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Handle with Care

Chapter Text

Roughly 23 Years Ago

"They say you're brilliant with a computer," the small, curvy student snickered into Tony's ear. She had confetti in her hair and was obviously tipsy. She wrapped her arms around the young, dark-haired, genius boy. Though he usually was the centre of every party, today he seemed withdrawn, even sad. Still, for the sake of a beautiful young woman, he was obviously willing to make an effort.

"Gorgeous, I'm brilliant with more than just a computer."

The annual party, which marked the beginning of the New Year at MIT, was legendary for its music, booze and the chance for a casual hook-up. If you had no home to return to over Christmas and New Year, it was not uncommon to wake up in an unfamiliar bed and/or with a stranger. Though Anthony Edward Stark was younger than any other student, during these parties, at least one girl or another showed interest. It was still a surprise that Elisabeth Thomson had come on to him. 'Lizzie' was the classic, female beauty that pin-up fantasies were made of. Though she usually hid her smoking body in baggy cardigans, carried her hair in a messy bun, and wore oversized glasses that hid her bedazzling eyes, today he had forgone the concealment and dressed up, making his mouth dry at looking at her. She would graduate this summer and Tony, like numerous other students, couldn't wait to get his hands on the radar array she had developed. Unlike others, he might actually stand a chance, since he had worked with her before.

~ * ~ * ~

Even though the sun was lighting up her room the next morning, Tony felt reluctant to leave. Usually, he made a run for it as soon as possible. The sex had been calm and unhurried despite their more-than-tipsy state, more like making love than fucking. The teenager allowed himself a few more minutes of basking, wrapped around the soft body he was allowed to hold, before slipping out of bed to gather his clothes.

Gentleman that he was, he picked up the last condom he had not managed to sink into the bin after taking it off, and the wrappers that lay scattered over the floor. He did not notice that the expiration date on the little foil-wraps lay two years in the past.

 

Approximately 19 Years Ago

"Elisabeth, you have to talk to him!"

"How?" The dark-haired woman looked up from the pale, little girl in the hospital bed. The blond soldier stood at the other side of the bed like a guard, concern written all over his face when she mocked. "'Hi, Tony, I don't know if you remember me, but we had sex five years ago. Funny thing, I got pregnant and now your daughter has bone-marrow-cancer and you might be the only suitable donor.' I can see that going exceptionally well!" She sounded bitter, desperate even, but her husband of one year, partner of three, had to relate.

Andrew Lewis and Elisabeth Thomson had met during his second tour in Israel, four years previously. She had been a brilliant, ambitious young engineer, who had single-handedly enhanced the accuracy and efficiency of the radar station at the Dimona Radar Facility. It had been beyond him how she had managed her full-time job and her baby-girl, but she had, admirably. It had not taken him long to fall in love with both girls. That the feeling was mutual was revealed when she followed him back home, once he returned to America.

Since Elisabeth was a civilian, the brass had made accommodations for them. Andrew's commanding officer had had a hard time juggling his request to be stationed at a base where Elisabeth could utilize her brilliant mind to the military's advantage. After two years of serving on the same base on and off, he had finally been assigned a permanent home. One month after moving in together, he had proposed: first to Darcy, whose only concern had been losing her room. When he had assured her that he and her mum would share, the three-year-old had given him permission. So he had invited his girls to dinner. In the middle of the restaurant he had sunk to his knee and requested Elisabeth's hand in marriage.

Since the diner was close to the base, favoured by soldiers, the room had been dead silent. Every recruit and officer had looked at the Thomson women, and when Elisabeth had teared up and jumped into Andrew's arms, the joyous shouts and whistles had been deafening. He had adopted Darcy the same day he had married her mother. He was convinced that the couldn't love her more if she was his biological daughter.

Yet the sad truth was, she wasn't. And though they compared every DNA sample available in the U.S. military's databases to his daughter's, they still came up empty. The Army healthcare worked too slowly. The girl's health deteriorated more and more each day. Right now, Tony Stark was Darcy Lewis' last hope.

"I tried to contact him," Elisabeth revealed. "Several times in fact." Her voice was barely audible by now. "But he's shielded. Apart from attending the same party as him coincidentally, I don't see any chance of talking to him. And even if I could sneak up on him, I could never leave her. Not right now."

A small whimper from the sleeping girl on the bed made her rise and snuggle into bed beside her daughter, pulling her into her arms. The personnel of the infirmary had long since given up on making her leave for the night. "I guess we have to wait to find out what Dr. Willcox can tell us tomorrow. He had a friend in central health-care and was quite confident that he could speed up the process of finding a suitable donor," she whispered, caressing the head of her child, who calmed at the touch.

Looking at the two most important women in his life, Andrew leaned over and kissed first his wife and then his daughter's head. "All right, beloved, let's talk tomorrow." Then he left the room.

His boots echoed through the corridors of the building as he directed his step to General Sander's office. It was late, but he was sure that his commanding officer would still be in. Secrets that were not his were about to be revealed, but maybe these secrets would safe his daughter's life. A chance of success, however tiny, forced him to give it a shot.

 

Less Than A Week Later

"Mr. Stark, I'm Lieutenant Andrew Lewis and I will be your liaison during your stay."

Stark was cocky, bordering on arrogant, but definitely the genius Elisabeth had described him to be. The new range of weapons was impressive, breath-taking even, and at least five years more advanced than anything else out there. Considering his usual assignment as sharp-shooter, Sergeant Lewis was particularly impressed with the new rifles. Still, that did not keep him from guiding the weapons manufacturer away from the general public under the pretence of a private conversation with one of the generals.

When they were a mile away from the others, Andrew pulled up in an empty parking lot, conveniently located at the backside of the building that hosted the infirmary. The engineer, who had until now toyed with his phone, looked up when they stopped. "What's up?"

Turning around, making a show of taking out his rifle, putting it within easy reach on the passenger's seat, the sergeant stated calmly, "You and I are going to have a conversation, Mr. Stark."

Eyeing the gun, the weapons' manufacturer replied, unbothered, "Everybody saw us leaving, so if you don't want to end your career right now, I suggest you cut out the intimidation-crap. I made this weapon. Shooting me in a closed vehicle will most likely break your arm, missing me by a mile, because you need better mobility when aiming."

Unimpressed, Andrew nodded and pulled out two pictures. The first showed a three-year-old, clapping her hands overjoyed, starring at a red balloon that hovered in the corner of the picture. He handed it over with a quiet, "Here is another thing you made. Her name is Darcy Thomas, adopted Lewis."

Offering the second photo, showing a sick, little girl, sleeping in her exhausted mother's arms, he continued. "And her weakness is bone-marrow-cancer. It will kill her if we can't find a suitable donor. She has a very rare blood-type, making treatment difficult. But I guess you know that, since you suffer from the same problem."

"How do you know that? Stark's voice lost all force while looking at the pictures.

Shrugging, Andrew turned around. This felt like too private a moment. After all, it was not every day, that a person was showed pictures of his dying daughter. "I didn't. But Elisabeth's blood type is quite common. So I figured Darcy's inclination comes from you."

"Why didn't she tell me?"

"You are a difficult man to get a hold of, Mr. Stark. And that was not exactly the kind of conversation to have over the phone."

Turning around once again, the Sergeant witnessed the exact moment when Stark shut down, drawing up his abrasive personality like a protective armour. According to Elisabeth, even at the university, Tony had been used to be used for his status, his fame and his money. It was obvious that he was preparing himself to be taken advantage off once more. As a soldier, who had always justified his actions in accordance to his strict upbringing, Andrew expected to feel bad about doing exactly that. But then, his little sunshine was dying. All petty moral concerns paled in that unforgiving light.

"Of course I have to insist on a paternity test, before I can pay for her treatment." Stark stated dispassionately, but clutching the pictures at the same time.

But Sergeant Lewis shook his head. "We don't want money."

Exasperated the engineer gestured, "Then what the fuck was this all about?"

"There is not a single, compatible donor in the national database. My … our daughter is dying. We need you to get tested."

 

Later The Same Day

These hospital gowns were an atrocity and the covers for his socks had him slipping over the floor, but still, Tony was determined to make it to the hospital room that held his daughter as fast as possible. The test-results had just come back and he couldn't keep them to himself.

Entering the room, he found Andrew Lewis sleeping in an uncomfortable chair, beside the hospital bed that hosted a child who looked even paler than the photos, and a woman he would have recognized everywhere. Lizzie Lewis, nee Thomas, looked drawn and exhausted. But even her pale complexion and the deep circles under her eyes could not hide her beauty.

A thin whisper broke him out of the reverie over his former one-night stand. "Who are you? Are you an angel? Did I die?"

Crouching down beside the bed, so that he was eye to eye with the little girl, Tony shook his head. "No, of course you did not die. I'm Tony, your … a friend of your mother."

"Why are you here?" Darcy wanted to know, touching a small mark on the forearm he had lain on the bed.

"I'm here to make you better," he replied, shivering a little when the girl pulled up the sleeve of her Hello Kitty pyjama, revealing an identical mark on her own arm.

After inspecting it thoroughly, she gazed up again and shook her head. "You're lying. I'm sick and nobody can help me. I overheard Mum talking to Dr. Willcox. They said there is nobody who can make me better. Lying is bad. People don't like people who lie. They don't trust them. That's what my daddy says and he always tells the truth."

"That's right, sweetheart," a raspy, sleep-drunken voice drew the girl's attention. Eyes like jewels searched Tony's until he nodded. "But I think there is a good chance that Tony is telling the truth."

"How?" the child wanted to know.

The engineer took a deeps breath. "Because I'm a suitable donor," he replied, eyes flying to the soldier who had woken as well, and who supressed a choked sound of hopeful disbelief.

"How?" Darcy repeated her question.

Rising from the chair, taking his wife's hand who was trembling beside her daughter, tears streaming down her eyes, he explained. "Do you remember the day when I told you that I loved you and your mommy so very much that I wanted to be your daddy?"

When she nodded, Andrew looked at the engineer, who had straightened by now and stepped back from the bed. Clearly he was unsure of how to handle this situation. "Do you also remember that your mum told you about the young man, who loved her just as much but only for one night?"

"Yes," the young girl confirmed. "My bio-dad."

Caressing her head, Andrew nodded with a smile directed at Tony. "Exactly. Darcy, I want you to meet your biological father, Anthony Edward Stark. If he says he can make you better, he can."

Gazing at Tony in awe, Darcy whispered hopefully, "You're gonna save me? Like a real hero?"

And with the expectant and hopeful gazes of the entire Lewis family on him, Tony did the only thing he felt even remotely capable off: he ran.

After the door had closed, Darcy gazed at her parents and whispered. "I think he is really scared."

Exchanging looks with her husband, Elisabeth kissed her daughter's forehead and rose from the bed. "I will talk to him."

Unexpectedly, the young girl reached for her mother's hand and whispered, "Tell him that I'm scared too. Maybe he will feel better if he knows that he's not alone."

"I will do that, sweetheart. But now go back to sleep. I think we will all have an exciting day tomorrow."

~ * ~ * ~

Fighting down the panic, Tony stood at the end of the corridor, looking out of the window into the night. What the hell had he thought when coming here? This was not him. He made weapons to protect people, not save them!

"Hello, Tony."

"I can't, Lizzie," Tony whispered brokenly. "I'm not a hero. I can't save anybody."

A soft hand on his shoulder made him turn around. The woman's voice was steady and warm when she told him. "She doesn't need you to be a hero. Just be human that agrees to the operation. The rest is up to the doctors. Can you do that?"

Recalling the girl with the hopeful eyes that looked so very much like his mother's, he exhaled and nodded. "Yes."

 

Five-ish Years Ago

Not lifting her nose from her book, Darcy opened the door. "You're early, Uncle Ian," she said before she retreated into the nice single-story house again.

It was a nice … all right, it was an okay house, in Tony's opinion. Houses on military bases always looked the same. The same layout, the same furniture, the same decorations, or lack thereof, everywhere. Measures that were supposed to help the soldiers to feel at home wherever they were stationed. In his mind that was bullshit. As if the identical layouts of rooms would guarantee familiarity.

Well, the advantage of being familiar with the basic layout, thanks to his friend Rhodey, was that he could navigate these rooms with ease. When he entered the kitchen, he finally spotted his daughter, bent over books that covered the entire table. She was gorgeous, just like her mother had been, the same lain-back beauty that could be concealed behind baggy swatters and thick glasses, but never completely hidden. Something delicious was simmering on the stove.

"Lunch will be ready in half an hour. I didn't expect you before one. I thought …" Finally looking up, Darcy stopped talking, scrutinizing Tony Stark, his expensive grey suit and how he was fidgeting with his shades in her kitchen. "You are not Uncle Ian."

"Obviously." Tony rolled his eyes. All this was very uncomfortable. He should have asked Pepper to deliver the money. But then, he had sired Darcy and beyond a bone-marrow transplantation when she was four, the Lewis family had never asked for anything. Only now, after his captivity and the whole ordeal with Obadiah Stane, had he realized that that did not mean that they didn't deserve his support. Gazing at his bio-daughter, having picked up the phrase from when they had met, he noticed that she now stood right in front of him, tears welling up in her eyes. Highly uncomfortable, he joked. "Hey, is my cologne really that bad? It was not cheap; I can tell you!"

With a choke, Darcy unexpectedly boxed his arm, before she wrapped her arms around him and sobbed. "You're such an asshole! We were worried sick about you! Mum and dad even requested to be stationed in Afghanistan to help looking for you! And you need four whole months to let us know you're okay after coming back? You didn't have to come, but at least an e-mail would have been nice, or even a text. We sent you thousands, and you didn't reply to a single one of them! "

Taken aback, Tony stammered, "I didn't realize you cared."

"I'm your daughter, you Idiot. Of course I care," she hissed, shoving him. Her anger seemed to dissipate slightly, when she noticed something hard in the middle of his chest. "What is that? Do you need a pacemaker? What happened?" she asked, panicking.

"Kind of," Tony admitted, unexpectedly finding himself opening his shirt, revealing the arc reactor. Darcy's concern came so unexpectedly that he kind of switched to auto-pilot.

"Woah." She pulled back, careful not to touch, so she wouldn't hurt him. "Are you all right, does it hurt?"

"More or less all right." And out of the blue he found himself talking science with his daughter.

A booming voice pulled both of them out of their conversation and during which the engineer had realized that, while not a genius of his level, his daughter was very, very smart. Why she was applying for a political science stipend in Tucson was beyond him. "Who the hell are you and what are you doing in the Lewis' residence?"

Rising from the kitchen-table, Tony came face to … chest with a bear of a man who glared him down.

Chuckling, Darcy replied for him. "Stand down, Soldier, no need to shoot anyone. That's Tony Stark."

"Your father?" The soldier replied perplexed, but relaxed noticeably, offering his hand. "Good to see you, Sir. The Lewis women were quite distressed since your abduction. But for all I know you were supposed to meet with the General half an hour ago. What are you doing here, especially since Elisabeth and Andrew are not even in the country?"

"Your parents are not here?" Tony wondered. "Where are they?"

"Finishing their tour in Afghanistan!" Darcy snapped. "I was allowed to stay because … let's be honest, who would harm me on a military base? And applying for any University is hard when you're abroad."

"It doesn't matter anyway," Tony decided, reaching into his jacket. He pulled out a debit-card and pushed it at Darcy. "I brought this for you."

Confused the girl took and inspected the card. "That's my name."

"Of course, it's yours," the billionaire shrugged, picking up his jacket.

Shaking her head, Darcy tried to give it back. "We don't want your money, Tony."

But he refused to accept it. "Just because you don't want it, doesn't mean that you're not entitled to it. Since we established that you are my daughter when you were four, you are entitled to receive child support.  Pepper did some research and we decided that 2.500 bucks per month would be appropriate."

"What, but that would be 540.000$?" Darcy whimpered, putting the card on the table so fast as if it had burned her. "You can't give me half a million dollars just like that!"

When Tony raised his eyebrows at the lightning-fast calculation, the soldier beside him chuckled. "She was always good with numbers. And you should see what she can do with an engine."

"Then why is she applying for a poli-sci stipend?" the engineer asked quietly.

Obviously pleased that the man knew about his daughter's chosen proficiency, 'Uncle Ian' chuckled. "Because she wants to challenge herself. At least that's what she said when we asked the very same question."

"Anyway." The billionaire turned towards the door. "I have a meeting with a general, so I've got to go." The soldier smiled and kept himself from pointing out, once again, that he was late already, when Darcy overcame her shock and tried to give back the card again. "Tony, please. Mum always said that a one-night-stand doesn't make a guy a father and that a woman has to stand her ground without clamouring for support. I really appreciate the gesture, but we don't want or need your money. You want to visit, call, and I'll make dinner, but you can't buy me like that."

Putting on his shades, Tony turned towards the door. "Look, kid, the money is yours. Throw it away, donate it, I don't care. It's yours to do with as you please." And with that he left. No, he had not expected Darcy to fall over herself with gratitude. All his research had indicated her to be a strong, confident young woman. Lizzie had done really well. But usually people were at least happy when he threw money at them. He had just tried to make things right.

~ * ~ * ~

Back at the kitchen, Darcy stared at the debit-card.

"This could get you through college."

"I'm applying for a stipend and will receive it if I ace this test." She gestured towards the books on the table, eyes still glued to the piece of plastic with her name on it.

"You could buy an apartment," her 'uncle' suggested.

"I've already agreed to share a dorm-room with Chrissy," Darcy mumbled, shaking her head stubbornly. "He shouldn't feel pressured into giving me money. I already have a dad who takes care of me."

Hugging the girl his best friend had adopted fifteen years ago, and who he had to come to love as well, Ian Wanewright advocated, "Maybe he gave you the money because he wanted to, not because he had to. Maybe he just wanted to offer support. No strings attached."

~ * ~ * ~

Tony and Pepper were currently engaged in a heated discussion with the executive staff of the White Sands Missile Range. The officers were quite displeased with his decision to stop making weapons. Everybody involved in the contract with Stark Industries had agreed to meet here, at his request, to give him a chance to explain his decision. Tony stopped mid-shout when his phone chimed, displaying an unknown number.

= thanks. will keep you posted what happens to money + me. =

Tony couldn't supress a smile before a thought occurred to him. Quietly he asked his personal assistant, "Why does Darcy Lewis have my number?"

Discreetly slipping her mobile back into her briefcase, Pepper Potts shrugged, not looking at her employer. "She's a resourceful woman, I imagine."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * The Asset * ~

"Hold him! That's my TV!!!"

The angry scream made The Asset raise his head, noticing the petty thief who ran towards him with a TV-screen pressed to his chest. His hand shot out, before he could make the conscious choice. The metal arm toppled the crook as if he had run against a lamp-post. Only when looking down at the greasy man did he realize confused that he had obeyed a command without knowing who had given it.

Tilting his head, he tried to discover the reason behind that reaction. The Hydra agents who followed him tried to make him obey every time they got sight of him. It never worked. He held on to himself with everything he had, refusing to become a weapon again. But just now he had followed the instructions of the woman's voice. He had never had a female handler. And she had said 'hold' not 'kill'. Maybe that's why he had obeyed?

Ever since Steve had shot the helicarriers out of the sky a fortnight ago, pushing Hydra back in their plan of total domination, the Winter Soldier had started to fight his way out. He struggled with ignoring the programming they had forced upon him for several decades, with every fibre of his being. He did not know who he was or what he wanted. He only knew that he did not want to kill any more. Everything but that.

Unsure of how to proceed with this guy at his feet − his directives offered no advice in situations like this − he reached down and picked up the TV, securing it for the whirlwind of a woman who caught up with him the same moment.

"Bastard!" she hissed, kicking the thief for good measure before leaning down to catch her breath. "I'm … just a sec … I …"

She wheezed and he debated with himself if he should rub her back. Why would he rub her back? Where did this idea come from? People did that to other people who had trouble breathing, didn't they? But as The Asset, he didn't trust himself to touch anybody, least of all a woman. Particularly a lady who beamed up at him, with huge bespectacled eyes, red lips, messy hair and a body to die for. No, he was sure that he was not allowed to touch women like that.

Heat spread in his guts, making him wonder what was wrong with him, when the lady gave him a once over and purred, "Hello, gorgeous. Thanks for stopping this sorry excuse of a human being." When he didn't reply, she continued with a grin, "The strong and silent type, I totally get it. I'll make you a deal: I'm just moving into my new apartment. You help me with the heavy lifting and I invite you to dinner."

It was not a command per se, but close enough that he felt safe following it. Well, not exactly safe, but he did not feel the need to resist and risk punishment. But then, why would she punish him? She didn't even know him. Still, this pushy little person was … different. The idea of assisting her was … acceptable.

Wordlessly, he nodded and turned into the direction she had come from. He unobtrusively pulled down the sleeve of the hoodie he had bought two weeks ago; with money he had fleeced from the first Hydra-goon who had come after him. It would not do for her to see his metal arm and be scared away by it. She was nice, at least to him, and he wanted to keep it that way as long as possible.

Once in her apartment, her instructions were short and to the point. It felt good to follow them, like his life finally had meaning again. She had a generous, two-room flat on the first floor of a town-house in Greenwich, close to Washington Square Park. When he entered her living room for the first time, setting down the TV in a corner, she put a bottle with a lilac liquid labelled 'Gatorade' into his hand. She opened a yellow one for herself, and downed half of it in one go.

It was important to stay hydrated, he was aware of that. But since his monetary resources were meagre, he always bought the cheapest water available, refilling his current bottle whenever he passed a water-dispenser. The explosion of flavour on his tongue made him groan in delight. Instantly he forced down the sound, gazing at her anxiously.

Though he was not with Hydra any longer, their rules still stuck with him, no matter how much he hated them. Yet instead of the expected punishment, for being heard and not only seen, the woman beamed at him. "You like that, don't you? Don't worry, there is more where that came from."

Two hours later, when all the boxes and furniture was finally up, she decided that he would help her with assembling her appliances. It did not even occur to him to say no. She offered half a sandwich when the TV had finally been mounted to the wall.

Swallowing the bread down in two bites, his stomach immediately punished him for his gluttony.

He expected her to shout at him for allowing good food to go to waste when she entered the bathroom after him, while he was busy heaving into the bowl. He most certainly did not expect her to pull back his hair with gentle fingers, offering a washcloth and a glass of water once he had departed from the meagre meal. He couldn't look at her, feeling entirely undeserving of her benevolence. Still on his knees in front of the toilet, he kept his eyes firmly glued to the floor, whispering hoarsely, "Apologies, Ma'am."

"It's Darcy," she corrected him gently, refilling his glass of water. "And there's no need to apologize. Why don't you take a break and I dash to Starbucks to get us a treat? There's one just around the corner."

"Yes, Darcy," he confirmed, cleaning up after himself, leaving the bathroom.

When he heard the door fall shut behind her, did he realize that he did not know how to follow her command. He had never 'taken a break,' at least not to his knowledge. Making an educated guess, he sat down on the corner of the couch, waiting for her to return.

Darcy's Appartment

 

~ * Darcy * ~

That's it. Coffee. That was all Darcy would think about when walking stiffly around the corner. Not about the stranger she had left in her new apartment, surrounded by her meagre possessions. She had spent the majority of her life surrounded by soldiers, so she had learned to travel light. Still, having them stolen would hurt. But Darcy knew that the … that the man in her new home would not touch them. He obviously was in no state of mind to do so. He …

No, coffee! She didn't want to think about him. No good would come of that. Today was supposed to mark the beginning of a new life for her. A life where other people dealt with Asgardian gods, alien invasions and other problems concerning secret government agencies.

A certain billionaire had tried to recruit her during her last year of college, but she had been too loyal to her new friend to even consider leaving her. Then Norse gods had started falling out of the sky.

When Jane had moved to London, Darcy had followed without second thought, politely turning down the job offer Stark Industries' new CEO had sent her.

After the Alien invasion, when all of her parents had beseeched her to return to the states she had finally given in.

= Jane Foster is a brilliant scientist and comes with her very own public relations expert.
Highly recommend hiring her. =

Twenty-four hours later, Jane had shown her a job offer from Stark Industries. Darcy had renegotiated a few, minor points in Jane's favour and a week later they had returned the key of their London flat.

Darcy had paid special attention to being employed by Jane and not by Stark Industries. Though her girl would live in the tower, since when Thor was in New York he resided there, Darcy had bought a cute little flat in Greenwich Village. The last thing she wanted was favouritism. Nobody knew about her relation to Tony Stark, not even Jane, and she was determined to stand on her own two feet and not move in with her 'father'! She tried not to look too closely at how hypocritical that was, since she had bought her new flat with the money he had given her five years ago. Her investments had paid off; for both of them since she had invested solely in Stark Industries.

"Welcome to Starbucks, what can I get you?" The guy behind the counter was cute, but Darcy's thoughts still revolved around her unexpected guest.

"Two pumpkin spiced lattes," she started but corrected herself almost immediately. "No, make that one latte and one camomile tea with a shot of caramel." He had not been able to stomach a sandwich, no way would he be able to digest milk, whipped cream and tons of syrup.

On her way back she passed a small supermarket. On impulse she bought everything she would need for chicken-soup. Though her mother couldn't cook to save her life, her father had always made sure that Darcy was self-sustaining. She could cook, clean, sew, had some basic survival skills and knew how, and even more importantly when, to defend herself. She also knew, ever since her Uncle Ian had returned from his fourth tour belated, how a man who had suffered starvation and … worse things … looked.

Her mother had always called her a little worrywart when Darcy had brought home her first injured desert fox, which had gone astray on their base. But up there was no wounded animal, she reminded herself. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she climbed the stairs of her building, beverages in one hand, groceries in the other. He was a sentient, self-sustaining human being. At least he would be if he were aware of who he was, something Darcy was not entirely sure was the case right now.

When she entered her apartment, she found him out cold on her new sofa. With a sigh, she went to the kitchen and started cooking.

 

~ * The Asset * ~

A delicious smell woke him. At first he remained still, taking stock of his surroundings, assessing the level of danger he was in. He was warm. Someone had spread a cosy blanket over him. He was lying on a soft surface. And no matter how much he tried, he couldn't remember the last time that had been the case. For the last few weeks he had mostly hidden in abandoned warehouses and ruined buildings. It had been hard and cold but worth it, since Hydra had not found him yet. Comfort had never been a consideration; safety came first.

Muffled chatter from another room made him open his eyes. Though he tried, he could not make out more than 'yes', 'no' and one time an exasperated 'Mum.' The call was ended with an unusually loud 'Love you!' and then the door to the kitchen was opened.

Instantly he shot to his feet. The lady, Darcy he recalled, had told him to take a break and he had fallen asleep on her couch. Not useful. An asset that was not useful had no right exist. Shivering from the phantom pain of ice, he tried to apologize. Maybe she would give him another chance to proof his worth. Yet before he could open his mouth, she started talking.

"You're awake, great. Dinner's ready and I bought you tea. It's cold now but tea's better cold anyway, don't you think?" she steamrolled him, gesturing towards a paper-cup on the coffee-table. "Help me find the plates, please. They have to be," she turned around, eyes trailing over the boxes that lined the wall, "somewhere."

Eager to heed her command – as there seemed to be no immediate repercussions to his laziness – he opened a few of them and when he presented glass bowls and spoons, Darcy decided that they would suffice.

With a steaming bowl of chicken soup in hand, he sank down onto the sofa again, as per her instruction. Darcy chose the floor facing him. This was wrong. Though he was at the tactical advantage, a persistent voice from the back of his head was demanding from him to get up and trade places. A woman should never, ever sit on the floor. Still, since their placement had been her decision, he had no idea how to make her trade places without appearing rude.

"Eat!"

Reaching for his spoon he obeyed immediately, but had to stop after the first bite. This was … the taste was familiar. Where had he eaten this before? His head started to hurt, ready to burst and he couldn't stop himself from reacting to the pain. Curling into himself he pressed his forehead to his knees and clutched it. "I …" He forced out from behind clenched teeth. "I remember this."

Punishment was imminent. Memories were always succeeded by punishment. But instead of hurting him, Darcy put a comforting hand on the back of his neck. Her touch was like lighting racing through his body. The contact was … different from everything he had known before, and no matter the pain, he wanted more of it. But, why was she comforting him?

After a few moments, fighting through the haze the memories that pushed to the surface, he understood. Pain kept him from functioning at peak efficiency. That was what the castigations had been there for in the past: to help him concentrate on what was important. He forced himself to push the memories to the back of his mind and continued his meal. Darcy did not move from her position on the floor next to him, she just picked up her bowl again and kept a close eye on him.

He felt infinitely better once the soup and tea were consumed. So he readily stood at attention, awaiting her next command. She had taken good care of The Asset, so she had every right to make use of it. For two more hours he was told to 'hold this', 'screw that on', and 'push the damn thing so that it fits!' She added 'please's and 'thank you's to each command, and praised him for a job well done. Though for the life of him he could not determine why. His whole purpose was following orders. No need for positive reinforcement. Still, he could not help the warm feeling that spread through him whenever she approved of something he had done.

Maybe that was part of James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes pushing to the surface, preening under the compliments of a beautiful lady. Of course, he had done his research, had learned all there was to know about the person he had been before Hydra. But nothing had jogged his memory Nothing had made him feel anything but lost. For all he cared about what he had learned, he could have studied a random target. Nothing triggered an emotional response.

When he left Darcy's apartment that evening, he wandered the streets of her block, wondering if he had not approached his new life – free of Hydra's smothering arm – from the wrong angle. He had tried to distance himself from his old life, force away any thoughts of his programming, had been determined to not take a single command ever again in his life. Yet now he had to face the fact that this approach had not worked, no matter what he did.

All that had come of his unaccustomed freedom, had been a vague sense of importance whenever he was confronted with information concerning Captain America, and the pain when he tried to remember Bucky. In everything else he was lost, not even aware of how to care for his own basic needs. Most of the time he did not even realize he was hungry until the cramps started. And even they were easily ignored. Though he was aware that he needed a steady calorie input to keep himself at peak performance, the pain in his belly rarely was a sufficient motivator to get food. All he had been able to remember was drinking at least two litres a day. Somehow all of his handlers had insisted on that and that mannerism had stuck as non-destructive so he followed it. Apart from that he had been unmoored, not able to decide what to do with himself, tethering through New York like a kite without a string.

But being around Darcy had been different. It had felt good obeying her. Like a part of him that had clenched painfully, was finally able to relax. He had found comfort in her touch, despite being in pain both times. Her food and drinks and most of all the rest, had made him feel better. He still could not figure out why he had fallen asleep around her. Usually he was only able to find a few short hours of rest, when he was alone and in a secure location.

His programming demanded he have a handler. Until now, he had resisted that instinct with everything he had. Sitting down at the stone steps of her apartment building, he had come to the conclusion that Darcy − last name still to be discovered − would be a suitable new handler. Though slightly violent − he remembered the kick the thief had received for stealing her TV − she seemed to be a good person at heart. The chance of her ordering a hit on anybody was close to nil. He felt decidedly comfortable with the idea.

Decision made, all he needed now was to make sure she stayed safe and make her keep him as her asset. For the first time since leaving Hydra, he was filled with a vague sense of hope. He had been trained with more skills than he cared to remember. At least one of them was bound to be useful to her.

Right?

 

 ~ * Darcy * ~

Darcy sat cross-legged on the kitchen counter, closest to the window. She had the feeling this was becoming one of her favourite places, since she could see the street in front of her house up to her front steps. She fidgeted with her mobile indecisively, but gave in after half an hour.

"Tell me that the Winter Soldier, also known as James 'Bucky' Barnes is not sitting on the steps of my building like a watchdog who has been abandoned."

= I'm afraid I cannot do that, Darcy. =

Closing her eyes, banging her head against the cupboard behind her, she asked, still hoping for another explanation. "Why?"

= Because when Sir told you that I would serve as your security system you said, and I quote, "Alright, I can adjust to this whole 'big brother is watching you' stick. But if you lie to me a single time, JARVIS, even by omission, or report me back to Tony, we are done. Understood?" Since Sir added your wellbeing to my list of priorities, I'm dependant on your cooperation. Hence I will not lie to you. =

"Fuck," Darcy whispered. "What the hell am I supposed to do now? He can't stay outside. It's October, and even the Winter Soldier can freeze to death. Why isn't he going to the tower? Do you think he doesn't know that Steve is there at the moment?"

= I'm afraid I am not qualified to answer these questions. =

Sighing, Darcy slipped from the counter. "Yeah, me neither. I'll go to bed now. Thank you, big brother."

= Good night, Darcy. =

 

Standing under the hot spray, Darcy wondered when the last time was that Gorgeous down there had had a hot shower. He had been mostly clean, but his hair had been greasy and there had been dark marks under the edges of his nails.

When she was comfortable under the covers, her night-time-playlist on standby, she pulled her phone close one more time and thumbed through her contacts. After staring at the picture of a sandy-haired soldier for a few minutes, she pressed the button.

"Hey, princess, are you alright?"

The calm voice of her father soothed her instantly and she relaxed into her pillows. "Of course, Dad. Why wouldn't I be?"

She could hear the grin in his voice, when he replied. "Because you have the unfortunate habit of attracting Norse gods and aliens. Also, its past midnight in New York already and you've talked to your mum this afternoon."

Okay, fair point, still, this couldn't wait. "I was just thinking, Dad. What if I told you I've met someone? But I don't know if he is safe."

"Not safe like Ian who cheated on you with that girl from Tesco?"

"No," Darcy whispered, shaking her head. "Not safe like Uncle Ian, when we had to take out the bullets of his service weapon each night, for as long as he slept on our couch."

"Oh Darcy, baby, what have you gotten yourself into now?" Andrew Lewis breathed out, instantly concerned about his baby-girl. Regrettably they were hundreds of miles apart and he couldn't just hop into his jeep and drive to New York.

"I don't know. I just …" And all of a sudden, Darcy could not keep the worries that had nagged on her all day, to herself any longer. Everything that had happened ever since that stupid thief had tried to nick her TV broke out.

Experienced father that he was, Andrew just waited and listened, hummed and encouraged her to continue, in all the right places, until his girl finished with the words, "The thing is, I don't think he would ever hurt me. He even seems to expect me to dish out punishment whenever things don't go as expected. And now he is sitting on the front steps of my building, like some lost puppy."

"He's dangerous. You know that, baby."

"I knew that right from the start," she admitted, recalling the image of the confused soldier who stood over her thief, his metal arm barely hidden by his sleeves. No, he had not been inconspicuous if you knew what to look for. Since Darcy had made it her mission to be informed about anything weird, especially if it concerned her Norse god and his teammates, she had recognised the Winter Soldier immediately. He had looked so lost that she had not had the heart to leave him in the street.

"Then what do you want to do?" Andrew wanted to know, and wasn't that the heart of the matter? There was an assassin, who had worked for one of the evilest of all evil organizations on this planet. Who had been trained, had been forced to kill, and now seemed so lost, sitting on her threshold all alone.

And all of a sudden, she knew. It was so very simple, yet at the same time she was sure that nobody had ever thought of it for a very long time. "I will ask him what he wants and find a way to give it to him."

"That's my girl."

"Thanks, Dad. Have a great evening and tell Uncle Ian that I love him."

"Will do." He smiled. "And Darcy?"

"Yes, Dad?"

"Make sure his weapons are empty if he stays with you; and that your Taser is charged."

"I promise."

With a plan in mind, Darcy started her iPod and finally went to sleep.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

Darcy was on her way back from the supermarket the next morning − how she had forgotten milk for her morning coffee the evening before was beyond her − when she realized that the soldier no longer occupied the stairs of her building. Maybe someone had shooed him away? Though Janet from downstairs usually was very sociable, he did not make the best first impression.

Faint fighting noises from an alley two houses down drew her attention. Leaving her groceries at the door, she opened her handbag and walked down the street. Peeking around the corner, she found the soldier cornered by no less than four agents, his lip already bleeding sluggishly. One of the Men in Black quickly stepped away from the quartet, hiding his weapon and took her arm to stir her away. "Don't worry, ma'am. He's just a little confused. Mr. Miller, here, is a patient at our mental hospital, and left against his doctor's advice. You could see that he is violent and a danger to himself and others. It's worse without his medication, but we will take care of him. You don’t have to concern yourself with this. Go about your way, and have a good day, ma'am."

Well, in his favour, the soldier did look kind of sick. So after looking back one last time, determined to ignore the desperate look in his eyes, Darcy allowed the guy to guide her away from the alley.

The advantage of being small and curvy, educated in looking up from under her lashes since high school, was that nobody ever saw the Taser coming. When she bounded back around the corner, her soldier was engaged in a vicious hand-to-hand combat with the other three agents. But he had been weak to begin with and had nothing but a knife to defend himself. So, despite all she knew about him from the internet, she was not at all sure if he would come out of this on top. Not in his current condition of sleep-deprivation and starvation. Therefore, she had to up her game.

Darcy shocked another goon with several hundred volts, leaving only two for him. The split-second another agent was distracted by her violent riposte was enough for him to gain the upper hand. Since he was obviously injured, she used her Taser one last time on another MIB who tried to fight his way up to his feet in a bout of stupidity.

When the brawl was over, she put her Taser away and raised her hands in a placating gesture. Cautiously she approached him. Uncle Ian had not always been aware of his surroundings when caught in the rush of adrenalin. Just because there was no imminent danger did not mean that his mind had caught up to that. There was a wound on his side that needed dressing. Only when he relaxed his stance, looking at her in confusion, did Darcy allow herself to approach him.

His eyes were impossible to read when she took off her scarf and wrapped it firmly around his middle. He did not react to her at all, keeping his eyes firmly glued to the asphalt until she told him, "We have to get the fourth goon. Luckily, all have impeccable ethics when it comes to work attire. So we will secure them with their belts and ties and then throw up the Bat-Signal. A friend of mine will pick them up."

Wordlessly, he left the alley and came back, dragging Agent K along. She had JARVIS relay the message that clean-up and new cartridges for her Taser were needed. When she climbed the stairs to her townhouse, he reached for her groceries before she could, and politely held open the door for her. He followed her into the apartment and carefully put her bags down in the kitchen, while she rummaged through the boxes in the bathroom.

Her instruction, "Come in please, and take off your clothes," was obeyed without question. She actually had to keep him from dropping his pants as well. Obviously he was not concerned with nudity, an advantage in her mind, at least with a body like his. On the other hand, he didn't seem concerned at the huge slash at his side either, so what did she know about healthy reactions.

He had found a way to take a shower last night, because he smelled faintly flowery, underneath all the blood that tainted his skin. Breathing shallowly − she had never been particularly good with blood − Darcy cleaned the wound, relieved to find it not as deep as she had feared. Since going to the hospital was not an option, she closed it with butterfly bandages; thank you, dad for forcing a med-course on her on her fourteenth birthday. Then she wrapped his torso in a clean bandage before meeting his eyes. "Do you want some pain-killers for that?"

When he shook his head, refusing to meet her eyes, she prompted, "Do you want something else?"

He frowned but did not reply, so Darcy cautiously touched his chin so she would not spook him, until he finally looked up. "What do you want?"

There was fear in his eyes, and longing. But most of all, confusion, when he answered hoarsely, "I don't know."

Frustrated, Darcy blew out her breath, but refused to give up that easily. "Alright, that's not good, but whatever. Let's try something else: What do you need? Right this moment, what does your mind and body tell you that you need?"

He actually responded to that, determined and sure, but his answer sent Darcy reeling. "I need a new handler."

Well, not healthy, but expectable, given his history. "Do you want me to contact Steve Rogers?" Captain America had been his commanding officer in the war. Surely he would know how to handle his friend.

"Not Steve," He shook his head, meeting her eyes hesitantly. "I want you."

"What?" Darcy pulled back, eyes impossibly wide. What the fuck? "Why would you want me to be your handler? I'm not military!"

"Because your orders don't hurt."

 

~ * The Asset * ~

In the end, that was the heart of the matter. Obeying this courageous dame wouldn't hurt. Not him, and most importantly, not anybody else.

After making the decision in the evening to endear himself to her, he had done his best to appear appealing. He had broken into an empty flat and taken a shower, thumbing the lock close behind himself when he left. He had sneaked into a wash salon and cleaned his clothes. Being clean always made a better impression, or so he remembered, though he didn't know who had taught him that. It had done him no good in the end, since Hydra had found him on his way to her apartment-building.

When they had attacked, his only thought had been to get them away from Darcy's flat. Unfortunately, she had found him anyway. When the agent had touched her, spinning his lie about him being a mental patient, she had briefly looked at him, but apparently accepted the story, allowing the HYDRA goon to lead her away. Pain and disappointment had become lead-weights in his stomach and slowly the will to fight had drained out of him. If she believed these lies about him that easy, he had no chance to convince her of accepting him as her asset.

They had not talked yesterday, not really; he had just thought …

Her dashing back around the corner, moments later, had taken all of them by surprise. The agents hadn't had time to prepare for her attack. The charge in her hand had felled one of them, leaving him with only two enemies to defeat. It had been child's play. Yet afterwards, he had been compromised, unable to make sense of what she had been talking about once the fight was over. However, he had puzzled out what was expected of him and, though it had gone against his every instinct, he had left her to fetch the agent who had guided her away. They would be taken care of, she had assured him. So he had followed her quietly once they were secure.

He was rewarded by being invited into her home once more. His wounds were treated with care. As The Asset, he was well aware of his enhanced biology. He would be all right again in two days, tops. Still, he had not protested her treatment; her gentle hands on his body had hurt at the time, but the comfort of the touch had out-weighed the pain. Some dormant part of him had perked up and revelled in her proximity, the smell of her hair, the slightly calloused tips of her fingers, brushing over his torso.

When she asked him what he wanted, he was at a loss of how to reply. When she asked him what he needed, he took a leap of faith. Memories rising from the depth of his mind convinced him that, yes, Captain America would be a suitable handler. The Captain had made good use of James Barnes' abilities during the war. But still he wanted her, with every fibre of his being. He told her so and, from the looks of it, he wouldn't be punished for contradicting her initial assessment.

The first question she asked gave him hope that she might agree, even though it made him pause. "What does a handler do?"

After a few minutes he replied. "The Handler uses The Asset to …" There was no 'shaping the century' any longer. It had been a lie after all. "For whatever he or she wants. The handler cares for its maintenance and enforces the rules, is responsible to keep The Asset obedient and in peak working condition."

"He."

There was so much emotion in that one word, that he looked at her confused. "You're saying 'it', but you are not a thing. You're a person."

Dispassionately, he replied, "The Asset was created as a weapon to shape the century." Closing his eyes, he admitted defeat. He would never get rid of what they had planted into his head. It made him want to scream.

Her voice was sharp when she spoke again, not leaving any doubt that what she said was true. "You are a person, not a tool!"

"I …" he started, but the concept was too alien for his mind to comprehend it.

"You are a person," Darcy repeated, catching his eyes. "You can have likes and dislikes. You are allowed to 'want' and you can say 'no' if someone tells you something you don't agree with, me included. You are not a toy or a tool and you certainly are not a weapon. You don't have to hurt anybody."

"I'm not a weapon," he whispered, trying the words on his tongue. "I don't have to hurt anybody."

This was all too good to be true. Maybe he was still on ice and this was nothing but a dream, conjured by a broken mind. Yet reality caught up with him all too soon. He might not be a weapon, but his arm certainly was. Pulling it close to his body, he tried to cover it, as if that would allow him to cling to this illusion for just a few, more moments.

"Hey …"

Her voice was soft, cutting through the chaos in his mind, so he obediently raised his head. Darcy held out her hand and after a moment, he realized that she wanted his metallic arm. He did not want her to touch it, so he pulled as far away as possible in the small bathroom.

"A gun is not dangerous in itself. It becomes an instrument of death the moment someone wields it with intent."

"This was only built to make me a better killer."

"Yet you told me a moment ago that you don't want to hurt anybody. That was your choice to make. And whether your arm is metal or skin, you're the one deciding how to use it."

Clenching and unclenching his metal fist, he wondered if it really was that easy.

She touched his metal hand without even an ounce of fear, as soon as he relinquished it to her. "You said the handler is supposed to enforce the rules. But to be able to do that, you first have to come up with a few."

"You want me to create my own rules?" This was not going as expected. At all! Still, he had to test his boundaries, so he started, "Rule Number One: I am not allowed to kill people!"

Her smile was beautiful, like the sun coming up. When was the last time he had met a woman like her, strong, intelligent and confident? When was the last time he had met a woman, period? Leaving the bathroom for the kitchen, she pulled a notebook from a drawer and slipped onto the counter. Tapping her teeth with the stylus a few times, she then began to write:

  • Rule Number One: You are a person with likes and dislikes. You are allowed to say 'no'.
  • Rule Number Two: You are not to kill anybody, except in self-defence.
  • Rule Number Three: Nobody has the right to hurt you or take advantage of you.

He read through the rules, until he was sure he had them memorized, and only then did he allow himself to actually think about them. A slow smile spread across his face, and though the feeling was unfamiliar, it was the best thing he had experienced in a long time. After a few moments, he tentatively held out his hand for the notebook and added:

  • Rule Number Four: Darcy is to be obeyed in all things.

She tried to protest, to cross it out, but he held on to the notebook like it was his lifeline. Quietly, he implored, "Please, I need … I don't know what to do. I can't trust myself. But I looked you up and you … you're always doing the right thing, no matter how dangerous. I don't want to have to hurt people any longer, and as long as you're in charge, you won't let me."

"No," she whispered, reaching for his hand. "I won't let you."

"Thank you," he replied, lowering his eyes again, but at the same time he reached for her hand, holding on to her. The people responsible for him had always been terrifying, always had controlled him through fear. But Darcy was different. He recalled how she had brought the Hydra-agents to their knees a mere hour ago. The Asset needed a handler and for the first time since Captain America, he was sure that the person he was offering his life, had his best interest at heart. The tension leaking out of his shoulders, he was suddenly so tired that his eyes started drooping.

Following her mumbled instructions, he curled up on the sofa again. His mind automatically catalogued his injuries, calculating how much rest his would need before he was back at peak efficiency. When Darcy spread the blanket over his shivering body his mind was slowly shutting down. A few hours would be all he needed to make up for the blood-loss. Then he would be able to assist her again. Assembling furniture had been the most fun he had had in a long time.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

She prepared breakfast and a light lunch, but her 'asset' slept through both meals. At one point she had stopped being cautious and quiet and had simply gone about getting as much of her apartment in order as she could, before she had to start work tomorrow.

Darcy had talked to Jane on the phone, assuring her that, yes, all of her things had arrived unharmed, and no, she did not regret them coming here. After that confirmation, she had listened to her girl going on and on about the amazing laboratory Stark had provided. Darcy sent a quick,

= Thanks for the lab =

to Tony afterwards. He didn't reply, but then, she hadn't expected him to.

As promised when taking his money, she had kept him up to date on her life. Not once had he answered a single e-mail or text. Still, after going on and on about her stupid book bag and its broken zipper once, she had received a new one via mail two days later. When her laptop had died on her, a new one had been delivered the same evening, her work already stored on it from her cloud drive. She had stopped complaining about broken or annoying things after that, determined to keep him posted without taking advantage. His last gift before her life had taken a turn for the weird had been the latest iPod. A model, as the card had said, that was finally up to their standards.

So no, Tony Stark never replied to any message. But she knew he read every single one of them.

When it got dark and cold in her flat − she had to remember to talk to her landlord about the unreliable heating − her soldier started to get nightmares.

She had a space-heater since London, but she would need it for the bedroom. This was all going too fast, but Darcy realized that there was but one sensible solution. So she spread out her yoga mat in the corner and covered it with a thick blanket. After taking a shower and changing into her pyjamas, she approached him.

In an even voice, she commanded, "Soldier, you have to relocate."

She was not at all sure if he was truly awake, but he shot up from the couch and stood at parade-rest. At her prompting, he entered her bedroom and stretched out on the bed she had improvised for him. He looked at her expectantly. She only had to order, "Go back to sleep," for him to relax again.

What had these Hydra-bastards done to him, that he was able to obey such a command?

Her sleep-playlist had just started when she heard someone opening her window. Cursing herself for leaving her Taser outside, she whipped around, reaching for her lamp.

Perched on her windowsill, careful not to enter her bedroom, sat Hawkeye with a concerned look. "Hey, Darcy, do you want to explain to me why there were four high-ranking Hydra-goons gift wrapped around your corner?"

"Merry early Christmas?" she tried, but his grimace told her that he didn't buy it. They had gotten to know each other after the Destroyer. He had endeared himself to her by returning her iPod and Jane's research. At the time, she had not known that the guy who barged into Jane's lab on occasion and stole her cookies was the famous Hawkeye. She probably would not have threatened to Taser him constantly for stealing her food, had she known. Well, she was aware now, but it didn't matter anyway. He still barged in on occasion, demanded baked goods, and vanished after everything had been consumed. With a sigh, she asked, "Did you get something from them?"

"The others are still at it. Stop evading the question. I'm worried about you."

Her eyes briefly flittered towards the dark corner of the room where her soldier slept peacefully. She wondered when the last time had been, that he had found true rest. "Don't be, I have protection now."

Following her line of sight, Clint made an attempt to enter. But she stopped him in his tracks. "I didn't invite you in and I honestly doubt that you just want to take a closer look. For now, you have plausible deniability."

Pained, he looked at her. "I can't do that. You have to give me something. Tony was ready to suit up when he heard about the attack."

"First of all, gorgeous over there was attacked, not me. I just helped with the clean-up. Second, he's unemployed at the moment and volunteered to serve as my personal assistant for the foreseeable future. And third, keep Stark out of this. I want a nice and quiet life. That's why I live here and not in the Tower. Please, Clint, after everything that has happened, in New Mexico and in London, at least give me this. A place untouched by crazy." She pleaded, batting her eyelashes, pulling out all stops to get her way.

Obviously not liking this but relenting, he repeated, "You have to give me something."

After a moment, Darcy shared, "His name is James and he trusts me. Is that good enough for you?"

Hesitating for a heartbeat, Hawkeye nodded and threw a small packet on her bed. "Courtesy of Stark."
After a moment, he implored, "Don't make me regret this, Darcy. If we find your body in a ditch, I will be seriously pissed."

"I promise. I will do my best to come out of this on top. And maybe I will even find you more presents."

Her wink made him groan. "I'll pretend that I haven't heard that. Go to sleep and send a message if you need more cartridges."

"Good night, Hawkeye."

"Good night, Taser-girl."

 

~ * The Asset * ~

When he woke this time, he knew where he was, or at least whom he was with since, for the life of him, he could not recall leaving the couch for the bedroom. This was not good, not good on so many levels. He heard a woman berating him at the back of his head, but couldn't get a grip on her voice. Watching Darcy, who entered in a hurry, rummaging through the boxes in her walk-in wardrobe, he wondered why she had changed into a skirt. Wouldn't that make tidying up the apartment harder? With a triumphant noise, she pulled out a beanie and a long scarf, putting one on and looping the other around her neck.

When he sat up, she smiled at him. He felt blinded by the sincerity of the expression. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty. I made porridge, you should be able to stomach that. Fresh raspberries are on the counter, try them if you like. I have to go to work, but I should be back around six. I don't have a spare key yet, so if you want to go out, you might have to wait for me to get back in." Shrugging she added, "Or, considering your skillset, you could just break in. But if you break my lock you're buying a new one."

When he didn't reply, she crouched down in front of him. "Don't worry, gorgeous. We'll figure this out. But the weekend is over and this girl might be clever but she still has to work for a living." Then she reached out and straightened his bed−ridden hair. "And maybe get you a haircut, but we'll talk about that in the evening. Until then, have a nice day."

She was nearly out of the door, before she whipped around one last time, pulling out jackboots from a luggage at the side. She hiked up her not-very-long-to-begin-with skirt, directing his attention towards the burgundy, wool pantyhose she wore. To put on the boots, she propped up one leg on her bedframe after the other to lace them up. When she was finished, she winked at him and said, "That would have been awkward, going out in stockings," before she dashed out.

 

Bucky sat there and tried to calm his racing heart. He remembered going out with women, complimenting them, accepting their invitations for 'more'. Obviously James 'Bucky' Barnes really was a part of him, however distant. Darcy was awakening that part, something he had not believed possible just two days ago. There was something inside of him, something that was human and joyful and alive, different from The Asset in every way imaginable. There were the merest wisps of memories, pushing to the surface, but he held on to them with everything he had. He was more than a tool, more than a weapon; maybe Darcy would be able to help him discover more of himself with time.

Unsure of what to do, he sat there and worked through these unfamiliar thoughts and emotions. When a strand of hair fell back over his eyes, he brushed it over his ear, recalling her fingers on his head, as if it was the most natural thing to do. Once again, he tried to calm himself when his heartrate spiked. For years, decades even, he had known nothing but ice, fear and pain. Pain of being injured during assignments, fear of being punished for failure. He had not failed in a very long time, not until Captain America. He had suffered during the memory wipes, but that had been … different. His body had reacted to the current running through it; little to no emotion had been tied to the process. Fights, and especially punishments, had been so much worse. They had always been accompanied by the feeling of failure, because he had not been good enough, strong enough, skilled enough or obedient enough, despite his excessive training.

