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The Road to Recovery

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Darcy Lewis stepped off the nicest plane she had ever seen, lugging her bag as best she could down the ramp. Her hair repeated fell into her eyes, her glasses were slipping down her nose, and she could already feel sweat starting to trickle down her forehead. She gave her overstuffed suitcase a final heave and dropped it down beside her. 'I need an intern,' she thought to herself as she took her first look around.

Sprawling African plains stretched out behind the jet as far as she could see, dotted with sparse trees here and there. Hazy waves of heat shimmered off the ground already, though it was still early morning. Off to the right were a series of small structures Darcy could just barely make out as farming huts. In front of her, over the top of the airport, rose the tips of skyscrapers in the distance. The buildings she could see were huge expanses of glass and steel, a seemingly strange juxtaposition to the huts and plains around her.

She startled when she noticed a woman in red and gold standing before her.

“Dr. Lewis?” The woman's voice was brisk.

Darcy cleared her throat. “Uh, yeah. That's me. Sorry for zoning out.” She stuck out her hand. “I'm still getting used to the whole 'doctor' thing, you know? You can just call me Darcy.”

The woman didn't look at Darcy's hand, much less shake it. “You may follow.” With that she turned and began walking away.

Darcy looked down at her bag and sighed. “Weightlifting Part Two: Electric Boogaloo.”


 

It was midday before Darcy was finally shown down the spiral walkway into the main lab. The room was all high contrast in black and white, with large holo screens and sleek machinery. The colorful mural decorating the walkway column and the thumping music made Darcy feel hopeful that not everything here would be formal and intimidating.

“Is that Doja Cat?” Darcy yelled toward the young woman at the workstation.

The woman spun around to her, grinning. With a wave of her hand, the music turned off. “My brother hates it.” She walked over quickly and extended a hand. “Shuri.”

Darcy took it. “So you do shake hands here! Cool, cool.” At the young woman's raised eyebrow, Darcy continued. “The guard lady, person, dude who showed me here- I think someone pissed in her Cheerios this morning.”

Shuri just smiled. “Some of the Dora Milaje choose to take their station very seriously. All the time.”

“Uh-huh. Right, well I'm Darcy, or like Doctor Lewis or whatever, but Darcy's better. When do we get started?” She bounced on her toes. “I'm jazzed to put this PhD to work.”

“Let me show you a few things I have prepared. You have your part ready?” She waved her over to the workstation.

“So ready. It's a three-stage plan. Well, two and a half.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Exposure therapy to go along with your end, a combo of pyschodynamic and dialectical behavioral therapies for all the trauma- that's the big piece of the pie-, and purpose finding exercises based in therapeutic mindfulness.” She paused. “That sounds like a lot, but it's not a big deal.”

Shuri was shaking her head. “Don't downplay your genius. It sounds impressive because you are.” She brought up a holographic image of a human brain. “Here is my plan for cognitive recalibration of the neurological pathways. It sounds impressive because I am.” She bumped her shoulder against Darcy's.

“I'm guessing it's more involved than a smack on the head?”

“Just a bit.”


 

Confidential papers strewn all around her on the floor and table, Darcy sat in her generously appointed suite in the palace, hunched over her computer. On the screen played a series of videos marred with static and crackling. Despite the poor quality, there was no mistaking the horrors of what was happening.

A man strapped to a table.
White coats surrounding.
Clothes cut away.
Injections.
Groaning.
Blades.
Saw.
Screaming.

The next video played right after the first. Darcy wanted to look away, but she couldn't.

A man strapped to a table.
A gleeful doctor.
Injections.
Sweating.
Crying.
Thrashing.
Screaming.

And the next:

A man strapped to a table.
Burning. Screaming. Healing.
Slicing. Screaming. Healing.
Snapping bones.
Wrenching fingers.
Twisting arm.
Punching.
Stabbing.
Screaming. Screaming. Screaming.

And the next:

A man strapped into a chair.
Pleading.
Begging.
Struggling to break free.
Jolted.
Buzzing.
Screaming.

Darcy shut her laptop with a snap. She felt sick. Hearing about what happened to him was bad enough. Seeing it...
A sob escaped her. She wrapped her arms around herself and let it all out.

She didn't know how long she had been sitting there, but it was full dark outside the wall of windows. Slowly, she began collecting papers from the floor and tucking them back in the file. A million questions circled in her head. How was she going to face him? Can she look him in the eye after watching him be tortured? A hug would be inappropriate, right? Definitely. Probably shouldn't cry in front of him, either. How could she maintain a level of professionalism? Was it possible to be objective? At this point should she even try?

