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don't talk to strangers

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The electrical grid's been down nearly a year and a half when Steve finds Darcy in Montana.  He's been searching for her for nearly two, a mad criss-cross of the country, ferreting out the SHIELD strongholds, hoping to find her, expecting not to.

It's better to keep searching though.  Sitting... just reminds of what he's lost.

The destruction of New York City hadn't been the only legacy that the Chituari had left Earth.  It had only taken a few short weeks for whatever pathogen the ships had carried to sink its fangs into the unsuspecting population around their wreckage.  It had started as a small infection in the core of Manhattan and spread like wildfire.  It took less than a month to wipe out the entire eastern seaboard.  Six months later, it had touched every corner of the world.

The scant few who were immune from the virus lived only long enough to be trampled in the ensuing panic.  The sickness had killed most, and humanity had done the rest.  There were rumours though, rumours of pockets of people in the west, those that cut themselves off from everything to keep the tide back.

(Not all friendly - he earned a knife in the shoulder when he stumbled on a group near the Navajo Reservoir.)

It's in the west that he finds Darcy, her hands shaking as she grips him.  Steve finds when he reaches up to cup her cheeks with his dusty hands that his are shaking as well.

He hadn't expected to find her.  He hadn't.  Steve wants to kiss her, but it's been years and he's not sure if it's still the way things are, if he's allowed.  So instead he presses his mouth over the apple of her right cheek and whispers, "I'm so glad I found you."

Darcy smiles, a quiet sad smile that he can't say he's ever seen on her before, but her words are eerily familiar.  "Good to see you too, soldier."

"Are you alone?"

She shakes her head, and god, she's gotten thin.  "A couple of us were immune."  There are a few people drifting out of the blast doors now, watching him cautiously as he holds Darcy. None of the faces are familiar; they are all strangers to him.

Steve shouldn't ask, because deep down, he knows.  But somehow he hopes that she hasn't been without her all this time. "Jane?"

Darcy doesn't say anything, but the way her face crumples in speaks for her.

-

Darcy's the only one that agrees to leave with him.

Driving away, he knows that when he was a better man, a man that wore a stupid suit and held a shield, he would have stayed. Never leave a man behind, Steve, Bucky would tell him, but there's war and then there's the devastation that lies on the side of defeat.  Rules change.

He's not going to force anyone to follow him.  Time and death has taught Steve that he's not a leader, not in the way he thought he was once.  In this world, the only thing left is choice, and he's through making choices for anyone but himself.

"I thought you were dead," Darcy says, her bare feet up on the dash as they head south.  It makes him think of how she used to do the same thing on his couch back at the tower, wiggling her toes as she painted them whatever colour took her fancy that week before beckoning him between her legs, warning him off from ruining her drying nails.

Surprisingly, it is that thought poking through that makes everything ache, the weariness of the months of searching and finding nothing but dead bodies really reach deep into his bones and bite down. 

(Natasha's had been the worst, if only because of the wreckage with it.  He had buried her out in the deserts of Nevada, her favourite place to bunk down with Clint.  Steve had buried Clint beside her, who had looked like he had survived her, but only by a day.  He tried to ignore the bullet wound at Clint's temple as he covered their bodies with desert dust, but failed.)

Darcy turns to face him.  "Should have known better."  She laces her fingers with his that are resting gently on her leg.

A half-hour of the comforting hum of the engine, of the tires beating against the empty roads brings another question.  "Is there anyone left?"

"Tony," Steve says.  "He's in Florida. Been helping me track down SHIELD facilities they kept off the grid."  Helping him find her.  "And Bruce.  Last I heard he was in Louisiana, but no one's heard from him since Betty died."

"Pepper?"

Steve squeezes Darcy's fingers.  "With Tony."  There are some small victories; the mess Tony had been for the month they couldn't find Pepper?  One of the worst experiences of his life.

"Is that where we're going?"

He shakes his head.  "We're going to Colorado."  Tony had helped him set up a base there when Steve couldn't keep making the trip back to the east for supplies.  It's got a self-sustaining power source, a well deep enough to tap into groundwater and enough supplies and workable land to provide for the near future.  At least until Steve can figure out what the hell to do.

(Steve hadn't believed he'd actually find her - or maybe he did.  When she goes into his bedroom, she'll find the clothes he raided from the department store in Boulder, all her size, but probably a bit big on her now.  She'll find her favourite perfume, the ladies speedstick she normally wears, the stupid kids toothbrushes she always insisted on buying, because if you're going to brush your teeth, you might as well have fun with it, she used to say.)

"What's in Colorado?"  Darcy almost looks hopeful, and she clasps his hand tight, holding on.

Steve finally leans in and kisses her, the truck still careening down the road at 60, but nothing but emptiness in front of him. 

"A safe place."

Chapter Text

Natasha arrives in the early fall, down from the city. A cousin twice removed whose parents had died in the epidemic that had all but destroyed the once healthy metropolis. She doesn’t speak a word the first three weeks on the farm, just stares from the porch as Steve and his father work the land and barely touches the food his mother cooks every night.

(But he can see the things she doesn’t say in her eyes - the same haunted look he sees on the news in those who survived through the death and carnage swallowing up the cities outside the rural land left mostly untouched.)

One night, she sneaks down the hall, past his parent’s room and through his door without knocking. The house is old and the floorboards give her away as she gracefully eats the space between the threshold and his headboard.

(His mother had said she had been one of the most talented dancers the city had ever seen, that even at seventeen, she had suitors from around the world vying for her eye. There had been a hint of bitterness in her voice, the remains of two once close girls that had grown apart, one lost in the grandeur of the city and the other lost in the hills of a farm struggling to stay afloat.)

Silently, she climbs into his bed; his bed is small, and for her to fit, she is forced to snug up against his body. The winter chill has come early this year and he can feel it in her bones. Her tiny feet (he’s stared at her reed-thin ankles when she’s dashed across the lawn barefoot before, his cheeks going hot with the indecent thoughts he’s begun to have of her) are ice cold against his shins. She’s so thin and delicate that it’s like holding air when he slides an arm over her waist, her body chilly against him when he uses it to pull her back closer to his chest.

He falls asleep to her quiet breathing, the tempo calming as she begins to warm against him.

Chapter Text

The set closes with two encores, the crowd begging and screaming for a third, but Sam can tell when Natasha’s had enough, and she’s always hated Baltimore, so she gives ‘em the finger and walks off the stage.

It only makes them scream for her louder, the cries of Red Room and Natasha mixing until it turns into one epic sound wave that threatens to melt the building.

Her eyeliner is running and he can see the sweat trailing down her neck below the waves of her blood red hair.  Sam’s band Falcon is the opening act, and he’s already made sure his guitar’s been safely stowed on the bus before he comes back to watch her.  Fuck, he loves watching her.

(And he knows she loves him watching her.  Gets her off a bit, he thinks. She doesn’t give a fuck about the adoration of the people in the stands, but she definitely has a kink for fucking musicians on their way up.  She’d been letting Rogers between her thighs before The Howling Commandos got their own tour in Europe. Rumour has it she was also fucking the drummer, Bucky Barnes, at the same time.  But what Natasha wants, Natasha gets.)

"You’ve got two seconds to get in the change room and on your knees," she says with a sniff.

(Later, when he’s got her hiccuping his name in that smokey little voice that has millions of people screaming for her, he only feels a bit smug.)

Chapter Text

"Okay, but we need three dozen more of those NMR tubes as well, so I'd just put the requisition through Sarah and save some time," Jane says, Bruce too busy staring down into his cup of coffee to hear a word that either Jane or Darcy are saying.  Thank god Jane's taken over management of the lab, because while Darcy is a stone-cold pro at requisitioning and scientist zookeeping, there's only so much she knows about the doohickeymcmumbojumbos that they use everyday.

And Bruce blathering, "can you order more of these?" while waving around some metal thing?  NOT HELPFUL.

Darcy's jotting down notes in her StarkPad (what was her life before Tony? Writing things down on a pad of paper with a pen like a neanderthal!) when she feels an arm slip over her shoulder, and jesus, it's heavy.  And muscley.  And the body that goes with it, the body that is currently pressed to her side, smells good.

Ugh.

"Hey Steve," Jane says with a smile, and Bruce finally looks up and nods toward Steve, who is like... wrapped around Darcy.  And he's warm, like standing next to a fireplace warm.

"Hey Jane," Steve says with a smile, and god, it should be criminal to look the way he does.  A crime against humanity, because something that good looking should be mass produced and given for everyone to enjoy.

"Darcy," he says, tensing his muscles so he's giving her some kind of weird side bro-hug.  It makes her think of what he would feel like on top of her and yeah, that doesn't do much to help the situation.  But when she looks up at him, he has the most sincere, sweet smile on his face that her stomach does some sort of plinko machine reenactment against her internal organs.

"Steve," Darcy says, patting the wrist that is hung over left shoulder gently, and when did her hands get clammy?  UGH WORST!  ABORT!  ABORT!  "Gotta get cracking on those requisitions.  I think Fury has been rejecting them to fuck with me.  I'm gonna bedazzle that motherfucker's eyepatch if he sends one more form back." 

Darcy ducks under Steve's arm, her hand cupping the side of his ribs, the muscle there twitching as she touches it.  He practically flinches and the guilt meter ramps up a little.  Oops.  She's reenacting some awesome stranger danger after-school specials from her youth.

(STEVE, HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TOUCHED BY A COWORKER IN A WAY THAT MAKES YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE?)

By the time she makes it back to the lab, her face is bright red.

--

Here's the thing: Darcy is a badass chick.  She's not some wilting flower that shies away from men or puts up with shit she doesn't want to.  Her embarrassment meter (non-Steve related, apparently) is almost non-existent and she's pretty shameless when it comes to getting things that she wants.

But unrequited crushes on coworkers? Yeah, Darcy doesn't deal well with that.  She lives with these people and she does not want to be known as the girl with the big, gross boner for Steve.  She's seen the way some of the women at SHIELD fawn over Steve and how much he doesn't particularly appreciate it and she refuses to be one of them.  She likes Steve, and she remembers how awkward it got when she made a move on her lab assistant who was just not that into her in sophomore year, and oh GOD, it is not an experience she wishes to repeat.

But it's fucking tough because Steve is so bro-y with her.  He's always hanging around and throwing an arm over her shoulder and asking her opinion on shit that she has no right to give but gives anyway.  On Tuesday, he comes over and sits with her at lunch, explaining the new testing Tony's doing on his suit while she sits there dumbly and eats her turkey club like a gomer.  She tosses him her brownie that she's not going to eat anyway, and he smiles at her tells her she's the best, and yep, blush DEFCON 1, motherfuckers.

Then she zones out looking at his pretty, pretty eyelashes and he leans forward, touching her hand where it's cupped around the spoon she's eating her butternut squash soup with, and says, "Are you okay?"  He runs his thumb over her pointer finger soothingly.

And she's officially swallowed her tongue.

"Yep!" she says brightly, forcing a smile on her face, slipping the hand he's holding out of his and pointing towards the lab.  "Science waits for no girl, Steve!" She hands over her jello cup to him before hauling ass out of the commissary.

Later, when her face has stopped looking like an overripe tomato, she recounts the story to Jane.  "I just... it's the worst, Jane!  I feel like the fourteen year old at a new school crushing on the guy that is so far out of her league that she looks like a flaming moron."

"Darcy," Jane says, waving what looks like a test tube at her, "I think you're wrong.  Trust me when I say he doesn't look at me or any of the other girls around here the way he looks at you.  And frankly, he should.  You're a catch."

Darcy's eyebrow reaches for the stars.
 
"Jane, the last guy I dated lived in his mom's basement and was an intern's intern. There is a general theme to the guys that want to get in my pants, and that theme is stone-cold loser.  Not super-serum soldier.  I appreciate your self-esteem booster, but Steve?"  She waves a finger down around her ladybusiness.  "Not interested in this."

Jane sighs.  "Wow, Darcy."  She's always loved Jane like a big sister, but sometimes it feels like Jane's her mother, disappointed at her wayward daughter's choices.  "You're a real idiot sometimes."

"Love you too, Jane," Darcy says, whipping an unsharpened pencil at Jane's head.

--

On Friday, she walks back to her apartment and Steve is there leaning with his back against the wall.  She stops so suddenly that her shoes actually screech on the floor.  It's exactly what Darcy wanted to happen, oh yes.  He looks towards her and stands up, and it's a reminder to Darcy of just how tall this man is.  Like a goddamn amazon.  She's wearing flats today, so he's probably a good foot taller than she is.

"Steve?" she says, starting to walk again until they're both standing in front of her door.  Normally the sucker slides open immediately when she approaches, so she knows that JARVIS is keeping it shut for some reason.

"Darcy," Steve says, his brow furrowed cutely.  "Have I done something to upset you?"

"What?"  Literally the last thing she was expecting him to say.

Steve runs his hand through his hair, scratching the back of his scalp lightly.  "I don't know, I feel like you've been avoiding me.  And, um, I don't really like it?"

Darcy holds up a hand.  "Steve, I haven't been avoiding you."  And the look he shoots her lets her know immediately that he knows she's lying.  (Because she is.  She ate lunch in the lab for the past three days.)  "Seriously though, you haven't done anything." 

He still looks rather dubious.  "Listen, I'm sorry if I've made things uncomfortable for you.  I really like you, but I get it.  I appreciate you as a friend, too, and I don't want to lose that.  I'm really sorry."  He sounds so apologetic, his hand reaching out to touch hers before she sees him reel it back in.

Darcy is trying to run the equations in her head and they are equaling to WHAT?!

"Huh?" is the incredibly graceful response she grunts out.  Oh god, please let the floor open up and suck her away.

He squares his shoulders with hers and his eyes grow narrow like he's trying to parse her reaction, like he's trying to run his own set of equations.  "I like you."

"I like you, too, Steve."

"No, I like you."

SHE WAS WRONG, SHE WAS WRONG, THIS WAS LITERALLY THE LAST THING SHE WAS EXPECTING HIM TO SAY.

Her mouth is hanging open and there's a second where the look changes on his face, like he's finally come to the conclusion he was searching for earlier.

He smiles a little dirtily, and STEVE ROGERS, you little shit.  Darcy's heart is beating like a goddamn drum machine when he slides his hands around her face and tips her chin up a bit.  "I've done this all wrong, haven't I?"

And then he's kissing her, nothing chaste or sweet about it when he presses her back against the doorjam, pushing her mouth open so he can kiss her with enough tongue that Darcy's hands claw into the t-shirt covering his ribs.  He shivers and she laughs into his mouth, pulling him a bit closer.

So they make out against her door a bit until Steve says, all breathy and disgustingly hot, "JARVIS, you can open the door now," and guides her back into her apartment.

Chapter Text

Natasha can remember light, the sort of thick, heavy light that only a spotlight can produce.  The stage has a smell like nothing else, a bit like ozone and wood, energy so palpable it becomes physical, and there's memories of it buried deep inside of her.  Completing a batterie until she collapses to the ground dramatically, the brush of it cold against her tights and bare hands.

She can remember what a pas de bourrée feels like, how light she can make herself, and the feeling of flight from the power of her own body. She remembers him watching her, her Winter Soldier, out in the audience with the rest of them.

But Natasha's memories are often not her own.  All the tortures that the Red Room inflicted upon her, and this will always be the worst.


--


Natasha finds him in Steve's apartment.  She knows he'll be there, even though Steve's been in Kiev for nearly a week and a half.

"Hello, beautiful," he says with a slow, somewhat sad smile, and Natasha finds she is starting to enjoy the man that James is becoming.  Steve says that he is more and more like Bucky with every day, and Natasha understands why Steve was as fond of that man back in the day as he was.  He is less like the soldier she knew, but traces of him still remain in his eyes, in the way her fights with her in battles.

(They are both better people now.  Back then, he had hurt her terribly, and she him, so she hadn't been surprised when he hadn't come to see her once SHIELD released him.  Steve tried to explain it one day, when the bristle of his rejection had become apparent enough for Steve to pick up on. 

Bucky... he's just... he's not proud of the things he's done.  I mean, all the things, but I think what he did to you eats him up the worst.  He's never taken well to hurting the people he loves.

It had taken months for him to come to her, for him to accept the forgiveness she didn't feel she really needed to give.  But she understands the journey of redemption.)

He invites her in, then follows her to the couch as she sits, stretching her limbs across the middle cushion.  James hops over the arm, landing near her feet and leaning back until he looks comfortable.

"Not that I don't mind the visit, especially when you're the visitor, but why'd you drop by?" he asks.  He looks a bit rumpled, like she caught him napping in the late afternoon.  He's wearing what looks like one of Steve's pairs of sweatpants - a little too big on him - and no shirt.  When her eyes start drifting over the seam of skin and metal, he catches her ankle and says, softly, "Penny for your thoughts."

"I can't tell anymore," Natasha says, her eyes watching the metal fingers wrapped delicately around her ankle.  "Between the things I know are true and the things they made me believe."

To most people, it would be strange.  But they both know this feeling.

"The dancing," is the reply to his questioning face.  "I've been having the dreams again.  The memories feel so real.  I just want to know if they are."

The funny part is that each knows more about the truths of the other's life.  Natasha has lived through some of the memories taken from James, from the time he spent sleeping, and James, through his rank and age, knows more about her training that Natasha herself knows.  In a bizarre, cruel way, their minds complete one another.

"You were a beautiful dancer, Natalia."  He stares her straight in the eyes as he says it, his voice devoid of pity or sympathy.
 
The Winter Soldier was once a beautiful liar, a skill she learned from him effortlessly.  Secretly, she hopes Bucky Barnes is a terrible one.  Because she wants to believe.

"I hope so," she says as he leans down and presses his mouth to her ankle.

Chapter Text

France is cold and wet, and Peggy finds herself growing homesick.  The last of the tea not destroyed when her tent collapsed under the weight of the rain was consumed more than a week ago, and the coffee swill they serve to the troops is so bad she'd rather go without.

She's seen three regiments fall to Hydra forces over the last fortnight alone, and she's always been a strong her - her mother's daughter, through and through - but she finds herself growing weary.  There's only so much war a person can take.

They've got almost a thousand American troops coming through in the next few days, and it's always hardest to watching the influx of men she know she'll most likely either see come back in pieces or not at all.

The first of them arrive at dusk on Tuesday, the 107th pouring off the truck as Phillips barks orders and terrifies the young bucks not used to his blunt style. 

"Well, well," she hears a familiar voice purr behind her.  She knows that voice.  She knows that mouth.

"Sergeant Barnes," she says curtly, and he shoots her the most smug grin she's seen in a long while.

Peggy is well aware of the gravity of her mistake back in the States.  She's a woman in a sea of men; she knows that a lack of options and a desperate libido makes her an attractive target for the men she serves with.  Most men make at least a brief pass at her, a casual hint to see if she's interested, but she never is.

So she can't quite explain what happened.  One second she'd been giving him a dressing down, her voice filled with rage at whatever noble stupidity had led him to disobey her direct orders, and the next he'd had her down on her back, right in the bloody tent, her knickers crumpled in his hand and his head right up between her legs.

(And he hadn't even tried to fuck her - he'd just licked and kissed and sucked her until she came twice, then pulled her skirt down, got up on his feet, and said, "Ma'am," before walking out of her tent.  With her panties, she might add.)

"Fancy seeing you here," he says.  A few of the other men have begun to linger around him, listening to their conversation.

Peggy Carter is no fool.

"Yes," she replies with her coolest, most detached tone.  She is her mother's daughter, one of the King's men, and a crack shot.  Who is this man to her?  "Fancy. That."

God, it's like he doesn't even care.  The grin stays plastered on his face, but his eyes narrow.  She knows that Barnes may play the fool at times, but he is a clever man, and she dislikes the feeling of him reading her.

"You're dismissed," she says, and the grin only grows wider.


--


"James," she whines as he presses her up against the tree.  Peggy's already reaching for his belt, the buckle making light noises as she wrenches it open.  God, she wants him inside of her; it's been so long since she's done this with any man and she aches with want.

She knew that he'd follow when she walked into the forest outside the tents.  The men never go out this far, so she knows they'll have the privacy she wants.  Peggy has worked too hard to gain the respect of the men - of her superior officers - to destroy it because of some ill-advised affair with a soldier.  And an American, no less.

"Bucky," he mumbles into her neck as he claws at her skirt, yanking it up as he tugs her panties down roughly, following them down her legs so she can step out of them and he can shove them into his pocket.

(You can't keep this pair, she'll tell him later as he thrusts into her, the rhythm making her back ache deliciously against the tree.  She'll be a second from coming and the look on his face will tell her that he knows, that he's going to make her do it again before he finishes with her.

We'll see, he'll reply, sucking a mark into her neck that she'll punish him later for.)

"What?"  She hears the wrapper of the rubber over the falter of her voice.  He touches her with his fingers a bit first, like he's testing to see how ready she is.  Peggy's so wet that normally she'd be a bit embarrassed, but the sound he makes is so pleased that she can't bring herself to care either way.

"Bucky," he says, and pushes into her roughly, guiding her thighs to rest over his hips, taking her weight beautifully.  She gasps desperately, just the echo of a grin in the corner of his mouth in response.  "My name is Bucky."

Chapter Text

Sunday mornings are the best in the tower.  Unless some interdimensional whackjob decides open hell portals or turn Wall Street into a field of turnips, it is the day that everyone in the tower sleeps in.  Which means it is the day that Darcy gets a fucking break from superhero babysitting. 

Which means she gets to watch the love of her life make cakes.  Because CAKES.

She's into her third episode (she's seen this one like, eight times already, but it never gets old - she LOVES dog cakes) when Tony's pinched voice sends her about twenty feet in the air. 

"What the hell are you watching?"

"I thought you were sleeping in," Darcy says, her cardiac event slowly to a point where she can breathe and speak again.

"That would require going to sleep."

"You've been up since yesterday?"  Not that this is exactly unheard of, but Pepper's really been cracking the whip lately about him actually coming to bed and not sleeping in his workshop.  Or not sleeping in his workshop.

"Friday, technically, though does being knocked unconscious for a few minutes count as sleep?" Tony asks, actually sounding serious.

"You know, considering how much head trauma you and the scooby gang have had, I'm surprised any you can function period."

Tony just grins and jumps over the back of the sofa, jostling Darcy, who is back to making moon-eyes at Geof.  God, he is her dry witted soulmate.  Seriously.  She wants to motorboat his scruffly little sarcastic face.

Surprisingly, Tony shuts the fuck up and actually seems to be into her show.  Tony fucking Stark likes Ace of Cakes.  Well, her year has been made.

"That's actually pretty clever," Tony says, watching Geof solder some sort of pivot what'samahbob to the base of what will be a Jeep with two Pomeranians in the front seat for some couple's twenty-third anniversary.   "Though he could seriously upgrade the power source.  I bet I could make that thing actually run."

Darcy smiles and grabs back the box of cracker jack that Tony has been bogarting.  What is it with this group and them EATING ALL OF HER FOOD?  Though to be fair, she did requisition it this week and Tony did pay for it, but it is the spirit that counts, okay?

"Oh my god, is that guy gonna stick EXPLOSIVES in that cake?" Tony literally squeals (oh my god) as Duff starts grabbing fireworks off his workstation.

Yeah, another one converted.  Booyah.

--

Six hours, twelve episodes, one drop in from Pepper and two from Steve (where he genuinely seems a bit put off that she doesn't want to go on a walk with him, but like, ACE OF CAKES DAY, BUDDY), and Darcy finally flicks off the tv, stretches and realizes yeah, it's nearly 4pm and she should really be getting out of her pajamas.

"One more?" Tony whines pathetically and Darcy has to take a moment to confirm that it is actually Tony Stark sitting beside her and not crazy fucking robot/stepford wife (husband?).  Stranger things have been known to happen in the tower.

"Can't, dude," Darcy says, pushing off the couch.  She starts when Tony actually grabs her around the wrist when she tries to walk past him.

"Come on, you don't actually want to go on a walk with Captain SpangleDangle, do you?  It's like ten degrees outside and he gets way too excited about flowers blooming and sunsets etc etc."

Darcy rolls her eyes.  "That's mean.  Plus, I mean we can't.  That was the end of the last season.  It got cancelled."

Tony sucks in a horrified breath like she's just told him Clint got drunk and made sweet love to one of his suits. "WHAT?!"

--

On Monday, Darcy walks back through the lab complex after lunch to see workmen hauling barrels of shit to Tony's workshop.  Not exactly unusual for the labs & workshops, but what is unusual is that the side of this giant barrel says LIQUID EGG YOLK.

Then a ten pound bag of icing sugar goes by.

Darcy shrugs, sucking on her lollipop.  What that loony tune wants to do in his free time is none of her business.

Wednesday morning, Pepper drops by her desk and points a finger at her.  Darcy's got half a frosted toaster strudel hanging out of her mouth, so basically it's exactly how she wanted the most elegant woman in the tower to find her.  Darcy both loves and is insanely intimidated by Pepper Potts.

"I'm blaming you for this," Pepper says, twisting her head enough that Darcy can see what looks like flour or dough stuck to the side of her neck.

Oops.


--

Sunday comes, and when Darcy wakes up, Tony is sitting on her living room couch.  She also has a tv mounted to her wall that is literally twice the size of the one she went to bed having, so there's that.

Darcy plops down beside him.  "Not that I mind when you come bearing oversized electontrics, but what the fuck are you doing in my living room at 10am on a Sunday?  I need my Sundays to recoup from what you loons put me through during the rest of the week."

She looks at the coffee table and it is covered in like... a breakfast buffet.  Okay, she takes it back.  Stark can come hang any day of week, anytime.  Apparently he speaks Darcyese, which is expressed through strange arm movements and really fattening breakfast foods.  Oh my god, there's a giant plate of bacon.  She wants to squeal, but pushes it down.

"ACE OF CAKE DAY, LEWIS!" He says, flicking on the tv and grabbing his plate of half-eaten pancakes and sausage.

"Wait," Darcy says, confused watching as Duff and Geof prep for making a cake shaped like an iguana holding a tequila bottle.  "I haven't seen this one before.  And I've seen all of them."  Geof is completely cleanshaven in this episode too and Geof... has never been cheanshaven.

"That's because it's new, Lewis, now shut up and watch it with me."  He shoves a piece of sausage in his mouth and reaches for his coffee.

Darcy's mouth drops open so far it feels like her jaw comes unhinged.  "What do you mean it's new?"

Tony gives her that look he levels at 99% of the people who work for him.  It is his are you just slow or have you recently had a head injury look.  "New as in it is new, as in it has never been aired before, as in they just made it and we are the first to see it."

Everything freezes for a second.  "AS IN THEY ARE MAKING ACE OF CAKE EPISODES AGAIN?  FOR US?"

Tony shoves some pancake in his mouth and shrugs.  "There are some benefits to being disgustingly rich, Lewis."

Darcy reaches for a croissant and what smells like the best coffee ever brewed in the history of time.

"Have I told you about a show called Firefly?"

--

On Tuesday, Darcy comes back to her desk to a beautiful cake with her and Tony sitting on the couch in her apartment.  The TV actually lights up, and she can tell they got Catherine to make the little figures because they are her style of fucking ADORABLE.  They even got her PAJAMAS right, which makes her think that Tony probably sent them a security camera still of them, which is creepy, but Darcy will let it slide.

Made with love by Geof, Duff & the Gang.  THANKS, DARCY!

And oh my god, is that GEOF'S PHONE NUMBER ON THE BOTTOM OF THE CARD?  IT IS OH MY GOD IT IS.  IT IS HANDWRITTEN, TOO. 

Steve gets this really constipated look on his face when he reads the card over her shoulder.  "What?" she asks.

Steve mumbles something, then says, "I can make a cake, too."  He wanders away and Darcy goes back to cooing over her cake.

(The next day, Steve makes her the cutest lopsided chocolate cake with fish-shaped sprinkles (she loves fish, which is kind of sweet).  Darcy makes sure to eat two slices in front of him.  He looks disgustingly pleased with himself.  It's pretty adorable.)

Chapter Text

Okay, so capes aren't really a big deal in the tower. Living with superheroes, you kind of expect to see a cape or two waving around the house (or draped over shit, or sitting on your bathroom floor because the god of thunder hasn't figured out how to use a laundry basket).  Granted, Thor is the only one of the Avengers that bothers with them, but they get a lot of house guests who do.

So seeing a guy walking around in a cape?  Not strange.

But this dude?  Yeah, he's also rocking a popped collar and some seriously outdated clothes.  IS THAT A CRAVAT?  God, he makes Steve's grandpa-wear look positively futuristic.  And he's pale as FUCK.

He smiles at her creepily and Darcy kind of grimaces.  Great-great-grandpa clothes and a creeper?  Sometimes she really regrets working at this place.

Then Cravat-boy drops some serious fang.

"Oh SHIT!"


--



Darcy wakes up to Clint standing over her.  He's touching her face, which is nice, but she's lying on what feels like a pen digging into her ribs, which is not nice.  Also, the floor is cold and dirty, and they're on the 29th floor, which is where Bucky lives, and Heavy Metal is dirty as fuck.  God knows what he's spilled on this floor.

"Darcy?"  Clint looks incredibly worried, and keeps touching her, and normally this would make kinda warm and happy, but she's feeling kinda woozy and cold and gross, so whatever Cravat-ass did to her is kind of ruining the mood.

"UGH, dude," Darcy whines, letting Clint help her up.  Her hair is a mess, and when she tries to comb it back into shape with her fingers, she touches wet grossness on her neck.  When she pulls back, her fingers are covered in blood.

"Oh god!" Darcy cries, feeling around her neck.  There are two holes.  FUCKITY FUCKBALLS.  "Oh please please please let this be the type where he has to like, feed me his blood and then kill me, not just bite me to infect me!  I ALREADY HAVE ENOUGH PIGMENT ISSUES.  Oh Jesus, if I turn into a vampire, you are NOT ALLOWED TO KILL ME, CLINT."

Clint kinda laughs like he can't help it, then looks a bit disappointed in himself.  "How noble," he says.  He pushes back her hair a bit to look at the wound, then cleans it off a bit with the edge of his sleeve.

"Whatever, I'd deal with eating people after a while.  I'd just eat the really annoying people like Bieber or any of the Kardashians.  I could be the hero this country deserves."

Clint shakes his head at her.  "Don't worry, you'll be just fine."

Movement out of the corner of Darcy's eye catches her attention.  They both look at the extremely pale dude at the end of the halls with weird ass hair.

"Oh you've got to be fucking kidding me," Darcy says as Edward sparkles at her some more.



--

 

By the 16th floor, Darcy's kind of glad she hitched her wagon to Clint's caboose.  (Metaphorically speaking, though his caboose?  VERY HITCHABLE, YES?)

She lucked out - marksman with wood arrows?  CHECK!  She loves Steve, but it's hard to kill vampires with old-timey values and strange fashion choices.  Darcy bets Natasha is Buffy-ing the shit out of these fuckers, though.  Yeah, she'd totally also hitch her wagon to Natasha too (in more ways than one).

Anyway, Darcy is digressing.  Besides, down the end of the hall, two lanky white dudes are fighting over this girl with ridiculously long, pretty hair.

"Ugh, I hope they're not discussing past season 4, I haven't caught up on my Netflix queue yet," Darcy says, to which Clint rolls his eyes before grabbing an arrow.

"Your lack of priorities is staggering," he snaps, but lets her hang on to his vest as he sets up his shot, aiming right for Damon's heart.



--


They meet up with Selvig on the 9th floor.  He's very, very drunk and hiding in a closet.  There's a half-naked dude on the other side of the lab pushing up Emily's skirt.  Emily looks like she's died and gone to heaven, and considering she works for Bruce most of the time, anything not involving him morphing into the Jolly Green Giant probably is heaven.  (Emily, unfortunately for her, has lived through more HULKings than the rest of them combined.)

Darcy looks between Selvig (who has just belched some serious whiskey breath) and Eric, who is like six foot amazing of viking hotness.

"Whoa, he kinda looks like you, only younger and less drunk. Also, less gross," Darcy says with a frown as Selvig continues to blow 90 proof all over her face, jumping back into the closet and blockading the door from the inside.  Oh for god's sake.

