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Claim Your Heart

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

As soon as the girl disappeared, Bucky collapsed.

Whatever she’d shot him up with didn’t keep him down for long, but it sure as hell made standing hurt. His whole body felt like it was being jabbed with electrified needles —that was a memory, not a figure of speech. At least he could twitch, now. Last time there’d been straps.

His teeth were chattering so hard it took a second to notice the other clacking sound. Every time he shuddered, the Arm was hitting something hard. What the hell could it be? He started to turn his head, but the movement made his stomach try to get out through his nose.

He forced it back down, coughed, tried again.

Ah. A tablet computer. The silver Stark logo on the back shone under the dim blue emergency lights. After a second, he remembered the girl tapping on it right before she tried to blow him away.

His stomach rolled again. Damn, he hated being right. And it almost didn’t matter that she hadn’t killed him, because Steve was going to finish the job for her when he found out Bucky didn’t press the panic button the second he could.

… why didn’t he?

He sat up carefully, still shivering a little, and eyed the tablet for a long time.

He should press his panic button now. Better late than never. Then what? Tell everyone the story, watch Jane Foster cry, watch Steve clench his jaw and punch things like he could punch the unfairness right out of the world, again. Still.

They’d call doctors. Run tests. Pin another name to the wall in the tac room and tell him how they’re going to get her, any day now Buck, we’ll find her and bring her to justice. He’d nod when they said it like he still believed there was any kind of justice that mattered.

Bad guys only, Robot Spice.

He reached out, the Arm always steady no matter what the rest of him was doing, and picked up the tablet.

Steve was on the couch when he walked back into the apartment, doing a pretty good impression of awake for a guy whose shirt was on backwards. There were papers spread out on the coffee table in front of him. They were the same ones he always looked at when Bucky went out late at night. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of his picture on one of them, face blank and blue with frost. Sometimes Steve had to turn away fast and rub his eyes when Bucky walked in.

Tonight, though, he just seemed tired. He shuffled the papers into a pile hastily, like always, and smiled a little. “Hey, Buck.”

Bucky found a smile to return. It was the one he used most, the nothing’s wrong here ol’ buddy just your pal Buck expression. It was maybe the biggest lie he ever told these days. He shifted a little so the StarkPad was in the shadow of his body and managed a “Hi, Stevie.”

Steve looked closer at him and frowned a little. “You okay? You look kind of pale.”

His voice was warm, like always. It sounded like home and justice and friendship and a lot of other shit Bucky didn’t really believe in anymore. The second it hit his ears, he realized why he hadn’t pressed the panic button. Darcy’s voice had stopped him. His finger had been on the button when she’d said, with bone-chilling calm, “Question stands.”

He’d heard that tone before. He’d used that tone before. It was the voice of a killer with absolutely no hesitation about pulling the trigger. And his hand had dropped like a rock because goddamn, he needed that voice.

“ ‘M fine,” he said, keeping his own tone gentle and as warm as he could make it. “Go back to bed.”

Steve tried to stare him down, but that really didn’t work anymore. After a second he gave up and shoved the papers into a drawer. “G’night, then.”

“Night.” Bucky sat on the couch and waited until he heard the door close, then started hacking the tablet. It wasn’t hard, he’d heard Tony yelling at Darcy the other day about how she shouldn’t use 'cl1nt$uck$' as her password for everything. He didn’t seriously expect it to work — the woman was an undercover assassin for godsakes — but it did.

She was very, very good at the innocent co-ed thing. He had to give her that.

He waited for Steve to go to sleep and amused himself by looking through her search history. It was nothing but boring political science papers and funny cat videos. Whatever shady research she might feel the need for, she didn’t do it on her regular tablet. His opinion of her rose another notch.

When Steve’s breathing finally evened out, Bucky silently opened the drawer and took out the papers. He took five deep breaths like the therapist taught him — in through his nose for four, out through his mouth for six. Then he opened the tablet’s address book and started to type.

Bases. Personnel. Suspected associates. Everything the Avengers had on Hydra but hadn’t used … or couldn’t use … or wouldn’t use. He didn’t really know. Hadn’t paid much attention, because until now, he hadn’t had any use for it either.

What he wanted — needed — wasn’t revenge, exactly. Revenge was for people who’d been done wrong, and … well. Revenge was for people.

What he needed was.


Something like a fix, maybe. A cure. A scorched earth policy. He didn’t give a shit if the people whose names he was tapping one by one into an assassin’s address book ever faced justice — whatever the hell that was. Justice wasn’t going to help him sleep at night. Death … might. Death meant no hands to push the button, no voices to speak the trigger words. No Soldier to be made out of his bones and blood.

If there was no Hydra, maybe he wouldn’t wake up at night surrounded by the walls of other cities, his dreams a mess of gray rooms and steel tables and orders barked or whispered or signed. Maybe it wouldn’t close him in until he had to get up and walk, not even seeing the hallways, trying to find the way out of the alleys in his mind. No matter how many times he stared at himself in the mirror, he couldn’t stop seeing the shape of that other self still out there, in those alleys, staring at those walls. Couldn’t shake the feeling that he was the one that was just a shadow. The one that wasn’t real.

Because it was all still there, and he knew it. Every street and wall, every cryo tank, every knife. Any second he could snap back and it would be like … like he never …

He fumbled the tablet, flesh hand going numb, and had to bend over the desk and breathe for a few seconds.

The thing he could never explain to anyone, was that he knew he wasn’t the Winter Soldier. They were — every lab tech and Hydra grunt that ever touched him. The Soldier was in their hands and minds and whatever rotten meat was inside them instead of hearts. He might be out of Bucky’s body, for now, but he still lived in theirs. As long as they were alive, the Soldier was never going to be gone.

He needed it all fucking gone.

And so, what? said a nasty little voice in his head. You’re just going to trust an assassin to make your problems go away?

“Why not?” he muttered out loud, locking the screen. “It’s what we do.”

He glanced at the clock — almost six a.m. Might as well make some breakfast. In a couple of hours, he was going to go downstairs and hire an assassin to kill the Winter Soldier.

Chapter Text

Full Tower lockdown took four minutes. Darcy’d timed it the last time AIM attacked. She rapelled down into the garage, grabbed the go-bag she’d stashed in the wheel well of Tony’s least favorite Maserati, and was out the door in three and a half. But when she looked back for the last time, from halfway down the block, there was no sign of an alarm — no sirens, no flashing lights, no shivering parade of evacuated civilians.


She didn’t realize how odd until her phone rang four hours later. She was in the security line at JFK, with short blonde hair and a plane ticket to Hong Kong. Her name was Sarah Carstares, and she shouldn't even still have Darcy Lewis's phone, but she'd kept it out of morbid curiosity. How long would it take for Bucky to blow her cover? Why hadn’t he done it right away?

She dug out the ringing phone and stared at Jane’s face on the screen. Their friendship had been part of the cover, of course, but it had been … nice … to have someone close like that. It was really going to suck to hear what Jane thought of her now. She probably shouldn't even answer. Sarah Carstares wouldn't.

Sarah's eyes turned back to the departure board, but Darcy Lewis's thumb swiped across the screen all on its own. “Hi, Janey,” she said heavily.

“Darce?” The sound of Jane’s voice made unexpected tears prickle in her eyes. Jane didn’t even sound mad. If anything, she sounded worried. “Are you okay? Where are you? I asked JARVIS to have you come down to the lab early, and he said you’re not in your room.”

Surprise pushed away sadness. “I … what?”

“I figured you were just out getting coffee, but then Bucky Barnes came down here looking for you.” Here it came. Darcy — Sarah braced herself for the blow. “He said you guys ran into each other last night and he was worried he scared you.”

“He —” For the first time in her life, she was speechless. Blindly, she shoved her way out of line, ducked under the barrier and sat heavily on a bench. He hadn’t blown her cover. He’d told Jane that he was worried about her, of all ridiculous fucking things.

“Darcy?” Jane said, and she was definitely worried now. “Did he scare you? I know he can be kind of intimidating, but he’s a nice guy and I think he feels really bad.”

Sarah Carstares looked at her plane ticket, tucked neatly between the pages of her brand-new passport. “He might have scared me a little,” she said slowly. “But I’m okay. Did he say anything else?”

Jane laughed a little, sounding relieved. “He said to tell you he has the tablet you dropped, and all the names and addresses are still there. And that he’ll owe you a margarita for your trouble.”

None of this made sense. She stared at the handle of her wheely suitcase and clawed for an explanation. All what names and addresses?

...oh. OH. She'd asked for the name and address of the person who hurt him, and he said 'People, doll. Plural.'

The international assassin whose name wasn't Sarah Carstares or Darcy Lewis smiled, very slowly. Oh yes.

“I’ll be home in a couple of hours,” she said in Darcy's chirpy voice. “I just need to run some errands.” She headed for the door, dropping a few sheets of useless paper in the trash can as she went. “Oh, and Janey? I’m thinking about changing my look. Do you think I’d be good as a blonde?”


“Nice hair,” Bucky said when she saw him in the common room two days later. She shot him a hard glance, and he smirked. The expression didn’t reach his eyes, which were sharp and watchful. His shoulders were set, too, like a man waiting to be attacked. A tiny clicking noise suggested one of his metal fingers might be twitching.

She made a show of leaning casually against the wall, her center of gravity not balanced over her feet like it would need to be for an attack. He relaxed a little. She took a big bite of the sandwich she’d been carrying back to the lab, which put both her hands in plain sight. He relaxed a little more. It was kind of like soothing that annoying cat of Natasha’s: lots of slow movement and big gestures that said, Look, I’m not going to touch you. Watch me staying way over here.

“Yeah, well, there were too many long-haired brunettes around here,” she said airily, mouth still half-full. He made a disgusted face, and that one did reach his eyes. She swallowed the bite and grinned. “But I think I’m going to dye it back. I’m not really cut out to be a blonde.”

He made a very ungentlemanly noise of agreement.

She stuck her tongue out at him and started to shift back to her feet, then paused. They didn’t exactly see each other every day. Might as well not waste the opportunity to communicate. “Hey, thanks for returning my tablet, by the way,” she said carelessly. His eyes went sharp again, and she met them with a level gaze of her own.

He moved around her, blocking her path to the door, and boxed her in with a casual arm against the wall by her head. It was a smart move — looked like heavy flirting, but actually blocked both of their faces from the security camera. It was also the closest she’d ever let a target — even a former target — get without a weapon in her hand. She made herself take slow breaths of his citrusy aftershave and not try to figure out a way to kill him with the sandwich. “You should be more careful,” he said over the sirens in her brain. “If I didn’t have a login for the security cameras, I’d never have figured out where you left it.”

That explained why the footage had already been gone when she hacked in to delete it. “Lucky me,” she said, and even with the deep breathing her voice still sounded thin and high. “I’d hate to lose it. All my vacation plans are on there.”

“Oh, yeah?” His eyes widened a fraction. She didn’t have a name for the look in them. Fear? Hope? Distrust? Maybe all of the above. “Where are you goin’ on vacation?” Only a trained observer would have noticed the tiny pause before the word ‘vacation.’

“Oh, you know, the usual. Switzerland, France, maybe a couple of the Eastern bloc countries.”

He looked surprised, then dubious. “What, all in one trip?”

“Sure. Jane’s real generous with the vacation time as long as there’s nothing interesting happening in space.” That wasn’t his real question, but it was all the answer he was getting. She saw the door open behind him and leaned in, turning on the flirty coed. “You might owe me more than one margarita, Soldier,” she purred.

He raised an eyebrow, clocking the change, but didn’t move. “I’ll owe you as many margaritas as you want, doll,” he murmured back, his voice a low, velvety rumble. It was all just a game, part of the cover, but damn. She felt her cheeks heat up anyway. His other eyebrow went up. Then the corner of his mouth curled and, for the first time, she saw Bucky Barnes smile. Not a shitty smirk or an angry grimace — a real smile.

It was like looking at a light bulb the moment someone turned it on. His mouth didn’t even curve that much, just the corners tucking away, but his eyes warmed up and crinkled and his whole face came alive. He went from zero to historic hottie so fast it left spots in her eyes.

She was good at controlling her expression. It was part of the job. Someone saw the wrong emotion at the wrong time, she could die. So there was no excuse for how long it took her to wipe the dumbstruck look off her face. Jesus Christ, no wonder he didn’t carry a gun. That thing was a weapon all on its own.

Get it together, she told herself fiercely. Darcy would smile back. So fucking smile. She swept her lashes down, then back up, and gave him her best ‘do-me’ smirk.

He coughed, metal hand rising with a whir to cover his expression for a moment.

She squashed the urge to stick her tongue out at him. Ha, take that, motherfucker. You’re not the only one who knows that game. And I’m in practice.

Behind his shoulder, Steve looked from one of them to the other and cleared his throat. She though she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth like he was trying to hide a smile of his own. “Hi Buck,” he said. “Darcy.”

“Hi Steve,” Darcy said, not having to try too hard for the squeak in her voice. “I was just … um … I’m just going to …” She eased around Bucky, who did not move an inch out of her way, just turned his head lazily and watched her go.

“See you around, doll,” he said, and winked. The asshole winked at her.

“Not if I see you first!” Darcy said, and made finger-guns at him. It was exactly the kind of cheesy flirting Darcy Lewis was known for, but also, it was 100% true — he was not going to see her if she saw him first, and she kind of did want to shoot him right at that moment.

His laugh followed her out the door.


The first thing Steve did, as soon as she was out of the room, was point accusingly at Bucky and yell, “Ah-HA!”

Bucky sighed and let more of his weight drop back against the wall. Of course it had to be Steve that walked in. Couldn’t have been Tony, who wouldn’t give a fuck. “Can it, punk.”

“ ‘Oh no, Stevie, she’s not my type,’ ” Steve said in a sing-song. He folded his arms and cocked his hip, mocking Bucky’s usual posture. “‘I’m not watchin’ her cause I like her, I’m watchin’ her cause she’s shady and someone should keep an eye on her.’ ”

“Someone should keep an eye on her,” Bucky snapped, then kicked himself. He’d spent so long trying to convince Steve that something was off with Darcy, he’d forgotten that now he didn’t want anyone to suspect her.

He didn’t need to worry. Steve just laughed. Cackled, really. “Yeah, and it should be you, right? For safety reasons.”

Bucky opened his mouth, then shut it again. He could see a trap when he damn near walked into one.

Steve’s laughter subsided into a fond smile. “Don’t kid yourself, pal,” he said, slinging an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “I’ve watched you with dames since 1935. I know that look on your face. It ain’t your eyes you want on her.”

Bucky sighed again and tried to wriggle out from under the arm. It was a losing battle. He let Steve steer him down the hall toward the kitchen and debated what he should say.

On the one hand, he hated to let Steve be right about this, because he was never going to hear the fucking end of it. On the other hand … there were worse covers. If she really was going to go after Hydra, there was no telling how much they'd need to talk, and he could hardly go from hating her to hanging around her without some kind of excuse. He tried for a middle ground. “So I was flirting a little, so what? It doesn’t mean nothin’. I’m just tryin’ to get back in practice.”

“Not that look,” Steve said. He pointed at Bucky’s face with his free hand. “The one you’re wearing right now. Like you don’t know what hit you, but you’re pretty sure you liked it.”

Bucky’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. That wasn’t … he didn’t … okay, so maybe she’d given him a hell of a steamy look. And maybe she was real pretty now that she wasn’t trying to kill him. And maybe he even respected her professional skills. But that didn’t mean that he was some kind of … of infatuated or something.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, and added silently, The flirting is a useful cover that gives us a reason to talk, but that’s it. She’s a professional and that smile means nothing to her or to me.

Nothing at all.

Chapter Text

The next day, Darcy called her mother. There was really no avoiding it. Someone was going to have to explain to whoever had tried to buy Bucky’s heart that they could go fuck themselves, and Darcy didn’t even have their number.

“He was what?” her mom said.

“I know,” Darcy replied, scrolling through the names and addresses she’d found in her tablet. The list was organized neatly by last name, cross-referenced with location, and it was longer than she’d expected. Some of the people were marked dead already, or retired. Dead was good, that lightened the work load. Retired meant precisely jack shit to her, other than someone should have killed them a long time ago. She’d be fixing that, thank you very much.

“No, I mean seriously, he was what?”

“I know.” She felt herself relax a bit. It was nice to have someone to share the outrage. Any halfway decent person would be outraged, of course, but … maybe not quite for the same reasons. They’d be upset by the killing, which like, whatever. That was a Tuesday in her world. What bothered her was more complicated.

The thing was, this job — this life — was hard and messy. It took a toll on you, even if you did it by choice and for the right reasons. And yes, she was well aware that some people might say there were no “right” reasons to become a hired killer, but she and her mom both had reasons they believed were right. Every day, every job, was their choice.

To have that choice taken? To be forced to do it when you didn’t want to? She shuddered to imagine the kind of damage that would do to a person. And that was before the torture, and the brainwashing, and the rest of it.

There was a rhythmic shushing noise in the background that suggested her mom was pacing. “I —I heard of him. Nothing solid, just whispers. Ghost stories. Your Uncle Carlos said he met him once, in Bolivia, but he was so drunk the whole time he was working for that cartel that I didn’t think … and even then, mind control? Of the world’s best assassin? I can’t believe that was happening all the time and no one knew.”

“Oh,” Darcy said grimly, “lots of people knew.”

There was a short, pregnant silence. “Do you need explosives?” her mom said. “I know where I could get my hands on a nice shipment of Semtex at practically cost.”

“Hmm…” Darcy flipped over to the list of bases. “Actually, yeah, I think I could use that. If you pick it up, I can wire you the money to pay it back. Usual account?”

“Oh, don’t worry, honey,” her mom said, with equally grim cheer. “This one’s on me.”


A couple of weeks later, Darcy was destroying Clint at Mario Kart when Steve came into the TV room with Bucky trailing behind him, as usual.

“Hey, Darcy,” Steve said, “a package came for you. I signed for it, hope that’s okay.”

“Sure,” she said absently, her attention half on Rainbow Road and half on only cursing in English and Spanish. Latvian had some really satisfying expressions, but Darcy did not speak Latvian. No matter how much she wanted to when Clint finally beat her. “Go choke on a pigeon, Barton,” she snarled over his triumphant ‘ca-caw!’ noises.

When she turned around, Steve and Bucky were both watching with unconcealed amusement. Steve held out a cardboard box, and she saw familiar handwriting. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s heavy,” he said.

She pushed herself over the back of the couch, making grabby hands. The amused crinkles around Bucky’s eyes deepened as he watched her scramble clumsily onto the cushions, catch her foot, free it, then catch it again and almost — but not quite — fall. She shot him one of Darcy’s flirty smiles. It was nice to have an audience that appreciated her art. “It’s from my mom,” she said, reading the return address. Apparently Darcy’s mom’s name was Darlene, and she lived in Virginia. She took a second to memorize the information, just in case.

She tried to take the box from Steve, but he held on. “Let me just — it’s really heavy. Let me put it down on the table?”

She shrugged, and he set it down. She picked at a corner of the tape and huffed. “Does anybody have a knife?”

Steve shook his head. Bucky bit his lip, and it looked like discomfort, but she thought he might actually be holding back a smile. He of all people must know she had knives on her. She felt a tiny urge to laugh, and avoided his eyes so he wouldn’t set her off.

“Here,” Clint said, and handed her a folding knife. The catch was stiff. She made a show of struggling, then shoved it back at him to unfold. Bucky bit his lip again.

Finally, she quit screwing around and cut the tape. Inside the box were three Christmas tins, though it was barely October. One was green, two were red. She crowed. “My mom sent me cookies!”

“Cookies?” Clint said, leaning over the back of the couch and almost falling himself.

Darcy wrapped her arms protectively around the box and glared at him. “Mine,” she said. “Not for cheaters who push their friends off the Rainbow Road.”

He pouted. For a grown man, he had a pretty good pout. “Aww, Darce, come on. I loaned you my knife. And remember that time in New Mexico when I —”

“Okay, okay!” she raised her hands hastily. “There’s no need to mention that time in New Mexico. It’s better if we all put it behind us.” She almost laughed again, remembering. Darcy had shrieked and hidden behind him while he bravely investigated what she swore was a rattlesnake. It turned out to be an old bicycle inner-tube she’d put there earlier in the day. People were so easy when they thought they had something embarrassing on you.

Steve and Bucky exchanged raised eyebrows, but didn’t ask. Such gentlemen.

Clint, on the other hand, wouldn’t know gentlemanly behavior if it tipped its hat to him in the street. “That’s what I thought,” he said, smirking, and held out a hand.

She gave an exaggerated sigh, glanced at her mom’s note, and opened the green tin. “Help yourself, Hawkass.” He grabbed a fistful of the contents, and she turned to the others. “You guys want some? They’re oatmeal raisin.”

Steve smiled and took one.

Bucky blinked a little, like he’d been expecting something else, and watched the other two chew for a second before he reached for one himself. “Thanks,” he said, his voice a little rough.

She winked at him. His look of suspicion deepened.

“Theef ‘re reewy good, Darf,” Clint said with his mouth full, spraying crumbs everywhere.

“My mom makes the best cookies,” she agreed, taking one herself. “Which is why these are going straight back to my apartment where none of your greedy asses will ever see them again.”

She reached for the box, but a metal hand got there first. “Let me,” Bucky said, a touch aggressively. The other two blinked. He blushed and added, “I mean, uh … it’s heavy. I can carry it for you. To your door. Um.”

She looked at him under her eyelashes, so that only he could see the unholy amusement in her eyes. “Okay,” she said shyly.

Steve beamed at them both like a proud dad.

They headed for the elevator. As it closed behind them, she heard Clint say, “Whoa. Darcy and the —”

The elevator moved, and she dissolved into giggles. “Oh, my god, your face,” she said. “They’re just cookies, dude, I swear. I’m not trying to poison you with the Oatmeal Raisin of Death.”

He huffed an irritated sigh. “Fine, fine, sue me for thinkin’ an assassin wasn’t likely to be gettin’ sweet innocent care packages from her ma.” The doors opened on her floor, and he hefted the box onto one hip and gestured her out ahead of him. She considered the wisdom of turning her back on him, but he hadn’t done anything to threaten her so far, so okay.

“Well, now you know better,” she said airily over her shoulder, unlocking her front door. “The ones in the green tin are my favorite oatmeal raisin. She makes them for me every year.”

He came up next to her and handed her the box without hesitation. Clearly he was well aware that a) she could handle it and b) he was not going to be invited in. “And the ones in the red tin?”

She stepped inside and turned back to grin at him. “My other favorite. Chocolate chip and semtex.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. Then, to her surprise, he burst out laughing. It was a nice sound, low and pleasantly rusty. “Doll,” he said, shaking his head. “You are something else. How do the chocolate chips affect the combustion rate?”

It was her turn to open and close her mouth. You’re something else too, she thought, but what she said was, “I’ll let you know.”

“You do that,” he said, still chuckling. Their eyes met for just a fraction of a second too long. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned away. “‘Night,” he called back over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” she said slowly, “goodnight.”

She watched until the elevator doors closed behind him, then went inside and started planning her vacation.

Chapter Text

Exploding Gas Main in Zurich Kills Three.

Bulgarian Scientist Dead of a Stroke in Paris.

Unidentified Terrorist Organization Destroys Warehouse in Bratislava.

Darcy yawned, flicked past the headlines on her tablet and pulled up movie listings. “Morning,” she said absently when she heard the door of the Avengers common kitchen open.

A metal hand slapped a package of band-aids down in front of her with a clang.

She jerked upright and had to take three slow, deep breaths before she could put the knife away. “What,” she said flatly, “The. Hell.”

“Saw you on the security monitors,” Bucky said, moving past her to the coffee pot. He wasn’t looking at her. His voice sounded a little rough, but that could just be because it was early. “You’re bleedin’ through your t-shirt in the back.”

“Aww, tit-biscuits.” She yanked up the back of her t-shirt and twisted around, trying to see where the blood was coming from. There were a few shallow cuts along her ribcage, and it could be any of them. “Must have broken a scab. Now I’ll have to change before Jane sees me. If I could just find where it’s —”

He turned with his cup and huffed an aggravated breath through his nose. “You’re makin’ it worse. Here, let me.”

Darcy went very, very still as he walked back around the counter carrying a kitchen towel. She stared straight ahead and tried not to twitch when he lifted her shirt higher. His hands pressed against her back, one warm and one cold, wiping the blood away. He picked up the band-aids and she heard a rip, then felt a tug as he stuck one across the cut.

“Nice vacation?” he said, in that velvet murmur she’d been trying very hard not to remember.

“Sure,” she said, and hated that her own voice was breathless. “I met lots of interesting new people. One of them even gave me the number of a Swiss bank account. Wasn’t that sweet of him?”

He chuckled, and she felt his breath on her neck. “Does this mean I’m in the clear on that margarita?”

“I could buy myself a whole pitcher,” she admitted, “maybe even two.” He dropped her shirt and she twisted to look up at him, tipping her head. “But where’s the fun in that?”

His eyes met hers, and he smiled slowly. She felt goosebumps rise on her neck, and not the kind she’d had in the hallway a few weeks ago, either. “How’s the combustion rate?” he murmured.

She blinked. “Seriously? That’s your line?”

His smile deepened from flirty to mocking. “Line? What line? You said you’d tell me about the combustion rate of your —” he lifted his right hand to make air quotes “— ‘cookies,’ remember?”

Ugh, I can’t believe he got me with that. She made a face at him, which just made him cock that annoying eyebrow. Fine, she had said she’d tell him. “It was normal, far as I could tell, but the place did kind of smell like Satan fucked the Nestle Toll House lady.”

He burst out laughing so hard he had to drop her shirt and brace himself on the counter. She turned to grin at him, a real honest non-flirty one. It felt good. She didn’t actually remember the last time she’d smiled at someone as herself, not Darcy.

The door swung open. “Morning, Darce,” Jane said absently as she walked in, nose buried in a some kind of academic report.

Darcy felt her eyes go wide. Bucky saw her expression and moved faster than she’d had any idea he could, stepping in close to her back so that his body blocked Jane’s view of her shirt. It hid the blood, but it also made their conversation look a little … intense. Which it hadn’t been. Not at all. Her heart was only pounding like this because Jane had surprised her.

Speaking of whom, Jane flicked them a casual glance, then did a double-take and almost dropped the report. “Oh, hi!” she said, her voice bordering on squeaky. She shot Darcy a look that said both Are you okay? and Get it girl.

Darcy stifled a sigh. “Hi,” she said, letting an edge of embarrassment creep in. “I was just, uh, showing Bucky a video on my tablet.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “it was real interestin’.” His voice was equally embarrassed but she’d almost swear there was laughter underneath. He leaned in even closer, propping his metal hand on the counter next to her — and, she realized, palming the band-aids at the same time. That was smart, but it left them in a position that was almost cuddling, and Jane was clearly not missing a bit of the subtext.

Well, not so much sub-. More just text at this point.

“Ooookay,” Jane said, and unlike Bucky she wasn’t even trying to hide her amusement. “Well, I’ll just grab this coffee and leave you two to your … video.”

Darcy heard the pause and shot her a squinty-eyed look. Jane grinned back, unrepentant. There was a brief silence as she filled up her coffee cup, and Darcy felt herself lean back a little bit towards Bucky. The guy gave off heat like a furnace, and it felt nice on her pulled muscles. Her back was so sore from that last jump at the warehouse. If she leaned back a little further, she could rest her shoulders against his chest and relax —

Oh. Oh no.

She straightened. “Hey Janey,” she said casually, “do you mind if I take some time off next month to visit my family in Ohio?”

Behind her, Bucky stiffened. She bit down on a twinge of regret. This was important. She needed to remind him — and herself — who they were. What they were. Not friends, not flirty maybe-someday-lovers. An assassin and an employer. Even if he was only paying her in hypothetical margaritas.

“Sure,” Jane said, hustling for the door. “I didn’t know you had any family in Ohio,” she added over her shoulder, and was gone before Darcy could answer.

As soon as the door closed, Bucky pulled his hand back and stepped away, taking the band-aids with him. “Ohio, huh?” he said stiffly, picking up his own coffee. He didn’t look at her.

She smiled anyway, with a lightness she didn’t feel. “It’s the jewel of the Midwest, they say.”

“Right.” He turned and headed for the door. He still wasn’t looking at her, so she let herself watch. But then he stopped in the doorway, and turned to face her before she could look away. His eyes were intent and very, very blue. “Take it easy, huh, doll? Don’t —” He stopped, snapping his mouth shut, and a muscle in his jaw worked. He gestured at her back.

She tried to keep her face blank, and knew she was failing. No one had told her to be careful since … hell. Since ever. Her mom knew her too well, and nobody else knew her at all. “What, this old thing?” she said, her tone as fraught as the words were airy. “Don’t worry about it. You should see the other guy.”

He shook his head, once, hard. “I really, really shouldn’t,” he said, and left.

Chapter Text

She did it. She did it. She did it.

The words echoed through Bucky’s mind as he barreled through the gym doors and lifted weights down from the rack. Steve would kill him for doing this without a spotter, but what the hell, the Arm practically was its own spotter. He settled in on a bench and had to take a few deep breaths until his right hand steadied. It’d been shaking on and off ever since the first reports came in.

First, ten days ago, he’d seen a news story about three businessmen killed at a conference in Zurich. An explosion in a convention center stairway, traced back to a faulty gas main. Tragic accident, Bucky had thought idly, about to change the channel. Then the TV flashed their pictures, and he froze.

Strike team, the Winter Soldier whispered in his mind.

He bit his lip and focused. Yeah, one of the smaller teams. They’d worked with him on a mission in — Venezuela? Argentina? He wasn’t sure, but he remembered the sweat on their faces and a rapid burst of Spanish squawking from a radio. One of them, a stocky blonde the announcer was identifying with some random fake name, had stared at him for a long time and then spat on the ground at his feet. The Soldier hadn’t blinked.

 “Why do we gotta have Commando Ken here, man? That shit is fucking creepy.”

Another, dark-haired and skinny, had cuffed the blonde on the back of the head. “Because he can do things you can’t, dumbshit. Like take orders without bitching.”

Then they had — then they had told him to kill — No. Don’t think about that. His hand shook so hard it took him three tries to aim the remote at the television. He closed his eyes in the silence and imagined the explosion, fire filling the room in his mind and wiping all three of them away.

It helped. God help him, but it helped.

Three days later, Natasha had come into the living room of the apartment he shared with Steve and thrown down a tablet with some French news site open on the screen. It was reporting the death, at age 54, of Petar Georgiev Ivanov, a Bulgarian neuroscientist currently living in Paris. He’d died peacefully in his bed, of a stroke.

Handler, the Soldier muttered. Yeah, Bucky thought, I know.

Not hard to remember this one. He’d been the last handler before Pierce. He hadn’t been the worst, or the best. Just another face giving orders, another hand on the switch. And, until yesterday, the only person still alive who’d spoken the Soldier’s trigger words.

Bucky looked at the tablet, then up at Nat. “I ain’t sending flowers,” he said, his voice as steady as he could make it.

She smirked a little. “Just thought you’d like to know. We’ve been tracking him for a while, but looks like nature got to him first.”

“Yeah …” he said slowly, thinking about red lips pursed around a blowgun, and the seeping cold of dendrotoxin spreading through his veins. “Remind me to thank nature when I see her.”

Nat lifted a quizzical eyebrow and pointed at the window. “She’s right out there whenever you’re ready.”

He barked a short laugh. She was always trying to get him to go outside. Nice thought, but he knew a bit too much about what was out there. “Yeah, I don’t think so, but thanks.”

After she shrugged and left, he let himself picture Ivanov’s face. The mouth opened, like it did sometimes in his dreams, but all that came out was the silent rush of his last breath. No trigger words, no orders. Not ever again.

He lifted a shaking hand to his face. It came away wet. That night, for the first time since before the fall, he slept without nightmares.

Then two days ago, another internet report: Bratislava. Terrorist attack on a run-down warehouse, five dead. No one was sure why it had been targeted, and no group came forward to explain. In the absence of evidence, the authorities were blaming Chechens — usually a safe bet.

Bucky didn’t remember the place. The Soldier didn’t either. Too many echoes of too many awakenings — concrete and steel and electricity and pain. Mission reports. Orders. They overlapped each other, and without more intel, it was hard to tell them apart. He’d been there, though. Wheeled in as a frozen corpse, walked out as a living doll.

Now it was gone. The news showed images of a burned-out shell and it was clear no foot would ever touch those floors again. All the cold concrete was broken and crumbled into dust. He pictured it blowing away in the wind off the Carpathians.

And this morning, he’d looked into one of the monitors and seen Darcy, back from her vacation, calmly eating Cheerios with a red line seeping through the back of her shirt. Retired or not, he knew a knife wound when he saw one.

Weight up, breathe out. She did it.

Weight down, breathe in. All of it.

Weight up, breathe out. For me?

Weight down, breathe in. Doesn’t make sense.

He tried for another set, but the damn thing wouldn’t stop shaking. He put the weight back on the rack and moved to the treadmill.

O’ course, none of this made sense. Nothing had, ever since she’d gone still when he said the word ‘brainwashed.’ One minute she was trying to murder him, the next she was offering to kill Hydra for hurting him. It was like the moment when Steve said “end of the line” on the helicarrier — all of a sudden the rules had changed, up was down, and there was Bucky in freefall, just trying to catch up.

His breath was coming too fast again. He slowed the treadmill to a walk.

Thing was, he hadn’t expected … he didn’t know what he’d expected. He’d just known that the Avengers wouldn’t do what he needed done. Couldn’t, anyway, even if they wanted to — they were too big, made too much noise. You didn’t stay a ghost for seventy years without knowing when to put away the rocket launcher and reach for a knife in the dark. And as knives in the dark went, it turned out Darcy was …

Darcy was …

(Shiny. Soft. Curvy. Candy-scented. Smart. Funny. Fucking good at her job, considering he was the only one of this bunch of so-called operatives that even suspected her.)

… extremely sharp. And let’s leave it at that, huh, champ? Playing with knives will get you hurt. He swallowed and bumped the treadmill back up to a run, remembering the proof he’d just seen: four shallow slashes carving across the curve of her ribs and back. She’d lifted her shirt high enough that he could see the edge of her bra, though he tried not to look. The pressure sensors in his hand had sent information about the exact softness of her skin screaming down his spinal cord like a shot of cocaine.

The band-aids were probably a mistake.

But it had itched him to see her bleeding like that for him, of all people. What did she want to do it for? He wasn’t even paying her. He’d never met a contract killer who worked for free. Never met one who cared much about things like bad guys and good guys, either. That kind of work beat the idea out of you pretty damn quick.

Was someone pulling her strings? She’d said she wasn’t Red Room, and he tended to believe her. They didn’t allow their operatives such a long leash. Besides, if she was Red Room she’d be playing her looks up, not down. It was kind of a trademark. Just look at Natasha — not that he ever did, not like that. But still.

Twenty more minutes didn’t bring any answers, just more of that faint itching in the back of his brain. Something else was bugging him. He got off the treadmill, ran a towel across his face, and headed for the heavy bag in the corner. As much as he made fun of Steve for punching all his problems, sometimes it took a good punch to jar loose what was bothering you.

He worked with both hands — pulling his punches with the left, of course, but the synapses needed to stay calibrated or his reaction time would start degrading. “Use it or lose it,” Stark had said with one of those terrifying manic grins the first time it happened.

“How bad could I lose it?” Bucky had responded cautiously, thinking that didn’t sound so bad.

Stark had shrugged. “You in need of a doorstop? How about a paperweight, do people use those anymore? What am I saying, you’re an old man, of course you do.”

