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Red Threads of Fate

Chapter Text

Prologue:-

Her skin prickled and itched.

She scratched at her arms.

She couldn't reach it.

No matter how hard she scratched, she couldn't reach it.

"You're going to make yourself bleed," a soft voice said, breaking the silence.

She stopped scratching, taking a step closer to the fire and its roaring flames.

"I'm fine."

It was a lie. Lie. Lie. Lie.

She wasn't okay, she wasn't sure she would ever be fine again.

The flames hissed, and wood crackled, and the smell was...comforting.

She could barely feel the heat.

She was so fucking cold.

It had crept inside her, burrowed deep and was rooting.

Twisting vines of thorns and ice, and darkness and...Death.

And yet as much as she was cold, she was hot, burning and wild and itching, rippling with power.

Don't think about it!

She was so fucking cold.

How, how could she be cold when it felt like she was about to self-combust at a moments notice?

They were warring inside of her, she could feel it. The energy, the magic. Whirling around like a vortex...hot and cold. Something new and ancient.

She felt a stranger in her own skin. A stranger in her own soul.

Something was prowling, in the corner of her mind, huffing and puffing.

It kneaded her mind, claws piercing her soul.

She winced at the sharp, biting pain.

Something was wrong with her, so very wrong.

And yet...it felt right.

A chain around her neck vibrated and warmed and hummed. She could feel the familiar feel of wood in her hands, and she didn't need to look down to know what it was.

It thrummed through her, to her soul.

She could feel it vibrating through her, a gentle trickle that seemed to push the cold and darkness back.

Her magic purred, her soul sang.

Mine. Mine. Mine. Home. Home. Home.

A haunting melody.

Yet she found it comforting. She found it gave her strength.

They always came to her, no matter how far away, no matter how many times she had destroyed them.

They returned.

She wasn't sure, but a little part of her whispered they had saved her life.

And the implications of that terrified her.

Don't think about it.

"You're leaving, aren't you?"

She turned from the fire.

Brown eyes burned into her, a swirl of fear and understanding pressing along her skin.

Was she leaving?

Yes. It's the only way.

"It's the only way to stop them," she answered.

A fiery determination spreading through her as though she had living Fiendfyre filling her veins.

"When?"

She could see the pain in her friends' eyes, in both of them as they sat there in silence, watching her.

She wished, wished she could make it go away. With a wave of her wand and all be well again.

But that only happened in the fairytales.

And her life had never been a fairytale.

"Tonight. You've seen the files. You've seen my memories - as disjointed as they are. You know it has to be tonight."

"You don't have to do this alone," blue eyes looked up at her, urging her to see she wasn't alone.

She wouldn't trade them in the world. They had stood by her so many times, had kept her sane and had saved her life, just as she had saved theirs.

But when it came down to facing whatever fate threw at her in the end, she had always faced it alone...those final battles, those last moments it had just been her and her enemies because that was all she had ever known. When the dust had settled, when it mattered most, and the earth stood still, she was always the one standing apart from the crowd...Alone, with blood-covered hands and tears in her eyes.

She had always been different a freak that never fitted in.

And now...now she was even more so, and she didn't know what to do.

So she was running.

Running, throwing herself into the next fight, just as she had after the dust had settled previously, because if she stopped and let everything sink in, then she wasn't sure she would ever be able to crawl out of the darkness that was clawing at her now.

She smiled sadly, "I know, and I need you. I need you both but not on the battlefield. I need to fight this fight on a different playing field."

"What do you want us to do?" her friend asked, her tone brooked no argument. Holly could see the determined tilt in the head, and the crease in the brow that she had learnt long ago meant not to stand in the way of the woman sitting before her.

"I want you to start preparing. Start getting others ready. Find out what you can, you work the Ministry. I work the ground. And hopefully, between the three of us, we can see a pattern. We can track them and end them before any more lives are lost."

A snort drew her eyes, "You mean before the shit storm hits."

His statement was followed by a slap on the head, and hissed words, "Ow! Bloody hell woman!"

Even now, years later they hadn't changed.

Holly doubted they ever would, and she wanted to relish in those cherished memories.

There was hesitation in the voice, uncertainty, "Where are you going to go?"

She didn't know. And that was probably for the best, for the time being.

"I don't know," she answered.

"Promise me you will stay safe."

"I will do my best. I will keep in touch."

She looked at them.

Memorising their faces, every detail.

She wasn't sure when she would next see them, and that hurt. A lot.

It made her hesitate.

She couldn't afford to hesitate.

She couldn't afford to be weak.

She was goblin forged steel.

She was magic.

She was small but mighty.

A curt nod of her head was all the indication she gave before she apparated out of their house, and into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1:-

The wind was chill and Holly buried her nose in her jacket as she walked across the crossing stopping on the opposite side of the road in front of a large towering building.

A simple warming charm would have rectified the problem, but the last thing she wanted was to draw unnecessary attention to herself.

Goosebumps prickled her arms, though Holly was certain it was more for nerves than the cold air that was breezing around her.

Her mouth was dry, and her heart was beating as fast as Billywig's wings rotated.

This.

This was absolutely her worst idea to date, and that included when she decided to jump on a Trolls back when she was eleven, and breaking into Gringotts at seventeen and the countless other ideas she had over the years.

Holly glanced up at the tall building in front of her, feeling incredibly small. For a single moment, she couldn't will her legs to move, to take that all-important step forward.

She was nervous.

More than nervous.

She absolutely could not do this.

It was going to blow up in her face, in true Potter style.

Yet she couldn't pull her gaze away.

The Avengers Tower was hardly one of the seven wonders of the world, or even architecturally pleasing to her eye, though Holly was sure some would disagree, though she could admit that the building was impressive.

An imposing giant that stood out amongst a sea of giants. Styled with all glass and modern chic vibe, it glistened in the sun, like a beacon for a better tomorrow.

Holly had no doubt that had been the intention of the design all along, even before the pale blue A had been firmly fixed into place signalling to New York and the rest of the world that the Avengers were here, present, watchful and guarding.

A beacon of hope in a bleak turmoil world.

But it was because of that turmoil that Holly found herself standing outside the Avengers Tower.

That didn't stop the uncertainty creep along her spine. Holly couldn't help but feel as if the tower was glaring at her as if it knew she was here under false pretences.

Well, technically she wasn't. She was here for a job interview, and she did want the job.

Holly just wasn't listing the many reasons why she wanted the job.

Not that she could worry about that too much.

No, right now she just needed to convince her legs to work and walk into the building.

That would be her first step.

She would worry about everything else once she had done that.

She just needed to move.

Five seconds.

Holly would give herself five seconds.

She would allow five seconds before she pushed herself forward and step into the building.

Holly closed her eyes and breathed.

One.

It's just like every other job she had been on. It was just another mission. She could do this.

Two.

She had nine years as an Auror under her belt. Seven years of fighting a war that had started long before she was born.

Three.

She had survived Voldemort. She had hunted down his Death Eaters.

Four.

She was Holly fucking Potter, and it wasn't in her nature to back down. Not when others depended on her.

Five.

She had survived so much, she had survived death. Walking into a building that housed Earth's Mightiest Heroes should be a walk in the park.

Holly opened her eyes, pulled her Occlumency shields tightly around her, just in case any of them had the powers of mind-reading, and schooled her face until she was wearing the Auror mask she had perfected over the years.

She ignored her stomach hardening, ignored her magic seeming to uncoil and test and taste the air.

Even ignored what felt like an itch in the back of her head, a clawing sort of nudge that seemed to be driving her forward in a way Holly didn't understand.

There were days Holly felt as if she was a stranger in her own skin, or that she shared her body with something that hungered for things she couldn't quite put a name to.

Shaking her head softly, while muttering to herself, Holly moved towards the swirling front doors as people moved in and out of the building and joined those pushing their way into the building.

Warm air washed over her, a welcome relief from the coldness outside, without being swelteringly over the top.

While the outside outer shell of the building hadn't been welcoming, Holly couldn't say the same about inside.

All sleek-lines and marble floor that shimmered in the rays of the low winter sun. Holly's eyes swept over the lobby as she walked towards the main reception desk, making a mental note of the security team dotted around, nine in total. Holly wasn't sure if that was overkill or if they were precautious, but considering whom the tower housed, precautious was what she was hedging her bets on.

Especially considering who their enemies were.

Each of them armed and positioned strategically. The advantage would be with the home front before the bad guys even stepped through the lobby.

Holly knew how and where she would attack from, and with her using magic they wouldn't see her coming, she would be able to take them.

Not that she had any intention of crossing paths with them.

Holly was here to observe, gather the information that she needed and then leave.

In and out.

No complications.

Even if it took weeks or months, she had allowed for that. She couldn't risk rushing this and letting the opportunity slip through her fingers.

She needed whatever information the Avengers had on Hydra before she could even contemplate her next move.

But first, Holly needed to get the job.

Failure was an unacceptable outcome.

She had come too far to fail now.

How was it the saying went 'Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.'

Holly was more than prepared to move or raise hell to achieve her goals.

Especially if it meant lives were saved.

Holly walked across the lobby with a confident purpose she had perfected over the years. The lone shy girl in the cupboard buried long ago. She had her mask firmly fixed in place, moving like she belonged in a sea of muggle business-minded individuals and professionals.

Holly may have been more comfortable in dragon hide Auror approved combat boots any day of the week that allowed her to kick ass; run, fight and still made her legs look good.

But that didn't mean she didn't know how to look the part of an aristocrat heiress. She hated the scene, but Andromeda had taught her well, taught her how to highlight her best features, how to disarm with a smile and words, just as easily as she could with a wand. Holly knew how to manoeuvre the political waters, knew how to dance not just on the battlefield but also in the galas and the social circles of the elites.

It was those skill sets that had allowed her to be good at undercover work. The masks she wore gave her a layer of protection from the prying eyes of the Wizarding World who only ever wanted pieces, and never the whole package that made her who she was.

Holly pulled up every ounce of training she had received as she crossed that lobby.

Her four-inch heels clicking on the marble floor matched her black skirt and jacket. The crimson red blouse and equally dark red painted lips, the only splash of colour she had allowed, stood out against her pale skin, made her look like an entirely different person.

As if she had donned armour.

Holly had even spent the extra few minutes and more hair charms than she liked using to style her hair so lose curls fell over one shoulder. Discreetly hiding her left side of her neck.

Armour and her masks, keeping the real her tucked away safe.

She smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle in her skirt and smiled her warmest smile as she reached the reception desk, ignoring the knotting ropes in her stomach and the itch of her right hand to reach for her wand.

She was just a muggle. Just a muggle. Don't use magic unless she had no other choice.

The receptionist had short dark brown hair, a cheeky smile and a dimple on his chin. He looked entirely too young or instead just fresh-faced enough that he gave the appearance of youth.

"How can I help you, ma'am?" His teeth were too white, almost blinding white, and from the way he smiled Holly was sure it was a new thing, and he intended to show them off whenever he could.

"I have an interview with Maria Hill," Holly replied, her own smile not nearly as full as, her eyes glanced at his name tag, 'Simon's'.

"Name please?"

Holly's hand twitched slightly before answering, "Holly Potter."

She had thought long and hard about what name she would use, and while she had a few 'fake identities' that she had used over the years in the muggle world, there was only one that would hold up to the level of scrutiny that she had no doubt her application would receive.

And even though she was confident that Kingsley had done an excellent job in ensuring her records were the best they could be to withstand any government inspection, any questions thrown her way, the knots tightened together, and her stomach turned. Her right hand felt the familiar feel of her wand in her palm before she quickly shoved it back into place in the wand holster.

Holly kept the smile in place and her emotions firmly in check as Simon typed away at a keyboard that looked so thin and flimsy Holly wasn't entirely sure it was really there or whether it was an image of one in some way.

Holly knew only seconds ticked by, but it felt like a lifetime had passed the moment she had given her name and for Simon to check the computer for whatever the hell he was checking for. It was only as he looked up at her and smiled a little wider, that she let out a breath she hadn't realised she had been holding and relaxed her shoulders ever so slightly.

Holly smiled at him, as he passed her an ID card that seemed to have her picture printed onto the front.

What the actual fuck?

Holly swallowed the question and asked instead about other potential candidates.

"Have there been many candidates?"

"Only five, including yourself. Ms Hill will be meeting you on the 80th floor. Use the fourth elevator on the right; it's the only one that goes up that far. Just press your ID card to the sensor, and it will open for you."

"Thank you."

"Good luck in your interview, and have a pleasant day ma'am."

Holly nodded in acknowledgement, before making her way towards the elevators, she was pretty confident that was the American term for lifts, behind the reception desk and to the one that would take her up to the upper levels.

Two more security guards stood at the far wall, watching all who entered and exited them. They eyed her up cursorily as she made her way to the one closest to them.

Holly forced herself to ignore them, not disrespectfully; she acknowledged them as any regular muggle would brief eye contact before going about her business, even though it set her teeth on edge to give her back to armed individuals.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

The elevator doors opened with a soft hiss, once she pressed her ID card to the sensor, and she stepped inside, letting out another breath of relief as nobody followed her.

Holly hated lifts.

Hated the confined space.

Even magical ones that expanded at will.

Despite the space being big enough to fit, eighteen people or at least the sign indicated eighteen Holly didn't believe it for a second, she could feel her heart beating that little bit faster, her palms clamming together.

Holly took off the suit jacket, hoping that one less layer would at least provide the illusion of freedom.

It didn't help.

She ran a hand through her hair.

Just breathe.

In through your nose.

Out through your mouth.

The last thing she needed was to turn up to her interview looking like a pooling mess.

But the elevator was...

Too much.

It felt too confining.

Too much like...

Don't think about it!

Her magic snapped, baring its teeth, the lights flickered and the elevator...groaned, caught and jerked.

Holly froze.

Oh, come on, this was not how she was going to die, because she couldn't keep her emotions in check, because she was an emotional child who didn't know the difference between control and lack of control.

And didn't that sound entirely too much like Snape for comfort.

Holly breathed and shoved everything down.

She closed her eyes and recited the only thing she knew that calmed her, spells rolled through her mind.

Perhaps it said something about her, that violence was the only comforting thing in her life. But it was familiar; it was a part of who she was, how she had been raised.

She didn't know how to be soft or gentle.

But she did know how to bring down opponents with a flick of her wand.

Ebubilo Jinx - traps a target in a giant bubble.

Orbis Jinx - sucked the target into the ground.

Pounding Hex -

"My apologies, Ms Potter, there appears to be a minor technical glitch that temporarily disrupted the elevator. It has now been fixed," a British male voice broke the silence in the elevator.

"Huh." Holly opened one eye and glanced around, "Umm, I'm sorry, it's fine but...yeah, who are you?"

"Forgive me, Ms Potter; I am JARVIS, the artificial intelligence that runs the Tower."

Holly opened her other eye and frowned.

Artificial intelligence? Sentient?

Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can't see where it keeps its brain. Tom Riddle's Diary had been Sentient and it had taught her that lesson well.

"You're not going to try and kill me are you?" she asked because really she had nothing to lose in asking...other than the fact it wasn't a question that most people would ask.

There was a pause, and Holly looked up at the security camera waiting patiently for Jarvis to answer, "No, Ms Potter."

He sounded somewhat amused. Guess Artificial intelligence could do amusement, now wasn't that fascinating.

Holly smiled slightly, "That's good. It's not Wednesday, people are only allowed to try and kill me on Wednesdays."

"I see, Ms Potter, and how would they try to kill you, if it was in fact Wednesday?"

The amusement was there.

"I have to say death by elevator would be a new one and not the way I would want to go. But speaking of the most recent transaction, it would have been death by car," Holly paused, rambling because she needed the distraction more than anything else, "I think it is a written universal law. Wednesdays are kill Potter Day, right alongside Tequila Tuesdays and Thirsty Thursdays."

Holly smiled; she could imagine trying to introduce Jarvis to Arthur Weasley, who found the rubber duck incredibly beautiful.

"I see."

"So, I have to ask what is a fellow Brit doing in a place like this?"

"I have to admit Ms Potter that you are the first British person I have met."

"Well, that's just sacrilege. Well as your first Brit, it is going to have to be my job to educate you in all things British," Holly paused, "or at least for as long as the rest of the elevator ride is if I don't get the job."

Holly leaned back against the wall of the elevator and folded her arms, jacket hanging loosely over them, "So quick bullet points, tea is god's gift to earth, something that must be treasured above all costs don't let anyone tell you any different. Rugby is one of the best sports in the world and originated in England in the first half of the 19th century. It seriously is an amazing sport, and something we Brits are damn proud of, regardless of whether we are English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish."

She continued, "We spend an average ten months of our adult lives moaning about the weather, and I don't think we will ever apologise for that fact, and you have to have a certain level of sassy to you."

"I do believe I have a certain level of sassy Ms Potter, and the weather is entirely too cold today," Jarvis answered with more amusement than she had been expecting.

Holly smirked, "I like you, Jarvis. You would fit right in back in Britain."

"I do endeavour to be well-liked Ms Potter."

"I'm sure you do," Holly chuckled, "I'm sure you do."

The ding of the elevator doors signalled that she had in fact reached her destination, or rather the elevator had, and as they slid open Holly breathed.

"It has been a pleasure, Jarvis."

"Ms Hill is waiting for you in meeting room 104, and Ms Potter..." he paused, "Good luck."

"Thank you, Jarvis."

Holly stepped out of the elevator, her shoulders relaxing ever so slightly the tightly wound coil holding everything in place loosened.

She was still alert and ready for action, but her muscles were relaxed and more fluid for movement than rigid and fixed into place as it took every ounce of will she had not to slip into the darkest corners of her mind.

Holly couldn't help but wonder whether Jarvis had been monitoring her in the elevator and had seen the signs that signalled something wasn't right. And wasn't that an unnerving thought.

She was used to being under a watchful gaze, the Wizarding World had watched her every move for years, but Jarvis would be different. It meant that she had one more factor she would need to take into consideration when moving about the building.

Provided she got the job.

She really needed to ace this interview.

She needed to impress without being too impressive.

Holly walked in the direction of the meeting room that Jarvis had indicated to, knocked once on the door and waited for a somewhat firm voice calling her to enter.

Holly pushed open the door to the meeting room and stepped inside.

Maria Hill was a striking woman that commanded attention.

She was tall, with calculating eyes that settled on Holly the moment she entered.

She held herself in a way that told Holly she was used to being in charge and people following her orders. Hill reminded her very much of McGonagall, stern, fair, unforgiving to those that crossed her, and willing to do what needed to be done to keep those under her care safe.

Holly could feel the weight of the woman's gaze pressing down on her skin. Blue eyes weighing, judging as wheels spun around and around.

Hill was nothing if not professional, and whatever opinions were being formed she wisely kept to herself.

The woman indicated for her to take the seat.

Holly sat down, as Hill followed suit, her stomach churning and the spot between her shoulder blades itching ever so slightly, almost as if she was being watched, observed from a distance.

Holly ensured her mask was firmly in place, that she gave nothing away that she did not want to give away. Shrouding herself in an icy blanket that kept her safe from harm, indifferent and professional.

In control at all times.

Metaphysical hands pushed the doors to her magic firmly shut, so not a single thing leaked.

Hill may have been an impressive woman, a worthy opponent, but compared to the evil Holly had faced she wasn't somebody that would ever intimidate her.

Holly glanced around the room; it was minimalistic and had what looked to be a mirror along the length of a wall, it was probably a one-way mirror.

Holly couldn't help but wonder if someone was observing from the other side.

"Ms Potter, why do you think you would be good for the job?"

Holly tilted her head ever so slightly, as she thought about the question. Hill wasn't wasting any time; she was cutting right to the point, asking the direct questions and forgetting the warm-up.

Holly needed to give enough without revealing too much of her skill set, or where she learnt it from.

It was a tricky game, a play on words.

But everything depended on her answer.

"I am good with people. My previous role involved me working in highly sensitive matters and required me to keep my head on straight to deal with any potential threats that threatened those under my care."

Holly continued, "I know how to handle myself, and tackle a problem from all angles, even looking outside the box for solutions. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty and get stuck in, in any task, I am required to do."

"Your previous employment, tell me what exactly was your role?" Hill asked.

"I worked for the Evans-Black Foundation. It was my job to ascertain the risks involved in regards to projects, locations of new projects and our extensive involvement within the community. We worked to help vulnerable people in getting a better life, a better future, and that unfortunately involved dealing with the darker accepts of human nature."

Among other things.

Not that she could say that allowed.

"An example?"

"Without breaching my previous contract NDA, we dealt with those that were exposed to drugs, gangs; human trafficking rings, to name just a few. The Foundation, for the most part, was seen as a good thing; however it did have its fair share of crossings with those less than pleased with our...interference."

Holly continued, "I still have my contacts across the world with the work I did with the foundation. Some are involved in less than savoury things."

And some are entirely magical, but that is another thing.

"And your reason for leaving?"

Holly's heart thumped loudly.

She gave a tight smile. The best lie was a lie filled with half-truths, and this was as close as it was going to get.

"I needed time to heal," Holly answered, not giving an indication exactly when she left.

As far as the muggle world was concerned, Holly Potter had been working across the globe for the Foundation and had left a year ago, after the incident.

Not that she had been acting as a ghost and that she had left her home close to just over three years ago.

"And you chose not to go back?"

"You have my records, you know what happened. I failed."

"Your records clearly indicate that it wasn't your fault, Ms Potter. That the circumstances were stacked against you and that you barely made it out alive."

Another half truth.

Her heart beat a little faster, her palms felt clammy, and she could feel a part of her stirring, raising its head from slumber and looking at Maria Hill with entirely too much curiosity than Holly liked.

Threat? It purred.

Holly pushed it down. She couldn't afford to lose control now.

Couldn't afford to show weakness.

"Tell me Ms Hill, do you in part blame yourself for the fiasco in DC nine months ago? Even though it wasn't your fault."

Maria Hill looked at her, her gaze hardening, but it was an answer in itself. Maria Hill had her own burden of guilt to live with, and so did she.

"You've done your research."

"I wouldn't say research, but Shield's fall was made rather public. Not that I hold much stock or faith in the media. They report what they want to report, and twist words easily enough to sway people's judgement," Holly answered, "I have no right to judge Shield, nor do I believe they are the enemies that the world now believes them to be."

"You would be one of the few."

"The world is always looking for a scapegoat, no matter how right or wrong. Of course what they have failed to realise is, just how deep Hydra's reach went. Haven't three Senators been arrested with their connection to the organisation?"

Hill eyed her curiously. As if she had just rearranged her puzzle pieces without telling her and Hill now had to start again in building the picture.

"Ms Potter, I won't lie you have quite the résumé, and the references alone are glowing enough."

Hill continued, "I am aware of your medical history, and I am also aware that you have fully healed. While we aren't out fighting every day like the Avengers, it is our job to offer support when it is required. That can, at times, be demanding. We are the support, in all aspects, information, driving, organising safe houses that we at least know about, along with any international feathers we have to smooth should the Avengers be required elsewhere," Hill said, "We shield them from all threats that they cannot or unable to shield themselves from."

"Shield, interesting choice of words, all things considered, Ms Hill," Holly said softly.

Hill didn't blink, but a glint flickered to life.

"I'm going, to be frank, Ms Potter; you have the skill set we need. But there are things I need to be certain of first."

"I respect frankness rather than spiralling around the issue," Holly admitted.

"Why do you want the job?"

Holly licked her lips, and looked up at the woman, "I can't stand injustice, and I can't stand bullies. I'm not a hero, I don't like the spotlight, I don't have super strength, and I can't fly in a metal suit. But I know they can't stand alone, and face what they need to face," Holly paused.

She continued, "We need them. Not to stop bank robbers or crimes that the police are trained to deal with. But the world-changing events or the world-ending, we need people who are willing to use their gifts to help others, and not simply seek more power. So I will help how I can, but you might want to keep me away from the press."

It wasn't exactly a lie, more like she was skirting around the truth. She may have spent almost a decade fighting Dark Wizards and winning a war, but Holly hadn't done it alone, and she certainly wasn't a hero. But what she was; was an Auror, who had training Hill couldn't even begin to dream about, who couldn't stand the idea of people abusing their power because they could, or because they sought more.

Hill's lips twitched ever so slightly, but she gave nothing else away to signal Holly's statement amused her.

"Are you inclined to take things, ask for autographs? Or creepily stare at Earth's mightiest heroes?"

"Can I phone a friend, or go fifty-fifty?" Holly replied without missing a beat, but from the look, Hill sent her way, she wasn't sure her attempt at a joke was appreciated, "No, to all three."

Hill smiled slightly, "You might just survive here. Potter, I am hiring you on a trial basis. We will see just how much of a fit you actually are."


"Ten."

Steve glanced up at Natasha, her fingers elegantly tapping away on the Stark pad in her hands, as images filled the larger screen in the room that most of them referred to as the War Room.

He felt Bucky tense at his side as his friend crossed his arms and glared at the offending screen with more coldness than was strictly necessary. Sam's eyes darted between the three of them, lingering a fraction longer on Bucky than was required, but his friend held a certain level of caution when dealing with the Soldier.

His teeth ground together, heat flushed through his body as his blood bubbled and his muscles quivered at the term.

Bucky wasn't the Winter Soldier, except that he was, and nine months of being free from Hydra's grip had not yet softened the razor-sharp edges that his friend radiated with every breath he took, with every move he made.

Predator.

Cold.

Calculating.

Ruthless.

Killer.

Except he was Bucky, and Bucky was so much more than what Hydra had made him. So much more than the darkness that he shrouded himself with.

Steve saw it in the briefest of flickers when a memory resurfaced and the man remembered.

Steve heard it in the whimpers, and the cries as the nightmares gripped him and wrapped around him, dragging him through whatever hell he had already lived through.

It was only upon waking, only upon a metal hand wrapped around his throat that Bucky's eyes glistened with unshed tears and whispered 'Stevie' that Steve knew Bucky was buried deep inside and he was clawing his way to the surface with every breath he took.

He was getting better.

But it was taking time.

Steve just wished that he would let him help in the way that Steve knew he could, that Bucky would allow the connection, the bonds form and solidify like they had once been so long ago. Golden and red threads of light that hummed in sync with their heartbeats were now dimmed and frayed and so very fragile.

Bucky glanced at him, cold eyes throwing an accusation his way even if he didn't voice it whenever Steve's thoughts turned to the bonds, to the marks, to them.

He shut down that trail of thought quickly, locked it up tight and reigned in his own instincts like he was gripping metal chains.

It would take time, he knew that.

At least he relaxed a little around Natasha, around Sam, even Clint but the others Bucky kept at a distance and Steve wasn't sure how he could force the issue and draw him further into their group, rather than staying on the fringes.

Except now wasn't the time to push the issue, not when Natasha's Intel was so damn important.

"How sure are you that the Intel is accurate?" he asked, unable to keep the bite from his tone.

Natasha looked up at him, raised an eyebrow questioningly, and held his gaze for a moment. They had worked together for three and half years, she knew him better than most. He didn't need to voice his concern aloud, and from the way, her eyes darted fleetingly between him and Bucky she had read his message loud and clear.

"Ninety-five per cent accurate. I can be very persuasive, and my mark was very talkative when the right kind of pressure was applied," she answered, with a glint in her eyes, that made him realise he really didn't want to know before the moment passed between them, and her face became carefully blank.

"Ten Hydra cells in New York, that can't be a coincidence," Sam added.

"It would be one hell of a coincidence if it was," Steve agreed, as he looked back at the locations they had been given.

"It's not a coincidence," Bucky rumbled, speaking for the first time since they had entered the room, "Hydra doesn't do coincidence. It makes coordinated attacks, plans within plans."

Steve watched as his friend moved closer to the large screen, and pointed to one of the locations, "I remember this particular hideout - it was used as a base for one of my missions in the 70s - can't remember much more...I'm sorry."

"It's enough," Steve cut across firmly, it was more than enough, "You have given us something concrete Bucky, and that's enough. You've confirmed at least one known location; we can have teams on the others for the time being, gather more information, before we make a move."

"Did your informative say exactly what they were doing in New York?" Sam asked, "I mean it's kind of suicidal being this close to Avengers Tower and everything."

"He didn't," Natasha stated, "It could be that they are testing the waters, seeing how good we react, seeing what we do. The Intel could even be a trap or, they could be planning something else."

"We will have to plan for all possible outcomes," Steve agreed, crossing his arms as he looked at the information again, "They are ten-man teams from what the intel is saying, but combined together it's a sizeable problem, especially with their training."

"Do you think its revenge - for outing them?" Sam asked.

"Against us, possibly, but they aren't in the position where the advantage goes to them to make their move right now," Steve replied.

"It's not exactly been kept a secret that I am here," Bucky said, sounding more defeated than Steve ever wanted to hear him.

"I won't let them have you again," he growled, and fuck it he wouldn't. He would tear anybody apart that tried to take Bucky from him again.

Bucky met his gaze head-on, his eyes shifting instinctively to that state of being that Steve was never able to achieve. The Winter Soldier was more than just a weapon for Hydra; he was the fucking apex predator that Hydra had kept on a leash.

"I will talk with Hill and Happy in regards to upping the security on the building, raising it to a level four," Natasha said softly, her tone offering calmness when all he could feel was a tightly wound ball of swirling emotions that was steadily getting tighter and tighter and the urge to just punch something became almost unbearable. "Plus Hill has hired extra staff today."

Steve turned to look at Natasha and barely hid the grimace, "How many?"

"All of the five candidates that interviewed today, they passed the background checks, and we are a little thin on the ground. Stark gave her a reasonable size budget," she answered, "The extra help will ease the burden of stakeouts and lookouts."

"Civilians," Bucky snorted.

"Four are former Shield agents; they stood with us at the Triskelion, worked with Hill before and are a little lost since the fall of Shield."

"We all know Shield isn't gone," Steve stated, throwing her a look.

Natasha shrugged, "Maybe they lost their faith a little."

"You mentioned four - the fifth is a civilian?" Sam asked.

"She wasn't Shield, and nor is she any of our government agencies. She's British, and seems to have enough skill to be able to take care of herself. Plus we can work with them to get their skill set up to a better level," Natasha replied with a shrug, "We need more support, and Hill is trying to get that for us. The security here is great, and the teams are good, but Happy is Stark's man through and through."

"Any of them Hydra?" Steve asked.

"They all came back clear with background checks, though -"

"There is no way to tell for definite," Bucky stated.

"It's a trial period at the moment, it gives us a chance to feel them out," Natasha replied.

"It's smart. Better to see the knife than have the knife in the back," Bucky argued.

"Only you would use that logic!" Sam protested.

"Knock it off you two," Steve warned, forcing the two of them to fall silent as they threw each other glares. There were days he wasn't sure who was worse, Sam or Bucky, both liked to provoke the other.

"We will deal with it as another day's problems. Right now, we need to focus on Hydra in New York."

"When are we telling the others?" Natasha asked, shifting on her feet.

"Tomorrow morning, Tony will be back from the West Coast as will Thor, and we need everyone on this, including Maria."

"In the meantime, we need to rest. You need to rest," Natasha declared, "You look exhausted."

"I'm fine."

"Don't make me drug you, Rogers."

He stifled a yawn.

"Maybe you're right."

She snorted in response, "I'm always right."

"We can figure our next move tomorrow, with everyone else. Jarvis, activate Privacy Protocols."

"Of course sir, Privacy Protocols activated, files secured," Jarvis chimed from the ceiling, "May I be so bold to arrange notifications in respect to tomorrow's meeting, Captain Rogers?"

"Please Jarvis, for nine am."

"Of course sir."

Steve watched as Natasha left first, Bucky following without so much as a glance in his direction, Steve could admit it hurt.

He wanted Bucky to talk to him. He needed to make everything better, for it to go back to the way it used to be. Effortless like breathing, they fitted; it had been them against the world. But now, they were shattered pieces, and Steve didn't know how to start putting them back together, and Bucky wasn't letting him in.

He didn't know how much longer he could stand on the sidelines.

"You need to give him time," Sam said softly, "I know it doesn't sit well with you. I know you have a complicated past, and I know it isn't an ideal situation to be in, I know it is difficult. But his recovery isn't about anyone else. It's about him, and he needs to heal at his own pace."

"I know," Steve sighed wearily, and fuck did he know that. He looked up at Sam, "Am I making it worse?"

"You aren't pushing the issue - which is good. But you look, all wishful and hopeful, and Bucky sees it. He doesn't say anything, but he sees it. I know...I know you are hurting Steve, but it isn't a personal attack on you," Sam paused, watching him closely.

His jaw clenched tightly as he tried to reign in everything he was feeling. He could feel them bubbling under the surface of his skin, threatening to explode.

He was in control.

He was in control.

He couldn't afford to be anything but in control.

He was Captain America, the one everybody looked to, turned to.

He couldn't afford to lose control, to fall apart.

What he felt he could, no he would carry that burden alone.

"His rejection isn't personal. Just be there for him, yes he is Bucky Barnes, your best friend, but see him as a person now. Get to know him now; don't just rely on your past. He doesn't remember who he was, or what was done to him, but it will start coming back to him and Bucky's going to need all the support he can get."

"And he will have it."

"And you need support. I'm always here. Bucky's recovery is about him, but that doesn't mean you have to hurt in silence either. I've got your back man."

Steve gave him a slight smile, "Thanks, but I'm fine. I'm -"

"The man with the plan. Yeah, I've heard that line before," Sam chuckled.

His smile widened a little, but even then it felt forced.

"I will leave you to your rest; don't stay up all night, Captain. We need you fighting fit for tomorrow's meeting."

"Yeah, I won't stay up much longer."

Sam nodded, reached for his shoulder and squeezed once before he left the room.

Steve glanced back at the screens, running a hand through his hair, his eyes narrowing as he reread over the information Natasha had gathered.

Hydra, an enemy that he had thought destroyed over seventy years ago, and had managed to survive, rebuild in the heart of an organisation that had claimed to protect the world.

The damage Hydra had done in the years it had been with Shield was extensive, unimaginable.

Events in the cold war.

The Cuban Missile crisis.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The Gulf War.

And so many others.

Their fingers stirring the pots, rotting the world from the inside out, thriving in the chaos.

What was their motto, 'cut off one head, two more grow back' how did one kill something that re-grew heads?

How did one destroy an idea?

And wasn't that the question that spun around and around like a wheel.

Another yawn threatened to escape; he had been running on empty fumes for the last nine hours, perhaps he should get some rest.

Get some sleep, though he wasn't sure it was genuinely restful.

Too many memories stirring, too many feelings whirling around inside of him looking for an outlet.

Maybe he would go to the gym first, go a few rounds on the punch bag.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:-

Curling tendrils of darkness and coldness slashed at her mind.