Then Eric drops to his knees and Emily lets out a happy sigh as he bites into her thigh.

"Let's go, it's getting too HBO in here."

Clint lets an arrow loose as they walk backwards through the door, and Emily lets out an angry cry as Eric turns into a big puddle of goo on the floor.

Eww.  Darcy prefers the poof poof kind.  She's not cleaning that up tomorrow.



--


On the 2nd floor, Darcy pushes Clint into a dark corner near the elevator.  She's wanted to do this for the last two floors and she just can't take it anymore.

"Darcy?" Clint asks as Darcy presses her body right up into his.  She can hear the beat of his heart raise just slightly, and it is very, very delicious.  She wants to run her tongue right over his pulse point and feel the way it'll make it beat even faster.

He doesn't miss a beat when she leans in and kisses him, her head tilting a bit so their mouths slide together perfectly.  He makes it a bit deeper, gets his hand on the small of her back and kisses the shit out of her.  His mouth is so lovely, so soft, so vulnerable...

He lets out a rough grunt and pulls back, his eyes wide.

"Oops," Darcy says, her tongue darting out to catch the blood welling on his lip, making him shiver a bit.

"Oh shit," Clint says, and reaches out to press his thumb against one of her fangs.  Oh, that feels so nice.  SO NICE. 

He sighs.

"Okay, ground rule number one: no biting."

Darcy smiles.  (And cuts her lip on her fang.  FUCK, these things are weird.)

Chapter Text

The building is blissfully quiet when Steve wanders up.  It's part of the reason he comes in before 6am; coming in after means hitting the regular SHIELD day shift and as much as civilian clothes help him blend in, he can't seem to escape the sort of hushed, furtive glances that make his skin crawl even more than the people that stop to outright stare at him.

He badges in, checking his phone as it buzzes.  Natasha's texted him a photo of three kittens playing on replica of his shield.  She always sends him the weirdest things.  Half of the time it's kittens or cats doing weird, cute stuff, which Steve actually kind of likes.  Natasha's odd that way: one minute she's staring down Agent Sikes so hard the man actually trembles, the next minute she's sending him a video of a cat barking like a dog out a window with a million smiley faces after it.

His phone buzzes again, but this time it's... a photo of Bucky asleep in her bed.  He's got his arm spread out across the empty half of the bed, and his mouth is slightly open.  He's also very naked, though the sheet is pulled up high enough that Steve can (thankfully) only see the sharp ridge of Bucky's hipbones, the sheet covering up the rest.  He's seen Bucky naked before, but yeah... it's a little early in the morning for that kind of stuff.  It's actually kind of a sweet photo; Bucky looks happy, relaxed, and vulnerable, and Steve doesn't get to see that much anymore.  This puts a genuine smile on his face.

The phone buzzes again.  he's snoring. and drooling. and hogging the covers. remind me why i put up with this again.

Steve tucks away his badge and types back (very, very slowly), Because you're the best.

"Oh for fuck's sa--" he hears someone mumble behind him.  When he turns to look, he finds that Darcy's trying to hook her pass out from her cardigan pocket with a pinkie seeing as both of her hands are holding take-out trays filled with drinks.  They slosh dangerously as she gets more desperate, the security guard at the check-in station eyeing her with a mild irritation and doing exactly nothing to help.

If there's one thing Steve desperately misses in this day and age, it's a little damn gentlemanly courtesy.  What is wrong with men these days?

"Here," Steve says, doubling back to stand in front of her.  He reaches down and carefully removes the badge without touching her inappropriately.  He leans over and badges her in, giving the guard his sternest unimpressed stare.  The guard looks suitably unnerved.

"Ugh, bless you," she sighs, finally looking up.  "Oh, hi Steve."  Watching the smile spread across her face makes his stomach flip a bit.  His thing for Darcy has hit critical mass lately and it's pretty much all he can do to keep from making a complete idiot of himself in front of her.  He can't remember the last time he liked someone as much as he likes Darcy (that's a lie, but he really prefers not to think about it).  She's sweet and kind and a lot of fun, and he never feels judged by her.  And generally, he feels judged by everyone.

He puts the lanyard of her badge over her head. "Thank you so much, Steve.  You're the best."  She lifts her arms out with the trays and lets the badge fall against her chest flatly.  Steve trains his eyes away from her cleavage, deciding to find the little crayon-shaped earrings she's wearing SUPER INTERESTING.  "Not that I care as long as you're here to save my day, but what are you doing here so early?"

"Like getting in before the rush," he explains, not really wanting to get into the rest of the stuff.  He feels like he comes across as a big downer sometimes.  "You?"

"Never went home," she sighs, letting her head droop a bit.  "Hence the caffeine run.  Pretty sure Jane's at the point where she's going to vibrate through the walls, but that's the price you pay for solving the mysteries of the universe, I guess."

Something in Darcy's other pocket lets out this little chime, and her eyes roll.  "Anyway, I better get back before they kill each other or fall asleep on the particle accelerator.  Or both."  She smiles and wiggles her head back and forth because she can't wave, then makes a beeline for the elevators.

That afternoon, there's a coffee sitting on his desk, STEVE written on the side with Thanks for being a lifesaver! - D underneath the barista's chicken scratch of his name.

When he takes a sip, he's shocked to find that she's got his coffee prepped the way he likes it - black with a TON of sugar.

Steve drinks his coffee very, very slowly while he thinks about Darcy giving his name to the barista.


--


Darcy is seriously losing her mind.

She's not sure what in god's name convinced her to sub in for Tony Stark's overworked and insane personal assistant while he got his stomach pumped (he pulled a Jessie Spano with the caffeine pills and ended up in Emerg), but she's seriously regretting it now.  She's a day behind on the research she's supposed to have for Jane and her GONNA FUCKING KILL TONY STARK barometer is pointing to IMMINENT DEATH.

"Hey!"  Steve is chipper in a way Darcy is not able to handle when this crazed with stress.  He's also hovering and has his hands stuffed into his pockets.  "I'm going to head down to The Beanerie for some coffee.  Uh, wanted to know if you'd like to come."

"Nope!" Darcy says as the phone rings. "Can't!"

"Oh."  (Several days later, and upon introspection, she'll realize how disappointed he sounded.  God, she's a fucking idiot.)

The phone won't stop ringing.  She actually growls at it.  It's probably Stark calling yet again, trying to figure out how to wipe his own ass or use a non-automated coffee machine.

OH FUCK.  SPEAKING OF WHICH.

"Steve!" Darcy says, and he perks up a bit.  "Can you pick up an order at The Beanerie for me, though?"  She waves a scrap of paper with a couple orders on it.  "I will owe you big time, buddy."

Steve smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes.  Normally she'd poke him and ask him what's up, but the phone rings, so she's busy picking up the receiver and slamming it back down on the cradle with a strength that makes the entire desk shake.

Wincing, Steve grabs the paper from her fingers. "Of course I will, Darcy."

Darcy slaps her hands together.  "You are a saint, Rogers. Saint Steve, patron saint of grunts about to lose their shit."

That's a real smile.  "You're not a grunt."

"Yeah yeah," Darcy says, waving him off.


--


Really, Steve used to be better about getting a hint.  He's asked Darcy out for coffee ("Oh yeah, coffee's the way to go," Clint told him in the locker room. "It's casual - no pressure.") a handful of times and she's said no every time - either she's too busy or... or she's just said no.

And frankly?  Steve's kind of reaching the point where he's kicking his own ass about getting a clue because if she's not interested, he's not going to be one of those guys who doesn't take no for an answer.  But he can't help but feel like it's not that she's not really interested, only that he's not being clear enough.  He just freezes up and makes an ASS of himself.  So one last time. 

She's in the lab, squinting at a laptop next to a long line of petri dishes and humming.

"Darcy."

Darcy looks up from her samples and smiles, poking her glasses back from where they've ridden down on her nose.  "Steven."

"I'm going to go to Starbucks and get some coffee and I'm just seeing if anyone's interested in coming with me," Steve says, rushing his words.  She's wearing a lavender cardigan that makes her skin glow, and he's just got such a sickly crush on her that he feels so painfully stupid, like he's that skinny, invisible boy again.  "Lookin' for some company." 

Darcy's face kind of scrunches up a bit and she looks down at the work in front of her.  "I better finish this up before the samples dry out and Jane flips her shit.  I'm so sorry!"  She sighs.  "If you're looking for someone to go with, you should ask Carmen," she motions to one of the lab techs working in Banner's area, "she basically has a coffee IV hooked up to deliver it straight to her blood stream."

Well, there's his clue.  You don't suggest taking another woman out for coffee if you're...

"Steve?"

He must be wearing his clue on his face because Darcy is looking up at him with a concerned expression.

"Thanks," he says, forcing a smile.  "Appreciate it."

Steve goes to Tony's lab instead and lets Stark test out the new armor he's been developing on him.  Tony lasts thirty minutes before declaring that even he can't shoot something that looks this pathetic.


--


It's Wednesday, which mean Arrow viewing party in Clint's apartment, as he is the only one who will watch it with her.  Darcy has already pointed out to Jane that a woman who watches Scandal is absolutely not allowed to past judgement on her viewing choices, but whatever.  Thank god one of the dudes on the show shoots arrows or she'd be watching it alone and Darcy HATES watching tv alone.

(Except she's pretty sure that it's more that Clint has an epic man-crush on Diggle, which HAHAHA CLINT.)

During a commercial break, Clint turns to Darcy.

"Darcy," Clint says, "you know I love you, right?"

Darcy's smile flatlines and she narrows her eyes.  "You know what when you say shit like that, you follow it up with things that make me want to stab you through the eye with a shrimp fork, right?"

Clint kind of grins like he can't help himself, then shrugs.  "Listen, if you're not interested, will you please put Steve out of his misery? The locker room is my mecca, my sanctuary, and if I have to listen to more moping, I'm going to snap."

Darcy feels her brain sort of ping oddly, her thoughts not really connecting together.  What the hell?

"What the hell?"

Steve's been kinda MIA lately, though she's been so out of it with work that she hasn't been able to track him down.  She's so used to him underfoot that it's been strange to not have him around to chat with.  He's such a great guy for being so ridiculously handsome; Darcy spent the majority of high school getting leers and nasty remarks from dicks that knew how good looking they were and how much Darcy was not in their social league.  Oh fuck high school.  Fuck it hard.

Clint rolls his eyes a bit at her. "Really, Darcy?  He asks you out for coffee and you get him to pick up Stark's order instead?  Jesus."

The sound is just sucked out of the room.  Darcy's jaw unhinges it falls so fast.

"I'm sorry, STEVE DID WHAT?"


--


She's waiting for him when he walks out of the locker room.  Darcy's only been waiting about ten minutes, in which time she lost her nerve about four times and walked away before trudging back to her spot.

"Darcy?"  Oh my god, he smells so, so good.  And he's so pretty.  Sorry, Clint is wrong.  There is no way Steve is interested in her, even though she is delightful.  Steve isn't in another social sphere... he's in the fucking Avengers.

"Were you asking me out?" she blurts before she can stop herself.  "The coffee stuff, were you asking me out?"

Steve doesn't blush, but she can feel the awkward washing off him in waves as he reaches back with an arm and scratches the scruff at the back of his head.  "Oh, yeah?  I'm really sorry about that, Darcy."

"Nononono," she says, and it comes out like some bizarre ramble.  "I hate coffee!  I hate the smell of it, I hate Starbucks and their $45 coffee ventibenti-just-call-it-a-medium shit!"  Steve has this weird expression on his face and isn't talking, so she continues.  "I generally hate all warmed liquid beverages, and, um, I didn't realize you were asking me to like, go with you."

Steve's leaning against the wall beside her now.  "But I see you with coffee all the time."  Oh yeah, they are both dancing around the real issue like they are dancing with the fucking stars.  Darcy recognizes this mambo.

"Mostly because I'm getting it for everyone else.  Otherwise, I wouldn't step foot in a Starbucks.  Seriously, the smell of that place, even with the delicious pastries, does not appeal to me.  Ick."

"Oh."  This time the oh sounds different.  And he's smiling.  And Darcy doesn't know where she gets the nerve, but at this point, everything is a hazy numbness, so what the hell.

"So, would you like to get slurpees with m--"

"Yes," Steve says, not even letting her finish the question.  Darcy's trying very, very hard not to let the stupid grin that is just begging to be let loose spread across her face.  She's been kinda gone on Steve for a while, but never really let herself entertain the idea. Entertaining the idea is making her jittery enough that when Steve kind loops his arm through hers as they make their way down the hall, she shivers.

After a minute, she can feel him kind of tense up a bit.

"Darcy," Steve asks nervously, his brow furrowing, "um, what are slurpees?"

He agreed not even knowing what the hell he was agreeing to.  Her insides flip flop around a bit.  Yeah, he's a keeper.

"Oh, Steve."  Darcy grins and looks up at him.  He smiles back.  "I'm about to blow your mind."





(She gets a coca-cola and cream soda split, while Steve gets a grape one with a little banana on top when she forces him to get more than one flavour.  He loves it, which only proves that yeah, she's totally gonna end up in bed with him.  That jaw doesn't hurt those odds either.

"Also, NEVER take advice from Barton, my GOD," Darcy says, offering Steve a sip of hers.  He looks at it with momentary hesitation before taking a sip, tasting, and then nodding in surprised approval.  "The guy was fuck buddies with Natasha pre-Bucky. That gives you an idea of a) his survival instinct and b) his ability to navigate healthy relationships."

He laughs.  His tongue is bright purple.  Darcy can't stop staring at it.  Plus, it totally tastes like grape when she gives him a soft kiss later.  It's awesome.)

Chapter Text

 

They’re flying somewhere over Tenerife when Natasha’s mind wanders far enough that a quiet ping goes off deep in her subconscious.

(These ghosts are the only things that can sneak up on her anymore.)

“What?” Clint asks from across the hull of the empty jet, noticing her distant look. He’s camped out on the starboard bench with his bow in pieces across his lap; he has his post-mission habits and so does she. For Natasha, there’s nothing more comforting than watching Clint methodically and reverentially clean his bow as she disassembles and cleans her glocks. The ebb and flow of their partnership is something that Natasha has never experienced before; the Red Room prefered their agents be solitary creatures.

“Is today the 29th?” she asks, the once cool bullet in her palm now warm with her body heat. They landed in Algiers on the 3rd, spent two weeks shadowing Jorge Vasconcelos before following him over the border into Morocco, then another week in Rabat...

Clint looks down at his watch, fiddling with the dial for a moment before replying, “Well, technically it was yesterday, but yeah. About 20 minutes ago, it was the 29th.” He pauses for a second. “Wait, I think we just changed time zones. Maybe it’s still the 29th?” His brow furrows as he fucks with his watch again. “Why?”

It takes her a minute to do the mental calculation in her head, subtracting all the years, all the decades, all the history. Her body and mind don’t feel as old as they ought to be given the number of years she’s counting back in her head.

Today’s my birthday, her mind supplies, but to Clint, she says, “Have to pay the water bill.”

Clint snorts, tossing a rag at her head that she catches and uses to clean the semi-dried blood off the hilt of her gun.

 

 

--

 

 

They don’t do anniversaries or birthdays or memorials for the people they’ve lost over the years. Even if either of them were particularly sentimental (which they are not; James has his moments, but Natasha considers the kind of mushy sentimentality she sees in others borderline offensive, at best tasteless), time without end loses its meaning eventually. Natasha’s seen too many years pass to bother counting them anymore. Too many birthdays, too many gaps (is it their fiftieth anniversary if James was on ice for a good twenty-six of them?), too many familiar faces lost to time.

Which is why she is surprised to find a small cupcake sitting on the dining room table when she gets home, a fancy little thing with a mound of icing on top of it. There’s a single waxy candle poked through the top of it, unlit. There’s no note, just the cupcake resting on the spotless glass table with James’s lighter sitting beside it.

Her apartment is dark - the jet touched down just before three am local time - and the pair of boots by the door lets her know that James is most likely in her bed waiting for her, so she keeps the lights off as she moves around by memory and moonlight.

This space that once belonged to her is now littered with bits of James even though, in theory, he has his own apartment down on the same floor as Steve. His boots, dirty, sitting beside a pair of her more expensive Jimmy Choos. The sweatshirt he wears when he goes jogging with Steve thrown over the back of the couch. His beat up copy of Of Mice and Men sitting next to the open files on her desk. His dogtags (returned to him by Steve more than a year ago, another six months before he’d worked up the nerve to actually wear them) resting on the night table closest to the bathroom.

After she strips out of her gear, careful not to pull the stitches that medical had put into the small knife wound in her shoulder, she tosses on one of James’s t-shirts, grabs the cupcake off the dresser where she had left it and makes her way over to the bed.

James doesn’t sleep deeply enough not to be woken up by her getting into bed, though she has learned to carry her weight well enough that the mattress barely dips when she climbs onto it. He runs a hand through his hair as he turns over, blinking slowly as his eyes sweep over her. He doesn’t really smile - he’s still learning as she did how to leave behind the old ways, how to let go of the urge to suppress emotion - but the side of his mouth curves up just a little.

“Really?” Natasha says, tapping the waxy paper shell covering the bottom of the cupcake and lifting an eyebrow.

He yawns, lifting his arms to stretch a bit, his muscles stretching and tensing with the movement. The sheet shifts down far enough that she can tell he’s not wearing anything.

“A girl only turns eighty once, Talia,” James says with a fond look on his face. It dawns on her slowly that he is literally the only person in her life that knows her real birthday. When she had defected to SHIELD, she had pettishly enjoyed peppering her answers with falsehoods. Nothing important enough to jeopardize her immunity - just small, childish victories.

(July 4th? the interrogator had asked with a sour look on his face when she had given her birthday with a razor sharp smile.)

His eyes linger on her right shoulder, like he can tell she’s injured even though the light cotton of his t-shirt makes it impossible to see the bandage underneath. There are parts of her, the parts that still remember the Red Room training like a muscle memory that refuses to fade, that worry, that echo into the back of her head with whispers of attachment and weakness. It’s dangerous to let a man know you this well, to let him into your head and your heart.

“You okay?” he asks, the soft tone of his voice replaced with a sharp concern that makes her chest clench. He pulls the yawning, ripped neck of his t-shirt to the side until he can see the bandage over her right shoulder, running a thumb over the medicinal white cotton taped there.

“Of course.” He nods and drops his hand to rest on her thigh instead. James knows better than to push her after a mission; she has never been a woman who enjoys coddling.

She plucks the candle out of the top, sucking the icing off before tossing it onto her night table next to his dogtags.

“You’re not going to light it?” He almost sounds disappointed. It’s at moments like this that Natasha begins to realize how much the man in her bed has changed over the years - the teacher and comrade slowly being infected by the man he had been before the Soviets had gotten their hands on him. But she’s changing too, the both of them navigating this new world together.

She can’t help the smile that invades her face. “Don’t need any wishes today, I guess.”

It’s red velvet of course (her favourite), and when she peels down the wrapper to take a quick bite of it, she notices that James is still staring at her. “You want a bite?” she asks, offering it with one hand while the other chases an errant drop of icing into her mouth.

He shakes his head. “No,” he says, but reaches his hand up and cups her neck and pulls her gently down to kiss her softly. It’s a quiet, delicate thing, but the heat behind it makes her toes curl and her thighs clench. It goes a little deeper at the end, when he presses her mouth open a bit with his own, his thumb tracing over the ridge of her cheek reverentially.

When he pulls away, he doesn’t move far enough away that she can’t feel the way he licks his lips after, like he’s savouring the taste. “Happy birthday, sweetheart,” he tells her.

Chapter Text

 

Steve catches the little streak of green and white as it flies through the living room and into the kitchen.

"Whoa, whoa, slow down kiddo," Steve says with as stern a voice he can muster, which even to his own ears sounds about as hard as a marshmallow.  Sarah's a little over two and an absolute disaster on two legs; when she's not conked out, she's either moving at a mile a minute or sticking something in her mouth.  Or lately, as she learns to multitask early, both.

"Dadda!" she says, quick like the sound of gunfire as she rolls around in Steve's grasp.  He feels himself melt instantly, his heart so tender for this little creature he still can't believe he made.  Lofting her up, he lets Sarah burrow her warm face into his neck, her tiny hands finding his bowtie and tangling her fingers into it.

Over on the couch, Bucky chuckles.  "Backbone like a fucking jellyfish, Steve."

"Hey," Peggy chides, swinging around the corner and cuffing Bucky good on the back of the head before turning her attention back to securing her earrings.  "Language, Barnes.  She's turning into a little parrot and I'd prefer her first vocabulary not consist of contributions from your sailor mouth, thanks."

Turning to face him, Steve tries to pry Sarah's fingers loose from his bowtie.  It took him twenty minutes and help from Peggy to tie it, and they can't be late.  "Plus, you're one to talk, Buck."

Bucky laughs again, taking a swig from the bottle of beer in his hand.  "Sure."

Bucky's absolutely crazy for Sarah, which relieves Steve to no end; in this life, where he has to worry about getting home every time he leaves, where he worries about Peggy, about what would happen if Sarah were to lose one or both of them (something he tries never to think about, the crushing weight of it enough to drown him), he knows that Bucky would take care of her, that he loves and cherishes her as much as Steve does. 

And spoils her damn rotten.  Half the toys in the chest in her room are from Bucky, and the bear she curls around every night is one Bucky gave Steve for her the night she was born.

"Help?" Peggy asks him when she starts struggling with her left pearl earring, a gift he had given her for their second wedding anniversary.  He drops Sarah down on the floor, tapping her on the bum towards Bucky.  He pulls Peggy's dark, long curls aside and fusses with the earring until the back slides into place, securing it.

"You look beautiful," he tells her, cupping her cheeks and giving her a quick kiss.  He drags his thumbs across her cheekbones tenderly.

Swatting at his hands, Peggy says, "Don't," but it's too late.  His finger picks up the concealer on her left cheek enough that he can see the nasty bruise that's gotten worse since the morning.  The ball of anger that he'd managed to push down a few hours ago makes its way back into the pit of his stomach.

He makes an angry noise before he can stop himself.

"Seriously, Steve, it's perfectly fine," she tells him.  The Hydra agent had gotten in a good swing before Peggy was able to put him down hard.  Even then, Steve had followed up Peggy's punch by putting him through a brick wall for good measure.  He hadn't gotten up from it and Steve hadn't felt a modicum of guilt afterward.

It's times like these that he wants to sit Peggy down, make her listen to reason, make her stop risking herself, but it's also times like these that he reminds himself how much Peggy loves this, how he'd never ask her to give up something as important to her as her work, and how proud he is of her.  (And how hypocritical it would be of him to ask her to do it when he still suits up every day, though now, he'd give it up for her if Peggy asked and really meant it, though he knows she never would.)  It doesn't make it any easier though, especially when she wears the consequences of her work on her face like this.

The idea that he can't always protect her - protect their precious fledgling family even with all these gifts he's been given - scares him in the most profound way.

"You okay?" Bucky asks from the couch where Sarah has climbed him like a mountain, curling into his lap and dragging his metal hand over her own to tap against with her little fingers as she chatters to him.  Normally Bucky isn't much into having it touched, but he's different with Sarah; there's literally nothing she could do or want that Bucky wouldn't give in to.  And Sarah... god, Sarah adores him.

"Yeah," Steve says as Peggy disappears back upstairs to reapply her make-up.  A car horn sounds from outside - their ride is here.

"I got 'er," Bucky says as Sarah squeals when Steve leans down and kisses the top of her head, her wormy little body burrowing deeper into Bucky until she's plastered around his torso like a second skin.

"Thanks."

Bucky runs his hand through Sarah's hair.  "Don't even have to ask."


--


Steve makes a sweep of the house once they get back from the gala and Bucky heads home to Natasha.  Sarah's room is the last stop, her door ajar and the space lit very dimly inside by the little self-powering ladybug nightlight that Tony built her.  (Steve still doesn't understand how it works, but apparently the strength of light it emits corresponds to her breathing patterns.)

She's out cold, her little body curled around her bear, and Steve can't help but lightly run his fingers over her soft cheek.  Sarah doesn't even snuffle.  Bucky must have worn her out something fierce.

In their room, Peggy plucks off her earrings and sighs, placing them carefully in her jewellery box.  She reaches for a hairband and pulls back her hair into a ponytail.  "She out?"

"Like a light."  He kicks off his shoes and walks over to where she's struggling with the zipper at the back of the absolutely stunning blue dress she's been wearing, the dress he'd been daydreaming of peeling off her the entire time he had to listen to Senator Cuthbert drone on endlessly about domestic security and intelligence in the age of electronic terrorism.

Peggy lets him mouth at her neck a bit, his hands wandering down over her body, pulling at her hips and tracing the curve of her breasts.  She catches one as it travels over the delicate fabric and brings it low.  Taking a deep breath, she settles his palm low between her hips, right over the place she still carries a small scar from carrying Sarah.

"I've been thinking..."

His breath catches as he turns her gently so she's facing him.

Is she...

"Peggy, are you--"

Steve looks at the bruise, now vibrant purple on her face free of make-up, and the anger rises to a level that scares even him.  If he'd known... god, he'd have put that bastard through more than a goddamn wall.  He's practically vibrating with the sort of physical rage he almost never feels.

"No!  No, Steve.  I'm not pregnant," Peggy says, taking one of his hands in hers and running her fingers over it until he calms down. "No.  I'd never have--"

She doesn't have to finish her thought for him to know what she was going to say.  Their jobs are important, but kids come first.  He kisses her right cheek and doesn't think about the left.  "Then what're you thinking about, Pegs?"

"I just," Peggy starts, then pauses.  Her brow furrows in the way he finds disgustingly attractive and wants to kiss endlessly.  "I had Freddie growing up, and I want that for her.  I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I wanted to know if it was something that maybe you thought about as well."

He almost laughs, but pushes it down.  Peggy would take it the wrong way.  It doesn't take much to see how Peggy worries at times; she knows he loves Sarah more than anything else in the world, but even he recognizes how unhinged he becomes about her sometimes.  His greatest weakness is being unable to accept his inability to protect the people he loves from all the things that might hurt them.  Peggy is fully aware of how much their vulnerability frightens him, and he's starting to understand now how that's morphed into whatever she's thinking about him and his opinion on siblings for Sarah.

"Are you serious?" he asks, then threads their fingers together, yanking her over until she's pressed back into his body again.  Steve tries to steady himself, because he knows the next words are going crack at his composure.  "I love Sarah so much that sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind.  I look at her and I think... you and I made that, Peggy.  And she's perfect.  She's the most beautiful, perfect little thing I've ever seen, and if I could, I'd want a hundred just like her."

This time, Peggy laughs.  "Oh my god, we're not having a hundred, Steve."

"Okay, okay," he says, then narrows his eyes playfully.  "Baker's dozen."

"Oh my god."  She closes her eyes, but the smile plastered all over her face is blinding.  He can't help but kiss it.

When he finally pulls back, the rich look of want on her face absolutely takes his breath away.  There are a lot of days where Steve isn't sure what he did to deserve this, how when everything felt like it was falling apart and unfixable, he was suddenly granted such a stunning reprieve, how he has everything he's ever wanted and more now.  It scares him because he can still remember how frightened and lonely he had been, how easy it had been to get to that place.

But this?  Standing with Peggy in their bedroom, their daughter healthy and sleeping down the hall, Bucky happy and in his life again... Peggy looking up him like this, like she loves him as much as he loves her?

No, he's not sure what he's done to deserve it, but he'll take it all the same.

When he kisses her again, she threads her fingers through his hair and gives a light tug, dragging her hands down across his face it until they are curved around his jaw.

"You know the best part of giving her one?"

Peggy smiles likes she knows exactly what he's going to say, but still asks, "What?"

"This," he says, and peels the dress down off her body.

Chapter Text

Darcy corners him in the hall between Stark's lab and the bank of private elevators that head up to the residences on the South side of the tower.  At first she doesn't really say anything at all, just steps directly into his path, waits until he comes to a complete stop, and pulls out what looks like a blueberry pie (blackberry, maybe?) and smiles at him so sweetly he feels his hackles start to rise.

"What do you want?"

Her eyebrows rise.  "That's not very polite.  Can't a girl give a dude a pie without some sort of nefarious ulterior motive?"

Bucky tries to lay his most unimpressed, most unbelieving look on her.  He wouldn't claim to know Darcy Lewis all that well, but she's not the type to shower random guys with baked goods for no reason.  Frankly, she's more the type to eat the baked good and chuck the leftover tin at random guys.  "No."

Her grin is wolfish.  "Yeah, okay."

The pie smells disgustingly good.  He leans down to sniff at it; it smells sugary and delicious and he can feel his mouth start to water.  When he tips his eyes up to look at her through his eyelashes, she's peering back at him, amused.

"Did you make this?" he asks. 

And then she laughs right in his face.  "No."  Some of his annoyance must telegraph on his face because she follows it up by saying, "Trust me, you wouldn't want to eat it if I made it.  Do I look like Martha Stewart to you?  I don't know how to bake a fucking pie.  However, I do know how to buy a really expensive, overpriced one at some artsy fartsy bakery that uses organic blueberries and what must have been, I don't know, the tears of a thousand albino rhinos given what I paid for it."

God, it looks good.  Pie is his one weakness.  (False: sex is another weakness, but it's generally not traded for goods and services in Stark's hallways - that he knows of - so in this scenario pie would be his one exploitable weakness.)  So he screws up his mouth and says, "Okay, so what do I need to do for the pie?"

Darcy grins like she'd be clapping her hands together if she wasn't currently holding a pie.  "I need a boyfriend."

What the hell? 

"I don't know if I can help you with that, Lewis.  That sounds more like something you'll need a psychiatrist and a dating website with very loose subscription standards for."

Darcy smiles, but she gets the look Natasha gets when she's thinking about all the ways in which she is going to hurt Bucky when they spar.  "Oh I'm sorry, did I say I wanted decent but emotionally vacant sex with a time travelling World War II vet?  No, I did not."

"DECENT?"  His tone aims for intimidating annoyance and lands somewhere near irritated toddler.  He also didn't time travel, but whatever.

"Of course that's the part that you focus on.  Chill, I'm not asking you to put out, you big baby," she says as she puts the pie down on the ledge of the windows overlooking one of the labs.  "Here's the thing.  My mother has a rampant case of oh my baby, my only baby, when are you going to GIVE ME GRANDBABIES?!, and has decided that working for THA MAN as she calls it is hardening me into a," she makes air quote motions with her fingers while rolling her eyes, "career woman, whatever the hell that is, and I won't want to have babies when I'm busy living off the high of fucking up people for THA MAN, blah blah blah."

"What?"  Bucky followed about half of that, the other half being Darcy-speak, which generally leaves both him and Steve completely flummoxed.  There's no way it's English.

"She wants me to pop out some kids now that her nest is empty so she can live vicariously through my reproductive system."

That makes Bucky stop for a second.  He remembers how excited his own mother was for grandchildren, though he wasn't serious enough with a girl back then for it to become a real issue.  (And by the time he would have been a good age to start seriously considering kids, he was falling from a train.)  "You don't want kids?"

Her jaw juts out to the side like she's genuinely irritated.  "Listen, I'm twenty-four and I'm not hanging a no vacancy sign on my uterus any time soon as I figure I've got a good decade or so of fantastic, promiscuous sex left."

He can feel the quasi-lecherous smile wanting to break out across his face.  He'd be lying if he said that he hadn't thought about it - or more specifically her and sex.  (Usually in the shower, jerking off, but he doesn't like to think about that because some of the shit he's thought about her officially makes him an A+ creep, even when he's cutting himself some slack.)

"Besides, it's her own fault.  She put all her eggs in one basket.  My aunt Carole has six kids.  See, that's why you need to diversify your portfolio.  One of her sons knocked up a girl when he was eighteen.  And yet I am the disappointment."  Darcy literally growls and scrunches up her face in irritation.

He doesn't get why Darcy doesn't just say something.  He's never known a woman to give her opinion so loud and freely.  "So then why don't you just tell her to back off?"