So there went his hopes of never punching anything again. At least it was just a bag. He hadn’t hit a person since that day on the Helicarrier, and with any luck he was never going to again. Though if he sent Darcy off to get stabbed for him, was it really that different from just stabbing her hims —

Ah. There it was.

He stopped and caught the bag, easing it to a stop before it could smash him in the face. Ohio, that’s what was bugging him. Bratislava was one thing, the place had been all but abandoned, and the other hits had been isolated targets. But Ohio was an active base, and he knew for a fact that the intel he’d sent her didn’t contain much more than an address.

He’d spent quite a bit of time there in the last five years or so. He didn’t remember it right now, but he could if he tried.

He yanked the tape off his right hand and crushed it into a ball, servos whirring. He didn’t want to try. But … a full base of agents. Darcy was good, but she was just one person. If he sent her off with incomplete intel and she got killed … was that any different from killing her himself?

It didn’t feel much damn different.

He huffed a short breath. “Fuck!” he muttered to no one. Then he sat back against the wall and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

What he needed took a slow, cold, increasingly numb day to unearth from his brain.

Late the next afternoon, he went looking for Darcy. She was in the lab, her hair held up with a plastic spoon, messing with one of the weird kludged-together machines that Foster flatly refused to let Stark repair or replace. As he walked in, she laughed at something Foster said, and she looked so young and carefree that he almost turned around and walked back out. What am I doing, some old part of his mind whispered, bringing a sweet dame like that into this nightmare of mine.

Then she looked up and saw him. The smile didn’t move, but her eyes went flat with calculation and suspicion. He breathed out again and remembered who he was looking at. The sweet dame wasn’t real. She was just a mask for a woman who could handle herself in any nightmare he might throw at her.

It was a painful relief to look at someone he didn’t have to worry about hurting.

Foster started to turn, and he watched sweet Darcy wash back over the assassin’s face. He was more Soldier than not, after his trip down memory lane, but he followed her lead and put on some semblance of a kind, shy Bucky.

“Hi,” he said, only a tiny bit mechanical. “I, uh, was wonderin’ if you wanted to get a coffee and talk about that video we watched the other day.”

She shot him a look under her lashes that would have been flirty if it wasn’t so ice cold. “Hmm, maybe. Janey, do you need me right now?”

Foster snorted. “Right, like I want to listen to you whining if I say yes? Go, get out of here. Don’t come back, it’s almost five anyway.”

Darcy laughed and blew her friend a kiss. She grabbed her bag and headed toward him, hips swaying. “Lead the way, Soldier,” she purred. He had to work to control an instinctive twitch to obey.


He let her lead the way, instead, out to the elevator. She paused over the buttons, eyebrows raised, and he hit the one for his floor.

“Moving a little fast there, huh, handsome?” she said, a thin layer of amused over a deeper question. He didn’t have it in him to answer in kind, so he shrugged. Her eyebrows pulled down a little, and she studied him for the rest of the silent trip upwards. When they got out, she turned toward the apartment he shared with Steve, but he jerked his head the other direction, to the vacant apartment across the hall. When he gestured her inside, she followed without a word.

“No one will bother us if we’re in here with the door closed,” he said. “It’s empty, and Steve knows I come here when I want to be alone.” The words were Soldier-flat, halfway to robotic. Now that it was just her, he didn’t make any effort to put emotion into his voice.

“Uh-huh.” She didn’t make any effort to put sweetness into hers. It was tight and clipped. She tipped her head and watched him, expression unreadable. “What do you want?”

He pulled out the file of notes he’d scribbled in handwriting that had slowly gotten neater and neater. He’d thrown out a couple of pages where it slipped into Cyrillic. “Ohio,” he said, holding it out. “You need mission support.”

Her eyebrows rose. She didn’t reach to take it. “Mission support?” Her voice was sardonic. “How sweet. I thought you were reformed.”

The rush of anger in his veins brought Bucky flooding back. The flat gray edge bled away from his vision and colors brightened. The white noise around him dimmed to a manageable hum. He felt his skin warm, and even though he wanted to strangle her, he thought he might love her for it. “Did I say reformed?” he snapped, hearing Brooklyn come up to swallow the R. “Oh, no, that’s right. I didn’t.”

She shrugged, her mouth a slightly sour twist. “It was heavily implied.”

She wasn’t wrong. It was implied because he let it be, because most people wanted to hear that he was different now, somehow … better. He even tried to be that, mostly. But he’d just put himself through a little sliver of hell for a woman who was all-but-glaring at him, and so help him, he didn’t want to be better right now.

He gave a short, angry laugh. “That’s a damn joke.” He tapped the side of his head with the metal fist. “Wasn’t me in here all those years, sweetheart. Might as well say a gun is reformed ‘cause nobody’s hand is on the trigger. That's what I need you for, remember?"

"Is that what you need me for," she said, and he couldn't tell if that edge in her voice was angry or amused. "Get rid of all those itchy trigger fingers?"

He tipped his head, rolled his shoulder, in something halfway between a shrug and a nod. "I'm nobody's weapon," he said, his voice scraping raw out of his throat. "That don't make me a saint. This ain't some kinda 'hire an assassin to pretend your hands are clean' bullshit. My hands ain't been clean since 1941. I got a lotta skills and intel I didn't choose, and if any of it can help you take down Hydra, it's yours. I won't lose any sleep over what you do with it, either." He tipped his head down to meet her eyes. "I ain't reformed. I'm retired. There's a difference."

She nodded. Just nodded, simple as that, curls bouncing around her face. She might be the only person in the Tower who wouldn’t argue with him about who and what he was. He just wasn’t sure if that was because she understood, or because she didn’t care.

He guessed it didn’t matter.

“I don’t need mission support,” she said flatly after a long moment.

He pictured her going in blind, into the halls he now remembered, and the folder in his hand trembled. Not much, but enough to make her eyes snap to it. It was hard to tell, but he thought they widened a little. “This ain’t some piece of bombed-out Cold War junk like Bratislava,” he said, sharper than necessary, to draw her attention back to his face. “It’s an active base. Full-time garrison of thirty, motion-sensor cameras, keycard entry, and — if you don’t —” He hated his voice for cracking. Hated it. “You don’t want my help with tactics, fine. But take the damn folder.”

“You’re offering tactical advice?” she said. This time he could see her eyes widen. Was this the first time he’d managed to surprise her?

“I’m not offering you flowers,” he said dryly.

Her eyes darted from his face to the folder and back. She looked tense, like she didn’t know whether to snatch it or run away. A tiny pucker just below her lower lip told him she was biting it on the inside.

“Doll, just take it,” he said, and to his surprise his voice came out gentle. “Don’t get yourself killed for me. Please.”

She gave him a dark look, but one hand came up and took the folder. It moved so smoothly, he knew she must be putting a lot of effort into control. Their fingers didn’t touch, and when she pulled, he didn’t hold on.

The way she looked away from him as she put the papers in her bag was deliberate, too. I’m not scared of you, it said, while the rest of her body screamed, Yes I am!

Since she wasn’t watching, Bucky let himself frown. People were scared of him all the time, but never her. She didn’t give a good goddamn about his past, especially since she knew he'd never hurt her. So what the hell had he done that was so damn terrifying?

“This doesn’t mean we’re friends,” she said, and it was light and easy, but her shoulders pulled in just a fraction. And that tone? That was Darcy’s voice, he realized. Casual, chirpy, joking.


Oh. He felt something pierce his chest. It wasn’t rejection or hurt — not for himself, anyway. He’d never thought of them as friends. Apart from Steve, friends weren’t something he’d ever thought he could have. But something in the way she said it made him think of himself, just a few weeks out of the ice, yelling at Steve to go away. To just leave him. It had hurt too much to be close to him — just the thought of being seen, being known, had felt like someone peeling his skin off.

Don’t be seen. That was Assassin Rule #1. People who can see you, can hurt you.

The lesson he’d learned from Steve was: But some of them won’t. He wondered if anyone had ever taught that lesson to the woman in front of him — but from the set of her shoulders, he already knew the answer.

“I got friends,” he said. Lied. “What I need is an assassin.”

She smiled at him, and he thought she almost meant it. “You got that too.” She walked past him to the bathroom and examined herself critically for a moment. Then she scrubbed both hands through her hair, smeared her lipstick, and wiped it back off again. Another moment of frowning consideration, and she raised a hand to her collarbone and pinched viciously. Bucky watched her wince while a bruise formed.

He kept his face very, very blank.

Finally she nodded, satisfied. “That’ll give Jane something to tease me about tomorrow.” She walked past him to the door, then paused and glanced back. She hadn’t put her Darcy face on yet, and he could see her struggle for words. “Thanks for … well. Thanks.”

He nodded and let her go. I see you, doll, he thought, knowing she’d hate him for it. But I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.

Chapter Text

The woman who wasn't (wasn't, WASN'T) Darcy went straight home and double-locked the door behind her. She threw the folder on the coffee table and made a wide circle around it as she walked to the kitchen to pour a shot of whiskey. She kept it in her peripheral vision while she drank, like an enemy she didn’t want to openly watch but didn’t want to lose sight of, either.

When the first shot was gone, she poured a second and went to sit on the couch. Not sprawl, the way she usually did — she sat on the edge of the seat with her arms on her knees, head down, and stared at the papers. They were so neat it made her shoulders knot up. Nothing about Bucky’s rumpled hoodie and occasional beard said “neat” to her. And that wasn’t even starting on the weird, flat voice he’d used to offer it, the distant look in his eyes. For the first time since that night in the hallway, he’d looked like the Winter Soldier of her imagination.

What did he have to do to himself to get this information for me? And fucking why?

The thing about help was, it came with a cost. That wasn’t a bug, it was a feature — paying for it was how you knew it could (probably) be trusted. Her mom had taught her that, both on purpose and through years of watching her work. Contacts, informants, and suppliers all cost in different ways, but in the end, you always paid.

Bucky wasn’t any of those things, but he wasn’t quite an employer, either. She didn’t know what category to put him in anymore, and it was making her skin crawl. Mission support. What did that even mean?

This was supposed to be simple. She was the assassin, he was the client. He gave her the targets, she took them out. They didn’t talk except to maintain the cover. He didn’t offer extra help, he didn’t tell her things that were none of her business, he didn’t … her stomach twisted … he didn’t care.

I’m not offering you flowers, his voice said in her head, and she winced away from the stab of pained longing. Because the thing was, she’d bet money that he’d give Darcy flowers. If, you know, Darcy was a real person. He’d give her flowers and put his arms around her and say —

She took another gulp of whiskey and walked into the bathroom. Darcy’s face looked at her from the mirror, and she felt a surge of something raw and poisonous at the sight of its soft curls and bright makeup. She yanked off the big stupid hipster glasses and tossed them in the corner. Then she grabbed a brush and scraped her hair back hard, pulling it into a tight knot at the back of her head the way she did on mission. She scrubbed off her lipstick on the hem of Darcy’s t-shirt, then peeled that over her head, leaving the black camisole underneath.

Then she walked back into the living room and did three sets of pull-ups and the first six aikido katas, not because she needed a workout but just because she could. Like she was proving something: Darcy couldn’t do this, but I can.

I can.

I don’t need mission support.

After the workout, she drank three glasses of water, made a healthy dinner of grilled chicken and steamed veggies, and ate it at the table while reading the latest Guns and Ammo (which Darcy definitely did not subscribe to, but Clint did, and he never noticed that the new issue showed up on his doorstep a week later than it was supposed to).

Then she hauled the lockbox out from under her bed and sharpened all her knives.

Then she opened the gun locker at the back of her closet, sat cross-legged on the floor next to Darcy’s tennis shoes and cleaned each and every gun, even though she always did that first thing after a mission.

Then she sat on her bed and stared at the wall for a while.

Then, like a woman being dragged by an invisible string, she walked back to the living room and opened the damn folder.

The intel was immaculate, because of course it was. Concise summaries of garrison numbers and guard shifts, who worked in which lab and when, which staff would resist and which would likely try to surrender. Structural weaknesses, security measures taken and ignored. There was a sketch of the layout so precise she honestly wasn’t sure if he’d used a ruler, with the location of each camera marked in red.

“I could have figured all this out,” she said aloud. And then in her head, in a voice that sounded remarkably like her mom’s: Oh yeah? How?

Some of it was stuff she could have picked up from surveillance, sure. But the personnel information? The ice-cold analysis of who was a threat, and how much of one, and the best ways to neutralize them? No way. This kind of intel took months of observation. The only way to get it was to live and work with them day after day, like she did with the Avengers. Which meant…

Her blood went cold.

He hadn’t just watched the place, he’d lived there. No — they’d kept him there, for god knew how long. He’d stood in the labs, walked along the halls he’d drawn out for her, watched it all with those distant, empty eyes and somehow, horribly, understood it. How long ago? It couldn’t be very long, because otherwise the personnel info would be out of date. A year? Less?

She shuddered. Thinking about it must be like a waking nightmare. Just a fucking year ago he’d been … and then she’d decided to hit it more or less on a whim, because it was close and Darcy could plausibly have family there. So he’d … he’d sat down and …

She bolted for the bathroom and threw up her sensible dinner.

When she was done, she put a cold cloth on the back of her neck and brushed her teeth. As she leaned over to spit, she caught another look at herself. No trace of Darcy now, just a tired woman with her hair falling out of her bun and streaks of mascara down her cheeks. She wiped them off and stumbled back out into the living room. The clock on the wall showed 2:55 a.m.

She meant to collapse on the couch, but instead her feet carried her right past it and out the door, barely pausing to grab her keys on the way. She told herself to turn around as she walked down the hall, and again while she waited for the elevator. And again when she pressed the button.

By 3:45, she’d stopped telling herself to go home. She was sitting on the floor of the hallway with her back propped against the door of the empty apartment when Bucky came out of the one he shared with Steve. He was wearing sweatpants and his usual hoodie, and he looked as scraped-raw as she felt.

She realized suddenly that it was the first time he’d seen her without all of her Darcy armor on. She felt naked, curled there on the floor with her face and intentions bare. For lack of anything else to do, she raised one hand and gave him a little wave.

He gave her a long look, unreadable in the dim light. Then he offered a hand — the left one. When she took it, it was cool and unyielding in her own. He pulled her to her feet and waved her past him into the empty apartment.

Inside, he flicked the lights on. They were harsh and white, unshaded. They both winced. She felt even more exposed now, without the dark to hide in. He seemed to feel the same, because he dropped his head, letting his hair shadow his face.

She opened her mouth. She didn’t know what she was planning to say, but what came out was, “I have no idea where to even start.”

He turned his head a little, eyeing her. Then his mouth curved into a tiny, careful smile. “I usually start with the exit,” he said softly. “Ain’t much good blowin’ a place up if you’re inside it.”

“Yeah,” she said wryly. “Go in with no good exit strategy, next thing you know, it’s three years later and you live there.” She made a gesture that encompassed the Tower, Jane, marshmallow fights with Thor, video game battles with Clint, the whole ridiculous life she’d somehow built up around this dumb cover ID.

Bucky chuckled, scratchy and rough, but real. She found herself laughing with him, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor. He walked over to the empty counter, opened a drawer, and pulled out a sheaf of paper and a pack of markers. Then he sat down against the wall between her and the door, exactly far enough away to prevent accidental touches. She didn’t know if the surge in her gut was gratitude, relief, or … what exactly. She kept her face still and rode it out while he picked out a blue marker. “Okay, doll,” he said, “Let’s start with how you’re going to get out.”

She looked at his dark head bent over the paper and thought, It might be too late.


Working with Bucky for one night taught her more about why everyone had been so in awe of the Winter Soldier than she could have learned in months of surveillance. Which she knew, because she’d had months of surveillance and not learned any of it. The Bucky who haunted the halls at night was quiet, careful, and sad. Sure, he was built, and faster than you’d think, but she’d never been able to see him as the kind of tactical-genius-slash-ruthless-killer that became a covert ops ghost story.

Until he picked up the marker.

She’d spent her entire life around professional killers, but he had a mind like nothing she’d ever seen before — quick, brutal, and ice cold. He wasn’t a dick about it, either. When she made a suggestion, he listened, and when she said she could do something — “I can make that shot” or “I’ll only need a minute and a half for the lock” — he believed her without question.

After the first hour, she knew that Bucky liked fallbacks and contingencies, wanted to plan for everything, and his tactics were a mixture of brute force and pinpoint precision: “shoot this guard in the exact spot to trigger the grenade in his belt and blow up half the base,” that sort of thing. Since her own style was more the “sneak in, sneak out, leave no evidence” kind, there were a few clashes. The second time she suggested a longer route that would keep her from being seen, he lifted his eyes from the map he was drawing and gave her a level look.

“Let’s save the stealth for the way in,” he said. “This isn’t a precision hit on one or two guys. You’re leveling the entire building. By this point in the mission, they’re gonna know you’re there.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it again and made a face. “I’m really uncomfortable with that idea. I only want targets to know I’m there for like … five seconds, tops.”

He snorted, halfway between derisive and amused. “Nice work if you can get it. Look, if you do it my way, you cut twenty-five seconds off the route, and that’s twenty-five seconds they ain’t using to blockade the main gate.” He traced the lines on the map with the back of the marker.

She leaned in to look and finally had to nod. “Yeah, okay,” she said, and ignored the way his mouth curved up a tiny bit. He started to re-trace the lines in ink.

Halfway through, she reached out without thinking and grabbed his wrist. He froze under her hand.

She pulled it back quickly, resisting the urge to shake the tingling out of her fingertips. “Wait,” she said, then cleared her throat and tried again. “Wait, are you sending me to the motor pool from Hallway C? I can’t go that way.”

He blinked. “Why not? There’s a balcony directly over where they park the transport van.”

She blinked right back at him. “Uh … because the balcony is three floors up?” He didn’t react. “Thirty feet?” Still nothing. She stared at him, confused why he was confused. Then light dawned. She started to laugh, not because it was funny, but just because she didn’t know what else to do. “My dude,” she managed, “I’m not enhanced. If I jump thirty feet onto a concrete floor, I’m going to break my damn leg.”

His eyes widened, then dropped to the schematic. He shot her a sheepish look. “Oh. Sorry. I, uh … I’ve only ever done this for me and Steve.” He frowned and started tracing back over the route again, clearly looking for other problem areas. This time she managed to stop herself from touching him, but only barely.

“It’s okay,” she said instead. “I’ll tell you if I can’t do something. Just remember that the rest of us are fragile.”

“I know that,” he said softly, eyes still on the paper. “I have to be real careful with, y’know, handshakes and stuff. ’S why I don’t … anyway, that doesn’t matter. I guess I just don’t think of you as breakable.”

“Everyone’s breakable.” She tried to clamp her mouth shut on the words, but not fast enough. The silence as her voice died away felt crystalline: delicate, sharp, prone to shatter.

Bucky dropped the marker and rubbed his eyes with his right hand. “Ain’t that the truth,” he said, his voice so exhausted that for the first time she could really believe he was a hundred years old.

She thought about it. Then she thought twice. Then she put her hand slowly, lightly, on the back of his left wrist. He went still again, but this time she didn’t move. After a second, his hand turned over and wrapped around hers. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought his fingers were a little warmer now than they’d been before.

He didn’t look at her, but he squeezed once before he let go.

An hour later, they had a fully-fleshed exit strategy and the sky outside the window was turning pink. Bucky laid the last line down on the paper, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes.

“You okay?” she asked, not sure when that had become a question she was allowed. Or one that mattered.

He took a deep breath before he answered. “Used to do this around the campfire, with the Howlies all heckling and telling Steve he was gonna get us killed for real this time. Then …” he opened his eyes and for a chilling moment, the look in them was the distant one that made her stomach twist. “Mission objective. Materiel. Personnel. Target.” His voice was flat. Then he heaved another breath and said, in normal tones, “’S hard, sometimes. To remember. Which one is me.”

Oh. She tried to imagine what that was like. Then she realized she didn’t have to.

“I fucking hate Darcy’s glasses,” she offered. He shot her a sliver of a quizzical look, so she went on, her tired brain floundering to explain. “They’re a pain in the ass, and they’re ugly, and they smear all the time. But what I really hate is … sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I forget that I don’t have to put them on.”

His mouth opened in a silent ‘ah.’ For a second, they watched each other, while the sun turned the wall behind them peachy-orange. Then he raised his left hand, curved like he was holding an invisible glass. “To the people we ain’t,” he said.

She raised her own and mimed clinking it against his. “May we always remember who they are.”

Chapter Text

By the time she dragged herself back downstairs, it was past the time she’d usually have breakfast. She stumbled through a shower, then held her nose and for once actually drank Darcy’s giant mug of coffee instead of pouring most of it down the sink.

Next time she picked a long-term cover she was going to be way more careful about the likes and dislikes. ‘Darcy loves coffee’ had seemed like a harmless quirk, until she got stuck hauling around a mug of the hell-brew 24-7 for three years. In Puente Antiguo they’d been in such close quarters that she hadn’t been able to avoid drinking it, which was gross, and then she went on a job and damn near got shot because of the blinding caffeine headache.

She’d sworn never again. But … desperate times. It was worth it to feel human, even if she had to brush her teeth twice to get the taste out of her mouth.

When she got to the lab, Jane took in the bruise on her neck and the bags under her eyes, and grinned. “Good night?”

She thought fast. Darcy was absolutely a kiss-and-tell kind of girl. She’d given Jane a play-by-play of her conquests many times (and some of it was even true). But the idea of making up some kind of fantasy night with Bucky made her stomach twist. The fake dating thing was a game, a meaningless cover, but last night wasn’t … “It wasn’t like that,” she said finally, and was surprised how sincere it came out. “We just talked.”

Jane raised her eyebrows and tapped her collarbone.

She felt her face heat up. For a horrifying second, she wasn’t sure if it was her or Darcy blushing. But no, it was Darcy. Had to be — Darcy was the only one who had any reason to blush. “Mostly talked.”

Jane pursed her lips in a silent whistle. “You know, the last time a woman from this lab spent the whole night just talking with an attractive man …”

“Don’t say it,” Darcy groaned, trying for playful while her chest clenched in inexplicable panic.

“… it was me and Thor.”


The harsh note in her voice surprised them both. Jane leaned back, eyebrows pulling together. Darcy cleared her throat and faked a sip of coffee, trying to quell the wave of emotions she couldn’t name.

“Sorry,” Jane said softly. She walked over and slipped an arm around Darcy’s shoulders. Darcy leaned into it and sighed. “You okay?”

“I … yeah. Just tired.” She closed her eyes. Get it together, for fuck’s sake. It’s just a job. But her mouth kept talking and she couldn’t seem to stop it. “And I can’t quite get a handle on all this. He’s … different.”

Jane smoothed a hand over her hair. “Different how?”

She shook her head. “That’s what I can’t figure out. I mean, there’s the obvious reasons, the arm and stuff, but it’s not that. I guess I expected him to be more like Steve — the 40s chivalry thing, you know? Or like, angsty emo boy. But he’s not like that at all.”

“What is he like?” Jane said. She was really rocking the supportive-friend this morning. Darcy tapped her lightly on the shoulder with her cheek to show that she appreciated it.

“Cute,” she said, because that’s what Darcy would lead with. It wasn’t the right word, but she didn’t want to think about what the right word would be. “Smart.” That one was the right word. “Funny. Kind of a shit when he wants to be. And then other times, super sincere. Like, super sincere.” She fake-sipped her coffee again. “I don’t know what he wants from me,” she admitted in a small voice.

Jane petted her head again. “Have you asked him?”

Like it was that easy. Like she could just … ask and he’d just … tell her. She made a face. “What if he lies to me?”

Jane raised her eyebrows. “Do you think he will?”

“People do.” That was for goddamn sure. She would know.

Jane pulled away a little and turned her eyes on Darcy. They were startlingly sharp. “I think,” she said slowly, “that you’re not scared he’ll lie to you. I think you’re scared he won’t.”

Darcy opened her mouth. Then she shut it. Then she opened it again. “Don’t we have data to collate?” she asked, pointing to a random part of the lab.

“Uh-huh,” Jane said dryly. “I have data to collate. You are going to go home and sleep.”

“I’m not that tired,” Darcy protested. “I can —” A jaw-cracking yawn rose out of nowhere. “— work,” she finished stubbornly.

Jane shot her another of those knowing looks. “Darce,” she said. “You just talked about your feelings at eight o’clock in the morning. Sober.”

Jesus, Jane was right. And they were her real feelings, too, not Darcy’s. What the hell was wrong with her? One night of missed sleep shouldn’t be making her this sloppy. Better get out of here before she did something even worse … although there was a pretty short list of things worse than sharing her feeeeeelings. Gross.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” she said, playing up the put-upon. At the door, she paused. “You sure it’s okay?”

Jane rolled her eyes and flapped a hand. She was already turning towards the mass spec. “Go.”

There were, Darcy thought as she stumbled into the elevator, advantages to having your best friend as a boss. It wasn’t until she was shutting the door of her apartment that she thought to correct herself: Darcy’s best friend.

She flopped onto the bed face down, not bothering to peel off her clothes. Just before she drifted off to sleep, another thought floated up. But she’s … maybe … also my best friend.

It wasn’t like there was a lot of competition.

When she woke up, dry-mouthed and foggy-brained, it was after two p.m. She downed some water and a sandwich while glaring at the coffee machine. Bucky’s folder was still in the living room, and looking at it made her feel queasy again. She rolled her shoulders, but the tension in them wouldn’t release.

Time to enact Emergency Plan Y.

She knocked back the last of the water and headed for her room, where she put on stretchy pants. Then she took a deep breath and swung back her bedroom door. Behind it crouched a long cylinder in a tie-dyed bag, as loaded with ominous potential as any of her gun safes. The Yoga Mat.

She grabbed it and swung it onto her shoulder with only a little bit of a grimace. Before heading out into the hall, she paused and took a deep breath. Normally, Darcy settled over her as easily as a blanket. Today she had to crack her neck a couple of times and practice the Carefree Smile (TM) in the mirror.

Even then, she looked much more … well, herself than usual. It’d be better if no one saw her on the way out.

“FRIDAY,” she said, when she got out into the hall and into the AI’s sensor range. “Anyone around?”

“No one on this floor, Miss Lewis,” FRIDAY’s ambiguously-Welsh voice intoned. “Sir and Dr. Foster are in the lab. Sergeant Barnes is in his room. Everyone else is out.”

She felt her shoulders relax a little. “Okay, well, if anyone needs me, tell them I went to yoga.”

“Of course, Miss Lewis.” FRIDAY’s voice was unruffled. The AI had a limited capacity for surprise, but this wouldn’t have used it up anyway. Everyone knew Darcy frequently went to afternoon yoga class.

Or rather, they knew that she went to afternoon “yoga class.” A few weeks after moving in, she’d made sure Tony ran across her in a wine bar during yoga time. “Do not tell anyone, Tony,” she’d hissed while he snickered. “Anyone. I mean it.”

So now everyone knew that “yoga” was code for “day drinking,” and no one would think twice if they went to look for her at the yoga studio and she wasn’t there. Or, for that matter, if she’d never been there. Or if there wasn’t even a yoga studio at that address.

She ditched the yoga bag in a locker at Grand Central. The bag she left with was black, military-style, and much bigger and heavier. It may have accidentally knocked over a dude who tried to grope her on the subway on the way to Queens. As she got off the train, she pulled a Quantico baseball cap out of the side pocket and yanked it on casually over her ponytail. Then she reached in again and grabbed a stick of gum. By the time she knocked on a nondescript doorway in the basement of an office building a few blocks away, the gum was softened up and in perfect shape for cracking.

The guy who opened the door was big, meaty, and looked like he ate little girls like her for breakfast. He had on gray tac pants and a t-shirt that said “Marksmen do it with 75% accuracy.” When he saw her, he grinned. “Hey, Stacy.”

“What’s up, Ron?” Stacy drawled, her Queens accent thick around the consonants. She cracked her gum and eyed his shirt. “Don’t know if that’s really somethin’ to brag about.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He snorted good-naturedly. “We can’t all be FBI hotshots like you. You here for some range time?”

“You know it.” There was barely enough room in the doorway for Ron and her bag, but she managed to squeeze past him.

He sucked it in a little, to help. “Haven’t seen you in a couple weeks,” he said when she was finally past and walking ahead of him down the dingy hall.

She snorted. “Boss said I should practice at the FBI range with the rest of the guys. So we could bond, y’know, for mo-rale.” She drew out the last half of the word, rolling her eyes.

Ron chuckled, a snorting sound that got caught somewhere in his throat. They walked into the entry hall, and he moved back behind the counter and rang her up for an hour without needing to ask. In turn, she passed over her ID (New York driver’s license for Stacy McCallahan), badge (FBI), and concealed carry permit without him having to ask. He wrote down the numbers half from the documents and half from memory. “Guessin’ that went great, since you’re back here.”

Stacy gave an impatient twitch of her shoulders, too tense to quite be a shrug. “They don’t like getting beat by a girl.”

He handed her a pair of ear protectors and gave her a tolerant look. “Were you nice about it?”

She cracked her gum again and glared. “I’m always fuckin’ nice, you dickhead.”

He laughed out loud. “Lane four, girl. Good to see you again.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She gave him a grin and the finger. As soon as she turned away, though, she let it fall off her face. She dropped her bag at lane four, stripped and re-assembled her Glock, and put two clips through a target: head, center mass, then a few through the trickier major joints. Then she did the same with her Sig. Then, because Stacy was a show-off, she loaded a third clip and shot a neat S in the third target.

She returned the earmuffs, said goodbye to Ron, and hit the subway again.

“Amanda!” a silver-haired man said when she pushed in through the front door of a run-down building in Flushing.

Amanda smiled at him but didn’t quite make eye contact. Her dark hair was pulled back in a braid and she had her head ducked down, shy. “Hey, Gary.”

He hugged her heartily, and she only stiffened a little in his grasp. He patted twice and let go. “It’s been too long. Go get warmed up, then I have a fun one for you.”

“Okay.” She dropped her bag onto a nearby bench and pulled out a roll of tape and a pair of loose shorts. Gary turned away as she shucked her sweatshirt and pants. She wasn’t sure if it was to respect her modesty (not necessary, she had a sports bra and leggings on) or just to gesture to someone. While she warmed up on the heavy bag, he had a whispered conversation in Ukrainian with one of his army of faceless assistants. “So?” she said, when they were done and her muscles were loose.

“So, we got this kid we been working with the last few months.” Gary shrugged. “Came up from my cousin’s gym over in Poughkeepsie. MMA fighter. He’s got potential, but his head’s a little …” he mimed blowing up a balloon. “I thought maybe you could show him a little humility.”

Amanda flushed red and ducked her head again. “That’s sweet,” she said. “I don’t know about humility, but I’ll spar with him if you want.”

Gary clicked his tongue. “You know too much about humility, you ask me. But let’s get him. Milo! Hey, Milo!”

The guy who walked over was twice her size. He looked her over, licked his lips, and whistled. “Heya baby, whatchoo doin’ in a place like this?”

Her cheeks went hot again. It was a handy trick. Rage helped.

Gary hit him upside the head. “This’s Amanda. She’s here to teach you some manners. Get in the ring.”

Milo looked somewhere between confused and rebellious, but he climbed between the ropes. She followed him. He gave her a glance that was half-lust, half-contempt. “Sweetheart, you ain’t gonna fight me. Why don’t we go someplace more comf —”

She whipped a leg out and hooked him behind the knee, then caught him in an arm-bar as he went down. She put just enough pressure on it to hurt, but not enough to do real damage. “Lesson one,” she said calmly, still in Amanda’s soft tones. “Shut your mouth when you talk to me.”

Two hours later, Darcy strolled back through the doors of Avengers Tower, her tie-dyed bag hanging off one shoulder and wine on her breath. She headed to the kitchen for a snack and instead found Tony and Bucky sharing some kind of gross-looking protein shake. Or maybe not sharing, exactly. It had clearly been made in the same blender, but they were drinking it on opposite ends of the counter, staring off in different directions.

“Hi, Darce,” Tony said. “How was yoga?”

Bucky turned around and gave her a look of blank incredulity. It occurred to her that he didn’t talk much, especially to Tony (exhibit A, their current ridiculous posture). Judging by his face, he might be the only person who hadn’t heard about her quote-unquote "fitness routine." “Yoga?” he said, one corner of his mouth twitching.

She wasn’t sure for a second if she wanted to run away, or drag him upstairs. To plan, of course. But how could she do that without making Tony suspicious … oh. Okay, yeah, that’d work. “That’s right,” she purred. “I was practicing my downward dog. Want me to show you?”

Tony’s eyebrows rose and he cut a glance at Bucky.

For his part, Bucky picked up the cue seamlessly. He leaned an elbow on the counter, opening up his posture, and smirked back at her. “Sure, doll. Why don’t you come upstairs and we can practice?”

“Hmm, I guess since I’m already limbered up …” she stepped away from the door and gestured a silent Lead the way — she hadn’t forgotten how stricken he looked last time she said that, and she wasn’t eager to say it again. When he turned to put his smoothie glass in the sink, she shot her best cat-got-the-cream grin at an open-mouthed Tony and wiggled her fingers in a little wave goodbye. Bucky grabbed the waving hand in his as he went past her, and tugged her out the door after him. It was his right hand, and surprisingly warm and soft compared to the one she was used to. She’d expected gun calluses, but of course there were none. He didn’t do that anymore.

“Bruce!” she heard Tony wail as she followed Bucky down the hall to the elevators. “Where’s Bruce? I have gossip.”

They both rolled their eyes, then shared a small smile. He glanced down at the hand he was holding, then did a double take. “You get those bruises on your knuckles doing yoga?”

“Aw, fuck, did I bruise one?” she lifted up their joined hands and squinted at her knuckle. His fingers twitched a little when her breath hit them. “Thought I had ‘em taped better than that. And hell no, do I look like I do yoga? I was kicking the shit out of some guy who thought he was an MMA superstar.”

He gave her a quick up-and-down look, then raised his eyebrows, impressed. “And not a mark on you? Nice job, doll.”

The elevator doors opened. She made a noncommital humming sound as they climbed on. “I have bruises, but none that you’re going to see.”

“Oh gee,” he said, dry as the Sahara. “Does that mean we’re not having sex?”

She burst out laughing, and his deadpan broke into a grin. It wasn’t until they got to the door of his apartment that she realized they were still holding hands.

Chapter Text

“Here,” she said three hours after they'd left a delighted/scandalized Tony in the kitchen. She shoveled a mouthful of General Tso’s chicken into her mouth and then stabbed at their makeshift map with her chopsticks. They’d had to get the food delivered to Bucky’s actual apartment to avoid looking suspicious, and Steve might walk in anytime, so they couldn’t use the real map. Instead, the empty rice carton was the main communications tower, the last little bit of General Tso’s was the armory, and the soy sauce packets were the guards on regular patrol. A sticky dot of brown sauce marked the spot that was worrying her. “I don’t like that blind corner.”

Bucky swallowed a bit of kung pao beef and sighed. “Me neither. But I don’t see any way around it. You can’t take out the communication center without going through that hall.”

“But if the guard at the main gate gets to the alarm, I could be mobbed by what? Ten, fifteen people?”

He shrugged, mouth tugging down. “Not necessarily.”

“What are the odds, though?” She narrowed her eyes when he shrugged again. “Don’t bullshit me, I know you calculated them.”

He twisted his mouth to one side and tapped the pen on the paper a couple of times. “Depends on how we plan your route from the main gate. If we go with the most effective one I’d say sixty-five percent.”

“Too high. We need to plan for that.” She chewed on her lip and did a mental inventory of her gun safe. “I’m going to need to get something automatic. I don’t usually use that kind of thing, but if there’s going to be like twenty of them, I’d rather just point and spray. Needs to be compact, though, I’m not hauling around a damn AR15.”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“What? I’m short and they’re heavy.” He didn’t say anything, but the eyebrow stayed up and one corner of his mouth twitched. She stuck her tongue out at him. “Whatever, buddy, not all of us were put together with socket wrenches.”

