"You sure bringing Bacon was a good idea?" Natasha asked, crouching down in front of Tony and scratching the cat's chin. "Danielle has been through a lot. Are you sure—"
"She'll want to see him."
Natasha smiled up at him. "Of course. Are you going to be okay?"
"Stop asking me that."
She watched him for a long moment. Then she sighed heavily and rose to her feet. "Alright. Clint, how far out are we?"
"Two minutes!" he called. "You're sure these are the right coordinates, though? There's nothing here. It's just a field."
"They're the coordinates Danielle gave us." Natasha moved to stand next to him.
"And you're sure it's her? Or that we can trust her?"
"Clint . . . ." Natasha sighed. "Don't do that. Yes, I'm sure it's her. And yes, I'm sure we can trust her. An enemy wouldn't have been sending that information to us for months. Besides, a field is a terrible place for an ambush." She reached out and ruffled his hair. "Look, you're about to get your little prank buddy back. Shouldn't you be happy about that?"
Clint grunted and ducked away from her hand. "Coming in for landing."
Natasha turned and watched as Tony coaxed Bacon into his cage and closed the door. Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she slipped it out.
<Spangles: Did you find her?>
Natasha smiled a bit and tapped out a response. <Landing now. I'll let you know how it goes. Any luck with Barnes?>
The quinjet stabilized as it landed and the ramp began to lower. Her phone buzzed.
<Spangles: Not yet.>
Natasha sent back a thumbs up and tucked her phone away to follow the others down the ramp. Clint shrugged, lifting his hands. "There's no one here."
Tony nervously patted his thigh, hand spasming. "There's no one here," he repeated. "Natasha, there's no one here. Dani isn't—"
"Breathe," she ordered, turning and gripping his shoulders. "Breathe, Tony, everything is—" She trailed off, gaze shifting to the two figures behind Tony and Clint. "Oh my god."
Clint whipped around, arrow already nocked and drawn. Tony froze under Natasha's hands. The smaller of the two figures lifted her hands to show they were empty. "Really, Clint?" she asked. "That's the best greeting you've got for me?"
Tony jerked from Natasha's hands and whipped around. "Dani," he breathed. "Oh my— Dani."
Some semblance of a smile flickered around the girl's tired face. "Hey, Daddy. Clint. Nat."
Natasha glanced at the man standing hunched next to Danielle, but it was the girl's behavior that quickly drew her attention back. Danielle was gripping the man's—Winter Soldier, Barnes, oh god, Steve's friend was here—sleeve with an unblemished hand. Which was impossible, really, because Danielle's hands—and arms and, in the case of her right side, shoulder—were marred with burn scars from breaking Loki's portal. She frowned and identified at least three hidden weapons on the girl's body and then eyed the way Danielle's gaze kept flicking around as if she was waiting for a weapon to be pulled. There was something too tight and worried at the edges of her eyes.
Natasha smiled and reached out a hand, pausing when she saw the way Danielle's entire body flinched away and Barnes shifted protectively. She pulled her hand back. "Hey, Kroshka. Long time no see."
"Hey, Nat." Danielle's grip tightened on Barnes's sleeve. "So . . . we going or not? Last I ate was an hour ago and I'm already starving. There's food on the quinjet, right?"
"Ye—" Tony caught himself and cleared his throat. "Yeah. I, uh, and Bacon. I brought Bacon."
The new voice made Tony flinch back and they zeroed in on Barnes. Danielle grinned up at him—a full and confident expression, completely different from the cautious smile she'd given them—and she nodded. "My cat," she confirmed. "I, uh . . . . I've missed him," she murmured. "I can't remember how long it's been since I've seen him, really."
"Lie. You never forget a number."
"Shush. Let me have this." She cleared her throat and refocused on Natasha. "If he can't come, I'm not going. We're clear on that, right?"
Clint shifted from his spot to Natasha's left. "And if we say no?" he asked, voice a picture of pure curiosity. "Exactly how would you two get away before we do anything?"
Danielle's smile tightened, as did her grip on Barnes's sleeve. Then there was a flash of blue and the two disappeared from right in front of them. Natasha's eyes widened, but she was interrupted before she could say anything.
"Does that answer your question, Tweetie Bird?"
Clint whirled around to find Barnes and Danielle standing there. "Tweetie Bird? Really? The nicknames are bad enough from Tony."
"I've got almost two years of teasing to catch up on," she pointed out. "Now. We good?"
Natasha glanced at Tony, who was pale and hands were still shaking. She nodded. "We're good. He can come. Snacks are inside. Go on up. Clint?"
"Right." Clint eyed Barnes and nodded. "Let's go. There's the standards packed, but if you're nice I'll let you share my Skittles."