Right now, everything was different. The sensations this amazing woman woke in him coursed through his body. Strange, because he could not remember feeling them for so long. They were recognizable on a level his programming had not been able to erase, waking memories he had believed to have been burned out of him a long time ago. He did not know what to do. Bucky might have known, but the recollections of who he had been were not strong enough to serve as suitable guidelines. He waited until his heartrate was low enough, before leaving for the kitchen.

When trying the porridge Darcy had prepared for him, he looked at the clock on the oven and decided that it had to be wrong. According to it, he had slept less than a quarter of an hour. He felt far more rested than that. After doing the dishes, he returned to the living room. Surely there were still boxes to clear out. But when he looked around, he only spotted a handful.

He had not slept that long; there was still morning sun breaking through the windows. How the hell had Darcy been able to clean up that fast? Reaching for the TV, he checked the time and date. The Asset felt cold when he realized that he had been asleep for an entire day.

Handlers needed an asset that could make itself useful. Why had she allowed him to sleep the day away? And an hour ago, she had simply left. He tried to supress a shiver when concluding how disappointed Darcy had to be in him. Why had she not woken him? She had made him relocate at one point. Why had she not demanded from him to stay awake and do something? No matter how obedient he was regarding, without him contributing, she would surely let him go.

The thought nearly sent him to his knees. The Asset needed a Handler. Hydra had carved that conviction into his bones. He could not think of a single person out there who would not make use of his violent skill-set. Darcy was the only one he had ever come across who had looked at him and seen a man instead of the weapon. A man she had found useful. He couldn’t lose that! Someone who smiled at him as if he was, not a man out of time who had committed unspeakable horrors over decades, but just a guy who could lend her a helping hand.

Darcy looked at him as if she knew who he was, though he had never even told her his name. She was not afraid of him, had touched his metal hand freely, did not flinch when they were close. So maybe she saw the guy he had been all those decades ago. But how? And if she returned in the evening, would she be alone or with S.H.I.E.L.D., or worse, Hydra, to get rid of the dangerous but useless assassin he was now?

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

Jane had been in the lab the entire weekend, so first thing Monday morning, Darcy shoved her out so she could take care of a few mundane needs. Like eating or sleeping, for example. Fortunately, Thor was around and willing to support her in that endeavour.

By lunch, Darcy had gathered an overview of the lab and its fixtures. Tony really had outdone himself. Additionally, she had managed to sort through the papers her girl had filled out and had an idea of how much time she would need to digitalize them, so Jane could have a fresh start tomorrow. Darcy then updated their charts and worksheets, making time to claim a part of the lab as her workspace. Around one, a one-armed robot rolled in, carrying a sandwich, a Mars Bar, and a soda in a plastic bag. At her confused glance, JARVIS introduced the robot as DUM-E and sent him back to the main lab, after he had handed over Darcy's lunch. She had just time to plaster a 'thank you' sticky note to his chassis.

Around four, she had sorted through the entire mess Jane had left behind and had printed out more spread-sheets for her favourite scientist. Aware that someone was waiting for her at home, she clocked out and called it a day. A comfortable feeling spread though her at the idea that she wouldn't return to an empty apartment.

 

"I just opened the door for this handsome, blond guy who asked about you. If he's not your boyfriend, would you mind getting me his number? He surely is something!" Janet, her petite, blonde downstairs neighbour chatted, as soon as Darcy opened the front door.

Despite having met her only once, Darcy sensed a pattern, since she had glimpsed Janet kissing a body-builder on her way out yesterday morning. She knew but one, tall, blond guy, and she seriously doubted that Thor would come around without calling first. So Darcy didn't answer, but shot up the stairs, rummaging for her Taser, groceries abandoned beside the staircase.

"… the door, soldier!" Captain America in his civvies stood in front of her door and issued his order in a stern voice. She needed but five seconds to send off a request for backup, before crossing the corridor.

The Captain's formerly demanding tone turned pleading. "Bucky, it's me, Steve. Please. Just open the door."

There was no way her recent house-guest had not heard that. Her apartment was not sound proofed and the good Captain was loud! Since the door did not open, she concluded that either he wasn't there, or didn't want to come out. The Captain, however, became more frustrated with each passing moment, so she intervened. "Captain Rogers, would you please tell me what you are doing here?"

Whipping around, he had obviously not heard her coming, he straightened and offered his hand. "You are Miss Darcy Lewis?"

Once she confirmed that with a nod, he continued, "Would you please open the door for me? I'm afraid you've found yourself a quite dangerous roommate."

Crossing her arms, refusing to let herself be intimidated by his sheer size – thanks again Dad – she shook her head. "No."

"No?"

"You heard me right: no. Because first of all, you shouldn't even be here. A certain bird will lose lots of feathers for this. And second, if I do, in fact, have a dangerous roommate, don't you think he would have opened the door already if he wanted to talk to you?"

In an obvious attempt to placate her, Steve made a soothing gesture. "I'm afraid he's not the best judge of what he needs right now."

Face turning angry, Darcy advanced on him. "What does that have to do with anything? This is not about what he needs but what he wants! Who are you to decided what that is? That's exactly what these Hydra bastards had done these last few decades." Though the Captain seemed taken aback by that comparison, she picked up even more speed. "I'll tell you what will happen now, 'Captain'! You will step the hell away from my door and I will enter my apartment. Then I will find out if my 'dangerous roommate' is even in, and if he is inclined to talk to you. And while I am doing this, you will wait exactly here, not moving an inch. Are we clear?"

Taken aback, Steve could only stammer, "Yes, Ma'am," watching her disappearing through her door.

Darcy took a deep breath and removed her jacket and scarf before searching her apartment. She couldn't find her soldier at first, but after peeking into every room, she found herself in front of her walk-in wardrobe. Deciding that she would forget about knocking on her own wardrobe should he really be out, she tapped the wood and stated softly. "Sergeant, I'm coming in now."

Opening the door, she found him curled up in a corner. His hands were covering his head protectively. Mortified, she remembered how she had straightened his hair this morning. On the other hand, he had not pulled back, but leaned into the gesture ever so slightly. So she gathered her courage and reached out hesitantly, trailing his fingers through his strands. "Steve Rogers is here to talk to you. Do you want to come out? He seems quite nice."

'Quite nice' her ass. But those two had been friends for longer than her parents were alive. So Darcy was willing to give the good Captain the benefit of the doubt. He had believed his best friend dead for half a century. James wanting to see him, despite also preferring to stay away, was understandable. Not all right, but understandable.

She flinched when he captured her hand and pressed it into his unprotected neck painfully. "Punish me," he whispered hoarsely. "Punish me however you see fit, lock me in here, freeze me again, but don't make me go out there. Please."

After a heartbeat he continued brokenly, obviously considering Darcy's lack of reply as disapproval. "He wants … I am … please … don’t make me. Please, Ma'am. He was my handler in the war … he could … I don't want to have to hurt people again!"

Seeing his best friend, Steve Rogers would take charge again, Darcy was sure of it. He had had a habit of taking command, convinced that he was doing the right thing. The Captain would try to help his friend, offer a new home, maybe even his own room and stability. But then the Avengers would be called to arms and Bucky would follow. He had survived capture and torture in the past and even after Steve had freed him, he had followed the Captain to hell and never had gotten back again.

Forcing down her own, conflicting emotions, recalling that he had stated the need for her to be the one in charge, she demanded, "What's Rule Number One, soldier?"

His trembling ceased instantly when he recited, "I am a person with likes and dislikes and I am allowed to say 'no'."

Slowly he let go of her hand, uncurled and raised his head. Since she had crouched down when opening the wardrobe, they were on eye-level now. Tentatively she smiled and carded his unruly hair out of his face. "There you are," she breathed out, now considerably more at ease, since he was not using her to hurt himself any longer. "Let's try this again, shall we? Steve Rogers is standing outside of our door. Do you want to talk to him?"

He was forcing himself, Darcy noticed. What she demanded did not agree with Hydra's programming, but with her close he managed. Hands drawn into tight fists, he forced out a quiet, "No," before sagging back into the dark.

"All right." Leaving the door wide open, Darcy grabbed her handbag and stepped out to relay the message.

 

"I'm sorry, but he doesn't want to talk to you." She conveyed calmly, watching the Captain who had paced the length of the corridor until now.

"What?" Steve stammered, coming abruptly to a halt. "But he can't …"

"Can't what?" she challenged, making sure to close the door behind herself. "Can't make a decision for himself? I agree, he might be a little out of practise, but to me his 'no' left no room for doubt."

Bristling, he glared down at her. "With all due respect. Bucky is my best friend since childhood. You have no idea what he's been though. He needs help!"

At that, Darcy snapped again. "And you want to force that help on him by ignoring his explicit wishes? Is that how you roll, Captain? Because let me tell you, if you touch this door, it won't end well!"

"I'm not ignoring his wishes," he defended himself. "He's confused right now. He has been a prisoner of war for the last seventy years. The last time we met, he was forced to hurt me, but he still saved my life! He knows me and I can help him."

She sighed dejectedly, when the Captain reached for the doorknob, despite her warning, and pulled out her Taser. Steve Rogers went down like a wall of bricks. Darcy swore when she tried to move him away from her doorstep. "Oh my god, what does Stark feed these people?"

"I think our good Captain had meatloaf for lunch."

The familiar, warm voice made Darcy whip around and beam, relieved, when she recognized Thor under his hoodie. "Thor, thank all gods, that you're here."

Picking up Steve, prompting him up under the window of the corridor, Thor replied, "You rarely request assistance, so I made haste. It seems there is a disagreement between you and my brother in arms?"

"Kind off." Darcy slid down her door, guarding it with her back. "I have a house guest. Someone who doesn't want to speak to the good Captain here, but he insisted anyway. I couldn't let that happen."

Sitting down in front of her, the Thundergod asked, "Are you willing to share this tale?"

"It's complicated."

"I have nothing but time, my friend."

"Alright," Darcy sighed, pulling her legs under her and relaxing against the wood. "Once upon a time there was this huge war wrenching Earth. In Brooklyn, New York, two boys were born, who were destined to become best friends, brothers even. This friendship would one day prompt one to leave behind everything he had ever believed in, for the small chance to save the other. And the second would be able to overcome decades of torture, abuse and brainwashing to keep himself from killing the first."

Yes, Darcy had done her research. Though she only gave Thor a brief overview of Steve and Bucky's history, her alien friend still got the gist of it.

"If they were shield-brothers, why are you so determined to keep them apart? Considering what you just told me, they might be able to help each other."

"They would," she nodded empathically. "I'm sure they could help each other. But the last decision James made of his own, free will was enlisting. And that was decades ago. It's time someone listens to what he has to say for himself and acts accordingly."

"It was his decision as well, to stay with me, after I got him out of prison the first time," Steve contradicted quietly. He had been awake for a while now, but had not wanted to interrupt Darcy. Maybe he had needed to hear their story from a different point of view.

"Do you honestly believe that?" Darcy turned towards him. "Leaving his best friend behind, in the middle of World War II. Was that really an option for James Barnes? "

Closing his eyes, Steve leaned back against the wall and shook his head.

Slowly he climbed to his feet and offered his hand. When Darcy took it he gently pulled her up and said, "Thank you, for stopping me. Bucky needs someone in his corner right now and I'm glad it's someone who is not afraid to Taser gods and superheroes."

Chuckling, Darcy shook his hand. "Any time, Captain."

Steve looked longingly at the door. "When he is ready, would you give me a call?"

"I promise," she assured him. "The moment he wants to talk to you I'll let you know. But right now, all he wants is to be left alone and as his friend you should respect that."

"I do," Steve assured her and turned towards the stairs. "Have a good day, Ma'am."

 

“Ma'am?” Darcy bristled as soon as the Captain was out of earshot. “Do I look like a ‘Ma'am’ to you? What am I, sixty?” Annoyed, she bounced down the stairs to pick up her groceries. Ever the gentleman, Thor took them and followed her back upstairs. “I’m making stew. Do you want to stay for dinner?”

Looking around in her new apartment, watching the soldier who stood motionless in the middle of the living room, gun in his hand, he declined. “I think it would be wise to allow the two of you some peace.”

Following his line of sight, Darcy sighed and approached her soldier. Calmly she looked up and held out her hand. “No loaded guns in my apartment.” His eyes flittered between her and Thor, tensing when he slowly handed over his pistol.

“Thank you,” she stated calmly, removing the magazine before putting the gun on the table, reaching for a knife he had stored haphazardly under her sofa-cushion, offering it. Reluctantly he took the weapon, eyes still glued to the perceived threat in the room.

Then she turned towards Thor again, presenting the soldier with her unprotected back. Her favourite deity had taken in the scene and cocked his head, so Darcy gestured towards the kitchen.

“Why did you take his weapon from him?” the warrior demanded to know.

A sore subject, as Darcy was well aware. Starting to unpack her groceries she explained. “I didn’t take his weapon from him. I just explained to him that I don’t like loaded guns in my home. My home, my rules. But the gun still is within easy reach should something happen. In an enclosed area, a blade is better anyway. At least if the enemy doesn’t carry.”

Irritated, Thor asked, “He considers me his enemy?”

Sighing, Darcy rubbed her forehead. “I think at this point he considers everyone his enemy.”

“Not you,” the bear of a man stated softly. “I can see the way he looks at you. This soldier might consider you many things, but ‘enemy’ is not one of them.”

“What are you …” Darcy sputtered. “You know what, I don’t even want to know! Go home and swing by the lab tomorrow around noon. I'll allow you to buy me lunch!”

Hugging her briefly, Thor confirmed with a smile. “Your wish is my command, my lady.”

 

~ * The Asset or maybe Sergeant Barnes * ~

He clutched the knife so hard his knuckles turned white and eyed the gun on the table. He had not felt comfortable handing it over, but Rule Number Four stated that Darcy had to be obeyed in all things. Contrary to expectation, she hadn’t locked it away, merely removed the bullets and then put it within easy reach. He still could have it ready in two seconds tops. Still, this was her home, a safe place. He had no need for the weapon, or so he tried to convince himself.

Reluctantly, he approached the kitchen, peer around the corner. She was cooking again. Apart from the first meal she had offered, every other food had been delicious and though his stomach had ached from the sheer amount he had been allowed to consume, it had stayed down, nourishing him in a way he could not remember experiencing before. With Hydra it had always been drips and pills that had sustained him. He still remembered the first ‘vanilla-chai latte’ he had bought for himself in a childish attempt to resist their rules that cared nothing for such indulgence. It had been rich and sweet and nourishing. Sadly, his stomach hadn’t allowed him to enjoy it for more than sixty seconds. Still, he looked forward to ask for such a treat again. Even though he didn’t know if he would ever be able to muster the courage to do so.

Darcy was his handler, as per his own decision. She cared for his needs, helped him to improve his physical shape. There was no need for him to ask for more than she was providing. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful. Quietly he observed her preparations. She looked like an artist, entirely relaxed and at home amidst knives and cutting boards and raw ingredients that would, undoubtedly, make a delicious meal.

Quietly he stated, “I don’t consider you my enemy.”

Moving her head thoughtfully, she looked up. “But everyone else.”

Well, he couldn’t dispute that. Not when he thought of a stranger within these rooms, and anybody outside of them, a potential threat. Even Steve. He had listened in on their conversation, feeling the need to make sure Darcy was unharmed. But he had been more than curious. Steve had woken strange feelings. It was like the man's mere proximity conjured memories that lingered just outside of reach. No matter how hard he had tried to grab them, they constantly eluded him. Recalling her story, he mumbled, looking at the floor, “You know who I am. Did you know right from the beginning?”

Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, he had hoped that she was not aware of who he was and all the horrors he had committed.

“Of course,” she replied easily, placing a cutting board, a sharp looking knife and a bunch of vegetables in front of him. “Your arm is not exactly subtle. Wash your hands and cut these.”

Hesitant, he picked up the blade, glancing at her from the corner of his eye to determine if she was tensing up. Darcy, however, seemed entirely unfazed and prompted. “Today. They will go in next,” gesturing at a pot on the stove.

Deftly, he pulled the cutting board closer, and within a minute everything sat, neatly cubed, in front of him. When he was finished, he advised quietly, “You shouldn’t let me handle weapons. Someone always ends up dead if I do.”

Shaking her head, she put the vegetables into the pot, stirring it gently. “First of all, that’s a knife, so it’s a tool not a weapon. And second, if I was worried that you would kill me, don’t you think I would have said something about the guns, blades and other stuff you have strapped to your body? You are here on your own free will. I trust you to leave before something bad happens. Until then I will do my best do to as you requested and care for maintenance and try to help you with your memories.”

“I could kill you in a heartbeat!”

“You could kill me with your bare hands. You don’t need a weapon for that. So why should the means make any difference?”

Shivering he put down the blade he had clutched involuntarily. He was aware that she was reaching for him, but forced his body to lock down as to not prompt an undesired reaction. He was not prepared for her gently hand when she turned him around. “I don’t fancy loaded guns or rifles or whatever you carry, in my home. But you are not on suicide watch, nor have you given any indication of wanting to hurt me or yourself. So I see no reason to hide all the blades, knifes, scissors and the lot. You asked me to become your handler. So why should I be afraid?”

Avoiding her eyes, he whispered, “I’m not very good at following orders at the moment. I could slip. Captain America ordered me to open the door and I refused. If I disobey I have to be punished. Lack of discipline ends in chaos and chaos ends in death. I don’t want to kill you.”

More dead people … he couldn't take that. He had left Hydra to get rid of the punishments. But his programming was the only reliable thing in his life, at this point. Following orders was his reason for existing. Refusing them was … unthinkable. He should not have been able to do so, but the fear of being roped into killing again, had outweighed the dread of punishment.

“That’s why you were in the wardrobe,” she concluded out of the blue.

Though he felt reluctant to listen, he did not dare to interrupt.

“You’re not a fan of dark and narrow places. Are you?”

“No,” he forced out brokenly. “I’m not. But I disobeyed and disobedience has to be punished.” He felt like a broken record, but repeating the only things he knew made him feel a tiny bit better. Of everything he expected from a handler, her next words were far from it.

“All right, first of all: if you need to be punished, don’t do it yourself. You said that was my job. And second, since I’m in charge, you are not allowed to take orders from anybody else. So when you meet the good Captain next time, or Hydra, or who knows whom, consider their words a suggestion, not a command. You are in no way obliged to obey anybody but me, nor will not heeding such a suggestion result in punishment. All right?”

The barest hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Assuming control of every aspect of his life was exactly what he was used to from a handler. She did good, so he confirmed, “Yes, Darcy.”

“Good boy.” She beamed at him, making his smile grow a little wider. “Now return to your cutting board. We are far from done.”

Obediently, he picked up the knife again, feeling more comfortable with this tool than he had five minutes ago. When she placed meat on the board, he separated it with the same efficiency, only hesitating briefly to say, “Thank you, Darcy, for having my back.”

Checking his hip with hers, something that made his mouth run dry again, she grinned, “Any time, Gorgeous. Any time.”

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * The Asset * ~

After the first few bites of the delicious meal they had prepared together, the Asset got lost in his own mind, reviewing everything that had happened. Sadly, he could make neither heads nor tails of it all. Not Darcy and the easy way in which she had accepted him and adapted to help him as much as possible, not Steve or Darcy's friend Thor or anything else about this situation.

There was this beautiful, young woman that might weigh about hundred-and-twenty pounds soaking wet, and she took on Russian assassins, Norse gods and super soldiers as if they were nothing. She did not even carry, though she certainly knew her way around a gun. All she had was a Taser that was strong enough to bring gods to their knees. Probably even him. He had experienced current running through his body, erasing his mind, and though he doubted that her Taser would be strong enough to do any permanent damage, he preferred not to give her a reason to use it.

Handlers were the people with power, an absolute power over his actions, his life, even his memories. Their missions had been the only thing he had been allowed to think about. Deviation from that path had been punished. At last until Steve Rogers. To fail an assignment, too, had resulted in punishment, something he had wanted to avoid at all cost. Even the thought of being whipped, starved, captured in complete darkness or forced under water was enough to make him shiver. Darcy would do none of these things. But, in a way, it felt good to know that she was able to back up her words with actions if necessary.

Once they had finished their meal, he noticed that at least two portions were left, she picked up the plates and carried them to the kitchen. Reaching for the bowl with the remaining food, he followed dutifully. After the food had been stored in the refrigerator, he lingered in the doorway, watching her doing dishes. Though accustomed to wait for a command, he realized that he had picked up a towel to help her dry, a moment later.

There was a familiarity to the situation that he could not identify. The way she handled the dishes, how she passed them on to him reminded him of … someone. An important someone that lingered at the edge of Bucky’s mind. And though he could not remember this person, he still enjoyed going through the motions and watching her while she danced through her kitchen until everything was stored away again.

When she turned towards him with an, “All right, I think we should talk,” anxiety started to tie his stomach in knots. He would have liked to write it off to yet another rich meal, but he knew her cooking was not to blame for this unease. Though he could remember little from Bucky’s past, he was aware that nothing good ever came from a dame uttering these words. The majority of him expected punishment for whatever failure he had committed. Maybe she had expected him to be aware of her dislike of firearms? She had pointed out a few times since they met, that she preferred to a Taser as means of self-defence.

When she sank into a chair in the living-room, gesturing for him to take the couch, he realized that being punished actually was the desirable outcome of this conflict. He even thought about offering suggestions on suitable penances. What if seeing Steve Rogers had made her finally realize the danger he posed to her life? Wherever he was, trouble would follow. Hydra would never let him go, never abandoned the idea or stop their attempts of getting him back. If she wanted a quiet life, like she had hinted, there was but one possibility: for her to cast him out. The armrest of the sofa creaked under his metal hand before he managed to force himself to let go.

“Hey, are you listening to me?”

Muted by the fear, of being sent way, of being abandoned, alone and without direction once again, he had panicked, concentrated on himself rather than her so he shook his head. Not knowing what to do, he would probably go back to ... whoever wanted him as long as it wasn’t Hydra, because not having a mission, being without a handler was like a physical pain. Being useful had been all there was to him for the last few decades. So no, he had not listened; therefore, he lowered his eyes in shame.

A soft touch on his chin made him look up. Maybe contact would be prolonged if he proved compliant with Darcy’s wishes. Obedience had been … well, not rewarded but at least not been punished in the past.

“Wait here.”

Immediately he sank back into the cushions. This command was by far the easiest he could imagine. Still, she left for the kitchen. Since they had eaten already, what could she want there? His head was a jumbled mess of thoughts he couldn’t make heads or tails off. With Hydra, there had never been this much confusion, just clear rules that told him how to react and what to think. If he had followed them things had been … not painful. But Darcy had established too few rules to act as proper behavioural guidelines.

When she returned, she carried a steaming mug of tea. Prompting him to take it, and he took a sip. When he did, he could not repress the blissful groan. The peppermint tea was warm and laced with honey. The sugar hit his system and helped his mind to clear a little. The fresh brew smelled like comfort and love and home. He drowned it in small sips in under a minute.

When he placed the mug on the table, she smiled at him, as if he had done something extraordinary pleasing. Maybe this would not go as badly as he had feared? Tentatively, he returned her smile.

“So, now that you no longer look like you are fainting, let’s address our three problems at hand: hair, clothes and where you are about to sleep.”

What? “I don’t understand.”

"Look, Gorgeous, far be it from me to tell you how to present yourself. But my life is complicated enough without tripping over someone who looks like a homeless guy on my way out of bed in the morning."

Flinching slightly, he looked down at himself, all of a sudden not only self-conscious about what he could do but how he looked. Now that she had drawn attention to it, he was aware how ragged he appeared. Changing one's clothes was the best way to blend in. But he had to admit that the worn and slightly torn jeans might not make the best of impressions. The same went for the somehow scuffed jacket and the shirt underneath barely had any hem left. His hair might have been clean in the morning but was a tangled mess after his last fight and he had not shaved since fleeing Hydra. He had to make an unsavoury impression, yet somehow he had no idea how to change that. Clothes had been of no concern to him before. They had given armour that protected himself, a muzzle that had made it nigh impossible to speak and goggles that had hidden his eyes. His hair had not mattered either as long as it got not in the way of his work.

Since she obviously waited for his input, he tried to find an answer that would please her, all the while rubbing his flesh-hand over his thigh nervously. "I could …" he started hoarsely, "I could shear off my hair and leave you in the evening. You shouldn't have to concern yourself with an intruder in your bedroom. I will find a place to sleep and report for duty in the morning …"

He trailed off, aware that leaving her alone would be close to impossible for him. But her house had a roof with a few, sparse plants. He had inspected it yesterday. Maybe he could find a corner where he would be hidden from the elements. Build a little nest? The last thing he wanted was to make her uncomfortable.

"That is wrong on so many levels," she quipped, before leaning over to push a strand of hair behind his ear.

He had come to use his strands as a defence, he realized, lowering his face, hiding his expression when he was uncomfortable. But if she didn't like it, he would give it up in a heartbeat. When she pulled back her hand, he followed on instinct. Contact with the handler was anticipated, he justified his behaviour. Handlers cherished compliance.

Softly, she corrected him. "All I say is, let me take you to a thrift store for new clothes and cut your hair a little. I'm sure you will feel much better."

"Agreed." He would have approved anything at that point, because amenability earned him not only another pat on the shoulder but also a smile. Bucky had liked to make woman smile and the Asset/Winter Soldier/Sergeant Barnes felt the same. "I could …" He tried to come up with a solution for the sleeping arrangement. "Could give me permission to sleep in front of the TV? I wouldn't be in your way in the morning, but still close enough to offer assistance if necessary."

"Why not the sofa?" Darcy asked surprised.

"Too soft."

"You slept there fourteen hours straight, on Sunday."

True, but he had been beyond exhausted at that point. Usually he preferred firmer surfaces. Or maybe he had just gotten used to them. Not the cryo-tank of course, never again, but every other surface was acceptable. "With your permission, Ma'am, I would prefer the floor."

"The name's Darcy," she reminded him, rising from her chair. "And you know what, I think I have an idea."

Following, he assisted her in pulling the dresser from beside her bedroom-door into her bedroom, placing it where he had slept last night. A potted plant from the corner of the living-room went to the other side of the sofa. There was more light anyway, she explained. That left a gap of approximately 1.8 meters in the corner of the room between bedroom wall and the couch.

Vanishing into her bedroom, she returned with one of her yoga-mats. She slid a thick carpet, which had lain beside her bed, into the corner, rolling out the mat on top of it. She topped the arrangement off with a thick blanket under a comforter. One pillow from her own bed and another blanket made an, albeit short, but evidently comfortable, sleeping place for him.

"Perfect," she nodded. "Now hop into the shower and wash your hair twice. Use the conditioner and afterwards we can see what I can do about the hack-job someone performed on your head. I might even have a pair of sweats and a shirt that might fit you. One of Jane's boxes got confused with mine, and though you are no Norse god, I'm sure Thor's clothes will fit you better than anything I have. Chop, chop, I haven't got all evening."

She was small, energetic, and determined. Bucky would have adored her and the Asset … appreciated her efficiency. All thoughts were washed away by the scalding water that hit and untangled muscles that had been knit together for the past month. Showers had been means to an end before. He had never allowed himself more than a few minutes in trepid water, cleaning himself as fast as possible as to not draw any attention. Now he lingered, enjoying the hot rivulets than ran down his back. Only when the water ran cold did he come out.

Clean clothes lay on the counter, along with two fluffy towels. Picking up the smaller towel, rubbing his hair dry, he spotted shaving supplements in the corner of the bathroom. Even though the razor had far too many blades and a pink handle, together with the 'Lotus Blossom' shaving cream, it got the job done. The sweats and the shirt she had lain out for him were longer than needed, but they caressed his skin in a way he had not known clothes could. He felt comfortable rolling one sleeve up and letting the other hide his metal appendage.

When he stepped out of the bathroom, she grinned, snapping some scissors at him. Usually, he would have pulled back and disarmed his opponent, but Darcy didn’t cause a defensive impulse.

“Why don’t we return to the bathroom. That way you can see what I am doing,” she suggested, fetching a stool from the kitchen.

Tension bled out of him, so he nodded and returned to the steamy room. Opening the door, he used the large towel to clean the mirror. When she pushed the stool at him, he sank down obediently, still able to watch his reflection in the mirror. She rummaged through her drawers for a hairclip and a comb and started to part his strands so she could untangle them. Whatever she did, it did not hurt in the slightest, though he knew it should, because keeping his hair in order usually needed more force than simply pulling the comb through it.

Scratching her head, she decided, “All right, I’ll clip off about an inch from the back; you can use product to get your mane under control during the day. So it will still be long, but not that long. Are you okay with that?”

She had asked his opinion. Why did Darcy always ask his opinion? Since he did not know if he preferred his hair long or short, he merely nodded and watched her work. She expertly separated his locks, and twisted the majority of them on top of his head, fixing them with a hairclip. Swift and precise, she cut the back and pulled down section by section until his entire hair was combed back and trimmed to one length. Vanishing into the living-room she returned with a blow-dryer and started styling his tresses. Pulling an orange pot from one of her drawers, she rubbed something sticky that smelled like coconut between her fingers and then worked it into his hair.

All the time he had paid close attention, not because he was unsure of what would happen, but because he felt good watching her work. She smiled, mumbled to herself, and once she was finished, she gifted him another bright smile, gesturing towards the mirror. “What do you think?”

He nearly choked when he saw his reflection. A washed out, grey sweatshirt covered his upper body, his hair surrounded his face in a soft wave, but the top stayed out of his eyes because of the sticky stuff she had worked into it. With his shaved chin and far less prominent circles under his eyes, he …

“I look like him …” he whispered hoarsely, remembering the reflection from the Smithsonian.

“Like who?”

“Like James Barnes.”

Chuckling, sweeping together his cut-off hair with her socked feet, she stated, “That’s because you are James Barnes.”

Supressing the ache in his chest, wrapping his arms around his middle to keep in the pain, he shook his head. “No, I’m not.”

Crouching down by his side, she reached for his shoulder. “Hey, Gorgeous, of course you are … you’re just …”

“No, I’m not!” he spat, shoving her aside, fleeing the bathroom.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Rubbing her aching shoulder from where he had pushed her against the wash-table, she took off her socks, so as to not drag his hair all over her apartment, and followed. She had tried her best to make him feel better. A haircut, clean clothes and a shower did that for most people. But somehow he seemed more distressed now than he had before. Slowly she approached him, where he sat huddled up in ‘his’ corner of the living-room. They had to find another solution for where he slept, but for now this improvised bed was the best she could do.

Sitting down on the floor in front of him, Darcy wanted to know, “Why are you saying that?”

Hiding his metal arm behind his legs, wrapped around his stomach, he gestured with the other. “Because I’ve been at the Smithsonian. I’ve looked him up. Sergeant Barnes was a hero! He fought side by side with Captain America. I’m an assassin. I’ve killed people for more than fifty years! It’s all over the net. I’m a monster! Barnes would be ashamed to be me!”

Picking on a loose thread from her skirt, Darcy nodded. “I understand. Hydra gave you these files and you chose whom to kill.”

“No!”

“Oh, so … you observed potential targets and offered them to your handlers, leaving the decision to them.”

“No! They chose, they always were the one choosing who was about to die.”

He was the most agitated she had ever seen him, but this was not the combat fury she had witnessed when the Winter Soldier was in the driver’s seat. This was pure human, a man who had never faced the reality of what had happened to him. Well, she was his handler, so it was her duty to do what she thought was best for him.

“Okay … let’s see … surely they at least gave you the chance to observe your targets. Decide if they were worth killing or not.”

Shaking his head one last time, he pressed his forehead to his knees. His voice was muffled but she could still make out what he spoke in a bare whisper. “No, it was all them. They pointed me in a certain direction, I eliminated the target. If I didn’t succeed, I was punished, then wiped and then put on ice again, unfrozen and then it started all over.”

“So what you are saying is …,” Darcy concluded softly, “that you were at the mercy of these people. They never talked to you. You never had an ounce of room to make your own decisions. They trained you, used your skills and punished you if you failed.”

When he didn’t react she prompted, “James, please look at me.”

When he did reluctantly, she caught his eyes with hers, stating determinedly, “They made you a tool. They shaped you and forced you to obey. You have been a prisoner of war with miniscule legroom for seventy-something years. You are not responsible for what you did under their command.”

“I can’t …” He broke off, “That’s not true.”

“It is,” Darcy contradicted. “I know this is hard. Because admitting that none of this was your fault, that you really had no choice, means that you have to accept what they have done to you and that you didn’t deserve it.”

“It was still my hand that pulled the trigger, that broke the bones, that …” he replied hoarsely, unable to maintain eye-contact.

“Yes, it was. But what was the alternative.”

“I didn’t … I wasn’t … I can’t,” he choked out, hiding behind his knees again, fisting his hair with both hands as if waiting to be hit or worse. His metal hand clutched his head so painfully that Darcy was afraid that he would harm himself.

When she crouched closer to offer comfort, he curled up even tighter. Aware that this was too much for him, Darcy pulled back. She was no psychiatrist or psychologist; hell she was a political science major. She had learned to read and manipulate the masses, how to do public relations. She had worked with Jane for so long that she knew the basics of astrophysics, at least enough to develop and update spreadsheets and work through equations her boss threw at her on a regular basis.

She also knew that soldiers who had been prisoners of war were unpredictable in their reactions, and though she had always loved her Uncle Ian, there had been times when her dad had advised her to give him room. So she issued one last order, “You are not allowed to hurt yourself, soldier. Understood?” At a miniscule nod she left to clean up the bathroom. Since he hadn’t moved an inch when she returned, she claimed the sofa and started Netflix.

Munching a bag of carrots, she started a Doctor Who marathon, getting lost in the Eleventh Doctor’s bickering with Amy. You could not live in England and not get to know Doctor Who. Honestly, there were worse shows to get hooked on.

Half an hour into the second episode, she had already spread out over her new couch comfortably, congratulating herself on the purchase; there was shuffling by her side and slowly her house guest crawled closer. He chose a place on the floor by her side, eyes locked on the screen. After a little while she edged the nearly empty bag of carrots into his direction and he tentatively reached for one. After that, he polished off the last of them in short order. Turning on the couch she ‘accidentally’ put her arm on his shoulder. When he did not tense up, she let it slide down, so that she was half-hugging him from behind. He seemed to flinch slightly when her hand slid over the top of his metal shoulder, but didn’t pull back. Encouraged she started to pet his chest until her eyes slipped shut.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * The Asset or maybe James Barnes * ~

He would not … could not accept that he was not responsible for the horrible things he had done. He had killed and he had been punished. Then he had killed again and been punished some more. It had become a vicious cycle, but it had been the centre of his existence for decades. He had learned to draw satisfaction from a job well done; or he had developed at least an inkling of positive reinforcement for doing well, when his handlers had not dished out abuse. No, not abuse. He was no weak dame that got hit by her husband. He had been a soldier, determined and strong. He had stood side by side with Captain America, had been good enough to serve under him. But then he had failed, fallen from a train and even the memory of that incident made him cringe inwardly.

He recalled Steve, heard him shouting, but all he remembered was a fall into blinding darkness … and then nothing but pain. For seventy years he recalled nothing but pain and ice and fear. Surely no human would do that to another who did not deserve it. They had corrected his mistakes, had made him better. His head hurt so much to make sense of it all. He wanted to punch the wall, because physical harm would be better than the raging war in his mind. But Darcy had stated clearly that he was not allowed to do so, and Darcy was to be obeyed in all things.

Darcy … this trusting, determined, beautiful, fierce little lady. Her resolve and strength of mind rivalled that of Peggy Carter. That thought prompted another memory: fleeting pictures of the only woman who had ever looked at Captain America and seen Steve Rogers. He would have to look her up as well, hoping that she had had a good life, like those Howling Commandos who had come back from the war. Snippets of new memories assaulted him and he bit his lip bloody to keep his distress to himself. He didn’t want to worry Darcy. She was trying so hard to do a job she was clearly not cut out for. She lacked distance. When she looked at him, she obviously tried so very hard to see the real him. Even when he did not know who that was.

When his headache was finally dying down, he tentatively crawled towards the couch, trying not to draw too much attention to himself, and huddled up on the floor beside her. He wanted … no needed to know that he was not alone in this nightmare. The wipes, the cryo-chamber, the assignments … all these things had given his life structure. A horrible structure, but he had known what to expect nevertheless. Now he felt like drowning in a sea of possibility, unsure where to turn to reach the shore. Darcy was holding him above water, but what if she got tired of him? He had been with her for a mere three days and he had done nothing to make himself useful until now. Sure, he had carried boxes on Saturday, but he had slept all through Sunday, and today he had but secured the perimeter, setting up small listening devices – Hydra standard issue taken from one of their safe-houses before burning it down – to make sure her apartment and the neighbouring block was safe. Not good enough!

When her arm slid over his neck he closed his eyes, hoping … praying that she would not pull back immediately. His stomach tightened when her arm slipped over his shoulder, touching metal under cotton. Darcy never seemed distressed by his artificial limb, even when most people shied away from it. Instead she wrapped her arm around his body and caressed him absent minded. A heat he had not felt in … longer than he was able to remember, spread in his gut. He barely dared to breath, looked at the TV that had brought them together, every fibre of his being concentrated on the points where their bodies touched.

He dared to look over his shoulder when he heard her snoring softly. She had fallen asleep. He knew, he should carry her to bed. She would sleep more comfortable there. But all he managed was to carefully remove her glasses without disturbing her and reaching for the remote to reduce the volume of the TV until it was a mere mumbling in the background. He would just allow himself five more minutes in her presence. Five more minutes were not that bad. He had missed human contact for so long so he only wanted to savour it for a few heartbeats. Then, he would be ready to put a glass-door between them.

But five minutes became ten and ten minutes became an hour where he slowly shifted to the side, tilting his head so that his cheek was caressed by the soft wool of her shirt. The way she smelled, the way she felt, he ached for it. For the first time since abandoning Hydra he felt human. Like he could really be James Barnes underneath all the blood and the death and the havoc he had wreaked during the last few decades. If this woman was not afraid to sleep by his side, to touch him so easily, maybe he was not the monster he believed himself to be.

Slowly, he shifted to the side, put his head on the couch so that his face was as close to her arm as possible without weighing it down. She mumbled something a little while later, shifted in her sleep, and he froze because he was afraid that she would wake, or worse, pull back. Instead she curled up on the side, wrapping both arms around him as if he was a comfortable pillow. Cautiously, he placed his flesh hand on the sofa, close enough to feel her heat but not to touch. He couldn’t do that without permission.

It was past midnight when he finally fell asleep.

 

When he woke, he felt something on his head. For a heartbeat, panic rose, fear that he was back with Hydra, back in the chair, held down by the headband, about to be wiped. However, when he opened his eyes, all he saw was colourful fabric and long strands of hair spread over it. Looking up, he realized that Darcy’s fingers had toyed with his hair last night and had simply stayed there. Shifting a little he noticed that the two of them were wrapped into an oversized patchwork-blanket that had been draped over the pack of the couch before. He was warm, and she smelled good, and apart from sitting on the floor all night, he was comfortable.

The clock in the corner of the TV, where a different show with different actors had started playing at some point during the night, indicated that it was six-thirty in the morning. Yesterday Darcy had dashed out around eight. Considering what he knew about her habits, as little as that was, he believed her to take a shower before breakfast. If he left now, maybe he could check the perimeter and then buy breakfast. She had provided all the meals until now; it was time to make himself useful.

Slowly extracting himself from her tightening grip, he hesitated for a heartbeat before releasing her hand. A void inside of him wanted to pull her closer, to hold her tight, but not only was she asleep, he did not even know if his advances would be welcome. So he freshened up, brushed his newly cut hair and worked some of the sticky stuff into it, he had seen her use yesterday. He put on his armour again and picked up his gun. He waited until the door had fallen shut behind him to reload it.

When he returned forty minutes later − he really should find a better lock for her door − he heard the shower running. Proud of returning in time, he spread out the warm English muffin, the ham-and-egg wrap, the pita bread with cheese, and the cream cheese bagel, as well as the blueberry muffin, the chocolate muffin, the chocolate chip cookie, and the seedcake over the counter. The caramel latte was last, still hot in the isolated cup he had bought just for her, because it had colourful little hearts printed all over it and he thought that she might like it.

The smells at the coffee shop had been heavenly and his stomach had growled audibly, but his first concern had to be his handler. At the last moment, he had thought about ordering a beverage for himself as well, but had been at a loss as to what he wanted. In the end he had gone with a chamomile tea, because past experience indicated that she approved of him having this drink.

Wrapped in an oversized towel, wet hair falling down her back, she came out of the bathroom, zoning in on the coffee, eyes half-closed. “Is this a caramel latte macchiato?”

Offering the drink, he felt a small smile tugging at his lips. “Yes, Darcy.”

Taking a sip, she groaned obscenely, a sound that shot straight to his groin. “Oh my god, I love you so much right now.” And with that she vanished into the bathroom again, taking the coffee with her.

He stood frozen in the kitchen, her word short-circuiting his brain. She hadn’t been serious, couldn’t be, he told himself. This was a mere saying. It didn’t mean anything. Still, he couldn’t fight the tension that filled his body, that made him shiver all over. If but a run for breakfast was needed to make her happy, he would do so every day. He might need to hit one safe-house or the other, probably stalk a few agents to acquire more money, but it would be worth it to see the bliss on her face again, when she took the first sip.

When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, she wore underwear of … turning his back instantly, he kept himself from looking. But even the brief glimpse made his leather trousers uncomfortably tight. Well, his mother had raised a gentleman … at least he thought so, so he would not invade a lady’s privacy by scrutinizing her while she wore … too little.

Her chuckling made him look over his shoulder.

“It’s safe to look again, Gorgeous. Thank you for breakfast, this is just what I needed. But what’s the occasion?” Picking up the English muffin, and the wrap, she popped both into the microwave. Choosing the first before offering the second, she took a bite, rolled her eyes in bliss and looked at him expectantly.

“I was …” Uncomfortable under her scrutiny, his rude mind provided him with images of what she wore underneath her dark trousers and grey pullover, he fidgeted with the wrap to hide his own reaction. “You … you made breakfast every day. I thought I could return the favour. But I don’t know if I can cook so I thought it safer to buy something.”

“That’s great, really, but you don’t have to do that,” she replied, smiling at him comfortingly, sipping her coffee.

Reaching for his tea, to have something to do with his hands, he contradicted her. “You allow me to sleep here and provide food. I can’t … it wouldn’t be right to … take advantage. An Asset has to be useful. Why would you keep me around otherwise?”

Like a storm-cloud, a frown darkened her features. His instincts went to war with his training. While the first demanded from him to pull back from a displeased handler, his training required of him to wait for whatever reaction was coming, accepting it because he had brought it upon himself. Irritating his handler meant pain; maybe not punishment, but surely a reminder of his place. That was why he couldn’t make decisions for himself. He always chose wrong.

His breath went slow and regular when Darcy touched his face. His eyes stayed glued to the floor. He had no right to look. That was one of the first reactions they had trained out of him. He was not to gaze at someone without prompting. He was simply to wait and accept what was done to him. No matter what they did. He had learned to be perceptive even without relying on his eyes. Had learned to judge from the noises the people made, to discover what they were about to do. Darcy just … stood there, her small hand warm on his face, not hurting him, just holding on, slowly tilting his face up.

“You are not my Asset. You are James Buchannan Barnes. You are a person.”

Supressing the shiver her words caused was hard, but he held on to his iron self-control. As even as possible, he stated, “I still have to be useful. Why would you allow me to stay otherwise?”

“Because you have nowhere else to go?”

Turning away from her, though he felt the loss of her touch like a knife in the gut, he challenged her. “I am highly trained. I could go anywhere I please. Of all people in this world, I am the deadliest.”

He could hear a smile in her voice when she asked, “Have you seen the clips of the Hulk from his last battle?”

“Second deadliest.”

Stepping closer, she purred, “So you could walk out on me any minute.”

Hiding behind the mask of the Winter Soldier, he replied coldly, “Yes, I could!”

'No, please, stop me! Where was this pride coming from?' He had had no pride left when he had been with Hydra, so why was he saying these things all of a sudden? The mere thought of leaving made him feel sick to the stomach and this time it had nothing to do with food. Why was he challenging her? What should he do if she opened the door for him?

His head started spinning. Memories, he couldn’t even make out, tried to force their way to the surface. His whole body was thrumming. He tried to take deep and even breathes to keep his composure, not understanding what was happening with him. It was so much, so many possibilities, so many places. What was he supposed to do out there but kill people? That was all he had been good at for the last few decades. Even with Steve he had manned the rifle, eliminating those who posed a danger to Captain America. He should …

Her hand pressing against his arm, his metal arm, felt like a lifeline. Her voice brought clarity when she asked, “Where do you want to go?”

Shivering he allowed her to pull him close; wrapped around her small body, holding on to her with as much force as he dared. He burrowed his face in her hair, inhaling the faint sent of jasmine he recognized from her shampoo, whispering, “Nowhere. I'm sorry. Please ...” He did not even know what he was pleading for. He just … she had to make it better, end this confusion. Everything was better than living alone in a world where he had no purpose. He didn't want to hurt people any longer.

Her hand at the back of his neck and the small of his back would have felt constricting were she anybody else. Nerves ran close to the skin there. A small incision, and a person could bleed to death. But with her, these touches felt grounding, reassuring in a way he had not known he craved. Her whisper made him clench her top, before he could remind himself not to wrinkle her clothes.

“You don’t have to go. You can stay her as long as you want. It’s okay, James. I know things seem pretty bad right now. But you will get through this, I promise. I will help you. I have dealt with gods falling out of the sky and alien invasions. What’s one more brainwashed assassin?”

When he breathed out wetly, as close to a laugh as he was able in this situation, she cupped the back of his head, assuring him, “I know you're scared. But the human brain is a wondrous thing. It can bounce back from nearly everything. Just ask my friend Eric. It will be all right. You may need some time to get there, but it will be okay.”

Admitting to his worst fear, he stated quietly, “An asset needs to have a purpose. Without one it is useless.” An Asset without use was to be terminated.

Pulling back a little, something he allowed only reluctantly, she reminded him, “Lucky for you, you are not an Asset but a person. And the people of this brave, new century perfected the art of doing nothing. So just eat, drink, sleep, use the TV, the internet, whatever you want. Just be, and forget about missions and being useful for once.”

When he reluctantly nodded, wondering what he was supposed to do with himself all day with such muddled instructions − what would he even look up if he had no target − she grinned at him. “Though I certainly won’t say no to a fresh coffee each morning. I will show you how to work the coffeemaker tonight. All right?”

Composed once again, he nodded. “Yes, Darcy. Do you want me to acquire new clothes today as well?”

Stepping back, holding him at arm's length, she tilted her head. “Maybe we can go shopping after work. I’m free around five. I’m afraid if I leave you to shop on your own you will only buy more leather. Not that it’s not a good look on you, but maybe we should diversify …”

Her appreciative gaze on his pants made him blush. “As you wish.”

He wondered if he should invest in some looser pants if she continued to concentrate on him like that. But on the other hand, maybe she would stop ogling him, if he hid his assets, and he certainly didn’t want that.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

“Are you certain that he is no danger to your well-being?”

Darcy would be annoyed at the question, if Thor’s face was not overcome by concern. All her life, she had believed herself to be a strong and independent woman, who could deal with anything life threw her way. At least until the Destroyer had been rainbowed to Earth. London had finally convinced her that she didn’t know shit, but that she had enough people in her corner to make things right if she did her part. Thor was one of these people.

Taking another bite of her salmon – the canteen of the tower was sublime – she shook her head. “Is James dangerous? Yes, most certainly. But I don’t think that he would ever hurt me. He’s like a little duckling.”

“Who is your duckling?” Jane, who had been held up at the lab … again … joined them with a juicy hamburger on her plate. And though Darcy had just eaten her fill, the smell made her mouth water. Maybe she should make minced meat tonight.

A subtle head shake towards Thor, had her friend informed that she had no desire to share the identity of her house-guest. “Darcy has already made a friend this weekend. He seems very … attached to her.”

“Have you?” Jane beamed at her. “Good for you. Ian was such an idiot. I’m proud of you to go out and meet new people.”

“Yeah … well, we kind of stumbled over each other.” Darcy admitted, her brain working furiously to put a spin on her story that wouldn’t make her best friend worry too much. “I met him while moving in on Friday. Some jackass snatched my TV and he rescued it.”

“Your new TV, the one you bought for a thousand bucks because, and I quote ‘Netflix deserves an appropriate platform’? That TV?”

“Exactly.” Darcy beamed. “He toppled the thug with but a sweep of his hand, and my window to fiction didn't even get scratched.”

“With one arm? Is he a wrestler or something?”

Shit … shit, shit, shit!

“Well, it is not that hard to fell an opponent whose hands are occupied.”

She really loved Thor. Her favourite god to the rescue! Darcy gave him a grateful smile before polishing off the last of her fish. “Now I will leave you two lovebirds alone. I will update your last equations and run them, because I have to leave on the dot today.”

“Meeting your new friend?” Jane grinned.

“Exactly!” Darcy swiped up her tray and turned around with flourish.

“Darcy,” Thor had followed her, putting his gentle hand on her shoulder. “Please, be careful. Though I do not doubt your … friend’s good intentions, I can’t help but worry. Warriors sometimes grow weary of fighting and then they become unpredictable.” He brushed her dark hair over her shoulder, looking over her head rather than into her eyes.

Hugging him briefly, she promised, “I won’t let anything bad happen, big guy. I'll keep my Taser on me at all times. I promise.”

Obviously relieved, Thor returned the gesture before approaching Jane’s table once again.

 

When Darcy left the tower at five o'clock sharp, Steve Rogers was leaning against his bike in front of the entrance, presumably waiting for her. Aware that she could not avoid him in the long run, she forced herself to smile. "How is it going, Captain?"

He straightened and tilted his head, "Miss Lewis, I wanted to apologize for the way I behaved yesterday. I …"

But Darcy merely raised her hands. "Don't. Listen, I get it. He's your best friend. You want to help him."

"I really do." Steve nodded, relieved that she held no grudge.

Scratching the back of her neck, looking around because she felt watched all of a sudden, Darcy tried to sooth the soldier out of time. "You can't force help on someone who is not ready to accept it. Believe me, I've tried. If he's really that important to you, you have to let him come to you."

"What if he never does?" Steve whispered, looking somewhat crestfallen, so she could not help but reach out. "He will. Just give him time."

Apparently surprised by her soothing gesture, Steve looked at her. "How can you be so sure? He was their prisoner for many decades. I studied the files Nat uploaded. What they did was …" His fists clenched so hard that for a moment, Darcy was worried that he might break his skin. "… inhuman!" he spat out, closing his eyes for a moment. He looked like he had the deep seated need to lash out towards somebody. She wished James would develop such impulses. It was certainly a healthier reaction than suppressing everything. Maybe he would, in time.

"He's not their asset any longer. He's James Buchanan Barnes and he's a person. He has to learn to be one again, I give you that, but he will get there. Just give him time, Captain, and I promise I will help him in any way I can."

"Steve."

"Pardon?"

"Please call me Steve." He smiled boyishly. Darcy had to admit that was pretty cute. "I’m not sure how not to help. How can you have so much faith in him?"

"Because Sergeant Barnes was a hero. He might have stood in your shadow, but he was a good person at heart. They burned that out of him for half a century, but he still fought them and freed himself when you needed him the most. He is still in there, deep down, at the bottom of his mind. We just have to give him time to find himself again. There is a reason why Hydra did not allow him any leniency. Out of cryo, he started to remember."

"How do you know?"

Winking at him, Darcy smiled, this time in earnest. "You're not the only one who can use the internet. I have a very smart smartphone and time on my hands when using public transport. Also: I read very fast."

Reaching for a helmet, Steve offered, "Would you allow me to drive you home?"

Darcy's eyes flittered to the side again. "I don't think that's necessary. I wanted to go clothes shopping and the best thrift shops are in the Flatiron District and beyond."

Of course he noticed and tried to turn around, but she stopped him with a gentle, "Don't. Don't do this to yourself, Steve."

Hurt filtered over his face. "He's here, isn't he?"

"He knows where to find you. Please, let him come to you when he is ready." Not an answer, but he understood nevertheless.

Taking a deep breath, Steve was the one to force the smile now, when he reached down and took her hand to kiss it. "You're one hell of a lady, Darcy Lewis. I'm glad that you are there for him." Then he mounted his bike and speed away.

 

Straightening her woolly hat, she crossed the street and move towards the person with the baseball cap and the worn down jeans jacket that had watched her so attentively, for the last few minutes. For a few moments, he didn't say anything. She wondered if he had heard what they had talked about. Maybe with an enhanced physic came enhanced senses? He eliminated any lingering doubt when he asked, "How can you be so sure that I will remember?"

"Because he needs you to." Maybe it was unfair to pin his recovery on Steve, but a gut-feeling told Darcy that James needed an anchor, and Steve was the best there was.

When he looked up, confusion was written all over his face. She wanted to hug him, comfort him, but was not sure where he stood on public displays of affection, so she merely shrugged. "He is the man you love the most in the entire world. You fought for him when he was still a rowdy half-pint in New York. You fought for him when his outside finally matched his inside, since he still needed someone to guard his back. You fought seventy years of brainwashing because you would have killed him otherwise. There is nothing in this world you can’t do for Steve Rogers."

