You heard the sound of it, cracking like a whip through the busy intersection, but you didn’t feel it; suddenly you found yourself on the pavement, in the middle of the crosswalk, with the echoes of car horns and someone screaming before it all faded to nothing.
When you opened your eyes again, you felt too good for it to be a hospital bed; the mattress was huge, comfortable and warm; when you saw him sleeping beside you, you knew it had to be a dream.
You smiled. “They must’ve given me the good drugs,” you mumbled sleepily, and he snuffled in his sleep at the sound, cuddling closer to burrow his head against your chest. Figuring you may as well enjoy the drug-fueled haze, you dropped a kiss stop his head and closed your eyes, smiling again when you heard him mutter “Love you, baby”.
Waking again to morning light, you frowned. He was gone, the bed empty beside you, though the blankets were rumpled, and you were still in the large bed of what you thought was your hospital hallucination. You shuffled out of bed and winced, glancing down at the white t-shirt you were wearing -- too long at the hem and too wide at the shoulders to be yours -- and pair of simple blue cotton panties that were much more your style. Lifting the shirt, you found a wide gauze bandage on your abdomen; there was no bleed-through, but when you touched it gently with your fingertips it made you hiss in pain.
So that recollection had been correct: you’d been shot. You were in the crosswalk outside your work building, going towards the parking garage across the street, and you’d been shot. Clearly, it wasn’t as bad as you had feared when you were laying there, growing cold and frightened as the light seemed to be fading. You were glad you were up and mobile, but now you were terribly confused; you didn’t seem to be in hospital at all.
You walked barefoot to the door, stepping into a living area brightly lit from the floor to ceiling windows looking out over the city. The skyline and surroundings were immediately recognizable: New York City lay spread out before you in all of its glory. That was when your knees buckled and you reached to grab arm of a nearby sofa to keep from falling to the ground. The sun in the sky looked to be at mid-morning, which meant that you’d arrived in a nice apartment in a New York skyrise after being shot in a crosswalk outside of your laboratory building… in San Diego.
“Hey, take it easy there sweetheart,” he called, and in a moment he was at your side, steadying you as you took great gulping breaths of air, trying to regain control of yourself.
It had to be a dream. It had to. But it felt so real: the sun on your face through the window, his strong arms around you, steadying you on your feet. The concern in his voice and etched on his face, even as he gave you the smallest reassuring smile.
Worse still, you recognized him. It would be hard not to -- his face had been all over the media world for the past decade. Posters, social media, internet video clips, late show appearances… he’d become iconic. By all rights you should have recognized him as the actor -- you weren’t crazy, you knew fictional characters weren’t real -- but looking at him, you could see the difference. There were stories in his eyes, the pai he had suffered, all he had been through; there was a confidence to his gait, the knowledge of strength beyond what even his new body should have offered. Clean shaven, hair a few shades lighter.
No, this was no actor. This was Steve Rogers.
“Steve?” you asked, voice trembling, a few octaves higher than it should have been.
“What is it, sweetheart? Are you okay? Do we need to go to the med floor?” he asked, arms tightening around you as his brow furrowed in concern and he said your name. “Just tell me what you need.”
“I’m… I’m okay…” you managed to mumble, just before you fainted dead away in his arms.
You surfaced back to consciousness with an inward sigh of relief. You didn’t open your eyes immediately, but the sounds the scents of a hospital were all around you, from the steady beeping of a heart monitor to the lingering of antiseptic in their air. You shuffled a little in the gurney, pulling the thin blanket up a little to fend off the chill of an air conditioner.
“... wound isn’t bleeding and her vitals are stable,” a steady male voice sounded quietly nearby. “It’s most likely just some lingering stress. I wouldn’t worry.”
“How can you be sure?” another responded. “What if there’s some internal bleeding, or--”
“You heard what Dr. Cho said,” another broke in, sounding terribly familiar. “They checked her over good, ain’t nothing to worry about.”
“‘Course I’m gonna worry, Buck,” the second voice replied. “Scared the hell out of me. Thought I lost her, you know. I can’t… not again. I can’t lose anyone, especially not…”
“We know,” the steady voice broke in. “You don’t have to explain it, Steve. We’ve all seen more than enough loss, you’ve got every right to be concerned about her. But Dr. Cho is an excellent physician and I have faith in her findings. You should too.”
You groaned a little; your shoulder was stiff from the way you were laying and you needed to move. The voices around you were familiar enough that your muddle mind was curious as to their owners; you had no family to speak of and you hadn’t made any real friends since graduating so many years ago. These visitors, you thought, must belong to your roommate in whatever hospital you had landed in, even though their voices struch chords of familiarity with you. You couldn’t resist a peek.
You opened your eyes to be greeted with a gentle smile, tempered with worried blue eyes.
“Hey, there she is,” Steve spoke softly. He reached and brushed your hair back from your face, studying your expression as though looking for signs of pain. “Back with us, baby doll? You gotta stop scaring me like this. Not good for an old man like me.”
“Where am I?” you asked quietly, pretending to ignore the way your voice shook.
“You’re down in med bay,” one of the voices called, the steady Brooklyn drawl completely recognizable now that you were fully awake. Bucky Barnes was standing right behind where Steve sat at your bedside, hands in his pockets and a sympathetic smile on his face. “Should’ve seen Stevie here, carrying you in like it was your honeymoon all over again. Gave everybody a good scare, fainting like that.”
“Dr. Cho seems to think it was just a stress reaction, nothing to worry about,” the first voice added in, and you could see Bruce Banner lingering in the doorframe. “Just get some rest, take it easy for a few days. The bullet may not have hit anything major but you still need to give your body time to heal.”
Bucky snorted. “Listen to him,” he told you cheerfully, nodding towards Bruce. “Always tellin’ us, ‘guys, I’m not that kind of doctor’, then doling out medical advice left and right.”
Bruce crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “All things considered, I’d prefer it if I never had to,” he replied, earning a short chuckle from Bucky.
Steve squeezed your hand and you realized for the first time that he had been holding it all the while, one hand still stroking your hair.
“You need anything?” he asked you, nothing short of lovingly. “Maybe some water? Another blanket?” He looked so earnest and concerned; you couldn’t help but burst into tears.
“Am I crazy?” you whispered hoarsely. You had no one to ask but them -- the fictional men that surrounded your sickbed. “I’m crazy, aren’t I? Where am I? Is this a hospital?” Your voice was thick with tears and Steve had paled, gripping your hand tightly enough to almost be painful.
“Bucky just told you, sweetheart, we’re in med bay,” he said, clear alarm on his face as he tried to calm you. “The medical floor, at Tony’s Tower. We’re home, baby, just came down to medical to get you checked out after you fainted.”
You shook your head, trying to sit up. “No!” you shouted, feeling tethered in place by the wires and sensors of heart monitors, blood pressure cuffs, and medical devices you couldn’t name. “This isn’t real! None of you are real!”
“Guys, get the doc, quick!” Steve called to the others, trying to calm you as Bruce and Bucky ran from the room. The monitors were going crazy as you struggled to move, beeping and chirping in a symphony of bells and alarms, and you thrashed violently in the bed, trying to escape this strange fantasy turned nightmare.
“This isn’t real, it isn’t real!” you shouted, full-on sobbing.
Steve kept saying your name, trying to keep you stable. “Please, you’ve got to stop, you’re going to tear your stitches…!”
You didn’t even notice as Bruce rushed back into the room, and never felt the needle prick in your arm from the sedative he had brought in with him. It took effect almost immediately and you sagged in Steve’s arms, head lolling back as the world became dim and hazy.
Waking again, you found yourself in the same hospital bed, room barely lit with a lamp over your bed. There were restraints tied to the guardrails but they weren’t in place on your limbs, and you thought for a moment that the madness was over -- that perhaps you’d had a bad reaction to anesthesia or a painkiller and dreams the whole wild affair. Things could be normal now, maybe.
And then you saw him sitting there.
Steve looked terrible. You knew you must have been out of sorts for at least a day or two; if the stiffness in your limbs was anything to go by, the restraints must have only just come off within the past few hours. The time hadn’t been good to Steve; he was unshaven and his hair was dirty, dark circles under his eyes, and he was wearing the same clothes as he had been in when you first woke into this madness.
Seeing you stir, he cleared his throat. “Can you tell me your name?” he asked in a low, tired voice.
You answered quietly and he nodded with a rueful smile. “Right,” he agreed. “But you’ve been hyphenating for three years now.”
“Hyphenating with what?” you asked, though you were pretty sure you knew the answer.
“Rogers,” he said, and you leaned back against your pillow without responding.
Steve reached for a cup of coffee on the standard issue hospital table that had been pulled out from the bed; you could see in the light it was half-full, and if you had guessed, you would have said it was probably cold. He drank the rest of it in one go and grimaced before setting it back down.
“Do you know what year it is?” he asked.
You sighed and told him the year then added, “Early Spring, last time I checked. But I don’t know how long I’ve been out.”
“About four days,” Steve told you. “You’ve been in and out. This is the calmest you’ve been in days so Dr. Cho decided to let it ride, see if you’d be lucid enough to chat. Do you know where you are?”
“Looked like New York outside the window, but that doesn’t make sense,” you told him, and shook your head. “None of this makes sense.”
“What would make sense?” he asked, leaning forward and clasping his hands. “Tell me. Maybe I can help.”
“I shouldn’t be in New York,” you said, shaking your head. “I should be in San Diego. And you… you’re not real. You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t be real.”
He frowned; clearly, this was something you’d said a lot in the past few days of delirium. “I don’t understand what you mean by that.”
You shook your head as best you could, flat against your pillow. “Steve Rogers isn’t real,” you said, reaching to scrub at your eyes with balled fists. “Steve Rogers is a fictional character, from a comic book and a movie. You’re not even… you look like the actor that plays you… plays him, but it can’t… it doesn’t make sense!”
Steve closed his eyes; the stray tears that slipped from his lashes didn’t escape your attention. “Okay,” he said after a long moment. He opened his eyes again and nodded. “Okay. If I’m not real, then what about you? Are you real?”
“I’m a real person,” you told him, nodding. “The rest of you… even this place, they aren’t real.”
“From a movie?” Steve offered carefully. “We’re all from a movie that you saw?”
You snorted. “Jesus, that everyone saw. Like, a dozen movies. They call it a ‘cinematic universe’, a bunch of interconnected stories from comic books that… look, I’m not crazy… well I guess I have to be if I’m talking to a god damn fictional character, but not about this.”
“Tell me about you, then, if you’re the only real person here,” Steve offered, leaning back in his chair. “Who are you? What happened to you?”
You repeated your name, and Steve nodded. “I’m a researcher at the Bydder Lab in San Diego. I’ve worked there for three years.”
“So you’re from California?” Steve asked you, and you shook your head.
“I’m from New York,” you corrected, frowning at him. “I graduated from NYU and worked at the Genome Center out of school before I took the job in California.”
“Why did you leave the city, then?” Steve pressed.
You snorted again. “Why bother staying?” you replied, an edge of bitterness to your voice. “My fiance took off with my best friend. I didn’t have anyone or anything else keeping me here. I needed a fresh start, so I bailed when the opportunity came up.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed in a non-committal tone. “And after that? What happened to you, do you think, that you ended up here?”
“Somebody shot me!” you replied, almost defensively, sitting up in bed again. “I was just walking to my damn car and someone fucking shot me! I don’t know why! I’m not a bad person, I never hurt anybody, but there’s always some crazy guy with a gun on the news…”
“And you went to the hospital? Was there an ambulance, or…” he pushed.
“No! I don’t know!” you snapped, throwing your hands in the air. You collapsed back against the bed and shook your head. “I was dying,” you said after a beat, voice tired but calm. “I think I was dying. I was so cold, and… and then I woke up, here. But this can’t be real, it can’t.”
Steve nodded, watching you quietly for a long moment before speaking again. “I know this is what you believe is true. But can I tell you about what I know is true?”
You sighed. “May as well,” you told him.
He nodded again and picked up the coffee cup, eyes cast to his hands as he played with the waxy paper cup; it seemed as though he couldn’t even look you in the eye anymore.
He told you your name again and you gave a hollow chuckle; that much, it seemed, you could agree on.
“It is early Spring,” he continued slowly. “And you did graduate from NYU and work at Genome for a few years. But then you came to work in the labs here, at Stark Tower. You have lots of friends and people who love you here. Your best friend is Darcy Lewis, a lab assistant who moves between New York and a few other research facilities around the world.
“Seven years ago, I came down to the research floors in the Tower when Bucky… my best friend, who you’ve always said is one of your favorite people… when he needed some work done on his prosthetic. The lab made him nervous so I went with and that’s...that’s the day I first met you.”
Steve swallowed hard and even in the scant lighting of the room, you could see there were tears in his eyes threatening to spill over again.
“Three years ago, we got married,” he told you, and his voice seemed to shake a little on the words. “It was… it was the happiest I’ve ever been, I think, that day. And it’s only gotten better. A few days ago, I got back from a long mission that had gone pretty well. It was a beautiful day so once I got cleaned up, we decided to walk to a cafe down the street to celebrate and… and…”
He closed his eyes again, and you thought for a moment that if any of this was real, it would seem he was reliving that moment as he spoke.
“The gunman was from a Hydra splinter cell. We thought they were aiming for me and it was a bad shot, but based on the way you’ve reacted…” he went on, then sighed. “You were hit in the abdomen. It ruptured your spleen. You would have bled out but I picked you up and brought you home as fast as I could. They did emergency surgery, said that you’d heal up quickly because a person can live without a spleen and it was a clean shot. Now they’re thinking that the bullet was laced with something that’s caused… that’s caused a psychotic break.”
You nodded tiredly. “That much we can agree on,” you said, a few stray tears slipping down your cheeks. “I’ve definitely had a psychotic break, since I’m chatting with a fictional superhero and all.”
You turned away from him and onto your side, pulling the blanket up a little higher. “I’m going to go back to sleep now. Maybe I’ll be less crazy in the morning.”
“Can I stay with you?” Steve asked. You resisted the sudden urge to turn around and beckon him to you, to hold him close and try to soothe the pain so clear in his voice.
“May as well,” you agreed, and closed your eyes. You forced yourself not to turn to him, listening to the muted sounds of his own stifled tears until you drifted into fitful slumber.
You slept a lot in the following days. You kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, if you could fall asleep and open your eyes to a new day, the craziness of the whole situation would have left you and you’d wake back to the reality you knew. Steve was almost always there, stalwart at your side, expression growing more and more grim as each day you refused to acknowledge what he told you, that the world around you was real and this was actually your life.
The others came and went. Bucky would come down and try to chat, clearly becoming disturbed as you helplessly gazed at his prosthetic arm as though it were something new and novel you’d never seen before. As far as he was concerned, it should have been old hat to you by now, but you knew better. Watching the way it moved was startling in its own right; your minor had been in engineering when you were in college, and you could recognize the small machinations visible in the shifting plates. It was scientifically sound, so far as you could tell. That was the scary part, really -- that your clearly addled mind could create something so realistic that even the science added up.
Bruce was taking a clinical route, trying not to push you into another ‘episode’, as he had referred to your initial panicked outburst, but still seemingly pushing very subtly to search the extent of your presumed madness. He asked you about your work at Bydder -- apparently you were working on a very similar project there in the labs at the Tower -- and your family and friends. He took your history, the life you had tried to explain to Steve, only gently prodding to point out where your real life and this imaginary would you found yourself intersected.
Dr. Cho was very polite but also curt; she gave you the bare minimum of necessary information, sticking mainly to your physical health as she saw it and just ghosting on your mental state from time to time.
“We seem to be well past the hysteria stage,” she said lightly, using a small penlight to check the reaction of your pupils before jotting down a quick note on the clipboard she carried. “I think we can remove the restraints from the room at this point. Pending another toxicology screen, you’ll most likely be released home this afternoon. Captain Rogers has already been made aware.”
You glared at the doctor, her words making you prickle. It was so matter-of-fact and concise; it was irritating.
“Why’d you tell him?” you snapped. “Don’t you people have HIPAA here in superhero-world?”
“Captain Rogers is privy to your medical information as next-of-kin,” Dr. Cho reminded in a matter-of-fact tone. “He is your husband, after all.”
“Yeah? Well maybe he shouldn’t be!” you responded angrily. You didn’t know Steve -- he was a character from a movie and you didn’t know him. That they would share your personal information with someone you didn’t share a real bond with -- fictional or not -- was galling. “Who do I talk to about getting a goddamn divorce?”
The crash from the door startled you.
You hadn’t realized he had been approached the room, lingering in the doorway out of respect for your privacy to allow Dr. Cho to finish her exam without interrupting. He had just been stepping inside, a glass vase full of sprays of baby’s breath mingled with your favorite blooms in his hand, when you had spoken, and the vase dropped out of his hand to shatter on the floor.
He stared at you a long moment, wide-eyed and pale, before he seemed to physically startle and jumped back a few steps.
“Sorry, I… I’ll… just get something for the mess,” Steve said quickly, and bolted back out the door.
Dr. Cho frowned at you for a moment before forcing her face back into a neutral expression, clear disapproval shining in her eyes at your outburst. You only glared back until she left.
Steve arrived back a good twenty or so minutes later and you pretended to be asleep, refusing to open your eyes as you heard him shuffling around the doorway, cleaning up the mess of flowers, water, and shattered glass. He came to your beside afterwards and waited a few minutes before heaving a sad sigh.
“I’m sorry,” he said, voice quiet and pained. “I won’t bother you anymore.” You listened to him leave and curled in on yourself once he was gone, crying with a heartbreak you didn’t understand until you exhausted yourself.
When you woke again, Tony Stark was sitting in a chair near the foot of your bed, watching you with his arms crossed over his chest. He and the others had been away, Steve had explained a day or two before, assisting with some sort of peace deal in Geneva. You hadn’t asked about them, but Steve seemed to think your relationship with them important enough to offer the information. ‘Tony, Natasha, and Clint’, he had called them, as if your being on a first name basis with even more of the Avengers team was simply par for the course.
You had wished he could understand how crazy it all was, but of course there was no way to show him. It wasn’t exactly like you could reason with fictional characters.
“So what’s my actor like?” Tony said, spotting your eyes flicking open. It was night again and the room was dim, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Someone Clooney-esque?”
You snorted, reaching for a glass of water on your bedside tray. “He’s a Brat-Packer,” you replied, after downing half the glass in one go.
The face Tony made was all but horrified. “God. Not another Sheen kid, is it?” he asked, and you had to stifle a laugh.
“Nah,” you told him, shaking your head. “Solid actor. Got into some trouble, but cleaned himself up. Some decent rom-coms in the 90’s and a quirky detective flick with Val Kilmer that I bought on blu-ray. Honestly, I’m a fan.”
He quirked half a smile at you, but it was clear it was a little sympathetic. “So you really are this far gone, huh kid?” he said, shaking his head. “I was hoping Cap had gone a little dramatic on me and was exaggerating. You’re completely around the bend, aren’t you?”
“Hey!” you said, somewhat offended. “Talking delusions don’t get to comment on my sanity. Or lack thereof.”
Tony sighed and stood, arms crossed over his chest. He looked just as you would have imagined, had you needed to call an image of the character to mind: impeccable suit, neatly trimmed facial hair… All that was missing was drink in his hand.
He leaned against the windowsill. “Look around, kid. See that skyline? The only thing with a tenuous grasp of reality around here is you.” To punctuate his words, he uncrossed his arms and knocked on the wall. “See? Solid.”
You shrugged. “I’m not an expert on psychosis but I read that it can seem very realistic.”
“Oh really?” Tony said, challenge in his voice. He walked over to your hospital bed and pinched you hard on the shoulder. “How’s that, then?”
You yelped and flinched away. “Ow! That hurt, you ass!”
“Exactly!” Tony told you triumphantly.
Still rubbing your arm, you rolled your eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything. People get hurt in their dreams all the time, it’s still all an illusion.”
“People do get hurt in their dreams,” Tony agreed, nodding. “But they don’t feel the pain, do they kid?”
You opened your mouth to protest and then froze, frowning. That was something you hadn’t really considered. You’d had nightmares before, chased down by monsters or in cars running off bridges and the like, but you couldn’t remember an instance where you felt the actual pain of it. Fear, yes; lots and lots of fear. But never the pain.
“See?” Tony pressed. “Look, I’m no shrink, but I gotta think the first step to fixing whatever wires got crossed in your brain is admitting that you’re standing on solid ground here. This is the world, kid. It’s time to start accepting that as a fact.”
You had them stumped, it would seem, and it was a little difficult not to be a bit proud of that fact. Dr. Cho had released you from medical care with a clean bill of health, minus the still-tender gunshot wound and surgical repairs, but even then were healing with great rapidity. It was the cavalcade of mental health professionals that they paraded you past -- each one locked down tight into a non-disclosure agreement strict and strongly worded enough to put the fear of god into them, lest some news of Mrs. Rogers’ misfortunate ‘leak to the media’ -- that couldn’t seem to fathom what was happening.
Some claimed it to be a schizotypal personality disorder, but every part of your life leading up to this apparent collapse of mental faculties seemed to prove otherwise.
Others pointed towards late-onset schizophrenia, all but unheard of in a woman of your age.
There were a few who claimed it a reversal of imposter syndrome -- rare but not unheard of.
At least one proclaimed that you were faking it entirely, and it was all a ploy to garner attention from your friends and family. You hadn’t been in the room for that one, but from what you heard the others speaking about in low tones, you were fairly certain that Steve had broken the man’s jaw. Thankfully, the NDA covered such an instance as well.
The bare minimum diagnosis that most of them agreed on was that it was definitely a type of delusional order and they were at a loss at how to treat it if you continued to refuse to recognize that you had a problem and would not take the psychotropic drugs they prescribed.
But you could work. You could function.
When you were released from the med bay, Tony had already prepared for you a small apartment a few floors up from the labs where you worked. You couldn’t go back to the home that you shared with Steve -- you couldn’t be around him, couldn’t see what this was doing to him. The last thing you’d ever have wanted was to hurt anyone and it was clear that your inability to acknowledge the life he insisted you two had shared was eating away at him.
You just couldn’t give in. If you accepted it -- believed in this wonderful life they all kept telling you that you had, embraced the illusion -- it would crush you when you finally woke up to reality, a world where you had no friends or family to speak of and lived a lonely life of working all day only to return home to a quiet apartment, eat a frozen low-calorie meal, and watch an hour of mindless television before going to bed. This way, you could insulate yourself -- protect yourself from that future pain.
It wasn’t working.
You liked the people you were working with, the lab assistants that you had apparently hand-picked. They hadn’t been told the extent of your apparent problem, only that you had some personal memory loss but were able to continue your research.
Bruce had explained it to them; you’d eavesdropped from outside the door before you ventured in on your first day ‘back’ to work.
“She’s perfectly healthy and more than capable to continue the work you’ve been doing here,” Bruce had said in his steady, comforting tone. “But she may have to ask your name a few times. Please don’t be offended by it.”
“Is there anything we should not… not bring up?” a meek feminine voice asked in response.
“I would stay away from anything involving personal lives,” Bruce advised. “I know Doc has always been social with everyone, and you’ve all discussed your families together, right now she and Steve need some privacy.”
Apparently, that was what they called you -- what almost everyone at the Tower had called you, before this mess had begun. Doc. You tried not to let yourself like it; it had been years since anyone had given you a nickname.
“Is it true Doc’s moved out of the Tower?” someone else asked.
“Who told you that?” Bruce asked, voice suddenly sharp.
The questioner must have been visibly cowed, because he paused a beat before responding. “No-no one specifically, Dr. Banner,” he said. “It’s just… there’s been a few rumors, in the cafeteria… someone said she moved out, someone said they had her in lockdown or…”
Bruce sighed. “I don’t want anyone speculating on her personal life, got it? Just be kind, follow direction, get to work. Pretend like nothing’s changed and things’ll go back to normal, in time.”
You’d cleared your throat before entering, allowing the little audience to disperse, and got to work. Your research was a bit behind where you had been at Bydder, but that made sense; you had no social life, after all, no family, no husband; of course all of your free time had gone to thinking about the projects you were working on. Convenient for your delusion too, to not have to substitute in some junk science to pretend as though you’d gotten further along in the experiments. Further proof, you thought, that this was all some dream that was just going to slip away soon enough.
It was a quiet life, but it was good. Your lab assistants were friendly and chatty, so different from the quiet, sterile atmosphere you were accustomed to; you spend much of the day talking and laughing as you worked, and took the elevator to your little apartment with a smile on your face, more often than not. It was well over two months before you realized that Steve, who you hadn’t seen hide or hair of in some time, was not dealing with the situation as well as you were.
You walked to the elevator with Beth quite a bit, one of the newer hires in the lab who had come on just before your ‘accident’, as they liked to put it. She had been waitressing during the Battle of New York and had her life saved by the Avengers -- particularly the great Captain America; it had inspired her to change her life and find a way to do some good. She enrolled in college classes and when she graduated with lab certification, had immediately applied to work with you. You had, apparently, approved her application yourself.
“Are you going to see the movie tonight?” she asked, chatting amiably. One of the many secrets of Stark Tower was the auditorium size screening room nestled quietly on the 72nd floor; it was one of the perks of being employed with Tony’s company. About once or so a month, he’d offer a free screening of a recent film to all staff and their loved ones, popcorn and all. There was another, much smaller screening room up on the residential floors that was reserved for movie nights between the team and their significant others, but the staff -- from doormen to executives -- were all very pleased with what was offered to them. It was in no small part due to the fact that much of the team showed up to join the fun, of course.
You hadn’t attended a screening since your ‘accident’.
“No, I think I’m just going to stay home,” you told her with a smile and a shrug. “Apparently there’s a few Stephen King novels I don’t remember -- thought I’d catch up.”
Beth chuckled and nudged you with her elbow. “Some perks to amnesia after all?” she teased, and you couldn’t help but laugh.
Then you heard it: the heavy thud of footsteps down the hall, one a disordered, lurching gait and the other far more smooth, and then his voice.
“Jus’ wann’ see’er Buck, thas’all,” Steve was slurring.
“C’mon pally, this is a bad idea,” Bucky replied. “Let’s go up to your place, get you a glass of water or somethin’...”
Glancing towards the sound and back to Beth, you nodded towards the elevator, which had just opened.
“Why don’t you go on? I can wait for the next one,” you said quickly and Beth nodded. She shot you a sympathetic look before stepping inside and pressing her intended floor, the doors quickly sliding shut in front of her.
Steve stumbled around the corner just a moment later and stopped short at seeing you, stumbling just a pace or two before balancing himself against the wall. He didn’t speak, just looked at you with eyes wide in surprise; it might have been that he never expected to really find you, after all.
He didn’t look well -- even outside of being dead drunk, which was startling in its own right. You’d never seen him this drunk, you thought, quickly chastising yourself for such a silly thought; of course you hadn’t seen him drunk at all, they’d never shown that in any of the movies, but then…
The images came to you in a rush: Steve, cheeks pleasantly pinked, holding you close in a traipsing step on the dance floor of a ballroom decked out in gold and black. New Year’s Eve, you realized, with a full orchestra playing as glittery confetti fell from the ceiling and Steve, tipsy and sweet, leaning down to kiss you and whisper what a wonderful year it had been, and how many more you’d have, all of them even better than the last. You could almost taste the burn of the Asgardian mead from his kiss and in the here and now, you raised a hand to your lips absently as you stared at him.
Steve, holding you up as you stumbled into your apartment, the one you’d had in Chelsea before he’d asked you to move in. You’d been out bowling of all things and Thor had arrived with a small flask, getting Steve and Bucky just lit enough that the rest of you might have a chance to beat them in the game. You hadn’t, of course -- Darcy had kept arriving back from the little lane bar with some cheap liquor or other in her hands and far be it for you to refuse -- and you’d all been giggly as you piled into a cabs, Jane and Thor in one and the rest of you stuffed into another, first stopping at the Tower, where Darcy pulled Bucky out after her, before heading to your place.
You’d been wearing a dress, a babydoll printed with tiny little flowers. Steve had torn the back zipper taking it off you with mead-clumsy hands, and you’d laughed about it in the morning.
The two of you on a beach somewhere, a private island he’d arranged for a honeymoon. You’d had a pair of some sort of fruity drinks and Steve had winked at you before spiking his own with the tiniest flask you’d ever seen, a wedding gift from Jane.
“It’s only fair, right?” he teased, then kissed you, licking the taste of rum out of your mouth.
You hadn’t even realized you’d started crying, slow tears falling down your cheeks, your eyes widened in shocked memory. Steve’s own drunken expression broke at the sight.
“M’sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “M’sorry, baby, didn… didn’t wanna upset you…”
Bucky was there, holding Steve up to a good degree, and… glaring at you. You understood it; Bucky was the protective big brother that Steve had never had, and much as you had loved Bucky as if he were your own family, you were hurting Steve. Even if you had never meant to do it.
You put on the brightest smile you could manage, even as the tears kept falling. “Hey, it’s fine,” you said, unable to stop yourself from walking towards him. “I’m fine, see? You didn’t upset me.”
Steve shook his head and reached out to wipe a tear from your cheek with his thumb. “Yr’cryin’, Doc,” he said, voice full of sorrow. “Didn’wanna make you cry.”
You shook your head. “It’s okay,” you reassured him. “I’m just happy to see you, is all. I’ve been keeping to myself more than I should, haven’t I?”
Your words seemed to break something in him and Steve choked on a sob before throwing his arms around you, the weight of him making you stumble; you might have fallen if Bucky hadn’t been there, to keep you both on your feet.
“Miss you,” he said, shoulders shaking. “Miss you so goddamn much.”
“C’mon,” you told him, sliding an arm around his midsection. “Let’s get you up to bed, okay?”
Bucky had to support Steve’s weight for much of the stumbling elevator ride and walk to the apartment, but you kept close all the same. The mere proximity seemed to help, with Steve more relaxed just by having you near and not fighting Bucky’s attempts at keeping him upright.
The closeness was almost too much for you; the familiarity of it, the weight of him at your side, the scent of his cologne… it was a sense-memory overload. You couldn’t conjure any specific memories but you knew the scent -- as familiar to you as Christmas cookies in the oven or the aroma of a summer rain.
It only worsened when you made it to the apartment; you knew where to reach for the light switch, where to sidestep a low-lying coffee table, and where to steer Steve to get him into bed. You’d only spent a few waking moments there since you’d first opened your eyes to this completely insane reality, fainting within minutes, but you still knew the place like the back of your own hand. You tried not to think too hard on it, easing open the bedroom door and slipping inside ahead of Steve, with Bucky just behind.
As you neared the bed, Bucky let go of his grip on Steve and the two of you stumbled forward, landing together on the mattress. Steve immediately relaxed, winding his arms around your waist and pressing his face into the side of your neck.
“S’all I needed,” Steve mumbled, nuzzling as close as he could. “Needed m’girl t’come home, s’all.”
The calm, relaxed tone of his voice, drunken as it was, broke your heart. You had already been looking for an opportunity to slip out, to pull yourself from Steve’s arms and escape to your quiet little apartment. It might have been a little lonely, but it was safer there. As long as you isolated yourself, you couldn’t give in.
But it was so hard.
Bucky had apparently disappeared and close the bedroom door behind him, leaving you in the dim light of dusk, huddled on the bed with Steve in your arms. You listened to his breathing slow, knowing he was falling into a drunken slumber, and began absently running your fingers through his hair. Steve made a pleased noise and you could swear you felt his lips press ever so gently to your chest, his body curling a little bit tighter around yours.
You took the opportunity to look around the room, taking in your surroundings with a keener eye than you had been able to upon first waking in confusion. The bedclothes were grey, a relatively thin blanket over linen sheets of a slightly lighter shade; the frame was solid wood, stained dark, with matching bedside tables on either side. There was a photo in a silver frame on Steve’s side, and it struck you as out of place before you recognized what it was: a wedding photo. The two of you, in a candid shot that Bucky had taken while you were dancing; not the first dance, the one that stood on great ceremony, but a later one -- when you were both a little tired and a little slap-happy, his tie undone and your veil gone cockeyed in your hair. You were grinning at each other.
That pang of recognition was there again. You know that photo, that frame; it usually sat on a side table in the living room. It seemed that Steve had moved it into the bedroom sometime after you had left.
It was some time before you were certain that Steve was asleep. Much as you wanted to stay -- and you did want to stay, more than anything, much as it pained you to admit it to yourself -- you knew that you couldn’t. You carefully slipped out of his arms, pausing to press a soft kiss to his forehead, breaking your own heart a little to see the way he smiled in his sleep.
You tiptoed out of the bedroom, your shoes in your hand, closing the door behind you as gently as you could. When you turned and saw Bucky frowning at you from the sofa, you sighed.
“Waited all this time?” you asked, voice sounding as tired as you were feeling.
“Figured you’d pull something like this,” he told you sourly. He swallowed the remnants of what looked to be a glass of whiskey -- Steve kept it on hand, enjoying the familiarity of the taste even as it did nothing for him, and it hurt that you knew that -- then stood, leaving the empty glass on the coffee table. “Thought I’d stick around to see how long it’d take. Not good with breakin’ his heart the old-fashioned way, gotta make sure it hurts, huh?”
You closed your eyes and took a deep breath, trying to center yourself before replying. “I don’t need this right now, Bucky,” you snapped. You walked a few steps towards him before stopping, balancing yourself on a bookshelf to put on your shoes.
“Well it’s about time somebody said somethin’,” Bucky replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you doing this to him? To yourself?”
Irritated, you glared at him. “Are you new here?” you snapped. “I’ve already told you, all of you. I’m not--”
“Look, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe at this point,” Bucky interrupted. “The fact of the matter is, it’s been almost four months since the day you woke up and decided you were stuck in some kinda bad dream. None of us seem to be going anywhere so it’s time you resigned yourself to the fact that the problem is with you, not with the rest of us.”
“Oh, it’s that easy?” you asked, straightening once you had your shoes on. “Just pretend like I’m somebody else, that the real me that I know all about doesn’t exist? Put on somebody else’s life and pretend like I have any idea what’s going--”
“Don’t feed me that bullshit, you’re remembering,” Bucky said, and you stopped short. You stared at him with wide eyes, unsure how to respond.
“You think I don’t know what that looks like?” he went on. “Like I haven’t seen the same expression in the mirror, a thousand times over? You remember. Maybe not everything, not yet, but it’s there. It’s coming back.”
You shook your head, tears in your eyes. “Bits and pieces,” you responded, voice suddenly rough and thick with emotion. “Not a lot, nothing even… nothing even linear, really, just… bits and pieces.”
Bucky sighed, expression going soft and sympathetic. He had been there himself, after all; of course he would understand.
“Then why are you fighting it so hard?” he asked. You had barely noticed that he had stepped towards, near enough now that he reached out and put a hand on your shoulder. You closed your eyes at the touch, a few stray tears breaking free to slide down your cheeks.
“You don’t understand,” you told him, shaking your head. “Bucky, I was… she… if I let myself want this life, if I let myself have it? Then wake up one day and I’m back to that other life, the one that I remember best, that feels real… Bucky, it’ll break me.”
You sniffled and wiped at your tears before continuing. “I have nothing. And no one. I could wake up at any second, all alone in some hospital room and remember this wonderful life here, full of people that I love and Bucky, Bucky I won’t be able to stand it. I won’t.”
Bucky let out a long breath and shook his head. “Jesus, Doc,” he breathed, and pulled you into a tight embrace. For the first time since arriving in this strange new universe, you let yourself relax and really feel. You wept in Bucky’s arms, for the life you remembered and the life that you were just beginning to recall, for Steve and all this had done to him, and for the person you were -- or had been -- so sad and alone.
Bucky simply held you and let you get it all out, occasionally rubbing a soothing circle on your back to help try and calm you. When you were able to stop, you stepped back out of his arms, embarrassed by the whole display.
“This won’t be good for him,” Bucky warned you quietly. “He went to sleep with you there. When he wakes up and you’re gone… it’s not going to be easy.”
“I can’t,” you told him, shaking your head. “Bucky… I just can’t.”
“So you’re going to keep isolatin’ yourself?” Bucky asked with a sigh. He understood the predicament you were in, but didn’t agree with your decision to play it safe. “Then your life here is no better than your life back… wherever… is it?”
“What else can I do?” you replied. “I have to… I have to protect myself, Bucky. You should understand that, at least. I have no idea what’s happened here, if this is a massive hallucination, or some kind of personal hell, or… or…”
“Hell?” Bucky echoed, brows arched in surprise. “C’mon, we’re not all bad,” he teased.
You gave a small smile. “You’re not,” you agreed. “But keeping myself from being a part of this life… keeping myself from Steve… that’s hell, Bucky.”
“So what if you’re wrong?” he countered. “What if it’s something else? A third option. I mean… look around, doll. Me an’ Steve, bein’ alive and kickin’... Banner and his bad side… the world is a pretty weird place. Weird shit happens, a lot of it we’re still trying to figure out. You could work on that.”
You frowned. “Work on what?” you asked.
“Figuring out what the hell is happening here,” Bucky pointed out. “C’mon Doc, you’re a genius. We got a couple more kickin’ around this joint. Bet if all of you put your heads together, you could get this all worked out in no time.”
Your eyes went very wide. “Oh my god, Bucky, you’re a genius!” you said, throwing your arms around him.
How is it that you had never thought of it before? You’d been putting in your time in the labs, continuing your work on the physics of man-made magnetic wormholes, and you hadn’t thought to test yourself -- to try and find out what was happening to you, and what had caused it. You had the world’s best research facilities at your disposal and you’d been simply going through the motions.
Bucky chuckled. “Far from it, doll. I think you got the widest share of the brains in this room.”
“I’ll figure this out!” you said excitedly, heading for the door. “I’ll figure it out and once I know, Bucky, once I’m sure… once I’m sure I’ll make it up to Steve, I swear it!”
It had been raining. You had been a little disappointed, at first, but th day proved so wonderful in spite of the downpour that you’d never frowned at a little storm since.
It started when Steve had accompanied Bucky to the labs for some work on his prosthetic; Shuri had sent Tony the specs for a few new ideas and improvements and he had fabricated the parts, but often ducked out of working in close quarters with Bucky. He had decided you had a delicate enough touch to do the job, and you were always pleased to help.
You’d tried making small talk but Bucky just seemed uncomfortable. His best friend, however, had been more than willing to chat; it seemed to put Bucky at ease, just to hear the easy conversation between you and Steve, and you had to hide your disappointment when the work was finished.
Steve had smiled at you, head cocked to the side and hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans.
“Do you have a break coming up anytime soon?” he asked, voice dropped just enough that your team of technicians couldn’t eavesdrop. “I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee.”
If you’d had more time that day, you suppose you might have found a quiet cafe somewhere, but with your workload and the convenience of the public cafeteria, it was simplest to sneak away that afternoon and tuck yourselves into a small table in the corner.
And again the next day. And the next. And the next.
It became a routine, everyday at one o’clock, if you were working and Steve was home in the Tower, you had a standing date. Then there were long lunches and nights you stayed late, invited upstairs to the private screening room for movie nights with the rest of his team or little impromptu gatherings. You never named it -- nothing concrete, no titles, no promises of exclusivity.
But you knew. And you were certain he did, too.
Then one day at coffee, a strange look passed over his face. “Doc…” he asked, frowning. “Have we… we’ve never gone out, have we?”
You blinked, surprised. “I’m not sure what you mean?” you said, uncertain as to what he was getting at.
Steve laughed, reaching out to take your hands in his own across the table. “What I mean is I’m an idiot, and I’ve never taken taken my best girl out on the town. We have to fix that.”
It was summer and he had an itch to be out of doors; there wasn’t too much in the way of real green space in the city, outside of a myriad of crowded city parks, but Governor’s Island offered a welcome respite from skyscrapers and traffic, and was usually a bit less crowded than the metro parks. The idea of sitting beside Steve and watching the sunset on Outlook Hill was more than a little appealing, so you’d arrived at the building you’d come to think of as more than simply ‘work’ early in the afternoon on a summery Saturday, ready for an adventure.
Of course, as soon as you you reached Steve’s door on the residential floors of the Tower, a crack of thunder sounded strong enough that you could swear you felt the building shake. Your face fell just as Steve opened the door.
“Was it supposed to rain?” you asked, frowning.
Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I guess it was,” he said. “I’m so sorry, I should have checked the weather, I just got so excited with the whole idea of it…”
“It’s not your fault,” you said, standing on tip-toe to kiss him on the cheek in greeting before stepping inside. “I didn’t think to check either. Same reason, too.”
You hadn’t spent too much time in his apartment and you took a moment to look around, admiring the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in spite of the rain, and the simple but elegant design of the place. You vaguely recalled him mentioning once that Pepper Potts, Tony’s fiancee and right-hand-woman, had decorated it for him, mostly in mid-century inspired furniture with all the modern conveniences in place.
“We can find something else to do,” Steve offered.
“I guess I’m not really dressed for us to go out anywhere,” you told Steve, turning to lean against the back of his sofa. You had dressed for a day out of doors: plain tennis shoes, a pair of denim shorts, and a red t-shirt with a faded print from a charity 5k you had done a few years prior. You hadn’t even brought a purse, tucking your phone and your wallet into your pocket.
You bit your lip, waiting for a response and feeling foolish for dressing so casually in the first place. After a moment you realized he was staring at you, a strange little smile on his face and a glimmer in his eyes you’d never seen before. When he walked towards you, he move lightly but with purpose, and suddenly you knew.
Oh, you thought, and then he was there, the warmth of his often over-heated body radiating towards you even in the chill of the air conditioner.
Steve reached up, tilting your gaze up towards his with his thumb and forefinger on your chin.
“We can stay in, if you want,” he offered, eyes gone dark as the searched yours. His strong hands drifted to your waist, settling there, hot and heavy. “I didn’t… I didn’t plan on this but… I’d really like it if we spent the day together, just the two of us.”
As if you’d ever refuse.
Steve undressed you slowly, strong hands tracing the path of every curve he revealed. He kissed slowly too, gentle yet claiming, lashes fluttering shut to enjoy every second and revel in each sensation.
He liked taking it slow sometimes, he would tell you later. It gave him a chance to really live in the moment and blot out the rest of the world. He wanted to commit it to memory in such a way that he could recall everything with just a thought: the scent of your hair, the way your skin felt so soft beneath his fingertips, even the taste of you. All of it.
You’d never spent the day in bed with someone before, sometimes making love, sometimes just holding each other or talking. Steve liked to be held; the big, strong super-soldier would cuddle close to you, falling asleep listening to the beat of your heart, feeling the calming motion of your fingers through his hair.
You’d known you wanted him. You’d known that you liked him, quite a lot. It wasn’t until that day that you realized that you were in love with him.
Even better when you realized that he felt the same.
You woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed in the bland, nondescript apartment Tony had arranged for you to stay in while you were avoiding the home you’d shared with Steve. You couldn’t even pretend to believe that it had been just a dream -- it had been too real, the detail far too great to be some imagined scene your mind had conjured to amuse you while you slept.
You remembered it perfectly now, every intimate detail of that day.
And you realized that you just could not live like this any longer.
You reached for your phone on the bedside table -- a different make and model than you recalled having in your San Diego life, but with the same ringtone and wallpaper -- and quickly thumbed through the menu to pull up Tony’s contact. It was only as it began ringing that you glanced at the clock and realized it was only have past three in the morning, and you considered hanging up but then thought better of it.
After all… it was Tony.
True to form, you were greeted with the sound of loud rock music and a cheerful, “Stark!”
“In your lab?” you asked.
Tony chuckled. “See? You do know me. What can I do for you?”
“I need the bullet,” you said.
“The what now?” Tony asked, and you could hear the clink of metal on metal as he worked on something as he spoke.
“I need the bullet,” you repeated. “The one they pulled out of me.”
You convened your team for a meeting early on the next workday. They seemed perturbed by the very thought of a quiet, organized meeting; apparently, your typical go-to meeting or announcement strategy was to call things out over the sound of the radio while you were all working. The thought of it made you smile; you could imagine it easily yourself working with them, comfortable enough to keep an open forum and not stand on ceremony.
But this was different. You weren’t that person -- not yet, not at the moment, not anymore, however you should think of it -- and the weight of the situation seemed to call for a slightly more formal setting.
They sat in chairs rolled over from their workstations, all of them facing you as you leaned up against your own desk. Their faces, each still bearing the vague familiarity that they had since you had first -- was it the first? -- time you had laid eyes on them, now gazing up at you with a mixture of curiosity and concern.
“I guess this doesn’t stand on much tradition here,” you began with a sigh. “But I wanted to talk to all of you about something very important.” They each nodded, a low murmur of acquiescence circling through the crowd.
“I knew you were prepped before I came back to work here,” you went on. “They told you I had amnesia, and that’s true to a degree. I remember very little about my life prior to getting hurt. But it’s not just that my memories are gone, it’s that they’ve… they’ve been replaced. Or so I’m told.”
There was another murmur among the group; you hadn’t really planned on telling them all of this, but in order to proceed with what you had planned, you needed them to understand.
“I woke up after surgery and nothing made sense,” you continued, pulling out your chair with a shaking hand. You sat down shakily, your knees suddenly weak just from confronting it all over again. “The life that I knew, the one I remembered, is not the one I woke to find. I didn’t remember anything -- any of you, anything of this place. But I did remember a life, everything, a world where none of this existed.”
Your team looked horrified; Beth had started to cry.
“I have been waiting for it to end. To wake up in some hospital bed and find everything back to normal, but it hasn’t happened,” you explained. “So I’ve decided to forego Occam’s razor on this and start considering what seems impossible: that something happened to me that caused the mixed-up memories in my head, that something was done to me.”
“You don’t remember anything?” Beth spoke up quietly, voice small and a little broken on your behalf. “Anything at all? Captain Rogers…?”
You gave her a small smile. “Bits and pieces have come back,” you said, shaking your head. “Not a lot. Nothing really concrete. And I can’t really tell if what I think I remember is real, or something I’ve imagined.”
“Oh god…” she muttered, hand reaching to cover her mouth in a mixture of shock and sympathy.
“But that’s not what we’re here to talk about,” you said quickly, standing up from your chair. You knew you’d start to cry if you let yourself dwell on it any further, or looked at the horrified expressions on your team’s faces. “For the time being, I’m putting my current course of research on hold and focusing instead on finding concrete evidence that there is a scientific explanation to what has happened to me. I realized that isn’t what you signed up for, and there are positions available on other projects for SI, so…”
“I think I can speak for everyone when I say we’re all on board,” one of the techs, a young man named Jared, spoke up. “None of us signed on for a specific project. We just wanted to help.”
