Three weeks. It had taken him three weeks to find her. Twenty days, fourteen hours, and thirty-seven minutes too long by his reckoning.
She had pressed the panic button twenty days, fourteen hours, and thirty-eight minutes before he slammed through the metal door, the compound she had been held in all but laid to waste by that point. He had left her side twenty days, fourteen hours, and forty-six minutes before he used the unconscious Hydra goon's hand to gain access to the area she was being held within.
They had clearly been waiting.
It was a coffee shop.
He had taken her to a coffee shop only a few blocks away from the tower, an apology for breaking her carafe during their activities of the night before when he had swept everything to the side in his efforts to hike her up onto the counter, and had missed protecting the glass container as his mind was clearly focused on other things. Like the softness of the skin of her thighs against his hand. The way the fabric of her skirt tickled the hairs of his forearm. The feel of her lips beneath his own.
Neither of them had minded at the time.
He had simply lifted her up and away from the shards and they continued said activities elsewhere with a promise to make it up to her in spades. A promise she had held him to.
He took her to the shop in the morning as neither one of them were truly coherent pre-caffeine. They had sat side by side on the rickety wooden chairs and sipped the first round of the brew while tearing some pastries to shreds and planning out their day. He had given her a refill and a peck on the cheek and left to get to a meeting on some planned enhancements to his gear. She had gone back for a lid as hers had popped off, some of the scalding coffee trickling across her fingers in the process. She had waved off his concern and told him she still had another twenty minutes to meet Jane anyway, that he'd better get to his meeting and she'd see him later.
Later was three weeks past.
He stood in the doorway now, the gears of his metal arm whirring back into place as the heavy metal creaked on what remained of its hinges. The room was spartan and spare and far better than his worst nightmares had dreamt up. There were no windows, and the light came from a caged bulb high above the bolted bed and chair, the surveillance camera beside it similarly protected.
She stood now, legs shaky as she took a stumbling step closer, a tether from her ankle to some place under the thin mattress. The skirt and sweater combo she had been wearing was long gone, replaced by dull gray scrubs a few shades darker than the walls that surrounded her. Her feet were bare but her hair was brushed and relatively clean, as was the rest of what he could see of her. The burn on her hand was nonexistent, replaced by scrapes and bruises and puncture wounds, likely from needles given their size.
"James?" she asked, voice rough and throat dry. She didn't reach for him, kept her arms wrapped tightly around herself. He would have thought it from fear, but he knew her better than that. He would have thought it from the cold, but saw the way the fingers of her right hand traced a red line just above her left elbow over and over again.
He took the extra step, clicked the safety back on for the Glock he held but didn't dare put it down. Not now. "I'm here, Darce," he promised her.
She still didn't reach for him, clutched herself that much tighter as tears spilled over and left wet smears across her face. "It's a trap, you know that right?" Her words hitched up at the end, tinged with want and fear and something else he didn't quite recognize.
He looked to the body still crumpled beside him and thought of how many more littered the hallway, how many more his team was leaving in their wake. "Yeah, well, it didn't work in their favor now, did it?" he asked, the slightest hint of a smirk to try to lighten the mood. He wanted to go to her, wanted to hold her, wanted to know she was real. Something held her back though, kept her from throwing herself to him, and he knew he needed to tread lightly, at least for now.
She shook her head and sniffed. "Either you're not real, or they've already got you and are just fucking with me now," she muttered. She shuffled back, shoulders slumped in her certainty of defeat. It was not a mindset he was accustomed to seeing on her.
He gave in to the impulse and crossed the nonexistent line, reached out to gather her up in his arms before she could retreat entirely. She dodged, tried to shrug him off but didn't try to stab him with any hidden weapons, so whatever brain games they had played with her were either long term or hadn't taken effect yet.
"They did something to me," she warned, offering him nothing but a shoulder, voice hitching and wavering more than it should. Her thumb pressed against the red line, fingers swept down across the bruises and tiny red entry points. "I'm not sure what. There were needles and I don't think I was awake for all of it, not really, and they... What if they did something to me to make me hurt you? They kept talking about you and only you, called me... I couldn't... We can't let them win that way."
