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Will You Greet Her With a Knife

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Bramp. Bramp. Bramp.

“Wha — buh — ‘mup. I’m up!” Darcy swatted at her phone, but the blaring didn’t stop.

Then a vaguely-Welsh voice said, “All personnel please report to emergency stations,” and she woke up for real. That wasn’t her alarm clock, that was the emergency siren. The Tower was under attack. She stumbled to her feet and headed for the door.

After a few steps she paused, looked down, and backtracked to put on a shirt. Then she grabbed her glasses and taser. Then she headed for the door.

It had been made very clear to her on numerous occasions that as a noncombatant, her emergency station was the nearest panic room. She was to go straight there, do not pass Go, do not tase anyone even if they deserve it. Honestly, at this hour of the night she didn’t even want to disobey that order. She lurched down the hall and into the broom closet. Buckets clattered to the ground, and one of the brooms tried to brain her. She gave it a suspicious glare. Broom supervillains were not outside the realm of Weird Shit That Attacks the Avengers.

There was a muffled boom somewhere above her. Thunder, repulsors, or the Hulk merrily a-smashin’? She didn’t know, but it made her forget the broom. She hurried to the back of the closet and punched a code on the keypad hidden behind the roach spray. The light flashed green. After a second, a reinforced titanium door swung open from what looked like an empty wall, and she hustled inside.

And found herself face-to-face with the point of a knife.

She froze, unable to take her eyes off the shiny edge long enough to get a look at the person holding it. Not that it mattered. Could be pretty much anyone around here. As usual when faced with certain death, her mouth went on autopilot. “Um. Hi? Is this panic room full? ‘Cause I really don’t want to go to the one in the men’s bathroom on 43. It’s two floors down and it smells like urinal cakes.”

“Sounds awful,” the person holding the knife said. His voice was unfamiliar: low, a little gravelly, but in a pleasant way. He didn’t sound like he wanted to stab her.

There was another boom. A gentle shower of dust pattered down from the shelves. She winced and tried not to squeak. The guy in front of her sighed, and the knife disappeared. She breathed out, then caught her breath again as something else metal went past her head. The keypad beeped and she heard a hiss as the door sealed itself behind her, locking her in with…

She looked up. Then further up.

Oh.

Dude was tall, dark-haired, and built like whoa. And Darcy knew what she was talking about: she lived in a Tower full of literal gods and supermen. She’d seen Thor with his shirt off and Captain America in his underoos (some kind of clothes-melting alien slime, don’t ask, it was a weird night). This guy? Easily top five on her list of “Bodies To Die For (Hopefully Not Literally).” Top two if you limited the field to humans.

Although … could you, though? Because he reached up to push a strand of hair out of his eyes, and she realized the metal thing was his hand. He was wearing a black tank top, and she could see that the metal went all the way up to wrap around his shoulder. Were cyborgs fully human?

Was that an offensive question? It felt offensive. She decided not to ask.

He shifted, and the grey sweatpants he was wearing tightened across his thighs. If she looked a little closer, she could probably see … NO.

She bit her lip and jerked her gaze back up to his face, where a pair of ice-blue eyes were watching her with the amused detachment of a cat trying to decide if the small furry thing in front of it was breakfast or a toy. He had a longish, floppy hipster haircut, a dimple in his chin, and a set of cheekbones you could cut yourself on. “Sorry,” he said in that husky voice. “Didn’t mean to scare ya. I just wasn’t expectin’ company.”

“Me either,” Darcy said. She shrugged, and felt a hint of smugness as his eyes traced a similar path to the one hers had taken. Two could play the thin-tank-top game. Especially if those two had both been yanked out of bed at stupid-o’-clock in the morning. “Don’t worry about it,” she added, “if it had been the other way around I’d have tased you, so …”

“ ’Zat so?” His eyes crinkled at the edges like he was trying not to smile.

She made a little face, but nodded. “Kinda notorious for it. I’m Darcy.” She held out a hand.

He flinched back when she moved. It was a tiny motion — if she hadn’t been living around spies and superheroes for so long, she’d wouldn’t have seen it — but it confirmed what she’d already suspected. He wasn’t aggressive, just paranoid.

In her pocket, her other hand relaxed its grip on the taser.

He opened his mouth, then paused for a fraction of a second. Again, not something most people would have caught. “James,” he said firmly, and shook her hand. Lying, her inner Lying Cat reported. Still, so what? He was probably one of Natasha’s spy buddies. Those dudes lied like it was an Olympic sport. Meanwhile, her hand tingled a little when their palms met. She felt a tiny flush creeping up her neck, and his eyes held hers like a searchlight. “ ’S a pleasure,” he purred.

Her stomach lurched. Ooooh, he’s good. Definitely one of Nat’s friends. She shifted her weight onto one hip and crossed her arms under her breasts just to even things out. “So can I come in or what?” she asked as his eyes unfocused.

“Huh — oh.” He coughed a little. “Course.” He stepped aside and she saw with envy that he’d had the presence of mind to grab a blanket and pillow on his way out the door. That was hella smart. The panic room had a kind of padded shelf thingy on one side, but she knew from sad experience that it wasn’t very comfy.

“Welp,” she said, and commandeered one corner of his blanket, which made the eye crinkles appear again. “Looks like we’re stuck here for a while.”

“Looks like,” he agreed, settling at the other end of the blanket. She couldn’t help but notice that put his back to the corner so he could see the whole room. The exciting view included a bunch of bare concrete, a sink, a miserable little toilet cubicle with a broken lock, and her. The pillow was at his end too, but he picked it up and offered it to her.

She took it, feeling weirdly touched, and settled it between her back and the wall. “What a gentleman.”

He looked surprised for a moment, then his mouth curved up into like, five percent of a smile. “Ain’t been called that in a while,” he rumbled.

She bit down on the urge to ask what he had been called. The way he was sitting pulled the tank top tight, and then there were the thighs and … long story short, she could think of a few things. Most of them started with ‘oh.’

“Any chance of you goin’ back to sleep?” he asked, and she forced her mind back out of the gutter.

“I —“ she said, and had to clear her throat. “I don’t think so.” Another boom echoed overhead, and she flinched. It wasn’t the noise, it was the thought of one or more of her friends at the other end of the noise. “Yeah, no, not a chance. I don’t suppose you brought a book to read.”

He shook his head, making his hair flop into his eyes again. “Sorry.” The look he shot her through the strands seemed almost shy. “I got a pack of cards, though. I play — I was gonna play solitaire.”

“James, you are a man of many layers,” she said, waving her arms in an expansive gesture because it was 3 a.m. and she could.

He snorted. “More than you know, doll,” he muttered.

“What?” She’d heard, she just didn’t get what that meant.

“Nothin’.” He pulled a pack of beat-up cards out of what seemed like thin air — maybe the same pocket dimension he was keeping the knife in — and started to shuffle them. She wasn’t sure if the soft whirring noise she heard was the cards, or his hand. “What do you want to play?”

She shrugged and turned to face him, twisting the blanket underneath her. “Poker?”

His eyes had been fixed on his hands, but they flicked up at that. They looked her over from the top of her messy ponytail to the bottom of her bare feet. She became suddenly aware that she was wearing a paper-thin tank top and a pair of My Little Pony sleep shorts, and … that was it. His mouth quirked up, and oh, that wasn’t even a smile, that was a smirk. She felt herself flush. “Strip poker?” he suggested.

“Yeah, right,” she snorted, trying to pretend the idea wasn’t making her pulse pound in very interesting places. “We’re both in pajamas. That’ll be over in like five minutes.”

His eyebrows rose. “And that’s bad because …”

Whoa. Hey. Wow. That was not helping the pulse situation. She wiggled a little, trying to relieve the pressure, then stopped when she realized it was doing the exact opposite. “Look,” she said to herself as much as him, “I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions, and I’m not even including the time I tased Thor or that thing with the alien spaceship and the tequila. But,” she added hastily as she saw his mouth open to ask a question, “my point is, getting naked in a panic room with an armed stranger I just met five minutes ago is not going to be one of them.”

He shrugged. If he was disappointed, she couldn’t tell. “Fair enough.”

“How about Go Fish?” she said, to gloss over the awkwardness and the way her libido was screaming at her. Why was the responsible decision always the one that was no fun…

The smirk flashed again. “Strip Go Fish?” he suggested with a mock-hopeful expression.

She grabbed the pillow and threatened to hit him with it, and he laughed out loud. It was an awesome, husky chuckle that made her want to say Yes, yes, forget the ‘Go Fish’ part, let’s just play ‘strip.’ But instead she swallowed hard and took the cards he dealt her.

“So what do you do around here?” he asked, using his left hand to rearrange the cards in his right.

She was so mesmerized watching the articulation of his fingers that it took her a second to realize he’d been talking. “I — huh?” She blinked, saw his carefully blank expression, and grimaced. “Sorry. My bad. I just think your hand is super neat. I didn’t know we had the technology for that level of articulation. Ton — Iron Man doesn’t have anything even close.” She coughed a little. “I mean, from what I’ve seen. On the news.”

“You think it’s … neat,” he repeated, his voice as blank as his face. Then his eyes crinkled a little and she breathed out. “I didn’t know people used that word anymore.”

She finished arranging her own cards and laid them face-down so she could give him double finger guns. “I’m bringin’ it back.”

The crinkles deepened. Ooh, that was at least 10% of a smile, and they weren’t even talking about getting naked. She felt accomplished. “Sure you are. Got any fives?”

“Go fish,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at him.

The smile went up to 12%, which added a few more crinkles. Mmm, she did love a good eye crinkle. He drew a card, nodded, and laid down a pair of sevens. “You still ain’t answered my question.”

“What was it again?” She blinked and forced herself to focus on his face instead of his hands. Not that that helped much. “Oh — what do I do? Lab assistant. Pretty boring. It’s mostly data entry.” That was about as much as she was cleared to tell, but people didn’t usually ask questions anyway. Especially when she busted out that offhanded, indifferent tone of voice.

“Hmm,” he said, and she thought she caught a sharp glance from those icy eyes. “If you don’t mind me askin’, what’s a lab assistant doin’ here at three in the morning? In …” His eyes traced her body again, and she prepared to smack him down, but all he said was, “…pajamas.”

She flashed him a sharp fuck-off grin. “Either I live here or I’m participating in the weekly Avengers orgy. Take your pick. Got any threes?”

He extended a card, but didn’t let go of it right away when she pulled. “Weekly, huh? Wouldn’ta thought they’d have the time.”

“Everybody makes the time for a good orgy,” she said. This conversational thread was … not helping with the whole ‘keep your mouth off of his mouth’ situation, but at least he wasn’t asking about things she couldn’t talk about. She gave herself a mental high five for applying Natasha’s lessons on deflection.

His expression of amusement was deepening by the second. “Eights?” he said without looking at his hand, then added, “You always wear My Little Pony shorts to an orgy?”

She was not going to blush. Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash were nothing to be ashamed of. “My corset was in the wash,” she deadpanned, and handed him a card.

He dropped his eyes to the blanket as he laid down the pair, then looked up at her through his eyelashes and made a little tsk sound. “My lucky day.”

She blinked, stunned half by the panty-melting look and half by the words. “Sorry, did you say your lucky day?”

He leaned forward slowly, telegraphing his movements so she could easily stop him if she wanted to. When she didn’t, he used his right hand to flick the hem of her shorts. She could tell he was being very careful not to touch her skin. “They’re cute,” he said simply, and went back to his cards while she tried to pick her jaw up off the floor. “Got any fours?”

“Go fish,” she said weakly. “What …” Her voice caught in her throat a little, and she coughed and tried again. He didn’t look at her, but she could see the edge of a smirk hovering around his mouth. “What do you do around here when you’re not hitting on girls in panic rooms?”

“Not much,” he said. His voice was casual — too casual, there was obviously a story there. “You could say I’m on sabbatical.”

She noticed he’d said that she could say that, not that it was true. Also, he didn’t specify what he was on sabbatical from exactly. So it was probably about as true as her saying her job was data entry when she actually kicked it with the Avengers and ran the lab for the future Queen of Asgard. Data entry was involved … sometimes.

Well, that was fair enough. He was probably a SHIELD agent who hadn’t been cleared for active duty yet. Maybe the arm was new and they needed to get him used to it -- although he certainly didn’t act like he needed any practice. He used it as often and with as much precision as the other one.

Not that she was watching how he used his hands. That would be inappropriate -- hot, but inappropriate. It was just that hypothetically, if she had been watching, she might have noticed that he definitely had a lot of ... dexterity. But she hadn't, because she wasn't.

But he did.

“Sabbatical sounds like a blast,” she said in a tone of complete disinterest, because she understood about clearance and secrets. “Got any twos?”

“Go fish,” he said in the same tone.

She did, and laid down a pair of tens. “So … read any good books lately?”

He gave an amused snort. “Really? We’re goin’ from orgy fashion to small talk? Okay, sure. I just reread The Brothers Karamazov. You?”

“Oh my god, why?” she said. “Russian literature for fun, jeez, no wonder you’re all …” She waved a hand at him, and he raised an eyebrow.

“Charming?” he suggested. “Intelligent? Capable of stamina and a long attention span?”

Dammit, she was blushing again. “Gothy and monochrome,” she countered, laughing a little. “You ass. And for your information, the last book I read was Design Patterns in Object-Oriented Software, so there.”

“For real? For fun?” She nodded, and he grinned. “Okay, doll, you win. You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. Got any sixes?”

She dug one out and handed it over. “Got any grapes?” She snickered at her own joke.

He blinked. “What?”

“Oh! You haven’t heard this one?” She dropped her cards and sat up straight, leaning in a little. He did the same. He didn’t even try to hide the glance he shot at her cleavage, and she didn’t try to hide her answering smile. “Up here, buddy, this is a great joke and you don’t want to miss it.”

“Sorry, doll,” he said, eyes wide with what was probably supposed to be penitence. It wasn’t convincing at all, and the little smile playing at the corners of his mouth didn’t help. “I’m listenin’.”

She gave him a raised eyebrow of disbelief, but let it pass. “Okay, so a duck walks into a convenience store and he asks the guy behind the counter, ‘Got any grapes?’ ” She made the duck’s voice nasal and irritating. Kinda like that one grad student of Jane’s. “The guy says ‘No, we don’t sell grapes, now get out of here!’ ”

“Man, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that when I was a kid,” James muttered.