"Because you're not the only daughter of a woman with four sisters, all of whom have grandchildren already.  She has a black belt in guilt and seriously doesn't know when to quit.  It's passive aggressive stealth mode or I'm going to have all of my fucking aunts leaving me voicemail messages of how I made my mother cry and how I'm an ungrateful daughter."  Darcy flails her hand in the air.  "Seriously, Hydra has nothing on my family."

Before Bucky can think better of it, he says, "So why don't you just ask Steve?  He's the sort of son-in-law mothers dream of.  He'd ma'am her into placation in no time flat."

Darcy waves him off before shrugging.  "Okay, first of all, Steve's ass is currently embroiled in a weird passive aggressive turf war between Sharon and Natasha, and I barely passed by firearm evals, so no thanks.  Second, there's no way in hell my mother will ever buy I landed Captain America."

Bucky isn't sure whether to be amused or kind of insulted because Darcy clearly has no idea that Steve's definitely got a bit of a thing for her (he'll save that one for a rainy day and blow her mind), and while Bucky will freely admit he's no Steve, that's not exactly helping ring the bells of his self-esteem.

(Why he suggested it, he'll never know.  He's turning into Steve before he became Howard's fifth grade science fair experiment. A glutton for fucking punishment.)

"Thanks," is all he says, which makes her roll her eyes.

"You know what I mean.  Trust me, you're not lacking in the impressive ass category, especially now that you've cut your hair and look less like you're a survivalist living in a hut out in Utah, I just need a guy that my Dad hasn't dressed up as for halloween."  For some reason that makes Bucky imagine Darcy dressed up in a Captain America uniform, and the fact that his libido takes that image and runs with it so fucking hard is how he knows exactly what he's going to be thinking about the next time he takes a shower.  "Also, Steve can't lie for SHIT.  The first whiff of it and it would be all over.  He turns red as a goddamn tomato and my mother is a bullshit bloodhound."

"Impressive ass, huh?"  He waggles his eyebrows until Darcy makes an annoyed grunt.

"Your selective hearing is pretty outstanding as well."

"No, I also heard you call me a good liar."

"I'm going to call you a lot worse in about ten seconds."

He really, really doesn't want to broach this subject either.  But... glutton for punishment.  "What about this?" he asks, wiggling his metal fingers.

She doesn't even blink, which catches him off guard.  "Who the fuck cares?  My uncle Jonny lost a leg in Vietnam and every damn year at the family retreat in North Carolina, he takes off the prosthetic and chases the goddamn kids around with it. Trust me, no one gives a shit.  Oh, just don't fucking tell her you've got a motorcycle, oh my god.  Metal arm: no problem.  Motorcycle: problem."

"Hey!"  His motorcycle is a thing of beauty and not to be besmirched.  "It's a classic, Lewis."

Darcy fixes him with her familiar don't-fucking-care glare which he has seen her pin on Stark more times than he can count.  "Well, my mother thinks they are rolling death machines, classic or not.  So, congratulations, you own a fucking volvo as far as she's concerned."

Bucky sighs and seriously considers her proposition.  The truth is that he definitely likes her enough that he'd help her out for nothing (and if he really, really wants to be introspective, which he NEVER does, he actually wouldn't mind asking her out for real, but he's still a bit of a fucking mess and hasn't quite managed to quiet all the voices in his head that fight him about what he thinks he deserves, what sort of happiness and normality he is allowed to pursue given what he has done).  But just because you'll do something for free doesn't mean you shouldn't at least try to get something out of the bargain.  "Okay, a pie a week, but I'll need something else."

This time it's Darcy turn to look dubious as hell.  "And that would be?  I'd like to remind you that I have a very overprotective demi-god as my second speed dial setting."

"That Stark gala next week," Bucky says.  It's supposed to be benefiting the NY Public Library, but he's starting to realize that they're mostly held to benefit Stark's ego.  "I've been recently informed that attendance is mandatory, and if I go without a date, it's going to be three hours of Natasha going," he stops to put on Natasha's shitdisturber face, "Oh James, have you met Lilith from Advanced Field Operations?  She was just telling me how she likes Duck Dynasty too!"  Bucky nails the fake earnestness in his impression of Natasha.

"You like DUCK DYNASTY?"  She looks delighted.

"Of course that's the part you focus on," he says, mimicking the exact way she said it earlier.  "Anyway, point is, congratulations, you're now attending with me.  I'll pick you up at seven.  Wear something," he waves towards her chest knowing he probably shouldn't say it, but does it anyway, "booby."

She gives him the finger.  "You are unworthy of my tits, Barnes.  And how is this a fair bargain?  If my mom finds out, I won't hear the end of it, but you have zero risk.  Meanwhile if Natasha finds out, she'll break all my fingers and skin me to make a Darcy-suit."

"A what?"

Darcy sighs.  "Nevermind, I'll have to lend you The Silence of the Lambs later.  You'll like it.  There's a guy in it that reminds me of you a little bit.  Same social skills."  Then she makes a weird sucking... or slurping noise?  She's a really, really odd duck.

Bucky has the distinct impression she's insulting him, but chooses to ignore it.  "A deal's a deal.  I'll make mom think I'm ten seconds and ring away from helping you bring a mouthy little Lewis into the world as long as you keep Natasha's matchmaking shit at bay.  I've had to turn down half the women in Weapons and now every time I go down there they all give me death stares!  I don't really want that many women who dislike me having access to that much plastic explosives."

"But Natasha lives with us!  I'm just asking you to pose for some photos and make noise in the background when I have to call her occasionally.  This is some heavy duty undercover shit."  She narrows her eyes like she's considering it.  "Fine.  No pies though.  You want pie, you can bake it or buy it."

Fuck.  He really wanted her to bring him pies.  But actually, she makes a fair point about risk versus reward, so... "Deal."

Darcy claps her hands this time.  "Good, although I'm only staying at that gala for like, forty-five minutes tops.  I can't stand Stark circle jerks.  Oh, and if Natasha susses out what we're up to, I'm throwing your ass under the bus."

"How gallant."

Darcy grins and drags her hands through her hair so it's all pulled over her left shoulder.  Bucky's struck suddenly by how lovely she looks today; she's not wearing anything different than normal, she just looks... different, somehow.  "Well, sometimes the princess has to rescue herself," she says with a laugh.  "PS: You're totally the princess in this scenario."

God, she's a little shit and GOD, he hates that he finds it as blindingly attractive as he does.  Natasha had called him an emotional masochist once and he's starting to understand what she meant.  This is a terrible, terrible idea, but he wants to push and press into this until he can see how far it will yield. 

"So," he says, "shall we begin?"

Bucky steps right up into her space, and he can see the way her breath catches ever so slightly as he reaches around behind her and grabs her phone from the back pocket of her jeans.  If he lets his hand linger on her ass a little on the way, it's a total accident, of course.

"What?" Her voice sounds genuinely lost.  It sends a bit of a thrill up his spine.  Bucky's starting to wonder if he is legitimately starting to get off on throwing Darcy off balance.

"Photo time, Lewis," he says, holding up the phone, turning it on, coding in and selecting the camera.  "Need the inaugural facebook photo declaring our budding relationship and possible fertility."

"Oh my god," she laughs, punching him in the shoulder before letting him slide his arm around her waist and tug her snug against him.

She turns and smiles brightly at him, like that's going to be the pose for the photo, and Bucky grins dirtily enough that the smile slips a bit.  If he waits too long, she'll catch on, so he presses the 3 second timer and leans in before she has a chance to pull back.

This kiss isn't the dirtiest he's ever laid on someone, but what it lacks in raunch, it makes up for in intensity.  Bucky can feel the split second the rigid shock in her body melts into acceptance, and she loosens enough that he can take the kiss as deep as he wants it.  He lets his tongue press and slide against her lower lip and enjoys her shocked exhale, the way her mouth naturally opens a bit for his.

In the periphery, he hears the little tick-tick-tick of her camera going off.

"Holy shit," he hears her mutter under her breath as he pulls away.  His mouth is somewhere over the apple of her left cheek when he whispers back, "Need to make it look real, Lewis."

He leans over her shoulder and taps the elevator button with a knuckle as he thumbs through the photos.  "Hmm, I'd use the third shot.  Very nice.  Like you're in love and can't get enough."

Bucky can't see her face, but the noise she makes betrays her irritation.

"Remember," he says, sliding the phone back into her pocket and giving it a gentle tap.  "Something booby."

"Oh shut the fuck up," Darcy snaps, trying really hard to look angry, but she's still got that stunned look in her eyes that makes his entire spine hum with pleasure.  "After that little stunt, I'm wearing a goddamn muumuu."

He grabs the pie off the little ledge as the elevator dings, announcing its arrival.  "As long as it's booby."

She raises both her middle fingers as Bucky steps into the elevator, leaning back against the wall.  He can still taste her on his mouth, and he licks his lips, enjoying the way her eyes zero in on it immediately.

"HEY!  How the hell did you know the passcode to my personal phone?" Darcy yells.  Bucky just winks at her as the elevator doors close.

Chapter Text

"Bucky.  Bucky, Bucky, Bucky!" Darcy says, holding her palms up toward him in peace.  He's standing in the doorway of his kitchen, his shoulders squared, the metal fingers of his left arm opening and closing into a fist, like he's testing their strength, preparing for a fight.  "You gotta wake up, buddy.  Bucky, please wake up."

She keeps hiccuping his name over and over, like if she just says enough, says it the magic number of times, the absent, dark look in his eyes will disappear and he'll be Bucky, he'll be the man she slipped into bed with last night even though she promised both Steve and Jane that she would be smarter than that.  The man standing in front of her, the man blocking her exit is not any man she knows.  There's a darkness shuttered beyond his eyes that is so deeply frightening to Darcy, if only because it is the absolute antithesis of the man she's come to know over the past year.

He's had moments like this before, when he's woken up as feral as a wolf.  But it's never been sustained like this before, usually only a few minutes of quiet panicking, trying to escape regardless of the consequences like a desperate animal stuck inside a hunter's trap.  She knows JARVIS's protocols are to seal Bucky into whatever room he's in; this is the first time he's ever hard reset like this with someone else in with him.

(Three people have the capacity to override JARVIS's protocols related to James Barnes: Tony, Steve, and Fury.  All three of which, as far as Darcy knows, are not in the building.)

Bruce tried to explain it all to them once, the jargon of the SHIELD PsyOps specialists going straight over their heads.  They've slowly been trying to fix what HYDRA spent the better part of three quarters of a century destroying; the brain is more than a muscle, more than just tissue and blood, and even they don't quite understand what they're doing, what the ramifications of it are.  Whatever Hydra pumped him full of helped his brain regenerate the portions that they ended up destroying over and over, like growing a new limb where the old once lived, but the ability of the new limb to talk to the old bones carrying it along isn't quite the same.  That's what they've been trying to fix: teaching the new parts of Bucky's mind to talk to the old.  

Like a strange disconnect, his mind sometimes regresses for short periods of time.  The Winter Soldier is not really a part of him, it's something that lives inside of Bucky's mind - not really a personality, but not as divorced from himself as he'd like to believe.  Bucky told her once in a quiet moment, one of the few moments he lets himself tell her things, that it's like a dropped call, like his mind tries to connect him to the part of his mind that controls his body and fails.  The Winter Soldier is what picks up that dropped call, sliding into his skin.  That's what the Winter Solider is to him, he told her, like his body becomes a weapon in and of itself, and he's simply stuck inside for the ride.

(The guilt, she understands, is what he gets to live with after.)

Bucky's head jerks suddenly to the side, where she can hear pounding at the door and a voice that sounds a lot like Clint.  It also lets her see the rough edge of the bruise she left on his neck, her mouth a bit too eager when he slid his hands under her thighs and squeezed hard enough that he gave Darcy her own set of bruises.  God, it seems impossible that this man is the one who had gone down on her so gently, who had wrung a perfect little orgasm out of her, only left marks and bruises where she had explicitly asked for them, and even so, with a carefulness that made her heart ache.

When he turns back to her, there is nothing but emptiness there.  He'll hurt her and she knows it.

In the second it takes him to advance towards her, she knows she made a mistake moving away from the counter.  The knife set on the butcher's block that tipped over when she had crashed into it after her had thrown her roughly into the counter now lies between them.  Bucky's hand brushes over one of the knives, the pale skin stretch over his fingertips (skin she knows so, so intimately) running along the blade before he picks it up.

"Bucky.  James.  Please, please don't do this."

When he wakes, no matter what has transpired, she knows this will change him.  Change them.  But that's just a flickering second of worry because in the twenty-three years that Darcy has lived, she's never been this scared, this certain that she's an edge away from being killed.  Even when the destroyer was lighting up Puente Antiguo, she'd weirdly felt confident that things would be okay.  Perhaps out a stupid sense of invincibility and naivety.  There's no one left to protect her here.

He says something to her, mumbled and quiet, but her heart is pumping so hard that all she can hear in her ears is her heartbeat.

As she steps backward, she remembers the gun she know he keeps taped to the side of the fridge, a discovery she made the second time she spent the night, rummaging around for something to eat while Bucky lay passed out in the bed that smelled like sex and the two of them.  She could, she thinks.  If he was serious, if he came at her, tried to hurt her... she could pull the trigger, she thinks.  She could shoot.  Maybe not to kill.  Just to wound.

(Maybe to kill, she thinks, if left with no other choice.  This is not Bucky.  This is not Bucky.)

Then she finally hears it, what he had mummed to her earlier. 

"Darcy," the Winter Soldier says, his voice filled with nothing but chill.

Darcy runs for the gun.

Chapter Text

“Wait, wait,” Steve says, throwing Peggy’s bag over his shoulder as he rushes from where he’s opened the car door for Peggy to the front door of their house. Peggy’s got Sarah tucked up against her chest, blessedly sleeping, so Peggy moves slowly, eager not to wake her. Though she hates to admit it, mostly because of how smug it would make Steve, Sarah definitely inherited the Carter lungs.

(According to Bucky, Steve’s mother said Steve was a quiet baby, barely a peep out of him the first year of his life. The two hours of wailing this afternoon quickly indicated which side of the family Sarah took after.)

“Here,” Steve says, unlocking the front door and ushering Peggy through carefully, a warm hand on the small of her back. As soon as she’s through, he punches their security code into the small interface next to the coat closet.

Peggy feels her chest tighten as she remembers the last time she stood in this foyer, her due date circled on a page in the calendar still one flip away, but a pool of fluid under her bare feet signalling her daughter’s rather imminent arrival. She remembers the horrified look on Steve’s face and shakes her head, willing the memory to disappear.

They'd kept Peggy overnight and for most of the day, running tests on Sarah and keeping an eye on Peggy's recovery. Her obstetrician kept explaining to Steve that it was routine to keep women who had delivered prematurely at least overnight (kindly, Dr. Welling had not mentioned the concerns she had expressed privately to Peggy about the serum and running a few postnatal tests to ensure that their daughter wasn't impacted by Steve's peculiar genetics), but Steve had spent the better part of his day pacing outside Peggy’s room when he thought she was asleep, dividing his time between keeping an eye on her and monitoring the progress of the tests they were running on Sarah.

Sarah had caught them a bit off-guard, a good four weeks early. What had shocked her doctors was the fact that though she was a late preterm baby and small, her lungs were completely developed, something that typically kept babies like Sarah in the NICU for a week or two. It had been hard to watch Steve's face as they had explained that they really didn't have any answers as to Sarah's surprisingly development. Peggy had to remind him over and over that it was a good thing, that whatever Steve had passed on to Sarah had protected her, but Steve’s guilt, like any good Catholic, runs deep.

Peggy’s arms are getting a bit tired - Peggy’s everything is getting a bit tired, she barely slept at all in the hospital, too busy worrying about Sarah and worrying about Steve worrying about Sarah - and Steve seems to pick up on it, because he drops the bag near the door and says, “Here, give her to me, you head on up to bed.” He steps right up into her space, curling his hands gently around Sarah’s tiny chest and lifting her from Peggy’s arms so she rests against his broad chest instead.

This image will be burned into Peggy’s mind until the day she dies: Steve holding their daughter in their house, so careful and tender and full of awe. Peggy’s always known Steve is good man; it’s why she fell in love with him. But this here, watching him with Sarah? This is why she married him, this is why she had Sarah with him.

Ugh, she is so gone on this man. Sometimes he makes her feel like she’s coming apart at the seams.

As she ascends the staircase to the second floor, Peggy's eye is immediately drawn to their guest room, a dim light and the rough sound of breathing flooding through the open door. She recognizes the noise immediately; Barnes doesn't snore, but he does breathe heavily when he sleeps.

"Barnes?" Peggy asks quietly as Steve follows her up the stairs.

"Yeah," Steve answers. "I asked him to stay over for the night."

Peggy lofts an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything. She's known for a while how much all this scares him, especially now that the fragmented remnants of Hydra have finally melded into a cohesive unit once again. Steve’s unflappable sense of responsibility for his family - by blood, bond or brotherhood - turns him inside out on a daily basis, and Peggy has long known that bringing a child into the world would only worsen it.

“That okay?”

Even if she didn’t think of Barnes as practically a brother-in-law, she knows the sense of comfort and safety he brings Steve. If she’s being truthful, having him around makes her feel a little better, too.

Steve turns towards Peggy, hesitating for a second before pulling Sarah away from his chest and handing her back over, like it physically pains him to do so. Finally awake, Sarah makes an indignant sound at the loss of warmth from Steve's chest, a precursor to a good wail, so Peggy shushes her and rocks her back and forth gently.

“Of course,” Peggy says, offering Sarah a pinkie for her to grab onto, which she promptly attempts to shove into her mouth.

Steve smiles, turning his head toward the open door of Barnes’s room (calling it a guest room is rather silly, seeing as though he’s spent the better part of the last six months occupying it). “He always falls asleep with every light in the house on,” Steve complains half-heartedly. “Gonna go turn off his light, then lock up. I’ll be back.”

Peggy nods, rubbing the back of Sarah’s head as she walks down the hall to their bedroom.

By the time Steve finishes what is easily the most thorough run-through of the house ever given how long it takes him, she’s feeding Sarah. Steve walks in on her in the small rocking chair near the bassinet, Sarah curled into her breast, Peggy’s shirt unbuttoned and spread to accommodate her. Steve’s face morphs into something indescribable, and Peggy is torn between watching and turning away, because it just feels like too much. Far, far too much.

(It’s something caught between reverence and love, and she’s always felt wholly unworthy of the kind of regard Steve holds her in.)

Steve crosses the room slowly, kneeling down when he reaches Peggy and Sarah. One hand on Peggy’s knee, he uses the other to trace Sarah’s tiny ear with a finger, letting it linger down over her working cheeks.

“I love you,” he says quietly, looking up at Peggy until she finally meets his eyes with her own. Peggy’s never been the type to lose herself in a man, but Steve makes her heart ache, her bones crumble, her nerves shiver. He loves with a ferocity and purity that seems impossible, that makes her feel safe in a way very little has ever in her life.

So Peggy reaches down and pulls Steve up by the scruff of his neck until his mouth meets hers, kissing sweet and open over Sarah, careful not to disturb her. When Steve pulls away, he licks his lips, and Peggy is instantly drawn back into the memory of the night Sarah was conceived.

“You too,” she says. “So much.”

Peggy nods towards the bassinet beside her, along with the changing table constructed near the walk-in closet. The last she’d seen of the two, they’d been unassembled in boxes on the second floor landing while her water was breaking downstairs.

"Thank Bucky," Steve says, still running his finger over the downy tuffs of almost invisible blonde hair on Sarah’s head as she nurses, her sucks becoming slower and slower as she gets sleepy.

Peggy laughs very, very quietly, trying not to jossel Sarah. “I will.”

 

--

 

Peggy wakes in a fright.

She’s grown accustomed to sleeping in the same bed with Steve over the years. At first, it had been an uncomfortable adjustment, pushing Peggy out of her well-worn habits. Peggy has always appreciated a certain amount of personal space, which, until Steve, had extended quite significantly to her sleeping habits. No matter how they fall asleep, she never fails to wake with at least one part of his body resting over hers: an arm thrown across her waist, a leg tangled between hers, a hand cupped over her knee. More often than not, she wakes with him practically wrapped around her.
He’s broken her now. Now, she finds it hard to sleep when he’s not there, when he’s been called off on one mission or another, when he’s not there to pin her to the mattress with his weight.

So when she skims the surface of consciousness and doesn’t feel the familiar press of Steve’s body, her mind rockets all the way awake. She lets out a strangled gasp, her hand slapping quietly onto the empty sheets beside her, barely warm.

Her heart calms when she sees a familiar shape a few feet away from her in the rocking chair.

Steve’s hunched over a bit, his elbows resting on his thighs; it’s a position that lets him peer unhindered into the bassinet at his sleeping child. There’s just enough light from the half-moon outside to see how glassy his eyes are. He’s not crying, but there’s probably been tears while she’s been sleeping. It’s jarring; Steve is not a man that cries often, the number of times she’s actually witnessed it countable on one hand.

"She's so small," Steve whispers, and reaches into the bassinet presumably to touch Sarah. Peggy prays he doesn’t wake her, and when Steve pulls his hand back out, she lets out a light sigh of relief. “Peggy, she’s so damn small. I don’t--”

At his choked words, Peggy sits up, her brow drawing together. They’ve had this discussion so many times as her belly grew, Steve’s worry and concern ratcheting up with each week that passed. Leaning over far enough to reach him, she presses a hand to his thigh and strokes it gently.

“Your job’s not to protect her from everything, Steve. You can’t.” Peggy knows because she’s spent the last eight months going over this in her head, her own mantra to keep from losing her mind. Steve’s worries aren’t unfounded: what they do makes them targets, makes the people they love targets by association. The world isn’t the same place it was seventy years ago, their enemies growing more disciplined and vicious with time. “Your job is to love her, to raise her right, to protect her from what you can and help her survive and learn from what you can’t.”

He looks completely unconvinced, but smiles weakly at her before dropping back to grim.

“I love you, Steve. You’re going to be a wonderful father.” Peggy smiles warmly, squeezing his knee. She’s never been so sure of anything in her life. Her own father had been a man of brilliant conviction and neverending love for his children, and she’d always known she wanted the same for any children of hers. “Now come back to bed, soldier.”

There’s enough of a pause that for a moment, Peggy wonders if he’s going to fight her on this, spend the rest of the night in the rocking chair instead, watching Sarah sleep. But then the corner of his mouth tips up ever-so-slightly, and he says, “Yes, ma’am.”

Chapter Text

“I’m going to write a letter!”

Pepper doesn’t even look up from her tablet. “No you’re not,” she tells Tony dryly, in the authoritarian voice that makes many Stark employees flinch out of pure terror. It kinda turns Darcy on. (Darcy embraces her Kinsey scale.)

Or it would turn Darcy on if she wasn’t half passed out into her cup of coffee. She’s been awake for a little less than an hour and she’s already willing the day to be over.

Darcy is not a morning person. Darcy has never been a morning person. Darcy considers early morning to be somewhere shy of noon. However, Darcy is currently fucking a morning person, which now means that her mornings are getting a lot earlier.

(Technically she’s fucking two, but she sleeps with Steve, not Bucky, so it’s his departure from the bed in the morning that interrupts her vital snooze time, and when the hell did she stop being able to sleep in without Steve half underneath her? She blames Steve. He looks like he’s hard as a rock - all those beautiful flat planes of muscle and hint of sinew - but he’s actually soft and cuddly. And warm. God, he’s like snuggling a toasted marshmallow, and the body pillow shaped like a manatee she used to spoon at night just does not compare. So she’s finding more often than not, her mornings start shortly after Steve’s do. It’s a fucking nightmare.)

“A STRONGLY WORDED LETTER!” Tony yells, shaking a finger at no one in particular.

Clint turns to Natasha, who is carefully and methodically dissecting a belgian waffle. “Is Stark Canadian?”

“No way an ego that size belongs to a Canadian.”

Susan Cho pushes a piece of bacon - the last piece - onto Natasha’s plate next to her waffles and whipped cream, and Natasha stares at her like she’d really like to bend Susan over the table. Which Darcy gets, because the last time Steve prepared her breakfast (pancakes and a fruit salad comprised of a lot of fruit she didn’t recognize that he bought at the Korean market down the street from his apartment), Darcy had barely finished mopping up the last of the maple syrup on her plate before she was shoving a shocked Steve back against the counter and slipping down to her knees.

(UGH! Natasha had whined later that day when her coffee had sloshed over the rim of her cup, the table beneath it tipping when she lay an elbow on it. When did this thing develop a wobble? And the tips of Steve’s ears had turned bright red.)

So yes. Darcy understands the power of breakfast food.
.
That being said, Darcy feels weird that the woman who gave her a stern seminar on workplace sexual harassment currently has Natasha’s hand riding precariously high on her bare thigh under the table. Tony and Bucky’s eyes keep not-so-subtly dipping down to watch Natasha’s fingers drum on the skin there.

“Why would I be Canadian?” Tony asks, waving at his chest. “This is all-American beef, my friend.”

Natasha stares at Tony, her mouth curled like she’s just sucked on a lemon. Pepper doesn’t look up, but Darcy can see her rolling her eyes again.

“Because it has been universally acknowledged that the only people who write strongly worded letters anymore are Canadians and octogenarians,” Clint answers, eyeing Natasha’s bacon. Natasha brandishes her butter knife, flicking it over her knuckles in a lazy threat.

Darcy closes her eyes as the whining match continues, leaning against Steve, who is sitting beside her on the long bench of their communal kitchen table. He’s warm and smells really good (like coffee and the body wash she bought him because apparently he is incapable of buying anything other than bar soap that smells like drying caulk), and Darcy mostly wants to drag him back to bed. This feeling is only compounded when Steve throws an arm over her shoulder and tugs her a bit closer, still eating with his free hand. Bucky, who is sitting on her other side, lets her throw one of her legs over his lap and taps his fingers over her kneecap as he eats his own plate of waffles.

“How is this even allowed?” Tony bitches. “It’s sexiest man alive, okay?”

There is a little grumble of thunder outside. “Are you questioning my manhood?” Thor booms from the other end of the table, a forkful of waffle and egg halfway to his mouth. He actually looks more hurt than angry, and sometimes it’s very easy to forget how sensitive Thor can be given he looks like a mountain range with arms.

Jane finally peers up from her tablet, but only long enough to steal a slice of pineapple off of Thor’s plate before going back to reading the latest ISECG report from NASA. Thor kisses Jane’s brow, and she reaches up blindly, feeling around until she finds his cheek to pat. God, they’re grossly adorable.

Tony looks a bit cowed, but seems to recover quickly. “No,” he says carefully. “But man is short for human, my friend, not alien prince demi-god whatever. I call unfair advantage. No mere mortal looks like that, okay?”

Smiling, Darcy runs her hand over Steve’s abs. Steve gives the cutest grin back, shoveling eggs into his mouth at a furious pace. She flicks a bit of escaped scrambled egg from her pajama pants and meets Stark’s eyes as they pass between her face and her hand still resting on Steve’s abdomen.

“Serum.”

Darcy narrows her eyes, offended on Steve’s behalf even though Steve doesn’t look like he gives two shits as he eats an inhuman amount of sausage. Serum or not, Steve has always been a catch, and she knows how hard he works to keep what the serum gave him. Tony is such a dick sometimes. “Bitter is such an ugly look on you, Tony. It’s not our fault you’re starting to go grey.”

Tony juts his jaw out to the side before throwing a strawberry at Darcy’s head because he is exactly three years old. Steve catches it in one hand and shoves it into his mouth.

“You’re like a human roomba,” Darcy sighs fondly. Steve looks puzzled for a second before moving on to his toast.

“Do not be petulant, brother,” Thor finally says, dropping his fork onto his plate with a loud clatter. Jane doesn’t even flinch, too absorbed in her reading. “It is a great Midgardian honour that has been bestowed upon me, and were it upon you, I would congratulate you. Do not darken this day.”

“It’s People Magazine’s sexiest man alive, not the Nobel peace prize.”

“Perhaps I shall win one of those as well!”

“Well, I just can’t wait for that, big guy.”

Bucky turns to Darcy, rolling his wrist and aggressively stabbing a slice of melon with his fork. “I’m going to start eating meals alone. This whole teambuilding mealtime thing, despite enjoying the view,” his eyes dart over to Susan and Natasha, who look like they’re about to start making out at the table, “is not worth the shit it does to my blood pressure.”

“Suck it up, princess,” Darcy says. “If I have to get up at the asscrack of dawn to be here for these things, you need to be here too.”

“Darcy, ten in the morning is not the asscrack of dawn.”

Darcy sips her coffee, leaning harder into Steve for purchase so she can kick Bucky’s thigh hard with her toes. He grabs them and presses down with his thumb into the ball of her foot. It actually feels pretty nice. She makes a mental note to blackmail him into giving her a foot massage later. “Whatever, dude.”

When Darcy tunes back into Tony’s discussion, he’s back to baiting Thor. “Is there anyone you’d like to thank?” Tony asks, but the words lack bite.

Thor’s brow furrows. “I suppose I should thank my Mother and Father, for it is their coupling that produced me.” Darcy laughs when Clint’s face scrunches up at the word coupling. What a prude.

Darcy’s phone starts trilling, which means that she’s technically already late for her appointment with HR to go over her benefits package (fuck yeah dental!) now that Jane and her team has been officially absorbed by SHIELD, but considering she’s watching the deputy director of HR making fuck me eyes at Natasha, she figures she can get it rescheduled. Either way, she hasn’t taken a shower, and Steve’s very lovely water pressure is calling her name.

“Gotta go,” she says, extracting herself from Steve, who lets out a little whine when she stands up. Yeah, that’s pretty cute. She steals a sausage from his plate and wanders away, pausing for a second to ruffle Bucky’s hair until he lets out a grumpy noise, even as his body moves into her hand. What a weirdo.

“All hail, god of panties!” Darcy yells over her shoulder as she leaves the room, and she can hear Tony’s loud hiss. “SEXIEST MAN ALIVE.”

“WHAT?!” she hears Jane yell a few seconds later.

Chapter Text

Steve slams the door shut behind him.  "I'm home!" he yells into the house, the sound echoing in the foyer a bit.  It's quiet, quieter than it ought to be given he left Bucky with two squealing girls three hours ago.

Normally, the girls would be scuttling for the door the second he put the key into the lock (they're big at throwing themselves at him the minute he steps in the door, which Steve would be lying if he claimed he didn't love), so immediately his hackles rise, nervousness twitching through his body, even though there's no sign of forced entry and he trusts Bucky to handle anything.

Suddenly he hears a loud, high pitched laugh from the living room.

He toes off his boots at the door, taking the long way to the living room through the kitchen to drop off his bag on the wood table by the picture windows.  The laughing continues and he finally hears Bucky's low voice laugh back, taunting.

He walks to the doorway of the living room and leans against the arch.  Inside, he finds Bucky tied to the chair with the bungee cords normally in his biking kit.  Bucky shoots him a look that says, what I do for your kids, even though he's clearly enjoying himself.  He's such a pushover for the girls.  There's nothing they could ask for that he wouldn't give in to.

"He's our hostage, Daddy!" Eleanore yells triumphantly, a red and blue bungee cord dangling from her hand.

"Hooostidge," Linny says, trying to parrot her sister and failing miserably.  She's also on her knees on Bucky's left side, her arms wrapped around her hostage's waist in a tight little Linny-hug.  She rests her head against his torso, and if Bucky weren't tied to a chair, it might be one of the sweetest things Steve's seen in a long while.

"Nice," Steve says, enjoying watching his daughters crow over their capture.  "Who are you demanding your ransom from?"

Eleanore smiles.  "Aunt Natasha!"

"What's the price?"

Bucky rolls his eyes.

"A million dollars and a box of oreos and he's allowed to leave!"

"Noooo!" Linny cries, tightening up her arms on Bucky's waist.  "Unkie Buck stays!"  Bucky's face is just this... beautiful mess of raw emotion, and Steve can see the way his hand flexes like all he wants to do is run his fingers through Linny's hair, pat her head comfortingly.

Steve sighs fondly.  There's little these days that Steve enjoys more than watching Bucky with his children.  They love him so much, and it's nice to be able to watch him be the man he knew all those years ago.  The love and security Bucky gives Steve's daughters is irreplaceable, but the lightness they give him?  Steve wouldn't trade it for the world.

