New York, NY
Darcy's eyes fly open, but the rest of her body does not move. Her breathing remains slow and calm, even as her vision blurs, and for a long moment she isn't sure what has happened to her.
She closes her eyes again, wondering a little bit at the trickles of warmth that run down from their corners, across her face, to soak into the pillow under her cheek. This is the third time this week that she's woken up crying, and she takes a long, slow breath before sliding out from under James's cybernetic arm. Her feet sink silently into the thick pile of their bedroom's carpet, and she pauses only long enough to slip on a tee shirt in deference to their erstwhile roommate's sensibilities before gliding out of the bedroom and padding down the hall to the kitchen.
The apartment is dark except for the Christmas tree and the light over the stove; none of them actually need the light to see by, but Steve likes it because he says it makes the place seem more warm. Whatever that means. She gives him a mental shrug and passes it by, pulling open the refrigerator and staring into it for a long moment, not really seeing anything in front of her. She shuts it again, and she sighs softly.
"Can't sleep?" Steve asks from the couch.
She isn't startled. "Dreams," she says succinctly, knowing he'll understand. She purses her lips for a moment, considering, and then she opens a cupboard, reaching into a box. "Chocolate?"
"Sure," Steve replies.
Darcy grabs two of the little plastic containers and pads across the kitchen to the Keurig machine, switching it on and waiting patiently for the water to heat up before popping the first container into the slot. A few minutes later, she pulls out the bag of mini marshmallows and drops a few into each cup of hot chocolate. Then she brings the two cups into the living room, handing one to Steve and cradling the other one in her hands as she folds herself up into the big leather easy chair and stares at the tree until it turns into a multicolored blur.
They sip their chocolate in silence for a few minutes before Steve speaks. "Do you mind if I ask?"
She considers the question from a variety of angles before finally shrugging softly. "I don't know what it is," she says. "It's an op, but it's from the wrong perspective, and it's not anything that makes sense as any op I ever worked."
Steve cocks his head a little bit. "What do you mean, the wrong perspective?"
She sighs, taking another sip of her chocolate. "It's a hit," she explains. "Only instead of being the one who comes in the door, I see it like it's someone coming in the door on me."
"Are you shot?"
Darcy shakes her head. "That's the weird thing. There's a man and a woman there who I don't know, and they get shot, but I don't."
Steve frowns. "What happens to you?"
She opens her mouth to reply, then stops, frowning as well. "I... think they... grab me?"
"And do what?"
She shakes her head. "I don't know," she admits. "That's when I wake up."
Steve sits back against the couch cushions, studying the drink in his hands before looking back up at her. "Well, Darcy, I'm no expert," he says, "but is it possible that you're remembering? When you were kidnapped?"
She opens her mouth to scoff at the idea - it's been a full two years since she and James woke up and she hasn't remembered anything yet, even though James has regained almost all of his memories. It's ridiculous to think that she's ever going to remember anything more than what she already has. Except that... except that...
"It... maybe?" she admits, forcing herself to be honest despite everything in her that wants to deny it. "I'm... I'm not sure."
"Is there an op report on your kidnapping?" Steve asks. She can see the discomfort on his face even as he states the blunt question; his instinct is to be more circumspect, to couch the query in more gentle terms, but she's told him enough times to stop it - euphemizing the matter is simply a waste of energy - that he's finally listening.
She nods. "There is. It's pretty straightforward." She accesses the file with her implant, the scanned image overlaying Steve's concerned face in her visual field. "It says here that once they had decided I could be a useful tool for controlling the asset - which is to say, James - that they directed my father to a motel in town and had us followed to see what room we checked into. Then just after midnight, a four-man team entered the room, eliminated the parents, retrieved the target, and returned to base. No casualties."
"Except for your parents," Steve points out.
She feels her lips twitch. "No unexpected casualties."
Steve winces slightly. "So, a motel room, right?" he says, making a valiant attempt to rally past the awkward exchange. "A motel room, with your parents, they get shot, and you get taken? I know it's hard to accept, but I think you might be remembering that."
