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Healing Process

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The first thing Tony said when he saw who was sitting on the table in Bruce's lab was, “Shit.”

Darcy leaned around Steve and glared at him. “That's a bad word,” she announced.

Steve bit his lip and stared at the ceiling, willing himself not to laugh. Tony narrowed his eyes at Darcy. “I can say bad words if I want to,” he said. “I'm a grown-up.”

“Grown-ups have to put a quarter in the swear jar,” Darcy advised him primly. “That's the rule.”

“I'm not much of a rules guy,” Tony replied.

Darcy glared at him even harder. “I don't like you. Go away.”

“Bad news, kiddo,” Tony replied, reaching out to tweak her nose. “I'm not going anywhere.” He did, however, jerk his hand back quickly when Darcy's little white teeth snapped at his hand, very nearly getting him. “Whoa, Rogers! You might want to muzzle your creature, there.”

“Or maybe you should learn not to touch a lady without permission,” Steve said mildly. He ruffled Darcy's hair affectionately.

Darcy bared her teeth at Tony in what would have been a terrifying snarl if she had been slightly less adorable. “Grrr!”

Tony stared at the little girl for a long moment before speaking again. “JARVIS. Tell me you got that on video.”

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS replied.

Darcy jumped, looking around for the speaker. “Who's that?”

“That's JARVIS,” Steve said. “It's okay. He's friendly.”

“But where is he?”

“He's a computer,” Steve explained. “A really smart computer that can talk.”

Darcy canted her head to the side. “Like Terminator? My cousin took me to see that and my granny got really mad because then I had bad dreams for a long time.”

Not like Terminator,” Bruce interrupted quickly. “JARVIS is a very nice computer and he is our friend.”

“Oh.” Darcy looked almost disappointed, and Steve found himself biting his lip to keep from laughing. Now would definitely not be the time for either amusement or the full-on hysterics he could feel building up in the back of his mind.

Fortunately, he was distracted by the whirlwind entrance of Jane Foster. “Hey, guys, what's going on? JARVIS said I should come up here, and...” Her voice trailed off as Steve shifted to the side so that she could see just exactly what was going on. She stared. “Darcy?”

“Hi,” Darcy said, waving one hand.

“Oh, my God,” Jane breathed. Then she spun on Tony, whacking him hard on one arm. “What did you do, you idiot?!”

“Ow! Stop hitting me with your tiny fists! It was an accident!”

“FIX IT!” Jane shrieked.

“I'm working on it!” Tony shouted back, waving his hands to try and ward off any further blows. “I'm having to fabricate entirely new parts for the machine.”

“Guys,” Steve said, his voice even, but loud enough to penetrate between the two of them. “Could you stop shouting, please? Darcy doesn't like it.”

Both Tony and Jane stopped and turned to find that Darcy had in fact climbed Steve like a tree, and was now wrapped around him as tightly as she could get, her face buried in the side of his neck. He had one arm around her back and the other under her thighs, supporting her. It was both adorable and heartbreaking. “I'm sorry,” Jane said immediately. She looked over at Tony and Bruce, then back at Steve. “Um. Is she...?” She pointed at her head.

“It's a full regression,” Bruce said, his voice calm as he reached over to touch Darcy's hand. “Here you go, sweetheart, just like I promised.” Darcy looked up, her eyes wet again, and found him offering her a lollipop. She murmured a thank you and stuck it in her mouth, then rested her head back on Steve's shoulder. Bruce gave her a gentle smile before turning back to the adults. “I'm running standard tests - blood, DNA, and so forth, just to make sure she hasn't been irradiated or anything else unpleasant, but it appears to be a full regression, both physical and mental. I'm assuming that whatever happened in the lab is reversible, given enough time to recreate the circumstances?”

“Oh, sure,” Tony said easily, waving a hand. “JARVIS automatically records all the data, so it's just a matter of rebuilding the machine, at this point.”

“Which should take how long?” Steve asked.

Tony shrugged. “Couple of days, maybe? I've got to get a new tiberium crystal - I mean, I have one, you know, I have several, but they're all in California, so I've got to get it here .”

“A couple of days.” Steve sighed. “Okay. Well, we can manage for a couple of days, right, Darce?”

“Mmm,” she mumbled around her candy. He glanced down at her and realized that she was on the verge of falling asleep in his arms.

“Well, you've had a rough day,” he murmured. He looked over at Bruce. “If you don't need her for anything else, I think she needs a nap.”

“Will you be okay with her?” Bruce asked.