When he blushed slightly, she grinned. "Come on, tell me that I'm wrong."

Mutely, he shook his head, and gingerly wrapped his arms around her. Until now he had looked after Steve, but now he burrowed his face in her hair. Boy this guy really liked her shampoo. Wrapping her arms around him, she just stood there, rubbing his back.

When he let go, he wasn't able to meet her eyes, just mumbled, "Thank you."

"You're welcome," she grinned, linking her arm with his, tugging him south. "Really, any time. How many girls in this city can say that they are allowed to hug gorgeous ninety-year-olds on a regular basis?"

"So you have a thing for older man?"

Her laughter spilled out of her, dispelling the last of the tension that had lingered between them. "I have a thing for you, Gorgeous. Now let's go and update your wardrobe. It's time you move past the hobo-chic."

 

~ * The Asset and James Barnes * ~

He had teased her. Where had that come from? Looking down at the pretty dame by his side, he could not help but revise his opinion of everything that had happened. Her supportive stance. Her absolute faith in him. Of course he had heard every last word she and Steve had exchanged. Though aware that coming to the tower was a risk, he had wanted to pick her up, needed to make sure that she was safe when out in the open. He did not trust Hydra to leave her be, just because she was a civilian. The octopus did not care about casualties.

Noticing Steve, he had hidden in a dark alley facing Stark Tower. A part of him wanted to go there, to hug his best friend and to talk, to cleanse himself of everything he so desperately wanted to forget. Steve would understand, might even be able to absolve him. His friend had always seen the best in 'Bucky' and, judging by what he had said yesterday. that had not changed. Not even knowing that he had killed people for the last few decades made Steve believe 'Bucky' was evil. However, a bigger part of the Asset was afraid of what would happen if he allowed himself to be pulled into Steve's orbit again.

Captain America's life was filled with violence. He was a hero and would continue saving the world whenever a dangerous situation arose. Bucky’s job had been to protect him, but that meant that he would have to pick up a gun again. He didn't want that any more. Fortunately, Darcy seemed to understand; even better than he did. She had kept Steve away from him.

He did not know where her faith came from. He couldn't believe himself this hero she had talked about. Of course he had saved Steve. But he had wrought havoc after getting away from Hydra. He did it every time he came across one of their agents, apparently unable to help himself. He always fought, always took what was not his: weapons, money, lives if bad came to worst. Still, Darcy walked by his side, their arms linked, explaining this building or the other, sharing stories of her work with her best friend Jane, as if she did not have a two-hundred-pound deadly weapon by her side. But then, she was his handler; if he still was a weapon, he was hers, and he knew, deep down in his bones, on the same level that he knew that he would never hurt Steve again, that he would not hurt her either.

 

Shopping had been fun, but he was bone-tired when they returned home. Of course he carried all the boxes, though she had constantly tried to snatch a few. Every time he had skilfully dodged her, and now he spread their purchases over the table in the living room. Throwing him a water bottle when she entered, sipping on her own, she eyed them thoughtfully. “Not bad for one day. I still think light blue would have worked for you, but whatever.”

He had decidedly contradicted her desire to buy a baby-blue shirt, because he thought the colour only fit for an infant. Once out of the shop, he had wondered how he had dared to offer such a strong opinion. Darcy however had merely shrugged it off and approached the next one. They had also bought a new set of plates for her, with little flowers on the edge. The design reminded him of something … someone maybe, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Though he had suffered torture and injury, after a few hours of shopping he felt ready to call it a night.  His whole body was aching. He wondered if not being with Hydra any longer, not receiving regular maintenance meant that he would slowly shut down.

Looking at her smiling at him when she ordered pizza, he decided that it did not matter. Even a few weeks by her side, aching and possibly growing weak, were better than living with Hydra at peak efficiency. And after drinking the water she had offered he even felt slightly better. Maybe he had just been dehydrated.

The evening passed most enjoyably; they watched yet another episode of Dr. Who. He did not mention that he had already seen it after she had drifted off yesterday. He had not paid proper attention anyway. The pizza helped him to feel well-nourished, and when he chose a place on the floor in front of her again, she once more started to toy with his hair. He did not need long to drift off.

 

~ * ~ * ~

 

The next morning, he only opened his eyes when a sleepy Darcy shuffled past him. Shooting up from his bed, he realized that he had overslept. His handler was already awake and he had neither provided breakfast nor had he checked the perimeter. Fighting his way up, he stumbled back when the pain that radiated from his shoulder nearly forced him to his knees. Still, he was no stranger to pain, so he just breathed through it, threw on some new clothes, and tried to decipher the workings of the coffee machine in the kitchen.

When Darcy entered with a soft-looking skirt and a too tight – at least in his opinion – top, he was able to suppress the trembling of his limbs when offering a cup of coffee. She smiled triumphantly after taking the first sip. “You are brilliant. If you are looking for a new career, I am sure Starbucks would love having you around. You would be a babe magnet.”

He seriously doubted that, but the idea of having such a mundane job made him smile nevertheless. He watched attentively when Darcy whipped up some pancakes and served him two helpings before dashing out the door. He had assured her that he would care for the cleaning of the dishes. Only when she was already gone for a few minutes did he realize that he should have probably accompanied her as a precaution against anything that might have approached while he was sleeping on watch. Groaning, he reached for his head, flinching when the motion pulled his shoulder. Everything hurt!

He would just check the perimeter and then take a little nap. Water, he reminded himself, chucking down two glasses. Cold water had made him feel better yesterday. It helped, a little. When he was back from his perimeter check, he huddled into his corner again, pulling the soft blanket over his trembling body. Just a brief nap, then he would feel better.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Another day in the lab, another explosion. Darcy would have wondered how Jane always managed to nuke her equipment, had she not known her girl for over two years now. Putting aside the soldering iron, she rubbed the grease from her fingers and looked at her makeshift non-polarized relay. With a little luck, it would be strong enough to carry the enhanced load Jane forced upon their machines. When she put it in and nothing short circuited, Darcy whooped before calling it a day. It was already close to six anyway. On the plus side, overtime was paid now.

Hugging her friend goodbye, and programming her computer to warn her around nine and every half hour afterwards, before shutting Jane out of the computers around eleven, Darcy picked up her handbag and left the building. The air smelled like snow and the soft breeze carried the scent of the nearby park. Popping in her headphones she made her way to the subway, looking forward to sharing with James how Thor had tried to ‘help’ and had short-circuited their computer on accident. Darcy still didn’t know how he had done that, but she had requested a new laptop nevertheless. The budget for Jane’s new department was insane. Thank you, Tony.

The moment she entered her apartment, she could sense that something was wrong. Beginning with the closet in the hallway she started looking for her soldier, finding him in the middle of the living-room, sweat beading on his forehead. He sat in one of her comfy armchairs, but did not appear to be comfortable at all. His face had a pasty complexion and sweat was beading on his forehead. When she approached him, his eyes were glassy, needing a few moments to focus on her. Once he recognized her, he instantly he fought his way to his feet.

“Ma'am,” he greeted.

Not sure where this was going, she opted for the method most likely working on him when he was lost in his own head: commands. “Sergeant, report!”

Swaying slightly, he rattled off, “After you left I checked the bugs I have planted on the neighbouring buildings. Everything works as expected. No perimeter breach.”

“All right …” she drew out, unsure if she should be relieved or worried that he had set up a perimeter. Her uncle had done something similar, only able to feel safe when he knew his back to be guarded. “How do you feel?”

Obviously he had trouble answering that question. He frowned for a moment, but then straightened again, not even looking at her but fixing a point on the wall beside her head. “I’m in pain but I am able to function at seventy-two percent capacity. My mobility is barely compromised.”

Alarmed, Darcy demanded, “Describe the source of the pain.”

“My arm, Ma'am. I require maintenance.” It seemed to cost him a lot admitting to that. She imagined that ‘maintenance’ with Hydra had been painful. Still, she had neglected to check his hardware. Stupid, she knew it. Yet she had wanted him to perceive himself as more than a weapon and ‘ignoring’ his metal arm had helped until now. Well, their period of grace was over. Now she had to face the music.

“Sit down.”

Dutifully he sank back into the chair, placing his arms on the armrests, all perfect angles. There was no slouching, just a brief tremor when his shoulder made contact with the backrest. Sighing, she started to dig through the last of her boxes, instructing him. “Lose the top.”

As expected, he complied. Darcy had to draw a steeling breath before facing him again. Her tool-box was well equipped, a present from her parents when she had graduated high school. After receiving it, she had been ecstatic and had not left the garage of the base for two days straight. Her parents had kept it in storage when she had left for university, only sent it to her, together with some other stuff, to New York. Now she was grateful to have her beloved tools at hand. She was by far no expert in electric engineering, and her soldier’s arm looked like a very advanced prosthesis. At least she could try to help.

 He became stock-still when she touched his artificial limb, inspecting the surface. A slight quiver ran over his form when she finally found the latch. Looking up, she saw his face was emotionless, but his jaw was clenched so tight, she was afraid that he would lose some teeth. Returning to the task at hand, she stipulated, “Sergeant, recite the rules!”

For several moments he did nothing, just sat there. Though they obviously had a problem, she waited patiently, unwilling to actually start her work if he was not in his right mind. Then he started tentatively, “Rule Number One: I am a person with likes and dislikes. I’m allowed to say 'no'. Rule Number Two: I’m not allowed to kill anybody, except in self-defence. Rule Number Three: Nobody has the right to hurt me or take advantage. Rule Number Four: Darcy is to be obeyed in all things.”

Blinking slowly, he turned his head and finally met her eyes. She could not suppress a shiver when he whispered, as if afraid to be punished. “It hurts, Darcy. It hurts really bad.”

“I’ll try to make it better, alright?”

Only when he slowly nodded, did she start her diagnostics.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

A preliminary check of his arm revealed that Darcy was severely outmatched by this particular piece of hardware. It was brilliantly engineered and she was able to spot one broken connection and a hint of corrosion around some of the wires, but nothing that justified the level of pain her soldier was in. Only when she worked her way up, did she realize the problem. The skin that surrounded the prosthesis was red, swollen and hot to the touch. When she grazed it with the tip of her finger, she could even hear him hiss quietly. Considering his pain tolerance, this quiet noise was like a scream from anybody else.

Still, he didn't move; did not even look at her. His eyes were glazed over as if he tried to distance himself from the pain. Sadly, it didn't seem to be working very well. He had to be in agony, and Darcy had no way of relieving it. When she tried to shift the top plates to get a glimpse at the socket she gagged. The junction between metal and flesh was shielded from the rest of the artificial limb, but as soon as she opened that shielding, puss oozed out. His whole shoulder-joint seemed to be inflamed wherever the metal made contact with this skin. Aware that this problem was far out of her league she reluctantly decided to call in reinfor0cements.

Relieving the pressure around the infection seemed to help a little because he relaxed a fraction. Fetching a cold washcloth, she covered his shoulder with it, grateful that this seemed to bring some relief as well. Then she left for the kitchen.

Chewing her nails, she asked, "Hey, Big Brother, is Bruce Banner currently residing at Stark Tower?" She was well aware that there were always issues with Dr. Banner. He tried to stay away from crowded cities, afraid that he would lose control of his alter ego. Still, she hoped that her father had been able to rope him into returning to New York at some point. There had been rumours that he stayed in the tower once again. But she hadn't seen him and no imminent crisis had demanded an intervention from the Hulk these last few months. But now she really needed his expertise. Considering his past Dr. Banner was the only person, even remotely qualified to deal with someone who had received Dr. Erskine's super-soldier-serum. She nearly sobbed with relief when she read JARVIS' answer on her mobile.

= He is currently engaged in a heated discussion with Sir about necessary safety measures in the workshop. =

"I need them. Both of them. Can you get a message to them?"

= I will try my very best. =

"Thank you," she whispered, desperately trying to think of something to help her soldier. In the end there really was nothing she could do but to relieve the pressure on the inflamed skin and maybe two Aspirin. She didn't dare to offer a more potent drug, since she didn't know how he would react to it. When she returned to the living room with two pills and a bottle of water, he still sat in the chair, not moving an inch. He seemed to hold himself up with pure determination, though she could see a faint trembling already running over him every few moments. If possible his face had gone even paler since she had left. Still, when she entered he straightened and looked at her expectantly. Offering she pills and the water she prompted him, "Take these."

The pain that distorted his features made it clear that she should have opened the bottle for him. Yet he did not say anything but simply did as he was told. Returning to his side, fetching a chair for herself she decided that the best she could do was to clean the wound. With wet towels and cold water, she went to work. Not twenty minutes later her doorbell rang.

 

Flouncing into her hallway, Tony put down his luggage armour. “Alright, devil's-spawn, what seems to be the problem?”

Stepping back to guard the door to her living-room, Darcy took a deep breath. “First of all, thank you for being here so fast, second, you have to promise, that whatever you see here stays in here.”

While Dr. Banner appeared confused by that demand, Tony became downright concerned. Approaching her, he searched her face. “What is going on? Are you in trouble? Are you hurt?” His eyes flittered over her body to discover any injuries, and though she didn’t have a scratch on her, he remained tense.

“No, I’m fine, don’t worry.” She brushed off his apprehension. “But you have to promise, please.”

“Miss Lewis,” the doctor interrupted, “if this is a potentially dangerous situation, I doubt that you want me here.”

“Yes, I do, I need you because …” Looking at Tony again, she begged once more. “Please, promise!”

Gently pushing her aside, the engineer reached for the door, apparently unwilling to entertain her any longer. Reaching for his shoulder, Darcy fell back on a desperate measure. Reaching for his shoulder, holding him back she whispered, “Father, please, promise me.”

Freezing mid-motion, turning towards her, Tony moved his shoulder out of her reach. Darcy wanted to keen when she noticed his face shutting down, until only an emotionless mask remained.

Both ignored Bruce’s questioning look.

“No,” Anthony, Edward Stark decided. “The whole world has screwed me, Obadiah, even my father, but not you. I did exactly as you and your mother wanted. I supported you whenever I could and stayed out of your life otherwise. You are NOT using our relationship against me now!”

Never before had she seen him so hurt and it tore at her heart that this had been her doing. Tears welled up in her eyes and she reached towards him in an aborted gesture. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry, but you have to listen! I don’t know what to do any more. I’m in over my head and I need you. Please, Tony, there is nobody else who can help me.”

With a sigh, he relaxed and pulled Darcy close, hugging his daughter to his chest. “Alright, devil's-spawn, I promise. And now show me what you've got so I can make it better.”

When Darcy opened the door, Bruce turned towards him and repeated, “Doesn’t that make you the devil?”

“What happens in this apartment, stays in this apartment,” Tony snarked, looking at his best friend. Only when Banner nodded, did they enter the living room. To call upon his armour was instinct, as was stepping in front of Bruce when they both came face to face with the Winter Soldier, who was just pulling a gun on them.

 

~ * The Asset * ~

Opponents: Iron Man, Hulk

Threat level: deadly

Required action: protect handler

He did not know where he got the strength to raise from his chair and pull Darcy behind himself. No other action was possible. She had to be protected at all cost. Regrettably, his handler seemed to have a different opinion on that matter because she stepped around him and stated, “We’ve already had the discussion about guns in my home.”

He was helpless but to hand over his weapon. Iron Man was readying his repulsors and he was not strong enough to trade places with Darcy again, afraid he would topple over if he moved. His entire body was burning like fire, and his limbs felt like they were filled with led. He heard her talking to the scientist … the carrier of the Hulk, watched her dismantle his weapon with a speed that should have been impressive, but right now just meant that she was taking away the last of his defences. Maybe this was it then. She had finally gotten tired of the responsibility, had called upon Iron Man and Hulk to dispose him. Still, he couldn’t regret it. The last four days had been the best of his life. At least as far as he could remember.

So no matter the pain, he reached out to her and interrupted whatever she was discussing with the heroes she had invited into her home. When she turned around, her eyes were so full of concern, and he loved her all the more for that. It was good that the person making the last decision for him cared so deeply. Brushing away a strand of her silky, brown hair with his human hand, he whispered, “Thank you,” before losing consciousness.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

“Shiiit!”

This was not how she had imagined her evening going. Lucky her, Dr. Banner was by her side in an instant, relieving her of the weight of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound super soldier. Having finally stepped out of his armour again, Tony was by her side in a heartbeat.

“He’s got a fever,” the doctor remarked when they lowered her unconscious soldier to her couch.

“His shoulder-joint is infected,” she shared, careful not to jostle James more than necessary. “And I can’t find what is causing the infection. I thought that maybe some dirt had gotten stuck between the plates, slowly making its way through his artificial limb, but I’m not equipped to deal with this kind of tech.”

“Neither am I,” Tony stated absent-mindedly, inspecting the arm where she had peeled off the panels before. “At least not here. JARVIS, can you give me a preliminary reading.” After a moment, he looked up, “JARVIS?”

Switching on her stereo, Darcy ordered, “Talk, Big Brother.”

“I’m afraid the scanners that are available at Darcy’s flat are not sufficient for an adequate scan of Sergeant Barnes’s limb.”

When Tony raised her eyes at her, she grumbled, “I’m cool with Big Brother watching me. I’m not cool with him quipping up at importune moments. He communicates via text-message.”

“Darcy?” he asked, but she only shrugged, “Mrs. Lewis is my mother, and I refuse to let him call me ‘devil's-spawn’.”

“We have to get him to the lab.” Bruce decided.

“No!”

Looking at the, apparently two Starks, the doctor rose from the coffee table where he had sat down to run a preliminary exam. “His shoulder-joint is so infected, were he mere human I would fear for the limb. He's running a fever of nearly forty degrees Celsius and he’s unresponsive to stimuli. If you want him to survive this, Miss Lewis, you will have to get him to the lab and allow Tony to remove the arm. We don’t know what’s in there, tech-wise, but I do know that his body is rejecting it.”

Fighting down new tears, she was torn on how to decide on her soldier’s behalf. He had never wanted to see the inside of a lab again, having made that clear in abandon the first time they met. He had done everything in his power to get away from Hydra and Shield and all the people that had tried to use and ultimately hurt him. But now there really was no other way. The tower was at the heart of everything that had been Hydra and Shield. Yet it was the only place where he had a chance of survival. Brushing over her face, Darcy straightened and instructed hoarsely, “JARVIS, tell Steve Rogers to meet us at the carport of the tower.”

She hastily threw things into her favourite traveling bag, hers and his of course. Tony put on his armour again, before carefully lifting James off the sofa. Following them out of the flat, Bruce wanted to know, “Why did you call for Steve?”

“Because he’s the only other super-soldier we know. You might need his blood if you have to operate.”

“The serum can’t be transmitted via blood-infusion.” The doctor reminded her, adding coldly after a second, “They have tried with me, many times.”

Locking the door behind them, taking care that Tony would not accidentally bump James’ head when spreading him out on the leather backseat of his newest car, he might regret choosing white leather, Darcy reminded Bruce, “When both are super-soldiers, maybe it will work.”

Claiming the passenger seat, while Darcy carefully pulled James’ close, Dr. Banner stated, “I don’t know either of their blood-types.”

Looking at her unconscious soldier, she admitted hoarsely, “I had to tell him. Bucky’s his best friend. Blood is as good of an excuse as any.”

“I see.”

Sliding into the driver’s seat, Tony instructed, “Buckle up, everybody. This is going to be a fast ride.”

 

Steve Rogers was waiting for them in the garage. Seeing his best friend in the back of the car, all pasty and sweating, he instantly stepped closer and tried to reach for him. Noticing Darcy's arms around him made him abort his motion. Only at her encouraging nod, did he lift Bucky out of the car and carried him to the elevator. She hesitated to follow, but after Tony’s impatient prompting, did she enter the lift.

On their way up, doubts about what had happened overwhelmed her. What the hell had she thought she was doing? Seeing the love and the fear in the Captain’s eyes, when he looked at his unconscious friend, she called herself a fool. This man had broken the vow he had sworn to uphold above all else, just to find his captured friend during the war. He had nosedived his plane into the arctic on a suicide mission, after losing him. He had taken a beating that would have killed him, had James not come to his senses in time. Steve Rogers would move heaven and earth for James Barnes and she had kept them from each other. What an idiot had she been?

She stayed out of the way while Bruce cleared one of the stretchers and they heaved the soldier on it. It had been unwise to assume that Bucky had been buried as deeply in James' mind as the Winter Soldier, despite what her new friend had told her. No, not her friend … the Captain’s friend … at least judging from the way he was unconsciously leaning into Steve’s hands that kept him safe. Bruce and Tony adjusted the surface he was lain out upon and fixated his trembling body.

When the first strap over his torso closed, he stared to fight for consciousness. Obviously he was no fan of being bound.

“Is this really necessary?” Darcy requested uncertainly, taking half a step towards them, but Tony confirmed, “If he’s moving while I separate his arm, I might involuntarily damage his shoulder.”

And Bruce added, “since his metabolism is through the roof, I doubt that sedatives work on him. I’m afraid the best we can hope for is either binding him; or him staying unconscious while I remove the necrotic tissue.”

“Are you sure that operating on him without sedatives is a good idea, Dr. Banner?” Steve still had his friend’s best interest at heart. Darcy didn’t even want to think about the pain, cutting him open without anaesthesia, would cause.

“When were you successfully sedated the last time, Steve?” Bruce looked up, only to concentrate on fixing James’ head the next moment.

All of a sudden a hoarse voice rasped out in Russian, “Нет, пожалуйста, правило номер один!”

“What? What is he saying?” Darcy asked anxiously. Though still in obvious pain, James tried to wake. The impulse to approach and to sooth was overwhelming, but he already had three people fussing over him. He was in good hands now, at the place where he could get the best help imaginable. She was not needed any longer.

All of a sudden Clint spoke up next to her, with Natasha on his heels. Until now Darcy had only heard stories of the redhead and though she was not much taller than Darcy, Natasha had an aura around her, that made her appear larger than life. Luckily, Clint was able to translate, though he did so with a frown, “He says ‘No, please, rule number one!’. What’s rule number one?”

Tears welling up in her eyes, Darcy sobbed, “He’s a person, he can have likes and dislikes. He’s allowed to say ‘no’.”

Incredulously, Tony looked up from sorting through his tools. “You made a ‘you are a person’-rule for your pet-assassin?”

“He was talking about himself like he was a thing!” Darcy spat out. “Like he was something to be used, existing only for the purpose of doing as he was told. That was not even slavery, that was inhuman!” Unable to stay away any longer, she shouldered her way to the bed while he continued babbling.

“Не принимайте Дарси. Не принимайте Стива. Я буду в порядке. Я буду следовать ваши заказы. Пожалуйста, не принимайте мои воспоминания прочь снова!”

When Darcy looked at Hawkeye, his face turned emotionless. Judging from his stance, she believed him to be ready to tear into someone. He held himself not unlike Steve, who still hovered but clearly did not know what to do either. Clint's voice, however, was without infliction when he translated, “Don't take Darcy. Don't take Steve. I will be good. I will follow your orders. Please, don't take my memories away again!”

“Oh my god.” Darcy flinched, immediately reaching for the headband that held him down. When the doctor tried to stop her she hissed at him, “No! He believes he is going to be wiped. There has to be another way!”

“Пожалуйста. Пожалуйста, не нужно.” James whispered desperately. When Darcy looked around for support, Tony suggested, “We could strap his chest, two or three times, but leave his head free. Would that work?”

Sniffing as quiet as possible, Darcy nodded and helped with the bindings. When her soldier whimpered, she caressed his head. “I’m sorry. But there is no other way. You have to be immobilized or they will hurt you even more. Rule Number Four, remember?”

For a heartbeat, he forced his eyes open and looked at her. There was a strange calm to his gaze and the hint of a smile tugged at his lips when he whispered, “I trust you,” before losing consciousness again.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

Not wanting to be in the way, Steve and Darcy stepped back to allow Tony to remove the arm and Bruce to prepare the operation. Clint and Natasha once again bracketed her, but Darcy honestly didn’t care. This was all her fault. She should have brought him here sooner. Surely her biological father or Steve or even Dr. Banner would have noticed something being wrong with him before he collapsed.

She was pulled out of her head, when Natasha asked, “What is rule number four?”

“Darcy has to be obeyed in all things.” When both Steve and Clint looked at her disbelieving, she shrugged. “It’s the only rule he submitted himself.”

“What are the others?” The Captain wanted to know.

“One: He’s a person with likes and dislikes, allowed to say 'no'. Two: He’s not allowed to kill anybody, except in self-defence. He seemed particularly comforted when I decided on this one. Rule Number Three: Nobody has the right to hurt him or take advantage of him. Four: He obeys me.” Closing her eyes, she shook her head. “I screwed up so badly.”

All of a sudden she could feel Steve's warm hand comforting her. “No, Miss Lewis.”

“Darcy.”

With a soft smile, Steve corrected himself. “No, Darcy, you might have made mistakes, we all do, that's human nature. But you always had his best interest at heart. And you knew better what he needed than I did, although we grew up together. Hydra did horrible things to him and all of their procedures were there to subdue him. Bucky was never particularly eager to listen to rules, not even during the war. But your new rules were meant to help him and I am sure he knew that.”

“But he is suffering,” she disputed quietly.

“That’s on Hydra, taser-girl, not on you,” Clint stated, not leaving the Winter Soldier out of his eyes, very much like his female counterpart.

“I should have seen this sooner; I should have …” She flinched when Tony cursed DUM-E, making the robot roll away dejectedly.

“This is high precision work! There is a person on the other end, not one of my armours!” he spat out, clearly frustrated by his inability to discover the inner workings of the arm that caused all these problems. Turning around, he pointed at her. “Spawn, come here and earn your keep!”

Ignoring the confused looks the Avengers threw her, Darcy approached the table, shaking her head. “This is too advanced for me. I don’t know what to do.”

“Me neither,” Tony grumbled. “But we have to get this thing off of him or it will kill him. So let’s find a way.”

James dying was not even an option, so Darcy took off her vest and scarf and beany, bound back her hair and approached the table. “We have to see what’s inside.”

“We can’t,” her father shared, “the casing can’t be removed, only partially opened, and it blocks JARVIS’ scans.”

The AI piped up the next moment with a message, “Mr. Lewis is contacting you, Darcy. I’m patching him through.”

Before anybody could say anything Andrew Lewis was on speaker. “Hey, baby-girl,” but before he could continue, Darcy interrupted him. “Now is not a good time, Dad.”

After a heartbeat Andrew asked in a cautious tone, “What about the jeep we talked about? The one you promised to repair.”

For whatever reason, Darcy smiled at that question. “I’ll take care of it next weekend. Promise. Don’t worry, Dad, everything is alright. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Alright, love you, Darcy.”

“Love you too, Dad. Give Mum a kiss from me.”

Everybody seemed confused at this strange conversation, but Darcy didn’t pay attention. Snapping her fingers, she all of a sudden demanded, “Get me a camera.”

“Excuse me?” Tony stared at her as if she had lost her mind. "Are you sure that this is the right time to expand the family album?"

“Get me a camera,” Darcy insisted, “one with a flexible cable. If we can’t look at his arm from the outside, we have to take a peek from the inside. It’s mostly hollow. If we can find a thin enough cable, we can worm our way through.”

 

The next hour proved that Darcy and Tony definitely shared DNA. Whenever she got stuck, he helped out and vice-versa. With JARVIS' help they were able to create a model of the arm’s inner workings and once they had puzzled that out, they made short work of the hardware. Merely thirty minutes after the virtual 3D model had been completed, the arm detached with a hiss and the whole extent of the damage to James’ body became visible. Bruce started preparing James to be carted away to the tower’s very own operation room. Sadly, the Avengers got hurt so often that it was more than justified to have one, as well as an excellent surgeon, at hand.

Tony and Darcy were just inspecting the arm when something shifted and clicked. The engineer had barely enough time to throw the appendage to the other side of the lab, shouting for a containment field, before the thing blew to pieces. Instinctively, Darcy shielded her soldier with her body, covering his fragile shoulder and head. Though the containment field was pulled up, it was not strong enough to contain the entire force of the blast. Pieces of Bucky's arm flew everywhere, digging into work−benches, toppling paperwork Tony had piled way too high, nearly hitting the Avengers. Since the superheroes were used to having stuff explode around them, they found cover just in time. Once the debris had settled, Darcy straightened with a hiss. “I think something got stuck in my top, could you remove that, it pricks?”

Strong hands bowed her over while Bruce carted away his patient. Though the doctor looked at little green around the edges, he held on to his infamous self-control to get his patient to safety. At the same time Steve Rogers informed her. “That’s not your top, Darcy. Please, don’t move.”

Reaching for a pair of pliers, Tony carefully extracted the piece of metal from her body while Clint offered a compress to Steve, who covered the small wound on her back. Holding it out to her, Tony demanded angrily, “The next time something like this happens, you hide BEHIND the super-soldier with the amazing healing powers. Are we clear?”

Eyes glued to the inch-long fragment that had nicked her back, Darcy was overwhelmed by the amount of blood that coated the tip. It made it look soft like a cotton-swab, all shiny and red. “That was in my body?”

“Yep,” Clint replied cheerfully. “But it didn’t go in very deep, mostly it just cut through your epidermis. No major injury.” After having taken a closer look.

“Have I ever told you that I don’t like seeing my own blood?” Darcy replied woozily, and fainted.

 

~ * The Asset * ~

When he woke he felt lighter than he had in years. Taking stock of his surroundings, he noticed that he was in some kind of hospital room, but it was much nicer than the average hospital and a hundred times more comfortable than anything Hydra had ever offered after he had gotten injured on an assignment. When he tried to sit up he realized that his centre of gravity had shifted. Looking down he noticed his arm to be missing. Instead of the metal appendix was a huge, white wrapping covering his shoulder and the right part of his torso. Touching it gingerly, he noticed that while sensitive to touch, it did by far not hurt as much as before. A permanent pull he had felt for … forever, had eased, allowing him to breath without a weight on his ribs for the first time since 1941.

Touching the covering, trying to decipher how he felt about losing his metal arm, he did not realize that he wasn’t alone until someone stepped up to his bed.

“It’s all right,” Darcy promised in a soft voice. She wore different clothes than he remembered. Had he really been out for more than a few hours? He felt well rested so … probably? “Tony is working on a new arm for you. We did a deep scan of yours so he has your specs, but he will need time. Especially since he never does anything in halves. It will be better than the one you had.”

“No,” he choked, imagining being weighed down again by a weapon he was unable to put away. “Please. I will manage, I swear.” His breath came in uneven gasps until Darcy brushed over his face tenderly. She looked so concerned, as if he was losing it, but he knew what he wanted; and for the first time he was not too afraid to ask for it. “You said that I am allowed to say ‘no’. I don’t want another weapon attached to my body. I can be useful to you with one arm. I … please …” Still dazed with everything that had happened, he had his mind scrambled through thoughts of how to best plead his case. All he knew was that he wanted to be able to draw deep breathes without fighting the heavy weight of metal. He wanted to walk the streets and though he was aware that people would look at him funny for only having one arm, nobody would gaze at him with fear because a horrid purpose was written all over his artificial limb.

He did not want to live like that any longer. He hoped with every fibre of his being that Darcy was willing to accept a cripple. Shopping would be more difficult, but he was sure after some minor adjustments, he would be able to still buy her breakfast. Hydra might be a problem, but he was deadly with a firearm and he was as good a shooter with his right hand as he had been with his left. He just had to make her believe him.

Gently she carded his tousled strands out of his face and whispered, “Your arm was more than a weapon. You rescued my TV with it. You helped me furnish my apartment. Don’t you want to be able to do things with two hands?”

Closing his eyes, he admitted, “Yes, but it is not worth the weight it carries.”

“The centre−plate, which served as a connection between the limb and your muscles and nerves, was made of vibranium, like Steve’s shield. The casing around it was some metal alloy that contained Nickle, something you are allergic to. Tony is currently trying to gather enough vibranium to create a new casing. That way the new limb should also be much more responsive than the one you had.”

Sliding onto the bed by his side − he shifted instantly to accommodate her − she took a Stark-pad from the nightstand and called up some schematics. “This one will be nothing like your old arm, except that it will be, you know, artificial. It will be extremely light-weight, no heavier than your flesh one, so it won’t put any strain on your backbone. The casing touching your body will be made of vibranium, as mentioned, ensuring that your body won’t react to it like it did to your last one.”

Looking at him calculating where he sat against the headboard by her side, Darcy sighed. “They must have pumped you full of antibiotics all the time. It’s a wonder you’re not immune to every strain in existence. But Dr. Banner and Tony are working together to ensure that this will be the best prosthesis known to men. It will be another arm, nothing more, nothing less. But of course it will be your decision if you want to use it or not. If I ask Tony, I’m sure he could even make it detachable.”

“Do you want me to use it?” Of course everything Darcy had just told him sounded marvellous, but after everything he had been through, it seemed too good to be true. Hydra had never equipped him with such an advanced limb, one that would have put less strain on his body. Less strain meant more efficiency for the asset. Maybe they hadn’t thought him worth it. Thinking back, he wasn’t sure how Darcy could believe him worth it. In the end the decision was hers. He was her Asset, whatever she wanted him to do, he would comply. Regrettably, she shook her head.

“That’s not a decision I can make for you. I want you to be healthy and whole, but I can understand if you want your body to be only yours, with nothing extra. If you wish for it, I am sure that Dr. Banner could even remove the plating. Though your bones had connected to it already, there has to be a way to get rid of it. I’m sure our doc could find it.”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “this is hard. How can you be sure that I won’t hurt anybody with my new limb?”

“You didn’t hurt me with your old one, either.”

“But many others.”

When Darcy obviously had to think about that particular piece of information, he grew more and more anxious with every minute that passed in silence. Maybe she hadn’t realized the havoc he had wrought? Maybe she questioned her offer. Well, if she did, he would not hold it against her. He was dangerous, better to handicap him as much as possible. Nobody deserved to live with someone who could kill you with but a squeeze of his fingers. He could do that as well with his ‘human’ arm, but it would be much harder, giving her the chance to struggle and maybe even get away. He could still fire a gun, his mind supplied. Tools, which were strewn around her apartment, could be easily use to kill her. He was by no means harmless, even with one limb. Closing his eyes, he turned away. Maybe it would be better if they took his other arm as well. No matter if he had both arms or not, he would always be a killer.

“It’s over now.” She comforted him quietly, but he shook his head, not looking at her.

“All they trained me for, all they had me do, was kill people. I’m a monster! The things I have done will never go away.”

Forcing him to look at her, she gently kissed his forehead and whispered, “You are not a monster. The people holding you captive were. It was not your fault!”

Closing his eyes against the pain that filled his chest, he choked, “How can you be so sure?”

“Because of what they did to you.”

When he looked at her confused, trying to commit her kiss to memory, he admitted, “What you mean?”

“They sedated you, wiped you, froze you and punished you whenever you were ‘awake’,” she started, putting a warm hand on his thigh to console him. Not only did her touch calm his frantic thoughts, his body also warmed to her, making him instinctively lean into her. Yet his mind was still in a disarray, forcing him to listen attentively. “They kept you on such a tight leash, because they knew that deep down you would fight them if they allowed you even an ounce of freedom. Look at what you have done the moment your conditioning broke: instead of killing your target you saved his life. You are a good person and you deserve good things in your life, least of all having two arms.”

He wanted to believe her so very much. He recalled the pain and the cold and the agony that had spread through him whenever he had killed. They had trained resistance out of him from the beginning, so he had never allowed himself to think about right and wrong. Instead he had done everything in his power to ensure success. Now Darcy made it sound as if none of it had been his fault. As if he had been but a pawn in a game bigger than himself. He wanted to believe her so very much, believe that what had happened to him was not right and that he hadn’t deserved it. But he couldn’t, absolution still remained out of reach. He recalled the countless triggers he had pulled, the numerous people he had killed with a blade and it tore him apart. How could she ever believe him worth saving?

He was a monster and everything he touched and everybody he came in contact with got hurt in the end. Hydra would never give up, always try to reach him until they were burned to the ground. Bucky paused, seizing that thought to examine it.  To exterminate Hydra he needed both arms, needed to be at his best. Only then would he be able to be free of them. On the other hand – was that a pun? – maybe he only needed Darcy to get better, for her to nurse him back to health so that he could finish what Steve had started on the helicarriers. He did not want to hurt people any longer and the thought of not seeing Darcy every single day of his life, hurt in a way he had not experienced in a long time. But destroying Hydra might be his only chance to ever have peace. Why couldn’t she decide for him?

Taking a deep breath, he stated, “I want to try whatever arm Tony can come up with.”

“All right.” She smiled.

Obviously this had been the right answer. At least he had been able to make her happy. Feeling his eyes droop, he slid down the bed again. When she tried to rise to return to the table in the corner − obviously she had established some kind of temporary office there − he allowed himself to give in to an impulse. “Could you please …”

Smiling at him, she relaxed against the headboard and allowed him to use her thigh as a cushion. Wrapping his arm around her leg, he pulled himself as close as possible. Caressing his hair with one hand, tapping her pad with the other, he fell asleep to her humming and commenting on what she was reading under her breath. He had never felt so safe.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

She inspected the plans for her soldier’s new hand. Tilting her head, she expanded the palm. “There is an energy source in the hand.”

Rolling his eyes, Tony tapped the reactor on the blueprint. “Of course there is an energy source. He wants to be able to move it. With additional energy to work the electrics that will be much easier. It will be like a limb of Iron Man, a natural extension from the body but with less … me.”

Working through the virtual model until she was relatively sure that her father had not added any ‘unexpected functions’ they had not agreed upon, she asked after a while, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I’m the best there is, and since he lost this piece of trash he came with, he should be introduced to the awesomeness that is my engineering!” Tony blustered, keying in the specifications necessary to fabricate the arm. Once he was finished and JARVIS had his instructions, he finally turned towards Darcy. She had not left his side, nor did she seem ready to drop the subject.

“You know what I mean, Tony. I’m grateful, and James will be as well, and I am sure Steve is too, but why are you doing this? You read the same files I did; you know what he did.”

Sighing, dragging his fingers through his hair, the engineer shrugged. “I know he killed them, but … it was not really him. You were right when you told him that everything he had done is on Hydra. James Barnes tried to be a hero for his friend. I doubt that he woke one-day thinking, ‘Oh, today is a good day to kill Howard and Maria.’ Dad … Howard was his friend, helped safe him the first time.”

Darcy could see her father forcing himself. He tried to appear flippant and relaxed, but by now she knew him better. Stepping close she wrapped her arms around his middle. After a moment, she felt him hugging her back. They stood like that for several minutes, drawing comfort from an embrace they had discovered as desirable only recently. “I’m sorry, Tony. I’m sorry that I brought this to your doorstep. I’m sorry that he was the one to pull the trigger. I’m sorry that Hydra killed your parents.”

Pulling her so tight that it was painful for a moment, Tony replied hoarsely, “It’s not your fault, kid. Iron Man is there to make things right. What Hydra had done to me and to him is just one more point on their tab. We will settle this, one way or the other, until every last one of these bastards is under the earth. For my parents, for James and for every other person Hydra had ever hurt.”

“Tony?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

Caressing her hair, he whispered, “You’re welcome.”

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * The Asset and James Barnes * ~

"It's gold."

Darcy rolled her eyes. "Tony prefers his toys to be noticed."

"I resent that," the engineer piped up from where he was calibrating the metal arm. "The alloy is gold. Stop criticising my sense of style and move your butt."

James froze when he noticed the chair Howard's son gestured at. It looked nothing like the huge contraption Hydra had used to wipe him. Yet he still felt a strong aversion against putting himself at the mercy of someone he barely knew. Of course Darcy had told him that Tony had been the one to remove his aching limb. Therefore, the engineer was supposed to be trustworthy. Also, Darcy clearly expected him to show himself compliant because she mirrored Tony's expression, nodding encouragingly towards the chair. Still … he had killed this man's parents. If Tony ever found out, the soldier imagined the retribution to be excruciating.

His breath stopped for a moment, when Darcy shouldered past him and sat down on the chair folding her legs under herself, looking at Tony mischievously. "Not very comfy."

"Excuse me, princess. The next time I will cushion it for you. Now scoot. I have better things to do than to equip your pet-assassin!"

He froze at those words. Why did the engineer have to be so crass? As if Darcy needed more reminders about what kind of person he was. Still, she seemed unfazed when she slid down and leaned over the backrest. "Come on, it will be over before you know it. Tony's good like that."

It was an order, he convinced himself to get his body moving. An order that was easy to follow. Obedience was rewarded, it made his handler happy. Swallowing through his constricting throat, he sat down and leaned back. Immediately he felt her fingers brushing through his hair. Nobody had ever done this to him while in the chair. It felt good to be reminded that he was not with Hydra any longer. That the main incentive of those around him was not to cause pain. He relaxed gradually and only when he was able to take a deep breath, did Darcy prompt the engineer, "Come on, let's get this show on the road."

Tony was carrying over the new arm when JARVIS piped up, "Darcy, I think your presence in Dr. Foster's laboratory would be prudent."

Sighing, she asked, "What did she blow up this time?"

"The particle accelerator."

Patting his shoulder, Darcy sighed, "You two are good here, aren't you? I'm afraid unsupervised Jane is a more destructive force than Loki."

"Then hurry. I have this tower finally repaired and don't want to start from scratch," Tony replied, concentrating on scanning the socket where the new arm would be attached.

With a dash Darcy was out of the door, leaving James to look after her longingly. With her comforting presence gone, he had to make a conscious effort not to tense up again. Still, the way Tony babbled to himself, assuring both him and himself that everything would fit perfectly was soothing. With a click and a hiss, the new arm attached and James felt pain racing through his body, lighting every last one of his nerve−endings on fire. Arching off the chair he clenched his teeth not to scream.

As fast as it had begun the agony disappeared. Breathing hard James looked at the engineer, fearful of when the next wave of pain would hit him.

Yet Tony's gazed was unexpectedly apologetic. "I'm sorry. Your central nervous system gets overloaded whenever you attach the arm because it comes with its own power-source. I thought it best not to mention it, since you were vibrating out of your skin already. It's only for a second but I'm afraid it's unavoidable."

Clenching his teeth, taking deep breathes, he reminded himself that lashing out would be frowned upon by Darcy. He forced out, "It's bearable."

Reaching for one of his tools, Tony wanted to know, "Are you still in pain?"

Assessing his physical state, James shook his head surprised. "No."

 This had never happened before. The arm had always hurt, the weight alone putting a permanent strain on his body. He had learned to live with it, work around it, even ignore it but now … nothing. Surprised he rose and clenched his fist, twisted the arm and moved it around. "It doesn't hurt at all."

It was as if the moments of agony were the only negative feedback his body would have to suffer. Amazed he looked at the shiny golden appendix. At least until Tony demanded, "fetch," throwing a wretch at him.

Turning his head, his new arm shot out and grabbed the tool. Then he inspected it, caressing it with the tip of his fingers, throwing it into the air to catch it again. It felt … he felt … everything! The hardness of the metal, the temperature of its surface, the sharp edges. The sensory input was similar to his human hand. Not the same but closer than he could have ever imagined. He whipped around when a sharp voice snapped.

"That's child's play."

Then a knife flew towards his face.

He caught it without thinking, the blade scratching over the palm of his new hand, and though the sensation registered as uncomfortable, he was far from the level of pain it would have caused his human hand. Black Widow was upon him the next second, attacking him with a knife similar to the one he had caught.

"Nat, what the hell!" Tony shouted, though they were already locked in combat. "Couldn't you at least take this elsewhere?"

With a maniac grin, the redhead opened a door at the side and kicked him through. Her other boot aiming for his head made him loose track of his surroundings. The Asset pushed to the surface, taking over to best this opponent.

"NO!"

A shout brought him back to himself. It took him a second to notice that he had been the one shouting, and that he now had his gun pressed to Natalia's temple. In his peripheral vision he saw the slender, brown-haired scientist he recognized from photos in Darcy's flat. 'Jane Foster' his mind supplied. His new arm kept Darcy behind his back, not allowing her to step around him this time. Slowly her warmth was seeping into the metal, traveling up the new arm until he felt his whole body tingling. Her impatient question helped him to fight down the Winter Soldier's programming that had taken over in the face of threat like the Black Widow. "Care to explain what is going on?"

"The handler has to be protected at all cost!" he replied in a flat voice. Nothing else mattered, his mind revolved around this simple truth. He did not dare to take his eyes off his opponent.

Slowly Natalia straightened from her crouch and pulled back. He did not lower his gun. He knew better than to trust her; he had trained her after all. A sharp pain accompanied the new memory, but he didn't let his guard down. Darcy's voice at his back pulled him away from the past. "We talked about guns, didn't we?"

"We are not at home," he defended his actions, refusing to felt bad for carrying a loaded weapon around her.

"While that's true, I feel like sharp weapons or firearms are not needed here. Jane's lab is plenty dangerous on its own. Still, could you please explain to me why you are aiming at Natasha?"

He couldn't.

Natasha on the other hand smiled, while hopping onto one of their cabinets. "I attacked him. I wanted to test the new arm."

"And you think it’s a good idea to drag your fight here because …?"

With a shrug, Nat looked around. "He gravitates towards you. It was not my choice to come down here. I just followed him."

A soft hand touched his neck, and Darcy asked, "Do you feel safe enough to put away your weapon, Sergeant?"

Re-evaluating the situation, he nodded, complying with what was not exactly an order but a heavy implication. Slowly he turned around, uncomfortable to present the Black Widow with his unprotected back. Still, checking Darcy had priority over his own safety. "Are you unharmed?"

"Sure, what about you?"

Looking down at himself, taking stock of his body, he nodded. "I'm functional."

"And the arm is too," Natasha decided, hopping down the cupboard. "It's good to see you again, without you shooting me." She winked and then strolled out of the lab like a content cat.

"Could anybody explain what just happened?" Dr. Foster snapped, glaring at him.

"The Black Widow wanted to test the functions of his arm. Though why is beyond me," Darcy supplied.

His mind, offered a possible reason. "I trained her before. We had assignments together. I protected her in the past."

"She just said you shot her!"

"To terminate a target," he replied coldly. "I hit her side, no vital organs were harmed. The mission was a success. Black Widow survived."

"All right …" Jane drew out.

Having no experience with social interaction that did not involve killing or torturing people, James was at a loss as to what to do now that he lacked direction or a threat to overcome. He lingered, because he resented the idea of leaving his handler unprotected in a building that was filled with super-humans. He calmed when Darcy instructed, "You can help me. Jane nearly fried her particle accelerator and I have to repair it."

"I didn't fry it!"

"I said 'nearly'. Now be a good girl and go back to your equations, while I care for your hardware. James will help me."

"Of course," he responded immediately, locating her tool-box, offering a screwdriver to demonstrate his compliance.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Darcy didn't want to think about the cold look in James' eyes after his fight with the Black Widow. In dangerous situations, his programming seemed to take over. The question was, how sure could she be that it wouldn't when he had a nightmare or felt otherwise threatened, even without mortal danger?

Obviously he was able to sense her concern since he remained on his knees by her side, pliant and more unobtrusive than a man of his size had any right to be. He wordlessly offered one tool after another. She had needed to explain them to him only once; now he handed over exactly what she needed after but one call. Did he always remember everything he had been told? It was probably a trained skill, since Darcy doubted that Hydra had repeated themselves with their commands. After making sure their accelerator would not go boom, Darcy crawled out from under the machine and closed the casing before firing the equipment up again. James was collecting her tools, brushing down each one with a soft cloth, sorting them into the tool-box neatly.

"Jane, we're ready to go again!"

Before her boss could decide to start her test, Steve Rogers bound through the door. He seemed anxious when he approached her. "Bucky … he's gone! Tony said that Nat attacked him and now not even JARVIS can locate him!"

Looking towards the ceiling, Darcy smiled. "Thank you, Big Brother."

"You are welcome, Darcy."

"I don't …"

Captain America seemed confused, at least until Darcy stepped aside, revealing the back of his best friend, who was still kneeling on the floor, frozen in his current task. Neither of the two men said a word. She waited for a few moments, gently touching Bucky's shoulder before asking softly, "Do you want him to leave?"

Darcy could see the faint tremor running over her soldier … Steve's soldier … but he did not reply.

After another heartbeat, the Captain made the decision for his friend, clearly intending not to agitate him. "I think I'll just go, I … I just wanted to be sure that he was alright. Natasha is … something."

His retreat finally set James in motion. His voice was barely a whisper when he begged, "Steve, don't …" before slowly rising from the floor, turning around so the two stood finally eye to eye.

For another minute neither said a word and Darcy retreated towards Jane, who watched the two men suspiciously. She was probably concerned for her equipment. Well, those soldiers didn’t have the best track record when it came to leaving things around them intact.

But then, Steve took a shaky breath and choked out, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry, Bucky. I had no idea. Had I known, I would have found you. I should have found you … Please, forgive me!"

And all of the sudden they smashed together, arms around each other, holding so tight that a normal human's spine would have broken under the strain. James held on to Steve's head where it was burrowed between his neck and shoulder, assuring his best friend, "Not your fault, punk. Everything's okay now."

Right at that moment Darcy got the first glimpse of who James 'Buchanan' Barnes had been before the war … before Hydra had torn him down. Captain America was this nation's hero, but Bucky had been Steve's. He had been the strong, determined guy who had protected his best friend when he had tried to take on the world a hundred pounds wet. He had been loyal and caring and underneath it all he still was. Steve was his everything, now that he allowed himself to have that again.

Nudging Jane towards the door, leaving the guys to it, Darcy stirred them towards the community floor because she felt like baking. She had always been a stress-baker and now the craving for apple pie with whipped cream was overwhelming. Whipping together the crust while Jane was skinning apples, Darcy pondered, "Maybe he would be better off in the tower. Steve's his best friend."

"Yea, sure." Jane snorted, throwing yet another apple-half into a bowl of lemon-water. When Darcy lifted her eyebrows at her, Jane sneered, "He looks at you like you can walk on water. No way is he leaving you."

Clint stepped up to her from behind, and damn he had not been there a second ago, commenting, "Your doctor's right." He deftly caught her arm when she struck out with her rolling pin. "Good, but not fast enough, taser-girl." Nicking one of the yet-to-be-skinned apples, he slid onto the counter next to Jane, who seemed to consider poking him with her cutting knife in retaliation for stealing her fruit. That he shared her opinion seemed to pacify her.

Gesturing with her rolling pin, before returning to her crust, Darcy shook her head. "You're crazy. Both of you."

Popping up by her side, stealing some of the dough, Natasha commented, "They are not. James imprinted on you."

"Could you stop doing that!" Darcy barked, nearly jumping a foot in the air. "That's really annoying if you all pop up out of the blue!"

Stepping out of the elevator, looking up from his pad towards the kitchen and then sliding onto the stool next to Jane, Tony fished a skinned apple-half out of the bowl and asked, "What are we talking about?" Clearly JARVIS, the traitor, had told him that she was baking.

Reaching for more flour and butter − she had to double the recipe now that she and Jane had company − Darcy instructed Clint, "Get more apples and help Jane!" Then she turned towards Tony, "And we are currently not talking about anything. James is not my duckling, no matter what they think," she said, gesturing towards the others.

"Course he is," Tony mumbled around his apple, adjusting some equations on his pad.

"Are you all nuts?"

Skinning apples as fast as Jane could separate and core them, Clint pointed out, "Out of all the people in New York city he followed you home."

"He bought you breakfast, just to win your favour," Jane reminded her.

Absentmindedly, Tony added, "And your word is law for him. If you say 'jump' he won't even ask 'How high?'!"

Natasha leaned against the counter by her side, looking at her speculatively. After a few moments the Black Widow added, "The Red Room makes sure any asset imprints on his or her handler. We work better if we are given instructions by but one person. Not only James, but also the Winter Soldier, trusts you."

Hitting the dough with more force than necessary, Darcy tried to think this through. Exhausted, she looked at the pan Natasha offered, already greased with cooking spray. Since the redhead seemed to be the only person willing to offer answers without sugar-coating them, she asked, "But what if I botch this up? I'm neither S.H.I.E.L.D. nor Hydra. I'm not even military. I have no idea what he needs."

"You won't," Natasha decided and added when she realized that her assurance didn't help Darcy. "You watch the Winter Soldier, but you see James Barnes. Every sane person would have pulled back, most likely cowered if the Winter Soldier fought next to them. But being afraid didn't even occur to you today. When he pulled you close, you didn't put up any resistance. And the first thought that crossed your mind afterwards was his comfort."

"Come again?"

"You allowed him to pull you behind himself although his grip had to hurt you. And your first concern was him feeling safe enough to put his gun away. That he might be a danger to you never crossed your mind."

At that explanation Tony raised his eyes from his pad and demanded, "Let me see your arm."

"It's nothing, I …"

But Clint had already approached her and rolled up her sleeve. Spots the size of James' fingers shone in a vivid red. Gazing at them because until now she had not even noticed that he had hurt her, she pulled away and hid the markings again. She had to take care in the evening to cover them before he could see. He would beat himself up otherwise.

"Nothing happened," she decided. "And that's the story all of you will go with."

"Damn, he hurt you!" Tony snarled, trying to reach for her over the table.