The minute it came out of her mouth, she froze. So did he. He looked as shocked as she felt. But before she could start apologizing, he blinked twice and burst out laughing. He laughed so hard he dropped the pen and fell over backwards.

She stared at him. After a minute, she closed her mouth. After another, she started to smile.

When he finally sat up and wiped his eyes, he looked ten years younger than she’d ever seen him. He grinned at her, not the flirty grin he used like a weapon but an open, amused one that invited her to share the joke. “I’ll have you know they’re specialized laser torches,” he said, and rapped on his metal bicep with his knuckles. “You can’t just buy this shit at Home Depot.”

“Aww, really?” she drawled. “What a shame, I was going to pick you up one in a matte finish so you don’t look like a disco ball.”

“But then what will I do on the weekends?” he said, mock-worried. “I been moonlighting at the club for extra cash. I just hang upside down and hold it out.” He gave her that grin again when she snorted. Then he held up a hand and hopped up. “Hang on a minute, doll, I think I have something for you.”

She resisted the obvious comment, considering her face was now at crotch level — not that she was thinking about that in any way — and made a show of studying the map while he slid out of the room. Less than a minute later, he was back carrying a small black duffel bag. When it thumped down next to her feet, she lifted her head and looked from it to him. She was getting that skin-crawly feeling again, but to her surprise, she sounded perfectly normal when she said, “It’s not my birthday.”

He shrugged, not quite looking at her. “You wanted something compact. And god knows I ain’t usin’ it.”

She reached out a careful hand and unzipped the bag. Inside was a matte-black gun lying on a nest of ammo, its short barrel and curved magazine as small as they were nasty. “A Skorpion?” She lifted it and looked it over: it was immaculately maintained. She glanced back up at at him, frowning. “Where did you get this?”

He was watching her hands move across the gun. After a minute, he drew in a long breath, like a man coming back from far away. “Not sure how to answer that,” he said slowly. “It was mine. Or … his. The Winter Soldier’s.”

She sucked in a breath.

He looked down at his hands. She watched his jaw work for a few seconds before he spoke. “Anyway,” he said. “Like I said, I ain’t gonna use it again, so. It’s compact. Automatic. You want it?” He looked up into her eyes, and his own were very blue.

“Yeah,” she said. Her hand was so tight around the barrel, her knuckles were white. “Okay.”

“Okay,” he repeated. After a second, he took another of those aching breaths and reached for the hot and sour soup.

She eased her hand slowly off the gun and laid it back into the bag. It was probably her imagination that it felt heavier now than it had before. Then she looked back at Bucky: he was slurping soup, his shoulders loose in a way she didn’t think she’d ever seen. He looked he’d just given away something a lot bigger than a chunk of metal and some bullets. His gaze lifted and caught hers, and he grinned, open and easy.

She reached down again and slid her fingers along Skorpion's barrel. Mine, she thought.

She meant the gun, of course. Definitely … just the gun.

After a second, she forced her hand away and blindly picked up the nearest container. Potstickers. She chewed and swallowed one without tasting it. “So if I come out of the hallway here, I can take this guy down, then plant the Semtex right up against the armory wall,” she said, gesturing with her chopsticks. She grabbed another potsticker and added with her mouth full, “Anf fen I can efcape fwoo the motor pool wiff the bump key —”

She didn’t hear anything, but Bucky’s head jerked up and he motioned her to silence. She reached for the gun, but he scowled and shook his head, raising a hand in an unmistakable Wait. Fifteen tense seconds later, she heard the front door open and Steve's voice called, "Hello?"

Bucky’s hands started moving, frantically disassembling the takeout map. He made a sharp gesture, and she kicked the bag with the Skorpion out of sight under the couch while he said, slightly louder than normal, “Aw, doll, was that the last of the egg rolls?”

“No, there’s another order — oh, hey, Cap!” She turned as Steve walked in from the hall and aimed her Darcy-est smile at him. “I was just showing Bucky some of the best movies of the 21st century.” She followed his glance to the TV, which wasn’t on, and smiled even brighter. “Chinese?”

Steve’s eyebrows were up against his hairline and he seemed to be mouthing I knew it! at Bucky. When he realized she was looking at him, he blushed. “No — thanks, but I, uh, just ate. Don’t let me disturb you.”

“You’re not,” Darcy said, not trying to be convincing. If this were what he thought it was, he would absolutely be disturbing them. And even as it was, she didn’t know how they were supposed to get anything done if he kept hanging around.

“We won’t,” Bucky said at the same time. He slung an arm around her waist — she had to suppress a surprised flinch — and grinned when they both turned to look at him. “And by that I mean, scram, punk.”

Steve blinked, then smiled. For some reason, his smile looked a little bit misty. “I got it, I got it,” he said, backing out again. “Jerk.”

After he left, Darcy opened her mouth, but Bucky held up a finger to shush her. A full minute later, he finally lowered it. “Okay,” he said, and pulled his arm away. She definitely didn’t miss the warmth of it. “Sorry about that. Thanks for not stabbing me.”

“Anytime.” That was supposed to be a joke, but somehow it didn’t come out like one. She covered it by reaching for the lo mein. “What was with the waterworks?” She offered him the container, but he waved it off.

Instead, he picked up a fortune cookie and toyed with it, crumpling and un-crumpling the wrapper with his metal fingers. “He thinks it means I’m getting better,” he said, not looking at her. “You, I mean. Us. Apparently I used to be this big ladies’ man, but now …” He shrugged. The fortune cookie crunched, shattering into crumbs, and he winced like he'd broken something important instead of just a stupid glorified cracker.

“Now you’re stuck with me instead,” she said, and her tone hit in a weird spot somewhere between the lightness she’d intended, and a wry bitterness she didn’t understand. Maybe it was just that she felt a little sorry for him. This wasn’t ever going to be the bright, happy thing Steve wanted him to have. The thing he deserved.

He shot her an unreadable glance and shrugged. “Not stuck. I wanna be here. But this isn’t what he thinks it is.”

Understatement of the year, she thought, but didn’t trust her voice to make it come out right. Instead she nodded.

He sighed a little and stretched his neck, then tore open the wrapper on the broken fortune cookie. He made a wry face at the slip of paper inside. Before she could ask or try to see what it said, he’d crumpled it and tossed it onto the table. “Oh well,” he said. “Who wants to be makin’ time when you could be makin’ bodies?”

“Oh baby,” she purred, “talk murder to me.” It was instinct, the kind of dumb joke she'd make to her mom or Jane. (Not that she made murder jokes to Jane, but still. Same principle.) She regretted it a second later when his eyes widened, but it was too late, so she leaned into it and gave him an over-exaggerated flutter of her lashes. She even folded her hands under her chin for extra camp.

He barked a short laugh. “Careful, doll,” he said, and shot her a glance under his eyelashes that made her face heat. “You could give a guy ideas.”

“Good,” she said, ignoring the tension. Just ignore it and it’ll go away. She pointed a chopstick at the coffee table. “Show me what they are and I’ll use them on Hydra.”

He leaned forward, hair falling to shadow his face, but not quite quick enough. She could just make out his lips moving as he breathed something that sounded like, Not that kind.

She swallowed and looked away.

They went back to planning the assault. By the time she left that evening, all of the potstickers were gone and she was ready to go through the base like a hot knife through butter.

On her way out, she palmed the crumpled fortune without really knowing why. When she opened it in the elevator, it was nothing -- just a fortune, and not even a funny one. Typical fake wisdom BS with some lucky numbers underneath. So there was no reason at all for her to stand there staring down at it for so long that she almost missed her floor.

No reason to reach out and trace her finger across each letter.

Definitely no reason for something small and wet to fall on one edge and blur the lucky numbers into a red smear underneath the words:

Winter cannot last forever. Spring will find you. Loneliness cannot last forever. Love will find you.

Chapter Text

Two Weeks Later

“… completely levelled that base we were surveilling out in Ohio,” Steve’s voice said, ringing loud with all-American unhappiness in the hallway Darcy was currently sneaking down. She froze, back to the wall next to the common room door. “And the one in Bratislava a couple of months ago! It’s weird, Sam. It’s like someone got hold of our list and is hitting all the bases before we do.”

“Why is that weird?” Sam Wilson said, reasonable and laid-back as always. Darcy loved Sam. He was the only sane person in this nuthouse. Sadly, that also meant she had to stay away from him as much as possible. The rest of them might not know normal if they tripped over it, but Sam did. He’d be onto her in a heartbeat if she did something wrong. “Lotta people don’t like Hydra,” he added now.

That was for damn sure. Everything she saw on these little field trips made her hate those octopus-wearing fuckers a little bit more. It wasn’t just what they’d done to Bucky, although that still made red mist rise around the edges of her vision. No, it was everything: innocent people killed, countries destabilized, weird fucking science experiments conducted with a total disregard for peer review —

Oh god, she was starting to sound like Jane. Yikes. There was deep cover, and then there was getting legit mad about the scientific method.

“I know that,” Steve said. “But these attacks … they’re almost surgically precise. In and out, total destruction. No survivors, no witnesses, and no collateral damage. Whoever this guy is, he’s good.”

Guy, Darcy mouthed, incensed.

“Good like Bucky was good?” Sam said quietly.

Darcy froze again. Surely they didn’t think Bucky was doing this. Okay, he’d helped plan, but he literally wouldn’t harm a hair on anyone’s head. She had a whole chunk of hairs still on her head to prove it.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, sounding wretched. “I mean, I know it wasn’t him, he was here when both of the bases went down. But he’s been acting so weird lately. Jumpy, snapping at everything, and then all of a sudden he’s like his old self again. I even caught him on a date with Darcy a couple weeks ago, did I tell you?”

“Man, finally,” Sam said.

Darcy bit her lip. Why was that everyone’s reaction? It wasn’t like they’d been stewing in sexual tension this whole time. Up until a couple of months ago, he’d been convinced she was trying to kill him, and for fuck’s sake, SHE HAD BEEN.

Steve chuckled, his tension lightening a little. “Yeah, it’s adorable. Every time she goes away for a few days, he’s a wreck. I think having her around goes a long way towards keeping him calm.”

“That’s great,” Sam said. “Someone sweet and easy like Darcy could be really good for him. I’m sure she’ll treat him well.”

Darcy scrunched up her face and made an ‘ehhhh’ gesture with her hands. Did ‘not actually murdering him’ count as treating him well? What about ‘finding everyone who hurt him and killing them super hard?’

Not that it mattered. She didn’t have to treat Bucky well, because they weren’t together. She was only listening to this conversation to make sure Steve and Sam didn’t suspect her. Now that she knew they didn’t, she should go before they came out and caught her lurking in the hall in a hoodie covered in motor oil and someone else’s blood.

“I’m still worried about him, Sam,” Steve said seriously, and for some reason, her feet wouldn’t move. “Whatever’s happening … I think he knows something about this person. And if it goes bad somehow, I don’t want him to get hurt.”

Darcy let her breath out in a long, soundless Fuuuuuuck. She hadn’t even thought about that. If they caught her … if the trail led back to him … Bucky wouldn’t hurt anyone. Not ever. But that just made it easier for the people who would hurt him. She thought about his eyes as he worked her hair free from the net. His hands, gently pressing band-aids to her back. His smile over a carton of Chinese food.

She was going to have to be more careful.

She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she almost missed the sound of footsteps heading for the door. Almost — but not quite. She darted back around the corner the way she’d come, assuming they were heading for the elevator, then gave another silent Fuck! when she heard them turn her way. She cataloged the doors nearby: the stairwell she’d come from on the right (locked, and anyway it ended on this floor), TV room straight ahead (probably where they were headed), kitchen on the left.

She bit her lip and headed for the kitchen. If nothing else, she could hide behind the counters and — she tumbled in, just seconds ahead of the footsteps rounding the corner, and froze.

Bucky, who’d flipped the butter knife into a defensive grip when she came in, relaxed and laid it down next to his toast. He looked like hell, his hair loose and tangled and his eyes ringed with dark circles. Jesus, when was the last time he’d slept? Steve said he was a wreck when she left, but she’d only been gone a week and he looked like he hadn’t smiled in a month. How had it gotten this bad? Who the hell was taking care of him and why weren’t they doing their fucking job?

While she tried to hide her shock, he looked her over, the shadows around his eyes turning them pale as ice. His gaze snagged on the dark patches on her hoodie, and he froze.

Darcy lifted a finger to her lips before he could open his mouth, and pointed back over her shoulder. Steve, she mouthed. He nodded. They stood like two statues until Steve and Sam had gone past.

Then Bucky came around the counter, lightning-fast. She’d forgotten he could move like that. She didn’t have time to dodge back out the door before he was in front of her, leaning in until his mouth almost touched her ear. “What the hell, doll?” he hissed, all but soundlessly. “You were supposed to be back two days ago. And what are you doing wearing that in here? Anybody could have seen you.”

She frowned at him, offended by the suggestion that anyone was going to see her if she didn’t want to be seen. Well … except for him, but he was an exception. “There was a —” She was whispering, but he made a shushing motion. She swallowed and turned her head to put her lips next to his ear. She tried not to notice the warmth coming from his skin. “There was a complication,” she breathed. “Trust me, what’s underneath is worse.”

He fixed her with a searing glare, more feral than she’d seen him since that night in the hallway. “What the fuck does that mean, a complication?” He mouthed the last two words, silent and vicious. “Do you have any idea what I —” He stopped, glared even harder, and reached for the zipper.

She smacked his hand away. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

He pulled back with a little growl and shoved his hand through his hair. “At least tell me if you’re inj —”

“I’ll get us some snacks,” Steve said from outside the door.

There was no time to hide. No time to think. They both just moved. Darcy whipped off the sweatshirt and the even bloodier gray tank top underneath, and dropped them out of sight. Bucky lifted her onto the counter and stepped between her knees. She was running her hands under his t-shirt when Steve opened the door. The muscles under her hands were warm and firm and … and not distracting at all.

Steve stopped short, and they both turned to look at him. Darcy could imagine how they looked: both breathing hard, her shirt missing, Bucky’s hair tangled like it had gone through a hurricane. The flush on their faces was anger, but in this context anyone would mistake it for … something else. “Oh!” Steve said, and then, “Oh. Shit, sorry.”

Darcy wasn’t sure if there was anything spattered on her face, so she giggled and hid it in Bucky’s shoulder before Steve could look too closely. A quick fake-nuzzle should take care of any stray drops … and if she noticed that his shirt was soft and he smelled good, well. She was an assassin. Noticing stuff was part of the job.

“ ’S not your fault,” Bucky said, his voice a little strained. “We shouldn’t do this in the kitchen.” He made a show of stepping back and subtly adjusting his jeans. “Doll, let’s take this someplace else. Uh, Steve, do you mind …?” He gestured at Darcy’s shirtless chest.

“Oh!” Steve said again. “Right, of course. Sorry, Darce. I’ll see you guys later.” He headed back to the TV room like his shoes were on fire. The kitchen door hadn’t even closed when they heard, “Sam, you won’t believe what just …”

“Christ,” Darcy sighed, feeling the adrenaline ebb. Without thinking, she let her head fall forward onto Bucky’s shoulder again. She felt something touch her hair, twitch away, then settle. His metal hand stroked gently down to the back of her neck.

“You okay, doll?” he said softly.

Don’t lean on him, she told herself. This isn’t who you are, you don’t get cuddles and pets. Pick up your head pickupyourhead PICK UP YOUR HEAD.

She didn’t pick up her head.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she murmured into his shoulder.

“We really should get out of here,” he said, in that same gentle tone.

“Right,” she said, and then, “right.” She forced her head up and jumped off the counter. Instead of meeting his eyes, she looked over at her discarded shirt and made a face.

He followed her gaze and made a face of his own. “Here,” he said, and yanked his own shirt off over his head.

Oh, wow, hello muscles, was her first thought, and then, Oh. And hello scars. She honestly didn’t know if the flush that rose to her face was arousal, anger, or some of both. Ugh, feelings. So gross and complicated. Knives were simpler.

When she finally forced her eyes up to his face, he was watching her like he knew exactly what she was thinking. His face was wry and sad.

Maybe it was his expression, or maybe she’d just been Darcy too long, but — The hell with it, she thought, and wolf-whistled. “Looking good, Sergeant.”

The sadness melted into an expression she’d never seen before. It was like his normal smile, but softer, with a light behind it. “You —” he said, and then stopped and shook his head.

That look made her antsy. She took his shirt and pulled it over her head, trying not to be too obvious about smelling it. So it smelled really good (like him), so what. “Me what?”

He shrugged, an uncannily graceful roll of the shoulders. Watching the metal one move was kind of fascinating, she had to admit. In a scientific way, of course. “Just you.”

She leaned down to gather up her stuff. For a few seconds she fiddled around with it, arranging the folds to hide the worst of the bloodstains. Then she straightened, but couldn’t quite meet his eyes. “Me who?” she said finally, in a softer voice. Not that he probably knew the difference between her and silly flirty Darcy, or cared, but it would be nice if he … it would be nice.

A single metal finger tapped the bloody hoodie draped across her arm. “I ain’t playin’ Who’s on First with ya, doll,” Bucky said, equally softly. “Now let’s get out of here, so Steve doesn’t … so Steve can get his snacks.”

She nodded, her eyes still on her clothes. “You don’t have to —” she started, but he made another of those quick shushing gestures and held the door open.

They were quiet on the way up to her apartment, but it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. At the door, though, Bucky stopped and shot her a sidelong look. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

Darcy sighed. “Dude. I’ve been on the move for 48 hours. I’m starving, I’m exhausted, and I’ve got cordite in places you don’t want to know about. If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.”

“I shouldn’t,” he said, his voice harsh, “but I can’t stop thinkin’ about it. The whole time you were gone, I just kept — you told me one time you’ve been doing this since you were fifteen. Did somebody hurt you, to make you do what you …” His voice trailed off, and he couldn’t meet her eyes.

If anyone else had asked her that, she would have stabbed them. Maybe not lethally. Depended on their tone.

“No,” she told him gently, thinking of the file she’d tracked down, with difficulty, a week after their first encounter in the hallway. Her Russian wasn’t the greatest, but the pictures had made her cry, then throw up, then cry again. “Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do.”

He ducked his head and looked up at her through his hair. She remembered the first time he’d looked at her like that — how cold his eyes had been then, and how soft and hurt they were now. “Then why do you do it?” he said so softly it was almost a whisper. “You could have died. I was startin’ to think you did die. And I —” He stopped and clenched his fists, the left one whirring. “I’m not even payin’ you.”

She jerked back. She couldn’t stop herself. It would have hurt less if he’d slapped her. It was never about money, she could have said. I do it because I can. Because somebody needs to. Because I can’t stand to think that there is one single person still breathing in this world who knew what was happening to you, and didn’t stop it.

For you. For you. I do it for you.

An instant later, he seemed to realize what he’d said, and his face went pale. “Shit, I — doll, I didn’t mean —“

She summoned up a breezy smile from somewhere. She could barely hear her own words over the ringing in her ears, but she did her best to make the tone match. “Forget it,” she said, waving a hand. “You’re right. I’m a cold-blooded assassin, I couldn’t possibly care about anything other than money.”

‘That’s not what I — I’m just tryin’ to understand —”

“You don’t need to understand!” She realized she was yelling and leaned back, her breath harsh in her throat. “This?” She waved a hand back and forth between them. “Is a job. You? Are a job. That’s it. Stop trying to make it more, and stop fucking trying to understand me.” She turned away from the stricken look on his face and fished for her keys, her gaze fixed numbly on the wood of the door.

He didn’t say anything. She told herself she was glad.

After a thousand years of fumbling, the door finally opened. She started to walk inside, but stopped as something poked her in the leg. “Oh wait,” she said, poisonously sweet, “I forgot, I have something for you.” She turned to face him and unzipped her fly.

Bucky’s mouth opened, then shut. His face went very still.

She didn’t look away from him as she reached into her pant leg and pulled out a thin leather-bound book. The cover was red, and blank except for a single black star. It was a little curled from being strapped around her leg, but otherwise pristine. No less than six high-level Hydra operatives had sworn on their shattered kneecaps that it was the very last copy in existence.

Bucky stopped breathing.

“It was in Cleveland,” she said. “I had to make a little detour to pick it up.” She slapped the book into his hands, and didn’t even look down when she heard the metal one whir. Paper ripped. She smiled, big and fake, right into his face. “No extra charge.”

And then she shut the door in his face.

Chapter Text

The sky was barely starting to lighten when a plume of smoke rose from the helicopter pad at the top of the Tower. After a minute, a smaller one followed it.

Bucky leaned on the railing at the edge of the roof and stared into the barbecue grill he’d dragged up from Steve’s balcony. A cigarette dangled from his metal hand. Once in a while, he even remembered to lift it to his mouth.

He didn’t move when he heard the door to the stairway open and shut. The footsteps were fast and staccato, and there was a tiny electric hum just at the edge of hearing. Not Steve, then, but Stark.

“What the hell are you doing up here, Barnes?” Stark said. He sounded casual and amused, like he’d just happened to stumble on the situation, but when Bucky cut a glance over, he was wearing pajama pants and his eyes were heavy-lidded. FRIDAY must have sent him an alert about the fire. When Bucky didn’t say anything, he looked at the grill and his eyebrows rose at the burning curl of red leather. “Having a BDSM barbecue?”

Bucky forced himself into motion: first a shrug, then a drag on the cigarette. “Just burnin’ some old junk,” he said. “Sorry to wake ya. Do people not burn trash anymore?”

Stark’s eyes lingered on his face, considering. “No,” he said, his light tone at odds with the look, “that would be what trash cans are for.” He opened his mouth like he was going to say more, then closed it again and made a thoughtful humming noise. He walked over to stand next to Bucky and held out his hand, eyebrows raised.

Bucky blinked in surprise — this was already the longest conversation they’d ever had — but passed over the cigarette.

“Thanks.” Stark took a deep, appreciative inhale. “God, that’s good. I quit ten years ago,” he added, handing it back. He tapped himself on the chest and Bucky was surprised to hear a hollow metallic thud. Some kind of implant? Steve never said much about what Tony had going on, just that he was Howard’s kid and kind of an ass. Both of which Bucky thought that, under other circumstances, Steve would have appreciated. “I only have 60% lung capacity,” Stark said now, “and I was strongly advised not to waste it.”

“I quit in ’44,” Bucky said, and took another drag. “Hydra didn’t like me havin’ any addictions they didn’t give me.” He watched for Stark’s reaction — it was barely there, no horror or pity but just a flicker of sympathy. All right, then. “But I keep a few around for special occasions.”

Stark glanced at the sky, then leaned back against the railing, mirroring Bucky’s pose. Bucky offered the cigarette again, but he waved it away. The two of them stood there for a long time while the world around them slowly lightened and page after page of spidery Cyrillic turned to ash.

“I heard about the base in Ohio,” Stark said at last. “Congratulations.”

Bucky cut a sharp glance at him. If anyone knew about him and Darcy, it would be Stark. He’d done his best to stay on top of looping and deleting footage, and he assumed she had too, but if FRIDAY had caught them tampering … his blood went cold, but he kept his face calm. “What for?”

Stark shrugged, and Bucky couldn't read any accusation in his face. “Best we could figure out, it was the last place you were held before DC. I figured you might be up here, uh …” he looked at the grill, “… celebrating.”

“You could say that,” Bucky agreed. He forced his shoulders to relax before the Arm started whirring from the tension, and tried to take a full breath. It was okay. Stark wasn't kicking him out. It was gonna be okay, probably. Sorta. As okay as anything in his life, anyway.

Stark looked from him to the flame. His eyes were sharper than they had any right to be, and Bucky wondered if he could read Russian. If so, he didn’t mention it. Instead he said, “I’ll be honest, Tin Man, I was expecting something a little more explosive. Maybe some whiskey, pretty girls, octopus shaped fireworks …” he paused, but Bucky didn’t respond. After a second, Stark jerked his chin at the grill. “Do I want to know what that is?”

Bucky licked his lips and thought about the answer. He didn't want to lie (not about this, anyway), but the truth was … complicated. “The past,” he said finally, so quietly he could barely even hear himself.

Stark hummed. “Is that all? When I tried to get rid of mine, I had to burn my dad’s entire legacy.” His tone was almost but not quite the normal flippant drawl. “At least yours fits on a barbecue grill.”

Bucky made a sound that wasn’t exactly a laugh, but wasn’t exactly a sob either. “Yeah, if only,” he said, his voice grating in his throat. “Seems like it’s bigger than me, sometimes. And every time I try to get rid of it, it keeps on comin’ back.”

“Ah.” Stark nodded slowly and settled himself a little more comfortably back on his elbows. “Yeah, I know something about that.” He turned his head and met Bucky’s eyes, his own lit amber by the rising sun. For the first time since Bucky had known him, his face was completely free of sarcasm or amusement. He just looked determined, and sad, and very very tired. The way Bucky felt, most of the time. “Truth is, you can’t get rid of it. It’s part of you, hell, it’s in the DNA for me. I couldn’t burn it out if I tried … and I did try.” His eyes darkened for a second, then he shook his head. “I just have to carry it with me.”

Bucky tapped the Arm with his fingernails, a rapid tinka-tink-tink breaking the cool morning air. “Me too,” he said.

They were silent for another long time. It was … not exactly comfortable, but not uncomfortable either. Bucky stubbed out the cigarette and fished another out of his jacket pocket. He leaned forward to light it from the last smoldering coals of the red book.

“Hey Stark, can I ask you somethin’?” he said, because why not? This was already such a goddamn weird conversation. And he didn’t want to talk about the past, not ever, but especially not with the present hanging over his head. You’re a job, she’d said, and he oughta be hurt by that, but really, it was no more than he deserved for treating her like … well … like a hired killer.

He should have kept his dumbass mouth shut. He knew it now, and he’d known it then. No matter what she said, or how she looked at him when they were mission planning in the darkest hours before dawn, that didn’t give him the right to ask for anything. But that was just it: she was giving him everything anyway. Risking her life for him. And he didn’t know why, because God and all his angels knew that James Buchanan Barnes didn’t fucking deserve it.

The irony was, if he really did think she was just a hired killer, he never would have asked.

“You ever fucked up really bad?” he asked Stark, then realized that was a broad question and clarified, “With a girl?”

Stark’s head jerked around. He blinked twice and then burst out laughing so hard he had to bend over and brace his hands on his knees. After a minute he started to wheeze. Bucky frowned, expecting the implant to kick into higher gear (didn’t it support his lungs?) but it kept humming steadily. Eventually he reached out with the Arm and pounded Stark on the back as gently as he could. It still jolted his whole body, and he waved Bucky off. “Have I …” he gasped, “… ever … Bucky Bear, you have not Googled me, have you?”

Didn’t seem right to tell him that yes, he had, but he’d been looking for combat experience and threat assessments. He could give less of a fuck about anyone’s love life. “Guessin’ that’s a yes.”

“Maybe …” Stark straightened up and thumped his implant a couple times, then wiped his eyes. “Maybe once or twice.” He shot Bucky the shit-eating smirk that tended to make Steve start punching things. “Are you asking me for romantic advice? Can I film it?”

“Why in the fuck would you want to film it?”

“To prove to Rhodey that it happened.” He patted his pockets, then sighed. “Never mind, I don’t have my phone.”

That was good, because Bucky would've hated to have to break it. They had a whole … almost … friendly thing going on, and he was pretty sure it woulda ruined the mood. “Look, I just —” He pinched the bridge of his nose, forgetting the cigarette in his hand, and jerked back as it almost caught his eyebrow on fire. Stark looked amused. “I’m outta practice in this century. Half the shit we did in my day is creepy now,” that he did Google, just a couple weeks ago, “and t’ be honest I’m not feelin’ great about my ability to tell which half.”

Stark was openly grinning now.

This was embarrassing. He blew out a deep sigh and followed it with another drag on the cigarette. “Forget it. Sorry. I shouldn’t have … I know we ain’t friends. You don’t need to worry about my problems.”

“Not friends?” Stark clapped a hand to his chest. “You wound me, Terminator. Didn’t we just bond over minor arson?” He waved at the grill, and Bucky found himself cracking a reluctant smile too. “You made a catastrophically terrible choice of people to ask for advice, that’s all. But I’ll try. Darcy, right?”

As if it could be anyone else. “Right. I, ah …” He rubbed the back of his neck, thinking over what he could say. “I stuck my foot in my mouth so hard I’ll be spittin’ shoe leather for a week.” He thought about the look on her face, that bright brittle mask clamping down and shutting him out. “I think I hurt her.”

Stark clapped him on the shoulder sympathetically, then hissed and shook out his hand. “Ouch. Note to self, do the bro slap on the other arm. Okay, when I’ve eaten some shoe leather, I usually try to make it up with a big gesture. Flowers, presents …” He made a face at a memory. “Maybe don’t get her a giant stuffed bunny, though.”

“Why would I — never mind.” He took another drag to cover his appalled expression. Wow. I really did ask the wrong person for advice. “If I do anything big or flashy,” he said with 100% certainty, “she will gut me like a fish.” He thought again and added a belated and (to his own ears) unconvincing, “Metaphorically.”

Stark gave a crack of laughter. “Small but mighty, that’s Lewis,” he agreed.

Buddy, you got no idea. “Any other suggestions?”

Stark shrugged. “I hear a simple, sincere apology is often effective. Never tried it myself, because I was born without the gene for sincerity.” He winked, and Bucky snorted. Christ, he was a lot like Howard sometimes.

He wasn’t dumb enough to say that out loud, though. Instead he said, “Sure, if I could get her to talk to me. Given how she looked the last time I saw her,” like a dime store mannequin who wanted to stab me in the face, “I’m seein’ a lot of slammed doors in my future.”

“Ah.” Stark’s smile widened to a level that made unease creep up Bucky’s spine. “Now that, I think I can help with. Give me a little bit of time to get the team on it.” He patted Bucky’s shoulder again, lightly, and headed for the stairs.

Bucky felt the unease turn into icy fingers of dread. “Get the team on what?” he said. “Stark? What the hell are you — don’t walk away!”

“Don’t worry about it, Terminator!” Stark called over his shoulder. “You can thank me later. Oh — and call me Tony.” The stairwell door slammed behind him.

Bucky stared at it for a long time, frozen with horror. The cigarette burned down until the coal touched his fingers. He jumped and flicked it away into the grill. “Oh, my god,” he said to the empty roof. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

Chapter Text

Earlier That Night

After the door closed, she peeled off Bucky’s shirt like it was burning her skin and threw it into a corner. Her bra followed, then her ankle holster and jeans. She set her Glock and two knives carefully on the coffee table. The Skorpion, her grenades, and the last of the semtex were in her locker at Grand Central. She could have snuck them in, but it took time and she’d just wanted to be home. She’d wanted to see …

She clenched her fists and stood in the living room for a minute, breathing hard.

The plan was to shower, but instead she walked right past the bathroom and fell into bed without bothering to wash off the cordite or even close the curtains. Not that that meant she could sleep. She lay staring at the wall while it turned pink, then yellow, before her eyes finally slid closed.

She dreamed. That was always a bad thing, but tonight it was worse than that. It started as the usual red, black, muzzle-flash gunpowder gasoline fist. Then in the middle of it all, something shone silver. When he walked out of the smoke, she swung a punch, but he caught it and pulled her in.

The dream was very different after that. Silver, pink, skin sweat mouths hands, different. He looked into her eyes while he took her and when she came, he pulled out a gun and shot her in the head.

She woke up shaking and wet. It took two tries to scrub her eyes clear of tears so she could read the clock on the bedside table. It said 2 p.m. She bit the inside of her lip so hard she tasted blood, and that made it even harder to tell if she was awake, because she’d tasted it in the dream too.

She climbed into the shower and washed herself with impersonal efficiency. The water ran black, then red, before it went clear. After she was clean she stood for a long time, staring into nothing, and let it flow over her bruises and scrapes. Anywhere else it would have gone cold, but the hot water never ran out in Tony Stark’s tower. When she climbed out, her skin was boiled red.

She hadn’t felt a thing.

She made a pan of eggs, put a bite into her mouth, chewed it twice and then spat it into the sink. Okay, no eggs. The common kitchen — she flinched, but forced herself to continue — the kitchen always had protein smoothies ready for super metabolisms and geniuses who forgot to eat. It would be fine. It would be … fine.

She put Darcy on like a mask: buttoned on her clothes, painted on her face, slid her glasses on and smiled her smile in the mirror. What she felt or didn’t feel had never affected the cover before. No reason for it to start now.

The first sign that operational parameters had changed came when she walked into the kitchen, saw Steve standing there, and physically flinched.

Well, no. If she was honest with herself, the first sign had been months ago. She’d just been ignoring it, and now it was too late.

She looked around, but Bucky wasn’t there. That didn’t help, though — all she could think about was the way it had felt to sit right there on the counter and lean her head on his shoulder. How for a second it was like being … she swallowed … safe. Something twisted hard in her chest. She adjusted Darcy’s glasses with one hand to distract from the way the other had curled into a fist.

Steve gave her a cautious look that suggested she maybe hadn’t quite succeeded. “Hi, Darcy.”

“Hey, Stevearooni,” she said, and hoped it sounded less painfully stilted from the outside. “How’s it hangin’?”

“Fine.” He gave her a very sincere, bald-eagles-crying look. “How are you?” The question was normal, but his tone was weirdly … heavy? Cautious? Something.

Did he suspect something was off? She took stock of her expression, clothes, hair, and didn’t find anything out of place. “Just peachy!” she chirped, and somehow failed again to convince him. The line between his eyebrows was deepening by the second. Was she slipping that badly?

This was a serious problem. She’d dressed for a normal day in the Tower: no guns, no darts, and only one ceramic knife at the small of her back. If Cap caught on, she doubted she’d make it to her go-bag. And Bucky would say … what? “Me, hire an assassin? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I didn’t even pay her.”

The silence was stretching too long, so she tried for a smile. “My stomach is a little upset, so I thought I’d try a smoothie.” He nodded, but didn’t move, studying her. Her instincts were screaming but he hadn’t done anything yet — Not yet. — so she let Darcy’s take over instead. “Uh … you mind?” she said, and made a shooing motion.

“Oh!” He moved aside with an apologetic grimace — to the right side, the one that didn’t put him between her and the door. Good. She couldn’t afford that. He hovered there, still frowning, while she walked over and opened the door.

She leaned inside, grateful for the concealment while she oscillated wildly between herself and Darcy. Chocolate, strawberry, RUN RUN STAB HIM AND RUN, where the hell is the vanilla.

She’d just grabbed a bottle of vanilla, the least objectionable flavor, when Steve said, “Hey, uh, I’m making a lasagna tonight and I could use a couple more mouths to eat it. Want to come over for dinner? If your stomach’s better, of course.”

Sure, her Darcy instincts said, but her mouth said, “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be feeling up for it tonight.”

“Okay.” He sounded disappointed but not surprised. Not suspicious, either. Maybe he was actually the one acting weird, not her. She kept forgetting, because she had way bigger things on her mind than her boobs, but he had accidentally seen her with her top off not twelve hours ago. Maybe he was just freaked out, like a nice 40s boy. He cemented her assessment when he poked his head around the door to wave an awkward goodbye. “I hope you feel better. I’ll, um, see you soon.”

“Count on it,” she said, although all things considered, he probably shouldn’t.

The tension between her shoulder blades didn’t ease until he finally walked away. When she heard the door swing shut, she closed the fridge and rested her head against the cool metal of the door for a long minute. Then she knocked back the smoothie and went to Grand Central to get her guns.


