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I Get By (With a Little Help From my Friends)

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            Sun spilled over Arianna, kissing her skin lightly as she sat in the park, sipping her iced tea. It was a peaceful Sunday, the birds chirping and a light breeze blowing cherry red hair out of ice blue eyes. It was midday, her favorite time to be outside. The twenty-three-year-old smiled as she watched an older couple stroll by, hands clasped in between them. A young man with his nose in a book passed by going the other way, and then a few seconds later a mother chased after a little girl. Arianna took another sip of her iced tea as another light breeze blew through the trees above her, this one smelling acrid. And then, chaos shattered her perfect bubble of peace.

            They were robots, or maybe aliens, or maybe men. It was all the same anymore. Then, the Avengers. Cut and dry, as always. Tony Stark showed first; the Black Widow and Hawkeye ushered the throngs of terrified citizens away from the battlefield that was about to be Central Park.

            No matter how many times Ari found herself in this situation, it didn’t lessen the terror. Iced tea forgotten, she abandoned her bench and went to follow the crowd of people away from the park.

            “Steve!” There was a shout, a voice cracking in horror. Ari turned, a gun raised to the Captain’s unprotected back. There was no time for thinking.

            “LOOK OUT!” The Captain was sturdy, but she’d caught him off guard. He stumbled to the side at her body slam, a weapon discharged, and Ari felt pain like she’d never felt before.

            The world tilted and tumbled around her, a vivid mix of green and blue marred by the crimson of her own blood. Nausea bubbled past her lips in the form of chicken she’d had for lunch earlier that day.

            Get up a voice in her head whispered, punctuated by hands under her arms, heaving her to her feet and a lightning bolt of pain snaking down her arm, Captain America yelling something unheard against the ringing in her ears. She ripped herself away from him and ran.

            Later they’d ask her what she’d been thinking. They would say things like “He’s a super soldier. He barely would have felt it. He didn’t need help.” But Ari believed that everybody needed help. Especially those who weren’t allowed to ask for it.

Chapter Text

            She woke to beeping. Eyes fluttered open, squinting against harsh florescent lights. The hospital room came into focus, tilting only slightly as she reoriented herself.

            “Nice of you to finally join us.” Aiden sat beside her, arms crossed and a sour glare puckering his lips.

            “I’ll be sure to wake up quicker next time I’m shot.” Ari snapped. Aiden scoffed, rolling his emerald eyes. “Why are you even here?” She demanded, struggling to sit up and wincing as it sent pain flaming down her arm.

            “I’m still your emergency contact, dumbass. I called Dan.” He stood from the chair, eyes narrowed in obvious dislike. “I’m leaving.” He announced sharply.

            “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, dick!” She called as he spun on his heel.

            “Change your emergency contact!” He snapped back as the door shut behind him. Ari scowled at the shut door, jaw clenching harshly.

            Ten minutes later, Daniel Dawson came charging through her door, wild-eyed and panting. Ari shot him a tentative smile.

            “Hey big brother.” She greeted meekly.

            “What the fuck were you thinking?!” Dan demanded angrily, tugging a hand through already wild brown hair. “You could have died! Steve Rogers is a superhero! You are not!” She’d never heard her brother sound so scared.

            “I didn’t die, Danny.” Ari reminded him easily.

            “No, you just got shot.” Dan snapped, nearly falling into the seat Aiden had vacated. “And why the fuck did Aiden James call me about this?” He demanded as an afterthought.

            “He’s still my emergency contact. I haven’t been her since before we broke up, so I haven’t been able to change it.” She replied.

            “You shouldn’t even be in here now. Fucking Avengers.” Dan practically growled.

            “Hey, it isn’t their fault. They were defending us.” Ari replied haughtily. “I could very well be dead if it wasn’t for them.” She stated.

            “They’re the reason Earth and New York are even a target.” Dan snapped.

            “That’s not true, and I’m not having this argument. I’ve been shot. If you want to fight, go find someone else to do it with.” Ari sniffed, looking away. Dan ground his jaw together but didn’t answer.

            “Ms. Dawson?” A nurse knocked, opening the door a crack. “You have some visitors. Can I send them in?” She asked, giving the girl a comforting, if not perplexed smile.

            “Oh, uh…sure.” Ari nodded, glancing at Dan. “You didn’t call mom and Jake, did you?” She practically groaned. Dan shook his head, seemingly just as confused as she was.

            “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Dan snapped as the door opened and two of the largest men Ari had ever seen entered the room.

            “Dan.” She hissed angrily. “Uh, hi.” She smiled unsurely at them.

            Steve Rogers was even more gorgeous up close than she’d imagined. He stood awkwardly just inside her room, shifting from foot to foot with a bouquet of assorted flowers, resting in a beautiful blue vase, clutched tightly in his hands. The dark-haired man behind him, Ari realized suddenly, was none other than Bucky Barnes.

            “Hi.” Steve replied softly. “Arianna Dawson, right?” He asked curiously, glancing around the room surreptitiously.

            “That’s me.” She nodded her head.

            “Steve Rogers, ma’am. This is Bucky. Um, I wanted to drop these off and thank you for what you did. You saved my life.” He thanked gratefully. Ari beamed at him brightly.

            “Of course. I’d do it again, if I had to.” She replied earnestly. Steve smiled unsurely at her, a blush crawling up his neck.

            “Hopefully, that won’t happen.” He replied softly. He entered the room and placed the flowers on her bedside table.

            “You’ll have hell to pay if it does.” Dan snapped, standing, and puffing his chest out. Ari rolled her eyes skyward and took a deep breath.

            “Stand down, Dan. Christ. The man could rip you in half.” She stated in a long-suffering tone. “Sorry about my brother. He’s all bark and no bite.” She waved him off. Dan huffed indignantly and did not retake his seat.

            “If that’s all, I think it’s time for you to leave.” Dan snapped, eyes darting between Steve and his intimidating friend still standing at the door.

            “Oh, sure, if that’s what Arianna would like. I was hoping to stay and talk some.” Steve admitted softly, rubbing the back of his neck.

            “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, buddy.” Dan growled. “Stay the fuck away from my sister. I mean it.” Bucky Barnes took a step forward. Dan didn’t move, but Ari saw his shoulders wilt a little under the stony glare those slate gray eyes were sending him, lips pressed into a thin line and bulky shoulders stiff.

            “Dan! What the fuck!” Ari cried.

            “I see.” Steve nodded, sending her a reassuring smile. “That’s okay. You folks have a great day. Thank you, again.” He started to reach his hand towards her, then seemed to change his mind and exited the room. Bucky hesitated for a second, flashing one more dangerous glare to Dan, before he followed.

            “Oh my god, seriously fuck you.” Ari groaned. “Get out of my sight. I don’t want to look at you anymore.” She waved him away. Dan sputtered before sighing heavily and exiting her hospital room. A few seconds later, he poked his head back in with a wry smile.

            “Melissa wants me to come home. The kids are being a handful apparently.” He stated.

            “Oh my god, just go!”

Chapter Text

            The tower that the Avengers called home was massive, and easy to spot. Arianna stood awkwardly in the lobby, right arm in a sling and left hand clutching a container of home-baked chocolate chip cookies. She shuffled to the large reception desk and cleared her throat. The woman sitting behind it looked up, perfectly manicured fingers halting their blinding pace on the keyboard and stared at Ari down her nose. Her nametag, pinned meticulously to her pale pink blouse, read Bethany.

            “Hi, uh, I’m here to see Captain Rogers.” Arianna stated unsurely, placing the Tupperware on the counter. Bethany gave it a cursory glance before clearing her throat.

            “Do you have an appointment?” she asked in a clipped, professional tone. Ari squirmed under her narrowed eyes, trying her hardest to not look away from the scrutinizing glare.

            “Well no, but…” She started, but Bethany held up a hand to halt her mid-sentence, removing her glasses from her nose and steepling her fingers on the desk.

            “I can’t allow you up there unless you have an appointment.” Bethany stated sharply. “I can schedule one, but Captain Rogers’ schedule is booked until next month.”

            I saved his life! Ari wanted to scream. Instead she cleared her throat awkwardly and winced as a shot of pain writhed down her arm.

            “He came to see me, in the hospital.” She stated, as if that would change things. “My name is Arianna Dawson.” She introduced. Bethany gave a long sigh and closed her eyes momentarily.

            “If I kept track of everybody that Captain Rogers visited in the hospital, I would have no time to do anything else.” She replied bluntly. “I’m sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry.

            “Could you at least give these to him, then?” Arianna placed her good hand on the lid of the container. “As a thanks, and also an apology.”

            “I can’t do that.” Bethany replied, losing her patience. “I’m sorry.” Arianna sighed miserably and thanked her softly, taking her container off of the counter and walking dejectedly, head down, towards the front door. Until she walked into a supposed wall.

            The girl fell to her butt with an “oof”, the container of cookies skittering away from her, and gave a small cry at the pain that accompanied it.

            “I’m so sorry!” A deep, if not recognizable voice, apologized hastily. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and…Arianna?” The girl looked up into the very eyes of Steve Rogers. He towered over her, even crouched down, and his blue eyes were large and concerned.

            “Oh…hi Steve.” She smiled unsurely at him. “Just the man I was looking for.”

            “For me? Really?” He seemed surprised, gathering her cookies before standing and holding his hand out to her. She took the proffered help and allowed him to pull her to her feet delicately, handing the cookies back to her.

            “Yeah. I wanted to bring these to you and Bucky. They’re an apology, for the way Dan acted in the hospital last week.” She pressed the container back into his hands. “I baked them myself.” She blushed shyly and looked down.

            “Oh wow! Thank you!” He exclaimed, lifting a corner of the lid, and peering inside. “My favorites!” He beamed at her, causing her heart to skip a beat as butterflies erupted inside of her. His eyes suddenly widened, and he gasped. Ari took a step back at the sudden change of mood. “You’re bleeding!” He exclaimed. Ari looked down to her right shoulder, gasping at the blood stain that was slowly enlarging on her shirt. “Come on, I’ll take you to medical.” He absently took her good hand, escorting her past Bethany. Instead of going towards the several elevators in the lobby, he led her into a hallway and around a corner. An innocuous looking door slid open to reveal another elevator. “This is our private elevator. Those ones don’t go to our upper floors, for security reasons.” Steve explained as they stepped in. “Hey Friday, can you take us to medical and let Dr. Wolfe know I’ve got a civilian with me that needs to be seen?” Steve spoke.

            “Of course, Captain Rogers.” An Irish voice spoke from nowhere, causing Ari to jump nearly ten feet in the air.

            “Who said that?” She demanded, turning in a quick circle so fast it made her head spin as the elevator shot upwards.

            “My name is Friday. I’m Mr. Stark’s AI.” The voice replied, almost amused. Ari wondered faintly if artificial intelligence could even be amused. Probably not.

            “Oh.” She murmured, flushing a bright red. Steve smiled in slight amusement at her reaction as the elevator came to a sudden halt and the door slid open.

            “Who did you break now, Rogers?” A voice called over low volume music. Steve led Ari into a medical lab, with more high-tech gear than she’d ever seen in her entire life.

            “Ouch. That hurts, Emma.” He put a hand to his heart, despite the smile that never left his face. “This is Arianna.”

            “The famous Arianna, our Captain’s knight in shining armor.” A short woman flourished towards them, a stark-white lab coat flowing behind her as she came to a stop in front of them. Even Ari, standing at a short five foot three inches, had to look down at her. “I’m Emma Wolfe, the team’s on-call doctor.” The woman introduced.

            “I ran into her in the lobby and I think I might have torn a few of her stitches.” Steve admitted, blushing slightly. Emma glanced at the blood stain still widening on Ari’s light purple shirt and sighed heftily.

            “I swear, Rogers. You’re like a bull in a china shop.” She chuckled lightly. “Should be no problem. I’ll have to have you change into a gown, however.” At this, she gave a pointed glance at Steve. The blond-haired man looked back at her, oblivious, until a flash of realization flickered across his face.

            “Oh!” He exclaimed, the tips of his ears turning a bright red. “Right. I’ll just be out in the hallway, then.” He cleared his throat and turned, hurrying the opposite way they’d entered, towards another sliding door.

            Ari watched as Emma tied black hair into a tight knot on top of her head, washing her hands and donning a pair of medical gloves. She then turned, helping the injured girl to remove her shirt and bra.

            “Yep, that dumbass did pull a few of your stitches. I can either redo them, or we can take all of them out and use Dr. Cho’s cradle to repair it, sans stiches.” Emma offered, gesturing to the large machine at the far end of the lab. “It won’t hurt, or scar.” She offered as comfort.

            “How much will that cost me?” Ari asked in embarrassment. “I’m not sure I can afford it.” She admitted.

            “For you? Free, of course.” Emma replied with a soft smile.

            “Oh…thank you. Sure, we can do that.”

            Steve stood in the hallway, chewing one of the soft cookies and leaning against the wall.

            “Hey pal. Friday said you were here. Are you okay? Where’d you get those cookies?” Bucky approached from the other end of the hallway, startling his lover.

            “I ran into Arianna in the lobby. She baked them for us, to apologize for her brother’s behavior.” Steve replied, offering the container out to him. Bucky contemplated the cookies before delicately picking one off of the top and taking a bite of it.

            “Oh my god.” He moaned, closing his eyes. “Let’s keep her.” He joked. Steve laughed, rolling his eyes, but agreed silently. “Anyway, why are you at medical? And why are you just standing in the hallway?” He questioned curiously. Steve blushed pink and looked down at his feet.

            “I, uh…ran into Arianna. Like actually ran into her. I pulled her stitches.” He admitted softly. Bucky snorted loudly, causing Steve to look up quickly. “It’s not funny!” He exclaimed. Bucky pressed his human hand to his mouth, muffling his snickers.

            “Right. It’s a very serious matter.” He nodded his head solemnly but couldn’t keep the occasional huff of laugh from erupting. Steve grumbled softly and snapped the lid back onto the cookies.

            “You don’t get anymore cookies.” He sniffed, looking away from Bucky to keep the smile off of his face.

            “Hey!” Bucky cried indignantly, reaching for the container. Steve swept it out of reach, shaking his head.

            “Assholes don’t get cookies!” He replied, frowning deeply.

            “Then you don’t get any either! You’re the one who ran into her!” Bucky exclaimed, making another grab for the cookies.

            “I didn’t think they were that good.” A voice, chuckling softly, interrupted the two of them. Steve spun to see Ari standing outside the door, missing her sling, and tittering in laughter.

            “They’re amazing. Best cookies I’ve ever had.” Bucky replied seriously. “And he’s keeping them from me. That’s like a capital crime.” He sniffed, pushing his lips out into a pout.

            “How dare he!” Ari gasped, mouth opening in horror.

            “Hey, when did this become a gang up on Steve moment?” The Captain demanded, offended. “Did you get new stitches?” He asked, changing the subject, and eyeing the now-dried stain on her shirt.

            “Oh, no. I went into that cradle thing. It’s amazing. I can’t even feel the pain anymore.” She rolled her shoulders, smiling when no pain accompanied the action.

            “That’s great!” Steve exclaimed with a bright smile.

            “I can go back to work now, which is awesome.” Ari agreed, nodding.

            “What is it that you do, Arianna?” Bucky asked curiously. She blushed at the interest showing in his slate eyes.

            “I’m a librarian.” She replied, smiling brightly. “I love it, being surrounded by books all day. It’s pretty great.” She stated. “Anyway, I should get going now.” She glanced around.

            “I’ll take you down to the lobby.” Steve replied, handing the cookies grudgingly to Bucky. “Take these to the apartment, but don’t eat them all!” He jabbed a finger at the dark-haired man. Bucky cackled and hurried down the hallway.

            “Bye, Arianna!” He called over his shoulder before disappearing around a corner.

            They took a different elevator down, walking a little further to get back to the lobby.

            “Goodbye, Steve. Thank you for everything.” Ari smiled gratefully, turning to face him near the front door.

            “Hey, would you maybe like to do dinner sometime?” Steve blurted. “With me and Bucky.” He clarified as an afterthought. “Like, a date?”

            “You want…to go on a date with me?” Ari sputtered, eyes wide. Steve blushed, rubbing the back of his neck, and nodded softly.

            “Maybe tonight?” He asked hesitantly. “If you’re not busy, that is.” He added.

            “Uh…sure.” She dug through her purse before producing a pen and an old receipt. Steve watched her scrawl out her digits and put her name under it in curly handwriting. “This is my number. I’ll make you guys dinner. Just text me and I’ll give you an address and a time.” She stated, bewildered. Steve beamed brightly at her.

            “Great, thanks!” He exclaimed, holding the piece of paper delicately, like it would break if he squeezed it too hard. “I’ll text you then, Arianna.”

            “Oh, you guys can call me Ari.” She offered with a soft smile.

            “Thank you, Ari. See you tonight!” Steve waved at her until she was out of sight, out the front door and around the corner. He pumped his fist victoriously and hurried back to the elevator. “I got her number and she invited us over for dinner!” Steve exclaimed as soon as he entered the apartment. Bucky looked up from the couch, dogearing his book and placing it down on the table.

            “Great, pal!” He crowed, standing, and clapping Steve on the shoulder. “What are you waiting for, text her!” Steve pulled his phone out, smiling softly as he stared down at the number before him. Things were shaping up nicely, for sure.

Chapter Text

            Steve stood in his bathroom, shifting nervously as he smoothed his dark blue tie down against a black button down, rolled up to his elbows. He smiled at himself in the mirror, clearing his throat.

            “Cap.” Tony’s voice rang through his bathroom and Steve bit back a groan. Not tonight! He was tempted to yell. “We’ve got a mission. Nat and Barton located Klaus Vanderlin.” Steve did groan then. “What’s wrong, got a hot date?” Tony snarked, and Steve could imagine the teasing expression on his face.