Darcy takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, and then lets it out again slowly. "You're right," she admits. "It is hard to accept. Not for the reason you think, but... yeah." She tips her head back against the smooth leather, staring up at the darkened ceiling. "I didn't think I'd ever get anything back. I figured that whatever they did, the serum, the wiping, all of that, I figured that it just scarred whatever parts of my brain so much that the memories were just gone. So getting them back now ? That's just... inconvenient."
Steve laughs softly. "I can see where it would be," he agrees. "But on the other hand..." He pauses, bites his lip. "Well, I don't know," he says suddenly. "I started to say, 'Isn't it a good thing that you're finally getting your memories back?' But then it occurred to me that it might not be. That you might not want them."
She smiles slightly. "I don't not want them," she says, considering the matter carefully. "But that's not the same as saying that I do want them."
Steve nods like he understands completely. Darcy thinks it's possible that he actually does. His memories aren't a field of wildflowers either. She sighs softly. "I just wish it didn't make me feel..." Her voice trails off.
"Feel what?" he asks softly.
She sighs again, shaking her head, and stands, wandering over to the window. She stares out at the city silently for a long moment. "I'm not sure I can explain it," she finally says. "But it's like... it's like as long as I don't remember, I can... pretend? Sort of. Like I know what I'm doing."
"I... don't really know what you mean," Steve admits.
Darcy turns to face him. "I don't know how to be a person," she admits. "I've always been..." She waves a hand expressively. "A science experiment. An asset. A thing. And that wasn't so bad before, because for a long time, James was the same as me." She pauses, swallowing hard. "But he's changed."
"He's still your husband," Steve points out.
"Yeah, but he's not the same." Darcy shakes her head. "He's not the same as me any more. He's got memories and a past and... and you. " She swallows hard. "And please understand, Steve. You're his friend. You're my friend, too, I think, most of the time. But you're his friend, first and foremost. You're his past. You're this huge, tangible link to the fact that he existed before HYDRA and he continues to exist after HYDRA, and he's even still mostly the same person you knew before, with some allowances for trauma and life experiences."
Steve nods, reluctantly accepting the point. "But he still loves you," he offers.
"I know he does," Darcy says. "But he used to be the same as me, and now he's not any more. And it's hard being the only one who isn't. "
"What do you mean?" Steve asks, his brows furrowing together.
"I mean what I say," Darcy replies. "James is a person now. He used to be a person, before, and now he's a person again. But I'm not." She turns her back on him, staring out at the city again. "I'm not a person, and I haven't been for a long time. And I was okay with that when I still had him, but now I don't any more."
"Of course you do," Steve rebuts, coming up behind her. He rests a tentative hand on her shoulder. "Darcy, you will always have him. He's not going to leave you."
"He already has," she says softly. "He just doesn't know it yet."
"Darcy," Steve says firmly. He turns her to face him, gripping her shoulders and giving her a gentle shake. "He hasn't. And he isn't going to. I promise."
She gives him a slight smile. "You can't promise that," she says. "You don't know."
"I don't care," he replies immediately. "I know him. I know how much he cares about you. Hell, I see the way he looks at you, like a man in the desert looks at water. He's not going anywhere, Darcy."
She swallows hard. "I just don't understand it," she admits finally, looking away from him.
"What don't you understand?" Steve asks. "I'll explain it. In small words, if I have to."
She rubs a hand over the words on her chest, and she murmurs, "I don't understand how I have a soul mark. How I have a soul mate."
"Why wouldn't you?" he asks.
She shakes her head. "Because I don't have a soul," she admits. "I haven't had one since I was a child. They burned it out of me along with everything else."
"That's bullshit." James's voice cuts harshly across the quiet living room, and both Steve and Darcy startle, turning toward him. He shrugs. "I woke up and you weren't there," he says quietly.
"Sorry," Darcy says.