Later, as Darcy tried to close her eyes without seeing the violent images burned beneath her eyelids, one thought came to the forefront of her mind: she was in way over her head with Bucky Barnes.

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Bucky stopped short when he saw her, resulting in Steve getting a few paces ahead.

“What's wrong?” he asked, walking back to his friend.

“That's not a therapist.” Bucky's brow was furrowed.

Thinking of how Zemo had infiltrated the SHIELD facility, Steve instantly went on high alert. “You've seen her before? Is she Hydra?” He looked around for weapons, wishing he still had his shield.

But Bucky was already shaking his head. “I don't know her.”

It was Steve's turn to furrow his brow. “How do you know she's not a therapist?”

“Look at her. She just-” Bucky stared hard ahead. “Doctors don't look like that.”

Steve turned to look. Down the hallway in front of them was their destination. A room with floor to ceiling windows instead walls, reminiscent of the SHIELD facility he had just been thinking about. He wondered what it was about modern architects and their apparent obsession with glass. The room had tall bookcases- with actual paper books on them, he noted- sleek looking consoles of some kind, a wide desk, and a living room style area with couches and a coffee table.

The woman in question wore jeans and converses with a blazer over a band tee. She was bustling around the room with almost too much energy. She straightened throw pillows on the couch, sipped coffee, moved around the few decorations on the shelves, sipped coffee, stacked papers on the desk, sipped coffee, and went back to the throw pillows.

He didn't see anything wrong. “She's probably nervous, Buck. And plenty of professionals wear jeans nowadays, if that's it. You know, Tony wears t-shirts like that all the-”

Bucky stopped listening as Steve carried on. Clearly, they were seeing different things.

The woman was beautiful. Her long hair swung around her as she moved quickly throughout the room. She almost bounced when she walked, as if she had so much energy that normal steps weren't going to cut it. Her eyes were lively and bright. When she stopped and smiled to herself, he could see an adorable gap in her teeth.

Adorable? Doctors were not adorable. Bucky frowned, but he was charmed despite himself.

Steve clapped a hand to his shoulder. “You ready?”

He steeled himself against flinching. It wasn't Steve's fault he hated being touched. He only nodded his head. “Let's go.”

 


 

Darcy was having a hard time settling down. Maybe it was the coffee. The thought didn't stop her from taking another sip. She was determined for this to go well. She was prepared. Knew what to say. They needed to see she was a professional before she could just say what came to mind. What came to mind was usually too casual for a situation like this, if not entirely inappropriate as well. She knew that. So she planned, and prepared, and tried to silence all the questions she was asking herself last night.

After the third or fourth time she fluffed the pillows on the couch, there was a heavy knock on her door.

She stood up straight and tried to steel her nerves. Everything was going to go perfectly according to plan. They would trust her, she would be able to help him, it would go great, because she was ready. She knew what to do.

And then she turned around, opened the door, and all her careful plans flew out it.

He was here. Bucky Barnes. She watched him be tortured, brutalized, brainwashed, and here he was regarding her with cautious blue eyes. How was she meant to do this again? No hugs, she reminded herself, even though he looks like he could really use one. Those arms looked like they could give a pretty good hug back, too.

She forced herself to put on a professional/friendly smile and not a sympathetic one. The last thing he probably needs is to think everyone around pities him.

She stuck out her hand. “Hi. Darcy Lewis. Come on in.”

Captain America shook her hand. Oh, right. He was here, too. C'mon, Darcy, she told herself.

“Pleasure to meet you, ma'am,” he said as the two of them entered.

“Hey, no. I'm definitely not a ma'am.” She gestured them to the couches. “Darcy's fine.” It didn't escape her notice that he brand new client had said nothing.

She cleared her throat. “So, obviously I know who you two are, but what do you want me to call you?” Yeah. That sounded professional.

“You can call me Steve, and this is Bucky.” He looked to his friend, who was still silently staring at Darcy.

She tried to take it in stride. Staring was absolutely the least of the man's issues. “Okay, so let's jump right in. Shuri and I have put together a four-part plan for you.” Maybe addressing him directly would help. “Obviously, we don't want to do anything without your full knowledge and consent, so let me lay it all out for you and we can discuss any concerns you have.” She grabbed a few papers from the desk and sat down across from them. As she laid out the papers for them to see, Bucky spoke to her for the first time.

“You don't look like a doctor.”

She looked up in time to see Steve elbow his friend and shoot him an “are you kidding me” kind of look. She only snorted. “I'm no old white man in a lab coat, but that proves I'm just as good.” She jerked a thumb toward the credentials hanging behind the desk.

Bucky seemed to ignore Steve. “How old are you?”

