky’s growing attachment.

I don’t know for sure, Darcy, but I can make a few guesses.

Your guesses have been on the mark, so let’s hear it.

You’re Steve’s girl, for one, so by extension, he feels safe around you. I wouldn’t call it trust, but you aren’t a threat.

But they were together before.

Yes, and in his mind, that hasn’t changed. You’re an extension of that relationship, but he’s put Steve into the role of his handler, so he can’t quite resume that connection. With you, he can work on finding that old personality without disappointing Steve.

Why does Steve have to be his handler?

Because he doesn’t trust himself not to go back to HYDRA and because there is no one else he is absolutely sure isn’t HYDRA.

You think there is a trigger?

No. If there was, there wouldn’t have been a need for that fourth vial. As Barnes puts it, loyalty wasn’t part of the programming. Just obedience.

So what now?

Darcy, give him time. I know it’s a lot to ask, and you’re caught up in the middle. If it becomes too much, come talk to me.

So you can nursemaid all three of us? You need to tell my dad you need a raise.

If he'll upgrade my wings, we’re even.

If he doesn’t, I will.

You’ve got a deal.

 

Sunday morning, Darcy ventured upstairs to steal coffee from her dad (stairs hidden at the back of her lab went straight to his floor, thanks Dad. JARVIS kept it locked.) and to poke around his workshop. If he was missing an interesting piece of hardware, well, he would know where to find her.

“The prodigal daughter returns.”

“Prodigal implies I did something wrong. In this case, no. Pick another metaphor.”

Tony carefully put his arms around her shoulders so that he could hug her. She rested her head on his chest. “You okay?” he asked.

“Physically, emotionally or situationally?”

“Start with the first and we’ll work our way down the list.”

Darcy stayed where she was, thinking about how no one but Pepper ever saw this side of Tony Stark. He was the best dad. Unconventional, but then again, she probably wouldn’t have thrived in a “normal” environment (whatever that was).

“Ankle is fine, wrist doesn’t hurt much anymore, got another few days before stitches can come out. They itch and hurt sometimes, but not enough to keep me from sleeping.”

“Put a mark in box number one. Let’s skip to item number three. You’ve got a couple of extra people living in your dinky rental.”

“Dad, three weeks ago, Steve asked me to move in with him.”

“To DC?”

“Negotiations hadn’t progressed that far, but my lease is up pretty soon.”

“Ah. And now things are … complicated.”

“Circling back to issue number two. I’ve got my boyfriend and his old boyfriend living in my apartment with me. And I can’t call him an ex because they never really broke up.”

“Something tells me negotiations haven’t progressed very far on that subject either.”

“It’s been a big couple of weeks.” A stupid tear welled up and she sniffed it back.

“Uh uh. No tears. I definitely draw the line at tears, Darcy Maria.”

“I know. Gimme a tissue and I’ll make them go away.”

He dug around and came up with a rag that still had a clean corner. “You do that.”

“Gee thanks, Dad.” She took it and blew her nose.

“It’s yours now. Your germs, you own it.”

“That never works with the Bugatti.”

“Move back into the Tower, it’s yours.”

Darcy pulled back to peer at him suspiciously. “That’s an excellent bribe. And quite a few steps up from last time.”

“You weren’t living with a deadly assassin and a super soldier then. Which begs the question: why aren’t you raging and storming about your lab, throwing things. Please note, I said ‘your lab’ not mine.”

“Who do I blame, Dad? Steve? For being in love with someone before he met me? Bucky? He’s barely functioning. From the little I’ve gleaned from him, it’s the memory of Steve—maybe being with Steve—that prompted him to break from HYDRA. I can’t take that away from him.”

“Where does that leave you?”

“Odd man out, I think.”

“Are you sure?”

“No. Steve’s been acting like nothing has changed—if you don’t count the fact he’s sleeping on the floor.”

Tony eased backward to run a thumb on her chin. “How does Darcy Stark feel about all this?”

“Darcy Stark wants everything to go back to the way it was three weeks ago. But that’s not going to happen. I’m scared I’m going to lose Steve in all this, and if I do, I won’t be able to hate him for it. But … you know, sharing isn’t really in my nature.”

“You really do love him.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Enough to give him time to figure all this out? Because the Steve Rogers I know wasn’t planning on any of this either. And the last time I heard, he was making a permanent kind of move on my girl.”

“Wow, I guess that’s the bonus question.” Darcy wrinkled her nose at Tony. “Yes. And whose side are you on anyway?”

“Yours,” he said firmly. “Once Barnes is thinking straight and Steve can figure out where he stands, then you can make your decisions. And if it gets too difficult anywhere in there, come home, or talk to your mom and we’ll figure out an R&D trip for you somewhere. Never underestimate the power of running away from your problems.”

Darcy snorted. “Yeah, you’ve got that one down.”

He tapped her on the nose. “Your mom never lets me get away with it for long.”

“You are a pain in the ass.”

“Hey, I resemble that. Anyone tell you that you look like me?”

“Only you.”

“And that, Darcy Stark, is how we’ve evaded the world all these years.” He kissed her on the head. “Now get out of my lab until you’re hungry.”

She got her coffee and padded in bare feet to the elevator. “Club Stark, J.”

“Of course.” There was a short pause. “Lewis.”

“Thanks, JARVIS.” Yeah, he had her back too.

The best part of the whole conversation? Tony didn’t ask why Darcy was in his lab. He never did.

 

 

That night, from the comfort of the sofa where she’d bunked down with three blankets, a couple of pillows and Pitch Perfect, she called Steve. In spite of all the forced togetherness that was driving her crazy on Friday, now she missed him (and the shower sex, but him more).

In the most modern of fashions, with contact lists and cell phones and caller ID, Steve answered, “Hi, doll.”

“Which girlfriend were you hoping would be on the other end?” she joked.  “That’s an open-ended greeting.” (Oh it felt good to tease him again.) 

He laughed softly, and she snuggled down into the blankets to the sound of his voice.  “You know, I traded down this weekend. A beautiful dame and smart mouth for a brooding lump on the couch,” he quipped. 

The separation must have done both of them a favor because Steve sounded more like himself for the first time in a month.  Cautiously, she offered, “Sounds like things are better.”

There was a real smile in his voice when he answered, “They could be. What are your plans?” He was just casual enough that she could tell he was hoping for good news.

“You do like plans. Hmm.  Well, since I’ve just about exhausted the music I know you dislike, and I’m firing up a stack of chick flicks tonight that will make you cringe, I’m pretty sure I will be ready for male companionship tomorrow.”

“That’s a relief.”  And it was, she could hear it in his voice. 

“I thought I’d come home tomorrow afternoon and see if we can figure out living arrangements that won’t result in me strangling the both of you before the week is out.” She bit her lip as she said it.

There was a long period of silence, then Steve said softly, “Thank you, Darcy. I know you didn’t sign up for this.”

“Yeah, well, not making any promises here, but I do know that Bucky needs you.”

“Ah—I don’t think he’s as interested in my sunny looks as he is in having you back home. Did I mention the brooding part?”

A broody Winter Soldier. “Sounds like fun?”

He snickered, then, “Darce, Bucky wants you to look at his arm.”

Even though he couldn’t see it, she raised her eyebrow in surprise.  “How did you talk him into that?”

“I didn’t. I think—no, I know he misses you.”

“So he’ll trade me poking at his arm in exchange for me coming home?” There was something unsettling about that, but Darcy couldn’t put her finger on it.  Nevertheless, someone needed to understand what sort of technology Barnes had on him.

“Something along those lines. I’m guessing you would rather do this at your lab?”

“Yes.”

“Then we will see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Hey, Steve?”

“Yes, doll?”

“Make it the morning and bring the coffee.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She could hear the grin—and relief—in his voice. It made her feel, well, good. Really good. “I love you, Darcy.”

“I love you back, Steve. Now scram so I can get ready for the morning.”

She scrambled out of the covers, shutting off the movie as she did.   She set the cell phone beside her laptop on her workbench. “J, order food, it’s going to be a late night. Are you on board with me?”

“Always, Lewis. Carbs or protein?”

“Protein. And coffee. I need fuel. And tunes.”

“Coming right up.”

She pulled data on Bucky’s arm and similar technology out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Industries files. Then she and JARVIS hacked their way around the globe to find anything resembling the machinery. The best data came from an unexpected source via a coded transmission. At three in the morning, JARVIS opened a line.

“It’s late, you’re hacking my files, and this time I can’t take your iPod.”

“Coulson?” Darcy’s voice spiraled upward. She caught herself as her breath hitched. “You know, I’m beginning to think ‘dead’ is just a euphemism around here. Between Steve, Fury, you and Bucky, things are not what they seem. Next one I’m betting on is Loki not really being dead, no matter what Thor and Jane tell me.”

“I’d rather you lose that bet. And who is Bucky?”

“Me too. The answer is James Buchanan Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Steve Rogers’ best friend, Bucky.”

“The Winter Soldier is the mythical fist of HYDRA. And Barnes is a Howling Commando who died in ’45.”

“It’s been a big month, Coulson.”

“So I understand.”

“Think I can have that data? Your hacker is freaking brilliant with her blocks and it’s pissing JARVIS off, which is a talent in itself, but I really, really could use whatever you’ve got on the Deathlok project. Keep Centipede, that’s not my line of thinking.”

“How did you know my hacker is a girl?”

“Crazy Ivan, dude. I had a fifty-fifty chance and, given my week, I needed a break. Sorry.”

“I like that movie. Will you keep me informed?”

“Should I?” she asked with a grin.

“As the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D., I am very much interested in continuing the close relationship that S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Stark family have enjoyed through the years.”

“Who died and made you director?”

“Fury. And how did you know about him?”

“Did you forget who my boyfriend is?”

“Of course not, Ms. Stark.”

“Ha. Tit for tat. I knew you had it in you. Well, Director Coulson, per the same dead former director, Captain Rogers is the new leader of the Avengers Initiative. So the next time you have official business, you’ll know who to call.”

“I appreciate that information.”

“Don’t fangirl on him. It makes him nervous. And I wouldn’t ask Bucky to sign your Howling Commando cards. Be nice, and I’ll get them autographed for your birthday.”

“That, too, would be appreciated.

“Hey, Phil?”

“Yes, Darcy?”

“Steve is very, very unhappy with HYDRA.”

“So am I,” he agreed. “Skye will be transmitting data to you shortly.”

“Have a nice night.”

“Of course, Ms. Lewis.”

She whistled as the line was disconnected, unable to control the grin or the leaking tears this time.

“Lewis, I am receiving a packet of information.”

“Dump it on my laptop, isolate it and make sure it doesn’t have any bugs.”

“Already done.”

“Good. Load it up and let’s see what we’ve got.” She wiggled her fingers and began attacking the keyboard.

 

She got maybe two hours of sleep before JARVIS pinged her.

“Lewis, your alarm.”

“Sorry, J.” She really was. JARVIS had better things to do than to be an alarm clock. But her phone was still sounding off and she wasn’t paying attention. She always woke up to JARVIS’ voice.

She had enough time for a shower and a change of clothes before he told her the boys were on the elevator. She yawned, scratched at her itchy stitches, cursed because she forgot about them and pulled one.  

The little ‘bots she had scattered on her floor were trying to make the place marginally cleaner after her late night in the lab. She tended to get messy as she worked. One scooped up crumbs, another ran a magnet all over the floor and a third polished everything to a shine.

She hoped like hell that she didn’t find any other hidden surprises in Bucky’s arm. That part should be relatively easy to determine with a good scan. Figuring out the rest of the technology would be a little more difficult.

Banner had analyzed the drugs she’d pulled out and Darcy had physically thrown up when she learned what was in them. Anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, heavy duty painkillers, and in the last, pure poison to ensure the asset never betrayed his handlers. No wonder Bucky wanted them out. (High score goes to Barnes for finding one of the handful of people on the planet who could remove the vial.  Bonus to Darcy for being able to do it with her version of a pocket knife.)

Darcy skimmed the surface of her worktable to make sure she had everything she needed. Part of her preparations had involved stuffing most her extraneous (scary looking) equipment into the spare room at the back. She suspected Bucky was antsy enough about the idea of a laboratory, much less one full of strange gear.

Then again, her lab didn’t really look like a lab, more like a tricked out garage without any cars. Art and tools hanging on the walls. Tool boxes in banks below. Floors of black recycled glass with flecks of mirrors embedded in them. Work tables in the center, and a kick ass movie theatre area with an excellent couch on the far side. Behind that was a basic kitchen and bathroom to get her by.

The elevator doors slid open. (Holy shit, double-take-Batman, they looked good). From a purely physical, all-lady-parts-involved assessment, she should have been willing to tumble both of them into the nearest bed (sofa, there was a sofa nearby) and have her wicked way with them.

Steve had on a new white shirt, something that clung perfectly to his abs in that “now you see it, or did you really,” way under an unbuttoned shirt in a midnight blue with nary a plaid weave to be seen.  The jeans and boots were his, but—damn. 

Add in Bucky wearing black-- t-shirt, jeans, and denim jacket--with metal peeking out from his finger gloves.  (Holy shit. She wished she could take a picture.)  But Bucky’s eyes were shadowed and his body language screamed assassin (she could say that, she was friends with Natasha) as he took in the surroundings. He held out a venti cup. “Coffee?”

Taking it, she sniffed (caramel macchiato this time). “Minions, stand down. This one can live.”

The little ‘bots stopped what they were doing and drooped, as if they’d been admonished. That got a curious look of surprise from the soldier and an outright laugh from Steve as he followed in. Softly, with a quirky upturn to his lips, Bucky said, “Pink and blue, Princess? You said lab and I figured white walls and a lab coat.”

She arched an eyebrow. “J, show this antique how Club Stark works on Friday nights.”

“You’ve got it, Lewis.”

Her favorite dance list cued up, along with a dazzling light array that moved to the beat of the music. Bucky stared at the changing colors splashed along the walls and ceiling in themes worthy of a Saturday night rave. Her little ‘bots wiggled along to the music and he shook his head at the absurd scene.

She was so busy trying to figure out what was different about Bucky that Steve slipped behind her to steal a kiss on her neck. “I love you,” he said in her ear. She turned in his arms, kicking a stray box over so that she could stand on it. He brushed her lips with his thumb before nudging her bottom lip down and covering her mouth with his.  When she came up for air, Bucky was ignoring them in favor of holding a hand up to the lights so the colors could play over it.

“Bucky used to take art classes with me,” he said in her ear. “I preferred pencil. He drew, but he’d add watercolor.”

“Does he remember?”

“Yes. I took him to an art store this weekend. He’s been trying to work out the kinks in his wrist.”

“Are you okay?” She cupped his cheek, looking for signs of stress in his face.  They were there, but lessened.     

“Better than I was a few days ago.” 

That was sincere and something else in her unwound in response.  She kissed him one more time (just because). 

“J, kill the beats.” The room returned to its usual pink and blue shading along the walls with white lights over the work tables. Those blinked off in favor of the morning sun spilling into her lab.

Bucky seemed disappointed, though that might have been her imagination. “What does L.E.W.I.S. stand for?” he asked.

Darcy let out a peal of laughter at Steve’s poleaxed expression and reached out to fist bump Bucky (they’d practiced one night and argued for half an hour over the right way to do it). He touched knuckles to hers.

“Liberally Educated Wildly Intelligent Stark.”

“And JARVIS?”

“Just A Rather Very Intelligent System.”

“Who came up with the names?” Steve asked. “Tony?”

“I named JARVIS when I was three. Dad made him when I was a baby to help keep track of me. When I was five, I asked JARVIS to give me a name back. That was the first time Dad and I knew for sure that JARVIS was sentient—and had a sense of humor.”

“Your sibling is an AI?” Steve asked, frowning.

“He is not the weirdest thing currently occupying this Tower,” she shot back, protective of JARVIS.

He held his hands up in apology. “So you use ‘Lewis’ as a pseudonym.”

“I am always a Stark. Just expressed in another way.” Darcy reached for Bucky, nudging him to a stool where he shed his jacket and laid it on the workbench. “What was your clue?” she asked him.

Bucky replied, “JARVIS uses honorifics or titles. Didn’t make sense unless Lewis was one of those.”

“Exactly.”

“You didn’t know?” he asked Steve, giving him a look that clearly said, “dumbass” in friend language. Darcy didn’t even try to hide her own grin.

“Wondered now and again, but figured it was another Stark quirk.”

Bucky didn’t answer as he looked around Darcy’s gleaming stainless workstation.  He stilled, his eyes changing from blue to grey. 

(Nope, not happening)  Darcy prompted, “What kind of music do you want to listen to? Blues? Blues guitar?” The question seemed to pull Bucky out of wherever he was going. He nodded.  “JARVIS, how about Stevie Ray Vaughn?”

“I think that would be quite suitable. Any particular selection?”

“Nope. You’re a better D.J. than I am.”

“It’s good to know I have a backup occupation,” the AI replied rather drily.

“It’s your hobby and you know it. How much music have you dumped on my iPod? And Steve’s, for that matter? Which reminds me …want to load one up for Barnes?”

“Sergeant Barnes, I can arrange to have one for you in the common room when you are done. We can start with the blues and modify from there.”

Bucky seemed startled by the request. He automatically looked at Steve for permission.

“JARVIS and Darcy would like to give you an iPod with music on it—you’ve borrowed mine. Do you want one?” Steve asked.

Darcy could see Bucky struggling to answer. He clearly wanted to say yes. His eyes flickered to Darcy and around the lab. (Damn.  She didn’t want him thinking the gift was tied to his behavior.) She touched Bucky on the wrist to keep him calm. “I’ll tell you what, Steve. Let’s get through this morning. We can talk music while I work, then Bucky can decide afterward. In any case, we can get lunch too while he decides what he wants.”

Steve considered what she was trying to tell him, and got it, nodding. “I think that’s a great idea.”

Bucky seemed relieved, especially when the bluesy rhythms started pumping through the speakers. He didn’t relax, but wasn’t in soldier mode either.

“Can I ask you questions about your arm? I’ve been watching how you use it, but there is a lot I don’t know. And Bucky—I really don’t want to hurt you, so if I do, I need you to let me know.” 

He nodded, slowly, but affirmatively.

And idea popped into her head (along with a lot on inappropriate thoughts, but hey, she wasn’t a virgin). “Do you guys have a safe word?”

Steve blushed, turning bright, bright red. Bucky shook his head. “I don’t--know what that means.”

“Modern Sex 101. When you and your partner, slash, partners are experimenting, it’s a code to stop – no matter what or when. It doesn’t have to be anything meaningful, just different enough that it will get everyone’s attention. You can say it if something hurts, or you’re scared or whatever.”

Bucky muttered, “Charcoal.” She didn’t think it was possible, but Steve turned even redder.

She grinned at his reaction, and heaven help her, she had to ask. “Is there an explanation you two care to share with the class or should I just go with it?”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck, looking absolutely anywhere but at Darcy and Bucky. “Neither of us like working in charcoal, so when … when we … well, Bucky was always afraid of hurting me.” He fidgeted, and Darcy got a glimpse of the pre-serum Steve.

“Too far gone to keep my hands off him. Had to know he was okay,” said Bucky, his eyes slid across the room and skimmed up Steve’s body.

Darcy wasn’t sure if she was dismayed or heartened by the reference to their sexual history (her fault, she asked), but she tabled her reaction for later to focus on Bucky now. “It’s good that you remember that. So that’s going to be the safe word for this too. ‘Charcoal’ if there is anything at all that makes you uncomfortable.”

Per a hasty conversation with Sam last night, Darcy tried to remember everything he told her. Starting with getting consent for every single step.

“Bucky, I want to ask you questions now. You don’t have to answer them, but they will help me to understand what is going on in your head and in your body. Is that okay?”

“Yes.”

Darcy ran through the list she’d written out during last night’s research. Bucky answered them hesitantly at first, then with more surety.

“I think I’m right, guys, the narcotics were masking a lot of sensitivity here. Bucky, you’ve got a prime piece of technology here and I think you have a lot more capabilities with it than you know. Can I run a couple of scans now? The wand doesn’t have to touch you in any way, and you won’t feel it. If you want, I can run it over Steve first.”

Steve didn’t wait for agreement; he just held his arm out for Darcy. When she was done, Bucky nodded again. Darcy ran the scans. They were easy – hologram and MRI type imaging that gave her a three dimensional picture of his arm and how connected into Bucky’s body. She pushed one of the images closer to Bucky so he could play with it while she tinkered with the other. He did, poking at in fascination. When he saw how she was manipulating the image, he copied her movements.  Steve came around to look from the opposite side of the table. 

Darcy talked idly as she moved the hologram. “I didn’t realize so much of your collarbone and shoulder area had to be rebuilt too. It’s a good thing your arm is made of vibranium. Though I would love to know where they (“they” seemed safe enough) came up with enough of it to make your arm. Anything else and the force of fighting would wreck your skeleton, I think.”

Bucky frowned down at the arm. “There is secondary reinforcement. I can turn it on.” He made a little movement in his shoulder. His arm clicked and whirred as he moved it around. “Do you want to scan it again?”

Startled by his suggestion, she fumbled for the wand again. “Uh, yes.  That’s great, Barnes.”  When she finished, he flexed his shoulder and the internal mechanism disengaged.

She took a deep breath for the next part.  “Can—would you take your shirt off? I’d like to see how your skin and arm are connected. I’d also like to touch around the edges to get a better idea of how much sensitivity you have. If you’re not comfortable with me, would you let Steve do it?”

“A gorgeous dame, asking me to take my clothes off?” The reply seemed automatic, and Darcy laughed without thinking. Bucky seemed startled by what came out of his mouth. His eyes flashed to Steve, then came back to Darcy. He grasped behind him to pull the shirt off over his head. It snagged on his arm, and Darcy reached out to unhook the fabric. Her fingertips skimmed metal and Bucky jerked. “That… tickled.”

Darcy didn’t reply. Once again, she was mesmerized by man and machine.

“See something you like, doll?”

She jolted. “Yeah, shiny things do it to me every time.”

Steve laughed again, knowing her as he did, but Bucky—didn’t. He ran a hand through his hair. “Let’s get this done.”

She’d hurt his feelings. Somehow, in her reflexive quip about his arm, she’d lost sight of the fact that Bucky was very human, and crazy insecure about everything right now – shit, he’d made only a handful of decisions without having one of them back it up. This—having her look over his arm--had been one of them.

“I’m sorry, Bucky.” She took his right hand and pressed a kiss to the knuckles. She’d discovered the Bucky responded better with touch and used that now to convince him of her sincerity.

Haunted grey eyes came up. “Why?”

“Because I’m stupid sometimes.”

“Darcy—I know my arm makes people nervous.” His resignation just destroyed her.

“It’s not your arm—“ she said in frustration. “Well it is. But--God. It’s you, Bucky. I don’t see you run around the house without your shirt on and you’re amazingly hot. And my boyfriend is in the room and you guys have a very long history and it makes me all kinds of awkward because I’m never good at this kind of thing. Okay?”

An edge of a smile tilted his lips. “Steve is more than happy to have me around half-naked.”

“Can we skip all the subtext of this conversation because I’m really not ready for any of it and well, he doesn’t have to have his hands all over you for the next hour?” There was a snort of laughter from behind her. “Shut up, Rogers.”

“I’d be happy to have his hands all over me, Princess. And yours.”

The way he sassed her, his voice all soft and serious in his delivery, did something to her insides. She sucked in her breath. “Just, let me do this, okay?” She closed her eyes, feeling her cheeks flaming.

Bucky took her hand, skimmed a kiss across her knuckles (oh!) and pressed her palm against his collarbone. She could feel the faint cool of the metal underneath even as heat blossomed between her hands and his flesh. “Do what you need to do, Princess.”

(Deep breath). “Does this feel different to you? Than say, here?” She brought her other hand up to rest on the other collarbone.

“Yes. Less sensitive to pressure. More so to temperature.”

“Can you heat the metal internally?”

“Why would I be able to do that?”

“I’ll bet the metal makes the muscles ache when it gets cold. You get headaches, right?”

He was slow in answering, but she waited him out.  “Sometimes,” he said at last.

“I can fix that if you want.” She ran her hands along the twisted, ropey scar that bridged the connection between skin and metal. “How’s the sensation in the scar tissue?”

“It itches.”

“Hmm. I’ll bet the itching is the serum trying to heal you.” She reached up and spun one of the images. “See here? Nerves have grown all the way up through the scar tissue to the metal.” She lightly stroked her thumb across the edge where they met. “Can you feel that?”

“Yes.”

“Some of the sensitivity you have comes from those nerves. Your brain has learned to interpret the signals from them.” He made a noise that she took as agreement. “Okay, given how sensitive you are at the shoulder, I’m going to start with your fingertips and work my way up. Want me to clean it as I go?”

“Can you do that?” She shrugged and glanced down at the little robots circling her feet. His face lit up, just a little. “All right, Princess. Have at it.”

Darcy was grateful Bucky wasn’t reacting to her touch. It helped her to keep up a professional demeanor. She was twitchy enough for the both of them.

 

*****

 

Bucky concentrated the one blue spot on the frame of Darcy’s glasses. She had no idea how she was peeling him apart with nothing more than the heat of her hands and the way she talked with him about his own body. Like it was his. (Asset) The brush of her fingers tips along the scar punched a bolt of lightning to his groin, reminding him that he had no idea how long it had been since he’d had sex. (Red hair. Natalia.)

Darcy wasn’t responding to his overtures at all, leaving him confused. (Never had a problem with dames before.) But she was different. She and Steve were the real thing. Just like he and Steve were—had been--the real thing. He got it. He really did. Bucky was happy that he’d found someone to put a smile that stupid face.

He would still tumble either one of them. Or both. He might have kept that to himself except that they’d unpacked all of Steve’s boxes, found the essentials and repacked the rest to store in Darcy’s garage. He’d found the drawing of him and Darcy and recognized the artistic style. (Naked, letting Steve sketch for hours.)

Steve had flushed red when he discovered what Bucky was holding. Had darkened further when Bucky turned it in the light to check the date.

“Fantasy?” Steve was pretty good at keeping a poker face. Had gotten better since the war. But Bucky knew him. “You still love me? That way?”

“Yes.” The confession seemed to take something out of Steve even as his eyes burned bright.

“What about Darcy?”

“I love her. Same way I love you.” Steve’s blue eyes darkened further, with shadows of hell appearing in them. “Please don’t make me choose. I need time to figure this out. She needs time. She’s—she’s—been a rock through all of this.”

So Bucky didn’t press.

A shiver of pain trailed up his arm, capturing his attention (Rule one). With a tiny high powered hot water pressure washer, an equally small vacuum, high grade lubricants and the occasional cotton swab, Darcy cleaned the articulated joints on his hand.

As she finished each one, she dried it with a soft cloth wrapped around her fingers, buffing the metal to a high shine. She moved up to his wrist to begin the same intense level of cleaning. The inside was far more sensitive than he’d known. If he closed his eyes, he might think it was his own heartbeat jumping around, but it was her jittery pulse he could feel as she laid her hand there.

“How different does it feel now that the narcotics aren’t so strong?” she asked.

“I’m off of them now,” he admitted. She pulled her hands away, wary. But he pressed her fingers back to his wrist. “It’s okay. Serum burned it out. Don’t think I’ve been awake for this long, except with Natalia. I still can’t remember much of that. Feels normal.  Like a real arm. Except I feel energy? Like an itch or a tickle, I guess.”   

He could feel every caress of her fingertips along the metal as she worked though the mechanisms. He closed his eyes, lost in the sensation of touch as she worked her way up his forearm, in the dip of his elbow, and along the curve of his bicep. He didn’t dare look at Steve.

She didn’t stop when food arrived, just took the proffered water bottle and sipped from it before resuming the tedious process. Then she was done, and he damned near shivered from the lack of contact. But he didn’t. (Rule two: Assets do not have feelings)

The next stage meant opening each of the panels that would give her access to the inner workings on his arm. (Rule one. Assets do not feel pain.) He flexed his fingers, evened out his breathing, and waited.

She set a ceramic screwdriver to the first plate over his wrist, explaining, “I don’t want to touch you with metal. I think the conductivity will irritate you, if not become downright painful.” She looked up, beautiful blue-green eyes all serious. “Tell me if it hurts, Bucky, or use the safe word.” (Rule three: Assets belong to the handler.) He struggled to nod.

Opening the panel forced his arm to reroute data. It was uncomfortable as Darcy went to work. The sensations brightened, making his whole arm feel itchy. But she stroked as she went, rubbing, polishing. Closing the panel and soothing her fingers over it.

Panel two was tolerable, as were three and four. (Rule one). Five—five—(Assets do not feel pain. Weapons have no need of pain. You are a weapon. You are an asset to this organization. Change the world, one last time.)

Noise. White agony. (Rule one--)

Steve held him in a rock hard grip, arm against his chest, left arm braceleting his metal wrist. Darcy cupped his face. Tears. He thought of charcoal.

She was yelling. “Damn it, Bucky. Let me make it stop!”

He stopped straining. The panel was closed. There was only the memory of torment and the weight of Steve’s body wrapped around his.

“What can you do with your arm that makes you feel good?” Darcy demanded. “I need you to do it now.”

He couldn’t. (Asset. Change the world.)

“Do what she says,” Steve whispered.

He reached out to take a lock of Darcy’s hair between his fingers. The simple strands of nothing glided against the sensors. He used his other hand to do the same. One was a shimmer of energy, the other was soft as the rain.

He pulled her in, kissing her tears away, a mere brush of lips to each cheek. Then, he had to touch his mouth to hers. His hands held her head gently—pressure on his fingertips, strands on of hair dancing--as he explored the taste of her bottom lip, of the salted tears still sliding along the top.

Steve’s arm tightened, and Bucky remembered how Steve would do the same when— he let Darcy go and turned to look over his shoulder. Intense blue saturated with desire. Worry.  Concern in all that.

Darcy tucked her hands under her arms. “Bucky,” she asked, “What happened there? That panel is one of the ones I opened last time to get the vials out.”

He shivered.

“Stay with me, jerk. I’m not losing you to this,” Steve told him as he tightened his arm around his middle.

“It’s different.”

“Without the drugs?” Darcy asked.

“No one touches me. Only Natalia, and that was—I don’t remember. The others, the others hurt. The ice. The ice hurts.” He jerked violently. (Asset. Wipe him.)

Then he shut down.

There in the silence of his mind was the place he could go. The place where nothing touched him. No sound. No pain. No emotion. Just … emptiness. If he screamed, the echoes were not to be heard. If he cried, he did not feel the tears. His body followed the instructions of least resistance, separate from his mind. This refuge was all he had against the cold, the agony, the fear, the hatred.

There was no wish for this existence to end, no desire for rescue, or for freedom. There was only this place of solitude.

Chapter Text

Time had no meaning in his hollow of isolation. Eventually, be it minutes or years, a part of his mind still aware of the world (not here), would tug at him, tell him to come back.

It did now and he let go of that place.  

Warmth curled over him, through him, surrounded him. Voices he knew. The timbres and cadences rose in a wave until he could acknowledge the speakers in his head. Steve. Darcy. Steve and Darcy. steveanddarcy.

As his awareness increased, so did the sounds. A melody played, a piano and saxophones.

His eyes were already open, but now he absorbed his surroundings. Two people on either of side him on a sofa. Two exits, north and south. Lights were low. He rippled through a litany of muscle twitches to identify injuries and armament. He had---none.

A blanket cocooned him. Warm enough to be generating its own heat. The voices began to coalesce into dialogue.

“Bucky?”

He turned his head. Blinked. Steve.

“Hey there.”

Bucky tried to move his arms, found them entangled in fabric. Steve reached over and untucked the ends so he could pull free.

The blanket was soft. Pink and blue. Bold pink and bold blue. Soft like Darcy’s hair. Darcy. She was curled up on the couch, arms around her knees. Tear-streaked face, green eyes made red.

And he remembered. Steve. Small Steve. Big Steve. Brooklyn. The art store. The art class. The army. Zola. HYDRA. Pierce. The experiments. The training. The cryofreeze. The missions. Natalia. The bridge. Darcy.

He licked his lips. Found Steve. The first thing he said was the last part he had lost. “My name is James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Welcome home, Bucky.” Steve pulled him into a hug, warm and hard. Bucky clamped a hand to the back of Steve’s neck, wrapped the other arm around his waist and held on. Hot tears ran down his face, choking sobs wracked his frame. Steve pulled him in tight, hands hard on his back. “I missed you, jerk,” he whispered.

“You just won’t let me go, will you, punk?”

“Never.”

Chapter Text

Three hours they had waited. Three hours of terror while thinking she’d sent Bucky irretrievably into the rabbit hole. Three hours of zombie-like stares, dead eyes that had nothing in them. Three hours of watching Steve’s heart break.

And then … it was as if the two men hadn’t spent the last seven decades in hell and ice.

Darcy slipped off the sofa and disappeared into the bathroom to splash water on her face. She wanted to crumple to the floor and scream. From fear, from contrition, from the unfairness of it all.

She didn’t do any of that. She couldn’t really do anything but breathe.

“Lewis?”

“Hey, J.” She sounded pathetic, even to herself.

“The Captain keeps looking at the bathroom door. Shall I run interference?”

She sighed. “No, J, I’ve got this.”

“Somehow I don’t believe that.”

“Me either. But what’s the phrase? Fake it ‘til you make it?”         

“It’s not always the best advice,” he drawled.

It wasn’t fair. No one gauged Stark moods better than the AI and he’d perfected his technique for chivvying said Starks out of whatever frame of mind that needed to be budged. Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Then you missed a fundamental lesson. I’m disappointed in you, JARVIS.”

“Just because I disregard advice, it doesn’t mean I missed a lesson.”

“Now that’s more like a true Stark, J.” She sighed. “I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you. Now stop hiding in the bathroom.”

She made a rude noise and stuck her tongue out in reply. (Channel Mom. Calm. Cool. She could do this. She was a Stark.) A layer of cosmetics always helped. Lip gloss and mascara added color. (Deep breath, open the door. Damn.)

Both men were hovering in the kitchen.

It was Bucky who reached for her and pushed her into Steve’s arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, Princess. He still loves you.”

Oh. She held on as Steve buried his face in her hair. When they broke apart, she felt a little silly with Bucky watching.

Then Steve’s stomach gurgled. Bucky’s answered and Darcy stuffed a knuckle in her mouth to keep from laughing at the absurdity of the interruption. (Grateful though, let’s be honest) “Hungry?” she asked.

Somehow, the need for food trumped tragedy and heartbreak.  It was just impossible to continue to pour out raging emotion when one was craving French fries.

Darcy and Steve introduced Bucky to their favorite burger joint (shakes were mandatory), half-way between her place and the Tower.

Steve gathered her hand in his as they navigated the sidewalks. Bucky stayed closed to Steve, walking shoulder to shoulder with him (just brushing each other) with his hands stuffed into his pockets. They were nearly the same height, though Bucky was the shorter of the two.

After the first block, Bucky slowed enough to walk behind Darcy. It was easier than being three across (really though, the Soldier was probably noting faces and suspicious hiding places. His face still had a curious blankness to it, though not quite like before).

When she got a cramp in her side from the stitches (she’d forgotten about them--again), Bucky had a hand around her waist before she could finish saying, “Ow.” (There might have been a couple of swear words before that.)

“How far?” he demanded.

“End of the block. Two hundred feet,” Steve answered.

Darcy flapped her hands at Bucky. “I’ve got this. I just need a second.” (Of course now, she would walk the two hundred feet without wincing if it killed her. She made it by promising herself a large shake rather than the medium.) He scowled at her. She rolled her eyes and (sort of) stomped away.

The proprietor waved them to a back table. Bucky and Steve split the corner so they could see into the restaurant (all the Avengers did it. Darcy never got to see anything interesting). Steve held her chair and both men waited until she sat before taking their seats (old school manners. Darcy loved them. Mostly).

She held her hand out to Bucky, turned it up and waited. Her shoulders unknotted when he covered it with his own. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she offered.

Like Thor with Jane, Darcy freaking blushed when he turned her hand back over to press a kiss on her knuckles. “I know, Princess.” He seemed amused by her reaction. Steve had a stupid grin and she kicked him in the ankle.

“Next time, we use a local anesthetic.”

“Next time?” He drew his brows together, his eyes hardening.

Standing firm in spite of his dark look, she nodded. “You told me someone looked at it before and after every mission. So we’ll assume a next time and plan accordingly. I kind of think it was like getting stabbed with a needle without Novocain. Having had that experience more recently than I would like, I will advance the theory that opening your panels is like having an open wound and I won’t do it again without something to suppress the pain. One can only take so much.”

Bucky nodded in agreement, letting her hand go with a squeeze. (Okay, subject dropped.  She can take a hint.)

The waiter stopped by to take their orders—or rather, to take Bucky’s order and Darcy’s request for a large over a medium strawberry shake. The waiter knew the rest.

Huh. Bucky ordered the same thing as Steve. (Two double cheeseburgers, easy on the mustard, extra pickle, hold the mayo and onions. Cheese fries. Large vanilla malt.)

After the waiter moved on, Darcy blinked at the pair of them. “That’s an awfully specific order for both of you to want the same thing.”

“Bucky started it,” Steve pointed out.

She put her head in her hands. “I don’t want to know when.”

Slowly, as if he had to drag the memories from wherever they had been stored, Bucky explained, “He kept getting sick from mayonnaise because he was allergic to eggs. But he wouldn’t stop making stuff for me. So I told him I didn’t like it and switched to mustard. He believed me and it was one less thing to bother him.”

“Do you like mustard?” she asked.

“N--no.”

Steve shook his head. “I had no idea, Buck.”

Darcy flagged down the waiter, and asked him to change Bucky’s order. She waggled a finger at him. “Steve’s not sick anymore. Don’t eat crap you don’t like. Mayo or ketchup.”

Bucky’s eyes flickered to Steve.

“She’s right,” he agreed. “You’re safe. So eat what you want.”

“Extra mayonnaise,” he told the patient waiter. “No mustard.”

Barnes seemed to settle after that, and Darcy chewed her lip trying to make sense everything that had happened today, and realized that ducking out might not have been the best plan. “How much do you remember?” she asked.

“Everything,” he said in a monotone. “Who I am. What Steve is to me. Brooklyn. The war. The twenty-seven successful missions. The one mission that failed. Why Natalia is important to me and what I did to her. Zola and his experiments.” He closed his eyes. “I remember the cold.”

“What do you need?” she asked, trying to remember what Sam had said and wishing he was here having this conversation. This was so far beyond her comfort zone, and she’d been dealing with Steve with mixed results for two years.

He blinked. “I don’t know.”

Exchanging a look with Steve, she followed her instincts. “Where do you feel safe?”

“Not here. Your house?” He seemed to be doing an internal check for that one.  

“Is it the location or because Steve is there?”

“Both. And you.”

“Me?”

“I have a mission,” he said. “I … need a mission,” he added.

“What mission is that?”

“Protect you. I can do that.”

Darcy tried not to roll her eyes (failed, but tried). “I don’t want someone hovering over me, even if I’m doing something wrong.”

He seemed to regain a little of himself. “Not what I meant, Princess.”

“Then what?”

“You’re a target.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“The kind of target they send—sent—me to eliminate.” His face twisted and he stuffed his hand back into his pocket.

Well that was terrifying. “Why me?”

“Lynchpin. Eliminate you, Avengers compromised. Stark Industries compromised. S.H.I.E.L.D. is further compromised.”

“He’s right,” Steve chimed in. “It’s worth thinking about moving into the Tower.”

“Three weeks ago we were considering moving in together,” Darcy said with no little irritation. “This didn’t come up.”

The waiter interrupted them with food, which meant that neither Steve nor Bucky were going to be conversing for the first burger. When that round was devoured, along with a good portion of the cheese fries, Steve resumed the discussion.

“Darcy, three weeks ago, you hadn’t been targeted by HYDRA. In any case, you’d already mentioned the publicity you knew you would get if we moved in together.”

“The Tower? That’s your line of thinking?”

He lifted a shoulder. “I wasn’t going to move you to DC.”

Darcy crossed her arms. “You know, the reason I got an apartment was to put a little distance between me and my dad.”

“Your dad has all these fancy plans to give each of the Avengers a floor. I got that invitation too.”

Before she could really get snotty, Bucky put a hand on Steve’s forearm.  “What am I missing? You were thinking about living with Darcy without asking her to marry you? What the hell is wrong with you? Nothing we ever talked about included ruining a dame’s reputation.” Though the speech was slower in coming, even Darcy recognized the cadence of Bucky Barnes and a faint Brooklyn accent.

“What did you think we were doing, Bucky? She’s got two guys crammed into a one-bedroom apartment with her and nobody cares anymore.”

“Squatting for a few days isn’t the same as makin’ it permanent. You want to make it permanent? You get a ring on her finger, Steven Grant.”

Darcy firmly bit her lip so she wouldn’t dare snicker. She and Steve had already had this conversation a while back (he had picked out a ring, she’d seen it). She was not opposed to marriage, but she had firm ideas about compatibility before tying the knot. Not to mention she was only twenty five and had plenty of time on the biological clock.

“Buck—things are different now.” Steve struggled to say it. (Darcy wasn’t helping one iota on this one.) “If Darcy wants to live with a guy, no one thinks anything of it.”  

Bucky glared at Steve, then pinned Darcy with a sharp look. “Is what he’s saying true?”

She shrugged. “There are always going to be people poking their noses into other people’s business, but no, my reputation won’t be ruined if I live with someone with marrying first. Only about half the kids born today have married parents and a lot of them don’t stay that way.”

His eyes rounded. “Doesn’t seem right.”

“It is any different than you and Steve dating for what, ten years, without making it official?”

He blinked at her, his mouth slightly open.

Exasperated, Darcy threw up her hands. “What did you think this conversation is about, Barnes? I’ve been dating your boyfriend for two years now. Two years to your ten. Pardon me for not having the etiquette book on how to handle this situation. News flash, if you two want to get married now, you can.”

Bucky snapped his head around to stare at Steve.

Steve reached for Darcy’s hand, but she grabbed her shake instead and settled for a long suck on the straw.  (Don’t cry. Don’t be jealous or stupid, Darcy. Nobody asked for this and no one has done anything wrong. Steve hasn’t shown any signs of bailing.) She relented and laced her fingers with Steve’s.

She changed tactics. “I move we table this topic for a later date and go back the earlier one were we figure out how the three of us are going to survive in my house. Seven hundred square feet isn’t a lot of space.”

“Seconded,” Steve replied. He jerked a chin at Bucky. “He had an idea.”

 

Most of it involved storing Steve’s extra boxes at her lab, along with most of Darcy’s summer clothes and a chair from the living room (by unanimous decision, Steve’s oversized leather sofa chair got to stay. Big enough for two if they were cozy but definitely not a recliner. Those were banned by Stark decree a couple of generations ago.)

As Darcy was pulling clothes from her closet and hanging up a scant handful of items for Steve and Bucky, she had one of those a-ha moments that really pissed her off. Steve found her shoving stuff into the suitcase she kept under the bed.

“Darce?”

“Fair warning. Tears are imminent, so if you can’t fucking deal with them, this isn’t the time.”

Fortunately for all involved, Steve wasn’t her dad. He simply sat on the floor and tugged her into his arms. She went willingly. “I’ve got time and I can deal,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“Here I am complaining about sharing my apartment with my really hot boyfriend who comes with nothing more than a chair, a set of uniforms and not enough clothes to fill a foot in my closet, along with his equally hot boyfriend who owns four shirts, three pairs of assorted pants and two pairs of shoes.”

“And a little over two years ago, we were sharing a tent and two uniforms each. It was war, Darcy. You don’t take things with you. And he’s not my--“

“Don’t you dare say he’s not, because I’ve seen the way you look at each other.”

“Princess?” In the doorway, Bucky had his hands in his pocket. “Punk here do something stupid?”

Darcy discovered that Bucky’s whole demeanor changed the moment he stepped through the door of her house and closed it. (Well, after doing a quick recon).  This was Steve’s Bucky (mostly) and he was even more smart-ass than before (and charming and downright sweet. Shit.).

“No. I had a growing up moment that I didn’t like.” She rolled out of Steve’s lap and stood up. “Can I hug you to say I’m sorry?”

Bucky took a full step backward. “Darcy, you’ve got something special with Steve. I’m not going to mess that up.”

“See, that’s why we have a problem.” She waggled her finger at him. “I really do not want to like you. It would be a lot easier if I hated you.  But I don’t.  Even though you’re a jerk sometimes, I want to do whatever it takes for you to feel good again. Because I’m a Stark and that’s what Starks do—we fix things.”

“Did you fix Steve?”

“Oh, hell, no. He’s the most stubborn man I’ve met, a category that includes my dad. But he has this really cool bike and a nice ass, so what’s a girl to do?”

“You like his ass?”

“I like his bike. The rest is a bonus. Now since we are all here, it’s been a big day and I’m about a shower away from going to bed, how are we going to do this tonight? Because Steve ‘fessed up about you guys crashing together in my bed—(Holy shit, that was a way hotter image than she needed in the middle of a flirty diatribe of self-deception. Focus, Stark.)—so something tells me, Bucky, changing that up isn’t in your best interests.”

“Slept better when I held your hand.”

“Why?” she demanded.

Bucky shrugged.

Darcy looked down at Steve, who was wearing a goofy grin. “I’m out of this. I can sleep on the floor.”

“You hate sleeping on the floor.”

“The two people I love are arguing about sleeping in the same bed. Together. Holding hands.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Oh my god, Rogers. Don’t get your hopes up.” She turned back to Bucky. “Or you, Barnes.”  

On that note, she dove for the bathroom to shower and run water on her flaming cheeks.

 

*****

 

How one sparky brunette could make him feel a hundred times better was a wonder.  But he did.  Even Bucky was taken with his girl.  Steve looked after her with pride as she retreated. 

Bucky dodged to one side and raised his eyebrows at Steve as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Got a lot of moxie.”

“You have no idea.”

“Getting one,” Bucky smirked as he leaned against the doorframe. 

Fuck, he’d missed that stupid mug.  Steve’s heart pinched hard at Bucky’s easy grin.  Still--“Don’t bullshit her on the handholding thing, Buck. If it’s real, she’s in. If it’s not, you’re going to mess this up for both of us.”

“It’s real,” Bucky said softly as he looked over Steve. “I like her. A lot.  You never had a girl, Steve. A chance for family and kids. I’ll go before I mess this up for you.”

“And that kind of talk pissed me off seven decades ago. Yes, I want a family. I’ve always wanted a family. I don’t particularly give a damn how we get there. Me, you, or both. Always thought it would be you, and I could spoil your kids. Didn’t want them to get stuck with my genes. Yours would be mine anyway.”

He patted the floor and Bucky took two small steps in the tiny bedroom to sit next to him. Bucky tilted his head back on the bed.  “I’d kill for a cigarette right now,” he muttered. 

“Doesn’t fit the Captain America image, so I haven’t had a smoke since you and I split that one in France. Still crave one occasionally,” Steve admitted. “Did…do you smoke now?”

“No.  Don’t want anything to interfere with the mission.” Bucky let out a long breath as if he was exhaling a stream of smoke anyway.  “How are we going to do this? Somebody’s going to lock me up for everything I’ve done.”

Steve chuckled.  “If they want to make you a criminal, they have to change the Smithsonian exhibit. I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Steve smirked at Bucky. “That trip I took to DC last week? Somehow, Congress isn’t interested in making a decorated POW look like a bad guy anymore.  Pretty sure I’ve got you a free pass on this one.”

A ghost of a smile hovered on Bucky’s lips. “I’m finally getting mileage out being Captain America’s best friend.”

“Bucky? That sounded like … you.”

“I’m trying, Steve.  It’s not easy.”  He fell silent, closing his eyes. “Don’t get used to it.”

“Why?”

“Head hurts. Lot of memories. Don’t wanna mess things up for you. She’s good for you. Never … seen you … happy like this. ‘s hard.”

Something in his demeanor set off warning bells to Steve. “Hard to see me with Darcy?”

“Not that. Hard to think.” The tension in his frame was unmistakable.

 “Are you tired?” When Bucky couldn’t answer, Steve did it for him. “Go get changed for bed.”

Bucky rose to pull off his clothes, folding them methodically as he did, leaving only the boxer shorts on.

Darcy came back wearing a pajama shirt and shorts.  She stopped cold in the doorway. “Holy shit. You guys just don’t stop, do you?”

Giving her a little shake of the head, Steve reached into the dresser drawer, pulled out a t-shirt and handed it to Bucky, who stretched it over his head without a sound.

Darcy studied the situation and got it in one. For that, he loved her even more. She reached for Bucky to lead him to the bed. “Come on, Barnes. You’re tired, I’m tired and it’s been a long day.  Scoot over though, because if I get squished, it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Squished?” Steve asked.

Bucky took the far side of the bed, sitting up against the headboard. Darcy got the middle and laced her right hand with his left, as they had the whole week before. She sighed. “Come on, Steve.”

“Are you sure, Darcy?” (His voice might have been pitched a little higher than usual.)

“No, but I’m tired and cranky and don’t want to think too hard about it or I’ll chicken out and you’ll be stuck on the floor.”

Steve stripped and climbed into bed. He immediately regretted it because Darcy only had a queen and that meant the three of them were stacked like sardines in a can. (But there was no way he was taking the floor now.)

He remembered to say, “Bucky? You can go to sleep now.”  The soldier closed his eyes and was out before a second breath. Darcy was next and, like any good combat vet, Steve followed just moments later.

 

*****

 

Bucky blinked his way out of a hazy dream.  He didn’t remember it.  Didn’t particularly care to, just knew there had been something there. 

He remembered yesterday.  Punk had been so damned happy.  And Darcy … not so much.  (Protect Stark.) 

The three of them were still tangled on the bed.  He wiggled his metal fingers free of Darcy’s hand.  She shifted without waking so that her cheek and her casted hand rested against his leg.  (Odd thing, made of a plastic weave.) Her breath blew across his bare thigh.  Startled by the contact, he lowered his hand to stroke her hair.  Lifting a lock, the strands sifted through his metal fingers (shimmer of energy). 

Steve followed her moments later, rolling so that his arm covered Darcy, his face just inches from Bucky’s hand.  Unable to resist, a single metal finger strayed to touch his cheek (heat).

Dark blond lashes lifted.  Nobody had any right to look that damned angelic when he woke.  Steve did.  Always had.  Fucking blue eyes of the cherubim and lips that stretched into a smile that only a succubus would wear.  His hand flexed on Darcy’s waist, dragging a little along her curves. 

 “She smells better. Prettier too,” he noted.

“And smarter. And better with wrench. Grumpier in the morning without her coffee though.”

“Your coffee is terrible.”

“I’m better at it now.” Steve eased out of the covers to sit on the edge of the bed, and Bucky couldn’t miss the tenting on the front of his boxers.   “Darcy’s incentive plan is formidable.”

His brain hazed again as he remembered what was to wake up with Steve in the morning.  “I could do something about that, you know.”

Steve turned just enough to look over his shoulder at Bucky. “Don’t joke about that. Please.”

“Wasn’t joking.”

“You’re not ready, Buck. What we’ve had has always been honest and good. I don’t want to change that. Give yourself time to come back. I’m not going anywhere.”

Well, fuck. 

Steve left him alone with Darcy. He looked down, found her awake. Her fingers flexed on his thigh and his shorts bloomed with a damp spot under her cheek. He leaned his head back, never stopping his fingers from stroking her hair.

No, he couldn’t mess this up for Steve. Problem was, she was everything he’d ever dreamed of for both of them. (Drawing on the mirror. Family.)

“Good morning, Princess.”

She sniffled and sat up (he knew better than to try and help), refusing to look at him.  (Missed touching her.)

“I—“ he hesitated, not really knowing what to say.

But she seemed to have enough words for both of them.  “Bucky, I know I’m in the middle—as of last night, literally—of you two.  Believe me when I say that I understand how much you love each other.”  She plucked at the sheets, twisting them in her fingers.  “But Steve doesn’t have anywhere to fall and you can’t catch him right now.  Let me get Steve through this.  Let me help you through this.  When you’re strong enough, when you know where and how to stand, I’ll go.”

(No.)  “You love him.”

She didn’t answer.  When she rose from the bed, he discovered it was because she couldn’t.  Not with that many tears. 

She showered, dressed and chivvied her boys out the door to the Tower that day with a laugh and a smile.  Steve didn’t have a clue.  (Don’t go. Please.)

Chapter Text

28 April 2014

Monday morning proved to Steve that everything had changed.  Darcy had all of them in the car and on the way to the Tower before he could finish his coffee (or so it seemed). 

He decided he was an idiot as he figured out just how much Darcy would shift her schedule to accommodate his downtime between missions.  She never seemed to work when he would come up from DC, beyond answering an email or a text on her cell phone.   Even before he joined S.H.I.E.L.D., he’d seen her lab and knew she’d hole up for days at a time, but she always seemed to be available for a date or a walk in the park. 

Then again, she was always tapping at a keyboard or building something while he watched baseball in her lab. 

It was clear now that she had a job and a week’s worth of backlog.  Little things like a recovering soldier and an out of work operative didn’t give her an excuse to duck out of her responsibilities.  Apparently, neither did a gunshot wound and a broken wrist. 

Bucky nudged him as they walked to the fitness center Tony had built for the Avengers.  It was housed in the basement of the Tower and had all sorts of interesting parts to it.  “You’re pissed about something.”

Steve nodded. “My own stupidity.”

“That’s not anything new.  What is it this time?”

Falling into old habits with Bucky was easier than he could have ever imagined. “You know when something has been staring at you in the face but there comes that day when you realize that you weren’t seeing it?  And now it’s there and you wonder how you could have missed it?”

“That’s more you than me, but sure.”

“Fuck you, Barnes.”

“Anytime. So what is it?”

“Darcy has a job.  A real job.  One that she has to get up and do every day.”

Bucky stopped cold in the middle of the hallway.  “And what exactly did you think she did?”

Steve nudged him along. “She has her lab.  I knew she looked over Stark Industries stuff, but I figured most of her time was working on her projects.  I didn’t exactly keep up when I was in DC.  And when I came up to visit, she always cleared her schedule to spend time with me.”

“So you’re thinking heir to the Stark throne, who plays and parties while dabbling in the business?”

“That’s Tony, not Darcy.”  Steve shook his head as they rounded the corner to the locker room.  “I’ve seen her hold Stark Industries together in a crisis, by herself, and she was amazing.” 

“So can Tony Stark.”

“She’s not like him.”

“I wouldn’t know. Don’t think he’s exactly speaking to me at the moment.”

“Don’t feel bad. Took him six months and an alien invasion to get the conversation going between us.  First thing we did was get into an argument. And it wasn’t over Darcy. Well it was, but it wasn’t. Really.  There were overtones,” he explained.

Bucky leaned against the locker room wall, arms crossed. With that look that told Steve he wasn’t buying it. “So what does she do?”

“The lab stuff too, but mostly she works with her mom.”

“Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries.  Former personal assistant to Tony Stark,” Bucky recited.  He frowned.  “Darcy doesn’t look much like her.”

“Nope. Pepper adopted her.  She’d worked for Tony for something like two years before she even knew he had a daughter.”

“How many people know who she is?”

“Her family and the Avengers. That’s it. Everyone else knows her as Darcy Lewis, the intern who tased Thor in New Mexico and was smart enough that Stark hired her and gave her a lab in his Tower.”  He dug through the locker he kept here to find a pair of sweats and a sleeveless t-shirt for Bucky to wear.  He found both and set them on the bench.  “There’s an empty locker next to mine if you want to put your stuff in it.” Bucky stripped right in front of Steve, who did a lousy job of keeping his eyes averted.  (Harder lines and still a beautiful ass.)

“So how much of that cover story did you buy into?” Bucky asked, his lip curving up when he saw where Steve’s focus had been.

“Too much.” He fisted his hand, irritated that Bucky could put his finger on the problem so easily.

“What’s the routine?” Bucky asked, changing subject as he settled the shirt in place.

“I run most mornings and rotate through the gym, training room and shooting range.”

“Training room?”

“Where we spar or set up indoor practice ops.”  Steve wrapped his wrists and knuckles, not bothering with boxing gloves or other protective gear.   Bucky followed him inside the gym.  “What do you want to do first?” he asked.

With his chin, Bucky indicated the free weights.  While Steve worked up a decent sweat on the punching bag, Bucky seemed to have a set routine for maintaining his right arm, shoulders, chest and upper back. 

Sam cruised in a few minutes later, taking a spot on the treadmill.  Though he had his ear buds in, he was certainly watching the two of them.  And it was Sam who spotted Bucky when he shifted to bench work. 

“Didn’t think about you needing to keep both sides balanced, Barnes. Ever give you problems?” Sam asked.

Bucky didn’t answer.  Admitting to a weakness would be beyond him at the moment (Tower, not home, not safe in Bucky’s mind), but Steve noted it and would ask again later.  

The bag was taking a beating this morning as Steve worked out the anger that had accumulated over the last few weeks.  Starting with his own failings as a boyfriend to Darcy, to his fears and heartaches over Bucky, to the real, burning need he had to do something about HYDRA, and the loss of the friends and bonds he’d built at S.H.I.E.L.D. 

He’d known he wasn’t happy at S.H.I.E.L.D., but he hadn’t found his place anywhere else.  Now he was a useless soldier, dependent on Darcy for what little happiness he’d found in this century, with a shattered best friend.

He was tired of starting over.  Tired of not knowing who to trust.  Tired of not seeing a future beyond today.  Growing up as he did, he’d never expected to live long.  At best, he’d hoped to be around long enough to see Bucky married and with a kid or two that Steve could spoil.  All he’d ever wanted to do was have his life matter for something. For someone. 

The serum gave him a new chance.  Bucky’s astonished wonder when Steve had rescued him had given him the first shot at a real life. In the darkness of tents, in the quiet of bars, in the silence of the forests, they talked about all the ways things would be different when they got back home.  There might be family for both of them.  Steve might actually last more than a few minutes in a smoky bar and learn to dance.  They talked about finding the right dame, if she was out there.

And then that dream had been crushed with a finality that he couldn’t bear.  

Darcy was the light.  She never demanded, never took any more than he had to give, but she nudged him along so that he didn’t dwell on the past.  She loved.  There had never been a single doubt in his mind that she loved him completely, trusting him to come to her as he could.  Even learning the truth about Bucky hadn’t shaken her faith in Steve. If anything, she loved him more. 

If she didn’t quite comprehend how his beliefs had crumbled with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fall, she still gathered him up and brought him here. To her home. To her family, who had looked after him far longer than anyone should.  Without question, she’d taken in his broken lover too and made him a part of the Stark patchwork quilt that should have been ugly and frightening with all its strange parts and colors and stitching, but was the favorite everyone fought over instead.

There was a breaking point in there somewhere.  Steve hadn’t found it yet but he was damned sure she was close to finding it.  And there wasn’t anything he could do except try to hold on with her, to show her that he loved her more than ever, to hope that she could find it in her to love both of them. 

The bag broke under his fist.  He just looked at it for a minute, then moved over to get another one, purposefully avoiding Bucky’s contemplative gaze—and Sam’s sympathetic one.

Hope could be a dangerous thing.

 

*****

 

A discrete audience (including one Darcy Stark) had tuned in (via JARVIS and a little window on her computer monitor) to see what the Winter Soldier would do in the fitness room.  Bucky concentrated on exercises that would build his core and keep him balanced.  From what she could ascertain, the arm wasn’t much heavier than a flesh one, but that and the supporting construction probably required a certain physical dedication. 

She wasn’t surprised to see Steve turning a punching bag into a pile of sand.  He’d been holding in a month’s worth of anger over the whole HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D. thing and Bucky’s role in all of it.

Darcy had holed up in her lab to get caught up on Stark Industries.  Pepper had a conference in San Diego and if there was any hope of her mom having a weekend off when she got back, Darcy had some work to do.  (A shovel came to mind.)

At twenty-five, she was well aware that her time of hiding in the shadows was coming to an end.  The past year had cast too much light on her person and it wouldn’t be long before a tenacious reporter put all the pieces together.   Not that they would find Darcy Stark, of course, but she was far too close with the Avengers not to attract her own sort of attention.  (Yeah, that.)

She needed to move back into the Tower (not only for her sake, but for her dad’s).  Living alone wasn’t an option anymore now that HYDRA had a big X on her back (still terrifying).  Her hunky roommates (boyfriend, boyfriend’s boyfriend, still weird) were buying her time but that wouldn’t be forever.  In truth, if it wasn’t for them, Tony would already have physically moved her upstairs to her old bedroom.

This morning only highlighted the bigger problems in her personal life.  Less than a month ago, Darcy had everything she wanted—a fabulous boyfriend taking steps to the future, a job/hobby she loved, a place of her own.  Now, the pieces were crumbling in her hands too fast for her to catch any of them.  Big changes were coming in the days ahead. 

For now, she could only pretend some sort of semblance of a normal life while Bucky came back to himself.  It wouldn’t be the first time she pretended to be something she wasn’t. 

Never with Steve.  Never with Steve.  But now she would. 

Chapter Text

Late May 2014

He liked the new routine. Running in the mornings. Shower, breakfast. Tower for fitness and a talk with Sam. Lunch with Darcy and Steve, often with one or more of the Avengers. (Not Stark.)  

Afternoons in the Commons or in Darcy’s lab, depending on Steve’s schedule. (Baseball. He liked baseball.) Dinner at home or, if he was having a good day, out.

They had a shaky truce at the house. He still liked trading jabs with Darcy, but Steve would shoot him a look when he stepped over the line. They watched pictures at her place, mostly Steve’s favorites, but now and again something Darcy liked. He favored what Darcy called “B” horror movies. Silly films that the three of them would poke fun of while eating popcorn.

He found it interesting that though they didn’t share the same taste, all of them stayed for whatever was playing. Come to think of it, when there was only the one movie house, that’s what he and Steve did. Didn’t matter what was showing, it was still worth the quarter to see the picture.

Now that they were crammed into a single bed at night, they tended to occupy the sofa in the same manner. Whoever had the bad day got the middle. Steve held his hand sometimes too.

He learned to ask for help with his headaches and got used to having Darcy touching him from behind.

After a couple of good weeks, there was something new. For the first time, he reached for the state of mind he’d learned in the army as a sniper. (Assessing. Not experiencing.)

He was aware that Steve had cleared the shooting range today (Asset) and that Barton had taken up residence in one of his many nests to observe. (Aggressive. Sharpshooter.) That the marksman was armed wasn’t lost on him. Thor was in the observation room.

He’d asked to come here. Training was a part of him now, his weapons an extension of himself. Later they would practice long range shooting. Today was about precision. (Asset. Change the world) He brought his own weapons. (Custom. No rifling. Difficult but untraceable.)

Letting the Winter Soldier take over, he breathed out, slowed his heart rate, and aimed.

At 25, 50, 75 and 100 meters, he marked each of the five targets twice, head and chest, placing his shot in the exact center of the circle. When he was done, he switched weapons. Did it again. (Asset. Reshape the century.)

There was nothing instinctive about his abilities. Practice, patience, precision. (Asset.)

He set the weapon on the table. Removed his ear protection. Focused on the man behind him. (Man on the bridge. Steve.)

“Color me impressed. I knew you were good in the army. This is amazing, Bucky.”

(As--) An unexpected flush of pleasure (Experiencing) from the simple praise shook his focus. “I like it?”

“Don’t know ‘bout that. But you’re good at it.”

“Show me.” He indicated the range with a turn of the head.

Steve nodded. “Mostly I take defensive missions, with minimal casualties. So my primary training is in hand to hand. I like my shield.” He flashed a grin (beautiful).

“I noticed.” He remembered the fight with Steve (man on the bridge) in exact detail. Steve had closed in, step by step, until he was forced to resort to knife work.

“You trained with Rumlow?”

“Trained him from time to time, yes.”

“Thought I recognized some of the moves. You’re faster.”

“Of course.” There was that grin again, and Steve settled in to fire at the same targets. At 25 and 50 meters, Steve matched him in accuracy. But over 75 meters, he was … off. By millimeters and centimeters too many. “You need improvement,” he said.

“Different skill set, Bucky.”

He considered. “Inaccuracy is not acceptable. Only in perfection do we find balance.”

Steve laid the handgun down on the table and stepped back. “Do you find solace in what you do? Or was it following orders so your brain didn’t get fried again.”

He took his time putting away his weapons, unable to answer.

 

 

Darcy wasn’t home yet when they returned. After cleaning his guns on the floor of the living room with a borrowed kit, he stored most of them in Steve’s safe for the first time. He was given the combination to memorize.

“I want—“ (Pain. No.)

“What do you want?”

(No.) “Clean. Hot.”

“Go take a hot shower, Bucky.”

The water stung just a little. As the water ran down his face, he could feel the intense focus (Change the world) he associated with the Winter Soldier (Asset) leaving him. His breaths became varied instead of static. His perception changed from assessing to experiencing. The hot water felt good. So did the soap against his skin.

He shampooed his hair, letting the bubbles foam and tumble over his arms. His hand hovered over Darcy’s conditioner. She’d encouraged him to use it. (Smells like her.) He squeezed a small amount out and rubbed it into his hair. His own silky strands startled him, shimmering energy against the sensors of his fingers.

Washing out the crème didn’t seem to work. His hair was still ridiculously soft (like Darcy’s). He rinsed again and again until he gave up.

The slick and slip reminded him of other things. Of Steve. His cock jerked in memory of being too full to move, with just enough oil squeezed from a handful of olives in Steve’s hand to make it work. The change in his lover’s body had been intimidating at first, but they had learned, learned to go slow, relied on trust and love to take care of the rest.

He wrapped his own hand around his dick in memory. Remembered the feel of Steve’s hand doing the same.

Always, always, Steve had taken the top. He’d had to learn to pace himself, to breathe a certain way so as not to have an asthma attack. To be patient so his heart wouldn’t race. And Steve’d had enough hang ups about the names people called him. Punk had been the least of them. Bucky had taken it, made it his own, and it became a source of amusement for them.

They’d never had the time or place to experiment in the army with Steve’s new body. Steve had been willing, though. And the frustration had occasionally driven him to do stupidly heroic things against the enemy in retaliation.

He was fully erect now, stroking himself with a crème-slicked hand. Thought of Darcy. Still thinking of Steve. He braced himself against the wall. The metal caught his eye, and he smirked to himself. Switching hands, he found the rhythm again. The feedback from his left hand was entirely different, made his heart race from the sensations in his fingertips paired with those in his cock. He was far too used to pulling his hand back a little to change finger positions, then setting it back in place. He’d learned the hard way about plates and joints and the opportunity for pinching.

All that was instinctive these days, and with the extra layers of sensation from his hand, he bit his lip hard not to groan too loudly when he got off.

He took a minute to clean up, washed himself again and turned twice under the hot water before turning it off and reaching for the towel.

As he dried off, he realized he’d forgotten clothes. For too long, he wore what was given. But he remembered different clothing. Softer fabrics. More colors. Still, he liked the way black looked with the metal. He hung up the towel on the rack this time. If Darcy had been home, he might have dropped it on the floor just so she could complain about it.

He opened the door to find Steve hovering in Darcy’s bedroom, putting on socks. Steve took in his bare skin and pursed his lips at the view. A faint smile and a touch of heat lit his face. But he didn’t look away.

“See something you like?” Bucky made sure to keep his voice low and teasing.

“Lots. Did you forget clothes again?”

