After Darcy's meltdown and Steve's reassurance, the rest of the evening went more smoothly. While Steve was outside calming Darcy, the rest of the group turned on Tony, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he needed to be more careful. “We know to expect it from you, Tony,” Pepper said when he started to look defensive. “But she doesn't, and she's a child right now. A scared, confused, little child. Remember that before you speak, okay?”
Tony grumbled, but when Steve and Darcy returned and Darcy's face was clearly still tear-streaked and her eyes red, he had the grace to look a little abashed. They were able to finish their meal - even Darcy was convinced to eat one more chicken tender - before returning to the tower as the sun sank behind the buildings. Darcy made the trip back in Steve's arms rather than on Thor's shoulders, but she had small smiles for almost everyone, so that was all right.
At seven, Steve and Pepper in concert determined that it was time for little girls to be getting into bed. Darcy, who was watching Clint and Natasha demolish one another at the foosball table, whined a little bit, but when it was clear that there would be no budging on this matter, she sighed heavily and followed Steve back to his apartment. He tweaked one of her braids when she dragged her feet. “They'll still be here tomorrow for you to play with,” he assured her.
“Oh- kay ,” she moaned sadly, glancing up at him out of the corner of her eye as she did so.
He grinned back down at her. “Nothing doing,” he assured her, and she sighed.
“It was worth a shot,” she said.
“Oh, sure,” he agreed. “But Pepper would be mad at me if I let you stay up past bedtime.”
She looked up at him again as he opened the front door for her. “Do you always do what Pepper says?”
“If I know what's good for me, I do,” he replied easily. Then he nudged her toward the stairs. “Go get your pajamas out. I'll be up in a second to run your bath.”
“Okay.” She ran for the stairs. He watched her climb them and grinned slightly as she disappeared into her bedroom.
Then he sank down on one of the barstools at the kitchen counter, his smile fading just a bit. This had not been an easy day. Darcy at six, while utterly adorable, was also still a six-year-old in the middle of a very confusing situation and surrounded by strangers - friendly strangers, but strangers nonetheless. After her breakdown at the restaurant, she had seemed a little more natural, and he could tell that there was a mischievous little imp somewhere underneath the façade of a well-mannered child. He was bracing himself for when that little imp decided it was safe to come out.
He missed Darcy - his Darcy, the adult version. The one who cooked dinners with him in mind and teased him about his old-man haircut and introduced him to the modern Broadway musical (he'd very much enjoyed Wicked , but Rent had been depressing as hell). The one who, after their last date - was it just yesterday? - had finally let him kiss her properly, up against the inside of her apartment door, with his hands buried in her hair and his tongue doing obscene things to hers. He closed his eyes for just a moment and he could see the look on her face when he'd released her, her glassy eyes, blown pupils, and bright red cheeks. His hands itched to hold her again.
There was a very loud bang from upstairs, and Steve opened his eyes. He'd left her alone for too long.
He took the stairs two at a time and stuck his head into the room to find Darcy struggling to lift a chair back up into a standing position. She looked up at him with an expression of frustration. “I was trying to put it back,” she explained.
He came into the room and grabbed the chair, returning it easily to the corner. “Why was it out?”
“Because I couldn't reach the clothes bar,” she explained, pointing. “And I had to get dressed.”
“That makes sense,” Steve replied. “So tell me what you want to wear tomorrow and I'll get it out now.” She chose jeans and a Black Widow tee shirt - a quick glance through the selection of shirts showed Steve that yes, in fact, they were all Avengers-themed - and he laid them on the chair for her. “Okay,” he said. “Let's see about that bath.”
He plugged the tub, started the water, and added bubbles. Darcy stripped off with no indication of shyness or embarrassment and reached over the edge, sticking her hand into the water. Determining that it was not, in fact, too hot, she clambered over the side of the tub and plopped down into the water once he cut the faucet off. Steve grabbed another barrette and clipped her braids up to keep them out of the water, then dropped a clean wash cloth onto her upturned face. “Scrub up, Short Stack,” he told her.
He went back into the bedroom, turning down the bed for her and poking through the stack of books on the bedside table, wondering if she'd want a story. He collected her dirty clothing, dropping it into the hamper, and grinned as he listened to her wash and then splash around and play. After about ten minutes, though, he stuck his head back into the bathroom. “About done?”
