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Claim Your Heart

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“They want what?” Darcy Lewis kicked her feet up onto the beat-up gray metal lab desk, wincing at the shrill tone in her own voice. Jane turned to give her a questioning look. She smiled and mouthed, Family.

“His heart,” her mother said. “Just his heart, they don’t care about the rest. Some kind of weird-ass Snow White bullshit, I don’t know.”

“Gross,” Darcy said, and popped her gum.

“Put it in a cooler, princess, you’ll be fine. And bring back the rest of the body too, would you? I have other bidders.”

“Double gross.” Across the lab, Jane frowned and started to fiddle with a dial. Darcy raised her voice. “Janey, no, not that one! Gotta go mom, I love you. Talk to you soon.”

“Love you too! Make sure you get it out intact! You might want to bring a mallet for the —” Darcy hung up, wincing. A mallet, god.

She went across and helped Jane recalibrate the doohickey to focus on a different energy signature. It wasn’t really hard, just fiddly. Needed a steady hand, not unlike some of Darcy’s other work.

“So what’s gross?” Jane said when they were done, wiping oil off her fingers.

“What? — Oh. We were just talking about what the niblings want for Christmas,” Darcy said easily. “There’s some kind of weird slime mold experiment that all the kids are doing and they want, like, eight sets.”

Jane wrinkled her nose. “Ew. But I mean, it’s cool that it’s science.”

“Yeah.” Darcy sighed. “I just hate slimy things.”

***

There wasn’t really a time when the Tower was empty, per se. Even during the occasional bout of Avenging, there were still significant others and support staff and so forth. Still, a little judicious hacking of the security feeds had shown that 3 a.m. was a pretty quiet time. There was only one person who was reliably up and wandering around.

So at 3 a.m., three days after her mom’s call, Darcy strolled down the hall on the 97th floor in her oldest flannel PJs, tapping at her tablet with a stylus. She didn’t look up until a large shadow fell across the screen.

“Oh!” she said, faking sudden fear, and then she looked up and didn’t have to fake it.

Bucky Barnes was standing in front of her, metal arm gleaming in the blue light from the tablet. His tangled hair cast his face in shadow, except for the gleam of his pale eyes, narrowed and feral. “You shouldn’t be here,” he growled.

Darcy swallowed, goosebumps chasing goosebumps up her arms. The guy was big. Like, she’d seen him before and she knew he was tall, but up close in a dark hallway it was something else again. Maybe she should have listened to her mom about that mallet. “S-sorry,” she said. “The elevator stopped and I just —” climbed out the top and rappelled four floors down the shaft “—got off without looking. Sorry, I’ll just …”

She backed away, waiting for him to blink. When he did, she whipped the stylus up and blew once, hard.

At the same moment, he snapped something in Russian.

The next thing Darcy knew, she was hanging upside down in some kind of metal net, six feet off the ground. Bucky was slumped down against the wall a few feet away, boneless as a doll. So at least something had worked as planned.

“Huh,” she said, and tried a little struggle. The net moved in exactly no way at all. “What the hell is this thing?”

“Narrow-gauge t’t’nium messsh,” Bucky slurred from below her. She’d have jumped, if she could move. “Wha’ th’ hell is this stuff?”

“Modified dendrotoxin.” Darcy's glasses were on the floor somewhere -- good thing she didn't actually need them. She squinted at him in the low light and frowned. “You shouldn’t be able to talk.”

“Super sold’er,” he said, and she noticed with discomfort that the slur was fading. “Might notta gotten the bran’-name version but ‘m still enhanced.” He made a grunting noise of effort, and his head flopped over onto the other shoulder, so he was looking up at her. “But I can’t hit th’ panic button ’til I can move my hands. So we got some time to chat. Who are you really?”

She didn’t bother to answer, because a) how dumb did he think she was, anyway and b) she was thinking back over the last few minutes. He’d been on guard from the second he saw her. But why? He might not have met her, but he knew she lived in the Tower. They’d been in the same room a couple of times and she’d said something dippy to Jane about him being cute. She was pretty sure she’d done the lollipop trick, even. Nobody worried about her after they saw the lollipop trick.

Only now that she thought about it, he’d never really relaxed around her. Never talked to her. Never came to the labs with Steve. Stayed on the other side of the room any time she was nearby. And just now … she narrowed her eyes. Just now, he’d given the command for the net before he felt the dart.

“Out of curiosity,” she said lightly, like it was no big deal and her blood was definitely not turning to ice in her veins, “when did you start to suspect?”

It was hard to tell from this angle, but she thought he almost smiled. “When Thor started tellin’ stories ‘bout his lightnin’ sister,” he said. “No regular coed hacks government databases and carries crazy juiced-up tasers.”

No regular coed had six knives hidden in various places under her jammies, either. Darcy wiggled her fingers, inching for the one on the inside of her thigh. “Hey now, don’t underestimate coeds,” she said, to distract him from the motion. “My roommate Louise once foiled a burglary with two potholders and a Cup-o-Noodles.”

He snorted. “Bullshit.”

“Possibly.” Her fingers curled around the handle of the knife, and she couldn’t keep herself from grinning at him. “But honestly, you’re right, I was surprised nobody picked up on that.”

Another snort. Had his fingers twitched? She couldn’t tell in this light. “This bunch wouldn’t know normal if they hit it with a brick.”

She huffed a laugh. The trick with narrow-gauge mesh was, even if it was crazy tough material, the links were thin enough that you could snap them open if you had something to lever with, like say the tip of a knife.

“So, just out of curiosity,” he said, mimicking her words with biting sarcasm, “what are you? Hydra? Red Room?”