            “As a matter of fact, yes.” Steve snapped sharply. “Give me a few minutes, I have to call Ari and let her know we can’t make it.” He sighed, knowing that there was no way he could get out of this mission. They’d been looking for the Hydra doctor going on seven months now. If Nat had found him, if the intel was good, they had to make their move soon.

            “No time. We’ve got a short window to make this work. He gets wind that we’re coming, he’ll book it and we’ll be back to stage one. Wheels up in three.” Tony replied before his bathroom went silent. There was a soft shuffling outside the door, then a knock.

            “Come on, Steve. We can text her on the jet.” Bucky called through the door before his heavy boot falls moved away from the bathroom. Steve glanced at himself once more before he exited the room, carefully laying his nice clothes out on the bed and zipping into his suit. With his shield secured tightly on his back, the Captain closed his eyes and allowed himself to fall into his leader mindset. He had to be on it tonight, not a million miles away thinking about Arianna.

            As promised, the wheels left the ground only three minutes after Tony had put out the call. As they quickly ascended, Steve pulled his phone from his uniform. A ‘No Service’ alert flashed on his screen.

            “Shit.” He hissed. “Buck, you got service?” He asked, panicked. Bucky drew his phone from his black tac pants and shook his head regretfully. “Shit. Does anyone have service?” He asked.

            “The service signal is down on this jet, but it’s the only one that isn’t in use currently.” Nat called from the cockpit. Steve let out a harsh oath and angrily shoved his phone back into his pocket. “There’s nothing we can do about it, Cap. She’ll understand. She knows your job.” Nat assured him. Steve frowned and didn’t respond, turning his eyes to the front windows as they shot stealthily through the air. Bucky put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly.

            “It’ll be okay Steve.” He promised softly, pressing a discreet kiss to the back of Steve’s jaw. He could only hope that Arianna really did understand.

***

            Ari peered at the clock, taking a sip of her glass of wine. 7:10 pm. They were forty minutes late. She shifted on her feet, frowning softly. The dinner she’d prepared, strip steak and mashed potatoes, sat on plates around her kitchen table. Candlelight flickered in her kitchen, illuminating the small area in a romantic glow. She nervously smoothed down her soft, yellow blouse and took another sip of the deep red wine.

            Forty minutes turned into an hour, then two, until her evening had devolved into sitting on the couch, anxiety curling in her gut, with her fifth glass of wine. They didn’t seem like the kind of men to stand someone up, especially after all the trouble they had gone to in finding her and visiting her in the hospital, and all of her messages had not just gone unread, but they hadn’t even been delivered. Something could have happened.

            The girl tried her best to sleep that night, after placing the uneaten dinner into containers and into her fridge. All she could do, however, was toss and turn. When her alarm went off at 7am, she hadn’t had even thirty minutes of sleep. She rolled from her bed and shuffled, zombie like, into her large shower. Avoiding the mirror, because she knew how bad she looked, she took a quick shower. Anxiety still soured into her gut as she made her way to work.

            Ari tried her best, she really did, to throw herself into her work, to distract herself. However, she couldn’t stop looking at her phone, waiting for some sort of contact from either of them. After nearly twenty-four hours of no response, the anxiety that had been stirring in her gut curdled like sour milk into dread. Something was really wrong. Something had happened.

            She stopped for dinner at a little café but couldn’t bring herself to eat more than a few bites of her chef’s salad. She sipped her iced coffee, lost in thought. She couldn’t help but think something bad had happened to Steve and Bucky, but a small part of her wondered if her feelings had been misguided. Maybe they actually had just ditched her, finally realized that she wasn’t worth it. The sun beat down on her, oppressive and hot, and she shoved angrily away from the table and slapped a twenty-dollar bill to the metal. Her dread turned to rage, burning red hot as she stormed away from the café. After several minutes of walking aimlessly, tears stinging her eyes and rolling down her cheeks, she found herself in front of the one place she swore she’d never return to.

            Aiden was standing outside with a cigarette, half smoked, dangling from his mouth. He glanced up from his phone, lips curling into the snarl she’d become so accustomed to seeing.

            “What do you want?” He demanded. Ari opened her mouth, but all that came out was a choked whimper. Aiden’s angry expression faltered slightly. “Hey.” He spoke softly, the voice that Ari had fallen in love with, and stepped forward. “Are you okay?” Ari took a deep breath and shook her head softly. “What’s wrong?” The smoke from his cigarette wound lazily through the air, assaulting Ari’s nose with its acrid smell. “Ari, what’s going on?” He pressed her.

            “Nothing. Never mind.” She choked, turning, and ducking her head, intending to leave. Aiden’s hand curled around her wrist, halting her. Flashbacks assaulted her, Aiden standing over her, eyes nearly red, hiding bruises and cuts, making excuses for him. She yanked herself away from him violently. “Don’t touch me.” She spat, rushing away from him.

            She’d cried herself to sleep on the couch, exhaustion seeping into her bones and causing her eyes to close however much she didn’t want them to. When she did, she dreamt of Aiden.

            It was her loud notification tone that woke her, over forty-eight hours after any contact with Steve and Bucky. She jolted from her nightmare, eyes peeling open and cheeks stiff from the tears that had dried on them. She squinted at her phone, the bright light assaulting her still sleep-laden mind.

From: Steve Rogers

Are you still awake?

 

            Before she had time to answer, another text arrived.

From: Steve Rogers

I’m so fucking sorry, Ari. We got called out on a last-minute mission. It was only supposed to take one night, but things went differently than we planned. I didn’t have service, I wasn’t able to text you. I’m so sorry. I hope you’re not too mad at us.

 

            Her first emotion, however, wasn’t anger. It was only concern for the two heroes.

 

To: Steve Rogers

Are you guys okay?

 

            She only had to wait a few seconds for his response.

                

From: Steve Rogers

We’re okay. A little bruised, a little sore, a lot tired. But alive.

 

            Attached was a photo of Steve, bruises that were already yellowing and healing under his eyes, looking far more exhausted than she’d ever seen him. A thin cut ran down the length of his left cheek, but she could see that it was already starting to heal as well. In the dim photo, she could see Bucky curled in bed, sleeping soundly. Lines of tension marred his face, even in sleep, and Ari wished to reach out and smooth them, run the pads of her fingers across his soft skin and brush his silky hair from his face.

 

To: Steve Rogers

Oh, thank God.

 

From: Steve Rogers

We’d like to rain check our dinner, though. I was really looking forward to eating your cooking. Maybe tomorrow night?

 

            Ari smiled softly, shaking her head. The man really was an angel on Earth, wasn’t he?

 

To: Steve Rogers

Why don’t you guys take a few days to rest. You look exhausted.

 

            And then, because she didn’t want him to think that she was angry and didn’t want to have dinner with them anymore, she added “we’ve got all the time in the world”, followed by a smiley face emoticon.

 

From: Steve Rogers

Yes ma’am. Goodnight Ari 😊

 

            The girl fell asleep with a smile on her face, her anxiety, rage, and dread dissipated from the momentary contact she’d had with him. I’m in deeper than I thought.

Chapter Text

            Arianna perched precariously, teetering on the edge of precipice. She stretched up on tiptoes, arm extended as high as it would go. Her target lay above her, eyes narrowed in deep concentration, at the mark.

            “Excuse me.” With a soft shriek, the librarian tipped off of her step ladder, the already-battered book dropping with a solid thud as she flailed her arms, struggling for her balance back. She was unsuccessful in her venture as she fell backwards, landing in sturdy arms. “Nice of you to drop by.” Bucky Barnes was mischievously cheeky, a close-lipped smirk stretching across his face.

            “Bucky Barnes!” Ari struggled from his arms and turned, slapping his arm half-heartedly. “Don’t you know better than to go sneaking up on librarians in the zone?” She demanded laughingly. His eyes glittered with amusement.

            “Sorry, doll.” He apologized earnestly. “I’m looking for a book actually.” He admitted.

            “Sure, what is it?” Arianna asked, crossing her arms across her gray tweed jacket.

            “Yeah, it’s called How to Apologize to the Cute Librarian That My Stupid Boyfriend and I Stood Up.” Bucky replied cheekily. “Also, nice pant suit. You really look the part.”

            “Shut up.” Ari sniffed, offended. Bucky snickered, hiding a smile with his gloved left hand.

            “Sorry, no I mean it. It looks cute on you. Very…modest.” He offered, still chuckling lightly.

            “Very modest?” Ari demanded quietly. “That means you hate it!” She looked down, tugging the jacket self-consciously.

            “No! I promise! Just…maybe don’t wear that tonight.” He replied, eyes crinkling in a smile.

            “Tonight?” Ari questioned, stooping to pick up the forgotten book. Bucky took it from her hands and reached up, smoothly sliding it back onto the top shelf where it belonged. “What’s tonight?” She thought back through her mental calendar, not remembering planning anything.

            “Steve and I are making up for standing you up by cooking you dinner.” She opened her mouth to deny it, that they hadn’t stood her up and were merely doing their job, but Bucky held his hand up to halt her before she’d even started speaking. “Whether it was intentional or not, we did. And we’re sorry.”

            “Steve already apologized.” She offered meekly.

            “He did.” Bucky nodded. “But I was asleep. And also, a text message is not a great way of apology. It works in a bind. It’s not the actual thing.” He stated. “Don’t forget, doll, we’re from the forties. This newfangled technology stuff isn’t something we’re used to using, and we don’t usually like to anyway.” He winked playfully as Ari flashed him a smile. He felt his heart speed at it, trying to appear unphased on the outside despite the butterflies tumbling in his stomach.

            “Newfangled technology.” Ari muttered, rolling her eyes. “Whatever, Barnes.” She scoffed.

            “Seven pm. Stark’s tower. One of us will meet you in the lobby. Don’t be late, missy!” He exclaimed, backing away from her before turning and making his way down the aisle between the towering shelves, stacked high with books.

            “Aye aye, Sarge.” She mock saluted him. He turned, throwing her a playful glare over his shoulder before he disappeared, surprisingly silent.

            By seven pm on the dot, Arianna stood in the middle of the large lobby, peering around at the bustling crowd of people making a mass exodus towards the front doors. The workday was over, the thousands employed by Stark Industries making their ways home, to their families, or pets, or empty houses and apartments. Ari thought it was kind of interesting, that everyone who passed her had their own lives, had been born and lived and probably had secrets and parts of their lives that nobody else knew of.

            “Excuse me, ma’am. The tower is closing, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” A security guard approached her, a black button up shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, SI Security stamped in dark blue on the left pocket.

            “Oh, I’m meeting someone.” Ari replied softly, clutching her purse tighter to her as he loomed in front of her, imposing and intimidating.

            “Loitering isn’t allowed, ma’am. You’ll have to meet them outside. The tower is closing.” The guard replied.

            “No, I’m going up there. Captain Rogers is coming to meet me.” She replied, looking around hastily. “He said he’d be here to meet me at seven.” She assured. The security guard sighed.

            “You’ll have to wait until another day to get his autograph, ma’am. The tower is closed now. It’s five past seven, you have to go.” The guard reached out to grab her shoulder, but Ari jolted away from him, more of an automatic reflex than anything. The guard narrowed his eyes and turned to the radio on his shoulder. “I have a female being insubordinate in the lobby. I need backup.” Ari’s eyes widened in horror.

            “No, really! They’ll be here soon!” She exclaimed. The security guard stepped forward, gripping her shoulder roughly and trying to shove her towards the front door. “Hey!” She cried, struggling under the painful grip.

            “There a problem here?” A voice cut through the small scuffle and the guard jumped back as if he’d been shocked. Ari looked up, eyes wide, to see the Falcon standing next to them.

            “Uh, no sir. This woman won’t leave.” The guard replied, glancing at her.

            “That doesn’t authorize you to be touching her that way.” Sam Wilson replied sharply. “Are you okay, miss?” He asked, turning to Ari.

            “I’m waiting for Steve or Bucky. They said they’d meet me down here.” She murmured softly.

            “Oh! Arianna, right?” He asked, a bright smile lighting up his face when she nodded meekly. “Right, I’ll take you on up.” He turned to the guard. “I’ll be having a word with Ms. Potts about this, Rick.” He stated in an even tone, but Ari could see the warning in his eyes. “Come on.” Ari hurried after the Falcon, head ducked as she felt the guard’s eyes following her. She allowed Sam to lead her to the same private elevator that she’d taken with Steve the other day. “I hope he didn’t scare you too much.” Sam offered when the door slid shut behind them and the elevator started to rise without prompting. “I’m Sam Wilson.” He extended his hand. She took it, giving him a firm shake.

            “Arianna Dawson. You can call me Ari. Thanks for that. I wasn’t being insubordinate.” She shook her head, lip curling as she ran through the encounter in her head.

            “Sometimes those guys let it go to their heads.” Sam shook his head. “I’ll let Steve know about it.” He assured.

            “Oh, that’s okay. You don’t have to tell him.” She shook her head. “It was really no problem.” She assured.

            “Yes, it was. He can’t go around touching people as he pleases like that.” Sam replied, shrugging. She glanced at the numbers on the small screen as they flew past the 70th floor, before stopping on floor 75. The door slid open to reveal a long hallway, and Steve hurrying down it. His hair was stood up in a wild way, his cheeks red and rosy, and his lips swollen.

            “Shit, sorry Ari. We lost track of time.” He blushed softly. Sam snorted beside her as they stepped out of the elevator together.

            “Yeah, I’ll bet you did.” He muttered, smirking despite the dirty look that Steve shot him. “Rick Hampton tried to rough her up a bit.” He stated. Steve’s eyes darkened, narrowing, and he halted in his tracks.

            “No! It wasn’t anything like that!” Ari rushed to calm the anger she could see bubbling under Steve’s normally calm exterior. “He tried to get me to leave, is all. Sam caught me in the lobby though.” She explained, waving her hands about wildly.

            “He was dragging her to the doors when I stopped them.” Sam stated. Ari could see the rage turn Steve’s normally ocean blue eyes into a dark gray, his fists clenched at his sides.

            “It’s okay, Steve.” Ari assured softly. “It wasn’t anything. Thank you, Sam.” She turned to say goodbye to him with a strained smile.

            “Anytime. Stay safe, little lady.” He gave her a smile before reaching out to clap Steve on his stiffened shoulder before backing into the elevator. The doors closed once more, and then they were alone.

            “Our apartment is this way.” Steve worked to rearrange his expression into a neutral one, to make sure his voice didn’t betray the rage that bubbled just under his skin. How dare Rick Hampton put his hands all over Ari, drag her through the lobby of the building when she was only doing what Bucky told her to. Pepper would definitely hear about this.

            Their front door opened to a small hallway. A shoe rack sat pressed against the left wall and a door, probably a coat closet, to her right. She toed her shoes off and bent to place them on the lowest shelf of the shoe rack, dropping her purse on the floor beside before she followed Steve down the short hallway and into the main area. To her right was the largest living room she’d ever seen. A large, brown sectional dominated most of the room, facing the biggest TV she could ever even dream of. The farthest right wall was made entirely of windows, giving a beautiful view of Central Park, and bathing the room in a pink glow as the sun sank below the horizon. To the left was the kitchen, where Bucky stood behind an island, his back to them.

            “That didn’t take very long.” He called, rounding with a soft smile on his face. It dropped into a straight line, however, when he caught the anger in Steve’s normally glittering eyes.

            “Sam brought her up.” Steve replied stoically.

            “What happened?” Bucky asked, eyes darting between them.

            “Rick Hampton put his fucking slimy hands on her and dragged her through the lobby to get her to leave.” Steve snapped.

            “It didn’t happen like that!” Ari denied, eyes wide. “Also, who knew that America’s golden boy had such a potty mouth.” She added, smirking. Steve shot her a dry look, but didn’t dignify her with a response.

            “Friday, can you pull up the security footage from the lobby around 7pm?” Steve demanded.

            “Of course.” The AI replied before the TV flickered to life. Ari watched the interaction, watched herself jump away from the guard, heard herself deny leaving, and then watched herself get shoved forward. Only when Sam appeared did Steve tell Friday to end the video.

            “What the fuck?” Bucky broke their tense silence. “That’s not okay.” He glanced between the two of them, controlling his breathing if only for Steve’s sake. The Captain was already riled, there was no use in riling him up more.

            “It’s not a big deal.” Ari muttered weakly. “He was just doing his job.” She defended the man.

            “He was being a dick. Friday, can you send that to Pepper and Tony?” Bucky asked in lieu of Steve, because the blond had stridden away and was now staring out the windows, arms straight at his side in a very militaristic stance.

            “Of course.” Friday answered softly.

            “Hey doll, do you mind stirring the sauce for me?” Bucky murmured softly. She nodded, making her way into the kitchen, and giving the boiling red tomato sauce a few stirs with the spoon forgotten in the sauce. Bucky made his way towards Steve, wrapping his arms around the other man’s waist and pressing his face into the back of Steve’s shoulder. “Hey big boy. I know you’re upset. But you’re going to ruin this dinner, and we already fucked it up once.” He murmured softly. Steve gave a sigh, but the tension melted from his shoulders and he turned, meeting Bucky’s lips with a chaste kiss before the dark-haired man stepped away. “I hope spaghetti is okay.” He called to Ari, turning with one last glance thrown at Steve, and made his way back into the kitchen.

            “Oh yeah, great.” She nodded happily. “It’s one of my favorites! I still have the steaks that I made. I was going to bring them, but then I thought maybe that was in bad taste.” She admitted, gnawing on her bottom lip nervously, eyes darting around and hands twisting. Oh, for fuck’s sake. She made us steaks. And we ditched her. Assholes! Bucky yelled at himself.

