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When I waked, I cried to dream again

Chapter Text

Sometimes, she remembered him first. She would know the sound of his laughter where it echoed with a thousand voices, and she would know the color of his eyes where they held the depths of a thousand souls. The turn of his head, the beat of his heart, he spoke to her in a way that no other person ever could, and she craved his touch just as she did his smile.

Other times, it was him who knew her, him who found her by the way the heavens trembled with her singing, he who knew her by the rhythm of her hands and her hips and the way that her body moved with a fluid, timeless grace. The curve of her lips, the touch of her hand, he burned for her in a way that spoke in equal measures of familiarity and of desperation.

There were instances still, more than he cared for and more than she wanted to talk about, where they wouldn't know each other till the end. A stranger in a crowd until someone opened gunfire, her blood seeping out from between his fingers as he tried to staunch the flow and her eyes glazing over, lovely face going pale. A wrongly accused meant for the gallows that she recognized just as the rope drew suffocatingly taunt about his throat, his feet twitching and his eyes rolling while she started to wail, tried to claw her way past those who had gathered to watch.

It had been that way since the very first time, since their hands had touched and their hearts had met and something had shifted in the cosmos that housed them. A blessing, a curse, a questionable in-between that fell into the area of gray where they weren't sure it if was right or if it was wrong, only that they laughed and they cried and that it hurt with the same empty hollow every time. They had never not known each other, never not seen the other at least in the passing moment that stood as a prelude to an ever inescapable death even if they didn’t always get to touch.

Fate would smile upon them from time to time, even if it wasn’t ever often enough to be considered fair. They would have years together, they would know one another from when they were small and feel hale and whole for just long enough to feel comfortable, to let down their guard and try to simply enjoy.

And then he would go to war with their chief and never return.

And then her body wouldn’t be able to handle the strain of childbirth.

And then he would be killed in a gun fight.

And then she would drown by falling through the crackled surface of an icy lake.

A Sumerian slave and a Viking war maiden, a desperado and a Serbian princess, their lives were limitless, their histories convoluted and at times difficult to remember, but the pattern never faltered, they were cursed to feel hollow until they met, and destined to die once they had. The chain never ended, the cycle never seemed to cease, a repetition of life after life after life that strung them up and left them raw and bleeding only to begin again each and every time.

They were doing well though, with her blond hair often pulled back by his loving fingers into her tight knots or braids, his own a few shades darker but still golden in hue. Her dresses didn’t require many patches, her slender fingers adorned with gloves usually free of holes, and his best shoes were always shined, waistcoat appropriately pressed and fitted. They wanted for little, never went hungry in the sense of feeling particularly empty, and the roof of their home had nary a leak, even though they didn’t have a single servant to speak of.

Arthur and Rosalie Vance were comfortable enough, hopelessly in love in a way that spoke of pure devotion, of unabashed passion and possession. They had been a scandal, a short courtship of less than a season, two strangers who had become so enraptured with one another that they couldn’t seem to be bothered by the talk in their south London neighborhood. Their neighbors knew no better, and their families had given up the pretense of speaking on the matter, for the two had failed to see reason as far as they were concerned, but seemed happy enough. His work at the stable kept them fed, and her skill with hand crafting artificial flowers helped line their pockets, and the quiet murmuring of the possibility of children began from their families.

And then the complications began.

A curdle in her belly, a swell of pressure-pain in her abdomen that ebbed and flowed but never seemed to fade. A pallor to her skin, a blistering heat, and her smiles became strained, her fingers trembled too much for her to form the delicate fabrics of her flowers. Just a little ache, she told him, my monthly isn’t being kind to me, she swore.

And then he woke to the blood.

A puddle of it in their bed, staining the cloth to ruin where it had soaked in and dripped off the edges onto the floor. A spill of it there too, her footprints smeared through it where she had stumbled down the hall, and Arthur flew from their bed, eyes wild and her name a cry on his lips. Silence and a trail of blood were the only things to greet him, and he followed the latter on unsteady feet even though he didn’t have to go far. The end of the hall near the landing for the stairs, a smear of blood on the handrail and a growing pool of it on the wood where it spread from her prone body. It clung to her sunlight hair, the soft cream of her nightgown, and she was nearly cool to the touch where he fell to his knees in her blood, where he pulled her into his arms.

His screaming drew the attention of the neighbors, the constable kicked their door in, and she had long since gone cold and limp, doe eyes glazed. His sobbing made him inconsolable, Rosalie’s body was taken from him with no small touch of hysterics on his part, but they didn’t understand. They would never know the full extent of his rage, the deep pull of his grief. This was more than just a bleeding, this was more than just the loss of a good woman, this was a single, simple death in a series that they could never seem to escape, another in an experience so familiar that he wished he could lose count.

Womb of blood the coroner called it, a term that he knew would lose fashion in a decade at least, just as he knew that his name had been Felipe and hers Julianna before this, how he had died of fever under the reign of King Amadeo in Cádiz. His mother, this mother, Alyssa Vance, called it an act of God, did her best to tell him that all was well and that this was the will of their Lord. He had laughed at her, a hollow, gutted sound, for her God meant little to him when his voice held the rattle of a thousand instances of mourning.

A bullet clicked into the chamber, her body barely settled in her grave, Ylenia Barnes became pregnant with her first born, and the cycle began again.

-

Darcy Lewis was born in a bright, sterile room in Mercy Hospital, just off of State Street in Portland Maine. Her screaming could be heard through the entire maternity ward, her pale skin blotchy with afterbirth and blood, and the marvel of another little girl to add to their family was swiftly lost under a veil of panic that fell quickly over the room. Their infant daughter was swept from the room by one nurse, Mark Lewis ushered into the hall by another, and the last he saw of his wife's face in that moment was the image of her eyes tipping back into her skull and her full mouth falling slack, a vicious spill of blood coming from between her limp thighs.

The funeral took place the following Thursday, with Mark and the four elder Lewis children shrouded in black and in attendance for the solemn occasion. A single girl and three boys, the children were quiet, trembling with tears beside their father, and Mark wept openly for all to see. At his side, Amelia held his hand, strong where her father couldn’t be and quiet where her younger brothers weren’t, her eyes dry and her mouth firm.

Life went on after the funeral, after Anna Lewis was lowered into the ground, quiet and cold, and a surprisingly complaint newborn Darcy was collected from her paternal grandparents home. Mark took care of the little girl as best he could, aided by his parents and his children, and with little time to dwell in his grief, the young girl turned one, then three, then five, and the Lewis household learned how to live again.

She was serious for a small child, with a wide mouth and tired eyes, though she was quick to smile at the things her siblings said, quick to giggle at her father’s tickling fingers. She tugged at his shirts when he seemed sad, little arms lifted as she demanded to be held, and she toddled after Amelia with a gaping mouth more often than not. Still, for all her giggles and her babble, there was a strange grace to her small bones, little feet twirling across the floors of their home and her knees rarely scraped.

Tired, heavy eyes that watched the world around her, and she was her most attentive at her grandmother’s side, gaze just a touch too knowing and her demeanor just a bit too patient.

Nana Lewis called her an old soul, and while Mark simply gave a wistful, quiet laugh, Darcy watched her with luminous eyes that were far too haunted to belong to a child.

She was a bundle of energy though, desperate to be unleashed in one way or another, and a lazy Sunday afternoon dancing with Papa Lewis on the sun porch gave way to a talent, a hobby. Ballroom was easy enough after a time, turns on the toes of her scuffed flats and her little fingers clasped in her grandfather’s hands as he lead her through the steps. She danced around the kitchen, laughingly tried to draw her elder brothers into the steps with her for someone else to practice with between lessons, bare feet spinning in the grass of their lawn with the summer sun overhead.

Ten years old gave her a body that did it's best to form a figure, with widening hips and a heavy chest, a soft face and delicate hands. She had to learn to dance all over again, had to compensate for the new dimensions of her body and the sway to her hips, but she took to it readily enough.

And then the household woke to her sobbing, a petrified, belly deep wailing one cold, wet night. Her thighs were coated with blood, her sleep shorts and bed sheets stained, and her chest heaved with the panicked labor of her breathing, face stricken pale and her eyes wide. The incident had been expected, though her vehement reaction hadn't been anticipated, and it took far longer for Mark to calm her than he had planned, to get his little girl to stop insisting that she was going to die, she didn’t want to die.

And then she was fifteen, full mouthed and tired eyed, with soft hips and a heavy chest. She danced with her grandfather, excelled in the classes they had found for her in Portland, and kept her head down at school. No boyfriend ever to speak of, no matter how much her brothers teased her and her sister worried, and instead, Darcy would simply shrug, would go back to her studies and her dancing even though her heart ached and her body felt hollow.

He was missing, he wasn't there, and she was every bit the old soul that her Nana had called her, watching the world as it passed by with a shrewd, jaded eye.

And then college was upon her, twenty-two and on an internship she hadn’t really qualified for with a woman who didn’t care that she didn’t know the right kind of science because she was competent enough, because she was quick fingered and cared about what the big-brained scientist had to say. Darcy made a friend where her life had previously felt empty, and Jane soothed enough of that throbbing ache that Darcy clung .

And then Thor came, and her world tilted on its axis.

-

Parts of Puente Antiguo had been leveled by the Destroyer, rubble left in the wake of houses and thin, wisping pillars of smoke still rising up into the night. There was a chill to the air, a bite to it that sent a sting across her skin, but there was a silence that did its best to settle something rattled and aching inside of her. The sky was heavy and dark overhead, stars shimmering and bright, and though the world around her was far from what she was used to, she would take what she could get.

She missed her father, her sister and her brothers, she wanted the sharp tang of Atlantic sea salt and the soft crush of ocean-misted grass beneath her body. A fat bellied mug of tea clasped between her hands, a stiff woven blanket wrapped around her shoulders, there was an ache in her chest that had yet to fade, a yearning that had only strengthened its roots at the sight of Jane curling into Thor’s body.

A sip of her tea, a quiet sigh, and there was a song on her breath that she couldn’t ever seem to remember the words for.

“You are alone?”

Tipping back until she could see him, Darcy offered a soft smile to where he stood.

It was strange to see him in a flannel once more after witnessing the glittering glamour of his armour, but there was a want there, a need. He was larger than life, foreign and strange and familiar all the same, and she wanted to see him laugh as much as she wanted to give a blot sacrifice to him. There were no goats to be found for slaughter though, no blood to paint across her cheeks and chest, and instead, Darcy was left to have nothing more to offer than a corner of her blanket.

“It happens. Shouldn’t you be down enjoying your feast?”

His smile was kind, but there was something tired to his gaze, there was a weight upon his shoulders that hadn't been there previously. He took her offer though, sitting close so that their sides touched and their warmth was shared. A mountain of a man, and there was a shiver across her skin just from the notion of him, but she smiled all the same.

“I did, but a dear friend had wandered on her own, and the revelry felt hollow in her absence.”

A snort and she took another small drink, leaned against him for the comfort he provided that soothed something torn and frayed deep within.

“You're a sap.”

“And you are sad. Your thought are heavy, my sister, will you share with me your troubles?”

Mouth pressing into a thin line, she turned her head enough so she didn't have to see him while he stared. His voice was a quiet rumble, his tone encouraging and gentle, and she wasn't necessarily prepared for such concern from him. The most comprehensible of their God's, the God of the people, but he wasn't a God and she wasn't that girl, and everything had changed, hadn't it? He was just a man, he lived and he hurt and he cried, and someday he would die.

“I prayed to you.”

“Darcy-”

He was a lie. A waste of her prayers and a waste of a good goat, breath she would never get back and time that hadn't felt like it was hers to begin with. How much else had she been wrong about, what else had she followed just for the comfort of some semblance of faith?

“Roskva Magnusdottir, wife of Airikr Jokullson of Kungahälla.”

His body was warm next to hers, and Darcy clacked her nails against the thick ceramic before taking another small sip. It was tepid on her tongue and she grimaced at the taste, curling her fingers around the mug until her knuckles turned white. With large fingers and a soft tug he took it from her, set it on his other side where it could sit out of reach. He went further then, wrapping one of his arms around her beneath the blanket, and the bitter tang of tears burned in the back of her throat.

“I prayed to you to keep him safe, to bring him back to me. I slaughtered our best goat, I gave you the finest cut, I-I did everything I was supposed to and I drowned .”

His hold on her shifted, tightened, and her voice was a wet crackle where he pulled her as close as he could. She was safe within his arms, held close against the broad of his chest and he tucked her head beneath his chin, sheltered her from the world as he curled the blanket tight around them. His throat grew wet with her tears, her voice rang with betrayal, but Thor held her all the same.

“I am sorry that I failed you, Magnusdottir.”

“Darcy, it-I’m Darcy now, they named me Darcy. I'm Darcy, and I was Rosalie, and-and Julianna, Eloise, Fiedlimid and Speranza, it just, it never ends.”

His mouth pressed against her hair, a solemn, sympathetic kiss given to her temple.

“Tell me everything.”

So she did.

She told him about the way the Sumerian sun felt on her skin, about the ethereal quiet of Russian winters and the color of fall in Romania, about leaving her shoes outside her door in Mexico City and cliff diving in what was now Washington state with laughter on her breath and the promise of roasted deer in the air. Her favorite dress from England, her favorite time of day in Italy and the old woman who had made the best sweet breads in northern Germany. Gaul, Normandy, Prussia, Byzantine and Troy, the streets she remembered and the names that still escaped her, languages that she knew the sound of but could no longer get her lips to form and homes that had been forever lost to time.

Lives come and gone and the only constant she had ever known, the curl of his lips and the honeyed warmth of his touch, how she had recognized him despite the face that he wore and how he had found her every single time. She spoke of him until she cried and then she spoke of him still, until her throat turned dry and her voice warbled, until the way that she had latched to him was less of a clinging and more of a comfort and he listened to every word.

“We will find him.”

“Thor.”

His expression was fierce, as if such a thing mattered to him, and he held her face in his hand, tipped her head until she had to look at him. Conviction in his voice, a promise on his lips, and she felt small in the wake of him.

“We will find him, for he is your heart, and I will not leave my sister to want for anything. I have failed you once, however unknowing, and I will not make the same mistake again. You will never be alone Darcy, for I know you in this life, and I will find you in all the ones that follow. You will forever be welcome in Asgard and never a stranger in her halls.”

Another bubble of tears in her throat, a sob on her breath, and her eyes shut tight while he pressed his mouth to her forehead with gentle care.

He would leave in the morning, he would take Sif and the Warriors Three with him, and she would go home. She would go home, Jane would go to defend her research, and she would spend the summer with her feet in the Atlantic ocean with this same, empty feeling in her chest.

“I will never be far, Darcy, and I will be here if ever you call.”

Chapter Text

He spent a good portion of his childhood angry.

He had been born on the cusp of prohibition, the eldest child in a family with a father who couldn’t drink and a mother who struggled with English in the way that only an immigrant could. Barbulescu served them fine as a family name in the old country, but Ellis Island was far from kind to European immigrants with little coin and questionable English. Barbulescu became Barnes, the couple named their only son James, and the small family got on well enough in their modest apartment. Grigore found work on the docks, Ylenia cleaned houses, and James spent his days while his parents were busy being watched by the neighborhood grandmother that lived two floors down.

His was serious for a small boy, with a stern mouth and bright eyes, who rarely cried and instead did his best to help Nana Silvia with chores around her apartment and ran errands for her when he was old enough. His temper was fiery though, his small fists hit hard, and James got into frequent fights despite his mothers pleading even while he woke the apartment with anguished cries for a woman named Rosalie. He would be inconsolable for nearly an hour after each episode, would cling to his mother as if she were going to disappear, and would often confuse his parents by murmuring in various languages that neither understood.

He fought with other boys just as readily as he doted upon his younger sister, seemed to know exactly where to hit to make it hurt the worst, and had a skill at taming his sisters unruly curls into a wide range of neat, smooth braids. His behaviour grew worse the older he became, and by the time that James reached seven years, his parents had nearly run out of ways to deal with him. As such, the couple sent their son to the local Catholic church for his lessons in hopes that the Sisters would be a good influence on the volatile young man.

And then he met Steve.

Steve with his too big eyes and his too small frame, with his heart that threatened to bleed out of his chest and his lungs that seemed as ready to fill with fluid as they were to collapse. He wasn’t her, he wasn’t the girl that made his bones ache with her absence and his head feel cotton thick without the sound of her voice, but Steve was a brother where he didn’t have one in this life. He wasn’t her, but he was enough, enough for James to have something to cling to, someone to defend and protect and follow into a fight. Steve didn’t have her smile or her grace, but he had the same fire, the same tenacity and undying loyalty, and James couldn’t not follow where he went.

But as both boys grew older and James became Bucky, Steve couldn’t seem to not get sick just as much as Bucky couldn’t seem to not keep out of trouble. He had bruised knuckles just as often as Steve had pneumonia, and there was only so much he could distract himself with chasing skirt and stealing art supplies. The price of food went up and their wages went down, Sarah Rogers died from tuberculosis, and Steve moved into the other half of his room where they had managed to squeeze a second bed in.

They did what they could to get by, he and his father working themselves ragged at the docks while his mother and sister worked as seamstresses, Steve doing his best to bring in what extra he could by offering classes at the local art store. They made enough to eat, even if it was just barely, and their clothes might have needed patches and their blankets might have been thin, but they kept their home, which was better than most.

Nana Silvia passed when he was twenty-two, and America went to war.

Twenty-two, and he picked Steve up out of a back alley with the punk in a suit that was two sizes too big and his own dress uniform tailored tight to his shoulders. The glowing lights of the Stark Expo on his skin, a nervous anticipation in his belly, there was a hollow ache within his bones that he had become accustomed to at this point and a numb empty within his chest that he felt with every breath.

A girl on each arm, he got swept up in the crowd, but Steve gave him a smile, Steve wished him well and his small frame was lost in the crush and swell of bodies. The night went by in flashing lights and a failed attempt at a flying car by Stark, with the laughter from all the people around him and the taste of spun sugar on his tongue and the fizz of a soda pop crackling between his teeth. He didn’t remember the name of either girl, soon enough he wouldn’t remember their faces, because they weren’t her and they weren’t enough, but they were tangible and real in a time when he hadn’t yet found her.

And then he shipped out.

And then he left Stevie behind.

And then he and his men were captured, his men who trusted him and relied on him, and what sort of Sergeant was he when he screamed and he cried at the torture? He couldn’t die, he hadn’t found her yet, he hadn’t seen her face or heard her voice, but he was selfish within those hours, laid out on that table and spliced open and pumped full of chemicals that burned and he wanted to. He wanted to die, if only so the feeling would end, he didn’t want to know how he would continue on after this, how he would carry on with these sort of scars.

This was was going to kill him, and he just wished it would already, if only so he could start again.

Steve had other ideas, pulled him from the table and to his feet, larger than life and decidedly not where Bucky had left him, safe and small and prone to wheezing. There was fire in his vision, licking at his skin, and he couldn’t die, he wouldn’t die, but Steve and the rest of the world seemed determined to test the strength of fate’s resolve, and every moment there after felt like it would be his last until they marched into camp.

Fresh air in his lungs, cool and crisp and frigid enough that it brought to mind Kungahälla and the way that the snow felt beneath his boots and the warm cradle of furs around his shoulders. The trees were wrong, the press of his clothes and the weapon that he held would never be the same, but there was that same ferocious beating within his chest, the same warriors tune that had guided him through life after life. There would be no wife to return home from war to only to find drowned, and instead Bucky was ushered into the medics tent even though all he wanted to do was cling to Steve something fierce.

There was something to be said about taking comfort in the familiar, and he wanted to curl their fingers together and hold the other man close, but that sort of affection between men was frowned upon in this lifetime and regarded with cool, cutting assessment. It made him ache for an era long gone, for laced sandals on his feet and cool linen draped across his skin, with the burning sun overhead and Roman soil beneath his feet. Such things were beyond him now, that simplicity no longer existed, and instead he was forced to hold himself together through gritted teeth and straight shoulders until he was released to his tent where he could curl on his bunk in peace, where he could bury his head and muffle his screams and his sobbing and his ache for a woman that he didn’t yet know.

-

The cigarette tasted off, clamped between his lips and letting out a thin wisp of nicotine smoke into the night air. The bite was missing, the familiar comfort it usually offered was gone, and instead, he was left with nothing but the heavy, cloying taste of tobacco on his tongue and a dissatisfied curl to his lip. Still, the cherry glowed ember bright in the darkness, and he watched it with heavy lidded eyes.

The sound of footfalls from beside him, the shifting of weight on aged wood, and it was only because he recognized the sound that the slightly unsteady gait that he remained at ease.

“You’re going to tumble straight off the roof, Stevie.”

There was something wrong, surely, for tobacco didn’t taste like it was supposed to, didn’t set that warm curl of smoke in his belly and in his blood, and instead, he was left with only a sour taste. Something had changed, for he shouldn’t have been able to hear Steve’s breathing, shouldn’t have been able to know quiet murmurs of voices beneath them that were the voices of their team. He felt different, felt changed in a way that he hadn’t been previously, but the off and the wrong wasn’t something that he could identify, a change that he couldn’t put his fingers on to find the pulse.

Heavy, as if unused to his own body and the weight of it still, Steve sat next to him on the cool roof. Legs dangling over the edge, body laid back on the easy slope of shingle, they fit side by side in a way that hey hadn’t thus far in their lives. He had always been bigger, had always been stronger, and now Bucky was left with the slight daze of being the slighter of the two of them even if only just.

Curious fingers, and he handed over the cig easily when Steve reached for it, watched the other man’s chest expand big and deep with an inhale as he took a large lungful of smoke. An answering grimace though, a dissatisfied sound, and he hid his grin in the dark as Steve tried to hand it back.

“You wanted it.”

“Don’t be a jerk, Buck, c’mon.”

Quiet laughter, a rumble of emotion that he wasn’t sure if he even felt and he took the cigarette back only to snuff the cherry between two wet fingertips and flick it off into the snow.

Silence found them then, with the sound of their breathing and the glimmer of the night sky stretched out above, and there was a peace within his bones that felt strenuous, trembled in his marrow like it didn’t know whether to take root or flee. He couldn’t hold his breath forever though, he couldn’t keep himself wound tight with strings that would slip through his fingers and fray, and Bucky floundered in what should have been a comfortable quiet between them.

“Ste-”

“You were crying last night.”

A curse, a wince, neither one of them seemed to know where to go once Steve’s words hit the cool air. Concern, never an accusation, but Bucky felt the weight all the same like it lay leaden on his chest. Steve wouldn’t think him less, but Steve was never the best with being social, and Bucky heard him groan, watched from the corner of his eye as a single hand came up to pull at ashen blonde.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What, so you didn’t hear me bawlin’ like a child?”

His words were mean, but his voice was quiet, and Bucky didn’t have any kind of bite in him in that instant. Not with Steve, never with Steve, and instead he tried to catch his breath, tried to control the ache beneath his ribs. Because Steve was curious even when he was kind, even when he fumbled and never found the right words to say and Bucky couldn’t fault him for that.

There was no turning back from his own shame, not when he was too tired to even really feel embarrassed.

Steve didn’t seem to know what to say to start again though, and he couldn’t just let the quiet take them, not now, not when he wasn’t the only one uncomfortable.

“What did I say?”

A hollow question, because he knew exactly what he had said, knew the sounds of his own crying and could only imagine what it must have sounded like to Steve in the space of their shared tent. He saw her face every time he slept, heard her voice every time he started to drift, but the image of her was never the same. She was forever out of reach, too far for his fingers to find and long gone by the standards of his heart, but he wondered which name it had been this time. Dozens of names and dozens of faces, dead languages and leveled nations, she was the only thing that never changed.

“You were calling for a woman. Helen, some woman named Helen, and you kept apologizing.”

She had never been named Helen, but he knew the name that Steve meant and he knew the feeling of her hair between his fingers just as he knew the sound of her laughter and the way that she always misplaced her stockings. Soft fur and spiced meat, her fingertips raw and often burnt and a fire reflected in her eyes.

“Halena Khomykha.”

“What?”

A sad smile, melancholy was a familiar friend by now, close to his heart and as ever faithful as a shadow could only be. A constant companion that often held the hands of his rage and his loneliness, their weighted presence felt an awful lot like breathing. Still, there was no way to not smile, for she was as precious as she was painful, an ache and an aid even when she wasn’t by his side.

He had no image to show of her, no painting that had survived and yet, he had the point of her chin and the heart of her cheeks in his memory.

“You’d think I’m crazy.”

A disapproving grunt, as if he had any reason to be offended, and Bucky grinned at Steve’s steadfast response. There was conviction in his tone, no hesitation or doubt and his voice was louder in the darkness than the other man had probably intended.

“End of the line means I ain’t ever gonna let you down, Buck. If you’re crazy then I’m crazy too.”

His laughter was loud in the night, caught in his chest and punched its way out of his lungs to rent space in the cool air like it belonged there. He felt younger than he had in months, years, with a hand clamped over his mouth and crisp winter air in his lungs. For a moment he was back in their broom closet apartment, a single bedroom between them and most of their meals taken out on the sharp iron of the fire escape, not a care in the world and his best friend at his side.

Smiling through his fingers, gaze on the starry sky above them, Bucky looked for the right words to say, tried to find where to start a conversation he had never had to have before.

“Her name was Halena. I’ll draw her for you one day, she was-God almighty, she was gorgeous, Stevie. She’s always beautiful, I don’t think she’s ever not been. Her hair and her eyes were black, and she hated wearing stockings, would stand out in our garden barefoot whenever she could. She made candles and lit lanterns because her father couldn’t anymore and she couldn’t sew to save her life.”

Steve had strength where he didn’t, closing the distance between them and taking Bucky’s hand in his. His fingers were warm where they laced together, and there was a resolute acceptance in that touch that set a burning in the backs of his eyes. In the darkness of the winters night he held tight to his friend, his brother, safe beneath the stars and in the quiet.

“She sounds like a swell dame, Buck.”

“She is.” Words wet, choked and thick throated and he found that there were tears on his face then, they were no longer just a burning sensation that he could fight. His face was wet and bitingly cold, and he scrubbed the palm of his free hand across his cheeks. Steve didn’t say a damn word about his blubbering though, bless him. “She always is, she’s always been fucking perfect, and everyday I feel like m’dyin’ Stevie, cause I ain’t found her yet. She’s out there somewhere, and what if she needs me? What if she’s sick, or she’s dyin’ and I don’t get to hold her hand or brush her hair? Don’t even know what color her eyes are this time or what she looks like when she laughs.”

Steve was a lifeline when he hadn’t known he could be given one, and Bucky held and took and anchored himself as best he could. Maybe this was why he had never talked about it, what if he hadn’t been afraid of the prospect of someone knowing but instead of the reality that he would have to face, the emotions that there would be no way to avoid any longer. He knew her, he had always known her, but there was something about saying the words aloud that made everything feel less like a mirage and more like a sanctuary in which he could never stay.

He was sobbing, he realized dimly, wet and raw and aching .

“I just want her back, Stevie, and I’m scared she’s going to be in Nazi colors or one of their camps. I’ve done this shit hundreds of times, and it never gets any easier but I don’t think I’ve ever been this terrified.”

Fingers squeezed his, and Steve held tight, pressed them close together on the rooftop even with all the space around them until they were as close to one another as they could be. It was a lot like sharing a too small bed in the Brooklyn winter again, shoulders and sides seamed together and their legs tangled. Easy affection hidden in the dark and Bucky took what he was given, tried to understand that he was the one who needed taken care of for once.

“We’ll find her even if we have to check every camp and hospital. But you gada tell me bout her Buck, I can’t meet my brother’s best gal and say the wrong thing, you know how I am with women.”

Tell him, like it was easy to talk about her, about them. Like the lives they had shared were stories to be told, memories to be kept and given and maybe they were, but he didn’t have that luxury, not right now. Later, he would record them later, would recount everything he could remember and give it a solid home.

He spoke then though, of Halena and her dark hair and of Speranza and her guttural laughter, Clodia and her oil perfumed skin and of Sorina and the way that her face had flushed rosy in the cold of Romani winters. Zalta and Liliana, Araceli and Farah, faces that he knew and lips that he recognized by the way that they curved when she smiled, of how she liked to dance with her bare feet in the dirt and how she swung a war hammer with the full brunt of her body. He knew her from her laughter and her singing as much as he did from the feeling of her blood between his fingers and he spoke of her deaths.

Zalta and how she had grown thin with starvation, only to waste away in her sleep when he couldn’t find them food to eat, when the Tsar hoarded the food for himself and his family.

Roskva and how she had been as fierce as any warrior he had ever known, only to drown while he was off to war when the ice crackled beneath her and the frozen waters swallowed her whole.

Halena and how tuberculosis had stained her lips a dripping red from the inside, how her skin had grown pale and how he had smothered her with his own pillow in her fitful sleep just to give her peace.

Rosalie and the spread of blood on the floor of their landing, the way she had been ragdoll limp in his arms no matter how he tried to hold her and the way that she had been taken from him, the short time he had been allowed to have her.

His chest ached by the end of his words, his throat dry and his head swimming, but Bucky took a solace in the fact that he was no longer the only one crying. His body hurt and his heart was heavy, and something was intrinsically wrong on a fundamental level that he still couldn’t understand, but Steve hadn’t left him, Steve had listened and cared and that was more than he had anticipated.

The thoughts that maybe, just maybe, things would go his way for once didn’t last long, for they were left behind in a trail of coal smoke and a spill of his own blood from the torn remain of his arm where he lay in the mountainside snow, watching with anguish-sharp eyes as the mangled train that held his best friend disappeared from view. The bubble of blood on his lips popped in the air, splattered on his nose and chin and cheeks, but there would be no peace now, not yet. He hadn’t seen her face, he hadn’t heard her voice or touched her skin, and he sobbed not for the pain but for his desperation.

Selfish desires were nothing new, and yet he felt such a coil of shame even as he screamed at the sky that Bucky felt himself go dizzy with it. There would be no death even though he wanted to die, there would be no relief or release or chance to run from this, not now, not when he hadn’t completed the pattern, but he didn’t want to come back from this. He didn’t want to do this again, he just wanted to die in the damn snow and forget the echo of her face and of her mouth on his.

And then they came for him.

They found him in the snow and took his body like they owned him, remade him in the image of a soldier that they needed, and he knew not his own names or her faces, for he knew nothing but the cold and the empty and the orders that they gave.

Chapter Text

Are you going to come home this year?”

Her filing system had been tampered with, possibly by her own hand when something had been dropped or possibly by her last assistant, a thin haired, thin figured girl who hadn’t even been present long enough to make some semblance of her system. A frown on her face and a series of paperwork and files spread out around her on the floor, she wasn’t quite sure if she was making the mess better or worse. The pages had intermingled, and while it was easy enough to tell the crisp print of Bruce’s hand, with enough lack of sleep between the two of them there could be no difference found between Tony’s chicken scratch and Jane’s absent minded scrawl.

Bruce’s clean handwriting was her only saving point right now, a neat, towering stack behind her of research papers, patents, equations and concise notes to be later sorted by topic, photocopied and given back to him.

“I don’t exactly know if I’ll have the time off.”

A murmur of words, distracted by the nonsensical musings of two mad scientists strewn on the floor around her and Darcy gave a warbling sigh. Fingers in her hair, pulling at heavy dark chocolate curls until they were haphazardly piled on her head and a quick twist of a hair tie was enough to keep it back in a precarious knot. Unprofessional attire in the workplace, every day was Friday unless her schedule said otherwise, but there was a cap sleeved, fitted dress kept in her office coat closet in a soft cream for instances where she needed to look more demure than the default of her controlled chaos.

Her pedicure was lavender with a faint pearlized glimmer, glittering in the overhead lights, and she had left her shoes over by her desk a few hours ago. The skeletal print on her leggings stretched faintly over her thighs, but she was comfortable even on the floor. Tony didn’t care what she wore, and Pepper only cared that she kept Tony in check and taken care of, so her paychecks were signed regardless of what dress code violations she possibly made.

It’s your birthday Darcy, you can’t not come home.

A curl of her lips into a grumbling sneer, and she stared at her phone where it lay next to her knee with an unhappy furrow between her brows. She knew that tone, she hated that tone, and even five hours between them did nothing to dampen the distaste that curled in the back of her throat with a sharp, bitter taste. She was too old for this, had lived too long and too many times to take kindly to being treated like a child, and there was a fight festering in her bones just from the pandering voice that came from her phone.

Cheeks puffing, eyes narrowing, she took a few papers in hand instead to squint at the curl of handwriting where it slanted upward on the page in a steady curve over every line. One handed writing, possibly with the wrong hand, and she curled forward a bit to read over a sentence half way down the page, then another because the hypothesized thermal conductivity of an inorganic alloy in subpar environmental conditions gave her absolutely nothing to work with to try and guess which one of her scientists could be the owner of the horribly written notes. Tony could have been experimenting with a new weapon for his suit or a infrastructure base for his green energy project, but Jane always needed new equipment that could handle the brunt of stellar radiation.

“We both know that’s not the reason you’re asking.”

Darcy, you know that isn’t true .”

“She’s been dead for almost twenty-six years now, Amelia, me coming home for the weekend isn’t going to make her any less dead.”

Tony, it was one of Tony’s pieces, talking about a green energy alternative that he wanted government permission to implement in a small list of countries ending in va and stan. She was going to have to rewrite this so it looked professional and persuasive enough to take against any sort of scrutinizing panel, which meant she would need to find all the other related pages too. That could take hours, possibly days, and she still had to actually manage and feed her forgetful scientists.

A gasp from the phone, and she could almost see her sisters indignant rage, the flush in her cheeks and the furrow of her brows and the way that she must have stopped what she was doing. Waiting on one of her plants to germinate, probably, or waiting on her new samples to get in. Important work probably, even though Darcy didn't really understand the science if what a botanist did, but she wondered if anyone was needed to take care of her sister like she had to take care of her scientists, or if Amelia managed just fine on her own.

Darcy Marie! She is your mother!”

Mother, like that word was supposed to mean anything anymore. She didn't have a mother, not this time around, but she hadn't needed one. She knew how to braid her own hair and how to button her own dresses even though most of her dresses this time around had zippers instead. She hadn’t cried over her own skinned knees, she had barely cried when she broke two ribs crashing over the handlebars of her bike in sixth grade.

She understood their pain, really, she did, in a strange, phantom sort of way, but she just- she couldn’t. Not this time, not right now. She was too tired for this, had been too tired for her entire life, but the five hours between them didn’t feel like enough. She missed the desert, but it was difficult to tell if she missed New Mexico or the shifting sands of Saudi Arabia, but there was a distinct want to feel the burn of sun kissed sand against her skin that would have been impossible to explain.

Darcy, you aren’t being fair.

Mouth gaping, breathing stiff in her chest, cool eyes turned to stare at her phone. The papers in her hands crumpled within her grasp, the quiet sound of rustling paper as they crinkled heavily. There was a want to laugh, to curl her nose and turn her head as if to distance herself further still. Five hours, and she couldn’t even see her sisters face, the disappointed accusation in her mossy eyes but there was still the childish, malicious want to possibly cut off Amelia's satiny curls of hair given the chance.

Instead, she set down the now partially crumpled notes, as desperate not to ruin them as she was to end the call. She didn’t want to have this conversation, she shouldn’t have even answered the phone when it showed the picture of her sister’s laughing face from the beach two summers ago.

“I don’t have time for this right now, Lia.”

Darcy-

“I’m not coming home for my birthday just so I can listen to grandparents and cousins and my siblings talk about how it would be so much better if Anna were here, if I had just gotten to know her, how it’s just so God damn sad. I just want one year of Dad not drinking until he cries and pukes off the deck, of him not looking at me like its my fault.”

You know he doesn’t think that.

“Does he? I really don't know anymore. I love you Lia, but I’m not-I can’t do this right now.”

There was a shadow in the doorway if her office, and she realized belatedly that she had left the blasted thing open. It wasn't rare to have someone haunt her space, but there were very few who had the courtesy to try and remain subtle while she had her little spat. On speaker phone no less, damn it all. She knew he was there with the same sort of awareness that hadn't ever seemed to really go away, not from a time of biting snow and blood paints on her skin, of ink pressed deep into her skin but she didn't turn to him, wanted another few moments or so with her shame and her pseudo-mother.

Darcy-

“No.”

A quick swipe of her finger, and it was easy to end the call, easier than it was to try and catch her breath and calm the staccato rhythm of feral irritation where it pounded in her heart and her head. Pulling her glasses off, tossing the frames aside so they landed on some papers with a quiet sound, she buried her face in her hands, let out a shrill, wavering sound that her palms barely muffled.

Awkward, he was always awkward, even if he could talk to her, like he wasn't quite sure when to step in half the time. Like he didn't know just where his place was, like his skin didn't fit quite right, and more than once she'd watched him crack his shoulder or his head on a shelf or a door when he misjudged the distance. She ached for him as much as she ached for herself, because she understood, really more than he could know.

“Is this a bad time?”

He meant well, earnest to the bone and so fucking concerned, and sometimes she just-

“Never a bad time when you're here, Stevie-boy.”

Fingers slipping into her coiled up hair, musing it further until it all threatened to spill down around her shoulders and Darcy turned, gave him a warm, curling smile. He was dressed down today, more so than Tony would ever believe if he didn't see it himself, but she was well acquainted to the sight of her friend in some broken in jeans and a tee that seemed just this side of too tight. His hair was uncombed, loose pieces of ashen blond threatening to fall into his eyes where it was just nearly long enough and the grin Steve gave her in return was one that she'd personally witnessed do things to women, much to his chagrin.

He didn't flinch away from her at the name anymore, didn't close his eyes and angle his head away and thin his lips like he had to grit his teeth. He didn't look sad anymore when she spoke to him, didn't normally look sad on a general, daily basis. Instead, he was quick to an impish grin, to a dry toned jib, and he was easy enough with his affection. An arm over her shoulder, the movement of his hand when he sectioned off and brushed her wet hair for her after a particularly bad day in the labs, she hadn't had a friend like him in a few lives and when he crouched down next to her where she sat on her office floor, Darcy leaned against his leg.

“Do I need to call an assemble?”

Laughter, a full bellied spurt of it that she pressed into the side of his knee, and it was through her lashes that she could see him smiling down at her. There was a seriousness around his eyes though, a tension in his temples, he was so damn earnest, offering to go to war for her over something as trivial as her sister, her family. She didn't realize there were frustrated tears brewing in her eyes until they spilled over and she swore quietly, pulling away to sweep her fingers under her eyes.

“Aw hell Darce, don’t cry.”

There were too many papers on the floor for him to sit beside her, and instead, Steve surged to his feet, caught her by her waist to pull her up and swing her about until she settled on the edge of her desk. Feet off the ground, head spinning, Darcy braced a hand on the desk beside her while the other scrubbed at her face. He seemed inclined to help, long past any of awkwardness that had ever tried to settle between them during their initial meeting, and instead, calloused fingertips swept across her flushed cheeks.

“I’m fine.”

Her voice was rough, and Darcy caught his hands in hers to keep his fingertips from her cheeks and the soft, delicate skin beneath her eyes. His eyes were wide, his expression earnest and concerned, and she wanted to hug him like she often wanted to hug Thor or one of her brothers when they weren’t giving in to Amelia and her guilting prowess. Her sister was kind, her sister was loving, but her sister was like a strange mixture between a mother and a harpy when she didn’t need either.

He didn’t return her smile, a rarity to be sure, but she offered her own anyway while his hands cupped her face. The way he looked at her, she could only wonder sometimes, she could only ache. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t what she needed with a ferocity so consuming that she could barely ever breathe, but there had been times in the past that she wished it could be Steve. The way that he looked at her, the soft touch of his hands and way he would laugh with his entire body at the things that she said. Selfish, she had always been selfish, but sometimes she just- it would have been easier this time around, surely, if it were Steve.

“Steve, I’m fine .”

He didn’t necessarily looked like he believed her, looked entirely too irritated for a man with a face that sweet. With a huff she caught her fingers in the front of his shirt, heather grey fabric soft to the touch, and she used it to reel him in until she could reach up, until she could loop her arms around his shoulders and hug him like she wanted to. He couldn’t fight her then, not because he couldn’t but because he didn’t seem to want to, and Darcy felt the way that his weight fell against her, his hands on her back as he stepped between her thighs to hold her back.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

His words were pressed into her hair, a rush of warmth across her skin from where his breath skated across the top of her head, and she pressed a little closer, adjusted her grip and held him a little tighter. Idle affection, sure of her body and her movements and her intent in the way that she held to him, in how she had the freedom from her gender and this generation to touch as she pleased without every press of her bare fingers drawing forth cause for scandal. She had missed this, had missed the years where she could be free with who she threw her arms around, with who she decided to bestow kisses upon without a single thought of romantic intent. The last few lifetimes had been strange, if only for the way that the world changed in a cycle for how she could and couldn’t display her affection, but Darcy let herself be comfortable, let herself hold him how she wanted because she could.

A shrug, a wobbling motion given how her arms were lifted, and she heard his huff of breath as her head bumped the underside of his chin. Her smile was hidden into his throat, and the way his fingertips gently scrubbed through her hair, mindful of her loose bun, was enough to have her groaning.

“Is ‘not really’ an option, or do I have to talk about it?”

“You don’t ever have to talk about anything Darce, not if you don’t want to.”

Like it offended him, like the thought of someone making her do anything she didn’t want to do was enough to cause his grip to tighten, the arm around her waist pulling her in closer against him. A sharp exhale, breath forced from her lungs, and it was only then that Steve realized just how tightly he held her because he loosened his grip with a quiet apology, moved back from her arms until she could see his face.

He needed to shave, the layer of stubble on his face just grown enough that it could classify as a beard if it really needed to. She wanted to rub her cheek against his, but instead she settled for scratching her nails teasingly against the hinge of his jaw. Ever wonderful, Steve leaned into the touch, teeth bared as he made a good enough imitation of any dog she had ever known that another spill of laughter came free from her lips.

“Hey, we should go to that donut place.”

Evasive maneuvers, the kind of change in topic that would have given her conversational whiplash if it wasn’t a tactic that she employed so readily herself. Instead, eyes narrowing and her head tilting, she watched him with pursed lips and an unimpressed expression.

“There are thousands of donut places in New York, Steven Grant, either you be more specific with me, or I will go to that place that sells the basbousa I love so much and eat them without you.”

She didn’t want to talk about it, and she didn’t need to talk about it, because he’d heard all of it anyway. Even if he hadn’t stood there long enough to hear their argument, super soldier hearing meant that he had probably heard them from the hallway leading to her office at least. He was gracious enough to give her the illusion of privacy, but she knew better.

“You wouldn’t.”

A vicious grin, all teeth and crimson stained lips that had been painted hours prior, and Steve’s eyes narrowed at her in response. His war face, a faint pinch to his brows and a thin press to his mouth, but there was the faintest uptick there in the corner, something she only recognized from having seen it so often.

“Wouldn’t I?”

-

Ruddy painted walls decorated heavily with tapestries and framed photography, dim golden-sepia lighting and shadows cast in intricate patterns from the cutout screens that curled around fat lanterns. Hundreds of them hung from the ceiling, flickering flames of light that wavered and danced in the hazy air, and the scent of hashish was so thick in the room that she could taste it on her tongue. The windows were shrouded in burnt orange linen curtains that caught what outdoor light tried to come in, filtering it into a sunset burn that set a glow across everything the lantern light missed. Her chair was wide backed, sweeping from where it supported her spine to curls where she could rest her arms, and she had slouched in her seat not long after their arrival.

Across from her, Steve had nearly mimicked her posture, his legs extended beneath the table to the point that their feet had tangled some time ago. His hair was burnish in the diffused light, his skin gold, and she could understand from image alone then why he was the hero America had needed even though she wished they would let him be more. He was coiled strength and patriotic power, masculine beauty and the aesthetic of the American dream, everything they had fought for and the perfect propaganda adonis that they had needed him to be.

And then she watched him reach out and pick up another piece of basbousa with his fingers and take an obscene bite out of it, nearly the entire square disappearing between his teeth. He hadn’t even leaned forward to find it, instead reaching out with the blind sort of knowing that came from practice and she grinned. His fingers were sticky, sugary slick and shiny in the light from where he hadn’t licked any of the orange flower syrup away and his mouth showed the same evidence of just how many cakes he had eaten.

Her second cup of Turkish coffee sat on the table near her empty plate, the rich drink sending a warmth from her stomach that had her falling a little further in her chair. She had lost count of how many Steve had had, and as she watched, he took another piece of basbousa from the now nearly empty platter that sat in the middle of their table. Repeat customers or not, there was something to be said about the being able to pay for things at her discretion with her company card.

Lunch with her best friend at a hole in the wall Egyptian establishment a twenty minute walk from the tower?

A business lunch with Captain America, obviously .

“Can you make these?”

His mouth was full, and even with his head tipped back like it was and her vision of him only really coming from beneath her lashes, whatever remained of the patriotic visage the media liked to give him was lost. He was twenty-six years old with often questionable table manners and a habit of doing stupid things without thinking of the consequences, like leaping out of planes without parachutes or using his shield as one and he was her friend. Her best friend really, with his dry humor and his ability to eat everything put in front of him that he actually liked.

Mouth pursed in a thoughtful moue and her eyes back on the swaying lanterns that hung overhead, Darcy shrugged as best she could in her slouch.

“I mean I could try? I don’t know if they used semolina or farina flour, but I could figure it out with enough tries.”

A hum from across the table, and from the angle that she had slouched too she could see the hijabi girl who sat a few tables behind them, textbooks scattered all across the surface and small coffee cup balanced near the edge. Her eyeliner was spectacular, sharp slashes of black above her eyes and her hijab was a soft pastel pink, but there was the chance that telling her she looked pretty would be taken the wrong way, so it was with a faint frown that Darcy turned her gaze back to her dining companion.

Steve seemed more than intent with letting her have her simple distractions though, another basbousa in his mouth and his cheeks faintly puffed. She gave a small smile at the sight he made, sitting up enough that she could take her own delicate coffee cup in hand, a small sip of rich, slow brewed coffee curling across her tongue. The longer she watched him the more she wanted to smile, except, the more still that part of her wanted to pull at her hair and cry.

“You know its my birthday in two weeks.”

“September 28th.”

He parroted the date to her from memory, like it mattered that much that he knew it without any hesitation on his part and there she went smiling again at him. His expression was wide open though, mouth sticky and his eyes bright in the golden light and it was a revelation to find that she wanted to talk about it.

“My mother died in childbirth, haemorrhage, supposedly traumatic. I obviously never knew her, but everyone makes such a fuss out of everything she misses. And I know it makes me sound horrible, what sort of person rags on others about how they mourn, who does that?” Cup down on the table, it only took one of her small hands to wrap around it, but she cupped it in both just for something to hold while she stared down into what remained of it. A weary smile to her lips, and her laugh was quiet and self deprecating in its tone. “They want me to go see them, and I love them, I really do, I’m just...I’m tired of being able to feel lonely in a crowded room.”

She was tired of a lot of things, but she couldn’t quit, not yet, even if it meant she had to pull herself out of bed every morning and count her breaths when the world started to narrow in on her, dark and fuzzy around the edges. That wouldn’t be fair to him, wherever he was, he had never given up on her even when she could see the strain it put on him, life after life.

She felt flayed alive and she wanted, but she didn’t know which she wanted more, him or the quiet peace that might come with the next life if she didn’t recognize what she was missing.

“I just want to go dancing and not have to think about my own name for a little bit, you know?”

When she looked up finally, he was watching her, gaze steady and a compassionate press to his mouth, an empathetic kind of knowing that sent something bitter and heavy and sad like a leaden weight into her gut. It would fester if she let it, would sit there and curdle and rot her emotions until she overanalyzed everything for the rest of the day, but Darcy couldn’t look away.

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean.”

His tone was just as heavy, just as quiet and sad and just this side of hollow that it reverberated on the empty within her ribs. A twist to his mouth, sharp and off in the way he got when the memories chewed at him, when the time before the ice and the time after didn’t seem to want to know how to make sense in his head and she had to find him wrecking bag after bag in the gym.

He seemed to pick his words carefully then, and a chuckle came from somewhere within his chest, and he licked his sticky fingers then until they were clean of the orange flower syrup that he seemed to like so much.

“You remind me of my brother sometimes, and I forget there’s things you won’t know. He used to say that though, how he could have a girl on each arm and still feel empty.”

“Bucky?”

Steve didn’t talk about him much, didn’t bring him up often enough for this to be an easy conversation, but she had heard him talking about sessions down at the VA, knew he was getting therapy for things that he didn’t know how to deal with. Still, Darcy didn’t know what to say in response to being compared to a myth of a man that she had learned about in school, but the smile she gave Steve was as gentle as she could manage.

“I’ll tell you about him. Just...not today.”

“I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

So end it, cause I'm with you till the end of the line.

The city was on fire, smouldering buildings and bubbling water as the Potomac boiled from the depths of it's banks. Steam in the air, steam on his skin, the world had started to crumble around him and there would be no turning back, no return to what had been. The world was nothing more than a ruin now, the shadow of an empire that had been and the image of it's gory had gone hazy around the edges, crackled and torn at the seams.

