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The Worst Loneliness

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It doesn't matter what's keeping Darcy up this night, what keeps her from falling into a deep sleep. What keeps her from finally resting, from finally finding peace at the end of the day. It doesn't matter because there are so many things, so many issues. So many problems swirling through her mind as soon as her head hits the pillow.

It doesn't matter because this isn't the first night and it won't be the last.

Darcy has tried watching a couple episodes of mindless TV, then a few episodes of engaging TV where she has to pay attention. No go. She’s tried her most recent book purchase, but it leaves her annoyed and aggravated. She goes back for an old reliable, a long-time favorite, and can’t keep her concentration.

The apartment is hollow with the silence that’s taken up residence. Thor, and his rather expansive personality, is back in Asgard and she’s not quite sure where Jane is. Most likely in the labs, as she is almost every night when Thor is away. Though Thor was pretty insistent on having Darcy and Jane stay with him, in an entire freaking penthouse floor because Tony Stark doesn’t understand the meaning of “overkill,” she rarely sees either one of them. It’s almost the same as living alone, except there are more dirty dishes left in the sink.

Frustrated, she tosses the book aside and pulls on a sports bra under her t-shirt and sweatpants. She’s not bothering with a real bra to go wandering around Stark Tower. She hopes the movement will help calm the restless feeling, a clawing, antsy sensation in her limbs. If not, she can always go bug Bruce or Jane, if that’s where she is, in the labs. She’s pretty sure at least one of them should be awake. Or Tony, though only as a last resort. He tends to get twitchy and jumpy when he’s zeroing in on hour thirty.

She makes the rounds, finding all three labs shockingly empty. Still aimless and wide-awake, Darcy wanders a few floors lower. When she steps out of the staircase, she hears the distinctive rhythmic punching, a thud, thud, thwack echoing down the hall. It stops, only to pick up again, faster.

Darcy figures it must be Steve; he’s notorious for his late night sessions with the bag. Weighing the idea in her head, she decides to at least take a peek. If he has his scowly face on, she can judge the situation from there whether she needs to intervene or let him puzzle through his problem.

When she pokes her head through the door, though, it’s not Steve standing in the middle of the gym. Instead, it’s Bucky. She only has a passing familiarity with the man who’s been in house for about two months at this point.

What she does know can be divided into two camps. First are the rumors, spread far and wide from the SHIELD gossip mill, too busy and full of speculation to be given any merit. The second is the truth, from Steve and from Natasha, who brought the man to the tower, all three looking haunted and hunted. Tony didn’t object once or, even more telling, make a single lewd comment when Steve set Bucky up in his home at the tower.

When she walks through the open door, she can't help but stop to watch. Light glints off the metal arm as he moves like liquid around the bag. His form is solid, but he’s holding back with his prosthetic arm, undoubtedly because one solid punch from it would wreck the bag.

Every few punches, he stops. He takes a step back, and goes to the stool where a distinctively shaped bottle with only a small amount of clear liquid left is sitting. He takes a huge swig of it, big enough that makes Darcy’s throat burn in sympathy. Bucky's brilliant blue eyes close, squeezed tight, as he takes several deep breaths after swallowing. The bottle presses against his lips once more, pausing before he takes another long swig. Swaying on his feet, small enough that it’s only noticeable if staring at the man as Darcy is, he puts the bottle down and moves back over to the bag.

Which is about enough for Darcy. She tries to make as much noise as possible as she walks into the gym. Squeaking her shoes against the polished wood floor. Snapping her fingers together at her sides, more out of fidgeting than necessity. She’s learned to never attempt to sneak up on anyone in the tower, even by mistake. They all have their traumas and, as a result, tend to react out of habit with force and violence, an instinct to survive. His rhythm doesn’t falter as she approaches.

“Gym’s occupied, sweetheart,” he informs her, his voice low, raw and rough. He doesn’t look at her as she walks closer, but she gets the sense he knows exactly where she is at all times.

“Not your name on the building, last time I checked,” she counters. She comes to a stop next to the stool holding the almost empty bottle. Picking it up, she gives it a sniff. Vodka. Not surprising. She’s heard tales of how he and Natasha can down the stuff like water. Which he seems to be trying to prove tonight.

Bucky keeps punching the bag, though his movements have become half-hearted. Mere facsimiles of the force he displayed earlier. He's just going through the motions for movement, out of agitation rather than respite. With one final punch, he walks away from the wide swinging bag and takes the bottle from her hands, finishing off the rest of the liquor. She watches his Adam’s apple bob as he drinks, each swallow a harsh burn. He doesn’t wince once.