“Yeah,” Beth added with a nod. “We’ll still be working for the greater good. And that’s what we all wanted.”
“Exactly,” Jared said, a flurry of agreement rising from the rest of the group. “So tell us, Doc. Where do we start?”
You reached into a drawer on your desk and retrieved a clear plastic bag. Resting in the bottom was a spent bullet, an inch-long slug with an oddly shaped tuliped point, still stained with blood. Stranger still were the small bits of metal and wire that rest alongside it, further pieces of shrapnel that Dr. Cho had removed from your wound.
Holding the bag aloft for your team to see, you nodded at it and said, “We start right here.”
You got to work that very day, and let the project consume you for days at a stretch. There was no going back now: come hell or high water, you would figure this out.
Steve was twitching. That should have been a clue that things were going to go badly but it was high adrenaline all around; hot intel had come in about an attempted bioterrorist cell start-up in Boston and there would only be a quick and dirty briefing before the team was i the air en route.
“We’re looking at a possible weaponized virus here,” Tony had intoned, the display screen behind him flashing photos of the suspected terrorists and architectural plans for the 20-story biomedical research company that was operating at a front for the cell.
“Flu?” Natasha asked, sounding terribly blasé about the whole thing. It wasn’t the first time they had faced some crazy bastard trying to murder the world in a real-life game of Plague, Inc.
Tony’s face went uncharacteristically grim. “Smallpox,” he replied, and a low collective gasp sounded in the room.
“Isn’t that something everyone would be vaccinated for?” Bucky spoke up, frowning. He still had the scar from his own inoculation, after all: a round little indentation in his good shoulder, one of the few blemishes that had survived Hydra’s version of the super-soldier serum.
“They stopped giving it in the 70’s,” Bruce spoke up with a sigh, pinching his brow. “It had been eradicated completely, so there wasn’t a need.”
“Then how did someone get their hands on it to weaponize?” Steve asked with a frown, arms crossed over his chest. His foot was tapping, as though he couldn’t sit still; Bucky noticed it but didn’t comment, even as a concerned frown crossed his face.
“Officially, there’s only one sample on ice, in a US lab,” Tony explained. “Officially, on paper. Everyone knew Russia had it during the Cold War -- it was an open secret. These days, there’s decent intel that everyone has a strain in the freezer somewhere.”
Steve swore and shook his head. “So what are we waiting for?” he asked with a resigned sigh. “Let’s go and get this over with.”
Steve kept to himself in the plane; there was a storm brewing inside but he ignored it, running over the images of the building layout he had seen in his mind. It had taken only a glance for them to become ingrained in his memory and he tried to use them as a touchstone, to keep his mind focused on the task at hand.
It wasn’t easy.
There hadn’t been any more drinking, not since the evening he’d happily fallen asleep in your arms, only to wake cold and alone once again. Bucky had seen to that, ensuring that not a drop of Thor’s gifted mead remained in the Tower and putting a silent moratorium on anymore being brought in. That was fine; Steve could do without the hangovers, after all, and the constant need to see you that it always brought up.
They’d kept him from barging in on you before, but Bucky hadn’t managed it that last time. Steve was unsure if it was really an inability to hold him back or just some sense of pity that allowed him to make his way down to your lab that day. He preferred not to think on it. He preferred not to think at all, if he could manage.
The day he walked into your room in the med bay and heard you exclaim that you wanted a divorce had broken something inside him. He’d known loss before -- far too much, really, for anyone to bear -- but it had always been by circumstance. Death and time had robbed him of those he loved. This was different.
You had chosen to walk away.
It ate at him now, not that someone would leave -- in some sick way, he had begun to expect as much, as loss had been the only prevailing theme in his life for longer than he could remember -- but that you would do it by choice. That you would do it.
He had been a bundle of nerves the day he asked you to share his life; he remembered it with perfect clarity, even as he sat in silence on the jet that was taking him and the others into the eye of the storm. His hands had been shaking as he showed Bucky the ring, needed that little bit of reinforcement from his best friend to have the courage to ask.
“You sure about this?” Bucky had teased with a smile, as if he hadn’t already known. There was something in the way Steve’s eyes light up if you so much as entered the room that had told Bucky that you were the one, even before Steve had realized it.
“I get it now, Buck,” Steve had replied earnestly. “This… all of this… me goin’ in the ice, wakin’ up all these years later? It makes sense. All that happened to me… so I could find her.”
You had wept when he asked, and for a moment he had been certain it was out of pity, and that you’d do your best to politely refuse him. But then you had thrown your arms around him and whispered the word yes, over and over again until your voice gave out and the joyful tears took over.
He’d cried that day too.
It seemed eons ago now. It wasn’t like with Peggy, when an instant for Steve had become decades for her, and he watched her wither away. She had been gone from him, right from the moment he had awoken. His Peggy had been gone.
It had been the same with his mother, and with Bucky. The most important people in Steve’s life had a terrible habit of leaving him high and dry, all of it happening in the blink of an eye: a bad cold turning worse, turning to the very disease his mother had tried to fight away from its other victims. A slip of a hand on mountain train. But this was different.
You were there. He could see you, speak to you, touch you… if you would allow it. But there was a terrible blankness in your eyes, an unwillingness there to believe that what you had shared had been real.
And it was eating him alive from the inside.
“How much longer?” he called, voice hollow. He didn’t care, really; it was just another day, another mission. That was how his life seemed to go -- downtime to mission, mission to downtime. He found he much preferred the missions these days.
It gave him something to do.
It gave him time not to think so much.
“Wheels down at Logan in twenty,” Natasha told him from where she sat across from him. “We’ll have a chopper from there to drop us directly on the roof.”
Steve snorted. “Not going for a subtle entrance, are we?” he asked dryly.
“Time is a factor,” Natasha responded, not noticing the odd tone to his voice. “Intel showed they may be readying the virus to deploy as early as tonight. Labs are on the top floors; we drop in through the skylights.”
“And if they deploy the virus throughout the building at first sign of us?” Steve countered, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn’t typically so argumentative, and it caused Natasha to raise a crimson eyebrow.
“Every member of the team for this drop has already been fully inoculated,” Natasha reminded; Steve and Bucky had received the vaccine as children, as had Tony. Steve was unsure as to what Natasha’s history was in that respect, or Clint’s, but if she claimed they were safe, they most likely were. “If you had an issue with the plan, you might have brought it up at the briefing.”
Steve frowned and shook his head, leaning back in his seat. “I don’t have a problem,” he muttered. Natasha didn’t respond, but stared at him for a long moment before turning her attention elsewhere.
The problem was that they didn’t know the signs. Bucky hadn’t been there for the worst of it; he had seen Steve getting into his scrapes here and there, seen him act out a little after the death of his mother, but Steve hadn’t been fully alone then. He’d always had Bucky to lean on.
Peggy had seen it, to a degree. The danger had been part of what attracted her to Steve in the first place, though she had been loathe to ever admit it. He was hotheaded, and reckless; it was worse when he was hurting. She had recognized it the moment his jaw had set in a firm line and it became clear he would do his damnedest to ensure that Sergeant Barnes was well and truly gone before he ever gave up on him.
She’d been able to calm him, just a little. Keep him manageable.
But Peggy wasn’t there now, and Bucky didn’t know what it looked like when Steve was ready to throw caution to the wind for good. They’d all get a good look at it soon enough, up-close and personal.
They all lurched in their seats when the jet’s landing gear hit the ground with a rough bounce, and Steve was on his feet and gathering his gear before the plane had even stopped moving.
By the time the chopper dropped them on the roof of the laboratory building, Steve was more or less running on a hair trigger. He was practically bouncing in his boots, fists clenching and unclenching as they quickly tried to unpack all of the equipment necessary to get them into the building. The sound of the chopper hadn’t gone unnoticed; Steve could see through the domed skylights that the scientists-cum-bioterrorists were scurrying around.
Either they were destroying evidence or, worse, readying the virus to be dissemintated as quickly as possible. Whatever the case, Steve wasn’t waiting any longer.
“What’s going on here?” he asked, glancing back to where Clint was fussing with a gear bag.
“The fucking latch bars are snapped shut wrong and none of them will fucking open!” Clint growled back, uncharacteristically irritated. “We haven’t used this gear in weeks, who the hell we have working in supply?!”
“Can you fix it?” Natasha asked him, voice even as can be, stepping over to place one hand on his shoulder where he knelt.
Clint seemed to calm almost immediately, and heaved a sigh. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it’ll just take a little time.”
“We don’t have time,” Steve mused, and promptly hopped onto the nearest skylight with enough force to shatter it, sending him directly into the lab below. He could hear the scattered swearing above him, even through the shrieks and shouts in the lab, where he landed in a crouched position, but still on his feet.
His shield was in the air in seconds, taking out two guards who had been heading for him and a lab-coated man with a large metal cylinder who had been making for the door. Alarm bells started ringing and more arms guards began pouring in. Bucky hit the floor through another skylight a few feet away, having jumped straight through to follow; Natasha and Clint glided down elegantly on strong nylon cord just moments later.
“Steve, you class-A fucking idiot!” Bucky shouted, face red and furious.
Steve ignored him. “I’m good here,” he called, neatly elbowing a guard in the face. “Barnes, get to the vaults downstairs, Hawkeye and Widow, round up anyone who’s making a run for it. We got air support?”
“Stark is overhead, watching for anyone who’s made it out,” Clint called, moving for the double doors that led to the stairwells.
“Good,” Steve called back,, zip-tying the hands of one subdued guard before moving on to the next. “Let’s keep this fast and clean, folks! Go!”
Bucky was already down a floor and replied over the communication line with a clearly irritated, “Would’ve been fast and clean if you hadn’t jumped through the god damn window!”
Steve didn’t bother to respond.
No one was really sure how the fire got started. In the aftermath, it was strongly suspected that it was some sort of failsafe in the building’s security protocols: burn the evidence if they were in danger of being caught. The only problem with that plan was that Steve and the rest of the team were following their usual plan of subduing and restraining -- meaning there were dozens of rogue scientists, special security, and syndicate peons scattered throughout the building either handcuffed or zip-tied, some even unconscious.
Much as the team despised what they had been doing, they weren’t about to leave them to burn. They swept the burning building, floor by floor, until they’d gotten each and every human waste of space out and into waiting police vans and ambulances. But for some reason, when they regrouped outside, the team found themselves one short.
“We got everybody?” Bucky asked, glancing around the parking lot that had become ground zero for local law enforcement’s wrap-up. The team had come to an agreement of sort with most large local law enforcement agencies; once all the bad guys were rounded up and detained, the team would leave to let the locals handle the rest. No muss, no fuss -- and best of all, no paperwork.
Saving the world a few times over had garnered them a bit of leeway in that regard.
“All the unfriendlies are bagged and tagged,” Clint confirmed, poking one particularly surly goon with the toe of his boot where he sat bound on the pavement, and earning a grunt in return.
“Then why am I showing one moving body still inside the Towering Inferno here?” Tony’s voice came over the communication line. He was surveying the scene from overhead, using the infrared abilities of his suit to peer inside the building; the moving body was showing up cooler than the atmosphere for a change, with the fire still blazing in spite of the firefighters working hard at dousing the flames on the west side of the building.
“Jesus Christ, where the fuck is Steve?” Bucky snapped, taking a quick headcount of those standing near.
“We didn’t get all of the virus canisters out,” Steve’s voice, only slightly out of breath, came over the communication line.
“Uh Cap? I’m no expert here, but I think maybe you should get out of the burning building,” Clint said, eyes flicking towards the blaze.
“The heat from the fire will take care of the virus,” Natasha advised, sounding too calm for the situation at hand. “You need to get out now.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Steve responded with a grunt. “We’ve got almost three full generations of people without immunity in this country alone, let alone overseas. Can’t take any chances. I’ll just get the last cylinders and…”
Bucky thought for a moment that the sudden disturbance over the line was simply static, until he realized the crashing sound was echoing out into the open. The building’s roof had given way and fallen down into the building, crashing through at least two floors beneath it.
There were nothing further over the communication line.
At four-thirty in the morning, you were still awake. It had taken weeks but you’d finally managed a digital reconstruction of the bullet that made sense. The only problem was… it didn’t make sense.
You were no arms expert but you had vague ideas of how bullets looked and worked, and it hadn’t taken much research to confirm what you’d already known. But this one had been hollow, with some sort of mechanical setup inside. There was a wire spring inside that seemed as though it would be tightly coiled until the bullet was fired; once shot out, it would expand inside and activate a mechanism involving two micro-magnets. There were no chemical traces outside of gunpowder; it was driving you a little bit mad.
The sleeplessness was not uncommon for you. It always seemed to crop up when you were working on a tough problem, or when Steve was away. You’d heard their transport helicopter returning from Tony’s private airstrip upstate some hours ago and had been happy at least that they were home. You hadn’t seen Steve since the night you had slipped out of his bed -- our bed, you had thought sadly -- and you’d done your best to avoid him since.
You ached to see him, and that was the worst of it: despite the gaps in your memory, the life you had known with him just out of reach and supplanted by another far lonelier world, the affection hadn’t waned in the slightest. You loved him -- just as you loved all of them, your friends, your makeshift family in the Tower -- but you had no empirical evidence in your mind as to why.
You sighed, giving up on your notes and any hope for sleep that night, grabbing a remote from the coffee table to turn on the morning news.
“Breaking news of Massachusetts this morning, where emergency crews are still fighting a five-alarm fire at the Brettner Laboratories building in downtown Boston,” a grim-faced man in a gaudy tie intoned. “We now go live to our local affiliate Nancy Loo with the story. Nancy?”
The screen shifted to a middle-aged Asian woman who nodded at the camera, standing several feet away from a fire engine.
“Thank you, Vincent,” she began. “I’m live here at Brettner Labs where local firefighters have been battling a blaze since early this morning. We’re told this began as a terrorism infiltration spearheaded by the Avengers team. The fire began not long after initial touchdown by the Avengers. According to local law enforcement, they suspect that the fire was intentionally set by Brettner personnel in a cover-up effort.”
“Where there any injuries, Nancy?” Vincent-of-the-bad-tie asked, coming in on a split screen.
“Two firefighters are being treated locally for minor injuries,” Nancy informed him. “We’ve heard from witnesses that one of the Avengers team, Steve Rogers, most commonly known by the moniker ‘Captain America’, was seen carried out unconscious from the building after the roof collapsed and loaded into an Avengers transport. We haven’t heard any updates on his condition so far…”
The television remote fell from your hand; you were on your feet and out the door so quickly, you forgot to close the door behind you.
You couldn’t wait for the elevator; you had to take the stairs, practically running them to burn off a little of the nervous energy. Your hands were shaking and you felt jittery inside, a cold sweat on your brow. You couldn’t be sure if your heavy breathing was from the exertion or if you were edging into hyperventilating. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Four. Four times. You remembered them all with sudden, startling clarity.
The first time, you were still just dating; you’d been spend nights together more and more and you were still lounging around Steve’s rooms in the Tower after he’d been called out in the middle of the night. It had been bad. They came back late afternoon with Steve bleeding out from multiple gunshots. That was the day you learned he had listed you as an emergency contact; they’d called you even before they landed.
Then there was the broken leg -- femur broken in three places, still only took hours to knit itself back together.
The day he had been nearly taken captive, and Tony had to blast the team’s way through a four foot thick concrete barrier to get to him. Steve had taken a hard hit on the way out, falling into the debris and getting a spoke of rusty rebar through his ankle. That one had taken longer; the bone had started to heal around the rebar and it had to be rebroken to remove it properly.
The last one had been pretty simple, just a fracture in his right wrist. Still you hd run for medical as soon as you’d gotten word that he was hurt and needed to stop there first before coming home, and he’d smiled o see you. He always said that you by his side did more for him than all the doctors in the world.
That they hadn’t even notified you this time was like a knife to the gut. Maybe that had been at his request; maybe he’d taken you off his emergency notification list altogether, even though you were still legally his next of kin. He’d send you the papers a week after you’d gone to stay in the bland little apartment that Tony had set up for you, with a little note saying that he wouldn’t argue if this was what you really wanted, but you could never bring yourself to sign them.
When you reached the right floor and finally exited the stairwell, you rn only a handful of paces before you smacked directly into Bucky, stumbling back to fall on your ass and glare up at him.
“Where is he? Is he okay?” you demanded, not even pausing for a breath.
“He’s fine,” Bucky said, reaching a hand to help you to your feet. He spoke in an easy, measured tone, clearly trying calm you. “Everything is fine, you just need to…”
“Bucky, where is he?” you snapped, voice rising a notch in tone and tenor.
“Captain Rogers returned to his quarters several hours ago,” Dr. Cho cut in coolly, stepping out of her office to greet you. “Please lower your voice. It’s early and Mr. Barton is still resting.”
You glanced back to Bucky. “Clint?” you asked.
“Second degree burns,” he explained. “He’ll be okay.”
Knowing that Clint was safe and so, apparently, was Steve, you wheeled on Dr. Cho. “Why wasn’t I notified that Steve was injured? We have a protocol in place, I’m supposed to be called as soon as you know that Steve will require medical attention.”
“Wait, no one called you?” Bucky asked, surprised. He had thought your panicke arrival had been slow-building, that you had known of Steve’s injuries and demurred coming to his side until you could no longer stand it.
Dr. Cho’s expression remained neutral and calm. “Given your current situation, we thought it best not to follow that particular protocol.”
“Don’t you give me that, Helen!” you shouted angrily. “Unless you had a signed directive stating otherwise, you follow standard goddamn protocol!” You had lunged for her, the amped up energy and anxiety running through your veins bursting out in a fit of anger, but Bucky caught you around the waist and pulled you back.
You remembered it suddenly: jealousy. Professional, yes -- you had known Helen, during your undergrad, when she was beginning her postsecondary. You had divergent fields but you had both had your sights on working with SHIELD; any advance one made only spurred the other on further.
But there was more than that. You were never certain if she’d had an eye for Steve himself, or if it was the way you had become closer to the others, more a part of their inner circle than she ever had, that had galled her. But the chilliness was always there, still lingering between you.
The disapproval in her gaze, that day months ago when you sat in your hospital bed, made even more sense than it had then.
“C’mon, Doc, he’s not here,” Bucky said, pulling you away from the scene of your outburst even as Dr. Cho stalked away on her sensible heels, back into her office. “We’ll deal with this mess later, lemme fill you in and you can go see Steve.”
“She should have called me,” you told him, shaking your head. You felt suddenly exhausted, overwrought and near tears. It was just too much. “I should have been here, Bucky, I should have been here for him. He hates hospitals, he shouldn’t have been alone!”
That was another memory, sparked by the situation at hand. He had confessed it quietly, that first time you’d met him in medical. That he hated hospitals -- that he was afraid of them. It reminded him too much of when he was young, when an illness would force him into a hospital and his mother would have to work, to afford his medical bills and to keep them afloat while he was ill, and he’d spend alone hours all alone in an empty children’s ward.
The loneliness, the fear. It would all come back to him.
You’d promised him then that you’d always be there for him, so long as he kept a promise of his own: that he’d always come home to you.
You knees buckled as you reached the elevator, and Bucky had to guide you inside with an arm at your waist, keeping you on your feet.
“I p-p-promised…!” you sobbed.
“I know, Doc, I know,” Bucky told you gently. “It’ll be alright, yeah? Stevie just got himself knocked upside the head. Minor skull fracture, they said. Mostly healed by the time we got home.”
“A skull fracture?” you asked in horror. “Oh god, should he even be on his own now? Shouldn’t he be monitored in medical?”
Bucky chuckled. “You know Steve,” he told you. “Long as he can walk, he’s not gonna stick around. Cho said he was good to go and he went back to his place to sleep it off. He’s fine. But I bet seein’ you would do him a world of good.”
You rubbed the tears from your face with the sleeve of your robe -- realizing, much to your embarrassment, that you were wearing a ratty old bathrobe, open over a novelty nightshirt featuring a screenprint of a sleepy Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
“Yeah,” you agreed, sniffling. “Yeah, I need to see him.”
Steve dreamed of you often. He’d always been a prolific dreamer and you featured regularly in his nighttime fantasies even when you were sleeping there beside him. It had gotten all the more frequent in the months you’d been away.
Sometimes they were memories, his mind putting on a tortuous little slideshow as he slept, running over some of his most favored moments with you, only to wake to the grim reminder of an un-creased pillow and an empty bed. Lately, there had been more nightmares than anything else. One recurring dream saw him as a ghost of sorts; you’d go about your day and he’d be standing right there beside you, trying to talk to you, get your attention, but you couldn’t seem to see or hear him at all. It left him waking in a cold sweat, more often than not.
A head injury at least provided him with a little relief: a deep, dreamless sleep. It almost seemed worth the pounding headache.
He was laying flat on his stomach, on top of the bedclothes, when you crept in.
Just entering the apartment had given you goosebumps. You hadn’t been back but once since the day you had fainted; Bucky had retrieved some clothes and nondescript toiletries for you when you had made it clear you had no intention of returning to set up house, even temporarily. It was just as you remembered, but carried an air of disuse. You’d heard more than once that Steve tended to avoid going home at night, staying in common areas into the wee hours of the morning or arranging things to crash at Bucky’s apartment.
Bucky had given you a rundown of Steve’s injuries as he walked you there, leaving you at the door to deal with FRIDAY on your own.
“This is not your current principal dwelling,” the AI had reminded when you’d asked that the door be unlocked.
You’d glared up at the ceiling. “This is my home, FRIDAY. Open the fucking door.”
The AI had complied, but not without a haughty little huff in response. You’d deal with offended building attendant systems later; you had greater concerns to deal with now.
Steve had left dishes in the sink and his boots by the door, both uncharacteristic of him; the knowledge came to you simply, no grand flashes of memory or sudden realizations. You just knew -- just as you knew how you’d find him, sprawled across the bed, still in the sweaty t-shirt and boxer briefs he wore beneath his suit, which was in a heap on the floor.
You fought the urge to clean up after him and simply slipped into the bed, sitting with your back to the dark cherry headboard to watch him sleep and think things over for awhile.
It had been a piece of laboratory machinery that had taken him down, Bucky told you. Steve had been three floors below the roof when it collapsed, stubbornly insisting he track down every last canister of a viral concoction before leaving the burning building. When the roof came down, it caved in the floors beneath it, and a glancing blow from an ultracentrifuge to his temple as it rained down from above had been enough to take knock him out.
He’d gotten some minor burns before he was found, but they’d all but healed very quickly, and his oxygen levels had improved all the way back to normal by the time the team had gotten him back to the Tower.
They’d taken their scans and x-rays, concluding there had indeed been a significant fracture, but there hadn’t been any brain swelling and the bone had started to knit back together almost immediately. Steve had needed a few dissolving stitches and some observation before he had been cleared to leave medical, but the healing he needed wasn’t physical. Bucky had stressed that to you on the walk down.
“He’s takin’ risks he shouldn’t, doll,” Bucky had explained. “Pig-headed as all get out. No reason for him to be runnin’ around in a fire like that. If they heat hadn’t killed the rest of that virus, it would have been contained enough for it to be handled by professionals once the fire was out.”
“He’s making bad decisions in the field?” you asked, frowning.
Bucky sighed. “Feelin’ more like he doesn’t give a damn if he makes it back or not. You gotta try and talk him down, once you feel better yourself. Can’t stand to see the two of you like this.”
So there you were, watching Steve sleep, in the very bed you once shared, wondering if you were making a mistake even being there. This was getting in far too deep; there wouldn’t be any going back, if you let yourself give in now.
But he needed you. How could you turn your back on that?
You were still watching him in silent contemplation when Steve shuffled in his sleep, his body recognizing your presence and drawing nearer of its own accord. He had just settled himself with his head in your lap when the vague, dreamy expression on his face had turned to a frown and he blinked his eyes open, staring up at you with a sleepy gaze.
“I hate dreams like this,” he half-spoke, half-whispered. His voice was hoarse, no doubt still raw from all of the smoke he had breathed in. Some things healed quickly; others took more time. The injury to his head looked like little more than a scratch, with a few oversized stitches that didn’t need to be there. His cheeks were still stained with soot, the outline of his cowl just barely visible; at least he’d made some half-hearted attempt to wipe it away.
“Why’s that?” you asked, using the sleeve of your soft violet terrycloth robe to clean up his face.
Steve closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “You’re always gone when I wake up,” he said with a low sigh.
“What if I promised to stay this time?” you asked, dropping your sleeve so you could touch him without a barrier between you; his skin was warm and rough against your palm, early morning stubble on his cheeks.
Steve’s eyes opened again, wider this time in disbelief. “You’re really here?” he asked, voice shaking.
You smiled as best you could, trying not to cry. “I made a promise, didn’t I?” you told him. “I’m sorry I’m a little late. But you haven’t been keeping your promises either.”
Steve said your name softly and frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked, arching a brow and wincing at the soreness in his head.
“Jumping through windows without a line?” you asked, shaking your head. “Running around burning labs? You promised me you’d come home safe.”
Steve’s expression darkened and he sat up, pulling away. “Bucky put you up to this?” he asked, voice bitter and shoulders hunched. “He can be as concerned as he wants but it ain’t fair, tryin’ to play me like this.”
“Steve, no…” you began, reaching out to touch his shoulder, but he jerked away. “I’ve been remembering. Some things, not everything… bits and pieces mostly. Everything else is still there, what I woke up with, but other things are coming back. That came back, just tonight.”
“You can’t pretend like you remember,” he told you obstinately, refusing to meet your gaze. “It’s cruel, doin’ that to me. I’d do anything for you, Doc, but you can’t… you can’t…”
You racked your mind for something, anything that would convince him. Bucky knew most of what you shared with Steve; it was inevitable, as close as the two were. Best of friends by choice, brothers forged in battle. The only person in the world who had been closer to Steve than Bucky… was you.
But some things, you knew, Steve didn’t share. They were too personal, too private. Steve held them sacred -- and so did you.
He still wouldn’t look at you, but he didn’t flinch away when you reached out and touched him, gently caressing his cheek.
“I do remember,” you insisted, voice low and soft. “I remember some of the important things, I swear it. Things Bucky could never have told me.”
You felt a hot tear slide down his cheek, slipping over your fingertips.
“I remember,” you went on, voice shaking just slightly. “I remember the day it was raining. We were supposed to go to Governor’s Island, but it rained. I was so happy that it rained.”
Steve turned to you suddenly and sharply, eyes wide with surprise. He said your name in a low gasp and before you could respond, he crushed his lips to yours.
There was such an immense feeling of relief that came with finally giving in. All the time you had spent fighting this, fighting your every instinct in deference to a muddled mind… it had been exhausting. This, now… letting yourself be pressed back against the pillows, tasting the familiarity of Steve’s kiss… it was the most relaxed you’d felt since the moment you woke to your confused state.
You knew this. Maybe you couldn’t remember every kiss, every caress, but you knew this; you didn’t even have to think. You knew that Steve loved to hear your voice, that the sound of your gaps could draw out goosebumps on his skin; you knew that he loved to be touched, the feel of your hands gliding down his back, nails gently raking his skin. You knew where to kiss, where to nip with your teeth, just how hard to tug at his hair.
And Steve… he knew your body as well as his own, bringing you to mind-blowing highs and kissing and soothing you in the comedown. You couldn’t help the way you wept in his arms, finally allowing yourself what you had been longing for. When morning came, you would wake in the arms of the man you loved -- who you had loved all along.
Maybe something had robbed you of your memory, planted false ones in its wake, but it couldn’t remove the bond you had with Steve. Even with so much taken from you, you knew without question that Steve Rogers was the love of your life.
Nothing would ever change that. You could wake up tomorrow, back in the lonely world you could remember completely, and you’d still love him all the same.
You told him as much without realizing, between kisses and tears, your bodies moving in concert, a sweet symphony you’d hold in your heart for all of your days to come.
It was nearly noon before you were roused to wakefulness and as consciousness seeped in, you were afraid to open your eyes. There was a silent terror inside of you, fearing that once you greeted the new day, you’d find yourself in some hospital bed following a bad accident or even worse, in the lonely apartment you’d had in San Diego.
“You’re really here,” Steve’s voice broke gently into your ear, and you smiled, opening your eyes to find him curled against you in the bed you had once shared.
“I am,” you agreed, smiling still as Steve leaned to press a kiss to the corner of your mouth. You sighed happily at the gesture and found yourself kissing him long and deep before you even realized, morning breath be damned. You were finally allowing yourself to love him again; you’d take any and every kiss you could manage.
When Steve pulled away, he wore an expression with a mixture of hopefulness and trepidation.
“Are you going to stay this time?” he asked in a carefully measured tone.
“I suppose that’s up to you,” you told. You reached to gently touch his face, loving the way he closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “Steve… Baby, can I come home?”
You gasped in surprise when his arms circled around you, pulling you close against his chest as he rolled onto his back and then again, to pin you beneath his weight against the mattress. You laughed, tickled by his hair as he nuzzled against your chest.
“Only s’long you promise me you’ll never, ever leave again,” he told you, and you laughed. He lifted his head to press his forehead against yours. “Never, ever, ever, you hear?”
“I promise!” you told him, giggling even as you peppered his face with kisses. “I promise, I promise, I promise…!”
A little more than six months since the day you awoke to confusion and fainted in your living room, you were finally home again.
It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when you finally made your way into the kitchen. Steve was still in the shower; you had been sharing the warm spray but you had ducked out when your fingers had gone pruney, laughing at the way Steve had tried to pull you back in. You’d pulled a fresh nightgown from your dresser -- something a little more sexy, pale lilac silk with thin straps and a low back, the hem falling only to mid-thigh.
Eeyore had, regretfully, not made it through the night, ripped from collar to hem in a single swoop of Steve’s strong hands.
You could hear Steve whistling as he puttered around the bedroom and you took your time poking around the fridge. It may have been well into the afternoon but it was still breakfast-time for you and Steve, so you pulled out a carton of eggs, some butter, and a package of bologna. It was second nature; you hadn’t even had to stop and think.
Scrambled eggs. Buttered toast. Fried bologna. Steve was a creature of habit and a man of simple tastes; he was happy so long as the food was hot, and there was a lot of it. You were startled with a sudden memory of the previous Thanksgiving at the Tower; Tony had learned from previous years and catered in a record five huge turkeys for the occasion. Between the hyperstimulated metabolisms of Steve, Bucky, and Natasha, and the general gluttonous atmosphere of the holiday, there were still barely any leftovers.
You grinned to yourself; every new memory made you smile.
“That smells amazing!” Steve announced as he came out of the bedroom. He’d gone for a minimalist approach to dressing after his shower, wearing a pair of soft grey sleep pants that rode low enough on his hips that you knew he wore nothing underneath.
That certainly had potential.
His skin was still bright pink from the heat of his shower, his cheeks gone ruddy and even his chest a bright and cheery pink.
You laughed. “Look at you, Irish,” you said, and your jaw dropped even as the wods tumbled from your lips.
The memory came with sudden clarity: his birthday, early on in your relationship. A day in the park in the sunshine before returning home to the Tower, retreating to the soundproofed private screening room to blot out the night’s fireworks with Disney films, joined first by Bucky and then gradually the rest of the team as the night wore on.
Steve had been bright red, courtesy of the sunny day, and you had teased him mercilessly.
“Look at you, Irish,” you had told him, shaking your head. “Not even the serum can keep you from burning, huh?”
You’d called him that ever since, a little pet name shared between the two of you. You felt warm and bubbly inside just for remembering.
Steve smiled. “You just remember that?” he asked gently. He didn’t want to push or pry; in the moments when he hadn’t been wallowing in his grief, he’d tried to understand the medical side of amnesia and recovery. He’d had enough background in it with Bucky as it was; he knew you had to take things slow.
You nodded. “It’s been like that. Little things, bit by bit. I still don’t… Steve, I’m still on shaky ground sometimes. I don’t know what’s real and I have two different lives living in my head.”
“But you want to be here… don’t you?” he asked. He bit his lip, and you knew he was unsure if he wanted to hear the answer.
You walked to him slowly, slipping your arms around his trim waist. “I’ve never been so happy as I am right now,” you said honestly. “I want to be here. To be with you. Whatever else happens, you have to know that.”
You took a few days off; you decided you deserved it. You had a lot to re-learn. What little you remembered wasn’t quite enough to share space with Steve again. You had to get used to his idiosyncrasies -- just as he needed to get used to any of yours that were new after your brain got scrambled.
Steve just enjoyed having you home. He didn’t care if you didn’t sing in the shower anymore, as long as he could be there to wrap you up in a towel as you came out, or, better still, join you under the warm spray. He didn’t mind that you ordered black olives on pizza, as long as he could share it with you, seated in a cozy booth in his favorite pizzeria, hands linked beneath the table. He had no problem giving you your space on days when half-thought memories overwhelmed you and you needed to decompress, as long as you came home when you were ready.
“I just want to be with you,” Steve told you earnestly, as the last vestiges of a bad day eased from your mind and you slipped into the bedroom you were sharing once again. “Whatever you need from me, even if it’s just to get out of your hair for awhile, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.”
You couldn’t help the easy smile that came to your face. “I’ll never leave you again, not for good. I can at least promise you that,” you told him, and slid into the bed beside him.
The best part of spending time away from your work was that you were getting to know and understand Steve in a way you hadn’t before. There were two things you had known to be true when you awoke to this strange new world: first, and most important, you loved Steve Rogers with all your heart and all your soul, and, second, and most frustrating, you didn’t know why.
Objectively, he was attractive. There was no denying that. The actor that played him on the other side of the universe was pretty easy on the eyes, part and parcel for his job description, and had put on considerable muscle mass for the role, so that was understandable. But this Steve -- the real Steve, if you’d even dare to think it, was beautiful in a way that went beyond his hard body and pretty eyelashes. There was something inside of him -- something innate to Steve himself, body and soul -- that you’d never seen in anyone before. He wasn’t just a perfect physical specimen; he was good. You could look in his eyes and know that the world was better for him being in it. He wasn’t perfect -- he was human and made mistakes like anyone else -- but he never stopped trying to be better. You could see why you -- or this version of you, her, whatever you were calling it lately -- had been drawn to him.
But there was more than that. You got butterflies in your stomach when he smiled at you. The touch of his hand at the small of your back could calm you in an instant. When his eyes would go dark, a little smirk playing on his lips, and he’d meet your gaze, it would send a delicious shiver up and down your spine. And when you slipped into bed beside him, the sheets cool against your skin and his delightful warmth surrounding you as he pulled you close, to hold you and whisper sweet things until you each drifted off… you knew that if heaven existed, it would be just like this.
Steve wasn’t perfect -- you knew that. You knew that. He drank the orange juice straight from the carton, and put it back in the fridge with little left. His socks somehow never seemed to find the hamper. He’d sketch in bed and you’d wake up to sheets marked with graphite from where he’d lost his pencil. He broke the spine on the books that he read and dogeared the pages -- even on your books, no matter how many times you asked him not to. Sometimes he’d take his frustrations out on you -- a bad day at work could translate to Steve picking a fight over something stupid. He’d always apologize though, and admit that it wasn’t really about anything between the two of you.
Not once since you’d come home had he failed to kiss you goodnight.
You were in love with him, completely. The you that was -- the one that he knew -- and the one you were now, with the muddled mind and confused memories. You loved him. You just didn’t know how to stop -- and you didn’t really want to.
Eventually you had to get back to work. You didn’t want to; Steve had been relatively mission-free for the whole time you had stayed home to re-learn your life, and you had luxuriated in spending the time with him. Steve wasn’t terribly keen on you leaving either.
Your alarm went off at seven sharp -- it was a nice perk to the job that your commute was an elevator ride and saved you so much time -- and Steve groaned to hear it. You’d both been away for an hour or so, cuddled close beneath your blankets and enjoying the dark your blackout shades provided along with the quiet of the early morning.
As soon as you reached and turned off the alarm, Steve flipped you onto your back and caged you in with his arms, having pulled the comforter over both of your heads. He whispered your name and nuzzled beneath your ear, even as you giggled.
“Stay with me,” he implored. “One more day, baby doll, please? Just one more.”
You sighed and let your eyes fall shut, enjoying his pleas for the moment, smiling when his gentle nuzzling gave way to soft kisses along your shoulder.
“That’s what you said yesterday,” you reminded, and Steve hummed.
“Yesterday was a great day,” he countered. “Let’s have another.”
“And the day before that,” you pointed out, and felt his lips pull into a smile against your skin.
“I can be very convincing when the need arises,” Steve responded, his knee gently nudging yours apart so he could settle himself on the bed between your thighs.
“I don’t think the need is the only thing rising this morning, Steven,” you teased, enjoying the way his laugh rumbled against you. When his lips strayed to your throat and you couldn’t hold back the soft moan that slipped from your lips, Steve grinned.
“Oh well,” you said, gliding your hands up the arm bare skin of his back. “I suppose I can be late…”
When you finally made it into work, somewhere around half past nine, you were smiling, hair still damp from your shower. Your technicians were hard at work already -- that had reverted to your initial wormhole project while you took some time away -- and greeted you cheerfully as you made your way into the lab. You decided to let them keep at it for the time being, and resigned to work at your pet project on your own for the day.
The specs of the bullet still had you puzzled. It made some small amount of sense, in that the pieces fit together as they should in the computer models you were working with while the actually bullet itself sat in pieces in a sealed bag on your workspace, but the function was still beyond your grasp. You knew at the least that it was a custom construction, so there was no tracing the manufacture through serial numbers and purchase receipts. At best, you could work towards breaking down the minute elements in the mass-spec, but you wanted to save that for a last ditch effort.
You were re-reading a report on the holographic digital screen before you when someone crept up behind you and with two pointed fingers on each hand, poked you hard in the sides. You jumped, arms wrapped around yourself in an automatic defensive position.
The words were out of your mouth before you even saw her, standing there with a grin and beanie pulled down over her waves of dark hair.
“Aha!” she declared triumphantly. “So you do remember me!”
You couldn’t help yourself; you burst into laughter and found yourself suddenly hugging the other woman with the force and affection of seeing a good friend after a long absence, and realized that to some degree, you were. Much as it had been with Steve, your mind and heart told you that this person was important to you.
The memories might have waned, but the affection simply couldn’t.
Pulling away, you punched her hard in the shoulder.
“Yowch!” Darcy yelped, rubbing her arm. “What the hell was that for?”
“It’s been over six months since I was shot and had my brain run through a metaphoric blender, and you just show up now?!” you demanded.
Darcy shrugged, hands in the air. “My bad?”
You weren’t really mad at Darcy; you couldn’t be. She was your best friend, but her life was as busy as yours could be, working as an assistant to Dr. Jane Foster and traveling wherever the doctor’s research took them. It wasn’t unusual for you to go weeks or even months, forgetting to text or email back, forgetting to pencil in a nice long phone cat. But it never made any difference; when Darcy returned to New York, you could pick up your friendship where you had left off, no questions asked.
The nature of your personalities, when combined, was just so that you had to give her some shit before welcoming her back with opens arms.
“They called me, y’know,” she explained over coffee in the Tower cafeteria. “Right away when you got hurt, but then Steve said it wasn’t too bad and I didn’t have to rush back from Geneva, you’d just give me a call when you were up for it.”
Understanding suddenly dawned on you. “And then he told you to stay away entirely, until I was a little less hinky in the brainpan?” you filled in, and Darcy nodded.
“They thought it would, like, over-stress you even more than you were stressed,” she explained. “Might just make things worse.”
“I get it,” you agreed, nodding. “I’ve been… to be honest, I’m still not certain what’s what, but I’m coping better than I had been.”
“Yeah, I heard you moved back in with hubs, so I figure it was safe for me to make my grand entrance,” Darcy told you with a grin. Her expression softened, concern overtaking her usually cheerful features. “How bad is it, though? Still?”
You gave a slow shrug. “This is familiar,” you explained, gesturing back and forth between the two of you. “I remember little things, not a lot specific, but this is familiar. I’m not uncomfortable being around you, like I might have been before. I get these flashes of… memory, I guess, from time to time.”
“But you have other memories? Like a whole other life?” Darcy prodded. Clearly, they had been telling her a lot more on your condition than you had realized.
“Yeah,” you agreed with a nod. “That part is perfectly clear, everything from being a kid to school to growing up… and in that life, none of this,” you went on, making a vague gesture to indicate your surroundings, “Is real. It’s stuff out of movies and comics and cartoons.”
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Even me?” she asked.
You nodded. “Even you,” you agreed. “I mean it’s not 100% accurate… in the movies, Clint Barton had a wife and kids stashed on a farm somewhere, and a lot of people had died, and all of this crazy stuff. I was trying to get by using casual film knowledge but it didn’t work out so well.”
Snorting, Darcy shook her head. “I’m sure Romanoff loved the wife and kids thing,” she drawled.
“She was not amused,” you agreed, laughing. “But some of it was real… or true… or whatever. I could tell Steve about conversations he had with people I’d never met. It’s the only thing, I think, that made Tony and Bruce believe I wasn’t actually off my rocker.”
“So what’s the plan now?” Darcy pressed. “Just play happy families with Stevie-boy and hope it all goes away?”
“You should know me better than that,” you told her with an arch of your eyebrow, and Darcy grinned.
“Damn straight. You strapped on your lab coat and have been working it out, haven’t you?”
You nodded. “Trying to. I’ve kinda hit a wall at the moment and I lost some time in… in reconnecting with Steve.”
“That’s one name for it,” Darcy said, prefacing her words with a wolf whistle, and you blushed. “Don’t be embarrassed, Doc. People’d be lining up in bed to jump a super-soldier, no shame in spending all your time making the most of it. And speaking of super-soldiers, just where is Buckalicious this time of day?”
“He and Steve were training this morning, so they should be down to eat a week’s worth of lunch at some point in the near future,” you told her with a small laugh. The staff at the Tower cafeteria had very quickly acclimated to the appetites of the enhanced members of the team; meals were cooked in massive quantities daily, and Tony had any uneaten food distributed to local soup kitchens and shelters.
You paused and surveyed Darcy for a moment, frowning as you thought on it. You had memories of her and Bucky, situations that almost seemed like double-dates, but there never seemed to be much more than casual touches, a brief grab of a hand or a tap on the shoulder.
“You and Bucky,” you finally had to asked. “Are you two…?” you trailed off.
Darcy arched an eyebrow. “You don’t know?” she asked.
You shook your head. “I told you, bits and pieces,” you reminded.
Darcy sighed. “We’re not,” she said, and pouted down at her empty coffee cup. “Not for lack of trying, let me tell you. But he’s not… there yet? Like… I mean, I know he likes me, and I really like him, but… he’s been through a lot, you know? And he knows he’s not ready, which is good. Knowing where he stands.”
“Have you two talked about it?” you asked.
Darcy nodded, a small smile on her face. “He said I’m a ‘classy dame’ but he doesn’t want me waiting on something that might be too broken to fix. Can you imagine? I said fine, I won’t wait on him, if that’s what he wants… But I’ve never met anyone who made it not worth waiting.”
You smiled; you loved Bucky like a brother. You could completely understand where he was coming from. He seemed fairly well adjusted in his day to day routine, but you’d seen a few cracks in the surface here and there; Darcy was right, Bucky had been through a lot. The damage done couldn’t be fixed in a day. But you hoped, for their sake, he’d find his way.
The idea of your best friend ending up with your husband’s best friend certainly had a sitcom-eque appeal to it, but more than anything, you wanted to see them both happy. You thought they could easily do that for one another; Bucky just needed to heal.
Darcy suddenly perked up. “Hey, did we get together in the movies or whatever?” She deflated with a sigh when you shook your head.
“But they’re not completely accurate, remember? Secret Barton wife,” you prompted.
Darcy snorted. “Man, I’d love to be in the room when you tell that one to Romanoff!”
You chatted a while longer before adjourning to your lab. Darcy wanted to see what you had been working on and how far you had gotten in piecing back together whatever had happened to make your memory go haywire, before she called it a day. She’d broken her own rules regarding sleep that she typically imposed on Dr. Foster: no day longer than eighteen hours unless absolutely necessary.
“This is absolutely necessary,” she pointed out as you guided her into your lab. Your staff had dispersed for the day, leaving the two of you alone with your work.
“So this is the bullet,” you told her, holding the plastic bag that held it aloft.
“That’s a lot of bits and pieces for a bullet,” she responded, taking the bag in hand. Almost immediately, a low warning tone sounded in the lab and you glanced around in confusion. It didn’t sound like any of the alarms you had in the lab, unless there was one you hadn’t yet remembered.
“Whoa, sorry,” Darcy said, swapping the bagged bullet into the opposite hand. “Forgot about this,” she added, gesturing with her wrist. You had noticed the silver bangle bracelet she had been wearing since she arrived, but assumed it was just an accessory she had picked up somewhere.
“What’s that?” you asked, nodding at it.
“Oh, they make us wear these in Jane’s lab all the time,” Darcy explained. “It just gives a warning when it picks up some leftover gamma radiation, the louder the beep, the more dangerous it is. This was nothing.”
Your eyes widened. You’d put the remains of the bullet that had hit you through every test you c could think of, and still you’d never considered that.
“Put the bullet back in that hand,” you told her slowly, and Darcy was quick to comply. Almost immediately, the low alarm began to sound.
“Oh my god…” you said, shaking your head. “How could I be so blind?”
“Wait, what?” Darcy asked, getting excited. “Did I help with something important? Did you not know this thing had gamma exposure?”
“I had no idea!” you told her, just as excited. “We have to get this to Tony and Bruce, we’ve got to run more tests!”
Darcy punched the air in celebration. “Darcy for the win!” she declared.
Dropping into Bruce’s lab, with Tony hot on your heels, was something like Dorothy going to the Emerald City, you thought. But instead of being rushed about to have your dress cleaned and your hair curled, you were put through geiger counters and blood draws. They were like overgrown children with a brand new sparkly toy to play with, confiscating your bullet and Darcy’s bracelet alike.
“Foster has these?” Tony had asked, eyeballing the bracelet. “And she’s not sharing? That’s not very fair.”
Darcy had snorted. “How many Iron Man suits did you ship her way to backward-engineer?” she asked with a grin.
Tony pointed at her. “Touche,” he agreed with a curt nod. “I’m still taking this thing apart, though.”
“Hey!” Darcy cried. “I had to put a security deposit down for that!”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll put it back together,” Tony told her, walking away with the bracelet in hand. “It’ll be even better than before.”
“I think we’ve done all we can for tonight,” Bruce broke in, cutting off Darcy’s whining. He gave you a friendly smile. “We’re going to have to run some more tests, see if we can get a line on the power source used to generate this kind of radiation.”
