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we are not history yet; we are happening now

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Darcy’s words have flickered for her entire life, longer than she knew what flickering meant. They’ve always been the same words, but the visibility of the color and the handwriting’s changed--they’re barely legible now, compared to the gorgeous sweeping penmanship scrawled across her arm in faded gray ink in the photos of her as a fat little toddler.

The handwriting used to come back darker and prettier again sometimes, but the past five years the words have been flickering in and out a lot more often than before and the decline’s been steady. Her mother and father had sat her down and explained it to her when she was twelve, after some asshole kid at camp had mocked that incarnation’s particularly messy writing: that her words flickered and changed because her soulmate was dying. Probably had died, and then had been resuscitated, and judging by the deteriorating quality of their writing was getting sicker and weaker and might not last much longer. Might not live to live with her at all.

Darcy’d cried the whole summer and then refused to ever cry again, and she’d worn long sleeves from then on so nobody at school would mock her soulmate’s ghostly, spidery handwriting and bad spelling and misplaced letters. Her soulmate was trying so hard, came back strong every time they faded, and even if she never met them she was never going to let anyone else laugh at those letters.

From fourteen to sixteen, she hadn’t had words at all. She hadn’t told anyone.

She’d known if she had, they would never come back.

And they had come back: spindly and wobbly and weak, but they’d come back. They come back every time.

That’s what she’s telling herself while the helicarriers are burning in DC and she and Jane are barricading the doors of the London lab against their crazy SHIELDRA security detail, Erik panicking in the back and Ian completely failing to answer his phone or texts, of course, it’s not like he and Thor could for once just answer a phone in timely fashion, it’s cool, really, but this isn’t about what they want for fucking dinner--

The maybe-SHIELD but no-definitely-HYDRA agents are slamming at the doors and the ghostly spider-scrawl of words on Darcy’s left arm is fading in and out and in and out where she can way too clearly see the writing getting worse and worse as she and Jane brace the doors with everything they’ve got. Once it comes back as nothing but vicious, meaningless scribbles, and she almost throws up at the sight of it.

“This is not, this is not, this is not the time to die on me!” Darcy screams at her mark, and Jane just screams because that’s when the agents start shooting the door. It’s almost bulletproof.

Almost.

Darcy’s phone pings with Ian’s text alert sound, thunder rumbles in the hall, and Darcy collapses from sheer relief or maybe the bullet graze across her hip.

Or maybe the bullet wound in her stomach.

She passes out or maybe dies and because she’s one of those people, the last thing she’s looking at when she does is her soulmark.

She reads it one last time, because of course she does.

"Oh God, oh God, I’m so sorry."

Chapter Text

Darcy does not die, although it takes some convincing on Jane and Ian’s parts before she believes this because Stark Tower may in fact literally be Heaven. Then she remembers her chances of getting into Heaven are probably not so hot, even counting the times she got coffee and carried stuff for the people saving the world, so after that she believes them.

“I met ‘greetings, servant boy!’ while you were in the medically induced coma. It’s Lady Sif,” Ian informs her from her bedside. Darcy stares at him.

“That is freaking terrifying,” she marvels.

“I know,” he moans, hanging his head.

“Good luck with that,” Darcy says, then absorbs herself in figuring out the morphine button and just how many hits it’ll let her take. Many, hopefully. Many many.

“You should probably not do that,” Ian tells her.

“You’re not my mom,” Darcy scoffs, although that’s before Ian tricks her with pudding and takes the button away, which is in fact exactly what her mom would’ve done. She is totally telling Sif how dishonorable he is in battle and never ever mentioning the time he heroically saved her life, and only half because she’s kind of concerned about how Sif might take the fact that story ends with them making out. “Bilgesnipe. You are a total bilgesnipe.”

“I’m pretty sure Thor made those up to mess with people,” Ian says, which is totally not a thing that Thor would do but also an amazing idea and one Darcy is totally going to remember when she is sober. Soberer. Sobish.

. . . not in the hospital.

.

.

.

“Indeed, I made them up entirely,” Thor says a couple hours or days later, grinning his serene little shit-eating grin at her. “Although I admit I am only confessing to my crimes because you are quite guaranteed to forget in the morning, my friend.”

“That is grossly untrue,” Darcy tells him past her painkiller high, then passes out again and wakes up thinking the entire conversation was about flying monkeys and with a vague recollection of a story about Loki cosplaying as Sassy Captain America.

That part definitely did not happen, Darcy decides, fully coherent for the first time in hours or days, who knows which.

She looks at her arm, because of course she does.

The penmanship is pitch black and gorgeous.

.

.

.

So Ian found his soulmate, and Darcy’s soulmark is pitch-black perfect on her arm, darker and clearer than it’s ever been, and stays that way. They don’t have an official break-up but it’s pretty obvious that they’re broken up, because duh. Their lives are weird and dangerous enough without adding crazy soap opera antics a la bored suburbanite hipsters, and also Sif is amazing and super terrifying, Darcy is not getting in the middle of that for some above-average nookie.

Then Sif cheerfully invites her into bed until she finds Mr. Pitch-Black Perfect, which is apparently a totally sane and normal thing on Asgard, and Darcy gives serious consideration to the idea but in the end decides it’s just not for her.

Well, she does try it out a couple times, because of course she does, but still. She probably should’ve made the connection about Asgardian soulmates a little earlier, honestly; it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen both Jane and Ian’s soulmarks, and they both have an unusual shine to them that Earth-based ones apparently do not. She should’ve been expecting this already. To be fair, though, Ian’s is on his back and their favorite position had always been cowgirl. And reverse cowgirl. And--anyway.

Also, the whole "servant boy" thing.

Part of her feels like it’s the time now, though. Like her own soulmate is finally coming, like they’re finally going to be real. The rest of her just really, really hopes the mark lasts. Even if she doesn’t meet her soulmate until the last moment, she wants the writing to stay like this as long as possible. She wants her soulmate to have as long as possible.

“I don’t care how long you make me wait,” she mutters to her words, gripping her arm tight. “Just make it long.”

She wants that.

And they deserve it.

.

.

.

Darcy fully recovers from the bullet wounds and gets a couple badass scars and also the ultimate trump card to unleash in any cell phone-related argument with Thor or Ian, and they unpack the lab and Erik and also Erik’s pants and then get back to work. Ian sticks around because there is literally every possibility he’s going to end up moving to Asgard by the end of the year and staying in London to finish the semester like he originally planned has very clearly ceased mattering to him. Darcy doesn’t blame him, under the circumstances. Sif does not stick around, because something complicated about Asgardian courting rituals and proving her worth as a soulmate, which is another totally sane and normal thing they seem to be into on Asgard.

Darcy figures it’s whatever as long as Ian is cool with it, which apparently he is. That might be all the whirlwind romance talking, though.

Before she leaves for her courting-related questing, Sif gives Ian a majestically fluffy Asgardian cat that’s practically the size of a collie like it’s some great romantic gesture, because again, Asgardians are crazy. Ian seems simultaneously weirded-out and wooed, which as far as Darcy can tell is pretty par for the course with successful cross-species romance, and Jane is neither offended nor concerned at the lack of collie-sized courting cats in her own life. Which she’s very insistent on telling Darcy and Erik. Very often.