There could be nothing if there were no empire upon which the foundation was built, if there were no bones for the cities and the civilians. Collateral, they bled and they cried and they died, from his hand or from their own, unimportant persons that died when they needed to because he had been told to.

The press of weapons against his skin was a familiar feel, heavy in their welcoming weight that felt like breathing. Seven pistols, twelve blades in various sizes and a small menagerie of multiple explosives, corrosives and sedatives, two garottes and fifteen extra clips, a walking, breathing arsenal that required little maintenance and followed orders without question or hesitation.

Orders.

All he knew was orders, all he needed were orders, where to go, what to do and where he was to report when the mission was complete. Mission parameters, yes sir, no sir, target eliminated, mission complete, no sir, no injuries, no sir, no maintenance required. In the chair Asset, mouth open, stay still, eyes open, look ahead.

What is your mission soldier?

I'm with you till the end of the line.

Blue eyes and blond hair, a small frame and a strong jaw. No, no the man was large, the man on the bridge was a soldier like him, marched to a tune that he couldn't hear and followed orders when they were given.

The man on the bridge knew him, and he-he-

Was it the world burning, or was it his head? Was the fire in the sky overhead or was it under his skin, splitting him open from the inside as it picked apart his bones and boiled his blood? A throbbing in his skull, a peculiar lack of something between his ribs and a sharp, twisting pull around his heart. He had sustained no chest injuries, had stitched the wound on his thigh with precise, methodical movements and he had abandoned his uniform instead for clothing that had been easily nicked from the back of a little shop.

Was it the world that had tilted on it's axis and crumbled off it's course, or was it him? Had he fallen off the track of the mission he was meant to do, but what happened when he couldn't complete his mission?

Report soldier, what is your mission.

Reassess mission parameters.

He knew him, knew the man on the bridge with the echo of something in his head and in his chest. He knew the sight of his smile and he knew the way his mouth moved when he spoke, but he had no memory of such things. There was a pounding in his skull that refused to dissipate and a burning in his lungs and he didn't understand.

There were no orders, there would be no orders because he knew in some way, for some reason that he couldn't go back. He wouldn't go back, not when he had the vague sense of knowing from the other man's face and a curdle in his belly that he didn't know what to call, something bitter and wet and biting. Something was wrong, they were wrong, but he was instrumental, his work was going to change the world. That was what the man had told him, surrounded by bright light and hard metal and cold, stale air, his work was important and would change the world.

He didn't want to change the world.

He didn't want to.

He didn't know if he had ever wanted anything, an Asset had no need to want and it was a strange feeling, felt wrong . He wanted to fall to his knees there where he stood, wanted to bow his head and surrender his weapons and wait, for he had disobeyed his orders, he hadn't completed the mission.

He hadn't completed the mission.

Till the end of the line.

The building was warm, a few people within and the air bubbling with the murmur of voices. A security guard near the door, a young mother and her two children ten feet to his left. One threat, all exits found, the guard unarmed apart from a standard issue ICER that would be easy to take from him. A security camera at his seven above the door he had entered through, another to his three and one to his ten, he was visible from at least three different cameras.

Head tucked, cap pulled low over his eyes to hide his features from view, his jacket was larger than need be, his pants two sizes too loose and cinched at his waist with a soft fabric belt. He looked tired, had seen his own reflection in the glass of a display that he passed, too long hair and a haggard face and the guard had simply given him a passing glance, a sympathetic smile before averting his gaze.

It was easy to hide in a room where nobody expected anything of him, but it felt hard to breathe.

He could see the face of the man on the bridge, could see images of him blown to life size scale and he had wandered into an exhibit of some sort, surrounded by a phantom that he recognized but didn’t know. The man on the bridge, with a smile on his face and a motion on his lips where he played on a video screen, and there was a person beside him, laughing with a contorted expression on his face.

That was his face, he knew that face, had seen it in the reflective surfaces if windows and mirrors more than once. His face, that was his face, laughing and smiling like he knew how, with short shorn hair and a debonair stance to his body, as if he hadn’t always been a weapon poised at the ready to strike when necessary. A loaded gun pressed to a temple, a poisoned blade prepared to sit a throat, but the man with his face laughed like he didn't care, laughed like there was more to the world than orders and blood.

There was a pounding in his head, a rage of something between his ribs and below his lungs that he didn’t recognize, he didn’t understand. A sharp burn behind his eyes, a strange empty between his fingers, and there was the echo of a sensation just out of reach, close enough that he could feel its lack even if he couldn’t identify it. He knew that man, he knew that man, the man on the bridge was more than just a mission, more than just a soldier that needed put down or a dog that didn’t know its place.

He was more than a dog, but he didn’t, he couldn’t-

There was laughter, somewhere in his head and echoing ethereal and consuming, catching the breath that he had and stealing it from his chest, feminine and soft and sweet even though he had never heard such a sound. The warmth of anothers skin on his own, the press of fingertips to his shoulders and chest and the graze of lips at his forehead, his cheeks, there was something there just as quickly as it was gone, and he was left reeling in the wake of a yawning, consuming empty that had made a sudden home for itself within his gut.

James Buchanan Barnes, that was him .

He had a name, he had a title to answer to that was more than just Asset, and the very thought of it was both confusing and grating. It sent a skittering itch through his skin, like a wound that shouldn’t be scratched even though he wanted to pick and pull and prod, and he could only stare at the display with a buzzing in his bones.

Bucky!

-

The man on the bri-Steve, the pictures in the exhibit said that his name was Steve, Steven Grant Rogers, son of Sarah and Joseph Rogers, born July 4, 19-

No .

No, no, Steve was...Steve was...

August 2nd, and it was so hot he couldn’t breathe, could see the heat simmering off the building across from theirs. Red brick alive in the color of the setting sun and the hard press of the fire escape hot beneath his thighs, sweat on his skin despite the way that he had stripped down to his boxers and his undershirt. Bare feet swinging in the air, hair sweat slick and curling, the boy beside him had tried to put as much distance between them as he could if only to save them in some way from the heat. A stolen bag of plums sat between them, snatched from the market that he cut through on his way home from work, and his fingers were sticky with juice, the other boys mouth shiny.

“Happy birthday, Stevie.”

A toothy grin and plum skin stuck to the roof of his mouth, a bright smile on the other boys face and a smear of sticky fruit juice across his chin.

“Thanks, Buck.”

The crowd cared little that he ducked into an alley, only that he hadn't stopped in their way in their busy walk to somewhere. Safely in the shadows, as concealed as mid day would allow, he tried to make himself small, pressed against a tacky, grimey intercity wall in New York City as he struggled not to heave. There were too many people, the city was too loud, and everything felt like a threat, his head unable to keep up enough to take fill stock of the constant flow of people around him, so out of his depth that he felt dizzy.

He had never felt so out of control before, so flayed alive and left open, exposed like a livewire well past overcharged.

Steve had come to New York though, with conversation one sided through a phone to a man named Stark. There was only one Stark now, Anthony, alias Iron Man, threat leve-

No.

Another deep breath, and the air was bitter, sour with the tang of garbage and decay. He knew too much and not enough all at once, knew Steve for his laugh and his smile and a list of allergies a mile long. A wheeze in his lungs when it got hot, a rattling cough when it got cold, he knew Steve in theory even though he didn’t recognize his own face. His body felt wrong, alien from the weight of his left arm even though he knew it to be his from the way he knew the force needed to crush bone and the speed with which he could throw a punch and foreign in the bulk of his muscle and the fluid grace with which he moved. He knew this body enough to know it as his, but he couldn’t stand the sight of his own face, he couldn’t breathe at the prospect of being Bucky, in the empty lul that came after the wake of thought that he would have to be Bucky, that there were expectations and behaviours and things he should know.

He didn’t know if he could be Bucky, but he knew Steve for his loyalty and his recklessness, his lack of self preservation and he couldn’t just leave him. Couldn’t leave him, or maybe it was that he couldn’t stray away, something physical and real and familiar in the way that an old comfort was, just out of reach and strange from lack of exposure but true all the same. Steve was safe, Steve was kind, familiar and self sacrificing, and he was just...just...

Sliding down the alley wall to sit, back pressed against crackled cement and his head spinning, he took a breath through his nose, felt the sour, bitter garbage air cloy its way into his lungs. His head hurt, cotton fuzzy and underwater thick, thoughts too loud, too fast, and the rumble of the world past his alley muffled, distorted. People passed without a glance his way, as if he didn’t matter, as if he didn’t exist, and the way that they simply ignored him was a terrifying comfort.

He wasn’t a threat to them, wasn’t a man out of time and so far gone that his own head felt like a strange, unexplored land. He was just another man, a person with a haggard face who had had a trying day, and they didn’t even care. He wasn’t used to being invisible because he was normal, didn’t know what to make of the prospect.

He wanted though, with a ferocity that did its best to challenge the gaping, yawning abyss that had made a home for itself in the spaces between his bones and the hollows within them. He wanted to be good enough, wanted to see Steve’s face and deserve that smile, to know his brother and be worthy of a name, of that name. But he wasn’t, and he wouldn’t be, not for some time, he didn’t deserve and he shouldn’t be, he was nothing more than a weapon unchained, a terror unchecked, and the people around him deserved better, Steve deserved better.

He wasn’t Bucky, but he could try. He didn’t know himself well enough to know where he should even really begin, but he knew enough to give it a go. A home, Steve had always said that a day could be made better by getting to come home, to take off his shoes and the weight of the day. He didn’t have one of those, not yet, and he wasn’t Bucky, not in the ways that mattered, but he didn’t think he had ever known anything to be easy.

Pushing himself to his feet, body cold and his mind buzzing, he needed money, he knew that much, so pulled his cap a little further down over his eyes, and stepping out of the far end of the alley, James turned east, and fell into the crowd once more.

-

“Place comes as is, anything you fix or change, you pay. Pipes refitted four years ago, the place has forced air. AC doesnt do much. I don't care who or how many you have over as long as no one calls the cops. What did you say your name was, boy?”

Son, like he wasn't older than the man that stood before him, salt and pepper hair with a stern mouth and heavy set eyes.they would have had the same build at one point, but age had softened the other man's features, smoothed his muscles and set wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. Laughter lines, like there had been enough joy in his life for that, like he had smiled enough, been happy enough.

He wasn't sure what to make of that.

“James Barbulescu.”

“Romanian, old country?”

His head rattled, because that was slang he should recognize, and he found himself nodding along all the same. He remembered her face even though he couldn't pick out her voice, the glow of candles on her face during Midnight Mass and the way his father's body shook when he laughed.

“Father was from Vintileasca, my mother was from Cocora.”

He remembered the way his father brushed her hair, thick, dark curls that fell easily into a braid like it was familiar, up in rolls and rings and held together with enough pins that they made a small pile on the bathroom counter. She had told him of her home, of the farm that her parents had and all seven of her brothers, and her smile had been sad the entire time. He remembered the words, her face but not her voice and a heavy, quiet feeling set low in his chest.

“Sound like farming towns.” He talked fast, words accented and heavy where they rolled off his tongue, like English wasn’t his first but it was something he had had to get used to. The curl of his voice was familiar though in a quiet, bone deep way, and James found himself unable to look away from the other man. He commanded respect in a quiet, stern manner that seemed natural, far from threatening, and he blinked owlish eyes at the man. “Seven eighty a month. Includes your water and waste, but you do your own gas and electric. The elevator doesn’t work most days, but the windows lock. Did you serve?”

“Yes sir, army.”

“Fifteen percent off as thank you for your service, rent would be six sixty-three, first payment upfront.”

He had that, had more than that, heavy and burning a hole in his pocket, bills taken from a Hydra safe house two hours out before he had laundered them through various businesses throughout the city. Hundreds divided into twenties, he had more bars of chocolate than he recognized the names of in his bag but the money he held now couldn’t be tracked, not easily. It was with that in mind that he pulled a fold of bills out of his pocket, counting them carefully before handing them over.

“Six seventy.”

The man took the money, held out his hand to shake, and James hesitated before offering his right rather than his left.

“Cyril Volkov, I live on the first floor. Rent is due at the first of the month. Be good to your neighbors. No drugs in my building. No cops. Pets are fine. Welcome to Brighton, James.”

A firm grip, but Cyril released him quickly, as if mindful of his space and the way that James may feel about it being invaded and that was new, he wasn’t used to that. He passed over a key, silver and sharp, and he tipped his head to James as he showed himself to the door.

“I will bring by paperwork later. Have a good day.”

The door clicked shut, and suddenly, he was alone.

Alone in a place that was his, he had handed over money for this and it belonged to him even if the money hadn’t been his, not really. He didn’t know what it was like to own anything anymore, wasn’t even necessarily sure that he owned himself, and yet this space was his. Ownership was a foreign concept, the very notion of which set a bitter taste the back of his throat, but hopefully this was something good.

Sunlight filtered through the tall windows, fell in long slants across the wooden floors and gave them a soft, golden hue. Faint scuff marks from where furniture had once been, and he wondered how long it had been since someone had lived here. The room was longer than it was wide, the stove looked uncertain on its legs and he could hear a quiet rattle from the fridge where they stood to his left near the door, and the doors on the wall behind him led to the bedroom, the bathroom.

Movements slow, he locked the door, threw the bolt and tested the weight of it before quickly deciding that he would replace it the first chance he was given. His boots echoed on the floor with hollow sounds, and he let his fingers trail across the wall as he walked, felt the cool paint beneath his cybernetic where it picked up texture and density and a lack of heat.

Pausing a pace from the window, his weight fell as he slowly, cautiously lowered himself to the floor and James held his breath. A crawling fear in his throat, his gaze went first to the windows, curtainless and taking a vast majority of the wall and then to the door with its dismal lock and chain that would do little against someone who really wanted to get in. He forced himself to stay seated, pulled a slow, measured breath in through his nose and out through his teeth, first one and then another.

His jacket hit the floor, pulled off his arms with concise movements and folded into a tight, neat press before it was sat next to his hip. The sunlight was warm, sent a bright sensation against his skin and he leaned into it, tilted his face into the light and pulled his ball cap from his head to set it atop his jacket. Hesitation then, unsure of what he could and couldn’t do, what he shouldn’t, except this...this was his.

So he tilted his face into the sunlight, and James lowered himself until he laid out on the floor, legs straight out and bent at the knee. Fists balled, a fine boned tremble ran through his frame, and he stared at the ceiling for a minute before letting his eyes shut. There was no cold, there was no chair, no threat in the room and no orders rattling through his skull despite the burning in his blood and the aching, hungry lack of something vital within his gut.

Everything was quiet, and warm on his skin, so James lay in the sun, and he took another breath.

Chapter Text

SHIELD fell on a Wednesday, nine days before her birthday, and the entire world seemed to stand still. Fire in the sky, gunshots on the ground, and there were just as many police trying to corral the civilians as there were opening fire on those who were just trying to get away. The Helicarrier fell from the sky, Captain America disappeared into the Potomac, Hydra wasn’t as dead and gone as they had all been lead to believe, and everyone seemed to hold their breath in the wake of the fire and the destruction that threatened to swallow them whole.

The city evacuated in a panicked deluge of people, cars clogging the interstate and highways and backroads, the tram so loaded down that cars got stranded on the tracks when the power went. Thousands upon thousands of city goers and travelers were stranded as the city, the coast, the country came apart at the seams and their greatest defense turned out to be nothing more than a front for their greatest enemy.

Darcy didn’t learn this, not at first, too busy running an errand in Midtown for Bruce to stock up on a specific blend of Indian tea he liked that she’d found at a thin, cramped shop in the lower part of the borough. She could have sent an order out for it, could have gotten it just sent to the tower, but Steve had been down in DC for only a few days and already her apartment felt too empty, the labs too loud without his head popping around the corner to see if she wanted to go grab something for lunch.

Without Steve glued to her side and talking her ear off she was left with her security detail, young man only a few years older than her with dark hair and dark eyes. He was nice enough, even if he laughed a little to readily at her jokes and had the horrifying habit of calling her Miss Lewis. She’d broken Steve of that within the first two days, but this man had been steadfast with his behavior for almost a year. To the public eye he looked more like a scandalized personal assistant, long limbed with wiry muscles and spindly auburn curls and the eternal tendency to follow her around and look exasperated at the things she said.

“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, Louis, I’m just saying it’s the way the lab goes. Tony doesn’t know how to fill out his own requisition forms, so it’s easier to just keep a stamp of his signature. I use the stamp, Tony gets to make more toys, less things tend to explode or catch fire, everyone's happy.”

Company was company though, especially if it meant she could get out of the lab, that she could get some sunshine and some reasonably fresh, New York City air. Darcy loved her scientists, she did, but Jane was scattered on the best of days, too engrossed in her work to remember to eat or sleep until she dropped, Tony was constantly liable of hurting someone, even if that someone was himself, and Bruce didn’t work well with most assistants due to some level of anxiety, usually on their part. They were brilliant and wonderful, but running herd on them all while managing the requisitions for the rest of the Avengers on the side was more tiring than she had anticipated.

It was surprisingly warm out, not a single crisp bite to the air or cool draft to be found, and instead, the wind that swept down the skyscrapers and through the thin alleys was pleasant, if nose curling at times. Some days she expected to see snow before her birthday even hit, with the air holding a sharp, icy chill and her breath visible when she ran her errands. As much as she would have appreciated snow, New York didn't seem quite sure on just what to do with more than three inches of the stuff, so she kept her quiet thoughts to herself and a set of gloves and a scarf in her purse, just to be safe.

Placing the order had been easy enough, more than enough of the blend ordered that it would need to be picked up later by a truck once it had been appropriately prepared and packaged, but Steve wasn't answering his phone.

Five unanswered texts after the last he'd shot off almost an hour ago complaining about hating elevators, and it had been radio silence since. He'd gone quiet before, had disappeared for days at a time, whether on a mission or into his own depressive funk, but there was something different this time, something wrong.

She had always trusted her gut, had always trusted her instinct, had since she had been armed with a pick, a hammer, a borrowed gun that kicked so hard she bruised, and she couldn't ignore the tight feeling that had settled under her skin. It was that feeling that had her dipping down an alley, leaving Louis to have to chase after her as she separated them from the crowd of Midtown.

“Miss Lewis, this isn't the way back to the tower.”

His voice was familiar, close, and she gave him a look over her shoulder with what she hoped was a placating smile. She didn't look like a Miss Lewis, not really, in a soft green tank dress that cinched with just enough flare at her waist and a worn, faded denim jacket, but she didn't have it in her to look like she managed a bunch of heroes and their respective scientists. It was easier to go out this way, she could slip out one of the tower doors with either Steve or Louis and look like just another office girl.

“I think I forgot something, I need to check my purse but I'd rather not do it on the sidewalk.”

He nodded like he understood, like that made sense, and even shifted his stance and squared his shoulders so he could stand guard. It would have been easier if he called her Darcy, he could have at least looked like a put upon boyfriend rather than an assistant, but she would take what she could get.

Fingers diving into her purse, her phone gave a nasally hey, listen just as her finger brushed it, and she snatched the device up with a quiet laugh and a smile, because that was Steve's text tone, and she hadn't heard it long enough that she'd started to get antsy. A swipe of her thumb across the lock pad and the device powered up so she could read his text. And her breath caught in her chest, and her blood ran cold with a harsh, sharp spike of anxiety.

Shield is Hydra.

There was a faint tremble to her fingers as she locked the device, as she dropped it back into her purse. A toss of her ponytail across her shoulder and she looked for Louis, found him intent on his own phone. There was no smile on his face now, no easy slack to his shoulders, and she plastered an airy grin on her face as he lifted his head, waggled a shopping list that Jane had written three days prior at him with a delighted croon.

“Found it! It wasn't super pressing at the time, but Jane's running low on certain things, so I should probably-Louis?”

Like she was surprised, like she didn't understand, but she could see it on his face and in his eyes when he crowded into her space. Murder and malice were familiar after so many lives, after so much exposure to them time after time, and she knew the dark glaze that they put in a person's eye, the curl it gave to their expression.

“Do you have any fucking clue how annoying you are? I follow you every single day, every time you leave that god damn building, and all you ever do is talk. You never fucking shut up.”

His hands were on her throat, fingers pressing bruises into her skin and propelling her back into the rough, sharp alley wall. His voice had risen to a shrill tone, none of the coughing laughter in his lungs now, and he squeezed tight at her throat.

“You're important though, you know all of their research, you're exactly what we need.” A rough grin, and her back hadn't hit the wall, not yet, but she knew his intent. “Hail Hydra.”

A gut punch of panic in her chest, of fear, but there was a rage there, furious and consuming, boiling over in her blood and setting motions through her body. His hands were around her throat, so she let her body fall, ducked her head forward so that his grip was lost and she shoved, small hands making sharp points of pressure against his abdomen. He stumbled with a rush of air and Darcy lunged forward as he fell, fingers pulling his gun from the holster it sat just beneath his jacket.

An empty beer bottle worked in her favor, tripping him further until he lay sprawled on the sticky pavement and her chest heaved. He snarled at her, pushing up like he wanted to get to his feet and she clicked off the safety, pulled back the hammer and took aim.

“Don't.”

“You won't shoot me, you've never shot a gun in your life, it says so in your file. You're going to put the gun down like a good little girl, and you're going to put your chest against the fucking wall.”

His hand dipped into the other side of his jacket, and she didn't know if he carried another firearm, if he loaded himself down like Nat did or not, but she couldn't take that chance.

She couldn't take that chance and she didn't know him, didn't have a pull in her belly and an ache in her chest. She didn't know him, didn't recognize him down to his bones and his soul, didn't know his eyes or his laugh and he wasn't him .

Louis wasn't him, and she didn't want to die.

The gun went off with a bang, a loud crack of sound that echoed off the tall walls that surrounded them, shattering the muffled quiet that the alley had given them. His head snapped back, the bullet catching him just above his right brow and the concrete behind him turned red with a spray of blood made thick from chunks pink and grey. His body went slack, her heart hammered in her chest, a ringing in her ears, and his prone body was all she could see.

A burn to her throat, tight and heavy where he had gripped her and Darcy flinched when a hand appeared in her view, swinging around with the gun only to have her wrist caught by a man at least thirty years her senior. He held one hand up in a placating manner, and made a slow show of pointing the gun down so the barrel was aimed between their feet. She watched as he took it from her, slow motions, and as he ejected the clip and emptied the next from the chamber.

“Hey there sweetheart, we're just going to empty this, okay? Are you h-no, don't look over there, you just look at me. There we go, hi, I'm Benjamin and you're safe now, okay?”

His face was kind, his eyes a pale hazel, and there was the guttural slur of Brooklyn in his voice when he spoke. He was gentle though, kept her attention and turned them so that she couldn't see Louis's body or the blood and he smiled at her.

“Did he hurt you?”

“He was going to.” Her voice sounded hollow to her own ears, and Darcy blinked at him because she was angry, furious, except she felt like she was going to puke. Underwater thick and smog haze heavy, she could feel the echo of her heartbeat in her fingertips, and it had been so many lifetimes since she had felt like this that she wasn't sure how to deal with it anymore. “He was going to take me, he-”

“Eyes over here sweetheart. My wife is right over there, you see the little lady with the purple hair?” As if on cue, a small, plump woman at the mouth of the alley waved, and Darcy numbly waved back. “That's my Claire, can you go stand with her for me while I call the police?”

She nodded and he gave her another smile, stood in her way so she couldn't see Louis's body where his springy auburn curls had turned blood sticky and dark, but she knew. A gentle touch to her shoulder and she walked on leaden legs toward Claire with her violet dyed curls and her wide smile, her wet eyes.

Claire caught her hands within her own when she was close enough, and her nails were painted a pristine, pearlized white with a glitter that gleamed in the sunlight.

“Can you tell me your name, sweetheart?”

She was shaking.

She was going to come out of her skin, she was fire bright anger and acid burn anxiety, the rhythmic, war drum hammer of her heart roaring in her own head and the building pressure of tears behind her eyes. Her hands were shaking, her lungs felt cold, and she hadn't been this angry in lifetimes, surely hadn't been this scared in just as long.

“Darcy.”

Her throat hurt and her head was screaming, but her voice was the wet crackle of a sob where her breath punched from her lungs and her legs threatened to give.

“I'm Darcy.”

-

When Darcy moved into the tower, she had been given the apartment across from Natasha, with a sunny balcony, more room than she really needed and a quick, cool assessment from her fiery haired neighbor. The building was blissfully quiet on the upper residential floors, the walls were sturdy and sound proofed, and Pepper had assured her that she could paint and wallpaper them whatever colors or patterns she wanted and hang whatever her heart desired.

A large map had been plastered to the largest wall the apartment had, stretching the length of the living room all the way to the doors for her balcony. She had found found it on a specialty site after two hours of searching, and Tony had laughingly called her a hipster shit when she’d asked for help securing it in place, and she had just given him a smile and a shrug in response. It was easier to let him think what he wanted then to try to explain that the sticky flags with various colored ribbons hanging from them weren’t places that she wanted to go, rather that they were places she had previously been, a part of their history that she had thus far managed to get down to the best of her ability.

Soft colors, delicate creams and pale golden buffs paired with picture frame wainscoting, gentle silver-greys and brushed rose gold hues with plush pillows and warm blankets. Tony had expected colors, had complained about the lack of overly bright, obnoxious shades of purple and blue and the clutter from too many strange, eclectic knick-knacks and she had just rolled her eyes in response, had simply clutched her fuzzy, pale pink pillow a little tighter to her chest.

The bathroom had been a personal project though, and with permission from Pepper she had had a crew remove the jacuzzi style tub that had come in the room to instead replace it with a deep, oversized clawfoot tub with crisp porcelain walls and shimmering silver fixtures. Cottage white trim, cabinets and countertops stood out against the liberal coating of pale seafoam she had given the walls. Airy and bright without being too much, and she took great care in stocking her cabinets with more bath bombs, salts and glittery bath bubbles than she could possibly need.

The water had turned lilac in color with the froth of the bath bomb she had used, three pounds of lavender and vanilla bomb dissolved into the steaming, bubble shimmering water until the heady scent was all she could smell. Hair knotted on top of her head in a sloppy tangle, bubbles nearly to her chin, she had sank herself deep into the tinged, scented water over twenty minutes prior. Her hands were pink when she pulled them up out of the water, caught palm fulls of bubbles in her hold, and a puff of her breath had them scattering across the top of the water and the rest of the bubbly layer.

“Miss Lewi-”

“Jarvis, call me Darcy, please .”

Her voice was quiet in the room, barely audible above the quiet slosh of water and the low murmur of music through the speakers in the ceiling, but it seemed to be enough. Jarvis was silent for a moment, as if processing her request, and his tone was gentle when he tried again.

“Thor would like entrance to your residence, Darcy.”

There was only so long she could stare at her ceiling and wonder if she could possibly install a more vintage crown molding before she started to actively contemplate the change. It would be easy enough to get it in the same pale, off cream as her cabinets, but she wasn’t nearly tall enough to install it herself. A heaving exhale, chest heavy and her throat aching, but her nod was enough, because she could hear the sound of Thor toeing off his shoes in her entryway a moment later.

A faint rap on the door, and even though he pushed it open, Thor hesitated at the threshold.

His hair had been pulled back into a thick french braid, and in a pair of sweats and a loose cotton tee, he looked companionable, soft. He respected her possible want for privacy though, the sanctity of a place that she had made her own, and she gave him a nod at his imploring look.

He sat beside the tub, a cloth bag in hand, and from it he pulled a thick spool of thin, shimmering copper hued wire and an assortment of modestly sized, glittering crystals that she didn’t recognize. As she watched, his eyes fell to them, his fingers pulling free a length of wire that he cut with a small tool before matching two more to its size. Settled on her bathroom floor like it was exactly where he needed to be, Thor started to braid the thin strands into a tight, delicate weave.

Lips pursing, a faint frown on her face, she stared first at his hands, then at his expression. But his face was smooth, calm and relaxed as he ever was during his quiet moments, and while she knew what he was doing, she hadn’t expected it.

She didn’t want to be alone, but Steve had gone silent once more after his only text and she couldn’t bother him, not when he was important, not when he might be in danger. So she had given her statement to the police, voice rough and garbled and a heavy shake to her hands, and had been instructed by Benjamin and Claire that she was to call them if she needed absolutely anything, their numbers safely programmed into her phone. Five hours in the station before she had been released, and Happy had been there with the car to collect her, Tony inside.

He hadn’t talked about security details, or self defense courses, or even asked her how she was doing. Instead, he had talked about his new project, arching motions with his hands and all encompassing passes as his voice carried steady and quick through the vehicle. He hadn’t slept in two days, his eyes looked a little wild, and she had never been more grateful for the normalcy of the entire situation even though she spent the entire ride feeling sick to her stomach.

He had let her wander off at the tower, and while she knew he had kept tab on her via Jarvis, she had appreciated the attempt at privacy.

Thor made her want to cry again though, sitting on her plush white bath mat like it was comfortable enough for that, his presence grounding and his attention no doubt focused on her. He was undemanding, he was quiet and composed and present, larger than life and familiar in a pink cotton shirt with a glittery watercolor print of space thrown across it, but he was wholly unintrusive, undemanding of her attention or for her to speak. He was just there, letting her know she wasn’t alone without making her come out of herself, giving her someone without completely invading the sanctity of her space.

The air was hot, sweet smelling and floral and she started to sob. Rasping, ragged, punched sounds that pulled from deep within her chest and caused a fierce, fiery pain in her throat, but she couldn’t seem to stop. Sucking breaths that burned and hot tears that sliced paths down her cheeks, her eyes were already bloodshot from the lack of oxygen no matter how temporary, and her head already hurt, but it seemed that crying was all she had. Consuming sounds, rattling on the walls and causing a heave to her breathing and he let her, he didn’t try to stop her, just set his work aside when she carried on for longer than a moment and held out one of his hands for Darcy to take if she wanted.

She latched on, fingernails pressing indents into his skin to give him a matching set to the ones that had cut into the skin of her throat, but he didn’t seem to care, just held tight and let her cry.

Finally, she caught her breath, enough that the sounds coming from within her were more of a hiccuping, desperate attempt not to hyperventilate rather than harsh, wailing bursts. He didn’t let go of her hand though, didn’t even give any inclination of discomfort, and instead Thor watched her with a quiet expression and a firm press to his mouth. He was as gentle as he was large, and she didn’t even have it in her to feel self conscious about him being in the room.

“I am proud of you.”

She wanted to flinch then, wanted to curl away from his words and the emotions that they would evoke, but Thor had never lied to her. Thor had never lied to her, and he had never said something that he didn’t mean, that he didn’t think needed to be said, and there was a gravity in his tone that she couldn’t deny.

“You were very brave, and you defended yourself well. But you are safe here, sister, and none will harm you while I can find you. Years ago, I told you I would never be far, did I not?”

She nodded, wet faced and red nosed as she watched him, and carefully, with a kiss pressed to the back of her palm, Thor released her hand. He picked up one of the crystals, ethereal in shades of pearl and gold, struck through their centers with veins of twining fire and offered it to her, set the stone in her palm. It was warm to the touch, nearly hot, and she curled her fingers around it to pull it close, to stare at the glint that its veins held and the glimmer of its semi-smoothed surface.

“When the war between Asgard and Vanaheim ended centuries ago, my grandfather brought with him my mother and my uncle, and he and his children lived in Asgard as a show of good faith. Eventually, my mother and my father married, and she became his Queen, but she was still the daughter of her father, and worried of what would happen to her brother, for he chose to wander the realms. So my grandfather gave her these, hjarta til kind, hearts of kin, so that she would never be alone, and she would always be able to know where her family laid their heads by the pull of the stones. My mother gave them to me, for though she is weak from her encounter with Malekith she is still wise, and who am I to question my mother?”

A smile on his lips, and she found one pulling at her own, no doubt the reaction he had wanted. He held a handful of the stones in his own hand, fire bright from the inside and alive with a magic that she didn’t understand.

“She told me now to give these to you, for you are my systkin, my sister, and no dóttir of hers will ever be lost or alone.”
He was kind, eternally, and he meant well from the depths of his very soul, and he was going to make her cry again. He took the stone when she offered it back, and as she watched, he went to work twining the woven wire around them, a precarious hold before he set to braiding another three strands. The silence that settled on them was soft, for Thor was just as reassuring when he spoke as when he didn’t, and she watched him work from the warm, enclosed safety of her filled tub as he coiled the seemingly delicate wire around itself over and over again.

He lifted it once after some time had passed, held it up until she gave him her wrist, and he tested the length of it before going back to his work.

“My Jane left her conference when Jarvis gave us news of your attack. She is currently over the ocean, as I was not permitted to fly her myself, given her delicate condition.”

A nod, and with her wrist her own again, Darcy dropped her hands back into the water, caught fist fulls of bubbles between her palms. She would rather Jane and Thor than Amelia, than Jackson, Matthias or Hale, would rather their particular brands of comfort over the smothering affection of her siblings, or of the way her father would want to know if she was alright when she knew he would start to drink at any moment. She loved them, she did, but she didn’t think she could take them, not right now, not like this. It had been so long that Darcy wasn’t sure how to handle herself with this kind of feeling, let alone them, so she would tell them later, once she had caught her breath and left the safety of her bath.

So she settled a little further in the tub, dipped down until the bubbles tickled at her nose and cheeks, and squeezed her fingers to watch the way that they shimmered in the light.

Chapter Text

He had a bed, a marvel that had been left behind by the previous tenant in the bedroom, flush tight against the wall and folded up so that it resembled a large wooden cabinet. He had thought it to be such, had gone to pull at the handle to open it in a moment of indulgent exploration only to have it tip toward him. His back pressed to the far wall in an instant, heart hammering within his chest as the structure came crashing down to the floor with a rattling sound. It wasn’t a cabinet at all, there was no clothing that had possibly been forgotten, and instead, a simple bed sat in its place, dominating much of the room.

The mattress still had the plastic on it, brand new and looking soft to the touch, but he didn't dare. It felt like a dream, or possibly a trap, some combination of the two that left him hesitant and fearful, but there was a fluttering curl of curiosity in the back of his mind that had him edging forward. He shouldn’t try it, he couldn’t be sure, but he wanted to test the surface of it, wanted to see if it was as soft as it looked. There was really no delicate way to do it, none that would distribute his weight properly to accurately test its potential give, and he hesitated at the foot of it for a moment, cool, pale eyes flickering over the plastic covered surface.

And then his body dropped, tipped forward with his arms out in the event that he needed to catch himself. The plastic crinkled beneath his weight, pressed into his cheek where he had turned his face to the side, and James didn’t bother to try and catch himself, to stop his fall. Instead, he sank into the mattress, and a quiet groan rattled from his chest as it formed around his body in a soft, luscious hold.

He didn’t know why it had been left, but he had a feeling he would find a way to take it with him when he had to leave.

He wasn’t sure how long he laid there, the plastic protesting quietly with every breath that he took, but his skin still felt sun warmed when James forced himself up to his knees. A quick assessment showed that the bed was large enough that his entire body would fit, and he sat on his knees for a long moment to try and comprehend the fact that he had a bed, for the first time in longer than he could really remember.

He wanted to lay back down, wanted to spread himself out on the mattress and just enjoy it for a moment, but it felt wrong. He couldn't sully it, couldn't soil the soft surface and its plastic covered cleanliness with his touch, his weight.

There was so much blood on his hands that it had seeped into his skin, and he didn't want to ruin it.

So he eased himself to his feet, slow motions, listening to the sound of thin plastic shifting as he moved. By comparison, the floor was cold beneath his bare feet, and his toes wanted to curl at the feeling, his body wanted to shy away. He didn’t like the cold, didn’t want the ice or the pain or the

In the chair, Soldat, mouth open .

The wood creaked under his grasp, metal fingers pinched so tight around it that the door frame threatened to give. A heaving in his chest, a burning in his breath and a skittering pain beneath his skin, there was as much of a fear in him as there was a knowing, an anger at what they had done and what he had become, a skittish shell of a man where he had never before been such. He took a deep breath though, forced his hand away from the door frame and gave a long look at where the wood now stood, dented under the impression of his fingers.

He was safe here, he owned this, this space was his, paid for in blood money that he had no doubt earned and deemed good enough by his own questionable standard. There were walls, there was a roof, he didn’t need much else. But there was a bed, soft to the touch and welcoming beneath its plastic, and there were windows, tall arches that let in streams of sunlight that warmed him from the inside, things he hadn’t known that he wanted, didn’t necessarily think he deserved.

He wasn’t necessarily sure what to do with all this space, and James faltered in the threshold to the living room, occupied only by sunlight where it curled its way across the floor. Indulgent, even if his motions were slow, and he moved to stand in one of the illuminated patches, weight stationed on the warmed wood and a bit of the tension relaxing from his shoulders once more. The world felt large, impossibly imposing and threatening with every breath he took, but the only world that really existed was made up by the walls within his new home and the picture frame cuts that the windows gave him of the things that towered in the space outside. Other buildings, other windows cut out into walls that contained other little worlds, and in the distance an ocean, water vast and deep and quietly churning, welcoming and hungry.

There was a slamming sound from beyond his door, abrupt and rattling and causing his body to coil once more. Fists clenching, head turning enough that he could see the entry out of his periphery, James stood at the ready. His breath in his chest, there was a knock at the door, a little stuttering but heavy handed all the same.

His safety had been a lie, there would be no sunlight, there would be no warmth. They had found him, they knew, the old man maybe, Cyril had given him away, they had eyes everywhere, he knew this, he knew this. There was the fire escape, but he was armed, he could surely take down the strike team that they would have sent to retrieve him. He was a weapon, he was a danger, his hand slipping to his waistband where a pistol was tucked, he-

Malchik! Malchik!”

The tone changed, a heavy, echoing rapping sound like something else against the door, but the voice from the other side sounded...aged. Crackling and thick, curling at the edges and full bodied in a way that spoke of experience, more irritated than anything else. Sharp and commanding, but it was that of a woman, an older woman at that, and James crept forward with his fingers still poised.

He had to stoop to stare through the peephole on the door, body strung tight and ready, but it was an older woman. Small, just enough that he could see the top half of her face, wrinkles lining her forehead and a thick tumble of silver curls that looked heavy and soft. A scowl on her face, a series of creases to her brow, and she hit his door with something just out of view.

Boy! Open the door!”

Aggressive, assertive and demanding and sharp in tone and he found himself doing what she wanted, throwing the locks and opening the door.

She was small, diminutive before him with a head that barely came to his shoulder and a thin frame. A round face, spindly fingers and thin lips pulled into a harsh frown, she stared up at him as if he wasn’t larger than she, as if he wasn’t a murderer, a tool. She made him feel like a boy then, with her heavy disapproval and her unwavering stare, and he hadn’t felt this human in longer than he could remember.

You ignored me.

No ma’am .”

Her mouth pulled further into a frown, thin and curling, cutting into her face and the lines in her cheeks. She looked severe, looked nearly militant, and James felt himself straighten beneath her stare.

Do not lie to me. What is your name.

James ma’am.”

She spoke in Russian, quick and ragged and full bodied, sharp tongued and from behind tight teeth and he knew the words she said. She spoke with expectation, like she knew he would respond, like she wouldn’t take anything else from him, and he had. He had given her what she wanted, had given her words in a language that was her own and his skin threatened to crawl.

Bah .”

Unimpressed, unamused, and that was a cane in her hand, metallic and pink with four little legs, a little rubber duck swinging from the end of the grip with a series of keys attached to it. She stamped it on the ground, a guttural, belly deep sound punching from between her lips and he could only blink at her.

Cats?”

He didn’t know where this conversation had gone, didn’t understand where she was going or what she intended or how a cat could possibly have anything to do with their current predicament. James wasn’t even necessarily sure what that predicament was, an elderly woman being vaguely threatening in his doorway while he wondered if he should attack her or not. He was an assassin, he killed people, he ruined governments.

He hesitated, a furrow in his brow and the fingers that held the door handle squeezing tight, but she just watched him that dark, shrewd gaze. Patient, like she wanted a response, like she expected him to know what she meant and give her the answer that she wanted. He wasn’t sure where to begin, what words would be proper and what response would be appropriate, he wasn’t designed to deal with people, he had talked more in the last week than he had in who knew how many years. He wasn’t built for words anymore, he had too much blood on his hands, he killed people, he broke things, why did everyone want to talk to him?

He just wanted to be left alone, why couldn’t they all just leave him alone?

Yes ?”

A question, he didn’t know what else she wanted from him, if he should agree with what she asked of him or if he should shut the door. Shutting the door seemed easier in theory, a simple push and he wouldn’t have to deal with her, but what if she didn’t go away? What if she yelled, what if she hit his door more, caused a scene? People would find him, he would have to leave and he didn’t want to, he wanted his sunlight and his wooden floors and his bed that he hadn’t yet slept in.

That seemed to be the right answer, seemed to be what she wanted, or at least good enough, and she nodded. She turned from his door, cane rapping on the ground as she went and the fat yellow duck swaying at the end, but her voice filled the space around them all the same.

Good. I left my window open to make dinner and a cat made itself at home.”

She was his neighbor, a hallway between them and a tin plaque hanging from her door that advertised that it was cocktail time in electric blue words on a glittery pink background. Her dress had flour dusted at the hips like she had brushed her hands there to try and clean them, and she leaned her weight heavy on her cane to open the door. James left his then at the look she gave him over her shoulder and he pulled it shut behind him, unlatched and as vacant as it had been before he had come. The hallway felt like a chasm that he had to cross, and he wondered if the dingy wood would break open beneath his weight and swallow him whole.

He passed the threshold with bated breath, shutting her door behind himself at the grumbling sound she made. There was color where his own walls were a cool grey, milky coffee on the walls and matching tan tones in the furniture, a magenta oriental rug eating up the living room floor and bright pops of blues and greens in throw pillows and blankets, so many picture frames on the walls that their edges and corners touched in places. It was overwhelming, loud in presence even though there was a general quiet in the room, and he struggled to breathe, to steady himself.

Her cane rapped on the floor, a steady sound as she shuffled into the kitchen, and James floundered just inside the door.

Boots!

His tentative step forward turned into a staggering stomp, the sound making him wince, but she didn’t even look at him, clanking around at something on the stove. He stared first at her, then at her feet and the fat, fuzzy duck slippers she wore before looking to his own boot clad feet. Slowly, he sat on the floor, fingers making quick work of the laces on each boot before he pulled them off and sat them neatly beside the door. Everything looked just as overwhelming from this angle, and he squinted for a minute at the garish color scheme of her kitchen. Orange cushioned chairs and pale yellow counters against all the cabinets and the milky coffee walls, there was no reason to any of it, but she didn’t seem to care, a fat, floral teapot in her hands as she stomped from the stove to the sink, pulled at the faucet to fill it.

His gaze turned from her to the rest of the living room once more, the way her apartment seemed to mirror his and the two shut doors on the far wall that he assumed lead to her bedroom and the bathroom. Across from him, past the dark suede couch with a glittery green blanket strewn over the back, he could see the open window that let out to the fire escape, semi-obscured by layers of shimmering hanging beads in some poor attempt at curtain that swayed in the warm autumn breeze. They cast glimmering balls of light on the floor, shifting, twinkling specks of sunlight across the hard wood and her bright rug, giving color to the fabric as if it lacked any.

There was movement under the couch, a pale flash of motion that was there as soon as it was gone, and James pushed himself up onto his knees. He paced forward with slow shuffling moves, the quiet swish swish swish of his cargo pants across the hardwood. Behind him, the old woman stomped back to the stove, clattering as she set her teapot down and he stopped arms length from the couch.

Arm steady, unwavering and patient, his breathing felt shallow and slow, but he knew how to wait. Minutes slipped by like that, with her clattering around in the kitchen and him sitting back on his haunches like he belonged there, arm outstretched and his body coiled on her bright, soft rug. There was something comforting about it, the quiet racket that she made and the way that she didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t alone, sitting on her floor and waiting for a stray cat to crawl out from under her couch.

Minutes had passed, but more would go by before there would be movement beneath the couch again, and slowly, he was rewarded for his patience by a small face peering out at him. White with a soft, soot grey dusting around the top half of its skull and ears, large blue eyes stared back at him, but James held his hand steady. After a long moment the cat crept forward, its belly low to the ground and its ears tipped back, unblinking as it approached him. Just as quickly as it inspected his fingers did it try to crawl into his lap, succeeding in only perching on his thighs.

His hand came to steady it before it could slip and fall, and suddenly he held it, shockingly soft to the touch and purring in his grasp.

There was a burn behind his eyes, and when it lifted its head up to rub against the rough beard that had grown there with a whirling rumble of a purr he tipped his own down so that the cat could press its forehead to his mouth. A choke to his breathing, a hammering in his chest and slowly as not to startle it, his arms came up, held the cat to his chest. It continued to purr even as he rocked them in place so that he could rise to his feet, and twisted only enough that it could lay draped within his grasp. It seemed content to simply be held, with its fur that needed a gentle brushing and its little paws that kneaded at his forearm, and James crossed the living room only to pause at his boots, unsure of how to put them on without releasing his new, precious armful.

Come James, sit.”

Her voice was just as stern, but she didn’t sound nearly as disapproving or as demanding this time. Instead, there was something soft to her, or maybe he had just grown comfortable in her company. Either way, with his arms occupied and unable to properly put his boots back on, James instead sat at one of the cushioned chairs where it had been pulled out. The cat didn’t seem to mind, curling in the cradle made by his thighs, and he took the small moment that his hands were free to shift its tail aside.

She didn’t mind, content to curl in his lap and continue to knead her paws into his skin, pricks of pressure and sharp nails that were gone as quickly as they came, and he hesitated before stroking a careful, light hand across the arch of her back.

A clank, and there was a wide, steaming mug placed down in front of him filled with a dark, floral scented tea and a little plate with a fork and a pink piece of cake, filled with little flecks of red fruit and topped with a soft white icing. Wide eyed, he looked first at the table and then at the woman, but she stomped away only to return with a mug and a plate for herself, and her body sank into the chair in a motion that spoke of familiarity. He didn’t know when the last time he had sat across the table from someone was, but he felt the distinct urge to pray then, to curl his fingers together and bow his head. His fingers caught in the cats fur instead, a fine tremble to them, and he stared at the woman.

Are you allergic to strawberry?”

“No ma’am.”

A huff, a full, throaty sound, and she smacked her lips together, speared a forkful of her cake with a swift, cutting motion.

My name is Oksana Popov. I made this cake and you will eat it because I make the best cake.”

Still he hesitated, an acid pit in his belly and the blister of it in his throat, a matching set to the bright, wet burn that did its best to linger behind his eyes. He stared at it, innocent as it was on the plate, and in his lap, the cat continued to purr, her little paws moving in a a lazy rhythm on his leg. It felt like a trap, like a test, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to pass or fail it, wasn’t sure he wanted to know what would happen either way.

James .” Her voice was soft indeed then, if only just, and there was a quiet note to her voice when she spoke. A gravity to her eyes, a knowing, and he wanted to curl tight in the chair he had taken, curl against the cushion and disappear beneath the table. She looked infinitely wiser than her years then, with her wild silver curls and her patient dark eyes, but he couldn’t find it in himself to look away. “ The cake will not bite you. You are safe here, soldier.

She knew.

She knew something, more than he wanted her to surely, but Oksana didn’t seem to care. She smiled at him, she fed him, had brought him into her home as if he didn’t have the capacity to harm her, and James swallowed around the thick pressure in his throat.

When I was young, there was a man that came to our home. He was scared and wounded, but my Papa brought him inside and my Mama fed him. She gave him stew with beef fat and medovnik and set his chair close to the fire. He took a bite of the medovnik and cried, like he had never had cake before. He stayed with us for a few days, and then he said he had to leave. So they we would be safe he said, but he thanked my parents for taking care of him and he told me to mind them before he went.”

Her voice was rich, full of memory as she spoke and low with the brittle crack of age. Oksana took a long drink of her tea, as if she could wash down her words and catch her breath, and he envied her. His own felt trapped in his chest, constructed with the violent beating of his heart and the heavy, pounding press of it against his ribs.

“You let my parents take care of you James, now you can let me.”

Slowly, he reached out with a hand, wrapped his fingers around the fork, and took a bite of cake.

Chapter Text

-

She came awake with a start, body pulled tight and her breath caught in her chest. A ratcheting in her heartbeat, a thundering in her pulse as tension tried to set in her limbs, as she tried to place her environment and the threat of what had woken her. She hadn’t been asleep long, not by the heavy haze in her head and the aching pound beneath her temples, and something was different, something had changed.

Her own bedroom greeted her, and laid on her side, Darcy squinted bleary eyes at the windows across the way. Weak light filtered through in hues of violet and indigo, bruised colors and shades that matched the marks on her skin, but her curtains caught most of it, creating curling, smokey shadows in the rest of the room. Movement though, a shift in the mattress, and she tensed further, tried to turn, to push herself up, but hands caught her.

A scream sounded in her throat as gentle fingers found her cheek, and she flinched at the contant, fists flying up and her hands reached for something to grab, something to bruise and tear.

“Shh, it’s just me Darce, it’s just me.”

He sounded just as wrecked as she felt, turned inside out and left raw in the wake of it, but she knew him even with a fistful of his hair and her nails pulling at his ear. She didn’t care how he had gotten in, didn’t care how long he had been there, the simple fact that he was there was more than enough.