"Well, I don't have a million dollars, but if two hardened kidnappers were to go check the bag on the kitchen table, I think they might find some oreos that their Daddy would let them have before dinner," Steve says.  When the girls squeal and clamor for the kitchen, he amends, "One each!"

"Okay, Daddy," Eleanore yells as she bolts out the door.

"You gonna untie me?" Bucky says as soon as the girls disappear into the kitchen, flexing his hands again.  Technically, Bucky could easily break the cords, but Steve knows he won't.

Steve laughs as he kneels.  "Maybe," he answers, his hands drifting to the hooks of the bungee cords, but not moving to undo them.  Instead, he leans up and brushes his mouth over Bucky's gently, mostly just bumping their lips together.  Bucky is stock still for the first few seconds, then leans forward ever so slightly and drops his jaw just a fraction of an inch so their mouths slot together quietly.  Perfectly.  Until Steve snaps back at the sound of the oreo bag being shredded in the other room.

"Steve?" Bucky asks breathlessly as Steve unhooks the bungee cords.  In this life, they never had Italy, never had that summer together.  For Bucky, it's been nearly eighty-five years since they last kissed, but for Steve?  Centuries.

Even so, Bucky tastes just like Steve remembers.

Linny appears in the doorway shyly, holding out a slightly mangled oreo into her chocolate-covered palm.  "For you, Unkie Buck!"

"Thank you, sweetheart," Bucky says, taking the cookie from her hand when she wanders over and dragging her into her lap.  He twists the cookie apart, mashing a little icing on each side and gives Linny half, popping the other half in his mouth.  Over her head, he watches Steve with dark eyes. 

Chapter Text

It’s barely past dawn, but Steve is already awake. It’s the military discipline, Bucky tells him. When he was was younger - before the serum and the war - he’d always slept clear through the morning if given the chance, though often fitful and less than refreshing. Now, neither he nor Bucky can sleep past seven anymore, and even though he and Peggy stayed up most of the night previous, drinking wine and thoroughly debauching one another, the little internal alarm clock inside Steve’s body throws his body out of sleep shortly after six.

He spends the first half-hour basking in the feel of Peggy wrapped around him, the weight of her hips and thighs against his, the way she snores a bit into his chest if he gets her flat enough against him.

Eventually, he shifts enough to extricate his body from under her, climbing off the bed and pulling on some boxers before ambling to the balcony door of their suite. They hadn’t planned much of a honeymoon; money is tight and the extravagance feels a bit unseemly given the war is barely past them. But Howard had pressed the tickets and hotel information into their hands a few weeks ago and called it a barely adequate wedding gift, refusing to accept them back when Peggy’s face had screwed into a terse frown.

Really, Howard could have picked a better location than the South of France given the theatre of war they spent the better part of three years fighting in (Steve has never been, but he knows Peggy has some unpleasant memories of the area), but as soon as they make it to Collioure, he feels Peggy’s tension ease. They’ve both been learning how to rebuild people and places with new memories, to let the good overwrite the bad, and Peggy’s brilliant smile has burned away the worst of the memories that blight New York City.

The suite Howard books for them at the hotel near the coast is ridiculous. Bigger than their damn apartment in New York, and the view makes Steve’s breath catch every time he looks out the massive windows. The Mediterranean is absolutely stunning in the early autumn.

Peggy sleeps like a rock, so Steve tunes the radio to something soft and soothing, and takes out his sketch pad. Most sketches are of Peggy (her hands, the curve of her spine, the gentle slope of her breasts, the curl of an ear), but he’s taken to sketching little scenes from the beautiful seaside town they’re staying in.

He gets in about twenty minutes of sketching before Peggy begins to stir. Dropping the pad on the desk, he makes his way back to bed and stretches out beside her under the sheets. Her hair is a disaster and her mouth is a little chapped and swollen; there’s a hickey high up on her neck that he gave her last night, and she’ll probably be angry about once she gets a look in the mirror. But now… now she only looks sleepy and happy and carefree.

She looks so breathtakingly beautiful that Steve’s chest literally aches as her eyes flutter open.

“Mrs. Rogers,” Steve says, indulging himself as he kisses her lightly, teasingly as she wakes up. They’ve only been married for two days, but he can’t stop playing with the small band of gold on his left ring finger.

“Carter-Rogers, Steve.” Peggy grabs hold of his ear and tugs a little, following the movement with a brush of her finger over the shell. “Carter-Rogers.”

“Mmm,” Steve says, letting his mouth trail across the delicate ridge of a collarbone he reveals by peeling open the collar of her shirt. Peggy’s never been one for sleeping nude, and while Steve once thought it might be disappointing, her predilection for stealing his shirts (acquiring, Peggy corrects him once) to sleep in proves to be far better than nakedness. The skin under the cotton smells like his cologne, and there’s about that something that speaks to a primal, dark part of himself that wants her to smell like him and nothing else for the rest of her life.

She snakes her hands into his hair as he lets his mouth drift downwards, following the line of pale skin revealed by his hands, the soft fabric of his shirt parting. A path of soft, supple flesh that leads straight down between her thighs. “Captain Carter-Rogers has quite a ring to it too, don’t you think?” she asks playfully, and he laughs straight into her belly, watching rapt as it flexes and rolls under his attention.

She tugs a bit at his hair at the perceived slight, but he doesn’t have the strength to lift his mouth from her body to correct her, not when she’s this willing, when he wants this much. She doesn’t understand: he’d take her name any day. Carry her mark. He has no problem letting the world know to whom he belongs.

When he finally settles between her thighs, she leans back and sighs elegantly, rubbing her calf sweetly against his shoulder. He leans down and mouths at her inner thigh, high up, close enough to the fabric of her panties that when he pulls away, his nose brushes against it. God, he can smell her. Smell how much she wants him, how wet she’s gotten from just this.

He leans back in and bite down into her thigh just hard enough to leave a mark, sucks at the skin until he can feel the blood rush up to meet his mouth under the thin layer of skin.

Suddenly, Peggy goes completely stiff under him and Steve panics, instantly terrified he’s done something wrong. Even though they belong to each other, that there’s almost nothing Peggy could do that he wouldn’t like, Steve knows he’s greedy when it comes to her, and the tight rein he tries to keep on himself often goes out the window when they get like this.

“Peggy?” he asks, pulling back to look at her face.

A dark shadow drops over her eyes, the kind that she gets when Howard or Buck do something particularly stupid, the kind that speaks of a bone deep, weary anger. “You’ve got to be bloody kidding me!”

Steve’s French is still a little rusty, but when he stops and listens to the chatter that has replaced the quiet music on the radio, hears the soft, sweet sound of the woman’s voice, Oh, thank god you’ve come, Captain America! he finally understands. He laughs before he can help himself, and the look Peggy squares him with could peel the paint off the walls.

He quickly slides up her body to press her down and kiss her as she tries to wiggle out from under him, flailing her hand down the side of the bed until he hears it meet the leather of his shoe. “Peggy! Don’t.”

 

(Three weeks later, Howard strolls into the boardroom where Peggy, Steve and Bucky are perched over a map of Northern Siberia.

“Uh, pal, why did I just recieve an invoice all the way from France for a broken radio?” Howard asks with a sigh.

Peggy shrugs.)

Chapter Text

Steve's watching the game with Bucky when he hears a loud thump upstairs followed by a shrill battle cry.  The sound of feet scampering on the floor above them fills the room, drowning out the absolutely ridiculous call the umpire just made against the Mets, and he hears another sharp scream before someone definitely goes flying into a wall and something breaks.

Probably the new lamp he got for the hallway.  Goddamnit.

Bucky, the traitor, immediately starts laughing.

"Eleanore Rogers!" Steve yells, leaning around the side of the couch so his voice carries up their large staircase.  "Get your behind down here this instant."

Eleanore comes sulking down the stairs, clad in the little Captain America costume Natasha had bought her for halloween the year previous despite Steve's desperate plea that Nat convince her to go as something else.  Anything else.

(Bucky's not the only traitor that shares his bed. But truth be told he'd felt so painfully proud when Ellie had walked out the door that night in her costume, a replica of his shield strapped to her back.)

Following her is Linny.  Steve had put up less of a fight when she'd demanded to go as Bucky if Ellie was Captain America.  Her costume is really no longer a costume; Bucky's trademark coat is now a part of her every day outfits when the weather is cold enough.  But today, she's got the little plastic rifle that came with the costume tossed over a shoulder.

Last down the stairs is Thomas, wearing a black bowler and a face identical to his father's when Steve gives Tony shit for whatever stupid stunt he's pulled that day. 

"Dad," Eleanore whines, waving her shield around as she gesticulates angrily.

"Don't Dad me," Steve says.  "I've told you this a thousand times.  No playing Howling Commandos in the house."

"I'm Bucky!" Linny cries triumphantly, throwing herself at Bucky's legs, burrowing her face between his knees.

Bucky flips her heels over head and tugs her into his lap, kissing her cheek. "You sure are, sweetheart."

Eleanore scowls.  It's times like this that Eleanore is every inch her mother's daughter, both in looks and temperament.  He can remember Darcy's face burning with the same indignation.  "But... it's snowy outside!  We can't!"

Thomas steps up behind Ellie, offering her his quiet support.  Barely ten and Steve is already onto the Stark kid's game.  They're best friends now, but give them a couple years and Steve just knows he'll be prying that damn kid off his daughter.

The anger on Eleanore's face bleeds away immediately and is replaced with a gently, silent pleading, a patented Darcy move.  He wishes she didn't look so much like her, the same soft face and dark hair; his heart aches a bit.  "Please, Daddy."

Steve sighs, feeling his will slipping away.  "Fine.  Basement only.  But no throwing the shield! And make sure Aunt Natasha's yoga mat is rolled up and out of the way!"

Eleanore squeals and launches herself at Steve, hugging him around the neck and kissing his cheek messily.  He gives her a quick squeeze, lifting her up against him for a second, letting himself drown in her affection.

When he lets her go, she pulls down her cowl and darts from the room, Thomas shadowing her and Linny squirming out of Bucky's lap to follow after.

"CAPTAIN AMERICAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" he hears Ellie scream as their feet pound down the stairs to the basement. 

"Not a word," Steve says, reaching for his beer. 

Bucky starts laughing again.

Chapter Text

Steve’s standing over the sink, drinking orange juice out of the carton, when a little grey flash of fur comes flying in the window just right of him.

“Shit!” Steve gasps in surprise, a healthy amount of orange juice dribbling down his chin, staining the white shirt he stole from Bucky’s closet. It’s a little tight across the chest, a little short, too, and for the briefest second, Steve thinks back to the days before the war, how different Bucky’s clothes felt. Before the serum, he’d swim in the shirts and sweaters Bucky would pile on him in the height of winter to stave off the chill that would inevitably lead to a nasty case of pneumonia.

It felt safe.

Now everything’s gone strange. But there’s safety here too: the smell of Bucky in the cotton, the warmth it still carries from his body pressed against Steve in his bed. The knowledge that when Steve climbs the stairs, he’ll find Bucky safe between those sheets, happy and whole again.

“Hey buddy,” Steve says, reaching out to pet the cat. The cat, it seems, has little interest in this offer and ducks away from Steve’s hand, waltzing along the counter until it reaches the bread bin before sitting haughtily on its haunches, lifting a paw to lick at it.

Shrugging, Steve lifts the carton of orange and takes another deep gulp.

“Ugh, glass, Steven,” Bucky grouses from the kitchen door, crossing the space to open a cabinet and reach in for a glass. The Italian sun has done wonders for Bucky’s once pale skin; it’s golden from his tan and the late afternoon sun drifting in from the bay windows. Bucky’s got a pair of boxers slung low on his hips, Steve’s eyes dragging along the smooth skin just above the waistband, the rough trail of hair disappearing beneath it.

“God, what have I told you about drinking from the carton? You savage,” Bucky laughs as he shakes his head and hands Steve the glass, their fingers rubbing up against one another for a split second. Only a few hours ago, he’d had those fingers inside of his mouth, the taste of sweat and salt stuck to them, and the thought makes his face warm, the start of what he guess will be a pretty spectacular blush. Bucky quietly grins at him like he knows exactly what’s running its way through Steve’s mind.

“Well, look who decided to show up.”

The cat looks up as Bucky speaks to it, its tail swishing in what Steve thinks might be happiness. It starts purring as it makes a beeline for Bucky, hopping down off the counter to rub up against Bucky’s legs, making figure-eights between them. When Bucky doesn’t reach down to pet the cat in what seems to be the allowed grace period, it begins to vocalize loudly, sharp little mewls as it headbutts Bucky’s bare legs.

“Yeah yeah,” Bucky says, reaching down to scratch the cat’s ears tenderly, running his metal fingers along the ridge of its spine.

Steve sees Bucky reach for a can of tuna, and pull a set of small dishes from behind the garbage can. Steve’s been here for years, lived through thousands of resets and he doesn’t ever remember seeing the dishes before.

(It reminds him that every path is different, that there’s always hope that he’ll be able to find a path that lets him save Bucky.)

“He yours?” Steve asks, pouring some juice into a glass.

Bucky laughs quiet and shrugs. “Been coming around for the better part of two years. Don’t know if it’s mine, but it certainly expects to be fed by me.”

Steve never had a pet growing up; when he was young, he’d been too allergic to almost everything to have anything with fur, and the birds that Smyth’s Pets carried down the block didn’t take well to the drafty cold of the Rogers apartment. Bucky’s sister Becca had a mean little calico named Theodore that hated almost everyone except for Becca and Bucky; Bucky had earned his favour by sneaking him pilfered fish guts that he’d bring back from the dock.

Steve had known when they’d lived together that Bucky had missed that cat, missed having a pet, and it had always made Steve a bit guilty, yet another sacrifice Bucky had made for him. The idea of Bucky having one again makes Steve’s heart ache a little with happiness.

“He’s cute,” Steve says, watching the cat tuck into his meal. “You got a name for him?”

Bucky’s grin goes smartass. “Steve.” Steve rolls his eyes as Bucky smile grows wider. “What? He’s skinny, demanding, gets into fights, never listens to what I say. If he had opposable thumbs, you could be twins.”

He flips Bucky off. Bucky shrugs and steals Steve’s glass, chugging the rest of the juice. “Tell me the fault in my logic, buddy.”

Steve squints, tilting his head to look at the cat’s ass. “Buck, I’m pretty sure that’s a female.”

Bucky laughs so hard he chokes, tears prickling at the corner of his eyes.

Chapter Text

"Who’s that?" Bucky asks, taking a sip of his scotch & soda while pointing at the redhead sitting in a booth near the back.  He’s seen her around town at a few of his regular haunts, always fading into the background despite easily being the most fucking stunning thing in the room.  But seeing isn’t knowing, and despite bribed bouncers and strong-armed bartenders, he hasn’t even gotten so much as a name, which rankles him more than he’d like.  Bucky isn’t used to not getting the things he wants.

But Gabe?  Gabe know everything.  And a couple of whiskey sours gives him a loose tongue.

"Oh, Natasha?" Gabe says, smiling at Bucky, letting him know Gabe is happily buzzed.  The only time Gabe ever smiles is the brief period between sober and drunk.  "She’s Ivchenko’s girl.  Don’t fuck around with that one, man.  She’ll eat you alive."

Bucky’s eyes narrow, following the slope of her hip.  She’s got a black number on tonight that’s had him on the edge of arousal for the better part of an hour.  ”A girl like that’s running with Ivchenko?”  While Ivchenko rules the Russians in Brighton Beach, he’s also nearly seventy and looks every year of it.  Hard to imagine a looker like that giving even Ivchenko the time of day.  She’s the type of woman to have any man on his knees.

(Bucky’d be first in line.  Stay down on ‘em till his bones ached.)

"Nah," Gabe answers.  "She’s not his girl.  She’s the one he calls to take care of business.  Like the Grekov twins.”

His insides freeze up.  The Grekov twins were garotted and left headless on the doorstep of the Irish they’d been informing to.  ”The Black Widow.”

Gabe nods, motioning for the bartender.  ”You get in her bed, Barnes, and you’ll never get out again.”

The woman looks up at Bucky, not even the hint of a smile edging at her mouth.  It’s the look he’s seen a thousand times, worn by a thousand men, all of them playing at what she truly is.

Predator.  

Chapter Text

Steve finds her exactly where Detective Dugan says she’d be, sitting on one of the awful plastic chairs in the waiting room by the desk clerk, her head tipped back, eyes trained on the ugly, discoloured ceiling.  This isn’t the first time he’s found her here like this.

Her chin dips down, eyes catching his as he steps close enough that her knee knocks against his shin.

"Don’t," Darcy says, holding up a hand.  She looks tired and worn down, but still so beautiful it makes Steve’s teeth ache.  Steve loves his brother despite the shit Johnny has put Steve through, but days like this, days where he has to watch what Johnny’s rollercoaster of self-destruction has done to Darcy, are the days he wants to shove Johnny in a cell and throw away the key.

"You need to stop doing this.  He can’t lean on you every time he decides to fuck up his life.  You don’t deserve to be put through this because Johnny can’t get his shit together."

(She was his first, Steve reminds himself.  His before Johnny’s undertow pulled her in, helped along the way by Steve’s complacency.  Johnny’s like gravity: he grabs hold and drags you down, and Steve has spent the better part of five years trying to pull her back out.  Steve misses her in his life the way she used to be - in his bed, in his heart - but he misses her looking whole and happy even more.)

"We’re not kids anymore, Darcy," Steve says seriously, invoking the type of tone he imagines her father would if he were still around.  Darcy’s eyes drag down to the hand he’s got resting over the gun holstered on his hip.  "This isn’t Johnny taking you out for joy rides in Mr. Johnson’s hotwired Chevy."

"Please don’t lecture me, Steve," Darcy says, but her words lack bite.  He knows her well enough to know when she’s exhausted past the point of fighting, which is so rare it makes his heart hurt even more.  "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to be smart."  He reaches down and brushes a lock of hair behind her ear, trying to ignore the way his heart pounds when she seems to move into his touch.  "I love him, but he’s spent the better part of his life aching to put a foot in the grave.  I live every day knowing that it could be the one he gets himself killed with his shit.  What truly scares me is that you’re going to get caught in the crossfire."  Steve stops himself before he continues, before he says, he’s going to get you killed and kill me in the fucking process.

"I…" she says before screwing her mouth shut, her chest heaving just hard enough that Steve knows she’s trying not to cry.  Dugan had told him that she hadn’t been in the car when Johnny was pulled over, but she had been at the party beforehand.  He’d been to a few of Johnny’s parties before the shattered femur ended his NFL career, and he hates the thought of her there, around those people.  Parasites and vampires, every one of them. 

"Come on, I’m driving you home," Steve says.  She starts to shake her head and opens her mouth to argue, but he cuts her off.  "They’re not letting him out until the morning."

"What?" she asks.  "Why?"

"Because he’s drunk, Darcy.  And still a bit high, and there’s no goddamn way I’m letting him go back home with you like that.  He can sleep it off in his cell and I’ll drive him back to his place when he sobers up."

He holds out a hand.

"Okay," she says quietly, slipping her warm, slim hand into his offered one, letting him pull her to her feet and slip his coat over her shoulders.

She falls asleep in the car beside him on the drive back to her apartment.  He circles the city a half-dozen times, watching her sleep, before he finally puts himself out of his misery and stops in front of her building. 

Chapter Text

The big top is large enough that it’s the only place the sound of the wind doesn’t permeate, the space too large to properly fill, just echoing off into something so quiet that Natasha can pretend the world is the way it once was. 

Outside, it’s ear-shattering, the howl of the jet streams that have fallen to the ground, that killed the crops that killed the cities, turned man on man until all that remained were pockets of life, travellers like the group Natasha’s joined up with.  Those who roam the remains of the world, selling their services to the highest bidder.  Entertainment in many different forms to those who still have currency at the brink of the end.

Eyepatch handed her off to the archer, ordering him to give her the lay of the land, set her up in one of the little caravans dotting the hostile landscape outside the main tent.  Her specialty is knives, though she’s skilled enough with ropes to manage the trapeze and various sundries.  She’s already met the Incredible Hulk, rather unimpressive in his normal body and far quieter than she expected, as well as Iron Man, a bit too showy for her refined tastes and who had a head full of noise worse than the wind.

She’s finding it hard to read Clint, who keeps brushing up against her, but not touching.  She can see the faint callouses on his hands from his bow, and he smells strange, like something sweet mixed with something acidic.  Sometimes a smell or sound is enough to get her into someone’s head - no touching needed - but not Clint.

Suddenly her mind is filled with a sharpness, like a distant cousin of light.  It’s pleasant, but foreign.  Searching for the source, Natasha’s eyes fall on the two men in the distance near the stands, one with hair the colour of the sand currently choking the world, and the other darker to match the aura crowning his temples like a broken halo.  They turn as they speak to one another, and Natasha’s breath catches loud enough that Clint’s eyes snap to her.  

They both have a set of wings protruding from their shoulder blades.  Beautiful, perfectly white wings that Natasha aches to touch.  She imagines how soft they’d be, what they’d taste like to her fingers.

As if they can hear her, they turn to look at her, twin sets of blue eyes finding hers.

"Oh, Barnes and Rogers," Clint says.  "Yeah, takes a bit of getting used to.  I hadn’t seen The Winged before those two showed up.  I mostly thought they were extinct after the purge of 2039, but I thought Readers were too."

She lifts her eyebrow at that.  Natasha can’t remember the last person who ever made her for a Reader.

"Go ahead and touch me, sweetheart.  Nothing to hide up here," he says with a laugh, tapping his temple.  "And to think, Fury hired you for the knives."  He tsks and winks at her with a knowing grin.  "Much more talented than that."

Natasha turns back to them, and when she locks eyes with them again, she can taste and smell and hear everything.  The cool bitterness of their souls on her tongue, the sharp ridge of their stubbornness under her nails, the smooth roll of their kindness sinking into her ribcage, the soft cry of their fear buried beneath it all.

Their hunger.

Chapter Text

This is a terrible idea.

The medical tent is full of men, littered with the wounded that just rolled up, following men busy bellowing Captain America! over and over.  You had seen him then, making eyes at you even though he'd been ragged as a stray dog, bleeding in ripped clothes.  It isn't the first time a soldier has looked at you like a little bit of home he wants to touch, and you know it won't be the last.  He'd smiled and nodded politely, but the slick curve of his mouth let you know just what kind of man you'd be dealing with later.

And true to form, when you pluck the dog tags off his chest to match the name to the one you've scribbled on his chart, he runs a finger delicately over your hand and says, The name's Bucky.

Ruth, you tell him and let the dog tags fall back to his skin.  Thirty seconds later, he has his hand on the small of your back, guiding you snug against him so he can kiss you.  Cautiously.  Carefully.  He's slow, as if he's worried that you'll have second thoughts, or won't let him, and it's so different than the other men you've had to deal with over the last year.  A lot of anger, a lot of mean hands and words, a lot of men who didn't listen when you said no.

You don't understand him one little bit.  You know what these boys have been though, seen the nasty wound in his side and the bruises on his wrists that definitely tell you he's been strapped down, which you know means... torture.  You've seen a few that have survived come in and they're always broken beyond repair.  And yet here he is, kissing you soft and slow like a date back home in Philly.

So you kiss him.  Because you want to.  Because it's been a long week of men dying and your hands are tired of stitching together skin and resetting bones and listening to boys who won't see another sun rise crying for their mothers.  Maybe you're looking for a bit of home, too.

But it's reckless and you know it.  There isn't enough privacy here to be doing this kinda thing.  You're in one of the enclosed examination rooms in the back, sectioned off with canvas dividers that offer a decent amount of privacy, but not nearly the same as walls and locks.  The doc's already been in to see him and won't be back for at least an hour judging by the numbers outside, but there are officers checking in with the wounded too and you know that there's a chance they could walk in at any moment.

But god help you, this boy can kiss.  It's wet and open, just the right amount of tongue, his teeth dragging on your bottom lip like a promise, and you don't protest when his hand slips down from the small of your back to the swell of your ass.  He's not crass and doesn't squeeze it, just keeps a gentle pressure that holds you right up against him.

He's dirty and doesn't smell anywhere close to being fresh, but you bring your hands up and let them run through his hair, tangled and a little greasy, but still soft under your fingers.

Sweetheart, Bucky murmurs when he pulls out of the kiss and presses his mouth to the skin under your ear.  His hands grow more adventurous, more bold, sliding over your hips and up to your breasts, pressing against the soft swells, cupping them.  They slide down again quickly, down down down to your thighs until the skirt between them disappears.  He drags the modest hem up a bit until his warm palms are pressed right against the skin of your thighs, fingers lightly gripping the outside of both.  You've done so much worse with a boy, but somehow this feels so flagrantly indecent that you can feel the silly blush burn bright across your face.

He drops to sit on the cot behind him and curls his hands behind your thighs to draw you between his legs and then down so you're straddling his lap.  When did this spiral so out of control?  You're wet enough that spread like this over his lap, you can feel it, your skirt so high on your thighs that it barely counts as a skirt anymore.

When he reaches for you again, you say, I can't, and he freezes immediately.

It's not that you don't want it - you've been in the field for nearly eight months and you ain't got a fella waiting back home for you - it's only that any fraternization between nurses and soldiers is strictly forbidden.  Florence got tangled up with a pretty wounded Frenchman that had been rescued near Marseilles and ended up with a ticket back home and a baby in her belly.

You aren't looking for that kind of trouble.

Can't do that here, you tell him, and the guilty look on his face lightens a bit.  We'll get caught.  And I don't... you stutter a bit, embarrassed.  I don't have a rubber.

He smiles at you, that same quiet, almost sweet smile that he'd laid on you next to his friend out in the middle of camp, and leans in for another kiss.  Another gentle kiss that gets deep when you melt against him and open your mouth for him.

Bucky slides his hand between your thighs achingly slow and covers you with a palm, just enough pressure to have you moan very quietly and press right down on it, your body wanting more.

How about this? he asks.  Just this.

You nod because yes, just this.  You want this.  You want more, but you'll take this because he's offering, because you're reckless, but not reckless enough to fuck a man without a rubber that you met an hour ago whose blood is under your fingernails.

He kisses you and slides his hand without pretense right into your panties.

And the first thing you feel is embarrassed, because as soon as he really touches you, you can feel exactly how wet you are.  Messy between the thighs like he's just finished fucking you instead of kissing you.

But he just drops his forehead to your collarbone and sighs, God you feel good.  No idea how good you feel, Jesus, and you just want to cry because it feels so damn good too. You've always had that little voice inside you that tells you who the good eggs are and the bad, and you won't regret letting this one between your legs.  He gets a few fingers inside of you, his thumb set against your clitoris, and just lets you rock against his hand as he kisses you blind.

It doesn't take long.  You come quietly, fingers digging into his shoulders until he hisses and you remember he's hurt, kiss him as an apology.  Except he doesn't stop, keeps his fingers working slow until it feels like way too much, too much building inside of you. 

Bucky, Bucky, Bucky, you start to chant, a little too loudly but not caring, not sure if you want him to stop or never stop, and he gives you a quiet, shhhh, and presses his free hand over your mouth to keep you quiet.  That has your eyes rolling back into your head and coming so hard that for a brief second, it feels like your body isn't going to be able to hold itself upright.  As soon as he's sure your moaning is finished, he drops his hand from your mouth to the small of your back, holding you up a bit as you quake with last bits of your orgasm, your body dragging out.

Thanks, sweetheart, he says with a genuinely kind smile, like he's the one who's just come twice, and when he drags his hand out of your panties, he brings it right up to his mouth.

(A few hours later, you raid the condom supply in the back of the med tent and don't feel a modicum of guilt.)

Chapter Text

By the time they make it to the safehouse, the bleeding has mostly stopped.  The wound in her shoulder isn't exactly superficial, but the bullet misses everything vital, only going through the meaty part of her shoulder.  Natasha's always been a bad bleeder, but she heals quick.  Tomorrow morning, the bullet will be little more than an ache and pinking skin.  But now... now she can feel the blood seeping down her arm, staining the seat beneath her.  In the fifteen minutes it takes them to reach the outskirts of Paris, her seat has soaked almost entirely red.

Bucky puts a hand on her hip as he guides her into the rundown house near Rocquencourt.  He's efficient and quiet as he cleans the wound, stripping off her shirt and sliding down the strap of her bra until the plane of her shoulder is bare, the skin streaked with thickening blood.

Natasha tries to catches his eye, but he's stubbornly refusing to look at her, instead focusing on the ruined flesh in front of his face.  To most, he'd look blank, as divorced from the task in front of him as a butcher with a fresh cut of meat, but she can see the angry tick above his eye, the way his teeth are clenched under the tight pull of his mouth.

He's pissed.  At her.  At what she forced him to do.  At everything and no one in particular.  The worst kind of anger to have: the impotent kind.

Don't, he says roughly, still not really looking at her.

So Natasha let's him clean her wound delicately, press a bandage from the first aid kit to the entry and exit wound, tape it down carefully.

When he finishes, she says, Bucky, and watches as he finally turns his head to look at her.  His eyes betray the depth of the battle inside of him, how much he's hurting, how angry and frightened he is, and the regret Natasha feels is deep.  Not at the decision she had made, but for her inability to protect him from the fallout.

He gets a hand in her hair and wrenches her head back enough that he can kiss her.  The kiss isn't mean, but it's violent, as brutal as Bucky ever allows himself to get with her.  There's a violence that simmers under both of their skins, a constant thing, but they always hold back.

It's their only rule.  The only people they will never hurt is one another.

Not again.

Bucky fucks her with the same urgency on the floor, his hips setting a brutal pace.  He's reckless with his hips in a way he isn't with his hands.  He's always careful with his hands in bed, aware of the unbridled strength of his left.  But god, sometimes he presses his hips so hard down into hers that his hip bones leaves bruises in her skin.

Natasha just wraps her thighs around him tighter and begs, More.  God, more.  Harder.  He relents, pushing into her hard enough that it completely steals her breath, holding himself inside her for a moment, her body aching at the stretch of accomodating him.

He leans down as he's getting close and kisses the bare skin of her shoulder just above the bandage that's still a pristine white.  He moves his mouth down and brushes his lips right over it, over the wound underneath that he made.  The shot he had to take through her to kill Barsukov.  The shot she'd forced him into taking.

Between the two of them, she's always been better at making the tough choices.  He'd have never taken the shot if Barsukov hadn't pulled out the knife, and Natasha knew as talented as Bucky is, a head shot would have been near impossible given the angles.

Giving him a clean line of sight through her shoulder to Barsukov's heart had been the only choice, but it had cut off any chance of hitting him without hurting her.

Don't ever make me do that again, Bucky says, clearly aiming for angry and commanding, but sounding wrecked more than anything else.  Frightened.  Scared as he spills inside of her, his entire body shaking as roughly as his voice.  Never again, Natalia.

Natasha squeezes her eyes shut as she comes.

Chapter Text

The Crescent Pack lives down by the shores of Waccamaw River. As Darcy has come to understand it, each pack has its own territory, like a living, breathing part of the pack itself. While the moon is the source of their wolf, of their power, the land is what binds them to their humanity, that settles the wolf and human inside of them.

She hadn’t really understood it until Steve had taken her to the banks of the water and an intense calm settled over her immediately. It had been like a warm blanket, a quiet song to a sleeping baby. Her soul had finally settled.

No place had ever felt like home. Her mother had spent years running from city to city, and each one had felt foreign to Darcy. It takes twenty-three years and a cold river for her to finally understand her body, why she’s felt so wrong for so many years.

"No one’s lived as far away from it for as long as you have," Bucky tells her one night settled around the fire. "Gotta ween ‘em young if they have to live away from the river."

Since her return, no one’s spoken to her of her mother or her exile. Darcy’s mother hadn’t been wolf, but instead a witch who had tried to live amongst the wolves. The pack had accepted her only because their Alpha had commanded it, a man whose straying eye had gotten a witch pregnant, a grievous trespass against the commandments between witches and wolves.

