Darcy stood in the door and gaped at the destruction.
What used to be a gym was now...nothing. Just a pile of scrape metal and shattered plaster. Dumbbell shaped holes had taken out what should have been Stark's greatest achievement—Avenger-proof construction materials.
In the middle of it all sat Steve.
He wasn't standing, wasn't kneeling or crouching. He was sitting, knees drawn up to his chest like he wanted to curl up into a ball right there and never move again. She'd once teased him that, for being a super soldier who could do flips and other kickass stuff, the fact that he wasn't flexible enough to sit cross-legged was hilarious.
It didn't seem like it now.
She carefully picked her way through the carnage, glad for the two-thousandth time that she preferred sneakers. After an alien invasion and a weapon of destruction tearing apart a town, a girl learned to never be caught without a good pair of running shoes.
“Do we know where he is?” she asked softly.
Steve didn't look at her. “Stark and JARVIS are tracking him. They have Sam on standby. He went upstate.”
She picked up the one bench that seemed to have made it and sat down gingerly. “What's up there?”
He shrugged one shoulder, looking more defeated than she'd ever seen him. “Nothin'. Just woods and wildlife.”
Meaning that Barnes had literally put himself as far away from people as possible.
She wasn't sure why Natasha had thought she'd be any good down here. Ever since the Chocolate Layer Cake Incident (there was a file), followed by the She Who Must Not Be Messed With Disaster (there was video and an instructional class now, apparently), things had been a little tense.
She'd just wanted to show them Mama didn't raise no chump. She didn't mean for Bucky to chase Steve all over the place. Or destroy Stark's garage full of mechanical man toys.
The two men had seemed to work it out between themselves, but none of them seemed to know how to act around each other anymore. Something had changed.
Maybe that's why Nat sent her. Steve knew how to deflect the spysassin. Well, about as well as anybody deflected her. Clint did his own thing, Banner was probably better off not involved, Jane was useless, Sam wanted to help but...
Well, Steve “I will end you for cake” Rogers did not like to be handled.
Since nobody would ever qualify Darcy as a handler—by any stretch of the imagination—the gloves were off. Anything went.
Whatever that ultimately meant. “I'm sorry.”
He inclined his head in her direction.
“It's hard to see someone you care about just...you want to help, and sometimes you think you are, and then something happens to remind you that there's nothing you can physically do to lift the burden for someone else. Not like this.”
Steve's eyes turned shiny. He swallowed. When he spoke, his voice was rough and thick but stoic. “He stole your iPod again.” He held up the little rectangle. “I bought him one, but he likes yours better.”
She knew that. It was why she'd been headed in this direction in the first place. “I think it's the purple,” she said. “Blue is boring.” But she reached for the music player anyway.
He let her take it from limp fingers. “JARVIS says he was listening when he...”
She looked down at the screen. Considering the wreckage they were sitting in, it was remarkably pristine. Eerily so.
It was paused. Steve must have been trying to figure out what Barnes heard.
Her new playlist, the one she hadn't had a chance to listen to yet.
Songs from the 1930s and 40s.
Her mouth went dry. “I...I thought he'd like familiar music.”
“It's Been a Long Long Time,” Steve enunciated dully. “Kitty Kallen. Hit song of 1945. The lyrics refer to welcoming a soldier coming back from war.” He paused. “JARVIS told me. We weren't home yet.”
And then the train and the ice.
With shaking hands, she pulled out her ever-present ear buds and put them in. She almost missed the connection port on the device, but managed to lock the attachment in place.
It was horrible.
The bluesy, slow big band romantic intro. The sweet voice of the singer marveling at how long it had been since she'd seen her love, demanding her dear kiss her.
Every word was a vice in her chest, squeezing the cage tighter and tighter around her heart. Big, hot tears burned her eyes. It was so easy to imagine the James “Buchanan” Barnes from the news reels spinning lazily around a dance floor to this, worn out but happy, glad to be home and to have survived all the horrors he'd seen.
The way it should have been.
She swiped at her cheeks, ashamed and a little afraid, pulling the cords out of her ears when the song ended. “I didn't mean...”
“When Bucky fell off the train, I went back to our spot. Don't remember how I got there. Only it wasn't actually there anymore; it was bombed out while we were gone. Nothin' but a shell.” He still refused to look at her. “I sat there, tried to get drunk, and told myself this wasn't real. It was. No matter what I said, it was, 'cause I had the perfect memory of him fallin' playing over and over in my head.”