But all she did was look each of them in the eye, repeating herself. "Nothing happened! Or all of you will go without pie this evening!"

Obviously an effective threat since they retreated to their tasks, not talking about her arm.

Once the pie was in the oven, and the kitchen was clean again, Darcy leaned against the counter, facing her baking treat. It hurt to admit it, but she was now more sure than ever: "He would be better off here. He trusts Steve. Captain America knows better what the Winter Soldier or James need than I ever could."

A strangled noise at the kitchen-door drew her attention. Without anybody noticing James and Steve had made their way to the communal floor. James' face did not betray the slightest emotion when he nodded, "If that's what you want, I will stay here." Then he turned around and left.

The remaining heroes pointedly didn't say anything. Even when she stood there for several moments, looking after him dumbly. She didn't need to be an expert on brainwashed assassins to know that he had just masked his hurt. Her biological father acted the same way when someone managed to land a hit, though Tony was better at hiding it. Looking around, nobody offered an opinion, but Natasha pointedly shoved her towards the door with Steve stepping out of her way.

"Damn!" Darcy growled, turning around. "Turn off the oven in twenty-two minutes but don't open it. If you touch the pie before I return I will shove a fork up your butts! I'm talking to you, Hawkeye!" At Clint's innocent gesture she dashed out.

She hit the lab, picking up her stuff while searching for her soldier, but after a few minutes she was fresh out of ideas where to look for an ex-assassin in a tower full of super-heroes. She couldn't riffle through the living quarters of the tower's inhabitants. That would be rude. Then a though occurred to her. This building was exclusively Tony's, so, "JARVIS, can you tell me where James is?"

"Sergeant Barnes is currently residing on the roof."

"Thanks, Big Brother."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * James * ~

He had thought that, while under Hydra's thumb, he had gotten used to every kind of hurt. But he had been wrong. To hear Darcy reject him had cut him to the bone in a place where he had no defences. He understood her of course, especially since nothing she had said had been wrong. Stevie was his best friend, the most important person in his life. He didn't even begrudge Captain America not searching for him. He had rescued him from Hydra once, given him a chance to stand by his side when people discovered the amazing person Dr. Erskine had managed to reveal to the world. He had always seen Steve that way, superior and strong, but after the transformation his friend's body had finally reflected his soul.

It had been beautiful to see people looking up to him, to trust Captain America to keep them safe, even in the middle of the war. It had been odd for Bucky to watch women throwing themselves at Steve, but his friend had only had eyes for Peggy Carter. The woman had helped him through the transformation. She had respected him before and had adored him after, bending, even breaking rules on his behalf. Bucky had loved her for it. Steve deserved someone like her.

When he had fallen from the train, it following Steve through the war still had been worth it. He had been able to have his best friend back for a few more months, helping him to really make a change. The Howling Commandos had become the family they both had missed for such a long time. Hydra picking him up, making him theirs had been inevitable. He had only survived thanks to their experiments. He had belonged to them in the end.

But now he didn't want to be owned any longer. He also didn't want to belong to Steve either, though he wasn't sure when that had changed. He still loved his best friend, would die for him if it meant ensuring Stevie's survival. But the idea of having to stay away from Darcy, of not seeing her again tore him apart. Still, she was in charge. If she didn't want him, he would comply.

Nevertheless, he couldn't help but tense when she finally found him on the roof. Her voice barely carried over the wind that pulled on her deep-red cardigan when she spoke. "I though you would be happier here. That Steve could make you feel better. He knows you, better than I ever could."

His new arm seemed to want to reach for her on his own; he reigned it in. Remembering the warmth that had seeped into the metal when it had touched her skin, when he had been allowed to touch her before, he nodded. "I understand." It was a logical decision. That's why he wasn't supposed to make decisions: he never calculated in all the factors. Not outside of a fight.

She closed the last distance between them and her warmth radiated beside him. He couldn't help but lean into her, when she carded her fingers through his hair. She had done that before and even now the gesture didn't fail to sooth him. He couldn't keep himself from wrapping his arm around her leg, pressing his forehead against her thigh. If he was going to lose this, at least he could enjoy the last few seconds he had with her. Commit them to memory.

"I don't think you do."

When he looked up in confusion, she asked, "What's rule number one?"

"I am a person, with likes and dislikes. I'm allowed to say 'no'."

She sighed, as if he was particularly obtuse, when he didn't continue. Confused, he tensed, at loss as to what she expected of him. Darcy finally asked, "Do you want to stay at the tower with Steve?"

Closing his metal fingers around her ankle, making an effort keep his grip light, he shook his head and whispered, "No."

Nodding to herself as if she had expected this, she offered her hand to help him up. "All right, then let's go."

Accepting her help, taking care not to put too much of his weight on her, he asked, "Just like that? But I thought …"

"Yes," she confirmed. "Just like that. I thought you would feel better here. If you don't, finding a new living arrangement for you is beside the point."

He followed her closely when she approached the elevator. She held on to her beanie so the wind wouldn't blow it away. Her whipping hair brushed over his new arm, touched his face and he revelled in the sensation Howard's son had managed to grant him. He should remember to thank him for it. But for now, all he wanted was to return to Darcy's small apartment and get a few hour of sleep in a place where he felt safe.

On their way down to the lobby, Darcy snapped her fingers and looked up. "Big brother, how's the pie?"

"According to Agent Barton, delicious."

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Assuming that putting James into a metal tube, deep underground, with hundreds of people in the most assertive city in the world, Darcy left Stark Tower and turned west. It was a sunny day, not warm, but she wouldn't freeze if they walked at a stiff pace. Half an hour later the two of them entered her apartment and she sighed relieved. It was so good to be home again.

"You know what," she suggested, "why don't you decide on take-away and I take a long, steaming bath."

She noticed his mouth twitching when he nodded, "Yes, Darcy," and started rifling through the box on her coffee table where she put the menus. After the day, well … days they have had, she counted it as a win. Fetching clean clothes, she entered her bathroom, put her iPod on shuffle and drew herself a bath.

His voice was slightly muffled through the door when he asked, "Would you enjoy pasta?"

"Greatly," she shot back. "Order me Fettuccine Alfredo, please."

She could hear him shuffling though the corridor and she smiled towards the ceiling and started counting. She had reached three when he returned, "May I use your phone?"

"It's in my bag on the counter."

She didn't bother telling him her pin-code. Surely he would figure it out. When she heard him talking to the pizza place around the corner, five seconds later, she grinned. Angling for her razor, she decided that she very well could go all the way, if she had to wait for dinner anyway.

She realized the error of her decision of opting for a new blade when she cut herself. It was hardly unusual for a woman while shaving, like it was not uncommon to hiss at such a cut. It was, however, quite uncommon to have a trained assassin in one's flat, barging through the door at the noise of her discomfort.

 

~ * James * ~

Touching everything within reach, James marvelled at the sensation of his new arm. It was still slightly unsettling to look at golden metal instead of a steel-grey, but judging from the sensory input his new limb supplied, Howard’s son was a damn genius. His explorations were interrupted when he heard Darcy hissing in the bathroom.

Without thinking about modesty he barged into the room, watching with shock when the white foam of her heavenly smelling bath captured the red drops of blood that seeped down her arm. He needed a moment to catch up with the situation, but calmed considerably when Darcy chuckled, “We really have to work on your privacy settings.” Looking up at him she held out her arm. “See, nothing bad happened, I just cut myself.”

At first he couldn’t understand the flinch she gave, when he inspected the arm closer. Then he noticed the markings. Reaching for her hand, gently twisting her arm, he inspected the blue spots that seemed to circle her lower arm. “Who did this to you?”

She pulled back and reluctantly he let her go, mentally compiling a list of suitable torments for the bastard who had dared to hurt her. She tried to assure him, “It’s nothing, really. And you shouldn’t barge in like that. A lady needs her privacy!” Still, he couldn’t keep himself from going over various scenarios where she could have received such marks.

He froze when he finally realized who had caused them. Tonelessly, he stated, “These are from me.”

“James, really, that’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. Is dinner here already? I’m starving.”

She tried to take his mind off things, but all he could see were the blue spots on her skin. A little more force and he would have broken her bones. Darcy had been nothing but helpful and supportive and the first thing he had done with his new arm was injure her. How much more monstrous could he become?

He wouldn’t … couldn’t stay here. By his side she would be in constant danger. Chocking out something inaudible, he fled the apartment.

He came back to himself, cowering on the rooftop of the town-house facing hers. The markings on her arms were still vivid on his mind. How could he? She was important to him! His handler! He was not allowed to harm his handler under any circumstances! The phantom pain of water clogging his airways made him tremble. For the first time since he had left Hydra he wanted to be punished. What he had done was deviant.

He pulled out his gun, though his hand was shaking, when Gideon Malick stepped out onto the roof. He wore a grey suit and sun−glasses that reflected the bright−morning light. A business−man nobody would notice twice if he passed them on the street. His white hair and average weight and size would enable him to blend with every crowd. What set him apart from the rest of New York was him calmly stating all the right words in the right order to force the Asset to listen. They didn't put him back into Winter Soldier mode − those words were lost, or so he had been told by Alexander Pierce − but his programming accepted the man as his handler while his mind fought the concept. The elder’s voice was uncharacteristically calm for a man at gun-point when he asked, “Have you gone that far off the deep-end that you are about to shoot innocent people point blank?”

“You are not innocent, you’re Hydra!” James forced out from behind clenched teeth, fighting a losing war against a conditioning that demanded compliance.

“I am,” one of Hydra's leaders confirmed. “And now you want to become my judge, jury and executioner?”

“No!” He lowered the gun, trembling all over. “I don’t want to kill anyone any longer.” Raising the weapon again, slightly straightening in his corner, he choked, “But you deserve it! You killed innocent people. You tortured me!”

“Really?” The elderly man stepped closer, leaning against the railing, following his asset's former line of sight. “Have I ever pointed a gun at you? Have I ever lain hand on you? We have never even met before.”

Hesitant James pulled back his gun again. After a moment he admitted subdued. “No, but … but Hydra hurt me. Made me kill so many innocents.”

“How can you be so sure that they were innocent? And the countless times you felt pain from our hands, wasn’t it deserved because you failed? Did we ever punish you when you succeeded on a mission?”

Clutching his head because even standing his ground in such a petty argument hurt. James shook his head. Sure, his last handler had slapped him when he had spoken up out of line, but he was the Winter Soldier. A slap hardly hurt. The humiliation had burned so much deeper.

Casually, Malick observed Darcy’s flat. “You did so much good when following your orders. You helped us to shape the century.”

Accusingly, James hissed, “I helped you start a new era and you wanted to begin it with mass-killings of innocents!”

“Well, we failed in that endeavour. Your friend, Captain America showed us the wrongness of our ways. We have to find other ways to protect the people of this planet now.”

“You are not protecting anybody!”

“Of course we are,” Malick contradicted him. “Helping the people of this planet to be safe, maybe even to evolve beyond the weak and petty creatures they are, had always been our goal. You were just one of many where we succeeded. We have set our eyes on protecting the human race as a whole. Single individuals always had to be sacrificed for the greater good. I thought that after all these years you would be able to understand that. We had such high hopes for you.” Unafraid, the man reached out and caressed James’ head.

He wanted to pull back, to distance himself from this man. But the gentle touch felt so much like approval. He had learned to crave it from those who directed his fate. It was different with Darcy, but Malick's touch felt good nonetheless. After a heartbeat he got himself under control again and pulled back harshly. Looking into Darcy's apartment, where she was currently stacking food in her kitchen, her bare arms were on display in a short top, a proof of his failure. “You didn’t make me better, you made me a monster! I hurt those who care for me. I hurt Steve and today I hurt Darcy!”

“Yes, that was most unfortunate. Though I don’t really see your problem. Miss Lewis proved quite hard to kill over the last years. Such small bruises won't bring her down.”

That propelled him into action. Snapping to attention, he put his gun on Gideon Malick forehead and demanded to know, “Is that why you are here? To finish the job.”

Unfazed, the man looked at him. “No, it seems that all I have to do to eliminate her, is give you free reign.”

Shivering James clutched his gun again. He didn’t want to hear this, the problem was, Malick was most likely right. He still hadn’t shaken the programming. A flashback, a supressed memory pushing to the surface, a simple nightmare and Darcy would be in grave danger. Brokenly he whispered, “I just don’t want to hurt people anymore.”

“Then don’t,” Gideon Malick suggested, reaching out to clasp his shoulder. “Stark downgraded you. Your new arm is by far inferior to the one we gave you, but that was your choice.”

“It hurt.”

“You are used to worse.” The elderly man contradicted. “However, if you come with me quietly, I can promise you that I will personally ensure that nobody will come to harm from your hands. Not Miss Lewis, not Mr. Rogers, nobody you care about will be hurt by you or any of our people. They would be safe. Aren’t their lives worth yours?”

Closing his eyes, James deflated. Of course their lives were worth his, a hundred times over. “I don’t want to have to kill anybody ever again. I don’t want to hurt people.”

Comfortingly, Gideon Malick promised, “I can assure you, that you will only be put on protection details. As long as nobody attacks me or whatever charge you are given, nobody will get hurt.”

Looking at the kitchen window, where Darcy was sitting on her counter, looking down at the street while eating her Fettuccini Alfredo, he demanded quietly, “No more wipes. You won’t take the memory of her away from me.”

“If that is what you want. We have to contain you however. You are aware that you are unstable. You will have to be locked up when you are not active until we can be sure that you won’t involuntarily hurt yourself or those around you.”

Muted, James nodded, before he hesitated when leaving the roof. “How can I be sure that this is not a trick?”

Jovially Malick looked at him. “Have we ever lied to you?”

Shaking his head, James followed. It was a different facility his new handler guided him to. Different doctors checked him up, judging him to be in peak condition. No soldiers were around and instead of being shoved, he was guided with inconspicuous gestures. It nearly felt like these people were afraid of him. Maybe they were. Without armed guards he could rip off the limbs of each and every doctor in this room without breaking to sweat. Only the presence of his handler calmed him enough to banish these thoughts. He was here on his own, free will, Malick assured him repeatedly. Nobody wanted to hurt him.

He was given food, real food and was allowed to stay at Gideon Malick's side until the man had to return to his own home. Their shared meal was … nearly comfortable. It was not like it had been with Darcy. His new handler did not instil the same level of contentment. But the man spoke of his traveling plans for the next few days and the degree of protection he thought he required. Going over the route in his mind, he injected a few security concerns, but mostly kept his opinion to himself. Still, Malick looked at him with approval and he couldn’t help but revel in that.

James was offered a small room with a bed and a TV-set afterwards. It was a plain room with white bedding, and though the frame was big enough to accept his tall body, a part of him craved the short nest Darcy had been able to create from the carpet and blankets and soft mats, in the corner of her living-room. But this was more than he had ever had before when with Hydra, so he made an effort to feel grateful. Malick pointedly did not lock the door when he left. “A token of trust,” he called it and James had to suppress the desire to leave and check up on Darcy. But Malick had been right, he was too dangerous to be around such a pretty, little dame. She was too precious to be confronted with the terrors that were his life.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

She gave him twenty-four-hours. Fine, she gave him twenty-one because when James was still not around when Darcy got home from work the next day, she returned to Avengers Tower with her overnight bag. This was becoming a common occurrence. Apparently crazy found her no matter where she lived.

"Tony, he's gone." Her opening may not be subtle but by now she was seriously concerned. There had been no incidents on the news of fighting in the streets, but Hydra still was influential enough to keep some such attacks hidden from the public. Especially if they had been successful in capturing James. In Darcy's mind there was no way that he had left on his own. Hydra had to be behind this!

Banging his head on his Hot Rod, the engineer cursed and dove out from beneath the vintage car. "What do you mean 'gone'?" He emerged from the floor, gratefully grabbed the ice bag she had taken out of the fridge. "How did you lose a two-hundred-pound super-soldier? Those are not exactly inconspicuous."

"He stressed about my arm. And then he simply left. I thought he would return when he realized that it meant nothing. He wanted to be around me before. I think Hydra took him again." Darcy picked up a wrench, put it down, then picked it up again, not able to pace away the nervous energy that filled her.

"Damn," Tony cursed, throwing the ice bag into the sink. "JARVIS, give me the security footage of yesterday evening."

"Right away, Sir."

Tony and Darcy went over the video from her flat. Fortunately, there was no camera in the bathroom. Otherwise she would have had words with her father! Once her soldier left the flat, JARVIS used street−cams to follow him. They didn't need to look far, because he climbing the building facing hers right after leaving. Once again, Darcy was grateful that 'Big Brother' was watching her. Because, though a little grainy, she could survey James freaking out on the roof next to hers until he sat huddled in the corner closest to her building, constantly peeking over the railing.

Then another man stepped out, talked to him and after a few minutes, where her soldier had repeatedly threatened him with a gun, he followed quietly.

"He was forcing him," she whispered, trying to find a logical explanation, unable to believe her eyes.

"It didn't look like it." Tony acted as the voice of reason. "We don't know what they were talking about, but from my point of view, he joined this guy out of his own free will."

"He wouldn't …"

Despite how little experience he had been allowed to gather in the parental department over the years, Tony really needed to help his daughter. So he concentrated on what really was important. "JARVIS, get me ID on this guy."

After a few moments, the AI answered, "It seems that the man in question is Mr. Gideon Malick. According to Agent Romanov's files, he was a high ranking member of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Hugging herself really tight, Darcy tried to puzzle out, "Why would he return to them? These people were responsible for all his suffering."

"Spawn, we don't know what Malick told him. Maybe he was threatening him. Maybe he was threatening Rogers or you." Slowly Tony pulled his daughter close. When she clutched his shirt, he just held her tighter. "We will find him. I promise. We just have to come up with a way to get him out from under their thumb."

"Maybe Steve has an idea," came Darcy's muffled reply. She might be a little old to hide in her father's embrace; still, she refused to let go.

~ * ~ * ~

Natasha accompanied Steve when the leader of the Avengers stepped into the workshop. Darcy couldn't even meet his eyes, too ashamed of not having taken proper care of his friend. Clint followed soon thereafter. While the three of them watched the video, she paced the length of the workshop. "I should have been more attentive. Should not have let him go."

Halting her mid-motion, Captain America assured her, "You were his chosen handler, not his jailor. You told me yourself how important it is to let him make his own decisions. He might have been tricked into this one, but he wouldn't have trusted you, had you not been so concerned with what he wanted right from the beginning. We just have to find out why he chose Malick over you."

Clint, who had had Tony zoom in on the two people at the edge of the roof, had seen the clip several times by now, and was able to offer an explanation for James’ departure. "Malick promised him that he wouldn't have to kill again. That he would make sure that Bucky didn't hurt any of you and promised that Hydra wouldn't either. Your soldier was quite distressed about your arm. Malick knew his way into James's programming. He really had no chance of not believing him. He was convinced that he was protecting you."

"This will end so badly," Darcy stated quietly, looking up at a grim Steve Rogers, who seemed ready to tear this Gideon Malick to pieces, just to get his friend back. Yet his voice was composed when he decided, "We will get him out of there and talk some sense into him."

"How can you be so sure that he will come with you?" Darcy demanded to know. It had been his decision to join Malick in the first place. She did not feel entirely comfortable forcing yet another change on him. But Hydra were the bad guys. How much free will did James actually have while under their thumb? Wrapping her arms around herself, she recalled his fear of being wiped again, when Tony had constrained him to take off his arm. What if they wiped him and he forgot everything about her?

 

~ * The Asset * ~

He was so very tired all the time, but at least Malick remained true to his word. He was given real food, not capsules nor drips. He had a room he could lock from the inside. He didn't give in to the illusion that he was safe should they come for him, but for now he felt better turning the key in the evening, or after lunch when he wanted to take a nap.

Thinking about it he spent most of his time either sleeping or in front of the TV. Nothing extraordinary happened. Maybe his brain needed to rest when he wasn't on a mission. Otherwise he couldn't explain his overwhelming desire to doze day in and day out. Fortunately, the few times Malick had actually called upon him, he had been given a cup of coffee to wake him up. At first he had nearly rejected it. His handler didn't want him to drink coffee. Chamomile tea was the beverage of choice. Then he recalled that Darcy was not his handler any longer. He had hurt her and was now keeping her safe by staying away.

Still, he dreamed of her and those hours were the best of his day. Being unconscious meant not recovering from torture or the ice. It simply meant that his body had time to rest and that his mind could escape the bleak surroundings of his room. He recalled their first meeting. But instead of following her orders, they talked and laughed together. Just like he would have back in the day, when he had taken a dame to the dance.

He also remembered Steve, both before and during the war. The punk had always stood up for what he thought was right and he, Bucky, had the privilege of having his back. He recalled fights, close calls, laughter around the campfire with the other Commandos. Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita, James Montgomery Falsworth, Jacques Dernier … they all came back to him in his sleep, laughing, joking by his side. He was happy in his dreams.

 ...

Everything went sideways when one day, during an assignment, Steve intercepted his path. Gideon Malick had to attend his meeting on time, anything else would be considered a failed mission. He had toppled nations, but now his best friend kept him from finishing this assignment on time.

“Please, Bucky, you don’t want this. Come with me. Darcy is worried about you.”

She wouldn’t be. He had hurt her. But Steve would never lie.

“Steve … please …”

Frozen in indecisiveness of how to continue, his handler took over. “This is no longer your call to make, Captain. He has chosen his side. He has been our Asset for decades. He needs us. You saw the destruction he wrought when in your company. None of you are equipped to deal with him. He's be a danger to himself and others, if he's not properly cared for.”

Yet somehow, as always, the punk couldn’t accept Mr. Malick's voice of reason. “He belongs with the people who care for him. Who didn’t torture him for decades! Step out of the way, Sir.” And then Steve touched his charge and bodily heaved him out of the way. His programming didn’t allow for anything else but a violent reaction. Tackling the Captain out of the way, the Asset reached for his handler and shoved him back into the car, covering his retreat until Malick was sheltered and out of sight. Steve fought him, tried to subdue him, but he was pulling his punches so the Winter Soldier had no problem overpowering him.

~ * ~ * ~

When he returned to base, his handler had a bandage around his wrist. Looking up with tremendous disappointment, Malick shook his head when addressing him. “I had such high hopes for you. You made the right choice when joining us again, but as soon as Rogers steps onto the scene you forget everything.”

“I didn’t, Sir,” James tried to protest. “I kept you safe!”

“You nearly broke my wrist,” the man accused. Sighing deeply, he rose when the doctor was finished, guiding the soldier out of the room. “Your conditioning is breaking down. You make the wrong decisions under duress. This can’t continue. Who knows, maybe next time you will open fire against innocent civilians.”

“It was an accident. Sir, please, it was never my intention to hurt you.”

Snappish, Malick asked, “And you expect me to believe that? That the Asset, who had been able to kill with the precision of a surgeon, not breaking one bone or limb more than necessary, got so clumsy that he couldn’t calculate his own strength and sprained a wrist ‘on accident’? Do you consider me stupid, Solder?”

“Yes, Sir …” James stammered. “I mean no, Sir, I …” This was a nightmare. A nightmare of his own making and James was trapped in it. Only when the manacles clicked close, did he realize that he had been put back in the chair. Struggling, he tried to fight past the constraints. “No! You promised!”

“And you promised to perform admirably,” his handler reminded him coldly. “There is no other way.”

“You promised!” He arched up against the pain of the electricity burning through is body. It seemed to concentrate on his new limb, the entire metal burned with the current. They were taking Darcy away from him, Steve, Tony … Malick had promised and now everything would start again. With him being nothing but a mindless weapon. He couldn’t fight the tears that escaped, caused by so much more than physical pain.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

“You look horrible,” Darcy quipped when Steve entered the workshop after his brawl with James.

They had needed two weeks to find a way to access Malick's calendar. At least his official one. Reviewing the footage of his public appearances, they realized that James had been at his side every single time. He wore a black suit, a white dress-shirt and black shades. Standard issue for body-guards so they had had little chance to identify him. Talk about hiding in plain sight.

“Really? I didn't notice,” the good Captain replied with a smirk, allowing her to fuss over him, dabbing away the blood that was dripping from a slowly healing cut on his forehead. The headache would be gone within a few hours. His boy really knew how to throw a punch.

“Yes, yes,” Tony interrupted Darcy’s fussing. “Did you plant the chip?”

“Of course,” Steve confirmed, taking the rag from Darcy to wipe away the rest of the blood. Though she had been considerably more careful, he got the job done faster. “Right at the base of his skull. Are you sure that it will work?”

Throwing up his hands, the engineer admitted, “No, of course I am not sure. I can’t exactly test such technology in my lab. There are not many volunteers when you tell them: ‘I want to test a metal bridge to make sure that a currency, strong enough to wipe your memories, gets redirected to your mechanic limb to keep your brain safe.’ There is but one test subject, and he’s not exactly cooperative at the moment.”

Defending her biological father, Darcy reminded the Captain, “At least we would have his last known location. Even if the chip is fried, it should send us a ping strong enough for JARVIS to pick up.”

“Yes, spawn was quite creative with that.”

“What if they don’t try to wipe him?”

Forcing herself to remain calm and not let the despair overwhelm her, Darcy admitted, “Then the chip won’t have enough energy to act as a beacon.”

“Sir, Darcy, Captain, if I may, I have a location.” Without prompting, JARVIS conjured a map of New York and marked a generous estate at the outskirts of the town.

Zooming in on the property, calling up traffic-cams and building plans, especially blue-prints, Tony got a good idea of the layout of Malick’s new bunker for the Winter Soldier. The compound had its own generator, yet the power spike needed to wipe the soldier was a dead giveaway. Looking at his daughter and the Captain, he wanted to know, “What are you planning now?”

“Now we get my solider back!” Darcy growled; the thought of him being wiped again, his whole personality viciously burned out, made her want to puke. But she had to keep it together for James's sake. She would have liked to storm over and strangle Malick; sadly she was not really the type to take on such a mission.

“Don’t take this the wrong way spawn, but I don’t think you’re equipped for this.”

“No,” Steve decided, “but I am. Jarvis, tell Nat and Clint to suit up. We are about to get Bucky back from that bastard.”

“No!” Darcy contradicted. “He freaked out because he hurt me. I will come with you!”

“Tony is right,” Captain America tried to act as a voice of reason. “You are not equipped for this. I can’t take responsibility for a civilian getting hurt.”

Stepping up to the super-solider, Darcy looked him dead in the eye and hissed, “Screw you!” before barging out of the room.

Steve didn’t have to look at Tony to know that he was grinning behind his back. “She will come with us, come hell or high water, am I right?”

The engineer stated drily, “She tasered both you and Thor the first time you met. She stood her ground against an alien invasion in London. Do you really think you could stop her?”

 

~ * James (surprisingly) * ~

He had ranted and raved until the electricity had drained the last of his strength. They had had it easy afterwards. When he was too weak to put up any resistance, they had muzzled him and dragged him into a cell in the depth of the cellar. A collar had been put around his throat as if he were a dog.

Malick stood in the doorway of his cell, looking down at him. "I really hoped that you could grow out of your instincts. But it seems that in the end you are nothing more than our guard dog. And dogs who bite their masters have to be chained and gagged. How disappointing."

He didn't protest. Couldn’t with the nuzzle. Though his arms were free, he didn't even think about escaping. He deserved this, after all. He had respected Darcy but had hurt her. He had promised to keep Malick safe and had injured him. They had taken everything from him that had made him human, all the compassion, empathy and care. All he could do was harm and destroy. Better to lock him away.

Cowering in the corner he held on to the memories of Darcy, not understanding why they weren’t gone, but too grateful for this small mercy to question it. The shiny ebony of her hair, the way it had smelled like this flower he couldn't name. How it had felt on his cheek whenever she had allowed him close. The tips of her fingers brushing over his face, bringing him back from the depth of his mind, whenever he had gotten lost in the programming, had been so very gentle. His own hands wandered to his face, he tried to relive the memory while touching the same spots. But it didn't work because his hands were callused and hard from decades of using weapons to fight and kill.

They would put him on ice again, he was sure of it. He wanted to weep for everything he had lost, was about to lose all over again, but knew that he had no right. The few, short days with Darcy had been nothing but a dream, which he had tried to convince himself was real. In the end he was a child of Hydra, created by their serum, trained by their hands. How had he ever believed that he could escape?

Commotion outside of his cell did not make him look up. Whatever it was, the guards would handle it. He was more likely to injure them than any enemy out there. He needed re-evaluation, new training and a clear mission from his handler. Otherwise he was of no use. When a voice … Steve's voice … called for him, he did not dare to react. This was undoubtedly the electricity messing with his brain. He had attacked his best friend, why should he come for him? They did not even know where he was.

The door to his cell flew open and Captain America stood there in all his glory. He could hear both Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting in the corridor. The widows bite and the sound of arrows filling the air. Looking up briefly he noticed that Steve was still injured. The gash over his right eye might have stopped bleeding but it was still angry and red.

"Bucky?"

His voice was so full of hope, but James didn't have it in him to disappoint his best friend once again. Best if he stayed here.

"Bucky, please. Get up, we have to go."

When he didn't react again, a new voice sounded around the corner.

"Let me talk to him."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * James * ~

Darcy? No. No! She couldn't be here. This was dangerous? She had to leave. Immediately!

The moment Darcy entered the cell, he struggled to move, threw himself into the corner farthest from the door. She wore black leather pants and a kevlar vest. With the crackling Taser in her hand, she looked like a warrior princess. At her back stood Iron Man, repulsors ready to fire.

"Sergeant, get up!"

Her voice was cold, detached, and immediately he stood at attention. It was as if her command hadn't even made it through his brain, had instructed his subconscious instead, demanding immediate compliance.

When she approached him, he pressed to the back wall as far as possible. He frantically shook his head, closing his eyes to block her out. Still, she did not retreat. Clenching his fists, he turned his head, he couldn't look at her … she …

"Did you, or did you not, request me to become your handler? Simply nod or shake your head," she demanded.

He nodded reluctantly.

"Did you, or did you not, explain to me that a handler is responsible for the actions of his Asset. That he can make use of it however he sees fit?"

Of course, he had. That's what he had been trained to believe.

"Did you, or did you not, demand a rule where my word is fucking gospel for you?" She growled.

Squeezing his eyes shut even tighter, he nodded once again. A handler had to be obeyed in all things. Lack of discipline ended in chaos and chaos ended in death, yet her apparent anger hurt more than her implying that he had disobeyed her.

"We'll leave." Her order left no room for doubt, and though his body strained to obey, he still held back, shivering from distress, glimpsing at her upper arm where he had injured her. He saw her approaching, retreated further into the corner even though his collar suffocated him.

Iron Man's metallic voice cut through the cell. "Are you sure that that's a good idea? He does not exactly seem stable."

But no matter how much James wished for her to keep her distance, Darcy stepped up to him; without hesitation, without fear. Her words were soft, like a lover's caress, when she reminded him. "A handler is responsible. So whatever you did is on me."

Shaking his head feverishly, he froze when she reached around his head and opened the muzzle. His mouth felt parched and his lips were cracked as she pulled it away. He did not even know how much time had passed between Hydra trying to wipe him and the Avengers entering the compound. She brushed an unruly strand of hair out of his eyes and forced him to meet her gaze. Her words were steadfast when she told him, "You tried to keep me safe during your fight with Natasha. You did not make a mistake. But either way, I forgive you. Everything is alright. All I want from you now, is that you come home with me. We will figure out the rest later."

A handler had to be obeyed in all things. He really had no choice. With a strangled noise he sank to his knees in front of her, wrapped his arms around her middle, hiding his face against her belly. He did not deserve another chance; he did not deserve for her to care for him so very much; he simply couldn't not follow her. Not when everything he was yearned for her. He remained still when she inspected his collar, but followed her guidance when she pushed him back against the wall.

"Captain, would you do us the honour?"

He felt the hit of the shield resonating through the chain. After two blows was he free. He did not dare to look at anybody; he simply followed Darcy. How he deserved the mercy of her forgiveness was beyond him. Dames usually were not that lenient. But he would not question it, but thrive to proof himself worthy of her from now on.

He followed her to the tower and into the workshop. When she gestured towards the chair he complied, tilting his head back at Tony's approach with one of his metal−working−tools. Within moments he was free of the collar, breathing easier once the constricting metal was gone. Darcy's hands kept his head suspended, when she pulled something away from the back of his neck with a fine pair of tweezers. It felt like she was ripping away a part of his skin, but he remained still. He wanted to turn around and see what she had just extracted, but didn't dare to move.

At Tony's gesture, Darcy placed the device on a tray, and the engineer demanded, "JARVIS, full scan please."

She guided his head back so he could relax against the chair, while she carded her fingers through his unruly hair. "It worked better than we thought. And you nearly can't see it."

"The problem is not the function but the application," Tony stated, looking over at Steve who hovered at the edge of the room.

"Well, I doubt that we can engage all of our targets in a hand-to-hand-combat." The Captain smirked.

"Maybe darts?"

From his position on one of the work-benches, where Natasha was currently wrapping his rips, Clint piped up. "Oh yes, darts are fun. Or even better: blend them into my arrow-tips. Disengage on contact. Even if I graze my victim, we have this little fucker planted under the skin."

"That's how you found me!" James piped up unexpectedly. For a heartbeat he froze, wondering if he had spoken out of line, but he re-evaluated his concerns when Darcy merely offered the smoothie DUM-E had brought over and confirmed, "Yes, it also protected you from being wiped again. Electricity travels the paths with the least resistance. A gold−filament at the back of your neck was a better conductor than your skullcap. Your arm simply took the current and stored it in the reactor in your palm."

Accepting the beverage gratefully, he nearly groaned when the flavour exploded on his tongue. Taking in sustenance saved him from interacting with anybody. Once Darcy took the empty cup away, he watched the Avengers discuss of how to deal with Gideon Malick. It seemed that the man had come out of their attack unharmed, but now held a serious grudge against the group. No louder than a whisper, James stated, "Thank you, for getting me out."

Silence met his words until Steve nodded at him and replied with a small smile, "You are welcome."

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Her solider looked like hell and acted like a beaten puppy. What else could she do but take care of him? Of course Darcy was able to share Steve’s concerns. James had been Hydra’s assassin for half a century. There was no doubt that traces of their program still lingered in his mind. But Darcy couldn’t afford to worry about that. He needed help, someone who trusted him and until he proved untrustworthy she would do exactly that. For now, he had not given her any reason to doubt his good intentions. The markings he had been so distressed about had been him protecting her. He never, ever had hurt her on purpose. The problem was, she had no clue of how to make him see that.

Darcy had been given a room on the common floor. Well, actually it was more like a studio. It contained a bedroom where one wall was entirely made of glass overlooking the breath-taking skyline of New York. Attached to it was a generous bathroom. An open floorplan living room held a sofa, a desk and a TV-set as well as a small kitchen in one corner. Darcy suspected that her whole apartment could fit into this one with space to spare, but she didn’t want to live on the same floor as her father. Neither did she wish to drag her problems − namely James − into Jane’s. So this was it. Jarvis had assured her that the main door was secured with a passcode so nobody would enter without permission.

Heading towards the bathroom, she asked, “I know you are fond of your combat-gear but would it bother you to burn this set? I can assure you Tony can get you a better one. I just don’t like the idea that you wear something Hydra …” When she looked over her shoulder he was shucking out of his boxers. He did not even cover himself, as if privacy was a concern that did not apply to him, putting his entire outfit carefully in the fireplace. Still avoiding her eyes, he had yet to look at her unprompted, he stepped back.

Setting eyes on the pile, she growled, “Nuke them, JARVIS. And please send something up for later.” Then she entered the bathroom and drew him a steaming bath, adding strawberry bubble bath on impulse. Dutifully he followed and lingered at the doorway for a moment. Then he asked quietly, “Do you wish for me to wash your hair?”

“No,” she shook her head, before gesturing towards the tub. “In you go.”

His eyes widened briefly when they met hers, and for a heartbeat Darcy thought that a hopeful look flittered over his face with the barest hint of a smile tugging at his lips. But then he lowered his face towards the floor again, carefully stepping around her, approaching the steaming water. At a glacial pace, always throwing sideward glances at her, he stepped into the tub and sank into the steaming water.

Collecting shampoo and conditioner, Darcy sat on the edge at the top and slowly tilted his head back. He was stiff all over, but at her slightest prompting he leaned back without resistance. Dunking his hair, she started to wash and then to condition it. What the hell had Hydra given him, stone soap? When his ebony strands were shining once again, she patted them dry before folding a towel over the edge, so he could relax.

When he still sat tense, lingering, waiting, she tried to puzzle out what was wrong. The water was hot but not overly so. They had privacy, something he had lacked for the last two weeks, she bet. She needed a few minutes of watching him in suspended animation until she understood what he was waiting for. “You expect me to punish you.”

He didn’t react, but then she hadn’t expected him to. Slowly reaching for his face, he didn’t even flinch when she touched his cheek. Following her gesture, he turned around and looked up. His eyes were impossible large in his face, shining with a sadness that bordered on desperation and a tiny flash of fear. Softly she caressed his cheek when assuring him, “I will not hurt you. Rule number three, remember?”

His voice was rough with supressed emotions when he reminded her, “But I failed you. I told you I needed you and then I left. You have every right to be angry.”

“I was,” she admitted. “At the beginning I was unbelievably angry that you had left without a trace. But then I was concerned and in the end, when we finally realized who you were with, I was terrified. This guy is an asshole with no regard for human life and I was so scared for you that I could barely sleep at night; afraid that I would lose another person I cared about.”

“Then why not punish me?” He gestured towards the towel and the jug she had used to pour clean water over his head. “You have everything you need.”

She pulled back briefly, closing her eyes against the horrible way of torture he practically lay at her feet. He would not even fight her, she knew that much. He would endure it until his body was at the end of his strength. Maybe it would even help. He had been conditioned to associate punishment with redemption. Suffering for a brief amount of time would maybe even make him feel better. But Darcy knew that she could never do that. Not to him, not to anybody!

He had followed her hand on instinct, craving contact, yet too scared to initiate it on his own. Carding his fingers through his damp strands, she shook her head again. Softly she soothed him, “I will not punish you, especially not like this, never like this. You made a mistake and you will have to make up for that, but I won't hurt you.”

“I will,” he promised, finally sagging after everything that had happened. His face was pressed against her thigh. His breath ghosted wetly over the ‘uniform-pants’ her father had given her.

“I’m sorry.” He whispered. “I’m so very sorry. I didn’t want to leave, I just …” He chocked, clawing at the edge of the tub, too afraid to touch her and harm her once again.

“I know,” she soothed, caressing his head. “I know, James and I told you: all is forgiven. Don’t worry about it. Just relax and don’t think about it any longer. Everything is going to be all right.”

He drifted off within moments and Darcy stayed right where she was, guarding his sleep. JARVIS adjusted the water-temperature every twenty minutes. James slept right through it. After about an hour, Dr. Banner had the bloodwork ready, telling her that they had found an extremely potent drug-cocktail in James’ blood. She didn’t understand half of what the good doctor said, fortunately her father, apparently still in the lab with his science-buddy, translated for her.

“They gave him a combination of sleep and rape-drugs to make him pliant. It didn’t knock him out completely and they obviously were able to counteract a part of the medicals by offering antidotes ahead of missions. He would have never been able to perform otherwise."

Dr. Banner concluded, "I am afraid for the next few hours, till his metabolism had burned through them, you will have an extremely antsy super-soldier on your hand."

Cupping the back of James’ head, when he started to shiver from a nightmare, Darcy replied, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

“How so?” Tony wanted to know.

“Because he fell asleep in the tub.”

“And you are where?” Her father’s voice was instantly suspicious, something that reminded her eerily of her dad. The thought made her smile. Promising to herself not to mention her current position to either of her fathers, she simply replied. “I was washing his hair before. He just fell asleep afterwards. However, I can tell you, your cargo-pants are not water-resistant.”

“They are supposed to guard you against someone coming at you with a knife, not against water!”

“Oh.” Bruce’s soft noise drew her attention.

“What is it, doc?”

“He feels safe with you. His body must have exhausted itself by receiving and burning through such potent drugs. Now that he's with you again, he can let his guard down. Just like the second day you two met.”

She had shared everything with the Avengers. How James and she had met, how he had acted around her. Natasha had insisted that every small reaction could give them a clue of where to search for her soldier. It had been slightly embarrassing to admit that she had allowed him to sleep in her bedroom, but the fear of having lost him had made her ignore her own mortification. Since she could look at his tired and worn face once again, she was convinced that it had been worth it. James was safe. That was all that mattered.

Smiling she returned to the pad U had smuggled into the bathroom at her request. Jane had thrown together another scientific paper and since they had searched for James for the last two weeks, she had neglected her work. As it turned out, scientists were a lot more detail-oriented than politicians with their publications, but slowly Darcy had found joy in choosing publishers for her friend's scientific findings, thus increasing Jane's reputation within her own community. It also didn't hurt that she received a share of everything her boss gained that way. A girl had to live.

 

~ * James * ~

He felt safe and warm, a sensation he had gotten to know intimately over the last few weeks. Mostly when he had slept while under Hydra's care. His mind had always fled to these sensations: happiness and safety where he had everything he could want, comfort, and the feeling of being cared for. He felt himself frown when the rush of water invaded his dreams. Though he wanted to hold on to this happy state, he slowly opened his eyes and found himself in the most unexpected position.

Darcy was looking down at him with a tablet in her hand, smiling when she noticed that he had woken. "Hello there, Sleeping Beauty. Are you hungry yet?"

Taking stock of his body he realised that he felt relaxed and yes, slightly hungry. So he nodded and followed her prompting when she offered a towel. The blush colouring her cheeks was adorable when she pointedly tried not to ogle him the moment he stepped out of the bathtub. He couldn't help but smile when she made a hasty retreat, only to peek in a few seconds later, shoving a set of clothes at him.

They were his clothes, he noticed when he straightened them out. He had felt naked, defenceless when she had demanded that he rid himself of his armour. But this … this was better. These were clothes she had chosen for him, bought with her own money because she had insisted they brought out his eyes. He looked at his own reflection, flinching only a little when JARVIS asked from above, "Sergeant Barnes, Darcy craves, and I quote, 'sugar infused caffeine with whipped cream', and asked me to inquire about any preferences on your part."

"She wants coffee from Starbucks?" James deduced, patting his trousers in the hope that he would find some coin. "If you could tell me where the next one is, I will fetch it for her."

"You misunderstand the question, Sergeant. I will have someone pick up the beverages. I just wanted to know what I can order for you."

"I … camomile tea, please. Maybe with a dash of caramel?"

After discovering her toilet bag and using the pink sticky stuff to tame his hair, James emerged from their bedroom, swaying slightly in the hallway. Damn, he used to have a higher stress tolerance. Then he recalled that he had not received any sustenance since yesterday evening. Whenever the Winter Soldier took the lead, his body needed more energy than usual. Though lighter than his original arm, Stark's prosthesis started to feel like a lead weight, hanging from his shoulder. Maybe the energy from the wipe had destroyed some circuits?

Darcy was perched on the kitchen table with Clint sitting on the counter right behind her, shoulder-checking her. "You did good, Taser-girl. But we have to work on your evasive skills."

"I come with my very own super-soldier right now. I think I've got it covered." Darcy grinned, and didn't that make him smile. To hear her claiming him as 'hers' was like a benediction. Especially after what he had done. Hurt her. Disobeyed her. Abandoned her. He tried to hold on to the warm feeling her words had conjured when entering the room. At the same moment, the elevator dinged and a security guard came in with a tray full of Starbucks cups.

Not wanting a guy with a weapon, other than himself, anywhere near Darcy, James intercepted his path and took the drinks from him. His glare was met with a bored nod before the man retreated into the elevator. The coffee smell seemed to draw all the Avengers into the kitchen, each one picking up his beverage of choice until only two remained. Handing Darcy's over, he froze with his own tea half way to his mouth when she took a sip from her drink. Not only was her moan making his blood to flow into all the wrong parts of his body, but her accidentally tipping her nose into the whipped cream made him groan in response.

All too knowingly, Steve bumped him with his shoulder, asking, "And what is your drink of choice?"

Embarrassed, he looked at his cup. He should have better control over his reactions. No woman liked being ogled so openly. After everything, he ought to be on his best behaviour. "Camomile tea, with caramel." He shared quietly.

"Camomile tea?" his best friend wondered. "Why?"

Shrugging, James replied, "Darcy approves."

"I do what?"

"The first time you picked a beverage for me from Starbucks, you brought camomile tea with a shot of caramel. I thought you would approve if I ordered it again," he stated, growing quieter with every word.

Had he made yet another mistake? He should have told JARVIS that his handler was supposed chose for him. Why had he decided for himself? He always made the wrong choices!

Sliding from the table, Darcy reached for his cup. He relinquished it without hesitation. "Because you had barfed up a chicken sandwich half an hour earlier. I could not be sure that your stomach could handle anything of more substance, and let me tell you, Starbucks is delicious but not light."

Not knowing how to reply, he remained silent.

"All right." She looked up. "If you could order anything you want. What would you prefer?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "I tried a vanilla-chai latte once, but I couldn't stomach it either. So it's probably for the best if I stick to tea."

Stepping closer still, reaching for his hand, entwining their fingers, Darcy asked softly, "That was shortly after you fled Hydra the first time, wasn't it?"

He tried to be brave and meet her eyes but he felt humbled by the compassion reflecting in them, so he looked at the floor again. Still, he leaned into the caress when she reached up to cup his cheek. "You are with us now. And you are much better equipped to handle solid food. So we will try something, all right?"

"Yes, Darcy."

Gently withdrawing her fingers, she pulled two mugs from the kitchen and distributed her coffee evenly between them. As a finishing touch she spooned out the remaining whipped cream and heaped it on top. Offering one and taking one for herself, she held up her cup, "Cheers."

Toasting with their coffee drew a small smile from him. "Cheers," he replied and took a sip. He couldn't supress the blissful groan when the sweet and spicy coffee hit his system.

"And yet another one hooked," Tony snickered from the living area. "Well done, spawn."

Winking at him, Darcy sauntered over and jumped onto the backrest of one of the huge armchairs. The others followed, spreading out over the sofa, the loveseat and the floor. When James followed hesitantly, Darcy merely patted the armchair and once he sat, she slid down the side and snuggled onto the armrest, folding herself half on his lap, entering a discussion of how to proceed with Gideon Malick. If he wrapped his metal arm around her legs, it was just to keep her from sliding to the floor, not to feel her lean into his embrace, maximising their contact.

At least that’s what he told himself, but from the look in Steve's eyes, he wasn't fooling anyone.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * James * ~

During the last two weeks Clint and Natasha had set out to discover what they could about Malik, but his house was too well protected and the only known Hydra base he had used as a centre of command had been thoroughly demolished after James’ extraction. And all the survivors had scattered into the wind, leaving them with close to no intel. Tony had facial recognition running on much of the world's cameras, so until they had more information, the Avengers and Darcy decided that they really couldn’t do anything about Malik at the moment, much to everybody’s chagrin.

So when the sun was setting, Darcy decided that she and James should go home and relax in front of the TV with yet another Dr. Who marathon. Shortly before they left she informed her boss, “Oh, and Jane, I won’t come in tomorrow. I think I will enjoy a long weekend.” Winking, she allowed her soldier to guide her into the lift.

The look Jane threw him made James feel hot, even if he didn’t know how to decipher it. There was something going on, but he didn’t know what. Downstairs a well-clad man opened the door of a limousine and helped Darcy inside. James had his arm around the guy in no time, but Darcy chuckled. “Please don’t kill Happy. Tony would be very displeased.”

Entirely unfazed by being manhandled, the chauffeur stepped back and smiled, “Sergeant Barnes, please get in and I will bring you home safe and sound.” No Tube for them. Being friends with a billionaire seemed to come with perks. Well, not exactly friends but …

It was as if no time had passed until James retreated to the floor in front of the couch, when Darcy started the show. They had their hands full of takeout. The driver, and personal security detail of Tony Stark, as they had learned, had stopped at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place where Tony had placed orders for their dinner. Apparently being trapped by Hydra once again, merited a free meal in the engineer’s book.

The taste was familiar, even if James couldn’t put a finger on it and the ranting of a lanky guy with his red-head girlfriend on TV was so soothing, that he allowed himself to close his eyes and relax against the couch. After a while he felt gentle fingers carding through his hair. Longing started to fill him anew.

He wanted this, so very much, but after his screw-up he didn’t even know how to talk to Darcy, let alone formulate a wish. Apparently she didn’t hold a grudge, but he was aware now that he wanted more than her forgiveness. He wanted her. The spirited, fierce fire-cracker who had stormed the compound of one of Hydra’s leaders. Who was able to stand up to a traumatised super soldier. Who went any length to do what was right. He was by her side again, and though he felt entirely undeserving, he still wanted more.

“Darcy?”

“Yes, Gorgeous?”

A complimentary nick-name. She had used it from the moment they had met. He was also aware that she admired his physique; her blush this afternoon, when he had undressed, had been quite prominent. Yet she never touched him beyond innocent caresses and comforting hugs. What if she didn’t saw him that way? If his desire was entirely one-sided? Did he even have the right to ask? She was his handler. She was supposed to be the one directing his fate.

“You said that I am allowed to say ‘no’?” he started hesitantly.

Instantly untangling her fingers from his hair, she nodded seriously. “Of course. If I do something you don’t like, you can tell me. You should tell me in fact. You don’t owe me anything.”

“What if …” he tried to find the right words. “What if I want to say ‘yes’ but you are not asking the right question?”

It took his entire courage to turn around and look at her. He took in her eyes that reflected the light from the TV, making them glow eerily. He tried to reach out, but could not find the courage to actually move. His eyes lingered on her plum, red lips he wanted to kiss so very much. He leaned a fraction closer, still too far to actually do anything, but by now obviously invading her space. What could he do? How could he share what he wanted, when he had been told that he was nothing and that his desires didn’t matter? That he wasn't even allowed to have any.

His breath caught in his throat when Darcy reached out and gently caressed his cheek, letting her fingers trace his bottom lip, whispering quietly, “Questions like, ‘do you want to kiss me?’.”

“Yes,” he replied hoarsely, frozen in indecisiveness if he should dare to approach, or if he would be punished for taking such liberties.

“James,” Darcy purred, her eyes lighting up like a summer−morning, and didn’t that sound travel straight to his groin. “Do you want to kiss me?”

“Yes.”

For a heartbeat both simply looked at each other, until she reached for his neck and pulled him closer, meeting his lips half way.

When she invaded his mouth he keened, clawing at the sofa so his metal hand would not clench her. Her kiss was intoxicating, dizzying, mind-blowing in the best possible way and he wanted more, wanted all of it but was afraid to take. For a few, short heartbeats he was allowed to enjoy the sensation, before Darcy pulled back, looking at him with shining eyes.

“Like this,” she asked, looking at him with a brilliant smile. When he nodded frantically, she slowly dragged her hands over his arms and down his torso, caressing first the soft fabric of his shirt and then ran the tips of her fingers over his burning skin underneath. “Is that all you want, Sergeant?”

“No,” he admitted hoarsely. “I want more … all of you … but …”

Her fingertips had found his mouth again, gently caressing the soft skin. “No buts, soldier. Whatever you want, just take it.”

“I will hurt you.”

Kissing his forehead, she whispered against his skin with absolute conviction. “No, you won’t.”

 

~ * both * ~

Bucky hesitated for a heartbeat. He had seduced ladies back in the day and had been pretty good at it. Dames had fallen for him easily and he had enjoyed being with them. But things were different now. Darcy was more than just a pretty face in a nice dress. She meant something to him, and he didn’t want to mess this up. So in a conscious effort to calm himself he untangled from her and rose to his feet. Offering his hand, he helped her up. “If I am allowed to touch you, I don’t want to make out on the floor like teenagers. You deserve better.”

Grinning she followed his gentle tug towards her bedroom. “There is nothing wrong with making out in the living room.”

Kissing her neck, he whispered hopefully, “Maybe we can try that another time.”

This was amazing, she decided, when his warm breath ghosted over her sensitive skin. His hands were strong, strong enough to break bones, tear through skin and rip someone to pieces. But with her he was so tender, touching her with a care that bordered on reverence. When he kissed her she couldn’t help but melt against him. He found a simple solution for making her boneless by simply picking her up and carrying her to the bed, where he laid her out gently.

He looked at her, as if waiting for guidance, so she smiled up and started to slowly pulled up her top. With every inch of skin she revealed, his trembling increased and when she pulled the shirt over her head, revealing her soft, cotton bra, he closed his eyes as if the sight pained him. Him not looking at her made Darcy feel self-conscious, so she crossed her arms over her chest. When deciding on her attire for his rescue-mission, lingerie had not been an option, not with the body armour weighing her down. James was used to ladies of the forties. Woman who had chosen everything they wore and everything they did with deliberate care. She would never be as pretty or as sophisticated as them and she wondered how much she paled in comparison.

A pained noise from him, made her look up. He had removed his boots, and was now crawling up the bed like a giant jungle cat. “Don’t, Darcy, please. You are so beautiful. Don’t shield yourself from me.” He nuzzled at her until she opened her arms and when his hot breath caressed her sensitive skin through her bra, she was the one who had to close squeeze her eyes shut against the amazing sensation. Hot kisses travelled down her body, until he had reached her belly. Hoarsely he asked, “May I take these off?”

