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Healing Process

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The remainder of the day passed uneventfully, and was followed by a second and then a third similar day. Clint and Natasha were called out on a mission for SHIELD on the second day; Darcy was extremely disappointed not to get her archery or gymnastics lessons, but she understood that Uncle Clint and Auntie Nat had to work, and was content with having extra arts and crafts time with Steve and then story time with Thor. Bruce, Jane, and Tony remained largely holed up in their labs - not that this was unusual behavior for any of them - but Steve noticed that Darcy had a tendency to stay as far away from Tony as possible whenever he came down into the communal areas. He hoped that wouldn't continue once she was fixed; it was kind of awkward to watch Tony pretend not to have hurt feelings over her continued antipathy toward him.

On the fourth day, Steve had another appointment with Burke, and since Clint and Natasha were still gone, he left Darcy in the capable care of Thor. He went off to his appointment secure in the knowledge that Thor understood why Darcy shouldn't leave the tower, and that Thor was intelligent enough and old enough to manage a single six-year-old for the approximately two hours he would be gone.

He underestimated Darcy's powers of persuasion.

Steve returned to the tower all unawares, only to find the upper floors in turmoil. In the middle of that turmoil were Darcy and Thor, who sat on the big couch in the main common area with similar expressions of penitence, and a red-faced and shaking Pepper standing over them both, accompanied by a white-lipped and silent Jane. Steve crossed himself and entered the room. “What happened?”

It seems,” Pepper began immediately, before Darcy or Thor could speak in their own defense, “that young Miss Lewis was bored of being cooped up in the tower all day.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at Darcy. “Really? Between the game room, the media center, and the library?”

She wanted some fresh air ,” Jane expanded, sounding a bit shrill. “And she managed to convince this idiot that if she didn't get any fresh air, it would stunt her growth.

Steve transferred his raised eyebrow to Thor, who shuffled his feet against the carpet and refused to meet Steve's eyes. Convinced, my ass, Steve thought. He's as much of an instigator as she is. I shoulda known better. “All right,” he said aloud. “So what, exactly, occurred after this astonishing feat of diplomacy?”

Tell him!” Jane demanded, turning her furious glare on Thor and Darcy. “Tell him what you did!”

Darcy mumbled something in the vague direction of the floor. Steve cleared his throat. “What was that?” he asked. “I couldn't hear you.”

Thor squared his shoulders as though determined to take the blow for his companion. Steve wondered how many times he'd done just that for his smaller, more delicately-built brother. “We went flying,” the Asgardian stated clearly.

Steve blinked. “I'm sorry, I must have misheard you. I'm almost certain that you said something about flying .”

Thor nodded once, firmly. “I took her flying with Mjolnir.”

Steve felt, for a long moment, the heavy weight of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. All of the thousands of ways in which Darcy could have been injured, that the two of them could have been seen. He closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply, letting the sheer blind, stupid panic wash over him. Then he opened his eyes. Darcy was watching him with trepidation, obviously wondering whether he was about to snap. He raised his hand and pointed down the hall toward his front door. “Darcy, go to your room.”

She sighed deeply, gave Thor the sideways look of a sympathetic co-conspirator, and then trudged down the hall. Steve waited until she was inside the apartment with the front door shut before dropping down onto the sofa beside Thor and letting it all out. First he chuffed, very quietly, to himself. Then he snickered. Then he started full-out laughing, flopping backward against the back of the couch and throwing an arm over his eyes. He laughed, hard, for a solid two minutes before finally gasping to a halt. “Oh my God,” he managed once he was able to breathe. “I hate that I missed it.”

Thor, now that he seemed reasonably certain that Steve wasn't going to haul off and punch him or something, cracked a tentative smile. “She seemed to enjoy it very much,” he offered.

I bet she did.” He snickered once more, shaking his head, and clapped Thor on the shoulder. “Next time, I want to take video.”

Jane spluttered. “But...?”

Steve looked up at Jane and Pepper, shaking his head. “Ladies, please. Sit down.” They did, and he continued. “I can completely understand why you're upset. I really can. And let's be honest, if it had been Tony, taking her in the suit, I'd be just as furious as both of you. But it's not Tony; it's Thor. And when have you ever known Thor to be thoughtless or reckless when it came to someone else's safety? Especially that of a child?”