Danger.

They pressed along her skin...warning her.

Biting and clawing.

Someone had stepped across her wards.

Holly woke to the pulsing beat of hummingbird wings flapping throughout her entire body, darting upright the moment her eyes snapped open, wand in her hand.

She was off the bed like a crack of a spell shooting out of a wand, shadows wrapping around her protectively, shrouding her from sight, blending almost entirely into the darkness.

Her body tensed, her stomach tightened and hardened, and she fell into that part of herself that was always pushing to the surface, primal instincts that pushed back everything else and drove her forward one foot in front of the other as she searched for the threat.

Holly slipped through the crack of her bedroom door without making a sound, her bare arms prickling as cold air washed over her.

She drew a breath.

Calmed her racing heart, until the beats were a little less frantic and less likely to give her away should anyone be able to hear them.

Holly took a step forward, as her senses stretched and rolled through her apartment as if she was a gentle breeze.

She could feel them.

The intruder. The pulsing beat of life that called to her with every beat of their heart.

A soft glow that she could see, feel and taste.

The shadows stalking them as they moved from kitchen to living room.

Threat? They purred.

All Holly had to do was reach just a little for the rippling current of power that prowled inside itching to reach the surface.

To be used.

Wait, she ordered.

Holly hated it, hated it as much as she found comfort in it. Hated that it felt so familiar, so much like...home.

Her wards prevented muggles from breaking in, which meant whoever was intruding was a witch or a wizard, and good enough to slip in through her wards, without shattering them into a thousand pieces.

Potential spells raced to the surface, but Holly wanted answers and going non-lethal was her only option if she intended to get them.

Eliminate?

No.

Movement caught her eyes, a glimpse in the moonlight of pale white skin.

She drew another breath.

And moved.

"Expelliarmus!"

Scarlet light flared to life and shot out of her wand.

Holly's eyes widened.

"Goddamn it Luna!" she hissed through clenched teeth, as her spell hit the glass Luna was holding and promptly shot out of her friend's hand and across the room hitting the wall with a smash.

Holly stared at Luna.

Luna stared at her, a dazed look on her face as her mouth fell open.

Not that Luna stayed surprised for long, her mouth closed and her lips turned into a smile.

"Hello, Holly."

"Hello, Holly. Really, hello, Holly? I could have killed you!"

"But you didn't."

As if that made all the difference.

"That is completely beside the point," Holly snapped.

"Your wards are keyed to me, and Hermione and Ron. Nobody else could have gotten past them," Luna countered, waving her wand at the mess which vanished in seconds.

A light hummed to life, and Holly was able to get a good look at her friend. Someone she hadn't seen in twelve months.

Not that Luna had changed.

Still, moonlight pale, silvery long hair that made her appear more other than human, still silent strength with all to knowing and seeing blue eyes.

Luna was right.

She had designed her wards specifically to only allow four people to get past them.

Four people besides herself.

If she had taken the seconds she needed for that thought to have caught up with her, then she wouldn't have gone straight on the attack.

Except even behind layers and layers of magic Holly still didn't feel safe. Didn't switch off easily. Her instincts too ingrained into her.

She was always ready for an attack.

Voldemort.

Assassination attempts in the years that followed.

Various Dark Witches and Wizards trying to make a name for themselves by killing her.

Hydra.

Her list of enemies was always growing.

Another always rose to take the place of those she had defeated.

"You were dreaming."

Holly snorted in response...and because she was dreaming, the lingering taint still gripping her even now.

She very rarely slept for long these days.

"I don't dream, at least not pleasantly, not anymore."

"Nightmares have just as an important message as dreams do Holly; you know this better than most."

"I know what my nightmares are telling me, Luna," Holly replied coldly, crossing her arms and glaring at the wall to the side of her friend.

Luna, it seemed sensed her reluctance and didn't push any further.

"Four hundred."

Holly snapped her gaze back up to her friend who was glancing down at the various files and parchment that Holly had spread out across the table she had commandeered as her workspace.

Luna's face was grim, her blue eyes dim in comparison to the glistening blue she was so used to seeing.

"I have the information you asked for, it took some time between me asking and having it gathered discreetly of course, and I was in a different country. But four-hundred."

"Over how long of a period?" Holly asked, needing to know the answer even if she didn't want to acknowledge the answer.

"Five years. Four hundred muggle-borns over five years," Luna replied, "There could be more, that number only includes those that have reached eleven in the last five years. Those that never answered their letters when they came. It doesn't include those that aren't quite powerful to have wands."

"Muggle statistics say 800,000 children a year go missing in the United States, though I think that is only a rough figure, subject to change, four hundred muggle-borns over a five year period is - alarming," Holly replied, walking towards the table and the files in order for her to write down a new note, a new theory.

"How confident are we the intel is accurate?" She asked, looking up at Luna.

"Confident. My sister-in-law works for the department in MACUSA that deals with integrating the muggle-borns, or rather No-Maj-born as they are called here."

"Was it investigated?"

"Not really. Muggles move too much for them to really take notice. Children connected to military families. We have never been very good at communicating amongst ourselves, so it was never checked if they went to another school."

"And because no further magic was found in the area that they were first located at, the case closed."

"Exactly."

"Fuck, it's worse than I thought." Holly moved to the table, spreading out a few files.

She continued, "Four hundred in the States in five years. Two hundred and eighty on our side of the pond and that's just looking at the last five years, and nobody has noticed," Holly muttered, "and I have Krum checking figures within Europe, and they are steadily rising."

"What does it mean Holly?"

"It means somebody is hunting muggle-borns and they are going after them when they are at their weakest before they even learn about magic. About our world and the world, they belong to."

"But who -" Luna stopped and looked up at her, "Hydra."

"Hydra. But they have to be getting help from one of our lot, not unless they have found a way to track accidental magic, but even that would be too fucking random," Holly rambled.

Gods it had been too long since she had been able to bounce ideas off someone else. Even when Hermione and Ron were sharing what they had found the conversations had been kept brief and left them with more questions than answers.

"How has nobody noticed? How have we not noticed?"

"Because we were cleaning up after Voldemort. Voldemort destroyed the records of muggle-borns when he was in power, and it took time to sift through all that mess." Holly sighed, "Because they are all under eleven - so it's before they even get their letters, it only becomes noticeable when someone goes to invite them to a school, and they aren't there."

"How did you notice?"

"Andromeda," she answered, shifting through the files to the five she was referring to, "Five of the muggle-borns the foundation was helping disappeared. She contacted me, and I investigated, the trail went cold, but witnesses confirmed that men in tactical gear with guns took them. I went back over the records of the muggle-borns and started to notice a few here, and there hadn't gone to Hogwarts. No records of them and the cases were cold on the muggle-side. Disappearances, parents murdered. Not enough to draw too much attention or pattern, but with the magical world involved you could see a connection, a bigger pattern."

Holly trailed off.

"You kept looking."

"I kept looking and found a whole lot more," Holly admitted, "some of the parents were still alive, their children had been missing for five years or longer. Just vanished. Others, I found evidence of memory charms. They couldn't even remember having a child, it was the schools that reported them missing."

"You've been working on this for the last four years?"

"The first year was while I was still working as an Auror, so other cases always came in, but the last three I have been working on nothing else. I've been working undercover trying to find out as much information I could about Hydra, but they were like ghosts, at least until Captain America and everything that happened nine months ago. Hydra became very public then, but now they are in the fucking wind, and kids are still going missing."

"What are they doing with them?" Luna asked.

"That's the question, isn't it?" Holly answered, a lump formed in the back of her throat. Her mouth had suddenly gone to dry. "I found some of the bodies, or what was left of them. But those that survived, those that they keep. I don't know."

Luna looked up at her, "What's your next move?"

Holly licked her lips ever so slightly; Luna was probably going to think she was crazy.

"The Avengers."

Luna blinked, her eyes widening ever so slightly.

"The Avengers? Muggle's mightiest heroes," Luna repeated, "I can see you fitting in with them wonderfully."

Holly rolled her eyes, "Yeah, sure, I'm not a hero. I'm a dead witch walking, as far as the Wizarding World is concerned."

"Not dead, just missing," Luna corrected, with a sad smile.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You are doing what you need to do, always putting others before yourself."

Holly wasn't so sure about that. Yes, she wanted to protect the children; yes, she wanted to defeat Hydra. But a large part of her, a part of her she was desperately trying to grapple with wanted to hurt them. To obliterate them.

And Holly was sure that part of her was hungry for revenge.

"So the Avengers," Luna said softly.

"I had a job interview yesterday, and I got it on a trial basis. Acting as support to the Avengers, can't say exactly what it involves really but if anything Hydra related is found I should be able to get the information."

"You're spying on them."

Holly groaned as she pinched the bridge of her nose, "When you say it out loud like that, it makes me question what I have just signed up for. I don't spy; I'm direct and straight to the point. I am totally going to screw this up."

Luna grinned at her, "I think it will be good for you."

"Really?" Holly asked in surprise, her eyes narrowing as she looked at her friend, she was expecting something other than I think it will be good for you.

"I think you will find exactly what you are looking for with them...and I think it will surprise you."

"Well, that's not cryptic at all," Holly pointed out, "Nor is it helpful."

"I didn't realise I was supposed to be helpful," Luna teased, "I think we both could do with a drink."

"It's three in the morning."

"And, when has that ever stopped us before, I insist."

"Will it involve ice-cream?"

"Of course, and Dragons-breath and Fire whiskey," Luna grinned.

The tension slipped from her shoulders as Luna ushered her into the kitchen. It had been too long since she had seen any of her friends, to long since she had allowed herself any type of comfort or contact with her old life.

Hermione and Ron were the only ones who truly knew why she had withdrawn, though Holly was sure Luna knew more than she was letting on. Her friend didn't say anything, didn't push, she was just there like a breath of fresh air that reminded Holly of the fleeting moments that they had been allowed to be normal, allowed to be human.

"So tell me how is married life?"

Luna's grin widened, and Holly couldn't help but relish in the normalness of the moment. For a single minute or hour, everything else could wait. Her being the worst spy in the history of spies was another day's problems.

Right here, right now, she was just Holly.

She wasn't the saviour, the hero, the woman-who-conquered and any other ridiculous name the Wizarding World had dreamt up for her.

She wasn't a woman on a mission to take down an evil organisation.

She was Holly who sipped Fire-Whisky and downed Dragons-breath and ate ice-cream knowing full well tomorrow she was going to be drinking a hangover potion, but that would be fine.

She was Holly, who couldn't stop the smile spreading across her lips as Luna gushed about Rolf and their grand adventures.


For one second, he forgot.

Forgot himself, forgot who he was, his left hand rising on reflex to his mouth so he could nibble on his skin.

A tick that his subconscious remembered when he was too far gone in his thoughts, that even now still happened. It wasn't until he felt the metal touching his lips that he recoiled away, pulling his arm down faster than a blink.

His face tightened, his brow drawing close.

He was tired, so fucking tired.

Another sleepless night, memories turning and twisting and unearthing things that made no sense.

Blood covered hands, knives dripping, guns discarded on the ground. Tear streaked faces, eyes pleading as they sobbed and begged.

Bucky smacked his head against the wall.

Pain jolting through him, pushing away the flashes that plagued him.

His stomach churned, and he could taste bile on his tongue.

He wanted it to stop.

He needed to stop.

But his silent pleas went unheard.

And it was no less than he deserved.

Monsters like him didn't deserve absolution.

The only comfort granted to him was the first rays of sun dancing across his chest as it cut through the blinds, chasing away the lingering darkness that clung to him.

Pushing back the shadows.

Dawn was Bucky's favourite time of day.

The pivotal peak between darkness and light where it was neither night nor day.

He enjoyed the peaceful quiet when the others in the tower were asleep, and the only noise he could hear was the hum of the air-con, he had on at night. Complete silence let him wonder to deep in his thoughts, where one wrong turn could have him lost for hours or days until Steve dragged him back out.

But quiet wasn't silence.

It was just right.

It was peaceful.

And it had been such a long time since he had any kind of peace.

He enjoyed the quiet, just like he enjoyed his solitude.

Until he didn't.

He absently scratched at his chest, his fingers feeling the difference in texture as he trailed over words etched permanently onto his skin.

Bucky sighed, moved his hand away from his chest and words and ran his right hand across his chin, five-day stubble scratching at his flesh, reminding him that he needed to shave...if he wanted to.

Choice, everything was a choice now.

He had to keep reminding himself of that because a part of him was still awaiting orders.

Still awaiting a mission.

Bucky closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall and breathed.

He could feel it, moving under the surface, all the time, a surge of power, a current of electricity always looking for an outlet, always looking to push forward the moment he let his control slip for even a second.

Control.

He was in control.

Nobody else.

Him.

He wasn't the Asset.

He wasn't the Fist of Hydra.

He was a human being. Flesh and blood and bone.

He was James Buchanan Barnes.

Bucky.

He was Bucky.

I'm with you till the end of the line.

His eyes snapped open. Memories glistening like broken shards of a mirror just out of reach. Occasionally he would catch the reflection and images out of sequence would unfurl.

Sometimes they would be pleasant.

Other times he was left hurling, his heart pounding in his chest.

He had come agonisingly close to ending Steve's life.

Too fucking close.

He couldn't be trusted, and yet he couldn't ignore the hopeful, wishful looks that Steve threw his way whenever he thought Bucky didn't notice.

Bucky noticed.

Training that had been instilled into him noticed every detail, no matter how small or insignificant it appeared to be.

He saw Steve's hopeful, longing looks...and he wasn't ready to face that.

He wasn't ready to face that part of his past.

And yet the memories flickered, and the feelings stirred to life in him, swirling around and around until he couldn't breathe.

He felt a warm caress along his skin, in his soul, the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention and the feel of something good pulsed soothingly at him.

Offering comfort, all he had to do was reach out and...

No! He pushed back on the warmth, letting ice fill his veins until he was impenetrable.

Bucky flinched as something stabbed at his chest, at his heart.

Steve.

He wanted to feel guilty. But he couldn't, it was safer to keep him at arm's length, safer to keep him away.

His phone vibrated the moment he shut down the connection, the moment he pushed back.

He rolled his eyes at the message from Steve.

No mention of what had just happened between them, just a reminder that he needed to eat.

He snorted; it was so typically Steve, mothering instincts even when he shouldn't.

Ignore the elephant between them, focus on the smaller details and stew on what it meant that he had pushed him away again.

Bucky drew a deep breath. His lungs felt like rocks.

He pushed himself to his feet. Breakfast, meeting.

But first, he needed a shower.

A shower then clothes then breakfast.

A routine.

Something he needed more than he liked to admit.


Bucky stepped into the War Room grateful that he was the first to arrive. It allowed him to pick his favourite spot that gave him a clear view of the whole room.

Usually, he ended up in a silent battle of wills with Natasha for it, one that she often won, but today, the seat was his.

His gaze swept across the room, looking for signs of interference before doing a second and third scope for the less visible signs. A force of habit he was unable to break, despite knowing that Jarvis rendered his searches a waste of time.

He pulled his chair out, further than necessary from the table that gave him the room to move should he ever be required to defend or attack, and sat down. His back protected by the wall, he crossed his arms in front of him and waited.

Fingers grazed over the familiar handles of his knives blending in perfectly with the tactical vest he wore. A black glove covered his metal hand, making him appear normal, more human and less monster.

The door opened, his eyes snapped to attention as Banner and Sam Wilson walked in. Sam holding two mugs of coffee and carefully balancing a plate of what looked to be muffins.

He raised an eyebrow questioningly at the two of them.

"Sam's decided to take after Samwise and have a second breakfast," Banner supplied.

"What the fuck, there is nothing wrong with a second breakfast, and I'm too tall to be a hobbit."

Bucky snorted, "I don't know, you're what smaller than me."

"One inch. You are one inch taller than me."

"One inch makes all the difference," Bucky smirked.

"I bet that's what you say to all the girls," Sam sniped back.

"It's how you use the extra inch."

Sam's eyes widened in surprise, and he wrinkled his nose, "That is a mental image I do not need Barnes, now or ever."

Using the mental disturbance as a distraction, he reached over for one of the coffee cups and snagged it.

"Barnes you son of a bitch, that was mine. I need my caffeine. Have a muffin instead."

Bucky licked the rim of the cup and smirked, "Nah, you keep your muffins. I prefer coffee."

Sam's eyes widened, and his brow creased, "Damn it, now I have to go make another one."

"Better hurry, birdbrain," he chuckled as he sipped the coffee. Just the way he liked it.

Sam flipped him off as he exited the War Room.

Sam may bitch and moan, but he couldn't help but wonder whether he had intentionally brought a second mug of coffee just the way he liked it.

"The muffins I get, but I'm not entirely sure why he needed two cups of coffee," Banner commented.

"Steve says he needs caffeine in the morning before he's functional. But I have my doubts, he's huff and puff, but the coffee is exactly how I drink it," Bucky replied with a shrug, taking another sip of his coffee.

Banner smiled slightly at him, "Does he know you know he does it deliberately."

"And miss a chance to rile him up, I will never tell him."

"Are you antagonising Sam again?" Steve asked as he entered the room, his own mug in his hands.

"Who me? Nah."

"Uh-huh," Steve threw him a look that said pure and simple he didn't believe him for a second, "Did you sleep last night?"

Bucky stilled.

No.

The terrible nights, drew Steve to his room.

The man standing vigilantly over him, pulling him out of the dark when Bucky needed him to.

Those nights he slept.

Comforted by the warmth that was Steve.

But the risks were too high for it to become a regular thing, no matter how much Steve was willing to risk it. So Bucky often lied, said he slept when he didn't.

"Did you?" He countered, "I'm not the only one that needs sleep punk."

Steve looked down at his mug and chuckled, "Yeah, yeah. We are both as bad as each other."

"Have either of you tried meditation?" Banner asked suddenly, his eyes darting between the two of them, "I find it helps."

"I can't say that I have, my body needs to move too much for me be able to sit still for too long," Steve admitted.

"The Serum, a blessing and a curse. The pinnacle of human physical potential - though it does mean you have more energy to burn than most. Meditation isn't always sitting still - there are a few different types of meditation that involve movement; perhaps one of them may be more beneficial for you."

"Sex is also a perfect way to get rid of excess energy, perhaps you should try it, Cap, it would be beneficial for you," Stark quipped as he entered the room, the man not glancing up from his phone as he sat down in the seat next to Banner, "Plus men and women would line up at the opportunity."

Bucky stilled as his eyes slid over to Steve, who stood equally frozen as he all but glared at Stark.

"How has the conversation turned to sex again, seriously Barnes, I told you I didn't need the mental images," Sam chimed as he re-entered the room with another steaming cup of coffee.

Bucky held up his palms, "Don't look at me. Stark is offering."

"I am disturbingly interested in that trail of thought about how you were talking about it earlier," Stark smirked, "And where was I for that conversation."

"Not here," Sam stated.

Stark rolled his eyes, "Obviously."

"I worry about the level of intelligence in this room, and the fact that people expect us to save them," Banner said softly as he shook his head.

"Boys, you can't be in a room together for five minutes without turning the conversation to sex," Natasha added as she walked into the room, followed closely by Hill and Clint.

"I was just saying the Cap needs to get laid, Wilson was the one that came in talking about sex and mental images," Stark argued

"Only because Barnes was talking about how to use an extra inch."

Bucky was aware of all eyes looking at him, "I was talking about height birdbrain; it's not my fault your brain went there."

Sam opened his mouth to argue back.

"Enough!" Steve growled at them, silence filled the room.

"Doesn't it just make you want to purr when the Cap goes all-dominating on you?" Stark chuckled, just as Natasha flicked his ear.

Steve glared at him.

"Apologies for my tardiness," Thor greeted as he stepped through the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

Steve gave a curt nod in acknowledgement, his entire demeanour changing the moment the door shut.

He remained standing as the rest of them sat, his feet planted in a wide stance his fists clenched and his jaw set. Bucky could see the little muscle at its corner.

Bucky knew that look. Had seen that look too many times on the man's face before, had seen it right before he attempted to sign up for the last time, the time he got picked as the super solider.

His eyes closed.

Bucky's chest clenched, the memory hitting him harder than any of them previously had, the images flashing through his mind.

Stark's flying car.

Dot and another girl.

Stevie fighting in a back alley.

His last night before he was sent to the front lines.

Stevie telling him he had finally been accepted...fear gripping him with an iron fist and squeezing so fucking hard because it was war and Bucky couldn't protect him.

Bucky clenched his fist and went still.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

His eyes opened slowly and froze when he realised every set of eyes were on him, the coffee mugs handle had snapped in his hand, and coffee spilt across the table and dripped to the floor.

His body trembled as he angled himself away from the scrutiny of the others; he dropped his chin to his chest.

"Sorry," he mumbled as he took the paper towels that Sam passed to him. He hadn't even noticed the other man leaving the room, a rookie mistake.

A weak mistake.

He felt Steve's presence at his side and shied away almost instinctively. Steve hovered but didn't make any sudden move towards him, no move to touch him, just grabbed a paper towel and crouched down to tackle the mess on the floor.

"A memory?"

Bucky nodded, painfully aware that the others were listening while trying not to hear at the same time.

"I'm fine," he muttered.

"You're stronger than you think you are," Steve countered, his hand hovering dangerously close to his knee, the temptation to reach out and touch him was strong, like magnets pulling them together. But Bucky dared not.

It wasn't safe.

"You okay to continue?" Steve asked quietly.

Steve was giving him a choice. A choice to stay and listen to the meeting or to leave.

"Yeah, punk," he mumbled.

Steve collected the towels, rose to his feet and dropped them in the trash can, before moving back to the position he was in before...Bucky swallowed.

This time Steve sat down, almost as if he was aware that he triggered the memory just by standing in that same defiant manner he had all his life.

"We've got a lot to go over today, but now we are all here, we might as well get started," Steve announced, before turning to look at Thor.

"Anything to report on your side of the nine-realms?"

Thor cleared his throat, "As you are aware I have renounced my claim to the throne, to allow me to fulfil my role as guardian over the nine-realms. I can report that there are no further signs indicating unrest within the nine-realms."

"Any reports on Chitauri movement?" Stark asked, his face looking pained and grim.

"Tony," Steve said softly.

"Save it, Cap, New York's invasion was a drop in the ocean in their forces. If they come again, then we are screwed."

"My quest in finding answers has proved futile. They are not from a known world, you must remember that the universe is vast compared to what your scientists believe it is."

"Right, so we aren't any closer to finding answers then. What about Loki?"

"He is shielded from Heimdall's sight. He is on Earth, and he has yet made no move to attack further."

"But he potentially will, do we have information on his Scepter yet, cos I got say, man, the last thing we need is him getting his hands back on that," Clint pointed out.

"My contact with General Talbot is shaky at best currently, but I haven't received any confirmation yet that it has been catalogued with items that have been sized from SHIELD," Hill replied, "I am however liaising with the United Nations for any possible movements on Loki - if he makes a move on Earth we will know about it. And on less well-known contacts that I will deny in court, Shield is attempting to track down the Scepter for us. They believe Hydra took it."

"I would say that is likely considering we practically handed it over to them," Steve admitted.

Bucky shifted in his seat, he was aware of the powers that the Scepter had, mind control, it left him with an uneasy weight pressing down on him at the thought that Hydra had it within their grasp.

That they could use it against others.

Against him.

"This brings me to our main point,"

"Oh good, I did wonder why Jarvis set six reminders for this meeting. We all know I don't do meetings. Pepper does my meetings," Stark quipped.

"Tony," Steve warned, throwing the man a look that said now wasn't the time nor the place, Stark smirked at Steve but stayed silent.

Steve continued, "As important as capturing Loki is, we don't have the resources to track him across the world until he makes a move. Especially when Hydra has ten cells currently in New York."

The news rippled through the room almost immediately. Clint and Hill both tensed, glancing between Natasha and Steve. Stark sat up that little straighter and even Banner looked more concerned though reading the man was practically impossible.

"Jarvis clear my schedule," Stark said.

"Of course sir."

"Are we certain?" Hill asked her eyebrow rose questioningly.

"The intel was good, and he didn't lie to me," Natasha replied.

"How many are we talking about?" Clint asked.

"Ten, ten-man teams," Natasha answered.

"That's a sizeable group if they work together," Hill pointed out, her brow creasing into a frown.

"Provided they all have the same mission," Clint agreed.

"Is an attack inevitable?"

"We have raised the security to threat level four as a precaution. We can speculate all we like and run around in circles," Steve said, bringing the focus back to him, his voice calm and reassuring, "We need more information before we make a move. We can't risk screwing this up if they have planned an attack. We can't make a move until we have all the facts."

"So what is our next move?" Stark asked.

The screen flared to life, and a map became visible. One red dot visibly marked in the location he had confirmed as a hideout. Bucky prayed he wasn't fucking wrong now.

The rest of the map had fifteen white dots - each representing a possible hideout. Jarvis working his magic in using Hydra's own algorithm against them. It wasn't perfect, not by a long shot but it was a start. The orange dots represented potential targets that would have a significant impact on their government or the rest of the world. Embassies, government buildings, the Avengers Tower, anything that would hurt the stability of the world. Yellow dots represented areas that would have the most significant loss of life.

"We have one confirmed hideout from Bucky's memories. We have fifteen potential others, we need to find out which ones are being used, which ones are abandoned. Our faces stick out too much, which is going to make this difficult," Steve answered.

"Well it's a good job I hired some extra people yesterday, but even they aren't going to be able to cover all of them," Hill replied, "It would only take one of them to be spotted twice in the same place."

"We can work with it. Tony, I need you to work your social connections; we need to know what is happening with the social elites anything that could make them a potential target...any politicians standing out too much. Any scientists on the verge of a breakthrough that will change the world. Not just here but worldwide," Steve answered, "Anyone giving funding to projects that are not on the books."

"Good thing we are in the social season then. Lots of parties," Stark snorted.

"We need to work out if any of the orange dots are likely targets for a potential attack - all of them would have an impact on not just our government but also the world, tension is running thick in areas of the world right now. One wrong move and it could explode," Natasha stated, taking point from Steve.

"Dare I ask what the yellow dots are for?" Banner asked his face solemn.

"Highest loss of life if they are going for fear or to make a statement," Steve answered, a grim look twisting his face.

"You gotta be shitting me!" Stark's head snapped up.

"Fucking hell, that's a lot of ground to cover. Just when I thought the bastards couldn't get any worse," Clint growled.

"They can get worse," Bucky said, "They can get a lot worse."

"They were willing to kill over twenty million people that were considered a potential threat to their world view. At the moment this is just New York City, we have no idea if they are setting up similar operations in other cities," Steve said.

"I will give Shield the heads up as a courtesy. We might end up having to work with them on this a little more than you would like," Hill stated.

Steve's jaw clenched tightly, his muscle ticking; he gave a short nod, "I can work with that if it comes to it."

"Jarvis, start sifting through the chatter on the internet, see if anything catches the eye of 'end of days' or 'green with envy' to a dominant world-dominating organisation," Stark ordered.

"Of course sir is this still under Protocol thirteen."

"Yes!" Both Steve and Stark replied, glancing at each other.

"Nobody outside this room knows what's going on, not until we get a feel for the new people. We cannot risk this information getting out."

"Agreed," Hill nodded, "Shield will get the bare bones."

Hill looked at him, and at Steve, "I have to ask, is there a possibility that Hydra is here for Barnes?"

"Won't happen," Sam snarled, Clint, nodding beside him. Both sets of eyes were hard and determined.

A flicker of something he couldn't name sparked to life ever so slightly, warming him.

"Hydra won't win that fight. I will personally tear them apart limb by fucking limb if they even think about it," Steve stated coldly.

"And he will have help," Clint agreed.

"We protect our own. But as I said, we have increased the security to level four not just as a precaution for an attack on the building, but as a precaution for a move against Bucky," Natasha answered.

"It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy," Bucky snorted.

A few of the others chuckled, the tension easing slightly, so it wasn't so thick or heavy in the room.

"I will also be staying at the Tower, in a week, that will add a level of protection here should they dare be foolish to attack," Thor announced, "Once I have returned from visiting Jane."

"I have to say Point-break has well a...point," Stark noted, "They might take us on without questioning it, but surely they aren't going to be suicidal enough to take on the God of Thunder?"

"If only it were that easy to beat them into submission or prison," Natasha snorted, "The higher-ups may be smart, but it doesn't mean the foot soldiers are. And it doesn't mean they haven't come up with something new to try and counter any one of us. They've had longer to prepare than we have."

"We all need to be extra vigilant, regardless. We have our aces, and we need to be prepared for any surprises they throw our way," Steve countered.

He turned to look at Hill.

"When do the new people start?"

"Monday, but I don't think you are going to want to be throwing them into this straight away."

"We might have to hit the ground running on this with them, I want to say no. Get a feel for them, but we need everything we've got."

"I will figure something out and go from there," Hill replied.

"Who have we got?" Clint asked, tilting his head curiously to the side.

"Jarvis," Hill prompted, waiting as the large screen shut down images of the map and instead brought five photos up. Three men and two women.

"Charles Wood though he goes by Tank. Former Strike member and ex-military. One of the few Strike members that weren't Hydra and barely survived his team turning on him," Hill answered, "He still believes in the Avengers and what you stand for."

"I remember working with him, he was a good soldier," Steve answered.

"Followed by Adam Jackson, aka Jax. Former Strike member. They are trained enough they can offer you support when needed, as well as helping with training the other three new people," Hill continued.

Jarvis brought up the next photo, young women with mousy brown hair and brown eyes that were familiar and yet not.

"Diane Phillips. Great-granddaughter of Colonel Chester Phillips. Engineer. She was one of the best we had."

Bucky studied the photo carefully, he could see it. The resemblance that sparked a sense of familiarity. She had the Colonel's eyes.

"Phillips, she was good, designed some of my arrows," Clint stated.

"I could use extra hands that understand the beauty of building and designing things, provided she can keep up," Stark snorted.

"Ethan Sawyer," Hill said, as Jarvis brought up a new photo, "A data analyst. All of them stood with Shield during DC, but have lost their faith in Shield."

"And the fifth?"

A new photo was enlarged across the screen.

The first thing Bucky noticed was her eyes.

They were captivating.

Bright emerald green.

They shone in the photo and Bucky doubted the photo did them justice but they certainly made them entirely otherworldly.

The second thing he noticed was the lightning bolt scar on her forehead faded enough to show it was an old scar and not a new thing.

It was an odd thing. Especially how perfectly shaped it was.

He didn't know what would have caused it, knives or any other sharp instruments would have resulted in jagged edges.

"Who is she?" Stark frowned.

"The only civilian that applied and made it past the background checks or wasn't a drooling fan," Natasha answered.

Hill hesitated, her eyes darting between Steve and him.

"Her name is Holly Jamie Potter."

Bucky froze.

Steve stiffened next to him.

"Oh shit!" Sam whistled through his teeth. Even Clint and Natasha seemed to register what the name meant but the others, the others stared blank-faced and confused.

"I'm sorry; does somebody want to share with the rest of the class?" Stark asked.

Bucky closed his eyes.

There had to be a mistake. There had to be.

He could barely deal with Steve, Steve who he has known since he was seven years old and now...now the name that had plagued him since he became free from Hydra's control, more aware of who he was, and what it meant.

Steve had said his had been there since he woke up from the ice.

His chest tightened, his heart pounding in his ribcage.

Everything was loud, too fucking loud.

He couldn't think or breathe.

"We both have a second mark. Her name. Holly Jamie Potter is our third," Steve answered, and Bucky could hear the confusion, the doubt, as the words rang loudly in his ears.

"You mean..." Stark began, opening his mouth and snapping it shut quickly.

"Yes."

"Where exactly have you been keeping that name hidden?" Stark continued, "And since when?"

"Across our hearts. And at least since I woke up from the ice."

"Not everyone has soul marks Cap; more people don't have them than anything else, as in it's rare to have them. You not only have one but a second."

"Yes."

"That happens to have been born this side of the war?"

"It would appear so."

"Fucking hell."

"You are twice-blessed?" Thor asked.

Bucky fixed his gaze on the Asgardian. The Asgardian who very rarely spoke in the meetings, and yet when he did, Bucky was reminded just how young they all were in comparison to him.

"Twice-blessed, I don't believe I have heard that phrase before," Banner stated, "What exactly does it mean?"

"There are stories whispered across the universe about marks manifesting in such ways. Not with just one mark, but a second. Forming a triad," Thor answered, "But I had not heard of such markings on mortals."

"It complicates things," Sam said softly, with far too much understanding in his gaze as he looked between the two of them.

"To be marked is to be considered blessed among my people, as it is in other realms," Thor stated.

"They are usually world changers on Earth Thor, for good or for bad. A domino effect," Hill answered.

"Not to mention the utter lack of choice in whom you are matched up to. Or in this case, twice matched to," Stark deadpanned.

Thor frowned, "You have forgotten what it means to be marked. They travel together through many lifetimes. How you chose to perceive them is unique to you. There are no set rules," Thor said softly, "A friend, lover, co-worker, mentor, teacher or partner. But they are far more than merely signalling one's connection. Those marked usually appear when the need for them is strongest."

"I came out of the ice and Loki invaded months later, even without my other marks," Steve said weakly, "Bucky and I almost tore apart D.C when our paths crossed again."

Thor looked at them both. Bucky could feel the power thrumming in the air around him with every word the Asgardian spoke. Bucky was old, but Thor was ancient and not of their world.

"If this Lady Potter is indeed you're marked, then it means that something is coming. Something that will require all three of you, too face."

"Well that's hardly a comforting thought," Stark said.

"We will have to prepare for all possibilities, war or not," Natasha said.

"Humans have forgotten their history."

"It doesn't help that history has been twisted by lots of different people. Concepts change, opinions are formed, history is forgotten or rewritten, and suddenly it is the only way to see things," Banner said, "It could be a coincidence that she shows up now."

"I don't believe in coincidences, and we can't afford to either. She could be a plant. Hydra had Barnes for seventy years. We don't know when the name appeared, but there is a strong chance they would have seen her name. Wouldn't take much to fashion a new identity," Natasha pointed out, "What do we know about her?"

"She worked for the Evans-Black Foundation as a Risk Assessor. She left twelve months ago." Hill answered.

Bucky frowned.

"Evans-Black Foundation?" Steve asked.

"It's a non-profit organisation, projects around the world, helping those that need help. It provides Education, Health Care, Accommodation the works to those that need it. They have helped people ranging from drug problems, abuse victims, human trafficking rings, gangs, war zones. Relatively new Foundation if I recall," Stark waved his hand, "CEO is a woman named Andromeda Tonks. And let me tell you that woman is scary, even Pepper is wry of her. But she manages to get millions off the rich without them even flinching. Hell most of them think it's their idea rather than hers. I tell you what that organisation would be a target for Hydra."