Mesmerized by his amazing blue eyes, she nodded wordlessly and chuckled, when his metal hand caressed her hips before meeting his flesh hand in the middle to open her trousers. Slowly, as if unwrapping a gift, he pulled them down her legs and kissed every inch of skin revealed.

Fortunately, she only ever wore socks in her apartment, so he could get rid of her pants easily, taking off her footwear before slowly massaging her feet.

“Oh god, this is so good, where did you learn that?” she sighed blissfully, relaxing against her cushions.

“I don’t …” he began, but then the memories welled up from the depth of his mind and he couldn’t help but smile. “Sarah, Steve’s ma taught me. She was a nurse and on her feet at least twelve hours a day. She cared for me when my ma was too busy with my sisters, so I tried to repay her any way I could. I was pretty good in the end. She told me so before she …”

Leaning up, capturing his face to ease him back to the present, Darcy asked, “Before she what?”

“Before she died,” he sighed, hugging her close, burring his face in her neck. “She was so sick and things deteriorated as soon as she couldn’t work any longer. Steve and his ma couldn’t afford the necessary medicine for her and him. Steve had always been his mother’s first propriety, she even made me promise to care for him, once she was gone.”

Wrapping around him tightly, Darcy chuckled, “You did a good job. He came out alright. A little headstrong, but fine in the end.”

He snickered wetly against her neck, kissing her white shoulders before pulling back. That close he could see the amazing beauty of her eyes, their warm tone that made him forget everything beside her. “You are so beautiful; you know that?”

With an absent minded gesture, Darcy tried to brush away that compliment. “Sure, if you like ‘round’ as the body-type of choice.”

But this time he didn’t want to be deterred, so he touched her hand and kissed them both, repeating, “You are the most beautiful dame I have ever met, right on par with Peggy Carter. You are kind and warm-hearted. You are supportive and loyal and in this lingerie, you look good enough to eat, doll.”

Blushing beautifully, she told him, “You have not seen any lingerie yet. If you like this, you will be blown away by my red nighty.”

With a groan, he let his head fall down, hiding behind his hair. “You are killing me here, you know.”

Smiling mischievously, she rose from the bed and started to crawl over him, until he lay flat on his back with her on her hands and knees towering over him. Her brown mane spilled over her shoulder like a curtain and he couldn’t help but shout when she leaned down to bite his neck. "Not, yet, Gorgeous." He tried to reach for her, but she captured his hands and pressed them back into her sheets. “Oh no, now it’s my turn, Sergeant.”

He started to tremble slightly when she easily pulled off his shirt and then nosed at his happy trail. Deftly she bested his trousers and pulled them down, boxers included and threw them over her shoulder. When she crawled up from his feet again, he suddenly felt parched and the moment she started to nose at his erection he shivered violently. “Darcy,” he choked, “what are you doing?”

Playfully she admitted, “Something I wanted to do, from the moment I saw you in the shower for the first time. You looked good enough to eat.”

He couldn’t take his eyes of her because this couldn’t be real. But he felt too much for this to be a dream, especially when Darcy slowly started to drag the tip of her tongue over his cock, from base to top, lingering on the tip.

“Oh, god.”

Naughtily she offered, “You can call me Darcy,” before swallowing him down.

Darcy! I … oh god … I can’t … please!

Tracing her hands over his thighs, framing his cock and balls, she started to brush over his heated skin, promising huskily, “It’s all right. Just let go. It'll take the pressure off.”

He shook his head frantically, this was not what he wanted, but she was good, too good for her own good because she was merely at work for a few moments before starlight burst through his body, stealing his senses. It felt like thunder and lightning, like love and happiness, all at the same time and when he regained his wits he found her lying on his stomach, grinning like the cat that had eaten the canary, even licking her lips.

And all of a sudden the reality of the situation hit him full force, making laughter bubble up from the depth of his belly. For the first time since 1940 was he in bed with a pretty dame. Not for a one-night-stand to relieve some pressure in the middle of a war-ridden continent. He was allowed to be around her, maybe even return to her bed after this. He was cared for, not because of what he could do but because she simply liked him. Bucky held no illusions that Darcy could ever make use of his full potential. But that was all right, because he didn’t want her to. She couldn’t life with herself if she handled him as a weapon, Darcy was much too good for that. But he would gladly spend his days fetching her coffee, assembling furniture, or handing her tools he didn't understand, if that meant that he could stay by her side.

Chuckling because his laughter was infectious, she pondered, “So I take it you liked it?”

Nodding, he pulled her up and hugged her tight, burying his face in her soft hair, breathing against her soft curls, “I love you.”

And just like that, they both stopped breathing.

He cursed himself for wearing his heart on his sleeve. Though he had not expected it, he was well aware that what he had said was true. He did love her, would gladly give his life to her; had in fact; anything to make her happy. But apparently, hearing this didn’t make her happy.

Slowly she pulled back, extracting herself from his arms, her face closing off.

Afraid that he had ruined everything, he tried to reach for her, mumbling dejectedly, “Sorry. I am sorry, Darcy. You weren’t supposed to hear that … I mean … I had no right to say that. Please, forgive me. I don’t … this doesn’t have to mean anything. I never meant to make you uncomfortable. I’m not expecting anything. I …”

Bless her soul for finally interrupting his anxious rambles. “It’s okay, I just … I didn’t have the best of luck hearing these words. The last time someone said them to me, I found him later the same week, playing tonsil hockey with a cashier from Tesco.”

“Who was it?”

Shaking her head, she smiled at him weakly. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not important and if I didn’t give his name to my overprotective dad or uncle Ian, you won’t get it out of me either. So don’t even try. It’s just … I don’t want to mislead you. This is … we …” Sighing, she tried to collect her thoughts. “Sex is important, but it doesn’t automatically mean a picket fence, two point five perfect kids and a dog.”

Trying to dispel the strain his words had caused, he gratefully jumped for the chance to comforted her, “That’s not what it was in my time either. People could have sex just for fun, because they enjoyed each other’s company or simply for stress-relief. I … I like you, Darcy. I feel … human when I am with you. What I said … I …” Trailing his fingers through his hair, he tried to find the right words to make up for his involuntary confession. “I’m not expecting more than you are already giving me. I could never! Not after …”

Turning around, she cupped his cheek, searching for his eyes. “Just this, alright? No strings attached.”

Tentatively he nodded, not daring to hope to make up for his slip that easily. But then she leaned towards him once again and their lips met and it felt like there had been no pause at all. The fire in him flared up once again and he couldn’t help but pull her closer. He attacked her neck and shoulders, brushing his lips over soft skin and when she leaned back invitingly, he captured her nipple with his lips. She buckled against him and he revelled greatly in her reaction to his touch as well as the involuntary pressure of her cotton-covered sex against his groin. This was heaven and he was determined to enjoy it as long as he was allowed.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

He was allowed to hold her afterwards. Dames had preferred for him to leave in the past. Or they had left their make-shift love-nest to return to their work, their regiment, their friends. Everything had been short-lived, exciting. But he had never had this, the feeling of having someone in his arms he cared for. At least not that way. He and Steve had shared beds or bedrolls before, but they had never been like this. It felt good though. To have someone close again.

Darcy had napped a little after their union. Now she was slowly stirring and he wondered if she would suggest that he leave. He had a perfectly adequate sleeping place, after all. But instead of moving away from him, she started to trail the tips of her fingers along the metal hand, which she had used as a cushion. It was a pleasant sensation, nearly as good as her touching his skin.

"You are concerned about what I said."

"I am," she admitted, turning around so she could look him in the eyes. Love welled up in his heart once again, but he kept it under lock and key. He had no right to burden her with his emotions. "This is like Florence Nightingale effect in reverse. You think you love me because I am here. After everything you have gone through, I am the first person you trust not to hurt you. And I am nice, and let's be honest, pretty hot. But that is not love, James."

"Bucky."

"Really?" Her smile was like the sun once more and he couldn't help but mirror it when he confirmed.

"Really."

Brushing a wayward strand of hair out of his face, she relaxed against his chest. "I like it. But back to the topic at hand. I care for you, and I like you, very much actually. I enjoy your company and the sex and all, but that's not love. We can be like … like friends with benefits but I think you confuse love with gratitude and loyalty and happiness."

When he tried to protest, she brushed her fingers over his mouth to keep him silent. "I know you believe what you feel is real. And I don't want to dismiss or belittle you. But you need time. Time to get over what you have been through, to gain some perspective. Time to find your way back into the world. Discover who you are and learn who I am. Find out what you want to do with your life. Give it a year, all right. Just one year and then we can talk about this again. Can you do that for me?"

It wasn't true. None of what Darcy said was true, he knew it in his heart. The feeling in his chest mirrored what he had felt for Steve nearly since the beginning. She was everything to him. Like Steve had been … still was. But with Darcy things were different. He could allow himself to love her because she was beautiful, fierce and caring and being with her felt like being close to the sun, all warm and peaceful. So different from what he had suffered for the last seventy years. But he couldn't tell her that, because she wasn't ready to believe him.

A part of him wanted to stand up for himself and demand for her to take him serious. But if the last two weeks had taught him anything, then that he was not the best judge of what he wanted or needed. For now, he had to accept that she, as his chosen handler, had his best interest at heart. She didn't want him to get hurt. Nobody had ever been this concerned about him but Steve.

Darcy wanted a year. He could give her that. Maybe then he would be able to convince her of the sincerity of his emotions. Until then … "I should get out now."

Gently kissing his nose, she asked quietly, "Do you want to sleep with me?"

His answer was nothing but a mere breath when he relaxed against the cushions, pulling her close. "Yes."

Smiling, she curled up on his side, cushioning her head on his wide chest. Slowly he let his human hand trail over her skin before he wove his fingers through her hair. Kissing her head one last time he closed his eyes. After everything that had happened he deserved one, blissful night that wasn't only in his head. Maybe even believe in a chance for a better tomorrow.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Bucky * ~

He felt warm and comfortable and for a heartbeat he did not know what had woken him. Then he felt Darcy shiver in his arms. First it was a slight trembling, then a quiet whimper. Bucky caressed her head, whispered assurances that she was home and safe, that he would not allow any harm to befall her and she relaxed again, obviously overcoming her nightmare. After an hour, however, the trembling returned with a vengeance and the whimpers turned into sobs. Tears started to leak out of Darcy's eyes. Soft comforts did nothing to ease her, so he shook her awake. He had not been prepared for the reaction upon opening her eyes.

As soon as she woke, Darcy started to scream, and to scramble off the bed and into the closet. She cowered in the deepest corner and pulled down everything she could reach to cover herself, still whimpering pitifully. Thunderstruck, Bucky slowly left the bed, crouching down in front of the walk-in wardrobe. "Darcy, sweetheart, I won't hurt you. Please, come out."

He tried to reach for her, but every time he touched a part of her, she wailed and lashed out. He pulled back slightly, mirroring her distress, uncertain of what to do. "Oh my god, Darcy, please, I don't know what to do. Come out of there. You are safe, I promise. I would never allow anybody to hurt you. Darcy … please."

He tried to reach out again, merely caressing the fabric but counted it as a win when she didn't whine at the contact. He still could hear her muffled sobs, but at least she didn't attack him any longer. Behind him her phone vibrated.

Bucky tried to recall how he had felt when waking from a nightmare in the past. The Winter Soldier helped him to lock down instead of lashing out when in distress. But usually he found back to reality all by himself. It was a painful process and it took a lot of time, but he had learned to manage. He felt like hell afterwards, but until now he had always made it. Yet, he didn't want that for Darcy. She was always so caring and supportive. He hated the idea of her being trapped in a nightmare, all alone and frightened.

The phone buzzed again when he tried to pull a part of the pile of clothes away. Instantly she reached for them, folding tighter into herself, keening while huddling into the corner. He did not know what to do. He pulled his hair, desperate to think of a way of how to help her but they had never trained him for this. He was meant to destroy, not to comfort. The phone buzzed again.

Determined to end that annoying noise, he staked towards her bedside table and reached for the damn thing. The same moment the display lit up with yet another text message.

Sent from Big Brother: = Sergeant Barnes =

Sent from Big Brother: = Please, take the mobile. =

Sent from Big Brother: = Sergeant, please, I can help. =

Sent from Big Brother: = Please, take the mobile. =

Sent from Big Brother: = Sergeant, you have to contact Thor or Dr. Foster. They have dealt with Miss Lewis in such a condition before and will be able to help! =

He was taking advice from a computer. He was about to do what a god damn machine told him, just for the tiniest chance of helping Darcy. He wondered if this was the beginning of the end for him. If he didn't even need humans to instruct him, they could lock him in a bunker and hook him up to a machine. He shook himself out of the horrible impression of living underground, surrounded by monitors that spoke the words and gave him missions. Every update, every maintenance would be made via cold and sterile claws like DUM-E's.

Forcing himself to take a deep breath, he got his trembling limbs back under control and managed to dial Dr. Foster.

"Wasit?"

For a heartbeat he did not know what to do. He had never been given guidelines for situations like these, but then he gathered his wits. "Dr. Foster, I am sorry to wake you, but Darcy seems to be trapped in a nightmare and I don't know how to help her."

Instantly, the woman on the phone sounded wide awake. "Is she crying or hiding?"

"Both I think."

"Damn."

He was quite sure that the last word had not been meant for his ears, so he didn't comment on it. After a heartbeat the doctor instructed, "Switch on every single lamp in the apartment. Pull her out of hiding and put her where she feels most comfortable. Then hold her and talk to her. Tell her where she is. Tell her that London is over. That we did it and that there is nothing to be afraid of."

Harshly, he contradicted, "I can't. She lashes out every time I try to touch her. I'm afraid I will hurt her."

"You might," Jane Forster replied uncharacteristically soft. "You might have to hurt her a little, but believe me James, the place Darcy is now, is a hundred times worse. Just be careful and pull her back into the light. Until she is willing to talk to somebody about what happened, that's all we can do."

"My name is Bucky," he corrected her absent-mindedly, walking the apartment, switching on every lamp. Then he asked, "What did happen?"

"Aliens …" Dr. Foster replied shortly. "Again … now please, go and bring my girl back. And have her call me when she is lucid again."

He ended the call and stood in front of the whimpering bundle of misery again. The idea that he could harm her was atrocious, but he had to believe Dr. Foster's advice. He really had no other choice. Deciding that the safest course of action was to restrict her movements as much as possible, he pulled her into his arms and carried her out of her hiding place. Clothes toppled to the floor, and her fighting didn't make things easier. He managed, however, to carry her to the kitchen and place her on the counter in front of the window. Holding her safe, he started to pull away any clothes that had not fallen during their journey.

When he could finally see her, Darcy's eyes seemed impossibly large and glazed over with terror. She tried to wind herself out of his arms, but he stood in front of her and held her fast, her arms trapped between her body and his. Though he could feel her nails scratching his skin, he didn't pay it any attention. Instead he hugged her and spoke softly, "It is all right Darcy, you are safe. You are in Greenwich Village, New York. You work at Stark Tower with Dr. Foster. London is in the past. Whatever happened, it is over now and it won't come back. I won't allow anybody to hurt you. Please, calm down, you are hurting yourself. Everything is okay. Just relax. I'll protect you."

How could he calm a traumatized dame? He had no experience with things like that. Since he had been given no other instruc… advice, he repeated himself over and over, holding her fast with his metal arm, rubbing her back with the flesh one. Her skin was sticky with sweat and he wished for nothing more than to be able to put her into a warm, soothing shower. But since she still fought him, he knew that he couldn't make her comfortable. So he stayed right where he was, whispering into her ear.

Darcy needed nearly half an hour before she came back to herself. When he felt the fight draining out of her, he relaxed a little and tried to look at her face. Though she hid against his chest, he managed to gently tilt her head until he could look into her warm, brown eyes that filled with tears. Her gaze fluttered down again, taking in the rivulets of blood on his chest, where she had scratched him. Her voice was hoarse when she sobbed, "I hurt you. Oh my god, I hurt you. I am so sorry."

Pulling her close once again, now gently folding his arms around her, he assured her, "It's fine. I've had worse. Don't worry about it." His words seemed to do very little to soothe her, because once again she was pressed against his chest. This time however, she clung to him, hot tears stinging at the scratches, but he didn't care. He pulled her off the counter and slid down the wall beneath the window, pulling her into his lap. She didn't put up the slightest resistance; on the contrary, once they were seated, she clung to him even tighter.

Darcy's tears ebbed away after a while, but he didn't let her go when she tried. Instead he asked softly, "What happened?"

 

~ * Darcy * ~

This was the worst it could get. In the past, Darcy had only hurt the furniture and in one case herself, but never another person. Jane had always been cautious when she had had a panic attack, wrapping her in blankets while holding her close. James … Bucky hadn't cared. They had fallen asleep buck naked and he hadn't bothered to dress when pulling her out of whatever hiding place she had chosen.

How was this her life? This amazing and incredibly strong solider had trusted her with his well-being and instead of taking care of him, she had completely flipped because of one, harmless nightmare. She couldn't …

When she felt his metal hand on her face again, touching her oh so gently, making her look up, she was helpless to deny him when he repeated his question, "Darcy, please, tell me what happened." And all of a sudden she couldn't hold back any longer. If anybody deserved to know the truth it was him, so she started talking.

"When I was nearly finished with my degree, I needed science credits to complete it. Since all the 'good' assignments were already gone, I decided to try something new and applied for the position of the assistant of an astrophysicist named Dr. Jane Foster. We hit it off right away, because as brilliant as Jane is, she is seriously lacking in every-day skills. Without Eric, her mentor, or me, she would downright starve to death, because she would forget to eat and sleep. It was okay for a time, I settled into a routine and everything was great. It was supposed to last only one semester anyway. Then there was an unusual atmospheric phenomenon one night and Jane wanted to pursue it.

"Long story short, at the end of the rainbow, Jane hit a stranger with her car. He had no right to be anywhere out in the desert during a storm, so it wasn't really her fault. But when he stood up again, he started blabbering nonsense and screaming at the sky, so I tasered him and he fell like a tree."

Having an inkling of the event she described, he guessed, "That was Thor."

She nodded, still unable to look at him. "Yes, and of course Jane wanted to take him with us. We made sure that he was all right, gave him clothes and listened to his insane stories about him being a prince of another planet called 'Asgard'. He was this overbearing jerk that smashed the coffee-mugs at the local café, insisted that the hammer-thing that had fallen from the sky, was actually his. Of course Jane went out of her way to help him prove it. Of course he failed and got trapped by S.H.I.E.L.D..

"They also stole all of our research on the phenomenon that brought Thor to earth, even my iPod and had Barton not stolen it back I still wouldn't have it! Anyway." She shook herself, not to get lost in the story. "No matter what S.H.I.E.L.D. tried, they were no match for what happened next. Nobody was in fact, because after Thor had been released, more warriors from Asgard fell from the sky." Darcy took a deep breath and braced herself, quietly she continued. "Then the Destroyer came. It was a huge mechanical construct powered by magic and it attacked Thor. He sent everybody away to meet this invincible enemy alone, that fool, and with but one swipe, the monster threw him through half the town. I couldn't hold Jane back and he died … he literally fucking died in her arms!"

She sobbed, but brushed her tears away angrily. "But then he came back. His hammer, Meow-meow, came and resurrected him, and he fought the Destroyer and he won and then he took Jane away. I didn't know where she went and how long she would be away." Taking a deep breath, Darcy continued somewhat tiredly. "She returned, of course, and with everything she had learned from Thor and Asgard she continued her research. Eric joined S.H.I.E.L.D. so it was just the two of us.

"The next thing we heard was that Loki, Thor's brother had broken in. Thor had told us that he had fallen from the Bifrost and that he was no more. But of course he came back as well and he took our friend Eric and Clint and a few others. He brainwashed them with his Stick of Destiny and tried to invade New York. S.H.I.E.L.D. sent us to Norway, to get us away from danger but of course Jane wouldn't stay there. My biological father nearly died during that fight and though Loki was defeated and sent back home, Eric couldn't deal with what had happened … with what he had done. Tony sent him to the best mental health clinic there is and of course, once again, we followed.

"London became the stage of the next crazy act in our insane lives. First Jane found some unusual readings in an empty building in London. Of course she had to investigate and all of a sudden she vanished. She hadn't even said anything, she was just gone and I didn't know what had happened. I waited for hours before I called the police. I know that they wouldn't be able to help but I just didn't know what to do any more. When she returned Thor followed shortly after. He said that Jane had caught some kind of alien virus, some kind of energy that would kill her slowly. And you know what he did: he took her away again!"

Darcy bit her hand to keep in the wail, but Bucky removed it gently, hugging her even closer. Choking slightly, she continued. "These strange anomalies started to pop up everywhere, and though I had been Jane's assistant for quite some time at that point, I had no idea what to do. So I went to fetch Eric. Fortunately, he was better than anticipated and he developed a system to help us contain these portal. Then the aliens came."

For a while, she stopped but he didn't seem to care. Patiently, he sat on the floor, holding her close, comforting her until she felt ready to continue. Sobbing quietly, Darcy recalled, "Everything fell to pieces. Eric and Ian and I couldn't close the portals fast enough. Whenever we managed to contain one, another opened and this huge alien ship came through. Thor and Jane were there all of a sudden and they fought and I didn't know what to do. I just placed the rods to contain the fields but there was so much damage and destruction and …"

Curling tighter into herself, she whispered after a while. "We won in the end. Everything was back to normal. Jane was back and Eric was sane and apart from Ian cheating on me with this girl from Tesco things couldn't have been better. But when I close my eyes at night, I see these huge gaps in reality, and I'm afraid that the aliens will come back and tear everything apart. That I won't be fast enough, or that the tech won't work, or that it'll make things worse. That Thor will take Jane again and that she won't come back."

Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm herself. Everything was all right, there was no reason for her emotions to get the better of her. James … Bucky deserved her making an effort for heaven's sake. What use was an insane handler to a mentally unstable ex-assassin? "I have this playlist, it's more than ten hours and when it's running my subconscious knows that I am not in London anymore and that I'm safe. But I forgot to start it yesterday and you had to suffer for it." Gently she caressed the scabbed over scratches. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you had to see this. I usually am better, but … but I understand if you want to leave. With everything you have been through, you shouldn't have to deal with a silly girl, panicking over nothing!"

 

~ * Bucky * ~

"No!" Bucky hugged her tight. "You're wrong!" How could she even think that? "You are an amazing woman. You have been through horrible things and still made it out unharmed. Most other people would go crazy."

Sighing, she replied. "But that's the thing. I didn't suffer. Everything bad happened to Jane. I am a grown woman; I should not need emotional support for things that happen to other people."

Concerned that he had gotten this all wrong, he asked quietly, "Don't you feel better now?"

"Of course I do," she assured him. "You were amazing, but I attacked you and you didn't deserve that."

Taking a page out of her book, he tried to smile. "You did nothing wrong, but I forgive you."

Her quiet chuckle told him that she was well aware that he was merely indulging her. But after everything that had happened tonight, he would take that over her beating herself up. He was a super-soldier, after all. The scratches would be gone in an hour. So he returned to the matter at hand. Pondering on a way to make her see reason, he stated, "Everybody needs help when they're afraid. Why do you think I'm here?"

"Because Hydra tortured you for half a century and you would forget to eat if nobody reminded you."

"Yes they did," he started, but then it hit him. Until now he had always glossed things over in his mind. Only with her stating an irrevocable truth after sharing her past, was he able to finally face his. Firmer he repeated, "Yes, they tortured me. No matter what I did it was never good enough. They hit me and hurt me and electrocuted me and froze me and …" Breathing harshly he closed his eyes against this overwhelming reality. "Hydra tortured me and I don't want to be alone any more. I want to be with you, no matter what it entails."

She looked up and there was so much understanding in her eyes, yet this time he didn't avert his gaze. After a few moments she asked, "Better?"

Trying to decipher his own, mostly supressed emotions he nodded. "A little."

Leaning against his shoulder, she confirmed, "Me too."

They sat on the cold kitchen-floor for a while until Darcy suggested, "Shower?"

"Yes, you should shower. You would feel better afterwards."

With a smile she rose and held out her hand. "Do you want to join me?"

"Yes."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Bucky * ~

It was hard, one of the hardest things he had ever done, and despite his best intentions, he failed. Bucky was well aware that sex was the furthest thing from Darcy's mind at the moment. Yet when he joined her in the steaming shower, he couldn't stop his body from reacting to her. She was so beautiful, even under the harsh light of the bathroom with red eyes and a blotted face. When she turned around, asking him to wash her back, he tried to angle himself subtly, hiding his growing erection, but of course she noticed.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, trying to get out of the shower, but Darcy touched his shoulder.

"Why?"

Embarrassed, he gestured down. "I know you don't … I didn't mean to …" Why was he always saying either the wrong thing or had trouble articulating himself?

Gently she turned him back around. "This is not about me," she assured him. "That's a natural reaction of being close to someone you desire. Actually, I think I will take it as a compliment." Looking up cheekily, she let her warm, wet hand travel lower. He did not know what to do or how to react so he locked himself down, not moving an inch. "Do you want me to take care of this for you?"

Closing his eyes, he swallowed around a constricting throat, forcing out, "You shouldn't have to."

"What if I want to?" Slowly her fingers wandered lower, caressing his hipbone, coming dangerously close to his growing erection, she asked, "Do you want me to touch you, Bucky? Because if you don't want me to, I won't do this."

"Yes," he replied hoarsely, pressing his head against the tiled wall, caging her with his body. He hissed when her dexterous fingers closed around his cock. He couldn't remember the last time someone had done this to him. He couldn't even remember the last time he had done this to himself. But no matter the circumstances, he was sure that nothing could be better than her firm grip on his cock, stroking him maddening slowly. He wanted more, wanted to shove himself into her hand but he didn't dare to push. She was the handler; it was her decision to give him what he deserved.

His body was blocking the water; the warm stream ran down his back, caressed him from behind, while she touched his front. It was too much and not enough at the same time. Her slow motions were driving him crazy. When he choked out a desperate, "Please," she actually chuckled. This was a game to her, he realised, a way to discover if she could bend him to her will. He didn't know why she needed it. He was succumbing to her in any way possible, but this was different. This was his biology getting the better of him and he did not know if he could continue to submit, if she carried on touching him that way, not allowing him release.

It felt like hours while she continued her ministrations: not speeding up, not slowing down, just touching him, keeping him in a state of want that was driving him crazy. Still, he managed to stay in place, not moving, keeping his body from taking what he so desperately needed. He had learned, with Hydra. Had become a good soldier for them, and for the first time, he was grateful for the level of control they had forced on him. When she touched his cheek, slightly tilting his head, he realized that he had squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out everything but her touch and her smell. Her words softly caressed his ears when she whispered, "You are not going to do anything?"

Clenching his teeth, he shook his head. That seemed to have been the right answer, because all of a sudden her grip around his cock tightened, and her motions speed up. He breathed harshly when she pulled him close so that he stood pressed against her with just enough space between them that she didn't have to let go. "You are so good for me. Amazing really. But you can let go now. It's all right, I’ve got you. You're perfect."

It was as if her words hit his centre, the bottom of his heart. With a hoarse shout he spilled over her hand, painting both himself and her with his seed and he continued to tremble, at her never-ending praises. "So good, Bucky. I'm so proud of you." A sob tore from his throat, before he could stop it, but Darcy didn't seem to mind. She just held her hand under the spray before wrapping it around him, pulling him in until they stood flushed together in the warm water.

The shower growing colder forced him back from the haze he had gotten lost in. Swiftly, he brushed her down and cleaned himself of the seed with the now chilling spray, before ushering her out. She had wrapped herself into a huge towel and offered him another when he followed her. They wordlessly returned to her bedroom. He didn't want to make assumptions, but when she looked at him expectantly, he crawled between the soft covers. Dawn was not far off, but Darcy needed more sleep after such an emotional night. Soothing music filled the air when she claimed a place on his chest, pulling his metal arm around her. Within moments she was asleep.

Looking down at her, Bucky pulled one of her wayward locks from her face, so that it wouldn't bother her. He wondered if it was the new millennium or simply a character trait of Darcy to be so outgoing and assertive when it came to sex. He had never met a woman like her before. Not even Peggy Carter had ever been so bold. Though she had stood her ground, he doubted that Peggy would have taken the lead like that. Though Steve might have needed it, so he couldn't be sure. Darcy was a blessing. Maybe, he justified so as to not feel entirely overwhelmed, she was his reward for holding on for so long, for suffering decades of torture and still coming out of it mostly partially unharmed. He had tried to separate himself from the programming after pulling Steve out of the Potomac. He had never wanted to become the Winter Soldier again, but whenever a situation got too stressful, the soldier pushed to the surface. But for Darcy he tried even harder, because losing himself with her around was not an option.

He didn't realize that he had fallen asleep again, until he opened his eyes to nimble twilight surrounding him.

He was back with Hydra, back in the cellar, back in the chair. His first instinct was to fight the restraints, but the constrictions on his arms, his chest and his thighs weighed him down, not giving an inch. The mouthguard was held in front of him by some faceless doctor who stank of disinfectants. He took it, gingerly, knowing better than to even attempt an attack when he was this helpless. The noises of the equipment around him begun to ascend, warning him of the imminent electric shock that would run though his system.

Gideon Malick was there all of a sudden, standing in front of him as if he had been there all along. His words were cold and his eyes glittered dangerously when he commanded, "Wipe him."

Bracing himself for the pain his eyes flew open when he heard Darcy's soft voice contradicting the instruction. "No. He's mine now and I like him just the way he is. He's perfect."

He wanted to sob in gratitude for her presence and shout at her to flee at the same time. To hear someone telling him that he was good, perfect even … that he didn't have to improve and be tortured for it, was all he had ever wanted. Yet putting her in danger was the last thing on his mind. Strangely, though, nobody contradicted her. Even the guards, who he had been sure stood in every corner, were gone. Malick tried to reach for her but she just pulled her arm out of his bruising grip, felling him with her trusty Taser. The doctors didn't dare to touch her.

Darcy approached him, sliding into his lap and he couldn't help but groan when her warmth surrounded him. Malick was there again, hovering behind the chair, barking at her, "You can't have him! We made him our asset, the Winter Soldier is ours and you can't take him!"

Smiling up at the guy, dismissing him easily, she leaned down and took the handle of his mouthguard between her teeth, slowly relieving him of it. Letting go, he felt like he could finally breath again. Turning around, spitting the so the hated contraption so it fell at Malick's feet, Darcy smiled up at him. "I don't have to take him from you, he's already mine."

And with these words she slid from his lap and offered her hand. He reached for it, no longer chained to the horrible chair and followed her out the door. He heard his handler shouting at his back, clocking a gun that hadn't been there before, but Bucky merely covered Darcy with his own body. He felt the bullet tearing into his back, then another and another, but her eyes looking up at him with concern made him shake his head, forcing a smile. "It's all right," he whispered. "I've had worse." And then he turned around and shot Gideon Malik through the head.

~ * ~ * ~

Sunlight was streaming through the windows when Bucky opened his eyes again. He had barely dreamed after he had left Hydra and the few times he had, it had been nightmares. But tonight … it had not been that bad. Shifting slightly, he froze when he heard Darcy mumbling. He didn't know the time but didn't want to wake her. Even when he looked down and noticed that she was drooling all over his chest. Well, he couldn't care less, so he wrapped his arms around her gently and watched the light travel over her wall, painting patterns over her disarray wardrobe. He wished he could get everything in order before Darcy woke up. If he eliminated the evidence of her panic attack, she would not feel bad about it in the morning. But that meant leaving the bed and that was not something he was not willing to consider.

When he looked down at her, he noticed that she had woken and was smiling up at him sleepily. "Morning, Sergeant."

Tenderly brushing her sleep-mussed hair out of her face, he smiled down, "Morning, Doll. How do you feel?"

Looking around the room, taking in the havoc she had wrought last night, she exhaled quietly. "Better than expected to be honest." She reached for her phone and frowned. "You called Jane last night?"

Unsure if that was allowed, he admitted reluctantly. "JARVIS suggested it. He sent a text message, telling me that she would be able to help."

As soon as he was finished, the phone rang, showing a picture of Jane laughing under the Mexican sun. "Hey, boss," Darcy answered with a smile, but immediately pulled the phone away from her ear when Jane started screaming.

"Don't you dare 'hey, boss' me, Darcy! Do you have any idea how worried I was? I told your soldier to have you call me the moment you were better! This is the first time this happened in New York and nobody was around to help you. I was worried sick!"

Bucky retreated instantly. That Darcy was supposed to call Dr. Foster had slipped his mind entirely. Surely she would be angry with him. She had trusted him and he had failed to deliver a message. What use was an unreliable asset to a handler? Shaking his head, he tried to force these thoughts away. He was more than an asset to her. She wouldn't be angry for such a minor slight … would she?

He watched her closely and noticed that she rolled her eyes, relaxing against her cushions. "Ja… Bucky was around to help me and he did a damn fine job with it. I'm sorry I didn't call, but after listening to me for an hour, it must have slipped his mind."

Surprised Jane asked, "You talked?"

Sighing slightly, Darcy nodded, "Yes, Jane, we talked."

The reply to that was much softer, too soft for him to hear, so he slowly slid out of the bed and started to hunt down some clothes so he could fetch breakfast. The last thing he heard before he closed the door was Darcy's soft assurance, "Yes, I'm glad that he's around as well. I'm fine, Jane, I promise."

She didn't seem too angry, even though he had failed her. Entering the Starbucks at the corner, he ordered several breakfasts and two types of the overly sweet coffee she usually preferred. That way she had something to choose from. Careful not to spill anything he manoeuvred back to the townhouse, attentively taking in the scenery, making sure that nobody was watching them. He should check the surveillance equipment soon. One couldn't be too careful.

When he entered the flat, all the clothes that had littered the floor were gone and Darcy came out of the bathroom, pulling her hair into a messy ponytail. She zoned in on him, or more precisely, the coffee he held, and beamed when she chose one. "You're the best," she praised, kissing his cheek before picking up cutlery so they could eat on her small dining table. Spreading out the meal, he waited for her to choose before he picked something for himself.

He still felt slightly hungry but not overly so, after having consumed three quarters of the goods he had acquired. He would have to hit a safe house real soon to replenish his funds. He was still surprised how much money could be found there, and shocked about the amount every time a cashier demanded payment. What he had to offer in exchange for a simple, and not even overly filling breakfast these days, was more than he had made in a month in his youth. Of course, he and Steve had never been well off, but the prices today seemed excessive.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

After cleaning up after her panic attack, forcefully supressing feeling ashamed for her moments of weakness, she pondered over what had happened. "You helped Bucky to take care of me."

= Of course I did. You're wellbeing is my second directive, on par with the wellbeing of Miss Potts. =

Chuckling, Darcy shot back. "Way to make a girl feel special, Big Brother."

Since she had her phone in hand already, she shot off a quick message to Tony.

= I'm going shopping. Big Brother deserves better hardware. =

On an afterthought she added.

= I'm using Jane's expense account. =

As expected he didn't react to her texts, so Darcy went about her clean-up and then made herself presentable. The sound of the front door drew her out of the bathroom.

With a groan she took a sip of the delicious white moccachino and polished off the breakfast dish with the least calories, leaving the more nutritious meals for Bucky. "So …," she started, once they were finished. "We're going down to AC Gears. I want cameras, microphones and a few more speakers. We're wiring the flat today."

Zipping up her boots, it took Darcy a moment to realize that Bucky had gotten very still in the living room. Looking at the floor he suggested, "If you feel uncomfortable with knowing I'm here alone, I can leave Monday morning with you and not return before you do."

"What?" Pondering over the situation, it took her but a moment to catch up on what gave him that impression. For the majority of his adult life, especially the part where he had been a prisoner of Hydra, he had been under constant surveillance because nobody had ever trusted him. They had trained him, brainwashed, but still never trusted him not to break program. So they had had eyes on him 24/7 and now she had divulged a similar plan. Gently taking his hand, she tried to correct his impression, "This hardware it not for you, Bucky. I trust you. How can you doubt that when I slept in your arms, tonight? Do you think that I would have done that if I were even slightly unsure about your motives?"

A small smile lit up his face when she mentioned their night together, so he nodded and reached for his jacket as well, when the doorbell rang. It didn't surprise Darcy when a man in a suit offered her a parcel.

"Courtesy of Mr. Stark."

Shaking her head, she opened it and found a credit card with Tony Stark's name on it and a hastily scribbled folded note underneath it. >JARVIS deserves the best. Your scientist's account won't cut it.<

With a sigh, Darcy called her father. "Tony we've been over this. I don't want your money."

Bashing something with something, the noise drowned out everything else for a moment, Tony replied. "Well, tough luck, devil-spawn. JARVIS most certainly wants it. So go and buy some quality equipment on my coin."

Chuckling, she asked, "Are you really sure that you trust your adolescent daughter with your credit card?"

Obviously that question took Tony by surprise. Still, after a few moments of pondering silence he answered, "Yes," before ending the call.

Putting the credit card in her purse, Darcy smiled up at Bucky and gestured out of the door. "Come on, let's have some fun. Tony is paying."

 

~ * Bucky * ~

If he had thought that breakfast was expensive, he was blown away by the amount of money Darcy spent over the next few hours, on surveillance cameras, microphones and speakers. With a haul worth several thousand dollars, she merely offered her credit card to the cashier and the man beamed brightly when he saw the black square of plastic, promising to deliver everything swiftly.

Once they had left the shop, Darcy turned on her heels, tipping the black card to her lips. "All right, the day is young and we have an unlimited budget. What do you want to do?"

"Coney Island …"

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Bucky * ~

Surprised, Darcy looked at him. "Coney Island? You want to go to an amusement park?"

Trying to reach for the memory that had prompted this request, he shook his head. He remembered laughing there, with … someone. It had been fun. "I've been there before," he replied hesitant. "With someone … Steve? … but … he was smaller. Maybe when we were children?"

His stomach growling made him hunch his shoulders, embarrassed by the noise. Darcy, however, threw her head back laughing. Her brown hair, half hidden by her red beanie, shone in the sun, and for a heartbeat his breath caught. She barely gave him time to collect himself when she claimed his arm and decided, "Why don't we try something smaller first? I saw a diner around the corner. Let's have lunch and we can see how you do in a public setting. If you want to go to Coney Island afterwards, something will be arranged."

Enthusiastically, she pulled him along, not that he would put up any resistance. Walking towards a diner, with her at his arm made him feel … normal. As if this was how things were supposed to be. He was able to recall fragments of dates he had had in the past: Dames he had taken dancing, women who had ignored Steve, vying for his attention instead. Even one lady who had done the opposite. But Darcy beat them all. She was confident and smart and so amazingly beautiful just the way she was. Any man who was allowed to walk by her side could consider himself lucky. At the same time, the idea of another man joining her made him feel … irritable.

"Bucky," her soft tone pulled him out of his head and he looked down at her expectantly. Gently, she whispered, "No one will take me, away. I promise."

His confusion must have been prominent on his face, yet when Darcy tugged slightly on her arm, he realized that he had clenched it so tight he had to be hurting her. Regardless of any discomfort, she didn't allow him to pull back. "Just relax. Everything is fine." He carefully folded his human hand over her fingers, anchoring her to his side, more conscious of the amount of force he used.

When they reached the diner, Bucky entered first, checking the exits, the surveillance system, and doing a sweep of the customers. Since it was the middle of the week there were a few businessmen, some kids who should have been at school, and a couple that seemed so lost in each other's eyes, they might as well have been anywhere. Ever vigilant, he guided Darcy towards a table in the corner, and naturally she sat with her back towards the room, leaving the bench on the wall for him. He had an excellent overview over the whole restaurant that way and wondered if she realised the strategic advantage of the table.

When the waitress came, he tensed for a moment before forcing himself to smile at the woman. She was young, probably in her early twenties. Her short skirt left little room to hide any weapons and her top was so tight that even the smallest of knifes would have shown. No threat. Insignificant. Her voice, however, was like sandpaper when she leaned over and chirped, "Hello, Gorgeous, what can I do for you, today?"

Dispassionately, he turned towards Darcy, meeting her eyes before returning his attention to the restaurant. The waitress, however, was not easily discouraged by his dismissive glance. Nearly spreading over the table in front of him she advertised, and not only the food, "We have fresh oysters today. They are delicious and come with a hundred percent success rate. You should give them a try …"

Fortunately, Darcy had finished studying the menu and was ready to order, drawing the attention of this obnoxious person away from him. "We'll have the hot potato chips for starters, together with the baked pretzels, the sweet potato rings with parmesan and the shishito peppers with sea salt. As a main course we'll have the grilled chicken sandwich, the avocado toast and the burger royal, together with ricotta gnocchi with truffle cream. We'll get back to you for the coffee. Oh, and please add a side of fries and charred asparagus."

After the waitress had jotted everything down, she looked at Darcy and him incredulously. "Don't you want to wait for your friends?"

"We're not expecting anybody," Bucky snapped, irritated by the rude gaze the waitress threw Darcy. "Please bring us a jug of juice and a bottle of water and hand our order to your cook. Apparently he's free at the moment."

Once the irritating woman was gone, Darcy slouched down in her seat and pressed both hands to her mouth, breathing unsteady through her nose. Nothing here should remind her of London, still Bucky checked the surroundings, before reaching out for her. "Are you all right, Darcy? Are you hurt?"

Gasping for breath, Darcy shook her head and finally he realized that she was laughing. In fact, she was laughing so hard that tears had started to stream down her face. "That girl … oh my god, that girl … I swear if you would have encouraged her even a little she would have climbed you like a tree. This was hilarious! You didn’t even realize!"

Looking after the waitress, then at Darcy, he reviewed what had just happed. "I'm not interested," he stated after a few moments. "I belong to you." At least as long as she wanted him, which seemed not very long, since Darcy shook her head, sobering immediately.

"What's Rule Number One?"

Worried that he might have made a mistake again, he recited, "I'm a person, I can have likes and dislikes, I'm …"

He immediately interrupted himself, when she reached for his hand, stroking it gently.

Her voice was unbearably soft when she stated, "That's exactly what I'm talking about: you are a person, Bucky. You belong to no one but yourself."

Hiding his clenched fists under the table, he tried to fight down a programming that still insisted on him needing a handler to belong to. It didn't hurt any more, like it had at the beginning, but the thought of not belonging to Darcy was … distressing. So he replied as quietly as possible, "I still would choose you over her any day …"

He didn't remember the words. What to say to a woman to show interest. He had known them. He remembered the charmed looks his dates had given him. Everything he could think of now seemed so inadequate. He lifted his face when he felt the tips of her fingers on his forehead, now allowing himself to bask in her gentle touch as she assured him, "This is no competition, Bucky. It's not me over her or any other woman you might find attractive. You wanted … needed a little help out here when you chose me as your handler. A romantic entanglement is not part of the deal. Maybe you will find someone someday. A person who piques your interest and who you want to spend time with. And that's okay. Whenever you are ready, you can do that." Looking over her shoulder, throwing a knowing look at the waitress who seemed to watch them with hawk's eyes, Darcy snickered, "But maybe a smarter one than this."

Closing his eyes, leaning into her hand, he nodded minutely, "Yes, Darcy."

~ * ~ * ~

A shadow approaching their table made him pull back, reaching for his gun. After a heartbeat, he realized that the shadow was his best friend. Surprised he looked at Steve and then at Darcy for guidance. She however, smiled at their new guest. "Just in time, Captain. It seems that the starters are ready."

The waitress was just stepping up to their table, freezing slightly when she gazed at Steve. His polite, "May I take these from you, Ma'am?" made her nod wordlessly and hand over the plates and drinks, fetching another glass.

When all three sat in the booth, the thick smell of the food between them, James's belly grumbled again. Still, they didn't move until Darcy explained why they were here.

Smiling, she picked up a pepper and pointed at Bucky while addressing Steve. "Your friend here is expected to have fun today, and all he could think off was Coney Island with you. Well … little you. Care to shed some light on this, Steve?"

When a smile lit up his best friend's face, and Darcy started eating nonchalantly, Bucky reached for the potato chips, listening with rapt attention while Steve recalled double dates where he had been ignored, since all women had been drawn to Bucky. He remembered saving pennies to be able to join the crowd for the fireworks on the fourth of July and be able to afford cheap bear. And finally shared the story of a Cyclone ride that had Steve puke all over his date. They had nearly demolished the starters between the three of them, but after the last story, Steve turned the last pretzel between his fingers, not lifting his head.

"We talked about that before," Bucky recalled, fighting past the cold and snow until he reached the high enough place in his mind where the memory of his last day with the Howling Commandos was stored. "I asked you if the slide down to the train was revenge for Coney Island."

Shrugging helplessly, Steve wouldn't look up. Swallowing thickly around a lump in his throat, the Captain recalled, "I said 'no' but it might have been. Only the outcome was so much worse!"

"It was not your fault, you know that, right?" Darcy's voice was quiet but no less determined for it. Her conviction made up for the lack of volume when she reached for Steve's hand to offer comfort.

"Of course it was," he forced out, pulling away his hand. "They were my team! It was my plan! Everything that happened is on me!"

Fleeing the booth, Steve came a mere two steps before Bucky tackled him and pulled him back. Hugging him tight, he felt his best friend sinking against him, clutching his shirt with trembling fingers. It was strange to be the one to offer comfort. With Darcy, he had learned that sometimes the right words and a strong enough hug would do the trick. Uncaring of the scene they made, he whispered into Steve's ear, "No, it was not! Darcy is right. What happened on the train was an accident! What happened afterwards is on Hydra. They captured me, they tortured me, I …"

"I'm so sorry," Steve repeated, clinging even tighter.

"It's not your fault," Bucky replied and then conjured a smile for his best friend. "But I forgive you anyway, punk."

Laughing wetly against his shoulder, Steve mumbled, "Jerk."

And suddenly, everything was a little easier.

Steve pulled back and together they returned to their table, smiling at a beaming Darcy, who had started to raid every plate. The waitress had loaded onto their table in the meantime. The three of them shared every dish and drink available; even when Darcy mostly ate the salad from every plate, she also stole fries and little nips of their sandwiches and burger. When she groaned around a mouth full of ricotta gnocchi with truffle cream, Bucky had to adjust himself in his pants. Steve threw him a knowing smirk so he balled up his napkin and tossed it at him.

Unfazed by the 'attack', Steve continued to demolish his burger, allowing Bucky to encourage Darcy to savour more of the gnocchi.

When they left the diner, Darcy turned homewards. Bucky tried to follow, but she stopped in her tracks, "Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. You and Steve are going to have fun. Go to Coney Island, eat and drink and play until Tony's credit card starts smoking. I'll go home and update my system."

"But …" Bucky started and Steve added, "We can't let you walk these streets alone!"

Chuckling, Darcy pulled her Taser from her bag. Involuntarily both soldiers took a step back. Grinning, she waved it. "See, I'm a big girl and I have protection. Off you go. Enjoy your day." And with that she kissed Bucky's cheek and made her way back to her apartment.

He stood frozen on the sidewalk, until Steve prompted, "We can catch up with her on 8th and Lafayette and shadow her."

With a decisive nod, Bucky turned towards his friend's bike, climbing up behind Steve so they could protect his handler. After all, her safety was his responsibility.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

When she returned to her house, she found Tony at the bottom of the staircase, flirting with Janet. Her neighbour had offered cold drinks and obviously cookies, judging from the crumbs on her father's jeans. When she closed the door behind herself, Janet beamed at her. "Darcy, we were wondering when you would come. Eddie here told me that the tech company sent him to help you with your security system, free of charge because of your purchase. Isn't that nice?"

Coughing into her hand, to keep her laugh hidden, Darcy nodded enthusiastically, "Very nice, indeed. Thank you, Janet, for entertaining him. Should we start … Eddie?"

She snickered all the way up, gathering the packages that had been stored under the window of her corridor. "Edward?" She asked, once the door fell close behind her, and Tony took off his ratty hoody, revealing a torn shirt.

"Yes, if you must know, spawn," he replied haughtily, prancing through her living room, pulling away two loose floorboards in one corner, reaching for the black box that held the majority of JARVIS hardware. "I somehow doubted that you would appreciate a headline like 'Tony Stark offers tech−support to his unknown daughter!'" Looking at the connections and checking the CPU, he pushed the box back under the floor, before looking through the cameras and the microphones she had purchased.

After changing into old jeans and a college shirt, Darcy leaned against the door, watching him sorting through her new hardware. Softly she said, "Thank you."

For not telling anyone. For protecting me and allowing me to remain anonymous while helping me at the same time. For being there for me when my parents can't. This was pretty much an all-encompassing thank you and by the way Tony froze for a heartbeat she fathomed that he understood.

Still, he brushed away her gratitude after a moment, replying easily, "Yes, yes, of course, you're welcome. Your dad would threaten me with another rifle should I let any harm come to his precious daughter. Now move your butt and help me."

"Aye, aye, Sir!" She grinned and started to pick up the packaging so they could see what to work with. Her flat was quite generous for a single person, acceptable for one person and a brainwashed assassin. But Tony Stark had the tendency to take up more space than an average person. So Darcy continued to carefully put things out of harm's way, when they upgraded her security system and thus JARVIS access to her apartment corner by corner.

 

~ * Steve * ~

Steve had waited for Darcy to call him ever since she had tasered him in the hallway. A part of him had started to lose hope of his best friend ever being ready to meet him. Of course he had helped to get Bucky out from under Hydra's thumb, but then his friend had followed Darcy as soon as she had left the tower. Leaving Steve little time to actually get to know him after his years of suffering. He wanted to help Bucky so much that it was a constant physical ache in his chest, especially since he still felt responsible for him getting captured a second time. But Darcy had been right: it had to be Bucky's decision if they were to spend time with each other.

The surprised look on his face, when Steve entered the diner, told him that Darcy had not announced that he would join them for lunch. He was puzzled about her reason for inviting him, yet couldn’t help but smile when sharing the details of their infamous trips to Coney Island. When Bucky recalled their last conversation Steve felt like an asthma attack was coming. The guilt suffocated him and when Darcy insisted that it hadn’t been his fault, he simply couldn’t take it any longer. They didn’t understand. His failure had subjugated his best friend since childhood to decades of torture. Nothing would ever be okay in the light of that.

When Bucky held him, telling him that he was forgiven, Steve could barely breath. He had never leaned on his best friend in the past. Had accepted help when Bucky had offered, but Steve had never allowed himself to hold on to him, too afraid that he might seem weak. He couldn’t bear his best friend looking down on him like everybody else. Now, he simply didn’t have the strength to hold himself up any longer. Clinging to his shoulder, he could barely make out Bucky’s words. When they registered, he sagged even more. Steve had not known the weight of the guilt he had carried. Only when hearing his best friend telling him that he was forgiven he felt like a lead weight was finally lifted off his chest, allowing him to finally draw breath again.

The meal afterwards was … actually enjoyable. In the tower they had shared meals as well, where everybody ordered a dish of choice. Though everybody usually offered a bite, this lunch was more like a trip down memory lane than anything else he had experienced in this century. With Darcy, the dishes were simply put on the table and everybody reached for whatever caught his or her eye. The fierce dame, Bucky had chosen as his handler, had no trouble stealing fries from a super-soldier and nicking sandwiches from an assassin. She freely offered chips and fried asparagus and forced Bucky to eat more of the salad so he could ‘grow up and become a big boy’.

It would have been funny to watch this little lady mothering his best friend, if she had not done the same to him. Slowly Steve understood the besotted look his best friend wore, whenever he looked at Darcy. Once they were all satisfied, she prompted them to visit Coney Island, but one look at Bucky told Steve that they wouldn’t go anywhere until Darcy was safe back home.

On their way over to the amusement area, Steve asked quietly, giving Bucky every chance to ignore his question, “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

He could feel his best friend tense, but after a few minutes of pondering silence, he replied, “I don’t know what love is. It’s gratitude, because she is nice to me after everything that has happened with Hydra.”

“Did Darcy say so?”

When he felt Bucky nod, Steve smiled. “Maybe she's right.” The tightening grip around his middle indicated that his friend obviously did not agree with him, so he continued, "Maybe she's wrong. No one can tell how you feel but you. But I'm sure you will find out in time. And from the looks of it, she's willing to give you all the time in the world."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Steve * ~

Being on Coney Island with Bucky was equally the best and the worst experience Steve has made in this new century so far.

The best because, when he watched his friend from the corner of his eye, he could believe them back in the 40's. Women were smiling at them, and his best friend was puzzling out how to eat the cotton candy without getting all sticky.

The worst, because whenever someone came too close, Bucky tensed, automatically going on alert until the person had passed.

As per Darcy's instructions, they had pulled a few hundred bucks from a cash machine and spent the money on rides, hot dogs and sweets. Steve still was no fan of the Cyclone, but at least he hadn't thrown up this time. Jumping from planes as an occupational hazard had steeled his stomach. Now he and Bucky were browsing the booths, trying one game or the other. Running into his best friend when he froze mid−step, Steve saw him pointing at a shooting gallery.

"There are bears that are dressed like us," his friend stated, confused.