There was a long pause, and slowly the color began to fade out of Pepper's face even as it leached back into Jane's. “You have a point,” Pepper said.

Of course I do. Were there a thousand and one ways this could've gone wrong? Sure. But there's a thousand and one ways a trip across the street on foot could go wrong, too. Thor, I assume you were as careful as it's possible to be?”

Of course I was,” Thor replied. “I bound her to my chest plate most securely, and held her with my arm as well. Even had my arm slipped, she would have still been perfectly safe.”

Well, I'm not sure I'd go that far,” Steve said. “There's still a lot of ways this could've gone badly, not the least of which includes you being seen, but if I didn't trust you to keep her safe no matter what, I wouldn't have left her with you.”

Thor nodded. Steve turned his attention back to Jane and Pepper. “And really, what I said a second ago about Tony was a little harsh. He's reckless with himself a lot, but I don't think he'd ever be reckless with a child. Especially not Darcy.”

Pepper took a deep breath. “No,” she said, “I suppose you're right.” She turned her gaze to Thor. “I'm sorry I overreacted.”

Me, too,” Jane interjected hastily. “I've just been so stressed out about that stupid machine and when I saw you fly past the window with her, my heart just...”

Thor reached out and took Jane's hands. “I understand,” he rumbled. “Perhaps I should have warned you of what I was planning before I did it; it should have resulted in less panic that way.”

Steve nodded. “Everyone okay?” When they all nodded, he stood. “Good. Now I get to go deal with her.”

Steve?” Pepper asked as he turned to go, “Why send her off like that, if you're not really mad at her?”

Steve glanced back at her over his shoulder and gave a half-shrug. “Because it wouldn't be right to undermine you as a parent,” he replied. “Even if I think you're wrong, she needs to think we're all in this together, or she'll start playing one against the other.”

You know a lot about parental psychology,” Pepper commented, impressed.

Steve snorted. “That ain't parental psychology,” he replied, grinning. “That's just good strategy. A smart soldier never torpedoes his CO right in front of her.” He turned then and headed down the hallway to his apartment, Pepper's laughter following him.

He half expected to find her in a sulking fit, but apparently she'd chosen discretion as the better part of valor; when he entered her bedroom, she was sitting cross-legged on the bed, paging through a large-print copy of Disney's version of Cinderella . She closed the book as he entered, looking up at him nervously.

He came and sat down on the end of the bed, studying her. “How long had you been sitting there with Pepper and Jane yelling at you before I got home?”

She shrugged. “Few minutes, I guess. I dunno.”

Did you have fun?”

She canted her head at him, squinting as though he were a very interesting specimen. “Ye-e-es,” she said, drawing the word out like she wasn't sure it was allowed.

He smiled slightly. “Was it worth it?”

She nodded once. “Definitely.”

Do you understand why Pepper and Jane got upset?”

Because it was dangerous, I know , but I tried to tell them, I had a harness, and it was just like a roller coaster, and I'm allowed to go on roller coasters with a grownup.”

Better to ask forgiveness than permission, Steve thought, and he smiled slightly as he thought of his own exploits. A night flight over Nazi-occupied Europe with Howard Stark and Peggy Carter came to mind. He reached out and ruffled her hair. “Next time you and Thor get a bright idea,” he said, “wait until you can run it past me first. Okay?”

Okay,” Darcy said. She canted her head the other way, giving him her sly little smile. “Does this mean I'm not in trouble?”

Steve tapped his chin thoughtfully, studying her. “First, you have to apologize to Jane and Pepper for scaring them. And I think we'll skip dessert after dinner, because you did know full well that you were being a little bit sneaky, didn't you?”

She hunched her shoulders and looked down at the book in her hands. “A little bit.”

Yeah, a little bit, my left foot,” he replied, chucking her under the chin. “You knew full well what you were doing.”

She looked up at him through her eyelashes, and he had a surge of sympathy for the people who had raised her. He shook his head. “Come on,” he said. “You have some apologies to make.”