Darcy asks him about it, but courting or not, Thor is apparently just not a cat person. She ends up really, really grateful that the guy restrained himself on this one, honestly, because they don’t realize the cat’s a kitten until Sif’s already halfway back to Asgard and it’s way too late to send the thing back with her.

A very young kitten, for the record.

“My equipment!” Jane yelps as said rapidly-growing kitten jumps off one of the lab tables and takes a lot of very expensive wiring with her, and also the actual table itself. “Ian!”

“She’s a baby, Dr. Foster, don’t shout!” Ian protests, scooping up his colt-sized cat and cuddling her to himself. He named her Hillevi, which apparently means “happy in war”, and she’s terrifying. Also terrifyingly awesome, but one does not negate the other. Hillevi purrs in Ian’s arms, and the surrounding glassware vibrates. Frankly, Darcy’s amazed he can lift her and is fairly sure she’s magic or something.

Seriously. This is a man she’s witnessed trip over furniture he arranged and boxes he put on the floor himself multiple times, usually while stammering. No way he’s carrying Hillevi around that easy otherwise.

“Out, get out, there’s cat fur all over--oh my God, is the table broken, Ian, she broke the table!” Jane moans, covering her face with her hands. “Darcy!”

“On it, boss,” Darcy says quickly, ushering Ian and his courting-cat out of the lab.

“I like it,” Erik muses, looking around the lab with a speculative expression. “Makes the room feel more . . . spacious! Yes! Very airy!” He’s wearing pants, a shirt, and shoes, which is frankly a downright miracle these days, so Darcy isn’t gonna complain about his taste even if their new Stark-issued lab is already so spacious they could feasibly get lost in it. She and Jane get the table fixed and Erik sets up the experiment again. He does it on the floor, but again: pants. Darcy has no complaints.

“Soulmates,” Jane seethes. “Stupid soulmates and their stupid soulmate cats and you know what, fine, I’m glad Thor doesn’t want to give me a--a soulkitten, it’d just be in the way anyway! Knocking over our experiments and getting fluff in the corners of things and you’ve seen the size of that litterbox, it’s ridiculous! I could sleep in that litterbox!”

“Anything you say, boss,” Darcy agrees, mostly concentrating on holding the table leg steady while avoiding the dramatic gestures of Jane’s hands. Specifically of the hand holding the welding torch, that’s definitely the one to avoid. “Hey, could you maybe stop swinging that around quite so wily-nily? Only I really like these boots. And these legs.”

“He could at least have gotten me a hamster!” Jane moans, burying her face in her hands and miraculously not setting her hair on fire in the process. Darcy eases the torch away from her, for everyone’s sake. Mostly her own, admittedly, but yeah.

“One large enough to ride?” Darcy guesses, and gets a dirty look for it. To be fair, the pet shop story is hilarious and should totally be brought up at every given opportunity, and also Hillevi may actually get that big herself. If nothing else she definitely explains the pet shop story.

God, that story is so good.

“You know what, yes,” Jane says, suddenly indignant as she pushes herself back to her feet. Darcy really hopes the table’s gonna hold, ‘cause it ain’t gettin’ any more fixed than it already is. “I deserve a hamster large enough to--to ride, I think that’s fair, after the Aether thing! And the nearly getting killed by it thing! And New Mexico, and not visiting after New York, and two freaking years!”

“Yeah, boss,” Darcy says, wondering if ducking for cover would be an overreaction. Probably, but it’s tempting. Super-tempting.

Ian was easy. He did what she told him, he didn’t do things she told him not to do; he asked questions, didn’t just assume; he picked up their clothes in the morning while she made the bed and never tried to weasel out of his turn making breakfast. He saved her life, once, and didn’t get weird when she returned the favor; didn’t expect her to do anything she thought was fucked up and wasn’t perfect about handling his shit but didn’t expect her to pick up any slack for him either, and also didn’t get offended when she tried to. He’s pretty much exactly what Darcy’s always wanted in a guy, maybe minus a few sit-ups, and for a little while in there she’d wondered why the erratic apology on her arm wasn’t his.

Then again, she’s never looked at Ian and felt like breaking physics for him. She’s never thought about proving herself worthy through great deeds and getting a cat and making a home for Ian--for them, together. Ian and Darcy collectively, one unit, one side. And yeah, Ian was great to her and they were good together, and Darcy’s perfectly sure they could’ve gone on that way for years and been perfectly happy.

It’s just not the same thing, apparently.

She thinks of the pitch-black perfection on her arm, and wonders what she’s holding out for. All things considered, they’ve got to be somebody pretty impressive.

But whoever they are, whatever they are, the fact of it is they’re still going to take one look at her and start apologizing.

.

.

.

Jane’s collarbones say “you! what realm is this?!” in elaborate rune-like strokes that go from shoulder to shoulder; when she exposes the skin to light, they gleam rainbow-bridge iridescent and can’t be ignored. Aesthetically speaking they’re probably the most beautiful words Darcy’s ever seen, counting Ian’s and several gushy romantic movies’ and even including her own at their ultimate pitch-black perfection.

“Honestly, I always just figured it’d be a girl with a thing for gel pens and ren faires,” Jane admits, moodily watching Hillevi menace a traumatized-looking Great Dane on the other side of the dog park. Darcy is still fairly sure no cat belongs in a dog park at all, giant or not, but according to Ian Hillevi gets mopey when he doesn’t take her at least a couple times a week. To be fair, Darcy probably would too if she’d known she was missing out on terrorizing a whole park’s worth of canines.

She does feel kinda bad for that Great Dane, though; Hillevi has at least forty pounds on him.

“Now I wanna buy Thor like a hundred gel pens and take him to a joust,” she says. “He’d be into that, right?”

“Tell you after our next date,” Jane says, her expression turning speculative. Ian and the Great Dane’s owner are attempting to separate Hillevi and the Great Dane with debatable success. Eventually Ian manages to get Hillevi off the ground, but she’s looking dangerously wiggly in his arms and the Great Dane is cowering behind his owner in understandable paranoia. It’s a fair reaction, considering.

“So how many ren faires did you hit before Thor turned up?” Darcy asks eventually, glancing back to Jane, who grimaces.

“Don’t ask,” she replies.

.

.

.

The thing about the words is there’s no way to know what they might or might not mean until you hear them. Which is obvious, technically, but still doesn’t actually help--because yes, for every “we met in acting class!” you hear about there are just as many “holy shit, my soulmate’s a bank robber”s out there. Jane thought she was getting a history nerd with a pen fetish and Thor was probably expecting to meet his soulmate on a battlefield, what with Jane’s cramped “do me a favor, don’t be dead” scrawled across the small of his back like the world’s weirdest tramp stamp. Iron Man has the completely useless “Mr. Stark” typed right through his happy trail in Times New Roman, according to the truly scandalous gossip rag pics and two out of three sex tapes, Captain America has the mercifully more helpful but super-weird “uh-huh, on my left, got it” that’s clearly visible on his left pectoral in all the old restricted SSR files that got dumped onto the internet last year, and absolutely everyone with a pulse knows that Bruce Banner and the Hulk have different words from the same woman in spiky cursive across their knuckles.

Darcy wonders what Hawkeye and the Black Widow have; whose words Coulson and Fury died wearing, whose words Hill wears right now, the survivor sitting in the security office downstairs. She wonders what Erik’s are, underneath the thick black socks he didn’t take off even at his craziest, and who they belong or belonged to.