“Has it affected my health?” you asked, concern in your voice.
Bruce shook his head. “It’s a relatively low level,” he explained. “It’s most likely decayed a great deal already; it’s a very unstable form and it’s dissipating quickly. We can monitor, but I feel comfortable saying that it won’t cause you any harm.”
You sighed and leaned you against Bruce’s workbench. “That’s a relief, at least.”
“I want to run more tests, if you’re up for it,” he offered. “Not tonight, but in the next few weeks. It’ll help me track the decay rate of the radiation, which might get us closer to finding out where it came from and why it’s all over the bullet they pulled out of you.”
Darcy yawned. “Is it a higher concentration on the bullet?” she asked. You suppressed a smile; Darcy always liked to downplay her role as Dr. Foster’s assistant and would insist to anyone that ‘the science is way above my paygrade’, but she was very clever and quick on her feet.
Bruce seemed to be thinking the same, wearing a similar smile to yours as he nodded. “The gamma radiation on the bullet fragments is more stable than what’s left on Doc,” he agreed. You always found it funny when he used your nickname; after all, he had far more claim to the title than you, with his multitude of advanced degrees.
“So there’s your proof!” Darcy declared, cheerful in the way she would get when exhausted and swaying on her feet. “Now we know absolutely that there was something funky going on when you got shot. Proof enough to show we’re all real, right?”
You couldn’t help but laugh. “It could be,” you agreed, nodding. “Thank you so much, Bruce, for your help tonight… and please thank Tony when he wanders back in, I’m sure you’ll see him before I do.”
Bruce smiled in his gentle, friendly manner. “Glad to help,” he said. “We’re all hoping to get this straightened out for you, the sooner the better.”
“Absolutely,” you agreed. “But I think it’s time I show Darcy to her room for the night, before she passes out on us.”
“It won’t be the first time someone knocked out in here,” Bruce said with a snort. “Though it’s usually just Tony after an engineering bender.”
By the time you got back to your own apartment, your feet were aching in your sensible heels and all you wanted to do was curl up in bed and sleep for a week or two. It had been a long day; you’d known your first day back to work would take a lot out of you, but you hadn’t expected so many twists and turns, or to be wandering back into your door well after eleven that night.
The sight that greeted you made you smile. Steve was sprawled over the couch in the living room, half leaning against the arm, one leg on the cushions and the other on the carpeted floor. The television was on, illuminating him in flashes of blue and white in the darkened room, the volume turned down to barely a murmur. You knew he was away, eyes half-lidded and flicking your way as soon as you opened the door.
“There she is,” he said, voice relaxed and sleepy, even as a smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” you drawled, kicking off your shoes at the door. Your lab coat, which you only then realized you hadn’t taken off all day, was tossed over an armchair, and without even thinking about it or hesitating, you settled yourself on the couch with your back pressed to his chest, head cushioned on his shoulder.
Steve gave a pleased sigh, strong arms coming down to wrap around you. You would be perfectly content, you realized, just to stay there, laying against him, for all of your days. It was the kind of thing you’d only dreamed about in your other life -- not Steve himself, though you’d be remiss to say the handsome actor who played him hadn’t featured in a daydream or two, but the comfort and contentment of being completely surrounded by someone who you loved immensely, and who loved you in return.
It was something you’d never had before. You thought perhaps that was why it had been so difficult for you to understand, why you’d been searching for a reason for the intense feelings of affection you’d had for him, from the moment you’d opened your eyes into a world you barely could believe existed. You’d dated, of course, almost married a man you cared for a great deal, but you knew now that you’d never been in love. It had never felt this way, this fierce and important. There wasn’t one single thing about Steve that you could put your finger on and say ‘this is it, this is why I love him’.
It was everything. It was every little thing, a million reasons or more, from the way he’d smile just to watch a squirrely skittering up a tree in the park to the way he always took the grilled cheese sandwiches he had accidentally burned and gave you the golden brown ones. It was the way he’d wake up in a good mood and sing loudly and off-key in the shower, laughing every time his voice broke on a high note he couldn’t reach. It was the way he would cry, unashamedly, every time you made him watch Romeo + Juliet with you, the way you knew a small part of him always hoped that maybe this time, Romeo would see his Juliet’s eyelashes flutter.
It was the way he waited for you, patiently, painfully, for months, on the bare hope that you would remember him and love him again.
It was everything. It was everything he was and everything he wasn’t, all wrapped up in a sweet smile and a kind word and a warm embrace.
No matter where your life took you now, if one day you did wake up back in that hell of a life you had lived in another place, another world… you would always love him, and you would never find another like him.
“Whatcha thinkin’ about, beautiful?” Steve asked, pressing his lips to your temple.
You smiled. “Just how I love you so damn much,” you told him honestly, and he grinned.
“Believe me, Doc… the feeling is more than mutual,” he told you, and you felt his sigh and low exhale, the rise of his chest against your back strong enough to move you in its wake.
You yawned. “Darcy’s here,” you told him.
Steve chuckled. “Yeah, heard all about it from Bucky.”
“I thought they were a thing, you know? Just from what I can remember,” you explained. “I asked her and she said no.”
Steve sighed again; you could feel the sadness in this one, the way he seemed to deflate. “Yeah,” he agreed. You didn’t have to look to know there was concern in his eyes, or know that he was biting his lip; you knew his mannerisms so well now. “Not for lack of tryin’, from what I hear, but… you and me? We’re family. Bucky trusts us, trusts himself when he’s with us. His therapists want him to push his boundaries a little more, but he’s still afraid.”
“He thinks he’ll hurt her,” you said, filling in Steve’s unspoken words.
“He’s still half-terrified he’ll wake up one morning and find himself back comin’ out of cryo with Hydra,” Steve told you. “That everything we have here has just been a dream. I think bein’ with someone else, I think he’s worried it’d be all the worse if none of this was real after all.”
“Now that’s a feeling I know a little too well,” you said with a sigh, and turned over onto your side, snuggling against Steve’s chest.
“Oof,” he said, shifting a little beneath you. “Elbows, babydoll, elbows. Jesus.”
“I think you can take it,” you told him, and nudged a little harder. “Big strong super-soldier and all.”
“Mmhmm,” he told you, and suddenly his arms tightened around you, dragging you up and over to situate you a little more comfortably against him. “There. That’s better. But yeah, you were right. He’s afraid he’s going to hurt her, on top of all that. Accidentally get startled and react on reflex, or just lose himself again. It’s a rough go. I wish I knew how to fix it.”
“We just have to give him time,” you said, after a long moment. “Darcy isn’t giving up too easily, I can tell you that much.”
“Good,” Steve told you. The hand he had splayed across your waist slipped up a little further, drifting beneath the hem of your blouse to rest heavy and warm against your abdomen. You smiled to yourself at the move; no matter how you feel asleep, you’d awake to Steve touching you somewhere, as though he craved the skin to skin contact. You loved it.
“Should we go to bed?” you asked.
Steve groaned. “I think I’d be good to stay right here,” he told you.
“You’ll be all stiff in the morning,” you warned, even as you pulled the blanket from the back of the couch down to cover you both. Natasha had knitted it, you suddenly remembered; it had been a wedding gift, surprisingly touching.
“Mmm, that’s all right,” Steve said. His hand searched out the remote control on the nearby coffee table and turned off the television. “You’ll just have to help me work out the kinks.”
It was difficult to get any decent work done when Darcy was in town. She was on vacation herself, and it seemed unfair that you spend all of the time she had used to come to see you locked away in your lab. There wasn’t much you could do on our pet project for the time being as it was; Bruce wanted to stagger your physical testing, as not to overtax your system oor interfere with the slow process of your natural memory recovery. Combined with the fatigue you had experienced on your first full day back in the lab after taking your own time off to spend with Steve, you made the decision to cut down to half days, at least for the time being.
The holidays were coming, anyway; the grant that funded your research allowed for you to put your technicians on salary, regardless of the hours they worked, so you knew they’d appreciate some extra time off.
That in itself was going to be interesting: navigating the holidays with Steve for the first time in your memory. You had a few flashes, of course: the one New Year’s Eve you had recalled early on, a Christmas spent at what you think might have been a private cabin, just the two of you, and of course, the five-turkey Thanksgiving.
It would be nice, you thought, to have all of that. To have holidays where you weren’t alone. In the life you remembered, it had been years since you’d even had someone to exchange a Christmas gift with.
You said as much to Darcy and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t think this memory loss crap gets you out of getting me a Christmas present!” she warned, and you couldn’t stop the torrent of laughter it caused you.
Tony had insisted on a ‘gathering’, as he called it, a week or so after Darcy had arrived. You were hesitant to agree to any such thing, but he assured you it wouldn’t be an actual party, just a group of friends and co-workers getting together for a few drinks.
“It’s not a party if you don’t cater,” he had declared -- and apparently he didn’t count ordering dozens of pizzas as catering.
“So,” Darcy said, leaning over the table towards you with a conspiratorial grin. “I know you moved back in with Steve, but are you two… ya know…?”
You rolled your eyes. “Really, Darc?” you asked.
“What?” she replied innocently. “Look, you’re married to a super-soldier. People get curious. And besides, you forced the man into a six month dry spell. You better be servin’ up the nookie.”
You blushed and snorted at her words, gaze dropping to the tabletop as you reached for your drink. You weren’t sure if Darcy realized that even though Steve was several feet away, chatting with Clint and Natasha, he more likely than not could hear every word she was saying -- and every response you gave.
“Yes, Darcy, I am sleeping with my husband,” you told her dryly, and finished the rest of your drink, a relatively weak vodka cranberry that Tony had mixed for you himself. He and Bruce had asked you to limit any alcohol until they got a better handle on the trace gamma situation, and you asked him to use his judgment to make the drink. It barely gave a burn.
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Way to not answer the question,” she told you, shaking her head. “That’s what I get for hanging out with geniuses. Always trying to trick me with the word-play. Yes, I know, you’re sharing a bed and actually sleeping beside your husband. Jeez.”
You laughed softly. “Darcy, you’re my best friend and I love you, but you don’t need to know the details of my sex life.”
Darcy sipped at her own drink, some ridiculous fruity concoction that she had instructed Tony on how to make and no one had ever heard of before. You were fairly certain that she had been making it up as she went along; it couldn’t taste very good, with the way her sips from the straw were few and far between.
“I know, I know,” she grumbled, shaking her head. “Excuse me if I need to live vicariously through you! Not that it’d even be interesting. I mean, it’s you... and Steve... probably most vanilla couple ever.”
You glanced at her sharply. “Vanilla?” you repeated.
“You know, vanilla. Like boring, like…” Darcy started.
“I know what it means,” you replied evenly. You caught Steve’s gaze from where he still stood across the room; he had been watching the two of you the whole time. He had a bottle of beer raised halfway to his lips when your eyes met, and he gave you a quick raise of the eyebrow and the tiniest smirk to tell you he had indeed been listening the whole time.
Darcy had moved on, beginning an anecdote about Dr. Foster and a squirrely lab technician in Geneva who either had a crush on Jane herself, or on Thor -- they never could quite figure it out -- that led to a series of increasingly ridiculous accidents, but you were a million miles away. You swirled the melting ice cubes around the bottom of your glass, your cheeks burning, but not from the liquor.
It was a little past two in the morning when you and Steve made it back to your apartment. He’d been extremely tactile for much of the party, and you were certain it was because of what he had overheard. If you could even call it ‘overheard’; there was an accidental bend to the word, and you knew without a doubt that Steve had been eavesdropping on purpose.
His hand was at your lower back when he guided you around the room, and he kept reaching to brush your hair out of your eyes, or dust a nonexistent speck of dust from your shoulder, bare in the sleeveless dress you had chosen to wear. When Steve got you another drink -- just a glass of water, per Tony’s suggestion, but with a twist of lime to make it interesting -- his long fingers had dragged across your knuckles as he handed it off.
Even when you separated, moving around the lounge in Tony’s penthouse to socialize with the other guests, you could feel his gaze on you.
“That was fun,” you told him softly as he closed the bedroom door. You were waiting for him as he turned, your heels discarded at the foot of the bed, and you leaned up to kiss him just gently, bracing yourself with both hands on his chest. His arms circled your waist in an easy, comfortable gesture, and you smiled.
“It was,” he agreed, dropping another peck on your lips. “Did you have a good time catching up with Darcy?”
You hummed a happy sigh. “The best,” you told him, then slipped out of his arms to amble towards the bed.
He was still watching as you stopped at his usual side and reached down, underneath the bedclothes and into a tiny pocket sewn in beneath the mattress. The stitching was clumsy, but effective; you knew that because you had done it yourself. The strap you pulled out was soft and smooth as silk, the fabric a dusky shade of rose. Just by looking you knew that it extended two ways -- the end you pulled out and tossed on the bed, which unrolled almost to the middle, and stretching out beneath the mattress itself, to create a twin on the other side.
The weight of the bed, of the bodies atop the mattress, would hold it in place. The edges near the end were frayed and wrinkled, from being tied into knots, whenever you felt the need. You were still staring down at it when Sidled up behind you, one strong arm slipping around your waist.
“Vanilla?” he asked in a low, teasing voice.
You smirked, eyes still on the strap. You’d tried other things in the past -- there had been leather, cuffs, even metal, but Steve didn’t like the way they’d leave welts on your wrists if he got carried away. You hadn’t minded it yourself, but he hated the idea that he could hurt you in any way. He’d chosen the silk: soft, but strong. You could hardly disagree.
“I don’t kiss and tell,” you said, closing your eyes when you felt his lips pressed to your shoulder. “Mmm… she can think what she wants.”
You’d never tell Darcy about the straps. Or about the floor to ceiling window drapes you like to open sometimes, daring the world to peek inside. Or the large, blocky entertainment center with latched wooden doors across from the bed that you’d just assumed held a television; you never liked having a tv in the bedroom and you’d wondered at why it was there, when Steve didn’t seem to bother with it. Now, you remembered; if you opened the doors, you’d see a full length mirror.
That one had been Steve's own idea. I want you to see how gorgeous you look, baby.
“Need you, baby,” Steve whispered, voice thick with want. “Need you so bad.”
And really, far be it for you to deny him anything.
“Oh my god, you’re such a creep,” you groaned as you opened your eyes, giving Steve a playful shove. It wasn’t the first time you’d woken to find him watching you, and you’d been teasing him about it each time you did.
Steve smiled softly and reached to smooth your hair back from your face. “Can’t help myself, Doc,” he told you. “Just about makes my day, wakin’ up to you bein’ here with me.”
You shuffled a little closer beneath your blankets, knowing you’d never be able to hide the pleased smile that his words had drawn out. There was something so perfect to these quiet mornings with Steve: slow and relaxed and so very happy. Sundays, Steve had reasoned, very soon after you had begun spending the night with him, were days best spent in bed, for as long as you could manage it. It was a rule you had very much enjoyed reinstating once you’d moved back home with him.
“You sap,” you grumbled, still grinning, and buried your face against his chest. He gave a pleased groan and wrapped an arm around you, keeping you close.
“That’s what you like best about me,” he countered.
“Nope,” you said, voice muffled. “I’m only in it for the sex.”
“Oh, good, so it’s not just me then,” Steve replied, skating his fingertips down your side to reach every ticklish spot he could find until you burst into a fit of giggles. You reached to return the favor, finding each sensitive spot without any thought, the familiarity of Steve’s body so ingrained in your mind that even without a memory to attach it to, you knew he’d jump if you went for his abdomen, and laugh and try and squirm away if you got him behind the knee.
It quickly erupted into a full-on tickle fight that you just as quickly lost; you might have been smaller and least somewhat quick, but you certainly didn’t have Steve’s strength or reflexes. In just a few minutes, he had you on your back, hands pinned above you head; it would have been even quicker than that if it had been serious.
“Well now,” he said with a slow grin. “Isn’t this a pretty picture?”
You huffed a short laugh, still panting a little from your exertion. “Didn’t get enough of it last night?” you said, flicking your fingers against the silken strap which still lay stretched across the top of the bed.
Steve kissed you then, sweet and slow. “Never,” he said, voice whisper soft. “It’ll never be enough for me, darlin’. I could spend my next fifty years right here in this bed with your wrapped up in my arms and it’d never be enough.”
Only Steve could take such a flirtatious moment and make it so very sweet. You had to kiss him then, soft and chaste, smiling when you felt him sigh against your lips and his grip on your wrists loosening. He rolled onto his side, letting an arm drift down to your waist to pull you along with him, tangling his legs in yours to keep you close and warm.
“Sweet talker,” you told him, and he smiled.
“You’re the only one who’s ever accused me of that, Doc,” he told you with a boyish grin in return. You’d left the curtains open the night before and the sunlight streaming in backlit Steve as he smiled at you, his whole face awash in gold. It barely seemed real.
You pushed that thought away and reached above his head, taking the other side of the strap in hand and bringing the wrinkled, tatted edge down to tickle his nose until he laughed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” you asked.
“What, about this?” Steve asked, taking the strap in hand to toss it away before reaching for your wrist. It was a little pink, not bruised but still showing the signs of your play; Steve had taken care of you the night before, making sure you hadn’t been hurt and doing all he could to soothe the soreness you barely felt. “Doc, you didn’t even believe I was real, remember? Can you imagine that conversation? ‘Yeah, sweetheart, I know you think I’m just a comic book hero but I swear, we got itched and sometimes you let me tie you up and have my wicked way with you’.”
You snorted. “It was my idea,” you reminded. “I know that much. It’s the kind of thing I… she… the other one, she would fantasize about. But never felt comfortable enough asking for. I’m glad I trusted you enough to ask.”
Steve chuckled. “You don’t remember?” he asked. “Honestly, at first, I thought you were just tryin’ to make me feel better when you brought it up.”
You frowned, straining the capacity of your limited memory in search of something, anything that could give you an inkling of what he meant. You hated that you had gaps in memory like this; you wanted everything, every smile, every argument, every kiss, and every word passed between you. You wanted it all back, your life with Steve and all that it had been, what it meant to you, to him; you were given a gift, you thought, having this second chance of sorts. But you were greedy for it, not satisfied with a half-life that left so much up in the air between you.
You wanted Steve, completely. You wanted your life back.
“Tell me,” you said quietly, settling yourself close against his chest and closing your eyes. “Please, Steve. Tell me everything.”
Steve gave a short chuckle. “It’s not the greatest memory for me, doll,” he told you, then sighed. You knew he wouldn’t deny you anything you asked for.
“I’d just come home. We’d been out on a mission, it took a little longer than expected and we didn’t have a set time to be back,” he began. “It wasn’t anything rough… diplomatic bullshit, mostly… so you didn’t have to worry about me and you were working when I got home. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“You can always bother me,” you scolded softly.
Steve pressed his lips to the top of your head. “I know that now,” he agreed. “You told me that then too.”
You gave a pleased hum and kissed him on the chest in response. “Good,” you said. “Then what happened?”
“Well I…” Steve started, then paused to huff a laugh. “I’d been away for weeks, doll. I get home, I get cleaned up, I’m half-exhausted from the flight back -- swear to God, Sam and Buck would not shut up with the bickering the whole way home -- and then I finally get home to bed, and…”
“And?” you pressed curiously, peeking one eye open to see him. His cheeks had gone pleasantly pink, spreading down to his chest. It made you smile; this Steve, your Steve, was so much more than the cartoonish version that often came out in the films you still remembered, from his faint blushes down to his freckled chest.
“Baby, it smelled like you in here,” he breathed. “Your perfume, your soap, your shampoo, your…” he paused again, blush deepening. “Just… you. And it had been so long since I’d so much as laid a finger on your, and I… I…”
You giggled. “You were turned on,” you filled in, and Steve groaned.
“Can you blame me?” he asked, laughing in a self-deprecating fashion. “Just home, dead on my feet, then surrounded by everything that reminded me of my best girl? I couldn’t help myself.”
“And I caught you!” you practically squealed in triumph, the memory coming flooding back.
You’d left your phone in the apartment and decided to leave the lab early, just in case Steve had tried to contact you since that morning. You’d smiled to see his boots on the floor by the door, but raised an eyebrow at the muffled sounds coming from the bedroom. He’d been so tired and caught up in what he was doing that he didn’t even hear you approach, panicking only when you opened the bedroom door and found him with one hand in his shorts and the other hand holding a tablet.
“And you were watching…” you started, grinning up at him.
“Yeah, yeah, a stag film, I remember,” Steve replied, blush deepening as he spoke. “I was so embarrassed but you kept saying it was okay, that it was…”
“Actually kinda hot,” you filled in, trying not to grin that he still called it a ‘stag film’, like he couldn’t even say the word ‘porn’, at least not to you.
And it had been. Steve had gotten a deer-in-headlights expression and yanked the blankets up to cover himself, as though you hadn’t seen; the tablet had fallen from his hand and you’d smiled, kicked off your shoes, and slid into bed beside him.
You had righted the tablet -- playing a mildly cheesy video of two women, each wearing far too much makeup to cover their age to be even slightly believable as the ‘babysitters’ the title insisted upon -- and started kissing his neck. You’d find him better videos next time, but for now, this would do.
“Don’t stop,” you had whispered into his ear. “I want to see. Show me.”
A few hours later, you’d had a frank discussion that had Steve blushing deeply but speaking openly about your sex life for the first time in your relationship. It wasn’t exactly that sex embarrassed him; you knew better than to think him some blushing virgin, and you’d heard some of the filthy jokes that he traded with Bucky and the others when he thought you weren’t around. It wasn’t about the subject -- it was you. Some part of Steve would always hold you up on that little pedestal, keeping you safe from the rude and the vulgar, as he’d always been taught as a young man.
You did your best to put him at ease. You told him what you liked, what you fantasized about, and he’d shared his own, though it took some time to draw it out of him.
The straps had been your idea, but Steve had taken to it with relish. The windows, the mirror… that had been Steve. And, you suddenly knew, the neat plastic bin beneath the bed and it’s quarry of toys and paddles, those had been joint decisions.
“I can’t believe you put me through that whole talk again,” Steve groaned, and you’d laughed, rolling away from him and onto your back. You knew exactly what he would be needing.
As if on cue, Steve followed you, pressing his burning cheeks to your breast and letting your arms slip around him, holding him close. He closed his eyes and you knew he was listening to the beat of your heart.
“I know it was rough for you, baby,” you told him, reaching one hand to run your fingers through his hair. It was getting long again; you hope he wouldn’t cut it. “Thank you for going through it all again for me. You gave it back to me -- the memory.”
“Anything for you, Doc,” Steve mumbled with a sigh, already drifting back to sleep. “Anything you want to remember about us, you just ask.”
It became something of a game between the two of you. In quiet moments, when you’d notice the tiniest hint of a smile on his face and you knew he was remembering something that was still just out of reach for you, you would ask.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Sometimes it was simple and silly.
“Last time we tried making dinner together, we got into a flour fight. You put a flour handprint right across my face and called me an Uruk-hai. I forgot it was there and we went to grab a drink up in the common lounge with Tony. Didn’t hear the end of that one for months.”
Sometimes it broke your heart that you couldn’t remember it.
“This is where we first kissed. I was so nervous… Never had much luck with girls, you know. Thought it was just as likely as you’d duck away from me. But then I looked at you and you just had this perfect smile… like you knew I was gonna go for it. Like you wanted me to. And then I did, and... it was like you just melted into my arms. Like you’d always belonged there.”
Sometimes… the best times… you’d be able to finish the story.
“Bucky’d eat us out of house had home if we let him,” Steve mused one night as you tore into a new package of Oreos. “Once, you were making those little cinnamon cookies for me…”
“Snickerdoodles?” you offered, snuggling up close to Steve on the couch.
“Yeah, those!” Steve agreed. “You’d made like three dozen, all for me, and while they were still cooling, Bucky…”
“Came in and ate more than half of them, plus drank all the milk in the fridge!” you filled in, remembering it clearly. You’d tried so hard to be mad at him; but as much as Bucky had acclimated to his life in the Tower, there was still a lot he needed to work out and it seemed that often there was very little that he would take for himself. It might have been a selfish moment for him but you’d been so glad for him to have one, you couldn’t be angry.
Shuri might have helped Bucky to reclaim his self, to remove the danger of becoming a puppet to someone else’s will ever again, but he still had a ways to go to learn to be human again. But he was finding his way back, bit by by.
You’d bake him dozens and dozens of cookies if it helped.
You hadn’t even realized you were crying as you told Steve all that you remembered -- crying for Bucky, for what he had been through and how far he had come, and crying for the memory you had recovered.
Steve held you close for the rest of the night and you talked a little about Bucky, about the memories you had gotten back, and the ones you still hadn’t found again. There was still a lot -- gaps in your history with Steve that you desperately wanted filled -- but you were trying hard not to take on too much all at once.
Darcy had to leave a week or so before Halloween, but promised to be back for Christmas; Jane had been “off-world”, as she had termed it, but was home again and needed her right hand back at work. You were sad to see her go, but you understood; the world you lived in now was strange and very, very busy. Dr. Foster was brilliant but Darcy seemed to temper her more capricious whims and you were glad they worked so well together.
You’d made the executive decision that you and Steve would have matching costumes for Tony’s ridiculous masquerade, and were still sourcing the perfect accessories online. You’d always wanted to do that, to attend a party wearing a couples costume with your significant other, but it had never worked out. You were taking advantage of the opportunity as it had presented itself this time around.
Steve’s amused expression at your fervent search for just the right white fedora for his planned costume had you certain that this couldn’t be the first such search.
You smiled at him from where you sat on the couch, laptop at the ready and feet propped up on the coffee table.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” you said, and Steve grinned, quickly settling down beside you on the couch and commandeering your laptop.
“We keep our photos on a private drive that Tony set up for us,” he explained, maneuvering towards a cloud storage applet you hadn’t even noticed on you desktop. You watched his large hands fly over the keyboard with practiced ease and it made you smile, wondering if he’d ever have thought that one day, typing would be a second nature to him.
He made a point to display the drive password as he logged in, winking at you when you caught his gaze after seeing that it was your anniversary date.
“Let’s see, Halloween…” he muttered, flipping quickly through file folders until he came upon the right one.
The first photo made you erupt in laughter: you were a devil, and Steve was an angel. The memory was there, but just barely; you hadn’t been officially dating very long and Steve had been nervous about asking you to one of Tony’s events, but he’d managed to get past it.
“All things considered,” he had told you, “I’d rather get shot down asking, than spend the night mopin’ around on my own.”
You hadn’t had very much time to come up with costumes and a lot of it you’d had to whip up on your own. Steve was in a white t-shirt and jeans with a pair of too small feathery wings on his shoulders, and a halo made from a headband, a piece of wire, and tinfoil. You’d slathered a bit of silvery body glitter on his cheeks for good measure. You’d worn a pair of horns and a tail you’d gotten in a pack together at a drugstore, and a red dress that was a little tighter and a little shorter than you’d strictly been comfortable with. You were both grinning like fools at the camera.
The next one was a little more thought-out, clearly a packaged pair of costumes you had bought somewhere for the event. You were both dressed as pirates; you’d gone so far as to sponge paint stubble on Steve’s cheeks, as he’d been clean-shaven at the time. You were sitting on Steve’s lap in the photo, clearly more comfortable than the previous year but still grinning up a the camera.
There were three more: Mary Poppins and Bert the chimney sweep -- you remembered sponging the dirt on his face, getting distracted by the way his lips seeks to catch your wrist every time you leaned in until you were giggling and he got you onto your back on the carpet, and you had to wash all of the excess makeup off of your face and neck, then a sailor and a mermaid -- Steve looking sweet and boyish in the vintage navy uniform you’d found, and then last year’s, Westley and Buttercup from The Princess Bride. Steve looked extra dashing in Westley’s black Dread Pirate Roberts gear; he’d made a point to grow the mustache to complete the look.
You were about to tell him that it wouldn’t hurt to let his facial hair grow in now and again when you suddenly frowned and counted the photos he had shown you. There were only five; you’d been together with Steve for six years total, and married for three of them.
“There’s only five,” you murmured, noting immediately the way Steve’s open expression turned carefully guarded and his head dropped just slightly. “Why are there only five?”
“It’s a little… it’s a little complicated,” Steve started slowly. He watched you a moment, taking in the confusion on your face, and was about to speak again when your eyes suddenly widened in horror.
“You left me!” you blurted out.
“No!” Steve said quickly, shaking his head. There was a manic sense to his voice, hands in the air as if claiming innocence. “No, I swear to god, Doc, I didn’t, it wasn’t like that!”
You shook your head. “You left me!” you repeated, the memory sudden, sharp, and piercing. The tears were falling without your control or even notice. That was the problem with amnesia, you reasoned. The desperate need to have your memories restored always made you forget the inherent danger.
Some memories had teeth.
“Not willingly,” Steve amended quickly. “Not by choice, baby, I’d never. I’d never leave you, not unless you turned me out. It just… it was a complicated situation, and I…”
You shook your head and stood, pacing the room. You were hurt and agitated, reliving the experience all over again as it came back to you.
No note. No phone call or text message to allay your concerns.
It hadn’t been the first time that Steve had to run out on a mission in the middle of the night and it certainly hadn’t been the last since, but it was the only time he had failed to return without giving you any idea of where he had gone and when he’d be home.
You’d been dating for two years by then and it was a serious as it could be, short of a key or a ring. You knew the former would be coming soon; you hadn’t spent a night alone in months, Steve staying at your apartment most nights or the two of you crashing at Steve’s place in the Tower when something held you at work late or you attended some sort of function there. And then, radio silence. You felt almost as though you were being ghosted -- until that Saturday morning, three days after Steve had disappeared, when government agents raided your apartment while you were making yourself a bowl of cereal.
They were looking for him, they said. You were a ‘known associate’ of one Steven G. Rogers, alias Captain America, who was currently the sole suspect in a series of violent, racist attacks within the city. They had him on CCTV, they told you. They had him dead to rights.
“Maybe something in the old boy finally snapped,” the smarmy FBI agent had drawled. They’d dragged you to their field office in your pajamas, accessorized by a shiny pair of handcuffs; you were being questioned as a material witness to Steve’s whereabouts.
They didn’t believe you that you didn’t know.
“Or maybe,” the agent crooned, flipping his chair around to sit it in it backwards, “Maybe he just isn’t the friendliest guy after all, huh? Guy grew up in segregation, right? Wouldn’t be too much of a shocker if old Mr. Rogers had a little problem with…”
“You do realize that Captain Rogers is an outspoken advocate against racism and bigotry in any form, right?” you told him, not hiding your disgust as you spoke.
The agent shrugged. “Everyone likes to play nice for the cameras, but we know better than to believe that, don’t we? Any kind of guy who is best buds with a terrorist…”
“Sergeant Barnes was summarily cleared of all charges of terrorism and war crimes,” you responded, rage burning white hot in your veins.
“Oh sure,” the agent replied. “The good ol’ boys club, I get it. Doesn’t mean a couple of old timers like that can’t be bigots on the down low.”
You rolled your eyes. “You are wasting your time. I don’t know where he is, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. Now get me the hell out of here or get me my lawyer immediately.”
They let you go -- they had to. If they had bothered to even show you the supposed videos they had of Steve shaking down minority businesses and beating up the owners, you could have told them without question it wasn’t him. Sure, the face was right, in a way; it was definitely his bland, impassive poster-boy expression, because that was where it had been copied from. There was no emotion there at all, no anger, no glee. Anyone who knew Steve would have known it was all wrong.
And then there was the body. Steve had a distinctive shape to his body, broad shoulders and a trim waist; whoever it was they had in their videos had a generic bulky bodybuilder figure. Steve ran with a certain straightness to his back that no one could ever duplicate properly; the man that had been caught on camera had a hunched, hurried gait.
Someone had taken his face and done these awful things, and that’s when you realized it: Steve wasn’t on a mission anymore, he was on the run.
And he had left you behind.
“You left me!” you said again, voice just above a whisper. Steve took you in his arms and held you in a tight embrace.
You had been so angry at him when you figured it out, bad feeling growing by the day. It was a a full two months after your brush with the FBI that finally Tony gave you some idea of what was happening.
“FRIDAY monitors most governmental channels,” Tony had explained. “We heard word coming down the wire that the feds were looking for Cap and ready to issue a warrant. He was already overseas for that Hydra-wannabe start-up in Bremen with Barnes, we just redirected their ride home out to safer territory.”
You had glared at him. “And none of you thought to inform me?”
Tony sighed and pushed his hand through his hair. “Yeah that was… that was an oversight,” he admitted, and you erupted.
“An oversight?!” you snapped. “For god’s sake, Tony, Steve and I practically live… lived together and not one of you people saw it fit to tell me… I mean, my god, I thought you were my friends!”
Tony looked cowed for maybe the second time since you had met him. “We’re a pretty insular group,” he said, frowning a little to himself. “I don’t think anyone expected to bring someone new into the fold and we didn’t really plan for… contingencies.”
You crossed your arms and glared. “Great. Thanks. I’m an anomaly in your friendship group. Fantastic. Can you at least tell me where Steve is and if he plans on coming back?”
“Wakanda,” Tony said, turning back to the computer display he had been working with. “We’ve worked out that there was infiltration into the FBI by one of these alt-right groups…”
“Nazis,” you corrected, and Tony nodded.
“Nazis,” he agreed. “We’re certain they’re behind the attacks. There have been seven more since Steve went into hiding… which he hates, by the way, but we can’t have him in the states until we get this mess cleared up.”
“You’ve spoken to him,” you said flatly, and Tony winced but didn’t turn back to face you. You hated how small your voice sounded when you asked, “Did he even ask about me?”
“He asked that we keep you safe,” Tony replied and frowned at the screen, which was displaying video of one of the attacks. He cleared his throat. “We’re getting closer to nailing these bastards and as soon as we do…”
You stood, shaking your head. “It’s none of my business,” you replied airily. You turned quickly, hiding the hot tears spilling down your cheeks, and did your best to control your voice. “After all, I’m just the hired help around here.”
“Doc…” Tony started, but you ignored him and made for the door.
“If you talk to him again, you tell him… you tell him I’ve got no cause to wait for someone who doesn’t think it’s important to let me know when he’s about to disappear,” you said, and stalked back to your lab, promptly sending your technicians home for the day and crying your eyes out in your office.
You lied, of course. You did wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. Eventually, fake-Steve stopped publicly attacking people; instead it became fake-Clint for a time, before the others were able to find them and shut them down. They had been using face-morphing technology to imitate public figures in hopes to turn public opinion to their cause or, at the least, take their most vocal adversaries out of the game.
Steve came home to a very public, very formal apology by the FBI, issued to both him and Clint. He didn’t stay long at the press conference, going instead to wait outside the apartment door you refused to open for three days.
He waited. Talked to you through the door when you wouldn’t let him in and slipped notes beneath it when you refused to respond, scribbled on the back of hallway detritus, scrap pieces of junk mail and takeout menus. The last one simply read “Please. I love you”, and that was what did it -- what finally broke you.
You opened the door and Steve was still sat there against the wall, looking tired and stubbled, eyes rimmed red.
“Never again,” you told him, even as you started to cry. “Don’t you ever do anything like this again, Steve, I mean it, I swear to god…”
“Never,” he agreed, standing up on stiff legs to pull you into a tight embrace. “I promise, I promise, I promise…”
He was breathing those words into your hair now, holding you close and tight, as if willing you to believe him. You remembered it now; there was a go-bag for each of you in your bedroom closet, with cash and clothes and burner phones, and an authentic Wakandan passport in each of your names.
“Never,” Steve whispered. “Never, baby, I’ll never leave you again, I promise. I promise.”
The best part was that you believed him.
You changed your plans for Halloween after that. You weren’t angry at Steve, not really. The real anger had passed long ago, but there was something remaining behind after you’d recovered the memory that made you feel a little prickly. Your original idea had been to dress Steve in a pinstripe suit and have him carry a plastic tommy-gun as a 1920’s era gangster, with you dressed as his flapper moll in a silver fringed dress. It gave you a little tickle to change the design for the night: you put Steve into an old-school striped prisoner’s outfit, and dressed yourself in an overly revealing cop get-up.
Steve spent much of the night laughing at his friends’ gentle ribbing, and the other half watching you in your fishnets and miniskirt with handcuffs linked to your belt, eyes dark and hungry.
You really enjoyed the holiday.
The episode had brought forth a small stream of less than happy memories, not just of your life with Steve but the years prior. Your home life, it seemed, had been much the same: your father in the wind at a young age, your mother’s drinking, moving from one crappy apartment to another. It had all been much the same. Even the fiance that had jilted you for your former best friend, it had all been the same.
But you hadn’t run to San Diego then, though the offer had been there. You’d had a different offer, a better one -- a grant to work for Stark Industries. You’d taken that instead, and it had set your life on an entirely different course. No lonely California apartment, no boring days and empty nights. Here you had friends, you had love.
It’s a pity, you thought, that in the other life, the one you knew best, none of this even existed.
You kept asking, though. Steve was more than forthcoming over anything you questioned him over, and seemed happy to share some of his favorite memories with you, even more delighted when you were able to fill in the blanks.
“Why me?” you asked him one night, curled together on the couch again as an early November snow began falling outside. You loved this about your life -- that nights with Steve weren’t full of exhausting parties or sudden runs out to fight a war; there were still days when he had to leave you but they weren’t nearly as often as you might have imagined, and he was such a homebody.
You loved it.
Steve had been gently dozing but he’d heard your question, and he tightened his arm over your shoulders. “Whassat?” he mumbled, and you laughed.
“I’ll ask you again tomorrow,” you told him, and kissed him on the tip of his nose.
Steve closed his eyes and drew in a sigh, opening them fully after a moment, more awake than before. “No, I want to know. What did you ask?”
“I said, why me?” you reiterated, and when Steve frowned, you continued. “I’ve seen the women who flock to you, Steve. They’re beautiful. Almost perfect. Even the ones who became your friends… Natasha, Wanda, Maria… they’re stunning. And then there’s me…”
“Yeah, there’s you,” Steve agreed, nodding. “The woman I love.”
You smiled; you couldn’t help it. “But why me?” you said again. “You could have had literally anyone in the world, and you picked me.”
Steve shook his head. “No, Doc. You picked me. I’m still the same guy I was all those years ago, not knowin’ when to shut my mouth when it came to a bully but not really able to talk when it came to a girl that caught my eye. I’d never’ve had the nerve to take up with Peggy if she hadn’t been so forward. But it was different with you.
“I could talk to you. I mean, I saw you and I thought… I just thought ‘wow’. ‘Look at her’. I expected to clam up just like always, say or do something stupid without meanin’ it, but you… you smiled at me, and the words just came. You made me feel like I’d known you my whole life, and you made me want to know you a whole lot better. Never thought I’d get to call you mine… God knows I dreamed about it from the second I set eyes on you.
“I never let myself stop and ask why, or wonder what you saw in me. It’ll just have me going crazy, running circles in my own head. I won’t ask why. I’m only god damn thankful that I get to love you.”
You fell asleep there on the couch, Steve holding you close and the snow still falling on a muted city outside your window. It had happened so many times before -- some that you remembered, some that you didn’t -- that you realized it was something of a routine for you both. The closeness and the comfort so dear to your heart that you’d be content to have this, only this, for the rest of your days.
In the early morning hours, when the two of you peeled yourselves off the couch to head to your bed, you found yourself wondering as you stripped out of the jeans you wore the night before and reached for a nightgown. The cabinet doors that concealed the mirror across from your bed were slightly ajar and you had the thought that there might be other important things you still hadn’t remembered.
Steve, who never wasted an opportunity when he saw you pulling off clothing, was stood behind you, one large warm hand creeping around your midsection.
“We don’t have to go right back to sleep, do we?” he whispered, and you smiled and twisted in his embrace.
“Later,” you said quietly. “But I need you to tell me something.”
Steve pouted. “Later?” he repeated, and you nodded.
“Promise,” you told him.
Steve sighed, but didn’t relinquish his grip. “If you insist,” he agreed. “What do you want to know?”
“Is there anything else I forgot?” you asked him. “Anything important? Anything that might scare me or surprise me or just anything, anything that was important to me, to us, that I need to know?”
He stared at you for a long moment, and then nodded. “One thing,” he agreed, and turned to pad towards your nightstand. You followed curiously; you’d made a point of searching through all the drawers and cabinets in the house, looking for something, anything that could spark a memory. All that you recalled seeing in the nightstand drawer were a few paperback novels, a small notebook or two, and a few loose pens.
When Steve reached in and retrieved a small leather-case booklet, you vaguely recognized it, thinking it had been an old checkbook register. You hadn’t paid it any mind, more interested in the notebooks and what clues to your past you might have written down. Steve sat down on the bed and looked up at you, patting the mattress beside him so you would sit. You took your place and he opened the booklet for you to see.
There was a calendar inside, with notations on specific days in your handwriting. Most was done in blue pen, but there were other marks inside, the name ‘Helen’ written down in a very specific pattern. Your eyes widened in recognition.
“Oh,” you said quietly.
Steve nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“How long?” you pressed; the calendar had only a few weeks filled in.
“Not very,” he told you, voice soft and a little wistful. “It was… it was a rough decision and you wanted to be sure, wanted both of us to be sure… we talked a long time, and then…”
“Then I went to Helen,” you said, little traces of the memory coming back in flashes.
“You did,” Steve agreed. “I’m sorry. I should have told you, but I didn’t want to worry you or… it just seemed like it would be too much.”
You turned to him and you smiled. “It’s not,” you said. You reached up to cradle his face with one hand, and Steve automatically nuzzled into your touch. “I think we can call it ‘later’ now,” you added, closing your eyes when Steve laid gentle kisses on your palm and wrist.
You’d speak to Helen later. For now… now, you could have this.
TW: Discussion of family planning.
You took a few days before you decided to actually go and speak with Helen. It was a sensitive subject; it felt oddly invasive to address when you could only remember bits and pieces.
That was the most frustrating part. You loved looking at the photos Steve had shown you, exploring all of the different files and folders, seeing the scraps of this life that you couldn’t recall, but it all felt so eerie. You saw your own face smiling back at you, your own eyes staring out from the screen, but it didn’t feel like you, when you had no memory to connect to the image.
Six years with Steve, six years of different hairstyles and vacations and memories and laughter and so much still outside of your graps. The rest of your life -- growing up, growing older -- you would gladly go without it, if you could only remember these past six years completely. The life you had made here, with Steve, with the friends you’d made, it was worth a life of empty memories just to have it all back.
But you remembered some things, important things. Steve’s eyes lit up every time you could fill in the blanks before he explained something from your past and he practically glowed with joy when you could volunteer a memory or a habit without his help. That’s what you wanted most -- for Steve to be happy.
That is why you forced yourself to go to Helen’s office after your own staff had left for the day. It was only a little past four in the afternoon and you knew that Helen would be working on notes for her day’s work until five or so.
You rapped on her open office door with your knuckles. “Do you have a moment?” you asked quietly, and she looked up in surprise.
“Are you unwell?” she asked, gesturing for you to come inside.
You shook your head, closing the door behind you before taking a seat in one of the two chairs that sat across from her desk.
“I think we have some things to talk about,” you told her, eyes dropping to your hands in your lap. You sighed. “I don’t understand why we were never friends, Helen. We moved in the same circles all through school and it wasn’t a competition, not really. We were in completely different fields.”
“There was a competition,” she replied slowly. “The Dean’s List. The Governor’s Award. Scholarships. Journal articles. It always came down to the two of us.”
You smiled, a few scattered memories surfacing. “You always won, in the end,” you reminded. “All of them. First to print in any journal, scooping up every award. Your work was grounded in the real world -- you had real results that could be applied to real, physical problems. All of mine was hypothetical. You won, and you deserved it.”
Helen gave a short laugh, amused but bitter. “But they always invited you, too. Every ceremony, every banquet. If I was valedictorian, you were salutatorian. And they always liked your speech better.”
You frowned. “It’s not your fault you’re shy,” you said, remembering a candid conversation with one of the Board of Governor’s trustees during your undergrad.
“Perhaps you should give the speech at the awards dinner,” the man had said, patting you on the arm. “Miss Cho is well-deserving of speaking on her accomplishments but I’m afraid she doesn’t perform well in this situations. Too dry. Too quiet. We do need some large scale donors for the new arts building.”
You cocked your head to the side. “It made you nervous. Speaking in front of the crowds.”
Helen frowned. “It was always so easy for you. They’d hand me a trophy or certificate, take a few photos, and then they’d take you around to meet donors and trustees. They didn’t even know I was there.”
“And then we both end up here,” you said quietly. You hadn’t realized -- the you that was, or the you that you had come -- how it must have bothered her. “You tried to be a part of the crowd here but things went wrong. Not your fault… just happenstance, and you stayed away after that. And then Steve came to my lab.”
Helen leaned back in her chair. “Just like always,” she said. “I do the work, but you’re in the limelight. Unless someone is hurt, it seems like everyone forgets I’m here. I should have stayed in Seoul.”
“We never forgot you,” you told her, the memories becoming clearer the longer you spoke to her. “Me and Steve. We asked you over a dozen times and you never came. And you were the first one we came to see when we decided to start a family.”
Helen smiled, a small, tired thing. You were struck with a sudden memory -- not an event, no, but a simple fact that came to mind: Helen loved babies. There were pictures on her desk of her nieces and nephews, infants and toddlers, constantly being updated as more snapshots came in the mail.
That little crack in her professional facade was quickly covered and her expression went neutral as she nodded.
“There were some concerns regarding the serum,” she filled in, knowing instinctively that you hadn’t been able to fill in all of the blanks on the situation. “We’ve never been certain if the fundamental changes made to his physical form also altered the genes he was able to pass on. The simplest way to test that would be obtaining a sample, but…”
“Oh,” you said, laughing softly at the sudden memory. “He was so embarrassed when you brought it up, he turned red as a tomato.”
Helen allowed herself a small smile. “He was,” she agreed. “We discussed the pros and cons, and settled on the thought that it would be best if we did not have any of his genetic material on file. No samples, no genome mapping, none of it. There are still people out there wanting to recreate the serum and we -- the Captain, Sergeant Barnes, Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner, myself, all of us -- thought it best that it not be something readily available. It could be catastrophic if it fell into the wrong hands.”
You thought for a moment of Bucky, of what he had gone through; his version of the serum was incomplete, and the testing done on him, the repeated trials of new drugs and new methods of activating the serum in his blood, it had been Hell. The mere thought that someone could infiltrate the Tower’s stronghold was terrifying, but not out of the realm of possibility. You had once thought SHIELD to be infallible -- everyone had -- and you’d been proven wrong. And if anyone had even an inkling of how to replicate the serum, some other poor soul could go through the same torture that Bucky suffered. It was unthinkable.