Over the next few days, it became clear that the whole “Darcy and Bucky are dating” thing was officially Known Around the Tower. Superheroes were the world’s worst gossips. Darcy didn’t confirm or deny it, and by that she meant, when anyone asked her about it she said “I can neither confirm nor deny,” loudly and then winked. That was plenty to keep it all going.

Apart from the primary objective, the good part about fake dating Bucky Barnes was that people stopped trying to set her up on dates with their weird friends. The bad part was that they started trying to set her up on dates with … well, Bucky Barnes.

At first, it seemed like normal friendly meddling — eager suggestions of good date spots, Tony offering her a couple of tickets to “… one of those terrible bands you kids like, break the fossil out of his shell a little, huh?” Easy stuff to laugh off or turn down without raising questions. She didn’t start to get suspicious until Steve and Clint ostentatiously ‘just stopped by’ the lab the next Monday.

“Hey Darcy,” Steve said after a couple of minutes of painfully awkward small talk. “We’re having a team dinner tonight. Nothin’ fancy, just a potluck. Want to come?”

She shot him a sidelong look. What she should do was say yes — a team potluck was the perfect place to cement her cover. Bucky would definitely be there, and after the groundwork she’d laid, confirming everyone’s suspicions would be as easy as smiling at him. It was nothing, really. A cakewalk. No one would even be shooting at her. All she had to do was sit next to him for an hour or two or three, pretending to be happy and in lo —

“I can’t,” she said, her voice a little too flat. She swallowed and added in a higher register, “I mean, I’d love to, but I have an old friend in town tonight and I promised her we’d get dinner. Next time, though, for sure!”

Their faces fell so fast it would have been funny, if she felt like laughing at anything lately.

“Okay, well, see you later then,” Steve said. His attempt at fake chipperness was even worse than hers. She made a mental note to play poker with him one of these days, because she was not above taking candy from a baby.

They headed out, and weren’t quite out of earshot when Clint said, “So wait, are we still having a potluck? Because I already made pasta salad.”

She just barely kept her head from jerking around. It was a setup? But why …?

This needed more recon. Later that night, she scrubbed through the security footage of the rest of their walk, but couldn’t find anything definite — just Steve saying “Yeah, might as well,” and then a long conversation about the best way to make pasta salad. At the very end, right before they parted ways, he said something very quiet that might have been, “Time for Plan B,” and Clint nodded. No matter how far she turned up the volume, though, there was nothing about what Plan B was.

On Wednesday, she wandered into the courtyard behind the Tower to eat lunch in the sun, like she did most days. (Like her mom always said, even assassins need vitamin D. That whole ‘ghostly pale’ thing was just propaganda.) She’d just taken her first bite of ham sandwich when the door to the stairwell clanged open and someone stomped through.

“Stevie, I don’t see why your phone would be out here —” a familiar voice said. Her heart lifted, then dropped, then did a complicated twist and tied itself into a knot somewhere around her stomach. Before he could finish his sentence, or she could jump up and run awa — retreat in a dignified manner, the door slammed shut again. Bucky’s steps stopped. “What the fuck?”

She couldn’t stop herself from turning around, just as he did the same. Their eyes met. His widened, and hers narrowed.

“Hi,” he said, sounding like someone had just knocked the wind out of him. Why the hell did he have any right to sound that way when she was the one who couldn’t breathe? “I, um. This ain’t what it looks like.”

She didn’t say anything, because first of all he didn’t deserve it and second of all, she couldn’t trust her voice. If it came out sounding anything like his, she might as well just put a neon sign over her head that said FEELINGS. Which, ugh, she’d rather be stabbed in the chest. Instead, she rolled her eyes and walked past him to the door.

It was locked.

She stared at it and took a deep breath in through her nose. The penny dropped hard, like an anvil on a cartoon rabbit. This. Is. Plan. Fucking. B. Why the others felt the need to trap them together, she wasn’t sure, but this shit had Steve written all over it. Goddamn Star Spangled Man with a fucking plan.

She didn’t have to turn to know that Bucky had walked up close behind her. She could feel his presence like a wave of warmth across her skin, even before his breath touched the back of her neck. It tickled, and she twitched her shoulders back irritably.

“They’re gonna be watchin’ on the cameras,” he said, low and apologetic.

No shit, Sherlock. She gave him a withering sidelong look and shoved her sandwich into his hand. Then she walked a pointed step away, pulled out her phone, and hit a few commands to scramble the nearby feeds. It would look like a normal minor power surge. They happened all the time, especially when Jane was messing around with her machines. Tony had tons of backups and surge protection around important areas like the lab and living quarters, but the lab grunts' smoking patio wasn't exactly high on the security list.

When she looked up, Bucky was eyeing the door thoughtfully. “It’s an electronic lock,” he said. “Built to keep out a battering ram. Might be able to rip it open with the Arm” … She blinked. Was that a capital letter? Forget it, doesn’t matter … “but I don’t know for sure. Could pop a few servos.” He gave her another of those fucking apologetic looks. “It’d look pretty suspicious. Not a lotta guys tear their arms off to get out of spending time with their —”

She made a sharp throat-cutting gesture and walked away to stand by the back wall. The other side was an alley and some dumpsters — it was practically the first piece of recon she’d done. It was also like twenty feet high, but his stupid supersoldier ass must be good for something.

He didn’t move. When she turned, he was just standing there like an idiot, holding her sandwich.

She gestured at the wall and raised her eyebrows.

His shot up. “Are you — Jesus, of course you’re serious. Okay, doll, whatever you say.”

She forced herself to be still while he walked across the courtyard to her. When he stopped (too close) (not close enough), she reached out a careful hand and took her sandwich back without allowing her fingers to touch his. She stuffed one corner into her mouth to free up her hands and jerked her head at the wall.

He bent down and cupped his hands. His hair fell into his face, almost but not quite hiding the flash of blue when he looked up at her through his eyelashes.

She swallowed so hard the sandwich bobbed up and down. I didn’t think this through. But there was no other way, except to give up and just sit here and, like … talk to him. Or whatever. While all of his friends watched them on the security monitors. Some inconspicuous cover story this was turning out to be — she’d expected a little gossip, not the full rom-com treatment. When I find out what’s going on, there’s going to be hell to pay.

In the meantime, it was talk or jump.

She put her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. They were just as warm and firm as she wished she didn’t remember. It took a little bit of wiggling and adjusting, but eventually she was able to stand up on his palms. She bent her knees and tried not to think about where his face was relative to her … everything.

“Ready?” he said, and his voice was too low, too soft, it made her want to crawl out of her skin. She smacked his shoulder twice to indicate that she was. She didn’t pull the blows, either. He winced a little and threw her.

It was like being shot out of the world’s most poorly designed cannon. She barely had time to curl into a flip and get her feet under her again before she was landing on top of the wall. The bread in her mouth was getting soggy, so she paused to bite off the edge and get a firmer grip. Then she dropped down, tucked and rolled off the lid of a dumpster, and landed on her hands and knees in the alley. She didn’t even choke on the sandwich … much.

The nearest place for Steve to be watching the monitors was three floors up, so she had time, but not a lot. She shook herself and got to her feet. There was another door a ways down the alley that opened onto the same hallway as the courtyard door. Thankfully the Super Meddlers hadn’t thought to deadlock it too, so she could just badge herself right in.

It was so, so tempting to just walk away and leave Bucky out there to rot. But if they came to let him out and she had mysteriously vanished, anyone with two brain cells to rub together would be suspicious. Darcy didn’t have the skills to make that jump, not even with help.

As an alibi, “badass supersoldier rescues helpless intern” was only going to play if they were both gone. Dammit.

She ran down the hall and hit the unlock button next to the door harder than she probably needed to. Bucky was waiting on the other side. “Thanks —” he started, and stopped when he registered that she was giving him the finger.

“Bo ffuck yourffelf,” she said around the sandwich, and walked away.

Chapter Text

Operation “Make Darcy Reconsider Her Rule Against Killing Good Guys” didn’t end with Steve’s failure to lock them up together.

The next scheme, on Thursday, involved a booby trap full of glue arrows rigged up right outside the kitchen. If the scene in the courtyard was classic Steve, this one was pure Clint.

Darcy looked down at the coffee cup Tony had asked her to fill, then back up at Bucky’s resigned expression. He finished off his protein shake and pulled out his phone. “I got the cameras,” he said. “Looping … now. Go.”

She set down the cup and stalked past him. The trap was rigged up with a fishing line trigger — she stepped over that and tipped her head back to study the rest of it. She pulled out her favorite ceramic knife, then thought better of it and picked her way back to the kitchen to grab a paring knife.

“It’ll pull to the left,” Bucky said as she passed him again.

She gave him a withering glare.

Out in the hall, she lined up the knife a bit to the right of the target (because she was pissed at him, but he wasn’t wrong) and then threw it straight up, neatly severing the knot that held the arrows in place. They fell into her waiting hand.

She walked back to the kitchen and slapped them into his palm. Then she picked up the cup, filled it from the coffee pot, and left.

This time he didn’t try to talk to her, but she flipped him off on her way out anyway.


Friday was Natasha’s turn. The less said about why Darcy ended up going down the 84th floor laundry chute, the better. That was the chute where everybody put their gym towels and it took her all weekend to get the smell out of her hair.


The next Monday, she walked into the lab with a sense of wariness so extreme that it might have counted as paranoia — except it was demonstrably true that they were out to get her. She was never again going to look at a gym towel without shuddering.

It did not calm her down to find Jane and Tony having a furious whispered argument over by the trans-dimensional spectrometer (aka “the thing that goes bloop when there’s stuff”).

She eyed them in her peripheral vision while she set down her bag. Tony seemed to be insisting on something while Jane was denying. That wasn’t necessarily a sign of something bad: could be anything from string theory to whether eating pancakes at 3 pm counted as breakfast or lunch. After the week she’d had, though … yeah, no, it was totally a sign of something bad.

She drifted over closer to them in time to hear Tony say, “… no good, Barnes keeps scrambling the feed and using his Soviet spy tricks to get them out again. It’s like he doesn’t even want our help with … Darcy!” the last word came out suddenly and loudly, smiling at her over Jane’s head. “Hi!”

“Mmmmmhi,” she said, letting him see her suspicion.

Tony glared at Jane. Jane glared back. Darcy squinted at both of them.

After a second, Jane visibly lost whatever silent argument they were having. “Darcy,” she said, her voice wooden, “do you want to take off early tonight so you can spend some time with Bucky? You’ve barely seen him this week.”

“That’s what you think,” Darcy said, and winked. It wasn’t even a lie. She saw Bucky all the time — for the five minutes it took to disarm whatever ridiculous Scooby Doo plot the others had set up to throw them together, plus an extra ten seconds to give him the finger.

Jane turned back to Tony and shrugged. He narrowed his eyes at her.

Darcy decided it was time to lay a trap of her own. “You know, Janey,” she said, studiously innocent, “it’s nice that you like Bucky so much. You never offered me time off when I was dating Ian.” She pretended to think. “Hmm, come to think of it, everyone seems super invested in us spending time together all of a sudden.”

“I’m not,” Tony said, unasked. He pulled out a pair of sunglasses and turned towards the connecting door to his own lab. “Couldn’t care less. Jane, I’ll talk to you later about that … science … thing —”

“Anthony Edward Stark,” Darcy said, and a little of her own voice bled through, making her tone crack like a whip. Tony froze, shoulders going up around his ears. She swallowed and tried to sound just normal-angry instead of scary-angry. “Get your ass back here and tell me what’s going on.”

“Nothing, short stack,” he said, but even behind the sunglasses she could see that his face was guilty as hell.

She crossed her arms and tapped one foot. A distant part of her mind was happy she’d worn the shoes with the loud clicky soles today.

Jane glanced at her and then mirrored the gesture. “Secrets don’t make friends, Tony.”

He sighed. “Okay, all right. I might have heard through the grapevine that you had a fight with my man J. B. Barnes. And that he wanted to apologize, but you wouldn’t talk to him. So a few of us figured, young love is a beautiful thing, let’s bring these two hearts back together.”

She clenched her jaw so hard the joint made a cracking noise. That explained everything — the meddling, the weird plots, even Steve’s unusual concern in the kitchen that first morning. She’d thought he suspected her or was traumatized by her or both, but no. Steve doesn’t care about my boobs and he didn’t suspect shit. Fucking Bucky TOLD HIM something happened.

She was going to kill that man. She was going to strangle him with his own metal arm. She was going to make him write “Opsec is crucial” a hundred times on a piece of paper and then shove it up his ass. She was going to …

… say something Darcy-ish before her boss and landlord started to suspect her of being a hardened killer.

“Excuse me,” she heard herself say, “I have to go murder someone.”

She turned and walked right back out the lab doors. Before they slammed behind her, she heard Jane say, “See? I told you so!”

Chapter Text

She didn’t have to guess where Bucky was. The advantage of a couple of episodes of light stalking was that she knew his schedule as well as her own. It wasn’t hard to catch up with him in the hallway outside the common gym.

She was planning to say a sweet, flirty ‘Hi soldier’ to put him off his guard, but what came out was, “Hey asshole.”

He turned around. For a second he looked almost happy to see her, but it faded almost instantly into a wry look. He folded his arms and jerked his chin up in a half-nod. “Doll. Are we talkin’ again?”

“Apparently,” she said, and the venom in her tone surprised even her. She walked a few steps closer so she could lower her voice. His shoulders tensed, but he didn’t move. “One of us is, anyway. Did you tell Steve that you and I had a fight? Is that why I’ve been dodging booby traps for a week?”

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I was wonderin’ when you’d find out,” he said, his voice leaden. “I’d have told you, but —”

But she hadn’t let him get a word out. Okay, that was fair. Not that she was going to outright say so. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, making a get on with it gesture. “So you did talk to Steve.”

His eyes shifted to the side. “Not, uh, exactly.”

Oh, she was not going to like whatever he said next. Her hand slid instinctively toward the knife at her back. “Who,” she said, slowly and calmly. “Did. You. Tell. About. Us.”

He swallowed and raised his chin again. “Tony.”

Her vision whited out. Through the roaring in her ears, she could hear that he was still talking, but it took a second for her to be able to form words. “You what.”

“I know it was a bad idea. Believe me.” His mouth twisted in a momentary grimace. “I was upset and it just kind of — look,” he changed tone abruptly, and she wasn’t sure if he’d seen her expression or just didn’t want to finish the sentence. He leaned in a little, gaze intent on her face, and she could hear an agitated whir-whir-whir from his arm. “I’m sorry. I really am. I just couldn’t — you looked so — and then I —” He broke off and cursed violently in Russian.

She swallowed. The air felt thick and hot with rage. “Spit it the fuck out, Barnes.”

He closed his metal hand into a fist and bit down on the knuckles for a second, then let out a long breath and tried again. “I panicked. I know I hurt you and I’ve got no fuckin’ clue what to do about it, so cut me some slack, would you? I’ve been trying to say I’m sorry every damn day since.” His eyes were wide and very, very blue. “I didn’t mean what I said. You know that, right? You’ve gotta know I —”

She didn’t even know what she was going to do until the knife was already in her hand, held down along her leg out of sight of the cameras. She took a step, then another. By the time his expression went from pleading to alarmed, she was close enough to press her body against his … and the knife against his stomach. She walked him backwards at knifepoint until his back pressed against the wall.

She went up on tiptoe like she was whispering sweet nothings into his ear. “Stop it,” she hissed. “Stop apologizing. Stop asking questions about my past. Stop acting like you’re my fucking friend, who the fuck do you think y-you —” Her voice wavered at the look on his face. It had gone from surprised, to hurt, to … pissed off?

His right hand covered hers on the handle of the knife. In one motion, he picked her up off the ground with his metal arm and flipped them both around so that she was the one against the wall. The knife between them didn’t move so much as a millimeter towards his stomach.

Darcy stared up at him, breath coming in sharp little gasps. She knew he was big, and fast, and strong enough to throw her twenty feet in the air. But she’d never taken the whole ‘enhanced’ thing seriously, because he’d never even come close to using it against her. Now, suddenly, she realized that if he ever did, she’d be no match for him. She was good, but he was … well, superhuman.

He could have killed her any time he wanted. That first night in the hallway, the times they’d been alone planning the Ohio mission … not to mention in the kitchen when she was unarmed and topless, Jesus Christ. But he hadn’t.

An instant later, she realized she was not even a little bit afraid that he ever would. And that scared her a hell of a lot more.

“You stop it,” he bit out, glaring down at her. “You don’t want me to act like your friend, what does that make me? Your client? Make up your fuckin’ mind, ‘cause I tried that, and you didn’t like it either.”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. He was … not wrong, and that fact made her fear spiral into something approaching panic. What do I want? Why am I so compromised all of a sudden? What the fuck is wrong with me?

When she didn’t say anything, he made a sound like a growl. “This is bullshit. You keep sneakin’ around like you got something to hide from me when this whole time I've done nothing but keep your secrets. It may have escaped your notice, sweetheart, but I am your friend. I’m the only real friend you’ve got in this place. So stop treating me like the goddamned enemy!”

She glared back, letting anger cover her panic. “Real friend? Real friend? You might not know this, but friends don’t usually offer to pay each other for murder.”

“I didn't —” He stopped. The anger on his face ebbed, leaving what looked like exhaustion. Against her will, she wondered when was the last time he’d slept. “No. You're right. I shouldn’t have thought I — that we could be … well. It doesn’t matter.”

Without his anger to push against, hers was fading too. Her heart started to pound in her throat. If he hadn’t still been holding her hand, she might have dropped the knife.

“I ain’t got the right to ask you for anything.” His teeth were gritted around the words, a muscle in his jaw jumping. “You already gave me so much more than I deserve. That book was … I had a time bomb in my head, and you pulled the fuse. I owe you a hell of a lot more than just my life.” He closed his eyes, and she felt something in her chest twist painfully. “From now on, doll, it’s whatever you want. You want me to walk away from this, fine, I walk away.”

She waited for the rush of relief that was surely coming. He’d walk away. Never talk to her again. This could be simple. Just another job, another target. She could finally be …

… alone.

What came instead was an icy wave of loneliness. Operational parameters had shifted again when she wasn’t looking, and this one felt like an earthquake, kicking the breath out of her lungs and shaking the ground underneath her feet.

“And if I don’t want you to leave?” she heard her mouth say.

His stony expression wavered, eyes widening and something flashing across them that looked a little like hurt and a lot like hope. His hand over hers relaxed, then tightened again, but in a way that felt more like a caress than a defensive maneuver. “Then you got me. For whatever you want.”

She felt her own eyes get wide. “That’s a dangerous promise to make to a killer.”

He shrugged. “Not to you, it ain’t.” His eyes searched her face, and she tried not to notice that they were soft again, gentle. Something that looked like a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “I can tell you why, but you’re gonna hate it. Give you a hint, it starts with a T.”

She knew exactly the word he was thinking of. It started rhymed with ‘schmust’ and she was not going to think it out loud. “Yeah, no, I’m good,” she said, and he made a noise that was damn close to a chuckle.

She broke the gaze, then, and looked down at their hands. They were both silent for a second, breathing a little heavy, the air thick between them.

“I mean it,” Bucky said finally, his voice very low. “You don’t have to do this alone. But if you want me to have your six, you gotta let me in. All the way, not just —” He stopped and closed his eyes briefly, a dull flush rising on his cheeks. “Christ, listen to me, I sound like a teenage boy tryin’ to talk his girl behind the fuckin’ bleachers.”

“If this is how you did it, you were no good at it,” she said dryly, and wiggled the knife against his palm.

His eyes snapped open and flicked down, and he huffed a laugh. “Can’t say I did. You’re the first.”

For some stupid reason, the words dropped into her brain like a ton of bricks. The dream from last week flashed through her mind and she was suddenly very aware of the way his body held hers pressed against the wall. She could feel the warmth of his thighs against her own, the chill of his metal arm wrapped around her waist. The hairs rose on the side of her neck when his breath brushed against it. If it wasn’t for the knife, this could almost be …

No. Don’t think about it.

He coughed a little bit, pulling her away from that unwelcome train of thought. “What I mean is, you gotta let me help you. None of this back and forth shit where you give me a tiny taste of intel and then act like a wet cat when I try to get a full operational understanding.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Operational understanding. Is that what you call digging into my past?”

He opened his mouth, then sighed and closed it again. “No. That was me being nosy. I’m sorry, doll. I just wanted to know who you are.”

Her chest knotted up with something complicated that she didn’t want to think about. “You know who I am.” She looked up again and met his gaze, letting Darcy drop off her face. “You’re the only real friend I’ve got in this place, remember?”

His eyes lit with an expression she couldn’t read. She wanted to look away, but … didn’t. After a second, he blinked back to himself and made a wry face. “Not doing such a great job of it, though, am I? I won’t ask again, I promise. I wanna know, but only if you want to tell me.”

There was no way on God’s green earth she should believe him just like that. She didn’t, really. But her pounding heart did, and the tension that unwound itself from her shoulders did, and so did the shaky breath that snaked its way up from her lungs.

Okay, fine, so she believed him. There was maybe even a word to describe that. It was that same T-word again, the one she refused to think. “Thank you.” She looked down to hide her own expression. “I’m sorry I tried to stab you. Again.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Last time was a blowdart, if I recall correctly.”

“There was going to be stabbing,” she admitted. Now that she was thinking about the knife again, she realized that he still hadn’t let go of it. His fingers were warm and solid over hers. It felt kind of nice — like holding hands, but more violent, which made it more in her skillset.

He blew out a breath that was almost a laugh and leaned forward until his forehead touched hers. She should have moved away, but she didn’t. Instead she closed her eyes and sighed. He did, too. They were quiet for a long time.

“New rule for our … whatever this is,” he said finally. “No stabbing.”

She cracked her eyes open and squinted at him skeptically. “Sounds unrealistic.”

He tried to make a grumpy face, but one corner of his mouth kept curling up. “I meant no stabbing me, smartass.”

She raised her eyebrows and nodded like duh.

He snorted and blew a puff of air at her, ruffling her bangs. “Okay, how about this? Yelling first, then stabbing, but only if yelling doesn’t work.”

She wasn’t really a yeller, but … that might work okay. It would certainly cut down on cleanup. Blood was hell to get out of the hall carpet. “This only applies to you, right?” she said, just to double-check.

A little bit of the glow from the kitchen crept back into his eyes. “Yeah, doll,” he said softly. “Only to me.”

“Then okay. I guess.” She let herself relax, just for a second, and lean into his warmth. Then, before she could get too comfortable, she pushed him away. He was letting her, of course — she knew now there was zero chance she could push him anywhere he didn’t want to go. But she was starting to understand that there was also zero chance he’d try to hold onto her if she wanted to go.

That was sort of comforting, and also sort of scary as hell.

She took a deep breath. “Call off the team,” she said, the words coming out in a rush. “I don’t care what you have to say, If I have to break us out of one more fucking rom-com setup I really am going to stab someone.”

“Sure,” he agreed, and gave her the carefree grin that she remembered from mission planning. “I’ll tell ‘em you forgave me ‘cause you were so dazzled by my handsome face and devastatin’ charm.”

She snorted. “I meant tell them something believable, Barnes.”

He clapped a hand to his chest and made an attempt at a wounded face. It would have worked better if his lips didn’t keep twitching up. “Ouch. Maybe I shoulda let you stab me, it’d hurt less.”

She mimed patting her pockets. “Oh look! What’s this? Is it … yes, it’s a tiny violin!” She held up one hand and rubbed her forefinger across her thumb like a bow across violin strings.

He tipped his head back and laughed.

Something happened in her chest. It was like her heart was tightening and swelling at the same time, and it felt … really good. Which was bad. She should get out of here. “Okay,” she said abruptly. “Good talk. Bye.”

He nodded and gave her a sloppy salute. She didn’t turn back to look at him as she walked away, but when she checked the security video later, she saw that he’d watched her all the way down the hall.

Chapter Text

“So what worked?” Sta — Tony said when Bucky went down to the workshop to tell him to lay off. He figured he’d better do it right away before anyone else got stabbed. The new rule only protected him, after all.

That shouldn’t make him feel as warm inside as it did. There was probably something wrong with him. Add it to the list, he thought, not particularly twisted up about it.

He thought about Stark’s question. What had worked? One minute he was damn near yelling in her face, and the next … “I got no idea,” he said honestly. “We just yelled at each other some, and eventually she forgave me. Guess we both had a lot to get off our chests.” He rubbed a hand across his face. “This shit is exhausting.”

“You think you’re exhausted?” Tony slid out from under the casing of whatever robotic nightmare he was building now and swiped an arm across his forehead to wipe away sweat. It left a wide streak of oil. He grinned up at Bucky, oblivious. “Imagine how we feel. No offense, Bucko, but this whole Cupid thing is taking up a lot of time and energy that could be spent Avengering.”

Bucky snorted and kicked a piece of scrap at him half-heartedly. “Please, you love it. Think I don’t know you super assholes get bored? Steve’s a menace if no one tries to destroy the world for three or four days.”

Stark chuckled and rolled himself back under the casing. “Okay, he might be, but some of us work for a living,” he said, his voice echoing. “Tell him to get a hobby.”

“I’m tellin’ you to get a hobby,” Bucky retorted. “I got strict instructions that anyone who tries to pull any Wile E. Coyote bullshit on us after today is goin’ on my girl’s shit list.”

Tony made a ‘wooooo’ noise of fake terror. That was a little insulting, for many reasons, but Bucky wasn’t about to even hint about how terrified he should actually be. Instead he slapped the robot with his metal hand and laughed at the cursing of the guy trapped inside what was essentially a giant bell.

He crouched down to get closer to eye level. “Seriously,” he said when the echoes of the clang died away. “Thank you, but never do that again.”

“You got it, Terminator.” Stark slapped him on the shoulder and then cursed again. “Other goddamn shoulder, how many times,” he muttered, clearly to himself.

Bucky laughed again and left the workshop.


After that, he didn’t see Darcy for a few days. He didn’t expect to. He felt lucky she hadn’t actually stabbed him — not that she would’ve been the first to knife him in the stomach, but still. Gut wounds hurt.

Anyway, he didn’t blame her for staying away. After the show of stupid he’d put on, even a saint would have wanted a break from him. His gal — or rather, his friend — was many things, but a saint wasn’t one of them.

Just because he didn’t see her, though, didn’t mean she wasn’t on his mind. The way he felt about her lately … it was like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Used to be he couldn’t sleep because of nightmares, but now he woke up gasping from dreams of soft skin under his hands, his nose full of gasoline and gunpowder and perfume. And it wasn’t just that — it was her sense of humor, the quick sharp mind to match her quick sharp knives. The way she never flinched. Even Steve flinched sometimes, when Bucky got too sharp or too dark, but she was right there with him every time, unafraid.

He wanted … a lot of things he shouldn’t. Mostly, he just wanted. It hurt, a sharp ache like blood flowing back into a limb he hadn’t even known was asleep. How long since he’d wanted anything? Did it always hurt this bad?

Back when he was a broke Brooklyn kid he’d been great at wanting things he couldn’t have, because that was most of the world. So okay, he knew the drill. He clenched his teeth, put in extra gym time, and pasted on a smile when Steve asked him where his gal was. “I don’t know, Stevie, we ain’t attached at the hip.” Or anywhere else.

But she’d promised not to stab him. So that was something.

His days fell back into the pattern that they’d had before he met her and started ... whatever this was. Kitchen, gym, kitchen, couch. Watch some weird modern TV with Steve. Go to bed, lie staring at the ceiling until he either passed out or got up again. At least now when he went for a walk, Steve thought he was sneaking out to see Darcy. Bucky hadn’t caught him crying over the Hydra files in weeks.

Had his life felt this empty, before? He couldn’t remember. He remembered thinking that at least it was safe, but that thought didn’t help anymore. Somehow, ‘nobody shooting at me’ felt like a lower bar than it used to be.

A week after the incident with the knife, he paused in the shadows outside the common TV room and watched the team settle themselves for movie night. Thor was off-planet again, and Foster was probably buried in her lab, but otherwise the gang seemed to all be here. Clint and Natalia were piled on a couch in a tangle of limbs, while Steve and Sam shared a grin and a bowl of popcorn on the loveseat. Stark settled on the edge of a chair, one eye on his tablet. Bruce sat cross-legged on one of the big pillows, holding a cup of something that steamed. There was a general babble of laughter, insults, and movie suggestions.

In another world, he’d be in that room, throwing popcorn at Steve’s head and teasing Nat in Russian. Bruce would give him tea and Sam would scoot over to make room for him. He could almost feel the warmth of that other place, the same warmth he felt from his few vivid memories of the Commandos.

In this world, if he walked into that room, it would go silent. Backs would stiffen. They might pick up again, might even try to tease him — Steve and Tony certainly would — but all he’d hear would be sirens in his mind. He’d sit for five minutes, maybe ten, terrified to move in case something woke the Soldier up. Then he’d be back out in this hallway with his head on fire, running for someplace where there wasn’t anything for him to hurt. He hadn’t had an incident since he got here, but that didn’t mean anything. His mind couldn’t be trusted.

So, he couldn’t be with people, and that was that. If things went bad, Steve was the only one who was safe around him. Steve and … well. No point thinking about that.

He took one last look through the door and closed his eyes against the fishhook of longing in his chest. When he opened them, he found himself staring straight at Darcy. Or, no … he watched her watch him, head tipped and face impassive … not Darcy. He raised a hand in a wave and got exactly the reaction he was expecting: none.

She looked from him, to the room, and then back to him. Her eyebrows rose slightly.

He gave her a twist of a smile and turned to walk away — if she was going in, then he’d be even less wanted than normal.

Her hand shot out and wrapped around his metal wrist. He stopped like he’d walked into a wall. When he didn’t move otherwise, she pulled on the Arm. Pulled on it, like it was a regular arm.

Bucky swallowed and turned, but only his head. He wanted — god, he wanted to go anywhere she led him. But … “Not a great idea, doll,” he said as quietly as possible. It wouldn’t be quiet enough, he knew, and sure enough he saw Steve’s shoulders tense. Thankfully the punk had the sense not to turn around.

She looked him up and down, then rolled her eyes halfway out of her head. “I —” she started, and then glanced into the room and thought better of whatever she’d been planning to say. “I love this movie,” she said instead, and her widened eyes said, Do you trust me?

There weren’t any two answers to that question. When she tugged on his arm again, he went.

Sure enough, the room went quiet when they walked in. Sweet bouncy Darcy didn’t care about that, though, and neither did the woman with her fingers locked around his wrist. She guided him to one of the armchairs — one with clear sight lines of the room and the door, he noticed — and shoved him into it. The Avengers watched with varying degrees of surprise, alarm, and amusement. She shot them all a beaming smile and dropped into his lap.

Bucky froze. She never touched him like this. Sure, there had been a time or two when keeping their cover meant getting a little cozy, but that had been handholding or a fake embrace, not … this. He’d been expecting her to head for a couch or maybe sit on the floor near him. Instead her warm, soft weight was across his thighs, one of her curls tickling his cheek, and his right hand had curled automatically around her hip. He didn’t even dare to breathe.

She wiggled, as if settling herself more comfortably, and he felt the handle of a knife dig into his ribs. He looked up into her eyes — That can’t be an accident — and she gave a tiny nod. Then she smiled and did something that looked and (he swallowed) felt like a loving caress across his shoulder and chest. His nerve endings were screaming panic and pleasure into his brain, so it took him a second to realize that she was tracing every. Single. Line. Of the connection between the Arm and his spine. If she followed that exact path with a knife, it would immobilize the Arm in less than a second.

How long has she known how to do that?

It should have felt like a threat. It did feel like a threat. He tensed to throw her off and run. Then she flattened her palm against his chest and leaned in until their faces almost touched. Her breath was sweet against his mouth. “I don’t think I’ll have to break our rule,” she whispered, “but I could.”

He pulled back far enough to stare at her. She smiled.

This wasn’t cuddling. She was … she was putting herself between him and the room. Her full weight was on him, and that wouldn’t slow the Soldier down for long, but with what she knew it’d be long enough. If he broke and tried to hurt anyone, she was telling him that she could and would put him down.

He closed his eyes and let the tension flow out of his muscles. “You,” he breathed, “are …” and couldn’t even finish the sentence, just rested his forehead against hers until his breathing was even again. When he opened his eyes, the rest of the room was carefully not looking at them. “And you,” he said, in a voice that came out rusty but unwavering, “are all nosy fuckers.”

The tension dissolved into general laughter, and he found himself smiling at them. Darcy patted his chest one more time, then turned her head to weigh in on whether they should watch the original or the director’s cut of the movie.

Steve caught his eye over her head and made a smug face. Bucky stuck his tongue out right back. Steve threw a handful of popcorn. Darcy shrieked as it rained over them, and Bucky managed to catch a few kernels in his mouth without jostling her.

They settled down as the credits started, and he let his arm tighten around her, just a little. Maybe, he thought, watching the light flicker on the curve of her cheek. Maybe this is a nicer world than I thought it was.

Chapter Text

A few days after movie night, she almost broke the no-stabbing rule for real. She was halfway home after a long day of collating when someone popped out of a supply closet and grabbed her arm. At the first touch, she fell into a defensive stance. Her other hand went straight for her knife. Only years of experience at reflex control prevented her from slashing the wrist tendons, eyes, and then throat and asking questions later. Instead, she covered her movement with a fake cringe and bought herself a second to think by shrieking.

Then she realized it was just Bucky. She shut her mouth, cutting off the scream instantly, and rolled her eyes halfway out of her head. “Dude!” she hissed, pushing him back in and slamming the door after them. “What the hell are you thinking? Do you have any survival instincts whatsoever?”

In the dim glow of the emergency light, she saw him shrug. He looked good, she couldn’t help but notice. Even with the light casting big pools of shadow under his eyes, she could tell he’d been sleeping regularly. They were a little crinkled at the corners, too, like he’d remembered how to smile. Something warm crept into her chest, even as he rolled his eyes right back at her. “I’m datin’ a woman who tried to kill me twice,” he said dryly, “so no.”

Fake dating,” she corrected automatically, “and the second time I was only threatening you.” As excuses for attempted murder went, she was aware that it was pretty thin. By the hint of a smirk on his face, so was he.

He let go of her arm to wave that off. “You say tomato, I say poor life decision.” There wasn’t room for him to back off much, but he took a half-step away as he spoke and propped his shoulders against a rack of shelving. The smirk deepened.

It was absolutely true, but for some reason she didn’t really like being called a poor life decision. It made her feel prickly and hurt in a way that was all too familiar from their fight over her past. “So is this you coming to your senses?” she said, a brittle edge to her voice. “Giving me a chance to get out while they warm the tar and feathers?”

He looked at her like she was completely crazy. It shouldn’t have made her feel better … but it did, so. “Anyone ever tell you you’re real dramatic?” he drawled.

She made an offended huff and reached across to flick his metal arm. It made a ping sound and probably hurt her more than him, but it was the principle of the thing. “Stabbing,” she said, “still on the table,” but even she could hear that she didn’t mean it.

“The hell it is!” He straightened up, incensed, and pointed a metal finger at her. “We got a rule, doll. What’s the rule?”

“No stabbing,” she sing-songed like a little kid, rolling her eyes and trying not to smile. “Okay, okay. What do you want, anyway? Or are you just hiding in the closet so your hair can spend time with its family?” She gestured at a nearby mop.

He clapped a hand to his chest. “Cold,” he said. “That’s real cold. And here I am, trying to be a gentleman and invite you over for dinner.”

“So you decided to do it by dragging me into a closet?” It was her turn to stare at him like a complete lunatic. “And you say I’m the dramatic one.” Then the words registered in her brain. “Wait. Dinner? Like a …” She couldn’t make herself say the word.