            “I’d love to try your steaks sometime, Ari.” He said, instead of swooping her into his arms and kissing every inch of her face.

            “Seconded.” Steve announced from behind Bucky.

            “Well, do you want to take some off my hands? I have a ton of leftovers. I know you guys eat a lot, so I made way too many.” She smiled wryly. “But I made them for you. They’re still yours, even if they are leftovers.” She admitted. Oh god, she thought of our heightened metabolism. This girl is a fucking angel.

            “Of course, doll.” Bucky beamed at her. “Steve, why don’t you pull the wine out?” He suggested. Steve nodded and stooped, pulling a bottle of red wine from the wine cooler in their island. “It’s a vintage, doll. From Italy. 1943.” He winked. Ari looked between the two, bewildered, before a laugh sputtered out of her. Before they knew it, she was leaned over, hands braced against the counter, wailing in laughter so hard that tears leaked from her eyes.

            “You’ve got to be kidding me?!” She cried loudly, wiping the tears from her eyes as her laughter died to sporadic giggles. “You celebrating yourselves or something? Cocky.” She chuckled.

            “Who, us? Never!” Steve gasped, placing a hand over his chest. “You wound me.” He sighed dramatically.

            “Please, Rogers. I doubt anything can penetrate that giant head of yours. How do you even get it in the door?” She fired back quickly. Bucky snorted loudly, causing both of them to look over to him.

            “Sorry.” He apologized, waving them away with a barely concealed smile puckering his lips up. “Dinner should be ready soon. You sit, drink. Steve and I will handle everything.”

            Ari did as she was told, sitting at their circular dining table, a dark wood with matching chairs. She thought it looked like a piece of furniture that had come straight from the forties. Who knows? Maybe it did. Steve kept her wine glass replenished while Bucky plated their spaghetti, offering her a piece of artisanal garlic bread (what even was her life?) and carefully set a large helping of spaghetti and homemade meatballs in front of her.

            “Cheers.” Bucky presented his wine glass, raising it high and carefully clicking it with Steve and Ari’s glasses after he’d taken his seat. “To new friends and homecooked dinner.” He announced.

            “Cheers!” Ari replied, taking a healthy sip of her wine. Once she set the glass down, she took her first bite of Bucky’s spaghetti. And promptly melted.

            “Oh my god.” She moaned, mouth still embarrassingly full.

            “Yeah? Is it good?” Bucky questioned, somewhat nervously, fiddling with his fork in his human hand and staring up at her shyly, chin tucked to broad chest.

            “I’ve never eaten anything so delicious, Bucky. Please become my personal chef.” She replied, closing her eyes as she swallowed the bite. “I would die for this spaghetti.” Steve let out a firecracker laugh.

            “You can’t have him, Ari. He’s already my personal chef.” He snarked at her, a large grin stretched across his handsome face and blue eyes twinkling.

            “So, he can only be your personal chef or mine?” Ari demanded. “That’s not fair! You got like a hundred years with him!” She cried, jabbing her fork across the table towards Steve.

            “Why not both?” Bucky interjected, grinning widely. “I’ll cook for you any day, doll.” He promised.

            “Bucky!” Steve whined dramatically.

            “Everybody shut up, I’m trying to enjoy this dinner.” Ari sniffed, giving Steve a wicked grin.

            “Rude.” Steve muttered, but couldn’t help the smile that stretched across his face as he watched the girl lean over her plate. In the dimming light of their living room, Steve suddenly realized that she glowed in the light. She’s the most beautiful dame I’ve ever seen.

Chapter Text

            It was a sunny, June Tuesday when Arianna Dawson’s life was turned completely upside down. She got ready for work, as she normally did, pouring herself a cup of coffee in a travel mug and swung her purse over her shoulder. Locking the door behind her, she hurried to the end of the hallway and entered the stairwell, practically jumping down the stairs. Steve and Bucky had her on cloud nine. After their dinner the previous week, they’d made sure to keep in contact with her, both texting her nearly all day. The three of them had even started a group chat (though they’d both grumbled about ‘figuring out this damn technology’ and ‘life was easier in the 40’s when you didn’t have think about remembering to text back’).

            The girl stepped out onto the street, and promptly froze. A barrage of camera flashes, questions being nearly screamed at her, halted her path to the subway.

            “How long have you known Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes?” A reporter demanded, shoving a microphone into her face. Ari took an abortive step back, eyes wide with bewilderment. “What’s the nature of your relationship with them?” Ari stuttered momentarily, taking another step back as they crowded closer to her.

            “Are you dating one of them?” A reporter from the back screamed. Ari felt tears well in her eyes and ducked her head, shoving through the group and hurrying towards the subway station with the group following her like a pack of rabid dogs chasing after a piece of meat. She rushed down the stairs and hurried through the turnstiles, getting onto the first train car she could and turning to see the doors close on the reporters.

            “You okay, sweetheart?” A gruff voice, not one that sounded unlike her father, asked her. She turned her head, glancing over her shoulder to the elderly gentleman standing behind her.

            “Yes, thank you.” She whispered, digging her phone from her bag. The first call she made was to the library, to let them know that she would be late. Her manager, a lovely woman by the name of Gwynn, picked up.

            “Hamilton Grange Library, this is Gwynn speaking.” Her cheery voice called over the line.

            “Hey Gwynn, it’s Ari. I’m going to be late.” She sniffled, voice choking.

            “Oh no, dear. Are you okay?” Gwynn gasped, voice taking on a tinge of horrified concern. “Did something happen? Why are you crying?” She asked.

            “I’ve just had a really rough morning and I got on the wrong subway.” Ari sniffed, muffling a sob with her hand.

            “Why don’t you take the day off, dear? It shouldn’t be too busy today, and Cynthia is coming in for an extra shift to make up for yesterday. You’re still recovering from that fiasco in central park.” Gwynn said kindly.

            “Thank you.” Ari sniffled, saying a soft goodbye, and hanging up. As the train pulled to a new station, Ari exited and dialed a number she’d memorized.

            “Good morning, doll. I thought you had work.” Bucky’s voice did a lot to calm her racing heart, but it wasn’t enough. She choked down a sob, but Bucky heard it anyway. “Arianna, where are you?” She heard shuffling on the other end, Bucky yelling at Steve to move his ass, quick boot falls. Even in the midst of her panic, the urgency with which the two super soldiers moved when she was in trouble was endearing. “Arianna, doll, you gotta tell me where you are so Steve and I can come get you.” He pushed her when she didn’t answer. The girl spun in a slow circle before finally seeing which station she was at and choked down another sob.

            “Bowery Station.” She sobbed, collapsing onto a nearby bench.

            “Jesus, what are you doing there?” Bucky demanded.

            “I don’t know!” She wailed, attracting the attention of passersby, some giving her concerned looks and some glaring at her, silently telling her to keep it down.

            “Okay, calm down. We’ll be there soon, baby girl.” That was the first time Bucky had called her anything other than ‘Ari’ or ‘Doll’, but she couldn’t say that she hated it. It made her heart race in a different way than the panic that curled in her stomach, prodding her with a fire-poker, white hot searing pain every time she breathed. She could see the gray creeping around the outside of her vision, narrowing it slowly as she struggled to take control of her emotions.

            “Ari? Sweetheart?” Steve’s deep voice filtered through the ringing in her ears. “I need you to breathe. I can’t have you passing out in a subway station, ok?” He asked in a soft voice. The girl let out another sob, clutching the phone tighter to her ear and pressing a clenched fist to her mouth in order to block it. “Sweetie.” Steve sounded so sad. Her heart clenched and twisted at it. She wanted to breathe for him, she wanted to be good, but the panic clutched, a claw around her lungs, and squeezed until there was no more air. She let out another wail and stood, the fire under her skin burning her where she touched the bench. “Bucky. Drive faster.” Steve growled.

            Bucky clenched his teeth, stomping his foot down on the gas pedal and swerving around traffic like he was in a car chase. His hands clenched around the steering wheel, skin pulled taut over his knuckles, stark white in comparison to the terror that seeped red into his vision. Something was wrong with his girl, and he was going to kill whoever had done it.

            It took fifteen minutes to get to the station (normally a thirty-minute drive), but it felt like it had been too long. He tore the car to the curb, he and his lover practically falling out of the car. They rushed down the stairs, vaulting over the turnstiles, and hurried towards where Ari was standing in the middle of the station, staring down her feet, chest heaving. Bucky came to a swift stop in front of her and gripped her shoulders, eyes immediately searching for signs of physical injury.

            “Doll.” He softly gripped her chin between his thumb and forefinger, drawing her face up to his as her arm fell to her side, the phone call forgotten. Her face was red, tears still trailing messily down her cheeks, blue eyes glistening and wide. “Ari. Baby. What’s wrong? What happened?” He asked quietly, searching her eyes for a hint. She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, her face crumpled, and she threw herself at Bucky. He caught her, winding his arms around her, and crushing the small woman to his chest. Steve met his eyes, confused, and scared, as the girl sobbed loudly in his arms. Bucky pressed his human hand to her head, burying his face into her hair and shushing her softly. “We’re here now. Everything is okay.” He assured at a whisper, ignoring the stairs that he could feel burning his back. Nothing mattered, he needed to make sure that Ari was okay. Steve reached out, rubbing her back softly and holding one of her upper arms softly; a silent reminder that he was there for her.

            After several minutes, her broken sobs quieted to hiccups and she pulled away from him, reaching up in the cage of his arms to rub at her eyes.

            “Bucky. Steve.” She whimpered.

            “We’re here.” Steve replied, eyes wide.

            “Can I…come over?” She asked, glancing between the two of them.

            “Yes. Of course. Always.” Bucky replied immediately, nodding sharply. “Come on, doll.” He led her up the stairs, one arm around her shoulders tightly as Steve flanked her other side, a protective barrier between her and the world. She climbed into the back of the SUV, Steve following her in as Bucky hurried around to the driver’s seat and slid in. The car started up nearly silently and he pulled away from the curb, executing a swift U-turn and making his way back to the tower.

            “Can you tell us what happened, sweetheart?” Steve pressed softly. Ari sniffled, clutching her purse on her lap tightly and looked down, now embarrassed by her breakdown.

            “There were all these…reporters outside my apartment. The camera flashes and all of their questions just…I panicked. I got on the wrong train.” She whispered, chewing on her lip.

            “Oh sweetie.” Steve whispered, ducking his head in shame. He’d brought that on her. He and Bucky had inadvertently turned this sweet, innocent girl’s world upside down. They’d been selfish, and she was paying for it. “I’m so sorry.” He murmured, shaking his head.

            “No no, I’m sorry for disturbing you guys. I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do today.” She replied, shaking her head. Now that her panic attack had passed, she only felt mortified. She was a grown adult, she shouldn’t have had to call them to save her from herself.

            “I would drop everything for you, doll, and I know Steve would too.” Bucky spoke up from the front seat, eyeing her in the rearview mirror. “You had us really scared, though. I thought something really bad had happened. I thought you were hurt.” He admitted, taking a calming breath.

            “I know. I’m sorry.” She whispered, chewing on her lower lip. “I’ve always struggled with anxiety.” She admitted, pursing her lips. “It’s gotten better since…” Since you left Aiden. She left that out, letting her sentence hang.

            “Since what, sweetheart?” Steve asked, refusing to let the statement go unfinished.

            “Since my ex and I broke up.” She replied, sparing all details. Steve pondered pressing her about the issue more, but she was clearly still distressed, and all he really wanted to do was curl up with her on the couch and make sure nothing ever got to her again.

            The car pulled into the tower garage, the three of them climbing out silently. Ari followed them to the elevator a step behind them, crowding in with them on the lift, which felt much smaller with them dwarfing it.

            Once they made it to the apartment, Ari kicked her shoes off wildly and tossed her purse on the floor near the door. She meandered into the place and glanced around at their always-immaculate place before bodily throwing herself onto the couch.

            “Do you want to watch a movie?” Steve asked, perching next to her and placing his hand on her shoulder softly. She nodded, face buried in the couch cushions. “What do you want to watch?” He asked curiously. She shrugged, mumbling something unintelligible. “You’re gonna have to pull your face from the couch, darling.” Steve chuckled wryly. She picked her face up and turned to sit up on the soft couch, facing the two of them.

            “Something lighthearted?” She questioned.

            “Sure.” Steve nodded, smiling softly.

            Sometime during Tangled, Ari ended up slumping over onto Bucky’s shoulder, eyes slowly sliding shut. Her panic attacks always left her exhausted, and this one was no different. Bucky wrapped his arm around her shoulders, running fingers through her hair until she’d drifted to sleep in the knowledge that she was safe.

Chapter Text

            Ari woke with a start in an unfamiliar room, head pillowed on something warm that was definitely moving. She struggled to sit, but there was an arm thrown across her waist. She panicked, flailing against the grip, and fell to the floor with a thump.

            “Doll?” Bucky and Steve were alert immediately, years of missions and military programming them to wake at the drop of a pin. She sat on the floor, staring up at them, bewildered, in the light of the living room, late morning sun shining through the wall of glass and lighting up the apartment in a happy glow. Then, she remembered. The panic attack. Steve and Bucky picking her up. Falling asleep to Tangled.

            “Oh god. I’m sorry.” She flushed bright red, sputtering out an embarrassed laugh. “We fell asleep.”

            “You needed it.” Steve replied, smiling softly as he stood and offered a hand to her. She took his warm hand, allowing him to easily pull her to her feet. He held her hand a few seconds longer than he should have, squeezing it, before letting her go. She missed the contact almost immediately.

            “Do you feel better?” Bucky asked with a casual smile, stretching his arms over his head as he sat up, leaning back against the cushions. Ari grinned back at him and nodded her head.

            “Yes. Thank you.” She said, somewhat shyly.

            “Anytime, doll.” He replied, steel blue eyes twinkling. “I needed the sleep too.” He winked before standing and heading towards the kitchen. “Are you hungry?” He tossed over his shoulder as he opened the fridge, rummaging around before he found a carton of orange juice and uncapped it, taking a drink straight from the carton. Arianna scrunched her nose as he capped it and put it back into the fridge, but her grumbling stomach interrupted. She blushed to the tips of her ears as Steve turned to her with a laughing smile.

            “I suppose that’s a yes.” He joked.

            “Damn super soldier hearing.” She muttered, embarrassed. Steve chuckled.

            “What would you like?” Bucky asked, rustling around in their cabinets. “We’ve got some pasta, sandwich makings, or we can order something in.” He turned, eyes questioning. Ari hummed, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully.

            “How about we order pizza?” She suggested, glancing at them to see if they approved her choice.

            “Perfect idea.” Steve nodded. “I’ll order it on my phone.”

            “Oh, are you sure you can figure out how to use that ‘newfangled technology’ to do that, Steve?” She quipped. The blond, without looking up from his phone, lifted his middle finger to her. Ari burst out laughing, hearing Bucky chortle lowly behind her as well.

            “It’ll be here in thirty. Ass.” He pocketed his phone and winked playfully at her as she gave a mock look of offense and crossed her arms.

            “You kiss your mother with that mouth, Rogers?” She replied snarkily.

            “Not for a hundred years.” He replied, smirking. “But nice try.”

            “Okay, fine. You kiss your boyfriend with that mouth, Rogers?” She amended. Steve allowed a sultry smile to cross his face as his eyes darted towards Bucky.

            “I do. He loves my dirty mouth.” He replied. Ari’s mouth dropped open as Bucky howled openly with laughter behind her, leaning over to brace himself against the counter at Steve’s unexpected comeback. The blond turned red, transforming back into his reserved self, and let out a little self-satisfied giggle.

            “The innuendo is strong in this one.” Ari stated, letting out a startled laugh. Bucky reached up to wipe a few tears from the corners of his eyes, still chuckling every few seconds. “I have to say, Rogers. That was a pretty good comeback. I guess you win this time, but don’t get used to it.” She admitted. “But for now, I bow to you, my liege.” She said in an overly stated British accent, curtseying low to Steve.

            The moment over, Ari’s thoughts suddenly wandered to Steve’s…dirty mouth, and what he could do to her. Visions of him kissing her shoulders, biting, and nipping where he pleased, made her shiver, and she shook her head minutely. Bucky eyed her, noticing it but choosing not to say anything.

            “What should we do until then?” Bucky asked curiously.

            “We could play the Xbox.” Steve replied, glancing to their extensive entertainment stand under the TV, and the Xbox hidden inside. Ari smiled wickedly.

            “I bet I could kick your ancient asses at Forza.” She challenged.

            “Oh, you’re on.” Bucky replied, giving her a shit-eating grin. He rocked at Forza.

            Thirty minutes later, Friday alerted them that the head of security had brought up their pizza and was at the door. Bucky and Ari went to get it as Steve turned off the Xbox, listening to his lover and the girl bicker all the way.

            “You were cheating, Barnes!” Ari cried.

            “I was not! How was I cheating?” He demanded as he opened the door, thanking the man quickly and taking the box from his arms. The door shut, their bickering continuing.

            “You kept pushing me and getting in my way! You were distracting me, and you know it!” She exclaimed, staring pointedly at him. “I would have won all of those if you weren’t such a…a butt!” She exclaimed. Bucky threw his head back, letting out a laugh, and Steve suddenly realized this was the most he’d seen Bucky actually laugh, uninhibited, in years.

            “You’re a butt! I was just defending myself! You started it!” He replied, setting the box on the table, and going to retrieve plates for them.

            “I did not!” Ari sniffed. “I can’t believe you would ever accuse me of that.” She strode into the kitchen, ducking her head as she opened the fridge and searching for a drink. There was a spiked lemonade in the back that she claimed for herself. “I’m taking this as payment for the mental trauma you just put me through.” Bucky snorted, rolling his eyes.