“It wasn’t just concern for the health of a possible child,” you spoke up with sudden realization. “We were concerned about me.”
Helen nodded. “Even an unremarkable fetus can implant improperly and cause harm to the mother,” she explained. “There have been many unfortunate cases where a fetus attached at the wrong point in the uterine wall and, as it grew and gained movement, accidentally detached itself, dying almost instantly and causing severe hemorrhaging in the mother. If the fetus was growing to have the Captain’s enhanced strength, even the early stages of fetal movement could prove damaging. It wasn’t a risk either of you wanted to take.”
“I was coming to see you every two weeks,” you pointed out. “You must have come up with a treatment.”
“Blood transfusions,” Helen said bluntly. “The Captain is has blood type O with a negative RF. That’s the universal blood type. We’ve been taking his blood, running it through the centrifuge, and then transfusing it into you. It’s probably what saved your life after you were shot. You healed very quickly, not the same rate as we see in the Captain but enough so that we had you back in our own bed less than a day after surgery.”
Your eyes widened in surprise. “Platelet-rich plasma?” you asked. “I’d never have thought of that.”
Helen’s smile was more genuine this time. “That’s why you came to me,” she reminded you.
Steve was glad to be home when he finally made it through your apartment door. Some days he found he would much prefer to be out in the field, dodging bullets and even taking bad falls if he had to, rather than suffering through meetings and briefings all day long. The bureaucratic red-tape had been significantly reduced in the days after the fall of SHIELD, but such meetings were still a necessity at times.
It wasn’t the kind of work that Steve felt he was cut out for; it exhausted him.
He slipped out of his shoes at the door, shedding the sweater he’d word to fend off the recent chill in the air and tossing it over the back of an armchair in the living room. He paused there and stretched, the muscles of his back tight and aching from a day bent over paperwork and sitting in uncomfortable boardroom seating. He yawned even as he listened for your presence, the clinking of cutlery in the kitchen giving you away.
“Babydoll?” he called, following the sound in stocking feet. “What are you up to?”
You turned and smiled, stirring a wooden spoon in stainless steel bowl. “You’ve had dinner already, right?” you asked; it was well after eight in the evening, and Tony most certainly would have ordered in if hey were going to be kept that late.e
Steve nodded and leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest as he eyed you curiously.
“I went to see Helen today,” you said, moving to rest your bowl on the counter. You set it down and wiped your hands on a clean dish towel, then walked towards him, leaning up on your tiptoes to press a soft kiss on his lips.
Steve gave a pleased hum and smiled against your lips. “And how did that go?” he asked.
You smiled back. “Just fine,” you replied, and leaned against his chest, closing your eyes when you felt his arms close around you. “She’s coming by for dinner on Saturday, barring any alien attacks or secret wars starting up. She’s bringing wine and bread, and Bruce is making paella.”
“Bruce too?” Steve asked curiously. “Not trying your hand at matchmaking are you?”
You chuckled. “I didn’t have to,” you told him. “I just mentioned dinner and she thought it would be nice to ask Bruce too, is all. We’ll make dessert.”
“You starting on it now?” Steve asked, and you opened your eyes to see him nod towards the kitchen counter.
“Oh, that,” you replied with a sigh. “No, that’s a cherry cheesecake I was trying to make for you. I know how you like something sweet at night and I thought it’d be nice, after a long day of meetings. The cherry topping is in the fridge, but unfortunately I overcooked the pie shell and it just crumbled to pieces.”
“Oh,” Steve said, disappointment evident in his voice.
“But I came up with a good idea of what to do with it,” you explained, and you tipped up to kiss him once more before sauntering back towards the counter. “How about we go into the living room, and I’ll bring the cheesecake filling and the cherry topping and a package or two of graham crackers. We can eat it like chips and dip, and watch Midsomer Murders. I’ve got the second series all queued up on the tv and a nice warm blanket waiting for us.”
Steve’s expression was like Christmas morning, breathing your name out with great reverence as he spoke. “Sometimes I honestly think you’re too good to be true.”
You couldn’t help but laugh. “Isn’t that my line?” you asked.
The evening passed with you cuddled up close beneath a fleece throw blanket printed with penguins and polar bears, jostling for control of the cheesecake and cherry bowls and posting theories over who had committed the latest homicides in Midsomer.
“How are there any people left in the county?” Steve asked, pausing to brush some graham cracker crumbs off the edge of the blanket. “The body count here has to be off the charts and we’re only on the second season.”
“Series,” you corrected.
Steve frowned. “What’s that?” he asked?
“Second series,” you reminded. “Seasons on American television, series on British television.”
“Not at all confusing…” Steve grumbled, and scooped another graham cracker through the cheesecake filling. “Either way though… how many this episode so far?”
“Three,” you relented with a nod. “The population has taken a serious hit. I’m not sure what’s more concerning, the amount of people dead or the amount of people ready to commit murder.”
Steve snorted. “Maybe it’s something in the water?” he suggested, grinning down at where you were tucked beneath his arm. He leaned towards you and you thought for a moment that he was going to kiss you -- only to flick his tongue over a dab of cherry on your lip, leading you into a fit of giggles.
You were glad he was so relaxed; you knew that he needed to decompress on days like this. You hated to see him walking in the door with his brow furrowed and his shoulders slumped. Sometimes you wondered who he could have been in another life, without the war or the serum that changed him. You could never imagine him holed up in some office building; he’d sooner take a line job in a factory, breaking his back with an honest day’s work before he’d suffer the culture of backstabbing and bureaucracy endemic to office life even in his day. But that wouldn’t have been right for him either.
Others looked at Steve Rogers and saw a hero, but you knew him better. He might have the history and physique of a hero, but it was just a role that he played. Steve had the heart and soul of a dreamer; he always saw ways to make things somehow better, for everyone. He had it in him to change the world. That was what had led him to the Erskine and the serum -- he knew he could make a difference, if they’d only let him. You couldn’t stop yourself from wondering what more he could have done, if only he had been allowed.
You crept to bed after three episodes, the both of you beginning to doze and the bowls of dessert abandoned on the coffee table. You stood and stretched, throwing the blanket haphazardly over the back of the couch and turned to take the dishes, but Steve stopped you.
“We can get them in the morning,” he told you, eyes half-lidded, speech slow and sleepy.
You smiled and reached for him, unable to help yourself; you reached for his cheek and Steve leaned into the touch, sighing softly and letting his long lashes flutter closed.
“C’mon then,” you said, letting your hand fall to twine your fingers with his. “Let’s get to bed.”
When you’d changed and slipped into bed, you smiled in the dark, feeling him moving towards you beneath the covers. You settled yourself on your side, knowing just what he needed, and in no time at all, Steve cuddled closer to burrow his head against your chest. You closed your eyes, running your fingers through his hair, and as you drifted off you heard him mutter to you sleepily, “Love you baby”.
I may not be the Queen of Fluff, but I'll be damned if I'm not at least a princess.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Helen had become much more of a presence around the Tower. You saw her frequently at friendly gatherings, holding long conversations with Bruce and occasionally Tony; the cold and clinical presence she often adopted in her office was replaced with an open, even friendly manner. You were very happy for her -- and happy for Bruce too, who seemed to be very much enjoying the company. She’d even taken up Tony’s standing offer for her to join the holiday celebration.
You mentioned as much to Steve after the annual Thanksgiving meal, while you were all spending time together in the common lounge. You were sitting on Steve’s lap in an armchair, seating space at a premium, his hand on your knee.
“Don’t let it go to your head,” he warned in a low voice, earning a small laugh from you.
“Was I wrong?” you replied, nodding towards where the two stood. Bruce was fixing Helen a drink at the bar, and she was smiling at something he’d said.
“They’re having a drink,” Steve said. “That’s not exactly ringing the wedding bells.”
You turned your face towards his and smiled. “Give it time,” you replied, giggling when he gave an animated roll of his eyes. You were still laughing when he leaned forward to kiss you, laughter fading away as you gave yourself over fully to the kiss.
“Let’s keep this party G-rated, please!” Tony called, an echo of laughter from the rest of the group. You broke the kiss and leaned into Steve’s embrace, ready with a quick retort but finding no real need to use it.
“I think we could at least manage PG-13,” Pepper Potts put in smoothly, stealing a kiss from Tony himself. The group gathered, all full of liquor and good cheer, hooted and hollered in response.
Tony kissed her back eagerly, a disappointing pout on his face for a brief moment when she pulled away to straighten the collar of his shirt, smiling all the while.
Steve drifted a warm, heavy hand up your back. You could feel the heat of him even through the soft flower-print cotton dress you had worn, and smiled when he nuzzled beneath your ear. He let his hand slide down your back again, settling there at the small of it before reaching around to squeeze your hip.
“You okay?” he asked, voice still pitched low. “I know holidays were never your thing.”
That was true, in this life and the other; your family life had been near nonexistent. Holidays were never much to shout over -- it’s not as though you had anything to really celebrate. But it was different now. You had Steve; you had Bucky, and Bruce, and your team in your lab, and you had Tony, and Darcy, and even Helen was coming around.
You had family. You had friends. There was so much to be thankful for now.
You smiled at him. “I’m happy,” you said simply, and Steve smiled in return. Tony was getting loud and boisterous, trying to gather everyone around the coffee table.
“If we’re not careful, he’s going to suggest we all play charades or something,” Steve half-whispered. “Maybe we should sneak out before then?”
You grinned at him. You weren’t ready for the party to end.
“Hey Tony?” you called, eyes still on Steve’s face as he started to laugh, knowing exactly what you were going to say. “How about charades?”
Snow came to the city in the coming weeks and with it, a series of disturbing dreams. The nightmares started without waning, interrupting your sleep to the degree that you would wake in a panic several times throughout the night. You’d find yourself drenched in sweat and your heart racing, struggling to catch your breath. Of course, Steve was concerned.
“Maybe you should make an appointment with Helen,” he suggested early one morning as you went through the motions of getting ready for the day in a listless daze. You were exhausted; you weren’t getting a full night’s rest and when you did sleep, you’d be in a constant state of fear, unable to even relax.
You pasted on a tired smile. “I’m fine,” you insisted, letting him pull you into his arms. You closed your eyes and leaned against him; you were so dead on your feet that you could fall asleep right then and there. But with sleep came the nightmares; no, you’d much rather be exhausted than deal with that any more than you had to.
At first they were standard nightmares: running in the dark, an unseen presence hovering just outside of your line of sight, sometimes even unknown terrors that would leave you to wake breathless and terrified, even though you couldn’t remember what had frightened you. It was bad but it wasn’t anything that you couldn’t handle.
Then they started to change.
They were so real. You’d dream that you were waking to another life, your old life, the one you knew before you woke up with Steve at your side. They were repetitive but never exactly the same. Usually you’d find yourself in a hospital bed in San Diego, still recovering from your bullet wound and, worst of it all, all alone. Other times you’d be in a bare room with little more than a bed, a thick metal door locking you in and bars on the only window out into the world, the bracelet on your wrist telling you that you were a patient at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. Occasionally you’d be out in the halls of the same hospital, wandering among people who didn’t speak, only stared at you with dull, lifeless eyes.
Always there would be someone there, telling you some version of the same damn thing: you were ill, you were delusional, you needed to accept reality.
You’d stay up all night if you could only stop the dreams.
“Baby, you’re scaring me,” Steve told you, voice thick with concern. He ran a soothing hand up and down your back. “It’s remindin’ me of when Bucky first came home and he was having so much trouble. I don’t feel comfortable leavin’ you like this.”
You were afraid of that too. Your one saving grace had been that each time you awoke in your panicked state, Steve was there to hold you and calm you. He was leaving that afternoon on a long term mission that would keep him away at least until the new year. He’d been as disappointed as you were that you’d miss Christmas together, but you’d at least have Darcy there to celebrate.
The thought of waking without him, though… that was beyond terrifying.
You tried to smile. “I’ll be fine,” you insisted. “I have my work to keep me occupied, and we can have our own Christmas when you get home.”
“But if it gets worse…” Steve insisted, brow furrowed in worry.
You nodded. “If it gets worse, I’ll make an appointment with Helen. It’s probably just a little stress, it’ll settle down.”
Steve wasn’t convinced. “You know, they probably don’t even need me,” he offered. “I could stay behind, let the rest of the team go get things set up, and they could call me in if…”
You shook your head. The two of you had spent hours talking about his role in the Avengers, and what he might want for the future -- what you both might want for your future together. He’d talked of going into partial retirement, taking a less active role, or leaving the team entirely when it came time for you to have a family. But you couldn’t ask that of him, not now. Not when you were still trying to heal your fractured mind and figure out what exactly had happened to break you down. Everything still seemed so unsure, so tentative.
You couldn’t ask Steve to start making major changes to his life until you understood everything that had happened to you.
“I’ll be fine,” you insisted, forcing a smile. “I’ll have Helen here, and Darcy will be here soon. It will only be a few weeks, Steve. I’ll manage. Let me hold down the fort while you go save the world.”
Two days after Steve and the others left, you found yourself nodding at your desk in the lab. It had been a rough night; it seemed that your nightmares had grown fiercer just by virtue of Steve’s absence during the night. You’d been holding your head up on your arm and just drifted away into a brief moment of respite from the day, jarring back awake as soon as Beth approached your desk with a file he hands.
“Oh! Beth, I’m sorry,” you said, shaking your head. You offered a tired smile. “What do you got for me?”
Her face suddenly went blank, devoid of any emotion, eyes wide and staring, but she made no response and didn’t move to hand you the file.
“Beth?” you prodded, frowning.
“You need to wake up,” she said, voice low and strained.
“What…?” you began, but she kept talking in that same strange tone.
“You need to wake up,” she repeated. “You’ve been asleep for so long.”
Your frown deepened. “Beth, I was just nodding a little, I’m not…”
“There’s no reason for you to still be asleep. You’ve locked yourself into a delusion and you need to wake up.”
You felt the panic welling inside of you at her words, your voice gaining an octave as you asked “What?”
But the strange expression of Beth’s face had passed; she flashed a cheerful smile. “I printed those new specs that Tony sent over. We’re fabricating the new circuitry for Bucky’s upgrades today, aren’t we?”
You nodded, your face having gone ashy and pale. “Yes, but… but what you were just saying? I… what were you just saying to me?”
Beth frowned. “Just… the specs from Tony? The ones the Wakandan princess sent him?”
“No, before that,” you told her. “Before that, when you first came over.”
Beth shook her head, clearly upset. “I just… I just came over with the paperwork, Doc, I didn’t say anything else. Are you -- are you okay? Do you need me to call Dr. Cho?”
You shook your head and forced a smile. “I’m okay,” you said a little weakly. “Just tired. Would you get me some coffee, Beth? I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Beth nodded cautiously. “I never sleep real well when I’m alone,” she offered. When the Avengers left on a mission, it was often the worst kept secret in the Tower. The people who worked in the tower, in the employ of Stark Industries, research outsourced from SHIELD, and even in hospitality, the employee cafeteria, or the coffee shop in the lobby, were all wrapped from head to toe in nondisclosure agreements and yet still liked to titter amongst themselves about what was happening on the upper floors. Beth knew Steve was gone because everyone knew.
You nodded. “It takes some getting used to,” you agreed with a small laugh. It had taken some getting used to wake up beside him again, after all.
Beth smiled. “How about I get you some coffee?” she offered, setting the file folder she carried on the desk in front of you. “Look these over, and we’ll get some coffee, and go from there, okay?”
For the second time in recent months, you threw yourself into your work. It was difficult to focus on anything else, with the nightmares growing worse by the night and no hope for any respite in your future. You had your team focused on changing the parameters of your magnetics project, with only Beth working alongside you on the upgrades for Bucky’s arm. There was a silent but generally accepted policy that no one outside of the Avengers’ inner circle know the full breadth of their personal tech; Beth would work with you on the circuitry, and you’d pull Jared to finish the project later on.
There had been two more strange episodes during your working hours; Beth seemed more and more uneasy with you as timed passed, but she wouldn’t broach the topic. You knew what she was thinking -- that you were unraveling. You were having the very same fears.
“Maybe we can hold off on the circuitry?” she suggested.
You frowned at her, taking a sip of your coffee. “Why would we do that?” you asked.
“You just seems… so… tired?” she offered, clearly trying not to offend you. “It’s such intricate work, and you’ve been…”
“Completely off my game,” you filled in with a sigh, leaning back in your chair. Beth was right; you shouldn’t be handling something so delicate when you were exhausted and afraid to sleep. You sighed again. “Why don’t you see if Jared needs a hand? Tony left some clean energy air filters he wanted us to look at to try and get the HVAC system a little greener, he and a few others are working on it.”
“Sure, okay,” Beth agreed, nodding. She reached out a hand and patted your shoulder gently. “Maybe you could take a break? Try and get some sleep.”
You smiled and took a long sip of your coffee. “I’ll keep myself busy,” you said.
In spite of the near epic amounts of coffee you’d been drinking, you were still more than ready for a good long nap. You tried to keep your mind active by reading over the field notes Dr. Foster had sent along with Darcy on her last visit, but the words would blurr and swim in your exhausted vision. You nearly spilled your coffee twice and after you were jolted awake by your head hitting the keyboard, you threw in the towel. You let your team know you’d be taking the rest of the day off and you half-walked, half-stumbled towards the elevator that would take you home.
The sheets still smelled like Steve and you smiled as you crawled in, still in your lab coat, having only bothered to kick off your shoes at the door to your bedroom. You were no good to anyone if you couldn’t function properly, and caffeine could only do so much. You curled yourself around Steve’s pillow and sighed, wishing he was there for you to hold, and closed your eyes, bracing yourself for what dreams may come.
The first was just a normal nightmare, so simple and familiar that it almost felt like a relief when you woke from it at the nagging for your bladder, an hour or so after you’d fallen asleep. When you emerged from the bathroom you paused to change out of your work clothes, feeling foolish at having collapsed into bed without so much as stripping off our coat. You pulled a fresh nightgown from your drawer and quickly shed your clothes, grateful for the cool clean cotton and happy to take yourself back to bed if your dreams would simply be a visit from some celluloid horror from a slasher flick. You could take that -- you’d take it in spades if it was as bad as it would get.
When your head hit the pillow again, it felt as though you fell straight through. It was like sinking into deep, dark water; you couldn’t breathe, couldn’t open your mouth to scream, until you suddenly fell and hit the ground. You tried to stand but stumbled, bare feet on hard cotton padded floors, the same thick material all over the walls and ceiling, and on the back of the only door into the room. There was a single window in the door, thick panes of glass with small chain-link fencing sealed inside, and you scrambled up towards it, pausing to stare at your hands as you did; your fingernails were bitten down, your cuticles ragged and bloody.
You peeked out the door and saw Beth standing nearby, an open folder in her hand. You thought it must be the circuitry plans from Shuri, and you tapped on the glass to get her attention.
“Beth?” you called, hoping she could hear you.
She looked up and smiled. “Oh, you’re awake!” she said, stepping towards the other side of the door. Her voice was muffled and you frowned to see that she was wearing scrubs. That didn’t make sense at all.
“Yes, why am I in here?” you called, glaring up at the single domed light in the ceiling of the room that kept flickering on and off.
“You got a little upset in the day room, Doc,” she explained sadly. “I’m afraid we had to sedate you. Are you feeling better? Do you want something to eat?”
“What? Beth, you’re not making sense!” you said, rapping on the window with your knuckles. “Let me out of here! I need to get back to work!”
Beth’s face went sad. “Oh, Doc, you were doing so well, what happened?” she asked, and when you made no response, she sighed. She told you your name and you nodded, bristling a little that she left of your married name. “You had a bad reaction to some anesthesia after surgery. You were hit by a car, do you remember? We’ve been working with you for months and you seemed to be letting go of the delusion, but you had a relapse, and…”
“What? Stop it, Beth, that’s not funny!” you shouted, pounding on the door. “Stop it and let me out! I need to get back to work, I need to find an answer before Seve gets home. What’s going on? Are you working for someone? HYDRA? AIM?”
Beth sighed. “Just try to calm down,” she said, hand on the glass for just a moment. “If they hear you shouting, they’ll want to sedate you again. Try and relax, okay? We’ll find a way to get you back, I promise.”
“No!” you said, backing away from the door and shaking your head. “No, no, this isn’t… this can’t be… I want to go home, I need to go home! No, no…!”
“Baby, wake up! C’mon Doc, wake up, I’m right here!” Steve said, trying to keep you from thrashing so hard against the sheets.
You woke with a sudden scream, sitting upright in bed and glancing around the room wildly. It was dark out, your discarded clothes on the floor where you had left them, and Steve was sitting on the bed beside you, brows knit together in concern.
“Doc?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
You threw your arms around him, squeezing him tight. Your searching fingers ran over the fabric of his shirt, feeling the hard muscle beneath, before pulling back to touch his face and run your fingers through his hair.
“You’re here?” you asked, voice hoarse, tears streaming down your face.
“I’m here, baby. I’m here,” Steve said. He took one of your hands in his, threading your fingers together and gently squeezing. “I’m right here, sweetheart. I’m right here.”
“You’re real?” you asked, voice breaking. You were starting to shake and Steve pulled you close, holding you as tight as he could without hurting you.
“I’m real, Doc. I swear it to you,” he breathed, blinking back his own tears. “I swear to god, Doc.”
For the longest time, you just sobbed in his arms. Steve held you close, rubbing your back and whispering reassurances in your ear, letting you get it all out. The reality of him, in that moment, seemed unquestionable: you could feel the weight of his arms around you and the softness of the grey t-shirt and workout pants he wore, the mingled scents of detergent and sweat filling your senses. Each one of your senses reported back to you that this was all unequivocally real, that Steve was actually there, that you had your face pressed into his chest and those were his fingers running through your hair, but your mind kept questioning it.
When you were able to calm yourself, you pulled back just far enough to look up at him with eyes swollen from weeping.
“You shouldn’t be here,” you said slowly, still sniffling.
Steve gave you a small smile. “Couldn’t stay away,” he replied.
You shook your head and pulled a little further out of his embrace. “You’re supposed to be away, with the team. Working. And then you show up here just when I need you most. It’s too… it’s too perfect. Even… scripted. Like I had written it myself.”
Steve frowned, the deep concern in his eyes too much for you; you had to look away.
“I didn’t want to leave you, Doc,” he spoke quietly. He let his hand drift down your arm and then settle heavily on top of yours where it rest on the blankets. “Not when you were havin’ all this trouble sleeping. I flew into Minsk with the team, I did my part, and I checked out early. They can handle it without me.”
“It’s more important for you to…” you began.
“No,” Steve interrupted, shaking his head. “I needed to be here. You’re the most important thing to me, Doc. You know that. You have to know that by now, sweetheart.”
You sniffled, and shook your head. “No,” you told him. “You’re Captain America. You’re supposed to be the one fighting the good fight, for everyone who can’t do it themselves. That’s the way it’s supposed to go.”
He shook his head again, reaching up with gentle fingers to turn you to face him. “No,” he repeated. “I’m Steve Rogers. The only place I’m supposed to be is right next to you when you need me. I promised you that when we got married -- you’d never be second place. I knew you needed me so I came home to you, where I belong.”
The passive expression you had been trying to hold finally broke and your face crumpled with a torrent of tears. You threw yourself back into his embrace; you wanted so badly for all of this to be real. That was the worst of it, really: it wasn’t you sanity you were concerned about at all. You’d gladly lose yourself to a false reality if it meant you’d never have to give this up.
Eventually Steve convinced you to get checked out in medical, and he insisted on carrying you the entire way. You kept telling him he was being silly and going overboard -- you could walk, after all -- but there was simply no dissuading him. A little past eight in the evening, you were met by Helen in the foyer.
You got the distinct impression that she had been waiting for you to arrive.
“Let’s go into the first exam room,” Helen said by way of greeting, and Steve followed her direction without comment, not letting you go until he had rested you on the thin gurney mattress.
She ran through all of the basics, checking your vitals, listening to your heart and lungs, even going so far as to check your oxygen saturation levels.
“You’re dehydrated,” she declared, pulling an IV kit from a drawer. “And your temperature is up, most likely the result of stress. Your blood pressure if evened out, though, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”
You frowned. “Dehydrated?” you echoed.
Helen glanced at Steve then back to you before speaking. “I’ve heard you’ve had some trouble sleeping, is that right?” she asked quietly, distracting you long enough to get your IV in place without you even noticing. “Lots of coffee? It’s a diuretic. If it’s all you’re drinking, it can cause some dehydration… which won’t help with your sleep patterns.”
You frowned, turning towards Steve. “Somebody been tattling on me?” you asked.
“Somebody’s been worried about you,” he replied softly. “Somebody can’t stand to see you hurting.”
Any anger you might have held for him slipped quietly away with his words and you closed your eyes, leaning back onto your pillow. Steve stroked your hair and Helen busied herself setting up a saline drip to rehydrate you. It was the sort of task that she would normally send someone from the nursing staff in to do, but you had the feeling she was tending to it herself to help preserve your privacy, and for that much you were grateful.
“Once you have some fluids, I think we should do a full blood panel,” Helen spoke up.
You opened your eyes and shook your head. “No,” you said. “No more tests.”
Helen frowned. “As your physician, I think it would be best to…”
“No,” you repeated. “I’m done with tests. You want my blood, get some from Tony and Bruce. I’ve run the gamut with them already and they have blood and skin cells and hair and god knows what else in the freezer. I’m done.”
“Baby, please,” Steve said quietly. “We need to get this figured out.”
You gave him a tired smile. “I’m done trying to figure things out,” you said, and heaved a sigh. “I’m so tired, Steve. I need to stop trying to decide what is and what isn’t, and just be for awhile.”
“Let me at least give you a sedative,” Helen suggested. “You need a good night’s sleep.”
You shrugged. “Do sedatives prevent nightmares?” you asked her.
“Prazosin will,” Helen told you. “There have been good results with it for night terrors. That, and a muscle relaxer, and you should knock right out.”
“Can I take it at home?” you asked. “I want to sleep in my own bed.”
“I’d like to do it intravenously,” Helen said, glancing at your half-full saline drip. “You’ll feel it more quickly that way, and I can better gauge the dosage.”
“I’ll bring you home after you fall asleep,” Steve suggested, reaching out to squeeze your hand.
You hesitated, then relented. “I guess,” you said, not without reservation. But you were so very tired, and you didn’t think you could handle another nightmare.
Helen readied the injections and it seemed only minutes after they were administered, you started to become drowsy. You reached out with a waver hand towards Steve and he took it in his own, squeezing it gently once again and carding his fingers through your hair as you drifted off.
You woke to early morning light with a start; for a brief moment, you were terrified to open your eyes. But then you felt Steve shift next to you and the tangle of his legs with yours, and when you opened your eyes he was right there beside you, face creased from the pillow and his lips slightly parted. You smiled and snuggled closer, losing yourself to the warmth of his body and falling back into a deep, dreamless sleep.
You coped as best as you could. You’d spend a few days forcing yourself to stay awake, living off coffee and little else, until you couldn’t stand it any longer and you’d finally pass out. The nightmares would always be terrible, the same fears repeating over and over again in your mind as you slept -- if they were truly nightmares at all. When you’d wake, you’d make do until you could see Helen and beg another shot of the drug cocktail that would send you into a few hours of a dreamless respite.
It wasn’t really living; it was just surviving.
The holidays passed in a blur. Darcy came back, as promised, and the others returned from whatever their mission was overseas, but you were sleepwalking through your days and couldn’t gather up any real excitement for the celebrations. You tried -- you really did -- but each day was haunted by the specter of what might come if you dared close your eyes.
You knew you didn’t look well. You’d lost weight and your clothes seemed to hang on your frame. Steve was worried; you’d heard him whispering with Darcy and Bucky, asking what he could do and how he could help you, but no one seemed able to offer any ideas. You understood that much; you were at your wit’s end yourself.
Creeping out of bed in the middle of the night had become your routine. You’d try and slip back in before Steve woke, but often times you’d give up completely and just start making breakfast and coffee. Eventually, Steve spoke up.
“Hey,” he called quietly into the dimly lit room. You’d switched off the bedside lamp better than an hour ago, but the blinds were still open to the lights of the city thriving below. “Where’re you going?”
“Can’t sleep,” you lied, offering a tired smile. “I’m just going to read or something in the living room, don’t worry about me.”
Steve sighed and called your name to stop you. “Baby,” he said. “Please, come back to bed. You gotta try and get some sleep.”
You shook your head, tears shining in your eyes. “I’m afraid,” you told him, your voice cracking on the words. You didn’t want to show Steve any fear; he had so much to worry him already. He had gone through so much in the last few months, and you had been the one to do that to him -- you. You’d hurt him so deeply, rejected him to try and insulate your own heart, keep yourself safe, unwilling to think of what you were doing to him.
Then you came home. Had a few weeks of happiness. And the bottom fell out on you again.
“They’re just dreams, baby,” Steve said, pulling the blanket back on your side of the bed. “They can’t hurt you. I know it’s been hard, but we’ll find some way to make them go away, I promise. But you’re running yourself into the ground. You can’t keep this up much longer.”
The gentleness to his tone, the softness and the sadness in his eyes… it was all too much for you to resist. You sunk back down on the mattress and watched, tears slipping down your cheeks, as he pulled his t-shirt over his head and tossed it aside before reaching out a hand to you. You cuddled in close and he pulled you tight against his chest, your head resting right where you could listen to his heartbeat, a turnabout of the way you would hold him on his worst days.
“Is this real?” he asked you, the sound of his voice reaching your ear as the vibrations of his speech rumbled against your cheek. “Am I here?”
You closed your eyes. You could feel the smoothness of his body against yours, the roughness of his calloused hands, pushed up beneath your nightshirt so you were skin to skin at every point he could manage. You breathed in the scent of his aftershave, cool and only faintly spiced, and the barest hint of sweat beneath it. You could hear the steady beat of his heart, thumping just beneath your cheek, a perfect unchecked rhythm that you had unconsciously matched with your breathing.
“Yes,” you said, your own small hands reaching around to hold onto him for dear life. “Yes, you’re here. I know you’re here, you’re real. I know it.”
Steve dropped his chin and kissed you on the crown of your head. “Nightmares, though. Those aren’t real, are they?”
“I… I want to believe they’re not,” you said, shivering at the thought. “I want to believe that, Steve, I want my life to be here with you, but I’m afraid, I’m so afraid that I’m going to go to sleep and never wake up again, never get out of the nightmare and never… never…”
Your voice had gone more and more frantic as you spoke, the words tumbling out over your lips without stopping, the fear creeping back in, but Steve just tightened his arms around you and made quiet soothing sounds, trying to calm you.
“That’s not going to happen,” he told you resolutely and you tried so hard to believe. “No matter what you see when you close your eyes, no matter what kind of awful things your dream about… I’m gonna be right here, baby. I’m always gonna be right here. No matter how scared you might feel, you gotta remember that this is real. That I’m right here for you, and I always will be.”
You started crying in earnest, hot tears spilling down Steve’s chest where you pressed your face, your shoulders shaking. He let you cry but held you close, stroking your back and whispering to you that he was never going to let you go. Exhausted and overwrought, you eventually passed into a fitful sleep. The dreams came -- there would be no stopping that, you were certain of it -- but when you’d begin to toss and turn, Steve would hold you tight; even in the deepest recesses of your nightmares, you could feel him there, the scent of him still surrounding you, and you knew you were safe.
When you awoke the next morning, you were a little stiff but you felt rested for the first time in ages. True to his word, Steve had held you all night long, never letting you out of his arms and calming you whenever you seemed to fret. It was only when you sat up and sighed, rolling your shoulders to work out a few kinks, when you noticed that Steve was watching you with a sweet smile on his face, looking a little worse for wear.
“How did you sleep?” he asked.
“The nightmares weren’t so bad,” you confirmed, watching as he rolled his neck and yawned. Your eyes widened as you realized what had happened -- Steve had stayed awake all night to watch over you and soothe you when you became frightened in your sleep.
“You didn’t sleep at all, did you?” you asked him, sorrow and guilt creeping into your voice as you spoke. You’d put him through so much, and now he was losing sleep.
“I was exactly where I needed to be,” Steve told you, smiling even though he was clearly tired. “And I always will be.”
Steve kept staying up late into the night, watching over you as you slept. You loved hm for it -- that he would rather be tired and rundown than let you suffer -- but you couldn’t let him continue to put himself on the line for you. You made a few concessions to try and push him into getting some rest, chiefly that you would cut your hours down to the absolute minimal in your lab. It seemed to Steve -- and you, if you were being honest -- that the more work you put in, the worse your nightmares became.
It was a double-edged sword. Your anxiety over the actual fabric of your reality seemed as though it could only be eased by your work, by powering through and trying to find a logical explanation for what had happened to you. At the same time, it seemed the more you worked, the worse your nightmares and hallucinations became. There was no reasonable alternative; all you could do was try and cope.
First and foremost, you needed Steve to get some decent sleep. Thankfully, you had a few tricks up your sleeve in that respect. There was dinner, of course; if you cooked enough, put out enough of a spread, and added a few desserts in for good measure, you could put Steve into a genuine food coma for a few hours. He’d be snoozing on the couch before you so much as turned off the kitchen light. It couldn’t be an everyday thing -- Steve would catch on pretty quickly and in all honesty, your recipe repertoire was exhausted by the third or fourth massive dinner you had prepared.
You did have a more favored trick of knocking him out for at least a few hours. Steve had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team, much to your chagrin; you hated that you were interrupting his day to day life with your madness. With you spending more time away from your lab, you were in each other’s pockets for much of the day, and Steve… didn’t seem to mind. You remembered the talk you had when you realized that you had been trying to start a family before the accident; Steve had been set on semi-retirement.
You realized it was probably something he had wanted. He had been fighting for so long; he deserved time to rest and enjoy the life he had now.
So you ran the city with him: parks, museums, plays, anything you could come up with. And when you got him, and after you had fed him something rich and full of carbs, you would pounce.
There wasn’t too much you were certain of these days but you knew without a doubt that Steve would never, ever refuse you. A warm hand sliding up his back beneath his t-shirt, soft breath on his ear, a well-aimed nip to his shoulder, and he was putty in your hands. Not that it was some great hardship for you. Truth was, some nights you knocked out after a well timed romp in the sheets before Steve ever did, and slept straight through to the morning.
You’d pounced him that evening after supper. You hadn’t even had an ulterior motive; he had smiled at you over the pancakes you had made, blue eyes so full of light and happiness, you couldn’t help yourself. As soon as the table was cleared, you were backing him towards your bedroom with your hands making quick work of the buttons on his shirt.
Steve chuckled. “Usually you wait at least an hour or two after we eat,” he said, before kissing you back eagerly.
“Don’t know what it is lately,” you replied, laughing in return. “Can’t seem to keep my hands off of you.”
Steve grinned. “Not like you’ll hear me complaining!”
A few hours later saw Steve sleeping deeply enough that you felt comfortable sneaking out of bed again. You were a little dozy yourself, still trying to keep from sleeping too deeply and inviting any more nightmares out to play, so you took a quick shower to clear your head and slipped into your favorite soft violet bathrobe before retreating to the living room.
You didn’t really have an office in the apartment anymore; Stevehad’t wanted anything big or ostentatious when he took up residence in the Tower and had taken a simple two-bedroom, a master with a guest room that became your office when you moved in. Before the accident -- it was so much easier to think of the day you were shot as an accident than as an incident or assault -- you had already cleared all of your work materials from the room, leaving only an empty desk and a bookshelf. You’d remembered that the day you found the little calendar in your bedside table, how you had optimistically begun preparing the room for a new lodger.
It seemed centuries ago now.
You settled yourself on the couch with a cup of coffee and yawned. Your laptop was on the coffee table but your eyes were tried and you decided to go for a larger display, asking Friday to pull up the three dimensional model of pieced together bullet fragments you had created in the lab, onto the large flatscreen inset in the living room wall.
The AI was a little snippy with you, but it had been that way for a while. You were certain it hadn’t forgiven you for cursing at it when Steve had been hurt in the fire all those months ago.
Leave it to Tony Stark to create artificial intelligence that could hold a grudge.
You closed your eyes and sighed; you really, really wanted to be back in bed, curled up against Steve, letting the slow rise and fall of his chest lull you to sleep, but you knew better than to think there was any safety for you in your dreams. Better you be here, working; Steve wanted you to limit your time in the lab and you’d give him that, but you couldn’t stop trying to find at least an answer to the mystery that had been plaguing all of you for months.
When you opened your eyes, you frowned at what you saw.
“Friday, I wanted my bullet specs,” you said in a tone of gentle admonishment. “Not the wormhole project.”
You were fairly certain the AI sighed in annoyance before speaking. “These are the diagrams you requested.”
Your frown deepened. You could see the basic structure of your miniature wormhole mechanism clear before you: the magnets, the core spring, the tiny revolving mechanism. You were about to repeat your request to the AI when you saw the side-cut view of the bullet casing still in view.
You couldn’t help the gasp that escaped you. You didn’t have the answer, but you’d found a major piece of the puzzle, and it had been staring you right in the face all along.
“Friday! Call Darcy!” you said, sitting up a little straighter.
“Are you aware of the time?” the AI responded dryly.
“Yes, yes, please, just call Darcy!” you insisted; you were pretty sure it was the ‘please’ that did it. A moment later, Darcy’s sleepy voice came over the speakers in the living room.
“Whatya waaaaaaaaaaant?” she groaned.
“Darcy, where’s Jane Foster?” you asked.
Darcy sniffled. “Jane? The hell are you talking about? She’s… somewhere…”
“How soon can she get here?” you asked, and the urgency in your voice seemed to wake Darcy up a bit more.
“Um… she’s not overseas and not off-worlding, so it’ll depend on flight schedules, so probably by tomorrow if it’s really important,” Darcy told you.
“It’s really important!” you replied. “Can you get in touch with her, please? I need her expertise.”
“Will do, mon capitan! … er, mon capitan’s wifey!” Darcy replied, fully awake now and ready to get to work. You loved that about her; you didn’t need to explain or convince her. If you told her it was important, that was all that she needed.
Once Darcy hung up, you stood and stretched. You might try for some sleep after all.
“Friday,” you called, “Can you please take a message for Dr. Cho? I’ll need all hands on deck for this and I could use her help.”
“Dr. Cho is still in the building,” Friday informed you. “Shall I contact her in Dr. Banner’s quarters, or would you prefer to just leave a message?”
Huh. Well that was interesting.
“Don’t interrupt them,” you advised. “Just leave a message, please.”
You grabbed your coffee mug off of the coffee table and turned to drop it in the kitchen sink, surprised to see Steve standing in your bedroom doorway, arms crossed over his chest as he leaned on the doorframe wearing only the boxer briefs you’d helped him discard on the bedroom floor hours before.
“Working late, Doc?” he drawled, arching an eyebrow.
You bit your lip, clearly caught in the act. “Uh…couldn’t sleep?” you offered, dropping your mug back down on the coffee table. You’d gotten so excited with what you had discovered that you hadn’t lowered your voice when speaking to Friday or Darcy, and had woken him up.
“Is this what you’ve been up to lately?” Steve asked you, feigning offense. “Just lovin’ on me to put me out of commission, so you can go back to work?”
You padded over to him with a smile, throwing your arms around his neck so you could reach up to kiss him. He didn’t uncross his arms, maintaining his defensive position, but he dipped his head to meet your kiss. Clearly, he wasn’t all that upset.
You reached one hand to slip the sash on your robe, pressing your bare body against his and feeling his immediate physical reaction. You couldn’t help but smile against Steve’s lips; like his metabolism, Steve’s enhanced libido was something you could always count on.
Steve groaned. “How do I know know you’re not just tryin’ to get me off your back?”
You snickered. “More like I’m trying to get you on your back,” you said, and he laughed.
“That so, babydoll?” Steve asked, voice dropped a few octaves and his arms dropping to circle your waist beneath your robe. “Sure you don’t wanna go back and fiddle with your diagrams some more? Get some work done?”
“Work is for tomorrow,” you told him, reaching up to steal another kiss. “Right now, the only plans I have are getting you back in our bed and spending the rest of the night riding you like I stole ya.”
Steve chuckled, long and deep. “Well, giddy up, darlin’.”
By noon the following day, you had assembled your new team in your lab and sent most of your regular staff packing; they’d have a day off and be reassigned. You kept Beth and Jared on hand, as there was always a chance you’d need a little boost in personnel, but let them work quietly on your wormhole research in a small conference room while you took over the main lab with the others.
Dr. Foster had been on a home visit when Darcy reached her and had no problem cutting her trip short to dive into a new project. You knew the feeling well; there were few experiences in your life that felt as exhilarating and even intoxicating as a fantastic new discovery, or an advance that may lead you to something new. In fact, you could only think of one thing in your life that brought you as much joy as your work… Steve.
Helen had been happy to help, if a little embarrassed when she returned your call earlier in the morning. You had told her resolutely that her personal life was none of your business, but she pressed the issue, intent on explaining.
“We were just having dinner,” she said, a flaming blush rising in her cheeks as she spoke, straightening the same skirt she had been wearing the day before. “It got so late, we hadn’t realized… when you really get Bruce talking, he can… you can really lose track of the time. He was kind enough to offer up his guest room for the evening.”
You laughed softly. “Helen, really. You don’t have to explain a thing. I’m just glad you and Bruce are getting along so well.”
“Yes, its…” Helen began with a small smile, her blush deepening. “It’s… going well. But you needed a hand with something, right?”
“I was hoping you could join me in the lab today?” you asked, noting quickly that she was desperate to change the subject. “I found some inconsistencies in my research last night and I need all hands on deck for this one.”
“Absolutely,” Helen agreed with a nod. “Just… could I borrow something to wear…?”
You’d put on a pot of coffee and convened in the lab with the rest of the group, and proceeded to spill your guts: the accident, your wormhole research, the bullet and the gamma radiation contamination, everything. You’d had half a mind to bring Tony and Bruce in on the gab session, but they were a little too keen to poke and prod at you -- you were pretty much done with MRIs and blood tests for as long as you could conceivably manage it.
“This is fascinating,” Jane said, watching the three-dimensional diagram of your wormhole mechanism overlap the minute version that had been hidden inside the bullet that had hit you. “It’s practically the exact same design, only made smaller. But for what purpose?”
Helen nodded, eyes narrowed. “Your wormhole research… what was your long term goal for it?”
“Long distance travel, basically,” you said with a shrug. “We were working on a very small scale, obviously… and it wasn’t meant for, say, commercial travel or that sort of thing. We were looking more towards movement of goods and supplies.”
Darcy’s eyes lit up at the prospect. “Like, getting… like, transplant organs from one hospital to another?” she asked.
“Exactly,” you agreed. “Or transporting large quantities of water directly over a forest fire, or even getting food and medical supplies into more remote areas. It’s a version of what we see Thor use when he travels, only on a much smaller scale. Completely terrestrial.”
“But this one, it’s different,” Helen said, frowning. “The magnetics move in a slightly different pattern, as if...”
“As if whoever built it was trying to move through a greater expanse, but still without leaving the planet,” Jane added.
You nodded. “The only rational explanation I can come up with is that they were trying to open a portal into another… another plane.”
“An alternate reality!” Darcy said, clapping her hands. “I knew it. I knew it! Another world where you don’t know Steve, or he’s not real or something!”
You bit your lip and nodded again. “That’s what I was thinking,” you agreed.
“There’s only one way to know for sure,” Helen cut in, waving away the diagrams. “We try and recreate it.”
You had a bit of a skip in your step that night as you made your way back to your apartment. You were working, making some progress, and you had a solid team ready to back you on really digging into what had happened to you. It was nice not to hide things, not to try and tone down everything that was wrong; there was no sugar-coating it in your lab anymore.
You were even more pleased to open the door and be greeted by the scent of your favorite Greek takeout filling the air. Steve didn’t do much cooking, but he certainly had a knack of picking up the right meal from time to time.
“Honey, I’m home,” you called out with a laugh, dropping the messenger bag you used to carry your laptop in the armchair nearest the door.
“Perfect timing!” Steve called back, stepping out of the kitchen. “I figured with you makin’ me dinner so much lately, I’d grab us something for tonight. You hungry?”
“I’m starving,” you said, as dramatically as you could.
Steve laughed. “No lunch?” he asked, opening his arms so you could slip easily inside.
“Coffee and granola bars,” you groaned, face pressed into his chest. You glanced up and pursed your lips, beckoning him for a kiss that he quickly delivered; he tasted like tzatziki. “Snacking?” you asked.
He laughed again and you closed your eyes, enjoying the way it rumbled in his chest and seemed to pass right through your.
“What can I say?” Steve said, voice in a teasing tone. “I’m a man of very intense appetites.”
You snorted. “Don’t I know it.”
A good meal left you feeling sleepy and satisfied, curled up against Steve’s side on your couch. He had switched off the living room lights, leaving you bathed in the blue-grey glow of the television set; you’d been working your way through noir classics and comedies as of late, pairing a Bogart detective flick with lighter fare like a Thin Man film each night before bed. You’d both seen most of them already, so it made for a relaxing night.
Steve liked to play with your hair as you cuddled close together, curling little tendrils around his fingertips before letting them spring free. His touch was light and tender, near enough to lull you to sleep if you let it. There something something so calming in that, in letting the quiet moments just take over and live in them without trying to fight them or explain.
It was nice. You sighed and smiled to yourself, unable to help it.
Steve leaned down and pressed a gently kiss to your temple, pleased to see the smile on your face.
He sighed, and brushed your hair away from your face as he breathed out your name.
“Marry me,” he said softly.
You cocked a quizzical eyebrow, glancing up at Steve’s face. He was peering down at you with a small, dreamy little smile, something like hope dancing in his eyes.
“The ring on my finger and the framed photos in our bedroom tell me we’re already married,” you pointed out. “Or have you been fibbing this whole time?”
“Never,” Steve responded almost instantly, pressing another kiss to your forehead.
“So what’s up?” you pressed. It was clear his request wasn’t out of the blue; you knew him far too well by not to think it was just happenstance. This was something he had been thinking about for some time, perhaps looking for the right moment.
“Our wedding was perfect,” Steve told you, that little smile on his face again. “It was everything we could have wanted. You looked so beautiful, and I… I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.”
You couldn’t help but frown. “Then why…?” you began, and Steve shook his head, reaching to gently cradle your face in his hand.
“I don’t want to erase it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said, quickly identifying and easing your fears. “But it’s not our memory anymore. It’s just mine.”