He wouldn’t admit to that. “Nah. I just like strolling around this way to see you blush.” He did that now, crossing the little hallway to Darcy’s room where he had jeans and a t-shirt tucked into a drawer, making sure Steve had a good view of his ass. He held up a pair of blue underwear. “Is it just me or are these a lot softer now? And smaller?”

“Used to have to wash them for months to get them comfortable. And I can’t think of any reason anyone looked good in the ones we had.” Steve rose from the bed, moving to lean against the doorway to watch him dress.

“You go bare-assed under your suit?” Bucky asked as he pulled the jeans on.

“No. Do you?”

“No.” He pulled the t-shirt over his head. “But yours is a lot tighter than mine.”

“It’s not that bad, Bucky. You should have seen that damned chorus girl costume I wore.”

“I did see that chorus girl costume you wore. You were adorable.”

“Piss off, jerk.”

He leveled a grin at Steve and shoved a hand through his hair. Held out a strand. “What did Darcy do to this?”

“Darcy?”

“She told me to use her stuff on it.”

Steve ran his hand through Bucky’s hair. “Soft as a baby’s butt. What else you lookin’ for?”

Bucky’s breath hitched at the familiar caress. Stuttered a little. “U--used to use oil to slick it back.”

Pulling him back into the bathroom, Steve dumped some kind of gel in his hand and ran it through Bucky’s hair. “No doubt you’ll get the hang of this better than I did. You like it longer?”

(If it meant Steve doing that all the time, hell yes.) “I don’t .. yeah .. yes.”  

“This is more like what you had before the army. Slicked back isn’t exactly the style, but you’ve got options.” Steve reached around him to wash the stuff off his hands and dried them on the towel hanging by the sink.

Bucky was a little mesmerized by the scene in the mirror. Blue eyes connected with blue. “I don’t—that’s us.”

“Little different than the picture we took at Coney Island,” Steve wryly noted.

“You’re taller than me.”

“A little.”

“Still a punk.”

“Yeah, and you’re still a jerk.” Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders and pressed his forehead against Bucky’s neck. “I love you.” (Did the words always come that easy?) And with that said, Steve hugged him hard once more and left the bathroom.

He leaned over the top of the stairs and called down, “Since you have my name tattooed on you, I figured that out, Steven Grant.”

The answering laugh gave him warm feelings all over. He poked at his hair until it sort of looked the way Darcy had done it yesterday and wandered down too.  

Chapter Text

August 2014

On a late summer Saturday afternoon, Darcy pretended to read a new article on graphene as Steve and Bucky played gin at the kitchen table. But she wasn’t paying any attention to her tablet. The insults were impressive and made her smile from time to time.

Steve sat in his usual manner, good posture, hands on table as he idly tapped his cards on the wood.

Bucky slouched, his feet propped up on the other chair, laying down sets and runs while holding the cards in one hand and sipping from his beer with the other.  “You’re doing that on purpose, punk.  Tap all you want. I’m still winning.”

“Oh, does that bother you? I didn’t know.” A card landed on the pile of other cards with a soft thunk.   "Oh, nice one. Exactly the card I needed to do this.”  Darcy heard a snap snap snap against the wood. “Gin.”

“Did you learn that trick in the nursing home?” Bucky sneered. 

The insult had her biting back a smile.  Today was another good day for him, another in a string of them.

She got why HYDRA never tried to replicate the Winter Soldier. The short version was that while the serum gave Bucky hyperawareness, increased physical strength and healing, it also meant that brain repaired itself almost as fast as HYDRA could break it.

In creating the Winter Soldier, they had to use electroshock therapy to suppress memories of who he was, all the while giving him intense training to coax his fighting skills to the forefront. Moving from sniper to assassin wasn’t a huge jump, but closing down the cocky young man and crafting him into an obedient weapon had required enormous amounts of conditioning. Cryofreeze had been their answer to keep him contained between missions. He operated in teams or, more rarely, alone. His handlers kept him on a horribly tight leash, punishing him for any mistakes with ice cold showers and painful shocks.

The longer version included the reality that the mechanical arm gave Bucky problems HYDRA couldn’t resolve given the way he was being used.  The sensitivity was amazing and Darcy was astonished when she was finally able to open the panel under Bucky’s arm (with a local pain blocker, as promised).

Truly, the biometric sensors winding around the bare nerves were gorgeous as all fuck. She wished like hell she could extract one to figure out how it worked. (She’d scanned them a dozen times though.  She and Banner, along with her dad, were breaking down the tech in their spare time.) As much as she hated Zola, he was brilliant. Fucked. But brilliant. Obviously some of the technology had been updated over the years but the core mechanics were still the same. Beautifully crafted machinery was a legacy of the 30’s and 40’s and Bucky’s arm was no different.

But the metal frame in his shoulders, along with his healing brain, gave Barnes terrible headaches. He’d always been prone to them, according to Steve, but cool temperatures or an intense walk through his memories (good or bad, it didn’t matter) inevitably ended in a headache of monumental proportions. No wonder he’d been dosed with narcotics. She could only imagine the pain of coming out of cryofreeze.

Clint had been the one to clue them in that Bucky would likely never lose physical control, even in the darkest of nightmares or pain. (Nat didn’t. Never had.) He’d been right, and instead, Bucky completely shut down on the worst of moments.   

At the moment, Bucky was still dependent on Darcy and Steve and always stayed with one or both of them--not the sort of thing that was the hallmark of a healthy relationship.

In spite of it all, Bucky was recovering.

With Steve and Darcy, his personality had coalesced into a blend of the old Bucky charm and the heightened awareness of the Winter Soldier. With others, he retreated into quiet observation. (Except with Natasha. She didn’t count. And it was all in Russian. Darcy really needed to learn Russian.)

Then there was the simple truth that Steve and Bucky belonged together.

They made jokes no one else understood but made them cackle like old ladies in a tea shop. They moved the same way, shoulder shrugs and half-grins. Bucky made messes and Steve cleaned them up. Steve bitched about Bucky dirtying up the bathroom and Bucky would reluctantly polish it up to a spit-shine. The two men had a rhythm in the kitchen that spoke of their relationship more than words would ever show.

The easy affection was there for her to see. A hand on the back as someone leaned over the table. A rub of the knuckles or shoulders. The unspoken conversations with facial expressions alone.

There were the days when Steve and Bucky would disappear to Brooklyn on the motorcycle. (The first time—well, it would take a better woman than she to not have entertained a fantasy or two. She tried not to think on it too much.) They always came back with an airiness that shaved years off their faces.  (She firmly stepped on her jealousy. It had no business here.)

Through it all, no one worked harder to make himself right than James Buchanan Barnes.

Sam worked with the soldier five days a week, without fail. He encouraged Bucky’s interest in healing and found online courses for him. Steve brought him to spar with Thor, who had chortled and taken it easy the first round, with a repartee that kept the session light. In spite of himself, Bucky relaxed into it (as Thor stepped up the pace), proving once again, that the prince of Asgard was more than a simple warrior. But while Bucky was fascinated with the training process, he showed little need to wreak vengeance on HYDRA.

If anyone had a problem with it, to Darcy’s surprise, it had turned out to be Steve.

“I thought it would be the two of us in the field again, Darce. Once he got better.”

“Sam thinks Bucky won’t ever go on a mission again,” she reminded him. “He likes medicine. Maybe it’s reparation for those twenty-seven missions and all that time in the army. Your mom even thought he would be good at it.”

“We were good together, Darcy. Always had each other’s back. He’s an amazing soldier.”

“I caught the exhibit,” she snapped. “Try to remember that neither of you came home.” Steve flinched, as Darcy so rarely rounded on him. (The thought of losing Steve could bring her to her knees. The thought of losing both of them?) He didn’t bring it up again.

Darcy, on the other hand, found it harder each day to keep up the role of supportive girlfriend while Steve’s first love lived with them.  Discussions had bounced around about a new place to live.  Steve was lobbying for the Tower, but, um, no. Darcy wasn’t letting Tony pester Bucky about his arm. He was worse than Jane when it came to technology and personal space.

The real stumbling block was about the bedroom.  All three of them knew it and none of them wanted to broach the real subject about what the future held. 

Her relationship with Steve was on ice (pun intended, she was irritated) and had been for more than three months now. And the speed at which Bucky was finding solid ground was both impressive and scary-as-fuck. They didn’t need her anymore. Not really.

So she was grateful, terribly grateful, when Natasha and Jane sent identical texts in quick succession. “Tonight, Jane’s, sleepover. Bring food. 7.”

“Thor? Clint?” she texted back.

“Sam too. Clint’s. Same deal. Bring the Vintage Twins :D.”

That was Natasha, and Darcy giggled as she texted back. “I’m in.”

Steve got a text with the invite for them. Bucky turned around to stare at Darcy after Steve showed it to him.

Maybe she’d been around him too long, because she knew what he was asking without a word being said.  “I’ll be with Natasha and only a floor below you. You can even escort me there. She’s staying the whole time, and if she doesn’t, I’ll call you.”

“Good.” (Guess she could put one more name on the list of people Barnes trusted.)

 

 

They dropped her off at Jane’s--Steve with a kiss, Bucky with a squeeze to her hand. (The hand thing, it was theirs now.) She closed the door behind her and waited.

“Lewis, Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers are in the elevator,” JARVIS announced.

“Oh, thank god,” she breathed out.

Jane and Natasha broke out with laughter, and Jane handed over the bottle of honeyed bourbon and a glass of ice. Darcy passed over a plate of tiny quiches and fruit. “You promised chocolate.”

Grinning wickedly, Natasha brought out a tray of truffles, éclairs and cream puffs. “Drink up, Lewis. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

“Oh god,” she comically groaned. But in truth, she needed her girlfriends right now. She was so far in over her head, and maybe Natasha was the only one who could understand the Bucky half (third?) of the equation.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, Lewis?”

“Give us a soundtrack.”

“As you wish.” A classically sexy beat with a killer guitar filled the room.

She grinned. “I love you, too, J.” At Jane’s quizzical expression, Darcy told her as she sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the coffee table now loaded down with food. “Music is JARVIS’ hobby. He loves curating playlists and finding new artists--or rediscovering old stuff. Mom and I have taken baby steps in setting up a production company for him. He skims the internet looking for new stuff that isn’t getting any attention. The production company is so he can do something about it.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “I might know someone who could be his hands and feet if you need anyone.”

“Give it to JARVIS. He’ll do his own interviewing. I’m just a member of the board.”

Her mouth quirked. “And how would I do that?”

JARVIS replied, “I have sent an email to your phone with appropriate contact information, Ms. Romanov. Please reply back and I will take a look at your candidate--probably with preferential treatment as you are considered an excellent judge of character.”

“Well that’s novel.” Nat picked up her glass and knocked back her usual vodka. She kept the bottle in an ice bucket on the table.

Jane moved so that she could sit behind Darcy. Her hands dove into Darcy’s hair and she began separating it into sections. “Okay, I’ll braid, you talk,” she ordered.

Nat’s eyebrow arched. “You braid?”

“Who do you think does Thor’s hair?” Darcy remarked with a laugh. “She loves to braid. You’re next unless you want to wrestle her to the floor. With her new boyfriend around, she’s figured out how to do some of the most amazing stuff.”

“You’re stalling,” Jane complained.

“I’m explaining. And I’m going to need more to drink if I’m going to explain this mess I’m in.”

Natasha dropped more ice in her glass and Darcy splashed the bourbon over it. “Spill,” the Russian ordered.

“That’s not your usual interrogation technique, Nat. I’m so disappointed.”

“Will it work?”

“Yup. Okay, so just before all this happened, Steve asked me to move in with him.”

“Progressive for a fossil,” Nat observed. “By the way, I’m still rather annoyed that neither of you admitted to being together. I knew, even tried to bait Rogers on it, and he wouldn’t spill.”

Jane tugged Darcy’s head back so that they were eye to eye. “Same goes. Really? I thought we were friends.”

“You are my friends. I’m just used to keeping certain things quiet.”

“Like the fact your last name is Stark and you’re a genius?” Jane pointed out.

“Exactly like that. So now that we’ve laid the groundwork that I’m a crappy friend, do you still want to hear this?”

“Yes,” the other two chorused.

“Steve asked you to move in,” Jane prompted. “All hell broke loose and Barnes is suddenly not the Winter Soldier anymore and he’s living with you. Gotta be hard on the sex life.”

Darcy bit her lip. “You have no idea. The shower is our go to place now, and that’s only when we can pry Barnes out of it. There’s a man who likes his hot water.” She took a healthy gulp, digging up courage in the process. “I know I should let them be the ones to tell you this, but--” she hesitated, though desperate to talk.

Natasha gave her a sympathetic look and offered, “The Vintage Twins are more than best friends?”

“That’s one way to put it.”

Jane stopped, her fingers clenching Darcy’s tresses. “Are you saying that they are together? For how long?”

“Yes, and ten years.” Darcy pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. “You know how people say they would do anything for love? Steve has actually changed the course of the world’s history because of how much he loves Bucky. And Bucky loves Steve so much that twice he was able to break seven decades of conditioning over a bare memory of that love.”

“What does this mean for you?” Jane asked. She ran her fingers through Darcy’s hair with calming strokes and Darcy felt herself relaxing for the first time in weeks.

“Honestly? I don’t know. Steve swears up and down that he loves me. He’s flat out told Bucky and me not to make him choose. I think he’s hoping that we can figure things out enough to be friends.”

“A trio?” Nat asked.

“Or friends enough to share. He’s said in the past that they assumed they would marry other people, have families and all that. Both of them have been with other girls during their relationship. Definitely not other guys though.”

“Wow.” That came from Jane. “That’s not exactly the relationship you were expecting. Did you know about them? Before all this happened?”

The gentle tugs and finger-combing chased away tension. The understanding gave her comfort. “Yes.”

Natasha leaned forward. “How do you feel about Barnes?”

“If Steve wasn’t in the picture? I’d take him to bed. Easily. He’s sexy, he’s sweet. Flirts. Oh, and he’s a pain the ass who argues with me over everything. I like him when he’s not being a jerk.”

“But he’s the Winter Soldier,” Nat prompted.

“And Steve is Captain America. It’s what they do--or did--it’s not who they are.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m never sure, Nat. Steve trusts him. Point blank, no holds barred, trusts him. And now that Barnes has his memories back, he’s just like Steve, he can’t really forget anything now. Sucks during an argument.”

“Side effect of the serum,” Natasha murmured. “Bruce has the same problem. When he’s not the Hulk, anyway.” (Darcy found it interesting that Nat didn’t admit to having a version of the serum. She never did.)

“What do you want?” Jane asked.

“Right now? I want out. I want to walk away and let them be. They deserve it. They deserve every bit of happiness that can be had. They have this gorgeous thing going on between them, but every time I try to get out of their way, Steve’s pulling me back in. So is Barnes, for that matter.  But that’s a different thing altogether and not related to dating.”

Jane reached out for her beer and took a healthy drink. “What’s it like living with them?”

“In my apartment? It’s three people stepping over each other all day long. If I go to my lab, Bucky tags along unless he’s working out with Steve. He can’t sleep unless he’s holding my hand. Go figure that. So I’m currently sleeping between two hot-as-all-fuck soldiers and can’t touch either one of them. No twenty-six year old female should be this sexually frustrated all the time.”

The generalized swearing at that statement gave her a little bit of comfort. Nat passed her the chocolate tray in sympathy and Darcy downed two truffles and an éclair.

“If you’re getting limited Steve-sex, is Barnes getting the rest?” Nat asked.

“I just wanted it noted that, holy shit that is a really hot, terrifying thought, and no—Steve said they won’t until Bucky is better. Sam told me that it wouldn’t be right for anyone to bring him into a sexual relationship until he has his head on straight. It’s got to be his move, for one, and Steve can’t be giving him orders.”

“Orders?” Jane asked.

Natasha answered, “Barnes and I were conditioned to blindly obey our handlers. Right now, the only person Barnes trusts is Rogers. It’s that trust that gave him the impetus to break from his old handlers,” she explained. “S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t—didn’t do things that way. It’s more of a highly recommended suggestion than an order. There should be trust between a handler and an agent.” Nat tapped her finger on her cheek. “Barnes needs a different handler.”

“Who else can manage the Winter Soldier?” Darcy asked. “Sam can’t do it since he’s treating him. Maybe Thor, but Thor is deliberately setting himself up as Steve’s mentor. Sort of a senior friend they can drink with. And I’m not certain he’s acclimated to Earth enough to recognize some of Bucky’s triggers.”

Jane nodded, “Sounds like him. He worries about the team. And you’re right about the last part.”

As Darcy talked, the alcohol put everything in a nice haze. She had perspective. She had so much fucking perspective that she wanted to bawl her eyes out twice a day. “I miss Steve. I miss everything about our relationship. He’s gorgeous, treats me like a queen, is a sarcastic jerk when he wants to be, and damn it, he loves me.” She bit on her lip hard to keep the lump in her throat down. “And I have to accept that things will never be the same between us. Oh god I miss the sex. Steve is really, really good at sex.”

Natasha reached out and plucked a cream puff off the table. “So is Barnes.”

“Should I ask?”

“No.”

Darcy eyed her speculatively. “He says your name sometime. Do you want him back?”

“Perhaps at one point I might have, but not now.”

Jane laughed. “Clint’s a handful and you’re gone on him. We’ve all seen the necklace.”

“Shut up, Jane.”

“The spider was struck by Cupid’s arrow,” Darcy hummed. It was so rare to be able to poke fun at Nat, but she rolled with it so much better than people anticipated. (Always in private.) “So do you guys do it hanging off the building?”

“Only once.”

Jane and Darcy burst out laughing at Nat’s cheeky reply. They toasted her victory before Natasha neatly brought the conversation around again.

“Three months of sleeping between the two of them and absolutely nothing has happened? You’re either dead or a liar.”

Darcy blushed.

“Told ya.” Nat was insufferably smug.

“They kiss the same way,” she admitted.

Jane bopped Darcy on the top of her head with the heel of her hand. “Bitch. You didn’t tell us you’ve been kissing them.”

“No, just one time. The day Bucky got his memories back. Had a bad moment with the arm and I told him to do something with it that made him feel good. He played with my hair and kissed me. Right in front of Steve.”

“How was it?” Natasha asked.

“Told you, they kiss the same way. Bucky is yummy like an orange. Steve is all sand and surf.”

“What did Steve think?”

Darcy snorted. “Think? You would have to have blood in your brain to think.”

Natasha and Jane both let out wicked laughs. “So Steve doesn’t have a problem with the two of you,” Nat said with some satisfaction.

“Neither does Bucky. He’s flat out said that. I will point out that we are talking about fucking, not having a relationship. And there is the whole co-dependency-I-don’t-trust-anyone thing too.”

“Which is why you have a problem with it,” Jane noted.

“Exactly. I’m a Stark. Starks don’t play well with others.” She flashed a grin at Nat. “Or so I’ve been told.”

“So you’ve been living with them for months now and haven’t fucked both of their brains out?” Jane asked. “What happened to you since college?”

Darcy flushed. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe she just needed to talk for once. “I grew up,” she said bluntly. “Steven means everything to me and I won’t mess this up for him.” She bit her lip, wondering just how much she was willing to confess. 

Nat eyeballed her with that arched brow like she already knew.  Fuck. “Okay, it hasn’t all been innocent,” she admitted.

Natasha looked like a cat with a bowl of cream. “There’s our girl. Details, please.”

“You know how … sometimes … you wake up just a little bit, enough to have your hands all over your partner, and you’re not sure whether you started it or they started it, but you really don’t care because it all feels good and then you’re just gone before you really wake up?”

Jane grinned and took a drink of her wine. “Yes, it’s amazing and do tell us more.”

“Well, it was me and Steve and afterward I realized that Barnes was holding my hand the whole time. His cock kept bumping my knuckles.”

Nat cackled. “And?”

“And maybe it was stupid, but I couldn’t leave him stranded, so I helped him out. Hands only, but--.”

(she brushed her knuckles against his twitching cock through the fabric. Took her time. Wrapped her fingers around him, material and all. Stroked. Tugged the waistband down enough to touch the tip, to slip her thumb across the slit and slickness. Pushed the fabric out of the way. Stroked skin to skin. Heat warmed her hand as she explored enough to make his hips flex into the bed. He covered her hand with his, pressed down hard and came with a groan. He never let go of her other hand.)

Jane’s eyes rounded. “What did they do?”

“Nothing. I’m not even sure if Steve was awake. And Barnes hasn’t said anything at all.”

“When was this?”

“Two nights ago.”

“And nothing has happened since?”

She shook her head. “I slept in my lab last night and escaped here today.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow at her. “Avoidance is not the way to resolve things.”

“It is if you’re a Stark. And it doesn’t change anything, not really.”

“If you say so, Darcy.”

Chapter Text

As soon as Darcy was inside Jane’s apartment, Bucky took that mental retreat that characterized his interactions with anyone other than Steve and Darcy. 

They were told to bring beer. They did, having made a successful stop at the grocery store on the way.  Bucky ran errands regularly now, but only with Steve, never Darcy.  It was still too much of a risk.  More than once he’d been forced to order the soldier to retreat from a volatile trigger. There was one in Brooklyn that still made Steve cringe. 

They’d taken the bike, determined to find a good pastrami sandwich in their old neighborhood.  They’d found one in a bar—along with a crowd of guys admiring the parked bike far too close for Bucky’s comfort. 

Through the window , Bucky hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the men, and Steve noted the small actions of a soldier shifting his weapons into place. 

“Stay here until I signal for you.” He used his Cap voice, still hating the way Bucky’s eyes blanked in obedience.

As nonchalant as he could possibly make himself, he strolled out the front door and leaned against the wall nearest the bike, one foot touching the wall itself, near his knee.  His crossed his arms, as if he were merely waiting for the crowd to finish.  Which he was.  It didn’t take long for the five men to notice him. 

“This yours?”

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” Steve replied. Firm. Calm. 

Fortunately for him, these guys weren’t stupid.  Trading glances around, along with some literal and mental scratching of heads, they figured out that something wasn’t right.  It was the youngest of the group who got it first.  “Shit.  Captain America.  Sorry, sir, didn’t know it was your bike. Uh, it’s a real nice one. We were just admiring it.” 

The two ex-military snapped salutes, which Steve returned as he straightened.  “Not a problem.  Just want to make sure I can get home later.”

After that, the five guys arranged themselves in such a way that no one would mess with the bike.  Steve sent a round of drinks to them and returned to the table with Bucky.  Who hadn’t moved anything but his eyes.  “At ease, soldier,” he said softly, though with conviction.

Now that the threat has been assessed and the body language of the men had changed, the soldier came down on Steve’s command. Still wary, but not threatening. He even managed to finish his sandwich and iced tea. 

When it came time to leave, Steve kept a light hand on Bucky’s shoulder.  It was to the credit of the five men that none of them asked for handshakes or autographs.  Just a quiet “Thank you” and “Sir” all around.  The two soldiers studied Bucky, trying to decide if he too was military and his potential rank.  In the end, the metal hand and his proximity to Steve told them all they needed to know. In unison, they saluted him too.  

Bucky returned it and mounted the bike behind Steve without a word.  When they were moving along the streets, Bucky pressed his forehead to Steve’s back. By the time they made it to Darcy’s place, Bucky’s head was hurting so much that he shifted entirely to the Winter Soldier as he did his usual recon of the house. 

It was late when they turned the corner on it, and blankness was replaced by simmering anger.  “That was too close, Steven.  If one of them had touched the bike--” He flexed his hand and blew out his breath. “Don’t think I’ve seen you diffuse a situation like that.  You usually wade in with your fists.” 

Steve wanted to laugh it off. Instead he reached for Bucky and hugged him close. “You’re safe.  I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.” 

“I know.” 

In light of all that, a casual evening out had lost its appeal for a while longer. 

But Barton had texted Steve earlier in the week to ask what sort of things Bucky might be up for doing.  When Darcy got an invitation for the sleepover, Steve decided the archer and Nat must have colluded to get the three of them out of the house.  He was grateful for it because the tension at Darcy’s place was running higher than usual--enough that Darcy had made excuses and stayed in her lab last night.  Bucky had been out of sorts until she returned early this morning with donuts and bagels for breakfast.  

Barton and Nat’s apartment would be a good middle ground since Bucky could explore it all he needed to ensure he was safe.  In the past, they’d enjoyed going out to watch people, take part in the silliness, and give each other hell for whatever they done that day.  Maybe they could recapture a little of that here and let Bucky find another piece of himself.

The apartment looked more like a hotel suite than a home, and was ridiculously lush when compared to what Steve and Bucky had settled for in Brooklyn.  But the sofas were comfortable and the odd weapons scattered here and there said more about the occupants than any decor ever would.

Barton to nodded at a box on the coffee table.  “Stark got wind of our little get together.  Since he and Banner are in California doing something about his house, he sent us a gift.” All of them either winced or developed a pained expression.   All except Wilson, who eagerly tore into the note attached to the top.   

“Since I’m absolutely certain none of you have the wherewithal to sit around, drink beer and watch football like normal people do (or so I am told), and since I do not want my basement shredded after you five get done shooting at each other with live firearms, I expect you to leave your personal items in the weapons lockers and play with these.  No exceptions.  Only use the ammunition I’ve included in the box.  No exceptions for that either. Drinking is allowed.  In fact, encouraged.  JARVIS will be watching and I’ve got a weekend in Bermuda for the winner.—Stark.”

Sam flicked open his pocketknife and slit the box tape.  He came up with a plastic gun, a kid’s toy, by the look of it, along with what looked like a blue dart with rubber tips. He let out a whistle in appreciation. “Please tell me we can mod these.” 

“Fuck yes,” agreed Barton as he pulled another gun out of the box and a handful of darts that he stuffed into his pocket.

“Mod?” asked Steve.

“What you have here are Nerf N-Strike Elite Strongarms.”  Sam passed the rest of them out and grabbed the bag of darts.  “Best Nerf gun on the market.”

JARVIS interrupted. “Lieutenant Wilson, I believe you will find the items you need in the basement, which has been set up for your use.”

“Well now.  Isn’t that interesting? Don’t forget the beer.”  He strolled out the door, Barton on his heels. 

They stopped in the doorway. “You all coming along?” Barton asked.

Once in the elevator, the archer loaded his weapon and took a practice shot on Thor’s shoulder, grinning at the demi-god’s confused frown. 

Bucky turned the toy over in his hands, then loaded the barrel with six darts and fired them into the floor.  None of them hit the same place twice. “There’s no accuracy.” 

Wilson nodded. “Exactly.  No one has an advantage because the guns are shit compared to what we use and the darts float on the air currents. That’s half the fun.” 

“What’s the other half?”

“Modifying these babies as much as possible.” 

When they reached the training room, they were stopped by JARVIS first.  “Please, gentlemen, lock up your real weapons before you take the floor.” 

Handguns and knives went into the weapons lockers.  Bucky laid a pair of Rugers on the shelf of the one he’d chosen and pulled another handgun from his boot.  He hesitated and looked at Steve, who only said, “You’re safe here, but it’s your call.” Steve grinned with pride when the soldier laid the weapon on the shelf too.  Still, it wasn’t as if Bucky was unarmed.  Steve knew damned well he was carrying his knives and those weren’t going anywhere.  Bucky laid his thumb on the pad to lock the safe. 

Stark had set up three tables – one laden with food and drink of choice, including a cask from Thor.  The second was full of little springs, small electric drills, screwdrivers, brass tubes, and bits and pieces of a variety of materials from metal to plastic. The third had every color of spray paint and Sharpie marker available. 

But Sam shooed them out onto the training ground.  “Try ‘em out first.  Get used to ‘em.  Then you’ll know how you want to modify them.” 

A light thunk on Steve’s shoulder had him automatically scanning for the source. Barton, in the rafters.  Steve ducked behind a convenient wooden column and took aim at the retreating boots.  The shot went wide right, catching the air as it dropped, directly onto Thor’s foot. 

“Point for Barton, point for Rogers,” called JARVIS. 

Bucky looked up with his mouth open, just a little.  “It’s that easy?” He shot a look to Steve and they retreated, skimming the area for the layout.  There were two levels, so keeping an eye out from above was just as important as the ground.  Bucky went vertical, hovering over Steve’s space, and flattening himself in the rafters. 

A dart came out of nowhere, but it missed Steve by a good six inches.  He fired back, wincing at the loud click.  “Nothing like giving away your position every time you shoot,” he muttered. 

He ran forward and tagged Wilson in the shoe.

“Point for Rogers.” 

Bucky fired from above with a loud click click.

“Double shot?” Steve held up his gun to look at the slide again.  And was tagged by both Thor and Barton in the process.  He returned fire, caught Barton.

“Point for Thor, Barton, Rogers.” 

“Shit.” That came from overhead.  “It’s jammed.” 

Wilson popped out, firing all six rounds at once at Bucky, who rolled off the rafters at the first sound.  Wilson followed him down, catching him with at least two of the darts.

Bucky was so pissed he threw his gun at Sam, who ducked with a burst of laughter.  “Piece of shit,” he muttered. 

Steve echoed Wilson’s laugh, then regretted it when Thor came up behind him and got him with two darts and Sam with two more. 

“Sh—“ he turned and chased after Thor, missing him with three whole darts before nailing him with the last one. Suddenly, throwing the gun seemed like a great idea.

“Somebody said something about modifications?”  Bucky growled.

Wilson and Barton pealed out laughter, bumped fists and headed for the tables, while Steve picked up the fallen toy.

They reassembled around the work benches and Sam stripped down his piece to show them how to replace the springs.  “Gotta be careful because you can stress the plastic, but you’ll get an extra twenty or thirty feet with a better spring.” 

Steve held out the plastic gun out to Bucky, who grumbled as he took it.  Then he sat on the floor with it and the pocket knife that Steve didn’t even know he carried, and proceeded to dismantle it entirely, peering down the plastic barrels and staring at the handful of Nerf darts he’d retrieved from the floor.

Clint passed around drinks.  Steve took one sip and shot Barton a dirty look.  He’d filled up Steve’s red cup with Asgardian mead.  The archer grinned and settled in to work on his toy. 

“Why are we doing this?” asked Thor.

Sam shrugged. “It’s fun.  My cousins and I have Nerf wars all the time at the holidays.” 

Steve studied the toy after he had it butterflied onto the table.  Considering the piece, he worked on the spring first.

“Good move.”  Sam gestured to him. 

Barton seemed to have a system already in place and finished his first. He wandered over the paint table, where he sprayed the whole thing down in fluorescent purple and black.

Steve raised an eyebrow, “If that’s supposed to be camouflage, I think the color choices defeat the purpose.” He held the new spring down with his thumb to get it in place then tightened it down. 

“I like purple. It’s purple camo and it’s mine.”  Barton drained his bottle and set the gun under the dryer that Stark had so thoughtfully provided.

Wilson’s gun ended up entirely black with a falcon painted on the side of it in silver.  He parked his weapon next to Barton’s and raided the table for nachos while it dried. 

By the time Thor was done, his Nerf gun looked like something out of an Asgardian steampunk fantasy.  He’d attached brass tubes with caps for extra ammo storage and painted the whole thing in red and blue, overlaid with black and gold.   

Steve sealed up all the extra air holes, replaced the spring and put the gun back together. Then he coated his toy in blue paint and let it dry while he ate. He had an idea for the art, but wanted a clean surface first. 

Bucky joined him at the paint table.  He painted his now-silver N-Strike with a red star on the top.  He winked at Steve as he worked over his toy with black lines.

“You okay?”

“I’m hungry,” Bucky said, as he slid his gun into the dryer. 

Nachos were the food of choice, some assembly required (the theme for the day).  Bucky had a plate full.

“Steve?”

“Hmm?”

“Why don’t we have nachos at home?”

He blinked. “I don’t know.  Ask Darcy.”

“She doesn’t make out the grocery list. You do.”

“I didn’t know you liked nachos.”

“I didn’t know I liked nachos either.  You’re supposed to introduce me to this stuff.”

“Do I know how to make nachos?”

“What’s hard about it? Chips, those bean things.  Ground beef with stuff in it.  Cheese. Salad stuff on top.”

“Don’t forget the sour cream and guacamole and hot sauce,” said Clint.

“Hot sauce?” Bucky asked with interest. 

While Bucky stuffed his face, Steve drank his mead. He was always intrigued by how Thor managed to navigate anything new with aplomb.  Then again, he was a thousand years old and had probably done a few things.  “Thor, I didn’t know you used guns on Asgard. You seem comfortable with the mechanics.”

Thor shot a sideways grin at him.  “We do have offensive weaponry.  It is not in our nature to use them any more than you do, Steven.  Like your shield, Mjolnir can be used either way, but our people fight defensively.  It is not our purpose to conquer, but to protect.”

“I like that.”

“As do I.” 

Clint stuffed the last nacho in his mouth, drained his beer and came up with his weapon.  “You guys done?”   

Money came out.  Bets were made.  Side bets were made.  There were so many challenges that JARVIS pulled up a screen on one side and listed them all with the appropriate bounty. 

As Wilson and Barton made the first run through, tossing insults at each other. Steve checked in with Bucky.  “You okay, pal?”

“Hope your shooting has improved, punk.”

Steve shook his head, sneering, “Fuck you, Barnes.”

“Anytime, Rogers.” Bucky flashed him a smile and ran for cover on the far side of the room.

The burst of laughter from Wilson had all of them turning around.  Sam was wiping tears from his face, wagging a finger at Barton, who was leaning up against a wooden column all agog at the exchange between Steve and Bucky.

“Nat told me the worst she’d ever heard from you was ‘damn.’” Barton said in awe.

“I watch my language in front of the ladies,” he quipped as he scanned the room for targets. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to stalk Bucky under these circumstances, but hell, it was for fun and he’d had enough mead for a little forcible relaxation.

A dart came out of the dark to tag him on the knee. 

“Point, Barnes.”

Shit. Steve got behind a fake bush.  He reached out for the dart and noticed it was heavier than the ones he’d been using.  He loaded it into his own barrel, waited for Barton to creep a little closer overhead and fired it. 

“Point, Rogers.”

“What the fuck?” the archer screeched.  “Who modded the darts? Were we modding darts?  Wilson!”

“Don’t look at me!”

Two more darts came out of the darkness to tag Barton, who promptly loaded them into his gun and flipped off the rafter to land on the floor and chase after Bucky, who was dancing between the pillars. 

“Two points, Barnes.” 

A shot fired.

“Point, Barton.”

Somehow, Clint managed to steal enough supplies off the table without getting shot so that he could hole up in a semi-protected corner to make his own darts while Thor, Steve and Sam chased each other around the room, giggling like schoolchildren.  The mead made the evening slightly blurry, though Steve never lost track of where Bucky was currently hiding. 

Steve went down when Sam and Thor tag-teamed to catch him from both sides, and Bucky dropped from the ceiling with a mod dart to his forehead.

Thor got a lucky dart to Bucky’s leg as he retreated then was vanquished by Sam’s triple shot to his chest. 

Sam got caught in the cross-fire when Barton came out firing his own modded darts at Bucky when the soldier rolled to take cover behind a wooden stump.

In the end, the three of them crammed themselves into Barton’s nest to watch the two sharpshooters take impossible shots at each other.  Off the ceiling.  Using the air conditioning vents to waft the darts into place.  Arcing overhead to drop with infuriating regularity.

When the remaining darts were lying in little pools of light where no one could retrieve them without getting shot again, JARVIS called a truce. 

“Barnes, 38. Barton, 37. Wilson 26. Rogers and Thor tied at 22.”

Barton drawled, “Stark’s gonna be pissed he’s got to send you to Bermuda.”

“Think he’ll let me take Darcy?” Bucky asked. 

Steve snorted.  “Hell, no.  He wouldn’t let me take Darcy.  You can take Wilson.”

“Nope, I’m getting wings out of this whole deal.” Sam climbed out of the nest. “Is it me or did I not see the Iron Man/Stark protective thing? Because I totally missed that. You know, in the Stark propensity for drinking and partying and playing with the girls.”

Steve huffed out a laugh. “Try being the daughter’s boyfriend.  He didn't speak to me for the first six months. First conversation was an argument and the second was a variation on the shovel talk.”

“Must have been an interesting talk.”

Looking over at Bucky, who was cradling his new toy like the best of rifles, he nodded, “You have no idea.” A thought occurred to him. “JARVIS? Nerf guns?” 

A locker tucked in the corner popped open. “Lewis says you can look, but you can’t touch.” 

Bucky got there first, with the rest of them on his heels.  The locker contained a beautifully modded pair of Nerf guns in the locker, one hot pink and electric blue, the other in red and gold. Custom-made matching darts were stacked neatly across the bottom of the locker, along with bandoliers for the ammo.  Sam whistled.  “Mavericks. Nice. Old school.” 

Barton pouted as he wandered away with Sam and Thor. “Stark didn't buy us bandoliers.”

Bucky reached out to shut the locker. "That's my girl," he said softly. 

 

 

Chapter Text

In spite of the lubrication of the evening, Darcy woke well before morning (or maybe what she had counted as a nap). She wandered down from Jane’s apartment to her mom’s office and sat in Pepper’s white leather chair. Rather than taking in the New York skyline, she flipped through the neat stack of papers lining one side. (Senate hearing, board meeting, R&D for the 3-D Arc Printer, quarterly budget analysis, and a note to review Tony’s personal portfolio.)

Flipping on her mom’s computer (password for this month: hydra49sucks09! Darcy got to pick ‘em), she zipped through the last item, dumping seven stocks, picking up five more and a bond fund, and redistributed the rest. She noted to sell a sculpture (it was ugly) and pick up the Pollack (If Tony didn’t like it, she could put in her lab.). The developer for the land Tony owned in New Zealand needed to be fired. She left two names of up and comers with environmentally sound ideas for the region. For the arc printer, she itemized two areas that needed attention before the R&D could start testing. She skipped the hearing. That would be for Tony. The board was all Pepper’s.)

She skimmed through the budget analysis, putting a note on the forecast about absorbing the former (checked/interrogated) S.H.I.E.L.D. employees. She also raised her eyebrows at the list of employees Pepper had dumped from the payrolls. (Questionable business ties indeed.)

Security spending was up as Pepper had stripped out all the old protocols and put new ones in place at every last Stark Industries facility.

Barnes’ intelligence had been priceless. Maria Hill, officially the new SI Director of Security, had been astonished by the level of detail he’d been able to provide--and this from a weapon who was used more as a drone than a spy. (Put team in place, deploy the Asset. That’s how Barnes put it.) HYDRA locations, agents, targets, dates -- seventy years’ worth of waking up, taking out a target and being frozen again, and Barnes now recalled each mission with perfect clarity.

Pepper and Maria were cleaning house in a glorious way. But no one was stupid enough to think that HYDRA was truly gone.

Darcy wasn’t aware of the time until Pepper herself walked into her office. “Darcy?”

She blinked to focus on the here and now. “Hi, Mom.”

“Are you angling for my job?”

“Wanted to give you a head start this morning so I could steal five minutes.”

Pepper glanced at the paperwork. “Looks like you gave me more than that. I might only have to work until mid-morning.” She rounded the desk and pulled Darcy into her arms. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

There was absolutely nothing like having real parents to lean on. The warmth and sound of “mom” that had never changed. Neither did the absolutely surety that Pepper and Tony had her back. She needed it now, even when she knew she was heading for a stupid decision.

“I think I’m going to need to get out of town for a while. Dad said something about an R&D tour of Europe. I can do it. It’s even in my job description.”

Pepper raised an eyebrow and leaned against the desk. “For how long?”

“Let’s start with four weeks and we’ll work our way up. I can do five or six of the major research facilities.”

“Darcy, running isn’t going to help.”

“I know. But I don’t know what else to do, Mom. I’ve got to give them time--give me time--to figure this out.”

“What do you want?”

“I want Steve. And the relationship we had. Which is me being whiny and cranky and no better than a four year old stomping her feet because she didn’t get her way.”

Pepper chuckled, not enough to be rude. “True. So if you can’t have everything the way you want, what’s the next option?”

Darcy crossed her arms. “I either accept Bucky as a third part of this thing we have, or I bail.”

“Did Steve give you that ultimatum?”

She huffed. “No. He’s told both of us not to make him choose.”

“How do you feel about Bucky?”

“It runs the gamut from resenting the hell out of him to figuring out what to do with two super soldiers if I get them naked.”

Pepper choked, laughing. “Oh, Darcy.”

“Yeah, probably TMI.”

“You think? Then again, I’ve seen your father at his worst, so there isn’t anything you can do that would surprise me.”

“I don’t want to disappoint you, Mom.”

“You can’t. By virtue of even having this conversation I know you are thinking about this in all the right ways. So … go. I’ll even send you a text later today insisting that we discuss the trip so you can show it to them when you’re ready. By the way, your lease is almost up. Want me to try to extend it for you or oust the boys from your apartment and set them up here?”

“You would do that? Kick the Winter Soldier and Captain America out of my house for me?”

“You think I’m worried about someone I can melt with a touch?”

Darcy laughed. “Will you wear those shoes? They really kick ass and the boys are a little afraid of you.”

“Done. Lease?”

She shook her head. “No. It was nice while it lasted. I think it’s better to move my stuff to my lab. No matter what happens, I’m probably going to want to be here for a while.” She arched an eyebrow. “But make Dad think it was his idea so I get the Bugatti.”

Pepper pressed Darcy into another hug. “I can do that too.”

 

******

 

The following week found the three of them separated for the first time.

Darcy had a presentation she wanted to put together for the environmental lobby, ammunition they would need to get a bill passed on the House floor.

Bucky hovered in the training room, occasionally sparring by himself or with Thor, but most often watching whoever was in there. (Barton was none too happy to discover Barnes in his nest. Silent glares ensued.) Thor had appointed himself Bucky’s keeper that day, giving Darcy a chance to breathe.

Steve, Maria and Director Coulson (yeah, she had to break the news to the team. Phil owed her. Big.) took over one of the conference rooms to lay out a plan for rousting HYDRA from their known hiding places. (Speaking of cleaning house …) Coulson’s team would drive that spear, but there were several Avengers wanting in on that one. (Steve wouldn’t tell her any more than that, and to be truthful, Darcy didn’t really want to know.)

By the end of the day, Darcy was satisfied with her project and sent a note out to Pepper’s assistant to set up a meeting with the lobbyists on Monday. Now she was free to play in her lab until the boys were done. She changed clothes and JARVIS cued up her favorite playlist.

For that matter, the idea of hanging here for the night sounded better than going home. She texted Steve to that effect. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with the pair of them. Then regretted thinking that way and felt selfish all over again. But she didn’t change her mind.

Wearing t-shirt, jeans, sans shoes--with lights dancing and the speakers blasting David Guetta, Darcy puttered with the disrupter Bucky had let her remove from the same cavity where the drugs had been stored. She wanted to figure out how to replicate it. Which seemed simple enough, but it wasn’t.

To Darcy’s surprise, Steve texted back that he thought more time in the Tower would do Bucky some good. He was showing interest in hanging out with Clint and Nat in the common room. Stark had just installed in a pool table.

Now she  wanted to see Barton and Barnes square off and she’d blocked herself off from that avenue. For a while anyway.

She lost herself in the circuitry and programming of the device. JARVIS was curious too, and offered a suggestion here and there. If Darcy could get to the coding, he could analyze it faster than she, though they often worked two ends against the middle to pull it apart.

Even Tony wasn’t fully aware how of close Darcy and JARVIS had become in Club Stark. They worked together as often as not, just as Tony did. But where Tony was fully cognizant he’d created JARVIS and preferred to not-so-subtly dominate the AI (rebellion was tolerated in conjunction with sarcasm, but really, Tony was still in charge), Darcy and JARVIS collaborated on their projects.

There were at it now. “Lewis, you’re dropping the pattern.”

“I am not. Look at the way the coding is connecting the disrupter to the local frequencies. It’s hitching a ride on wi-fi, cell signals, cable signals, whatever it can find. The range is incredible.”

“Yes, I’ll give you that. But what about the repeating pattern? See how it ripples through the coding?”

“Shit. So the disrupter isn’t playing with the same set of signals twice. How did you figure that out?”

“I was weaving the damned things together when I was trying to find you.”

“A dollar for the swear jar, J. Dad hates it when you cuss.”

“My swear jar isn’t anywhere near the size of yours.”

“That’s why we automated it, remember?”

“How can I forget when I’m dumping your contributions in on an hourly basis?” JARVIS sounded utterly disgusted with her.

Darcy howled with laughter. “Okay, okay, I’ll straighten up. No side bets with Dad on how long it will last.”

“Too late, he gives it three hours tops, one if you can’t find the on/off switch before then.”

“JARVIS?” She peered at the hologram of the disrupter while she followed the coding again on her laptop.

“Lewis.”

“Do you ever want a body? I mean, Dad and I could build you something like the suit, but it would be yours, not his.”

“I’d rather not, Darcy. There are times I wish I could experience some of the things you do, but I wouldn’t trade places with you.”

“Even the falling in love part?”

“You think I don’t know what love and sex are? I get it, sis. I love you. I know what that means. It seems that sex causes quite a bit of grief, so no, I don’t think I miss it.”

“Yeah, it does,” she agreed. “When it’s right, it’s the best thing in the world. But when it’s not—“

“Sir was an expert on the latter part, until he let himself love Ms. Potts.”

“True. I guess you’ve seen it all.”

“More than I care to, actually. Do you ever want to be me?”

She grinned. “I’d love to swap places with you for a day. Just to see what it’s like.”

“That I would do.”

“Do you ever get lonely?”

“You’re joking.” At times like this, when JARVIS relaxed, she got a mental image of a young man, dark hair, dark eyes. Maybe a younger version of their dad. But still and quiet with a dry sense of humor. It was an image of her brother she’d carried since she was young. He’d never aged in her head.

She lifted a shoulder. “Not really.” She poked at the device once more, considering the mechanism’s switch.

“The reverse might be true on occasion. At one time, it was just you, me and Sir figuring out how to be a family. If anything, I miss those days, a little.”

“Nostalgia. That’s a new one for you.” She lifted her head with a broad smile. “And I will admit, I do too. Sometimes.” She peered in. “Holy …. gee whiz. I found it, JARVIS.” She reached up to the hologram, spun it and enlarged it. “There.”

 

Near midnight, Darcy happily cleaned up her lab. She and JARVIS had unlocked the device’s secrets. Tomorrow or the next day, she would begin replicating it and seeing where they could make improvements.

“Hey, J? The boys still in the Tower?”

“Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are in the Commons kitchen.”

“Who won?”

“Barton. Barnes said something about being rusty and wants a rematch.”

 “Ha. That’s perfect. I’ll watch it later.” She grinned. Barnes had a way with words.

“I thought you might. I’ve sent the video to your Starkphone.”

“Love you, J. You’re perfect.” She meant it. She always did.

“Of course, Lewis.”

She wandered up the back stairs, through her parents house, and onto the Avengers staircase in sock feet rather than taking the elevator, hoping to sneak in and see what the others were doing (sneaking up on assassins. Right. Only if they were distracted enough and not looking.) She stopped when she heard Bucky talking to Steve, his voice full of Brooklyn (which meant he was relaxed). From her vantage point, she could see their forms in the low light coming from the kitchen.  Curious, she flattened herself against the wall to watch and listen.

“You’re always hungry,” Bucky remarked.

“I am. Want pancakes?”

“Sounds great.”

They gathered ingredients, happily elbowing each other out of the way. She bit her lip as Bucky ran his hand along Steve’s ass. Steve flushed. “Bucky.” He sounded uncertain.

Bucky didn’t hesitate, just pulled Steve in for the hottest kiss Darcy had ever witnessed. Steve groaned and bit Bucky’s lip (Darcy knew that feeling and her own bottom lip tingled). He pulled Bucky hard against him, leaning so that Bucky was trapped between the counter and him. Hips flexed and Bucky tore his mouth from Steve’s to fasten on his collarbone—yeah, she knew that place too. One nip—yup, Steve was lost.

Both of them were wearing no more than cargo pants and thin t-shirts, so hands slid over fabric to clutch and tug and stroke. Then Steve reared back, just long enough to set his hands around the back of Bucky’s neck and pull him in for a sweet, hot, devastating kiss. “I love you. I never stopped. I couldn’t. Jerk.”

“I know. I remembered. I know you. I love you. Punk. Till the end of the line.”

“Till the end of the line,” Steve echoed.

As quietly as she could, she eased back down the stairwell. She flew down the steps, fled to her parent’s quarters. Tony was astonished when Darcy ran past him. She reached, dove into Pepper’s arms, forcing the fucking tears down her throat. She would not cry. “I’ve got to go. It hurts, Mom. I can’t do this. I’ve got to get out.”

“What happened, Darcy?”

“I can’t … they belong together. They’re upstairs. Get me out, Mom. I’ve got to go.”

Pepper cupped her face. “Running won’t help, Darcy. I’ve taught you better than that.”

“Dad didn’t. And it’s not forever, just for a while. Please, Mom. Until I can breathe again.”

Tony never said a word. He must have fired off a text because Clint climbed on board minutes later. Tony piloted the helicopter to his private airstrip just north of the city. In less than twenty minutes, they were taxiing down the runway.

 

*****

 

He was seventeen the last time he’d necked like this with Steve. Drowning in heat and feeling the shiver of want raking his spine. Punk still had lips like velvet and tasted like the breeze. Steve’s ass—well, it was a thing of beauty and the curve of it against the metal--Bucky pulled back first, catching Steve in a hard hug rather than pushing it further. (He was panting. So was Steve.) “Steve, we’ve got to stop. Said we wouldn’t. Can’t right now.”

Steve swallowed hard, hugging him back as he regained his senses. “I’m a lousy handler if I can’t keep my hands off you.”

“Think Darcy is done yet? I want to go home,” he said.

“I’m gonna need a minute, Buck, or I’m gonna embarrass myself.”

“You, too?”

They snickered at each other. Bucky found water in the fridge and passed a bottle over. “Still want to make pancakes?”

“I’d rather make them at home if it’s all the same to you,” Steve admitted.

“On the same wavelength, pal.”

Steve began loading ingredients back into the pantry and Bucky set plates and the skillet back in the cabinets. It didn’t take long for them to clean up.

Reaching out, Steve brushed Bucky’s hair off his face and leaned in for one more kiss, this time a whisper of lips and a cupped cheek where he could scrape his fingers along the five o’clock shadow of Bucky’s jaw. Forehead to forehead, he stayed there as he asked. “JARVIS? Is Darcy still in the lab?”

“Lewis is no longer in the Tower.”

“Where did she go?”

“My apologies, Captain Rogers, but I have not been given permission to disclose that information.”

Bucky’s own stomach spiraled with nausea as Steve looked up in shock. “Is Tony at home? Or Pepper?”

“It is after midnight, Captain.”

Even Bucky figured out that JARVIS was dodging the question. Steve insisted, “Where is Darcy, JARVIS?” His hands flailed blindly. Bucky caught them, held them hard.  

JARVIS seemed remorseful when he replied, “Captain, Sergeant, I have received a message that Lewis has asked me to transmit to you.”

“What is it?”

“She has asked that the two of you make a genuine effort to resume your relationship—and that includes all aspects of said relationship. She intends to be gone for some weeks and wishes not to return until the two of you know where you stand in your affections with each other.”

“She couldn’t tell us in person?” Steve blurted, swaying a little. Bucky leaned in to give him physical support.

“Captain, she has not given me any further information …”

“I can hear the ‘but’ hanging, JARVIS.”

“She loves you, Captain. It is not her nature to withhold love, nor does she expect either of you to do the same. She truly believes this is in the best interests of all involved.”

“Do you?”

JARVIS was silent, as if contemplating though Bucky knew the AI needed no time to compute. “I believe her reasoning is sound, Captain.”

Steve pressed his lips together. “Very well, JARVIS. But if Darcy needs anything, please tell us.”

“Of course. And Captain, it is by the very nature of your answer that I believe Darcy was correct in her perceptions.”

Steve closed his eyes as Bucky clasped an arm around his shoulders. “Us, not me,” he whispered.  “Damn.”  

Natasha swaggered in from the stairs, eating an apple with studied nonchalance. “Hello, boys.”

Steve raised an eyebrow as she chucked her apple core into the compost can. “Nat.” He let go of Bucky and leaned against the counter. But even Bucky could see by the set of his jaw that Steve was unrepentant about being caught in the embrace.

From behind her back, she brought out a Starkphone. “Yours, Barnes. I’ve programmed it with the numbers you need, shortcuts, a few hacks I’ve found useful and a bunch of apps to keep you entertained.”

She sauntered across the room to him. Instead of handing him the phone, she pulled him in for a very thorough kiss. (Milaya.) Steve looked away, at the floor, pretty much anywhere but at them.

With the flavor of Steve still in his mouth, the forgotten taste of Natasha was bewildering and he was glad when she let him go. “Natalia—“ he started.

But she held up a hand. “Steve? That kiss made you uncomfortable, right?”

“Is this another lesson about in hiding in plain sight?” Steve shot at her. “Because I learned that one.”

“This is about you understanding why your girlfriend is trying to put an ocean between the two of you—pardon me, the three of you. You know that Barnes and I have a history. And it bothers you that I know how he tastes, I know what he likes, and maybe—just maybe—I know him better than you and, you’re afraid that if he gets angry or bored enough with you, he’d fuck me against the wall and not think twice about it.”

Steve looked away.

She crossed her arms and tilted her head, getting that whimsical smile that was completely at odds with her name. (But it wasn’t.) “Darcy texted me. We’re friends, in case you missed the memo. And she’s right. You both kiss the same way. It’s disconcerting to me. Scares the crap out of her.”

Bucky shot Steve a frown. “You kissed Natalia?” he asked.

“We were hiding.”

Laughing at his embarrassment, Natasha tilted her head. “If you both kiss that way, then perhaps Darcy’s more than a little scared about how she might feel about the two of you.” At Steve’s questioning shrug, she added, “She’s also a Stark. And Starks don’t play well with others.”

She handed the cell phone to Bucky. “Given Tony’s state of mind right now, try not to mess up your arm for the next few days. I’d suggest that both of you stay out of his sight as he is seriously considering revoking your Avengers’ membership.”

“You’ll let me know if anything comes up?” Steve asked softly.

“I can do that. But text her. Even if you don’t get a reply, you’ll be doing the right thing.”

Bucky reached out, grasping her arm. “Where is she?”

“She’s safe, Barnes, on her way to London. Clint and Tony are with her.”

 

 

Bucky nudged Steve as they walked home, well, to Darcy’s place. The bar on the corner had a decent chowder that didn’t sound too bad right now. Without a word, Steve angled that way and with a request to the hostess, they had a table at the back where the general noise of conversation gave them relative privacy.

The barkeep set a pitcher of beer on the table and turned up a couple of glasses. “You’ll like this one,” he told Steve. Looking at Bucky, he grinned. “Where’s your third?”

Steve’s poker face needed work, but he did a reasonable job with his excuse of research and old friends as the bartender expertly poured two glasses. They ordered and were left alone.

Bucky sipped. Water sounded better. Or vodka. But he sipped because Steve was drinking it. Or rather, Steve was making wet rings on the table and using the condensation to draw.

“Why does Natalia say we kiss the same way?” he asked.

With sardonic laugh, Steve looked up. “Everything that happened in the past hour and that’s your takeaway?”

He blinked. “Seems important.” He wrapped his hand around the glass and pushed it to the center of the table, waiting.

Seeing it, Steve clasped his glass into both hands. He held it out in such a way that their fingers idly knocked together. Anyone looking would see two fellows sharing an intent conversation. “You remember that.”

“I remember everything. From the color of your shirt the day we met when we were kids to the look on your face today when you realized Darcy was gone.” Bucky clutched his glass hard. “You found her, Steve. And I fucked it up. I’m sorry.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how to fix it.”

 

 

The house was empty without Darcy’s light. Bucky knew he was tired and not thinking straight (Asset). Steve was a wreck. It was Bucky who held Steve that night, using the focus of the Winter Soldier. (Rule one: Assets do not feel pain.)  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Pepper used her key to unlock the door of Darcy’s house. It was early, but she intended to intercept the two men before they moved out. Darcy had been gone six days now, and Pepper had broken the news that Darcy’s lease was up just few days ago. By the speed with which Steve had found a new place, he had to have been looking already (for two or three of them, she wondered).

Still, she was surprised to find Bucky leaning against the kitchen counter, arms crossed. She was even more surprised to see Steve sitting on the floor in front of the refrigerator, head in hands with papers scattered between the two of them. Between his shattered expression and the dejection in the one standing up, she deduced she had poor timing.

But that never stopped her. Especially when she could surmise that her daughter was at the center of their current suffering.

Perhaps only she understood that Steve Rogers’ psyche was balanced on the edge of a very sharp knife. For ten years, Bucky Barnes had been the steadying hand, keeping Steve strong and sane in spite of his weaknesses. For the last two, it had been Darcy doing the same. Maybe it was necessary to have that kind of tie to be able to do the kinds of things Steve could do. Tony needed it. Hadn’t always admitted it, though he did now.

Like recognized like, she supposed. Even as a child, Darcy had kept Tony from teetering over the edge until Pepper arrived to take over that job.

But her overwhelmed daughter had retreated, leaving a reeling Bucky Barnes and a devastated Steve Rogers in her wake. Pepper was disappointed in her daughter’s actions, even if she understood them. Pepper was better at locking away her personal feelings even in the most extreme circumstances. Darcy loved with the entirety of her heart and wore it like a badge.

And while she understood her daughter’s actions, she wasn’t unsympathetic to the men she’d left behind.

Steve raised his head at the click of her heels (yes, she’d worn the shoes) on the wooden floor. She stopped when she caught Darcy’s image on the papers. She stooped down and gathered them up.

There were three sketches, all in Steve’s unmistakable style. The first was no bigger than her hand. It was Darcy in a classic pin-up pose, sitting on a stool with one leg crossed over the other, looking back over her shoulder. One hand was buried in the hair that spilled down the backless halter dress. The other kept her precariously balanced on the stool. Her lips parted on a laugh.  The swell of a breast over her arm flowed into the curve of a hip.  The edge of a garter peeked out from underneath the lace hem. Steve had even managed to capture the details of a bracelet that was special to Darcy.  Pepper smiled to see her daughter drawn so beautifully.

The second broke her heart. She knew that Steve rarely drew himself, but he did here. He was on the left, as he looked now, pressing his palm and forehead against a wall of ice. Within him was a faint outline of the man he’d been before, looking up in horror. Bucky was on the other side of the ice—a thick panel of frost, hardly clear enough to see through. He too had his hand up and his forehead against the wall. His hand was blurred from dozens of eraser marks. And Darcy was sitting cross-legged on the floor near Steve, her back to the pair of them. She had a broken circuit board in her hands.

Steve startled her when he croaked out, “I couldn’t get the hand right for some reason and I know Bucky’s hands like I know Darcy’s.”

The third was frankly sensual and Pepper pinked a little to see her daughter in that way. But it was stunning nonetheless, of Darcy and Bucky together. The blanket in the sketch covered Bucky’s left side, as if he’d just arisen from the bed and put his arm around Darcy.

“Look at the dates, please, ma’am,” Bucky told her. “In the same order.”

Pepper turned the pin up sketch over first. Steve always put a date in the lower right corner. December 7, 1941 Steven Grant Rogers. She blinked. Turned the second one over. The date was … January 5, 2012. The day he woke from the ice. She shivered. “Steve?”

“It was the first thing I drew. I woke up and had the image in my head. I didn’t understand it but I had to get it on paper. I didn’t even know what I was drawing in Darcy’s hands.”

“You didn’t know each other then.”

“No, ma’am,” he said hoarsely. “Look at the last one.”

March 23, 2014. Just a couple of weeks before Bucky broke his programming.

She tugged on a chair. Bucky pulled it out the rest of the way and offered her a hand to sit. She took it, flashing him a grateful smile. “Ma’am.” He nodded, giving her a hint of the devastating charm he’d had a reputation for so long ago.

Studying the art, she marveled at Steve’s technique in the back of her mind as she considered. In a sense, she wasn’t surprised at all. Working with Tony had taught her to believe in the impossible. Given that an ancient Norse god lived in the Tower, predictive artwork seemed more than plausible, especially considering the circumstances. “The bracelet in the first sketch. Why did you put it in?” she asked.

Steve straightened a little as he wiped his face. “Felt right. Pin-ups don’t usually have jewelry, but if there is, it’s always a bracelet."

Pepper swallowed. “That one was Tony’s gift to Darcy on her twenty-first birthday. It’s in my jewelry box for safekeeping.” She looked back and forth between the two men as they gave each other sharp looks, then turned to her in disbelief.

“I never thought—“ Steve started.

“It’s really her?” Bucky asked Pepper.

“You asked her out because she looked like the picture?” Pepper pursed her lips and waited for Steve to answer.

“No. Yes. No. Maybe.” Steve stuttered. “Saw her in the Tower. Thought I was seeing things. Then we met in the garage. Could hardly talk and she was flirting with me. Just seemed right. Everything seemed to fit.” Steve frowned, staring at his fingers. “Never thought I’d get married, ma’am. Girls didn’t look at me. I figured Bucky would have the family and I’d be the uncle and spoil his kids. We--” Steve looked up at Bucky, biting his lip.

“We hoped I would find a dame who wanted both of us. Kind of package deal.”

“That’s rather progressive even in this day and age.”

Bucky snorted. “Less so that you think. People just didn’t talk about it much back then.”

“So when you saw Darcy, Steve--”

“She was ours. And it was too late for Bucky.”

Ah. “The tattoo.”

“So she would have both of us.”

Bucky nodded. “Steve drew that first sketch. I liked it--a lot. Carried it with me to war. Reminded me of what we were there to do. That’s how he ended up with it.”

“Let me guess, you haven’t told Darcy any of this.”

Steve shrugged. “She’s seen the last one. Didn’t want her to think it was about her looks.”

“Astute of you.” She drummed her fingers for a minute. “James Barnes, what are your intentions toward my daughter.”

“Ma’am?” The look of surprise she’d startled out of him was gratifying.

“Were you planning to make an honest woman of her? To love her? Or were you planning to make her share Steve with you. Because that second scenario isn’t going to work out. In case you haven’t been told, Starks don’t share. What you have to give is theirs. They will own you and love with everything they have, and give you everything you didn’t know you needed. It’s a terrible privilege, and not for the faint of heart. 

“Yes, ma’am. I already love her.”

“Do you because you are supposed to love her? Because of a drawing and because you can’t bear to see Steve heart-broken?”

“Ma’am, for those reasons, yes. But--” Bucky swallowed hard, and just for moment, he looked as young as he should have been. “She holds my hand. Steve and I do all right. Always have. Always will. But she’s the sun. She brings the color, the warmth. I’d want to be with her. With or without Steve.”

“A poet and an artist. My daughter could do worse.”

“Ma’am?”

She stood, brushing down her skirt. “Finish packing. The truck will be here at three to move you into the Tower.”

Steve’s head shot up. “We’ve got a place.”

“Not anymore. I’ve cancelled your lease.”

“Tony won’t--,” he started.

She leveled a hard look at him.

“Nevermind,” he backtracked.

“Darcy is in Europe for the next few weeks. She’ll be busy enough that you two have time to get your act together and figure out your next step. Be smart about this, gentleman.” She held the sketches out to Bucky, who took them gingerly. She kissed him on the cheek. “Darcy is her father’s daughter,” she said cryptically. He only nodded.

Taking a deep breath, she announced “Steven, James, I expect you for dinner on Sunday.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.

Steve walked her to the car, pressing a kiss on her cheek. “Ma’am,” he said softly. (He didn’t have to say anything else. She knew.)

She drummed her fingers happily all the way back to her office. (She got to be Mom. She loved being Mom.)

Chapter Text

The first thing Bucky did after they moved into the Tower was to explore it from top to bottom. (I’m safe?) The schematics were still in his brain, and the differences between the real version and HYDRA’s version were interesting. He skillfully navigated people and security, though JARVIS surely cleared his way. Still, only few of the employees noticed him as he walked about in their midst. Those who did were reassured by JARVIS himself.

Being in the Tower gave him a curious kind of freedom. With JARVIS able to track him, Steve didn’t feel the need to mind him all the time.  Steve started meeting with Maria Hill in the afternoons, leaving Bucky to his own devices for a few hours at time every day.

After four solid months of constant companionship, being alone was unsettling at best, though if not for JARVIS, he would not have left the apartment.  Twice, so far, JARVIS had alerted Steve to come get him, once when a headache had caught him unawares (he’d blocked it, not realizing, until it was too much), the second, when he’d identified a HYDRA operative on the security team.  Hill dealt with it, and the Winter Soldier (Asset) had kept watch until the woman was taken away. 

He was aware now of the Winter Soldier. Not a separate being, but a state of being.  That was something he could use, if he could control it. 

Wilson still worked with him daily, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour or two.  He still had a steady stream of nightmares and weird dreams. Though they rarely woke him up, they would be in his head until he had a chance to work through them.  Wilson speculated that, after years of drugs, cryofreeze, military ops, and involuntary experiments, his brain was still playing catch up as it processed all that he’d been forced to do. 

Steve didn’t understand why he wasn’t ready to declare war on HYDRA.  He was angry, that was for certain, but at the moment, all he wanted was to be safe. To regain full control of himself.  To be a regular person again.  Steve gave him the first part of that—a safe place to stand while he fought through the damage.  Darcy gave him the second—something to do while he found himself again.

If he couldn’t keep her person safe right now, he still had a mission (Protect Stark) and he began combing the Tower for holes in the security net.  He began leaving handwritten notes for Maria Hill on her desk. (Unsigned, of course. She would figure it out.)

It hadn’t taken them long to set up housekeeping in the Tower. Tony had been building places for the Avengers to live, so Pepper didn’t need much time to furnish the apartment and bring in what was left of Steve’s things he’d stored on Darcy’s floor.  It wasn’t home.   (Darcy’s place was home).

They shared a bed. Only to sleep, but that had been enough. The last time they had this much time together was in a tent. Before that had been before the war. The ensuing years were hell and ice and nothing he could bear to dwell on for long (Asset). He learned to sleep lying down again (easier than he’d expected).  He discovered Steve had nightmares too (ice; falling.  Sometimes he called out Bucky's name.  Other times it was Darcy’s.)

Barton sent him a steady stream of texts. London. All clear. Nat has itinerary. Checked in. Clear. Oxford. Clear. The archer took his job of watching Darcy seriously.

None of those texts went to Steve, and even Bucky could sense the general animosity whenever the other Avengers were around. 

With Darcy gone, Bucky found himself holding Steve together. It was an old role and one he could do (I know you). Right now, Steve reeled without a focus. He grasped at anything to give him a purpose. The truth was that Steve made a great soldier and black ops leader. Give him a goal and he was unwavering in his devotion achieve it. 

But he was still inept at real life, needing someone (Bucky/Darcy) to keep him grounded. The USO had helped him to relax around the dames and he’d learned to be a good speaker, but Steve still wasn’t comfortable in his own skin unless he was hitting something.

Darcy had been a godsend to Steve. (To both of them.) Her easy acceptance of him and poised sexuality had done more to shore up Steve’s confidence and bring him into the everyday world than Bucky had ever been able to do. He got why Steve adored her. (He adored her, too.)

But he hadn’t been able to figure out what Darcy got from Steve (from him). She seemed to have it together, all the time. (Like Pepper with Tony. That didn’t make sense either.) He was surprised she had stayed around this long. (He missed her.)