Gazing over Bucky's shoulder, Steve chuckled. "Yes, they revived our legacy with the strangest merchandise. That's a Bucky−Bear. They also have Dum Dum, Jones, Dernier and Jim. You should see Monty's; he wears this completely over the top Basque bonnet. He would hate it.

"Yours is wearing a cushioned suit and a shield and mine has a jacket, like the one I had in the war, and a stuffed rifle."

"It's a series of Howling Commando bears."

Confused, Bucky tilted his head, "Why would they do that?"

"Because they consider us heroes," Steve replied easily, instantly getting concerned when he saw his friend's face cloud over. "What is it?"

But Bucky just clenched his fists and mumbled something under his breath, too quiet for even him to hear. He thought he heard something resembling the rules Darcy had set up, something about him not being a monster, but he couldn't be sure. After a minute, Bucky took a deep breath and stated in an even tone, "I want one for Darcy."

Since it was a shooting gallery, chances were good that he could actually win one with little effort. Putting a few coins on the counter, Steve pointed at the desired object, "How much to win the bear?"

Chuckling the guy replied, "You have to clear one whole board. That's one hundred plastic cylinders and you get ten shots per ticket. Are you sure you want to risk it?"

Since it was five bucks per ticket, Steve and Bucky traded a glance and nodded. Bucky picked up the rifle while Steve put a Grant on the counter. Shrugging the showman picked four additional set of ammunition.

Quietly Bucky demanded, "Give him another Lincoln, I have to get used to the gun."

Doing as requested, Steve watched his best friend taking aim, shooting one of the ducks from the top row. Then missing the next one twice, growling slightly. "It draws to the right."

"Listen guys," the young guy advised, "Just go for the bigger targets and win something else. We have a 'no refund' policy, so if you miss, I can't return your money."  Obviously the thought of two displeased customers of Steve and Bucky's stature worried him.

After one shot hit a basket in the second row and one had grazed a bucket in the third, Bucky replied, "I don't miss," before reloading the gun, pulling out half of the empty clip, loading a new one.

Steve just smiled and leaned against the edge of the gallery, watching his friend settling on the counter. When the showman tried to approach Bucky again, Steve held him back. Since Bucky started to shoot off the small plastic cylinders from the board in front of him, that proved to be a wise choice. Like a metronome, his shots fell, and one by one the targets tumbled. He reloaded and reloaded and before three minutes were over, the entire row was cleared.

The guy gaped, when Bucky offered the rifle with the five shots he hadn't used to a teenager that stood by his side. "Here, give it a try."

When the showman still stood frozen in his corner, Steve reached for the Bucky−bear and handed it over. "I see, you're still a great shooter."

Clutching the bear to his chest, Bucky replied quietly, "I'm the best. They made sure of it."

"Yes, you are," Steve stated in a low tone, "otherwise there wouldn’t have been a body to pull out of the Potomac, but a corpse."

That seemed to shake his best friend out of his mind, because Bucky looked up apologetic. "I'm sorry for hurting you."

Steve shoulder−checked him. "What did you say during lunch? What happened is on Hydra; they forced you."

"They …" Bucky forced out from behind clenched teeth. "They did. I still hate it."

"Don't," he advised. "Don't hate something you could have done nothing to prevent. It was not your fault."

Closing his eyes, Bucky nodded before looking up again. "I want to go home, Steve."

Nodding, he directed his friend towards the exit. "Come on, I'll get you back. Darcy might be wondering what we've been up to."

Once on the motorcycle, Bucky spoke up again, while securing the bear between their bodies. "Thank you, Steve. I really had fun today."

"You're welcome, pal. If you want a repeat, just give me a call."

They were not okay again. Nothing had magically become better over the course of a single afternoon. Steve was well aware that he didn't have the Bucky of 1943 back. But the man his best friend had been, was still there, he was sure of it. He was just buried under programs and torture since he had been a prisoner of war for more than half a century. His best friend needed time to find himself and his place in this new century, but Steve was sure that if they gave him time and the support he needed, he would make it. James Buchannan Barnes had always been a particularly stubborn bastard.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Working with Tony was fun. Like working cars with Uncle Ian but with more electrocution. Twice they had fried her circuits until the engineer had growled and ordered a better cut–out switches to be delivered ASAP. Now everything was nice and stable, though Darcy could practically see the meter reader counting up. Well, she had a good job and if JARVIS put the cameras in sleep−mode until he detected motion, her electricity bill wouldn't shoot through the roof. They had finished their groundwork an hour ago and now Darcy was determined to hide as many of the wires as possible behind paint or carpets or plinths. She had no intention of tripping over them at every turn.

She was currently readjusting some plinths in her bedroom when she heard her father's voice from the living room. "Did you give out any of your spare keys?"

Wiggling under the bed to reach for her hammer, she shouted back, "No, why?"

"Because your pet assassin and his American Idol are standing in your living−room. And they didn't knock."

Grinning, relieved that they had come back, Darcy replied, "He was a master assassin for half a century, I doubt that a thumb−lock is much of a challenge."

When she exited the bedroom, brushing smudges from her arms and face, she took in the picture of the two soldiers who stood in the middle her living room, clearly at loss of how to react to the sight of two 'Starks' covered in dust.

Scandalized, Tony looked down from the dresser he had used as a prop to reach the wires at the ceiling. "I install you the most advanced security system in the world and your door has a thumb lock? Are you crazy?"

Raising her eyebrows, she wanted to know, "Is that a trick question?"

"I'm buying you a new one!" He jumped down, reaching for his hoodie.

That statement shook Bucky out of his stupor, because he reluctantly pulled a box out from behind one of the sofa cushions. "I already bought one, I just didn't have time to install it."

"Excellent," Tony decided, claiming it. "I'm outside if you need me."

"Most women would prefer flowers but a safety lock surely is a nice gesture," Darcy decided, looking at her soldier. How come he had such tremendous self-control when it came to fighting or pain but blushed so nicely when she complimented him?

 

~ * Bucky and The Asset * ~

He hadn't expected to return to Iron Man … no, Tony Stark working in Darcy's apartment. Obviously the engineer had helped her to upgrade her security system and while he was grateful that she had better protection, he was concerned that his gift would pale compared to what Stark had done today. Somehow he felt silly putting effort into winning a stuffed bear he could maybe buy for half the money in a store. She was a grown woman and he had chosen a child’s toy. She might not even like it.

When Steve nudged him encouragingly, he pulled out the bear and offered it reluctantly. "I … won you a bear."

Her brilliant smile made him relax when she claimed it and hugged him the same moment. "Oh, my god," she gushed, "he's so cute. Thank you!" Rising to her tiptoes she kissed his cheek before leaving for her bedroom. "I will just put him into bed so I can cuddle him tonight."

Steve purposefully avoided his gaze when Bucky's cheeks turned red. He had neither expected her enthusiasm nor the idea that she would put his present into her own bed. The idea of her clutching something he had won was … comforting. Like he had finally done something right. He ignored his best friend who tried to hold in a snicker at his enamoured gaze. He cared for Darcy deeply, even if she didn't believe in the sincerity of his feelings.

When she emerged from her bedroom, she clapped her hands and asked, "Pizza anyone? I think we deserve a treat tonight."

"Double cheese and pepperoni for me!" Tony shouted from the hallway. "JARVIS knows where to order."

"I know where to order as well," she shouted back.

Helpfully, he handed over the flyer from the pizza place she liked, offering a copy of the menu to Steve. When his friend was studying it, Tony strolled back in, scolding his daughter. "I give you the most advanced Artificial Intelligence at your disposal and you still order your own pizza?!"

"Because I enjoy talking to human beings rather than machines!" she snapped back. “No offence, Big Brother.”

JARVIS' “None taken,” nearly drowned his creator’s mumbled, "Or both," while throwing a glance at Bucky. And though Darcy probably hadn't heard it − Tony had been too quiet − Bucky sure as hell did. He retreated towards the kitchen to do … something.

When Darcy entered a minute later, he was still standing in the middle of the room, at loss as to how to occupy himself. The thing was, the engineer was right. He had been programmed like a machine, with appropriate responses for certain situations. He would never be 'a real boy'. It was a delusion he just enjoyed entertaining whenever he was around Darcy and Steve.

"That wasn't an insult, you know?" Darcy piped up, and Bucky flinched slightly since he hadn't heard her coming, too wrapped up in his own head. Slowly, he turned around, because if a dame was talking to you, you looked at her! Still, he didn't know how to reply, even shrank back into himself when she stepped closer. "Tony is an ass sometimes, but he actually prefers talking to machines over people. There are very few he enjoys spending time with. Apart from that, he loves to hole up in his workshop with only JARVIS, DUM−E, Butterfingers and U as his sole companions."

"Being part machine is not natural," Bucky replied quietly, but couldn't help but close his arms around her when she wrapped around him.

"Enclosing oneself in a suit of armour isn't natural as well. Or taking a serum that buffs you up until you are twice the size you were before," she retorted. "Open your eyes, Bucky. We are surrounded by people who are not 'normal'. But that's okay. And I will even tell you a secret,"

Expectant he looked down at her, his arms not giving an inch.

Smiling up at him, she shared, "Normal is boring as hell!"

He couldn't supress a smile and after another moment, she asked, "What do you want on your pizza?"

"Cheese?" Was this a trick question? He was well aware of the ingredients to choose from but he couldn't recall the taste of most of them. But cheese was common. It was bound to taste good like, "Ham and … and the little black things … olives? I can't remember if I like them but Stevie does."

Chuckling, Darcy pulled back, and instantly he wanted to follow her. But that wouldn't be welcome. He couldn't plaster himself to her, no matter how much he would like to. So he followed her back into the living room at a distance and sighed, relieved, when she decided, "Why don't I chose for you? I'm sure I can come up with something you will enjoy."

Smiling, because he knew the correct answer to that question he replied, "Yes, Darcy."

 

~ * Darcy * ~

She marvelled on how normal it felt to have Steve and Tony over for pizza. Showing foresight, Darcy had decided to order six pizzas, since the super−soldiers would certainly polish off two each. They had fun watching a few chosen episodes of Dr. Who, where Steve and Bucky, who had once more claimed the floor in front of her, watched her and Tony argue about the technology displayed in each episode. Half way through the third show JARVIS piped up, "Darcy, Sir, Mr. Fury is on the line."

"We're out," Tony replied around a mouth full of gummy−worms he had snatched out of her secret stash. “In fact, we're on another continent. No phone access. No internet access. It's seriously tragic how impossible it is for Fury to contact us.” Steve, however, decided more politely, "Please, patch him through, JARVIS."

On the television screen, Rose Tyler was replaced with the dark−skinned pirate Darcy had heard so much about. She immediately got her biological father's dislike for him when he growled, "We have reports of the Winter Soldier carrying a rifle on Coney Island, we need you to look for him. We can't have a Russian assassin roaming free in our city!"

Since Fury had shuffled through some clips on his computer until now, displaying quite a nice picture of Bucky where he weighed a gun from a shooting gallery in his hands, he looked up now for the first time. He gaped at the 'Russian assassin' at Darcy's feet. Instantly his blood−pressure seemed to rise, since a vein on his forehead started throbbing. "Captain Rogers, Iron Man, I order you to bring the Winter Solder in immediately! He's a dangerous criminal and can't be allowed around civilians!"

Instantly Darcy felt Bucky tense before her, so she put a comforting hand on his shoulder and decided, "Not happening."

"And who are you?" The director … former director … reinstated director or whoever of S.H.I.E.L.D. glared at her.

"Darcy Lewis, Taserer of Gods and Wrangler of Scientists," she replied dryly before repeating, "and I will be damned before I allow you to take Bucky in again."

Snarling, Fury shot back, "How are you planning to do this exactly?"

"With my help," Tony replied, backing her up.

"And mine," Steve added, before adding angrily, "Bucky will stay exactly where he is. He certainly won't return to captivity. Especially not to an organization that had sheltered Hydra. A group who had kept him a POW for half a decade. Sorry, Nick, but Darcy is right. This is not happening."

"I wasn't a prisoner of war," Bucky replied tonelessly. "Hydra found me after I fell from the train. They saved me. They gave me a new arm. Without them I would have died."

Slowly all three turned their heads towards him. Darcy recovered the fastest and demanded, "Come again?"

"Hydra …" he forced out, clenching his hair, pulling at the strands. "I was …" Bucky tried again, but seemed to choke on the words.

"Big Brother," Darcy ordered calmly while watching her soldier start to shake from distress. "Cut the feed."

"You can't …" Fury erupted, but blessed JARVIS did as he was told.

Bucky didn't say a word yet the trembling increased, so she commanded, "Get up to the roof."

Nearly jack-knifing into standing, her soldier turned towards her bedroom and left the apartment through the window. Darcy motioned Steve and Tony to follow. When passing her nightstand, she dug out some medical tape, handing it over to Steve. "Here, tape your knuckles."

"Why?"

"Because I said so!" she snapped, following her 'Russian assassin' to the roof. Upstairs, she watched Bucky pace the length of the building. He seemed to grow more agitated with every passing moment. Clearly he had trouble fighting his programming; it seemed to need all of his strength to force it down, especially since the predetermined responses he had given about Hydra a minute ago. Obviously he was well enough aware that what he had said was wrong, but he seemed unable to overcome his conditioning to tell the truth. At least at the moment.

Once Steve entered the roof after her, she looked at his knuckles. Good, so at least one of the two wouldn't end up with split skin today. Unable to think for another immediate solution for Bucky’s distress she demanded of Steve, "Hit him!"

"I certainly won't hit my best friend!" He seemed appalled by the very idea. But Darcy insisted, "Listen, he never got this agitated before. He needs an outlet or he will hurt himself. Tony in his armour is too dangerous and I am not up for a wrestling match. Please, Steve, if you want what's best for him: Hit him!"

Understanding seemed to dawn in her biological father, because out of the blue he backed her up. "There are no punching bags around, Steve. There is only you."

"Da…rn." Steve sighed but then approached his best friend. Stepping into Bucky's line of sight, he telegraphed his first hit and within moments they two soldiers out of time engaged in a vicious fist−fight. Darcy sat down on the edge of the roof and Tony slid up beside her. "How long do you think will they be at it?"

"As long as possible, I hope. This is the first time that he's reacted violently. Until now he has always tempered it."

"And you think that's healthy?"

"Healthier than supressing it! What they did to him was horrible. It's time for him to get angry!"

Swinging his feet, Tony observed, "There seems to be a lot pent up rage there."

Marring her bottom lip with her teeth, Darcy nodded. Of course there was, and today was the first time Bucky had allowed it to surface. She hoped that this meant he was improving. That he could get it all out and really start healing. After a quarter of an hour, wherein she had made sure that Bucky wouldn't switch into Winter Soldier mode, she slid down off the edge. "I'll get something to drink. Do you want a soda?"

Confirming that, Tony continued to work on the tablet he had pulled out of his pocket a few minutes ago, going over some calculations.

More than an hour later, the combatants slowed down and called a truce. Both looked rather beaten, but having reviewed the footage of several fights the Winter Solder and Captain America had engaged in, Darcy knew that this was nothing. She picked up two Gatorades, looking at Bucky when he reached for the first, not handing it over yet. "What did Hydra do to you?"

Forcing a deep breath, he replied, "They saved me after the fall. After patching me up they kept me prisoner. They tortured me, brainwashed me and made me their weapon." After a heartbeat he forced out from behind clenched teeth, "They are monsters and I wish they were all dead!"

Smiling at him proudly, she handed over the sports drink, but Bucky eyed the one Steve was currently opening, deciding, "I want the blue one!" After hesitating for a second he reached out and took it from Steve. All three gaped. Darcy beamed with pride when she handed over the tropical flavoured drink to the Captain. This certainly was a step into the right direction.

Clearly stunned by his own courage, Bucky downed the whole bottle in one go and then toyed with it. Taking the plastic from him, Darcy ordered softly, "Get down and take a shower. I'm sure Steve will prefer not to go home all sweaty, so leave some hot water for him."

With a "Yes, Darcy," he fled the roof.

~ * ~ * ~

Steve sank to the floor, sitting there cross−legged while removing the tape from his hands. "I didn't expect that to help."

"But it did," she replied softly.

Smiling up at her, balling up the sticky tape, Steve nodded. "Yes, it did. Maybe he should join you in the tower sometimes and I can show him our gym."

Trading glances with her father − helping her soldier now and then was entirely different than welcoming him under his roof for an extended amount of time − Darcy relaxed when Tony nodded. "I think I will do just that. Thank you."

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

As much fun as it had been to have her father and Steve around, it was a relief to see them out and finally have her little flat to herself again. Bucky was clearly concerned about the fight, though for now he kept his distance and didn't address the topic. Instead he helped her clean up and made sure that everything was in order before he retreated to his makeshift bed in the living room. He said a quiet 'good night' when she entered her bedroom, balancing a soda on top of papers and her tablet. She had missed quite a lot on her job while looking for Bucky. Since everybody was now home and cared for, Darcy decided to make a dent into her workload.

Her bedroom was illuminated by soft colours because of the fairy lights she had wound around the top of her bed. Sinking into her nest, she started to study Jane's equations on the tablet and the first draft of a new article her boss intended to publish. Darcy still couldn't read these magazines without falling asleep, but for Jane it was kind of a big deal to get recognition from her community. So she went over the countless sheets of data and tried to bring them into some semblance of order. Her girl had the irritating tendency to ticket her pages in the corner most convenient for her.

Sometimes she had to pull up her tablet to make sense of a few explanations, but by now Darcy had become so used to Jane's science babble that she could comprehend most of it. Well, she didn't really understand them, but the logical order of the sheets occurred to her after but a little research. Now she looked up different terminology for certain expressions to make the article a little easier to comprehend, when all of a sudden there was a knock on her bedroom door.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

Starring at the ceiling, Bucky took inventory of all his little aches. Fighting with Steve had been … good; freeing in a way he had not expected. Feeling infinitely grateful that Darcy had, once again, known exactly what he needed. He hated himself for what he had said about Hydra. Their programing emerged at the most importune moments, no matter how hard he was fighting it. It was like an uphill battle on quicksand. He was never able to predict when the ground beneath his feet would start shifting.

After besting this particular obstacle, he felt alone, close to Darcy but abandoned at the same time, since she had retreated to her bedroom with only a tiny smile. He wanted to be able to hold her. Assure himself that she was not angry with him, because of his setback. She hadn't looked angry once the fight was over; quite the contrary. But now every possible way he could have handled this differently danced before his eyes and he was ashamed of his loss of composure. Why couldn't he simply have corrected himself, saying he was wrong, that Hydra were all bastards, instead of getting worked up? After hearing himself defending Hydra, his throat had closed up, had kept him from sharing his honest opinion, and he the more agitated he had grown, the less he had managed to articulate himself.

Now Bucky's whole body hurt and it was comforting. Both he and Steve had held back from a number of instant incapacitations, instead choosing to tire each other out. Bucky was well aware that tomorrow, he would be able to function at full capacity again. The serum sped the cure of broken bones, so strains or pulled muscles were child's play.

However, it never cured emotions. For the last seventy years the Winter Soldier had almost always been surrounded by people. The few times he had lost his team during an assignment or had been on solo missions, he had been given a very narrow timeframe to succeed and return to base. Once there, he had been checked by the doctors and maintenance had followed. If he had been good, his handler would praise him, on rare occasions would even touch his shoulder. He had tried to commit these moments to memory, and despite being wiped in between assignments, he had always … not hated to work for such tactile handlers. Darcy was unlike any other handler he had had before. She touched him freely. Would even hug him or toy with his hair whenever they were watching TV. Since he enjoyed that, he always chose a spot in front of her on the floor. Today she had done everything right, had given him an outlet for his justified anger, had combed through his drying strands while watching the shows. Despite all that, he felt … not content enough to rest.

Would she welcome him in her bed again? He had complied. As soon as she had given an order, he had followed it. He was still out here alone.

Spying into her bedroom revealed that she was working. Darcy had invested quite some time into freeing him from Hydra's clutches. Obviously she had neglected her duties to achieve that. It would be smarter to leave her be and let her catch up with her work. He couldn't help her, but at least he wouldn't disturb her if he stayed out here and remained quiet.

Maybe she felt thirsty? The few times he had been in her lab, well, Jane Foster's lab, she had always had something to drink beside her. So he went for the kitchen to grab a soda. Caffeine would help her to stay awake, sugar to work more efficient. Wanting to prove himself as inconspicuous as possible, he knocked quietly. If she was immersed in her work, she could simply miss the knock and he would know not to disturb her. Yet when she asked him to enter he slipped in and offered the drink, noticing belatedly that she already had one on her bedside table.

"If you want to come to me, you don't have to make up an excuse. Just tell me that you don't want to be alone."

Her words felt like slap to the face. When had he become so transparent? That would prove difficult for possible assignments in the future. He should …

When Darcy lifted her cover he was helpless but to crawl into bed with her. His mind only caught up with his actions when he lay with his head in her lap, watching her, typing on the tablet, while carding her fingers through his hair with the other hand. An ache in his chest started to diminish at her soothing touch. Being with her had meant kissing, leading up to sex in the past, but tonight he didn't feel the slightest incentive to touch her intimately. He was just safe, and comfortable to be allowed by her side.

Quietly he whispered, "I don't want to be alone." It felt like admitting to a failure to say so, so he was surprised when Darcy simply looked down at him and nodded, "I imagine. Today brought back bad memories. No wonder you want to cuddle."

His frown made her type faster on her tablet, showing him an article that explained in layman terms about oxytocin and serotonin and endorphins. After he had reached the bottom of the page, she switched back to her work and explained, "No matter how high and mighty we act, humans evolved from gregarious animals and a major part of our brain still falls back to instinct in times of crisis. We know that the strongest alpha should be our leader. We feel that being touched by someone we consider family or a friend means approval and that we are safe with that person. There is a whole science behind this. The need to cuddle is statistically proven." Brushing a strand of hair out of his eyes, she smiled, "Maybe you being here with me will even help me to work more efficiently. Who knows." With a wink she pulled up her papers again, sorting through them one handed, since the other wouldn't leave his head.

Relieved he pulled himself a little closer still. There was a scientific explanation why he craved contact. He was not defective, would not be punished for not being strong enough on his own. Finally, he was able to close his eyes and rest, convinced that everybody he cared about, including himself, was safe for the night.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

It nearly broke Darcy’s heart to see Bucky standing in the doorway with such a flimsy excuse. Once he was settled, she berated herself for not paying better attention. Had she looked closer, maybe she would have spared him the need to find an excuse to come after her. After his brush with the programming, it was expected for him to be disquieted. He was not a tool, pulled out for a single purpose. How could people be so evil, disregarding everything that made a person human? Darcy wanted to storm every Hydra base in existence, burning everything to the ground, just to avenge him. Sadly, she was neither a god, nor a super soldier, not even a master spy or a genius like her father. Well, she was pretty smart but …

Shaking her head, she forced her attention back to Jane’s paper. It talked about clusters of stars and how they affected each other. Every star had its own gravitational pull that influenced every other celestial object around it, but a cluster of stars … gravitation was certainly stronger with them? Jane had been particularly excited when it came to something new she had discovered about star–clusters. Darcy just wasn't sure what, though it seemed to be a big deal. They had worked for weeks at Culver, using shared computing to prove her theory. Now, with Stark–tech, everything was easier. A few years ago …

Astronomers used shared computing all the time because making sense of space took a lot out of every machine. Most Universities nowadays had programs you could sign your computing up for, when you didn’t need it. In exchange you received benefits like cheap operating systems or programs for a reduced price. Buying Windows for less than a hundred bucks had made Darcy sign up for it herself. Leaving her computer on overnight hadn’t been a hardship after all.

Stars rarely abandoned their paths; their function in the sky was encoded in every other celestial object that had been drawn into their orbit. Humans were basically the same. Once put on a certain path they needed a lot of force to push them off course. Helicarriers falling out of the sky certainly might be such a force. Maybe secret organizations were like star–clusters: held on their paths by all the other objects … Hydra cells … around them. Chances were good that they hadn’t given up on their plans for world domination. Captain America certainly had set them back a few years but giving up was not really their style.

Darcy imagined that monitoring every person on the planet, screening their social media accounts and their online messages needed a huge amount of server power. Especially if their secret – or by now not-so-secret – headquarters had been flushed out from under their feet by the Black Widow. Still, though Natasha might have cut off one very important head, at least one new head had taken its place. If Malick still had his eyes on the prize … if they were still screening people to predetermine enemy from friend, they had to communicate, use some kind of network …

Gideon Malick had tried to get back his number one weapon. Not exactly the actions of a man who had given up.

Quietly she ordered, “Big Brother, get me Tony on the phone?”

Routing the call though her mobile instead of the new speakers, she asked, as soon as she heard her bio–father’s infernal music blaring through the speaker, “How much power would a supercomputer or a server farm need, to monitor the online activities of every person on this planet?”

Bless Tony, he immediately got what she was talking about, because the music in the background, as well as the power–tool that had added to the noise, ceased. “The energy output of a small city?” He started giving Jarvis commands in the background, pushing Darcy to speaker phone.

Angling for her headset, she plugged herself in and routed the call through her pad. Watching the energy–hubs Jarvis had displayed for the engineer, both came to the same conclusion. Hydra was not using a supercomputer or a server farm. That left Darcy with the assumption, “They may use shared computing.” Chewing at her bottom lip, dragging her fingers through James’ hair because the motion soothed her, she pondered quietly, “If they work in a network and we can write a virus to infect it …”

“We could sniff them out,” Tony deduced. “At least those computers attached to it.”

“What if they use public computers?”

“Hydra? And risk getting caught? They are much too paranoid for that!” the engineer huffed.

It was a risk. They had to get close to one of Hydra’s systems to implement such a virus. But looking down at Bucky, who slept so trustingly in her bed, shivering slightly from a nightmare, not even daring to make any noise, Darcy whispered brokenly, “I want them gone, Tony. They have no right to exist. These people are not even human!”

Sneering, her father replied, “You and the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers and every other person on this planet. We still have to find a way into their system! If you don’t want your pet assassin to return to them, I’m fresh out of ideas of how to achieve that.”

“Never!” Darcy hissed, rubbing Bucky’s back soothingly when he tensed subconsciously at her angry tone.

“Let’s worry about the details later,” Tony decided. “A virus is actually a good idea, maybe I can come up with something. Once it's ready all we have to do is find one of their hives.”

“Thank you, I just thought ... we have to do something,” she admitted weakly, growing quieter, giving the man in her arms the chance to calm. Once he drew deep and even breathes again, Darcy looked at her tablet where Tony still showed.

Turning away from his monitors, Tony actually looked into the camera. “I know the feeling, Darcy. Believe me. I know it better than anyone. But sometimes all you can do is wait and bide your time until you are ready to execute your revenge. We won’t let them get away with this. Just be patient and don’t do anything stupid. Promise me, spawn, promise me that, whatever plan you come up with, you run it by me first.”

“You’re becoming pretty good at all this, you know,” Darcy remarked with a small smile.

“This what?” the engineer asked, already distracted by his new project.

“The whole dad–thing,” she replied. Before Tony had a chance to catch up with her compliment − they always made him uncomfortable − she bade him farewell. “Good night, Tony. And thanks for listening.”

Caressing James’ hair again, she whispered, “We will make them pay. We can’t torture them the same way they tortured you, but we can hit them where it hurts. If you pull the floor out from under a monster, not even a Hydra can stand.”

For the first time Darcy was actually tempted to make use of The Asset that Bucky had so easily handed over to her. He would follow her every order. She did not even need to manipulate him to achieve that. Setting him on a target would ensure its annihilation. But using him to execute revenge would make her no better than Hydra. She was a human being, no matter her anger, and he was not a tool. She could never do that to him, not even if it might help him to keep him safe.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

He woke firmly wrapped around a soft body. Or maybe he hadn’t woken yet. This felt too much like one of the dreams he had had with Hydra. For a heartbeat Bucky was worried that everything he remembered: Darcy coming after him, the Avengers getting him out, him returning to her flat, to her bed even, had been nothing but a dream. Actually, this was even better than any of his dreams. A dame allowing him to sleep by her side, not expecting anything but company. It couldn't be real.

He tried to breath evenly, as to not disturb the vision. When Darcy moved in his arms he held on to her even tighter, whispering despairing, “Please, don’t make me wake up?”

His eyes shot open when she replied cheekily, “Why? Is your dream better than my morning breath?”

Inhaling purposefully, he realized that no, she had never smelled like this in his dreams. It was a mixture of her deodorant, sweat and paper. Why was Darcy smelling like paper? Looking around, he noticed that they must have fallen asleep while she had still been working. During the night they had crushed her papers under them, spreading them over the bed while moving around. That left him with but one conclusion.

“This is not a dream.”

Frowning, Darcy turned in his arm and looked at him. “Why would it be?”

“Because I’m not hurting?” he whispered.

“Oh, Bucky.”

He couldn’t help but bury his face in her tousled hair, when she pulled him into her arms. Inhaling deeply, he admitted, “I’m never sure. Everything was good when I was sleeping. Waking up brought confusion and …”

“Pain?” she pondered, encouraging him to continue his explanation, softly stroking his back.

“I was so tired all the time. Fortunately, they gave me coffee to wake me up ahead of an assignment. But I never particularly liked coffee and the espresso made my stomach hurt. It got better when they fed me … I mean when they served me a meal. Sometimes, however, there was no time for it and I had to go out hungry. And after breaking Malick’s arm …”

Understanding the whole mess the drugs had caused, made Darcy growled under her breath. Instinctively he froze, afraid that he had angered her. He had tried to comply but …

“Come on,” she urged, nudging him to rise from the bed. “Let’s get some food into you.”

“Yes, Darcy.” Obediently, he left her bedroom for the kitchen, watching her whip up some pancakes for breakfast. Once they sat on the table, she served him a huge portion.

“I don’t know how to convince your mind that this is real. But at least I can help your body feeling satisfied. As long as you are not hungry, you know that you are not with Hydra any longer. Right?”

Hydra had fed him, had given him enough to quench his hunger, but this was different. With Darcy he was allowed to enjoy every meal and take as much as he wanted until he was really full. His body worked better on a full stomach, since his metabolism burned through more calories than a normal human, thanks to the serum. With a small smile, he spooned up the last of the maple syrup from his plate, agreeing with her, “You are right.”

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * James * ~

Monday morning, Darcy had, inevitably, to return to work. To Bucky's surprise, she prompted him to follow her. At the tower, Steve was waiting for Bucky, and after they had seen Darcy off to Jane’s lab, his best friend showed him the Avengers' very own gym. Natasha was currently moving in front of a mirrored wall in what seemed to be a merge between ballet and martial arts. He noticed her movements to be elegant but not perfect. Nevertheless, he didn’t feel that he had the right to correct her. He remembered … this … seeing her, or other young women moving that way. Yet he couldn’t get a grip on the time or place. He just knew that Natasha was not doing everything a hundred percent right.

Steve guided him to a sparring ring and held up the top–rope. Bucky shook his head, stating quietly, “I doubt that Darcy would approve of me fighting again.” Taking a deep breath, trying to come up with a solution for their obvious conflict, he suggested, “I know that I hurt you yesterday, and I’m sorry for it. I will allow you to get in a hit for free. No need to put me on a mat for that.” Any bruise would heal before meeting Darcy for lunch, at least he hoped so. If Steve was really angry with him, though it didn’t look like that, he might even break one of his bones. But as Winter Soldier he had gotten used to pain. He might even be able to keep an injury from his handler.

Dumbfounded, his best friend let go of the rope. Steve had never backed down from a fight, but yesterday he had made a conscious effort not to injure Bucky. And now, being led to a boxing ring made Bucky put his money on Steve wanting a rematch. He nearly flinched when all of a sudden Natasha spoke behind his left shoulder.

“Steve wants to train with you, not to beat you up for yesterday. He has to pull his punches with us. I think he just wants to blow off some steam. Sandbags are such weak opponents.”

He could hear the smirk in her voice, and when he looked at his friend again, Steve had found his composure again. “Yes, it’s just for training, not a ‘real’ fight. I’m sure Darcy wouldn’t have a problem with that. Hydra is still after us. All of us benefit from being in good shape.”

~ * ~ * ~

Three hours later, Bucky was holding an ice–bag over his formerly dislocated shoulder to sooth the ache. Steve had gotten in a lucky hit, yet had apologized profoundly afterwards. His shoulder would be right as rain in about an hour. Still, the punk looked like he was about to burst into tears, apologizing over and over. So Bucky promised, with a wink, “Don’t worry, punk, I won’t tattle, so you don’t have to worry about Darcy tasering you for damaging her property.”

“Bucky, I’m …”

“Don’t, Steve,” he interrupted. Natasha had left the room to hunt down a shower. She had supervised their training and had given both of them valuable tips. Maybe he should return the courtesy. Returning his attention to his best friend, Bucky shook his head. “I’ve had worse and we both know it. This is nothing. Tonight I won’t even remember it.”

“Still, I should have paid better attention,” Steve replied, contrite.

Rolling his eyes, Bucky reminded him, “You not pulling your punches was the whole purpose of this exercise.” It wasn’t and they both knew it, but neither intended to address that.

Quietly they sat side by side, sipping their water until both bottles were empty. Looking at the last of the liquid sloshing at the bottom, Bucky finally built up the courage to ask quietly, “Do you ever wonder if this is all a dream: you, me, the twenty–first century?”

When Steve looked at him for a few moments, Bucky curled into himself. What on earth had prompted him to ask such a stupid question? Now his best friend, who treated him like a dainty little flower thanks to his time with Hydra anyway, would be convinced that he had lost it completely. Great way to restart their friendship. ‘Hi, I’m Bucky Barnes. I was your best friend some eighty years ago and I’m a complete loon.’ Way to go, Barnes!

Cudgelling his brain on how to turn this around, he nearly overheard Steve’s prompt, “Come on, I want to show you something.”

Following him to the changing room, Bucky watched Steve pulling out a little, black notebook from his locker. When it was offered, he took it reluctantly, looking up to see if he was allowed to take a glimpse inside. At his best friend’s encouraging nod, Bucky leafed through the pages, discovering movies, book titles and references in modern slang. Confused, since nothing seemed to be special about this item, he frowned, turning it in his hands. It was a small, non–descript booklet you could buy on every street corner, a dime a dozen. The paper was cheap and the cover made of fake leather. Shaking his head, he gave it back. “I don’t understand.”

Sighing, Steve plunked himself down on the bench in the middle of the room. “When they woke me up after the ice, everything was different. I was alone and the first thing I heard was a baseball game I have watched with you. They tried to fool me into believing that it was still the 1940s but they did a poor job at it. The radio transmitted with far too good of a quality, despite its appearance. The blouse of the nurse was nearly see−through and her bra … anyway I escaped and came out in the middle of New York. Talk about culture–shock,” he sneered.

Slowly claiming the other part of the bench, Bucky absorbed every word. “At first I was convinced that everything was a dream. That I might be brain–damaged and had made up this fantastic world Howard had always talked about. But when Fury came to me and talked about the Tesseract, I started to suspect that all this was real. I would never dream up such a horrible energy source to return to the surface, not when I purposefully sank a plane into … anyway.

“What finally convinced me was visiting Peggy.”

Bucky couldn’t help but reach out to put a comforting hand on Steve’s shoulder. The pain in his best friend’s eyes was prominent when he talked about his former girl. After a few moments, he continued, “She lives in a nursing home now. She is sick, Alzheimer’s, but it’s not like it was in our time. With the right meds there are times when she is lucid and remembers everything that happened. Those times are further and farther these days, but at the beginning it was a lot better. The second time I visited her, she suggested for me to keep track on everything I wanted to catch up with. So I bought this book. It’s different from everything we had. It’s sturdier and more delicate at the same time. The cover doesn’t tear as easy but the pages are thinner. I take it with me wherever I go and whenever I notice something that puzzles me, I write it down to look it up later. It’s just … as long as I have it with me I know that this is real, because we didn't have something like this in our time.”

For a heartbeat Bucky swayed from relief. So it was not just him. Steve was … he was not crazy. At least not crazier than could be expected, given the circumstances. Still, it took something out of him to admit, “After Malick I’m not sure whether I am dreaming or not. They drugged me and … and I always dreamed of you, or Darcy, or the Commandos. And now, when everything is all right then … I’m not sure if I am still there or if you really came and got me out.”

Steve’s hand on his shoulder was a warm comfort when his best friend promised solemnly, “I will always come for you, Bucky. I swear. Now that I know that you are alive I will move heaven and earth to keep you safe. I promise.”

He couldn’t … just couldn’t … wrapping his arms around Steve, he revelled in the sensation of having his friend back. And for a moment, everything was perfect.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Slowly things got better. For the next two weeks they came to the tower together. Darcy wrangled her favourite scientist and sneaked into Tony’s lab whenever she could get away with it, either to help him with the tracing program they had talked about, or to force him to eat or shower or sleep. This morning she and Bucky had even taken the subway and he had not had a nervous breakdown after coming out of it.

Natasha had made a habit of sharing Darcy’s lunch, keeping her up to date on the Winter Soldier and how the program receded in James’ mind more and more each day. Two days ago they had even gone out for lunch and Bucky had sat with his side to the back wall instead of facing the restaurant like all the times before. Today he and Steve had planned a little trip to the Museum of Modern Art. Gratefully, Darcy had bowed out of that excursion, though Jane had assured her repeatedly that she could very well take the afternoon off.

Still, filling out worksheets with star–constellations was more fun in Darcy’s book than putting herself to sleep by visiting an Art Museum. She suspected that Bucky shared the sentiment, but hadn’t wanted to let Steve down. The Captain had been so tremendously excited by a new exhibition that had started last week. Steve and Bucky were still somewhat dancing around each other, not sure where they stood in this new century. James still had to find something that was truly able to capture his attention. They had tried different things, and while he was quite good with pen and paper, he was not as skilled as Steve. He worked with computers, something he had found he detested. The only thing he had considered entertaining had been Tony handing him a few of his power tools, guiding him through metal–work. That evening he had presented Darcy with a bracelet, which she now wore every day.

Bucky, too, had started to wear accessories. At first she had not been able to determine why he would wrap one of her old, beat–up hair–ties around his wrist. Then she noticed him checking it, in the morning, and sometimes during the day when everything was fine. She suspected he used it as an anchor to convince himself that this was real and not a dream, but she never asked. If he wanted to talk about it, he would give her a hint. Fortunately, the hair–tie he had snatched was black, so it didn’t clash too much with his outfits.

So, carefree and relieved that for once everything was right in her world, Darcy decided to make a quick dash towards the sandwich–bar around the corner, treating both Jane, herself and Tony to one of the delicious chicken–lettuce–mayo baguettes they sold. Shouting to Jane would be entirely useless, since she, literally, had her head in the stars. So Darcy put a post–it–note on her computer, saying that she would be back in twenty with lunch and went about her merry way.

It had gotten cold these last few days and Christmas season would soon be upon them. Since it was not likely that Jane noticed her absence, Darcy took her time window–shopping on her way to the sandwich house. She already had something in mind for her Dad, Mum and Uncle Ian. New York offered such a wide range of useless junk that she wouldn’t have a problem finding some gimmicks that entertained her family. For her mum, maybe one of the USB–hot–plates, since she always let her coffee go cold. For her dad, an alarm clock in form of a bomb that would go off in the morning … or no, better the blinking scarf. Her mum would kill her if she got woken by a bomb every morning. For her Uncle Ian, she had found the perfect present already. He was a huge Star Wars fan and she had been delighted when finding a little R2D2–Lego-wrist–watch. Of course he couldn’t wear it on tour, but if he was home it would remind that … well, that he was home and safe.

Thor was just as easy. Since he was still fascinated with everything ‘Midgardian’, she would buy him a 3D–puzzle of the Statue of Liberty. Surely he would take it as a challenge to ‘repair the broken symbol of freedom’. Darcy also had little doubt that several pieces would end up burned on the carpet, once he lost his temper with them. Jane … well, best to give Jane a beeper that reminded her to eat and sleep, but since she would lose that like every other toy Darcy had ever bought her, with exception of the leather–bound book she had given her for their first shared Christmas, she might have to come up with something different.

For her immediate family that only left Tony and … Bucky. What do you buy a billionaire who literally had everything and a formerly brainwashed assassin?

Strolling around the window–fronts, entering the sandwich house, Darcy joined the queue and studied the menu over the counter. Not that she didn’t know what she wanted already, but it was always nice to know what was on sale. She was about to make her order, when she felt something hard pressing into her back. She wanted to flinch around, but a hand like steel clamped around her shoulder, and a silky voice instructed, “Why don’t you order? We don’t want to cause a scene and endanger innocent civilians.”

Pretty sure that she felt the tip of a gun in the small of her back, Darcy ordered with a strangled voice, trying to convey with helpless looks that something was wrong. Yet the guy behind the counter did not even look at her when he finished her baguettes and handed them over.

The hand on her shoulder kept her from turning around, and the gun pressed tighter into the small of her back, when Darcy tried to reach for her bag, like she wanted to store away the meals. Softly the voice admonished, “Let’s not go there, Miss Lewis. We wouldn’t want anybody to get hurt, and if you pulled your Taser not only you, but possibly several people around you could get shot.”

Of course she wouldn’t … couldn’t do this. Ever since Thor, Darcy had done her best, in case of catastrophes, to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. She had not always had the chance to influence the outcome of the situation, with the Destroyer in Mexico and the Dark Elves in London, but she had always done her best to keep the people on this planet as safe as possible. Right now it was up to her not to let anybody get hurt. That everybody's safety would come at the cost of her own was something she had to accept, so she let go of her purse and followed the ‘guiding’ hand out of the restaurant, into a non−descriptive van that stood at the curb.

She didn’t bother to inquire about their destination. The face of the Agent K, who wore slacks and a blue dress–shirt instead of their accustomed black suit, betrayed no emotion. Darcy wondered if that was comforting or disturbing, since he still had his weapon trained on her. Since the windows were blackened, she could not even determine their way through the city. Obviously she could do nothing but wait.

~ * ~ * ~

“Bastard!”

Darcy’s indignant outburst was met with a dispassionate gaze from Gideon Malick, who looked up from a bank of video monitors. The house she had been brought to was almost exceptional in its normality. Recalling Malick's former residence, Darcy had not expected to see the Hydra leader in such a suburban home. It had a picket fence, a garage at the side and appeared as if the perfect family with their perfect two point five kids and their dog lived here. The inside, however, looked more like a command centre than a family home.

Only Agent K holding her back kept her from jumping the elderly man to claw his eyes out. Lunch had been stolen from her. The agent and the driver had enjoyed the baguettes. Even while eating, his gun had not wavered once, effectively pinning her in place. Since nobody had been on the street when they had arrived, Darcy had not even been able to call for help. Not that she would have considered that. Especially since the guy, as well as the driver, who had opened her door, seemed eager to use their barely concealed weapons. Malick motioned her over and she got the chance to look at the videos on the monitors. All the fight drained out of her. The technician was repeatedly changing the angles, making it obvious that more than one security system of the Arizona military base had been breached. It showed the carpool, the radar facility, as well as the wardroom.

Nobody said a word, but then, nobody had to. The threat was implied. Tonelessly, she asked, “What do you want?”

She felt the strong urge to vomit, when Malick jovially put an arm on her shoulder. “You are a smart woman, Miss Lewis. You know what we want.”

“James,” she whispered brokenly, shaking her head at the same time. “I can’t … he trusts me. I …”

Malick, however, obviously brushed away her petty moral concerns, stating in a hard voice, “Them or him. It's your choice.”

Closing her eyes, Darcy forced back the tears that threatened to spill. In the end there was no choice and they both knew it.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Darcy * ~

For the next two days, Hydra made Darcy familiar with the Winter Soldier’s brutal training. They took meticulous yet sadistic care to show her recordings of the standard. They detailed all the punishments he had suffered if he didn't rise to the challenge they had had in store for him. It took all of her self–control not to burst into tears or vomit whenever she was forced to watch a particularly cruel correction for a perceived 'inadequate performance.' They also presented files to her that spoke of the requirements Hydra expected their soldier to fulfil. No human being would ever be able to rise to such challenges, but the more videos Darcy watched, the more she realized that 'The Asset' had been so much more than human in the end. He had a far higher pain threshold, was stronger, faster, more resilient. What would have killed every other person on this planet − maybe with the exception of Steve − had only made the Winter Soldier stronger until he had been nothing but a killing machine with all humanity burned out of him. Darcy could barely sleep at night, reliving these penalties. No wonder James was so scared of her whenever his programing rose to the surface, if the people responsible for him had subjected him to these kinds of tortures.

After another day she refused to watch a single video or open another file. At dinner that evening, an oddly formal occasion, when Hydra's leader was testing her progress, Darcy folded her hands over her chest and challenged Malick, “Why the hell are you showing me these things? I already know what kind of monsters you are!”

Carefully spooning a bite of stir–fry with rice, the white–haired gentleman replied, “Well, Miss Lewis, you could call it ‘incentive.’ You have seen the methods the Asset’s handlers had at their disposal to get him to reach his goals. When we get him back – and don’t doubt that we will – that’s exactly what will happen to him.”

All of a sudden Darcy wasn’t hungry any longer. Pushing away her plate, she shook her head. “Then what do you want from me?”

“Well,” Malick replied jovially, “the Winter Soldier chose you as his handler. From what we have seen, even outside of his field of expertise, he strives to live up to your expectations. Having you as his handler would therefore spare us the effort of correcting him constantly.”

Closing her eyes, she swallowed around bile that threatened to rise in her throat. In a horrible and twisted way everything this bastard said actually made sense. And Darcy couldn’t even risk toeing out of line since it would put her family in danger. She would find a way out of here, had to because this … this was not acceptable. But until then …

Sighing heavily, she looked at Malick, nodding reluctantly. “All right, I'll bite. What do you want me to do?”

Finishing his dinner, he offered his hand to guide her back to the observation room. Familiarizing her with the imminent targets Hydra had had their eyes on, he started to explain his plan of how to put their Soldier back to work. He knew about the Avengers and the remnant of S.H.I.E.L.D. He knew the extend of Tony Stark’s reach and where to look and what to avoid to get on the radar of any of them. Hydra’s plans were brilliant, all of them, Darcy had to give them that. And for now, she had to play her role to maybe find a loophole in Malick’s carefully crafted plans, to be able to tear the floor out from under them.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

When he and Steve had returned from the museum, Bucky immediately began looking for Darcy to share his amazement over the new paintings he had seen. Dr. Foster had been lost in thought, but the post–it on Darcy’s computer indicated that she had gone out to get lunch. The only problem was: it was five p.m. already and it was time for them to go home, maybe make a slight detour to their favourite bakery for fresh croissants with jam. But Darcy was gone.

Bucky grabbed Steve's arm, holding out Darcy's note with shaking fingers, forcing himself to take even breaths. Steve took one glance and had Jarvis inform Tony of Darcy's unexpected absence before he rushed to the lab, the command centre of the tower. Tony frantically recruited Natasha and Clint, throwing up security feeds of the tower, while Bucky interrogated Dr. Foster until Thor put an end to his aggressive questioning. Jane dissolved into tears by then. Good, maybe that would give her an idea of the suffering she caused Darcy by disappearing to Asgard all the time. Though Bucky knew that this line of thinking was not conducive for the investigation, he couldn’t censor himself at the moment, too torn up because his handler was gone.

The Avengers plus Bucky and Jane searched the tower, top to bottom, then Darcy’s apartment. JARVIS combed through the surveillance footage, the videos of the tower and a few – less legally − acquired copies of street–cams of the surrounding areas. The AI nevertheless couldn't find a trace of her, beyond Darcy entering their favourite Sandwich House.

Around midnight, everybody gathered in Tony’s lab, creating an operation schedule of how to pick up Darcy's trace.

“We’ll find her,” Steve assured Bucky, before he had finally gone to bed an hour before sunrise. Bucky paced around the little room, unable to rest. It was an impossible promise, but Bucky knew that his friend would not … could not abandon him or Darcy. He still felt guilty for not knowing that Bucky had survived all these years. A part of him knew that the punk still wanted to make up for this perceived failure. It hadn’t been Steve’s mistake that Hydra had captured him, but Bucky was too selfish at the moment to ease Steve’s conscience. He wanted all of his friend’s mind concentrated on how to find Darcy.

He lingered in the common room, looking into the illuminated night sky of New York that was always darkest before sunrise. He was aware enough of his surroundings to keep himself from reacting violently when Natasha unexpectedly appeared behind his right shoulder. “Darcy is a smart girl, James. She will find a way to make contact.”

That actually gave him the tiniest flicker of hope because, if he had learned anything about his chosen handler these last few weeks, it was that Darcy was a resourceful woman who never allowed herself to despair in a crisis. She might break down afterwards but not even aliens tearing their way through the barriers between the realms had kept her down. Darcy was alive and probably well. Until he saw her dead body with his own two eyes he had to believe that. She was holed up somewhere, kept under lock and key without means of communication. Otherwise she would have texted one of them already. That left only one conclusion: “Hydra has her.” The moment he said it he knew it to be true.

Sighing tiredly, Natasha nodded, “I know.”

“They took her because of me.”

Another nod, which he only saw as a reflection in the polished window, had him suffocating. Of course Hydra had her. Nobody else made sense. Who would look twice at a lab assistant but the organization who knew her to be the chosen handler of the Winter Soldier? Forcing out from behind clenched teeth he wanted to know, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Hawkeye stepped up to his left shoulder, his impassive face only illuminated by the feeble skylight of the buildings below them. “Because we are not ready to deal with this kind of enemy.”

The Black Widow elaborated, “Stark would sniff out one of their outposts and fly there head first, tearing into everything because they took his daughter.”

Tony's daughter? That certainly explained a lot. Yet the information was of low priority right now since it apparently was a secret to the world.

“Cap would follow him, headstrong and righteous, waving his shield,” Hawkeye added drily, shaking his head. “That’s not how this will work and you know it. If you want to bring a large secret organization to their knees, you have to be secretive about it. Steve only successfully dragged them out in the open because they had made the first step by launching their helicarriers.”

“They won’t make the same mistake twice.” Widow served as the voice of caution.

Clenching his artificial fist, forcing himself not to hit the glass, though he was most likely not even strong enough to do any harm, Bucky hissed coldly, “I want them to tear into everything Hydra has! I want them gone, destroyed, burned to the ground!”

In the same tone she had adopted before, the Black Widow covered his artificial arm, reminding him, “Yes, you do, but you want Darcy back even more, don’t you?”

“Hydra or Darcy. If you had to choose …?” Hawkeye enquired, bringing Bucky’s current dilemma to the point.

Forcing himself to relax, Bucky closed his eyes, shaking his head. “Darcy, always Darcy. Nothing else matters.”

“Good.” The spies clapped his shoulders in unison.

Hawkeye instructed, “You will do everything to get to her. Whatever they want, you give it to them. And trust us with damage control and to get the two of you out.”

“And we,” Natasha added, “will find a way to burn this squid to the ground so no other head will ever rise again.”

~ * ~ * ~

“I want my arm back!” Bucky announced when the entered Tony’s lab a few hours later.

“Tough luck,” the engineer replied, not taking his eyes off what seemed like video feeds from at least twenty surveillance systems from all over New York. “In case you haven't noticed, I'm kind of busy at the moment and not in the mood do make you a shiny new toy when the mood strikes.”

After a heartbeat, while he took in the dishevelled appearance of the engineer, the way his hair stood on end, and the dark circles under his eyes, the Winter Solder strode forward and closed his artificial hand around Stark’s throat. He pulled the man close, ignoring all the nervous beeping and whining around him when the bots and JARVIS tried to come to their maker’s rescue. “Don’t tell me you don’t have a new prototype designed already. You would never pass the chance to improve something the Russians made. So you will give the order to have it ready as soon as possible. Then you will shower and eat and sleep, exactly in that order. Have I made myself clear?”

Clawing at the hand, but not even thinking about calling for his armour, Tony gasped when the Soldier sat him down and stared at him with cold eyes. “They want you," he choked, "you know that. And you want to give them access to you with an even better weapon attached to your body?”

“If they want me they will bring me to Darcy and when that happens I want to be ready. No tracers, no tracking programs. Nothing that would put her in danger.” The Soldier decided, but added on an afterthought, “Only the chip, the chip with the golden wire that kept me from getting wiped. I want one of these again, implanted under my skin so they won’t notice.”

The moment he stepped back from the engineer, Steve burst into the room with Natasha and Clint hot on his heels. The good Captain looked from his best friend to the engineer who sported suspicious bruises around his neck.

“Bucky…"

"Tony…"

But the only answer Steve got was Tony patting his shoulder when he passed him by. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, Rogers. Everything is alright. Your little buddy and I just had a discussion about his next upgrade.” On his way out, he commanded, “JARVIS, push the last limb from the pet–assassin–file into production. Daddy will get a few hours of sleep and wants his new toy to be ready to assemble when I wake up again.”

“Sir,” JARVIS added clearly concerned, “the latest model you designed is substantially heavier than the other drafts.”

“I know,” Tony hesitated, mumbling to himself. “But it is the strongest the materials allow without an external power–source.”

“Is it as heavy as the one I had when I came here?” the Soldier wanted to know. He had quite a high pain tolerance. He could get back to a heavier limb if that meant better chances to protect Darcy.