She wonders what Loki’s were, and if dark elves have words.

Darcy probably thinks about words more than most people do. Everyone does, obviously, but not everyone is hiding an in-and-out apology on their arm. They’re a promise that may or may not be kept, but ideally will, and that’s all most people act like most of the time.

Not when they actually hear them, but still.

Darcy’s known the chances of her particular promise being kept for a very long time, so maybe that’s the difference. Honestly, after she got shot part of her expected to wake up in the intensive care ward exactly long enough for some empathetic but helpless nurse or doctor to apologize and then to never wake up again, because her life is pretty like that. She’s still a little surprised she didn’t meet her words in there--a roommate, a stranger passing in the hall, a pained cry from the direction of a crash cart. Anything.

It’s better that she didn’t, of course. She wants them to have the time. She wants to wear it on her skin, the promise that they aren’t gone yet, that they have a life and might even be in condition to live it for once.

She just also wishes they could live some of it with her.

Chapter Text

So time goes by, science gets done, and Tony Stark throws a party that none of the in-residence Avengers approve of in Actually-Not-Just-Stark-We-All-Live-Here-Goddammit-Tony Tower, as Bruce Banner has apparently dubbed it. Darcy speculates that his floor is probably subtitled I-Regret-This-Decision-But-Funding. She’s sympathetic, kind of, but totally goes anyway because duh she goes anyway.

Seriously, superhero party, hell yeah is she on that. Even Jane and Erik manage to tear themselves away from the lab and put on . . . well, clothes, at least. And they’ve both showered in the past three days, and Eric even combed his hair. Jane, not so much, but still. Billionaire party or not, Darcy knows when to pick her battles.

Anyway, they’ve been here five minutes and Erik is already having a super weird conversation at Hawkeye that Hawkeye actually seems to be following, bless his carnie heart, and Jane’s already arguing about the laws of physics with Tony Stark while Colonel Rhodes and Bruce Banner visibly suffer between them. Ian appears to be moping on the Black Widow about the depressing amount of questing involved in Asgardian courting, which Darcy doesn’t really blame him for since Sif’s been gone a good three months now doing Thor-knows-what in Vanaheim.

Well, Thor presumably does know what, it’s just Ian who’s in the dark, but yeah. The Black Widow would still not be Darcy’s first choice for relationship advice, warrior-woman soulmate or not.

It’s shaping up to be a weird party, going by the guest list. Darcy’s not even counting the government agents, the Iron Man-themed waitstaff, or the media, although she’s already learned she may in fact want to be Christine Everhart when she grows up, or at least get to make out with her once.

The whole thing gets weirder pretty quick, though, because after another five minutes go by J.A.R.V.I.S. clears his digital throat politely and the elevator doors open to reveal Captain America, the Falcon, and--yup, that would be the Winter Soldier in the back, or as the Internet has helpfully informed the entire planet, Bucky freaking Barnes, who last Darcy heard was still in the wind and wanted in at least thirty countries. All three of them are in uniform and have blood somewhere important-looking and bruises everywhere skin’s showing, and it takes way too much of Darcy’s self-control to not immediately grab for her phone and tweet this. Manners. Impulse control. She has some.

Kind of.

Look, the media’s already on it anyway, judging by the way every reporter in the room’s head swung on their neck like they were scenting blood the second the doors opened.

“Hey, Rogers. What took you?” the Black Widow greets casually in the awkward almost-silence, leaning back in her seat.

“Department X and the threat of nuclear annihilation,” Captain America replies flatly, eyeing the party like another man might a firing squad. It is definitely not an expression that made it into the newsreels, although something about it is still kind of panty-dropping.

“Yeah, good call on this plan, Cap, we can slip right into the tower without being noticed,” the Falcon says, shooting him a dry look.

“Fuck this, I’m going back to cryo,” the Winter Soldier says, dragging a hand down his exhausted face. A lot of blood gets smeared everywhere, which is tragic because apparently Bucky freaking Barnes is hot as freaking hell--like, could use some of Thor’s hair care tips, maybe, but definitely not any of his workout ones. Darcy’s high school history textbook did not exaggerate the bedroom eyes or pouty lips or amazing bone structure in the least, and time has only improved his fantastically-sculpted muscles. His POW status was clearly a great loss to all ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon of the late forties and onwards.

He doesn’t really look pleased to be here, mind, but Darcy would definitely not want to be standing semi-uninvited in the Avengers’ living room as the almost-killer of just about all of them plus another twenty million people either, even without the reporters and agents and all the complicated tragic backstory with Captain America mucking shit up on top of that. At the same time it’s hard to think of him as the Winter Soldier--even with the arm out in full, shining view--because her inner political history nerd is still busy fawning over Bucky fucking Barnes.

Seriously. Half her high school history class was swooning over that guy either for the soulful eyes or the undying loyalty to Captain America or maybe just the overarching tragedy of the whole fucking mess, and her whole college class was. People have based theses and entire careers on Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’s epitragic friendship, and those people didn’t even know about the Winter Soldier yet. God knows what’s going to come out in the next five years. Probably a lot of very enthusiastic new grad students and at least eight “bros-for-life” summer blockbusters, though.

So it’s really unfortunate how obviously uncomfortable he is.

Captain America and Tony Stark (she should probably examine the part of herself that’s calling everyone but Iron Man by the superhero name, Darcy decides, although that’s going to have to be a later-thing) have a quick and dirty fight while the Falcon drags the Winter Soldier over to the bar and they start scrubbing the blood off each other with fancy embroidered napkins, which is . . . which is a thing that is happening, apparently, okay then. Darcy has seen weirder, but it’s still pretty weird.

Then Barnes starts in on the caked-in grit in the grooves of his metal hand with the pick of a cocktail umbrella while wearing an expression that smacks of sad wet cat and yeah, okay, never mind, this is the new weirdest thing. Forget the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and aliens in New York and dark elves in London and Asgardian courting cats, this is the thing.

Ugh.. Screw it, she can’t just ignore that, especially with Cap and Stark still going at it and the Black Widow having migrated over to the Falcon to check him over and taking up his attention. It’s gotta be her inner wrangler of sad sack scientists, there’s no other explanation.

Well, at least she’s got an easy plan of attack, Darcy thinks, adjusting her neckline in ode to convention. Everybody says Barnes used to be a serious ladykiller; a new date every weekend and a new place to take them every time, at least back in the States. Several 80s and 90s-era cartoons and the docudrama from 2000 made a pretty big deal of it with some of their female French Resistance contacts, some fictionalized love triangle nonsense with Cap and Agent Carter, and at least one hopefully fictional Axis spy, but a lot of the actual documentaries mentioned it too. Not that Darcy and half the planet mainlined any or all of of those after SHIELDRA’s files hit the internet or anything.

Anyway, she figures a little low-key flirting with someone he didn’t help almost-murder ought to help the guy loosen up at least enough to stop projecting the bar-spanning miasma of disgruntlement and despair that’s keeping at least half the room away from the good liquor while he gets the dirt off. And really, flirting up a handsome war hero/ex-POW with a reputation as a kickass date is not the most self-sacrificing help Darcy’s ever offered the Avengers.

Plus, she did pack her taser.