            “It’s all yours, doll.” He chuckled as he grabbed two IPA’s from the fridge for Steve and himself, and all three of them sat. “I’m glad you’re having fun.” He said earnestly, and Ari came to the sudden realization that she felt more comfortable with these two than she had with any man in years. It felt nice. It feels like home. The thought sent her mind into a whirlwind of fear and panic. What if she was getting too comfortable with them? What if they decided that they didn’t want to hang out with her anymore, and she was left feeling more alone than she ever had? The thought sent her into a downward spiral as she stared down at her pizza, eyes wide.

            “After lunch, I bet I can kick your ass at guitar hero too.” Bucky interrupted her thoughts. She jolted, looking up, to see them both smiling at her with knowing expressions and comforting smiles. An assurance. They wanted to spend time with her as much as she did them. Her feelings weren’t one sided. She was welcome there.

            “Oh you’re on, old man.”

Chapter Text

            “Um, excuse me, miss?” Ari looked up from her computer screen, sitting behind the resource desk. The man standing across the desk from her was tall, with dark hair and broad shoulders. He had a kind smile on his face, but something about him set Ari on edge.

            “How can I help you?” She asked, plastering her perfected customer service smile on her face, and straightening in her office chair.

            “I’m just trying to figure out where the reference section is? I’m looking for books on Arnim Zola.” The man replied. Ari jolted a tad, her smile faltering a little bit, and the man backpedaled. “I’m a history major. I’m doing a report on him.” He assured her hurriedly. “I’m not like some crazy Hydra sympathizer or anything.” He joked, causing Ari to huff a small laugh.

            “Of course. Here.” She scribbled the aisle on a piece of paper and passed it over the desk to him.

            “Thank you,” His eyes darted to the placard on her desk, “Arianna.” She nodded, smiling, and wishing him a good day as he strode away. Once he was out of ear shot, he pressed a finger to the comm in his ear. “I got the scan. Everything there is to know, you’ve got.” There was a few seconds of silence before a response.

            “Good job, Muskgraves. Return to base.” The voice praised. The man smiled and headed towards the entrance of the library, crumpling the small note in his hand, and dropping it on the floor as he did so.

            The ‘base’ was actually an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Brooklyn. Twig sat at his computer, pulling up files on the unknown girl that had been caught hanging around the Winter Soldier.

            “She’s a nobody.” Twig laughed, shaking his head. “Pretty normal. She’s got a family in California, moved out here a few years ago. Probably to get away from her parents.” He scrolled through her high school transcripts. “She’s a fuckin’ genius. Look at these damn grades.” He muttered, shaking his head.

            “I don’t care about her high school transcripts, Twig.” The man standing behind him snapped, losing his patience. “I want to know why the hell the Winter Soldier is hanging around her. What can he gain from her?”

            “You should care. We should try to recruit her. She could do some real good things here.” Twig replied, glancing over his shoulder at Lee. “Imagine if we had this brain power behind Hydra. We’d be fuckin’ unstoppable.” Twig laughed, scrolling through some of her social media posts. “As for why he’s around her, there’s nothing. She’s perfectly normal. Not at all like the freakshows he lives with.” Twig frowned. “No dirt. This bitch has never even gotten a ticket. She’s like an angel on crack.” He spun in his chair to face Lee. The man standing groaned, running his hand through cropped blond hair, and closing his eyes.

            “Fuck!” He shouted, clenching his teeth.

            “I’m tellin’ you man, we’ve got to try and get this chick on our side.” Twig pressed on.

            “She’ll never come willingly.” Alara stepped out of the shadows, strolling towards the two of them in her black tac-suit. “And she won’t join us. Not when she’s spending that much time with the Asset; when she knows what we’ve done to him.” She glanced at the screen, at the picture of Arianna Dawson, and scoffed. “God, she’s not even pretty. What do those idiots see in her?” She asked, more to herself than anyone else.

            “I scoped out her apartment.” Muskgraves entered the warehouse, dropping his gun on the foldout table by the door that they’d set up when they’d first taken up residence in the warehouse. “Practically no security. She’s got locks on her door, but the window lock opens if you jiggle it the right way.” He reported, smiling proudly.

            “Get off your damn high horse, Muskgraves. We’re not just going to steal this girl out from under the noses of the Avengers.” Lee snapped angrily. “That’s a great way to get us all killed.”

            “What if she trusted one of us?” Twig suddenly asked, perking in his chair. “Maybe Alara? Another woman?” He suggested. The woman in question laughed loudly, and coldly.

            “Hard fucking pass. I’d snap her neck in two fucking seconds. I can tell just by looking at her that I hate her.” She replied in disgust, rolling her eyes. “Send the newbie.” She gestured to Muskgraves. “She’s already seen his face once. And that was a quick lie you came up with.” She praised. “She thinks you’re doing a report. Just keep going to her library. Become her friend. Then, when she doesn’t suspect anything, we’ll snatch her up.”

            “We’re not kidnapping anybody.” Lee snapped.

            “You want the Asset back, right? What better way than to get his best girl?” Alara asked. “We’ve been here way too fucking long. I want to go home.” She thought longingly of her villa in Italy. Lee seemed to contemplate it, eyebrows furrowing. Alara walked up to him, putting a hand on his chest and leaning up to give him a loving kiss. “We could go home, babe.” She whispered softly.

            “No.” Lee snapped rigidly, suddenly thinking better of it and backing away from the woman. Alara sighed and shook her head, turning around and striding away with her hips swinging. “We’ll continue with the scouting until we find something. There’s got to be. Twig, keep looking.” He commanded before storming after Alara, his tac pants having tightened considerably.

            “You may want to put some headphones on.” Twig warned Muskgraves. “They get pretty loud.”

***

            “There was someone in my apartment.” The first thing Arianna had done when she’d gotten home, was notice a few of her things out of place. Every one of her belongings had a place, and a particular way she liked them to face. Her cat statue on her bedside table was facing forward, when previously it had been facing the corner of the table. The book that she’d left on her bed that morning was on the left pillow, when it had previously laid just below the pillow. They were small things, but she noticed, nonetheless.

            “Fuck.” That one word conveyed all of Steve’s emotions. “Don’t move. We’re coming.” He promised. Arianna gave her affirmative and hung up, spinning in a slow circle in her bedroom with a shuddering breath before taking a careful seat on her bed.

***

            “Shit! I knew I should’ve sent Alara!” Lee shouted as they rushed to the car, a nondescript, black SUV. He was still zipping his tac pants, hair wild and mussed. The three of them dove into the car as Twig spoke in their ear.

            “The Avengers have mobilized. I fucking told you to be careful, asshat.” He chided Muskgraves. “I’m sending the fastest route to your phone and I’ve hacked all of the streetlights in the neighborhood. We should get there first if you drive fast.” He informed. Alara gave a slow, predatory smile over to Lee, who returned it.

            “Drive it like you stole it.”

***

            Ari heard a knock at her door, heard the heavy boot falls that sounded like Bucky. She rushed to the door, flinging it open without looking to see who it was. She should’ve looked.

            “Hey, pretty lady.” Ari had no time to scream before there was a hard knock to her head, and then she was falling, her vision graying as someone swung her into their arms.

            “Bucky. Steve.” She whispered before her world went terrifyingly black.

Chapter Text

            “SHE’S FUCKING GONE, STEVE!” Bucky raged, kicking angrily at the front door, hanging open. A spot of blood on the carpet, barely noticeable, had given them all the answer they needed. Nat stood behind them, lips pursed. “I want to know who got her, so I can kill them. Slowly. Painfully. Rip them apart piece by piece.” His eyes darkened with every word until they were black, gloved hands clenched angrily at his sides.

            “She couldn’t have gotten far.” Natasha replied, glancing around. “I’ll go do some recon. See if I can find anything, ask around. You guys check out the apartment. See if this person left anything.” She commanded, taking point when she realized Steve wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. The two nodded as Natasha strode down the stairs hurriedly.

            Bucky stalked through her apartment, eyes darting around as he searched for anything out of place. When he entered her bedroom, he saw the bed ruffled where she’d probably been sitting. He halted in his tracks, clenching his teeth and closing his eyes slowly. He needed to get a grip if he was going to be of any help, and he knew that.

            “Buck.” Steve’s voice came from in front of him. He opened his eyes to see Steve kneeling at the window. “They came in through the window the first time. Looks like they were rifling around in her stuff.” He glanced at the drawers of her dresser with clothing poking out of them. Ari was a fairly organized person, she wasn’t the type to have unfolded clothing shoved into her drawer. “There’s the little bugger.” He reached under her bedside table and yanked, removing a tiny device, no bigger than the tip of his finger. A bug. Bucky’s eyes went wide as he realized what it was. He’d planted bugs just like that for years. Steve met his eyes, realization dawning in them.

            “If Hydra has her, she won’t last long.” Bucky’s voice cracked, and he closed his eyes in self-deprecation. “This is all my fault. They saw her with me. They might be trying to use her to lure me back.”

            “This is no time for self-pity, Buck. She’s not dead yet.” Steve snapped, standing and taking on his Captain’s stance.

            “I’ll take that.” Tony strode into the bedroom in a pair of dark slacks and an Aerosmith shirt. He plucked the bug off of Steve’s finger and examined it closely. “It’s not active anymore. Whoever put this here shut it down as soon as they realized we were coming.” He glanced between the two. “I can take it back to the lab, see if I can locate where this thing’s home server is. If I can do that, it might narrow our search field.” He explained.

            “Get it done.” Steve nodded. Tony nodded back abruptly and stepped out of the room. A few seconds later, they heard his armor power up in the living room, and then a shatter as he burst from her living room window.

            “He couldn’t take the door like a normal goddamn human?” Bucky muttered. Steve smiled despite the situation they found themselves in.

            “Some people down here said they saw a black SUV pull up in the alley out back and then leave a few seconds later.” Nat’s voice came through their ears on the secure com channel.

            “Sounds like our guys.” Bucky huffed as the two of them left the apartment, closing the door behind them. Bucky and Steve strode down the stairs, taking them two at a time and passing a few concerned citizens as they did so before bursting out the back door. There were tread marks on the ground and the trash cans in the alley had all been knocked over. All the regular signs of a hasty retreat.

            “This was a crack job, Steve. They weren’t trying to take her.” Natasha stated as she joined them.

            “How do you figure?” Steve asked, turning to look at the widow. She was looking down at the tire tracks thoughtfully, head cocked to the side.

            “Come on. This is Hydra, a major terrorist organization. They’ve been kidnapping and killing people for decades right under our noses. Right under Shield’s nose. This was a rush. This was a move it or lose it kind of mission. They were watching her, but they weren’t trying to take her.” She explained, glancing at them.

            “It was too messy.” Bucky agreed, nodding his head. “Hydra plans their missions to every minute detail. Their kidnappings are meticulous, so it sometimes doesn’t even look like the person is gone. They forge plane tickets, text messages, even phone calls sometimes. Make the family and friends believe whoever they’re taking is on vacation or a business trip.” He continued Nat’s explanation.

            “And we’re sure this was Hydra?” Steve questioned unsurely.

            “It was definitely Hydra, cap.” Tony’s voice came over the comms. “It didn’t take long for me to crack their bug open. This is definitely Hydra tech.” He explained.

            “Did you find a home server?” Steve asked. Tony sighed heavily.

            “The signal is being traced through about a thousand different servers all over the world. It’ll take some time for me to figure it out. This is some professional work.” He replied.

            “Friday can’t track it?” Bucky demanded, itching to find his girl.

            “This work is high and tight. It’ll take Friday a bit to do it. Jarvis couldn’t even crack this thing quickly. They’re advancing their tech, that’s for sure.” Tony replied, just as frustrated about it as the others.

            “So, we’re sitting ducks for the time being.” Natasha concluded.

            “I’m afraid so, femme fatale.” Tony replied darkly. “Let’s regroup at the tower, call the rest of the squad in and see if we can’t find another way to track her.” He made the call.

            “Sure. That’s a good idea.” Steve agreed, no matter how much he wished he could run around New York until he found her. She was probably terrified, and God knows what they were going to do to her. The thought made him sick and he pressed down his dinner, swallowing dryly.

            The tower was too empty. They’d retreated to their quarters, agreeing to meet again in the morning and see if Tony could get any headway with the bug they’d planted. Bucky stood in the middle of their apartment, stripped of his tac gear and wearing a gray t-shirt with the Captain America symbol on the front, a gag gift that Steve had gotten him for his birthday, and a pair of loose sweatpants. With a sudden roar of anger, Bucky had upturned the sofa and the coffee table.

            “Buck.” Steve spoke softly from the hallway but didn’t approach. When Bucky got like this, when his anger got the best of him, it was easiest to just let him get it out. Bucky didn’t turn, head ducked to the ground with his chest heaving, fists balled at his side and shoulders around his ears. “We’ll find her.” He promised.

            “Yeah? In a fucking body bag?” Bucky roared, finally turning on Steve with a hateful gaze that Steve had rarely ever seen. The blond shook his head sharply.

            “No.” He spoke strongly, the one word conveying everything. I won’t let that happen. I’ll find her alive, okay, in one piece. I have to. We have to. She has to be ok.

Chapter Text

            Ari came to slowly, blinking hazily as a harsh light seared her eyelids. She struggled to open said eyes, finally focusing. Her head pounded harshly and there was a ringing in her ears so loud she didn’t think she could hear anything but that and the blood rushing through her own head. She was strapped to an uncomfortable metal chair, which had somehow been drilled to the ground. The walls around her looked like flimsy metal, a bare lightbulb lighting the small room around her. A door was inlaid into one of the walls, a window with hasty bars welded over it on the upper portion. She turned her head, wincing as spots danced behind her eyes. The room was bare, no furnishings or distinguishing features.

            Fear built in her, roiling like the ocean in a storm and she leaned forward, vomiting up everything in her stomach. She stared miserably as it splashed onto her work shoes-she hadn’t had time to change when she’d gotten home from work. She didn’t hear when the door opened, but she felt the stinging pain that accompanied a slap. The girl jolted, staring up with wide eyes as blood started to roll from her now split lip. A woman stood in front of her, arms crossed, with a blank smile on her face. It was somehow scarier than if she’d been glaring, the small upturn of her lips, the predatory gleam in her eyes.

            “Wake up, bitch.” The sound of the woman’s voice was faraway, but she couldn’t help but think hazily that she had a smooth, beautiful voice. A dangerous voice. “Who are you? What does the Winter Soldier want with you?” The woman demanded, crouching down to her level. Arianna stared at the woman with wide, panicked eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. A sob left her mouth, punctuated by another slap. Ari cried out. “I said who are you? Are you deaf, or stupid?” The woman snapped, still sounding as if she was underwater and speaking through a tin can. Ari’s mouth opened, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make her voice come out. The woman rolled her eyes and stood up straight, spinning on her heel and storming out.

            “I can’t get her to talk.” She snapped. Lee sighed, leaning his palms against the wall before slamming a fist into it. With a sudden vigor, he rounded on Muskgraves and jabbed his pointer finger violently into the younger man’s chest.

            “This is all your fucking fault! I hope you have that on your fucking conscience for the rest of your life.” He snapped.

            “Seems like that’s gonna be pretty short.” Twig announced, striding up to the group and glancing at the door. “Our communication with main base is down. I’m not sure what’s going on. I can’t get a hold of em’, and I’ve tried everything.” He informed Lee.

            “What the fuck do you mean you can’t get a hold of them?” Lee demanded furiously. “You’re joking, right? The fuck am I supposed to do with a hostage New York citizen and a group of Avengers on our asses?” He hissed.

            “Seems like it’s comin’ from an outside source.” Twig replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “Can they track us using that bug I put in her apartment?” Muskgraves suddenly asked, voice quiet and trembling with fear. Lee stared at Twig questioningly. The tech genius shook his head resolutely.

            “I’ve got that thing routed through about a million different servers. Even with Tony Stark’s tech, it’d take him weeks to figure out where we are.” He replied confidently. “Plus, it’s got a failsafe. They get too close to finding us, it’ll send out a distress beacon to any Hydra op in the area.” He replied.

            “You better hope that thing works, or it’s all of our asses on the line. And if the Avengers don’t get to us first, General Manson’s going to deactivate all of us.” Lee snapped, shoving past all of them and storming away.

            “What does he mean, deactivate?” Muskgraves turned to Alara. She rolled her eyes at the fear on his face.

            “He means we’re going to die regardless. Hope you’ve crossed everything off your bucket list, Muskgraves.” Alara replied coldly, turning and following her boyfriend. If she was going to die, she could at least spend what little time she had left with the love of her life.

***

            “I’m stuck, Cap.” That was the last thing Steve wanted to hear. He stood behind Tony, arms crossed tensely, and frowned at the genius. “I can’t track it any farther.”

            “Why? It can’t be that high tech.” Clint spoke up from where he was leaning against the tall back of one of Tony’s numerous leather chairs in the lab. Tony shook his head.

            “It isn’t that. I figure out which server is the home server, this thing will alert every Hydra operative within a four-hundred-mile radius. We’re basically painting a giant target on our backs.” He replied. “Whoever built this is smart.” He sounded almost impressed. Steve’s lip curled.

            “How long would we have before they arrived?” Bucky asked. “Would there be enough time to get to her?” He questioned, turning over plans in his mind. Tony shook his head.

            “Chances are, if they get word that we know where they are, they’ll kill her and bug out.” Tony replied. “I did manage to shut off a few of their comm radio lines in the city. It’s not much, but at least it’s something.” He offered as some sort of a consolation.

            “So, we don’t know where they are, but if they’re still in the city they can’t reach their home base?” Banner asked. Tony nodded his head affirmatively.

            “That’s better than nothing. Good job, Tony.” Steve replied tautly.