She’d only lived a year with the wolves before she’d taken her newborn daughter and run. Darcy’s existence is a blight for both of her clans, though she is meant to lead them both, and she knows that her mother’s flight had been only to spare Darcy. But Darcy had spent so many years feeling wrong and not understanding why, and she aches with exhaustion and regret. Secrets have always pissed Darcy off, but it’s hard to be angry with a ghost.

(Sometimes, in the dark, she can feel her mother. She wonders if it’s part of the witch inside of her, but isn’t sure. Her mother refused to teach her magic before she died the year Darcy turned seventeen.)

"You okay?" Bucky asks, watching her face across the fire as Steve wanders up and sits beside her. He smells like the forest and fresh change, sharp and crisp in her nose. The moon doesn’t control their changes anymore thanks to the witches, but it does control Darcy’s cycle. This close to the full moon and Darcy can feel the itch starting underneath her skin. Bucky, as an omega, triggers it more than Steve, though in a day, it won’t matter what their station, Darcy will want to fuck.

She’s already tasted Steve, the fresh bruises on her hips a testament to the brutal strength of a beta, but she’s been giving Bucky more space. In the same way the connection with Steve feels singular and unique, Bucky’s smell lingers under her skin like an ache, a key to her lock. Where Steve is control, Bucky is a complete lack of it.

(She wants to lose control. She wants to let him sink his teeth into her skin as she takes and takes and takes.)

As a queen, it is her right to take a beta and an omega, but this still all foreign. She’d barely dated in high school, generally disinterested in any boy or girl who crossed her path, so this kind of blinding want feels unnatural. She wants to fuck and bury herself in their scent, hold up in the beautiful cabin she inherited from her father and claim the both of them until their smells mingle into one.

"Yes," she says, watching Bucky’s eyes darken in the dying light of the bonfire. Steve’s hand rests at the small of her back, warm and familiar, and the urge to take becomes overwhelming, like the wolf inside her is howling to be free. Bucky smiles roughly like he can hear it too. "I’m okay."

Chapter Text

The ex-pat community in Hong Kong is tight knit, especially amongst the rich.  Even with a verifiable backstory and high-level introductions, it takes Bucky nearly three months of networking to get a meeting with Obadiah Stane.  There’d been rumours for months of other agencies working to get at Obadiah, and Bucky’s running short of time.  His Temple Street contact tells him that there have been serious rumblings of a contract being picked up by the Black Widow, which means that Bucky’s chances of turning Obadiah before he ends up very dead are growing ever slimmer.

(No one’s ever seen the Black Widow, but everyone knows who she is.  Killer without country or conscience.  The mission quickly shifts to dual objectives: turn Stane, kill the Widow.)

Which is why he’s here, at Obadiah’s New Year’s celebration hosted at the Ritz-Carlton in Kowloon.  He sips on a flute of champagne and watches the crowd.  He’s already made soft inroads with Obadiah, developed trust with a few small arms imports into the tightly controlled harbour.  Tonight’s the night Bucky lays the trap and lets that smarmy son of a bitch get himself caught in it.  Come morning, he’ll be back on a flight to New York and Obadiah will be headed to a holding facility somewhere in Europe to spill his guts.

He spots Obadiah near the rows of tables dressed with white table clothes and orchids.  Stane waves him over with a flick of his wrist, which makes Bucky bristle; he doesn’t take well to being summoned like a servant.  But he swallows his pride and makes his way across the dance floor, brushing past dancing couples in gowns and masks.

As he walks up to Obediah, he notices the woman to his left.  Vicious curves hidden beneath a soft black dress, the back dipping so low it borders on near-obscene, acres of bare skin to be touched.  Red hair pulled back into an intricate twist that leaves her neck completely bare.

His heart vaults up into his throat, choking him as he greets Obadiah, his voice rough and shaky.

He recognizes the slope of that neck, the soft hairline that disappears behind her ear.  He’d kissed that neck less than a week ago, whispered honeyed platitudes in her ear to ease the disappointment at the trip that would take him to Hong Kong for her birthday.  Then there’d been teeth and nails, sex that finally broke the wobbly leg on their antique dining room table.

There’s no doubt in his mind that she’s recognized his voice, because when she turns around her face is schooled into a perfect mask of tranquillity.  It’s the same flat look she gets every time he attempts to fix something in their apartment instead of hiring someone to do it, which drives her insane, usually because he ends up breaking more than he fixes.

Jesus Christ.  Jesus fucking Christ.

His mind runs off in the most horrid of directions.  Is she is a plant?  Is she counter-intelligence?  How much does she know?

Then, the worst:

Black. Widow.

“Anna,” Obadiah says, his hand proprietary on the small of Natalia’s back, drifting over the bare skin there.  Bucky wants to reach over and break every single one of his fingers.  "I want you to meet Grant Buchanan.  Grant, Anna Rushman.“

"Mr. Buchanan,” she says, offering her hand.  The other is hidden near her hip, but he can see she isn’t wearing the engagement ring he slid on her finger three months ago.

When Bucky’s eyes jump back up to hers, it’s the first time he can really read her.  Natalia can hide a lot with her smile, but her eyes are always what gives her away.  There’s fear there, but mostly… a deep unhappiness.  Whatever this is, it is going to be ugly.

“Ms. Rushman,” he answers, bringing her hand up to his lips.

Chapter Text

"You're always welcome here, Nat," Steve tells her when she shoves her face into his ridiculously comfortable couch, attempting to solve her growing problems through sheer avoidance. "You can crash on the couch for as long as you need."

Natasha knows he'd let her camp out in his bed, too; they're buddies and it wouldn’t be the first time she’s bunked down with Steve, who is a weird little clandestine sleep cuddler. Alas, Steve also snores like a goddamn chainsaw and Natasha's sleep is both precious and extremely shallow. So she's been racked out on his couch for the better part of a week.

"But Bucky's got the extra room he's been using as storage for his guitars and those weird divider thingies he picked up in Moscow and never used. You know he'd be more than happy to let you stay."

Natasha pulls her face out the suede and grimaces. Sharing an apartment with your ex? (Specifically: the ex that you're still a bit crazy for, who is a shameless fucking flirt, and whom you have serious boundary issues with.) Bad form. But to be fair, it's New York City, and the NYC Ballet pays enough to keep Natasha fed, and that's about it.

The less than amicable split with Sergei had reminded Natasha of the dangers of not having your name on the lease. Half of her shit is currently in Steve's living room, the other half in Sam's across town, who had sighed deeply, rolled his eyes and opened his door wide when she'd ended up on his doorstep with a hundred boxes of crap.

"Plus, it'd mean I'd never have to take care of that demon creature again," Steve says with a grimace.

"Matryoshka is a sweet cat!" Bucky had adopted Matty about a year into their quasi-doomed relationship; Natasha had picked the Siamese out of a litter of abandoned kittens at the pound, and Bucky had promptly agreed to keep her as Natasha's landlord refused to allow pets.

Natasha pauses when she realizes that it was almost ten years ago. She'd been eighteen and freshly drafted out of the School of American Ballet and Bucky had been a junior at Columbia. Three and a half years of on and off dating later, vicious fights and ridiculously hot make-up sex filling most of that time, and they'd finally called it quits.

(Kind of. Does casual sex count? Because they'd done that for a while, too, in between the relationships that had gone nowhere for either of them.)

"SWEET?" Steve widens his eyes and gives her a disbelieving look as he holds up his forearm to her. There's three thin, silvery scars running down his skin. Barely a scratch.

"Drama Queen."

"Heartless!"

The doorbell rings. When Steve makes it clear he's not going to lift his ass off the couch, Natasha shoves off instead, stealing Steve's beer from his hand on the way, earning her a loud, "Hey!"

On the other side, Bucky's already smirking before she even finishes opening the door. Natasha takes a deep pull of the beer to deal with whatever shit she's about to take from him. Sergei had been her longest relationship since Bucky - almost a year and a half - and Bucky, despite Steve and Sam's approval of Sergei, hated his fucking guts. It had been a sore point between them for the last few months.

"So," he says, stepping in a bit and leaning against the doorjamb, "were you ever going to call?"

Natasha's mouth flattens and she blows an annoyed raspberry over her shoulder. "Add traitor to the list, Drama Queen. You told him?"

"To be fair, Sam called me first," Bucky says, grabbing the beer out of her hand and taking a sip. "Too many boxes. I think you broke him. He kept making these little whimpering noises when describing the state of his apartment." He laughs and steps even closer, a little too close to be polite. It lets her get a whiff of his cologne and shit, he smells good. "Also, I live two floors down, did you think I wasn't going to see you leaving the building in the morning? Super spy you're not, babe."

She gives him the finger and lets him slide by her, his hand bumping into her hip as he passes.

It takes about fifteen minutes of cajoling and another beer for Natasha to agree to come down to Bucky's place. Matty trots over the second the door opens and beelines for her, mewling and purring and rubbing herself all over Natasha's legs.

"Still a ham, I see," she says, picking Matty up and skritching her under the chin. When Natasha looks up, Bucky's staring at her, a strange look on his face. "What?"

That seems to snap Bucky out of it. "Come on," he tells her, grabbing her elbow gently and leading her down the hall to the bedrooms.

She's shocked to find his spare room completely empty except for a comfy looking queen bed and an antique nightstand that used to be in his bedroom (it had been on her side of the bed, back when she had a side of his bed). Less than a month ago, she'd walked past this room and it had been full of shit: a mountain bike, three guitar cases, some screen dividers, a lot of Steve’s art supplies, a trunk big enough to store a dead body. There'd been no bed.

He bought her a bed.

"You can't sleep on Steve's couch forever and you're not going to find a place you can afford close enough to the Lincoln Centre. Just keep the fridge stocked and watch Matryoshka when I have to go overseas and we're square," he says, his eyes serious and sincere. As much as they tease one another, as infuriatingly dismissive as Bucky can be when he's feeling stressed or emotional, he’s a really good guy. It isn’t a come on or a way to get back into her pants; she needs a place to stay and he’ll give it to her, no strings attached.

Matty mewls again, her head butting against Natasha’s fingers when they stop moving. Bucky reaches over and rubs over the ridge of Matty’s head, his fingers gently nudging into Natasha’s. "Besides, she likes you better anyway,"

This is a terrible, terrible idea. Natasha can’t pretend she doesn’t know where this is going to end. It’s been a decade of falling in and out of each other’s beds, and two years ago she made herself a promise: never let Bucky Barnes break your heart again.

She’s always been bad at keeping promises, particularly to herself.

"I cover utilities."

His face breaks out into a grin that's wider than she's seen in a year. "Deal."

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t even know Alice is seeing Howard until he picks up the New York Times from his doorstep and finds, “STARK TO MARRY: WORLD’S MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR OFF THE MARKET!” written under the fold. Two photos are side by side: Howard’s corporate headshot and a photo of Alice walking away from the Ritz, a stern look on her face and a diamond ring on her finger.

“We’ve been dating for three years,” Alice tells an absolutely dumbstruck Steve on the phone when he calls her. She’s in Paris with Howard, and Peggy is likely to hit the roof when she sees their phone bill this month. “He’s been asking me to marry him for the last two and a half, so I thought, what the hell?”

Steve knows Alice well enough to recognize the tone of her voice. Whatever this is, it’s more than that.

“Are you sure?"

“Yeah,” Alice says, sighing into the phone. “And I’m pregnant.”

 

--

 

Anthony Stark joins the world at eight pounds six ounces, three months after his mother walks down the aisle with his father. The press is vicious; Alice is visibly pregnant in her dress, and the scandal rocks the uptight, self-righteous uppercrust of New York society. A lot of people make horrible remarks about Alice’s father, barely dead a year, rolling over in his grave if he could see his daughter, and Steve finds himself wanting to punch out most of the population of New York City.

Howard offers to elope before the wedding, and it's the first time any of them have seen Howard look simultaneously angry and frightened. It’s also the moment that Steve realizes just how deeply Howard loves Alice. Steve can see the desperation in his eyes as he begs Alice to hop on a plane with him. Anywhere she wants, priest on standby.

(They all know what none of them will say out loud: Alice will be eaten alive while Howard will walk away without a scratch.)

But Alice narrows her eyes, shakes her head, and tells Howard that he better be standing up there at that altar when Steve walks her down the aisle.

Because Alice Stark has never given two fucks about what anyone thinks of her.

 

--

 

The press speculate on Howard’s lovelife for a number of years before Alice. Young, rich, and handsome, he spends the better part of his twenties sleeping his way through Manhattan. The gossip rags are ripe with stories about Howard’s youthful indiscretions.

But a few years after the war, things start to change. Normally boastful, Howard suddenly stops talking about his conquests. Both Steve and Bucky assume that Howard’s either finally learned his lesson one way or another, or that he’s finally fallen in love with someone. Not in Steve’s wildest dreams did he ever think that Howard would ever manage to get Alice into his bed, nor convince her to marry him.

But watching Howard cradle his son, his free hand reaching down to rub a gentle thumb across the back of Alice’s neck, Steve finally gets it. What shocks Steve more than anything else is the blinding look of affection that Alice stares up at Howard with. He’s not sure how he missed this, missed this thing between them, because standing in the room with them, it sucks up all the oxygen, completely overwhelming.

After the wedding, a lot of people expect Alice to fade into the background, be content to raise Anthony and play dutiful wife at galas and fundraisers. They expect her to be a pretty face: seen, not heard.

Steve knows better.

While Howard toils in R&D, helping found SHIELD with Peggy, Steve, and Bucky, Alice takes the reins of Stark Industries. What starts as an extremely successful business grows exponentially into a worldwide conglomerate. Soon, Alice has cultivated a more frightening reputation than her husband, who quickly names her President and CEO of Stark Industries. She is called the Shark of Manhattan, and she rules her board with an iron fist.

Most had expected their marriage to last a few years; assumptions were rampant that Alice had gotten herself pregnant to trap a wealthy man into marriage, which had viciously angered almost everyone who knew them. But they stand the test of time, much to the chagrin of vicious gossip hounds. Somehow, they work. Howard’s creative obsession is balanced by Alice’s authoritarian practicality. Tony isn’t left to nannies and au pairs the way most uppercrust children are. Alice refuses to send him to boarding school and makes sure that Howard always has dinner with them if he’s in town, which is a lot more often when Alice puts her foot down about unnecessary travel.

But things aren’t always smooth. Alice has three miscarriages when they try for another baby just after Tony turns six, and it’s the first time Steve has ever seen real strain in their marriage. Howard is infinitely understanding, but Alice takes it so hard she’ll barely talk about it, not even to Howard, and Steve watches completely flabbergasted one night as Howard breaks into tears over blueprints for a building he calls the Triskelion.

A year later, Alice and Howard quietly adopt a little boy. The papers go absolutely insane when the news breaks that the child they adopt is black, but as usual, Alice refuses to acknowledge the uproar, proudly placing an announcement of birth in the paper. STARK, BABY BOY. BORN JANUARY 21. SEVEN POUNDS TWO OUNCES. JOINS BROTHER, TONY, SEVEN.

“He’s beautiful,” Steve says, running a finger over the baby’s head as Alice holds him to her chest. The baby turns and looks up at Steve with big, sleepy eyes.

“Yeah,” Alice says, the love in her voice palpable. Alice may be a shark in the boardroom, but the love she has for her children and Howard is a soft and wondrous thing. “He is. So quiet, too. Perfect little guy.”

“He got a name?”

“James,” Alice replies, reaching up to hand the baby to Howard, who in turn lets Tony hold him in his lap. “James Rhodes Stark.”

Chapter Text

No is Darcy’s answer the first time someone at SHIELD “gently suggests” that Darcy take Steve under her wing like he’s some 1940s duckling. SHIELD is a great place (she’s happy to finally be employed somewhere that covers dental), but it has the cuddly quality of a metal beam, so anyone not packing a weapon starts looking like the maternal type.

She’s really sick of everyone treating her like she’s some grand expert on being a modern twenty-something, like her limited experience of adulthood is somehow transferable to Steve. She’s also really sick of people treating Steve like he’s a relic that needs to be upgraded. Maybe he doesn’t need to learn to love modern cinema or Billboard’s top 100. Personally, from the limited interaction she’s had with him, she doesn’t mind his retro feel. It’s pretty fucking nice.

But then Steve catches her in the hall one day, his mp3 player in hand, and tells her if she’d be willing, he’d love to listen to some of her music. He’s very sweet, and a little nervous, and she’s struck yet again by how fond she is of him even though they really don’t know each other very well.

“Sometimes, it’s too much,” Steve tells her, his face kind, but closed. She’s seen him like this before, where he looks like he’s trying desperately not to be sad. “Everyone keeps suggesting things to me and I keep writing them down, but I get on to iTunes and…”

He smiles like it hurts. “It’s overwhelming. But I’d.... I’d like to listen to some new music. It helps, sometimes. Just being able to get away from it all. And I always like the stuff I hear you listening to, so I thought maybe…”

“Dude,” Darcy says, plucking the player out of his hand, “I’d be happy to. You have any preferences?”

He shrugs his shoulders, rolling it into a shake of his head.

(You’d be like a curator, he tells her, and the small crush she has on him turns radioactive.)

She’s not sure what he likes, so she starts with a little of everything and gets him to tell her what he likes and what he doesn’t. The first round is a lot of the Beach Boys, some Michael Jackson and the holy trinity of the 80s: Heart, Pat Benatar, and Bananarama. She follows it up with some Prince, a little Salt-N-Pepa, and some U2. One of her playlists features nothing but one hit wonders, because as far as Darcy’s concerned, they’re the height of indulgent fun. She tries to balance the lighter music with the heavier stuff, and is both pleased and annoyed when he consistently tells her that he likes all of it. She can’t really tell if he’s being truthful or not, but she hopes he is.

He spends more time away from the Tower than at it, so she usually loads up his player when he’s out, giving him something to come back to, a little something to decompress with after the missions that seem to be taking more and more out of him. Soon, she finds the player that he used to leave behind for her is missing from his quarters when he’s out, which means he’s taking her music with him on the missions themselves. She quietly hopes that it helps, but secretly worries about wherever the hell they’ve been sending him that requires it.

(It also takes her three weeks to realize that he gave authorization to JARVIS to let her into his quarters.)

Steve takes to leaving his player in the small apartment she used to share with Jane before she moved in with Thor. (He doesn’t need clearance to enter her quarters, but she gives it to JARVIS anyway.) The first time he drops it off for her, he leaves it atop a hardcover copy of a book he’d been telling her about the last time they ran into each other at breakfast. She reads In Search of Lost Time as she fills his player full of quiet, melancholy songs that remind her of the book.

The next time, it’s To the Lighthouse. Then Darkness at Noon. The books pile up faster than she can read them, so the next time he leaves her his player, it’s waiting with two bookends shaped like cats for her dining room table.

A few weeks later, Steve catches her in the communal kitchen in the tower, reading his latest gift to her, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as she eats lunch.

“Um, I really liked that song,” Steve says as he eats one of the three chicken salad sandwiches on his plate. He offers her a slice to go with the soup she’s eating, and she takes it with a smile.

“Which one?”

“The one with a lot of guitar? Black Something?”

Darcy’s eyebrows nearly hit her hairline. She’d mostly put the song on her latest playlist to screw with him a bit. The last playlist (PLAYLIST 42: TURN O’ THE CENTURY) was mostly 90s SKA bands and a few catchy pop hits from the early 2000s, but she had included Iron Man by Black Sabbath for the dual beauty of the title and the fact that it was so far out of Steve’s musical comfort zone that she’d probably get him to finally admit she’d picked something he hated. “You liked that?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. While he’s infinitely polite, he has terrible table manners, and is currently talking with his mouth full of food. It’s pretty adorable. “I liked it a lot. You got anything else like that?”

Three days later, Tony walks into the lab with a completely dumbstruck look on his face. “Did I just walk in on Steve working out to Iron Maiden or have I lost my fucking mind?”

(The next time Steve leaves his player for her, there’s two tickets to a Bastille concert under it.)

Chapter Text

Children of the Red Room have no soulmates. This is repeated to them until the order becomes belief, another gospel truth of their hallowed halls. The souls of those birthed in the Red Room belong to her and her alone. There is no other.

They try to burn off Natalia's soulmark shortly after she turns fourteen, six months after it appears one morning, bubbling to the surface of her skin as she's eating breakfast with her sisters.

She screams as they press the brand against her shoulder blade, but she doesn't try to move. Her handlers praise her for her bravery, tell her that it's another test, another way to prove her loyalty.

I have been told you are the best just appears again, the black letter circling her ankle, right over the delicate bone.

This happens, the rumours say. Get the marks fresh enough, press the mind hard enough, and a soulmark will go away. You can erase them. The deeper the bond, the harder a soulmark is to remove. Some can never be taken.

(Those are the ones the Red Room fears.)

By the time she turns fifteen, she is the only girl left with a mark. They don't try to burn it off again; the small stretch of scar tissue on her shoulder has already left her damaged goods, and those with shifting marks will never be rid of them.

She never leaves her ankle bare.

 

--

 

She first meets the Winter Soldier when she is twelve. It is in passing; the Soldier doesn't work with the young recruits. They are not worthy of his time until they prove themselves.

He doesn't speak a word to her until she's nearly sixteen, one of only three left in her year, the rest all dead through training or executed for trespasses.

The Soldier comes to her in her room, her hand cuffed to the bedpost. He stands above her and looks down, his eyes cold and calculating. There are few other men in all of the Soviet Union that inspire the kind of fear that the Soldier does. They say he is Winter because inside his chest lives nothing but frost and tundra. But when Natalia looks at him, she sees softness hiding in strange places. Under the winter lies spring, though he tries hard to hide it.

(In her records, her handlers make note of her frightening ability to read people. Psychological warfare and dissociative capabilities in top percentile. Enhanced interrogation and torture methodology training recommended.)

"I have been told you are the best," he tells her, his eyes still sizing her up. "Nobrovko rarely exaggerates. I look forward to breaking you."

Natalia starts shaking so hard the handcuffs begin to rattle.

 

--

 

If he is offput by her reluctance to speak, he does not say it. He nods and leaves her in the dark.

The girls of the Red Room are seen and not heard.

You do not need to speak to kill a man.

 

--

 

"Come," he tells her the next day. He searches her out after the daily inspection by the teams of doctors in white lab coats. She has been given to him for the next month to begin her Black Widow training, though she has not been told what this will comprise of, just that there have only been two who have survived it. "We will spar."

She nods sharply, following as he leads.

 

--

 

Fighting is where Natalia flies. It is where her soul leaves this place, where pain and fear and anger disappear inside of her. It is her holy temple.

She has seen the Soldier spar before. She knows the ways in which he will move, the psychology he employs. He is a brutal fighter in the way she is graceful. He can crush a spine beneath his boot in the same way she can wrap her thighs around a ribcage and squeeze until the lungs beneath it give up.

He fights bare-chested. It is a distraction and he knows it. The shocking stretch of flesh meeting metal is frightening and hypnotic in turn, and he uses it to his advantage.

It is an evenly matched fight. He has far more power than she does, but she evades quicker than he can move. The trick to fighting men is to not get hit. If you cannot kill with a single blow, death by a thousand cuts. Exhaust them until you can pick them off slowly.

But her arm is badly dislocated and she knows she must make her move. She feigns pain and fear because she knows that it will only make him move in for the kill. When he does, she catches him off guard, landing a blow to the back of his head that stuns him, makes him stumble to the ground. She straddles him, his arms pinned in a way that means he will be forced to break the human one to free the metal, and begins to press, feeling his ribs start to give.

In that moment, she forgets herself. The joy of the kill - of taking down a larger prey that believes himself predator - makes her arrogant.

"Perhaps it is I who shall enjoy breaking you," she whispers into his ear like a secret.

His body goes limp in half a second, the breath he'd been trying to keep in his body sliding out of him in one heavy exhale. Her legs go loose, and the hand that shoots up to grab her hip hurts, the metal pressing into flesh like it wants to reach her bones.

The Soldier stares up at her with wide, shocked eyes.

Chapter Text

Natasha's been following the two lycans for a little under ten minutes. They'd been easy enough to pick up, falling out of Bliss a little drunk and hungry. Hang around a club like Bliss long enough and you're bound to pick up something supernatural coming through its door; most of the time it's vampires looking for their next drunk meal, but sometimes Natasha gets lucky.

They're two young pups following a couple down the street, clearly hunting them. She's surprised considering Rogers, who runs the wolves of the eastern seaboard, has the strictest rules about hunting humans. The last lycan caught hunting a human in his territory was silvered. It is strictly forbidden.

It's this shock that Natasha blames on missing the third that's been following her. The smell of him hits her the moment they pass the entrance to Prospect Park, and when she looks, the man is leaning heavy against the stone wall beside them.

She knows who he is despite never having met him in person. The royals always smell and move a bit different than those who have been turned. All vampires save for the three leaders of each house - Stark, Fury, and Hill - are turned. No vampires are born as such.

But wolves. Wolves can be turned and born. The royals of each pack are born wolves and their hierarchy is deeply divided by this delineation. Turned wolves age, while born are immortal.

"Hey sweetheart," the man says, and when his eyes glow red, her suspicion is confirmed.

(All turned glow yellow. Born are red, but rumour has it that Rogers burn an icy blue.)

This one is Barnes. James Buchanan. Steve Rogers's heir apparent and one of the most vicious, feared wolves in the Western territories. She's heard the stories and he lives up to the reputation. Pretty, but dangerous as hell.

The two lycans she followed from the club come to a sharp stop at his voice, turning to face Natasha. This is not an ideal situation. Natasha's taken three before, but turned lycans - particularly young ones - aren't nearly as powerful or quick as the born. And she has a healthy respect for Barnes's power; Stark has lost six death dealers to him in a little under a year.

Barnes turns to the two pups. "Sloppy and stupid," he says to them. "Next time I catch you turning an eye to anything that don't howl at the moon and I'll let her end you."

Natasha's grin is mean and a little feral. "Let me."

He doesn't answer, but his eyes are still glowing. In another life, Natasha might find him a bit attractive. Might wanna peel back the popped collar of his leather jacket and feed while he fucks her. Wolves run so hot, and she imagines how good he'd taste, how warm he'd be inside of her, his blood and his cock. He looks back at her like he's thinking the same thing, but the both of them are too pragmatic for that. You don't fuck the enemy.

Mostly, Natasha wants to put three silver bullets straight into him. Stark's had a bounty on him for the better part of a century. Anybody bringing his head back to the Royal Council would have a set place for the rest of time.

"Get out of here."

The two pups look as surprised as Natasha feels. "Sir?"

"Leave us," he tells them in a rough, commanding voice. Natasha's eyebrow raises. If he wants to even the fight, she's more than happy to oblige.

The two behind her nod and take off.

Barnes smiles at her. "I've heard many things about Fury's favourite death dealer, but nothing about how absolutely stunning she is."

Natasha abhors flattery. It's cheap and she lets him know with a roll of her eyes. She nudges her chin to the dark space once occupied by the two lycans. "Bait, I presume."

"Hmm, smart too." He shakes his head when her hand twitches toward the gun strapped to her thigh, loaded with silver bullets. "I wouldn't," he tells her roughly, and there's the threat she'd been waiting for. Though he's been trying to mollify her with this strange little act of flattery and flirtation, there isn't a single molecule of her that doesn't know just how fucking dangerous the man in front of her is.

"Listen," she says, schooling her voice into the kind of bored, droll tone she employs when dealing with the majority of the royal household, "I'm busy and you are failing to entertain me. What can I help you with?" She pauses and then grins, her tongue flicking at one of her sharp fangs. "You know, before I kill you."

"You think you can?"

"I know I can," she says. "Sweetheart."

Oh, and how his smile grows dark. He's a beautiful wolf and he knows it. "Oh, I hope I don't have to end you," Barnes says. "I think I like you."

The second she goes for her gun, she sees him move. Lycans are graceful and quick, and by the time she's got her finger wrapped around the trigger, his body is colliding with hers. Hard.

They end up on the ground. The muzzle of her gun is pressed into the side of his chest, pointed at his heart. But he's got a hand in her hair, throat bare and vulnerable, and even if she were to get out the shot, he'd have ample time to bite down.

She'd rather meet the sun than die of a lycan bite. It is the most excruciating way to die, and she's been forced to witness two others be consumed by it.

"What the fuck do you want?" Natasha grinds out, trying to cover the fear with anger.

"You to listen to me," he says quietly. His mouth is close enough to her skin for her to feel his breath. It's so hot it feels borderline uncomfortable. Wolves run so goddamn hot. "I won't bite you if you listen. And you don't fucking shoot me."

Natasha turns her head as much as she can with his hand in it, huffing out a breath of disbelief. "What the fuck would I care about anything you have to say to me?"

Barnes growls, the sound sending a shiver of fear down her spine. He presses his side straight into her gun like he couldn't give a care about the bullets inside of it. "You ever heard of a vampire named Peggy Carter?"

Chapter Text

Steve finds her at The Rusty Hook, a bar down past Supovita where most of the laid off steelworkers drink. It’s a bad part of town, but Sharon’s a local girl, and with the gun she’s got holstered on her hip, Steve wagers there aren’t many men around that would fuck with Teddy Carter’s daughter. In this town, teamsters are gods, even teamsters with daughters who turn into cops.

Sharon doesn’t look up from her glass as he sits down beside her, motioning for the bartender who nods and brings him a Heineken, cracking the top off on the bar.

It’s stony silence for a second until Steve says, “You can’t let it get to you. It’ll fucking eat you up inside.”

The kid had been maybe seven. Small for his age. Death grows familiar after a while, but you never really get used to the kids.

“Yeah, Rogers, teach me how not to give a shit,” she says bitterly, laughing as she chugs down the rest of her drink. From the look and smell, it’s whiskey. She’s not really drunk, but from the set of her mouth, Steve knows she’s aiming for it.

She softens a bit for a second, and the sorrow she wears on her face is so strong he can practically taste it in the back of his mouth. "He’s the same age as Tony. Has those same sneakers, too. Little blue racecars on them. Jesus Christ.“ She swallows hard.

Peggy’s boy. The one sent to live with Howard’s parents after his own were killed. Teamsters may be gods, but their families are easy targets. Steve had grown up with Peggy, dated and fell for her in high school before she’d gone off to the West Coast for university and met Howard Stark.

Now he’s partnered with her little sister, a little soft in the ways Peggy had been hard. Sometimes it feels like a betrayal, the thoughts he has about Sharon even though he’d been no more than a friend to Peggy for the ten years before she died.

He touches Sharon’s elbow delicately and she peers over at him, her eyes tired. "He’s not,” Steve says. "He’s safe in Los Angeles. It’s the Stark clan - they know how to protect their own.“ She doesn’t pull away from him, so he wraps his hand around her elbow and squeezes it, the warm flesh yielding to the pressure. "It’s not about not giving a shit, it’s about remembering what you’re there to do. There’s a family mourning him. We don’t mourn him, we catch the fucker who did this and bury him in a hole so deep he’ll never climb out again.”

Sharon lifts his beer to her mouth.

Outside, in the back of Steve’s car, she rides him angrily, her thighs shaking as they stretch out over his lap. He’s just sober enough that he knows there should be a condom, that come tomorrow morning, this will be a huge fucking mistake that he’ll most likely pay dearly for, but right now she’s hot and wet, and the pleasure is chasing the guilt and pain away.

“It’s okay,” he gasps, grabbing her hips and holding them steady as she works herself on him, urging her on without taking over. "You’re okay.“

No, she sobs into his neck, half pleasure and half the poison that lies beneath. No no no.

Chapter Text

This many men in one tent is an uncomfortable squeeze. Normally, this is the tent that Bucky and Steve bunk down in, unscathed only because Bucky, as per usual, didn’t fold and store it where he shoulda. The rest of the tents were lost when the remnants of the Hydra platoon caught up with them and managed to set fire to their truck before Steve and the Commandos put them down.

They lost their tents and Dugan’s hat, the latter of which had brought actual tears to Dugan’s eyes.

They’d still been a good thirty miles from base camp when darkness set in, and it’d been too cold to sleep under the stars. So here they are, shoved together in a tent too small by half. The only bright side is the number of warm bodies keeping the tent toasty against the hard chill coming off the mountains outside.