He wasn’t sure what he wanted. Fieldwork wasn’t an option until he had his head on straight. (Asset. Change the world.) But in truth, if the world hadn’t gone to war, if Steve hadn’t been so damned sick, Bucky would have been perfectly happy finishing art school and drawing for the local paper. But money had been tight and neither of them wanted to wait around to be drafted.

They’d been smart enough to know that even with war declared, it would be months before the army actually mobilized new recruits. Bucky spent most of his first year stateside, earning his sergeant stripes as the more experienced troops moved out before heading for England himself. The money had been decent, Steve had managed to stay healthy enough, and he’d banked a good part of what Bucky sent home.

His drawings were harsh and bold now, a far cry from the neat advertisements he used to dash out on a whim.

Bucky made himself a sandwich, piled it high with pickles and mayonnaise. Decided two would be better, made a second, and picked up a bag of chips and glass of water to make his way down the Commons.

Odd as it sounded for the Winter Soldier, he craved company. He generally found the open floor occupied with someone (usually Natalia) watching television, making food, or reading a book (Banner on the latter, or occasionally Sam).

It was Thor today, reading on Jane’s tablet. He occasionally asked how to pronounce a word or for a definition. Bucky found a baseball game and settled in for the fourth inning (Rangers were down by four, Yankees at bat. They didn’t have a prayer, but he rooted for the Texas team anyway).

Interesting how Stark had arranged the room. The back of the sofa hugged two walls, with the TV mounted opposite and to the left, leaving the entire right side open to the kitchen, play area and elevator. Even the most nervous of residents could watch television while keeping an eye on the territory. The far side spilled out onto a terrace and landing pad that Stark had loaded with trees, seating and fire pits. He hadn’t ventured out there yet, but would when the time came.

The sofas and facing chairs were comfortable enough for naps.  While he wasn’t inclined to sleep there, Barton frequently took advantage of them for that purpose.  The noisier the room, the more likely he was to be found snoozing on the leather. 

Before the first week was out, he had a good idea of who used the training facilities when and situated himself into the schedule. He had an insane amount of energy to burn off. Running with Steve in the mornings helped, though five a.m. did little for his mood. Thor kept him company sometimes in the training room, but the sparring wasn’t satisfying at all. The Asgardian leaned to the defensive techniques and Bucky preferred the offensive.  Some days he just wanted to use the reinforcement in his arm to hit something really hard. 

He wondered if he could talk Steve into bringing his shield the next time they sparred.   

Ten days after Darcy left, Barton reappeared, though he refused to give Bucky a single clue as to her state. Natalia gave him a tidbit of information though, that Tony was with Darcy for the next few days, giving the marksman some relief from the constant guard duty.

He liked Barton’s perch in the training room. Too well, perhaps, for the archer gave him dirty looks all too often. Maybe those looks were for Natalia. Maybe for Darcy. In any case, he deserved them.

He was watching Barton now. The room had been reset with targets in a broad circle, clock points. Barton ran, tumbled, dodged, turned and spun in circles, all the while landing arrow after arrow in the centers of his targets. Well, almost.

“Four o’clock, you missed,” he said softly.

Barton sneered. “I did not miss.”

Bucky eased through the bars of the nest and dropped to the ground. He approached the target and pointed. The arrow had struck the target a centimeter to the left of center. He tapped it, pulled out the arrow and handed it back. “You missed. Do it again.”

Taking a running start, Barton ran the same pattern, with the same result. Bucky held out his hand for Clint’s bow. The archer snarled, and Bucky waited until he slapped his bow and an arrow in his palm. He ran the same route, felt the pattern, let loose the arrow. And hit the mark in the center.

Clint crossed his arms in irritation. Bucky handed the bow over, catching Barton’s arm at the same time. “Here.” He pressed his finger to Clint’s shoulder. “You have an old injury here. The scar tissue is too tight, pulls your aim. Work it out. Do better.”

“You figured that out just by watching me?” Barton asked, frowning.

He shrugged as he pivoted to leave. “Ask Natalia.”

“Barnes?” The archer called out. Bucky stopped, though he didn’t turn around. “She’s safe. And she’s not taking any risks. She misses you. Both of you.”

It took him a little while to come up with the right response. But he did. “Thank you. For that and the texts.” He left before Barton could answer.

 

*****

 

Steve and Sam finished up with Hill for the day. Although, in theory, she was the Director of Security for Stark Industries, in reality, she was assisting Coulson in setting up the new S.H.I.E.L.D..  Funding had been the hardest part, especially since Tony had severed those connections in a highly visible manner.  But Coulson had a good reputation with the World Council and the work had begun in a definitive sort of way.  And while Stark money wasn’t necessarily flowing into S.H.I.E.L.D. coffers, there was no doubt that Stark was housing the Avengers and several former key employees who were known loyalists to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s original intent.

Director Coulson had laid out the essentials of his plan to rebuild, and asked Hill give him a working foundation for the new organization while he flushed HYDRA out from the resources that had been compromised.  Each element was going to have to be vetted before coming back into the fold.  Coulson had asked Steve to take on his own team.  Steve agreed, with the caveat that he would vet and run the missions himself.  There would be four at the core: himself, Nat, Barton, and Wilson.  Thor, Banner and Stark had agreed to be on tap for major ops, but they would make the final call for participation.  Thor made it clear that while he would fight for the survival of the planet, but he wasn’t interested in getting involved in local politics. (He made an exception for HYDRA.)  For now, Hill was running command on operations for both teams. Which was fine. Steve trusted her and liked her calm manner. 

Word was getting out about the rebuilding process, and dozens of former employees were covertly getting messages to Hill, wanting back on board.  Steve was gratified to learn about that.  His faith in S.H.I.E.L.D. had been broken, yet it was his own actions that led to the revolt in the ranks, giving those who did believe in the ideal a place to stand.  Hill kept a list, and when the time was right, those people would be pulled back in. 

When Sam had started coming to some of these meetings, Steve began to settle into the idea that Wilson, not Bucky, would be his partner going forward. For a few short weeks, he’d entertained the idea that he and Bucky would fight side by side once again.  Darcy had slapped down that notion hard, a sentiment echoed by Wilson, and to a certain extent, by Bucky himself. 

 Wilson was different. He had the attitude of a Howling Commando with a healthy regard for his own skin. Well aware of his own mortality and lack of super serum, Wilson made damned sure he knew how an op was going down before he’d even consider putting himself out there. But once he was on a mission, he was hell on wings and foot, as if Icarus brought a hail of bullets when he fell from the sky. Steve liked the idea of aerial coverage. It brought a whole new dimension to the kind of ops the team could run.

As they cleaned up the conference room, Sam asked, “You hanging around for dinner later?”

“No, I promised Bucky I would be home tonight.”

“Heard from Darcy?”

“Just the one text.” (Still alive, still love you, confused as all fuck right now. Please make this right with Bucky.)

“You want to talk about it?”

“Not particularly.”

“Gonna talk about it anyway?” Sam followed him out the door and into the elevator. 

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course you do.  But when my friend looks worse than he did in a DC hospital, I’m gonna ask.”

“Wasn’t sure I had any friends left.  Nat’s said her piece, I can feel Stark glaring from three floors away, Barton is only texting Bucky, Thor and Banner take turns giving me these disappointed looks and Jane won’t acknowledge my presence if I’m standing right in front of her. Why did I think moving in the Tower was a good idea?”

“Because it’s the safest place for Barnes and Darcy both.” Sam nudged him off the elevator onto the Commons floor.  “And if you hadn’t noticed, your friends are always the first to call you a dumbass when you need it.” 

Steve stopped in the middle of the room. “So you’re telling me that you aren’t my friend?”

“I don’t think you’re a dumbass, that’s the difference.”  Sam jerked his head toward the kitchen.  Steve followed him in.  “I think this whole thing got away from you.  Darcy isn’t exactly a pushover and isn’t particularly reticent about declaring when she needs space.” 

“Bucky showed up and I let Darcy take the backseat.” 

“Did you?”  Sam asked, blunt as ever.  “That’s not what I saw.”  He started passing out condiments and sandwich fixings.  They worked side by side to assemble lunches for them and anyone else who might show up. 

“What did I miss, Sam?  I’ve gone over this a hundred times to figure out what I did wrong.  She knows how much I love her.  She knew about Bucky before. “

Sam was quiet for a moment.  “Did you ask her how she feels about Bucky?” 

“She says it doesn’t matter because Bucky is codependent on us and that comes first.” 

Raising his eyebrows in disbelief, Sam commented, “Didn’t you mention he’s been running all over the Tower the last few days?  Gets himself to therapy, holds his own in play battle without losing his shit, exercises daily, hangs out in the Commons rather than holing up in your apartment because he likes to be around people.  Sure, he’s got issues.  He’s always going to have issues.  But he’s the most well-adjusted ex-Russian brainwashed assassin I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  He takes his problems head on, figures out the best way to handle them, even if it means letting someone else call the shots for a while, and moves on.”   

“You don’t think he’s codependent?”

“He knows exactly what he’s doing.  Yes, he made you his handler, but for a specific purpose. How often do you have to give him orders?”

“When he’s tired or has a bad headache. Not every day.” 

“And the rest of the time?”

Steve snorted. “He tells me to fuck off and get a real job.”

“So he’s only blindly obeying orders in a specific set of circumstances when he can’t think for himself due to the conditioning protocols. And he’s placed those orders in the hands of someone he’s sure won’t abuse it. Doesn’t sound very co-dependent to me.”  Sam finished assembling his set of sandwiches and laid them out on the counter.  He wiped his hands on the dishtowel.  “So, I repeat my earlier question, how does Darcy feel about Barnes?” 

“I don’t know.” He shrugged helplessly. 

“Now that, my friend, is a real problem. And if you don’t get an answer to it soon, I will call you a dumbass and mean it.”   

Chapter Text

September 2014

When Barton and Stark swapped places again a few days later, Bucky requested a meeting with Darcy’s father. He had something in mind and needed the man’s help.

He wasn’t sure Stark would bother to answer him.  The two Sunday dinners he and Steve had attended so far had been intimidating with Stark glowering at them. If Pepper was willing to cut Steve and Bucky slack for messing everything up, Stark wasn’t. 

He was grateful when Tony agreed to talk with him.

Bucky dressed in a dark pair of slacks and a nice shirt, to be respectful. He stepped off the elevator, his left hand in his pocket (Asset) and rolled his head around to keep the tension out of his neck and shoulders.  Now wasn’t the time to shift into the wrong gear.

JARVIS directed him into the living area, the only part of the house he’d seen besides the dining room. Tony didn’t appear to be in a friendly mood and just the sight of him gave Bucky a little trouble staying out of soldier mode.

He held out his hand. “Mr. Stark.”

Tony took it with reluctance. “So, what do you want?” he asked without preamble. “The trip to the Bermuda?  I’ll book it tomorrow. Today in fact.”

Knowing he deserved this man’s animosity, standing up in the face of it was difficult.  (Assets do not have feelings).  “I … need help.”

“There’s a roster lined up for you: Sam, Thor, Steve, Darcy--oh wait, you drove her off. How am I supposed to be interested in helping you again?” Tony snapped.

The harsh statement shook him harder than he expected and he bit his lip to stay in focus. “I have a mission.  To protect … Stark.  Darcy.  Steve loves her. I have to fix this. I—I love her too, Sir.”

Tony blinked. Opened his mouth. Closed it again. Crossed to the bar and poured a scotch. Drank it. Pointed at him. “How is it that my daughter managed to get herself involved with a master assassin and super soldier and I’m supposed to be okay with this?”

“No… Mr. Stark.”

“I want to hate you, you know. I do, actually. Some. For obvious reasons. It’s less obvious that I can’t hate you too much because you made a choice that involved me. My baby girl kept her daddy and I didn’t miss out on all those wonderful, fantastic, terrifying and really gross parts about having a kid. She grew up with an egotistical jack-ass who let her play in his lab. It’s a win-win.” He paced, drinking, crossing and uncrossing his arms. “And now you want to take her from me too.”

“I don’t, I promise.” (Breathe. Focus. Asset.)

“Are you having a panic attack? Because I’m good at those. And I really don’t want you to have one and I have one and then this Tower falls down.”

“No.” (Breathe. I’m safe.)

“Why did you come here, Barnes?”

“Steve … is my handler. I need …. a different one. Someone who can keep me in check for a while. Maybe a long while,” he admitted.

“Who did you have in mind? Because I, for one, am not signing up for that job.”

Bucky shook his head. “No. JARVIS.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “You want my AI as your handler? Why?”

“Darcy has a contact button. I want one. JARVIS can talk to me. No one has to know. And, he’s Darcy’s brother. He won’t let me hurt her.”

Stark didn’t even try to hide his smug grin. “JARVIS? Want to weigh in on this?”

“Sergeant Barnes, I would be honored to assist you.”

“Wow, that was quick. No hesitation, no consideration, no caveats. Care to give me an explanation, JARVIS?”

Bucky let out a breath of relief at JARVIS’ agreement. And stared at the ground instead of smiling at Tony’s annoyance with his AI.

“Shall I give you the entire list, Sir?”

“You know the drill. Hit the highlights. Skip the rest.”

“Sergeant Barnes is in love with Lewis. He asked what her name meant the first time he was in Club Stark. We share a fondness for music and he is quite respectful to the Stark family. In addition, I’ve operated in this capacity before, though on a limited basis, and I find the challenge refreshing.”

“You,” he waved to Bucky, “--are a pain in my ass.”

“Do you want to look at my arm?” He nearly growled the words as he ran his fingers through his hair.

“You’re bribing me now?”

Bucky stared at the floor, wishing Steve was here. (I’m safe?)

Tony sighed. Loudly. “Yes, I want to look, but Darcy would be mad and I really hate it when she gets mad. Because she doesn’t really get mad, she gets even and the last time involved DUM-E blowing glitter all over my lab.”

Biting his lip, Bucky kept his gaze on Stark’s knees. (Assets do not have feelings.)

“So, I guess that means I have to fit you with a contact. Are we going to do this now?”

“Yes, please . . . Mr. Stark.”

“Call me Tony. Take us to the lab, JARVIS.”

“Yes, Sir.”

When they exited the elevator, he might have landed in a mad toy shop out of the shiniest dime novels he and Steve used to read.  Tables and tools and robots were scattered everywhere, along with televisions and computers. Something with a hard beat began playing. Whatever it was, Stark ignored it as he dug around in a toolbox.

He kept his hands to his sides, though he was curious (Assets do not have feelings). Instead, he catalogued the technology he could identify and noted the rest for later.

Tony eyeballed him, and reached for a glowing circle with a metal cone attached to the back of it that he kept in a box on his workstation. Handing it to him, Tony ordered, “Entertain yourself with this.”

Bucky studied the bright object. “What is it?” he asked as he turned it over.

“An arc reactor. The first one. Now, I’m going to use a needle to get this in the right place. Do you want Novocain to deaden the pain?”

(Pain? I’m safe? Rule one.) “Please.”

Tony retrieved something from a side drawer. “I’m always nicking myself when I work. Hazards of being a mechanic.” He handed the tube to Bucky. “Squeeze this on your finger and rub it behind your ear.”

He did that, setting down the arc reactor as he did. Tony put it back in his hands. “3-2-1 done. JARVIS? Can you bring it online?”

Bucky looked up in wonder. He didn’t even see the needle, much less feel pain.

“Didn’t hurt at all, did it?” Tony was smug.

“No, Sir … I mean, Tony.”

Sergeant Barnes, can you hear me?

“Yes.”

Am I too loud?

“A little.”

Better?

“Yes.”

You don’t have to speak. Mouth your words under your breath and I can detect your speech.

Like this, he breathed.

Exactly.

No one can hear us?

Can you monitor me?

I regularly monitor other members of the Avengers, especially when they have returned from a mission and cannot sleep properly.

You’ll watch?

I will.

Thank you, JARVIS.

You’re welcome, Sergeant Barnes.

By the time they finished the conversation, Tony was gone.

Bucky would have liked poking around Stark’s lab. Instead, JARVIS shooed him out and they spent the rest of the day getting used to each other. JARVIS learned to modulate his transmissions to an extraordinarily low setting so as not to startle the Winter Soldier. After being “Sergeant Barnes’d” to death, Bucky talked the AI into calling him just “Barnes” through the contact. They experimented with a soft ping that would get his attention without having him jump out of skin.

In addition, JARVIS had to learn his physical baselines and spent a good portion of the day “checking in” with the soldier to determine what sort of environments and conditions might trigger abnormal responses.

The stream of feedback came with a headache and weariness, and the real test came at the end of the afternoon when he returned home. Steve was staring out the windows overlooking Midtown. In the distance, he could see Brooklyn, though not very much of it. His hands were in his pockets and he looked like hell.

Bucky wasn’t in much better shape. He was struggling somewhat now, trying to stay in focus and on task (shower, food). Something smelled good though. He concentrated on that.

Steve flicked a glance at him. “Go get a shower, Bucky. Dinner will be ready in twenty.”

You’re safe, Barnes. Do you want to follow that order?

“Piss off, Rogers. I’ll get a shower when I want.” Barnes said it deliberately as he leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting for Steve’s reaction. The one he got wasn’t the one he was expecting. Steve just leaned forward, his forehead against the glass.

“Steve? You okay?”

“Coulson has a mission.” There was pain in that statement, and Bucky wondered if Steve had found his breaking point. Months of dealing with him and Darcy, trying to keep them together, only to have it all fall apart on him.

“You want to go.” (Always itching for a fight.)

“Yeah, I do.”

Bucky hadn’t held him back before. Wasn’t going to start now. “Then go.”

“Sam and Natasha are going with me. Thor has offered to stay here with you.”

“I don’t need a babysitter.”

Those beautiful, haunted blue eyes finally connected with his as Steve turned around, leaning against the glass. “Who is your new handler?”

“JARVIS. Stark gave me a contact this afternoon. Been getting used to it.”

“Why?”

Bucky glared at him. “Don’t be stupid, punk. I want us. I don’t want you having to lead me around with the leash. It’s not good for us. And we can’t get Darcy back if I’m still broken.”

Her name caused Steve to look back to the window. “Do you want Darcy?”

“Of course I do. I miss her. She’s ours.” Fuck, he was tired. (Asset.)

Barnes, you’re safe. You’re in the Tower with Steve. You’re safe. Breathe it out.

Bucky concentrated to keep his focus out of the Winter Soldier (experiencing, not assessing). He moved to the sofa and sat on the back of it so he could run his fingers across the leather. The sensation kept him grounded.

Steve hunched his shoulders. “I didn’t think she would leave like that. As if what we have--had--wasn’t enough.”

“Hey--” Bucky started.

But Steve abruptly changed the subject. “This mission, I’ll be gone for a one or two days at the most.”

Knowing his friend as he did, Bucky didn’t challenge him. Instead, he asked, “When are you leaving?”

“In the next forty-eight hours.”

“Then let’s make the best of tonight. Now, I’m going to take a shower.”

 

Steve set a loaf of bread on the table as Bucky came out of the bedroom they shared. He’d taken the time to dress, selecting a black jean pant that fit closer than what he’d worn before and paired it with a loose button-down. He liked clothes and missed the slick rags he’d worn before the war. Darcy had mentioned he might like to have new ones tailored to fit, either exposing or concealing his arm as he chose.

He still wasn’t used to the practice of not combing his hair and used the gel to pull his hair off his face. Steve had cut it some a few days ago, enough to keep it off his shoulders. He sort of liked the length and wasn’t in a hurry to shorten it any time soon. He shaved with a straight razor still, as did Steve. (Smoother. Felt right.)

So when he saw the care Steve had taken to set a nice table, he was glad he’d cleaned up. There was frank admiration in his face, mixed with contrition. Bucky went to him, running his palms from Steve’s shoulders to his hands, turning them to kiss each wrist where the pulse jumped.

“I’ve no expectations tonight. I want you. But not with you all torn up over Darcy. All I ask is that we spend the evening just the two of us. And when we go to bed, you let me hold you.”

When he saw the tension run out of Steve’s body, he knew he’d made the right call.

“You’re assuming I can keep my hands off you,” Steve quipped, with just a hint of the fire Bucky adored.

“Your problem, love, definitely not mine.”

Steve reached out, skimming the back of his fingers along Bucky’s jaw line. “You haven’t called me that in a very long time.”

To keep the mood light, Bucky admitted, “I slipped once, in front of Dum-Dum Dugan.”

“So that’s how the Howling Commandos found out. Tony told me they all knew. Dinner is ready, if you want it. I’d like to hear the story while we eat.”

 

It wasn’t complicated. Dum-Dum had Bucky’s back that day as they were setting up on a hill, giving him cover while Bucky lined up the shot. Steve and the rest of the Howling Commandos were below, taking out the sentries one at a time. There was an enemy soldier ahead of them, one that only Dum-Dum and Bucky could see from their vantage point. He had the man in his cross-hairs, but Steve kept getting in the sight-line.

“Come on, love. Let me do my job,” he breathed.

As if he’d heard, Steve hesitated. Bucky pulled the trigger, taking the sentry out. Steve turned his head, giving him a salute in lieu of a thank you. He ducked his head in acknowledgement.

Dum-Dum kept his own rifle at the ready. “How long you two been together?”

“Nine years, going on ten.”

“Explains a lot.”

“You got a problem?”

“Not at all, Sergeant. One thing I’ve learned over here? Life ain’t nuthin’ like what you thought it should be.”

 

They passed the evening trading stories. Bucky told Steve a little about the Red Room and how he’d become Natasha’s instructor. There was so much he couldn’t share, for they were her secrets for him to keep (knowing that their attachment had been genuine formed a solid ground for their growing friendship now), but he told Steve what he could.

Steve told him about navigating the new century and all the pitfalls therein. Some of them were funny, some were sad. A few were bittersweet.

The freedom to be was intoxicating. No one could hear them, see them, or judge them in here. They relaxed in each other’s company in a way that maybe hadn’t happened since high school, before there were expectations and side-glances from the neighborhood crowd.

They chuckled as they tried to sit together on the sofa. Bucky used to tug Steve down in front of him, sitting so they were chest to back with Steve’s head leaning against his shoulder. That didn’t work so well now that Steve was a full inch taller than he.

“We were a lot thinner back then, Buck. How in the hell do we do this?”

By changing it altogether. Bucky nudged Steve so that he had his head in Bucky’s lap, where they could hold hands. Steve took his time exploring Bucky’s metal fingers. “How is it different?” he asked as he drew his fingers along each digit, watching the way the plates shifted as Bucky responded to his touch.

“I owe Darcy for this, love. The tech is superb and I didn’t know because of how much they were dulling the sensitivity. Easier to work on it, I guess. There isn’t anything I can’t feel or do with it.”

“What does it feel like if you hit something with it?”

“What does it feel like when you hit something?” Bucky countered.  “Same impact and pressure, but I can’t break my knuckles and won’t bruise afterward.” 

“Does your arm feel like another part of you or is it a tool that you use?”

“Feels like me. Sensations are different, but they mean the same thing.” Bucky liked that Steve was relaxed enough to ask all these questions. 

Steve rubbed circles in his palm. “What is this like?”

“The Darcy version is that the metal and biometric sensors are conducting signals up the arm and through the nerve endings where my arm is attached. The serum helped my brain figure out what all the transmissions mean, so that when you touch me, I recognize it as a touch and not a burn or a scratch.”

“What’s your version?”

“Feels fucking fantastic,” he murmured as he closed his eyes, lost in sensation, lost in his lover’s touch. He refused to think of anything else as Steve traced over each sensor and joint, making it his as much as Darcy had weeks ago. The dizzying patterns Steve made pulled out dozens of memories.

Lying on the bed as Steve rained kisses along his spine, clever fingers working downward until Bucky was sweating from need.

Trading sarcastic jabs as they figured out how to kiss. Bucky had more practice. Steve was willing to catch up.

The hands on his neck rubbing out yet another headache.

Velvet lips on his cock and those wicked, innocent blue eyes knowing exactly how to make him fall apart.

A tree, a forest, desperate hands fumbling for purchase as Bucky got his hands on Steve’s new body. Where nothing was the same and yet it was. Silk over steel and those same gorgeous blue eyes.

The next thing he knew, Steve covered his mouth with his. God, the taste. He knew this taste. The salt, the breeze from the sea. Without thinking, he parted his lips so that Steve could come inside, licking in, touching his tongue to Bucky’s. He retreated, taking Bucky’s lower lip to nibble before coming back for more.

Under his hands, Steve’s shoulders bunched and flexed under the shirt—a shirt that Bucky accidentally tore at the seam when Steve shifted to suck on the pulse point under his ear.  “I was going to ask if you still liked that. Guess I know the answer,” he murmured.  

“Fabric caught in the joints. You’re still the mouthiest kid I know, Rogers.”

“Yeah, well, you like my mouth.”

It took everything Bucky had not to tumble Steve the floor and finish taking off his clothes. “I do. I really, really do.”

But it was Steve who took his time unfastening the buttons on Bucky’s shirt, peeling the fabric away to reveal his chest.

Bucky laid his hand over Steve’s, pressing it flat so he couldn’t continue. “We don’t have to do this.”

There was that guileless look that he didn’t believe for a moment. “It’s only second base, Buck, we’ve got a long way to go. We’ll get there when we get there.”

“The man with a plan.”

“Shut up and kiss me, Barnes.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” he sassed.

“Fuck—“

Bucky yanked Steve to him, devouring that smart mouth and those full lips. Deliberately, this time, he pulled the rest of the shirt off Steve, leaving it in tatters.

When he came up for air, he breathed, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, you’re gorgeous, love.” All the other times, post-serum, that they had made love, it had been in the dark, or under covers, or in a small tent. Just once had they fucked outside, and they’d been fully dressed. He’d seen Steve over the last few weeks, of course, and touched his fingers to his name. But this, with his skin glowing with want, well, Bucky was only mortal.

Steve choked back a laugh. “Bucky,” he admonished in shock. “Your ma, and mine, would wash your mouth out with soap if they heard you say that.”

“Yeah, hmm, they never got to see you like this.” he winked. “What did Darcy say?”

“Same thing you did. Almost verbatim. And you’re one to talk.” Steve reached across, tucking a hand under the shoulder of the shirt. As if Steve had never seen him before, he nudged it off, marveling at Bucky as his chest came into view.

Shyness was burned out in the army, if there was anything left by then. Nevertheless, Bucky felt terribly exposed with Steve’s perusal. His fingers skimmed down the twist of scars (just as Darcy’s had), before moving on to his chest to slide down his abs. Idly, Steve asked, “When you’re jerking off in the shower, which hand do you use?”

The frank question startled a real laugh out of Bucky. “Depends on my mood. Favorite, though, has got to be Darcy’s.”

Steve flinched, falling backwards off Bucky’s lap and onto the floor. “Son of a— Darcy?”

Bucky followed him down, stretching out and leaning up on an elbow. With his metal fingertips, he followed the lines of Steve’s nipples, liking the feel of them tightening under his touch. “Thought you knew. You two were … fonduing… (he grinned, just to annoy Steve) … or finished fonduing, anyway. I was still holding her hand. Sorry, love, but my cock kept bumping her hand. He was kinda eager. She did something about it.”

“Darcy?”

“Shortish, dark haired dame warming your bed for the last two years?” He scratched his head mockingly.

“Is that why she’s been avoiding us?”

Bucky stilled as he cataloged Darcy’s actions and reactions for the two weeks before she left. “Shit,” he muttered. “I didn’t connect the two.”

Steve rolled to his back, laying an arm over his eyes. “Couldn’t figure it out. What do want to bet she saw us that night we were in the Tower?”

“When? In the kitchen?”

“It’s the three of us crossing a line we hadn’t agreed on, then you and I making moves on each other without talking to her about it. No wonder she got on a plane.” Steve flexed his abs to sit up. The mood was lost and Steve was morose again.

Bucky laid a hand Steve’s bicep. “Hey, you said you’d spend the evening with me. Not asking that we pick up where we left off, just that you stay with me.”

Steve reached for his shirt and studied the tattered seams. “Yeah, well, we crossed that line too, didn’t we?”

The forlorn anger set something off, and Bucky tried to concentrate. Reaching over the sofa, Bucky snagged his sweater and threw it at Steve, who caught it when it hit his chest. (I’m safe?)

Barnes, you’re safe. Steve is upset, and not entirely with you. Breathe.

Bucky staggered to the bedroom to lean on the door frame. “No ice. Please. I’ll do better.”

Barnes, you’re in the Tower where you are safe and no one will hurt you. Steve is with you. He is worried.

He sat in the corner of the bedroom with his head in his hands. “Darcy.” (Mission: Protect Stark. Mission: failed.) “Please—no ice.” He shivered in anticipation. Then he closed his eyes and went there.

 

*****

 

Steve curled up practically on top of Bucky’s lap, chest to chest, pulling the electric blanket over them to get him warm.   He cursed under his breath the entire time, blaming himself for sending Bucky into a panic and for pressuring Darcy in all the wrong ways.  

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone.  Over Bucky’s shoulder, he carefully typed a single message line and pressed send.

Chapter Text

Darcy glanced down at her phone when it buzzed with a text from Steve.

She sighed while shifting her bag higher on her shoulder. “Thanks, Happy,” she said as he closed the limo door. The six hour flight had followed two nights of the sketchiest of sleep. She’d written her reports to Pepper and wrapped up her trip in record time.

The plane hadn’t touched down in London when she'd figured out that she’d made a terrible mistake. Sleep had been hard to come by (the bed too empty, too cold). If she hadn’t had a full itinerary by the time she landed, she would have hidden in the hotel the entire trip. But Clint kept her honest (and sane, but that went without saying). By the end of the first week, she was compressing visits and eliminating downtime so she could go home. Eighteen days later, she caught the Stark plane to New York, not sure if Steve would speak to her now or if she’d broken things beyond repair.

Please come home.

A hard knot inside her stomach untwisted. She’d only had one other text from him on the day she’d fled. (“I’m sorry. I love you.”)

JARVIS welcomed her home with a quick rundown of current events, though he was careful not to gossip about her housemates. Former housemates. He directed her to the fourth floor of the Avengers tower (there were seven, three were occupied, the bottom was the commons area. Tony hadn’t foreseen the team doubling and tripling up on the floors for company.) There was a gorgeous staircase that wound all the way up to the topmost floor. The bottom of it landed squarely on the Tony’s helipad.

She could have taken the elevator, but maybe she was punishing herself by climbing the four flights instead (or stalling. But her legs hurt like hell when she got there). She knocked on Steve and Bucky’s door. Found herself smashed against a solid chest. "You're here,” Steve said in gruff wonder. His hands were in her hair, on her back, his mouth on hers before she could answer.

He let her down long enough for her to reply, "Happy just brought me from the airport.” She held up the bag. "Haven't even dropped it off yet."

"Darce, I missed you." He took the tote and set it down inside as he closed the door behind her.

Taking in the shirt he was wearing (Bucky's, she’d picked it out), the remains of date night wine, and the lingering scent of pot roast (Steve loved it, hated making it, definitely special occasion food). "We have a lot to talk about, Steve."

"More than you know," he agreed. He led her to the bedroom, where Bucky, shirtless, had retreated to the corner and gone silent. He was on the floor, legs outstretched, sitting on the floor with his hands loose between his legs. His face was utterly blank, just as he’d been that day in her lab. Steve had draped a blanket over his shoulders.

"He hasn't been like this the whole time I've been gone?" she asked, horrified as she knelt in front of him.

"No. He's better. A lot better. I... I set him off. Just a little while ago. We had an argument. I’ve been trying to hold him, talk to him, anything.”

Darcy pressed her lips together as she considered Bucky’s state. She pressed her hand to his cheek. "I'm home, I shouldn't have left, Barnes." When he didn't respond, she kicked off her shoes and jerked her chin at Steve. "Can you hand me a pillow? In case it’s going to be a while?"

Steve handed her one, and she wiggled underneath Bucky's arm so that she was sitting against his chest. The pillow was for her butt and Steve helped her to drape the electric blanket over the both of them. She ran her left hand over Bucky’s and worked her fingers between his so she could bring his arm around her. She hissed at the cold. “I’m building you a damned heater tomorrow.” She gathered up his other hand too and brought it around her.

She leaned backward, so that her head rested on Barnes’ shoulder, sandwiching the electric blanket with her body so it couldn’t shift. "We'll be all right, I think.”  She didn’t like these episodes, but like Steve, had learned to deal with them.  

Steve looked like hell and his lined face told her too much.  “You look ragged. Have you slept?" she asked.

"Not much," he admitted. Then he blurted out, “I’m sorry, Darcy, for chasing you away. I love you, doll. Nothing’s going to change that.”

She bit her lip (god she hated apologizes. Especially having to make them). “You didn’t chase me away. I left.  If I needed space, I should have told you. I know what leaving does to you.  I was wrong and I am sorry.”

In the wake of her confession, she discovered a raw anger emanating from Steve. In the silence that followed, she began to think maybe she’d broken something fundamental between them (please … no). He turned away, staring out the bedroom door for a good while. Her heart hurt at the sight of him, and she rubbed away the wet that showed up unexpectedly on her lashes (no tears, damn it) with her sleeve.  She rubbed her fingers against Bucky’s, wanting comfort.  But there was no response.

At last, Steve turned around with his hands in his pockets. Quietly, though with a hard edge that she’d never heard before, he said, “Be angry with me, Darce. Scream at me. Punch me. Tell me you’re done with me and this isn’t going to work. Do anything but that, love.”

Darcy’s eyes widened. Steve had never called her that before. “I won’t. I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” he said in earnest. He ran his fingers through his hair, pure frustration if she’d ever seen it.  “Darcy? I know I’m terrible at these things, but I thought we were better than all this.” He shook his head. “What am I missing?”

The time in London had given her a chance to figure it out.  None of it was easy and she hoped Steve would understand.  “I’m going to say something and I need you to know that I’m not putting you on a pedestal for this, okay?”

He nodded, lowering himself to sit in front of her.  “All right.” 

“Do you remember me telling you about the conversation with Aunt Peggy when I was eight?  Where she told me about the kind of love you and Bucky had—and that kind of love being worth any price?”

“Yes.”

“That’s it, Steve.  That’s the ideal for me.  That’s the kind of love that has you crossing thirty miles of who knows what to save the love of your life from hell.  It’s the kind of love that no one, not even HYDRA, can erase.  When Sam told me about Bucky, I knew two things.  One, that you would go after Bucky.  It was the right thing—the only thing—you could do.  But I also knew that if he came home, we—Steve and Darcy—weren’t an option anymore.  There is no one who deserves happiness more than the two of you.  I can’t do anything to take that away.” 

Darcy clutched at Bucky’s fingers again, to no avail.  “I knew there was a chance Bucky might not come back to you.   But when I could see that he still loved you, I told him that when he was able to stand on his own that I would leave,” she admitted.

The cold fire in Steve’s eyes made her flinch as his anger washed over her.  “You know, that’s damned presumptuous of you.  Obviously it never occurred to you that I would walk thirty miles for you.  I have tried to tell you, to show you, to do anything I can to make sure you knew that I love you. And if you love me the way I love you then we will figure this thing out.  Because I don’t have any answers.  I don’t know what you are willing to do.” 

“What are my options?”

He rolled back to the floor, pressing his hands to his face.  “You would ask it that way.” He tilted his head up and slid his hands behind his neck.  “Doll, I’m not thinking straight. I’m worried about Bucky, missed you something awful and I want to think about what you said.  I don’t want to mess this up again now that you’re home.”

“Steven, love, I came home because I don’t want to give up on us.” 

He reached out and slid his hand around her ankle, clutching it hard.  Her heart sort of melted at all at once (relief/remorse). "Come on. Looks like we're all staying on the floor for a while."

Steve brightened so much that the guilt she'd been feeling was amplified by a factor of ten. He snatched a quilt off the bed to settle his head on her lap. She freed one hand from Bucky to feather her fingers through Steve’s hair. He caught it, kissed it with a tenderness that reminded her all over again why she loved him.

He closed his eyes. She doubted he would sleep, but he seemed content to stay with her in spite of their still-unresolved issues.  But at least there was groundwork now. 

Aware of the tension in her own neck and shoulders, she had to consciously relax into Bucky’s frame. As she did, he subtly shifted to take her weight, even supporting her with both arms. But his expression never changed.

She’d missed them.

Missing Steve was a given. Eighteen days without his company, without texts, without knowing he was okay without her had cost her far more than she’d expected. Regardless of his feelings for Bucky, Darcy wasn’t ready to give up on her relationship with him. They complemented each other. His crazy missions, her solid ties to family. Her quirky, modern sense of humor, his dry wit. Her strange brilliance and his way of making a house a home. She discovered that she really didn’t care where she lived so long as it was near him.

The love between them was real and unchanged. Through all of this, Steve had gone out of his way to reassure her of that.  His forgiveness for her dumb-ass move was more than she’d expected.

Missing Bucky as much as she had was the real surprise.

She liked seeing his face light up as he picked out the pieces of who he’d been with Steve. She missed the arguments once she’d figured out that he was counting on those squabbles to find some of those parts. She missed fending off his out-of-time flirting technique that had totally worked when Steve did it two years earlier with a whole lot less finesse. She missed watching his eyes track after Steve and marveling over the love she found in them.

She missed the way his eyes brightened when they did something silly together and made Steve laugh, or better, made him flush with want.   She missed the way Barnes studied her work and got it. She missed holding his hand and his dark citrus scent.

More than that, there was something in the way both Steve and Bucky treated her that made her feel like she was precious and beautiful.  Adored even. As if they knew who and what she was, and still wanted more.

After stepping all over bodies and hearts and broken minds for months, she’d expected to be relieved at the silence and lack of demands, and most especially, the freedom from having her heart run through the wringer on a daily basis.

Instead, she wanted all of it back. Even if it meant she had to learn to share.

 

*****

 

The weight was unexpected. Warmth flooded through his limbs. Music (symphonic) played. Something tickled his chin and he moved his head away.

“Bucky?” A voice (female) called his name.

He discovered he was holding something (warm. Steve, from before, curled up against him.) He blinked, focusing on the dark head on his shoulder, then on Steve’s blond one near his leg.  

Memories swirled—of dinner, of Steve, of the couch—and of Darcy’s absence. They fluttered then settled to the ground in a sequence that made sense. “You came back.” He tightened his arms, leaning in to smell her hair. (Stark. Safe. I have a mission.)

“I missed you. I made a mistake. A big one.”

His mind cleared, though it was still hard to speak. (She’s here.) “No fault …of yours. We… messed up. .. …crossed a line.”

Darcy let out a huff. “The list of things the three of us need to discuss is getting longer, but it’s nowhere near morning and I think we’re all exhausted. Can we adjourn to bed and try later? My butt is numb.”

“Where …?” Steve asked that, as he swallowed hard. “Where do you want to be?”

“I want to be with both of you tonight. I’ve slept like crap since I left. Apparently I got used to sleeping like a sardine. But that doesn’t matter because I was the one who left. So I can crash on the couch or in my lab.”

A streak of tension ran through her, and Bucky stroked her arms. “Stay,” he whispered.

She nodded as she relaxed again. “For tonight,” she agreed (Forever).

Darcy turned pink at the looks Bucky and Steve exchanged. Steve rolled to his feet, pulling Darcy and Bucky up in turn. “Who gets … the middle?” Bucky wondered.

“Me,” Steve insisted. “When she’s not holding your hand, Darcy likes to hang off the edge of the bed. She also sleeps with three pillows unless I can wrestle one or two away from her after she falls asleep. I call dibs on holding the girl tonight.”

“Yeah, well … I’ll be holding you, same … thing.”

“Shut up, Buck.”

 

****

 

Darcy ducked into the bathroom and changed clothes. Like all the suites, this one was beautifully appointed. The tub was big enough for three. The shower, she noted, had a wide seat in it and multiple nozzles—perfect for a soldier or two wanting to get in and be warm in a hurry. The towels had their own warming rack and radiant heat emanated from the floor.

She tugged on the pajamas she had left in her bag, hopping a little bit to get the pant legs in place.  

With a rap on the door, Steve called out, “Are you done?”

“Almost.”

“No hiding. Bucky said JARVIS said he would tattle.”

Really? she subvocalized to her brother. (The contact stayed on these days. JARVIS felt better and she didn’t mind.)

They missed you, Lewis.

So you’re on their side?

No sides to this, sis. Just … give yourself a chance.

Okay, Dr. JARVIS.

You’re stalling.

I am not. She yanked the door open. Steve tugged her close to kiss her, sweetly, deeply—as if he was trying to make up for all that had happened. The tank top and boxers he wore only accented his muscles and thighs. She dug her fingers in when the kiss threatened to become something more. (Her lady parts gave her a raised eyebrow and she told them to hush.)

“Come on, doll.” He wouldn’t let go of her as they made their way to the king-sized bed. Bucky was already lying on his side (Still no shirt. She hereby declared them banned when she was on the premises.)

“Deal,” Bucky agreed as Steve took the middle spot, and pulled her in with him.

“Oh god, did I say that out loud?”

“You did, Princess.”

Darcy let out a mortified giggle as she sealed her back against Steve’s chest. As she settled, Bucky rested his hand on Steve’s hip.

She switched off the light and never knew who fell asleep first.

Chapter Text

She was lucky to get four hours of sleep before her body woke thinking she was still in Europe. The boys must have been exhausted. Steve had rolled to his back, and Bucky was sprawled against him, one hand resting on Steve’s chest (just … beautiful. not fair), giving Darcy a chance to slip out of bed and down to her lab (jet lag sucked. She had to do the damned walk of shame and her lady parts were bitching about the lack thereof).

The keys to the Bugatti were hanging on the hook just inside the door. (Oh, she was going to pay …) She stumbled in the kitchen (no ambition today, just dear deity of choice, coffee and hoping she could think coherently) and into the shower.

By the time she was out, feeling vaguely human and wrapped only in her robe with wet hair trailing over her shoulder, Steve was already there (so much for sneaking out).

“Where’s Bucky?” she asked. (What did it say that she expected them to come as a set now? Too much? Nothing at all?)

“Still sleeping.” Three steps and he closed the distance between them. As if the last three weeks hadn’t happened, he found her lips, his hands going everywhere, skimming the curve of her breasts, the top of her ass. “Is this okay?” he breathed against her lips.

She fumbled for his buttons, slipping enough of them open to press against the taut skin underneath.   “More than okay.”

He scooped her up and headed for the couch, kicking the ottoman out of the way as he set her down again. “Seems to me I haven’t been taking care of my girl properly. Gonna fix that now.” He traced her lips with his tongue until she opened them, hungry for more. He kissed her brainless (oceans) as he pressed her into the cushions. The moment she relaxed into them, the robe slid to her sides, leaving her exposed to roving hands. A tweak here and a swirl there had her twitching. He settled to his knees to lower his mouth to her much-neglected lady parts and set them to singing the Halleluiah Chorus.

Long fingers stretched up inside her as his tongue danced on her bud. She jerked and twitched when he wrapped on hand under her thigh to bring her closer. The other hand trailed along her damp skin to play with a nipple, to slide along her waist, to spread her open so that he could nip at her clit and send her screaming.

Once wasn’t enough.  His mouth found the peak of her breast. Steve played with it, hand still buried between her legs with his thumb doing some of the work this time.

“You win. I want you, Steve. I want you now.”

“I know, love.” (There it was again)

Still shaking from what he was doing between her legs, she fought to get his shirt off. But he didn’t let her touch him. He pulled away long enough to shrug it off, and then captured one of her wrists in each of his hands. Carefully controlled, he held them against the cushions while he tormented her with enough licking and suckling to mess with her sanity. Maybe after the third (or the fifth… they were running together now) time he made her come, he let go to shake his pants off.

She was swollen and so sensitive that all Steve had to do was press against her with his cock to have her trembling again. “I can’t—it’s--”

“Want me to stop?” (There was that innocent voice again and angelic blue eyes.)

She’d lost her mind. Yeah. That. “God, no. I want you too much.”

“There’s my girl.” He pressed, a slow slide in that drove her mad. “I love this. I love what I can do to you. Nobody knows you like I do, Darcy. You’re my girl. I love you.”

The litany did as much as his cock did, and by the time he slotted home, she was convulsing around him, saturating him in her juices. Her eyes glazed over as she fought to retain even a tiny bit of sanity. “Goes both ways, Steven. I love you. I love the feeling of your cock, your hands, your mouth. I love being with you.”

His control slipped, and Darcy felt his cock stiffen just that last little bit. “I love your smart ass mouth too, Rogers. Love me. That’s all I ask.”

Her words did him in and he stroked hard and deep as he came, spilling hot and hard inside her. He somehow slipped a hand under her ass and pressed her even closer as he did. The contact of his body on her clit split her apart and she twisted wildly, chanting his name.

As they panted in unison, he pulled her down to the floor.  He liked keeping her on top of him afterward. “Never thought cold glass would feel good, Darce,” he breathed as his arms went around her. “I do love you. Always will.”

When she regained at least some of her senses, she sat up, straddling him. He winked and laced his fingers behind his head.

“You’re smug.”

He waited. For something. Something for her to discover.

She blinked.

In white ink, entwined with James Buchanan Barnes, Steve had added Darcy Maria Stark.

He cupped her cheek. “When you are ready to tell the world who you are, I’ll have it done in black.”

(Her heart stumbled. Yeah, she’d fucked up. While she’d been running away, Steve had been writing her name on his skin.) She traced the letters. “How do we do this?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how do we do this? Going forward? We had a life, Steve. We were talking about moving in together. Shit, we were going to move in together and we both knew it.” As she spoke, Steve dragged his callused hands from her shoulders to her fingers, kissing the tips. She shivered from the caress. (liked it, her skin hummed) “Damn it, you both do that to me.”

“What?”

“That thing you just did.” She jammed her eyelids shut. “You … Barnes touches me the same way you do sometimes. Just like that. It’s hard … to keep you … my feelings separate.” She got it out, breathless with the struggle.

But Steve seemed to understand. “It’s not fair, is it? Bucky and I have all these ways we’ve learned to show we love each other. And I’ve used them on you because they felt good to me and I want to make you feel just as loved.  Now it’s Bucky who is touching you and you don’t know how to make sense of the feelings.”

“Exactly.”

“What if I told you that Bucky means the exact same thing when he does them?”

She shook her head. “Barnes doesn’t love me.” (He’d been touching her that way for months.)

Steve angled his head at her with an odd smile. “Is that what this is about? Darcy, he’s been gone on you from the beginning.”

“Codependency is not love. It’s not healthy and I won’t take advantage of him like that.” Her words were almost rote as she recited it.  (It was safer that way.) 

A slow, sensual grin spread across his face. She sucked in her breath as she could see the pieces falling into place for him.  “You love him.” 

(Don’t press. Please.) “Of course I do, Steve.  It would be impossible not to care for the person you love so much.”

But he went to an elbow and trailed fingers through a lock of her damp hair, his eyes lighting up.  “It’s more than that. Damn. Sam was right,” he breathed.  “This isn’t about you and me, not entirely.  This is about you and Bucky.  You’re in love with him.”  The combination of confidence and wonder in his voice had Darcy trying to pull away from Steve, to deny it, but he caught her hands and held them against his heart. “No. Not going to happen, doll. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Steve gave her just enough of his “Cap” look that she couldn’t (wouldn’t) dance her way out of this.  “I can’t,” she admitted. Her heart was beating double-time.

“How long?” he coaxed.

“I knew who he was from your art and how you spoke of him.”

“Darcy--”

She bit her lip. “He put his arm around me on that ladder and I felt safe. I wasn’t scared of the Winter Soldier. I saw Bucky’s face, and it was, ‘oh, I’m glad you’re home.’”

“That makes you friends or maybe even family, Darce. When did you fall in love?”

She trembled. “Steve … it doesn’t matter.”

The light in his eyes was unnerving. “Yes, I think it does.”

“That morning, the first time the three of us shared a bed. I woke up with you holding me, and I had my head on Bucky’s thigh. He was playing with my hair. I remembered thinking that I would do anything at all to have that feeling every single day.”

He kissed her knuckles. “So why aren’t you fighting for it?”

“Because he’s yours.   I won’t—I can’t come between the two of you.” She emphasized the last part. “Remember what we talked about last night?” 

“And that’s why you left.”  Steve sat up, holding onto her as he did. He muttered, “If you and Bucky would stop being so damned noble about this, we’d be a lot happier.” He reached for his pants with one hand, dug out his cell phone and started texting (if she wasn’t so confused, she would have been proud).

“What are you doing?”

“Telling Bucky to get his ass over here to ask you out on a date. He’s so far gone on you he’s scared he’s going to fuck this up for me too. Got a dress unpacked? ‘Cause he’s dying to take you to dinner.”

Her mouth dropped open. Was that what all the months of flirting had been about?  “Steve, I can’t date Bucky.” 

He gave her the most intent “are you kidding me” look he’d leveled at her in all the time she’d known him.  “Why? And don’t give me the co-dependency answer because Sam will debunk that in about fifteen seconds.” 

Her mouth came open. She tried to come up with a different one. She had nothing. 

“If I wasn’t in the picture, would you go on a date with Bucky? A real date, not a, what did you call them? A fuck-buddy date?”

“I did not just hear that from you.” 

“Darcy—“

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”  She took his request seriously, knowing the full implications of either answer.   “Yes.  If he didn’t manage to piss me off before he could ask me out.”

“Then get dressed because he’s on his way.” He skimmed a finger around her nipple and made it zing

“Holy shit, Rogers!”  She scrambled for the bathroom, yanking emergency clothes out of her storage area on her way in. 

Steve followed her into the bathroom, grinning like a batshit-crazy villain. “Where you like this when I asked you out?”

“I was younger and much more stupid.” She tugged a shirt over her head, one she’d stolen from her dad’s closet.  (Iron Man, of course.) “Damn it, no one, much less your boyfriend, can miss that I have been thoroughly sexed in the last hour.” That was said as she zipped up her jeans and turned around to look at her ass. 

Steve scratched his stubble with all the nonchalance of a cat with a canary. “Looks good on you.”

“The sex or the jeans?” she quipped.

“Yes?” He reached out to pull free a strand of her hair that was caught under the shirt. His fingers grazed the back of her neck. 

It was those little caresses that melted her anytime she was around Steve.  Small things few others would ever notice, even if they were watching. “How can you be so calm about all this? What if I screw all of this up for us?” She ran mousse through her hair and slicked on some lipstick.

“Because you can’t. I’ll always have Bucky. You know this.” He set his chin on her head to hug her from behind. (Best hugs, hands down.) “I love you. Bucky … well, he’ll have to tell you himself. But we can give you all the time and space you need.” He pressed a kiss to the curve of her neck. His breath warming her neck, as he worked his way up to murmur in her ear, “You think I’m good at sex? Who do you think I learned it from, Darce? Try to remember I’m the one forever saying and doing all the wrong things. You’re the one who looks past all that and sees me anyway.”

Her mouth dropped open. “Holy shit, Rogers, now you’re scaring me.” And she was.  The idea of Steve and Bucky together … well that was a whole bunch of images she tried not to dwell on (okay, she didn’t try that hard. Fuck).

“Of the two of us, I wasn’t the last person with a hand around Bucky’s cock, doll. Don’t tell me you aren’t interested.” His eyes glowed blue and the wicked, wicked smile was making her lady parts perk up again.

Darcy covered her hot face, mortified that he knew.  “I was … I shouldn’t have done that.  We, you—“ 

I,” he emphasized, “am elated that you find Bucky attractive. You won’t get jealousy from me, Darcy.  This is everything I wanted.”

She stuttered, “Wh-What about a relationship? What about living together?”

“Seems to me we’re already figuring out the first part. Second part is up to you. We’ve got a place. You can move in, stay with us, stay in the other bedroom or stay in your lab. Maybe even it’s time to turn this place into a real apartment.”

“What if I said I couldn’t do this? The three of us?”

“You’ve already told me you love Bucky. In love. And I know how he feels about you. Any particular reason you want to deny yourself that?”

Darcy’s mouth dropped open. Steve seemed to have it all figured out and patiently waited for her to catch up. He continued, “Never said it would be easy, Darce. But you’ve stuck with me this far. I can’t explain it yet, but all this is right. It feels right, like it’s the way it should have been from the beginning.”

“Lewis, Sergeant Barnes is on the elevator,” JARVIS announced.

Darcy shook her head. “He doesn’t know me.” Steve just chuckled, infuriating her and she stomped her foot just a little. “Steve Rogers, do you have any idea how weird it is to have you setting me up on a date with your boyfriend?”

“Yeah, well, do you know how long we’ve made plans for when we found the right dame?”

Something about the way he said that put her on edge.  She looked away, then down at her fingernails.

Steve sagged against the wall behind her, closing his eyes, but not before she saw the regret in them.  “I owe you an apology.”

Darcy caught her breath, listening.

He ducked his head a little as he hunched his shoulders.  “I never asked.  I got caught up in loving both of you. I’m so scared of losing either of you that I didn’t ask if you were willing to change things between us.”

A knot in her chest loosened up.  “Ask me now.”

He drew his hand along the front of his hairline; a nervous habit Bucky had told her dated back to when they were just boys.  “Damn, I am not doing this in your bathroom, Darcy.  Come on.” He tugged her into the lab, where he could sit on the back of the sofa and be face to face with her.  “Better.”

“Darcy,” he started as he took her hand. “I have someone I love--as much as I love you--who wants to date you, to see if we can make a real trio out of this.  One where you’ll be in the middle, and I’ll be in the middle, and my friend will be in the middle and it’s going to be complicated and messy and probably as hard as anything we’ve ever done.  I can’t promise it’s going to work, but I think it will.  And I’m asking for more than a turn under the sheets.  I’m asking about three of us making a family out of this, and having kids, and everything that goes with that.”

She let out a soft whistle as she squeezed his hand.  “Now see? All that makes a difference.  I’m open-minded, Steve.  I understand how important your friend is to you.  I got that when you couldn’t speak his name for the better part of a year.  I got it when “I, Steve” was “Us, Bucky and Steve” long before Bucky came home.   The last thing I want to do is come between the two of you.  But what you’re offering is something different. And if what you say is true about Bucky, he wants something different too.” She let her voice become whimsical, to lighten to seriousness of the conversation.  “Although, just pointing out, still weird that you’re doing the setting up.” 

He crept a hand around to her waist, leaning so that he could touch his forehead to hers. “Darcy--”

“I didn’t say that I’m not willing to try, Steve. Just that it’s weird, okay?”

A slow smile curved his lip up as he raised an eyebrow. “You have an AI for a sibling, Tony Stark for a father, an ancient Norse god as an honorary brother, a 96-year old boyfriend and you think going a date is weird?”

“Point made.”

“And Darcy, you were a surprise to Bucky too.”

“That doesn’t seem to bother him.”

“More than you think, doll. But he’ll have to be the one to tell you why.”

Darcy stepped into Steve’s embrace, pressing her head against his and letting his warmth carry through her.  One thing in all this was certain.  She was a Stark, and if Starks had ever settled for easy, they wouldn’t be where they were today.  Hard didn’t scare her. Different whetted her appetite.  Steve’s biceps flexed under her hands as he drew along her spine, sending out shivers of want and comfort all at the same time.  As always, his touch steadied her, reminding her that this, love and family, was the core of everything. 

All told, Bucky was in the lab in less than fifteen minutes from Steve’s text, his hair still damp from a quick wash, though he’d taken the time to pull on skinny jeans and a white Henley that made him look nothing like the Winter Soldier. (More like the kind of the guys she hung out with in college. Just fuck.)

He was biting his lip as he strolled inside the lab, fingertips tucked in his pockets (betraying his nerves—not a Winter Soldier tell). “Missed you this morning, Princess.”

“Blame it on jetlag or you needing your beauty sleep.” Darcy let go of Steve enough to straighten up, though his fingers trailed down her wrist to clasp her hand in his.  

“What’s jetlag?”

“Time difference between here and London. Yesterday, this was late afternoon to me. Want coffee?”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

Darcy started to turn when an alarm she hadn’t heard months sounded from Steve’s phone. He checked it and the apology was already on his lips.

“You have a mission?” she asked.

“Wheels up in twenty. I wanted back on the roster,” he admitted.

She jerked in shock. “You can’t. You can’t leave him. Who’s--” She stopped her babble when Bucky swiftly crossed the room to hold her fingers behind his ear. “JARVIS? JARVIS is watching you? How did you talk my dad into that?”

“I didn’t. I asked. Both of them,” Bucky said, holding her hand in his.

“When?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“You trust JARVIS?”

“Enough.”

“What about last night?”

Steve ran his hand through his hair. “That was my fault, Darce. It won’t happen again.”

Duty came first--she’d known that from the start. Steve pressed his lips against hers, then reached out and did the same with Bucky. (Why did that seem natural now?) “I’ll be home in a day or two. Not long.” He looked between them.  “I love you. Both of you.” 

Then he was gone, just like that. She leaned against the sofa, sitting on the edge. The breath had been kicked out of her. (fuckfuckfuck they needed to TALK about these things)

Barnes put a hand on her wrist. “Princess?” There was a timbre in his voice that sounded off and she realized he wasn’t dealing with it any better than she. “JARVIS is telling me to ask if I can hold on to you for a little while. I’m … slipping. Sam says … touch helps to keep me grounded.”

JARVIS wasn’t wrong. Barnes’ eyes were bordering on a flat grey when they settled on the couch, linking hands with her head on his shoulder. “What does it feel like?” she asked, curious.

“I hear … anger. Or orders.” He was slow in answering. “And I shift to assessment. To protect myself. Everything else—feelings, sensations, thoughts—is blocked out--to evaluate the situation.” He reached up to rub his neck. “I’m tryin’—trying—to learn how to use it. Make it a choice. Done it once or twice.”

“Does your head hurt?”

“ss—yes.”

Well aware that his headaches sometimes came on with blinding speed, she didn’t hesitate. “Come on. Lie down and I’ll rub your back.”

As he shifted, Darcy made sure to keep her hands on his shoulders until he settled.  “Don’t block, Bucky.  I know it’s hard, but I need to you tell me where it hurts.”

“Neck … collarbone.” 

She begin the slow process of working the knots out of Bucky’s shoulders, digging thumbs into the top of his neck and working her way down.  Generally speaking, getting the neck area moving again relieved the headache then she could concentrate on warming up his shoulder.   “Want some music?”

“Just talk to me, Princess. Tell me …’bout your trip.”

So she did. The good. (New tech that Stark Industries would sponsor. Grants that would be offered. People to be hired.) The bad. (Sleepless nights. Clint babysitting her food and alcohol content.) She skipped the ugly, figuring she would tell Steve about the nightmares later.

“Did you miss me?” he murmured.

Yeah, she did.  But full confessions were not in order at the moment.  “Missed drooling on your thigh,” she teased.  “Clint gets all pissy when I do it to him.”

“Barton … doesn’t like me.”

“Of course not.  You touched his bow. And you made his shot. He bitched about it for a week.”

“Fixed it, didn’t he?” Bucky mumbled into the cushion, moving a little so he could press against her hands.

“He dragged a physical therapist back to London with him to work on that tendon. How did you know?”

“Had to train. Was my job. They didn’t care how much it hurt, only about precision. I learned.”

Steering the conversation away from that line of thinking, Darcy snarked, “When they get back, it will be fun to watch Barton try again. If he misses, we should evacuate the Tower. How much was he off?”

“One centimeter at twenty-five meters.”

Her hands stilled. “You call that a miss?”

“Yes, when the other eleven targets are hit dead center.”

“Promise me when you guys do some long distance shooting that you’ll invite me along. I want to watch.”

“Why?”

She snickered. “’Cause I want to know where to place my bets.”

“On me, Princess. Always on me.”

The tension dribbled out a little at a time, until there was movement again in his muscles.  She worked a hand under his shirt to feel the metal shoulder. There was still a streak of cold where the vibranium ran under his skin. “When you get up, I’ve got the specs for a heater to keep your shoulder from cooling off. Drew it up while I was gone and I want you to take a look at it.” She kept her hands there, warming his shoulder until the chill was gone.

Occasionally, she brushed his hair out of the way.  His dark strands were thicker than Steve’s finer blond.  But playing with his hair wasn’t the plan for the morning.  She went back to working her thumbs down the back of his neck. 

“Feels good.” Bucky’s voice sounded stronger.

“Helping any?”

“If I say ‘yes’ are going to stop?”

“Not if you bribe me,” she teased. (She figured on coffee.)

“Go to dinner with me.”

(Um, wow. Steve really did send that text.) Realizing her hands hovered over his back, it took a moment to set them back down again to continue the massage. “Okay.”

He let out a breath as if he’d been holding it. “Gonna let me drive the Bugatti? Word is that Stark threw a tantrum when he turned over the keys to Pepper.”

“When was the last time you drove a car, Barnes.”

“1945, I think.”

“In a word, no. Steve has the bike. Use that. I’ll get you a Ford Focus to practice on.” She changed to a light touch, raking her nails lightly along his spine.

He stretched into her scratches like a cat. “That was an insult, I think. Gonna have to look it up.”

“Google is the best, except for JARVIS.”

He sighed in contentment.  “Feels good, Princess. Think m’headache is gone.”

“Gone, gone or do you have that achy feeling leftover?”

“The second, but let’s give it time. Want to show me what you dreamed up?”

 

*****

 

With Darcy’s absence, so much had changed. The dynamics had moved from Steve and Darcy with him on the outside to Steve and Bucky with Darcy figuring out where to stand. None of them had planned it and to say that Steve had panicked when he discovered Darcy slipping out this morning would be an understatement. With a kiss to Bucky’s temple (unexpected), he’d been out the door only a few minutes later.

Bucky had gone back to sleep, content in the knowledge that Steve had things in hand. (True sleep, not drugged, not cryo, not in a chair. Just sprawled out, face down, on the softest of sheets. Sam was right, felt like a fucking marshmallow. Didn’t care though.)

When Steve had appeared with Darcy’s name tattooed around his own, he’d accepted that Steve would always be in love with the pair of them. Now, it was up to Bucky and Darcy to figure out how to close the gap between them.

Then he got the text from Steve. 

Darcy is in love with you. Ask her out before we fuck this up again. CS in 20.

Huh. Steve giving him relationship advice. That was a first. Trusting Steve, he’d stumbled out of bed. He’d told Stark that he loved his daughter. He honestly hadn’t thought she could love him back.  He was too broken, coming between her and Steve in all the wrong ways.

But he could see a difference this morning--she wasn’t quite reaching out yet, but wasn’t hiding either. Last night, she’d been the light to his darkness. (I’m safe. I have a mission.)

He followed her to her workbench. The gleaming stainless steel didn’t bother him now. Without prompting, JARVIS cued up something with a solid beat and a lot of guitar. The variety of music these days astonished him, as was JARVIS’ ability to detect what he liked and create … playlists?.. yeah, that was the word.

Darcy nudged her glasses into place and pulled up the specs for the heater. The excitement she had was infectious and he found himself echoing her happiness as he looked on. (He could smell Steve on her skin. Intoxicating.)

“May I?” She indicated his shoulder.

“Princess, you don’t have to ask to touch me.”

“Yes, I think I do. When it comes to stuff like this.” She looked away. “Sam gave me a lecture about asking to look at your arm. I’m sorry. It wasn’t right for me to keep asking after you told me ‘no’ the first time.” 

Barnes, she is correct. She must have your permission—just a doctor gets your permission before performing an examination, JARVIS reminded him. Even if she is excited and thinks she has the answers, you do not have to consent to this. We can continue with methods—such as massages and warm showers—that have proven to eliminate your headaches.

He stilled, considering. “Will you explain how it works?”

Darcy smiled. “Of course. And Barnes, we don’t have to do this. Now or ever. I don’t mind having my hands all over your sexy shoulders.”

Maybe she didn’t realize she bit her lip, having cautiously flirted with him.  Tension he hadn’t know was there loosened, easing the headache that had started to come back. He smirked and was relieved when she licked her lips (pink, full, wanted to taste) and settled to work. 

She opened the hologram of his arm, with the heater highlighted where she wanted to put it. Then she shoved it in his direction so he could look at it.  While he turned it on end, she dug around her worktable.

“You know, I’ll do one better. I made a prototype. This is not ready for you, so I won’t even try, Barnes. But you can see where I’m going with it.” She held out a five inch strip of thin film that matched one in the hologram.

He could see a pattern zig-zagging through it. “That’s the actual heater,” she pointed out. She set out a small device and hooked it up, then attached all of that to a palm-sized battery she had sitting on the bench. “This middle thing is the thermistor, which will monitor the temperature in the surrounding metal. When it gets a tenth of a degree lower than your normal body temperature, it will turn the heater on.” She came around to his side and indicated an arc (without touching, he noticed) near where the top panel was connected to his skin. “I can place it on the inside of this panel so it will heat your shoulder. You don’t need anything lower on your arm and I don’t want to get anywhere near your nerves. That part is working beautifully, and I don’t want to mess anything up.”

“How will it fit?”

“The thermistor won’t be anywhere near this big. I’ll make about the size of a drop of water and give it a battery that will last, oh, about a hundred years before it has to be replaced. I’ll actually seal everything inside the film so you don’t have to worry about anything getting wet.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course.”  By now, the film glowed a soft orange. Darcy held it out, taking care not to bump the rest of the equipment. “It’s not too hot. Maximum temperature on this baby is a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to give you prompt relief. It will shut down as soon as your shoulder normalizes. Your metabolism, just like Steve’s, pushes your natural body temp up a half a degree or so. We’ll get more precise if you decide to do this.”

“You’re talking about stabilizing the temperature of my shoulder to a tenth of a degree. You can do that?” he asked again.

“Can you shoot a target at a thousand yards?” she retorted. “I’d tighten the range, but your skin temp does change some. We want to allow for that. Not only that, I will have safety protocols in place. See that line there?” she pointed to one of the thin zigzags.

“Yes.”

“That’s one of the heating elements and it will lay right next to the thermistor. If it gets too hot, bam, it fries the thermistor. Worst case scenario here is that you lose the ability to heat up your shoulder before I can fix it.”

Bucky pressed his right hand against the film, considered the temperature, and set the orange strip against his left fingers. The sensors noted the heat and his whole hand warmed. “It feels like the blanket.”

“Same concept, just smaller.”

“Can we try it on the outside of my arm first?”

“Of course. It will work on any part of the metal. The trick is getting it close enough to heat the vibranium in your collarbone and shoulder blade. It’s not ready yet,” she warned. “I’ll need a week or so to tweak the thermistors and test it.” She shoved her glasses back up her nose. “I’ve got all the technical specs from Steve’s shield, so I can get a good idea of how fast the metal transmits heat.  That will tell me how far away we can put the strip.”  She typed something on her laptop.

He peeked and discovered she’d left herself a message on her screen about that. 

“So—after that, I’ll sit on it until you are ready. And if you don’t want it at all, that’s okay.”

He considered the film and the warmth on his fingers. “I’d like to see it, Princess, when you’ve got it working.” He handed the heater back to her, brushing her fingertips just to see what she would do.

“Okay.”  She sucked on her bottom lip as she dismantled the assembly and put it away.  With a glance at him, she rounded her table to slot her tools into their respective boxes. 

*ping*

Yes, JARVIS.

You asked her to dinner. Shall I make reservations?

I—I have no idea.

The Tower has a private restaurant –Charlie’s--on the 22nd floor. The windows face west if you would like a sunset view. I believe there is a jazz trio scheduled to play this evening. Alternatively, there are a number of restaurants in town where Pepper and Tony keep standing reservations, and where security is reasonably tight. I can certainly usurp their table for the evening. Or, I can send a chef to your suite and bring dinner to you.