She grinned at him but didn’t let it disrupt her flow. “About an hour later, the duck comes back. ‘Got any grapes?’ And again the guy says ‘No, I already told you, we don’t sell grapes. Get out and don’t come back!’ ” She looked at her audience and grinned even wider. He was hooked, she could tell: leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, chin resting on his metal palm. “But sure enough, an hour later, the duck comes back.”

“Got any grapes?” he said before she could, imitating the tone perfectly.

“Shh, don’t spoil it!” She tapped him lightly with the pillow. He grabbed it and they had a brief tug-of-war. He won, of course, and settled in again clutching it to his chest. “But yes, that’s what he says. And this time the guy’s completely had it, so he says, ‘Listen you little jerk, if you come in here asking for grapes one more time, I’m going to nail your feet to the floor!’ ”

He gasped, hand over his mouth in exaggerated shock.

She nodded. “The duck leaves,” she said gravely. “But an hour later, he’s back. Before the guy can kick him out, he says, ‘Got any nails?’ And the guy loses his mind and yells, ‘No, goddammit, we don’t sell nails either!’ So the duck says …” She turned her head to one side like a bird and leaned in until they were almost nose-to-nose. “Got any grapes?”

James tipped his head back and shouted with laughter. She laughed with him, delighted to get to share her favorite joke with a new victim — uh, audience.

“Got any nails,” he said at last, wiping his eyes. “Oh my god, that sounds just like this pal of mine. Such a pain in the ass, you got no idea.”

“That’s pretty much all of my friends,” she agreed. “And me, not gonna lie.”

“You know, I suspected that about you,” he said, grinning at her. Their eyes caught, and she realized that she was still leaning in just inches away from him. The laughter in his eyes faded into a very different kind of sparkle. “So …” he said, and she was pretty sure his voice had gotten rougher. “What do you want to do now?”

She glanced down at the cards, then back at him, and shrugged. What the hell, he’s smoking hot and I’m bored with cards anyway. “Wanna make out?”

His breath hitched and his eyes dilated, so she was pretty sure the answer was yes, but he didn’t move. “I thought you weren’t gonna get naked with an armed stranger you just met five minutes ago,” he said.

She rolled her eyes and held up one finger. “One, we don’t have to get naked. And two,” a second finger, “it’s totally been at least half an hour.”

His mouth curled into that smirk again. “Oh, well in that case,” he said, tossed the pillow aside, and leaned in the last inch to bring his mouth to hers.

Her last coherent thought was Oh hell yeah.

His lips were soft and warm, the pressure firm, movement just right. She darted out her tongue, and he groaned and opened his mouth. He tasted like cinnamon candies. She made a happy mmm noise and wriggled closer.

There was a whirring sound, and the next thing she knew, she was seated firmly in his lap with his metal arm wrapped around her waist and the fingers of his other hand buried in her hair. She ran her hands up his back and felt him shudder. His fingers slid over the curve of her waist and dug into her hip. She arched back, gasping for air, and gasped again when his mouth found the sensitive spot under her ear.

“Shirt,” she managed to mutter, sliding her hands up under the hem. Her fingers bumped across his abs. He gave a gasp of his own when she scratched lightly with her nails, then leaned back obediently so she could peel it off over his head. She made another of those happy humming sounds, then paused, looking at the scar tissue on his shoulder and chest.

“’S okay,” he muttered, reaching for the shirt again. “You don’t hafta —”

“Don’t you dare,” she said, putting her hand over his. “I was just gonna ask if it’s okay to touch. Is it sensitive?”

For an instant, the look in his eyes was pure awe. “Not, uh … not really?” He reached across and rubbed at it himself. “Not a lot of feeling right there, but it doesn’t hurt or nothin’. You can touch it if …” He swallowed. “If you want to.” The words were casual, but his expression was raw, vulnerable, like nothing she’d ever seen on a spy before. How recent was the surgery? The scars seemed healed and old, but his eyes didn’t.

Had anyone else touched him this way since …?

This was heavy stuff to get into with a stranger, but hey, these things happened at 3 a.m. The sleep deprivation, the tiny room … it was like a little bubble outside of time, where secrets were safe and nothing hurt.

Instead of saying something cheesy and probably ruining the moment, she pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth. Then, without breaking eye contact, she leaned down and kissed just as gently along the seam where the metal met his body.

His other hand moved across his face. She was pretty sure he was wiping away tears, but he didn’t say anything, so neither did she. She just kept going, licking her way across his chest and down his abs until they were both breathing hard again.

She was almost to the top of his sweatpants when he fisted the metal hand in her hair and pulled her back up. She let out a helpless little whimper, because unf, and he grinned. “Oh really?” he said, and tugged a little harder. When she opened her mouth on a gasp, he took it with his.

His hands slid over her, mapping her back, her hips, the curve of her waist. He hadn’t even touched her in any of the fun places — yet — but every nerve in her body felt like it was on fire. When he got to her thigh, he paused and pulled back to give her a quizzical look.

“Is that a taser in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

She snorted. “Oh please, don’t even. I know for a fact you’ve got at least one knife on …” She ran her hands down the outsides of his thighs and felt nothing except a lot of delicious man. “Wait, what? Where did the knife go?”

He smirked. “Trade secret, doll. But feel free to — ah!” She pinched his thigh and he bit his lip. “Feel free to keep lookin’.”

“Maybe I will,” she said, and pushed him. It was like shoving a brick wall, but he humored her and slid down to lay on his back. She laughed, and he blinked, startled. She shrugged. “Nothing’s funny. I’m just a happy-laugher.”

He leaned up to kiss her neck. “So you’re happy?”

“Mmm, hell yeah.” She pressed him back down so she could look at him, all that lovely muscle and skin spread out like a buffet. She even liked the metal arm. It was shiny. “Who wouldn’t be?”

He bit his lip and shook his head, eyelids sweeping down to hide his expression.

Well, that just could not stand. She smoothed her hands across his chest, not pausing on the scars. “Seriously, look at you. You’ve got all this …” she leaned down, her mouth hovering just above his, “… and this …” she kissed her way down his neck while her hands kneaded his thighs, “… and a sense of humor,” she finished, and nipped his collarbone.

He growled and pulled her down hard against him. Her hips dragged across something that was definitely not a taser in his pocket. His head dropped back. “Oh, sweetheart,” he said, his voice wrecked.

Something beeped loudly next to the door.

Before she could even blink, he was on his feet with the knife out, holding her behind him with his metal arm.

“Okay, seriously, where the hell were you keeping that?” She pushed against his arm, but he didn’t humor her this time. It didn’t budge. When he glanced back, the hot blue eyes had gone icy again. “Relax,” she said in a gentler voice. “It’s the intercom. It’s probably one of the Avengers telling us it’s safe to come out.” As she spoke, the sirens stopped. “See? Go answer it. Or let me go and I will.”

His expression didn’t change, but he lowered his arm and let her squeeze past him to the keypad. She hit the button to turn on the microphone.

“City Morgue,” she said, quirking an eyebrow at James’ immobile form. “You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.”

He didn’t laugh. So much for that sense of humor.

Clint, however, did laugh. “Hey, Darce, you bored yet?”

She touched her swollen mouth and tried to pat down her hair, though he couldn’t see her. “Um, not exactly. What’s happening out there, Hawk Guy?”

“Just another robot uprising,” he said cheerfully, “or as I like to call it, Tuesday. Want to let me in so I can walk you home? The door’s sealed and for some reason my override won’t work.”

“Oh, um, hang on one sec.” She muted the intercom and turned to look at James. “Do you want to walk me back? My place is just down the hall, we could …” her voice trailed off. The icy look had melted, but in its place was something that looked a lot like regret. For the first time all night, she felt cold. “No, right, dumb idea. Of course. This was a panic-room-only kind of deal.”

He made the knife disappear again and pulled her over to him with his flesh arm while the metal one reached past her head to the keypad. “Sorry, doll,” he said, and kissed her very gently.

The lights flickered out, and there was a beep and a hiss behind her. She turned to look instinctively.

“Hi, Darce!” Clint said cheerfully from outside, then stopped as she moved forward into the beam of light from the open door. “Whoa, what happened to you?”

She felt herself go beet red, which hopefully at least sort of covered up the beard burn. “What do you think?” she snapped, annoyed with herself and still mad at James. She looked back to glare at him, and did a double take.

The room was empty.

“Hot date tonight, huh?” Clint said. “Good thing he went home before the robots attacked.” He raised his hand.

She high-fived it in a numb haze, thinking, Where the hell …?

Chapter Text

She would have left it at that — a good story for some future girls’ night, “that time I made out with a mysterious man in a closet” — except that, well. She couldn’t stop thinking about him. His voice, his hands, his mouth

So yeah, of course she wanted to find him. It wasn’t just any guy that could take her to goddamn pieces without even touching any of the no-no areas.

It shouldn’t even be that hard. If he was cleared to be on a residential floor, he was probably SHIELD, and the SHIELD active duty list wasn’t exactly a Russian novel these days. The next night after work, she opened it up and skimmed through.

Then she read it again, slowly.

There was no ‘James’ that matched her mystery guy’s description. She searched for preferred aliases, then checked descriptions for men in the right age group, then just straight up typed ‘metal arm.’ Nothing. Nada. Zippy skippy.

That was mildly concerning. But on the other hand, he hadn’t done anything to hurt her, and she hadn’t heard anything about a security breach. Maybe he was just what she’d thought at first: one of Nat’s spy buddies, on the run and staying for a night or two under the radar. Given that she’d blown his cover, he was probably long gone by now.

She sighed and closed her laptop. Oh well. C’est la vie d’espionage.

She didn’t think any more of it until a couple of days later, when she walked in on Steve and Natasha having an urgent pow-wow in the common kitchen.

“… checked Belarus and Serbia,” Nat was saying as Darcy wandered past to the coffee pot. “But none of my contacts have seen him.”

Steve blew out a breath and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I know he’s highly trained, but still. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to track down a guy with a metal arm.”

Darcy’s hand jerked, slopping hot coffee over the counter. She hissed with pain as some of it splashed her arm.

“Hi, Darcy,” Steve said absently, as if noticing her for the first time.

“Something wrong?” Natasha said, because Widow was always the more observant one.

Darcy tried to smile. Given the burning pain, it was probably more like a grimace. She grabbed a towel and started swabbing down the counter, thinking furiously. How many guys with metal arms were out there? Surely not that many, but then again, in the Avengers’ world … still, it was worth a try. “This metal-armed guy you’re looking for,” she said, trying for casual and missing by a mile. “He wouldn’t happen to be named James, would he?”

When Nat jumped and Steve cursed, she could see she was right.

“That’s one of the names he goes by,” Nat said carefully. “Why do you ask?”

“Um.” Darcy wrung the dishtowel out in the sink and started wiping the floor, which had the nice side effect of hiding her face. “I maybe met a guy with a metal arm. And he told me his name was James. I thought he was a SHIELD agent, but …”

Steve cursed again, longer. She didn’t even know Cap knew half of those words.

“Sit,” Natasha ordered. “Tell us everything.”

Darcy did … well, almost everything. She left out the parts that involved semi-nudity and knives.

By the time she was done, Natasha was chalk-white and Steve was frowning harder than she’d ever seen him. “He was here,” he growled.“I ran all over the world looking, and he was two floors away from me!” His hand clenched on the edge of the counter, and there was a loud crack.

“So,” Darcy said, watching him warily. “Want to fill a girl in? Cause, not gonna lie, you’re kind of freaking me out.”

They exchanged a long glance that looked like a full-on silent conversation. Steve’s chin started to stick out, and Nat sighed and shrugged.

Finally, Steve turned to Darcy. “We think the man you met was a … person we’ve been looking for. They call him the Winter Soldier, but — but he —” He swallowed. “He’s actually my friend, Bucky Barnes.”

“And he’s a former Hydra assassin,” Nat said, and Steve glared at her. “What? She needs to know and you weren’t going to say it.”

Darcy thought about the knife again, and the world got a little spinny. She was glad she was already sitting down. “How former?” she said faintly. He said he was on sabbatical. I didn’t ask what from.

Nat shrugged, her face unreadable, but her eyes were grim. “That’s kind of the question.”

“Oh. Comforting. Thanks.” Darcy put her head in her hands and breathed slowly until the black spots went away. Then her brain made a belated connection and she jerked her head up to look at Steve. “Hold up. Did you say Bucky Barnes? As in, Sergeant Barnes, your World War Two sidekick?”

They both nodded, though Steve looked like he wasn’t loving the word ‘sidekick.’

Darcy shook her head. “Then it can’t be. This guy was only my age.”

“We think he had the serum, too,” Steve said, like that explained anything.

She tried to think back to the pictures of Barnes in her history books, but they were blurry and hard to recall. He’d had dark hair and died young, that was all she knew. Captain America’s best friend, James Buchanan Barnes … wait. James. “Son of a bitch.”

“Exactly,” Natasha said grimly. Steve looked like he wanted to object, but he looked from one of them to the other and wisely kept his mouth shut.

Darcy slugged her coffee and wished there was whiskey in it. “So I made out with your undead cyborg bestie,” she said flatly. “Peachy. No wonder he didn’t hang around.”

Steve choked. “You did what?”

Nat lifted a single ‘I’m judging you’ eyebrow.

Darcy blew her breath out in a sigh. “Okay, in my defense, I already told you I thought he was SHIELD.” They didn’t look convinced, so she plowed on. “He was in his pajamas. There was a pillow and blanket, not like, guns and armor. He didn’t look like an assassin.”

“A good assassin never does,” Natasha said, but there was a crease between her brows. “When you say you made out … what happened?” She raised her hands at Darcy’s glare. “I don’t need details, Dashyenka, I’m just asking. Was it strange? Did he hurt you at all?”

“No,” Darcy said, exasperated. It was mostly true. The only weird moment had been about his scars, and that fell firmly into the category of ‘noneya.’ As in, none ya business. “Not unless you count beard burn. It was all normal and fine right up until he disappeared into thin air.” She frowned. “I still don’t know how he did that.”

“Probably the ventilation system.” Nat shrugged. “That and the safe rooms are the only part of the Tower without security cameras. The vents over safe rooms are locked up pretty tight, but with enough time, a dedicated operative could break through. I wonder how long he’d been in there?”

Steve gave her a pathetically hopeful puppy-dog-ish look. “You don’t think he was part of the attack?” he said.

She shook her head. “If he was part of it, he would’ve been attacking. Besides, pillow and blanket, remember? I think he was sleeping there and Darcy just happened to stumble on him.”

“And then he seduced her.” To Darcy’s surprise, Steve let out a crack of laughter. It sounded like it hurt. “That’s Bucky, all right.”