"What happened?" Sam asked.

"From what her résumé says and what the official reports say, Potter was assessing a potential new area for a project house, investigating into cases of missing children that were linked to a human trafficking ring. It went south, and her entire team was killed. Potter survived," Hill replied as she looked at both of them, "How do you want to handle this?"

Bucky couldn't find his voice to say the words. Instead, he just stared at Steve, whose blue eyes looked at him with such rawness that it made him flinch back.

"I don't know."

They barely knew how to handle each other, as shattered as they were, how could having their second mark show up now be helpful to them.

He was tainted goods. Bad enough he couldn't get Steve to see that he didn't need someone new to tarnish as well.

"This could be Hydra's play. Use her as a distraction while they make their move," Stark said, "She could be a danger to our team."

"So better to have her here, and watch her," Natasha agreed.

"And if she isn't Hydra?" Banner asked.

"Then better for us to know about her, considering who she can potentially be. We can protect her better if she is genuine," Natasha countered with a shrug.

"A contract," Stark declared.

Bucky's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention to Stark, "A contract?"

The words didn't sound right coming out of his mouth.

"Yes, Manchurian Candidate," Stark snorted as he answered, "A contract. It's the only solution. If she's not Hydra, and just a perfectly innocent woman who has your names engraved onto her skin, then it protects us and her from that information falling into the wrong hands."

He continued, "It would mean she wouldn't be able to go to the media, discuss with anyone about the marks."

"It would work," Hill agreed, "If the contract covers all angles, then we can contain this for as long as possible."

"I'm sorry, but that doesn't exactly send a positive message to her," Sam cut across, "I mean I'm all for protecting her, provided she isn't Hydra, but if she isn't then a contract seems a little impersonal. Cold even."

"It could be the only way that keeps her safe," Steve muttered, "Will it be ready in time for Monday?"

Bucky snapped his attention to Steve, unable to fully keep the surprise from showing on his face. Steve didn't quite meet his gaze.

He understands.

He really does.

He couldn't say he was ready to face this particular prospect. This new development that was crashing into his life. He wasn't prepared. He was barely equipped for Steve.

How the hell was he supposed to be ready for a new unknown soulmate?

When his hands were covered with the blood of the innocents.

But whatever happened to just meeting your soulmate and figuring things out from there?

"My lawyers will have it ready by Monday," Stark confirmed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:-

The muggles say, give a woman the right lipstick, the right pair of shoes, and flawless lashes, and she could conquer the world.

Andromeda Tonks says the right amount of beauty charms and your hair a certain way, and a witch could triumph over anyone who thought to put them down.

Holly personally felt that if you gave a woman something she felt confident in, regardless of what it was, there was nothing she could not do.

It was why as she stepped across the threshold of the Avengers Tower on her first day, she was grateful she had listened to her gut and donned her dragon-hide boots, charmed to blend in and not look out of place amongst the muggle world.

Because wearing them, Holly felt like she could conquer the world. She also happened to have gone for the practicality of dressing smart enough to work in an office, but comfortable enough that should it come down to a fight she had the freedom of movement.

And if she so happened to have added an extra layer of mascara and painted her lips blood red, then that was her prerogative.

It was her armour.

Her mask perfectly perfected.

She looked more like herself than she had for her interview.

She felt more like herself.

Holly couldn't lie and say that Luna's visit wasn't a welcome respite, a reconnection to her old life no matter how brief, even if she couldn't ever be that person fully again.

Too much had changed.

She had changed too much.

In more ways than one.

Holly's mind whirled, as she walked across the lobby to the reception desk, ideas and plans spinning around and around.

She knew she had to tread carefully, now that she had the job, the hard part started. Holly could not afford to draw too much attention to herself.

She needed to keep her head down, get the job done and gather the information she needed.

And just because she was working at the tower didn't mean she couldn't pursue other avenues of investigating either.

Holly shifted her bag on her shoulder and gripped the file in her hand. All the papers and documents, Hill had requested her to bring.

The receptionist slid her, her new ID badge over which would allow her to reach the upper levels of the tower with little fuss and Holly thanked her with a small smile before making her way towards the lift.

Holly followed the same path she had four days earlier and waited patiently for the doors to slide open.

The only difference this time was, she wasn't alone.

He had already been waiting patiently as she approached. Tall with a muscular build and arms that she couldn't help but let her eyes trail over. They were some pretty impressive muscles and matching broad shoulders.

He didn't look up at her approach right away, busying himself with his phone, but they stood mere inches apart as they waited.

Holly was painfully aware of the heat radiating off him, painfully aware of him in general.

He had a presence to him that you couldn't ignore, even if he weren't doing anything particularly exciting.

Something was pulling at her...calling her. Not quite like when Ron had cast the Summoning Charm on her, but far more profound.

As if something was tugging on her insides.

Holly pushed the strange sensation away from her thoughts as she became aware of eyes watching her from the corner of her eye.

She glanced up at him.

Blue eyes studying her, Merlin his eyes were seriously blue!

Full-on Prince Charming, bluebell flames bright blue. As if his eyes were permanently containing the dancing flames.

"Morning," he greeted with a smile.

"Morning," Holly answered, her lips turning upwards on their own accord.

The tugging was back, stronger than it had been before and something kneaded her mind in anticipation, shadows purring quietly and Holly felt as if her entire body was vibrating.

The lift doors opened, and he made the motion for her to enter. Holly tensed slightly as she stepped in front of him, she didn't want to be rude, but she didn't like the idea of giving him her back.

The air shifted ever so slightly, it made the hair on the back of her neck stand to attention; her senses prickled, and her magic stirred opening almost sleepily eyes to view the world around it.

Tasting everything around her.

There was a nudge in the back of her mind, and Holly was hyperaware of her surroundings.

Of him.

Her stomach dropped.

An unexplainable tug as her magic reached out.

Something about him was pulling at her.

A deep sense of dread rose from her stomach as realisation dawned on her.

Oh, fuck no.

The universe was really fucking conspiring against her.

Holly's eyes snapped upwards to him and really took note of him. Looked past the friendly smile, the piercing blue eyes, and the good looking exterior.

She could see the furrowing of his brow. His jaw clenched tightly, and tightness around his eyes.

Holly wetted her lips nervously and swallowed the lump forming in her throat.

Soulmate.

Soulmark.

Her entire body was singing once she finally paid attention.

He knew as well.

She knew he knew.

Not everyone had a soulmark, a soulmate.

Names marring their skin.

Nobody knew where the marks came from, or why some were born with them.

They were taught the stories; the tragedies in school.

They were rare, random, and abnormal if you listened to people like her aunt and uncle.

Some religions stated that the marked eased the separation from God. A blessing to those chosen few lucky enough to bear the marks on their skin to help them find a way to endure the challenges they would face.

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Trial by fire, it was whispered. Tried and tested throughout their lives.

Saints regardless of the religion, origin, they changed the world.

Science stated that those marked were an anomaly. No gene showed who would be marked until they were born. There was no prediction, no pattern forming. It was random, chaotic even, but they and the Historians agreed that those who were marked were unique, exceptional world changers.

Good or Evil.

Trial by fire.

They suffered, and the world suffered with them.

A friend, lover, co-worker or partner, and to whom one is usually drawn to fulfil a specific mission.

Nexus, domino effect.

A curse or a blessing.

Not everyone who changed the world had a soulmark.

Not everyone who was marked changed the world in such a significant way.

Holly personally felt that alone disapproved any theory on what they were, and why some people were born with them.

They weren't something that could be understood, explained, only speculated and whispered about, adding to the legend and the myth and the weight to those that found themselves marked.

The Wizarding World had, at the very least, offered something more tangible to why some were marked.

The focal point of the weave of life, they whispered. Used by magic herself to influence change.

The Wizarding World had offered dazzling examples as well, Riddle, Grindelwald, Dumbledore, four other Dark Lords throughout history and many others she couldn't possibly name.

For good or for bad, all of them, all of them had changed the Wizarding World in some way, the effects still being felt to this day.

Perhaps that was just one of the reasons why fate had entwined Riddle and her into that fucking prophecy because they both had been marked at the same time, but hadn't matched.

Her name had decorated his skin, but his had been absent from hers.

They had been opposites, opposing sides.

Holly had never been more fucking grateful for that fact when she realised he bore her name and she didn't bear his.

Though Holly wasn't sure whether it was down to her damn Potter luck that she had been born with not just one name, but two, or something else entirely.

Abnormal even amongst the extraordinary.

A freak of nature, just one more nail in the coffin that made her unable to fit in anywhere.

Holly personally thought fate just liked fucking with her.

Holly closed her eyes for a second, and took a breath, pushing away the tightening knotting feeling that was growing in her stomach.

Because while once upon a time, Steven Grant Rogers had remained a mystery to her, just a name, that Holly had been grateful hadn't belonged to her enemy or one of the children she had grown up with.

Holly knew exactly who he was now.

It may have taken her a moment for her to place the face of the man standing in the lift with her, but there was no mistaking who he was now.

Steven Grant Rogers was none other than Captain America, which meant...which meant that James Buchanan Barnes was none other than Bucky Barnes, more renowned for his recent status as the Winter Soldier.

Fate really liked fucking with her, she could accept, maybe, and ignore the idea of two names circling her heart. Those names belonging to two heroes from the 40s; both with superpowers, one belonging to the tag of Earth's Mightiest Heroes after the Battle of New York and the other a former brainwashed assassin, well that was just fucking taking it to far.

Not that she had any room to judge, she was a fucking witch.

Holly swallowed the snort that threatened to escape because wasn't that an amusing thought, a witch and two super soldiers - what exactly did they have in common.

Hydra.

All three of them had Hydra in common.

Holly wasn't entirely convinced that was a great foundation to build upon.

Did she say anything?

Should she?

Or should she push it downwards and ignore.

He wasn't saying anything either.

Holly could feel his eyes pressing along her skin though, she met his gaze once, and he quickly looked away.

Fixing his gaze on the lift doors, as if willing them to open, now so he could make his escape.

That hurt, just a little.

It bothered Holly that it did, that it mattered at all.

She shouldn't be surprised; she never fitted in anywhere, why would actually meeting them be any different.

She was a freak, abnormal, why would anyone want her.

No!

Holly firmly slammed the door shut on that particular thought.

That's not why she was here; she would never have entered the idea of working here had she known.

She couldn't afford to be distracted now.

Holly couldn't afford to lose focus, not even with the fact that she would be working in the same building as her soulmates.

She wasn't that little girl anymore that had clung to the two names like a lifeline when all she had was shadows as company.

When loneliness was all she had ever known.

That wasn't who she was, not anymore, and even if a small voice in the back of her mind whispered, liar. Liar. Liar.

She couldn't afford to be that little girl she used to be; who had craved family and love, and acceptance and the idea that somebody would come and rescue her.

She had learnt the hard way; Holly had learnt to rescue herself.

So while she wanted somewhere to belong, somewhere to truly call home, Holly knew better than to reach for it.

Not with everything she had done; everything she had survived.

Holly was perfectly fine on her own.

She was here for one reason, and one reason only and that didn't include her soulmates.

Holly had never been more grateful when the doors of the lift slid open; she stepped out, leaving Steven standing in there alone.

She turned back to him, pushing a smile across her face, even though she felt as though someone had scooped out her insides and shoved them into a blender. Leaving one mushy slaw, she couldn't even begin to make heads or tails of.

She didn't want to think.

She didn't want to breathe.

But she was Holly fucking Potter. Small but mighty.

She didn't let the world see her bleed, didn't let the world see her weaknesses.

"Have a nice day." Even years later, Petunia's voice was still ingrained into her actions no matter how hard she tried to push the woman's voice out.

Little girls are, sugar and spice and all things nice.

He stared at her in surprise.

They hadn't introduced themselves to each other, so while they both felt the connection, Holly could still play dumb enough to say she didn't realise who he actually was.

"You too," he muttered as the lift doors slid shut behind her.

Holly let her smile drop and used the precious second of privacy to pull her tattered inner pieces back together. Letting the icy cold depths and shadows and darkness shroud her just a little, freezing the inferno of swirling raging emotions she was currently feeling.

She straightened her shoulders, took a breath and steeled her spine.

She was a witch. An Auror. Armed. Dangerous.

And while they didn't know it, Holly had the upper hand right now, because if need be, she could and would disappear in a blink of an eye, and they would never be able to find her.

She wasn't cornered, and while Holly wasn't prepared to run, was more than prepared to see this through, Holly liked knowing that she had a backup plan if everything went to hell.

"Potter, you are here, good, we can begin the paperwork."

Holly turned to face Hill, with a smile she had perfected and followed behind the woman as she indicated to follow her.

The real hard work began now.


It felt as if explosions were simultaneously going off through his entire body.

His chest burned, his heart thumped, and his soul cried out soulmate, soulmate, soulmate.

Much like it had the first time he had met Bucky.

His plan to feel her out to see if she was genuine had worked, but it had proven almost too much.

Steve couldn't deny the overwhelming urge he had to reach out with the bonds, reach for the empty space and just connect.

He ran a hand through his hair, grateful that he had a few precious moments of privacy to gather himself before he faced the others, with his confirmation.

There was no denying that this Holly Potter was their soulmate.

The elevator doors slid open with a soft hiss, and he came face to face with Bucky, who seemed to barely contain the pent up frustration and energy that was vibrating through his entire body.

Their entire bodies.

Steve had pulled on the bonds a little too much to anchor himself while he had been so close to Holly.

Blue eyes that held more coldness to them, than he could remember narrowed as Bucky looked at him.

"It's her."

Two words, two fucking words, was all it took for the reality of the situation to hit him right in the stomach.

"It is," Steve answered, stepping out of the elevator.

Bucky fell into step alongside him, neither of them spoke, and Steve wasn't sure whether it was because they had nothing to say, or because they just didn't want to break the silence that had fallen between them for the last four days.

Four days, had really only been four days since Hill had uttered her name, spinning everything on its axis.

He had been busy working with Tony and his team of lawyers on what should be included in the contract and what shouldn't. Pepper and Sam the voices of reason when the lawyers tried to pin it down too firmly, but they needed to make it as iron tight as they possibly could.

If Holly wasn't Hydra, then they needed to ensure the knowledge of who she was never fell into enemy hands.

But the only one who hadn't said anything, who hadn't put any input into the contract was Bucky.

Bucky who had actively avoided anything to do with it, and in turn had evaded him for the last four days.

Steve had hoped that they would be able to talk, honestly talk, about this new development, that they could work together in how to face it.

But Bucky had remained closed off and silent.

Steve couldn't even judge through the bonds exactly what he was feeling or thinking.

Words had always failed him when describing the bonds. He didn't believe they did it justice and how could he possibly describe it to those who had never experienced it before and wouldn't unless they had their own marks themselves.

The closest he could get was it was energy. An electric current that passed through them, it could be as comforting as stepping into a hot bath, chasing the chill from your bones and your soul. It could be as light as a summer breeze, brushing across his skin.

It was home.

At least it had been always between him and Bucky.

Now, now he was starting to question everything, Bucky who closed himself off almost as much as he left the bond open. Bucky who was both a raging ocean and an Arctic polar vortex.

He knew Sam said to give him time, and he was, fuck he was, he was trying to hold back, trying not to push, because Bucky had suffered enough, but Steve wanted, to talk to him, to make everything better, to go back to the way they used to be.

When it had been like breathing.

But that was then and this was now.

And all he could feel was emptiness.

Together, a united front on the outside at the least, they walked into the War Room where the others were already sitting and waiting.

Tony looked up at them, the question written across his face, didn't need to be voiced.

"She's our soulmate," Steve said.

"Right, well, the contract is ready. Everything is ready for when Maria has finished and brings Holly Potter up here." Tony nodded before continuing, "Jarvis, can you bring up the camera in the interview room they are in."

The large screen flared to life, allowing them to see Holly and Maria, going over the paperwork, dotting the I's and crossing the T's.

"She's not what I was expecting," Clint said softly.

Steve frowned.

No, she wasn't what he had been expecting either, he had been taken aback by the red-painted lips and British accent that reminded him so much of Peggy that for a brief moment, Steve had forgotten to breathe and then he had been hit by the energy of the bonds, and he had wrestled for control.

The universe is cruel, taunting him with another soulmark, another soulmate that reminded him of a woman he fell in love with seventy years ago. He had fallen hard and fast for Peggy Carter, she had taken his breath away and while he loved Bucky, would always love Bucky, he had wanted something with Peggy.

Now it seemed one cosmic joke he was connected to another British woman, who appeared to be opposite Peggy Carter in every way possible.

If he was to have another soulmate, then why couldn't it have been her, though had been, she would have been condemned to live a life without him.

And Steve wasn't selfish enough to wish that on the woman he loved.

And there was still a part of him that loved Peggy...Steve couldn't deny that.

Bucky's eyes flickered his way, hardened considerably before he fixed his attention back onto the screen.

Had he pushed that thought out a little too loudly?

He pushed down on his feelings and strengthened his own mental shields, carefully ensuring that he kept everything on a tight leash.

Steve rubbed a hand across his jaw, aware of Natasha eyeing him up, of Sam looking at him with concern swirling in his warm brown eyes.

He hadn't wanted to think about it when he first got out of the ice, and then Steve had been thrown straight into an Alien invasion, and he hadn't be required to think about it.

He had refused Fury's offer of trying to track her down.

He hadn't wanted to know. Not when the loss of Bucky was still too raw.

He didn't need - no, he didn't want another soulmark.

Then there was Hydra and Bucky alive and breathing.

There had been no point when he had Bucky back.

Yet here she was flesh and blood, living and breathing.

He had been inches away from her.

And that part of him, that was the mark was desperately reaching out to her to complete the connection. As if it knew, and sensed.

"It's okay if you don't want to be here," Natasha stated, offering comfort in the way she knew how. Offering to take the burden off his shoulders.

"No, I do."

Natasha nodded once, in understanding, and stepped that little bit closer, offering support in the only way she knew how.

"You know it will only work if she isn't Hydra. I don't think they will give a flying fuck about a lawsuit or not," Clint stated.

"But what happens then? After she has been set up with everything?" Tony asked.

"We put her to work," Natasha answered, "That's why she was hired in the first place."

"I need help working through the list of potential Doctors to work alongside us more permanently. That's not exactly top secret; she can work with me on that. If she tries anything the Hulk will more than be able to handle it," Bruce offered.

"And we monitor everything else, we watch her closely. If she is Hydra, she might let something slip," Natasha continued.

Steve flinched as ice-cold pokers stabbed at his chest.

He turned to were Bucky was standing; his cold gaze, all but screaming a warning to tread carefully, as he looked at Natasha.

Natasha didn't show a visible reaction, at least not one that Steve could see, but he knew she felt that warning, that she heard it in every fibre of her being.

"Buck," he breathed.

Bucky turned to look at him, arms crossed, his body to tense, to ready to strike at a moment's notice. The bonds vibrating between them with...too many feelings to accurately pick apart, but it was overwhelming and threatening to choke him.

Steve pushed back through the bonds, and for the briefest of moments, the two of them squared off in a battle of wills, the air growing thick and heavy until everyone was looking at them.

The energy was crackling along his skin, looking for an outlet, his pulse racing as he met Bucky's frosty gaze with his own.

He was reminded too much of the battle on the Helicarrier, where he had battled the Winter Soldier wearing his soulmates face and no recollection of who he was, and what they had shared.

They had lost their balance, and they were desperately trying to find it again before they tore each other apart even more.

And then like an elastic band, something snapped at them.

Sharp and cutting, snapping through their bonds too fucking strongly, and breaking the power game that neither had been willing to submit.

Steve swivelled his head round to the screen in surprise, well aware that Bucky was staring to.

Holly wasn't looking up at the camera though, a tight smile graced her lips, and her fists clenched together, but her eyes never left the paperwork. Never indicated that there was anything wrong.

They weren't even fully there, just a puff of smoke easily blown away, and they would stay that way until they formed the connection, and yet she had still managed to send a surge of power through them. Pulsed energy to snap them out of their silent battle.

She was seven floors below them.

"What exactly just happened?" Tony asked, his eyes darting between the two of them, "you looked like you were about to tear each other to shreds."

"We were," Bucky growled, "she used the bonds."

"That shouldn't be possible," Bruce stated.

"No, it shouldn't," Steve agreed.

"She is seven floors below you."

"I know," Steve said.

"That would have blown her cover if she were Hydra, surely she would want them to be at each other's throats," Sam said. It was the same argument he had been using for the last four days. Sam was firmly in her not being Hydra camp but agreed with showing caution.

"We still need to be certain," Natasha stated, "We don't know her. She's loose cannon, and right now we can't afford that risk. She could go to the media; she could go to many people that would want to hurt us."

"We do what we need to do," Steve said.

The jolt of electricity shot through him, and he was all too aware of Bucky leaving the room as the bonds snapped shut behind him.

Steve sighed.

"This can't be easy for either of you, but we all have to remember if Holly Potter isn't Hydra, isn't the enemy then she is innocent in this. Her having the marks is not her fault," Sam said softly.

"I know," Steve replied, "I know."


Two hours.

Two hours to complete the paperwork and sign the terms and conditions for her employment.

Two hours for Hill to pass her a new phone and Stark Pad that were to be hers for the duration of her employment, to explain in detail exactly what her new role would actually involve.

All the while, her mind whirled, never silencing for a minute.

Holly liked to think she had prepared for every possible outcome in this plan of hers, but she had absolutely not planned to be working alongside her soulmates.

It meant that she would need to adjust her plan, rethink a few steps along the way.

It was doable; it just meant that she had to be extra cautious.

That she had to shield harder.

Because even though they hadn't bonded, Holly was very aware of the bonds there, teetering on the edge of her consciousness that felt like magic but not at the same time. If she concentrated on them enough she could see them, red and golden threads twisting together and pulsing in tune to a beat Holly wasn't sure she was privy to.

She had felt them - flaring to life like angry sparking live wires, that had bit and stung and forced her to dig deeper to shield herself from the overwhelming sense of others crashing through her.

She hadn't been in the same room as them, and yet Holly had still felt them.

Just as she knew that if she cast her senses out into the building, she would find them first, before anybody else.

Holly resisted the urge to do just that, as Hill spoke to her.

"We just have one further thing that we need to go over, and then you will be given the tour."

Hill gestured her to follow, and Holly rose from her seat and followed the woman out of the room.

Holly wasn't stupid, she had an idea exactly what else they needed to go over, which meant she had little time to prepare herself.

She reached for the icy depths of her mind with open arms, and let it seep into her pores, into her marrow. Pushing back at the flaming licks of fire that were swirling emotions, and the burning of her marks, until they were shoved so far down, they were buried under layers of ice.

Holly took a breath.

She could breathe.

It was just her Potter Luck, to throw something her way. It had been going to well, this hunt of hers for Hydra. She had gotten the job, though now Holly couldn't help but wonder if it was more down to the marks than anything else.

She should back away now.

She shouldn't have taken this job. She really shouldn't have taken the position, except she had to. Needed to.

To save lives.

She could do this.

She could pretend to be normal.

She was fine.

Better than fine.

Nothing changed.

Holly ignored every instinct that was telling her to run as she followed behind Hill.

She remained silent as Hill lead her to the lift and up seven floors from the one she was currently on - did that make it the 92nd floor or the 93rd? If she still had a job by the end of the day, Holly was debating whether she should generate a map just to keep track of what rooms were on what floors.

Not that she had to wait long to find out exactly what was on this particular floor.

Or at least part of this floor.

Hill led her to a large room that fell silent the moment they entered.

A single sweep of her eyes told Holly exactly who was in the room.

The Avengers.

The universe fucking hated her.

She had hoped. Really fucking wished that she would have remained enough under the radar to not have anyone look at her too closely.

Of course the marks on her skin and the realisation that they knew utterly threw that out of the window.

The only one that she could see was missing was Thor.

Holly felt somewhat relieved at that.

She had no idea if the Asgardian would recognise her as a witch, and it was not something she wanted to test.

Her eyes glanced over each of them. Her mind reeling off everything she had learnt from the files that leaked on the internet.

Tony Stark. -Iron Man, genius, inventor.

Bruce Banner. -Hulk. Scientist. Several PhDs.

Clint Barton. - Former Shield Agent, Archer, almost inhuman accuracy.

Natasha Romanoff. - Black Widow - former Soviet assassin, former Shield Agent. Lethal.

Sam Wilson, his brown eyes the only one offering any sort of warmth in the way of greeting. -The Falcon fought alongside Captain America in D.C.

She finally fixed onto the two that mattered.

That mattered and didn't matter all in the same breath.

Steven Grant Rogers.

James Buchanan Barnes.

Opposite to each other.

Day and night.

Two sides of the same coin.

How, how the universe thought that adding her to the mix was a good idea she would never know. Holly wasn't stupid. She knew that the marks represented far more than what history said they represented.

They didn't mean love.

Or happily ever after.

The real world wasn't a fairytale.

It wasn't an instant, easy relationship or instant attraction, though Holly was honest enough to admit that both of them were attractive, in that way that could make you forget and stop and stare.

They were both watching her, Steve, with an intensity that threatened to burn her alive, holding her gaze for a fraction longer than necessary and then he exhaled, the tension easing ever so slightly and it felt like his body breathed mark. Soulmate. With that exhale.

James' eyes held a dangerous glint to them, hidden ocean depths that lulled you in with a siren's song, knowing full well the dangers that lay there and not caring for an instant. Yet they burned with just as much power as Steve's did, reminding her far too much of the blue flames that had chosen her name as a champion so many years ago.

He didn't so much as relax, as Steve did, but tilted his head ever so slightly, curiously, a predator watching, waiting, coiled and ready for action, yet holding himself in that perfect stillness of an ambush predator.

He would strike when he was ready to strike, and Holly doubted that she would be able to see it coming.

And then she felt them.

Even all the way through the ice she had shrouded herself with.

Even though she knew they were shielding.

A tsunami roaring through her, knocking the air out of her lungs.

Holly stiffened.

And as they both looked at her, and she looked at both of them.

And for a single heartbeat, everything stilled.

A weight in the air.

A building pressure that slammed against her skin, against her very soul.

She couldn't breathe.

The brief encounter she had with Steve in the lift had been a tug, not gentle, but not as intense as it could have been.

But together, the two of them.

They were ripping her apart from the inside out.

Forces, energy, thrashing through her as if her insides and her soul was their own personal playground.

She couldn't breathe.

She couldn't breathe.

She needed to breathe.

Holly desperately reached for her shields, reached for the layer of protection she needed to push them back. But they slipped through her fingers as if they were water. Impossible to hold.

They were inside her.

Inside her like Voldemort had been when he had possessed her.

Wave after wave of emotions whipped and ripped through her. Feelings that weren't her own but were drowning her, pulling her under all the same.

The bonds hadn't formed or developed fully between them. They hadn't had room to grow or flourish, and yet they were impossibly stronger than they should be. As if they had been there for years and this was not their first meeting.

None of them had reached out to strengthen them in any format.

Hell, she had only become aware of them today.

And yet they were.

Strong.

Powerful.

Gripping her tighter and tighter.

Red and golden threads coiled around her, pulsing with every thump of her heart. Their heart.

Squeezing harder and harder.

So tightly bound that Holly didn't know where her body ended and theirs began, fused together bound by pain, energy, a tightly knotted ball that no one dared unravel.

A tangled web - and there was no escape.

She couldn't breathe.

Oh, god, she couldn't breathe.

Holly clenched her fists tightly together, gritted her teeth and stood her ground.

She would not bend, she would not break.

She had survived too much to lose herself now.

Holly could see she wasn't the only one struggling.

She could feel Steve and James as tightly tangled as she was, and it was eating them alive.

She couldn't block them.

Couldn't shield herself from them.

So she did the only thing she could.

She fell.

She descended into darkness.

And reached.

Her magic hummed.

Her body vibrated.

The chain around her neck, tucked beneath her jumper, the Resurrection Stone warmed against her skin. Hidden out of sight on her right wrist in a wand holster the Elder wand seared. She felt them whispering, I am here. I am here. Over and over again.

Her magic reached for them, brushing over them and the boost they sent her way threatened to explode outwards, and something shifted under her skin, crawling into her soul and rose like a burning phoenix or a roaring dragon only visible to her own eyes. It snapped and cut at the bonds of glittering red and gold that were tightening around her. It wrapped itself around her like an amour of teeth and claws and projected icy knives that stabbed anybody who stepped to close.

Ice filled her veins, power rolled across her skin.

Enough! Back off!

Something snapped shut, a door, a box, Holly didn't know, didn't care, because she could breathe.

She could breathe, and it was just her. Her and her tight iron grip on something inside of her that she was terrified of letting go.

She inhaled deeply.

She could breathe. She could breathe, and think and...feel just her.

"Shit are you okay?" Someone asked.

Holly blinked in surprise, the room coming back into focus, and both Steve and James were panting, hands gripped around the table hard enough to cause it to splinter and crack.

Romanoff and Barton were beside them.

Holly turned to see the concerned brown eyes of Sam Wilson, who was standing close enough to catch her if she fell, but wasn't quite touching her at the same time.

"Can we not do that again in a hurry," she deflected.

"What the hell was that?" Stark was on his feet, moving towards her. Putting himself between her and them.

As if to deter whatever threat she may be to them with himself and allow them time to recover.

It said more about him than he probably realised, something that went beyond the image that the public and the media portrayed him as. But Holly knew better than to believe anything that the press said about anyone. Knew better than to listen to gossip and rumours.

She judged on what she witnessed herself.

"The bonds. It was the bonds," Steve grimaced, through clenched teeth.

"All three of us in the room together packs a punch," Holly said, well aware that all eyes fixed onto her.

"Did you know it was going to happen?" Stark snapped.

Holly snorted, that didn't deserve an answer, not really and she knew when to bite back her tongue.

"Did you know you were their soulmate?"

Holly fixed her gaze onto Stark, his brown eyes burning fiercely with an iron determination, but a pinch of curiosity in them. As if he couldn't quite work out if she was a threat or something he needed to observe and analyse.

This time Holly was unable to stay silent, her own irritation biting with every word.

"Yes, because one automatically assumes that the names marked onto their skin for the last twenty-nine years belong to men," Holly paused, glanced at Steve and James before, "no offence," she turned to look back at Stark, "to men who had supposedly died thirty-five years before they were born."

Stark looked at her, his eyes sweeping over her, taking in every detail, a small smirk creeping across his lips, "You have sass, I like sass."

"That wasn't sass," she sniped back.

"Oh, I think I might keep you if boy wonders won't." His eyes were twinkling with amusement, and Holly wasn't sure whether she should take that as a sign to run for the hills.

"I can't imagine why," she deadpanned.

"Oh Baby Spice, what a delight you are."

Holly raised an eyebrow at him, "Baby Spice?"

"You are the youngest out of the three of you, plus your British, it fits."

"Oh no that not what I am questioning, I'm just surprised you are aware of who Baby Spice is."

"It was the 90s I knew all the Spice girls."

"Seriously, Tony," Banner groaned.

"Can we get back on point," Hill snapped, "What the hell actually happened?"

"It was the first time all three of us have been in the room together. The first time always hits the hardest," Steve answered, his gaze darting everywhere but her.

"Three is a magic number, can be found in most religions and is woven throughout history and mythology," Banner supplied.

If only they knew how accurate that was.

"So this was a test?" Holly questioned, crossing her arms and taking a step back, giving her space to move.

She couldn't fault them for testing whether it was genuine. Not really, but Holly was tired of being tested, her whole life it seemed was one giant test to see if she was ready for somebody else's game plan.

"We had to be certain," Sam said as he cautiously looked at her "Being who they are, they have a lot of enemies, which means steps need to be taken to ensure your safety."

"My safety?" Holly frowned. Why the hell was her safety important?

"Take a seat, we can discuss everything," Stark prompted, waving a hand to a chair.

Holly eyed them all, nobody was giving anything away, and yet she couldn't help but feel this was an ambush against her. From form the moment she had stepped into the tower, hell even Steve crossing paths with her in the lift. Holly wasn't sure it was one that had gone according to plan, not with how they had all reacted to the bonds, but an ambush never the less.

It made her hackles rise almost instinctively.

But if there was one thing she was good at, it was thinking on her feet when the odds were against her.

She didn't need to give an inch, open herself up to them.

This meeting didn't change a goddamn thing as to why she was here in the first place.

They didn't change a goddamn thing.

Holly sat down.

The Avengers overall were an intimidating bunch. Each with a skill set that put them firmly in the lethal category. But they were the good guys, and she hadn't done anything that signalled she was a bad guy bent on world domination - which she wasn't.

She didn't fear them.

At least not in the way they would expect.

It was Tony Stark that made a move first, cutting through the growing silence, introducing himself and in turn the others.

He bedazzled and charmed in a way, that made you forget for a moment that he was Iron Man and dangerous. Deflection, defensive, tools Holly knew how to use herself. If all you saw was the charming playboy, then you wouldn't see under the surface, you wouldn't pay closer attention. He would be able to run rings around most of the Wizards she knew back home that considered themselves charming.

But he had revealed more than perhaps he intended to when he had stepped up to face her.

Putting himself between her and two of his teammates.

"A contract?"

Holly blinked, her attention focusing back into the room and on what Stark was saying, rather than what his actions were saying.

"For your protection and ours."

"And then?"

"Then we get you set up with security and ready for the day ahead."

"Just like that?" Holly paused, frowning slightly. "Does everyone know?"

"Only those that need to know," Hill answered.

"You know some would consider it an honour," Stark chimed, taking point from Hill.

"No offence, I get you saved the world and all, but I'm British and Captain America, doesn't exactly inspire the same kind of patriotism to me as he would an American. Not that I'm not grateful that you all saved the world."

Steve's lips twitched ever so slightly, hardly noticeable if you weren't paying attention, but she was so Holly didn't miss it.

Holly couldn't feel anything from either of them now, her own shields in place matched with their own.

She brought her attention back onto Hill and Stark who were busy taking it in turns as they explained everything, pushing the contract towards her to allow her to read through.

The contract itself was fairly straightforward.

Mentioning things Holly would never consider doing in the Wizarding World let alone the muggle one.

Informing the Press, the Media, posting on Social Media sites, she wasn't entirely sure she had kept track of the many different ones that the muggles used, but she definitely didn't have accounts for any of them.

She had no interest in becoming a public face for the world to speculate about. Drawing attention to herself was not what she was here to do, and she already had too much focus on her now.

Holly frowned as she reread the same line twice.

It wasn't just the general public she couldn't tell.

It was no one.

Cutting her off from any support network she may have.

Not that she had to worry too much about that.