Oh, so it's going to be like that, Darcy thought to herself. “26. You?”

Bucky's eyes went wide for a moment, but he recovered quickly, and without bothering to answer. “Where did you go to school?”

“Culver. You?” Darcy smiled sweetly.

This time he narrowed his eyes at her. “How many patients have you treated?”

“Clients,” she corrected. “One.”

“Just me?”

“Yes.”

“You've never done this before?”

“Nope.”

“And you're going to be my head doc?”

“Yep.”

“This is a bad idea.”

Darcy just shrugged.

Bucky sighed. “Have you had defense training?”

“No.”

“Weird powers like that red lady?”

“Nope.”

“Any way to defend yourself at all?”

“I have a taser.”

“You keep it on you?”

“Always.”

“Could it stop me?”

Darcy grinned. “I mean, I took down a god with it, so I'm pretty sure I could knock you on your ass, too.”

Bucky huffed out what could almost be qualified as a laugh.

Darcy took that as an absolute win. “So, you wanna hear the plan or not?”

Steve looked up from where he had dropped his head in his hands. “I apologize, Dr. Lewis. We're sure you can handle the job. We trust Shuri and the king's judgment, and we have no more questions.” He emphasized the last part, shooting another look at Bucky.

“Please just call me Darcy.”

“Where'd they find you?”

Steve groaned. “C'mon, Buck.”

Darcy just shook her head. “On the internet.”

Bucky's eyebrows shot up.

“What? It's not like they could really advertise for this position, could they? Shuri found out about Thor or something and contacted me.”

It was Steve's turn to look surprised. “You know Thor?”

“He occasionally dates my friend, Jane. You know Jane Foster? I was her intern, but we're friends. I mean, she's fucked off to Asgard again, and I never know when I'll see her, but you know how it is.”

“You're an intern?” Bucky asked incredulously.

“Was, man. Was.” She pointed to the wall again. “That's a PhD, my dude. They don't just hand those things out to random interns, okay? Chill.” This is absolutely not how Darcy had wanted this meeting to go. Maybe she could bring it back.

Bucky interrupted her thoughts. “Why brainwashing?”

“What?”

“That other certificate says you specialize in brainwashing recovery. Why?”

Darcy sighed. “Look, when Loki came to New York he fucked up some people's minds. One of them was a friend of mine. He, uh, lost it for awhile. It was weird, he was naked, it was a whole thing,” she said waving her hands dismissively. “But the problem was we didn't really have time to help him before London exploded with elf-aliens. Kind of a big deal, you know? Honestly, I don't think we even knew where here was before he was running from cops on TV. But he needed help. More help than we knew how to give him. And no one- no one should have to deal with that shit alone.”

The room fell quiet for a minute.

Bucky broke the silence. “What's your plan?”

Darcy cleared her throat. She could bring this back around, get a handle on things again. “Okay. Part One is Shuri. I'm sure she can explain it much better than I can, but basically she's going to run some diagnostic tests while you're awake to map out how your brain synapses are firing. Then she's going to essentially rewire the pathways connected to your brainwashing trigger words.” She paused, pointing to one of the papers on the coffee table.

“Part Two goes along with that and will be done by Shuri and me. Exposure therapy. So after Shuri works on your triggers physically, we work on them emotionally. Dive into the psychology of the words and your PTSD, then learn some methods of decreasing your response to them and decreasing your anxiety. Eventually, we want you to choose someone to say your triggers in a controlled environment to test it out. Don't worry, that's way down the line. We may also ask you to sat the words yourself. Have you ever tried that?”

Overwhelmed, Bucky only shook his head.

“Alright. Like I said, that won't be anytime soon, anyway.” She continued talking mile-a-minute. “Part Three is the big part for me. We're going to do a mixture of pyschodynamic and dialectical behavioral therapies. Those just boil down to tracking negative thoughts and behaviors. We'll work on finding a balance between mindfulness and acceptance. This is the part where you'll have to do a lot of emotional heavy-lifting and reliving some of your more traumatic experiences. I'm not gonna lie and say it will be easy. It won't. But we will make it manageable.”

She paused, but Bucky, staring at the table, gave no reaction.

“Okay. Part Four is working more on that mindfulness piece with therapeutic exercises and some daily routines to encourage finding purpose. We can talk more about that in a minute. Do you have any questions about what we've laid out?”

Darcy knew she had just dumped a lot of information on them. At least she had finally gotten through one part of the conversation without being overly familiar, she thought.

She could almost see the questions swimming in Steve's eyes, but he shook his head.

“Sounds like you know what you're doing. Bucky?”