“Of course not, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS replied somewhat scandalized. “It weights twenty point three percent less than the arm you came with, but it is still twelve percent heavier than the one you are wearing now.”

For a heartbeat Tony and Bucky’s eyes met before the engineer finalized the command. “Do it. The time for kid gloves is over.” Then he vanished to his floor.

“What happened?” Steve wanted to know. “JARVIS seemed quite distressed when calling me.”

“Nothing, punk,” Bucky forced himself to reply calmly. “Tony and I just had a misunderstanding. But now we are on the same page again. Don’t worry. I didn’t hurt him too much.”

He would need his wits and all of his training to pull this one off. He knew Hydra, by heart. He also knew that he had no chance to best them, not on his own. Yet … wasn’t alone any longer. He had his best friend in his corner and Howard’s son, who was a genius in his own right. Hawkeye and the Black Widow were highly trained assassins and a certain God of Thunder had taken interest in the safety of two mortal women. All he had to do was to get to Darcy and trust these people to get them out again.

He wanted to trust them. He really did. But he also didn’t want to leave things to chance so …

“JARVIS, Darcy talked about a tracing program Tony was working on. How far is that?”

If a computer could sound miffed, JARVIS reply would qualify for such a response. “Ready to implement, Sergeant Barnes.”

Well, he had attacked JARVIS’ handler … creator after all, so Bucky would take a little coldness from a machine. In the end JARVIS was far more human than many people he had come across over the decades. “I’m sorry for attacking Tony, but he was running himself to the ground. Darcy needs him at the top of his game right now and after about fifty hours without sleep everybody starts to droop.”

“I myself have tried to reason with Sir many times today. But he is not exactly inclined to listen to reason when he is in the middle of a … project,” the AI admitted.

“I am not exactly inclined to listen to reason as well in the current situation,” Bucky acknowledged, “but I want to increase our chances of getting Darcy out from under Hydra’s thumb again. So do you think you could maybe get me a working copy of this virus on a really small USB–drive? Maybe it will be all for nothing, or maybe we can put up a beacon for our friends so that they can find us.”

~ * ~ * ~

Darcy had been gone for but a few days, and Bucky was ready to climb the walls. He had not returned to her apartment since checking if she was there. Natasha had packed him a small bag the next day and he had claimed a room in the Tower next to Steve. Everybody tried to be hopeful, but after observing security video from all over New York for hours on end, they nearly were at wit's end. He wanted to go out there, do something! But they didn’t have the slightest lead of where to find her. His nightmares returned with a vengeance, but instead of Bucky being tortured or wiped, Darcy was now taking his place. In his dreams, she never screamed, always putting on a brave face, assuring him that this wasn’t so bad.

When he woke on day five, covered in cold sweat, he already knew that he wouldn’t find any more sleep. Taking a page out of his best friend’s book, he snuck into Steve’s room to nick some running gear. Fortunately, Darcy had insisted on buying him a sturdy pair of shoes. Steve’s would have been far too big for him. The sun was rising over the skyline of New York while Bucky was pounding trough Central Park.

The arm would be ready mid–morning, or so the engineer had promised. It had been one thing to create the hardware, but from everything Bucky understood, the billionaire had added a few gimmicks that would help him in the field. He had nearly smiled when Tony had told him about the ability of the arm to run current through the tips of its fingers if Bucky twisted them a certain way. An artificial limb with an internal Taser. Darcy would love that.

After about two hours he was exhausted enough to return to the Tower. Passing a newsstand, he stopped dead and took in the headline. Instincts he had tried to supress in vain rushed to the surface, deciphering the message Hydra had for him. This was not the first time the organization had to contact him while he was in the field without any direct line of communication. As if in a trance, the Winter Solder took the morning edition from the stand, only looking icily at the vendor who shouted at him for not paying.

After reading the cover story and the follow–up piece on page three, he made his way to a public phone. Being familiar with the exact location of the surveillance cameras in the city, he chose one that stood in a blind spot and applied for a collect call. After but two rings a connection was made.

“And here I thought that we would have to use more invasive means of contacting you,” Malick’s oily voice sounded through the speakers, making Bucky force down the desire the drive his fist through the booth that surrounded him. “It seems that you have not forgotten everything.”

“I want to speak to Miss Lewis,” was his only reply, but the elderly man chuckled.

“And what makes you think that what you want matters?”

Clenching his teeth, Bucky forced breath into his lungs. Quietly he begged, “Please, Sir, I will comply. Just let me talk to Darcy.”

Chuckling, Malick gave in. “Well, it’s not as if she isn’t the reason for your call. So here …”

The moment Darcy’s breath sounded in his ear, something vital unclenched in Bucky. He was finally able to take a deep breath again, forcing back the tears of relief that welled up. “Darcy, are you alright?”

He had to swallow around a constricting throat when he heard her dispassionate voice, commanding him, “I want you available for a new mission. Without a tail, soldier.”

This was not Darcy, the dame who had welcomed him in her bed. This was his handler speaking and though it tore him apart, Bucky realized that compliance was his only way of reaching her. So he fell back on the program he had worked so hard to overcome and confirmed, “Understood. Give me forty hours and I will be available to you, Sir.”

“I’ll contact you in two days with your new mission,” was her only reply, before she disconnected the call.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * The Winter Soldier * ~

He remembered how to be human. How to smile and joke weakly when he joined the others for breakfast. Around ten, Tony invited him into the workshop. The new arm was shiny, high polished, but not gold. The engineer had returned to the silver–grey design of his original piece, with the only difference of a white now star decorating his shoulder instead a red one. James watched the new limb with detached interest. The appearance didn’t matter. Being able to protect Darcy with it was the only thing that counted.

So he listened attentively to all the functions Tony had implemented until the engineer gestured towards the chair he had used in the past to work on him. The Soldier didn’t feel anything sitting down. Pain was of no importance, only function mattered. He stared into the workshop with empty eyes and only lifted his gaze when the engineer warned him, “It will hurt like hell. Even more than last time. I improved the reactor in the hand, so the power output is even higher. It will not only enable you to move this heavier model smoothly and store more electricity should they try to wipe you.”

They had implanted the wire into the base his skull two days ago. Though Dr. Banner had protested the method, he had to agree that thousands of volts being shot into someone’s brain was even worse than conducting them into an artificial limb by subcutaneous wiring. There was a faint bump at the back of his neck, but the soldier doubted that any doctor who cared for maintenance would inspect his skull too closely. Most would only think the arm was setting the detector off.

So now all the Soldier had to do was meet the engineer’s questioning gaze and nod his consent before the old arm was detached and the new one held in place. True to Tony’s genius, once a part of the limb made contact, plates shifted and fastened to the Vibranium cover on his shoulder. With a hiss, the arm’s connections snapped into place, and molten pain raced through his system. Clenching his teeth, he reared up in the chair, regretting for the first time in his life that he had not been given a mouth–guard. He anticipated long minutes of agony, but as soon as the pain started it ebbed away again. Breathing heavily, the Soldier turned his head and nodded. “Thank you.”

A knife flew towards his face, but the reaction time of the limb was instantaneous. Natasha stood at the other side of the lab, twirling a second blade between her fingers, but the Soldier merely threw her weapon back so that it stuck in a cabinet beside her head. “У меня нет времени для игр, вдову,” he stated dispassionately, before leaving the lab. He had an appointment to keep.

 

~ * Tony * ~

Shaking his head, Tony replied drily, “You’re welcome,” before turning around, putting the old limb on one of the sensor–banks.

“Run a scan on this, JARVIS,“ he instructed before he turned towards Natasha, “What did he say?”

“'The time for games is over, Widow.'”

“That wasn’t Bucky but the Winter Soldier,” Tony deduced. “The guy who shot you.” Natasha shrugged agreement. “He’s going back to Hydra.”

“Well,” the billionaire snapped his monitors awake, starting programs and calling up maps of New York City. “We are ready.”

 

~ * Natasha / Black Widow (because let's be honest, there really is no difference) * ~

Catching up with the Winter Soldier in the armoury, Black Widow watched him claim armour and weapons before he turned towards the door. Her small hand in the middle of his chest made him look down. Had she not met him before, his look would have frightened her to the core. As it was, she had expected the Soldier taking the lead.

Bucky Barnes had never had anybody but Steve to care for. Now he had a beautiful and smart lady. Darcy had allowed him to move in with her, bare two days into their acquaintance. He had made his entire being revolve around her. She was his handler, his lover, his reason for being, since Steve could very well take care of himself these days. A guy from Brooklyn, whose only experience with danger was fighting in World War II, was not stable enough to deal with having taken away everything that mattered to him. So James Barnes had called upon the Winter Soldier, to help him through this. The problem was: The Winter Soldier was not equipped to deal with Stark’s tech.

Natasha, however, had studied the way Iron Man worked, so …

“You are aware that he has at least two tracers on you?”

“I said no bugs!” the Soldier growled.

Sneering, Natasha inquired, “And, at any point during this conversation, did Tony agree to that?”

“JARVIS,” he ordered, “Show me my arm.”

On a sensor bank in the middle of the room, that was normally used for last minute weapons’ checks, appeared a glowing model. “Highlight the trackers.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS replied. “Sir clearly instructed me not to discuss this part of the design with you.”

“JARVIS,” Natasha instructed softly, “James is going after Darcy. He wants to bring our girl home. If Hydra suspects any foul play Darcy is as good as dead.”

There was a lingering tension in the air, until she inquired, “Could you fade out every part of the arm’s design that could not be used as a tracker?”

After a few moments, the three–dimensional blueprint started to fade away until three light dots hovered in the air between them.

Pulling a thin blade from one of his boots, the soldier started to fumble with the arm’s casing, to get to the offending pieces. After but three minutes two bugs had been removed. Reluctantly, he allowed Natasha to help with the third. Once all were gone the soldier merely touched her arm gently before he left.

Returning to the lab, Natasha looked over Tony’s shoulder to watch the trail the Winter Soldier had left in the tower. A trail that ended in the armoury. Pouring all three bugs into a small cup the engineer held up, she eyed him, concerned. No matter what Darcy meant for James, she was Tony’s daughter, and the mere idea that she was out there with Hydra tore the engineer apart. Of course he kept up a front, yet right now his shoulders were sagging when he starred at the tiny trackers he had implemented to use his daughter’s pet assassin to find her.

“Now we need to have faith that Spawn’s genes rise up to the challenge. Because otherwise we have not the slightest chance to find them.”

Briefly brushing over Tony’s back, Nat reminded him, “She’s your daughter, Tony. Once they’re together again, she will know what to do.”

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Treating her soldier with cold detachment had hurt Darcy. She couldn’t afford to put one toe out of line if she wanted to get him and herself out of this mess; she had to play it smart. For now, that meant giving in to crazy–head’s plans and help him on his way to total world domination. Regrettably, she had not the slightest clue to how Hydra wanted to go about that. They might have given up on the whole ‘helicarriers shooting people from the skies’ shtick, but what their next move would be, she still had no idea.

Of course Gideon Malick had heaped plans without end over her head, even allowing her to decide where to put her soldier in action. None of these helped her to see the bigger picture. Secretly, Darcy suspected that these missions were nothing but ‘test drives’ to find out if she really was as ‘loyal’ to them as they expected. It helped that the missions contained burglary, grand theft and corporate espionage. No mission was easy, but she suspected they beat having to give a kill order.

The evening before she was expected to make contact with her soldier again, she couldn’t help but ask. “What about the people?”

“What people?” Malick asked nonchalantly. He had made it a habit these last few days to always be around at dinner time, forcing her to share a meal with him. Usually he entertained himself with small talk, but Darcy had had enough, so she insisted, “The people getting into James way! Nowhere in your missions is it specified if he’s expected to kill them or not.”

“Well, do you consider it necessary for him to kill innocent people? Because you have free reign when it comes to these decisions. You are his handler after all. Do you consider it safer for him if he eliminates guards that could attack him on his way out, or would you prefer maybe a softer, but surely for him more dangerous approach of letting everybody live?”

Clenching her cutlery so that her knuckles turned white, Darcy forced her attention back on her meal. Of course it would be safer for her soldier if he killed everybody who intercepted him. But that was not who he was any longer and she couldn’t bring himself to sink as low as Hydra. They had made him take innocent lives for half a century. She wasn’t like them. They may be able to force her to become his handler for real, but they couldn’t make her give a kill–order!

Malick’s, “So?” forced her to address the subject, no matter how little she liked it.

Coldly she replied, “He’s allowed to kill people to keep himself safe. I see no reason to change that rule.”

“So you gave him rules already,” the man gloated. “I knew he wouldn’t be able to do without. With a clear set of rules however, he certainly is an asset. Isn’t he?”

She didn’t grace that with an answer, instead excused herself and went to bed. She wasn’t like these people, Darcy reminded herself. He had wanted these rules. She hadn’t forced them upon him. James had been happy to hear that he was a person. That he was not allowed to hurt people except in self–defence. But that was where her good conscience abandoned her. Why had she agreed to a rule that stated her word as law? Nobody had the right to hurt him, she had written that down … well, she was about to do exactly that. How could she live with herself after this was over, and even worse, how could Bucky?

 

~ * The Winter Soldier * ~

In the past he would have needed a bare day to shake any tail, no matter if they were trained spies or government agents. But now he had to take the Avengers into consideration when escaping his inevitable tail. He carefully avoided all cameras in the city. Let one at the airport catch a glimpse of him while boarding a freight plane. Then he drove to Washington and allowed someone spot him there. The burger joint had but one grainy camera right above the cash register. It would serve its purpose.

His main problem was Captain America, who he didn’t seem to be able to get rid of. Maybe he had another tracker on him? It didn’t matter. He would have to call reinforcements to deal with this particular problem. There was no reason to believe a defector, but the Soldier was well aware that trusting the Widow was his only chance at this point, and he was running out of time. So he chose a small, abandoned corner in the Rock Creek Park and waited for the Captain to catch up with him.

“You might be able to shake them, but not me, Bucky,” Steve announced while approaching him on the winding road that had let to the Soldier’s current vantage point. “I’m with you, till the end of the line. Please, stop running and let me help.”

“No,” the Asset refused. Composed and without the slightest trace of emotion, he explained, “If I fail to abide their rules, my handler is as good as dead. I will get her back, no matter the cost. And you won’t stand in my way.”

Towering over his sitting friend, Steve folded his arms in front of his chest, glaring down. “Well, tough luck, because I won’t leave you.”

“Yes, you will,” the Soldier decided, having had enough of treating lightly. “Вдова“

When the Black Widow stepped out of the woods, Steve’s eyes widened a little. “You can’t be on his side, Nat. This is a suicide mission. I won’t allow it!”

“Sorry, Steve,” Nat replied coolly. “But that is not your choice to make.”

Rising from his boulder, the Winter Soldier pulled the gun he had acquired for this special occasion and shot Captain America in both thighs. The man’s eyes widened in disbelieve before sinking to the floor, losing consciousness. Handing over his weapon to Natasha, the Soldier ordered, “Make sure he doesn’t come after me.”

“Not before you’re ready,” the Black Widow agreed, calling for backup to card Steve away to safety. “What did you give him?”

He pointed at the tranquilizer gun. “They something similar on me. Darcy said that it is a combination of a rape drug and a sleeping medicine. He will be out a good three hours with no lingering after effects if he’s allowed to sleep it off.”

He turned to leave, lingering at the edge of the tree line. Quietly, he asked, “If I’m in, how will I contact you?”

Making sure that her friend was all right, Natasha looked up from where she had crouched over Steve. “You won’t. Darcy will know what to do.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he gave a curt nod and vanished.

A day later he called the number the latest headline had revealed.

“Rollins Road 702, Columbia Missouri. Await my call tomorrow morning.”

He had to take a deep breath to force down the pain Darcy’s cold order caused. He was the Winter Soldier. Emotions didn’t become him. So he calculated the fastest route to reach his destination. A drive of thirteen hours was certainly long but not impossible. He could only hope that his handler would allow him a few hours of rest before giving him his first assignment. He could not afford to fail because he was dead on his feet.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Darcy was evaluating the first mission for her soldier when one of the technicians, who supervised the surveillance systems, addressed the agent in charge. “Sir, since yesterday, Mr. Lewis has repeatedly tried to contact his daughter. He’s just calling again.”

Sensing a chance to get a message out, Darcy explained, “My father calls once a week. He’ll get suspicious if he can’t reach me.”

After a few seconds, Agent K pulled up the surveillance of her parent’s home. “One wrong word and we’ll terminate them.”

Shivering at that prospect, she approached the phone the technician held out and glared. “I won’t risk their lives. You know that.”

Darcy was close to tears when she heard the concerned voice of her father. “Hey Darcy, are you alright? I've tried to reach you since yesterday.”

“I’m …” she started, but then cleared her throat when Agent K looked at her angrily, gesturing for the technician to zoom into the home. The message was clear: One wrong word and her parents would suffer, probably even die. “I’m fine, Dad. I’m just really tied up at work, at the moment. Why don’t I call you when things lighten up?”

“Fine?” her father replied, but then stated easily, “Yeah, sure. What about the Jeep we talked about? Will you be able to come around for repairs? You promised, baby.”

She could see them zooming in on her parent’s living–room window, so she hastened, “No, Dad, sorry, I won’t be able to make it. Why don’t you ask Eddy from the garage up north? You know that he’s good with ancient cars.” She forced herself to smile, to give her answer an easier tone when correcting herself, “I mean classics.”

“Yeah …” Andrew Lewis hesitated, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do that. Are you sure you’re okay? You sound tense.”

Catching the eyes of the agent in charge, she shook her head, looking at him imploring. “No, I’m really fine, Dad. It’s just … you know my workplace. All of this ‘Big Brother is watching you’ really gets on my nerves. But don’t worry. I’ll call you when I’m free again. Give Lizzie a kiss from me. Bye, Dad.” And with that she hung up.

The Agent however, had pulled her gun on her, growling, “Who is ‘Lizzie’?”

“My father’s wife. They married when I was three.”

“Check that!”

For a few tense moments, the two of them waited for the technician to verify Darcy’s statement. She held her breath, hoping that he wouldn't dig deeper than her parent's wedding certificate. Only when he nodded, did her opposite lower his gun. “This was your last call. We’ve got your parents under constant surveillance. A single hint and their blood is on your hands. Now return to your task!”

Clenching her hands under the table so tight that her knuckles showed, Darcy forced herself to take deep breaths. She had done the best she could. Now she had to have trust that her parents would draw the right conclusions. She was in desperate need of help and wanted nothing more than for her mum and dad to sweep in and safe the day. Sadly, she was aware that this was a childish dream.

However, her parents and the Avengers … together … that would increase her chances of being found considerably. All she had to do now was lay low and hope for the best.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Elisabeth and Andrew Lewis * ~

Enjoying one of her rare free days, Elisabeth Lewis joined her husband in the kitchen the very moment he hung up their phone. Concerned by the thoughtful look he gave the apparatus, she asked, “Is everything alright, Andi? Did you finally reach Darcy?”

“Yeah …” he replied, drawing out the word. “She said she was fine, that she was just busy.”

Blood draining out of Elisabeth's face, she asked, “What?”

“She triggered the safety–question.” Fear spread over Andrew’s features, until his wife of more than two decades turned him around so that he would face her. Her eyes were unusually large in her pale face.

Honest concern coloured his features as well, when he summed up the unusual reply, “She said that she wouldn’t be able to make time to repair the Jeep in the foreseeable future. That we should ask ‘Eddy’ in the ‘garage up north’. But our car port is at the western part of our base and Darcy knows that. Also, we don’t have a mechanic named 'Eddy'.”

Seeing the panic rising in her husband’s eyes, Elisabeth took a steeling breath and pushed aside her own anxiety. Forcing him to sit down, she prompted, “Tell me everything she said. Every. Single. Word!”

Doing as he was told, Andrew tried to remember every last syllable his daughter had uttered, finally concluding his reciting with, “I have no idea who ‘Eddy’ or this ‘Big Brother’ could be. This doesn’t even make sense.” He was highly irritated by the hint of a smile that tug on Elizabeth’s lips when there was obviously something wrong with their daughter. “What are you …” he started when she reached for the phone herself.

"I'm sure Darcy, is all right. Don't worry," she replied evenly. As she held up her finger to keep him quiet, he watched her force a laugh while talking to their best friend, “Hi, Ian, I was wondering if I could rope you into driving duty. You remember the bottles that crowd up our storage room? I finally got Andi to agree to take them to the store. We have to do some shopping anyway.” After a pause, she replied with a chuckle, “Yeah, I'm surprised myself, but my constant nagging really seems to go somewhere. … Ten minutes? Great!” Finished her call. Without looking at him, Elisabeth entered their storage chamber and started to drag boxes with empty beer bottles into the kitchen.

“Come on,” she prompted. “Help me.”

“Elisabeth!” Andrew snapped exasperated. How could she think about clean–up when Darcy was in trouble?

“Andrew,” she replied calmly, looking him in the eye, “You will move your ass now and drag out these containers. Then we will go shopping and return them. Got me?”

Since Elisabeth was the genius in their relationship, Andrew had learned to trust her, even if he didn't always understand her decisions. Wordlessly he dragged out crate after crate and when Ian came around, wordlessly hauled them into the Jeep. He suffered his friend’s good natured ribbing, until Elisabeth lay a hand on Ian’s shoulder. Her serious gaze shut him up immediately and had the tension in the car shoot through the roof.

Once they had left the Base, entering the small town not two miles away, he asked, “What’s wrong? Has something happened to Darcy?”

Pressing her lips together, Elisabeth shook her head, not saying anything. Only when they entered the small convenience store, she instructed Ian and Andrew to carry in the crates, while approaching the owner.

“Hello Elisabeth,” Mr. Stanton smiled at her. “Haven’t seen you around in quite some time. Did Andrew finally drag you with him for a little food shopping?”

“Yes, Alex, but we need more than food today. You still have your landline, right?”

“Sure,” the balding man gestured to the back where his office was. “Can’t get used to these fickle cell–phones. Why? Is anything the matter?” He took in the concerned gaze of the woman in front of him and the stony, pale faces of the two soldiers who appeared to be heading to war. Andrew Lewis and Ian Wainwright were battle hardened soldiers. To have them look so concerned, something grievous had to have happened. So he gestured towards the back, not waiting for an answer. “Take all the time you need and tell me if I can help in any way.”

The town had been in an uplift since the base had expanded some twenty years ago. The soldiers and their families enjoyed chatting Alex Stanton up while shopping in his small store. He had adjusted his assortment to their needs, so they could get all the necessities from him, instead of entering the huge mall not two streets down. Soldiers appreciated the quiet, easily mappable store with clean marked exits. He wouldn’t die a rich man, but he wouldn’t have to worry about making it through the next month either. And if he couldn’t man his store any longer, he already had three offers for the property on the table. He wouldn’t have to worry about anything. Just now, however, he worried for the family who looked ashen and drawn, and handed over the key to his office to give them privacy.

Once the door was closed behind them, Andrew folded his arms over his chest while Elisabeth dialled a number all three knew by heart. “All right, now tell me what’s going on?”

Waiting for the call to connect, his wife explained, “We know that Darcy calls her new surveillance system ‘Big Brother’.”

“Sure,” Ian mentioned, “she needed some getting used to have an AI protect her. She ranted about it to me before she left London. But JARVIS is hardly a ‘surveillance’ unit. He’s a sentient personality who bends to her every whim. At least that’s what she said after moving in.”

Nodding Elisabeth spoke to the phone, “Yes, I need to talk to Miss Potts about the investment in Arizona. Tell her it’s about the contract with the Arizona Radar Base. Yes, I’ll hold.” Looking at the two men, she confirmed, “Exactly. We know JARVIS, so what reason could Darcy have to point out a surveillance system?”

All of a sudden, Andrew made the connection, “Because we’re the one who are under surveillance. That’s why you wanted a landline.”

“Exactly,” she confirmed, switching attention easily back to her call. “Yes, the Arizona Radar Base. Just ask Miss Potts. She’ll know what I’m talking about.” After a moment, she snapped, “I don’t care if you are on top of every project Stark Industries holds. You will contact her this moment. Yes, even if she’s currently in a meeting.”

Shaking his head, Ian asked, “Then why are you not trying to talk to Tony? Wouldn’t he know what’s going on?”

“What do you think am I trying to do? Darcy told us specifically to call him, so here we are.”

Finally getting it, Andrew rolled his eyes, “’Eddy up North.’ Anthony Edward Stark. How did you know?”

“Because he is the only person we know who still calls me ‘Lizzie’.” Eyes lighting up she turned towards the phone again. “Pepper? Thank god, this is Elisabeth Lewis speaking, Darcy’s mother. We need to talk to Tony, please. We know something happened to Darcy. Oh, and please have him check the surveillance of the base. But discreetly. I think someone is piggy–backing on our system.” After a few moments, she nodded emphatically. “Yes, thank you.”

Turning towards the soldiers, Elisabeth shared, “Pepper will talk to Tony and he will find a way to get to us. All we can do now is wait.”

Ian shook his head, uncomprehending. “Your daughter is in trouble and you’re ready to just twiddle your thumbs?”

Once again it was her husband who followed Elisabeth’s leap of mind, “We might be shipped out to Europe or Africa or given another mission, but Tony will get us to New York somehow. Elisabeth wouldn’t stand for anything less.”

“Exactly,” she confirmed. “All we have to do now is lay low and wait until you get your orders. If whoever is watching thinks anything is amiss we could be in danger. Or we could put Darcy in danger. One day, two tops. Then we’re off to New York. Tony works fast when properly motivated.”

 

~ * Darcy * ~

The technician who supervised the surveillance systems today was brilliant, but not very smart. Much like Jane to be honest. Darcy had had a hard time suppressing her instincts to feed him and make him take a break now and then. He was not her concern, working for the enemy. Still, since a good opportunity had presented itself, she would abandon her prejudice. Her chicken, lettuce, tomato sandwiches were not as good as the ones from the Sandwich House, but delicious nevertheless. The young man in front of the monitors wolfed it down, completely ignoring her in favour of not letting the monitors out of his eyes. As was his duty.

Swiping his mobile out from under his nose was ridiculously easy, as was giving it back when taking away his empty plate. Darcy knew her way around the servers of the Arizona Military Base. She knew how to check if a soldier was still around or on his way to being deployed. Mission Orders were part of every soldier's file and written in their own way. Though nothing overtly indicated that her parent's orders had been tampered with, the placing of the paragraphs was slightly unusual. Also, her mother's relocation request was signed with 'Lizzie Lewis' instead of Elisabeth, clearly indicating that something was off.

Apparently her father had gotten her message. Darcy could only hope that Tony was really on top of this, as her mother's signature suggested. In the end she could nothing do but hope. But from now on, if a possibility presented itself, Darcy was determined to take it. James had suffered enough at the hands of these monsters. It was time to get the both of them out.

 

~ * The Winter Soldier * ~

He had made the drive in barely twelve hours, despite the beat–up car he had 'acquired' for the trip. Fortunately, the house Darcy had directed him to had been empty. From the looks of it, the owners were on holiday. Good, so he didn’t have to explain himself and hurt innocent bystanders. He managed four hours of sleep, passed out on the couch in the living room until the phone rang around midday. Within a heartbeat he stood at attention, answering after the second ring. “Sir?”

“Boot up the computer in the bedroom. The password is ‘SnuggleS1987,' both ‘s’ are capitalized. You will receive your mission. Print it and then delete every trace of it from the device.”

He wanted to ask if she was alright. Despite her cold voice, Darcy didn’t sound hurt. But she sounded like … like a handler, only thinking about the job. So he didn’t dare to break the rules Hydra had beaten into him for the last decades. Dispassionately, he confirmed, “Understood.”

“Good.” The line went dead.

He forced himself to let go of the receiver. One word, really just one word but he felt soothed by it nevertheless. A confirmation from the Asset didn’t need another confirmation from the handler. Yet Darcy had tried to comfort him, despite certainly being under duress. She knew how much he craved to be ‘good’. To know that he wouldn’t be punished, didn’t need to expect pain. She was still concerned for him. It was his duty to keep her safe by complying and performing flawlessly.

The task was laughably easy. It had to be either a test or they were not telling him everything about what he might face. He was supposed to break into the nearby University and steal half a dozen vials, labelled ‘KIR.2.25’. He wasn’t given any information on what the vials contained, only a picture that showed it to be a murky light–blue liquid that seemed fluorescent.

~ * ~ * ~

The University had had negligible security, as had the corporate lab he had broken in after the next night. The Army Reserve Training Centre, just past the border of Missouri, was slightly better protected, but no challenge in the end, especially since he only stole archived maps. Hammer Tech was his greatest challenge, but despite the elaborate security of their storage room he managed to acquire a small multicopter. Why he couldn't buy one was beyond him, but he bit his tongue every time Darcy called, as to not draw unnecessary attention.

Lakewood was a tiny town in Michigan, close to the Canadian border, located at the outer edge of his stolen map. He finally understood why he needed the multicopter, when Darcy ordered him to break into a High School, prior to his arrival, cooking up the chemicals he had stolen. The multicopter had a carriage capacity of nearly 450 g. It would be easy to transport the balloon of chemicals and set them free in the 'centre' of the tiny town. He was supposed to watch and report what was happening.

This order convinced him that he was not about to kill anybody. The Asset was too valuable to lose to chemical warfare. Still, he felt slightly uneasy when he guided in the drone and distributed the chemicals. He forced himself to hold still, watching with a pair of binoculars, noting the change in wind, the spread pattern of the concoction and the reaction of the people.

Quickly it became apparent what the compound was doing. Though formerly joyful and celebratory, the atmosphere in the town centre turned vicious and rowdy, bordering on violent. He watched the men shove each other, the woman tearing each other down with snide comments, judging from their facial expression. Everybody who entered the town square got swept away by the aggressive mood. Soon the all attendees were caught up in one argument or another, and after but a few more minutes, the first punch was thrown.

The Winter Solder clenched his teeth, trying to remind himself that this was only a test. Nobody would get seriously hurt. Folks were just roughing around. He of all people should know how many punches a body could take before it was incapacitated. People drove by the public brawl. Police came around the corner but were caught up in the fight very fast. This was getting out of hand, since these officers were most likely armed. He should do something. Disarm them to protect the public. But that was not his assignment. Darcy had told him to observe and stay away! He wanted … needed to get her back, so he had to comply.

A car puttered around the corner, coming to a stuttering halt. A young mother, she couldn't be older than twenty, emerged, pulling a toddler out of a car−seat. The baby was crying and the mother was concentrating rather more on calming it than on watching her surroundings. She was approaching the convenient store, rubbing soothing circles on his back with her other hand. The door to the store opened and a roughing couple nearly toppled her over.

Bucky was on his feet before he realized. He made his way over, his mind only now catching up with what he was doing. Fuck this experiment and fuck Hydra. He would be damned before he allowed a young mother with a child to come to harm. Her eyes were fixed on the brawling couple, before she noticed his forceful approach. Fear was prominent in her gaze, but she still hugged her child protectively, meeting his eyes determined like a lioness, ready to fight to protect her pup. He liked her, so he tried to be as gentle as possible when he reached for her arm and pulled her towards her car. "You need to get out of here."

"But …" she stammered, not putting up any resistance. "I need food for Wesley. We're all out and I …"

Putting her into her vehicle, he shut the door when asking, "Which formula?"

"The blue one. Age 6 months and up."

He cursed himself after prompting her to lock her car. Though he tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, he too felt aggression rising. Curse this mission. Curse his handler and curse these stupid people that didn't seem to be able to get themselves under control. He too had a hard time not to lash out but he managed. Once in the store he forced himself to relax. He was here because of Darcy. She was his handler and he tried to think about what she would tell him if she could see him like that. 'Deep breaths' wouldn't do him any good here, but maybe she would hug him, comfort him … she would make it right. She would make everything right once he reached her, Natasha had promised. Darcy knew what to do, he only had to get to her.

Blindly reaching for any blue baby formula he threw a few notes onto the counter before stepping over an unconscious man, who partially blocked the entrance. He was just approaching the car again, when he heard a hard voice at his back.

"Hey, you … who are you and what are you doing here?"

Slowly turning around, he came face to face with the local sheriff, who slowly drew his gun. He was faster, he knew it. He could just pull and shoot this jerk. He deserved it for being too stupid to live. Who even wanted to become Sheriff in such a pitiful excuse of a town? A growl rose from the depth of his chest and he was tired of holding it in. Baring his teeth he strode towards the man, reaching for the gun with is metal arm. "I'm bringing …"

But he didn't come farther because the jerk shot him. Detached, he felt pain, when the edge of his metal shoulder was hit and the bullet, deviating from course, dug into his flesh. He didn't hesitate to lash out with his flesh arm, clocking the guy and sending him to the floor. He felt blood saturating his clothes but when he pulled off his shirt, he noticed the bullet blocking the wound. A lucky hit, or not so lucky in his case. He would survive; he just needed maintenance. The thought made his blood run cold but he forced the feeling down.

Passing the young mother, he simply let go of the formula in front of the driver's seat. She was smart enough to snatch it and throw her car into reverse immediately. Her eyes were full of tears, as were her babies, but he couldn't care about civilians at the moment. Not when he was injured. Approaching a phone−booth his mind supplied him with a number in case of emergencies.

"I require maintenance. I have a bullet logged between my arm and my shoulder."

Someone, not Darcy, was giving him an address. He hot-wired a car and was out of town within three minutes.

He patched himself up at the next gas station. The blood had stopped but he couldn't move his arm. The bullet interrupted the connection.

His mind swam, from the chemical and the blood loss, when he reached the address, an abandoned hospital, in the middle of nowhere. He was ushered into an emergency room, with a doctor, two technicians and one guard in every corner. He froze when the doctor prompted him to take a seat on one of the beds. The order to sit was repeated, in a sterner, but he wouldn't, couldn't put himself into the hands of these people again. Doing so would bring him back. Make him their property again. He couldn't …

Through a fog he heard the technician talking to someone on the phone. Whoever was on the other end didn't seem pleased that he wasn't complying. A moment later, Malick's voice sounded from the overhead speakers.

"Soldier, sit down and let the doctor care for you. That's an order! Resistance will be punished. You have done so well these last few days. Don't put yourself and your handler in jeopardy by defying orders now."

Darcy … he had to do this for Darcy. Still, his body refused to obey.

The guards were approaching him, obviously willing to force the command, when another voice … Darcy's … filled the room.

"Stop right there! He needs maintenance? I’ll do it! Nobody lays a finger on him. Have I made myself clear?"

He barely dared to breathe. The constant pain was making him sluggish. Maybe he had lost more blood than he had thought? Or the drug was still in his system. People were talking to him but their worlds didn't make sense.

A phone was put in his hand. Darcy’s words filled his head, his entire being when she asked, "Are you in imminent danger or can you travel?"

"I can travel, Sir," He forced out.

"Good. They'll bring you to me. Stand down!"

"Yes, Darcy," he whispered gratefully before losing consciousness.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Elisabeth and Andrew Lewis * ~

Waiting for Tony's move had been torture, especially since neither Elisabeth nor Andrew dared to do anything to prepare for their pending departure. Even a single bag, packed in advance, could give them away. They didn't know the extent of the surveillance they were under, so they simply didn’t want to risk it. During the invasion in London, they had tried to reach Tony, had needed him to tell them what was going on, though unable to get a hold of him in the end. Afterwards a system had been established to connect them to Pepper Potts practically immediately, no matter where the CEO of Stark Industries was. Mentioning the Arizona Military Base served as a code–word to get patched through to her without delay. And if anybody could reach Tony in times of crisis, it was her.

Three days later they boarded a plane to Baghdad. The base there had requested Elisabeth to help with their radar equipment. Andrew and Ian would serve as her personal guards. Though the reason was slightly haywire, the two had been on her protection detail before. Elisabeth had been sent to unstable regions repeatedly and Andrew had made it very clear, right from the beginning, that she wouldn’t leave without a personal guard. Their superiors had relented the first time, and ever since they had entered a firefight, where Andrew and Ian had to kill at least two foreign soldiers and wound four more, it had become a common agreement between the Lewis–family and the command of the base they were serving at. A civilian specialist at the militaries beck and call was invaluable, so she deserved a protection detail.

This time, however, instead of flying directly to their destination, they touched down at a little airport in Westchester – officially to stock up on some spare parts. Elisabeth, Andrew and Ian sneaked out of the plane. Dressed as technicians, they mounted one of the delivery trucks and left the airfield unrecognized. Their drive to New York was laden with tension where every member of their little family agonized over ideas of what could have happened to their girl.

When they entered the underground parking garage of Avengers' Tower, a lift at the side opened without nobody inside. Sharing puzzled glances, Elisabeth finally spoke up, “JARVIS?”

“Mrs. Lewis, would you and your companions please enter the lift so I can bring you to the workshop immediately?”

Stepping into the cubicle, Ian mumbled, “Darcy’s right. This is weird.”

Entering the lab, Elisabeth growled when seeing the billionaire in the middle of all his toys. She stamped over to him furiously, ignoring the residing super–heroes, trying to take a swing at the father of her child. Only her husband’s swift reaction held her back. He hugged her from behind, pressing her arms to her chest. Still she struggled, obviously too angry to care, so Andrew mumbled into her ear. “Don’t, love, you’re the brains in this relationship, not the brawl.”

When she finally relaxed, her husband kissed the back of her head. People he had only seen on television had imperceptibly stepped closer to Tony, willing to protect their friend in case this got as violent as Elisabeth’s first reaction suggested. They relaxed slightly when Andrew let go of his wife and Elisabeth merely crossed her arms and glared at Tony, thus missing any chance of stopping him when he calmly approached the engineer and sent him to the floor with a controlled right hook. Shaking out his hand – damn Stark had a hard chin – Andrew growled, “How the hell did you lose our daughter, Stark?”

He didn’t retreat, didn’t look away from the man who had sired his child, despite a bunch of super–heroes reaching for him. Elisabeth and he wanted answers, so they would very well get them. Apparently, Tony seemed to have expected something like this, because he waved his fellow Avengers away, holding out his hand so Andrew could help him to his feet.

“Don’t strain yourselves, people. These are Andrew and Elisabeth Lewis, Darcy’s parents, and Ian Wainwright, her ‘uncle’ for the lack of a better word. They can be trusted.”

Arms crossed over his chest, looking at them menacingly, Captain America contradicted, “Clocking you doesn’t exactly scream trustworthy in my book, Tony.”

“Well,” Tony pondered, hugging Elisabeth who reluctantly returned the gesture, and shaking hands with ‘Uncle Ian’ before turning back to Steve, “You’re not exactly a picture of stability yourself, Capsicle, ever since Bucky shot you. In fact, I distinctly remember having to place several orders of punching bags, so maybe you shouldn’t judge them too harshly.”

Grumbling, Steve relented and after everybody had been introduced, the newcomers stepped up to the sensor table, which Tony had used to trace the Winter Soldier’s ‘suspected’ route through the country. ‘Suspected’ because once on a mission, the Soldier had gone through great lengths to avoid surveillance of any kind. There were a few break–ins, one at Hammer Tech, much to Tony’s glee, but nothing pointed towards Hydra without a shadow of doubt.

So when Elisabeth asked, “So, what do we actually know so far?” the Avengers could only trade concerned glances and admit dejectedly, “Nothing.”

This wasn’t good enough, not at all, but for now a few ideas and bread–crumbs from all over America was all they had. All they could do was sit and wait for either Bucky or Darcy to make contact.

Elisabeth, who was familiar with Tony's designs – he had had the ideas for work areas like this back at MIT – swiped away the newspaper clippings and surveillance systems, requesting a map from Tony. "All right, forget the surveillance and the little clues you think you might have found. If you were a secretive organization, hell-bent on ruling the world, how would you go about it? They have their 'Asset' back and they have Darcy. Why would they even kidnap her, only to send out James on such mediocre missions? What's the bigger picture?"

"Well …" Natasha started, trading glances with her fellow Avengers. This was certainly a question they should be able to find the answer to.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

Without preamble, the soldier had been stuffed into a car, and they travelled east. When the sun touched the horizon they stopped at a ratty hotel in the middle of nowhere. He was prompted to leave the car and take a shower in a mouldy smelling bathroom. Then he got his shoulder bandaged; it was all he could allow, feeling mellow after the warm shower. He was then ordered to take the bed and sleep. No funny business, they warned him. He would be supervised all through the night.

The next afternoon they stopped at a safe–house an hour outside of New York. He was cleaned again and his bandage was changed. Then he was shackled, chained, as if his metal arm was not a useless dead weight anyway, by now. The bullet had wormed its way deeper into his body and severed the connections. At any rate that was what it felt like, since the longer it was lodged in there, the harder it became for him to move his arm. It didn’t even hurt when his arms were pulled back and fixed behind his back. Well, not much.

He was then loaded into the back of a van, muzzled and bespectacled so he could neither see where they were going, nor draw attention to himself. After an hour they parked in front of a nondescript, one story building, that was conspicuous in its mediocrity. He was dragged through the front door and pushed down the stairs into the cellar.

The subterranean room seemed to span the entire basement. A quick glance around revealed a bank of monitors that were connected to random security cameras, not only from the area, but different streets and even a military base. At the side, were cabinets with various equipment. He was barely able to suppress a shiver when cataloguing the tools stored. He knew their functions all too intimately. His worst nightmare however, stared back at him, from the middle of the room. One of the chairs, they had used to burn everything out of him that was James Buchanan Barnes, stood there. Highly polished and ready for use.

He was startled when all of a sudden Gideon Malick sighed behind his back. “I have to admit that I am severely disappointed. We thought bringing in your chosen handler, would make you comply more easily. But you still resist when it matters the most. Let’s see if Miss Lewis' estimation is correct and you are still salvageable. Otherwise we’ll just have to start anew.”

‘Starting anew’ would mean being wiped, brainwashed and tortured for an unspecified amount of time. He fought against the restraints with his flesh–arm until he heard a cold, female voice at his back. “Don’t worry. He will comply. I’ll make sure of it.”

He could barely breathe when Darcy stepped around him. She still wore the trousers she had chosen the day of her abduction but a different top. The cardigan was new, long sleeved but with a substantial amount of cleavage showing. Her hair was different as well. All he wanted to do was go to her, but surrounded by gunmen, in the middle of enemy territory and as severely injured as he was, he didn't dare.

Oblivious to his precariousness, Darcy caressed his cheek softly. “Isn’t that right, soldier. You will comply for me. We won’t have any problems.”

It felt so good to be touched by her again. For a heartbeat, he was able to forget everything. Malick … Hydra … everything. Every torn thought in his head was quieted by her proximity. All that mattered was Darcy; the way she carded his fingers through his hair, scratching him tenderly. So, though she hadn't asked him a question, he felt the need to confirm, “Yes, Darcy.”

As soon as the words had left his mouth, she pressed down on the back his neck, after a heartbeat she insisted, “Kneel.”

Obediently he sank to the floor, swaying towards her but not allowing himself to touch without permission.

Caressing his neck, Darcy addressed Malick, “See, I told you. Obeying me never was a problem for him, no matter the circumstances. Now get him onto the chair so that I can remove this bullet.”

It seemed that the current head of Hydra was impressed with his display of submission. His shackles were removed and he was loaded into the chair. He couldn’t help but shiver when the cold metal touched his overheated skin, but Darcy pushed him forward, away from this implement of torture, and he didn’t resist when she reached for a surgical blade and a pair of tweezers. Within a moment she made a barely there incision and removed the bullet from his arm. He heard the plates shifting and waited for the pain when the arm connected to his body again. The energy of the arch reactor raced through his veins like living fire, but her steady hand on the back of his neck, helped him to contain his reaction, if only barely.

Darcy reconnected a few lose ends and put back the screwdriver and pliers she had used, after closing the casing all the way. Dispassionately she demanded, “Move the arm.”

He did so, marvelling as the flawless weapon Howard’s son had created for him operated once again. He froze however when she took a step back and ordered, “Wipe him.”

Immediately he reared up, tried to get away but as soon as he had moved his first muscle, the four men, who had stood guard in every corner of the room, turned their weapons on him. The technician from the surveillance monitors pulled a handgun on Darcy. Freezing mid−motion, he pleaded quietly, “Please, don’t. I will comply. Whatever you want me to do. Darcy, please, you don't have to do this. I'll be good!”

He fought the restricting arms of the technicians, wanted to get to his knees. Handlers in the past had cherished such meek gestures. Maybe he could convince Darcy that he was willing to go any length for her as well as long as …

“Darcy has to be obeyed in all things,” She replied coldly. “You were the one who submitted this rule, so heed it. Sit down and don’t put up a fight!”

All eyes were on him. Even Malick seemed interested in his reaction to this cruel order. Nobody threw Darcy a second, who stood there, her fingers clutched so firmly in front of her body to suppress the tremor that was barely visible. When he met her eyes he saw the barest hints of tears gathering, while she mouthed at him, ‘Please, trust me’.

She was right, he had submitted the ‘Obey Darcy’ rule because he had trusted her at the time. Natasha had said that Darcy would know what to do, to get them out. In the end it all came down to one question: After everything she had done, had ordered him to do, did he still trust her?

Slowly he relaxed back into the chair. Only because he was paying very close attention, did he notice the slight slump of her shoulders, the trembling of her fingers easing down. He accepted the mouth–guard and prepared himself for the pain. It was worse than he remembered.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Dispassionately, Malick watched thousands of volts burning through Bucky's brain, while asking, "Not that I disagree with your decision, but would you care to elaborate why you want his memories removed?"

Taking shallow and even breathes, Darcy's mind raced for an answer. The most obvious one was, 'I don't. I would never want to mess with his head,' but clearly she couldn't admit that. Fortunately, the surveillance from his last assignment was still vivid in her mind, helping her to find an excuse, "Because he only got shot; because he didn't heed his orders. He showed compassion when saving the mother with the child. That's not what he had been told to do. If he isn't able to make the right decisions on his own, we have to remove the temptation by not allowing him to form his own opinion. He'll be safer that way."

"Interesting," Malik mumbled, looking mildly approving. "It seems that we have finally found a way to make this work. I'm impressed, Miss Lewis."

"Sir?" One of the agents at their back spoke up all of the sudden. "It seems we have a problem. We finally made contact with our cell in Baghdad: The Lewises and Ian Wainwright never made it there."

Blood rushed through Darcy's ears, filling her whole head with a deafening noise. They were so close, so close to getting out of here. All they needed was enough time for the Avengers to find them. But after all these days of torture, after having to talk down at Bucky, watching him comply and loosing himself more and more with each order she gave, it seemed that their time had run out.

She made an abortive movement towards the chair, that was slowly powering down. The technician at her back had drawn his gun once again and Malick shook his head and sighed. "And here I was so sure that you would honour our agreement. Now we have to shoot you and train our Asset the old fashioned way. Really, I thought you cared about him more than that."

Rearing from the chair, the Winter Soldier staggered a few steps before coming to a halt halfway between Malick and Darcy. He looked shaken. His hair hung in tangled strands over his face. He didn't even seem to have the strength to brush it out of his eyes. Tilting his head from side to side, between the two of them, he appeared to be at loss of whom to turn to. It had been a risk, because though current took the path of least resistance, something could always go wrong. No body was meant to endure such a charge, as Darcy had been well aware, still, it had been their only way to make contact with Tony.

Turning bodily towards Malick, the Winter Soldier asked in a heavy Russian accent, "Your orders?" and though he was facing the senator, his hand was reaching back towards Darcy, cautiously brushing over the back of her knuckles with his fingers. Freeing the blade, she had hidden in her sleeve, Darcy pressed it into his hand and exhaled in defeat before whispering, "Kill them. Kill them all," before she closed her eyes and let the tears fall she could no longer hold back.

She heard him, felt his movement around her in his deadly dance. She heard gunfire, rapid but aimless. She should take cover, but after breaking her last vow, Darcy couldn't find it in herself to spare any caution for her own well-being. Maybe she should die together with these people. She probably deserved it after becoming one of them. Ever since their first meeting, Darcy has promised herself that she would never abuse James by making him her weapon. Now she had done exactly that. That her parents were in mortal danger, that she was alone, surrounded by enemies, might all be good reasons, but no excuse to stoop as low as Gideon Malick and all the other Hydra heads before him.

Her soldier's anxious, "Watch out!" made her tear open her eyes. Looking into the barrel of a gun made her react purely on instinct. It was a proof that her dad and uncle Ian's training was too ingrained into her to even think in a life–and–death situation. Slapping away the gun, something she most certainly was only able to do because her opponent hadn't expected any resistance, she whirled around and swiped him clean off his feet.

Her soldier was by her side in an instant, pulling her behind his back, aiming a gun at the heavily breathing Gideon Malick who lay on the floor. After two heartbeats, he stuffed his weapon into the back of his trousers and bodily lifted the elderly man towards the chair where he chained him down. Proficiently he lowered the headband that would shoot unbearable amounts of electricity into the guy's brain.

Malick raved and ranted until the soldier forced the mouthguard between his teeth, fixing it with a strip of leather. Looming over the now helpless man, he growled, "Rule Number One: I am a person with likes and dislikes. I am allowed to say 'no'. Rule Number Two: I am not allowed to kill anybody, except in self-defence. Rule Number Three: Nobody has the right to hurt me or take advantage. Rule Number Four: Darcy is to be obeyed in all things." Breathing heavily, shaking with adrenalin, the soldier leaned down, growling into Malick's ear, "Do you want to know Darcy's last order? 'Kill them all!' And let me tell you, obeying her is thrilling. Every. Single. Time!" before he slapped down the button that activated the chair.

Darcy shivered at his back. Never before had she been afraid to be in the same room as the Winter Soldier. After everything she had read and seen about him, The Asset had been a tool, a weapon, not a man with vicious joy in causing death and destruction. But now things were different. Now Bucky had let loose and gotten his revenge. Darcy could not even begrudge him that. Having been the cause for it, she merely stood at his back and watched Malick whittle in the chair, sobbing and fighting against the restraints that held him fast on this instrument of torture.

She didn’t even notice the door caving in from a repulsor blast. Didn’t hear Iron Man touching down beside her. Remained oblivious to the Avengers filling the room, taking in the picture of destruction Bucky had caused.

Captain America, stepped up to his best friend, gently prompted him, “I think he’s had enough,” before switching off the electricity was the first thing that registered, followed by a warm, strong hand on her shoulder.

She felt vindictively pleased by the broken sobs of Malick who finally relaxed after his torture, but dead inside otherwise. What had she done? She had sworn to herself to protect Bucky. But today she had been just like the rest of Hydra, willing to use him as means to an end. He would never be able to forgive that. She didn’t think that she would ever be able to forgive herself either.

Gentle tugs on her shoulder made her turn around, seeing Uncle Ian and finally her dad. Carefully her father touched her cheeks while her uncle checked her over. When he asked quietly, “Are you alright, baby?” she shook her head and a wail tore from her throat. The fear and stress of the last weeks finally crashed over her and drowned her like a tidal wave. All she could force out between desperate wails, was “Home … please … I want to go home.”

Curling into herself she noticed dimly that her father picked her up and carried her out of the house. She didn’t have eyes for the destruction her family and the Avengers had left in their wake. Didn’t notice the burned down electricity in the house, nor the numerous agents that had worked as a protection detail, but now lined the walls, hands and legs bound. Help had arrived, just as she had known. James would be taken care of and maybe one day she could work up the courage to apologize and beg his forgiveness. But for now, all she wanted was her mum and dad and for them to make her world right again, no matter how ruthlessly she had torn it apart.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

~ * Bucky * ~

The soldier didn’t agree with Steve, not at all. His vindictive anger revelled in Malick’s suffering, but he couldn’t keep himself upright any longer. So when the Captain powered down the chair and Black Widow and Hawkeye dragged the Hydra bastard out, Bucky sagged and scanned the room for Darcy. Ever since she had called him in, he had pictured killing each and every agent who had dared to lay hands on her. Her last order had allowed him to finally execute what had long since been overdue. Steve bringing him back to himself had paved the road for him, and all he had wanted was to make every last member of Hydra suffer. However, Darcy’s safety had been his first concern, so he had killed these people with brutal efficiency. Terror had filled him during the fight because Darcy had refused to take cover, obviously shocked into stupor by his display of violence.

He didn’t regret what he had done, but now that he looked around and couldn’t find her, he mourned his lack of discipline. The Winter Soldier could kill faster, with far less bloodshed. But no, of course he had to abandon his decades long self-restraint. The minute he was allowed to do as he pleased, without any fear of penance, he had let himself get carried away and butchered these bastards in the most brutal manner imaginable. He only had himself to blame for her absence. Still, a tiny hope remained, so he turned towards Iron Man, because who else but her father would know where Darcy was and demanded to know, “Where is she?”

“Her dad is bringing her home. She was a little … beside herself.”

Though Iron Man’s voice was mechanic, Bucky thought he could hear grief. Stark had come to love the mouthy, confident girl who had ruled the private labs of the tower. He had run himself to the ground searching for her. But in the end Darcy was Andrew and Elisabeth Lewis’ daughter and Tony had no right to her. So the engineer stood at the side lines, as did Bucky. All of this … the abduction, her acting as his handler … it had all been his fault, Darcy had suffered because of him.