Darcy was suddenly so viscerally angry that she had trouble sitting still. Angry at herself, at life, at people who were too stupid to realize that war wasn't a real answer, at the way things had worked out for Steve, at Hydra, at everything and anything and it wasn't even something that happened to her. If that was even a third of what Steve and Bucky felt, well, she was surprised that there was anything left standing here.
How much of Bucky's recovery was Steve's recovery? How much of recovery could even be called that? Wasn't it just a matter of...trying to overcome? To hold yourself together when circumstances demanded that you fall apart?
“They call us the Greatest Generation, Darce.” Steve sounded so lost. “Like we sprang out out of the ground fully formed and had nothin' but patriotism and a whole lotta guts in our bodies.” His head bent. “I don't feel great.”
“And you don't have to.” She didn't know what she was saying, didn't know if it was remotely appropriate. She just... “You feel whatever you want to feel, because that's your right. If you feel scared, or angry, or afraid, or like the world is going to collapse around you, do it. You don't owe anybody anything.”
His shoulders were hunching up.
She was so bad at comforting people. She didn't know what to do. This was not a problem that could be fixed, and so all she had was just a bunch of phrases that felt too pat to say out loud and this burning need to help him.
Humans were so complicated and fragile. Even Captain America, because really? He was just Steve Rogers.
She slid off the bench to her knees next to him. “Do you want a hug?” she asked uncertainly.
He shook his head. “I'll be alright.”
Because he didn't feel like he should take the comfort? Because his generation was told to hold that kind of thing inside?
She took a chance. “Can...you hug me?”
He stilled. Lifted his head.
His eyes were wet and red, making him look more human than she'd ever seen him, even the time Clint stole his underwear while he was in the gym shower and he ended up with a towel-wrapped American icon on his trail.
She stared back nervously, shrugging a little. “Maybe I shouldn't ask. I don't...I didn't mean to hurt him, but I...”
A big, warm hand cupped her face and braced a thumb on her cheekbone. He leaned in, his beard prickly against her skin while his lips felt soft and oh, so much better than she remembered.
She wasn't sure what to call this kiss. Not passionate. Not entirely comforting. It was tender, reassuring, but it wasn't friendship and it wasn't love. It just felt...human.
More than she deserved.
There were new tears in her eyes when he drew back, and she went into the hug willingly when he wrapped his arm around her. She snuggled close, head buried in the crook of his shoulder, her own arms banded around his body as much as physically possible.
His cheek rested on her crown.
He held onto her as tight as she held onto him. Or at least that's how it felt; she didn't want him to hold back because of his strength, but part of her wondered if that just wasn't the way Steve Rogers would always be. If he'd always hold a tiny bit of himself apart, afraid.
“You and James should have gotten your happy ending,” she said into his shirt, “and I want to beat up the world because you didn't.”
A little tremble of his muscles that could have almost been a chuckle. “Look out, world.”
It was awkward and uncomfortable to sit like that for any length of time. They weren't really supported by anything except each other, their bodies twisted in unnatural ways. She aware of every inch of him, from the way he smelled to the way he breathed. She wondered if it was the same for Steve.
“Bucky's sweet on you,” he said after a few minutes, like he was confessing a secret. “It's not just the iPod.”
“I know.” She'd thought she knew what to do with that, but now...
“It ain't right to tell another man's feelings.” He brushed her hair absently.
“So why are you?”
“Because I'm worried. About everything.”
Darcy had always wondered if there was more to this friendship than the super-censor era would have the public believe. On the one hand, dangerous times where being gay was almost certainly a death sentence. On the other, different standards of masculinity and connotations regarding touching.
She came from a world that had evolved in some ways, was still evolving. The spectrum of how humans thought of themselves was getting wider every day, so did it really matter how Steve and Bucky defined their relationship?
She wanted to say no, that putting a label on things wasn't important. Sometimes humans just needed each other, and it wasn't a matter of love or any other emotion that could be named. They just did.
So she crushed the part of her that wanted to ask if he and Bucky were more than friends. It wasn't her business, no matter how much society had taught her to believe otherwise. Whatever those kisses were, whatever emotion was sitting in between them right now, they weren't as important as making sure both men were as happy as could be reasonably expected. That was the goal. Helping them reach a place where they could look around and say, “I am content and warm and safe.”