The Avengers would never know if she did discuss it with them, considering that they belonged to a whole different world, but it was beside the point.

"I'm not allowed to tell anyone, discuss with anyone. No friends, no family," she pointed out, "Yet all of you know."

Silence filled the room.

"The more people that know, the higher the risk of the wrong people finding out. We won't be able to protect you and others that you would tell," Hill answered.

"You are presuming that I need protection, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself," Holly answered. Who exactly was it they were afraid of the information getting to?

"Against organisation like Hydra?" Stark snorted, "They would use you, to get to us."

Hydra, they more than likely would. Voldemort would have used Steve and James against her in a blink of an eye if he had known who they were, and they had been around then.

But that fact that Stark mentioned them first was interesting, and something she filed away for later.

Hydra - she had changed from the person she was the first time their paths crossed. They wouldn't find it so easy the next time they faced each other.

Not that it was easy the first time; they killed her entire team.

She pushed away the doubt that niggled at the back of her mind, how does the saying go, fool me once shame of you, fool me twice then shame on me.

Holly would be ready to tackle whatever they would throw at her when she finally caught up with them.

"Anybody you tell, would be at risk of being used to get to you, which in turn would have a chain reaction to get to Steve and Bucky," Sam said softly, trying to sound at least reasonable, "However taking away somebody's support system is ill-advised. Is there anybody we need to worry about knowing about the marks?"

"Like?" Holly asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Parents?"

"No," Holly answered, refusing to expand on exactly when or how they died.

"Any other family?"

"None that I talk to."

A sharp jolt of pain zapped through her, and Holly flinched as she turned to look at them.

"Do any of your friends know?" Steve asked slowly, his gaze fixed onto her.

Holly hesitated, did she answer truthfully, or did she lie?

"Three."

"Who are they?"

"I don't think so."

"We can't protect them if we don't know who they are," he pointed out.

"They are protected by nobody knowing who they are, or where they are," Holly countered with a smile. A smile that was all teeth and attitude rather than pleasant and sweet.

Holly was tired of other people thinking they knew what was best for her. Of course, Holly couldn't fault them that, they didn't know who she was, what she was capable of, and if she had her way, they never would. But even so, she couldn't no she wouldn't allow them to think she was a push-over.

Not to mention she felt sorry for anybody who went after Hermione, Ron and Luna. They were more than equipped in dealing with threats.

"What do they know?" Hill queried.

"They know I am marked, and they know the names, and that's it."

Though Holly was personally beginning to suspect that Luna knew more than she was saying.

"Do you trust them?"

"With my life."

"That's the thing; it won't just be your life on the line," Hill pointed out.

Holly schooled her features to give nothing away, "How about if my life is ever in danger, you don't save me, and I will rescue myself, and then it negates the problem of me being used against you."

Silence followed her answer, and Holly read over the contract once again as they pondered her words.

It wasn't binding in the way a magical one was. Sure if she were to break it, the lawsuit that would follow would have consequences, but she wouldn't lose her magic and her life.

Holly had no intention of breaking it.

She had no intention of sticking around long enough for it to become a problem.

This job was for information only.

If signing it was the only way she would be able to stay and work there, then sign it she would.

And yet...

As much as Holly understood the logic, the reasoning appreciated it all. It was for both hers and their protection.

It didn't stop the light quiver of doubt in her stomach as she saw Steve and James had already signed. Had they hesitated, had they the same flicker of doubt?

Her mind spun around and around like a merry go round.

She wasn't worthy.

She was tainted goods.

She was a freak.

She wasn't wanted.

Holly hated herself for giving into those thoughts, to let them whisper in the back of her mind.

Because it didn't matter.

She didn't matter.

Her feelings weren't important.

She wasn't important.

It was just one more sacrifice she needed to make, and Holly was good at making those kinds of sacrifices, especially if it stopped others from getting hurt.

Holly let out a shallow breath, picked up the pen and signed her name three times on the indicated lines.

She wasn't significant in this.

The children, they were who were imperative.

They mattered.

Holly looked up, pushing the contracts away from her, and gave a tight smile and a tad of irritation slipping through, "I won't discuss it with my friends who are aware that I am marked, so you don't have to worry about them being a danger."

They looked at her in surprise, all of them, uncertain how to proceed.

"What's next?"


Holly had never been more grateful to step behind the safety of her wards at the end of the day. The moment the door snapped shut behind her and the locks clicked back into place she slumped down until her ass hit the floor.

Back to the door.

Knees tucked upwards, making herself as small as she possibly could.

She rubbed at her chest, it felt tight, too tight, hands wrapping around her and squeezing.

A jolt of pain shot through her.

Breathe.

Deep breath.

In.

And out.

Today had been a cluster fuck.

A long day.

The tour of the building had lasted two hours; Holly was surprised exactly how much was crammed into the spaces the Avengers occupied of the Tower. Recreational rooms, including a home cinema and pool, a party deck, which Stark used to entertain guests. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Setting up with security had taken its time, as had ensuring she was set up with her phone and Pad and once it had been done Holly was given her marching orders to go home and start the next day afresh.

Now she was in the safety of her home she could try and make sense of what she was actually feeling.

Even now Holly could feel it vibrating through her body, her blood, her soul.

Her magic purred.

Even the darkness fucking purred.

Holly leaned back and smacked her head against the door.

She needed to focus.

She could handle this.

Holly took a deep breath.

It didn't change anything.

She was twenty-nine years old. She had stopped believing in fairytales when she was six.

The marks on her skin did not mean, love, acceptance, family and everything she had wanted when she was alone in her cupboard for days at a time. When she was cold, hungry and hurting.

Before she learnt once upon a time only happened in stories and in the real world, the bad guys usually won. She was no fairytale princess.

Holly wasn't that little girl anymore.

She was an adult.

She would deal with this, just like she dealt with everything else. Roll with the punches.

And if that didn't work.

Deny.

Deny.

Deny.

Holly was the fucking Queen of Denial.

Yet one thing she couldn't deny was the Avengers knew.

They would be keeping a closer eye on her.

It made everything more complicated.

She was fucking cursed.

Since the moment she had been born.

Holly had accepted she had been born with her marks, just as she had acknowledged that they had been one more nail in her coffin as to why she was a freak.

She had pushed the idea of ever meeting them aside.

She had been doing just fine - until now.

Her chest tightened in disagreement.

"Oh, fuck off!" Holly muttered.

She took another breath.

She had had her five minutes.

Holly couldn't afford to allow herself any longer.

"Get it together, and pick yourself off the floor," she whispered.

She closed her eyes and reached for her Occlumency shields. She submerged herself into the icy depths, letting the coldness fill her and freeze. Shoving everything down and shielding it in layers and layers of ice. Impenetrable.

She had no doubt that by the time all this was over; she was going to need a bigger box.

But as she opened her eyes, her mind, and her emotions felt calmer. More in control. More focused.

Safer.

Safer not to feel, because she had always felt too much. Too much until it became unbearable. Until she couldn't breathe or think, and just acted.

She controlled her emotions; her emotions did not control her.

She let out a breath, this one shallower, lighter, more controlled, and pushed herself to her feet and away from the door.

What was it she used to tell herself when she was younger?

Small but mighty.

Brave and unyielding.

Holly's eyes burned and molten fire spread through her veins.

She had work to do tonight, her own files to look over. Krum had sent over his figures, and she needed to look at them, compare the dates - try and find a pattern across the world.

Before more children went missing.

Before Hydra did whatever the fuck they were planning to do with those children.


Bucky's eyes were beginning to hurt as he stared blankly at the bright screen in front of him. He let out a deep sigh that rumbled inside his chest and tried his best to focus.

He was so fucking tired, but sleep evaded him.

And not for the usual reasons of familiar nightmares.

He was restless.

Every part of him.

The Soldier.

The Asset.

Power rippled through him, and that darkest part of himself woke up and pushed its way forward to the front of his mind before Bucky could even think about pushing it back.

The predator.

His entire body hyperaware of everything around him. The vibrations in the air, the slightest change in scent, the approaching footsteps that he shouldn't be able to hear, but thanks to the serum he was, thanks to the Soldier he could.

But it wasn't paying too much attention to the outside, no; its focus firmly fixed on the bonds.

Those metaphysical threads of red and gold that connected him to his marks.

Every part of him was fixed on her, even parts he wished weren't, had been since she had walked out of the room earlier that day after signing the contract.

"Bucky?"

"Don't," he growled in warning.

His heart was pounding; he could feel his pulse under his skin as though it was a live wire.

He could feel Steve's uncertainty as though it was his own, could feel uneasiness in his stomach, his breath catching even though he was breathing just fine.

"Bucky."

His name was said softer this time, quieter, and then it wasn't uncertainty he felt it was warmth.

Sitting by a bonfire kind of warmth, while roasting marshmallows. It was love, unconditional love, acceptance, strength, and everything he didn't deserve. Not with how red his hands were. Not with how black his soul was.

Bucky wanted to soak it up, to stay like that forever, but he couldn't. They couldn't.

Not when he didn't trust himself.

Not when it wasn't safe.

Bucky pulled away, untangled himself, pushing with the coldness that was the Soldier and hated himself just a little more when Steve flinched in response.

"I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Steve said softly, "I shouldn't have pushed."

Bucky stared at him, even now, with the uncertainty of everything between them; Steve hadn't stopped being his friend.

He hadn't stopped being Steve's friend.

Even if it was complicated.

"What rattled the cage?"

"We shouldn't have done that," he answered instead.

Steve faltered for a moment, uncertainty creeping back in, right down to his most subtle movements.

Movements that Bucky knew by heart.

"Done what?"

Bucky threw him a look, not able to hide the disappointment from showing.

"Today. The ambush. The contract. Everything," Bucky answered, flicking a tongue over his bottom lip, "It was a mistake. We should have handled it better. We should have done it differently."


The universe hummed.

Tiny vibrations trickled over him as the fabric of the universe rippled.

He could taste the power on his tongue.

He could feel the familiar icy caress against his soul...calling him.

His mind stretched and reached, grasping at the whispering threads and promise of sweet death.

He could feel her.

How long had it been since he had felt her presence in the universe?

Too long.

Where had she been?

Why had she hidden from him?

He had searched and searched. He had slaughtered and conquered in her name and still she had not come to him, and now...now he could feel her.

As if she was just waking up.

Yet it was different.

There was a searing heat that had never been there before; his love had always been cold, cold and darkness...soothing but never forgiving.

But the heat burned at his skin.

Power.

Different from what he remembered, new to him yet ancient, he could feel it in the fabric of the universe a pulsing beat.

One he did not recognise but felt all the same.

It changed the melody. It changed her melody.

It shrouded her from his sight. He could not see her.

The universe hummed, but it hummed a different song.

What had happened to his love?

What had caused this change?

He frowned, soon my love, he would find her soon. He would discover what had happened, why she had disappeared, and what this new aberration was and how it was connected to his love.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:-

Holly woke hunched over the table, parchment stuck to her face and a kink in her neck.

Wearily she groaned as she wiped the sleep out of her eyes, ran a hand through her hair, grimacing at the knots and the fuzzy feeling on her teeth.

She had done it again.

Fallen asleep as she worked into the night over the many notes and files she had gathered since she had started this case.

Holly was pretty sure she had the damn things memorised by now, but that still didn't stop her from going through them with a fine-tooth comb looking for that all-important key that would give her some insight into the wild chaotic mess that was Hydra.

She just hoped that working at the Avengers Tower wasn't a complete bust, all things considering.

A glance at the clock on the wall had her groaning, half-four. She remembered seeing half-one, but her eyes had started getting blurry at that point.

By her estimation, she had a couple of hours sleep, and getting more sleep now that she was awake was an impossibility she didn't want to tackle.

Not that she slept comfortably anymore.

Nightmares had plagued her for most of her life, but they had gotten considerably worse since Hydra - since her time with them.

Don't think about it.

Holly pushed the thoughts of them under the multiple layers of ice her mind used to protect itself until she could shove them into the school trunk that lay under it.

Holly was sure if it were possible neon lights would be shinning over that box of 'things not to think about it'. It rattled as her mind brushed across it and she quickly pulled away.

She kneaded the side of her neck as she pushed herself to her feet. Stretching and working out the kinks.

Sleep was pointless now.

She glanced at the files again. Krum's information had been enlightening and together with what she had from cases in Britain, Ireland, America, Asia and the Middle East, she was starting to see a pattern forming. Holly couldn't say it made sense, but it was giving her the bigger picture to look at which was a step in the right direction of finding the puzzle pieces she needed.

The most recent cases were from three months ago, and Holly could see that one of those missing children was from a neighbourhood in New York City. Her own neighbourhood where she had decided to set up her base.

Hell's Kitchen.

Thank Merlin Andromeda Tonks had passed on that little bit of information, along with a copy of the police-file. It was thin at best, but it was a beginning that she could expand on. Usually, it was like pulling teeth to get information out of the muggle-police.

She made a mental note to go over there after work one day this week when she had the chance before flicking her wand at the files. Everything started to neatly arrange themselves before floating to her draw that sealed shut as soon as the last piece of paper settled.

Another flick and the copper kettle on the hob started hissing as the water bubbled and boiled, all the while her favourite mug lifted from the shelf and a tea bag joined it.

Another two flicks had various ingredients floating down from her cupboards, along with bowls, baking trays and other delights she would need to start baking.

She found baking therapeutic; it was normal and allowed her to distress from the whirling state that her mind seemed to have permanently settled into. It allowed her to switch off, just for an hour or so.

Besides, bringing baked goods to work was acceptable, and earned you brownie points, or at least that was what she had heard.

She loved this kind of magic the best, the simple beautiful things it was able to do, that she had never had the time to learn while being at Hogwarts.

But after the war, she had taken the time she needed to learn off Mrs Weasley who was a goddess when it came to hearth and home magic.

Confident that her charms would do what they needed to do, Holly left the main room and made her way towards the bathroom, itching for a shower and a clean set of clothes.

Bathing and showering were her one few delights and something she treasured as a way to relax her. She always found water soothing.

The Dursleys had always restricted how long she spent in the bathroom, and it was never as much time as she had craved.

It was why when it came to the bathroom, a few charms and spells had quickly transformed it into a style suited to an expensive hotel suite rather than her apartment.

Grabbing a towel from the small cabinet, Holly switched the water on.

Shower. Tea. Baking. Work.

A straightforward plan, but one that soothed her mind for a moment, before she stripped and stepped into the shower.

Her skin prickling as soon as the hot, almost boiling, water hit her.

Holly closed her eyes as she lathered up the shampoo on her hands and started scrubbing at her hair.

She would tackle today with her head raised and her shoulders back. She wouldn't think about Soulmarks, and contracts, she would be, ordinary.

Do her job.

In and out.

Nothing else.


Her nose twitched as the smell of freshly baked goods breezed through the air.

Causing more than a few heads to lift up from their work stations as the elevator doors slid open.

Her eyes darted to them as Potter stepped off the elevator onto the main operations floor. Dressed in similar clothing she had worn yesterday with the exception of a woolly jumper that was a deep maroon colour, bar the gold numbering on number 7.

Personal, meaning something only to Potter she filed away that little note for later. Her hair was tied back into a single braid, but a few strands had managed to work themselves free.

She was carrying a box.

A large box that her nose was telling her was the cause of the smell.

"Morning," Potter greeted with a smile that was too chirpy for seven-thirty in the morning.

"Please tell me you aren't one of those happy morning people?" Maria asked, her brow creasing at the woman.

"No, not usually, but I'm on my fourth cup of tea," Potter answered, her smile turning into a grin.

Maria filed that little piece of information away. One never knew when the small details would become necessary.

"What's in the box?"

"Isn't that a line from the film Seven?"

Maria resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and instead threw Potter a cold look that used to have Shield Agents jumping to follow orders.

Potter didn't even flinch. Instead, her grin widened and her eyes danced with amusement.

Potter wasn't easily intimidated, and Maria couldn't help but find herself speculating on how she and Fury would have interacted. Stark, Rogers, even Barton and Romanoff had tested the waters with the man on more than one occasion, and she had had to listen to many grumbling complaints of stubborn headed mules, but they had always risen to the challenge when needed. She had a feeling that Potter would fall into a category that Fury reserved for Thor.

Tread cautiously.

Though Maria couldn't think for the life of her, one reason why she felt that.

On the surface, Potter looked boring, and Maria would have hired her with or without the marks on her skin, but it was those marks that had her showing some level of interest because they made absolutely no sense with the woman standing in front of her.

Everything they were taught about soulmarks was they were world-changers. Potter baked, that didn't exactly scream world-changer in the way that history said they would.

Something didn't add up that had her instincts twitching and her mind turning over every piece of information she had on Potter.

"Cinnamon rolls, Danishes, and muffins," Potter answered.

Maria couldn't lie and say her mouth didn't water a little at the mention of cinnamon rolls.

As if sensing her desire, Potter opened the box lid and held out the box for her.

She narrowed her eyes, evaluating Potter closely as she chose her next words carefully.

"I'm not easily bribed."

"I didn't say you were, but they are freshly baked goods, and something tells me, they will be gone in seconds the moment I put them on the kitchen counter."

True.

Maria picked a cinnamon roll up and took a bite. An explosion of flavours burst to life in her mouth, and a groan threatened to escape, but she quickly quietened it, by taking another small bite.

Potter grinned, "I will go put them into the kitchen, and there is enough for everyone so, help yourself."

Maria watched her go as she took another bite.

She wouldn't complain if Potter brought freshly baked goods in regularly, not if how the cinnamon roll tasted was anything to go by, and from a glance at the small kitchen area that Stark had purposely built for her and those who worked under her, she wouldn't be the only one.

"Cinnamon roll?"

Maria turned to face Romanoff; the redhead raised an eyebrow at her as she came close.

"I'm allowed one weakness, and they are the best I have tasted," Maria shrugged.

"What do you make of her?" Romanoff asked.

"She's hiding," Maria answered as she finished her last bite.

"That was my impression of her."

Maria met Romanoff's eyes, looking down at the woman who was only slightly smaller than her.

"I'm not going to ask if you are going to look into it."

"That's because you already know my answer."

"Is it because of the marks?"

Romanoff tilted her head to the side, her eyes sweeping over Potter who was walking back towards them, "In part. I will protect Steve and Barnes no matter the cost, but something...just doesn't add up with her. She is a puzzle, and I don't think we have all the pieces."

"Let me know what you find."

Romanoff shot her a look, before nodding her head at Potter in the way of greeting.

"Steve and I will be out of the Tower all day. Call if something comes up," Romanoff said before she walked towards the kitchen.

Maria caught the slight stiffening in Potter's shoulders at the mention of Rogers before she forced herself to relax. Maria filed it away for later analysing.

She had no doubt that Romanoff would look further into Potter, and she had no doubt that if the woman found anything, unless it was a direct threat to Rogers and Barnes, that she would keep it to herself. The woman hoarded information and secrets like gold and had only ever really given information up to Fury and Coulson without prompting.

Maria inwardly sighed, she needed to contact Coulson, have him on the lookout for any Hydra activity, and any information they may have already stumbled across. She had no doubt dealing with the fallout of that grand revelation when Shields path crossed with the Avengers was going to be...complicated.

They had all mourned his loss.

While she was at it, she may even reach out to Fury, the man was in the wind, but that didn't mean he wasn't paying close attention to what the world was doing, or the undercurrents that governed it.

"Where do you need me today?" Potter asked.

"You will be working with Banner today; he is down in his lab," she answered.

Maria could almost see the relief oozing off Potter as she gave her the assignment. Potter had so far been good at not giving anything away from what she was feeling, only slipping up once and twice, but it seemed that keeping her distance from Rogers and Barnes was something Potter wanted.

Maria could accommodate that for the time being. Let everyone get used to being in the same building first.

Of course if something came up, then her hands would be tied. The whole reason she had hired Potter was to be extra eyes, ears and hands when needed.

"I will head there now."

"As a warning Potter, tread carefully with Banner, we have protocols in place and Banner's control is incredible, but should he show any signs of the Hulk coming out, you get the hell out of the lab."

Green eyes locked with hers, Maria couldn't see the expected fear in them. Potter's instead lightened with various emotions ranging from understanding and acceptance.

Point to Potter.

She didn't have many people working for her, ten in total with the new recruits, but Potter was the first to not show open fear when it came to Banner.

"I will keep the warning in mind," Potter answered slowly, before returning to the kitchen, grabbing a single plate and placing two Danishes on it.

Maria tracked the woman's movement as she moved away from the main operations room, barely glancing at the screens that were lit up with information as she walked to the elevator.

Romanoff was right, Potter was a puzzle, but one she wouldn't solve in a day.

Instead, she turned her attention back to the screens, "Jarvis have we found any energy signatures that are standing out at the possible locations?"

"No, Ms Hill, though I will continue to monitor the city."

It would be too easy if they found something straight away, Hydra had hidden with Shield for seventy years they weren't going to make anything easy for them now just because the rest of the world knew they were still out there.

They just had to keep looking.


Holly stepped off the lift, carefully balancing the plate and her Stark Pad.

A hissing sound echoed loudly in her ears, causing Holly to wince the moment she stepped through the doors.

Banner's lab was four floors above the main operations floor and one below the specially designed medical wing.

Her skin prickled as her senses stretched out, pushing back at the invading whirlwind of...noise. White noise, if white noise could ever be a physical force.

Not magic.

Technology.

Technology gave off an entirely different sensation compared to magic. Magic was like breathing, woven into the very fabric of the world, the universe, it was everything and anything. Technology was...different. It came from the outside, and while it at times could connect to that living, breathing force that was magic and it could produce its own beautiful feats of wonder, technology was artificial. Man-made, or alien made.

But that didn't mean that it didn't give off its own frequencies.

Like she could hear, feel and see the energy it gave off but she couldn't quite understand it, couldn't quite interpreter the signal or form the connection.

Dr Banner's lab was full of machines buzzing with activity.

Holly hadn't a clue what any of them did, besides the obvious laptops.

Hermione would have loved it.

How the Wizarding World could ever think muggles were beneath them, she would never understand.

She soaked in the scene before her, pristine clean work-stations, various machines, giant screens that had multiple images and things on them, until her eyes finally stopped at a man, hunched over a microscope.

"Dr Banner?"

He looked up at her in surprise.

"Sorry to interrupt. Hill said I was working with you today," she said uncertainly, "I come bearing gifts. I hope you like Danishes."

She lifted the plate in her hand slightly.

He blinked at her, his eyes widened as he took off his glasses and rubbed at them absently.

"Of course, forgive me, I was..."

"Lost in work?"

He gave her a sheepish smile as he put his glasses back on.

"Yes, exactly. And I do, um, like Danishes that is."

Holly smiled at him; put the plate down on the only clear workspace the lab seemed to have.

"Can I get you anything before we start?" Holly asked he looked a little haggard in her opinion, his salt and pepper hair long and sticking up at odd angles, not that she could ever judge someone on unruly hair.

"No, no, thank you. There is a small kitchen on the left if you want to make yourself a drink though."

"I will just get a glass of water. Thank you. Any particular rules about the lab I should know about?" Holly queried as she walked over to where he had indicated.

He gave her a tired smile.

"No, I will go over all the machines with you and when to avoid them. Food near the machines isn't advised, though the workspace I have cleared will be fine."

Holly smiled at him as she moved over to the workspace she had already placed the plate down.

"You didn't have to go to any trouble."

"It was no trouble; I usually have my notes spread out there when I am working on anything particular."

Holly sat down, picked up one of the Danishes and took a bite as Banner continued.

"I won't be overwhelming you. I know Maria has put you here mostly to ensure the medical wing is well stocked and to run background checks on potential Doctors and nurses we want to try and get to work here."

"I think I can manage that," Holly said softly, "So are you allowed to tell me what you are working on, or is that something I'm not supposed to know yet?"

She took another bite of her Danish.

"No, no, it's fine," Banner started, running a hand through his hair salt and pepper hair, "It's not anything particularly interesting. Just looking at the compounds of Extremis on a more molecular level."

"Extremis?"

She took another bite and chewed slowly.

"It rewrites the human DNA - has been used most recently in a bastardised version of the super-solder serum - with less than pleasant side effects. It is somewhat unstable."

Holly wrinkled her nose, "Sounds complicated." She put the last mouthful of Danish into her mouth, rose from her seat and moved back to the small sink to rinse her hands.

"Not a fan of science?"

"My Professor hated me," Holly answered with a shrug as she dried her hands on paper towels. Potions was as close to a form of science that she had gotten to once she left primary school, "I found the subject fascinating - but six years with the same teacher whose methods were more mockery than actually teaching and it eventually wears you down."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's in the past. Besides I was more accidental explosions than genetic manipulation."

She grinned as she sat back down.

"How do you get accidental explosions?"

"It's a lot easier than you think. Like did you know microwaving foil equals fire?" She joked.

"That I did know," Banner replied, looking around his lab nervously, "Perhaps I should point out where the fire extinguishers are."

Holly smiled, "Oh, don't worry; my explosions are all deliberate now."

"That isn't exactly comforting."

Holly chuckled, as she switched on the Stark Pad and signed on as she had been instructed to.

Holly studied the scientist in front of her as she waited for her Pad to load everything up. He looked tired; tired in the way that Remus looked tired after a full moon.

She wasn't about to compare transforming into the Hulk as the same as changing into a werewolf, but Holly couldn't help but wonder whether the transformation itself had the same physical strain on the body. Banner was only eleven years older than her and yet he looked older. Remus had looked older than he actually was.

There were other similarities that she could see between the two men, both intelligent and passionate about sharing their wisdom in the world, and did it in a way that made you want to learn rather than feeling like a lecture. Banner had so far not treated her as though she was stupid despite not having the background in his chosen fields.

Instead, he set her mind alight with questions and inquisitiveness about the muggle world and how far their science had reached.

"So tell me Dr Banner, what exactly are you looking for and who exactly do we need?"

"An actual Doctor would be useful."

"Aren't you?"

"I have seven PHDs, and I know biology and human biology. But I didn't go down the route of Medical Doctor. Despite some of my solitary days offering aid to those that needed it," the man answered, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

He continued, "I can look at chemical compounds; look at the effects on a molecular level. I have an understanding of pathogens. But medically, I can treat minor injuries. You have a bullet in you; you do not want me digging it out of you. I'm not a trained surgeon."

"So we are looking for trauma team?" Her head tilted to the side as she scanned through the list Banner had already started putting together, names and specialities listed alongside.

She clicked on one name and their file opened, giving her access to even more information that she had been anticipating.

Was this what it was like living in the muggle world, information, personal and secretive stuff so readily available at the touch of a button about each other.

"For now, yes. Those trained to deal with the type of injuries that we could sustain. We can find specialists and get to them if we need to, but a trauma team on hand would be useful."

Holly tapped away on her Pad.

"What about anyone medically trained in the field?"

Banner gave her a look, "I don't think we have thought about that, at least not yet. Mind you who would be crazy enough to sign up? When we deal with alien invasions?

Holly smiled slightly, "The world is full of all sorts. Are there any names that stand out to you? I can set up a triage system for those who you need immediately and permanently on hand. To those that would be willing to work with you on retainer while still having their jobs at their chosen hospitals."

"Not that I can think of, on the top of my head, I have worked through the list for the last few weeks, but I can't say who would be a good fit."

"Not to worry," Holly said, "I will hopefully be able to narrow it down, avoiding those that have any red flags."

Holly randomly picked a name of the list and loaded their file.

"Right, so the first name is Doctor Fredrick Dawson. Huh, Doctor Dawson is currently working in New York at Metro-General Hospital, so he's a local. Means moving him to New York won't be an issue as he's already here." Holly paused, "That's one less hurdle to tackle if we want him to join the team."

Holly could feel Banner looking at her, so looked up at him and met her gaze with his own.

"What?" she asked softly.

After some time he spoke, though Holly could hear the restraint in his voice, "How are you?"

"I'm fine thank you."

"I meant after yesterday."

Holly grimaced, "I know you did. Honestly, I am fine, I would rather just not. You know?"

"I know the contract may seem as if you are being cut off from them, but that is not its intention."

Holly stiffened her breath catching ever so slightly. Her heart speeding up ever so slightly.

Her hands felt clammy, and the knots that had settled into her stomach wiggled and wormed and tightened.

Her throat felt dry, but she forced the words out, "It doesn't really matter does it? It doesn't change anything. The paper is signed; I would rather just get on with my job unless me working here is going to cause problems."

"You working here isn't going to cause problems," he assured.

"Okay," Holly answered, turning her attention back to the screen. "Jarvis can you pull up Doctor Dawson's finances, and social media. We are looking for anything that requires a closer look."

"Of course Ms Potter."

Holly pushed away from the thought of the marks that floated to the surface; she didn't need to think about them.

She was just here to do a job.

Nothing else.


Bruce watched her.

Sitting opposite him, she took a sip of her drink her brow furrowed as she focused her attention on the Stark Pad in her hands. They had already spent the morning working on the list of potential Medical Staff he had suggested. Throwing her ideas into the mix of potential candidates as she searched into their backgrounds with Jarvis and looked for things he wouldn't have had the patience to take note of.

So far, she had found three affairs, one drinking problem and one Doctor who owed a substantial amount of money to less than savoury people.

Bruce prided himself of having a good understanding of human nature. He had to over the years since the lab accident. He had learnt to read the situations he was in, in case anything set him off.

He couldn't afford to not understand human nature.

To not see the potential hurdles that could trigger him.

He couldn't afford to lose control for a second.

From what he was observing Holly Potter was meticulous and focused, yet there was something under the surface that shone through when she smiled slightly, green eyes dancing with amusement as she bantered with him, it was light and soft-hearted, more poking fun at herself than anything else.

She was a conundrum.

He had thought by now that she would have directed her questions towards Steve or Barnes, but she had surprised him.

She hadn't asked one.

Had visibly tensed when he broached the subject. And that reaction told him more than she perhaps realised.

Instead, her questions were about the various machines within the lab. Green eyes shining with delight as she absorbed his explanations and asked yet more questions.

She had taken an interest in what he was working on, but Bruce could see it was from the angle of an untapped passion for understanding the world around her. Whoever had taught her and neglected to fan those sparks of a curious mind into flames, and Bruce couldn't help but wonder what if they had done so, would Holly Potter's name be amongst the world changers of scientists.

But the real thing that he found peculiar was, despite the alertness of the surroundings she had, being aware when one of the Stark scientists poked their heads through his doors before even he was aware of them, she was the first person outside of the Avengers that knew who he was and treated him normally.

As if she wasn't in danger every second, she was in his presence. There was no fear, no tensed coiled stance that she had shown visibly yesterday when she had stepped into the meeting room with them all.

Though Bruce supposed, he couldn't blame her. She had acted like a cornered animal though still retained enough control not to strike out at them.

But not only was she relaxed around him, but the Hulk was also relaxed around her. He didn't so much as twitch when she came into his personal space to hand him his green tea. He had watched through angry green eyes curiously before something seemed to soothe the rage inside of him ever so slightly for the Hulk to fall back without a fight into the corners of his subconscious.

Bruce found the whole thing oddly unnerving.

Comforting, yet unnerving all the same because the Hulk was never soothed. Was always pressing along his conscious thought, fighting for dominance and control.

"What about Doctor Helen Cho?" Holly asked suddenly, looking up at him. Bruce felt the intense weight of her eyes pressing along his skin, before she continued, "She's a world-renowned geneticist and the leader of the U-Gin, so it wouldn't be full time, but she could be on a retainer."

"I-um, remind me again what her work was?" he replied, removing his glasses to wipe them clean.

"From what little I can understand, she had developed the Regeneration Cradle, which can heal wounds by grafting a simulacrum organic tissue to the patient and having its bond to the patient's cells."

"Synthetic tissue," he said, as he found the file on his device. He remembered the fascination he had felt when he had first read the paper explaining the method.

It would change the face of medicine. Provided it could be made on a large scale and disrupted evenly across the world.

Bruce knew it would be next to impossible because creating the devices would cost a lot, and those involved in their production would want to make a profit. Something he doubted Dr Cho would have much control over if it ever reached that point.

"Reach out, to her. The worst she can do is say no," Bruce added with a frown.

"I am already drafting the email now, which should be ready for you to check over and send after lunch."

Bruce blinked in surprise.

"Why don't we stop for lunch, we have been checking over the list for the last four hours, and the medical professions say you need to take regular breaks from looking at screens, I think we are well overdue."

"They do?" Holly asked, with a frown, her eyebrows squished together as her head tilted to the side, and her lips pressed together.

"Umm, yes they do. Have you never heard that before?"

"No, not really. But then while I can use technology, it doesn't rule my life like it seems to for most people."

"That is oddly refreshing in this day and age. We are very dependent creatures on technology."

Holly gave him a slight smile, "It's not all bad, and I'm certainly not against it, but it doesn't rule me either."

"You still need to take that break."

"Right, you are Doctor Banner."

"It's Bruce, you can call me Bruce."

"In that case, you can call me Holly."

"I can do that," he agreed, returning her smile with one of his own.

Yes, Holly Potter was a conundrum. An interesting one, but a puzzle never the less.


Steve watched the droplets of rain splash against the window. Despite the dreary grey weather, the view from the window was still beautiful and had him almost wishing that he had brought his sketch pad with him.

But he wasn't there to indulge his artistic desires, he wouldn't waste the precious time he had.

"What's wrong?"

He turned to look down at Peggy who was sitting comfortably in her chair next to her bed, even as frail as she was right now, Steve couldn't help but see her for how she was.

Strong and fierce.

"What makes you think anything is wrong?"

"Because I know you, Steve."

He made a little huff of agreement, moving away from the window and sitting down in the chair opposite Peggy. He had made monthly trips ever since his first visit, their talks about various things when Peggy had the energy to do so. Some visits he just talked, while she smiled and nodded, but he could see in her eyes she wasn't entirely sure what they were talking about.

Other visits involved him listening as she spoke about her life, her life that had continued after his crash into the ice.

"Your jaw ticks when you are thinking too hard, did you know that? It gives you away. You should work on that."

He smiled tightly, "I will do that."

He leaned forward, holding his hands together, fingers crossing as he rested them on his knee.

"Are you going to tell me what is wrong?"

"I just have a lot on my mind."

"You always did like to take on the weight of the world onto your shoulders."

"It's complicated," he countered, rubbing a hand across his chin. And it was, complicated.

"Steve."

He met her gaze, the way she said his name, the same way she had said it so many years ago. It would be so easy to just pour it all out, Peggy had always had a way of getting to the heart of a problem and while talking to her had left him tongue-tied more often than not, he still ended up telling her more than he told other people.

"Ah, Bucky," Peggy guessed, understanding filling her eyes.

"What makes you say that?"

"You always get a certain look in your eyes."