Morita, Dugan and Dernier are in a pile in the far end of the tent, their bodies lined up like matchsticks on the ground. Dugan’s head is in the far corner because he snores. It is a testament to the exhaustion of Steve’s men that any of them can sleep through Dugan’s chainsaw-like snoring as well the dim light from the lantern. It’s part of the reason Steve offered to take the watch; he’ll wake one of ‘em in a couple hours to get a few of sleep himself, but until then, he’s content to let them all rest.

Bucky’s wedged into the corner across from Steve, sleeping upright, with Peggy leaning against his side, completely dead to the world. Gabe and Falsworth are on the ground in front of her, Gabe’s head resting on Peggy’s leg like a pillow.

In the dim light, Steve can see that Bucky’s arm is slotted around Peggy’s back, giving her more of his side to rest against. Even so, he can’t imagine she’s very comfortable, which is partially why it’s so strange that the look on her face is so serene. His fingers itch, but he’s not sure if he’d shoved it in his pack or if it was with the tents in the truck…

Yes. Steve smiles as his hands find the small pad inside his pack. Quietly, he pulls out a pencil and settles back against the folds of the tent, tilting his head until he finds an angle he likes.

He’s never asked to draw her, even though he’s thought about it a lot. It’s always felt too silly, too inappropriate even though he’s already stolen a handful of kisses from her in private. His drawing feels like a soft underbelly that he’s not willing to expose to ridicule, so he’s secretly grateful that they’re all asleep as he takes to sketching the lovely line of her jaw.

He gets through shading her lower lip when he looks up and finds himself eye to eye with Bucky. Bucky’s got the clever little grin he normal pastes on when he catches Steve doing something he probably shouldn’t be doing, a pleasure in his easy guilt.

“Make sure to get my left profile,” Bucky murmurs quietly as he closes his eyes again and tips his head to the right, just enough to settle his mouth against the crown of Peggy’s head. “It’s my best side.”

“Vain,” Steve whispers as Bucky laughs a little, rustling Peggy who lets out a quiet whine before settling closer into Bucky’s side, giving Steve an even better angle to work with.

One day he’ll work up the nerve to ask her to sit for him. Until then, he’ll steal the moments he can, fill in the spaces of the things he’s sketched from memory.

Chapter Text

"Kat..."

It is officially too early for this shit. Kat likes her wake-ups two ways:

1. After noon and with greasy breakfast food
2. Chris's face between her thighs

Given she can't smell bacon and Chris is a heavy fucking lump against her back, his mouth mumbling her name over and over into her bare shoulderblade, neither of these of scenarios is playing out. Pity.

She scrunches her eyes shut and ignores him.

"Kat, wake up," he whines again into her skin. He kind of humps against her a little, jostling her, and she can feel his morning wood pressing against her ass as he spoons her. He's more of a morning person than she is; she's never met a guy more into morning sex than he is. Kat doesn't mind it, but she prefers it after coffee and a bagel, whereas Chris mostly wants to roll over and fuck immediately.

"Ugh dude, it is too fucking early," Kat moans, curling over until she's flat on her tummy, face shoved into her pillow.

"It's eleven thirty!"

The, "Exactly!" she screams out gets muffled by her pillow. She feels him crawl over top of her, his mouth following the hand that slides down her spine and drags over her ass and thighs.

"Happy birthday, babe," he whispers into her ear sweetly, his fingers massaging her hips gently.

"Happy birthday back," she says, rolling over underneath him. His eyes immediately zoom to her boobs, bare since she hadn't bothered putting her shirt back on after he stripped it off her the night before. He is so predictable. "So, the big forty-five. I hope you enjoy the ointment I got you. If you're a good boy, I'll even rub it into your achy joints before we settle down to watch The Wheel."

Chris rolls his eyes and leans down for a kiss that turns a little dirtier than even she was anticipating. He pulls away, breathless. "Shut up. Not all of us can still be in our twenties."

"I only have one more year of calling you a dirty old man before I join your age bracket, so let me enjoy it," she says, spreading her legs a bit so he can settle between them.

"Mmm, how 'bout you call me daddy instead?"

The bark of laughter she lets out turns into howls that have her in tears while he looks down on her with an amused look on his face. "Oh my god, you really are a fucking dirty old man," she laughs. "Daddy. Oh lord."

Chris rolls his eyes. Kat is mostly sure he's joking, but there's just enough interest when she drops the word herself that it makes her wonder. Chris is a little weird about his kinks and hang-ups in bed, so Kat tries to be careful walking around that mine field. When she first started hooking up with him, he'd seemed so confident generally that she had assumed it would translate between the sheets.

As it turns out, Chris is a fucking creampuff of insecurity. But also a fantastic lay. Seriously. Kat is pretty sure their entire relationship is powered on the fucking epic sex life she's suddenly developed with him. There have been hiccups and some negotiations along the way, but it's easily the best sex she's ever had.

"Maybe I'll just call you Captain instead," she purrs, watching with a smile as his eyes grow wide and his mouth goes slack. "Yeah, mmm. I think I'd like being fucked by the Captain. Maybe see if Louise can sneak out one of the costumes for you to wear. Finally, someone to pop Steve Rogers's cherry. Don't worry, I'll show you the ropes."

Chris's mouth gapes before he drops his entire body down onto hers, shaking with laughter. "Oh my fucking god. You are so twisted, Kat." He wiggles his arms under her waist and clings for a bit, a warm little hug, and it's pretty nice. One thing she had to get used to with Chris was cuddling. She'd never been a cuddler before, but he's turning her around on the issue. Chris absolutely loves being held - and holding others - so it's been an adjustment, but a nice one.

After a few minutes he starts sliding down her body again.

"What are you up to?" she asks as he kisses her right under her bellybutton, his fingers pulling down her panties until they slide off her legs.

"I forgot to pick up bacon yesterday at Whole Foods," he tells her, lifting one thigh over his shoulder and licking into her.

Chapter Text

1. Darcy is born under a full moon in late May, screaming mad and two weeks early.

2. Darcy's mother and stepfather raise her in North Dakota even though her mother's family all live in New York City, the place Darcy was born. Her stepfather, Harold Lewis, adopts her shortly after he marries her mother when Darcy is three and a half. Harry has three older boys from his first wife, who died a few years before Darcy was born. Harry's a dentist, but they all live on a small farm where the boys (Charlie, Jace, and Ty) spend most of their summers riding around on dirt bikes.

3. Her birth certificate does not list her birth father. By the time she is old enough to really understand what being adopted means, it feels too much like a betrayal to her dad to ask about her birth father. Her mother doesn't talk about her birth father at all other than to tell Darcy that he was a good guy, but not ready to be a father. Darcy figures that Papa Harry is a pretty good dad. He tells her that he's always wanted a daughter and treats her like she's his blood. Darcy adores him, and much to her mother's chagrin, she turns into a complete Daddy's girl.

4. When Darcy is eight, her dad gives her a goat she names Chicken. She already has three bunnies (Bugs, Sylvester, and Wile) and a pot bellied pig named Francis.

5. When Darcy is fourteen, she gets sick. It's the same summer that her mother gets laid off from her job at the local school and Jace totals the family car by swerving to miss a deer and driving it off the small bridge near the Frost's farm. Darcy ends up missing the first half of grade seven as the doctors try to figure out what the hell is going on, in and out of the hospital until her kidneys fail and she slips into a coma, her body trying and failing to fight off the sepsis. All Darcy remembers is waking up in a hospital room in New York City, her mother's face pale and stricken, her father and brothers crowded around her in a room big enough for fifteen people. She can tell that her mother's lying a few months later when she says that the insurance covered the stay at the most expensive private hospital in NYC for nearly a month, and feels an exceptional amount of guilt at the thought of her mother and father carrying the burden of a huge medical bill during an already tight year.

6. Although Darcy's grades in high school aren't exceptional (Brilliant mind, but fails to apply herself in class. Darcy shows potential but must learn to focus), she wins some scholarship her mother browbeats her into applying for. It's enough to cover tuition and living costs at any school she wants to go to. She ends up going to Culver because the boy she's in love is accepted there too.

7. Ty drives sixteen hours to Culver and is nearly arrested when he catches wind from a family friend of exactly what's been going on between Darcy and the boy she followed to Culver. Jace and Charlie show up an hour later and Darcy spends forty-five minutes trying to avoid having to bail her brothers out of jail by pleading with the cops. Although Darcy's embarrassed and hurt and spends half a semester licking her wounds, it helps her remember who the hell she is and how she should be treated.

8. Jane Foster actually never applies to the placement office to find an intern. Darcy hears about Jane through a friend, shows up one day and just starts doing shit. This becomes a theme in Darcy's life.

9. Darcy tries to play it off like she's okay after Puente Antiguo, but she has nightmares for months.

10. Darcy meets Steve for the first time by literally falling on her face in front of him. Selvig has a terrible habit of not organizing the cords to his machines and she's carrying a stack of notebooks to the filing cabinet in the back when her foot catches on one of them and she faceplants straight in the floor, the notebooks smushing between her boobs and the floor. When she hears the, "Are you okay, Miss?" she wants to fucking melt right through the floor, a feeling only compounded when she looks up at Captain fucking America who has a concerned look on his face, already leaning down to grasp her elbow and pull her up.

11. The Avengers and the assorted badasses they associate with aren't as nearly as intimidating as she might have once thought. Thor's her total bro (reminders her a bit of Ty, to be honest), and she gets along like a wildfire with Clint and Natasha. Bruce is quiet but friendly, and she adores Steve, on whom she's developing a serious crush. Sam is her drinking buddy and she often has lunch with Maria, who seems to scare a lot of people at Stark Industries, but who is a total smartass that likes the same trash celeb mags that Darcy does. The only one she doesn't really get along with is Tony, who seems to spend most of his time avoiding her even though she lives and works in his tower, and who stares at her like she's growing a second head when he is forced into the same room as her. He swings by sometimes to give her a hard time about safety procedures in the lab or just to watch her like a creeper, like she's going to break his shit or something. It bugs her at first, makes her upset after that, but eventually it grows into a serious resentment. If he doesn't think she's professional or smart or whatever enough to be in his precious tower, he can go fuck himself.

12. The first time Darcy and her mother have a true falling out is the day she finds out that Tony fucking Stark is her biological father. High school had been a tough couple of years for the two of them, but they'd never managed to stay angry at each other more than a few days. After the second week, her dad calls her to plead her mother's case, but she's just too hurt and stubborn to listen.

13. She's really fucking furious at Tony too.

14. Then she starts to think about all the things that never quite made sense when she was a kid, the way they could afford things when it seemed like they - and everyone around them - were struggling. The trip she took to Europe after she graduated high school. The fucking "scholarship" she got. During a screaming match with her mother on the phone, her mother admits that the first time Tony ever saw her was when he came out to North Dakota when they didn't think she was going to make it. He was the one who took her to NYC, the one who flew in some specialist from Berlin. Did everything but fucking stay and say hi.

15. Darcy just can't stop being angry.

16. Steve finds her out on the roof a few days later, sobbing. Like, the ugly type of crying. The crying that makes you snotty and swollen and red-faced. Tony has fucking run to LA and she's still not talking to her mom, and she's just so hurt. It was easier thinking of the father that didn't want her as some sort of faceless, nameless man who had some grand reason for not wanting to be her dad. It's tough realizing he was just selfish and immature and that she's probably nothing more than a mistake to him. Steve gives her a hug, some tissues to wipe her eyes, then guides her gently down to his bike. "Trust me, nothing helps you clear your mind more," he tells her.

17. They drive some place upstate, Darcy hanging on for dear life, the side of her helmet pressed between his shoulder blades as she plasters her body to his. He's solid and warm and as she watches the country side whip by, it feels like she's leaving the drama behind, her mind finally going quiet. They end up at a little country store near a lake, eating ice cream from waffle cones as the sun starts to set. When she accuses him of wanting her to forgive Tony, he smiles and shrugs. "Nah, I think he deserves for you to be mad at him some more. Tony can be selfish and make bad choices, but he cares about people - he just expresses in the absolute worst way possible. I've spent a lot of my life being angry at things mostly out of my control, and it's not a fun way to live. Forgive him, don't forgive him. Just don't let it eat you up. You're too special for that," he says, leaning down to kiss her cheek stickily, his mouth smelling like mint chocolate chip ice cream.

18. This is when Darcy completely falls for Steve.

Chapter Text

She's in the kitchen when she hears the key in the lock.

He's home.

Home.

Sometimes she wants to laugh when she thinks of this strange little dream life as home. It is as far away from the Red Room as is humanly possible, this plush, ridiculous decadence.

They had lived in London together for a few months before the house in Cleveland Park had been purchased for them, building the lie of their lives before transitioning to Washington. By the time they had arrived in D.C., James and Natalie Barnes's house had already been furnished and unpacked by Gibson Hawkes's crack corporate transition team.

She is Natalie Barnes. Twenty-nine. Born July 17th, only child of Rhoda and Phillip Roman, deceased. Graduate of the Sorbonne. Expert on late Renaissance art and the Vaganova method. Wife of James Barnes, thirty-two, partner at Gibson Hawke, an international think tank based out of Washington.

It's strange sometimes, to think of her herself as Natalie. She has lived a thousand different lives, been called thousands of names by thousands of people. But Natalie is not a skin to be worn and discarded, to be forgotten.

She is Natalie. She will live as Natalie and die as Natalie. She will never be coming home.

(This is your home.)

She doesn't know the name James was born with, so it's easier with him. He is - and always will be - James. Her husband.

(Thirty-two. Allergic to shellfish. Proposed on the third anniversary of their first date at a restaurant in Paris that's now a boutique. Secret smoker, but only after sex. Loves his wife desperately, if perhaps a bit possessively. Scars on left arm from a car crash in Kenya while he was attending graduate school.)

"Sweetheart," James says, dropping his briefcase on the table before wandering over to where she's dicing carrots on the island in the kitchen. The pot is already boiling, and the baby potatoes have been scrubbed and are ready to be put in.

(This is your life. This is your home. You are a loving wife. You will be obedient. You will smile and bide your time. You will kill for him and he will kill for you and you both will kill for the motherland, for the Red Room above all others.)

Natalie's hand clenches on the knife when he wraps his arms around her waist; the tsk in her ear lets her know immediately that he felt it, that when they're no longer in the house, she'll be hearing of this misstep.

(You are to maintain cover, particularly inside the house. The Americans are always watching.)

"I missed you today, baby," he says, and inside, Natalie prickles. More than their arrogance, she hates the Americans' fondness for endearments. Particularly baby. Sometimes she wonders if James says it intentionally to rankle her, to desensitize her. He's always liked to find her sore spots and push down.

"Mmm," he moans, running his nose along the length of her neck before pressing his mouth to the skin stretched between shoulder and throat. He bites down, just a little, and her body reacts without thought, heat and wetness growing between her thighs.

It is strange seeing such unbridled affection from the man so cold he earned the moniker The Winter Solider. During training, it seemed as though he could turn it on and off with a switch, loving to cold in an instant. Now, when she looks at him, she sees nothing of the brutal man considered to be the finest asset ever forged by the Siberian tundra.

That is the point, she thinks as she lifts her hand behind her to run through his short, soft hair. This is why they were chosen. They are the best.

"I was thinking steak tonight," Natalie says as he moves into her hand and turns his face to kiss her palm. "Got some fresh cuts at the farmer's market, but I also have chicken marinating, if you'd prefer."

He slips his hand down between Natalie's legs, rubbing at her just gently enough to be an infuriating tease. "I thought maybe we could skip right to dessert."

Sometimes, when he is like this, it is easy to forget the act. But she knows why he's suddenly taken to wanting her in his bed, spread and begging. The directive had come through a few weeks after they had arrived: there is to be a child within a year.

It isn't a hardship for Natalie. She has been with a few men over the years - all at the behest of the Red Room - but James is the first she has allowed herself to enjoy.

There have been surprises between them along the way. Despite his initial coldness, he has a preference for warm, affectionate sex. The first time he took her to his bed, three weeks into their training in Moscow, he had been so soft that it had irritated her, made her dig her nails into his side hard enough to draw blood and whisper to him to fuck her. He'd held her down then, her hands pinned above her head, but kept the slow, languid pace, smiling cruelly as she twisted and begged for more. Harder.

James indulges her sometimes, though. Gives her the kind of rough sex that makes her ache, the kind she craves. The first night in their new home, he'd fucked her on the floor of their foyer, brutal and perfect and exactly what she'd wanted. He'd told her that he loved her as he left finger-shaped bruises on her thighs, told her how good she felt, how much he wanted her.

(You are not in love with him. He is not in love with you. You belong to the Red Room.)

"Dinner," she says, nudging him back before reaching for another carrot. She's spent the better part of an hour getting their dinner prepped, and she's not about to drop it all so he can leave her a dripping mess for the rest of the evening. "Then dessert."

She drops the knife when he spins her around, pushing her back against the sharp edge of the island. His eyes are dark, pupils fat with want, and she takes in a measured breath that would be shaky if not for the grip she holds herself under with him.

"Fine then," he says, sliding to his knees. He hooks his fingers in her pants and pulls them down roughly, catching her panties along the way, dragging them down too. "Dinner first."

(This is your home.)

Chapter Text

You meet her at one the campus parties you attend junior year.

Regent University is a strange mix of wealth, power, and brains. The strong focus on the latter means the school can bring in enough of the former and still maintain its stellar reputation for academics. It’s the school all the American elite send their children, irregardless of talent. You don’t even begin to kid yourself: if not for your father’s money, there’s no fucking way you’d be here.

You’re the second son, so there’s always been a sense of expendibility when it comes to you. In the ex-colonies, wealth is the new monarchy, money replacing god-appointed divinity, and you’re the spare to the heir. Richard’s always been your father’s favourite, so you’d spent the majority of your teens enjoying the cliche of the abandoned second son, getting in trouble and sullying the good name of the family. You’d nearly flunked out of school despite testing shockingly well, and when your parents sat you down your senior year of high school and laid out their plan (your father’s connections would get you into Regent, then a low level position at some fucking regional satellite office while you got to watch Richard’s star rise), you felt everything inside you turn rotten.

Enlisting had been your last fuck you to the old man.

And so here you are, acing your classes and fucking your way through the freshman class.

The girl tonight is gorgeous, but comes with a sharp, angry air that tells you to fuck off without her needing to say a word. She’s sipping on something that looks - and smells - pretty fucking strong, but she’s Russian, and if there’s one thing you can respect, it’s the Russians’ relationship with vodka. She tells you her name is Natalia, but you knew that already. Her money’s the new kind (yours is the old), her father an oil oligarch made rich off the fall of the Soviet Union. You give her the name Bucky, even though your family refuses to call you anything other than James, and she says the name out loud like it’s something in her mouth to be tasted.

She speaks with no discernible accent - you recognize it immediately as the flat, country-less accent of a child raised by boarding schools - and eyes you wearily as you give her the charm that normally gets you into the pants of the girls who see the Barnes last name and daydream about joining his fucked up soap opera of a family, or just wants a story to sell to the tabloids.

(The first girl you’d slept with at Regent had sold her story, full of salacious details about your sexual preferences, to The Daily Mail. Made a pretty penny too, because she’d also sold the photo she’d taken of you asleep, half-naked in her bed. Your father didn’t speak to you until you came home for Christmas.)

You talk for a while, though you can tell that she’s bored and not interested. You’ve always enjoyed a challenge, so when she stands, you do too, leaning over to kiss her cheek a little lewdly. You ask for her number and she sighs like she knows she’s not getting out of this without giving it to you. She writes it on your palm with a pen from her purse, then disappears into the small crowd near the door.

When you call the next morning, you discover it’s for the RU Sexual Health STD information line. You flop back in your bed and laugh. You think you might like her. (If you were the type to get introspective, you might think about how rare that is, but you’re not.)

It takes you a couple weeks to track her down. You knew she was in the arts, but you find out she’s a dancer. Ballet. Looks like you’re both cliches. You don’t bother going to the recital (you fucking hate opera and ballet and all that effete bullshit), but you find her outside the stage door afterwards, smoking. She’s got a pair of ballet slippers over her shoulder and is wearing some tight outfit that shows off a figure that is far less waifish than most of the dancers you’ve seen.

She looks unimpressed that you’ve found her, and flicks the ash off the end of her cigarette. “I usually only fuck boys with a clue,” she says, “so I think you’re shit out of luck.” But she smiles like a shark and doesn’t move away when you step next to her and lean against the wall, lighting your own cigarette.

You want her.

Chapter Text

The door shutting and locking quietly is what wakes her.

“Hey,” Bucky whispers, dropping his bags by the stairway and moving into the living room. He ducks down to run his fingers through Nickolai’s hair gently before reaching to cup her face. His fingers are cold from the outside, but the trail left by his thumb as it brushes over her cheekbone is warm.

“He wouldn’t stay in bed when he heard you were heading home,” Natasha says, yawning so wide her jaw cracks a bit. The clock on the DVR tells her she’s been asleep a couple hours, Nick’s sweaty head pressed against the bare skin above the hem of her tank top.

“Mmm,” Bucky says, shaking his head when Natasha moves to get up. “I’ll take him up.” He reaches down and scoops up their son, careful to support his small body before pressing him to his chest. Nick sleeps like the dead, so his head just lolls on Bucky’s shoulder, his eyes still firmly shut and mouth open with sleepy breath. Bucky’s hand drifts in a slow circle on Nick’s back as he climbs the stairs, a tiny smile slipping onto his face when Nick lets out a small whine and grips on to Bucky’s jacket.

While it’s still hard to think of herself as a mother - still a little too impatient, still a struggle to do the things she feels come like second nature to most of the mothers in their neighbourhood - she’s constantly amazed at the father Bucky’s turned out to be.

Nickolai had been a mistake. Natasha had been twenty-four, dancing with the NYC Ballet and desperately unhappy. She’d met Bucky Barnes through Steve, who had brought him to one of her performances. He had stuck around afterward, hovering around her at the small opening night gala afterparty. It wasn’t the first time Natasha had caught the wandering eye of an investment banker who was looking for a trophy, the type of New York City snob who loved the strange prestige of fucking a ballet dancer.

It had taken him nearly three months to wheedle a date out of her, and she’d been pleasantly surprised at the depth that had lurked under the tailored suits and expensive watches. A man who genuinely enjoyed the arts, well-read, and spent the majority of his time outside of work dressed in jeans and terrible band t-shirts that she enjoyed teasing him over. A bit of a tomcat by his own admission, but a good guy and an attentive boyfriend.

The years of slimming down, of training, had screwed up her cycle enough that the skipped periods hadn’t even made her blink. It had only been in the third month, when the morning sickness had started, that she realized exactly what was going on it.

It had been messy: not-so-subtle threats from the director of her fall production, the sudden loss of the possibility of being a principal dancer, her body’s angry revolt. And then Bucky, who had nothing but a kind face and a promise that she believed for no other reason that because she wanted to.

It’s still messy now. This isn’t the life she imagined for herself, and there are moments in the dark where she wonders what life might have been, but that goddamn kid is her world.

She drifts off again, and this time when she wakes, it’s to the feel of Bucky’s body sliding in behind her on the couch, still cold from the October chill. He slips his hands under her shirt, searching over her belly warmed by their son’s body and the thick blanket draped over her.

“Cold hands!” she whines, squirming a bit against him as he leeches warmth from her.

“Mmm, warm me up,” he moans decadently into the skin below her ear. She laughs, elbowing into him just a little. He settles against her, his hips pressed into her ass, his body curled around hers. Bucky’s fingers slot between hers, a nail gently scraping over the space on her ring finger that he’s been trying to convince her to let him fill for the better part of four years.

“I missed you,” he says, his lips brushing against her neck.

Chapter Text

Beth's pulled the night watch for Mark, Lewis finally taking a break and getting some sleep herself. The Commander had been stuck to Watney's side for Chris's medical exam, and though Beth and the rest of the crew had given Watney privacy for it, Beth had also been responsible for transmitting the results to Houston's medical team, which had included some of the most haunting photographs Beth had ever seen.

She shivers, thinking about the fucking horrible state of Watney's body, the sores from the rampant case of shingles that Chris had diagnosed, the way his ribs pressed through his skin though they were trying to break right through his chest.

In her dreams, she still remembers that night, still hears the broken sound of Commander Lewis's voice ordering Rickie to take off. In the waking hours, she imagines what that must have felt like, being stuck on that red, dead planet, not knowing if anyone was ever coming back.

Beth doesn't think she'd have fought as hard as Mark.

"You okay?" Chris asks her, holding his palms open to her when she startles. He slips inside the door and leans over to check the monitor next to Mark. He taps the screen a few times, making the quiet beep of the monitor go silent.

"You're supposed to be getting some rest," Beth scolds as she shifts over, making room for Chris to sit down on the small couch they'd unbolted from the floor in the living area near the kitchen and moved into the med pod.

"Couldn't sleep." Chris has always been able to function on far less sleep than any of them, with the single exception of Lewis, who manages on a meager three or four hours a night. "How has he been?"

Beth shrugs, shaking her head. "Good. He's--" It wasn't her choice to take off, but the guilt makes her voice tight and hard when she adds, "He's a fighter."

Chris nods, his hand finding hers for a second to squeeze in solidarity. The months after finding out about Mark had been some of the hardest of their lives, stuck on a slow boat taking them away from him.

They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching Mark sleep. The rhythmic rise and fall of Mark's chest is so calm in comparison with the stark violence of Mars etched across his body.

The silence goes on long enough, Chris watching her out of the corner of his eye, that she knows exactly what the quiet is leading to.

"So," Chris says, and the way his eyes drop to her mouth confirms her hypothesis immediately.

Beth narrows her eyes and snorts, trying to distract her body from the stupid blush threatening to spread across her face. "I thought you were going to blow yourself into little shitty bits," she says, poking him in the shoulder. "Maybe take us with you. Last rites kind of thing. It was either you or Lewis, and I'm not big into redheads."

Chris's face is serious, though a small smile plays at his lips; he's looking at her as though he can see right through her. She's spent the better part of three years in a tin can with this man, more than twice as long as any romantic relationship she's had, and the result has been a disturbing familiarity with his tells, and him with hers. The team of psychiatrists that had prepped them for the Ares III mission had spent many hours advising them on the type attachments extended close-contact missions typically fostered, the dangers of mistaking the effects of touch deprivation for actual affection.

(This... this does not feel like the former.)

Even with all the training, it still feels like it has snuck up on her. She's not sure when she started looking at him a little too long, starting noticing the way he'd chew on the ends of forks after meals or sing Sympathy for the Devil under his breath during her monthly physicals, when he became Chris instead of Dr. Beck.

"C'mon, Johanssen." His eyes are dark now, hooded in a way that makes her pulse quicken.

Chris leans in slow enough that she has more than enough time to pull away, to step back and put distance between them if she wants to. Instead, Beth moves into the palm Chris presses to her cheek and tilts her head enough that when he kisses her, their noses slide against one another gently. Beth hasn't been kissed in almost four years; she's forgotten what it feels like to be touched like this, with warmth and affection beyond that of a colleague.

She's not surprised to find that he's a lovely kisser, not too aggressive, but not timid either. When his hand drops to the small of her back and presses gently, Beth lets him tug her a little closer, her thigh dragging over his until she's close enough that her hand automatically rises to press against his chest. It's warm under her palm, steady and solid and comfortable.

Chris presses the kiss deep for a few seconds - just a slip of tongue, enough to make her moan unconsciously and then go a little red with embarrassment - before he pulls back, their mouths separating with a quiet, wet noise.

He smiles indulgently at her before ducking to whisper in her ear.

"Redheads are my type."

Chapter Text

“Chris,” Hayley says nervously, “I’m not sure about this.”

Thanksgiving is a production in the Evans household, and given it’s Hayley’s first ride on this fucking crazytrain, Chris figures he owes her a night away from his mother, who’s currently baking about twelve pies for the ten people expected for dinner tomorrow.  He also likes the idea of taking her out to explore Boston, where the locals usually leave him in peace.  Mostly, he just wants her to fall in love with the place the way he loves it.

They’d arrived in Boston at the beginning of the week so he could slowly ease her into Thanksgiving and the family.  She’d offered to stay in a hotel until his mother got her hands on her and basically browbeat her into staying at the house (his mother’s persuasive abilities are nothing to be triffled with), but considering the deeply uncomfortable look she’d had on her face when he’d brought her bags to his room - outfit with a very snug queen bed - he’s pretty sure she had not been told they’d be sharing a bed under his mother’s roof.

(So the first night, he’d been a gentleman.  The second night?  Not so much.)

“About what?” Chris asks, motioning for her to do up her seatbelt before strapping in himself.  "Dating me or Thanksgiving?“

She punches him in the shoulder before buckling in.  ”Legal Seafood?“ she asks.  "Are you sure about this?  It sounds like a restaurant that is protesting its legality a little more than strictly necessary.”

The one thing Chris desperately misses when he’s on the West Coast is Legal Seafood.  Best fucking lobster bake you can find anywhere, and an amazing atmosphere that genuinely makes him feel at home.

“You are going to regret having any doubt in my restaurant decisionmaking capacity when you try their seafood chowder,” he says, starting the car.

Hayley’s face lights up instantly.  "Oh no, say it with the accent.  You can’t say it without the accent.“

Chris laughs and smacks his head lightly against the steering wheel as he checks his blind spot before pulling out onto the road.  "CHOW-DAH,” he enunciates, secretly thrilled she finds his less than classy Boston accent entertaining.

“That’s right,” Hayley says, affecting a terrible Bostonian accent.  "I can’t believe you’d insult the motherland by misprouncing chow-duh.“  She loses the accent halfway throughmotherland and mangles the rest horribly, the both of them dissolving into giggles.

"Mmm,” he hums quietly as they hit a red light, reaching over so he can run his thumb over the smooth rise of her cheek, the skin rippling under his finger as she smiles.

Chapter Text

Surprisingly, it is James who helps her find an apartment in New York City. Though Peggy spent a brief spell in the city during Project Rebirth, it had always been in military buildings or safehouses, her primary residence still a small flat in a part of Chelsea her mother deeply disapproved of.

Moving to America permanently is yet another choice her mother has added to the list of things she will disapprove of until the grave, but Peggy has long known that the life she has chosen to live - the life she wants to live - will garner little approval.

(Steve. Steve had approved. And she thinks, most likely, that the reason James does is mostly in deference to what he believes Steve would have wanted. But sometimes she sees the edges of a smile when she disobeys orders at work, when she does what she wants to do instead of what she has been told to. The same look Steve would give her when she’d stood her ground, argued instead of backed down, fought instead of folded.)

Peggy had spent a few months in a boarding house with a roommate when she first started working for the SSR, but the hours they have her keeping now are raising too many suspicions, and truth be told, she wants a little bit of freedom. (She tries to ignore the mutinous voice inside her that tells her that it’s partially because of how James and all the single men at the office are allowed to live alone without so much as a blink of an eye, whereas it’s seen as a somewhat scandalous choice for a woman to own a space of her own without others to keep an eye on her.)

So here she is on a crisp fall day being led around Manhattan by James Barnes, looking shockingly dapper in a sharp doublebreasted coat and red scarf. He knows this city like the back of his hand, and it’s been surprisingly helpful as Peggy knows little about the city beyond the small circles she’s discovered on her travels. He’d taken a look at the first place she’d found in the paper and said, “Too far from the line. And the markets around here overcharge,” and swiftly walked her out of the small flat that she would have turned down solely on the look of the landlord alone.

Now, three flats later, Peggy’s feet are beginning to hurt and the sun is starting to dip low on the horizon.

“Aren’t there any places in your area?” she asks. James had found a one bedroom flat in Brooklyn, even though the commute into the SSR offices was long. Peggy’s never spent much time in Brooklyn, but knows it well by Steve and James’s stories.

James laughs, the tone brittle in quality. "My neck of the woods ain’t any place for a lady such as yourself.“

Peggy sucks in an affronted breath, though most of it is for show. "What is that supposed to mean, Sergeant Barnes?” she asks, and when he laughs - heartily this time - she realizes she sounds a lot like a scolding mother. She only invokes his rank when he’s done something particularly daft to set her off.