For a second he let her hang there. His eyes lingered on her, sharp and pale, all the blue washed out by the flickering fluorescent light. Then his face softened. “Steve’s been askin’ questions,” he said, and she let out a breath. Right, this was just about the cover. Of course it was. What else would it be about? “He wants to know, if we’re so hot and heavy, how come you’re never around? I been spendin’ a lot of time at ‘your place’,” his metal hand made air quotes with a soft ssh-ssh sound, “but I finally had to tell him I’d bring you over. For dinner. So. Will you come?” His voice got a little softer on the last few words.

“Yeah, ‘course,” she said absently, stuck on something else he’d said. “Where is ‘my place’?” She mimicked the air quotes. “Do you go hang out at a coffee shop or something?”

He looked down. Her instincts pinged, hard. That face looked like he was hiding something, maybe something important. And if that was true, then he was doing exactly what he’d told her not to do, and she was never going to let him live it down. “Nah,” he muttered finally, “I don’t go out. But it doesn’t matter, I know how to avoid bein’ seen.”

She frowned, her vague suspicions hardening. “Wait, what do you mean you don’t go out? Like ever?” It made a horrible kind of sense. In all these months of occasional surveillance, she’d never seen him leaving. She’d thought she just wasn’t watching at the right moments, because it wasn’t like she had time to keep eyes on him 24/7. But, now that she really thought about it … he should have gone out at least a few times. Maybe not for weekly combat training and illegal weapons deals, like she did, but for normal stuff. Coffee and a bagel. A Broadway show. Something.

But maybe she was just paranoid. Or rather, she was definitely paranoid, so maybe this was just her normal base level paranoia coming out. Surely he wasn’t dumb enough to make himself a sitting duck in Tony Stark’s big annoying penis metaphor of a building. Surely he’d contradict her and explain that wasn’t what he meant.

Any second now.

He shrugged instead. “’S not important. Anyway —”

Her mouth dropped open in something halfway between surprise and outrage. She didn’t bother to let him finish whatever bullshit distraction he was about to attempt. “That is what you meant! You never leave the Tower? Are you serious right now?”

The look he shot her would have fit on the face of any sullen teenager in the world. “Don’t start.”

“Oh, okay.” She folded her arms and fixed him with a stare that had made hardened dictators beg for mercy. “I won’t start. I probably don’t need to anyway, I’m sure Steve and Natasha and maybe even Tony have explained to you exactly what a stupid fucking idea —” Her voice rose loud enough that she really shouldn’t be doing this in the supply closet.

“I said don’t start!” he yelled back. “I know what I’m doin’, okay, I’m not an idiot! It’s not safe out there, not for me and not for anyone around me. You get that? Or do you need me to spell it out for you? Because I’ve got mission reports that’ll make it real clear why —”

“Yeah, yeah, I know!” she snapped.

There was a sudden silence. If she’d been Darcy, she’d have covered her mouth, but she wasn’t Darcy right now.

“You … know?” Bucky said. It was hard to tell in the greenish security light, but she thought he looked a little sick.

She blew out a long breath. There was no getting around this one, not without lying, and she wasn’t going to do that. Because — she just wasn’t, that was all. “I read your file. The whole thing, not the redacted version.” She held up a hand as his mouth opened. “Yes, I know that makes me a giant hypocrite, but it was a long time ago and I really needed to know if you were telling me the truth. I’m sorry.”

He was staring at her like he’d seen a ghost, and now she felt sick. If she was him, she’d never speak to herself again. And if he did that, and this ruined everything … she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She couldn’t stay here. It hadn’t occurred to her until just this moment, but this thing they had, whatever it was, wasn’t something she could afford to lose and still be Darcy.

Or maybe it wasn’t something she could afford to lose at all.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, and meant it. “But there’s nothing in your file that makes me think you wouldn’t be safe around civilians. Even at your worst, you never did collateral damage. It was kind of your thing. And now you won’t even hurt someone who’s actively trying to kill you, exhibit A,” she waved at herself, “so give me a break with that ‘I could snap any second’ bullshit.”

His mouth hung open for a long moment. When he finally closed it, it seemed to take an effort. “You read my file,” he repeated like he hadn’t heard her at all. “When —” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “When exactly?”

She thought back. “After you returned my tablet, before my mom sent the care package with the semtex. I guess November sometime?”

“That’s … we’d barely met. You read that whole thing and still decided to get to know me.” He was giving her that look again, the one with the light behind it that made her skin itch. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“No, it bothers the ever-loving fuck out of me,” she said sharply, “that’s why I’m killing everyone who made you do it.”

There was a brief, spine-tingling silence. He just stared at her, and the closet was so small that it would take a step, not even a whole step, just a half one and they’d be — and her heart was pounding and he could probably hear it and why wasn’t there any air

Outside, footsteps thumped past the door, and someone’s phone played a tinny snatch of Despacito. They both jumped.

He lifted a hand, like he was going to reach towards her, then abruptly pulled it back and curled it into a fist. “Thanks,” he said, his voice so hoarse it was almost strangled.

There was a long silence. She didn’t look at him, but she could feel him looking at her. Finally, she cleared her throat. “If you’re not going out, where do you go when you’re supposed to be at my place?”

He shrugged again.

It wasn’t an answer, but it was enough for her to make an educated guess. He never left the Tower — and seriously, they were not done talking about that — but he couldn’t risk getting caught someplace else when he was supposed to be with her. Wherever he was spending his time, it had to be a place where no one else on the team would ever go.

That didn’t leave a lot of options, and most of them were seriously uncomfortable. Like, closets and basements uncomfortable.

Hang on. Is that why he was lurking in here?

She winced. The idea of Bucky spending hours crushed into this tiny space made her muscles cramp in sympathy. He did all this for her, and what was she doing for him? Apart from killing — she counted back — fifty-seven Hydra douchebags, obviously. But that wasn’t … it didn’t count. She didn’t do it so that he’d owe her anything. She thought she’d made that pretty clear when she tried to stab him for mentioning payment.

Anyway. He was giving her a lot, was the point. Not just his work or his time but his … she bit back a grimace at the word … trust. So, okay, maybe it was time to make it a two-way street. That was what friends did, right? She’d never really had one before — not as herself — but that seemed to be the way it worked.

“You know you can just come to my actual place, right?” she said. It was supposed to be casual, but instead the words came out so heavy, they shook the air.

He went very still.

She felt a rush of relief, sudden and unexpected, like she’d let something go and now gravity was doing all the work. “Come on,” she said, and grabbed his hand. It twitched a little in hers, then stilled.

She tugged, and he followed, not speaking, all the way to her front door.

Chapter Text

At the door, she fished out her keys and thumbed to one with flowers on it. It looked like one of the decorated kind you could get for an extra fifty cents at the hardware store — key words being ‘looked like.’ She pressed the grip between her finger and thumb for five seconds to activate the biometrics, then gestured at Bucky. “Right hand,” she said. He held it out and she pressed his hand where hers had been, holding until a tiny light next to the keyhole went from red to green. “Okay, now turn it,” she said, stepping back and gesturing to the lock.

He did. She had no idea what he was thinking, but he moved like a sleepwalker. The door clicked open.

“That key’s yours now,” she said, moving past him into the hallway. “It’ll only turn for you.” She punched a code on the panel next to the door. “Don’t worry about the code, it’s a dummy. It just keeps you under the facial recognition camera for the right amount of time. If anyone who’s not in the system comes in unaccompanied, my safe auto-seals and FRIDAY gets an intruder alarm.”

“Who’s in the system?” Bucky said. It was the first thing he’d said this whole time. His voice rasped a little.

Darcy pushed him in front of the camera and tapped another button on the pad. A light flashed. “Me,” she said, “and now you.”

He turned to look at her, his expression stripped raw. “Doll.”

She dropped her eyes, unable to meet that look for very long. “We already talked about this,” she muttered, digging her toe into the carpet. “You know what I am. I’ve got nothing to hide from you.”

“You could have plenty to hide from me.” His right hand reached out and wrapped around her wrist, loosely, like a bracelet. She stared at it but didn’t pull away. “I appreciate it, but you know you don’t have to — this is your home.”

She did look up at him then. She wasn’t sure what her face was doing, but whatever it was made him look like she’d punched him in the stomach. But in a good way, maybe. She had to swallow before she could speak. “It’s my home because of you. ‘Cause you trusted me when you didn’t have to. You — you gave me that. Let me just —” Her voice broke, and she had to blink and swallow again. “Let me give it back. Okay?”

“Okay,” he breathed, so softly she saw it more than heard it.

“Okay.” Her heart was going so fast it was practically humming in her chest. She took a deep breath and made herself pull her arm away. “Want a tour?”

He opened his mouth, then licked his lips and closed it again. “Sure,” he said finally, in that same gravelly voice.

She stepped back and waved him down the hall. Into her home.

Bucky walked past her into the living room. He paused on the threshold and blinked a few times. “Wow,” he said slowly. “This is … uh, it’s …”

She leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms, grinning. She’d surprised him plenty of times, of course, but she’d never seen him look so openly confused. “Not what you expected?” she said, amused.

“Not exactly,” he admitted.

She looked around at her living room with its jumble of color and texture, and her grin softened into something like fondness.

All her life, she’d mostly lived in hotel rooms. First as a kid, following her mom around the world, then as a free agent. They were all the same: bland, empty, and white. She’d had a couple of longer-term places, like the trailer with she’d shared with Jane, but even then it was always supposed to be temporary. A few weeks, maybe a couple of months tops. Plus, it wasn’t where she lived, it was where her cover lived. Big difference.

At first when she moved into the Tower, she’d thought of it the same way. What would Darcy like? How would Darcy arrange her furniture? But then she saw the afghan at one of the trendy vintage stores where Darcy shopped. It was hideous, and not the cool kind of hideous either — multicolored, clashing, the edges wobbling around like whoever had made it didn’t really know what they were doing. She poked it as a joke. It was so so soft, and warm, and the next thing she knew she was tossing it over the back of Darcy’s couch.

Then she found the lamp: a clear plastic base with some kind of weird diorama involving dead butterflies and fake cattails. Then the ‘motivational’ painting that just said “SEIZE” in different colors and fonts. And then there had been pillows, multicolored and clashing to match the blanket, and she’d painted an accent wall, and one day she’d realized that she lived here. Like, actually lived here.

She hadn’t had anyone over since. This wasn’t Darcy’s place anymore. It was hers.

Bucky wandered over to look closer at the shelf above the TV. He tipped his head and regarded the bright, metallic-gold skull with its mouth open and hands pressed to its cheeks, then looked at her.

“Big mood,” she said, and made the same face.

He cracked a smile. “I have no idea what you just said, but okay.” Then his eyes slid over to the right, and he paused. She did, too, her stomach twisting. Maybe she hadn’t thought this through. No, she definitely hadn’t thought it through, but it was too late now. And anyway, this trust thing didn’t really come with exceptions. Not the way they were doing it.

The picture frame Bucky was staring at was maybe the most unremarkable thing in the room — just a cheap shitty gold metal square she’d picked up at a Target in Iowa. It was also the only thing in the room she’d unhesitatingly kill to protect.

He raised a hand toward it, but didn’t quite touch. “Is this … can I ask?” he said, his voice hushed and tentative.

“Y —” she cleared her throat. “Yeah.”

His hand, still a few inches away from the glass, traced the outline of her smiling face, then skimmed to the woman laughing next to her. She was older, with dark eyes and gray in her dark hair, a scar bisecting the line of her jaw, but still recognizably … “Is that your ma?”

The world was starting to swim. She forced herself to let out the breath she was holding and take another one. “Uh-huh.”

He turned, not all the way, just enough to look at her out of the corner of his eyes. “And does she know …?”

She laughed, a strained noise that brought him around to face her. “She trained me. She was one of the most feared assassins in the world back in the 80s and 90s.” She looked past him at the picture. “It’s kind of dumb to keep that here, someone could recognize her, but — it’s the only one I have. So.”

He looked from her to the photo, then back to her. “You got her smile,” he said.

That really didn’t seem like the hot issue here, but he didn’t say anything else, so neither did she. The silence stretched well into awkward before he finally opened his mouth.

“You gonna give me that tour or what?”

For some reason, that was kind of a let down. Not that she wanted him to pry, but … maybe a little prying would have been okay. She shrugged off the feeling and waved a hand around. “So this is the living room, obviously. Kitchen is over that way. Bathroom and, uh, bedroom down the hall.” She cursed the tiny stammer.

The tension in his face rose again. He turned away and moved jerkily toward the couch. “I’ll just sit down. I don’t need to —”

“You should know what it looks like,” she said, choosing her words so very carefully. “It’ll seem strange if you don’t. Easy way to get caught.”

He shot her a glance from under his hair. She met it head-on.

“Really, it’s okay.” It was — weird, but okay. She waved him down the hall. “Go. Go dig through my underwear drawer or whatever, I’ll grab us some drinks. You want water? Coffee?”

“Water’s fine.” He went down the hall stiffly, each step carefully placed, like a cat picking its way around the edge of a puddle. The light in the bathroom went on, then off. Then the bedroom light.

She went through to the kitchen, a little stiff herself. It was impossible not to wonder what he thought of the pale blue walls (Darcy’s), the tangled pile of mismatched blankets (hers), the closet with its schizophrenic collection of clothes and disguises. She wondered if he’d find the panel in the back of the closet that concealed the gun safe. Or the box of knives and various other weapons under her bed.

She wondered if he really would look at her underwear. Not for kicks — she had zero doubt he was a gentleman — but so that he could say he’d seen it.

She wondered if she’d be disappointed if he didn’t.

“Nice place,” was all he said when he came back.

She grinned at him, and it wasn’t completely fake. “Thanks. Feel free to hang out when you need someplace to be. If I’m here or not, doesn’t matter. Mi casa, su casa, whatever.”

He was giving her another of those long looks, but when she raised a questioning eyebrow, he shook himself out of it. “Anything I should know about? No booby traps or nothin’?”

She started to answer, then paused. He looked mildly alarmed. “No-o … hmm, yeah, no, I think I disarmed the one in the bathroom vent. Clint,” she added when he gave her a questioning look, and he nodded. “Wasn’t sure when I first moved in, but turns out he never does that stupid vent crawling shit on the non-Avengers floors, so it’s fine.” She swallowed, but pressed on, because it needed to be said. “Weapons are all in my bedroom. You can borrow them if you ever need to—” (he made a negating gesture, and she suppressed a shudder as she tried not to imagine why he would ever need to) “—but don’t rearrange my guns. I’ve got them how I like them. There’s a system.”

“I noticed that,” he said dryly. “That Walther PPK sitting on top of a box of 50 cal ammo sure seemed like it was there for a reason.” She was nowhere near close enough for her half-hearted swipe at him to connect, but he ducked anyway. “Anything else? House rules?”

She tapped her chin, thinking. “Never had to make any … I guess, clean out the coffee pot after you use it. The only thing grosser than coffee is stale coffee. If you eat my food, replace it. The Netflix password is on a post-it by the TV in case you get signed out, just remember to put it back when you’re done. Don’t use the last of my milk, and don’t bring that hazelnut creamer shit in here or I will make your life a misery.” He chuckled, but waved her on. “I think that’s it. I do most of my work-related stuff away from home, so there shouldn’t be anything here you don’t want to see.”

He snorted. “Yeah, ‘cause I’m real sensitive. If I see blood I might faint.”

“You’re a snotty asshole is what you are,” she said, and he chuckled again. She held out a glass of water in one hand, and made a grabbing motion with the other. “If you give me your phone I can get you set up on the wi-fi. I have it locked down pretty tight.”

He dug his phone out of his pocket and traded her, then perched on the edge of the couch. She sat down at the other end and curled her legs up, making a show of relaxing as she added his phone to her hidden network (and her number to his phone). After a moment, he glanced over and self-consciously pushed himself all the way back on the cushion. “You have your own encrypted wi-fi,” he said. “Doesn’t that make FRIDAY suspicious?”

“Nah.” She glanced up from the phone and grinned at him. “When I moved in, I told her I was Jane’s undercover SHIELD bodyguard. Made myself a cute little Level Seven badge and everything. This was right after Tony made her a primary system, so she was pretty impressionable.” She frowned. “Sometimes I feel bad about tricking a baby.”

He gaped at her, and she felt a familiar smug little thrill at impressing him. “Are you serious? It worked?”

“Kinda too well, actually.” She grabbed her own phone and pushed an authentication code, then went back to his. “See, I couldn’t have her searching for me in the SHIELD files, or mentioning me to Tony as an agent. So I told her I was off the books, ‘cause there were moles in SHIELD. I said they had eyes on the Avengers, and if they thought Tony was onto them they might kill him. So to keep him safe, she agreed not to tell him.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was staring at her, frozen. “I was so pleased with myself for that spectacular piece of bullshit. For about six months.”

“And then Hydra,” he said, his voice faint.

“And then Hydra,” she agreed. “That day when it all went down, I just …” She pressed her lips together and scrubbed a hand across her face. “It was so stupid, but I just kept thinking, Those fuckers stole my story.

Bucky didn’t move for a long second. She regretted bringing it all up, but then he seemed to recover. “Gee,” he said, his voice dry as dust. “How dare they. No wonder you hate them so much.”

“Yeah,” she agreed in the same tone, “that’s exactly why. That, and they have shitty taste in hats.”

He barked something that was almost a laugh.

There was a lot she could say — I’m sorry, I didn’t know, but I should have, I of all people should have guessed — but she didn’t think it would do him a lot of good. Lots of people had probably told him they were sorry. She was doing something about it. That was more important.

“Anyway,” she said instead, “on the good side, now that SHIELD is gone, FRIDAY assumes I’m working undercover for Tony like everybody else. I can get away with just about anything short of trying to kill someone in a hallway.” She shot him a smile that she hoped was more convincing than it felt.

He blinked a couple of times, then pinched the bridge of his nose and looked pained. “So all that footage I’ve been so careful about deletin’ …”

Ouch. That sounded time-consuming. “Still a good idea,” she said, mostly out of pity. “Otherwise Steve or Tony might get their hands on it. But the fact that she thinks I’m Agent Lewis is probably the only reason she didn’t flag you like crazy for deleting it.”

He shook his head slowly, then started to laugh. “Oh my god,” he said. “She thinks I’m your assistant, doesn’t she? I’m the damn sidekick. Again.” He tipped his head back onto the cushions and addressed the heavens, or at least the ceiling. “How do I always end up somebody’s sidekick?”

She shrugged and fired up the browser on his phone to test the connection. She also set his lock screen to a picture of a kitten on a rainbow, just because. “I don’t know. Guess you just aren’t very interesting,” she said nonchalantly.

He made an indignant gargling sound and jerked himself up to glare at her. She shot him a half second of an innocent look, but couldn’t hold it and cracked up laughing so hard she almost fell off the couch. He growled a little, but she could see the smile at the corners of his eyes.

“Smartass,” he grumbled, his accent thickening even further than normal. “I’m the most interestin’ thing that ever happened to you. You should be thankin’ ya lucky stars I came along.”

She grinned at him, her sidekick, her friend, and tried to imagine her life without him: his stupid hair and his crazy enemies and the lazy curl of his body against her couch. She couldn’t. Not really. “I know,” she said. For once, it came out exactly as sincere as she meant it.

He flushed. Of all damn things, Bucky Barnes blushed.

Her chest did that thing again, the tightening/expanding thing that felt so weird but so good. It didn’t scare her as much this time.

“So dinner,” she said, when the silence started to get awkward again. He jumped a little, but nodded. She tossed the phone back to him. “When’s that going down?”

He caught it one-handed in the metal hand. Even a tiny squeeze could easily crack the screen, but his grip was so gentle the impact barely made a sound. She raised her eyebrows — that was some damn impressive fine motor control. She’d always known he wouldn’t hurt her, but if the pressure sensitivity was that finely-tuned, then he could —

She turned away and picked up her water glass hastily. The things he might or might not be able to do with his hands were of no relevance to her whatsoever.

“Let’s do it tomorrow, if you ain’t busy,” he said, and she almost choked. What were they talking about? Oh right. Dinner. “Steve’s makin’ lasagna. It’s his specialty,” he added a good-natured eye roll with the word, “and the damn thing’s big enough to feed an army. I think Nat and Sam will be there too.”

“Right,” she said faintly. Nat and Sam, as in the legendary Black Widow and the only actually normal person in the Tower. So this was just dinner with her fake boyfriend’s best friend and the two people most likely to blow her cover. No pressure. “Sounds like a party.”

Chapter Text

It went against all her instincts to go to dinner unarmed. Seriously, it almost physically hurt her. But they were going to be hanging with three very observant people who would (she assumed) watch her like hawks. Sooner or later one of them was going to notice the outline of a gun or knife, and Darcy definitely did not carry. She might be able to get away with a taser, but Jane had given her a loud and very public lecture that included the words “most secure building in the world” and “illegal in the state of New York,” so it was better not to risk it.

Besides, it was a friendly dinner. How high could the chances of it turning violent possibly be? Fifty, sixty percent? It’d be fine.

She said as much to Bucky, who’d showed up a suspiciously short time after she finished work. He didn’t even knock, just stood outside shuffling his feet and looking at the door like it was a snake. She watched him on the security camera for longer than she’d like to admit before she finally let him in.

“You have a key,” she said, rolling her eyes at him.

He shrugged. “I’m here to pick you up for a d … for dinner. ’S not nice to just let myself in.”

She felt a flash of something like panic squeeze her chest at the word he’d almost said. It made her voice come out flat and unfriendly. “I’m not ready.”

She expected him to flinch away from her sudden sharpness, but instead his eyes were gentle. “Okay,” he said, calm and easy like she wasn’t being weird as hell. “Do you want me to go? Or I could make some coffee and wait. You got Netflix, right?”

“Right,” she said slowly. After another second, she moved back and let him walk past her into the living room. They didn’t touch, she made sure of it, but a shiver went over her skin when he came close anyway.

The weirdest thing about having him in her home was how weird it wasn’t. She didn’t allow people in her space, but he wasn’t people, he was Bucky. After that first hyperaware moment, she kind of just … forgot to be uneasy. He sprawled on her couch, drinking coffee and watching some dumb kid’s show, while she cleaned her guns and did pull-ups.

When she mentioned her (perfectly reasonable) risk assessment, he sat up and gave her a weird squinty look. It occurred to her that she maybe didn’t know very much about friendly dinners. Or the definition of ‘fine.’

She dropped off the bar and sighed. Civilian life was still confusing, even after all these years. “Should I like, dress up or what?” she said.

He shrugged. “What would Darcy do?”

“WWDD,” she said, tracing the letters in the air. “I like it. Maybe I’ll get one of those cheesy rubber bracelets made.”

He snorted.

She stuck her tongue out at him and let her brain fall into work mode. “She’d be nervous,” she said, thinking aloud. It was a bad habit she thought she’d broken a long time ago, but it came back sometimes when she was nervous. Not that she was. Darcy was nervous, not her. “New boyfriend, first hangout with his friends, she really wants them to like her. But they all also know her already.” She nodded sharply. “Casual, cute, extra lipstick.” She headed for the hallway, then stuck her head back into the living room. “Heads up, Robocop, there will be cleavage. Look appreciative.”

He shot her a look through his lashes, and she suddenly felt a little short of air. “Oh gee, a challenge,” he deadpanned.

Her mouth curved up in spite of herself. “Save it for the peanut gallery,” she said. She was absolutely not still smiling when she went to change.

When she came back out, he straightened up on the couch. His eyes tracked from the top of her head — carefully tousled just a little bit, like someone might have tried to fix it after someone else ran their fingers through it — over her red lipstick, the promised cleavage, and her favorite black jeans. His face was unreadable, and he didn’t say anything, but she thought he swallowed.

She held her hands out in an exaggerated ta-da! and did a little twirl just to hide her expression. Fake boyfriend, she reminded herself. Fake dating. Fake everything.

They were both quiet as they left. She had her keys, but motioned to Bucky to lock the door behind them instead. He did, then avoided her eyes by fiddling with his keychain the whole way up in the elevator.

She couldn’t help but make a wry face when she saw the hallway where they’d first, for lack of a better word, met. He glanced down at her and his mouth quirked up.

“Hey doll,” he said, leaning down to murmur into her ear, “remember that time —”

She took a swing at him, wide and intended to miss, and he dodged it, laughing. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” she said, following him down the hallway. “I’d like to remind you that your rules don’t say anything about blow —”

Bucky had his key out, but Steve opened the door before he could unlock it. Darcy hastily shut her mouth. The word she bit down on was ‘blowdarts,’ of course, but Steve only heard the first part. He looked from her suddenly awkward expression to Bucky’s laughing face and visibly drew his own conclusions. His eyebrows rose and his lips twitched. “Hey guys,” he said, “perfect timing! The lasagna just came out of the oven. Darcy, you look great.”

“You tryin’ to steal my girl, Rogers?” Bucky said, still smiling. He looked different than he did when it was just the two of them — less edgy and more confident, but in a deliberate way she recognized as a front. She felt oddly complimented that he let her see the rough edges of himself. When he draped a casual arm around her shoulders, she leaned into it without thinking.

“If that’s all it takes, sure,” Steve said easily. He stepped back and Bucky steered her in without taking his arm away.

“Not a chance,” Bucky said, “I caught this one fair and square.” He looked down and she could practically feel the words ‘in a net in the hallway’ beaming straight into her mind. He smirked.

“Pfft, please,” she said, because two could play this game. “I’d been after you for months and you know it. You were helpless to resist me.” And by me I mean my dendrotoxin.

His smirk softened into that smile he got sometimes, the one that lit up his whole face. “Always am,” he said, and she swallowed. That wasn’t playing fair at all.

“Does anyone have any insulin?” Natasha said from the kitchen doorway. “I think I just got diabetes.” She looked amused and very much at home: barefoot, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, sipping from a half-empty glass of wine.

Interesting. Steve and Natasha? Darcy shot Bucky a sidelong glance. He might have mentioned that was a thing.

He met her look with one of slight apology and said something rude to Natasha in Russian. She said something back that Darcy’s rusty Russian couldn’t follow, but it made him grin a little wider.

“Hey hey hey,” Sam said, coming in from the hallway to the left that led to the bathroom and bedrooms. “No Russian at the dinner table. Secrets don’t make friends, guys.”

“But they can keep them,” Natasha and Darcy said together. She felt Bucky stiffen a little, but there was no suspicion in the laughing glance Natasha shot her. She smiled back, playing up the shyness a touch. “My mom always used to say that.”

“Was your mom a spy?” Sam asked jokingly. He leaned against the other side of the kitchen doorframe and accepted the beer Natasha handed him.

Bucky stiffened a little more. Darcy leaned on him, trying to will him to relax. Like she wasn’t prepared for that kind of question? C’mon. “She’s a librarian,” she said. “They’re really big on patron confidentiality. ‘Specially since the Patriot Act.”

“Ugh, don’t get me started on the Patriot Act,” Steve said. He started to put plates on the table a little bit harder than necessary.

“Really,” Natasha agreed flatly. “Don’t.”

He smiled at her and yup, that was the ridiculously soft smile of a man who was besotted. How did she know that? No idea. No reason. Just an idle observation. “Ya tozhe tebya lyublyu, Natashenka,” he said.

Awwww. Even Darcy knew that one.

“No Russian!” Sam barked, but he was smiling like he knew too.

Steve turned apologetic, but clearly fake, puppy-dog eyes on him. “Sorry, Sam. Go sit down, I’ll grab the food.” He moved past into the kitchen. His hand brushed over Natasha’s waist; that was not a surprise. The surprise was that his other hand slid the length of Sam’s thigh. It was subtle, but Darcy had spent most of her life training to catch stuff like that.

She wrapped one arm around Bucky’s waist and pinched him hard in the ribs. He really might have mentioned that was a thing.

He jumped but didn’t yelp. Then he leaned down and nuzzled his face into her hair. “Ow,” he breathed into her ear, his breath tickling her neck. “I’m sorry, jeez. It just never came up.”

She turned on him, annoyed because how did something like that just never come up, and then remembered where they were. “That tickles,” she squeaked instead, but her eyes promised vengeance, or at least a long conversation about mission-critical information.

He smirked.

“Darcy,” Natasha said, and it was Darcy’s turn to jump. When she turned, the Black Widow and the Falcon were watching their interplay with undisguised interest. She didn’t have to try very hard to look like that put her on edge. “Do you want a drink?”

“Uh, sure,” she said. The nervous crack in her voice wasn’t even intentional, Jesus. Get it together. “Wine?”

Natasha inclined her head towards the kitchen. Darcy untangled herself from Bucky and hated the way her back instantly felt cold and exposed. Steve was coming out with the lasagna, so she waited until he passed and then followed the other woman in.

“Babe, you want something?” she called over her shoulder, remembering the girlfriend thing.

“Wine’s good,” Bucky called after her, and started talking to Sam about some kind of sports event that she didn’t care about in either of her incarnations.

Natasha poured two glasses and held them out, but when Darcy went to take them, she didn’t let go right away. “You can relax,” she said in an undertone that was designed not to carry out of the room.

That could mean any number of things. Darcy didn’t let her expression change, just in case. “Uh, what do you mean?” she said. “I’m relaxed. Super relaxed. Cool as a cucumber, which actually makes no sense because like, it’s a vegetable, logically it would just match the ambient air temperature of —”

Relax,” Natasha said again, sounding a little exasperated. “I know this is intimidating, but it’s okay, we like you. And you’re good for him.” She let Darcy take the wine, finally, and gestured past her shoulder. Darcy turned. Bucky and Sam were arguing now, playfully. As she watched, Bucky tipped his head back and laughed. “Three months ago,” Natasha said quietly, “he was so nervous and guilty he could barely stand to be in the same room with Sam. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

Bucky turned his head and saw them watching him. He raised an inquiring eyebrow and quirked a tiny bit of the smile he seemed to save just for her. There was nothing she wouldn’t do, no one she wouldn’t kill, to keep that smile on his face.

“I will,” she told the Black Widow softly. “Don’t worry. I will.”


Dinner was friendly and relaxed: lots of talking and laughing, zero deadly weapons. At one point Bucky, Natasha and Sam all teamed up to tell embarrassing stories about Steve, while he laughed and protested that three on one was no fair.

“And then,” Natasha said, completely ignoring him, “he yelled ‘Too busy!’ and jumped out of the damn plane.”

Bucky put his hand over his eyes and groaned while the rest of the table laughed. “Rogers,” he said in a long-suffering voice, “how many goddamn times? Use. A. Parachute.”

“You’re one to talk,” Steve said, “I saw you jump off an overpass onto a car.”

“I was under mind control!” Bucky said. “What’s your excuse?”

There was a tiny silence as the rest of them tried to decide whether or not they were allowed to laugh. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and saw his face start to fall — he really had been trying to joke about it. WWDD, she thought.

“Can I put that on a t-shirt?” she said, and the tension broke into general laughter. “No, I’m serious, I think we could sell it. Especially if we put a picture of you making that face like you think someone is too dumb to live —”

He turned to look at her.

“Yes!” she said, pointing. “That one!”

He chuckled, wrapped an arm around her neck, and pulled her in. She felt a tiny jolt of something that could have been panic or excitement, but then she realized he was tugging her at a downwards angle so that his lips were level with her forehead. He dropped a kiss on her hair, casual and light, and let her go.

This was not a big deal. Darcy was an easy, casually-affectionate person who hugged Jane and Thor all the time. A tiny little gesture like that from her boyfriend would not make her feel like she was choking on some kind of emotion she couldn’t name.

She swallowed it down with a sip of wine, shot him an easy smile, and put her hand palm-up on the table. He grabbed it with his left, twining their fingers together. She hoped the metal fingers weren’t sensitive enough to feel how hard her pulse was pounding.

Dessert, like dinner, was nothing fancy — normal-sized bowls of chocolate ice cream for Darcy, Natasha (“Call me Nat,” she’d said after the second glass of wine) and Sam, and giant ones for Steve and Bucky. Darcy was never sure if the amount of food they could down was disgusting or impressive.

Then, halfway through, Steve’s phone gave a chime that sounded urgent, and everyone else straightened up. He grimaced and checked it, then blew out a sigh. “Sorry, I have to take this. Uh, Darcy,” he added, “when I get back, do you mind if we talk a little shop for a minute?”

Bucky’s fingers tightened around hers.

“Nah, dude,” Darcy said, and squeezed back reassuringly. “As long as it’s not aliens again. Three times was enough, tee-why-vee-em.”

“Three?” Natasha said, surprised, as Steve moved off down the hall to take his call. “New Mexico, of course, and …?”

“New York and London,” Darcy said promptly. “Not that I was in New York, but trust me, I didn’t have to be. You know they stuck me and Jane in Norway that whole time?” Well … they’d stuck Jane in Norway the whole time. Darcy had snuck off halfway through to go do a quick job in Gdansk, you know, since she was in the area. Jane was so deep in science-land she didn’t even notice — the petrified Pop-Tart at her elbow suggested she might not have moved the entire three days Darcy was gone.

“What’s wrong with Norway?” Bucky said. He sounded genuinely curious.

Darcy could easily use this as an excuse to pull her hand out of his, but instead she put down her wine and counted off on the other one. “One, butt-ass cold. Two, never try to have a staring contest with a reindeer, the reindeer always wins. Three, herring at every meal, dude. Every meal."

“The humanity,” he said, his voice dry as dust.

“Suffering, thy name is Norway,” she agreed, and grinned at him.

Sam’s shoulders were shaking with laughter. “And London?” he said. “What did you guys do there?”

“Jane saved the world,” Darcy said casually. “I mostly just ran around the city and screamed a lot.” She’d also killed six aliens with one of Jane’s Magic Science Sticks and then had to kiss Ian the Intern real quick so he wouldn’t notice the bodies. His breath smelled like beans on toast. Good times.

“Well, this time it’s not aliens,” Steve said, returning to the table. He shot Bucky a careful glance. “We’ve got a tip about some information we were looking for.”

“You can say Hydra, pal,” Bucky grated, his smile gone. His hand tightened around Darcy’s again, and again she instinctively squeezed back. “I won’t break.”

She shot him a look that read as concerned but was actually a question — Do you want me in on this? He met her eyes and nodded a little. She leaned back into her chair and forced her muscles to relax even as her brain started buzzing.

“Last we heard, there are only a few people out there who know how your — conditioning — worked,” Steve said, his voice strained. “We know who they all are, but not where they all are. A couple we did have eyes on have died recently.” (Damn right they have, Darcy thought with savage pleasure.) “Now an old contact of Nick Fury’s is saying he knows where we can find information on the rest.”

“That’s good news, right?” Sam said, his eyes intent, the ice cream in his bowl melting and forgotten. “We’ve been waiting for a break like this.”

A muscle jumped in Steve’s jaw. “Sure, except that the information is in Montreal.”

Sam slapped the table and cursed. Natasha — Nat — sighed.

“So what’s the problem?” Darcy said, although she knew damn well. “That’s like, not even a two-hour flight.”

“The problem is the Avengers can’t just waltz into Canada without a good goddamn reason,” Bucky said. He sounded dully resigned. Damn, he was good when he wanted to be. If she hadn’t known he wasn’t depending on the Avengers for this, she’d have thought he’d just lost all hope. “Especially not Quebec. American superheroes doing covert ops on Quebecois soil? We’d be in deep merde.”

She leaned forward and glared around at them. “Finding the douchebags who tortured you doesn’t count as a good goddamn reason?” she said, every inch the incensed girlfriend.

He smiled at her, sadly. “Not on an international level, doll.”

She let her glare soften into heroically-suppressed tears. “Yeah,” she said, her shoulders and voice both drooping. “Poli sci major. I get it. It’s bullshit, though.”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. Nat nodded. Steve just sat glaring at nothing.