As it turned out, those had to be put to the side.

Just as they reached the bottom of the stairs, JARVIS spoke. “Pardon me, Captain Rogers. Mr. Stark has requested that you and Miss Lewis come to his workshop as soon as possible. And, er. Dr. Banner suggests the bringing of... alternate apparel.”

Steve glanced down at Darcy, then up again at the ceiling as almost everyone habitually did when addressing JARVIS. “He's done, then?”

He believes so, yes.”

Tell him we'll be there in just a minute.”

Steve retrieved a bathrobe from his bedroom; it had been hanging on the back of the bathroom door when he moved in, and he'd never used it. Darcy watched him as he came back with it. “What's that for?”

Might be useful,” Steve replied. He reached down and her little hand slid into his - possibly for the last time, his mind whispered - and he said, “Come on. We need to get down to Tony's lab.”

Tony and Bruce were the only ones there when Steve and Darcy arrived. Darcy chirped a hello at Bruce, and offered a much quieter greeting to Tony, but the skinny engineer didn't hear her; he was waist-deep in the bowels of the newly-repaired machine. Bruce led Darcy to a spot on the floor marked with tape and said, “I need you to stand right here, okay?”

Okay,” Darcy said amiably. “What are you doing?”

We're doing an experiment,” Bruce replied. “We need to make sure about your height.”

Why?”

Bruce glanced at Steve, who stepped smoothly into the conversation. “Remember when I told you that Tony's broken machine is why you're here, and once he fixes it, we're going to fix you?” When she nodded, he continued, “I think he's fixed it.”

So I'm going home?” Darcy asked. Her eyes got huge and began to grow wet. “But... but I didn't get to say goodbye to everyone! Uncle Clint and Auntie Nat aren't here, and - and -”

Shh, it's okay,” Steve said, taking a knee beside her and pulling her into a hug. “You don't think this is the last you're going to see of us, do you?”

She sniffled. “You'll come see me?”

Absolutely,” he promised.

And Auntie Nat and Uncle Clint, too? And Thor and Jane and Pepper?”

Definitely.”

She looked over at Bruce. “And you, too, Dr. Bruce?”

Me, too,” Bruce assured her, poking at something on the side of the machine. “And even Tony, so you have someone to throw water balloons at.”

Darcy nodded, rubbing at her face with the back of her hand. “When?”

Steve smiled. “Sooner than you think,” he assured her. “I promise.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said softly. Then she said, “Sometimes, can I maybe come back? And sleep in my room with the butterflies?”

Oh, sweetie,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to her temple. “You can come back any time you like.”

Okay.”

Need you to step back, Cap,” Tony said, “unless you're interested in what this thing'll do to you.”

Steve let Darcy go, standing her carefully back on the tape spot and stepped back. “We'll see you soon, Darcy,” he said.

Darcy lifted her chin and gave him her bravest smile. Steve glanced at Bruce across the room, silently asking: Are you sure this is gonna work? Bruce nodded back once, firmly, and Tony counted down from five before throwing a switch.

There was a soundless explosion of green light, and Steve had to cover his eyes or be blinded. There was a sound like tearing cloth. And then there was Darcy's voice saying, “Oh my God, give me that bathrobe.

He held it out immediately, without opening his eyes, and she snatched it from him. After a beat she said, “You can look now.”

He squinted open one eye, as though afraid, and she laughed at him, pushing her hair back out of her face. Standing there in his robe, with the remains of her child's clothing lying on the floor at her feet, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He couldn't help himself; he took the two steps toward her and buried his hands in her hair, his mouth slanting hot and wet over hers. Her arms came up to wrap around his shoulders and she opened to him, soft sounds of need escaping from her as he thoroughly plundered her mouth.

When they drew apart to breathe, he kept his forehead resting against hers, reveling in the warmth of her soft, panting breaths across his face. “I missed you,” he whispered to her. “So much.”

She smiled. “You were so good to me,” she murmured back. “You're going to be an amazing daddy someday, you know?”

He smiled back. “I hope so,” he said.