She sighed. “I guess, since there's no boats or anything.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you saying you'd like some boats for the bathtub?”
“Yes, please,” she replied, giving him that shiny grin again.
He pointed a finger at her. “You're a little con artist, you know that?” He grabbed the towel off the sink. “Come on, then.”
She stood, and he wrapped the towel around her and hoisted her out. “Do you need help with your teeth?”
“No, I can do it.” He nodded, reaching over to unstopper the tub. He watched as she carefully squeezed toothpaste onto her brush, then stuck it into her mouth and worked vigorously. He was pretty sure she wasn't actually managing the job, but he hadn't become the Avengers' tactical commander by not knowing how to pick his battles. He simply let her do what she wanted, and when she felt like she was done, he lifted her up so that she could rinse and spit.
Once she was dry and dressed in pajamas, she clambered into bed and he said, “Do you want a story?”
He turned on the bedside light, cut off the ceiling light, picked up the book on the top of the stack and showed her its cover. “This one look okay?”
“That's my favorite,” she said.
He smiled. “Good.” He sat down on the side of the bed, handed Major to her, and flipped the book open, and began to read. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him 'WILD THING!' and Max said 'I'LL EAT YOU UP!' so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”
It was a short book, but by the time Max got home to find his supper waiting for him, Darcy was flagging. It had been a very long day for her, even with the nap she'd had, so he closed the book and set it on the bedside table and he stood, tugging the covers up to her shoulders and leaning over to press a kiss to her forehead. “Good night,” he whispered against her hair.
“Night,” she murmured back, her eyes falling closed.
Steve cut the bedside light off. The light in the bathroom, on a dimmer switch, glowed faintly, enough that she would be able to find it if she needed the bathroom in the night. Steve paused for just a moment, watching her sleep, and then he slipped out of the room. He left the door open and made his way downstairs.
Clint was waiting for him in his living room, and he wasn't at all surprised. “She asleep?”
“She's asleep,” Steve replied, nodding. He went into the kitchen and pulled the refrigerator open. “Care for a beer?” He held out a bottle of a local microbrew he was fairly fond of.
“Thanks,” Clint said, taking it. “She doing all right, then? After earlier...”
“She's all right, I think.” Steve slumped against the kitchen counter, and Clint leaned against the opposite wall. “She thought we'd kidnapped her. She was tryin' to stay on her best behavior because apparently when people get kidnapped on television, they get locked up in 'gross basements' or something.” He shook his head. “I dunno what they were lettin' her watch on TV.”
Clint sighed. “So how much did you tell her?”
“Not much. Didn't wanna confuse her. Just told her it was an accident, and we'd fix her as soon as Tony fixes that damn machine.” Steve paused. “What the hell was he even doing, anyway?”
“Something about transduction of matter or something, I dunno,” Clint replied, taking a deep swig of his beer. “He starts with the science talk and I just stop listening. Half the time I think he's making shit up as he goes along anyway.”
Steve ran a hand through his hair, scrubbing for a second. “I've got a shrink appointment tomorrow,” he said after a moment. “Eleven o'clock. Any chance you could...?”
“Take her to the range like I said I would?” Clint grinned. “Sure.”
“Thanks.” Steve sighed. “I could take her with me, but not into the appointment itself, and I don't wanna leave her sitting in a waiting room for an hour to get bored. God only knows what she might say to someone.”
“Yeah, I can just imagine.” Clint grimaced. “For that matter, thank God nobody ever told her to find a policeman if she was kidnapped. We could've had a problem on our hands today.”
The two of them were silent for a moment, considering that. “Maybe it'd be best if she stayed in the Tower until Tony gets this sorted out,” Steve managed.
“Yeah, I... think you might be right about that,” Clint agreed, sounding a bit strangled.
“My girlfriend,” Steve said, after a moment at the window to collect his thoughts, “is a six-year-old.”
“That would be Darcy,” Burke checked, and Steve nodded. “In what ways is she a six-year-old?”