This time, as he walks back to the bag, he sways hard on his feet. He manages to steady himself enough before he crashes into the bag, but only just.

“Don’t you have, like, super healing or super metabolism or super something that keeps you from getting trashed off your face?” Darcy asks, watching as he steadies himself.

Bucky shrugs as he starts fiddling with the wrapping on his human hand.

“’s not my first bottle. Besides,” he continues, his voice rough, “I’m not Steve.”

There’s so much in his tone. So much conveyed in those few words that, even someone who doesn’t know him, someone who’s only heard rumors and gossip, can put together the pieces. He isn’t Steve. He wasn’t frozen for seventy years, only to be thawed out, pristine and clean. He’s been used and he’s been the one who has done the using.

He’s tainted and dented and tarnished.

She doesn’t share any of the thoughts running through her head. Those are his demons to fight, not hers to understand.

Instead, she watches as he completely unwraps his hand, then starts a bruising pace with the bag. Bucky's hand turns red, raw, bloody, leaving marks behind on the bag from the force he’s putting into his punches. Punches which, from what she can tell, are still held in check. He’s getting more and more unsteady on his feet, having to prop himself up on the swinging bag a time or two.

With a sigh, Darcy grabs his arm just as he’s pulling back to swing again. Her fingers are warm against the cool metal and she can feel him jerk at her hold. His eyes look down where her hand is clasped around the metal, then up at her, both accusation and surprise in his expression. She wonders if it makes him uncomfortable, to have someone touching his arm that isn’t human. Or if it’s the fact that anyone is willingly touching him at all.

She’s watched as others, even senior agents, give him a wide berth in the hallways. Rookie agents, idiots with more false bravery than intelligence and cunning, act like it’s a game of courage to walk near him. As if allowing yourself to be near him is something to prove.

Darcy doesn’t let go, though. Instead, she tightens her grip and places her other hand on his back, between his shoulder blades. His shirt is damp from exertion, his body heat coming off in waves. With both hands as guidance, she turns him away from the bag.

“C’mon,” she orders, directing him through the door of the gym. “You’re only going to look shittier when you finally fall over and smash your face against the floor.”

He digs in his heels. “Not going back to Steve’s. Can’t face him like this.”

Darcy nods. She might not know the whole story. Might not even be able to understand it if she did. But she does get the whole not being able to show those closest to you when you’re at your weakest. She’s put on a strong face one too many times to not know the feeling.

“Not going there,” she reassures him. “We’ll head back to Thor’s place. He’s in Asgard right now and Jane is off sciencing or something. Just me you’ll have to put up with.”

She’s surprised when he nods, his head bob sloppy, and complies. He follows her to the elevator, letting her guide him. After a few steps, he slumps a bit of his weight, heavy bastard that he is, against her as they walk. Darcy doesn't realize just how tall he is until his body presses against hers, side by side, and she only comes to just past his shoulder.

“Who said I look like shit?” he mumbles, his head dipped down to rest against the side of hers. Darcy struggles to make out the words that are warm against her neck. His entire body drapes over her, a sloppy mess. He trips over his feet once or twice, almost taking both of them down.

“Me,” she informs him once she puzzles out what he said. “But looking like the walking dead does that to you.”

He pulls his head back from the crook of her neck to look at her. His eyes are bleary and seem to have a tough time focusing on her. “You’ve never even talked to me before tonight.”

“What’s your point?”

“Point is, you’re making a lot of judgments for someone you know fuck all about.”

She lets go of her grip on him, hands on her hips. He staggers before leaning, his body thumping heavy and hard against the wall behind him under her agitated glare.

“Hey, I can always leave you here to pass out where Tony’s bots will run you over without second thought. Or they’ll get Tony, who will get his mad scientist on, and you’ll wake up having an Inspector Gadget arm." She leans forward, dropping her voice to a whisper, faking a wince of sympathy. "There are already drawings in his workshop.”

“Dunno what that is,” Bucky mumbles, wiping his hand hard against his face. “Don’t want it.”

“Good," Darcy says, her voice loud enough to make him wince. She straightens up, holding out her arm. "Let’s keep moving.”

He takes her hand and she wraps her free arm around his midsection again. With his help, Darcy gets him upright and on the elevator to Thor’s floor.

Once in the apartment, she bypasses the living room and the kitchen to deposit Bucky in the bathroom. He smells like sweat and sour, the vodka reeking out of his pores as his body burns through it.