“Sure,” Steve replied, grinning. “I used to help with the younger kids at the orphanage all the time. I can handle this.”

“Famous last words,” Jane murmured. “Good luck.”

By the time he reached his apartment, Darcy was sound asleep in his arms. He carried her to the downstairs bedroom where he slept and laid her down on the bed, covering her with a blanket and retrieving the candy that was still stuck in her mouth. He started to leave the room but stopped, his eye falling on something that sat on top of his dresser.

He hadn't slept with Major since Texas, but Darcy had apparently smuggled the bear into his duffel bag, because it had been there when he unpacked. He'd placed the bear on top of the dresser and left it there, feeling more than a little silly despite knowing what it meant - and what it must have cost Darcy to give the bear to him. He picked it up and ran his fingers across the soft fur, then carried it back across the room and tucked it into her arms. Then he slipped out of the room, pulling the door partway closed.

***

Natasha and Pepper came by about an hour later, both carrying bags full of little girl things. “Are you sure we're going to need all this stuff?” Steve asked, watching as they took over one of his upstairs bedrooms. Little dresses and shirts and pants were hung in the closet, socks and underthings tucked into one of the dresser drawers. Natasha laid out no-tears shampoo, bubble bath, kids' toothpaste, a hairbrush, several packs of hair ties and barrettes, and a Cinderella toothbrush in the bathroom while Pepper lined up a few pairs of sneakers and one pair of black patent leather Mary Janes on the floor of the closet. The bed in the room they had chosen was a twin, and he watched in some consternation as they efficiently stripped the neutral comforter and plain sheets, changing them out for rainbow-colored sheets and a white comforter covered in butterflies. A friendly-looking stuffed Hulk went on top of the pillows, and a stack of colorful, age-appropriate books was left on the night table.

“Tony said it would be a couple of days,” Pepper explained. “Knowing him, that could mean anywhere from an actual couple of days to upwards of three weeks or more.”

Natasha took over. “She needs to feel comfortable, and she needs to feel safe. She's already shown that she feels safe with you, and you already sort of volunteered to watch out for her. And of all of us, you and Thor are the ones with the least to do in the way of daily responsibilities. Pepper and Jane both have full time jobs, Tony and Bruce are working on fixing the problem, and Clint and I are likely to be called off to Wakanda or Latveria at any time of the day or night.”

“I don't want you to feel steamrollered, though,” Pepper said firmly. “If it's really going to be a problem, I can get a nanny in.” She paused, and said delicately, “I know the two of you are... taking things slowly. So it might be awkward.”

“No, it's fine,” Steve said. “Really. It makes sense for me to take her - like Tasha said, I've got the least to do of anyone except Thor, and she trusts me.”

“At her age, most of the really awkward things are past, anyway,” Natasha noted. “She's capable of dressing herself, taking herself to the bathroom, and probably bathing as well, though you'll want to be the one in charge of the water faucet to avoid burns.”

“You might have to wash her hair,” Pepper warned.

“That's good to know,” Steve said. He took a deep breath, then gave a slight, awkward smile. “Just call me Captain Babysitter, I guess.”

Both women laughed, and Pepper patted his shoulder. “You'll do fine,” she said.

Anything else she might have said was interrupted by the sound of a little voice from downstairs, calling Steve's name. He went out the door to the landing. “Upstairs, Darcy. Come up and say hello to Natasha and Pepper.”

Rapid thumping indicated Darcy's ascent up the stairs, and he guided her into the room with one hand and introduced her. “Pepper and Natasha brought you some things,” he said. “So this can be your room while you're here. We want you to be comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said politely, her bare toes curling into the carpet. She was carrying Major in her arms, and she squeezed him against herself shyly.

“We were thinking of going out to dinner,” Pepper said. “So maybe you want to put on some proper clothes before we go. You don't want to run around New York in just that shirt, right?”

Darcy giggled. “It would be funny though,” she said. “People would stare with their eyes and say I had bad parents.”

Natasha laughed. “They might do that anyway,” she noted. “But for other reasons. Here, now, there is clothing in the closet for you, and underthings in the drawers. You may wear whatever you like. We will wait for you downstairs.” The adults filed out of the room.

Darcy listened at the door as the grownups trooped down the stairs, then turned and looked at this room that they said was hers. Everything was very confusing. She was pretty sure she'd been kidnapped, which was a bad thing for sure, but it was weird because anytime people got kidnapped on TV, they always got locked up in gross basements or chained to walls, and the people who kidnapped them did mean things to them. These people were all very nice, and she hadn't seen any gross basements yet (though the rooms with all the machines and science things were a little scary).