Twisting around, she found his face in the long shadows of her room and there were bruises beneath his eyes like he hadn’t slept enough, excessive growth along his chin and cheeks like he hadn’t taken care of himself. It was him though, looking world weary and alert even in the dark, beaten down as he was and she wriggled close to him with a hiccup in her breathing. He caught her in his arms, pressed beneath the soft hold of her blankets like he belonged there and she clung, ducked her head against his shoulder with a wet, shuddering breath.

Steve .”

Five days of radio silence, of not a single text, not a call or an email or anything, and she had thought the worst. She had seen the news footage finally, once she had had her bath and called her father only to have Matty answer the phone and induce a two hour conversation that ended with her not telling them, with her insisting that she was fine, that the tower was secure and she was safe. There had been nothing from Steve though, not a single notice that he might be safe, that he might be alive , and even Natasha had gone dark. She had watched him fall into the river, she had seen the hazy cell footage of the fight between him and another man, and then nothing.

She shook hard, a burn in her eyes and a fire in her throat, nails biting into the meat of his shoulders where she held tight. For his part, Steve seemed just as desperate, seemed to need her just as much because he secured his arm around her waist, pulled her closer still until she was seamed against his front. One hand pressed to the dip of her back, the other tangled in her hair, and she could feel him shaking against her, heard the rattling near sob of his breath.

She didn’t know who needed to be held more, him or her, but she wasn’t going to let him go, not now, not when she had the feeling his bones would rattle apart if she did.

The top of her head grew hot, humid from his breath and wet from the fall of his tears but she let him, didn’t comment on it, just held him as tight as she could. Steve was precious, Steve was important, the glowing, golden icon that their national leaders liked to use as a scapegoat, but she would be damned in that instant if she let them have him, not right now, not when he was like this. He didn’t need to be Captain America, he didn’t need to be their perfect propaganda soldier, he just needed to be Steve, and apparently he needed to grieve. She didn’t know why and she didn’t ask, didn’t care in that instant because she could only hold him, could only cling back in equal measure to how tight he held her.

Time passed like that, the two of them wrapped around one another as best as they could manage, caught beneath the covers with their legs tangled. His feet were cold, toes pressed to the back of her calf, her ankle, and she soothed her fingertips across his back in slow, arching sweeps every time he started to tremble. The light changed the longer they laid there, the shadows turned softer and the violet, indigo blend took on golden hues, bleeding crimson and burnt orange across her walls. It caught on the glittering, gilted branches that climbed up the wall behind her bed and crept onto the ceiling, sending a sunlight shimmer through the room just as it did every morning.

Eventually, his shaking stopped, and it was only when he tried to pull back that her grip on him loosened.

“You were hurt.”

“I’m fine.”

His fingers wriggled free from her hair, shifted from her back to her hip and he distanced them further still. Gentle pressure on her cheek, her jaw, and he tipped her face up despite her protests, and she knew how her throat looked just as much as she knew what the glowing morning light would do to the already dark bruises. His touch was featherlight, fingertips sweeping across the abused, swollen flesh but she flinched all the same.

A wounded sound from low in his throat and he cursed, a quiet fuck that punched its way into the still of the room. Just as quickly as it had come, the touch to her throat was gone and then so was he, pushing himself up and taking the warmth of the blankets with him. They pooled in his lap, pulled down to her hip, and the sudden chill had her legs pulling close, but Steve had curled in on himself. His head in his hands and she plucked her glasses up off the bedside table, sitting up beside him with a heavy feeling in her chest.

His eyes had been red rimmed, no doubt would be still when he finally looked at her again, the crown of her head wet with the evidence of his tears. He had already cried enough, he had already hurt enough, there was no need for her to add to the weight of his emotions with her own baggage and bruises. Beside her, Steve gave forth his best effort into making himself seem small, his shoulders curling in and his fingers digging deep into his hair and she sighed.

“It isn’t your fault.”

It was too early for this sort of conversation, she had yet to pull herself from bed, to force herself to start her day, but she could feel the desperate desire to fall back into her bed all the same. To bury her head and hold her breath until the silence became all she knew, warm and quiet. What she wanted and what she got were vastly different things, and Darcy gave her attention to Steve where he sat instead.

He hadn’t turned, hadn’t tried to look at her but she saw the way his chest expanded, heard the harsh pull from between his teeth when he inhaled.

“You would be fine if it wasn’t for me.”

A fire in her blood, a curl to her lips and a curdle in her belly and Darcy shot to her feet. It was easy to get out of bed then, easy to put her feet on the floor and curl her toes in the plush, glittering gold rug underfoot. There was no want to stay in bed then, no desire to hide her head in the sand and wait for the world to pass her by and instead she wanted a distance between them even though she didn’t dare leave him alone.

“Don’t fucking flatter yourself, Steven.”

A choking sound from behind her but she ignored him, crossed to her closet and threw the doors open for something to do with her hands. A sapphire skirt pulled from one shelf and a silvery top pulled from a hanger were enough to be what she needed, and she plucked up a bra before cutting a path to the bathroom. He had gotten to his feet at some point, an enraged expression on his face and his hair a ragged golden halo. Fists clenched, his shoulders broad and his stance wide in an unconscious effort to make himself large, a habit that she knew what left over from his smaller days, but the sight of it had her bristling.

Who did he think he was to try and make her feel little in his wake?

She had killed bigger men than him.

“You would be in a lab or some Think Tank, not galavanting around with Hydra’s most wanted! You would be safe, you wouldn't get strangled be your own bodyguard, who you had to shoot.”

His voice was loud in the space that contained them, booming in breadth and cracking along its spine and he was her friend, but she hated him in that moment. He was self-righteous and pulled tight by a system of honor long dead, but he was just as self sacrificing and she suddenly didn't want to watch him burn. She knew how stars like him went out, had seen far too many greats stumble shamefully out of public love or be violently snuffed altogether in a single, abrupt motion and she couldn't deal with that, not now, not with Steve.

“Go to hell Steve.”

“You can’t ignore this like you do your family. You could have gotten killed.”

Harsh words, meant to cut, meant to make her bleed, because he knew her too well by now. He knew how to make it hurt whether he meant to or not, but she knew Steve, knew that despite Tony’s golden boy image of him and America’s idolization, he was just a twenty-six year old man with a tendency to be mean when he wanted to be. And he meant it now, she knew he did, could see the fire that filled his eyes and the vicious pull of his mouth and she wanted to scream at him, wanted to hit.

“And I still might! It doesn’t matter that I know you, I’m friends with Thor, I’ve been at first contact twice , I manage Tony fucking Stark, Steven, I can’t even begin to count the number of people who might want me injured or dead.”

She had an armful of clothing and a bra hanging from her wrist, black with a white scalloped lace and thick straps. One of her good bras, it matched a pair of panties even though she wasn’t sure where those were, but the air around them felt heavy, felt domestic. She hadn’t expected to ever fight with him like this, hadn’t expected to ever feel this torn apart and angry, not at him. Steve was her brother when her own were lacking in presence, he was her best friend and her worst enemy all at once, but she’d never thought it would all come together like this.

He looked so angry .

“This isn’t a god damn game, Darcy! I’m just going to get you killed.”

She knew where this argument came from, could easily pinpoint the terror that stemmed it, the trauma and the survivors guilt that had bound themselves in deep like poisoned roots. She’d heard him talk about Bucky, had spent many a night up with him listening to him talk about everything but the issue or retrieving him from the gym after Jarvis woke her at five in the morning in a gentle, exasperated tone requesting her assistance. She knew exactly where this came from, but she couldn’t seem to stop it, and part of her didn’t want to. The cycle had already started, it was all going to come tumbling down around her at any second, any minute, what use did she have in denying the inevitable when there were bridges to burn?

“So leave then! Fucking get out and leave, it’s not like I expected you to stay this long anyway!”

He reared back like she’d struck him, chin jutted out and his eyes wide like he couldn’t believe what she had just said. A clench to his jaw, a puff of his chest and she wanted to throw something at him, she wanted to hit him. He had no right to look so angry, so upset, not when he was the one who had backed her into a corner, not when he was the one who had boxed her in. Her back to a wall and a mountain of a man before her, seething in his self serving rage like he had the right, like she should be cornered and cowed, like she should cower.

Fuck him.

“Darcy-”

Get out!”

A shrill screech, the sound tearing its way out of her still healing throat, she set a ringing in her own ears. His hands were fists, clenched tight and his arms tense like he had prepared himself for a fight, but this was her home, her sanctuary. He had no standing, he had no right.

Steve seemed to know that, or maybe he was just past the point of fighting with her because he turned sharply, bursting from the room with enough force that her bedroom door cracked against the wall with a loud clap. His back disappeared down the hall, her chest heaving and her heart pounding with a feral kind of fight, and she felt it rattle in her bones when her front door slammed shut behind him.

-

There was a little rain cloud on her left breast, printed above her heart and rather fitting given her current mood. The soft, silver-grey top she had pulled free happened to be shorter than she had anticipated, had probably been an actual shirt at one point before she had hacked it off just beneath her breasts. The rough hem grazed the sharp of her ribs, wide necked and short, loose sleeved, but there was a faint shine of sweat on her skin already and she found that she didn’t necessarily mind the slight wardrobe change if only because it meant she wouldn't overheat.

Funny, it seemed to be one of the only things she didn’t mind.

Jarvis had been kind enough to pull up the correct playlist for her without inquiring once about her emotional state, and she didn’t know if Tony had programmed him to be so considerate or if it was a learned behavior, but she appreciated it all the same. R&B thrummed through her blood, the smokey sounds far from the traditional music that she had been trained on, but it served her purpose all the same. Bone deep emotions called for bone deep movements, for something just loud enough and just consuming enough that she could lose herself in it.

One hand trailed up her side, past the dip of her waist and the swell of her breast and the slender line of her throat to coil in her hair. Her head tilted to the side with an arcing swirl of her hips as her weight shifted, body dipping as one leg went up and out. The momentum pushed her into a slow turn, languid motions and a fluid roll within her spine when her leg came back down and she propelled her weight forward to that foot, twisted on the toe of her scuffed character shoes. Her skirt flared around her in a wide, fluttering dance of jewel toned fabric as she moved and her body tipped back. Her weight on the toes of her shoes, her body bowed, spine arching and one hand falling down toward the floor, wild curls spilling free as the other slipped to her throat. Fingertips across the bruises there, light touch against the ache that she couldn’t seem to soothe before her hand dropped further, twisted a fistful out of the soft fabric of her shirt. A pulse, a pull, body heaving upwards in a bastardized, dramatized mimic of the pounding of her heart and she came forward with it, a turn on her toes and one hand thrown out, fingers curled and her head lolling as she went.

Fingers caught hers, callused and warm, blunt, and she was snapped into a flourishing turn before she could even open her eyes.

Darcy found Clint when she did, ruffled dark blond hair and his furrowed face occupied by a crooked grin. A cheeky shit, a cut on his lip and a bruise on his temple, he had been in Cambodia last she knew, neck deep and dark before Natasha had torn open the seams on every shadow and lie their secret service had been crafted around and trillions of digital files had gone live.

“Clint-”

He didn't let her catch her breath, held her at the furthest point in her turn just long enough for her to start before he reeled her back in. The tempo was faster now, the steps double time and the rhythm didn't really fit the music but Darcy didn't care to argue. He curled her back in only to duck her under his arm, to twist them around until their fingers were clasped again and they were chest to chest. A pant in her breathing and her hair in her face, she could just barely catch his grin before they were moving again.

He moved them into a jaunty two step that actually took effort to keep up with, but she was prepared to duck under his arm this time, to turn her body on her toes and try to catch a glance of his face. Just barely over his shoulder, but he still had that damn grin and his hands were low on her hips. Feet off the ground, a cackle of laughter fell from her open mouth and she fanned her legs out in a wide, high kick. He sent her skirt flying around in a flutter as he twisted them around once, twice, before he tossed her up, up until she felt herself go airborne. He had put just enough pressure into it that she turned mid air, and her hair was a wild mess when he caught her in his arms, but he caught her like she weighed nothing, pulled her flush against him as he slid her body down the front of his until the toes of her heels touched the floor.

“You and Laura have been practicing.”

Her skin had gone tacky with sweat, her face flushed with color, but she felt better, better than she had before she had used her special, gifted access code and sequestered herself away in Natasha's dance studio.  He looked proud of himself, hair sticking out in every direction and a bit of glitter on his cheeks, residual from the shimmer in her shampoo. He looked freshly washed, smelled like the soap he favored because Laura favored it and he wore it even when he wasn't on the farm and he didn't have his aids in, had been in the tower for at least an hour then.

“Course I am, got to keep on form for my favorite teacher.”

“I'm your only teacher Clint.”

A shrug, wobbling them, jostling them and she used the grip he had on her to pull him along when she moved. A step back and a guide to the side, one hand on his shoulder while the other fitted into his to guide him into the gliding, quick turning steps of. Viennese waltz. Here he nearly stumbled, she could see it in the way that he wanted to look down at their feet, but he caught on quickly enough and Darcy smiled.

“So? Still impressed you.”

“You come down here just to impress me?”

A quick series of turns, her shoes barely touching the ground while their arms took the brunt of her weight, but a passing glance at the wall of mirrors showed that their movements looked graceful, that they made it look beautiful, made it look easy.

“Course I did. Got to keep my skills sharp, can't take Laura to those fancy places she talks about if I dance like a monkey.”

Eyes rolling, head falling back for a minute to stare at the ceiling, her hair fell over one eye when she came back up to look at him.

“As long as you get a suit jacket that fits your biceps you'll be fine and you know it. Why aren't you in the fast lane to the farm?”

“What, I can't see my favorite girl ever? I'm still convinced you're my daughter, we can get a test. I'll pull out some of my own hair and everything. You lose hair like Lucky does, you won't miss a few pieces.”

Clint.”

Another turn and he dipped them, a hand at the small of her back and her body bowing long and low. Her hair trailed toward the ground, the ends nearly touching the polished wooden surface and he kept her there, one leg extended and her arms thrown back to balance her body and he eased them into a turn, flourishing and smooth.

“Heard you and our fearless leader got into it.”

He pulled her upright, a gentle roll to her spine until her hands were on his shoulders again just in time to catch sight of her frown. He mimicked her with his own, exaggerated by the lines in his face until she felt the distinct urge to giggle, valiantly fought and resisted.

“Who told?”

“You did. Heard him fighting with Stark over getting you a new, Captain America approved security detail and how you shouldn't leave the tower without it.”

How dare he?

Darcy knew where he came from, understood his fear and his want for control to a certain extent but that didn’t stop her from feeling another curl of indignant rage. He wanted her safe, he wanted her secure, but she had never needed a man to defend her before, had never needed another to make her safety their priority like she couldn’t. His behavior was grating, and she knew the why , but she couldn’t stand did.

“Fuck him.”

Clint nodded like she was right, and he kept them moving in gliding steps around the wide open room.

“Yeah, fuck him.”

Chapter Text

“There will be no need for you to take care with your fingers if you have none left with which to care for.”

Her fingertips looked tender to the touch, skin a brilliant pink and gleaming with the shine that only came from scars. Mirroring patches of slick, shiny skin on the backs of her fingers, on her knuckles, and yet her hands were delicate, nails worn low with work and slender. Delicate hands used to delicate work, but there were fresh burns on them, bright and painful looking in the glowing light of the fire.

Beestung mouth bitten and chapped, she lifted her head to find him where he stood, and her eyes were starless skies in the dim room. A vision in the night, and he smiled at her from where he stood near the door to their cottage. Quick to remove his boots, his skin stained with soot and his cheeks burning and flushed still from the heat of the forge, his fingers were dirty and ached, but he reached out when he was close enough to touch her.

A sigh, a smile, and she leaned into his touch, her shoulders loose and her head tipping back. He looked forward to moments like this, spent much of his day simply waiting for the time that he could put away his hammer and head to their home, till he could take his time to sweep the teeth of her favored comb through her dark hair. She responded beautifully every time, leaned back against him with a soft sigh on her breath and a gradual seep of tension from her frame.

Dark eyes stared up at him through her lashes, and he had one braid unwound before she caught sight of the soot on his face, before she seemed to realize that he hadn’t washed before coming home.

“Khoma!”

A squeal and she ducked low, tried to get away from him when she realized what state he was in. He couldn’t hold his laughter, couldn’t fight his grin, and he watched as she shot from her perch on the low stool by the fire, as she danced away from him with her hair half undone. Surely she was a Princess with bare feet on their dirt floor, proud in her simple cream shift, her chest heaving and her expression thunderous, surely she was royalty, surely she commanded armies, but no. Not this time, not this life, there would be no jewel encrusted crown atop her proud head while she sat straight backed in a throne that had been hers since her face was young and her child's body small.

She was just a girl, just a young woman who ruled his world where she had once ruled a kingdom and she didn't even know.

There was honey on her fingers, only a few wrapped with strips of clean clothes and the one that she had been trying to doctor dripped down her front when she held her hand near her chest. It looked like crystals on her skin, delicate and decadent and glistening in the firelight, and there was a hungry hue to the grin that pulled at his lips.

“Halena, my heart, have I said this day how beautiful you are?”

It was easy to advance on her, his head tipped and his hands held out for her. Honey on her skin and the light of the fire in her ink dark hair, she was a vision, a queen, the only woman he had ever and would ever love. And her lips were pulled back in a ferocious little snarl, honey and cloth wrapped fingers shaking at him as if to fend off his advances, and she danced away from him on bare feet.

“No, Khoma, you keep over there.”

“I have not? There have been no words of love passed from my lips to yours, no utterance of how the turn of your face and the sound of your voice never fail to ease an ache within my chest?”

She slipped under his arm but he caught her at her waist, listened to the bright laugh that filled the space that was their home. She was slender in his hold, thin limbed and light and he tossed her up until she was over his shoulder, soot staining her shift and her hands leaving streaks of honey across his tunic.

“Khoma!”

His roar of laughter nearly drowned out the sound of his name, of the furious squall that he had evoked from her small lungs. He spun them around once, twice, before pulling her upright, before her body was kept from the floor by the press of his hips against her own and his dirty hands beneath her posterior. Her hair was wild, tumbling, silken strands of black that spilled over her shoulders and down her back to brush against his fingers and her starless eyes were intent upon his face.

Despite herself, there was a smile on her lips that pulled at the small pout there, and she was amused enough that her sticky fingers found his face. He would need to wash now, would have to clean the honey and soot from his skin before bed, but she didn’t seem to mind in that moment. Instead, she curled her legs up, rested her thighs over the cut of his hips and locking her ankles together and he returned her smile with his own.

“You are a menace.”

Pride in the way her head tipped at the touch of his nose to her jaw, of how her body was lax in his hold and her slender, delicate throat on display for him. She trusted him so readily, and he rewarded it with the press of his lips to her skin, or maybe it was thanks that he gave, for such a proud woman to open herself so willingly to his affections.

“You love me.”

“I am willing to make the sacrifice.”

He grinned against her throat, at the haughty, imperious tone she tried to hold, but he could feel the tremble in her skin, the way that her hands gripped at his tunic, and so he pressed another kiss there, and then another lower still, to the sharp of her collarbones and watched her chest expand as she took a quick breath.

“Such bravery should be rewarded, should it not?”

Her voice was a breathless sigh, a tremble of sound, but he heard her all the same.

“Indeed.”

-

He had slept, thought it had been light and in only hour intervals with moments of wakefulness between to scout the quiet space of the apartment before returning to bed, before easing himself down between the blankets he had been given and relishing in the warmth. The plastic had been removed from the mattress after coaxing from Oksana, and she had even given him soft sheets in faded pink with thin little lines in white and small yellow flowers printed on it. She had given him two blankets, pushed them into his arms along with his cat and stomped back across the hall from her apartment to his where she had promptly let herself in like she was welcome.

Two quilts, lovingly made and just heavy enough, patchworks of creams and yellows and reds in a starburst pattern on one, pinwheels and flowers in violets and blues on another. They smelled like the earthy balm of tea, the aged sweetness of dried, pressed flowers, and he wondered what else lived in the closet that she had pulled them from. Still, he had followed her instruction, had laid down the fitted sheet under her watchful eye and spread the quilts like she wanted him to, and had gone to sleep hours after she had left, once the warmth of the sun had disappeared from his spot in the living room.

With every circuit he had done of the apartment, inspecting every corner with quiet movements every time he woke, Cake had followed, her silken tail swaying with her walk and her luminous eyes bright in the dark. Every time he had returned to bed, she had followed him, had made herself at home on the pillow that Oksana had given him, curled around his head as if to ward off his demons while he slept. She was there when he woke, half turned so that part of her belly pressed to his head, one paw twitching in her sleep, and she had come awake when he sat up, blinking at him before stretching out, as if the pillow were hers instead.

She had disappeared into the bathroom closet where he had set the cat box Oksana had favored from someone, and by the time he had brushed his teeth and washed his face with the things he had been given she had set herself in the window sill in the living room, dainty and patient like she had been waiting for him.

He had scratched her beneath her chin, with careful movements and with bated breath, and it was only a now familiar pound at the door that drew him away.

You slept?”

Part of him felt that it was only the locks in place that kept her in the hall, for Oksana stomped through the door as soon as he had opened it, beneath his arm like he couldn’t harm her with it. The sun hadn’t even begun to crest between the buildings, a heavy twilight still upon the outside world, but there was a fabric tote bag hooked over her arm and she dropped it down on the counter beside the stove.

When he didn’t respond she looked over her shoulder, dark eyes shrewd in the dim lighting and it was only when he nodded that she went back to unpacking the bag.

Good. Turn on the light, I’m old. I brought you clothes, the young man above me brought them down last night. I beat on the ceiling with my cane until he came to see what I needed. Artyom is a good boy, listens well.”

Three pairs of pants, seven shirts and a small mountain of sock pairs ended up on his counter in the time it took him to flick the light switch, and Oksana stuffed the fabric tote in the cupboard beneath his sink with a sharp finality as she shut the door for it once more. He hesitated beside her long enough that she rattled his cane at him, that she motioned toward the stacks of clothes with a cutting motion until he moved closer, until he picked them up.

Pants should fit, tell me if not. Shirts are long, and I have glo-where did I...hmph.

A disgruntled sound, and her fingers then delved into her purse, white with orange polka dots crowded across its face, scuffed at the edges like it had seen years of use. From within it she pulled a pair of black gloves, thin and long fingered, and she shook them at him until he took them.

For your hands. Now, go dress so you can walk me to work.”

“Miss Popo-”

“Oksana. Am I not pretty enough for a handsome man to walk me to work?”

She was a fierce little thing was what she was, all bone deep moxie and a purple painted mouth that had pulled into a scowl. A light blue blouse that fell nearly to her knees with sleeves that she had rolled up to her elbows and her curls were partially contained, pulled to the top of her head with a jewel toned, floral scarf where they spilled away from her face. She was smaller than he, but she was demanding, far from fearful, and James found himself smiling. A strange feeling, a stretching itch that he wasn’t used to, and it felt alien on his face, but there was something natural about the way he pressed a quick kiss to her cheek, the way he evaded her swatting hands.

You’re the prettiest dame I’ve ever seen.”

Go dress!

Her tone was sharp, but she laughed at him as he took the stacks of clothing from the counter and into the bedroom. Her voice followed him even with the door shut, but a pause showed that she didn’t bother to try and speak to him, instead chattering with Cake in the front room, the occasional meow sounding whenever she paused.

It set a strange hollow in his bones, the stacks of clothes on his bed. A bed, with soft, warm blankets, things that were his, because they belonged to him now. He had a space of his own, soon to be filled with sunlight as the day went underway, and it took him a moment to pull at a shirt, a pair of pants. He shucked his pants from the day before, folded them and set them in a corner before taking up the jeans he had been given, faded denim that showed its wear and work at the knees. They felt tight on his legs, on his thighs, and there were fewer pockets to be found, less places to hide things that he could arm himself with than the pair he had worn yesterday but he let it go after a moment, pulled at a shirt instead. A faded green, soft to the touch and a little long at the fingers but tight at his biceps, and James stared at where his fingers peeked out of the cuffs before rolling them up to his wrists instead.

The gloves followed then, and the thoughtfulness behind them wasn’t lost on him as his fingers flexed within the thin, sturdy fabric confines, and he slowly curled his fingers back in until his hands were loose fists, and if he knew no better, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the flesh from the metal.

Time passed at a crawl as he stood there, with bated breath and aching bones and a stillness to his body as he simply studied the soft cotton stretched across his knuckles. There was something to be said, surely, for how such a simple change made him feel more , more like the man he once was, more like the man he should have been. James knew better though, knew the difference and the power that coursed through his limbs, and his mouth pressed into a flat, grim line the longer he stared.

James!”

He didn’t have time to pity himself, to wallow and to fall beneath the dark cloud that loomed just on the horizon, that wanted to rest upon his shoulders and make a static home for itself there. Instead, he took a pair of socks, thick and soft, and stepped into them quickly before crossing the small room.

Cake had stretched herself out on the sill of the window, her eyes heavy and her body long and she turned her head to find him when he slipped out of the bedroom. She didn’t move from her spot as if anticipating the sun, and he drew close enough to pet her softly, careful fingers on the fold of her ears and the underside of her small chin. She leaned into his touch, welcomed it, and James smiled, small and nearly shy, and bent low enough that she could press her forehead once more to his mouth when she arched up.

Behind him, he could hear the sounds of Oksana at the door, a muttering under her breath and the creak of her cane on the floor. He could practically feel her impatience, and when he turned, her dark eyes were turned down into the depths of her purse. She had sensible shoes on her feet, soft tan and sturdy with a small, wide heel, and he would have wondered more if he hadn’t already seen the inside of her home, but those shoes looked like the only sensible things that she owned.

Ah ha! Come, come, here, take this.”

Something small in her hand, and she waved it at him until he took it, had to catch her wrist in his gloved fingers just to stop her from doing her best to hit him with whatever she had. He kept his touch light, but she dropped it into his hand with little fanfare, and seemed all too proud of herself for something he didn’t understand.

For your key, because you are prickly.”

A thin metal ring that would just barely fit on the tip of his pinky, and from it hung a flat, glittering green, potted cactus the size of his thumb. Little dashes for what should have been needles, and it sparkled like the blanket over the back of her couch every time he moved it. There was a knot in his throat, a heavy weight in his chest, and he didn’t know what words to give her, didn’t even know what words he wanted to use. He couldn’t place the feeling, not apart from aching and wet and tight, throbbing in his chest and making it hard to breathe, and James stared at her with wide eyes.

He cupped the back of her head and pressed a careful kiss to her temple, an action he remembered seeing from his father to his mother, and her small fist batted against his chest.

Bah! You need to shave!”

There was a smile on her violet lips though, wide and pleased, and he took that for what it was as he released her. She stomped to the door, slipped away from him with a surprisingly steady gate and let herself out into the hall just as quickly as she had let herself in. Oksana turned back to him then, stamping the legs of her cane on the ground with her head held high and her purse hanging from her elbow.

Come! I will not be late because of you, lock your door!”

A chuckle on his breath, but he did as she told, gave a last glance to where Cake slumbered before shutting the door and latching it with his key before slipping it and its new companion into his pocket. She took his arm, latched her hand through his elbow, and his choices were to either follow at her pace or stand his ground and possibly cause her to fall. The decision was easy, effortless, and James took care to keep at her pace as they moved down the hall toward the elevator.

Cyril said it doesn’t work?”

Huffing, she hit the call button with more force than was surely necessary, and leaned her slight weight against him as they waited.

It works .”

Her tone was final, and it was as if through her sheer force of will that the elevator did indeed give a chime a moment later before the doors opened. She scuttled them onto it, practically pulled him, and the ride was quicker than he had anticipated. Out the lobby they went, and it wasn’t until they were on the street that his trepidation found him once more.

He didn’t know who she had taken his arm for, to support herself or to support him, but Oksana hardly seemed to need him. Her pace was quick on the uneven pavement, her steps sure, and she barely needed to use her cane. Part of him wondered if it was simply for effect, but the rest of him fought against the urge to panic. Open space all around them, and even in the dim morning twilight there were people, far less than the crowd he had seen previously but present all the same. Mostly runners with their reflective gear and their panting breaths, but there were others like them, fresh faced in the pale lighting and he could see the breath of those who drew nearest them.

He felt he was going to come out of his skin, a clawing fear in his blood as he kept her close, as he scanned ever face and every alley with quick precision for anything that may have been a threat.

Oksana patted his hand with her own, and her fingers were warm in the chill of the air, drawing part of his attention. He didn’t look at her even though he inclined his head, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her voice was just as warm as her touch, and she spoke as if the time of day didn’t bother her, as if there was nothing to fear.

All these children wear their coats and hats like this is cold. We have seen cold, haven’t we?”

She spoke to him, she expected something from him, but there was no rush to her words, and she was patient while he found his.

We have .”

He didn’t remember her, but she knew him. He wondered if her hair had always been so wild, and if she had always been so small or if age had taken the strength from her bones. He didn’t know her, not really, but this small, loud old woman felt more familiar than the dream like faces of Steve and of his parents. He didn’t know her, but he knew her, recognized her in some way that spoke to something missing, something long gone.

We have. They are small, and sad, because they do not know true winter. But we do, so we know when to keep ourselves warm.”

They didn’t walk far, only two blocks from the doors of their building to the stout building she stopped them in front of, and her keys jangled for a moment before Oksana unlocked the door and let them in. The space around them was warm, a shop front with a glass display and a few small tables pushed to the far wall, with air that smelled like yeast and sugar and something that he knew in the back of his head.

Lock that .”

She released her hold on him and stomped away, leaving him to take care of the door while she went further into the shop. James secured the lock, tested the strength of it, and frowned harshly at what he found and what it lacked. He would replace that personally, just as he planned on replacing the simple lock and chain that secured his apartment. Behind him, Oksana had turned on lights in the room behind the counter, and he could hear metallic clanging sounds. She had left her cane by the door, tucked just in around the corner, and he stared at it for a moment before continuing into the light. A kitchen, gleaming metal and glass, but there was a warmth from the light and from the way she moved, a quiet singing under her voice as she pulled a fat tub from a cooler. It rattled on the counter when she dropped it there and as he watched she pulled a thin plastic cover from the top of it.

Come, change gloves. I will not have fabric in my food and it will stick to your metal hand.”

She nodded her head to a box of thin, latex gloves, and James hesitated to pull the warm cotton ones off before replacing them with the off white ones that he had been offered. Oksana took a large fistful from the tub and slapped it down in front of him, and James watched as the dough failed to spread out from the impact.

What is this?

Her smile was all teeth and violet lipstick, and Oksana seemed pleased with herself for reasons that he didn’t understand. She took station beside him though with her own slap of dough and he knew then from watching her move that no, she didn’t need the cane at all. She tapped her hip against his, and for some reason he swayed with it, felt another smile pull on his face that was just as small as the last.

We are going to make hvorost. They are popular, many customers like them, and then we are going to make pirog. There is a young woman that comes in who loves my pirog, and she has bruises, so we will make pirog special just for her.”

He watched as she used the sharp of her knuckles to stretch and press the dough, and James mimicked her actions as best he could. It seemed to be enough, because Oksana nodded, fixed the pressure he applied with the weight of her hands on the backs of his. As he watched, the dough spread beneath his ministrations, and when she began to instead pull at it with the meat of her palms he did the same, watched as the surface eventually smoothed out and turned thin. There were little sugar crystals all throughout, he could see them when they caught the light, and James found himself falling into the easy rhythm that she had given him.

You will like her. She is kind, sad, but she has good manners for an American.”

There was something calming about pressing and pulling the dough, a bone deep feeling that seemed to come from the very core of him, and James tipped his head to look at Oksana with her wild hair and her shrewd eyes.

“What is her name?

Darcy .”

He nodded, like that meant something, and the affection in her voice spoke volumes of how much it should. Her name meant little though, he had no face to apply to it, no opinion to give, but he would trust Oksana, for she knew the girl.

Silence took them for long enough that the dough was stretched, and it wasn’t until after she showed him how to cut and twist them that she spoke again.

Did you sleep well?

Had he?

He remembered his soft bed, and how long it had taken him to fall asleep that first time. The way he had woken again and again, but the warmth that had welcomed him back every time he had pulled the quilts back over his shoulders. Something had pulled him under every time though, the soft sound of laughter and the coarse texture of long, black curls, the smell of fire and the feeling of hands in his hair.

I think I had a dream.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve hadn’t spoken to her in over twenty-four hours.

The man who often struggled to go more than three hours without sending her a text or peeking his head into her office when he wasn’t on enforced radio silence, hadn’t so much as shown his face since he had stormed out of her apartment. She hadn’t heard the sound of his voice from around the corner, hadn’t seen his shadow or caught sight of his shoes, and if she hadn’t heard others talking about him, she would have thought he hadn’t come home yet, that their interaction had just been a feverish dream from too much medication.

There were a pair of shoes behind her front room that spoke to the contrary though, he had kicked them off before crawling into the quiet safety of her bed, and he had left them there after they had torn one another apart with vicious words and sharp teeth.

Over twenty-four hours without his favorite running shoes, and the vindictive part of her hoped that he missed them, hoped that he missed her . She was too old for such pettiness though no matter how much she wanted to fall into its tempting pull, she didn’t have the patience or the breath to deal with her own emotions most the time, and her heart felt like a bomb, steadily ticking down with every pump. She didn’t know when the number ended, didn’t know how long the countdown would last, but she knew it had started, could feel it in her bones.

Steve hadn’t even tried to talk to her in over twenty-four hours, and while the distance was what she wanted, she felt lonely without his wide smile and his pestering of if she was going to eat that, c’mon Darce, just a bite? She wasn’t used to being lonely anymore, not like this, and it was a cold feeling that sank deep beneath her skin.

Darcy had been given a new security detail, a Pepper Potts approved young woman with a shining black bob of hair and dark grey eyes who had introduced herself as Mesi with a smile and a firm handshake. She proved to be more companionable than Louis had certainly, but Darcy didn’t need a security detail, she needed to get out. The sky over her head and relatively fresh air within her lungs, but within the confines of the city, there was only so far she could run.

She would apologize later, but she slipped Mesi easily enough by subjecting them to a crowded elevator in the lobby only to duck back out the doors at the last moment on the fourth floor. A glance of Mesi’s thunderous face over her shoulder before the doors latched shut, and Darcy had darted to the stairs half way across the building, ignoring the two wells closest to her. Up two flights when she knew that her guard would expect her to go down, ducking into a semi-occupied bathroom and she had changed her shoes in the stall, flats a soft white rather than her glittering pink canvas shoes, and she wriggled out of her cosmic leggings behind the closed door and into a worn khaki skirt. The edges of her shirt tucked into it, the too long army print jacket she had borrowed from Clint went overtop the white cotton, and she had stayed in the stall for another twenty minutes before slipping out.

Hair down and her boxy black glasses switched out for her semi-frameless, round vintage pair and a slash of dusty pink on her lips, she looked different enough that her head was high when she slipped out of the bathroom. No Mesi in sight, and she took the lobby elevator, knew that they would expect her to take the back, and it was because of that that she slipped out on the busy sidewalk without incident.

Her skin wanted to crawl, but Darcy just secured her purse across her chest and set off toward the subway station at the Museum of Natural History, keeping up with the crowd with ease.

Steve didn’t want to talk to her, and that was fine, she didn’t need to talk to him. The less he saw of her, the less attached he became, the easier it would be when everything came crashing down. She could feel it in her chest, in the hollows between her ribs and the flowering grave where her heart beat its steady, wartime tempo, it wouldn’t be long now. Today possibly, or maybe tomorrow, perhaps not even for a week, a month, but she knew this feeling just as she knew what it meant.

Steve didn’t need to like her, Steve didn’t need to be her friend, not right now.

It would be easier for him when she died if he wasn’t.

Quick feet on the stairs for the subway, not a single sighting of Mesi or of any other face she recognized, and she passed her metrocard over the reader before the roar of the underground terminal overtook her. There were fewer people trying to board at this time of day than usual, and maybe it was the station, or maybe it was because of recent events and the way their world had shaken to its core not even a week ago, but she got into the car with minimal shoving. Darcy stayed near the door though, refused to sit and instead squared her shoulders and softened her knees, she rocked in place when the subway took off but she didn’t fall. A glance around the mostly loaded car before she pulled her phone from her purse, tapping across the screen to make it come alive, a few texts greeted her. A picture from Laura, Clint passed out in bed with a sleeping Cooper and Lila under either arm followed by a comment about how everything was good on the farm, Darcy saved the picture with a quiet laugh before flicking to the next message. Claire, more tech savvy than someone her age really had right to be, fast fingered and still typing based on the indication on the bottom of the screen, wanting to know what size sweater Darcy wore, of all things.

A smile on her pink painted mouth, and she spent the next hour texting the retired teacher about bust measurements, yarn colors and textures and knitting patterns with the knowledge that there was a luscious sweater soon to have her name on it and the agreement that yes, Darcy would come have dinner with her and Ben tomorrow. She didn’t know them, not really, not enough, but they were kind, and they filled the gap that had been present since her Nana passed and Papa Lewis got a temper while Parkinson's took over his hands. Furthermore, she didn’t think she had much choice in whether she knew them or not, not since she had been given a standing invitation to a brownstone in Greenpoint not even a week ago courtesy of the Laskoś’.

An automated voice above her chimed, and when the doors to the car opened, Darcy joined the throng of people that shuffled off into the station. A swarm of people to slip through but she danced between them, got to the escalator with minimal knocks from various elbows. She seemed to only just catch her breath when the escalator let her out onto the street, and there was the faint tang of salt in the air, under all the fumes and the rich smell of food.

And then the sky was above her, past the morning shade of the buildings all around, and it stretched for miles where she could see it. A soft, wounded pink and a bruised, pale early blue, the colors were as delicate as they were bright and she stood still for a moment beneath it. Out of the way of the station exodus, her head tipped back and her eyes shut and she breathed deep in the peace she forcibly carved for herself under the sprawling morning sky.

Brighton had come alive in the time it had taken her subway to get there, her mouth watering at the smell of food familiar from lifetimes ago and there was a comfort here that she couldn’t seem to ever find in Manhattan.

The footpath from the subway station to her destination had imprinted itself quickly with her sense of direction, and so she ducked around a corner with little hurry in her steps. She was safe here in a way that she hadn’t felt in the tower, and the decision to distance herself from its shadow came in part from Steve and the monster he had currently made of himself. She couldn’t go to the cafe with its lantern light air and its hazy atmosphere, he knew all too well where that destination lay and she didn’t feel like facing the search party he would call just because she had slipped her escort.

His anxiety was in part self inflicted, and while she knew just why he had taken to acting like he did, she couldn’t deal with him.

The impact of her feet on the pavement set a tune with the battlecry of her heart where it throbbed, and it would be easier this way. Steve wouldn’t care, not if she made him angry enough, and if she angered him enough, he would be one less person who mourned. There was only so much she could do, too many people she knew and too many lives she had touched even if she hadn’t meant to, and Darcy almost wasn’t sure where to start. Her father stood at the other side of a rickety bridge already, flanked by Matthias and Jackson, by Hale and Amelia and she loved them, but they were already both too close and so far out of reach that she wasn’t quite sure how to begin with them, but she had never been sure where they were concerned. Her friends though, Clint and Natasha with their guarded hearts and their silent fury and their gut driven call for vengeance, Bruce with his quiet companionship and his guilt, Thor with his everlasting knowing and his want to be better, to do better. She couldn’t stop Tony from caring, not when the man felt so fiercely about the people he considered family, and Jane would cry no matter what she did, especially in her pregnant state, but she might be able to spare Steve.

He had suffered enough, surely, but she would make him suffer a little more now if it meant it would be easier on him later.

If she made him hate her enough then maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t miss her when she was gone.

So Darcy had taken to Brighton, melded herself into the crowd where Steve would never think to look for her, and there was a soft, simple quiet in her head as she walked. She ached for the rolling sprawl of gentle Irish hills and crisp northern air, to be able to run with her bare feet in the dirt and sprawl across the soft grass like she once had. Laughter in her lungs, the swaying golden bulbs of dandelions framing her vision where she lay and rich brown eyes staring down at her, a freckled face home to a sweet mouthed grin and the touch of fingers against hers.

Four blocks from the station, closer to the water than the inner city section, and Darcy crossed a relatively quiet side street without having to wait for traffic. Somebody had resecured the sign since she had been here a few days ago, and she wondered quietly if Oksana had pestered the poor boy who lived above her up a ladder or if she had strong armed someone else. There were a few people inside, the usual crowd given the time of day, and it wouldn’t be for a few more hours that the noon rush picked up and all of the best things sold out until later in the evening when the second batch came out.

For now though, there were only a handful of people within, stationed at the various tables or leaving with bags, and she caught the door before it closed after a young mother and her preteen no doubt on their way to school after breakfast. The air smelled sweet, warm against her skin and in her lungs and she sighed again, let the door rattle shut behind her.

A small figure peeked out from the kitchen before she could even fully approach the counter, and Darcy couldn’t help her smile at the sight of the other woman. Oksana seemed just as delighted, hurried over around the counter and held out her arms, heavily accented words tumbling quickly from her painted mouth.

“Darcy! Come, come, hug me now, I have not seen you in many days.”

She was warm, Oksana was always warm, from the heat of her ovens and from the way she seemed to burn from the inside, and Darcy sank into the embrace as the older woman squeezed her tight. She smelled like pressed flowers, soft and subtle beneath the bright pull of hot sugar and yeast, and there was laughter in the air when Oksana turned her head and smeared a kiss across her pale cheek.

A feeling of home overcame her, and she gave her hands willingly when Oksana reached for them for inspection. Unpolished nails, and the older woman clicked her tongue as if in disapproval before pulling her forward with gentle, unquestioned demand in her motions. She didn’t know if it was that she didn’t have it in her to say no, or if she simply wanted to follow, but it was habitual to follow the woman across the room, to let herself be bullied into a soft chair and her bag taken from her.

Fingers on her jaw then, but where she had fought Steve, Darcy instead tipped her chin, let Oksana have her moment of poking and prodding just as she always did. The touch of her fingers was fleeting, careful, and Darcy opened eyes that she hadn’t felt shut when the other gave a hum. The set of her mouth was unhappy, but the dark brown of her eyes were kind, and it was with loving fingers that her hair was brushed back from her face, a curl tucked behind her ear.

“You look better. Less color. You have taken care?” An indication to her throat and she nodded, received a pat on the cheek for her troubles. Oksana took the seat across from her then, left the one against the wall empty, and Darcy smiled. “Good. I have new friend, James. Sweet boy, he is shy. We made you pirog special, did them himself, you will like him.”

She had liked every person Oksana introduced her to, from the easily flustered Artyom that spent his time after his lectures working in the kitchen to her tired daughter Taisia, her sons Nikita and Ruslan, her grandchildren Emma and Julia, Marcus and Taras. Her smile was wicked though, and Darcy leaned forward with a giggle on her breath just to watch better the expression that the other made.

“Is he a pretty friend?”

Just as she had hoped, Oksana grinned, her slender body shaking as she laughed.

“All of my friends are pretty!”

Pleased with herself, the tremble in her bones felt less, the ache in her heart didn’t hurt quite as much, and she watched as Oksana turned her head to call back into the kitchen with a slew of Russian that she shouldn’t have understood.

James! James, you can’t hide in my kitchen! Bring the pirog, come sit!

Her laughter was barely contained, and a quiet sound from her phone had her head dipping down, fingers delving into her purse to find it. It wasn’t anything to fear though, wasn’t Steve with his anger and his disapproval or her siblings pestering her to remind her that her birthday stood only four days away, and wouldn’t she come home? Instead it was Tony, quick fingered texting like he had been occupied but wanted to talk, and she sank a little in her chair, smiled at her phone.

I hear the sidewalks in Brighton are horrible.

I wouldn’t know .

Cool. I won’t tell Captain Tightass. Eat some borscht for me.

You hate beets.

“Work?”

A shake of her head, and the chair against the wall pulled out, but she turned her gaze to Oksana as her phone found its home back in her purse. The woman looked pleased with herself, but Darcy had never known her to not be pleased with herself, and the familiarity was a comfort.

“No, just a friend.”

A nod, like that was all she needed, and that seemed to be the end of it as far as Oksana was concerned.

“Good. You need friends. Like James, he made pirog for you. Quark with blueberry and honey. He does not like honey.”

They looked a little misshapen from the ones she knew to come from Oksana’s hand, a heavy knead to the dough, but they were golden. Dusted with sugar and a little finger dented, but they smelled divine all the same. A simple plate in the middle of the table, stacked with twelve fist sized pirog , more than she could hope to eat on her own, but the companionship offered with them held the smile on her face.

“I like honey.”

She knew that voice .

That was her heart wasn’t it, thundering like that? It was though, it was, she knew damn well it was, threatening to beat right out of her chest to expose her for the bleeding, bruised mess that she really was. A rush of sound, drum like and beating and it was all she could hear, all she could feel. She could feel the thrum of it on her skin and in her bones, and there was a twisted, gnarled knot of wet and tight within her throat that made it impossible to breathe. Her head swam with the syrupy, smog thick haze of both too much and not enough all at once, and this was it, this was the start of the end.

Her hands fisted together over her mouth, and past fingers locked together in an attempt to stifle the shaking that had taken her entire being as its host, she was sobbing. Darcy could hear herself, wet and muffled but wounded all the same, and she couldn’t seem to stop it. Tears cut paths from her lashes, down her cheeks where they dripped over and between her fingers and breathing was a difficult, strange concept. There were arms around her, warm and thin and holding, a hand in her hair while her head was pressed to someone's chest.

She knew that voice, knew the echo of it and the way that it pulled at the strings of her soul and set fire to the marrow of her bones. He sounded like Brooklyn, he sounded like long nights under the stars and hot days with bare feet in cool water, like laughter and longing and pain all at once. He sounded like home, and she hadn’t had one of those in so long, but there was a fear now as much as there was a pound of want and relief. Because she had him now, she had him and she knew him and she wasn’t alone, but for all her rain clouds and her quiet rioting, she didn’t want to die.

Breathe little one, you are safe here. Oksana is here, the man can’t get you here, he can’t get you ever again. You are safe, you can cry, Darcy. You are safe, you can cry.”

Oksana held her, and she shouldn’t understand what the woman said, she shouldn’t know those words and she shouldn’t need them, but she knew them and she did. Louis wasn’t the problem, her sudden sobbing hadn’t come as a byproduct of her trauma, not this trauma at least. She was so tired, but she wanted to hold his hand, she wanted to kiss his face and feel his skin against hers and have the warmth of his breathing against her throat.

Instead, Oksana held her, had stood up at some point and pressed Darcy to her chest, rocked them in place as best she could with a surprising amount of strength.

It took long enough to even begin to compose herself that she couldn’t be bothered to feel embarrassed, too tired and worn thing, strung out until every piece of her ached with an ethereal, everlasting burn. A sweeping kiss was pressed to her hair, and she rubbed at her eyes, swept her fingers beneath them to try and chase her tears. Something under control at least, some semblance of her breathing belonged to her again, but her heart wouldn’t stop its racing, beating away like it was about to break.

“Sorry, I-”

“No, you do not apologize to me, milaya .

Oksana squeezed her once more, fierce where she held tight just like Darcy needed, as if to seam her bones back together, and then the women gave another touch to her hair before releasing her, before taking her seat.

Beside them, the man had gone quiet, James hadn’t said a word, but she could practically feel the tension that had taken his body where he sat. The cold, coiled near-panic, and she wondered if he knew, if he knew her , but he hadn’t reached for her, hadn’t spoken apart from that first quiet rumble. She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to know, but she had never been a coward. For as selfish as she had always been, Darcy had never known herself to lay down in the face of her own fear, and even though it clawed at her, even though it ate at her insides and ached, she didn’t have plans to start now.

A deep breath, wavering, but it didn’t seem to matter when she saw him, because there it went again, and her lungs felt empty, her head felt light.

He looked just as scared as she felt, wide eyes the color of a summer sky just before the lightning cracked in a storm and dark, almost black hair. It had been pulled back, a little ponytail with a purple tie that spoke of Oksana’s hands and a few pieces of it framed his face. Full mouthed, tight featured, he looked terrified, looked ready to come out of his skin. She could see it in the tension around his eyes, recognized it for the set of his mouth and of his shoulders.

He was afraid of her .

Tentative, trembling, Darcy gave him a smile, small and soft and sweet, and she kept her hands to herself in that moment even though she wanted to reach out to him.

“Sorry, I’m okay, I just-” I’ve been waiting my entire life for you, I’ve known you for as long as I’ve known myself. I think I might die without you, I know I’m going to die because of you. You don’t even know me, do you? “It’s been a really long week. I didn’t mean to cry on you like that, I don’t normally do...I’m usually better at this? Hi, I’m Darcy.”

Patience was necessary it seemed, because she kept her voice soft despite the way she shook, kept her expression open and light. And he smiled at her, after some long, arching moment had passed and she had grown weary of holding her breath, and it was both everything she had been waiting for and heartbreaking all at once. He was beautiful when he smiled, shy and unsure of himself like he hadn’t in a while, and she wanted to hold him.