Darcy scopes the room quick just to be sure nobody else is coming to pick up the slack--they’re not, Cap is really getting into it with Stark--then heads over to the long stretch of unoccupied barstools on Barnes’ free side and orders a drink from Butterfingers, which is like always a marvel to watch. She accepts the potentially-poisonous results with the appropriate combination of gratitude and caution before turning just enough to make eye contact with Barnes, who clearly wasn’t expecting the attention and is probably in the middle of running a risk assessment. Whatever; “risk assessment” by default includes checking her out, so she’s not complaining.

Also, that startled and wary look he’s got on now is inappropriately attractive, somehow. But that’s weird. Not that weird’s inappropriate for this party, so whatever, it works.

“Well hey there, heartbreaker. Is that a time machine in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Darcy greets teasingly, giving him her best disarming grin. Barnes’ wary expression instantly switches to horrified, which is--not a usual reaction to her pickup lines? Like, not an unprecedented one, just also not usual. “Um?”

“Oh God,” he chokes, crack-voiced and weak as he stumbles backwards and nearly trips over the Falcon, staring at her with visible terror the whole time. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

Darcy’s eyes widen.

It doesn’t exactly take a doctorate.

She drops her drink with a scream and Barnes recoils again, looking even more terrified if anything. And yes, Darcy will deal with that in just a second, but right now she really needs just a moment to--

“YES!” she shrieks ecstatically, jumping to her feet and throwing her arms in the air as everyone else in the room stares at her in shock, at least half of them suddenly holding weapons. Which, yeah, usually a bad sign, but she is not even going to begin to care about that. “You’re not dying, you were brainwashed, oh my God, oh my God, yes, you are the best news of my life!”

“What?” Barnes--no, Bucky, she totally gets to call him Bucky, fuck yes she does--croaks, staring at her with a stricken, wide-eyed expression, and Darcy only doesn’t throw her arms around him because yeah, recently-deprogrammed political super-assassin, she’s not stupid. “You’re not--scared?”

Okay, she’s stupid.

“I’m so freaking happy,” Darcy swears, and definitely throws her arms around him. He’s stiff-backed and shocked, but he doesn’t lean back or push her away. “Dude, your words have been going in and out my whole damn life, I thought I was gonna meet you on your literal deathbed, or at least in a hospital or something. But I’m not! I didn’t! And you’re alive and not sick and a freaking super-soldier and not about to die of some horrible chronic disease!”

“I’m the Winter Soldier,” he grits out, voice tight and shoulders tense.

“Um . . . I know?” Darcy says, leaning back enough to give him a confused look but not quite taking her hands off him. Sue her, he’s alive and staying that way; of course she doesn’t want to let go of him. “Dude, the entire world knows, the media had a fit. Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart both almost started crying on-air. Pretty sure Larry King actually did. And I don’t even want to get started on the vets and history buffs and currently serving military, like . . . do you not know this?”

“Yeah, well, people do that kinda thing when they find out a ‘war hero’ committed two dozen kinds of treason and then some,” Bucky mutters, not looking back at her. “I don’t blame ‘em.”

“What--no, what?!” Darcy blurts in horror, immediately looking at the Falcon, who looks grim but unsurprised by the pronouncement. She can tell just looking at him that Captain America has already had this conversation and gotten nowhere, which is possibly the most terrifying thing to happen to her since seeing Jane’s name big and bold on Project Insight’s list while she was in the hospital.

Shit. She doesn’t even know where to start. Where anyone could.

“You’re sorry,” she says, staring up at Bucky disbelievingly. “I waited my whole life thinking you were about to die on me and the whole country thought you were dead and then found out no, you’d just been brainwashed and tortured for seventy freaking years. And you’re sorry.”

Bucky doesn’t look at her. His jaw’s clenched tight and his eyes are looking a lot of places, but none of them are her.

“I don’t even know what you’re apologizing for!” Darcy says, throwing her hands up. “What, being alive?”

“Yes,” he answers immediately, all in a rush like he’s relieved. It takes her a second, and then she realizes he’s relieved because he thinks she understands. He thinks of course he should be sorry for that, and he’s got no idea why anyone else would think different.

Darcy gives serious thought to having a nervous breakdown right here in the middle of the tower penthouse for all the Avengers and America to see, but--well, she always knew meeting her soulmate was going to be harder than it was for most people.

It’s not like she wasn’t prepared for him to be sick.

“Okay,” she says a little helplessly but without confirming or denying anything. No one else is interfering, which is technically SOP for first-words conversations but . . . look, it’s just she could see why this would be an occasion to break with convention, okay? That’s all.

But if they’re going to be traditionalists about it, she guesses that gives her as good of a next step as any.

“So, like . . . do you want to see?” she asks, tugging meaningfully at her sleeve. Bucky looks instantly terrified again, and she wonders what he’s expecting.

Then she actually thinks for five seconds and--well, duh.

“The handwriting used to change,” she says, searching his face in an attempt to keep from fucking up too bad. “Sometimes they went away, too. But they’ve always been the same words.”

“I don’t--” Bucky stops, voice all strangled like he couldn’t get another word out if he tried. Darcy doesn’t pull her sleeve up, because Darcy is not an asshole, contrary to popular belief. She does think about it, though, because she’s not exactly not an asshole either.

“It’s okay,” she says finally. “Can I see yours, maybe? Like I get if you don’t wanna do that either, I’m just asking. Uh, I mean--and if it’s your arm you definitely don’t have to, I get it even harder if it’s your arm.”

“It’s not my arm,” Bucky mutters. He’s tense enough Darcy’s starting to feel a little guilty for thinking the traditional approach was going to cut them any slack here, but he’s also not extracting himself from the situation and probably also her life, so . . . that’s good, she guesses? Hopes.

“Okay,” she says again, watching him carefully. Waiting for . . . whatever he wants to do.

He swallows, then reaches up and unzips the high collar of his uniform. Darcy can feel the rest of the room stiffen, and belatedly wishes she’d thought to move this to another room. She looks at her handwriting on him, loopy, distracted-looking letters that the truly horrifying amount of scar tissue on his chest doesn’t help make any tidier.

It’s pretty obvious someone tried to flay them off. Multiple times.

Which is . . . kind of weird, actually, the disconnect in her head that tazed a god and took the Bifrost and Sif and the Warriors Three and SHIELD and everything all in stride thinks. The Nazis did a fuckton of fucked-up experiments with words and everybody very thoroughly knows they come back up even if you cut to the bone. Even if somebody loses the body part they’re on they just relocate above the amputation site. There’s no way HYDRA wouldn’t have known that, so why would they bother spending all that time shredding Bucky up and putting him out of commission over something anybody could’ve told them wasn’t going to work?

“Fuck,” Darcy says, because of course they wouldn’t have.

Bucky did that to himself.

Chapter Text

The party kinda breaks up after that, and Bucky kinda disappears. And by “kinda” Darcy means “completely”.

“This is definitely not how I thought I was going to meet my soulmate,” she says to Butterfingers, otherwise alone at the bar and eyeing her drink. It didn’t turn out to be poisonous, so that’s nice. Small favors and all.

Also, Bucky’s not dead, so really, this scenario is already better than the one she’s been bracing for ever since that miserable summer when she was twelve and got the flickering-words talk from her parents. Survivor’s guilt is way better than the alternative.