“In every way that counts, starting with the fact that, right at this moment, she's literally six years old,” Steve replied. He flopped down into the wing chair. “Yesterday morning, there was an accident in Tony's lab.” He explained the whole situation, from the explosion to this morning's showdown over breakfast (“No, Darcy, you cannot have Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs for breakfast; you can have eggs and bacon, or you can have French toast”). As proof, he presented Burke with a picture of Darcy on his phone. “That's from last week, when we went to Coney Island,” he said. Then he flipped to another picture, of a sulking Darcy poking at her eggs with a fork. “And that's this morning.”
Burke flipped back and forth between the two pictures for a moment, then looked up at Steve. “I think I can honestly say that I've never had a patient with a problem quite like this before.”
Steve's laugh was strangled. “Yeah, I bet not.”
For a moment, Burke looked like he wasn't really sure what to even start asking. “How is this... working out?”
Steve shrugged. “As well as can be expected, I guess. Pepper and Nat went out and got her some clothes and things, and we set her up in my guest room. Everybody's kind of keeping an eye out for her, but since I have the least to do, as far as day-to-day responsibilities go, I volunteered to take primary responsibility.”
“Do you know much about children?”
“I do all right,” Steve said. “I spent several years living in an orphanage, and us older kids always had to help out with the younger ones. I can tell a bedtime story like nobody's business.” He smiled slightly. “I like kids. Before... before, I always sort of expected that someday I'd get married and have kids of my own, you know? I didn't have a father, so I'd... I'd like to be a dad. And then, during the war, there was this girl, Peggy.” He paused, looking out the window for a minute and seeing an entirely different vista. “For awhile, I thought it was gonna be her.”
Burke nodded. “And since you came back, have you changed your mind?”
“No,” Steve said softly. “No, I still want to get married someday and raise a family. But everything's so different now.”
“Is it that different?” Burke wondered. “I know the buildings look different and there's new technology and that sort of thing. The surface trappings are all different. But look below that. Are people really all that different now than they were before?”
Steve considered that for a long moment. “No, not really,” he finally conceded. “The culture's changed; people are more open, especially about sexual things. People are a lot louder than they used to be. But they still want the same kinds of things.”
“Have you talked to Darcy about this?”
“God, no,” Steve laughed. “We've barely gotten to French kissing.”
“Maybe you should,” Burke said mildly. “Once she's back to normal, that is.”
“Isn't that... jumping in kinda fast?”
Burke shrugged. “Maybe. Then again, if what you're looking for is a serious, long-term relationship, and she's only looking for a short-term fling, wouldn't it be better to know that now?”
“Good point.” Steve chewed his lip, considering that. “I guess I'll have to ask her.”
“Has her presence affected the symptoms of your PTSD?” Burke asked.
Steve blinked. “I... don't think so.” He ran a hand through his hair, considering. “Should it?”
“Not necessarily. But sometimes it can happen. You've mentioned that you have flashbacks, nightmares, and incidents of free-floating anger. I know you said she's only been affected since yesterday, but did you experience any of those issues in her presence, or in relation to her?”
Steve shook his head. “No. In fact, I... I don't think I dreamed at all last night.”
“You slept through the night?”
“She woke me up asking for breakfast.”
Burke nodded. “I want you to try to stay aware of your moods, especially with her. She's uncertain and probably easily frightened, and she won't react to an episode the same way that adult Darcy would.”
Steve nodded in reply. “I can do that.” Privately, he thought that it might not be a bad idea to ask JARVIS to monitor him as well, just as a backup. Then he looked up in surprise as Burke leaned forward a bit and offered him a small book. “What's this?”
“It's a journal,” Burke replied. “I'd like for you to start keeping a record of your thoughts and emotions. This will help you get started.”
“What, like a diary?”
“You can keep it that way, if you'd like to. Some people keep simple text diaries of their thoughts and experiences. Other people journal through art. You can look up 'journaling' on the Internet and find a variety of ways in which people keep personal records. I think it's important for you to start now, especially since you have this added stressor in your life, because it can help you to self-monitor and watch for triggers and troublesome patterns.”
Steve nodded. “Okay. Should I... bring it every time, or...?”
“Only if you want to. This will be something that you keep for yourself alone, unless you choose to share it with me or someone else.”
Steve ran a hand over the plain black cover of the book. “Okay,” he said again. “I can do that.”