With Bucky still propped up against her side, she turns the shower. The water streams out, hot enough to start fogging up the surrounding glass. While he’s still clothed, Darcy pushes him under the water.

When he’s in the shower, instead of looking even a little more alert like she expected, Bucky just props himself up against the cold tile. His shoulders slump forward, defeat written in every muscle of his back. His head dips toward his chest, the hot stream of water running down the worn and weary lines of his face to dribble off his nose and chin.

Darcy can’t help but sigh at the sight. He just looks so damn broken. Like he’s given up on himself and expects everyone else to do the same. She needs to learn to guard herself better against her bleeding heart tendencies, because she’s surrounded by broken people. It’s a naïve idea, though. She’s always going to be a soft spot for a sad face and haunted eyes and Bucky seems to have both in spades.

Instead of leaving him to drown, Darcy shucks her sweatshirt and sweatpants. She's left in her sports bra and a pair of panties that are at least covering something. A nice side benefit for her being too lazy to do laundry today. Even though Bucky has other things to focus on, like standing up under his own willpower, she doesn’t care to be prancing around in a thong in front of him.

Once in the shower, the water beating down on her shoulder blades, she tugs on his soaking wet t-shirt. Her fingers brush against his skin, warm and soft, as she pulls the shirt up his torso. He bends enough for her to be able to bring it up around his shoulders. Bucky ends up being the one to pull it off over his head, though, when it gets caught on his neck.

“You got anything on under these?” she asks, snapping the elastic of his sweatpants hard against his skin with a wet thwak.

“Guess you’re just gonna have to find out, sweetheart,” he slurs. His eyes are half-opened and still darting around. She's not sure if it's because he's having trouble focusing on her or if he feels too vulnerable. That he needs to be watching, on alert. That it's the only way he might feel safe.

Despite the comment, there’s nothing of an attempt at seduction in his expression. Instead, it’s tired and worn, a man going through the motions like the reflex of a well-worn memory.

“Not your best line, Barnes," she informs him. "God only hopes it was your worst.”

Darcy turns him around and pulls back the elastic band of his shorts to look at his ass, figuring that’s her safest bet to check. She sees he’s covered with boxer briefs so she shucks the pants, too, leaving them in a pile in the corner of her shower.

Once he's mostly bare, she directs him under the water. Darcy gathers cupfuls in her hands to pour over him. Her hands start kneading at the muscles of his upper back and neck, tight and tense under the pull of her fingers. She doesn't let her touch linger on any one part of him for too long, even though he’s an attractive son-of-a-bitch. Or, at least he is when he isn’t drunk and sloppy. Either way, that isn’t what this is about.

Standing next to him, both half-clothed, it's intimate in a way that isn't about sex. Instead, it's about weakness and vulnerability. It's about that feeling that comes with taking care of someone else. Of letting someone else take control, for once. Of trusting someone be there, without judgment or retribution.

Bucky’s sad, and while he might not be weak of body, he's weak of spirit. She can see the pain, no matter how much he might try to shutter it, radiating in his eyes. Saw it from the moment she walked in the gym and it has yet to dim. She wonders if the others see it and she thinks they would have to. Steve, at least, would. But maybe that's just all the more reason for Bucky to run and hide from his oldest friend.

As she runs her washcloth, lathered up with soap, over his body, she can feel the muscles in his shoulder and back loosen under her touch. At first, it was about efficiency, get him clean and get him out. She sees how it’s affecting him, how the pain is finally lessening in those blue eyes, retreating back to the abyss where he hides his emotions. She slows down. She takes her time, making sure to scrub every inch of his arms and back, down his legs and back up.

When she runs her fingers over the gnarled mess of scars that make up his ruined shoulder, his entire body stiffens. Even without seeing his face, she knows the haunted look has come back into his eyes. He starts to shy away from her, angling his body so his shoulder can be between him and the wall of the shower. Darcy stops him, though, with a soft hand, fingers digging into his muscles only for a moment, then releasing. It's the only acknowledgement she gives to his discomfort.

Darcy doesn't let her touch falter once as she pays the same amount of attention to this shoulder, and to this metal arm, as she did to his human one. She doesn't say anything, instead letting her steady hands reassure him that the arm, his arm, doesn't disgust her. That his arm is a part of him, but not the whole of him. Bucky lets out a soft huff of what could be amusement as she cleans the metal just as thoroughly as she cleaned his skin. She'll take his amusement, however brief, over his defeat and bitterness.