He shakes his head. "No need to apologize, кукла. You can't sleep, you can't sleep. I get that." He comes to her and Steve steps aside, letting James wrap his arms around her and pull her close. "What's brought this on?"
She shrugs, resting her head against his chest. He rubs her back with his human hand. "Talk to me, кукла," he whispers. "I can't help if you don't tell me what's going on in your head."
"You deserve better," she finally admits, her words muffled against the fabric of his shirt. "You deserve more than me. I'm no good for you any more."
"That's bullshit," he says again, his voice less harsh this time but no less certain. "You're perfect for me, sweetheart. You always have been."
" That's bullshit," she replies. "I was a burden on you from day one, and you know it."
His hands come up to cup her face, and he stares down at her with a fierce expression she's only seen a few times. "You have never, " he says firmly, "been a burden on me. Darcy... you saved me."
"The hell I did," she says, swallowing hard. "I mouthed off to a fucking HYDRA agent about my soul mark and all I managed to do was get my parents killed so both of us could spend fifty years in and out of fucking cryo."
"That's not your fault," James says firmly. "You didn't know he was a HYDRA agent, and Darcy, you did save me." He swallows hard, glancing toward Steve before focusing back on her. "I told you once, what it was like for me before you came. Do you remember that?"
"Sort of," she admits. "Not a lot of the details."
"Well, I'll tell you," he says. He takes her hand and leads her back to the armchair, sitting down and pulling her into his lap. "You can stay if you want, Steve, but it'll probably hurt."
Steve shakes his head. "I'm good," he says, the closest he can come to admitting that he doesn't actually want to know what happened to James while he was in HYDRA's hands. He retreats down the hall, and James waits until he hears Steve's bedroom door close before he begins speaking.
"I don't remember much," James admits, putting his feet up on the coffee table and tilting Darcy so that she's lying against his chest, her forehead tucked into the side of his neck. "I remember falling off the train. I have vague snapshots of the first lab, where they put my arm on. I have... bits and pieces of the conditioning, from in between wipes. Not much. I don't think I'll ever get much of that back, and I don't want it anyway." He cups the back of her head with his human hand, carding his fingers into her hair. "But I remember being lonely. I was constantly surrounded by people, but they hated me and they hurt me and I was so fucking lonely and desperate for someone who'd just... just be nice to me. Touch me in a way that didn't hurt. Talk to me like I mattered. Anything, really. I was desperate for human contact."
She wraps her arm around his torso, holding him close. She doesn't ever want him to feel like that again. He presses a kiss to the top of her head, and he says, "Then you came."
"I don't remember," she admits.
"I do," he says. "I remember when we met." He laughs softly. "God, you were so young. And you terrified me."
She raises her head, looking at him in surprise. "Me?"
"You. You were something like twelve years old, and I was on a mission. I was tucked up behind a building on a highway outside Chicago, and I shot out the tires on a Town Car, caused an accident and killed a couple of labor leaders. And I'm breaking down my gun and suddenly there you are, staring at me like... well, staring at the gun, actually." He chuckles. "And I said to you, 'It's called a Dragunov, кукла. Don't worry, I doubt you'll ever see one again.'" His fingers trace the collar of the shirt she's wearing, and she feels her skin tingle under his touch, where his words mark her skin. "And you said that was your soul mark, and you thought I was your soul mate, and I said that was impossible."
She blinks. "You did?"
He nods. "I did. I said that was impossible, and you asked why, and I said because I couldn't have a soul mate, because I didn't have a soul." He cups her cheek with his metal hand. "I thought they'd burned it out of me along with everything else."
She closes her eyes against the tears, and he pulls her close, wrapping his arms around her. "They didn't," he whispers. "And they didn't do it to you, either. I promise, кукла."
"Sometimes it feels like they did," she whispers against his skin. "Sometimes I think they took me away and all they left behind was a clockwork monster."
