Sharon falls back and stares at the ceiling, panting, her sore body covered in sweat. Shadows play above, but unlike the man beside her, they don’t touch her.
She closes her eyes as his hand reaches out and traces her breast. “I’m going to need a minute.”
“One minute,” he grants her, rolling over to prop himself up and look at her. Like her, Bucky’s hair is damp and skin are damp with sweat. Unlike her, he doesn’t seem out of breath at all.
Her eyes run over him. From the familiar face and the way his lips part when he’s pushing into her, the arms that pull her closer or turn her hips for a different angle, the fingers that stretch her and explore her, the hips that thrust without mercy until she’s a quivering mess beneath him. She even knows how his toes spread and curl when he comes.
She’s been back almost a year now. He’s had a chance to rebuild his life. She’s still figuring it out, unable to stay in one place for long. She has a hard time feeling confined, a hard time taking orders. She’s a mess. She wonders sometimes if she’s worse than he was when he first came back, before he made such good friends and found a community of sorts.
Maybe that’s why they do this, this thing no one else knows about, this thing they never talk about outside of such meet-ups that leave their various beds smelling of sweat and sex. They each know too well what it’s like to live in the shadows, to have dark secrets from the people they care about.
Right now, they are each other’s dark secret.
“Thirty seconds,” he tells her.
Her eyes seek out his in the near-darkness. He doesn’t have a watch, but she doesn’t think he’s guessing. She turns and props her head up with an elbow. She runs a hand over his side. “Fuck it. Let’s go.”
It’s all he needs to pull her closer, to crush her lips with his. She parts her legs, but his arm finds her thigh and tugs it higher. His hands are firm, strong, even rough, but there’s always a tantalizing gentleness underneath. He moves on top of her, and he’s relentless. She’s already sensitive. His teeth on her neck don’t help.
She comes twice before he does, and then he falls to the side. His fingers drift between her legs, and she gasps and whimpers as he finishes her off yet again. After, he lazily strokes her inner thigh.
She’s exhausted. She could fall asleep. She should.
But she knows what will happen when she does. It’s the same thing that’s happened to many times before. He will leave. He’ll be gone by the time she wakes, no matter how early. He’ll leave before the sun rises.
He waits for her to sleep. She doesn’t know how long he waits after, just as she doesn’t know how he can possibly have the strength, just as she doesn’t know why he leaves her alone each time.
But it’s one of the few things she shares with anyone. It isn’t just a secret, it’s something where she can be vulnerable and safe, where someone who knows her decides she’s worth the time and effort.
She wants to ask him about it, talk to him about it, but she suspects that the moment she does, this will stop, and she’ll go back to passing moments with strangers who call themselves her friends.
There are experiences that shape a person. Her forays with Bucky aren’t among them. What had been done to her, what she’d survived knowing, that has shaped her. Into what, she may never know. She used to know herself. Know what she wanted, knew the sort of person she wanted to be.
But it hadn’t mattered. The people she’d cared about hadn’t cared about her. The people she’d loved hadn’t loved her. The people who mattered to her hadn’t thought she mattered to them.
There’s no coming back from that. There’s no therapy that can convince her it was all in her head or that it won’t happen again. Because she’d lived it. She’d done everything right. Maybe she could have tried more to hang out, or talked about the latest Taylor Swift album. Maybe she should have made more jokes or bought people coffee or complimented their outfits more.
But she’s never been that person. The sort that volunteered information and was warm and friendly and outgoing and forthcoming. There are other people who are like that, like her. Different levels, perhaps, but there are shy people out there. Quiet ones. There are people who read too much and who sit in silence and only come out of their shell when someone brings up a passion, and there are people who never seem to have much passion.
They all have someone who thinks they’re worthy. A family member, a friend, someone who wants to spend their life slowly exploring a person’s soul.
And then there’s Sharon, who doesn’t understand why she wasn’t worthy, doesn’t know how to fix it, and she’s afraid to ask, because then she might find out that nothing she could do would ever be enough to make anyone care.