“Nothin’,” he tells her, slowing down a step. At some point during their walk past Central Park, her hand had slipped in the crook of his elbow. She can’t for the life of her remember how it happened, but she can feel how warm he is, even through the material of his coat. "Don’t live in a particularly good area of town. Lots of ruffians without a lick of sense of how to behave around a lady.“

“I can see why it holds such appeal for you,” Peggy teases, her voice light enough to convey that she’s joking. Though Steve talked of James’s reputation before the war, and she’s been witness to some roguish behaviour during it, she’s never known James Barnes to be anything but a decent man. Though she’s never claimed to know him well enough before they lost Steve, there’s something somber and quiet about him in the aftermath, a fundamental shift she can’t quite explain. She wonders, sometimes, if the same can be said about her. Nothing feels the same without Steve, and when she stops to think about it, it’s frightening how much he changed for her in such a short time. She can only imagine what it would be like for James, who spent most of his life around Steve. (It hurts her to think of it, really. Mostly for James’s sake.)

She shakes herself out of her thoughts to add, “Besides, I don’t need protecting. I can handle myself.”

James comes to a slow stop and looks down at her; even in her heels, she’s a head shorter than he is. There’s a smile on his face, but something stuck behind it as well, something she can’t quite read. It’s almost wistful. "I wasn’t thinkin’ you were going to be the one needing protecting,“ he tells her, his left hand coming up to squeeze her fingers curled around his bicep.

Chapter Text

"Don't!" Peggy yells when one of the medics who won't stop talking about sedating her reaches for her arm. She knows how distraught she must look - a face that feels raw and puffy from tears, a body that is sagging and aching from an unbound terror ricocheting inside of her - but the last bloody thing she wants is something to dull her mind. He reaches for her again, this time actually grabbing her arm, and she screams, "Fuck off!" as she yanks her arm away from the startled man, like he can't figure out why grabbing her would illicit such a response.

She wants to pound his face in. Bloody knuckles, broken fingers. She wants a physical pain so badly she itches with it.

Steve looks up from across the room where he's been barking orders to the leader of the SHIELD tactical team that responded to the initial call to the house, fear plastered all over his face. In all the time Peggy's known him, she's never seen him look this afraid before. It's a terror that only amplifies her own. She can see the set of his jaw, the way he's trying to keep it together, but she knows Steve as well as she knows herself.

"Ms. Carter," the medic says in a tone that sounds borderline scolding, and her anger reaching a boiling point.

Out of nowhere, Bucky steps menacingly between her and the medic, the broad width of his shoulders blocking out the horrific skull and tentacles crudely painted on the wall of the living room in blood above the strewn corpses that litter the floor.

"Touch her again and I'll rip your spine out," Bucky spits, and for the first time since they entered their house and found Sarah gone, their sitter and the small protection detail dead, Peggy feels safe for a brief, flickering second. It evaporates as soon as it comes. As the medic slinks away, she reaches up and plants her palm between Bucky's shoulder blades, one bone and the other metal, a silent thanks for saving the stupid man's life.

He turns to her and cups her jaw with his hand, his thumb rubbing off the tears that have surely carried her smeared mascara across her cheeks. He's scared too, but it's different with Bucky, always different. His is buried under an avalanche of anger, and to her shame, in this moment, she finds it comforting.

Bucky's holding the small stuffed rabbit he had given to Sarah for her second birthday in his left hand. Though she's almost six now, she still hauls it around everywhere, its poor fur matted and stained beyond repair. Looking at it now, thinking of her daughter alone, without it, Peggy is caught between abject terror and unrelenting fury.

"Pegs," he says like he can read her mind. "We'll find her. They wouldn't have gone to this trouble if they wanted to hurt her." His words aren't soft at all, and it's another thing that comforts her when it shouldn't.

They both know the truth: the daughter of Steve Rogers isn't a prize worth squandering to a pointless death. The thought makes her gorge rise, the tears coming quickly again.

Steve strides over, his jaw and fists clenching as he passes the clueless medic who tried to grab her, like he's barely resisting reaching out and belting the man across the face. Instead, he clutches Peggy into a desperate hug, his body shivering against her. He reaches down and touches the slight curve of her belly. Peggy had only properly popped a few days ago, but the rise of the baby inside of her is unmistakable now. Given the trouble she had with carrying Sarah, her obstetrician had recommended as low stress a pregnancy as possible this time around.

Like most things in Peggy's life, little goes to plan.

"You're going to the tower," he tells her as Bucky lets out an exasperated sigh. Steve holds on tight when she struggles to pull back, to look him in the face. Peggy's got a good decade on staring Steve Rogers down, and it's clear he knows this as well as she does.

"No I'm bloody well not." Peggy's jaw sets so hard she feels like her teeth are going to crack. The logical part of her mind that knows Steve is right is being drowned out by the part of her mind screaming to pick up a gun, the part screaming WHERE IS SARAH over and over. She's not a fool, not willing to risk one child for the other, but she can't.

"Peggy," Steve begs, and no, she hates that sound. It's painful desperation.

"They'll need help in Ops," she hears Bucky say. She knows exactly what he's doing; Bucky's always been better at this part of the game. "We need someone with half a fucking brain analyzing the intel, Pegs."

Suddenly a voice pierces through the quiet sorrow. "Captain Rogers! We've got eyes on the van - I66 headed east past 495."

Before Peggy can blink, Steve is half out their front door, his shield clutched in his hand, Bucky quick on his heels.

Chapter Text


Peggy wakes to the feeling of a hand brushing hair back from her face.  The hand moves to her bicep when she startles badly enough that her entire body shakes, shifting her into the warm little body beside her.

Sarah.  She can hear the monitor at her daughter's bedside beep steadily, and the sound nearly brings tears to Peggy's eyes all over again.  Peggy touches Sarah's small chest, letting her breath push Peggy's hand up and down.  It's the most reassuring thing in the world.

"Sweetheart," she hears Steve say, and Peggy turns over gently, careful to not disturb Sarah.  Sarah sleeps as shallowly as her father, and the fact that she doesn't even stir is evidence of the traumatic toll of the last day.  Peggy's never seen her this tired; it had taken all of two minutes of Peggy curled up beside her for the crying to stop and for her to drop into a deep, safe slumber.

"Steve?" Peggy's voice sounds groggy and hoarse to her own ears.  "Are you okay?"

She'd felt guilty leaving Steve to the doctors to tend to Sarah instead, but she knows Steve would have done the same, demanded she do the same in turn.  Steve holds up the arm in a temporary brace; he'd come in with a horrific compound fracture to his arm, the bone sticking clear through the skin.  The doctors have clearly set it, and it's looking far better than it had when she'd seen him rolled away on a stretcher.  The bruising and scrapes to his face have also begun to heal.  "Yeah.  The broken ribs are the worst of it, and they barely hurt now."

Peggy wants to cry, but schools herself.  There's been too much of it.  Her family is safe and the men who took her child are dead.

"Bucky?" she asks urgently, remembering the way the stretcher carrying Bucky's prone frame had shot past her.  She'd heard lacerated liver and skull fracture, but she'd been too much of a mess to consider much beyond Sarah and safe.

Steve looks so, so tired.  "They just brought him out of surgery.  I sat with him for a bit, but they had to pump him full of anesthesia to get him to stay under, so they're not sure when he's going to be coming back out of it."  Steve hadn't told her much before they'd wheeled him away, but from what she'd pieced together, Bucky had put his fist through the side of the van door and hung on even as it had dragged him down the highway, disabling the driver before he'd been pulled under the back wheels. 

"Can you--" Steve starts to ask, and the longing in his eyes is clear as day.  Peggy's already had a few hours with Sarah, time to hold her and kiss her and quell the fear that gone septic at her disappearance, and she knows that Steve's looking for the same thing.  Normally, he'd climb into bed with them, a regular occurrence during the few months Sarah had suffered a spell of terrible nightmares the year she turned four, but she also knows he doesn't want to leave Bucky alone.

"Let me go sit with Bucky for a while," she tells him, aching at the thought of leaving Sarah, but knowing she'll be safe with Steve, that staying with Bucky will offer him some comfort.

He takes a deep breath, relief radiating off of him in waves.  "Thank you."

Steve catches her hand as she gets up, pulls her against him for a tight hug that turns into a desperate kiss.  He doesn't touch the swell of her tummy (something she is only willing to tolerate in moderation), but he presses his abdomen in enough that he'll be able to feel it bump against him.  "I love you," he tells her as she scratches the hair behind his ear gently, grateful to have both Steve and Sarah back safe and mostly unharmed.

The last thing she sees as she sneaks out the door is Steve carefully climbing up into Sarah's bed, slowly curling his gigantic frame around her tiny body.


--


She's been sitting with Bucky for a little over two hours, six of the wretchedly dull celebrity magazines from the waiting room read and discarded, before he wakes up.

He looks confused for a second as Peggy stands from the uncomfortable chair she'd dragged in from the lobby and leans over to slip her hand into his.  It's warm to the touch, a little sweaty.

"Pegs?" he asks, his eyes struggling to focus.  One of the nurses ducks in to check on him and cancel the low alarm his vitals set off on the monitor; Bucky flinches as she reaches to untangle to the IV line.  She knows he doesn't like hospitals, or strangers, or waking to an unfamiliar room, so Peggy tries to catch his attention, ground him in a familiar face.

The nurse quietly disappears, leaving them alone again.  Although he doesn't heal quite a fast or as well as Steve does, the injuries he sustained were he a normal man should have put him into a coma at the very least.  He looks worse for wear, but his colour is good, and the medical staff who have come to check on him in the few hours Peggy's been standing vigil at his bedside seem happy with his progress.  "Yeah. You're all right. You're in the hospital." 

There's a moment where she can clearly see the memory come back to him.  "Sarah," he croaks urgently, his voice filled with terrified concern.  It shocks her sometimes how much Bucky loves her daughter, open and vulnerable in a way he almost never is, not even with Steve.

She squeezes his hand; she's never loved him as much as she does in this moment.  She'd always considered Bucky a close friend, a partner in crime when Steve's stubbornness needs to be checked, but she's starting to realize how safe he makes her feel, too.  "She's okay, Bucky."  His body relaxes instantly.  "She's completely fine.  Just a few bruises."

For a second, it looks like Bucky's on the verge of tears, but he collects himself, his mouth turning down into a frown.  "Steve?"

Peggy smiles.  "You brought him home safe for me, too.  A couple broken bones and some bad roadrash, but nothing he won't bounce back from."  The worry lines between his eyes relax.  "He's tucked in with Sarah right now, sleeping."

He's quiet for a moment, watching her.  He gets like this with her sometimes - quiet and curiously assessing - but she doesn't mind.  Peggy's long stopped trying to understand what Bucky's thinking or feeling at any given moment, and for some reason, she feels like it might be one of the reasons she's one of the few people he's warm to.  There aren't many people in his life who let him be, and she decided early on to give Bucky the latitude to make his own choices without questioning them.

"You should--" he starts to say before stopping.  He looks like he's having trouble forming the words, and Peggy's suspects the drugs they've put him on for the pain is making him fuzzy-headed.  "You should be with your family, Pegs.  Don't worry about me."

Peggy lifts an eyebrow.  Honestly.  The pair of them.

She hooks an ankle around the hospital chair, dragging it close enough that she can sit beside the bed and hold his hand.  She slots her fingers through his and gives a good, scolding squeeze.  "You are family."

His blue eyes are bright and shocked as she leans against the bed, their arms tangling together.

Chapter Text

The infant cries for several hours before finally falling asleep.  At first, you had assumed it was hungry or possibly wet, but you had tried feeding it the formula you had stolen and checked its diaper, and could not find the source of its discontent.  It wailed loudly, face red and angry, and you had felt helpless and angry.  Resentful.

It had only fallen asleep once you had taken it to your chest and walked through the empty house, nearly out of your mind with irritation.  You hadn’t wanted to hold it, still uneasy of the power it had over you, but nothing else had worked.

Now it sleeps peacefully against your right shoulder, its tiny fist curled onto one of the leather straps of your vest.  You stare at the downy blond hair on its head and feel a fear and longing that is completely unfamiliar to you.

There is no crib or bassinet in the farmhouse you have broken into.  There are three bedroom above a modest living room and kitchen, two of which are for children.  If you were to guess from the clothes and toys you find, a boy of about eight and a girl in her teenage years live in them.  But you make do by pulling a drawer out of the girl’s small dresser and bringing it into the master bedroom; you stuff it carefully with sheets, so the baby cannot roll over, and put it down into the make-shift bassinet.

(You don’t know why you know this.  For some reason, you can see another baby in a drawer, swaddled in sheets.  You want to call it Becca, but the name is not familiar to you in any way that you can parse.)

You don’t know why you took it.  You don’t know why you do anything anymore.  But when you had seen the child, when the scientists had told you what it was, the instinct to run – the instinct to protect – had been overwhelming.  You can still remember the shocked sound the scientist had made when you snapped his arm and then reached for his neck.  Your knife had silenced the other and the General before you had burnt the entire facility to the ground, the screaming child clutched against your side.

They will likely kill you for this.

You lean back against the headboard and watch the slow rise and fall of the baby’s chest.

You wake a little less than two hours later.  It is still dark outside.

There is someone in the house.  

They are being quiet enough that you know it’s not the family, and the footsteps are light and sparse enough that you guess one person.  A woman, most likely.

You know instantly who they have sent after you.

She doesn’t draw her gun when she comes through the door, and annoyance prickles at the corners of your mind. Natalia was always your best student, and as such, you expect better from her, even facing you.  

Especially facing you.

(You think they’ve taken pieces of her from your mind because you have flickers of memories that you shouldn’t have. They are more sense memories than anything properly formed.  You know her smell, what the skin on her hips feels like underneath your hands, the taste and sound of her pleasure, what it feels like to be inside of her.  You wonder if she has these memories too.)

You get up to put yourself between her and the child instinctively, and she watches you through narrow eyes.  What have you done? she asks you, though it isn’t really a question.  She doesn’t sound angry, but her voice is carefully level, like she’s attempting to lull you into a false sense of security.

What are your orders?

To bring you and the child in.  Kill you if you resist or attempt to defect, she says matter-of-factly, though you’ve always been able to tell when Natalia has disliked her orders, too much rebellion in her for the liking of your masters. 

You look over at the child, who is awake.  Its wide blue eyes blink up at you in the dark, eyelids still a little heavy with sleep.  You know these eyes.

You know these eyes.

There’s a knife hidden in your boot, a gun strapped to your thigh and another tucked against your spine. You don’t want to hurt her, but you don’t know if she will force you to. The memories that you shouldn’t have tell you that the hesitance you feel radiating off of her, the way she has approached you, open and cautious instead of calculated and predatory, is because she doesn’t want to hurt you either.

But you have both done a great many things you haven’t wanted to do.  You are soldiers.

I can’t let you take him.

She shakes her head, and her eyes finally shift to the drawer resting on the bed.

What is it to you? She asks as she takes a step toward you. That fear resurges inside of you, the same fear that pounded through you when the scientists, speaking the General beside you in the laboratory, had said, Genetically, it is a perfect replication of Captain America.  No defects this time.

There’s a sharp curiosity painted over her face as she peers over the edge of the drawer.

A sudden dissociative anger rips through you as you growl, I won’t let you take Steve.

Her shock is as potent as yours as you desperately try to place the name.

Chapter Text

Steve checks his phone for the sixth time. Bucky had texted him the name of the bar and told him eight sharp, but it’s nearly 8:30, and Natasha’s friend hasn’t shown. He’ll give her another twenty minutes and another whiskey sour before he calls time on this frankly humiliating experience.

Letting Bucky choose the location of the date had been Steve's first mistake. This type of bar - loud, busy, and on the uncomfortable side of too-warm - is entirely Bucky's, or at least it had been before he'd started spending time with Natasha.

No, that's a lie. The first had been to let Bucky talk him into this whole situation in the first place. Despite Bucky's obnoxious mother-henning, Steve is perfectly content with his love life. Or lack thereof. He’d had a steady back in Missouri, but it hadn’t been serious, partially because Darcy hadn’t been particularly interested anything beyond a friends with benefits arrangement, which had worked out fine given Steve’s ridiculous touring schedule that didn’t lend itself to any kind of stable relationship. She’d been fun and perpetually emotionally unavailable, and they’d spent the better part of his last week in St. Louis in his bed, fucking their way to a goodbye.

But that was nearly eight months ago, and Steve’s been flying solo since, much to Bucky’s non-stop chagrin.

(“Livin’ like a nun ain’t doin’ you no favours, Steve,” Bucky had sighed into his beer as they watched the Jays take on the Red Sox. Natasha had left another horrible hickey low enough on his throat that his suit collar covered it, but the t-shirt he was currently wearing showed off like a badge of honour. “You need to let loose. Christ almighty, at least get laid.”

“Not looking for that.”

Everyone’s looking for that.” Bucky rolled his eyes. “Listen, Natasha’s got a friend. Real classy. British. Total hardass. Gorgeous. Not interested in me, which yeah, speaks to a lack of taste, but I think you’d like her plenty.”

“Bucky, no.”

Bucky grinned into the lip of his beer bottle and Steve felt the dread grow. “Bucky, yes.”)

Which is how he’s landed in this utter mess of a situation. Steve barely dates, let alone goes on blind dates, and Bucky’s taste in women outside of Natasha has been questionable at best.

The bartender drops another whiskey sour in front of him and smiles brightly when Steve slips her a twenty and tells her to keep the change. Another fifteen and he’s hopping the subway back to Brooklyn to lick his wounds.

Suddenly, Steve is very aware of the warmth of a body close behind him, a hand landing on his shoulder. He cringes, his hand tightening on the glass in front of him. There’d been a profile in the Times (Captain America returns home: how Brooklyn’s finest is already shaking up the Yankees) when he’d been traded by the Cardinals, and while Steve was used to a certain notoriety in St. Louis, the attention he’s been getting in New York has been deeply unsettling. He’d left Brooklyn a minor league player with a completely unrecognizable face and come back as one of the best paid players in the majors. Half the time he can’t get a cup of coffee without getting propositioned or hit up for autographs by fans that aren’t particularly respectful of his personal space.

(There’s a lot of guys on the team that love this sort of thing, the girls that come with professional sports, but Steve isn’t one of them. The entire thing leaves a sour taste in his mouth. He’s not interested in sleeping with someone who is interested in his job more than in him.)

As he turns, Steve's preparing the thanks-but-no-thanks speech he's already used several times tonight when the woman says, “Steve?” Somehow he knows instantly that it’s Peggy.

His tongue tangles instantly as he gives her a once over because goddamn, Bucky wasn't kidding. She’s fucking stunning.

She’s wearing a red dress, something classically cut that reminds him of the vintage shots he has up around the apartment from the 40s, but with a modern twist to it. A voice in the back of his mind tells him he wants to touch it, reach over and run his fingers over the curve of her hip to feel how soft it is.

(Christ.)

“Peggy?” he manages to grind out after a second, his brain finally catching up.

She lets out a nervous laugh, slipping up into the stool beside him. “Yeah, sorry, I’m late.” The bartender from earlier pops over and Peggy orders a vodka tonic with a grim smile. “I wish I had a good excuse, but I just completely lost track of time. My apologies.”

Steve hums. “No problem. Glad you made it.”

There’s a tense silence between them and Steve finds it is so much worse than being stood up. Steve’s never been particularly good around women he finds attractive, and humiliating himself so quickly into their arranged date is mortifying beyond belief. He’ll never fucking hear the end of it from Bucky if this goes sideways, and he finds… he really, really doesn’t want to fuck this up either.

“Oh goodness,” Peggy finally says, letting out a deep sigh that breaks the awkwardness between them. “I’m sorry. I’m--” She laughs and lets her head snap back, staring at the ceiling. “Listen, I need to be quite honest with you. I’m a little rusty at this, right? It’s been a busy year at the firm and I haven’t had much of a chance to have a life outside of conference calls spanning time zones. Natasha levelled an ultimatum, so here I am.”

“Your friend made you come?” Steve asks, his heart dropping a bit.

“Yes.”

Yeah, not particularly what he wanted to hear, even though he’s in the same boat, the two of them both strong armed by well-intentioned, if slightly obnoxious friends. The gentleman in him wants to give her an easy out, a quick drink and a polite goodbye, but the part that can’t stop staring at the curve of her breasts under that red dress and the curl of dark hair over her shoulders doesn’t want to give up the opportunity.

He settles for something midway. Not a concession, but not presumptuous either.

“I’m sorry.”

She look at him appraisingly, shrugging a bit. “I’m not,” she says with a sly grin, and Steve finds he can’t help but smile back. “I’m a lawyer. Threat or not, I could have weaseled my way out of it. Natasha’s a soft-touch.” She takes a sip of her drink. “Besides, there’s more to life than conference calls, but don’t tell my firm that.”

Bucky hadn’t told Steve that he works with Peggy, who is an associate at Fury & Hill that specializes in international arbitration and dispute resolution, focusing on multijurisdictional litigation. She’s blisteringly smart and wickedly funny, and before Steve knows it, they’re another three drinks in, an hour and a half eaten in the blink of an eye.

Peggy tells him a particularly horrible, raunchy joke, and Steve laughs so hard he elbows back into the woman standing behind him, earning a sour look and a wet collar from the drink she spilled on him.

He’s been enjoying Peggy’s presence so much that he’s forgotten how much he fucking hates the bar Bucky chose. Something must show on his face because Peggy leans in, her breath rich with the smell of alcohol, but her eyes bright and clear.

“Listen, I can’t hear myself think in here anymore. Want to take this somewhere else? If I have to listen to some horrendous remix of Hotline Bling one more bloody time, I think I’ll go batty.” The words are delivered without innuendo, but the look on Peggy’s face speaks volumes. As Bucky’s taken to telling him, Steve’s not the smoothest operator, but he knows when he’s being given an opening.

He’s taking it.

Steve laughs, genuinely excited for the first time in ages. “Sure. Want to head to mine? I can play you those old Armstrong recordings I was telling you about.”

The look on her face darkens. “I’d like that very much.”

Holy shit, Steve texts when Peggy ducks away to use the washroom before they head out.

yeah, Bucky texts back a minute later. you got a type and you sure as shit don’t need to be sherlock to figure it out. stayin’ at nat’s tonight. have fun.

In the back of the cab speeding toward Brooklyn, Peggy spread out on his lap, his hands resting on her ass as he lets her kiss the breath straight of him, he can feel his phone buzz in his pocket. “Nmmh,” Peggy whines when he takes a hand off her ass to reach for it, grabbing at it until she can guide it up to the curve of her breast, the warmth bleeding through her pretty red dress.

(no sex on my new couch. bedroom only!)

Chapter Text

James Abraham Rogers is born in the early hours of a warm, stormy Sunday in June. Like his sister, James is born nearly six weeks prematurely. However, like Sarah, he's also born completely developed, a very healthy eight pounds, seven ounces.

Peggy's obstetrician had warned them that given Sarah's quick prenatal development, the likelihood that James would come well before his due date was high. So this time, when Peggy's water had broken early, it hadn't been accompanied by the excruciating fear it had with Sarah.

Eleven hours and a lot of contractions later, they'd had a screaming, healthy baby boy.

Around six, Steve wakes with a start in the chair next to Peggy's bed as the door to her suite opens. Peggy's completely passed out, having fed James an hour earlier. She'd fussed and told Steve to go home, to look after Sarah, but he knows there's no way she'd believe he'd actually leave her. Bucky had come over to watch Sarah while Steve had taken Peggy to the hospital, and given the turbulent last year, there's no way in hell Steve's leaving Peggy and James's side, armed guards or not.

So Steve feels a deep wave of relief when Bucky's face peers around the door, doing a quick sweep of the hospital suite.

"Hey," Bucky says quietly as he walks into the room, Sarah perched in his arms. Sarah takes after Peggy's decided status as a non-morning person, so she's snoozing lightly against Bucky's shoulder. She wakes the moment she hears Steve's voice and smiles brightly, and Steve feels his entire body light up with happiness.

"Daddy," she says sleepily, reaching out for Steve, who lifts her out of Bucky's arms and hugs her tightly before setting her down on her feet carefully.

"Hey sweetheart. Your mum's sleeping, so we need to be quiet, okay?" he whispers to Sarah, who nods obediently.

Bucky claps a hand down on his shoulder and squeezes tightly. "Congrats, buddy." Steve tugs him into a hug, pressing his face into Bucky's neck. It had been such a relief to know Bucky had been watching over Sarah, to know that Bucky will do the same for Steve's son as well.

When Steve pulls back, Sarah's eyes are bright and happy, staring up at her father and uncle. There'd been a few weeks of nightmares after she'd been taken, but she's back to the happy, carefree child she had been before her abduction. "Can I see?"

"Mmmhmm," Steve says, leading Sarah over to her brother.

Although James had come into the world loud and angry, he's been shockingly quiet in the following hours, happy to sleep and nurse in turn, mostly wanting to be held and cooed over, which Steve and Peggy have been happy to acquiesce to.  

Bucky lets out a low noise when he sees the small label on James's clear-sided bassinet. "Really?"

Steve lets out a low chuckle. "All her, pal." Which isn't exactly true, but Bucky's less likely to challenge Peggy on anything, so he'll let her take the credit on this one. He lifts Sarah a little so she can reach up into bassinet and touch her sleeping brother's chubby little hand. "Peggy said she just liked the name, but I think she might be a little sweet on you."

(The truth is that the first time Peggy had been pregnant, they'd originally thought she was carrying a boy, so it had been James Abraham until Sarah Ruth made her grand entrance.)

Bucky chuckles, reaching in to touch the crown of James's head. "I guess he should just be grateful you didn't saddle him with Buchanan."

Chapter Text

“Hey doc,” Bucky says, stripping off his shirt as the doors slide shut behind her.

His lip curls up a bit, as far as it ever makes toward a smile. It had taken a while for Helen to reconcile the man in Steve’s stories with the man who sits on her examination table every other week, quietly watching her as she charts his cognitive regeneration. He hasn’t been mean or cold, but he’s quiet and calculating in a way she wasn’t expecting at first, despite the briefing she received on both his medical and biographical history.

It’s unnerving in many ways. She’s used the mysteries of the body and the brain, but she’s not used to reading people, at least not people like Bucky. The rest of the Avengers suffer from a myriad of conditions, both mental and physical, but she’s very aware of the extensive and profound torture that Bucky has endured, which makes her angry and sorrowful in turn.

She doesn’t know him well, but she’s come to respect him. Truthfully, she’s come to like him despite his secretive disposition; in a tower full of overpowering personalities, she enjoys his peaceful nature, even if it hides a very troubled, turbulent mind.

She picks up her tablet, careful to keep in his eyeline. "Have your sleep patterns been improving?“ she asks, quickly scanning her previous report. His last PET scan had showed significant neural regeneration in the portions of his brain affected by the recalibration machine he had been subjected to over the years, and as expected, it has had a profound impact on his circadian rhythm.

He nods. "Better,” he says, then shocks her by adding, “I’m starting to remember my dreams again.” After four months, it’s one of the first time he’s elaborated on any of the questions she has asked him without provocation. In truth, the last few sessions with him have felt different, less like he’s suffering through an interrogation and more like she’s a colleague trying to help.

Helen smiles as she says, “That’s good progress,” even though she’s not sure if the dreams have anything to do with the neurological damage his body is repairing. But she’s willing to take wins where she can find them.

“Depends on the dreams,” he answers cryptically.

“Very true.” She puts the tablet down near his left thigh. "Can I touch your arm?“

She always makes sure to ask before she touches him, particularly areas she knows are sensitive to him. His shoulder and arm, but also his neck, right wrist, and ankles. (A consultation with a leading trauma specialist had him concluding that Bucky had likely been physically restrained for long periods while conscious, and that night, Helen had consumed an extra two glasses of wine before she had been able to fall asleep.)

Bucky nods again. "Of course. It’s why I’m here, ain’t it?”

“Always good to ask though, isn’t it?” Helen arches an eyebrow and reaches for her tablet. Shift in vernacular.

He hums in agreement as she steps closer to him. His eyes track down to the wound that her top doesn’t quite cover, the one that still aches a bit in the morning, like her skin is still protesting being cleaved apart. The worst part of the injury had been over her chest, the laser cutting deep, but the burn had spun out like a spiderweb across her shoulder all the way up her neck to the skin tucked behind her ear.

Helen doesn’t feel particularly sensitive about it, though some of the less tactful workers at the tower stared at at first when they thought she wasn’t looking. It isn’t terrible, barely noticeable unless you’re looking for it, but it’s hard to unsee once you do. The burn is unnatural, has a strange sheen to it that makes it almost glow.

His body shivers a bit under her hands when she presses carefully at the seam of metal and flesh, testing the muscle beneath it. She’s been working with Bruce on improving the integration of his metal prosthetic. Hydra had done a mediocre job of repairing the remaining tissue in the shoulder, which she knows causes Bucky a significant amount of discomfort that he refuses to admit to, but that is written across his face when she runs physical tests on the joint.

Helen leans over his shoulder, tilting her head to look at the scar tissue at the top of his left shoulder blade, which is looking decidedly better since she began treatment on it a few weeks ago.

Suddenly, she feels the light touch of a thumb over the scarred skin behind her ear, the slide of smooth skin over bumpy, burned scars. Helen yanks back so fast she nearly tips over onto her ass, Bucky’s metal hand whipping out to grab her elbow to steady her before sliding off of her just as fast.

Bucky’s eyes are wide and slightly horrified, like he’s as shocked as she is by his behaviour. "Sorry,“ he breathes out, his chest rising and falling erratically. "Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Helen reaches up and cups her hand over the skin he touched, her heart pounding.

Chapter Text

The second the door closes behind Natasha, she knows something is wrong.  The skin on the back of her neck crawls, and her hand reflexively reaches for the gun hidden at the small of her back, tucked into her jeans underneath the buttery leather jacket she’s owned for years, carefully broken in.

Don’t, a familiar voice says quietly in the dark.  Her hand pauses near her hip.  She could reach for it; she can tell by his voice that he’s somewhere in the living room, and she could easily draw before he reaches her.  But she also knows he could have a gun himself, and history and two bullet wounds have taught her what a good shot he is.

So instead she turns, facing the large bay windows in her living room, unsure of his exact location given she hasn’t turned on any of the lights and neither has he.  What are you doing here?

The townhouse is in a quiet part of Queens, a section of the city that Natasha had fallen in love with the moment she set foot in it.  There’s a line of leafy elms in front of the modest row of townhomes that remind her of some distant memory she can’t quite place, but finds soothing.

She doesn’t come here all that often; Natasha owns a few safehouses around the city that she stays in temporarily, little more than a bed, a closet with a change of clothes, and a bathroom with a fully stocked medical kit.  She only comes here when she needs to come home.  No one knows of this place, not even Clint.

Natasha has no idea how he’s found her.

I know you, he tells her.

Yes, she says, irked at his violation of her only private space.  You’ve shot me twice now.  If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to make it a trifecta.

A figure moves on the couch, the sound of metal hitting her wood coffee table.   The SIG probably isn’t the only weapon he’s carrying, but it’s clear he means it as a sign of good faith.

He fixes his eyes on her when she steps into the living room.  Bucky.  Barnes, James Buchanan.  She’d followed up on the lead at Steve’s request, and found a horror story waiting.

No, he says, and she flinches back when he tosses something at her feet.  I know you.

Barnes doesn’t look like much, a little more haggard that he’d looked a couple months ago, but she’s tangled with him twice now, carries the scars from his hand and his gun.  She’s not in the habit of underestimating her opponents; he may have saved Steve, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer her enemy.

I won’t hurt you, he says, unexpectedly soft.

The light from her windows hits the papers at her feet.  Photographs.  Natasha keeps her eyes trained on him as she stoops down, careful to position herself in a way that will let her move with speed and accuracy if he were to become a threat.

For a moment, she doesn’t quite understand what she’s looking at, the images too strange to process.  

They’re of her.

Of her and him.  

Together.  There’s a few shots of them walking together, side by side.  Another of them entering a shopfront.  One of them sitting across from each other at a cafe, Barnes staring at her intently while she focuses on something in the distance.

Their hands clasped together on the table top.