When he didn't answer, Darcy softened a little. She decided right in that moment that it didn't matter if she stayed professional or not. In fact, maybe she shouldn't. He needed more than that. What he really needed was support. He had Steve, of course, but...

“Hey,” Darcy began, “this process may get difficult and uncomfortable sometimes, but it's solid. Shuri and I both believe in what we've planned out for you. But it is for you.” She wanted to reach out and touch his hand in reassurance, but didn't know if that would be welcome. “If something doesn't seem right, or you're unsure about it, tell me, and we'll change whatever we need to.”

When he finally looked up their gazes caught and held. To Darcy, it seemed like he could see right through her. Not that she hadn't always been an open book anyway, but it was as if he was trying to puzzle her out.

Whatever he was looking for, he must have found. He nodded slowly. “It's the only chance at normal I've had in a long time.”

Darcy smiled. “It's more than that. You'll see.”

Bucky's lips twitched in what could almost be called a smile back. “So what was that about routines?”

Darcy's smile widened. “How do you feel about goats?”

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As Bucky woke to the warm Wakandan sunrise, he thought life with goats was not bad at all. He had his own space, a decent hut far enough away from everything that he could enjoy the quiet, a life of his own where no one gave orders, only suggestions, and more possibilities than he had in the last seventy years.

Yes, things were starting to look up, which to Bucky's mind, meant something was wrong.

He fiddled with his bracelet as he walked outside to feed the goats. “Damn stupid beads are supposed to-”

A hologram of Steve's head appeared. “Bucky?”

“What's going on here, Steve?” he said without preamble.

Steve ran a hand over his face. “It's too early for this, Buck. What are you talking about?”

“You got me out of the icebox-”

Steve made a face, but that didn't stop him from carrying on as he hefted hay bales with his free hand.

“-and some genius kid gives me a brand new arm, and this pretty doctor is telling me how the two of them can fix me-”

Another face from Steve, but Bucky was on a roll.

“-and give me a place to live, and an honest job, and my life back, and all I gotta do is sit around with stuff stuck to my forehead and talk about my feelings? What the hell is this, Steve?” He tossed the hay further than he intended, nearly taking out the fence.

Steve sighed. “It's help, Bucky. These people want to help you.”

“I don't deserve it.”

“Well, no one agrees with you, so just shut up.”

“Are they at least getting paid?”

“What?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “The tech kid and Dr. Gorgeous. Are they getting paid? Is there something in it for them?”

Steve gave him a pointed look. “No. So the least you can do is try to be nice. No more interrogations. And don't hit on your doctor.” Steve's hologram disappeared as he hung up without giving any chance for a response.

Bucky scrubbed a hand over his face. Nice. He could be nice. He looked down at his vibranium arm. It had been a long time since he had anything to be grateful for or nice about. But he could try.

 


 

He sat shirtless in Shuri's lab later that day, with no less than twelve electrodes stuck to his head and chest. It would have been unnecessary for the testing, but when Shuri went to use a headpiece to scan his brain, he had violent flashbacks to the chair. Hydra's chair.

Shuri had apologized profusely and instead used this “dirt old tech,” but Bucky felt like dirt himself for letting it affect him so much. It had been a huge struggle over about twenty minutes to pull himself back and calm down. So much for trying to be nice.

He cleared his throat. “I'm sorry about the machine,” he said softly. He looked at the pieces still littering the floor. He had smashed it before falling to his knees and clawing at his head.

“Do not apologize, Sergeant Barnes. I owe you the apology. I did not think about what my methods could trigger for you before your arrival. I should have.”

Bucky shook his head, trying not to disrupt any of the electrodes. “Please don't. I've got to get a handle on this.”

Adjusting a few controls on her workstation, Shuri shook her head right back. “That is what Darcy is here for. No one expects you to do this on your own. Seventy years of abuse cannot be undone in a day or by just one person. No matter how much you wish it.”

The words made sense, but Bucky still felt as if it were a failure. If he were just stronger, more persistent, more determined, smarter, something- he could have fixed his issues himself.

“Darcy's plan is wonderful,” Shuri continued. “It's quite clever. Surely the therapy will go well and this will be behind you soon enough.”

“Yeah, Darcy is- seems capable. I'm very grateful to you both. I don't think I thanked you for the arm.”

“And you won't start now, Sergeant. It was a joy to have a new project. However, if you insist on singing my praises, I won't stop you.”

He cracked a small smile. Maybe with the help of these people his life really will find it's way back to some kind of normal.

 


 

When Bucky walked into Darcy's office for the second time, the atmosphere in the room was much calmer. He sank onto the sofa, feeling like he took up the entire thing. Had he and Steve really shared it just yesterday?