Darcy gathered up her courage. “When you go find him, maybe you should think about not coming back.”
He drew back. “What?”
“How long has it been since the two of you had time to yourselves? Real time to yourselves?”
He didn't answer, just kept looking at her with slightly wider eyes.
“We have a tower full of heroes. There's another tower full of heroes, one of which is a flaming human greaseball with a little too much charm. There's the X-men too,” she pointed out, petting his chest just a little. “If you want to disappear for awhile, take Bucky and just...figure yourselves out, you should. There's a lot of people who could fill in the hole until you decided to take it back.”
If he did.
He looked tempted and panicked all at the same time. “I...”
“You could go to a baseball game. Eat a hot dog. Go camping.”
“I hate camping. Why does everyone always think I like it? I'm from Brooklyn.”
She chuckled. “You spent most of the forties outside camping.”
“Yeah, well, it'll take a war and another Hitler before I do that again,” he muttered.
“So go do whatever else you used to dream about for after the war.”
“Darcy...I didn't think I'd live that long.”
“I never thought about the future. Always ended up in death, either from pneumonia or standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Man with a Plan. Suddenly, irony was everywhere. And not the good kind. “Maybe that's the key, then. Make a plan for tomorrow. When that works out, make one for next week. Reach a little further until you've got the years checked over. But just start with twenty minutes from now,” she said. “Start with Bucky.” She held up a fist of solidarity. “You can do this.”
“What if I do?” he asked, very serious. “Will you be here when we get back?”
Her heart thumped. “Well, if Tony offers an all expenses paid vacation in Europe, I'm not going to turn him down. Or if Thor finally gives in and takes me to Asgard.”
That didn't seem to satisfy him at all.
She nibbled on her bottom lip. What was she supposed to say? What was he even asking? “Whenever you are ready to come back, I'm going to be easy to find.”
“The war taught me a lot of things. Waiting has a time and a place.” He swallowed and nodded to himself. “This ain't it.”
Suddenly he wasn't holding her anymore. He was kissing her.
Kissing, kissing her.
The kind of kissing that robbed her of time, space, thoughts, sense, and every other thing that could interfere with the oh-my-godness of the beautiful thing that was Steve Rogers' mouth.
She was so into it that she actually forgot to do anything with her hands. They just kind of waved around helplessly, a fact she noticed almost immediately after he drew back.
“Wooooooooooooooooooooooow,” she uttered. It was literally the only thing she could force past her lips, which felt so deliciously swollen she wanted to lick them.
A brief, brilliant smile flashed a second before he turned super earnest. “I'm going,” he said. “I'm going, and then I'm coming back. It may not be right away, but it's happening. When it does, we'll all do whatever it takes to work this out. Okay? Please say okay.”
She shouldn't be happy. This moment was too grave for that, but her heart soared even as she tried to tamp it down. “Yes. I mean, okay. Okay and yes?”
He crawled up until he was kneeling slightly above. Fingers that could crush her skull cradled it instead while he pressed their foreheads together. “This is not the last time.” It sounded like a vow. Or like a reminder.
She grabbed his face and squeezed. “Nope.”
“This is crazy.”
“You're kind of famous for that kind of thing.”
“Buck's going to--” He suddenly jerked back. “You don't really have a boyfriend, do you?”
“I told him that, 'cause he was bein' a—but now I don't know--”
“Pardon me, Captain Rogers.”
Steve leaned his head back and closed his eyes like he was wishing for his rosary so he could pray. “Yes, Jarvis?”
“Sir requires you. He says that the situation with Sergeant Barnes has...evolved,” he announced tactfully.
He nodded once. “Understood.”
She climbed to her feet first. “Go. Right now.”
He kissed her again, on the forehead, on the cheek, then the mouth. “Not done.”
“Nope.” She pushed him back. “And tell him that I...” Words failed her.
Steve seemed to understand anyway. “I will.”
He turned without much ado. She wondered what all those women felt like when they were watching their men walk away to battle. The human language probably hadn't developed ways to describe it just yet.
This was different. She wasn't watching him go to war. She was watching him go fight for his friend.
She had no idea what she'd just done or what that would mean in the future. It didn't matter, really. What mattered was that it felt right, and that was what counted.
So yeah, this wasn't over. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
She was willing to find out.