            “I couldn’t find anything else around Arianna’s apartment.” Nat strode into the lab. “But, I did find this.” She jerked her head over her shoulder to see Thor and Loki striding into the lab. “Landed a few hours ago in central park. Nearly gave an old lady a goddamn heart attack.” She explained.

            “Steven. It is wonderful to see you again.” Thor clapped a hand onto Steve’s shoulders.

            “Yeah, though I wish it wasn’t under these circumstances.” Steve replied, giving his friend a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

            “So, we’re fucked is what I’m hearing.” Bucky spoke up. “Nothing around her apartment but a few tire tracks. Can’t track her through this or we’re Hydra food.” He stated.

            “Pretty much sums it up, tin man.” Tony agreed tiredly, exhaustion threatening to pull his eyelids down. The group stood in a deafening silence, frustration and fear stifling the air in the lab. Bucky clenched his fists and spun, stalking from the lab silently. One after another, the group filed from the room until it was just Tony and the Captain.

            “So, there’s really nothing we can do?” Steve asked, sounding desperate and hopeless. Tony frowned and stood, taking a sip of the spiked coffee, now cold, near his monitors.

            “We’ll figure something out, Cap. We always do. But as long as they don’t know where we are, they’ll keep her alive. They have to. They know if they kill her, they’re declaring a war on us. One that they’re not likely to win.” Tony assured, patting his shoulder and striding from the lab. Steve followed him into the elevator, bidding the genius a goodnight at his floor before the elevator shot up to his own.

            Bucky was sitting stiffly on the couch, staring blankly at the dark television. Steve closed the door loudly behind him, alerting the dark-haired man of his presence, and flipped on a few lights.

            “Buck.” Steve spoke, his voice rough. The man stood from the couch and turned. Steve was startled by the broken expression on his face, the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes. Steve felt his own eyes sting with tears. “It isn’t completely hopeless.” He whispered.

            “Yes it is.” Bucky replied decisively. “They did it. They finally won.” His lips turned down into a deep frown, a tear rolled down his cheek, and the two super soldiers crashed into each other, locked into an embrace that would have killed any normal human. But it didn’t matter, they weren’t normal, and besides, they already felt as if they’d died.

Chapter Text

            Ari lost track of time completely. The ringing in her ears never dulled, and she only got quick, fitful respites of sleep. They’d unclasped her from the chair and had given her a barren blanket. She’d taken to using it as a pillow, the room she was in was unbearably warm. So warm, in fact, that she’d had to strip from her jacket and pencil skirt, leaving her in her white undershirt and spanks.

            The guy she’d seen at the library, Muskgraves as he’d introduced himself, sat with her a lot. Sometimes he talked about his daughter. She was four, he’d stated proudly, and was a wonderful ballet dancer. He’d admitted to her in the silence of the room that if he’d known he would never see Ashlyn, his daughter, again, he wouldn’t have done what he did. Sometimes, they sat in silence. Her meals were barely enough to keep her sustained, and most days she found herself drifting in and out of consciousness. She could feel herself withering away, dying of starvation and dehydration. Muskgraves had seemed almost apologetic when he’d explained that they were running out of food, that they couldn’t leave because the Avengers were tracking them, so they had to ration their supplies. Ari wanted to believe that Bucky and Steve were searching for her tirelessly, but she didn’t have the energy for hope anymore.

            When Muskgraves didn’t come sit with her, her deluded mind conjured up images of Bucky and Steve as they’d been the last time she’d seen them, sitting on the couch laughing as they played Guitar Hero.

            “Hey doll. I think we’re coming to the end of the line here.” The Bucky in her mind had said, some day. He smiled sadly at her, leaning across from her in his sweatpants and soft shirt. Steve sat beside him.

            “It’s been really amazing.” Steve spoke, voice soft and sad. “I was really hoping we’d get to see you again, but I think Buck is right.” He agreed. She could feel it, too. Feel the end her life creeping up on her slowly. It was torture.

            “It’s really not fair.” Bucky frowned, shaking his head. “We had so much ahead of us. There’s just no fight left, doll.” He informed her, standing up. Steve followed. The two of them turned, looking over their shoulders, before they disappeared through the wall.

            “It’s been a week and a half.” Muskgraves said, one day when they were sitting against the metal wall. His legs splayed out in front of him, the tac pants foregone today for a pair of shiny basketball shorts. “The waiting is the worst part.” Ari agreed with him silently, but as usual, said nothing. “I’m going to die, Arianna.” He stated, turning to look at her as an expression of realization settled on his face. “I’m going to die. If I stay here, we’ll run out of food. If we get communications back up, General Manson will deactivate me. If the Avengers find us, they’ll kill me too.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I guess I just never expected this was how it was going to end.” He shook his head. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I think this might be the biggest one. I wish I could take it back.” He sighed miserably and went to stand. Ari watched him leave, pursing her lips in resolute acceptance. They were all going to die, her included. She just wished she could contact Steve and Bucky once more, to let them know that it wasn’t their fault.

***

            “So, there’s really nothing you can do?” Steve asked Thor tiredly. The Asgardian shook his head regretfully.

            “The only one who can see all that happens in the nine realms is Heimdall. He is…willfully ignoring my calls, though.” Thor replied apologetically.

            “Two weeks is a long time to be holding someone.” Nat spoke what they were all thinking, but too scared to admit. “Even if they haven’t killed her yet, based on the quick getaway, they don’t have the stockpile to last much longer.” The red head stated. Bucky inhaled sharply and closed his eyes.

            “It’ll be okay, Buck.” Steve assured, laying a hand on his lover’s shoulder. The dark-haired man shook it off and rounded on Steve with flat eyes. Steve hated that look.

            “I’ll be fine. She isn’t the first person I’ve killed.” He snapped before striding out of the room. He hadn’t even had time to bond with her, hadn’t had time to make her his. It coiled in his gut, sour and acrid, but he shoved it away.

            Steve’s eyes remained trained where his lover had just been, his words ringing in the blonde’s ears loudly. She isn’t the first person I’ve killed. He knew Bucky felt guilty about her kidnapping, that Hydra was using her to get to him. But if that was true, wouldn’t they have tried to use her as leverage? Why were they playing a waiting game? Steve reached up, rubbing angrily at his eyes as a headache exploded.

            “She isn’t dead yet, cap.” Tony murmured in a sad excuse for comfort. Steve laughed, almost hysterically.

            “We don’t know that, Tony.” He replied sharply. “For all we know, she died days ago.” He muttered, shaking his head. Tony didn’t have a rebuttal for this.

            He strode from the room, leaving the rest of his team to go after Bucky. He couldn’t help Ari, not where she was. Not with how he was feeling. But he could try his best to help Bucky. The dark-haired man was in the gym, pounding away at one of their reinforced bags. Steve could hear the soft grunting, see the wild way he was throwing his punches. Nothing like the calculated fighter that Steve knew.

            “I don’t want to talk, Steve.” Bucky snapped, not losing his rhythm, as he heard the soft footfalls approach him.

            “Fine. Then just listen.” Steve replied with a shrug, sitting on one of the benches near Bucky. “I think this is the first time I’ve felt this helpless since I was looking for you.” He admitted to Bucky. The dark-haired man gave no indication of hearing him. “How many months I searched for you. You could have been dead, for all I knew. You could have been back in Hydra’s grip. But I never gave up, and then you came back to me. Alive.” Steve’s voice pinched and he cleared his throat. “Don’t you think we owe that to Ari, too?”

            “And what if she’s dead?” Bucky hissed, rounding on the blonde as the bag swung wildly before him. “What then?” Steve didn’t break eye contact.

            “Then we find her body. And we give her the burial she deserves.” He replied evenly. Bucky’s breath billowed from his chest and his shoulders sagged. Steve stood, barely making it the few feet to his boyfriend before the man collapsed. The two super soldiers crashed to the floor, locked into an embrace, as Bucky cried softly into Steve’s collar bone. This was what the blonde had been waiting for since Ari had gone missing. Bucky’s meltdown, the crack in his façade.

            “I want her back.” Bucky admitted, sentence capping with a rasping sob. “I want her back here.”

            “I know, pal. Me too.” Steve whispered, tracing soft patterns on Bucky’s spine. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

            “It’s not likely that it’s anything, but I caught some heat signatures in this warehouse when I sent out Redwing.” Sam pointed an area of the 3D holographic map in Tony’s lab. A red circle outlined a building. Steve eyed the warehouse, one of many in a seemingly unassuming industrial park.

            “It’s worth checking out.” Nat replied, glancing to Steve. He nodded in agreement. “If it’s them, they won’t know we’re coming.” She stated.

            “Wheels up in ten.” Steve commanded before striding from the room. He made his way up to his apartment, leaning heavily against the elevator wall. Exhaustion pulled his bones heavily, the lack of sleep finally starting to affect him. He was sturdier than most, a few days without sleep was almost a given for him, especially when they’d been at war. But he hadn’t been able to sleep more than thirty minutes since Ari had been taken, always jolting awake with her name on his tongue. Two weeks with barely any sleep was starting to wither him away.

            “Hey.” He strode into the apartment, causing Bucky to look up from the book that Steve was sure he wasn’t actually reading. “Sam caught a few heat signatures on the upper east side. He doesn’t think it’s likely that it’s her, but we’re gonna check it out anyway. Wheels up in eight.” He informed. Bucky nodded silently and stood, tossing the book carelessly onto the coffee table.

            A few minutes later, the team was loading onto one of the quin jets. As they cloaked and started to fly, Steve stared out the front window. It seemed like a likely place to hold someone who’d been kidnapped. It was away from any other civilization, and the industrial park was definitely abandoned. The jet landed a few yards away, sleek and silent, and the team exited. Steve took point as they strode towards the warehouse. He didn’t care about stealth anymore. He just wanted his girl back.

***

            Ari stirred to a commotion. She could hear wheezing and crying outside the room, only dazedly. She tried to roll over, but her muscles refused to cooperate, and she stayed laying where she was, trying desperately to hear over the sharp ringing in her ears.

            “Please!” Alara was begging loudly, sobs ripping from her chest. A ray of hope bloomed, weak but still there. Maybe Steve and Bucky had finally found her! She closed her eyes against the sounds of sobs and waited for her men to rescue her.

***

            “Yo! What the fuck!” The man scrambled to cover up as Steve burst into the warehouse. The blonde ignored him, glaring around dangerously. A few people were leaning against the walls of the big room, eyes wide and glazed over. There was a girl lying, prone and unmoving and naked as the day she was born, in the middle of the floor, as the man who’d previously been mounted to her yanked loose pants over his bare legs. Bucky recognized the track marks on their inner arms and growled.

            “It’s not her. Just some fuckin’ junkies.” He snapped darkly.

            “Fuck!” Steve shouted, kicking at a piece of wood near his feet. The board skittered across the floor and slammed against the wall with a loud clang, falling to the ground in two pieces.

            “Don’t kill me.” The man’s voice trembled and fell away as Bucky turned a dark gaze towards him. “I-I’m sorry.” He whimpered.

            “Let’s go. This is a bust.” Nat murmured, reaching out to touch Bucky’s arm. He jolted away from her and stormed from the warehouse, the first one in the jet. The rest of the team followed dejectedly. Bucky knew how this worked, knew the ins and outs of kidnappings. The longer she was gone, the less likely it was that they were ever going to find her. Three weeks generally marked the time that the search was called off, and that point was looming closer and closer with every passing day. He’d resigned himself to the fact that he would never see her again, but Sam’s findings had given him just the smallest ray of hope. It hurt even more that it hadn’t been her, and in that moment, the man decided he’d rather shut himself down than feel anything again. It was just easier.

Chapter Text

            “Lee killed himself.” Muskgraves’ voice filtered through her barely conscious mind, rousing her just slightly. “Yesterday. Alara’s near catatonic about it, and Twig just…sits there.” Muskgraves gave a heavy sigh. “We’re officially out of rations. That’s why you haven’t had food in a while. This was never supposed to be a long-term mission. Just recon. It’s my fault that we failed. I know it probably doesn’t mean anything, but I am sorry.” Muskgraves did actually sound sorry, surprisingly. “We’ve been here for almost two and a half weeks now. That’s way longer than we were supposed to.” He repeated, sighing miserably. “I understand why Lee did it. I’d rather kill myself than die of starvation, too. Hell, I’d rather be gunned down by the Asset and his star-spangled boyfriend than die of starvation. I’m not sure either of those are an option. I tried to do it, too. Put a gun to my head, but all I could hear was my daughter’s laughter. I want to see her again, just to tell her that I love her.” He sighed, glancing at the nearly dead girl lying curled in the corner. Maybe she was already dead. Muskgraves didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. “It’s over for all of us, kid.” He shook his head and closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall.

            Muskgraves died in his sleep that night. Even through the ringing in her ears and her starved stupor, she heard his breathing stop. She felt a pang of sadness, stronger than anything she’d felt in days, for his daughter who would never know her father. Rousing herself enough to pick her head up, she stared to the body beside her. He looked like he was sleeping. Peaceful, almost. Her lip quivered and in a sudden bout of energy, a ravaged sob tore from her throat. Tears that she didn’t know she had anymore streamed down her cheeks. Maybe she was crying for Muskgraves. Maybe she was crying for Ashlyn, his little girl. Maybe even Lee, Alara, and Twig. Maybe she was crying for herself, for Steve and Bucky. She thought faintly that she was actually crying for all of them.

            “Shut up.” The door opened and Alara stepped in, shooting a glance at Muskgraves’ still body. “Him too, huh?” She asked emotionlessly. Ari stared up at her through lidded eyes. “I’d let you go, but I don’t think you’ll make it very far. Anyway, the door is open. Either way, let us die in peace without having to listen to your god-awful sobbing.” Alara muttered before spinning on her heel and moving from the room tiredly. Ari watched her go, leaving the door wide open.

            Survive. A voice whispered in her head, sounding strangely like Bucky. Get up, Ari. That was Steve. Her atrophied muscles screamed in protest as she dragged herself to her knees after a few false starts. Get up. She used the wall to pull herself to her feet, crumpling immediately when she took her first step. Get up, baby. Get up. She tried again, making it a few steps to Muskgraves body. He still had his weapon on him, still loaded. She gripped it with weak fingers, gasping silently as it nearly fell from her hands, and clutched it tighter. She struggled slowly to the door, falling once more just outside the room. Her breaths tore, ragged and jarring, from her burning chest. Come home, baby. She climbed once more to her feet, the gun held in her hands. Twig sat in front of his darkened monitors, watching her struggle a few steps before collapsing to her knees again. Alara sat in the corner near Lee’s body, the bullet hole ragged and messy between his eyes, skin darkening. The smell hit her, and she gagged, leaning over as she retched up nothing but bile and stomach acid. The burning pain roused something in her, some baser part of her mind, and her fight or flight instinct kicked in. She struggled to her feet once more. One foot in front of the other, baby. That’s it. Bucky whispered encouragingly. She stared intensely at her feet as she took one step after another, until she was at a door. She turned slowly to look over her shoulder, at the two Hydra agents staring emotionlessly at her. Come home, baby. Leave them. Deciding that Steve’s voice was right, she shoved the door open. Light flooded into the warehouse and Ari let out a small gasp, throwing her arm up to shield her eyes from the burning sun. After two weeks in the darkness of the room, the sun seemed to rip through her ferociously. Her weak arm, unable to stay up any longer, dropped from her face and she staggered into the sun. Her vision swam with the effort and she once more tumbled to the ground, face rebounding off of the rocky pavement. The girl laid there for a few minutes, eyes closed, panting harshly. When she opened her eyes, squinting furiously, black was closing in around her vision. Her head swam and she felt herself start to drop, but she could almost swear she saw a black speck racing towards her in the sky before her vision turned dark and she fell away.

Chapter Text

            The team had taken to posting up in Tony’s lab, anxious for any and all word or unexpected movement in the city. The search had become nearly futile. It was tense and silent between them all when Friday interrupted.

            “Boss, a security camera picked up Arianna Dawson. I ran facial recognition, and it’s a 97% match.” There was a flurry of activity. Nat jumped to her feet, Steve spun from where he’d been staring at one of Tony’s tiny inventions, and Bucky shoved himself off of the wall.

            “Where?” Tony demanded, already activating his suit around him.

            “Brooklyn. I’ll send the coordinates to your suit.” Friday answered, sounding just as rushed as the rest of the team if it was possible.

            “I’ll get there first. You come after.” Tony commanded before his faceplate had closed him off and he was shooting straight through the window, a shower of glass raining down upon the now chaotic lab. Steve yanked his uniform over his chest and sprinted to the hangar with Bucky on his heels and Nat and Clint not far behind. It felt like hours before the bird was cleared to leave and he fidgeted anxiously, mind running a million miles a minute. Bucky sat behind him, not allowing himself to hope. He’d done that already, and it had only gotten him hurt. Friday hadn’t said what state she was in. She could already be dead, and they could’ve just dumped her body and left. Or they could have done much worse. They could have tortured her, experimented on her like they had on him. She could not even be the same person she’d been before. He closed himself off, allowed the Winter Soldier mask to create an indestructible barrier around him.

            Tony landed minutes before the rest of the team, suit opening as he rushed towards the prone figure on the ground in front of the warehouse. Mere yards from where they’d been just a day. He clenched his fists in anger as he dropped to his knees beside her. She was breathing, surprisingly strong for the state that she was in. He could see her bones, jutting out from papery skin, and her hair had become wispy and reedy.

            “Arianna.” He shook her shoulder, closing his eyes tight when her breath shuddered in her chest. “Arianna.” He tried shaking her again, rolling her over carefully. He stared down helplessly at her face as he heard the jet land behind him.