“Hey!” Darcy said, offended. “I seduced him, thank you very much.” She wasn’t sure that was completely true, but making out had definitely been her idea.

Steve gave her the driest, most skeptical look she’d ever seen on his face. “Sure you did,” he said. “You chased him ’til he caught you. That’s how he operates. Trust me, I’ve been watching it work for him since 1932.”

Okay, sure, so Bucky Barnes was a legendary ladies’ man, but Darcy still didn’t like the idea of being one in a string of women stretching back almost a century. “Whatever. Any other super intrusive questions you want to ask? I didn’t get his shoe size.”

“I know his shoe size,” Steve said automatically. She glared at him, and he raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry.”

“He never threatened you or said anything about why he was there?” Natasha asked.

Darcy shrugged. “We didn’t talk that much. But no, he never threatened. Actually, the opposite. When Clint started trying to get in, he put himself between me and the door.”

Steve’s face lit up. Natasha’s eyebrows hit the roof. “Interesting,” was all she said. “Anything else?”

Darcy thought about objecting to being dismissed, but she actually really wanted out of this room, so … win-win. “Yeah,” she said, and drained her mug. “If you find him, give him my number.” She flipped them a sarcastic ‘call-me’ signal on her way out.

As she headed for the elevator, she could still hear snatches of whispering.

“… doing here?” Steve said. “He obviously …”

“… discount the possibility … complete his mission,” Nat argued. Then, loud and clear, “I’ll check all the panic rooms, but he’s long gone by now.”

She was not disappointed by that. Not at all.

Chapter Text

“We should really stop meeting like this,” she told the knife at her throat two weeks later.

There was a hiss of indrawn breath, and it vanished. The hand on her shoulder didn’t move, though, and neither did she. “We should really stop meetin’ at all,” James corrected from behind her. His breath tickled her ear, and she fought back a rush of sense memory. Her heart was pounding, and as much as she hated to admit it, it wasn’t a hundred percent fear.

“I live here,” she pointed out. “You want to stop meeting me, stop hanging around.”

A puff of breath that might have been a chuckle. “Touché. Thought you didn’t like this panic room, though. Somethin’ about how it smells like urinal cakes.”

He remembered that? She swept a glance around the tiny, sparse cubby hidden in the 43rd floor men’s bathroom and sighed. “I don’t, because it does, but sucks to be me ‘cause there’s some weird dude with a megaphone out there taunting the Avengers, and he’s between me and the stairs.” She sighed again. “Which is going to get him absolutely nowhere, because they’re at a charity gala in London. Like, Jesus dude, do your homework.”

“Villains these days,” he said, sounding amused. “No sense of craftsmanship.”

She … really didn’t know how to feel about him joking around about that. Or being here. Or being here and an assassin. She looked at the available options, and chose ‘mad.’ “Not like in your day, huh, Bucky?”

There was a short, charged silence. Then he let out a breath. This time, the shivers it gave her weren’t pleasant. “That’s an interesting name. I wonder where a lab assistant heard it.”

Oh, right. She’d forgotten about the part where she sort of lied too. She gave a half-shrug with the shoulder he wasn’t holding. “So I might have been a little bit modest.”

“Uh-huh.” His voice was flat. “I figured that out when Hawkeye came knockin’ at the door to walk you home. But I wasn’t gonna bring it up, because my ma raised me to have manners.” Unlike some people, his tone said.

She couldn’t help the disbelieving noise that came out of her mouth. “You shoved a knife in my face and then stuck your tongue down my throat in a closet!” She was glad her back was still to him, because as soon as it was out of her mouth she felt her face get hot.

“And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat,” he agreed. “But I didn’t call you a liar.”

All of it? There went the good shivers again. She wished her nervous system would make up its mind. “You literally were lying,” she said to cover it up.

He made an angry little growling noise and spun her around. He was wearing jeans, this time, and a beat-up hoodie. There was a glove on his metal hand. None of it made him any less dangerous-looking … or any less hot. She put that out of her mind, jerked her chin up and met his glare with one of her own. “I wasn’t lying,” he insisted. “Name one thing I said that was a lie.”

She thought back. Her glare slipped into a frown. He’d said very little, now that she thought about it, and most of it was about orgies and Russian literature. “You said your name was James,” she tried finally, knowing it was a stretch.

His expression said he knew it too. “It is James. Bucky’s a nickname, and t’ be honest, I ain’t sure I’m going to keep it ‘cause it sounds pretty stupid these days.”

“Only these days?” she said, just to annoy him.

He made that tsk sound she remembered, and even managed to look a little hurt. “Uncalled for, doll.”

“Knives,” Darcy said flatly. “In my face. Two of them. Also, I got to have a birds-and-the-bees conversation with the freaking Black Widow thanks to you. She was all like, 'when a woman and a Russian assassin love each other very much …'”

His face went from annoyed and fake-hurt to actually angry. “Don’t say that,” he spat, and she’d swear he didn’t move but somehow he seemed to loom a lot more than he had a second ago. “I’m not …”

She stopped, wary. “You’re not what?”

“Either. I ain’t Russian and I ain’t an assassin.” He glanced down at the knife still in his right hand, then at the shoulder where she remembered seeing a red star, and made a little face. “Anymore.”

There was a short silence. From outside, she heard a faint echo as Megaphone Guy kept monologuing.

“You said you were on sabbatical,” Darcy said at last. “Before, when I asked what you do.”

James shot her a dark look. “Yeah, well, I wasn’t lyin’ about that either.”

She swallowed. “Sabbaticals end.”

“This one doesn’t,” he said shortly. Before she could relax too much at that statement, he’d turned his laser glare back on her face. “You talked to the Black Widow about me? Is that why she did a full damn security sweep at two in the morning a couple weeks ago? Because that was real annoying. I hate missing my beauty sleep.” His face darkened even further. "And they stole my bag of candy."

Darcy shrugged. There was no reason to feel guilty, of course, but she still kind of did. “Not, like, on purpose. I was looking for you, and I heard her talking to Steve about a guy with a metal arm, so I asked if they knew you.” She laughed, but there wasn’t much humor in it. “Boy, were we all surprised.”

He folded his arms across his chest and gave her a look about as readable as a block of ice. “Why’d you go looking for me?”

She snorted and waved a hand at him, Vanna White-style. “Duh. Ask me an interesting question.”

To her surprise, the not-quite-a-smile crinkles appeared around his eyes. Shit, she’d forgotten how attractive that was. “Why aren’t you runnin’ away from me now that you know wha … who I am?” Had he almost said ‘what’? Her heart didn’t exactly break, but it creaked a little at the seams.

“Also duh.” She pointed at the door. “Moron. Megaphone. I know you’re not going to hurt me, but he’s just dumb enough to try.”

He stared at her for a long second, then made a confused huffing noise and ran a hand through his hair. “Doll, you are — I don’t know what you are.”

“Same.” She squinted at him. “What are you doing here, anyway? You had to know your cover was blown.”

He shrugged, which was not even remotely an answer.

“Also, how are you here? Natasha swept all the panic rooms personally, and she doesn’t fuck around.”

He shrugged again, but his lips twitched. “Trade secrets.”

She remembered the last time he said that to her, and couldn’t stop the wave of heat that swept over her or the blush that followed. He must have remembered, too, because his eyes dropped to her mouth. “Oh no,” she said, holding up a hand to ward him off. “No way. Making out with strangers is one thing. Making out with known assassins is another.”

Former assassin,” he corrected. “And don’t pretend you didn’t know somethin’ was off. I may not know you but I know you ain’t dumb.”

She blinked. No one ever said that to her. Ever. She wasn’t dumb, but she was loud and kind of silly and didn’t understand advanced physics, and in a tower full of geniuses that was basically the same thing. “Okay,” she said weakly, “but I just thought you were a spy.”

He gave her an unimpressed look. “You know a lotta spies with big fuck-off metal arms?”

“Hey, give me a break, it was three in the morning!” They glared at each other. Under the blare of the alarms, she heard an echo of words. Megaphone Dude must be pretty close for his voice to carry through the door. “Ugh, this is not how I wanted to spend my afternoon,” Darcy huffed, and leaned back against the wall.

“Yeah, well, me either,” James said without sympathy. “And I didn’t want to spend the rest of the week dodging the Black Widow, but I guess I get to do that too.”

Dodging, he said. Not leaving, not running away. And he’d been in the Tower, sleeping, when Natasha swept the panic rooms. Which meant he’d probably never left. The realization sent a stab of hurt through Darcy, knocking the breath out of her. I looked for you. You didn’t look for me. You knew right where I was and you just didn’t care.

The hurt twisted and hardened into anger. “Then leave!” she snapped right back, shoving back up off the wall to get in his face. “Why are you even here? Go hide out in Venezuela, or Paris, or what-the-fuck-ever place that isn’t here!”

He growled back at her. “Don’t you think I would if I could?” he yelled.

They both froze while the echoes died away. Darcy stared at him, searching his face for a hint of a lie, and found nothing but panic and sadness.

“You’re serious,” she said wonderingly. “You’re hiding. But — you can’t still — Steve knows you were here.”

He scrubbed his right hand across his face and gave a hollow laugh. “Sweetheart, Steve is the least of my worries,” he said. “You got no idea the kind of people that are lookin’ for me.”

Huh. She kept staring, her brain going a mile a minute. “So you hid out in the last place anyone would look.”

He made a small gesture, not confirming or denying. “Only building in the world designed to keep ‘em out if they try.”

Darcy couldn’t help glancing at the ceiling, where the alarms still blared.

“One —” he held up a metal finger “— that guy ain’t here for me. Two, he’s out there and we’re in here. And three, take a wild guess how much worse it would be in any other building.”

She didn’t actually need to take a guess. She’d seen it. The gas station in Puente Antiguo going up in flames, London houses collapsing on themselves … sometimes she woke up in the night with the taste of smoke and concrete dust in her mouth. “You haven’t been sleeping in the panic rooms because they’ve got no cameras,” she said. “You’ve been sleeping in the panic rooms because you’re in a fucking panic.”

He gave her a sad, bitter echo of that cocky smirk. “See, I knew you weren’t dumb. ’On sabbatical’ sounds so much nicer than ‘on the run.’”

She blew out a breath and tried to stay mad. It wasn’t easy with that look on his face. “Yeah, okay, but you still owe me an apology for playing hit it and qui — what?” she said, watching him turn to look at the door.

He held up a hand to silence her. Outside, the faint noise of Megaphone Moron was getting louder and clearer. She still couldn’t make out the words, but he was getting awfully close. James cocked his head, and then his fists clenched with a sharp whir.

“What?” she said again. “Can you hear what he’s saying?”

“He has hostages,” he said curtly. “He’s gonna shoot one of them in the head if the Avengers don’t respond to his demands in the next ten minutes.”

She felt the blood drain from her face. “They can’t respond. They’re not fucking here.”

“I know,” he growled. He closed his eyes, and the whir turned to a whine as his fingers clenched and unclenched. He muttered something that sounded like cursing, though she didn’t know the language. Then he opened his eyes and said, with deep feeling, “Aw, fuck it.”

Before she could react, he took a standing vertical leap into an open ceiling vent she hadn’t noticed. A quick curl of the abs, and he’d crawled inside. That explained the disappearing act from their first meeting.

Darcy’s mouth fell open. “Oh, for — really? You’re gonna disappear on me now?” Again? she added silently. But this wasn’t about her hurty feels. She allowed herself one angry sigh, then pulled out her taser and started to pace and mutter. “Okay, megaphone guy’s been coming down the hall from the left, so if I wait until he passes I can hop out and tase him in the back of the head. And hope he doesn’t shoot any hostages. Or me.”

She was no tactical mastermind, but even she could tell it was a terrible plan. But like … what else was she going to do? Just sit in here and listen while people died? She shuddered at the thought.

“That is the worst fuckin’ plan I’ve ever heard,” a dry voice said behind her. She whirled and saw James, hoodie gone, buckling himself into some kind of strappy vest thing that looked like a cross between a flak jacket and bondage gear. There was a holster on the floor with two handguns and a knife.

She swallowed. Was this hot or terrifying? Because her brain couldn’t decide and really, it was possible she needed some kind of therapy. “Oh. You’re back.”

“I’m back,” he confirmed, flashing the eye crinkles again. Yup, that tipped the scales firmly into ‘hot.’ God, she needed so much therapy. “And I’ll deal with him. You’re stayin’ in here.” He put on the holster and crossed his arms, clearly ready for her to argue.

“Thank god,” she said wholeheartedly, and the crinkles turned into an actual smile. “I am not built for hand-to-hand combat.” She gestured to her boobs. “These things could put an eye out, but it’s gonna be mine.”

He shook his head, still smiling. “Doll, you are something else. The mouth on you, I swear.” His eyes dropped to her mouth, just for a second. Then he visibly shook himself out of it. “Okay, stay here. I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“What if you’re not?” she said before she could stop herself.

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Then I’ll be back in six minutes? No way it takes longer than that, the guy’s an idiot.”

“An idiot with guns and hostages,” she reminded him.

He shrugged, crouching like he was about to jump for the vent again, then stopped. “Wait, are you worried? About me?” he said, sounding genuinely shocked.

She looked down and scuffed the toe of her sneaker against the concrete, feeling the flush climb her cheeks. “No. I’m super mad at you for disappearing on me. You have to come back so I can finish yelling.”

The next thing she knew, a metal arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her off her feet. He kissed her, fast and hard, and set her back down. The hot look in his eyes made her heart stutter. “Five minutes, sweetheart,” he said, flashing her a grin. “Time me.” And then he was gone.

She didn’t have her phone, so she started counting instead: one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi. At fifty-five Mississippi, Megaphone Man gave a startled yell, making the megaphone shriek with feedback. At eighty-two Mississippi, there were four gunshots. She closed her eyes but kept counting. At one hundred and twenty-eight Mississippi, there were two more shots. Someone else yelled, but with the door in the way, she couldn’t tell if it was Bucky. At two hundred and five Mississippi, there was a brief rattle of automatic gunfire. At two hundred and fifty-one Mississippi, there was silence.

At three hundred Mississippi on the dot, the door beeped. She raised the taser. James opened the door and raised an eyebrow at it. “Got any grapes?” he said.

She didn’t even think, just crossed the room in three big steps and threw herself into his arms. He smelled like leather and gunpowder and maybe a teeny bit like blood, but when his arms wrapped around her, she felt safer than she’d ever felt in her life.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said into her hair, “I’m okay, everything’s going to be fine. Aw, doll, don’t cry.”