He reached out again anyway, careful and calculating. "Metal and leather, doll," he reminded her when she still flinched. "No skin to skin until you're checked out, but it's something. Let me hold you. Let me know you're real," he reasoned, knowing it would do the same for her.
He knew the moment she gave in, one dingy shoulder slumped in his direction. He let her rest up against him, felt the shakes of the sobs she wouldn't let out. "I'm sorry, James. I'm so very sorry."
"I'm here," he promised. He wrapped his left arm around her, resisted the urge to press his lips against the top of her head, the smell of her favorite shampoo replaced with something harsh and utilitarian. "I've got you now and you've got me. Doesn't matter where we're at, ain't nothing matters save for what?" he prompted.
She sniffed and shuddered and whispered, just barely loud enough for him to hear, the response he had been waiting for, the response he heard damn near daily for damn near eight months now, every morning and every night that they were lucky enough to share. "Ain't nothing matters save that we're together," she finished and a part of his heart unclenched.
"That's right, darlin'," he said and gripped her a little bit tighter. "Now let's get you out of here and checked out so we can have our reunion right and proper." He tried to leer, but knew he failed. That was fine though, as she hadn't lifted her head to fully appreciate the expression anyway.
She had sat down on the bed and he was reaching for the tether, ready to snap it in two, when footsteps skidded down the hall. Steve appeared in the doorway, looking rushed and apologetic all at once. "Don't touch her!" he warned. He stepped closer, eyed the whole purpose for this little rescue mission warily as he explained, "Stark found files, plans for what they intended to do to her, to you. He doesn't think they got that far given the timeline and the materials left, but we can't take that chance, Buck."
He gave Steve a look to let him know he wasn't born yesterday. "Figured that part out when she told me. Might not just be me though. No one touches her without precautions until she's cleared, including you," he demanded. He heard another subtle sniff and knew this had to be hard on Darcy, the whole rescue while not being safe, being treated as a potential threat and not being allowed to seek even the most basic of comforts yet. He also knew she'd kill him herself, or maybe have Steve do it for her, if he was dumb enough to take such an obvious risk.
He snapped the tether and offered her his metal hand. She swiped her tears away as though affronted they even existed in the first place, and reluctantly let him pull her to her feet. "This fucking sucks," she told him, sounding far more like her normal self now.
"That it does, sweetheart. That it does."
She walked with him to the doorway, hesitant to cross the threshold until he gave her hand a gentle squeeze of reassurance. Internally, he ranted and raved against anyone and anything that had done this to her, made her less than her usual bold and self-assured self. He let her take her breath, and then another. She stepped forward, bare feet slapping against the concrete. She paused at the sight of the bodies, the gurneys and the tech off to the side still clearly threatening in their own right.
She then promptly emptied her stomach over the nearest downed goon. She dropped Bucky's hand to clutch at her sides, her heaves eventually turning dry and heavy. When she looked up at him again, pasty and pale and with shadows under his eyes he hadn't noticed in his happiness to have simply found her, she ground out, "I wasn't lying when I said I think they did something to me."
She took one more step, and then collapsed fully, his speed of his reflexes the only thing that stopped her head from banging off the floor. Steve cursed up a storm at him even touching her in the slightest, metal arm or no, but he ignored that and concentrated on his utter and complete rage instead. He kind of wished more of the goons were still conscious and stupid enough to try something solely so he could work out some frustration putting them down again. He'd have to let go of her though, and that wasn't happening until absolutely necessary.
Her being unconscious might have assisted with the evac but did nothing for his peace of mind. His head kept circling the same thoughts over and over again as he carried her up and over the destruction. They took her. They did something to her. He'd be a fool to think their need to regain him didn't play a role in this.
He had warned her of the same when they first got together. She wouldn't be safe, not from those who would want to use her to get to him and not from himself should he have a relapse. She had looked at him as though he were an adorable little puppy, trembling on his stubby little legs in his attempt to stand upright for the first time - her words, not his - and then said, "Well, duh." There were quite a few more words said after that, most of them profane, but he had quickly learned she was far from some sweet little innocent with a protected view of the world. The fact she had taken down Thor of all people should have been a clue to that. The fact she kept coming back, disaster after disaster, should have been another.