She poked around the room for a few minutes, taking in the bed and the books and the friendly, stuffed green monster on the bed. She debated for a moment before placing Major carefully next to the monster and warning them to be nice to each other. Then she went to the closet, pulling the door open and looking at the clothes.

Nothing was hers, but it was all so great. There were pretty dresses and cool pants and a flouncy skirt and shirts with sparkles and glitter. She wasn't tall enough to reach them, though. She looked around the room, her eye finally falling on a plain wooden chair in the corner. She grabbed it, dragging it across the room and climbing up onto it. She pulled out the flouncy skirt - denim, with ruffles made out of a slick and shiny silver material - and a black tee shirt with a purple, sparkly bulls-eye on it. Then she dug through the dresser and pulled out a pair of panties and a pair of purple socks. After shucking the tee shirt she'd been wearing, she pulled everything on quickly, then chose a pair of white canvas shoes covered with sequins in all different colors.

She took a quick detour into the bathroom. After going potty and washing her hands, she peered at herself in the mirror over the sink. She could just see that her face was clean, but her hair was a mess. She picked up the hairbrush and opened the bag of hair ties, poking through it until she found a set of purple barrettes that matched her shirt.

It took a moment of work, figuring out how to carry her barrettes and her shoes and her hairbrush and Major, but she worked it out by sticking the barrettes into one of the shoes and the hairbrush into her skirt pocket. Then she started down the stairs, carefully holding onto the bannister. The grownups were in the living room talking, and they looked up when she came in. Steve smiled at her. “Don't you look pretty,” he said.

She smiled back. “Thank you. But I need help with my hair and my shoes.”

“Oh, can you not tie your shoes yet?” Pepper asked. When Darcy shook her head, Pepper said, “If I'd known that, we'd have gotten you Velcro shoes.”

“I'm sorry,” Darcy said, feeling her lip tremble the way it did when her Aunt Nora yelled at her.

“Don't be silly,” Natasha said, reaching over to take one of her shoes. “There's nothing to be sorry about. Come here, I will tie your shoes for you.”

Darcy came obediently, holding up first one foot and then the other while Natasha slipped the shoes onto her feet and tied the laces in careful knots. In the process, Natasha found the barrettes. “How do you want your hair?”

Darcy shrugged. “Just up,” she said. “It gets in my face and things.”

Natasha took the hairbrush and brushed out Darcy's hair, her movements quick and efficient but also very gentle. She parted Darcy's hair in the center, and then there was tugging and twisting, and then a clip with one barrette, then more of the same on the other side. “Go and see,” Natasha said, pointing at a full-length mirror on Steve's bedroom door. Darcy scampered over, blinking in delight at the double Dutch braids. “They're so pretty!” she exclaimed.

Natasha smiled. “I'm glad you like them.”

“Clint's gonna love that shirt on her,” Pepper said.

“I know,” Natasha replied, smiling even wider.

Darcy looked down at her shirt. “Who's Clint?”

“Clint is my very good friend, who will be joining us for dinner,” Natasha explained. “He will like your shirt because he is sometimes called Hawkeye, and that symbol on your shirt is Hawkeye's symbol.”

“Why is he called Hawkeye?” Darcy asked, coming back to them. “Does he see good?”

“He does see well,” Natasha replied. “And his good eyesight makes him an excellent marksman. He often wins contests with his bow and arrow.”

“Oh, my uncle Abe goes hunting with a bow,” Darcy said. “Sometimes he lets me shoot at paper targets. I almost hit one, once.”

Steve laughed. The sound made Darcy feel warm inside. “You should tell that to Clint,” he said. “He'd like to know that.”

“Okay,” Darcy agreed. Then her stomach growled, and the grownups all laughed.

“I guess that sound means it's time to go to dinner,” Pepper said, and Darcy did a little dance of happiness. Then Steve offered his hand to her and she took it, and they all went out of the house. Only it wasn't a house; it turned out that what Darcy had thought was a house was actually an apartment inside a much larger building.

She blinked in surprise as she trotted up the hallway alongside Steve, Major dangling from her other hand, to find several other people sitting in a common room not far away. She recognized the people from earlier - the very nice Dr. Bruce, and Jane and Tony who had yelled at each other - and Steve introduced her to Thor, who was very big and talked funny but was also very kind, and Clint, who liked her shirt very much and made much of her, and thought it was absolutely great that her uncle Abe was a bow hunter, and promised to take her to the archery range and let her shoot a little-girl-sized bow.