Bucky dips his head down enough that she’s able to run shampoo and conditioner through the long tangled locks. She takes care to use her fingers gently on the snarls, spending the extra time needed to untangle them. Her fingers rub and scratch hard against his scalp in a way that she knows feels good. He hums with each scratch of her fingertips, the sound a soft noise of content. She can feel it vibrate through his back where her chest presses against him, the sound warming her in a different way than the water.

When she looks up, she sees his eyes closed; his face is completely unguarded. He looks as if he’s lost five years and at least a third of the weight from the world he’s carrying around on his shoulders. It’s the most at ease he’s looked since she’s met him.

By the time she washes out the conditioner, he’s somewhat sobered. It's the result not just of the shower, but also what she still suspects is something a little more super on his end of things.

Darcy turns off the water and steps out of the shower, wrapping her towel around herself as she tosses him another one. Once in her bedroom, she grabs him a pair of standard issue SHIELD sweatpants and an old ratty Culver sweatshirt that she stole from some boyfriend along the way. She raps on the door, giving him just enough of a warning before she tosses the clothes in the bathroom. Darcy takes the opportunity to put on fresh clothes herself while he changes.

She’s brushing out the wet tangled strands of her hair when he walks out a few minutes later. He’s steady in his stride, she notes, and just wearing the sweatpants. It's the first time she's taken a moment to look at him. Now that they’re both out of the shower and he’s pretty close to sober, she doesn’t feel like a terrible person for taking advantage.

He's broad and muscular, not as much as Steve, but his shoulders are more than enough to carry the weight he's forcing on himself. Besides the tangle of scars at his shoulder where the metal abruptly joins with skin, his body has few marks. Those that do stay on his skin look vicious and angry, the results of grievous wounds. There's a trail of dark hair spread across his chest and down his torso, dipping into his low-slung pants, a nice little temptation that she ignores.

Despite the expanse of skin on display, Bucky's face, with those compelling blue eyes, is what draws her attention. There are laugh lines in the corner of his eyes, smile lines in the corners of his mouth. Lines from a past life because she hasn't witnessed him laughing in this one. His lips are firm and the set of his jaw suggests a stubborn streak a mile wide.

He’s attractive, there’s no denying that. But, no matter how tall and straight he's standing in front of her, his face, his expression, looks lost. The vulnerability she was able to see in the shower is now hidden, but that look still haunts her mind. It’s something she won’t be forgetting for a long time.

Now that he’s clean and sober, she doesn’t know what to do with him. She’d send him on his way back to Steve’s floor, but she feels like she’s kicking a puppy if she tossed him out without even a backward glance.

Darcy sighs, already knowing the answer. She can’t help but look him over once more, trying hard to ignore the good looks and see the man beneath. He’s standing stock still, not moving a muscle under her scrutiny. The look on his face is guarded, shuttered once more, as if he’s waiting to be found wanting at the end of her analysis.

She could easily make up the couch in the living room, or even give him her bed and go crash in Thor and Jane’s room since neither of them are using it. But there’s something about him, underneath that prickly exterior, that’s demanding a comfort which won’t be found from being sent away, to be alone once again.

“If I let you stay here, you gonna stay on your side of the bed and not make any untoward moves of the murdery or seductive kind?” Yeah, she could have put that a little less blunt, Darcy thinks with a slight cringe.

Instead of looking insulted, like he would have every right to be, Bucky’s brow furrows. It makes her frown that he has to give serious consideration to her off-the-cuff remark, a remark she's regretting more and more. Finally, he shakes his head, accepting her terms.

“Alright then.”

With that, she pulls the covers back and pushes him down to sit on the bed. She doesn’t wait for him to settle in before she’s turned away. Darcy pauses at the door to her bedroom, finally looking back at the man. He has yet to move from where she pushed him down and she’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. This whole being quiet is getting kind of unnerving. She almost wishes he was still staggeringly drunk. At least then he mumbled. Right now, she has no way to read him, to know what he’s thinking. To know if she’s pushing him or helping him.

“I’m going to go get hot chocolate and my book. You need anything else?” she asks, quirking her eyebrow.

Bucky shakes his head again. With a shrug, Darcy leaves him to figure out if he’s going to stay or if he’s going to go. She’s not going to stop him if he wants to leave.

She comes back with two mugs, her book tucked under one arm and a bottle of water under the other. He must have decided this was as good as any other place to crash for the night because he’s tucked under the covers and propped up against the pillows, waiting.

As she walks by his side of the bed, she lifts her arm to drop the bottle of water in his lap. She then hands him one of the mugs. Her own mug she places on the nightstand on her side of the bed with her book before settling in next to him. Once tucked under the covers, she gives a sidelong look at her new bed buddy. He’s staring into the cocoa mug, brow furrowed and thinking way too much.