But she knows when people smile at her to smile back and pretend that everything’s fine, everything’s okay, because pretending is better than knowing for sure, and maybe if she pretends enough, it will be real.
She hates nighttime. She doesn’t tell anyone, hopes no one notices. It’s such a stupid thing, to hate nighttime. Night comes every day. Darkness comes every day.
She’s not even afraid of monsters. It isn’t the monsters that scare her – she can beat monsters. Maybe not her own, but in general? Sure.
It’s the feeling of the universe pressing in. The stars watching her. The idea that she’s in a box and can’t escape.
She’d tried so many times to escape only to realize there was nowhere to go. Surrounded on every side.
It’s stupid, being afraid of space. She knows that being afraid of something – even hating something – won’t stop bad things from happening.
So at night, she goes to the highest point of whatever city she’s in. She gets as high as she can. Sometimes she takes a drink.
She goes as high as she can, tries to escape the city lights, tries to creep into the darkness as deep as she can, and she looks up at the night sky in challenge.
Creatures out there can trap her. They can torture her. They can taunt her. They can break her.
But they can’t defeat her.
She’s invited to things. She knows it’s out of guilt. Sam invites her to cookouts. And- well. There’s no one else she really knows. She just sits there like an idiot scraping the whipped cream off her pie and offering it to any kid who draws close enough, which doesn’t happen very often at all. Is it weird to not like whipped cream? What’s wrong with her? How much is wrong with her?
Bucky doesn’t invite her anywhere. Actually, it’s almost like he pretends not to know her. She plays along. She knows he’ll be with her soon enough, even if he won’t want anyone else to know.
There are times she’s afraid to talk to him about the world outside the bedroom.
There are times at the cookouts she has to take a break. She feels crowded by people too easily these days. She can stand it for a while, but then it gets to be a little too much, and then one word or perceived gesture and it will be far too much and she has to wander off and sit by herself. Bucky never seems to see her do it, and no one else ever remarks on it, like some sort of silent agreement she isn’t privy to.
But sometimes Sam will come and sit with her, and they’ll sit without speaking, looking out over the water together.
Sam’s good at just being. He’s got this instinct for how to deal with people that she lacks and, as such, she admires him for it. He knows when to let the silence be and when to break it.
He’s apparently decided now is a good time to break it, but he only gets as far as opening his mouth. Nothing comes out, and after a moment he leans forward and pretends he was only admiring the view, as if that had been his plan all along. And just like that, she knows. She knows that Sam knows something is happening between her and Bucky. She knows Bucky wouldn’t have told him, but something’s given it away.
And like Bucky, Sam doesn't talk about it, either.
There are things she can’t remember, times when she was drugged and her dreams feel like memories and her memories feel like nightmares.
But there’s one memory she could never have dreamt, one that was too real. She can remember being wrenched from her pod and dragged to the metal grated floor, the ridges digging into her knees. She’d coughed and spluttered, trying to get her breath after being woken so quickly. They don’t take care with her. She’s a troublemaker for them.
Veranke is there, wearing her face. Sharon is both accustomed to it and yet still unnerved by it. “I just met your friends,” Veranke tells her. “They didn’t notice anything amiss. Barnes said – and I quote ‘Wow, she’s kind of awful now.’ And Wilson said he would have tried to get in touch, but other things came up. More important things.” Veranke tilts her head, blonde hair spilling over her shoulder. “It’s like we suspected. We didn’t know what use the great Peggy Carter’s niece would be, but we knew no one ever cared about little Sharon Carter enough to notice the switch.” She stoops to Sharon’s level. “And none of them ever will. Despite all your games and desperate attempts, no one will notice you were switched. And when we take over your planet, they’ll see me wearing your face, and they’ll think you betrayed them, and they’ll hate you.” Veranke smiles, and Sharon watches as her own face looks sweet and friendly. “Your value is in no one caring about you. In being abandoned by the people you tried to help. What must that be like?” She waves a hand at her supporters surrounding them. “I can’t even imagine.”
It’s a rhetorical question; they don’t even pretend to wait for an answer before shoving her in the pod again. But they don’t drug her right away this time.