Natasha turned fully towards Tony. "Hey," she murmured. "Breathe. You saw her, right? She's okay."
He nodded. "I— She is. She's okay. Natasha, but I—"
"Give her time." Natasha reached out and took one of Tony's trembling hands in hers. She gave it a hard squeeze. "Give her as much time as she needs, because all that matters right now is that she's safe and we're bringing her home. You understand?"
He nodded again. "Just . . . give me a moment."
"Of course." She pulled back and slipped out her phone, returning to her conversation with Steve.
<Picked up Danielle. :) >
She waited until she saw the read receipt from him and then added, <Barnes is with her. Return to the Tower.> Then she put her phone away and gave Tony a nudge to start him up the ramp ahead of her.
She stopped short and listened absently as the ramp closed. Clint glanced back from his spot in the pilot's seat and gave a helpless shrug. Danielle was sitting in front of Barnes, who was cuddling Bacon in his lap. Natasha crouched down next to her. "Everyone getting along just fine?"
Danielle hummed a confirmation and Barnes looked up at her hesitantly. He cleared his throat. "Sorry for trying to kill you."
Danielle snorted. "Oh my god. You're actually—" She snickered. "That's the most weak-ass apology I've ever heard in my life."
"Language," Natasha murmured. "And don't worry about it, Barnes. Most people I know have tried to kill me or I've tried to kill them. It's a common theme in my life."
"Would you look at that?" Danielle said, shooting Barnes a grin. "She actually genuinely accepted that weak-ass apology."
"Shut up," he growled, but Natasha studied the way his lips twitched into a faint smile. When she glanced back at Danielle, she could see the clear fondness in her eyes.
Natasha pushed herself back up to her feet and stepped back to join Tony where he was standing. She dropped her voice low enough that he would barely be able to hear her. "Tony, I think—"
"I think I have to let you know that I can hear you," Danielle said, not looking back. "And since whatever you're about to say is probably something you want to keep private, I'd say keep it until you can talk about it comfortably where I can't hear." Then, she did look up at them. "I don't want my old room. I want my own suite." She gestured to Barnes. "We can share. But I don't want my old room."
Natasha heard Tony catch his breath a little and she forced herself not to look at him. She smiled. "Of course. We'll put you two in the guest apartment for now." She slipped an arm around Tony's shoulders and steered him towards the cockpit. "How long, Clint?"
"A couple hours. Go ahead and settle in.”
"Anda mengabaikannya." [You're ignoring him.]
She opened her eyes to stare up at him for a moment. Then she closed them again and shifted the way she was resting against him. "Tidak, bukan aku." [No, I'm not.] She reveled in the silence for a moment before feeling Bucky tap her forehead. When she looked up at him again, he gave her a pointed look. Danielle ground her teeth. Bacon shifted in his spot on her stomach, lifting his head to peer at her curiously. "Later." When Bucky's gaze just hardened, she hissed, "I promise."
That seemed to satisfy him, because then he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Danielle glanced towards the cockpit and the people there weren't fast enough to look away before she noticed them staring. Natasha was the only one that kept her gaze, deliberately making it clear that she was studying her before finally turning away.
Danielle sighed and closed her eyes again, murmuring, "Actually, on second thought—"
She groaned. "I really should be more careful with my promises."
"I think you promise things an adequate amount."
Danielle sat up and glared at him. Bacon squeaked and scrambled away. Bucky reached out and caught him, dragging the cat into his lap. Danielle huffed. "Fine. When we're back at the Tower."
She swallowed thickly. "I— Yes. Fine."
"I'll know if you don't."
"I know you will. We're coming in for landing." She shifted and curled her arm around his. "Hey, question."
"Are you gonna be okay? Big, loud Tower in big, loud New York? You're gonna be okay?"
"I'll let you know if I'm not."
Danielle pulled back from him and pushed herself to her feet as the quinjet landed. As Bucky started coaxing Bacon into his kennel, she glanced towards the front just in time to see the three of them hurriedly snap their gazes away again. She rolled her eyes and glanced at Bucky. "I'm gonna go in. I'll meet up with you later, okay?"
And then she flickered away to outside the quinjet. She heard the ramp starting to lower behind her and she slipped away into the elevator. "Workshop."
"Of course. And may I say that it is a pleasure and a relief to have you back."
She caught her breath. "I— It's good to hear your voice again, J," she rasped. "I've missed you. How, uh . . . . How's Dad been?"
"He has been, for lack of a better word, distraught. I do believe that your return will be beneficial for his health, both physical and mental. Perhaps he'll start eating at least a full meal a day again."
She swallowed. "Right. I'll work on that. Thanks, J."
The elevator opened and she stepped out. "New code?" she asked, pausing at the entry to the workshop.