"Peggy..."

She waved him to be quiet, "No, you have nothing to feel guilty about. I know how we felt about each other, but I also know that Bucky had your heart long before you met me."

He sighed, "It's not just Bucky, not anymore."

Peggy frowned at him.

"You've met someone else?"

"Not exactly," he muttered, dropping his eyes from hers.

"You know my only regret is that you didn't get to live your life, Steve. I lived mine, and it was a good life. Challenging, hard, but good," Peggy said softly, her hand reaching for his and resting lightly on top of them.

"You have been given a second chance, don't waste it."

"I don't know what to do," he admitted, his shoulders sagged. He didn't know what to do, and he was always supposed to know what to do.

"You can't plan for everything. Life is meant to be uncertain; it's part of the fun."

Steve swallowed slowly.

He wasn't sure he could silence his mind long enough to not plan.

Bucky, Holly. Soulmarks. Underneath everything else they were there, spinning away and he wasn't sure he could stop it. Even as he planned for Hydra, they were there scratching away at his defences.

He wanted things to go back to how they were with Bucky.

He didn't know what he wanted with or how to handle Holly.

"Steve?"

Steve snapped his head up to look at Peggy, recognising the change in her tone almost instantly, and his gut tightened and twisted.

She was looking at him with wide bewildered eyes.

He swallowed the lump forming in his throat, pushed back the croak that threatened to break through and smiled.

"Hello, Peggy."

"You came back."

He could feel his eyes burn slightly, "I couldn't leave my best girl. It would be rude to keep her waiting any longer."

Peggy's smile widened, brightening up her whole face.

"I missed you."

He smiled and gripped her hand in his.

Listening to her complain about Colonel Phillips and the higher-ups.

She had good days and bad days, and sometimes during his visits she could give him such insightful wisdom that he didn't always realise he needed until he heard it, before reverting back to lost days and forgotten memories.

It was heartbreaking to watch.

Heartbreaking to see a disease eating away at a person who had been so full of life so strong and courageous and he was absolutely powerless to stop it.

He stayed until the nurses came to tell him she needed her medication and rest.


Holly silently hummed to herself as she worked through the various boxes of new medical supplies that had arrived just after lunch.

Bruce had been required to sign for them before he had disappeared to search for Tony Stark for whatever particular reason Tony Stark required him, leaving Holly to her own devices in checking off the ordered items, restocking the shelves in the medical wing and correctly storing whatever wasn't needed straight away.

She ignored the itch at the back of her mind about being in the medical wing. Ignored the memories stirring.

Instead she focused on the methodical mundane task that soothed her tired mind and allowed her not to think. The sheer amount of information that she had processed so far was overwhelming.

And it was only her second day.

Well technically first once you got past all the complicated mess that had happened yesterday which resulted in little work being done.

Holly had no doubt in her mind that it was only going to get more intense.

Tucked away with Bruce for the day was a welcome relief, allowing her the time she needed to get her bearings.

She wasn't sure it had been deliberate or whether by chance that her first task had kept her in the medical wing for most of the day, but besides a brief forty-five-minute lunch, trips to the bathroom and teas being made her company consisted of the Bruce alone.

Despite his shy nature, Holly could see he was passionate about his chosen fields and was patient enough to explain things to her. Not that Holly had a clue about half of the things he discussed, though she had come to the general conclusion that gamma radiation was to be avoided.

As much as she had kept up to date with the muggle world, Holly was still miles behind when it came to understanding science.

Magic, magic was her bread and butter.

It was the air she breathed.

But even though she didn't fully understand it, Bruce made it exciting and got her mind working in all sorts of directions and asking questions.

Holly found herself relaxing, just a little around him.

It didn't stop the glances he directed at her that was filled with curiosity, caution and concern.

Holly wasn't sure why he was concerned. She had signed the contract, and as far as she was aware, that ended the situation.

The less she thought about it, the better.

But he didn't ask, besides voicing his one thought that morning.

Holly sighed.

She had been on her own for such a long time, had avoided connecting with people by choice as she had hunted in the shadows for Hydra and that now Holly was back in the light working with people again, part of a team, as much as she could be, she was finding herself overwhelmed. That was all.

Made even worse by the fact she was very aware of them.

She wasn't here to make friends...she could be a part of them and still keep her distance.

She was here for information.

She was here for her mission.

She was here for Hydra.

Holly couldn't forget that, not if she intended to obliterate the organisation into a thousand different pieces.

Everyone forgot you were supposed to burn the necks after chopping off the heads. It would stop them from growing back.

Until you found the one head that mattered.

The head that was immortal.

Thankfully she had experience in killing things that didn't have the decency in staying dead.

So she would simply have to stamp everything down.

Keep her distance; avoid forming the connections that a part of her was clearly pining for.

Just do her job.

Help that way.

In and out.

"You're not Banner."

"What the fuck!" the words ripped out of Holly's mouth instinctively, as she spun on her heels and launched the Pad in her hands at the intruder, allowing her hands-free to reach her wand.

It took every ounce of willpower she had to wrestle with the urge to reach for it. The purr of the Elder wand whispering in her mind, I am here. I am here. Use me.

Every ounce of strength she had not to have it in her hands and firing spells off before her conscious caught up with her.

Her pulse was racing, and all she could hear was the pounding of her heart, her eyes narrowing at her target as she sized him up.

He dodged the Pad, and the device hit the wall with a sickening crack, and Holly couldn't help but mentally grimace as it fell to the ground screen cracked.

Black jeans, black long-sleeved t-shirt, shoulder-length dark hair that was longer than strictly fashionable in the muggle world, framing a strong jaw. Her eyes trailed over the rest of him.

James Barnes was physically intimidating for a muggle.

She looked up and found blue eyes looking down at her. Their gazes locked and Holly could see amusement sparkling in them. His lips turned upwards ever so slightly as he recognised the evaluation and her attention.

The hair on the back of her neck rising.

Her stomach dropped.

Fuck.

The universe really liked fucking with her.

James Barnes was standing right in front of her.

James Barnes, who hadn't said a word to her yesterday while she had been in the same room as him signing a contract, was now right in front of her.

Holly wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction.

"Sorry," he said, taking a step back. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't scare me," she all but growled out, more in anger at herself than at him.

Easy Potter, take a breath. Ignore it. Ignore it, and it will go away.

He blinked at her a couple of times, clearly surprised, before he bent down and picked up her broken Pad.

Holly grimaced again.

Damn it! She had only had the blasted thing a day.

"I was looking for Banner."

"He's not here."

His eyes trailed over her, as he rose, evaluating her just as she had him, his own attention pressing along her skin. Holly raised her eyebrows challengingly at him, and threw him a look that conveyed 'I'm not impressed'.

"I can see that. You not being Banner," he answered, with a slightly upward turn of his lips, "I will come back."

Holly tilted her head, as he placed her Pad on one of the sides, she spotted the blood on the screen, and her stomach twisted ever so slightly.

Well wasn't she a bitch, of course, there was a logical explanation of why he came looking for Banner in the medical wing, her instinctive desire to help another pushed itself forward and Holly was speaking before her mind could catch up.

"Wait."

He paused and looked back at her.

"You're bleeding. You came here looking for Bruce, I have some basic training, provided it's minor," Holly nodded towards his hand, "I will be able to have a look and at least bind it."

"Smashed a glass, it's got some pieces in it."

Holly blinked, "Well, you're in luck. I'm an expert of pulling glass out of myself, but I will get Jarvis to let Bruce know so he can double-check everything if that's okay."

He inclined his head with the barest of nods.

"Take a seat."

Holly turned on her heels and took the few moments to gather what she needed to still her racing heart.

She had never been able to turn away from another in need, Holly didn't need to over analyse why either, even though it would have been safer to keep their distance.

"Jarvis, can you let Bruce know I need him in the medical wing please."

"Of course Ms Potter."

Holly gathered everything she needed, grateful that she had spent the last two hours putting things away correctly, so she knew where everything was.

Turning back around, she could see that James had opted for one of the chairs rather than a bed, and Holly was perfectly fine with that.

She placed everything down on one of the silver medical trolleys and moved it closer to him before she washed her hands, dried them and put on the medical gloves.

"Are you okay for me to start Barnes?" she asked.

He looked at her, with those ocean blue eyes that seemed to have more darkness than any brown eyes she had ever seen before. But then the ocean was far deeper and darker than anybody really knew. His stare had been intense yesterday, but now just with the two of them it was more. Sharp, full of swirling...emotions for the briefest of breaths that Holly had no hope of being able to decipher before something fell down in front of them, and they turned back to evaluating her.

Holly could admit he was attractive. She had noticed yesterday, but standing closer to him, she could see it in more detail.

"Bucky."

"Huh?"

"My name is Bucky."

Holly nodded once slowly, swallowing the lump that was forming in the back of her throat.

She just needed to breathe.

She just needed to breathe.

"You know I can honestly say I didn't picture my day with me throwing my Pad at someone who required medical aid, and who also happened to be my boss as well."

A slow smile crept along his lips, she tracked the movement only stopping when she realised what she was doing.

Huh, he had a charming smile.

Don't go there.

"I'm not one of your bosses."

"I'm pretty sure your name was on the list that Hill gave me. Avengers Tower kind of gives a clue as to who runs the show."

"I'm not an Avenger," he replied, his smile dropping.

Holly could hear what he wasn't saying as clear as day, and it made her heart clench tightly.

Damn it, it's just an effect of the marks. Nothing more.

Yet it still didn't stop her from smiling warmly at him.

"You may not have been at the Battle of New York, but you're here now, trying to make a difference to the world, just like the others. I would say that makes you an Avenger," Holly said softly, "I'm sorry I threw my Pad at you."

"I think I deserved it...for not scaring you."

"I wouldn't say you deserved it. But now I know you're just poking fun at me."

"Only a little," he chuckled in agreement.

Holly shook her head, "I'm I okay to look at your hand?"

Their eyes met again.

She waited patiently.

Holly knew he had his choices taken away from him, in every aspect of his life; she wasn't prepared to do that for a second. Regardless of how small the decision would be to everybody else.

She knew, even if it wasn't to the extent that he did, what it was like to have very little control over oneself.

Holly waited for his confirming nod before she took his right hand in hers.

Were her hands shaking?

Was it obvious?

Merlin, she hoped not.

Holly lifted his hand up so she could get a closer look, carefully unfurling his fingers, until she could see the cut.

Bucky was radiating heat, she was breathing it in with every breath she took, and it rolled over her skin, chasing away a chill she could feel in her bones. Holly was acutely aware of his eyes watching her, close enough to feel his breath on her face as she leaned forward. But although she was holding his hand in hers, he kept his distance.

His whole body shifted just enough that they didn't touch anywhere but his one hand in hers.

She studied the cut, reached for the saline solution, and paused; it would be so much easier if she were able to use magic, but wishing was pointless.

"Do you have any known allergies?" she asked, glancing up at him.

"No."

"Okay, this is going to sting, but I need to make sure the cut is as clean as it can be, to reduce the risk of infection."

He chuckled in amusement at her, "Super solider serum takes care of that."

"Huh, I guess it will take care of the healing as well."

"I won't need stitches; I just need the glass removed."

"Otherwise you will heal around it," she nodded in understanding, "Right. Best get to it."

She didn't wait for him to respond. Instead, she poured some of the solution on a gaze pad and swabbed as gently as she could around the wound, before reaching for the pair of tweezers.

The first piece was large enough that it didn't take much for the tweezers to grip to and she pulled it out.

She winced in sympathy, but Bucky didn't even so much as twitch.

High threshold of pain.

She could relate to that, but even so, she still found paper-cuts hurt like a son of a bitch.

"You have quick reflexes," he noted, his head tilted to the side as he watched her.

"My cousin used to play a game when we were younger. A little like run rabbit run. I was always the rabbit," Holly answered without thinking as she pulled another piece of glass out, "Well technically, he called it Holly Hunting, but it amounted to the same thing."

Holly stilled. Why had she just admitted that somebody needed to zip her mouth shut before anything else poured out?

"Plus I spent six years on my school sports team, trying to catch a ball before the other team did. It keeps you on your toes," she said quickly covering her previous comment. That had been what she had initially been planning to say.

He was watching her again, eyes seeing every detail, Holly wasn't entirely sure she was able to keep everything from slipping through. She had always been confident in her masks, in her facades that she wore, that she wrapped around her and sunk into, but Bucky and his all too seeing eyes was making her question her skill set.

She shifted at the thought.

Breathe. Just breathe and keep it together.

She pulled another piece of glass out.

"Where did you learn to do this?"

Holly nibbled on her bottom lip, choosing her next words carefully, "School, I used to study under the school nurse there during my free periods. You never know when it comes in handy."

Not exactly a lie though not quite the full truth. Holly had spent free periods in the Hospital Wing, learning what she could from Madam Pomfrey.

"Didn't think of following through with it?"

Holly gave him a sad smile, "My path was pretty much picked out for me the moment I was born." She shrugged, "Besides I suck at the bedside manner side of things."

"I'm sure practise makes perfect for bedside manner."

"Uh-huh and how exactly do I get that practise?" she asked, her eyes narrowing as she gave him a pointed look.

"I would say you would need to find a willing guinea pig," a half-smile played on his lips.

"And where exactly do I find that willing guinea pig?"

"I might know a guy."

Holly smiled at him, letting her own amusement shine in her tone, "Does that line ever work?"

Amusement danced across his face. The smile turned into a smirk that was full of wicked promises.

It was the kind of smirk that made a heart race and thoughts turn to desire.

It was a smirk that screamed danger and trouble.

Holly couldn't help but raise her eyebrow challengingly at him, a smirk crossing her own lips.

Better to go on the offensive than allow her mind a chance to get flustered.

The man needed to come with a warning sign.

Their eyes met his twinkling with amusement, and she had no idea what he saw in hers.

"Barnes, what happened?" Bruce asked as he stepped inside the medical wing.

The moment passed, Bucky's eyes sliding to Bruce, twinkle disappearing and a distant coolness replacing it.

"I broke a glass I was holding. Holly was just getting the glass out."

"I think I'm done, but I figured it was best for you to double-check, in case I missed anything."

Bruce looked between the two of them, but stayed silent, before putting on his own medical gloves and swapping places with her.

Bucky's eyes followed her, like a predator sizing up prey. Only she wasn't prey. And she would be damned if she was going to be treated like one. She threw her own look back at him, and his lips twitched again, ever so slightly, before he winked.

Her heart skipped a beat.

Holly swallowed slowly.

Well aware that Bucky tracked the movement.

"Holly has removed all the glass, so I will leave you in her capable hands in binding it," he paused, "Dare I ask about the Pad?"

"I threw it at him," Holly answered, with a straight face, as she moved to wrap Bucky's hand in a bandage.

Banner hummed, "I see."

"I will sort her replacement," Bucky added, surprising the both of them.

Holly blinked at him.

"You don't have -"

"I do. After all, I not scared you, which caused you to throw it at me. Good defence move."

"Well, it's not the only defence move I have...next time you won't be able to dodge it," Holly challenged, without thinking, and then her eyes widened in surprise.

She hadn't meant to say that.

She had absolutely not meant to say that.

Bucky smirked, his eyes burning into her, "That sounds like a promise."

"I didn't mean -"

"Too late. No take-backs."

Holly blinked.

"I look forward to it," Bucky's eyes sparkled with mischief and something else Holly wasn't entirely sure she could name, "I will see you tomorrow, Holly."

Holly frowned.

Wait what?

But Bucky was already leaving the medical wing, swiping her broken Stark Pad as he passed.

She glanced at Bruce, who was watching with an equal amount of bewilderment dancing in his eyes.

The universe was fucking screwing with her.

This was not keeping her head down.

And yet something inside her purred.


He hadn't sought her out.

At least he didn't think he had consciously.

Bucky had been trying to work out a way for their paths to cross because he did want to talk to her. Wanted to at least try and make sense of this complicated tangle they seemed to find themselves in.

Despite his gut warring with itself as to whether he should or shouldn't.

Bucky knew he couldn't trust himself with Steve, so why would it be any different with Holly.

He was a danger to them.

To both of them.

And yet he still wanted to reach out to her. Even if it was just to explain, to talk to just...something.

He hadn't planned to cross paths with her today.

But perhaps it had been for the best that he hadn't planned it out or that it had happened by pure chance, as natural as breathing.

A part of him had frozen for a second the moment he had seen her standing in the medical wing, Banner nowhere to be seen.

He had drunk in the sight of her, giving himself those few passing seconds to observe every detail that he could.

Because despite everything Holly was a mystery, and he had always loved puzzles. They pulled at his subconscious, and before the war, he hadn't hesitated in seeking them out, in following the trail of bread crumbs.

It was probably because once upon a time, he would have actively thrown himself at working her out that he spoke out without thinking.

Bringing her attention to him, because despite the fact he was learning to accept he wasn't the same person and that his past couldn't be rewritten and the Bucky Barnes he used to be was long dead.

He wanted to be a regular guy just for a second, even if meeting his second soulmark was the least normal thing going.

When he had first awoken from the depths of darkness to the confusion of being free from Hydra and realised that he was, in fact, free he had been overwhelmed.

When he had seen her name written across his skin, it had felt like a bottomless volcano churned, boiled and bubbled beneath his skin as lava moved through his body with every beat of his heart.

Uncontrollable rage.

At Hydra.

At Holly Jamie Potter.

He had lashed out at the first thing he came across; thankfully, it had been a team of Hydra Agents sent to recapture him.

He killed them all.

He had seethed for days.

Wondering how, how they had taken something sacred and twisted it to their purposes.

Another link in the chain to the leash they had kept him on.

But Steve's name was still there.

Right alongside the new name of a woman he didn't know. Hydra hadn't taken it from him completely.

It was what had dragged him out of the shadows, pulled him to the Avengers Tower before he even realised that was where he was heading to.

Not that either of them had spoken about it.

Both of them content in ignoring it, just as they ignored the brokenness between them, in him.

Steve had Holly's name written around his heart just like his own was. Something Steve admitted he had woken up from the ice with.

It had allowed Bucky to swallow down his rage.

In the months that had followed his anger all but disappeared.

It wasn't Holly Potter's fault that her name curved around his heart.

In the months that followed him seeking refuge in the Tower, he forgot about his second soulmark as he wrestled with his demons.

The mark confused him and made him curious on those sleepless nights where he found comfort in tracing her name with his fingers.

It wasn't something he had to focus on, worry about because the likely hood of them ever crossing paths was slim to none.

Except she had walked through the front doors applying for a job, seemingly oblivious to who she would actually be working for.

The curiosity had returned tenfold and pulled at him the moment he had seen her.

An itch he couldn't scratch, a tug he couldn't ignore. Wiggling its way to the front of his mind.

He hadn't meant to scare her.

Of course, he hadn't expected her to react like she had either.

It had been easy enough to dodge the Stark Pad that she threw in his direction, as she spun on her feet and turned to defend and attack.

There was a wry tightness in her eyes, green eyes that were as captivating as much as they were burning with sheer ferocity as they met his head on and refused to blink. He saw a brace to her feet, stiffness to the shoulders, a stance of someone expecting a fight, who was always expecting a fight. Her jaw, clenched tightly in gritty determination, twitching as she pressed her lips together. Her hands fidgeted enough to make him think she wanted to reach for another weapon.

He had no idea what weapon she intended to pull, but the way that she moved from one fluid action into the other told him that she had training.

The part of himself, that he desperately tried to ignore, but couldn't, whispered that she was a potential threat.

The Soldier stirred...Challenge?

No!

Bucky.

He was Bucky.

He was not the Asset. Not the Solider.

Her attention, her caution, her evaluating eyes had pulled him under, had made him stand just a little straighter, made him want...he didn't know precisely what he had wanted, but it had been sudden and intense enough that he hadn't been able to walk away.

He had stayed.

He had bantered.

He had asked questions.

He had learnt, just a little about her.

He had smiled.

That one had surprised him the most...but it had made him feel human.

He had wanted to touch her, and she stood close enough that it would have been easy enough to do so.

He made sure he didn't.

Made sure that the only contact they had was his right hand in hers as she carefully removed the glass.

But he had felt her heat, heard the quickening beat of her heart, had smelt her scent, she smelt like fire and lightning, ozone and rain and something else. Something he couldn't name or place, but it had smelt divine.

But then Banner had come into the medical wing, had eyed them up in surprise, and Bucky knew his encounter would get back to Steve even if he didn't mention it.

Bucky knew he was going to have to talk to Steve eventually, just as he knew Steve was sooner or later going to have to speak to her.

They were all going to have to sit down and talk, he wondered if that was possible or if the signing of the contract had burned all the bridges down.

Bucky couldn't tell what Steve thought about her, or even what was going on between them...one complicated knotted ball.

He couldn't say precisely what he thought about Holly, but she pushed and hissed, and bit, and then smiled and laughed and challenged.

She had issued more than a few of them.

He took the bait and rose to one of them.

That had surprised him even more.

Holly surprised him.

She hadn't been what he was expecting. She had her secrets, he had read them quickly enough, though she was better than most in keeping them tucked away, some things left marks.

She couldn't hide the way she moved with sharp edges.

Like a predator.

She couldn't hide the way her eyes had evaluated him and filed away the details.

Showing she was trained.

She couldn't hide the fierce determination that had blazed to life in her eyes when she challenged him.

She wasn't someone that would bend easily.

The others had a right to worry, she was...dangerous.

But not because she was Hydra.

Bucky had no idea what she was, but he knew she wasn't Hydra.

Hydra would have tried to have broken down her defiance, would have tried to have extinguish her fire.

Would have tried to make her like him.

He looked at the broken Pad in his hands as he sat down in the safety of his room.

"Jarvis."

"Yes, Sergeant Barnes." The A.I hummed to life.

"Can you request another Stark Pad for Holly; make sure it has everything on it that her original one did."

"Of course Sergeant."

"And Jarvis, can you not tell Hill."

The A.I paused for a moment, "Of course sir, I will have it ready for Ms Potter to collect tomorrow."

"No, I will collect it. Give it to Holly myself."

"As you wish sir."


Right jab.

Left jab.

His body fell into the natural movements, as he focused his attention on every hit he made on the punch bag.

He could feel his muscles contracting, his lungs burning with every breath he took.

Right cross.

Left hook.

In time with every beat of his heart, fluid motion as his body moved in a rotation of torso and hips and arms.

"Is this where you have been hiding this afternoon?"

His stomach knotted at the question, he didn't need to turn to look at who it was, he had known she was there the moment she had entered the boxing gym.

"I'm not hiding," he said through gritted teeth, each jab hitting a little harder.

"You always go to one of two places after you have been to see Peggy. Today it's here."

"I'm fine, Natasha."

"Clearly."

"I'm. Fine."

"What's going on, Steve?"

"I needed to clear my head," he admitted, because goddamn it! Steve knew Natasha wouldn't leave him alone until she had answers.

Right cross.

Left jab.

"If her working at the tower is going to be a problem, we will find another solution," she said quietly.

Steve stopped.

Hands holding the punch bag, his forehead resting against it before he turned to look at her.

Natasha's eyes were burning into him with concern.

"It's not her."

"Then what is it?"

"Everything," he said softly.

Natasha's face softened as she took a step towards him.

"Bucky thinks we made a mistake with the contract. Bucky isn't talking to me, hasn't been talking to me properly, I don't know..." he ran a hand through his hair, "I just don't know. And then she turns up, and everything just gets more complicated."

"You couldn't have prepared for this Steve. None of us could have."

He swallowed the lump forming in his throat.

"I should have."

"This doesn't lie at your feet. You couldn't control this. That's the whole messed up notion of the marks. It takes away a choice. Nobody in their right mind would choose to have one. You and Bucky were lucky enough to make it work, first as friends and then..." Natasha stopped, gave him another look, "But as Thor said you make it what you want to make it. Your marks match. And what that means between the three of you is your choice, nobody else's."

He didn't answer. He just locked gazes with her.

"I won't pretend to understand what you are going through. What Barnes is going through, hell what Potter is going through," Natasha started, taking a step closer to him.

"We both know our enemies will use against us the first chance they get. All we can do is plan for it."

Steve blinked repeatedly, pushed himself away from the punch bag and walked towards his bag to grab a bottle of water.

"The contract..."

"Is for her protection just as much as it is for you," Natasha said, "So no, in my opinion, it wasn't the wrong call to make."

"So why do I feel guilty?"

"Are you feeling guilty over the contract, or are you feeling guilty over how Barnes feels about the contract? Or is it even Barnes' feelings your feeling?"

Steve sighed, "I don't know."

"Wilson would say you need to get to know her."

He snorted because that was exactly what Sam would say.

"It is okay if you don't want to. You're allowed to do what is right for you."

"I don't know what is right anymore."

"And that's okay too. We can figure that out," Natasha said, as she settled down on the side of the platform ring, her arms crossing as she watched him her eyes full of understanding, "I will stay here with you until you are ready to go back to the tower."

"Why?"

"Because I don't want you to be alone."

Chapter Text

Chapter 5:-

Steve glimpsed Bucky in the kitchen the moment he stepped onto the communal floor of the penthouse as he returned from his early morning run.

He took his time crossing the room to the kitchen, absorbed in every detail of Bucky that he could, as he watched the man move around the kitchen as if it was his own personal domain.

He knew Bucky was aware of him; his friend didn't miss a goddamn thing, even without the bonds flaring at the close proximity that the two of them were in.

"What are you making?" he asked, walking around the breakfast bar to the double door fridge, he opened one of the doors reached for the jug of freshly squeezed orange juice and closed the door behind him.

Bucky handed him a glass without even pausing in his task, "Pancakes. Mom's recipe."

"I loved your mom's pancakes," Steve admitted, as he poured himself a glass of juice and placed the jug on the side.

"I'm making enough, so you will get to have some," Bucky answered, "Where's Sam?"

"About fifteen minutes behind me," Steve admitted.

Bucky threw him a look, "He's managed to get it down to fifteen minutes."

"He's training harder."

"I think he just likes to torture himself," Bucky said, his eyebrows raised and his eyes lit with a twinkle of mischief.

Steve smiled slightly, "It's possible."

Bucky snorted.

"Are you still able to work with the Stark's security team today?" Steve asked as he took another sip of his drink and leaned back against the worktop.

"Both Clint and I are scheduled down for it," Bucky replied as he finished mixing the pancake batter.

"Good, we are adding the new recruits in with them as well," Steve said firmly.

Bucky's eyes snapped to him, hardening ever so slightly. Steve mentally grimaced.

"Why?"

Bucky's tone wasn't harsh, but there was a prickle of ice to his words.

"We need them to start working on tracking down Hydra as soon as possible. The only way we can see if we can work with them is if we actually train them and see how they fit in."

"But adding them to the time slot with Stark's security?"

"Hill said it was the best time, that way her people are split into two rotas. And we can get a feel for them before we start training with them."

Bucky held his gaze for a moment longer, before breaking it, picking up the frying pan and swivelling around some butter as it melted over the heat.

Steve refilled his glass, just as Sam stepped off the elevator.

"I almost had you," Sam called out; sweat glistening on the man's forehead and Steve could hear his heart racing against his chest.

"Keep dreaming," Steve teased, a smile twitching on his lips just as Bucky snorted.

"Shut up, Barnes!"

Steve caught Bucky's eyes that glistened with amusement, before he passed him another glass for Sam and poured the pancake batter into the frying pan, the mix sizzling away under the heat.

"Are you cooking?" Sam asked, a dazed look crossing his face as he looked at Bucky.

"If pancakes equal cooking," Bucky deadpanned, "Besides whom do you think kept that punk alive?"

"Hey!" Steve sputtered, "We took it in turns."

"You burnt the meatloaf."

"One time!" he countered as he poured Sam a glass of orange juice before putting the jug back into the fridge.

"Is Holly included with the training?" Bucky asked, turning the conversation away from the past and into the present.

Steve paused, licked his lips, before forcing himself to shut the fridge door and turn around to face Bucky. Well aware that while Bucky wasn't looking at him, he had his full attention. Sam's eyes darted between them as he reached for his glass and looked as though he wasn't sure if he should stay or go.

"All the new recruits Bucky, so yes, Holly is included with that," Steve raised his glass to his lips stopping so he could continue, "Is that going to be a problem?"

"No. Is it going to be a problem for you?"

The question threw him, and he blinked in surprise.

"No. It won't be a problem when it's my turn. We need to determine what skill sets the new recruits have. The two former Strike members speak for themselves, but the others, we need an idea."

He took a sip of his drink and leaned back against the counter. Silence falling between the three of them, as Bucky flipped skilfully flipped a pancake to cook the other side.

Once upon a time Bucky would have missed the pancake all together, and it would have ended up on the floor, or put too much force into the flip and ended up on the ceiling.

"You're better at that," he noted.

Bucky shrugged, "Hydra's training has its uses for no combative killing purposes."

Steve flinched.

"Buck -"

"I know. That was my attempt at humour."

Silence fell between them again, as Bucky slipped one pancake onto a plate and started adding more batter.

"Are you and Natasha going out today?" Sam prompted, smoothing the awkwardness that had fallen between them.

"Yeah." Steve darted a glance at Bucky before continuing, "One of her sources reached out. Has information they think we would be interested in knowing." He rubbed his thumb absently on the glass in his hands.

"Hydra related?"

He spotted Bucky tensing slightly.

"Possibly, but we can't know for certain. You have a VA meeting?"

"Yeah, I will be back at one though. You needing backup?"

"No, Natasha and I will be able to handle it."

Bucky turned from the hobs, two plates in his hand, each of them having a stack of pancakes on them. He slid one each to him and Sam before turning back and starting on the next batch.

"Thanks," they both said, as Sam moved to reach for cutlery and Steve reached for the maple syrup.

"Sergeant Barnes, Ms Potter, has entered the building," Jarvis announced, suddenly.

"Thank you, Jarvis."

Steve paused, his eyes darting up to Bucky.

"You have Jarvis monitor Holly's movements?"

Bucky snorted, "No."

Steve hesitated, debating with himself whether he should voice the next question. Did he want to know? Or would he rather not know. But then he had never been a coward.

"Have you spoken to her?"

Bucky stiffened.

"Yes."

Steve opened his mouth before snapping it shut.

What could he say?

He took a bite of the pancakes. They tasted exactly like Bucky's mom used to make them, even down to the hint of cinnamon.

He chewed slowly.

He didn't have a right to ask. Bucky was perfectly entitled to talk to whoever he wanted, and if he wanted to talk to her, then that was okay.

"The Pads for her," Bucky answered for him, as he turned around to face them.

Steve frowned, "She's already broken the one she received yesterday?"

"She threw it at me."

"She threw it at you?" Steve blinked a few times; his voice had raised ever so slightly, enough for Bucky to throw him a sharp look.

"You don't have to repeat everything I say you know punk."

"I'm not. I'm just trying to picture a scenario where Holly ended up throwing her Stark Pad at you," he countered.

He caught the amused smile on Sam's face, as brown eyes watched them both.

"I startled her in the medical-wing. It would seem Holly is a more attack first, ask questions later when she is startled."

Sam snorted, "She will fit right in here then."

Bucky threw Sam a pointed look.

"You startled her," Steve said slowly.

"I didn't hurt her," Bucky insisted.

"I didn't think for a second that you did Buck."

"I went looking for Banner; I had glass in my hand. Banner wasn't there it was just Holly, and I startled her -"

"And she threw her Pad at you," Sam finished with a grin.

"I hate you, Wilson," Bucky grumbled as he turned his attention back to the pancakes.

"I love you too, Barnes," Sam sniped back as he took another mouthful of his pancakes. "And on that beautiful note, I am going to go shower."

Sam picked up his plate, threw him a look and mouthed the words 'talk to him' before walking away.

"Aren't you curious?" Bucky asked a few minutes later. Steve glanced up, meeting Bucky's eyes as he looked at him over his shoulder.

"About?" Steve answered, blinking in surprise.

"About her. Aren't you curious why she was marked, why we were marked? About it all."

Steve couldn't read a single minuscule expression on Bucky's face. He had always been able to read Bucky, always been able to see every expression, every emotion that ever crossed his face. Now, Bucky was a closed book unless he wanted to express something.

"I'm curious."

"But not enough to try and get to know her?"

"That's not fair, Buck," he said softly, "I don't know what to do. I don't know how to feel. It's been just the two of us since we were kids, as friends, and then as -."

Bucky was looking at him and Steve felt as though he was being sucked into the depths of his blue eyes.

"I want to get to know her."

Steve hesitated a moment, choosing his next words carefully, trying to keep the hurt from showing. This wasn't about him; this was about what Bucky wanted. "I think that is a good idea."

"I'm not doing it to hurt you," Bucky said his blue eyes softly pleading with him.

Steve winced; perhaps he hadn't been able to keep the hurt from showing after all.

"I know you aren't," Steve whispered.

"I don't know who I am anymore. I know I'm not the same person I was, and I don't think I deserve that kind of love anymore. I don't deserve you."

"Bucky," Steve breathed, reaching for those bonds running between them and doing the only thing he knew how to do. He sent a calming flow of love and acceptance through them.

I love you. You will always deserve my love. I love you. I will never stop loving you.

"Stop it punk," Bucky rumbled, as he shifted on the balls of his feet.

"I don't know how to."

And wasn't that the truth, he didn't know how to stop loving Bucky. He didn't want to know-how.

Even when all those years ago and he started falling for Peggy. That had hit him like a steam train, rolled right through him, it had still been Bucky he had reached for, had been Bucky he had gone headfirst into enemy hands to pull him out because he couldn't survive the idea of Bucky being dead.

And that was what hurt the most waking up from the ice.

The raw, unadulterated pain and grief that Bucky had been dead for seventy years when it had only been three days for him.

Three fucking days.

The white hot inferno that had burned through him when he had discovered Bucky was not only alive, but a prisoner to Hydra for those seventy years had him tearing through Shield.

He hadn't been just about stopping Hydra's plans in its track. No, a deeper darker primal part of him had wanted to hurt them; rip them to shreds...had wanted vengeance and had damn well sought it out.

Steve took a breath.

But now, it wasn't just them; it was them, and another, and Steve didn't know how to fucking feel about it.

Regardless of what Thor and Natasha said, he could feel her. Not as strongly as Bucky, the bonds weren't fully there yet, but fleeting flickers, of pain, hurt, doubt and uncertainty stirred within him when he wasn't expecting it.

He felt it all.

His. Hers. Bucky's, a confusing, bubbling, wriggling amalgamation of every human emotion possible whirling around like a hurricane trapped by his ribcage. It was threatening to rip and shred him apart from the inside out.

"She's easy to talk to."

Steve stiffened, but he listened.