They want her to remember.
She loses track of the times she and Bucky meet over the next several months.
No, that’s a lie. She remembers each and every time, each room, each shadow, each moan.
It’s intoxicating, frightening.
And she finally brings herself to ask him. She’s had the words in her head for months now, editing endlessly. And in the moment, it all fails her and she can ask only one word as she watches him: “Why?”
He looks at her, his face turned from the light so she can’t read his expression. “Does it matter?”
It’s better to pretend, isn’t it? Surely a glimpse of something sad and real is better than a dream of nothing.
“No,” she says, and she swallows down her disgust with herself, the fears she has now that she’d never considered before, the knowledge of how much she’s changed and how she can never go back.
The next morning, he’s gone. When she steps outside, there are flowers on in front of her door. The note isn’t signed with a name, but she knows who they’re from, has no doubt.
And she wishes she didn’t know. She wishes she hadn’t looked. She wishes she hadn’t asked him anything.
I don’t want to want you.
What the fuck does that even mean?
The phrase comes back to haunt her time and time again. Job after job, errand after errand, restless night after restless night.
She tries to throw herself back into work. She tries to focus on the mission. She tries to forget how almost everyone looks at her with suspicion, as if she’s still a replacement, and focus on what’s happening in front of her.
And she does it all while knowing that they don’t want her, that he doesn’t want her, that no one wants her and that no one wants to try to want her.
How is it possible to be lonelier at one of Sam’s cookouts than in her pod?
Why does she refer to it as her pod? She doesn’t even refer to the apartment as hers.
She stops going to the cookouts.
They both find her, of course. Separate and together. She only answers the door to Sam when he’s alone. He tries to talk, sometimes, but she doesn’t respond and turns on the television, and they watch together until he leaves.
She can’t live like this.
She stops trying to reach out to people. She knows people think she’s isolating herself, but she isn’t. Not really. She’s just… needs something. Something to hold onto. Something she can grasp, take hold of, when no one will take hold of her.
It takes two months for him to approach her. She knows he’s been following her. She doesn’t always try to lose him. But this is the first time he’s approached her in the open.
They stand together, hands in their pockets to protect their fingers from the cold. Children chase each other in the park. Cars honk and play their radios too loud. She’d been enjoying the moment, but with him there, her expression becomes studiously bland.
He doesn’t speak, only stands there as if they’re friends sharing a moment. As if he’s Sam, who won’t give up on her even when she gives him so little to work with because she’s forgotten how to give people what they want in order to want her. If she ever knew.
“Get it over with,” she tells him.
His eyes slide over to her. The rest of him doesn’t move an inch, completely immobile. She wonders if he did that before Hydra got him. “He found you.”
She swallows but doesn’t otherwise acknowledge him.
“Steve. He found you. Before Madripoor. Istanbul. He said you were different. Something was wrong. You weren’t you. By the time Thanos came, he knew the person pretending to be you was in Madripoor. But after, he couldn’t find her. He thought she got dusted.” He goes silent for a moment. “But he looked. And when Sam and I found you in Madripoor, you weren’t the same. You weren’t you. You moved differently, talked differently. Then when we found you, the real you, and Steve was gone…” He shrugs. “He’s earned you. I’m just some guy who-” He goes silent again, his eyes moving to the children playing.
Her chest feels as if it’s been kicked in. Years now, years, she’s thought no one cared. She’d believed, had no reason not to, that no one had cared to look for her. She’d felt as if no one wanted her, as if no one has ever wanted to want her, and now…
The times she’d been left with her torturous thoughts in her pod, in her bed, the times the knowledge of her worthlessness had taunted her, haunted her, hunted her until she’d accepted she could never escape and could only learn to live with it. The depression, the despair, and meanwhile, somehow, some way, someone had cared. About her. About little Sharon Carter, the nobody with the important relative.
She wants to rage at him, wants to hit him. But she doesn’t. She holds back. Because she knows there will be no coming back from this. The chill on her heart tells her their future.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice is quiet. Calm. Collected.