She wasn’t, but her breath was coming in big ragged gasps. She shook her head where it was pressed to his chest. “Don’t ever — don’t you ever —” She swallowed hard and got ahold of herself. She had no right to say stuff like that to him. But … “I did not like that.”

“Me neither,” he said, with so much feeling that she tipped her head back to see his face. The lines around his eyes were not happy ones. He pushed her inside and shut the door behind them. “But the hostages are all okay. I sent them down to the lobby to tell Security to get their asses in gear and come arrest these jokers.”

“Oh shit, I didn’t think about Security!” She pulled back to look up at him. “Is that going to be a problem? Are the hostages going to tell them about you?”

“Even if they don’t, I’m on about sixteen cameras,” he said dryly. He frowned a little, but the expression smoothed out as he looked down at her. His right hand rose to mess with a piece of her hair. Her heart started pounding at the look on his face. “Let me worry about that, okay?” he murmured, lowering his head until their foreheads touched. “I’ll figure something out.”

“You could just go to Steve,” she said, though she knew it was a bad idea. Sure enough, he stiffened, eyebrows drawing in again. She pressed on, because too late now, she’d already ruined the moment. “You know he’d be on your side no matter what. You guys are like the original heterosexual lifemates.”

He sighed. “I don’t know what that means, but yeah, I know he would. But that don’t mean Romanoff would, or Stark, or hell, a dozen others. And if they try to arrest me, then what? Steve and me go on the run, just the two of us? I’d be dead in a week and I’d have taken him down with me.”

She studied his face. He was dead serious, and he’d had a lot of time to think about it so he was probably right. But still … “How is hiding in here going to fix it? Hydra’s still out there. And I get your concern with the team, but I guaran-goddamn-tee you’re not the only one that wants to feed them their own fucking balls on a platter.”

His frown disappeared. “The mouth on you,” he said again, and then his hand was buried in her hair and he was kissing her, hard and deep.

She made a little noise in her throat and stood up on her toes to press closer. The buckles on his vest dug into her ribs, but she didn’t care, because his tongue was in her mouth and his metal hand was sliding up under the hem of her t-shirt. He tasted like coffee and cinnamon, still, and a little bit like gunpowder. For some reason that made her feel crazy, the thought that he’d been out there in the middle of a gunfight, that he could have died and if he did she’d never — she’d never —

She lifted a leg up to wrap around his waist. He growled and picked her up with one hand, turning them both so her back was against the door. She rolled her hips to press against his and they both groaned at the pressure. Then the sirens turned off.

“Christ,” he gasped against her mouth. “We can’t — I have to go. I can’t be here when Security comes.”

“I know,” she said, but she was already leaning forward, falling back into him. “I know.”

He swayed forward too, and went for one more kiss that was probably supposed to be fast, but she bit his lip, got her tongue in his mouth when he opened it on a gasp, and made it a little bit longer than planned. Finally he pulled away, set her down and stepped back with his hands raised like he was being arrested. “I can’t,” he said, the words harsh like they were being dragged out of him. “I wish — fuck.”

“Yeah, that,” she said. “Me too.” She took a deep breath and licked her swollen lips.

His eyes tracked the motion. A shiver ran through him, and a muscle in his jaw jumped. He closed his eyes for a second. “Doll,” he said, with visible effort, “if I never see you again, please believe I will be thinking about you. A lot.”

“Likewise,” she said with feeling, trying not to think about never seeing him again.

He opened his eyes and slid her a small, sad smile. “Bye,” he said, and looked up at the vent.

“James!” she said before he jumped, and then more softly, “Bucky?”

He turned to look back at her.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” she said, not caring anymore that she had no right. Both of them knew she didn’t mean the kiss.

He nodded once. “I won’t, doll,” he promised softly. “I won’t.”

And then he was gone.

Chapter Text

Of course, the team had headed home as soon as they heard about the attack. By the time it was over, they were already en route and it didn’t make sense to turn around. Clint texted Darcy a poop emoji and a picture of the doggy bag he’d somehow managed to grab from the buffet. She snorted a tired laugh and sent him back a panic room selfie.

It took Security almost two hours to finally give her the all-clear, which seemed ridiculous considering she knew for a fact that it had all been over before they even got there. She went home, showered, failed to sleep, and ended up making “Welcome Home”-slash-“Sorry About the Interruption” cupcakes just for something to do.

Her mouth kept tingling. It was really distracting. She burned the first batch because she was thinking about leather and metal and cinnamon candies.

When she finally saw the quinjet approaching, she took the cupcakes up to the penthouse. Just to be nice, of course. Totally not so that she could eavesdrop. She handed them out and waited for the explosion. It only took about five minutes to arrive.

“Thanks, Darce,” Steve mumbled when she gave him his. He was wearing a suit and looking tired, and he’d just put down his shield in the corner. Probably just as well, all things considered. He had a tendency to be a little extra aggro when he was holding it.

Tony took his cupcake with a nod and shoved his into his mouth in one bite. Then he picked up a tablet and immediately choked. The others stared. Darcy braced herself.

“Rogers,” Tony said when he was done coughing. “Care to tell me why I’m watching video of our latest wannabe supervillain being taken down by the Winter goddamn Soldier?”

Aaaand there went Steve’s cupcake. Definitely a good thing he’d put the shield down.

“What?” he said. Natasha looked up sharply, and he beckoned her over. Sam and Clint didn’t exactly come with her, but they sort of ‘accidentally’ seemed to end up in the same area.

Bruce muttered, “Nope,” and left the room. Also just as well, probably.

The rest of them crowded in to look at the tablet over Tony’s shoulder. Darcy did her best to be inconspicuous as she slid around behind them, standing on tiptoe so she could peek over Nat’s head.

Tony pressed play, and she winced a little at the sight of Megaphone Moron. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit and yelling about killing hostages. There were ten standard-issue thug-looking dudes with him, all holding guns on a group of terrified lab workers.

“… and you will have no one but yourselves to blame!” Megaphone Moron intoned. He gestured for the nearest hostage to be brought forward, and held a gun to her head. Natasha made a disgusted sound when he turned it sideways like a movie gangster. On the video, the woman started to cry. The Moron laughed. “Where are your heroes?” he said.

A black-clad figure dropped out of a ceiling vent onto his head. Tony paused the video on a particularly unflattering shot of James flailing in midair, metal arm clearly visible.

Natasha snorted. “What a drama queen. No wonder he was Steve’s friend.”

“Is,” Steve said. It sounded automatic. “He is my friend.” His voice was tight, and when Darcy looked over, he was standing stiffly upright, fists clenched, his jaw working. “I … I can’t believe …” He stopped and shook his head, hard. The cupcake squished under his heel as he stalked away from them all.

“Oh, here we go,” Sam muttered. “Supersoldier angst, party of one.”

Steve breathed hard a few times, shoulders heaving, then hauled off and punched a hole through the nearest wall. “I can’t believe he was right fucking here and I MISSED HIM AGAIN!”

His voice rattled the windows. It must be his battlefield yell. Darcy winced at the noise, and Sam grimaced a little, but the others seemed unfazed. Tony pulled up an email window on the tablet and started tapping in an order for spackle from Maintenance.

“Drama queen,” Natasha said again.

Steve turned on her with a scorching glare. She raised an eyebrow at him. After a second, to Darcy’s surprise, his mouth twisted and he started to laugh. It sounded like it hurt. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “All right, Romanoff.” Then he looked at the wall and made a face. “Sorry, Tony.”

Tony waved a hand and shrugged without a hint of interest. Considering the kind of damage the Tower went through on the regs, Darcy guessed minor drywall repairs didn’t really worry him.

Steve came back, hands in his pockets and face sheepish, and Tony pressed play again.

On the screen, James’ fall ended with a jarring thump, and Megaphone Moron gave the screechy yell she remembered. He and James hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. James recovered first, no surprise, and rolled onto his feet. He pushed the woman he’d just saved into a corner and turned back just as one of the thugs lifted his gun and fired. James’ metal arm whirred up to protect his chest and head. Two bullets ricocheted off it. The third hit him in the shoulder, the force of it rocking him back on his feet a little.

Darcy cringed. Even knowing he’d been fine, watching him get shot was … not fun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steve cringe too.

On the video, James looked down. With his left thumb and forefinger, he plucked a piece of metal off of his jacket — the crushed bullet — and flicked it away. Then he raised a gun she hadn’t even seen him draw and shot the gun right out of the guy’s hand. She wasn’t sure, but a couple of fingers might have gone with it. Yikes.

Before he could even scream, James was across the floor and pulling back his metal fist. His face showed no emotion whatsoever as he punched the guy out.

There was a chorus of noises from the Avengers in the key of ‘surprised.’ Sam’s was confused, Tony’s amused, Natasha’s thoughtful, and Steve’s gleeful.

“Did he —” Sam said.

“Mm-hm,” Nat murmured. “He had a clear shot and chose to go nonlethal. Isn’t that interesting.”

“I told —” Steve started, but Tony shushed him.

“You four, cover the hostages!” Megaphone Moron was saying. “The rest of you, take him down!”

The five guys he was pointing at looked at him, then at James. He spread his hands like a cocky asshole. “Yeah, fellas,” he said, “take me down.” The camera didn’t have a good angle on his face, but from the tone of his voice, Darcy bet he was smiling.

“Is that the …” one of the guys said.

“Shut up,” another hissed.

Two of them dropped their guns and ran for the stairs. James tipped his head thoughtfully for a second, then took two shots — boom, boom. He didn’t even look like he was aiming, but each of the men fell screaming and clutching their knees.

Sam’s breath hissed between his teeth.

“Jesus,” Tony muttered.

“Nonlethal,” Natasha said in a satisfied tone, “but not nice.”

Megaphone Moron was practically hopping in place with rage. “What are you waiting for, you cowards?” he screeched. “Kill —”

James gave him an unfriendly glance and followed it up with a very unfriendly elbow to the nose. He was so fast that Darcy barely even saw him move, and obviously the Moron didn’t either, because he went down in a spray of red. (So that’s where the blood came from, she thought in passing.)

Then the goons opened fire, and Darcy shuddered at the familiar rattle of automatic gunfire. She’d be hearing that in her dreams for a while. She wished her hands weren’t full of cupcakes so she could cover her eyes.

James dived to the side, hitting the wall with what looked like bruising force, then rolled and somehow ended up standing next to the nearest goon. He put a hand on the guy’s shoulder, did something with his fingers, then flipped his entire body over the goon’s head while the guy dropped to the ground, screaming.

“How —” Tony began.

“Nerve cluster,” Steve and Natasha said at the same time. They glanced at each other. “Peggy taught me that one,” Steve added. “I showed it to Bucky.”

“The Winter Soldier taught it to me,” Nat said.

There was a short pause while everyone considered that.

They all turned back silently to the screen, where James had shot two more guys in various unimportant but painful areas and was calmly choking out a third with one hand, Darth Vader-style. The three remaining had stopped firing and were putting down their guns, hands raised. He turned his head, ignoring the guy he was still choking, and gestured for them to lie on the floor. The expression on his face was cold calculation, no emotion at all.

“This is the part where he murders them all in cold blood,” Tony muttered.

Steve cuffed him lightly on the back of the head, but he didn’t look too sure about it himself.

It was actually the part where James dropped the guy he’d been choking and pulled out a handful of zip ties. He tied up the goons, even the ones he’d shot, then beckoned a hostage over. “Take everyone downstairs and get Security up here,” he said, voice so clipped it was almost mechanical. The man he’d beckoned just stood there for a second. “What?” James said impatiently.

“Are you the —” the man started.

“— guy who rescued your ass?” James snapped. “Yes, I am. You’re welcome. Now go get Security off their asses, their response time is pathetic.” And he walked away.

“Drama queen,” Nat muttered for a third time.

The video ended, and Darcy slid off to get a paper towel, figuring this was a good moment for a brief absence. When she came back, she was expecting everyone to be yelling at each other, but instead they were all silently staring at her.

Uh-oh. “This backfired, didn’t it,” she said, and backed towards the door, but Nat was already behind her. Because of course she was. Nat led her over to Tony, her grip not painful but unshakable.

“So, Lewis,” Tony said, like she hadn’t spoken. “I was tracking the Winter Soldier’s movements through my Tower,” oh yeah, he was pissed about that, “and imagine my surprise when instead of leaving the area, he goes straight for the nearest safe room. Why would he do that, I wonder?” He turned the tablet towards her, showing a view of the panic room door, and tapped it to play.

Darcy swallowed, fear dropping cold then hot through her stomach. It was all fun and games until she got caught deliberately making out with a fugitive. If Tony kicked her out, where was she going to go? Jane still didn’t pay her.

She watched as James came striding into the bathroom, holstering his gun as he went. Even from the weird camera angle, he looked damn fine, and that walk was … wow. She forgot to regret her choices for a second.

He hit the keypad and opened the door. There was no audio, but she could see his mouth move. Then, with resignation, she saw herself appear and wrap around him like an octopus. You couldn’t see her face, but no one else in the Tower matched her description: short, dark hair, habit of hugging deadly assassins. (The only one who came close was Clint, but he was blond.)

“Huh,” she said as the two of them went inside and shut the door (which, thank god for that). “That camera has a wider angle than I thought.”

From the general shifting and throat-clearing, that was the wrong thing to say, but like there was a right thing? Ha, nope.

“Want to tell us what happened?” Steve said in his disappointed-Captain voice.

She rolled her eyes, abruptly sick of all this. “Sure,” she said flatly. “Your buddy saved the lives of fifteen hostages while you guys were in London eating canapes. Oh, and my life too, bee tee dubs, because if he hadn’t gone out there I would have.”

Steve’s disappointed frown twitched, like he was having trouble maintaining it. His eyes glowed with something closer to hope.

Nat’s frown, however, didn’t budge. “Did he say why?”

It hadn’t occurred to Darcy that why was even a question. She shrugged. “He said ‘Aw, fuck it,’ ” she offered.

That broke Steve’s frown completely. His grin was wide and proud, and a little rueful. “That’s Buck, all right. Go be a big damn hero but pretend it’s all such an awful inconvenience. Aw, Stevie,” he said in such an accurate imitation of James’ drawl that she jumped. “Do you hafta keep getting me into fights? Now I gotta save the world, and it's all your fault, pal.”

“That was eerie,” Darcy said, and he grinned even wider.

“Yeah? He still talk like that?” He turned to Sam and made a clear ‘See?’ gesture.