"Guarded. Wry of...I don't think it's of me, but rather wry of what I mean. What it all means. It's nice to not have someone scared of me on their first meeting for what I have done, for who I am."

"That wasn't you Buck," Steve assured.

"I know," Bucky's tongue flicked slightly over his bottom lip, "but I still did it. The blood is still on my hands, and I can't ever get them clean and I still don't know the full carnage that I am responsible for."

Steve didn't push, as much as he wanted to. As much as he wanted to gather Bucky in his arms, press his nose against his hair and just hold him.

He didn't.

"She's not Hydra," Bucky stated.

Steve frowned, "What makes you say that?"

"I know Hydra. Holly is hiding something, I can see that, but she's not Hydra."

Steve nodded; he would trust Bucky's judgement in that. If Bucky was saying she wasn't Hydra, then he could believe it.

"The contract was for her protection you know if Hydra finds out about her -" he left the rest unsaid because they both knew what Hydra would do if they found out about her, and got their hands on her.

"I know. I don't like it, but I know. Hydra already knows her name," Bucky muttered, "and that's my fault."

"That's not your fault, Bucky," Steve assured, "We won't let them take her."

"No. We won't."

The iciness of Bucky's tone bit at his flesh, and Steve couldn't help but shiver, because he was pretty sure that...

That was all the Solider.


"Good morning Jarvis," Holly greeted as she stepped into the only lift that went up to the Avengers floors.

"Good morning Ms Potter."

"Do you know if I can pick up my Pad?" she asked, glancing up towards the ceiling.

Jarvis may not have a physical body, but that didn't mean she wouldn't acknowledge him in some way.

"I believe Sergeant Barnes has it in his possession."

Holly blinked in surprise, "Oh...um, I wasn't expecting that. I know he said he would sort it, but I presumed I would have to collect it."

It meant that Bucky intended to give it to her personally. To see her again in person. Holly shifted slightly on her feet.

She really hadn't been expecting that.

"Did he say when he was going to give it to me?"

"I have already notified him that you are in the building."

Holly smiled tightly, "Thanks Jarvis."

Her mind was spinning. What did she do in the mean time?

Did she go and sit in Bruce's lab and wait? Did she go and sit in the communal kitchen on the main operating floor, but if she did that she ran a risk of running into Hill and explaining why she was waiting.

Or did she find somewhere else together?

Holly bit at her bottom lip.

"Jarvis is there anywhere I can wait that I won't be disturbed? I don't want to go to Bruce's lab and just sit there twiddling my thumbs."

Jarvis didn't answer straight away, as if he was thinking about his answer, before finally settling on one.

"Of course Ms. There is the observing gallery over the gym, I will inform Sergeant Barnes that you will be there."

"Thanks Jarvis."

The lift bypassed the main operating floor and stopped at the floor she needed without her even pressing the button.

Jarvis was the real king of this building, of that Holly had no doubt of. She gave a small salute as she exited and ignoring the doors that indicated the locker room went to the second door on the left as Jarvis instructed her to do so.

It led to a flight of grey steps that opened out into a large balcony that observed the gym below. A glance over the railings gave her a clear sight of the large room below, well equipped with all the equipment one would need and was large enough to run laps around.

Holly could see that someone was already making use of the gym below. She just couldn't see who.

She sat down on one of the benches.

A lack of Stark Pad had her at a disadvantage and unable to sink her teeth into her work.

Thankfully she still had her phone so she was able to check some of her emails on the new account that had been set up for her, as she tried to gather her bearings and layout of the tower.

Holly had to give Jarvis credit the observing gallery was a quiet spot and the perfect place to settle down and enjoy the quiet before she was busy working through a long list of information.

Maybe it would allow her to silence her whirling mind, calm the churning emotions.

She had had another restless night, but this time it wasn't so much work that kept her at her dining table, but rather her mind replaying the meeting with Bucky and everything that it had stirred up inside of her.

Holly closed her eyes and breathed.

The smell made her nose twitch, and her mouth water.

It smelt divine.

Holly didn't need to open her eyes to know who sat down beside her in the gallery merely seconds later.

Heat enveloped her. Pressing along her skin comfortingly as if she had just stepped inside a warm room when it was cold outside.

"Jarvis said you prefer tea over coffee. Milk no sugar," he said.

Holly opened her eyes and looked at the man sitting next to her. Two mugs carefully placed in one hand, a plate in another, with a knife and fork tucked inside.

"You do know that's kind of creepy. I've only been here a day."

"I asked a question, Jarvis answered," he replied, looking entirely too smug with himself.

"You sound a little too pleased with yourself there," Holly pointed out.

"I don't know what you are talking about."

Holly raised an eyebrow at him.

Her magic unfurled like a sleeping animal lifting its head into the air and tasting it, as it searched and reached, to strengthen the connection running between them.

Holly had no idea what the bonds felt like to muggles, but it was instinctively there for her, in her heart, in her stomach, in her soul, a smouldering ember just waiting to burst to life.

She dared not let it.

Dared not reach for it.

Holly was terrified that if she did, it would bite her in the ass, but she was a Potter, and Potters didn't run from a fight, she had never ran from a fight and she wasn't about to start now.

"Jarvis, I thought you liked me," she stated, taking the mug of tea off him. She noticed a new Stark Pad tucked under his arm.

"I do Ms Potter; however, I saw no harm in providing Sergeant Barnes with your preferred drinking preference."

"Uh-huh, I thought us Brits were sticking together," she mumbled sipping her drink.

"Of course Ms Potter."

Bucky grinned at her.

"Thank you."

"Oh, don't thank me yet, I fully intend on eating these pancakes in front of you," he said with a charming smile.

It was easy to forget everything when he smiled like that.

"Is that for me as well?" she asked, nodding her head towards the Pad.

He pulled it out from under his arm and passed it to her, "As promised, a replacement for the one that broke."

"Thank you."

She took the Pad off him and rested it on her knee.

Holly sipped her drink, before placing the mug down next to her.

He sat down next to her, and offered the plate to her, the smell of the pancakes hitting her made her stomach grumble.

"I thought you were going to eat them in front of me," she said, raising her eyebrow at him.

"I'm not that cruel."

Holly hesitated before carefully taking a pancake and napkin off him, trying and failing to not get too much maple syrup on her fingers, and took a bite. The warm combination setting her taste buds alight.

Yum!

"You make this yourself?" Holly murmured.

"Mom's recipe. It's about one of the few things I remember how to make," he answered as he took his own bite.

"Well if you ever decide to set up shop, sign me up as your number one customer," she hummed, as she took another bite.

"I will keep that in mind."

"Seriously, you would have them lining up."

"Now you are just sweet-talking me," he chuckled.

"I would never," Holly said mockingly.

Holly looked at his right hand, bandaged free.

"You do heal fast? Any of the muscles still tender?"

"Good as new."

"That's something at the very least."

"Is that concern?" he asked, locking gazes with her.

Holly snorted as she looked away, "No."

"I think it was, at least a little bit."

"You're entitled to think what you like...Sergeant."

They both fell silent, sipping their drinks, as Holly focused on loading up her new Pad. Thankfully, Jarvis, it seemed had been kind enough to ensure her details were exactly the same as her old one.

"You don't have to stay with me, consider your duty fulfilled now that you have given me the Stark Pad as you promised."

He looked at her, his blue eyes burning intensely as he locked gazes with her. Holly swallowed slowly.

"If you don't want me to stay, you are allowed to say that. "

"I figured you would be busy with Avenger stuff," she answered with a shrug.

"I am. I'm busy with you right now. If anything urgent happens and all hands on deck are needed, Jarvis knows where I am."

Holly flinched her head back slightly, her brow creasing as she frowned. Neither of them looked away, and Holly could see that he was serious, that he was sincere.

She just couldn't for the life of her work out why.

"I thought the con-" she snapped her mouth shut quickly. She wasn't going there. She really wasn't fucking going there.

He tilted his head, brow creased. Was he angry? Or confused?

Holly really couldn't tell.

"So what's on our agenda today?"

"Our agenda?" Holly asked with a raised eyebrow, "I honestly don't know what is on your agenda, Jarvis could you kindly tell the Sergeant here what is on his schedule for the day, he appears to have forgotten."

"Of course, Ms Potter. I do believe you are free till eleven o'clock, Sergeant Barnes. At eleven, you are training with the Stark security team and the new recruits. I believe Ms Potter's attendance is mandatory."

"Wait for what?"

He gave her a slight smile as he sipped his coffee.

"See, I'm free. Till eleven, and then our schedules line up. So what are we doing?"

"Why exactly is my attendance mandatory?" Holly asked, ignoring his question.

"All the recruits' attendance is mandatory. We need to assess your skills if we are going to have you out on the field with us."

Holly shook her head, "I should have read the fine print. Support was too broad of a term; anything could be squeezed in under there."

"Oh, yeah, like what?" He grinned.

"Like burying dead bodies. Where exactly would we be expected to bury dead bodies?" Holly deadpanned.

"Everybody knows you chop the body up and feed it to the pigs."

Holly blinked in surprise, her lips curving ever so slightly in amusement. He had a sense of humour. "And does Mr Stark have pigs on standby for such occurrences?"

He gave her a wink

"I'm sure it can be arranged."

He took another bite of his pancakes, falling silent for a moment, before continuing, "So what are we doing?"

"We?"

"I'm trying to offer you my help. Are you naturally this suspicious?"

"Yes. Especially when you tell me you chop up dead bodies and feed them to the pigs."

"That's only on Wednesdays. But I meant in general, do I need to take it personally?"

"It is Wednesday!"

"So it is."

Holly gave him another look over the rim of her mug.

"You aren't going to go away are you?"

"And miss the opportunity of your charming company, while being insulted by you at the same time," Bucky smirked, "Not a chance."

It was just friendly conversation, nothing more and he was easy to talk to. Yet Holly couldn't shake the feeling that he was pushing himself to speak to her.

Her brow creased together, was it just because of the marks?

Of course, it was she would be stupid to think it was for another reason.

"I was waiting for the replacement Pad, which you kindly brought me," Holly answered, glancing down to the Pad on her knees.

"What are you working on?" He shot her a curious look.

"I am currently trying to find you some medical people that are willing to work here permanently."

"You mean you would stop playing doctor?" He asked teasingly.

"Oh, I definitely wasn't playing doctor. That was about the grand scope of my skill set."

"Pity, I think you would suit a white coat."

Holly swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat, ignored the charged zing in the air and the shiver that ran down the length of her spine. She ignored the glimmering mischievousness in his eyes that were spelling trouble with a capital T.

Because that statement was entirely innocent.

Even though Bucky Barnes had made it sound anything but innocent.

She even ignored the tightening of her chest at the mere mention of white coats and her churning stomach.

Don't think about that.

"I will let Bruce know you have a thing for white coats," she teased, hoping and praying that her voice didn't sound half as shaky as she was actually feeling.

He snorted, "Be nice, Holly."

She smirked around her mug, "What gave you the impression I was nice?"

Bucky didn't answer. Instead, he turned the conversation back on to her. "So where are you from originally?"

Holly blinked at the sudden turn of questions, damn it; he was good at that disarming her and then asking a question. She would have to keep an eye on it, make sure she didn't give anything away she didn't want to give away.

"I was raised in Surrey. I lived there until a week before my seventeenth birthday. I left, I didn't go back. After that, pretty much all over the place. I class London as my home base, but it's a couple of years since I have been there," Holly answered, "What about you?"

"Brooklyn born and raised."

Holly had a thousand questions but refrained from asking.

"How far is Brooklyn from the Tower?"

"Half an hour give or take on traffic," Bucky answered.

"And you have to cross that bridge right, the one that's in all the TV shows and films. At least to some degree."

His lips twitched again, "Brooklyn Bridge. You been?"

"No. But then I haven't seen any of the tourist stuff that everyone says you should see in New York."

He frowned at her, "How long have you been in New York?"

"Seven months."

"What exactly have you been doing for seven months?"

"A little of this, a little of that. It took a while to find the right apartment, and then it was looking for jobs," Holly answered nonchalantly.

"Where exactly is your apartment?"

Holly narrowed her forehead slightly, "I think they call the neighbourhood Hell's Kitchen. It was struck hard by the Invasion, so a lot of properties are dirt cheap at the moment, but good value for money."

"And in all that time you haven't been to a single tourist hotspot?"

Holly glanced at him; he threw her an incredulous look with widened eyes.

Holly squashed the urge to roll her eyes. The truth was she hadn't had the chance to visit any of the tourist attractions in New York City, even by accident. She had found her apartment reasonably quickly, and while her lawyer had handled the details for her, Holly had been travelling across America following the bread crumbs of Hydra's movements.

She had visited more than one or two corrupted police officers and Detectives who had 'looked into some of the missing children' she had identified as muggle-borns. Along with one or two government officials within their cities.

While she always apparated back to her apartment in New York, she hadn't exactly spent a lot of time in the city.

"Settling into a new city has its ups and downs. I found a bar close to my apartment which I frequent, along with good takeaway restaurants and shops that I need. I've spent time in the library, and I've looked for jobs." Holly shrugged, "And well here I am."

"Not made any friends?"

"I've made acquaintances. Some of my neighbours seem friendly enough. I mostly keep to myself, I prefer it that way," Holly admitted.

"That sounds lonely."

"It suits my purpose. I moved around a lot, made it easier when I wasn't saying goodbye every time I left somewhere." Holly looked at him, his eyes alight with understanding that made Holly shift slightly uncomfortable.

He seemed to be able to read her a little too well.

Bucky set his mug down on the bench next to him and held out his hand to her. Holly frowned as she stared at it before hesitantly taking it in hers.

Her palm tingled as he shook her hand and Holly couldn't help but take note that his palm was warmer than hers.

"Bucky Barnes," he smiled at her.

Holly smiled softly as understanding dawned on her, "Holly Potter."

She let go of his hand.

"We've made it official now. Friends?" Bucky said.

"Just like that?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"It's dead easy."

"Well, aren't you a smooth one?"

His smile dropped slightly, "I used to be. At least I think I used to be."

The realisation struck through her as if lightning had hit her. Bucky was pushing himself to talk to her, not because he felt he had to because of the marks, as she had first presumed, he probably did want to talk to her.

But the teasing, the smooth talk made more sense now. Bucky was channelling the parts of himself he could remember. Of how he used to be.

Even if it felt a little off kilt.

He was trying to be the person he once was.

He was out of practice talking to people that weren't the Avengers, that didn't have some level of understanding of what had happened to him, of what he had gone through.

Holly didn't know fully what he had been through, but Merlin she had a better understanding of the horrors he would have faced than he realised. She knew exactly what it felt like to be forced to do something, to have yourself honed into a weapon.

Not on the same level, but she understood having free will taken away from her.

Holly softened her features as she chose her next words carefully. She met his gaze with her own and let as much understanding as she could shine in them, hoping that it was enough.

"You know you don't have to try so hard. I mean I'm not saying you are, but you don't have to try so hard to be who you think you used to be. You can just be you now, and that's okay. Healing takes time, and you are entitled to take that time Bucky."

A sad smile flickered for a moment before an unreadable mask slipped into place and he looked away. Merlin, Bucky was good at that.

Better than anyone she knew.

Her heart tightened. As if invisible hands had gripped around it and were squeezing tightly.

She knew she should keep her distance. The voice in the back of her mind was warning her to show fucking caution. Yelling at her that this was not what she was here for, Holly couldn't help but feel that she needed to do something to help.

It's just the marks. The marks are making you feel you need to help him.

Holly knew that wasn't true, knew that it was the voices last ditch attempt to try and get her keep her distance, to keep her safe.

She had never been unable to turn away from someone in need. That was not who she was, and helping him didn't mean she was letting him in.

"Tea or coffee?"

Bucky snapped his eyes back to her.

It was an innocent question, non-invasive, but it would make him think about things he knew about himself.

"Coffee. Black."

Holly wrinkled her nose, "I really don't understand how people can drink that."

He gave her a small smile, "It kept us going on the front lines."

"I imagine it would. A boost of energy. And milk wouldn't exactly have been easy to acquire or preserve."

"A luxury we had back in the main camp. None of us bothered wasting it in the coffee."

"Hot chocolate?"

"Only at night time. You?"

"All day if I could get away with it. I love it with cinnamon, or praline or pumpkin spice."

"Pumpkin spice?" he asked with an inquisitive glint in his eyes.

Holly shrugged, "My school had a large number of greenhouses, and they were very into using what they produced on the school grounds."

It wasn't exactly a lie; just not everything they had grown had been for human consumption through food. Some of it had been potion ingredients. Holly fired off another question before Bucky could contemplate her answer too much.

She continued, "Favourite food?"

"Pancakes. Pizza comes a close second."

Holly raised an eyebrow, "And you were willing to share your pancakes with me. I don't share my favourite food."

His lips twitched in amusement which Holly found herself responding to.

The two of them passed questions back and forth between them, not touching on any ground that was too personal and they were questions that Holly was able to circle around to make sense to the muggle world view. They weren't outright lies; in fact, she didn't lie once. She just censored it a lot.

"My apologises Sergeant Barnes, I believe Agent Barton is looking for you," Jarvis announced, cutting over their conversation.

Once a Shield Agent always a Shield Agent, Holly mused.

"Duty calls," Bucky sighed, pushing himself to his feet.

Holly followed suit, picking up her mug as she did so.

"I guess you will be showing me you're other defence moves at eleven."

"Excuse me?" Holly blinked in surprise, where exactly had that come from.

"You said yesterday you would be showing me you're other defence moves. I am going to be testing that, and then I am going to be working with you to ensure those skills are up to scratch."

"Wait, what?" Holly's eyes snapped to Bucky, who again was looking entirely too happy with himself.

Holly opened her mouth before shutting it quickly, pressing her lips firmly together.

"See you at eleven, Holly."

Holly watched him walk away from, watched the confident graceful walk that was dangerous...deadly.

Merlin, she was so screwed.

So fucking screwed.

Sparring with Bucky Barnes was, not on her to-do list. She had a feeling Bucky would call her out on her bullshit if she made it too obvious she was holding back.

Not only that, she could see herself rising to the challenge as well, and that was the most significant risk of all.

Perhaps, she could get away with it. Maybe she wouldn't have to spar with Bucky.

"Jarvis."

"Yes, Ms?"

"What are the chances of me breaking my leg between now and eleven o'clock?"

"Depending on how much effort you put into achieving your goal Ms, by chance I would say one per cent. If you were to venture into deliberate means I would say highly likely, along with sustaining other injuries. I would be duty-bound to notify Ms Hill if you intended to hurt yourself."

"How screwed am I?"

"I don't believe I understand Ms."

"It's okay, neither do I. Neither do I," Holly muttered as she made her way up to Bruce and his lab of wonders.

She would just need to hold back.

She would just need to hold back.

Holly wasn't stupid enough to think she had a chance of beating him, and that wasn't her concern, her concern was that she would reveal more about her skill levels than she wished, just by holding out longer than she should be able to.

Or god forbid, she reach for her magic.


Holly walked into the locker room at 10.50, her eyes sweeping over the place with a critical eye, taking note of the room in a single glance.

Unsurprisingly considering the number of people that worked for them, and had access to the Avengers floors the locker room was unisex. Thankfully she was used to changing with both boys and girls in the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

The locker room was stylish and expensive like everything Holly had seen so far in the tower, though was surprisingly bright, airy and clean, like all locker rooms, it carried the ubiquitous scent of sweat and cleaning products that gave a lemon hint to them.

Four pairs of eyes looked up at her as she entered, weighing and observing before they returned to readying themselves.

Holly frowned slightly.

Bucky had said that all the new recruits were joining the training session, along with Stark's security team.

"They have their own locker room on the lower levels."

Holly glanced up at the only other woman in the room, mousy coloured hair, and deep-set brown eyes.

She had been there early enough yesterday that she hadn't run into anybody else that had started the same time as her.

"That makes sense," she replied with a smile, giving it her best attempt at appearing friendly, although she would rather be anywhere else.

Of course, that wasn't the other woman's fault, and Holly tried her level best not to be rude if she could help it.

"Holly Potter," she introduced, holding her hand out in greeting.

The woman eyed it for a fraction longer than would be considered polite before gripping it in her own, "Diane Phillips. The two meatballs over there go by Tank and Jax, and the scrawny looking guy is Ethan Sawyer."

"I'm not scrawny!" Sawyer yelled.

"Compared to them you are," Phillips fired back, before turning her attention back onto her, "We missed you in the tour on Monday."

Holly could hear the question even if it weren't an actual question. She gave a tight smile, the thing with working with former Shield Agents, they never really stopped being Agents, and regardless of their previous roles they had worked for an organisation that dealt in espionage on top of everything else.

"Extra paperwork I had to go through. Being British, Hill had to make sure I had all the right papers that would allow me to work, legally, in the country."

Phillips gave her a hard look before a slight nod and turned her attention back to getting ready.

Holly couldn't say whether she had passed the test or not, or even if there had been a test in the first place.

She couldn't blame them for their caution, their whole world had blown up around their feet, and they didn't know who they could trust.

From the hushed mutterings that filled the room, Holly wasn't entirely sure that everyone was on friendly terms.

Of course, her fellow recruits were former Shield, and even though they were here now, with the betrayal still so raw, Holly doubted they would trust one another so quickly.

Holly busied herself with changing into her workout gear.

Gear that was provided for them, Holly wasn't even going to hazard a guess how exactly they knew her measurements or whether it was a wild guess.

They were her size, the three-quarter black length yoga pants lose enough to allow movement without fear of splitting at the seams, they were a thicker material than the ones she had seen some wear as the latest fashion statement outside the gym.

She should have known that they were observant enough to judge the size of her clothes, but the sports bra was pushing it a little far in Holly's opinion. Especially considering it fit perfectly and comfortably.

Her heart fluttered beneath her chest, and Holly swallowed the lump forming in her throat as she slipped the razorback sports top on.

It was high enough to cover the marks around her heart but still showed more skin than Holly was comfortable with, with parts of her back on show along with her shoulders and arms and neck.

Her mouth was dry, and she was aware of eyes pressing along her skin burning with questions - though not a single person in the room asked.

Holly kept her back turned away from the others in the room, ignored the itching between her shoulder blades and focused on trying to calm her mind.

They were just scars.

And they were something Holly had never bothered in hiding before, but they signalled a violent past.

And they would bring questions.

Questions Holly wasn't prepared to answer, though she doubted she would ever be ready to answer them.

She had her scars from her years at Hogwarts, the battle with the Basilisk, the Triwizard Tournament, from Umbridge and her blood quill - even scars from before she went to Hogwarts when all she had to worry about was battling Dudley and surviving those incidents.

But the scars from Riddle and his Death Eaters, from the war, the battles that followed after, and Hydra...Holly closed her eyes as she tied her hair back in a bun as neat as she could manage.

Riddle's brand, his mark, permanently burned into her skin on her left shoulder. Riddle had wanted his own personal stamp to make up for the lack of their matching bonds. Her name marred his skin, then the Dark Mark would mar hers. A sign of ownership that no matter how hard she tried to forget Riddle owned a part of her that she could never get back...that she was tainted goods.

Healing had failed.

And no matter how many times or how long she spent under the boiling hot water scrubbing herself clean she had never felt clean enough.

Just another reason why she didn't want to get close to Bucky or Steve.

Riddle had tainted her. Tainted what the marks should mean.

Thick red lightning-shaped patterns down the length of one arm where a curse had hit her. The left side of her neck where a vampire had taken a chunk out of her. Claw marks from the pack of werewolves she had tangled with. Criss-cross scars littered her shoulders, her neck, and her arms.

There were others, hidden beneath her top, and yoga pants, each one a sign that she had survived something that had tried to kill her, that wanted to destroy her.

She would not cower.

Steeling her spine, Holly straightened and focused back on her task.

She would not bend or break.

Even if she wasn't ready for the onslaught of questions she had no doubt would head her way.

Using sleight of hand tactic to ensure her wand holster was still in place. She never went unarmed anymore. She had learnt that lesson the hard way after her first assassination attempt the year after the Battle.

Hidden from sight in layers of wards and protected from damage Holly was confident that she would be able to keep it on while she sparred. The idea of taking it off made her shudder, and her stomach twisted uncomfortably.

Holly folded and piled her clothes into her locker, before pulling her hair into a messy bun as she walked out of the second door and into the gym.

She exited the locker room through the second door, following behind the others. Stark's security people were already there waiting, and from their hard assessing looks Holly wasn't so sure it was patiently or friendly.

A divide between those who worked for Stark Security and those who worked directly for the Avengers that was not something Holly wanted to get in the middle of.

She was able to blend in amongst the others and considering that all of them towered over her, that wasn't hard.

Holly had never been conscious of her height before, accepting that the years of neglect at the hands of the Dursleys had a somewhat negative effect on her growth. But she had in the years that followed the Battle of Hogwarts gained the weight and body strength she needed to be healthy. But surrounded by people that crossed that threshold of 6ft3 and onwards, Holly felt oddly small.

In the way that made her reassess the best way she would be able to take them out without magic, or how long she could realistically show herself holding out before it became suspicious.

Her competitive streak grumbled in protest because Holly had learnt to fight tooth and nail for everything she had and the idea of forcing herself to be weaker deliberately didn't sit well with her anymore.

It would be too suspicious, though if she suddenly showed she was an expert.

Not that she was sure she could take them without magic. Holly had the training, a new protocol that they had put into place while she was an Auror. Allowed them to be useful even if they were disarmed, but it had never been any particular style, or art, or practice.

Even in the years since she had been on her own, her combat skills were dirty and fast.

The only thing Holly could effectively use to her advantage now was that she was fast.

Nobody would raise an eyebrow at that.

But if she took down a trained Agent without any official training, then eyes would watch her more closely.

She just needed to hold back.

Hold back and not use her magic.

She could do that.

A sweep of the room showed that Bucky and...Barton was already in the room. Bucky was leaning against one of the walls, his arms crossed over his chest, blue eyes fixed on to her.

Holly ignored him though she had no doubt as observant he was, he was taking note of every one of her scars.

Holly shuddered.

He was only paying attention to her because of the marks.

And because she had said she had better defence moves than throwing a Pad at him.

What exactly had been running through her mind in that particular moment, Holly wasn't entirely sure.

But it led to dangerous territory. Territory she had to avoid at all costs.

She could be friendly, but she had to remember why she was here.

"Alright, listen up!" Barton said suddenly, breaking the silence in the room.

"There is only one rule in this room. What happens in this room stays in this room. Someone knocks you down or hurts you, too bad. That's what happens when you are training you to get hurt."

Barton paused, looked up at them, "Out there, or an attack on the tower, and you are going to fight, you are going to bleed and its possible you are going to die. In here, we are going to give you the skill sets you need to survive. To keep fighting. You are going to hate us, and that's fine. But it stays fucking in this room."

"Some of you already know some of our training methods; others have training already under their belt. We are here to get better every damn day. The next Invasion. The next attack - right around the corner. Security has risen to a level four in this building alone. Let's make sure we are ready to keep the people that work here safe."

Holly blinked in surprise, she wouldn't say it was a motivational speech, but it was something. She wasn't aware that the security on the building had increased to a level four - but then why would she be?

She needed to figure out precisely what that meant and where the threat was coming from. Was it Hydra, or was it something else?

"We will start with warming up. Push-ups. Start now."

Barton pointed to the floor, and Holly watched as everybody moved. At least the Stark Security team did well versed in what the sessions consisted of, even if some muttered grumblings and groans.

Holly followed suit of everyone else. Moving to the floor, she extended her arms and legs and started lifting her body.

Pathetically.

Holly hated push-ups. Come to think of it, she couldn't remember the last time she had done them. Had she ever done one?

Her muscles burned under protest, and she silently cursed under the sun, with everyone she did. Well aware that the others around her were mostly moving effortlessly.

As if they had been doing it for years.

Was this some kind of muggle torture?

Merlin, she hated it.

"You've never done push-ups before have you?"

Holly pushed herself to her knees and looked up at Bucky, who had been moving through them along with Barton.

"That obvious?"

"A little." His eyes trailed over her arms, hardening with every scar he catalogued, and Holly forced herself not to react, to not flinch away, because, goddamn it, her past was hers and nobody else's. She didn't have to explain anything to anyone.

"I'm more of a running and stretching kind of girl, not push-ups," she answered, attempting to distract from the growing tension as Bucky seemed to go stiller than he had done so before.

Holly shuddered from the chill that crept through her and threw him a look.

He ignored it, his jaw clenching as he knelt down next to her.

"We will try it a different way until you gain strength then. We don't want you to injure yourself while you are warming up."

His tone was sharp.

"No, injury is saved for the actual sparring right?"

He smiled slightly at her though Holly could tell it was forced. "Avoiding injury is preferable. Despite Barton's speech."

"Okay, so how do I do this differently?"

"Hands and knees," he said, waiting for her to get into position, "walk your hands forward until your body is in a straight line from your head to your knees. Your hands need to be positioned beneath and slightly wider than your shoulders."

Holly followed his instructions, aware of how close he was kneeling down next to her.

"Okay, squeeze your body to keep your torso straight, bend your arms and lower yourself to the floor. Straighten your arms to press back up to the starting position."

Holly did.

Bucky counted ten with her, before telling her to move into sit-ups. She nodded her thanks to him before he carried onto the next person. Holly was aware of Barton helping a few of the others, moving between each of them.

Lunges, squats and a set of stretches followed; until they were both satisfied that every one of them had worked every muscle enough not to cause series harm when they actually sparred.

Holly wasn't used to warming up.

Fighting for her life was all instincts, reaction and action. She hadn't had time to warm up while duelling with a wizard or witch.

Even when fighting muggles, her primary goal was survival, she had reacted and attacked focusing on disabling her opponent as quickly and as efficiently as she could.

Holly grabbed a quick mouthful of water in the brief respite before Barton paired them up.

Holly focused on her opponent her head tilting slightly, her eyes narrowing.

One of Stark's security people.

His name tag read 'Williams'.

She looked up at him and found blue eyes assessing her, a slow smile creeping along his lips.

Holly ignored it.

He was muscular, well-built, giving the impression he was not someone you wanted to cross.

Both Barton and Bucky had themgo through a series of motions of how to hit the ground without injuring themselves - how to roll, to balance their weight and how to use the momentum to press on into a different move.

Holly noted, out of the corner of her eye, that only two other pairs of sparring partners that were going through the same series of movements that she and Williams were.

The others were already moving through drills far faster and more advanced than them.

Sawyer and Phillips each faced their own Stark Security person.

Recruits.

Williams was new.

Holding back wouldn't be a problem if they didn't know what to expect from her. Except Holly was well aware of Bucky's eyes tracking her movements, observing to closely, with a slight frown on his face, a head tilted to the side, as if something didn't quite add up.

He saw too much.

Holly did her best to ignore him as she worked through the basics with Williams.

Kicks, punches, blocks, hand attacks.

Movements she knew and movements she didn't.

Williams hit hard, each blow packing more force behind it than she had anticipated a training exercise to use, and while he was fast he wasn't quite as fast as she was.

Physical strength but not the speed.

Her body moved fluidly, into each movement, all the while she reigned in her speed, her strength, her instincts had seen several weak spots in Williams' defence and was urging her on to take him out.

It would be easy.

To easy.

Holly ignored it all.

Focused on her breathing, on pulling her punches, her kicks.

This wasn't a fight for survival.

This wasn't a fight to the death.

It was just training. Just an exercise.

Williams pulled a move she hadn't been expecting, his fist connecting with the side of her jaw with an echoing sound of flesh hitting flesh.

Her head snapped back, and Holly stumbled.

Her teeth clashing together.

She hissed in pain and focused on her breathing as her stomach churned.

Damn it to fuck!

It had been a hard hit, thank fuck she had pulled back just a fraction the last second, so while he had hit her, he hadn't hit her in the right spot to knock her out.

"Williams!"

Williams advanced forward.

A fist flew towards her.

Holly dodged.

Another strike followed.

Williams socked her on the nose.

Pain spasmed, her eyes watered.

She blinked through it.

Fuck that hurt.

"Barnes!"

Barton was calling Bucky, she was vaguely aware of it, but Holly couldn't say she was focusing on why.

All she saw was red.

All she could taste was her blood.

Instincts took over.

Holly shoved the pain down.

She was no stranger to pain, it was something she knew well, something she could work with.

She dodged his following punch, sidestepped to the left, and kicked out, hitting him in the inner side of his left leg with as much force as she could muster. His leg gave away under him, forcing him to crumble a little.

Holly advanced as he stumbled.

Grabbing hold of him.

Pulling him down as she dropped and rolled.

Kicked out with a leg to his stomach as she did until she rolled him over her and he hit the floor, and she was straddling him.

His eyes widened in burning surprise.

Her heart was racing, it pounded against her chest; she shifted off him stepping away.

Well aware of eyes fixed onto them.

Fuck, fuck, she had just screwed up.

She had fucking royally screwed up!

Bucky's eyes had darkened considerably, swirling raging emotions, his gaze firmly fixed on Williams, only moving to her when she shifted slightly.

When exactly had he gotten so close to her?

Fuck!

"Barnes," Barton warned.

"What?" Bucky bit out.

"Take her to the medical wing; make sure that nose isn't broken."

"Tilt your head forwards, pinch the bridge of your nose and breathe through your mouth," he growled, taking a step closer to her.

The silence that filled the room was deafening.

"Barnes," Barton said, more firmly, more heat in his tone, "Medical wing."

Oh, hell, no!

"I'm fine, I will be fine. The bleeding has stopped," Holly babbled, bringing her head up.

It hadn't.

It was still bleeding.

"Let me have a look."

Holly felt herself freeze as Bucky's hand touched her chin, tilting it ever so slightly upwards.

"It's red and looks like it's starting to swell. We will get Banner to check it out. Keep your head tilted forward and breathe through your mouth. Come on."

He had a hand on her back; a steadying presence as he led her out of the gym.

Holly felt faint, and she knew it had more to do with the fact that she was heading to the medical wing as a patient rather than the pain and loss of blood.

Holly hated hospitals of any kind.

Hated being the patient.

Hated the white coats.

The vulnerability.

The memories swirling through her mind as though she was stirring a cauldron.

Please not right now. Please not right now.

Breathe.

She just needed to breathe.

She needed to push it away, just push it fucking away.

Except her stomach had just opened up into a bottomless pit, and hands were reaching up to wrap around her and pull her down, chains weighing latching on with every breath she took.

She couldn't breathe.

She couldn't breathe.

Her heart fluttered.

Her chest tingled.

She couldn't breathe.

And then they were stepping across the medical wing threshold - wait how did they get there so quickly? Bucky was leading her to the bed where she leant against because she couldn't quite make herself sit on it, and he was calling for Banner.

Just breathe.

She just needed to breathe.

Why couldn't she breathe?