His head tipped down, gaze on the table like he couldn’t quite look at her, and she hurt for him and for the ghosts of an old pain she could see on his skin. He still smiled though, and it was only a few beats of her heart before he looked at her again, through his lashes with that small smile that she wanted to kiss.

“James. It’s...it’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

Chapter Text

I’m Darcy.

Darcy, a simple name, two syllables, easy enough to say with a hard d and a hard r followed by the soft ee sound, and such was fitting. She was soft edges, soft lips, soft hair, but there was something hard to her eyes, to the bite of her teeth and the curl of her tongue when she spoke. She smiled at him though, delicate and sweet and sharp, dusty rose painted lips curving in a slow dip, she made it look easy. She smiled at him like he deserved it, like she should, and though he found himself smiling back, he had to look away.

Even with her eyes red rimmed and her pale cheeks flushed, she was beautiful. The sloping curve of her nose, the point of her chin and the heavy set of her eyes, she was a picture, a dream. Her soft, dark curls and the unmistakable figure that he could see even where she sat in a baggy military jacket, the delicate bones of her wrists and her slender fingers, he wished he had Steve then, wished he could share the sight of her. She would look best on charcoal, crisp outlines and shaded inbetweens, or maybe watercolor, with her edges done in ink and the rest of her made from the bleeding colors that suited her best. The spring sky blue of her eyes, the porcelain pink hue to her skin, she was a gem even with the faintest of shadows beneath her eyes.

He wasn’t good enough for Steve though, wasn’t the man Steve would want him to be, couldn’t be the brother that the other man had known. James didn’t know if he could ever go back to that, wasn’t sure if he could smile like that, laugh like that, and Steve deserved better than that. He didn’t need a hollow half-shell of the brother he had once had, didn’t need the reminder of his failures and of those who had fallen behind.

He looked up at her through his lashes, and couldn’t contain his smile when he saw that she watched him still. Like she hadn’t looked away, like he deserved to be watched with that spring sky, shimmering gaze. It was a heady feeling, to have her watching him, and he didn’t really know why, but he felt whole beneath her stare.

“James. It’s...it’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

James wasn’t suited for people like Steve, not anymore, but maybe...maybe he could be good enough for Darcy, with her smile and her eyes and the way she had let herself fall apart in public like she didn't care, like it didn't matter.

She was fierce, something in the set of her shoulders and the way that she held herself, the angle of her chin and the cut of her eyes even though she was kind, precious and perfect.

She was perfect, and he watched as her smile bloomed further, displayed the sharp of her teeth and the pink of her tongue and he wanted to touch her. He wanted to brush her hair away from her face, he wanted to tuck a thick curl behind her ear and feel the kiss of her sooty lashes against his fingertips.

There was a soft wash of pink to her cheeks, spreading to her throat the longer he looked at her, and he was the cause of that. He had given her that flush, he had caused that smile, and it was-had he ever felt like this? He had been smooth once, hadn't he? Debonair, good with women, good with people, easy smiles and quick charm, better than he was now. He felt like a shell, half of what he should be and an echo of what he had once been, but she didn't seem to mind.

Darcy smiled at him like he deserved it, like she should, and James wanted.

Her gaze fell then, to the table, to the food he had clumsily made with his hands too rough and his movements unsure, but she smiled at them. Slim fingers and she picked one of them up off the pile like she wanted to eat it, and she tossed her hair over her shoulder before taking a bite, before her head tipped back, before her eyes closed and she gave a quiet, pleased hum.

There were fingerprints on her throat, faded just enough that they weren’t quite the dark color that came from pooled, dead blood, but they were stark against her skin all the same. Faint, thin scabs from where nails had broken the skin, the heavy, wide mark from the meat of a palm against her trachea, someone had choked her. The angle of the fingers showed that her head had been forced back, her attacker taller than her, larger too no doubt, and though she seemed to wear them with a quiet pride, her crying made more sense.

Someone had attacked her, had injured her, and James felt a hot, acid bright flare drop into his stomach. Beneath the table, his fists clenched, fingers curling in until the thin latex was the only barrier between his own nails and palms, but he could feel the bite even still. She smiled at him like he deserved it, sweet and slow and soft, but someone had hurt her, this sweet eyed woman. He wanted to touch her, wanted to press her hair from her face and sooth the bruises on her skin, but he couldn’t even find his own tongue, let alone an excuse to touch her.

There was blood on his hands, stained into his skin and his bones, and even with the gloves he wore he didn't want to run the risk of hurting her still, of adding more blood to her pale flesh.

“These are really good.”

Praise from her pretty mouth, and he watched her with wide eyes, watched as she licked her lips and took another bite like she couldn’t really help herself. She enjoyed them, more than he thought she would, and James held his breath as he watched her, as she chewed and chewed before her eyes found his. She smiled again, her lips pressed together and her cheeks full and he couldn’t not smile back at her.

She was infectious, from her smile to the way that her heavy eyes narrowed further still and he couldn’t...he just couldn’t not .

Mouth full, her face expectant, she nudged the plate toward him, like she wanted to share , like she should share. He could see Oksana smiling from the corner of his eye, just as pleased with herself as she had been when she had somehow convinced him to walk her to work. He took one of the pirog though, clutched it with his gloved hand and watched as Darcy smiled at him still, and under her gaze, he took a bite.

His own surprise was impossible to conceal, his eyes widening and his gaze dropping to the flaky treat that he held, staring at the curdled cream and blueberry filling that he had stuffed inside. It was good, it was food, something that tasted buttery and light on his tongue, just a little sweet and just a little sour and bitter from the berries, and it was good . He took another bite, having barely swallowed the first, and there must have been something on his face or in his expression because she laughed.

A laugh, a burst of sound, airy and light, bubbling quick and stuttering from between her lips like she couldn’t help herself. He had made her laugh, he had done that, had done something right enough that she laughed like that, that she smiled like that. So he smiled back, and it was only after that he questioned himself, that he doubted. James watched as she dropped her pirog to the table, as Darcy leaned back in her chair with another bright, airy laugh and a lifted hand that just barely covered her mouth.

He didn’t understand, and his smile dimmed, because for as pretty as her laugh was, and as beautiful as she was when she smiled like that, he wasn’t sure what he had done to cause such a reaction. Beside him, Oksana hadn’t tried to eat, and instead she watched them, that smile on her face that he had come to recognize. She pushed her chair back and motioned to her mouth with one hand as she stood.

“You have blueberry in your teeth.”

And she left them like that, walked away with a steady gait and no, she didn’t need that cane at all.

James felt himself flush, and he set the pirog back on the plate, tried to duck his hands beneath the table once more. Darcy had another idea, because that was her hand, slender fingers and long nails, and she laid it over top of his like touching him was something she didn’t have to think about. Like he deserved to be touched, like she should touch him, like she didn’t need to worry about the blood that might stain her skin, the blood that might seep into her bones and ruin her the way it had ruined him.

He could only stare at her, a slow building tension in his shoulders, a coiling in his chest and a clench of something tight and straining around his heart. Her hand was so small against his, but she laid their fingers together like the latex of the glove didn’t bother her, like the rigid way he held himself didn’t scare her.

Like he didn’t scare her.

There was something building in his head, a pressure, a heat, something burning and wet, pounding and visceral and he couldn’t recognize it, didn’t know what to call it. There was something there though, something just out of reach, something missing, something aching and yawning, a pulling in his gut and a hollow feeling in his blood. Something missing, something lost, just out of his grasp but he didn’t even know where to begin.

She smiled though, wide and painted and sweet, and her eyes were kind while her fingers curled against his. A fleeting pat, quick, but that touch was everything, her smile was everything.

James had the horrified, mystified, growing feeling that Darcy was everything.

“I didn’t mean to laugh, I’m sorry just, there were berry skins in your teeth, and I probably have berry skins in my teeth? But,” She cleared her throat, and that curl fell forward again, slipped across her cheek and over her shoulder, but Darcy hadn’t stopped smiling at him even as she shrugged. “ But , you should smile more. You have a nice smile.”

She thought he had a nice smile .

He didn’t remember the last time anything about him had been nice, not the things he did, not his personality, certainly not his smile.

“You have pretty eyes.”

His voice was rough, but that was...that was his voice. That was his voice, those were his words, and he couldn’t catch them, couldn’t take them back, out in the air and open and alive as they were. Her painted mouth fell open, and there were berry skins in her teeth, but she turned a pretty, glowing pink that spread to her throat and beneath the neck of her white cotton shirt. Nervous, hands to himself and beneath the table, he pulled at his gloves, the latex snapping against his wrists, and he pulled at the one on the right until his skin his air and his fingers curled, free.

Darcy laughed though, a delighted, breathless sound, and he didn’t have it in himself then to be embarrassed.

Instead, James leaned forward, reached out with a hand that was more steady than he felt. Her hair was soft, that single curl caught between his forefinger and thumb, but he took care to tuck it back behind her ear. His fingertips trailed across her cheek, and sweet Mother Mary, but she leaned into him. There was a catch in her breathing, the light of something in her eyes, but he felt the shift in her weight, felt the way that he could cup her cheek and sweep his thumb across her skin.

Darcy leaned into his touch though, Darcy smiled at him, and he felt like he could breathe again.

-

She had left after hours of talking to him, hours of sitting beside him with that smile on her face and laughter in her voice. She had had to leave him though, an apologetic look on her face and something anxious taking root in her shoulders. She had pulled a device from her purse, muttered a complaint about her phone, and those spring sky eyes had found him again with a furrow between her brow. She had excused herself, hadn’t looked happy to have to leave him in the slightest, and he had watched her hesitate. A pen pulled from her purse then, and she had taken his hand again, she had set his body on fire with the touch of her fingers, and Darcy had had printed down her number in crisp, neat letters across the hollow of his palm.

She had left though, had had to collect her bag and had taken the pirog with her in a separate bag at his insistence, and she had flushed a pretty, pretty pink when his mouth had gotten away from him, when he had asked if he could see her again. She had grinned though, wide and full of teeth and pink lips and had told him to text her, like he knew what the fuck texting was.

He had asked Oksana, back in the safety of the kitchen where he had hidden himself away again after she had gone, and the woman had laughed at him. She had laughed and laughed with her crackling, booming laugh, and the young man who had introduced himself as Artyom had looked up from where he made pastila across the kitchen with a horrified expression on his face. Oksana had patted his chest though, personal space beyond her, and told him they they would sort it out in a moment.

Artyom had right to look horrified, because Oksana had announced that they were leaving not ten minutes later, once she had shown him how to clean their counter and properly store the dough they had made so that it could rise for the next day. The young man had looked almost ill when he had been told he would be left to finish for the day with the rest of the afternoon staff, his bottle cap glasses slipping down his nose and his body heaving with a sigh like some great weight had been placed upon him, and then Oksana had taken her purse and her cane and stuffed her freshly washed hand in the fold of his elbow, and James had been ushered out the back door.

Come, we’ll get you a phone. I know a young man, good boy, doesn’t ask questions.”

James had quickly come to the overwhelmed conclusion that Oksana knew everybody.

An hour later, a phone joined the weight of his key in his pocket, not only paid for but the plan covered for a year with the amount of cash that he had pressed to the stout, thick muscled young man named Gavriil that had smiled with a few silver coated teeth at Oksana when she asked how his mother was. No questions had been asked, the other man had eyed him for a moment before counting out the money and nodding before showing him how to work the phone with a gentle voice that contradicted his appearance. Another thirty and James had found himself in the elevator to the fifth floor of their apartment building, Oksana beside him, and she had pulled him into her apartment rather than his.

Boots off.”

A quiet huff, looking across the hallway to his own locked door, and he could hear her puttering around in her kitchen. The rush of water, the clatter of the teapot, the click of the stove, there was a tune on her breath and her sensible shoes had been quickly nudged off and slid into the little shoe rack beside the door. His bones felt tired, his chest hurt, and there was an empty in his belly accompanied by the sudden empty in his heart, and James looked up at the sound of his name.

“Go get Cake and come sit. I will make dinner.”

“You don’t like cats.”

“Cake is not a cat, she is your child. Go get your child and come sit, I’m hungry.”

A small smile on his lips, but bare footed he did as she had told him, slipped across the hall and unlocked his door with a quiet click.

Sunlight streamed in full force from the windows, leaving patterns of light across his wooden floors. It looked warm, inviting, and he wanted to lay there, wanted to gather the sunlight against his skin and hold it to his heart until the strange hollow that had started to settle in went away. The small patter of feet on the floor, an inquisitive sound, and bright eyes peered around the corner. A pleased meow and then she was before him, her little paws stretching up to his knees like she had missed him just as he had missed her. It was with careful fingers that James lifted her, caught under her arms until he could lay her against his front, and Cake made herself comfortable by stretching the length of him. Her paws rested on his shoulder, she seemed to find a hobby with rubbing her head against his throat and licking his jaw with her rasp of a tongue.

He stood there for a long while, barefooted in the edge of the sun warmed wood and feeling raw. His cat in his arms, his friend across the hall, he turned his head so that he could press his face into the warmth of Cake’s fur and took a slow, rattling breath. The safety of this room had been needed, the security of something that loved him unconditionally despite his shortcomings required, and his chest ached and ached and ached until he released his breath and took another.

Cake made a curious sound, twisting until she could press her forehead to his mouth, and he gave her the kiss she wanted, cradled her close as he locked the door and let himself back into Oksana’s home.

“Good, good. Come, lock the door and come sit. You have had a long day.”

Swallowing thickly, James did as she instructed, latched the door and sat in the same chair he had sat in the previous night. In the time he had been gone Oksana had set two mugs of tea on the table, and had stuffed her bare feet into the soft of her slippers. A tupperware sat on the counter, empty with the lid off, and she had put a pot on the stove. A tall cardboard carton of beef stock, an array of little glass jars of spices, the air smelled like pepper, like cinnamon and chilies and rich beef fat, and she waggled a wooden spoon at him over her shoulder.

“Text Darcy. Gavriil showed you how.

Like it was that easy.

His fingers felt clumsy on the smooth surface, and he had feared that the cold metal wouldn’t respond the the touch screen device that he had purchased, but it seemed that the vibranium held enough electricity and heat within it that it registered. The menu was bland, a home screen of a falling feather done in pinks and purples and white, and he frowned at it before tapping the little button that looked like a letter. Her number had already been added, punched in for him by the ever patient Gavriil, and James carefully typed in her name in the little address box before the phone filled in the rest with her number.

“What do I say?”

Another chuff of laughter, and Oksana turned enough to look at him then. She had wiped her lipstick off, her mouth stained a faint red in its wake, but the bright purple that he had grown used to was nowhere to be found. She waved the spoon at him again and he could see the spices on it, coated thick like she had left the spoon in the pot when she spiced the stock.

“Your name? How you had a good day, how you think she is the prettiest woman you have ever met. If you are polite, maybe she will have your babies. Darcy is a good girl like that, practical.”

His own laugh was a barking sound, punched from his chest and loud in the colorful space of her home, unexpected. He could feel the leftover flutter of it in his chest though, the rush of it in his lungs, and James couldn’t not smile. That seemed to be what she had wanted, for Oksana turned back to the stove, another song on her breath that he couldn’t quite hear, but the tune was soothing all the same.

He smiled still when his gaze dropped back to the phone, almost obscured by the way Cake had curled up and gone flat in his lap like she owned it. He paused to pet her, fingers curling beneath her little chin, and she stretched her head out into his touch, her eyes shutting and her tail twitching.

How is this supposed to help me see you again?

“Do you want more dumplings, or more soup?”

Brow furrowing, he looked up to where Oksana stood before the stove, a large soup bowl in one hand a green ladle in the other.

“Dumplings?”

A cheerful chiming sound came from his phone, and the screen was alive when he looked back down to it. A single number hovered over the little letter symbol, and he clicked on it with his thumb.

Well, you could always ask?

Can I see your face again, doll?

It was easier like this, the barrier between them made talking seem less daunting, she was just as pretty, just as perfect, but it felt less like a danger, less like a threat. The great Winter Soldier, scared of a girl.

A little swirling circle in place of a message, something about loading, and as he watched, a picture came on the screen. Her face, her hair swept up onto the top of her head and her jacket gone, the change made her look small. She smiled at him though, sweet and wide with a hint of her teeth on her lower lip and he couldn’t not smile back. She couldn’t see him, didn’t know, and she was a stranger, but she was beautiful and she was kind like he deserved such things.

A bowl clattered down onto the table in front of him, dark broth full of round little dumplings, a spoon sunken into it. It smelled heavenly, rich and spiced, and he was going to eat the entire bowl unless she stopped him. The way Oksana looked at him though, her own bowl in front of her across the table, that might have been the point.

You’re beautiful .

Chapter Text

He had called her beautiful like he meant it, like it was a statement rather than a compliment. Something she should know, something that should be known, like he hadn’t known anything else to tell her. He had found her beautiful, therefore she should know, honest like it was as easy as breathing, and she wasn’t used to that sort of honesty, not in this life at least. This time around, men tended to expect things of her, if not for her body than for her face and their affections were shallow, hollow, something she had learned quickly in life.

James though, James just said it like nothing, told her she was beautiful like it was just as obvious as the sun, and she hadn’t been so charmed in a few lives certainly.

Getting back into the tower had been just as easy as getting out. A milling of people in the lobby, no more or less than the usual given the time of day, and six pm showed itself to be just as irritating as ever when it came to the foot traffic in Manhattan. She bolstered her way forward though, squared shoulders and a lightness to her step that hadn’t been there before, pushed her way to the front of the crowd with an artful bit of weaving. The elevator chimed open, she and a few people boarded and the lift took off. A flutter in her chest, a thrumming in her blood, it took three different stops and an otherwise empty car before Darcy realized she was alone with-

“Your file says you have no training.”

Mesi.

“I don't.”

Mesi with her olive complexion and her almond shaped eyes, a carefully flat expression on her strong featured face. She hadn’t quite reached Natasha’s level of training, Darcy could see the control it took, like her calm wasn’t really in her nature. There were calluses on her hands, something she had noticed early, just what had the woman been assigned to before being pulled for a civilian sitting job?

Maybe not something necessarily deep or dirty like Clint had been buried in, but there were the faintest of shadows under her mist pale eyes, demons there that Darcy recognized even if she didn’t know.

The other woman nodded though, her bob swaying just enough to dance around her jaw, and yet she stared still.

“Is there a problem?”

There was sunlight in her chest and a summertime river in her blood, elation and relief and a soft, cotton comfort that seeped itself deep into her bones. She wanted to smile, she wanted to sing, laugh like she wanted and dance with bare feet and feel the sun on her skin, but there was no sunlight in the tower, not like she craved, and it was impractical to have bare feet in the elevator. Unhygienic, and that was something she was supposed to care about, the modern world so concerned with being clean that they made themselves sick with it.

Mesi blinked at her, slow and calculating, but there was a question there, an assessment that she could watch unfold. No, no she wasn’t as good as Natasha, too early in her training, but the other woman was easily just as unassuming. And she smiled, small and dimpled, and gave a shrug like that answered the question.

Darcy didn’t want to talk , she wanted to go back to her phone, the quiet buzzing that she could hear happening from inside her purse. His conversation felt stilted at times, like he wasn’t quite sure what to say, but James was-

James was...

He was , and she wanted to cry.

“I’m supposed to protect you, but I’ve got the feeling you don’t really need a bodyguard. You killed your last one, even in self defense, and you slipped me just fine. So why don’t we do training instead? I’ll teach you how to fight, and I’ll give you your privacy once I’m certain you can defend yourself.”

It was a better compromise than she had expected.

Steve would have a fit over it, but she would take what she could get.

“Think we can be friends?”

She could cut somebody with those dimples, and Mesi looked younger when she grinned like that, small and sweet.

“I think we already are. Asking because I have to, Captain wanted a report when we found you. In for the night?”

Of course Steve wanted to know. Steve thought it was his right, Steve had the audacity to want to know but didn’t care to ask himself, had turned tail and run. She had chased him away herself, had screamed and sobbed and he had gone, gone like she knew he would, gone like she had hoped. It was better this way, the more distance between them, the less it would hurt. The more he hated her, the less he would cry.

“I’m going to see Dr Foster up on eighty-four, probably spend a few hours there before I go to my apartment, but yeah. I’m in for the night as far as I know.”

Another nod, another soft swish of her hair, and Mesi stepped out of the elevator when the doors quietly open.

“Have a good night then, Darcy. We’ll figure out a training schedule later this week.”

A small wave and the doors were shut.

And she was alone.

Alone and able to think, able to let her knees give out so that she slid down the cool metal wall to sit on the chilled marble floor. Her heart raced just as it had since he had spoken to her, and there was another buzz from her phone in her purse. Trembling fingers and dry lips, she reached for it, pulled it out with a pinch of her fingers and caught it against her palm. A tap and a swipe of her thumb and the screen came to life, and a strangled sound pulled from her throat.

Another picture, she’d gotten quite a few of those since the one of her grinning on the subway, and every single one made her smile. She had saved every one, intended to keep them with an ache in her chest and a burning need in her head. She had only just met him, had only just left him, but the space between them felt like a festering wound, a lonely abyss that stretched and threatened to devour her.

Had it been better to just not have him at all?

No, no it hadn’t, she couldn’t think that, not looking at his face.

A little startled, like he hadn’t been prepared, his gaze focused instead on the creature that had decided to intrude on yet another selfie. A cat, pretty from the shape of its ears and the color of its long fur, affectionate by the way it had climbed up his chest enough cover his mouth. It had pushed its head there, a forceful kind of forehead kiss and James looked surprised, but he looked happy .

Darcy didn’t remember the last life that she had seen him look quite that happy.

A giggle on her breath, laughter, quiet and airy. It built though, took the breath from her lungs and set a bubbling in her chest, and soon, soon it felt like it took everything. Her body hurt, her head swam, and she was no longer laughing, was she? Those were tears, dripping down her face for the second time today, those were sobs breaking from between her teeth and lips that she couldn’t contain.

He looked so fucking happy.

He was happy, and she loved him, and he had no idea.

He didn’t know her affections, he didn’t know her, and worse still, no doubt the hardest part was that he didn’t know . She at least had always known, had spent her childhood lonely and in love and searching just as she was scared, but there was no recognition in his stormcloud eyes, no name upon his lips from a life long past. She loved him, and she would lose him, he was going to be the death of her, and Darcy couldn’t not cry.

At some point, the elevator had stopped, but Jarvis, bless him, hadn’t opened the doors. She was left by herself to cry, to sob in the cool metal and stone confines of the elevator car, and there was nothing but the sound of her own frustration and Jarvis to know her shame. She wasn’t sure how much time passed like that, with her face in her hands and her knees pulled up tight. Her phone discarded, her purse near her foot, she gave a muffled wail, she let herself wallow for a long few minutes.

It was only once she had fallen silent and taken a series of fluttering breaths that another voice joined her.

“Darcy, if I may be so bold, Captain Rogers is in his quarters on the eighty-first floor.”

“No, no, no Steve. I don’t need to-” She cleared her throat, took another breath, and Darcy shut her eyes for a beat before taking up first her phone, then her purse. His face still looked back at her, just as startled and just as sweet, and it was with a steel in her spine that she saved the picture just as she had the previous ones. Unable to help herself, she set it as her lock screen, smiled at the sight of his face and hoisted herself to her feet. “Janes floor Jarvis, please.”

“Of course, Darcy.”

The elevator moved then, she could feel the faint hum of it beneath her feet, and she scrubbed her free hand beneath her eyes, glasses pushed up to her forehead. Her face felt hot, from both her tears and the way that her skin always flushed when she cried, and Darcy leaned back against the cool wall. The wonders of Jarvis, no questions ever asked, no expectations ever made, she could count on him without fail to agree to most of her requests and ideas, even if they were bad ones.

There would be no saving the puffy red state of her eyes, but Jane wouldn’t care, Jane wouldn’t ask questions that she didn’t want to answer.

She stumbled out of the elevator and down the hall, past the empty of Clint’s home away from home and the two other unoccupied apartments that separated them before rapping on Janes door. A quiet click and it swung open beneath her touch, and with a quiet thanks to Jarvis, she toed off her shoes.

Thor was nowhere in sight, but she could see Jane’s feet from the door, hanging off over the arm of the couch and her ankles swollen. Faint lines from where she had been wearing shoes for a few hours, impressions from where they had pressed into her feet, and Darcy leaned over the back of the couch when she drew close enough. Eyes open, brow furrowed, there was a book on her chest, and Jane continued to stare at the ceiling for a moment before her attention turned to Darcy.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

Ambling around the side of the couch, she lifted Jane’s legs and settled down on the couch, the other womans feet in her lap. Cold fingers, her circulation had been poor since that winter in Romania, but she took to the familiar task of massaging Jane’s ankles and the arches of her feet. A groan, a sigh, and as she watched, her friend seemed to melt into the couch until Darcy couldn’t see Jane’s face past the bloated swell of her belly.

“Yeah?”

Another groan, and there was a hand, flinging the book to the floor like it had done something offensive, and Darcy couldn’t help her snort of laughter. She couldn’t see Jane’s face, but there was no mistaking her tone or the sharp, cutting motions her hands made where they swayed in the air. She smelled like too clean air, like the faint crackle of electricity, and there was a collection of static that had taken root in her hair, what parts of it Darcy could see anyway.

“You don't understand, you’re not pregnant right now. I am pregnant and I don’t understand. I’m hungry, I’m really, really hungry Dee, but nothing sounds good, and all I do is vomit. And my feet hurt, so working is hard, how am I supposed to do calculations when my feet hurt? They swell, and then I can’t get my shoes off, but I can’t go barefoot in the labs, that’s the kind of thing you yell at Tony for. So I can only work like, two hours at a time and then I have to sit down, or I have to pee, and by the time I come back my numbers are wrong, the data’s changed. How am I supposed to keep up with my work if I can’t even stand to actually do my work?”

Humming, soothing her fingers across Jane’s feet, Darcy kicked her own up on the coffee table across from them. Terrible manners, and she knew better, but she was just tired enough, and had given up just enough for the day. So her body slouched, and she nodded at the appropriate times even though Jane couldn’t see her face because it was the thought that counted.

“Did you breathe at all just now?”

Darcy Marie .”

There was a difference in the way that Amelia said her name versus how Jane said her name. A lack of accusation, of obligatory shame, of the sudden flash feeling that she had done something horrifically wrong. Instead, where she had grown accustomed to a pandering tone, an expectant sigh, Jane just groaned. Exasperation, confusion, embarrassment, Jane groaned often and with varying inflections based on just what emotion she displayed, but there was a difference that she welcomed, that she enjoyed.

She grinned, managed to laugh without crying this time, and Darcy held her hands up in surrender.

You put those fingers back right now .”

Another laugh, a cackle, and she put her cool fingers back to work on Jane’s other foot with a grin.

“We can get you a chair you know. Bruce has an aversion to them because he says they’re bad for your posture, but I can get you a great wheely chair. Also, peppermint has always helped? I remember I used to chew the leaves the few times we managed to conceive, it calmed my stomach.”

A quiet sound of agreement, and the silence that took them was soft, comfortable. One handed, she tapped out a message that she had gotten home safe after having previously received eight different texts about how he didn’t think she should have to spend that long on the train just to get home. There were pirog in her purse, a whole bag of them, as well as the clothes that she had changed out of before slipping from the tower, but both were out of reach near the door.

Jane sat up abruptly, as well as she could given her condition, and Darcy watched as the wisp of a woman propped herself up on her forearms. Her hair had staticed high, a dangerous frizz that would need brushed at some point, a task that she would honestly leave for Thor unless asked otherwise.

“What?”

Jane’s eyes narrowed, gaze sharp and her expression intense and Darcy blinked at her with a wide gaze and lifted brows. Slowly, hands rising in another form of surrender, the motion ceased when Jane kicked a foot, and she went back to massaging even as she leaned back into the arm of the couch. As if that would distance them any, like she needed to distance herself at all.

“There’s mascara tear lines on your cheeks.”

Fuck .”

She did release Jane’s feet then, pulled her glasses off and dropped them across the other woman’s shins to instead scrub her fingers across her cheeks. She could feel it, faintly, the tacky-rough texture of dried mascara flakes on her skin, and Darcy rubbed until her cheeks began to sting. Jane reached out, took her hands and pulled them away from her face, and she laced their fingers together once she had sat up properly.

Her smile was kind, her face concerned, and Jane knew her well, better than most, and she knew how to wait her out.

Jane didn’t need to wait though, not long at least, half a breath and Darcy leaned into her, slumped forward until her cheek rested against Jane’s shoulder. A grumble, and though the angle was awkward with the swell of Jane’s stomach between them, there was a comfort to simply be able to fall against one another. Her voice was muffled when she spoke, but Jane had released her hands to instead sweep her fingers through the tumble of dark curls that fell when she took Darcy’s only hair tie from her.

“I found him, Jane.”

She could feel the way the other woman inhaled, the sharp rise of her chest, but the fingers in her hair didn’t cease their movement.

“Yeah?”

Jane’s voice was quiet, a little crackled as if choked suddenly with emotion, and Darcy understood, could easily relate to that. She was going to cry again if she wasn’t careful, the fire bright feeling in her chest making it hard to breathe. But she couldn’t not smile, couldn’t seem to keep the press of her mouth from curving long and slow, even hidden as it was.

“Yeah. He’s beautiful. Needs to shave, but he’s got these eyes, and he’s sweet. He’s sweet Jane, and he’s...he’s shy .” Quiet spoken words, like she couldn’t quite believe it. And she couldn’t, not really, Darcy hadn’t ever known him to be shy. Not as a thief in Saudi Arabia or a shepherd in Romania or a warrior in Norway, he had been a lot of things, but he had never been shy before. “He got flustered easily, and he thinks I have pretty eyes, and he has a cat. A really cute cat.”

She flailed a hand at her phone and heard the sound of Jane pick it up. A soft oh , and she grinned, proud for no reason and every reason all at once. He was hers, even if he wasn’t, a claim that she couldn’t help but stake, a possessive itch beneath her skin that fed on a dirty, dark sort of pride.

“He’s cute.”

A hum, and she didn’t try to sit up, adjusting how she was slouched so that her weight wasn’t pressed so heavily against the swell of Jane’s stomach. She didn’t really want to move, didn’t want to get up. She just wanted to be held, wanted a hug that she could feel to her bones and fingers in her hair, because everything was going to come crashing down soon enough. Darcy turned her head enough that she could then turn her body and slump sideways within Jane’s hold.

“He doesn’t remember.”

“Oh.”

Her tone was soft, and the quiet sound of her phone falling to the couch came before Jane’s arms pulled around her tight.

“Yeah.”

-

By the time she looked up, by the time she pulled her nose from her phone and the texts that James sent her, by the time she did her best to stuff her own bleeding, beating heart back into her ribs and breathe, Steve hadn’t talked to her for four days.

Four days including the day he had stormed out, three if she wanted to be literal about it, but those were days that she could count on more than a single finger since she had seen his face or heard his voice. Her apartment felt empty, her office felt empty, and she had had the horrifying realization earlier that day when she herself had missed lunch due to paperwork and a lack of anybody poking in to ask if she wanted to go get anything to eat. She hadn’t eaten, which meant Bruce and Tony hadn’t eaten, Jane having been occupied with an ultrasound and therefore fed because Thor took his wife’s health seriously.

Long enough that she had moved his shoes, taken them from haphazardly kicked off in the middle of her living room to left in the coat closet by the door. It mingled with her own shoes, and she had even found a few of his shirts while folding her clean laundry. He had left his things within her walls over the last few years, her home his safety away from his own, and Darcy had stood beside her bed for a long moment, a maroon shirt hugged to her chest and her head bowed low.

They were still on her floor, a few of his shirts and the single sock that she had found in the leg of a pair of her pants. She had left them there, taken her phone and fled to the living room in a move that felt an awful lot like running away no matter how she tried to justify it. Except, she didn’t, try that was, didn’t try to convince herself that it was anything less than running, than hiding.

It was just cold enough that she needed a blanket to be out on her balcony, so she had plucked up the champagne hued cashmere monstrosity that she kept on the couch before slipping out into the dark of the night air. This high up, she couldn’t see the street below unless he moved forward a few feet, and she could just barely hear the nighttime noise of Manhattan as it continued to live on even after the sun had set. Feet folded beneath her, blanket coiled around her, Darcy pressed herself into the far corner of the hanging porch sweep that swayed from the ceiling.

Her head tipped against the chain, and if she closed her eyes, she could imagine that she was sixteen and on the porch sweep and her Nana and Papa’s in Portland again. The sound of the city just a few blocks away, nothing more than a dim echo on the cool, crisp breeze and the swaying of the swing as it held her weight. Simpler times, the promise of a morning spent on her Papa’s lobster boat and a day spent out on the water, of sea salt in her hair and the wind on her face.

The illusion broke at the ring of her phone, the standard tone that came from a number that hadn’t been given a personal call, and she squinted down at the screen.

James .

“Hello?”

Her voice was a little breathless in the dark, her face split with a smile, but there was nobody to see her act like a fool, nobody to see the way that she couldn’t not smile. Fuck but she loved him, she loved him like she always loved him and she sank against the side of the swing at the sound of his voice, boneless.

Hey, doll.”

“Hi.”

She had already said that. She’d already said that, technically, and Darcy would have been more embarrassed had he not laughed. A low chuckle, rusted sounding and rough like he didn’t do it often, and her heart ached at the prospect. He should laugh more, often, as much as he could, she didn’t know enough of him yet to understand the haunted, heavy weight of the ghosts that clung to him, but James deserved to laugh, to be happy.

“You got any plans for tomorrow?”

Tomorrow.

September 28th, and she should have plans. She should be driving to Owls Head first thing in the morning, should have actually set out today when she woke. The five hour drive wasn’t kind, and she wouldn’t make good time with morning traffic and be in a good enough mood to deal with her family. She should have called her Dad, she should have texted one of her siblings, let them know that she was coming, told them what time she would probably be in.

“No, no plans. Why, you miss me enough to see me again?”

Teasing, voice light and a small smile on her lips, one foot hung down to brush the ground, to keep the swing swaying back and forth in a slow, rhythmic glide.

“Yeah. I...I’ve missed you since you left the bakery.”

There wasn’t a living soul around to see the way that she blushed, the way that her smile turned sweet and soft and how her free hand knotted in the cashmere warmth of the blanket. She couldn’t see Brighton from here, not really, not with how everything was aglow in brilliant neon and streetlights in a colorful form of artificial daylight. Darcy couldn’t see where he was, couldn’t count the distance between them as anything other than an hour on the subway, but she could feel his smile from the simple sound of his voice and could almost feel the warmth of him.

“You’re as pretty as spun sugar, but those pictures don’t do you justice.”

His speech halted at the end, like he had realized he was talking just a beat too late, like he hadn’t meant to say the things he did. Unintended honesty, and she could hear the slight whistle as he inhaled as if through clenched teeth. He was painfully endearing and Darcy wanted to hold him, wanted to comb her fingers through the dark of his hair and press her mouth to the furrow between his eyes.

“Are you always this smooth?”

She could hear a plaintive meow in the background, a cat being ignored and demanding attention and she curled up a little tighter, pulled her leg back in under the warmth of the blanket and wriggled her toes against the soft fabric.

“No. I’m not, I’m...I’m really bad at this, doll.”

There was nobody but him to hear her, nobody to pay attention to her voice and hear the things that she said. There was an intimacy to the privacy of the situation, the warmth that had settled in her chest from the notion of having him to herself even with the distance that stood between them. She had left empty without him for so long that to hear his voice now, to know his face, it felt like breathing, it felt like flying, a pounding in her chest and a want to feel his skin against hers.

“You’re perfect.”

Chapter Text

He hadn’t slept much.

As if that was new, as if he had slept much in the time that he had been awake, in the days that he had been out and free, uncaged and trembling in his own skin. Hour intervals when he did, the shadows that seeped into the night were the things that housed him like they understood, like they could keep him, but they set an ache in his teeth, his jaw. The dark scared him, the soldier that he was, the monster he had become made fretful by the sleeping of the sun and the quiet empty of the night where it did its best to swallow him whole.

The nights were long, and he would lay there during his waking hours on his back, warm beneath the press of the quilts he had been gifted. Cake never moved in the night during those times, not that he had noticed, only leaving her space when he himself did a quick check of the apartment, otherwise curled in her spot above his head from the moment he went to sleep. Her little paws near his ear, the soft of her fur pressed to the top of his skull, she curled around him as if to keep at bay the demons who may try to enter his head in his rest.

The dark scared him for the things that lurked within it, monsters that had made him into the man he was, demons who were cut from the same cloth as he. Blood on his hands, screaming in his ears, the echo of a gun in his hands, a blade. Death became him, seeped all the way down into his bones, and it filled his lungs with every dark night breath.

Strange then, that he hadn’t slept much for an entirely different reason.

A moment of weakness, of loneliness. He had felt the cold crawl into his bones as the sun set, and there was only so much he could impose himself upon Oksana before the guilt set in. So he had sat on the couch she had pulled him to the local consignment store to buy, a garish tan velvet piece for twenty dollars that she had promised to teach him how to paint in a few days. The color was harsh, an overripe orange that had seen better days, but the texture felt soft against his skin, and when he put it against the wall so that the light from the window fell on it in beams, the fabric retained the warmth.

His legs had pulled up, close to his chest and his body had curled over in an attempt to make himself small. His cheek to the back of the couch, vibranium arm looped around his knees, the other had held the phone and he had listened to her voice. He didn’t know her well enough to want her like he did, to feel empty without her and itch to sink his fingers into her hair and slant his mouth across hers but he did and he felt a strange gnawing feel in his stomach at the thought of her being somewhere in the city, out of reach.

She didn’t mind that he couldn’t seem to say the right thing, that his mouth got away from him and he flayed himself wide open. He felt like Steve, the fretful bumble and the uncertain hesitation like he had never had before. A pretty woman tied him up in knots, a sweet laugh made him feel a fool.

Darcy wasn’t just a pretty woman though, she was...she was something .

And she had talked to him all night, had talked and talked and talked about everything and nothing. He knew that she worked in a lab with a bunch of scientists both too smart and too stupid for their own good and that her best friend was a woman named Jane who was going to have her baby in two months. She grew up on the coast of Maine and she had four older siblings, she had received her Masters just last year. She was smart, could talk circles around him and didn’t even seem to realize it, but she listened to the things he said like it mattered, like she cared.

She danced, had had lessons all through her youth, minored in it in school but majored in politics because dancing wouldn't help her argue. Classically trained, she could waltz, she could salsa, she could tango, but she had confided in him that she loved swing dance, had grown up in her grandparents sunroom feeling like she was flying while her Grandpa taught her how to move just fast enough. He hadn’t in a long time, but James knew that at least, remembered dancing with his sister and later down at the local hall while he tried to coax Steve out onto the floor.

Darcy wasn’t his girl, but James wanted to see the look on her face when he spun her around like she was.

She had begged off near three in the morning, a slight slur in her speech while she told him that he needed to sleep. A promise to text her his address and she had ended the call, leaving him in the dark but with a sunshine warmth in his chest. He had taken to bed then, had curled on his side beneath the warmth of the quilts upon him and Cake asleep around his head. Only a few hours, long enough to chase at the circles that had tried to cut beneath his eyes, and Oksana had made mention that she wouldn’t be going into the shop today while giving him breakfast that she insisted he come to every morning.

“Shave today James, wash your hair. You can’t have company and look like a rat.”

Like Darcy was someone he needed to impress, and yet James had done just that, had washed his hair and shaved his face with a slow, precise hand. Shaving was a strange experience, an out of body view as he stared at a face that didn't seem like it was his, ran the razor over a jaw with a touch he could feel even though he thought he shouldn't. When he had finished, the face that stared back at him looked younger, like the man he had seen on the displays in the museum.

James Buchanan Barnes, he knew the name of the ghost that stared back at him, but the echo of that man felt foreign on his skin.

He stood there and stared for some time, longer than he had intended, because there was a quick knock on his door what felt like only moments later. He nearly dropped the razor, set it neatly in the medicine cabinet when he finally moved, and James swept through the apartment on silent feet. Weaponless but far from unarmed, he slouched the necessary distance to stare through the peephole, and his breath did its best to rush from him in a gust.

He couldn’t see much of her, her image distorted by the round of the lense, but her hair had been piled atop her head in a messy coil, a few thick, dark curls spilling free. She had painted her mouth, a bright, starlet red, and he watched as she turned her head, as she rocked on her feet and looked down the hall toward the direction she must have come. Heart thundering, he slumped, he pressed his head to the door and took a slow inhale through his teeth before stepping aside and throwing the series of locks he had installed two days prior.

She was delicate bone and sharp teeth, standing there in his doorway with a heavy looking purse looped over her elbow and a growing smile on her face. Like she was happy to see him, like she had missed him just as much as he had missed her, and she was beautiful, just as beautiful as she had been that first time and in every picture since. Her heavy eyes narrowed from the press of her cheeks, the delighted stretch of her lips that she couldn’t seem to help, he didn’t know if he had ever seen a person more beautiful.

“James!”

He couldn’t help himself then, just as she couldn’t seem to help herself with her smile. He moved forward, reached out and caught her by her shoulder with a careful touch, but he was desperate. Aching and wanting and he drew her close, pulled her into the doorway and against his chest so he could hold her like he wanted. Soft and warm against him, she was small for as generous as her figure was with her head easy to tuck beneath his chin. He didn't have a chance to question himself, to doubt, because her arms came up instantly and she clung to him so fiercely that he could feel the tremble that ran threw her frame before she relaxed her weight against him.

“Hi.”

Her voice was muffled against his shoulder, but she held to him so tight that James didn’t bother to try and check himself, let himself need her just as much as she seemed to need him.

“Hey, sugar.”

She didn't seem like she was ready to let go of him, her fingers locked into the back of his shirt, and James hid his smile in her hair. Careful movements, slow, but he edged them backwards with something close to a waddle until they were in his apartment again. She laughed, an airy bubble of sound that he could feel the warmth of against his throat, and she put a sway in their movements.

“Is it alright if I lock the door? I don't...I need...”

Her fingers moved, fingertips pressed into his back and her nails scratching soothing paths through his shirt. Like she understood, like she wouldn't question him, and he wasn't sure what to do with himself or with her trust.

“Of course you can.”

A thick swallow, and he had to let her go to do that, but he was loath to let go of her, and his motions were slow. And he felt the tug then, felt the texture of her hair and the shimmering electric feel of it against the vibranium, and he couldn't breathe.

He hasn't covered his arm.

So comfortable in his own space, safe within his walls and his sunshine was he that he had forgotten to wear sleeves, had forgotten to put on his gloves. One of her thick curls had tangled with his fingers where it had fallen loose from the pile, he had reached for her with it. A burning behind his eyes and an acid bright, tight knot in his throat, he was going to cry.

He didn't want to run from her, he didn't want to scare her.

He didn't want to have to hurt her.

She made an inquisitive sound, tipped her head to look up at him and he watched as her eyes narrowed, as her breath came in a quiet hiss. She let him go then to reach back, and he felt cold from the lack of her but his heart was going to pound out of his chest. He could break her neck like this, could fist a hand in her hair and cup her jaw and twist, she wouldn't even know before it was over. She wouldn't feel it, she wouldn't have time to be scared, a cracking twist and it would be all over.

Her cold fingers found his own, soft skin against metal, and he watched as her eyes widened faintly, the slight arch to her brows. She didn't flinch though, didn't scream, Darcy just took a breath a made a small face as her tongue peeked out from between her lips and she started to untangle her hair.

“Well, guess we gada be careful so you don't get caught again, huh?”

She said it so easily, a little laugh in her voice and a sweet, soothing tone like it didn't matter. Like she wasn't scared, like he didn't scare her, but she knew. She had to know, there was no way she didnt, smart girl like her wouldn't miss something like that. She just untangled her hair and smiled at him though, fingers brushing his like he couldn't kill her with them before she patted his chest.

“There, all free! Now you can lock the door.”

He didn't dare move.

Instead, James stared at her, a little wide eyed and balanced on the edge, ready to run even though there was nowhere to go.

“You still want me to lock the door.”

Darcy stared up at him, no hesitation in her eyes and nothing but sincerity on her pretty face when she nodded.

“If you need to lock the door to feel safe James, thats okay. I trust you.”

He was going to come apart at the seams.

He could only stare at her, unsure and suddenly overwhelmed, and he watched as her smile turned sad.

“I'm going to hug you, okay?”

He nodded, the faintest of motions, but she must have saw it, because Darcy leaned in again, slipped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his chest. She held him tight, a solid pressure to her arms and her fingers fisted in his shirt, and he could feel himself shaking them. A rattle in his bones, a tremble in his skin, he may very well come apart if she let him go.

Slowly, steadily, he fell forward against her, curled in until his head ducked into the slope where her shoulder met her throat. His arms came back around her, one at the small of her back and the other behind her shoulders, pressed her tight to him just as tightly as she held, and he was weak, he was small. His chest hurt, his face hot, his eyes were wet and the soft fabric of her shirt grew damp as he couldn't seem to stop himself from crying. “Its okay, I’m here. You're safe.”

Spoken steady and sure like she meant it, and her grip was strong, her body sunlight warm, and he shuddered.

-

She had held him for so long that he couldn't keep count of his breathing, until his shoulder had grown damp and then dried again. His doorway had been their home, a temporary shelter that housed them while he fell apart. Her fingers had soothed through his hair, her body warm and soft, and she had only pulled back when he had.

And then she had smiled, sweet and sharp, and hadn't asked him questions that he didn't want to answer. She’d asked if he wanted to go dancing, and had patiently waited while he fought for words, a soft look in her eyes and that same smile on her painted lips. And then he had nodded, and she had grinned, and asked if he could take her up to the roof.

He hadn’t been on the roof yet, but the elevator ride had been quick, and when he had tried to put sleeves and his gloves on she had just shrugged and told him he didn't have to if he didn't want to.

There was sunlight on his skin, on his arms, warming both his skin and the vibranium until it warmed him to the core. Or maybe it was her smile, the easy way she moved and the way she gave him her back without hesitating, like she trusted him not to hurt her. A sway to her steps, a rolling curl to her hips when she moved, and she pulled a strange device out of her purse, wide and a little tall, and he watched as she fit her phone into it.

“Solar powered speaker, the sound system in my apartment is better, but this is pretty great.”

It said Stark across the top of her phone, across the speaker, a sharp slash of a name that he couldn't help but know. They looked new, state of the art even with the high tech world that he had found himself in, and James observed her then with a quick, critical eye.

“You work for Stark, sugar?”

There was a faint breeze, but the sun had risen and gave off a warmth that dug deep into his bones. There was sunshine still in the way she looked at him over her shoulder, the scrunch to her nose and the pull to her mouth like the very idea offended her. Her shirt had fallen off one shoulder, pale mint fabric that sloped low across her collarbones and the full swell of her breasts, but she didn't seem to care, pale skin on display.

“Stark works for me, actually. I'm privately contracted through Pepper Potts to manage the labs.” Darcy paused then, half turned toward him, and he watched as she grinned. “That's still a bit of a rush to think about. Tony Stark works for me.”

She laughed again and she swayed closer, watermelon pink skirt dancing just above her knees in a bright splash of color. She looked like sin clothes in summer, vibrant and sweet with temptation for a mouth and damnation for skin, but she was beautiful.

There was Charlie Parker in the air then, smooth saxophone just fast enough that he could feel the familiar rhythm of it. A memory of motion, somewhere distant and echoing and he remembered spinning a girl in a dimly lit, smoke filled hall a long time ago. She hadn’t worn that wax smear of red quite as well as Darcy did, but he remembered how she had moved like she wasn't sure of her feet.

Her hand fit in his well, delicate fingers, and she didn't shy away from his touch. Instead she grinned, wide spread lips, and when he pulled her into a quick turn beneath his arm her laughter settled hot in his belly. Darcy laughed like she meant it, loud like she didn't care who heard her. There was a confidence in her body, the way that she bowed back when he dipped her and how she trusted him, how she gave him her weight so he could pull her close and lift her in his hold. She laughed still even when he tossed her up so that her feet were off the ground, and she caught herself with her hands on his shoulders and a devilish grin on her starlet mouth while his hands caught her by her thighs.

“So James Barbulescu can dance?”

Her skin was warm against the vibranium, her thighs satin soft beneath his touch, and she didn’t seem to mind in the slightest that those were his hands so intimate on her skin. He twirled them around once, tossed her out enough that he could hold her by her hands when her feet hit the ground and he knew the movements that her body. The sharp jitter to her steps, the quick kicks of her feet, he knew this, he remembered this in his muscles and in his bones, and James couldn’t help but smile.

She knew, there was no way that she didn’t, and yet she called him by the name he had given her. She didn’t question him, she didn’t doubt him, she knew and yet she still treated him like he wasn’t just a weapon. She treated him like a man, a man she should smile at and who she could dance with, one who was allowed to touch the soft skin of her thighs like she wanted him to.

She laughed still, with every way he moved her body, and he didn’t think he would ever get enough of that sound.

“James Barbulescu can do a lot of things, sugar.”

Darcy grinned at him with that starlet mouth and her spring sky eyes, sunshine in her hand and his hands on her skin and James felt alive.