Sam shrugged. “Yeah, okay. But come on, man, that still doesn’t mean he’s not here to kill you.”

Darcy dropped the paper towel. “Here to what?” she said.

Nat let go of her arm and put a comforting hand on her shoulder instead. “His last Hydra mission was to assassinate Steve. We know he’s broken programming to some extent, but the fact that he’s broken into the Tower twice now indicates he might still be working on that goal.”

Another check in the ‘Darcy’s not dumb’ column: she managed to keep her mouth shut about the part where he hadn’t broken in twice because he never actually left. Mostly because she was too mad about the rest of it. “You’re all idiots,” she snapped, and yanked away from Nat’s hand.

They gaped at her. She knew what they were thinking. Sweet little Darcy, Jane’s scatterbrained assistant, telling Earth’s mightiest heroes they were idiots? It was laughable. Except she was right.

“Steve, come on,” she said, zeroing in on the one most likely to listen. “I’ve seen the footage from DC, not to mention …” she waved at the tablet. “The guy is not subtle. If he wanted to kill you, he’d be trying to kill you.”

“See, that’s what I said,” Steve agreed with suspicious mildness. “Although, how exactly did you see that footage? It was never released.”

She shrugged. “I’ve been up SHIELD’s butt since the day we found out they were a thing. Tony imported my access point when he took over their systems.” There went those stares again. Honestly it was pretty insulting. “Jane doesn’t keep me around just for my bodacious rack and Pop Tart skills, dudes. She needed to know what they were doing with her research.”

“So what’s Barnes here for then, Lewis?” Tony snapped. “A little slap-and-tickle with the intern?”

Ugh, he could be such a dick when he wanted to. She could tell he was extra pissed because he hadn’t noticed her in his systems. “I don’t know,” she said sarcastically, “where would you want to be if every shady organization in the world was trying to track you down and either kill you, or use you for their own shitty plans?”

He gave her the angry-smile. “Every shady organization in the world is trying to do that,” he said.

She gave him a ‘duh’ look. “And where do you spend your time?”

There was a short, penny-dropping silence. Tony went red. Sam went pale. Nat looked thoughtful. Steve gave her a look of almost puppy-like gratitude.

“Clean up the cupcake, okay? The icing will stain,” she said, and walked out. No one tried to stop her.

Chapter Text

“Hi, doll,” James said a week later. His metal arm whirred, but he didn’t move. “Nice to see you too. I see you still got that taser.”

“Shit! Sorry.” Darcy lowered her taser and stepped out from behind the panic room door. James’ eyes tracked her warily. That was sad, but considering she’d almost lit him up with 10,000 volts, not all that surprising. “I didn’t know it was you.”

He raised an eyebrow, and his eyes flicked over her Fozzy Bear t-shirt and threadbare yoga pants. She let herself return the look. He was wearing a black long-sleeved tee that made him look like a goth prince, or maybe that was just her memory of his tac vest talking. She wanted to grab him by the back of the head and pick up where they’d left off, but his expression wasn’t encouraging. “Who were you expecting?”

She shrugged. “Probably Clint.”

“The arrow guy, yeah?” He narrowed his eyes and looked her over again from top to taser. “That’s quite a welcome. He been bothering you?” He straightened his shoulders and narrowed his eyes, looking ready to commit murder. Fuck, nothing that objectively scary should be that hot.

I need so. Much. Therapy.

“No!” she hurried to say. “He’s training me. Well, he calls it training. I call it being an asshole.”

He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. His eyes were crinkling, so Clint was probably safe. “Trainin’ you to do what?”

She huffed an aggrieved breath. “Be paranoid. Apparently, I’m a ‘security risk’ —” her air quotes slashed the air, and he ducked the waving taser “— because I keep ‘sucking face with a Soviet assassin’.” More air quotes. He ducked again and gave her an exasperated look. “So now I have to ‘improve my situational awareness’ — hey! Give that back!”

On the last wave, he’d reached out and plucked the taser out of her hand. Now he shoved it into the back of his jeans. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t feel like eatin’ it.”

That was kind of a dick thing to say. She glared, and he squinted right back at her, unimpressed.

“So what, you’re playin’ hide and seek in the panic rooms?”

“Not, uh.” She shelved the taser idea for the moment and shuffled over a little bit so she was blocking his view of the rest of the room. She hadn’t planned to be here for this part and she didn’t want it to get awkward. “Not exactly. Actually I’ve, uh, kinda been banned.”

His eyebrows rose again. “From the panic rooms?”

“Just this one. And the one on the 42nd floor. And anywhere that I might find myself, you know …” She rubbed the back of her neck and looked at the ceiling, then the floor.

“Suckin’ face with a Soviet assassin?” he said, his voice thrumming with amusement and something a little darker. She shot a look up at him through her lashes and felt her face get hot at the look on his. Her eyes dropped to his mouth when he added, “And yet, here you are. Doing what, exactly?”

“Here I am,” she agreed, trying not to let her voice get too breathy. “Just minding my own business, you know, I’m a grown woman and I go where I want, nobody ties me d —” She stopped abruptly when he reached out and twisted one of her curls around his metal finger.

“Darcy?” he said, staring at it like he was hypnotized.

“Mm-hm?” She could barely breathe, much less form words.

“Did you know you babble a lot when you’re tryin’ to hide something?” Before she could react, he picked her up around the waist and set her gently to the side. He stared past her and his mouth fell open.

She hunched her shoulders a little and hoped that was a good face, because what she’d done was maybe, just a tiny bit, objectively crazy. “Yeah, so, you said they stole all your candy. Which made me think you’re probably living on MREs and protein bars or some shit. And like, those things will keep you alive but they’re so gross, when was the last time you had something that tastes good?”

He walked a few steps forward and crouched in front of the box she’d left in the middle of the floor. His right hand touched a bag of caramel popcorn so lightly it didn’t even crinkle. “It’s …” his voice caught, and he cleared his throat. “’S been a while.”

She swallowed. He still hadn’t looked at her. “So. Yeah. I knew you might be gone. Or maybe you wouldn’t come back to this room but if you did … and if not, I figured somebody else would eat it sometime,” she finished in a rush, trying to play it off. “It’s no big deal.”

He picked up the popcorn off the top of the box and sorted through the rest. Potato chips, pretzels, beef jerky. A six-pack of cream soda. And at the bottom, a giant bag of cinnamon hard candies, the round kind that grandpas ate. He swiped his hand across his eyes in a gesture she recognized from that first night, but when he looked up at her, they were still a little wet. “These are my favorite.”

She smiled around the sadness that was squeezing her heart. “I know. You …” she felt herself flush a little, “… you always taste like them.”

He stood up and crossed the room to her in two steps. She thought he might kiss her, but instead he swept her into a hug and buried his face in her hair. When he spoke, his voice was muffled. “Sweetheart, I … this is the nicest thing I can remember anyone doin’ for me. Not sure I deserve it.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist and rubbed her cheek against his chest. “You saved my life. You deserve all the snacks.”

He shook with a little, painful laugh. “Yeah, but that was the only good thing I’ve done in seventy years.”

“Doesn’t matter to me.” She squeezed a little harder, trying to comfort him with the pressure. “Didn’t matter to the fifteen other people you saved. We all went home safe that night because of you.”

She could feel how tense he was, his whole body a denial even though he hadn’t said anything.

“Did you know Dave in Accounting has three kids?” A tremor went through him, and she pressed the point. “You think they care what bad stuff you did before they were born? All they care about is their daddy was there to read them a bedtime story because of the nice man with the metal arm.”

His tension turned into shivers under her hands. Then the shivers deepened into shaking, wracking sobs. Darcy held on tight as the Winter Soldier cried himself out on her shoulder.

After a while, the tears slowed and he took a couple of deep breaths. “Sorry, doll,” he said shakily. “I think I got snot on you.”

“Oh no,” she deadpanned, “my couture apparel. Whatever shall I do.”

His laugh was a shaky thing only about two shades off from the sobs, but it was real. “Hell of a way to thank you, but … thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She took a deep breath herself, because the room was thick with emotion and it was probably about to get worse. “If this is how you react to candy, I’m probably going to need a towel when you hear what else I did.”

Yep, that was worse. He tried to pull back, but she held on, burrowing her face against him so he couldn’t see it. “What else did you do?” he said, sounding wary again.

“Well … I might have …” She burrowed in a little further and mumbled at top speed, “Photoshoppedyouintotheevacuationsonoonewouldknowyoudidn’tleave.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed, gently but inescapably. Her shoes scuffed back a few inches. She kept her head down, but she could see him out of her peripheral vision, leaning down to get a glimpse of her face. “I didn’t catch that,” he said.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to meet his eyes. They were red from crying, but that just made the blue stand out like a laser. She couldn’t tell if the look in them was suspicion, fear, or something else equally intense. “Tony and Nat were checking footage to figure out what door you left from. They were gonna figure out you didn’t leave. So I grabbed some of the shots of you walking away from the fight, and I just …” She wiggled her fingers. “Put you in.”

His jaw hit the floor again. He lifted his hands from her shoulders and mimicked the gesture, eyebrows raised in a question.

She shrugged and nodded. “It wasn’t that hard. I’ve done it for Jane before when she didn’t want SHIELD to know where she was going.” When he kept staring, she shifted her weight and added, “I know I told you my job was data entry, but you knew that wasn’t true.”

He still didn’t say anything.

“… Uh, you did know that, right?”

James didn’t move, not even to nod or shake his head. For a long time he just stood, staring at her, while she tried not to squirm. “You know,” he said finally, “I’ve seen a lot of shit. And I mean a lot of shit.” He lifted a hand and scraped it through his hair, face twisting between confusion and wonder. “You are the only thing that still surprises me.”

She gave him a cautious look, feeling her face get warm. “Is that good?”

“Is it — fuck.” This time, when he closed the distance, it was to kiss her. His mouth felt so good she couldn’t stop the little moan that escaped her. He made a low growling noise in return, and by the time he pulled back, they were both panting. “I owe you,” he breathed against her mouth, “so much. Anything you want.”

She pulled back enough to give him a little glance up through her ashes. “Anything?”

He made that growling noise again and kissed her, licking into her mouth and making her squirm for very different reasons. “Anything.”

She ran a finger down his chest. “In that case …” she purred, “… can I have my taser back?”

He gave a surprised chuckle, and she grinned up at him. He took a couple of steps back, evading her hands easily when she grabbed at him. She made a complaining noise, and his eyes crinkled. “You want it, come get it,” he said, and spread his arms just like he’d done in the video.

Her pulse picked up at the gleam in his eye. Oh, yes please. “You don’t think I can get it, do you?” she said, circling slowly to the right.

He turned to keep her in front of him. “Doll, I think many good things about you.” His gaze slid over her body, and he licked his lips. “Many good things. But no, I do not think you can beat me in a fight.”

She smiled, and he swallowed. “Who said anything about a fight?” She closed the distance between them at a slow, hip-wiggling saunter.

He stayed put, gaze never wavering. When she got close, she reached out a hand. He twitched, then relaxed when she raised it to curl her fingers in his hair instead of lowering it towards the taser. He wrapped his metal fingers gently around her other wrist and held it out to the side, but that was okay. She didn’t need two hands for this.

She pulled his head down with her free hand, and he went with it, bending forward until their mouths just barely touched. She started the kiss light, just lips and breath, then let it deepen slowly while time melted around them. By the time she pulled away, his pupils were blown wide, and he’d wrapped his free arm around her waist to pull her tight against him.

“I think …” she said, and leaned back in to nip at his lip. He tried to catch her for another kiss, but she pulled back and continued, “… that all I have to do …” She leaned in again and dragged her mouth along his neck, alternating bites and kisses, all the way to where the notch of his collarbone showed above the collar of his shirt. He was breathing harder than he had after the fight last week, his pulse pounding against her lips. She smiled at him and finished, “… is ask nicely.”

Then she let go of his head and dropped to her knees, and he stopped breathing completely. He stared down, those gorgeous eyes now just a thin ring of blue around black, frozen still as a statue.

She looked up at him, one hand on his belt buckle, the other still held out to the side. “Please?” She wasn't talking about the taser.

He buried his free hand in her hair, and she could feel that it was shaking a little. “That,” he said, his voice wrecked, “is not fair.”

She opened her mouth just as Clint burst in through the open door. “SURPRISE!” he yelled. Then he saw them and froze in his tracks.

In the next half-second, three things happened.

1) Clint’s look of triumph turned to horror.
2) James let go of Darcy’s hand and started to turn towards the intruder.
3) Before either of them could do anything, Darcy grabbed the taser from his belt with her now-free hand, aimed, and fired.

There was a gurgle and a thump.

She stared from her hand to Clint’s slumped form, and back. “Oh, shit,” she heard herself say. “That wasn’t part of the training.”

James burst out laughing. It was the same low, happy shout of laughter that she remembered from their first meeting. He tipped his head back, then gave up and bent forward, slapping his knees. That put his head just above hers. She glared at him, which just made him laugh harder. “Hey,” he managed to gasp at last. “I got good news about your situational awareness.”

Darcy glared harder, which did absolutely nothing, and grabbed his metal shoulder to haul herself up. “Yeah, real funny,” she muttered. “I tased him in the balls, James. I’m going to be hearing about this for years. If I survive years, which, if I’m here when he wakes up I might not.”

He straightened up and smirked at her, but not mockingly. If anything, it looked fond. “Yeah, we both better be gone by then. You go ahead, I’ll make sure he doesn’t follow us.”

She looked at Clint, then at James. She really didn’t want to ruin the moment by asking, but … “How, exactly?”

He shrugged, unoffended, and produced a handful of zip ties from whatever pocket dimension he kept all that spy shit in.

She burst into horrified giggles. “Oh, my god. He will literally never forgive me.”

James didn’t look particularly worried about that, but he didn’t move to start doing anything, either. Instead he tipped his head at her. “Your call, doll.”

She looked him up and down, from messy hair and swollen mouth to the way his pants were currently riding, and thought about what she’d be doing right now if Clint hadn’t barged in. Then she nodded once. “Do it.”

His face split in a grin. “That’s my girl.” The words made something twist in her chest. He leaned in to kiss her, carefully keeping it light and their bodies far apart. Every cell in her body felt like it was straining towards him, but she didn’t move. “Get out of here,” he said, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his eyes devouring her face. “I’ll … try to see you around.”

She blinked hard and grabbed his wrist, then forced herself to let go and turn away. “You goddamn well better, James Buchanan Barnes,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll bring the knife next time.”