And then she saw a man in a white coat and the world roared around her.

Holly desperately reached for her shields, but they slipped through her fingers like water.

All she could do was drown in the memories that clung to her skin, and sunk into her soul, icy hands gripping tightly around her and squeezed as they pulled her down.

Hands pushed her down onto the bed as someone pulled and tightened restraints around her fixing her firmly in place. She couldn't move anything except her eyes. Her eyes tracked the movements as men in white coats crowded around her, shoved needles into her arms.

"Proceeding with Phase 1." A voice hummed.

A smiling face.

Knives cut across her, skin split and a searing wildfire roared through her entire body and...God make it stop! Make it stop! STOP!

"Holly! Holly, sweetheart, it's okay, you're safe."


Holly jerked away from him and Banner with such force that the bed moved with her as she darted around, firmly putting it in-between them and her.

A maelstrom was currently pulsing through the bonds, pushing aside his own icy rage that had been threatening to spill out the moment the bastard Williams had made contact with her jaw, the moment he had seen Holly's blood dripping down her face.

Bucky's skin prickled and his spine tingled as something seemed to creep over him like sharp nails kneading in a warning.

A sensation he was familiar with and yet he couldn't place it.

He could smell the acidic vinegar scent he had come to associate with fear, mixing with the coppery twang of blood and a hint of something he couldn't quite name.

Her body was trembling as she was rooted to the spot in the corner of the medical wing.

Bucky had felt the trembling in his hands as he had led her to the medical wing, but he has presumed it was shock rather than fear, but now, there was no mistaking the panic-stricken look across her face.

"Holly," Banner said softly stepping forward.

Holly flinched away, her face turning ashen as she fixed her eyes on Banner.

She let out a whimper that sent Bucky searching for whatever threat he needed to destroy, to protect her.

Except there wasn't any but him and Banner.

Bucky shot out his left arm as Banner moved to take another step forward.

"Don't," he growled in warning.

Banner looked at him.

"She isn't seeing you. At the moment I doubt she is seeing either of us."

And she wasn't seeing Banner, Bucky knew that glazed look, she was stuck in whatever living nightmare that had been triggered.

Her breathing was becoming more erratic, and he could hear her heart racing as it pounded against her chest.

Threatening to break free any second.

He needed to calm her down.

He needed to help any way he could.

Because she was not meant to look like that.

She wasn't supposed to be cowering like a terrified animal that reminded him so much of himself when he had first stepped through the tower doors.

She wasn't afraid of him. Of the monster that he was.

She challenged and teased him.

She had taken a punch to the jaw and the nose and had still kept fighting.

She had pushed through the pain and taken down her opponent.

Holly had been okay until...

Medical wing.

Had been fine until Barton had mentioned the medical wing.

Except she had been working in the medical wing yesterday without any problems, Holly had been working with Banner.

He swivelled to look at Banner, half putting himself between the man and Holly.

Banner looked startled, surprised...confused...upset.

Bucky felt his eyes widen.

"Take off your coat."

"What?" Banner frowned.

"Your coat. Your white coat. Take it off," Bucky growled.

Banner didn't hesitate. He slipped out of the white coat and placed it on the workbench.

"What happened?"

"Sparring took a punch to the jaw and nose. She was fine until Barton mentioned coming here, and then she just -"

"A trigger?" Banner asked with a frown.

"I don't know," he said with a frown as he looked at the white coat. He hated that he didn't. Didn't know how to help either.

He knew the slightest thing could potentially set him off, throw him for a loop and he wasn't particularly comfortable around Doctors, but he trusted Banner.

To a degree.

"She was fine yesterday," Banner said softly.

"She wasn't injured yesterday," he pointed out, as he moved around the bed and a little closer to her.

He took another step forward, lowered himself down, hands held up in the surrender signal.

Her eyes fixed onto him.

Bucky doubted that she was really seeing him, though.

"Holly," he said softly, "I know it doesn't feel like it, but you are safe here. Nobody is going to hurt you."

Her eyes were wide; too wide he could see the white around her them.

He reached for the bond and sent as much reassurance as he could through them.

Steve was better at this than he was.

Steve was more reassuring. Calmer, gentler.

Not harsh and cold like he was now.

She stiffened, and he pulled back ever so slightly, still reaching as delicately as he could, barely holding them in metaphysical fingers and brushed gently over them.

Calming.

Comforting.

He had had episodes where he couldn't stand to be touched, and he had had episodes where touching had calmed him down.

Bucky didn't want to push her, didn't want to push her deeper into herself.

"Can you give us a minute?"

"I will be outside. Take as long as you need."

He waited until Banner left until he started talking again.

"I want you to try and breathe with me okay?" he said slowly and gently.

"Breathe in."

He took a breath.

Holly took a breath.

Her eyes never leaving him.

He took another breath.

She took a breath.

He edged a little closer, just from one side, giving her the room to move if she wanted to, not cornering her in any further, and not taking away her choices.

He really wished Steve was here, Steve would know what to do.

But Steve hadn't said two words to her.

He took another breath and offered one hand out.

Even in her panicked state, her instincts pushed forward, too ingrained into who she was to not track his movements as he encroached into her personal space.

Bucky had no idea how much she really saw though, how much she was registering or whether it was just primal instincts.

When the Soldier took over.

When he became the weapon, he was all instincts. Instincts and orders and missions.

Nothing else mattered.

He watched her, read her body language as best he could. Problem with injured animals was you never knew how they were going to react.

He could see the tightness in her body, the way it coiled ready to strike, or prepared to be hurt.

He could see the rawness in those green eyes. Darkness creeping over them. Innocence stripped away through sins, and death and war leaving a predator that knew the fight for survival intimately and had come out on top at a cost. A spine of steel even now as she fought with blood-drenched claws and fangs to push her way out of whatever living nightmare that gripped her tightly.

It was a look he knew well.

It was a look he had seen in his own eyes whenever he looked in the mirror. He had lived and breathed darkness and was trying to find a place for himself in the light.

It seemed Holly was just like him.

He couldn't speculate on what she had survived, on what she had gone through.

Yet as he offered her his hand, all he could do was wait patiently and hope and pray that she reached for him.

A lifeboat in a raging storm, because it was clear that Holly was lost at sea at this moment.

The bonds rippled between them.

He took a breath.

She took a breath.

And then she reached, her hand shaking, her eyes burning into his soul. He wrapped his hand around hers and shuffled forward a little.

Her hand was warm.

Firm, slightly calloused, and so much smaller than his.

He wasn't sure why he paid attention to that particular detail except that he did.

He found it comforting, her hand in his. It had been so long since someone other than Steve was willing to touch him.

But this wasn't about him, this was about her. Calming her.

Reassuring her.

Careful to not make any sudden movements, he placed her hand on his chest, over his heart.

"Feel my heartbeat; I want you to just focus on that, breath with that."

His heart thumped.

Holly breathed.

And again.

And again.

He could feel her pulse in his fingertips, feel it slow in time.

Every breath she took a little calmer, a little deeper than the last.

Until she had control of her breathing.

Until she had control of herself.

He felt her arm loosen, the tension in her muscles slipping away, he scented the change in emotions, moving from acidic panic to pungent sour scent of shame.

Her chin had dropped to her chest, and she refused to meet his eyes.

Bucky hated it.

It made him want to lash out and hit something.

He knew shame well; he felt it himself more often or not.

"I'm sorry," she muttered.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," he replied.

"I shouldn't - I -"

"Holly," he said, cutting across her, "You have nothing to be sorry for. I can't say I know what happened or understand why it happened. But you have nothing to be sorry for, nothing to be ashamed of. You're injured, you are feeling vulnerable, and something about here didn't feel right for you. And that's okay."

"I -" she snapped her mouth shut.

"We can leave if you want. I can get Banner to treat you up in the penthouse; we don't have to stay in the med-bay."

"I don't want to be any trouble."

"You aren't. But we need to look at that nose, and make sure everything is okay."

They were quiet for a long time. Holly not answering, though he could see her weighing up her options until finally, she nodded, just once.

But it was enough.

He pushed himself to his feet, pulling her up with him, keeping his hand wrapped around hers. She didn't pull away; she just let him hold it.

The bonds were pulsing to life between them, zapping and zinging made more intense by the physical contact, and the power that flowed through them was more than it was before.

And if Holly was gripping onto them tightly, well then Bucky was okay with that.

Even if it meant that they had unintentionally strengthened their connection.

He could feel her now, clearer rather than fragments.

Bucky couldn't even begin to unravel what she was feeling, it made no sense to him. A maelstrom of emotions whirling around inside of him, consuming all in its paths.

It was overwhelming, intense, the sheer weight building inside threatening to explode outwards, and Bucky couldn't tell where his ended and hers began.

But for now he dared not close them, not when it was clear she needed them.

He led her out of the medical wing, Banner was waiting in the hallway.

"I'm taking her up to the penthouse, are you able to treat her there?"

Banner looked between them, "Of course. I will just get what I need and meet you up there."

"Banner."

The other man turned to face him.

"Leave the white coat."

The bite to his tone held all the warning he needed to make, not that he was stupid to directly threaten the Doctor. Hulk would turn him into mincemeat if he even tried, but he needed to give the warning never the less.

Banner nodded once before walking back into the medical wing. Bucky led Holly towards the elevator, their hands still entwined.

And he found that more comforting than he wanted to admit.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:-

Cold licked at her skin, gnawed at her bones and seeped into her soul, leaving her a quivering messy pile of mushy numbness.

She was exhausted.

Soul weary, bone achy, limb heavy exhausted.

Her back ached from how long she had held her muscles tense for.

She had a lump stuck in her throat that she couldn't entirely shift and Holly was doubtful that her voice would even work even if she wanted to speak.

She didn't.

She didn't want to talk or think.

Yet despite not wanting to Holly was hyperaware of her surroundings, of the bright lights, hanging overhead, of the twangy scent of blood that filled her nose, and metal of the lift.

But at the same time, it was as though she was looking through fogged glass, she could see, but she wasn't really seeing the here and now.

Instead, she was lost in her memories.

Holly squeezed her eyes shut.

Her heart pounded against her chest, and her hands were shaking.

She couldn't get them to stop.

Even the one that was gripped tight in Bucky's hand.

It was only for the scorching heat of Bucky's hand as he gently guided her through the hallways of the tower that kept her moving.

Kept her upright.

Holly was sure that if he let go, she would crumple in a heap on the floor like the pathetic fool that she was.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

How could she have lost control like that?

Weak.

Worthless.

Failure.

The words spun around and around in her head like a merry go round that Holly wasn't able to get off. No matter how hard she tried, she was stuck, rooted in the centre while everything spun around her.

Her stomach churned and flipped and...She was dangerously close to losing what little food she had eaten; she could taste the bitter bile on her tongue.

Don't be sick.

Don't think about it.

It was fucking unacceptable.

How could she fucking lose control like that? Forgetting where she was as hands gripped tightly around her, pulling her into memories she was desperately trying to push away, to forget about.

She was supposed to be stronger than that.

She couldn't afford to be weak...ever again.

"Holly."

Holly blinked in surprise as she looked up at Bucky. His blue eyes staring down at her intensely.

His eyebrows crinkled together, and he leaned a little closer to her.

Holly swallowed slowly.

"I'm fine."

She reached for her Occlumency shields, the icy shroud of ice and darkness and wrapped it around her mind like a blanket.

Even though she was finding it difficult to focus on anything shielding was like second nature to her now.

The memories firmly locked away.

She was in control.

She was fine.

She was fine.

Holly straightened herself, refusing to cower for a second longer than she had already had been.

She was a Potter, and that meant something.

Bucky glanced at her, his blue eyes darkened as an eyebrow lifted, and his head tilted.

Yeah, it hadn't been convincing enough, and she knew it.

"I'm sorry."

"You don't have anything to be sorry for Holly. We all have our demons, we all have our scars," Bucky said, his eyes moved to her forehead, trailed down to her neck, to her shoulder. His eyes narrowed, and a sharp piercing twinge struck her heart.

Holly swallowed the lump in her throat, as Bucky continued cataloguing her scars. His eyes hardening with every single one he traced, cold fury stinging along her skin as he grew stiller with every breath he took.

Until they traced over the words carved into her hand that was in his.

Holly pulled her hand back and crossed her arms while throwing him a look of indifference.

Holly wasn't going let it show that she felt more exposed and vulnerable right now than she had in a while. Holly knew it wasn't Bucky's fault, but she didn't need his anger on her behalf.

She wasn't worth that.

He continued, "Some of them are on the inside, rather than the outside."

"They say the ones that make you bleed internally are the deadliest of them," Holly said softly, crossing her arms a little tighter to her chest.

Silence fell between them before Bucky broke it.

"How much do you know about me?"

Holly could see the empty hollowness in his eyes as he asked the question. Could hear the doubt in his voice and see the way he angled his body, so his left arm wasn't in her direct line of sight.

Holly softened her features and met his gaze with her own. Hoping that she was conveying that he didn't need to hide or be ashamed of his past. She wasn't going to judge him.

"I know who they say you are," she said slowly, choosing her words carefully as she offered a small smile of acceptance. "I am only just starting to get to know Bucky Barnes, and that is the only you that is important. Everything else, everything the media twist...it's just white noise."

He gave her a forced smile.

"I have nightmares. Both waking and asleep. Flashes, memories of what I have done...the people I have killed."

His whole body tensed. His eyes closed as if waiting for her to recoil in disgust and not wanting to witness it.

Anger surged through her, icy and biting like a snowstorm and unforgiving to any that would cross her path should she give it an inch to explode forward.

Hydra had so much to answer for. For what they did to her, but most especially for what they did to Bucky and the children they were taking.

"That wasn't your fault. What happened to you was wrong on so many fucking levels, and they fucking deserve to burn in hell for it," Holly said.

"I killed them. I pulled the trigger. I plunged the knife into their hearts, snapped their necks. Hydra created a weapon. An Asset. A Soldier. And it's still a part of me, just waiting beneath the surface, waiting for a moment of control to slip...the nightmares, they make me lose control," Bucky breathed, "They made me into a monster."

His eyes were ice cold when they meet hers, and Holly was hyperaware of the tension in the air shifting slightly. Yesterday, and this morning, Bucky had been holding something back, trying to appear smaller and less dangerous than he was. That something had bled through a little in the gym, and it was flowing through now.

He was filling the room like he had that day when they had first met with the contracts, a predator prowling in a cage with thin breakable bars.

Yet Holly couldn't find it in herself to be afraid. Because while Bucky Barnes was a predator, he wasn't a monster. A monster wouldn't have helped her through her panic attack, wouldn't have had the patience to do so, would have seen the weakness and ripped her to shreds. A monster wouldn't have opened himself up here and now, to try and make her know that he knew what it was like living with demons, even if neither of them knew the names to those demons.

Holly reached out to touch him without thinking, and paused, his eyes tracking the movement, silence had fallen over them, both painfully aware that her hand was hovering in the air.

She looked at him, silently asking for permission, he looked at her, and a flicker of something breezed across her skin.

Holly took that as permission.

She touched his arm and gave a gentle squeeze.

"Our choices show us what we truly are," Holly said softly. Recalling Dumbledore's words to her from so long ago, when she had started seeing the similarities between Voldemort and herself. It was one of the few pieces of advice from the old headmaster that she still clung to. Because it was so damn important.

"We all have the capability inside of us to do monstrous things," Holly continued, as she looked up to meet Bucky's gaze. "The monsters are those who have the choice and still chose to do those monstrous things, for their own needs, their own fulfilment, and pleasure. Monsters prey on others; they feed and abuse others for so many different reasons but usually because they want to. Because they enjoy it, and the power it brings them."

Holly gnawed at her bottom lip. Bucky's eyes burned intensely as he looked at her, she swallowed the sigh of frustration that was threatening to escape. Holly understood self-loathing, understood the feeling of hopelessness and the desire for things you weren't sure you fully deserved.

Bucky was running just like her from a part of him he hated, despised and considered unworthy.

She searched for the right words, the all important words that would sing truth to him. Because it was a truth, a truth that sung in her blood.

"Hydra is the monster. Hydra took away your choices, stripped you of your identity. You didn't have the ability to stop them, nobody would have. They took everything from you Bucky and that wasn't your fault."

She looked at Bucky for a long time, letting everything show in her eyes as she continued softly, "I know monsters intimately. I met evil when I was just a child, believe me when I say this; you are not a monster Bucky. You were never a monster, even when you couldn't remember who you were."

Bucky was still.

His eyes were hollow and full of pain. Holly could see it, bleeding through for a single heartbeat, before dark waves of cold anger crashed through them and pushed the vulnerability from sight.

She could almost taste it, at the back of her throat, it wasn't anger directed at her, or even at Hydra, but rather at what she had hinted at, what her words had implied.

Holly wished she could take it back, at least that part, the truth that she knew monsters intimately, that she met evil as a child.

She didn't need the Avengers to look any more closely at her than they already were.

She couldn't afford to slip up any further.

Yet Bucky had shared a part of himself. A part of himself that filled him with pain, to try and show her that it was okay to fall apart, and she found herself doing the same because it pained her to hear Bucky refer to himself as a monster.

Bucky reached for her hand on his arm and took it in his own and squeezed.

Holly wetted her lips and swallowed slowly.

Neither of them was willing to break eye contact.

She could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She could feel the heat in Bucky's palm.

She should move away, she should say something...anything.

But she didn't.

They didn't.

Bucky seemed content in soaking in the silence with her.

Her hand in his.

An understanding had fallen between them that neither could ignore, and yet they didn't voice the questions that were spinning in the air.

The lift doors slid open with a quiet hiss, and they both looked away from the other. Bucky led her out, her hand still tucked in his and Holly wasn't sure why it felt comforting.

Maybe it was down to the fact he hadn't pressured her into talking about what had happened but instead had offered a part of himself up to her.

"Thank you," she said because she understood the weight of his words in a way she wasn't sure he realised.

"Thank you for not asking, for helping, for talking -," Holly trailed off, unsure what to say.

Bucky gave her a long look, "I wanted you to know. You needed to know. All things considered."

"You don't owe me anything, you know. The marks -" Holly paused, shaking her head. "The marks don't mean you owe me an explanation. You and Steve don't owe me anything."

And they really didn't.

The last thing Holly wanted was them to feel obligated to her. She didn't deserve anything, she didn't deserve to come in and ruin what they had.

And that was what she did best, ruin things she touched. Bucky wasn't the monster, she was. A freak, an abomination. Devastating everything she touched.

She was tainted goods, and she would only infect them.

"I know the marks aren't about owing each other things. Relationships, in general, shouldn't be about owing each other things or keeping a tally, not if they want to work."

"I've never been very good with relationships, of any kind," Holly admitted. Even with Hermione and Ron it was a struggle to fully open up and they knew her best.

The Dursleys had left their own marks on her, ingrained into her from an early age that she owed the world a great deal for the barest of things. For scraps at the table, for crumbs of affection that came few and far between.

Even now, years later, Holly couldn't shake those lessons.

Bucky looked at her, "I'm not very good at them now. But I would like to get to know you."

"I'm not that interesting."

He gave her a slight smile before looking to the side, "Only the interesting people claim to be uninteresting."

"I damage everything I touch."

"I'm already damaged," he countered.

"No, you aren't," Holly said softly.

"It's a nice thought, but it doesn't change that I am." He smiled sadly.

Holly flicked her tongue over her lips before trailing off in a way that she hoped made sense.

"Scars whether they are physical, psychological or emotional are signs that you survived what tried to destroy you. Hydra hasn't won Bucky, because even though you may feel broken, damaged you are still strong." Holly paused, meeting his gaze with her own, and letting her walls down just a little, just enough to convey what she was trying to say.

"You are strong enough to survive, to hold yourself together and keep moving even though you feel like shattering. You're a survivor."

"Did you survive someone trying to destroy you?" He asked suddenly, the weight of his gaze pressing down on her.

Holly stiffened, before forcing herself to relax. She didn't think he was being nosy, but rather trying to get a reading on her. She wanted to deny that anybody had tried to destroy her, but she couldn't lie about it either. All she could do was give the easiest of answers.

"I'm still here," her lips twitched slightly. "I'm just saying don't let Hydra define you any more than what they have already stolen from you. You are the man who offered me his hand in friendship, despite having every reason to not to and that's the person I want to get to know. Not be blinded by others opinions of him, especially when they don't know him."

She blinked as she wetted her lips.

They both knew what that statement meant.

An offering.

Testing the ground to see if it would break, crumble beneath them. Both of them stating they would try, in their own way when neither were very good with others.

"There's not much to know. I'm still discovering myself."

"We can take it one day at a time."

They held each other's gazes a second longer before Bucky turned and looked behind her towards the lifts before glancing back down at her.

"Banner will be up in a moment, we need to get that nose looked at."

"I think it's stopped bleeding. And I am pretty sure it would hurt more if it were broken," Holly argued, feeling far more vulnerable than she liked. She wasn't sure she was quite ready to face Bruce.

He didn't comment, just led her to the luxury sofa and motioned for her to sit down.

"How about this, Banner looks at your nose, and I order us some lunch."

Holly tilted her head ever so slightly, as she looked at him. She knew what he was trying to do, a compromise, giving her a choice.

"Okay," Holly answered because logically, she had no room to argue. Not without raising even more questions and Holly had no doubt a few had arisen already after today. With a soft sigh she sat down on the sofa.

"What do you want?"

"Um, I'm not sure." She shrugged.

"Pizza."

"I've not actually had pizza since I've been here," Holly said.

"Now that's sacrilege!"

Holly laughed, wincing at the dull aching throb as she moved her jaw, reminding her that even though she said she was okay, it still hurt.

Bucky grimaced, "Sorry."

"Don't be, I should have dodged."

His eyes darkened.

"What do you want on your pizza?"

"Ham and pineapple."

Bucky twitched his lips ever so slightly.

"What?"

"Sam is going to hate that."

"He's not a fan of pineapple?"

"Not on a pizza."

"Doesn't know what he's missing."

His lips twitched again. Not quite a smile, but amusement was clear to see.

He moved away from her, phone in hand. Allowing Holly to sweep her gaze over the penthouse.

Besides the personal quarters, it was the only level that hadn't been included on her tour of the building.

The penthouse was vast; wide and open. Floor to ceiling glass windows covered three sides of the penthouse giving it as much natural light near the seated area, allowing two levels to overlook New York City. The city's skyline glistened in the sun, looking magical from this high up.

It gave an impression of a man in his high castle, though Holly supposed it was more standing watchful and observing from the Avengers point of view.

The kitchen lined the only supporting wall that Holly could see and had shinning grey worktops and modern white cupboards. An island with breakfast bar stools separated it from the rest of the living space. Stairs on either side of the kitchen led to a balcony styled landing that housed bookshelves before curving round to another set of stairs leading upwards.

There was a large dining room table, a well-stocked bar, a pool table and a large flat-screen TV that hung from the ceiling.

It was modern, stylish, and elegant. Yet Holly could see the personal stamps dotted around. Magazines, books left open on the marked page. A throw draped across a chair. Weapons in strategically placed locations from what she could see. Holly felt as if she was intruding.

This was not the party deck where outsiders gathered and rubbed shoulders with Tony Stark and the others.

This is where they lived.

Where they breathed and relaxed from preying eyes.

The lift hissed open, and Holly felt her entire body stiffen as Bruce stepped out with medical supplies.

He gave her an encouraging smile as he approached her, cautiously, and an overwhelming sense of shame filtered back through her.

Holly wanted to run, to fucking hide.

Her eyes followed him, searching for any sign that would indicate he would attack.

Breathe.

She just needed to breathe.

None of them had given her any indication they were going to hurt her.

If they did, screw her cover, she would make them bleed.

Bucky was by her side before Bruce was even in touching distance, whether he had felt her through the bonds, bonds she didn't want to think about but was painfully aware of how much stronger they were running between them.

He was standing close enough to her that she could feel the heat radiating off him.

His presence was comforting.

Careful.

She needed to be cautious.

It wouldn't do for her to ever forget that.

Even if she was willing to give an inch and try to be friends.


Bucky's eyes narrowed as he watched Holly and Banner.

She was good at hiding her discomfort, good at hiding any pain she might be feeling.

Except in the small details he was able to see.

She fidgeted.

It was a minuscule movement barely noticeable, a finger rapping against her thigh, as she otherwise held herself perfectly still.

He could hear her pulse racing beneath her skin, a shift in her breathing when Banner pressed against her cheek.

She stiffened every time Banner moved to touch her, and Bucky couldn't help but wonder whether she was used to physical contact that wasn't associated with pain.

She was holding herself taut; her eyes darting between the two of them.

Assessing the threat, the danger she was in, just as a cornered animal would.

He wasn't sure when her mindset had shifted to danger, and he reached for the bonds without thinking, and he was hit by a tangled ball of jittery energy. Bucky sent a soothing current of reassurance and security.

She wasn't in danger here. Not from them.

Not from him...not at the moment at least.

Her eyes jumped to him. Her gaze burning intensely and a sharp piercing pain kneaded him through the bonds. Energy tense and tight, and the image of sharp icy knives pointing straight at him flashed in his mind.

His eyes widened in surprise.

A challenge.

A warning.

Tread carefully.

The impending danger hanging heavily in the air between them. Bucky had never seen or had the impression through the bonds in such a manner before. Steve was emotions, tastes, communication as clear as day. Steve withdrew, closed the metaphysical door when he wanted privacy. They both did. Holly hadn't shut the connection off, hadn't withdrawn from him. He could still feel her through those threads, the energy like an electrical storm that he was standing in the middle of. But she had given him a warning. A warning not to push. It was different.

Bucky gave the slightest nod, message received loud and clear, and eased back from the bonds, giving her the metaphysical space she needed.

It was a fine line between being supportive and comforting through the bonds and the all-consuming overwhelming force they could be. Where you couldn't untangle where one began, and the other ended.

The bonds may be stronger between them now, and that couldn't be undone, and Bucky didn't regret it. Not when it had helped Holly when she needed it but using them was a personal invasion that could quickly turn into something far worse if abused, and that was a road Bucky had no intention of walking down. Even accidentally.

He and Steve trod carefully with the bonds when it came to each other, Bucky would need to do so even more so with Holly, especially since they didn't know each other that well.

She had every right to give him the warning.

Especially when her emotions were so turbulent.

She was protecting herself.

Bucky's mind raced over their conversation moments before, she had been offering him comfort, accepting his past without so much as a blink of an eye, and while he couldn't make heads or tails of her easy acceptance of him, especially when he didn't deserve it, he instead focused on her what she had said. What she hadn't said. What he had been able to determine from the silence in-between.

Admitting she wasn't good at relationships. Warning him that she damaged everything she touched. That she knew monsters intimately. That she had met evil as a child.

His eyes trailed over the scars once again, her workout gear showing more skin than she had allowed in the two days since she had started working with them.

The round sunburst on her right forearm, as if a spike had skewered her. A long line running down the length of her arm. What looked to be a set of slash marks on a shoulder, a bite on the left side of her neck that looked way too much like human teeth.

Lightning spirals down an arm, Bucky had no idea what would have caused that particular pattern. It was too neat, too precise for it to be a scar from a chemical. Knives were out of the question as well. Then there was the brand on her shoulder.

An ugly skull with a snake slithering out of its open mouth, twisting round. Seared onto her left shoulder, it almost covered it completely. That one was personal. He didn't know the details, but Bucky knew that. Bar those that still practised human branding as a rite of passage, or those who saw it as a form of body modification. Branding was a punishment or used to identify an enslaved person.

Somebody had wanted to punish Holly. To subjugate her in a way that she would never be able to forget. He ground his teeth together as ice surged through his veins. His muscles quivered, and he found himself tensing with every breath he took.

He wanted to hit something, to rip, and shred, and bathe in the blood and destruction of something.

The Soldier stirred.

Like a switch flicking in his brain, the monster that was born of blood, pain and death and thrived in the darkness opened its eyes.

Wild energy rippled through him.

Calculating eyes pushed to the surface.

Not now.

He couldn't lose control right now.

The Soldier's eyes moved downwards, there were other scars crisscrossed along her skin, other marks that signalled a violent past, but the one that his attention fixed on after the brand was the scratched words on her left hand, 'I must not tell lies,' each word to prominent to be anything but deliberate.

Somebody had carved those words into her flesh. Somewhere visible, somewhere she would see them every day and somewhere others would see them.

A lesson.

Something she would never be able to forget, just like the brand.

They couldn't help but wonder whether the person responsible was still alive, and knew that if they were and he found them, they wouldn't remain that way for long.

Bucky wasn't entirely sure which of them thought that particular thought, but he knew he wouldn't even feel guilty over the kill either.

He felt a nudge through the bonds. Steve asking if he was okay.

Bucky froze.

He clearly had projected that particular thought louder than he had intended. His eyes swept over to Holly, who was looking up at him, her green eyes asking the same question.

The Soldier snarled. Mine. Protect.

Holly reached for his hand wrapping hers around his, Bucky couldn't decide if it was too comfort him or herself, but the warmth that filled him eased the knotted ball inside of him.

Allowing him to swallow it, it was like consuming a writhing ball of snakes as he pushed back at that ever-present side of him.

The Soldier pushed back, hissing and showing teeth, back arched like an angry cat.

Bucky didn't back down from the challenge, he was looking into the abyss that was a part of his soul. A void he could never escape from that was living and breathing inside of him. Always switched on, lying in wait to strike at a moment's notice and take over.

He couldn't give an inch. Not for a second.

Except the Soldier didn't push again. There was a tense moment of stillness between the two of them before the Soldier eased slipping away from the surface and back to its slumber.

The Soldier had tested him, but usually there was more fight to it. More of a wrestle for control and dominance.

The tension eased. Bucky was still hyperaware of everything, but he wasn't holding himself ready for a fight.

I'm on my way, Steve urged.

Holly's eyes had never left him.

Bucky swallowed slowly.

I'm fine, he assured.

He knew it was pointless, though. Steve would still rush to his side; he did whenever he felt the Soldier stir.

He was usually better at registering when Steve was close by, often could feel him long before Steve entered the building.

He caught Holly's eyes, her pupils widened ever so slightly.

Had she heard that particular statement? Had she felt Steve through him?

He felt her pull away, pull away from the bonds and retreat behind closed doors and fortified walls.

That answered that question then.

He turned his attention to Banner as Banner was speaking to Holly.

"....but we will know for certain in the next couple of days. I will get you some ice to put on it for the next twenty minutes, and you will need to keep that up for the next day or so. It will help reduce the swelling."

"Yeah, okay," Holly hummed in agreement.

Banner moved away to the kitchen, disposing of his gloves as he did so.

Bucky looked down at Holly, who was actively looking everywhere but him. They needed to talk, properly talk, the three of them, but he doubted that was going to happen right now. Not if Steve was returning, it meant that Natasha would be with him as well, and Clint would be returning from the gym and Sam was due back any minute.

He hadn't thought this through.

She was about to get ambushed...again by them.

Holly pulled her hand out of his, "Steve's returned to the tower and on his way up?"

"Yeah, he won't be alone either. Natasha will be with him. I hadn't thought they would return so soon..." he rubbed a hand through his hair, "Sam is due back as well. I don't want to over face you with all of us at once."

"This is yours, their home. I will be fine Bucky, honestly."

"You and Steve -," he started, stopping suddenly, "you haven't even talked."

Holly opened her mouth to respond but fell silent when the elevator doors slid open and Steve, Natasha and Sam stepped off. Bucky could see her shoulders stiffen again ever so slightly before she forced herself to relax.

Steve froze, his gaze flickering between the two of them, frowning slightly. Natasha tilted her head curiously even Sam hesitated.

Banner paused for a second, before continuing towards Holly to hand her the ice pack and a thin cloth to wrap it around.

Bucky moved from Holly's side and made his way towards Steve.

The heated weight of Steve's gaze pressing down on him, the questions burning his skin.

"What happened? I thought I felt..." Steve stopped abruptly, his brow creasing as he watched him closely.

"I'm fine. Holly took a punch to the nose during training, needed to get it checked out," he answered.

"Medical?" Natasha asked eyebrows raised slightly.

Bucky lowered his voice ever so slightly, casting a glance back at Holly who was engaged in conversation with Banner, and not paying them the slightest bit of attention, or at least it appeared she wasn't.

"I took her there, but she had a panic attack."

"In medical?" Steve frowned as he glanced at Holly.

"Yeah."

"PTSD?" Sam asked, his eyes narrowing as he glanced over at Holly.

"Could be, but I can't say for certain if it was," Bucky said.

"And it was definitely in Medical?" Steve asked.

"She was fucking trembling as I lead her to it but seeing Banner approach her in a white coat, pushed her further," he answered.

"White coat syndrome?" Sam prompted.

"I don't think it's that simple," Bucky hesitated, darting another glance towards Holly. On the surface, she gave nothing away as she talked with Banner, but he was beginning to get the impression that Holly was good at hiding things.

"She has a lot of scars, Stevie. Fuck, scars that nobody should ever have. Half of them, I can't even work out what caused them, other than somebody has done them deliberately. There are words carved into her flesh on her left hand...and then there is the brand."

"Branding?" Natasha asked her voice a fraction colder than usual; her green eyes hardened as she crossed her arms, tilted her head to the side and turned to look at Holly.

"Yeah," he swallowed the bitter taste of bile and concentrated on breathing.

Steve's anger leaked through the bonds. It boiled beneath the surface, prickled along his skin as his friend tried to reel it in. His stomach churned with it, his own anger was like a frozen wasteland, reaching for the cold depths that lived within him. Steve had always been fire, had always been the raging inferno that stood up to any injustice he saw. Yet despite the hot anger, Steve was in control.

"We don't know the facts. We can't speculate. Sam, you are the best in judging how to approach this," Natasha said, shifting to look up at Steve.

"Cautiously. We haven't exactly given Holly a reason to open up and trust us, not with the contract, not with the awkward tension that is going on between the three of you," Sam answered, his gaze flickering between Steve and Bucky. "We can't push."

"I've ordered pizza. Enough for all of us, though I hadn't expected the two of you to be back so soon," Bucky said, looking at Steve.

He hadn't expected them to be back.

"Later," Steve grumbled, "We will discuss it all later."

Bucky could tell from Steve's tone, that something was bothering him.

He threw him a pointed look, "You okay punk?"

Steve gave him a tight smile, "Yeah, I'm fine."

Bucky wasn't sure if he believed him or not, but the tension in his shoulders eased a little, as he nodded in acknowledgement.

Steve didn't give anyone a chance to say anything further as he moved forward, taking off his jacket and hanging it over the back of a bar stool as he made his way towards the kitchen.

"Holly would you like a drink?" Steve asked.