He took a surreptitious look at Darcy as she dug through her desk drawers. She was certainly pretty; he hadn't misremembered. She was still energetic, but not in the same way as last time. She seemed closer to excited than nervous, though he couldn't begin to guess why.

“Alright. You ready?” She plopped down onto the sofa across from him and tossed a file onto the coffee table. “You probably assume I read your file, which I did, so you should read mine.”

Bucky furrowed his brow. “Don't think that's standard procedure for a doctor.”

“Yeah. But what about this situation is standard? I plan to do everything as fairly as possible. You share, I'll share. Then you're not the only one that has to be vulnerable. It's tough. And if I can make any of this shit easier, I'm going to. So, we'll both do it.”

Bucky was unable to look away from her eyes. What was it about her that was so compelling? “I think a few of my shares will be different than yours,” he deadpanned.

Darcy grinned, but nodded toward the folder anyway. “Still take it. Level our playing field at least a little. But just know that the part about the iPod is complete bullshit.”

He raised his eyebrows in question.

“It was a whole thing,” she said while waving her hand dismissively. “But I knew SHIELD sucked way before we knew they were Hydra.”

Bucky nodded like he knew what she was talking about, but picked up the file anyway. Maybe it could clarify a few things.

“So about all the parts I talked about yesterday, I think I made it sound like a step-by-step process. I just wanted to be clear that it's not. A lot of those things will be happening at once. But a lot of them blend into the others, so it's not like it will be overwhelming. Probably.”

“How long is this going to take?”

Darcy found herself wanting to pat his arm again, but resisted the urge. “The plan I have is for a very tentative two years, but everything is variable. Honestly, you'll be working on this for the rest of your life-”

Bucky sucked in a breath.

“-because PTSD and trauma and all the shit you've been through can always rear their ugly heads. It's how you manage them that makes the difference. The purpose of these therapy sessions is to give you the tools and support you need to learn how to deal with it. It's never going to go away completely. Our experiences shape who we are, and sometimes they leave things behind that we have to figure out how to handle, but it will get easier.”

Her eyes held his. “Shuri is going to remove the power the trigger words have over you, so you won't have to worry about that again. The rest, we will work on together. You have the help you need. Steve, Shuri, me, we've got you.”

He didn't know what to say. He cleared his throat. “How, uh, how do we start?”

Darcy smiled. “Steve told me you're keeping journals of things you remember. How's that going?”

“I'll bring 'em tomorrow,” Bucky sighed. He supposed it was inevitable that she hear all the details about the horrible things he had done. But so soon? He didn't know if he was ready.

“Why?” Darcy's question stopped him in his tracks.

“You need to read them, don't you?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Nope. I don't need to see them. They're yours,” she assured him. “I don't need to read your personal, private stuff. We'll talk about what we need to. It's good for you to have a way to get everything out of your head and try to organize it. It's cathartic and whatnot. You think it's been helpful so far?”

“Uh, yeah. Yes.” He scratched the back of his head. “I- things get- they're all jumbled up. I don't know when or where or even what half the time.” Bucky was pretty sure that didn't make any sense out loud, but Darcy wasn't looking at him like he was crazy.

She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Sucky. What do you know?”

“Some are memories and some are nightmares, I think, and I can't tell the difference.” Most of the time he hoped they were only nightmares.

“Makes sense,” was Darcy's soft reply. “Half of what you went through for real was a nightmare. And things you remember aren't just going to pop up in chronological order.”

“Any order at all would be nice,” he muttered.

“Well, there might be.” She sat up and pointed with her hands as she explained. “Your brain's like this puzzle, right? And it's too smart for it's own good. So imagine you're looking at this, like, ten thousand piece puzzle. You don't know where to begin. You think maybe you'll start by finding all the pieces with the smooth, straight sides to put together first because it's an easy way to get started. Then you at least have a place to start from when you get to the more confusing pieces.”

She made an on-the-other-hand sort of gesture. “Or, it could be that your brain's going for those dark, bumpy pieces first to get them out of the way. Once you get through the hardest parts, the rest is easy to handle.” She pointed the other direction. “Or, you start off one way, realize it's not working, and try the other way. Then that gets overwhelming, and you go back to the first way. Or,” she shrugged, “there's really no rhyme or reason to it at all, which is possible.”

Bucky's brow was furrowed. That was an awful lot to consider, but one hopeful thought rose to the surface. “Puzzles can be solved.”

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Darcy finished the follow-through of her roundhouse kick without falling on her ass, which was a definite improvement. She bent over at the waist, panting, and cursing the fact that the punching bag had barely moved.

