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Healing Process

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It was probably just a coincidence that all the residents of the uppermost floors happened to be lounging around the library late on Friday afternoon. They did, after all, share a common love of reading. There wasn't any reason why they shouldn't be there.

Sure, the science contingent could probably have been working in their individual labs to open black holes, develop new medicines, and build new robots. Pepper was undoubtedly skipping out on a plan to make another billion dollars. Clint could've easily been practicing with the new trick arrows Tony had developed, and Natasha didn't maintain her mad ninja skills by sitting around with her feet up on the table while re-reading Dostoevsky. But a lazy afternoon in the library seemed to be just what the doctor had ordered on that particular Friday, and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that Darcy and Steve were due back from the airport pretty much any time.

When the elevator dinged, no one moved, but the whole room took on an air of anticipation.

The doors slid open just in time for Steve's voice to pour out. “...short-sheeted his bed, but I swear I had nothing to do with the monkey.”

Darcy's laughter rang through the open space. “You devious little shit,” she said, stepping out of the elevator. “I don't believe a word you say.”

“I didn't, though. Honest. That was all Morita.”

Darcy shook her head, not even glancing toward the reading area where five Avengers and two adjacents were very casually trying to pretend that they weren't fixated on the scene in the hallway. She only had eyes for the man who was walking beside her, his duffel bag over his shoulder and a medium-sized cardboard box in his hands, and he apparently only had eyes for her, because he didn't seem to notice any of them, either.

Darcy's door was closest to the elevator, and within the direct line of sight of everyone in the library except for Clint. He stood casually and moved across the room, returning his book to one shelf as if nothing was going on behind him, then turning and even more casually perusing the shelf behind him that just happened to afford a great view of Darcy unlocking her door. She pushed it open and entered her apartment, holding the door open for Steve, who followed her in with the box still in his hands. The apartment door swung shut again behind them.

There was a very long silence in the library. A few minutes passed.

Just as Pepper drew breath to say something, Darcy's door opened again and Steve stepped out. He stood awkwardly in front of the door for a moment. “So, I'll see you later,” he said finally, running a hand through his hair.

Darcy smiled up at him. “Yeah,” she said. “I was thinking -” Something caught her eye, and her gaze shifted just enough that she saw Clint still standing at the library shelf. She leaned slightly, looking around Steve, and her expression shifted subtly as she realized that they had an audience consisting of pretty much everyone they both knew. “Hi, guys,” she said, giving them a wave as Steve turned to face them as well.

Tony raised his head from the book in his lap. “Somebody say something?” He looked around. “Oh! Lewis! You're back from wherever it is you went. Where was it? Somewhere in flyover country? Bohemia?”

“I might actually buy that absentminded idiot act if your book wasn't both upside down and in French,” Darcy replied. “And you know perfectly well that I was in Texas.” She folded her arms and glared in a generally team-ish direction. “Don't any of you have anything better to be doing right now? I'm almost certain that at least one of you just came back from another planet with a whole bunch of scientific data that, under ordinary circumstances, would make you impossible to pull away from your machines for days at a time.”

Jane started, guilt flashing across her face. “Darcy, come on,” she wheedled. “I was worried about you, having to go home and be around Nora.”

“Ugh.” Darcy made a face, stepping away from the door and toward the library. With a nudge, she encouraged Steve to come with her. He left his duffel by her door, moved into the open space, and sprawled into an empty armchair; she dropped into the floor near his feet. “It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Abe and his family got there Wednesday and Jacob actually chased them out of the house when Nora got nasty with me about not being a real kid.” She budged Steve's leg with her elbow, grinning. “And I had my knight in star-spangled armor to protect me before they got there.”

Steve flushed. “I couldn't just let her - ”

“I know.” She patted his foot, and he subsided, and Pepper and Natasha made very meaningful eye contact across the room. “Anyway. To make a long and nasty story very short, Steve kept her off me until the rest of the family got there, and then they kept her off me the rest of the time, and it was utterly miserable but it could have been so much worse.” She paused, then grinned mischievously. “Also, Steve got my cousin Hannah's number; I think he might have something going there.”