Tears sprung to your eyes, filling you with a rush of regret and shame. “I’m sorry,” you whispered. “I’ve tried to remember, Steve, I’ve tried so god damn hard, but it’s just not…”
“No, Doc, please, don’t cry,” Steve told you, rubbing his thumb back and forth along your cheekbone. “Baby, I know. This has been harder on you than anybody… I wouldn’t dream of blamin’ you. I just wanna have another day like that, another perfect day that we can share and remember together… whattya say?”
As if you could ever refuse him.
“Yes!” you said, laughing and crying all at once. “Yes, yes, of course!”
You asked to see it -- the wedding you had missed. You thought there must be an album tucked away somewhere, photos that Steve might have hidden as not to upset you and make you feel as though he were pushing you to remember. He did you one better than that; he had a video.
Friday brought it up for you, displaying it on the large screen in the living room, and you settled in together on the couch to watch. You wouldn’t be recreating the same ceremony; you’d start fresh, joining your lives anew. It was strange to see yourself on the screen and have no memory of what had gone on. It seemed so you: the decor, the dress, everything. Darcy was your Maid of Honor, smiling serenely as she exited after the ceremony, arm in arm with Bucky. To your surprise, Sam her performed the ceremony.
The wispy ghost of a memory surfaced at the sight: Sam had gotten ordained through an online church so that he could be your officiant. It had been a good long while since you had seen Sam, as you thought on it; you knew, from what Steve had told you, that he was struggling with being around you with your memory loss. His mother had suffered some early onset dementia before she passed, and you thought it might have been triggering for him. You hoped that he’d be able to be a part of your lives again someday soon.
Tony gave a raucous speech at your reception, making both you and Steve laugh even as you watched it on the screen. And when the digital versions of you and Steve took to the dancefloor, the warm, solid man beside you stood and held out his hand.
You smiled and took it, letting yourself be pulled into his arms, slow-dancing as your song played over the speakers. Had you been planning your wedding that very day, you don’t know if you would have chosen the tune, but hearing it play, you understood very well why you must have picked it. The lyrics wished for the singer’s lover to spirit them away -- on a bus, in the night, in the rain -- and that was all Steve had ever wanted for the two of you: a life that was your own, away from cameras and wars and all of it. That was why he was intent on working his way into semi-retirement.
The music was slow and sweet, the singer’s voice lush and low, and you closed your eyes, letting the song carry you away. When it finished on the video, Friday seemed to know that you weren’t ready to let Steve go, and paused the wedding to play the studio recording of the song over the speakers once again, and then once more.
You could have danced forever.
For Steve, it was like finding a little piece of heaven that he had lost. He’d lived for several years in a world that never felt his own, only finding home again when he first held you in his arms.
People you didn’t know well often approached you with the idea that you were so lucky to have made a great ‘catch’ like Steve, and it always bothered him. They had no idea how lucky he felt to have found you, someone who saw him for who he really was and appreciated the slow, simple life he had begun to crave. You were bothy city kids at heart; you’d never be able to leave the bustling metropolitan you had both been raised in, nearly a century apart. But you found your little escapes from the world together, enjoying a quiet night cuddled on the couch over a night out on the town nearly every time the choice was there to be made.
There was a time not so long ago that Steve thought the life he had dreamed of in his youth -- marriage, a family of his own -- was no longer in the cards for him. He had been given a chance with the serum and he had blown it, all for the greater good. And he convinced himself that he didn’t want those things anymore, that the Steve Rogers who dreamed of settling down had died in the ice and never come out again.
And then there was you.
It wasn’t just a family and a partner that he had been denying himself -- it had been a life. A world outside of the battles and the brutality. The permission to build something new, with someone he loved.
The Steve Rogers that had wanted all of that hadn’t died in the ice, he’d just been frozen solid, and all it took was one warm smile from you for him to begin to thaw. Suddenly there was a world of possibility out there for him again, and he’d take this life with and start from scratch if he had to, step by step, as long as you were together.
The nightmares still came. It was so frustrating; you were making real progress in discovering what had happened to you and your relationship with Steve was solid as a rock, and yet the horrifying scenes that played out as you slept just would not leave you alone. You fell back into an old pattern: keeping yourself awake for as long as you possibly could, only to succumb to your fatigue and wake up in a fit of terror.
If it weren’t for the constant exhaustion, you would be in a pretty good place. When you weren’t working, you were busy planning a vow renewal ceremony. You didn’t want it to be exactly the same as the first wedding, not a step-by-step repeat, but Steve would often smile softly at you when you outlined plan and tell you that it was very similar -- if not exactly the same -- as the wedding you had planned together.
“I guess I’m a creature of habit,” you had said with a laugh after he explained that you’d picked out the exact same flowers.
Things were progressing in the lab, slowly but surely. Whoever had developed the technology found in the recovered bullet most likely hadn’t been working in the kind of high tech lab you had become used to, but it didn’t mean you could backtrack their work in the same slipshod fashion in which it had been created. You were a scientist; so was Jane, and so was Helen. You would follow the scientific method and make every effort to test in safe conditions.
Your interrupted sleep schedule was still affecting your work, no matter how hard you pushed yourself. You’d built a prototype bullet with Jane’s help, but you were stuck in a looping argument regarding how and where to test fire it. Jane and Helen were still deep in discussion when you gave in to your fatigue and dropped your head to your folded arms upon the desk. You were still drifting somewhere between sleep and awake when you heard the conversation around you change.
“How is she doing?” you heard Jane ask, dropping the volume of her voice as not to rouse you.
Darcy sighed. “Better than a few months ago,” she offered. “Not really back to normal, though.”
Jane let out a long breath. “That can’t be good,” she said. “This long? It’s been months.”
“I didn’t expect it to last this long either,” Helen added. “But they’ve tried everything from medications to hypnosis, to no end.”
“And she has new memories, right?” Jane asked, the scientist in her clearly intrigued. “An entire different lifetime?”
“Mmmhmm,” Darcy agreed, and you heard the scuff of her coffee cup on the counter before she spoke again. “Like something out of a movie. Everything is pretty much the same up to a point. And Steve and me and all of us, we’re not like… real.”
“That’s fascinating,” Jane said, voice carrying the misty quality that always came when a scientific mind encountered something new and interesting. “I mean… it’s terrible, for her and for Steve, but otherwise…”
“It’s one of the more puzzling things I’ve encountered since coming to work here,” Helen agreed, then sighed. “Much as I would like to help, there doesn’t seem to be much I can do, at least not from a medical standpoint.”
“Was there a brain injury?” Jane pressed. “Maybe even during surgery, a problem with anesthesia?”
“Believe me, that was the first thing we checked. We looked for every and any kind of damage imaginable,” Helen countered. “MRIs, catscans… we even went as far as a SPECT scan to look for a possible tumor, but there was nothing. Had I to hazard a guess… outside of whatever was happening with this bullet, I’d say it has to be psychological.”
“I would have thought the same, if not for the false memories,” Jane mused, and you heard the scrape of her ceramic coffee mug -- big enough to be a soup bowl -- being lifted from the counter.
“But are they false?” Darcy asked. “I mean, there was a mini-wormhole-thing inside the bullet, right? That had to do something. Whose brain could come up with an entire different life anyway, and why would it specifically like… disappear Steve? It doesn’t make sense. This was like… done to her. That’s what we’re trying to fix, right?”
“I can’t say either way, when it comes to the new memories,” Helen conceded, and you could hear her shuffle some papers at her desk. “But I do think the amnesia is mostly psychological.”
“How so?” Jane asked.
“Forgetting everything has only made things harder on her,” Darcy added, someone defensive.
“It has, in a way,” Helen agreed. “But couldn’t it also make things easier? Imagine if you had two full sets of memories that are in conflict with one another: one that you want to be true, and one that you hope isn’t. It would make sense to me if, as a defense mechanism, the real or ‘good’ memories were suppressed to maintain some semblance of control and to… to protect her from the disappointment that would come if the new or ‘bad’ memories turned out to be true.”
Darcy slumped in her seat; you could even hear it, the plastic of the chair scraping against the wall. “I guess that makes sense,” she grumbled.
You wanted to smile, to open your eyes and tell her that it was okay, that even if you never remembered all you had lost, you’d still be happy and make do with your life as it was. You had her, after all, your best friend. You had all of the wonderful people who had worked so hard to help you and protect you. And, of course, you had Steve. What more could you really ask for?
But you couldn’t move, couldn’t shake the sleep that had been threatening to overtake you for some time. You were frozen in place and as you listened, the conversation around you began to change.
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” Darcy asked, voice small and sorrowful.
“I’m afraid not,” Helen replied, sounding more cold and clinical than you had heard her voice in a good long while. “We’ve done every test. Catscans, MRIs, even a SPECT scan. There’s no visible brain damage. I’m sorry, but there’s no treatment for this kind of delusion.”
“It’s completely behavioral,” Jane added. She too sounded every bit the consummate professional, different than you’d ever encountered. “Delusions of this manner are often related to some sort of trauma, and the car accident could have triggered that. If your friend doesn’t want to let go of it, there’s nothing we can do.”
Darcy sighed. “And she’ll just be locked up in here then, forever? I mean she’s only hurting herself, right? Why can’t she just, like, do that at home?”
Helen scoffed. “Someone this out of touch with reality can’t be released into society. If her delusion were to change, make her believe she was in danger, she could do harm to someone else, or herself. No, I’m sorry, but there’s no way she can be released until she is able to accept reality and do away with these fantasies she has of heroes and super soldiers.”
The mere thought made you sick to your stomach. There it was again, that horrific world where you were thought to be insane and locked away, the life you had come to love nothing more than a trick of your own depressed, disease mind. You tried to open your eyes, but you couldn’t; you made to sit up, to even tap your hand against the workbench and get someone’s attention, but your fingers wouldn’t work. You struggled and strained to do anything at all, until something finally worked.
You opened your mouth, and with a deep intake of breath, you began to scream.
“Hey, hey, you’re fine!” Darcy said loudly, shaking you hard by the shoulders. “Wake up, you’re safe!”
Your eyes snapped open and you took a deep breath, your hands scrambling for purchase on the arms of your chair to escape your violent shaking at Darcy’s hands. You tried to tell her to stop but found your throat too dry to speak from having screamed, so you reached up and grabbed her wrists to slow her movement while you swallowed hard and tried to find your voice.
“Darcy!” you finally rasped. She immediately stopped and you reached for your cold cup of coffee and grimaced as you swallowed the last of the now cold liquid. “I’m okay, I swear.”
“If you say so…” she replied, clearly not convinced. Still, she let go of you and took a step back, eyeing you skeptically as she did.
You were mortified. Every eye in the room was on your, a swarm of concerned yet curious gazes watching you carefully to see what you would do next. The terror of the nightmare had already loosened its grip upon you, the fatigue and embarrassment settling in to take its place. You didn’t know how much longer you could keep this up. It was exhausting.
Head dropping to your hands, you sighed. “Was I very loud?” you asked.
“It was faint at first,” Jane offered quietly. “Just sort of… whimpering. But nothing to be too embarrassed about. It must be something in the air, right? I’ve been having some weird dreams lately too.”
Darcy offered a weak chuckle. “Last night, I dreamed my hair turned into snakes. Like actually full-on hissing Medusa snakes, y’know? Pretty messed up.”
That just broke you. Snakes? Sure, why not? Snakes you could deal with. Weird you could deal with. But this… this was too much. Your dreams had always been vivid, even when you were a child, and your fears tended to plague you when you slept, a side effect of the anxiety that had been a mainstay since your youth and your struggles with a broken home and unreliable parents. But this… this was too much.
“I don’t… I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” you said, voice cracking. “I just… I keep trying, I keep trying to make the best of it and it feels like every time I make a little progress, it just gets even worse! How can I work like this? How can I keep pushing back when this mess just comes back to me, over and over?”
“Hey, hey, it’s gonna be okay!” Darcy said, voice soft as she knelt beside your chair. “This is just a speedbump, right kid? You’ve been through hell. If it were me, shit, I’d be strapped down to a gurney somewhere but look at you. You’re doing it. You’re gonna get through this!”
You shook your head. “I don’t know… I don’t know…” You were just so tired.
Darcy glanced over her shoulder and called, “Hey! Baby Spice!” Beth, who had been sitting quietly in the nearby file room, pretending not to listen in, immediately perked up.
“Yes?” she called back, a little breathless.
With Jane, Helen, and Darcy taking up permanent space in your lab, you’d kept Beth around to have another set of hands at the ready should you need them. She’d been mostly running errands and working on some filing, but was always glad to help where she could. Darcy had taken one look at her and christened her ‘Baby Spice’, owing to her straight blonde hair and the fact that she was a few years younger than the rest of you. As there were five of you total and Darcy was gleefully nostalgic about her high school years, she had been quick to decide that you were, of course, the Spice Girls, naming first Beth as Baby and deciding herself to be Scary -- “I mean, do you see my hair?”
She rotated names between the rest of you. You’d been Posh for much of the week, because you’d been breaking in a new pair of heels by wearing them around the lab when you weren't doing anything potentially dangerous.
It made you smile just to think of it, which was part of the magic of Darcy Lewis, and a good indicator as to why she was your best friend. She could always lift your mood.
“Tell Cap to get his ass in here, will you?” Darcy asked, and Beth quickly nodded, moving for the door.
Helen was strangely silent through it all, and just as you opened your mouth to stop Beth, the protest died on your lips. You might have only become friends with Helen in recent months, but you had known her long enough to recognize a look of concentration on her face. Something had piqued her interest, something important.
“What is it, Helen?” you asked, glancing to her curiously.
She looked from Jane, to Darcy, and back to you again. “I think… I think when you’re feeling better, we need to draw some blood.”
You groaned. “We talked about this,” you reminded.
“Hey, listen to the doctor, lady,” Darcy teased weakly. “No blowing off anymore medical bullshit, right? Not until you’re… you’re…”
“Less crazy?” you asked.
“Exactly,” Darcy agreed, and you couldn’t help but smile.
“Darcy!” Jane said, aghast.
“What? She said it, not me!” she called back, and you laughed again.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” you insisted with a weak chuckle. “I opened that door, she just walked through.”
Beth returned in record time with both Steve and Bucky in tow. Judging by their sweats and t-shirts, she had caught them in the gym. You inwardly wondered why she hadn’t just asked Friday to alert them, but remembered that Beth didn’t have that kind of clearance in the building yet. Steve’s brows were knit together in concern and he walked straight to you, with Bucky hanging back a little at the door, most likely uncomfortable with the laboratory setting.
“What is it?” Steve asked. “What happened?”
You smiled. “Just a little nightmare, that’s all,” you said sheepishly. “Dozed off at my desk, nothing to get upset about.”
Steve sighed. “Oh, Doc,” he said, shaking his head. You didn’t want to hear the lecture you knew was coming -- you were working to hard, you seemed to be improving so perhaps it was time to let it go -- so you stood and slipped your arms around his waist, closing your eyes as you felt his embrace close around you.
The others made themselves scarce, drifting off to other corners of the room to give you a bit of privacy. Beth seemed embarrassed by the whole thing and had retreated to the file room, while Helen and Jane stood in quiet conversation next to some of the trajectory models you had on the white board you’d been working at.
Darcy, of course, had gone straight to Bucky’s side.
“So were you and Steve getting all sweaty together in the gym?” she asked in a faux-girly voice, fluttering her eyelashes at him in an obvious and overdone manner.
Bucky laughed, running one hand through his newly shortened hair. He’d cut it a few weeks ago, note quite the coiffure he’d sported in his youth but a more modern look that worked well on him. That hadn’t been the only change, thankfully. He laughed more these days, you thought; what little you remembered of your past often seemed to find him a somber outsider to most things, with a slow course towards better spirits. Lately, you thought, the past that haunted him was much less a weight on his shoulders, at least to the outside perspective.
“We were gonna run an agility course, but this mook started flappin’ his gums and it ended up in a wrestling match,” Bucky told Darcy with a smile, cocking his head towards Steve as he spoke.
“Well, if you’re ever looking for another partner, you know where to find me,” Darcy replied smoothly with a wink.
Steve looked tired. You felt a sick little twist in the pit of your stomach as you looked at him, and you reached up without thinking to touch his face, smiling almost sadly as he leaned into the touch and let his eyes close a moment to savor it. He had pulled you into your office for a moment of privacy and just looking at him was breaking your heart.
He looked so tired, and so worried. You had done that to him. You’d been letting all of your troubles rest on his shoulders for so long, and it was beginning to show. The constant worry in his eyes, the anxious expression whenever you seemed troubled. You were asking so much of him, and giving back so little. It wasn’t fair.
“Whatever you’re thinking, you’re wrong,” Steve told you, voice gentle and concerned.
“What do you mean?” you replied, frowning. Steve chuckled and closed his hand over yours, drawing it to his lips to kiss your palm.
“I know you, Doc,” he reminded quietly. “I know that look. That’s your worry-about-Steve look, and I’m not havin’ it. I’m fine, sweetheart.”
You couldn’t help the tears that slipped free as he spoke. “I’ve put you through so much,” you said, shaking your head. “I’ve made your life hell. How can you still be so good to me?”
Steve sighed and pulled you close, his arms slipped around your waist as though they belonged there. You melted into his embrace; you couldn’t help yourself. Resting your head against his chest, you breathed in deep, enjoying the peppery-sweet scene of his cologne.
“Because I love you,” Steve told you simply, and heaved another sigh, this one seeming so warm and content just from the feel of you in his arms. “You an’ me, we’re in this together, kid. Whatever you need, I’ll be here for it. Always. You’re stuck with me.”
You cried a little more, the exhaustion and the fear taking you over and the feel of Steve’s strong embrace giving you leave to relax and let some of the tension dissipate. He just held you close, reassuring you that he’d always be there, letting you get it all out.
When you regained enough composure, the two of you ventured back out into the main laboratory, where everyone tried their best to pretend they weren’t watching you to see how you’d react.
“I’m sorry guys,” you announced, hands on your hips. “I lost it a little there, that’s all. It’s gonna happen now and again. I can’t help it.”
“Par for the course around here, anyway,” Bucky offered with a smile. He and Darcy were standing together near a side table where you had arranged some of the materials for the tests you had been proposing, looking thick as thieves when you had first come out.
“It would be unfair of any of us to expect you at your best, given the circumstance,” Helen added gently. “If our positions were reversed, I know that I wouldn’t be handling it very well at all. There’s no need to apologize, we all understand.”
The murmur of agreement from the others and Steve’s hand on your shoulder giving a soft squeeze were enough to make your heart burst from the joy of it. Whatever was really happening, this place where you found yourself, full of supportive friends and a man who loved you unconditionally, was better than any you could have dreamed up.
Overcome with emotion, you couldn’t quite speak. Bucky must have sensed it and he cleared his throat loudly, turning back to the countertop behind him.
“So what’s with the arsenal here?” he asked, glancing over an array of weapons, each one labeled with model and calibre and organized in an order that seemed to make sense, at least from the scientific standpoint.
“We rebuilt the bullet as best as we could, with what information we had and the shrapnel that was left,” you explained, gesturing towards the weapons. “Unfortunately, we didn’t realize at the outset that we were missing a few pieces… fragments, really, but enough so that we couldn’t determine the exact sort of weapon used.”
“We didn’t see a shooter,” Steve pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest as he surveyed the large grouping of guns.
“So then it’d have to have been a sniper,” Bucky added, still making a mental catalogue of all you had laid out.
“We want to start testing,” Helen added. “But unfortunately, none of us have quite the right expertise for this sort of thing and we’ve been debating whether or not the actual weapon used would make any real difference so long the velocity was maintained, and… oh my god!”
She stopped short when Bucky picked up one of the handguns you had prepared with a suppressor attached and aimed it at a nearby padded stool, taking a single shot. Thankfully, the sound was muted enough not to cause much damage beyond some initial startling. The real issue was the fact that the stool disappeared.
“What the fuck?” Bucky said in surprise, the words seemingly echoing back from a dark flashing marble-sized hole that had appeared just where the stool had been. It took a second or two for all of you to register that the second exclamation -- in Bucky’s own voice -- was not an echo at all, but a mirrored outburst that had originated on the other side of what could only be a miniature wormhole before it brightened, shimmered, and collapsed as if it had never been there at all.
“Damn,” Darcy said, shaking her head. “That was the comfiest seat in this lab, Bucky.”
“Did that just happen?” Helen asked, eyes wide and astonished.
Jane smiled and clapped her hands together before twining her fingers together just beneath her chin. “It happened!” she agreed. “It absolutely happened!”
“Where… where did the… it is a ‘where’, right?” Steve asked, staring at the empty space where Darcy’s favored stool had been. “It went… somewhere. Through the wormhole.”
“All of my research had been working towards creating miniscule wormholes to transfer information from place to place,” you said, voice as slow and measured as you could make it. You wanted to scream and shout; you had proof that something terribly strange had happened to you now, and everyone had seen it, but you were holding back your celebration. You’d been wrong before; it could happen again. “But this… we could hear Bucky. Another Bucky, a different one, if he… if he’s even Bucky at all.”
Darcy arched an eyebrow. “Because he could just the hottie, like, playing Bucky, right?”
You nodded. “We didn’t move it to another time. The shot opened a wormhole and took it to another universe.”
Steve was by your side suddenly, pressed close against your back, his arm sliding around your waist in a protective stance. “Where someone tried to take you,” he said quietly.
You turned your head to face him, meeting his worried gaze. “Tried,” you reminded. “Didn’t succeed.”
“Oh… my… god…” a new voice muttered, and you glanced over to see Beth walking on uneasy steps towards where the rest of you stood. “It just… it just…”
“Disappeared, Baby Spice?” Darcy offered cheerfully.
“Yeah, that,” Beth agreed, right before her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted dead away.
There was so much to do now. Beyond celebrating what you had learned -- that your research had worked, that the addition of velocity had managed to open a wormhole between realities, that the bullet used to shoot you had been altered in such a way as to create a possible explanation for what had happened to you -- there was getting Beth to med bay to make sure she hadn’t injured herself in fainting and so much more research to try and figure out where exactly the stool had gone.
It was almost overwhelming.
But suddenly, you couldn’t be bothered to do it. You’d begged a recess from the others; so much to take in, so much to think about, after all. You wanted to be home for a while, to let it all sink in.
You pounced on Steve as soon as the door to your apartment closed behind you.
“You’re mine!” you told him between fevered kisses, pulling the hem of his t-shirt up as you backed him towards your bedroom. You couldn’t stop yourself, crying and laughing and touching him as you went. “You’re real, you’re real and you’re really mine!”
Steve laughed in return and helped you to pull his t-shirt over his head before grabbing your wrists to still your movements, drawing your hands to his lips to kiss them over and over.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he all but whispered, the brushes of his lips moving from your fingers to your palms and then down your wrists. “Didn’t I tell you that you’d figure it out? My beautiful genius, Doc, I knew it, I knew you would!”
Steve went willingly, walking backwards on a path he knew well, through the bedroom door until the height of the mattress hit him just behind the knees and he sunk down, his hands still at your waist as he sat. It never took much to bring Steve around to your line of thinking in moments like these; the serum had amplified all of his appetites and though he could control them, the mere suggestion that he should be allowed to express the need was always enough for him to let loose.
You closed your eyes and drew in a long breath, pushing your fingers through Steve’s hair as you stood before him. He was mouthing at your chest, deft fingers making quick work of the buttons on your blouse as he went, his lips dropping lower and lower with soft kisses at your collarbone, down to the valley between your breasts.
He groaned as he pushed your blouse open and you couldn’t help but smile, even as you kept your eyes shut tightly to get lost in the sensation. Steve always had a strong appreciation for lingerie, particularly bold colors that stood out against your skin like the deep purple jewel tone set you were wearing. He loved to see you dressed in satin and lace, something that spoke of quiet luxury and was meant only for his eyes.
It could drive him wild, you remembered.
“Look at you, baby doll,” he breathed, voice soft and low. “Here I was, ‘bout to say ‘wait Doc, don’t you have work to do now? Don’t they need you in the lab?’... and here you are, dressed up all pretty for me. Had this on your mind awhile?”
“Think about it all the time,” you teased, scratching your nails across his scalp to make him purr. He pressed his face to your chest, giving you leave to let your searching fingers drift through his hair, dragging your nails as you went just to feel him shiver.
Steve took advantage of his position, tugging at the lace edging of your bra with his teeth, even while his strong hands made quick work of the zipper of your skirt, letting it fall in a puddle at your ankles. When his fingers slipped down the small of your back to reach the matching lace and sain of your panties, he groaned.
“Dressed up so pretty for me, Doc,” mumbled, tugging you closer. You shrugged your open blouse the rest of the way off and laughed.
“Mmmhmm,” you agreed. “Let me tell you, feels even better on than it looks.”
Steve pressed a soft kiss to the swell of your breast and pulled back just enough to look up at you with an eyebrow cocked up in mischief.
“Don’t tempt me,” he replied and you giggled when he scooped you up in his arms and rolled you onto the matress.
You knew it was a little selfish, taking this time with Steve when all that you had been working towards was finally starting to come together, but you felt you owed it to yourself -- and to him -- to be a little selfish this time. You weren’t sure you could ever forgive yourself for what you had put him through. In that moment, when you saw that tiny tear in space and time rip itself open and prove that your research had been correct and the bullet that had hit you had been attempting to pull you through into another world, your first thought hadn’t been of joy for the soundness of your own mind or triumph for the discovery, but of the look in Steve’s eyes those months ago when you had glared at Helen and all but demanded a divorce to free you from Steve’s attention.
You’d see his eyes go wide and the color drain from his face; the hurt so stark and clear that even thinking back on it brought tears to your eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he had told you, while you lay curled in on yourself in your hospital bed, pretending to sleep though you knew then just as well as you knew now that Steve never believed you were sleeping. He could hear the pounding of your heart and the forced shallow rhythm of your breath as you tried to remain completely still. He had known you were awake when he apologized softly and added, “I won’t bother you anymore.”
You’d hurt the one person you loved most in the world more deeply than you ever thought yourself capable of doing. You owed him the world; you owed him this time alone, and you needed it yourself. You still had weeks and weeks of fear and indecision you wanted to make up for.
You didn’t even realize you had started to cry until Steve stirred from where he had been dozing next to you and pulled you close, hushing you softly and stroking your hair.
“No, sweetheart,” he whispered, then said your name. “No tears, okay? This is a happy day, doll. We get to be happy now. Don’t you go cryin’ for me.”
Of course, he knew. He always knew.
“I hurt you!” you sobbed. “Steve, I was so cruel to you and you did nothing but be so patient and kind, and I hurt you so much!”
“You never have to apologize for this, Doc. Never, not for any of it,” Steve told you. He ran his thumb across your cheek, wiping away a stray tear, and wrapped your blanket tighter around the both of you. “None of this was your fault, and you didn’t do anything wrong. Someone hurt you, baby. Somebody out there put you through hell, and you did the only reasonable thing you could at the time. I’ll never fault you for that, no one will.”
You shook your head. “I don’t deserve that,” you said.
Steve flashed you the little half-smile that you had fallen in love with all those years ago. “Yeah you do, Doc,” he told you. “Far as I’m concerned, you deserve the world. And I’ll give it to you, every bit of it, if I can manage. No matter what.”
He made love to you then, soft in a way that could melt your heart as much as it drove you wild. Sometimes the words weren’t easy for Steve; sometimes, forcing them out could become too much. He had been raised in a time when men weren’t meant to wear their hearts on their sleeves and as much as he had grown into the new era that had become his life, there were still times when it left him open and exposed, an open nerve sparking with anxious energy, when he was able to whisper what he was feeling across the sheets. The physicality of lovemaking helped temper that, helped him to pair his raw emotion with something more primal, even as it was always so slow and sweet in these moments.
You fell asleep held tightly in his arms, only to wake in the late evening hours, screaming with the horror of visions from a world that wasn’t your own still flashing in your mind.
I hope that one day I will look back on this note with a nostalgic sort of amusement, but until then:
Stay home. Stay safe. Be well.
We're all in this together, and we will get through it.
There was no time to dwell on the persistent nightmares. Even as you were still trying to catch your breath, Steve got a call that Bucky was in med bay after having a violent episode and they were asking that both of you get there as soon as possible.
“Oh my god,” you said, your nightmares momentarily forgotten. “He hasn’t had a problem in over a year! What could have happened? Is he alright?”
Steve shook his head, tossing you a tank top from your drawer and pulled out a t-shirt for himself, the both of you dressing as quickly as possible.
“I can’t even imagine,” he told you, clearly upset. There it was, you thought, another weight on his shoulders with all that you had already put there. You sighed, and Steve gave you a small smile. “Don’t start your worryin’ again, Doc,” he told you, and paused in dressing to pull you towards him and kiss you gently on the forehead.
You gave him a trembling smile and reached to touch his cheek, flushed from sleep and the sudden rush. “Look at you, Irish,” you said quietly, and he covered your hand with his own.
“Yeah, look at me, Doc,” he agreed, and kissed you again. “C’mon now, let’s get dressed and see what we can do for Buck.”
Helen told you when you arrived in med bay that they had Bucky heavily sedated. Though he, like Steve, had great resistance to any drugs introduced to his system, the bastardized version of the serum that had been used on Bucky allowed for a little more manipulation of his system, and thankfully many stronger medications were more effective on him than they might have been on Steve.
“He hasn’t had this kind of problem in a long time,” Helen confided quietly, walking with you towards the room where Bucky was sleeping off the episode, a clipboard in one hand and her usual travel mug of green tea in the other. As soon as Bucky had gained some semblance of control, he had designated Steve, and later, you, as his next of kin; you were privy to his medical information and allowed to make decisions for him when he was incapacitated, so Helen needed to fill you in on his condition.
“He’s still on the anxiety medications and mood stabilizers, isn’t he?” you asked, frowning. Helen nodded.
“He is,” she agreed. “And he’s kept up with his prescriptions regularly, so there should have been anything like what we saw this afternoon.
“What exactly happened?” Steve asked, following Helen through the door into Bucky’s sickroom. It wasn’t lost on you that it was the exact room where you had been kept after you’d first lost your memory.
“What happened is your boy had some kinda bad dream and went full-on King Kong,” Tony spoke up, startling you both. You hadn’t expected to find anyone there but Bucky himself, but Tony was seated in a chair not far from the bed, clearly keeping careful watch for any further problems if the morphing suitcase at his feet was any indication.
Even more surprising to see was Darcy, tucked comfortably under Bucky’s flesh arm, squeezed into the standard issue hospital bed beside him. From the looks of it, she was engrossed in a game of Candy Crush on her phone while Bucky lay unconscious, completely nonplussed by the situation.
“King Kong?” you said, glancing to Tony with a frown.
Helen cleared her throat. “Sergeant Barnes awoke from a particularly strong nightmare and was in what appeared to be a dissociative state, from what Miss Lewis has explained,” she told you, using her most officious tone and employed more formal titles for both Bucky and Darcy, as though she hadn’t been comfortably chatting with both of them mere hours before. It made you smile; Helen was nothing if not professional.
“He thought we were under attack in a Hydra base,” Darcy called by way of explanation.
“And he scooped up Darcy like Fay Wray and carried her off into the sunset, doing a little property damage on the way and putting three of the SHIELD guys we keep on hand for security into traction,” Tony added, frowning. He was pretending to care about whatever furniture or doors that Bucky may have broken, you knew, but his concern, in spite of all his posturing, was for Bucky himself. At the heart of things, Tony gave much more of a damn about all of you than he would ever really admit.
He grinned. “Capsicle understood that reference,” Tony added, and you coughed to cover the laugh you couldn’t hold in.
“What could have triggered it?” Steve asked, too concerned for Bucky’s well-being to even notice Tony’s attempt to lighten the mood.
“Beats the hell outta me,” Darcy called out, eyes still on her phone. “When we got the afternoon off, we went back to Bucky’s for cold pizza and Farscape and kinda ended up passing out on the couch. Next thing I knew, I was being chucked over Bucky’s shoulder and on the run before I was finally able to get a tranq shot in him.”
Steve’s eyes widened in surprise. “Wait, Darcy, you tranquilized Bucky?”
“At the Sergeant’s request, we put several high dosage tranquilizers into pen injectors for Miss Lewis to have on hand, in case of emergency,” Helen explained, clearing her throat. That was private information that neither Bucky or Darcy had chosen to divulge.
“He was still worried about hurting you,” you said quietly, catching Darcy’s eye when she looked up from her phone.
Darcy gave a short nod and smiled. “Turned out that wasn’t an issue,” she said. “But he was too out of it so I had to put him down. It just took a few to get the damn pen out of my pocket when he was dragging me around like a rag doll.”
“He’s been doin’ so good lately,” Steve said, shaking his head. It was hard for him to see Bucky struggle. You knew from a few late night conversations that Bucky was very fond of Darcy and wanted badly to take the next step with her, but was holding back out of fear for her safety. This seemed like a huge backslide, and it didn’t make any sense at all.
“Yeah but now he’s on the nightmare train like the rest of us,” Darcy said, casting a sympathetic gaze upon Bucky’s face, his brow furrowed in his sleep. She used her free hand to brush his hair out of his face before resuming her position, and you realized that even in his unconscious state, Bucky was holding onto her tightly.
“Boogeyman got all of you down?” Tony asked curiously. “See, this is why I don’t sleep.”
“This is why I wanted to get a blood draw,” Helen replied, glancing your way. “From everyone who has been in the lab, including Bucky… the Sergeant, and Captain Rogers.”
“I haven’t been having any bad dreams, if that’s what you mean,” Steve told her, and Helen nodded.
“Neither have I,” she agreed. “But it seems most everyone else has, and I’m fairly certain I’ve got a line on the cause at this point. There’s one more thing that the rest of you have had in common that I don’t.”
“What’s that?” you asked.
Helen held her mug aloft. “When we’re in the lab? I don’t drink the coffee.”
You hadn’t been at all acquainted with Steve or Bucky until the day they arrived at your lab. Of course you knew them by name and reputation, and had passed them in a corridor from time to time, but you weren’t exactly on a first name basis. Steve’s mind was often elsewhere in those days and Bucky avoided anyone in a lab coat as a matter of course. But then you got a call from Tony, speaking too fast and too flippantly for you to even disagree, asking you to take over upgrade duties for Bucky’s prosthetic arm; he and Bucky were still on uneven ground in those days and close quarters when not under immediate duress were less than ideal circumstances.
Engineering was not your field -- your work was always more in a theoretical realm -- but you had done extensive study in the course of your academic career as a means to better maintain your laboratory equipment, and had been on hand to help Tony in a pinch now and again since you began your work in the Tower. He knew you had a steady hand and a soft touch where needed, and Shuri’s latest upgrade designs were easy if delicate work.
You had tried to make conversation with them both but Bucky seemed only to focus on the task at hand, his eyes glued to your work as a way of personal diversion. Steve, however, lit up in a way you’d never seen before, eyes bright as you chatted, a persistent smile tugging at his lips. A few afternoon dates later and you had grown worried that Bucky, clearly one of the most important people in Steve’s life, would never warm up to you -- that your life of lab coats and experimentation would be a permanent wedge between you -- but Bucky had surprised you.
When it became clear that you were becoming a permanent part of Steve’s life, it was Bucky who decided to bridge that gap. He showed up at the lab late one afternoon when most of your staff had gone, two cups of coffee and a bag of pastries from the coffee shop in the building’s lobby and a determined look to his face.
“I gotta start getting used to this shit anyway,” he told you, pulling up a stool to your desk. “So what’re your intentions towards my best pal, eh?”
He had been nervous then, fidgety in a way that would come to seem so different from the calm, collected man you would grow to know, but on that day he had bounced his knee and drummed his fingers as you tried to keep him distracted. He lasted a good twenty minutes before he made his leave, and longer and longer with days that came after. Eventually it was easy as pie for Bucky to stop by your lab, be it to say hello, check in, have you look at his prosthetic, or get a peek at Darcy when she was visiting. And when he did come down, his first stop as he entered the room was always the coffee machine -- and it hadn’t been any different on that day, once he was certain you were safe in Steve’s hands.
It was something of a cliche. People always made running jokes about Tony going on ‘science benders’ fueled by too much caffeine, but they weren’t too far off the mark there, and it was a habit that many in your field shared. Darcy had been known to start replacing Jane’s massive coffee mugs with decaf on the sly when she was getting too far out of hand in avoiding sleep to keep working, and there had even been on occasion when Steve had marched into your lab and simply scooped you up and carried you off to bed when you’d averaged only an hour or two of sleep over a few days, certain you were close to a breakthrough if you could just keep working. As far as you were concerned, the coffee machine in your lab was essential laboratory equipment and you used it often -- you all did, with a few exceptions.
Helen just never cared for the taste of coffee -- you remembered that even from your university days. She was a tea drinker and that suited you just fine since you’d been working together.
“More for the rest of us,” you had told her, earning a laugh from the others, when she’d plugged in her electric kettle next to the coffee machine. For the rest of you, the dark roast kept flowing.
“The coffee?” you asked Helen, frowning. “What makes you think… I mean, I know you don’t drink it, Hel, but I still don’t see why…”
“Nightmares,” Darcy spoke up, wiggling a little in Bucky’s embrace to get more comfortable. “Correlation doesn’t equal causation but when multiple people experience the same result, it’s worth testing for.” When a few surprising gazes flicked her way, she frowned. “What? I’ve been working in labs and listening to science-brains for years. It rubs off.”
“Nightmares?” you echoed, glancing to Steve. He took your hand in his and squeezed it gently, trying to give you a little reassurance. Your nightmares were, to your everlasting chagrin, well known among most who lived and worked in the Tower. It was hard to keep secrets among those closest to you, and your episode that morning had all but broadcast the issue.
“Snakes! In my hair!” Darcy reminded, shaking her head. “Friggin’ terrifying.”
“And Jane,” Helen added. “She mentioned having ‘weird’ dreams and when I pressed her on it, she said they were nightmares. Finding out she missed a test or a class in school and having her degrees taken away or being forced to go back to junior high. Typical anxiety dreams but unusual for her, personally.”
“Yeah, Jane usually conks out and sleeps like the dead,” Darcy agreed. She shifted again, looking for just the right spot to cuddle into beneath Bucky’s arm. “Snores like a freight train when she’s really out but when she drops, she drops.”
“The only thing that ties everyone together outside of the lab itself is the coffee machine,” Helen went on, gesturing towards Darcy as she spoke. “I had begun to suspect, but became more certain after Sergea… after Bucky’s episode. It’s not as though there’s a ‘nightmare pill’ or anything out there, but some drugs, when mixed, can cause a high probability of vivid and disturbing dreams as an after effect, particularly people in high stress situations.”
“And if you’re going to have a nightmare when you’re in a high stress situation, it’s going to play on the fears that you already have,” Tony added, a curious gaze directed your way as he spoke.
“But why would anyone…” you began, then sighed. “I guess it’s more important, for now at least to find out if your suspicions will bear out, Helen, than to start questioning things now. Go and get your vampire kit, I guess.”
“I’ll need samples from all of us,” Helen explained, heading towards the door to collect her blood draw and specimen materials. “I’ll use myself as a control, and collect blood and hair. That way we’ll know for certain, if there has been any contamination, how long it’s been going on.”
“Oh, do me too!” Tony spoke up. “Just for laughs. And be a dear and run a full metabolic panel and send it to my doctor so he gets off my ass about a regular check-up.”
Helen took blood and hair from everyone in the room except for Steve, including herself; there were specific protocols in place for drawing blood from Steve anyway, due to the startling frequency of people attempting to duplicate the serum in his blood. He’d made the decision that it would only be drawn under control circumstances, used immediately, and any excess destroyed, like your visits to Helen’s office in the weeks before you were shot. Besides, he hadn’t shown any symptoms and hadn’t taken any coffee that morning in the lab. You took your leave directly after, while Helen went to find the others and Darcy settled in to sleep alongside the still-unconscious Bucky.
“Shouldn’t I keep an eye on him?” Steve had asked, gesturing towards the hospital bed.
Tony shook his head. “I think you’re needed at home,” he replied, giving you a concerned glance hidden behind one of his typical smirks. Try as he might to make it so, no one believed Tony to be as uncaring as he liked to pretend. “Besides, I think we’re all good here. I’ll stick around a while anyway to make sure.”
“Pepper kick you out of the penthouse again?” you asked with a small laugh.
Tony gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “It was an accident and it’s not like I can’t replace that ceiling.”
You were dragging by the time you made it home. You had been poked and prodded as much as Helen needed and though she promised to expedite testing, you were just too weary to wait it out. Steve was lumbering along beside you, the weight of the day clearly hanging heavy on his shoulders.
You groaned as Steve closed the door behind you. “I feel like this day has lasted for a week,” you told him with a sigh.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” he agreed, and slipped his arms around you from behind. You closed your eyes and leaned back into his embrace, enjoying the feel of his arms around you and the gentle pressure of his kiss at your temple. “Let’s go to bed, hmm? Fresh start in the morning.”
Across the moonlit living room, you could see the door to your bedroom still ajar from when you’d left that afternoon, the bed still rumpled and your work clothes scattered about on the floor. A lot of ups and downs indeed; twice you’d woken from terrifying nightmares, intermixed with the joy of discovery and intimate highs of being with Steve. What a day it had been!
“I don’t want to go to sleep,” you confessed, laughing in spite of yourself. “I don’t want to go to bed and wake up screaming. I’m so tired, baby. So tired.”
Steve held you a little tighter and kissed the top of your head again. “So we don’t go to bed,” he told you, as though it were the simplest thing in the world. “And we don’t go to sleep. We just cuddle up on the couch together, put something stupid on the television, and wait until morning. What do you say?”
You couldn’t help but smile in spite of yourself. It had been only a few months into your relationship when you introduced Steve to the joys of vegging out in front of a marathon of mindless television. To your surprise, he had confessed sheepishly that he’d never even used the massive screen in his home until you came along.
“Buck says I was just living in this century, not taking part in it,” he had explained one night, blushing the slightest bit from the silliness he felt as the two of you huddled close together beneath a warm throw blanket. “Like renting a room in a boarding house and never showing up for dinner.”
You had laughed. “C’mon now, that’s not on me,” you protested. “You’re just trying to blame your obsession with The Curse of Oak Island on me!”
“There’s something down there, I’m tellin’ you!” he protested, slipping a hand beneath the hem of your top to tickle at the softness of your belly, making you giggle. “But it’s not that, not really,” he went on, voice softening. He closed his eyes and pressed his nose into your hair, breathing in deeply before speaking again. “After I came out of the ice, it was… it was just goin’ through the motions, I guess. It wasn’t living. You brought me back to life, Doc.”
You kicked off your shoes and sighed before stretching out on the couch on your back, patting the space beside you for Steve to join you. He quickly followed suit, toeing out of his shoes and dropping his jeans on the floor to cuddle in close in his t-shirt and shorts, giving a quick request to Friday to queue up a few episodes of the latest Midsomer Murders, though he made no pretense of actually intending to watch. The wide set sofa allowed him to slip in easily beside you, resting his head on your chest, and you pulled the blanket from the back of the couch down to cover you both. Steve closed his eyes and shifted only a little and you smiled to yourself, knowing he was positioning his head against your breast to listen to your heartbeat. You wrapped an arm around him, resisting the urge to run your fingers through his hair because you knew it would put him right to sleep and you weren’t quite ready to let him go for the night just yet.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” you requested softly, the television a gentle murmur in the background that you knew would eventually lull you both to your dreams, whatever they may hold.
Steve smiled even as his eyes remained closed. “How about something you really don’t know?” he offered, and you chuckled.
“There’s still a pretty long list,” you reminded.
“No, not like that,” Steve said, and lifted a hand to rest along your forearm, his thumb drawing little mindless patterns against your skin. “Somethin’ you really don’t know, not somethin’ you just forgot for awhile,” he went on, the sleepiness in his voice and informality of his speech giving away that he had completely relaxed for a change.
“Okay…” you said carefully, unsure of what was to come.
“Tony had the parts and the plans for the upgrades for Buck’s arm for ages,” he told you, voice dropped low with the solemnity of a confession. “But we knew it needed a real lab, a clean room, and Bucky wasn’t in a great place so we weren’t going to push it, even though Tony kept sayin’ you’d be real sweet and quick and it’d be like nothin’. I didn’t want to put’im in a bad position so I let him keep pushin’ it off and then…” he trailed off and laughed softly to himself.
“What is it?” you asked, unable to stop your searching fingers from reaching into his soft locks, enjoying the little shiver his answering groan of pleasure gave you.
“Mmm,” Steve rumbled, stretching himself into your hand like an overgrown housecat. “I saw you… I mean, I’d seen ya before, here and there, but this time… you were in Banner’s lab for something when I stopped in to ask him if he might want that poor old fern that was gonna die if somebody didn’t take it off my hands.”
You couldn’t help but chuckle; somehow Steve always ended up on the receiving end of gifted houseplants, oftentimes from people who wanted to thank him for his help but knew he’d never accept any grandiose gift. But Steve, for all of his talents, did not have a green thumb; he could swear that he just had to be in the vicinity of anything growing for it to start to wilt. You remembered that fern -- you’d helped Bruce to repot it and it grew tall and proud in his office to that day.
“Poor Abigail,” you said, still laughing softly and using the name that Bruce had given the plant. “She was on her last legs when you brought her in.”
“Plants don’t like me,” Steve responded with a snort. “I think they can sense the allergies I used to have and get offended on principle.”
“But what does any of this have to do with…?” you started to ask, and Steve opened his eyes and smiled.
“That day in Bruce’s lab,” he replied, returning to his story. “You were borrowing something from him… some kinda fuel cell, I think, cos you were sayin’ your new ones were on order and he was welcome to them when they arrived, but you needed’em that day… anyway, you went up on this stepladder, see, and you had to reach up real high to get to them and you just… you kinda arched your back and extended out your foot for balance and I just… god damn, Doc, the way you looked, just the shape of you and the expression on your face, pure concentration, I… I mean, Jesus, Doc, it was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen in my life. Damn near swallowed my own tongue to look at you.”
“What?” you asked, eyes wide and blinking in surprise. You had only the faintest memory of that day -- because it had been so normal for you, so average and everyday, so commonplace for you to pop in on Bruce and borrow something now and again -- and it didn’t seem at all important. You barely remembered Steve dropping in while you were there at all, just the figure of him at the back of your mind and a conversation between the two men that you had largely ignored.
Steve laughed again, his face turning rosy with something akin to embarrassment at his confession. “I went straight to see Buck after that, tellin’ him it was time he got the upgrade done. Worked on him for a week straight to get him to agree. Finally had to admit that I needed an excuse to talk to you.”