            “Ari!” Steve’s voice carried over to them and the billionaire backed away. Steve slid to his knees, gripping her bony face gently in between his hands. Bucky dropped to his knees on her other side, his façade finally cracking. She was alive. A tear rolled down his cheek and he leaned over, peppering kisses over her cold skin.

            “Ari, baby. Wake up.” He begged.

            “We need to get her to medical. Now!” Nat barked behind them. Steve stared down at her, eyes wide. “STEVE.” Nat’s commanding voice spurred him into action, and he scooped her into his arms, rushing towards the jet. Bucky turned to the opened warehouse and strode in.

            “Asset.” An emotionless voice spoke from his right. Without turning, he drew his gun and fired. There was a choked cry from the woman before he aimed at the man behind the monitors. The bullet traveled through the screens and buried itself lethally into his heart. Bucky hadn’t killed in cold blood in a long time, but this one he didn’t feel guilty about.

***

            A withered groan broke the silent, sterile air of the hospital room. Steve shot up, immediately awake. Bucky was already leaning over Ari, one hand holding hers and the other brushing hair off of her face. He winced when a clump of it came away easily in his hand.

            “Ari?” Steve asked, quietly hopeful.

            “Steve?” Her voice cracked and ground from her dry throat. Steve immediately retrieved the cup of water near her bed and poked the straw into her mouth. She sucked greedily, giving a small whine when he pulled it away.

            “Not too fast. You’ll choke.” He admonished softly. Her eyes finally opened, those beautiful blue eyes. She blinked a few times before seeming to focus, and then her eyes shot wide open.

            “It’s…it’s actually you.” She whimpered, lip quivering. “You’re here…” She’d only dreamed of being reunited with them, had resigned herself to the fate that her life was going to end. But she was decidedly not dead (she hurt way too much to be dead), and she was decidedly staring up at Bucky and Steve.

            “Oh baby.” Bucky’s voice choked and he lurched forward, burying his head into her collarbone. She wrapped an arm as best as she could around his broad shoulders, shaking with sobs. “We thought…” He sobbed, squeezing her.

            “Ow Bucky.” She winced. The soldier immediately let up on his hold but didn’t remove his head from the crook of her neck. “I thought so too.” She replied to his unfinished statement. Steve reached out, clutching her hand tightly. The pain of him squeezing her hand grounded her and she let out a heavy sigh. A tear tracked down her cheek, and then she was sobbing so hard it rattled her thin frame. Bucky lifted his head and tugged her into his chest, clambering onto the small bed and wrapping himself around her as much as he could. Steve perched carefully on the side of the bed and wrapped both of them into his arms.

            “We’ve got you now, baby.” Bucky hushed, carefully stroking her hair. A few more clumps came away in his hand and he scowled. “You’re home.”

            And wasn’t that the best fucking thing she’d ever heard.

Chapter Text

            “I’m not going to just drop dead, Steve.” Ari muttered, turning from her book to eye the blond super soldier staring intently at her. “You’ve been staring at me for like ten minutes now. Go spar with Buck or something.” She waved him away. He didn’t move. Ari hefted a sigh and marked her page before dropping the well-worn book onto her blanket clad lap. “Okay, talk.” Steve looked at her, startled.

            “How did you,”

            “You always look like that when you want to talk but you don’t know how to start the conversation.” Ari glowered at him. “You’ve been watching over me like a hawk for a week and a half now. I’m okay. Tired, but okay.” And she really was. Other than some severe starvation and dehydration, the only damage Ari had actually sustained was a damaged cochlea from the original knock to her head, which Dr. Cho’s cradle had repaired in practically no time.

            “We thought you were dead.” Steve rasped, pushing past the blockage in her throat.

            “I’m not.” She snapped, closing her eyes in regret. “I’m sorry.” She spoke softer this time. “I’m just going stir crazy in here. I feel cooped up.” She sighed. Steve frowned deeply.

            “I know, sweetheart. I’m sorry. We just want to make sure,” Ari interrupted him again and Steve felt a flash of irritation shoot through him.

            “I know. You want to make sure nobody else is coming after me. I get it. You’ve told me.” She uttered.

            “You could let me finish a sentence.” He ground out. Ari closed her eyes in frustration and stood abruptly.

            “I’m going to shower.” She snapped.

            “Yell if you need anything.” He bit out after her. She hummed and stormed into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Steve winced and let out a soft groan, closing his eyes.

            “How are things going, pal?” Bucky’s voice came.

            “How long have you been standing there?” Steve countered sharply.

            “Long enough.” Bucky replied.

            “Then you know exactly how it’s going.” Steve muttered at him. He felt Bucky’s weight settle on the couch before his boyfriend nuzzled into Steve’s chest. The blond wrapped his arms around the dark-haired man.

            Bucky had become far more tactile since Ari had returned, snuggling up to Steve on the couch frequently, or sometimes randomly bundling the girl into his arms for a tight embrace. They could both tell she was getting frustrated with their mother henning, but neither could help it. Just a week and a half ago, they’d thought she was dead. Now she was back, and it was like a miracle. But they were both scared that if they took their eyes off of her for even one second she would disappear from under them again.

            She’d moved into their guest room for an indefinite amount of time. She hadn’t been opposed at first; she’d missed them just as much as they had her. But now she was starting to regret not taking up Tony’s offer for her own apartment on the same floor. She felt stifled by them, and though she knew it was out of compassion, she couldn’t help but feel frustrated by her lack of independence and freedom, two things she loved very much.

            She scrubbed shampoo through her hair, which had started to grow back in the bald patches she’d been sporting when they found her. She’d mourned her gorgeous, long hair before shaving it shorter than Steve’s. It now fell over one side of her head and just barely brushed her ear, the other side, the one that’d had the most loss, shaved military short. The girl closed her eyes in the hot water and relished a few moments alone before there was a knock at the door. Stiffening, she turned a glare through the curtain, to the closed door.

            “Um, Ari? Buck and I are gonna go for a run.” Steve called unsurely through the door. Ari narrowed her eyes in confusion, taken aback. “We both have our phones if you need us.” He informed before she heard him walking away. The front door opened and shut, and then Ari was truly alone.

            She climbed out of the shower and changed into a pair of Steve’s sweatpants that she had to tie ridiculously tight, and one of Bucky’s soft black cotton t-shirts that hung down to her knees. She was sure she looked ridiculous, but she didn’t really care.

            Peacefully alone, the girl made herself a pot of tea and took up her spot on the couch once more, the shower having taken more out of her than she cared to admit. She read her book for a good while before she realized she’d finished the pot of tea. As she stood, she glanced out of the wall of windows, startled to see the sun sinking below the horizon. And Bucky and Steve still weren’t back. And Ari was alone. In the dark.

            Panic seized her and she was suddenly back in that fucking room, curled in the corner. Her breath ripped from her chest and she leaned over, gripping the granite counter. The cold grounded her just enough for her to open her eyes.

            “Friday…call Steve.” She begged through cracked lips. The phone rang through the apartment before Steve picked up.

            “Ari?”

            “Come home.” She pleaded.

            “On our way.” The line went dead and Ari crumbled to her knees in the kitchen. The tea pot tipped off of the counter and shattered next to her. The girl gasped and her eyes shot open, the loud sound bringing her back to the present. She blindly reached out, hissing as she sliced her palm on a shard of the porcelain.

            “It’s your fault my daughter will never know me.” Muskgraves crouched next to her, staring through her. “It’s your fault we’re dead.”

            “No.” Ari shook her head desperately. “No, it’s not.” She pleaded.

            “Yes it is. And Hydra will come back for you. And Steve and Bucky will die. And then you’ll be alone, just like Ashlyn.” Muskgraves continued flatly. Ari thought that the emotionless voice made it just that much worse.

            “No!” Ari cried.

            “Ari, it’s just me. It’s Bucky.” Ari collapsed into the man’s chest as his arms pressed around her, the cold of his metal appendage bringing her away from Muskgraves. “You’re safe. We’re here.”

            “It’s dark!” She wailed, twisting her fingers into his shirt.

            “Friday, turn the lights on.” Steve’s voice spoke from her other side. She stiffened. “It’s just me, Ari.” The lights flashed on, illuminating the kitchen. Ari relaxed immediately, sagging in Bucky’s arms, and stared up at them.

            “I’m sorry.” She mumbled miserably.

            “Don’t be.” Bucky chided, scratching the back of her head. She closed her eyes and gave a breathy groan as tingles shot down her body. Bucky took a level breath and tried not to let the sound affect him the way his body wanted it to.

            “I broke your teapot.” She sniffled down at the shattered pieces, the reminder making her hand sting. She winced and lifted it to inspect it. Bucky took the hand gently and frowned at the blood winding slowly down her palm.

            “I’m not worried about the teapot. We bought it for you, anyway.” Steve said offhandedly as he moved to grab a towel from the stove. He crouched behind her and wrapped the towel around the thin cut.

            “You…bought it for me?” Ari choked out, eyes wide. Steve nodded, suddenly shy, and looked away.

            “We wanted you to be comfortable here. I noticed when we were in your apartment that you had a lot of teapots. We brought some of your tea over, too. I figured you preferred it to coffee.” He shrugged. Ari suddenly felt so guilty. She’d been so wrapped up in her own head that she hadn’t even realized how her favorite tea got here, or her prized collection of books. Or even her favorite red blanket.

            “I’m…I’m so sorry.” She choked out, pressing her uninjured hand to her mouth. “You two have been trying s-so hard to make me comfortable and I’ve been such a bitch!” She dug her face into Bucky’s chest and cried softly.

            “You’re allowed to be bitchy after what you’ve been through.” Steve replied softly, a lilt of laughter to his voice.

            “And you’re allowed to have panic attacks.” Bucky tacked on. “I was wondering when it would start to hit you.” It was true. Ari had been handling all of it fairly well, only grousing when she started to feel stifled, but Bucky had known this was coming.

            “What do you want to do now?” Steve asked after a few moments of silence, the only sounds breaking Ari’s peaceful breathing the shuffling as he swept the shattered teapot away and placed the pieces in a sandwich bag, an idea coming to mind.

            “First, we bandage that hand.” Bucky interrupted, eyeing the towel. “Come on.” Ari groaned as he lifted her to numb legs and followed him through the brightly lit apartment to the bathroom. “So,” He started conversationally as he unwrapped the towel, wincing as the dried blood had dried it to her hands, and gently started cleaning the gash, “What happened?” Steve leaned against the door frame, arms crossed.

            “It was dark.” Ari replied, looking down at the ground.

            “In the apartment?” Bucky pressed, swiping the alcohol pad across the cut. She hissed at the accompanying sting.

            “In the room I was kept.” Ari corrected him. Bucky stilled, pressing his rage down. The last thing Ari needed was anger, even if it wasn’t directed towards her. “And when it started to get dark here, and you weren’t home, I got scared.” She shrugged as Bucky resumed his gentle ministrations.

            “Is that it?” Bucky asked evenly. Steve had heard this tone before, from his and Bucky’s therapist. He knew what Buck was doing, even if the assassin didn’t.

            “No.” Ari’s tongue darted out of her mouth to lick dry lips. “I saw Muskgraves when I was in the kitchen. He was talking to me. Telling me it was my fault that he would never see his daughter again, that Hydra was going to come for me and kill you two.” She admitted.

            “And that scared you?” Bucky asked as he retrieved some antibiotic cream from the med kit at his feet.

            “It terrified me.” Ari nodded.

            “That Hydra would come for you?” Bucky asked. Ari looked up at him in surprise. The thought hadn’t even crossed her mind.

            “No, that you two would also die…because of me.” She replied. Bucky glanced up at her, eyes soft.

            “Tell me about Muskgraves.” Bucky continued, filing away her previous statement for later conversation.

            “He was the guy that first talked to me in the library.” Ari replied, watching as Bucky blew on her hand to dry the cream before carefully pulling a roll of gauze from the kit. She really didn’t need it, a Band-Aid would work just fine, but it was giving her something else to focus on other than the deep subjects they were delving into. “When they realized that we weren’t going to escape, he would come sit with me and talk. He’s got a four-year-old daughter.” Ari paused and swallowed. “Had a four-year-old daughter.” She corrected herself.  “Ashlyn.” She informed, though she really didn’t need to. “She lives in Colorado with her mom. I’d like to reach out to her, let her know that her dad loved her.” She informed.

            “We can do that, doll.” Bucky nodded. “What did Muskgraves say when he would come talk to you?” He asked. Ari shrugged as she watched him slowly wrap the gauze around her palm.

            “A lot. He talked about his family. How he regretted the choices that he made. He would talk about the rest of his team, Alara, Lee, and Twig. Alara and Lee had been together for years, and Hydra picked up Twig off the street when he was only twelve. Muskgraves had only been with them for a few months.” She stated. Bucky nodded, finishing off the gauze with a quick piece of medical tape and enveloped her hands in his larger ones. “He was the nicest. He apologized to me.” She murmured, glancing into Bucky’s slate eyes, only showing kind understanding.

            “How did you feel about it?” Bucky asked.

            “I wanted to forgive him.” She admitted. “It seemed like he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, got wrapped up with people he shouldn’t have. In a naïve sort of way, I mean.” She explained. Bucky nodded in understanding.

            “So, tonight was triggered by the dark, and that you’re afraid Steve and I are going to die?” Bucky summed up.

            “Basically.” Ari mumbled.

            “And that you’re scared Muskgraves didn’t know that you forgive him.” Bucky continued. Ari nodded.

            “And that his daughter will grow up without a dad because of me.” She finished for him. Bucky nodded, smiling softly at her.

            “Thank you for telling us that, sweetheart.” He thanked, squeezing her hands softly. “As for what we can do to help you the next time this happens, I think we should work on some calming breathing exercises. And I think you should see our therapist.” He suggested. Ari pursed her lips and looked at the ground.

            “Do you think I need to?” She asked unsurely.

            “I think it will help. There’s only so much we can do for you. We know a lot about this kind of stuff, but we aren’t trained professionals.” Bucky replied softly. “It sounds like you’ve got some PTSD, which isn’t surprising considering what you’ve gone through. Reaction to trauma presents itself in a lot of different ways, and everyone deals with it differently. What helps Steve or I may not help you.” He continued assuredly.

            “Sounds like you know an awful lot about this, Bucky.” Ari murmured. He smiled comfortingly at her.

            “I’ve got a lot messed up in my head, doll. It’s taken a long time, but I’m starting to get better. I just want you to be okay.” He replied wryly. She winced. Of course, they would know about PTSD, Bucky especially.

            “So, you think I should go to a therapist?” She asked in a small voice. Bucky squeezed her hands once more.

            “Not just any therapist. You should go see Leah. I’ve been seeing her since I got here. She’s the one who got me up to mission standards.” He replied.

            “And I’ve been seeing her for years.” Steve finally spoke, having stayed silent during the small session. “She’s good.” He assured.

            “Will it…nobody will think differently of me, will they?” She asked softly. Bucky smiled gently and reached out, brushing one of the longer strands of red hair out of her eyes.

            “Nobody will think differently of you for seeking the help you need.” He assured.

            “I’ve always thought that people who go to therapy are like…looked down on.” She admitted, frowning.

            “There’s a stigma around it, yeah.” Bucky nodded affirmatively. “People who don’t understand it tend to curl their lip at it. But everyone in this tower has a regular therapist. It’s required, actually, for us to go on missions.” He informed. “The things we do are heavy, and the things we see even more so. Everyone needs help, but us more than most.” He stated.

            “Even Sam?” She asked, knowing that Sam had worked at the VA leading group therapy sessions.

            “Even Sam.” Bucky confirmed with a nod.

            “Okay. I’ll see Leah.” Ari whispered, drained from the impromptu talk.

            “I’ll set up an appointment tomorrow.” Steve replied, giving Bucky a proud smile over her head.

            “Can we go to bed now?” Ari asked, exhausted.

            “Sure doll.” Bucky stood from his crouch, knees cracking as he did so. Ari let out a loud snort and looked up at him.

            “You sound the ancient that you are.” She quipped. Bucky reached down and softly shoved her head before poking a jesting middle finger into the air. She giggled, the sound like magic to their ears. It was the first time she’d laughed since she’d woken up.

            “Alright, let’s get you into bed.” Bucky reached down, helping her to her feet, and the three exited the bathroom. He started to turn down the hall towards the room she’d claimed, but she tugged shyly on his shirt.

            “Can I stay with you guys tonight?” She asked softly. Bucky’s face broke into a grin and he nodded voraciously.

            “Of course. Always, doll. You’re always welcome to stay with us.” So, she fell asleep in the middle of a super soldier sandwich, warm and comfortable and safe.

Chapter Text

            “Hi Arianna. I’m Dr. Leah Charles. You can call me Leah.” Ari shifted uncomfortably in the cushy armchair across from the woman. “It’s okay if you’re uncomfortable or nervous right now.” Leah assured her, giving her a soft smile. “James has told me a little bit about what you’ve been going through, but I’d like to hear it from you.”

            “James?” Ari asked curiously.

            “I suppose you know him as Bucky.” Leah replied, a small chuckle escaping her. “I don’t generally call people by their nicknames. I suppose it’s probably jarring to hear his name differently from what you know, so I’ll call him Bucky when we’re in our sessions.” Leah offered.

            “Okay. Thank you.” Ari whispered, shrinking in the chair.

            “Before we start, I would like to lay a few things out. This is a safe space, and everything we speak about, even if it’s over text, the phone, email, or any other form of communication, stays between us unless you tell someone or give me permission to, or if I think you’re presenting a danger to yourself or others.” Leah assured her. “Friday is disabled in my office during the sessions, and the room is completely soundproof.” At Ari’s confused expression, Leah let out a little laugh. “Bucky likes to scream when he’s frustrated. Stark installed it after it scared some of the other patrons.” She admitted, winking conspiratorially. Ari nodded in understanding, chuckling slightly. It definitely sounded like Bucky. “Nothing you say here will be judged, and all I want to do is help you. Do you understand?” Ari nodded once more, and Leah gave her another smile. “Another rule I place in my sessions is vocal confirmation. I need to make sure that you understand. This is a place you can speak freely.”