Silence filled the room as they waited for the answer as if they were all holding their breath to see what would happen.

It was the first thing Steve had said to Holly, the first interaction with her. Bucky could see the uncertainty in her eyes as she flickered between the two of them before she answered.

"Can I just have water please."

And they breathed, almost collectively in sync with each other; Natasha moved to the breakfast bar and sat down, her positioning a clear statement that she was offering whatever support Steve needed from her.

Sam moved to the sofa and slid in the seat next to Banner, and for a moment, Bucky watched it all.

It was a start, not the greatest, but it was something, and since Steve had been actively avoiding her since the signing of the contracts it was something.

With a soft sigh, Bucky moved to the sofa.

It was a start, even if it raised a thousand questions.


Holly eyed the lift out of the corner of her eye.

Could she make it before anybody noticed?

Probably not.

Not with the way everyone was watching closely.

She was grateful for the ice-pack as it allowed her to keep her hands busy and stopped them fidgeting nervously.

Holly was pretty sure she preferred the heated intensity that had been radiating from Steve while she had been signing the contract.

Anything but - this awkwardness as they sat almost opposite each other, with Bucky on one side of her and Sam on the other, Bruce in a chair sipping his green tea and Romanoff watching her curiously.

She was a bug trapped in a jar.

Neither of them knew quite what to say to the other and instead had fallen into an awkward silence that was stretching to a painful point of no return.

Holly was an outsider.

Intruding in their personal space, and while Bucky had invited her and nobody had uttered a word of complaint, her presence had set them on edge.

She raised the ice-pack to her check, using the movement to risk a glance at Steve.

A deep look crossed his face, his jaw set tight, but the alertness in his eyes told her he saw everything.

He had uttered two sentences to her, six words in the first and three in the second.

She had responded in kind, six words followed by two.

Holly had never found silence uncomfortable before, but both of them were looking at the other when they thought the other wasn't looking; only they ended up catching each other's eyes more often resulting in them quickly looking away the moment their eyes connected.

It was getting ridiculous.

Except Holly was pretty sure, she had lost the ability to speak.

Holly pulled the ice-pack away from her nose, rested it on her lap and reached for the glass of water on the table.

She took a sip.

Pull yourself together.

That had sounded way too much like Hermione, and Holly felt a pang of longing. Merlin, she wished her friend was here now. Hermione would know what to do, would know exactly what to say to get Holly to actually open her mouth and speak.

Holly saw the wince cross Steve's face before he schooled his features to hide whatever he was feeling.

"Sorry," Holly grimaced, as she strengthened her shields and made sure nothing leaked through the bonds.

"You don't have to apologise, it takes a while to get used to exactly what leaks through," Steve answered.

"Hopefully the bare minimum," Holly answered with a small curve of her lips. "Otherwise you are going to start craving cookie dough ice-cream at really odd times."

Romanoff snorted ever so slightly, drawing Holly's attention to her, green eyes twinkling with slight amusement, Steve looked almost helpless, as if he wasn't entirely sure how to answer that statement.

Bucky it seemed took pity on him.

"Play nice Holly."

"I am."

Steve recovered, though his gaze darted between the two of them.

"You are fairly good at shielding already."

Thank you Occlumency and years of compartmentalising everything she was ever feeling or thinking.

Living with the Dursleys, it seemed had at least thrown up one good thing.

"I will work on it," she said.

Silence fell between them all again.

Until Sam, 'don't believe the lies Barnes has said about him', offered a different path to lead the conversation on.

Holly could have kissed him.

"How are you finding working here so far?"

"Interesting. I'm learning a lot more about medical professionals than I ever thought I would," she answered with a tight smile, "Plus I'm pretty sure I'm going to need a map to remember what is on each floor. This place is -"

"Huge," Sam supplied, "It took me a while to figure where everything was."

"Not really," Holly said, "I'm used to finding my way around huge places. My boarding school was in a castle and had more secret passageways than we could keep track of."

She took another sip of water, "It had dodgy steps you needed to avoid, and suits of armour that looked the same so you never could rely on them as markers to where anything was," Holly answered, "I was going to say there is just a lot to remember."

"You went to boarding school?" Steve asked.

Holly blinked in surprise, "Um, yeah. My parents went there and my dad's parents, and their parents. Kind of a family tradition."

"Where was the school?" Romanoff queried, her head tilting to the side.

"Scotland, though I never really worked out exactly where. Just that it was in the middle of the highlands by a lake and forest."

Caution.

"What was it like?" Sam asked smoothly, forcing her attention back on to him.

They were good at that. Holly had to give them points, but she knew interrogation techniques for what they were.

"Cold winters, beautiful summers," she answered quickly, giving the barest of information.

"What about your favourite subjects?"

Holly took another sip, how exactly was she going to answer that?

"I can't say I had a particular favourite. I enjoyed a lot of my lessons, though I can't say I was that academic. I did enjoy our Astronomy lessons though; they were interesting and looking at today's insight, more relevant than my eleven-year-old mind considered."

Astrology was close enough to allow her to get by with that particular answer.

Sam snorted, "They don't exactly prepare you for alien invasions when you are learning about the planets."

"Not really." Holly grimaced, "History was interesting though the Professor was a practically a ghost. He taught my parents and grandparents."

Holly took another sip, of her drink, thinking about Hogwarts made her realise how much she actually missed the Wizarding World, missed the beauty of being able to explore magic every day, of seeing the wonderful wonders it created.

"I guess Defence and sports were the things I was good at. But we ended up with a different Professor every year, so the standard of the lessons changed yearly."

"Different each year, surely that would have an impact on the grades of the students?" Banner frowned.

"We used to joke the position was cursed. The professors never lasted longer than a year. The first Professor I had died. Second-year took a blow to a head, which left him with some issues. The third-year Professor was amazing, but handed in his notice due to a medical condition," Holly answered, "Fourth-year while an actual great teacher, turned out his credentials were fake as shit, and he wasn't who he said he was. He also turned out to be a complete psycho."

"In what way?" Sam asked.

"Turned out he was a member of a terrorist organisation. Trying to recruit the offspring of old families with more money than sense," Holly grimaced, "Then fifth-year was an evil toad."

Holly rubbed her thumb over the words on her left hand absently, stopping when she noticed Steve and Bucky's eyes trailing the movement.

"And the sixth year was my old chemistry teacher, and we didn't exactly get along when he was teaching chemistry. I dropped out at the end of the year."

"At sixteen?" Steve asked, piercing her with a sharp look. Holly sensed Bucky stiffening at the side of her.

"Yeah," she replied, wetting her lips and pushing a smile across her lips.

"Why?" Bucky asked with a frown.

"Life throws you curveballs, mine ended up with me on the streets for a while, so returning for my final year was kind of out of the question," Holly answered with a shrug.

It was as close to the truth she could say other than uttering the words, 'I was on the run and had a bounty of my head and trying to survive and overthrow a government and destroy an evil wizard'.

The awkwardness was back again, with an added heat of anger brushing across her skin.

She wasn't going to try and work that one out.

"What about all of you, what did you like in school?" she asked, trying to divert the attention away from her and back onto safe subjects.

"I always knew I wanted to join the air force, so maths and science were where I focused my time and energy," Sam answered, "It was only after I joined that I realised where my calling was and completed my EMT certificate and the training I needed."

Holly looked at Sam, "Pararescue airman, right?"

"Yep," he beamed.

"And that's where you got your wings from?"

He smirked, "That's where the Falcon was born."

Holly smirked at him, "I have to say I did wonder."

Bucky snorted next to her.

"That's just cruel."

"Flying is pretty cool," Holly soothed. She would be the first up in the air if she had a choice.

Bucky groaned, "You had to say that."

"Shut up Barnes, at least someone appreciates me," Sam sniped.

"Knock it off you two," Steve said, stopping them in their tracks.

Holly had a feeling that was a regular thing he ended up having to say.

"What about you?" Holly asked him, turning to look at Steve.

She knew Bruce was all about the science. Romanoff seemed content not answering at all. But then if half of what she had read was true, Romanoff didn't precisely have an everyday learning experience.

"Art, I always loved art. I liked History and literature. We both enjoyed reading," Steve answered.

Holly glanced at Bucky, "I liked my science as well. I remember going to the Stark Expo before I was shipped out," Bucky said.

"Stark Expo?" Holly frowned.

"An exposition that brings minds together from around the world and combines them to try and develop new inventions to improve the quality of life for mankind and the world in the future," Banner answered, "Tony's dad started it, and Tony restarted it a few years ago."

"Howard promised a flying car in 43. Funny, I thought he would have actually achieved it, but here we are in the future flying cars still absent," Steve smiled fondly.

Holly couldn't help but remember her own experience with a flying car. All it had taken was a little bit of magic, and Arthur Weasley had achieved something that muggles appeared to have wanted to succeed over seventy years ago.

Granted the magic had given the Ford a life of its own, but it had saved both hers and Ron's life in their second year.

"I think a lot of people were disappointed at the turn of the 21st century. A lot of predictions of what the world would look like, most of them involved a flying car in one aspect."

The lift doors slid open once again, and the smell of pizza wafted through the penthouse.

"You better have ordered a meat feast," Barton chimed as he stepped off carrying several large boxes of pizza.

"I ordered two," Bucky countered, "along with the vegetarian, pepperoni and chilli, sweet chilli chicken and two ham and pineapples."

"Oh god, there's two of you!" Sam moaned.

"Better than anchovy pizza," Bucky stated.

"No man, I'm telling you, the only good pizza topping is a meat topping. Nothing else."

"I take it this is an argument the two of you have had before?" Holly asked in amusement.

"One of many," Bucky answered.

The six of them moved from the chairs and sofa and made their way to the dining room table joining Barton. Steve and Bucky gathered plates from the kitchen while Romanoff rearranged the table to fashion some order with the pizzas.

Holly watched them; the way they moved around each other, passing things to another without a word uttered showed they were to a degree used to each other's quirks.

"How's the nose?" Barton asked.

"It's okay. I should have dodged quicker," Holly said as she sat down.

"Williams got you good and proper there, but you managed to turn the tables pretty quick on him. Where did you learn to do that?"

Holly thanked Bucky for the plate he passed her, though she heard the slight warning growl at the mention of Williams. Turning her attention back to Barton, she answered the best she could.

"Nowhere in particular. I kind of learnt all over. Travelled quite a bit. One of my dad's old comrades taught me a couple of things as did my godfather and uncle."

"So, no formal training?" His eyebrow rose with the question as he studied her.

"Not to any particular style of martial arts."

It wasn't exactly a lie; the Auror training program hadn't trained their Aurors to a style of physical training.

"You were holding back, though."

Holly shrugged, "Better to be underestimated than to overestimate your own skills and it doesn't hold up when you need them. I didn't think I would stand a chance against former Shield or military individuals."

"Leave the shop talk when around the table. Nobody lets a perfectly good pizza go to waste," Sam grumbled as he reached for a slice of a meat feast.

Holly reached for her own slice of pizza and took a bite.

It tasted better than it smelled Holly wasn't sure it would be possible, but it ticked every box it needed to.

Why the hell had she waited so long to try pizza in New York, she would never know.

"It's good right," Bucky stated lowly.

Holly hummed her agreement before finishing what was in her mouth.

"I really can't believe I waited so long to try the pizza here."

"Seven months wasted," Bucky chuckled.

"I think I am going to be living off pizza for a while."

Holly took another bite, happily listening to the conversation around her, aware that both Bucky and Steve were watching her closely.

She gave a slight half-smile in acknowledgement before taking another bite.

Holly managed to clean off four slices of pizza before declaring herself full. Bucky finished off the rest of her pizza, with a sly reference to super-soldier serum and an increased appetite.

She snorted at him before telling him her friend from school was a big eater, and he didn't have the excuse of the super-soldier serum, so clearly it was a man thing.


Steve watched Bucky walk Holly to the elevator as he quietly wiped the plates dry in the kitchen.

"Bucky seems comfortable with Holly."

He glanced at Natasha before his eyes darted back to them.

"Bucky was always good with the ladies, especially the pretty ones," he answered as he wiped a glass and placed it on the drainboard.

"You admit she is pretty then," Natasha teased.

He didn't acknowledge the remark. Holly was pretty. Precisely the kind of pretty that would have had him fumbling for his words and shying away into himself back before the serum. Not that the serum had magically given him the ability to speak to women.

Peggy had him tongue-tied more often than not and left him feeling utterly confused and helpless.

He couldn't help but see some comparisons between the two of them. Pretty and confident, British with painted red lips.

"Bucky is a different person now. He's distant with most of us; he circles on the edges, interacts when he needs to but doesn't exactly initiate anything with anyone but you...and Sam to a degree. He's getting better, and you can tell he is trying, but he still holds himself back."

Steve turned to look at her, "Except with Holly."

"It would appear so," she hummed in agreement.

Steve knew she was right. He could see it as well. The subtle moving closer to her, shielding her, offering her support. He had felt it when Bucky had pulled on their bonds earlier to try and provide comfort to Holly when she had been in the midst of her panic.

It had hit him like a tornado, and he had only been getting the fringes of it.

Just as he had felt the Solider stirring from its slumber.

It was why he had asked what had happened before anything else because he knew something had happened. Had felt it happen.

He had tracked every movement the two of them made around each other. He could see the wariness in Holly, her uncertainty beating beneath his skin as if it was his own, whenever she looked at either him or Bucky. His eyes had followed the slow curve of her lips as she teased him, smiled at Bucky, laughed at Sam.

Her eyes holding intensity to them, just as they had the first time he had locked gazes with them. Eyes that had stopped him in his tracks and haunted his dreams ever since.

Green eyes that had him itching to sketch them, to capture the burning fire she had in them, to unravel the layers that hid in their depths. Green eyes that reached into his soul.

Steve couldn't help but notice the slight smile on Bucky's lips as they talked, bantered. Bucky was relaxed, not entirely, he doubted Bucky would ever fully be able to relax, it was too ingrained in him to be hyperaware of his environment.

But it was nice to see.

He had hoped, had wished that Bucky would be able to open up to him by now.

But perhaps getting to know Holly would be good for Bucky.

And he had to learn to be okay with that, even as Bucky had to learn to be okay with his own interest in Peggy.

Except it hurt.

A lot.

Steve swallowed the anger, the hurt and doubt over exactly where he stood and what he wanted, and needed, and craved. He shoved down the curiosity over it all until all he had was calm stillness.

A part of him wished, wished that all he had to worry about was the soulmarks and their meaning, and finding a working balance between them all, so they didn't tear each other to shreds.

But he couldn't.

Not when danger was lurking in the shadows.

Just out of sight, waiting for the moment to strike.

He had to be ready to counter any attack that came their way.

Too much was at stake.

So he did the only thing he could.

He pulled back.

Bucky's head snapped round to him the moment the elevator doors shut behind Holly.

Steve could see the question burning in the man's gaze.

Steve buried everything.

Giving nothing away.

Even so, his eyes drank in the sight of Bucky walking towards him.

"Is she okay?" He asked, as Bucky reached the breakfast bar and leaned against the counter.

His question signalled Sam, Clint and Bruce to gather around them.

"She is refusing to go home, so she's agreed to work on the main operations floor, at least there will be others around her," Bucky answered.

"Everyone reacts differently after a panic attack. If Holly is here and with others around her we can at least monitor her. At a distance," Sam said, "We don't want to overcrowd her."

"What happened?" Steve asked as he finished drying the last plate.

Clint answered first, "We split them into pairs, in hindsight I probably shouldn't have paired her with Williams, but he's one of Starks new Security recruits, and she is a new recruit, so I wanted to judge their skill set."

"Williams, he's the guy that has expressed an interest in working on our floors with his application?" Natasha quizzed.

"Yeah." Clint nodded, "Hill wanted a proper assessment before talking to Happy about moving him up to us."

Bucky snorted, "The guy is an asshole."

"I'm not arguing, the guy is an asshole, but that doesn't mean he isn't a workable asshole that we could use. Provided he meets the requirements," Clint agreed.

"Holly managed to turn the tables on him?" Natasha asked.

"Really quickly as well, like a switch was flipped and Williams was on the floor," Bucky said.

"Her records don't show she has had any training, not the kind that would allow her to pull a move like that," Clint added.

"Her records don't indicate anything about half the scars she has either," Steve cut across, "What about in the medical with Holly?"

Bucky turned to look at him.

"As I said before, she was trembling on her way up to the medical. I wrongly presumed it was her coming down from the adrenaline, we entered medical, she saw Banner and then..." he trailed off.

It was clear that Holly was hiding something, and usually that would be fine, nobody owed anyone an explanation of their life story unless they wanted to give one. But they couldn't afford to risk not looking into it and have it bite them in the ass later.

"We keep an eye on her. Look into it further, something isn't adding up, but right now it's going to have to take a back seat. As long as she is okay enough to work."

"Physically, she should heal in a few days," Bruce supplied.

Steve nodded.

"What happened?" Bucky asked.

Steve looked at him, he still needed to talk with Bucky to make sure he was okay after the Soldier pushing forward, but Steve knew his friend well enough to know he wouldn't discuss it in front of the others.

He let out a sigh.

"Jarvis can you request Tony and Hill please," Steve asked.

"That well then Cap," Sam whistled, as he refilled his glass up.

"We are going to be busy for the next week, probably longer," he replied.

They didn't have to wait long for Tony and Hill to make their way to the penthouse.

"I have a feeling this is not the fake emergency I asked Jarvis to summon me for," Tony deadpanned.

"There is a new shipment of weapons arriving soon. Our sources have confirmed they are Chitauri Guns," Steve replied with a frown.

"That would be a reasonable reason to get me out of the meeting Pepper wants me to sit in on," Tony retorted.

"Fuck man!" Clint whistled, "That is going to one hell of a mess."

"How?" Sam asked.

Natasha took the lead.

"Six months after the Battle of New York, Shield became aware of a duo team of bank-robbers that had acquired a Chitauri Gun and had managed to activate it. Sitwell was sent to recover Item 47," Natasha answered, "Item 47 never made it to the Shield facility."

"Sitwell took it to Hydra," Bucky said as he folded his arms.

"Yes, along with the duo, Benjamin Pollack and Claire Wise. Hydra files state that they acquired more guns and were able to activate them, which gives more assurance that they have Loki's Specter," Natasha continued, "They have since then developed their own weapons using the Chitauri technology."

"When they are due?" Bucky asked.

"A week Friday. Two possible shipment locations, so we are going to have to split up to cover both of them," Steve answered as he looked at each of them.

He could see the concern on Sam's face, but Tony and Bruce had a reminiscing look in their eyes. They knew, just as he did, exactly how dangerous those weapons would be.

Bucky remained impassive. Not reacting to the news, but then he never did. Steve couldn't say he was surprised by it either; Hydra had always looked at developing weapons that would give them the advantage.

Steve continued as he folded his own arms, "We don't know how many weapons are going to be in the shipment. Our source states that word has already hit the streets about availability, along with a price tag."

"Which means any jumped up street gang, Triad, Mob or Mafia is going to be scrambling to get their hands on them," Clint mused.

"Hydra wouldn't sell them all. Just enough to get whatever money they wanted, or enough for the weapons to hit the streets, cause some chaos, resulting in attention being diverted from whatever it is they want to divert from," Bucky said, softly.

"It will be a blood bath if they hit the streets. The cops won't be able to tackle that kind of firepower," Sam added, a sigh of frustration escaping, "What's the plan?"

Steve ran through what they needed to do for a moment. His mind whirling as he ensured he had covered all possible angles, all scenarios. They had a short window of time to be ready, and they needed to be prepared. They needed to ensure those weapons didn't hit the streets, didn't stay in Hydra's hands.

"We need to focus the next few days staking out each location. Looking for advantage points, learn the layout," Steve said firmly.

"I know we were hoping to hold off on bringing the new recruits in on this, but we can't afford that. We have two locations, and we can't all be in the same place. We need extra eyes and hands."

"Which of the new recruits?" Bucky asked, his eyes tightening, jaw clenching.

Steve fixed him a pointed look before he answered, "All of them."

Neither of them looked away. Steve could see the coldness creeping in, could see the Soldier stirring once again, but he didn't give an inch.

He couldn't afford to.

He didn't have to, in the end, the barriers between them fell, and the bonds that ran between them fell silent.

Bucky was just protective, a natural state his friend seemed to fall into. Bucky had done it on his behalf many times.

"Phillips is definitely not ready for the field. Sawyer is an analyst. Jax and Tank are at the least trained, and I'm not going to lie I don't know with Holly," Clint said uncertainly, glancing between the two of them, "We don't know enough about her skill set if she is hiding more than she is saying."

"Her résumé says she can handle the groundwork," Hill stated.

Steve glanced at Hill.

"Bit of a leap of faith though, if she is untested."

"So we test her," Natasha supplied.

"She's not, untested, though she needs work when it comes to weapons," Hill concluded, "it's just whether she can keep on par with the others."

"She can," Bucky said coldly as he folded his arms. He ignored the questioning looks thrown his way before continuing, "What Holly did in the gym shows she knows more than she is saying she does. And I will work with her on weapons."

"That will work. Don't get me wrong, she won't be an expert in nine days even with Bucky teaching her, but we have some I.C.E.R.s that she will be able to work with," Clint said, nodding his head in agreement.

"That leaves you with Jax and Tank as well for the groundwork and a few of the others," Hill said, "I can work their schedules to help with stakeouts as well as giving you ample time to work with them in training."

"What about Sawyer?" Steve asked.

"The analyst will be working with Jarvis and me to look through every scheduled shipment, he is another set of eyes needed here when you are on the ground," Hill replied.

Steve nodded, "Philips is the engineer, right?"

"She is," Hill confirmed.

He turned to look at Tony, "Can you use her to help come up with something to counter the weapons."

"I'm sure with my brain and brilliance and Bruce's beautiful mind, we can come up with something. An extra set of hands could be useful, as long as she doesn't slow us down."

"It won't be perfect, not in that time frame," Bruce countered.

"Oh Brucie-bear, ye of little faith," Tony sassed.

"Everything else can wait. As of now, the new recruits schedules are officially yours," Hill tapped her pad, "I suggest you use them."

"We will brief them tomorrow," Steve nodded in agreement.

He didn't like the idea, but he didn't see any other choice. There were eight of them once Thor returned, two locations, an unknown number of enemies, and an unknown number of weapons. If one of them were able to cause the amount of damage the Chitauri had during the invasion then it would be less than an easy task. If they were worse...Steve didn't really want to think about that. Add in the variable of any potential buyers on the night then they were greatly outnumbered.

Steve knew they were good, all of them had their strengths, but Hydra had far longer to prepare for their capabilities and to counter them than they had to prepare for the shipment.

"All right, let's get to work," Steve nodded, reaching for the bonds he tugged Bucky's thread with a clear message he wanted a word. Steve didn't usually push on the bonds once Bucky had pulled back, but he needed to speak to him, and this was the only way he could do it without drawing more attention to the fact that the Solider had stirred twice in one day.

It hadn't been that bad for a couple of months.

Bucky levelled him with a hard cold look that almost looked vicious, and one of his hands closed into a fist. For a second Steve's breath caught in his chest and he couldn't help but shift into position, ready to move at a moment's notice as it looked as though the Soldier had bleed through yet again.

Natasha moved closer to his side as the others dispersed quickly.

He nodded curtly at Natasha; she hesitated for a moment before walking between them.

She muttered something under her breath in Russian, something Steve knew Bucky understood by the way his eyes darted to her, before fixing back onto Steve.

Steve took a breath, exuding calm and focus. This wasn't a confrontation, and the last thing he wanted was for Bucky to think that it was.

"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.

"Fine."

"Want to talk about it?"

Bucky snorted, "Not particularly."

"Bucky."

"What do you want me to say?"

"I want you to know that you can be honest with me, and it's not going to make the slightest bit of difference," he answered his voice a little sad. "I'm not going to see you any differently."

"I wanted to rip Williams' head clean off his shoulders," Bucky growled at him, "I want to hunt down whoever is fucking responsible for those scars and kill them slowly."

"You didn't rip Williams' head off," Steve countered, as he took a step closer. He couldn't exactly argue against the other point. His own anger was bubbling under his skin at the thought of Holly's scars.

"I could have. I still could," Bucky said as he sighed deeply.

Steve blinked, deep down he knew no matter how good Bucky said he was, the man was at war with himself, with his darker side. Hydra had changed Bucky, stripped him of everything that made him a person until all he was, was their weapon. The scales inside of him went in the Soldier's favour for seventy years and now Bucky was trying to wrestle back for control. He needed to find a balance.

Steve just wasn't sure how, and he hated that he was powerless to help, hated that Bucky wouldn't let him any closer than the edges. If he could, he would carry the weight for him.

"You didn't. You remained in control," Steve said softly, moving closer again to Bucky. He made sure his movements were slow and unthreatening as possible.

"What if I hurt Holly? Like I hurt you?" Bucky's mouth twisted into a bitter smile.

"You won't. You won't let yourself."

Bucky sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat, "I think you give me too much credit Stevie. I'm not as strong as you think I am." He looked uncertain as he spoke.

"You are," he assured, "Having a bad day doesn't mean you are weak Bucky. It's going to take time, but you are a lot stronger than you think you are."

Bucky snorted, unclenching his fist, and gave a sad smile, "You know Holly said something similar."

"She is clearly smart," Steve said, with a slight smile.

"You should try talking to her."

He nodded, "I will, but right now, I need to know you are okay."

"I'm okay. Pushing back the Soldier is exhausting, but I'm okay. It seemed a little easier today, but I'm not just tired Steve, I'm pissed. Someone has hurt her badly."

"And we will deal with it, but we can't force her to open up to us. We don't have that right."

"I know," Bucky breathed, "I know we don't. I'm...I feel lost Steve. I don't know what to do."

Instead of answering, Steve offered him his hand.

Bucky hesitated, before taking it and Steve drew him close, into a hug, his arms wrapping around him tightly. For a second Bucky froze before his own arms wrapped around him.

Steve inhaled deeply, the scent of Bucky filling his nose and reminding him of so many things. It was different now, Bucky was different, but despite all of that they still fitted together.

"We work it out together," he whispered, and he felt Bucky shiver slightly in his grasp as his breath tickled along his neck.

Steve pushed the memories away that stirred, the last thing Bucky needed was his desire hitting him full force through the bonds. It was a line they hadn't crossed since his return. Bucky wasn't ready, and Steve wasn't going to push.

Instead, he closed his eyes and inhaled again.

"You good?" he murmured.

"Yeah," Bucky breathed, "I'm good. No more murderous impulses, at least for now."

Steve opened his eyes, his lips twitched slightly as he pulled back reluctantly.

"Take the win."

They were still touching, but not the hug that they had both fallen into. Neither of them seemed willing to move, and Steve's chest tightened.

It was enough.

It would have to be enough for now.

Bucky swallowed slowly, as their gazes locked with one another, before he eventually took a step back, his hands dropping to his sides as he did so.

"I can do that."

"Good," Steve smiled tightly.

There was so much to say, and yet neither of them was brave enough to walk down that road.

Bucky gave him a nod, before stepping back and making his way out of the penthouse. Steve watched him go for a second longer than he should of before sighing softly.

Both his mind and pulse racing.

"Jarvis."

"Yes, Captain Rogers?"

"Can you monitor Holly, please? Let me know if she has another panic attack."

"Of course sir."

"Thank you."

Steve nodded to himself, satisfied that Jarvis would notify him should Holly have another panic attack.

It wasn't much, but it was the very least he could do to make sure that she wouldn't be on her own should she have one.


Holly swallowed some tablets Hill passed her for the pain, wishing it was a pain relief potion and that she was back home able to put some of the Weasley Bruise removal paste she had stored in her cupboards.

Her jaw ached, and her nose hurt, the dull throbbing sickening pain that you felt in your bones and couldn't entirely ignore.

Despite the pain, Holly pushed on with her task, grateful that Hill had planted her in a little side room off the main operations floor giving her the illusion of privacy if nothing else.

Sawyer's gaze had followed her the moment she had stepped onto the floor after she had changed, the questions burning in his eyes.

Holly had done her level best to ignore it, and everyone else, and for the last four hours she had somewhat succeeded.

Of course, she should have known that one of them would have come and checked on her sooner or later.

She had expected Bucky but was surprised to feel the heat of Steve's bond enveloping her, as if she had just received one of Mrs Weasley's hugs.

He stepped into the doorway, carrying two mugs and a brown paper bag, he leaned against the doorframe.

A peace offering if she ever saw one.

Holly could see an array of emotions swirling in his blue eyes, hesitation, doubt, confusion, conflict and, regret.

Holly couldn't say what any of them meant, or why he was feeling them, but it plucked at her heartstrings like a guitarist playing the guitar.

It was not what one expected to see when looking at Captain America, but then Holly knew the weight of other people's expectations better than anyone. Steve Rogers was a lot more than the man in the mask, a lot more than the Shield and the symbol.

She bit her lip.

Her instincts warred with each other in a fight of self-preservation, to keep him far away, and the desire to help someone that was clearly lost and unsure of how to proceed.

"Hi," she said softly, breaking the silence.

"Hi," Steve answered, surprise crossing his face that she had spoken.

"How can I help you, Mr Rogers?"

He blinked, "Mr Rogers?"

Holly smiled, "I don't know you well enough to call you by your first name, and Captain America isn't all of who you are."

His lips twitched ever so slightly, "Steve. Steve is fine."

"How can I help you, Steve?"

"I came to see if you were alright?"

"I'm fine," Holly replied, plastering on a smile and shoving away all the emotions she didn't want to think about.

She was far from fine, but she was pushing through.

He hesitated for a moment, blue eyes staring down at her and Holly got a distinct impression that he was picking apart her layers.

She wrapped the icy blanket around her mind a little tighter, and her smile widened a fraction.

"I'm fine."

The last word had more bite than she intended, and she knew her own gaze had hardened as she looked up at him.

"Okay," Steve said softly, exasperation and sadness sharing space on his features.

Regret wriggled inside her stomach. Damn it!

"I'm sorry, that was uncalled for. I've had a long day."

"I get that." Steve stepped inside the small room, making her realise just how big and tall he actually was. He passed her a mug, and Holly took it from him, muttering her thanks.

She could smell the hot chocolate.

"Which one gave away the secret?"

"Bucky," he admitted with a slight smile.

"They say chocolate makes things better."

Holly hummed in agreement before taking a sip. She could taste the cinnamon.

He sat down next to her, unfolding the paper bag offering it to her.

"Thank you," she said as she picked out a brownie and bit into, the warm gooey goodness melting in her mouth. Just the way she liked brownies.

"You have a sweet tooth?"

"Guilty as charged and I am not apologising for it. I say take the pleasures you can in this life...so long as they aren't hurting others."

"Wise."

"Don't tell anyone."

"Your secret is safe with me."

Holly snorted as she took another bite and moaned.

She caught the look Steve threw her.

"S'rry," she mumbled between a sip of her drink, "You not having one?"

"I know better than to get in between someone and their food."

Holly pushed the bag towards him, "Who?"

"Sam," he admitted as he picked out a brownie.

"That doesn't surprise me."

He gave her a slight smile before taking a bite of his brownie.

"Do you have a sweet tooth? Or are you more of a grill house kind of guy?"

Steve chuckled, "I like sweet things. Not as much as Bucky, but I like sweet things."

"What's your favourite?"

"Apple pie."

Holly snorted, "I saw that coming from a mile away."

"My mom made the best apple pies. What about you, what's your favourite sweet thing?"

"You mean I have to pick one?" Holly asked, throwing him a look of disgust, "That's outrageous."

He chuckled. "Yeah, you have to pick just one."

"Hmm," Holly started, "Well, there is only one contest really, waffles and ice cream."

"Waffles and ice cream?" Steve repeated, giving her a look of disbelief.

"The combination of hot and cold in my mouth, all gooey goodness, yeah, it's my weakness."

"Gooey goodness?" He raised an eyebrow at her.

"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." Holly chuckled, wincing slightly.

Right, yeah, she should probably avoid that for a while.

Laughing.

She wasn't sure why, but it seemed a little easier to talk to Steve when she didn't have the added pressure of thinking she had to say something. Not to mention she was back in her regular work clothes and not her workout gear and wasn't feeling quite as vulnerable as she was hours ago.

Of course, the hard part was already over with, they had actually spoken to each other earlier, now it was just following the same steps that every other average person did.

Except most people weren't soulmarked to Captain America or Bucky Barnes.

Wariness crept along her spine; she needed to show caution just as she did with Bucky.

The easy conversation about the unimportant things such as her sweet tooth surprised her, but that didn't mean she could lose her head and throw caution to the wind. She couldn't let either of them get to close to her.

"You know you can head off now if you need to," Steve said suddenly.

Holly gave a tight smile, she wasn't ready to go back to her apartment and let her thoughts run wild.

"I find keeping busy helps. If I stay focused then..."

"Less time for other thoughts to take over."

"Yeah," she admitted, meeting his gaze with her own.

"You know if you are in trouble, we can help."

Holly smiled as she deflected, "According to my old professors, I was always in trouble."

"That sounds like Bucky, and well, me. Bucky was always pulling me out of trouble."

"My friends tried, but they usually ended up neck-deep in the same trouble."

"We can help Holly if you need it."

The sincerity that crossed his face made Holly pause for a moment. It would be easy, so easy, to just come out and say that she was hunting for missing children that Hydra had taken.

That Hydra was experimenting on; killing and Merlin knew what else to the actual survivors.

But with the open confession, everything else would come tumbling out. How she knew, what Hydra had done to her, something she wasn't sure she fully understood now.

Then why those children were taken would be questioned, which would open the door to the magical world, and MACUSA didn't forgive when it came to muggle interactions. Their policy far harsher than back home.

Holly couldn't risk it.

Couldn't risk what the Wizarding World would possibly do to the Avengers. They didn't deserve that, Bucky and Steve didn't deserve that.

"I appreciate the offer," Holly said slowly, giving a sad smile, "But I'm okay, I'm used to taking care of myself."

Steve looked at her for a moment, his blue eyes intense as they burned into her soul. He nodded once as he rose to his feet.

"The offer is there. If you need help, we can help you. You don't have to be alone."

Holly blinked in surprise, uncertain in what to say. Steve didn't give her the chance to respond, he gave her a slight twitch of his lips before leaving the room.

Holly swallowed the lump in her throat.

Alone was safer for everybody. Alone meant that Hydra wouldn't be able to go after the people she loved.

She would be keeping them safe.

Except a deep sense of longing filled her as the knots tightened in her stomach and it wouldn't leave her alone. It gnawed at her soul, clawed at her heart and dug deeper, burrowing inside of her, so she couldn't push it away.

All she could do was steel her spine, let ice feel her veins and do her damn hardest not to feel it.