“Better,” came the voice of her trainer. “Let us move on.”

Darcy nodded enthusiastically. “Thank Thor!”

“Cardio. We will run out in the fields.”

“Yeah, no,” she replied in an Australian accent. “Don't put me down for cardio.” She finally looked up at the woman beside her. The woman looked strong and formidable, even in workout gear instead of traditional Dora Milaje dress.

Her whole stoic appearance transformed when she broke out in a wide grin. “You asked me for help. This will help.”

“I've made a mistake, Ncedo,” Darcy whined as she dropped down to the mat. “Asking real warriors to train me was a horrible idea.” She threw an arm over her eyes. “Just leave me here to die.”

Ncedo huffed a laugh. “Are all Americans so dramatic?”

“Nope. I've cornered the market.”

Ncedo stuck out a hand and Darcy allowed herself to be pulled up. “Let us go. Fresh air and sunshine will be good for you.”

“Yeah, that's not the part I'm worried about,” muttered Darcy. She shook her head. “Alright, alright, alright.” She tried to pep herself up à la McConaughey. “Let's go.”

 


 

It was difficult for Bucky to think of the high-tech room as a gym. It looked more like how he pictured the inside of a spaceship than a place to workout. But that didn't stop him from heading down to do just that. Bucky walked into the gym just in time to see Darcy collapse on the mat for the second time that morning.

“I think I might actually hate you,” she groaned.

Bucky paused mid-step. Did she mean him? Certainly he deserved it, but it surprised him that she would say it outright. Especially since she had been so encouraging in their therapy session yesterday. Had she found out something about his past that hadn't been in his file? He thought the file was pretty comprehensive, but seventy years of murder was a lot to cover. There was probably a whole army's worth of people who hated him. Hell, most days he even hated himself. Why had he expected her to be any different?

“I'm sorry,” he said quietly. “I can go.”

He had turned to leave when Darcy lifted her head off the floor and squinted toward him. “Oh, hey. Not you.” She flung her arm out accusingly. “Ncedo here is apparently trying to kill me.”

In Bucky's immediate downward spiral, he hadn't even noticed the other person in the room. Bucky's brow furrowed. Was Darcy lying on the floor in pain? Had that woman injured her? He was sure if he attacked one of the Dora Milaje, he would have to leave Wakanda on the run. Bye, bye, recovery. He would, though. If Darcy needed his help, he would run again.

Then he saw Ncedo was rolling her eyes in an amused sort of way. It clicked for him. “How is she killing you?”

Darcy replied in a voice dripping with revulsion and horror, as if what she said was nearly unspeakable. “Exercise.”

He snorted. He wondered if there was a way to train himself not to think of the worst possibility first in every situation. Darcy would probably know.

Ncedo was laughing. “I will remind you once again that you requested this yourself.”

Darcy pushed herself up to sitting, groaning all the way. “Just some self-defense, dude. I don't need to train for a marathon.”

“You only ran two miles.”

Two miles? No wonder I feel like death.”

Ncedo laughed and Bucky snorted again. “That's nothing, Doc.”

He could almost feel her glare on his skin as she got to her feet.

“Don't start with me, buddy.” She jabbed a finger in his direction. “You've got athletic cheat water running through your veins.”

Bucky was stunned. He gaped. Then a loud laugh escaped him. As far as he remembered, no one had ever joked about a single thing that had happened to him. And it was nice, refreshing, even, to be treated like a normal person. She was teasing him. Amazing.

Darcy watched him for a moment, beaming. “You know something? Happiness looks good on you.”

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Dusk in Wakanda was beautiful. The brilliant oranges and pinks painted across the sky faded into deep blue as the sun sunk behind the horizon, taking the heat of the day with it. Warm winds blew throughout the tall grasses of the fields. Crickets chirped, animals were stabled, and children were back inside. Darcy thought it was as if the world was letting out a sleepy sigh.

But then night would come. Sure, the night held beauty. The stars were bright in the blue-black of midnight. Lights in the windows of buildings winked off one by one. Even the crickets went to sleep eventually. And the world fell quiet.

The world was quiet, but Darcy's mind was not. When the day ended and there were no more tasks to keep herself busy, no more papers to deal with, no more planning to do, no more people to talk to, or exercise to abhor, or sessions to hold, or sass to dish out, there was nothing left to stop her from thinking. No matter what she started thinking about, it would always spiral around to London. Or, if she was lucky, New Mexico. At least there were a few good memories from Puente Antiguo she could distract herself with. And it was always worse in the dark. It made no sense. Both the attacks she was part of happened in the daytime. The attack on New York was in the day, too. But something about the dark coaxed out fears like no other time could. Something about the dark made her feel small. Something about the dark made her feel alone. Something about the dark made her feel powerless.