And then it was time to go and eat, and Pepper and Natasha were herding everyone toward the elevator. Darcy felt a bit lost in the confusion as all the grownups started moving around her, but then suddenly there were large and gentle hands gripping her around the waist and lifting her up, and she found herself held securely against Thor's wide chest. She leaned her head back and grinned up at him, and he grinned back at her as they entered the elevator. When they stepped out on the ground floor, he swung her up onto his shoulders. She flailed for a second, nearly dropping Major, until she caught her balance. “Whoa!” she said. “You're really tall!”

Thor laughed. “Indeed I am, little one. You will have an excellent view of the city from your lofty perch!”

“Haha!” Darcy exclaimed. “I can see better than anybody. Now I get to be Hawkeye!”

***

Darcy got to ride on Thor's shoulders all the way to the restaurant, which made her happy in a couple of different ways. The first way, of course, was because she was riding on Thor's shoulders and he was very big and it was a lot of fun to be up that high, but also to know that his big hands were holding her legs securely and she was perfectly safe. The second way was that everyone seemed to think that everything she did was amazing and cute, which she thought was kind of strange. She was just a kid, after all. Granny and Grampa thought that she was amazing and cute most of the time, but they were supposed to; they were her grandparents. These were people she didn't even know. Maybe that was why they had kidnapped her? She was still kind of curious about that, but she was having enough fun riding on Thor's shoulders and basking in all the attention that she didn't really want to ask, because what if they changed their minds? Gross basement time, for sure.

So she said nothing, simply soaking up the attention. While they waited at a crosswalk, Jane pulled a small plastic rectangle out of her pocket, held it up, and told Darcy and Thor to say cheese. They both did, grinning broadly, and Darcy heard a click like a camera. Then Jane turned the rectangle around, and Darcy gasped. “Wow! What is that?”

“It's a phone,” Jane said, looking at Darcy like she was crazy.

“Oh,” Pepper said softly. “I hadn't thought of that. She's six. When was she six, Jane?”

Jane thought for a moment before replying, “Ninety-two.”

“Early consumer pager days,” Tony said as the light turned and they crossed the street.

“Oh,” Jane said. “I hadn't thought of that, either.” She looked up at Darcy. “This is called a cell phone,” she explained. “It makes calls just like a regular phone, and it also takes pictures and does other things.”

“That's so rad ,” Darcy moaned.

Several people laughed softly. Tony said, “Yeah, kid, it is,” and Darcy frowned at the back of his head. She didn't like Tony very much. She had a feeling like he was laughing at her, and that wasn't nice.

She was distracted from her enmity by their arrival at the restaurant. She squinted at the sign. “What does that say?” she asked Thor.

He glanced up at the sign and read it, but the name of the restaurant meant nothing to her. She shrugged, and was patient while he swung her off his shoulders and onto her feet so that they could go through the door. Steve was right there and took her hand, and she gave him her best smile because he was very nice. He smiled back, guiding her to walk before him into the restaurant. Inside, Tony was talking to the hostess, who went away into the restaurant. They stood around waiting for just a minute, before she came back again and picked up a stack of menus.

They followed the hostess into a little room where two servers were pushing two big rectangular tables together and then rearranging the chairs. The hostess stopped and touched Steve's arm. “Will she need a booster seat, sir?”

“Oh, um.” Steve looked down at Darcy. “Do you?” he asked.

Darcy looked at the great big chairs and the great big table and said, “Maybe. It's kind of tall.”

“No problem,” the hostess said, and she went away but came back again with the seat. It went into a chair and Steve lifted Darcy into it and it was perfect. Then it was even more perfect because there was a kids' menu and crayons and Steve sat down beside her and watched her color for a minute before joining the grownups' conversation.

Darcy occupied herself quite cheerfully - her grandparents, while inclined to think her amazing and adorable at home, had firmly impressed upon her that children in public should be seen and not heard, unless directly addressed or in need of the potty. She spoke when the nice waitress asked her what she wanted to eat, and Steve had to read part of the menu for her, but she eventually settled on chicken tenders and broccoli. She spoke when Clint asked her about her bear, and she held up Major so everyone could see him and know his name. Otherwise, she colored quietly while the grownups talked. When the food came, she put her crayons aside and ate, focusing on her table manners and using her fork on her broccoli, though she gave up and ate her chicken with her fingers when she saw Jane doing the same thing.