"Well, they didn't," he murmurs. "And I know they didn't, because if they had, I wouldn't have you on my arm dottin' your Is with little hearts."
She laughs wetly into his shoulder. "I was thirteen and you're an asshole."
"You were thirteen," he repeats, "and you saved me."
She swallows hard. "I wish I could remember."
"I do, too," he admits, carding his fingers through her hair. "And I hope that you do, someday. But if you don't, I'll keep reminding you."
Everything is normal for the next few weeks. They make it through Christmas and New Year's with only one real issue, and that issue is more a matter of people being angry that Tony and Pepper didn't come to them for help – either with the Mandarin or with Tony's PTSD. Steve is beside himself over this for several days, and can be heard at odd times randomly muttering about the need for team-building. He threatens to sign the entire team up for "one of those newfangled team bonding retreat things" if anything like this ever happens again and Tony, giving every evidence of actual fear at that prospect, promises to ask for help when he should need it in the future.
Darcy's protege - a young cosmology grad from Cornell called Amelia - finally graduates from "intern's intern" to "actual intern". Darcy herself is promoted from "astrophysicist's intern and general dogsbody" to "Dark Mistress of the Science Labs" - that's an actual thing that Tony puts on an actual plaque on her actual office door - and she's suddenly in charge of things like budgeting and departmental human resources and being the person Pepper calls when Tony needs to be forcibly restrained from doing something ridiculous.
To be perfectly honest, she can do most of that job without even moving; her direct connection to JARVIS makes budgets and supply orders happen at the literal speed of thought. She actually spends most of her time on Facebook.
When she first encountered it, the entire idea of Facebook made her skin crawl. Did none of these people realize how much of their personal lives they were exposing to the universe? She slowly came to realize that they did not, and even as she was bemoaning the lack of privacy, she was finding ways to exploit the mass availability of personal data. It rapidly became one of her favorite ways of ferreting out HYDRA agents.
So now she spends her days on Facebook, digging through profiles and hunting for signs of HYDRA everywhere she can hope to find it. And she finds it in a terrifying number of places. It exists in the shadows of racist message boards and in the donor lists of extreme right-wing political organizations; it exists in the upper echelons of government and on the faculty rosters of a terrifying number of bioengineering programs. It exists in the U.S. and it exists in Europe; it even exists on the Board of Directors of the Maria Stark Foundation. (She sympathizes with Tony when he goes ballistic over that.)
When she finds it on the Board of Directors of Darcy's Home - the Darcy Lewis Memorial Foundation for Missing and Exploited Children - she sympathizes even more. "It's just the kind of shitty irony that a HYDRA operative would find funny," she tells Tony over tumblers of Scotch on the penthouse deck that night. "They kill the people you love, and then they tell you how sorry they are about it. Or worse, pretend like they want to help bring the killer to justice. That's the kind of thing HYDRA's good at."
"Fuckers," Tony says succinctly.
She toasts him with her glass and takes a sip.
He leans against the deck railing, staring down at the city. "Do you know," he says after a long moment of silence, "who it was?"
"Who what was?" she asks, having lost the plot momentarily.
"Who killed my parents," he clarifies. He turns to face her, his eyes almost feverishly bright. "Was it one of you?"
"No," she says. Then she stops. "Well," she says, "it wasn't me. Hold on a second." She closes her eyes and starts digging through the files she downloaded in D.C. "I think I have something on that, but I'm not sure."
"Take your time," he says, his voice tight.
She finally finds what she's looking for and she says, "It wasn't James."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know." She shakes her head. "I should clarify that I don't actually have anything on your parents' deaths. What I have is a bill of lading from the shipping company that moved the cryo-pods from one facility to another because the building was falling down. This was in 1993. There's a note that basically says the last time the building had been opened was to put us into it in 1988. So essentially it couldn't have been him, because we were frozen at the time."
Tony nods. "If you find anything," he says, and then falls silent.
She nods back. "I'll tell Pepper and see what she thinks I should do."