The warmth of day was still cooling into night when Darcy pulled on Jane's “borrowed” flannel and stepped outside. She squared her shoulders. Night was nothing. Dark was nothing. She could handle absolutely anything. There was nothing to be afraid of outside anyway. Still, she patted her hip to feel the comforting weight of her taser.

As she walked through the fields, she concentrated on taking deep breaths. Staying calm was important. She would not allow herself to panic about simply being in the dark. Down the hill, nearing the closest huts to the science facility, she spread out the blanket she had tucked under her arm. She laid down and closed her eyes.

“No one is out here,” she whispered. “Just me. Just stars. Stars are cool.” Cracking one eye open, she looked up. Out here away from all the high-tech buildings and their lights, stars shone in the night sky, clear and bright. She traced a finger in the air along the constellations she could pick out. Focusing on the small task made it much easier to let go of the nighttime paranoia.

Darcy opened both eyes and tried to relax. She would train herself not to be terrified at night. 'Immersion therapy,' she thought. 'Just like we'll do with Bucky.' She sighed a bit. Therapy was going well with him so far. They had only had three sessions, but they all seemed productive. The most important thing for now was to build trust. Trust would open so many doors in their professional relationship. She huffed out loud. 'Yes, professional. It doesn't matter that he's fun to talk to, or has Jared Leto/Jesus hair, or has TV vampire blue eyes, or is Thor-muscly all the time.' She nearly rolled her eyes. 'Doesn't matter. Still a client. Don't be attracted to clients.'

She focused again on the stars above her. Stars wouldn't stare into her soul or smile so sadly she had to physically sit on her hands to stop from hugging them. Hugging, though. They did need to work on that. Accepting touch was a part of trauma-

A cough.

Darcy shot up off the blanket like it was on fire. “Who's there? I'll taze you! I swear you'll have so many volts running through you, I could use you as a toaster!” Unfortunately, she fumbled pulling out her taser, which landed on the ground, stealing the thunder from her threat.

Bucky's hands were in the air. “It's, uh. It's just me. Sorry.”

Darcy picked up the taser and blew hair out of her face. Hopefully sometime soon her heart would stop trying to beat out of her chest. “Odin's eyepatch! We should put a bell on you or something.” She squinted, but could barely see him.

“I'm sorry.” He slowly put his hands down. “I was out walking. I heard you talking to yourself.”

Shit. What part had she said out loud? Oh, well. “Don't judge me, Barnes. What are you doing out here at three in the morning anyway?”

Bucky inclined his head. “Don't judge me, Lewis. What are you doing out here?”

“Ya got me.” Darcy smoothed out the blanket once again and sat down. “I was looking at the stars. Can't exactly do that during the day, chief.”

“Right.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I'll leave you to it then.”

“You can join me, if you want. Not gonna lie, the blanket's a little scratchy, but I'm willing to share.” She smiled even though she had no idea whether he could see her or not.

“Uh, okay.” Bucky laid on the farthest edge of the blanket.

Darcy laid back down and pointed at the first constellation she could find. “See that. That's Scorpio. I'm not much for horoscopes, but I like the myths.”

Bucky nodded like he had any clue what in the world a horoscope was. “What is it?”

“So, Osiris was ruler of Egypt, right? But his brother tricked him and killed him so he could take over. And he sent the body down the Nile. Osiris's wife, Isis, searched for his body to give him a proper burial so his soul would be saved, or whatever. But evil brother dude was like nuh-uh and sent monsters after her. Scorpio was one of seven scorpions that protected Isis as she found and buried her husband, who was now in pieces. Then her son led an uprising and killed his evil uncle, Lion King style.”

“Huh.” He didn't know how to begin to process that. He shook it off. “Seems like you know a lot about stars.”

“Kind of.” She turned to look at him and was pleasantly surprised to be able to see him a little better. “Jane's an astrophysicist so, ya know, lots of star stuff. I know most of the constellations and their myths and junk, but the science-y aspects of it are more Jane territory.”

Bucky caught himself staring at her. Her eyes sparkled even in the dark. Quickly he looked up and pointed at a few stars. “What about those?”

Darcy looked up and then back down at him. “Well, that's ironic.”

“What?” He forced himself to keep his gaze on the sky.

“It's Typhon the sea serpent, one of the monsters that was sent after Isis in the Egyptian myth. But, it's more commonly known by its name in Greek mythology.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“It's the constellation Hydra.”

Bucky exhaled in an almost laugh. “Of course it is.”