So now he waited for her. Three weeks to rescue, four hours to evac, six hours of tests. She woke precisely once, vomited again, and begged them to put her under until they knew she was safe. They took samples: blood and hair and skin. They gave her what her readings said she was missing: saline and nutrients and electrolytes. Despite her request, they didn't drug her into unconsciousness. They didn't know enough about what had been done to he to know if it would be safe, for her or for those around her. She fell asleep on her own, exhaustion finally catching up to her, and he wanted to hope that meant she finally felt as though the threat had passed.
Finally, after long hours of waiting, after Jane had her say and Thor as well, he was allowed to see her. "What if I'm not safe?" she asked. She looked to him, eyes pleading, but refused to reach out. Gray scrubs had been replaced with blue, hair now forming the beginnings of frizzy knots and the very ends of the strands stuck to the various tapes and bandages that decorated her arms. The slice on her arm had been a chip to track her and likely her biological readings, and its removal left a bulky layer of gauze wrapped around her bicep.
"All the scans have come back normal," he promised. Low side of normal for some things, high for others, but they found absolutely no trace of any foreign chemicals in her bloodstream, no radiation or electrical imbalances.
"M-mental?" she tried.
"Oh, doll, you've always been a little off in that department," he teased, but she frowned at the attempt.
"Not the time for jokes, asshole. What if they did something to my head? Brainwashed me. Imbedded something deep to trigger later?" she clarified. One wrist was still handcuffed to the side of the bed, and she used her free hand to tug at her hair. "How long will they keep me here? How long until they know?"
And here was the reason he had been sent in. He knew the usual Hydra triggers, both old and new. He still fought them in his dreams, dreaded some random agent using a certain turn of phrase in the middle of a fight and him turning against the ones he now called allies against his will. He was fairly certain he had broken his own programming, but that one scrap of doubt would always remain. That she would be forced to go through the same weighed heavily on his mind.
As casually as he could he lowered his hand to his lap and then slid it over to his hip where his weapon of choice still rested. "Do you feel the need to be compliant?" he asked and waited for a reaction.
"Fuck compliance! I want to know if they programmed my brain to kill you," she growled and pounded on the mattress with her free hand.
"Compliance will be rewarded," he said, and felt the bile rise to the back of his throat at the words.
She tugged at her restraint now, impervious to the way it made the gauze tint red, and huffed angrily, "Did you miss the memo? 'Cause it literally just was sent. Fuck compliance. Fuck it. Fuck. It."
The tension drained from his body and he was fairly certain that never in his life had he been so glad to see someone fail a test. Steve failing to get into the Army time and time again didn't count because the little punk eventually found a way. They had already tried lights and sounds and smells as triggers. Even Foster had tried the spiel on record for converting scientists. This was the last big one, the last of the known. It was entirely possible Hydra had come up with something new and horrifying and they would need to stay on alert for months to come because of that, but the worst of it was over.
His hand left his weapon and he leaned forward now, clearly within her reach. He tugged her hand down to his and toyed with the paper bracelet on her wrist when he promised, "The brain scans came back normal." A pause, then he corrected, "Almost normal. Clear indicators of stressors and abnormal sleep patterns, but that's about it."
She looked to him now, actually at him, but there was doubt in her eyes. "Then what the hell did they do to me? They took blood, that I can confirm one-hundred and sucky percent. But there were times I'd just wake up in the cell and everything felt different. Dizzy, achy, different," she told him.
He shifted his hand from the paper to her fingers and gripped tightly, in no way surprised when nothing happened. They had already used a sample of his blood to interact with hers but the touch, the physicality of it, seemed to ground her in ways words could not. "I don't know, darlin', but we'll find out."
She had just barely started to tighten her grip on him, her first active movement since this all began, when a knock on the door startled them both. He turned to see Natasha, knew from long years of experience that her expression did not bode well for anyone involved. "Barnes? A moment?"