"Your entry code remains the same."
"Of course it does." She typed it in and then carefully entered the workshop. As the lights came on, she glanced across the mess of projects in the room. Danielle sighed. "Oh, Dad."
Excited beeping caught her attention. Danielle whipped around and grinned. "DUM-E! Butterfingers! U!" She dropped to her knees and began running her hands over them, re-familiarizing herself with their mechanics. "Oh, I've missed you three."
DUM-E's claw picked at her beanie, knocking it askew. She reached up and gently pushed his appendage away before taking off her beanie. She was in the midst of combing her fingers through her hair to fix it when the door opened. Danielle hurriedly jammed her beanie back on her head and whipped around to her feet.
He stood still in the entryway, one hand still holding the door open. Tony's tired gaze flicked across her. "Dani," he said quietly, so quietly that she wasn't sure she'd be able to hear him without the serum.
She took a nervous step back and shoved her hands in her pockets. "I, uh. J says you haven't been taking the greatest care of yourself. Sounds like I shoulda come back sooner, huh?" Danielle attempted a playful grin but knew that it fell flat, far from amused and far more agonized.
Tony finally stepped fully inside and let the door close behind him. "You, uh, you had the option?"
Danielle flinched. "For the last five months, yeah. I had the option."
"Barnes wasn't stopping you?"
She frowned. "I— No. Not at all. He, uh, he wanted me to come here sooner. I just—" She broke off and glanced down at where DUM-E was inspecting her left ankle. She sighed and leaned down, slipping the small handgun out of her sock and then presenting her ankle for DUM-E to get a clear look. Danielle started nervously, habitually, dismantling the gun as she spoke. "I didn't want to, okay? I have my reasons. I think they're good and logical reasons, but he, uh, he doesn't agree." She groaned. "Look, the point is I'm finally here because of him. And now. Now? Now I regret not coming back sooner." She smoothly slid the pieces of the gun back in place and then started taking it apart again.
"But why—" Tony paused, seemed to second guess his question, and adjusted. "He wanted you to come back?"
"Course he did." She reassembled the gun and stared down at it, frowning. With a sigh, she tucked it away into her waistband. Danielle forced herself to meet Tony's gaze straight on. "I'm sorry that I left. I really didn't want to go."
"I figured," he mumbled. "And I'm sorry I never found you. I really tried."
"I know." Danielle jerked her hands out of her pockets and nervously started wringing them. "Um, can I— I mean, if it's okay— You see— I just— I'd like to—"
"Can I hug you?" he interrupted, voice lost.
Danielle caught herself. "Yes," she mumbled. "Yeah, that's what I was trying to— Yes. I'd like that."
Tony stepped forward and it took everything in her to stay put and not flinch away. He slid his arms around her middle, his touch light and loose. Danielle lifted her hands, not quite sure what to do with them. His hands shook against her back and his gaze flicked to the side. Just as he started to pull back, Danielle felt her heart jump and she dropped her arms around him, letting her head fall forward against his shoulder. "I missed you," she whispered.
At that, his hold on her tightened almost harshly and he tucked his head down against hers. "I love you. I love you. I won't let anything ever hurt you again, do you understand?"
Danielle closed her eyes and swallowed down the urge to point out that he couldn't promise that. That he couldn't know. Instead, she bit her lip and leaned into him.
"Sir, I am terribly sorry to interrupt."
Danielle jerked away from her father and looked up at the ceiling, having to stop her hand from where it had jumped to the gun in her waistband.
"Wilson and the Captain have returned and are waiting on the common floor. Sergeant Barnes is refusing to leave the guest suite without Danielle's accompaniment."
Danielle bent down and returned her gun to its spot at her ankle. "I'll get him and meet you on the common floor." Keeping her gaze down, she moved towards the door. "Don't worry, DUM-E. I'll come back to visit you later." Without looking back, she slipped out of the room and across to the elevator. "Guest suite, J."
As the elevator started moving, Danielle leaned her head back against the wall and let out an exhausted sigh. Groaning, she started pacing the small space back and forth and back and forth until the elevator stopped and slid open. She straightened and grinned at the man waiting there. "Ready?"
"Like hell I am," he muttered, stepping in next to her. He eyed her for a moment as she asked JARVIS to take them to the common floor. "Good," he murmured. "You talked to him."
"I promised you." She reached over and hooked her fingers in his shirt sleeve. "We're . . . gonna be okay, right?"
"I don't know."
"Are you ready to see Steve?"
"I don't know."
"I'm not gonna leave your side, okay? Oh, unless there's something sweet in the kitchen. I could really use some sugar."
He rolled his eyes and gave her a tired, fond smile. "Nell," he said. "You're terrible."