Like . . . she’s pretty sure it’s better. As long as Bucky doesn’t have designs on getting thrown off another train, anyway. Or doing anything to himself.

Yeah. Definitely a heartbreaker, Darcy thinks, sipping her drink. It tastes kind of like stars look and kind of like grenadine, which she didn’t actually see go into it. Bucky didn’t stay long enough to drink anything himself.

He’d zipped up his collar before he’d left.

She still can’t stop thinking about how her handwriting looks on scar tissue.

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“Do you think he likes cats? Did he seem like a cat person to you?” Darcy asks the next day, tracing moody lines on the lab table. Bucky hasn’t come looking for her, and under the circumstances she can’t justify going looking for him.

Yet, anyway.

“Um. You could ask him?” Ian suggests cautiously, glancing up from his work. He’s typing with one hand and eating a yellow apple with the other and Hillevi’s head is on his shoulder. The rest of her is taking up literally every inch of free space between Ian and the table behind them. “Large enough to ride” is looking more and more like an understatement, at this point. “I mean, as far as I can tell the only thing he likes is Captain America. Uh. No offense.”

“My soulmate tried to cut me off himself enough times that a super-soldier healing factor still left scar tissue,” Darcy says tiredly, tracing the same moody lines. “You mentioning his bestie is not gonna be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

“Still,” Ian says, looking awkward. “Mm. What did he say before he left?”

“He tried to apologize again,” Darcy replies with a sigh, rubbing at her face. It wasn’t even the apologizing, really--again, she’d been bracing for a guy who’d be apologizing for dying--but the sick look on his face as he’d said it, like he’d wanted to throw up. Like he would’ve rather been bleeding out in a firefight or stuck in a hostage crisis or hiding behind Captain America, if nothing else.

Well, obviously he’d rather have been all those things. Darcy’s even pretty sure she gets why. It’s just . . .

“I at least thought he’d be happy to meet me,” she muttered, looking at the table. “Stupid, right? Literally the stupidest assumption I could’ve made. Like, even if the situation’d been what I was expecting the guy probably would’ve just felt like he was finally out of time.”

“Maybe,” Ian said, looking a little helpless as he takes another bite of apple. Darcy feels worse, so doesn’t blame him for it.

God, she’s so stupid. Well hey there, heartbreaker. Is that a time machine in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

His words--Bucky went his whole life with some dumb come-on on his chest, a teasing and meaningless pickup line that was probably half the reason he got the ladykiller reputation back in the day. For all Darcy knows he loved it back then, an excuse to go out and party and still be able to say he was looking for his soulmate at the same time, the buzz of anticipation every time he entered a bar or dance hall. For all Darcy knows he hated it, would’ve rather been home with a book or pulling an extra shift instead of spending half his paycheck chatting up stranger after stranger, waiting to hear her speak up.

Maybe it would’ve been okay if she’d said it then, if she’d been there, showed up in 1939 to make eyes at a twenty year-old man who wasn’t five minutes from the front lines and said his words. Maybe his apology would’ve been because he’d spilled a drink on her dress, because he’d knocked into her in a crowd, because he’d tripped over himself trying to answer back to hey there, heartbreaker without sounding like an idiot. Maybe they would’ve laughed at each other, then.

She couldn’t believe that’d been the best icebreaker she could come up with. A different person would’ve said something actually comforting, something that mattered; would’ve offered real support instead of trying to play the whole thing off like it was something casual. A different person probably would’ve stayed the fuck back and let the Falcon handle things, since Bucky was in theory at least comfortable with him. Maybe. Hopefully. God, she really hoped.

So last night she met her soulmate and his words are . . . terrible, actually, and so is she. A heavily brainwashed and barely deprogrammed POW literally just walking in the front door of maybe the only safe place the whole damn world can give him, and that was the moment she picked to pretend like absolutely none of that had happened and they could totally just flirt each other up like perfectly normal strangers. That was the best offer of comfort she had--as his soulmate. Maybe next she can go get his confirmed kill count framed and figure out if he’s got some nice PTSD triggers she can trip over while she’s in the neighborhood.

She breathes in. She breathes out.

He’s sick. Or--he’s hurt. He’s recovering. That’s good. That’s more than she’d been hoping for all this time. It’s good.

“I have no freaking clue what to do,” Darcy groans, burying her face in her arms.

Because that’s the problem, isn’t it? In some way, anyway. She was ready for a sick soulmate. She was ready to sit by his bedside and hold his hand while he flickered on her arm and tell him all the best and worst things that’ve ever happened to her, ask him what he thought about stars and wormholes and astrophysics and poli-sci, tell him all about that summer she spent baking cupcakes in New York and the year in high school she only wore black and the months in New Mexico and hacking the observatory computers in Tromso to watch the live feed of the Chitauri attack and what getting shot in London was like and how the scars healed up and how it was okay, really, it was okay, he didn’t have to be sorry, she was just so glad he’d held on long enough to meet her.

Bucky did do that, she guesses.

And he did such a good job doing that he’s staying.

It’s still the best news of her life, and exactly the opposite of what she prepared for.

“I don’t know if anyone does,” Ian says. Hillevi rubs her face against his shoulder and nearly knocks him over; he pauses to reach back and pet her, his big hand disappearing in her terrifyingly amazing ruff. She purrs, and the glassware shivers. “I mean--I know it’s so much worse, with, um, something like this, but Sif doesn’t know anything about Earth and I don’t know anything about Asgard, and I’m . . . you know, she’s already so much older and so strong. I feel like I should be the one questing to prove my worth. You know?”

“So much,” Darcy agrees tiredly, closing her eyes and remembering the terrified look on Bucky’s face and how she hadn’t been able to keep herself from shrieking and carrying on even seeing it in him. God. She really is terrible.

“Maybe I just wish she didn’t feel like she has to prove hers,” Ian says, looking down, and that . . . yeah. Darcy can agree with that too.

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Thor shows up two Bucky-free days later while Darcy is in the middle of seriously debating shoving a note under Captain America’s door like the twelve year-old she was when this all started, except for the part where it actually started in 1944, or 1941, or 1917, or--anyway. Thor shows up two Bucky-free days later and sits down on her couch with his usual ridiculous amount of room-consuming presence. They haven’t really talked since the party except right after when Thor clapped her shoulder so hard her knees nearly gave out and congratulated her on her soulmate’s status as a human wrecking ball, which was slightly painful but also not unexpected, taking into account everything she knows about Asgard.

It’d been comforting, kind of, since everyone else who’d made eye contact with her had either been wincing sympathetically or dying for an exclusive. At least Thor was treating everything like it was normal.

“Good morning, Darcy,” Thor announces, planting his hands on his knees and taking up a good two-thirds of her couch. Darcy still can’t get over the fact Tony Stark gave them all personal apartments--admittedly they’re all on Thor’s assigned floor but that’s kind of preferable anyway, so yeah. He even let them decorate on his dime. “How do you fare?”

“I’m okay,” Darcy says, curling up in the armchair. There’s really not much room left on that couch. “You know, arguably. Definitely more okay than him.” Last night she dreamed he cut so deep trying to get her words off that the knife slipped right into his heart. Then she threw up. A lot.

“The Winter Soldier is a well-worn man,” Thor agrees with a nod.

“Don’t call him that, why would you call him that?!” Darcy asks, giving him a horrified look. “That’s what HYDRA called him!”

