"I.W. Harper?" Hermione read aloud, turning the gold-labeled bottle of whiskey in her hands. "Well, that's a new one on me."
Bucky gave a sideways nod, twisting up some ice cubes in clean dish towel. "New? That bottle's about 3 years old, just never had reason—or the chance—to open it 'til now." Crossing the kitchen, he pulled up a chair beside her with his free hand. "But, somehow I've got a feeling that's not the weirdest thing you're going to say tonight."
"Oh, I can guarantee it won't be," she said with a laugh as he took a seat.
He chuckled and gave a shake of his head. "Hey, do us both a favor and pour those glasses while I see how bad this is, okay?"
She turned in her chair, putting her back to him. The witch tried not to overthink having her bare skin—and her bra, depending on how high up any bruising might trail—exposed to his gaze. It was her own bloody fault she should feel shy about the simple application of an ice pack, if she just didn't think he was so damned pretty . . . .
And sure enough, he hiked her shirt all the way up to her shoulders.
Wincing, he was grateful she couldn't see his expression as she uncapped the bottle and poured the whiskey. It wasn't exactly the most reassuring reaction to her injury. "Okay, this might not be comfortable."
Hermione couldn't help but jump a little as he pressed the cold bundle against her back. "How's it look?" she asked as she slid his glass back across the tabletop toward him.
Puffing out his cheeks, he exhaled, the sound loud and thoughtful. Don't let your eyes wander, Buck, this isn't the time. "Well, it ain't pretty."
The words were out of her mouth sooner than she could think to stop them. "I'm not sure if I should be insulted by that, or not."
"Oh, I didn't mean . . . you know, I was only . . . ." He laughed and cleared his throat. "You know I meant the bruise."
"I know, I'm only teasing." She took her first swig of whiskey, sparing a moment to choke back a cough at how rough it was on her throat. "Oh, I'm going to be pissed after two of these, I can feel it, already?"
Bucky tipped his head, catching her gaze over her shoulder. "Going to be what?"
"Sorry, cultural difference, I suppose. It's a British term for drunk."
"Ah." He couldn't help that his attention did wander while he took a gulp from his own glass with his free hand. "Hmm."
"Hmm?" she echoed as she managed another swig.
"Sorry, I know I probably shouldn't be looking, but I've just never seen a bra like that before."
Hermione arched a brow as she glanced back at him. This was the 1940s, after all, the chance of coming across a racerback bra that clasped in the front was literally impossible unless dealing with time travel.
But the comment caught her attention for another reason, entirely. "Have much experience with women's undergarments, do you?"
He tried to hide a sudden, suspicious flush of color in his cheeks—that clearly had nothing to do with the alcohol—behind his glass as he took a second sip.
"Oh, I see, bit of a ladies' man, then?" She couldn't help a grin as she shook her head. "I suppose I'll have to watch myself around you."
Feigning a wounded expression, he scoffed. "Oh, now that's not fair. I'm a romantic, I swear. I just . . . haven't really found the right girl, yet."
"Oh, please! That is such acliché excuse!" She snickered as she took another drink. "There's no such thing as the right person, because everything's a compromise. Honestly, so many people talk as though the right one is just going to pop up, or fall into your life out of the blue, or something."
He knew she hadn't really thought through what she was saying before she let the words out. Bracing his elbow on the table, he leaned forward, around her just a bit. "You did. You did both those things. First, you 'popped up' in that HYDRA facility, now here you are after 'falling out of the blue' into my bedroom."
"Oh." Swallowing hard, she struggled to maintain eye contact as she tried not to blush at his implication. "I suppose I did, didn't I?"
"But that doesn't make you the right one, huh?"
"I . . . ." After a quiet moment, feeling the giddy rush of butterflies in her stomach and the tingle of goosebumps running along her arms—just from sitting this close to him, bloody hell, she was doomed, wasn't she?—Hermione managed to tear her gaze from his as she forced a nervous giggle. "I'm pretty sure we're sidetracking. I was supposed to tell you my long story, wasn't I?"
Taking a deep breath, Bucky sat back as he exhaled. He knocked back the rest of his glass and then poured them a fresh round.
"Yeah," he said with a nod. He'd known her all of twenty minutes, and he was pretty sure he was already smitten.
Christ, this dame was going to be the death of him, he could see it, already.