James felt human .

Chapter Text

She was happy .

A phenomenal notion, a feeling that had seemed so far out of reach for so long that she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. She couldn’t seem to not smile, she couldn’t seem to not laugh, and there was a burning warmth within her chest that pulsed in time with the pounding of her heart. Sunlight on her skin, the warm autumn breeze in her hair, that was his hand in hers, that was a familiar sort of exhaustion within her bones.

It wasn’t how she should have spent her birthday, with a quick text to her Dad and her siblings that she loved them and she hoped they had a good day before her phone got switched to priority, but there was something magical about it. He danced like it was something he knew like breathing, and she felt both out of time and alive on that rooftop in Brighton as they swirled around to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Count Basie.

James grinned like he wasn’t quite sure how, a little rusted and a little off center but he held onto her like Darcy would disappear if he let go for too long.

James looked happy, he had laughed, he had fed her line after line in that rumble of a voice with phrases that made her toes curl as much as they made her head tip back on a cackle. He had enjoyed himself, spinning around with her on a roof like it was all he had to do with his day, and he had given her his hands with more trust than she had been prepared for. There was no way she could abuse that, no way that she could deny him, but there was also no way that she could ignore the things that she now knew.

James wasn’t hers, not really, not in every way that mattered. He had her heart between his teeth even if he didn’t know it yet, just as much as she knew she had his, but he didn’t belong entirely to her. His uncertainty made more sense, his hesitation and the way his body tried to make himself small, there had been a fear in his frame that first time, and he belonged to her just as much as Steve had stamped a claim onto his skin between her being Rosalie and before she had become Darcy.

Bucky Barnes held her hands on a rooftop in Brighton and danced her so fast that her lungs burned, and he smiled at her with the shadows of a thousand ghosts in his eyes. He didn’t even know, he didn’t even recognize, and she wanted to hold onto him with both hands and keep him close, keep him safe.

She would kill to keep him safe, more blood on her hands meant nothing if he had the chance to keep smiling. She would die if it meant that he could keep breathing, could keep living with as much blissful unknowing and unharmed as she could secure for him. Maybe he wouldn't remember her, maybe he wouldn't know, and Darcy had to hang all of her hopes and dreams on the precarious whim of a maybe.

Her thighs burned by the time they stopped. Her thighs burned, her lungs ached, her feet were tired but there was no fighting the grin on her mouth. He had lifted her enough so she could sit on the concrete lip, and as much as she didn't need the help climbing up on things, Darcy would never say no to his hands on her.

His chest heaved faintly, the dark hairs around his face had tried to curl with sweat, but he looked just as happy as she felt.

She wanted to kiss that smile.

Hesitant, his fingers reached out for her, and Darcy leaned into it, didn't give him time to second guess himself. The metal was cool against her heated skin and she turned her face into his touch just enough that his knuckles hit her glasses, jostled them on her nose. He froze as if worried, as if scared that she could flinch but she just giggled, used his hand to right them again.

“You gada have somethin’ better to do with your day, sugar.”

A quiet rumble but she could hear the doubt in his voice, recognized it intimately and Darcy reach up, caught his hand in hers and held the cool metal between her palms, felt the tremor that raced through him. Her fingers traced patterns over the tight plates, watched him from beneath her lashes with a wobble of a shrug.

“I can't think of anything better than to spend the day with you.”

He swallowed thick, throat visibly working, but she just smiled, gave him time. She was in no rush, content in the autumn sun and the warm swell of an Indian summer breeze, happy just to see him smile and hold his hand. She wanted his skin on hers, wanted his mouth against hers and her body on fire from his touch, but it was enough to hold his hand and to watch the awe filled, disbelieving look on his face. Like standing close to her was some sort of gift, a blessing, and for as much as she wanted to feel his bare skin and his body moving against hers, she would do anything to make him smile instead.

“Thought I was supposed to be the smooth one here.”

“What, I can't be smooth? I am so smooth Barbulescu, the smoothest.”

She misjudged the distance behind her then, crossed her legs one over the other with a flourish of her skirt and leaned back to plant her hand on the concrete. Instead, back she went, back, back until the world was gleaming metal and sunlit brick bright and upside down, until the only thing keeping her was the way he had lunged forward with her and looped his arm beneath her back. Her glasses started to slip, falling toward her forehead and the blood only had a moment to rush in her ears before he pulled her up and all she had was a glimpse of the sky before she could see his chest, his throat.

James banded an arm around her shoulders to match the one about her waist, pulled her so close she was pressed snug against his front.

“How bout we get off the roof now.”

His voice was like rolling thunder, electric against her skin and it sent her body singing. She leaned into him, pressed her face to his chest and let him slow walk them backwards away from her previous perch.

“I need my phone.”

“We’ll get your stuff sugar, don't you worry.”

He didn't let go of her though, held her close so long that he became her entire world. All she could see, all she could feel, there was no need for the things around them when he held her safe and tight against his chest. Her body felt bound tight and solid for the first time in a long time, and she leaned into him heavily, gave him her weight just as she had given him her heart at that first summer storm rumble of his voice.

And so Darcy sighed, and so she held onto him just as he held onto her and felt warm to the core.

-

She could only ignore her problems for so long it seemed.

He had insisted that they get something to eat after leaving the sunshine of the roof, after her stomach growled and he looked sheepish at the empty state of his kitchen. She had tried to wave him off, she didn’t really need to eat, but she hadn’t had breakfast either, and there must have been something in her expression, perhaps her complexion, because James had tucked a loose curl behind her ear and asked her to please have lunch with him. Her body had been perched on the counter in his kitchen, no reason to have a fear of falling when the floor was so close and there were cabinets behind her, and he had hesitated briefly before stepping into her space. He had done his best to keep the vibranium away from her skin, self conscious in a way that he hadn’t been beneath the sun but she had leaned into him like a moth to a flame, enraptured, consumed and he had smiled, rusted and small and off center.

Her will may have been iron, but how was she supposed to say no to that?

Against her best intentions however, lunch had been a fiasco, however entertaining.

He had changed before they had left, long sleeves over his arms and gloves over his fingers, and she had busied her hands with the soft fur of the ever curious Cake, pleased to find that the little creature was just as delightful in person as in her pictures. Darcy had gathered the long haired cat to her chest, content to hold her while she rested her hip against the sill of the window, and it had taken her longer than she cared for to realize that he had come out of his room. A smile on his lips, he had watched her, had leaned against the doorframe and watched her with his cat with that stupid, rusted, perfect smile, and she had waved one of Cake’s paws at him just to watch the way he had shaken his head.

He had bustled her out the door, had locked it with a glittering little cactus keychain that drew a giggle to her breath, and then they had been in the elevator, and then they had been on the street. Fabric between them, but he had taken her hand in his, had held onto her like he wanted to, like he needed to, and Darcy hadn’t denied him the contact. Instead she had held on, had held tight and swung their hands idly between them as they walked. Sunlight on their skin, they had looked normal, young and in love like they both were and weren’t, and her heart hurt for the things that they might not get to have and for the things that had been. James had smiled that sweet, shy smile though, had twirled her around on the sidewalk to a rhythm that didn’t need music, and seemed to have relished in her laughter.

He had made her laugh a lot.

Sushi probably hadn’t been her brightest idea, but she had had a craving, and the affronted look on his face at being given raw fish had really been too much to take. Her laughter had been loud, swirling free so much into the air that her lungs had ached. He pushed at the eel roll with a curl of his nose and a horrified glance in her direction just as she had caught her breath, and she had been set off again to the point that she had disturbed the other patrons. They had drawn attention, and she would have been more concerned if he hadn’t look so amused, if he hadn’t smiled at her like that, looked at her like she had hung the moon with her joy. Then they had been asked to leave, and while he had looked mortified, had grumbled about how this wasn’t how he should be treating a lady but she had just hugged him close while they wandered back onto the New York sidewalk.

Eventually, a greasy hotdog in her belly and her head light, the impending sundown had found them. Long shadows took the world around them, and he had taken her to the station after asking where she needed to go, after going quiet and contemplative at her admittance of living in Stark Tower. He had kissed her forehead, had held her close, and Darcy had watched him from within the subway car until it lurched from the station and disappeared into the tunnel.

Sundown took the world while she was on the subway, and she texted him the entire time, little pictures and observations of the people around her, and she told him when she got into the tower lobby. What had been long shadows in the dying light of day had instead turned into the neon glow of night, garish splashes of colored light upon her skin and a biting chill that seeped beneath her simple blouse and skirt. Another picture of Cake and a string of little hearts and faces that made no real sense, she wondered if she really should have taught him anything about emoji’s as she ducked past the security desk and rounded to the elevator bank.

Why are there just vegetables?

A sputter of laughter, and in response she gave him a gleaming purple eggplant and a little explosion, left him to try and figure out what any of it could possibly mean. A smile on her face, the leftover shivers from being outside in the dark dancing across her shoulders, and Darcy swept a piece of hair behind her ear. It was tempting to lean against the little wall next to the elevator, her feet hurt, but if she started then she wouldn’t stop, so she kept her body upright even if her head had angled down, even if she clutched at her phone like she had clutched at his hand.

Oksana said I should say yes ?

The elevator dinged open, empty, and she stepped in only to press her back into the corner, legs crossing at the ankle. Her grin couldn’t be helped then, her laughter uncontained once more, and Darcy tipped her head back with it, one hand pressed to her chest. Wingman from the far left by a woman old enough to be her Nana, not something she had expected from her day, but the intent made her smile. James though, James just...he didn’t know what he offered, didn’t know what he had nearly agreed to, and she wanted for as innocent as her teasing had been, and Darcy wanted to taste his skin with her mouth, wanted to kiss him and dig her nails in deep.

Suddenly though, she wasn’t alone.

The doors had started to seal shut, the quiet of a perpetual lack of elevator music interrupted by the sound of feet, and she had looked down to sweep her thumbs across her phone only to instead find herself sequestered into the same elevator as Steve. Brilliant, golden, larger than life Steve, with his hair that needed brushed and his jaw that hadn’t been shaved. Sweat on his skin like he had been out for a run, faint circles beneath his eyes, he looked tired, looked like he hadn’t slept. The vicious, aching part of her preened at the sight of him being anything less than perfect and well.

He looked just as surprised to see her as she was him, and that was the only real comfort she had as Jarvis seemed content to make the damn elevator crawl.

Awkward, the silence was awkward, and she just wanted out of the damn cart.

She dropped her gaze to her phone, to James and the conversation that connected them through the city, and she wanted to respond. She wanted to see his face, she wanted to make him laugh, but there was a sudden, ashen taste in her mouth. James, she could text James back, she could giggle and flirt and enjoy the things that he said and the stupid, perfect pictures he sent of his cat. She could keep talking to the love of her life, of her lives and pretend that she wasn’t in this elevator, she could ignore the person standing beside her until one of them exited, and then she could go home and take off her damn shoes and let her hair down, wash off the sweat from dancing with James, and Steve would-

James wasn’t hers though.

James wasn’t hers, he didn’t belong to her, not like she wanted him to, not when Steve had sank a claim into him so visceral and deep in the way that family only really could. James wasn’t hers to keep and closet away, she didn’t own him, she couldn’t do that to him, press him into a gilded cage no matter how well intended. It wasn't fair to him, and it wouldn’t be fair to Steve. She had to tell Steve, she had to share, it wasn’t right to keep it from him, she had seen the way he had torn himself up over James, over Bucky.

“I’m guessing you didn’t go to Portland today.”

Her words were lost, and her mouth clicked shut again.

She could hear the rattle of her teeth, could feel the hiss of her own breath in her lungs, because she knew that tone. She hated that fucking tone, he knew she hated that tone, but there he went again with his Catholic guilt. She wasn’t even Catholic, but he just, there he went with that furrow between his brows and that twist to his mouth and she knew him like she knew her brothers. She knew him and she knew what he was doing, but Darcy just took the fucking bait anyway, just like she did every time with Steve.

“No, I didn’t. I had plans.”

Not a lie, she had had plans, last minute and made the night before, bare foot on her balcony and wrapped up in cashmere with the quake of his voice in her bones. Better plans than driving to Owls Head, then dealing with her family as they tried and failed to fluctuate between their grief for their loss and their happiness for her, than sitting by herself in a crowded room and eating cake that tasted like disappointment and rejection just like she had last year and the year before that.

She had had plans of spending the day with James, of laughing, of dancing, and she wanted to bare her teeth at her- he was her friend, wasn’t he? She wasn’t sure anymore, didn’t know what they had become, but she couldn’t stand the sight of him just as much as she wanted to hug him and drag him home for a nap, and she wanted to bare her teeth and push him away as much as she hoped he wouldn’t cry when she was gone.

And then he huffed, a quiet, nearly indiscernible sound, and she knew that sound well enough to know that he rolled his eyes with it, and Darcy couldn’t seem to catch her own mouth.

“You got something to say, Steve?”

He had clasped his hands behind his back, parade rest and propaganda posture like she hadn’t seen when they were alone in months, in years. He held himself stiff like he hadn’t in so long that she thought his spine may crack, she couldn’t see him breathing until she really looked, until she watched him like she hadn’t had to in some time. She knew that expression, she knew that pull to his lips and that puff to his chest.

“No.”

Bullshit.

“Right.”

He didn’t want to talk to her, fine. Fine, he didn’t need to talk to her, it was better that he didn’t. It would hurt less, he would cry less, it was easier for him to hate her, it would hurt less, it would, she just had to remind herself that.

Mouth pursed, shoulders drawn tight, she dropped her gaze to her phone, thumb sweeping slowly across the screen.

Would it be too late to get back on the train?

Childish, she had never before run from her problems like she ran from Steve, and it set an irritable bubbling in her blood. She clutched her phone a little tighter, she pressed a little further back into the corner, and Darcy felt small, felt tired and cold. She just wanted to go home, she just wanted to get behind her door and burrow into her soft bed beneath the branches of her glittering, gilded tree and pretend it wasn't a sparkling cage of her own creation. Take off her shoes and do what she could to get cute pictures from the man who was going to be the death of her any day now.

Instead, she watched the face of her best friend like he was a stranger, found him out of the corner of her eye and but fuck, she felt like she didn’t even recognize him anymore. She just wanted to hold his hand again, she just wanted to make him smile again, to make him laugh, they had been fine just a week ago. It felt like a lifetime had passed since then, she felt so fucking old, and Darcy wanted to cry.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

His voice was like a crack of sound in the elevator, but she was too big for her bones, too old and too worldly to flinch at the sound. He did though, she could see it in the way his body gave the stuttering, aborted motion to curl in on itself, like he wished he hadn’t spoken, like he hadn’t wanted to say anything.

“Nothing.”

She knew Steve though, knew him just as well as she knew herself and she could see the way that he responded to that, the way that he unintentionally fell into combat mode despite himself.

“You know, you complain about your family treating you like shit, but then you turn around and do this to them.”

He knew nothing .

He didn’t know the lonely nights on that porch swing in Owls Head because everything felt so wrong that she wanted to shuck her own skin, he didn’t know the way she had known intimately that her Nana was dying just like she had known dancing from standing on the feet of her grandfather, of her father, of her father even before him. He didn’t know the screaming, the longing, the bleeding and the dying, he didn’t know any better. He didn’t understand being a breathing dead sort of stranger within his own skin, not enough, not to a point so deep that it felt like she could taste the decay on her own teeth, and there was a stark sadness to him that she recognized for the festered wound that it was, he didn’t have a single clue and God, but it showed.

“It’s not your family, so I really don’t think you get to have an opinion.”

What happened?

He scoffed, and there he went, she could see it start to happen, knew what would come. He had a temper, and she loved him as much as she hated him, but she knew how much his mouth got the better of him at the worst of times. This seemed to be it, this was that moment, she felt the impending train wreck lurching steadily toward them just as much as he couldn’t seem to stop himself. He didn’t turn to face her, but she could see his reflection in the gleaming surface of the elevator doors, and she knew that furrow to his brow, that slashing flush to his cheeks.

“Christ alive Darcy, for once in your life could you not be a fucking selfish bitch?”

The knowing didn’t make it feel any better.

“Jarvis.”

“Of course, Darcy.”

He drew back then, seemed to come back into himself, and she watched as his eyes went wide, as his head swiveled around to find her. His body followed, and there was shame in every line of him, there was a dripping kind of remorse from his eyes that she knew, but it didn’t help. It didn’t help, it didn’t make it any better, and she just wanted off the fucking elevator, she would take the stairs if she needed to. Jarvis pulled the cart to a stop, and the gleaming doors snapped open like a lifeline that she so desperately needed.

“Darcy-”

She was small, but her bones were sharp, and fury was a funny thing like that. Mixed with just the right amount of hurt and she felt invincible, she shouldered past him hard enough when he reached for her that she heard the harsh sound of his exhale.

“Good night Steve.”

The hallway was warmly lit, but this wasn’t her floor, this wasn’t where she had wanted to go, but it would do, she would be home soon enough.

Steve Rogers happened.

Chapter Text

The darkness felt like it wanted to swallow him whole, looming shadows and flickering, fire bright neon lights. Demons at every alley, hell in every shadowed doorway and he felt like he could come out of his skin at the slightest of touches. The world around him was a dark, swaying kind of late night misery brought to life only by the brilliant bloom of neon, and he could taste his own fear heavy and metallic on his tongue, but he couldn’t just leave her alone.

Half the city stood between them, an hour on the subway based on the timestamps of her messages and roughly a twenty minute walk, possibly less given that his legs were longer. He could survive that, he would suffer that, she was worth the way that his skin crawled at the press of the shadows and the sounds of the night. She hadn’t asked it of him, hadn’t responded after her delayed text that she was going to go wash her hair, he had made the decision on his own.

He had borrowed Oksana’s metro card, the woman waving him away with a flap of her hand and a sleep slurred set of instruction on how to use it before she had shut her door once more. The streets of Brighton hadn’t been as crowded as he had expected, and what people there were had seemed to know enough in some hindbrain kind of preservation that they gave him a wide berth.

The subway had been an experience, back pressed into a corner and his hooded sweatshirt draped loose across his shoulders and chest. A warmth against his chest, little paws against his shoulder, and he had ducked his head down to offer his face to Cake where she had peeked her own out of the loose neckline. Curious, but she hadn’t tried to fight him, and the one arm that he had wrapped around his own middle served to support her, and she seemed content to be pressed to his chest and observe the subway car around them.

Nobody had questioned him, though he had seen their glances, had felt their eyes, and James simple held his cat a little closer, had pressed his body a little further into the corner of the car. An hour like that, with Cake against his chest and her little paws kneading at his shoulder, with the feeling of her purring against his ribs a grounding thrum that went straight to his bones. An hour of his gaze darting to every other passenger beneath his lashes, of his instincts screaming and his mind selfishly taking what comfort he could from the stray cat that had become his. Of not feeling like he could really breathe, of his skin feeling too tight, of the world that sped past them dark and glittering save for the lights that would splash through the windows at odd intervals, and he rocked on his feet when the cart finally came to the right stop.

The station itself held more people than he cared for, and James nearly took the stairs two at a time. He didn’t want the attention though, didn’t want more eyes on him than he could already feel, so he took his time, he stuck close to the railing and moved with the beating of his heart until there was the sky above him once more. He didn't hesitate there, twisted around until he left the mouth of the subway behind and his gaze found the steadfast presence of Stark tower in the distance.

She was there, somewhere, and she hadn't asked for him, hadn't made any mention of wanting him to come to her. He got the feeling that Darcy didn't ask for much, not for herself anyway, and yet he hadn't been able to help himself. The fall of night and half a city had stood between them, but he had thrown himself into the cold for her anyway.

He couldn't just leave her.

Her response had been curt, irritation coloring her voice within his head, and James had known that feeling all too well. Worst still, he had recognized the cause, knew personally just what it felt like to be cornered by Steve when a mean mood decided to take him, and wasn’t that something. She had said his name like he should know it, like Darcy knew and oh, but there would be no escaping that feeling now.

She knew who he was, there was no way for him to begin to think otherwise, if not for how she hadn’t hesitated at the vibranium then for the way that she had casually used Steve’s name. She knew and she didn’t care, she had danced with him and smiled at him and leaned into him like he could never hurt her. A sweet curve to her painted mouth and a laugh in her breath, she had treated him like any other man, she hadn’t been afraid, she hadn’t flinched from his fingers on her skin. Like she trusted him.

Darcy had trusted him even though she knew, and while he knew Steve and he missed Steve with a hollow ache, he needed to know that Darcy was alright.

She had trusted him , and that meant something.

That meant everything .

The pavement moved steadily beneath his feet, his pace quickened now, and James adjusted his hold on Cake when she ducked her head back into his sweatshirt. Her little paws dug into his shoulder, and she seemed to hold him just as tight as he held her as if she too were afraid of the dark. Splashes of light across his skin, and he curled his shoulders a little tighter, crossed the street with a small flood of people when then signal turned and then he pushed at the doors.

He couldn’t hesitate, he couldn’t question himself or doubt, not when Darcy felt safe in here, not when Steve felt safe in here.

Except, a security officer stood just inside the door, and he didn’t know where he was supposed to go, and he didn’t look like he belonged here.

It must have showed, because the man looked up from his paper, and though his expression was kind, James tensed.

“Can I help you, sir?”

He hadn’t thought this through, hadn’t even thought of what he would do once in the building, what sort of security he would have to deal with, and he couldn’t not freeze. The man frowned then, concerned, and moved like he was going to stand.

“I believe that Miss Lewis is expecting him, Mr Davanoff. You may return to your reading.” Another voice though no other person had joined them, and James did tense then, his shoulders tried to curl into his ears and his hands fisted tight in the soft fabric he had wrapped himself in. He could taste the beating of his own heart, the visceral ache of his ribs as they tried their best to contain and dampen the panicked, thundering feel that had overtaken his lungs. “If you would proceed to the elevator, sir.”

He couldn’t see the source of the voice, couldn’t recognize it, but one of the elevators on the wall silently slipped open. Smooth stone and cool metal visible even from the wide distance of the lobby, but he didn’t hesitate, strode toward it with a confidence that he didn’t feel, a bravado that the Steve in his jagged memories would have been proud of. He held himself stiff still when the elevator doors closed, Cake’s little paws kneading against his shoulder and his body held tight.

That was his heart then, wasn’t it, that thunder of sound within his ears?

“Sergeant Barnes.”

He did flinch then, a full body motion, and the blades that he had fitted against his sides and the gun tucked into the waist of his jeans meant little in the way of protection when he couldn’t see his fucking enemy. Head coming up, eyes wild and searching, James pressed himself as far back into the corner as he could go. There was nobody with him though, no other person to be seen, and instead he had only his shadow and his cat for company in the slow moving elevator cart.

“Where are you.”

Words bitten out from between clenched teeth, tone hard, and James nearly flinched again at the sound of his own voice, Russian guttural and sharp on his tongue.

“Ah, my apologies, Sergeant Barnes. I am afraid that you won’t find me physically, for Mr Stark has failed yet to give me a physical form. I am Jarvis, the Artificial Intelligence that maintains much of Sir’s properties and affairs as well as the overall security of his holdings.”

The other person didn’t exist, not in a manner that he could fight, not in a way that his fists and his teeth could combat against. There was no threat that he could save himself against, but the others voice was gentle, as soothing as it was crisp. He had made no aggressive overtures, no motions as if to remove James from the tower, and instead, he had been led further in.  

The artificial man reigned over Stark’s security, and yet, the great Winter Soldier had been let into the very heart of Stark’s empire.

“I didn’t mean to cause you distress, I simply intended to make you aware of my presence. I was also told to take notice when I found you, though I didn’t expect you to come to the tower on your own. Shall I notify Captain Rogers?”

“No!”

His voice was loud within the space, a clattering echo of sound, and James winced at his own ferocity.

“Of course, Sergeant Barnes.”

Another flinch, a hollow feel, and it was as if the disembodied voice hesitated then. For his voice was softer still when he spoke, tone all the more soothing, and James wanted to bear his teeth as much as he wanted to lose the pull of tension in his shoulders.

“Is there something else you would like me to call you, sir?”

Lips pressing together, hooded eyes flickering still across the smooth stone and metal walls, James adjusted the way he held Cake to his chest. Her constant purring did something to calm him, helped with the pounding of his heart and he cradled her close, took comfort from her soft warmth. He could still feel the cling of night against his skin, the bone deep drag of the darkness against his veins even with the bright lighting in the elevator, and he wanted to dip his head, wanted to close his eyes.

“James.”

“Of course, James. Records on your phone show that your most recent conversation occurred between yourself and Darcy. Am I to take you to her?”

It felt like an invasion, the way that the bodiless man knew his conversations, the things on his phone. Did he know the pictures that Darcy had sent him, the images of her smiling face and the shot of her delicate feet as she showed him the soft, sunshine gold of her pedicure, of the short video of a violet haired elderly woman as she waved a ball of yarn at the camera with the sound of Darcy’s laughter echoing in the background? They felt like things that he shouldn't share, like things that belonged to him if only for the way that Darcy had shared them, and James felt fierce in his want to hoard the very notion of her.

“Is she alright?”

“Darcy is unharmed, though her interaction with Captain Rogers caused her a degree of distress. She is currently in her residence, would you like me to take you to her?”

Cake made a quiet sound against his throat, her little paws kneading at his shoulder once more and he held her close, held her as tight as he dared. She didn’t seem to mind the pressure, and he pressed his mouth to her little brow.

“Please.”

“Of course, James.”

The elevator was quiet, and he kept his head bowed, kept Cake close as if to use her to shield the throbbing of his heart from the outside world. Jarvis made no other attempt to talk to him, and James wondered if he showed a degree of distress, if Jarvis could hear the pounding of his heart and if he knew of the coil of panic that festered low in his belly. There were no words he wanted to give though no matter how many he had, and it was only once the door quietly slipped open that he stepped out into the hall.

“Her apartment is the second on the left. The residence across the hall belongs to Ms Romanoff while the other two are empty. Ms Romanoff is not currently present on this floor.”

A jerky nod, the faintest of motions, and though he moved on silent feet, he moved all the same. It felt strange to be here, high in the air and surrounded by gleaming stone and polished metal, crisp paint and artful decorations. He felt unclean, felt wrong, the sort of man who shouldn’t be here, and he doubted himself then. Darcy was laughter and sunlight, spring sky eyes and a starlet painted mouth, a princess for every part of him that wasn’t good enough, wasn’t right.

Maybe he shouldn’t have done this.

Maybe this was a bad idea.

“James, you need to proceed to her door, Captain Rogers is in the west stairwell at the end of the hall.”

This was a bad idea, Darcy didn’t need him, not when she had people like Steve.

Except Steve was the problem just as much as he himself was the problem, and his legs felt leaden. Her door was right there, right there so close that he could touch it if he unwrapped one arm from where he held Cake to his chest, but he couldn’t move much further than that. He couldn’t feel his feet, couldn’t feel anything past the pounding boom boom boom of his heart where it rattled in his chest, and James couldn’t breathe.

“James, you need to get out of the hall.”

He watched as the door at the end of the hall opened, and his shoulders curled in as that larger than life figure came into view. Golden head tipped down, soft fabric on his body like they hadn’t been able to afford when they could barely afford the rent for their suffocating little apartment. He knew that walk though, distantly, the faint amble to Steve’s feet, and he knew the way that his hand carded through his hair.

He knew that body and he knew that walk, and he knew those pale blue eyes when Steve lifted his head.

Steve stopped moving then, rooted to the spot as if he had seen a ghost, and James wanted to be back in the damn lift. He wanted distance between them, he should have known this would happen, but he hadn’t been prepared for this. Less than a month had passed between that moment on the bridge but it felt like a lifetime since he had seen his friend.

“Bucky?”

Steve’s voice was whisper soft, a threadbare tremble to it where it wavered, but James flinched all the same. He pressed himself against her door then, leaned into the frame as heavily as he could as if to make himself small, but nothing helped as Steve crept forward on hesitant feet. His heart was going to come out of his chest, he could practically taste it behind his teeth. He was going to vomit as soon as he caught his breath, was going to be sick as soon as he remembered how to not swallow his tongue and James just wanted to go home.

He shouldn’t have ever left his apartment.

The support of the door was gone then and he stumbled faintly, he watched as Steve lurched forward out of the corner of his eye.

“Holy shit, James, what are you doing here?”

Those were slender hands on his forearm then, his shoulder, and he didn’t take his attention off Steve, not completely. That was Darcy though, her hair wet and curling dark and glistening around her face, not a single speck of makeup to be found on her skin and her sky bright eyes were puffy and bloodshot. She didn’t seem to notice Steve though, not for the way she reached for him, with how she pressed her fingers to his cheek and made a quiet coo at Cake where the cat purred in his grasp.

“I’m not complaining, but you didn’t have t-”

Don’t touch him!”

She flinched so hard it was like he could feel it himself, but James pressed close when she fisted her hand in his sweatshirt. She pressed closer rather than pulling away, and she saw Steve then, he knew she did.

He had started shaking at some point between Steve coming from the stairs and the echoing snap of his voice and he wasn’t sure how to make it stop.

Darcy though, Darcy didn’t seem scared in the slightest, she didn’t even look like she was afraid. He watched as she drew herself up, as she pulled him in just as she moved, standing small and dripping from her shower between them like some force of nature. He was in her apartment then, standing on the threshold with a spitfire little woman between himself and the man who represented every good memory he had ever known and ever demon he had ever had all at once.

“Darcy, please, I-I know we’re not good, but I need you to trust me. You need to come here, please.”

Steve though he would hurt her.

Steve though he could hurt her, like that had ever been an option.

“We established earlier that you don’t get to tell me what to do, Steven.”

“Darcy, please .”

She shook her head, and with her hands at her sides and her feet faintly spread, James watched the way that she planted her weight. Her knees bent, her body loose, she held herself like she knew how, like she had needed to know how and it would have given him pause had he not been ready to come out of his own skin. Darcy stood like she would defend him, like she could defend him, like he needed protecting from Steve of all people.

“Did you ask James if he wants to see you, or did you just assume?”

“You don’t know who he is!”

“It’s hard to not know Bucky fucking Barnes, Steve, I actually have a brain! But you’re scaring him, and I won’t let you attack him like you’ve been attacking everyone else!”

Steve flinched then, and he looked lost, sagging shoulders and clenched fists like he didn’t know if he should move her or let her yell. He looked like James felt, like his world had started to come apart at the seams, like nothing made much sense and like everything was too much. He looked over her then, stared at James like he had the answers to questions that he didn’t even know, like he could fix the things he hadn’t meant to break just by still being.

“Darcy...”

“James, do you want to talk to Steve right now?”

He knew his answer, he knew what he wanted, and it felt wrong like a burn on his skin but it settled like honey in his bones. An easy decision, the kind of choice that didn’t take much thought, and he felt the words spill free before he could even try and temper himself.

“He made you cry.”

A wounded sound, an aborted motion like Steve wanted to reach out, and James wrapped an arm around her waist before he could help himself, laid claim to her person before Steve could touch her. Darcy didn’t even move, her weight didn’t rock and her form didn’t shift as she supported both of their frames then, and he watched from over her head as Steve drew up short.

“I think you need to leave, Steve.”

Darcy.”

He could feel the tremor in her then, the faint tremble that he hadn’t noticed before, and with Cake between them, he held her close.

“Just for a few hours, I promise.”

It seemed to pain him, his jaw clenched and his skin flushed, and moments ticked by like that before Steve nodded. He stared at them for a long while before he seemed to deflate on an exhale, and he stepped back until his body pressed to the other side of the hall. He didn’t move even when Darcy shut the door, closing them into the sweet smelling world of her apartment, and James didn’t think he was going to until they let him in.

-

Her home was warm, softly lit and softly furnished. Glossy black wainscoting on the bottom half of the walls, a delicate, shimmering pale gold paint on the rest and gleaming, light hardwood, everything looked soft, everything looked inviting. A plush white couch with blankets and pillows in silvers and pinks and golds, a map tacked to the largest, blown up so much that he could see the names of towns and villages within the countries.

She moved only when he let her go, and it was only to turn in his hold, to press herself onto her toes and wind her arms up around his shoulders, his throat.

Darcy held him close and safe, kept pressed against her chest like he belonged there with her arms wrapped around him and her fingers in his hair. She held him even when he curled in on himself, when he slumped over until his face pressed into the curve of her throat and shoulder. Her skin was warm, the soft cotton of her oversized shirt smelled faintly of something floral and sweet and the way that he fell forward sent a gentle sway between them. From her place between their chests Cake gave a quiet sound, and Darcy laughed quietly before pulling away then so that the cat could go free.

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Her fingers found his jaw then, cupped his cheeks until he lifted his head to look at her. Expression kind, mouth faintly pursed, Darcy looked at him with a quiet kind of sympathy and knowing and she made his bones ache. There were no expectations though, no urgency from her words, and instead, she swept her thumb across the crest of his cheek. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. I’m sorry, I made you feel like you needed to come out here. I put you in this position.”

A sad warble to her voice, a quiet frown upon her lips and he didn’t want to see her look like that, didn’t want to be the cause of such an expression on her pretty face.

“I couldn’t just leave you alone.”

Her laugh was soft, a little wet, but Darcy smiled at him like he had given her some precious gift. Her touch was gentle though and she tilted his head down until she could brush her mouth across his forehead. Like he deserved that sort of kiss, like he had done something to garner her affection and the delicate nature of her attention.

“James.”

She knew and yet she still called him that. She had called him Bucky in the hall, she knew damn well who he was, knew damn well the things he had done, except she still touched him. She still held him close with a careful press of her fingers to his skin, she still smiled at him with her bloodshot eyes and her unpainted mouth like he deserved to see her vulnerable and unguarded.

Darcy knew exactly who she was, except she still touched him, she still leaned into him and gave him her smile, her laughter. She had defended him from Steve of all people, had put herself between two men easily twice her size like she hadn’t even been scared.

“You don’t get it, do you sugar?”

His voice soft, his hands on the swell of her hips, James could feel the pounding of his heart within his fingertips. She was warm against him, felt just as right in his arms here as she had on his roof, and he moved slowly, gave her time to turn away, time to pull back from him. Darcy just stared at him though, her spring sky eyes wide and her unpainted lips gaping and her mouth was just as soft as the rest of her.

A quiet little sound from in her throat, something soft and sighing and he pulled her body flush to his as she turned liquid and lax in his hold. Her mouth was like a fire, tempting and consuming and she clung to him with her hands in his hair like the press of their mouths together was the only breath she needed. He wanted to keep her there, wanted to hold her close until the thought of parting never crossed her mind, and Darcy seemed only too ready to let him for how she made another soft sound at the way his fingers flexed at her hips, for how she pressed up to follow him when he finally pulled away from the pretty, flushed pink of her mouth.

“Even taste like sugar.”

“James."

Chapter Text

She could still taste him on her lips, something rain cloud dark and ozone, static bright. Lightning electric, ephemeral, her mouth turned pink from the pressure and her tongue sweeping out to chase the taste of him, she wanted to kiss him again. She wanted to kiss him again, wanted to press so close that the hot crush of his body against hers was the only thing she knew. Her thighs around his hips, his hands on her waist, she wanted to let him crawl inside her just as much as she wanted to sink her nails into his skin and hold him to her tight.

A shuddering breath, a delicious, burning ache in her chest and Darcy forced herself to fall flat footed, to put a distance between them even if only from their mouths.

His eyes were that dark, summer storm blue though, his cheeks a little flushed and his mouth held a faint sheen from her own. She wanted to kiss him, wanted to kiss him like she hadn’t been able to in years, and it was everything she could do to keep her hands to herself. James didn’t need that sort of pressure, she could see the hesitation in the way that he held himself half the time, but she found herself swaying into him when he smiled, soft and sweet and slow.

Because he smiled at her, off center and crooked and yet-

There was a soft of confidence in him in that moment, in the way that she could feel his hands against her hips even through the cotton of her shirt and in the way that he lifted a hand to brush his knuckles against her cheek. The vibranium was cool against her flushed skin but he touched her like he didn’t question himself. In that moment, there were no shadows in his eyes, no demons on his breath and she sighed.

She could almost forget what had gotten them here with him looking at her like that, that molten dark in his gaze and that gentle burn to his touch enough to draw her in until it was all she could breathe. Almost, it was almost enough, nearly consuming enough, but she knew Steve was out there, just beyond her door, and it was impossible to ignore him. It wasn’t fair to either of them, to any of them, but for as much as she wanted to dig her nails into his skin and bind him with her thighs about his hips, she couldn’t keep James from Steve.

James didn’t know her like he knew Steve.

“James, we can’t.”

The wrong thing to say, because he drew taunt against her, pulled as if to put a distance between them and Darcy’s hands went up. She caught his wrist in her fingers, the vibranium smooth and cool to the touch and she turned her head then, pressed her mouth to his palm in the same sort of kiss that he had stolen her breath with. She held onto him like he had held her, watched her breath fog the metal before pressing his hand to her cheek.

“I want to, okay?”

He wanted her with those dark eyes, expression wide and his mouth a little parted, and every part of her wanted to kiss him again. She leaned into his touch instead, pressed her weight into his hand and felt the way his fingers curled against her cheek. He looked less tense then, looked less like he wanted to back himself into the corner, less like he wanted to flee. So she pressed a kiss to his thumb when it swept slowly past her lips, and watched as his pupils blew wide with an expression familiar for his person if not for his face.

“I really, really want to, but we can’t right now. Because Steve’s in the hall, and you need to talk, and I won’t want to stop if we start again.”

His mouth tipped up then, a smile that showed the whites of his teeth and a flash of pink from his tongue, and his eyes narrowed faintly, lashes dark against his cheeks.

“That so, sugar?”

He was devious then, he was delicious in that press of his hips against hers and the tug of his mouth where he smiled, sticky and slow like he had all the time in the world. His hands on her hips, the pressure of his fingers that part of her wished would kiss bruises into her skin. God but he was hot, burning a line of fire against the front of her where he backed her up, up, up until Darcy’s body caught between his and the cool stone line of her island counter.

It was either catch her hands behind her on the counter or put them somewhere on his person, and there was already such a surplus of contact between them that she didn’t trust herself to touch him anymore than she already did. Palms planted on the cool stone, her attempt to level him with an unimpressed expression cut itself short with the lifting of one of his hands, the way he cupped her jaw and brushed his thumb just so against her lower lip. He chased the touch with another press of his mouth to hers that she couldn’t not follow, that she couldn’t not lean into.

Leaning forward wasn’t quite the right answer though, neither was the way she tried to speak, his name nothing more that a muffled utter between the seams of their mouths. Instead the weight of his body against hers slowly tipped her back, warm and solid and real against her like he hadn’t been in as long as Darcy could remember until she could feel the chill of the smooth stone against her back. Cool stone against her back and the feeling of his thighs pressed against the bare skin of her own where her too large shirt had ridden up, it was all too easy for him to press against her like that.

That was her voice then wasn’t it, that curling, throaty moan that she could feel birth from somewhere deep within her chest? The way that he smiled against her mouth wasn’t something she could fault him then, even if the way the hand on her hip dipped a little lower until she could feel the smooth vibranium against the overheated skin of her thigh did nothing to help the way she arched into him. God but she could almost remember how it felt, could already feel the hot, heavy press of him against the soft of her belly and she wanted to reach down, wanted to wrap her fingers around his flesh, wanted to tug her wrist and twist her thumb and taste the way that he moaned with her tongue.

James .”

A gasp of his name, a trembling, arcing sound and she pulled away from the lure of his mouth then and turned her face from him. That was the drag of his lips on her throat then, lighting her body up like it hadn’t ever been in this life and she didn’t want him to stop. She wanted her back on the counter, she wanted her hands above her head and the slick, hot, sinful drive of his body within hers until she lost her breath, until she forgot which name was currently hers and all she knew was the feel of him once more.

It would have been so easy, it would have been perfect like he always was every time they managed to ever reach that point, would have been so simple to lose herself to the feeling of his skin against hers and the warmth of his mouth and the sting of his teeth.

Except, that was Steve out there, waiting on them.

That was her best friend in the hallway, and she knew the way he pulled at his hair when he was stressed, she knew the way that he chewed on the sides of his thumbs, the way that he ate at himself until he looked ready to scream, ready to cry. Who held his hand when she wasn’t there though, who listened to his problems and nodded at the appropriate times not because she was trained but because she actually cared? It was impossible to distance herself from him even though she had tried, the lack of his voice in her apartment and his messages blowing up her phone felt a lot like missing a limb.

Her thoughts derailed once more though at the feeling of his fingers on the soft of her inner thighs, and her body arched on the counter at the drag of his mouth across her throat, the exposed skin of her chest where her shirt had fallen loose and low. Those were his fingers, so close to where she could feel herself burning even as she grew wet and damn him but she moaned, head rolling on the counter beneath her as he spread her legs to make a home for his hips between them. She wanted him to touch her, she wanted him to fuck her and pull her apart like he hadn’t with these bodies, and damn it, but Darcy had always been selfish.

She had always been selfish, and she could feel the way he grinned against her skin, could feel the cool metal of his left hand and the slight pull of his nails on the other and she spread her legs wider for him. Her body, this body, had never felt like this, had never been this liquid hot and touched by another and she wanted to give it to him like she had every time she had known to.

“You doin’ alright up there, sugar?”

His fingers paused, and the sound she made was one of pure, strangled frustration. It made her breath though, it made her stop and pull herself together, and her hands came up, tangled in her hair and pressed to her face and did nothing to muffle the tight lipped whine she made. Still, her chest expanded on a large breath and she pulled in another, and another still before she answered him.

“I need to close my legs and get down. Because our best friend is out in the hallway, Barbulescu, I can’t fuck you on my kitchen table.”

As she spoke, his hands left the sensitive skin of her thighs, and instead she was left without him for only a moment before James took her wrists within his hands with a careful touch. Gentle, her hands were taken from her face, and she blinked at the smile on his face and the soft light in his eyes as he pulled her up with a little tug. Up, up until she stood against him, but his touch was different this time, his fingers light where he lifted her own to press his mouth to the tips in soft, chaste kisses.

He didn’t question her, hadn’t even hesitated once her foot had been planted firmly with the stance of no , and instead he had listened in a way that most men in this day and age didn’t.

“Better, sugar?”

Her skin was flushed, she could feel it from her thighs to her cheeks but his voice was soft, no expectation to be found, and he watched her with those eyes like she was the only thing he saw. Nodding, however faint, caused his smile to tick up just the faintest bit in one corner, and he gave one last kiss to her palm before giving one to her forehead in an innocent press of his mouth to her skin. Darcy sighed, her eyes closed as she touched him then, hands on his shoulders and her fingers curling in the fabric of his sweatshirt just for some way to hold onto him.

“Yeah. I...I need to go get Steve, James.”

“You ain’t gonna call me Bucky?”

She couldn’t see his face.

Even with her eyes open again, there was his chest, his throat, he had pressed so close to her that she couldn’t see his face, couldn’t catch his expression. The evasion felt deliberate, but she let him have it, instead let her hands fall until she could instead grasp him around his waist, could wrap her arms around him as best as she could. His tone was off though, a little tight at the corners and wavering in that marrow deep kind of uncertainty. It made her grip on him tighten, it made her duck a little further against his chest, and even though he spoke against her hair, Darcy tried to burrow closer to him still.

“Names are really important. When you give someone your name, you give them part of yourself, or of who you want to be. You told me your name is James Barbulescu, so until you tell me otherwise, regardless of what I know, your name is James.”

She felt the tremble that ran across his skin then, pressed as close as they were, and his arms around her went tight until she was gathered against his chest and could feel the thundering pound of his heart. Her back was going to crack if he squeezed her much tighter, and while she wouldn’t mind, Darcy doubted that he would react positively to such a sound. So she arched a bit against him to save her spine the pressure, lifted on her toes and pressed until their bellies were together and ignored the heavy weight of him against her abdomen where the throb hadn’t yet faded.

Time passed like that, until the shivers stopped across his skin and the wet ache had gone entirely from between her thighs. She had grown comfortable in his hold, had shifted from resting her weight on her toes to instead giving it to him where he seemed all too ready to support her and it was only when he shifted his hold on her that Darcy sighed. She sighed, turned her head enough to press her mouth to his jaw, and her hair had partially dried.

“I don’t deserve you.”

The words were muffled, spoken into the wild curls of her unbrushed hair and even then she could hear the waver in his voice, the quiet, water emotion like he hadn’t meant for her to hear him.

It sent a fire through her, fierce and demanding and she pushed away from his chest then, forced his hands from her so that she could instead hold his face. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks wet, and though her touch was gentle, Darcy could feel the way that lifetimes of knowing him and loving him sent a ferocious echo into her voice. He could never think less of himself, to doubt himself was to doubt her and the way that she loved him and such a transgression could never be allowed, not while she could correct him.

“You deserve everything .

Conviction made her voice harsher than she had intended, but James didn’t flinch from her hold. He stared at her instead, wide eyed and unguarded by the gap of his mouth and the loose of his jaw. He didn’t seem to know what to do with those words, didn’t seem to know what to do with her , not at first anyway. For he moved then, caught her head within his hands just as she held his and he kissed her with a gentle, gossamer brush that made her head spin.

Hands slipping to his shoulders, the back of his neck, it was easy to soothe her fingers through his hair, to scratch her nails delicately across his scalp and feel the way he shivered.

His forehead bumped to hers then when their mouths broke apart, and she watched as James shut his eyes, as he took in a breath from between bared teeth. She shifted her stance, her hold on him going from a slight cling to support instead and Darcy let him lean on her like she had leaned on him. He had been a rock for her before, a pillar of flame in the dark when the world had been bitter and cold life after life, she would do it for him now, would be that fire for however long he let her.

“Go let him in.”

She didn’t question him, he had done her the service of not questioning her, and even if she didn’t quite agree, she would stand by his decision. Instead she scratched her fingers across his scalp one last time before untangling herself from him, a motion made slightly difficult by the way he hadn’t let her go. He did though, eventually, slowly like he didn’t really want to, and she did her best to make sure the smile she gave him was encouraging before she turned her back on him.

There was no saving her hair, and she knew that Steve would know, but she kept her shoulders from squaring, her posture from becoming defensive. Lax, rounded shoulders and a loose hold to herself, and when she opened the door he was still there.

His body on the floor, legs bent and his head low, caught in his hands, and she sighed at the sight of him. Door ajar behind her, she instead stepped on bare feet out into the hall and just into his space, stood at the very edge of the world he had claimed for himself between her door and Natasha’s. He looked small then, small like she hadn’t seen him in ages, small like he didn’t know what to do with the sky that had fallen down around him.

“Steve?”

She didn’t mean to sound so quiet, so unsure and small, but her voice was out before she could help it and Darcy wanted to flinch at the sound.

Steve did that for her though, a trembling jerk from his shoulders down his spine, and his eyes were red rimmed when he looked at her. His mouth a thin line, he watched her with a weary, tired kind of heavy, and she wanted to reach for him, wanted to brush her fingers through his hair and hold him like he obviously needed. She kept her hands to herself though, wrapped loosely around her on waist and her fingers clenched in her shirt, for it was all too easy to remember not just their blowout in her apartment but the way he had torn into her in the elevator just a few hours prior.

His sigh was resonating, bone deep, and he watched her with such emotion that had she been any younger she would have looked away.

“How long did you know?”

There was a rasp to his voice, the echoing grate that came from when he cried, and she had caused that. She had caused that, even in an off handed way and even though she wanted to say it served him right, there was no vindictive pleasure to be found from the sight. Instead it made her feel old, made her feel tired and sore, and she wanted to go back in and press herself into James’ arms just as much as she wanted to pull Steve to his feet.

“I only found out today. I was going to tell you-”

“-but I attacked you. I yelled at you and I-fuck, Darcy, did I actually make you cry?”

Hesitation then, because she didn’t want to tell him if only to spare him from the knowing, but Steve wouldn’t appreciate that. But she didn’t have words for him, not the ones she wanted anyway, and though her mouth pressed tight she held his gaze, nodded.

Bare footed in the hall and clothed in nothing more than a simple pair of underpants and a too large shirt, she felt small, she felt young , damp hair and sunshine painted toes. Steve had seen her in worse, Steve had seen her in less, had stretched his long legs out on the floor while she sank as deep as she could into the porcelain coffin of her tub and had listened to her whine about her sister like Amelia was the only problem she had.

He had made her cry though, angry, curling sobs that had punched from between her teeth into the quiet containment of her entryway and even though Jarvis had been the only one to witness her breakdown and her shame, she hadn’t felt quite so raw and exposed in a lifetime.

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens.”

She hated apologies.

Messy business, words wasted on lives that were too short and smaller moments still that couldn’t be taken back, but there was sentiment to them. She knew Steve though, knew his guilt and the way that he ate at himself and how he needed to say the words and know they were heard even if they weren’t accepted. She couldn’t just tell him no though, couldn’t disregard him when he looked at her like that, when he pulled in on himself and sounded like that.

He shook his head at her, he didn’t necessarily like it but he understood her well enough after so many years into their friendship even if he didn’t get it . It was enough then, the way he smiled at her, hesitant and small like he didn’t necessarily know if he should but like he wanted to all the same.

The air between them was static thick, tense like it hadn’t been with Steve in a long time and Darcy wanted to frown, wanted to yank him to his feet just because he let her and clench her arms around his waist.