There was a long silence. The mood of the evening was well and truly broken. Finally Nat stood up and started gathering dishes.

“I’ll get in touch with some contacts,” she said, “see what I can do. It might take a while, but …” She paused on her way to the kitchen and put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “We’ll figure something out, Barnes. I promise.”

“Thanks,” he said, and gave her that same sad smile. “Hey, mind if I skip out on cleanin’ up? I’m gonna walk Darcy home.”

Nobody pointed out that her home was just a few floors away in the safest building in the world. Then again, it didn’t take a room full of world-class operatives to recognize a blatant euphemism.

“Nah, man, go ahead,” Sam said. “We got this.”

Bucky stood up and headed for the door without letting go of her hand. “Thanks for dinner!” Darcy called over his shoulder as he tugged her along. “It was delicious!”

“Anytime,” Steve called back. His smile was a little sad too, but real.

Darcy opened her mouth while they waited for the elevator, but Bucky squeezed her hand and gave her a warning look. When they got inside, he blew out a breath and let his shoulders relax. “I know the range of Steve’s hearing,” he said when she gave him a questioning look. “He could pick out anything we said in the hall, easy.”

She dropped his hand and reached out to pinch his ribs again. He dodged. “Thanks for the warning!” she said, irritation rising. “You need to tell me shit like this before we go in, Bucky, Jesus! I could have said something incriminating.”

“I wouldn’ta let you,” he protested, looking injured.

“Yeah? Like you didn’t let me get blindsided by Captain America’s bisexual polyamorous relationship?” He stared at her blankly. “Sam. Steve. Natasha.” She held up three fingers, eyebrows raised, and slapped them lightly against the palm of her other hand. “Banging.”

His expression cleared. “Oh, that,” he said. “Is that what they call it these days? In our day it was more of a don’t ask, don’t tell kinda situation. If a guy and his girl and his buddy all happened to be real friendly, well, you just looked the other way.”

“Did you now.” For a minute she was dying to ask about him, Steve, and Peggy Carter, but that wasn’t important right now. And also, she kind of didn’t want to know. “Just tell me stuff, okay? I don’t like surprises.”

“Sorry,” he said, as the elevator doors opened, and she could tell he meant it. “I didn’t … I used to work alone, or with a team sometimes, but never … I ain’t used to having a partner.”

Partner. She felt a flush rise over her cheeks. But it was true, wasn’t it? She went after his enemies, and he bandaged her up, covered for her, kept her safe at home. “Me neither,” she said, very quietly.

They stopped outside her door.

“Okay, partner,” she said. The word sent a little thrill through her, and by the way his eyes widened and then dropped, she thought he felt the same. “What do you want me to do about the Montreal thing?”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

She blew out a tiny breath and reminded herself that he didn’t usually play this part of the game. He’d had other people to worry about that for him. “Steve got a call directly from his source. He only talked about it to four people: you, me, Sam, and Nat. If someone goes after the intel, what’s he going to think?”

Bucky’s eyes widened. “No,” he said immediately. “Don’t do nothin’. The intel ain’t that important. If it’s going to put you in danger, I don’t want it.”

She waved a hand, brushing that aside, even as it made her cheeks warm. “My cover’s good. Stronger, actually, after tonight. I’m worried about you, not me. Steve and Sam already suspect that you know something about the last few attacks. If I go after this tip, they’ll know you passed the information to someone. There will be questions.”

One corner of his mouth curled up, and his stance changed. With his arms crossed and his shoulders squared, he looked almost cocky. It was — she hated herself for thinking it — it was a damn good look on him. “Don’t worry about me, doll,” he said. “It won’t be the first time I’ve stood up to questioning. The worst Steve is gonna do is give me the disappointed face.”

“You sure you can handle that?” she said, letting herself smile back. “I’ve heard things.”

He made a dismissive noise. “Amateurs. I been handling it since 1929.” He leaned forward, ducking his head to meet her eyes in that devastating way he did so well. “It won’t blow your cover? You’re sure?”

Maybe the cover was bleeding over a little, because she didn’t think twice before putting a hand on his arm. “I’m sure. As far as they’re concerned, I’m just your sweet little girlfriend who works in the lab. Nat likes me. She says I’m good for you.” She smiled, inviting him to share the joke.

He turned his hand over to cover her fingers and gave her that soft smile. “You are.”

She blushed and looked down. Ugh, the damn cover was leaking all over the place. “Well?” she said, forcing her eyes back to his face.

He bit his lip for a moment, thinking, then nodded. “Do it.”

Chapter Text

The Montreal job wasn’t exactly a milk run, but after Ohio, it felt like one. On Thursday, she told Jane she was feeling a little sick, coughed a few times, and was reluctantly persuaded to go home and rest. Then she grabbed her go-bag and Eliana Gomez’s round-trip ticket, and hit the stairs.

headed out, she texted Bucky from the airport. home by monday. darcy is sick in bed. if you feel like helping, eat 2 bowls of chicken soup at my place sometime this weekend

Do I even want to know how you got this number? he replied while she was waiting in line to board. She smiled at the screen.

i had your phone in my hand three days ago what did you expect

Asking myself that same question now.

She grinned and turned the phone off, then took the battery out so it couldn’t be tracked. Then she entertained herself by hacking the plane’s wifi and flipping through Twitter on Eliana’s phone until they touched down in Montreal.

Friday she shook a few trees, cautiously. She’d expected Hydra to have their guard up: after four jobs, someone must have started to see a pattern. If anyone did, though, it apparently didn’t include their glorified Canadian storage facility. The place wasn’t marked, but it was a hell of a lot easier to find than the house in Cleveland … as measured in shattered kneecaps, anyway.

When she got there, it turned out to be the kind of aggressively normal office building where you could get away with any kind of shady shit as long as you carpeted in beige and didn’t forget to pay for your parking pass every month. There was even a civilian guard in the lobby.

She spent half of Saturday in a coffee shop across the street, chewing gum and running surveillance. The wicked might get no rest, but they definitely had weekends off. No one came and went except for a few additional, clearly non-civilian, guards. She counted and determined there were probably three on shift at any given time. Not even enough to work up a sweat. Unless of course there was a whole giant base in there that she was about to walk into, completely unprepared …

She thought it over for a few more minutes. Finally she cracked the gum and shrugged. Anything was possible, but she liked her chances. The building had five floors and three companies listed on the front. There wasn’t enough room for a full base. But speaking of those empty floors … she rummaged through her bag. Yes, good, she'd brought the right ID. Eliana Gomez was a bus driver, a college student, and most relevantly, a commercial realtor.

She went into the coffee shop’s bathroom in jeans and a hoodie. Ten minutes later, she walked out the front door of the bodega two doors down in a very nice suit. Across the street, the lobby guard accepted her ID and business card without suspicion and poked gentle fun at Eliana’s hybrid Parisian-Argentinean accent. She reminded him, he said, of his grandchildren. She smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder as she passed.

She wasn’t sure which business was the Hydra cover, so she went floor by floor looking for goons. Floor 1 was empty. Floor 2 (Innovance Solutions, whatever the hell that meant) was clean, and so was BHL Marketing on Floor 3. Finally, on Floor 4, she hit paydirt with J. Schmidt Accounting Services. And sure enough, there were three guards on shift. She gave herself a mental gold star for excellent recon. Then she gave herself another for looping the cameras, not because she could have forgotten, but just because she liked gold stars.

The guards were well trained, but not as well trained as her. She gave them a crash course in how to use their cyanide teeth, and had the door code scrambler working before the last one had finished twitching.

Inside, the place looked like any slightly-run-down-but-trying-to-be-sophisticated organization. Nice wall art, dated fixtures. Family photos on desks. The occasional discreet octopus. Looking around, she questioned how current Fury’s contact’s information was. This didn’t look like the kind of spot where they kept the secret brainwashing documents.

Still, you never knew. She sighed, cracked her neck, and proceeded to go through every hard drive in the place like a buzz saw at a butter sculpting competition. Most of them were boring payroll files — she noted with surprise that Hydra had an excellent pension plan — except one, which was encrypted.

“Bingo,” she muttered, then added reflexively, “Got that done in time for bingo.”

Damn, the Darcy cover was really bleeding badly these days. If her mom caught her quoting movies in the middle of a job she’d be out of the field and collating files until her eyes bled. She shrugged it all off — the concern, the movie, her mom’s opinion — and focused on detaching the hard drive so she could get the hell out of here.

The lobby guard wished her a bonne soirée as she left.

She waited to stop the camera loop until she was a few blocks away, but even then, she could hear him yelling behind her. She shook her hair out of Eliana’s smooth chignon, shrugged out of the jacket, and smeared on some heavy eye makeup without breaking stride. By the time a police car went by, sirens blaring, her slacks were shorts over fishnets and her briefcase was a sloppy nylon backpack that hung from its own drawstrings. If anyone bothered to look, they’d find the realtor outfit in two trashcans and the backseat of a conveniently unlocked car.

The police didn’t even slow down as they passed her. She walked back to the hotel, the hard drive banging on her back with every step.

Sunday she flew home. The weather report on the TV at Trudeau was calling for snow. On impulse, she bought Bucky a package of maple candy and a ridiculous furry hat. She waited a day, for plausible deniability, then snuck up on him in the common kitchen and slapped them down on the counter. Turnabout was fair play.

He jumped a little, but his glare lightened when he looked up and saw her. He opened his mouth, then closed it again as footsteps approached down the hall. “Feelin’ better, doll?” he said casually instead. His eyes said a lot more — a Victorian novel’s worth of questions and concern.

“Much,” she said, doing her best to write him a reassuring eye limerick in return. Everything’s fine, ba — Buck. She pitched her voice to carry. “I even felt good enough to go to that little market by Central Park, and look what I found!”

He stared from her to the hat, then back to her. His face was expressionless, but not in the good way. Before he could say anything, though, Steve came in. Bucky palmed the betraying candy so fast, Darcy barely even saw his hand move.

“Hi, Darce!” Steve said. “Are you feeling better? Buck’s been real worried about you,” he added, with a smirk in his friend’s direction.

“Can it, punk,” Bucky said, without heat.

“Nothin’ to be ashamed of, pal. Your best girl was —” Steve saw the hat and cut himself off mid-sentence. “What, uh … what’s that?”

“Yeah, Darcy.” Oh, that tone was not good. You could hang a picture with it, that was how flat it was. The name was bad, too. She was pretty sure only Steve’s presence was keeping him from going full sweetheart. “What is that?”

“It’s a hat,” she tried, and when that cut no ice, she added, “It’s a present. To say thank you for, uh, you know, for worrying about me.” She pinned him with her best doe eyes.

His face didn’t soften. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

That was a good point, actually. Why had she bought him outerwear when he never left the Tower? She opened her mouth, and what came out was, “Wear it?”

His eyes narrowed, and the corners of his mouth started to turn down. “Where?”

She should back off, but instead she stared back at him and felt an unexpected surge of anger. She hated that he never left the building. Just because he’d distracted her with dinner and missions and … things … that didn’t mean she’d forgotten. It wasn’t even a tactical consideration, or not just that. The truth was, it didn’t matter how big or comfortable the Tower was: the way he was living, it was just another cage. Hydra didn’t need to imprison him anymore. He’d done it to himself.

Steve looked from one of them to the other and started slowly, silently backing away.

“Outside,” she said, hearing her voice as if it came from a long way away. “I want you to wear it outside.”

His metal hand clenched around the hat, and she heard seams pop. “This ain’t —” he started, voice rising, then stopped himself and swallowed. When he spoke again, it was quiet, but if anything, that made the anger worse. “This ain’t a present, it’s a damn order. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Steve froze, looking desperately unsure if he should step in. He was behind Bucky now, in easy grabbing distance. Darcy shot him a warning look over Bucky’s head, and he relaxed a little, but didn’t leave. She wished he would, but knew he thought he was protecting her.

“I think,” she said, very carefully, “that I’m your girlfriend, who would like to go out for a cup of coffee with you once in a while.”

Bucky glared at her, mutinous. Of course that wasn’t going to work, because he knew it was a lie.

She leaned in a little and put her hand on top of his, ignoring how he and Steve both stiffened. That didn’t feel like enough, so she kept going until her forehead was pressed against his. “I think I’m a person who wants her partner to be free,” she whispered. “I don’t like it that you’re trapped here. I know it feels safe, but if —” Her voice broke, remembering the night she couldn’t talk about. If he’d been slower … if the toxin had worked better … “If anyone gets to you here, you’ll have nowhere to run.”

His glare hardened, then shattered into one of those raw expressions that she could barely stand to look at. His other hand came up and settled on the back of her neck, holding her in place. "Doll," he breathed, eyes squeezing closed like he was in pain. “It ain’t safe out there either. You know it isn’t.”

“Just try,” she said, in a small wet voice that she barely even recognized. “Just one cup of coffee. I’ll protect you.” She hoped it sounded to Steve like a joke. She’d never been more serious.

His hand squeezed, then loosened, then squeezed again. She didn’t even try to move, just waited, breathing his air. Weird to think that there had been a time when getting too close to him panicked her. Now it was the thought of distance that made her lungs seize up. If he pushed her away ... but he didn't. “Okay,” he said at last, tight and painful, but determined.

“Okay?” She knocked her head against his, lightly, and waited until he opened his eyes. They met hers squarely.

“Okay,” he confirmed.

She felt a smile spread across her face, one she couldn’t remember ever feeling before: big and soft and proud.

He smiled back, small and wavery, but real. His hand fell away and she stood up.

Steve was still behind him. She’d almost forgotten he was there. When their eyes met, she realized he was crying silently. Thank you, he mouthed.

Chapter Text

The next day, Bucky knocked on her door bright and early. She opened it and looked him up and down. Raggedy jeans, combat boots, black leather gloves, same worn-ass black hoodie he always wore, now stuffed under a too-big leather jacket (assessment: Steve's). And on top of it all, the Hat, earflaps down, red plaid glowing like a neon sign. Her lips twitched.

"You bought it," he said, glaring at her.

"And I'm a genius," she agreed. "Nobody will ever believe the Winter Soldier voluntarily wore that hat." She pulled her own floppy knit hat on and stepped out, locking the door behind her.

He fell into step with her, heading for the elevator. "I don't know about voluntarily," he grumbled, mouth curving into something he probably wanted to think was a forbidding scowl but was actually ... she gave him a sideways glance just to make sure. Yeah, nope, that was a pout.

It was kind of adorable. She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling and cocked an eyebrow instead. "Am I holding a knife to your throat?"

"Not this time," he said, and grinned when she huffed annoyance. "How many knives you got on you, anyway?"

The elevator doors opened and she followed him on. She pressed the button for the lobby and eyed the uneasy way he rolled his shoulders. "Do you really want to know?"

He gave her a level look.

"Okay, okay, just asking." She tapped her fingers, counting. "Hmm...six. Plus a Walther PPK in my shoulder holster and this nifty little parachute cord necklace."

He looked her over once, then again. Maybe it was her imagination, but the second time seemed slower. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other and was immediately annoyed with herself for the tell. He didn't mention it, though, just blinked and said, "You've got a shoulder holster on under there?"

"Why do you think Darcy wears her sweaters so loose?" she said, and grinned at his expression. "Feel safer?"

"Weirdly, yes," he muttered, "but we already talked about my survival instincts."

The doors opened. She decided her best bet was just to walk out and assume he'd follow. "What survival instincts?" she tossed over her shoulder, knowing it would drive him crazy to give her the last word. All was fair in … well anyway, all was fair.

Two steps. Three. She didn't have to look back to know he wasn't behind her. Four steps. Five. Halfway to the doors. What was she going to do if he didn't --

Cool leather-covered fingers curled around her own. She glanced down at them, then up into determined blue eyes. "Exactly," Bucky said, and let her lead him outside.

The first couple of blocks were rough. His hand was stiff in hers, as immovable as a regular prosthetic, and his eyes darted around like a rabbit’s under the brim of the Hat. She finally got tired of it and started tugging him down every few steps like she was whispering salacious secrets into his ear.

“Sixteen people within easy attack range,” she murmured, then a few steps later, “Three under age twelve, threat level zero. Five over age sixty, threat level minimal.” On the corner she added, “Twelve possible routes of egress depending on the speed and size of the attacking force.” And then finally, just after they crossed, she tugged him to a stop, got on tiptoes and leaned right into his space to breathe, “Plainclothes cop in front of the bank across the street.”

He stayed stiff for a second, then relaxed and huffed a laugh. “Okay,” he said, “I get the point.”

She pulled back, wishing she didn’t have to. The wind was whipping between the buildings, and the man radiated heat like a furnace. But that wasn’t what she was here for. “Then will you relax?” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve got your six, I promise. I didn’t come along just to look pretty.”

“So that was just a bonus?” he said, and grinned when her jaw dropped.

She was not blushing. She was not. It had just gotten very warm … all of a sudden … out here in the freezing wind. Probably because of the way her heart had just started pounding for like, no reason at all. “Bucky Barnes,” she said when she got her voice back. “You smooth motherfucker. Where did that come from?”

He shrugged and ducked his head a little, looking at her sidelong. “Everyone says I used to be good with women. I thought I’d see if I still got it.”

If you had any more of it I might burst into flames on this sidewalk, she thought, but that was … she wasn’t going to say that out loud. Instead she gave him a friendly (friendly? Yes, friendly) shoulder bump and tugged on his hand. “Come on, ladykiller, mama needs a hot drink.”

It occurred to her, as he followed her back out into the flow of the sidewalk, that they didn’t actually have to hold hands out here to maintain their cover. His friends weren’t nearby and New Yorkers by definition Did Not Care. But she didn’t let go.

They walked for a few minutes in silence. His eyes were still roving the street, but more like an observer than a frantic animal. His grin slowly vanished, and a small crease popped up between his eyebrows.

“What do you think of New York?” she asked, genuinely curious.

“I don’t even recognize it,” he said. She must have looked surprised, because he added, “Hydra never sent me here. Too much risk of memory bleedthrough. So I really ain’t seen it since 1941.” He took a heavy breath, craning his neck up at the towering glass and steel above them. “Not everything is different. But even the stuff that survived is all chewed up. It’s like … ’s like looking at the city that killed and ate my home.”

“Ewww,” she said, looking around with new eyes. She imagined the skyscrapers opening up like giant mouths and swallowing the old buildings whole, and wrinkled her nose.

He looked down at her and the frown melted into a tiny, amused smile. “Yeah,” he agreed, and squeezed her hand. “And you? What do you think of it?”

She started to say something Darcy-ish about how much she loved all the people! and the life! and the cool shops! Then she remembered who she was talking to. I can tell the truth, she thought, and let out a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding. It felt like she’d been holding it for a long time. “I think it’s a pretty good city to be stuck in if an op goes bad,” she said. “Especially since the Chitauri. You can go to ground in an empty building, grocery shop at 2 am, and everyone will practically make a religion out of not seeing you.”

He hummed thoughtfully. “Hard to get around if it comes to a chase, though. I liked Warsaw. Nice, wide streets, good sight lines. The Soviets were good for something.”

“And easy access to pierogies,” she agreed. “But harder to hide in the long-term. People know their neighbors. Plus, cytrynówka will fuck your shit up.”

He snorted. “Sure, if you’re dumb enough to drink cytrynówka on a mission.”

“Yeah, you try turning down a Polish grandma’s homemade hooch without looking suspicious,” she said, pouting. “I dare you.” She jerked her chin at a familiar green awning. “We’re here.”

To her surprise, he looked at it for a moment and then shook his head. “Can we, uh … Steve said there was a good deli about a block further. The coffee won’t be fancy, but … I could eat.”

She felt that smile again, the super-sappy proud one that probably made her look like an idiot. She covered it with an exaggerated surprised face. “You? Hungry? No way, dude.”

He nudged her shoulder with his and gave her an equally fake glare. “You know what, doll?”

She grinned back up at him. “No, what?”

They stopped at the red light on the corner. He turned to look down, his mouth open like he was going to answer, and then just … stopped. His gaze slid from her eyes to her mouth, and darkened. She felt her heart stutter, then pound. The air between them crackled with something she wanted to pretend she’d never felt before.

Except that was bullshit, because she felt it every single time they looked at each other. She’d just spent so long telling herself it wasn’t there that she didn’t even know when it had started. Her skin tingled and she felt her cheeks heat. She bit her lip, and his eyes narrowed a little, and dear God he looked like he wanted to eat her alive. And she … she wanted to …

The light changed. A cab honked, and he jerked and looked away. They were both moving a little bit slowly as they stepped off the curb, out of sync, like sleepwalkers. She felt herself stumble, her breath still coming short. Someone behind them muttered something about “fucking tourists.”

The last block felt ten miles long. Neither of them said anything, but the silence hummed with something she couldn’t afford to think about because she needed to pay attention to their surroundings, damn it. She was on guard duty, not … but then every few steps, Bucky’s fingers flexed against hers and she had to regain mission focus all over again. She should really let go of his hand.

But she didn’t.

At the diner, they both automatically headed for the farthest booth. When they reached it, Darcy paused and looked at the vinyl bench seats. One in the corner, facing the room and with a clear view of all the exits. The other … not. If she took the good seat, he’d have his back to the room and be jumping at shadows the whole damn time. But if he took it, then she couldn’t see to protect him.

They glanced at each other, then hastily away.

There was a solution. She didn’t know how to feel about it — one part of her hated it, the other was pulse-poundingly into the idea. But it was the only way that made sense, no matter how she looked at it.

“In,” she told Bucky, and shoved him gently towards the corner seat.

He balked. “But you …”

“Babe,” she said, annoyed. “Do you trust me or not?”

It wasn’t until his eyes widened that she realized what she’d called him. She felt her face get hot. He swallowed. “I trust you,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Then sit.”

He sat.

She slid in next to him. It was the only way for both of them to have a decent view, plus now she was between him and trouble. The problem was going to be focusing on watching for trouble with him so close — the seat wasn’t narrow, but neither were his thighs. Not that she was thinking about his thighs at all. She wasn’t. It was just that they were really close and …

Oh hell, who was she even kidding, of course she was thinking about his thighs. Sometimes she woke up in the night from dreams about his thighs. And now they were about an inch away from hers, and she was going to eat a plate of pancakes and go calmly to work like nothing had happened. Ugh. Uuuuuuuggggghhh.

They accepted menus from the tired-looking waitress. Darcy put hers down on the table so it wouldn’t give away how her hands were shaking. They ordered — water and pancakes for her, coffee and one of basically everything for him. By some kind of unspoken agreement, they didn’t speak or look at each other until the food arrived.

“What —” she started, at last. His eyes darted to her, still sharp and dark, and her voice cracked. She coughed and sipped her water, and he looked down again. One of his gloved fingers traced a pattern in a little pile of spilled sugar. She swallowed hard and tried again. “What’s the worst city to be stuck in if an op goes wrong?”

“Belgrade,” he said immediately, without looking up. “I spent two weeks there in the early 2000s, it was the worst. Tiny apartments and no decent coffee.”

“No way, dude!” Her breath was coming a little easier now, and she managed a passable teasing tone. “Maybe back then, but it’s come a long way. They have Starbucks now and everything. What about Irkutsk?”

He made a gagging face and risked a glance up at her. His smile was tentative, the heavy look mostly gone, but now that she knew what to look for she could see it in the back of his eyes. She tried a smile back, and wondered what he saw in the back of hers. Whatever it was, it made him sit up a little straighter. “I thought you said a city,” he said, smile deepening.

“Snob! You New York boys are such snobs.” She threw a sugar packet at him, and he caught it without looking. “Snob and a show-off.”

He took a long sip of his coffee, licked a stray drop off his lip, and shot her a look that made her mouth go dry. “I told you, I’m tryin’ out my old moves. That means I gotta impress you.”

“Takes a lot more than that,” she said, and she meant it to be sharp but it came out low and breathless.

He shrugged and went back to his breakfast. Was that a tiny smirk in the corner of his mouth? “That’s okay. I got time.”

Chapter Text

Breakfast was quiet after that, but Bucky thought (hoped) that wasn’t a bad thing. He watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was eating pancakes and running threat assessments with the same casual ease, eyes flicking from the door to her plate and back. Once or twice, they landed on him, too.

He crunched a slice of bacon and let that side of his mouth curl up. She looked away, but her lips were twitching too.

He loved making her laugh, but sometimes he liked this even better: the way her mouth moved when she was trying not to smile but couldn’t stop herself. There was a soft warmth that seemed to live behind his ribs these days, and that little curve of a smile made it expand into a glow that heated his whole body. His left hand twitched, wanting to reach out, but he wrapped it firmly around his fork.

Easy, he told himself for the ten thousandth time in the last few weeks. She makes the call. We do this when she wants, how she wants, or we don’t do it at all.

He wasn’t sure if he walked her back to the tower or she walked him — little of both, maybe. They parted ways outside the lab with a brief hug for the benefit of Jane Foster and the cameras. He felt the warmth of her body against his, took one deep breath of her perfume. Then she was gone, and he was vibrating half out of his skin.

Easy, he told himself again, and upped his mental tally to ten thousand and one.

In the elevator he had to pause, breathe deep, and put his forehead against the cool metal of the wall. He meant to hit the button for his floor, but somehow he pressed the one for hers instead.

This ain’t going to help.

It did, though. Of course the place smelled like her, but it wasn’t like having his face right up next to her skin or anything. More like she was nearby, just about to walk around the corner. The thought made that warm place glow a little brighter. His shoulders felt loose, and he could breathe real easy. He found himself whistling as he set down the bright flowered key and went to brew a pot of coffee.

Halfway through pouring a cup, music started playing from nowhere — a tinny trill of something his tattered memory recognized as a bad ‘90s version of ‘60s lounge singing. “A thousand thundering thrills await me,” the singer yowled.

He jumped and then hissed as hot coffee spilled over his right hand. He shook it off and turned, scanning for threats.

There were none. The music stopped, then started again. “Facing insurmountable odds, greatly. The female of the —” And it stopped again.

He followed the off-and-on sound to the TV stand in the living room, and from there to a bulky black burner phone mostly hidden behind a neon ceramic unicorn. The screen lit up with one word: MOM.

His hands itched to pick it up. He raised them and backed away. “Nope,” he said out loud. “Nah. No way in hell would I do that. Leave a message.”

As if the caller could somehow hear him, the ringing stopped. A second later the screen lit up with a text message. He tried to look away, but his eyes were faster than his good intentions. They picked up the brief sentence before he could shut them.

I know you’re there, sonny boy

He squeezed his eyes shut, then froze and replayed the text in his head. The phone buzzed again. He cracked one eye open, cautiously.

You’re the one I’m calling for. Pick up the damn phone

It rang again. Once. Twice. “Shock shock horror horror,” the singer said, unhelpfully. “Shock shock horror.”

He reached out, slowly, and picked it up. “H’lo?”

“You know,” a woman’s voice said, with cheerful menace, “if you broke in there, you’re going to be very sorry for an incredibly short period of time.”

It shouldn’t have made him laugh, but it did. “You sound just like your daughter, ma’am,” he said. And it was true — if he hadn’t known one of them was at work downstairs, he wouldn’t have been sure which he was talking to.

There was a brief, thoughtful pause.

“Do I now,” the woman said. “I take it that means you didn’t break in.”

“I’m not that stupid,” he agreed, then added mildly, “not that it’s any of your business. Ma’am.”

“Stupid enough to hire the assassin who tried to kill you.” So she knew exactly who he was. He clenched his jaw, then registered the speculative edge to her voice: she was testing him.

She must also be using the security cameras to watch his response. He’d never made it an issue when he came here before, but well … of course he knew where they were. He took a step back and looked straight into the eyes of the screaming gold skull on the third shelf. “That ain’t what she is to me. I suspect you know that, or else I’m not sure why we’re havin’ this conversation.”

“Maybe I thought you were an intruder.” She sounded amused. His eyes slid from the skull to the picture next to it: two women, older and younger, laughing against a blurred background he couldn’t identify. They looked a lot alike. He wondered if they thought alike, and decided to take a chance.

“Bullshit,” he said, because that’s what he would have said to her, and the guess was rewarded when her mother huffed a laugh. “Maybe you wanted to vet me and see if I was really reformed,” the word tasted acid in his mouth, “or if I’m a threat to your little girl.”

“Maybe,” she agreed. He could almost see the quick tip of her head, acknowledging a hit. “Are you?”

He opened his mouth to say no, then thought for a minute about what exactly her little girl was doing for him. He remembered the way she’d come back after Ohio, two days late and half-dead, with dark circles under her eyes and her hoodie soaked in blood. He didn’t think she had any idea, still, how bad she’d scared him that night. Enough to make him panic and say stupid shit. Enough to go digging for the truth about her past, to convince himself he hadn’t fucked up her future. Enough to almost lose her.

Hydra was big, and old, and he of all people knew how cruel they could be. He knew how good his assassin was at her job, too … but sometimes it felt like sending a knife to a gunfight.

“I might get her killed one day,” he said slowly, his chest aching with the truth of it. “But I won’t be holdin’ the gun.”

“That keep you warm at night?” the mother of the woman he loved said sharply.

He made a pained sound that was half a laugh. “Not really.”

“It does me.”

His jaw dropped. He stared at the photo like his eyes could somehow bore through it to the woman herself. “I’m sorry?”

“You know how many times I’ve almost gotten my daughter killed?” Her voice was clipped the way her daughter’s got when she was done screwing around with him and ready to finally get to the point. “I made her what she is, Soldier. I’m more of a threat than you could ever be. But you give her something I can’t.”

“What’s that?” he said, faintly.

“Something to come back for.” She must have heard the breath whoosh out of his lungs, but she didn’t stop. “This life, it makes you cold. You start to forget what people can be, other than targets. That’s what makes me afraid for her — not death.”

He made an acknowledging sound, his head still spinning. This conversation was like a kaleidoscope, turning, turning, making everything into a new picture.

“So here I am, worrying about my girl, and then one day she calls me and says there’s this boy. He’s something else, she tells me. Not a target or a client. He’s special.” She made a tsk noise.

Bucky couldn’t breathe. She told her mother about me?

“You’re not a target, and she’s not an assassin. So tell me, Bucky Barnes, what are you to each other?”

That … was the question, wasn’t it. He stared at the skull’s unmoving face and swallowed. “I don’t know.”

“Bullshit,” she said flatly, quoting him back to himself, and he flinched.

He turned away blindly and picked up his coffee, not caring that it was a tell, hell, that it was the biggest tell he’d ever seen in his life. The woman on the phone didn’t say anything while he took a long, shaky sip. “I’m whatever she wants me to be,” he said very softly, not turning back to the camera. “All she’s got to do is say the word.”

Another tsk noise. “You’re fucked if you wait for that,” her mother said briskly. “I don’t know if you noticed, but she’s only good with words when she’s lying.”

That was not the reaction he’d expected. His mouth quirked up in spite of himself. “I mighta noticed something like that,” he admitted. “What exactly are you saying, ma’am?”

“I’m saying she’s already told you exactly where you stand, boy, you’re just not listening,” she snapped. “Turn around and look at me.”

He did. His memories of his own ma were faded and fuzzy, but you didn’t disobey that voice.

“Now listen, because I’m not going to keep saying this sixteen different ways until it gets through to your thick head. I’ve seen my girl risk her life to kill someone, many times. I’ve never seen her risk her life to keep someone alive.”

Bucky sat down hard on the edge of the coffee table. Something cracked underneath him.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know, exactly. It was just that … he hadn’t known how to be sure. Pretending to like people she didn’t give a fuck about was part of her job. Maybe she didn’t care about him the way he thought. Maybe she just liked killing Hydra. Maybe she was bored. Maybe …

… maybe he was a goddamn coward.

“Good,” the voice in his ear said, satisfied. “Now you’re getting it. You want words, you’d better be the one to say them, yes? And tell her to call me, will you, it’s been a while.”

“S-sure,” he said, his mouth on autopilot. Then his head cleared enough for manners to kick in. “Oh, ma’am?” he added before she could hang up. “Thanks for the cookies. I liked them.”

There was a short, surprised silence. “You’re welcome,” she said finally. “Which ones?”

Was this another test? He shrugged and answered honestly. “Both.”

She laughed rich and loud, just like his … yeah, okay, he was going to think it … his girl. It didn’t give him the same thrill, but it felt pretty good all the same. “Okay, I’m starting to get what she sees in you. You like peanut butter?”

“Sure,” he said, doing his best to hide his proud grin.

“Good. Next time I’ll make you peanut butter and nitroglycerin.”

“That’s a little redundant, isn’t it?” he said dryly.

“Smartass,” she said, and hung up still laughing.

He sat staring blindly at the photo and listening to the dial tone for a long time. Then, slowly, he smiled.

Chapter Text

Darcy avoided Bucky for a few days after their breakfast thing … their morning stroll … their … oh hell, fine, it was a date.

She wasn’t hiding because she didn’t want to see him, exactly. She wanted to see him a lot. That was kind of the problem. She hadn’t figured out what to do about it, other than the obvious, and the thought of that kept her awake at night. For a lot of reasons.

She’d done her best to keep him in a safe box. A whole series of them: target, employer, friend, partner. But he kept refusing to stay. And if this became … what she thought she might want it to be … it wasn’t going to be safe anymore. Not for either of them. One slip could bring everything crashing down: his life, her cover, both of their hearts.

Could she really ask that of him, on top of everything else?

To keep herself busy, she started decrypting the intel from Montreal. This was pretty much all she’d ever wanted: a comfortable sofa, a soft blanket, and a nice challenging hack that ended in a clean target she could feel good about eliminating. She tried, and failed, to be content.

She also tried, and failed, not to listen for a key in her front door. There was no reason to think there would be one. He’d never come by when she was there except the once, to pick her up for dinner. The only reason she knew he’d come by when she wasn't there was the coffee cup she'd found, neatly washed and left to dry next to the sink. And yet somehow, every day that went by without him even trying irked her a little bit more.

On the third day, she cracked the first file. It was a personnel requisition list for some kind of op. She started scrolling idly, then sat up and went faster. The names spooled on and on. By the time she finally reached the bottom, her stomach was leaden with dread.

This was almost twice the number of people she’d eliminated at the Ohio base. What kind of op needed that much manpower?

According to the index, there was an abbreviated mission plan in the supporting documentation. She cracked that too, started to skim it, and felt the blood drain from her face. Her feet hit the ground with a thump, and the blanket fell off her lap to pool on the floor.

This wasn’t in her wheelhouse at all. She was just an assassin, and this was … she wasn’t even sure what this was. The Avengers needed this information yesterday. They needed it a week ago, as a matter of fact — you know, when she brought it home? But someone had been too busy flirting to bother figuring that out. She bit down on the inside of her lip until it bled and spat some words in languages Darcy didn’t know.

Then she got to work.


Nothing particularly interesting was happening in the sky that night, so it wasn’t very hard to drag Jane up to the common floor with the promise of “ladies’ night, Janey!” Nat was another easy sell. It didn’t even take much hinting to get her to bring Pepper.

By 10 p.m., the night was shaping up to be a smashing success. They were halfway through the second pitcher of Darcy’s famous cucumber martinis (what? You can make martinis in a pitcher if you believe in yourself and have a big enough shaker). Darcy had painted her nails the most virulent magenta she could find, and was holding her glass in an awkward pinch-grip to keep from smudging. Nat was trying to decide between maroon-and-black or blue-and-white nails with a smirk that suggested that either choice was going to drive one of her boyfriends crazy. Jane and Pepper had instantly bonded over the ridiculous gymnastics it took to get men to shut up and admit you were smarter than them, and were now sharing tips on assertive body language.

Darcy gave them a fond grin and fumbled to unlock her phone without messing up her nails. She flailed for a second, hitting all kinds of buttons including one that started a small countdown timer. Then she gave up and put it away, laughing at herself.