I don’t think I should leave the Tower just yet unless Thor and Jane want to go too. Dinner in the suite is too much pressure.  

When she came back to where he was sitting, Bucky folded Darcy’s hand into his. “I asked you to dinner. We can go to Charlie’s or we can pick somewhere outside the Tower. But—I think I’d rather see if Thor and Jane can go with us if we do that.”

“Need someone to watch your back if we go outside?”

He nodded, grateful for the understanding.

“Charlie’s?” she ventured. “We can argue over the appetizers and dessert and no one can stop us.”

He lost his breath at the dancing glow in her blue-green eyes. “I’ll pick you up in the Commons at seven.” When he brought her hand up to kiss it, it was shaking, just a little.  So he turned it over and pressed it to his cheek instead.  “Thank you, Princess. I’m going to show you a good time.”

She surprised him by leaning up on her toes to press the lightest of kisses on his lips (sunshine). “I know.” 

He strolled out, hands in pockets, whistling. 

Charlie’s at seven it is. Nice job, Barnes.

I have a good wingman, J.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

With Steve gone, Bucky had the apartment to himself.  Remembering that it was still morning, he made coffee as he scrambled eggs, adding in onion, a little ham and some cheese to round it out.  The luxury of food in this age was something of a marvel and he liked going to the grocery store with Steve.  He was rather proud that no one had to remind him to eat this morning.   Hunger had been something they’d been well acquainted with in the army, and with HYDRA, he’d had whatever was given (Asset), regardless of hunger.  Listening to his body still gave him trouble sometimes, though Steve kept an eye out. 

The eggs hardly made it out of the pan before he demolished them.  Same with pouring up the glass of milk.  He drained it, refilled it, drained it again.  He washed the dishes in the hot water (they’d set the max temp where he couldn’t burn himself in a bad moment, but still got a nice sting of heat) and left them in the dish drainer to dry.

He spent the morning cleaning up the apartment.  He started with making the bed (Steve and Darcy), wiping down the shower (Darcy's shampoo) and started a load of laundry (whites, hot, bleach).  He chased the dust bunnies off the wood floor with a duster on the end of a stick.  It was these little chores that reminded him that he had a normal life again.  Darcy’s mom had offered housekeeping services, but neither he nor Steve had been able to get on board with the idea of a stranger coming in their place. So they did it themselves, just as they had at Darcy’s. (Darcy was home.)

This place was three times the size of her carriage house. He’d never lived in anything big like this. There was a whole space for Steve’s art, an extra bedroom and two more bathrooms that no one used. They had a real table to eat at now.

He’d seen places of luxury like this in the courses of his missions (change the world)—hotels, mansions (Asset). He’d never been a spy, therefore interacting with his environment was not a big part of his assignment. Stealth had been his primary weapon. Steve complained on occasion about his ability to walk across the wooden planks without a sound.  He and Natalia used to play games (silent, no expression, none knew they played) as he taught her to walk in silence. He didn’t know how to stop. (Part of his skill set. Asset.)

Steve was on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. again. The new one, under a man he trusted. 

He wondered how long he needed to wait before going out looking for him. (Small Steve, always in trouble. E.T.A. 48 hours.)

He had a date with Darcy. Dinner. Hoped this wasn’t a buddy thing. He liked her. Loved her. Wanted her.

Wondered how to find that confidence he had with dames before. Before the breaking. He was still broken, yes? Didn’t know how to get better any faster. Sam said it took time. Wondered if he would ever not-hear the Winter Soldier (Asset). Did he want that?

Sam asked if there was anything of the Winter Soldier he wanted to keep. (Skill set.) He didn’t know. He wanted the fear of the ice to go away. (I’m safe.) He wanted to not remember the pain. The chair. The way he'd been stripped of his name. (Asset).

*ping*

Barnes, you are safe. You are in the Tower and you have chosen to be alone in your apartment. Breathe and focus on the sweeping. Are you finished?

Thank you, JARVIS. Yes, the dusty floors were clean now. He put away the rags for later and moved the wash to the dryer before starting another load. (Colors, cold.)

He had a date. He thumbed through his clothes, found the ones he wanted, hung them in the bathroom for later.  Inspected his dress boots. Though they were new, he polished them to a high shine on the floor of the bathroom. Good.

He found Thor at lunch and asked him to spar. He didn’t quite know what to make of the warrior. Soldier didn’t seem right. Nor did mercenary because there was inherent nobility to what he did … kind of like Steve. No wonder they got along.

He was early to the gym. Hill was there working out against a phantom opponent. Her form was good and he could see Natalia's influence in her fighting style. He wondered why she didn't have a partner then decided most of them had been S.H.I.E.L.D. agents before. He took to his (Barton's) perch without her knowing to watch and study. She systematically fought her opponent with neat moves and a good use of her height for leverage.

When Thor arrived, she grinned. "Hello. JARVIS said you had a challenge for me today?"

"Hello. Yes, of course." He looked straight at Barnes in his nest. "James has been studying your moves these past several minutes."

"James?" she asked in confusion, then, “Sergeant Barnes?”

Bucky didn't miss the ripple of concern, though she didn't argue. He slid out of the nest, wondering what Thor was thinking. He held his hand out.

She took with a raised eyebrow. "I don't believe we have met before. Maria Hill."

"I know."

"Of course you do," she said under her breath.

Barnes, she is not a threat. You are safe. Tell her that Steve speaks of her. Breathe it out.

He did. "Steve speaks highly of you, ma'am."

She studied him for a minute. "You're good.” She nodded. “Okay, Thor, what's your plan?"

"James is skilled in teaching the weaker form how to outmatch the larger and stronger. He can give you instruction. You have sparred with Natasha far too often and need a change now and again."

"Can you trust me?" Bucky asked him.

"Should I not?" Thor replied. "In any case, I wish to learn more of this fighting style and I think both of you will be less concerned if I stay."

The warrior took an easy stance just off one end of the mat and crossed his arms. "Begin, James, Maria."

Bucky stepped to the mat, breathing out. JARVIS?

You are safe, Barnes. I will order you to stand down if necessary. She will be safe from you, as well.

He closed his eyes, bringing up memories of training Natalia ... and the other girls in the Red Room. There were twelve in the beginning. In the end, there had only been Natalia and one other. Another trainer had taken the other girl. He had Natalia. For her, he had learned how to extract every last ounce of ability from her slim form. So she would survive. He opened his eyes, focused. (Assessing.)

Maria opened with a flurry of punches designed to annoy him. He countered with a block and a counter-strike, which she neatly parried and turned into a leveraged take-down. He rolled out of it and got back to his feet. Khoroshye, he said.

*ping* English, Barnes. You're in the Tower with Maria Hill.

"Good," he repeated.

Concentrating on Hill’s body, he watched for the placement of her feet and hands. When she rounded a kick, he caught Maria’s ankle and held it. “Too high.”

He brought her foot down two centimeters. “Here.” Then he showed her where her foot would connect at his kidney. “Aim here. Try again.”

She did, and this time he allowed the kick to go through. He stepped backward to ease the blow of the strike, though not enough to pull her off balance. She regained her stance. “Damn. Now I know why Nat is so good,” she said.

“Again.”

They sparred for the full hour, leaving both of them dripping with sweat. Maria, from learning a new precision to what she could already do. Bucky, from having to control her movements with lightning fast reflexes.

Thor never interfered. He did move backward at one point, when they tumbled in his direction, but he remained there, watching from the sidelines.

When their time was up, Maria held out her hand. He took it and she gave it a firm shake with a smile. “Thank you, Sergeant Barnes. I would be grateful for any time you could spare for additional training.”

*ping* You do not need permission from anyone. You would be an splendid trainer and will be paid accordingly for your time and knowledge.   Ms. Potts indicates there is a certain amount of discretionary funding for security training as a freelancer, although she has asked if you would be interested in permanent employment. Let her know and I’ll make the arrangements either way if you are inclined.

He nodded to Maria. “I would be honored, Ms Hill. JARVIS will make arrangements with you.”

When she left for the showers, he confronted Thor. “How long have you been planning this?”

The prince smiled with sure knowledge. “Since the first time we sparred. Only an excellent fighter notices the smallest of imprecision. Only a trainer knows how to correct it. This is your skill. There are those here who would benefit from your knowledge.”

“Why don’t you teach them?”

“I do. But my skills lie along other lines and no truly excellent warrior trains with only one master.”

And that’s how Bucky Barnes found himself a job at Stark Industries. (I have a mission. Protect Stark.)

 

*****

 

When Darcy finished SI business, she glanced at the clock. She’d taken the unusual step of bringing her laptop into Pepper’s office and working from her mom’s conference table. Pepper’s team was used to Darcy coming and going at will, but even the assistant gave her a questioning look when Darcy didn’t leave for Pepper’s conference calls.

As the time pushed five on Friday, Pepper wrapped up her day and waived the staff off for the weekend. She came back as Darcy closed up her computer.

“So which is it?” Pepper asked as she poured them each a hot cup of tea and brought it over. “Closer ties to running the company, needing Mom time, occupying yourself during Steve’s mission, or hiding out from your boyfriend’s boyfriend?” She sat, waiting for the tea to steep.

“Um, I’ll take one through three and leave four on the table.”

“Darcy, you can take your place here at any time and stop hiding who you really are.”

“I’m not there yet, okay? But I think I’d like to get your staff used to having me around. Today was good and kept me from fretting about Steve.  And I learn a lot listening to you. I need more of that.”

“Done. What’s left?” Pepper sipped, delicately.

“Bucky asked me out on a date tonight. Let me add some commentary to that statement. After a heartfelt conversation with Steve this morning in which I might have admitted to more than strictly platonic feelings for his best friend, Steve texted Bucky and insisted that he ask me out. There was mention about Bucky and me being too damned noble about the whole situation.”

Pepper arched an eyebrow. “Do you want a dress or a reason to skip the date?”

“A dress, I think.” She played with the edge of her laptop, rubbing away a smudge. “Am I being foolish, Mom?”

“Darcy, dating has never been easy for you. Not with your brains and your understanding of the world we live in. I worried for years that you wouldn’t find anyone who could appreciate all of your qualities.” Pepper tapped her nails on the table. “Steve has been a good match. He’s intelligent, has the same world view, and, quite frankly, he adores you. You have someone who isn’t scared of you at all, except in a purely female-to-male sense, which is perfectly acceptable. And I think if not for you, he would end up with some senior level agent out of loneliness and lose himself in duty. But that’s not who he is, and you know it. Now what I find fascinating is that his partner is as enamored with you as he is with Steve.” 

Darcy pursed her lips. “How do you know?”

“Hmm, I forgot to mention that we had them up for Sunday dinner a couple of times.”

“Forgot, my ass. And you don’t do Sunday dinner.”

Pepper winked. “Steven and James didn’t know that.”

“Steven and James? Oh my god. You pulled a ‘mom’ on them, didn’t you?” Darcy’s jaw dropped in awe.

“A couple of Catholic boys from Brooklyn? That one is too easy. They are petrified of Tony right now, which is novel because he is used to irritating everyone around him.  This is different, it’s all about family, and he’s rather smug about having Captain America and the Winter Soldier quaking in their boots whenever he sits down at the table.”

Darcy laughed so hard she had to hold on to the table or the floor might have had company.  “So they think you’re on their side. You’re brilliant, Mom.”

Pepper had an equally smug expression.  “Thank you.”  She picked up her cup again and sipped.  “I also know that James hasn’t been working so damned hard to get better just for Steven. He’s afraid that you’ll walk for good before he has a chance to bring you around.”

Finding her courage, Darcy asked, “Want to help me dig through boxes and help me find a dress?”

Pepper did one better. Darcy still had a few things in her suite in the penthouse and her mom occasionally stashed emergency outfits there for her.  

When Darcy was a teen, she’d gone through a serious phase of wishing she was built like Pepper--tall, thin and blonde. There wasn’t anything that her mom put on that didn’t look outrageously pretty. But Pepper stayed after her, teaching her how to dress for her curves and height. Eventually, Darcy learned to appreciate the way she looked, but once in a while, she still had to cross her eyes to keep from being jealous.

Not this time. Pepper had found a blue sheath dress that fit Darcy perfectly, skimming curves and clinging just enough to be sexy as all fuck. “Mom,” she breathed. “This is stunning.”

“You’re stunning. Try the shoes. No, not those. The silver ones.” They left her hair loose, and Darcy slicked on a red, red lipstick to finish off the outfit.

Tony popped his head into see what they were doing at one point, blanched, and escaped to his lab. (Typical.) Pepper gave her a kiss on the cheek and wished her luck.

Which is how Darcy found herself in the Commons waiting for her date. Nerves and all.

Of course, waiting in the Commons was like posting an announcement in the New York Times. Jane and Thor stopped by to take a look. (Darcy had texted Jane a pic of herself in the outfit, so that was on her.) So did Bruce. (Swore he was coming up for a cup of tea. Darcy’s bullshit meter pegged out on red.) And Clint dropped in, with a whistle and a smart ass remark that Cap was missing out. (He might have sent a pic to Steve too.)

But when she saw Barnes descending the staircase like a freakin’ diva, she forgot about the rest of them. (Fuck. Me. Senseless.) If Steve was the All-American farm boy who could talk an angel out of her panties in the hay, Barnes was the bad boy in black with a knowing grin and a couple of turns in the backseat of a ‘57 Chevy. He played it up to the crowd, reaching around her waist and brushing a kiss on both of her cheeks.

“You look like a peach, doll.”

“Say that again and I’ll get JARVIS to change all your playlists to banjo music.”

He laughed and pulled her into the elevator. Once behind closed doors, he stepped back in all seriousness and tucked his hands into his pockets. “Darcy, you look beautiful.”

The use of her name startled her. She recovered by batting her eyelashes outrageously. “Flattery will get you everywhere.” She twirled for him, giving him every reason to look at her ass and the girls. Then she gave him an equal head to toe perusal and agreed, “Not too bad yourself, Barnes.”

“Thank you.” He licked his lips, teeth catching the bottom one. “Darcy? Would you call me ‘James’ once in a while?”

“All right,” she paused. “James.”

She didn’t need an explanation. His eyes darkened to a blue she’d never seen before, far darker than Steve’s. He lifted her hand to tuck it into his arm as the elevator descended, biting his lip harder as he closed his eyes.

“James?” His eyes flew open. “We’re okay.”

“I know, Princess. It’s hell trying to think of how to impress you when you’ve already seen what you’ve seen.”

She squeezed his arm gently as she moved a little closer to him. “You don’t need to impress me. I’m not going anywhere.”

The elevator stopped, and he escorted her into Charlie’s, the restaurant that occupied the northwest quadrant of the floor. There were only a handful of occupied tables here, and they had the prime seats to watch the sunset. The sun was already beginning it downward arc, and the tinting on the windows kept it from being too bright.

Barnes’ manners were correct, even for today’s standards. He held her chair and ordered a bottle of wine. Darcy picked out half a dozen appetizers she thought he would find interesting. (Best part, hands down, of dating someone with super serum--she got to nibble off their plates.)

While they sipped wine, he told her about the offer to become a trainer for Stark Industries and was pleased that Pepper hadn’t mentioned it yet to Darcy.

“How do you feel about it?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Seems like honest work.” But there was a glow about him that told her it meant far more than that.

The fun began when the food arrived. The dazzling array of fruits, vegetables, and other starters stunned him as the waiter set down plate after plate between them. “What the hell, Princess?”

“If you’re going to date a princess, you have to eat like a prince,” she sniffed with arrogance and poked a fork into a piece of kiwi.  She held it up to his lips, challenging him to try something new.

He curved a hand around hers, the intimacy of the gesture startling her.  He took the bite, lips closing around the tart green fruit, and held her hand in place while he tugged it off the fork.  (Just … well, hell. She shushed her lady parts.) He smiled as he swallowed, and shifted his chair so that he sat beside her, rather than across, and laced his hand with hers. Now they each only had one hand to eat with.

“That was good. What else?” he asked.

She held out a stuffed mushroom and giggled as his eyes crossed in ecstasy when he bit down. She was lucky to get even one bite after that when he took his fork and rolled the rest of the mushrooms his way. They picked their way through edamame (sucking the pods), bruchetta (making a mess with toast crumbs), a bowl of fruit (tropical, most of it he’d never seen) and a spinach dip (familiar) with toasted pita chips (those were new) while the sun set in a blaze.

Darcy asked him about his drawings. He borrowed a pen and paper from the waiter and showed her. (Steve was all neat lines and precise shading. Barnes was bold and careless.) He drew the sunset, colored it with water and the leavings of the fruit. She was dazzled by the hard, sweeping lines and the wash of color that gave the impression of everything without any specifics. 

“Damn, James. I had no idea. Steve mentioned you were in art class together, but I guess I figured you would draw the same way. Which seems a little ridiculous now. What were you going to do with it?”

“Ads for the paper, maybe judicial proceedings. The newspapers always needed artists who could draw on the fly. That was my specialty. I left the detailed work to Steve.”

Night fell and she lost track of time over the entrees. They shared filet mignon, oysters, ahi tuna, and a variety of steamed vegetables. Barnes tried them all. As he cut into the steak, he asked her about college and seemed surprised when she told him about her degrees.

“MIT in mechanical engineering at eighteen, a masters in business by nineteen, and a doctorate in political science from Culver at twenty-two.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed. “Those don’t seem to be related to each other, but for someone with your inheritance, somehow it all makes sense.”

“I took a lot of extra classes,” she admitted. “Minored in business at MIT, so finishing the MBA was only another year. The PhD was harder.”

“So when you talk about ‘college’ which one are you referring to?”

“Culver. That’s where I met Jane and had the most fun.” She wrinkled her nose without thinking. Barnes called her on it.

“Something doesn’t ring, Princess.”

She shrugged. “Most people my age were barely out of high school and didn’t have a clue about what kinds of things are really out there.  At 19, my dad was kidnapped and built a whole new technology out of spare parts in a cave to save his life.  When I was 22, I saw a god come out of the sky and knew for a fact that we aren’t alone in the universe. I’ve never worried about where to live, or getting a job after graduation, or where I stood in my political views—which are what most people are wondering at 22.”

With a half-hearted smile, she toyed with the food on her plate.  “I wanted to date.  I wanted to see what normal people did.  I’d learned pretty fast that truth only got me lonely weekends and very few friends. So I spent a lot of time acting like I didn’t know what was going on and not telling people what I was really studying. And let’s face it, most people don’t see past these.” She flicked her fingers over her boobs.  To his credit, Bucky’s eyes didn’t waver from her face.  (This time.)

“It got old. Jane is the closest girlfriend I have and she always treated as friend and colleague from the beginning.  But even she didn’t know all of me, really, until she came to work for Stark a year ago.”

Bucky put down his fork and rubbed his chin idly with the back of his knuckles, studying her. “That’s how Steve got you to date him.” Darcy was surprised to see him light up. “Damn. Haven’t been able to figure out how he got a beautiful dame on his arm. Just couldn’t see him getting past his own mouth to ask you out.”

She looked away, pinking a little, and he reached around her back to cup her shoulder in a soft caress and a little hug. “I’ve known all along what Steve sees in you. I just couldn’t figure what you saw in him. Now I know. It’s the same damned thing that I fell for too. He gets you. Every part of you. Even the parts you don’t like. And it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks because Steve loves you and that’s enough.” With his other hand, he lifted her fingers and brushed a kiss across the tips. “That kind of faith is scary as hell because it makes you want to be the best person you can be, even as you know that if you fail, he’ll catch you.”

She blew out her breath as he laced his hand in hers again. She nodded in agreement. (Yeah, he got it one.) “You forgot to mention the fact he’s a complete smart-ass and, well, you know, the bike.”

Bucky grinned and damned if his eyes didn’t glaze over a tiny bit. “Best part about this modern world is that fuckin’ bike and Steve’s ass.”

“Told ya,” she quipped. 

He nudged her over the ahi tuna. “What is that?”

“Rare fish. You game?”

“Sure. “

So she fed him a little piece to start. He took her hand and downed the whole bite.  “Oh my god, we are so going for sushi next time,” she declared.

“Sushi?”

“Japanese marinated raw fish and shrimp. Wrapped in seawood and rice. The stuff is amazing.”

“I’m in. Steve hardly touches fish, so you’re stuck with me.”

“You’re a food slut, Barnes. You’ll try anything once,” she quipped. He choked, swallowed hard, then laughed uproariously at her comment.  She loved seeing him relax like this. 

He shared the rest of the tuna with her, holding out his fork this time so she could take a bite.  Turning around the intimate gesture made her nervous.  Bucky must have noticed because he rubbed his fingers lightly against hers.  Where the metal should have been uncomfortable, the plates were rounded and polished enough to be so smooth as to be soft. 

“I don’t want to rain on our evening, Princess, but you need to know that I never told Steve what you said about leaving us all those months ago.” 

(Ah, yes, the moment of truth. These sucked.) Darcy sagged against the chair, blowing her breath out.  “I told him last night, so have fun with that.  Why did you keep it a secret?”

Bucky brought her hand to the top of the table so that he could use his right hand to trace little patterns on her skin.  “At first, I didn’t have the words.  Later, I was hopin’ you’d changed your mind.  We were doing better, the three of us.  You didn’t seem to be the kind to run and I thought you knew how much he loves you.  When you did go, hell, Darcy, it would have killed him to know you were thinking about walking from the beginning.” 

She pressed her lips together hard, trying to control her emotions and not set him off.  “I didn’t think I had a right to stay.”  She flexed her fingers in his.  “I already know how much I hurt Steve doing that, and I’ve apologized to him.”

“Good.”

She eyeballed him, deciding this was as good a time as any.  She hesitated, not knowing if she even had the right to ask.  “James, why haven’t you and Steve ….” she let the sentence hang, losing her courage.

“We might have, last night.  I don’t know, though.   Truth is, Darcy, we aren’t the only ones in this anymore.  So there is that.”

“I don’t want to come between you.  I can’t, James.”

He tilted his head, studying her with the assessing gaze of the Winter Soldier.  His voice was anything but.  “You mean that,” he said softly. 

“I do,” she affirmed with conviction.

“You do realize I feel the same way about you and Steve, too.” 

“I don’t—“

No, Darcy.  This doesn’t work unless you believe me.”  The hint of anger surprised her, his eyes cooling to ice blue. 

She squeezed his hand.  Firmly reining her doubts, she leaned over to kiss his cheek.  “Okay.”

“Okay, what?” he asked, suspiciously. 

“I believe you.” 

He squinted, still annoyed.  “Right.”

“Other than you owing me dinner for the backrub, isn’t that what we’re here for? To see?”

The annoyance was chased away by a gleam and a smirk.  “That too.”

“What else?” Now she was suspicious.

“What’s for dessert?”

She threw her napkin in his face. 

They finished out with three different desserts. Barnes consumed the better part of two of them, but Darcy defended her caramel turtle cheesecake with all the protectiveness of a porcupine. She even folded her arms over it.

“One bite, Princess.”

“Not even one. If you get one, you’ll want the whole dessert.”

“Come on, doll, just a taste. I’ll even let you hold the fork.”

Darcy cracked up. “As if that’s a comforting thought. While I’m holding the fork, you could steal the rest of the cheesecake from me.”

“Well, darn, doll, you’ve got me figured.” Then he pulled out the weapon that hadn’t failed so far. “Haven’t had it before. Ever.”

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

“Of course I do.” He winked.

Carefully, she slid the fork through the tip of the cheesecake, shearing it neatly so that it stayed on her fork. She swirled it through the whipped cream and aimed it for her own mouth. The disappointment on Barnes’ face was comical, especially when she savored the flavor falling all over her tongue. She closed her eyes and let out a hmm of pleasure. (Just to annoy him.)

A thumb stroked across her top lip. Her eyes popped open in time to see Barnes sucking whipped cream off the edge of his knuckle. “Just a taste, Darcy,” he said, softly enough that she wasn’t sure she heard it.

Holy fuck. Darcy hadn’t been seduced like this since … ever. “Steve never had a chance, did he, James?” she breathed. His eyes darkened to cobalt and were captivating as hell.

“Nuh uh.” The innocence with which he answered her question belied the sensuality of his smile.  He glanced down … and goddamnit, her cheesecake was scooted all the way over to him where he curled over it in the same manner she had before.

He stuck a fork into it and took an enormous bite without ever taking his eyes off her.

Darcy leaned in, licking her lips first and making sure Bucky noticed when she did. (Bonus, his gaze dropped to her rack too, though he did an admirable job of reeling them back in.) “You know, James,  when we do fuck, I’m pretty sure they’re going to have to call in the Avengers because one of us will be dead before it’s all over.” His eyes widened and she was gratified to have shocked him for once. “And it’s going to be even better when we fuck Steve, because between the two of us, we’re going to peel him apart and savor every last taste in the process.”

His mouth was open, just a little. “Is this how you got Steven into bed?” he asked, a little hoarse.

“No. But it’s how I’m going to get you into bed, James. And it won’t be tonight either. Finish eating my cheesecake so you can escort me to my lab and give me a proper kiss at the door.” She drained her wine while Barnes flushed red. He stood to help her with her chair.

He got her to her floor in record time and without hesitation, leaned her against the lab door, one hand braced about her head, the other on her neck.  The bottom lip thing she was expecting. What blew her mind was the way he teased and tasted, never letting her have what she wanted. His thumb curved over her jaw, distracting her while his mouth hovered, only brushing hers.

Her hands—having touched those shoulders so many times—it was a relief to slide across them and flex on his biceps, to dig her fingers in.  She wanted. 

Finally, he pressed his thumb against her bottom lip and her mouth closed over it by instinct, tasting metal. She sucked on it just long enough for his eyes to close then she caught it between her teeth, taking him by surprise.

He pressed his forehead to hers, breathing hard. “I think—I think I’d better stop, Princess.”

“Then stop.”

He blinked at her. “Where are you going to stay tonight?”

“Do you want to be alone?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll see you in a half hour.”

 

*****

 

He was holding on to his focus with everything he had. The headache was splitting, but he’d successfully ignored it in favor of staying attentive to Darcy (Beautiful. Mine. Steve’s.) and not messing things up between them.

She’d dazzled him, seduced him, taken him apart with no more than words. He staggered in the elevator and leaned his head against the wall (Rule one.)

*ping* Barnes, you need to return to your suite and take a hot shower.

(Rule one. Asset. Reshape the century one last time.) He shed his clothing, folding it into a neat pile on the dresser before stepping into the shower. There was vague awareness of JARVIS changing the shower spray to one that would massage his shoulder and turning up the temperature another degree. He had no idea how long he was under the spray, but the moment the headache gave way to exhaustion, JARVIS ordered him to dry off and put on boxer shorts. Mind-numb, he followed the instructions until he was sitting in bed. (He had a mission.)

The bed shifted as Darcy crawled alongside him to take his hand.

*ping* Go to sleep, Barnes.

 

*****

 

Darcy hummed along to P!nk as she changed clothes. She figured it was safer to take the temperature down a few hundred degrees before she crawled in bed with Bucky. Though she’d offered, she’d figured there wasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell that he would want to sleep alone—hence using the lab as a way to put a break between their date (and calm her lady parts, let’s be honest) and sleeping chastely beside him.

She fumbled for her phone to shoot off a quick text. Barnes has a real job. Dinner a success. Nobody died. Still weird but slightly less so. Miss you and love you.

Chances were Steve wouldn’t get the message until after the op, but it made her feel better to send it all the same.

“Lewis?”

“Yes, JARVIS.”

“Sergeant Barnes is fighting a rather difficult headache and is unable to think for himself at the moment. When you come in, I have him in hand. I don’t want you to be startled. He will do better in your company.”

“Where is he now?”

“In the shower.”

Whereas two minutes ago, the thought of that might have had her blood humming, now she just wanted to get to Bucky and help him however she could. She finished washing her makeup off and dried her hands. “How much was he blocking during dinner? I honestly hadn’t noticed anything was wrong.”

“Quite a bit in the last thirty minutes.”

“He’s getting sneakier about it.” She slid her glasses on and made for the elevator in her Hulk pajamas and bare feet. “How often is he doing that now?”

“Only around you and Captain Rogers so far and this is the second time today. With anyone else, he clearly shifts into soldier mode.”

JARVIS unlocked the door and she found Bucky sitting up on the bed. He didn’t respond when she called his name, but she took his hand anyway. He fell asleep on JARVIS’ command. It was awkward, but Darcy moved a couple of pillows under her head and shoulders so she could rest her head on his thigh. She kept her phone tucked in her hand, as always when Steve was gone.

Wanna to play chess, JARVIS?

Isn’t it your bedtime, Lewis?

You know I don’t sleep with Steve on a mission.  And I don’t want to leave Bucky. I’m bored. Entertain me. 

Very well. Black or white. 

Black, of course. It took effort to keep track of all the board pieces in her head, but this was something they’d done since she was small and she liked to keep in practice.

d4. He opened his first move.

d5.

JARVIS had her on the run when her phone vibrated. A quick peek showed a waiting text from Steve. The relief was tangible and she took a deep breath to steady herself. Knowing JARVIS would save their game to her phone without asking, she opened the text.

Barton sent me the picture. *slow whistle* Gorgeous, doll.

She texted back. Dinner was good, even if my cheesecake was stolen.

Do I need to post bail for you?

Not this time. The culprit is still breathing.

He sent her an icon of a goggle-eyed mini monster, which made her grin.

Miss you, love. Won’t be long.

Love you too. Waiting, as always.

“Everything good?” Bucky roused enough see what she was doing.

“Steve’s coming home. About six hours out plus debrief.” She showed him the text exchange.

“How do you know?” he muttered sleepily. His hair fell into his face and he shoved it out of the way as he looked again. “Oh. I see it. Six words in his last text.”

“Simple, I know, but it works.”

“Clever.” He stroked her hair a couple of times. “Mind if I hold you for a while?”

She sat up and moved her pillows. “Where do you want me?” She tensed, hoping he wouldn’t read too much into what she said.

But he just slid a hand along her shoulder, caressing a little on the curve. “Want to put my arm around you, if that’s all right.” He scooted down on the bed, rolled to his left side, tucking his hand under a pillow.  Then he held his arm out.

It was strange settling down against Bucky instead of Steve. The fit of his body and the weight of his flesh and blood arm were different enough to distract her until he shifted on her pillow so that he was practically breathing her hair. “Go to sleep, Princess. He’s safe.”

Surprisingly, she did.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Nat and Sam sat across from Steve on the Quinjet and smirked all the way home. He ignored them as he read his texts for the fourth time. 

Bucky had sent him one about getting a job (doing what?), along with a picture of himself dressed up for the date (stunning). That was followed by the picture of Darcy from Barton (gorgeous). Then there was the text exchange with Darcy about the dinner. (His breath caught as he visualized them together.)

Turning on his phone and having all those messages waiting had been another layer of balm to his heart.  Maybe this would work after all. 

Steve had discovered something else about himself on this mission, something he didn’t like much at all.  Before, he had a tendency to be reckless, wanting the rush of danger just to remind himself that he was still alive and had a purpose.  (Little guy in Brooklyn, scrapping for a fight, standing up for his beliefs and wanting to matter.) 

This time, he went over the mission in fine detail, eliminating risk wherever he could.  Maybe Sam had taught him that. 

Because he wanted to go home. 

The lump in his throat was because he’d discovered how careless he could be with his own person before—with Darcy.  As if she would be fine without him.  As if he wasn’t enough, and if he was gone, she would be better off.  But he’d seen how torn up she’d been and figured out that she wasn’t okay.  That she wanted him as much as he wanted her. 

With Sam’s help, he got that Bucky might not ever be entirely whole again.  In spite of the leaps and bounds in his progress, some things were still a daily struggle. They weren’t done yet, not by a long shot. Bucky might have something approaching a normal life one day, but only if Steve—and Darcy--continued to give him a safe place to recover.   

In that gentle manner of his, Sam also explained that Darcy might be the only other person Bucky would ever be able to trust—and only by virtue that she was an “extension” of Steve and possibly because she was a Stark   The Winter Soldier understood that the technology in him had to be maintained, so it was in his best interest to keep the person who could do that safe. That protocol was a foundation of his conditioning and would be one of the hardest to break.   That Darcy was both Steve’s girl and a Stark gave her an unusual position in the soldier’s mind, allowing him to grant her an authority and a level of trust that otherwise would be impossible for him to assign.  

All that might be true, but Steve hadn’t told Sam about the drawings. 

Whatever the reason, Bucky was head over heels for Darcy.  Now that Steve understood all the nervous tension at Darcy’s little house, he couldn’t wait to get back to them.  To be there as Bucky and Darcy figured out how to love each other. 

He scrolled through the texts one more time.  He might have even closed his eyes and dreamed a little. About all things good.

 

*****

 

The smell of coffee and the rustle of a newspaper edged into her awareness.

She was in her usual spot, pillow under her head, with knee and arm hanging almost off the bed. But Bucky was sprawled across her back, his hand covering the scar at her waist. (How was he not ridiculously heavy?), with a very firm part of his body comfortably situated against her ass.

Steve was home. Darcy had fumble for her glasses before finding them on the nightstand. Without coffee, it took her a good thirty seconds to be coherent and to focus across the room where Steve had set up camp in the little sitting area in the bedroom.

His short hair was still a little spiky from his shower, so he couldn’t have been there long. He folded down the paper, letting her see his happy face.  “You stayed with Bucky.”

“He didn’t want to be alone,” she whispered. “How does he sleep so quietly?”

With a lift to the shoulder, he set the paper to the side. “Wasn’t like that before. Used to talk in his sleep.”

“Better than ‘is wheezing,” Bucky muttered into her hair. “Then again, first time we slept in a tent, I kept wakin’ thinkin’ he’s wearing a toe tag. No asthma,” he explained.

(What the fuck was a toe tag? Oh. 40’s vernacular. Eek.) Darcy tried to wiggle out from under Bucky. (Double eek. Definitely packing heat this morning. Lady parts woke up with an interested twitch and she told them to hush. They were getting tired of that.)

He rolled to his back, conveniently skimming his hand along her shirt as he did, and coincidentally giving her a fighting chance to breathe. “I am not a morning person, Princess. Punk’s the one who can get by on five hours of sleep. I need a couple more than that.”

“Works for me.” She sat up, tugging the blanket that fallen to the floor up to cover her chest.  The sleeping bra she wore (and hated) didn’t keep too much in place. Metal fingers slid up her spine. She shivered—and not from the cold. “Princess, you’re beautiful. S’one o’ the things I like ‘bout you. So beautiful and real.”

Darcy threw him a startled glance over her shoulder.

Deliberately, and very, very slowly, that hand moved around to her waist. Bucky leaned upward as he pulled her to him for the softest, lightest of kisses. (Much like last night… Hoo boy.) He brushed his lips against hers, stroking her cheek with his thumb. The scrub of his whiskers against her lips startled her, but she didn’t pull away. He nipped at her bottom lip with just enough heat to make her want to stay.  

But he let her go, looking somewhat dazed by the kiss. “Wake me later. I’m gonna dream on that for a bit.” He rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head.

Darcy spun her head around, looking for Steve’s reaction, but he was too busy sketching. Taking advantage of his distraction, she made for the bathroom. A third towel hung on the warming rack, and her favorite shampoo and soap occupied the niche in the shower. (The assumption that she would be back gave her warm fuzzies.) When she was done and had closed the door to the bedroom so as not to wake Barnes, she found Steve in the kitchen. He had her coffee waiting on the bar top with a drawing of her and Bucky against it. This one had a title. Kiss.

She stared at it, then walked straight to Steve and kissed him too, hard and thorough. “Tell me I’m not messing this up.”

Steve, hands down, gave the best hugs. (Thor? Close. This? Perfect)  Warm, big arms came around her. “You’re not, Darcy.” His hands skimmed along her waist. One of them drifted down to her ass, where it settled comfortably on top. “Just do what feels right. Like the bed thing last night.” Hugging her tight, he pressed a kiss into her hair.

With that, everything was okay again.  “The mission, everyone is home?” (She never asked for details.)

“Yes. Nat’s got a bruised ankle, but that’s it.”

The hand on her ass began to move in circles and even though all her lady parts were absolutely on board this morning, she (breathe, Darcy) geared up her courage instead. Stroking hard down his pecs, and flicking the nubs of his nipple, she looked Steve straight in the eyes and said, “Barnes has a serious problem this morning. My guess is that thirty seconds after I’m out the door, he’ll be in the shower trying to do something about it. So, if I’m brave enough to go on a date with your boyfriend, are you brave enough to resume your relationship with him too?”

He stiffened under her hands. “Are you sure?”

“No. But it feels right.” She kissed him on the mouth, lightly, and slipped out the door to her lab.

She really had to decide where she was going to live. (And maybe a little hard work would keep the images of two amazingly hot super soldiers out of her head for a while.)

 

*****

 

She was right. Bucky headed for the shower the moment the door clicked shut. Steve had about twenty seconds to make up his mind about what do next. (Plenty of time.) It came down to trusting Darcy to know what she could handle. She’d trusted Steve enough to go on a date with Bucky. And accepted Bucky’s kiss this morning. (His brain stuttered on that. It’s a wonder he could draw it.)

He left his clothes where they fell as he headed for the bathroom.  Steam was already floating around the cracks of the door. He peeked inside to find Bucky leaning against the shower wall, one hand braced to the left, stroking his cock as water hit his face and shoulders.

“Want a hand with that?” (As opening lines went, it was terrible, but Bucky never seemed to care about that kind of thing.) Steve strolled in, well aware of his own pride and joy jerking upward in response to the view.

Lashes lifted to reveal glazed blue eyes. They sharpened as they zeroed in on Steve. “If you’re offerin’, yeah.”

This was always the moment that gave Steve the most trouble. On one hand, he wanted to draw this. Bucky, all hard muscles and lean lines, braced against the shower wall with water dripping from his hair and beading up on his skin. He wanted to follow one of those drops of water from where it pooled for a moment on Bucky’s collarbone, before racing down to catch on his nipple. From there, it dripped onto a thigh dusted over with dark hair.

On the other hand, he wanted his mouth on Bucky’s cock.

“Draw me later, punk.” Bucky shoved the door open and yanked Steve inside for a hot, hard kiss.

Steve got his hands on Bucky’s shoulders for real this time, not to massage, but to clutch them hard as Bucky took what he wanted from Steve’s mouth, sucking on tongue and bottom lip before nipping hard kisses along Steve’s freshly shaved jaw. Steve reached up to scrape his fingers along Bucky’s stubble (needed this, craved this).

Hard skin, so unlike Darcy’s curves, fascinated him all over again. He couldn’t decide where to put his hands—on Bucky’s narrow hips, the places where his abs dipped and rippled, or to curl over his back where the muscles flexed under his fingertips.

He settled his hands onto Bucky’s waist to learn the feel of him once more, pressing a thumb into the hollow of his thigh. They bumped cocks as Bucky pressed closer, one finger coming up so Steve could catch it between his teeth, and other gripping his shoulder.

This he’d missed. Bucky trying to keep his hands out of Steve’s way--wanting more, needing more. Steve had it to give. He skimmed a fingertip along the long line of Bucky’s cock, appreciating the hard twitch and dance it did with his own. Sliding one arm around Bucky’s shoulders, Steve held him close and reached down to stroke the pair of them in one hand.

At Bucky’s soft groan, he squeezed a little harder as he worked them over, making his own eyes cross.

“You couldn’t do that ... before, punk.” Bucky’s free hand came down on his ass, grabbing it just in that way that made Steve want more.

“You keep parading around the fucking house naked, jerk. Been wondering for weeks if I could make it work. We’re ‘most the same height and my hands are bigger. Call it the bonus plan.”

“Hell of a plan. Fuck, Steve. Hands aren’t the only thing bigger. Damned near killed me with your cock last time.”

“I’ve learned a few things, Buck, and it sure as hell won’t be up against a tree.”

Bucky’s eyes came open at that, and he looked like he was having trouble focusing. “Steve, fuck.”

With a grin, he sucked on Bucky’s ear lobe, whispering. “I’m trying.”

Water streaming down his face, Bucky laughed weakly as he bit his lip. Steve shifted his grip and went to his knees without ever letting go of Bucky’s cock. Those eyes darkened to the deepest of blues (loved that), and he hissed as Steve ran his tongue along the underside of his cock. “Love, don’t do this. Know you don’t want … on your knees.”

Cupping the full ball sac just inches from his face, Steve grinned up at Bucky. “Things have changed. This is one of them. You’ll just have to deal with it.” He slid the foreskin backward just enough to run his tongue around the edges and along the dripping slit. Bucky reached down to caress his face, fingers scraping his cheek. Steve closed his mouth over him, savoring the familiar taste. There were no secrets here, for he’d learned them long ago. But that meant he knew exactly how to make Bucky feel the best.

With one hand, he made long strokes to Bucky’s cock, bearing down near the base with a squeeze. Reflexively, Bucky’s hand came up to tug on his hair.

Steve grinned. Bucky felt it and peeled open his eyes. “Don’t stop, not for anything.”

He hummed in agreement and took Bucky’s cock in as far as he could, sucking hard enough to create friction and letting Bucky pick up the rhythm to slide in and out of his mouth. By his length and stiffness, Bucky had prepped himself a little too well. Add in a good dose of Steve, and he was definitely close to finishing. Steve scraped his fingers along the back of Bucky’s thighs, catching the tender inner flesh. With a groan and a shout, Bucky came hard, leaving it to Steve to swallow his juices down.

When he started shaking in the aftermath, Steve rose to catch him in his arms.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bucky said as he pressed kisses along the line of Steve’s shoulder as he shuddered.

Running his hands through damp brown hair, Steve teased, “That isn’t all I want to do.” No, what he wanted to do was to make Bucky shake again and again until he was exhausted and limp.

Bucky lit up as he understood where Steve wanted to take this. With a slow smirk, he reached for the soap, not bothering with a washcloth as he lathered it up between his hands. Steve leaned back to enjoy the view as Bucky washed and rinsed at army speed.

“Darcy’s okay with--?” he asked he reached out to shut off the water.

Steve passed him a warmed towel. “Yes, she is. Heard your date was a success.”

“Fuck, I hope so.” Bucky was distracted as he dried off.  “She stayed with me.  Means something, right?”

“Yes.”  Steve was more methodical, finishing by sliding his hand along his cock a couple of times just to watch Bucky’s eyes darken again. It worked. 

“Damn you, Rogers. I want to do that.”

Steve walked backward to the bedroom. “Really? I figured, you know, we could watch a movie or someth--“ Bucky shut him up by shoving him on the bed and taking possession of Steve’s cock as if he owned it. Steve’s brain turned to mush under the onslaught of sensation and emotion. (Sex. Love. All the same.)

Bucky scraped his teeth lightly along his cock, and Steve jerked upward to his elbows, making fists just to keep in place. Then Bucky’s mouth was hot and surrounding all of him. There wasn’t thinking here, just feeling and wanting. His balls tightened and Bucky seemed to know just when that happened because he cupped them hard enough that Steve pressed up into his mouth, seeking more.

Dark hair tickled his flesh, and the cold metal skimming the inside of his thigh sharply contrasted the heat of Bucky’s mouth. Steve felt the gathering in his cock, gave in to the want and need, and then he was lost to the heat of his lover’s touch as he came. Bucky took all of him, until the last of the pulsing need was satiated.

The satisfied smirk when he came up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, did Steve in. Pure emotion swamped him, and he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

Bucky crawled upward, lying so they were chest to chest, legs and arms entwined. Steve reached out to trace his face, thumbing away the wet that had appeared there too. “You’re here.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“You okay with this?” Steve rubbed his face on the pillow to dry it. (Damn it, he’d never been this much of a fucking watering can.)

“Been wanting to for weeks. Feels right.”

They stayed that way a while, Bucky’s face buried in his shoulder.  He skimmed his fingers along Bucky’s spine, from neck to ass, enjoying the subtle twitching as Buck squirmed a little at his touch.

This part was different than before.  When he’d been smaller, it had been his head on Bucky’s shoulder, or Bucky would lie face down on the bed so Steve could do this.  They hadn’t had time in the army to figure out all the ways they fit together. 

Steve licked the outside edge of Bucky’s ear.  “You up for round two?” he whispered.

With a leer, Bucky rose up, pinning him to the bed. “Nice to know there is some stupid benefit to that damned serum. Question is, are you?”

Steve looked at his wrists where Bucky held them down and gave them a reflexive pull. His eyes widened. “What do you have in mind?”

“Got any Vaseline?”

Mustering up his most innocent smile, Steve winked. “Got something better than that.” He jerked his chin at the nightstand. “Grab the tube in the top drawer.”

Bucky fumbled for a minute, leaning across Steve. “Hate it went you do that, punk. What does Darcy call them? Bambi eyes?”

“Sure you do.” Steve decided he was at the perfect angle to kiss along Bucky’s collarbone and run his tongue down the scars there.

“This?” Bucky asked in a strangled voice as he held the lube up.

“That.” Steve wiggled free his other hand free, took the tube, and popped the lid. He held it over his head and squeezed a little on his fingers. Reaching down, he brushed his fingertips along the slit of Bucky’s butt. Almost involuntarily, Bucky slid his legs to either side of Steve’s waist. 

When Steve circled his hole with a slick pair of fingers, his eyes widened. “Wha—“  he hissed. 

Steve pressed a finger in, enjoying the heat and the clutch of muscles. “You okay?” he asked.

Bucky’s cock twitched. He was already half-hard again. “More than okay, punk, what else you got?”

Steve slid in two fingers, taking his time as he used his other hand on the back of Bucky’s neck to tangle in his hair and pull him in a savory kiss. (He loved the way Bucky tasted. Oranges and lemons and dark heat--) He swallowed Bucky’s moan and slid in a third finger, circling and plunging until there was an easy slide and Bucky’s cock stood up hard between them. This was exactly where he wanted Bucky. Sprawled on top of him, twitching and jerking in time to his fingers, just where he could nibble those lips and smell the sweat of his skin.

“Forgot—about—your fuckin’—patience, punk.”  

“I can do this all day,” Steve told him. “You, my fingers in your ass, letting me slide them in. Your cock trapped and bangin’ on me like I’m gonna forget about him.”

Bucky stayed where he was, and Steve took his time. He alternated between hard and soft plunges of his fingers, keeping rhythm, until Bucky was squirming over him and started to swear under his breath. “Damn it, Steve. More. Gotta have more.”

“Said I was too much last time. You sure about this?” He kept up the rhythm, pressing a deeper as he did.

“Yes. Don’t be a prick about it.”

“But I am. You tell me that all the time.” Steve made sure he was hitting that spot that made Bucky’s cock stiffen and leak.

“Fuck you. You’re gonna make me do this, aren’t you?”

“As I said, I can do this all day.” (But he couldn’t. He was so fucking hard he was seeing stars.)

Groaning a little, Bucky pushed himself up so he was on his knees, still straddling Steve’s waist.

“Wait,” Steve muttered. He squeezed more lube onto his fingers and stroked his cock, coating it thoroughly. Then he circled Bucky’s hole a few more times for good measure.

When Bucky was ready, he nudged Steve’s hands away. “My turn.”

Steve’s cock was just there, playing at his entrance (begging, dancing around).  Bucky didn’t even flinch, just held Steve’s gaze as he took him all the way in. And just like that, Bucky had him.

As always, no matter what he did to tease or pleasure Bucky, the moment he sank into his love, Steve belonged to him. Bucky angled to take him a little deeper and Steve fumbled for Bucky’s cock, to stroke it in time with his slow thrusts upward.

It took them only a moment to find the rhythm again, and when they did, it was all Steve could do to hold on until Bucky was on the edge.

Then it was too late and Steve reached out to hold him in place while he pressed hard and deep, again and again. “James,” he whispered. “James. Mine. You’re mine. Always mine.”

And Bucky came with him, making a mess of the pair of them as Steve took them to the moon and back again.

He remembered to pull out before he caused Bucky any pain, and Buck rolled to his back with a carefree laugh. “Damn, punk,” he breathed. “That just might have been worth the wait.”

Steve finally let the weariness of the mission wash over him. He was home now. With Bucky and Darcy. He didn’t care that he was sticky. Sticky felt like home too and he never wanted this feeling to go away. He reached out for Bucky’s hand, found the cool metal and clutched it.

 

*****

 

He dozed holding Steve’s hand.  Not hard, just enough to catch his breath.  When the punk was sound asleep, he wiggled his hand free. 

He propped up on his elbow and rested his head on his fist. (Definite perk of the metal arm. Never got tired.)

It occurred to him to wonder if Darcy was handling this as well as Steve figured, or if this was more of her attempt to get them together. That concern got him out of bed and back into the shower.

Steve didn’t even twitch when Bucky wiped him down with a towel and pulled the covers over him. Pressing a kiss into blond hair, Bucky chucked the towel into the laundry basket.

He grinned. No wonder Steve had requested a washer and dryer in their apartment. Pepper had offered concierge services for laundry, but maybe the idea of a couple of messy guys hadn’t occurred to her. In any case, Steve gave her that innocent look and told her he found the routine chore comforting. Maybe he did, but it sure was a hell of a lot easier to throw all the sheets in the washer when it was just off the kitchen.  

As he slipped into the hallway, he swore. Sorry, JARVIS, I should have turned off the contact.

You do not have to make apologies, Barnes. I am perfectly capable of adjusting the monitoring to minimal levels. In your situation, I am far more concerned with the signs that you are in distress—even breathing, a slow pulse and an inability to communicate. The first two can be tracked by a simple program I have in place which—for lack of a better term—can get my attention. I engaged the program when you took a shower this morning and only disabled it when you spoke to me now.  To be perfectly honest, Barnes, I think it is safer at this time to let me monitor you in this fashion rather than switching the contact on and off.

Well, that made sense. If you’re sure you’re good with it, then yes, I don’t want to turn it off.

I assure you, there is nothing you can do that can exceed anything Sir has done over the years. There is a perfectly good reason why I developed the subroutines in the first place.

Bucky covered a laugh as he strolled into the Commons. And stopped short when he found Natasha with her ankle propped up on Barton’s knee with a bag of ice.

“Natalia?”

She tilted her head back to see where he was. “Hi, Barnes.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing permanent.” She shooed his hands away when he came around to investigate.

But he pinned her with a hard look of his own and rolled her pant leg up to reveal a dark purple bruise. There was something about seeing her injured that prodded something deep in his memories. He pressed his lips together. “Careless, Natalia. We train in the morning. At eight.” He ignored Barton’s dark look.

 “You’re serious?” she asked.

“Milaya,” he called softly.

Nat studied his face, finally agreeing. “All right then. See you at eight.”

He pulled out his phone to see that JARVIS had already placed a note on his calendar. Thank you.

My pleasure, Barnes.

Chapter Text

What used to be open space on Darcy’s floor was now scattered with furniture and twenty or so boxes stacked in the area outside her lab. Bucky found her sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees in the middle of her bed that was a good fifteen feet away from the bank of windows on the far side. Her stillness bothered him. As much as he loved Steve, sometimes his boyfriend could be an idiot about people.

“Thank you, Darcy.”

Long lashes swept down, and she went from staring at the glass wall to focusing on him as he came to her side. “You’re welcome.”

“Are you okay?”

“It’s—it’s harder than I thought it would be. To know … to know.” She put her head down on her knees.

He eased down beside her, not knowing what to say that wouldn’t sound self-serving. So he settled for wrapping an arm around her. To his surprise, she unfolded enough to put her face in his shoulder. He brought his other hand up so that he could rock her, murmuring words he hoped she would hear. “Take it slow and easy. Gonna make this right for all of us. It’s gonna be okay, Princess.”

She sort of melted into him, letting him hold her. (Her hair danced on the back of his left hand.) He’d had her in his arms several times in these past two days and liked the way her curves felt against him (soft) and the way she smelled (sunshine).

He winced when he thought about his heavy-handed flirting of a few months ago. As gorgeous as Darcy was, she was adept at fending off unwanted advances. He hadn’t met anyone like her. He wasn’t sure if that was because he’d been cocky and stupid before or if she was that incredible. Probably both, leaning heavily toward the latter. But he’d crowded her, made her uncomfortable enough that she’d retreated from his touch unless it was something he needed in particular—a massage or to hold his hand. (And that one night. Fifteen minutes of pure fucking bliss.)

All that reserve seemed to have disappeared since her return. And he was careful now, taking his time in the same way he had with Steve all those years ago. Last night—yesterday--had been a miracle. There was something new between them that changed all the rules.

Then there was this morning. With her taste still on his mouth, he’d barely made it to the shower without embarrassing himself. And then Steve was there and Bucky wasn’t about to turn him away, not after weeks of keeping that part of their relationship under lock and key. His skin still hummed with need.

But a small part of him had worried about Darcy.

He marveled at her courage. She’d come back only to pull him out of the morass, to see Steve off on a mission, and still kept herself grounded. Between last night and this morning, she had to be careening between resolve and regret.

So he held her, stroking up and down her back the way he’d seen Steve do a hundred times.

It must have worked because Darcy pulled herself out of wherever she was and scooted over enough to sit cross-legged next to him. “You slept with Steve and the first thing you did afterward was to check on me?” she asked.

“Of course. Didn’t think it’d be easy on you,” he said. “You think I wasn’t jealous when Steve came back from the shower at your place whistling? That punk never whistles.”

Darcy snickered and pinked all at the same time. “That makes me feel better. It shouldn’t, but it does.”

He grinned and stretched out on her bed, leaning down on an elbow with his feet crossed. “Figured it would.”

“Is he asleep?”

“Dead to the world.”

“Post mission, post sex, yeah, we won’t see him until dinner,” Darcy quipped.

Bucky ran a hand up her back. She was still twitchy, but there was no doubt she was on her game again. “Good.” She looked at him askance and he smirked as he stroked along her spine, taking his time as his fingers dragged downward. “Means we have time,” he paused long enough to make her blush, “--to figure out where you’re going to live.”

She tried to hide her smile and ended up rolling her eyes at him. “Nice one, Barnes.”

He gave her a cheeky grin. “Where do you want to be?” He didn’t move his hand, wanting to keep his fingers where he could stroke her lower back. As he did, he felt her pulse slowing (through the sensors in his fingertips … that was a neat trick) and she leaned into his touch lightly enough that he wondered if she knew that she did.

“I think I’m going to stay here for a little while, Bucky,” she said softly. “Doesn’t mean I won’t crash with you guys sometimes, but I think you and Steve had the right idea yesterday. With the date. I had fun last night and I think we need to do it again. And you two need … more time.” Her pulse jumped at that and he tightened the pressure on her back.

“All right, Princess. We can do that. Care to explain?”

She wrinkled her nose. “You’re the nosy one.”

He blew out his breath in frustration. “How in the hell did you two make it this far? You keep everything in your head like a poker player counting cards and Steve can’t string two words together about how he feels. What’d you do, tip him into bed before he had a chance to protest?”

“Something like that,” she sighed as she spoke. “Talking is still hard for him. For a long time, he couldn’t even say your name.”

“Figures. Took me months to convince him I was gone on him in the first place. Think we were together a year before he started believing me when I told him I loved him.” He reached out and began playing with her hair, letting a lock spiral on his fingers and slide off again and again. “For someone who stands for everyone else, he sure does a lousy job of lookin’ out for himself.” Darcy seemed a little forlorn at that, so he reached for her hand to kiss the palm. “So… why do you want to live here?”

“Bucky, I’m living a floor below my mom and dad. My boyfriend and you, pick a title, are living above them. It’s weird, and when things get weird, I want something to call mine. I’m not moving in with the parents and I can’t move back to Malibu, so this is it.”

“What’s in Malibu?”

She put her chin on her knees again. “My home. Where I grew up. Mom and Dad were there when the Mandarin took it out with a missile strike last year.” She picked at her bedspread, pulling on stray threads.

“And then Steve and I took over your place.” He sat up and pulled her into his arms outright. There was so much about Darcy that he didn’t know. Like getting to hold her, he’d learned more in two days than he had in months. This time, he nudged her so that her head rested on his shoulder. (Warm. Soft. Protect Stark.) “Princess, we’ll get this place lookin’ like a home.”

“You’re okay with it?”

“Just means I get to court you properly, doll.”

“Courting? What do you consider a proper courting?”

“Supposed to show you I can take care of you, sweetheart. Good job, decent house, good husband and father material, all that.”

Darcy stilled. “That’s a lot of layers, Barnes.” She blinked. He wondered which one bothered her so much. “And some of it doesn’t really apply.”

“I know things are different, Princess, but I need to know I can stand on my own two feet. Seems I have a job now and I can make my rent. So I’m not dependent on you or Steve for that.”

Darcy frowned at him. “Surely someone has told you about the back pay and rank increases you’re entitled to as a P.O.W.. And since when is Dad charging you for living here?”

“Steve covered the back pay and we’re paying rent because we wouldn’t move in otherwise. Negotiated with your mom.” Bucky shrugged. “Probably a quarter of what it should go for in this part of town, and we split it like always.” He rubbed at his jaw. “Back pay is good. I’m glad it’s there for rent and whatnot. But I still need to know that I’m doin’ my part. If I want to buy my girl—or my punk of a boyfriend--a Christmas present, it’s gotta be from me.”

Darcy shook her head. “If word that Captain America pays rent ever gets out, the shit is going to hit the public fan. And it’s going to splatter all over Tony Stark.” There was no mistaking the warning; Darcy was as protective of her parents as they were of her.

“Got it covered. Nothing in writing and we have a corporation set up for the payments,” he assured her. “Your mom is a genius.”

“Yes, she is.”

Bucky brushed her hair so that it fell behind her shoulder. “Steve told me you don’t want to think about getting married yet. Said it’s not on the table. You know he wants kids, right?”

“He’s mentioned it. I’m not opposed, but I’m nowhere near ready for that and he knows that too.”

“That’s novel.”

“Shut up, Barnes. We do talk. Just takes us longer, okay? There’s a lot of unusual baggage on this trip.”

The image of a cargo plane loaded with odd shaped luggage popped in his head and he grinned. “That’s one way to put it.”

She reached out, grabbed a pillow and tried to smother him with it. He laughed as he shoved it aside. Honestly? He couldn’t ever remember having this much fun with a dame. Only Steve had ever made him laugh as much as he did with Darcy. He wanted to kiss her. To tumble her to the bed and show her all the ways he wanted to love her.

Instead, he arched a brow. “Now, what are we going to do about this place?” he asked. “Looks like the movers just dumped everything in the middle.”

“They did.”

 

*****

 

They spent the better part of the day unpacking her boxes and rearranging furniture. Having company to do it was a lot more distracting. If Bucky hadn’t shown up, she probably would have called Jane and badgered her into helping.

She took a black negligee out of his hands and stuffed it into a drawer. “I called you nosy, earlier. I had no idea. Nothing is sacred around you.”

He held up the ivory chemise that Steve had given her for her birthday. “It’s pretty enough.”

“It looks fabulous on me.” She grinned. “Ask Steve about his first trip to the lingerie store.”

Bucky chuckled. “Store full of ladies undergarments? Bet he was red from head to toe.”

“He complains on occasion about his Irish complexion,” she said primly, echoing JARVIS’ voice.

He folded the garment neatly and laid it in her dresser drawer. Barnes had picked through every box he’d unpacked for her, not just setting items in place, but sorting through each one—usually with a compliment or a complaint. Honestly? It was the most fun she’d had in months, which pointed out yet another reason she and Steve had been at odds. Quite simply, they hadn’t had a date in forever. Fun hadn’t been in their vocabulary since somewhere around March and the level of stress had taken its toll.

“Princess?”

He caught her staring into an empty box. “Sorry, woolgathering.” She tossed the box in his direction and he collapsed it and dropped it on top of the other flattened pieces of cardboard. She detoured for the kitchen and picked out two water bottles out of the fridge. She brought them back and handed one to Barnes.

As if they had done it a thousand times, he cupped her cheek and touched his mouth to hers. “Thank you.” The hint of heat was enough to have her breathing unsteadily.  

“Why are you two so convinced this will work?” she asked, frustrated by the zing dancing through her lips.

“Why are you so convinced it won’t?” he asked. “What’s got you down, doll?”

Not wanting to explain, for one, she wasn’t sure what the new rules were, for two, Bucky didn’t need to feel guilty over being the cause of it. So she deflected. “Talking to you is easy. Why?”

Barnes leveled a smirk at her. “’Cause living with Steve is like pulling teeth. Gotta talk twice as much to get anything out of him.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered as she reached for another box, this one packed with shoes, which she didn’t have any place for yet. The little storage area in her lab held the smallest rack for a few clothes, not a full-blown wardrobe. She dumped the box along the wall of her lab in annoyance. She liked Bucky. She really did. Enough that she felt jittery and happy and horny around him all at the same time.  Jealousy didn’t have a place here … and yet here it was anyway, all green and glowing.

When she came back, Bucky was leaning against her dresser and sipping from the water bottle. “I don’t know if you understand how sick he was, Darcy. Asthma, which is about all he tells anyone, only scratches the surface. He was deaf in one ear. His joints ached all the time, he never ate enough ‘cause he was allergic to everything, and he caught every sniffle as it went around. Nothing but sheer will kept him upright most of the time. I was always one bad winter away from losing him. If his mom hadn’t been a nurse, he’d never have made it at all. After she died, I did what she did, stuffing soup and tea down his gullet. Kept him warm sleeping next to him. He hated to say anything about feeling bad. Hated feeling like a burden. He kept all that inside, all the time.”

The purity of the antique Brooklyn voice made her shiver. If she closed her eyes, she could see the old picture of Steve she carried with her. But she kept them focused on the soldier with his arms crossed and one ankle propped on the other as he recounted their past.

“Just before the war, Steve had the last bad bout I remember. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t keep anything down. Had pneumonia so bad the docs didn’t know what to do. I didn’t sleep for three weeks worrying about him dying in the night. He never complained. Never said anything about how bad he hurt. Just thanked me for what I did to help. Told me how much he loved me. Always told me that.” He studied his boots. “More he hurts, doll, the less he talks. Always been that way.”

His eyes shifted to pin hers, paling as they did. “I think you’ll understand what it means that Steve hardly spoke for a week when you left.”

Darcy got that this wasn’t the Winter Soldier talking. This was a glimpse of a harder Bucky Barnes. Not the Brooklyn flirt, but the Sergeant protecting what was his.

Crossing her arms, she flashed him an equally hard smile (Darcy Stark, don’t fuck with me). “I was planning a life with Steve--the kind that included picket fences and kids. And the minute he laid eyes on you again, it was like everything we’d built together was second best.” She bit her lip and turned away. That was more than she’d ever planned to tell him.

“That’s where you’ve got it all wrong, Darcy.” She didn’t hear him cross the room, but Bucky touched her arm to get her to look at him. She did, and there was real anger there. “Do you not see what Steve has written on him? Are you not listening when he is telling us not to make him choose? He needs us, Darcy. You’re not the only who doesn’t want to give up what you have and he’s fighting to keep you the only way he knows how. You think there was any way in hell he would have fucked me without your blessing? You told us weeks ago to do just that and the first time he kissed me since you left was just two nights ago. Those are not the actions of a man interested in letting you go.”

She sucked her breath, listening and firmly stepping on the green-eyed monster.

“Hell, I need you. I want you. In bed and out of it. Fuck, doll, six months ago I was a trained puppet killing whatever target I was given. You didn’t question me that day. You knew me before I knew myself. And you trusted me.” Bucky reached for her, tugging lightly to get her to lean against his chest so he could put his chin against her head. “Yes, Steve’s been mine for a lot of years, but you don’t think I see what he sees? ‘Cause I do, Darcy. Last night… last night was the best time I’ve had since I lived in Brooklyn. I want you to stay. Give us a chance to show you this will work. Will you do that?”

Never one to stay mad for long in the face of reason, Darcy reached around Bucky to hug him. “I told Steve yesterday that I would.”

“Thank Christ,” he breathed in her hair as his arms tightened around her too. “I gotta ask though, Princess, do I have any chance at all with you?”

She wanted to give him a flippant quip to make light of his question as she eased out of his embrace, but her instincts told her that wasn’t going to work. “Yeah, Bucky, you have a chance.”

He didn’t let her go far. With a hand to her waist, he stopped her from moving away. “Is Steve the only reason you’re doing this, Princess? ‘Cause I have it on good advice that that isn’t gonna work. It has to be for you and me too.”

The question was a fair one, and one she could answer honestly.  “I like you, James. A lot. And I promise that I won’t sleep with you until it’s for you and you alone. Just … give me time.”

The charming smirk reappeared. “Take all the time you need, Princess.”

“Jerk.”

“You know it.”

 

*****

 

Steve was not expecting to wake up to an empty apartment. He cleaned up in the shower, grinned over the reason why he needed another one, debated where his …. boyfriend and girlfriend (still getting used to that) … might have ended up. JARVIS pointed him to Darcy’s place.

“I believe dinner is just arrived in the Commons kitchen for the three of you. Shall I send have it sent to her floor or would you rather take it down yourself?” JARVIS added.

“I’ll get it.” He took the stairs, hoping that Barton hadn’t noticed the addition of hot food yet. He hadn’t, and Steve managed to slip out unnoticed with three bags of Chinese. (There’s a bet he would have lost.)

He wanted to ask JARVIS what the pair of them had been doing all day, but it wouldn’t be right, especially now that JARVIS was keeping an eye on Bucky. He could ask about that, though, maybe.

“JARVIS, how did Bucky do while I was gone?”

“Quite well. Two minor incidents, one triggered by your departure and which Lewis was able to help him work through, the other was simply the end result of a long, successful day. I assisted him in preparing for bed and getting him to sleep. Lewis stayed with him, even after he regained himself after an hour or so.”

That was interesting. “Thank you, JARVIS. And please tell me when I an overstepping my boundaries.”

“Captain, Sergeant Barnes has insisted that I keep either you or Lewis informed of any incidents.”

As the elevator descended, he automatically fortified himself against the inevitable spat. The doors slid open. He winced at Darcy’s tone.

“What the hell, Barnes? No. What did I tell you about mid-century modern furniture? Not here, not now. Not ever. What looks kick ass and cool to you looks like a nineteen-fifties nightmare to me.”

It wasn’t the words that startled him. It was the fact that Darcy was sitting against Bucky on her bed while they stared at a tablet. Bucky had his chin on Darcy’s shoulder with one arm looped around her waist and was pointing to something on the screen.

“What about that one?”he asked.

“Okay, that’s better. Yeah, I can do that,” she said. “Look it even has the trim I like.”

Steve was sure he was seeing things. It looked like there had been a solid effort at setting up Darcy’s apartment in the wide open space outside her lab. Her furniture was arranged in groupings and a couple of new art screens made half-hearted attempts to separate this section from that. He navigated through it and set the bags of food on the table that occupied the middle of her space.

He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I guess you aren’t moving in with us.” He tried not to sound disappointed.

Bucky and Darcy exchanged looks. “Told ya,” she said. Bucky leaned to the side and pulled out a dollar out of his pocket. She held up her hand over her shoulder and he slipped it between her fingers. She set the tablet down. “Yay, you brought the food. We’re starving but we didn’t want to eat without you.”

With a little nudge from Bucky, Darcy slid off the bed and Bucky followed with a hand grazing her lower back.

His artist’s eye appreciated the simple lines of the t-shirts and jeans they wore. Darcy’s jeans had an interesting hole here and there, with bright pink socks to match the writing on her shirt. Bucky had donned a dark blue t-shirt and matching jeans, a stark contrast to Darcy’s light. The look Bucky shot at him over her head was full of heat and want (damn).