Tony rewards her with a soft bark of laughter. "Yeah," he says, finishing his drink. "Yeah, that's probably exactly what you ought to do." He shakes his head. "God knows I'm not in a position to be rational about it. They were fucking awful parents, but they were the only parents I had, and I damn sure wasn't ready to lose them."
"Is anyone?" she asks logically. "I don't remember it, but I'm sure I wasn't ready to lose mine either. And when Steve talks about his mother, hell, it's been over a decade for him and sometimes I think he's just going to burst into tears when something reminds him of her."
Tony crosses the deck to the little outdoor bar and pours himself another drink, then leans against the bar and studies her. "How do you do it?" he asks quietly. "How do you separate yourself from it like that?"
She shrugs. "There isn't anything to separate from, " she says. "There's nothing there."
"No emotions? No feelings? Nothing? Not even a mild irritation?"
Darcy sighs, leaning back against the railing. "Do you have any memories of being born?"
"No," he says. "I don't think there's anybody who remembers that."
She says, "And what are your feelings about your birth?"
"Well..." He pauses, considers. "Aside from being kind of glad nobody dropped me on my head while it was happening, I guess I don't really have any feelings about it."
She waves a hand at him. "See?"
"But... nothing ?"
She shakes her head. "Nothing."
"What's the earliest thing you remember?" he asks.
The dream flashes briefly through her mind, the sound of the gunshots and the woman screaming. "Leningrad," she says. "When I was a teenager."
"Is that when you trained with Romanoff?"
She nods. "Natalia was the top of our year-group. If you wanted to advance, she was the one to beat. Yelena and I competed for second place, but Natalia was always the best of us."
"Not always," Natasha disagrees as she steps out the door. She nods at Tony, then glances back over at Darcy. "You far exceeded me on the shooting range."
Darcy smiles a little bit. "I suppose I did, didn't I? Hand-to-hand was always your specialty."
"Which is why I was picked for Black Widow training and you were not," Natasha agrees. "You lacked the precision."
"Bullshit," Darcy replies. "I can put a bullet up a squirrel's ass from five hundred paces; I have all the precision I need."
"That's a different kind, and you know it," Natasha replies, shaking her head. "Anyway, I saw James in the elevator. He asked me to tell you that he's making supper."
Darcy nods. She salutes Tony and Natasha both with her glass and finishes her drink, setting it aside on the table for the cleaning crew to pick up later. She crosses the penthouse to the elevator and gives Pepper a nod and a smile when the doors open. Pepper steps out and Darcy steps in and the car drops three floors before stopping. The doors open again, and Darcy steps out into her own living room. Clint is sitting at the island counter on the edge of the kitchen; she seats herself on the barstool beside him and nudges him with her shoulder. "Hey, Hawkeye."
"Hey, Snow Maiden," he replies, nudging her back. "You have serious face."
She blinks. "Is there such a thing as not-serious face?"
"Sure," he replies. "You have this face on like you're thinking really serious thoughts, that's all. Care to share?"
She glances up at Steve and James, who are watching her from the kitchen while trying to act casual. She sighs. "I found a HYDRA agent on the Board of Directors for the missing children's charity."
"The one your cousin set up?" James asks. He gives a low whistle. "Not cool."
"Tell me about it," she replies, slightly snappish. "I don't know what to do about it, but I want to do something. I feel like... I feel like I can't just let her stay there. You know?"
"So, what's to do about it, then?" Steve asks.
Darcy chews her lip. "I don't know," she admits. She sits there for a moment, staring at her hands, and then she says, "I've... kind of been thinking about making contact."
She doesn't need to look up to see the men around her exchanging glances. She doesn't need to look at James to know that he thinks it's an incredibly bad idea. She doesn't need to look at Steve or Clint to know that they probably agree with James. But she can't think of anything else to do, and she can't just continue to let that HYDRA operative sit there and make a mockery of her.
And it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she's almost a hundred percent sure now that she really is starting to remember.
That would be ridiculous.