You slept deeply and had no dreams that night, or if you did, you were too exhausted to remember them. You woke up wrapped around Steve on the couch, the two of holding on tightly to one another even in your sleep. He was already awake, his eyes half-lidded and red, clearly having woken only moments before. His hair was a mess, sticking up at odd angles, and there was stubble on his chin, but you couldn’t think of a moment when he looked any better. There was a calmness in his eyes, a sense of peace that was shared between you.
When you thought back on it later, you would realize that it was the first moment that you were truly certain everything would be okay.
“Morning, gorgeous,” he rasped, voice still scratchy and deeper than usual with the remnants of a long, deep sleep.
You snorted. “Nice try, baby,” you replied. “I’ve seen how bad my bedhead gets.”
Steve reached out and smoothed your hair back from your face, smiling fondly as he did, then settled his arms back around you.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Doc,” he told you with a sleepy sigh. “Everyday I’ve gotten to wake up next to you, open my eyes and see you there in my arms? Everyday, every time... most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
It was hard to drag yourselves off the couch that morning, to force yourselves to shower and dress and start the day. There was such a feeling of peace in your home that you knew would dissipate as soon as you stepped outside the door, but you knew there were still more important things that needed your attention: Bucky, and the tests Helen had been running. Knowing her as you did, you were certain she would have fast tracked everything overnight, most likely stayed awake all night to get the results as quickly as possible. You had to be there to get the answers as soon as they were available; you owed her that much.
Bucky was just waking up when you reached his room in the medical bay. Darcy was awake and again fiddling with her phone, clearly relieved to see Bucky opening his eyes and looking far more coherent than the last time he was up and about.
“Oh thank god!” she groaned. “Bucky you gotta let me up, I’ve had to pee for like four hours. I’m dying here.”
“The fuck?” he grumbled, lifting his prosthetic so Darcy could squirm her way out of the hospital bed and make mad dash for the bathroom. Bucky blinked a few times, frowning, and glanced towards where you and Steve stood near the door. “Th’fuck’s goin’ on?”
“You had a bad day, Buck,” Steve told him.
Bucky paled, his flesh hand reaching to pinch his brow as he closed his eyes and took a few deep, steadying breaths.
“I hurt anybody?” he asked, eyes still closed, bracing himself for the answer.
“You knocked around a couple fellas on security detail but nothing serious,” Steve told him, shaking his head. “You were more concerned with gettin’ Darcy to somewhere safe, looks like.”
Bucky swore and sat up, rubbing at his eyes before he began pulling off the sensors and lines attached all over him to monitor his vitals and brain activity. There had been a good deal of concern in the med bay over not having Bucky restrained, but Darcy had insisted that they were both fine and he just needed to sleep it off; thankfully, Helen had concurred.
“How the hell… I haven’t had a problem in fuckin’ ages, I…” Bucky said, shaking his head. It had to be difficult for him, you knew; he had worked so hard for so long to reach a point of stability in his reclaimed life. It was unfair that he should suffer because someone had some sort of vendetta against you.
“You were drugged,” Helen announced flatly as she entered the room. “Everyone was. Most everyone, anyway.”
Your eyes grew very wide. “The coffee…?” you asked.
Helen nodded, handing you a folder she had carried in with her. “Everyone who drank the coffee in the lab yesterday had very high amounts of several drugs in their systems that, on their own, would be fairly innocuous -- they’re prescription meds for a variety of conditions, none of which completely match the medical history of anyone whose blood we took.”
“Blood?” Bucky echoed, frowning. He didn’t like being poked and prodded, especially if he wasn’t able to consent. His gaze drifted along his remaining flesh arm and his frown deepened upon spying traces of the adhesive from bandages long since removed after his accelerated healing had made its presence known.
“I’m sorry, but it was necessary,” Helen told him, offering a sympathetic shrug. “As it turned out, it was for the best. We were able to identify what triggered your episode, and what is most likely causing the epidemic of nightmares among laboratory staff.
Turning her attention to you, she frowned. “SSRIs, beta blockers, steroids… nothing anyone should have been taking or was listed in the medical history, and you had the highest amounts in your system. Your hair sample confirms that you’ve been dosed heavily for months, starting around the time you went back to work.”
“Steroids?” Steve echoed as her words sunk in. “Beta blockers? They cause nightmares?”
“On their own, not usually, or at least not very badly,” Helen replied. “There’s no such thing as a ‘nightmare’ pill, after all. But it is a significant side effect on many of the drugs we found, and when taken together and combined with a recent trauma, there’s little question as to the cause of the violent and vivid nightmares you’ve described.”
You closed your eyes, heaving a deep sigh. “Okay,” you said slowly, trying to get your bearings. “Okay. So we were all drugged. And me, I’ve been fed these meds for months now?”
“It’s more than that,” Helen told you, voice softening. She looked terribly sympathetic; it made your stomach do backflips at the thought of what might be coming. “Jane, Darcy, Bucky… they were all dosed badly yesterday, very high amounts, though Jane and Darcy showed some longer term exposure than Bucky, but not nearly as much as you. And you in particular showed presence of something else, at least in your hair sample.”
You arched an eyebrow. “And what was that?” you asked.
“It seems there have been points throughout the past few months where you were exposed to small but substantial amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide,” Helen told you, lips pressed together in a thin line after she spoke.
It took a moment for her words to sink in. “I’ve been tripping on acid?!” you finally spat out.
I may end up a bit MIA before I can finish this one, I'm set to have surgery on Tuesday (no worries, this is a good thing!) and will need some time to heal.
“You’ve been trippin’ balls without me!” Darcy explained, a little too loudly for the quiet of the mostly empty cafeteria; you had arrived there in the quiet hours between the breakfast rush and the lunch crowd, so it was relatively deserted. “This is unreal!”
Bucky shot her a pointed look. “That somethin’ you typically do together?” he teased.
“Not intentionally!” Darcy replied with a grin.
It was a familiar scene, the group of you crowded around a few tables pushed together in the public cafeteria in the Tower, late in the evening when most of the company staff had gone home for the day. The cafeteria was kept running on a 24 hour basis, with a skeleton staff after regular business hours. Ostensibly it was for support staff and security that worked overnight hours, though it was an open secret that Tony was known to pop down at all hours for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, extra buttery.
Steve and Bucky were often ravenous after particularly strenuous missions and when they arrived back to the Tower, and while you were always glad to see them home in one piece, no matter the hour, you were never much one for cooking in the middle of the night. It had become standard practice to convene in the cafeteria, more often than not attracting a larger group of whoever might be about to join you.
Bucky had felt well enough to leave the med bay -- all but demanded it, really -- and his stomach was already rumbling. You were just as keen to leave, so the group of you reconvened in the cafeteria with tables full of junk food between you.
“It makes quite a bit of sense, though,” Helen put in, a heavily salted french fry paused halfway to her mouth. “You did seem to be disassociating now and again.”
“There were plenty of times that things didn’t feel… real,” you admitted, nodding. “As though I was dreaming, when I wasn’t even asleep.” Steve, who was seated close beside you, gave your hand a squeeze on the tabletop, eyes full of a mixture of sorrow and wonderment at all you had gone through.
“I wish there was something I could have done to help,” he said, voice dropped low, clearly for your ears only.
You gave him a small smile. “You did everything right,” you told him, reaching your free hand to cradle the side of his face. “You were perfect. I was the one who fouled things up.” He kissed you then, soft and sweet, and you felt such an overwhelming swell of happiness that it nearly brought you to tears.
“Oh, get a room,” Bucky groaned, and you couldn’t help but laugh, even as a few french fries were launched in your direction.
“So where does this leave us now?” Darcy asked, reaching to steal some pepperoni off of a slice of pizza in front of Bucky. She popped them in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully a moment before adding, “I mean, with the whole big mystery we’ve got goin’. Now we know Doc isn’t nuts, just somebody’s been doping her up. Like, what next?”
“We still have to figure out who’s doing this to me… and what it’s all for. There are no cameras in the lab,” you pointed out, sighing. “And anyone with security clearance past the public floors would have access at the least to walk in and mess with the coffee machine or my mug or… or, if they had full lab clearance, to access my research.”
“I think our main focus right now should be celebration,” Bucky announced, tapping his plastic soda bottle on the table as though calling a meeting to order.
You snorted. “A celebration? That we were all drugged?” you asked, shaking your head.
Bucky gave you a small, fond smile. “A celebration, Doc, because we have documented medical proof now that you’ve been manipulated and gaslighted for months. You’re not crazy, you’re not delusional, and you’re not some imposter from another dimension or somethin’. You’re still our Doc -- there’s just been some assholes fuckin’ around with your head, and now we can prove it.”
You couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry at his words, and what eventually rose from you was a mixture of both, soon to be joined by your husband at your side and your friends around the table. It was a horrible reality that you’d been living, full of nightmares and fear, questioning your own sanity every single day; the relief that it could be over -- not even that it would stop, because Helen feared you’d have long-term effects from the LSD and god knew whatever else you’d been dosed with -- but that you could remind yourself every morning that it was something that was done to you, something inorganic that was causing your doubt and fear, and that was an amazing feeling.
“The fuck is this?” Tony’s voice boomed across the empty cafeteria, eyebrow arched as he surveyed the table full of laughter, a plastic tray laden with more food than you’d seen him eat in a week, most of it deep-fried and salted, just the sort that Pepper tried to keep out of his kitchen. “You guys dropping a little more acid together? And no one invited me?”
You only laughed harder.
You made the decision to take the day off from worrying. Bucky was right; you finally had a few points in your favor and obsessing over the things that were still unknown would just spoil the relief that should come from having a concrete answer for a change. There had been so many strange ups and downs in the past week that it was nice to be off of the roller coaster for a change.
By the early evening, you had a full house; Bucky, Darcy, Helen, and Tony had more or less followed you home from the cafeteria, and Bruce had joined you a few hours later. It was nice to spend time together as friends, safe and secure in the knowledge that these people who were so important to you were a real part of your life.
“So I hear there’s a vowel renewal in the offing, eh?” Tony prodded, sitting on the arm of your sofa, a drink in his hand. You and Steve didn’t do much entertaining outside of the occasional dinner with a friend or two, so you didn’t have much in the way of glasses; Tony was drinking his whiskey sour out of a Flintstones coffee mug.
You were surprised you’d even had the whiskey on hand.
“We don’t have a specific date yet, but yeah,” you agreed, nodding.
Darcy grinned. “Dibs on maid of honor!”
Steve laughed. “As if there was a question!” he said, shaking his head.
“Damn straight,” Darcy agreed with a curt nod. “I take my duties as maid of honor very seriously and will not hesitate to cut a bitch who tries to get in my way.”
“I doubt it will come to that,” Bruce told her, shaking his head.
“Says you,” Darcy replied. “Doc is on LSD, Bucky tried to carry me off into the sunset, my hair was snakes, up is down, I’m not taking any chances!”
You wanted to let it go. You wanted to just move on with your life, plan your vow renewal with Steve, focus on the redirection of your research, and just move on. You had your whole life ahead of you now, after all; you didn’t have to question anymore and you could enjoy the time you had.
But there were still gaps in your memory.
It was still your own research that had been used together.
There was still someone out there who had been drugging you -- poisoning you, really, if you thought about it hard enough.
And you needed to know why and how it had all come about.
It was Jane’s idea to start making lists. “It’s how I always get moving again when my work has me backed into a corner,” she explained, popping the cap on a dry erase marker and going to the whiteboard in your lab. “So what do we know for certain so far?”
“We know Doc got shot,” Darcy spoke up.
“And the bullet held inside it a replica of the wormhole mechanism that was being researched here in this lab,” Helen pointed out.
Jane snapped her fingers and pointed at Helen. “Right!” she agreed. “What else?”
“It was a life-threatening wound that caused massive blood loss and could have killed her,” Steve spoke up from the doorway. He was leaning against the frame with a paper cup bearing the logo of your favorite cafe, an unreadable expression on his face. In spite of that, you smiled; the morning you came back to the lab after discovering that your coffee had been tainted, Steve had ‘walked you to work’ and taken the machine back with him. You knew the blankness of his expression was his usual response to masking concern; he didn’t like talking about you getting hurt.
“And in the aftermath of that, there was memory loss and confusion,” you continued for him, walking to accept the silently offered cup with a grateful smile. You paused a moment, giving him a lingering kiss in thanks and slipping your free hand into his. You gave his fingers a reassuring squeeze. “Memories that seemed real. An entire lifetime, lived in a different world. It eclipsed my reality but, bit by bit, the real world, this world came back to me,” you finished, eyes still holding his gaze.
There was so much worry still there, concern for you and anger over all that had happened, the way you had been targeted. There were always moments when you’d think that you couldn’t possibly love him any more than you already did, and there would be times like these, when his fierce protectiveness and devotion would shine through and you would realize how wonderfully blessed you truly were to have him in your life.
“But the real ones came back with time,” Darcy pointed out, even as Jane kept scribbling across the whiteboard. “It took a while but you started to get more and more of your real memories back.”
“The process most likely slowed because someone has been drugging you for months,” Helen added with a sigh, shaking her head. She leaned against the counter, eyes on Jane’s board, and took a long sip of the green tea in her travel mug. “If only we could have known.”
“If only I hadn’t been so pigheaded that I refused further testing that might have helped me,” you countered, sighing. Steven gave your hand a squeeze in return.
“How could you have known?” he asked. “How could anyone have known? You were being dosed with mind-altering drugs on top of the uncertainty of being in a world you didn’t understand. The fact that you were even able to get out of bed in the morning is a helluva triumph, sweetheart.” He slipped fully into the room then, sliding behind you so he could wrap his arms around you and still let you see Jane’s work.
“And then she gets the super-soldier cuddles,” Darcy grumbled, half under her breath. “I want super-soldier cuddles…”
You suppressed a sad smile; much as Darcy claimed she was just fine waiting for Bucky to come around, you knew she got frustrated from time to time. One day soon, you hoped, she would find as much happiness as you and Steve had found.
“Is that everything?” Jane asked, glancing over her list on the whiteboard.
Darcy sighed and pushed her hair behind her ears, frowning at the list for a moment before nodding. The fluorescent lights in the lab glinted off of the silver bracelet she was wearing, and your jaw dropped.
“I think that’s everything we know,” Darcy agreed, and you shook your head.
“It’s not,” you added quietly, eyes still on the bracelet. It wasn’t jewelry, you remembered; it was lab equipment she had gotten used to wearing while working with Jane and adopted as something of an accessory. Tony had taken it apart three times only to assemble, making the detection mechanism all the more sensitive and changing the alert feature to a vibrating pulse against the wrist rather than an ear-splitting alarm.
“What’s missing?” Helen asked curiously.
“Gamma radiation,” you reminded, wheels in your head spinning. Seeing it all laid out was ringing a few alarm bells of your own; something was suddenly beginning to make sense. “The bullet was dosed with gamma rays. I had residual radiation for months afterwards.”
“Oh, right!” Darcy agreed, shaking her wrist to jiggle the bracelet. “I forgot about that. But what difference does it make? Didn’t we never figure out how the bullet had gotten contaminated?”
Steve looked at the board and then back at you in surprise; it seemed a few things were beginning to click for him too.
“What if it wasn’t contaminated by accident?” he asked slowly. “What if it was irradiated for a specific purpose?”
You nodded. “Exactly,” you agreed, glancing up to meet his gaze. The two of you were on the same page, even if the others hadn’t quite gotten there yet.
“But to what end?” Jane asked, turning to glance at the two of you as she spoke. “A bullet can be lethal enough on its own, why attempt to add some sort of… what, radiation poisoning?” She frowned; her work, you realized, hadn’t afforded her the type of knowledge that came with living with Steve and his team.
“Bruce’s accident involved his experimentation with gamma radiation,” Helen said, eyes fixed to the whiteboard. Jane had scribbled ’gamma’ onto the list.
“And Dr. Erskine’s serum was… activated, I guess you could say, using gamma radiation,” Steve added, earning a surprised glance from Jane and Helen in the process. It seemed almost as though they wouldn’t have expected him to understand the manner in which it worked, if not the mechanism.
You slipped from his embrace and began to pace, a familiar gesture that often surfaced when you felt as though you were onto something big. Steve smiled, well used to the behavior, and took a drink from your cup of coffee as he watched you. It seemed sometimes that he marveled at you when you were working; it always felt so strange, when you still felt he was the one to be wondered at, not you.
You were on a roll; you were speaking quickly, gesturing wildly as you went. You couldn’t help yourself -- it was the way you always reacted when on the precipice was monumental.
“The change in Bruce following his exposure was monumental,” you mused, thinking aloud as you paced across your lab. “It brought out his Id… a part of his own self that he had been suppressing, all the tamped down frustration and rage brought to bear, personified in his alter-ego. A Jekyl-and-Hyde split, but all of it still a part of the same man.”
“All that anger was already in him?” Darcy asked, surprised.
Helen nodded. “He didn’t have an easy life. His father… well, it’s for him to tell, really,” she added sadly. “Suffice it to say there was a clear understanding of why it happened, if not how it happened, in the aftermath.”
“And the serum… everything that Steve is now was already inside of him… the serum, and the accompanying gamma rays, was able to pull that out, make the physical match the mental, the soul…” you went on, speaking rapidly.
Jane had been making notes and paused, glancing back at where Steve still stood, watching you with a mixture of fondness and wonder.
“He was… bigger? On the inside?” she asked, an eyebrow arching quizzically.
Steven couldn’t help but shake his head. “More like I just had a big attitude,” he replied, always unable to take any sort of compliment.
“Built like a brick shithouse in your soul!” Darcy sing-songed to the tune of a popular song, and Steve burst out laughing.
You grinned. “Steve always had the heart of a hero. Just took a little intervention for the strength of his form to match the strength of his character.” He blushed deeply at your words, just like you knew he would.
“Cut it out, Doc,” he grumbled, cheeks gone scarlet.
You stepped towards him and reached up to gently touch his cheek. “Look at you, Irish,” you said quietly, and Steve closed his eyes, leaning into your touch. “The serum and the gamma rays brought out what was already there, inside. That’s why it failed so massively when that Nazi bastard used it… Schmidt,” you went on, speaking to the others but your eyes on Steve.
He’d never really understand how wonderful he was, you knew. He’d never accept that his heart of gold had been personified in the physical form that Erskine had given him; he’d insist he was just like any other guy, trying to do the right thing. It was one of the myriad reasons you had fallen in love with him.
“The skull-face guy?” Darcy asked curiously. Much of what Steve had gone through during the war had been kept classified, with very little being leaked to the public. Much of what had been broken publicly had only come out after Bucky had come home, so the details might be just out of reach, at least to Darcy and Jane.
“Red Skull,” Steve said, voice thick with the sort of disgust you rarely heard from him. “That’s what they called him. The serum gave him strength and agility, but Erskine said that it… that it showed the truth. It changed his face to reflect who he really was.”
You turned back to the others. “Exactly,” you went on. “Yet another example of the gamma ray intervention affecting not the physical, but the mental. The personality. Even the soul, one might say.”
Helen shook her head. “A soul isn’t a quantifiable thing,” she said, frowning. “There’s no proof that such a thing even exists.”
“Isn’t there?” you replied. “Can you honestly say you’ve never been able to see that sort of thing in someone’s eyes? What about Bruce?”
Helen blushed. “Well that’s just personality,” she replied.
“What if it’s not?” you responded. “We’ve seen the gamma radiation somehow… attach itself to whatever this is… this intrinsic quality of being. What if it’s not just personality? What if it’s everything? Thoughts, traits… memories. The whole person.”
“I’m not quite following,” Jane said, shaking her head. “If we suppose that a soul exists, and that gamma radiation, what, brings it to the forefront? How does that have bearing on what happened to you? The new memories?”
“What if the gamma rays that I was dosed with somehow attached to it… the soul, the Id, whatever it is inside of us that makes us who we are,” you responded. “What if, when the wormhole opened, tiny as it was, the radiation attached to the same part of a duplicate of my very self, on the other side? The blowback shocked that part of her back into me. Her body was destroyed -- she died there. I remember that. I remember dying -- her dying.”
“Jesus, Doc,” Steve said, voice pained at the very thought. You tried not to talk about that, and you were certain you had never told him outright. But you knew what you had seen, what you had felt, through her eyes. You knew that she had died there, alone in the street.
You stopped your pacing and went to Steve, allowing him to fold you into his arms. It was reassuring, for both of you. You felt grounded in the here and now when you let him hold you; it gave Steve the comfort of feeling you there, alive, in his arms.
“But why would you survive it and she didn’t?” Darcy asked, after giving you and Steve a moment. “Like, if the gamma rays snatches up souls, why didn’t it bounce you into her?”
You swiveled in Steve’s arms, facing the others but leaving his arms wrapped around your waist. “I think maybe that was the intent,” you agreed, nodding. “Sending me away somewhere, though I can’t fathom why. As for the other… well, she was alone, for starters. I had Steve with me and he got me help as quickly as he could. And the gamma rays alone would, combined with the wormhole and the velocity of the bullet, be enough to cause some sort of transference of consciousness, but… whoever fired the gun didn’t expect to meet any resistance.”
“You lost me, Doc,” Darcy said, shaking her head. Jane seemed similarly befuddled, but you could see the solution beginning to dawn on Helen’s face.
“The shooter wouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known, about the plasma transfers!” Helen said with a gasp.
“Plasma?” Jane echoed, waiting for the explanation.
“We’d been doing transfusions of platelet-rich plasma, from Steve,” Helen told her, eyes gone wide with the wonderment of it all. If what you suspected was true, it would mean that you had only survived the attempt on your life due to the perfect set of conditions that allowed it. “His body was trained to replicate the serum in his blood cells and a very condensed dosing of it would have been in the plasma itself.”
“Which is why I healed quickly enough to be back in my own bed not long after surgery,” you agreed nodding. “My body couldn’t replicate the serum, but I’d ‘borrowed’ enough in the plasma to keep me safe… and to keep my consciousness firmly tethered into my body. I just got the blowback from the other.”
“Holy shit!” Darcy exclaimed. “Like seriously, holy shit, Doc! So someone was trying to steal your soul and bounce it into another dimension? But Cap’s blood saved the day! And… wait, wait, wait… why were you getting juiced up with Cap’s blood?”
“Oh, the serum most likely fundamentally changed Steve’s DNA,” Helen filled in, forgetting herself for a moment. “We have no idea how quickly his level of strength could appear in a child, or even in a fetus, so we needed an added layer of protection for when… oh. Oh dear. Oh I’m so sorry, I’ve never broken patient protocol in my life and I…”
You shook your head. “It’s fine, Helen,” you said, smiling gently. “We’re all family here.”
Darcy’s eyes popped even wider. “Babies?!” she squealed.
It took some time to calm Darcy down after she started thinking about potential babies in the offing. Even as you tried to figure out a way to show, at least mathematically, that what you had hypothesized could be possible, she was still rattling on about baby names and searching ridiculous onesies and knitting patterns on her phone. As you finally threw in the towel to call it a day for good, she was ordering skeins of pastel green yarn to knit a dinosaur costume for your potential future children.
Steve’s expression had gone so soft and wistful, listening to Darcy prattle on. It hadn’t occurred to you until that very day that if you hadn’t been shot and your whole life derailed, you might have welcomed a new life into the world by now. It was a bittersweet moment; you were confident you were moving in the right direction, finding a way to get back to the life that had been so cruelly stolen away from you, but you still had to confront all that you had lost.
A year might not seem like much in the long term, but in the here and now? It was everything.
Steve seemed to sense your troubled mood as the two of you move silently through the building, heading home for the night. You hadn’t even made it to the elevator when he took your hand in his, offering you a small, almost shy smile when you looked up at him. You’d heard songs over the years where some boyish crooner would declare how he’d fall in love with the girl of his dreams, over and over again, and it was moments like this that seemed to make you understand. You were certain you fell in love with Steve all over again, every single day.
Standing in the elevator, you whispered, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
You didn’t have to specify; Steve already knew what you wanted to hear.
“You brought it up first,” he said quietly. “We were both king of circling the idea… I think maybe we were nervous to bring it up, the both of us. We didn’t talk about it, before we got married, or even after.”
“Kind of a big thing never to bring up,” you told him. You struggled to think, to remember your thoughts on family before Steve, during the part of your life that had remained the same across two universes. You’d been engaged once before; you had never considered having children with your ex. You couldn’t imagine that, not with him.
And then there was Steve.
You hadn’t had an easy life growing up. Your family was barely a family at all. There was no reason to believe you could ever be equipped to raise children of your own, no matter who your partner was at the time. And the problem had been, seemingly all of your life, that you were missing pieces here and there. With your old job, with your ex-fiance. You didn’t realize it at the time, not until well afterwards, when things started to make sense.
It was like everything was a puzzle, each piece snapping into place at just the right time.
You broke up with your ex? Click.
You took the job with Stark? Click.
The day Steve decided to ask you to grab a cup of coffee? Click.
You became whole in a way that you never had experienced in all your life. The way you looked at the world had changed -- you had changed. Suddenly the idea of starting a family of your own didn’t seem so far-fetched. The idea of there being a new little person in the world, someone who lived as a testament to the love you shared with Steve… it was a dream. A dream that could become real.
“I sat you down one day after dinner,” you filled in, nodding slowly as the elevator doors opened to your floor. You couldn’t help but smile as the memory surfaced, the way you had sprung the issue on him, so nervous that he would disagree and it would change things between you forever.
But then his eyes lit up, and he smiled. That sweet little half-smile of his, the one that set your heart beating a little faster no matter how many times you saw it. And you realized then that he was completely on board, that you hadn’t needed to worry in the least. He’d been thinking along the same lines, and had been just as worried to bring it up.
There was so much to talk about then -- where you would live, how you would work, your hopes and fears and the medical aspect, who needs to see which doctor and the like -- but the pure joy in that moment wouldn’t allow it. Once you’d realized you were both hoping to start a family, you’d made love right then and there. You couldn’t help yourselves.
Steve was remembering that now too; you could see it in the little glint in his eyes and the soft pink flush rising in his cheeks. He always gave himself away.
“Settle down there, tiger,” you teased, pushing open the door to your apartment with one hand, the other still lingering with your fingers twined with his.
“You remember?” he asked hopefully.
“It came back to me,” you agreed, nodding. “I just needed a little nudge, that’s all.”
“Do you think it will always be this way?” Steve asked you, pausing in the living room. He stopped short, causing you to tug back a little way, landing in his arms. That, you know, hadn't been an accident. “Just rememberin’ things, as they come up?”
“I don’t know,” you admitted with a sigh. “I don’t really know what it is I’ve forgotten. But I know that I love you, and I want to remember every little thing about my life with you. I want it all back, Steve. I want our life together back. And if figuring all of this out helps, great. If not, well. You’ll just have to keep reminding me.”
He still looked troubled, a furrow in his brow even as his arms circled your waist. “I don’t mean to push you on it, Doc,” Steve said with a sigh. “I just… we had a path ahead of us. We had a plan for what our lives were gonna be.”
“And none of that needs to change,” you told him, and leaned up to gently kiss his lips. “It’s all about getting back on track, that’s all. It’s not even starting over, it’s just… trying to pick up where we left off.”
“Yeah?” Steve asked. “You sure about that, Doc? Me sticking with this retirement and all that… everything?”
“Everything,” you agreed, kissing him once more. “Everything, Steve. Everything we were working towards. Everything we were planning. All of it. We can have all of it, and anything else we think of along the way. There’s nothing in the world that I want more.”
A quiet sort of calm settled over you in the days that followed. Steve seemed, for the first time in a long time, to relax; the future you had dreamed of together was secure and he could let his guard down. Still, questions nagged at you. You wanted to remember everything and you were, at your core still very angry, though you tried not to let it show. As far as you were concerned, you had been robbed. Your life had been stolen from you. Even if you never got it back, you needed to find whoever was responsible.
Some precautions had to be taken; security for the research floors of the building was doubled and labs were kept locked when they were empty. FRIDAY had combed through surveillance videos and access logs but hadn’t found any instances of intrusion. New cameras were installed so that there were no blindspots. It seemed Tony took your suspicions personally, running over security specs from your lab early one morning, before the rest of the staff would normally be in. As it was, all civilian staff was being put on paid leave until their backgrounds could be run again, so you weren’t expecting any further company for some time.
“This place is supposed to be the most secure facility on the planet,” he groaned, running through more models and simulations on one of his holographic screens than you were able to keep up with. His eyes tracked all of it, the information feeding back into his brain at levels far beyond what you could comprehend. People called him a genius, but they were wrong.
Calling Tony Stark a genius would be like calling Usain Bolt a jogger.
“It is the most secure facility on the planet,” you told him, nudging him with your elbow from where you stood behind him. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, Tony. I’ve never felt safer than I do when I’m here -- in my lab, in mine and Steve’s place…”
“Someone got in,” Tony countered, shaking his head. “So now we start from scratch. We need somewhere we can all feel safe and now? Now it doesn’t feel safe anymore.”
“Careful there,” you warned, nudging him again. “All of that righteous anger. You’re starting to sound like Steve.”
He snorted. “From anybody else, I’d be offended, but from you? I take that as a compliment.”
The lab ended up being far busier that day than you’d imagined. Darcy was, much to your chagrin, being made subject to the same background checks as other civilian workers. You had protested on her behalf, as had Helen and Jane, who were considered fully vetted and no longer in need of further investigation.
“Hey, it’s cool!” Darcy had responded, hands in the air as if in surrender. “It’s all good. I could use a day off anyway, right?” She had been asked to stay in her quarters in the Tower until further notice, and so you had called an immediate halt to any further work on your little problem.
That didn’t mean you could let it go.
It was impossible to prove that something as intangible as the concept of a soul or a psyche could be affected in any scientific way. It wasn’t as though there were any proof such a thing even existed; it was just an idea, a daydream to some. It was fashionable in your field of work to deny any such thing could exist, but your own life -- even before the accident -- had proven to you long ago that there was something at work inside a human being beyond just flesh and bone.
You believed in the soul -- you had to. Because you believed in soulmates. You had found yours.
You kept looking at the numbers, over the over again. The bullet. The trajectory. The gamma traces left behind. Nothing could be proven, and it was incredibly frustrating. If only, you thought, you had the formula for the serum that had connected Steve’s physical form with the strength he had inside; then, at least, you could look at something in print that could tell you all the answers.
“Aren’t you supposed to be taking the day off?” Bucky asked, dropping a hand onto your shoulder as he spoke and making you jump. You’d been so wrapped up in your calculations that you hadn’t even heard the familiar heavy cadence of his footsteps as he approached.
You laughed softly. “God. Some help I am with this new push for security, huh?” you asked, reaching to pat his hand on your shoulder in greeting. Bucky grinned and pulled up a chair next to you at your desk.
“Couldn’t stand spending all day at home with that punk you married?” he teased, and you smiled.
“I can’t seem to sit still for five minutes these days,” you told him, shaking your head. “Not going to inflict that on the poor man.”
Bucky crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. “Steve’d do just about anything for ya, Doc. Wouldn’t mind in the slightest, even if you were drivin’ him up the wall all day long.”
“What about you?” you countered. “I thought you’d be spending the day with Darcy, at least while she’s under house arrest.”
Bucky’s smile faltered just a little. “Nah, she doesn’t need me hanging’ around, gettin’ on her nerves.”
You sighed. Same old Bucky. Same old hang-ups.
“She really cares about you, you know,” you reminded him.
“I know,” he grumbled in response, casting his gaze towards the floor. He began to fidget, picking at the thumbnail on his flesh hand, avoiding your eyes. “What if…” he began, but you shook your head.
“We saw the worst happen already, right?” you told him. “You were drugged out of your gourd. We all were. You had an incident, and what did you do, Buck? You protected her. That was your first and only instinct. To keep her safe from the threats you thought you saw everywhere.”
Bucky looked up and gave a pained smile. “But what if next time, the threat is me?”
You shook your head. “I don’t believe it ever will be,” you told him honestly. “One of these days, Bucky, you’re going to have to let go of all the guilt you’re carrying around. You don’t need that weighing you down all the time.”
“Take your own advice,” he countered. “Stop apologizin’ to everybody about shit you couldn’t help from happening’. No one blames you, Doc. Least of all Stevie. You should be spendin’ your time with him right now, not beating yourself up here and trying to solve a puzzle that maybe can’t be solved.”
You groaned and dropped your head to rub at your eyes. You really were tired, after all. You’d been putting so much effort into this mess, even when you were on your own. It was so much to carry around -- maybe you were preaching to the choir when it came to Bucky, but at least you understood what he was feeling, at least to some degree.
“I wish I could,” you told him with a sigh. “I wish I could let it go, but I can’t. I have to know. I have to solve the puzzle, if only to keep it from happening again. So I have to keep working at it until I figure it all out, even if I have to do it all on my own.”
“You’re not on your own,” Bucky reminded, knocking his knee against yours. “I can help. Just tell me what you need.”
Bucky seemed to have known exactly what you needed before you did. When he showed up in your lab, paper cups of coffee from a source cleared by security in hand, he sat you down and got you talking.
You had always been a talker in the lab; it was why you kept techs and interns on hand even when you didn’t have a huge amount of manual work necessary for them to complete. Talking helped you think, helped you work through the information you had gathered and find a way to fit the pieces together and bring the puzzle to a logical conclusion. Bucky knew that, and knew that you needed another sounding board.
His inexperience in the field is what helped. Jane and Helen would offer their own conclusions, dozens of other possibilities that leaned heavily into the fields they studied. They were helpful in their own right when you were still mired in questions but you had all hit a brick wall. Too many cooks spoiled the soup -- in a group, all you could come up with were more questions.
Darcy would have been a helpful foil for your need to speak aloud and work out your theories, but the new security protocols were preventing that. Bucky seemed to have realized that; his presence in the lab was just what you needed.
You laid it all out, every scrap of evidence, the timeline you had developed, the real-time results you had gathered in the lab, and it all came down to one thing: you didn’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle just yet.
“There’s something missing,” you told him, shaking your head and leaning back in your uncomfortable office chair. Darcy had been right; the stool you had sent traveling over planes of reality had really been the most comfortable seat in the lab. “I just can’t imagine what it could be.”
“The science side of things makes sense,” Bucky offered, then shrugged. “At least to me. Not like I’m one of you geniuses.”
You smiled. “You’re as bad as Steve,” you told him, shaking your head.
“How’s that?” Bucky asked, arching an eyebrow as he raised his paper cup to his lips to drain the last of the coffee.
You rolled your eyes. “Don’t play me, Barnes. I know you’re a hell of a lot smarter than you pretend to be. Steve too. You put people off guard, try to let them to think you’re just the dumb muscle, when we all know better.”
Bucky chuckled. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’m a goddamn Einstein.”
“I’m not falling for it,” you replied, and chuckled, swaying gently side to side on the castors of your chair. You sighed. “It does, though. Make sense. The science. Assuming the theory of the existence of a soul or a psyche or something innate like that exists.”
“What more do you need, then?” Bucky asked. He crushed his coffee cup and tossed it into the wastebin beside your desk. “Some things can’t be proven, right? We call’em theories even when we know they’re true because there’s no obvious physical data that’ll show it’s real. Like evolution. We know it’s real but people still call it a theory.”
You suppressed a smile. And he tried to make you believe he wasn’t intelligent.
“Something… I don’t even know,” you said and sighed, staring down at the dregs of coffee in your own cup. You swallowed it quickly and followed Bucky’s example, tossing it to your wastebasket, just barely making it inside. “We can look at other examples in nature to prove evolution even if we don’t have the definitive human ancestor. If I could just have something… tangible.”
Bucky seemed to be thinking, his brow drawn and his expression gone troubled. You frowned, wondering if you had said something to upset him and about to ask, when he suddenly sighed.
“We could try talking to the shooter,” he offered, and you laughed.
“Sure thing,” you agreed, shaking your head. “As soon as we find them.”
Bucky let out a long breath and crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s a freelancer, not affiliated with any known group. That’s why he was easy to track.”
Your eyes went wide in shock. “You… you have the shooter?” you asked, voice small and near breaking. It didn’t make sense, but it seemed to be what Bucky was saying. Why wouldn’t they have told you? Why wouldn’t Steve have told you?
For his part, Bucky at least sounded apologetic when he spoke again. “He’s been held at the detention center in the subfloors of the SHIELD headquarters since we picked him up. Official word is we’re giving local LEOs with overcrowded holding cells a break while he’s held over for trial on the shooting but it's an indefinite kind of thing.”
You weren’t sure how to feel. It was such an incredible secret to have been kept from you. This man might hold the key to the whole thing and they hadn’t thought it necessary to tell you? At least it could have given you some peace of mind, knowing that he was off the streets.
“Why?” you asked, voice breaking that time. A tear slipped free, born from anger and frustration, not sorrow.
He sighed, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck with one hand. “When we hit the ground in Minsk, it was pretty clear that Steve was ready to do somethin’ stupid. He knew we were close to getting this guy. When Stark got the intel that the shooter was holed up in some cheap hotel, we told Steve it was a wash and sent him home to you.”
Your eyes narrowed. “And he believed that?”
“Not right off,” Bucky said, chuckling and shaking his head. “Took some convincin’. Stark came up with the story that we were going to stay behind and run clean-up, see if we could dig anything else up. I told Steve you needed him more than we did. Not that it wasn’t true.”
Bucky was right on that, at least. Steve had arrived home just as you needed him most, making you question yourself as to whether he was really there at all, so perfect was his arrival. You’d woken in a terror and there he had been, a strong and calming presence at your side.
“I knew you needed me so I came home to you, where I belong,” Steve had told you. You’d cried in his arms, the relief and the fear intermingling so violently that it was the only way you could have reacted. You couldn’t be angry at Bucky for sending Steve back to you -- though, you thought, Steve might be, once he knew.
“That much I can agree with,” you murmured, nodding. “But I don’t… couldn’t Steve have helped you? Catch him, I mean. Couldn’t he have…”
“I think he would have killed him sooner than look at’im,” Bucky replied flatly, his words startling you. He could see the surprise in your eyes, and sighed. “C’mon, Doc. It was bad enough, almost losin’ you to a bullet, but seeing the hell you’ve been going through? We all know that punk has a moral code he lives by, even if he’s never explained it all out, but this would’ve been a special circumstance. There’s no way in hell Steve’d let this guy walk away after hurting you that badly. And I wasn’t gonna let him do that, get blood on his hands like that. It’d end up eating him alive.”
Bucky had dropped a bomb on you, but you couldn’t be angry with him. You understood why he and the rest of the team had chosen to keep the information from both you and Steve; they had simply wanted to protect the both of you. But now that you knew, you couldn’t let it go. Bucky would arrange for you to go and meet the shooter the following day; you’d break the news to Steve in the morning.
After your talk, you decided to throw in the towel for the day. The frustration of the blockade in your work and knowing that there had been a missing piece right there all along had done more than enough to kill off any ambition to continue that you had left for the time being. You just wanted to be home and be with Steve.
A light rain had started to fall outside by the time you made it back to your apartment. You found Steve standing at the window, watching as it fell, lost in his thoughts. It made you smile; you had both developed a certain fondness for the rain after your first ‘real’ date that never was. You slipped into the room quietly, though you know you had no chance of really sneaking up on him; he would have heard you before you had even opened the door.
You sidled up behind him and wrapped your arms around him from behind, resting your cheek against his back and closing your eyes. You could feel a release of tension from Steve almost immediately, and his hands slipped out of his pockets to clasp over yours, bringing one up to his lips so that he could kiss your palm.
“All done for the day, Doc?” he asked.
“Mmhmm,” you agreed, squeezing him a little tighter. You breathed in deeply, enjoying the scent of his aftershave and shampoo and your laundry detergent and everything that combined together to make Steve. “I was going to power through, but then… I heard the rain.”
He chuckled and you felt it rumble through him. “That so?” he asked, and he kissed the pulse point on your wrist, a soft and quick little flick of his tongue against your skin drawing out goosebumps in its wake.
“You know how I love it when it rains,” you reminded him in a gently teasing tone.
Steve let go of your hands and swiveled in your arms so he could face you, one hand settling at your waist as the other reached to gently stroke his thumb over your cheek. He had a way of looking at you sometimes as though he were in awe, somehow not believing you could really be there with him. You had asked about it one and he had smiled even as he blushed, explaining that sometimes when he looked into your eyes it would just hit him, how lucky he was to have you, and for a moment he would feel overwhelmed. He had that look now and it filled you with such great emotion that you had to close your eyes to keep from crying.
He leaned in and pressed a kiss to your forehead. “I remember,” he told you, and you felt his lips pull into a smile against your skin. “I love it myself.”
Steve kissed you then, soft and gentle and sweet. That was his way of telling you that it didn’t have to go anywhere, that it could just be this, touches and kisses and warmth, falling into one another and staying awhile, stretched out on the sofa together, enjoying the closeness without pushing any further. Some days, that was what you needed; some days, that was what he needed.
But you didn’t miss the heat in his eyes when you opened yours, or the way his gaze seemed to map out your body in a way you could tell his hands were itching to do. Some days, you really did just want the comfort, but there were just as many days that you wanted him completely; taking to your bed together for the rest of the afternoon was exactly what you’d had in mind when you walked in the door to find him watching the rain.
You let him undress you, like he had in the not too distant past. You had learned quickly in your relationship that it was something he enjoyed, unwrapping you like a gift that was meant only for him. There were days when Steve lost control, when his strong hands would rip and tear at your clothing with a fervid need to feel your skin against his, a need that you understood and often mirrored. There was something so freeing about it, baring yourself to Steve, feeling his touch; he made you feel light.
But then there were days like these, when you felt like you had all the time in the world. When the rest of the world disappeared, and all that mattered was the sound of the rain on the window pane and the feel of Steve’s arms around you. It was a luxury afforded to few, you knew -- that ability to feel perfectly content and safe, if only for a moment -- and you never took it for granted, not now that you had experienced an entire lifetime without it and still carried the fear in the deepest recesses of your heart that it could all disappear.
It felt strange somehow, to be sharing moments of quiet contentment and a slow build to ecstasy while the very walls around you housed hundreds, going about their day as though you weren’t tucked away in your private space, sharing everything you had to give with one another. People were working in the labs and riding the elevators, ordering meals in the cafeteria or pouring coffee in their apartments, their own little sphere inside a world that never stopped moving, and yet for you, everything outside of the soft sheets of your bed and the weight of Steve’s body pressed to yours had ceased to be.
Nothing mattered but the sweat beaded on his brow or the feel of the stretch and pull of the muscles in his back beneath your fingertips. The part of his lips as he breathed your name, the flutter of his eyelashes when it became almost too much. The light there when he opened them again.
The words, half gasped, half whispered, when you mewled and let your heavy eyelids fall shut.
“Open those eyes for me, darlin’, c’mon, you know how I like to see you… there you are, there’s my girl, so beautiful, so god damn beautiful…”
When Steve touched you, it was with reverence, as though you were something special, something to be cherished. You could look in the mirror every morning and see only something plain and ordinary, and yet this man, with a heart so brave and a soul that shined through like the light of the sun itself, would fall at your feet as though you deserved his worship. You could tell him you loved him a thousand times or more, and it would never be enough to explain everything you felt. And so you had this -- these moments of sweet surrender.
If anything good had come out of what had been done to you, you reasoned, it was how much you had learned to appreciate what you had. It wasn’t as though you had ever been ungrateful, really, but the incredible had become your day-to-day. You would never again allow yourself to forget how extraordinary your life really was.
And it wasn’t all the superheroes and science -- which even on a bad day made the other world you remembered seemed boring and mundane in comparison -- that made it so extraordinary. It was the little things, the things that you ever would have expected to have.
Friends. Family. Love.
Simple moments, like this. Stretched out beside Steve on the bed you shared, the bedclothes rumpled and strewn about, nothing more than a sheet strewn over your waist. You’d never been very body-proud, embarrassed even to change in the high school locker room with other girls present. But with Steve? It was so easy. It was like nothing.
Everything about you was already so bare to his eyes, and his eyes alone. You felt no compulsion to hide yourself away at all.
Which was why you couldn’t keep a secret from him.
You sighed, reaching up to rub the heel of your palms over your eyes. “Steve. I have to tell you something,” you said.
Steve, propped up on his side and tracing invisible patterns across your skin with the fingertips of his free hand, hummed in response. “What is it?” he asked; he sounded utterly unconcerned.
It made you love him just that little bit more, as though that were even possible -- know that in spite of your words and demeanor, he had no worries that what you were going to say would do him any real harm.
“I talked to Bucky for awhile today,” you explained. “He told me… the man who shot me? Steve, they have him. They’re holding him at SHIELD.”
Steve hummed again. “Yeah, I know,” he agreed.
That caught you off guard; you pushed yourself up on your elbows. “You know?” you asked, brow furrowed.
He sighed. “I have an ear to the ground for everything that goes on at SHIELD,” Steve told you, slipping his hand off of you bare stomach to cover one of yours on the bed. “They caught me off guard once. I’m not going to let it happen again. I have to keep us both safe.”
“Oh,” you said lamely. “Right. I saw that movie.”
Steve snickered and kissed your shoulder. “I forget sometimes you’re in-the-know on things that happened when you weren’t there now. But, yeah… I know I can trust people in our inner circle but SHIELD is an entity unto itself. I have a few trusted people there who feed me information from time to time. I knew the moment they brought him in.”
“And you’re not mad?” you asked curiously, relaxing back onto your pillow. “At Bucky and the others for not telling you, I mean. Telling us.”
Steve pushed his hair out of his eyes; he’d let it grow a little longer on top again. “I was, at first,” he admitted. “But after I thought about it… they were right to cut me out of it. I probably would have done something I regretted. I didn’t like keeping it from you, but I didn’t want to worry you either. Are you angry with me, Doc?”
You smiled, and reached up to touch his face. He closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, a gesture you always loved. You couldn’t help but stroke your thumb across his cheekbone, and Steve let a pleased little sigh slip out.
“I know you’d never do anything to hurt me, baby,” you told him, the truth of your words warming your own heart even as you spoke them. “I think if I had known that he was so close, I’d have been more worried, more afraid… I wasn’t ready to confront him. I am now.”
“Are we okay?” Steve asked. He didn’t sound overly concerned, but there was a clear pique to his voice as he spoke. Perhaps that would always be there -- the concern that something was wrong between you. God knew you felt it now and again. Perhaps it was only a estife of your old life, the one you had before Steve -- the one he had before you.
When you’d found the best thing you’d ever had, no matter how solid it was, you’d always have some small inner fear that you would lose it. And you could live with that, if you could find a way to prove once and for all that this life that you so dearly loved was an unshakeable reality.
You smiled again. “Of course we are,” you agreed. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. I just wanna be here with you for awhile.”