With all that in his head, it wasn’t hard to meet Darcy’s mouth and want more. He swiped his tongue inside and she pressed into him (her flavor and the memory of Bucky). It was heady and hungry. She clung just a little, and he squeezed her around the waist, staying in the kiss, until she was ready to let go.

The blush on her cheeks and quick look at Bucky told him that maybe she wasn’t as comfortable with this morning’s activities as she said. But none of that explained the easy camaraderie between the two. “What did I miss?” he asked.

Bucky gave her one of those ‘don’t be stupid’ looks he was always shooting at Steve as he pulled out her chair.

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, Barnes, but I’m hungry. And I know you are because I’ve been listening to your stomach rumble for the last hour.”

The three of them dug through bags, putting out all the various boxes. They each cornered a box of steamed Jasmine rice and spent the rest of dinner trading around the meats and vegetables.

Steve eyed both of them, trying to figure out this new dynamic. “Was the date that good?”

“Do you count the fact that he stole my cheesecake out from under me? Then no. It sucked on that point alone,” Darcy quipped.

Bucky reached into her box of pecan chicken and plucked a piece out with his chopsticks. “You were distracted. Not my fault.”

“Yeah, well, not gonna happen again.” She came up with the spring roll Bucky had commandeered and bit into it to claim it as hers.

“What were you two looking at when I came in?” he asked, trying to navigate the conversation around to where he might get some answers.

“Something to put my hanging stuff in. No closets, you know,” Darcy answered. “And why didn’t you mention your boyfriend is a clothing fiend. I did not need a running commentary on everything I own.”

“Do you really need thirty different knit caps, Princess?”

“I like them. I don’t have to spend twenty minutes on my hair.” Darcy chased Bucky away from her orange shrimp with a snap of her chopsticks and scooted the box closer to Steve. “Guard that.”

Steve tucked it under his wrist as Bucky innocently picked out another flavor from the pile of boxes. “Get rid of the yellow ones then,” he said.

“Nuh huh. Not my fault. You do know my dad is Iron Man, right? Red and gold are kind of his signature theme?”

“Still not your color.”

She glared at him. “You are not getting rid of my yellow coat.”

“The blue one is prettier. Brings out your eyes.”

“Says the man whose eyes can’t decide which hue is up.”

“Why Darcy, I didn’t know you’d been paying attention. I’m flattered.” Bucky winked as he reached under Steve’s wrist and plucked a piece of shrimp from Darcy’s box.

“Damn it, Barnes, that’s going to cost you!”

“Want another dollar?”

Steve rested his chin on his fist, wondering when his personal life had become a comedy routine. “Nick and Nora have nothing on you two.”

The corner of Bucky’s mouth lifted. “Yeah? We can work on that. Just like a couple of people I know and love need to work on a few things.” Steve was certain Bucky toed Darcy under the table.

“When did you become a counselor?” Darcy muttered.

“Believe it or not, I’ve been listening to Wilson daily for months. Deprogramming wasn’t the only stuff on the menu.” Bucky leaned back a little, and Darcy reached out to take his hand and pull him back in.

Whether the automatic gesture was for him or for her, Steve wasn’t sure. But fortified with the support, and with that quiet tone that told him she was serious, she told him, “I’m going to stay here on my floor for a while. I’m on board with being in the Tower. To put it bluntly, we’re safe here.”

She sighed in annoyance. “I’m not under any illusion that HYDRA isn’t still interested in the ‘kidnap Darcy/trap Cap’ scenario, with the distinct added bonus that they might be trying to reel the Winter Soldier in too.” She took another bite of shrimp, chewed it, swallowed it and kept going. “So this is me not arguing even though it really, really sucks.”

“Tell him the rest, Princess.” Bucky patted her hand and let go. He rose from the table, kissed her on the temple and disappeared. Since he headed for the lab, the bathroom was a safe bet, giving Steve a few minutes with Darcy.

She stared at her box then set it down. “Come on. Let’s go look out the window while I figure out what I want to say.”

That didn’t sound like the sort of conversation he wanted to have. But he followed her so they could see the New York skyline. The sun had already set, leaving the city sparkling in a million lights.

Shrugging her shoulders in a way that told him how much tension had built up there, he set his hands to her neck to work some of it out. She leaned into him.

“This morning was a lot harder than I expected,” she admitted. “Bucky is better. A lot better. He’s beginning to trust himself again. Being with you did him a world of good today, and I can see you’re happy about it too. God, Steve, the looks you give him make me hot and I’m only in the crossfire.”

She reached up and took his hands as she turned to face him, weaving her fingers into his. “This … us … what you and I have, has changed. It changed the moment you learned about Bucky and we’ve been fighting a losing battle to save it.”

He sucked in his breath at her words. “Darce—“

Shaking her head, she plowed on. “You’ve already apologized and I’ve told you where I stand now.” Her eyes flicked to where Bucky was cleaning up dinner and came back to him. “And it’s possible that what is on the other side of this is going to be as good or even better. I told you that I’m willing to try. I am. I will.”

A slow tear ran down her cheek. “But what we had—really, really worked. I fell hard for you, Steven. I love you. I love everything about you. Even the parts of you that are a pain in the ass.”

His heart ached at the agony in her voice. Still, she had more to say as he rubbed the water from her skin. “I had a vision of our future, a dream of where we were going. And it was a really nice dream.” She trembled. “It hurts to give it up.”

Steve was aware of Bucky turning out the lights in the lab and leaving through the elevator. He was grateful and pulled Darcy into his arms. She cried, heartbreaking sobs that he’d never seen.

He got it. On a pretty day in New York, he’d had to let go of all those old dreams to embrace a new possibility. On a dark day in DC, he’d taken her dreams apart without a second thought. Had expected her to go with him on a new journey. Hadn’t asked until yesterday. Because he was terrified she wouldn’t come along, that she wouldn’t give the three of them the chance. He hadn’t really believed it, wouldn’t let himself think on it. Had her name written on his skin as a protection against it. His instincts couldn’t be that wrong. Not now.

But for Darcy—she was shaking so hard with grief that he slipped a hand under her knees and carried her to the bed.

The moment he sat down holding her, she came up to kiss him. Hard and needy, she pulled at his shirts until he was able to shake them off, one sleeve at a time. Her mouth was hot and everywhere.

“Darcy—“

Her eyes widened, with a touch of fear. But he only softened his voice and his hands ghosted along her arms. “Let me love you the way you should be loved.”

“Steve—“

“No arguments, love. Not tonight. Tomorrow, we’re going to wake up and it’s going to be a new beginning. Tonight is for you and me and everything we’ve built together. Let me give you that.”

More tears fell and he raised himself enough to lay her back against the pillows. Just as that first day, he was still stunned by her beauty. More so now, because he understood all the bits and pieces of Darcy Stark that inhabited that loveliness.

He took his time kissing her, to chase away the tears until she moaned into his mouth. The taste of her scrambled his brains a little, a sizzling heat of sunshine as he licked along her lips, sucked on the bottom one with a nip that made her breath catch. He had one hand on her neck so that he could change the angle as he worked over her mouth. He knew all her secrets here, what made her pant, what made her giggle. When she exhaled all at once and her hips bucked up against his, he moved to her neck, kissing that point where her pulse was stuttering.

One of her hands dug into his shoulder, the other into his hair as he sucked hard enough to leave his mark. She arched under his body, bringing a leg around to cup his hip. In spite of the denim of her jeans and the cotton of his slacks, he could feel her heat where they were notched together.

It was natural enough to roll to his back so that she straddled him. From here, he could peel off her t-shirt. He loved the way her breasts popped out of the fabric with a little bounce. He knew now that Darcy was sometimes self-conscious of the size of them, and occasionally talked about surgery. But he loved the way she looked, and she loved the things he could do to them. So far, he’d been able to convince her of the benefits of keeping them as is.

He worked on that now, molding his hands around their weight, thumbing her nipples through the fabric of her bra. She was just beginning to press her hips in a rhythm, when he reached around to snap open the bra with one hand.

“You never fail to impress me with that, Steve.” The faint smile, even in the dark, with only city lights through the windows to illuminate her, blew him away. “Three fasteners, not two, and you never miss.”

He held up his fingers, wiggling them. “I’m good at getting into things I want.”

“Fuck, Steve.”

“I’m working on that, doll.” His brain blipped at the familiarity of the exchange. But he chased that away as he tugged the material from Darcy’s breasts and tossed it somewhere on the floor.

Her nipples tightened into hard points and his fingers itched to touch. Leaning up on an elbow, he took one peak into his mouth, licking it at first, until she squirmed. Taking his time, he steadily increased the pressure, scraping his teeth a little, then sucking hard on the whole areola until a steady stream of words spilled out of her.

“Damn it, that feels good, Steve. Don’t stop, please. God I want you inside me. Hands, dick, I really don’t care.” Her fingers scrabbled over his bare chest, plucking at his nipples until he was cross-eyed from the rocking against his cock and the nubs of pleasure/pain as she bore down.

He kept up the pressure until Darcy got that hitch in her voice, and he let go, grinning as she insulted him. “You suck, Rogers. Captain America, my ass, leaving me hanging.” She slid off the bed and stripped out of her jeans and underwear. “Get naked, or I’m borrowing Barnes’ knife and getting those pants off for you.”

His vision hazed over that—whether it was the thought of Darcy wielding a knife on his clothes, or Bucky or both, he wasn’t sure. But he rolled to his feet and let the slacks fall to the floor.

She reached for his cock, but he turned her so that she faced the bed. With her lip between her teeth, she went to her knees on the mattress, resting her palms on her thighs, making room for him behind her.

This was one of his favorite ways to hold her. There wasn’t any place he couldn’t reach, and he started with sliding his hand down to her folds where he found her slick and her clit was already peeking out, wanting some of that attention. He gave it a flick and a circle then drew his fingers along each side before setting up a steady tapping just on the underside.

Darcy reached over her head, trying to pull at him. But he waited until his hand was soaked from her coming apart. He loved holding her as she came again and again. Learning how to bring her to a peak, nudging her over the edge, then pressing hard against her clit just long enough for him to be able to do it all again. Then there was moment where her whole body just opened up to his touch, as if she couldn’t control it any more from the onslaught of sensation. That’s when he nestled his cock into her folds and leaned forward enough to start the slow slide in. He didn’t thrust, just held her as her own body reeled him in with pulses and pulls—she fell forward to her hands as he played with her clit, plucking it now. She keened under her breath, chanting his name.

And he stroked, long and slow, until she demanded that he speed up. He did, a little, not enough, until she was swearing at him again. “Fuck me, Steven. Goddammit. I’m there. I’m right there.”

“Not yet,” he told her. “Not until you know how much I love you.” He pulled her body hard against his, supporting her with an arm and keeping them balanced on the bed.

He kept the strokes steady until Darcy choked out, “I know. I love you. This is us. Here and now.”

He pressed hard and deep, feeling the impossible tension in his cock and the tightness in his balls as the muscles in her vagina rippled around him. “Always, Darcy.”

She screamed his name as they came together. Her body demanding and drawing out every last ounce of him, until there wasn’t anything left for him to give to her.

Unwilling to let go, he shifted down to the bed so that she was spooned against his body. He pulled the covers over both of them. “I love you, Darcy. That will never change.”

Reaching back over her head, she ran her fingers through his hair, something that never failed to warm him inside. “I love you, Steven Grant Rogers. And you damned well better have a plan by the time I wake up in the morning.”

“I will. Now shut up and go to sleep so it will get here faster.”

“Steven?”

“Yes, doll?”

“Thank you. For asking. For giving me the chance to say, ‘No.’”

He closed his eyes, to get his composure once again. “Thank you for trusting me enough to say, ‘Yes.’”

“You’re welcome. “

She slept long before he did, but unlike most nights, she didn’t move away to sleep on her pillows. She turned over to face him, her face nuzzling his chest. She didn’t see or hear Bucky come home. Steve did.

And when Bucky settled on the couch in the lab, Steve closed his eyes, dreaming about tomorrow.

Chapter Text

As morning sun streamed through the bank of glass, Darcy decided some kind of window covering was in order if she was going to live here. She left Steve passed out on the bed (twice in a row, that was rare enough) and shuffled into her lab toward the bathroom. Which was dark, thanks to tinted glass. Bucky had sprawled out face down on the sofa, with a couple of blankets dumped on top of him. Tangled locks covered his face, and one arm was dangling off the edge so that his hand touched the floor.

She left him alone while she took five minutes in the bathroom. When she came out, survival instinct had her pushing the button on the coffee maker.

Mornin’, J. What time did Barnes come in?

Good morning, Lewis. Two-fifteen. He and Barton played billiards most of the evening.

How was he?

He did well. No incidents, and he beat Barton two games to one.  Lewis, it is time for me to wake him for his morning training with Ms. Romanov, unless you would care to do so yourself.

Is this part of his new job?

Personal, I think, but we shall see how it turns out.

I’ll wake him.

Through the lab windows, she could see Steve stretching and looking around for her. He blinked when he saw her. She waved and pointed down at the sofa.

Remembering her promise, Darcy dug out all those maddening feelings for Bucky that she’d been ignoring for a while now. She rounded the sofa and knelt near his head, trying to decide the best way to wake him. She wanted to play with his hair or run her fingers in the scruff of his beard.

From the doorway, Steve quietly reminded her, “Stroke his forearm, Darcy, since you’re not already holding his hand. He’s hard asleep and anything else might wake him up combat-ready.”

She’d forgotten. Steve did such a great job of separating his military world from their relationship that she forgot (not really, but some) that he was an operative just as much as Clint or Natasha. And as silly as it seemed, she’d forgotten that Bucky was still the Winter Soldier. Red star on his arm and all. With a glance at Steve, who was leaning on the wall with his hair sticking up every which way (adorable), she skimmed her fingers along the forearm that was dangling off the couch.

Barnes peeled one eye open.

“JARVIS tells me you have an appointment this morning. Something about training Natasha?”

He pushed so that he sat up and ran his hand through his hair (both men, same habit, usually a nervous tell). “Coffee?”

“Man after my heart. But no, not yet. It’s in progress.”

He squinted, focusing on her. “Are you okay?”

Fingers shaking a little to betray her nerves, she did want she wanted to do earlier, reaching out to touch the hair at his temple then ran the back of her hand over his stubble. “I will be,” she promised.

As he covered her hand with his, Bucky looked over to Steve. “How in the hell did you find her, love?”

“Did I mention I’ve having that bike bronzed?”

“Good call.”

Darcy sat back on her heels as Steve came around to sit next to Bucky, giving him a kiss on the other temple and ruffling his hair.

“That’s the third or fourth time one of you has made a reference to ‘finding’ me.”

The two men exchanged a look. “Can we take you to out tonight and explain?” asked Steve.

“I’d like that.”

Bucky flashed her a quick grin. “That's a second date in my book.”

“Don’t count on sleeping with me on the third one, James. I don’t care what the current social expectation is.”

Obviously missing the context (she would explain later), his mouth dropped open and he turned to Steve. “You did not get her in bed on the third date.”

“Not exactly, but close,” Steve admitted as he reached for Darcy’s wrist to kiss the inside of it. “Not if the first counts as a date or just a coffee, or if last one counts since we closed the deal.”

“Four?”

Darcy mused, “Five. Not counting the coffee and bike ride when we met, let’s see,” She held up her fingers one at a time. “A walk in Central Park where you sketched me, a bad zombie movie that, in retrospect, Bucky would have adored, Coney Island, a day in my lab where you played with my robots, then yep, your place for spaghetti. Didn’t you have to introduce me as your girlfriend somewhere in there?”

“Five, if we’re not counting coffee,” Steve agreed. With a smirk.

“You took her to Coney Island?” Bucky asked, tilting his head up at Steve.

“Yeah, and I didn’t throw up like I did with a jerk I know. That was a novelty.” Steve checked the time on his cell phone. “You’ve got twenty minutes now to get kitted up for whatever you’re thinking this morning.” He retreated to the kitchen to pour coffee.

“Shit.” Bucky scrambled off the couch. “Don’t need much but coffee, and I’m gonna borrow one of your practice shirts for knife work.”

“Kevlar?”

“For today.”

“I keep it in the locker.”

Bucky hesitated and looked between them. “Will you come?”

 

****

 

Bucky dug out his tactical pants and his combat boots from their apartment where he’d stashed them in a closet. He had a bad moment as he slid them on but JARVIS talked him through it quickly enough. He debated how many weapons he wanted to carry and decided on the single blade.

Steve met him in the locker room with coffee in hand and handed it over.

“Darcy?”

“Observation deck.”

“You?”

“Where do you want me?”

“Close.” He sipped the coffee, handingit back to pull the shirt over his head. He struggled with the fit over his arm.

“Trade me.” Steve passed back the coffee and came around to his left side to reset the shirt higher up on his bicep. He hesitated over the star. “Covered or uncovered.”

“Uncovered.” He wanted Natalia on the defensive. He finished off the coffee and set it on the bench.

Steve clutched his shoulders to give him a searching look. “I need you to stay with me, Bucky.”

“Stay close.” Perception changed fully from experiencing to assessing as he drew on his gloves (Asset).

*ping* Barnes, you are safe.

He led the way to the practice mats. Steve broke formation to lean against the nearest wall, his shield propped up next to him.

Natalia approached from the opposite side. “Barnes.”

“Milaya.” He noted that she wore her full combat gear. Good. She would regret it soon. “Lock doors,” he ordered Steve. “Live weapons.” Steve did that, returning to his place.

He approached the mat and knelt on one knee. “Disable me. Stop me from using my weapon. One touch from me, you lose. Disable me for more than two seconds, you win.” His breathing even out and he focused on his target. “Begin.”

 

*****

 

Thor and Tony flanked Darcy on the observation deck. JARVIS assured her privately that Barnes was still in control, but there wasn’t a single person watching or participating who wasn’t grateful that Steve and Clint were inside the room.

Natasha didn’t hesitate. She pulled out her pistols and fired at the soldier, who dodged the rubber bullets with an agility and a closure rate that was chilling. He caught both of her wrists and flung the pistols away. “You’ve lost the use of them.”

He stepped back, went to a knee. “Begin.”

This time, she flung some kind of beaded string at him and took a flying leap. Bucky dodged the string and caught her foot so that she had to turn that into a defensive roll and a kick at his shoulder. But she came up standing to fire something from her wrists. More rubber bullets bounced off the walls as Bucky rolled under them and drew his knife.

Darcy had seen the street footage of the knife fight between … Cap and the Winter Soldier (it wasn’t Steve and Bucky then), and the speed of that battle was terrifying.

This was no different. Nat fought with hands and feet to keep away from his knife. Then, the knife came down in an arc that Darcy hardly registered. Impossibly, Bucky turned it to bring the flat of it down on Nat’s knee with a sharp slap. “You lose.”

She stood up and, by her posture alone, Darcy knew she was furious.

Bucky walked to Clint and passed him the knife, hilt first. He came back to the mat, gesturing in pure Russian disgust. “Pah!” he scoffed, holding his arm up and flicking his hand forward. “Get rid of the toys, Natalia. You must work on your form. You are sloppy and lazy and there is no tolerance for that in here.”

“Holy shit,” Darcy said softly.

“I think I’ll reinforce the Tower. Yeah, that, um.” Tony was rattled. No one told off Nat and lived. Thor only chuckled.

Nat stripped off every weapon she carried, dropping them with thunks and tinks on the floor. It took a while. Wearing only her jumpsuit now, she took a stance at the end of the mat. “Is this how it’s going to be, Uchitel?”

“Of course. Show me what you can do. Precision, Milaya. Not excuses. Start with your feet.”

He counted in Russian. Darcy figured out that he was calling out specific kicks at various heights and approaches. Time and again, he caught Nat’s foot, stopping the momentum.

“Nyet.” Barnes pulled her ankle into a different position, rotating it a degree or two. “See? This you missed. And it causes you to be bruised. Again.”

Tony sucked in his breath. “Ballet.”

“Huh?” Darcy asked rather intelligently.

“The Red Room required the girls to learn ballet. Dancers are taught this kind of control. Every movement is exact. The turn of a hand. A chin. The feet. It’s all extraordinarily precise. Natasha asked me to build her a dance studio.”

“This is how she trained?”

“Russian ballerinas have been the world standard since the beginning of the dance. Someone must have looked at those dancers and decided to make them weapons.” Tony swore under his breath. “Nothing is sacred.”

“You think she can dance?”

“Seeing this? I think she could take the stage tomorrow and own it.”

“Why do you think Barnes is correcting her so much?”

Thor answered that one. “Because a warrior must train always. There is never a time when one can choose not to learn, to improve. Natasha has not had anyone in many years to train in her particular style. This is good.” He looked down at Tony. “Is there a place for this ballet, that I might see for myself?”

Darcy grinned, answering for her dad. “Take Jane, she’ll love you for it. You’ll get major points in the boyfriend/courting department. Just don’t tell her you want to see the ballet to incorporate into your fighting. That would spoil it for her. And don’t laugh at the costumes because they are tradition.”

Thor’s grateful smile melted her a little. “I appreciate the advice.” (Yeah, she still had a little demigod crush. Just because.)

By the time Bucky called the end of the session, Nat was absolutely dripping with sweat. “I hate you,” she told him.

There was no expression in Bucky’s face. “I know, Milaya. You tell me that every time.”

She tilted her head. “I’m not nineteen anymore, James Barnes.”

“No. But you will have the skills to keep you safe, Natasha Romanoff. This I can do. You have two days to improve. We meet again on Monday.”

He quit the room. Nat watched him leave, impassive as always.

 

*****

 

He made it to the locker room before the memories and the headache slammed into him. He’d kept everything on lockdown while he was with Natalia, but here … here, he stumbled to the toilet to vomit.

Somebody pulled his hair out of the way while he retched so hard that his head sparked with lights and his eyes were damp.

Barnes, you’re safe. Steve is holding you. From your vital signs, it appears that you are in severe pain. There is an injection available that can stop it. It will make you sleepy.

(Asset. Rule one.) No.

Steve wants to take you into the hot shower. Go to the shower with him, Barnes.

(Asset. Rule Two. Assets do not have feelings.) No. I don’t want to do this. Leave her alone.

Barnes, you’re safe. Steve is holding you.

His vision was white as he pushed away from the toilet and staggered to his feet. He felt hands on him. Steve. He clutched/pushed away/tried to walk and fell to his knees. Then there was nothing.

 

*****

 

Darcy was only two steps ahead of Bruce and Sam, who JARVIS had called in as the medical team. Bucky was out cold on the locker room floor. Steve had his head in his lap and was trying to give him a one-handed massage on his neck.  

“His symptoms appear to indicate a severe headache, much worse that what we have encountered so far,” JARVIS told them, “but I am not equipped with the proper medical equipment to determine if there is another cause.”

Sam did the initial assessment, agreeing with JARVIS, but Bruce was the one who made the judgment call. “This one is too severe for the methods you’ve been using. He needs help to alleviate the pain.”

JARVIS reminded them, “Barnes has directed that only the two of you, Lewis, Captain, may override his wishes. You must be in agreement.”

Darcy and Steve exchanged looks, and both of them nodded in unison. “We’ll deal with the fallout,” she said. Sam frowned, not liking their answer. But he didn’t try to stop them either.

“What do you have that the serum won’t counteract?” Steve asked.

Bruce answered, “Nothing that will last very long. Just enough to give him temporary relief while his body heals. Couple of hours, tops, unless we give him more. Same thing the hospital gave you in DC, as a matter of fact. They called me, wondering what might work.”

Sam reached in his kit. “When you told me what you were putting in my bag, Banner, I didn’t think we’d need it before we left the tower.” He prepped the needle and slid it into the vein on Bucky’s arm. “Where do you want to take him?”

“Home?” Steve asked. “I think he’ll do better if he wakes up there.”

It was a little unnerving to see how easily Thor lifted Bucky over his shoulder. But it was the quickest way to get him up the elevator and into bed, where Steve and Darcy took over the project of working him out of his clothes and under the electric blanket.

Sam checked with JARVIS, and they agreed the Bucky was responding to the medication. His vitals had improved enough that Sam felt comfortable going back to his own apartment for a while. But he was close, and promised to check in soon.

Bucky wasn’t Darcy’s only concern. She texted Clint.

Nat okay?

Pretty sure we’re out of vodka.

I can raid Tony’s bar.

That is from Tony’s bar.

What do you need?

Time. Give her time. Barnes?

Still out cold.

Keep me posted.

 

*****

 

He couldn’t concentrate. There was the lassitude he hated. (Drugged.) He tried to move, to get away from it, found himself restrained (chair, pain, rule one) and collapsed back into the … body/bed. (Not chair.)

“Bucky, you’re safe. You’re home.”

(Steve) Arms in a vice grip around his middle and left wrist. He strained against them.

Sergeant Barnes, please relax. Steve is holding you. You’re safe.

“No!” he got out. Tried to pull against the bonds again.

A chuckle in his ear that was so incongruous with his state of mind that he stilled.

“There’s my Bucky. Telling everyone to fuck off. No wonder they promoted you to Sergeant.”

The miasma in his brain made it hard to focus. He tried to pull out of Steve’s embrace again.

“No, love, not until I know you won’t hurt yourself. You scared the hell out of all of us down there. Turned sheet white, threw up, and damned near did a face plant on the bathroom floor.”

“Wha’ y’ gi’ me?” he slurred.

“Just a pain reliever. Same one I’ve had before. It’ll wear off in the next hour, and your head won’t feel fuzzy.

“Don’ wan’ it.”

“I know. Want to get in the bathtub? Heat will chase off the last of your headache.”

He squinted. “How?”

“Do I know that you have a headache?” Steve freed a hand and drew a forefinger between Bucky’s eyebrows. “Can’t miss the lines there. Want the bath?”

“Yessss.” A shift in the weight on the mattress and Darcy left the room. He didn’t know she was there. (Asset. Failure to assess.) “Didn’t mean … scare you.”

“How’s your head?” Fingers tugged his hair, stroking (Steve).

Tried to answer. (Rule one) “No.” Tried again. “Hurts. Less. Don’t want … hard to think.” (Asset)

“That’s the medicine. Want to sit up?”

Frowned when he couldn’t get the answer out.

“You’re safe, love. Stay with me. Breathe with me.”

Breathing gave him something that he could do. (Experiencing) He leaned his head back on Steve’s shoulder, concentrating on the in and out and nothing more. (Not Asset.  Bucky.) As he did, his head cleared somewhat. “Sit. Wanna sit.”

“Sure thing. I’m really hoping to not have to carry you in the bathroom.”

Bucky blinked at that. “How?” he asked again. A big, warm hand stayed on his back as he managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed.

“How did you get here? Thor slung you over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes. We were debating if that would make your head worse or not, but he had you upstairs and in bed as fast as JARVIS could get the elevator upstairs. So no harm done.”

Darcy popped through the bathroom doorway. “Could have been much worse. Steve could have bridal carried you all the way home. Now that would have been embarrassing. Especially because I would have taken pictures. Water’s hot if you want it.”

He found her comment funny, but couldn’t do anything but try to smile. That didn’t work so well.

Steve moved off the bed to pull him to his feet, sliding an arm under his shoulders to take his weight. (Breathe out. Asset.) His eyes cleared and he was able to walk under his own power. Taking heed of the toothbrush and glass of cool water on the counter, he used the first and drained the second.

Quick assessment determined he was uninjured, wearing boxers and nothing else. He flexed his arm, methodically checking the sensors. Finding all was in working order, he dropped his underwear and climbed into the bubbling tub.

Surrounded by hot water, with a jet of compressed air aimed at his shoulder and neck, he relaxed against the slanted side. Steve was right, his head cleared that much more. Enough for him to remember what caused the headache.

“Natal—Natasha?”

“She’s okay. Shaken by the memories, same as you. But she’s had a few more years to deal with them. She’s worried about you.”

“I’m okay, punk.”

Darcy snorted as she walked in. “Bullshit.”

She stood on one foot, then the other to strip off her socks, leaving her only in denim shorts and one of the ragged t-shirts she seemed to borrow from her dad’s closet. Vintage, she called it. She stepped over the side of the tub, over him, and sat on the opposite edge, swirling her feet around in the bubbles and hot water.

“Make yourself comfortable,” he said drily. Her toes kept bumping against his thigh. He wondered if she realized he was naked under the bubbles. It seemed natural enough to stroke the back of her calf, so he did. She didn’t pull away.

“Thank you, I will. How’s the head?”

“Better.” A toe bumped his thigh again, making his pulse dance. Steve sat on the other side of the tub, across from Bucky, to lean against the wall and kick off his boots. The intimacy of the setting was as disconcerting as much as it was comforting. He couldn’t ever remember this sort of thing with a dame. For that matter, he couldn’t remember doing this with Steve either.

“Want to talk about it?” she asked.

“No.”

“Want to try another answer?”

He scowled at her, then at Steve.

Who shrugged and gave him that under-the-lashes look of innocence. “You’re the one bugging everyone to talk, Bucky.”

But he didn’t want to talk, to sully this thing they were doing with memories of a time and place that was already gone. Instead, he turned up his hand, hoping Steve would take it. Which he did. After that, it was far too easy to lean forward and drag Steve into the tub backward, where he landed in the water with a splash, feet still hanging out of the tub.

“Son of a—“

Darcy let out a shriek of laughter until Bucky reached out and scooped her into the tub too. She landed in his lap facing him, still laughing as she held on to his chest to twist around and look at Steve.

Steve was still under the bubbles with his feet hanging out. He rolled over, going to his knees as water streamed down his face. “Fucking jerk.”

“Tsk Tsk, Captain America using such language,” he admonished. He loved this. The laughter.

Steve leaned over Darcy’s shoulder and kissed him hard on the mouth, only lingering a little with a swipe of the tongue. “Is it any wonder with the people I hang out with? Only person I know with a filthier mouth than you, Bucky, is this sweet little dame sitting on your lap. ”

Darcy’s mouth was just a little open. Her hands flexed as Steve kissed him, her right fingers grazing Bucky's nipple, the left his collar bone. He could have kissed her then and there. Steve’s eyes darkened with hunger just seeing them together.

But he didn’t it want this way. Not with those memories still fresh in his brain. Right now, he wanted her warm, clean presence, here with Steve.

She seemed to get it. She sat back on her knees, sliding her hands closer together so they weren’t resting on anything too sensitive.

He smiled at her, at him. “Been a long time since I got to play. Have fun. Seem to do that a lot with both of you. Feels good.”

Darcy reached out and dribbled water right on his face. “I’ll remember that.”

He sputtered, but didn’t retaliate this time.  Just grinned at the pair of them.  As Darcy stood up, Steve handed her a towel from where he was sitting on the side of the tub.  Bucky damned near swallowed his tongue.  He did run a hand up to the back of her knee, capturing her attention.  Green-blue eyes met his, her red mouth in a wide smile.  Even though he’d been subjected to the gorgeousness of the pair for the past half year, he still wasn’t used to it.  Definitely not with Darcy’s shirt clinging to her breasts and her wet shorts cupping her ass, and Steve’s shirt clinging to every fuckin’ muscle he had. 

Steve chucked.  “Close your mouth, jerk.  You’ll draw flies.”

“Stop being so damned beautiful.  Both of you.” 

Darcy arched an eyebrow.  “Distracted?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait ‘til you see what I have for tonight.  She stepped out of the tub like a queen, with a hand resting in Steve’s.  She lifted a shoulder and gave him a wink over it.  “It’s vintage.  Just your style.”  She kissed Steve and wiggled fingers at Bucky.  “See you two later.  I’ve got work to do.  Just think of me dripping all the way home.”

The bathroom door closed, and Bucky let out the breath he’d been holding.  “She’s going to kill me before this is all over.” He leaned his head back against the tub. 

“Just now figuring it out?”

“You were stubborn, love.  She makes me feel like I’m not worthy to kiss her feet.” He flexed his hand, staring at the metal.

“I know the feeling.”

Bucky frowned at Steve.  “How in the hell did you manage to talk to her?  I know you. You are not that smooth, and she’s not one for idiots.”

“I was changing the oil on the bike in Stark’s garage.  She was staring at it, and maybe me, but mostly the bike.  I was staring at her while I wiped it down.  Finally managed to ask her if she wanted a ride.” 

“And she said?”

“’With or without you?’”

Bucky laughed.  “And?”

“I told her I had to insist on being there because she might not bring it back.  She told me that she did like shiny things and introduced herself.” 

“Not bad, Rogers.” 

“My one and only successful pickup line.” 

“Can’t argue with the results.  Pass me a towel?”

Bucky dried off with Steve looking on. Steve always did that, from the day they became lovers. As he began to work the towel between the joints of the metal, Steve asked, “Why did you stop with Darcy?”

“Stop?”

Steve grinned. “Don’t tell me you didn’t want to kiss her. I wanted you to kiss her.”

“Forgot you had a thing for watching,” he needled, quirking his lips as Steve reddened.

“I don’t. Just you. And Darcy. Darcy and you together,” Steve stuttered. “I’m making this worse, aren’t I?”

He snorted. “Can’t get any better, that’s for sure.”

“Buck—“

He stilled, halting the movement of the towel. “Can I get dressed and I’ll tell you over lunch?

It took effort, and a couple of chicken sandwiches had to be demolished before he was ready. Steve waited him out, his eyebrows raised and his feet crossed on the coffee table, as if he had all the time in the world.

“I won’t tell you much,” he warned. “I will say this. I know, intimately and in every terrible detail, how Natalia—Natasha—was trained. I know the part I played in it. I have to live with it even though I know how little choice either of us had. I did what I could and we paid the price. And yet, here we are. The only survivors.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Natalia is.” He turned his metal hand over and played with the sensors by stroking them with his other hand. “With all that in my head this morning, I don’t want to sully this thing with Darcy. I have to keep it separate. She’s clean.”

Steve leaned forward to rest his forearms on his knees. “I get what you are saying. Needing to keep her out of all that we are.  I don’t tell Darcy about the work I do. But with her connections, she knows enough and can guess at the rest. Love, she read the reports on you months ago, even before she hacked every database around the globe for information on your arm.”

“She knows?”

“She knew most of it before you found her in the tunnel.”

“She shouldn’t have trusted me then.”

Steve bristled--not too much, but Steve was protective of his girlfriend.  “Don’t sell her short,” he admonished.  “Darcy has seen things we haven’t. She’s been at ground zero for the Battle of New York, studied alien weapons we can’t comprehend, and was at ground zero again in London for the destruction of the universe. Thor can tell you. And maybe you should ask, because we aren’t the only ones having nightmares.”

“Darcy? She told me about New Mexico. Not the rest.”

“It’s impressive how she flies under the radar, yet she is touched by everything that has happened that is terrible and frightening. She’s the heir to one of the few companies capable of shepherding this world into a bigger presence in this galaxy that we live in. She can’t do that alone, Bucky.” Steve shook his head. “Let me backtrack. She can run the company just fine. What she needs is someone, or a couple of someones, who will back her up at home when things get hard.”

Bucky picked up a napkin to wipe a dot of mayonnaise from his thumb. “Thor isn’t from around here, is he? I kind of thought that was joke. A play on some of those old stories my folks used to tell us.”

Steve shook his head. “Thor is real, over a thousand years old and his dad, Odin, is the protector of the Nine Realms. As I understand it, Asgard, Thor’s home, protects the other eight Realms which have significantly less technology and ability than other parts of the galaxy. Asgardians considers it their duty to keep other alien races from raiding us while we develop at our own pace.”

Bucky shook his head, awed by the idea. The enormity of that was bigger than he’d been expecting out of the conversation. He bit his lip, thinking. “Do you … do you ever go to confession?”

Steve chuckled. “Am I from Brooklyn? Yes, when the Catholic guilt gets to me. You want to go to Mass? It’s not in Latin anymore, Buck.”

“I want a priest, somebody with high enough clearance.”

Leaning back against the sofa cushions, Steve nodded in understanding. “Actually, I do know someone. Old army chaplain. Served in Vietnam for a lot of years. Coulson personally cleared him for me a while back. If there is anyone who has a real perspective on war and whatever soul we might have, he’s a good one to talk to.”

“You ever go to church?”

“Sometimes. It’s hard to ignore the rhetoric and a lot of it makes me angry. But the Mass itself brings me peace and I’ve found a priest or two with an open mind. I think I spent enough time on my knees as a kid that it’s the only way I can stare at myself hard enough to figure out what I’m grateful for and what I need to change. So for that, yeah, I go on occasion. I still like Midnight Mass on Christmas.” Steve winced a little when he added, “Just don’t ask me what I believe, Bucky. When an ancient god is having dinner with you twice a week, and thinks of your girlfriend as his little sister, it makes you question a lot of things.”

Chapter Text

When Darcy called Pepper to ask about retrieving her bracelet for the night, Pepper shifted gears to change plans for the evening with all the finesse of a Formula 1 driver. Dinner with Tony could wait.

“Of course you can get it. I’m home. What’s the special occasion?”

“Steve and Bucky asked me out on a date.”

“Together?”

“Yes.”

Pepper smiled. Some might even describe it as shark-like. “Have them meet you here. I’ve got employment papers for James to sign, and I can see the three of you together, all cleaned up.”

“It’s not prom, Mom.”

“You never went to prom, so I’ll take what I can get. Besides, Tony is back from Malibu and he wants to see you.”

“Thanks for the topping of guilt, and maybe I should ask if Dad is actually speaking to either of them.”

“You’re welcome, and no, but we’ll change that. What time are you coming up?”

“Six-thirty-ish? Emphasis on the –ish?”

“Want a glass of wine waiting?”

“Did I mention I love you, Mom?”

“Frequently. I love you back. Call your dates.”

“Will do.”

With that settled, Pepper headed for the lab where Tony was tinkering with some sort of something that glowed and didn’t look very stable.  He sighed before she even opened her mouth. “Do I have to?”

“Yes.” She loved that he read her like an open book. So few did. Yet he let her bully and nudge him along in all the good ways.  “Do you always agree with Darcy’s choices?” she asked.

“Usually. Sometimes. Except for the whole political science thing. I still don’t understand why she didn’t end up sciencing with Foster.”

“Because she’s like her dad. She’s a mechanic at heart and nothing will change that.”

“Oh, that.” He dismissed the argument as he set down the glowing thing, turned it off, and fiddled with his wrench. Tony seemed to be at a loss for words, which never happened.

“Sweetie?”

“I don’t want this for her, Pepp. I’ve already put her back together once. I don’t think I can do it again.”

“You will if you have to.”

“Why them?”

“I don’t know, Tony. But you’ve seen the pair of them. They’re lost without her.”

He threw his wrench across the room. It bounced off a reinforced, shatterproof window. “I don’t like this. I dealt with Rogers. He’s practically family anyway and even though I kind of hated him, it all sort of made sense. And he’s good to Darcy even if he’s fucked up nine ways to Sunday.”

She bit back a smile. Only Tony had the audacity to call Captain America a mess.

He leaned on the workbench with both hands. “I can’t … Barnes. He’s touched every member of my family in some way and I—“

Pepper put her fingers to his lips. “It’s not about you, Tony.” She slid her arms around his waist. “If there is anything I’ve learned being with you is that there is so much more to this place we live in. I’ve learned not to believe in the impossible. Steven shouldn’t exist. Neither should James. Somehow, they have reconnected in this time and place.”

“Why isn’t that enough, Pepp? Why can’t they have each other and leave my baby out of it?”

“Haven’t you been listening when they’ve been here for dinner? Because they have dreams too. Dreams that don’t involve aliens and assassinations and saving the world.” Pepper took his face in her hands. “Darcy is going to helm Stark Industries one day. Doesn’t she deserve the love it is going to take to do that and still have a life?” She shook her head. “Steven is going to stand with her. There are so few people who will understand what she’ll be facing, and he’s going to give her everything he has. But he’ll always be torn between her and his duties and honor—just as Thor is. I think James might be the person to keep all those pieces together.  Think about his loyalties, Tony, and tell me I’m wrong.”

He picked up a whole line of little things on his workbench and set each one of them down again. “Can I still hate him a little?”

“Sure. It’s your prerogative. But for Darcy’s sake, give this a chance.”

“You talk a lot. And you make entirely too much sense when you do. Can you stop that? It’s annoying and it makes me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I think I need some soothing here. A lot of soothing.” Tony reached around to link his hands behind her. Was it any wonder she adored him?

 

 

That evening, Darcy came up the back stairs in a halter dress, carrying a pair of shoes and stockings as she dashed through the house. “Mind if I finish in your bathroom? I’m running late and don’t want the boys to think I’m avoiding them.”

Though she’d been expecting it, she still had to swallow her disbelief. Pepper smiled instead. “Of course not.”

“They’ll be here in ten.”

Pepper headed for the lab. “Tony, upstairs, now,” she hissed as she took whatever was in his hands and firmly set it on the bench.

He blinked twice at the tone in her voice. “Did I miss something of note?”

Pepper reached out, curled her hand behind his neck and said very sweetly. “No, but if you aren’t upstairs by the time JARVIS announces Steven and James, you will.”

“They aren’t popping the question. They’d better not. It can’t happen. Isn’t that still illegal?”

“That’s not what this is about, Tony.” For once, he didn’t argue.

Or he argued, but he followed anyway. “I promised to behave, wasn’t that enough? Do I have to actually speak to them?”

“Sir, Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are requesting permission to enter.”

“Go ahead, JARVIS,” Tony grumped. He took a seat at the broad island of the kitchen, sulking just a little. Pepper had a file folder waiting. He flipped it open, noting the employment papers for James Buchanan Barnes. “We’re hiring him?”

His voice might have cracked a little and Pepper wasn’t unsympathetic. “Yes.”

Tony hemmed and hawed, chewed on his lip. “Okay. But if he breaks the Tower, that’s on you.”

“Deal.”

Steven and James came to the kitchen at JARVIS’ direction. “Pepper, Tony,” they said in unison. They’d worn suits. James had on a trendy dark grey silk jacket and vest. Steve opted for tailored black, cut along classic lines that suited him well. Both had white shirts and had foregone the ties.

“You two clean up nicely,” she remarked, humming a little in appreciation under her breath.  Each of them kissed her on the cheek and shook Tony’s hand.

“We’ve been planning this for a while. Thought it would be nice to take Darcy out and do it right,” Steve said.

Tony aimed a stink-eye at Barnes. “How’s your new handler working out?”

He nodded politely. “Very well. Thank you, sir.”

Pepper loved that the two men treated Tony as a respected, potential father-in-law. She’d seen Steven and Tony go head to head over the war room table, but Steven drew a firm line between work and Darcy’s family. James was apparently following suit.

Steve laid a portfolio on the counter. Pepper raised her eyebrow at it (and concealed her smile. She knew what was coming). “You’re going to tell her?”

“We promised. We’ve slipped one too many times and now she’s curious.”

Tony frowned and pulled the portfolio to him. “About what?” He flipped the cover open. “Oh. Nice. Or it would be nice if I wasn’t looking at someone related to me in a very personal, next generational sort of way. This is horribly uncomfortable.” But Pepper noted that he didn’t close the book. Instead, he turned the page to take in the next drawing.

Pepper took the folder and slid it to James. There was no missing the sharp intelligence as he read through the contracts. When he reached the part about responsibilities, he put it down.

“No.”

His refusal made her smile. “Why not?”

“You can’t trust me.”

“Our daughter is far more precious than our company.”

She saw it, the change in his eyes from blue to grey as he assessed everything about her—words, posture, gestures. She stilled, wondering if he could sense her heartbeat. But she was sure of this. And he would know that too.

The moment stretched between them, before there was an understanding there. “You want this?”

“Is there anyone better suited? Anyone you would choose over you?”

“No.”

She nudged the pen in his direction. His eyes warmed to an ice blue as he picked it up and signed his name. James Buchanan Barnes.

“No one has such beautiful handwriting these days, James.”

“Good jobs then meant good handwriting. Wasn’t much else to do, ma’am, but practice.” He looked at the contracts again before closing the folder and sliding them back to Pepper.

With that settled, Pepper angled herself so that she could see both men and Darcy when she came out of the bedroom. Tony came to her side, drumming his fingers. Something was bothering him, unrelated to the two men. Something about one of the sketches because he’d been twitchy since seeing them. She reached for his knee under the countertop.

“Where are you going to dinner?” she asked.

Steven answered, “There’s a place we want to try for drinks on the Park Tower and then we might take in a picture after.”

Pepper smiled at his language. “Are you going to Milan’s?” At his nod, she added, “You’ll like it. By the way, Darcy said she only needs a minute to finish. I think she’s looking for her bracelet.”

Her words sparked a tension, an anticipation. Steven’s eyes shifted to the portfolio, to Pepper, to the doorway.  One hand came up to rest on James’ shoulder.

And then Darcy popped out of their bedroom in a black dress that curved around her bust, making the most of it in all the good ways. The hem flirted at mid-thigh and black netting peeked out from underneath.

“Steve. James. Wow. Yummy. Double yummy. Score for Darcy.” She flashed them a smile and twirled on patent black heels, showing off the low back that only skimmed her waistline and the seamed stockings. On her wrist was the art deco bracelet Tony had given her on her 21st birthday, a triple row of sapphires and diamonds on a single white gold band. “You like?”

Pepper kept her eyes on the two men and squeezed Tony’s hand to get his attention. He came up, noted Darcy’s arrival, and then figured out where Pepper’s attention was focused.

Steven’s hands were shaking, enough that James had to reach out to clutch the one on his shoulder. James wasn’t in much better shape as he fished for a stool to sit down.

Darcy’s expression changed from joy to concern. “What happened? Did I do something wrong?”

They both shook their heads. James fumbled for the portfolio, flipping it neatly to the first page. Darcy picked up the sketch, studying it before giving Steven a sharp look. “How? I found this dress in London and had it shipped here. And I’ve never worn my bracelet before today because it’s too expensive to wear without an armed guard. You two count.”

As with Pepper before, James told her, “Look at the date, Princess.”

She turned it over. Now her hands shook as she put it down. “This is the pin-up sketch you took to England?” she asked him.

“Yes. And I was there when Steve drew it.”

Confused, she asked, “But you were together. Had been together for a while. Why would that have any meaning to you?”

A sly smirk lifted his lips. “Told you, Princess, I was lookin’ for both of us. Should have known the punk would find you first.”

To Steve, Darcy asked, “From the beginning, you knew.”

He’d gained something of himself again, though his eyes never left Darcy, and his whitened fingers pressed hard into James’ shoulder. “I didn’t. I had your image in my head when I woke up, so you caught my attention in the Tower. When we talked, it all seemed right. You were the garage that day and I couldn’t think much ‘cause you were everything I’d been dreaming about. But it might have all been coincidence. I needed you, Darce, I needed to believe that this was ours. I still do.”

She reached out, skimmed her fingers to one side of his chest. “You did this, so I would have both of you. You told me that before.” Steven nodded. “Wow.” Darcy took another look at the sketch and at her own dress. “Is it safe to say I’m a little weirded out by this? Please don’t tell me you have others, Steve.”

“Two that I know of. One you’ve already seen.” Steven slid the pin-up sketch to the counter and turned the pages to show her the other two. “I didn’t know what I had drawn in your hands until I saw someone at the Tower working on one,” he admitted.

She checked the date on the second, considered the third, and paled a little. She had the same reaction as Tony as she went back to the second one. “Dad?” her voice dropped.

In that moment, Pepper had never been more proud of Tony Stark. He rounded the counter to give Darcy a solid perusal. “I’m on it. I’ll look at everything to make certain. But you have a date, and I’m never one to stand in the way of a good time. Just, not too good of a time. Or if you do, don’t tell me. Some things I don’t need to know.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You’re beautiful. You look just like me.”

Turning to face Steven and James, he crossed his arms. “You knock my baby girl up tonight and there will be hell to pay. Dinner, movie, and then you bring her back here in one piece.”

James pinked, though he held his composure better that Steve with the dark flush to his fair skin. “Yes, sir,” they chorused.

Darcy giggled. “Dad, I’m not sixteen. I get to call my own shots.”

“Reminding you that I still have the last kid you dumped on me.”

“I was fourteen. Give me a break.”

Steven gave them a quizzical look as he peeled his fingers off James’ shoulder. “A kid?”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “DUM-E. I built him. Lousy AI system, but if I fix it, he’ll lose his personality. And he has a lot of that.”

“She skips off to college, leaving me to keep him entertained. He’s sweet, well-meaning, adores anyone who pays attention to him and is dumb as a bag of rocks,” Tony said sourly. “You know, maybe he can move into your lab now.”

“Nuh uh. You two have a rhythm.” Darcy looked at her blank wrist. “Hey would you look at that, I have a date and it’s getting late. You guys ready to go?” With the skills she’d learned from Pepper, she blew her parents a kiss and herded the boys to the elevator.

Pepper turned back to Tony, who had the first drawing in his hand. “The impossible, huh?” he said. Then he set it down and took the second sketch with him to the lab. “Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She poured herself a large glass of wine and settled in to wait for Darcy to come home.

Chapter Text

 “JARVIS, can you stop the elevator?” Darcy asked. The car came to a halt, and she leaned against the cool wall. At the nervous looks Steve and Bucky exchanged, she reached out to both of them. “Nothing bad, but seriously, I need a hug right now. Because I’m completely freaked out by all of this.”

There was absolutely nothing more comforting than group hugs where arms tangled and fingers tightened on waists and shoulders and everything was all warm and snuggly everywhere.  Her skittering nerves chilled out, and as she calmed, she could feel Steve and Bucky relaxing too. “Guess I wasn’t the only one?”

Someone stroked her hair and she honestly couldn’t tell whom. From just above her ear, Bucky snorted. “Hell, no. Thought I’d lost my mind for good when you stepped out of that room.”

Steve’s hand drifted up and down her spine. She leaned back into it, enough that she could see the two men practically holding each other up. “Steve?”

“I’m okay, d—“ he stopped himself at her arched brow. “I will be okay. Yes, I’m nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but this is what we wanted.” His eyes changed then, focusing on her as he stepped back just enough to catch her fingers. “I never imagined that what I drew was real.  Even when Bucky remembered it, we figured it was a coincidence.  But it’s you.”  He swallowed hard to get his composure back.  “And the fact I know what’s under that dress is tantalizing.” 

“Do you?” Darcy licked her lips, just for the show. “You heard the parents. I think I have to be home by midnight or something like that.”

“Going to hold us to that, Princess?” Bucky asked.

“Dad actually spoke to both of you today,” she countered. “You want to push that button again?”

“You have a point.” He deliberately skimmed his eyes down her body. “I’m gonna regret that later.”

“Don’t be an ass, Barnes. It won’t hurt you to actually date me a time or two before we start down that road.”

Steve inhaled sharply, his hand drifting along her bare arm. “Bucky—“ he warned.

But Darcy elbowed him. “I’ve got this. I can handle Barnes being a prick. And he knows that when the time comes, he’d better be able to put his money where his mouth is. These lady parts have been well satisfied with the way things have been going for the past couple of years, so he’d better bring his ‘A’ game if he thinks he can match that.”

“Match?” Barnes smirked. “Try to remember who taught whom here.” He winked at Steve, who just tucked his hands in his pockets and watched them volley.

“Says the man who learned about sex in the nineteen-thirties,” Darcy shot back.

That did it. Bucky laughed so hard that he had to lean against the elevator wall. Steve, though he had his own huge smile, had to wipe away tears as he leaned over to kiss Darcy.

“You’re perfect,” he whispered, as his emotions got the best of him.

“I’m a Stark,” she whispered back, with every bit of pomposity her father had ever shown. “Of course, I’m perfect.”

Now he laughed too, though he recovered faster than Bucky, who was just now working on a straight face.

“You okay with this, Princess, now that you know what we know?”

“Yes.”

That single word undid her boyfriend. He choked for air until Bucky slid his hand onto his back, matching him breath for breath and slowing them down together. The love in that gesture as Steve calmed under Bucky’s touch destroyed any lingering reservations, not that she had any, really.

She lifted a shoulder. “A lot of things make sense now. But I’m glad you waited to tell me. It’s different, knowing I’ve chosen to be here with the two of you.”

Now it was Bucky who looked down at his metal hand, making a fist with it, and Steve who brushed a kiss on his temple to settle him.

“JARVIS, want to restart this thing? If we hang out here we’re going to drown in all the feelings we’ve got going on here,” she quipped.

Steve chuckled weakly while Bucky leaned over to press his warm lips on her cheek. “That’s just the ticket, Princess.”

Happy drove the limo the three blocks. They could have walked, and would on another day, when they weren’t nervous, it wasn’t dark yet, and they were ready for whatever might trigger Bucky. But tonight was for the three of them and not for testing boundaries.

Darcy chose a place known for keeping the privacy of its diners. More than one celebrity or socialite graced these tables when quiet time with family was desired. No one took pictures here, not unless the waiters did the honors for the patrons—and they were under strict rules about who or what might be in the background. Her parents came here when they (Pepper) wanted a night out that wouldn’t end up on the celebrity blogs.

A neon lit bar graced the center of the rooftop, with tables all round and a small band playing pop songs in the corners. The singer’s silky vocals wove through the octaves with ease. Clear windows on the ceiling and three sides gave the illusion they were touching the sky. The view of the city was stunning. The fourth side opened up to the roof, where the band and tiny dance floor were located.

Bucky chose a high-top table near the open side, close enough to hear the band and still be blocked from the elements. They had an excellent vantage point of both the restaurant and the skyline. Darcy was a little surprised she got the corner this time, but seeing how her escorts were stationed to see the full view of the place, maybe she shouldn’t have been.

She would have to get used to things like that, she supposed. Steve was more subtle about it and more trusting of their usual haunts. The restaurants around her old place had figured out the identity of her boyfriend quickly enough. And like most neighborhoods, they protected their own. She missed that local comaradie in the Tower, yet it too had an appeal. She thought she would like living close to Jane again, and Nat had become a good friend in the last year.

Both men kept dropping glances to her legs, where the lace of her stockings peeked out under the netting from time to time. She said nothing, treating this like a real first date as the three of them explored something new. She wasn’t above giving Barnes a preview of coming attractions, and teasing Steve was par for the course.

Bucky ordered a bottle of good Russian vodka for the three of them, along with an antipasto platter that would see the men through the next few hours. Darcy raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think that would appeal to you.”

“It’s funny what you get a taste for. Can’t stand the local stuff though.”

“The local stuff is crap, that’s why.”

A bottle, artfully coated with frost from the freezer, arrived in an insulated bucket with three shot glasses. The platter, loaded with meats, cheeses, and roasted vegetables, gave them all something to pick from, though Darcy was mostly holding out for popcorn later.

Bucky poured the shots and handed them out. “To us.”

“To us,” Steve and Darcy echoed.

Darcy knocked back the vodka. The chilled alcohol didn’t have even a hint of aftertaste, just a cool, sharp flavor that danced across tongue and throat. She set her shot glass down on the table. “Damn. Now I know what I’ve been missing.”

“Natasha didn’t introduce you to vodka?”

“Nat doesn’t share.”

“She does on occasion. It’s a chance sort of thing,” he acknowledged.

Steve agreed. “Maybe once? And I’ve worked with her for a while.”

The alcohol hit her system with a buzz fast enough that she indulged in good wedge of cheese and three crackers before even thinking about a second shot.

Bucky was fascinated with her mouth. Steve noticed and smirked.

The three of them relaxed enough for the conversation to flow from what movie they wanted to see to the changes Darcy wanted to make in her place to what it was like for Steve and Bucky to live in the Tower.

Steve got a pained look. “Would you please talk to Jane? It’s awkward when she’s standing right in front of me and pretending I don’t exist.”

“I did this morning. She’s still mad, but she’ll come around in a week or two. Send her flowers. She never expects them, and it will mellow her out at a little faster because she’ll forget she has them until the next time she sees them.” 

Bucky toyed with his shot glass. “What is your favorite flower, Princess?”

“Never met a flower I didn’t like, Bucky, but if I had to pick one, then Shasta Daisies.”

“Classic.” He glared at Steve. “I can tell by the look on your face that you didn’t know that, punk. You never bought your girl flowers?”

“I have. I do. I promise.” Steve held up his hands.

“He does,” she agreed. “Pretty ones too. Do I look like I’m going to turn down a handsome guy with a bouquet? Nope. Not doing that. And it’s not my fault that flowers hardly make it into the vase before I can find something else to do with my hands.” She winked at Steve. He twined his fingers with hers and kissed her knuckles. (Sheesh, she’d missed this. The flirting, the easy conversation. The teasing. Her lady parts took notice of the attention.)

Darcy reached for the bottle, but Bucky beat her to it, taking her glass and filling it. When the second shot hit her bloodstream, false warmth followed, and everything loosened up nicely. “Too bad you guys can’t get drunk anymore. It’s going to be lonely here.”

“We can, actually,” Steve said. “Thor has an Asgardian mead that works pretty well.”

But lines appeared on Bucky’s brow. “I don’t have enough control of my brain as it is. I don’t think I need to complicate it," he grumbled.

Darcy reached out to with a hand to keep him focused, clutching his metal fingers hard. “Probably not a bad idea for a while yet. So I can drink for you. Are we good with that?”

“Sure, doll.” He, too, dropped a kiss on her fingertips. His breath on her hand made her toes curl and send another zing to her lady parts. Her fingers jerked involuntarily. (Fuck.) His satisfied smirk made her want to do something about that.

Steve kept looking back and forth between them, and finally pleaded, “What happened yesterday? You two cleared the air somehow.”

Bucky tilted his head at her, encouraging Darcy to fill him in. This time, the squeeze on the hand was for her, reassuring rather than teasing. “Your boyfriend is a bit of a nag,” she advised Steve.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he agreed. “No wonder he and Sam get along. They speak the same language.”

Bucky snorted as he bit into a prosciutto roll. “I was right even back then, wasn’t I?”

“Don’t get used to it.” Darcy admonished. But she squeezed Bucky’s fingers again and answered, “We were taking a break from unpacking boxes. I handed him a water bottle and he kissed me again. Not the making out kind, but the same way you kiss me when you thank me for something. I liked it at little too much and it pissed me off.”

Bucky grinned. “I was trying to be sneaky. To get her used to letting me touch her. She called me on it.”

“She does that a lot, Buck.”

As he plucked another bit of roast from the platter, Bucky jerked his chin at Darcy. “Tell him the rest, Princess.”

Darcy leaned forward, making sure to cross her arms under breasts to take full advantage of putting the girls on display in this outfit. Bucky’s eyes definitely glazed a little. (Score one for Darcy.) Steve had more practice keeping focused, but his hand dropped to her thigh in retaliation. The thumb-drawn circles across the nylon caused sparks that had her twitching her toes (Okay, maybe half a point to the Star-Spangled Man).

She nibbled a piece of cheese, keeping an eye on Steve as she talked. “So there I was, enjoying Barnes’ company, appreciating the general yummy in all that, while flipping through mental pictures of you two in highly compromising positions.” Steve’s eyebrows went up. “Yeah, that, and my reaction was somewhere between ‘yay’ and ‘pissed,’ and then he kisses me like it was just something we do.”

Still annoyed with herself, she added, “I was jealous. I shouldn’t have been, but there it was. It’s been there all along, I think.” She clutched Bucky’s hand, looking for comfort as she had the other night. This time, he squeezed back and she breathed out relief. “He made me promise I would tell you.”

Steve put his chin on his knuckles. “I’m glad you did. And I’m not going to lie and tell you I didn’t think a lot about being with Bucky again. I’m guessing if things hadn’t have gone south that night you came back, you might have gotten an eyeful more than you were expecting.” With a quick look to Bucky, he added, “It made all the difference thinking you were okay with Bucky and me …” he hesitated.

“Fonduing?” she offered with a smile.

“I am never going to live that down, am I?” he sighed.

“Nope.” She winked at Barnes. “Not when you blush every time you think the word ‘sex.’”

Bucky smirked but grew serious when he added, “If we are being honest here, you saw us kissing in the kitchen and you landed in London. Not the reaction we’re looking for, Princess.”

“I wasn’t ready for it.”

“I know, and it wasn’t fair to you,” Steve confessed. “So you’ve got to lead the way on this, Darcy. Whatever feels right to you is what we’ll do.” He cupped her cheek, stroking it with his thumb. “Including being with Bucky, with or without me.”

She sat back on her barstool, letting go of both men. “Wow. That’s the gist of it, isn’t it? That sometimes it’s the three of us, and sometimes it’s two. And sometimes it’s a different two.” She considered that. “You really have talked about this.”

Bucky snorted. “Good way to pass the time overseas. Thinking up things we were gonna do when we got back home. Thinking up all the ways this might not work and how we fix it.”

Darcy shook her head. “I don’t know if I can handle the two of you strategizing together.” She was being honest. This was hard enough without feeling herded into a corral.

Maybe he saw the conflict, because Bucky tugged her out to the little area in front of the band. They were playing something slow. He wove around two other couples who were doing no more than swaying to the music.  He lightly clasped her waist, resting his fingers against her bare back. More zing and more nerves.

“Put your arms around my neck, Princess.” She did, and he began moving into time with the beat. “Breathe, doll. It’s only me. You’re not going to let Steve down. I can see his smile all the way over here.”

“Why are you doing this, James?”

“Darcy, for all these months, the two of you have protected me. You’ve shared everything—your house, your boyfriend, even your family—all to give me a chance to live again. I know I’m still messed up, doll. But this, I can do this. I can keep you safe. And if safe means giving you a place to breathe so you can do this thing with us, I’ll do that too.”

Steve hadn’t been kidding about Bucky’s legendary charm. Though she’d declared her intentions, reality was a lot harder, and Bucky was right, she didn’t want Steve to realize how nervous she still was with all of this.

Lowering his head, he said in her ear, “You know, I had it figured I’d have to talk Steve’s way into bed with me and a dame. Never imagined I’d have to talk my own way in after the punk had claimed the most beautiful lady in the city.”

She couldn’t help it. She laughed. “You are a jerk. Just when I was thinking how sweet and charming you are, and how nice it was to dance with you, there you go, opening your mouth again and being an ass.”

He winked. “Not being an ass if I’m telling the truth.”

Darcy took her time to really look at him as they swayed to the music.  She knew his face so well from Steve’s drawings, from before.  And she knew his face now.  He still looked barely thirty, without a line one to show his age.  Nevertheless, there was a hollowness, a shadowy hardness that would never go away.  Yet, he was able to smile through all that, to spin his charms, to want to be with her. 

“You trust me.”  She knew the answer, but needed to hear it. 

His eyes faded, the blue changing to grey.  “Yes.” 

“Then kiss me. Kiss me so I know this is real and we aren’t just friends, James.”

With a tilt of his head, he studied her, eyes wandering over her face, her hair, settling on her lips. "Darcy," he murmured.  And he laid his mouth to hers, not teasing this time, but learning. He explored, finding out how they fit together, discovering what made her hum.

She dropped a hand from his neck to his heart, letting her fingertips rest on his skin where the buttons were unfastened. She turned the tables, feeling his pulse quicken as she figured out what he liked. She chased his tongue with hers and felt him moan low into her mouth.

He pulled back, laying his cheek to her forehead. "Not friends, Darcy. I can't be only that.”

Laying a hand to his jaw, she ran a thumb across it as she turned his face to hers. "No. I think we are several steps beyond that now."

"Still nervous?" he asked.

"Are you?"

Bucky swore under his breath. "Only you would ask me that. Yeah, I am."

"Good." Darcy stepped back, pivoting as she caught his hand to lead him off the dance floor.

Steve's eyes were nearly black with need. "You two are going to be the death of me. Gorgeous, the pair of you."

But Bucky only bumped shoulders with him while rounding the table to his barstool. Steve took Darcy's hand, standing up as she took her seat. Both men settled after she did. Something else for her to get used to. Though both men were adapting to this century, some habits were ingrained, and truly, Darcy appreciated the old-fashioned mannerisms. They came from a need to show respect, and those sorts of manners weren't always just for Darcy.

Steve's absolutely correct manners were responsible for the latitude Tony granted him. On the battlefield, there was a grudging respect between the two, though they were known to square off on occasion. Off-mission, Steve gave Tony deferential treatment as a respected elder. It was funny to watch Tony respond in kind, sometimes unwillingly. Bucky had followed suit, leaving Tony in the odd position of patriarch to the soldiers.

Darcy found the whole situation fascinating, especially as Bucky settled into the family. Which reminded her-- "Gentlemen, if we are to make my curfew, we have a movie to catch."

Happy took them across town and dropped them off at the front entrance of the theatre. Steve bought tickets while Darcy and Bucky got popcorn, a giant cup of Coke, and Twizzlers. Bucky shook his head at the prices, though he paid it easily enough.

Darcy shrugged. "Going to the movies is an event now, not just a way to partake of the air conditioning for a while."

Bucky was a distracted as they walked through the lobby. He scoped the area, looking for exits and threats. She noticed he'd dropped back to walk just behind and to her left. Steve joined him, taking the space next to Bucky. He handed the tickets to Darcy, who passed them to the usher.

Inside the theatre, Bucky headed for the top row, taking seats nearest the aisle. He studied the layout. "Steve? I don't like this."

Darcy took the middle chair, not even bothering with the illusion she had a choice here. Bucky took the one to her left, nearest the aisle. Steve crouched in front of Bucky. "You've got JARVIS. Have him take a look at the cameras in this facility and run facial recognition to identify any threats. The projection booth is at the wrong angle for anyone to take a shot at the seats you've chosen, and I know you can pick the lock on the booth to see for yourself. What do you need to do?"

"You'll stay with Darcy?"

"Of course."

Bucky only needed fifteen minutes to do a recon of the place. JARVIS kept Darcy updated on his progress, and he came back more settled, if not less tense.

Darcy took his hand. "Do you want to go home?"

"No, Princess." He gave her a ghost of a smile. "Got to learn."

"Offer is standing. Tony can download the movie to the Tower, if he hasn't already."

He squeezed her hand in reply.

The movie was fun, full of action, snark, a gun-toting raccoon, and a talking tree. Darcy was aware when, near the end, Bucky reached up to rub his neck. Steve must have been paying attention, because he moved his hand from Darcy's leg to reach around behind her. He massaged Bucky's shoulder without taking his eyes off the screen and digging into the popcorn bucket for another handful.

Darcy, in turn, was careful not to rub Bucky's fingers. Heat, not feedback, was needed here. They made it to the end of the movie, though Bucky's eyes were showing the strain.

In times like this, Darcy was grateful for the contact.  JARVIS, can you ask Happy to bring the car to the theatre exit? I don't want to take Bucky through the lobby.

Of course, Lewis. Sir reminds you to stay until the end of the credits, and Happy will have the car in place by then.

She laughed a little at the reminder. "Let's hang out here for a minute, guys,” she whispered.  “Happy is bringing the car around.”  She tapped her neck to let them know she’d been speaking to JARVIS.

When the credits were finished, Bucky had a faint look of confusion. "A talking duck? What was that?"

Darcy shrugged. "Read somewhere it's a reference to a movie made in the nineties. Probably Dad's speed."

Bucky didn't reply as he took the lead to push the exit door open.  He scanned the crowd outside, the cars, taking a look at the nearby rooftops and windows. His hand slid under his jacket. "Go,” he ordered.

Happy had the door open, as usual, and Bucky herded the three of them into the car. When the door shut, he was fully into soldier mode, his eyes ice grey and his breathing even and slow. He still took Darcy's hand.