“Promises, promises,” he said, and laughed out loud when she gave him the finger.

She couldn’t resist looking back, just once. The last thing she saw before the door shut behind her was James unwrapping a cinnamon candy while he knelt to start zip-tying Hawkeye’s legs together.

Chapter Text

“You,” Clint said the next morning from the doorway of the common kitchen. He tipped his head back to look down his nose at her and pointed an accusing finger.

Darcy took a mouthful of cereal and looked at him calmly while she crunched her way through it. “Me,” she agreed.

“You tased me in the balls. In the balls, Lewis! The precious Barton family jewels are forever tainted!” He flounced past Nat and Steve to pour himself a cup of coffee.

Steve looked horrified, probably for many reasons. Natasha held up a hand, and Darcy high-fived it.

“You deserved it. And I wasn’t aiming for them or anything, they just happened to be level with my head.” She took another bite of cereal. “Your own fault. Seriously.”

Nat looked like she was thinking of taking back the high-five. “Why were they level with your head, exactly?”

Oops. She flushed and ducked her head over the bowl.

“Glad you asked!” Clint said. He turned to give her another accusing stare. “They were level with her head because she was on her knees in front of you-know-who!”

“Voldemort?” Steve said, looking confused. Darcy mentally gave ten points to whoever had introduced him to Harry Potter.

Clint ignored him. “And then what does she do, after heartlessly tasing me in a man’s most vulnerable area? Leaves me alone with her creepy Russian boyfriend!”

“What?” Nat and Steve said in stereo. “He was here again?” Nat added, looking pissed. “I swear to god Stark’s security is like Swiss cheese.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Darcy said, then flushed even darker when they all looked at her. Right. Probably not the hot issue here. “And he’s not actually Russian,” she added in a pathetic attempt to cover her tracks.

“Hang on,” Steve said faintly. He put one hand over his eyes, like he couldn’t even stand to look at her. “Let me get this straight. You and Bucky were … and then Clint … and then you …” His shoulders shook, and then to her shock, he started laughing. No, not even laughing - he started cackling. “Oh my god,” he gasped, “I bet Buck was pissed. Wh-what …” He let out another guffaw. “What’d he do?”

Clint glared into his mug and mumbled something.

“What was that?” Nat said. She wasn’t smiling, exactly, but she wasn’t not smiling either.

He transferred the glare to her. “He tied me up and dragged me through the vents to my own damn living room and LEFT ME ON MY COUCH!” His voice rose, but not in a scary yell — more like an aggrieved whine. “He put on reality TV before he left! It took me three episodes of Say Yes to the Dress to get myself untied!” He paused to take a deep breath, and finished, “And then when I did get untied I found a note on my chest.”

He slapped a piece of paper onto the table. Someone with nice copperplate handwriting had written in all caps, KNOCK NEXT TIME, PAL.

Darcy couldn’t help it — she started to snicker. Nat’s straight face wobbled and collapsed. Steve was laughing so hard he wasn’t even making noise anymore, just a kind of breathless squeaking sound.

“It’s not funny,” Clint protested, but she could tell from his face that he knew it was. “This means war, Lewis! War!”

Darcy stopped laughing and put down her spoon. “Clint,” she said. “Look at me. Look into my eyes.” He did, his own wary. “You cockblocked me from having sex with the hottest man I’ve ever met in my life. Twice.” She waved two fingers in his face for emphasis. “Assassin schmassassin. I am sexually frustrated and I am mean. Do you really want to start with me?”

He opened his mouth. Then he closed it again. Then he picked up his coffee and flounced away, muttering to it about how it was the only one around here that understood him.

“Smart man,” Natasha murmured. She stood up, too, and clapped Darcy on the shoulder. “You’re doing a very stupid thing, Dashyenka, but at least you’re doing it with style.” Her smile faded, and her expression turned grim. “I’m going to go do a security sweep. Again. We must have missed something if he’s still getting in.”

“Natasha —“ Steve started. She turned to him, and they had one of their weird eyebrow conversations. He closed his mouth. She nodded once and walked away.

That left Darcy alone with Steve. She took another bite of her now-soggy cereal and eyed him nervously.

He wiped the tears of laughter out of his eyes and took a few deep breaths. “Jeez,” he said, “I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard.” The smile stayed on his face, but died out of his eyes, leaving them sad. He looked down and traced a pattern in a drop of milk on the counter, drawing it out into something that looked like the angle of a familiar jaw. “If you … see him … tell him thanks for the laugh?”

She swallowed hard, choking down a mass of guilt and Frosted Flakes. “Steve, it’s not like —” She stopped as it occurred to her that she couldn’t tell him what it wasn’t like. James wasn’t breaking into the Tower to see her … but that was because he wasn’t breaking in at all. She couldn’t explain without giving him away.

Steve gave her an inquiring look. She had to say something.

She shifted uncomfortably on the stool. “Look, you guys all make such a big deal out of this. So we swapped spit a few times, so what? That doesn’t make me important. You said it yourself, I’m just one more chick he’s bagged since 1932.” She tried to keep her voice light, but a little bit of … something slipped through. Sadness? Bitterness? She wasn’t even sure.

“I didn’t say —” Steve thought back and winced. “Okay, I guess I did. But I didn’t mean it like that. You two met, had some fun, it didn’t sound like you took it too serious. I was happy he was acting like his old self again. His old old self,” he added, and when she frowned in confusion, “from before the war. I never saw him with a dame after Azzano. And when he was …” He broke off and swallowed hard. “Well. The Winter Soldier didn’t operate like that.”

She swallowed, too. “Well, if I’m anything to go by, he’s been making up for it.”

“That’s just it,” Steve said. He ducked his head to meet her eyes. It was such a familiar gesture it was disorienting — he must have picked that up from James. When James did it, it was sexy, but Steve just looked extra sincere. “You’re the only thing to go by. Since he broke conditioning, you’re the only person we can find who’s even really talked to him. Much less anything else.”

She thought about James’ hesitance to take his shirt off, the first night they met. How he closed his eyes when she touched his scars. She’d wondered why — now she knew. Because nobody else ever touched him like that. Just me. She had to look away, scrubbing a hand across her mouth like she could wipe away whatever expression he’d surely already seen.

“And I don’t think it’s true,” Steve said very gently, “that you’re not serious about it. Is it?”

Ugh, this was so — it was morning. She was just trying to eat breakfast. The spoon hit the bowl with a splash, and she gave him a flat, hostile look. “What do you want me to say, Steven? I’m going to marry your buddy and fix all his problems?”

He winced at the sarcastic edge in her voice, which probably meant ‘yes.’

She pressed the point. “The guy is running scared. I never even know if I’m going to see him again. But he’s —” She couldn’t find the words, but Steve Rogers of all people must know all the things James Barnes was. “I’m not going to find anyone else like him. So yeah, I’ll take whatever I can get.” She shoved the bowl away and crossed her arms. “I really don’t know what you want from me here.”

He shoved his hand through his hair. Again, she saw James in his movements. After a moment, he blew out a breath. “Neither do I,” he admitted. “I just — I guess I’m jealous that he talks to you.”

That was fair enough. If it was the other way around … yeah, she’d be jealous as hell. She relaxed a little. “If it helps, I told him he should talk to you.”

His head jerked up. “What did he say?”

She didn’t know if James would want her to repeat it, but she’d come too far now to stop. And besides, whether he meant to or not, he was being cruel to Steve. “That he knew you’d be there for him, but he doesn’t want to get you killed.”

Steve’s jaw did that thing again, and he blew a breath out through his nose. “Of all the stubborn goddamn jerks — I’m not a 95-pound asthmatic anymore, I wish he’d quit treating me like one. I can help him. I want to help him.”

"He knows that," she said again, as patiently as she could.

For a second, Steve looked stricken. Then he deflated, shoulders curling in on themselves. “Yeah,” he said very softly. “I guess he does.” He swept a palm across the counter, wiping away the milk. "For what it's worth," he added, not looking at her, "if he has to talk to someone other than me, I'm glad it's you. Everybody else sees him as this ruthless killing machine, but ... the way you talk about him, it's like getting back a little of the Bucky I knew. I think you make him really happy."

Darcy's throat clenched painfully. When her voice came out, it was barely above a whisper. "I try to."

The tension stretched like taffy. Neither of them seemed to know how to break it, so they just ... sat there, staring in different directions. Steve’s oatmeal cooked, then turned to glue. He shook himself, rinsed out the pan, and started another batch. He didn't come back after, just stayed at the stove with his back to her.

Darcy's cereal had soaked itself into a soggy beige mass, so she followed his lead and threw it out. She toasted a bagel instead of pouring another bowl. When it was done, she smeared it with peanut butter and ate half slowly while she stared at the back of his neck.

Just as she was starting on the second half, Natasha stormed back in. They both turned to look at her. "Cap, we have a problem," she said, and pulled a knife on Darcy.

Steve made a jerky movement toward them, then stopped, face wary. "Romanov?" he said. Nat looked at him and did the eyebrow thing again. The point of the knife didn't waver, but Steve relaxed.

Darcy bit down on her bagel and chewed slowly, staring at the knife. She was really getting sick of this view, and this time she was about 90% certain she wasn't even going to get hot makeouts afterwards. “What'd I do?" she mumbled through the crumbs.

"That's what I want to know." Nat flipped the blade around and offered it to her handle-first. "Look familiar?"

Like Darcy could tell one knife from another? She took it, confused, and squinted at it. “Looks pointy.” She tested it with a finger and then jerked her hand back. “And sharp.” She leaned back a little, because she didn’t think it was safe to be holding a knife that close to someone you didn’t want to stab. James did it, of course, but well … that was James. "Any reason you're handing this to me in the scariest possible way?"

“I found it outside your door during my sweep.” She shot Darcy a dark look. “It’s a match to the one the Winter Soldier was carrying in the security footage.”

"He left a knife outside her door?" Steve said. He turned off the flame under the oatmeal and stalked over to them, frowning. "That can't be right. Threats like that aren't his style at all."

Nat shrugged. "Maybe his style's changing."

Steve shook his head. "There must be some other explanation." He looked at the knife in Darcy's hand, then away, shivering.

"Oh yeah? Explain this," Natasha said grimly, holding out a scrap of paper. Steve looked at it and that stricken look crossed his face again. Nat put her hand on his shoulder. "It's his handwriting. I checked it against the one he left for Clint."

“Is that a note?” Darcy was trying not to be thrilled. She really was. But a note! Maybe he missed her already. Maybe he wanted to tell her that he … wow, no, it was way too soon for that. She reined herself in. “What does it say?”

Nat frowned, but offered her the paper. Darcy had to juggle the knife to take it. The writing was the same as the note James had left on Clint’s chest: a little swoopy and old-fashioned, but very clear.

Your turn next time. See you soon. -J

She had to press a hand against her chest to make sure her heart hadn’t actually, physically left her body. It was the knife hand, so she damn near stabbed herself. Worth it.

“As threats go, it’s pretty obvious,” Nat said, misinterpreting the gesture. “But like you said, he’s not a subtle man.”

Darcy shook her head, unable to stop the grin from spreading across her face. “It’s not a threat,” she said. It came out so soft it was almost a whisper.

The others stared at her. “What?” Steve said.

She tried again, and managed full volume and an almost-normal tone of voice. “It’s not a threat. Guys, come on, didn’t we talk about this already? He doesn’t do threats. If he wanted to kill me, I’d be dead. Like, weeks ago.”

Steve nodded, but Nat looked skeptical. “If it’s not a threat, then what is it?”

“A promise. I told him next time I saw him, I’d have a knife.” Both of them looked disturbed, and she waved it off quickly. “Long story. Don’t worry about it. Doesn’t involve murder. Anyway, this is him saying he’s going to be back.” She looked back down at the note and shook her head fondly, then shoved it into the pocket of her jeans. “In a really over-the-top way. What a fucking drama queen. Hey, don’t knives usually come with like, a holder of some kind?”

“You want to carry it?” Steve said in a tone of half-terrified fascination. “Why?”

She gave him a prim school-teacher look. “Because it was a present, Steven. It’s called manners, you should look it up sometime.”

He gave a startled laugh. “I see why he likes you.” He paused. “Uh … we are sure he likes you, right?”

“No,” Nat said through gritted teeth.

“Yeah,” Darcy corrected, her voice soft again. With her free hand, she ran one finger down the flat of the knife. “I’m sure.”

Chapter Text

She wasn’t going to make it to the panic room this time.

She didn’t even know who was attacking. Honestly, she’d stopped keeping track months ago. Douchebags showed up, made some loud noises, she hid in a really boring room and (recently) made out with a badass hottie. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But yeah, nope, not this time. These ass-chapeaus in the yellow beekeeper suits were between her and the door every way she looked. She’d managed to pull a bookshelf down on three of them, but one of the books had hit her in the face in the process, and the fourth guy had gotten in a solid punch to her stomach while she was blinded.

She bent over, gasping, and he loomed over her.

“Give up,” he said in a weird mechanical rasp, complete with Darth-Vader breathing. “There is no escape.”

She tased him in the crotch. Not that it was going to do any good, there were like ten others on the way, but it made her feel better. When he gargled and fell, the fear screaming in her brain dulled from blind white panic to a more manageable complete and utter terror. She was reaching out to yank the leads out when movement flashed in the corner of her eye. She pulled James’s knife and slashed out with sheer, cornered-rodent instinct.

The blade squealed against the palm of a metal hand. “Okay,” a rough Brooklyn voice said calmly, like they were in the middle of a conversation. “Now we’re even.”

Darcy jerked her head up.

James crinkled his eyes at her. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “Miss me?”

A noise halfway between a gasp and a sob forced its way out of her lungs. She threw herself into his arms. The buckles of his vest dug into her ribs, and he jerked his head sharply to the side to avoid the knife she’d forgotten she was holding.

“Easy,” he said. “My neck ain’t made of metal.” His voice sounded aggrieved, but the hands rubbing her back were steady and gentle.

“Your own fault,” she choked out. “You gave it to me.”

One hand moved up to stroke her hair. “Yeah,” he agreed, his voice unsteady. “Didn’t expect you to really need it, though.” He pulled back far enough to see her face, and touched the rising bruise on her cheek with cool fingers. “You okay? They hurt you?” His tone didn’t change at all but she suspected the evil beekeepers were going to really regret it if she said yes.

She shook her head. “Just flying debris. Well, and that one got a lucky shot in, but I feel like he’s seen the error of his ways.” She pointed to the guy still twitching on the ground. James’s eyebrows rose when he saw where the taser was embedded. “I’m two for two on tasing dudes in the nuts this month.”