“That is what he requested that I call him,” Thor replies, his voice a calm mild thing that might just make Darcy cry. “I would not question a man’s knowledge of his own name, whatever else he may have been called in his life.”

“Oh,” Darcy says, body curling up tighter in her seat. Maybe she doesn’t get to call him Bucky, then. She doesn’t know what to call him. It’s not like they actually introduced themselves. At this point he might not even know her name at all.

He probably doesn’t, actually. Almost definitely doesn’t.

Fuck.

“I fear my lady Jane is displeased with me,” Thor says after a few moments, and Darcy jumps on it because literally anyone else’s soulmate problems are an improvement on her own. This morning she was trying to write a no-strings soulmate letter that didn’t sound totally pathetic and got so frustrated and upset that she ended up setting it on fire in her kitchen and accidentally triggered the entire floor’s sprinklers. There is no low she will not go to in order to avoid any repeats of the experience.

“Pretty sure it’s the courting thing,” she tells him. “Like, Ian got Hillevi and promises about how Sif’s gonna move out of the barracks into a proper set of rooms and let him decorate however he wants, like, the day they met. And like, obviously she knows you’re not Sif, but, you know--it’s been like three years for you guys and you never even said anything about courting rites being a thing until Sif started rhapsodizing about all the dragons she’s gonna slay for Ian.”

“Sif is very--excitable in certain circumstances,” Thor says, clearly trying to phrase something delicately. Darcy can’t exactly tell what, unfortunately, which is what you get when you give someone a hammer and then tell them something’s not a nail. “Shared words or not, it is rude to declare courting rites too soon.”

“How soon’s not rude?” Darcy asks, because admittedly Jane and Thor have only been able to spend so much time in contact, much less in each other’s actual physical presence. And Thor’s already said the social whatevers are different for men and women on Asgard too, if Sif wasn’t already proof enough of that, so maybe the waiting makes sense that way.

“Not very long,” Thor tells her. “Fifty to a hundred of your years would cover the time quite well.”

Darcy stares at him.

“What,” she says.

“I am a prince,” Thor says. “In truth I would court Jane without doubt in this moment, but I must be respectful. I do not desire the throne any longer, but one day it may yet come to me, and then she will be queen. The depth of our bond must not be questionable in any way.”

“Thor,” Darcy says, very slowly. “How old do you think Jane is?” He frowns, expression turning puzzled.

“I am uncertain,” he admits. “I know humans live shorter lives than Aesir but there has not been polite occasion to inquire. She must be at least five or six hundred, I know, for all she knows of the stars and spells.”

“Thor,” Darcy repeats, face going a little white. This--this is not the kind of soulmate problem she wanted to change the subject to.

They never told him. How the hell did they never tell him, how stupid were they to not realize that human timekeeping and records and assumptions would be so alien to him.

“What is it?” Thor asks, immediately alarmed. Darcy hates herself all over again.

“Jane’s thirty-three,” she tells him. “Ian and I are twenty-two and Erik’s barely pushing seventy. None of us are gonna even be alive in a hundred years. Humans just don’t--we don’t last that long.”

Thor is quiet. Darcy hates herself some more and resettled uncomfortably in her chair. Of course he didn’t know, she thinks, everyone talks about Captain America in ways completely divorced from real time, like WWII was centuries ago, and in the media he’s treated like an old man and an infant all at once, and then there’s the jokes about Tony Stark’s “ancient” taste in music and midlife crisis, the talk about Black Widow and Hawkeye’s “infinite” patience and the kill counts they lost track of, never kept track of--they talk about time like it’s nothing at all, like there’s no weight to any word they put towards it.

They’re not even babies next to Thor, not even Bucky (the Winter Soldier?) and Captain America with all their time on ice counted.

“We thought you knew,” she says finally, helplessly. “We did, we totally wouldn’t have--we thought you knew.”

“I understand,” Thor says. Darcy remembers him smashing the coffee mug on the floor and that not-so-funny-anymore story about him asking for an animal large enough to ride at a pet shop and how different they are from him, all of them. How he will go on so long after they are all gone, after their kids are gone, their countries--

They should’ve known.

Thor is quiet for some time longer, and Darcy fidgets uncomfortably and wonders if she should leave even though it’s her place.

“I still do not abide cats easily,” he says eventually, and she hurls herself at the topic change like a woman drowning.

“She did say something about hamsters as an acceptable alternative,” she says.

“Perhaps I could slay one?” Thor suggests thoughtfully.

“What?!” Darcy sputters. “Uh, no, you don’t slay hamsters, geez, just get her one!”

“Are you certain Jane would desire that?” Thor asks, frowning doubtfully.

Certainly certain, she’ll love it,” Darcy promises. Even if it’s scary Asgardian-huge, it’ll still be a hell of a lot smaller than Hillevi. Way more low-maintenance than a cat that needs run around a dog park, for sure.

“Then I will trust your judgement, my friend,” Thor says with a nod.

“As you should,” Darcy replies primly, tossing her hair over her shoulder.

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He definitely should not have.

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“OH MY GOD,” Jane and Darcy scream in terror, clutching at each other. The hamster shifts its stance threateningly and knocks over Tony Stark’s car and about half a dozen buildings on the left side of the street in the process. They scream again.

Interesting story: Asgard does not have hamsters, and the Allspeak does not provided the perfect translation they’ve all always assumed it did. Which explains some things, in retrospect, and which Darcy really wishes they’d picked up on sooner.

“An excellent specimen of hamster!” Sif declares, squinting up at it with an air of general satisfaction. Darcy is strongly considering moving to hide behind her. “Well done, my shield-brother!”

The hamster roars. There’s fire involved, and exploding glass, and then very quickly there’s assembling involved.

Darcy can’t decide if she’s thrilled or mortified.

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She sees Bucky in the hall after, alone with ash on his skin and blood on his boots. He isn’t looking her way, and he doesn’t stop walking.

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“Okay,” Darcy says, dumping her bag on the table and still borderline freaking out and feeling a little bit like crying, but only a little. Really. “So culture clash is a definite problem in our lives.”

“Is it?” Ian asks as he glances up from his book, voice muffled around the apple in-between his teeth. The book is from Sif--she gave it to him this morning, along with about twenty different pelts from creatures of various deadliness--and full of swatches. It includes options Darcy does not even want to understand, at least some of which are either glowing, vibrating, or actively changing color.

“You’re picking out magic paint for your wing of an alien king’s palace!” she yells at him.

“Just our rooms,” Ian says. “I mean, other people are gonna live in the wing too.”

“Our lives, Ian!” Darcy fumes, throwing her hands up in the air. “What the fuck!”

“Also this is the fabric book,” he adds, tapping the sparkling page lying open before him. It chimes where his finger hits, and Darcy nearly yells again.

That’s when the Winter Soldier shows up at the door, though. His hair’s in his ash-smeared face and he’s still wearing his bloody boots and uniform, collar zipped tight up his throat. His posture isn’t aggressive, exactly, but it still reminds Darcy of New Mexico and certain fiery inexorable death machines.

“Um,” she says, voice a little weak. Ian wisely makes sure his mouth is too full of apple to talk and retreats to the far side of the room with his swatches and puts his headphones in, the traitor. Probably she should tell him to clear out altogether but it’s kind of a relief to have him there so she doesn’t.