Steve smiled in return and relaxed next to you. You closed your eyes and in mere seconds he was at it again; you felt the gentle touch of his fingertips against your skin, slipping along to softly draw swirls and loops and patterns that only he could see in his mind’s eye. His touch was feather-light and still you reveled in it, the gentleness of it, the way he felt completely at ease putting his hands on you. The openness that existed between you was something you never could have imagined with any other partner you’d had -- though in truth, there had been few.
Some part of you would always know that you belonged to him, from the moment he laid a hand on you. Whatever came before simply didn’t matter.
When Steve’s fingertip circled your navel a few times, you couldn’t help but laugh.
“What are you doing?” you finally asked.
“Just thinkin’ how I’d like to paint you,” he replied, circling into a figure-eight against your skin.
You tilted your head to watch him, smiling to yourself as you did. You could easily forget sometimes that underneath all the bravado and the superhero persona he occasionally wore, buried down a little deep, that Steve was an artist. It called to mind a few particular instances where he’d tried to teach you to draw; somehow it always ended with the two of you getting your hands on one another rather than with anything substantial on the paper.
“I thought a pen and pencil was more your medium,” you told him. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you paint.”
Steve smiled at you then, looking almost innocent. “I don’t mean paint a portrait. I mean I’d like to paint you,” he replied, the suggestive tilt to his voice belying the beatific expression on his face. His fingers traced upwards as he spoke, following along the curve of your breast.
You laughed softly. “Well they do make body paint,” you advised, giggling a little as he found a most sensitive spot along your side. “That’s something we would look into.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve replied, gaze following his own fingers as they drew another series of invisible shapes along your sternum.
“Yeah,” you agreed, and then grinned. “Some of it’s even edible.”
His eyes lit up, just as you knew they would. “That so?” he asked, and stopped his artistry for just a moment to pull away the bedclothes and settle himself to hover over you, holding himself up with one hand while the other continued to tease. “So you’d let me do it? Paint you up all pretty and then…” He dropped down and began to nibble at your collarbone; you let loose a gasp that quickly turned into a squeal, knees spreading to bracket his hips as his lips searched on, artistic endeavors forgotten for the moment.
Outside, the rain continued to fall and, just for a little while, you didn't have a care in the world.
Steve woke before you and set a few things into motion without your knowledge. He didn’t keep it from you -- he told you as soon as you woke -- but you were still a little taken by surprise. You really shouldn’t have been; Steve had always been protective of you, even more so since all that had happened, so it made sense, in its way. What really caught you off guard was how little faith he had in SHIELD.
“We’re in the new Roman empire,” he mused early that morning. He was already showered and dressed when you woke but he had slid back into bed and pulled you into his lap. “The bigger things get, the harder they are to control. I could trust SHIELD again when they reformed but now… I don’t know. I’m not willing to take any risks, not with you.”
You nodded in understanding. “Good,” you agreed. “No more risk, baby. Not with me. Not with you. I plan on keeping you around for a long, long time. Even if I have to wrap you up in bubble wrap every time you leave my sight.”
Steve laughed a little and kissed you, soft and slow and chaste. He had been winding down lately, moving a little more slowly through the day. It was all part of his plan, you had realized: taking things slow, enjoying the moment, living a life that was wholly his own. You felt incredibly lucky that he wanted you to be a part of it.
“I think it’s better if you and me, we stay out of SHIELD for good,” he told you, pressing his forehead against yours. “Stark, this place? We can trust. This is all… all our own people. It’ll never get too big to be out of control. So at above five this morning, Bucky and Clint and Nat went over to SHIELD, bundled up that piece of trash that hurt you, and brought him on over. We have him under lock and key in one of the cells they made in case Loki rolled in again. We can talk to him. Here. Safe, and on our terms.”
You closed your eyes and smiled. “I love you, you know that?” you said.
Steve chuckled. “I should hope so,” he replied. “You’re marryin’ me in a couple weeks, after all.”
“Love is lovelier the second time around,” you sing-songed back, breaking into a soft laugh that Steve silenced with another gentle kiss.
“Just as wonderful with both feet on the ground,” he sang back in a low voice, smiling even as he did. A little late in Sinatra’s career for Steve to have known offhand, but he’d spent enough time delving deep into film and music he had missed at your side to have picked up on the lyrics. He grinned at you. “Is it strange that I feel like I can’t wait, Doc? It’s like we’ve gotten a second chance. I’m never losin’ you again.”
“Damn straight,” you agreed.
It was strange to go from so warm and comfortable a setting to the cold and sterile sub-basements in the Tower. You never ventured down here; it was rare for anyone to be kept prisoner there at all, but when they were, they certainly weren’t anyone you wanted to get near. The cells had been built for a specific purpose: to contain foes that might resurface in the future and cause further havoc, but would have to be spared for any reason.
You had an idea that they’d had Thor’s wayward baby brother in mind when they built them; a few had some sort of static machinery attached that you thought might have been for dampening his abilities. You thought it best not to bring it up -- Steve was clearly already on edge, walking a few spare inches in front of you and just slightly to the left, ready to stand between you and whatever may come. You’d have to have a talk someday soon, remind Steve that his safety was as important to you as yours seemed to be to him, but it wasn’t the day for it. Your husband -- because you allowed yourself to think of him like that, yours, your love, your husband -- would need to take his own well-being as seriously as he took yours.
When you reached the end of the corridor, Steve paused and drew in a breath before turning to face you. His brow was furrowed and his eyes concerned and searching, seemingly watching you for any sign of distress.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Doc?” he asked, voice pitched quiet and low, as though the atmosphere of the very place demanded it. He put a hand on your arm, his thumb rubbing an absent circle on your bicep. “We can just turn around and go back upstairs, forget all about this.”
You gave him a sad smile. “I’m a scientist, Steve. I can’t just stop asking questions, not now, not when I’m this close to having some kind of answer.”
“What if he can’t help?” Steve countered. “What if he doesn’t know anything, and you’re just putting yourself through all of this for nothing?”
“Then I’ve exhausted every avenue I have and I give up,” you said simply, shrugging.
Steve bit his lip and paused a moment before speaking again. “You could give up now, Doc. We can just forget all this, forget we ever came down here, go back upstairs, go back to our lives. Baby… I don’t want to see you hurt by this. I can’t lose you… not again.”
You closed your eyes and sighed, slipping into the arms you knew were waiting to hold you. He was afraid; you hadn’t really considered that. You thought back to those dark days, when Steve would look at you and not see any loving recognition in your eyes. How horrible it must have been for him; how horrible it had been for you to push him away.
“When I woke up, and I was so lost…” you began quietly, noting the way his arms tightened around you just a little more as you spoke. “When nothing made sense to me, and I was so scared? The only thing I knew, the one thing that I was sure about was that I loved you.”
“You didn’t even know me,” Steve murmured in response.
“I didn’t,” you agreed, pressing your cheek to his chest to listen to the steady beat of his heart as you spoke. “That’s what scared me so badly, Steve. That I could look at you and feel nothing but pure, overwhelming love, and not have a context, not have a memory to attach to it. This guy? He can’t take that away. No one can take that away. If I woke up tomorrow and didn’t know my own name, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would love you as much as I do right now.”
He murmured your name and pressed his nose into your hair, drawing in the scent of you that had long ago become imprinted in his memory. He let his eyes close for just a second, enjoying the quiet of the moment and the warmth your words had bloomed in his chest.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Steve warned playfully, and pressed a soft kiss to your forehead before reaching to take your hand in his.
He sighed. “Let’s do this, then.”
It was strange to go from so warm and comfortable a setting to the cold and sterile sub-basements in the Tower. You never ventured down here; it was rare for anyone to be kept prisoner there at all, but when they were, they certainly weren’t anyone you wanted to get near. The cells had been built for a specific purpose: to contain foes that might resurface in the future and cause further havoc, but would have to be spared for any reason.
You had an idea that they’d had Thor’s wayward baby brother in mind when they built them; a few had some sort of static machinery attached that you thought might have been for dampening his abilities. You thought it best not to bring it up -- Steve was clearly already on edge, walking a few spare inches in front of you and just slightly to the left, ready to stand between you and whatever may come. You’d have to have a talk someday soon, remind Steve that his safety was as important to you as yours seemed to be to him, but it wasn’t the day for it. Your husband -- because you allowed yourself to think of him like that, yours, your love, your husband -- would need to take his own well-being as seriously as he took yours.
When you reached the end of the corridor, Steve paused and drew in a breath before turning to face you. His brow was furrowed and his eyes concerned and searching, seemingly watching you for any sign of distress.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Doc?” he asked, voice pitched quiet and low, as though the atmosphere of the very place demanded it. He put a hand on your arm, his thumb rubbing an absent circle on your bicep. “We can just turn around and go back upstairs, forget all about this.”
You gave him a sad smile. “I’m a scientist, Steve. I can’t just stop asking questions, not now, not when I’m this close to having some kind of answer.”
“What if he can’t help?” Steve countered. “What if he doesn’t know anything, and you’re just putting yourself through all of this for nothing?”
“Then I’ve exhausted every avenue I have and I give up,” you said simply, shrugging.
Steve bit his lip and paused a moment before speaking again. “You could give up now, Doc. We
can just forget all this, forget we ever came down here, go back upstairs, go back to our lives. Baby… I don’t want to see you hurt by this. I can’t lose you… not again.”
You closed your eyes and sighed, slipping into the arms you knew were waiting to hold you. He was afraid; you hadn’t really considered that. You thought back to those dark days, when Steve would look at you and not see any loving recognition in your eyes. How horrible it must have been for him; how horrible it had been for you to push him away.
“When I woke up, and I was so lost…” you began quietly, noting the way his arms tightened around you just a little more as you spoke. “When nothing made sense to me, and I was so scared? The only thing I knew, the one thing that I was sure about was that I loved you.”
“You didn’t even know me,” Steve whispered in response.
“I didn’t,” you agreed, pressing your cheek to his chest to listen to the steady beat of his heart as you spoke. “That’s what scared me so badly, Steve. That I could look at you and feel nothing but pure, overwhelming love, and not have a context, not have a memory to attach to it. This guy? He can’t take that away. No one can take that away. If I woke up tomorrow and didn’t know my own name, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would love you as much as I do right now.”
He murmured your name and pressed his nose into your hair, drawing in the scent of you that had long ago become imprinted in his memory. He let his eyes close for just a second, enjoying the quiet of the moment and the warmth your words had bloomed in his chest.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Steve warned playfully, and pressed a soft kiss to your forehead before reaching to take your hand in his.
He sighed. “Let’s do this, then.”
Walking through the door was… anticlimactic. It opened into a small observation area, a double-sided mirror on the wall where you could see a rather ordinary looking man sitting at a table, bound by shackles and a belly chain. There was nothing that stood out about him, outside of the chains; you could have passed him on the street a dozen times without so much as blinking.
Bucky was waiting in the observation area, arms crossed over his chest and frowning at the window into the next room. He glanced over as you entered and gave a brief nod, his eyes meeting Steve’s for a split second as though to ensure there had been no hard feelings. Steve nodded back and reached out to clap him on the shoulder, saying without words that everything was fine.
“You know, you don’t have to do this,” Bucky spoke up, eyes back on the man in the next room. “Darcy said everyone is cleared to come back to work today. You’ve got a full staff up in the lab, you could dive back in.”
You smiled softly. “Thanks, Bucky, but i’m good,” you told him, and took a deep breath. “I want to do this. I have to.”
Steve sidled up behind you, a protective hand placed on your hip. “What do we know?” he asked.
“Guy doesn’t have a record, at least nothing we can find attached to his prints. Could’ve been scrubbed, though, the way all this shit is electronic now,” Bucky explained, clearly irritated with the idea that an identity could be erased so easily. “Won’t give a name, either. Wants to be called ‘Blackout’ but SHIELD has two other idiots running around with that name these days… everyone wants to be a supervillain or a superhero these days.”
“Can’t hail a cab in this city without meeting somebody with a cape and a dream,” Steve commented with a snort.
“And how do you think that got started, Captain America?” you teased, and Steve slipped a hand beneath your blouse to tickle your side in response.
“That was Uncle Sam’s idea, if you recall,” Bucky pointed out, backing up his best friend. “Now, this Iron Man garbage…”
“That was the press,” you countered. “Tony just embraced it. Besides, Buck, it’s not like they don’t still call you the Winter Soldier when you make headlines.”
Bucky sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he agreed. “All things considered, it could be worse.”
“How so?” you asked. Embracing a name that had been bestowed upon him by his captors wasn’t the easiest thing in the world -- you couldn’t imagine what could be worse than that.
Steve snickered. “Ant-Man,” he offered, and Bucky joined him in a chuckle.
You suppressed a smile. “Be nice, boys,” you gently chided. “Scott is a teddy bear.”
“Yeah, but the name needs work,” Steve countered, and pressed a kiss to your cheek. It drew a soft giggle from your lips, completely unable to help it, and he smiled, seemingly having gotten the reaction he was looking for.
Bucky rolled his eyes, but couldn’t hide his own smile.
It occurred to you in that moment that your pushing everyone away had hurt him as much as Steve; he considered the two of you his family, the only family he had left in a world that often seemed to hold him at an arm’s length and your rejection of the life you’d had must have hit him hard. The joy you had in finding your way back to Steve’s arms was infectious. You had your husband back, and Bucky had his family unit.
You only hoped he wouldn’t hold it against you.
“We could always just call him ‘Tiny’,” Bucky offered with a snort.
“Micro-Man?” Steve offered.
“Mr. Mini?” Bucky added.
Steve smirked. “Little Little Lang?” he said, and that one broke you; you turned to press your face into his chest to muffle your laughter, the sounds of mirth seeming strange and out of place given where you were standing. Steve wrapped his arms around you, holding you close, while he and Bucky laughed along with you.
By the time you were able to catch your breath, you had to wipe away a few tears. “I know what you’re doing,” you accused, even as you smiled.
Steve’s arms were still circling your waist, and he put on the most innocent expression he could muster. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
You laughed again, leaning up to a steal a quick kiss but finding yourself melting into it, enjoying the soft little sound of contentment he made when you did. It was almost torture to pull away, but you had to.
“You’re stalling. Both of you,” you accused, even as you smiled. “I love you… both of you… but you don’t need to protect me right now. I’m safe, I’m sane, and I got my best guy and our best pal right here waiting for me if things go south. Trust me, okay? I need to do this."
Bucky smiled in the fond sort of way that he only ever seemed to direct at you and Steve. “Got yourself a helluva girl there, punk,” he remarked.
“Don’t I know it,” Steve breathed, watching you with nothing short of wonder in his eyes. He kissed you softly and pressed his forehead to yours, heaving a gentle sigh. “One word, Doc. One word from you and we’ll pull you out. Be careful, baby. Please.”
You entered the room with your head held high, secure in knowing that Steve and Bucky stood just on the other side of the door. The man at the table gave you a twisted smile as you entered and greeted you by name.
“I can’t believe it’s you!” he intoned in a husky voice, then added, “But is it you? Or is it you?” and started to laugh.
Your expression blank, you nodded. “Thanks for confirming that,” you told him mildly, setting into a seat across from him and folding your hands on the table.
His eyes narrowed. “Confirming what? I didn’t say anything!”
“Didn’t you? Your attempt to intimidate me by questioning whether I was me, myself, or some other version of myself?” you reminded him. “That just confirmed that when you shot me, it wasn’t with intent to kill me. You knew what could happen.”
The man looked furious for a moment, but recovered quickly and pasted on a greasy smile, crossing his arms over his chest as best as he could manage with his wrists on a short shackle attached to his belly chain.
“Maybe I just heard about it afterwards,” he replied with a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe I just like to keep up with how my marks are doin’ after I give’em a little hurt, huh? You don’t know shit, lady.”
You sighed heavily and rolled your eyes. “Okay, sure, we’ll go with that,” you agreed. “We already know you have someone on the inside here, so why don’t you just tell me? You can’t honestly think this isn’t all going to come unraveled soon anyway. And you’ll be lucky if you ever see the light of day again when the full story is out.”
“You people can’t keep me indefinitely!” he replied angrily. “I have rights!”
You snorted. “Here’s the thing, ‘Blackout’,” you began. “Habeas corpus can be suspended if
someone commits an act of rebellion or insurrection. A calculated attack on a government agent can be, when the perpetrator is considered a terrorist threat, an act of insurrection.”
“You’re not a government agent!” he sputtered.
“Of course I am,” you replied. “My work is funded through a SHIELD grant. Even though I’m employed by Stark, I’m still considered a government employee. And the fact that you refuse to disclose your identity or your employer has put you on the terrorism watchlist. Face it: you can be held by SHIELD indefinitely.”
His eyes widened, but he said nothing. None of it was true, of course; you were just spitballing. Legally, he was just being held over for trial while his background was being investigated, but you thought you might be able to get a little more information if you were able to bluff. Eventually, someone would step in on his behalf to speed things along, but for the moment, you could put some fear into him.
He stared for a long moment, clearly weighing his option. In the end, your tactics did not work; he was counting on whoever had hired him to keep him safe in the long run, and he gave a slow roll of his shoulders.
“Hey, that’s just fine,” he said, flashing another slow smile. “Three square meals a day, clean bed to sleep in. Better than the joint I was stayin’ in when you guys picked me up. I think I’ll be just fine. Besides,” he went on, his smile growing, “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. It was all for the greater good, right?”
He burst into laughter, and your blood ran cold. You didn’t let it show on your face.
“Did you think you’d just roll in here and I’d start spillin’ my guts?” he went on, still smiling. “I mean, I know you’re Mrs. Captain America and shit, but you’re not all that intimidating. Whattya gonna do to me, write a scientific paper about what an asshole I am?”
You stared, long and hard. “I could do to you what you did to me,” you said flatly, and that made him go still.
He swallowed hard. “What? No you couldn’t,” he said.
You smiled; you felt oddly calm and centered, even as you felt yourself shaking inside. “You don’t know a thing about me,” you told him. “Clearly you know nothing outside of the fact of who my husband is. What you should realize, ‘Blackout’, is that I’m a goddamn genius. Whoever put you up to this handed you a bullet and told you where to point it, maybe even what it could do. But I took the pieces they carved out of me, put it back together, and backward engineered it. I can rebuild it. I can make it better. I can send whatever sorry excuse for a mind you have off into the unknown and leave you a crazed, terrified mess. Don’t try me.”
“I want out of here!” the man suddenly shouted, pulling at his chains. “I want a lawyer! I want out of here! I got rights! Let me out of here, get this crazy bitch away from me!”
You stood and walked out, not even bother to push in your chair.
On the other side of the mirrored window, Bucky let out a low whistle, and Steve smiled, turning to a full-on grin as you entered the room. He immediately pulled you close, slipping his hands into the back pockets of your jeans and pulling you into a long, deep kiss.
“You’re incredible,” he murmured against your lips, before diving in for another kiss.
Bucky chuckled, shaking his head. “You two have an odd relationship,” he declared. “But I gotta say Doc, you were great in there. Didn’t know you had it in ya.”
Steve sighed, smiling even as he peered down into your eyes. “I did,” he declared.
You chuckled. “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” you told him, and stood up on your tip-toes to drop a kiss on the tip of his nose. “But I gotta get to work.”
You slipped out of his embrace and passed one last glance through the mirrored window, where the nameless man who had shot you was continuing to shout and pull at his shackles. You tried to conjure at least an inkling of pity for him, but found none; he had stolen so much from you, and for what? Probably just money. He could suffer a little longer.
“You sure you’re up for it today?” Steve asked gently. “I know you didn’t get the answers that you wanted.”
“I’m sure Darcy’d let the techs know to take the day, if you wanted,” Bucky added in.
You shook your head. “I’m okay. I feel… good. It’s time for me to get back to my lab. There’s a lot that I still need to take care of up there.”
“C’mon, you can play hooky for one more day,” Steve told you, reluctant to let you slip out of his embrace. “I think it’s gonna rain this afternoon,” he added with a wink.
You couldn’t help the girlish giggle that escaped you, especially when his hands squeezed you through your back pockets. “It’ll rain tonight,” you replied, pecking him on the lips before pushing both hands against his chest to free yourself from his embrace. “Promise,” you added, and headed out the door.
Bucky raised an eyebrow, watching you as you headed out. “You two and the rain, Steve. What the hell is that all about?”
Steve snorted. “Some things ain’t any of your business, Buck,” he replied, pausing to listen for the chime of the elevator before heading for the door himself. “Something’s up, though. She’s way too calm… let’s head upstairs, see what’s going on.”
It felt as though you were moving through deep, dark, cold water. Blackout, or whoever he was, had rattled you, but you hadn’t given him the satisfaction of letting it show. Steve had taught you well over the years. He was a master of masks, hiding all of his inner turmoil behind the bland, friendly Captain America persona he had long ago adopted. You didn’t expect that you had fooled Steve himself, though, so you quickened your pace.
He’d probably be right behind you.
Reaching your lab felt as though you were stepping back in time, a year or more. There was a flurry of activity, technicians moving about, the whir of machines and the soft scent of ozone that often accompanied your work. The only change was that Darcy was there, seated in what was widely considered the second most comfortable seat in the lab (after the stool that had been shot into oblivion), orchestrating the chaos.
Her eyebrows shot up when she saw you walk in. “Oh, hey!” she said, straightening in her seat. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to be in today!”
“I have some things to take care of,” you responded mildly.
Darcy snorted. “Figured you’d be having something to take care of back home, if you catch my drift,” she replied with a suggestive waggle of her eyebrows.
You couldn’t help but laugh. “I have a whole lifetime to attend to that,” you replied, and Darcy grinned.
“That’s what I like to hear,” she said. There had been a point not too long ago when you could only speak of your future in hopeful maybes; the resolve in your voice and your words gave cheer to those around you who had been hoping for you to come back to yourself. “We’ve just been treading water here, everybody is working on cleaning and recalibrating your equipment. Oh! And, I got you a surprise!”
Darcy grabbed your hand and dragged you over to where the old coffee station had been, the old machine having been dismantled after the drugs had been discovered in your system. They had been searching to see if there had been some sort of advanced method as to how the drugs had been administered, but none had been found; it seemed as though the tablets had been ground up and the coffee pot itself had been dosed.
Sitting in its place was a massive state-of-the-art pod coffee machine.
“Ta-da!” Darcy declared and adopted a pose similar to a game show model. “Stark ponied up for it too, so no bite into your budget, and there are fifteen different types of coffee pods, some of which are flavored, and all of them are biodegradable. And you don’t even need to refill the water reservoir, because it’s got a direct line into the plumbing for that sweet, sweet, ultra-filtered New York City water. Awesome, huh?”
You smiled and pulled her into a tight hug; Darcy always seemed to know what you needed. She was startled but quickly acclimated, giving you a squeeze back.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she said, voice dropped low so that only you could hear her. “It’s a lot, I know, but it’s okay. Everything is going to be fine.”
“I know it is,” you agreed, the full truth of your statement settling deep in your bones and giving you resolve. When you pulled back from the embrace, your eyes searched the busy lab until you lit upon the one person you had come looking for. “Beth!” you called. “Can you come here, please?”
She smiled brightly as she approached, and it turned your stomach.
“Darcy, give us a minute, okay?” you requested.
She frowned, but nodded. “Sure thing. I wanted to try making a cup of this cinnamon dulce espresso that Tony was raving about, I’ll be over at the coffee machine.” If your demeanor had changed, Darcy didn’t mention it, but it was clear she had noticed a change.
Beth, it seemed, was completely unaware. “What did you need to talk about?” she asked cheerfully.
You had been feeling sick only a moment before, nauseated with the idea of what you thought you knew, that someone you considered a friend -- someone who had been a comfort in your early days back at the lab, a kind companion, someone to talk to -- could have betrayed you. Now, seeing her blithe smile, you felt only white hot fury.
“How could you?” you demanded, voice quiet but firm.
Beth blinked. “I don’t understand,” she said, frowning. “Did I do something wrong? Darcy thought it would be good if we got everything cleaned up and…”
“You were my friend,” you went on, ignoring her babbling. “I vouched for you. Brought you into my lab, my work… brought you into our lives.”
“Are you okay?” Beth asked, her voice shaking. “Do you want us to call someone? We can ask Steve to come and…”
“He saved your life,” you said in reply, voice gaining just enough volume to attract Darcy’s attention as she stood stirring her newly brewed cup of coffee. “Steve saved your life. I would think that should deserve some loyalty from you, if nothing else.”
Beth took a step back. “Yeah, he saved my life, I remember,” she said, eyes gone wide. Her gaze flitted from side to side, as though she were looking for someone to help her, but the others went on about their business, not paying either of you any attention. “Should we get someone? Maybe Dr. Cho? You don’t… you don’t seem yourself right now.”
“I’m more myself than I have been in almost a year!” you snapped, and this time a few heads turned with the rise in your voice. “We were so good to you, Steve and I both, all this time… how could you do it? How could you steal away a year of my life, make me think I’m crazy?”
“I didn’t do anything to you,” Beth said, hands raised in front of herself in a gesture of surrender.
“Doc…?” Darcy asked, stepping a little closer. “What’s up? Beth, what’s going on?”
“It was her, Darc… it was Beth,” you said, shaking your head at the disbelief that even you were feeling. “She had access to the coffee machine. She’s been dogging my step since the moment I came back into the lab, she’s always been right there. And even before that, she had access to the lab itself, to my research, my materials. We knew it was my work that had gone into the bullet that shot me. We knew the lab had been compromised. I just never could have believed it was her.”
“She’s having some kind of episode!” Beth said, bordering on hysterical. “Can’t you see that? Doc, it’s me, it’s Beth! You’re talking crazy!”
“I could have been killed!” you shouted at her. “I could have died right there on the street, or I could have lost my mind permanently. Or… god, and what I did to Steve… I left my husband, for god’s sake!”
For the briefest moment, Beth’s expression went terrifyingly blank. “You need to wake up,” she intoned in a dull, flat voice. It was the last card she had to play. “You were in an accident and you need--”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence; your anger at what she had done, at what she was trying to do again, had come to a head, and you punched her square in the jaw.
“Doc, what the hell?!” Darcy gasped, grabbing your arm to keep you from advancing on Beth, who had fallen to the ground.
“It was her, Darcy,” you told her, the raw emotion of the moment drawing tears to your eyes. “She’s the one who drugged us. She’s the one who gave my research to whoever paid for the hit on me. It was Beth. She did this to me.”
Sitting on the tiled laboratory floor, her face in her hands, Beth began to cry. “I’m sorry!” she cried. “I’m so sorry!”
Steve and Bucky arrived in your lab to a scene of chaos. They had conspired on the elevator ride up that they would invite you and Darcy to lunch; it would seem normal enough a request, and it would get you out of the lab hopefully long enough for Steve to figure out what was going on in your head. They had expected to find you getting down to work, or at least chatting with Darcy.
Instead, they arrived to find your stunned staff staring at where you stood, Darcy holding you back, and Beth crying on the floor.
You didn’t even notice them walk in.
“Baby Spice?” Darcy stared down at Beth, eyes narrowed. “You’re sorry?” she echoed.
“I didn’t want for this to happen!” Beth sobbed. “Everything just got out of control, I didn’t think anyone would get hurt and then I didn’t know how to fix it..!”
To your surprise, Darcy lunged, and your positions changed: you were holding her back.
“Let me go!” Darcy shouted. “Let me kick her, just once!” She nearly had escaped your grasp when Bucky appeared at your side, hooking his prosthetic arm around her waist and holding her in place.
“Someone wanna tell me what the hell is going on here?” Bucky drawled, seemingly unaffected by the scene.
Steve sidled up alongside you, eyebrows raised. “Yeah, I’d like to know myself,” he agreed. You made no attempt at remaining professional, ignoring the stares of your staff, and threw yourself into his arms. You pressed your face against his chest and squeezed your eyes shut; you didn’t even want to look at Beth anymore.
“It was her, Steve,” you told him, hating the way your voice trembled but still knowing it was because you knew inherently that you were safe in his arms and could be as vulnerable as you needed. “Beth stole my research, she set all of this up. She’s the one who dosed the coffee. She… the way she acted when we were alone, the things she said… she made me think I was crazy, Steve. She made me think I was strapped to a bed in a hospital somewhere and all of this was happening in my head.”
“Son of a bitch,” Steve swore, eyes gone cold with fury even as his arms tightened around you in a protective gesture.
“Jesus Christ,” Bucky muttered, shaking his head.
“I know, right?” Darcy agreed, wiggling to get out of his hold and failing spectacularly. “That’s why you need to let me go. I just wanna kick her, just once. Not even in the face!”
Clearer heads prevailed; Bucky asked Friday to divert a security team to your lab, and Beth was handcuffed and led away while the rest of your technicians looked on in disbelief. You could understand that much -- you hadn’t wanted to believe it either. Beth had been a part of your team, almost family. You needed to have implicit trust in the people you brought into your inner circle, and you thought you had. Even outside of all that had gone on, it was a blow to the gut to know someone could infiltrate your tight knit group and wreak such havoc.
Worse still that you had considered her a friend.
You found yourself in the very same observation room where you had stood only an hour before; Blackout, or whoever he really was, had been taken back to SHIELD holding and Beth had been put in his place. She sat at the table, quietly weeping into her hands, and you could only stare, not able to muster any pity.
“She fooled all of us,” Steve said softly from where he stood just behind you. “Don’t beat yourself up over it, Doc.”
You turned to face him and hazarded a small smile. “I’m not,” you replied. “I promise.” You sighed and let yourself fall into his arms, mirroring what you had done after leaving your interrogation session with the shooter, but this time, all you felt was… relief.
Steve breathed out your name and wrapped his arms around you, closing his eyes to press his nose into your hair and breathe deeply. For not the first time, he was struck with the impression that he was holding his whole world there in his arms, and in spite of all that had gone on, he was so grateful that he had you back again. He whispered as much into your ear and you smiled again, sniffling just a little.
“It’s over now,” you told him. “It’s really over. There’s a few loose ends but… god, Steve, baby, I feel like I can breathe again.”
“You and me both, sweetheart,” he agreed, and squeezed you just a little tighter. “You don’t have to talk to her now, if you don’t want to. We can walk away and let SHIELD handle it. But if you decide that you need to speak with her yourself, I wanna be in there with you. From here on out, it’s you an’ me, Doc. No matter what happens.”
You sighed, closing your eyes to rest your head against his chest for a long moment. “I like the sound of that,” you admitted. You’d never give up your job, your research -- you’d worked too hard over the years and it was too important to you to just up and abandon it -- but you could see yourself stepping back a little. Slowing your pace. Enjoying your life. You’d had so many plans left unsettled when all this began; perhaps it was time to finally pick up where you’d left off.
In the end, you decided that you needed to hear it from Beth yourself. You needed her to tell you in her own words why she had done this to you, betrayed your trust and then continued to torture you by making you doubt your own sanity for so long. You needed to hear it direct from the source. You didn’t hope to understand -- you just needed to see her admit it.
Steve sat beside you, his expression cold and angry, saying nothing. He held your hand tightly beneath the table, your fingers laced together, and he gave a comforting squeeze every few moments as though reminding you of his presence without intruding on your need to speak with Beth.
“Just tell me why,” you said quietly. Beth looked up as you spoke, eyes gone red and puffy from the tears she had been shedding.
“I just… I was trying to help,” she softly insisted.
You couldn’t help but snort an angry laugh. “How… was any of this... helping?”
“You have this amazing technology at the tip of your fingers and you’re not using it!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. Clearly, she wanted to make you understand. “How long has it been since you’ve been opening wormholes and all you’ve done is try to pull out, what, data? You could have changed the world with that technology and you just… you just keep it locked up!”
You stared at her incredulously. “Miniscule wormholes, Beth. Tiny. Not big enough to pass the head of a pin through. We were still in testing! That’s how science works!”
“No,” Beth said, swiping at tears that were still falling. “No, you’re just… you’re hoarding all of this amazing technology, you just want to keep it for yourselves. Can’t you see what it could do? Look at the Battle of New York. Mass evacuations, in seconds!”
You huffed and leaned back in your seat, Steve rubbing a slow circle against your pulse with his thumb. He was watching, but not saying a word, the anger burning hot deep in his eyes.
“It’s UNSTABLE!” you spat back. “We’ve never been able to prove that the portals we’ve opened even go to the same place every time! Even if we could make a stable portal large enough to send people through, we wouldn’t know where we were sending them! And how dare you even reference what happened in the city, the day my husband saved your life!”
“People. Still. DIED!” Beth replied, fresh hot tears spilling over her cheeks. “People who could have been SAVED if you’d just… if you had only…!”
Steve frowned, an inkling of understanding coming to his face. “Who died?” he asked quietly.
Beth squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. “My sister. Erica. She worked on the ninth floor of the Halverson building and one of those, those things... it crashed into the eleventh floor and just fell through, all the way… all the way down. All of those people were waiting to evacuate into the subway, waiting for the all clear to head down and they just… they just…!”
Your expression remained impassive. “I’m sorry you lost someone, Beth. I am. But think about what you’re saying. Remember that day in the lab, the day you fainted? The day you so heavily dosed all of us with god only knows what drugs that Bucky nearly lost everything he’s been working towards for years? We were never able to pinpoint where the stool went. Maybe, if we’d disseminated this technology, if we’d had it available… maybe we could have sent all of those people somewhere... but they’d never have made it back. They’d have been as good as dead anyway.”
The rest came out in a deluge of words and tears. It had finally clicked in Beth’s head, how wrong she had been, and she spilled her guts. She had been approached not long after her first application to join your team, by people preying on her grief and convincing her that, no matter how much she might grow to like you, you had been in the wrong in keeping the technology you were working on away from the public. All they wanted were the notes on your experiments, they had told her, so that they might work towards using it for the greater good.
That had been what really got to her in the end. She had gone back to school to find a way to help make the world better -- to work towards the greater good, a phrase she had used often enough that it resonated with you when ‘Blackout’ had used it to mock you. Her idealism, her naivete… it had made her the perfect target.
“So you just gave world-changing technology to strangers?” you had asked, furious at how foolish she had been. “How does that seem like a good idea?”
“They weren’t strangers!” Beth insisted. “They were SHIELD!”
That made Steve snap to attention. “What?” he asked, eyes narrowed. “SHIELD?”
“Former SHIELD,” she relented, and sighed. “They used to work in research and they didn’t want to trust the organization again, after everything that happened, so they didn’t come back when it reformed.” She listed off a few names, and Steve closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and clearly trying to keep his temper in check.
“The only SHIELD personnel who didn’t resume their positions after it was reformed were HYDRA,” he told her, clearly struggling to keep the anger out of his voice. “Every single one. The only people not dead or in prison are the ones we didn’t have enough evidence on, even as we knew they were involved. They didn’t choose not to return, they weren’t allowed. How could you be so foolish?”
“I’m sorry,” Beth said in a small voice, staring down at her hands. It had become a mantra during the interview; you’d lost track of how many times she had said it. “I know that now, that they lied to me. That I… that I was stupid. I’m so, so sorry.”
Steve shook his head. “That’s not enough,” he told her. “That’s never going to be enough. I trusted you. I believed you when you said you wanted to help, we both did. I trusted you and you almost destroyed the best thing that ever happened to me.”
She was crying again. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
The rest of the story was much as you would have expected; once you had been shot and Beth realized that she had been tricked, she was threatened to keep her silence and put to work to keep you from figuring out what had happened -- to save herself as well as to keep the secret of who had been behind it all.
“You weren’t supposed to survive,” she said, voice gone whisper-quiet. “They were angry that they had lost their foothold in SHIELD. They wanted… they wanted to punish Steve by taking you away. Sending you away to die somewhere that he couldn’t follow.”
“I think I can figure out the rest from there,” you said and sighed, then stood. Steve stayed seated a moment longer, staring at Beth long and hard.
“I’ll never regret saving a life,” he finally spoke up, shaking his head. “It isn’t in me to wish harm on someone like that, but… god, Beth... I wish you’d just stuck to waitressing.”
The day was shot. Darcy hadn’t wanted to leave your side, but you insisted that you’d be fine; you had Steve with you, after all. Bucky, seeing that you and Steve would need some time alone, offered to take her to a late lunch, leaving you and Steve to speak with Beth alone and then head back upstairs to your apartment.
“What will happen to her?” you asked Steve in the elevator. He sighed, watching the digital numbers tick off, one by one, as you came closer and closer to your floor.
“I’m not sure, not entirely,” Steve admitted. “SHIELD will need to take her in. She’ll be debriefed. They’ll need to know everything she knows, and from there, well… She could be charged, with conspiracy at least. I’m not sure what they’ll decide. I don’t think I wanna know at this point.”
You drew in a deep breath and nodded. “Me either,” you agreed.
The familiarity of your apartment was a welcome respite from the day you’d had, even as the sun was only just beginning to drop from the sky. You smiled as you entered, remembering how the familiarity had first frightened you, knowing where to dodge furniture in the dark and where to search out the light switch on the wall, when you couldn’t recall much anything else about your life. Now the familiarity was a comfort, a bright spot of joy after a dark chapter in your life had begun to draw to a close.
In spite of the comfort, you still felt tired and worn down by all that had went on. You toed your shoes off, leaning one hand on the couch to keep your balance, and then took Steve’s hand in your own, leading him towards your open bedroom door.
“Why Mrs. Rogers, wherever are you taking me?” he teased.
You chuckled. “We are getting in bed, we are relaxing, and we are not leaving until tomorrow, except for food and bathroom breaks.”
Steve breathed out a long, relieved sigh. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day.”
He started stripping as soon as you reached the bedroom, pulling his shirt over his head even as he wiggled his hips to drop his unzipped pants to the floor. You smiled; you hadn’t been long into the physical side of your relationship with Steve when you learned that skin to skin contact was a huge source of comfort to him. You found yourself quickly beginning to enjoy it too, so you quickly stripped off everything but your panties and were waiting for him, reclining against the pillows, when Steve slipped between the sheets. He gave you a smile -- your favorite one, the small, crooked little smile that lit his eyes just right, that you always knew was just for you -- and then slipped his arms around you, resting his head against your chest.
“I’m sorry about all of this, Doc,” he told you softly, and you could feel his lips moving against your skin as he spoke. “Along with everything else you’ve had to go through… I know she was your friend. You didn’t deserve that kind of betrayal on top of this mess.”
You reached up and ran your fingers through his hair, pausing to scratch the short hairs at the back of his neck to hear his answering groan, enjoying the way it rumbled through you.
“I have you,” you told him. “That’s all I need. All I’ll ever need. And now I don’t have to worry that you’re just a daydream. You’re mine, and I’m never letting you go.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Steve said, lifting his head to gaze into your eyes. When you continued to scratch at his scalp, he leaned into it like a cat, making you laugh.
“Glad to know you’re not itching to get away, after the hell I put you through,” you replied.
He dropped a kiss between your breasts. “Never could’ve happened,” he intoned. “After everything, that’s one thing you can be sure of. If nothing else, this past year? Just proved what I’ve always believed. We’re soulmates.”
His words drew tears to your eyes, even as you smiled. You’d thought that word before, but you had never said it, not out loud. You’d never heard him use it either. Steve could see how it affected you, and a soft pink blush had risen in his cheeks.
“Look at you, Irish,” you said softly, a tear slipping free and sliding down your cheek. “I love that you feel that way. Don’t see how you could get that out of me going off my rocker for a year, but I still love that you can.”
“It makes sense,” he insisted, kissing you again, further up your breast. “You and me, we’re supposed to be together, no matter what. In every universe or plane of existence or whatever it is you’re calling it.”
You shook your head, a little sadly. “Not hers,” you reminded, thinking of the version of you that had existed in another world, who’d had another life, where Steve was just a figment of someone’s imagination.
“Maybe that’s why this happened,” Steve told you, reaching up to kiss you at the base of your throat. “People say ‘everything happens for a reason’ and this was one thing I could never figure out… not until now, anyway. I know she’s not gone, that she… you... still lives inside your head. And if I wasn’t around to take care of you in that other world? Maybe that’s why she’s here. You and me, Doc. We’re soulmates. Not even a universe where I was just some comic book hero could stop that.”
You made good on your decision to spend the remainder of the day in your bed. At one point, Steve ordered dinner up from the restaurant on the building’s ground floor -- one of the perks of living in the Tower -- and you ate while sitting on a pile of blankets at the end of the bed, knowing full well they’d need a wash in the morning from the crumbs you weren’t seeing fall.
You napped and cuddled and talked and touched. During the late evening, Steve had resumed his place with his head against your chest, listening to the way your heart beat a little faster in your chest with him so near.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” he spoke quietly, turning your words back on you. It hadn’t come back, not all of it -- you’d held on to the foolish hope that knowing more about the attack against you would somehow magically heal your memory loss, disappointed to find that it turned out not to be the case -- but there was enough that you felt like you again.
You smiled gently, your palm flat between his shoulder blades and fingers moving softly against his skin in a gesture of comfort.
“I knew you loved me before you ever told me,” you admitted, and he lifted his head, curiosity piqued.
“How’s that?” he asked.
Your smile grew. “It was only the third or fourth time I spent the night here. We’d gone to a movie and gotten hot dogs from a vendor on the corner on the way back… and I got food poisoning.”
Steve laid his head back down and snickered. “I got food poisoning too,” he insisted.
You snorted, reaching to play with his hair. “Yeah, but the serum knocked it out of you. You like… burped. Once. And I woke up at three in the morning and got sick all over your bed.”
“I remember,” he told you. “And it was the third time you spent the night. But how did that tell you…?”
You closed your eyes, letting the memory overtake you as you explained it to him. You’d been feeling a little off, but not enough to resist falling into bed with Steve that night. He had been so sweet and almost shy, despite the fact that you had spent the night twice before; he had bit his lip, asking if you wouldn’t rather come up to his apartment, rather than try and get a taxi home.
As if you’d ever have refused.
You’d woken hours later to crippling stomach cramps, unable to do much more than sit up before you’d gotten ill, the sound of retching and the following sobs waking him beside you. You were so embarrassed, babbling out an apology between tears, and Steve had simply scooped you up in his arms and carried you into the shower. You were cold and clammy, shivering with the chills, and Steve turned the water warmer and warmer until you stopped.
You’d kept muttering that you were sorry, but Steve wouldn’t hear it. He just wrapped you up in his fluffiest bath towel and carried you into the spare bedroom that would one day become your home office, employing the building’s AI to request someone from medical come down. You were nearly asleep when a nurse arrived and gave you an antiemetic injection, and when she had gone, Steve curled around you and held you for the rest of the night.
When you woke the next morning, he had already cleaned the mess in his bedroom, and had a pot of thin oatmeal waiting on the stove in case you were hungry.
His eyes had lit up and he flashed a soft smile when you had padded hesitantly into the kitchen, dressed in onf of his t-shirts that he must have put on you the night before, though you couldn’t remember it happening.
“Morning, Doc,” he said, standing quickly from where he had been reading the newspaper -- an actual print newspaper, because of course it was -- to go to your side and drop a gentle kiss on your forehead. “Hope you’re feeling better. Think you could eat?”
You’d tried to apologize again but he’d brushed it off. “Nah, Doc, you were sick,” Steve said, shaking his head. “Can’t blame you for that. We just gotta get you back on the mend, okay?”
The concern in his eyes, the way he had cared for you… Steve Rogers was a good man at heart, but not even a good man would go that far for anyone if they didn’t feel strongly about them. You saw it there in his eyes -- he loved you. He loved you. And you were pretty sure you felt the same way.
“I did, you know,” he told you, and began kissing his way up your chest. “I already loved you then. I already loved you before we even… before we made a date, something outside of just having coffee.”
You giggled softly. “Yeah, and I figured it out. And I think I started loving you even more because of it.”
“Maybe that was my plan all along, sweet girl,” Steve all but whispered, lips poised to press against yours, barely a breath away. “Make you love me as much as I already loved you.”
He kissed you slowly, almost carefully. He loved to do this: to tease you, to make you be the one to deepen the kiss, to take it further. Of course you couldn’t resist -- you never could.
You let him have you twice before the light even began to reach the sky. You had realized early on in your relationship that the enhanced appetite that the serum had caused in Steve extended far beyond anything so simple as food and in truth, you had relished it. Physical intimacy seemed to be the easiest way for Steve to express himself, even as far as he had come over your years together in learning to speak what he was feeling.
You closed your eyes and allowed yourself to revel in it: his harsh pants and groans of your name, the feel of his breath against your body, gliding your hands across his back to feel his muscles working beneath the skin. In moments like these, the world would slip away, leaving just the two of you in the home you had created together.
When you reached for the silken straps hidden beneath the mattress, Steve had been surprised. You still played together often, but it usually came only in more carefree moments, not when the weight of the world seemed to be hovering over both of your shoulders.
“Are you sure, Doc?” he’d asked, doing his best to ignore his own growing excitement at the thought of what you were offering.
You nodded and licked your lips, watching the way his eyes tracked the movement. It would never be enough for him, he had told you once; he’d always want one more kiss, one more touch. You did not always have the capacity to give that to him, but tonight you did.
Tonight, forever was starting over again, from the beginning.
Tonight, so long as you were able, you would give him everything, and more.
You moved towards the center of the bed and reached over his side of the mattress to pull the second strap free.
“Don’t have to do anything on my account…” he half-mumbled, watching still as you centered yourself fully and raised your arms above your head, your fingertips playing with the frayed ends of the silken straps.
“I want this,” you replied, and Steve’s gaze slipped down your bare body, lingering on the marks he had already left behind, sucking kisses and grazes of teeth, soft bruising where he had gripped too hard in his fervor.
It made him feel guilty in the aftermath, and you always hushed away his fears. You liked it, you always reminded. You liked to see the marks he left behind, to run your fingers over them and have a secret thrill in remembering how they were made.
“Baby…” Steve breathed out, half whined. He tried too hard sometimes, you thought, to be the caring and considerate husband. Sometimes, you just wanted him to take. “Promise me you’re not just doin’ this because you think I want it.”
“I want this,” you repeated, eyes meeting his to watch the way they would darken, raw lust evident in his gaze. He didn't need to hear any more; he reached up and began to tie your wrists. “Show me, Steve. Show me who I belong to.”
You woke to Steve nuzzling behind your ear.
“Time to wake up, beautiful,” he whispered, and nipped at your earlobe.
You groaned and pulled the sheet over your head. “Don’t wanna,” you muttered. You felt the mattress dip as he climbed more fully onto the bed; always an early riser, even the long night of lovemaking you had passed together wasn’t enough to tire him out. You, on the other hand, didn’t want to move.