Five minutes later, in her pocket, the timer hit zero.

None of them did more than glance up when Tony came stomping into the room not too long after. It wasn’t notable, because he really only had two ways of getting around: cocky saunter and irritated stomp. Only a very dedicated observer with excellent taste in nail polish would have noticed that this time the stomp was worried, not irritated. “Anyone seen Capsicle?” he said.

Jane and Pepper didn’t respond. Darcy shrugged, though she didn’t imagine the question was really addressed to her. Nat raised her head at his tone, took a closer look at his face, and put the nail polish down.

“I can text him,” she said, and again, only someone who knew what they were looking for would have caught the tension under her pose of bored annoyance. She pulled out her phone and tapped a message.

Whatever she sent had Steve, Sam and Bucky all piling into the room as fast as the elevator could bring them. They stopped short at the sight of the party and tried to act nonchalant, with varying degrees of success. Jane and Pepper’s conversation faltered and stopped.

“Hi, babe!” Darcy said, because she had to. She smiled, and Bucky smiled back, but his eyes were wary.

“Hey, doll,” he said, “whatcha doin’?” There was enough subtext in his tone to fill an encyclopedia.

She held up the glass and spread her fingers to show her nails. “Ladies’ night! Want to join? I’ll paint your nails.”

“Maybe. You gotta red that’ll match my star?” He sauntered over and inspected her hand, then leaned in until their noses touched. She didn’t blink or swallow, because Darcy wouldn’t. His hair fell forward and hid their faces from the room. “What did you do?” he breathed against her mouth, so soft and close she felt it more than heard it.

“Sorry,” she breathed back. There was nothing else to say, and they couldn’t stay like that forever, anyway.

He looked like he wanted to say more, but then Tony spoke up and he straightened to turn and look. Tony’s voice was light, fake-happy, and full of razors. “Hey, Rogers, do you know anything about this?” He turned his tablet so they could see an email on the screen. He tapped it and files started to open, page after page of them.

“I don’t know, Tony,” Steve said in a long-suffering tone. “What is it?”

“Hydra files,” Tony snapped, and there was a collective hiss of breath. “Not from SHIELD — these ones are current. From what I can tell, this little birthday present is a plan to recapture their ‘lost property.’ ” He made air quotes, but even so, the words made him look a little queasy. “Sorry, Barnes.”

Darcy took a little, audible breath, not quite a gasp, and reached out to grab Bucky’s hand. He shot her a sidelong glance and squeezed just a tiny bit harder than necessary. It felt like a warning not to overplay it, and she was faintly offended at the suggestion that she needed one.

Steve straightened up. She’d thought he already was standing straight, but apparently no, because he somehow got about two inches taller. “And someone sent it to you directly?”

Tony nodded grimly. “There was a note, too. It says ‘Saw this and thought of you. XOXOX.’

It was sort of interesting, in an anatomical way, how she could see Steve’s jaw muscles clench. “Who’s it from?” he said.

Tony waved a hand that Darcy was easily able to interpret as his Shhh, the adults are busy gesture. “FRIDAY,” he said, “trace the message, will you? I want a name, an address, and a preferred type of dental floss.”

“Sure, boss,” the AI agreed, pleasant and faintly Welsh as ever. After a microsecond she added, “Looks like it’s a bit of a tricky one. Loads of encryption and it’s been bounced all over the place. Please stand by.”

“Take your time,” Tony agreed. He helped himself to Pepper’s martini, sipped it, and made a face. Then he shrugged and downed the rest of the glass. Pepper swatted at him, but her heart clearly wasn’t in it. Darcy silently refilled the glass from the pitcher and winced when he downed that one, too.

“How do they even plan to get to him?” Nat asked. “As far as anyone outside this room knows, he never leaves the Tower.”

Tony slammed the glass down on the bar. “They know he doesn’t,” he growled. “Why do you think there are so many files? These are plans for a frontal assault. And from what I can tell, it’s going down within the next few days.”

Sam muttered something under his breath. Nat bit her lip. Darcy, Jane and Pepper exhibited various combinations of shock, consternation and worry. (She was particularly pleased with her own blend, which was a bit more intense than theirs without being showy about it.)

“That’s good though, right?” she said, looking from face to face. “You can stop them.”

“What?” Tony was frowning at the tablet like it had done him wrong. “Oh right, yeah, it’s great. If it’s real. I just have to wonder, you know, how reliable our friend is. This could be Fury, it seems like his MO —”

“I don’t think so, boss,” FRIDAY chimed in. “I’ve managed to trace the files back to their origin point, and it doesn’t fit Mr. Fury’s usual pattern. It appears to be a small office building in Montreal.”

Steve’s face turned white. Sam stiffened. Natasha’s breath hissed between her teeth. And Bucky slowly pulled his hand out of Darcy’s grasp. Sorry, she thought as hard as she could, not daring to do more. Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.

“Montreal,” Steve repeated, his voice leaden.

“That’s what it says,” Tony said, his eyes sharp on Steve’s face. “Why? Ring a bell?”

“You could say that.” Steve’s jaw twitched again. Slowly, like it physically pained him, he turned to look at Bucky.

Bucky looked back, his face halfway between innocent-blank and I-know-but-I’m-not-telling-blank. It was a good choice — would let him roll with the (hopefully metaphorical) punches depending on which way the interrogation went. God, he was good. Darcy was so impressed —

No. Darcy wasn’t. But she was.

“Let’s talk about this in the conference room,” Steve said in that same heavy voice. “We can start makin’ plans to prevent the attack. Buck, do you want to come down with us for a minute?” The words were a question, but the tone was an order.

Bucky shrugged. He turned to follow the four Avengers out of the room, then glanced over his shoulder at Darcy. She was expecting a hard look, but instead he smiled and winked. “See ya later, doll,” he said. “Love you.”

She choked on her martini. By the time her eyes quit watering, he was long gone.

Chapter Text

2:21 am: hey we need to talk about
2:48 am: why did you say you loved
3:13 am: if they hurt you i’ll kill
3:50 am: are you ok

3:53 am: Steve is very disappointed in me. He says this person is dangerous and I shouldn’t take their word for it that they wanna help.

3:54 am: steve’s a smart man

3:56 am: I told him I got 57 reasons to believe they’re on my side.
3:58 am: 58 if you count not killin me. But I didn’t tell him that part.

3:59 am: what do you
4:03 am: i don’t know what you
4:06 am: you know how many there were?

4:09 am: You didn’t think I counted?

4:13 am: guess i never thought about it.

4:14 am: Well think about it now.
4:17 am: Maybe I ain’t such a great person but every time that number goes up I sleep a little better.

4:19 am: you’re the best person i’ve ever
4:20 am: i think i
4:22 am: i lov
4:27 am: its 64 now. thats not counting you

4:30 am: Feelin sleepy already.
4:32 am: Couldn’t help but notice there were no names in the files.

4:35 am: don’t worry. i gave them everything they needed to do their job and kept the stuff i need to do mine

4:47 am: Your job, huh?

4:51 am: i know
4:52 am: wrong word
4:52 am: but what else do you want me to call it/i>

4:55 am: I’ll let you know.

She stumbled into the lab a few minutes late the next morning, greasy-haired and sandy-eyed. Jane gave her a sympathetic look.

“Hung over or worried?” she asked.

Darcy shrugged and scrubbed her hands across her face. “Can it be both?” She heard movement, and when she looked up, there was a giant mug of coffee waiting on her desk. Desperate times call for gross measures. She took a huge sip and sighed. “God, I love you, Janey.”

“Love you too, D.” Jane proved it by sitting down instead of turning on her instruments. Her eyes were intent. It was weird to see her turn that look on a human problem instead of a math problem. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Darcy said, and got a skeptical look. She amended it to, “I don’t know if I can talk about it, but I’m worried about Bucky. Not just because of the attack. Something’s really hinky with that email.”

“Yeah, I got that part,” Jane said dryly. “What’s it got to do with Bucky?”

Darcy screwed up her face and shrugged. “I don’t know. He says nothing, but they dragged him off so quick …” She took another gulp and scratched at the design on the mug with her thumbnail. “It’s not my problem, I guess. I just wish everybody trusted him more. He’s so careful, and he tries so hard, and they all act like he’s a bomb waiting to explode.”

“I get it,” Jane said softly. “It’s like when they treat Thor like he’s dumb, just because he’s big and strong and doesn’t always understand Midgardian culture. He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell it hurts him.”

Darcy nodded, and they sat a moment in silence.

Then Jane gave a small, hiccupy laugh. “This conversation is so not passing the Bechdel test. Quick, talk to me about the current sociopolitical climate.”

Darcy laughed too. Their friendship might be part of her cover, but she suddenly recognized that warm feeling in her chest. It wasn’t the same as the one she felt with Bucky, but it wasn’t totally different. Maybe … if she was really honest … she loved Jane just as much as Darcy did. “The sociopolitical climate sucks,” she said, smiling a smile that she knew was too big and too bright. Two people — three if you counted her mom — was more than she’d ever expected to love at the same time. Or at all. “How about the state of women’s representation in STEM fields?”

“Oh god, even worse.” Jane groaned just thinking about it, and climbed to her feet. Then she paused and gave Darcy that piercing look again. “Hey, you know you can come to me if you need anything, right? This thing with Bucky … it seems like it got pretty intense pretty quick. Not judging!” she added quickly, raising her hands. “I think it’s good for both of you. But I just want to make sure you know I’m here for you if anything goes wrong.”

Darcy looked at her and felt another rush of warmth. She couldn’t take the offer, of course, but still … “I know. Thanks, Janey. I’m sure everything will be okay,” she forced herself to add, though she wasn’t at all. “Nobody’s breaking out the torches and pitchforks or anything. Bucky says Steve’s mad at him, is all. But it’s just … he really loves Steve. I hope he doesn’t do anything to hurt him.”

“I’m trying not to,” Steve said from behind her.

She jumped, sloshing the coffee, and inwardly kicked herself. So what if she hadn’t slept all night, her situational awareness should be hella better than this. On the up side, it was great for her cover. No one would believe she was an international master assassin when she couldn’t hear the largest, least sneaky man in the world walking up behind her. She put a hand on her chest, playing it up a little. “Jesus, dude, don’t scare a girl like that!”

“Sorry,” he said, raising his hands in the universal gesture of nonthreatening. She turned to glare at him, but couldn’t maintain it when she saw his mussed hair and bloodshot eyes. He didn’t look like he’d slept any more than she had. “I didn’t mean to. Can I, uh, talk to you for a second?” His eyes flicked to Jane. “Privately.”

Darcy’s stomach swam, and not because she’d been chugging coffee on an empty stomach. She’d promised Bucky her cover was solid and this wouldn’t come back to her. If she was wrong he was going to be so pissed, and also, she might be dead.

On the other hand, Steve was supposed to be some kind of amazing tactician. If he really did know who she was, this was the worst way to apprehend her. He had no backup, the request was almost guaranteed to put her on guard, and there was a potential hostage right there in the room with them. Not that she’d ever do that to Jane, of course, but he didn’t know that. Until five minutes ago, she hadn’t known that.

On the other other hand, a master tactician would know that I knew that he … oh fuck it, she thought, and said, “Sure.” They went out into the hall, and the door hissed shut behind them. She was touched to see that Jane was watching like a hawk through the glass.

Once they were out there, Steve didn’t seem to know how to start. He hemmed and hawed, rubbed the back of his neck, and sighed. “How much has Buck told you about the situation with Hydra?”

Darcy shrugged. It was a softball question, she didn’t even have to lie. “They’re assholes.”

He laughed, but it sounded more pained than amused. “Understatement. Did he tell you that we’re trying to take them down?”

“I didn’t need him to tell me that,” Darcy said, affronted on her cover’s behalf. “Political science major, dude. I watch the news.”

“Right. Sorry.” He rubbed his neck again. “Thing is, we weren’t really gettin’ anywhere. It’s like you saw with Montreal, we can’t always just go in and …” He made a vague gesture that might have been hitting something with an imaginary shield.

“Avenge?” Darcy suggested.

“Yeah. People really want us when there’s somethin’ big they can point to, but if it’s an underground base that hasn’t done anything yet, they get real touchy. Even if we swear ourselves blue that they were gonna do something real soon.” Tiredness made his voice shift towards Brooklyn, words sliding and blurring together, and for the first time she could see how he and Bucky had grown up in the same place. He shrugged, looking even more exhausted, and added, “After Project Insight, I guess I can’t really blame ‘em.”

“Yeah,” she said. “My name was on the list too, so … yeah.”

“Yours? Really?” He looked a little surprised, and she kicked herself. Way to draw attention. But then he shrugged. “I guess everybody who spends more than a couple days with us was prob’ly on the list. Anyway, we had our eyes on a few targets but for the moment we couldn’t do anything. Then a few months ago, someone else started hitting them instead.”

She let her eyebrows shoot up. “Hitting them like …”

“Salt and burn, scorched earth, no survivors,” Steve said bluntly. Which was true, but jeez, it sounded bad when he put it like that. “Thing is, only a few people saw the list of targets. Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, the Avengers … and Bucky.”

Darcy blinked a couple of times, then dropped her mouth open in feigned horror. “You think he … no. No!” She glared at Steve, then when that didn’t feel like enough, she poked him in the chest. It was like poking a warm brick wall. “You know he wouldn’t. He isn’t like that anymore, and even if he was, he never leaves the Tower. For shit’s sake, Steve, you saw what it took just to get him out for a cup of coffee!”

He smiled down at her, and the shadows in his eyes lightened a little. “I know! Ease up, Darce, I know it wasn’t him. But …” The frown returned, and her stomach did another roll. “I think he might be communicating with someone. Maybe someone he knows from before.”

Like fucking who? He was brainwashed, dude, he wasn’t out there having assassin playdates. She kept the thoughts locked away, because after all, Steve’s dumbass ideas were working in her favor. Plus, the truth was even weirder and (arguably) dumber. She cycled her face through shock, disbelief, and confusion, then settled on uneasiness. “Before? When he was …?” she swallowed, like she couldn’t even say it.

“Maybe,” Steve said gently. “Natasha says she doesn’t think so, but I don’t know who else it could be. The skills this person has … normal people don’t have them.”

She had to concede him that one, although she was a little irked that he said it like it was a bad thing. She channeled her annoyance into an epic pair of Darcy sad eyes.

He patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “I hate to burden you with this, but it’s really important. Has he ever talked to you about someone you didn’t recognize? An old friend, something like that?”

She shook her head numbly. This time the shock on her face wasn’t all fake. I can’t believe Steve thinks I’d roll on the man I — that Darcy would roll on the man she loves. “He doesn’t have any old friends except you,” she says. “I know his history. Something like that would have stuck out to me.”

“Have you noticed anything else weird?” Steve pressed. “Texts from unknown numbers? Emails from strange addresses?”

“You think I go through his phone?” She couldn’t keep the sharp edge out of her voice at that. Some of it was probably coming out in her face, too, because he backed off fast.

“No, of course not. Sorry.” His expression went all Boy Scout in a way that she found completely insincere and a little patronizing. “I just want to keep him safe, Darcy. Whoever this guy is, he’s dangerous. I don’t know what he really wants, and I don’t think Bucky does either, but he won’t listen to me.” He made a face. “Listen to me sayin’ that like he ever did …”

Huh. Well that’s … a perspective. Not that he was wrong about the mysterious assassin having ulterior motives. She was pretty sure she’d had them at some point. It was just that that point was on the other side of a lot of Chinese food, a broom closet, a pack of band-aids and a house key. None of which were Captain America’s business. “What do you mean, what he really wants?” She tried to keep the question innocent. “Isn’t he just attacking Hydra?”

“Sure, for now,” Steve said, “but I’ve gotta think he has another agenda. If he’s on the level, why not just come to us and offer to help? It’s not like we’re in a position to turn down potential allies,” he added with painful wryness.

She blinked. It had literally never occurred to her. Would they really just — accept the help? Just like that? Surely not. The Avengers didn’t work with hired killers, even morally-ambiguous pro bono ones like her. Sure, Nat had a history, but she’d been a squeaky-clean SHIELD agent for years before the Initiative even started. “I see your point,” she heard herself say. “That does seem weird. Do you really think Bucky’s in danger from this —” she couldn’t make herself say guy “— person?”

Steve nodded. “I really do.”

She gave him her best troubled look. It wasn’t hard. “What can I — I mean, I know I’m just an intern and not one of the super people, but I don’t want him to get hurt either. Is there anything I can do?”

He was obviously trying to keep his expression blank, but the little tic at the corner of his mouth screamed triumph. He was a terrible liar. She bet Natasha despaired of him. “Just talk to him?” he said, like the thought had just occurred. “Try to get him to see reason. I don’t want to stop the guy, I just want to vet him, make sure he’s dealing square. But I can’t do that unless I have a name.”

It’ll be a cold day in hell, Cap, Darcy thought, but what she said was, “I’ll try.”

Chapter Text

When she got home that night, still fuming a little from her encounter with the Star-Spangled Man, Bucky was on her couch watching Dog Cops. That was unexpected.

If you’d asked her ten minutes ago how she’d react to finding someone in her house unexpectedly, she’d have said ‘violently.’ But what she actually did was let out the breath she’d been holding all day. Bucky was here. He wasn’t in a cell or being beaten or god knew what. He was on her couch, in her home, where she could make sure no one hurt him. He’s okay. He’s really okay.

She blinked hard and turned away to fuss with the keypad until her eyes stopped feeling weird. Then she tossed her bag into one corner of the room and smiled. “Hey, stranger.”

“Hey, doll,” he said, dropping his head back over the arm of the couch to look at her. His smile didn’t look any less charming for being upside-down. The ends of his hair brushed the floor.

She was deeply complimented that he trusted her security system enough to sit with his back to the door. Still smiling, she kicked off her shoes and walked past him to the kitchen. He turned his head to follow the movement and she had a sudden, unsettling urge to bend down and kiss him. It was so strong she actually broke stride and almost tripped over her own feet. He lifted a quizzical upside-down eyebrow, and she felt herself flush. “You —” She coughed and tried again. “You hungry?”

“I could eat.” They’d never had this conversation before, exactly, but it felt familiar. Comfortable. Like a thing she could do five thousand times and never get tired of it.

“Omelettes?” That was about the limit of her cooking ability. She had great knife skills, but not the kind that translated well to the kitchen.

“Sure.” He flipped himself back upright and leaned on the back of the couch to watch her.

She started a pan heating and got out the eggs, trying not to shiver from the weight of his stare on the back of her neck. “I think your line is, Honey, how was your day?” she said, half-joking.

“Honey,” he said obediently, “how was your day?” He wrinkled his nose a little, and she agreed. It just sounded weird to hear him call her anything but ‘doll.’ Well, and ‘sweetheart,’ but he only used that one when he was really pissed.

“Interesting,” she said. “I got a visit from your friend Steve.” She put a red pepper on the cutting board and started to dice it, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He straightened, and his expression clouded into an ominous frown. “Apparently, I’m supposed to try and convince you not to talk to me.”

Bucky growled. “Steve should mind his own — wait, what?”

She turned the knife on its side and swept the peppers into her hand, then dropped them in a bowl. “He wants Darcy —” she made a big-eyed Darcy face “— to convince you to turn in your shady, dangerous assassin friend.” She held up the knife and gave him a heavy-lidded stare. It was supposed to look evil, but from the way his eyes darkened, she’d missed by a mile.

“That so,” he said, giving her a heavy-lidded look right back. She suddenly remembered an urgent need for parsley and turned away to rummage in the fridge. When she turned back, he was fiddling with a loose thread on the couch cushion. “So what’d you say?”

She shrugged and started chopping the parsley. “Said I’d try. You want, like, five thousand eggs in yours, right?”

He snorted a little. “Let’s start with six. Are you going to?”

She leaned over the counter to peer at him more closely. “Going to what?” His eyes widened and his arm whirred, and she realized she was accidentally giving him a view right down her shirt. She straightened up, trying to make it look casual and probably failing. “Going to what?” she repeated at a slightly higher pitch.

He licked his lips. She turned away fast and started cracking eggs, her back to him. “Try to convince me to stop hangin’ around you.” The husky note in his voice made it sound like some kind of filthy double entendre, and she had to close her eyes for a second before she could answer.

“How dumb do I look? Don’t answer that,” she added quickly, and he snorted a laugh. “Steve also said they might work with me if I came to them and offered my help, but I think he’s full of shit.”

“Usually,” Bucky agreed, but he sounded thoughtful. She snuck a glance at him as she reached for the salt and saw that he was staring into space, biting his lip. “Y’know, he might not be wrong. They accept me and Nat, why not you? But …”

Darcy picked up a whisk, knuckles clenched white. For a second there she’d actually thought he was suggesting … but of course not. That was crazy. “Uh-huh,” she said lightly, “I thought there’d be a but. Let me guess: but you’re not an Avenger, and you and Nat are both retired.”

“Sorta,” he admitted. “Not that Natalia exactly counts as retired, but she doesn’t take on any other jobs either. Avengers ain’t a part-time gig. If you wanted to leave, they …” his voice roughened, and he cleared his throat. “They wouldn’t like it.”

They wouldn’t like it? Or he wouldn’t? “I’m not going anywhere until that number that helps you sleep at night is a lot higher, babe,” she said, her own voice a little rough.

He was silent while she beat some milk into the eggs and grated cheese. The mixture hissed when it hit the hot pan, and it was so loud that she almost missed it when he said, “I like it when you call me that.”

She dropped the spatula with a clatter. Her heart was slamming her ribs so hard it felt like she might be vibrating with the force of it. “I — you — what?”

“I think you heard me.” There was a tone to his voice she’d never heard before: a little like amusement, a little like a growl. Something low and soft that slid down her spine like a caress.

She turned to look at him, forgetting all about the eggs — if they burned, so what, she had more. His face was serious, and that dark look from the diner was back in his eyes. She swallowed hard. This was normally the part where one of them would look away.

Neither of them did.

Her cheeks burned and her instincts screamed at her. Say something. Deflect. Break the tension. “That’s good,” she said, barely able to hear her own voice over the pounding of her pulse, “‘cause I call you that all the time.”

“No,” he said, holding her gaze. “You don’t. Darcy does.”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“I don’t mind when she does it,” he said, like she’d responded and he was just carrying on the conversation. “But I like it when you do it.” He braced his arm on the back of the couch and hopped over it, then stalked across the room like a big cat. He didn’t come into the kitchen, just leaned his fists on the other side of the counter, eyes still hot on her face. “I just want us to be clear about this, ‘cause I feel like there might be some confusion. I’m fake datin’ Darcy Lewis to help you keep your cover. I’m dating you. And yes, doll,” the way he purred the word was practically obscene, “I do know the difference.”

She swallowed hard. Her heart was pounding so loud he could probably hear it. “Since when are we dating?”

He watched her for another second, then one corner of his mouth quirked up. “Since about the time you started giving me that look when there was nobody else around,” he said.

“What look?” As a cover, it was weak as hell. She knew exactly what look he meant.

His growing smirk said he was well aware of that, too. He reached across the counter and touched a metal fingertip very, very lightly to her lower lip. She wanted to bite it, and then his mouth, and then … “That look,” he said, his voice slightly breathless. Then he pulled back and added, “Eggs’re burning.”

“What —“ She whipped around, but the omelettes were sizzling away just fine. “No they’re not!”

“Then why’s the fire alarm going off?”

She stopped and listened. “I don’t hear anyth —” But then she did, faint and far off. Without even thinking, she grabbed for the kitchen knife. “That’s not the fire alarm.”

He was across the room so fast, she didn’t even see him move. Her holster was hanging over one of the chairs — he pulled the Walther out and tossed it to her. “How secure is this place?”

“Very secure.” A distant boom shook the air, and the whole Tower rocked. “But not that secure,” she amended grimly. “Do you have an evacuation protocol?”

He nodded once.

“Then let’s go. I’ll cover you.” She remembered to flip off the burner before she headed around the counter.

He bit his lip. “You don’t have to. If anybody sees you …”

“Don’t care,” she snapped, fumbling her shoes on. He didn’t move. She tucked the gun into her waistband and straightened up, then grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look at her. “Babe. This is not the time to worry about my cover. If anyone sees me, I’ll handle it. Let’s fucking go.”

He nodded. Then he leaned down, slowly enough that she could have stopped him if she wanted to, and pressed his lips to hers. They were soft, and warm, and her heart damn near came right out of her chest. When he pulled back, her hands were clenched into fists to keep from reaching for him. He glanced at them, a worried crease in his forehead, then gave her a long, searching look. “I love you, doll. You know that, right?”

This was the worst possible time to do this. If she thought about what he was saying, or tried to say even one word back, her mission focus was going to shatter into a million pieces and then Hydra was going to kill him.

But they might kill him anyway, and if they did, he’d never know.

She swallowed hard and moved her head in something that was almost, but not quite, a nod. Without giving herself time to change her mind, she fisted a hand in his hair and pulled him back down for another, harder kiss. If … if this was the only one she ever got, she was going to make it good. She did her best to memorize the taste of him, the feel of his hair, the low sound he made when her tongue slid into his mouth. Then she pulled away.

He didn’t try to hold on. He just stood there, breathing hard, and watched her.

She pulled the gun again and opened the door to the hallway. It looked clear but … something was wrong. The smell — “Don’t come out,” she said, “there’s some kind of gas —”

And then everything went dark.

Chapter Text

She woke up with her head pounding and a mouth that tasted like three-week-old fish. Why did she know that? Irkutsk. Irkutsk was the reason she knew that. Worst place to get stuck ever. She’d have to tell Bucky —

Oh fuck, Bucky. Where’s Bucky?

She wanted to yell his name, but there was no point making a big production in a room that might be full of hostiles. Instead she held still and listened. The room was silent, but she could hear breathing. After a few seconds without any signs of attack, she blinked spots out of her eyes and risked a quick look around, moving nothing but her head.

She was on the floor of the main common room, sprawled half-underneath a coffee table. The ache in her hip and shoulder suggested she'd been thrown there. Around her, the Avengers stood unmoving, pressed against the walls. Thick metal cuffs wrapped around their arms, legs, chests, and heads, holding them upright but splayed out, like broken dolls. She tried to imagine what kind of restraint was strong enough to hold even Steve, and shuddered.

Against the wall right in front of her, in the heaviest restraints of all, was Bucky. He was awake but not struggling: just staring into the distance, his face white and still. She’d seen him scared before, but now he was … he was terrified.

White-hot rage filled her mind, like nothing she’d ever experienced. When she worked, even against people she really hated, the killing part wasn’t personal. It was just part of the job. An important, messy, but ultimately unemotional job.

This? This was completely different. The fuckers had hurt and scared her partner and they were all going to die for it. She didn’t care what ground she had to salt and burn. She didn’t care what happened to her cover. Hydra had gone too far, and now they were going to pay and pay and pay. She started running strategies in the back of her mind, coldly, one after another. Most of them ended in flames.

“Sitrep,” Steve said from behind her, his voice tense. “Everyone okay?”

“I am well,” Thor responded, but he looked angry. Maybe almost as angry as she was.

“Yeah, great,” Clint said sarcastically, and Natasha added, “Fantastic.”

“Hangin’ in there, Cap,” Tony said, and everyone groaned.

“Man, you are the worst,” Sam said. “Is this the time? Really?”

“Bruce, what about you?” Steve said.


She craned her neck and saw a flash of movement. “He’s breathing,” she said. “Just out cold. They probably put something in his tea.”

There was a general murmur, and she realized that none of them could see her down here. “Darcy?” Steve said. “Shit. What are you doing here? Buck, she’s going to be okay, all right, we’re going to get her out of here.”

She looked up at Bucky, whose face had gone from pale to gray. “They got you in these damn things, too, doll?” he croaked.

She grinned at him, though there wasn’t much humor in it, and held up her hands. Then she remembered he couldn't see either gesture. "Standard-issue handcuffs," she said, doing her best to keep her tone chirpy so he'd know she was okay, "and not even cuffed behind me. Makes sense, I mean, why would they waste the fancy stuff? I’m just a harmless intern.”

“Right,” he said, and slumped in his restraints. “Of course.”

She blinked at him. Why did he look so sad? That was supposed to be a joke — oh. Oh. He thought she wasn’t going to do anything. That she’d leave him stuck in this situation rather than blow her cover. And he was going to let her do it. Because … because maybe he loved her, or something like that.

Sudden tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them away. This was no time for those feelings. Anger and determination now, love later.

She sat up further so she could look around for long, thin pieces of metal, but came up blank. Fuck. If she got out of this, she was definitely taping lock picking kits underneath all the furniture. She could probably MacGyver something else eventually, but there was no time. Hydra could be back any second, and she had to be out of the cuffs before they got here. Ideally also armed, but that was a bonus. If she had both hands free, 'armed' was really more of a state of mind.

Well, there was one way. She wasn't going to like it, but at least it was quick.

“Damn, I wish I’d worn my hair up today,” she said out loud. "This part sucks.” Then she rolled onto her knees and braced her left hand against the coffee table.

“Darcy, what —” Steve said, at the same time that Bucky said, “Darcy, no!”

She dropped the weight of her body onto her hand. The tiny snap would have been loud in the sudden silence, except that it was drowned out by her hissing, “Mothercocking son of a bitch bastard!” She slid her hand out of the cuff and cradled it against her chest for a second. “Aww, fucksticks,” she said.

Bucky leaned forward as far as he could in the restraints. “You okay, doll?” he said urgently.

“Peachy keen, babe!” She was up high enough for him to see her face now, so she threw him a reassuring smile. “It’s just a broken metacarpal. In my family, we call that Tuesday.”

“What —” Steve said again.

“Quickest way to get out of handcuffs, if you don’t care too much about the pain,” Natasha murmured, staring hard at her. “Something you want to share with the class, Dashyenka?”

Darcy ignored her. Banter was fun and all, but playtime was over now. She looked around once, cataloging weapons and defenses. There wasn’t much. “Had to be the common room,” she muttered, “couldn’t be the kitchen. Anybody got a weapon they didn’t find?”

“Throwing knife, right boot,” Natasha said. “Between the sole and the lining in the back.”

She shuffled over and fumbled at Nat’s foot for a minute, until her fingers touched a tiny lip of metal. It was a narrow, flat knife, not even as long as her hand, but it was something. She didn’t insult Natasha by testing the edge, just flipped it once or twice to get a feel for the balance. Then she shuffled back to the coffee table, pulled the big decorative fruit bowl over to the edge, and settled back down with the knife underneath her body. Her hand throbbed like a big, throbby, painful thing.

She looked up. The Avengers were staring at her. Well, not exactly at her, but close enough. She could see Steve's neck muscles straining from how hard he was trying to look down.

“Am I the only one who feels like he’s missing something?” Sam said, sounding halfway between gobsmacked and pissed. “Because I could swear I just watched Jane Foster’s sweet little lab assistant tossing a knife around one-handed like a damn circus act.”

“What, a girl can’t have a hobby?” she said, and then immediately cursed herself for giving in to the banter. “Also, why don’t you people ever shut up? Seriously. We’re in the middle of an attack here. Did no one ever teach you about radio silence?”

There was no answer, but she didn’t know if that was because they recognized the validity of her complaint or because just a few seconds later, the door opened and the room filled with green-and-black uniformed soldiers.

She thought about attacking, but she didn’t see the guy in charge, so she held still while the grunts took up what they probably thought was a strategic position on either side of the door. What it actually was, was the starting position for her third favorite plan of attack. Cool. Her chances of success were a solid 75% in that one. She flipped the knife to a different grip and adjusted her center of gravity a bit, then waited.

Finally, a guy in a lab coat came in. She dubbed him Douche #1. Nice of him to wear a big flashy white sign saying “TARGET ME I AM IN CHARGE.”

He came closer. She forced her trembling muscles to be still. Closer. Now he was close enough for a threat assessment. No guns, no weapons, just a look of fanatical glee that she recognized as a raging hard-on for science. He looked a little like Jane’s last ex-boyfriend.

“At last,” he said, “the mighty Avengers powerless before me.”

Oh, god, a monologue. Dude wasn’t going to do anything until he’d blown his load … hopefully metaphorically, but possibly literally. Still, the longer it went on, the more the soldiers would relax. She entertained herself by inching a little further underneath the coffee table and very quietly tying his shoelaces together.

“And as for you, Soldier,” Douche #1 said at last, turning his head to look at Bucky. “We have very interesting plans for you. Aren’t you going to ask what they are?”

Bucky glared at him silently.

Wait, she told herself, as her simmering rage threatened to overflow into violence. He might say something useful about their plans. Don’t waste this opportunity. Just wait.

“I’d do it while you have the chance.” Douche #1’s smile was ugly. “You see, the problem is that we left you with too many non-essential functions that allowed you to break conditioning. We’ll be fixing that.” He reached out one hand, the tip of his finger almost touching Bucky’s lips. “Starting with your tongue.”

She let go of her last hold on Darcy Lewis, and let the rage out.

The fruit bowl was the first to go, sent spinning at his head. Without waiting to see if it hit, she pushed the coffee table onto its side and kicked it forward, then ran and slid across the floor after it as the soldiers opened fire on the spot where she’d been. The table took the first one at knee height. He crumpled. She buried the knife in his throat and grabbed his gun. He had like, twelve bullets left and there were only nine other guys, so that part was just babytown frolics.

When the last one hit the ground minus a good chunk of head, Douche #1 tried to whirl around and charge her, but oops! Shoelaces. His chin made a very satisfying noise against the floor.

She retrieved her knife from the first goon’s throat and kicked Douche #1 over onto his back. He looked terrified. She felt nothing at all except a vague, cold satisfaction. She didn’t know what expression was on her face, but whatever it was made him whimper and try to scramble away. She brought her heel down on his kneecap with a crack. He squealed and stopped.

She leaned over him. “How do you open the restraints?”

He opened his mouth, but she saw his eyes darting from one side to the other.

She set her foot on top of the knee she’d just dislocated and pressed down very, very slightly. “How,” she said again, slowly, “do you open the restraints?”

“Remote! Coat pocket! Green button!”

She pulled out the remote and hit the green button. There was a series of clanks and relieved sighs, plus a thump when Bruce hit the floor.

“Thanks, Darcy,” Steve said, sounding wary but sincere. “You did great. We can take it from —”

She turned to look at him. He stopped talking.

"No,” she said. “I’ve got this one.” She went back to her target. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steve frown. Natasha put a hand on his arm and whispered something in his ear. It didn’t seem to make him any happier, but he did back up a little.

“Wh-what …” Douche #1 squeaked, tears leaking down his face. “Who are you?”

She tipped her head on one side and stared at him. “Nobody,” she said, her voice cold and flat. “Just a friend with a message for your bosses.”

“Wh-what’s the m-message? I’ll t-tell them anything you want.”

She felt herself smile, and he whimpered again, louder. “I don’t think so. But thanks for the offer. They’re listening, right? On this cute little octopus-shaped button mic?” She pulled it out of his lapel and held it close to her mouth. “Hi guys! You might know me as the person who’s been blowing all your shit up lately. That was me being nice.” She let her cheery tone turn hard and cold. “I’m not going to be nice anymore. Please listen closely while I demonstrate what that means.” She covered the mic with her hand. “Babe,” she added, without looking away from the man on the floor. “Close your eyes.”

Bucky made a sound that might have been a laugh if there’d been any humor in it. “Doll, there’s nothin’ you could do that I ain’t seen and done a hundred times before.”

She put a little more pressure on her foot to keep Douche #1 still and turned to meet Bucky’s eyes. She tried to make her own say everything she’d never told him out loud: how amazing he was. How kind. How caring. How much she wanted to make sure that nothing bad could ever happen to him again. “I know,” she said gently. “That’s why I don’t want you to see any more.”