“You know I can see your panties, right?”

Tony would never believe her if she tried to tell him that Captain America said the word panties , but Darcy knew. Darcy knew and that was enough, because this was Steve, with his childish humor and his off brand sort of dirty and inappropriate that nobody would ever believe her existed. Her response was cheeky even though she felt the urge to cry from relief, because she hadn’t heard that tone of voice in well over a week and she wondered how it had been for him, hearing her voice and her laughing just around a corner but not saying anything, not closing that distance; had he been just as alone, as adrift in his own skin and missing a limb without her as she had been without him? She didn’t have an answer for that though, no doubt wouldn’t have one, so Darcy didn’t ask.

She laughed though, a quiet, cackling burst of sound, and her hands fisted in the edges of her shirt enough that she could pull it up just enough to show the soft black fabric, the electric blue scallops of lace pressed into the hems with a delicate touch, unable to be ashamed of herself when there was no heat in his gaze.

“They’re new.”

He looked, but there was no expectation and instead he nodded like he had expected as much, and maybe he had. His eyes were on hers then though, and she knew that pull to his mouth with the familiarity of knowing her own face in a mirror, but it had been days since she had seen him last, there could be no real way to brace herself.

"This is probably why Tony thinks we’re fucking.”

Her laughter was loud in the hall then, and it was with her hands over her mouth and her body shaking that the distance between them grew small. For he surged to his feet, for he took that sound as invitation and wrapped his arms around her before he had even really found his balance and so they swayed for a moment where he nearly toppled them over. They danced like that for an instant, a heartbeat of too much motion and not enough grace and she had missed this, had missed his clumsy and the way her breath caught as her body readied itself for a fall that never came.

His arms around her then, Steve held her close, held her like he could meld her back into his side and never lose her again. She understood that lonely, she understood that fear, and Darcy clung to her friend, to her brother with her nails pressure point harsh through the back of his shirt and her head against his chest. That was his breath on her hair, those were his arms around her and his heart beneath her ear and she had missed him and his stupid Catholic guilt just as much as she had missed his stupid face.

“He’s really here?”

The humor had faded then, caught under the current of his uncertainty, of the small boy that still lived within him scared to be left alone just as much as he was to be left behind. She couldn’t gather him much closer than she already had but Darcy tried anyway, adjusted her hold on him until her fingers could nearly touch. And her voice was muffled, but she gave her words anyway, for he needed them then just as he needed to be held together unless he unravel at the seams.

“He is. He’s not Bucky, but he’s trying, and I think that counts for a lot, don’t you?”

He swallowed, a thick, wet sound that echoed in his chest and thought she didn’t like the sound of it with where her head pressed, she knew all too well that tight emotion. So she let him hold her, let him think that she needed him more than he needed her, but she knew the answer. She had James, had him in the taste of his mouth against hers and the way that he laughed, but Steve’s brother stood beyond them in her apartment, just out of sight but hardly out of mind. She knew what fear did to him though, and so she let him bolster himself on the notion of being needed, let him find his strength from within her bones.

“I don’t think I can go in alone.”

“I’m right here.”

Chapter Text

He’d gotten used to the feeling of gloves on his hands. The seemingly delicate stretch and the way it kept dough off his hands, the lack of having to try and get it out from beneath his fingernails where it caked or the feel of it trying on his fingers. The thin latex stretched over the wide of his knuckles and the shine of the vibranium until anybody that knew no different wouldn’t be able to tell that both hands weren’t flesh, that both hands weren’t his.

It was, they were.

They were his hands, his , Darcy had insisted that they were. She had gathered his hands in hers, settled on the cloud soft of her bed and she’d smiled at him, kissed each fingertip like they were the same. Beneath the gilt tree branches that stretched up her wall and crawled up her ceiling, he had felt safe, had felt at home. Darcy had held his hands and insisted that they were his, had tangled their fingers together and pulled him down so they could lay on the cloud of her bed, and he had fallen asleep like that. He had drifted with the feeling of Cake curling above their heads and the warm weight of her body curled against his, and he had stayed like that until the sun had risen the next morning.

A month had gone since then, since his night time subway ride and the incident with Steve in the hall.

A month had come and gone and it was only after the fact that he had learned it was her birthday, but she had just laughed, had just turned her face up for kisses to silence his murmurs of how she deserved presents better than him.

Over twenty days since he had stood stiff and quaking in her living room, had listened to her and Steve out in the hall and felt the urge to smile at their reunion, to laugh. He didn’t know their relationship, not really, but he recognized the way they treated one another for the way that it mirrored how him and Steve had once done, and it settled something within him to know that neither of them had been alone. There had been Steve then though, winter blue eyes anxious and his hands flexing as he forcibly kept to himself, and James hadn’t been able bear to see him to just standing there like that.

Twenty-seven days since he had first reached out and caught Steve by the wrist, since he had pulled his brother against his chest and felt the way that Steve banded his arms about him and shook. He had cried then, quiet if only compared to the way that Steve had pressed sobbing, gasping breaths into his throat, and James had held on until he felt the vibranium creak, until surely he would bruise the other, but Steve’s hold had been just as fierce. Like he would slip away, like his brother expected him to run, but James couldn’t fathom then why he had even run in the first place.

He had recognized his face that morning when he shaved, had paused with the straight razor held in his palm and blinked at eyes that he knew as his.

“You’re going to over knead the dough.”

“Shut the fuck up, Artyom.”

The strangest things came out of his mouth in this shop, with the metallic gleam of the kitchen around him and the hot sugar smell of yeast in his lungs. It felt like home here, felt like comfort that he hadn’t had since before the bridge, felt like a family he hadn’t expected to have with these people who shouldn’t trust him. Oksana patted his hand and called him boy though, made him walk her to work and stomped into his life every morning. Except, Darcy smiled at him like he had given her the sun, held his hand and danced on the sidewalk and kissed him like she needed him. Steve with his punch of delirious laughter like he couldn’t quite believe, the way that his mouth got away from him and how he hugged James until his back cracked. Artyom with his heaving sighs and his rolling eyes, the way he pushed James like James wasn’t bigger than him.

It felt a lot like before.

Before the bridge, before the fall, before the war, with too many people in his Ma’s kitchen and having to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd. Felt a lot like a Saturday night spent down at the dance hall on High Street with cigarette smoke hazy against the ceiling and his second drink lazy in his belly. Good times, better times, feeling whole in his own skin for all that he still missed things, for all that something was still off, something still missing and gone that he couldn’t remember the name of.

“I’m just saying, you know it won’t ris-”

Bottle cap glasses and mousy brown hair, the young man was wide in the shoulders for all that he was long. But he was more length than anything else, thin muscles, a thin face, yet for all that Artyom was taller, James could still easily twist him in half. But the boy didn’t flinch, not even when James slapped his palms down on the counter and scattered a small cloud of flour into the air. Their fronts dusted with flour, he nearly knocked his knuckles into the well he had made in his flour and salt mixture on the counter for his next batch of dough, and James eyed the sloshing eggs and water in the center for a moment before looking to the boy.

“Why aren’t you scared of me? You used to be scared of me.”

His voice came as more of a whine than he had intended, but it was too late to take it back for as much as he grumbled. Artyom just shrugged though, his long fingers caked in sugared dough and what looked like cinnamon, and used his wrist to push his glasses back into place. He motioned then with a single, spice covered hand to James legs with a waggle of his fingers.

“You’re wearing my pants, I can’t be intimidated by you.”

Rocking a bit where he stood, James relaxed his shoulders, dough sticky hands dropping toward the waistband of his jeans.

“No, no, don’t take them off! That is the furthest from sanitary!”

Rolling laughter then for the way that Artyom took a hurried step back, for how he bumped into one of the tray racks and had to wrap his arms around it to keep it from rolling across the kitchen toward the walk in fridge. James braced himself on the counter, gloved hands smearing little prints across it and his shirt where he rested his weight too far forward. It was a lot like being in a kitchen with his sister again, for all that Artyom rolled his eyes the same way that Rebecca used to and for all that he stumbled over himself with his too long legs.

“This doesn’t sound like making sushki!”

A choking sound from Artyom where he tried still to get the rack to stop rolling, and that was laughter then wasn’t it, loud on his own lips and gusting from his lungs, laughter like he hadn’t had a reason to give in years. Stranger still then, surely, the way that he didn’t flinch at the sound, and instead, James leaned his weight against the counter a little harder, misjudging the distance and smearing a gloved hand through the dough he had been kneading as he tried to plant his weight.

He’d gotten used to laughing, and that was-he hadn’t expected that, hadn’t ever thought about something like that since the bridge. Since he’d come too, since he’d seen the face of a stranger staring back at him that was supposed to be his, since he’s ducked his handlers and thrown himself into the city because he wanted to do better. He wanted to be better. Better, strangely enough, had included not shaking out of his skin in the night or killing the unsuspecting innocents who were his neighbors, not peeling off pastry dough covered gloves, not teasing a young man who lived on the floor above him at work, not kissing a pretty dame or smiling at Steve.

Laughter though, laughter felt like his default now, full bellied, punchy sounds that made his face red and his eyes water. Laughter at the things Darcy said and the way that she drew him along to dance without music in the middle of his living room, her kitchen, a sidewalk near the bakery. Wheezing and muffled behind fingers and teeth at the way Steve screamed at traffic when a car got too close, at how he fell asleep sprawled out in Darcy’s living room like he owned the place.

He hadn’t expected to laugh again, didn’t think he even knew how before this, before them.

Oksana’s face peered at them from around the corner, fat silver curls coiled up to the top of her head and her dark eyes as shrewd as ever. Unimpressed by the flat of her mouth, by the pull of her cheeks, and one dark brow lifted where she watched them. It didn’t help though, the way that he heard the dissatisfied rumble starting in her chest only made him laugh a little harder for all that he tried not to. He could hear Artyom behind him, the smacking sounds of the boy trying to get the cart to stop rolling without knocking any of the trays off.

James gripped the counter a little tighter, heard the metal creak beneath the vibranium and he swore under his breath.

“You break my kitchen and no Darcy.”

A sputter from between his lips and he pulled to his full height, glared at her with a quiet sort of childishness that he’d only just come back into.

“She’s not your daughter, Popov, you can’t just ground her from me.”

“No, but I can ground you .”

A rumbling, spat out sound then, guttural and harsh from between his teeth but James smiled. He smiled, wide and toothy and off center like he had felt himself doing for the past few weeks. Oksana leaned one thin hip against the counter, crossed her slender arms and stared past him at Artyom until the boy started moving, until James heard the cart being pushed into the walk in. He had her attention then, alone with the harsh bright of her gaze and the purse of her lips but James smiled all the same.

“You’re mean today.”

“You’re a brat today.” She sniffed, her nose curled, and Oksana reached out with thin, spindly fingers that patted at his cheek with a little more force than was probably necessary. He didn’t flinch from her touch, didn’t even feel the baseline reaction to, and instead James let her push his face aside, let her angle his head so that he could only see her from the corner of his eye. “Stop smiling like that, you look crazy .”

Another smile, another bit of laughter, and he pulled away until he could see her fully. Distracted fingers scrubbed at his chin, and it was only once he felt the clinging drag of something that shouldn’t be there that he paused, that his eyes closed and he rumbled out a low, quiet fuck . Oksana’s laugh was loud in the space of the kitchen, amused by the sticky tack of dough against his stubble and he frowned, tried to scrub it away with his wrist even as he stared at her through slitted eyes.

“Steven is here. Too big for my shop, he walks like a newborn calf. Did nobody teach your friend how to be small?”

He shucked his gloves then, Oksana would twist Artyom’s arm into finishing and storing the dough anyway so it could proof overnight and James used the palm of his flesh hand to rub the rest of the dough from his skin.

“Spent most of his life bein’ small, he’s not used to being big.”

She shrugged like she didn’t care, clucked her tongue at him until he threw his gloves away like he was supposed to. She tossed her head toward the front of the store, relatively empty at this time of day since the lunch rush had slipped past them just over an hour ago. She caught him by the front of his shirt when he tried to move past her though, thin fingers knotted in the fabric and James paused at the faint pull. Something watchful in her eyes, something that was just as knowing as it was concerned, and he felt himself soften beneath her gaze, felt his shoulders loosen.

“Promise me you will be careful.”

“Oksan-”

“Promise me.”

Just as militant, just as biting, but there was a waver in the steel of her voice. He didn’t dare call her on it, not when she snapped like that, not when she had pride like that. Instead, James nodded after a moment, after a few heartbeats spent with her staring at him like his answer mattered. Like his safety mattered, like he needed to be careful for her sake if for nothing else, and it still felt strange, still settled something warm and soft in the ache of his bones to think that people cared for him like that.

Sighing, quiet for all that his chest heaved, James reached out and caught her by her shoulders with a single arm, drew her close until he held her to his chest. He was older than her, old enough to be her father but Oksana treated him like he was one of her people instead, like he was her friend for all that she knew, all that she had seen of him. He pressed a kiss to her hair and felt the way that her hands fisted in the front of his shirt as if to hold onto him, as if her hollow bird bones could keep him in place through sheer force of will.

“I promise.”

He could feel her nod, the tremble of her exhale, but she smacked at him then, flat palmed hands that thumped against his chest until he let her go.

“Get, get! You will squish my hair and you are covered in flour. Get Steven out of my shop, he’s too big. Might eat everything.”

Now want to laugh then, not when he couldn’t seem to save himself from the soft lit smile that pulled at his mouth, and James released her only to watch her stomp further into the kitchen. A warpath set on Artyom, and he caught the look of horror and betrayal the tall boy shot him just before he ducked out of the kitchen and into the shop front. Fewer patrons than even twenty minutes prior, the young girl with her laptop who took station near the windows with her frazzled hair and shadowed eyes the only other person in the shop.

And then there was Steve, loitering near the counter with his big hands stuffed in the front pouch pocket of a hooded sweatshirt and his big shoulders curled slightly where he had bent over. Intent on the display case, on either the sushki or the sweet breads or the pirog , equipped with a stomach that could eat all of it and an aw shucks kind of grin that used to get him everything, but James knew better. Knew how sticky those fingers were and how hungry the man was, and he peeled off his dough tacky gloves with a loud snap.

“Ay, keep your droolin’ to yourself, you ain’t no urchin Stevie.”

Fast words and a slur of an accent that had seemed foreign and thick on his tongue at first, brought on by the way Steve yelled at traffic and cursed at the television and talked with his mouth full, but James had gotten used to it, had gotten used to himself again. It should have given him pause then, to think of this body as his, this person as his, but it felt a little like breathing now, being in this skin, felt a little like home for all that he still felt like a ghost with rattling bones.

Steve had the decency to grin at him though, that same one that had gotten them out of as much trouble as it had gotten them in, and his sunshine hair stood ruffled from the breeze that blew through the streets just outside.

“How many a these did you make?”

A bit of pride then, a warm flush of it that crawled through his blood and bloomed a home for itself in his chest, and James leaned against the counter even as he fished his black gloves from his pockets.

“The bagel looking things there? Sushki , don’t call em bagels, Oksana’ll pull your ear off.” He rolled a wrist until he could point to the carefully stacked pile of them that he’d filled the case with that morning, glazed with sugar and dotted with pieces of fruit. “Don’t usually come with fruit, but I candied some apricots yesterday while my dough set.”

Steve had started to stare at him, a lopsided smile on his sharp jawed face and a loose pull to his brows like there was a question somewhere in his lungs, a concern somewhere in his blood.

“You’re good at this.”

The words were given slow, and James shrugged faintly, gloves snug against his skin and he plucked then at his sleeves until they rolled down to cover his wrists. Steve stared still though, that cotton smile on his face and the soft quiet in his eyes, and James wanted to hit him if only to get him to stop.

“Keeps m’head quiet.”

“Yeah? That’s good, that’s-Sam’s always telling me I need a hobby that ain’t tearing apart a heavy bag, but I haven’t exactly had my model recently.”

Mouth pursed, James looked away then to count how many sushki there were, a sizable dent compared to the four piles that had filled the case where now only one remained. They would need to restock that, he should get back and finish banding out the dough so that he could sugar boil more of them, so they could stock more before the shop got busy in a few hours.

“Darcy?”

His voice was thick to his own ears, not sure where it wanted to settle and heavy against his ribs. Steve stuffed his hands a little deeper into the pocket of his sweater and watched him with those eyes, a little bit hesitant and a little bit eager in a way that felt like a familiar echo.

“You want to go get a pie?”

He had things he needed to do. He needed to candy more fruit, had coaxed Artyom into getting a few gallons of currents from the market that morning that he had yet to decide how to use, had dough that needed proofed and eggs that needed brought to room temperature, milk that needed curdled. He didn’t have time to go get something to eat with Steve, he shouldn’t.

“Let me tell Oksana I’m leaving.”

-

Raniero’s still stood on the corner, four blocks south and one block east from where their old apartment had been in Brooklyn. The little grocer that had flanked it on one side had been turned into a bookstore, the cobbler on the other had been made into a florists and what had been the dentists office above that had been replaced with an art studio. Raniero’s was the only thing that hadn’t changed, and even it had gotten a face up, fresh exterior paint and a new finish on the light fixtures. They gleamed more in the sun than they used to.

There was a light at the far end of the block now rather than just a sign, new street lamps and more cars than he ever thought could fit on such a narrow street. They’d made it a one way but that hadn’t done anything for the foot traffic. Steve had flagged them a cab that had taken them though Sheepshead Bay before spitting them out where they needed to be, had paid the man with a handful of cash and waved off the call about change even as he motioned James across the street.

For all that outside had been loud though, Raniero’s was a comfortable kind of hush, enough conversation in the air that nobody paid them any heed and few enough people that he felt like he could breathe. His back pressed into the corner, they’d replaced the lining on the booths at least even if the deep burgundy color hadn’t changed any and the pine tabletop now had a slick clear coating on the top of it instead of woodgrain beneath his hands.

Right glove folded in his pocket, he’d set his oversized slice of pizza aside after the second time his phone buzzed so he could swipe his thumb across the screen. Darcy, always Darcy when it wasn’t Steve, Oksana prefered to call, complaining about paperwork and the fact that she had been given another assistant. He wasn’t sure what had happened to the last, but the way she seemed less than thrilled was enough that he didn’t ask, further deterrent found in her rapid fire response complaining that someone called Mesi had had her running all morning. Quick to respond, a probably far too serious question on if she needed a rescue and he listened to the sound of Steve finishing off his third Coke since they’d gotten their pies.

“Darcy’s talkin’ bout a new assistant?”

His cheeks were full, mouth a little bit greasy from the meat that he’d gotten on his pie but Steve groaned all the same. He didn’t even set the slice down, folded in half and mostly gone even though he’d only just picked it up, and instead he leaned sideways on his arm, weight braced with his elbow on the table.

“She fuckin’ hates ‘em. Miss Potts’ a real swell gal and I don’t mean no offense, but she’s got a real fuckin’ bad habit sometimes a wavin’ the company wad around and expectin’ things to go her way.” The sort of slander he remembered all too well from a face that still looked just as innocent, and James watched as Steve finished off the rest of the slice he held in two large bites. He swiped his fingers across his jeans then, just as messy and ill mannered now as he had been then, and James wondered if America knew just how foul their favorite sweetheart was. “Darcy ain’t got the patience for anyone sticking their fingers in her work, she might just clip this one.”

Brow furrowing, he glanced down at the buzz of another text from his girl while Steve finally reached for a napkin.

I refuse to leave Camille alone with my paperwork.

You tell me if that changes.

Wouldn’t mind a little company if Oksana decides to spare you later.

I’ll see what I can do.

“But why does she got one? Thought she worked in the labs.”

Steve leaned back in his side of the booth, loose limbed with a smear of tomato sauce on his cheek and James took his own slice back in hand, tore his teeth through the wilted basil leaf on a bite as he watched the other.

“She manages the labs. Approves of every experiment, runs all the money, orders all their shit. She’s what keeps the entire department alive, and she’s got some of the smartest people in the world under her thumb for all that she’s too polite to ever take advantage.”

“Too polite?”

A rumble of laughter, a snort and a bit of a cough where his food tried to settle wrong and Steve grinned at him across the table for all that his gaze was shadowed and sad.

“Can’t exactly say she’s too good, now can I? Darcy’s mean, but she’s probably got to be to put up with the rest of us, she’s just too sweet on a good day to do anything about it even if we haven’t exactly had a lot of good days here recently.”

A low sound, a bare toothed crackle of laugh that he knew like he'd started to know his own skin, Steve slouched a little further in his seat and James felt the way a foot knocked against his shin, the rattle of it to his knee. Halo gold hair and Steve looked star bright in the low lighting of Raniero’s , a lot like the blue eyed demon that James had always known him to be when they were young and they bled easier in familiar back alleys.

“She goes through assistants faster than I do shoes. Hates em and doesn’t give them an inch, usually chases them out in tears within the month, and then Miss Potts gives it a few weeks before she tries again. Stark Expo in Austria’s coming up though, she probably got stuffed with this one until all the details between SI Paris and SI Vienna are taken care of.”

 

Chapter Text

Ruched sleeves that cinched just above her elbows and structured, padded shoulders, the sharp geometry in contrast to the modest, shallow dip of the neck softened slightly the full curve that the rest of her figure made. Fitted to her waist, tailored to the wide swell of her hips, she felt professional in the way that the hem shifted just above her knees, she felt powerful for how she had stalked about on a pair of nude, suede pumps all day. Perfectly put together from the olive drab of her dress to the way she had tamed her hair for once, fat, dark curls that spilled over one shoulder rather than a swirl of frizz and a haphazard tail at the top of her head.

She felt exhausted, a tremble in her fingers and a rattle in her lungs, she was hungry from the empty gnawing in her belly and the quiet protests of her abdomen. She had missed lunch, too busy teetering around on heels higher than what she usually wore while she defended the production right of the scientists under her care against the board of donors and trustees for six hours. She had smiled as much as she had made them feel small, too old for this kind of bureaucratic nonsense and too young to be intimidated by men who wore suits that cost more than her family home.

She hadn’t eaten though, hadn’t had much to drink, and only having gotten back to her office ten minutes prior, Darcy could feel it then. A yawn caught somewhere in the pit of her chest, she wanted to scrub off her makeup, wanted to take the deep mauve matte from her lips and toss back a steaming cup of coffee. There were a lot of things she wanted to do, but there were more things still that she needed to do, paperwork that needed to be filled and filed and travel plans that needed to be set in stone, transport for various prototypes and experiments and personnel that she needed to go over, things that needed made both air tight and discreet.

She didn’t want another incident with Justin Hammer, not like last year, but all the same, she just wanted to take off her shoes.

She just wanted to go home and call James.

Manicured nailed scratched across her scalp in a slow curl and Darcy sighed, took up her phone and pulled off her glasses with the hand that had been in her hair. There was a headache that had started to form there, there was a tension in her shoulders and the base of her skull and she could feel it in her face, behind her eyes. A bath might have been in order, maybe she could get James to join her if he wasn’t busy, maybe they could get something to eat, maybe he could stay over.

Her office door swung open easily beneath her touch, and it wasn’t until she slammed into a broad chest that she realized it had been too easy.

“Fuck!”

Shit .”

She tumbled then like she hadn’t on her shoes all day, lost her footing where she tried to correct herself from falling forward. Steve caught her with an arm around her waist, banded high and he pulled her sharp against his chest so she didn’t fall. Her ankles ached all the same, her feet burned and her fingers curled into the fabric at his shoulders with a harsh bite of her nails. Dizzy then, she was dizzy from not having eaten, she was dizzy from not having had anything to drink and Darcy tipped forward until her forehead rested against his shoulder.

“Whoa Darce, c’mere.”

Steve held her close, spun them around a little until they were in the open of the hallway and his back rested on the wall. Away from the tripping hazard of the door jam, away from the possibility of her catching her heels on something. Arm about her ribs, he lifted her just enough instead, pulled at her until she stood with the toes of her shoes resting on the tops of his. He held her weight then, held her close and she could feel his fingertips sweep her curls away from her shoulders and down her back. Her head swam with the motions, her stomach empty and her legs hurt but Steve held her like she was nothing, kept her close and steady like she hadn’t realized she needed.

She slumped against him, let him hold her and didn’t bother worrying about the weight of her body against his. Instead, she looped her arms aboud his waist, let her hands drop down until she no longer held his shoulders and she instead fisted her hands in the back of his shirt. Soft cotton, faded slightly and warm from his body heat, she leaned against him and they stood there then, wrapped around one another in the hall between her office and the labs and it felt a lot like a year ago, a few months ago, when things were easier and she didn’t feel the she was going to come out of her skin with one wrong move.

She was going to die any day, but she didn’t think she’d felt quite so alive in this lifetime.

“You done for the day?”

His words were spoken into her hair, muffled by her curls and something that sounded like the yawn that she wanted to give. They swayed a little where they stood, loose limbed against one another and coiled in the type of casual intimacy that Tony always mocked them for. She nodded, a faint bob of her head against his chest and felt his answering chuckle more than she heard it.

His arm around her waist, Steve walked them like that, shifting, shallow stepped motions that made her laugh, made her cling tight. Her feet on top of his and her hair slightly mused, she felt young, felt small and Darcy leaned back until she could see his face. Steve grinned down at her, aw shucks sweet and devilish in a way she recognized all too well, and her eyes narrowed. And her mouth pursed, purple hued lips puckering up and her cheeks hollowing a bit, her skepticism made worse when Steve only grinned harder.

“What’d you do?”

“I’m insulted you even asked me that. Do you know, I’m this country’s symbol of patriotism and justice? I punched Hitler, several times I might add, and to think you would eve-”

Steven .”

“I ain’t done shit and y’can’t fuckin’ prove nothin.”

Her laughter was a bark of sound in the otherwise quiet hall, drawing the attention from a few of the lab techs that loitered near the door. She didn’t have it in her to flush though, too busy trying to keep her balance while Steve moved them down the hall. Tipping her head back showed their destination to be the elevator at the end of the way, held open by Jarvis and waiting, empty. Another glance up at Steve, but he seemed too busy not looking at her, staring a little bit past her to watch their feet instead. It felt an awful lot like when she had tried to teach him to dance, felt an awful lot like the way she had tried and failed to get him to loosen up a little bit before she had learned that Steve didn’t usually need any help in that department.

He had been better recently, they had been better recently, had been a lot like they had been before the incident in her room, before the incident on the bridge, before .

It was going to hurt, was going to hurt him, she had tried to distance herself just to save Steve of all people a little bit of pain. But, she had always been selfish, and this life seemed no different. Fitting then, that she had more than just Steve to worry about now, she had James to worry about, had James who stood as the beginning and the end of everything. He was where it began, and he would be where it ended, with his summer storm eyes and the slow spread of his smile. James was going to be the death of her, just like he always way, and she knew now just as she always did that she wouldn’t be able to say no when that reaper came calling.

The elevator would have been quiet if not for the way that she couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

“You ain’t done shit, huh?”

He grinned, too many teeth and not enough charm and Darcy stepped back off of his feet to instead ply her heels off. Flat footed then, she was six inches shorter and her vantage point changed significantly, Darcy scowled at him and listened to the way that he laughed in response. It was a wonder how anybody could think he was the kind of patriotic perfection that the media portrayed him as.

“Nah, I ain’t done shit. Got my home invaded, I’m the fuckin victim here.”

“What?”

“There’s a fuckin’ cat in my apartment!”

A hand clamped over her mouth, good fortune smiled upon her in the way that her lipstick had proved true to its name as a stain thus far. Laughter bubbling from between her fingers, her shoes clasped by the heel in one hand, it was impossible not to laugh at the petulance of his tone, the curl of his nose. A flush to his cheeks, a splash of red across the ridge of his nose and the crest of his ears, irritation rather than embarrassment in the way that the color spread up across his face rather than down across his throat and chest.

What?”

He crossed his arms across his chest then, a defensive stance to his posture and betrayal in the wide of his eyes, she couldn’t seem to stop laughing.

“Buck showed up a few hours ago. Had flour in his hair and he had Cake in his shirt, like that’s fuckin’ normal, sure, lemme just walk around with a cat in my shirt, it’s fuckin’ New York, why not. He took over my fuckin’ kitchen, talking Russian to Jarvis like a fuckin Commy -”

“Oh my God, Steven !”

“And now he’s cooking!”

Her laughter was loud in the close quarter coffin of the elevator, just a touch scandalized and too amused to be insulted, because she had been Russian once even if Steve knew no better. Steve knew no better, Steve would never know any better, but she laughed all the same, leaned back into the corner of the elevator and watched the way that he frowned at her, the way that he scowled. Like he was the wounded party, like he suffered because his brother had taken over his kitchen, like he had reason to pout so, to whine.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know free food was a problem, you animal.”

“Darcy!”

Another bout of laughter, another bark of sound and another shake of her shoulders, and Darcy tipped her head back against the elevator wall, watched him with a grin with too many teeth.

“Steve!”

He huffed, let his full weight fall back against the corner behind him, and he mirrored her for how he crossed his legs at the ankles and how he tipped his head. Her face smoothed out then, just barely for the effort it took to not smile, to not grin and curl her nose while she laughed at him. Lips pressed together, Darcy took a quick, deep breath and watched him with wide eyes and the best innocent look she could muster.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

He did scoff then, a curl of sound as he threw a hand out, motioned to her person and the way that she lounged against the wall. She lifted a shoulder at his motion, gave him a sly glance that he knew better than to be affected by. She had seen the way he looked at Sam, had seen the hesitance and the heat in his eyes when he watched the other man, knew what it meant even if Steve didn’t seem to quite trust himself yet. He would get there, eventually, hopefully soon enough for her to see even if she knew better than to cross her fingers and pray. So she had no second thought at how she held herself, the curve of her body and the slope of her shoulders, the dramatic lines of her figure against the cool metal and smooth stone.

He had seen her in worse, had drawn her in less.

“Get him out?”

“Oh my God.”

“Not like that, you shit. Just, get him out of my apartment? Take him out? You look dynamite in that outfit, should be real easy to convince him to go back to yours instead.”

Slow, her tongue slipped across her lips, eyes just a little wide as she watched him, as she tried to process what exactly he had just said to her. Slow to choose the right words, slow to try and say what she wanted just to make sure she said it right. Because surely he didn’t mean, he couldn’t possibly-

“I’m sorry, do you want me to take him home and what, fuck him? Is that what this is, a-are you pimping out your best friend right now Ste-”

“Holy shit, shut up, you shut your fucking mouth right now Darcy.”

“You are! Steven Grant, you’re asking me to go fuck him, you’re trying to send the poor guy off to what, what’s your old man slang? Get his knob polished? That what you’re doing right now, Stevie?”

He smoothed a hand down his face, lost his composure and she could hear his exhale, the faint way it whistled out between his teeth like he needed to try and control himself. She could see the shake of his shoulders though, could see the way that it took everything he had not to laugh at her, and so Darcy kept grinning, braced her unoccupied hand on the rail.

“I just want you to go have dinner with your fella, is that too much to ask?”

“Oh, so now he’s my fella?”

A soft, curling smile overtook her face though, watching the way he cursed her on the other side of the elevator and listening to the faint whine in his voice. It took him a moment, but he caught the way that she smiled, stopped his grumbling to watch her instead. To smile back at her, to huff and shake his head like he didn’t quite believe what he put up with from her, for her.

“Got a feeling he’s always been your fella. You gonna get him outta my apartment or nah?”

“Yeah, yeah.” She rolled her lips together, made a faint frown, a hum, but she nodded all the same. “Go hang out with Sam for a few, I’ll get him out of your hair.”

Steve grinned then, boyish charm and the kind of sticky candy sweet that she knew better than to trust. The elevator doors opened then with a quiet chime, let out into the hall for Steve’s apartment and Darcy pushed off the wall. He cleared his throat at her, got her attention with a simple, garbled sound and motioned toward the shoes that she held.

“Might wana put those back on. He ain’t gonna take you out without em.”

Her nose curled as she scowled and Darcy shook them at him as the door elevator doors closed on the sight of his smile. She put them on though, bent just enough to pull at her heels until she stood six inches taller once more on tired ankles and aching calves. She smoothed her fingertips over her hair then, touched at her mouth just to check the hold of the stain of her lipstick.

Strange, to be testing her appearance before going to Steve’s apartment of all places, and Darcy tipped her head back for a moment, blinked at the ceiling.

How was this her life this time?

A single knock on Steve’s door, and she peered down to double check and find her phone tucked into the depths of her simple purse and Darcy barely had the chance to shift on her heels before the door opened. She looked up then, purse held open and her hair having slipped forward to curl over one eye, around her cheek, and Darcy blinked at him. Because that wasn’t James splattered in flour, that wasn’t an oversized sweater and a pair of borrowed jeans. That wasn’t him barefoot, that wasn’t him with pastry dough on his fingers and his sleeves rolled up, that was-

Well, his sleeves were rolled up, just, they weren’t the sleeves she had anticipated.

“Hey, sugar.”

A crisp, white button down, sleeves rolled to the widest part of his forearms and a fitted, charcoal vest, he was stark, sinful lines in the ways that the vest hugged his narrow waist and the shirt played at the broad of his shoulders. Long legs in pressed slacks, powerful thighs that she wanted to rake her nails across, Darcy gave a heavy swallow before she found his face. Because he smiled at her, watched her with that crooked, off center grin of his that made her knees weak and those eyes that saw her even if they didn’t know.

“Hey, soldier.”

He grinned then, more than a smile, more than the near bashful that she often expected from him. He tipped his head at her, watched her where she stood, where she tucked her hair back behind her ear so she could see him in full. Where she felt a slow curl of heat color her skin, felt it on the cream of her throat and her cheeks, her chest.

Someone had cut his hair.

Someone had cut his hair, possibly Steve, somewhere in between the length she had known it to be and the militant short that it had been in all the pictures she had ever seen of Bucky Barnes. Soft looking, just long enough that it teased at a curl in the front and she wanted to reach out, wanted to touch. She didn’t trust herself though, knew how her hands wanted to wander just as much as she knew that he would let her, and Darcy gave him a smile instead.

“Steve lied to me.”

A laugh, guttural and crackling, she couldn’t hear the rust in his voice anymore.

She went easily when he reached for her, submission like breathing despite all of her bravado and gumption. The vibranium of his hand was cool beneath her fingers, but she curled her hand into his, felt her breath catch when he kissed the back of her knuckles and looked at her through those sooty lashes. A wolfish grin, poison edged charm and Darcy went willingly where he lead, let herself be pulled into the sepia dim of Steve’s apartment.

“Don’t take it personally, sugar. Stevie boy just did his part as my wingman.”

“I didn’t know you needed help.”

The door clicked shut behind them, and she could smell it then, spices that she vaguely recognized and the rich curl of meat fat in the air. He had cooked for her , Steve hadn’t necessarily lied completely, but she wondered just how much planning had gone into this. None, probably, last minute if she knew her friend and she knew James, neither of who lived by anything other than the seat of their pants with her anxiety along for the ride.

Her heels made quiet sounds on the floor, clack clack clack as they walked, and there was a new, different sort of power there, one that she could feel all the way into her bones. Because he watched her move like she was a vision, his eyes fell to the sway of her hips and the shift of her thighs beneath the tailored fall of her dress. And Darcy took a breath, shifted her weight and straightened her spine a little more just to accentuate her own figure, just to watch the way that his eyes went thunder dark and wide.

“I cooked for you.”

“I can see that, thank you.”

His tongue came out then, slipped across the fat of his lower lip and he looked back to her then, watched her with those thunder dark eyes and that faint gap to his mouth. He looked hungry, looked like he wanted, and she felt something liquid hot and dirty start to bloom in her abdomen.

He still held her hand in his, touch prayer soft and gentle, and she wanted him to bruise her.

“I love you sugar, I really do, but I’m tryin’a treat you right and you’re makin’ this real hard on me.”

He loved her.

He loved her and that was her heart there, throbbing something painful and tight and blossoming within her chest. She would have cried had she not hoped, had she not suspected, so she laughed instead, a raspy, curling sound and watched as a faint shiver ran across his skin.

Oh .

“James?”

“Yeah sugar?”

“I love you, but stop trying.”

The food was going to grow cold, because his grin was all teeth then, something bright and stark and open on his face like she had cracked him in two. Eternity spilled from inside him, she could see it in his eyes and the stretch of his smile even if he didn’t understand, and he was all she could see as he lead her away from the kitchen then, from the dining room. Steve’s living room was familiar, even if the lighting had changed, if the situation was different, and as her chest heaved, as her fingers dug into the seam of his stupid leather sofa, Darcy knew she wasn’t going to look at the living room quite the same for some time.

Chapter Text

“You’re sure you want to go?”

She had on makeup, a few pulls of mascara to turn her lashes sooty and dark and a swipe of a soft, nude colored dusty pink on her lips that he had seen before. She was as beautiful as she was simple then, a lacy edged cream top and dark jeans, sensible shoes meant for walking. Darcy looked like she belonged here, with her phone clutched in one hand and her wild curls up in a high, bobbing tail, at ease in the crowd like he hadn’t quite managed yet.

He hadn’t been able to bring Cake, and it wasn’t until now that he realized just how much he relied on the comfort that his cat gave.

The train station was quieter than he had expected, more people in professional dress and small families as compared to the crowd of the subway he’d gotten used to in New York. They looked like any other couple here, his shirt a little big at the waist and her purse over his elbow where he had insisted on carrying it, her ponytail a little loose in the back and her glasses off center from where she’d whirled around to look at him. London was different than New York though, felt louder, felt more crowded. He didn’t know these streets, he didn’t know these people, didn’t know what alleys he could duck down or the fastest way to get across the city without getting caught in foot traffic. He didn’t know London, not like he knew New York, and while he appreciated her asking, James wasn’t exactly sure what difference it would make when he had already flown across the ocean for her.

“Sugar-”

“Don’t you sugar me, it’s a very important question. I can call Tony or Steve and have you back Stateside in an hour if you wanted.”

One hand on her hip, a fierce look on her face for all that her mouth was soft and her eyes were wide, and James couldn’t help the way he smiled at her. The mouth on her sometimes, the gumption in her bones, he didn’t know what he had done to deserve her and he didn’t think he wanted to ask. He’d rather not ruin it, wouldn’t want to call out the universe on the stroke of good fortune and luck it had given him, and instead, he smiled. A curl of his mouth and a show of his teeth and James reached out, caught her by her shoulder where the soft of her shirt had slipped wide necked against her collars. Her skin was warm and her hair smelled faintly of the floral of her shampoo when he drew her close, tucked her against his chest and listened to the way that she grumbled at him.

Her hands took purchase at his hips though, he could feel the flat of her phone against his side and the way her fingers curled into his shirt. There was a faint tremble there, he could feel it with how they pressed together, and with his mouth to her forehead in a chaste, loving kiss, he felt the way she exhaled against his shoulder. A wavering sound, quiet as it was and James held her a little tighter, banded his arms around her a little more and felt the way she seemed to melt against him.

“Do you want to go home?”

A little laugh then, it moved her shoulders in a different rhythm than her trembling had and she shook her head at him. Her nails bit into his sides, little pricks of pressure that he knew intimately now and there was a clench in his gut from the sheer thought of her and those fingernails of hers and the way she had scratched them down his back just that morning. Head tipping, she peeked up at him, fathomless spring sky eyes and a slight pull to her mouth and Darcy shrugged.

“It’s fine, I’m just...nervous?

He pulled her closer where he hadn’t known he could, the soft of her breasts crushed against his ribs and he could feel her breathing then, could feel the throbbing of her heart against his chest. There was no threat though, not really, he couldn’t fight her anxiety for all that he wanted to and James huffed. Darcy didn’t seem to mind though, pressed tight against him without room for even light between them, surely she didn’t mind, not with how she smiled at him, not with that fond look on her face.

“Anything I can do?”

“This.”

She said it so simply, held him so tight with her nails pressing sharp pricks against his sides and her body molded against his that it was like she never wanted to let go. The point of her chin was sharp against his chest, and maybe it was the way he held her, or maybe it was because he got to hold her at all, but James didn’t mind the ache it caused, not when she looked at him like that.

Like he mattered, like he was enough, like him and his problems and his body that didn’t feel quite right were all she would ever need to be happy, to keep smiling at him like that.

Like he deserved to be loved by someone like her.

“I am fine,” Her voice was a little muffled, kept a little short and her words blended together with how he had leaned down to kiss her. Darcy didn’t seem to care though, spoke against his mouth like hers wasn’t occupied, gave him words because he had asked and she was never anything other than honest with him even at the worst of times. He could feel her mouth move against his, and she kissed him for all that she didn’t stop talking, and James felt a laugh kick up in his chest. “Expo’s never go like I want them to, so I’m just a little- do you have any idea how hard it is to concentrate when you do that?”

He did know, one hand on her hip and the other on the back of her neck, fingertips scratching patterns at the base of her skull and loosening her ponytail further. Her head tipped back with it though, distance between their mouths and she sighed, eyes gone heavy where she watched him from beneath her lashes. He smiled, a little proud of himself and a little too many teeth and listened to how she huffed, how she pinched his sides a little just to feel him jump.

“Brat.”

She laughed at him even as she wriggled out of his grasp, as he felt her body move against him before she righted herself. Before her fingers pulled at her ponytail and he watched as she tightened it another inch higher on her head, just as bobbling if not somehow twice as wild from where his fingers had pulled through her curls.

“‘Mon, we’ve got a train to catch.”

She took his gloved hand in hers, laced their fingers together and took a few steps backwards before turning on her heel. She pulled him along like that, her strides easy to match with his longer legs and James glanced down at her for a moment before taking in another scan of their surroundings. The already thin crowd had dissipated slightly but he held tight to her all the same, a lifeline found in the palm of her hand even if it was only to calm the way his heart wanted to race.

“Stark’s flyin’ out, why we takin’ a train?”

She pulled them around a corner, and across a platform and James caught the way her nose wrinkled as she spoke.

“Less conspicuous to send the experiments and stuff for the Expo via train than plane. We had an incident with Hammer last year that I don’t feel like repeating, so as far as my assistant knows, the plane she’s on tomorrow will have all of the experiments and the necessary personnel on it. She’s got a checklist for boxes, which should all be numbered, and they’re under enough plain clothes guard that she couldn’t open them if she wanted to.”

“You don’t trust her?”

Something mean in her eyes, something short and sharp and James grinned back at her, squeezed her hand a little bit. He thought he understood then what Steve had meant, for Darcy was as pretty as she was wicked and he didn’t think he had ever been more in love.

“Not a single fuckin’ bit. Now march, this train won’t leave without us but we need to at least look like we’re concerned.”

“I could always carry you.”

She glared at him then, eyes a little narrow and her cheeks a little flushed. Like he’d insulted her with the very offer, like he wouldn’t dare, and he just laughed in response and swung their clasped hands a little bit to watch the way she rolled her eyes at him.

“You can’t , so you won’t.”

It was his turn to stare then, their pace just slow enough that he could watch her instead of where they were going. A faint flush to her cheeks, to her throat and chest where it disappeared beneath her shirt, embarrassment in the lines of her body and the faint curl of her shoulders where she had turned her face from him. There was something to her voice then, something understated and accepting like she already knew the answer to a question she hadn’t even asked. James wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing, wouldn’t stand for her to look like that, to sound like that, not when he could only assume the self deprecating direction that her mind had wandered in.

A tug on her arm and Darcy turned, a flourish of her hair and the faint squeal of her sneakers on the floor. Wide eyes, a parted mouth, she stared up at him and the determination that had rooted itself into his features. He didn't give her a chance to ask though, to question, because he couldn’t let her think like that, not when she was perfect.

An arm around her waist, James pulled her close, lifted her easily and pulled at her until he had her body hinged over his shoulder. A sharp cry, a screech of sound soon followed by laughter, by her hands fisting in his shirt for as much as his own clamped on the backs of her thighs.

“Holy shit, James!”

He took off at a jog then, felt her bounce against his shoulder and heard her breath gust from her lungs. Her nails dug into uis back, her feet kicked a bit in the air and her purse would have slipped from his elbow had he not caught in in his fist. James just grinned and jogged a little faster.

“Y’just said we can’t be late, work with me woman!”

James!”

-

He remembered these mountains.

For all that the train had changed and the sky had aged, he remembered these mountains. The snow was fresh, the rock had crumbled a little at peaks that no longer stood quite as sharp, but he knew these mountains and this sky. He had aged too, different from the man he had been who had gone to war ready to kill Germans for his country only to lay bloody and mangled in the snowy nowhere where they found him, where they took him.

James remembered these mountains, and he still hated them just as much as he had then.

She had fixed her ponytail about an hour into their trip, taken it out and gathered her heavy curls in her hands, tongue stuck out at him. The elastic had snapped a loud sound against her wrist when she pulled at it, and with a few expert twists of her hands her hair had been up and relatively sleek looking once more for all that the actual tail was a wild fluff of curls. She had talked his ear off for that hour in between, filled him in on what to expect from the Expo if he felt like going, and what members of the team would be there for security purposes in the event that he felt like hanging back behind the scenes.

She would have to do presentations, introductions, Stark might have been a brat but he was one of hers and Darcy refused to let him make a fool of himself. There had been a fond smile on her face then, and she had gone on to tell him a story from two Expo’s past in Tokyo where Tony had wanted to duck out early and suddenly four am had found the two of them at a questionable sushi bar in the sub level basement beneath a robot shop with too much food and no idea how to get back to the hotel.

She had kissed his mouth twenty minutes ago, pretty mouth tasting a little like the mints she had been snacking on and a curl of a smile on her tongue where she had nipped at his. A tease, nothing but trouble, and he had tried to follow her only to have Darcy laugh, only to have her dance a little to the other side of their compartment and wave her hand at him. She had needed to go check on the shipments, make sure nothing had moved, she would be back in five minutes.

Darcy was nothing if not punctual, but five minutes had turned into ten, had turned into fifteen, and he hadn’t received a single text or call, and she hadn’t come back to him.

Twenty minutes found him pushing open the door to their compartment, glancing down the hall before heading toward the rear of the train where she had said things were kept. A few families in their rooms, a few business people on phones, nobody that looked like Darcy and nobody that looked suspicious, James kept walking. He had to move carts, through the thin walkway to another and his breath caught in his lungs at the crisp, cold mountain air that filtered through and the memories it evoked.

He paused there, gripped the railing with both hands and did his best to catch his breath, to stop the racing of his heart. He could feel their hands on him then, the ghost of a feeling and the pain that had come with it and James clenched his eyes shut tight, felt the train jerk beneath him where he stood. Icy, winter sharp air and the harsh beat of wind, he wanted to go home, he wanted to take his girl and take the both of them back to New York, lay in her too large tub and ease her favorite comb through her dripping curls. Her warm skin against his, the glittering, scented bubbles that she liked so much piled high against their shoulders and a smile on her unpainted face, he would rather be in Darcy’s bathtub right now, the sound of her laughter half echoing off the gentle blue walls and the air smelling sweet.

But Darcy hadn’t come back, he hadn’t seen her face or heard her laugh even though she was never late, and something felt wrong .

Worse than the feeling of mountain air on his skin and the trauma rattle of memories from the snow in his head, and he pulled open the door to the next cart, out of the cold and into the bright lit of the cargo cart. Except, the within air was still cold, bitter against his skin and sharp against the vibranium of his arm where it hinged into his shoulder and James scowled at the feeling. Crates where there should have been, but he could hear the wild rush of wind like he shouldn’t have been able to and the light was unnaturally bright compared to the slight tint that the windows back in their compartment had.

The cargo cart shouldn’t have had any windows.

“Darcy?”

The baritone of his voice was loud even to his own ears and James winced at the sound. A reedy inhale then from somewhere in the cart, a burst of sound and he turned to find it, to follow it even as her voice cut short.

“Ru-!”

A choked off sound, a gurgle, a wheeze, he had never heard Darcy in pain before but he knew the sound someone made when their throat was crushed, knew the choking struggle of someone's breath beneath the tight grip of a hand. She had had bruises there once, five finger point blisters in black and the band of webbing in between, they had stayed on her skin in ugly, hurt colors for weeks. She would have them now, surely, because he knew that sound even as he crept past the carts with silent feet and his heart in his throat.

“Come out, soldat , I don’t want to break her neck.”

Soldat , like that was all he was, soldat , like he couldn’t ever be anything else, a word and a title and a collar that he had tricked himself into thinking he could outrun. He was nothing more than their dog though, and his leash had drawn taunt now by the hand that fed with Darcy clutched between the two of them. She would suffer for the things he had done, she would feel the heavy hit of his punishment because he knew them, remembered the beatings and the young girl with the splash of red hair who had been trained to kill when all she wanted was to dance ballet.

There was blood on her shirt, a thin trail of it from where the knife at her throat had pressed too close. He could see the cut, shallow yet and small, but there was the threat of metal teeth against the delicate cream of her skin and James felt like he was going to be sick. Blood on her shirt, on her throat, he recognized the man with the knife to her skin and a hand over her mouth if only because he sold the fruits that James liked best at the little market four blocks down from the bakery. The skin of her cheeks had pulled where his hand pressed hard and he could hear the pant of her breathing, but oh.