He looked at the guy for a second, then back at her. “So,” he said conversationally, “this might be a bad time to mention it, but I think you’re my dream girl. Want to go steady?”

She burst out laughing. It hurt, her bruised stomach protesting, but in the best way. “A bad time,” she gasped after a second. “You think?”

He eyed her uneasily, like he wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Yes, you dumbass!” She reached out, with the non-knife hand, and grabbed for his. “Nobody says that anymore, but yes, let’s go steady. I’d kiss you, but we’re kind of in the middle of something.”

James ducked his head to look her in the eye, and smiled. Not ten or even fifteen percent. A full 100% smile. His face lit up like a flashbulb, and her heart turned over in her chest. “That’s all right, sweetheart,” he said, “you can owe me one.”

Screw it, she was going to kiss him anyway.

Before she could, though, there was a thump of boots and raspy Darth Vader breathing in the hall. James’s face darkened and he turned, tucking her behind him. There was a gun in his hand. She honestly didn’t know if he’d just pulled it or if it’d been there all along. She switched the knife to her other hand, wiped her sweaty palm on her pants, then clenched her fingers around the handle again. The movement bumped his hip, and he glanced down at her. “Easy, doll,” he said again, lips moving almost soundlessly.

Then they were in the room, six this time, all identical to the ones on the floor. One raised some kind of weird laser gun.

James raised his own gun and shot the laser out of the hand that held it without even changing expression. Then he shot twice more — once in the shoulder, making the goon’s gun arm suddenly drop limp to his side, and once in the foot, toppling him over.

The others paused. Their faces were invisible, but she could almost hear them thinking. “You are outnumbered,” one said after a second.

From where she stood, Darcy could just make out the edge of James’ feral grin. She’d never seen that one before. Yet another thing to put on the scary-sexy list. “Think you got that backwards, pal,” he said. “There’s one of me and only five of you.”

“That makes no numerical sense,” the goon said, and went for the laser gun.

“Don’t move,” James told her urgently. Then he was moving, in a blur of black and silver her eyes could barely even follow, diving for the gun. He hit the goon broadside and they rolled, each with one hand on it. A laser blast hit the ceiling. Darcy winced, but didn’t move.

When they stopped rolling, James was on the bottom, but that didn’t seem to bother him. He dodged a punch and did something with his hips that sent the other guy flying, and oh, ouch, that was going to need some serious drywall repair. One of the others came in, leaning like he was going to hold James down. The kick he got in return snapped his head back so hard the bottom of his mask ripped out of the neck of his shirt.

The others flinched back. James grabbed his gun and held it on them while he climbed leisurely to his feet. “You know,” he said, “I’m tryin’ to be a better person lately.” He kicked the guy on the floor behind the ear, knocking him unconscious. “I really am. But the thing is, that’s my girl you’re threatening.” He jerked his head at Darcy. “So I’ve got about six seconds of good person left, and then if you’re not all down on the ground, I’m going to shoot every one of you in the goddamn head.” He lifted his left hand and cocked the gun with a decisive ka-klack. “I won’t feel bad about it.”

Two of the goons dropped so fast they smushed their masks on the floor. The third went down more slowly, but he went.

James smirked. “Thought so.”

Darcy bit her lip, hard. This should not be hot this should not be hot this should not be — ugh this is so hot. She needed so much therapy, so much, but she was probably just going to fuck him instead.

He looked up from where he was zip-tying the goons, and it must have been written all over her face because his eyes went hot and dark. “Darcy,” he said, his voice so low it made her shiver, and took a step towards her.

Then there was a sound of running feet and he turned, hefting the gun again, just as the Avengers burst into the room.

Everybody froze. Sam had his pistol cocked. Steve had his shield up. Tony’s hands were outstretched with the repulsors humming. Clint had an arrow nocked, and Nat was balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to jump. Darcy was infinitely relieved to see that Bruce wasn’t there.

She waved at them all and saw their eyes widen as they registered the knife in her hand. “Hi, guys.”

“Darcy,” Nat said, her voice dangerously calm. Her eyes flicked to James, then to the goons on the floor, then back to James. She didn’t look impressed. “Why don’t you come over here?”

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” popped out of Darcy’s mouth before she could stop it. But, to be honest, she didn’t really try that hard. She understood professional caution, but this was getting ridiculous. How much more obviously not-evil did Nat want James to be? Should he be dressed in footie pajamas and holding a puppy or something? For shit's sake.

Nat’s eyes widened, then narrowed. Darcy glared right back.

Tony whistled. “Okay, it’s official,” he said, “the intern has the biggest balls in the Tower. Someone update the scoreboard.”

She ignored him and walked the few steps to stand next to James. He shot her a sidelong glance, his face questioning. It’s okay, she mouthed, hoping it was the truth. She put her hand over his on the grip of the gun, and gently pressed it down until the muzzle pointed at the floor.

He tensed, and a little white showed around his eyes, but he let her.

Nobody moved or spoke for a long time.

Then James took a deep breath and holstered the gun, his movements quick and firm. Nobody shot him. He gave her a tiny nod, and she nodded back, her eyes prickling with tears of pride. Then he looked at Steve. “You’re late, punk,” he said, his voice rough and wry. “Take the scenic route or something?”

Steve made a short, painful sound that could have been a laugh. He started to lower the shield, paused, then swallowed and swung it firmly onto his back. His face was raw with hope. “Must be you, if you’re already busting my balls,” he said unsteadily.

James snorted. “Well it ain’t your Aunt Trudy,” he said, and opened his arms.

Steve was across the floor and hugging him with that super-soldier speed Darcy never quite got used to. She saw his face over James’ shoulder, eyes squeezed tight and tears leaking down his cheeks. She didn’t know if James’ face was doing the same, but whatever it did was enough to make Sam holster his own gun and Tony power down the repulsors. Nat and Clint exchanged glances of disapproval, but relaxed into slightly-less-threatening poses.

Darcy may have wiped her own eyes a little bit, sneakily.

“Fuck you,” Steve said after a minute, pulling back and scrubbing a hand over his face. “I never even had an Aunt Trudy.”

James cuffed him lightly on the shoulder with the metal hand. “I’ve got amnesia, asshole. Be nice.”

“Oh, my god. You’re going to use that as an excuse for everything, aren’t you?” Steve rolled his eyes, but he was smiling wider than Darcy had ever seen him. “How about I be nice and introduce you to my friends?”

There was a general ruffling of feathers from the doorway.

“We’ve met,” Nat said, her voice just a touch cold.

James winced, and Darcy could see his shoulders go tense. “Sorry about shooting you.”

“Which time?”

He gave an awkward half-shrug. “All of them?” Then he added something in Russian that made her give a surprised crack of laughter. She replied in the same language. Whatever she said made his shoulders relax again, but Steve gave them both a scandalized glare.

“No, she cannot shoot you back, Buck!” he said. “Stop letting people shoot you! … Oh my god,” he added in sudden horror. “Is this what it feels like to be you?”

The others grinned, and Sam outright cackled.

James looked over at the sound, and tilted his head. “You look familiar, but I can’t quite …” He waved a hand toward his head. “Sorry, some stuff’s pretty jumbled. I didn’t shoot you, did I?”

“Nah, man,” Sam said cheerfully. “We threw down a little, but it was a’ight. I won.”

Darcy, who had seen the footage, choked. So did Steve. James’ head tilted a little further. “Riiiiiight,” he drawled, but didn’t push it. Instead he looked at Clint and Tony. “I need to apologize for shooting anybody else in this room? I’m not sorry about the zip ties, you deserved that,” he added preemptively.

Clint sighed. “So I’ve been told,” he said, his voice resigned. “I don’t think you ever shot me. Kinda lost count, though. You ever wear a purple tracksuit?”

“…no?”

“Then we’re cool.”

Tony made a face, clearly not agreeing. Darcy saw James tense up again. She shuffled a little closer and slid her hand into his. His fingers wrapped around hers and squeezed.

“You didn’t shoot me,” Tony snapped, “but an apology for breaking into my tower might be nice.”

That was it. That was the moment Darcy became 100% done with people taking potshots at her boyfriend today. Literally and figuratively. “An apology?” she burst out, shoving past him without letting go of his hand. “How about a ‘you’re welcome’ for stopping two attacks in the last three months while you sat around and bitched about it?”

There was another of those slightly surprised silences she was getting used to hearing when she was right. She risked a glance at James, and the glow in his eyes made her want to shove everyone else right out of the room. Well, she wanted to do that anyway, but this time it was for sexy reasons.

“Y’know, the lady has a point,” he said. It sounded brash and a little bit bored. Only Darcy knew that his flesh hand was shaking. She rubbed her thumb across his knuckles, and the shaking eased up a little. “This place is like Grand fucking Central. Who runs your security, the Keystone Kops?”

Tony snorted. “I outsource, actually. My chief of security retired and no one else will put up with me. Why, Tin Man? You looking for a job?”

“Only if you update your movie references,” James shot back, rolling his eyes. Tony squawked and Steve let out a choke of laughter. “‘Tin Man,’ Jesus. Don’t know if ya heard, but it’s the 21st century.”

“How very dare!” Tony clapped a hand to his chest in exaggerated shock. “Fine, Murderbot. I’ll save the ‘40s nostalgia for your better half.”

Steve stepped forward, his mouth open to say something angry, but James held up a hand to stop him. “It’s fine, Stevie, it’s from a book. Good one, too.” He grinned at Tony’s stunned expression. “You read the sequel yet?”

Tony gasped and put his hand on his chest again. Darcy rolled her eyes. “Cap, can this be? Is your friend … a nerd?”

“Always was,” Steve said, sounding slightly confused, and dodged a half-hearted punch from James’ metal hand. “What, you were! You always read pulps and made us go look at all that dumb science stuff!”

“Hey, it was not dumb!” James said hotly. “They’ve made a lotta important advances since then, too, you should see —”

“Oh, my god,” Darcy said in an undertone, torn between amusement and horror. “I found another one.”

Tony watched them all with narrowed eyes for a minute. “Hey, Terminator,” he said, cutting across James’ very strong opinions about solar energy. “I’ve got something even better than solar, wait till you see the — but we’ll talk about that later. What are the top three security weaknesses in the Tower?”

“Roof access is practically unguarded if you can get up there,” James said, so fast it was clearly automatic. “Which is real stupid considering half of you fly and, y’know, helicopters exist. Office staff on the 18th floor have access to a stairwell that goes to the restricted areas. And you don’t vet the cleaning crew well enough.”

“Huh,” Tony said. He glanced at Natasha, who shrugged.

“I’ve been telling you about that stairwell for months,” she said. “You don’t listen in meetings at all, do you?”

Tony snorted. “Like that’s news.” He turned back to Bucky. “Which of those is how you got in? And for that matter, how many times have you broken in here?”

James glanced down at Darcy, eyes crinkling. “Trade secrets.”

She felt her face heat up and silently vowed revenge on him for making her blush in front of the Avengers.

“Huh,” Tony said again, watching the two of them. She tore her eyes away from James long enough to stick her tongue out at him, and he suddenly grinned. A phone appeared from somewhere about his person, and he tapped out a brief message. “Go to HR tomorrow at ten, ask for Joanne. She’ll go over base pay, benefits, all of that. You can have one of the empty apartments if you want it, but I get the feeling you already have sleeping arrangements.” He leered at Darcy.

“Tony,” she snapped, then paused. “Wait, what?”

“Base pay?” James said at the same time, and Steve added, “HR?”

“Human resources,” Tony said, over-enunciating like he thought they were all slow. “I clearly need a new Chief of Security, all kinds of riffraff keeps waltzing in.” He nudged one of the bound beekeepers with the toe of his shoe, then shot James a sharp glance. “Do you want the job or not?”

Darcy bit the inside of her lip, hard, to keep from saying ‘Of course he wants the job.’ She hoped he wanted the job, but maybe he didn’t. It was his decision, either way.

James was just standing there, frozen, staring at Tony. “Just like that?”

“Well, like your fan club said, you did put down two attacks.” Tony gestured around at the bound and unconscious goons. “Hell of a job interview, wouldn’t you say? I mean, we could do another one if you want, but I don’t really give a shit where you see yourself in five years.”

“Not dead,” James said faintly.

“A simple yet effective ambition.” Tony tipped his head forward like he was looking over invisible sunglasses. “Well? In or out, Robocop?”

There was a short silence while they stared at each other. Darcy’s heart stuttered. She could see Steve clenching and unclenching his fists.

“Yeah,” James said in that same faint voice. Then he looked down at Darcy and swallowed. His shoulders relaxed. “Yes,” he said firmly. “I’m in. When do I start?”

“Now,” Tony said, and pointed at the beekeepers again. “Get these out of my tower. There’s more on the fifteenth and twenty-seventh floors.” He shot James a V-for-victory sign and turned away, already tapping at his phone.

Clint shrugged and followed. So did Sam. Natasha settled in against the doorframe, clearly planning to stay for the show and already giving off a ‘the Russian judge is not impressed’ vibe. Steve didn’t move. Darcy didn’t think anything short of an earthquake was going to get him more than five feet away from James for quite some time.

“As for you, Lewis, I believe there’s a safe room down the hall with your name on it!” Tony called over his shoulder just before the door closed.

Darcy made an indignant noise. All this and now they wanted to shove her in a panic room like luggage? James put an arm around her shoulder, and she leaned into it. Then he looked down at her apologetically and she realized he wasn’t on her side. “Are you serious right now?” she demanded.

He sighed. “Just until the building’s cleared, sweetheart.”

She gave him a look that contained her full opinion: lips thin, eyebrows down, chin out.

He gave it right back. “Yeah, but how am I going to feel if I let you hang around and you get fucking kidnapped on my first day?”

She huffed, but he had a point. “Fine. But you owe me.”

He lifted his hand off her shoulder and ran one finger gently down her cheek. Her annoyance dissolved into hot shivers. “I’ll pay up,” he murmured. “Don’t worry.”

She felt herself flush again.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steve and Natasha exchange a glance of mingled surprise and amusement. “How long have you two been dating again?” Nat said. Her tone was rhetorical, but James’s face split in a proud grin.

“About … what would you say, doll? Half an hour?”

Darcy hummed. There was normally a clock by the door, but it had fallen off when the beekeeper got thrown into the wall. “Maybe forty minutes.” She leaned into his side. “Give or take a panic room or two.”