Steve's face, still a little pink from before, flushed nearly purple as the rest of the team responded with various reactions of shock and surprise, and Darcy fell over onto the carpet, laughing hysterically. “It's not like that,” Steve muttered, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. “She's twelve!”

“Not helping your case, buddy,” Clint offered from across the room. Steve shot him the finger, and the archer cackled in response.

Jane was shaking her head, though. “I've met Hannah,” she assured Steve, reaching over to pat him on the shoulder. “She's adorable.”

Darcy, meanwhile, had gained control of herself and stood. “I'm going to take a shower and veg for a little while,” she announced. “But if nobody else has claimed the kitchen, I was thinking I might make chicken tetrazzini later.”

“Yes!” Tony nearly shouted.

Darcy blinked. “O...kay then,” she said, taking a slow step back. “Pepper, you might want to have him checked. I think he's overcharged.”

“Not to worry,” Pepper said lightly, shooting Tony a killing glare. “I'll handle it.”

“Okay then,” Darcy said again. “I'll have JARVIS give everybody about a half-hour heads up before it's ready.” She turned and headed back to her room, but nobody missed the way her fingers trailed across Steve's shoulder as she passed him.

There was a hush in the room after her apartment door closed, and then Steve pushed himself to his feet. “I'm going to go unpack and do laundry,” he said, making a beeline for his bag, and then all but flinging himself down the spiral staircase that connected the uppermost floors of the Tower.

In the wake of his going, Bruce chuckled. “Well,” he murmured to everyone and no one, “that was certainly interesting.”

***

For the first week or so after their return from Texas, not much changed. The team was called to assemble twice - both short missions from which they returned mostly unscathed - and Steve returned to his regular routine, which mostly consisted of training and following a SHIELD-prescribed course of study to catch up with the modern world. Then one evening at a team dinner, Steve's sense of humor deserted him at exactly the wrong moment, and he made a joke about Ronald Reagan defeating the Evil Empire.

The silence that descended at the table was almost thick enough to touch, and nobody was quite sure where to look first: at the ceiling, the floor, or nervously at Natasha. For her part, the former Russian kept her mouth quite shut, focusing her gaze on the plate before her and saying nothing. After a moment, Steve spoke again. “And... I'm guessing I probably really shouldn't have said that.”

“Um.” Darcy coughed softly. “I'm just... kind of wondering where you got the context for that. Because, I mean, I can see what you meant, I'm just... not really sure why it was supposed to be funny, I guess.”

It had been less than two minutes since his misstep, and Steve's face was bright red with embarrassment. “I've been studying twentieth century military history, and I just finished the chapter on the Cold War,” he began.

Darcy stopped him. “The chapter? Oh God. What are you reading? Can I see it?”

“Sure.” He stood, heading down the hall to his apartment and returning a moment later with a large, heavy textbook in his hands. He held it out to her and she took it.

Pushing her plate aside, she flipped the book open and began to page through it, skimming rapidly. He sat again as she flipped forward to the chapter he'd mentioned, reading rapidly through it. Her eyebrows drew together as she read, and the further she got into it, the redder her cheeks became. About halfway through the chapter, she slammed the book closed, walked into the kitchen, and snatched open the tiny door of the incinerator chute.

“Darcy, what are you doing?” Steve exclaimed. “That's my history book!”

“I'll get you more. I'll get you a thousand more.” She shoved the book into the incinerator chute and slammed the little door shut again. “Trust me, Steve. If you want to read complete fucking bullshit fantasy, there's a ton of it up in the library that'll be better written, and if you want to read the pack of lies in that textbook again, I'll show you how to access Conservapedia.” She flounced back to the table and sat again, then pointed a finger at him. “Starting tomorrow, if you're not assembling or briefing, you're mine after lunch every day until we can get you caught up.” She picked up her fork, returning her attention to her plate. “God only knows how much deprogramming I'm going to have to do.”

Steve flushed even redder. “Darce,” he said, his voice low, and her head jerked up, her eyes actually meeting his for the first time since she'd taken the book from him.

Her hand came up to cover her mouth. “Oh, Steve,” she said softly. “I'm sorry.”

His jaw worked for a moment, as though he was struggling with his words. “It's okay,” he finally managed. “Just... please let it go.”