And then disaster struck: Thor asked her a question and she looked up at him to answer while reaching for her glass of water, and the glass went tumbling and the water went all down the table. She gasped, reaching forward to try and stop the flood, but it was too late. Someone shouted, and everyone jumped back from the table, and most everyone started reaching for napkins to stop the flood, and a waitress came in to check on the noise and brought some towels, and everyone had to stop eating and move their plates and Darcy's face got very hot and her stomach churned and she thought she might throw up.

This was the worst. It was really actually the worst, and she couldn't even get up and run away because she was stuck in the booster chair and it was too high to get out of without hurting herself, and besides, where would she run? She couldn't run to her room and hide because she wasn't at home, she was in New York with strangers who probably didn't think she was amazing any more, and someone was going to be mad because she'd gotten the whole table (and Clint and Steve) wet, and for a very long minute before the commotion settled down again, Darcy very fervently wished she could crawl under the table and just die or something.

And then the waitress came back with a new drink for her, only this time it was in a cup with a lid and a straw, and it was even worse.

And then Tony said, “Well, I already have a robot named Butterfingers, we might as well have a kid called that, too,” and it was even worse than that and Darcy, staring down at her plate in shame, very quietly began to cry.

Nobody noticed at first, but then Darcy dimly heard Thor say her name and Clint, sounding really surprised, saying, “Is she crying?” And then Steve stood up, and his hands slid into her armpits and he lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the room, cradling her head against his shoulder as they passed through the restaurant and then outside. Darcy knew what it meant to go outside - do we need to have a discussion about this in the parking lot was pretty much what everybody's mom or dad said when they really meant it's time for a spanking - but Steve didn't spank her. Instead, he found a quiet place to sit down a little ways away from the door and he sat there, holding her close against himself until she was all cried out and down to just those sniffles and hard, hiccuppy shudders that wouldn't go away for awhile.

Then he made her sit up and he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and blotted at her face, wiping away the tears before making her blow her nose. “Better?” he asked softly, tucking it away in his pocket again. She nodded, looking down at her hands because it was hard to look at his face.

“Nobody's angry at you, Darcy,” he said, his voice gentle. “Knocking over your water was an accident. It could happen to anybody.”

“But I have to be good,” Darcy protested, feeling like she might start crying again. “I don't want to go in the basement!”

He was very still for a second before reaching out and pressing his finger under her chin, making her look at him. “What do you mean, go in the basement?” he asked her, a funny look on his face that she couldn't read.

She swallowed hard, her words tumbling over themselves as she tried to explain. “Anytime whenever on TV when people get kidnapped they always go in the basement or something and it's gross and scary and I don't want to go in the basement so I have to be good because then if I'm good I don't have to go, and I can stay in my room with the butterflies.” She took a deep breath and then said, “Please?”

He stared at her for a long moment, his eyes wide, and then suddenly he was hugging her very tightly. “Darcy, no,” he murmured, his lips moving against the crown of her head. “Honey, nobody's going to put you in a basement, okay? I... I don't even think we have a basement.” He squeezed her once, really tightly, and then he sat her back up, looking her in the eyes. “I should have explained what happened, but I wasn't sure how to, because I don't actually understand it myself. But you remember when you were in the lab, when you first came, and there was an explosion and Tony was yelling?”

She nodded, and he continued. “It was an accident. Tony's building... well, I don't know. It's a Science Thing. Some kind of machine that changes things into other things. I try not to ask a lot of questions. But it went wrong, which is not entirely unexpected, and it blew up, and now you're... here.”

Darcy's eyes narrowed at him. She could tell that there was something he wasn't telling her, but that wasn't a surprise. There were always things grownups weren't telling you when you were six. “So... I'm not kidnapped?”

He shook his head. “No. It was an accident, and as soon as Tony gets the machine fixed, he's going to fix you.”

“Oh.”

“Right.” He reached up and stroked her hair gently, straightening her bangs. “So I want you to stop feeling like you have to be perfect, because you don't. This is our mess-up, and we're going to fix it, and in the meantime think of this as like... a vacation.”

“Like sleep-away camp?”

He grinned then, and Darcy grinned back because he just looked so happy. “Yes,” he said gently. “Like sleep-away camp. Okay?”

“Okay.” She paused. “Tony's still mean, though.”

“Don't worry,” Steve said, standing up and hoisting her onto his hip on his way back to the door. “Pepper's going to make him pay for that.”