“Speaking of which …” He ushered her to the door, then held her back so he could check the hallway before she went out. “Be right back, Stevie, don’t let them go anywhere,” he called over his shoulder. Steve made an indistinct but clearly indignant reply.

The closest room was two doors down past where the goons had come in. James kept his gun out and his arm around her shoulders the whole way. He hit the code to open the door — she thought about asking him how he got that, but already knew the answer would be ‘trade secrets’ — and cleared the room.

She started to walk in past him, but instead a metal arm picked her up and slammed her against the wall next to the door. James pinned her there with the rest of his body, filling her nose with the smell of leather and cinnamon, and took her mouth like his life depended on it.

She wrapped her legs around him and kissed back, just as desperate, clawing at the straps across his back. She rolled her hips, and he groaned and did something with his tongue that made her see stars.

Then he dropped her and stepped back, chest heaving. “Down payment,” he said, and gave her a little grin that made her knees weak. She licked her lips involuntarily, and he groaned. “Fuck, you’re so — three floors. I got hostiles on three floors.”

She blinked, confused, then realized he was talking to himself.

“Okay. I’m gonna go.” He rolled his shoulders and gave her that familiar look, like he was memorizing her. For a second she went cold with the terror that she wasn’t going to see him again. Then he pointed from her to the bench. “Stay here. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

She let out a long breath as the words opened something in her chest, a knot of tension she hadn’t even known was there until it released. “Okay,” she said, and then as he turned to go, “James? Do not keep me waiting.”

“Never again, doll,” he said fervently. “Never again.”

Chapter Text

ONE YEAR LATER

Darcy slammed the apartment door behind her and kicked off her shoes harder than necessary, muttering about stupid scientists and their goddamn obsession with collating data. Then she heard a deep voice humming what sounded like … Abba?

Her shoulders relaxed, and she felt herself start to smile. James was home early. “Hi!” she called, heading down the hall. “Got any grapes?”

“Waterloo, knowing my fate is to … oh, hey sweetheart!” He stuck his head around the corner from the kitchen and waved a butter knife at her. “No grapes, but how ‘bout a sandwich?”

“God, yes, I’m starving. I skipped lunch because Jane had some kind of hunch about quantum entanglement and needed me to compare two sets of data from New York.” She flopped on a stool on the other side of the counter and watched as he spread mustard on a slice of bread. “I never want to see another spreadsheet in my life. Turkey-cheese?”

“Mmm. And hummus, maybe?” He reached for the lunch meat.

“Not with mustard,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Yeah, good point. I was a fool.” He shot her a grin, the full 100-watt one. She grinned back, her whole body warm, and remembered when she used to have to work for those smiles. Now, a year into living together and working for Tony, he smiled like that every single day.

“I love you,” she said, because it was true, and his smile turned up to 11. “Kiss?”

He put down the cheese and leaned over the counter, cupping the back of her neck with his metal hand. She met him halfway, one hand stroking the stubble on his cheek. His lips brushed hers lightly, then harder, with just a hint of his tongue. By the time he pulled away she was breathless. It was unfair in the best the way how easily he lit her up — every kiss was like the first one.

James looked at her expression and grinned. “Yeah?” he said, and tugged her hair lightly.

“Yeah,” she agreed on an indrawn breath. “But sandwich first, dude, I’m hungry.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He pulled her back for one more quick kiss, then let go and finished making the sandwiches. When they were done, he walked around and put one in front of her, then sat next to her with his own.

They ate for a few minutes in comfortable silence. She went through the first half of her sandwich like a locust, then slowed down a bit and leaned her head on his shoulder while she chewed the second. “You’re home early.”

“Thought it might be nice to meet you when you got home,” he said. The tone was casual, but his shoulder twitched, just a tiny bit, under her head. She squinted up at him suspiciously, and he gave her a quizzical look back. “You know what day it is?”

She blinked. “No, what … oh my god.” She sat up straight, horrified. “It’s our anniversary! Oh, honey, I can’t believe I forgot. I’m so sorry! I didn’t even get you a present.”

He ran a soothing hand down her back and kissed her gently. “It’s okay. You are my present.” He paused. “Ugh, that was cheesy, forget I said that.”

She was still dismayed, and already planning an extra ‘present’ for him later, but she managed a little laugh. “Never. I’m gonna tell Steve about it, too.”

“I take it all back,” he said in mock offense. “You’re the worst. But I already got you a present and the store won’t take it back, so I guess I’ll stick with ya.”

She tapped her chin, pretending to think. “Is it … a knife?” She had a small collection, now — three combat knives including the first one, plus a really nice chef’s knife he’d given her for Christmas.

“Not, uh … not exactly.” He took a deep breath, and she started to frown, concerned. Then he slid off the stool and onto one knee.

Darcy put her hands over her mouth. “Oh my god,” she said, muffled.

He pulled out a small box. Just like that very first knife, it seemed to come from thin air.

“Ohmygod.” She felt her eyes start to burn and blinked, hard.

He had to blink a couple of times, too. “I bought this two months after we started datin’. Had to ask Tony how long you’re s’posed to wait before gettin’ engaged in this decade.” His mouth twisted. “He made fun of me for weeks. Made Jarvis play Chapel of Love every time I walked into his office.”

Darcy giggled wetly.

“Yeah, it’s real funny now.” But he was smiling, too. “Thing is, doll, before you I was in a bad spot. Hiding out in panic rooms, scared of my own shadow … I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come in that night. Pulling a knife on you was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

She laughed again, helplessly. “Me too. We have the most fucked-up ideas of romance.”

He shrugged. “Ain’t fucked up if it works.” He took another deep breath, and she realized this was a speech he’d probably practiced for a while. She kept her mouth shut and let him get back to it. “Every time I ran away from you, you know what I thought? I’m gonna regret this the rest of my life. And I would have, too. I was so damn lucky to get another chance, I swore I wasn’t gonna waste it. So.” He looked up at her, blue eyes soft and shining, and opened the box. Inside was a ring, a wide Art Deco-looking band with an emerald in the middle.

She choked on a sob.

“Will you marry me?” he said softly. His own eyes spilled over, tears shining on his cheeks.

“Yes, you dumbass,” she managed, and held out her hand. He slid the ring on, grinning bigger than she’d ever seen, and she heard herself saying “Yes,” again and again. He finally shut her up by standing up and covering her mouth with his.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, arching to press against him. He groaned into her mouth, and his arm whirred as he scooped her up off the stool one-handed. She wrapped her legs tight around his waist, making him groan again.

They came up for air, panting, and he turned for the bedroom. Darcy leaned in and bit his neck, making him stumble and curse. “I,” she breathed against his ear, “am going to marry the shit out of you.”

“Fuck, sweetheart,” he moaned, picking up the pace.

He tossed her on the bed while she shrieked with laughter. He went for his belt buckle, and she bit her lip hard, watching the slice of skin that appeared in the V of his pants. He stopped with the zipper down and jerked his chin at her.

“Shirt,” he said, his voice rough.

She tugged it off over her head and watched his eyes take the scenic route over her body. She wasn’t even wearing a sexy bra today, but from the way his pupils blew wide, he did not care. Not that he ever had. She slid her hands up her belly, slowing them down to match her voice as she purred, “Remember that time … we were in a panic room and all I had on was those tiny shorts …”

“God,” he choked, his own hand sliding downwards to palm his dick. “They were barely even there, and your tits under that shirt … I wanted to fuck you so bad.”

“You could have,” she said. She slid her own zipper down and wiggled out of her pants. When she jerked her chin, mimicking him, he nodded and pulled his shirt off. His arm gleamed. She could see his throat working as he swallowed. “If those robots had lasted ten more minutes you would’ve been inside me.”

“Where’s a decent robot uprising when you need one,” he said. His hand had dropped down his body again. His breath caught, and she could see his fingers curling around his cock.

“Well, there’s one in your pants,” she pointed out helpfully.

He huffed, let go of himself, and grabbed her legs. She burst out laughing again as he pulled her down to the edge of the bed, her thighs framing his hips. He leaned over and wrapped a hand in her hair, and her laughter turned into a moan. “Just decent, huh?” he growled.

“Well, you — ah!” She arched her back as he tugged, her underwear catching against the cold metal of his zipper. “You haven’t done anything with it yet.”

He pulled her head to the side, then nuzzled the exposed soft place under her ear. “Oh? You want to play like that, huh?”

She wiggled again. “Hm … yes.”

He leaned back and gave her a mean smile that made her dizzy as all the blood rushed away from her head. She jerked her hips again, desperate for friction, but he pulled his away. “Then just for that, doll,” he said, “I think I’ll take my time.”

She jerked her head up. “Are you fucking kid — oh.” Her head dropped back again as he ran a finger across her, just hard enough to feel but too lightly to give her what she craved. She felt her panties rip, then a single finger dragged up her inner thigh and back down. “Dammit,” she managed. “I liked those.”

“Yeah, they were cute,” he said, not sounding very sad. “What a shame. See what happens when you get mouthy?” Two fingers this time, sliding along her thigh but not quite touching her pussy.

She pushed herself up on her elbows and started to lean forward, headed for his cock. “I’ll show you mouthy —”

His metal hand landed between her breasts and pushed her back onto the bed. He left it there while he leaned over and kissed her very lightly. “Not until I say so, sweetheart,” he murmured against her mouth. His voice was low, sandpaper-rough, half a threat and half a promise.

“Fuck,” she breathed.

He leaned just a little more of his weight against his hand. The other one pinched her thigh just hard enough to make her gasp. “Not,” he repeated, “until I say so.” The fingers on her thigh skimmed downward and rested lightly against her pussy. She whimpered, but didn’t try to arch up into them, obedient to the pressure on her chest. “Say yes,” James directed.

“Yes,” she breathed.

“Say yes, please.”

“Yes, please.”

The fingers pressed between her lips, stroking against her clit, and she made a noise that was halfway to a scream. “Good girl,” James said, and kissed her again. His fingers slid against her, over and over. “Does that feel good?”

“Uh-huh,” Darcy gasped, her eyes squeezed shut as she rode the waves of sensation.

He nuzzled her cheek, then her neck. “Do you want me to pull your hair?”

She whimpered again. “Oh, god, yes.”

He chuckled and nipped her ear lightly. “I’m going to take my hand off your chest. Don’t move. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded, almost beyond speech.

“Good girl,” he said again. Then his hand was fisted in her hair, and the other one slipped two slick fingers inside her, and she was clawing the bed in a furious attempt to stay still as her body screamed with pleasure-pain-pleasure.

“Can I come can I come please can I come,” she babbled.

“Not yet, sweetheart.” He sounded almost as breathless as she was. The fingers inside her slowed their pace a little, just enough to keep her on the edge. “Wait. Just wait. Hold on for me.”

“Baby …” her voice was a whine.

He kissed her, rough this time, sloppy and desperate. “Put your fingers in my mouth. Get them nice and wet.”

She opened her eyes enough to see where she was going and offered him her hand. He sucked the first two fingers into his mouth, then popped them out and licked his way up to her knuckles. The wet pressure of his tongue against the sensitive skin between her fingers almost sent her over the edge.

“Now put them inside yourself.” He pulled his hand out to make room for hers. She felt herself squeeze around her fingers as they slid in, and made another high, inarticulate noise. He made one back, a low growl, and dropped to his knees. “Look at me.”

She did. His hair was a wreck and his eyes burned, a thin ring of blue around pupils huge with lust. “Fuck, you’re so hot.”

He grinned, sharp and fast. “You too. You wouldn’t believe the view down here.” He glanced at where her fingers were slowly pumping, and had to close his eyes for a second. “Jesus Christ, doll. Do you want my mouth?”

“Yes, please.” She made that noise again as he bent forward and licked a slow stripe over her.

He paused and looked back up. “You can come all over my mouth whenever you want.”

He held her gaze as his tongue pressed back into her, flicking and teasing. She felt herself start to shake, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t quite … “Your hand,” she gasped. “Please.” She pulled her fingers out and tapped his metal shoulder, her nails clinking softly against it.

He pulled back and grinned up at her. “That one? You sure?”

“So sure.” So sure she couldn’t see straight.

“Dirty,” he said approvingly. He shifted, settling her thighs over his shoulders, and pressed his mouth against her. She groaned, ready to start begging again if he didn’t … then two metal fingers slammed into her, fucking her hard, and she came so hard she saw stars.

He held the pace, easing her through the aftershocks, then pulled back and kissed her thigh. His eyes held hers, hot and dark and full of love. “That was amazing. Fuck, sweetheart, you’re so good to me.”

“Love you,” she murmured, still flying from the orgasm.

“Love you, too.” He stood up and finally dropped his jeans. There was nothing under them — James didn’t see the point of underwear. It was one of Darcy’s favorite things about him. His cock bobbed, thick and hard, and her mouth watered. He saw her lick her lips and smiled. “You want it in your mouth?”

“Yes, please.”

He moved over slightly and pointed to the floor next to the bed. “Get on your knees.”

Her knees were still wobbling, so it took her a second, but she made it. He wrapped a hand around the base and offered it, nodding silent permission. She took him in her mouth, and his head dropped back. “God,” he groaned. “Jesus fucking Christ. Yeah, just like — fuck, yes, sweetheart.”

She hummed, half from pleasure and half for the vibration. He groaned again, and she felt him pulse against her tongue.

“You want me to come in your mouth?” he said raggedly.

She bobbed her head and hummed again, an eager “Mm-hmm.”

He wrapped both his hands in her hair and held her head while he fucked her mouth. “You’re so — fucking — hot — and — fuck,” and then he was coming, hot and bitter down her throat.

She swallowed and grinned up at him while he stood panting. He looked down, finally, and wiped a drop of sweat off her cheek with his thumb.

“Did I mention you’re the best thing that ever happened to me?”

She took his hand and let him pull her gently to her feet. “You might have said something about that.” She wrapped a hand in his hair, for a change, and pulled him down to kiss her. “It’s mutual.”

“Damn right it is.” He picked her up and laid her back on the bed — gently, this time — then stretched out next to her. He grabbed her left hand and turned it back and forth, making the ring shine. “Can’t believe you said yes. I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

She kissed him gently. “Damn right you are,” she said, and laughed when he smacked her lightly on the thigh. For a minute they lay, both looking at the ring. “You know,” she said, “I love this so much, but I’m honestly surprised you didn’t propose with a knife.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Who says I didn’t?” He picked up her hand and kissed her finger just above the ring. Then he pulled on one of the decorative swirls on the band, and a tiny knife blade popped out of the side.

Darcy laughed so hard she almost fell off the bed.