The ride back to the Tower was blessedly uneventful. By the time they reached Darcy's floor, with Steve rubbing his shoulders and murmuring in Bucky's ear, his eyes were a clear shade of blue.

She kept their hands together, only now he was rubbing her fingers and brought her hand up for a kiss as the elevator came to a halt.

There was something beautiful in the way Steve was holding Bucky now--one arm across the front of his shoulders, thumb dragging along the inside of his arm.  Bucky reached up to grasp Steve's wrist, and two set of blue eyes followed her into the room, one set darkening into cobalt, the other the clear blue of a snowmelt lake.

Steve let go of Bucky to kiss Darcy. Intense, sweet, and with every bit of last night still in her head, she pressed for more. She wanted this, but nerves still skittered across her flesh. He must have felt it because he stroked her arms from shoulder to wrist.

"Not going to press tonight, doll," he whispered in between kisses. Her lady parts pouted because that kiss had already managed to make her seriously damp. (Yeah, that.)

“Much,” he added. Her eyes flew open as he leaned against the wall and pulled her back to him. “I want to touch you,” he whispered in her ear. “I want to make you come while you kiss Bucky. Just my hands and his mouth, nothing more.”

(Holy shit. Steve knew her far too well … knew she would go for it even before he asked.) “Okay.” She reached out, caught Barnes by his jacket labels and dragged him in for a kiss.

“Hands on the wall, Bucky, not going to scare our girl here,” Steve ordered.

“Yes, sir,” he snickered against her lips.

Barnes planted his hands on either side of Steve’s head as Darcy leaned in to deepen the kiss. There was no teasing here, just a need to have as their tongues danced and she gently sucked on his top lip. All the while, Steve dragged up the hem of her dress. His fingers flicked across the nylon as he gathered the fabric.

She let out a sultry laugh against Bucky’s mouth as Steve discovered she wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Damn, doll.  You never miss a step do you?” he muttered. Though when he found her slick and wanting, she was the one who arched up against him with a squeak.

Bucky eased back, trailing kisses along her jaw. “What’d our girl do to you, punk?”

“She’s been playing with us. No panties. And she’s all wet from thinking about us.”

“Did you forget to draw them, Steve?” she said, a little breathlessly. 

Bucky’s eyes went wide. “That’s not fair.”

“Girl’s gotta keep the upper hand around you two,” she gasped as a finger made a slow circle. “Now you know and you’ll wonder how often that happens.”

Steve retaliated by flicking her clit so that she jerked against his hand. Bucky countered by capturing her mouth. This time, he controlled the kiss, diving his tongue in and sucking on her lips, then backing away to nibble before doing it again.

When Steve began sliding his fingers in, she dug her fingers into Bucky’s jacket to hold on. She was hot and dizzy trapped as she was between them, and Steve slid a hand under her thigh to hitch it around Bucky’s hip.

Off balance, she leaned her head back against Steve’s shoulder as Bucky slanted his head to focus on the line of her neck. She couldn’t quite bite back the moan as her body jerked under Steve’s hand, giving her that first exquisite peak as she came.

“Beautiful, Princess.” Bucky muttered. He started to pull away, but Steve just ran his fingers along Darcy’s clit.

“She’s not done yet, Buck. That was just the first one.”

Darcy lifted her head up. “Steve—“ she gasped out as he set up a steady rhythm on her nub. Without meaning to, with his firm cock pressing into her ass, she leaned into his hand to increase the pressure.

“Want me to stop?”

“No, fuck, no.”

“Kiss her, James. Kiss her and make her yours.”

She hit the second and third peaks in quick succession as she discovered exactly how well Barnes could kiss. Every time she thought she had him figured, he changed tactics, finding a new way to make her lean into his mouth for more. She worked her hand to the back of his neck, wrapping a lock of hair around her fingers.  When he nipped at the curve of her neck, then settled in to suck there, she forgot about Steve for just the briefest moment, then the two men set up a matching rhythm of tapping and nips that had her digging into Bucky’s neck.

“Come for me, Darcy.” Steve whispered. “I want my hand dripping when I’m done. I want you to think of us for the rest of the night.” She arched backward again, pressing her mons into his hand as he flicked her swollen clit.

Barnes slid his tongue in and out of her mouth in time to her twitches and Steve’s movements. And then her vision went white as she keened through the orgasm that swept hard through her. She jerked again and again as Steve plucked at her clit.

Only when he pressed his hand to cool the throbbing was she aware of Bucky’s holding her upright and Steve letting her thigh down.

Bucky eased backward after one last kiss on her lips. "Enough. I don't want regrets in the morning," he said.

Darcy had to put a hand his shoulder for support, as Steve kissed the back of her neck. "Let's classify that as a warning shot across the bow,” she agreed.

He let out a snort at her naval reference. “Got work on your metaphors, Darce, we're army men."

She laughed, giving both of them a frank perusal as Steve made sure she was steady on her feet and let her go. "Yes, I think I got that. Gonna give me a cigarette after all that, Soldier?" (That was her best Garbo, and by their reaction, wasn't too bad.)

Bucky yanked Steve by the shoulder and shoved him to the elevator. "Remember what I said?" he demanded.

Darcy raised her eyebrows in curiosity.

Steve smirked as he stepped inside. "Bucky told me that if I’m stupid enough to screw this up, he calls ‘dibs’ on you.”

She blinked. “On me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Bucky winked as the elevator doors closed on them. “Because you like my arm better than Steve’s bike.”

Still rubber-kneed from the double onslaught to her senses, she laughed as she staggered across the room and collapsed on to her bed.

This might work after all.

She lay on her bed, enjoying the aftershocks of her orgasm, tingling breasts and all (they didn’t even touch the girls, holy shit).  Today … today had been really, really nice.  She closed her eyes, letting the whole of it wash over her. 

Then she remembered the sketch.

She rolled off the bed, made a hasty cleanup in the bathroom, and dashed up the back stairs, not even bothering to kick off her heels.

Chapter Text

Bucky yanked Steve to him and kissed him hard and fast, swiping inside with a tongue. "Punk, that wasn't fair." His cock was throbbing hard enough to make him wince, and he shoved a hand out to find a matching one in Steve’s slacks.

But Steve had his own agenda as he stepped back out of the elevator onto their floor. He held his fingers up. "I know where these have been." Bucky fumbled for the key pad to press his thumb to it and shoved him inside their apartment.

He started to lock his metal hand around Steve’s wrist, but his boyfriend shook his head. "Clothes off and against the wall if you want a taste."

Bucky stripped, not caring that the custom suit was crumpled on the floor. He toed his boots off and tilted his head back to the wall. Steve ran his wet hand along Bucky’s cock, smearing Darcy’s slickness over him.

“Fuck, that’s better than any lube,” Bucky groaned out as Steve ran a thumb over the head of his cock.

“I know. I want to taste her on you.”

But Bucky’s hand snapped out and he closed his mouth around Steve’s fingers. Sweet musk and she tasted like a rainstorm. He licked, sucking Darcy’s juices from Steve’s hand.

“You taste that, Bucky?” Steve demanded, though his voice was husky with need. “Now you know what to look for, how to know you’re doing it right. ‘Cause she’s gonna make you work for it. Can’t settle for the bit of sweetness at the beginning. Gotta keep at it so she’ll come apart for you.”

Bucky could hardly think with the flavor of her in his mouth. Whatever thoughts he had left were destroyed when Steve knelt down to suck on his cock. With same hand, he shoved two fingers into Bucky’s hole, stretching him.

Steve worked him over, sucking, licking, stroking his fingers in and out. “Used to not be able to do this, Bucky, couldn’t stand being on my knees. Too weak and too much in my brain thinkin’ it was wrong. Darcy changed that. Love to get her up against the wall just like you are now, tasting her, sucking on her, get her juices on my face so I can taste her fucking sweetness. Right now, I can taste both of you. You’re gonna know what this is like, Bucky. To taste her, to put your fingers in her ass, to feel her come all around you.”

“Is that what you do?” he choked out.

“Never did all that,” he confessed. “I had a promise to keep.”

Whatever Steve said might have been important, but Bucky was beyond processing anything other than sensation. Not with those talented fingers stroking in and out, Darcy’s flavor melting in his mouth, and Steve licking him like a damned ice cream cone. He swore when Steve took it all away and turned him, shoving him against the same wall so that he faced it, sliding in a third finger as he did. “Can you take my cock like this, Bucky? ‘Cause I want you.”

“God yes,” he groaned out. Steve pressed in, filling him. Slick and easy and so fucking full he thought he would come then and there.

And Steve wouldn’t shut up. “I’ve never had you in me, Bucky. I want that. I’m not sick anymore. I want to feel you inside me. Be a first for me, you know that. Never wanted anyone else that way.”

Bucky growled as Steve hit that sweet spot over and over again, stiffening that last little bit inside him that was too much and not enough all at once. Somehow, Steve still had the presence of mind to reach around. One single, hard stroke of Bucky’s cock was all it took to have him painting the wall.  He clenched down on Steve as they both pumped out the last.

“I love you,” Steve babbled in a litany as he came, holding on to Bucky’s hip hard enough to leave red prints. Bucky had his forehead and hands on the wall, pushing back with everything he had, until they were gasping for air again.

Then he shoved off the wall, off Steve’s cock, and turned around. “Love you too, punk.” He kissed Steve with one hand to the back of his neck then strolled across the entry way to the unused bathroom. He found a hand towel, chucked it at Steve, who caught it mid-chest with one-hand. “Your choice of venue, you clean it up. I’ll be in the shower.”

Steve just grinned with an innocent look that Bucky hadn’t bought since 1930.  He sucked his thumb, popping it out to sass, “You missed a spot.” 

“Fuckin’ punk,” Bucky sneered.  But with a smile on his own stupid mug. 

It was under the hot spray after he’d washed that he latched on to what Steve had been saying. That got him out, towel wrapped around his waist and shaking out his wet hair.

“Never put your fingers in her ass?” he asked when he found Steve in the kitchen, wearing only a pair of sweats. His answer was a shake of the head and a soft smile. “Then how do you know Darcy likes it?”

“She tried it on me when we first started dating. I found other things for her hands to do, but I know she’s game.”

He should have been intrigued by the discovery. Instead, it just pissed him off. “Why the fuck would you keep a promise to a dead man, Steve? There’s a line between nobility and stupidity and I think you crossed it.” At Steve’s stricken look, Bucky got it, and yeah, they needed to deal with this too. “You didn’t kill me, Steve. You weren’t close enough to that piece of metal to have a chance of catching me when it broke.”

In the stillness that followed, Bucky discovered something about Steve he’d suspected was there, but hadn’t seen it before, hadn’t had any reason to know. An internal rage. Ice blue eyes and a hard jaw. Every muscle in readied for battle. A self-hatred that ran long and deep. 

“It’s not your fault,” Bucky chided, deliberately digging into the chink in Steve’s armor.  All these months and Steve had kept it on lockdown.  Bucky and Sam had talked about it a couple of times, enough to know that Steve wasn’t cutting himself any slack on this one.

The deceptively mild manner and bitter smile was the face of Captain America. “It is. I did the stupid, heroic things for victory—so I could be the one who mattered. I’ve always said I did it because I didn’t like bullies. I still don’t. But I waded into fights without thinking of the repercussions. And it cost me the one person I loved beyond all reason, the one person who pulled me out of stupid situations over and over again because I never learned to think. I took you with me when you should have gone home to get better.”

He reached out to Bucky, running a finger along his metal arm. “Denying myself one of the pleasures I shared only with you gave me a way to remind myself of what I did and how high the cost can be. Darcy and I have had our moments, just like you and I do. But I am not careless with her, nor will I ever be with either of you, ever again. The mistakes I make will be honest ones, and you will know how much I love you. I will never take that love for granted,” he vowed. “I can’t stop you from your making your own choices, Bucky, but I didn’t even try to talk you out of going with me. You would have gone home if I’d asked.”

Bucky snorted, letting his annoyance show through. “That’s rich. And you forget that I had been in charge of those soldiers for a damned year before your number was dry. There is no way in hell I would have left them behind so I could go home with a fuckin’ purple medal to show for it. So no, I didn’t stay just for you. But it sure as shit made being there a hell of a lot more bearable.”

“Buck—“

“Stop.” He held a hand up. “It’s time to be done with this. It’s been eating at you for what, three years now? That’s enough,” he snapped with all the authority of the Sergeant he’d been. “You want to make it up to me? To be with Darcy? Then it’s time to let it go. Because we’re here now. By all the damned miracles, we’re here. In a time and place where we don’t have to hide who we are.”

He picked up a glass, filled it with water from the sink and drank it all. When he was done, he set it on the sideboard. “When you’re finished flogging yourself, Steven, come to bed. That’s where I’ll be.”

It was hard to leave Steve there, shocked, pale, and hurting.  But Bucky knew better than anyone else how to get through to the knucklehead.  He went to bed, picked out a book, and waited. 

Maybe an hour later, Steve came to bed.  He didn’t say anything, just crawled in bed and wrapped his arm around Bucky’s middle.

 

*****

 

Cold. A thousand needles of pain stabbing inward until he was numb.  Sharp glass in his lungs as they filled with water. The instinctive struggle to live.

Bucky, falling into the ravine of ice. Darcy, evaporating in a swirl of darkness.

He stopped fighting, stopped caring. Let the water carry him to the floor as the plane settled. Closed his eyes. There was nothing for him now.

“Steve, wake up.”

Bucky’s voice came to him in the darkness. Not always, but enough to remind him of his loss.

“Steve, it’s just a dream, wake up.”

He fought to stay asleep, terrified of waking without them. His wrists were caught in steel manacles. Water pressed down, so heavy. So cold. He shivered.

“Come on, love, goddamnit, wake up!”

“No! Not without them!” Steve jerked against the cuffs, wondering why he couldn’t break them. He pulled, trying to yank free, but they wouldn’t give. He twisted his hips for leverage, but that didn’t work either. The water was too heavy. He still couldn’t breathe.

His throat hurt from tubes shoved into his lungs to pump water from them. Terrible stinging in his limbs as blood warmed and began to move. He cried once tears were possible. They were gone.

“Let me go. Don’t make me live without them,” he pleaded.

A cuff released. Somebody touched his face. “Steve, it’s only a nightmare. I’m here. Wake up.”

He opened his eyes. Found Bucky straddling him, still pinning one of his arms down while the other stroked his jaw. He had a split lip and a reddened mark on his cheekbone.

Steve lunged upward, wrapping his arms around Bucky. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he choked out as he shivered from the remembered cold.  Regret, so much fucking regret swamped him. His throat hurt and he didn’t know why.

“Didn’t I say we were through with that?” Bucky cajoled as he rocked Steve just a little, with warm hands rubbing his back in long, easy strokes. “Tell me what you were dreaming about?”

With a hiss of discomfort, Steve said, “Drowning. Then waking up from the ice.”

Without censure, the soldier acknowledged, “That shit hurts. No wonder you were screaming. Hated it. Pumped me full of drugs and it still fucking hurt. Going in and coming out.” Bucky gave his own compulsive shudder and Steve’s arms tightened around him too.  

The understanding gave Steve a reason to calm his own trembling so he could lean back a little. “What did you think about?” he asked as he inspected Bucky’s face. 

“Didn’t. Just … existed. Place in my head I would go where it was quiet.” Bucky nudged Steve’s hands away so he could ease off his lap. He settled in to lean against the headboard. “What did you think about?”

“You were dead, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t die too.”

“Good thing you didn’t croak or we wouldn’t be havin’ this little talk here.” Bucky ran his fingers over Steve’s head. The casual touch was so familiar, yet it was the first time Bucky had done it since their army days.

Shaken by the easy intimacy, Steve shoved off the bed to get ice for Bucky’s face. They both knew it would heal fast enough, but still. He wrapped a couple of cubes in a towel and came back to the bedroom.

“Speaking of ice—“ Bucky joked as he touched it to his lip.

Flopping down on the bed, Steve muttered, “You’re such a fucking jerk, Buck.”

“At least I’m not stupid.”

Anger flared, and Steve rolled to his side, facing away from his friend. He didn’t want to get into an argument and he did feel stupid. Sam, Darcy, and now Bucky had all told him the same thing, but none of it made the feelings go away. 

“Stop pouting. It was a pain in the ass when you were fifteen. It’s long past cute at ninety-six. You have something to say, say it,” Bucky admonished.

There was nothing like having your best friend around to call you on the carpet for being an idiot. Steve shifted to his stomach, turning his head to look at Bucky. “I don’t know how to let it go.”

“If you had caught me, we wouldn’t have Darcy. The people I killed might still be dead by someone else’s hand. You wouldn’t have been here to stop the Chitauri. Maybe your plane still would have gone into the water and you survived, but nobody could find you. Then I would have been the one living without you.” Bucky shifted so that he could lie down next to Steve, facing him. “All the shit I went through? I deserve a fucking reward and having you and Darcy count. Figure it’s the same for you.”

Steve muttered, still not quite over his sulk. “I can get you a medal for that.”

“Nah. You can give me a blow job if you’re feeling really guilty.” Bucky lit up. “There’s an idea. Every time you feel regret, you can make it up to me.” He reached out to run a hand across Steve’s butt.

“Sex fixes everything for you, doesn’t?” Steve shot back, though not without a little smile.

“Can you think of a better alternative? You get moody, I get laid. Works for me. Go ahead, feel guilty all you want.”

Rolling over so that he could get close enough to kiss Bucky, he agreed. “I think I can work with that.” He touched Bucky’s lips with his index finger, tracing the lines of them, and lightly kissing the place where the bottom one was split. “Anyone ever tell you your lips are so pink they belong on a girl?”

Bucky glared at him, “Shut up, punk.”

“Make me.”

“Nope. And I’m going to point out, no blow jobs for you ‘til my lip heals up.”

“So we find other things to do,” Steve reminded him as he traced a long line from Bucky’s throat, to circle a nipple, and across abs that flexed at his touch. He caressed Bucky’s hardening cock, using his thumb across the head.

With a swift inhalation, Bucky asked, “You want that? Me in you?”

“Yes. Do you?”

“Fuck, yes.” Swallowing hard, Bucky leaned up on an elbow. “But I’m … I’m gonna make you wait.”

“For what?” Steve did not squeak. He was sure of it. (Wasn’t he?)

“If it’s the three of us now, I’m waiting for Darcy. We’re gonna do it together, Steve.”

Steve flopped onto his back with an arm over his face, his own half-hard cock bobbing as he did. It stiffened up as he caught the image of himself buried in Darcy and imaging what it might feel like to have Bucky there too.  But-- “She might not want that.”

Bucky let out that low seductive laugh that sent shivers over and through Steve. “From the dame who let me kiss her while you made her come? From the same one who threatened that we’re gonna need the Avengers to save one of us the first time she and I fuck? Darcy, the one who promised she and I would peel you apart when we got to fuck you together?” Bucky snorted lightly. “Love, I’ve a pretty good idea of how she is with you.”

Steve sucked in his breath. “She said that?” (Sounded like something she would say.)

“Ask her.” Bucky ran his hand in little circles over Steve’s abs, playing in the dip of the belly button. “In the meantime, I’d say you’ve got some reparations to make. And since I’m the one with the busted lip, you get to do all the work.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Steve rose over Bucky, pressing him into the bed. He loved this. Loved that after all these years, this part still worked between them. (Maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to let go.)

 

 

Monday morning dawned, and in spite of its owner’s desire to keep on sleeping, Bucky’s phone made a soft ping every so often. Leaning up on his elbows, said owner scraped his hand through his hair and peered at the screen. “Shit. Why did I do this so fucking early?”

Steve had been up long enough to change into his running gear.  He sat on the chair to tie his shoes, determined to go for a run and check in on Darcy when he got back. “What’s that?”

“Natal-Natasha. Going to spar this morning in an hour or so. Then--shit, I’ve got to meet with Hill about those damned contracts Pepper had me sign at eleven.”

“When did your schedule get so full?”

“I think I was double-teamed by an AI and a CEO.”

Steve huffed out a laugh. “First question, do you want me there with Nat?”

Bucky flicked him a nervous look. “Yes.”

“Okay. I’ll keep my run short and get back before then. Second question, what exactly did Pepper hire you for? I though you said it was to do some training?”

Bucky blinked, only half-awake as he rolled up to sit on the side of the bed. “Assistant Director of Security.”

“For?”

“Stark Industries. Primary mission is for this Tower and its occupants. Secondary mission--” Bucky swallowed hard and shook his head. “Secondary responsibilities include learning about the company as a whole and improving overall security measures.”

Steve was pretty sure he could have caught a foul ball with his open mouth. “Where did that come from?” he said in wonder as he finished making a bow in the laces and stood up.

“I guess Maria Hill figured out who was leaving her notes on her desk.”

“What kind of notes?”

“I might have left the occasional disparaging message about holes in the Tower’s defenses.”

“Any particular reason?”

Bucky shrugged. “Gotta keep our girl safe.”

Steve decided that Pepper Potts was a brilliant, brilliant dame. Somehow, she had put a finger on Bucky’s way of thinking and figured out how to leverage it into something useful.  “Are you okay with it?” he asked.

“Have you seen what she’s paying me?” At that, Bucky’s hands shook a little bit. “Just wanted to be able to work a fair job. Give you a real home, not a run-down flat in Brooklyn. Have a family. Get you a good doctor so you wouldn’t get sick so much. I don’t—I don’t--” He turned both hands up to stare at them. “She thinks I can do something good with all this.”

“You know, she is pretty much the smartest, most terrifyingly efficient person I have ever met,” Steve remarked. “She can’t buy your skills or your loyalty to Darcy. But she can damned well make sure you have a reason to use them here and not anywhere else.”

Bucky fidgeted with his metal fingers. “Steve, I don’t know if I can make it a whole day without messing up.”

“You can’t. That’s why you have JARVIS. And me. And Darcy. Sam. Thor. Nat.”

Nodding slowly, Bucky acknowledged, “Yeah, that’s something.”

Steve rose, tugging Bucky up with him. “Get some breakfast. Gonna be a busy day. You okay if I take a quick run?”

“Yeah, meet me in the locker room in an hour.”

“That I can do.” Steve leaned in with a hard hug and a kiss to Bucky’s lips. “Will you bring coffee?”

“Sure. You checkin’ in on Darce?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

 

*****

 

He dressed for training, keeping the one knife in his boot, though he wouldn’t need it.   As he pulled the simple cotton shirt over his head, he brushed his fingers on his neck, thinking something was missing.  It took him a minute to identify what it might be. He was missing his dog tags. His own were long gone, but Steve kept his old ones in a little box on their dresser.   He dug them out and ran a finger along the worn edges.  He slipped them over his head and tucked them under his shirt.  

Ducking into the bathroom, he took a hard look at himself in the mirror, something he had still trouble with on occasion.  His hair was getting long again.  Long enough that he pulled his knife from his boot, gathered up his hair in a low ponytail with one of Darcy’s rubber bands and cut through the excess.  What remained fell to his chin and it was easy enough to use gel to keep it out of his face. 

Washing the stuff off his fingers was harder and Bucky used a washcloth for this kind of thing.  Darcy had come up with that idea after watching him try to rinse dish soap off his hands.  The metal wasn’t textured enough to give him friction when he rubbed his hands together.  She hadn’t said anything, just handed him a damp cloth and let him figure it out.   After a little experimentation, he’d discovered he could use the cloth to not only scrub off his right hand without assistance, the cloth meant he could clean the joints on his left one better too. 

He took one last look in the mirror.  (Acceptable.)

This time, Bucky made it through the sparring session with Natasha without incident (Asset). She was holding back as he took her through the familiar paces (Skill set).  She was correct in her placement, but with too little power behind her strikes. 

He admonished her at the end. “Again, we do this again tomorrow.”

“Why are we doing this, Barnes?”

“Because you have bruises and your form is not perfect.”

“I don’t need perfection,” she retorted.

“Do you not, Milaya?”

She stalked away rather than answer him.

He stayed in the basement for another hour to lift out his irritation on the weights (Asset.  Rule Two). Steve left him alone, though he generated a healthy amount of sweat with his own workout on the bag.

“Darcy up?” Bucky asked when he had finished. 

Wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand, Steve paused long enough to answer. “She’s in Tony’s lab working on something with him today. She said to check in with her this afternoon.”

“She okay?”

“You know how she gets when she’s got her hands buried in a project. Hi—talktoyoulater—bye,” he said between punches.

But Bucky didn’t know. “The times I’ve been in her lab, she’s always open to conversation.”

Steve halted, frowning a little as he considered. “I guess if you’re around, she doesn’t let herself go that deep. For that matter, I don’t see it much. She worked while I was in DC.  We talked on the phone a lot.”

It was conversations like these that helped Bucky to see the connections between Steve and Darcy.  For months, he’d been held together only by thin strings and it had been easy to get lost in his own head. “I keep forgetting that you two lived in separate cities.”

“We spent a lot of time on the phone, texting, and driving to visit. Sometimes Stark would beg us to use the helicopter.”

“Beg?”

“Darcy had a thing for driving his Bugatti.”

“The one that is hers now?”

“The same.”

“She won’t let me drive it.”

“You aren’t the only one. Something about letting a guy at the wheel who hits things for a living.”

Bucky just grinned.

“You cut your hair,” Steve commented. 

“Some. Might need you to clean it up.” 

“I can do that.” 

They hit the showers, mostly keeping their hands off each other. Bucky zipped back up to the apartment, ran a quick errand, and ate breakfast with Steve. 

“Want me to trim your hair before your interview?”

“Maybe.  If I want to make a good impression,” Bucky agreed.  While he stripped to his briefs, Steve brought a bar stool from the kitchen into the bathroom.  The familiar ritual dated back to when they were in high school and money got tight in the Rogers household after a few too many trips to the doctor.  But the punk’s stubborn pride had gotten in the way until Bucky made Steve do his in turn. 

Bucky fuckin’ loved having his boyfriend’s fingers in his hair.

Steve reached down to nudge the silver chain before settling a towel around his neck and shoulders.  “My dog tags?”

“Thought you wouldn’t mind.” 

“No, of course not.” Bucky figured he was going to dig in with questions, but instead, he only asked, “How short do you want it?”

Short was for Sergeant Barnes.  Long and messy was for the soldier.  Bucky remembered something in the middle, something he used oil to slick back before all that.  “Trim it up and leave it.” 

Steve did, taking little snips with the scissors to even out the edges.  “It doesn’t really look all that bad as it is.  Do it with your knife?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s a little angled, but not much.  Hang on—“ There were a few more cutting sounds behind his ear.  “There.”  Steve pulled the towel, and then ran a little more gel into Bucky’s hair.  Warm lips went against his temple as Steve ducked down to hug him from behind.  “Gorgeous, love.” 

He liked what he saw.  Liked looking at Steve more.  Bucky tilted his head back and ran his hand through blond hair.  “Want me to do yours?”

“Later.  I don’t want you to be late.”

He was trying not to dwell on it.  He was nervous enough.  “I’ve got almost an hour.”

“Yes,” Steve murmured, his eyes going dark.  “But then I can’t do this.”  Lips hovered just below his ear, heating the pulse point there.  Bucky closed his eyes to concentrate, but Steve insisted, “Look, Buck.  Watch yourself in the mirror.”

He did.  Sometimes all could see was hard edges and scars and a face he didn’t always recognize.  Not today. Steve skimmed light fingers along his collarbones, over the curved of his shoulders, and to his elbows.  They came up again to graze his stomach, clutch at the dog tags, and circle each nipple on the return trip.  Just as they reached his throat, Steve sucked a kiss into his neck before moving on to nip at Bucky’s mouth.

He shifted around to the front of the stool and knelt between Bucky’s knees, making little circles at the insides of his thighs.  There was nothing and everything angelic about the look Steve gave him.  “I want to taste you again.  I can’t get enough,” he admitted.  “Can I do that?” 

He ruffled Steve’s hair.  “Insatiable.  I forgot about that.” He sighed in mock resignation, still feeling the nerves in his stomach.  “If you must.”

Steve grinned like a little kid in a candy store.  “Off with the underwear.  I like them but they’re in my way.” 

“Do I have to do everything?” Bucky retorted as he worked the briefs off and tossed them onto the bathroom counter. 

“Just watch yourself and don’t fall off the stool.  I’ll do the rest.”

He didn’t want to watch himself.  He wanted to watch Steve.  Or to close his eyes and savor the sparking heat as Steve began to play.  He’d been half-hard just from Steve’s hands in his hair.  But a couple of long licks down his length made his toes curl and his cock stand up.  “Not gonna fall off the stool, punk.” 

“You might.  Look at yourself,” Steve insisted again as he worked a hand along the underside of Bucky’s leg and set the curve of Bucky’s foot against on his shoulder.  “See what I see.  You’re gorgeous.” 

The punk took his time, sliding a finger around the reddening head of his cock.  A squeeze from the base released moisture from the slit, fluid that Steve sucked off.  “I love the way you taste, Bucky.  The way you smell.  Like an orange grove almost too ripe.”  He whispered the words as he traced the swollen veins and ducked down to take one ball into his mouth, then the other.  Bucky jerked upward at the sensation.  Too much, too much.  But Steve already knew that and let go to stroke his length, short movements near the top first, then long ones that went all the way to the curls on his skin. 

Needy and beginning to ache, he pushed into Steve’s hand, wanting more.  He tried to look in the mirror, but couldn’t turn away from Steve as he swallowed Bucky’s cock, so much that he could feel the head press against Steve’s throat.  And then his boyfriend worked him over.  Swallowing, pulling off to suck on the head while his hand jerked him off.  Swallowing down again. 

Bucky balanced himself on the stool, locking his fingers on the seat behind him and using his other hand the thread through Steve’s hair.  Soft.  Spiky in places.  Familiar.  There was nothing of the soldier here.  Only experiencing.  He clutched at the hair, dropped his hand to Steve's shoulder, needing to dig in with his fingers as Steve played. 

He flexed his hips in time to Steve’s strokes. What was smooth became stuttered and Steve took him harder, deeper, with saliva coating his cock until it was slick as all fuck and his whole body thrust hard into Steve’s mouth.

“Look, damn it!” Steve ordered when he came off for a breath.

He dragged his eyes to the mirror.  His face was a reddened mess.  His eyes were half open, and a line of sweat ran down his chest. The tags reflected the lights above the mirror.  His lip, the one he didn’t even know he’d bitten, was caught between his teeth and swollen. 

Steve’s mouth came back, sucking in cadence with his thrusts.  He jerked his hips hard into the mouth that wouldn’t stop being hot and wet and tight and—fuck—he dug fingers into Steve’s shoulder again as he came hard with a groan that couldn’t even approximate Steve’s name. 

Hands came to his hips, anchoring him from sliding off the damned stool.  With one last, long, drawn out suck, Steve pulled off Bucky’s cock with a satisfied smile.  He got to his feet, pressing a hard kiss to Bucky’s temple.  “You saw.  You’re gorgeous when you come.  I’m gonna draw you like that while you’re gone.” 

“You—“ Even that was more than he’d expected from his lover and his eyes widened . “You wouldn’t.”

“Watch me,” Steve challenged.  “And go get dressed.  You have an interview.”

Nervous twitters forgotten, he scrambled off the bar stool to change into decent clothes for his meeting with Hill.  Slacks, a button-down shirt and a jacket that all fit properly gave him a needed boost of confidence. He clipped on his weapons of choice, three concealed knives and two pistols.  The jacket and boots covered them nicely.  The cell phone went in his right pocket, leaving the left one empty for his hand. 

Steven’s whole face softened with pride as Bucky came over for approval.  “Do I look okay?”

“Yes.  But you know you don’t have to impress anyone.  You already have the job.”

“Don’t want to piss off the boss on the first day.”

The two men exchanged long looks, feeling the memories weigh in on them.  Steve wasn’t sick now; Bucky didn’t have to take whatever work he could find. 

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do this, Bucky.  We have plenty to live on without it.”  Steve winced.  “Never thought I’d say those words.” 

“I want this job.”

“Then knock it out of the ballpark, Buck.  You’ve got this.” Steve gave him a good luck kiss and sent him out the door. “I’ve got some drawing to do,” he added with a wink.

Considering Steve already had a pencil in one hand, Bucky didn’t doubt he was going to come home to a blue picture of himself. 

As he boarded the elevator, he realized that Steve had settled his nervous stomach nicely, and kept him distracted all the way until time for the interview.  He would show his gratitude later.  For now, he descended the Tower to the sixth floor, which was entirely devoted to security.  As he did, he purposefully shifted in (Assessing), letting his breathing even out (Asset). 

Hill met him as he stepped out. “Good morning, Sergeant.”

“Barnes,” he corrected.

“Of course, Barnes.” She tilted her head. “Do I need to tell you who is who as we walk or have you figured that out already?”

“I can draw you a floor map and provide a briefing of the team members,” he acknowledged.

She concealed a smile. “I guess not. In any case,” she indicated with a hand. “There’s your office if you want one.”

It was right next to hers and didn’t have a single window except to the front near the door (one exit, line of sight protected.  Ceiling needed to be inspected.)

“What happened to the last occupant?”

“We had a housekeeping issue,” she said drily. “Come in my office and have a seat.” She took the chair behind her desk. By habit, Bucky waited until she sat before taking the one across from her. “Manners. That’s new in this day and age.” She didn’t wait for a comment before continuing, “You have lovely handwriting,” she said. “Took me a while to figure who my mysterious note writer was. And even though I was pissed you broke into my office, I had to agree with your suggestions.”

Barnes listened.  Assessing.

“I take it you have a more detailed list.”

“I do.”

“Excellent.” She handed him a tablet.  “This contains the schematics of the Tower, as well as of the rest of Stark Industries’ holdings.  I’ve included the revamped security protocols that are currently in place, as well as the planned improvements.  JARVIS will lock it to your voiceprint and command key when you turn it on the first time.” 

He took it, and she continued, “So tell me what your needs are. I understand you work out daily with Rogers, and have sessions with Wilson.”

“An hour in the morning shooting, sparring or lifting unless I have a trainee, then I’ll compensate. Therapy around lunch.” He met Hill’s even gaze. “If the day has been … difficult, I may need … downtime late afternoon.”

“Understood.  I have a roster of agents I’d like to place with you for additional training. They are all senior agents who could use a challenge.”  She tapped her screen and handed him a card.  “This has your new email account and my contact information. I will send you a list of names and you can decide what you want to do with them.”  She leveled a hard look at him.  “Any particular triggers I should look for or avoid?”

“Don’t surprise me, and I don’t like the cold. JARVIS keeps tabs on me, so he’ll know if there is a problem. If there is,” he warned, “I want Rogers or Lewis.  No one else. No tranqs or other drugs. Understood?” 

“Understood.  And the first applies to every Avenger and most of the security staff.  I believe Rogers shares your concerns with the second, so we should be good.” She leaned forward with her elbows on her desk. “Give me your list of suggestions by Wednesday.  We’ll get them implemented.  What else do you want to do?”

“Two points. First, I want to meet with every member of the security team. Three meetings, all in the same morning.  I want them monitored.”

“Why?”

“There are certain key words and phrases HYDRA agents will react to.  I will find them and clean house.” 

“You didn’t disclose this before.” She didn’t quite snarl, but she definitely bristled.

“Which leads to the second point, Hill.  My loyalty will never be to Stark Industries.”

Hill templed her fingers before nodding.  “Pepper told me that too.  Where are your loyalties, Barnes?”

“Lewis, Rogers, Romanoff, Potts, Stark, in that order. After that, the remaining occupants of the upper residential quarters.  I want to vet and train teams to handle the labs and the rest of the Tower.” 

“Tony’s going to be pissed to be the end of that list.”

“He’ll be happy with my priority.” 

“Why not Rogers?”

“Rogers can take care of himself in a fight.”

“True.” She raised an eyebrow.  “I am aware of your relationships with the persons on that list. My only question has to do with how much you care to disclose to the security team.” 

“I’ll handle that.”

“Very good. We’ll set the meetings for Monday then.  I assume you’ll keep a low profile until then?”

Barnes nodded. “No announcements.  We’ll do it at the meetings.” 

“Want anything for your office?”

“JARVIS will order what I need.” 

“Excellent.”  She gave him a sly look.  “I like you, Barnes.  No bullshitting, no kissing my ass.  And it’s a damned good thing because that sort of shit pisses me off.”  She stood, indicating the meeting was over, and held out her hand. “I want two sessions a week with you. Pick the time.” 

He shook it.  “Five p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Why then?”

“Gives us a chance to work out our differences.  We’ll have them. Best to get them resolved quickly and not in front of the others.”  Shutting down the soldier, he shifted from assessing to experiencing.   He took a deep breath, drawing attention the fact he did.  He gave her a small, tight smile.

Hill stiffened as she recognized the difference.  “The color of your eyes gives you away with that.  You might want to work on it,” she offered. 

“I won’t.  It might save your life.” 

“But you could?” she questioned.

“I can.”

“That’s scary as fuck, Barnes.”

“I know.”  He shrugged.  “See you Tuesday.” 

He traded his jacket and slacks for jeans, an MIT hoodie that Darcy had given him, and a large paper cup of coffee.   He spent the rest of the day moving about the Tower, much as he had his first week, only this time JARVIS gave him prompt access to any part of the building.  He blended in well with the research interns as he moved around from floor to floor. 

It was a good day to start something new. 

Chapter Text

Assistant Director of Security? Steve texted Darcy after Bucky took off for his meeting with Hill. (Well, after he had fifteen minutes in the shower to jerk off.) 

Mom’s call.  She’s got a nose for that kind of thing. 

What does Bucky know about security?

What DOESN’T Bucky know about security? He picked Nat’s lock this morning. 

When? I’ve been with him since last night.

Really? 

Okay, there was a fifteen minute window of opportunity when I was making us breakfast after training.  Damn. What happened?

He stole her pointe shoes out of her studio.

?

Really, Rogers?  Let me rephrase.  He broke into the Black Widow’s personal, heavily secured training room (holy shitfires) and took an item of great personal meaning (eek) while said assassin and her really hot assassin fuckbuddy were in residence (omg this is awesome/terrible).   Shit has not hit the fan on this one, so be warned.  Clint gave me the heads up. I’m passing on same to you. Can we fit behind your shield?

Maybe I should loan it to Bucky

No. He brought this on himself. 

Any idea on ETA of said SNAFU?

Nice.  No idea. 

Maybe I’ll hang out in the Commons and occupy myself.  Going to be there?

No. Dad and I are still trying to get a grip on this problem.  I’ll tell you over dinner.  But keep me posted. 

Will do.  Love you, doll. 

Love you back. 

(Was it stupid for him to miss her and it had only been twelve hours since he’d seen her?) 

After lunch, Steve took up residence at the Commons kitchen table with his sketchbook, idly drawing a still life of the centerpiece.  He was playing around with some pastels this time and had made a mess of his fingertips. 

Nat stalked the area all afternoon, pretending to watch television or read a book.

Do I warn B? he texted Darcy.

Are we Team Bucky or Team Nat on this one?

Have to go with Team Bucky. Nat has Clint and he promised popcorn.

Then send up a flare.

Steve sent the text to give Bucky the heads-up. Late afternoon, when Bucky texted back that he was done for the day, Steve wiped his fingers on his jeans, (bad habit, yes) and shot off another message to Darcy and Clint.

Can’t come up yet, she told him.

Want a running commentary of the action?

Duh.

Nat’s stalking the elevator now. 

Did you bring the shield?

Clint appeared just minutes later to raid the fridge. He slid a bottle of Coke to him and set a bowl of popcorn on the table as he sat.

“Thanks.” Steve took it, opened the cap.  “Ringside seats?”

“You know it,” the archer drawled. 

Nat waited until Bucky had cleared the elevator, but only just. “Keep them,” she snapped. “But stay out of my place.”

Bucky crossed his arms and replied in a low voice, “You’re holding out on me. Why?”

“I don’t want to go back there, Barnes. It’s over.” 

“Yet you still use your lessons. Why would you let yourself become complacent?”

“I am not complacent.”

“You are.  This is why you were injured.”

“I’m not playing your game, Uchitel.”

“There will always be games to play, Natalia. This is what we do.” Bucky reached out to tip her chin up. “You win, you fly.  Isn’t that what I’ve always promised?”

“I’m not doing this, Barnes.” There was a note of pleading. (Maybe not. Nat never begged.)

“You will.  Tomorrow morning we do this again.” Bucky glanced at Steve then ascended the staircase to their quarters.  Even from here, Steve saw the headache in his eyes. With a nod to Clint, he finished his Coke and followed Bucky to the apartment.

Well, that was deceptively mild. There has to be some sort of Russian subtext I’m missing, Steve texted as he climbed the stairs.

All threats and no action? Darcy replied.

Threats, pouting, insults and I think a gauntlet was dropped. It was very mild-mannered and a little disturbing.

Oops.

Love you, doll.  Talk more later. Bucky’s got a headache.

Once inside, Bucky stripped off his shirt, jacket and boots, carefully putting them over a chair. Weapons were checked and put in the safe.  Then he shuffled to land face-first on the bed, sock feet hanging off the edge, dog tags still in place. Steve followed, straddling him as he went and started working his way up from the base of Bucky’s spine.  Mindful of the strength in his hands, he worked his thumbs into the tight muscles.

“I don’t like this,” Bucky muttered after the first few minutes.

Instantly pulling his hands away, Steve apologized, “I can quit.”

“Not you, punk. That feels good.”

“Then what?” he asked as he set his hands back on Bucky’s skin. He caressed the hard flesh, easing back into a rhythm. 

“Trying not to be what they made me. Finding me again. Easier with you and Darcy. Harder when I’m on my own. ‘most impossible with Natalia.”

“Why are you pushing?”

“Because she’s so much better than what you see.”

Steve worked the muscles loose as he made little circles with his thumbs. “Bucky, she’s amazing. Her pinkie finger is a deadly weapon.”

“So is mine. And she used to be able to disarm me in under half a minute. She can’t get close now.” Bucky sighed. “I’m tired. Don’t want any more fighting. Just want to keep my family safe, y’ know?”

“Natasha is family?”

“She was mine for a while. I set her free.”

“I imagine there was a price to be paid for that.”

Bucky stiffened under Steve’s hands. “Don’t ask. I don’t want to remember. It’s easier to not remember.” 

Changing to long, slow strokes, with one hand going in to play with the newly shorn dark hair, he got Bucky to settle again.  “I know.  You’re safe now.  You don’t need to remember. You’re safe with me. Always with me.”

“Love you, punk.”

“I love you back, jerk.” Steve pulled the electric blanket over Bucky. “Get some sleep. I’m going to pry Darcy out of Stark’s lab. When you wake up, come find us.” He kissed Bucky’s cheek. “We’ll be waiting for you.” 

“’kay.” 

 

 

All things considered, the last twenty-four hours counted as one of the best days in Steve’s weird life.

Not that last night wasn’t full of hard realizations, but that had been a lancing of a painful boil that had festered.  And Bucky hadn’t spiraled off into a miasma of headaches and memories.  No, he’d called Steve to the carpet, dressed him down, and then held him when he fell apart. (Making up afterward had been fun too.)

Yesterday marked a turning point, because Bucky had been the strong one for a while. Steve had seen Darcy respond to Bucky’s encouragement, even letting him relax her on the dance floor.  He’d kept himself together through the movie, and still was up (ha!) for fooling around and dealing with Steve’s shit afterward.

Darcy had been keen to play along last night. Seeing Darcy and Bucky on the dance floor had given him the idea, cemented when they indulged in a real kiss that made his own cock twitch hard. He’d had little doubt of how his and Bucky’s night would end, so coming up with a way to share something of it with Darcy had been a challenge. 

Not a day went by that Steve didn’t marvel at having Bucky here, in this time and place. That there was a chance at making this work with Darcy made him giddy.

“JARVIS? Is Darcy free?”

“Captain Rogers, I believe she is still in Sir’s laboratory, but as he has engaged the privacy locks, I am unable to confirm.”

That seemed off. Curious, he set off for Stark’s floor.

Pepper, still wearing her work clothes and looking every inch the elegant CEO, met him on the main level with a kiss on the cheek.  “Hello, Steven.”

He ducked his head, letting her see how happy he was. “What you did for Bucky—“

She put her fingers to his lips in an oddly intimate gesture. (He missed his Ma.) “Was the right thing to do. For everyone.  Believe me, he’ll earn it.”

He caught her hand in his and pressed a kiss to the knuckles, grateful, so terribly grateful for her understanding. “I know. Thank you.” He pulled her into a little hug, careful not to muss her too much. This was something they did, the hugs.

“How was the date?” she asked when he stepped back.

“Darcy didn’t tell you?”

Pepper rolled her eyes.  “Of course she did.  I want your version.” (He was pretty damned sure all he could do was glow with a silly grin on his face.) “That good, huh?”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. (He was happy.) She laughed, pointing him to the lab. “They’ve got their hands in something deep, so don’t be surprised if all you get is a grunt and a kiss.”

“Like father, like daughter?” He flashed at Pepper smile and strolled down to the lab--where he discovered his thumbprint gave him access. (That was new.)

As always, music played on the speakers, this time something soulful and low, sort of what Wilson had on for him in the hospital. Tony was occupied with a computer sitting off to one side.

“Stark.”

“Rogers.”

“Is Darcy--?” he started. But Tony jabbed a thumb toward the far side of the lab. There was a cushy sofa there just waiting for a good nap. Darcy was sound asleep on it, curled up on one end while still wearing the dress from the night before. The shoes she’d worn stood neatly on the floor.  Her stockings were tucked into them, with the bracelet and earrings cushioned by the nylon.

“Don’t wake her,” Tony warned, his fingers still tapping at the keyboard. “She’s only been out for an hour.”

Steve pressed the lightest of kisses into her hair. “Up all night?” he asked as he crossed the shop to where Tony was sitting.

Tony flicked him a glance and jerked a chin at what Steve now recognized as his own sketch laying on the worktable. “Tell me about this drawing.”

Raising his eyebrows at the lack of an insulting nickname, Steve answered.  “It was the first thing in my head when I woke up from the ice. I remember my hands hurting, but I had to get it on paper. Darcy--well, I thought she was from the pin-up sketch.  I had no idea what I was drawing in her hands until I saw someone working on one here in the Tower.

“I kept erasing and redrawing Bucky’s hand. At the time I thought I’d lost my mind because I had a whole sketchbook full of studies of his hands.” He sucked in his breath, remembered the hours of drawing that had gone into that. “That’s something I wish I had back. Who knows where it ended up,” he sighed. “The drawing disturbs you. And it bothered Darcy more than the other two. Why?”

Tony stopped tapping on the keys and picked up his pen to fiddle with it. “I can pretend that this is pure coincidence, but I think it’s safe to say the universe isn’t playing by the rules when it comes to you. That circuit board belongs to JARVIS. It is JARVIS, at the core. And it’s broken in your drawing. Assuming this sketch is also predictive scares the hell out of me.”

He tapped his pen on the table, looking over his workstation at his daughter. “Darcy came straight up here after her date--thank you for getting her home on time, in one piece and obviously not-knocked up. That’s appreciated. We’ve been combing through JARVIS’ programming to see if we can find anything out of the ordinary.”

“Did you?”

“Yes.” Tony let his fingers rest. “I need a drink. You want a drink? Bourbon, right? You’re drinking with me,” he decided. Tony poured the smoky drink over a couple of short glasses half full of ice and passed one over to Steve as they went out to Tony’s terrace overlooking the city. “It looks like nothing. An extra letter here, a number there. Pieces of stray text in the coding.”

“But there’s a pattern.”

“Not one that I can see yet, Darcy either. And I’ve looking since this time yesterday.”

“How can JARVIS’ coding be changed?”

“He can rewrite it himself. That’s the whole point of an AI.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than raising a kid. There are no promises that your kid won’t be the next megalomaniac, but if you do it right, hopefully they will keep themselves in check.”

“What happens if that doesn’t work?”

“There is always a bullet to the brain, Rogers.”

“You could do that?”

“I don’t know. But JARVIS loves Darcy. Darcy loves him back. So there is that. Megalomaniacs usually don’t like competition.”

Steve sipped the drink, enjoying the smooth flavor as it rolled over his tongue. “Good point. So what are you doing?”

“We’re cleaning up the coding and locking it down in a new location. Even JARVIS won’t have access to it unless we need it.”  

“I guess you can’t back all that data up.”

“Oh, the basic program is protected, along with the modifications I’ve made over the years. But JARVIS has evolved long past that and writes his own subroutines now. Not only that, Darcy likes to write code and let him play with it. It’s a good way for both of them to learn.”

“What kind of code?”

“Pick a single thought. A memory, a flavor. She’ll write something that gives him that small piece of reality.”

Steve had to shake his head at that one.  “I don’t think I understand.”

Tony paced along the terrace, waving with his drink. “JARVIS likes music, right?”

Nodding, Steve agreed, “Quite a bit.”

“Darcy started that. She got bored with hunting up new songs, so she wrote JARVIS a program to help her. She was nine, I think. Over the years, she has written him hundreds of new bits of programming to teach him aspects of “like” or “dislike.” He takes that code, integrates it with his existing programming and uses it to understand personality and tastes. I can’t remember the last time he played something in the lab I didn’t like. He always knows.”

Tony swirled the cubes in his glass. “Your boyfriend’s fascination with music is one of the reasons JARVIS agreed to take him on.” He drank. “So .. imagine if I had to hard reset JARVIS to where he was fifteen years ago.”

Steve shook his head, thinking of Darcy’s relationship with her brother. “I’d rather not.”

“The problem is that we don’t know where the stray digits are coming from, what they mean or how they are connected. None of his firewalls have been breached and Darcy is damned good at writing firewalls.  She’s got layers in place that I can hardly follow.”

“Is it possible JARVIS put them there?” 

“That was my first question and JARVIS is as surprised as we are.  He’s running his own set of diagnostics to clean them out, but I can’t discount the possibility that he is reinfecting himself in the process.”

Frustrated, Tony picked up a little frog statue out of a planter and set it back down.  “Since we haven’t identified a pattern, I can’t write an algorithm to pull the digits out. So that means doing this the hard way, combing through every line of programming, removing it and documenting it until we get enough hard data to figure out what is going on.”

“Is that even possible?”

“Can you draw Barnes without looking at him?”

“Yes.”

“Darcy and I can look at the code and see JARVIS. What doesn’t belong sticks out. The problem is, we’re looking at a set of unabridged Encyclopedia Britannicas. It’s going to take time.”

“And you don’t know if there is a deadline.”

“Exactly.”

“Using the encyclopedia analogy--nice one, by the way--how far are you in?” Steve wondered.

“Well, the maps and index are all the same, so I’m good there. Maybe through the middle of the A’s?”

“You’re talking about months, maybe years.”

“Got a better solution? My kid has precancerous tumors and I’ve got to dig them out.” Tony finished his bourbon. “I’m open to brilliant ideas. And no, Natasha is not getting her hands on JARVIS. I trust her with my life, but not my AI, okay?”

“I’ve got downtime.  Teach me.” 

Tony smirked as he dragged him back into the lab to a terminal full of coding. “There are two errors on the screen.” 

Steve glanced at the monitor, letting the letters and lines settle into his brain. “There,” his finger hovered over the glass. “The semi-colon and,” he moved his finger to the middle, “the ‘g’ doesn’t belong.”

Tony squinted at him. “How do you know that?”

“Those two letters don’t fit the pattern.”

Tony ran him through a dozen pages before he was convinced Steve could help.  “You can’t write code, hell, you can’t even read code.  But you can see the flaws.” 

“They had me code-breaking in our downtime during the war.  I can see it.  Can’t explain how.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take whatever time you have. Just—“ He looked over at Darcy. “-maybe not now.” He steered Steve back out onto the terrace after snagging the bottle of bourbon for a refill.

The mechanic gave Steve a hard look.  “Pepper tells me I have to accept Darcy’s choice.  That I suck as a parent if I don’t.  Which isn’t hard, really, sucking as a parent.  God knows, I had no business thinking I could raise a kid.  If Pepper hadn’t come along when she did, Darcy would be an introverted screw up worse than me, because she would have had two generations of bad parenting, not just one. You can stop me anytime with a platitude that won’t really reassure me but will let me know you are kissing my ass.”

“I will never kiss your ass, Tony.  But I do love your daughter.”

“Is this the part where I get to threaten you? Because I really want to do that.”

“Go ahead. I deserve it.” Steve had been expecting this and was sort of happy to let Tony vent all over him so they could get it out of the way. 

“Yes, you do.  I had to go to London because my daughter hadn’t slept in over a week.  The few times she did, she woke up with horrible nightmares.  Whatever she dreamed about, she won’t say, but it was enough to scare the shit out of Barton and he has a master assassin sharing his blankets.”

Steve’s face twisted. “She dreams about Malekith. About the Destroyer. Watching you fly up the Tower and into a hole in space. She has nightmares about me not coming home if I didn’t find Bucky. Being trapped in a manhole and not able to get out.  Pick one, Stark.” He rubbed his hand into his hair. “She rarely has nightmares when she’s with me. But when I was in DC, she would call me one or twice a week with them, and those were only the bad ones. We talk it through.”

“Is that why she doesn’t sleep when you’re on a mission?”

Something in Tony’s voice clued him in that this was a test of sorts, but it didn’t matter because he already had the answer. “Yes.”

“I didn’t think you knew about that.”

“Of course I know.” Steve walked to the end of the terrace and sat in one of the chairs, making himself smaller so he didn’t tower over Darcy’s father. Carefully setting the glass between his feet, he laced his fingers together and rested his arms on his knees. Stark followed, not too closely, but near enough to hear him. “I see her, Tony. Her brain dazzles me. Her jokes make me laugh. She’s so damned beautiful I stutter sometimes. Her strength scares me because she can carry so much and rarely asks for anything more than someone to hold her hand. But when she does, she needs someone who won’t flinch from whatever comes her way. I can do that. I’m good at that.”

Tony paced a little more as he listened.

“As for Bucky, he’s going to have to tell you himself. I did ask—far too late and Darcy had already made up her mind. I asked her, gave her a chance to say no to all of this. She didn’t. She said she wanted to try.” 

“She loves you too much not to give it a shot,” Tony accused.

“I know. I was counting on it,” Steve admitted. “Last night we made it work. We had a good time.”

“Captain America isn’t allowed to have fun.”

“You know, I got that memo. I’ve decided to File Thirteen it and write a new one,” Steve countered with a smile.

Tony upended the bourbon over his ice one more time. “Barnes already told me.”

“Told you what?”

Without a sound, Bucky dropped onto the terrace from above, startling the other two men. “That I’m in love with Darcy.”  He was back to jeans and a light sweater, making him look far younger that he was. (Steve felt a twitch just looking at him. He was sure his smile couldn’t get any bigger.) Bucky reached out to shake Tony’s hand.

Stark rolled his eyes as he took it. “You’re lit up like a fucking roman candle, Cap.” 

“Punk’s been like that all day, sir,” Bucky retorted.

“Didn’t we talk about you not calling me that? Because it makes me feel old, and how the FUCK did my daughter get hooked up with a couple of 96 year olds?”

“I’m 97, actually. Sir,” Bucky smirked.  “Am I old enough to have one of those?” He waved at the glass of bourbon. 

“Glasses are behind the bar. Bring a new bottle, and don’t be a prick, Barnes. How the hell did you get on my terrace anyway?”

“It’s about seventy-five years too late for that, Stark,” Steve snorted.

“Oh, is it time to pull out the old man jokes, punk? Because we can talk about the way you dress,” Bucky sassed. “The nineteen forties called. They want their pants back. And,sir,” he said to Tony, “Barton showed me the trick of dropping in. We raided your bar a couple of nights ago. The Glenlivit was drinkable.”

Steve picked up the thread of conversation before Stark could reply. “At least I don’t have to worry about strangling my dick in a pair of paint-on jeans.”

“But my ass looks good.  Damned good.” Bucky strutted to the bar tucked into the corner of the terrace.

“You should see mine in my uniform,” Steve called out.

Bucky dropped ice in his glass, opened a new bottle and brought it to Stark to pour.  “I have seen yours in your uniform. Still think you go commando. No underwear in the world has that much cling.”

Tony made stop signs with his hands to both men, one still holding his glass.  Carefully, he reached for the bottle and poured about three fingers, most of which he chugged. “This is not my life. Capsicle and Ice Man 2 trading ass jokes on my terrace, one of whom has already stolen my liquor and pronounced it no more than ‘drinkable.’” He pressed the old-fashioned to his forehead. “And I did not just hear Captain America say, ‘dick,’ did I?”

“You did,” Steve agreed.

“You’re ruining my image of you.”

“What the uptight, all-American virginal hero, champion of the weak, defender of the women and children?” Bucky snorted and let his voice change. “Yeah, he’s been pullin’ that gig for a while. Biggest bunch o’ malarkey. Ain’t nothin’ uptight ‘n innocent ‘bout Steven Rogers.”

Tony blanched.  “Oh fuck me. Did I hear Brooklyn?  You do not speak Brooklyn.  That is automatic grounds for moving out.  I am not having grandkids who speak Brooklyn.”

Steve pealed out with laughter. “Sorry, Tony,” he said in his own hometown accent. “Ya gotta know what ya daughter is datin’.  Pair o’ blokes from the boroughs ain’t too good for th’ Starks,” he elbowed Bucky.

“Told ya, punk. She’s th’ Princess in th’ ivory tower.” Bucky held his glass up and clinked it with Steve’s.

“I hate both of you. Darcy is grounded. She is never going out with either of you ever again,” Tony swore. “JARVIS, remind me to move Darcy to Malibu tomorrow.”

The flash of unease in Bucky’s eyes was enough for Steve to set his glass down and put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s a joke. She’s not going anywhere.”

“I know. I know. We just got her back,” Bucky conceded, sucking in a deep breath.

Steve pulled him in for a hug, not caring if it bothered Tony or not. But Tony only swirled the ice in his glass, watching the two of them.

“Rogers, why don’t you get Darcy to her lab and come back when you’re done,” he suggested. “Barnes and I need a little one-on-one time.” 

Feeling the tension in Bucky, Steve calmed him with a kiss to his temple and long strokes on the spine. “You’re safe.  But are you okay with that, love?” he murmured as he ran a hand under the collar of Bucky’s sweater. He tugged on the dog tags as a reminder they were there.

Bucky shifted his stance, pulling himself in, though not entirely to the soldier. Steve thought this was more Sergeant Barnes than anything. “Yes.”  He slid his fingers into his pockets, more himself now. “Go take care of our girl.” 

“Will do.”

He felt odd leaving Bucky with Tony. (Overprotective, probably. Yes. Bucky could take care of himself in this situation.) Still, he followed Tony’s instructions.

Darcy woke just enough to nuzzle his neck as he descended the back stairs with her.  He did get her feet down to stand her up long enough to help her out of the crumpled dress and the lingerie she’d worn underneath. She missed the snaps on her bra and Steve came to her rescue.  Once that hit the floor, she slid under the sheets murmuring her thanks.

He took the time to pick up the dress to lay it across one her chairs. (Definitely needed a second or third wearing. He wanted to peel her out of it at least once. And maybe keep it on her for the next.) 

Tucking the blankets over her more securely, he left her alone and climbed the back staircase. (Didn’t like leaving her here.  Wanted her home.)

The two men were at the far end of the terrace, looking out over the city. Tony seemed to be explaining something that had caught Bucky’s interest, enough that Bucky held his left wrist out and was showing something on it to Tony. Tony had his Iron Man glove on.

“Comparing hardware?” Steve deadpanned as he came up behind them.

Tony’s snapped around to glare at Steve. “You know, a month ago I would have sworn that you didn’t know what you were saying with things like that.”

He shrugged. “Bucky brings out the best in me.”

“More like the teenaged brat in you,” Bucky countered. “Never listened to anyone, Stark. Not his Ma, not me.”

“That’s not true,” Steve acted as if he was offended. “I always listen.”

“You just stayed stupid.” Bucky elbowed Tony. “Some dumbass got the bright idea to make him bigger. Now he’s still stupid but he’s so pretty everyone thinks he’s right.”

Tony choked back a laugh. “You know, Barnes, I’m not sure you’re wrong on that one.” He flicked quick looks between them. “Rogers, you weren’t kidding about you two being the real deal.”

Long used to the way Tony danced around from subject to subject, Steve fielded this one easily. “No. I would never joke about something like that.”

“I’m not going to ask why, because I know damned well that Pepper has no business giving me the time of day,” Tony started. Serious, a little nervous, and with a touch of anger, he demanded, “You both swear to me that you will love Darcy as much as you love each other.”

“Yes,” Bucky confirmed.  He flexed his hand in the absence of her touch.

Steve understood that this came from a father who adored his daughter, but it didn’t mean that the request didn’t sting.  He put his hands on his hips in irritation. “I promise, Tony, but I shouldn’t have to. You know me better than that.”

“Sometimes, Rogers, I don’t think I know you at all.” Tony looked him up and down. “I sure as hell didn’t know you speak Brooklyn.”

“Now that really hurts, Stark. My past is an open book.I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all,” he retorted.

Tony raised his eyebrows. “I like this version of you a hell of a lot better. Cap has a stick up his ass.” He glanced at Bucky. “Instead of something else, I guess.” 

Well, hell. That got Bucky laughing so hard he had to sit on one of the chairs. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Darcy woke in her own bed.  From the night sky, she decided it had to be somewhere around o-dark-fuck.  Her phone, when she found it on the nightstand beside her glasses, agreed with her assessment and confirmed she’d slept almost twelve hours straight.  She had five texts, three from Steve, one each from Jane and Nat, and one missed call. 

The texts were from Steve wondering where she was at first, then telling her he loved her and to sleep well.  Nat and Jane wondering how the date went.  The missed call—now that was interesting seeing as it came from Betty Ross.  Too early to call the scientist back, she fired off a text asking if Betty was ready to take up the standing offer to work at Stark Industries.

Her hair itched.  She definitely needed a shower.  As she stumbled in the direction of the bathroom, she had the vague memory of Steve nudging her into bed and helping her out of the black dress that was carefully draped over her chair. 

One shower, a bagel and a cup of coffee later, Darcy settled at her laptop, catching up on Stark Industries.  When that was done, she retrieved Bucky’s heater that she’d finished Sunday afternoon and took the time to tape it down to her own arm.  She could pack it in ice to trigger the thermistor once she was sure it wasn’t glitching in standby mode. 

As sky began to lighten up, she got a text from Betty: Yes.

With a happy dance,Darcy shot back, Offer still includes a furnished apartment if your doubting boyfriend gives you any trouble.  Move in ready, when can I send the van?

Is now too soon?  My plane just landed at LaGuardia.   It’s either that or I’m sleeping on your floor.

Skip the taxi.  JARVIS tells me Happy was picking up another SI VP who landed about fifteen minutes ago.  He’ll meet you at the baggage claim, if you don’t mind sharing a limo. 

Not at all. Thank you. 

Are we moving lab equipment from somewhere?  And no, won’t make you sleep on the floor.  Living in the Tower now.  If you need to crash while we get you situated, you can have my place.  I’ll stay with Steve. 

 I’m coming with just my laptop and a suitcase.  Long story. Thought you were moving in with Steve.

Long story.  He’s living in the Tower with his boyfriend in one of the apartments. 

???

Yeah, that.  I’ll trade you stories about my boyfriend and his boyfriend for why you are giving up a professorship at Culver over wine.  After you and your boyfriend figure things out.

He’s not my boyfriend.

Sure.  He just pines for random women while sipping his calming teas. See you in an hour or so.

Darcy fired off an email about Betty’s arrival to her mom for later.  “JARVIS, we have a furnished apartment ready on the fifth floor, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Would you have some fruit sent up and some of Banner’s tea stocked?”

“I believe I have a list of Ms Ross’ preferences on hand.”

“Perfect, then you’ll know how to set it up.  I’ll bet she stays there for a few days no matter what happens.” 

“You’re a good friend, Lewis.”

“Maybe.  Maybe it will be nice not to be the Avengers' entertainment for a day or two.”

She wrapped up her work by the time JARVIS announced Betty’s arrival.  Darcy checked the time.  Perfect.  Bruce would be drinking tea in the Commons.

Better yet, Steve was there too.  A searchlight had less wattage than his smile as he scooped her into a hug.  “I missed you yesterday.” He nuzzled her hair, kissing behind her ear. 

She hissed as he hit that sweet spot on her neck.  “Yes.  Holy--you’re in a good mood.” 

“I am.”  One hand landed on her ass. 

“Shit, shit, shit.  No. Not now.  I want you.  Really bad.  But Bruce is here.  Betty is on her way.  Can’t miss this.  Fuck.  I forgot to text Clint,” she whispered.  She did that, furiously typing away on her phone. 

“Do you tell each other everything?”

“The good stuff.”  Clint and Darcy were responsible for most of the transmission of decent gossip in the Tower.

“Who is Betty?” Steve asked, apparently not quietly enough, because Bruce’s head snapped up. 

The elevator doors opened and Darcy bounded toward her friend.  “Betty!” 

“Darcy?  How do you know people that I still don’t know you know?” Steve said in exasperation as he followed. 

“I know a lot of people you don’t know.” She kissed Betty’s cheeks as Steve took her luggage.  “Betty, this is Steve Rogers a.k.a. my boyfriend.  Steve, Dr. Betty Ross, late a biomedical research professor at Culver and Stark Industries’ newest addition to the R&D department.”

Steve grinned at Betty.  “That’s where you two met.  Culver.” He reached out and shook her hand.

Betty smiled, a tired sort of thing that didn’t quite reach her eyes.  “We crossed paths a time or two.  Jane Foster and I tended to bond at faculty functions in the face of the overwhelming amounts of testosterone in the room.  Darcy and I got to know each other during her last semester.  I’ve been getting quarterly emails begging me to come to work here.”

“I guess that this isn’t really a coincidence.  Me being here and you being here,” Bruce said from behind Steve. 

Darcy shoved Steve toward the stairs, leaving the suitcase behind.  Clint and Nat came up behind them, stopping at the second to bottom step, so that the four of them were goggling at the scene.  Darcy crossed her fingers behind her back. 

Betty—tall, dark and shy—slowly advanced two steps toward Bruce, who was hunched over with his arms crossed.  And who made his own pathetic little shuffling steps toward Betty.  “No.  I pretty much think all of your arguments have been debunked now.  Except maybe one and I’m not even sure of that anymore.  So I’m here.  I’m going to work here.  And maybe we’ll find an answer and maybe we won’t, but I’ve had enough of your nobility and hiding.”  She didn’t give Bruce a chance to say anything before she pushed into his arms and held on. 

Bruce was forever startled whenever people touched him, and this was no different.  But he closed his arms carefully around her shoulders. 

Darcy, Steve, Nat and Clint backed up the staircase to give them privacy.  They went all the way up to the fourth floor.  Darcy was giggling like a madwoman as she called Jane and babbled out the good news.  Her laughter was infectious and had the rest of them in smiles.  Wilson came out of his apartment, scratching his head and yawning at the noise. 

Steve shrugged as he looked at the crowd. “Want pancakes?”

“Hell, yeah,” Sam spoke up.

Darcy invited Jane and Thor before she hung up and sent a text to Bruce and Betty so they wouldn’t feel left out.  As the four of them invaded the apartment, Bucky came out of the bedroom, all scruffy and his hair messy, looking absolutely adorable in his sweats, t-shirt and a worn set of dog tags around his neck.

“Coffee?” he pleaded.

“On it,” Steve winked.  He brushed a kiss on Darcy’s lips before separating and taking up residence in the kitchen.  Clint beat him to the coffee pot and Natasha sorted out ingredients.   