Her eyes were angry, burning bits of blue filled with a murderous kind of rage where he had expected to see tears. A warrior's kind of bloodlust lived there, a feral fever bright in that crystal spring sky that promised a vindictive sort of retribution, he didn’t think he had ever seen Darcy so angry. Her hands had latched to the man's wrists, nails pressed sharp against his skin, she was hostage for all that she gave as good as she got, and James stared at her, felt the world bottom out even as he watched a fierce sort of fight build within her bones.

His steps halted when the man half turned, dark eyes intent on James and how he moved even as he angled the two of them slightly toward the open cargo door.

“One more step and I’ll drop her out.”

He stood rooted then on panic weak knees and anger stiff bones. He would hurt her regardless, James knew that, knew that he had to tread carefully if he wanted Darcy safe for even a moment. But he had so few weapons on him, no knives allowed at her insistence and his gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, he didn’t dare pull it for fear of watching that toothed blade tear through her throat, of listening to her gurgle on her last breath as her eyes rolled. His arms loose at his sides instead, James watched with a quiet storm of rage within himself, for how dare they touch her, how dare they make her bleed.

The mountains sped past them, snow capped peaks and the long line of a river where it snaked far below.

The man smiled, too many teeth and gleeful and James wondered how many times he had heard this man laugh in the market, how many times the man had thought of bringing him in.

“Good, you do still follow direction. Kneel.”

Defiance, he stood with sharp shoulders and bent knees and heard the way her breath sucked in. Watched the new, fat drip of blood down her throat where the man's hand had moved. He dropped to his knees with a thud, dead weight legs and a tight clawing in his chest, her scream was muffled behind the man’s palm but the rattle of it took flight against his heart all the same. He swallowed thick, watched as her little hands tried to pull at those that held her and heard the way the man laughed into her hair.

Her ponytail had come loose again, a few curls hanging near her face and her hair sloppy, he wondered how long she had struggled before he had come to find her.

“Good. Good, tha-fuck!”

Her foot on the man's instep, she pressed her weight into it, she snapped her head back away from the knife and James heard the man’s nose break. Watched the way that the knife clattered to the ground, but he didn’t have time to lunge for it, not with how the other man held her tight, not with how Darcy smiled at him with the hand away from her mouth. Like she knew something James didn’t, something sad on her lips and a panicked, screaming sort of acceptance in her eyes, he didn’t need to understand to know that he didn’t like it.

Because the man’s grip on her tightened, and they stumbled, but Darcy smiled at him even as he tried to propel himself close enough to reach her.

Don’t look.”

He watched then as she threw her weight back, just barely felt the skin of her fingers against his before she tipped both herself and the man out of the open door. A scream tore from within him, a ragged, primal roar from within his chest as he threw himself after her, as he tried to reach her in time. But there was nothing but open air then, there was nothing but him on his belly before the open cargo door and the dark splotch of her hair disappearing as she fell, as the train rounded a bend. The wind ate the sound of her screaming, but there was something in his head then, a static snap like he held a livewire between his fingers and he vomited what was left in his stomach from their breakfast then.

Black eyes and coarse curls, honey wrapped fingers and bare feet in their garden, painted lips and the smell of canal water in the air as she led him through the market. Silk flowers and sunshine hair, a sweet smile and blood on the floorboards, a pile of uncut crimson beneath a heavy crown, fur trimmed gowns and sugared plums between her teeth. The squeal of her laughter as they threw themselves off a familiar cliff face into the waters below, the rasp of her voice and the flex of her arms as she hefted a double faced axe as tall as she.

Don’t look, as she coughed up blood and pressed her delicate, burnt fingertips to her mouth to try and hide it.

Don’t look, as she tried to press her hands to the bullet wound in her belly on the saloon floor to try and stop the bleeding.

Don’t look, her head held high and her fiery hair unbound where they had taken her crown and forced her to her knees so they could take her head.

Don’t look, don’t look, how many times had she told him not to look, when he had pressed a pillow to her face to smother her breathing or when the loss of their child had taken with it the beating of her heart? He knew her then for how he had always known her, the sway of her hips and the feeling of her smile against his mouth for all that her face had changed, for all that he wasn’t the same man he had ever been. He knew her and she had known, he knew it now in the shadows he had seen in her smile and the way she had kissed his fingertips like he had done to her wrapped ones in Poland when they were young.

Sobbing, heart racing and his head feeling like it could crack open, James pulled himself to his knees. His hands in his hair, knotted in an attempt either to pull or to soothe he cried, guttural, heaving cries that took his breath and left him empty. His face was cold from the rush of the wind, but he could smell her blood in the air, could still hear her screaming echoing in his head for as much as he could hear the ghosts of a hundred lifetimes worth of laughter and cries.

Steve found him like that some time later, Steve who had flown out with Tony to meet them there, to help oversee the security if only for something to do. Steve found him curled in on himself on the floor, blood near the door and the knife having rattled its way to one of the crates. Something hollow in his bones, something yawning in his body, there was a tumble of howling anger in his blood for as cut out and scraped empty as he felt.

“Buck?”

A tentative hand on his shoulder, on his head, and his hands were pulled from his hair so that Steve could see his face. Could see where his tears had dried on his skin and where his eyes had gone red, the flat press of his mouth and the mournful vengeance of his expression.

“Bucky, where’s Darcy?”

Her name hurt, one in dozens, in hundreds, was this what she had felt like?

“They got her, Stevie. I just got her back, and they- she fuckin’ threw them both just, I- Steve, Steve, I just- I just got her back and I think they killed her."

Chapter Text

Honestly this is just a status update? I got busy, and by the time I came back, I'd lost interest? That said, I have sat all other projects aside so I can finish this!

Updates soon!

Chapter Text

Bitter cold and biting wind, weightless. A throb in her throat, a screaming, hands thrown in front of her as she tried to catch herself, tried to find something to hold. But there was nothing to hold and there was nothing to find and the wind ate at her hair just as it ate at the breath within her lungs. The world rushed by in a spill of too bright color and tumbling mountains of white, of blue, blue, blue above her.

She could hear the ocean from here, the constant pulling crash of it against the cliff face and it matched the pounding of her heart, its ebb and flow went in time with the pulsing of her blood beneath her skin. Sunlight, it was warm in the air and warm upon her skin and there was laughter in her chest, her bare feet twisted in the grass beneath them.

He was clumsy though, he couldn’t keep ahold of her hands like that and they fell when his feet tangled, he dragged her down with him with a loss of balance and a squeal of laughter into the field of wildflowers that grew at the sea cliff.

There was screaming from below her, masculine, guttural even if it was shrill in panic. She couldn’t hear the words over the howling of the wind but she knew that tone from a distant, dim echo of another life. Men always sounded the same when they died in a panic, and she wondered if his heart would give before they hit, if his lungs would collapse before they landed. He deserved it, he deserved to be scared to death, he deserved to feel the impact when they finally stopped their falling and she hoped it hurt. She hoped it tore at him, she hoped the impact shattered his spine, she wanted it to break his bones. She had never fallen to her death before, not that she could remember but oh, Darcy had seen the aftermath often enough that she knew it was going to hurt.

She hoped it hurt, she wanted him to know the sudden pain of his entire body pressing flat and shattering right before he died, she wanted him to suffer.

Heaving chests and burning lungs and still they laughed, stared up at the cloud streaked sky where its blue seemed to stretch until the end of the world, where it kissed the ocean on one side and the land on the other. Free here, alive here without the cluster of their farming community and the noble house of the rí túaithe, and the edges of her vision was obscured by a wash of yellow flowers, by blue and orange and violet where they swayed in the sea salt sharp breeze where the crashing water chased it up the cliff face.

“We should make our home here.”

“Oisín?”

Such death had made her cynical it seemed, had made her cruel, Darcy wondered what life exactly it was that had taken her innocence. Impossible to put a finger on, too many possibilities and too many times, she had watched him be shot in the skull just as she had felt her own throat be slit, his belly sliced open for defending their home just as she knew the echo of the ache between her thighs from a ravaged village. She had never dealt with Hydra though, she had never had to face a militarized kind of cruelty quite like this and she wanted to kill them, all of them just for what they would put James though.

She wanted to hear this failure of an agent hit first.

It was the least he deserved for how she had suffered, for how Steve and Jane and her family would suffer. It was an easy death compared to how James would suffer, and she wanted to claw his lungs out herself if only she could reach him to manage it. But she was going to die here, in mountains that she didn’t recognize from this angle for all that she knew the bite of the air, she would never learn, she didn’t know why she expected anything different anymore.

His hand in hers and the other found her side, pulled at her until her knees slid in the grass. But he brought her astride him and the position was familiar, and she grinned down at him where he lay with a proud crown of golden samphire against his coppery hair. He would need to sit and let it be brushed soon, braided, it had become impractical for farm work for it to be left loose, too dangerous for a warriors work and she waited for the day when one of his brothers felt childish and cruel and set it alight. But she could touch it now, could sink her fingers deep and having something to hold him with now, and she reached for it to do just that.

He caught her hands in his instead, kept her fingers from the copper of his beard and the long spill of his hair to instead catch her by her wrists. His fingers were calloused, scarred at the knuckles and littered with cuts but his touch had never been anything but gentle. Oisín drew her forward now with that grasp, enough that she curved over his chest and the dusty brown of her hair fell down around them. Where she would have braced her hands on his shoulders to support herself, she instead was held aloft by the way that he clasped her wrists, the way that he gave a gentle bearded kiss to either palm and Bláthín smiled.

Her heart hammered in her chest, the tidal roar of the wind in her ears and there was a thunderous sound from beneath her, a thousand musket shots that scratched across her skin all at once. There was water beneath them and then did she scream, wide eyes that stared at the curling, icy sky above and then there was nothing but pain, sharp and consuming. His body had taken the surface tension with a concrete smacking kind of crack but still she felt her body break and she screamed with the screeching kind of panic of the damned and the dying as the water took them. It flooded into her lungs with the tearing force of shattered glass and the world spun, twisted on itself and went dark, dragged by the cold, suffocating slide that made it impossible to breathe.

It was like she blinked and found the world tilted sideways, coughing on ragged breaths as water bubbled from between her lips. A furious burn had taken her chest but her legs were worse, pain so brutal and heavy that she choked, that she screamed. Agony made for such was a wet gurgle of a sound when it came forth, lungs still spewing icy water and her heart threatening to burst within her chest. She couldn’t move though, not for the devouring, firesweep of pain that spiraled from her legs, she hadn’t stopped screaming, her own voice echoed around her.

“You are happiest here, with this field and these flowers. I would give anything to see you this happy for the rest of our lives.”

The same rumbling candor that he always had when he spoke to her like that. How was she to not grin like a fool down at him when all she wanted was to touch his freckled face and kiss his freckled mouth? He seemed inclined not to let her though, held her suspended above him with a careful hold, this wasn’t the kind of play she associated with this position. But he hadn’t taken her waist apart from to lift her, and he hadn’t slipped his hands along her girdle or beneath the linen of her tunic to try and find her bare.

Instead, Oisín watched her with such calm devotion in his two toned eyes and she wanted to kiss him.

Rough gravel pressed against the side of her face, her bare arms, but there was water on her lower body, water at her waist. There was what remained of the twisted, mangled corpse of the agent just a ways down, she could see his shape past the haze of her sobbing. Fire veined crystals of gold and pearl, hjarta til kind glossy wet and secure on copper hued wire on her wrist and they glowed against her bloodless skin. Past them, past the torn body of the bastard who had taken her from her happiness, there were figures, five of them, quick footed but her eyes were heavy and the pain made her dizzy.

Something harsh at her wrists, her wait and her ankles and her body rocked sharply from side to side. Something carrying her, something moving her, the consistent, jarring motions made her gag at the way it awake the fire that had only just started to cool in her thighs. Hot and wet, tears on her fair but she couldn’t hear herself sobbing over the rush of her own blood in her ears.

“I am happiest when I am with you. We could live in your father's stable, and I would be happy so long as I slept next to you.”

Curling, soft words meant for his ears alone and she smiled down at him will all the love that she held in her heart. His eyes were just as bright as ever, one the color of the winter sky and the other a rich, warm sable and she wanted to kiss their lids, kiss his cheeks. Oisín took his hold on her wrists then though and slid his fingers up her forearms, her shoulders, curled them around her back.

She expected him to pull her down against him, to kiss her like she wanted to kiss him but he came forward instead, surged up with a pull from his abdomen and tipped them backwards into the grass. And Bláthín laughed, free hands catching on his shoulders for the shift just to hold herself, but there was sweet seacliff grass beneath them and her hands fell instead to it and the way her hair had fallen like a wild halo beneath her.

And then she couldn’t sob at all for all that her chest heaved, it felt as if she went from rocking and trying to find her grip to stationary, to bound so tight she couldn’t breathe. Something across her waist that kept her down tight, another across her shoulders, there was something in her mouth , she couldn’t move her jaw enough to get the scream past her teeth. Muffled instead, rattling around in her throat instead, Darcy couldn’t see past the white, white lights above.

The smell of something burning, something too hot coupled with the sound of something metallic, something that made her skin crawl, sent knives across her bones. And then her leg was nothing but pain, electric agony clamoring across her nerves while she screeched, while her body tried to lift up from the restraints that kept her in place. Instead, her hands scrambling against the cold metal that she had been strapped to, tears cut down her face and she sobbed to the smell of her own burning flesh.

“Sedate her.”

Sharp, harsh words that she shouldn’t have understood, but she knew them like she knew his eyes for as much as she couldn’t see the source. Russian was a familiar and yet grating in that instant, pulled at her veins while a dull stab of pain hit at the soft between her neck and shoulder. She couldn’t get away from the tearing, searing torture as it shifted to her other leg, and she couldn’t, she couldn’t-

He stared at her sometimes with expressions that she didn’t understand, something old in his mismatched eyes that she didn’t recognize for all that it made her breath catch in her chest, and it was with one that he watched her now. Bent over her, caught between the spread of her thighs and the bunch of her skirt, his hair was long over his shoulders and Oisín was familiar like this, beautiful.

“Your eyes are green, do you know that?” The softest of touches to her face and he cupped the side of her face, soothed his thumb on the tender beneath her eye. She gave a fleeting kiss to the side swell of his palm and watched the way he smiled down at her. But there was something sad about him for all that he looked so vulnerable, and she tipped her face up for him. “Green like this field just as the sun sets on the water beyond that cliff. You are so beautiful and yet you rarely ever look upon your own face.”

Cold.

Concrete against the side of her face, it stung, it burned, icy against her too hot skin and Darcy moaned. A quiet, wrecked sound from between chapped, split lips and her fingertips were torn and bloodied where she could see one hand in front of her face. And oh, but everything hurt, her skin felt raw and her muscles were aflame and Steve had always told her to stretch before she did anything strenuous. But everything hurt now and Darcy gagged, eyes closing tight as she sucked in breaths through her teeth. Shaking arms, fingers slipping across the cold concrete floor, she breathed out even as she pushed herself up, pulled her strength beneath herself enough to get mostly upright. Her ribs ached with the breath stealing echo of having broken, and her head hung low, matted hair pooling on the floor.

Gritted teeth and a muffled sob and she pushed with her shoulders, forced herself upright even as her breath seized in her chest, even as her blood turned liquid fire that licked at torn nerves from the inside. She was going to vomit, could feel it in her throat just behind the furious burst of pain, but her head spun as she heaved, as she forced herself to move until she sat with her back to the wall and her head tipped low. She wanted to scrub at her face, she wanted to sob into her hands, Darcy just wanted to cry and scream into the silencing catch of her palms.

As if she knew what to say to that, as if she knew what to give him when he spoke to her as such. He always said such things though, looked at her as if he were afraid she would walk out into the fields in the night and never return. He watched her sometimes as if he had seen things beyond his years, something in his eyes that harkened to more than long nights spent as a watchman with his father. The priest called him an old soul, and while his father had laughed, Bláthín had always agreed, had always watched the way that he had taken to his knees and bowed his head in quiet, trembling prayer.

He never told her what he prayed for, and she had never wished to pry.

“I hope that I die before I ever stop loving you.”

She wanted to lay under gilded tree branches tangled up with the love of her eternity and watch James smile at her like he always, always did, crooked and a little rusted yet.

Instead, she took a breath with burning lungs and aching ribs, hoisted herself up a little further and tried to keep her back pressed to the wall. She needed to stand, she needed to get up, she couldn’t fully assess the room on the floor against the wall. She braced a hand  near her hip and took another breath, blinked open burning eyes.

But those weren’t her legs.

Glimmering dark metal, faintly reflective, tightly plated. They moved like skin, they flexed like muscle as her legs scrambled on the floor, as she shot to her feet only to stumble without her balance, to fall. Quick to twist on her back, chest heaving wildly and her eyes wide, they connected mid thigh, roughly a handspan above her knees to skin that was angry, surgical red and cauterized. They weren’t hers, they weren’t hers, they had taken her legs, had cut them at the breaks and then some to make the application even, those were hers now, cold vibranium and gleaming.

She had started screaming at some point, and Darcy didn't think she was ever going to stop.

“Don’t say such things.”

He kissed her then as if to cleanse the worse from her tongue, came down low over her splayed out body and claimed her mouth as his own. He was only two years older than her, having just seen the ten and seventh anniversary of his birth, but Oisín knew her body like he knew his own and she sighed beneath him. Her hands curled around his wrists where he had planted them both beside her head, and Bláthín held onto him as he took her breath now just as he did every time he kissed her.

He kissed her to the afternoon aching of her heart and Bláthín felt like starlight beneath him. She never wanted to let go, she never wanted to leave this place, not when Oisín kissed her like that, not when he watched her with those bright, familiar eyes. How could she ever want to be anywhere but right here, when he loved her like that?

“I will spend the rest of our lives making certain you know just how beautiful you are.”

_

She didn’t know how long they had left her in that room.

Long enough to grow so hungry she wasn’t, to become so tired that she couldn’t keep herself from shaking. The lights never turned off, so bright they made her eyes burn no matter how much she blinked. She had pressed her back against the far wall, as far from the door as she could get, the barren nature of the room had made it easy to keep the only way in or out within perfect sight.

Except, she hadn’t heard anything but her own breathing, cold cement against her skin where they had taken her shirt, her jeans, her shoes. They had left her alone for so long that she had begun to wonder if they had simply forgotten about her. She would die here after all, she would be left here until somebody came to clean out her corpse.

She thought they had forgotten her.

Darcy wished they had just forgotten her.

Her hands had taken to touching at the merge point on her legs, fingertips pressure heavy and soothing where they moved across the surgical point. It wasn’t red anymore, not as red as it had been the first time she had woken, and the skin wasn’t nearly as raised as it had been. It would blend almost seamlessly into the metal, given time, and she could feel the chill of the vibranium every time her fingers skimmed too far.

They felt alien, heavier than her legs had been but harsher, more nimble. She couldn’t walk right, she doubted she would ever dance again, but Darcy doubted she would ever leave this room. She couldn’t see the outside world, she couldn’t hear anything past the stilted, quiet humming she had taken up just to make herself feel less alone. The same little song he used to sing to her when he was Vincenzo and she Speranza and all she wanted was to dance and be a bother while he tried to steer his gondola and laughed and laughed, but it was hard to sing with her throat so dry, but it was hard with how her lips had cracked and bled.

She couldn’t hear anything past that door though, and so she startled when it burst open, her hands curled around the would be scars of her legs as if to hide the wounds. Tall men, two of them, wide in the shoulders and dressed with heavy boots and uniforms in black, they stalked toward her as if to intimidate her, as if to make her cower. She pressed her palms to the wall, she got her legs under herself, Darcy surged to her feet on legs she didn’t yet understand and pulled back her shoulders.

They didn’t say a single word to her, one hung back while the other took her right arm tight in his grasp. His fingers bit bruises into her pale skin, sharp point of pain and he pulled her hard, yanked her away from the wall with that single hold point. And Darcy shoved forward with it, threw her weight at him even as her left arm reeled back, she managed a solid hit to the blood thick muscle where his throat turned into the underside of his jaw. Her knuckles popped but she hadn’t tucked her thumb, there was an ache in the delicate bones of her fingers for all that she tried to pull back to hit him again.

All the yelling between the two of them sounded quiet compared to her screaming, the second that had stayed a few feet away took her left arm in a punishing hold, wrenched her around until she was pressed against his chest. Held up off the ground, she snapped her head back, heard the satisfying crunch that came from his nose breaking. He didn’t release her though, tipped her backwards with his elbow suddenly snug against her throat but the one that had taken her right arm was close enough that she could kick out, she could catch him in the chest with her swinging, metal legs hard enough that his yelling turned punched for a moment.

But she couldn’t breathe, not past the tight pressure on her throat, and there was blood on her face that wasn’t hers. Hot, it ran behind her ear and down her throat, he carried her like that from the room despite how she kicked out with her legs and writhed against him. The one she had caught in the chest had let go entirely, and instead the only things that held her off the ground was the chokehold at her throat and the bone break grip on her bicep.

She could scarcely breathe, quick gasping sounds every other breath and the tender wound seams of her legs throbbed with a demanding reminder that the amputation was fresh still. He held one arm captive, but Darcy pulled at his bicep with the other, nails digging into his skin and she hoped he bled more, she hoped his face hurt like her legs did. She screamed still for all that she could hardly breathe, the sound loud and arcing, it rattled off the walls of the long, wide hall that they had stepped out into.

Her screaming did nothing though, her clawing didn’t help, nothing could make it so she could catch her breath until he shoved them through two wide doors. Until the bright lights nearly blinded her, until the bruise inducing catch on her throat released, replaced by his hand hard and cutting against her jaw. He held her aloft with it then, long enough that she clutched tightly at his wrist and tried to gargle a scream, tried to kick at him the same as she had his partner. He shoved her down then, forced her into a chair where her arms were immediately held down and bound tight at the bicep, the forearm. Her legs were treated much the same, and yet Darcy snarled at him, tried to peel herself from the chair and chase after him when he stepped aside.

An older man stood in front of her instead, brown eyes hard in the dark lighting and his face was wrong, a kind of sticky, saccharine cheerful that made her want to kill him. He smiled at her like he knew her, as if he hadn’t tried to kill the only man she would ever love, as if he hadn’t taken her legs. Mouth thin, she stared him full on though, didn’t give him the satisfaction of watching her flinch, she had gutted men worse than him, she had given the order to take the heads and burn the homes of men like him, he didn’t scare her.

“Hello my darling girl. We are going to give you an injection, and it is going to hurt. You will scream, and possibly urinate, as many of the subjects tend to do.”

A quick breath and Darcy stared at him, teeth grit and her legs throbbing.

Yet, he smiled wider, dark eyes narrowed from the force of it and it was his hands that clasped the strap across her forehead, that held her in place so that she couldn’t turn away when he patted his hand against her cheek. And then she couldn’t see him as he walked behind her, and her fingers curled at the edges of the armrests. Her jaw clenched tight but her heart had made a home for itself in her throat, pounding wildly and strange, she could have sworn she had left it behind with James on the train.

“You will make a beautiful Asset.”

Darcy couldn’t help how she hyperventilated then, the way that the air caught in her lungs and her heart tried to crawl out of her mouth. It was a harsh kind of knowing then, a cold new reality to understand that there would be no next cycle, there would no new life. They weren’t going to let her die, they weren't going to let her get away so easily. She hadn’t suffered enough, she hadn’t given enough, they didn’t understand what it was that they played with, they had no way of knowing just what forces they had tangled themselves in when they had decided to play God, but Darcy knew that she would be the one to pay the price.

And she was so very, very scared.

“Now, we are going to start the procedure.”

A whimper on her breath that she couldn’t manage to catch, she watched as his gloved hand cleaned the inside of her elbow with a simple swab before he found her vein.

Before he sank the needle in and depressed the plunger and sent a consuming flush of acid into her veins. Her world narrowed down the the burn of it in a single beat of her heart, and she could hear herself screaming. Dim, muffled, nothing made it past the hummingbird death rattle of her heart and the way that she clawed at the chair as her body fought against her bindings. A boiling curdle in her blood and a liquid poison fire of her bones, she wanted to die, she hoped it would kill her, but all Darcy could do was scream and sob for all that James wouldn’t hear how she cried out his name.

Chapter Text

Steve had watched him with wide, stricken eyes like he didn’t understand a single word that James tried to tell him, like he didn’t want to understand. Nothing he could say would make it more clear though, no amount of gripping his own thighs with claw like fingers would keep him from shaking. His body felt both foreign and familiar all at once, he knew the way these lungs breathed even though this body felt too large, these shoulders too wide.

He had forgotten what it was like to feel the echoes of another's bones beneath his skin just as much as he had forgotten what it felt like to breathe without the anxious, panic wheeze that had taken hold in his lungs the longer Steve stared at him like that. He tipped backwards with it, hurried breathing and a quick shuffle back, back from the open door of the train cart and the quiet watchful of Steve’s winter ice eyes, back from the vomit on the floor and the knife next to the crate. His back cracked against the wall, and there, then Steve looked like he saw him, then Steve reached out for him, followed him. But he couldn’t get any more distance between them even when he tried, and he hurled himself to his feet for all that he had nowhere to run. A stack of crates to his right and a darkened corner to his left, Steve stood between him and the only way out.

“Bucky.”

He didn’t want to hurt Steve, he never wanted to hurt Steve. He didn’t want to hurt Steve and he didn’t want to hurt Darcy, but the former kept crowding in on him and the latter had been left somewhere back in the mountains. The trainwall groaned beneath his touch, gave like soft clay at the the insistent curl of vibranium fingers and his chest heaved.

“I tried, I tried Stevie, I swe-I couldn’t reach her, I couldn’t stop her!”

He could still hear the way the wind had swallowed up her screaming, the violent rush of it that had devoured the way he had cried out her name.

“Bucky, Buck, calm down!”

Like he could be calm when he had lost the only love he would ever know, like he could be calm when he stood as the one and only cause for why she had fallen to her death. He wondered if her heart had given out before she had hit, he hoped the lack of oxygen on the fall had taken her consciousness before she had found the ground. He wondered and he hoped and he prayed, but he fucking wished she had never stepped into Oksana’s shop, he wished she had never seen his face, heard his voice.

Bucky wished he had never had to know her, he should have killed himself when he had the chance.

“She knew who I was, she knew, she remembered me and I didn’t know, I didn’t know, they took her from me twice and I ain’t ever gonna get her back! They’ll kill her, they’ll kill her if the fall didn’t, you don’t know what theyre like!”

He hoped Steve never had to learn what they were like, not when Steve remained as one of the only good things he had left in this life.

“James!”

He’d forgotten that Steve was taller than him now. So many things had changed, and his head swam with the kind of swirling that came only from panic, from rage, but he had forgotten that Steve stood taller than him now. It was impossible to ignore when the other pulled him close, he was wider than Steve for all that the other was taller, but Steve cupped a hand at the back of his head and pressed his mouth to his shoulder. Damn him, but his hands gripped at Steve’s sides with the kind of desperate cling that settled in with the aching remembrance of being alone, of being left behind.

Damn him, but James clung to him with the kind of frantic hold that only fear could cause. Steve couldn’t leave him too if he didn’t let go, Steve couldn’t fall like she had if he kept him latched up tight. Steve couldn’t die like Darcy always did each and every time. She wouldn’t be Darcy this next time, just like she hadn’t been Rosalie, just like she hadn’t been Liliana or Inessa, she wouldn’t ever be Darcy again. He would never have Darcy again, would never dance with her on a rooftop under the New York sun, he would never wake up and watch the way she twirled around on silent feet while she pulled clothes from her lavish closet, because she would never again be Darcy, and their lives were never the same. He sobbed against Steve’s shoulder, he held to the miracle made sturdy of his brother so tight that the younger was going to bruise, but Steve just held him back. Steve turned him though, a grip on his shoulders that was guiding, leading, and James didn’t want to leave the safety of the dark within the traincar, but he would always follow wherever Steve led. Steve turned him and pulled him, and he walked right into the way that Steve pulled him flush against his chest, the way that Steve caught his throat in the crook of his elbow and squeezed, heavy and quick and hard. The world spun and went grey around the edges before he could even think to fight, too much pressure when he had already cut off his own air with sobbing. He caught Steve’s bicep with his flesh hand, the back of his throat with the vibranium, but that was Steve crying just as hard as he had been, that was Steve with hiccuping breaths and a desperate slur to his words.

“I’m sorry, God, I’m so fuckin’ sorry. You’re okay now Buck, it’s okay, just stop for a minute, just go to sleep, please just go to sleep, Bucky please .”

He had never been able to fight, not when Stevie cried, and James’ legs came out from under him as his world went dark.

-

Dim light greeted him when he opened his eyes, undyed linen that swayed in the soft summer breeze cut the warmth, Helios would surely forgive him for the way that his eyes took refuge in the weakened light of the sun. The curling haze of the sleep of the wounded clung to him still, made his movements slow, made his mind slower, and he fumbled for a moment before trying to push himself up. A sharp ache in his side though, a pull of flesh and it was with a groan that he fell back onto the cot.

“No, you do not get to whine. Complaining is reserved for those who haven’t brought their misery upon themselves.”

An arcing sound to her voice, the lilting curl that it had had for the five years he had known her that spoke of life outside the city. Something raspy, something seawater deep and churning every time she spoke, and yet her words were always chosen well, and yet her tongue remained forever biting. He had never been able to mistake her in a crowd, not with how her voice carried, not with how a foreign authority in her bones demanded to be heard, Aphrodisia had always seemed larger than her bones, chosen by the Gods for something that he wasn’t sure he cared to name.

He heard her now, from somewhere beyond the cot that held him and the linen diffused sunlight that bathed him. The smell of crushed herbs hung heavy in the air, the delicate notes of drying flowers, the sour smell of fermented olives, somebody had brought her lunch since he himself hadn’t been able to and he groaned anew. He hadn’t brought her lunch and Kallistos mourned the first time in nearly five years that he hadn’t had the chance to bring her her food before somebody else had.

“It is any wonder Council and Assembly let you practice medicine at all.”

She brought out the absolute worst in him at the best of times, turned his tongue crass and his temper wild. Anything to match hers, anything to try and keep up, she had always been a living flame forged from the hands of Hephaestus himself, and he had always been so worried of falling behind. Forever scared to hold on too tight, infinitely unsure of just where his feet let him stand with her, but Kallistos knew more than anything that he wanted her for how her mouth may taste just as much as he wanted her for the sharp cut of her mind and tongue.

“Those who are physically unwell need to rest and be silent unless the druggist says otherwise.”

He could see her when he turned his head, arms bared to the sun and her peplos was blue today, the color of the sea, the color of the the flowers that his mother gave in offering at the temple. It suited her, suited her smile whenever she found it appropriate to give him such a thing and it suited the curling, charcoal spill of her hair where it had begun to come free of its twist and its ribbon. There was no smile now, none to be seen as far as he knew, her back to him and her shoulder working with a motion that meant she had taken to grinding herbs to busy her hands.

But her back was to him, she spoke to him for all that she ignored him and he knew her particular brand of punishment when he saw it,  but that didn’t mean he cared for it any more than usual. Perhaps it was the wound on his side, perhaps it was the heat making his temper burn so hot within his belly, but the sight of her purposeful disregard had his mouth pulling into a harsh frown.

“You are an abhorrent druggist and your bedside manner is foul.”

“I will open your flesh to drain more humor from you, Kallistos, do not test me.”

A flick of her wrist, a dagger then, she waved a dagger at him in an idle motion that showed the familiarity she held it with. She cut the herbs rather than ground them, no doubt sliced the stems from within them with a swift, effective motion. He didn’t know which bothered him more, her casual effectiveness or the way that he could only assume she had cut into him with the very same sharp edge.

“Why are you so cruel today? I thought you would be pleased to see me.”

Worse still surely then, he wasn’t sure if it bothered him at all. Surely that said something to the kind of man he was, what place had he as a hand of the city when the sight of a sharp tongued woman with a knife in her hand made his knees weak? This woman, not just any woman, this woman, Aphrodisia with her copper drachma eyes and the way the flare of her forgefire temper called to him, Kallistos wondered if there would ever again be any woman other than her.

Her head tipped back though, lifted to the heavens and her hand that held the dagger cut through the humid air at him. She turned just enough that she could see him, just enough that he could see the slope of her nose and the full of her cheek. Oh how she watched him though, those burning eyes and that flash of her teeth as she spoke, there was a sun hot flush high on her cheeks when she turned to face him fully.

He wondered how much of that flush was by Helios’ hand and just how much he himself were responsible for.

“Hestia give me patience, you think I should be pleased? You do not come and keep my company for nearly a week, and when you do finally come to me, it is because your fellow guard had to carry you himself.”

A clack of her tongue against her teeth and slowly did Kallistos try again to rise to a sitting position. Carefully did he test the pull at his side, but her stitch work had always been tight, had always been clean. The wound wouldn’t give no matter how much it ached, but it sent a sharp twist through his side all the same as he swung his legs around off the side of the cot.

He knew exactly who she spoke of though, the auburn hair and the bright grin that matched Kallistos’ own booming laugh, his closest friend had always managed to be his worst enemy all in the same breath and he groaned, a hand against his eyes even as he slowly hefted himself to his feet.

“Kleisthenes, you shit eater.”

“You are fortunate to have friends like Kleisthenes, as you seem entirely incapable of recognizing that the sharp end of the spear is something to be avoided at all costs, particularly when in the hands of a drunkard!”

He took on aching legs with a swimming head, but the sharp clap of her sandals on the ground as she advanced on him were as familiar as they were startling. He should have expected the way that she smacked at his chest, the solid hit of her hand against him and he thanked Zeus that she struck him with her empty hand. He staggered all the same, knees bumping the cot, and one hand caught the wall behind him even as the other guarded his face.

“Woman, why are you hitting me!”

“You do not rise from that bed unless I say that you can.”

Forceful, ever forceful and ever skilled at knowing exactly where to hit him, she hit him with enough force in the stomach that he bent, that she could reach his shoulder and shove until he sat on the cot once more.

“I have done nothing to deserve this treatment!”

His outburst rattled through her clinic, and he was thankful for the otherwise empty state of it if only for his own embarrassment, for Aphrodisia seemed not to care.

“Says he who allowed himself to be repeatedly wounded by a drunkard because he wasn’t wearing his armor!”

Her voice carried, accusation in her tone and the swell of Athena’s righteous fury from within her chest, she was loud. Surely those outside would hear her, those who walked along the street before her clinic would hear how she shamed him. How she owned him, for no woman should talk to him as such.

“It wasn’t my rotation for duty!”

She owned the very core of him, this spiteful woman with her angry eyes and her wild hair. She owned him and she cared not for his excuse, not with the crude sound that she made and the way that the dagger she clutched cut through the air as she lifted her hands. Such a furious image she made, certainly she was a muse of war, a priestess of Aries with his want for blood, and she bared that temper to him now.

“Then you should have left the man alone until one of your armored brothers could have dealt with him instead!”

He would have minded her ire had she not looked so beautiful when angry.

“Aphrodisia-”

The dagger slashed through the air again, sharp edged, glinting steel, he wondered who had given it to her. Not him, he had gifted her with the supple leather sandals she wore that laced to her knees, the rich yellow dyed epiblema that she wore about her shoulders when the skies turned cold. Yet, someone had given her a dagger, had gifted her with a blade and he hoped that she had simply received it from her father, he hoped she had purchased it herself.

“No, you do not get to say my name as such. Cease talking at once.”

She stared at him with it, aimed a bit at him and Gods, but he knew that she knew exactly where to get his flesh to make it hurt. He prayed that she wouldn’t as much as part of him hoped that she would, and Kallistos watched instead as she made another crude sound, as she shook her head. Her wild hair came a little further undone, he wondered how much she had tugged at it before he had woken, he wondered just when Kleisthenes had woken her for her assistance.

A fleeting glance, but there were faint shadows beneath her bright eyes, a lack of sleep that looked like bruising, and no doubt he was the cause of that. She had never been one for vanity for all that he had known her, but she looked less than composed now, less than put together with her hair having fallen down and her peplos hastily tied about her waist. It was slight, subtle, but he had never seen her anything less than vaguely perfect and it meant something now to see her in such a state of disarray.

It meant everything that he knew she would never say, and he shoved himself up from the bed, took her by her waist, her wrist even when he had never before touched her so.  

“I didn’t say you could get up, do not touch me Kallistos, I swear to the Gods! Unhand me! I have half a mind to wound you myself!”

He could hear the afternoon chatter of voices out on the street, muffled from where they stood and the linen that covered the windows, and her dagger clattered to the ground. Careful not to hurt her, careful not to bruise her, but his hold was forceful all the same and he followed her when she tried to move. Kept her close until she she had backed herself against a wall, and he released her waist hen to touch her throat, her jaw.

“You were scared.”

She looked so angry with him, the righteous fury of the very harpy’s that he had been taught to fear. A flush to her cheeks, a fire to her eyes, he wondered if she would hit him or if she would scream. The force of her inhale pressed the swell of her chest to his and her voice was loud, her intention to be heard.

“You do not have the ri-”

He had never raised his voice with her before.

He had never turned forceful with her before, but Kallistos felt the pull of it then in his bones, for she was smaller than he but she was a terror, a firestorm as he scrambled to keep pace. Somebody save him but he wanted to strangle her.

“Ma Dia Aphrodisia, have I not made my intentions clear enough? I bring you figs, and flowered wine, and I am content to be in your company as you crush mint and make tinctures for your patients. I wish to court you woman, but you are so staunchly independent that I’ve had to resort to hunting down your father in Thermopylae just so I may have his blessing in my efforts!”

He could hear the echo of his own voice and the way that it caught on the pillars and corners inside her clinic. Surely their argument could no longer be considered private, certainly they had drawn some form of attention. Public outburst were far from rare this close to the port where the ships loomed and the sailors spoke most foul, none would think twice at two raised voices from within a home.

And Kallistos remembered the ride on his horse from the northern gates of the city all the way to Thermopylae, past the winding farms and the rolling vineyards. The sun had beaten down upon him, hot even in his exomie beneath the furious heat and the lack of a sea breeze. A two days ride, and her father had been a broad man, a bitter faced man, work hardened and sun toiled and he had laughed and laughed and laughed when Kallistos had told him of his plan before telling him that he would need the blessing of patience and wit from the Gods rather than a father’s word.

She had gone silent though, quiet with her face turned away from his hand, the coiling spill of her hair falling over her shoulder, her throat.

“Now you are speechless? Such is a first, never have I kno-” A soft sound, quiet and quivering, and there was a cut of a tear across her flushed cheek, and it felt as if Hades opened wide beneath him. He could hear the raving of the three faced beast over the tight, pained clench beat of his own heart, and his touch gentled, he held to her as if she would break for all that he didn’t let go. “Aphrodisia? No, oh don’t cry, Disia please don’t cry, I did not intend to upset you. I will return to my bed, and we need never speak of this again, I pro-”

“You let me go Kallistos and I swear that I shall send you to be tested for Elysium with my own two hands.”

Her voice was thick, wet, and he had never heard her sound as such before. Never had he seen her shake like that, never had he seen her cry, Kallistos had always known her to be some level of composed for all that she raised her voice, some level of in control for all that she lost some of her hold in the fiery force of her temper. He felt the brunt of it often, but she held onto him now, gripped him tight with nails that pinched through his chiton, with sharp fingertips that dug into his sides for all that she carefully avoided the lacerations she had restitched.

“I have made you cry.”

Trails of tears across her flushed face, wet, spiked lashes and a liquid shine to her copper drachma eyes, she was beautiful even when she cried. A muse even when she raged and threatened him with a razor edged dagger, a dream even when she laughed at him with a cruel tip to her mouth, she would never be anything other than perfect. He would always love her even when she made his skin ache, even when she made his heart hurt and his head spin.

“And you make me want to cry every time I see you in that cursed uniform that you are so proud of. You will never understand what it is like to know just how little that armor will save you when Thanatos decides to come for you.”

That waver to her voice again, wet and heavy and thick and oh, but how his stomach twisted, oh, but how the Gods did mock him. He had wanted her to understand, he had wanted her to want him in turn, but never had he meant to cause her such grief.

His body crowded against hers, and her hands slipped against his chiton, she clung to him as he pressed her flush against the wall that she had put at her back. Lower still then, his forehead to hers, the hand that had taken to cup her jaw instead slid into her hair, pulled it further still free from its haphazard ribboned tuck.

“Aphrodisia.”

She shook against him, sharp points of pain against his sides and there was an old hurt in her voice, an ancient kind of anger than he couldn’t even begin to understand for all that he knew he hated the sound of it.

“You are going to die one day, and I will never be ready to lose you.”

He had never kissed her before.

He had never known the taste of her wide mouth or the feeling of her breasts crushed against his chest as she surged up against him. She tasted like the flowered wine that she loved, sun warm and almost too sweet and he held her against him with that hand in her hair.

“Hush.”

She seemed in no rush to get away, not with how she pulled him, not with how she used his weight to press herself further against the wall. Further against his front, and he wanted to haul her up, watched to catch her beneath her thighs and bury himself between them. Such little space between them, and they spoke against each others mouths with every breath, with every word.

“Kallistos, please.”

Such desperation, something needy, something dark, but she cried still, fat tears from her fire bright eyes for all that he had never wished to give her a reason for them. Damn it all, damn them and to Hades with his good intentions, he released her hair to do what he had wanted them, bent enough to catch her beneath her thighs and lift her entirely from the floor. Her hands to his shoulders then, his hair, his side protested the motion but it was more than worth the way her thighs spread around his hips, the way that her skin felt hot even through her peplos where he pinned her against the wall.

“I have you. I have you Aphrodisia, I have you. I will never leave, I swear.”

She was a vision, one he hoped to see for the rest of his life, and Kallistos pressed his mouth to hers even as she breathed a sob.

“Don’t you lie to me.”

-

Their backs were to him.

An entire room and then some separated them, and he expected nothing less from a man of Stark’s breeding, but Steve had given him his back. A room between them and his voice raised just enough that he could hear the things being said, the argument being had, but Steve had given him his back when he of all people should have known better. He knew all too well the blue eyed demon that breathed within his brother just as he knew that Steve should have known better, that Steve did know better.

But Steve had given him his back, but Steve had left him unbound in a seemingly unguarded room with a frantic rattle of Darcy, Darcy, Darcy in his head and a roiling, millenia’s old violence building in his blood.

For all that he carried a demon in his person, Steve had left an immortal devil unattended with a heart that beat for vengeance, and Bucky refused to sit still.

He was too old for this, too angry, too tired to the point that his exhaustion had taken a feral tinge to it but he moved with the quiet poise of a killer. Silent as he rocked to his feet, as his body took to a crouch with a bend of his knees. Weight at his sides, weight at his calf, his boot, they hadn’t taken his knives for all that he still didn’t have a gun. He didn’t need a bullet to put them down, but Steve wasn’t his target, but Stark didn’t matter and Bucky watched them for long enough before edging toward the door.

Neither of them paid him much mind, caught up in their conversation, in their just barely restrained yelling and but their words didn’t matter when they didn’t move. When the sun had shifted positions in a harsh sweep and the world felt different, they had kept him in a room while they themselves argued. While her body was lost, while her possible chances for survival were cut down, every second wasted was another spent with Darcy in the hands of those who had unmade him, and Bucky refused to leave her there even if all he retrieved was her cold body in the end.

He hoped beyond all hope that it was just her body, and he had danced this never ending dance for so long now that he knew better, had accepted the notion of having to put her down again. It had always been him though, him with a pillow and him with a rope, a blade, there could be no other hands that took her than his. Darcy had always expected him to do what needed done, long before she smiled at him with a red stained mouth and a shotgun laugh as Darcy, and he could give her nothing less even if it meant that he gave her over to death once more.

But he wouldn’t let them have her, he wouldn’t let them keep her, less than a year but he knew her pride and he knew her temper and he loved her for the ferocity that spilled in her veins. She deserved better, she deserved everything he could ever give her even if the only thing he could give her now was a swift death, was a proper burial. But he could give her nothing when they insisted on yelling, when they fought over something that didn’t matter when Darcy was alone, when Darcy had to be hurt.

An open doorway, the solid wood itself left ajar and he pressed through that gap without a sound. Brightly lit, tastefully furnished, there was more money in this room than he had ever seen in this life, but he had been the willing consort to Serbian royalty and this room was nothing more than achingly, blissfully empty. Steve’s voice still carried, the kind of anger to his tone that bordered on pleading, that toed at desperate but Stark was just as loud, his voice just as arcing. Darcy had always spoken highly of the man, had always been so fond and so familial that it had brought a smile to Bucky’s mouth, but this was a hell of a way to meet him, the last way she would have wanted them to be introduced.

Darcy considered him family for all that she didn’t talk about her own very often, sad little smiles to accompany their names and fleeting laughter told with stories of swimming in the bay, of tumbling through the grass or trying to clamber onto the roof, she spoke of Jane more, of Tony and Clint more.

But Darcy didn’t get to want anything right now, and he moved from the first door on straightened legs and silent feet, ghostly from countless lives spent with a weapon in his hands. But Darcy didn’t get to have a say on how careful he was or wasn’t, and he left the raised voices of Steve and Stark behind as he checked the door to the left. Another room though, a bedroom cast in a dim with the blinds drawn and he left it just as quickly as he had come, door silently shut and that left only the one on the opposite. A glance to where he had come, but Steve hadn’t stopped yelling, but Stark hadn’t stopped trying to keep up and Bucky didn’t have time for their fighting.

He didn’t have time for them.

The door opened easily beneath his hand, but it pulled back toward him before he gave pressure and there was nowhere to hide. Another person, Steve would know he was awake, Steve would know he had intended to leave, he had wanted to do this part at least with minimal confrontation because he knew all too well how Steve yelled. He didn’t have time for yelling though, and he had nowhere to go in an opulent room with little to hide behind, and instead Bucky took a step back instead as a large, long haired man let himself into the room.

“Steven, I have ne- you are not Steven!”

Jovial, his voice carried as if delighted by the sight of one that he didn’t know. Bucky knew that voice, some distant scratch across his skin, an echo of a feeling that licked up his spine. He knew that face even though he couldn’t place it, the man who blocked the only viable exit that the room had looked at him with eyes he recognized even though he didn’t know them and Bucky wanted to bare his teeth.

His eyes widened though, and the man grinned further, broader for all that this was hardly the time to smile about anything.

“You are James! Quickly, we must get Steven!”

But the man said his name and the world tipped sideways, bled color where it shouldn’t have in the time it took him to blink, to breathe.

A streak of lightning tore across the sky, an arc of blinding light that stretched from one side of the visible horizon to the other in a jagged crawl. He could see the face of his brothers and sisters where they slept then, illuminated in the flare of Valhalla’s light. The rumble of thunder against his bones, the pull of it on his skin where his hair stood on end and he tipped his face to the sky. Rain would start soon, he could feel the call of it in the air, the promise of it in the wind where he kept guard outside of the tents while the others slept.

He could see her smile still when he closed his eyes, could hear her laughter, but the swell of her abdomen had kept her from this war, and Airikr wanted nothing more than to return to his wife. Valhalla could wait when he could hold the gift of the Gods in his hands instead.

He didn’t know that face, but he knew the way that voice felt against his nerves, knew the thunder in the man’s chest for the kick of it in his gut.

He knew the blister burn of rage and contempt in his blood for the delicate dance with hatred that it was, and his vision went sharp at the edges even as his expression twisted, as his composure was lost. Bucky didn’t recognize his voice, not for now, not for Bucky or for James, thick words that he hadn’t spoken in generations cutting from his tongue and teeth as he snarled.

“We prayed to you, you bastard!”

The stout table that stood before the couch had been solid wood, as curling and ornate as the rest of the room, strong legs and a long body. But it shattered easily beneath Thor’s weight, vibranium plates flexing as he took hold of the other with a shout and yanked, forced movement along. What false god was he, what right had he to take their prayers and their sacrifices and ignore the pain that they had suffered, how could he speak Darcy’s name as if he had the right?

The crash sounded like thunder through the room, fitting even if it only enraged him further, appropriate for all that Bucky wanted to pull the head from his shoulders and watch him bleed. Thor’s head snapped back, arms splayed and his chest heaving even as he grimaced, as his eyes shut tight for the moment it took Bucky to grab a fistful of his shirt and wrench him full off the broken remains of the table.

“James!”

Steve could wait his turn, Bucky would deal with him later once he had bloodied his hands, once he had taken care of the surface ripple of his rage. But Thor went easily, the mighty celestial prince had fallen low for how he did nothing more than grasp at the slick metal of his arm, clutched with fingertips against seamless plates. Minimal pressure, just enough to hold and there were others in the room now, more people than he had known to be present.

“She drowned, and all we ever did was pray to you.”

Movement from his left, but Thor held a hand out, dead, dry Nordic words on Bucky’s tongue and the room was silent but for the scathing curl of his speech.

“I can cure the both of you.”

“We can’t be cured! We have to spend the rest of eternity either watching the other die or killing each other, just like we always have!”

Thor didn’t blink, backlit blue eyes and a solemn face. There was an age within his bones that Bucky recognized the brother to inside himself and his own voice was loud, filled the room with the menacing of a long caged animal finally gone rabid. His blood frothed, his chest screamed with a want to breathe in the screams of those who stood in his way, but Darcy would have expected better of him.