Lips pursed, she leans over and rustles around in the bedside drawer. She can feel the bed shift and she looks back up to see Bucky peering over her shoulder with his eyebrow raised, a half smirk teasing at his lips. Darcy rolls her eyes, pulls out the book she was looking for, and tosses it to him.

He looks down at the book now laying in his lap, looks back up at her, and then looks at the book again. Flipping through the pages, he remarks, “This isn’t what I was expecting you to pull out of there.”

“That’s the only thing that’s going to benefit you in that nightstand, Barnes.”

“I somehow doubt that,” he remarks dryly, eyebrow raised in challenge.

“Doubt all you want. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna change anything,” she informs him as she picks up her own book, opening it up to where she left off. She’d left her ereader down in Jane’s lab and it had, unfortunately, been the victim of a Stark experiment. At least she still had all her old paperback favorites that she could read until she replaced the device.

She manages a few pages before she glances back over at Bucky. He’s finally cracked open the book. With a small smile, she takes a sip of her cocoa and returns her focus to her own story. In the background, she can hear the pages turning, eventually going at a quicker rate as he gets into the story. He’s still reading when she turns off her bedside table light and curls under the covers.

In the middle of the night, she wakes to the feeling of cold metal against the warmth of her stomach where her top has risen. She briefly debates about moving him, but it feels …nice. And if it gives him comfort, so be it. Darcy steadfastly ignores the little niggling idea that it gives her comfort, too, even as she snuggles back against his chest. She hears the soft hmm he makes in his sleep, feels the vibration of his chest against her back. His arms tighten around her, pulling her closer, enveloping her in his warmth.

There's a scrape of his whiskers against her shoulder, softer than she would expect, as he burrows his face in the nook of her neck. Her hand comes up, lightly patting the side of his face, fingers tracing over the lines she can’t see, but ones she feels like she already knows. Her touch is feather light, only a stroke, then a second one, before she lets her hand drop back down to her side. Darcy falls back asleep to the smell of her shower gel and a spicy hint underneath that she thinks is all Bucky.

In the morning, when she wakes, Bucky has rolled away from her, curled up on his side of the bed. His face is relaxed, the well-worn creases soft. He almost looks innocent in sleep, if it wasn’t for that tiny crook in the corner of his mouth, as if he was on the inside of a joke she doesn’t know about.

Without waking him, which is a feat in and of itself, she makes her way to the kitchen, immediately starting a massive pot of coffee that can be rewarmed throughout the day. She has a ton of paperwork she has to slog through and only massive amounts of caffeine are going to help her make it to the end.

She’s just starting to fry up some sausage, figuring a couple of breakfast sandwiches sound pretty good, when Bucky appears in the doorway from her bedroom, looking warm and comfy, with his hair still tousled from sleep.

“If you have any food you don’t like, better let me know now,” she calls out, hoping to erase any potential for morning after awkwardness. Even though she isn’t sure a person can have morning after awkwardness without the sex. There were definitely enough emotions tossed around last night, though, that she thinks they count for something in the awkward potential category.

“Whatever you’re making smells pretty good,” he confirms. He scratches the back of his head as he walks closer, not making eye-contact as he comes into the kitchen. She pours a mug of coffee for him, now that it’s done brewing, and one for herself, hoping that eases any urge to bolt he might be feeling.

He takes a sip, giving an approving hum which makes her feel way more satisfied than it should.

“What can I do to help?” he asks, gesturing at the expanse of the kitchen before taking another sip.

With that, Darcy starts directing him and they have breakfast ready in no time. He makes a pretty good sous chef, much better than Thor, she informs him, to his amusement. It’s not that Thor doesn’t get what to do, he just likes to get a little too creative, especially with his spices. Red pepper flakes are still on the list of banned seasonings.

Nothing is said about the night before as they eat, but there’s an unspoken understanding in place. He doesn’t say thanks through words, but she can see it in his actions and in those shuttered expressions. In return, she doesn’t ask him what drove him to that point. What haunts him. She just does what she can to make it better.

When he leaves and she goes back to her bedroom, she sees the book that she gave him is missing. She can’t help but smile at the thought of him smuggling it out, but she supposes he’s used to having to hide a multitude of sins. Book-thievery is on the bottom of that list. Either way, she puts it out of her mind as she continues with her day. Coulson’s paperwork is calling her name like a vague threat. She can worry about Bucky later.