            “I understand.” Ari replied meekly. “What if I don’t want to talk at all.” She challenged, somewhat shyly.

            “That’s okay, too.” Leah nodded. “I have lots of books you can read, and some meditation tapes. Steve has told me that I can talk to you about some of his sessions, if it helps. Sometimes, he doesn’t talk at all. Sometimes, people just need a peaceful space to think.” Leah smiled. “Since this is our first session, I want to start with a small evaluation. It will help me know where you’re at, so I can make a recovery plan tailored to you.” She presented a clipboard with a piece of paper clipped to it and a pencil. Ari hesitantly took the clipboard and surveyed the paper, chewing on her lip.

            The form consisted of several neat boxes. In the larger ones were statements, which Ari was supposed to rank from 0-3, 0 being not at all and 3 being nearly every day. She read through the statements, taking her time to contemplate them.

Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems? (circle only one number per line)

  1. Little interest or pleasure in doing things

            Ari circled the number three.

  1. Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless

            Another three.

  1. Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much

            That one was only a one. With Steve and Bucky surrounding her, she no longer had issues falling asleep.

  1. Feeling tired or having little energy

            She circled the three, though some of that was probably due to the fact that she was still recovering from severe dehydration and starvation.

  1. Poor appetite or overeating

            Three.

  1. Feeling bad about yourself-or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down

            She boldly circled the three on this one, pressing the pencil harshly into the paper and nearly ripping a hole in it.

  1. Trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television

            That one only got a one, she’d read through her entire book in a day and a half with no problems, and the three of them had watched a movie just the night before.

  1. Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed. Or the opposite-being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual.

            She contemplated that one before hesitantly circling the number two, more than half the days.

  1. Thoughts that you would be better off dead, or of hurting yourself in some way

            She hurriedly circled the zero. The thoughts hadn’t even crossed her mind.

  1. Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge

            That one got another bold three.

  1. Not being able to stop or control worrying

            Another bold three.

  1. Feeling unproductive at work or other daily activities

            She circled the one.

  1. Having trouble focusing on achieving your goals

            She looked up to Leah at this one and cleared her throat.

            “I don’t have any goals right now, so what do I do for this one?” She asked nervously. Leah smiled.

            “You can circle the zero for now. That’s what we can start with, setting you goals so you have something to work towards.” Leah replied. Ari nodded and did as she was told before handing the form back to Leah. The woman turned and quickly typed the numbers into some computer program before filing the paper away and turning back to Ari with a soft smile. “Okay. Did you have any other questions about the form?” Leah asked. Ari shook her head, before remembering that Leah requested vocal answers.

            “No.” She spoke.

            “So, let’s work on setting some goals for you.” Leah smiled and leaned back in her desk chair. “What’s something you want to do?”

            “Um…I’d like to be able to be alone in the dark.” Ari replied. Leah’s smile didn’t change as she nodded her head. “But I get really scared. It brings me back to the room I was kept. I don’t like it.”

            “Okay. So maybe we can make that a long-term goal and set smaller, short term goals to work up to it. How does that sound?” Leah suggested.

            “Okay, that sounds good.” Ari nodded. “I just…don’t know how.” She admitted nervously, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

            “That’s okay. That’s what I’m here for.” Leah replied easily. “Let’s start with something small, okay? Something that we know you can do.” She urged. Ari licked her lips and cast her eyes to the ceiling thoughtfully.

            “I think I’d like to try going outside.” She hadn’t been out since she’d escaped from the warehouse, nearly dead.

            “That’s a great one, Arianna.” Leah nodded enthusiastically. “Let’s set that as your goal for the next session. How does it make you feel when you think about going outside?” Leah asked, waiting patiently for Ari to gather her thoughts against the pounding that had started in her chest.

            “Really nervous.” She admitted meekly.

            “That’s okay. Can you tell me why?” Leah asked.

            “Um, I just…every time I think about it, all I can think about is that there may be more, and they’re watching me, and I’ll get taken from Bucky and Steve again.” She admitted, knowing that she had to be fully honest with Leah in order for this to work.

            “Does it scare you that you could be taken, or does it scare you that you wouldn’t be with Steve and Bucky?” Leah asked, picking to the heart of the problem delicately.

            “I think both.” Ari replied unsurely. “I don’t want to go back to those people, but the thought of being separated from Bucky and Steve makes me more nervous than that I think.” She admitted.

            “It sounds like you might have a little bit of separation anxiety from Steve and Bucky, and some paranoia.” Leah informed her.

            “Separation anxiety?” Ari asked.

            “Yes. Separation anxiety is what happens when we start to feel anxious, nervous, or scared, when we’re away from certain people or things. It’s fairly common in situations like yours. You equate Steve and Bucky with safety and being away from that causes you to feel that anxiety, the tightening in your chest, when it gets hard to breathe.” Leah explained. Ari nodded in rapt attention, drinking in everything Leah was saying.

            “I think…” She started slowly. “I think that’s what happened the other night, at the apartment. They weren’t back and everything got dark and then I was in that room again.” Ari explained.

            “But it went away when they came back?” Leah asked.

            “Uh, yes.” Ari nodded in response.

            “So, what if Bucky and Steve went outside with you? You wouldn’t even have to leave the tower grounds, maybe just go sit outside with them for a bit?” Leah suggested. Ari had to admit, it did sound nice.

            “Yeah, I think that sounds good.” Ari nodded, allowing a smile to show on her face.

            “Great!” Leah chirped happily. “It looks like our time is up.” She glanced at the clock as Ari’s face screwed up in confusion.

            “It’s already been an hour?” She asked wondrously. Leah chuckled and nodded at her, blond hair bouncing as she did so. “Wow. That wasn’t so bad.” She stated. Leah laughed at this, beaming at the girl.

            “I’m glad to hear that. Let’s set another appointment for three days from today. That would be Thursday. Does the same time, two pm, work for you?” Leah asked, scrolling through her schedule on her computer.

            “Yeah.” Ari replied with a solid nod.

            “Great. I’ll see you then. I can’t wait to hear about outside.” Leah said, but there was no patronizing in her face or tone.

            “Thank you, Leah.” Ari thanked softly before stepping out of the office. Steve and Bucky were sitting in the waiting room, but both jumped to their feet when she approached them.

            “How’d it go, doll?” Bucky asked, almost nervously.

            “It went…good. I feel really good.” Ari replied, nodding. She felt lighter than she had since she’d returned, and it was nice.

            “Great.” Bucky sighed in relief, drawing her into a hug. She giggled as he tickled her slightly and shoved him away.

            “Get off me, you oaf.” She rolled her eyes playfully. “Um…” She suddenly seemed to shrink in front of them.

            “What’s up, sweetheart?” Steve asked gently.

            “Leah and I set a goal for my next session. I’m supposed to go outside. Would you go with me? I’m…scared.” She admitted.

            “We’d be honored, doll.” Bucky nodded, beaming at her.

            “How about tomorrow? We can get some coffee from the café in the lobby and sit out front.” Steve suggested knowingly. He’d had the same goal when he’d first started seeing Leah, right after being thawed, and that’s exactly what he had done.

            “That actually sounds super nice.” Ari nodded.

            “Are you ready to go home?” Bucky asked, tossing an arm over her shoulders. She nodded, a new bounce to her step, and the three of them walked in tandem to the elevator. Friday immediately took the elevator to their floor and they stepped into the hallway.

            “Little lady!” Sam was standing outside of their door, hand poised to knock, but he opened his palm in a wave when he saw them.

            “Sam!” Ari squealed, ripping herself from Bucky’s arms and hurrying towards Sam. He accepted her embrace easily. “I just got out of my first therapy session and I feel really good.” She beamed up at him. He smiled gently back at her.

            “I’m glad, Arianna.” He replied softly.

            “What do you want, birdman?” Bucky grumbled good naturedly, nudging the man’s shoulder with his as he scanned his retinas and the locks on the door clicked open.

            “I wanted to bring this to Arianna.” He held out a paper bag. “It’s my momma’s famous chicken soup. Best comfort food on God’s green Earth.” She took the proffered bag and skipped in after Bucky and Steve. Sam followed, closing the door behind him.

            “Thank you, Sam. That’s very thoughtful.” She grinned.

            Steve knew that one therapy session wasn’t going to change everything, and Ari wasn’t going to magically get better overnight. But this was the happiest he’d seen her since she’d awoken, and it made his heart do a little dance in his chest.

            “Good job, convincing her to see Leah.” Steve turned, pressing a sweet kiss to Bucky’s lips. The dark-haired man smiled into the kiss.

            “And that’s my cue to leave.” Sam snarked from behind them, patting Steve on the shoulder as he exited the apartment.

            “Guys…what’s this?” Ari asked in a choked voice that immediately had the two of them turning to her, panic shooting Steve’s pulse rocketing. She was holding the repaired teapot delicately in her hands.

            “It’s your teapot. Do you like it?” Bucky asked.

            “It’s…beautiful.” She sniffled, peering at the gold inlaid in the areas it had shattered. “How’d you do it?”

            “It was Steve’s idea.” Bucky glanced over at his boyfriend lovingly. “We sent it to a pottery shop, and they did it. It’s called Kintsugi. It’s a traditional Japanese method of repairing broken pottery. The idea is to accentuate the breaks and fractures instead of trying to hide them. Kind of like a celebration of the things that make it unique.” He explained.

            “It’s supposed to prove that just because something is a little broken doesn’t mean it isn’t still beautiful.” Steve murmured shyly. Ari had a sudden feeling that he wasn’t exactly talking about the teapot anymore. Ari carefully set the teapot down, pushing it away from the edge of the counter, and launched herself at Steve. The blonde caught her, startled, as she wound her arms around his trim waist and squeezed him tightly.

            “Thank you so much.”

Chapter Text

            Ari’s coffee was warm, steam rising from the little hole in the lid, but she couldn’t even drink it. Knots had tied themselves in her stomach as she sat stiffly on a bench outside, Bucky and Steve pressed to either side of her and joking to each other over her head. Logically, she knew she was safe. They were only in front of the tower, and Bucky and Steve would never let anything happen to her. But anxiety wasn’t a logical thing. A chilled wind brushed through her hair and she shivered softly, swallowing.

            “How are you feeling, doll?” Bucky’s quiet voice pulled her from her reverie. She turned, startled, to look at him. She’d almost forgotten they were there. At his slate eyes and soft smile, she felt some of her tension melt, and she took a sip of the coffee.

            “Good.” She nodded. Bucky gave her a disbelieving look.

            “Don’t lie.” Steve chided, nudging her shoulder.

            “Nervous.” She sighed. “There’s so many people out here.” She mumbled, taking a larger drink of her coffee. She didn’t know what it was, Steve had ordered it, but it was sweet and warm.

            “I hated crowds for the longest time after Hydra.” Bucky admitted. “Anyone could have been another handler, sent to find me. Or someone who’s family or friend I had killed in a mission.”

            “How’d you get over it?” Ari asked softly.

            “Like this.” Bucky nodded with his head, gesturing to the three of them sitting on a bench in the albeit chilled sunlight. “I spent more time outside in society before I acclimated to it, and now I’m comfortable again.”

            “Back in the day, Buck used to be anywhere there was a crowd.” Steve butted in. “Especially dance halls. The dames were all over him.” He teased. Ari didn’t think she’d ever seen Bucky blush before, but there was a tint of red to the tips of his ears that made her laugh. Bucky couldn’t help but grin at the sound, chest bursting. The three fell into an easier silence as Ari watched the crowd. She’d used to love people watching, had enjoyed observing the people going about their day and wondering what their lives were like, or what they did in their free time. Now, everyone was a threat, and someone could reach out at any minute to snatch her away from her happiness.

            She managed to finish her whole coffee before she pursed her lips and turned to Steve.

            “Can we go now?” She asked, anxiety and panic tightening in her chest. Steve nodded and stood, reaching a hand down to her. She took it and allowed him to easily pull her to her feet, blushing at the small bursts of static that traveled up her arm when he didn’t let go, instead lacing their fingers together. Bucky took her other hand and the two escorted her into the tower and through the lobby, towards the private elevators. Bethany rose her hand in a wave, a sultry smile on her too red lips.

            “Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes! How are you today?” She chimed, grating voice carrying across to them.

            “Good, Bethany, thanks.” Steve replied professionally with a nod of his head. Her lips pursed into a small pout and her hand sank back to her lap before she fixed the girl holding both of their hands with a glare. How unfair was it that Beth saw the two every day, but it was this unknown girl that they chose to devote their attention to?

            The hair on the back of Ari’s neck pricked and she spun, ripping her hands away from Bucky and Steve in the process. She met Bethany’s cold glare with a fearful expression and backed into Bucky’s chest. His hands came to her shoulders, squeezing, and he quickly turned her back around, stooping so that they were eye to eye.

            “Hey. Focus here.” He spoke softly, not breaking eye contact as Steve moved to block the two of them from the majority of the crowd and put his Captain face on. “What are five things you can see?”

            “Your face. Steve’s back. My shoes. The tile. The door.” Ari choked, lip quivering.

            “What are five things you can feel?” He continued, still giving her a comforting smile.

            “Your hands. The ground under my feet. Steve’s sweatpants. My hair on my forehead. My socks.” She replied.

            “What are five things you can smell?” Bucky continued, fingers softly digging into the knots that were coiling on her shoulders.

            “Those delicious scones from the café. Hotdogs from outside. The…tower smell.” She had no other way to describe it. “Your cologne.” She whispered shyly, blushing. “And the mint from the drink you had.”

            “Good. Are you okay?” Bucky asked, seeing the panic start to fade from her eyes. She nodded. “It wasn’t anything. It was just Bethany being a jealous bitch.” He grinned when that made her giggle softly. “Steve and I are here, and we won’t let anything happen. You know that, right?” He asked.

            “Yeah…you guys will keep me safe.” She sighed, closing her eyes.

            “That’s right.” Bucky assured. “Ready to go upstairs?” He asked, straightening and rolling his shoulders.

            “Yes please.” She replied, gripping both their hands once more and allowing them to lead her away. Bucky glanced over his shoulder, fixing Bethany with a flat, disappointed stare. She flinched and averted her eyes back to her computer screen.

            The three rode in silence back to the apartment, stepping inside. Ari immediately relaxed and kicked her shoes off.

            “I hate this.” She moaned, dropping into one of the bar stools as Steve started to heat up water and put a few bags of her calming tea into her tea pot.

            “I know, doll.” Bucky replied, brushing her hair from her eyes.

            “I wish I could go outside without being scared.” She lamented sadly. “I miss the sun.” She suddenly perked, swinging in the chair to meet Bucky’s eyes. He gazed at her, confused. “Teach me how to defend myself.” Bucky pursed his lips and glanced at Steve.

            “I’m…not sure that’s a good idea.” He murmured. “It could be a trigger.” Ari shook her head.

            “It wouldn’t. They never hurt me, and I think I’d feel better if I knew someone couldn’t just come up and snatch me. I’d like to know how to fight back, just a little bit.” Ari’s explanation made sense. Bucky glanced at Steve once more, who gave him a shrug and nodded.

            “Okay, if you think that will help.” Bucky relented.

Chapter Text

Dear readers,

I didn't abandon this story! I've been travelling for a while and now I'm sick with a stomach bug and trying to rest it off. I promise to update here soon!

I love you all!!

Chapter Text

            “You want your feet like this.” Nat kicked her back foot, widening her stance. “And you want to be sideways, not facing the target. It gives you more stability.” The redhead stepped back, surveying Ari’s stance. The boys had asked Nat to train her instead of one of them, both knowing they weren’t objective enough to do it well enough. They’d be too worried about hurting her.

            “Like this?” Ari asked uncertainly, glancing at her feet. The position felt awkward, not one that she was comfortable being in.

            “Yeah.” Nat confirmed. Ari pursed her lips. “I want you to stand up straight and fall back into it again.” She commanded. Ari furrowed her brows in confusion but did as she was told. “Faster.”

            “When are we going to get to the actual fighting part of this?” The girl demanded, turning and planting her hands on her hips. Nat stared at her evenly.

            “You need to know the basics. You need to be able to do them without thinking. I could have knocked you out three times over if we were in a fight and it took you that long to get your stance.” She explained. Ari gave a despondent sigh but did as the woman commanded.

            The Black Widow was nothing like Ari had expected. She’d been scared when Bucky and Steve had first announced it. The Widow was infamous for being cold and deadly. But here, in the gym, she was gentle and patient, despite the numerous corrections she continued to have to make to Ari’s stance.

            “That’s better.” Natasha finally praised after an hour and a half of working on nothing but Ari’s stance, eyebrow quirking ever so slightly, as Ari stood, her calves screaming. “Why don’t we call it for today. I’m sure your super boyfriends are looking for you.” The young girl blushed fiercely.

            “They aren’t my boyfriends!” She sputtered. Nat let out a gorgeous laugh, tipping her head back.

            “Sure.” Nat replied, unbelieving. “You wouldn’t believe the stink they made when I told them they weren’t allowed in on our sessions. Bucky looked like he was going to throw me through the window.” She informed. Ari turned an incredulous gaze on her.

            “He wouldn’t…would he?” She asked in a small voice. Nat let out another beautiful laugh.

            “He couldn’t if he tried.” She assured with a soft smile. “Same time tomorrow?” Nat asked curiously.