He reluctantly let go of the hand, pausing just long enough to let his thumb brush across knuckles he hadn't gotten the chance to kiss yet, and stood to find out what fresh hell awaited them this time. Jane entered, followed by Banner. Steve stood in the doorway, waiting to usher him out and allow Darcy some privacy for whatever news she was about to receive.
"Stay?" she asked instead. "You can keep the golden retriever to hold him back if this pisses him off too much, but I'd kinda like him here right now. He's been through this crap before - not exactly, but enough, you know?"
Natasha shrugged and it was clear they were going to allow it if that's what she wanted. Steve entered and gently closed the door behind him to give at least the illusion of privacy despite the now crowded room.
Or perhaps it was more than that.
Natasha shifted her stance ever so slightly, defensive, prepared. A glance to the side showed Steve tensed as if ready to stop someone or something, and he had the overwhelming feeling he was the thing in question.
"What's going on?" he demanded, though vaguely tried to make it sound like a casual question. Jane bit her lip and clutched Darcy's hand tightly, the one he had just released, which only raised his hackles that much more. She knew, or at least suspected, what this was all about.
It was Bruce that eventually stepped forward and cleared his throat. He gripped a tablet tightly, knuckles tinged green where they should have been white, eyes everywhere save for where they needed to be. "We ran tests," he began.
"Yeah, we know this, Doc," he said impatiently. "You said there were no drugs on contagions or any of that crap. You said you personally double-checked all the findings just in case."
"Let him speak," Natasha said, and he had the sneaking suspicion that she now held one of her batons or at least one of her charges in the hands tucked behind her back.
Banner nodded his thanks in her direction and finally looked up from the device that was only opened to the home screen anyway. "We ran tests," he repeated. He paused and glanced away before he cleared his throat again. Steady now, as if concentrating all of his resolve into this one moment, he backtracked and explained, "Tony started in on the footage, the surveillance from the cell, and something keyed him in to a possibility. He cross-referenced that possibility with the records we, uh, stole, from the facility and we realized there was one more test we hadn't actually run yet."
It didn't take a genius to figure out whatever test they had come up with had turned up positive. Darcy licked her lips, just a flick of her tongue against them, and asked, "What did you find, Doctor Banner?"
"Actually, I'm not sure we should be discussing this with everyone in here, patient privacy and all that, but..." Banner babbled. It was annoying. Clearly he knew and Jane and Natasha suspected. Steve was just there to stop Bucky from doing something stupid.
"What did you find, Doc?" Now it was his turn to repeat. He was fairly certain that his repetition held a great deal more malice than the good doctor's had.
"She's pregnant," Bruce finally stuttered.
The pronouncement was immediately followed by Steve's demand of, "Aim for me."
He did as told, and his hand connected with the unyielding vibrantium instead of the plaster and mortar of the nearby wall. It connected three more times before he heard Natasha's wry, "Not quite how you wanted your feelings towards a certain intern revealed, was it, James?"
He didn't need to shake out the metal digits of his hand, but Steve needed a break to regain feeling in his arms, so he relented and tried to calm himself with deep and measured breaths. It didn't work, not completely, so he braced himself up against the unmarred wall nearest the bed, forehead against the cool plaster, and admitted, "Not exactly, no."
Darcy had dropped Jane's hand and reached for him blindly, her best friend getting with the program and shifting her grip to the blankets, staying close, but allowing Darcy her preferences.
Natasha's voice was lower now, almost a mutter to herself more than a comment to anyone in general, and he realized that they had managed to surprise her. "It would appear said feelings are not quite unrequited," she mused.
At Darcy's nod, he admitted, "Not for a while now, no."
He glanced up to catch sight of Steve's raised eyebrows and questioned how the hell a group of people who were supposed to be observant hadn't caught on for so long. It wasn't like he and Darcy had been sneaking around, not exactly. They hadn't told anyone outright, but no one had outright asked either.
It was Jane though, who let out a half-hysterical chuckle and said, "So he'd be the guy you've been running off to damn near every night for the past six months?"
"Eight," he said automatically, and watched as Steve's eyebrows climbed higher.