She only knows his shoulders tense because she’s seen his body in so many different guises before, so many different moods. She’d thought she could read him.
But no. She’d known she didn’t know him, didn’t she. She wouldn’t have wanted to ask him anything if she’d known him. She’d wanted to know him, and that was proof enough she never had. Foolish. Stupid.
He looks at her. “I knew it wouldn’t last if I told you. And I wanted it to last.”
And they both know it can’t last now that she knows.
“Thank you for telling me.” She’s studiously polite, right down the polite twist of her lips as she bobs her head before she walks away.
How is she more lost now than before?
No one caring about her had been a reality for so long, and now the reality has shifted to people caring about her and not wanting her. It’s not like Steve is around. And Bucky had kept her hidden away like a treasonous secret. They’d only met in the shadows.
She’d thought he was ashamed of her, that he didn’t want to be associated with her, but now she realizes he was ashamed of himself.
He’d kept the both of them in the shadows, because that’s where the secrets could safely be kept.
There are times she wants to scream, times she wants to march out into the woods under a smothering night sky and scream and scream and scream until her voice leaves scratches on her throat like bloody claw marks.
One person had cared about her and left her.
One person had cared about her and lied to her.
The only thing that stops her from screaming is the knowledge that someone would call the police about the crazy lady screaming outside, and she’s got enough problems.
One person had cared about her and sat in silence with her.
She calls Sam.
She makes a show of glancing at her watch when he lands. “Plane running late?”
“Ha, ha.” He strides over and drops on the table beside her. Like her, he sits on the top. She wonders if he dislikes having his legs confined as much as she does. “So you turn down every invitation for every cookout for months and call me out of the blue. Finally, might I add.” He looks at her. “What’s wrong?”
Her fists clench. She knows what’s wrong. She could tell him. She knows she could. She’s gone over it in her head countless times. And yet, when it comes to the words forming on her lips, they feel unfamiliar and uncertain. “Bucky and I…”
“Have been doing a thing,” he fills in after a moment. “You two aren’t as good at hiding it as you think.”
She frowns. “We did okay.”
He looks as if he’d like to welcome her to reality, if only reality would have her.
She grasps her hands together. “Steve found me. After I was replaced. And Bucky knew and didn’t tell me.” She turns to him, trying not to be afraid of what he might say. “What do I do with that? The whole time we were fucking, and he was like, ‘I don’t want to want you,’ and he was-”
“Wait. ‘I don’t want to want you?’”
She bites her bottom lip, not wanting to remember the details of the note, but in the end, she needs Sam’s help, and that means telling him. Sam’s never been cruel before. Or at least, he’s the closest she’s ever had to a friend. She knows it might not be mutual – he’s far more likable than she is. But honesty helps with friendships, right? So she tells him.
Sam blinks, then laughs. “Man is a moron.”
His laughter loosens something within her, a knot whose threads are coming free. With his laughter in the air, the note almost does seem ridiculous. He looks at her. “You get what’s happening, right?”
“I have horrible taste in men?”
“True,” he confirms, seemingly ignoring the slight to Steve. “And?”
“And…” She watches him. “That makes you immune to my trashfire charm?”
He grins. “He doesn’t want to want you because he doesn’t want to step on Steve’s toes.”
She stares at Sam, trying to recall when Bucky told her. Some parts are so painful she’ll never forget. Others, words and phrases fallen through the cracks, she can only try to piece together. “He said Steve earned me, but that just made me want to punch him.”
Sam looks incredulous. “Yeah, you should punch him for that.” He frowns. “He said- Damn. Want me to punch him for you?”
She frowns right back. “I don’t think it’s a one-person-only thing.”
Sam’s eyes dance. She likes when his eyes dance, like he’s seeing the best of something. Even when she can’t see it herself, it gives her hope she might one day. “Point.” He leans back, palms on the table. “You should talk to him, though. And then come to a cookout. Whether he’s there or not. He’s been real surly lately. Not appreciative of my sister’s cooking.”
She wonders if she’s been appreciative of Sarah’s cooking.