On his return to the tower, Steve asked JARVIS about Darcy's location. JARVIS advised him that Darcy was with Natasha in the gymnasium. With a word of thanks to the AI, Steve detoured through his apartment to drop off the little journal book, then headed downstairs to the Avengers' private gym.
The place was massive, all mirrored walls and glass partitions, with sections for everything. There was a weight lifting area, a cardio area, an area for fight training with punching bags and a sparring ring, a climbing wall, the yoga area, a small dance studio with a barre, and even an area for gymnastics training, complete with uneven bars, pommel horse, balance beam, and a variety of other equipment for which Steve did not know names. He tracked Natasha and Darcy to that area of the gym by following the sound of little girl laughter.
He rounded the corner past the dance studio's mirrored wall to find Darcy standing at one end of the trampoline floor, looking very determined. “No,” she was saying as Steve rounded the corner. “I can do it. I know how.”
“All right,” Natasha said, hopping up onto the pommel horse. “Then show me.”
Darcy nodded once. She took a deep breath, almost glaring at the open, springy floor surface in front of her, and then she burst into movement. She ran forward for several feet and then, with a sort of kick, began to cartwheel forward. Natasha nodded to herself as she watched, and when Darcy finished at the end with her hands in the air and a big smile on her face, Steve couldn't help it; he applauded.
Natasha had, of course, known that he was there; Darcy had not, and she turned in surprise to see who her audience was. “Steve!” she exclaimed, darting over to hug him tightly around the thighs. “Hi!”
“Hey, dollface,” he greeted her, leaning down to hug her back. “Having fun?”
“Auntie Nat knows how to do tumbling!”
“Yes, she does,” Steve replied, struggling to keep a straight face. “But then, apparently, so do you.”
“I can do some. Maria Bezdek can do back handsprings all the way across the floor, but she's been doing gymnastics for two years and I've only been doing it since I turned six.” She heaved a sigh. “I can do a back walkover, though, and Coach Marissa says if I keep working on it I'll get there.”
“You will,” Natasha said. “It merely requires practice and competent training. Can you do a front handspring?”
“Go and practice that, then. I will watch.”
Darcy scampered back to the other end of the floor, and Steve walked over to stand beside his teammate. He waited until Darcy was about halfway across the floor before he said, “Auntie Nat?”
Natasha scowled. “ Uncle Clint,” she said, all but biting the words off. “And now she won't let it go.”
Steve couldn't help it; he snickered.
Natasha growled low in her throat. “Do not encourage me to invite you into the sparring ring.”
“You wouldn't hurt me in front of the kid, would you?” He gave her his best puppy-dog eyes, the ones Darcy had assured him were extremely effective and should only be deployed in extreme emergencies lest she become immune through repeated exposure.
Natasha glared at him. “Your impaired-Labrador impression has no effect on me,” she assured him.
He grinned back, turning his attention back to Darcy in time to say, “That looked really good to me, but I don't really know anything about tumbling, so...”
“You do very well for a beginner,” Natasha said when Darcy turned to her for confirmation. “With practice, your form will improve, and then you will be excellent.”
Steve looked back down at Darcy, who was grinning broadly. “Hungry, kiddo?” When she nodded he said, “Well, I bet if you find your shoes, we could head upstairs and I could make us something for lunch.”
“Can we have cake?” she asked, widening her eyes at him in pleading.
“For dessert, after you eat your actual lunch,” he replied. “I'm not sending you home with cavities in your teeth.”
She scowled at him, but ran off to find her shoes. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “Sweet tooth?”
“She basically wanted a bowl of sugar for breakfast,” Steve replied. “I shouldn't be surprised; I've seen the stuff she bakes. That chess pie almost overloaded me , and I burn through sugar in nothing flat.”
Natasha laughed. “Good for you for not giving in. She's quite the master manipulator. By the time I took her away from him, she had Clint wrapped around her little finger.”
Steve shook his head, grinning. “I'd say she's going to be a holy terror when she grows up, but I know her as an adult. There's nothing holy about her.”
“You like it that way,” Natasha pointed out.
Steve's grin turned shark-like. “Never said I didn't.” He took Darcy's hand as she returned to his side, and they headed upstairs to have lunch.