Darcy cleared her throat and drew the attention back to her, where it should have been all along had he been honest with himself. She looked embarrassed, with a hint of something more when she said, "Is now when I tell you that James' impressive display of propriety and our heartfelt admission of feelings were totally for nothing because I lied through my teeth and told the Hydra goons I was pregnant?"
Yep, all eyes were definitely on her now.
It was Jane who managed to speak first and asked a less than coherent, "W-what?"
Darcy looked sheepish. "Okay, so remember how we watched that show about women pirates who kicked ass right up until they were caught and we're going to be hung? They did this thing where they 'pled the belly' which basically meant that said they were preggers and the evil whatever refused to hang them because of the kidlings on the way. I figured Hydra goons ranked up there with idiot government people, and tried it in the hope that it would at least delay whatever they planned to do to me and give y'all time to find me."
"And Hydra documented that as fact?" Steve guessed.
"None of them wanted to take that risk," she confirmed. She tugged Bucky closer and, quieter now, admitted, "I heard them. They thought I didn't, but they were stupid and talked when they thought I was asleep. They were calling in a female doctor person to confirm it, but took my word for it because they had no idea what the hell they were doing. They took samples, but... They assumed any kid I was knocked up with had to be James' and started plotting world domination with a serum-enhanced lackey to control while mommy dearest bought the farm." She shivered. "It was... disconcerting to say the the least, but bought me time."
Bucky smoothed a strand of knotted hair back from her face and kissed the top of her head in comfort. He was proud of her for doing what she needed to in a hellacious situation to survive. Even if it scared the crap out of the good guys in the end.
Or maybe scared was not the right word.
Banner cleared his throat and made a face, knuckles slightly less green, but not by much. "Unfortunately, do remember the part where I said we ran some tests?"
Darcy paled and her grip on his fingers grew lax. "Holy shit. No. I don't want to play the role of Pythia on this crap. No," she babbled.
Banner at least looked sympathetic, but also truly concerned. "The intel that Tony found, it suggests the child was to be augmented in some way. Hydra had already given her a drug to increase metabolism before they thought to run some simple blood tests, at least that's what's documented. This was around day five of her confinement though, which leaves a large leeway for unknown actions to have occurred. She had been transferred through at least three separate cells by then, and we know nothing of her treatment up until the final facility."
The phrasing pissed Bucky off. "Unknown actions." It was clear what was being implied, even if the doctor couldn't bring himself to say it outright. He glanced over to Steve, who held his shield up in offering. He shook his head. There would be time enough for that later.
"There's also evidence they ceased their original plan augment her, but I highly doubt it was out of the kindness of their Nazi hearts," Natasha expanded. She seemed almost hesitant, though that was usually an act with her so it was difficult to tell of she was being sincere. "The reports from the day before we arrived had already begun to refer to the child or, more accurately, clump of cells that was beginning to become a child. Debates as to whether they could use an artificial incubator or keep Lewis alive for the gestation. They also had a timeline for comparing the cells to samples they had from James' Winter Soldier days, likely to verify the parentage."
Jane nodded as though that made perfect sense before she asked, "And what is the chance that the child belongs to Mr. Barnes'?"
"Well, unless science has greatly advanced in the three weeks that I've been out of the picture, it typically takes two gametes to produce a zygote and this sucker is in me, so it ain't his alone," Darcy huffed.
The tips of Steve's ears turned pink and he knew his own would have as well had he not had quite the control over his autonomic responses that he did. Darcy squeezed his hand and he cleared his throat before he admitted, "Uh, there's a chance. Small, but there."
The truth of the matter was that they rarely if ever came together in that way. Oh, there were plenty orgasms to be shared, as Darcy had put it one night as she lazed in his bed watching some horrible late night talk show after they both had enjoyed more than a single such experience. It's just that they were obtained in a variety of ways.
He was from an era when getting a girl pregnant meant the end of her freedom and any possible career she might be trying to pursue. Because of that, any dalliance he had back then tended to be on the creative side. She was of the mindset of exploring that creativity. Fully.