An hour later—approximately, of course, as neither of them were exactly watching a clock—they'd finished one bottle of whiskey between them and Bucky was eyeing her over their empty glasses as he contemplated opening another. The ice had melted into the dish towel, and she rested her chin against her folded arms as she stared back at him. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were rosy from the liquor, and her brown eyes gleamed under the kitchen light.
Her strange story was swirling in his head. Whether the whiskey was making him accept her words so easily, or he just found himself willing to believe her if she'd just told him the sky was green, he wasn't exactly sure.
Yeah, this definitely called for a second bottle.
"So," he said, standing up from his chair—and needing a moment for the room to orient itself around him—he crossed to the kitchen to the cupboard. "You're really not pulling my leg about any of this, are you?"
Sitting up straight, the young woman gave her eyes a hard, slow blink as she shook her head. She turned in her seat to look at him. "If there was something I could make up that would believably explain both my presence at that horrible place, and me dropping in on you so very literally here, then believe me, I'd have already thought of it and told you that, instead."
Bucky paused midstride in his return to the table as he considered the awful lot of words she'd just spat out. Realizing that made perfect sense he nodded and continued until he reached his chair.
Reclaiming his seat as he uncapped the bottle, he sighed. "I just . . . it's still hard to believe is all. I mean . . . a witch? A witch from the future. That's just . . . it's just . . . ."
"Madness on the face of it, I know." Hermione waited for him to pour the next round—she'd already had way too much, but at this point, she was pretty certain the liquor was the only thing steeling her nerves to keep this conversation going. Liquid courage imagine that, she thought with an inward giggle. She winced, that damn uncomfortable pressure she recalled from earlier starting in her gut.
She hid the unpleasant expression behind her glass as she took a long sip. "Believe me, if I had any real choice—or any sort of cover story to give that would be plausible, I'd not be telling you the truth."
He looked into his glass, his brow furrowing. "Well, at least you're blunt about preferring to have lied to my face."
The witch set down her glass. "It's not like that. God, what the hell is that feeling?" She asked that second question of herself in a whisper before she shook her head and went on. "It's pretty much one of our cardinal laws not to tell non-magical folk about us. So, I'm breaking the law to tell you any of this, and I just wish that didn't have to be the way things are. Honestly, I'm really just surprised you haven't asked me to prove—"
Bucky jumped, his eyes shooting wide as she vanished right in front of him.
Swallowing hard, he grabbed her glass, and then the cold, soaked dish towel, assuring himself he hadn't just imagined her presence here. Stupid as he felt, he even ducked beneath the table, needing to check that she hadn't simply slipped out of sight, causing his mind to play tricks on him due to the combination of his inebriated state and her crazy story.
Just as he sat up in his seat, she reappeared. As though she'd never left, except that a faint, blue-white glimmer pulsed around her for half a heartbeat. Strange, he felt like he'd seen light that color before, he just couldn't remember where.
Her eyes were huge and she stared at him in silence, giving her a deer-in-the-headlights look. Hermione held her breath as she darted her gaze about, observing that everything in her vicinity was precisely as she'd left it.
"How—how long was I gone?"
Bucky was certain he mirrored her shocked appearance as he puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. He shook his head. "A few seconds, maybe?"
"Fascinating," she said in a hushed tumble of sound. Though, she was honestly surprised that she hadn't passed out from the mix of liquor with the disconcerting sensation of being pulled into the time vortex. "That's exactly what happened to me that day I found you. I just was gone, and then next thing I knew, I was falling onto your floor. Well, not the literal next thing—the literal next thing was me sitting on my bum in the middle of a swirling pool of pale blue light, but that's hardly worth mentioning, really."
"Yeah, yeah. I could see some of that when you came back, if that's even what we can call that." He hadn't budged since she'd reappeared. Hadn't so much as blinked. His gaze was trained on her, as though waiting for it to happen again.
Crazy, but clearly true, story aside, there went any hopes of seeing if she was the right one. After all, if she was going to just pop in and out of existence like that—
"I felt the same way earlier," she said abruptly. "Before I vanished the other day, I had this horrible feeling of pressure building up for a few minutes and then I was pulled away from you. When it happened just now, the sensation came on suddenly and I only felt that end part. I think that feeling is some sort of warning, telling me I'm about to get pulled away."