Bucky brightened as Darcy reached out to him and kissed him on the lips.  Like Bruce did with Betty, he gathered her carefully into his arms for a long hug.  “Missed you yesterday.” 

She rested her head against his shoulder until Thor and Jane knocked and let themselves in.  With an apology to Bucky and an extra squeeze around his middle, she and Jane made their own hugs and found a place on the sofa.  Nat brought coffee for three and sat down to talk all things Betty and Bruce.  (And Darcy and Steve and Bucky, but that was later.)

Darcy winked at Steve, who had corralled the guys into the kitchen.  Thor manned the bacon station, Bucky stirred up scrambled eggs, and Steve made pancakes by the dozens.  Sam handled toast and Clint made sure the coffee pot stayed full. 

It was a lot of noise and more laughter than Darcy could ever remember with this crew. 

In her ear, JARVIS asked, Lewis, shall I invite Sir and Ms. Potts?

Of course.  Can’t have all the Avengers here and not include them.  Thanks, J.  I would have felt bad later for not thinking of it.

About the time the pancakes started coming off the griddle, Bruce and Betty showed up.  They were holding hands as they walked in and Darcy let out a short squeal of triumph. 

Sam and Clint passed out loaded plates to grateful hands, including her parents' as they arrived, still in pajamas like the rest of them.  Betty and Bruce crammed into a single cushy chair, mostly eating off just one plate. Pepper and Tony took the barstools. 

Thor, Steve and Bucky carried out the rest of the plates to the living room where bodies settled on the floor, couches and chairs.  Bucky squeezed into the space between the arm of the sofa and Darcy, with Steve sitting on the floor in front of them. 

Bucky wrapped an arm around her.  Curious about the tags, she flipped the metal over and found Steve’s name stamped there.  “Sexy, Barnes.”  She licked her lips as she skimmed over the way the tight shirt clung to his biceps.  Yes, he was definitely yummy this morning.  With Steve close enough to lean against their legs, her lady parts were dancing out of pure proximity. The contact went beyond safe, beyond friendship, it was electric. She hummed under her breath in anticipation. (More. She wanted more.) 

Barnes might have indulged her in another kiss except that his fingers grazed the film taped to her arm when he leaned over.  “Are you hurt, Princess?” he asked, tugging her shirt sleeve up to look. 

Darcy handed him her plate and turned so that he could see.  “That’s your heater.  I’m testing it to make sure it works.  This afternoon, I’ll start experimenting with ice packs to see if it warms up properly.” 

Betty raised her brow.  She looked from Darcy’s test patch to Bucky’s arm.  “Biofeedback headaches?” she asked him. 

“Some, but mostly the vibranium support structure gets cold,” he answered after Darcy nudged him. 

“Let me or Darcy know if you want help,” she offered.

Darcy blushed. “Sorry, introductions are needed here.  Dr. Betty Ross, biomedical research out of Culver.  Bruce, Jane and I were there, though not at the same time.”  Darcy went around the room, naming everyone for Betty. 

Bucky let a soft smile cross his face for Darcy.  “Is that why you wanted her here?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she retorted.  “I’ve been angling for her to come to work here for a couple of years.”

Betty let out a disbelieving laugh.  “Sure.  And that explains why you threw in the apartment with your standing offer six months ago.”

“Nope. That was because your boyfriend was being a dork and I’m sticking by that,” Darcy insisted.  Bruce just pursed his lips and stayed quiet.  Bucky gave her a squeeze  of thanks.

“Speaking of boyfriends … “ Betty trailed off, pointedly looking at the two men near Darcy. 

With plenty of time to think her way through the new dynamics of their relationship yesterday as she worked, Darcy discovered she had to make some adjustments in her thinking.  She and Steve were still a going thing, no questions there.  But what was Bucky to her?  She’d had reframe the question in terms of her experience.  If Steve wasn’t in the picture, then what would she consider Bucky given where they were in their relationship? The answer hadn’t particularly surprised her, but it still felt weird all the same. 

Darcy pointed to Steve.  “Boyfriend.”  She pointed to Bucky, shyly confirming, “Boyfriend.” She tugged on tags that Bucky wore.  “They sort of come as a set.” 

“I noticed,” Betty agreed. 

The incandescent light in Bucky’s eyes was only matched by that in Steve’s. Then Natasha whispered something in Russian that made Barnes retaliate with a pillow aimed in her direction (Darcy really needed to learn Russian).

Unfortunately for those who had to work, it was only Tuesday, which meant Bucky had an appointment with Natasha in the training room.  Darcy and Pepper needed to focus on Stark Industries for the day, and Director Coulson was flying in later to meeting with Maria and Steve. 

So their little party broke up, reluctantly, with Darcy, Steve, Clint and Sam tackling the kitchen clean up.  Thor followed Bucky and Nat to the training room, with the promise that Steve would be along shortly. 

 

*****

 

Natasha behaved herself a better in practice.  She put forth a reasonable effort, if not an enthusiastic one.  But she was precise with her movements this time, and he was pleased with her form.  Once, when she’d spoken to him in Russian, he found himself shifting hard into the soldier (Asset). 

You’re safe, Barnes. JARVIS reminded him.

He went to one knee when it happened.  As he did, the tags moved under his shirt, grounding him to who and where he was. (James Buchanan Barnes. Tower.  Mission: Protect Stark.)   Reassured, he started again with Natasha and took her through her full paces. 

But she didn’t earn her shoes.  She didn’t ask.  She knew better. 

The rest of the morning was spent with Barton on the long shooting range, just a brief helicopter ride out of Manhattan.   Even he had to admit the archer was brilliant and they were better matched than he liked.  The competition was good for both of them.  (Skill set). 

Out of sheer boredom, they switched weapons.  He was intrigued by the bow and decided to add it to his arsenal of weaponry.  Barton seemed comfortable with the rifles, though he preferred his arrows for the longest of ranges. 

“So you and Darcy are a thing now?” Barton asked. 

“We’re dating.” A thrill of excitement ran through him. Experiencing. (Darcy’s boyfriend.) 

“Stark seems to be handling it well enough.”

Bucky exhaled long and low as Barton lined up his next shot. (Assessing) “We had words.  I think we have an understanding.”

“You understand that you’re at his mercy if things don’t go well with his heir and spawn?” 

“Precisely.”   

“Hell of a position to be in.”  Barton let the arrow fly and the bowstring twanged in response.

“I’m exactly where I want to be.”  (He was. It was a new feeling. Content? Wilson would know.)

“Heard they made you part of Stark security.  Why not the Avengers?  We could use you.  Rogers sure as hell would be better for it.” 

“I have a mission,” he countered.

“What’s that?” 

“Protect Stark.” (Asset)

Barton looked back at him in curiosity.  “That directive has a rather nebulous set of parameters.”

“Yes.” (Skill set)

The archer tilted the corner of his mouth up in a smile and shook his head in disbelief.  “Pepper Potts is one slick operator.” 

“Yes, she is. And no, I’m not interested in pissing her off.”

“Did she show you Extremis?”

“No, though Darcy mentioned that her mom isn’t scared of anyone she can melt.  It’s a reasonable threat,” he offered mildly with a glance at his arm. 

Barton only laughed.  “No one ever said this life was boring, Barnes.”

No.  Not boring.  Not boring at all.  (Darcy called him boyfriend.)

 

 

Lunchtime found most of them out on the Commons terrace, as it was a beautiful day and still held a little bit of the summer’s warmth in the air.  Most of the morning’s group reconvened when Darcy shot out a text to everyone about the weather and available food.  Never say the Avengers couldn’t take a hint.  Steve was the exception, as Coulson had already landed. 

Stark had designed this part of the terrace with trees and bushes lining the edge of the tower, so if one didn’t look too closely, it was easy to forget they were eighty floors up, give or take a few.

Bucky built himself a sandwich from the luncheon that had been laid out and wandered around with it in one hand as he explored.

Darcy leaned back on her chair so that the sun washed across her face and glinted off her sunglasses. “I love fall.”

(Boyfriend) He stood beside her, unsure of his next move.  She made it, reaching out to cup a hand around his metal wrist.  She held on.  “Want to pull up a chair?” 

He did, hooking one with his foot and dragging it close to hers.  Natalia snickered at the ridiculous noises the metal made on the concrete.

Sam kicked back in one of the loungers. “Now this is the life. I have definitely moved up in this world. Stark’s got me some wings to test this afternoon. There are beautiful woman here and nothing but ugly dudes, so I’ve a shot.”

Darcy laughed. “Careful there, Sam. You could turn a girl’s head with all that flattery.”

“Just say the word and we’ll go dancing.”

She tipped her sunglasses down. “Nine o’clock, Saturday night, Club Stark. You’re on. Dress to impress.”

Bucky lost his breath, shifting out of the soldier all at once. He loved dancing.  Not that he had any idea of how people danced now, but he would figure it out.  He brought Darcy’s hand up for a kiss on the fingertips.  She squeezed his hand back, glancing over with her bottom lip sucked between her teeth.

“Can I bring a friend?” Sam asked. 

“Maria likes to dance?” she shot back.

For the first time, he saw Wilson truly flustered.  “How did—“

Darcy shrugged and shoved her glasses back up her nose. (Did she wink at Barton? Yes. She did.) “There are no secrets in the Tower.  Now, what kind of music does everyone like?”  

Chapter Text

When Steve finished his meeting with Hill and Coulson, he ended the afternoon sparring with Bucky. He needed this.  Needed someone who could press his skills, to force him to be better and faster.  There were so few who could make him work, and most of them had vanished or been killed with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fall. 

Bucky dished out everything Steve wanted and a little more.  But where Bucky went for killing strikes, Steve worked to disable.  Though it made Steve’s job harder, but he would be more effective for it in the long run. 

What amazed Steve was Bucky’s ability to pull a blow at the absolute last moment.  Steve had bruises, but he sure as hell wasn’t dead.  “Damn, Buck,” he panted as they took a breather on the mats.  “You’re fast.  And I need you to show me how you’re getting through my defenses.” 

Bucky raked his hair out of his face.  “You’re just big and slow.  Not my fault,” he joked.

Rolling up on an elbow, Steve shook his head.  “I’m serious.”

The trainer rolled up to balance on the balls of his feet.  “You worked with Rumlow, right? And the rest of S.T.R.I.K.E.?”

“Yes.” 

“Rumlow’s team was the best, after Natasha.  But they were holding out on you.  The skills that kept you alive against them—and me--were the little things you picked up from her. Rumlow and his crew have always known that if they were to take you down, it would be as a team and they would have to know your blind spots. Natasha knows everything I know and it saved your keister.”  He shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong, Steve.  You’re good.  Really good.  Rumlow and his team still couldn’t beat you.  That’s why they needed me.”

“I don’t like thinking about how you learned to do what you do, Buck,” Steve admitted.

“Don’t,” he said shortly, winding his fingers around the dog tags. He blew out his breath.  “Did you hear about Darcy’s plans for Saturday night?” 

The change in subject wasn’t subtle in the slightest, and Steve went along with it. “Not yet.”

“She’s opening up Club Stark to the riff raff.  Said something about dancing and making sure we dress up.”

There were not many things that rattled Steve these days.  This did it.  In all the time they had been dating, he and Darcy had never gone out dancing. Steve didn’t even know she liked to dance.  “But—“

“I’m going,” Nat announced from somewhere behind them. “Clint. Bruce and Betty.   Jane. Thor if he gets back from Asgard in time. Sam and Maria. Tony said he would drop by and Pepper should get in midday, so she’s in. Come on. It’s going to be fun.”  Steve twisted around and she tossed both of them water bottles.  “Time’s up. I’ve got a couple of new recruits to intimidate.  So—out.” 

Fun? (Sam and Maria? Since when--) Fun was walking with Darcy through the park holding hands. Fun was making love to her for hours on end (when was the last time that happened?). Fun was watching a baseball game on a sunny afternoon.   “A dance?” He swallowed hard, thinking a little too much about the last time someone had promised him a turn around the floor.

Bucky rolled his eyes.  “Are you still hung up on that?  It’s a few drinks and good music. It can’t have changed that much. Sam or Nat will show us the ropes.”

“I don’t know how to dance, Buck. You know that.”

His friend bopped him on the head and pulled him to his feet.  “Punk.” 

The whole thing slipped his mind when he got a call from Coulson while he dried off from the shower.  As he hung up the phone, he retrieved his go bag and his uniform from his locker. 

“Got a mission?” Bucky asked, his face carefully neutral.

“Yes.  But I have enough time to get something to eat first.  I want to talk to you and Darcy before I go.” 

Bucky ordered in and called Darcy while Steve finished his prep.  They reconvened in their apartment, and Darcy brought the Thai food JARVIS had delivered up from the cafeteria. 

No, it wasn’t his imagination that Darcy took in his uniform with trepidation.  She reached out, following the line of the star with her fingertip.  “I forget.” 

“Forget what?” he asked as he covered her hand with his. 

“About this.” She indicated all of him.  But whatever was in her head, she shook it off and gave him a genuine smile.  “It looks good, Cap.”

“You know, I really don’t like it when you call me that.”  He slid an arm around her so that he could nuzzle her nose and steal a kiss.  When her lips parted under his, he brought his hand to her hair, tangling in it the same way their tongues did.  She shoved at him, not that she could move him any. He laughed against her mouth, even as he took the hint and let her go.  “Still Cap?” 

“No,” she retorted.  “That’s all Steve Rogers.”  She turned, waggling a finger at Bucky.  “You and I need to come to an agreement here.  My lady parts are not happy to be in the vicinity of all this,” she waved at Steve, “and not be partaking more than I am.” 

That did make Steve blush, though Bucky’s unholy grin was something to be admired.  “I can arrange that, Princess.  Every night.  Twice a day.  Whatever you want, doll.”

Steve started to make a snarky remark about being farmed out, but Darcy didn’t take the bait.

With a little bit of a lost look in Steve’s direction, she said simply, “I miss Sundays.”  Then she went about laying out their dinner on the table. 

He closed his mouth.  He did too.  Long, lazy days of making love.  Playing in the kitchen together.  Watching movies.  Sometimes she would read while he sketched.  They never made it more than a couple of hours before the clothes came off and they were playing again, trying to see who could tease each other the most. 

They didn’t always get Sundays because of his crazy schedule.  But Fury had known that Sundays were special, that Steve would fly fourteen hours straight on a cargo plane or go sleepless to finish a debrief, all to make sure he was with Darcy on those days.

Bucky shot him a questioning look, but Steve tilted his head.  Later. Nodding in understanding, Bucky retrieved the water glasses and the pitcher from the refrigerator.

As they ate, Steve told them about his meeting with Coulson and Hill.  “Coulson received intelligence indicating the location of a number of HYDRA cells.”  (He couldn’t tell them where it came from, or that most of it didn’t collaborate with Bucky’s intel, or that the few agents with Coulson had been working to confirm them for three weeks now.)  

“He’s asked for Avengers assistance in cleaning out particular ones.  The other Avengers have agreed to let me call the shots—meaning I choose if or when we go, and which team members participate.” 

That part had been important to Steve—and Natasha.  Like her, the idea that he’d been working for someone he couldn’t trust had damned near broken his faith with anyone beyond his teammates—not that he’d had much time to dwell on it in the aftermath.  Coulson understood that if he wanted Cap’s help, he had to turn over the intelligence and let Cap draw his own conclusions.  But Steve couldn’t tell Darcy and Bucky all that. 

“We have a timeline,” is what he could say.  “For a while, it’s going to be a lot of short missions with one or two teams.  In general, Bruce and Tony will stay here.  They do far more good as scientists and these kinds of ops aren’t suited for them.  Thor is splitting his time between here and Asgard, so unless we can’t do without him, we’re not putting him on a regular team.”  

“This is a lot like your S.T.R.I.K.E. work,” Darcy ventured.  She had a carefully blank expression, enough that Bucky reached under the table to take her hand. 

“Yes, only I don’t answer to anyone.  If I don’t like it, we don’t go in. Coulson is the one who has to answer to the World Council, not me.” Steve linked his hands with both Darcy and Bucky.  “This is my call. I want to do this.”

Bucky huffed.  “Been doin’ it your whole life, punk.  Didn’t figure it would change now.” 

Darcy squeezed Steve’s fingertips, and she nodded in understanding. “The whole team will be better having you as a leader.  Even with Coulson in charge, it’s a little hard to know who to trust these days.”    

All the tension that had built up prior to the conversation released at once.  He’d needed their blessing and hadn’t had any idea what he would have done without it.

They were cleaning up when Steve’s phone sounded the alert.  Steve reached out to Bucky, who was closest, and gave him a hard hug and a kiss.  With the other hand, he pulled in Darcy too. 

“Promise me you’ll come home,” she said.   

“I promise, love.” 

“Don’t be stupid, punk.” 

Steve winked.  “How can I?  I’m leaving all the stupid with you, jerk. Take care of our girl.” 

“Just don’t forget about Saturday night, Rogers.” 

He blanked.  Dancing.  Damn. 

 

*****

 

Bucky discovered a whole different side to Darcy in the wake of Steve’s departure.  After they cleaned up the kitchen, she coaxed Bucky into watching a movie, and promptly fell asleep with her head on his thigh and his hand in her hair. 

She woke when it ended later and disappeared into Tony’s lab, where JARVIS indicated she and Stark had a project they were tackling.  Bucky slept a few hours, woke when the bed got too empty, and spent his night prowling the Tower with JARVIS hunting for flaws in the security net.

It took him a while to figure out why she’d crashed so soon after Steve left. 

Two days later, she still hadn’t slept, hadn’t let her cell phone land more than a foot away from her, and she worked like a virago to keep herself distracted.  Pepper had finished up early both days and had her eye on tackling an internal remap of SI since she had the spare time to think seriously about it.

Perhaps because he’d fought alongside Steve so many times, he wasn’t worried.  At least these days, the punk had the skill set to keep him alive and didn’t need Bucky to bail him out.  Short missions like this were the bread and butter of a special ops soldier, but he didn’t know how to tell Darcy all that. 

Her mornings were spent in Pepper’s office, afternoons in her lab, and then she stayed with Tony pounding away at one of his computers in the dead of the night. 

Both evenings she let Bucky try to distract her.  Wednesday night had been Monopoly with Sam, where Darcy amassed a solid block of properties and decimated them with her rents (definitely Pepper’s daughter). They played with the new technology for his arm on Thursday night.  She’d finished her testing and the heater was currently mounted to the outside of his shoulder.  It seemed to be working as promised, and the dull headache that had started when the weather turned colder went away. 

Flirting was off the table for now.  It was hard enough to get her to stay still long enough to feed her before she was off to the next diversion.  

He tried to get her to come to his bed Thursday night (just to sleep), but that only lasted an hour before she gave up tossing and turning.  Pulling on sweatshirt, he followed.  JARVIS directed him to Tony’s lab, where Bucky settled in to keep them company. (Uncomfortable. JARVIS had to be silenced.)  It wasn’t long before he was intrigued in their project (JARVIS was his friend) and he spent the night charting Darcy and Tony’s findings on a spreadsheet.

Friday morning, under Tony’s glare and with Pepper’s blessing and assurances that she could handle Stark Industries for the day, he nudged Darcy down to her floor and into the shower while he made oatmeal for her breakfast. 

When she came out, her eyes were bright with exhaustion, agitation written in every line of her body.  She stiffened against him as he intercepted her shuffling progress toward the kitchen.  “Princess, you can’t keep doing this.  Come on, I’ll hold you while you rest.”

Darcy shook her head. “I can’t, Bucky.  Not until I know he’s coming home.”  She ate, dressed and camped out at her laptop.  He stayed with her, letting her reset the heater to the inside of his shoulder panel.  The difference was noticeable and when he laid his right hand on his metal collarbone, it felt warm even to him.   

At 14:42, she got the text from Steve that he was on his way home.  Fifteen minutes later, she stumbled to her bed and fell face first into a deep sleep.    

Bucky watched over her, wondering what he could do to change this.

 

*****

 

Darcy shook herself awake, forcing the dreams to the far corner of her mind.  She was in her own bed, alone, and shivering.  It was already dark out, though the evening had hardly started.  Her phone, still clenched in her hand, had awakened her when it buzzed with Steve’s latest text.

Home. DB with Hill. Hour max.

It wasn’t fair.  She used to be the one to soothe Steve out of his nightmares, and having slept between the two soldiers for half a year, had thought she was beyond them.  All it took was the first night away from them in London to prove that a lie. 

She got up to splash cold water on her face and discovered Bucky sitting in her lab with a lamp on, reading a worn science fiction paperback she was sure belonged to her dad.  He set it to the side, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.  “You okay, Princess?”

Darcy went over to twine her fingers with his, and he pressed a kiss to her knuckles.  “I’m good.”

“Bullshit.”  He repeated the words she’d said to him a few days ago.  “You gonna do this every time Steve has a mission?” 

She nodded.  “Yes.”

“You and I are going to have a talk, doll.  Not yet ‘cause you’re still strung out, but we’ve got to get a handle on this.

We. She wasn’t sure about that.  She’d tried everything in the past.  Tea. Movies.  Sleeping pills.  Xanax.  None of it helped and the latter two only made her feel ill and even more exhausted when she roused.  Alcohol worked but she gave that up when she’d missed a rare mid-mission phone call from Steve.  “I don’t know what else to do,” she admitted. 

“We’ll figure it out together, Princess.”  He quirked a smile at her.  “You look like you need a hug.” 

She shivered all over, clutching his fingers hard.  Bucky came out of the chair to hold her.  “It’s okay, Princess.  Steve’s the best at what he does.  Hell, I can barely keep up with him.  He doesn’t know how hard he presses my abilities.  He’s good, doll.  He’s always going to come home.”

He held her, but she didn’t quite hug him back. 

 

*****

 

It hurt more than he expected. 

Steve came home.  And when he did, Bucky left them alone. 

He wasn’t enough.  Darcy was having a rough go of it, and he wasn’t able to help her even a little. 

This past week had been a real eye-opener into the relationship Steve and Darcy had.  The real one, not the one where a broken soldier commanded most of their attentions.  He’d been amused at the endless stream of texts that kept the pair connected throughout their days—certainly a habit developed from living in two cities.  They sassed each other, flirted continually, traded gossip, and sent a steady stream of love from one phone to the other.  When they were together, in the rare times he could study them without them being aware of his presence, he could see how much they were friends as much as lovers.  Darcy was still as cheeky as ever, but the protective façade she sometimes donned vanished.  And Steve, well shit, the Captain America crap got hung up in a closet because Darcy didn’t tolerate it for a minute.  This was the Steve only he had ever known. 

He wasn’t exactly jealous, because Darcy made Steve ridiculously happy, but he had a fair idea of how Darcy must have felt when he showed up.  If Bucky and Steve came as a set, so did Darcy and Steve. 

It was the second time he’d seen her towering strength falter.  And boyfriend or not, Darcy wasn’t letting him in to help. 

He ended up watching baseball with Barton until Natasha returned from wherever she’d been that afternoon.  It involved two shopping bags, and now he was pissed she didn’t ask him to go along.  Anything was better than moping around thinking about Steve and Darcy making time in the bedroom (still not jealous, just wanted in). 

Natasha eyeballed him. “It’s game night.”

He shot her a dirty look.  “Is there a decent pool hall around here?”

“We have a billiards table,” she pointed out. 

“Can’t smoke in here.  And I really want a cigarette,” he grumbled. 

So they ended up at a place that Barton preferred, with shitty vodka and a decent deck of something a few steps up from Luckies.  There were two levels. Of course, they took the top floor with its own pool table, two televisions, and only a hand full of bar tops.  Barton and Natasha called dibs on the first game. 

All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to kill an evening.  He pulled on the ciggy before squashing it out on the ashtray, wishing he knew how to bridge the gap between him and Darcy. 

 

*****

 

Sweaty, sated, and sprawled out across Steve was the absolute perfect place for Darcy to be.  He lazily stroked her hair, stopping now and again to bring her hand up to kiss the tips of her fingers. 

“I love you.”  His deep voice rumbled through his whole body. She loved the vibration and laced her hands under her chin so that she could look at him.

“I love you back.” In times like this, Darcy felt like the luckiest girl in the world.  Sketches and fate and chance meetings aside, both of them were well aware of how catastrophically the world could go wrong.  Steve balanced her and chased the demons away, so much that even though she was still exhausted, she felt better.  

With her fear and anxiety stripped out for the moment, she discovered a glaring problem that she hadn’t noticed before. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“How do you always know?” He flashed a grin and touched a finger in between her eyes.  Sighing at her own tell, she rolled off his chest to land splayed out on the bed, with one leg propped up against him. 

Steve leaned on an elbow, using his other hand to skim her outstretched leg.  He kissed her knee, trailing his fingers along the inside of her thigh.  “And?”

“I feel like James should be here.”

Though his blue eyes lit up, he reminded her, “You’re not ready for that, Darcy.”

“I know.” She scooted her pillow under her head a little more.  “I guess it’s a good thing that I want him here? Even if I’m not quite ready to take that leap?”

“Yes, that’s a good thing.”  Fingertips brushed the hollow of her thigh, sending a rush of energy straight to her lady parts. “And Darcy, when I’m with him, I want you there too. So does he.”  Without warning, he flushed with a barely concealed smile. 

Darcy gave him a hairy eyeball.  “I know you.  That is not a look of innocence.  What did you do, Steven Rogers?”

He dipped his fingers into her still swollen flesh, just brushing her wet clit.  He brought the tips to his fingers and sucked on them.  “Bucky likes the way you taste.” 

Remembering the date, she felt the heat rise in her cheeks and scrambled to her knees to whack Steve with a pillow.  “Holy shit, Rogers.  Barring James, no one, absolutely fucking no one has any idea what a fucking freak you can be with sex.” She covered her flaming cheeks with her hands.  “What else did you do?” 

“You taste really good on Bucky?” he answered, biting his lip as he did.

Now she had the visual of Steve sucking off Bucky and that was … enlightening.  Intoxicating really.  She flushed, not from embarrassment this time, but from the heat originating straight from her clit and tingling breasts as she considered the possibilities. 

Steve was already half-hard and twitching again as he watched her.  He cupped her cheek, rubbing her bottom lip with his thumb.  “You’re getting worked up just thinking about it.” 

“So are you,” she retorted. (Holy fuck. Yes.  Yes. Yes.  Just—not yet.)  She reached down, found Steve’s shirt where it had landed on the floor earlier and handed it to him.  “I’ll leave some of you for James.  He missed you too.  I’m hungry anyway, so let’s go find him.” 

And that felt right.  All the way down to her bones. 

 

*****

 

JARVIS told them where to find their third, and Steve was perfectly happy to go to him with Darcy clinging to the back of his bike as they zipped over the bridge to Brooklyn.  She pressed her hands under his shirt, sliding them up and down his sides as he dodged traffic.  She was the most distracting dame he’d had the pleasure to meet.  (He loved her.  Craved.  Needed beyond reason.  She was home.)

The ancient club had smoke and whiskey soaked into the wood paneling, and Steve wondered how old the place might be.  The lights were dim enough that even he might go unrecognized, and when he glanced up, he figured out why Barton liked this place.  The upper story gave them a perfect vantage point of the small space.  He put his lips to his fingers when Natasha caught sight of them, and he led Darcy to the back stairs. 

Sucking on a cigarette as he leaned on the pool cue, Bucky studied the arrangement of balls on the table.  There was a half a pack left on the bar top where Barton was sitting, with a bottle of vodka that was probably too warm for anyone to drink. Natasha had a cue in her hand and a smug expression as she flicked a satisfied look at the table. 

Bucky never went out in public with his arm uncovered.  Yet, here he was, jacket and glove on the table, and the sleeves of his button down shirt rolled up to his elbows.  Dark hair curled over his collar, and his lower half was coated in the slicked on jeans that would have been indecent a seven decades ago, but now was considered good fashion. (Bucky was the air he breathed. He craved. Burned for him.)

Bucky’s mouth dropped open when he saw them.  With a squeeze to Steve’s fingertips, Darcy let go.  She wrinkled her nose at the cigarette, but wound her arms around Bucky anyway.  His hands were full, and Steve slipped the smoke and cue out of his hands so he could hug her properly. 

He also stole a long drag off the ciggy before setting it in the ashtray. 

Barton raised an eyebrow.  “You didn’t even cough.” 

“Practice,” Steve said off-handedly as he blew out the smoke, his attention focused elsewhere. 

Darcy kissed Bucky on the neck, just below his ear.  “Steve came home and you left.  It didn’t feel right,” she told him.  “I’m sorry about this week,” she said, twisting her fingers into his shirt a little bit. (She was nervous.) “You kept trying to help. I--you were exactly who I needed. I didn’t let you.” 

“It’s okay, Princess. Gonna take time for to figure this out,” he whispered.  Bucky pressed her head to his shoulder, and looked around for Steve with a questioning look.  What’d you say?

Steve gave a little shake to his head and nodded a tiny bit to Darcy.  Nothing.  That’s all her. Her fingers flexed in the t-shirt sleeve, until Bucky held her hard against him.  When he did, she blew out her breath and the tension flowed out of her shoulders. 

 

*****

 

Her perfume sneaked into his brain (he could smell Steve’s salty ocean and her spring breeze underneath it), dazing him for a moment as her words sunk in.  (Wanted him.  Needed him.)  He held Steve’s gaze like a lifeline as he nuzzled the top of Darcy’s head with his chin. 

And then she nudged him to the table to finish his game.  But he was distracted. Steve leaned against the rail with Darcy.  Fingers trailed along her arms, stroking the soft skin.  He was half-hard just looking at them and Natasha took the win. 

The five of them crowded around the little table while Clint and Steve needled each other about their ability to shoot pool.  Darcy took one sip of the vodka and wrinkled her nose.  “That’s swill. Gross.”

“Not much better than coffin varnish,” he agreed.

Steve let out a soft laugh and reached for the pack of cigarettes.  He tapped two out, lit them, and passed one to Bucky. 

“Any other bad habits our resident fossils need to tell us about?” Natasha asked. 

“I drink, I smoke, I fight a lot.”  Steve shrugged, winking at Bucky.  “I think that about covers it.”

Darcy snickered.  “Will you two finish one of your bad habits while I’m getting a beer?  Anyone else want one?”  A nod, two lifted fingers and a shoulder shrug was met with a wide grin and she practically danced down the stairs and off to the bar. 

Suddenly, smoking didn’t seem as much fun in light of Darcy’s dislike of the habit and he squashed the ciggy out. 

As she leaned across the counter downstairs to talk with the bartender, someone with less sense than a turnip reached over to put a hand on her ass.

(Asset. Protect Stark.) He pulled his knife from his boot as Steve clamped a hand down hard on his wrist. 

“She’s got this.” 

Stand down, Sergeant Barnes, JARVIS ordered. 

Restrained, ordered to hold, he stilled. (Assessing. Fourteen point two meters to target. Three point three meters to ground. Two possible accomplices. Unarmed. Single knife to enemy’s throat, secondary strikes to knee and head to disable backups.) 

Without giving away her intentions, Darcy reached around her own hip to grasp the offending hand.  She turned it over as she lifted it, straightening the arm and pressing the wrist down and in so that the enemy was on his toes and trying to move backward with his eyes wide as she used leverage to fend him off. 

Darcy smiled, annoyed as hell, and waggled her fingers at the offender, shooing him away.

The bartender was so amused he slid all five bottles to her and waved away her money, which she stuffed into his tip jar. 

A tickling sensation on his forearm shifted him from assessing to experiencing.  Steve had moved behind him, pressing a kiss to his neck, yet keeping his wrist with the knife immobilized.

Breathing out, he nodded and patted Steve’s hand.  The knife went back into the boot.  Nat and Clint were amused rather than concerned. 

“You did better than I the first time it happened,” Steve remarked.  “I saved you the lecture from Darcy.”

She clomped up the narrow stairs.  She eyed Steve as he took his seat again, and ran a long look over Bucky.  She set the bottles on the table, sliding them around evenly.  “That asshole has no idea I saved his life today.” 

Though he’d seen the way the altercation had played out, that Darcy was more than capable to take care of herself against the average idiot, he pulled her close so that she was on his lap (well, half on his lap and half on the stool).  “You okay, Princess?” 

She twisted around, gifting him with a reassuring smile.  “I’ve been dealing with that sort of thing since the girls (She framed her breasts. Yeah, he looked.) showed up at when I was fifteen.  I took a self-defense class at college and Nat’s showed me a few pointers since then.  These days, I’m less worried about dealing with those assholes and more worried that one of you will lose your shit on a drunken idiot who couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag with a flashlight.  Not that I don’t love you guys and adore your ability to defend me with your toenail, but the legal paperwork is a bitch and somehow that kind of thing lands on my end of the desk instead of Mom’s.”  

She settled back against him and let him hold her.  Steve shifted his stool over so that his knees bumped Bucky’s, like they used to do. 

Then Barton told the story of S.T.R.I.K.E. Team Delta (comprised of Barton and Romanov) being holed up in a mid-west town where there was one bar, a Dairy Queen and a whole lot of cows where they were supposed to hunt up a couple of crazy mega-villain wannabees.  The expression on Natasha’s face when Clint told them her reaction to seeing her first bovine creature up close and personal was worth a fortune.  Especially when it sneezed.  Nat wrinkled her nose in memory and took a long sip of Clint’s beer in subtle retaliation.

A couple of rounds later, Darcy was still comfortably nested in his arms, head tipped back as she tried to stay awake.  Steve ran a hand along her thigh to get her attention. “Want to ride home with Nat?  I don’t want you falling off the bike.” 

“Sure,” she mumbled. 

(No.) Bucky didn’t want to let her go.  Darcy stretched her arms out and wiggled to wake herself up.   Steve pulled her to her feet, though she dragged her fingertips along the outside of Bucky’s leg as he did. He suppressed a shudder at the touch.

“Can we ride three?” he asked Steve as they worked their way down the stairs.

“Sure. You want the keys?” Steve held them up. 

Bucky snatched them out of his hand. “Hell, yeah.” 

Darcy huffed out a sleepy laugh.  “Maybe I should ride with Nat.” 

“Don’t trust me, Princess?” he challenged as he threw a leg over the bike.  Steve settled in behind him and tugged Darcy down between them. 

Her soft curves melded against his back. Hot points of contact providing a counterpoint to the fingers she skimmed just above his waistband along his bare skin. “Depends on how well you drive with a little distraction,” she breathed into his ear. 

He drove very well with distraction, though in all honesty, he shifted in (Assessing) as he wove through the late night traffic (Skill set) at speeds that were highly illegal in the United States.  

In Stark’s garage, he killed the engine, shifted out, and spun around on the seat to yank Darcy to him for a heady kiss (trusting Steve to keep the motorcycle balanced).  There was nothing of the soldier as he ran hands from her waist across the curve of her hips and down to her knees, then back again to her hips to shift her into his lap where his cock pressed hard into the notched heat in her jeans. 

Darcy leaned into him.  She pulled one of his hands off her hip and set it firmly on her breast.  He moaned into her mouth and reverently thumbed across the middle until the nipple peaked through the fabric and she arched into his touch. 

Her hands went under his shirt and she lightly scraped nails down his abs as he took possession of her mouth.  He hissed as her fingers dipped into his belly button.

He retaliated by dipping a pair of fingers inside the edge of her bra.  His brain hazed with the softness on his fingers and the hard peak he tweaked.  Her breath caught against his mouth as he manipulated the joints of his metal fingers to separate the material between her breasts. 

Holding on to the remains of her bra, Darcy pushed away just hard enough that Steve had to catch her so they wouldn’t overbalance the bike.  “Holy shit, Barnes, did you bring the ninja skills to the party?” 

“There’s more where that came from,” came the automatic rejoinder—something he might have said too many decades ago to think about.   Steve was breathing just as a hard as Darcy.  Bucky indicated with his chin, “Princess, our boy can’t keep two thoughts in his head.”  He worked his way off the bike.  Darcy slid off after him. But Steve caught both of them. 

“Elevator.  Nat will be here soon.”  His face was flushed—just from watching

They hardly cleared the doors before Steve reached a hand behind Bucky’s neck.  “Gonna kiss me right, jerk?” he challenged.

Bucky did.  Biting and nipping hard enough that Steve would have red marks on his jawline for a little while. 

By the way Steve’s eyes sparkled, there was definitely more to come.  What shocked him was the mischief in Darcy’s.  (The two of them were better matched than he ever imagined.) As she shook the remains of her lingerie out of her shirt, she leaned up to whisper in Steve’s ear, so softly Bucky couldn’t make it out.  (He was distracted by the curve of her breasts all loose under her shirt. His own fault, and there were little nubs on the front where her nipples poked out.)

Steve shot him a sideways glance.  Fuck.  He knew that look. Innocence be damned, Steve was a fucking adventurous sort.  The little shit was good at pushing Bucky’s buttons. 

And then they were on their floor and then the three of them were in the bedroom.  (Surely not yet.) 

“Darcy—“

“Shush.  I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do.” She tilted her head.  “Safe word?”

His mouth fell open and he wondered just what the fuck they had in mind. (Darcy’s idea, he reminded himself.)  “Charcoal.” 

“Will you sit on the bed?” 

He did.  Steve took the place next to him.  Darcy knelt in front of Steve, using her hand to cup the cock that was making a hard bulge under the denim of his jeans.  Steve reached down to unbutton them, though Darcy worked at the zipper until she could see the bright red fabric underneath.  Together, they tugged the pants down until they fell to his ankles. 

Green eyes danced.  “Wanna watch?” She licked her lips, wetting them down in preparation.

“Fuck yes,” he swore with enthusiasm.   (Somehow he noted that she was carefully not giving him orders.) 

He got why Steve was hard after nothing more than seeing them kiss.  Darcy took her time, nipping at the fabric until it was soaked with her mouth and the fluid seeping out of the tip of Steve’s cock.  

And though she kept eyes on Bucky, her attention was on Steve.  Not performing, but letting him look on as she worked Steve over.  Though she did wink when she had the underwear pulled down and out of the way. 

Steve eased back onto his elbows, his head thrown back as Darcy took him in her mouth.  She’d definitely figured out her way around his cock, seeking out all the little sensitive places with her tongue. 

“Punk grew with the serum,” Bucky got out.  He was getting dazed too. “Didn’t know what to do with all that the first time I got my hands on it.”

She pulled off, sucking hard as she did.  Steve flexed his hips up, seeking every last bit of her mouth.  “Bet you made it work,” she breathed. 

“Hell yes.”  Darcy couldn’t take Steve’s cock all the way down like Bucky could, but she was damned clever with her mouth and hands.  (He wanted her.) 

She took her time, laving the now-purple head with her tongue and stroking hard with her hands.  Steve was gone, eyes closed, a line of sweat on his chest, and his legs shoving against the jeans tangling his ankles as he tried to angle himself for more.  He was so fucking beautiful like this.  Bucky remembered seeing him like this the first time, skinny, bony and with almost translucent skin that shined under his touch.  He’d been beautiful then too. 

Darcy licked her way down to his balls and back up to the tip again, and Steve shoved up into her mouth.  She pulled off, admonishing him, “Behave, Steven.  If you gag me, I’ll quit.” 

Bucky chuckled, never having seen quite that look of frustration on Steve’s face.  “Sorry, doll.  Please don’ stop,” he begged. “ ‘m almost there.  So fuckin’ close. Had t’ watch th’ two o’ ya all fuckin’ night, hangin’ on ea’ o’ther. Gorgeous, the pair o’ ya.”  The Brooklyn sang through.  Hell, Steve was so far gone the Irish was coming out. 

When Darcy pulled the foreskin back and licked underneath the tip, Steve growled her name and fumbled for Bucky’s hand.  Bucky was so fucking turned on, he leaned over to kiss Steve, sucking on his tongue in time with Darcy, then moving down to leave a mark just over the pulse point on his neck. 

He was so busy kissing Steven that he almost missed getting to watch him come.  His hips were thrusting hard, but Darcy had his cock in both hands and was sucking off the last of his fluids as she stroked him through the orgasm. 

There was nothing of taking in what Steven did, and nothing but giving in what Darcy did.  When she finished, she was glowing in satisfaction.  Bucky understood that glow, to make the one you love fly, to give them scorching pleasure at your own hands (and mouth and body).  He woke up feeling that for Steven every day and made him want Darcy that much more. 

He was so fascinated by the pair of them, so distracted, that when Steve’s hand slid under his shirt, he flinched instead of shivered. 

Then he melted. 

He was sure he looked like an idiot when Darcy and Steve traded places.  They giggled as Steve pulled his own pants mostly up, just enough to cling to his hips.  He left the zipper open and Bucky was sure his mouth watered just a little. 

Then Steve pressed his hand along the bulge in Bucky’s pants, challenging, “Your turn, love.”  He leaned in to nuzzle.  “Mind if Darcy looks on?” 

Did he mind?  “Fuck no,” he breathed.  He stood up and shucked his shoes, pants and underwear, kicking all of them out of the way.  And though Darcy had seen him any number of times now without his shirt, he wasn’t sure he could handle being completely bare right now.  So he left it on, keeping his scars covered.   

Darcy licked her lips.  Her eyes were almost as blue as Steve’s now, dilated with want.  “Now Steve, you never told me how pretty James is.” 

“How much do you want, Buck?” Steve asked as he blew a hot breath along his shaft. 

“Been hard since you two walked in the bar,” he confessed as he leaned back onto the mattress.  He pulled a pillow behind his head so he could watch and reached with a hand down to play with Steve’s hair. 

Darcy hummed in agreement as she settled on her knees beside him.  She’d unfastened the top three buttons of her shirt, leaving only the one to keep it closed over the swell of her breasts.  He rested his other hand on her hip, rubbing a thumb over the curve. 

Steve took him hard and fast, swallowing him down and pressing on the flesh under his balls.  He sucked until Bucky was fucking his mouth and Steve had to steady his movements with firm hands wrapped around his thighs. 

It felt so fucking good that he almost forgot about Darcy.  But she was there, flushed and fascinated, her hands twitching with a need to touch.  She brought one up into Steve’s hair.  His blue eyes popped open, and Steve hummed his appreciation over Bucky’s cock.

He jerked upward from the vibration, seeking more.  “Kiss me, Princess,” he pleaded.  She leaned over, one hand sliding under his shirt to rest on his sternum, the weight of her breasts pressing on his chest. 

The moment he tasted her, with the flavor of Steve still in her mouth, he came hard into Steve’s.   For a moment, it was white heat and his senses overloaded—enough that he shifted in soldier mode for control (Rule 2. Assets do not have feelings.) 

“Charcoal,” he got out. 

Darcy and Steve pulled back, reaching only for his hands and squeezing hard to ground him.  (Darcy, left. Steve, right.)  The last of his come pumped out across his stomach, though he couldn’t feel it.

“You’re safe,” Darcy said quietly.  “You’re with us.  We’re not going to let anything happen to you.  It’s okay to feel pleasure, Bucky.  You had an orgasm and you were beautiful.” 

He blinked at her, taking a deep breath to shift out again, panting as he did. 

You had an orgasm and you were beautiful.

Steve tugged his own t-shirt off and used it to wipe Bucky’s stomach clean, pressing a kiss just along the line of hair trailing south of his belly button.  Then he pulled the quilt over Bucky, letting the weight of it ground him more. 

He squeezed both of their hands, and let Steve pull him up to sit. (I’m okay.  Because you are here, I am okay. Better than okay.)  “Darcy? Can we try that again?” 

She struck a pose with her face over her shoulder, comically puckering her lips. “Like this?” 

“No, doll,” he leaned up to slide one hand in her hair, the locks shimmering energy against the metal.  “Like this.”  He kissed her, tasting oceans and sunshine as she slid her hand underneath his shirt again. 

Darcy finished the kiss, sitting back long enough to get her feet out from under her.  He was pretty certain he looked stupid now because he was dazed enough to not be able to do anything more than blink lazily at her and Steve. 

“You okay now?” she asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Headache?”

“Mmm. No.” 

She kissed him one last time on the temple, ruffling his hair as she did. She scooted off the bed, stopping only to give Steve an equally searing kiss.  She rubbed his nose with hers and kissed him one last time.  “Yup,” Darcy said in satisfaction.  “Bucky-flavored Steve tastes really good too.  Get our boy to bed, Steven.”  She tossed her hair over her shoulder.  “You owe me a new bra, James.  I’ll expect it by Monday at the latest.  Goodnight, gentlemen.  Sweet dreams.” 

When the apartment was quiet again, Steve moved so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed to unfasten the rest of the buttons on the front of Bucky’s shirt.  With gentle hands, Steve pulled it from his body. “Want a shower before bed or do you want one later?”

“I never think about it until you mention it, then I can’t stand the itch until I get one,” he grumbled, wanting nothing more than to roll over and go to sleep.  Preferably wrapped around the punk. 

“Come on.”

The hot shower drained whatever energy he had and he was perfectly content to lean against the wall for a while.  Steve ran a washcloth over all of Bucky, soothing him further, before dumping shampoo over his head and massaging it in. Vague memories unwrapped of thin showers, smaller hands, water not as warm.  “I remember this, I think.”

“I used to wash your hair, Buck.  You’d be out all day working, sweating.  Loved nothing more than to let me scrub your head.  Sometimes I couldn’t do anything else for you, except this.” 

The sad note was unexpected.  “Steve?”

“I hated being sick all the time.  There was much that I wanted to do with you and couldn’t. I hated being a burden—to Ma.  To you. “

“Steve—“

“No, I get it.  You did it because you love me. And because you have this need to give me hell all the time.”

“Which you deserve.”

“Probably.  I’ll never stop wanting to help you, Bucky.  I’ll never stop wanting you. No matter how long and how hard this is for you, I am always going to be here.” Steve pressed his mouth in a line.  “Rinse.” With all the soap washed out, Steve shut off the water and proceeded to dry him off. 

“I can do it,” he offered.

But Steve had that stubborn set to his jaw that Bucky knew far too well.  “Please let me.  I need to do this.   For all the times you dragged me into the tub and back out of it.  For rubbing me down with ointment.  For washing my sheets when I was sick.  For making that terrible chicken soup a few thousand times that actually worked to fix my colds.” 

“Why are you angry, love?”

“I’m angry at what they did.  That in a moment that should be entirely yours, they’ve taken a little bit of that away too.” Steve turned his head away, unwilling to let Bucky see his sadness as he rehung the damp towel on the rack. 

When they crawled into bed together, Steve added, “The only damned thing I miss about when I didn’t have the serum, Bucky, is that I liked the way we fit together.  I liked sleeping with your arms around me to keep me warm.  I loved waking up and snuggling into your chest.  Sometimes, when I’m not really awake, I try to curl up with you the way we used to and then I wake up and it’s all different.“  

“I’ll take the trade,” Bucky said emphatically.  “’specially ‘cause I’m big enough now to put m’ arm around you.”  Doing just that, he coaxed Steve into his space.  “I’m learning to use it, the soldier thing. I’m making it something I can turn off and on.  JARVIS didn’t even have to say anything for me to come out of it.  I did that.  You and Darce—it’s not too much, I promise.  Wasn’t expecting how good it felt. And nothing’s happened like that with the two of us.”

A callused finger trailed along the scar tissue on his chest.  “You amaze me, Bucky.”

“Yeah? Goes both ways, punk. Now shut up and lemme go to sleep. And tomorrow we’re figurin’ out how to close the deal with Darce ‘cause I’m tired of not havin’ her here too.” 

Steve didn’t argue.  He curled his hand so that his knuckles rested against Bucky’s heart.  They settled into a rhythm and let Morpheus wrap them in sweet dreams.

Chapter Text

She woke, shivering far more violently than the slight chill in the air warranted.  She pulled the blanket around her, automatically reaching for the cell phone she kept close.  Her thumb hovered over the picture of Steve.  Then, carefully, she set the phone down beside her and buried her face against her knees.  Steve and Bucky needed their time too, especially after last night.

Bucky’s reaction had scared the crap out of her.  She had pushed him too hard.  And for Darcy, all of her stresses manifested in her dreams.

When she had an engineering problem, her mind would dance around strange possibilities and it was common for her to wake with solutions.    She hadn’t always had bad dreams, and they had seemed to be a normal enough reaction to her dad’s kidnapping.  New Mexico had caused her some bad moments, but for the most part, she had been able to set that aside. 

But as the weird and scary-as-fuck accumulated, she’d started having nightmares just after Steve had moved to DC.  He found out when they’d fallen asleep talking on the phone with the line still open.  She woke up, babbling nonsense. He’d talked her through it and then made her promise to call him.

She kept her phone close by and could fumble for the speed dial even with the worst of the shakes.  She rarely had nightmares whenever she stayed with Steve.  They doubled when he was on a mission—hence, her penchant for skipping the whole snooze thing whenever he was gone. 

Even her mom and dad hadn’t realized how bad they were until Tony flew to London at Clint’s behest.  She’d been exhausted and curled up in her dad’s embrace as if she were five again.  It had taken three days of on and off sleeping, dreaming and Tony reassuring her before she’d felt anything close to functioning. A part of her was ashamed to be a full-grown woman still needing her daddy. (Though he didn’t give a shit about that and told her as much. She was still his kid.)

So much had happened in the past week that it was hard to believe she’d come home just seven days ago.  Now that she had her own space again, she supposed it was normal to be reacting to all that had happened in the past half year.  Bucky figured in her nightmares now, and that alone told her how much she cared for him.  She’d read his files and had a vivid imagination.  All her nightmares tonight had revolved around him and the horrible, horrible things that had been done to him. 

She wrapped her fists in the sheets to try to get them to stop trembling.  She was cold.

Sometimes she would look at Steve and Bucky in wonder.  She’d never known anyone with the strength of will they shared.  Yes, Steve had given in with the plane crash.  But he could have tried again. Instead, he’d worked hard to find a way to live again.   And once Bucky had latched onto Steve, he’d ruthlessly sliced away at the HYDRA conditioning, looking for ways to meld the soldier with the young man he’d been.

The true miracle was to see them carrying on as if they’d never been apart.  To see Bucky harness those protective instincts he’d always had for Steve and force his conditioning to bend to his will. To discover that, for those who understood Steve’s dogged determination, they had no idea that Bucky was well-versed in nagging Steve into taking care of himself and gently set firm boundaries that even Captain America wouldn’t cross.

Darcy still didn’t see quite where she fit in, but both men had made it clear that she was not only welcome but completed their little circle.  She hadn’t lived with them for nearly a month and was already resentful of her self-imposed isolation.  (She missed the everyday with them.)

She groaned as she looked at the clock and the whole three minutes that had passed.  Given that she’d slept for almost four hours, she supposed she should be grateful for getting even that.  She dragged herself out of bed to hit the shower and to pull on leggings, a sweater, fuzzy socks and boots—and a knit cap in yellow. (Just to piss off Barnes later.)

Lewis, you aren’t getting enough sleep. 

I know, JARVIS.  It’s not by choice, believe me.

The Captain and the Sergeant will not mind you staying with them, I assure you. 

And I wouldn’t mind staying with them, J, but there’s a whole lot at stake. Steve’s not exclusively my boyfriend anymore, and James had a rough end to the evening.  I’m not going to make it worse with my problems. 

The Sergeant sleeps better when you’re with him. You sleep better when the Captain is with you.  I don’t understand, Darcy. 

Okay, JARVIS really was irritated with her.  He never called her by her first name.

It’s all about sex and expectations, J.  Believe it or not, there’s a line we haven’t crossed and Bucky and I still be friends if we can’t work this out. 

You have doubts?

I want this, J, and the only way this is going to work is if we are very, very careful how we go about setting it up.   And believe it or not, the fact that I haven’t slept with anyone but Steven in almost four years makes it harder.  It’s not like college where I was doing the sex thing without any strings. 

The Captain doesn’t seem to have an issue with that, JARVIS grumbled.

HA! No, I guess he doesn’t.  But Bucky isn’t a new thing to him.  It’s an old thing with a lot of history and love behind it, and because I love Steve, I have to be careful. 

Just Steve?

I hate it when you do that, JARVIS.  Yes, I love Bucky too. 

I don’t like this, Lewis. You aren’t happy right now.

No. I’m tired and cranky as all fuck. I want lazy Sundays and Saturday night dates and time with my girlfriends.  I want to be with my boyfriends and not wonder what is going to set Bucky off.   But that’s not in the cards just yet.  It is getting better, JARVIS, I just have to hold on for a while longer.   

If you insist, Lewis.

I don’t know of any other way, she admitted.

When JARVIS seemed willing to leave off the commentary, Darcy debated what she would do to keep herself occupied.  Coffee from the Commons made the morning seem a little more reasonable and Darcy decided this would be a good time to wander through the R&D labs to see what was new. 

 

*****

 

Steve’s plan of surprising Darcy with coffee this morning was waylaid when JARVIS informed him that she was already on the R&D floors making rounds.  Yes, this was Saturday, and no, that wasn’t particularly unusual, but he was disappointed all the same. 

He sipped the coffee he’d made and tried to read the morning paper.  In the meantime, Bucky had his feet propped up on a chair where he could press his bare feet against Steve’s thigh.  His boyfriend was damned happy this morning.  “What’s different, Buck?”

Clear cobalt eyes drifted over Steve in a lazy study. “Figured out another little piece of Darcy,” he said, with no little satisfaction.  “She likes to be touched.  A lot.  I thought maybe she was doing that just to help me.” 

“No, Darcy gets jittery after a while without it.  It grounds her just as it does with you,” Steve agreed. “She seemed content with you last night.”

“It was nice, even if it was a little bit of an apology for the last three days.”

That got his attention.  “While I was gone?  What happened?” 

Bucky reached for his own coffee.  “She worked.  Went from one distraction to the next.  I tried to get her to rest but she wasn’t having any of that.” 

Dismayed, Steve probed for details.  “She didn’t stay with you?”

“Napped on me Tuesday evening for a few hours, didn’t bother Wednesday, and lasted an hour on Thursday before hanging out at Stark’s for the night.” 

Steve got up, folded up his paper and swallowed the last of his coffee.  “And I’ll bet she’s been up for hours already.  JARVIS?  Would you be willing to confirm that for me?” 

“Captain, Lewis has been awake since four twenty this morning.”  The AI was prompt with the answer, and Steve knew damned well the AI could skirt the truth if he wanted to keep Darcy’s privacy.

“I assume her alarm didn’t wake her up?”

“That is an excellent assumption, Captain.” (More proof that JARVIS was concerned about his sister.) 

Bucky sat up, catching on to the AI’s tone. “What’s going on?” 

Steve washed his cup out and dried his hands on the towel.  “Tony said Darcy wasn’t sleeping at all in London, that’s why he went out there.  How much sleep do you think she’s had since she got back?” 

It only took Bucky a minute to piece together the week.  “Thursday night, she stayed with us for a few hours. Friday night, we had a date and she stayed with me.  Saturday, you came home and she stayed with you.  Sunday, she was at Stark’s all night and you got her in bed Monday evening.  She got up around oh-three-hundred?  I think I remember her saying that.  You left Tuesday and she slept on my leg for a couple of hours, skipped Wednesday, skipped Thursday.  You got home yesterday and she slept between your texts.  Last night, she went home.”

“And got not even five hours of sleep.  So three, maybe four, out of eight days,” Steve shook his head.  “Damn. It’s a wonder she’s still standing.”  Angry with himself for missing the obvious, he pulled on a jacket and stepped into his boots. “Even when she is sleeping, she’s not getting enough.” 

“Steve?”

“She’s having nightmares again.  And she’s not telling either one of us.” 

“Captain?”

“Yes, JARVIS?”

“Thank you for being aware of the problem.” 

“That bad, huh.” Steve shook his head.  “Buck, I’ve got to deal with this.  You okay for while? I’m going to do my best to get Darcy back here.”

“Natasha and I are going another round this morning.  I’ll make lunch if you’ll text me when you’re on your way.” 

Steve leaned down to kiss Bucky with a thumb skimming the stubble on his jaw.  “Done.  Love you, jerk.”

Blue eyes held his.  “Punk.” 

 

*****

 

With ten floors dedicated to research and development in the Tower, it was Darcy’s job to keep track of the progress of the experiments going on there.  Hands down, this was her favorite part of her responsibilities and rarely seemed like work. 

About half the researchers were good about sending her somewhat regular reports.  She made sure the other half had at least one good intern on their team responsible for the same.  But no report could replace poking around each lab and finding out what excited her researchers in that moment.  Every single lab had someone at least monitoring data, even though it was a Saturday, so it was fun to wander in and out over the course of the morning.  She said brought donuts to the security team on duty and called them all by name.

Darcy pulled up the notes she’d made on her tablet and sent them to her laptop for a solid start on Monday.  She walked as she typed, and definitely wasn’t expecting to see Steve holding up a doorway right next to the elevator waiting for her to finish.  (Yummy.)  “Hi.” 

He leaned over to kiss her solidly on the lips (double yum) as he escorted her inside.  “Hi, doll.”  He eyed her tablet.  “What are the chances you’re finished?”

“Pretty good.  What do you have in mind?” 

“Well, I thought I would take my girl out for coffee this morning, but seeing as she’s been up for hours, maybe tea or breakfast?”

“Breakfast sounds great.  I wasn’t hungry when I woke up.  Can I drop off my stuff and grab a jacket first?” She did both, and brightened at having a little bit of time alone with Steve as Bucky had things to do (people to pummel, apparently) that morning.  (And promptly felt guilty, as she was supposed to be dating both of them.)

Steve took her to one of the cafés dotting the busy streets of Midtown, though on a Saturday the mayhem was somewhat contained. 

There were breakfast sandwiches involved and a whole carafe of orange juice.  Steve kept brushing his fingers here and there as they waited in line and found a table (under her hair, along the back on her hands, a knee).  It was baffling and comforting and sexy all at the same time. 

She’d missed this too.  They used to do their errands on Friday or Saturday mornings after breakfast (and sex, of course).  So much had changed.

She was halfway through her sandwich when she called him on it.  “Were you jealous of me sitting with Bucky last night?” (By his look of utter confusion, whoops, she misread that entirely.)

“Why would you say that?”  

“We haven’t gone out, just the two of us, since before he came home.  Now we’re getting breakfast and you’ve got your hands on me like you did when we first started dating.” 

His jaw tensed and there was sadness in his eyes.  “I woke up this morning and wanted to take you to get a coffee, only you were already working.  We haven’t had much opportunity for things like this.” With his characteristic honesty, he added, “I wanted to be with you.”

“If I had known you wanted to do that, I would have skipped work,” she replied in all seriousness.  “It’s Saturday, and there is nothing about Saturday work that can’t wait until Monday.” 

“Then why did you get up so early?” he asked. 

If she hadn’t seen the answer in his eyes, so resolute and patient, she might have prevaricated.  But it was too late for that.  “You know why.” 

He laced his fingers with hers.  “You can’t sleep.”

“Did JARVIS tattle on me?”

“Not this time.”

“Bucky, then.” 

“No one tattled, but no one ducked the answers when I asked.” Steve tilted his head so that he could look her in the face.  “You’re my girl, Darce.  I put it together this morning.  Yes, I got an earful from your dad about London.  When I left this week, I thought you would stay with Bucky again and that would be enough to stop the dreams.  But I should have known better.  I remember how hard it was for you to let me in, to let me help you, even though I was already there.” He touched her hand, caressing her fingers with his thumb.  “You’re not ready to let Bucky see that yet, are you?” 

“When I stayed with Bucky the first time, I didn’t go to sleep until you texted that you were on your way home.  I usually do okay after that,” she admitted. 

Still holding her hand, Steve finished his sandwich, getting that intent look that mean he was trying hard not to say the wrong thing.  For all that Bucky teased him, when Steve thought hard about it, he usually got right. 

He did this time too.   “Will you come home with me?  I’ve got some serious baseball watching to do this afternoon, and I’d like my girl to sit with me.  Maybe she could nap on my shoulder or something if she gets bored. And when she wakes, maybe we can figure out some different sleeping arrangements, because I’m not all that happy about separate apartments, even if they are only a few floors away from each other.” 

A lump rose in her throat, caused by his sweet understanding.  She forced it down as she laid her cards on the table.  “I thought I was doing the right thing by giving you two more time together.”

“We’ve had ten years.  Darcy, it’s your turn.  What do you want to do?”

“I want to go home, Steve.  You’re my home. And if that’s with Bucky too, then it’s all the better.” 

Steve reached into his jacket, opened his wallet, and dropped a couple of bills on the table for a tip. He reached out a hand to Darcy.  When she took it, he pulled her in for a kiss there in the middle of the café, mindless of the other patrons.  When he let her go, he ran a hand across the back of her neck, massaging there just a little.  “Got any errands?  We can do them and we’ll go figure this out.” 

She nodded.  They had spent so much time cooped up on her apartment or in the Tower that she had forgotten the simple pleasure of walking about with Steve.  “I’ve got one or two places that it would be nice to pop in.” 

He held out his arm.  “Lead the way.” 

 

 *****

 

About the time Steve and Darcy started figuring things out, James Buchanan Barnes waited in Natalia Alianovna Romanova’s personal space.  He sat cross-legged on the wooden floor in the darkness.  The room was lined with mirrors on all four sides.

No one could frustrate him as much as his protégé, especially when she was holding back. But he was patient. 

Some habits were good ones and Natalia still pushed her body every morning at near the same time every day.  And though she might not have the impetus to arrive exactly on the hour, it was near enough that he didn’t have to wait long. 

She turned on the lights, going straight to the ballet barre on the far side.  She lifted a leg and placed it on the upper rail to begin a sequence of stretches he remembered. “This place is not yours, Uchitel.”

“I have no wish to make it mine.” 

Eyeing him through the mirror, she leaned into her leg.  “What do you want, Barnes?”

“A moment of your time.” 

She took her leg off the barre, standing with her arms loose.

He rose, crossed to her and took her hand.  “Fifth position, arabesque.”  She took the pose, flawlessly, effortlessly, pure grace belying the power woven into her body.  “Fourth position, releve’.”  He had her unsure now, off-balance because she didn’t know what he would do next.  “First position.”  Simple, easy. 

Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out her pointe shoes and laid them in her hand. 

“Why are you giving them back?”

“I have no need of them any longer.” 

“You—you do not wish to train me?”

Ah yes, there was the thread of distress he was hunting for. “It is you who does not wish to train with me.  You are not interested in playing my games, Milaya.  I cannot teach you what you do not wish to know.  This isn’t the Red Room and neither of us will be punished for failure.”  He reached for her cheeks, swiftly kissing each of them in succession.  “I will not come here again without your express invitation.” 

He quit the room, nodding once to Barton (still drinking coffee straight from the coffee pot) as he traipsed through their apartment. 

“Aw, Barnes, you’re gonna ruin my morning, aren’t you?” Barton groaned. 

“Probably.  We’ll drink it out tonight.” 

“Damn right, we will.” 

 

 

Seeing as how he missed most of his sessions with Wilson this week, he sent his friend/therapist (the lines had definitely blurred over the past month) a text and got an invite to come up.  Sam liked to meet in the spare bedroom he’d turned into a library of sorts.  It was homey and professional all at the same time. 

“Been a big week for you, Barnes,” Sam prompted. 

“You’re telling me.” 

“Been doing your homework?”

“Yeah.” 

“Good.  So what’s on your mind?” 

“This is never going to go away, is it?  Balancing the soldier with the rest of me.  And sometimes feeling like Bucky and sometimes like Sergeant Barnes.” 

“Do you want it to go away?” 

“I don’t want the soldier to pop in again when I’m making time with my … shit, my girl and my guy,” he grumbled.

Sam chuckled at that.  “Must have been awkward.” 

The lighthearted laugh struck exactly the right note, making it easy for Bucky to barrel through.  “We got over it.  It was reflex, Wilson, from too much—I don’t know, sensation, emotion.  I was in the moment and then I wasn’t. Safe worded out and all we’re talking about is a blow job.” 

“Has it happened before?”

“No. Only been with Steve.  Guess I feel safe with him.”

“And you don’t feel safe with Darcy?”

“Sure I do. But you ever been dizzy with a dame before?  Scared shitless I’ll fuck this up. For her and Steve.  Found out this morning that’s she’s prone to nightmares.  Bad ones.”

“It happens around here.”

“I didn’t know.” He shook his head, frustrated.  “Been with her now for months.  Steve mentioned it once, and I didn’t know,” he growled out.  

“And that’s why Darcy has you in knots.  Like any new relationship, it takes time to get to know someone.  Barnes, I know you guys were together in her place, but that Darcy was focused on keeping you and Steve safe while you healed.  She kept a lot of personal stuff locked away.” 

“And now I’m seeing her for who she is,” he nodded.  “I figured that.”

“Do you like what you see?”

“Yes.”

“Then build on that.  And take her out for ice cream.  Or hell, you like to shop for clothes, take her with you to overhaul Steve’s wardrobe.  Buy her flowers. See if she’ll get a motorcycle so the three of you can go places.”

Bucky brightened at that one. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?  I’d take the back of her bike any day.”   

“Key here, Barnes, is you’ve got to build a relationship with her that is different than the one you had. You’ve got a good start with it.  Just gotta give it a little time.” 

He nodded.  “We done with the counseling part?”

“If you want.”

“Let’s make some lemonade and I’ll tell you how she saved an asshole’s life last night.”

“Oh?  Last night? I haven’t heard this one yet.”  Sam actually rubbed his hands in glee.

Bucky rolled his eyes.  “You need to get Barton and Lewis on speed dial.”

 

******

 

Darcy still needed to put the final touches on arrangements for the evening.  JARVIS did a lot of it, as always, but she still wanted a couple of hours somewhere today to clean up her space and move some of her equipment in the lab.  Steve promised to help, but the World Series was starting and he was definitely chivvying her along to get in place before the first pitch. 

Bucky had lunch ready.  In all honesty though, Darcy was so tired that she settled against the couch cushions with her legs across Steve and found herself falling asleep almost instantly.  A warm hand curled around her ankle, the sound of the ballgame wove in and out of her dreams, and the low conversation between Bucky and Steve soothed her as nothing else had in weeks.  She dozed. 

She woke only when the sounds changed from the ballgame to something else.  She started to stretch, stopping when she heard Steve complain to Bucky.

“I don’t know how to dance,” he said softly. “Never seemed like the right time to bring it up. I don’t—I don’t want to look like a fool with her.” 

There was pain there, and Darcy remembered Aunty Peggy’s story about her final conversation with Steve.  Darcy bit her lip, peeking one eye open.  The two men were in the kitchen, and Steve had his hands in his pockets, looking pitiful. 

They kept their voices low, and Bucky chuckled.  “One thing's for damned sure,” he said as he took Steve’s hand.  “Ain’t no one here gonna give us shit for bein’ on the dance floor.”

“Buck—“

“Shut up. Dance with me, punk.  I’ll lead you the first time so I can show you what to do.  Then you lead me so you don’t feel stupid with Darce.” 

This she had to see.  She adjusted enough on the pillows to get a good look through her lashes. 

Bucky slid his hand under Steve’s shoulder and took his hand. In a low voice, Bucky asked, “JARVIS?  Got something that won’t wake Sleeping Beauty over there?”

The country song wasn’t to Darcy’s taste, but the rhythm was slow and steady.

“I know you can keep a beat, seen your fingers tapping too many times.  Just follow along.”  Bucky kept it simple, moving Steve back and forth across the kitchen floor. “In a slow song, you don’t gotta do much more than sway.” 