“They used to make us read each other’s words out,” the Winter Soldier says, abrupt.

“‘Us’?” Darcy repeats automatically.

“Prisoners,” the Winter Soldier clarifies, hands curling into fists and teeth practically gritting around the words as he works them out of his mouth. Part of her’s still expecting fire, to be honest. “There were--prisoners. Experiments. That’s what we were. They’d bring us into each other’s cells and make us read each other’s words to each other.”

“Jesus,” Darcy says faintly, just staring at him. She doesn’t--what does anyone even say to that? Either way, the Winter Soldier doesn’t give her the time to figure it out.

“Then they had me kill everyone who’d ever read me mine, and I did,” he continues, looking right at her. “And they told me to kill anyone who ever said them, and they would bring in new people who would say them, and I would kill them too. Every time they woke me up, there was someone, and I’d kill them.”

Darcy opens her mouth, and this time she is going to say something--except she tries to start with his name, and then realizes she doesn’t know his name, not really, and hesitates. And then he’s gone.

“Fuck,” she blurts in panic, scrambling to her feet so fast she knocks her bag off the table and bolting into the hall after him. She whips her head both ways down the long, featureless hallway, but doesn’t see so much as the heel of his boot turning a corner or a door sliding shut. “Fuck! Bu--Win--wait!”

He doesn’t reappear.

“Fuck,” Darcy repeats with a groan, and buries her face against the doorframe.

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.

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“Who do I talk to about this?” Darcy asks desperately. “Do I talk to Captain America about this, am I that desperate?”

“Maybe,” the Black Widow replies, raising an eyebrow at her. “You are talking to me, after all.”

.

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.

“. . . are you reading Physics World?” Darcy asks blearily, not quite able to wrap her head around the bizarre sight of Sif in her kitchen with a science magazine first thing in the morning.

“I am familiarizing myself with the terms my Ian knows seidr by,” Sif says, not looking up from the article she’s currently frowning deeply at. There’s a pen and a whole lot of paper on the table covered in runes, and Darcy’s not sure but it looks like she’s taking notes.

“Uh,” she says, blinking slowly before rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “‘Seidr’?”

“Science,” Sif clarifies, glancing up to her. “I confess I know little of it myself--Loki was the magic-user in our group, the rest of us preferred our own methods--but I would help my lover translate his terminology until he can catch up for himself. The seidkonur will appreciate his knowledge of Midgard and new perspective, I am sure, even though he is a man. They were sorely disappointed to lose Lady Jane back to Midgard so quickly--and he is my man, of course,” she adds, mouth curving into an amused smirk. “They would not have expected different of my match!”

“You have a job for him in Asgard?” Darcy asks, surprised. Somehow she’d kind of pictured more of a housespouse deal, the way Ian’s been talking about it.

“Of course,” Sif says, looking surprised herself. “I would not deny my Ian his work. And he is not as adept as Lady Jane, but any student of hers would have a position in Asgard. You as well, Darcy, if you desired it.”

“I, uh--thanks,” Darcy replies slowly, a little baffled by the idea. Well, that’s . . . unexpected. But at least if she ruins Bucky’s life any worse she can always run away to Asgard and save them both a lot of trouble, she guesses. Which is just . . . a terrible backup plan, frankly, maybe even the worst she’s ever had. But it’s a plan, at least. “How come you’re doing it in here, though? Like . . . where there is no Ian?”

“I am questing for knowledge!” Sif laughs. “I would never present my love with any less than my completed victory.”

“Is this, uh, is this gonna be like the swatches?” Darcy asks warily, because the mental image of Sif scrapbooking at her kitchen table outright terrifies her.

“Yes,” Sif confirms with a nod, setting aside the magazine. “I must prove my worth as a warrior, must I not? And a warrior must know when to lay down their weapon and do the work of peace, for how else would they ever come home to their soulmate?”

“I don’t know,” Darcy says. She thinks about it, a little, and bites her lip. “Guess it depends on if your soulmate’s the type to lay down theirs.”

“This is true,” Sif agrees, nodding again. “My Ian is a seidmenn who values hearth and home, but a soulmate who did not have either would require different methods of courting.”

“Wait, this is actually a courting rite thing? Like, seriously legit and everything?” Darcy asks, tilting her head as she gives the notes on the table a weird look. She’d just assumed Sif was being nice or something.

“Adapted somewhat for Midgardian needs, but yes,” Sif says. “We must all do the best we can for our intendeds. I have shown him my prowess in battle and the hunt and my ability to provide, and now I will show him what I can do for his strength. I would not expect him to accept me until he has seen that I can help him achieve his ambitions.”

“I never really thought of Ian as having ‘ambition’,” Darcy says, still looking at the notes.

But then again, she never had Ian’s words, either.

“He told me about them,” Sif says, and Darcy has a sudden odd flashback to Thor telling her what Bucky’d asked him to call him; to Jane not knowing about Asgardian courting and Thor not knowing about human lifespans--the things they didn’t tell each other, because they didn’t know to tell each other.

To Bucky or the Winter Soldier or both of them hovering in the laboratory door like he/they wanted to be anywhere else, apologizing and panicking at the bar, confessing his/their not-crimes, running away the second she stopped to stutter.

She . . . thinks about that.

She thinks very hard about that.

“I’m going back to bed,” she says, voice a little too rough, and walks back out of the kitchen.

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She doesn’t go back to bed.

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Darcy has worn long sleeves since she was twelve years old. Only checked her words when she knew no one else could see; never shared them with a friend or stranger. Never told anyone when they flickered, not even when they flickered out--kept them hers, kept them secret and safe and locked away.

But Bucky was never safe when he was a secret, was he.

“Goddammit,” Darcy says to herself, then digs up the first notebook she can find and starts writing.

She goes through a few dozen drafts of varying lengths and approaches, but in the end, the note’s only one sentence.

I’m not sorry.

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Darcy shoves the note under Captain America’s door and leaves, because who gives a fuck if it makes her come across like a twelve year-old or not. Part of her’s always been twelve, that oblivious girl at summer camp snarling at some dick whose name and face she can’t even remember now, not giving a damn about the condition of the shaky misspelled words on her arm, not even knowing what they’d meant. They’d been hers, are still hers, even now that they’re pitch-black and perfect. Every version they’ve been is still hers, even the ones where they weren’t there at all and the horrible, gut-wrenching scribbles in London.

And if Bucky or the Winter Soldier wants to say no, well--after everything else that’s happened to him, everything that’s been forced on him, he at least gets the right not to get cornered about it. If he wants her, then he can want her; if he doesn’t, maybe someday he’ll be her friend. If neither of those things, well--

HYDRA’s taken too damn much from him. Hell, they’d almost taken her from him, for whatever that was worth.

She’s not here just for him, and he’s not here just for her.

But there’s still reasons they could be for each other.

She goes to Jane’s lab. She makes coffee and pulls out her laptop; pins back her hair and pushes up her sleeves.

Then she gets to work.

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.

“Darcy,” Ian murmurs quietly, sliding a new cup of coffee in front of the sludge that used to be her old one; she blinks, and lifts her eyes.

“Uh?” she says, brain taking a minute to disengage from her screen. “Oh--oh shit, Ian, you’re a freaking treasure,” she moans, finally registering the fresh coffee and grabbing for it. “Gimme. Gimme now.”