The night in her kitchen had been an irregularity, to say the least. She had licked the taste of herself off of his tongue and pulled him close by the most delicate of means. When he went to lift her up and away from the glass, she had gotten the wickedest gleam in her eyes. Soon enough, he found himself sinking deep within her, her moan of pleasure being damn near overwhelmed by his own as she clutched tightly around him.
There had been no condom. She had been on birth control and his version of the serum meant he couldn't catch nor pass on any standard contagions. It was foolish and stupid and reckless and still not a guarantee of anything given what happened next.
"So here is when things get difficult," Bruce began. He was cut off by a snort from Darcy, and Bucky agreed with her unvoiced statement that things reached that level about six confessions ago. The doctor continued though, and explained, "As of right now, we are unable to verify a conception date. The cell growth may or may not have been augmented by what they originally gave Miss Lewis. This means the timeline may be skewed."
"Which means James could be the father, or some random Hydra goon during my blackout period, or even Cell One used some of James' frozen happy juice because they wanted a different outcome than Cell Two," Darcy guessed. She shivered, suddenly a lot less bold, and he tried to pull her impossibly closer.
"Genetic testing?" Jane offered.
Bruce shook his head. "Even with our advanced techniques, she's a couple of weeks out from that possibility. It would also be near impossible to tell if the child was conceived naturally or via invitro. It's been three weeks, long enough for any telling evidence to dissipate." He looked up over the rim of his glasses and winced. "There is, of course, another option. Eliminate the doubt by eliminating-"
"No!" Darcy whispered a scream. She took a calming breath, and then another. She was squeezing his hand hard enough that she might leave a bruise, but her voice was relatively steady when she said, "I... We've talked, about everything they've done to him, all biology and suckitude, and this might be the only time he... I'm not ready to be a mom, but if this is our only shot? If they knocked me up with something from before versus the potential inability now? Or if this really all is au naturale? This could be a one in a million shot here. Look, can we at least wait until we know what we're eliminating before we eliminate it?"
He positioned himself to look her in the eye and block out everything else that surrounded them. She stared right back at him and he found panic and hope and something else all wrapped up together in the intensity. "Darce?" he asked, and waited for the answer, no matter what it may be.
"I'm not saying that you don't have a say here, but you don't have a say here," she told him bluntly. "My body and my choice and all of that. If this kid is actually yours and can actually be brought to term? I'm going for it. Fuck knows if there will be any other chances, you know? That said, if it's Random Hydra Goon Number Three Zillion's kid? I may want to rethink my options." She kept his gaze and held it steady, waiting for him to lay his own cards out on the table. Cut and run or go for the apparently increasing full house.
Hydra had tried before, he knew that. When they couldn't recreate the serum, they tried to recreate him. When that didn't work, they tried to create offspring of him to see if the enhancements would carry over to the next generation. There were participants, willing and not, of all types. He rarely if ever met them, only had vague memories of their faces after the testing failed and the participants were disposed of. If he dared to show emotion or make a connection to them, he'd be wiped again. It was easier to sit in the empty room they would give him for the trials and pretend he didn't know what was happening.
He didn't have that choice anymore.
He didn't want it.
"Whatever you decide," he told her, and meant it. "Whatever you decide, I'm here for you."
Six months, four days, and sixteen hours later, Darcy lounged on the couch with her feet propped up by an array of pillows, some of which he was beginning to suspect were made specifically for that purpose. She had a tablet in one hand and one of the carefully formulated protein shakes she had been prescribed in the other. She enlarged an image and held it out for him to see. "What do you think of this?" she asked before she took another sip.
It was a child's nursery, decorated with ships and flags and treasure chests, the walls painted the deep blue of the sea and the lamps lit with a golden glow. "But what if it's a boy?" he asked with a grin.
She set the tablet down and grabbed him by his shirt. He went more than willingly, peppering her neck with kisses before he finally reached her lips and took his time doing the same there as well. She pulled back slightly and said, "You're kinda awesome in a kick ass way, you know that, right?"
He rested his forehead against hers and laid a hand on her belly. He imagined he could feel the heartbeat beneath his palm, the vibrant source of life that she damn near radiated these days. "So are you, doll. So are you."