When he looks at her, she doesn’t dare ask, only resolves to show some more appreciation in the future. Instead, she meekly says, “Okay,” and after a moment, Sam turns the conversation to catching up.
He really is the best friend she has. She’ll have to figure out a way to show her appreciation more than merely thanking him for showing up.
The two of them have rarely called each other. They don’t need to. He finds her. Always him finding her. But now she has to find him and she calls because she doesn’t know where he is.
He picks up on the third ring.
She tells him where she is. Nothing more, nothing less. She waits just long enough to make sure he’s heard, then hangs up. He’ll consider it what it is: An invitation.
It occurs to her that he might not come. But if he doesn’t come, what of it? She’s survived worse. Pain real and pain contrived, and here she is, opening herself up to more. That’s got to mean something, right?
She doesn’t know where he was when she called. It takes five hours for the knock to come.
She opens the door and eyes him. He looks a little rougher, and there’s tenseness around the eyes she hasn’t seen before. She moves aside.
He pauses just a fraction of a second too long, then moves inside.
She closes the door. She wants to press herself against it, but in the end she moves into the room. It may mean nothing, but he might want to escape through the door, and she doesn’t want him to feel trapped. “Do you want me?”
His hands are in his pockets, but she can see them shift. “No.”
Ah. They’ve chosen the backup script, the one that she’s cycled through so many sleepless nights where the voice that tells her she’s worthless has nothing to fight it. “Neither does Steve.”
He looks at her, his brow furrowed.
She shrugs. “Since that’s settled.” She heads to the door to open it for him.
“Wait.” He doesn’t reach out for her arm, but his arm twitches as if he has to stop himself. The silence is thick, and she forces herself to remain still. “Steve’s going to come back one day.”
“He should have thought of that before he left.”
He looks at her anew.
“I won’t be your secret.”
“You’re not-” He presses his lips together. “You’re not my secret.”
“Not my- I was ashamed of me. He’s my best friend, and-” He shrugs, watching her. “I like you. I see why he would like you. Even after everything, you keep getting back up. But that’s part of why I like you, too. It’s dumb.”
“It is,” she agrees. “You should have asked me out.”
His eyes don’t move from her face. “You’re different.” Remembering what had happened last time they’d talked, he adds, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you or Steve. I was just being selfish and stupid. I’m sorry.”
She shrugs. “It’s moot, isn’t it? You don’t want me.”
He straightens as if about to argue, then hesitates.
She sighs. “I really do have to do everything, don’t I.” Multiple escape attempts on a Skrull ship. Working on herself. Working on this. “Do you want to go out sometime?”
He stares at her.
“If you hide something from me again I reserve the right to shoot off one of your ass cheeks and then laugh every time you sit lopsided after.”
He blinks at her, taken aback, and then he slowly grins. “Are you gonna get me flowers?” he teases.
“If you’re allergic.” She’s clearly only teasing. “You got a vase for them?”
“I can make do.” He hesitates, then moves a little closer. “So. You want to try this?”
“It’s been a while since I dated. But yeah. If you’re willing to try, I am. Even if you don’t want me.”
“Maybe we should do a no-lying policy, too. Because I might not have been telling the truth there.”
It’s awkward. It pains them both how awkward it is. Part of it is going through the motions, but neither of them are quite sure what the motions are. It’s been roughly a decade since she went on a date and went through the dance of going out to a restaurant with a guy. He seems torn over whether to treat her as a delicate lady or a coworker.
The shift comes at one of Sam’s cookouts, where Sharon and Bucky sit at a table together. Sharon’s deep in conversation with Sarah, only glancing up when Bucky gets to his feet with their plates.
When he returns, he sets a plate of pie and a refreshed drink in front of her. He’s scraped the whipped cream off of her pie.
She looks at him, realizing he’d noticed her doing that before, realizing that even if he thinks it’s weird, he’d scraped it off anyway. That her weirdness is okay with him. It’s the smallest way anyone has shown they care about her in a long time, but at the same time, it feels monumental.
She leans in and kisses his cheek. Under the table, her hand finds his, and she squeezes it in gratitude.
It isn’t awkward after that.