“What are you doing?” Ian asks, glancing at the computer. He’s got his usual yellow apple and Hillevi is pressed in close behind him, big enough to look over his shoulder while he’s standing now. Darcy’s not actually entirely sure how she got through the door to begin with, but is suitably impressed.

“Cross-referencing the SHIELD data dump,” she replies, still a little muzzy and mostly absorbed in her coffee. She’s considering just dissolving into it completely. “J.A.R.V.I.S. downloaded the full public dump before the government started trying to strip the net, but it’s literally just a giant hunk of information with no reference page or table of contents and he had to triage it by code words as best as he could figure, go for the big flashy shit. He doesn’t have the processing power to run Tony Stark’s life, the Iron Man suits, Stark Industries, the Tower, and analyze all this data at once.”

“Are you looking for something?” Ian asks with a frown, taking a bite of his apple as his eyes flick down over the screen.

“Yeah,” Darcy says, looking back to it and baring her teeth in something close to a grin. “A quest.”

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.

It’s another week before Bucky and/or the Winter Soldier shows up. Darcy’s still neck-deep in SHIELDRA files in her off-time, mostly emerging only to eat whatever Ian or Jane put in front of her, and by that point really isn’t expecting him to show at all.

“Uh,” she says, staring at the metal hand that just pushed her coffee closer. She looks up. Bucky--the Winter Soldier?--is wearing a T-shirt and a flannel button-down with a denim jacket over it, and jeans under that. His boots are not combat-appropriate and completely blood-free, and his hair’s . . . well, not styled or anything, but at least brushed.

He is still very, very attractive.

She can also see some of the scars on his chest under the collar of his shirt.

“Um,” Darcy says, staring up at him, and then for lack of anything better: “Hi. I’m Darcy Lewis.”

“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky replies uncomfortably, and Darcy seriously considers crying for maybe the third time since that one shitty summer. Her sleeves are pushed up, but he’s not looking.

“Yeah, uh . . . I know,” she says, which is a very stupid thing to say but still pretty much all she’s got. “Are you, um . . . did you get my note? Or is--something wrong?”

“I got your note. Steve found it,” Bucky says. He looks so sad. He looks so sad. Nothing like the Winter Soldier, unless this is exactly what the Winter Soldier always was. “You ain’t the one who’s supposed to be sorry, Darcy Lewis.”

“Well--I’m not, Bucky Barnes,” Darcy hazards slowly, taking the coffee cup just to have something in her hands. Otherwise she might do something stupid like start typing again or actually cry. “So . . . good?”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, just turns those sad eyes to the floor. Darcy can’t decide if this is an improvement over the icy anger or blind terror, except part of her thinks there’s no real difference anyway. She can’t call any of it an improvement when all of it is Bucky, can she?

“I got you something,” she says after a little while, and Bucky lifts his head with a frown.

“You--why?” he asks.

“I didn’t know if you were gonna come,” Darcy says, shrugging. “But I didn’t wanna assume you wouldn’t either, so . . . yeah. Anyway. You don’t have to take it if you don’t like it, I can still return it.”

Honestly, she’d been about another two days away from returning it, so . . . so.

“I--alright,” Bucky says. He shifts uncomfortably, pressing his hip into the table. “What, uh . . . what is it?”

“Over here,” Darcy says, pushing her seat back and getting up to head to the back of the lab. He follows her, then stops, frowning.

“What’s that?” he asks.

“It’s an Asgardian thing,” Darcy says, reaching down into the basket to scoop up the kitten sleeping in it. He’s already bigger than a full-grown unfixed tomcat and getting him was kind of complicated, but Asgard was pretty gorgeous and amazing, so definitely worth it even if Bucky doesn’t want him. Either of them. “I mean, duh, I’m not Asgardian, but they’ve got some ideas I can get behind.”

“It’s a cat,” Bucky says blankly.

“Yeah.” Darcy hefts the kitten higher in her arms and gets mewed at and also pawed really heavily in the eye. “Ow. Uh, it’s a thing they do--like, they have these courting rituals? And like, the traditional first thing is a kitten for the household. Um, not that I’m saying we’re gonna have a household or anything, just--yeah. Um.”

“That’s not a kitten,” Bucky says with a frown. Darcy laughs and flashes him a sheepish grin.

“You have met Hillevi, right?” she asks.

“. . . that’s a cat?” Bucky asks, looking briefly horrified. Darcy tries not to laugh again and turns towards him, petting the kitten. He purrs hard enough to nearly knock himself out of her arms.

“Um, if it helps they let me pick the runt of the litter,” she says. He’s golden-furred, not dark like Hillevi, but it’s not like he’s going to be going on any stealth ops so she’d figured it’d be okay.

“I don’t understand,” Bucky says, staring at him. “What’s it for?”

“Courting,” Darcy repeats, biting her lip for a moment. “Uh, it’s . . . I guess it’s different for everyone, depends on what your soulmate’s like and what they need, but the kitten’s apparently pretty standard. I thought about getting you an Earth-kitten but I figured you’d rather have something that could, you know, uh. Defend itself. Just in case.” There are too many “in cases” to even bother listing, at this point.

“Courting,” Bucky replies. His voice is flat, but his eyes are scared. Darcy doesn’t blame him.

“Asgardians go off and do quests until they’ve proved they’re worthy of their soulmate,” she explains. “Sif hunted down monsters and made swatch books and read a metric fuckton of science magazines for Ian, and Thor, uh . . . well, he kind of accidentally destroyed a big chunk of the neighborhood but that was more a translation issue with the Allspeak and anyway--yeah. Well, he’s just getting started with Jane anyway.”

“I cut you off me,” Bucky says, shoulders hunching.

“Yeah, but I’m still there,” Darcy says, shaking her head. “Even if it’d taken, I mean--I’d still be here. You don’t need me on your chest, you need me on your side. We don’t have to be romantic, and I know you’ve already got a best friend who’s proved himself a hell of a lot more worthy than I have, but . . . we could be friends. Or . . . something.”

“You ain’t the one gotta prove yourself worthy, Lewis,” Bucky rasps, staring at the kitten again as the sort-of-little guy yawns in Darcy’s arms and resettles himself heavily.

“You know you don’t either, right?” Darcy asks, holding the cat out to him. He keeps staring at him for a moment, but takes him. “Like . . . those newscasters I was talking about, they weren’t upset about what you did. And I’m definitely not, either. It’s what HYDRA did to you, not what you did to survive when you didn’t even know your own damn name anymore.”

“No,” Bucky says, still just looking at the kitten. He meows up at him and squirms up tight against his chest, and Bucky supports him in his arms more like someone would hold a baby than a cat, but the kitten doesn’t seem to mind. “I have to.”

“Yeah, I thought maybe you’d feel that way,” Darcy says, since she still can’t say she feels much different about herself. She walks back to her computer and tilts the screen to show him the maps and files of the hidden HYDRA base displayed across it. One off the grid and full of juicy information, according to the files, but small enough not to be heavily staffed and not connected to the larger network, and not big enough for anyone else to have dealt with yet. “So I thought maybe . . . well.”

“Well what?” Bucky asks, zeroing in on the screen and frowning again. He’s scratching the cat’s ears. Darcy bites her lip, then gives him another sheepish grin.

“Well,” she says, “you wanna come with?”