“Ugh!” She jerked back a little in instinctive distaste, and then winced as some of her hair caught in the net. That was going to hurt like a bitch when she had to rip it out. Maybe she could tack on some kind of surcharge for hair-related trauma. “No way man, fuck those assholes. I’m not some kind of hired killer.” She paused, wiggling the knife, and thought about it. “Well okay, I am, but like, only for really bad guys. ‘If I show up at your door, you did something to bring me there,’ you know?”

He was silent.

“It’s from a movie about an assassin. Grosse Pointe Blank?” Still nothing. Darcy sighed. “Dude, someone should have really worked on your pop culture education.”

“They tend not to show me movies about assassins,” he said, his voice dry as the Sahara. And, she was worried to notice, completely clear.

Three links had given, four more to go. She wiggled the knife faster. “Yeah, well anyway, you’re pretty much the baddest bad guy in the world. And someone gave me a lot of money to make that not be the case. So, sorry dude.”

He winced. Not just his face — his hand definitely moved, too. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Sure.” It was Darcy’s turn to snort. “I’ve never heard that before. The last time a guy got me with that ‘oh don’t hurt me, I’m retired’ schtick, I was fifteen. Fun story, he put out a hit on me and I only survived ‘cause no one could find me. You live in my house. I’m sure you can see why I prefer not to take the risk.”

“Won’t be your house for very long, sweetheart,” he growled, through what sounded like gritted teeth. One of his feet twitched.

“Sure it will!” Just a little longer. Keep him talking. “What’s going to happen is, you’re going to vanish. All of this? Never happened. But don’t worry, you’ll leave behind a nice note for your friend Steve about how you just couldn’t keep living here, with the guilt of what you’ve done. It’s very touching,” she added, “I wrote it myself.”

Bucky stared at her for a second. Then he laughed, not nicely. Her blood turned to ice again. “Yeah, nice try, doll. Steve won’t buy that for a second. He knows I don’t feel guilty.”

“You don’t?” Ugh. Suddenly she felt better about this. His kill count was insane, and he didn’t feel guilty!? Even Darcy felt a little guilty sometimes, and she only killed certified Grade-A Assholes.

“Got nothing to feel guilty about,” he said. His voice was calm, but his right hand curled into a fist, and she heard a whir that suggested the left hand was doing the same. “Didn’t you read my file? I was under mind control. Tortured, brainwashed, the whole nine. Never wanted to do any of it.”

Darcy froze. The knife stopped moving. “You were … what?”

His eyes were level on her face. “You heard me.”

“F … for seventy years?” She swallowed hard and tried to imagine. Then she tried very hard not to imagine.

He had an odd expression on his face. If she didn’t know better, she might have said it was surprise. “They really never told you, did they?”

“Nope!” she said, with bright, bitter humor. “They like to shelter me from stuff like that.” She made her voice high, mimicking Jane. “ ’Don’t tell Darcy, it’ll only upset her.’ All they said about you was hey, Bucky used to do some bad stuff but don’t worry, he’s not like that anymore. How the hell was I supposed to know what that meant?” She blew out an angry breath. “Civilians. Why do they have no sense of mission-critical information?”

“I ask myself that all the damn time,” Bucky agreed.

They sat — or swung, in Darcy’s case — in silence for a moment.

“So …” he said finally. “What now?”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. She stared into space as her brain turned over options. “I guess I’ll have to clear out. Which sucks, because I like this cover. Nobody looks twice at Darcy. I can tell Jane I’m going to Cabo for a week, five cartel bosses die while I’m down there, and all anybody says when I get back is ‘Hey Darce, did you drink lots of margaritas?’ ”

“Handy,” he said, in that same dry voice. “But I meant, where are we on the you-killing-me thing?”

She huffed a sigh. Her mom was going to be so annoyed. “Bad guys only, Robot Spice,” she said. “You’re safe. But, just out of curiosity … you wouldn’t happen to have the name and address of the person who did all that to you?”

“People, doll. Plural.”

Darcy felt red rage rise in front of her eyes, or maybe that was just from all the blood pooling in her head. Either way, she heard the note of icy ruthlessness in her voice when she said, “Question stands.”

He made another face that she couldn’t interpret. His eyes tracked from her face upwards to her hand, and she could tell from his expression that he’d known about the knife all along. “How long you think it’s going to take you to get out of that net?”

She started working again, not even bothering to be subtle. “Bout another minute. Why, how long is it going to take you to shake off that dendrotoxin?”

He grinned. She realized, too late, that he’d been very still for the last couple of minutes.

He hopped to his feet, not even giving her the courtesy of being clumsy at it, and strolled over. The net held her so that her face was almost exactly level with his. She eyed him warily, but his expression was unreadable.

“So, where are we on the you-killing-me thing?” she said, and was proud that her voice didn’t shake.

He ducked his head so they were eye to eye. This close, his eyes were very blue and very cold. She swallowed hard. He lifted the metal hand, fingers splayed, to her head … and gently untangled her hair from the net. “I don’t,” he said softly, “do that anymore.”

The last link snapped. She fell, twisting to land on her feet. They were still just inches apart, but she was shorter than him now, and had to tilt her head back to look at him.

She stared at him. He stared at her.

She backed up a step. He didn’t move. She backed up another, and another, and then she was running for the elevator shaft and he wasn’t following her, wasn’t moving at all. She risked a look back when she had the harness hooked up, just before she jumped. He was still standing there, watching her. When their eyes met, he lifted his left hand and waved.

She dived backwards into darkness.