He couldn't deny the timing of her observation was eerie. "So, this is completely random? There's no way for you to predict it other than that feeling?"
"No." She shook her head, sparing a moment to knock back the drink that had been waiting for her. "I've no idea what's causing this, or why I seem anchored to you; I don't even have any way to predict how long I'll be 'gone'. This is so very confusing!"
His brows shot up and his mouth puckered at her sudden increase in decibel level.
Setting down her glass, she sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just so used to being able to figure things out, or at least know where to find information to help me sort things through, but this? I'm completely clueless here, and it's frustrating."
"Well, um . . . ." He polished off his drink, too, as he shrugged. "I guess, um, I mean, I know I can't really help you at all with this magic stuff, but you're welcome to stay here with me as long as you need. Since, you know, it sounds like you don't really have anywhere else to go."
She looked so surprised by his offer that he couldn't help but chuckle. "Hey, it'll be easy. Apparently, you probably won't even be here half the time."
Hermione uttered a scoffing sound. "You're a funny one, are you? I'm serious. You'd be okay with me . . . sticking about as I try to figure out how to fix this mess I'm in?"
Bucky sat back, holding her gaze for a long and quiet moment. Sure, this was going to be complicated, but the alternative was what? Tossing her out onto the street? She might have magic—and he had no idea what she could or couldn't do with that—but she didn't seem to have any money, she was dressed kinda funny, and she didn't know a single soul.
What the hell else was he supposed to do with her?
"You said it yourself, right? You're anchored to me. So, seems to me, we're stuck with each other 'til you work out whatever's wrong. Just when you start getting that weird feeling, tell me it's happening, so we both know you might vanish any second, okay?"
"Okay." She nodded. It was the most pragmatic, realistic response to the situation, but still, not everyone would've chosen to be kind about it—to not treat her like some sort of burden due to her circumstances. "You're absolutely right, Bucky. I think, however, we should stop drinking now. I'm starting to see two of you."
He arched a brow. It was probably the wise decision to refrain from making any jokes about what he'd do if there were two of her here. "Yeah, maybe we should call it a night. You'll probably think better in the morning when you've sobered up, anyway."
Hermione stood from her chair, needing a moment to brace herself against the table as she got her bearings. "You're taking this all really well."
"Blame the alcohol," he said with a chuckle.
He led the way through the house, pausing in the small corridor that lead from the living room to the bathroom and bedroom.
When he halted, she pivoted on her heel, the reaction seemingly automatic, to look up at him.
"Um . . . I think I should do the gentlemanly thing, here, and let you take the bed. I'll sleep on the sofa."
Her brows pinched together as she held his gaze. She remembered, then, the era she was in, even if it was completely innocent, a man and a woman sharing a bed was a big deal, wasn't it? And really, with the way they'd been looking at one another all night, she doubted either of them would believe the we're adults, we can share a bed without anything happening argument.
But she didn't like the idea of being alone just now. Not like this. Not when she could disappear at random and return who knew when.
"What if I promise to keep my hands to myself?" The words had fallen from her lips without thought.
Bucky stared at her as though she'd just spoken a foreign language. "What? Wait . . . isn't that the sorta thing I'm supposed to say to you?"
"Look." She interlocked her fingers in front of her, fidgeting a little. And oh dear Lord, her gums had gone numb. When had that happened? Stupid whiskey. "This isn't easy for me to say, especially not to someone I've only just met, but I'm scared. I really don't want to be alone right now, but I also don't want you to think I'm going to try anything."
He snickered. "Your insistence on that last part is kind of insulting, you know."
Hermione laughed, the sound a drunken sputter more than anything else. "Oh, no, it's not like I wouldn't want to. I mean you are very . . . ." As she'd spoken, his eyebrows had crept slowly higher on his forehead, and she spied a smirk curving his lips. "Oh, shut up. You know perfectly well what I meant."
He laughed once more.
"My point was, I'd prefer if you stayed with me, if you can manage to keep your hands to yourself, sir."
Nodding, he tipped an imaginary hat and swept his arm out toward the bedroom door. "Now, that's more like it. And I can promise to try."
She hid a smile as she stepped past him and walked down the short corridor. She was grateful he was being so accommodating . . . and perhaps hoping just a little bit that he wouldn't try too hard.