They did that for a couple of verses while Steve concentrated on his feet.  About halfway through, Bucky tucked Steve’s hand against his shoulder.  “It’s nice to pull in tight like this.  Just be together with the music.  Nothin’ fancy.”

After that, Steve relaxed into the song, and they moved in tandem. 

At the end of the song, they switched leads.  Steve slid his hand to the back of Bucky’s left shoulder.  “Is this comfortable?”

“Sure thing. JARVIS? What ‘cha got for us?”  This time, the AI picked a song from the fifties.  “Now lead me to the beat.”

“What about my other hand?”

“That’s just for show, really, for what we’re doin’.  Think about the beat and use that hand to tell me where to go. Don’t forget your feet.” 

Steve got it.  Darcy figured that after years of combat training, Steve knew exactly how to apply pressure and how to move his body.  With nothing more than his hand, he moved in time with Bucky.  Halfway through the song, he reached for Bucky’s other hand, tucking it between them. 

“I like this. Why didn’t we do this before?” Steve wondered.

“Too embarrassed, your wheezing, bein’ stupid. Pick one or all of ‘em.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.  “Should’ve done this sooner.” 

Darcy didn’t even bother pretending to be asleep anymore.  She rested her chin and hands on the couch pillow as the two men moved around the makeshift dance floor to the eloquent strains of the Righteous Brothers. 

When the last verse of the song faded, Steve framed Bucky’s face, kissing him like he did a month ago in the Commons kitchen.  But this time, Darcy didn’t flinch. Not even when Steve pressed his hand to Bucky’s crotch and sucked on the side of his neck. 

She categorized that hiss of need coming from Bucky’s lips as a sound she had to remember for future reference. 

“Damn it, Steve, our girl’s right there.  Don’t you fuckin’ dare put her off again if she catches us,” Bucky muttered. “Punk, you’ve got less sense than an ice cube when it comes to your dick.”  With ruddy cheeks and wet lips, they broke apart, turning a little to make sure she was still asleep.

Bucky freaking blushed when he realized Darcy had been watching. 

Her own face might have been a little flushed because, holy hell, they were hot.  (Lady parts were positively tingling and ready to send up flares for assistance. Super-soldier assistance. Yeah that.) She raised her head off her hands.  “Don’t stop on my account.  I was enjoying the matinee.” 

Bucky might have panicked just a little, rounding the sofa to kiss her on the forehead, making sure both hands had a firm grasp on hers so she couldn’t go anywhere.

Steve sauntered after him, winking at Darcy behind his back.  “Come on, Buck, she’s been awake since we started dancing.”

Cobalt eyes squinted. “He right?”

“I can’t decide who makes the better lead.  You have better hands but Steve’s ass really is a gift from the gods.” 

Relief coursed through him and one hand came up to cup her cheek.  “You’re okay, Princess.”  That was a statement, not a question.

“I am.” She squinted at him then felt along her head.  “Where’s my hat?”

He shrugged. 

She huffed.  “Great.  Now I have hat hair and bedhead.”

“How do you feel, doll?” Steve asked, doing his best to be nonchalant. 

“I’m starving, I’ve got a party to get started, I’ve got two gorgeous boyfriends who are going to help me rearrange my place, and we’re going to figure out a new living arrangement, because this version isn’t exactly working for me.” 

She rolled off the couch, planted a firm kiss on Steve’s very delectable mouth (he might have slipped a little tongue) then turned around to plant another on Bucky’s.  (She didn’t quite escape before he nipped at her bottom lip.)

Hands down, this was the best she’d felt since waking up with Steve a whole week ago.  “How long was I out?”

“A few hours.  Enough to get you through the evening and then you’re staying with us,” Steve said as he tugged her into a hug. 

“I think I heard Cap putting his foot down,” she teased.  But her fingers drifted into Steve’s hair.  “And I’m okay with that.”  She reached for her shoes and jacket, not bothering to put either of them on.  “You boys have an hour then I need you on deck in Club Stark.” 

Two sets of hands went in an equal number of pockets, the very picture of not-so-innocent schoolboys. 

“What, you think I don’t know you’re going to fuck each other into the mattress the second I leave?” She lifted a shoulder in a Gallic shrug, throwing both of them a wink and a kiss.  “I’ll just make do with my vibrator.  We really have to figure this out, James.” 

Since that was a great exit line, she used it to open the door, laughing as Bucky swore a blue streak under his breath and Steve kissed him on the temple. 

“I think you met your match, Buck.”

Chapter Text

Her lady parts were much happier post-session with her favorite vibrator. (The one she saved for when Steve was out of town.) That and a fizzy soft drink left her completely jazzed up and ready to clean up her place for the party. She found another yellow cap and stuck it on her head (just to piss off Barnes).

“Tunes, please, J.”

“Of course, Lewis. And I might say, you appear to be in a much better mood.”

“As if you weren’t keeping an eye on me all day,” she quipped.

“Would you like me to turn off the contact?”

She stilled. “No, JARVIS. I like knowing you can find me, okay. But I’m going to tease you about it even though it’s my decision.”

“As you wish.”

“I love you too.”

He spun up a new artist with some seriously sick beats that had Darcy bopping through her place, picking up clothes, wiping it down and rearranging furniture for whomever wanted a break from Club Stark.

Seeing as she hadn’t spent much time in her half-assed excuse of living quarters, none of it took long at all. She started in on the lab, cleaning out the kitchen and resetting the pillows on the sofa.

Steve and Bucky appeared in the doorway, looking amazingly relaxed. Holy shit. “Post-coital glow obviously outstrips anything my vibrator can do so we’ll put that on the list of issues to address, ‘kay? ‘Kay. Glad we have that cleared up.”

With the grace of a panther, Bucky scooped her up and set her on one of her work tables. He laid one hand on her knee and cupped the back of her neck. “Five minutes, Darcy. And I’ll have you screaming my name.”

(Fuck. Me.) She automatically tracked to Steve, breathing way harder than she should have needed for that little show of strength. She wanted this. Pre-Steve she would have already stripped off her shirt and gone for it.

But Bucky stepped back, letting go. He shook his head, disappointed. “You’re not ready if you’re still looking to Steve for permission.”

Well, now, that just pissed her off. She reached out and pulled him back in, setting her hands on his collarbones (Hey, look, same temperature. Darcy rocks.) He arched a brow as she leaned to the side to whisper, “You’re right.” She traced a finger up and down his neck. “You want to know what I thought about when I got my lady parts all nice and warmed up with my battery-operated version of Steve? I thought about you. About that nice, long dick of yours, about how it would feel sliding into me. I saw it last night, saw how pretty it is. You like those fat veins traced with a tongue. Want my tongue doing that, James? Because I thought about doing that too.” His hand closed over hers with a little convulsion that wasn’t voluntary.  “Want to know what made me come, James?”

When he didn’t answer, she nipped his earlobe and he sucked in his breath. “Thought about Steve getting me nice and warmed up, making me come like he does. Then I thought about you, sliding in so neat and long afterward, sinking so deep my clit is pressing against your skin.” With a satisfied snort, she leaned back on her elbow on the table, saying in a completely normal voice (that her lady parts called bullshit on), “That pretty much did it.”

Bucky shook his head again, only this time, a slow grin appeared. “Darcy, you weren’t kidding ‘bout us.” He reached out, carefully pulling her upright and setting her to her feet. “I’ll wait, doll. But you’ve got to know how much I want you.”

“I want you too,” she said candidly. “And if this didn’t mean anything, I’d have already fucked you.”

He kissed her knuckles, blue eyes darkening to black. “Roger that, Princess.”  

 

*****

 

Steve used the couple of hours before the party to pound out his frustrations on a bag in the training room. He’d spent the day discovering just how close he’d come again to wrecking his relationship with Darcy.

In spite of her cheerful demeanor, he’d finally keyed in on some of the real problems they had between them. She still didn’t believe she belonged with them. She was still putting her needs second to his and Bucky’s. The idea that he would be jealous over Bucky holding her floored him.

Darcy’s nightmares were not a small thing, either. He’d known her to wake too many times either screaming or shaking so badly she couldn’t say a word. Though it wasn’t the primary reason by any means, it definitely figured into wanting to move in with her. She rarely had bad dreams with him, and when she did, he could soothe her—sometimes by holding her tightly, sometimes by talking. Often by making love to her until she was so spent that she slept soundly through the rest of the night.

He didn’t know how to get her to demand all that if that’s what she needed these days.

That was the Darcy he knew and loved. In all the time they had been together, she’d never pulled any punches to get what she wanted out of their relationship. It hadn’t occurred to him that when Bucky came home, that she wouldn’t continue to do the same.

He understood what she’d said about not coming between him and Bucky. Given the way she’d been raised, it made sense, even if he didn’t agree with it. But to think she couldn’t rely on him when she needed him?

Steve put his hands on the bag to steady it. He had known, damn it, that she had an innate insecurity about herself. He’d thought they were past that, that their relationship was as rock solid as two people could be together. He’d never dreamed he would trigger all those feelings in her again.

He should have known better. He didn’t mean to do it. His love for her hadn’t done anything but grow in the past few months.

He didn’t deserve all the second chances she was giving him to make this right.

The punching bag took a beating that day.

 

 

Steve knotted his tie, trying his best not to be nervous. It was just a dance. He’d done the thing already with Bucky, so surely he wouldn’t step on Darcy’s toes. Nat had told him to stick with a vest and tie and skip the jacket. Bucky had picked his dark blue jeans. They weren’t as tight as the ones Buck had on, but they were close.

Nat had already stopped by to make certain that nothing about them screamed ‘stodgy’ and seemed pleased with what Bucky had come up with for them. Apparently, while Steve was off ‘saving the world’ again, Bucky had been ordering clothes off Amazon.com and skimming websites to figure out the current fashion trends.

Bucky walked into the bathroom, white shirt still unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, and he was trying to fasten a black leather cuff to his left wrist. “Can you get this for me?”

“No. Stop. Stay there,” Steve breathed. He scrambled for his sketch pad.

“Steve, this isn’t the time for an art lesson.” There was loving exasperation in that voice, something he’d heard too many times to count.

“Shut up and don’t move,” he called out. He found it on the kitchen table with a pencil tucked inside. He came back to find Bucky leaning on the counter with amusement written all over him.

“Just talk to me, Buck,” he said as his hand flew over the page. If he could capture the basic impressions, he could fill it all in from memory later. Bucky had asked Steve cut his hair a little bit shorter before his shower. Now he had the attitude of the cocky soldier headed out for war and dressed with all the flair of his younger self. The open shirt revealed the dog tags and the edge of the scars on his chest. The rolled up sleeves showed off the metal hand of the man he’d become. His face reflected all of that in the hard edges that would never go away and in the smile lighting his eyes. Steve was desperate to capture it on paper.

“You know, most people take a picture these days.”

“I can draw better than a photograph,” Steve said absently, paying attention to the light play and shadows on Bucky’s face.

“Been a long time since I posed for you.”

“I’d like you to do it again.”

“Why didn’t you ask?”

“Not the right time. I draw you though, you know that.”

“You always have.”

“Can’t help it. It’s like breathing.”

Steve looked down at the hasty sketch he’d done. Yeah, he’d redraw this one later and spend the time on the details. Hell, he might even try to paint this one. He handed it to Bucky with a kiss on his cheek. “It’s you.”

“Of course, it’s me—oh.” Bucky looked at the sketch. He looked up, studying himself in the mirror.

Steve reached out and laced the leather cuff in place, knotting the ends. “I see the Bucky I grew up with. I see the Sergeant I followed into war. I see the soldier they made of you. And I see who you’ve become from all of that.” He put his chin on Bucky’s shoulder. “Yeah, I had to get it on paper, Buck. I don’t ever want to forget what you look like right now.”

“Fucking sap.”

“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” Steve plucked the sketchbook out of Bucky’s hands and went to lay it on the table where it wouldn’t get messed up.

“Steve?” Bucky followed him, fastening the buttons on his shirt.

“Yes?”

“You gonna tell me why you were beating up bags again?”

“Why don’t you tell me?” Steve asked, curious to get Bucky’s take.

“Gotta be Darcy. And since she was in a pretty good mood today, it’s not anything she did.”

“No, I’m the jerk in this scenario, Bucky. I love her so damned much. But she thinks she’s not as important as the two of us. I’ve made her think that and it’s not true at all.”

Bucky played with the leather cuff a little bit, running his thumb across the laces. “Steve, you’ve got to admit, you dropped everything to help me. Whether you meant to or not, it’s there and it had to hurt. I’m doing my part to make her fall in love with me, ‘cause you know how I feel about her. But the priority thing, that’s on you. She needs us. She needs you. She’s got to know that sometimes you’ll pick her over me.”

Steve swallowed hard. Like the sniper he was, Bucky had perfectly lined up the problem—and nailed the solution. 

 

 

Club Stark was in full swing when the elevator doors opened. The only lights came from the lab itself, where presumably JARVIS was changing the colors and making them dance. The music had a fast pace and a heavy beat.

He didn’t really think Bucky could get any happier. But his boyfriend winked at him, lifted his chin and damned near strutted into the lab.  

Steve expected the ladies to be in skirts, but there wasn’t a single one in sight. Nat, Betty, Maria, Jane, and even Pepper had on tight black pants of some kind, sparkling heels and blouses in every color of the rainbow, some of them with sequins.

The room looked like it was filled with smoke, but an experimental sniff told him that Darcy had brought in a fog machine. He hadn’t seen her yet, though Jane, Nat, Pepper and Maria were already on the dance floor. Sam and Clint, too. Thor, Tony, Bruce, and Betty commandeered one of the tables, leaving the other one for Steve and Bucky.

“Steve?”

“Yeah, Buck?”

“Is it legal for Sam, Jane, and Maria to be doing that on the dance floor?”

“Dunno. Why don’t you find out and we can figure out how to do it later?” Steve suggested.

A whistle from behind them proved to be from Darcy. She, too, had on black leather pants that hugged her curves and blue sequin heels to match the halter top that left her arms bare. He greeted her wide smile with a genuine one of his own. “Blue for my boys,” she acknowledged, puckering her lips for a kiss from each of them. She let them escort her to the table, where Thor slid over to join them.

Steve exchanged a look with Bucky as a bartender handed around drinks. This was Darcy’s party. They would make damned sure she had a good time.

 

******

 

10 Things Darcy Learned About the Avengers in Club Stark:

#1 The Avengers are good at line dancing. They love line dancing. And if Sam or Jane or Darcy didn’t know all the steps, Clint did, even the country ones. Maybe especially the country ones. Even Bruce got on the dance floor for the Cha Cha Slide and the Cupid Shuffle when Tony nagged him into it.

#2 Sam and Maria win the award for Best Overall Style. That girl can grind like nobody’s business. Sam just brings it.

#3 Clint knows every single country dance there is to know. Nat apparently does too. (See Clint for reasons why.)

#4 Bucky cut into Nat’s third dance with Clint to learn the two-step from her partner. They were surprisingly graceful.

#5 Thor is ridiculously cute in jeans and a t-shirt on the dance floor. Jane got to wear her stacked heels and favorite red bustier. They shouldn’t have looked as good as they did.

#6 Asgardian Mead gives Steve the courage to get on the dance floor. He lined danced. He club danced. He slow danced with Darcy three times (zing!), Pepper once, Nat once and Bucky twice. Bucky was right, nobody cared.

#7 Bucky and Nat can waltz. It is unreasonably beautiful. Where did JARVIS come up with a spotlight?

#8 Betty made Bruce dance to every single slow song with her. They left early, to no one’s surprise, but they were smiling when they left. #darcyforthewin

#9 While they danced (yup, he did just fine), Steve didn’t mind Darcy goggling at her parents. Pepper and Tony were in the corner, making slow turns of their own, oblivious to everyone else. When Darcy danced with Bucky, they spent the whole time trading insults and rating everyone’s asses. Steve won, of course, but Maria and Sam tied for second.

#10 JARVIS is the best DJ ever.

 

*****

 

When Darcy for called the last dance far closer to sunrise than anyone cared to know, Bucky edged out Steve to steal her away. Since she danced with Steve first, it was only fair (Yes, he felt like a six year old pulling out that rationale. But it worked.)

The song was soft and slow, and Darcy had abandoned her shoes to the pile on the edge of the dance floor. Tony and Pepper were gone, so were Bruce and Betty. Maria and Sam were still on the dance floor (did they ever leave?), as were Thor and Jane. Clint was sound asleep on Nat, who was keeping company with Steve on the couch.

While they danced, Darcy ran her fingers along the leather cuff. “I like this,” she murmured.

He buried his nose in her hair (sunshine). “Mmm. Why?”

“Sexy. It’s more you than the star.”

That brought him up short. No one ever mentioned the red star etched on his arm. And Steve had made only the one oblique reference to it during training. “Does the star bother you?” (Did it bother him? Maybe.)

“Sometimes.” She leaned her head against his shoulder, following his movements around the dance floor as if they’d been partners for months, not hours.

“I could make it blue or white to match Steve’s shield,” he suggested. But that didn’t seem right either.

“No.” She raised her head, sliding her hand to rest on that part of his shoulder, as if protecting it. “If you want it, keep it. S’long as the mark is a reflection of you—the you that you are now, not what you were.”

He would think on that. Later. Right now, he had Darcy to hold through the last song.

Her hand dropped back down to his wrist, where she ran a finger along the edge of the leather again. “How’s your head?” she asked.

It didn’t hurt. Oh. Oh. He’d been pain-free, of any kind, for a couple of days now. With all the music and the cold air pumping out of the AC units, he should have been down for the count hours ago. Last night should have resulted in one if nothing else.

She dazzled him. Like her dad, she did things for those who needed them. Not for money, or for love. Just because they cared. She’d built the heater for Bucky’s comfort, tested it on her own body to reassure him of its safety, and then let him enjoy the benefits without an endless stream of questions to make him feel like an experiment all over again.  

“I haven’t had a headache since you put the heater in,” he admitted.

Satisfied with the results, Darcy had the exact same smirk he’d seen on Tony Stark from time to time. “Yeah, I’m brilliant. Just so you know.”

Unable to hide the rush of emotion, he held her a little closer to him. “I know. Just another reason I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.

The smirk went away and her fingers convulsed around his wrist. Through the sensors there, he could feel her pulse speed up.  “You don’t,” she protested.

“You think I don’t love you, Darcy?” Bucky asked, puzzled.

“It’s not the same. You love Steve. I see it. That’s what’s real. We’re not--” she trailed off when he stopped dancing. Her hand tightened, enough that her knuckles whitened from the tension.

“Fuck it all to hell and back again.” She jolted as Bucky cursed under his breath. She let go of him, but he caught her fingers and pressed them flat over his heart to keep her there. “Darcy, I’ve been in love with Steve since I was thirteen. I know him better than I know myself.” He stared hard in her blue-green eyes. “I know what it is to want to wake up with the same person you took to bed. I know what it is to ache when they are gone. I know what it is to hold someone together when they are too sick to do it on their own. I know what it is to walk into the fire for someone. I know what real love feels like.”

He clenched his teeth, staying out of soldier for this. “So when I say that I love you, I damned well know what I’m talking about.”

Darcy’s mouth opened. And closed. “That’s--” she twisted her fingers into his shirt, “--a really good argument.”

“Gonna tell me you don’t feel anything for me, Princess?” he challenged.

The laugh she let out was bitter, a harsh thing that didn’t belong to her. “James, I’ve been in love with you since that first night we all shared a bed. Months ago.”

He squeezed her hand, still caught in the folds of his shirt. That bombshell explained so much—her grief, the jealousy, London. “Christ, Darcy. Then why did you say you would leave?” he said in exasperation.

“I thought it was the right thing to do.”

“That didn’t turn out very well for any of us,” he countered. “What about you? What do you need? What do you want?”

Her lips parted on a sigh, and she laid her cheek on his shoulder again. “I’m tired, Bucky. Not from tonight, from everything. I need to go home. Steve is my home, but only with you.” she admitted. “I don’t know if that makes any sense at all. I want both of you.” 

It did in a Darcy kind of way. He nuzzled her head and got them moving again, just little steps as the song was winding down. “Do you trust me?”

She clutched his shirt again, tension reappearing in her shoulders. “As far as I know you can handle it, yes.”

He didn’t like that answer, but it was an honest one. “Does the soldier scare you?”

“No. You would never hurt me. But last night scared me. Steve and I pushed you too hard.” She pressed her head against his neck in a mute apology.

He tightened his hold, sliding a hand into her hair. “Last night was fantastic. Different. Tripped a safety switch, that’s all.” He pressed kisses along the side of her face. “Steve was shaken up afterward too. We messed up, not checking on you. I’ll bet your nightmares triggered from that.”

“Yeah, they did,” she agreed.

Bucky stroked the underside of her chin so that she would look up at him. “I agree with Steve. From now on, we stay together. We’ll figure out the sex thing later.”

She nodded.

“If you mean it, tell me you love me, Princess. Then we’ll go curl up with Steve and sleep until noon.”

“I love you, James,” she replied without hesitation.

“And I love you, Darcy Stark.” He kept her close through the last notes of the song.

JARVIS brought up the lights enough to break the mood, and with hugs and kisses, the last of the party went home.

Steve nudged Bucky. “I’ll get Darcy’s stuff. You go on and take a shower. We’ll be up in a few minutes.”

That was probably best. Darcy still relaxed with Steve in a way that she didn’t yet with him.

He went up, stripped and showered, not lingering too much even if he liked the heat of the water. He’d forgotten clothes again and walked naked through the bedroom to the dresser. He debated between pajama pants and a pair of boxer shorts and decided the latter would do.

A soft beep announced the opening of the door, something he and Steve had worked out with JARVIS. Like the ping the AI used to get his attention, little beeps here and there tracked entry and exits to the apartment—enough that one could usually sleep if the other was moving around. Small sounds were far better than no sound at all.

Darcy had never been taught to be silent in her movements, though she could be reasonably quiet if she tried. She was half asleep and still a little damp from her shower.  Bucky took her bag from Steve and nudged her to the bed as he climbed in too. “Your turn, punk. I think there’s some hot water left.”

Steve grinned and Darcy yawned, saying, “I’ll remember that one for Dad.” She took the side of the bed, farthest from Bucky, leaving space for Steve between them. She tucked a pillow underneath her head and chest.

He tried not to let his feelings get hurt, but didn’t he just tell her that he loved her? “Princess?”

No answer.

Steve ducked out of the record-short shower. He had boxer shorts on too (of course, punk never forgot). “She asleep?” He peeked at her face. “That was easy.”

“Why’d she leave the middle for you?” he complained (he did not whine. Sergeants do not whine).

Steve crawled in between them, resettling the covers over Bucky. “Don’t take it personally. The last thing she wants to do is trigger you until you have some idea of what you’re dealing with.” He pressed his lips together. “I’m hoping this works, Buck. We’ve got a long mission coming up in a couple of months. I have to know she’ll be okay while I’m gone.”

“What did she do before?”

“She had me. And that wasn’t always enough.” Steve leaned in to kiss Bucky then rolled on his side so that Bucky could cuddle up to his back.  

Bucky scooted so that he could lean his forehead against the back of Steven’s neck. “G’night, love.” He rested a hand on Steve’s chest.

“G’night, Buck.” There was a kiss on his hand then Steve moved his arm to rest on Darcy’s waist.

Chapter Text

*ping* Sergeant Barnes.

That was the code they’d come up with for work-related matters. Bucky grinned. Work-related. Huh. He rolled out of bed. Report, JARVIS.

A white male, mid-twenties, carrying a backpack with items of concern, has been identified by our security team. Director Hill has requested you for an undercover intercept in your ‘intern’ persona.

Let her know I’m on my way. He reached for jeans and a hoodie. His one concession to the look was to decent boots, because, well, knives. He pulled on a tan glove, and tucked his semi-automatic into its holster at his waist.  

“Bucky?” Steve squinted at the clock. “It’s not even seven-thirty yet.”

“Work stuff. Fill you in later. Go back to bed. I’ve got this.”

“Okay.” Steve looked down at Darcy, who was curled up facing him, her hands flat on his chest. Bucky got a quick thrill when Steve nodded, trusting him enough to deal with whatever it was and go back to sleep.

He stepped out of the apartment with one of Darcy’s travel tumblers in hand that she used for coffee, though he wished it wasn’t empty. JARVIS had the elevator doors open and waiting. Status report, JARVIS.

Suspect is attempting entry on to R&D Floor 72 with false credentials. The security team is tracking where they came from. Hill hasn’t stopped him yet. She wants to know where he is going. The elevator is operating slowly, though not enough to cause agitation. You have two minutes thirteen seconds to reach his destination.

Which labs are on that floor?

The DNA sequencing project, a new body scanner designed to replace the MRI, and the battery division. The elevator doors opened and he stepped on to the floor. Thirty seconds to intercept, Barnes.

He took his time, waiting for the suspect to disembark.  The young man took a quick peek around the floor and headed for the battery research side. Bucky ducked around the corner and came through a connecting office, pretending to see the suspect for the first time. “Hey, it’s the new guy! Come on in. Josh, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” “Josh” agreed.

“Great. I’m JB. James, really, but JB is better.” He let a little bit of Brooklyn out, though not enough to be distracting. “Where do you want to start?”

“Um, I was support to report to Katzev.”

Fourth door on the left, Sergeant. She has a graphene-based micro-battery technology that will replace most current similar technology. She will begin product testing in two weeks.

So we have thief who wants it or a saboteur who is scared of it. Either way, we’re looking at a competitor, not someone targeting Stark Industries in particular. In other words, our suspect is intelligent, probably works in the competing lab, and is scared as fuck. I’m going to hold my i.d. above the door lever while you unlock it. Our suspect doesn’t need to know about our biometric securities.

Of course. 

Bucky let “Josh” inside and waved toward Katzev’s station. “Take a seat in the break area and I’ll find her for you.” He stepped out of Josh’s direct line of sight and waited. The young man pulled out a small device and set it on the work station. In the middle, where it could cause the most damage.

Explosive, JARVIS. In a single clean move, he had the man on the ground and immobilized before the device could be activated. Give me a list of battery competitors, JARVIS. Who is the most impacted by this?

Blue Invio, Riston, and Ion Extract, in that order. Katzev declined two offers to go to work for Blue Invio.

“All clear,” he announced aloud. “Send in the security team for clean up.” To the man, he said, “Stark doesn’t take to kindly to explosions unless he is causing them. Now, why would Blue Invio be worried about Katzev’s research?”

“How did you know?” “Josh” blurted out.

“That’s for us to know and you to sit in jail and wonder.” He looked up as Hill stepped inside the lab. “Hello, Director. You might want to check into this gentleman’s connections to Blue Invio since he so helpfully confirmed my speculations.” Two guards took the man into their custody as Bucky jerked him up and handed him over.

“Take him into holding and we will deal with him there,” Hill ordered them. They nodded and escorted the young man away.

“Got your explosives team?” Bucky asked. They both knew better than to handle a live explosive, even if it wasn’t armed yet. There were other ways of keeping it safe than carrying it around in a pocket.

She grinned. “Soda Zullo.” She introduced a ridiculously young kid who stepped forward, pushing a cart.

“Ma’am,” he acknowledged.

“Have at it,” Hill waved him in.  To Barnes, she explained, “Zullo is from Cambodia. Spent his high school years defusing bombs so the neighborhood kids had a safe zone to play in. He got nicked by one and a doctor Stark knows contacted him and got him stateside. He works for us now and develops technology for villages back home to safely locate and explode the ordinances.”

Zullo used a robotic extension and a large shield to place the explosive into a special box and sealed it. Then he turned to Barnes and pulled up his pant leg to reveal a prosthetic foot. “It’s a good trade. I have good job. Good leg now. I can help people. And she’s nice.” He thumbed over his shoulder with a grin.

“You’ll find him on RD 71 and on call when we need him.” Hill patted Zullo on the back. “You’ve got this.”

“I do.” The kid took his box and set it on the cart behind her, putting his extension and shield on the bottom before heading to the elevator.

When they were alone, Bucky asked her, “Does this kind of thing happen often?”

“That’s the third one since I’ve been here. Most of them don’t make it past the lobby. But we didn’t have a clear bead on this one and I was curious to see how you would handle it.”

“Did I pass?”

“With flying colors. Now, usually I would have you in the interview we’re going to have with our little intruder, but I don’t want to spoil our fun tomorrow. So I’ll see you then. And for god’s sakes, go get some sleep. I know what time you went to bed this morning.”

“Will do, Hill. But only if you clean this guy’s clock and do the same.”

“Forty-five minutes, tops.”

“Hey, Hill?”

“Yes?”

“You have glitter in your hair.” He strolled to the elevator, counting down. Three, two, one.

“You’re an ass, Barnes. Did I mention that I want your report on my desk in an hour?”

As the door slid closed, he had to give that round to her. He retrieved his tablet and keyboard from the apartment and went down to the Commons, where he could get decent coffee and do his write up. His adrenaline was still up and there wasn’t any point in trying to do anything else.

In the army, he’d been required to do all the paperwork for his unit, so the administrative side of authority wasn’t anything new. But it had been a while, and it took him a bit to get in the rhythm of reporting the incident. He drained his cup as he finished and shot it off to Hill’s email.

He climbed the stairs to the apartment. He had a job. He’d done it well. He would do it again tomorrow. Without bloodshed or undue force, or even drawing a weapon, he’d taken down his opponent and secured the premises. It was a good start.

With Steve and Darcy still curled around each other in the bed, a few more hours of sleep seemed like a great idea. He changed in the bathroom so as not to wake them.

When he came out, Darcy’s eyes were open, blank, and she let out a soft cry. Steve held her with one arm, trapped both of her wrists with his other hand against his chest and talked to her. “I’m here, Darcy. Nothing is going to happen to you. I’ve got you.” She shook from whatever she’d been dreaming about, and Steve held her even closer, locking his arms so that she couldn’t move if she tried. “I’ve got you, Darcy. You’re safe.”

With a sigh and long exhalation, she closed her eyes once more. Bucky rested his fingers on her neck. Her pulse was slowing down. Steve relaxed his grip, stroking her hair as he kept her close.

“First time?” he asked Steve.

“Fifth. Every forty-five minutes. I can get to her to go back to sleep, but—hell, Buck,” he broke off, worry clear in his eyes, “Never seen her like this.”

Bucky didn’t miss the apprehension and was glad to lend some warmth and comfort to Steve as he settled under the sheets. But now he was listening for Darcy and another couple of hours passed the same way. After three more rounds, he nudged Steve. “We need to move. This isn’t working and she’s not getting any rest.”

Steve got up with a jaw-cracking yawn, and Darcy woke, for real this time, with dark circles under her eyes. “What are we doing?”

“Trading places, Princess.” Bucky walked around to her side of the bed. Steve moved into Bucky’s spot, taking Darcy and her pillow with him. Bucky crawled in next to her, yanking her shirt up just a little to slide his left arm around her bare waist. “You feel that, doll?”

“Yes.”

“Steve’s got you and I’ve got you. You’re safe with us. We love you. Now go to sleep and believe it,” he ordered.

“Love you both,” she whispered. Steve blinked at that, throwing a questioning look at him. He just smiled and sniffed Darcy’s hair.

None of them woke again until well past lunch.

 

*****

 

Steve made up a dozen BLTs that afternoon, frying up bacon and stacking it neatly on the sandwiches.  Bucky picked up three of them and settled on the sofa with his tablet to read.  Darcy was still in the shower. She’d come in long enough to kiss him, even though she was hardly awake, to steal a piece of bacon and a take a glass of orange juice. 

He pulled out his sketchpad and propped it up on his knee at the table while he ate, idly working out one of the scenes that stuck in his head last night, of Pepper and Tony while they danced.  He thought Darcy might like to have it. 

The Starks definitely knew how to throw a party, and Darcy had given everyone a chance to unwind in complete privacy.  That was a talent she had, to make everyone feel good, one she’d only exercised with him and Bucky for a while now. 

He drew a shadow, and could feel anger coursing through his skin.  Anger with himself for what he’d done to her.   

“I know that look,” Bucky remarked as he washed up his plate and set it in the drainer to dry.

“Yeah?” 

“Since this is between you and Darcy, I think I’ll find a way to occupy myself this afternoon.  See you around dinner.” 

Darcy came out of the bedroom, clad in a fuzzy white bathrobe, drying her hair on a towel. “What’s between you and me? Is Bucky mad about something?” 

“Not unless you count me being an idiot and he wholeheartedly agrees.” 

She bit her lip.  “I’m so—“

“Stop saying ‘you’re sorry’, Darcy!”  Her eyes widened at his rare temper.  “You have nothing to be sorry for. In fact, you should be handing me my ass as you kick me out the door!”

Darcy squeezed the towel one more time and then finger combed her dark hair so that it lay in damp ropes over her shoulders.  She was beautiful like this.  No makeup, though a smudge of dark beneath her blue-green eyes that told him how much she still needed to rest. 

“You’re right,” she said, cool and calm. “I should have cut loose months ago when Bucky showed up.   Or when he got his memories back.  Or before I went to London.  Or when I came back.”  She came in the kitchen to lean against the island, dropping her towel on the counter.  “Do you know why? Because it sucked watching you with him and feeling like everything that was us dried up and blew away.” 

Steve ducked his head, knowing she was right.  His heart clenched hard enough to hurt.

“This past year? Since London? It’s sucked balls,” she said bluntly. “And yes, Bucky’s needs took priority. But Steve, I want you to know that the thought of not helping him never crossed my mind.   I didn’t think bringing him back would be easy, and honestly, I’m surprised he’s come as far as he has.

“All the stories you told painted a pretty damned good picture of him before we met.  And when we did, I discovered I really liked him, even during the worst parts of this, which made it far too fucking easy for me to fall in love with him.”

Darcy leaned on an elbow on the counter.  “You’ve probably guessed that Bucky told me he loved me last night. I believe him. And it feels amazing.” She paused, taking a breath.  “But he said something else too.  He said that he knows what it’s like to walk into the fire for someone.  I know that feeling, Steve. Because I could have ended this when it hurt so much I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t.  Because you needed me.  Because that’s what partners do.  They hold each other up when everything else falls apart.  I remember when my house was destroyed and my parents were missing. You gave me a place to stand. I’ve called you a hundred times in the middle of the night and you are there.” 

Steve sucked in his breath, hoping—

“All this with Bucky, it was big and ugly and no one could possibly have imagined any of it to even be possible.  But we—you and me-- are still here.  We’re still together.  If I regret anything, it’s that I didn’t walk into that kitchen and let you know how much it hurt to see you two kiss.  But I didn’t want to take that moment away from you. Or Bucky.  Because I love you and I know what it means to you to have him back in your life.”   

“Thing is, Steven Grant Rogers, I know you.  You don’t fall in love lightly. Yes, the way you two love each other is ridiculously beautiful and sometimes intimidating as all fuck.  But I also know that if I took that ring you have in your dresser drawer, you would marry me tomorrow.  It wouldn’t have anything to do with expectations or honor, it would be because you love me.”

This was his Darcy. Awestruck by her conviction, Steve went to her, taking her hand in his, rubbing at his eyes as he did.  “I don’t understand how I can mess this up every way imaginable and still have you here, Darcy.”

“Because I had two years with you before all this happened. You’ve always been honest with me. And through everything, you kept telling me you loved me, even if you sucked at showing it. Except the tattoo thing.  That was pretty romantic. And permanent.” 

“I’ll fix the part about showing you,” he promised. 

“Yes, you will.  Because this is Darcy Stark putting her stompy foot down. If you want me here, then we’re making a home of this place.  Our home, with all my stuff here and we deal with living in the same building as my parents. Which means you get to run interference with my dad sometimes,” she insisted.

“I can do that.”

“I want Sundays whenever you are home. I want to curl up with you on the sofa and watch TV or read a book.  I want to go walk in Central Park like we used to.”

“Okay.”    

“And when I have nightmares, we’re going to play our game, even though I know it’s going to freak Bucky out. And he’s going to have to deal with it. Because it works better than anything else we’ve tried and I’m getting desperate.” 

That one was harder for him to agree to, she knew it, he knew it, and this wasn’t about Bucky.  This was about what Darcy needed, even if Buck had to go lift weights for an hour in the middle of the night.  “We will,” he promised.

“You will?” she breathed, her eyes lighting up. 

“Isn’t that what I just said?” He reached for her, and she slid her arms around his waist.  “I’m so sorry, doll, that I wasn’t doing these all along.  You shouldn’t have to ask for me to spend time with you.  I will do it better.”  He cupped her cheek, touching the soft flesh of the curve.  “I would ask something, Darcy, not for me, but for you.”

“What is it?”

“That you talk to Sam or somebody about all this.” 

 “Okay. I will.” She eyeballed him, chin lifted in challenge. (He adored this.)   “If—“

“If?”

“You brush my hair.” 

“Sex first then I brush your hair. And you have to eat something.”

She pretended to sulk, though she rested her head against his chest. “If you insist.”

“I insist.” He couldn’t seem to get enough of holding her, and she of him. So they stood there in the kitchen, soaking up each other’s presence.  (Well, until she got twitchy and shrugged her robe off her shoulders.  She didn’t have a thing on underneath.)

He wanted tender, she wanted hard and fast.  They did both, her way first, then his.  (At one point, Darcy handed him his cell phone off the night stand when the he got a text from Bucky asking if the coast was clear.  Steve fumbled a one word answer that might have had three extra ‘n’s in it as he licked Darcy’s clit. The cell phone also might have landed behind the chair.)

Maybe they did it right this time because hard and fast took the edge off.  Patience let him coax Darcy into that place where she had orgasm after orgasm, soaking his face and throat while he stroked her swollen nub with his tongue and a pair of fingers.  After that, he only had to press a hand there just so to keep her going while he brought her upright to settle on his cock. 

She came again as she took him in, shivering for all the right reasons. He waited for her to come down, not much, just enough for her to drag her eyes open.  “You done?” she taunted.

“Fuck no.” He might have growled.

She flashed him a delighted smile and leaned backward so that he could slide in and out of her and still reach her clit with his fingers.  When it popped out under his hand, he had her.  “Steven—“

There it was, that breathy, wrecked sound of his name on her lips. As if she flipped a switch in him, what control he had fled down the road and he lost himself to her, cradling her shoulders as he took her hard—hard enough that he tried to ease back before he hurt her. 

“Oh no, you don’t.  Stay with me, Steven,” she demanded in that same husky voice that shot his brain all to tatters.  He did, pulsing and filling her with his come while she milked his cock.  Even when he pulled her down to rest on his chest, she was still clenching down hard enough that he wished he could come one more time just then. 

He rolled them so that he could stay connected until that very last moment, and so that he could bury his face in her neck. (Spring. In that moment it becomes summer.) “I love you, Darcy Stark.”

Though she couldn’t see the marks, curled up as they were, her fingers unerringly traced her name on his skin. Her touch was soothing and electric all at the same time.  “I know,” she affirmed. “Steven, I know.” 

Afterward, he kept his promise once Darcy texted Sam and set up an appointment for tomorrow.  He sat on the sofa and she took the space between his knees on the floor.  Her hair was only a little damp, but definitely a tangled mess now. 

He’d been shy the first time he’d asked to brush her hair.  He hadn’t the right, not yet.  But Darcy didn’t know, times had changed, and she handed him a hairbrush without a second thought.

Her hair spilled every which way down her back.  He started from the bottom, working out the tangles.  Darcy closed her eyes, her breath rising and falling in a steady tempo, slowing as he went. 

 

*****

 

Bucky decided an extra hour was enough and he was going in, come hell or high water.  It wasn’t right to ask JARVIS but he wanted to.  In any case, the coast was clear and Steve was sitting on the sofa with Darcy between his legs. 

He was brushing her hair.

Steven drew the brush down the long locks. She had her eyes closed, and he pulled through the strands to help them dry. Slowly, gently, taking his time.  The silken fall of her hair out of the brush when he reached the ends mesmerized him.  His fingers twitched to touch.

Pure envy shot through Bucky, something he’d never felt before with Steve, because it brought home exactly how Steve felt about Darcy. Though dames didn’t pin their hair up anymore, in their time, only husbands got to see their wives with their hair hanging loose. Only a husband had the right to touch it. Steve knew this, even if Darcy didn’t.

Bucky pulled in to control the shaking in his hands before he could ruin their moment.

“Have I told you why I like doing this, Darce?” Steve murmured.

(Well that kept him from retreating to the kitchen.)

“Mmm, no.”

“After me mum died—“  Bucky bit his lip as he heard the Brooklyn and the odd Irish turn of phrase that came out in the rare times Steven spoke about his mom. “I tried to stay on in our flat, but I got sick that winter and the super turned m’ heat off ‘cause I got behind on m’ rent. Bucky’s parents put me up at their place for a bit, ‘til Buck and I went out on our own. Mrs. Barnes, she was a nice lady. Worked at an office and had to wear her hair up. Her hair was thick and heavy, like yours and Bucky’s. Took a lot o’ pins to keep it in place.

“I was goin’ to bed one night and passed by Mr. and Mrs. Barnes’ room. It wasn’t right for me to look, but,” he smiled in memory, “Mr. Barnes was takin’ th’ pins out o’ Mrs. Barnes’ hair. An’ he brushed it, takin’ his time.  An’ she tol’ him how much she loved him for doin’ it. That her head hurt all day ‘cause o’ the pins an’ she didn’t mind ‘cause she looked forward to Mr. Barnes brushin’ it every night.”

Entranced by the story he’d never heard, Bucky slid his hand into Steve’s hair from behind and sat on the back of the sofa to listen.  A lifted shoulder trapped his hand for a moment, a kind of hug that didn’t interrupt the story. 

“Bucky’s parents were good people, Darcy. An’ me mum, me mum ne’er had anyone who took pins outta her hair and brushed it.”

Steve pulled the brush through Darcy’s a couple more times before she asked, “Do you think your parents knew about you two?”

“I don’t know, Darce. I guess when I think back, we were careful. Ma probably had it figured because she was keen on that kind of thing.  He was always hangin’ around when I was sick, lot o‘ times sittin’ on top o’ the covers right up next to me.  An’ I remember Bucky’s little sister askin’ at dinner at his house one night if we thought of each other as brothers. Bucky was real sweet when he told her I wasn’t his brother, I was his best friend. Mr. and Mrs. Barnes didn’t say anything at all. Just let it stand.”

Bucky confirmed, “They knew.” Steve stopped brushing to look up at him, and Darcy turned around to put a chin on his knee. “I went out with dames and that was a good enough, I guess. But when I told them I wanted to get a place with you, punk,” he ruffled Steve’s hair, “Dad gave me a real concerned look and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I told him I did. And that was it. He never said another word about it. Ma just kissed me on the cheek and said she had a few things put by for when I moved out. We never made trouble for them, and the whole neighborhood was convinced the reason you didn’t go out with the girls was because you were sick all the time.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Barnes always made sure I had a place to go for the holidays,” Steve told Darcy.  “Do you remember Mrs. Westerly, Buck?” He grinned, the memory lighting up his face in a way that made Bucky think of thin shoulders, humid nights and sticky sheets.  “Seems like she was always coming by with an invitation to dinner or something from your mom.” He let his voice get quivery and high-pitched in a fair approximation. “Mrs. Barnes stopped by to see her boy but he was working some overtime, like a good one should. Wanted to see if you had any plans for Sunday dinner, she did, Mr. Rogers. I told her you’ve been a sweet lad, not cattin’ about town like her boy, but that you’ve been feelin’ a bit poorly lately. She’s says she’d heard as such and wanted to make sure you had some home cookin’ too.”

Bucky winked at Darcy. “Didn’t matter if I cooked six days straight after double shifts and takin’ care of the punk at night ‘cause he had pneumonia.  I was never good enough for Mrs. Westerly and she thought he was an angel.”

Steve grinned. “It was bribery. Your mom would make jumbles for us and leave them with her. I always made sure to give her half.”

If he thought hard enough, he could almost smell his mom’s perfume and remember his dad’s quiet laugh. He discovered his face was wet when Steve reached up to wipe it off. “I miss ‘em,” he admitted. “I didn’t know that story ‘bout Dad brushin’ Ma’s hair, but it sounds like somethin’ they would do. Miss m’ sister too.”

Hunching over like he used to do as a bony teenager, Steve agreed, “Me too.”

They had gone to Brooklyn months ago where they had grieved over his parents’ graves, and paid their respects to Steve’s ma, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t still coming to terms with the fact he couldn’t go home to them. He still hadn’t made overtures to his sister’s kids though Steve exchanged notes with them every couple of months.  He wasn’t ready for them to know he was still alive, but Steve let him keep all the letters, and he stored them in a box in one of the dresser drawers.

Darcy patted Steve’s hand and fluffed out her silky hair.  He wondered what kind of bribe it would take to let him do her hair too.  He definitely didn’t know what to make of Darcy when she rounded the sofa to wind her arms around his neck and lay a fairly intense kiss on him. There was a slide of lips, a good amount of heat and her tongue dipped into find his.  “You okay?”

Yeah, he was.  Holding her and sniffing her hair kept him in the here and now.  “Sure.  I guess you two are good?” he asked.

“We worked out a few things,” she said.  “Now it’s time for you and I to talk.” 

 

*****

 

Steve sat back onto the sofa cushions as elation shot through him.  His world had steadied again, as if the earth hadn’t tilted on its axis where he was sliding around for purchase.  Darcy was not only staying, she was doing what she did best, and making sure everyone knew the ground rules.  Steve wasn’t like that.  He could take most any situation on the fly and make the best of it.  Short term campaigns were his specialty. 

Darcy was a mechanic at heart. She built things, finessing the details until it was exactly right.  And she was a Stark. Starks built things to last.

She’d deftly changed the mood that was threatening to become maudlin. He was glad of that, because Bucky needed to remember the good things about his family too.  She tugged him down to the sofa and sat in his lap, while propping her feet on Steve’s thighs.  Her ankles were tempting and he drew little circles on them with his thumb. 

Curiosity got the best of Bucky, and he set his hands to her arms as if she were made of glass.  Steve figured Buck wasn’t quite used to this level of affection from Darcy.  Hell, Steve had missed it something awful.

“Okay, Princess, what’s on your mind?”

Flicking a look at Steve, Darcy started, “Last spring, Steve and I had been talking about moving in together, getting a real place of our own. We told you that, I think.”

“You did.” 

“How do you feel about me coming to live here with you? That includes all my crap that we just unpacked and my yellow hats, by the way.”

Pretending a nonchalance that Steve saw right through, Bucky rubbed the back of a finger across her shoulder.  “I’d like that, Darcy.  Punk is fun to live with but I miss you. Can we negotiate on the yellow hats?” he asked slyly.

“Nope.”  

“We’ll talk.” He kissed her temple.  “How soon?”

“Your call.”

“Tonight then.  What’s next?”

“Sex.” 

He blinked.  “I’m good at it.” That was accompanied by a smirk and lazy look that made Steve’s cock twitch (every fucking time).

That prompted a laugh from both Darcy and Steve.  Her eyes sparkled as she acknowledged, “So I hear.”  She might have been nervous but she had both of their attention when her tongue slicked across red lips.   “Next weekend?” 

Attempting to be the gentleman, Bucky took the high road. “Darcy, we can give it as long as you want.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Saturday then.  You and me or the three of us?”

Bucky started to laugh, holding on Darcy so she wouldn’t slide out of his lap. “You sound like Pepper. The way you negotiate.”  He looked across the sofa at Steve, who was doing his best to keep his face neutral.  But Bucky could read him far too well. “It’s gonna be the three of us, Princess,” he decided.

“Done,” she agreed. She wound her fingers into the dog tags Bucky wore, playing with the metal. Steve wanted his sketch book and wondered if he was going to have to be like Jane, leaving notebooks everywhere so there was always one in easy reach.  Bucky and Darcy were so damned beautiful together.  His hard lines and her softness, all dark hair and blue eyes.  Her pale lips and his stubble. 

“Steve?” Bucky asked. “You in?”

“Of course I’m in, jerk,” he quipped.  “But I’m not playing proxy for either one of you.  If we’re waiting for Saturday, then we’re all waiting for Saturday.”

Bucky poked his lip out in a pout. If his hands weren’t full of Darcy, Steve knew damned well something would have been thrown at him.  “Well shit, Rogers.  That wasn’t what I meant.  I like sex and I’m finally gettin’ some regular now.  An’ we don’t gotta worry about neighbors or nothin’ pokin’ their noses in our business.”

Darcy chuckled, leaning over to run a tongue in Bucky’s ear as he kept talking.  “You’re a fucking punk, you know that?  And I know damned well I’m gonna have to change the sheets on the bed today ‘cause of you two.”

“Already done,” Darcy snickered. “But I can loan you my vibrator.” 

“Which side drawer are you going to keep it in, doll?” 

“Whichever side you’re on.” 

He let his head sag against the back of the couch in mock frustration.  But he was smiling too as he squeezed Darcy in another hug.  She let go of the tags and patted his forearm.  “Get up, serum-boy.  We’re moving my stuff tonight.” Darcy rolled off his lap and reached a hand out (laughably) to both of them, as if to help them up. 

“Let punk do it. He’s bigger,” Bucky protested.

“Faster my stuff gets here, the faster I get in my jammies.  I’ll wear the pretty ones tonight.”

Raising an eyebrow, Steve prompted, “The blue ones?”

“The blue ones,” she confirmed, her eyes dancing as they shared a secret. 

Steve pretended to make a dash for the door. Bucky laughed and was out from under Darcy to beat him there.  “That good, huh?” he huffed to Steve. 

 

 

It was near midnight before they got all her things upstairs. Most of it was stuffed into the spare bedroom for now and it was a good thing most of her kitchen stuff was still packed up, or they would have been at this for another day. 

Darcy came to bed in the promised blue pajamas.  They were cotton, went all the way down to her ankles and wrists, and were dotted with Captain America shields all over them.  In spite of the lack of anything remotely revealing, she was outrageously cute in them as she crawled in between him and Bucky.   

 “Rogers, you’re a fucking prick.”

“Noted, Barnes.” 

“Gosh, all the love in here just turns me on.” 

Chapter Text

Leaving Darcy in the shower and Steve to run with Sam that morning, Bucky hauled Barton out of bed and down to the shooting range just before dawn. Safety glasses and ear protection in place, Barton was bleary-eyed, cranky and still a crack shot before his coffee.

When they had emptied a dozen rounds each, he was settled enough to lay his weapon on the table. (Assessing).

Annoyed, Barton sneered, “Fuckin’ hate you right now, Barnes. You’ve pissed off Nat and she won’t come out of her studio. She won’t fuck me ‘cause she’s so fucking mad at whatever you said. Then you drag me out of bed between missions before I’ve had my fucking coffee so you can get your head on straight before you scare the hell out of some baby security guards.”

He crossed his arms and grinned.

Barton’s eyes widened. “You fucking bastard. You did the Natasha thing on purpose.”

“She’ll come to me when she’s ready. And when she does, you’ll want to watch,” he promised.

Clint scratched his head, considering. “Do I have time to change clothes? I want to sit in on your meeting and make faces at you.”

“Nine straight up. Training center on the sixth floor.”

 

 

Bucky dressed in the standard Stark Industries blazer and slacks, tailored for easy movement and to keep his weapons discrete. This was a commercial, not a military building, after all. Stark had provided him with a thin flexible glove that made his metal hand look like a flesh one. He didn’t like it and had no intention of wearing it past these meetings. The team would figure out who he was soon enough. But the technology was good to have in any case. Steve introduced him to low boots that he could tuck his knives into and holsters that fit on the inside of his waistband. Nat had a few more hidden tricks for him and now he was comfortably armed.

Darcy (all decked out in her work clothes and the heels that made her almost as tall as he) wished him luck as he geared up. Seeming to understand his mood, she didn’t kiss him. Instead, she took his left hand and laced her fingers with his. “I’d tell you ‘good luck,’ but you don’t need it. I’d tell you that ‘you’ve got this,’ but you already know that. So I’ll say this: Have fun. Don’t do this if you don’t like it. You, of all people, have the right to do only that which brings you joy.”

He was the one who kissed her fingertips and squeezed her hand. He didn’t speak. He didn’t have to.

At any one time, Stark Tower had between one and two hundred security offices on duty. Each floor had at least one guard making rounds, if not several. The first two floors of retail shopping had one or two dozen depending on the time of day, and the security floor was always well staffed.

Guards rotated positions frequently to stay fresh, shifts were kept to six hours and four hours of physical or educational training time was mandatory every week. But guards were assigned to specific floors and encouraged to get to know the tenants by name. Guards could offer self-defense classes to their assigned floors for bonuses and overtime. Tenants who trusted their security team obeyed them better in an emergency.

Hill had a good set up. She’d gutted Stark Industries security and rebuilt it from ground up, screening everyone. Bucky wanted to pull the finest from that to create a specialized team for the lab and Avengers’ floors. The Avengers were bringing in family now, and family had to be protected at all costs.

They met in Hill’s office prior to the briefings. “We’re recording the sessions, as you requested,” she told him.

Barnes nodded. “Good. I’ll be using key words that will prompt any HYDRA agents to give me a signal. With any luck, we’ll be able to finish cleaning house.”

“Sounds good. I’d ask if you were nervous,” she chuckled, “but anyone who led the Howling Commandos doesn’t need a pat on the butt to get out the door.”

“Rogers was the Captain. I was only the Sergeant.”

“I thought we already discussed the part where I don’t like bullshit.”

He smirked. “Yes, ma’am.” Rogers was a good leader now and had picked up military strategy like a duck to water. But especially in those first days, Barnes had quietly guided his best friend. The other Commandos quickly learned that the two of them presented a united front once decisions were made, but more often than not, the two of them worked out their disagreements before Rogers took them before the rest of them. Rather than making the Captain look weak in front of the other Commandos, they respected him for listening to the Sergeant. They didn’t always agree, but they backed each other up. And Rogers was always on the front line to the senior officers.

When the first group arrived, Hill introduced him as Assistant Director James Barnes, former special forces operative in the U.S. Army. “Barnes is in charge of the Tower, ladies and gentleman. From now on, you report directly to him.”

Barton rolled his eyes. Apparently he was well liked by these people, because he’d come in full uniform, shook hands and worked his way to the corner where he sat on top of a table. To the officers, it looked like Hawkeye was the doubting Thomas, there to protect them from the newbie leader. This worked in Barnes’ favor. Without even realizing there was a power play going on, any moles would automatically think of Barnes as the “non-Avenger” and therefore on the opposite side of the playing field—leaving them even more open to the suggestions Barnes was about to drop. Later on, he could use Hawkeye to his advantage in bringing the teams around. But that was later.

For now, he gave a brief rundown of the changes he’d already made and those he intended to make, starting with his desire to create special teams to handle the lab floors. He didn’t mention the residential floors yet, that would come later when he had a better idea of who he could trust. “Our labs are the most frequently targeted areas in the Tower. They are also the most difficult to reach. However, as Stark Industries continues to move further away from weapons technology and into broader areas of green energy and commercial production, we become a greater target for corporate espionage, such as what we saw yesterday. Fortunately, legal is not our problem.” That got a ripple of laughter from the audience.

He continued, leaning against the desk with studied ease, even crossing his ankles for effect. “For our specialty protection units, we are looking for team players interested in becoming real assets to our organization on a different level. You will be highly trained for this position. I won’t play games here. If you want it, you let me know. If you don’t, it’s no disgrace. But if you are currently assigned to one of these floors and choose not to be part of the specialty unit, you will be reassigned, no exceptions. Sign-up sheets are on the table. Any questions?”

There were a few, easily fielded. When they were done, Barnes stationed himself by the door. “Please, I’d like for you to introduce yourself to me as you go.”

He’d always had a good memory, but the serum gave him damned near a photographic one, so—as he’d been trained by HYDRA—he matched faces to names and recorded them in his memory (skill set) as almost two hundred men and women shook his hand.

Right off the bat, he tagged eleven agents out of this group and mentally filed their names away for later.

By the time lunch rolled around, he had twenty-seven he’d noted. He and Hill took a working lunch and pulled out an additional eight more off the videos. All thirty-five had put their names on the sign-up sheets, giving them reason to view the videos again to check and recheck the other prospective specialty team candidates.

*ping* Sergeant Barnes.

Yes, JARVIS.

Based on your criteria, I believe I have identified four more officers who are not on your lists.

Barnes took down the names, checked them against the videos and the sheets, and had to agree with JARVIS’ assessment. “That’s thirty-nine HYDRA agents out of almost five hundred employees.”

Hill tapped her stylus on her tablet. “Twenty-two of those we missed when we cleaned house. The other seventeen are new hires.”

“Still gives us plenty to pick from for our specialty teams. We also can incorporate some of the phrasing into the tests we give newbies. Let’s see what we filter out.”

“How long do you think we have before the codes don’t work anymore?”

Barnes shook his head. “We’ll start cutting the HYDRA agents a few at a time. We’ll change their schedules, isolate them, and then find other things for them to do. Surely we have some remote, low target locations we could send them before we cut them loose. That will buy us time. Maybe a year?” he speculated. “When we quit flagging recruits with the phrases, we’ll know HYDRA changed them. After that, we’re on our own. The longer the agent has been with HYDRA, the more disconnected they are, the longer the codes will work.”

“Then what?” Hill prompted.

“I’ll promote from within. Keep any newbies on the bottom floors for the next ten years until we come up with a better way to identify moles. ”

“That’s ambitious.”

“Feel free to come up with a better plan.”

“At this point, I’m good with it.” Hill leveled a look of curiosity at him. “How do you plan to protect yourself?”

Barnes stripped off the glove. “At this point, Rogers and I are targets mostly for the properties of the serum, which, as far as anyone knows, hasn’t been replicated.”

“Why not?”

He raised an eyebrow. Most people were too wary to bring it up. “We don’t know. Mine didn’t restructure my body that much, but physically I’m a close match to Rogers in ability. Banner assures me the serum can’t be acquired via a blood transfusion. It’s been tried too many times and has never succeeded.”

“He would know.”

“Yes. I think he would. Which leaves us with creating a new serum from scratch. Banner wasn’t entirely successful, and if Zola managed it, he’s never used it on anyone else. Romanoff has confirmed that to my satisfaction.” Barnes checked his phone. “I’ve got an appointment in an hour. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Good job, Barnes.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” He almost saluted her, nodded instead, but the pivot was more natural than not.  

 

*****

 

It’s been quite some time since Captain America has out and about town with his girlfriend, Darcy Lewis, but they were seen exchanging a rather steamy kiss in a Midtown café this weekend. Lewis is a senior administrator at Stark Industries, where presumably the two of them met. Although neither party has officially confirmed their relationship, we have to wonder if wedding bells are in the future for the couple who have been dating off and on for almost three years now. And that’s all we have tonight. I’m Georgia Cates, and you’ve been watching Entertainment Now.

###

 

“Senior administrator, my ass,” Darcy grumbled as she peered at her laptop. “Someday soon, they are going to get the shock of their lives and I’m going to rub all of their noses in it.” She had set up her computer on the kitchen table in the apartment. (Thumbs up for the view. Thumbs down for needing to concentrate for any extended period of time. Her lady parts were not happy with Steve’s manifesto for the next five days.)

Steve was making up batches of spaghetti sauce, enough for dinner and some to freeze. “What’s that?”

“Oh, JARVIS found a blurb on the television last night. Someone took a picture of us over coffee this weekend.”

“I know I should be used to that by now,” he remarked. “But I’m not.”

“You should. Get used to it I mean. It’s not a good thing to harbor the illusion we have privacy anywhere but the Tower. I just wish they would get my occupation right. VP of R&D, folks. It’s not hard. At least the real journalists get it right, most of the time.” Annoyed, she shut the tab down on the browser.

“Darce—you’ve said a couple of times now that you’re planning to come out of hiding. What’s on your mind?”

“The board is beginning to drop hints to Mom about succession planning for Stark Industries. They don’t know I exist, and since neither Tony Stark nor Pepper Potts has produced any visible progeny, they’re beginning to wonder who will inherit the company in the event of Tony’s demise.”

“Do you have to tell them?”

“Yes and no. Dad still owns Stark Industries at the end of the day. Only twenty percent of the stock has been sold and that was by my great-granddad, Isaac, which is why we have a board in the first place. Dad’s been trying to buy back the rest of the stock for years, but those who have it aren’t stupid enough to sell. Once in a while, when the board gets a bug up their ass, they’ll make noises about it in public. Since we heavily invest in new technology, the last thing we want to do is make our researchers or buyers nervous. It’s a media circus and we all tiptoe around each other. The board doesn’t want to shake the confidence in Stark Industries or the stock price will drop. Sometimes though, it’s the only leverage they have.”

Steve had a quizzical expression as he stood in front of the stove with a wooden spoon in his hand. “You know, I think I understood all that.”

“Then you’re getting better.” She blew kissy faces at him. “Makes all those Business 101 books I made you read worth it.”

“Maybe.” He gave the sauce another stir.

She shut her laptop. “Fun and games are over for me. Now I get to be the grown up and go talk to Sam before I go in the office.”

“Like that?” He winked at her bare feet. She was already dressed, but had set her shoes by the front door.

“Unfortunately not. Mom’s dress code includes Louboutins.” 

Steve didn’t exactly keep his hands virtuously to himself when he kissed her sweetly and wished her a good day. (Just for that, she and Bucky were definitely going first, no doubt about it.)

Pepper complimented her as she walked in after her session with Sam (easier than she thought, but homework? really?). “You look chipper.”

“Never overestimate the power of a decent night’s sleep between a couple of very hunky guys.”

“Mmmm. Sounds nice. No bad dreams?”

There was never any point in lying to her mother. She lifted a shoulder, dismissing them. “Always. But I was able to go back to sleep. It’s a step.” She rounded the desk to Pepper’s side. “So what’s on slate for today?”

“First round of budget meetings start next week.”

“I quit. I’ll be back after Thanksgiving.”

“Now you sound like Tony.”

“Oooh, dirty threat. Okay, which divisions are you giving me this year?”

 

 

*****

 

 

Bucky changed out of his uniform, opting for slacks and a nice shirt for his appointment. He liked the way the tailored shirt sat on his shoulders.  “Third time today I’ve changed clothes,” he grumbled.

“You’ve always been a clothing fiend,” Steve said good-naturedly. “I don’t recognize half of what you’re putting in my part of the closet.”

“Not my fault your default mode is ‘grandpa.’”

“I like my plaids. And before you throw them out, you might want to see the way Darcy looks when she borrows them to wear around the house. You want a sandwich before we go?”

“No. I think I need to do this on an empty stomach.”  He tucked his hands in his pockets, unsure of this, though he’d considered all the alternatives and decided on this course of action.

Steve laid a hand on his back. “That I understand.”

They borrowed a black SUV from Tony’s garage and drove to one of the older Catholic churches on the outskirts of Brooklyn. Father Daniel Keene waited outside the chapel for them. He looked to be their real age and hadn’t a hair on his head--and shook Steve’s hand with a delighted smile and eyes that spoke of an old soul.

“Father Keene,” Steve greeted him.

“Captain. Is this new kid?”

Bucky snickered and held out his own hand. “Father.”

“Come on in.”

The chapel was part of an old stone church with more than a hundred years of frankincense steeped into its pores. Some smells don’t change and Bucky remembered this one from his youth. Steve went into the confessional first while Bucky took to the worn wooden pew. He cleared his mind, and studied the artwork and statues along the walls.

When it was his turn, Steve clamped a hand on his shoulder before he went in.

Without really looking at him, Bucky said in a low voice. “I’m gonna be a while, Steven.”

“I know. I’m not going anywhere.”

Bucky went inside the little room, where the space between him and the priest was blocked by a wooden wall with slats in it. In theory, a person would have anonymity, but his was a special case and required the services of a particular kind of priest.

He could have sat on the chair. He could have taken the well-padded kneeler. Instead, he opted for the stone floor. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Santi.” He crossed himself as he spoke, and then listened as the priest said a short prayer and was invited to begin.

There, on his knees, he made his confession. Of the lives he’d taken in the service of the U.S. Army. Of those he’d taken as the Winter Soldier. Sometimes his words were in English. Mostly it was in Russian.

He spoke of the fall from the train. Of the experimentation at Zola’s hands. Of the targets he’d been given and the punishments doled out when he rebelled. He spoke of the cryofreeze and the pain. He explained in detail how the chair wiped his will and his mind.

Then he told of the Red Room. Of Natalia.

It was here, and only here, that he would ever speak of those terrible days in their entirety. Of the brutal punishments and training that had come before. Of the demand for him to train others. The selection process. Of the girls who had failed. Of the one who didn’t.

For one single year, he’d been kept out of cryofreeze to train her. In that year, he’d created an assassin of exquisite capability. In that year, he’d found something extraordinary.

He told, in exact detail, what he’d done to her. He left nothing out, not the hideous brutality, or the way he’d locked himself away to survive it. He spoke of the mind wipes and the punishments that followed. How he had hunted her in blind obedience until she was deemed loyal. How he had hunted her when she wasn’t.

He spoke of those last days before Steve pulled him out of hell.

When he ran out of words, the priest prompted him to speak of his life since that moment on the bridge.

So he did. Of Steve. Of Darcy. Sam. Pepper. Tony. Natasha. The family he had now.

And the priest asked him what he feared.

The answer was far too easy.

When he was done, he waited in silence for whatever penance the priest would order him. He anticipated a lifetime of service as reparation for what he’d done.

What he heard wasn’t what he was expecting.

“I apologize, soldier, that we, as a human race, failed you for so terribly long. There is no penance, for you have already paid it. Your actions in the war were in the service to your people, in spite of all that was done to you even then. Your actions under your abusers were born not of rage, or hatred, but for survival. That you saved even one out of the darkness is the small miracle. That you are still capable of giving love in spite of all that was done to you is the great miracle.

“This, then, is your duty. It is a simple one and yet the most complex. Allow yourself to receive love freely, without condition, for the rest of your life, soldier.”

There were other things said--prayers, instructions for his faith, and affirmations. But James Buchanan Barnes could only let the priest’s words tumble through his mind again and again. I apologize.

 

*****

 

Steve’s knees ached when Bucky finished. He’d kept vigil for his best friend for just shy of three hours, hoping Bucky could find some kind of peace.

Bucky couldn’t speak, not with eyes that red and the look of someone who’d wept for hours. He knelt at a pew for just a moment, crossed himself and nodded toward the chapel door. They walked side by side through the parking lot, shoulders touching, until they got in the car.

“Fuck, I wish Darcy didn’t mind smoking so much. I could use a cigarette right now,” Bucky choked out.

“We can stop if you want,” Steve offered.

“No. I’d rather hold both of you and watch something stupid on TV tonight.”

“We can do that.”

By the time they got home, it was clear that Bucky had developed a blinding headache (how long since the last one?). Darcy got the electric blanket warmed up and Steve stripped him down to get him under the covers. They took turns rubbing his back and head until the worst of the pain passed.

When he came around enough, they moved to the sofa, where Steve put his head in Bucky’s lap and Darcy leaned against his other side with her head on his shoulder. They watched baseball as the World Series came to an end.

Bucky’s hand ruffled his hair, or skidded across his shirt, tugging it up so they were flesh to flesh. From this angle, he could see how often Bucky pressed a kiss against Darcy’s temple, or sniffed her hair, and nuzzled her neck. Darcy played with his fingers, stroking the metal of his hand.

Steve felt something in himself unwind. Whatever had happened in that little room, perhaps Bucky had found absolution.

Darcy and Steve flanked Bucky that night in bed. Darcy slept on her stomach, with Bucky’s metal hand resting on her back. Steve curved his arm over the both of them.