Had he turned around the day they met, leaving her to care for her stupid TV by herself, none of this would have happened. Still, the mere thought of not having gotten to know her devastated him. Maybe this was all he could have: a few months of happiness before his past inevitably caught up with him.

Well, he could always cherish her memory, yet leave her to live her life in peace, untouched by the cruelty of what Hydra had made him. At least that’s what he told himself, when following Steve out of the basement. He would return to the Tower with his best friend, and finally return to where he had belonged all along: Captain America’s side, be it at home or in the field. Apparently, a life without violence was not in the books for him. Best to spare Darcy and leave her be.

So, in theory he had a solid plan for his future. Once at the tower, Bucky was ushered into the workshop and checked over, twice. First by JARVIS and then by Tony himself. The gold filament in the back of his neck was judged in pristine condition. Only the transmitter, which he had known nothing about, had to be replaced. The little device had used the energy of the wipe to broadcast his location like a beacon. Darcy must have known, he told himself, otherwise she wouldn’t have put him in that chair. She could never be vicious or sadistic. Not even after everything he had put her through.

Since he hadn't been compromised, Bucky started his training with the Avengers the next day. Steve put him through the wringer, though they both gave as good as they got. Hawkeye familiarized him with the melee weapons available at the tower. Though no longer in the weapons manufacturing business, Stark took good care of his team. Iron Man showed off, so Bucky could learn the abilities of the suit. Lastly, he also worked with Natasha and corrected her form. Contrary to his expectations, the Black Widow was grateful for a sparring partner who could still help her improve. The training of the Red Room wasn’t as far back for him as it was for her. Even Dr. Banner was willing to spend time with him, sharing a story about his life in India while cooking vegetarian curry. Bucky never asked about the Hulk and Banner never offered any information. Both were too aware of their own demons to poke at somebody else’s.

Though the Avengers, even Thor – though he still gazed hyper-vigilant whenever Jane and Bucky were in the same room – were more than accommodating, he still couldn’t feel at home at the Tower. He wished he could return to the easy camaraderie he had shared with the Commandos and though Nat, Clint, Tony, Bruce and Thor seemingly welcomed him with little prejudice, they were not family. Nobody could compare to Dum Dum or Dernier, Monty or Jim or Morita. Also, after what he had done to lose him when returning to Hydra, he still couldn’t look Steve in the eyes.

~ * ~ * ~

So, everything seemed bleak and grey these days, no matter how hard Bucky tried to fit in. The sense of having lost his one chance at happiness grew with each sunrise, cutting his nights shorter each day. He was currently residing on the roof of the tower watching the sunset. Gravel dug into his backside because he hadn’t moved for hours, but he didn't care. He was pondering on all the good times he had had when allowed in Darcy's presence, when suddenly a warm blanket was wrapped around him. He shivered at the sudden comfort, only now realizing how cold he had been.

“What are you doing up here, Bucky?” Steve asked quietly, handing him a cup of hot chocolate.

Gazing into the cup, Bucky noticed that there were marshmallows bobbing around merrily. It was a rare treat Steve and he had only been allowed on Christmas and national holidays. Hot chocolate had always made them feel better, merrier, certainly the opposite of how he felt now. After everything they had been through, he couldn’t understand why Steve would go through the trouble to make him one. So, ignoring the question, he mumbled, “You should hate me?”

“Why?” his best friend wanted to know, parking himself beside Bucky. “Because you shot me? I wasn’t angry the first time. I sure as hell won’t bother with the second. It wasn’t even a real gun.”

“But I wasn’t under their boot the second time. And just because it was a tranquilizer gun doesn’t make it any less real.” Bucky reared up, growing agitated. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve even mixed the compound myself.”

Shrugging, Steve admitted. “True. You knocked me out really good. How did you know it would work, anyway? Dr. Banner tried to come up with a pain relief for years now and never even came close.”

“They used it on me,” Bucky admitted quietly and for a heartbeat he was sure that Steve would crush his precious cup in his white–knuckled grip. Still, since his best friend didn’t say anything, he felt the need to fill the silence. “I’m sorry, punk. I never wanted to hurt you.”

For the strangest of reasons that made Steve actually chuckle. “You didn't really hurt me, only my pride, so don’t bother. We both know that under similar circumstances, you would do the same.”

Well, he couldn’t contradict that. It had all been for …

“Darcy is important to you, Buck. I get that. But I wish you would have let me help and not go through all of this on your own.”

“I couldn’t,” he choked, carefully setting down the cup, putting his head on his drawn-up knees. “I couldn’t risk them hurting her because I wasn’t complying to the letter. She’s …”

“Too important?”

“More than important.” Bucky turned his head, his eyes red with unshed tears. “She is everything, Stevie. The thought of losing her, to Hydra of all people was … it was suffocating me. I couldn’t take any chances. And even now, that I know that she is safe and sound in her home, together with her parents, I can barely close my eyes. I’m terrified that someone will grab her and drag her back, only to get to me.”

Gently Steve wrapped his arm around Bucky’s shoulder and pulled his best friend closer. “I get it. Don’t worry and I am not angry at you. But if she’s so important to you, why are you still here?”

Borrowing a little of Steve’s strength and body heat, he sighed and looked at the rising sun. “Because I blew this one. I let loose and now she’s afraid of me and I would never force her to meet me if she’s not comfortable in my presence. She’s a real lady. She deserves better.”

It hurt, down to his core, but after messing up by bringing Hydra to her doorstep, Bucky was determined to let her heal and rest in peace, no matter how great his longing was.

~ * ~ * ~

Bucky had thought that he had things under control, his feelings under a tight wrap, but everything burst out of him the day Clint offered a cookie. “You should try these. Darcy made them only yesterday and she still has a few in the lab. She hides them in the right bottom drawer.”

So, Darcy was back to work, back in the tower but still wouldn’t come up to see him. The pain of the rejection hurt more than he had anticipated. As the Asset, he had never made a secret of his identity and Darcy had told him that she had known him to be the Winter Soldier from the beginning. But the moment he had made use of his true skillset, she seemed too disgusted or frightened to be around him any longer. It tore him apart but there was nothing he could do. She might have been able to ignore his inclination towards violence as long as he had slept on her floor like a guard dog. Now he had destroyed the last of her illusions of being tame. Hydra had trained him for attack, nothing else had ever mattered.

Still, he wanted to see her so much it hurt. Wanted to promise that he would never, ever pick up a rifle or a blade or any kind of weapon, if only she would take him back. He wished he could swear that he could be docile and harmless, but that was both ridiculous and unrealistic. Just because Malick had been … eliminated didn’t mean that Hydra wasn’t still after him. Even if Darcy couldn’t bear to have him by her side, he had to be able to protect her, even from a distance and make sure that nobody ever lay a finger on her again. He couldn’t do that without arms. She could live a happy life and forget that she had ever met him, but he had to stay vigilant and ready, prepared to wipe out anybody who even thought of hurting her. In the end that was the best he could hope for.

~ * ~ * ~

One evening, Nat slid onto his bed, while he obsessed over the feeds from Jane’s lab. The girls were still at work, since it promised to be a clear night. The picture was distant and when zooming in, Darcy’s face was grainy. Still, he couldn’t keep himself from stroking the screen, while watching her. After observing him for a while – he refused to feel embarrassed about his feelings, Hydra wasn’t there any longer to tell him he had no right to them – Natasha finally asked, “How much longer will you pout, instead of going down and talk to her?”

“I’m not pouting,” he informed her distantly. “And I will never go down there. She clearly doesn’t want to see me. She’s happier without me in her life.”

Frowning, Natasha asked, “What makes you say that?”

Sighing, he put down the pad when Darcy left the lab. “She knows where I am. If she could stomach being around me, after seeing me letting the Winter Soldier loose, she would have come up already.” Shaking his head, he turned towards the Widow. “It’s alright, really. She should keep her distance, so she’ll never again have to suffer on my behalf. If not for me, Hydra would never have given her a second glance. Darcy deserves a chance to be happy without crazy in her life,” he recalled with a sad small smile.

For a few moments, the former Russian spy didn’t say anything. Then she stated softly, “If you think that she’s happy with the way things are, you are not paying attention.”

 

~ * Darcy * ~

It had been barely a week since her parents had rescued her from Hydra, a week where she had spent two days terrified, hiding under her blanket with her dad fussing over her. On day three her mother had dragged her quilt away and kicked her out of her own bedroom. Elisabeth Lewis made her shower and change and then had dragged her out of her flat. Andrew and Ian had been quiet sentinels at the women’s backs, hiding their weapons from the public’s eye. Darcy had been forced to enter Macy’s and several thrift stores, since – as her mother had decided – they rarely got the chance to do some shopping together these days. At first she had been tense and unsure, frightened by her own shadow. But when a car backfiring nearly had her in tears, Darcy had decided that this wouldn’t do.

She had enough of being scared, enough of looking over her own shoulder. That evening Darcy prompted her father to train with her again, as he had done when she had reached puberty. He and Ian had put her through the paces more than ten years ago, so she could defend herself in case somebody had trouble understanding the word ‘No’. Her self–assured demeanour and the fact that she was brought to school in a military van, had protected her from any kind of attack, be it verbal or otherwise. In college, things had been different; still, she had managed to stand her ground. It was amazing how a strained thumb and a constricting grip on the nuts could reduce even the most persistent guys to puppies, yipping for mercy.

Things were very much the same these days. Darcy was not particularly fit, she had never been a star athlete, but she could hold her ground up to a certain point. The two soldiers worked her over, improved her stance and helped her make the most of what she had. Darcy still refused to carry a gun, but she got very good with a shawl and her keys, her handbag and one time even with the heel of her boot. Her trusty Taser was not even taken into consideration. Everybody knew that she had mastered that particular tool. At the end of the following week she decided that she should return to work.

~ * ~ * ~

Still, Darcy had no idea of how to approach Bucky. How did you apologize for abusing someone, making him your weapon? ‘Sorry’ most likely didn’t cut it.

Her parents accompanied her to the tower. Elisabeth enjoyed spending time with Tony, revelling in the chance to rub shoulders with someone on her level. That such collaborations often ended with Tony and Elisabeth shouting at each other didn’t bother anybody. Andrew and Ian had watched for a few hours, sharing a bowl of popcorn that Darcy had supplied and then decided to make the most of their trip to New York and the private gym Tony had created for the Avengers.

Darcy made sure that her boss–girl – as well as the other scientists – returned to a regular eating and sleeping schedule and for three days everything was alright. Darcy even managed to find some peace of mind. Then she saw Bucky in the canteen. Woodenly, she sank down in a chair facing Jane, watching him having lunch with a dark–haired woman in a pristine white blouse and a dark skirt. She wanted to perk up, to at least wave at him. But when his eyes brushed over her, he didn’t give any indication that he even recognized her.

Not hungry any longer, Darcy returned to the lab.

 

~ * Bucky * ~

Darcy was here, in the cafeteria, barely five tables away.

Bucky needed all of his self–restraint not to go to her and beg her forgiveness. But he had been determined to concede to her wishes. He had had his own neglected for far too long. Maria Hill, the head of security of the tower, was about to return to S.H.I.E.L.D. at least part−time, so she was looking for someone who could fill in, until a permanent replacement was found. Since Bucky wasn’t ready for field–assignments, he had given it a shot. After going over the tower’s security systems he had requested for them to meet in the canteen. It seemed like a convenient location at the time and if there was a chance that he maybe would be able to catch a glimpse of Darcy at lunchtime that was purely coincidental … probably coincidental … not at all calculated … who was he kidding?

After three days of hour–long meetings he finally caught a glimpse. Though she attempted to joke with Thor and prompt Jane to eat, Widow had been right, his girl didn’t look happy. Her eyes were red–rimmed and sunken in. She had a massive bruise on her upper arm that made Bucky want to stalk over and demand to know who had given it to her. When their eyes met, she had looked ready to lose it.

If the mere sight of him nearly reduced her to tears, he couldn’t go over, couldn’t force her to face him. He should spare her facing the cause of her abduction, the reason for her suffering. Clearing his throat, he turned towards Maria Hill, stating quietly, “I think I should leave.”

Looking over her shoulder, Maria shook her head and picked up her things. “No, James, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do,” before ending their meeting.

~ * ~ * ~

Super–soldiers required less sleep than normal people. Still, even Steve wasn’t up every time Bucky wandered the corridors of the tower. Darcy's teary look haunted his dreams. He saw her at Malick’s side, a gun pointed at her head. Sitting in the chair, the threat of torture hanging over her head if she would not comply. Bleeding on the floor because he hadn’t been fast enough to save her.

When he woke, all he wanted was to apologize. He wanted her to feel safe and normal and protected in her new home. He knew about London and Mexico, better than most. New York had been supposed to be a new beginning but now his mere presence had ruined even that.

He froze when he came face to face with Darcy and Clint in the middle of the Avenger’s gym at 2 a.m. in the morning. Clint carried a bow and Darcy a quiver full of arrows. When she looked up, he took in her ashen face with her overly large eyes, and his stomach clenched. For several seconds, nobody dared to move until he forced himself to take a step back and lower his eyes. Maybe, if he showed himself docile, she would lose that despairing look whenever they were in the same room. He was no danger after all, at least not to her. Bucky would rather gut himself than lay a finger on her, but he had no clue of how to convince her of that.

He prepared himself to retreat further, when he heard her wet voice whispering, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, James. Please, forgive me.”

Dumbfounded he looked up. This was not going as it should. Why was she apologizing? She had done nothing wrong. He was the monster who had brought violence and bloodshed into her life. He opened his mouth and closed it again, like a fish out of water, but nothing came out. This was all wrong, but he didn’t know how to make it better.

After a minute where nobody said a word, Darcy handed over the quiver to Clint, stating quietly, “I think I’ll return to the roof. Jane might need me. See you around, Clint.”

Only when the door closed behind her, did Bucky manage to shake himself out of his stupor. “What? … How? … I don’t understand!” He turned around, looking at Clint in hope of an explanation. “I thought she hated me for what happened. That she’s frightened because Hydra kidnapped her to get to me. This is all my fault. She has nothing to apologize for!”

Scratching the back of his neck, Clint shouldered his quiver and looked after the girl he had come to like ever since meeting her in Mexico. Of course Darcy was afraid, but she was strong. Fear made her determined, never cower. “That’s not fear, eating away at her, it’s guilt. So maybe it’s time for you to man up and face her, because no one else can absolve her of that guilt but you.”

“Why would she feel guilty? She did nothing wrong.”

“From her point of view or from yours?”

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

~ * Bucky * ~

Thirty miles of running circles in central park and a hot shower later, Bucky stood in front of Darcy’s apartment and tried to adjust his dress shirt. Sadly, the cut didn’t make for a smooth fall over his artificial limb. He could have ‘downgraded’ to the first arm Tony had built for him − Howard’s son had offered − but he felt better this way. Stronger and more like his old self, though that didn’t make the slightest sense. His old self had never been able to topple over cars with but one hand.

After several minutes of indecisiveness Bucky finally raised his hand and knocked. Late nights at the tower meant elaborate breakfasts and then a few hours of sleep for Darcy. He knew her schedule by heart, knew that she would be in her kitchen right now, brewing decaffeinated coffee and maybe flipping pancakes. When the door opened, he was forced to meet the steely gaze of Andrew Lewis. Instead of a greeting, the man looked him up and down. “You took your time.”

This was a situation he had not prepared for. “I … can I talk to Darcy?” he stammered, pressing his hands to the seams of his trousers to hide their tremor.

“To do what?” Darcy’s father demanded to know. “Haven’t you done enough? Without you none of this would have happened!”

“I know!” Bucky burst out, in a way it was a relief to finally hear someone saying this out loud. “I know but I … I need to … I …”

Suddenly, a smaller woman appeared by Andrew Lewis’ side. “Andi, leave him be. Come in, James, Darcy’s in the kitchen.” And just like that the soldier retreated into the apartment.

Stomach in tight knots, Bucky lingered in the entry hall. To his left was the wardrobe where he had hidden from Steve, the first time he had come around. Darcy hadn’t made him come out, hadn’t forced him to face his friend. She had protected him by dealing with what he could not face. Pretty violently if the stories were to be believed.

Facing the closet was the kitchen.

Peeking in, Bucky noticed Darcy sitting on the counter, a steaming cup of tea in her hand, starring out into the early New York morning. She looked tired and worn, ashen like she was about to be sick. He didn’t want to go in there and disturb her shaky calm, because for once she didn't seem to be on the edge of tears. But if Hawkeye was right, if she was somehow beating herself up over something that couldn’t be any less her fault, he had to make sure to absolve her of any guilt, imaginary or real. Then he could go and leave her in peace.

“Darcy …” He didn’t realize that he had moved until he stood in front of her.

“Bucky …” she breathed out. Confusion dominated her features. “What are you doing here?"

Leaning closer but not allowing himself to touch, he tried to find his voice. "I came to … you apologized and I wanted to tell you that you have nothing to be sorry for."

“What?” The cup in her hand started shaking, nearly spilling over. He reached out to keep her from burning herself.

"You did nothing wrong." He tried to assure her. "You saved me. You got us out." Bucky closed his eyes, tried to focus his thoughts to be able to tell her what she needed to hear. He wasn't good with words, had no clue of how to make her understand. So he did the same he had done with Steve. "There is nothing you should feel bad about and if there was, I would forgive you."

Violently, Darcy freed herself from his touch. Obviously he had done something wrong again because she started screaming. “How can you say that? I made you kill them! I made you my weapon with no regard of your wishes. I know that you hated what Hydra had done to you, but given the chance I did exactly the same! You can't forgive me. I am a monster, James! Just like them!”

Fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she curled up on the counter, her tea finally spilling to the floor. Distantly, Bucky could hear Darcy's parents in the living room, pondering if they should intervene. But as before, Elisabeth showed more faith in him than he had himself, and made her husband leave them alone.

“Oh, Darcy …” Finally understanding, Bucky sank to his knees in front of her. Gently he reached for her hands, uncurling them from her legs, kissing them tenderly. She needed a few minutes to look at him, but he didn’t care. For her he would wait another seventy years if only he got the chance to put her mind at ease. She hated herself, and it made his heart ache. But he didn't know how to comfort someone. All he had known for so long was pain. But what he could offer her was the truth.

"You didn't make me your weapon, doll." When she tried to protest, tried to refer to her command, he gently kissed her fingers. "I did that, the second day we met. I asked you to be my handler because I didn't know how to live outside of Hydra's suffocating regulations. Of course I enjoyed helping you to furnish the apartment, but sooner or later I was prepared to … to be of use again."

When Darcy flinched he kissed her palms. She didn't pull away, but didn’t seem particularly comforted either. "But you were different from Hydra. You gave me a different set of rules and they helped me … help me still when my mind goes … when I drown in all the possibilities freedom offers."

Brokenly she whispered, barely daring to caress his face, no matter how easily he leaned into her touch, "But that does not absolve me of abusing you … I was just like Malick, just like every other handler you had had before me."

After a heartbeat, Bucky asked, "Do you remember what I told you when you asked me why I wanted you to become my handler?"

Thinking back, Darcy recalled, "Because my orders didn't hurt." Shaking her head, she sighed. "I blew that one quite spectacularly, didn’t I?"

"No," Bucky insisted, "no, you didn't. Darcy, you don't understand! All these years … these decades … all I ever wanted was to raze these people to the ground. But I didn't even dare to imagine … for so long every independent thought I had was punished. They drowned me and suffocated me and beat me and burned me and froze me. What do you think would they have done, if they had even suspected me imagining killing them? But you, you handled me with care, considerate of what I needed and you ordered me to kill them. Just like that. I don't know if I can ever explain that it in a way that makes you understand but Darcy … you set me free."

Tears were streaming down her cheeks again, but they didn't feel like they were choking her any longer. They flowed easier, and there was the barest hint of a smile on her face. Slowly she leaned down and touched their foreheads. "But you are, Bucky. You are free. And you deserve to be loved and protected and cared for. Not to be used as means to an end."

Revelling in their contact, he closed his eyes and whispered, "But you do all of that. So it's only fair that now and then you get to use me as means to an end as well. Especially when it comes to the more … physical tasks."

And then he realized what he had said.

How could he have been so stupid? Darcy had been clear about her opinion on the veracity of his feelings a few weeks back. What on earth had made him insinuate that she felt the same for him? He remained frozen on his knees, holding her hands, resting his forehead against hers, inwardly panicking, expecting that she would push him away, any second. Out of her kitchen, probably even out of her life, for good this time. Should he apologize? Should he explain himself? Tell her that he hadn't thought about what he had said. That whatever slipped out, had been …

His lungs already started protesting the lack of oxygen since he didn't even dare to draw breath. Then the pressure on his forehead increased ever so slightly. Darcy was nudging his temple until he looked up. She was still pale, her eyes were red, but the light had returned to them and he could barely believe his ears when she whispered, "You're right."

"What?" he croaked out because this was obviously his mind playing tricks on him. Darcy couldn't mean what he thought she meant. Not when it came to feelings like … like …

"You are right," she repeated, slowly pulling her fingers out of his hands, putting them on his face. "I use you when it comes to the more physical tasks. I never thought about making you carry equipment or assisting me in Jane's lab. I care for you and if I can I protect you I will and …" Closing her eyes she took a slow breath before their gaze found one another again. Her voice was steady now, free of uncertainty or fear or guilt when she whispered, "And by all the gods in all the realms I love you so very much."

"Darcy," he choked, pulling her from the counter and into his lap. He was trembling all over because this … he had not even dreamed about this, because he could never have been so bold. This was too good, too much, too fantastic to even imagine. But here she was, in his arms, hugging him back, holding him together when he was all but shattering in the face of such a monumental confession. He had told her that he loved her and she had dismissed the notion. But now she loved him back and that … that was too much and he didn't know what to do but to hold on. All he wanted, was to never, ever let go.

 

~ * Darcy * ~

Her parents peeked into the kitchen, but Darcy couldn't be bothered to even wave at them when they gestured towards the door. She needed to hold her soldier who seemed to shatter in her arms. She hadn't meant to tell him, though she knew without the shadow of doubt that it was true.

Darcy knew love. She had her parents, and Uncle Ian, her father and Jane and Thor. She had even had her intern, for a short time before he had ditched her. Darcy was now realized that whatever she had felt before paled in the face for her emotions for Bucky. Loving him felt like a hurricane compared to the light drizzle she now associated with Ian. Her last 'boyfriend' had cheated on her with this cashier from Tesco and Darcy had been angry and hurt and had left the country. However, beyond that, seeing Bucky being hit by a bullet, hearing the panic in his voice when he rejected treatment from Hydra's doctors, that had nearly torn her apart. After her last command to him in that dreadful cellar, she had barely been able to go through her days, certain that he now hated her. At the same time, she had been grateful that he was safe and protected in the tower. The mere idea of him dying at Hydra's hands … she wasn't even able to fathom such a thought. She could never survive losing Bucky, not with her sanity intact.

They had made it out, mostly unharmed, and now that everything was out in the open, she was even allowed to hold him. He returned her fierce grip, as if he was afraid that she would leap up and leave any second. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Given the choice, Darcy would never again distance herself more than ten feet from her soldier, and then only because there were certain things women had to do that didn't require an audience.

They sat on her kitchen floor for nearly an hour. When she felt him drooping, she gently nudged his face away from her neck. Tenderly she brushed her lips over his forehead before whispering, "Let's go to bed."

And just like that it was as if Hydra had never happened. Slowly he rose and pulled her up with him. Later, in bed, when Bucky dragged her close, making her his little spoon, Darcy could only sigh and relax into his arms. They were both dozing off when unexpectedly the window was wedged open and someone picked up her iPod, pushed it into the speaker, starting her sleeping playlist.

Distantly Darcy thought that she should be alarmed. Bucky certainly would be, if he were not fast asleep. So she fought the sleep, fumbling for anything she could use as a weapon, until Clint's soft voice calmed her. "It's alright, Taser girl. Sleep tight. Natasha and I will keep watch."

At long last, the exhaustion of the last few weeks pulled Darcy under. Snuggling deeper into Bucky's embrace, until he covered her like a blanket, she finally allowed herself to rest.

 

Three days later

Darcy had allowed them two days where they stayed holed up in her apartment, acquainting themselves with each other once again, marathoning Dr. Who, and eating takeout. If touching her before Hydra had felt like a blessing to Bucky, it was now a benediction. Darcy had seen the best of him, while he had tried so very hard, to overcome his programming, to be good for her. These last two weeks she had also watched him at his lowest, hiding behind the Winter Soldier, complying without any regard for someone else's life, including his own. And still he was allowed to hold her in his arms. She never shied away, kissed his knuckles no matter which hand was closest, and didn't that break him wide open.

He had talked to Steve; JARVIS had somehow changed the TV into a phone and Bucky had gotten the chance to look at his best friend, share his joy of being allowed back at Darcy's side. Steve had been cautious but happy for him. This morning he finally understood his best friend's hesitation, because when they entered the tower, Darcy's parents were hovering in the lobby.

Elisabeth instantly hugged her girl, deciding, "You haven't shown me your workplace yet. Come on, Jane's waiting."

Darcy looked over her shoulders at the three soldiers lingering behind. Chuckling under her breath, she reminded them, "I've brought a Hydra−cell to their knees because they took what was mine. Don't hurt him or I'll go after you next."

Bucky swallowed reflexively, tried to draw into himself, to appear less threatening. No, harming Darcy's dad or uncle certainly wouldn't do. Surprisingly his mumbled, "Yes, Darcy," was echoed by the two soldiers at his side. Confused he looked up, but she only beamed at all three of them and nodded, "Excellent," before following her mother into the elevator.

Defending himself against two opponents should be quite easy, even if they were used to working in tandem. It became significantly harder with the restriction of not hurting them. Andrew and Ian certainly seemed to have no such qualms because their hits rained down on him like heavenly fire. Of course he was able to block them with his artificial limb, but one moment of inattentiveness might cost him dearly.

After about an hour Andrew Lewis was the first to speak up. Breathing heavily, he accused, "It was your fault that Darcy was abducted! Had you stayed away from her, Hydra wouldn't have thrown her a second glance."

Bucky couldn't contradict that, because he knew Darcy's father to be right. Therefore, he concentrated on blocking his kicks, carefully avoiding retaliation.

"Our girl is not a super−hero or a super−soldier or anything out of the ordinary. She's just plain human and can only defend herself so far," Ian added, aiming hits at his opponent's metal shoulder while he dodged one of Andrew's kicks.

Tony was the last of Darcy's guardians to enter the ring. He only had a gauntlet, securing a connection with it with his favourite screwdriver. And even though he was otherwise unarmed, only wearing combat trousers and a muscle shirt, he clearly was the most dangerous of the lot. One blast from Iron Man could burn a hole right through Bucky’s skin, super−soldier or not.

"As long as you stay with her," Tony elaborated while entering the ring, "she'll always be in danger. We must dismantle Hydra first and only then can you be around her again, without drawing unwanted attention. Since they are out there, your mere presence endangers her."

Anguish welled up in Bucky. Now that he had finally found Darcy and she had forgiven him … forgiven herself for making him do what he had wanted to do for nearly a century … these men wanted to drag him away from her again. He wanted to fight them, tear them apart, overcome the obstacle they presented. But then Darcy would hate him forever. She had told him not to hurt them and he could understand. Though she loved him, her love for her fathers and her 'uncle' was more important.

Andrew, Ian and Tony were closing in on him, but in a moment of clarity he knew that he could do nothing to defend himself. The Winter Soldier was too close to the surface, because he hurt so much. If the Soldier took the leash, he couldn't guarantee that he would pull his punches. So he lowered his hands and bowed his head. In the end, he could do nothing but admit defeat.

Surprised, Ian asked, "You're not going to fight us on this?"

Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. He couldn't, Darcy's words were shackling him better than anything Hydra had ever done. "Darcy doesn't want any of you to be hurt. I can't …"

Folding his arms over his chest, Andrew challenged him, "Darcy's not here, and Tony just told you that you could not see our daughter again until the last of Hydra is gone. What do you plan on doing about that?"

Why were they so cruel? Of course, he wouldn't do anything. "All I want is for Darcy to be happy and safe. You're the most important people in her life. Hydra is … Steve and I could …" He wasn't the tactician of their team, but maybe Steve would find a solution and he could return to Darcy. Maybe in a year or in ten, depending on how many cells were out there. Tony was right, only when the last head of Hydra was gone, Darcy was guaranteed to be safe. Waiting for the final punches he repeated quietly, "I just want her to be safe … and happy."

And just like that the tension dissipated. Andrew Lewis stepped up to him and gently touched his shoulder. His voice was calm and gentle, like it had been when he was on the phone with his daughter. With a soft smile, he stated, "Welcome to the family, Son," before pulling Bucky in.

After a moment Ian joined them, holding him and Andrew close. The two gazed at Tony, inviting him, "Group hug?" But the engineer drew back with grin. "Oh no, not really the type. I just came down because Darcy sent me to make sure you don't mess up her soldier too much."

"No," Andrew decided, putting a warm and steadying hand on Bucky's neck, who slowly unfroze, gazing up confused. "We're good, aren't we?"

Yet, Bucky was at loss. "I … don't understand."

So, Andrew explained, "You want her safe, and happy. That's all that matters. Hydra is out there and probably will be for a very long time. And if it's not Hydra, it's Destroyers or wormholes or Dark Elves. It doesn't matter where Darcy is or who she's with. Our girl is a magnet for crazy. But if she has someone at her side, who is willing to do everything, including being beaten up or brainwashed, that's more than we could have ever hoped for."

"You're certainly better for her than that weirdo in London," Ian added with a chuckle, nudging Bucky. "Now we'll take a shower and then we'll pick up our girls for lunch, because there is no way our baby is going out alone for the foreseeable future."

Indignant, Tony added from the side, "I'll have you know that there is an excellent canteen on the second floor. And every major caterer delivers to the tower. I certainly tip enough for that!"

"Yes," Andrew reminded him, "But if Darcy wants to get out for sandwiches, she will go out for sandwiches. It's our duty to make sure that she won't be without a shadow from now on."

"Darcy doesn't like being shadowed," Bucky recalled from a few weeks back after their first lunch date with Steve.

Chuckling, Tony asked, "And has that ever stopped you?"

"No."

"Good boy." Andrew grinned, messing up Bucky's sweaty hair. It seemed that, just like that, Bucky had gained a new family.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Chapter Text

365 Days (and one)

A meteor shower that occurred once in a lifetime, or something like that, had Jane driving Darcy out of the Tower faster than Darcy could say "Astrophysics”. Though she really tried to be supportive of her boss−lady, she couldn't help but pout all the way to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. She had had plans for the evening and now wouldn't be able to make it. Bucky had requested an evening for just the two of them and she had been looking forward to it. Still, well aware that gaining permission to be at the refuge at night was difficult to come by, and only Tony pulling strings had made it possible, Darcy swallowed her disappointment and trailed after Jane. She had had such a nice dinner planned. She'd started shopping two days ago, even in between working hours to get a special spice from a shop that closed at noon. Darcy had been about to cook all of his favourite foods, dishes she had carefully extracted from Steve over the last month. But now they were stargazing, and when Jane was finally finished and they headed back to New York it was too late for even a midnight snack.

It was close to 1 a.m. when they arrived back at the tower. As always, Bucky was waiting for her in the lab. He looked tense, nervous even, but Darcy was too tired to ask what was bothering him, since she actually felt herself swaying on her feet, as soon as she put the equipment down. Her soldier had lent her a helping hand and now he stood at her back, caressing her hair. "Tired, doll?"

"Hm …" Darcy mumbled, so Bucky pulled her up bridal style. Instantly, Darcy snuggled against him, reaching for his shirt to have something to hold on to. Tenderly he kissed her forehead, "Let's get you to bed," he whispered, carrying her up to Steve's floor where they had commandeered one of the guest−rooms. Something really important had been weighing on Bucky's mind for the last few weeks now, but now was not the time to share his thoughts. Maybe tomorrow, when his girl would be well rested and happy again.

Bucky really needed her to be relaxed and happy because he had a very important question to ask. He had been on a mission to gather a special item for some time now and two days ago he had finally carved and roped Steve and Natasha into helping him. As soon as the duo realized what they were shopping for they had dragged him from shop to shop. For nearly three hours they had visited jewellers to find the perfect engagement ring.

Bucky had visited Rebecca's daughter, Maria last week, and though his niece had tried to be supportive, even offering her mother's engagement ring, he knew that he didn't want to present Darcy with a 'hand me down' from his family. She was new and she was special and though he would have loved a memento from his family, he really couldn't bring himself to take something Becca's daughter obviously cherished. He had been grateful that his family had accepted him with open arms, even inviting him to family dinners and the major holidays. Yet for now he didn't really feel comfortable to be around so many people, even if they were related to him by blood.

Nat and Steve had dragged him through all the high−end shops, from Tiffany's to Harry Winston to Chopard. They finally ended in Brooklyn, at a small, hole-in-the-wall jeweller, where Bucky found the perfect ring. It felt right, like the precious rings only the richest of guys could afford for their gals, back in the day. At the same time, it was simple enough to suit Darcy. It was expensive, but since Pepper Potts had Stark Industries' team of lawyers look into his case, his back pay from the American and Russian government had been more than generous. Being held as a prisoner of war for more than half a century certainly paid off.

Now the ring was burning a hole into his pocket. Today … well, yesterday had been their anniversary. It was one year from the day a mouthy poli-sci major had shouted at a brainwashed assassin to stop a petty thief to get back her TV. He had wanted to make this day special but, as always, Darcy's work had come first. She had 'graduated' to PR manager of the Avengers. Though they had a team of people to care for good publicity, the ease with which Darcy wielded social media platforms had brought a huge increase in popularity. That they regularly found pictures online, which showed them in compromising positions, because his girl had the habit of taking snapshots of them during breakfast or training, didn't bother anyone in particular. Seeing them spread out on a gym-mat, entirely out of breath, or bleary eyed, inhaling their morning coffee made them more 'human,' she had reasoned, and thus more relatable for the masses.

Tonight stargazing had taken precedent over dinner. And though he had been disappointed, to have her with him now, seeing her sleeping in his arms, was nearly enough to make up for that. Maybe he would find his courage tonight, after she had rested.

~ * ~ * ~

"Darcy, please. Can't we enjoy a nice, relaxing evening, just the two of us?" Bucky begged, knowing that he would never muster up the courage to pop the question in the middle of the dance-club Darcy had chosen for the 'team bonding activity' of the month.

Getting lost in Jane's atrocious handwriting once again, Darcy thumbed through yesterday's findings before looking up. "Gorgeous, I know that you're not a fan of parties, but I promise, you will like this one." Rising from her chair, she approached him and pulled down his face, so she could blow a tender kiss on his nose. "Trust me."

'With my life,' he thought, pulling her closer, hiding his face in the crook of her neck, inhaling the scent of her favorite strawberry shampoo. After a few moments, he nodded. "All right. But tomorrow …"

Beaming, Darcy promised. "Tomorrow we'll have an evening just for us, scout's honor."

"Have you ever even been a Girl Scout?" he asked skeptically.

"No," she grinned, "but that's not the point. Now be a dear and leave me to my work so I can be ready in time. Go and play with Steve."

"Yes, Darcy," he grumbled, retreating to the gym where he would most likely find his best friend.

~ * ~ * ~

Around eight, Natasha picked Bucky and Steve up and ushered them into a shower. Since she had waved away any concerns about clothes, the soldiers from the 1940s chose black slacks and button-downs for the night, and shone their shoes. Such semi-casual attire worked for most clubs. If it was a little less ‘classic’ they could always loose the shirts and go with the skin-tight muscle shirts they wore underneath.

Clint was currently folding four clothe-bags into the trunk of the limo, when Bucky and Steve entered the garage. Nat, too, wore a more laid-back attire. Bucky looked her up and down, because he was used to the Widow 'dressing to impress.' She merely smiled at him. "We'll change once we are there." Confused he and Steve shared a look but got into the car without protest.

The club was demure and quiet when they went down the stairs, after Natasha had exchanged a quiet word with the bouncer. Yet instead of passing through the double doors, the archer guided them to a room at the side. They entered a dim-lit changing room with two rows of lockers. Opening three of them, feeding each one with a quarter, Clint prompted, "Well, let's get on with it gentleman. We don't want to leave the ladies waiting." Then he started to strip.

Opening his suit-bag Bucky staggered for a moment. This was his uniform. The uniform he had worn the night before he had been shipped out. But that could not be because that uniform was lost and most likely too small for him anyway. Gazing at his best friend, who had already stripped down to his pants and socks, Steve too exhaled sharply when he revealed his outfit. Matching uniforms with insignia per military ranks.

Pulling up his suspenders, Clint chuckled, "Don't worry, Darcy had made these regarding your latest measurements. They will fit like a glove." Shrugging into his jacket, the archer turned towards a small mirror, trying to bind his bow-tie. He swore, pulled it open when it was crooked the first time and tried again. After his second useless attempt Bucky finally shook himself out of his stupor and reached over. "Here, let me."

Within ten seconds Clint was presentable. Grinning at his own reflection, he gestured towards their uniforms. "Do you really want to leave the ladies hanging?"

With practiced ease, Bucky and Steve shrugged on their dress uniforms and followed their friend into the ballroom. Apparently, all doors had been soundproof because the first notes of 'Begin the Beguine' greeted the trio when they entered. Steve's breath hitched when he took in the grandiose dance floor with the white dressed tables surrounding it. It was not exactly the same as it had been in their time, but close enough for a night of 'make believe'. Steve and Bucky involuntarily stepped back when the door at their side opened and Natasha entered. She was breathtaking in a long, black dress. With her dark-red hair and make-up she would have been an eyesight in their time. The next song was just starting so Clint offered her his hand with a deep bow. "May I, sweetheart?"

Usually, nobody would get away with calling the Black Widow 'sweetheart' but tonight she only smiled and took Clint's arm. They spotted Tony at the side of the room, lounging at a large table with Pepper. Bruce sat on Tony's other side, fiddling with his tie, so the soldiers started to make their way through.

A big portion of the room was covered in golden plating and when catching a glimpse of his own reflection, Bucky froze. He looked the same. The same as James Buchanan Barnes, his hair the only exception. It was as if the last seventy years hadn't happened. Closing his eyes, Bucky tried to breathe. Concerned, Steve touched his shoulder. "What is it, Buck?"

Hoarsely, he forced out, "I look like him. Just like him."

"Like who?"

"Like James Barnes."

Confused, Steve shook his head. "But you are James Barnes."

Balling his hands, making the servos in his arm protest, Bucky shook his head. "No, I'm not, not exactly."

"Well," his best friend pondered. "Who says you have to be exactly like you were before? You've been to war, Bucky. You've fought and you were captured and you got out. Time changes everybody. I'm not the same punk who fought against all odds in the dirty alleys of Brooklyn either. And that's okay. Nobody expects you to be anything but yourself."

"Actually," a purring, female voice interrupted their conversation, "I think you're perfect just the way you are, gorgeous."

Simultaneously, Steve and Bucky turned around, a dolled up Darcy standing behind them. For a few moments, the two men could only gape, then Bucky shoved his best friend. "Hit the curb, punk. This one's taken."

Straightening, Steve stepped forward and kissed Darcy's hand. "You look dazzling, doll," he said before a growling Bucky made him retreat with a chuckle.

Once Steve was gone, Darcy slowly started to approach Bucky until she was close enough to touch. Was the air conditioning working? Bucky felt like he was burning up. His girl looked like a vision from the past. She wore seamed stockings in fire-red shoes. Her dress, though of a 'simple' cut, was made of a shimmering satin that seemed to hug her figure in all the right places. And from his current point of view, it accentuated her primary assets to perfection.

A throaty laugh pulled him out of his reverie. "My eyes are up here, Sergeant."

"I …" he tried hoarsely, clearing his throat, wishing for a drink though he was well aware that even the strongest alcohol would do little for his nerves. The serum had its drawbacks. "You look amazing, Darcy."

For a few heartbeats they merely looked at each other. He should say something. Why wasn't he saying something? But Darcy, looking like that, was short-circuiting his brain.

Fortunately, his girl seemed to be on top of the situation because when the orchestra started 'In the Mood' she asked cheekily, "Would you care for a dance?"

"It would be my pleasure." He was not croaking sans dignity, absolutely not. His throat was just a little dry. Still, he did his best to pull himself together and lead Darcy to the dance floor.

It had been a really long time for Bucky, but as soon as they started their dance the steps came back to him. At first he was too concentrated on his part: remembering how to lead properly, how to not to step on Darcy's toes. Only when the dance was halfway through, did he look up for the first time. Though this was definitely unfamiliar to her, Darcy seemed to have no problems following his lead. "You can dance."

Slightly out of breath, she admitted, "I learned."

"What? Why?"

"Well, today, exactly a year ago, you asked me to be your handler. I thought that deserved some kind of memento."

'In the Mood' morphed into 'Moonlight Serenade' and Bucky pulled her closer, touching their foreheads tenderly. For a few moments, they just enjoyed the music before he felt ready to admit quietly, "I didn't think you would remember."

At that she chuckled and the vision of the past morphed into the girl he knew. "Well, let's just say you left an impression."

And out of the blue, their surroundings didn't matter. It didn't matter where they were and who was watching, because as much as he might have left 'an impression' on Darcy she had done so much more. She was his life, his sanity, his happiness. Forcing down the lump in his throat his fingers closed around the velvet box he carried around constantly. "I … I would like to ask you something."

"Sure," she replied easily, looking up at him with so much love and care. Like he was the most important being in her world. Brushing a stray strand behind his ear, she wanted to know, "What's up?"

Pulling out the box, he noticed that his girl went very still. Slowly he sank to his knees in front of her, in the middle of the dance floor and presented the ring. "Darcy, would you give me the honor of becoming my wife?"

"What?"

The pairs around them had ceased dancing as well and had formed a loose circle around them. The Avengers and Pepper had taken strategic positions, watching them with hawks' eyes. After a few moments, where Darcy merely gaped at him, Bucky's heart fell. No answer was an answer as well. Still, in a last, despairing attempt he prompted her, "Please … say something."

Clenching her hands in front of her chest, fumbling with a chain that ended in her décolleté, she stuttered. "What am I supposed to say?"

Surprisingly, Tony came to Bucky's help by suggesting, "Since the man you love is on his knees in front of you, I would recommend you say 'yes.'"

"But …" she stammered, "but this is not how it was supposed to go!"

Dejected Bucky rose to his feet, but before he could turn away, Darcy grabbed his sleeve. "I … we were supposed to wait until midnight. And then there should be champagne, Tony's treat, and …" Pulling free the chain, revealing two silver rings she added hurriedly, "and I should be the one asking the question. I've planned everything!"

"What?"

Now it was Bucky's turn to stare. Gazing down at the rings, he reached for them with trembling fingers, "But these … these are the wedding bands of … my parents."

"I know," Darcy was crying now, tears laced with laughter. "Marie gave them to me when I asked her permission to propose."

Incredulous, Bucky repeated, "You asked my niece for permission?"

"Of course," Darcy drew herself up a little. "You're from the 40s, I wanted to do everything right."

Stepping closer, caressing her cheek, Bucky smiled, "You're aware that this usually goes the other way around? That the guy asks the gal's father for her hand."

"Yes, well … we're not like normal couples. I still …"

Finally catching up with what Darcy was saying, he interrupted her by whispered, "Does this mean you're saying 'yes.'"

"Depends," she smiled, "Are you?"

"Yes."

Throwing herself at him, Darcy beamed, "Then yes. Yes, a hundred times over!"

 

Three−ish years later

"If you ever touch me again, I will strangle you! I will cut off your cock and feed it to the crows!" Darcy screamed, batting Bucky's hand away from her sweaty forehead.

The Winter Soldier was lingering at the edge of his mind, but until now Bucky had determinedly pushed him down. This was nearly too much and when another wave of pain hit her, he considered to spare Darcy the effort and mutilate himself. But when the anguish ebbed away from her features, she clutched his hand desperately once again. She had insisted on holding his left, fearing that she would break his bones if she squeezed hard enough. It was hardly something they had to worry about, but right now Bucky would comply with her every demand.

Bruce was lingering at the side, rubbing down his hands with sanitary wipes, unexpectedly calm while facing the blood and fluid that pooled beneath Darcy on the table. "You're aware that I am not that kind of doctor?" He asked, while disinfecting his hands, after having cleaned them thoroughly.

"But you're the only doctor around, so you'll have to do," Darcy forced out from behind clenched teeth.

This was all going too fast for it to be natural and Bucky valiantly tried to force his mind away from every 'worst case' scenario his mind came up with. They were in the middle of Siberia in the heat of the summer. Well, summer in Siberia meant balmy 25°C in the middle of July. Novosibirsk had held the last Hydra cell on their list and despite her condition Darcy had insisted on coming along.

The Avengers had kept a close eye on her up to the point where they had had to head out to raze this final Hydra−stronghold to the ground. She had been on the comm with them all the way through, calling up maps, hacking servers and surveillance systems. Everything had just gone peachy until she had suddenly stated, "Oh."

Tony and Bucky had frozen mid−motion, demanding to know, "What's wrong?"

Her voice had been slightly confused, and not as concerned as the two men felt, when she stated, "I think my water just broke."

Bucky couldn't recall much after that. When he had come out of his daze he had found himself in the middle of Hydra's command centre, surrounded by bodies, covered in blood. Steve had been approaching him slowly, holding out his hands as if calming a spooked animal. "Bucky, pal, are you with us again?"

Looking down at himself, Bucky had slowly let go of his weapons, something that had made the assembled Avengers exhale in relief, stating quietly, "I think I need a shower."

Everything had become a blur of commotion: communal showers had been requisitioned and even if the water had been cold to the point of freezing, he had rid himself of all the blood and gore, as fast as possible to return to the Quinjet. Fortunately, none of it had turned out to be his.

Now they were safe again, Darcy sitting on the table in the middle, pressed against his chest while he held open her legs. The Avengers were hovering at the side, unable to give them even a modicum of privacy in the small jet. Tony was fluttering around them nervously, until Steve stopped him and pulled him to the side, strapping him in. It worked for all but two minutes.

Natasha was flying the plane while Clint addressed more practical matters. "We need clean blankets and water. Maybe a suction tube. Come on, people, this woman is in labour, we need to be ready for the baby."

"Babies," Darcy breathed out, riding out another contraction. Bucky froze behind her. "What?"

"Babies," she repeated, fighting against his restraining hands who kept her in a stable position. "We're going to have twins."

For a moment, he mentally staggered, unable to comprehend, but then Bruce stepped between her legs, checking her cervix, stating calmly, "It's time, Darcy. If you feel the need to push, when the next contraction hits, I want you to do so. All right?"

Clenching her teeth, she nodded and Bucky could feel her bearing down on the table. He wanted to beat himself up, to turn back time and never impregnate her, no matter how dearly they both wanted kids. Anything to spare her this pain. But after three years, two of which they had been married, she had decided that it was time for children. So he had bought out Jessica, her downstairs neighbour, and they had remodelled the townhouse to hold a small family.

The Winter Soldier still tried to push to the surface, to allow him to deal with this, emotionless and detached, but Bucky didn't want that. He wanted to remember everything. The first time she had told him that she loved him. The first time they had had lunch with Steve. The evening on the couch where he had barely taken in a word of the TV because the ring in his pocket had burned holes through his clothes. The little rattle on their takeout box on the couch table that had brought him to his knees, because he had finally understood why she hadn't been able to keep her breakfast for the last week. And this, this he could never ever miss!

The cry of a baby pulled him out of his stupor, and he held Darcy even tighter. He started trembling when their second child was born. The 'younger' twin was smaller, only mewling weakly in contrast to his sister, and with dread he realized that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the little one's neck, constricting the airways. He didn't even think when reaching for his blade, cutting the constricting rope before Bruce could find a scalpel. The angry, protesting cry, was music to Bucky's ears and he had to lock his knees, as to not fall on his ass, when Natasha offered his firstborn child.

"James, I want you to meet your daughter."

Half a minute later, Darcy did the same. "And here is your son. You did good, soldier. So very, very good."

Fortunately, Steve was behind him because he was not certain that he would have made it to the seats at the side, when his children first looked at him. His shirt was cut away and the babies pressed to his naked chest. All three were bundled up in blankets to protect them from the cold air of the jet and were strapped down while Bruce cared for Darcy.

Tony carried her over a few minutes later, but Bucky could only stare at his children in wonder, shaking his head. "I didn't know. I didn't know that I could feel this way. Not after everything they have done to me."

Accepting her babies on her chest, pulling them closer to her breasts to feed them, Darcy looked up when he sank to his knees in beside her. Gently she carded her fingers through his wet strands, keeping their babies safe with but one arm around them. "Feel what way, gorgeous?"

"Happy."

With an exhausted chuckle she pulled him closer, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "Protected and cared for and loved. I told you that you deserve it, happiness certainly should be thrown into the mix somewhere."

Hugging his little family close, he whispered, "Thank you," against her clammy lips, and for a while his little family was everything he could think off.

Tony was the one who interrupted their serenity after a few sparse hours. "We'll touch down in London in less than twenty minutes. Do you have names for the birth certificate, spawn?"

And with a smile Darcy looked from Tony, to Steve, to her babies and finally to their father, nodding decisive. "Yes, George and Sarah Barnes."

"George and Sarah?" Bucky asked, looking from her to Steve, who was clearly trying very hard to not tear up. They had talked names but hadn’t decided, because he had refused to learn the sex of his babies. If the excitement of birth had been good enough for his father, it certainly was good enough for him. But now … it seemed that Darcy had known in advance and had given some thought to this. Yet when looking at her inquisitive, she meandered a little.

"Yeah … well … I don't really like Winifred, I'm sorry."

Smiling, he leaned forward and kissed first Sarah's and then George's head before bending up to brush the faintest of kisses over Darcy’s forehead. "Don't be, doll. It's perfect."

 

Plus two days

There was a soft knock on the door, and the tangled locks of Elisabeth Lewis peeked inside, followed by the woman herself and her husband. "Can we come in?"

"Sure," Darcy confirmed smiling, adjusting her twins on her chest. She was quite proud that after but one day she had already mastered the task of simultaneous nursing. George and Sarah were very firm believers of eating at the same time.

Her parents were glowing from happiness when they slipped into the room.

After the Barnes family’s transfer to New York, Tony hadn't spared them any luxury. Since the birth of the twins had been under … well, less than ideal circumstances, they all had agreed that Darcy would stay in the medical wing of the tower for observation. But since the bed was wide enough for two and there was a large crib right by her side, she couldn't be bothered. The room even had a TV with about two million channels, a cosy couch and was decorated more like a bedroom than a hospital room.

"Look at how tiny they are," her mother claimed a place on the bed, reverently caressing her grandchildren's heads.

Andrew leaned over Darcy and kissed his daughter's forehead before he did the same for the babies. He, too, was utterly careful as if he was afraid that they would break if he put a firm hand on them. Looking around, he asked, "Where is James?"

"Making a Starbucks run." Darcy chuckled. "Because I threatened to do it myself if he wouldn't get me a caramel frappuccino with whipped cream."

"You shouldn't drink coffee, Darcy," her mother reprimanded instantly. "It will make the babies nervous and more prone to crying."

Rolling her eyes, her daughter asked, "Did you read that on your flight up?"

"No, I know that from experience," her mother shot back. "I was pregnant with you during my last year in college. Do you think I aced all my exams without a steady flow of caffeine?"

Darcy could barely steady her children, while cackling up, but before she could say anything, Bucky's warm voice drifted over, "Starbucks serves decaf. I make sure that Darcy doesn't get any caffeine."

"James," Elisabeth beamed at him. "It's so good to see you. And I have to say I'm happy that at least one of you has some sense." She rose from the bed and hugged him. Taking the tray with four cups – apparently, he had known about their arrival – she kissed his cheek.

Though Bucky had been uncomfortable at the beginning when Darcy's parents had stared showering him with the same physical affection they showed their daughter, he had come to expect, even cherish it. The Lewis family was a tactile bunch and every time one of them hugged him, he breathed a little easier, as if their affection was slowly grinding down the horrors of his past.

"George's finished," Darcy remarked, and promptly he picked up his baby boy to burp him. After a moment, his wife adjusted the bed, doing the same to Sarah. Once they were through and the babies were satisfied, Bucky offered his son to Elisabeth, who had hovered by his side, while Andrew took his daughter from her mother's arms.

Admiring the babies, comparing them, Andrew looked at Bucky with pride and nodded, "Son, you did really good, we're really proud of you."

Busying his fingers, so their trembling would not reveal how much this compliment meant to him, Bucky distributed the drinks, keeping the last one for himself. He kissed Darcy's head when she groaned after the first sip, "I love you so much, this is perfect."

Andrew nearly choked on his latte, when he laughed out loud at that, "See, once they have chained us down, that's what we are downgraded to: Burping the babies and fetching coffee."

"Oh, please," his wife berated him with a smile, "as if you would change anything."

Kissing his wife's hair, Andrew admitted, "Not even the tiniest bit."

Obviously pleased, Elisabeth leaned into her husband, looking at her son-in-law, "What about you, James?"

Sipping his camomile tea with a shot of caramel, Bucky looked at his wife and his children and shook his head. "No, everything is perfect."

~ * ~ * ~