"Tell me something I don't know."
The elevator doors slid open. Danielle caught her breath, staring at the crowd of people that paused their conversation to look up. She glanced at Bucky, and he was equally still. Sighing, she tugged on his sleeve and then released him, stepping forward. "Steve," she greeted, shoving her hands in her pockets. She flicked her gaze to the man standing next to him. "You must be Sam. I've heard a lot about you. Did you ever get that steering wheel replaced?" She stepped out and forced herself to hold out her hand to him.
He squinted at her. "You know . . . you don't have to shake my hand. Not if you don't want to."
"Oh, god bless you," she breathed out, yanking her hand back into her pocket. "I think we'll get along just fine. And to think that he called you a stuck up, prissy ass bitch."
"I did not," Bucky said firmly, stepping up next to her. "That was you yelling at Andi Dorfman when you were watching The Bachelorette and crying into thirteen bags of Reeses Pieces."
"Oh, right." She wrinkled her nose. "Not my proudest moment."
"Honestly, I preferred the Bachelorette binge to the Desperate Housewives one. Or the Jersey Shore one. You really need better taste in reality TV."
She glanced at him. "Winter, there isn't any good reality TV. That's the beauty of it."
"His name isn't Winter."
The new voice made her snap to attention and she had to forcibly jerk her hand away from her gun. She glanced at Steve, who was frowning at her. "I know that," she said evenly. "But I didn't exactly have the luxury of getting to call him by his real name while Hydra was watching, did I?"
"You have that luxury now."
"I don't want it," she said stiffly, hackles rising. "Do you have a problem, Rogers?" She balled her hands into fists.
"Nell," Bucky cut in. "You're sparking."
She glanced down at her hands to see the blue dancing between her knuckles. Danielle forced a deep breath and loosened her grip. "I need sugar," she muttered. "Also, carbs. And protein. Basically, I need to eat anything and everything that's in the kitchen."
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "Well, no one is going to stop you, Kroshka."
"Good, good." She flickered away to the kitchen and ignored the squeak of surprise from Sam. Danielle began digging through the pantry. "Ooh, pop-tarts. Winter, you want anything? Oh, never mind. Catch!" She turned and tossed him the box of Ritz. "Look, there's peanut butter too! Your favorite snack."
He caught the jar or peanut butter as well. When she tossed the knife, Bruce let out a squeak. "Okay, a little dangerous, I think," the man said, nervously turning his glasses over in his hands.
"It's fine." Danielle scooped up a few more snacks and flickered back over to the couch. She sat down and ripped open the box of pop-tarts. "How've you guys been doing with the Hydra files I've been dropping off? I heard you took down at least one base with information I gave you." She shuffled to the side to make room for Bucky as he sat down next to her.
They turned to face her and Natasha crossed her arms. "We did fine with that info. Brought in some Hydra agents we learned about from it, freed a few of their captives, located some—"
"Oh! Right, hold on." Danielle dug through her pocket. "The place we just took down has a morgue full of mutants they killed and collected for dissection and study." She held out the paper.
Natasha took it and glanced across it. "Some of these are missing persons we've been looking into. This is good."
"Of course it is. Ooh, gimme," Danielle said, leaning over and stealing a cracker from Bucky. "Question!" she said loudly, leaning back and munching on her snack. "Can I borrow someone's phone to get some donuts delivered?"
Tony shifted. "I, uh, I have some work to finish in my shop. I'll, I'll see you guys later."
Bruce glanced at him and frowned. "Right, of course, our project. Let me." He shuffled after him.
Natasha eyed her for a long moment and then nodded. "We're talking later. Alone. Do you understand?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Danielle shrugged, dropping her gaze away. "Alright, then. I'll stop by your apartment tonight."
"Good." Natasha folded the paper up. "I'm going to go look into these names." She moved to the elevator and then paused. "Steve?"
Steve hesitated before quickly retreating after her.
Clint grinned. "Okay, I have so many cartoons for you to catch up on. Where do you want to start? Phineas and Ferb?"
"Ooh, let's start from the beginning. Winter's never see it." She shifted closer to Bucky to give Clint room to sit down. As he did so, he grabbed Sam and yanked him down onto the couch as well.
"I, I don't think this couch was meant to fit four people," Sam pointed out. "I—"
"Shush," Clint ordered. "JARVIS?"
"Of course, Agent Barton."
Danielle pressed up against Bucky's side in order to get some room between her and Clint. The latter glanced at her and gave her a small smile before shifting closer to Sam, who immediately started clamoring for some personal space. Danielle leaned her head against Bucky's shoulder. "You know," she whispered low enough that she knew only he could hear. "I think I'm gonna be okay."