She nodded, swallowing hard. Then, her voice only a little thick, she said, “There's chess pie for dessert, if anyone wants it.” Her eyes tracked the faces at the table, their companions who had sat silent and watched the two of them have their awkward and embarrassing moment, and she silently begged someone - anyone! - to help her divert attention.

Pepper, with her unerring graciousness and hostess's instinct, stepped in smoothly to fill the gap. “I don't think I've ever had chess pie,” she said. “I'd love to try it.”

Darcy popped out of her chair to retrieve the pie and clean dessert plates; Bruce collected everyone's dirty dishes and carried them in to place in the sink. By the time he was back in his seat, pieces of the yellowish custard pie were being passed all around the table. Jane tried hers first, blinking at it as she rolled the bite around in her mouth before swallowing. “That may be the sweetest thing I've eaten since my last bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs,” she announced. “Darcy, what's in that?”

Darcy grinned. “Half a cup of brown sugar, a cup of white sugar, three eggs, a little bit of vanilla, a little bit of vinegar to cut the sweet, and a little bit of corn meal for texture. Oh, and half a pound of butter.”

Clint blinked. “Half a pound?”

“Corn meal?” Tony asked, poking at the pie with his fork as though afraid it might blow up.

Darcy reached for his plate. “If you don't want it...”

“No!” he exclaimed, wrapping his arm around it and defending it with his fork. “I want it! I want it!”

“Just trust Darcy,” Steve said softly, cutting a decent-sized bite of his own pie. “Has she ever steered any of us wrong before?”

With that, everyone dug in, and nobody complained. Across the table, Darcy gave Steve a tentative, apologetic smile. He smiled back. Deep inside herself, where no one could see, Pepper sighed in relief.

***

At precisely 1:00 p.m. the following day, just as Darcy was settling in for her afternoon cruise of Facebook on the lab computer, Steve stuck his head in the door. “Darce?”

She nearly came out of her skin; Jane was at NYU consulting with a physicist on the faculty there, and she hadn't expected to see anyone until later. “Steve!” she exclaimed, fanning herself. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” he said, coming into the otherwise empty lab and giving her a slight, shy smile. “I'm here for my history lesson.”

She swallowed. “I wasn't sure you'd come,” she admitted. “After last night.”

“You didn't do it on purpose,” he said. “I know that. I just got embarrassed. It's okay. Bridge, water, the whole thing.”

She gave him a tentative smile in response. “Okay, then,” she said. She took a deep breath. “All right. Well.” She paused. “I'm just going to assume you read about the end of the war, then. The Holocaust and the bomb.”

His jaw tightened. “I read about it.”

“One or two pictures in that high-school-level doorstop?”

He nodded.

“Okay. Come on, then, soldier. We're going on a field trip.”

They crossed the street into Grand Central Station and caught the subway heading for Lower Manhattan. On the way, Darcy quizzed him about the things he'd read in the book she'd disposed of. As Darcy had feared, he'd gotten mostly political history, and largely from a conservative perspective. She sighed, sitting back in her seat as the train rounded a corner. “Well,” she said. “I can't honestly say that a lot of what you learned was inaccurate, per se. But in my opinion, a lot of it is wrong-headed, and I think it glosses over a lot of really important things. Reagan, for example. Sure, he's a conservative hero, and a lot of people think that he did good things. Inflation went down during his terms, the Civil Liberties Act authorized compensation for Japanese Americans who were interned during the war, there was a reduction in nuclear arms all around. All good things. But then there was Iran-Contra, where we sold weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages, and there was HUD rigging, where his campaign contributors got kickbacks in the form of government grants, and oh God, don't even get me started on the savings-and-loan crisis and the Keating Five. I have an entire lecture on that.”

He blinked at her. “I have absolutely no idea what any of that even meant.”

“And that's the whole problem,” she replied. If you know enough history to be making jokes about the Evil Empire - which you should probably not do in front of Natasha, anyway - then you should also know about Iran-Contra and the S-and-Ls, at the very least. The history you got was accurate, as far as it went, but it didn't go far enough. You only got half the story, and it was designed to sway your opinions in a certain direction.”

He frowned. “Why would they do that?”