“I love you, too,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Tucking the microphone behind her ear, she leaned down and opened Douche #1’s mouth. He screamed. Then he stopped screaming. Then he died.

She wiped the knife on her jeans and tucked something small and soft into the pocket of the lab coat. Delicately, with two fingers, she closed the corpse’s jaw. Then she pulled the coat up over his face and neck. The blood on the floor she couldn’t do much about, but at least there was no visible source.

“Good talk,” she said into the mic, then put it on the floor and stomped on it. “Okay, babe,” she said.

Bucky opened his eyes. He didn’t even glance down, just pulled her into his arms and lowered his face until their noses were almost touching. His eyes burned into hers, and she felt a flush rise up her neck. “Okay?” he asked.

“Okay,” she agreed, and he kissed her, hard. The taste of his mouth was already so familiar. She kissed back and her rage drained away, leaving behind fear and a sudden swell of gratitude. She hadn’t been sure she’d ever get this again. If she’d lost him, she … she didn’t know if … she broke the kiss and buried her face in his chest. He smoothed a hand over her shaking shoulders and pressed his lips to her hair. For a moment, there was nothing in her world but him.

“What,” Sam said. “The. Fuck.”

Chapter Text

A group of very frazzled security guards pounded in a few minutes later to announce that the rest of the incursion had been … she thought the word the leader used was ‘crushed,’ and she hoped he meant literally. The guards blanched a little when they saw the room and quickly shooed everyone out.

They ended up in the kitchen, because … well, because it was dinner time and supersoldier metabolisms didn’t give a fuck about Hydra. She was pretty hungry, too, what with being the one who’d done all the work and all. Also, her hand hurt like a bitch.

“Bandages are for people who aren’t secretly assassins,” Tony said in a pouty voice when she held it up and frowned.

Bucky, who flatly refused to let go of her other hand, growled. “Geneva Convention, Stark.”

“Doesn’t technically apply to secret assassi — okay, okay, God!” Tony flinched away from Bucky’s bared teeth. “Take it easy, Terminator, I’m just kidding. FRIDAY, have someone send down a medical kit for the T-1000 over there.”

“Yes, boss. Do you need anything else, Agent Lewis?” FRIDAY said.

Natasha gave a sharp crack of laughter, then covered her mouth. Clint tripped over his own feet. Sam swore. Tony’s face went through all five stages of grief in about five seconds.

Trust a superintelligent AI to know when someone’s cover was blown. “No thanks, I’m good,” Darcy said serenely. In a little while, she knew, she was going to have to start worrying about consequences. But right now, with the remnants of adrenaline still floating in her blood and the cat well and truly out of the bag, she felt oddly weightless.

“Agent?” Steve said, in a voice like a slab of lead hitting the ground. He had his arms folded, and a muscle in his jaw was twitching.

She blinked once. There it was — her out. She could say yes and give them some version of the same story she’d given the AI. Sure, they might not fully believe her — Clint and Nat would suspect for sure — but everyone knew Nick Fury had loved his secrets and his wheels within wheels. They’d never be able to prove anything. And she could stay here, and be with Bucky …

… and live another lie, for however long it lasted.

“No,” she said, and felt Bucky squeeze her hand. She risked a sidelong glance at him, and lost her breath at the naked look of adoration on his face. It was enough to get her through the next few words. “That was a cover. I actually am a secret assassin.” She let the last of Darcy fall away, her stance shifting and her face hardening. They all drew back a little, except Steve, who looked like it would take industrial equipment to shift him an inch. She gave him a smile that was not sweet at all. “I’d say sorry, but I’m not. I could say you're welcome, though, if you want.”

“You —” Steve started, but then his stomach growled and Sam said, “Save it for after you’ve eaten, Rogers.”

“I shall make my favorite Midgardian delicacy,” Thor decided. “Peanut butter sandwiches.”

Her stomach growled. She loved Thor’s PB&J’s. “Thanks, buddy,” she said, and then winced a little when everyone stared at her again. “Um … I get one, right?”

Thor smiled at her. There was no wariness in his eyes, she realized suddenly. He wasn’t looking at her any differently than he always had. That was … odd. “You get as many as you wish,” he said, “for this day your valor has saved us all.” He pulled out bread and started slicing. “I cannot help but wonder,” he added, in a dangerously casual voice, “why the rest of our friends seem so surprised. I told them many times that you had the heart of a true and skilled warrior, the equal of any I have ever observed.”

Now the room turned to stare at him. He turned that same sunny smile on all of them, but she could see a trace of defiance underneath.

“Oh,” she said softly. This must be what Jane meant, about people treating Thor like he was stupid. Because he had told them that, and everyone — including her— had assumed he was overawed by her little stunt with the taser. “You knew the whole time.”

He put the first sandwich on a plate and handed it to her. Then he bowed deeply. “My lady Darcy. With or without the power of Mjolnir, it is a rare warrior who can strike me unaware. I am, as I have always been, honored to call you my shield-sister.”

She leaned over the counter and hugged him, not caring that it hurt her hand.

“Hah!” Bucky said, sounding vindicated. “That’s what I said. What did I tell you, Stevie? No normal coed takes down a god.”

“You did,” Steve agreed slowly. Thor handed him the second sandwich, and his next words were muffled by a huge bite. “Oo seb she wuf —” He swallowed and tried again. “You said she was shady and she was going to try to kill you. Next thing I knew you were dating, so I figured you got over it.” He glanced between them, and she could see him sorting and discarding questions. “What happened?”

The two of them exchanged a glance. Bucky raised his eyebrows, and she shrugged. She was already well past the point of no return. Might as well get it all on the table.

“I tried to kill him,” she admitted. The room was suddenly very full of weapons and disapproving biceps. “What? Obviously I didn’t do it! And it was all you guys’ fault anyway. Nobody told me what Hydra did to him. You just told me he used to work for them but then he quit, which was the dumbest shit I’d ever heard. Nobody is former Hydra.” She took a vicious bite for emphasis.

“The lady has a point,” Sam said reluctantly. “They don’t exactly let people leave.” He leaned back against the wall next to Steve and crossed his arms, frowning at her. “So you found out the truth, and it stopped you from killing him why?”

She showed him a smile full of peanut-butter-covered teeth. “It’s kind of my schtick,” she said. “Bad guys only, no innocent bystanders. Come on, you guys know that, you’ve seen my MO.”

“Have we?” Natasha said, sounding vaguely amused. When Darcy gave her an incredulous look, because there was no possible way Romanov wasn’t up to speed by now, she shrugged. “Why don’t you spell it out for us. All we know right now is you’ve been hiding under our noses and trying to kill our friend.”

“Are you kidding me? All I’ve been doing for the last five months is trying to protect your friend.” She put down her sandwich and started counting on the fingers of her broken hand. “Ohio. Montreal. Paris. Bratislava.” She was on to the pinkie by now, and moving her thumb that far hurt, so she stopped. “It was all me. I’m the guy. The super sneaky Hydra killer guy you’ve been trying to find for months now. Did anyone seriously not get that?”

She took a quick survey of the room. Tony looked mad. Sam looked thoughtful. Clint looked vague in that way that meant he was either thinking about pizza or getting ready to fight someone. Bruce looked half-asleep still. Natasha …

Natasha winked at her. It was such a tiny movement she might have thought she’d imagined it, but she felt Bucky’s hand tighten convulsively on her shoulder. Hmm. Interesting.

“Doll,” Bucky said, softly. When she glanced over, his eyes were warm and calm just like they always were. He gave her a corner of a smile, and she felt her shoulders relax. “Let’s walk it back some. They ain’t had time to get used to the idea like I did.”

Yeah, okay, that was fair. He had way fewer moral objections than the rest of them probably did, and it had still taken him a while. She sighed heavily, but only for effect. “Fine. Here’s how it goes. Bad guys are alive and doing bad stuff and everybody knows it. The law can’t touch them. You guys won’t touch them unless you catch them actually doing something. Then there’s me.” She shrugged and picked up the sandwich again. “I guess you could say I’m proactive.”

“Uh-huh.” Steve's tone was hard enough to cut glass. “And is this a vendetta against Hydra, or are you … professionally proactive?”

She’d just taken a bite, and had to chew before she could speak. It took a little longer than normal. Being stared at by a room full of hostile superheroes didn’t really help with the ol’ digestion. “Little of column A, little of column B,” she said finally. “I thought about going to grad school, but this pays better.”

Bucky shifted a tiny bit, but didn’t call her on the evasion. Good. Just because her cover was blown didn’t mean she had to burn her mom’s, too.

“Right,” Steve said. “So you’re a hired killer.” He looked at her, his face hard, then shot Bucky a glance like that fact might have somehow escaped his notice.

“Careful, Stevie,” Bucky said, his tone dangerous. It was her turn to catch his eye and hold it until he calmed down. Even then he shifted restlessly on his feet, like he was halfway to grabbing her and running out of the room. She … wasn’t 100% against that plan. Except for the part where they’d never be able to stop.

“It’s fine,” she said, her voice light even as the sandwich sat like lead in her stomach. “He’s right. That’s exactly what I am.” The words hurt a lot more than they should, given that it was true. “The only reason we're all here is because someone hired me to kill you. Although I'd just like to point out again that I didn't."

Steve’s lips pursed like he didn’t think that was much of an argument. “That’s why you’re here? You went to work for Dr. Foster to … get close to Bucky?” He frowned. “No, that doesn’t make any sense. He hadn’t been found when you started working for her. Hell, I’m not even sure if I had been found.”

“Oh, no!” she said, using every bit of the skill she’d picked up from years of Darcy-ness to keep her tone airy and her actual feelings locked away. “I started working for Jane to get to Thunderbolt Ross.”

Bruce, who was still shaking off the effects of the whatever crazy-ass drug they’d put in his tea, looked up sharply.

She took her life in her hands and tipped him a wink as she kept talking. “The man’s home security is ridiculous, and even I’m not crazy enough to break into the Pentagon, but he has a reputation for sticking his nose into any kind of experimental science he can find. The weirder the better. I was hoping he’d come sniffing around Jane, but before he could, we had another kind of thunderbolt.” She grinned at Thor, who grinned back.

“And then what?” Tony said. She’d wondered when he was planning to chime in again. His eyes were sharp on her face, skeptical, but maaaybe just a touch less angry. “You just hung around?”

Bucky bristled at his tone, but Darcy nudged him with her shoulder until he quieted. “Pretty much,” she said again. “Interesting shit kept happening, and the ditzy intern was a great cover. Plus, I like Jane.”

“Speaking of Foster,” Sam said quietly, “maybe she should be up here for this. Since she’s your boss and best friend and all.” He gave her the exact knowing, piercing, I’m-a-normal-person-with-basic-emotional-literacy look she’d always dreaded seeing on his face.

Jane. Her heart twisted. She didn’t care what any of the Avengers thought of her, not really, but what she was about to do to her best friend … Oh god, Janey, I’m sorry. “Sure,” she said, not as casually as she wanted to, “might as well. It’s a party, after all.”

They were all quiet while FRIDAY relayed the request. Thor passed out sandwiches to the last few who needed them, and took one himself.

A few minutes later, Jane came in and looked around. She frowned. “Who died?”

Darcy waved her broken hand, then winced when it twinged.

Jane’s face immediately went pale, and she hurried over. “Oh, jeez, Darcy! Is this why FRIDAY had me bring the medical kit?”

“Yeah,” Darcy said quietly, “but first there’s something you should know. Maybe you should sit down.”

Jane scoffed. “D, you are injured. I’m not sitting down. You sit down. You can talk while I splint.” She glared around at the rest of them. “And why hasn’t anybody done anything about this already? You had time to make sandwiches but not provide emergency medical care?”

“Janey, it’s nothing, seriously.” Darcy tried to push her down onto a stool, but the movement sent a shooting pain through her hand and she winced again. “Okay, it sucks but …”

“Sit,” Jane said, and wow, that whole assertive body language thing Pepper taught her was no joke, because Darcy actually sat. She looked at the floor, not moving when Jane splinted and wrapped her hand, then accepted the pills she was handed and swallowed them dry.

“Seriously, I really need to tell you something,” she tried again.

Jane sighed and stole half of Thor’s third sandwich. He gave her an adoring look and started on a fourth one. “Is it that you and Bucky are dating for real? Because all I can say is finally.”

“Of course we’re —” Darcy stopped, registering the words. “Wait, what do you mean ‘for real’?”

“Well I assumed he was just pretending to date you so that he could keep you updated on Hydra,” Jane said calmly. “But lately, I don’t know, you guys seemed pretty serious about it.”

There was a moment of absolute, pin-drop silence. Then Bucky started to laugh.

“Y … yeah,” he gasped between bursts of laughter. “I think you could say we’re pretty serious.”

“Wait wait wait,” Darcy said. She was replaying her conversation with Jane this morning. What had she actually said? This thing with Bucky got intense pretty quick … you know I’m here for you if anything goes wrong. No mention of dating. She could just as easily have been talking about the missions. But only if she … “You knew?”

“Knew what?” Jane skewered her with a stare. Darcy suddenly remembered that Jane was a genius … like, for real. “Are you asking if I knew that you were much smarter than you wanted me to believe? That you had a lot of weird skills a political science major would have no use for? That every time you went on vacation, somebody really awful died? Yeah, Darce. I knew all that.”

Darcy opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, lost for words. “But … when did you … how did you?”

Jane polished off the last of the sandwich. “Look, let’s be real. I know everybody thought I was crazy back then, but that was a three-month summer internship with all expenses paid. There was no way you were the only applicant.” She frowned a little. “I’ve always wondered what happened to the others.”

“They got a polite reply thanking them for their interest and informing them the position had been filled,” Darcy said. “I don’t just kill people willy-nilly. Cleanup is a nightmare, plus, you know, I’m not a psychopath.” She picked at a corner of the bandage. “If you knew I wasn’t who I said I was, why didn’t you do anything?”

Jane shrugged. “I wanted to see what you’d do. I thought you might be trying to steal my research, but I couldn’t imagine why. By the time I figured out what you really did, I also knew you were a good person who would never hurt me. And then Thor came, and well, honestly? I felt better having you around.” She looked up and met Darcy’s eyes. “I knew if anyone came after me to get to him, you’d protect me.”

Darcy reached out her bandaged hand and gathered up her best friend in a hug. The twinge of pain made her eyes sting a little, but she held on. “Of course I would have,” she said fiercely.

Thor gave them both a melting smile. “I, too, have been glad to know that Darcy was nearby when I could not be with you, my love,” he said. He leaned across the counter and managed to squish both of them, and Bucky, all at once. Bucky made a surprised noise, then a resigned one, and she found herself laughing through what were definitely not tears.

Tony stared at the four of them, clustering defiantly around the kitchen island. “Foster,” he said, sounding betrayed. “I brought you into my home. I introduced you to my robots.”

Jane detached herself from the group hug and snorted. “Get over it, Tony,” she said, not the least bit apologetic. “No offense, but I’ve known her a lot longer than I’ve known you. If Rhodey was an undercover operative, would you have told me?”

His mouth opened, then closed. “Fine,” he huffed at last. “Fine. Did anyone else here know that the intern was secretly a psycho killer?”

(“I’m not psycho,” Darcy said, quietly, to no one. “I just said that.”)

Natasha raised her hand, and Darcy’s breath hissed between her teeth. “I suspected something was off when Hydra operatives started dying and Barnes miraculously got his groove back at the exact same time,” the Black Widow said, nonchalantly.

Sam and Steve leveled identical looks of betrayal at her. Her face didn’t soften, exactly, but the corners of her eyes relaxed in a way Darcy recognized as a silent apology.

“You were so happy for him,” she told them both, ignoring the rest of the room. “And I know I can be overly paranoid, so … I didn’t want to ruin it. I was waiting to say something until I had proof, but I could never find any. She’s very good.”

Darcy couldn’t keep herself from preening, just a little. Then her eyes narrowed. “You sent Steve after me earlier to spook me into making a mistake.”

Natasha shrugged again. “Sometimes the best form of subtlety is a blunt instrument,” she agreed. Steve took a breath, and without even looking at him she added, “You are, zvezda moya, and you know it. It would have worked, too.” She made a little moue of dissatisfaction. “If it wasn’t for Hydra crashing my party.”

“It absolutely would not,” Darcy said, incensed. She could feel Bucky’s chest against her shoulder shaking with a silent chuckle.

Nat just smirked at her. “Well, we’ll never know.” She unwound herself from where she was lounging against the wall and extended a hand. “No hard feelings?”

Darcy started to take it, then paused to wipe the peanut butter off her fingers. “I mean, I guess you’re still invited to girl’s night,” she said, and grinned when Nat laughed.

The others exchanged glances. Sam was staring a hole through the side of Steve’s head, but Steve wouldn’t look at him. His eyes were locked on Bucky. Bucky raised his chin and stared back, and she could see a hundred years of friendship and conflict playing out across their faces.

“Why?” Steve said, his voice bordering on anguished. “You had all of us. Why her?”

“ ’Cause I couldn’t do what needed to be done,” Bucky said simply. “And I knew you wouldn’t. And … well, you know the other reason.” He tucked a strand of hair behind Darcy’s ear with gentle fingers, then met Steve’s eyes squarely. “Just so you know: if she goes, I go with her. You’re my best friend and my Captain, but she’s my partner.”

Darcy covered her mouth with her bandaged hand. “Babe,” she said, and her voice cracked in the middle. She looked at him, knowing her face was raw and open and screaming every single one of her feelings, and not caring.

His arm tightened around her shoulders and he pressed a quick, light kiss to her mouth. Nat made a humming sound that might have been a suppressed ‘awww.’

Darcy shook herself and recovered enough composure to turn and give Steve a hard look. “Look, I get why you don’t trust me, I really do. But you wanted to know my agenda?" She jerked her thumb at Bucky. “Now you know. You guys have to give a fuck about international law, and fair play, and being the good guys. I don’t. The only thing I care about is him.” She gave them all a glare. “And if you think he’s scary? You should see what I’ll do to you if you try to take him away from me.”

“Trust me, we are all extremely aware of which of you is the scary one,” Clint said fervently.

“Okay.” She smoothed her shirt down and pasted on Darcy’s sweetest smile. “Maybe remember that next time we play Mario Kart, too.”

Clint gave an exaggerated shiver. She laughed, surprising herself, and he dropped the act and grinned back at her. “Anyway, we all know I’ve got no problem with badass lady assassins,” he said firmly, and leaned back against the wall. The movement jarred a dollop of jelly out of his sandwich. It splattered on the front of his shirt. “Aww, sandwich, no.” He scooped it up with his finger and licked it. Darcy wrinkled her nose, and he grinned at her.

Sam gave a little acknowledging tip of his head. “When you put it like that …” he said and blew Nat a kiss. She dimpled at him.

“Why does this keep happening?” Tony grumbled. “FRIDAY, make a note, we need to stop hiring secretaries from Assassins-R-Us.” Darcy raised an eyebrow at him, and he winked at her. “I can’t stay mad at you, short stack,” he added. “Bruce and I are pretty much obligated to be friends with anyone who tried to kill Thunderbolt Ross.”

Bruce nodded and polished his glasses.

“That’s great,” she said. “I might be mad at you, though. How the hell did those guys get in here?”

Tony looked uncomfortable. “No security system is perfect …” he hedged.

“I know,” she said flatly. “I’ve been living here for almost a year, trust me, I know all the flaws in yours. Ask me about the week I spent re-wiring my apartment to be outside of Friday’s grid sometime.” Ignoring his outraged yelp, she continued, “But that’s me. I got in because I was authorized to be here. How did Hydra get in? Not only are they not authorized but I’m pretty damn sure I warned you they were coming.”

“That was you?” he said, and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “Of course that was you. We are going to have a long talk soon.”

She narrowed her eyes, suspicion starting to wriggle in her stomach. “And yet, not an answer to my question. Let me ask again slowly.” He wouldn’t have acted alone. She looked around at them all. “How … did Hydra … get in?”

Everyone looked at Cap. She felt an icy suspicion settle over her.

Steve looked at Bucky, then at the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said, and the suspicion hardened into rage in her chest. “We’ve been trying to draw them out for months. It was the perfect opportunity. I wanted to tell you, I really did, but we couldn’t risk it getting back to Hydra and I was afraid you’d …” His glance flicked to Darcy, then away. “… tell your friend.”

Darcy’s vision went dark at the edges. There was a faint ringing in her ears. “You used him as bait?” she hissed.

A metal arm clamped around her waist before she could launch herself at him. “Easy, doll,” Bucky murmured into her ear. “Bad guys only, remember?”

She struggled, although she knew there was no way she could escape. “I’m not going to kill him,” she panted. “Just maim him. He put your life at risk for this stupid fucking ego trip of a quote-unquote ‘plan.’” She heard the venom in her own voice. Bucky’s arm tightened and she subsided a little further against him and glared. “You didn’t even need to,” she spat at Steve. “I was doing fine. Five hits in five months, no survivors, remember? You could have just let me take care of them, but no, it’s only allowed if it’s you —”

“Maybe if you woulda talked to me!” Steve yelled back. “I don’t know if you noticed, but blind trust ain’t exactly worked out too well for us lately. You say you’re on our side, fine, but how the fuck was I supposed to know? I don’t even know who the hell you are!” His voice echoed across the kitchen. For a minute no one moved, and he stood stiff in the middle of the room, eyes closed, clenching and unclenching his fists.

She looked at him, mouth open to spit something venomous about do-gooders and their fake morality and ... then she realized he hadn't said anything about that. She took a deep breath and made herself think about what he actually had said. After a second, she nodded once. She could feel Bucky let out a slow breath, and his arm relaxed. "You're right."

Steve's eyes popped open. “What?”

She touched Bucky’s arm, and he lowered it so she could get off the stool. She walked over to Steve, ignoring the way everyone else tensed up, and put her good hand gently on his shoulder. “You’re right,” she said again. “It was stupid for me to try to run parallel to you. I should have made contact, maybe not like this,” she waved toward the common room and his mouth twisted into a wry smile, “but somehow. I just —” she shrugged, her shoulders twisting uncomfortably up toward her ears. “I’ve been hiding for so long. I don’t … really know how to stop.”

Some of the tension slid out of Steve’s shoulders. “I think some of us know somethin’ about that,” he said, and his voice was uncomfortably gentle.

“I can help,” Nat added from behind him. She nudged herself under his arm, wrapped her own around his waist, and tipped her head to look thoughtfully at Darcy. “If you want.”

To her shock and horror, Darcy felt her eyes sting. This time she couldn't even pretend it wasn't tears. She dropped her hand from Steve’s shoulder and looked away, biting her lip. “Does this mean you’re not going to kill me?” she said, and it was supposed to sound like a joke, but it really really didn’t.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Cap and Widow exchange glances. “Wasn’t planning on it,” Steve said slowly. He looked at Sam, who nodded, then at Tony, who shrugged. “I was thinking more like recruit you.”

She blinked a few times and waited for her heart to start up again. Then she waited some more, but nobody laughed. “Are you serious?” She looked at him, then at Bucky, who gave her an encouraging nod. “You can’t just — I just told you, I don’t give a fuck about the hero thing.”

Steve gave her a look that was older and more cynical than she’d ever imagined seeing on his face. She suddenly remembered that Mr. Truth-Justice-and-Goodness had been at war without rest since about 1941. “Heroes I’ve got,” he said flatly. “What I need is someone to do wet work.”

“Someone whose face hasn’t been on national television in every country in the world,” Nat corrected, making a face.

Darcy couldn’t help but make one in sympathy. “That must have been a bitch,” she said, and Nat made a noise of disgruntled agreement. “Like, one camera feed you can scramble, but when it gets up into the dozens you might as well just forget it. And killing reporters is just … no. I don’t do that.”

“I try to leave media suppression to fascist governments and high-priced PR firms,” Widow agreed.

“Except for J. Jonah Jameson.” Darcy sighed a little, nostalgically. “That fucking tool. If I can ever figure out how to get to him … I’ve had this great plan since I was seventeen, but I’ve never been able to get my hands on enough llamas.”

Nat looked intrigued. “I think I might know someone with a farm —”

“No!” Steve and Bucky said at the same time. “I can’t believe I have to say this,” Steve added, “but there will be no murders involving llamas. Or any other ungulates,” he added quickly when Darcy opened her mouth.

“Killjoy,” Nat muttered, and Darcy fist-bumped her.

Steve gave them both a look of mild horror. “Hey, Buck,” he said faintly. “You ever wonder about our taste in women?”

Bucky snorted agreement, but the look in his eyes said something completely else. Something that made her feel warm all over.

“Hey!” Darcy retorted, but she was smiling. “Give me a break, Cap, you don’t even know me yet.”

“Y’know what, that’s true.” Bucky grinned at them both, still with that soft light in his eyes. “Doll, this is Steve, he’s kind of an asshole.” Steve squawked as the others laughed. Then the laughter quieted, and Bucky said softly, “Stevie, I’d like you to meet my girl.”

There was a brief, heavy pause. Then Steve held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure,” he said.

She reached out and shook it.

Jane sniffled. So did Thor. Tony had managed to materialize a pair of sunglasses the way he always did when he was afraid someone might witness him having an emotion.

Then Steve had to ruin it by adding, “Miss …?”

“You know, let’s stick with Darcy Lewis,” she said, and heard Bucky sigh. “It’s been my name for a long time, I’m kind of used to it. Plus it’ll be easier on the paperwork, with HR and everything.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, but then visibly decided to pick his battles. “Miss Lewis,” he said, “welcome to the Avengers.”

Chapter Text

Three hours later, she stumbled into her apartment and made Bucky stand under the scanner so that she could flop directly onto the couch. They’d finally taken her down to the medical floor for a cast, but her hand still throbbed and now the various bruises and strains were starting to make themselves known. She pulled the afghan over herself and buried her face in the cushions to block out the light.

“Worst part about being kidnapped,” she said into the pillow. “They never give you time to stretch properly.”

“I think the worst part is the bein’ kidnapped part,” Bucky said from almost directly over her head, sounding amused.

She didn’t bother to lift her head, just raised her cast and wiggled it from side to side. It throbbed again, but not as badly. The pain meds they’d given her were kicking in, painting everything with fuzzy edges. “Ehhh.”

Gentle hands smoothed over her hair and down across her shoulders. She swallowed back a truly pathetic whimper. “You need anything, doll?” he said. “Otherwise I can just let you …”

That did make her raise her head, just to give him a disbelieving stare. “You better not be planning to leave my sight, Barnes. Did you miss the part where you got kidnapped today?” She thought about it. “I take it all back, the real worst part about being kidnapped is you being kidnapped.”

The look he gave her made her feel warmer than the afghan.

She rolled over onto her back so she could see him without twisting around. “Sit,” she said, pointing at the other end of the couch.

He didn’t move, just squinted at her thoughtfully. Then he shook his head, and a little chill went across her. Had she miscalculated? Was she pushing too hard? This was all really new and — “I got a better idea,” he said. He leaned down and slid his arms gently under her shoulders and knees, then picked her up bridal-style. Drugs or no drugs, anyone else in the entire world who tried that would be pulling back a bloody stump. She might not even mean to — it’d be instinct.

She knew she was done for when she felt instinct take over and curl her closer to his chest instead.

It was warm, and she could hear the steady thump of his heartbeat. He smelled good — a little sweaty, the remnants of fear on his skin, but mostly just like Bucky. She nuzzled her face against him and thought about pinching herself. The drugs made everything too soft, dreamlike. How could this be something she got to do now? How did she get so lucky that it was just … allowed?

He made a humming noise and kissed the top of her head, then started to walk. She blinked her eyes back open. “Bed,” he said, answering her unspoken question.

She wriggled a little bit, panic or excitement or maybe both, but whichever it was felt muted and far away. “Okay, I like where your head’s at, but I’m way too exhausted to do anything except pass out.”

He glanced down at her, amused. “No shit, you think? After only a broken hand and fightin’ off twelve of Hydra’s best shock troops? I’m shocked, doll. Really.”

“Do I need the sass? Did I ask for the sass?” She started to wave her hand expansively at an imaginary jury, then winced and tucked it against her chest instead.

His chest vibrated with laughter under her head. “You asked for it when you decided not to stab me. Everything else after that’s been what you deserve.” She opened her mouth to say that there was no way she’d ever been good enough to deserve him, but he leaned down and covered it with his own. That totally proved her point, but also made her forget what it was. “Shush,” he said a second later, pulling back. “I’m takin’ you to bed so you can sleep. Y’know, that thing humans do?”

“Never —” She yawned so big her jaw cracked. “Never heard of it.” She grinned up at him as he lowered her onto her pillows, then frowned, worry penetrating her happy drugged-up haze. Her good hand clamped around his arm. “Stay. Don’t go away.”

The bed shifted as his weight settled onto it. “Ain’t going nowhere,” he agreed, smoothing her hair. “Not without you. Maybe ever. What do you think about ever?”

“Mmmmsounds good,” she said, rolled over to burrow her nose into his side, and fell asleep.

When she woke up, it took a second to remember what had happened. Then her broken hand throbbed and yesterday came back, dropping into her mind all at once like a bowling ball. She stiffened and flailed out a panicky hand. It came in contact with a warm, breathing surface, and she relaxed, smiling. He’s okay, he's here.

Then her brain kicked in. Oh my god, he’s here. She went tense again.

It wasn’t the first time she’d woken up in bed with someone. Being undercover actually tended to work out really well for that, when she felt like it. Be whoever she wanted, do whatever she wanted, then sneak out the window and get pancakes. It wasn’t even the first time she’d rolled over to look at the person and smiled.

But it was the first time she’d meant it.

“I can hear you thinkin’ all the way over here,” Bucky said without moving, voice muffled in her pillows. “This the part where you decide I pushed it too far and try to stab me?”

She flopped around awkwardly, hampered by not being able to put any weight on her hand, until she was staring up at the ceiling. She kept him in her periphery, where she could watch his face without looking right at him. “I was thinking a garrote,” she said. “We have rules, you know.”

There was a moment of silence. He twisted his head around until she could see a sliver of one blue eye. Then his shoulders started shaking, and she couldn’t keep her face straight anymore. Their laughter came out as a pair of matching sleepy cackles. A warmth grew in her chest, pressing up and out until she could barely breathe.

Bucky turned his head a little further, breath still hitching with amusement, and brought one hand up to rub sleep stuff out of his eyes. “D’you say rules, plural?” he said around a yawn. “I thought we just had the one.”

“You’re not allowed to get kidnapped.” She still couldn’t look straight at him, but she inched her good hand across the sheets until it touched warm metal. There was a soft whir and she felt the press of his hand closing over hers. She had to swallow hard, and even then, her voice wasn’t quite steady when she said, “That’s rule number two. I decided.”

His fingers flexed and then curled tightly around hers. “Okay,” he said hoarsely. “Deal.”

She let herself roll towards him, just a little bit. She was still wound tight with the newness of all this, and she was sure he could feel the tiny shivers of tension going through her. But when his eyes met hers, he just smiled, and she felt herself relax a little and smile back.

“How’s your hand?” he said, voice gentle and calm.

She’d almost forgotten about it, but hearing the word made it throb again. She made a face. “Let’s not talk about it.”

“Do you need some meds? I can —” He shifted his weight as if to get up, and her grip tightened reflexively. He shot her a quick searching look and relaxed back onto the mattress. It might have been her imagination, but she thought he was a little closer. “No, huh?”

She shook her head mutely. She didn’t want to say anything else about that just yet. The last time he’d been out of her sight was … no. Just no. “Did I really join the Avengers last night?” she blurted out instead.

He gave her one of those flashbulb smiles that left her breathless and dizzy. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess you did.” The smile faded to a slightly more tentative expression and he added softly, “My girl, the Avenger.”

“Don’t get too used to it,” she said, not quite as lightly as she meant to, and regretted it when his face froze. That wasn’t what she meant, it was just that she needed to be sure he knew what he was getting into. “I didn’t go white hat or anything. I’m still the heartless assassin you f —” her voice wavered but she wasn’t stopping now “— f-fell in love with.”

His eyes softened again, and he let go of her hand to reach up and trace her cheek with a warm metal finger. “Wouldn’t want it any other way, doll,” he said softly.

That was … very distracting. She felt her eyes get wide, saw his narrow with growing intent, and licked her lips. But no, she had to get this out. “I’m never going to be a nice girl,” she said, and that didn’t help because it came out low, more like a promise than a warning. Bucky shifted again, and this time he was definitely closer.

“Mm-hm,” he agreed, his voice a purr.

She thought about moving away, trying to get some space so she could breathe, but … didn’t. She didn’t look away, either. “There’s a gun under the pillow,” she tried.

He didn’t even blink. “I know,” he said. “I checked it. Safety’s on and there’s nothin’ in the chamber.”

“Of course the safety’s on, I’m not trying to shoot myself in the head,” she said, exasperated. His hand moved to cup the back of her head, but she caught it. He stopped dead immediately. “Babe, you’re not listening.”

He blew out a breath and closed his eyes for a second, then sat up on one elbow. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m listening. What are you tryin’ to say?”

She opened her mouth, then closed it again and swallowed. When her voice came out, it was a lot smaller and less sure than she wanted it to be. “I’m never going to be a normal girlfriend. We’re not going to, like, get a puppy and go live in the suburbs. You’re not going to come home for the holidays and meet my mom.”

He opened his mouth, and she paused, but he shook his head and closed it again.

She went on, a little more steadily. “Every day you’re with me, you’ll have to lie about who I am. Your friends are never going to know my real name. Hell, you don’t even know my real name.” She took a deep breath and steeled herself. “Are you really sure this is what you want to sign up for?”

Bucky pulled back far enough to hit her with the full force of his ‘you are completely nuts’ stare. “Who the hell wants a normal girlfriend?” he said, incredulous. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I ain’t exactly normal myself. I’m a banged-up cyborg with an attitude problem and a kill count that would give you fuckin’ nightmares — yes, doll, even you,” he added when she opened her mouth. “I was never gonna get any of that happy ending, American Dream bullshit. And I’m glad, because if I had that then I couldn’t have you.”

She couldn’t speak. Tears burned her eyes.

“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said softly. “You’re strong and smart and fuckin’ gorgeous, and you make me feel like the world is safe ‘cause I know you wouldn’t hesitate to put a knife in anyone who tried to hurt me.” He breathed out, the sound hitching and painful. “And I know you don’t like to think about it, but I got a pretty strong suspicion you’d put a knife in me if I tried to hurt anyone, too.”

She wanted to disagree, but … “I’d aim to incapacitate,” she said unsteadily. “Not kill you.”

He gave her a wobbly grin. “Yeah, and I love you, too. But that’s just it — you ain’t flinched. Not when I said that, not ever. Anybody else in the world would be running for the hills by now, but you’ve seen the worst parts of me and they don’t bother you a goddamn bit.”

She turned and hid her face briefly in the pillow. She wasn’t wiping her eyes. She wasn’t. That sniff was purely morning congestion. “Yeah, well, same,” she managed after a minute.

This time when he moved to cup her face, she didn’t stop him. “Ain’t nothin’ about you I don’t like,” Bucky said softly, and kissed her.

She kissed back, breathing in the scent of him, soft and sleepy in the morning light. “You don’t even mind not knowing my name?” she whispered, when he pulled back.

“Don’t care.” He leaned in again, fingers curling in her hair to hold her head in place while he licked into her mouth. She made a noise she didn’t think was English, and he gave a raspy chuckle she’d never heard before. It made her nerves light up like fireworks. “All I need to know,” he growled into her ear, “is what name you want to hear me scream.”

This man. This man. “Fuck, I love you,” she gasped. She wrapped her good hand in his hair and pulled him down so that her mouth was pressed to his ear.

And she told him.