What… Natasha starts to say, shuffling through them.  There’s something off about the way she looks in the shots too, the clothes that’s she’s wearing, the cut of her hair.  She doesn’t ever remember looking like this.  She doesn’t… remember.

I found them in Germany, he tells her. 

Her breath catches in her throat when she reads the Cyrillic writing on the photos.

VOLOGDA.   JUNE 19, 1969.  SEGEZHA.  NOVEMBER 23, 1973.  RYAZAN.  JANUARY 9, 1976.

I know you, he repeats, staring straight at her.

Chapter Text

Novokov motions for you to follow him, so you do. He has kept you out of the cold for many months now, and you are eager for this to continue, so you are compliant, something he values above all else.

You walk into the large, airy room and spot a woman sitting in the chair you usually occupy upon waking from sleep. She is strapped to it with metal restraints that have been sized for her, the machine they have used on you before hidden behind her.

This woman was once a mission for you. She had called you a name that you can’t remember as you had pulled her bleeding body from the back of the plane you and your men had stormed. You had killed your man that had shot her; your directives had been to take her alive, uninjured, and the man had disobeyed your commands. Even so, the decision to break his neck had been hasty, a reaction you hadn’t been expecting until you felt the slide of bone give under your hands.

(James. She had called you James like she had known you, but you had never seen her face before. There had been shock written all over it when you had pressed the rag soaked with chloroform to her mouth, her bright red nails digging furrows into your arm, drawing blood that had dripped down your skin.)

It has been more than six months since you brought the woman back to this place, the only home you can remember. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun now, different from the waves it had been when you’d carried her over your shoulder, into the cell that would become her home too.

She looks angry, but tired. Beautiful in a way nothing in this place is. You can see the way her mouth quivers for the briefest second as she spots you.

They call her by a name that wasn’t the one given to him on the mission, and she narrows her eyes, whispers, “My name is Peggy, you bastard,” which Novokov absolutely hears based on the tension you can feel suddenly fill the air. He is displeased, and you have learned over the years that his displeasure often results in pain.

You don’t know why she is fighting this. You had known she had been a fighter on that airstrip, watching her take down two men before the one who shot her, but she must know that what is to happen is inevitable.

Novokov smiles as he flips open a book and begins to speak, a rough code of words that you recognize as different than the ones he says to you.

Her face is placid until the commander reaches ballroom, and then she begins to cry angrily, hissing. The metal restraints start to groan under her power, and it’s then that you realize they’ve given her the serum.

“Hold her down,” Novokov tells you angrily, flipping his book back open and continuing to recite words that don’t mean anything to you.

When you reach her, she yells, “James!” so loudly it hurts your ears as your hands brace on her forearms, her skin warm under one of your hands, little more than pressure under the other. You hold down her considerable strength, your fingers leaving marks in her flesh. Her eyes are desperate and pleading when she screams, “Bucky!”

(She’s crying, tears tracking down her cheeks, and for a second your hand twitches as if to reach up and wipe them away. You school yourself immediately, angry with your strange lapse in judgement.)

By the time they reach July, she goes quiet. Her strength goes limp under your hands, and instead of looking at you, she’s looking straight through you like she does not see you at all.

“Ready to comply,” she says flatly, and for some reason that you can’t place, you feel the urge to scream.

Chapter Text

Wanda looks up at Steve, curious. "You’re nervous.“

The hair slips from between Steve’s fingers, silky smooth, falling down against her back. The strands unwind from the loose braid he’d been twisting it into unconsciously as she rested near his feet. "No. Not nervous.”

(It’s a lie. He’s nervous. He’s nervous about what he’s dragged them all into, he’s nervous about what this new world is going to look like for him, what it means for Sam. Scott and Clint, who have left family behind. What it means for Wanda, who has none at all.)

She hasn’t spoken much since she arrived in Wakanda. It had been horrific, cutting her out of the straight jacket they had strapped her into, and he sees the dark circles back under her eyes, the same tortured look she’d had after her brother had died. Wanda is a girl who doesn’t trust easily, and between the betrayal of Vision and her time spent locked into restraints by the same people she’d been trying to protect, Steve isn’t sure what it will take to bring her back out of her shell again.

Wanda likes stories, though. Asks about his family before the ice, the men and women he served with. Loves stories of Peggy and Bucky and the Howling Commandos.

So he tells her another.

Reaching down, he runs his fingers through her hair gently again. "Bucky had four sisters and they’d all want their hair braided in the morning. He tried to teach Ruthie - she was the oldest - how to French braid, but none of them could ever figure it out, so he’d end up being pinched and pushed into braiding their hair and we’d never be on time for school.“

Wanda presses her head into his hand, her eyes slipping shut. “So he taught you.”

Steve smiles. "So he taught me.“

Her head tilts back, eyes opening to look at him. "You’ll teach me?”

Steve wraps a strand of hair around his finger and tugs gently. "Of course.“

Chapter Text

Bucky reaches out and tugs on the drawstrings of her hoodie. "This looks awfully familiar.“

Helen’s cheeks have gone a delicate pink, her eyes snapping back and forth between the floor and Bucky’s face. It had taken Bucky a few weeks to realize that Helen was neither timid nor shy – just cautious. Steve had filled him in about Ultron, about what Helen had suffered at the hands of Tony’s creation. He knows the physical wounds always heal faster.

"I’m sorry,” she says, but makes no move to take off the hoodie that is about five sizes too big for her.

The labs are always kept shockingly cold, and despite the layers, he often sees Helen shivering as she sits hunched over her microscope. It isn’t the first time he’s seen her huddled in warm clothes, but it is the first time he’s ever seen her in his clothes.

(He finds he likes it far more than he probably should. He feels a lot of things these days that he probably shouldn’t.)

He’s spent nearly a year in Wakanda, letting the scientists poke and prod at his brain, making sure whatever wreckage Hydra left inside is gone for good. Helen showed up a few months ago, yet another Stark refugee driven into the Wakanda jungle. She’s spent the last eight weeks helping to craft a new synthetic arm for Bucky. Helen’s expertise in neural interfacing has been irreplaceable, and the problems they had suffered with the first few models Bucky test drove before Helen arrived are almost completely gone.

A hoodie is the least of what he owes her.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, smiling as he hops up on her table, stripping down to a thin t-shirt.

A year ago, this would have felt impossible. Teasing a girl, getting pleasure out of her sweet awkwardness. Now it feels natural. A little sad maybe, remembering when he did this as a whole man.

“Do you want it back?” Helen asks earnestly, stepping in front of him, close enough that the fabric of the hoodie brushes against his knees.

He thinks about it for a moment, how warm it would be from her, the way it would smell like her hair, some fruity shampoo that she uses that makes the sterile lab smell of light citrus.

“Nah, looks better on you,” he says, leaning back as the blush burns bright again across the slopes of her cheeks.

Chapter Text

It's pretty late by the time Peggy leaves the station, edging close to midnight; her shift had been over at six, but with the recent escalation of the Red Skull killer, most of the precinct has been working back to back shifts, clocking overtime that they're most likely not going to get paid out for.

But everyone has skin in the game here.  The third set of victims had been a retired police captain and his wife, a well-loved couple in the community.  And the last attack had collateral damage that had touched everyone, even the most hardened of the force veterans.

Peggy herself has been up nearly thirty-two hours, and she needs to go home, feed her damn cat, and get some sleep before she keels over at her desk.

Halfway to her car, a movement near the trunk has her reaching for the holster on her hip.

"Whoa," the figure says, holding open his palms in surrender.  "It's me."

"Rogers?" Peggy asks, watching as Steve pushes himself off the side of her car.  He's in a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt that pulls tight across his shoulders.  Peggy's never seen him in anything other than the FDNY regulation wear; he looks good.

"Yeah, sorry," Steve says, crossing his arms over his broad chest.  "Any news?"

Steve had been one of the men who had pulled the bodies of the children out of the fire on East 34th.  Barnes and Morita had carried out the older boys, but Steve had staggered out of the cindered remains of the building with the six year old girl burned beyond recognition in his arms.  

(The target had been a man on the third floor of the midrise apartment building, sliced up the same way the previous eighteen had been, a red skull surrounded by tentacles painted on the wall above the body.  But the fire the killer had set had spread fast, aided by the shitty, non-regulation building material of the slum, blocking off the upper floors; another five had been dead before the flames were extinguished.)

Peggy's been working with the 67th precinct long enough to recognize the look on Steve's face.  Some days stick with you longer than others.  Some people - some victims -  haunt you more than others.  She remembers the gentle way Steve had laid Laura's body on the ambulance stretcher, the broken look on his face that echos across his features even now.

"No," Peggy says, even though that isn't exactly true.  Phillips had given her the go ahead to open a file on Schmidt, even though Stark was being a pain in the ass about search warrants and not aggravating one of Mayor Pierce's closest friends and greatest campaign contributors.  But she's playing with fire here, and the fewer people know about her investigation the better. "But we're working on it, I promise."

Steve's face crumbles a little, though he rallies quickly.  "She was just... she was so small."

Peggy nods.  It's bad enough when accidents claim children; their deliberate murder is even harder to swallow.  She steps beside him and leans against the side of the car.  "You off tonight?"

"Yeah.  Couldn't sleep.  Figure I'd come see what's happening with the case."

She opens her mouth to tell him that he's welcome to call instead, that he doesn't have to take the time to come all the way down, but she's... not upset to see him.  The truth is that she doesn't feel much like being alone tonight, even as tired as she is, so she shuts her mouth and curves it up into a gentle smile instead.  "You need a ride somewhere?"

"Nah," Steve says, motioning to a motorcycle parked a few spots over.

"You need a drink?"

Steve's eyes dart up, catching hers.  "Yeah," he answers, his voice rough.  "I do."

Peggy watches Steve on his bike in her rearview mirror as he follows her home.

Chapter Text

This is forbidden.

The lycans have served the vampire dynasty for more than two thousand years, and there hasn’t been a single moment of that time where they have been permitted to lie with one of them. Wolves are seen as unclean, unworthy, slaves to the masters of the night. Steve and his kin may have guarded Stark and his house for five hundred years, but there will never be a time where Stark would allow his daughter to debase herself with the likes of Steve.

So they have loved each other quietly. Secretly. Wholly.

(In his very long life, he has never loved another like he loves Peggy.)

Steve’s quarters reek of Peggy, but lycans are brutally loyal, and though he knows his pack doesn’t approve of the dangerous risk he is taking, they would never betray him to the vampires. Even if he didn’t trust them, he trusts Bucky to keep them in line.

Even now, as Peggy lies between his sheets, his pack is covering for him, allowing Peggy to sneak out of the Stark estate to the Lycan compound just outside its stone walls and into his small home like she does most nights before the sun comes up. The rest of her clan will be sleeping the day away, secure in the comfort that their lycan guards provide, but she will be in Steve’s bed, shaded from the sun by the thick blackout curtains on his windows.

During the day, she is his.

Today is different, though. She was quiet in the hour before dawn, gentler when Steve set himself between her legs and pressed inside of her.

“What is it?” Steve asks, nosing under her jaw. She smells like him now, and the beast inside him growls low in pleasure. They are naked, still damp with the sweat of their coupling, and her skin almost feels warm with the heat she has leeched off of his body.

She shakes her head and turns toward him. "I wasn’t sure until today.“

Peggy tucks Steve’s hand low on her abdomen, her fingers slotted between his as they rest against her cooling skin, and sucks in a nervous breath. It’s unlike her to be anything other than brash and demanding in his bed; it sets him on edge to see her so strangely off kilter.

"I’m pregnant.”

Steve’s eyes blaze a bright, happy red.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Steve says quietly as Sharon stirs a bit, her forehead shifting against his chest. She’d fallen asleep in the car around four, her body slumping against his, and he’d been careful not to disturb her as she slumbered, slowly maneuvering her into a position that meant she was least likely to wake up with a painfully pinch in her neck.

It’s been a couple hours, but it’s clear from the disgruntled, hurt noise she makes that the sleep hasn’t been enough. He wonders for a second if she’s going to try to drift back off again, but she shifts enough that her weight falls off of him, her arm quickly retreating from where it had been scooped around the small of his back.

(He’d been quietly amused to discover she was a bit of a sleep cuddler, happy to unconsciously plaster herself around him when he’d made the room for her to do it.)

“Hey,” she mumbles quietly, wiping at her mouth, then dragging her hand over her entire face roughly. "Any movement?“

Steve knows she doesn’t appreciate his worrying, that she’s been snappish over the last few days at his propensity to offer suggestions. It’s clear that she’s not nearly getting enough sleep, not eating unless it’s food he practically shoves down her throat, but she’s also not overly willing to listen to reason about it either. Steve figures he’s not one to talk, but he’d prefer not to have to watch Sharon drive herself into the ground.

“No,” Steve answers, taking advantage of the freedom to stretch his arms over his head. His shoulders make a horrible cracking noises that makes Sharon wince. "I think the intel is shit. I haven’t even seen the men that run with Rumlow, let alone the man himself.“

Sharon’s mouth goes flat and angry. "There’s no other leads, Steve.”

Resting his hand over the scar on her arm, the thin silvery line that marks where Rumlow cut her open, Steve takes a deep breath. He knows it’s more than that to Sharon, that she doesn’t care about the scar or the pain, only the three colleagues she lost in that control room, the hundreds of others who died when the Helicarriers fell. She looks down at his hand and he feels the way her warm skin shivers under his palm.

“We’ll find him.”

Chapter Text

She’s poured herself a glass of the shitty merlot that’s been sitting half-empty in her fridge for a week before she feels the skin on the back of her neck begin to crawl. Her apartment is in a decently safe part of Brooklyn, and her building hasn’t had a break-in since Mrs. Sinnano down on 3rd had been robbed while visiting relatives in Florida, so she knows immediately who it is.

What the fuck he is is another question altogether.

(His mouth had been bloody, the white sharp teeth drawing out of that boy’s neck like the fangs of a snake. Eyes caught somewhere between the blue she had seen before and a dull crimson.

He had smiled at her, even though he’d looked angry at being caught. He’d smiled at her with his sharp teeth and his bloody mouth and the half-dead body of one of the gangsters she’d been following sprawled at his feet.)

“I thought you lot needed an invitation,” she says to the shadows outside her bedroom door, joking, but not. It’s been nearly a day, and she still can’t wrap her mind around what she saw outside The Trafalgar.

James Barnes is a disarming man. Even now, lurking in her fucking apartment uninvited, she’s both scared and intrigued. Her brother would say it’s the reporter in her, that her parents should have named her Catherine, because the curiosity is always a few steps away from killing her.

And when James Barnes steps out of the shadow of her bedroom door, she realizes how close she’s stepped to it this time. Crooked unions, low-level mobsters looking to make a name for themselves, corporations willing to go that extra mile. She’s been in the crosshairs long enough to know when someone’s looking at her with less than innocent intentions.

He shakes his head at her and smiles like she’s a confused child. "I’ve always liked garlic, too.“ Brooklyn apartments are small, so he’s only a few steps away when he says, "Catch someone early enough after Italian and you can kind of taste it. In the blood.”

Peggy’s hand clenches hard enough around her wine glass that for a second she’s afraid it will shatter. Peggy’s never been the girl to believe in legends, to believe in ghosts and the kind of fairytale nonsense that her brother adored well into his teens.

(He licked his lips. They’d been bloody from the boy, and he’d licked them like he’d been seeking the last taste of a meal he’d particularly enjoyed.)

He takes another step toward her, head tilting to the side like he’s appraising her. He’s in a suit: no tie, the collar undone and spread. There’s a strange chain around his neck, the kind she normally sees used for dogtags, but whatever’s on it is hidden under the crisp white shirt he’s wearing.

“Stay the hell away from me,” Peggy hisses, trying to ride the line between forceful and non-combative. She’s brash, but not stupid, and this man can hurt her. She slips around the side of her kitchen counter and into the living room backwards, careful not to trip on the carpet.

He follows her instantly. "Is that any way to speak to a guest?“

"A guest is invited. You are definitely not.”

Barnes’s mouth curls in a decidedly unfriendly way. "I don’t know why I can’t get into your pretty little head, but unfortunately for you, this leaves us with very few remaining options, Carter.“

Peggy does not like the way he is looking at her neck.

Chapter Text

Peggy does not take well to her turning.

Though Steve acknowledges Peggy’s anger at Bucky, he isn’t honest with her. If Bucky hadn’t stepped in, hadn’t cut open his wrist and made her drink as the bullets in her gut had drained out the last of her life, Steve isn’t sure he would have made the right choice.

At least the right choice in Peggy’s mind.

(He wouldn’t have. Steve wouldn’t have watched her die.)

Her anger is impotent though; in the dark, she has admitted to him quietly that she isn’t sure she would have chosen death over this life with them, though she hates what has been stolen from her. Steve knows Bucky’s guilt is a palpable thing, too; his turning was not by choice either, the serum forced on him during his time as a prisoner of war.

Though Peggy is gifted with strength and stamina, she does not undergo the type of physical transformation that Steve endured, nor the strange shift in personality that Bucky has seemingly undergone, more quiet and a little darker than the man Steve grew up with in Brooklyn.

But moments like this, watching Peggy happily tear into the throat of a Hydra soldier, rip out chunks, drink blood with a viciousness that Steve doesn’t remember in Peggy before the turn, he isn’t so sure what Bucky’s blood has done to her.

Chapter Text

It's Natasha who figures it out.

Six months after Steve wakes to an empty bed, not even the heat of Peggy's missing body still caught in the sheets, Natasha pays him a visit.

"She was born in '49," Natasha says, spreading the documents out in front of Steve. "Peggy did a hell of a job keeping her birth quiet, and when her husband adopted the kid a few years later, I think most people assumed she was his." Natasha stares up at Steve. "Though she never changed her name. Still a Carter to this very day."

Steve picks up a sheet of paper marked BIRTH CERTIFICATE, the age of it visible even though it's a photocopy. The section on the father is left blank, but it clearly says MARGARET CARTER as the mother. Underneath the copy of the birth certificate, Steve finds a bunch of photos of a smiling baby, a few footprints stamped out in ink, what looks like a graduation photo from Cambridge along with three different diplomas. "I met her," Steve says, his voice shaking. "I met her at the funeral. She..."

At the time, he thought the look in her eye was something else. It had been so sad, like his mere presence had brought her pain, like he had been an affront to the memory of her dead father. Though Steve could never bring himself to read them, he knows that the numerous biographies of Peggy Carter often cast Steve as the love of her life, despite the clearly happy, fruitful marriage that followed him.

He’d felt like an interloper at her funeral, a ghost that had haunted Peggy’s family, and her eldest child had looked at him with such pain in her eyes that he’d stayed hidden for most of the service and hadn’t gone to the wake.

“She lives in Paris now,” Natasha says, breaking Steve’s self-indulgent train of thought. “Her husband died a few years ago. She keeps an exceptionally low profile given how active Peggy’s other children are in politics and the security services, but I think we both know why now.” Natasha slides a photo in front of him of Peggy’s girl that is probably only a few weeks old, walking down a street lined with signs in French.

He’d thought it back at the funeral, too; he hadn’t even known she was Peggy’s eldest until one of her brothers had said her name. She looks so young. Too young.

“She’s 68, Steve,” Natasha says, “but she doesn’t look a day over 40. I don’t have definitive proof, but even if she didn’t look like you, there’s no way Sarah Carter isn’t your kid.”

--

“I thought I’d be seeing you one of these days,” Sarah Carter says with a sad smile, her hip resting against the doorframe of her house. She lives in St. Germain en Laye in a beautiful home it takes him longer than he expects to find, even with directions from Natasha.

Sarah,” Steve says, and the name leaves his throat like a dying breath. The weight of it clearly hits her too, because suddenly her face is filled with the same grief he saw at Peggy’s funeral.

Looking at her now, Steve recognizes the pieces of himself in her face: his nose and eyes paired with Peggy's cheekbones and rounded face. She’s got her blonde hair pulled back into an elegant knot, the sort of style he associates with Peggy: effortless and graceful.

He wants to reach out and touch her, to hug her, but he’s frozen on the spot. He has no idea what his rights are here, what she wants. But his suspicions are confirmed: there’s no way the woman standing in front of him isn’t his daughter.

Like she can tell he’s floundering, she tries for a smile and comes up a little short. “Do you want to come in? It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?”

--

The house is warm inside. Lived in. So different than most of the places he’s lived in this time. The place that he had shared for such a short time with Peggy had felt like this - warm and happy - but after she’d disappeared, he’d never returned, not even to collect the few personal items he had left behind.

He watches Sarah make them tea with the same exact routine he’d watch Peggy go through every time she’d made it for them. It aches and aches and aches. He sees so much of Peggy in Sarah now, from the way she smiles, to the blue streak she swears when she nicks her finger cutting lemons.

She brings the tray into the living room and sets it down on the table, pouring him a cup first before filling her own.

"I knew Dad wasn't really my father," Sarah says, sipping from her cup of tea. "I looked so different from my siblings, and though Dad loved me like his own, I always knew. When I was young, she told me that my father had been a soldier she'd fallen in love with, but that had died before I was born." She puts the cup down. “Dad told me you saved his life in the war. I think he knew Mum was still in love with you, but he respected you, and knew enough to know that Mum loved him dearly too. He was a good man. A very good man. I want you to know that. I could see you were worried at the funeral, but my brothers and sister grew up knowing that they were alive because you had saved our Dad.”

Steve nods, unable to find any words to speak, and mostly happy to listen to Sarah talk. Sarah doesn’t speak with any discernable accent, mostly just a flat, American drawl, but occasionally, he hears the light lilt of Peggy’s British accent come out in certain words.

"In my teenage years, I began to ask more questions, get more suspicious. I never got sick, not even a cold. When I fell off the tree in our backyard when I was thirteen, it took less than a week for my arm to heal even though it had broken in three places. Mum stopped taking me to the pediatrician my siblings went to. When I got old enough to learn about Mum, about what she did during the war - about you - I got suspicious. But you'd been dead four years before I was born," Sarah says. “It just didn’t make sense. You’d been dead three years before she even got pregnant, so it never even really crossed my mind as a possibility.”

"But you're okay, right?" Steve asks, which seems like a silly question given she’s sitting in front of him. Before the serum, Steve hadn’t entertained the possibility of children the way Bucky did. Mostly, Steve expected he’d either die in the war or a from a bad case of pneumonia, not to mention the fact that women rarely turned their eye to him anyway. After the serum, he’d been too caught in the fight to really wonder what the serum meant for the possibility of children. But now… now he realizes he’s saddled Sarah with the choices he’s made. “I mean, you’re healthy? It’s not… the serum didn’t hurt you, did it?”

Sarah shakes her head. “Before Howard died, he and Mum did a few very, very quiet tests. I didn’t know what they were doing at the time. But yes, I’m fine. The serum didn’t hurt me, but it did change me.”

“Changed you?”

Sarah shrugs. “From what I understand, I don’t have all of your… abilities. But I’m strong and fast - not quite as much as you, but more than is natural. I stopped aging normally sometime in my late 30s. I get a grey hair here and there, but it’s so slow that it’s become noticeable, which is why I’ve stayed away from the States, from SHIELD. Mum never wanted to involve anyone in our affairs, not even the people she trusted in SHIELD because of their obsession with you and recreating what Erksine did to you. Howard knew, but I don't think he ever told a soul. He was my godfather, you know."

Sarah reaches over and pulls a photo album out of a drawer in the side table next to the couch.

"I had a..." Sarah hesitates, looking a bit embarrassed. She grips the photo album in her lap and keeps her eyes trained on it. "I had a pregnancy scare when I was in college. That's when Mum told me about the serum. I knew I was different, but I didn't realize how different I really was. She told me about you, about what they really did to you during the war, about how she and Howard believed it was heritable, that likely my children would be affected the way I was."

Steve reaches out and touches the hand resting on the photo album. It's the first time he's ever touched his daughter; at the funeral, he'd conveyed his condolences and nodded his head at Peggy's children, nervous about his place in the memory of their mother.

Sarah shocks him by grabbing onto it. "She didn't tell me about everything else - about what the infinity stone did to her, about it dragging her into the future - until far later, until she got the diagnosis and she knew her memories would start to fade. I didn't believe her." Her eyes are glassy, and she has the exact same tortured look that Peggy had worn last year when they had been faced with the prospect that her travel to this time was only temporary, that soon enough she’d be sent back to the 40s, back to a life where Steve Rogers would sleep for another seventy years. "But I also didn't believe aliens would fall out of the sky, that you would end up being fished out of the ice five years ago." Sarah angrily wipes a tear from her eye. "It didn't make any sense until it just... did."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Steve asks, keeping his voice neutral and non-accusatory. The ache he feels at his daughter keeping this secret alone for so many years is indescribable; he doesn't want to make this any worse for her. "At the funeral. You knew who I was. Why didn't you say anything to me?"

The side of Sarah's mouth lifts, but it's anything but a smile. "She made me swear not to tell you, that eventually you’d find me, that it needed to happen this way. We didn't talk about it very much; she wouldn't admit it because she was stubborn as hell, but I think losing you for a second time hurt more than it did the first time." She lets go of Steve's hand and opens the photo album, flipping between the pages. It's full of smiling faces, birthday cakes and candles, young bodies jumping into lakes. "She told me once, in a lucid moment early into her diagnosis, that I couldn't ever tell you because you'd never let it happen if you knew the truth, that she wouldn't get to have me because even though I'm here with you now, you would never let her carry the burden of being pregnant and alone if you’d known ahead of time what was going to happen."

This time it's Steve's turn to start crying. He presses his face into his hands and takes several deep, ragged breaths. It feels like everything’s been stolen from him: Bucky, Peggy, his child.

Sarah’s hand comes to rest on the back of his neck. Warm and comforting. "I had a happy childhood. I was loved. I was healthy and happy and had a gaggle of siblings who drove me nuts. I've had a good life, and I owe so much of that to you. But I believe Mum - whatever had to happen had to happen, I couldn't change that."

She’s not wrong. Peggy wasn’t either, which is why Steve can’t help but feel slightly betrayed. He’d never have slept with her, would never haven’t taken her into his bed if he had known he was sending her back to 1948 pregnant and alone. But then Sarah would never had been born, Peggy never would have had a daughter she had spoken to him about at such length, something that had given her incredible joy through her life.

“She didn’t know she was pregnant until a few months after she got back,” Sarah says, like she can read Steve’s mind. “You have to understand, she wouldn’t have done it either going in knowing what she did later in life; she didn’t want to rob you of raising your child. She was just as clueless as to what was to come as you were. We didn’t talk much about what she did, but once I began to believe her, she opened up. As much as the Alzheimer's stole her from us, it also gave her a bit of freedom from her secrets. I can’t imagine being unwed and pregnant in the 40s would have been a pleasant experience for anyone, but it hurt her more knowing how much you’d regret what you’d done, what you’d miss.” Sarah laughs wetly. “God, this is bizarre, Steve.”

“I’m so sorry,” Steve says, unable to put to words what he really feels. “It was so strange. Those last few months when she got really bad, she’d talk about the things we’d done together that we’d never done, and I’d indulge her, listen to her talk about --” he pauses for a second, realizing that some of the stories aren’t necessarily things a child, no matter their age, wants to hear about their mother, “ -- about what we’d done and wish that it were true. It was only later, after Peggy came back to me, that I realized she was speaking about her past and my future.”

He remembers her talking about the time they’d taken a walk in Central Park and had scandalized a few birdwatchers by making love up against a tree they felt was far enough off the beaten path to keep them hidden from any prying eyes. At her bedside, it had felt like a sweet fantasy, something the ice had stolen the possibility of from him. A year later, the Peggy he’d come back to dead and buried, he’d lived the things stolen with a woman time had let him borrow, if only for a few weeks.

"Come on," Sarah says, taking his hand and leading him up the narrow stairs of her home. The building is quite old, but has been renovated well, and is far brighter than he expected looking at it from the outside. At the end of the hall, they enter a room that is clearly a nursery, bright sunny-yellow walls covered with antique illustrations of circus animals, a crib in the corner. “My son Jack is in Singapore with his wife for a few weeks, so they asked me to watch their girl.”

Steve freezes beside the crib, staring down at the tiny body inside of it.

"This is your great-granddaughter,” Sarah says, and for a moment, Steve’s chest hurts like he’s just taken a bullet to it. Natasha had mentioned Sarah had a family of her own, but looking down at the lightly dozing child makes something wake up deep inside of Steve. “This… this is what made it easier for Mum. When she’d talk about what happened between the two of you in this time, how worried she was at how broken you were, what would happen when she left. She knew you’d have a family, that you’d have us.”

The girl in the crib stirs roughly, shifting as Sarah leans down and picks her up, planting a kiss on her head before gently passing the sleepy toddler into his arms. She's got a full head of dark, curly hair that is tangled with sleep, and is wearing soft cotton pajamas with puffy sheep printed all over them.

"Maggie," Sarah says, brushing a finger over a sleep-warm cheek before the girl lets out a quiet mew and smacks her lips. Maggie turns her head to look up at the man holding her. "This is Steve."

Big brown eyes stare up at him.

Chapter Text

It would be easier to hunt Rogers by day, when he’s still a man.  When the moon sits in the darkened sky, no matter sliver or full, the man retreats behind fur and teeth.

The wolves are wards of the witches, but Rogers is different from the others, freed from the bonds of servitude of the rest by a blood sacrifice so powerful it severed the ties to his kind.  It’s the reason his soul is still clean: he has never been made a slave to the whims of men and women like Bucky.  It’s now the reason why they’re all after him.  A human soul is powerful enough to satisfy a witch for weeks - perhaps months - but the soul of a supernatural that hasn’t gone dark?

Such a thing has never been consumed before.  Bucky can taste it in the back of his throat.

Tonight, he’s not the only thing looking for Rogers.  He’s also been able to taste her as well, the desperation she feels for Rogers’s soul, the need to own and consume.  He doesn’t understand the thing that links them, that makes her feel different than the other witches he has known.  It’s not common for their kind to grow together, to imprint before the powers and the darkness come, but it still does not explain why he dreams through her eyes, why he can feel when she feeds and when she goes hungry.

He wonders if she can feel it too, if it goes both ways rather than one.

“You can stop hiding,” Bucky says casually to the night air, smirking.  "I can smell you, sweetheart.“

Sharon’s always smelled of the same light flavour of lemon and anise that all the Carter witches carry, though Sharon is the only one left living.  It is a dangerous time for witches, a dangerous time for anything that draws on the dark.  Once, there had been a balance, but now the dark feeds ravenously, and those not willing to do what is necessary are consumed by it entirely - body and soul.

Blonde hair and eyes filled with black magic appear suddenly beside him.  

"I see I am not the only one hunting Steve tonight,” Sharon says, leaning her hip against a towering pine.

She still calls him Steve, still hanging onto the man they both grew up with, before the power inside of them started to eat at memories and feelings, feasting on the good to feed the bad.  At the time, it had hurt with a fury that Bucky can only remember with the slightest ache now.  It’s stronger for Sharon, though.  When he dreams through her eyes, when he hears the thoughts inside her head like they are in his own, she is more torn by what her body wants.  She remembers tenderness and kindness like they are real things, meant for them to feel.

She still craves things that Bucky long ago threw away.  But she is all the more vicious for them, driving her to cruelty that Bucky feels too numb to bother wanting.  He still wants, though.  Witches rarely lie together, too untrusting to submit their bodies to one another, but Bucky remembers what it was like to be inside of her, the human craving of flesh so different than the kind that fills him now.

“You guard your thoughts poorly,” Sharon says with a bitter laugh.  Her eyes narrow with something more than disdain.  Understanding, perhaps. “As if you don’t hunt him at night for a reason.”

It had been in Washington that Bucky had managed to track Rogers down that first time, hovering over his prone frame as he begged Bucky to end it, refused to fight any longer.  It’s the end of the line, Rogers had said, his body close to completely broken.  Just promise me… promise me you’ll take care of her.

Bucky doesn’t remember letting Rogers go, doesn’t remember using the bits of his strength left to draw together the broken bones in Rogers’s body.  Doesn’t remember walking away and leaving him soggy and shivering on the banks of the Potomac.

It’s why he only hunts at night now.  This time, Steve’s face will not save him.