“You were cursed with magic older than this realm, and I can help. But we need to retrieve your wife first.”

“Darcy isn't my wife.”

A vulgar curdle in his throat, but hope was a dangerous, rapid blooming thing. They could make it through this if only he could find her, they could rest their heads for once if only he could hold her in his arms again. Darcy trusted him when Thor had failed them before, when Airikr and Roskva had paid the price for the blind belief of their people.

“Isn’t she always?”

He would help them now, or they would die and begin again as they always did, and Bucky released him without warning, let him clatter back onto the broken debris of the table.

A step back and a glance to his side, Steve stood closer than he wanted with clenched fists and rigid shoulders. A red haired woman that he knew, she had grown taller, her face far more slender but the green of her eyes were the same in color even if they were carefully blank. She watched him just as he watched her, assessing, this was who Darcy had called her neighbor even though he knew her as the fiery haired girl who just wanted to dance.

“Milaya.”

Her head tipped, her expressioned turned curious, but he didn't have the time for pleasantries. Thor got to his feet without aid, shook off what remained of the table from his clothes with a strong shake and another smaller, quieter clatter of splintered wood like that was all he needed. But Steve watched him, but Steve hadn’t moved for all that Steve had no doubt listened because he knew Steve and knew how his brother always, always listened. His shoulders were still tensed, winter sky eyes narrowed, and there was a tick in his jaw that Bucky knew came from holding his tongue just like he knew Steve had had to learn the habit the hard way.

“You didn’t say it was that kind of PTSD.” Stark’s voice was smoother than he had expected, yelling tone aside and the added volume of force now missing. He spoke with an educated candor, an exhausted grating from somewhere in the depths of his lungs and he watched Bucky with eyes that were just a touch too bright, the sleepless kind of bruised beneath them and sharp, knowing. Like Stark recognized some of the scuttling rage beneath his skin, and he watched back, full faced at the man whose father he had considered a friend as the last Stark did his best to pull him apart. “This isn’t just ‘I got kidnapped and tortured’ PTSD Rogers, this is undead, magical bullshit PTSD.”

“Tony .”

It cut at the tension in the room though, for all that Steve sounded aggravated, for all that he seemed liable to strike out at Stark with that nasty temper that Bucky knew him to have, it pulled some of the heft from his shoulders. A visible difference if someone knew where to look, and Bucky had always known, gaze had cut to Steve to stare at the way his brother held himself.

“I’m just saying, things like this need to come with a warning label. I don’t know how much that table cost, I’m going to have to replace that.”

A sharp inhale, a quick sigh, Bucky watched the way that Steve’s forearms flexed, the pulse of a vein in his throat.

“We don’t have time for this sort of bickering. I require a map, a large map.”

He knew of a single, so oversized that he couldn’t span it with his arms even if he tried, carefully pasted against the largest wall in her apartment. Pierced with pins with ribbons upon them, dates on a few and names on others, and it hurt then, an acid burning wash against his lungs and heart then. She had known, she had known perhaps her entire life this time, and she had spent time trying to trace their history, trying to draw out the places they had been and the people they had breathed as. She had tried to make a record of them like he had always wanted to, and Bucky shut his eyes for a long moment.

“Large isn’t exactly a good descri-”

“They wouldn’t have left the region.”

He barely recognized the sound of his own voice. It shook with the shambling remains of over a hundred instances of mourning, grave dirt thick in his lungs and never ending unrest pine sap sticky and slow in the back of his throat. The taste of it was familiar even if this tongue hadn’t known it for decades and Bucky swallowed thick against it, watched the way that it crawled across their skin where they heard it, where they felt it.

He had started to show his age then, the cracks had started to come through while the eternity inside did its best to bleed, she wasn’t dead yet, not yet, not yet but that gave him far less hope than it should have.

He couldn’t bare to look at Steve, if you’re crazy then I’m crazy too ricocheting around within his skull but this was something different, this was something bigger, dirtier than the things that he could ever try to guard him against for all that Stevie stood bigger than him now. He had never wanted Steve of all people to have to see him like this, to stand as witness to the way the unending had finally started to chip away at his mind like Hydra hadn’t quite managed, but there was nowhere to run.

How was he meant to protect Steve when he himself lived and breathed as the demon?

Bucky stared at Thor instead, thick voiced and dry eyed as he spoke, as he watched Steve flinch at of the corner of his vision.

“I fell in those mountains. I don’t know how long I laid there, but I know those mountains, and I know they have a network not far. They wouldn’t have had the time to transport her any further once they found her. Assuming she hit the water, she could have travelled down river upwards of twenty miles before the current forced her ashore. She would have needed some form of immediate medical attention if she survived. Get a map of the region.”

Compassion, knowing, Thor nodded though, Thor hadn’t looked away from him for all that James had said.

“We will find her. Tony, a map!”

“Yelling doesn’t help me work faster, Point Break.”

Thor stepped away from him, turned to Stark and there was a faint discoloration of blood on the back of his head, James watched the stain of it as he went. Part of him hoped that it hurt, hoped that it had set an ache through Thor’s skull, but he had no place feeling such contempt, not when Thor meant to help him, not when Thor meant to help them . He would get past it when given something else to aim his anger at, he would find another target.

“Fuckin breathe.”

Steve had pressed up next to him so close their shoulders knocked together, invaded his space so harshly that their arms banged together. A habitual kind of press, the kind of lack of personal space that came from living in each others breathing space for so long it felt strange to be able to stretch their legs, Steve ate up the air that surrounded him like he had the right, like he owned it and Bucky let him without a beat of hesitation. He leaned into him despite the way that Steve had hissed the two words under his breath, tone sharp and demanding and he took a heavy breath even as he sagged some of his weight against the broad of his brothers shoulders that still caught him off guard.

“I can’t.”

His voice rough, he did his best to keep quiet, to keep his tone low. His words were meant for Steve, the grinding anxiety that bracketed his words and the gnawing desperation that colored the slick blue of his blood. Steve took his weight though, not a single second of hesitation, Steve had never hesitated in their lives more than a handful of times, Bucky could count the incidents on one hand. But he didn’t now and Bucky didn’t know what he was if not grateful, if not relieved because Steve shoved against him and slotted their shoulders together like he’d never been able to do when they were younger and Bucky couldn’t quite breathe, but this was close.

He felt a growing hollow inside where the surface tension of his anger had been taken from him and all that remained was the bone deep rage that never left him and the want to scream out her name.

“You’re fuckin’ gonna. Ain’t had a wheeze a day in your damn life, like fuck you gonna start in on me now.”

Sharp words in each others ears, Steve sounded just as desperate as he felt. And his eyes were red rimmed in a way that Bucky recognized, his knuckles were tight clench white with a want to rip and tear. You could take the boy outta Brooklyn-

“Fuck you, Rogers.”

“James, Steven!” We have a map!”

Steve didn’t have a chance to support him then, Steve didn’t have a chance to hold his weight when Bucky knocked him forward with his own haste. Their shoulders clacked together with an audible sound, he could hear the startled thunder of Steve’s exhale from behind him, but Stark had procured a map from somewhere that Bucky didn’t care about and Steve would have to keep up. Natalia closed in on his side instead, a large enough distance between them but he knew her shape all the same, knew the way she moved even if she was taller now, leaner now.

And Stark had indeed found a map, pulled from somewhere that Bucky didn’t care to know and spread across table that still stood in a single piece. The mountains looked different on paper, jagged shapes where he knew there to be peaks instead, a simple swirling line where he knew there to be the ravine where he had just lost her. Towns with names that he didn’t recognize and streets that he didn’t care to try and follow, he watched instead as Thor stared down at it for a moment before fishing into his pocket.

He pulled free a series of stones made of shades of pearl and gold, laced through with brilliant veins of fire that looked molten in the light. Bucky knew the feel of those stones, knew the warmth of them beneath his palm as he held her wrists down, knew the feeling of them against his mouth as he kissed his way up her arm. He wanted to gather them in his fist and hold tight, wanted to take that fistful of stones and hold them in his palm like he couldn’t hold her.

“You made her bracelet.”

Thor turned old eyes to him and there was a faint smile on his weathered face. Further inspection showed that he knew that face in part, he knew those eyes in a distant, tidal current pulse and Bucky shook a little at the realization. Nothing more than a crackle of an image, a flash of a face beneath war paint with a bloodied grin illuminated in a violent crash of lightning, he had seen that very face before, he had pressed his back against those shoulders and guarded the other man's spine and he reeled. With the bright flicker in his eyes, Thor knew as much, and his smile held secrets then, held things that Bucky didn’t have time to try and currently understand.

“I did indeed, and I will make a piece for you as well when we have the time. For now though,”

His fingers closed around the rounded stones just to be able to turn his hand over, and the entire room watched as his fingers came open, and the stones scattered far across the map. Silence, a carefully held anticipating hush and Bucky caught out of the corner of his eye as Stark started to open his mouth, as Thor’s hand hovered high over the map. A shivering rattle overtook a single stone though, closer to the top of the map and as they watched that same quiver took all of them, fourteen stones that began to walk across the map with their quiet shaking. They gathered into a circle around the first stone that had begun to walk, no bigger than Bucky’s thumbnail where it rested east of the ravine in a gully of the mountains.

“We need to go there.”

Thor’s voice was final, as if anyone had thought to argue with him in the first place, and the whole room moved.

“Nat, we need weapons, I’ll figure out transport.”

Stark talking, and Thor clasped a hand on his shoulder before leaving the table, leaving the place where Bucky’s whole world had narrowed down in on. He knew those mountains and he knew that sky and for all that he had never wanted to step foot there again, she was closer than he had anticipated, close enough that he could nearly feel her in his arms. He hoped for both their sakes that she was cold, that she was already limp, but nothing had ever been easy and he wanted to cry for how resigned he felt to the notion of having to put her down again.

“James.”

Steve pressed a hot line against his side, familiar and foreign all at once but he leaned against him all the same, knocked their elbows together. He caught the way that Steve stared at him when he turned his head, wide winter pale eyes and furrowed brows, concern but his support was just as staunch as it had ever been and Bucky swallowed thick. His fists clenched, his heart beat a furious pace within his chest, but he stared Steve full on.

“It’s Bucky.”

And his brother nodded, no hesitation, no question, and he had never been more grateful for having Steve in his life.

“Lets go get your girl, Buck.”

-

Steve seemed bent on doing his absolute best to keep up, but Bucky hadn’t given a single care either way. Steve could handle himself, Steve could defend himself, he had more important things to worry about than a scrappy boy from Brooklyn who had once bit off another kids ear. Steve would kill more than his fair share, Steve had stake here as well even if the price wasn’t quite so high.

She was here, somewhere within this labyrinth of corridors, and he felt the entire building rumble with the clattering sound of thunder.

He stalked forward at a quick, steady pace, booted footfalls echoing on the cement floors as he passed room after room after room. He couldn’t feel her here, he couldn’t taste the electric singing of her soul against his like he should have, they had the right place even if he hadn’t found her yet, but he was close. He had to be, he wouldn’t take failure as an option.

A body came around the corner just before him, broad, dressed in combat gear that he recognized with a firearm that he knew. Just close enough and the man barked out a sound but Bucky gave him no time, stole his gun only to crush it between vibranium fingers. He caught the man with his hand clenched wide around his face and drove him into the wall, shoulder burning and his arm swinging as he bashed the man's head in against the rough cement until he stopped clawing at Bucky’s arm. Until his arms went limp, until his body went heavy and Bucky gave another hard thrust and felt the way that something cracked under his hand and the wall ran wet and red. The man fell quick when he let go, a heap of limbs on the ground that he stepped over quickly before continuing the way that the soldier had come from.

Another rattling shake took the building and he could hear an explosion from somewhere far behind him. Subtly had been lost then, the element of surprise taken and Bucky would have snarled had he been given the chance. The doors at the end of the hall burst open instead, three Hydra soldiers pouring out from the space inside, their throats were exposed, they hadn’t snapped on their helmets, he pulled a knife from the holster at his side.

It flew with a snap of his wrist and a near silent sound, embedded deep in the throat of the soldier on the far right and he fell with a gargle and desperate hands pulling at the wound.

Another pulled his gun then, grip steady and his arms didn’t waver and Bucky sucked in a breath and ran for him. A booming sound, the bullet tore through his flesh shoulder and sent a burst of pain through his nerves and he screamed out his rage then, barreled into the soldier so hard that the both of them slammed to the ground with a clatter of military gear that would do them no good and vibranium. The breath knocked form the soldiers chest, he could see his fear in the wide of his eyes, the acidic stench of it on his skin and Bucky took hold of either side of his head and snapped his neck with a quick twist just in time to hear the last remaining soldier ready his gun.

He dove off the body and watched a bullet embed in the hollow beneath the man’s chin, he had aimed for the back of the head then and Bucky held that with him as the soldier swung around, as he threw himself up from where he had pulled into a crouch. It was easy to toss his weight around, this body stronger than the previous few he had had, molded for war and crafted from pain and suffering and bathed with the blood of others, he flourished like this, he felt eternal like this, felt as old as the voices in his head marked him to be. A kick at the soldiers legs and his gun shot the ceiling instead, a long beam bulb of it started to flicker wildly as the bullet tore out its twin in a shower of glass and sparks all around them.

The combination of his larger weight and unsteady legs and the man went down just like his brothers had, heavy combat gear that wouldn’t help him and a wild panic in his eyes.

“Stop!”

The man clawed at his legs, but it took little to sit across his chest, to hold his arms pinned with the harsh grind of his knees against bone and he felt the demon they had tried to make him, felt the devil he had always been as his hair hung low and a delighted kind of adrenaline sang through his blood.

“Shut the fuck up and take it .”

They had kept him unconscious for nearly five days, five days of her here in this place somewhere, five days that he hadn’t been able to reach her, and he couldn’t hit Steve like wanted to, but this man would do in his place, these soldiers would take it instead.

Vibranium fingers clutched at the top of his skull, caught skin and a fistful of his hair alike, it should have worried him how comfortable this felt, it should have set off an alarm somewhere in the back of his head. Instead he felt alive, instead he bared his teeth at the soldier pinned beneath him in a ferocious sort of grin while his flesh hand then clutched at his throat. The man had started pleasing with him, a series of please, please, please that went unanswered, turned into screaming as instead his fingertips dug in deep to the line of his throat. Instead Bucky pressed with the hot flood of super soldier augmentation in his veins and shoved his weight harder on his knees when the man writhed beneath him.

His fingers wrapped around the ribbed cartilage line of the man's trachea and pulled , wrenched back at the bicep so it tore from his lungs and came free instead on a harsh, wet bubbling pop. Blood across the man’s front then, blood across his forearm and his thighs where he had nicked the bastards jugular on the outward pull. It flooded the cavity that had been created and his screaming was nothing but a gargling, desperate wheeze.

There was screaming where they had come from though and he didn’t know how his team had gotten that far ahead, but he didn’t care. He threw the man's trachea against the wall instead, rocked back onto his heels and stepped off his body. A foot braced on the chest of the first fallen and he wrenched his knife free, wiped the blood across his stomach while he shoved his hair back with his free hand.

“You should have killed me!”

He had started to run before he realized it, instinct alone at the sound of her voice and Bucky’s feet stomped hard and loud across the cement as he sprinted down the hall the men had come from. Another shrill sound, a hair raising screech filled with more rage than he had heard from her in generations but that was her, that was Darcy, alive and embodied with the same sort of murder that he felt ricocheting through his chest. He hadn’t expected her to be so close, he hadn’t hoped for her to be coherent enough to talk, let alone to scream but he needed to get to her before they did.

Past a long corridor and that was Steve crushing a man's face with his shield and Bucky didn’t stop, blood covered as he was and his heart racing. The sounds of her screaming filled his lungs, but the infinite, frenzied larum of his heart had taken over his throat, his ears until it pulled the sense from his skull. A miasma curl of it in his ears but Bucky didn’t falter, didn’t stop at the double doors that stood at the end of the hall. They simply shook against him though, held at his weight for all that they groaned.

They held though, they held and they held and he could hear her screeching from just beyond them.

“No, no, n-Steve! Steve!”

A bellow of crackling desperation, his voice echoed in the space around him but he knew that he was heard, he knew by the metallic sound behind him and the pounding of feet on the floor. His shoulder to the door as he tried to batter it down then, that was Steve, blood smeared and his eyes a little crazed but it was a sort of sight that he recognized even if Steve was bigger, broader.

There was blood on his teeth when he spoke, and she hadn’t stopped screaming.

“Push!”

It felt a lot like Brooklyn then, a flickering streetlight and the two of them against a pack of bullies who just hadn’t seemed to know any better. Their shoulders snapped against the door and they shuddered with the first hit, they swung open on the second. And there she was, wild curls and pale skin and he watched as two scientists caught her by her arms, hauled her back even as she kicked out viciously. One glimmering vibranium foot made contact with the head of a third and he dropped like a stone with a sharp crack of his neck, and Bucky would have mourned what they had done to her legs if they hadn’t dropped her down into a chair.

A chair he knew all too well, and Steve had taken off for a soldier to their left even as he tore for his knives, even as he screamed and dropped into a sprint.

“Darcy!”

Her eyes caught his as the blades buried in the forehead of one, the throat of the other but the switched had been thrown and Bucky was left to watch as electricity ignited and arced across her delicate skin. As her hands seized on the edges of the chair and as her head snapped back, as a blood curdling scream built from deep in her chest, metal legs skidding against the floor before catching at the bottom of the seat for all that she couldn’t manage to pull herself from it.

“Darcy!”

It only took seconds surely, a moment at most to get past the bodies of the dead and the dying to cross the room, but it felt like an eternity. He had known the agonizing stretch of forever but this was something more, made worse by the limp fall of her body when he yanked the machine free from its housing and killed the current.

She sagged loose, legs splayed and her head hung low, sweat clumped curls and he was scared to touch her.

He didn’t want to hurt her worse, he didn’t want to cause her more pain, but there was no rise and fall to her chest and he couldn’t see her breathing. Bucky thrust his hand past her hair and found her throat, soft skin that he knew with his mouth turned blistering hot from more electricity than he cared to think about, but there was nothing. No throb beneath his fingers no matter how hard he tried, and vibranium fingers cupped her chin then, pulled her face up so he could find her eyes.

But her heavy lids were shut and her mouth was slack without a single gust of breath from between them, and his legs gave out from under him. She fell again when he let go of her, matched the way that he sank to his knees between her limp thighs and her head hung low, cast shadows across the sharp bruise upon her cheek as her shoulders curved forward slightly for all that she didn’t quite fall. Her hair swayed down around them as he pressed his face into her stomach, as he curled his arms around her and felt the chill of vibranium legs on either side of his chest.

“No, no, oh God, Darcy no.”

He sobbed against her skin, they had taken all but the barest necessities of her clothes and he wanted to shield her with his body, wanted to curl around her and hold her. But he had failed to protect her, he had failed to save her for all that he had tried and he wanted to vomit, he wanted to scream. Instead, Bucky cried against her belly and felt the brush of her hair against the backs of his shoulders.

“I’m so sorry .”

The room had fallen silent behind them, Steve had taken care of the last remaining operative in the room but he couldn’t bring himself to lift his head, couldn’t stop his crying.

He wanted her fingers in his hair like she did when he couldn’t sleep, he wanted more than this, he wanted the punched sound of her laughter and the taste of her smiling mouth against his own. But she wouldn’t laugh at him again, she wouldn’t smile at him or dance away from his touch, not as Darcy, wouldn’t look at him with those eyes and it was like Rosalie all over again, like Halena, like Speranza. She wouldn’t be Darcy ever again and his sobbing was ragged, strained and grieving between the limp of her arms.

“Buck, w-we need to ge-”

His snarl was lost under his breath, predatory, possessive, Steve had come too close to the wounded animal that had overtaken him and he would have lashed out, he would have struck had it not required releasing his hold on her. But there was a voice above him, exhaustion quiet and terror thin and it crackled at the edges, broke along the seams.

“Mar-Iltum?”

His breath in his throat and Bucky stared at her belly for a long moment, unable to breathe even as he slowly lifted his head. It felt like he hadn’t heard that name in a millenia, those words dead and dried and lost under the bleeding Sumerian sun but he remembered the way her mouth curled around it all the same. And she did too it seemed, her fingers twitched where her hands had fallen, and she didn’t lift her head as if she didn’t have the strength, but her eyes had opened.

Slitted, heavy and cottony glazed until that spring sky blue turned muted, dim and damp but she was awake, she was alive , and he would take it happily, readily.

She blinked at him, watching his face with a sluggish catch and he gave another ragged sob even as he clambered to his feet.

Shaking hands and a careful touch, there was blood all across his skin and it smeared on hers when he touched her, brilliant red across her pale skin. He held her face with a delicate care though, tipped her up even as he leaned over her and Bucky watched the way the light spilled across her face. The bruise had all but disappeared, smoothed back into her skin and he knew exactly what they had done to her then, he knew just what they had tried to do to her, but they couldn’t replace him and the monster they had tried to make him when she didn’t belong to them, when he didn’t belong to them. They were too big for these bones and too old for this skin and she leaned into his touch just barely, the softest motion that sent her hair swaying.

He couldn’t stop crying.

“Gemekala, Gemekala, Gemekala, I’m here. I’m here my sun, I’m here, I’m here.”

The first name, the names and the faces and the people they had been that had started it all, the tragedy that had accidentally spun into life and the destruction that had haunted them, but the name was as precious as she and he said it readily, greedily.

She blinked at him again, a little more focus in her flickering eyes and her arms shook fiercely when she lifted them, when she managed to grasp at his shirt. A harsh sound in his throat and he crowded her space further, pressed in so close that he could feel the growing heave of her chest against his. And he pressed a kiss to her forehead, to her still slack mouth and Bucky didn’t care that he hadn’t stopped crying, didn’t care that he had slathered her in blood, she deserved to feel the warmth of those he had ruined for her like the ceremonial paint it had once been.

“I’ve got you Darcy, I’ve got you.”

Chapter Text

 

“We shouldn’t be here.”

His hand was warm in hers and he pulled with an insistent kind of tug that sent her bare feet slipping through the sun hot dirt until she kicked up little clouds behind them. Familiar were his fingers though where they moved against her skin and she followed him for all that she protested, for she always had and she felt that she always would if given the chance. He had been the first to hold her hand like this and he would be the last, the sun casting sharp shadows around them where it had begun to set past the mud brick buildings.

And he turned to her, a twist of his head so he could stare at her over his wide shoulder and he grinned that bright, cutting grin that had drawn her in in the first place.

He whirled around completely then and took both of her hands in his, battle trained fingers that clasped hers and his shoulders moved in a wavering motion as he rolled them, as he pulled her own arms back and forth. As he tried to set a dancing sway across her body and she wanted to smile at him then, she wanted to laugh. Instead, it took all she had to frown at him, to pout with a semblance of the aggravation that she usually carried within herself.

“Shouldn’t doesn’t mean a single thing to people like us.”

People like him he meant, people like him, with a smile like that and the glittering blue stones inlaid into the band of gold that circled his head. But he touched her waist like she was more than her birth and he tangled his fingers in her hair so he could tip her head back and feast his lips across her throat. He treated her as if she deserved the status that their marriage had brought her, he danced with her in the streets like she had once danced for his father's guards with her skirt rucked to her thighs.

He loved her like he didn’t care, and such was more than she had ever thought to pray to be possible.

He had told his father that their love was an act of Inanna, and she had never known if it were a blessing from the Goddess or a test of her will.

“Mar-Iltum, I don’t think I should be here.”

The dancing ceased then, tall shadows cast across them and it was just cool enough in the thin alley he had lead them down that her skin didn’t feel hot, her hair molten. He hadn’t let go of her for all that the smile had left his handsome face, and instead, black eyes watched her from beneath sooty lashes, narrowed with something other than laughter, something other than desire. Mar-Iltum released her hands to instead catch her by her bare waist, to shove her back against the mud brick wall with the full of his strength. Her head smacked against the sturdy surface but he crowded her before she could do more than wince and his hand clenched tight and possessive at her waist, pressed her hard against the sun hot mud brick.

“You aren’t a slave anymore Gemekala. You’re the wife of the man who will one day be high priest, this city belongs to you.”

His face close to hers, she wanted to kiss him when he watched her like that. Dark, sharp eyes and something offended and furious in his strong brow and he touched her with a fierce, possessive hold. There would be bruises on her waist, surely, there would be marks of his hold on her skin just as there always were and she wore such things with pride.

All the same, Mar-Iltum pressed into her space until her body was flush to the wall and each expansion of her chest pushed her clothed breasts against his bare skin. The hand that hadn’t taken her waist took her throat instead, a wide palm across her sun hot flesh and he held there, his fingers slipped into her hair and he tipped her head with that. She stared him in the face with the sort of fortitude that had gotten them into this mess in the first place, as unafraid to look away from him now as she had ever been.

“You cannot say such things.”

Her voice didn’t waver, didn’t falter, but he didn’t care for the things she said either way for his eyes rolled. For his eyes rolled, for his mouth pulled into a bit of a sneer before his expression turned smug. He was the son of the high priest of Eridu then, he was aware of his breeding and his power and he wore it like a skin.

“I can say whatever I please, for Enki has gifted me with all I could ever want in life. I have you as my wife in the finest dresses with a servant to brush your hair, I have food in my belly and I have the health of my family.”

His hand at her throat tipped her face up further instead, lifted her until she came to her toes. But she could breathe, but she could talk, she could frown at him like she had taken to trying to do and Gemekala stared at her husband with narrowed eyes.

“Mar-Iltum, that does not mea-”

His hand had wandered then from her waist and instead, his hand took a palmful of her rear, pulled her hips against his in the filthy grind that she could still feel from that morning. He was insatiable and her throat felt dry then, body hot.

“And I have a beautiful, spiteful wife to exhaust with my cock, what more could I ever need?”

“Mar-Iltum!”

“I am a man gifted by the Gods, Gemekala, for Inanna smiled upon us with a blessing that I do not question. This city belongs to you just as my being does.”

That hand fell further then, caught at the meat of her thigh just beneath her skirt and he lifted her against the wall, he curled her body until he held her aloft and supported only by his hands, his hips. She had no choice but to cling then, legs spread wide about his hips and her chest heaving as he grinned at her.

“Someone will hear you, Mar-Iltum you cann-oh, oh!”

He did not fight fair, he did not play by any rules that she could ever find and follow and instead, he pulled her flush to him, ground against her bare skin where her skirt had been rucked high enough by the spread of her thighs. Pressure where she wanted it, friction almost just enough and she couldn’t seem to help herself then, a desperate roll of her hips against the familiar press of his. One of her hands caught the back of his hairless head then, and Gemekala wanted to pull him closer, wanted his mouth against hers for all that she panted, moaned.

“Where have your protests gone, my sun? Have I stolen them from you as I have your breath?”

“Mar-Iltum, please.”

His grin was wicked and she wanted to feel him bare against her as much as she wanted to hit him. Another sound spilled free from her lips instead, just as roiling as the first had been and her eyes felt heavy.

“Hush, I am the only one allowed to hear you as such.”

Possessive as ever and with his mouth nearly against hers, Gemekala could feel the rumbling growl that birthed within his chest and her own teeth bared at him.

“Then you should not have begun this where any could find us!”

But oh, how he laughed, Enlil help her, save her from men who thought themselves above social decency and custom.

“Ah, then perhaps you should not have spread your thighs so sweetly for me, dear wife.”

“That was not an invita-ah!”

He had gotten a hand between them, supported her with his hips and his thighs but she didn’t care then how he held her, simply that he did. Her nails bit against his skin and Gemekala’s back arched against the rough mud brick for she knew his fingers and she ached for the way that they sank into her. They danced across her swollen flesh in a tease of motion and she nearly pulled at his head before he gave her what she wanted. And she cried out, a sound he must have found sweet for how he grinned at her so broadly while two of his fingers touched deep within on a single press and caused her hips to dance against his hand.

The sounds from her lips were filthy but he drank them from her tongue as the same that that beautiful, cruel twist to his lips that she loved.

“Look at you, moaning in public? I thought you didn’t want me to touch you out here?”

And her head turned from him then, couldn’t look at him for all that she couldn’t care to fight the wildfire of his fingers within her. But there was a figure there, further down the alley with steps toward them and her veins turned to ice as quickly as he had set a storm inside her. Her legs clenched tight around his hips, she fought against him then like she never had and Gemekala cared not if her nails bit into his skin.

“Mar-Iltum, there is- someone is coming, put me down, put me down!”

A swear but his fingers pulled free, his hand pulled free all the same.

“Hush woman, it's fine.” She felt empty without him then, left used and aching but there was a mortification growing steadily within her all the same. Her feet on the ground, her skirt fell to dance around her knees and he pressed her half behind him in the same motion. Because she knew that man with his long braid and his beard and the venom that lurked in his dark eyes, she knew him for his cold temper and the stricken look on his daughters face and she no longer wanted to be here. She should have stayed at the house, she should have brushed her own hair that morning, but Mar-Iltum stood tall and strong and she couldn’t very well leave him. “Abiditan, Enki’s blessing upon you and yours.”

Closer than she cared for, Abiditan watched them with the same cold hostility that he had always worn and Gemekala swallowed thickly.

“Does your father know the shame you bring on his house? Fucking your whore in the street like this.”

A sharp flinch ran though her shoulders, but Mar-Iltum’s voice was loud, his temper suddenly alive with a ferocity she hadn’t witnessed since he lost control of himself against a guard. Her fingers curled against his back and she wanted to be small then, for Abiditan scared her in ways that no other man ever had. She had never had the words to explain such a feeling, and just the same she had never had a voice that another would listen to, and now it seemed too late to have an opinion on the man at all.

“I should have your tongue for that!”

“And I should have your head for the disgrace you have brought upon my family. You have disgraced our name and the name of Inanna, all to own the used cunt of a slave whore.”

It burned, both the shame in her belly and the rage festering in her blood, but Mar-Iltum was louder than she, her husband more fierce where she herself had yet to understand her power.

“Silence! I will not stand your insults!”

A sneer on that face then, and Abiditan watched them with that icy, harsh expression still even as more men joined him in the alley. Guardsmen, she recognized their faces from his personal guard and how she had once danced for them and she felt sick then. For there was something crazed upon his face, there was something mad within his eyes, his voice and she nearly stumbled where Mar-Iltum stepped back into her.

“You do not understand, boy, that there are consequences for your actions. My only child has thrown herself to Irkalla to escape her shame, and you think that you are free? Ereshkigal and her demons will feast upon your souls for the rest of eternity!”

His voice was booming, loud and whip sharp in the thin alley and it cut across her skin with the sharp sting of malice, of hatred.

“Gemekala, I love you.”

Her husband hadn’t turned his head, hadn’t taken his eyes off of Abiditan, but he spoke then to her and her alone. His words were for her, a finality in his tone that she had never heard before from his lips and she wanted to wrap her arms around him, she wanted to pull him with her. Because he held the resigned edge to him of a man who knew that he had met his end and she wanted to sob against his shoulder.

“Mar-Iltum?”

Her voice was wet already, but he turned his head enough that she could see his eyes and they were as wild as they were dark.

“Run.”

“Bring me her head!”

No sooner did he speak than Abiditan gave the order and Mar-Iltum whirled, pushed her hard with enough force that she stumbled, that she would have fallen had she not grown into her bones under such treatment.

“Gemekala, run! Just run!”

And so she did even as her heart fattened in her throat, twisting on her bare feet and running from where they had just come. She didn’t make it far, she had known somewhere cold and deep inside that she wouldn’t, for two men burst out of one of the tall doorways beside her and she couldn’t help her screaming. Shrill wailing as the first caught her by her arm and yanked with such force that she heard something pop, felt something rend in her shoulder and there was no denying the pain that filled her voice. He pulled still by a harsh hand at her throat, twisted her around until her feet came free entirely from the ground and she could barely scream.

“No! Release her!”

Such desperation, and as she fought in the air and watched did her husband manage throw one of the guard off of him. The man’s head hit the mud brick hard and he fell, she didn’t care if he got up, she didn’t care if any of them got up. He could kill all of them for all she cared, he could wash his skin in their blood so long as he lived, so long as they could go home.

“You think this a game, child? You think you have say in what we do? You and your whore have soiled the name of my family, you have tarnished the name of Inanna!”

A hard blow to his stomach and she watched with a scream as he fell to the dirt, grasping at his middle. On his hands and knees in the dirt then, shaven head bowed and she swung with her legs despite the searing pain in her shoulder and the way her arm had gone limp at her side. He needed to get up, he needed to run, he could save himself even if he couldn’t save her.

“Mar-Iltum!”

There was blood on his lips, bubbled from somewhere inside and she sobbed when she saw it, when he lifted his head and stared at her with wet pained eyes.

And Abiditan was cruel indeed, for the guard that held her dropped her without hesitation when he waved his hand. She tried to catch herself onto to hit the dirt hard, the impart jarring her already burning shoulder. She could barely hear over the pounding of her heart in her ears but that sounded like her name, but that sounded like her husband crying out for her just as she had for him.

A hand fisted in her hair, knotted the long, dark strands that her Mar-Iltum loved so and used that handhold to jerk her to her knees in a single motion. Further still, high enough that even her knees didn’t support her weight fully and Gemekala couldn’t breathe.

“Sacrifices must be made.”

She watched instead as her husbands face grew pale, as he tried to launch himself to her despite the foot that had planted on his back and forced him belly down into the dirt once more. A glint of metal from the corner of her eye and she couldn’t breathe but oh, oh how she could sob with heaving, wet wailing sounds, for to who did she pray to save her in a moment like this? No time, she had not the chance because the guards arm swung, she could see the blade, she could hear her husband screaming.

“No!”

-

Amelia had blue eyes.

Blue like her for all that they were too deep, blue like their mother for all that the shade was different, the depth of color wasn’t quite the same. There was something more to Amelia’s eyes, a ring of dark, midnight blue around the furthest part of the color, but they had the same heavy lids, they had the same thick lashes. Amelia’s eyes looked like someone had plucked them out of their mothers skull and she had learned early on that such was a far too morbid thing for her to say aloud. But Amelia looked like their mother, and Amelia stood as the only mother she had ever known in this lifetime and that meant more than she would ever know how to put into words.

It said something then, surely, the amount of comfort she took from a simple pair of eyes, from one of the few things that had remained consistent. People could lie, they could cut their hair or leave her behind, but they could never change the color of their eyes, no matter how much time passed.

“Dee-Dee? Hey, what’s wrong?” Amelia’s face swam into view, and the world fractaled back into focus once more, colors that came back to life and a dull pop of sound before the gentle rush of the ocean found her bones again, the distant chatter of voices further in the lawn setting a quiet warmth in her blood. Sunlight on her skin, a gentle breeze in her hair, and she could breathe, she could breathe, she could breathe. “Sweetheart, you’re crying , are you in pain? I thought you said they didn’t hurt.”

A shuddering breath and Darcy lifted one hand, touched her cheek and found that yes, yes her fingers were wet. Tears on her face and she swore quietly, swept the sides of her fingers beneath her eyes until her face felt more dry if tacky. She hadn’t realized, she hadn’t even noticed and Darcy scrubbed at her face for a moment longer.

“Hey.”

Gentle fingers at her wrists and Amelia took her hands from her face and held them instead. Concern on her face, stress lines around her blue eyes and Darcy was sure she was part of the cause of that. This was what happened when she kept secrets, this was what happened when she tried to save people from the demons that followed her.

But she didn’t have that now, but they were free now, and another bubble of tears overfilled form her eyes.

“Oh Dee-Dee.”

Steve had been cruel some months prior, berating her for how she should be more grateful of her family, and she had missed them. She had missed her sisters eyes and the laughter of her brothers, she had missed the noise of the house in Owls Head and she had missed the hugs that her Dad gave. And a single call to her sister from the hospital room that they wouldn’t let her leave for days had been all that had been needed, she had squeezed his hand and turned her face into his chest at the sound of Amelia crying over the line as she told her that yes, of course she could come home.

Her sister sat next to her now, the porch swing wobbling a little bit and starting a sudden rhythm where it had previously gone nearly still. The force of it swung her feet a little in the air, swing chained high enough that she never quite managed to touch. Some things hadn’t changed even if she stood slightly taller now, even if the water against her feet hadn’t felt the same and she had sobbed against his chest.

Amelia hadn’t changed though, a sleek, short chop of hair around her ears, their Dad had always said she watched too much Audrey Hepburn growing up. The same hair, the same deep eyes and she released Darcy’s hand to slip an arm around her shoulders like she had always done. She tipped sideways with the pull, head against her sister’s chest and her hand fisted in the soft pink cotton of her shirt. Pressure on the top of her head, the faint dig of Amelia’s chin in her hair but Darcy clung like she hadn’t since she was fifteen and convinced she would never find him.

“You wanna talk about it?”

A grumbling, wet sound from low in her throat, she couldn’t see him.

Hazy eyed and shaking in a hospital room when her head had finally, finally felt like it belonged to her again and she had cried so hard she had nearly vomited across the front of her medical gown. Alive even if she wasn’t whole and she had shaken her hands at him until he’d crawled up in the bed with her, held her while she cried and just let her. And she had called him James, she had murmured it against his chest like she couldn’t believe she still had him, like he would leave if she didn’t.

He had wrapped his arms around her and kissed her head and corrected her quietly.

He had introduced himself to her father and her family as Bucky while she held his hand the entire time.

She couldn’t see him where he stood on the other end of the porch, but she had left him near the grill with her father and Hale, Matthias and Jackson arguing over desert still in the kitchen. She could hear him to some degree, the low, rumbling cadence of his voice, and she could feel him. A sugar burn warmth in her bones, a pulsing heat in her chest that refused to fade, she hadn’t been alone since that chair, hadn’t felt alone since he had whispered her first name against her mouth like it was a gift.

But that was then, and this was now, and guilt was a horrible burden to carry on worn, tired shoulders.

“What am I supposed to talk about? How I’m a piece of shit daughter and sister? How I can still feel my fucking legs even though they’re gone ? Or how about the fact that I have a fucking panic attack if he hasn’t talk to me in more than an hour, how fucking pathe-”

“Alright then, you’re done for a minute.”

A hand clasped over her mouth, long fingers and the empty space where her sister’s wedding band had been just a year prior. Amelia shushed her like that with seemingly no attention paid to how Darcy mumbled behind her fingers, and she fell quiet only when her sisters fingertips buried into her hair and started to sift through her curls. The eldest Lewis child had always been the taller of the two girls and where Darcy’s feet dangled above the porch, Amelia kicked the swing into motion like it was easy.

“Now,” Pressed against her sister’s chest like this, the usual high, musical notes of her voice were low and echoing. Like something lived in Amelia’s chest, like her sisters body wasn’t her own and Darcy’s fingers curled a little tighter in the pink cotton. If Amelia noticed how she leaned further into her body then she didn’t comment on it, she let her have it without drawing any attention to her motions. “I don’t understand much of any of this reincarnation talk, but I know you’re sad like you’ve been your whole life and you’re more tired than I’m ever going to like.”

Amelia’s hold on her shifted, tightened, and Darcy tipped sideways enough that she could pull her legs up onto the swing and sag further into the comfort of her hold.

“But you’re my baby sister, and you’ve never lied to me in your life. So you tell me you’ve lived this big, terrifying number of lives and I’m going to believe you regardless of how ridiculous you think it sounds. And you tell me that you’ve got somebody that knows how to help take care of you two and fix it, and I’m going to nod and agree and be here in case you need me.”

Her hand slipped from Darcy’s mouth then and instead, Amelia took her by her shoulders, pushed at her until she sat up just enough. Until they could look each other in the face and there was no way to hide the wet of her face and the puff of her eyes. Pursed, pink painted lips and stress lines and Amelia’s jaw was serious, her brow stern.

“But I will never believe you when you say you’re a piece of shit. You’re my baby sister, and I’m always going to think the world of you. You’ve been through so much horrible bullshit that I just want to put you in bed with a bunch of hot chocolate and those weird Egyptian cakes you like so much. It’s okay that you didn’t want to talk to us, and I’m so sorry that we made you feel unloved and stifled you and compared you to Mom. But we love you, even if you disappear for months at a time, or you hang up on us, or you replace all the coffee in the house with weird herbal teas without telling anybody.”

Amelia smiled at her, soothed that hand through her hair still and Darcy leaned into the comforting touch. A tight clutch in her throat, wet and burning but it throbbed in perfect time with the sharp twist between her ribs. She didn’t want to cry again, she didn’t want to cry anymore, she hated crying as it was and Darcy couldn’t help but think that she had cried more in the last week to last her this lifetime.

But damn her sister, Amelia had always been just what she needed when she wanted it the least.

“We love you because you’re Darcy, and we won’t ever turn you away or leave you behind.”

A shuddering breath, there was comfort to be found in the fact that Amelia’s eyes were wet and her sweet voice broke. Her sister’s hands at her shoulders kept her from swaying out of tandem with the motion of the swing and she could hear voices still behind them. Raised, her brothers complaining about something, the low rumble of Bucky’s underneath and she wanted to sink into that, she wanted to be a part of that.

“Now, I have two questions. First off, do your legs hurt.”

A question she said but oh, that didn’t sound like a question, and Darcy knew her sister too well for that. She knew Amelia and how she sank her teeth in, she knew the gentle blink of her wide, heavy eyes and it always hit her worse when they were together. Winded where she had no reason to be, burning where she didn’t have the right and for all that no man had ever managed to make her feel lesser, Amelia had a talent for making her feel small in a variety of ways.

She felt it now, almost shamed by the fact that she had even complained and Darcy lost her grip on the soft cotton of her shirt. Instead, the skin her hands touched was cool, smooth where it shouldn’t have been and her nails slipped across the vibranium, caught at the seams half way up her thighs, just visible where the swaying skirt of her dress had ridden up. He had kissed those scars, careful with his mouth and so achingly gentle, and Bucky had gone further still to kill her knees, her calves all while explaining to her just what had been done, just what they had injected her with.

She would always heal, she now carried more strength than she plausibly needed, and Darcy’s hands spread as wide as they could against the sharp scarring. They didn’t burn with the eerie promise of infection now, they didn’t stretch like the skin wasn’t sure how, but she could feel it still. She could feel it, she could hear the sound of that laser, she could-

“I forget, every fucking morning. I wake up and I’ve got him wrapped around me and I’ve got a cat on my head, and it’s fine. And then I try to move and it...I know the temperature of the sheets, the blankets down to the exact number, and I can still feel myself falling sometimes, and-and I expect them to be my legs, and then it’s just-”

She could still feel the searing, agonizing burn of her broken legs being taken from her.

“They are my legs. They’re my legs because its his arm and they’re ours because we don’t have to use them like the weapons they tried to make us. They’re my legs.”

Her eyes were sad but Amelia nodded even as she swallowed thick, even as Darcy watched her sister take a deep breath like she needed to steady herself.

“Okay, next question then.”

“Uh huh?”

Wide eyes and slowly, Amelia took her hands, lifted them from her thighs and laced their fingers together instead.

“Is it okay that I think your soul husband is like, stupid pretty?”

Her laughter was loud and it spilled from between her unpainted lips, unexpected and echoing on the porch. A booming crackle of sound that caught on the beams and the floorboards and Amelia smiled that stupid, proud smile while the men went silent just around the corner. Laughter like she hadn’t had in a few weeks and she felt like she might cry for a different reason, but Amelia looked so smug and this felt like home even if something had been missing for nearly a year.

Funny, Darcy had never even realized that that something might be her.

“He is stupid pretty, but you should see him naked .”

Amelia’s turn then, screaming laughter that marked the only thing about her sister that wasn’t elegant. A childish, squealing sound and past Amelia’s shaking shoulder, Jackson popped his head around the corner with a furrowed brow. Reproachful, hesitant, the younger of the twins seemed to decide it was best to keep the distance of the porch between them, but she could hear him clear his throat.

“So like, I’m happy Dee’s talking and that y'all are laughing, but this sounds like that one time when you told me tampons were just portable cotton candy sticks and I’m not sure I like this.”

Amelia leaned forward before he could finish his whining, whispered a quick I’m gonna get him with a toothy smile on her face before pressing a smacking kiss to Darcy’s forehead and throwing herself off the swing in a sprint. It rattled wildly on its chains but she could hear the scream Jackson let out over it as he disappeared back around the corner, Amelia hot behind him.

Her feet on the smooth wooden floor of the porch didn’t even stop it, and Darcy forced herself to stand instead. She couldn’t hide out here, she couldn’t pretend, and she was tired of being alone.

Amelia and Jackson were halfway across the lawn when she finally made it around the corner, closer to the water than they were the house and even the early October heatwave wouldn’t save them from the chilly sting of the Atlantic ocean. Matthias leaned heavy on a rail to watch them where they went, a suspicious looking drink in his hand that she wanted a drink of even though James and Steve had both assured her that she wouldn’t feel it anyway. Instead, she trailed a hand across her brothers back as she passed him, sweeping fingertips against his shoulders and his head turned. The same rich, dark brown as Jackson’s but they smiled different, but they watched her different. And for all that he had always been a man for nearly no words, Matthias had always smiled back at her, had always said enough without having to really ever say a single thing.

He caught her hand in his, new scars on his knuckles and his fingertips and it was good to know that the dangers of a forge hadn’t changed any.

“He good to you?”

She forgot sometimes, just how deep his voice was. She shouldn’t have, it matched in tone with Jackson’s even if the latter spoke faster, said more. But his words rumbled against her bones and Darcy leaned back a bit, pressed her spine against his side and her head against his shoulder. But there was a patience that brewed from somewhere deep inside him that none of the other Lewis children had ever quite managed to really get right, like all of it had settled within his blood and belly instead and she had missed his quiet understanding and strength.

“He dances with me.”

Like that was all that was needed and Matthias knew her enough that it was, because he smiled and let go of her hand to instead nudge her along toward the grill.

Almost, not quite, she could see the side of him where he stared down at the contained flame that he had been left with, but her father intercepted her. He looked better, Amelia had sworn that he hadn’t touched a single drop of alcohol in the last four months and it shouldn’t have seemed like much but it felt like everything. No sharp whiskey tinge to his breath for the first time that she could remember and Darcy tipped her head up so he could kiss her temple.

“Don’t let him burn down the house with that grill? I just made your brothers restain the wood, everything’s a little extra flammable right now.”

“Dad-”

He smiled like she hadn’t seen in anything other than pictures, and Darcy forgot what she wanted to say. Because he had never smiled at her like that, she had never been on the receiving end of that expression no matter how hard she had tried. But he did it now and she didn’t dare question why, just watched him where she stood taller than her and smiled like he did in the static snow home videos from when her siblings were younger.

“I love you. And I’m happy your home, because I haven’t...I haven’t been the best at this, but I’m so happy you’re home.”

His voice was wet and thick but he pushed another kiss against her hair before disappearing into the house. The door rattled a bit, somebody would need to oil the hinges here soon or it would start to scream. Darcy stood there for a long minute, breath caught up in her chest just enough that it hurt, tight and sharp and aching.

But she forced herself to exhale, and her footsteps weren’t as loud with shoes on as they were when she went without in her soft, plush apartment.

He knew she was there, she recognized the lack of tension in his shoulders for the calm that it was and she knew that loose set to his jaw. He had let her cut his hair, he had gone without his gloves or sleeves that fell to his wrists and she had teased him in the car about looking like a productive member of society. For all of her teasing though, for all of her sharp tongued jabs said in the hope of making him laugh, making him smile, he was hers and she didn’t even need to sink her fingertips in deeper this time.

“Hey there, sugar.”

His eyes were the dark, consuming blue that crested just before lightning broke across the sky and she would never get enough of that color. He caught her hand when she was close enough, and Bucky gave enough of a tug that she swayed into him, closed the distance to be tucked under his arm instead. Close enough that she could feel his heart throbbing against her throat and Darcy cuddled close, wrapped her arms as best she could around his waist.

It smelled like woodsmoke here, it smelled like summer and food and the promise of a good night and a full belly and that feeling held the same comforting swell now as it had through countless lives.

“Hey, soldier.”

He didn’t feel nearly as warm anymore, didn’t feel nearly as blistering to the touch, and she could only assume it was because she too now ran just as hot.

Bucky ducked his head to kiss her crown, she knew that curl of his shoulders and Darcy tipped her head back instead, blinked at him and pursed her lips just to watch him smile. Just to feel him laugh where they had pressed tight together but he humored her all the same. The hand that should have manning the grill like her father must have asked instead caught her throat, her jaw, and he tipped her a little further until her back was supported by his arm.

“Kiss me.”

He was beautiful when he smiled like that, a little crooked and a little off center and she couldn’t taste the rust on his tongue when he licked into her mouth anymore. He looked as happy here on her father’s porch as he did in the bakery that Oksana had made his and she wanted to keep that smile forever. And she could now, she could keep him for as long as this life let her and then she could keep him in the after and the knowing felt a lot like breathing.

His eyes were dark and his smile just sharp enough, devilish, and Bucky tipped her further until she had to trust him. Like she had ever done anything but, and her body bent so far that she would have fallen without his arm beneath her back, and his eyes were blue, blue, blue like her dress, like the color that his love had stained her heart.

“Yes ma’am.”