            “Yeah.” Ari nodded, then remembered something. “Wait. I have an appointment with Leah at two. Can we do it after that?” She asked, pursing her lips and gauging Natasha’s reaction.

            “Sure.” The spy only nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Arianna.” She lifted her hand in a wave and strode lithely out of the gym. Ari allowed herself a moment to collapse on the bench, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Despite the fact that they hadn’t done anything more than work on her stance, she was exhausted.

            “Ms. Dawson, Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes are looking for you.” Friday’s voice called out to her.

            “Of course, they are.” She muttered, Natasha’s words still ringing in her ears. “I need a shower. Tell them I’ll meet them at the apartment.” She replied to Friday.

            “Of course.” Friday replied before the gym fell silent again. Groaning, Ari lifted herself to her feet and stumbled out of the gym and to the elevator. Friday took her up to the floor she was staying on, and unsurprisingly, Bucky and Steve were waiting for her.

            “How’d it go?” Bucky asked immediately. Ari held up an exhausted hand.

            “Can I get a shower before we start the interrogation?” She sighed, too tired to deal with their over eagerness.

            “Oh. Sure.” Bucky nodded, face dipping into a frown. She brushed past them and entered the apartment with the two super soldiers following her like lost puppies. They watched as she disappeared into her room, and then the water started running. “Do you think she’s okay? She seemed…” Bucky trailed off, frustrated when he couldn’t find a word to fit the odd reaction she’d given them.

            “Tired.” Steve supplied for his boyfriend. “She seemed tired. I would be too. Nat’s training is always rough. I doubt it’s anything to worry about.” He assured his boyfriend, leaning over to press a kiss to the man’s lips. Bucky smiled into the kiss and wrapped his arms around the taller man’s neck. Steve forced his mouth open, stepping forward until they were flush against each other. Bucky let out a breathy moan as Steve’s fingers trailed lightly over the hard planes of his back.

            The two had been careful to minimize their physical contact when Ari was around, and they hadn’t been able to really be with each other since she’d started staying with them. It was nice to finally be with each other, uninhibited.

            “I missed you.” Bucky whispered as they detached. Steve pressed his forehead against Bucky’s and gave him a soft smile.

            “I’ve been right here, Buck.” Steve replied gently. Bucky rolled his eyes and let out a huff.

            “You know what I mean, punk. With all of the stuff going on, we haven’t had a chance to just spend some quality time together.” Bucky replied.

            “I know.” Steve agreed. It was unlikely that they would get the chance for a while, too. The only times that Ari wasn’t with at least one of them was when she was in therapy or when she was with Natasha, and the men generally used those times to try and track down this elusive General Manson.

            Ari leaned against the wall, frowning. She’d known that staying in their apartment, being around them all the time, was wearing on their ability to spend time just the two of them. That was important in a relationship. Even though she’d known, hearing the words out of their own mouths felt like a harsh jab to the chest. Her wet hair dripped, soaking the shoulders of the first t-shirt she’d seen in her suitcase, and made her shiver. Giving another frown, she turned and made her way back into her bedroom.

            A few minutes later, as she’d expected, there was a knock at the door.

            “Come in.” She called, not looking up from the new book she’d started.

            “Hey doll. How are things?” Bucky asked as the two shuffled cautiously into her room.

            “Yeah, they’re good. Training went good.” Ari replied, glancing up as Bucky set a mug of tea down on her bedside table. “Thanks.” She said softly. He gave her a small grin and her heart fluttered in her chest. Curse this man for being so fucking beautiful. “Hey, I was thinking.” She started, finally abandoning her book and picking at the threads on the comforter. “You guys should go out for a day.”

            “What?” Steve asked, startled.

            “No way.” Bucky snapped immediately, straightening abruptly and letting a hard expression settle on his face.

            “I’m fine here.” Ari waved her hand dismissively. “I think you guys should go spend a day together. I’ve got therapy and training tomorrow, I’ll be busy enough. And I’m safe here.” She finally looked up at them.

            “No.” Bucky denied again.

            “Come on. Why not?” She asked, almost desperately.

            “Where did this come from?” Steve asked, reaching forward to place a placating hand on Bucky’s shoulders. The dark-haired man didn’t lower his hackles. Ari didn’t answer immediately, and a knowing, almost sad smile rose on Steve’s face. “You heard us in the kitchen.” It wasn’t a question, but Ari nodded anyway.

            “Doll. It’s not…” Bucky started, and then halted to gather his thoughts. “We’re not upset about it.” He stressed. She didn’t look like she believed him. “We’re not, really.” Bucky said again, defensively this time.

            “Yes, you are.” Ari nodded sagely. “And I get it. It’s…not ideal to have me here, in your personal space, in your lives.” She gestured around vaguely. “I get it.” Bucky wanted to deny it, but Steve squeezed his shoulder a little harsher than necessary and he quieted. “I think you should go spend the day together tomorrow. Without me.” She glanced down again and then looked back up, a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “Besides, I need a break from you two clowns, too.” Steve let out a snort.

            “You’ll call us if anything happens.” Bucky compromised.

            “Of course.” Ari agreed immediately.

            “Even if you think it’s nothing. You call.” He stressed.

            “I’ll call if anything happens, Bucky. Christ.” She rolled her eyes. “Let’s go make dinner. I’m hungry.” Her stomach growled in agreement and the three of them made their way into the kitchen. Bucky was abnormally silent as he harshly pulled steak from the fridge, seasonings and spices from the cabinets, and slammed them closed harder than he should have.

            “Hey. Reign it in.” Steve warned in a low voice, pressing his chest to Bucky’s shoulder. The dark-haired man shoved away from him.

            He wasn’t comfortable leaving Ari alone for a whole day. The last time they’d done it, she’d had a panic attack and had seen one of the motherfuckers that had taken her. It sat in his chest like a puzzle piece that didn’t fit, and it made him fidget in his own skin.

            “Bucky.” A soft hand settled on his shoulder, halting his almost frantic movements as he seasoned the raw meat. “What’s wrong?” Ari’s voice was soft, concerned, but it did little to soothe him. He shook her hand off his shoulder and didn’t see the injured expression that passed over her face. “Okay.” She whispered, retreating around the island and taking a seat on one of the stools, sipping her cooling tea. Bucky immediately felt guilty, but his frustration and discomfort overrode it and he didn’t turn around.

            Dinner was silent and tense. Ari didn’t look up from her meat as she cut into it, and although the food tasted delicious, she didn’t feel like she could really enjoy it. When they finished their dinner, Steve and Ari did dishes together as Bucky stormed into the room he shared with Steve and slammed the door. Ari winced.

            “Is he mad at me?” She asked, turning to Steve.

            “No.” Steve shook his head as he handed her a plate. She loaded it into the dishwasher. “He’s bad with emotions. He doesn’t know how to feel about leaving you alone tomorrow.” He didn’t need to talk to Bucky to know that’s what was bothering the other man. He knew Bucky better than he knew himself.

            “Oh.” Ari spoke softly, frowning. “Is there anything I can do to relieve that?” She asked after a few moment’s deliberation.

            “No.” Steve replied. “He just needs to work through it on his own.” He assured her. “Why don’t you get some rest? I’ll finish these.” He smiled sweetly at her. She nodded and stepped away from the kitchen, pausing at Bucky’s closed door before deciding differently and going into her own room.

            She was nearly asleep when she heard the noises. She jumped up in bed, immediately flipping on her lamp; the nightlight didn’t really illuminate the room that much. She crept to her door and opened it softly, the soft grunts becoming louder. They were emanating from Steve and Bucky’s room, and worry curled in her chest. She took a step out of her own door before a cry punctuated the air.

            “Oh Stevie!” Ari blushed hot red and scurried back into her own room, nearly slamming the door. She hurriedly slid into her own bed, mortification causing her heart to thump in her chest stridently. Of course, she knew that Steve and Bucky were together. But she’d never stopped to consider the implications of it. Somehow, the thought of them making love to each other caused her heart to flutter in her chest and she yanked the sheets over her head and squirmed at the uncomfortable heat that had pooled in her belly.

            She faintly wondered what it would be like to be pressed between them, Steve’s mouth pressed against hers as his hands wandered her body. Bucky behind her, his mouth biting down on the tender skin of her shoulder.

            NOPE. She rid herself of those thoughts immediately. Bucky and Steve were together. They loved each other, and she was only someone they cared about. In a ‘hey I might have fucked up your entire life’ kind of way. They weren’t hers and she wasn’t theirs, and it would remain that way for the rest of her days.

            She nodded decidedly and flipped her lamp off, settling once more into her bed and dutifully ignoring the moans and cries from the room across the hall. It wasn’t her business, anyhow.

Chapter Text

            When Ari awoke, the boys were already gone. She glanced at the clock on the microwave, the bright green numbers reading 12:03pm. There was a note on the island in Bucky’s nearly unintelligible scrawl.

Ari,

Went to go get lunch and maybe a walk around Central Park. Call if you need anything.

Bucky

            The note was short, and even through the writing she could tell that Bucky was still uncomfortable with leaving her alone for the majority of the day. Shrugging, she made a pot of tea and microwaved some of the leftovers from their tense dinner the previous night before planting herself at the kitchen table and staring out the wall of windows. A few seconds later, her phone vibrated. She unlocked it to the group chat she’d started with the men.

Captain Spangly Pants [12:11pm]

Found out that Bucky doesn’t know what a fuckin’ churro is. I think he’s in love.

            Attached was a photo of Bucky, mouth around a long churro, eyes closed and smiling around the treat. Ari giggled and shook her head as another message popped up.

Winter Smolder [12:12pm]

Quit outing me. Rude.

Captain Spangly Pants [12:12pm]

I thought you were already out. 😉

Winter Smolder [12:13pm]

Fuck u.

            Ari laughed once more and locked her phone, setting it down and finishing her lunch. Once she’d finished her pot of tea and stared, lost in thought, out of the window, she realized she only had thirty minutes to get dressed before therapy. She hurried into her room and threw on a pair of workout leggings and a tank top, knowing she was going to meet Nat in the gym right after.

            Friday took her to the floor with Leah’s office quickly. Ari hurried out, knocking on Leah’s door at 2:02pm.

            “Come in.” The woman called. Ari swung the door open and closed it behind her, sitting immediately on the armchair. “How are you today, Ari?” Leah asked, turning in her desk chair to face the woman.

            “I’m okay.” Ari nodded.

            “How did training go yesterday?” Leah asked, steepling her fingers on her lap and giving Ari a professional smile.

            “It went well. Nat’s really patient, which is nice. Also, she lets me call her Nat. What even is my life anymore, Leah?” Ari huffed dramatically, causing the other woman to give a little laugh.

            “And how well did you reach your goal for this week?” Leah questioned. Ari gave a miserable sigh and hung her head.

            “I didn’t.” She muttered. “I got to the door, but I couldn’t make myself go outside. And I didn’t even tell Steve and Bucky what I was doing. Maybe I should have. But then they would have wanted to come with me, and I hate saying no to them.” She admitted. Leah nodded, waiting for her to go on. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go outside alone again. Which is bad news for my bank account.” She lamented. “Gwyn called yesterday. She’s asking me when I’m going to be able to come back. They’re short handed without me. I had to tell her to hire someone else. She was understanding and said that she would readily hand my job back when I needed. But I’m not sure I ever will be. I feel like I’ve hit a roadblock.” She finished.

            “Okay. There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with why you can’t say no to Steve and Bucky.” Leah said.

            “They just get these…miserable looks. Like I just killed a puppy or something. And I don’t want to disappoint them.” Ari replied, huffing.

            “Do you feel like maybe you’re being manipulated?” Leah questioned. Ari’s face dropped into one of shocked horror and she shook her head rapidly.

            “No! They’re not manipulating me!” Ari denied. “How could you say that?” She demanded, almost angrily. Leah’s professional smile didn’t drop from her face.

            “I have to ask.” Leah replied evenly.

            “That’s not fair! You can’t accuse them of something like that! They care about me, they just want me to be okay!” Ari continued wildly. Leah nodded, but didn’t answer. “That’s…that’s shitty, Leah.” Ari snapped. “Can we cut this short? I don’t think I want to talk anymore.” She sniffed angrily.

            “Sure.” Leah nodded and backed away as Ari stood and stormed out of the office. She took the elevator a few floors above them, striding into the gym with anger buzzing under her skin. Nat wasn’t there yet and Ari took the chance to stomp to the bag in the corner. She didn’t bother wrapping her hands, though Nat had told her it was one of the first things she should do and fell easily into her stance. After a few harsh punches thrown that rattled all the way up her arms, though the bag barely moved, she heard the door open.

            “You’re going to hurt yourself doing that.” Nat called out, approaching. Ari turned, fire in her eyes, and bared her teeth at the woman. “Easy, tiger.” The Widow soothed. “Come on. Your stance was good. Let’s wrap your hands.” Ari followed her, sitting heavily on the bench and watched as Nat wrapped her own hands before taking Ari’s right hand. “You want to start at the wrist. You want it firm enough that it’s supportive, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation.” Ari watched in rapt attention as Nat moved slowly, wrapping her hand and each finger before snipping off the end and laying it against the top of the wrap. “Here.” She held the wrap out to Ari. The girl took it and tried to follow the directions that Nat had given her. Hers looked far sloppier, but Nat gave her the all clear. “You were hitting one of Steve and Bucky’s bags. They’re reinforced for their super strength. This is the one you want to use.” She led Ari to a different corner of the room, where a much smaller bag was. Ari fell into her stance immediately. “Okay, show me what you’ve got.” Ari struck her fist out and the bag knocked back. Nat cocked an eyebrow appraisingly as Ari let out another punch. “Hey. If you’re doing this in anger, it’s only going to make it harder for you to do it the right way.” Nat halted her hands with a smooth hand of her own. “There’s a difference between channeling your rage into something useful and wildly swinging at your target. I don’t care what you’re angry about, but you’ve got to hone it into something that helps you, not hinders.” She commanded. Ari took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a beat before she ducked back into her stance.

            Their training session lasted two hours that day, but Ari was startled when her hands barely even throbbed. She’d seen Bucky and Steve come back with splits in their knuckles, already healing. She’d assumed hers would look much the same, but they were largely unscathed, only slightly swelled.

            “The wonder twins don’t wrap their hands because they heal so quickly.” Nat informed as if she’d read the other woman’s mind. Ari glanced up at her as she unwrapped her hands slowly. “And because they’re sadists.” She joked, causing Ari to chuckle. “Good job today. Let’s take the next few days as rest. It’s important to allow your body to recover. Try to take it easy.” Nat said, though she knew that Ari would be down here on her own, training. Ari smiled and nodded her thanks as the Widow stood and exited the gym.

            Alone once more, and with nothing else to distract her, she felt the anger start to bubble to the surface once more. Leah had no right to accuse Steve and Bucky of manipulation. They were too good for that. So good that sometimes it infuriated her. Deep down, she knew that Leah had to ask, because the way that Ari put it really did sound like manipulation. But she also knew that Steve and Bucky respected her wishes, and if she wanted or needed to do something that they didn’t like, they sucked it up and let her do it. They knew better, at least, than to try to stop her.

            She stood and stormed towards the elevator, anger churning in her gut. Friday was mercifully silent as the elevator shot skyward and opened on her floor. She strode down the hallway, stopping at the door and waiting for the retina scan to finish before the locks clicked. She swung the door open to a silent apartment.

            The first thing Ari did was shower. The hot water did little to soothe the flies buzzing under her skin and around her head. She was furious, and it wasn’t an emotion she was used to feeling. She climbed out, toweling off quickly and got dressed in the same quick manner. By the time she exited her room, stomach rumbling, she could hear Steve and Bucky laughing in the kitchen.

            “Hi doll, how was your day?” Bucky asked as she entered.

            “Fucking great.” Ari snapped, ignoring the startled look on his face in favor of searching for something to eat. Steve and Bucky frowned at each other behind her back.

            “Do you want to talk about it?” Steve questioned softly.

            “Not really.” Ari bit out, slamming the cupboard shut when she didn’t find anything to appease her raging appetite.

            “Hey. Calm down.” Bucky soothed, stepping forward to put his hands on her shoulders. It felt like fire where he touched, and she flailed away from him.

            “Don’t touch me, Barnes.” She growled. Bucky’s taken aback expression morphed into one of upset tension she hadn’t seen before and the muscle in his jaw ticked. Ari ignored it, snatching her phone from the counter where she’d carelessly thrown it when she’d stormed into the apartment and scrolled through her apps until she found the food delivery app she was looking for.

            “Hey.” Steve plucked the phone from Ari’s hand and her anger crescendoed into an inescapable, white hot rage.

            “FUCK OFF!” She bellowed, swiping the phone back from him. Her hand, wet from the sweat that had started to encase her, couldn’t grip the phone and the device went flying, landing with a loud clatter on the kitchen floor. The screen flickered to black. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

            Ari let out a furious screech and clenched her hands into fists, spinning and slamming one into a cupboard. The skin split between her already swollen knuckles and blood welled, dripping down her palm. With it bled out the righteous anger. Tears welled in her eyes and she sucked in a sharp breath. Steve and Bucky stood behind her, silent as she’d ever heard them. She didn’t even hear them breathing.

            “I’m sorry.” She whispered brokenly, the anger draining from her quickly. She let her hand fall to her side, burying her chin to her chest, and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry.” The girl strode from the kitchen, hunger forgotten, and crawled into her bed, yanking the sheets over her head. “Friday, don’t let them in.” She commanded shakily.

            “Of course, Ms. Dawson.” Friday answered softly.

            “Can you turn on my Lo-fi playlist?” Ari asked. A few seconds later, the calming beats circled through the room and drowning out the roaring in her ears. She fell asleep with tears staining her cheeks and the thought that, for the first time ever, Steve and Bucky hadn’t come after her.