Darcy shrugged. “I mean, you're the one who pointed at it.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, scrubbing a hand over his face. “That's my luck. Can't even have one night without 'em.”

She rolled toward him and propped herself up on an elbow. “Rough nights?”

He turned his head toward her, surprised to see her so close. “Yeah,” he said quietly.

“I get it.” She picked at her nails. “It's hard to sleep with all the crappy shit that's happened playing over and over in your head.” Well, she had promised him emotional vulnerability. Here goes nothing. “It happens to me, too. Like, every night.”

“I'm sorry.” His hand itched to reach for hers, like a reflex, but he hadn't touched anyone in comfort in a long time. She wouldn't want comfort from him of all people anyway. Instead, he mirrored the way she was laying. “I, uh. I saw the videos.”

“Glad you read my file,” Darcy smiled a little. “I got through everything fine, at the time. Even joked through it, you know? I'm always joking.” She looked down. “But after,” she continued quietly, “after, it all hit me at once. Both times. It's like I suddenly realized what just happened. And what could have happened.”

Bucky nodded. “After is always worse. The adrenaline is gone and there's too much time to think.”

“Nothing really even happened to me. I was fine. My peeps were all fine. But, it was some scary shit.” She sighed. “I don't know. I feel like I should be over it, but I know that's not how it works.”

“It makes you feel weak.”

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I come out here to force myself not to be afraid. I used to look at the stars with Jane in New Mexico and it always felt peaceful. It doesn't really work for me anymore. But it should. It's stupid. It's not like The Destroyer is going to pop up out of a wheat field, or something.”

“Doesn't always make sense,” Bucky shook his head. “Be easier if it did. Sometimes my heart starts racing when an air conditioner comes on. It's nothing like cryo. But knowing that doesn't stop the panic.”

“Do you get nightmares often, too? I thought they'd go away eventually, or at least happen less, but nope,” she said shaking her head. “All the time. And I know how I'm supposed to deal with them, but...” Darcy sighed. “I like being a badass, you know? But it's dark and I'm alone and sometimes I just can't deal.”

“I- yeah. I know how you feel.” Bucky hadn't thought anyone could relate to the things he was going through, least of all his therapist. But maybe he wasn't so alone. “Maybe we could- never mind.”

Darcy looked at him like she knew exactly what he didn't quite offer. “Would you maybe want to keep each other company sometimes? When the nights get tough? No pressure. You can tell me to buzz off.”

Somehow, they had moved close enough that she could feel the heat radiating off him. She saw the way his lips curved up and tried not to think about them too much.

As Darcy tried not to watch him too closely, she missed how closely he was watching her. He saw her glance at his lips. He wouldn't have to lean in far to brush them over hers.

What was he thinking? In what world would a woman like her want to kiss a man like him? And he could barely stand to be patted on the shoulder. Who was he kidding? Maybe he could try.

Still, she was waiting for an answer. “Yeah,” he said, not being able to help himself. “I'd like that.”

Her smile made him feel it was definitely the right choice. He was sure he could make another. “I could, uh, walk you back to your room, if you want. Might be better than being alone,” he shrugged, trying to downplay his offer.

Darcy smiled at him again. “Promise you can protect me from the wheat field?”

“I'll do my best.” He hopped up and took a deep breath. Then he held out his hand.

She looked up at him in surprise. Her gap-toothed grin made another appearance as she slipped her hand in his.

Bucky couldn't have said what they talked about on the way back, but he knew the exact shape of her hand, how soft it felt, the warmth it pressed into his skin. He was surprised by how easy it was- holding her hand. It felt normal. Felt right. Maybe it wouldn't always be this simple, or maybe it would, but he was grateful to have something come easily for once.

Darcy turned to face him when they got to her suite door. It had been the most relaxing walk in the dark she had since before New Mexico happened. It felt normal to be walking along with him. Felt right. She squeezed his hand once before letting go. “Thanks for walking with me.”

He immediately missed the weight of her hand in his. Strange. Missing touch. Maybe he had been missing it for a long time without ever realizing it. “My pleasure, ma'am,” rolled off his tongue in a reflex.

She didn't even have the heart to fake scold him. “Just Darcy, man.”

“Darcy,” he corrected. “Not a robot or alien in sight.”

“Between my taser and your muscles? They wouldn't dare.” She was happy to see his answering smile reach his eyes.

“Goodnight, Darcy.”

“Goodnight, Bucky,” she replied softly.

Closing the door behind her, she leaned back against it and blew out a breath. She knew she shouldn't think of her night that way, but she couldn't help it: that was the nicest date she'd ever had.