“C’mon sweetheart, I got breakfast waiting,” Steve told you, pulling back the sheets and gliding his searching hands down your sides to make you giggle and twist away.
“Ugh, why did I marry a morning person?” you groaned, pushing half-heartedly at his shoulder even as he slipped his strong hands beneath your waist and lifted you up off the mattress.
“You married me because you’re mine,” he reminded, and lifted you up into a bridal post. “Or did you already forget after last night?”
“Oh, I remember,” you agreed with a sly smile; your wrists were just a touch pink, in spite of the ale Steve had insisted on applying even as you’d begun to fall asleep. You liked it that way -- it would just have to be a long sleeve day. You reached up and grabbed a handful of his hair, yanking his head forward for a deep, filthy kiss.
Steve groaned into it, pausing in his trek towards the kitchen to just stand and enjoy. You whined when he pulled back, and he grinned, dropping a kiss on the tip of your nose.
“You’re not getting back into bed that easy, Doc,” he teased, then ducked for another quick peck on the lips. “Breakfast. I ordered up some cinnamon rolls and that fancy coffee you love. Maybe after that… we can have a nice hot bath, whattya say?”
You nuzzled your nose against his, smiling. “I say, set me down and let me get some clothes on before we eat.”
“Hell no,” Steve replied quickly, and grinned. “Let me enjoy the view. And if you, oh, say, drop some of that vanilla icing on yourself, well, I’ll just have to find a creative way to clean you up.”
He may have been intent on pampering you, but it was as much for him as it was for you. There you sat, perched delicately on a kitchen chair, naked as the day you were born, carrying on normal morning conversation while he sat fully clothed across from you, eyes drifting over your form with such possessiveness that you swear you could feel it. You pretended you didn’t notice, and made sure you let a few sticky sweet drops of the icing from the cinnamon rolls fall to your chest, relishing the way Steve’s eyes darkened when he saw it.
He made good on his promise to get you all cleaned up, even before you shared a warm bath that lasted well past the point of your fingers pruning and the water beginning to cool. It seemed he just couldn’t keep his hands off of you, insisting on wrapping you up in a towel to carry back to your bedroom and drying you off himself.
“I really should get to the lab,” you told him, unable to stop the hitch in your breath when he swiped the warm towel over your hip, only to leave a kiss in its wake.
“Nah, it’s taken care of,” Steve replied. “Tony gave your staff an early start to the time off planned for our second honeymoon. And he’s footing the bill too -- everyone is getting regular pay, and they’re doubling down on the background checks, just in case.”
You arched an eyebrow. “Thought of everything, have you?” you asked.
He smiled. “Just about, Doc,” he agreed. “Now I’m gonna get you dressed and you’re gonna relax in the living room with your friends while I run a couple errands, how’s that sound?”
“Get me dressed?” you echoed curiously.
“Absolutely. I’m gonna slip your pretty panties up these gorgeous legs, help you into something nice and comfortable, and I’m gonna make sure you spend all damn day remembering that I’ve had my hands all over your body already today,” he said, voice pitched low and eyes gleaming.
Your breath hitched in your throat. “That so?” you asked.
Steve, dropping to his knees in front of where you stood and placing another kiss on your hip, right over a bruise he had sucked there the night before, grinned up at you.
“That’s so,” he agreed, then arched an eyebrow and licked his lips. “Well. I’ll get you dressed eventually.”
It took an hour or so, but eventually you were dressed and relaxing on your sofa. It had taken a few tries, but you’d been able to get Darcy and Helen there with you to crack open a bottle of wine and ignore the drama of the previous day. To Steve’s credit, he had been right; every time you moved, everytime your clothes shifted against your skin, you remembered the feel of his hands gliding across your body and the promise that he would retract the path with gusto later that night.
“So… do we even want to bring it up?” Darcy asked carefully.
You sighed, swirling the sweet white wine in your glass. “Better than pretending like we’ve forgotten it, I guess,” you agreed, then downed the rest of your drink. You sat up and reached for the bottle, filling your glass halfway and leaning back on the couch. “I should have known, honestly.”
Helen shook her head. “You trusted her. We all did. Who’d have suspected?”
“What do you think’ll happen to her now?” Darcy pressed.
“Steve said this morning that SHIELD made a deal with her,” you said, frowning a little at the thought. “They have a research base in the antarctic that needs lab staff. She’ll be under close watch, 24/7, with no access to the outside world. Even her phone and internet use will be monitored. She gave up everything -- the names of everyone who approached her, who paid her, who threatened her. I guess it’s like a… a work-release type deal.”
Helen nodded slowly. “I guess that’s fair,” she agreed. “Knowing everything now… about her sister? I feel a little sorry for her, in spite of everything.”
You shook your head. “I don’t,” you declared. “She stole away a year of my life. I can’t forgive that. Not now. Maybe not ever.”
“And you know they didn’t threaten to hurt her when everything went tits up, either,” Darcy pointed out, nodding resolutely; she was definitely on board with your line of thinking. “They just threatened to expose her. If she had gone to someone -- any of us, someone at SHIELD, even just me or Steve or Tony or whoever -- and fessed up, said she made a mistake and they wanted her to make you crazy? Maybe I could forgive it. Maybe. But she chose to hurt you guys even more, just to cover her own ass.”
“Exactly!” you agreed. “So, you know what? Screw Beth. Enjoy the subzero snow, Baby Spice.”
“She does not get to be a Spice Girl anymore,” Darcy decided. “She’s nobody.”
Helen reached over and clinked her glass against Darcy’s. “I’ll drink to that,” she said, and you raised your own glass in a toast.
Somewhere along the line, the unspoken decision was made to spend the rest of your evening working on wedding plans and working your way through the collection of gifted wine bottles that you and Steve had been stockpiling. No one ever seemed to know what to give him as a gift each year as the holidays and his birthday rolled around, and you often found yourself inundated with deliveries of this or that fine vintage.
Steve couldn’t feel the effects of normal alcohol and even if he could, he had no taste for wine, much more likely to reach for a glass of whiskey than a bottle of wine; you could kill a bottle every once in a while, but not too terribly often. It helped to have a few extra glasses to fill, and Darcy and Helen were more than happy to oblige.
You were tipsy and giggling by the time Steve returned home that night, stretched out on your couch with Darcy and Helen slumped and snickering in the adjacent armchairs.
Steve gave you a fond little smirk when he entered, tossing his keys on the coffee table. That gave you a moment of pause; keys meant he had taken his truck, a rarely used pick-up that was housed in the garages below the Tower. More often than not, if he were going anywhere in the city, Steve would rely on the subway or, barring that, his motorcycle. It piqued your interest to see that he’d been out driving.
You grinned. “Hi baby!” you called, drawing the pet name out just a little in your cheerful wine-fueled haze. “What took you so long?”
“Had a few errands to run,” he replied smoothly, leaning down to kiss you in greeting. He had only meant for it to be a peck but you weren’t about to be satisfied with such a chaste welcome and reached your hand up to pull him closer for a filthy kiss that had Darcy echoing wolf howls across your living room.
When you let him go, he stayed close enough for you to rest your forehead against his. “Hi baby,” you drawled again, giggling.
“Havin’ fun tonight, Doc?” he asked, and dropped a kiss on your nose before carefully extricating himself from your grasp.
“Would’ve been more fun if you were here,” you told him, pouting.
“Mmm, but then, we couldn’t be here,” Helen spoke up, knocking back the last of her glass of wine and reaching for the bottle. “Because you two would be all… all… smoochy.”
Darcy burst into a fit of giggles. “Smoochy!” she echoed gleefully. You lolled your head back against the arm of the couch and started to laugh, while Steve just smiled and shook his head.
“The hell is going on in here?” a new voice sounded. “Somebody throw a party and my invite got lost in the mail?”
Your eyes grew wide and you sat bolt upright, a grin coming to your face when you noticed, for the first time, the figure who had followed Steve in through the door.
“SAM!” you outright squealed, and launched yourself off of the couch to run and throw your arms around him. The force of your embrace made him chuckle and stumble a step or two backwards, his arms wrapping around you to return the tight squeeze.
You hadn’t even realized you were crying until Sam reached up to wipe a tear from your cheek with his thumb.
“Don’t go cryin’ on my account, now, Doc,” he said with a smile. “That husband of yours is liable to give me a black eye.”
“I’m just so glad to see you,” you said, sniffling just a little. “We all are.”
Sam nodded, his smile gone soft. “I’m sorry for staying away this long.”
You shook your head. “I understand, you don’t have to apologize. I’m just glad you’re here now.”
You understood why Sam had stayed away. You remembered the early days after his mother had become ill; her dementia had progressed rapidly and Sam would come back from seeing her with the weight of the world on his shoulders and eyes bright with the pain of the loss he was already feeling. At the time, you had thought nothing could be worse than seeing someone you loved stare at you without any recognition in their eyes. That had been a horror you had unwittingly inflicted upon Steve; he would constantly tell you that he wasn’t upset, that he knew that you hadn’t been yourself and had forgotten all about it, but you had a feeling it would stay with you always.
You’d do your damnedest to never hurt him like that again.
Darcy texted Bucky that Sam had arrived back at the Tower and soon the quiet night in with a few bottles of wine turned into something of a house party. The next thing you knew, you were ordering pizzas and Helen was calling Bruce to come down and bring along anyone he found on his way. You found yourself surrounded by people you loved, and the Tower had never felt more like home.
“We can call this a bachelorette now, right?” Darcy asked, sitting rather primly on Bucky’s lap in the armchair across from the couch. “There’s food, there’s booze, there’s hot guys. We’re covered.”
Bucky chuckled, his hand creeping a little higher on Darcy’s thigh. “Guess that covers it for you too, Steve. Pretty ladies all around.”
It hadn’t escaped your notice that they were a little more close than you’d seen in the past; as soon as Bucky walked in the door, he had zeroed in on Darcy, and you were fairly certain there hadn’t been a moment where they hadn’t been touching since then. You were well acquainted with that particular stage in a relationship -- where every physical touch, no matter how small, was a little thrill. In all truth, you’d never really fallen out of it with Steve. But to see it happening between Bucky and Darcy made you think that perhaps they’d grown a bit closer over recent days than you’d realized.
The hickey roughly the size and shape of a softball on the side of Darcy’s neck that she’d been trying to hide by artfully arranging her hair was another big clue to that effect.
You couldn’t help but corner Bucky in the kitchen when he went to get Darcy another drink -- a refill on the water that she had switched to, along with Helen, an hour or so before.
“So,” you said, standing beside the refrigerator door when he opened it to get some ice. “You and Darcy?” you asked.
Bucky laughed, smiling in a soft, sweet sort of way you hadn’t seen before, ducking his head. “Me and Darcy,” he agreed, not saying much but saying everything all the same.
You grinned. “I’m glad,” you told him. “She was waiting on you.”
Bucky nodded, that same smile playing on his lips. “I told her she didn’t have to,” he said quietly, shaking his head as he peered out into the living room where she sat awaiting his return. “I told her I didn’t know if I could ever… but god, she just wouldn’t give up.”
You laughed. “I’m glad about that too,” you said, and Bucky grinned.
“Me too,” he agreed, turning to fill Darcy’s glass at the tap.
“Can I ask what changed?” you said, curiosity evident in your voice. “Not to pry, I just… I know it’s been hard for you, Buck. I’d like to understand.”
He set the filled glass on the counter and turned around, leaning his back against it and crossing his arms over his chest.
“In the lab,” he explained. “When she went after Beth and I grabbed her… she didn’t flinch. Everybody else, they feel the arm or they just know it’s me and… they flinch. Duck away. Half the time without even thinking. But Darc? She didn’t. She just… she knew it was me and she didn’t care. Knew she was safe. That I’d never… I could never hurt her.”
You smiled. “Of course she knew,” you said softly, your hand on his shoulder. “We all know, Buck. I think it was you that had to realize it.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
A little after midnight, Helen made a big show of stretching and yawning, rolling her neck on her shoulder as she stood. You suppressed a smile to see her stumble a little on her sensible heels; Darcy wasn’t quite so kind and let out a snort, though Helen herself didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s so late!” Helen announced, a little too loudly. “I probably shouldn’t take the train home.”
Bruce, who had arrived about the time the pizzas showed up, smiled gently. “It can be dangerous,” he agreed, getting to his feet from where he had been sitting on the floor beside the chair Helen had recently vacated. “Maybe you should just stay here tonight.”
“I do have a sofa in my office,” Helen agreed airily, even as Bruce slipped an arm around her waist.
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Sure thing, Hel,” she agreed with a snicker. “The couch. In your office.”
“Darcy,” you admonished quietly, even as you smiled. You liked that Helen and Bruce had gotten closer over the past months; they had more in common than you had realized, and each truly seemed to have needed someone. The sweet and gentle way they seemed to blush and banter around everyone was charming in its way.
“Goodnight, folks,” Bruce called, arm still around Helen’s waist, leading her towards the door.
“Goodnight!” you called back, smiling to see the way that Helen smiled and leaned into his shoulder as they walked. It was strange to think that a year ago, you wouldn’t even have called her a friend.
Perhaps some good had come out of the whole mess after all.
“Buckalicious, I think that’s our cue,” Darcy announced loudly. She stood and grabbed the half-empty bottle of wine that sat on the coffee table. “Taking this as a party favor, Doc. I’m going to bed. Wait. We’re going to bed.”
Bucky chuckled; he even blushed. “What am I gonna do with you, Lewis?” he asked, even as he stood to follow her.
“I bet she has a few ideas,” you offered, and Darcy grinned.
“Ideas. Thoughts. Plans. All of these things,” Darcy agreed, nodding vigorously.
“Maybe in the morning,” Bucky replied, snatching the bottle of wine from her hand and setting it back on the table. “When you’re sober.”
She pouted. “Spoil all my fun,” she grumbled, and the two called out their goodbyes as they slipped out the door.
Sam stood, eyebrows raised. “Guess I missed a lot while I was away,” he said, shaking his head.
“That’s what you get for disappearing on us, Sam,” you teased, standing and feeling quite proud of the fact that you didn’t even totter on your feet, in spite of the empty bottles that littered the coffee table. “If you’d come back sooner, I could have found you a girl too.”
“Doc’s been tryin’ to play matchmaker again,” Steve explained, slipping behind you to circle his arms around your waist. You smiled, eyes fluttering shut for a brief moment as you enjoyed the warmth of his chest against your back.
“Seriously? Trying?” you echoed. “I mean, did you not just witness all of that? Two for two, baby.”
Sam laughed. “Hey, I’m good with it. Save me the trouble of trying to find myself a girl who’d put up with my bullshit. Get the expert on it for me.”
“Please don’t encourage her,” Steve grumbled, even as he ducked to press a kiss on the side of your neck. You did your best to ignore the way arms tightened around you just a little, keeping you pressed close against him.
“Sam, do you want me to make up the couch for you?” you offered. “You must be tired from traveling, it’ll be no trouble. Unfortunately we don’t have a bed in the spare room anymore but I promise, the couch is comfy.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Sam told you, shaking his head.
“Nah, he’s good,” Steve echoed, and you snorted.
“Oh, are you sure?” you asked, eyes wide and innocent.
Sam grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he told you.
“Yeah, he’s sure,” Steve agreed, all the while being absolutely terrible at hiding the fact that he kept trying to catch Sam’s eye and nod towards the door.
“Stark’s got me set up in one of the spares around here, since I’m gonna be hanging around for awhile,” Sam went on.
“See, Doc?” Steve said. “Sam’s all set up. He’s good. We’re all good. Night, Sam!”
Sam waved his goodbyes, laughing to himself and muttering something about ‘goddamn horny ass supersoldiers’ as he went. As soon as the door closed behind him, you turned your head to look at Steve and smiled.
“Looks like it’s just us,” you said, and he smiled.
“Imagine that,” he murmured, lips barely a breath away from yours.
“Know what that means?” you asked, a flirtatious pique to your tone.
“Hmm?” Steve mumbled, eyes already gone dark and half-lidded.
You grinned. “Time to clean up!” you declared, and patted him on the arm before moving to pick up some of the empty bottles and pizza boxes strewn about the room.
Steve froze a brief moment in surprise, eyebrows raised and mouth dropped open, before recovering and stepping forward to grab you around the waist and pull you flush against him, even as you giggled.
“Oh no you don’t!” he warned teasingly, searching fingers finding every ticklish spot that he knew by heart, making you shake and laugh in his arms. “That can wait until morning, Doc. You’re all mine now.”
He half-carried you to your bedroom, the both of you laughing all the way as he tickled you whenever he could and you returned the favor, tripping over each other’s feet as you went. You stumbled into the dark room and swiveled in his embrace, sitting down on the end of the bed and pulling him towards you by the belt buckle.
“You know, we have a lot of sex,” you mused, pulling his tcked shirt out of the waistband of his pants; he was quick to get the idea, pulling it over his head and tossing it aside. “Way more than average. I’ve seen medical journal articles about this, Steven. Completely abnormal.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, well, there’s a reason for that,” he countered.
You grinned. “Now, don’t go blaming the serum for the fact that you’re insatiable,” you teased, working open his belt buckle and the fly of his jeans before running your palm over his burgeoning erection and up to scratch your nails through the dark crisp trail of hair beneath his navel.
Steve closed his eyes and sighed. “Ain’t the serum, Doc,” he mumbled, letting out a soft groan when you tilted forward to place an open-mouthed kiss against his abdomen. “Just you. It’s all you. Can’t keep my hands off of you.”
You grinned and nipped at his skin. “Good thing the feeling is mutual.”
For the first time in a long time, you woke before Steve the next morning. Thankfully, the water you had been drinking had done well to stave off any hangover, and though you were tired, you didn’t feel as awful as you could have. You had to stop and watch him for a little while; seeing him so peaceful was a rare thing, lips barely parted in sleep and his eyelashes occasionally fluttering with his dreams.
You couldn’t help but smile. Early in your relationship, if you happened to glance at him while he slept, his brow would often be furrowed with the weight of whatever worries chased after him in his dreams. Now, it seemed he knew only peace, and it made your heart full to burst.
You slipped out of bed carefully, not wanting to wake him, and pulled on a pair of shorts and one of his t-shirts from your hamper. The mess was still there in your living room but it didn’t take much to work on it, gathering up bottles and pizza boxes for the recycling bin. By the time you were wiping away a few stray crumbs and bottle rings, Steve emerged from the bedroom in a pair of boxers, yawning and scratching at his bare belly.
“You should have woken me, I’d have helped,” he told you, frowning.
You shook your head. “I could manage,” you said with a dismissive wave of your hand. You turned, cleaning cloth in hand, and smiled at him. “It’s not on you to clean up all of our messes, after all.”
He smiled broadly. “Maybe it should be,” he offered. You frowned, puzzled, but Steve just took the dishcloth from your hand and tossed it onto the table before taking your hands in his and leading you towards the sofa. “C’mon, sit with me. Got something I wanted to talk to you about.”
You cocked your head to the side curiously but followed without question, perching on the cushion next to him when he sat down. You had thought there was more happening the day before than he’d let on; Steve had been gone most of the day, and though traffic could be a nightmare, it wouldn’t have taken that long to pick up Sam, even if he had taken a commercial flight.
“Everything okay?” you asked, a note of concern in your voice.
“Everything is great,” Steve told you, nodding, the bright smile still on his face. “Yesterday, after Sam’s flight came in, we grabbed lunch and had a long talk.”
You nodded, a sad smile on your face. “I know you missed having him around. I did too. I’m sorry all of this mess made him want to stay away.”
Steve shook his head. “Don’t ever blame yourself for that, Doc,” he told you, reaching to run a thumb across your cheek. You couldn’t help the way you closed your eyes and leaned into his touch; you had a feeling it would always be that way. “None of it was your fault. We all know that. I hope you do too.”
“I’m getting there,” you told him, and leaned in for a soft kiss that he eagerly returned. “So what did you and Sam talk about?”
Steve paused a moment before replying, a move that surprised you. He was always so sure of himself, but it seemed something was giving him pause. He took a deep breath, and gave your hand a squeeze before continuing.
“Sam’s agreed to take the shield,” he told you.
Your mouth dropped open and your eyes went comically wide. “Take the shield?” you repeated.
Steve nodded. “It’s… a lot. He knows that. It’s a big burden to take on and he had to do some hard thinking about it… what it’ll mean to people, what it means to him. But I have faith in him, and I know he’s the best man for the job.”
“What about you?” you asked slowly. You had an idea what he was getting at, but you wanted him to tell you in his own words. It was a huge step, and though it was something you had discussed in the past -- Steve laying down the shield for good -- it was always framed as something that would be in the distant future.
Steve smiled, so brightly that it was almost blinding. “I think I earned a little time off, don’t you?”
“Of course, baby,” you said, taking his face in your hands to kiss him again, enjoying the way he still followed after you when you pulled away. “But this is really what you want? You’ve been ‘Cap’ for so long…”
“Too long,” Steve told you, nodding. “I was stepping back already, you knew that. And if nothing else, this last year has taught me that I don’t want to spend any more time apart than necessary. All I wanna do is fall asleep next to you every night and wake up with you in my arms, for the rest of my life.”
Tears filled your eyes even at the thought of it. “That sounds nice.”
“I don’t need to be ‘Cap’ anymore,” Steve explained. “I’ll still step up if things get bad, if they really need me, but… I woke up from one war and jumped right into another. It’s time for me to start a new chapter.”
You climbed over and settled yourself in his lap, throwing your arms around him. “As long as I get to be a part of it, I’m game.”
“You an’ me, Doc. Always,” Steve told you solemnly, and pressed a kiss to your forehead.
You decided to spend the day doing as much nothing as you could possibly manage, snacking on what little junk food you had on hand alongside leftover pizza and watching mindless television, wrapped up in one another on the sofa. The normalcy was nice; nothing hovering over your heads, no looming disaster.
It was quiet and sweet and perfect.
Midway through an episode of The Brokenwood Mysteries, a thought occurred to you and you frowned.
“Hey Steve?” you asked.
He shuffled gently beneath you, the two of you stretched out together on the sofa. “Yeah doll?”
“Did you really spend all day with Sam yesterday, or was there something else?” you asked. You knew it must have been a long discussion, but Steve had left early and not returned until well after dark. It didn’t quiet add up.
He chuckled, the motion of it bouncing you against his chest. “Okay, you got me,” he agreed, reaching one hand to rub your back. “I ran a little errand in the morning too.”
“Yeah?” you asked. “What was that?”
Steve continued to chuckle. “They were moving that piece of shit who shot you into federal custody in the morning. Thought I’d go down and take a gander.”
You snorted; Steve’s more dated turns of phrase always surfaced when he was most relaxed. “And that’s all you did?” you asked, knowing full well that he must have had an ulterior motive. “Just went and watched?”
“Well, I did want to catch up on the recent intel. They got his name now, you know,” he went on, an air of levity to his voice.
“Yeah?” you asked, propping yourself up a little to look at Steve directly as he spoke. The morbid curiosity was too much to bear. “What is it?”
Steve chuckled again. “The guy’s name is Vanity. Vanity.”
“Jesus,” you muttered, shaking your head. “Why did his parents hate him?”
Steve grinned. “It gets better,” he told you. “Vanity Hiram Glasscock. That’s his full name.”
You burst into a fit of laughter. “That can’t be real!” you said, giggling.
“Hand to god, it is,” Steve said, nodding. “They finally found him off a fifteen year old passport application in Tulsa. No wonder he decided to make up some dopey alter-ego!”
You shared another fit of laughter, the gaiety drawn more from how easy it was to speak on it, knowing that he was beyond hurting you and so many of your questions had already been answered. It was nice to know it was behind you now, and to be able to laugh, even if the unfortunate name hadn’t been his fault. You felt no guilt in ridiculing it -- after all, you still had the scar where he’d shot you.
When your laughter faded, you arched an eyebrow. “So that was it? You just went down and watched the transfer?”
“I may have… suited up for the occasion,” Steve said mildly, putting on an expression of pure innocence that you knew hid the devil underneath.
“That so?” you pressed, smiling a little.
“Maybe,” he agreed, large hands coming to circle your waist. “Maybe I stood there with my suit and the shield, and stared him down while they brought him out. Let him know that I was keepin’ an eye on him. Let him know he wouldn’t be hurtin’ anyone again.”
“Maybe?” you asked.
Steve grinned. “Yeah, maybe,” he agreed. “And maybe when he saw me, he pissed himself.”
You stared in the mirror, not quite believing what you were seeing. The days had passed so quickly since Beth’s non-arrest. It seemed as though you had finally accepted the fact that your friend had betrayed you and taken up Steve on his offer to spend a few lazy days together, and suddenly it was here.
Your wedding day.
The dress was beautiful. You’d chosen it specifically not to look too much like your first one, which had been a long, elegant silk gown. This was shorter, tea-length at best, made of ivory lace in a style that harkened back to the early 1950s. You’d foregone a veil, instead having white flowers woven into the intricate braid of your hair.
It was your wedding day -- the first you would remember, it would seem -- but it wasn’t a repeat of the last. It was a new beginning.
A second chance.
Darcy sidled up behind you and slipped her arms around your waist, resting her chin on your shoulder to smile at you in the mirror.
“Look at you, all pretty in white,” she said. “Steve’s not gonna know what hit’im!”
You chuckled. “Hopefully, I’ll remember it this time around,” you said with a weak smile.
“Nothing yet, huh?” Darcy asked, frowning at your reflection. She reached into the pocket of her lavender silk dress -- because you couldn’t abide a bridesmaid’s dress without pockets -- and retrieved a small round enamel pin. You smiled to see it; it was an image of the shield. “Something blue,” she advised, pinning it on the inside of the collar of your dress, where no one would see.
You shook your head, reaching to press a hand against the hidden pin. “Nothing yet,” you agreed, and sighed. “Hel thinks it may never come back. She and Bruce got to talking and they think they should have been treating my problem as a traumatic brain injury from the start. It’s just as likely that some memory loss is going to be permanent.”
Darcy sighed and leaned her head against yours. “I’m sorry,” she told you, eyes wide and sad. “I wish I could fix this for you, Doc.”
“I kept thinking it would come back, all of it, in one big flash,” you confessed. “That I’d find out who did this to me and it would just flood back into my head, everything.”
“But it didn’t,” Darcy offered.
You chuckled. “It didn’t,” you agreed. You stared at your reflection for a moment, wondering at what you saw. A bride. A wife. Happiness. “It’s probably better, really,” you relented after a moment. “If it all came rushing back like that, I might not have believed it. It would be too good. Too perfect. The cherry on top of a life that the other part of me could only have dreamed about.”
“I am a pretty dreamy bestie, I agree,” Darcy told you with a grin, and you couldn’t help but laugh. She was part of what made it all so wonderful: someone who was there for you when you needed her, no matter what, and always knew just when to make you laugh and when to call for help. She was someone you could count on -- one of many, many wonderful people who filled your life and you knew, you knew now, that you would never have to give up.
She paused and frowned. “But it hasn’t been easy, babes. Steve dragged ass in even asking you out, and then there’s that time he fucked off to Africa without even leaving a note,” she reminded. “Plus, you and Hel hated each other for ages. And look at me and Bucky! Look how long it took for us to get our shit together. Every life has some speedbumps.”
You smiled at her in the mirror. “You and Bucky?” you pressed. “Are you a packaged deal now?”
Darcy snorted. “This from little miss I-don’t-kiss-and-tell?” she teased.
You grinned. “So there has been kissing?” you teased.
Darcy rolled her eyes and pinched you on the side before sitting on your bed with an exaggerated sigh. She wrinkled her nose.
“Seriously though? My legs were numb,” Darcy declared. “I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom for half an hour. Is that normal? Is that a super-soldier thing?”
You chuckled softly. “Why do you think I do so much yoga? I can teach you some stretches that’ll help.”
“Well, you would know,” she agreed in a singsong voice, kicking at Steve’s discarded sneaker on the bedroom floor with one elegant heel. “I thought the hubby was going to crash elsewhere for the week before the wedding, hmm? Couldn’t stay away? That super-libido must be a bitch.”
You straightened the flowers in your hair and smiled at yourself in the mirror. “Something like that,” you agreed with a soft chuckle.
Steve had indeed been spending his nights sleeping elsewhere, just a little fun to lead up to your wedding day. You had already been living together the first time around, so you’d thought it would be nice to try and get the whole wedding experience. It had been the first time since you’d come back to him that you’d spent so many nights apart, and after four days, he just broke.
It had been a little past twelve and you’d already been tossing and turning, drifting in and out of a fitful sleep in an empty bed. You’d woken to pressure on the opposite side, opening your eyes to see Steve slipping beneath the sheets beside you.
You’d groaned. “Baby…” you warned. “We weren’t going to do this.”
“Just need to hold you, Doc,” Steve told you, voice pitched low. “I promise, I’ll be good… keep my hands to myself. Just need to hold you. Haven’t been sleeping worth a damn.”
How could you resist that? He’d slid in close, and you folded him up in your arms, drifting off almost immediately. You’d kept to your word at least: no sex until the wedding night. It wasn’t easy… having him so close, feeling his skin against yours.
But you knew it was worth it. It would be even sweeter when you finally gave in, though you were certain it was affecting Steve already; you’d heard him groaning your name in the shower every morning since.
Darcy, noticing the soft smile on your face, snorted loudly. “Ugh, you two were doing something gross like just cuddling, weren’t you?” she asked, disgusted.
Finally, it was time. You’d elected to keep everything securely at home, holding the ceremony and reception in one of the large balcony gardens that Tony had installed in the rebuild of the Tower. You were surprised how nervous you felt, waiting behind a trellis while Darcy and the others walked down the aisle. It wasn’t as though you hadn’t been through this before, even though you couldn’t remember it.
You’d decided against a wedding march, the soft strains of an instrumental cut of a Beach Boys love song echoing through the garden instead. You shifted on your feet, gripping your bouquet a little tighter; the plush purple carpet that had been rolled out to serve as an aisle seemed a long trek, all on your own, all those eyes on you. They were friends, coworkers… people you trusted. A year or so ago, it wouldn’t have bothered you at all, but the shooting and all its aftermath had changed you. Just when the panic began to reach its crescendo, you felt a hand at your elbow.
“You ready, Doc?” a familiar voice asked, and your glanced over in surprise.
“Sam!” you said, reaching to hug him. “What are you doing here?”
He grinned. “Tony’s taking over officiating duties this go-round, so I thought I’d see if you wanted a little company on the long walk down the aisle.”
You smiled, linking your arm through his. “I’d love some.”
You couldn’t stop the tears from slipping down your cheeks as you began walking down the aisle, with Sam on your arm. In his absence it was easy to forget what a calming, comforting presence Sam had been in your life. You could never fault him for staying away, but his return had brought with it a wealth of warmth and reassurance that you had not even realized you were missing. You might have crumbled right there walking down the aisle, overwhelmed with the rush of love you were feeling and the enormity of all that had happened in the past year, if he hadn’t been there, holding onto you and talking softly as you made your way towards where Steve was waiting.
And really, what a thought that was. Hadn’t it been what you had been doing all along, from the moment you woke up in the depths of confusion and despair? You had been making your way back to Steve -- back to where you belonged. These last few steps were nothing compared to what the two of you had been through together.
Sam paused at the end of the purple carpet and smiled at you, leaning in to kiss you on the cheek before departing.
“Go get’im, girl,” he whispered, and you couldn’t help but laugh, even through your tears.
The concern on Steve’s face when he saw the tears streaking down your cheeks broke your heart and sent it soaring all at once. Not a tear would pass that he wouldn’t notice; you knew that now. You reached and took his hands in yours.
“Good tears,” you reassured him softly. “Only good tears, from now on.”
His eyes were a little watery too. “That’s a promise,” he advised, smiling, his cheeks going softly pink. You couldn’t help but reach out and stroke your fingertips across his heated skin.
“Look at you, Irish,” you whispered, and Steve ducked his head and grinned.
“Okay, okay, let’s not get so touchy-feely until after the ceremony,” Tony advised, and you couldn’t help but laugh. You had all but forgotten he was standing there, so caught up in the moment.
“Whenever you’re ready, go ahead,” you told him, turning your head to face him. To your surprise, Tony reached out with one hand and pinched your shoulder, hard. You gaped at him, and he grinned.
“Standing on solid ground now?” he asked, and you laughed.
“Yeah,” you agreed, nodding. “Yeah, I am. Finally.”
Tony clapped his hands together. “Then let’s get this started, shall we?”
You had been worried at first, when Tony volunteered to take on the role of officiant in the ceremony; he was a bombast at times, enjoying hearing the sound of his own voice, but the ceremony he had prepared had been short and sweet, with only a few jokes thrown in. It seemed fitting, in a way; he was the first to tell you to accept the reality that had you so uncertain. His standing there while you did just that in such a ceremonial way was the perfect way to end the long nightmare you had been living.
You’d made a point to ensure that the whole night differed from the wedding you couldn’t recall. It had been a mostly traditional affair, the last time around; you kept the spirit of it but made enough changes to ensure that it felt new to everyone, and not a strange sort of reenactment just for your benefit.
Instead of a cake, there was an array of cupcakes plated on tiers with one large cupcake shaped of cast chocolate on top. Rather than cutting a cake, you’d taken a heated cake server in hand and together with Steve, broke open the hollow chocolate and sent a cascade of sprinkles and edible pearls down over the rest of the cupcakes.
The weather held and the sun was setting on the rooftop garden by the time the dancefloor was cleared and Steve took you by the hand to lead you out. The song you’d finally chosen, after obsessing over it for weeks, was nothing like the usual sort that people chose for their first dance. It was one you had known, in this life, though nothing you would have called to mind; you’d asked FRIDAY to play a steady mix of your saved playlists, and when it came on it was like a punch to the gut.
You heard everything you had been feeling over the past year in that one song. It was perfect.
“You know me, and I’d never want to leave you…” the singer intoned, and you rested your head on Steve’s shoulder, letting the gentle sway of the dance take you away. You hadn’t even realized it when tears began slipping down your cheeks once again, and Steve reached up a hand to brush them away.
Something in his touch, in the familiarity of the moment, brought back a memory full force: after all, this wasn’t the first time you’d had this dance.
Steve had wanted to tell you something. You could see it in his eyes. He was having trouble getting the words out as the two of you drifted across the dancefloor, but you were patient and let him have the time he needed.
“I love you,” he finally spoke, voice thick with emotion. “I love you so god damn much, Doc. You’re everything to me. You gave me my life back.”
That had confused you and he could read it on your face, even as the tears began filling his eyes. Steve gave you a shaky smile.
“My whole life, I felt like I was livin’ it for someone else,” he explained, voice dropped low to ensure that no one but you would hear him. “When I was a kid, it was my Ma. Had to be strong for her, had to go through all of the medicine and treatments no matter how bad it hurt cos I couldn’t leave her on her own.
“Then I was living for… I don’t know, honor? Duty. I had a job to do. My country needed me. And then it was for Buck, for getting him back safe, and when… and when I lost him, it was for honorin’ his memory and getting all the bastards who had taken him away. I think even in the ice, I knew. I knew I had to hold on, because someone might need me again.
“I woke up and it was a whole new war, and that’s what I was living for. For the others, the team. For setting the world to rights for them, so they could have the kind of future I didn’t even dream about anymore, and then… then I found you. Or maybe you found me. And you showed me how to live the life I wanted, how to live my life for me again. For you. Not because I had to do it, but because I wanted to. I’ll always be grateful for that, Doc. And I’m never letting you go.”
In the present, Steve felt the warmth of your tears slipping past his collar and pulled back just enough to see your face.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” he asked, concern evident in your voice.
You smiled through your tears. “I’m happy,” you told him, not for the first time that day. “I’m happy, and I remember… I remember what you told me, the first time we did this dance.”
Steve’s expression softened. “I still mean every word of it, Doc,” he said quietly. “And I always will.”
The song you had chosen seemed to punctuate his words, fading with the repetition of a single line: I still believe in a thing called forever…
Lyrics: Nina Gordon, "Hold On To Me"
It seemed like pure magic.
You’d never danced this much before; you’d always felt silly and self-conscious on the dancefloor, certain you were out of sync with the rhythm and too clumsy to even try, but tonight, you didn’t care. You danced with everyone who asked, and even found yourself pulling others out onto the floor. The effervescent joy that seemed to radiate from within you was infectious; everyone was smiling. Even Tony, who always seemed more inclined to stay on the sidelines when the music played, took your hand and dragged you out onto the floor.
The sun was setting and the sky had taken on golden hues, a cheerful Sam Cooke song playing as Tony twirled you around the floor.
“So what’s it like dancing with your favorite Brat-Packer?” he asked in a teasing tone, a humorous sparkle in his eyes. Tony had been on your side from the beginning of the mess that had taken away a year of your life; everyone else had been on eggshells, but he had been as blunt and upfront about it as he could manage. At the time, you’d been angry; he had been brusque in spite of his humor, doing all he could to make you see that the world you had woken to truly was your own.
It had hurt. But you had needed it to hurt.
You grinned. “Actually, I always had more of a thing for Emilio Estevez, if I’m being honest,” you teased right back, and he feigned a wince at your words.
“You wound me,” he deadpanned, and you couldn’t help but laugh, throwing your head back gayly.
“What can I say?” you told him. “I’m a sucker for blue eyes.”
“So it would seem,” Tony said with a hum, nodding towards where Steve stood with Bucky, the two laughing over some shared joke.
“You know, I never did thank you,” you told him, still smiling but a little more serious than before.
“You’re more than welcome,” Tony replied, then frowned. “For what are you thanking me though?”
You smiled. “Everyone was treating me with kid gloves. Afraid that if they pushed too hard, I’d snap or something. Then you show up. Give it to me straight. You were the first one to really make me question what I thought I knew. If not for that push… well. I don’t even want to think about where I’d be today.”
The smile that graced Tony’s face was soft and sweet, a rarity even for his closest friends to see. “You’d be right here, where you belong. You put up with a helluva lot more than just anybody could deal with, and you’re still standing. Nothing would’ve stopped you from getting back to where you belonged. You wouldn’t have let it.”
Your eyes went a little watery at his words, and Tony shook his head.
“Crying? No crying. Capsicle’s got a hair trigger when it comes to you. Might try and knock my block off if he thinks I made you cry,” Tony warned.
You laughed again but before you could tell him not to worry, you felt a tiny tickle on the hand Tony held in his and noticed a little insect had landed on you. Before you could shake it away, it suddenly glowed bright and warm, before flying off. You gasped.
“Fireflies?” you asked in wonder. You couldn’t remember the last time you had even seen one in the city, let alone so high in the sky.
Tony smiled slyly. “Something like that,” he agreed.
You noticed for the first time that the air around you was full of twinkling lights, flitting to and fro, alighting here and there on some of the rooftop greenery. You got a closer look when another landed on the lapel of Tony’s suit; it certainly looked like a real firefly, but where there should have been a shiny black thorax was instead gleaming steel and little mechanical legs. It blinked its light several times before flying off once again.
“Turns out, you can’t just buy a bunch of fireflies. They don’t travel well. Ladybugs, crickets? Those you can get by the pound. But I thought tonight needed a special touch, don’t you think?” Tony said coolly.
You threw your arms around him into a tight hug, the surge of happiness in your heart almost too much to take. This really was your life: you had Steve, your soulmate, and you had such amazing, wonderful friends. You felt like the luckiest person in the world.
Tony’s fireflies had the rest of the party enthralled. Bruce and Helen were dancing in circles, their heads tilted up in the air as they watched the little mechanical insects take flight. Darcy was laughing and chasing them like a child. The gaiety of the party seemed to increase tenfold just with the joy they brought.
That was Tony’s way; things he saw as small gestures that could mean the world to everyone else. He never took credit where credit was due when it came to things like that – just the same way he tried to brush off your thanks.
The fireflies continued their dance across the sky as the light completely faded and the garden lights hummed to life. Your feet were aching in your shoes and it seemed every time you turned around, someone else was pulling you out to dance. You managed to slip away after Sam had taken you around the dancefloor and found Steve standing near a table where Bucky and Darcy were sitting.
“Ah, there she is,” Steve said, smiling widely when you slipped immediately into his arms. “You’ve been the belle of the ball out there tonight, Doc. Must’ve danced twice with everybody here.”
You closed your eyes and sighed, pressing your head against his chest. His arms closed around you and for a moment the world fell away, leaving you feeling safe, comfortable, and perfectly content.
“Always going to come back to you, though,” you murmured, and Steve knelt to press a kiss to the top of your head.
“I know,” he agreed, a soft sigh rumbling through his chest. “Lucky me.”
At the table, Darcy made an exaggerated gagging sound, pulling you out of your reverie. You turned and grinned at her.
“Jealous?” you teased.
She grinned back and leaned her head on Bucky’s shoulder. “Not anymore!” she replied.
You had meant to make your excuses and call an end to the perfect evening, leaving the others to enjoy the party while you and Steve retired to your apartment. It had been a wonderful day, but a very long one; you would have been happy to retire to your own bed.
But the joy still blooming in your heart couldn’t be abated so easily, and before you knew it, you were sitting at the table beside Darcy, talking and laughing and getting lost in the pleasant conversation. It was so easy to do; you remembered then that it always seemed to happen this way, whenever you had even a small gathering. The night would wear on and you’d be tired and thinking about kicking off your shoes and heading to bed but still unable to stop yourself from having one more drink, one more cup of coffee, one more bout of raucous laughter with the wonderful people who made up the strange little family you had found, until somehow time drifted into the wee hours of the morning.
Darcy had somehow cajoled one of the bartenders to mix her up a concoction of her own making. You weren’t entirely sure what was in it, but it was a murky shade of blue-green in the over-iced glass and had a ridiculous amount of fruit stuffed inside. Everytime she raised it to her lips, you couldn’t help but grimace.
“Darcy, what on earth are you drinking?” you finally blurted, grateful for your own glass of club soda with a twist of lime. Just the thought of whatever she was downing was enough to turn your stomach.
“I’m calling it the ‘Second Time Around’!” she announced cheerfully, taking another prim little sip from her straw. “It’s delicious.”
“It looks like swamp water,” Steve volunteered with a chuckle.
“Delicious swamp water!” Darcy protested.
Bucky, sitting beside her with an arm thrown over the back of her chair, gave a put-upon sigh. “Okay, okay, lemme settle this one,” he said, and plucked the glass from her hand. He raised it to his lips, bypassing the straw to swallow a mouthful straight from the cup, and immediately gagged. He coughed and swallowed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, baby, but that’s vile,” he told her.
You glanced beside you, knowing you’d see Steve quirk a smile. Bucky, he had told you, had long been treading the line between who he had once been and who he felt he should be – as though any happiness he might find shouldn’t be allowed, and he’d deny himself the chance to experience it when he could. Seeing him with Darcy, relaxed and smiling, using a pet name like it was the simplest thing in the world, was something of a wonder. This Bucky – this happy Bucky, this flirty Bucky with stars in his eyes whenever he looked Darcy’s way – was much more the man that Steve remembered from his youth.
It made both of you happy to see him allowing himself to just be.
Darcy pouted. “I think your tastebuds are freezer-burned,” she declared, and Bucky snorted.
He laughed, setting down the drink and reaching to brush his thumb across Darcy’s lower lip. “Bet it’d taste better here than it does in the glass,” he mused, and Darcy grinned.
You rolled your eyes, even as you smiled. “I think that’s our cue to leave, Steve,” you announced, standing up to stretch and frowning at the sudden pain your shoes caused in your feet.
Darcy snorted. “Of course,” she agreed. “Can’t offend the delicate sensibilities of Mr. and Mrs. Vanilla!”
“That’s Captain and Doc Vanilla, actually,” Steve corrected her with a wink, and you laughed, leaning your weight onto his shoulder as he stood to take the pressure off of your aching feet.
Darcy shook her head and fanned herself with a napkin from the table, Bucky’s head ducked beside her as he whispered something in her ear that made her grin.
“Our poor innocent babies,” she said, smiling fondly.
“Innocent, huh?” you asked.
You were never quite sure what it is that made you do it, break your own rule about keeping the details of your personal life private; perhaps it was the openness you saw in Bucky, or the happiness you felt in seeing all of the pieces of your life fall into place. Slipping your hand into Steve’s to keep your balance, you leaned forward to whisper into Darcy’s ear all the little things she’d never expect you and Steve would get up to behind closed doors, watching in amusement as her eyes grew comically wide.
Beside her, even Bucky’s eyebrows went up at what he could overhear, and you heard Steve chuckle behind you.
Straightening up, you cocked your head to the side and said, “Innocent, huh?” and winked, as Steve’s chuckle grew into a deep laugh.
He slipped his arm around your waist and dropped a kiss just below your ear. “C’mon, Doc. Let’s call it a night.”
“Best idea ever,” you agreed, and waved your goodbyes as the two of you began to walk towards the doors that would lead you inside. Even your non-enhanced hearing could pick-up on Darcy’s gasp as you walked away.
“Oh my god, Bucky!” she said in a horrified tone. “We’re the Vanillas!”
You were still laughing as you made it inside and into the elevator, heading down to your apartment. When you were alone, the chuckles died down and you found yourself in Steve’s arms again, his eyes bright as he looked down into yours. You tipped up your chin and he took the invitation, kissing you soft and slow and deep. You closed your eyes and let yourself get lost in it, drinking in the taste of him and the scent of him surrounding you, blotting out the rest of the world until it was only the two of you and nothing else mattered much at all.
You would have missed your floor entirely if not for the insistent chiming of the elevator, and even then you stayed close, allowing Steve to hold you and walk you backwards, trading lazy kisses as you went, pausing only as you reached your door and you leaned against the frame to give him leave to open it. Once inside, you didn’t even bother reaching for the light, shedding your shoes in the entryway and reaching to push his jacket off of his shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.
His kisses grew deeper and in spite of the slow burn of need within you, you couldn’t help but pause.
“Steve?” you asked quietly, standing still just in the entryway to the living room as he nibbled a meticulous line down your neck.
“Mmm?” came his muffled reply.
“Baby?” you offered again, waiting for him to pull away just a little and face you.
“Yeah, Doc?” he asked, hair ruffled from your hands and eyes gone glossy.
Your face crumpled. “Baby, I am so goddamn tired,” you blurted.
Steve laughed, leaning forward to press his forehead to yours. “Oh, thank god,” he replied, and you joined him chuckling. His kisses were less insistent now and the two of you worked to strip down to something more comfortable, shedding clothing here and there until you were wearing just your slip and he was down to his shorts. He pulled you down onto the couch and you cuddled against his chest, letting your eyes close as he pulled the afghan from the back of the couch down to cover you both.
Probably one more chapter to finish this one!