Darcy scrubbed at her face with one hand. “If it helps, it probably wasn't deliberate, at least, not on SHIELD's part. At least, I don't think so. It was probably just that somebody said 'Get Captain Rogers a history book' and someone else grabbed the first history book they found, and it happened to be that one. The problem lies with the people who wrote the book, and they do that because...” She trailed off, bit her lip, and then said, “I should probably warn you that I'm both really left-wing and really cynical.”

“I never would have guessed,” he said, deadpan.

“Asshole.” She nudged him with her knee. “If you want to control a populace, you have to start by controlling the information that the populace is exposed to. You don't even have to lie; just present facts in a way that leads them to think the way you want them to think, and soon enough, they do. And most of the time, they don't even realize what's happened. They think they came to those conclusions all on their own. A guy named Gramsci wrote a theory about it; he called it hegemony, when the ruling class causes the subject class to value the same things as the rulers, even against their own best interests, without realizing that they've been led to it.”

Steve frowned again. “I'm not sure I understand.”

She considered. “It's like this. Suppose I'm a person working a menial job making minimum wage, and I can't get by. I think, man, I'd really like to be rich, you know? Be able to afford nice things. But the people who are already rich don't want me to get rich, because they're afraid that the more I have, the less they'll get to keep. Some guy with fifty billion in the bank is worried that he might not get to fifty-one billion if I get a couple hundred thou. You see?”

He nodded. “It's greed,” he said.

“Exactly. Pure, unadulterated human greed. Never changes. But what they do is, they change the narrative. Instead of talking about how much it sucks to be poor and how great it would be if everybody had a little more money, they talk about how even if you don't have a lot of money, maybe you're rich in the love of your family or something. So maybe you see a show on TV about a family that's poor but they all have each other and at the end of the day, that's enough - even though there's holes in the roof and Little Johnny could really stand to see a doctor. And then you add to that another show about Richie Rich, who's got all the money in the world but no friends and no family and he's lonely and miserable. And you see the same kinds of things over and over, and it's subtle and devious, and it takes a long time, but then suddenly you turn around one day and you're living in a world where eighty-five people have more money than another three and a half billion combined, and somehow that's okay.”

She paused, then gave him a half-hearted grin. “I may have mentioned the cynicism and the leftie politics and the occasional political rant.”

He nodded, but he wasn't looking at her and she could tell that he was thinking about what she'd said. “When I was a kid,” he finally said, “my ma worked twelve-hour shifts as a nurse at the general hospital. But it was different then from how it is now. Everybody goes to the hospital now. Back then, rich people didn't go to the hospital. If they got sick, a doctor came to their house to see them. The only people who went to the hospital were people who were really poor and desperate, and a lot of them just went there to die.”

Darcy made a soft humming sound to let him know she was listening.

“But I saw a report on the news that said poor people can't afford to go to the hospital now.”

She nodded. “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,” she said softly.

“When I was ten,” he said, “Herbert Hoover was running for President, and he promised people a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” he murmured. “And I remember my ma asking Mrs. Dover from across the hall what he was gonna do about people that didn't have pots and garages.”

They were silent until they reached their stop, and Darcy led him up to the street level and then to the front door of their destination. “Okay,” she said. “We're going to go into this museum. And I'm going to warn you right now that it's going to be moderately awful, and you're going to hate it, and I'm probably going to cry, and afterward we're going to go have ice cream and maybe throw things at other things and be generally very angry and sad.”

“Jesus, Darce,” he said, craning his neck around to look for the sign. “What the hell kind of museum is this place?”

“Jewish Heritage,” she replied. “It's the Holocaust Museum.” She pulled the door open. “After you.”

They spent three hours inside. It was moderately awful. Steve hated every minute of it, and Darcy cried. When they came out, they went up the block to an ice cream place, where she bought them both double scoops and then they went to a park to sit and eat it angrily.

“I really didn't enjoy that,” Steve said after a time, proving once and for all that he was the master of understatement. “That was very unpleasant.”

Darcy took a deep breath. “If you look at it another way,” she said, “those are the things that you fought and nearly died to stop happening.”

He thought about that. Then he said, “Yeah. I guess I did.”

She reached out and put her hand on his arm. “Thank you,” she said softly.

He took his own free hand and laid it on top of hers, squeezing gently. “You're welcome.”