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“Jesus. How long was I gone?” Bucky looked out the window of the quinjet as it descended towards the landing pad. The new compound – rising out of the literal ashes of the old one – was still a work in progress, but even from the air he could see that a lot had changed.

In the pilot’s seat, Sam laughed. “They can do a lot in three months, man. Especially with Pepper signing the checks.”

Bucky had never gotten the chance to make any kind of amends to Stark, and he didn’t quite know how to face the man’s widow. He was surprised that she’d still wanted anything to do with what was left of the Avengers, but maybe she felt like it was something she needed to do for Stark’s memory. Just like I gotta still be here for Steve’s sake, even though the punk’s off in another dimension with his grandkids now. Thank god he handed the shield to Wilson instead of me.

 

The gentle thud of the landing gear hitting the pad knocked him back out of his own head. “Thanks for the lift,” he remembered to say. It had been a solo mission – helping the Wakandans follow up on some stolen vibranium in Belarus, his first time running an op entirely on his own since getting out from under Hydra’s thumb – and he was still remembering how to make conversation outside of tactical necessities. But Wilson was easy, as easy as anybody was going to be these days. “Is that a garden?” he added, glimpsing a flash of colour out of the corner of his eye as they exited the jet.

“Yeah.” Sam walked a little closer to the edge of the roof, pointing in that direction. It was a fair-sized chunk of land on the west side of the building that had just been dirt and weeds when Bucky had left. “It was Wanda’s idea, but a bunch of people got in on it. Gardening’s not totally my thing, but if nothing else, it’s turned into a nice spot for some fresh air. You should check it out.”

Bucky made a non-committal noise. “Right now I need to debrief and then check out a shower. And bed.”

“It’s not even eight p.m.!” Wilson called, as they parted ways inside the building. “You need some life in your damn life, Barnes!”

 

It was quarter to ten by the time he’d debriefed, showered, and found something in his kitchen that was still edible after several weeks away. Late enough that he felt justified slinging himself into bed, though he lay awake a while, thinking about Wilson’s parting words. It was a continuing theme – had been, ever since the dust had settled after Stark’s death and Steve’s departure. Start living. As if just existing and trying to get some of the red off my ledger isn’t enough goddamn work. A night in his own bed – maybe free of dreams, if he was lucky – sounded like enough ‘life’ for the moment.

There wasn’t another mission on the docket. ‘Take a few days off… as long as the world doesn’t blow up,’ he’d been told at his debriefing. It was supposed to be good news, but it was hard to know what to do without a set of mission parameters. Working out and going to the gun range took up the morning; at noon he was due to meet Wilson. It wasn’t exactly therapy, but it wasn’t exactly not therapy, either. At least, Sam always seemed to find a way into the cracks of Bucky’s head. Generally by being a pain in the ass.

Sam caught up to him on his way back from the range. “Figured I’d find you here. Wanna stop by the canteen and grab a bite before we head up?”

Bucky blinked. “We have a canteen?”

“Like I said, they can build a lot of shit in three months, man. And given that I bet you’ve got nothing in your place but maybe some crackers and spoiled milk right now…”

“Hey. I’ll have you know I also have mustard.”

Sam laughed, looking like he was about to slap Bucky on the back before thinking better of it, retracting his hand. Bucky simultaneously appreciated and hated the gesture – appreciated Sam’s respect of the fact that he still struggled with touch, and hating the fact that it was an issue, that anybody felt like they needed to kid-glove him. “I’d say you should send in a biohazard team after being away so long, but I know for a fact you probably never had any fresh stuff in there to begin with. Anyhow, I’m starving. We can eat in there or take it up to my place if you want.”

Bucky followed him into a wing that had been a construction zone the last he saw it; now a hallway opened onto a bright airy cafeteria, the windows overlooking part of the garden they’d glimpsed from the landing pad the night before. It wasn’t busy, but he couldn’t help noticing the looks when they walked in the door.

“Forget about it, man,” Sam muttered under his breath as they walked up to the counter. “The staffers do that any time any of us come in here… me, Banner, Wanda, whoever. It’s like kids in kindergarten; they think the teachers don’t eat.”

“Whatever.” Bucky pretended to be very interested in the menu instead, and thankfully by the time they got their food, everyone else had turned their attention back to their own lunch.

Everyone except one woman – a petite brunette - who came in the door, looked around as if she was in a panic, and made a beeline for Wilson. “Sam. Ohmygod. Have you seen Darcy? Have you seen anybody? I don’t know where Darcy is and there is SO much data to go through…”

“Whoa, whoa.” Sam set his tray on the nearest table and held both hands up as if she might explode. “Didn’t you say you were giving Darcy a couple of days off? That she was going to see her parents or something?”

The woman fisted both hands in her long hair – which looked as if it had already been subjected to a great deal of the same treatment – and made a frustrated noise. “Shit. Shitshitshit. You’re right. I did. She’s back tonight.”

“Wait,” Sam called after her retreating back. “So she’s been gone a couple days and you only noticed now?”

Already heading out the door, the woman just waved a hand vaguely without looking back.

“Who’s the tiny terror?” Bucky asked, joining Sam as he sat down.

“Aw, look at you making a joke. This is progress, Barnes. She your type?”

Jesus, don’t open this up again. “I don’t have a type. Just wondering who the hell she is. She certainly seems to know you.”

“Jane Foster,” Sam replied. “Doctor Jane Foster. Astrophysicist. Showed up about a month after you left, said she wanted to work with Banner. Contribute her skills.”

“But…” Bucky finished his bite of burger before continuing. “This is the Avengers compound. Since when can somebody just walk in and say they want to work here?”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “She can. Thought Banner was gonna do backflips when he heard. She’s… I gather she’s up there on the Banner, Stark, Shuri kind of level for what she does.”

“Nobody’s on Shuri’s level. Trust me.”

“Okay, well. I’m not rubbin’ shoulders with royalty like you. But Foster is serious business. Despite what you just saw. Or maybe because of it.”

Bucky took a long swig of his Coke while he thought about that. “Still. They just said ‘hey, come on in’? No security screening?”

“Dude. They had a file a mile thick on her already. Remember Thor? They used to be a thing.”

“The thunder and lightning guy. Who, as far as everybody tells me, is a god from space or something.”

“Yep.”

“And that little tiny dame?”

Wilson just shrugged. “Love is strange, my friend. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Bucky didn’t let his thoughts go too far down that path. “And who’s this… Darcy that she was looking for – another scientist?”

“Started out as Foster’s assistant, I guess. They came as a package deal. Next thing anybody knows, Darcy’s managing the whole science wing. Give her another six months and she’ll probably be running the whole show at this rate. You’ll meet her soon enough – she’s one of those people who makes it her business to know everybody in the place.”

Bucky just raised an eyebrow and went back to his burger. He seriously doubted that Darcy the science lab manager was going to want to know him.