She regretfully extricated herself from his arms when Tony let out a wolf-whistle, and she crouched, gathering the shredded remains of her little yellow sundress as well as the sequined sneakers she'd been so fond of. She stood, turned, and slung one of those sneakers directly at Tony's head. “Stark, you idiot !” she shouted. “I could've been stuck like that forever!”

Never happen!” Tony replied, ducking behind the machine before throwing the shoe back. “I knew exactly how to fix it!”

Get rid of that thing!” Darcy demanded, threatening him with the other shoe. “I mean it, Stark! That thing better be gone the next time I come in here, or I am taking drastic measures!” She turned slightly then, and Bruce ducked playfully, throwing one hand up in self-defense. With a smile, she said, “Bruce, thank you for helping him fix me. I really appreciate it.”

He smiled back. “Anytime, Darcy. I'm just glad it worked and you're okay.”

Darcy took a deep breath, cutting a glance toward Steve that he couldn't quite read. “I'm going to go put on some grownup clothes now,” she said. “I'll see everyone later.” She vanished from the room, her bare feet silent on the carpeted floor of the hallway.

Steve stood there for a moment, feeling anticlimactic. Then Bruce said, “Are you going?”

He looked up. “Oh, uh. Yeah, I should... get out of your way.”

That's - no, I mean, are you going with her ,” Bruce clarified.

Steve blinked at him, confused. “Oh, for God's sake, Cap,” Tony said. “That look she gave you before she left wasn't for her health, you know. Go after her, you idiot.”

Oh ,” Steve said. He stood there for another second, feeling unaccountably stupid, and then he spun in place and took off down the hallway.

Darcy's front door was slightly ajar when he got to it, and he knocked on it even as he pushed it open. “Darce?”

Up here.” Her voice filtered back to him from upstairs. He pushed the door shut and crossed the living room, noting as he did that the layout of her apartment was a mirror image of his own, though the decorating scheme was obviously very different. Her furniture was a hodgepodge, knickknacks were scattered everywhere, and the walls were plastered with brightly colored posters and framed collages.

She was in the largest upstairs bedroom, standing in front of her closet, still wearing his robe. She smiled at him when he stopped in the doorway. “Hey,” she said.

Hey,” he said back, leaning against the doorframe in a move that tried for nonchalant and probably came in closer to awkward, but her smile widened at his effort.

She moved toward him, reaching out to take his hands in hers. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she murmured.

Darcy,” he said, his fingers tightening around hers, “I will always take care of you, if you let me.”

You're a good man,” she told him. “And I really want you to kiss me again like you kissed me a minute ago.”

I can do that,” he assured her, and proved it. This time, there was no Tony to catcall and no Bruce to be embarrassed, and Steve didn't release her when she needed to breathe; instead, his mouth moved from her lips to the edge of her jaw and he followed it up to her ear, then began blazing a trail down her neck, loving the sounds that she made with every hot, wet press of his lips and tongue against her skin.

And then her hands moved between them, and the robe she was wearing fell to the floor. He drew back slightly, staring down into her eyes. “Darce,” he breathed against her cheek. “Are you sure?”

I'm sure,” she whispered.

He buried his hands in her hair again, and for a long time after that, they didn't talk much.

***

Later that evening, they made their way down to the common kitchen to see about dinner. It was Bruce's turn, which usually meant delivery from some exotic restaurant, but that night, he'd ordered in Italian. Clint and Natasha had apparently just gotten back, as well, because as Steve and Darcy entered, hand in hand, they were both just sitting down at the table.

Darcy's sated, sleepy grin turned wicked, and she eased up behind Clint before throwing her arms around his shoulders. “Hi, Uncle Clint!”

The archer squawked in surprise, dropping his fork, and then turned, his eyes wide. “Darcy! You're fixed!”

I'm fixed!” she replied, laughing as he hugged her. She ruffled his short hair before releasing him and heading back into the kitchen to accept the plate Steve was loading up for her, then returned and seated herself next to Natasha. She elbowed the redhead. “Auntie Nat.”

Natasha gave her a sideways look, but there was no heat to it, and Darcy just grinned. “Thanks,” she said softly. “Both of you.”

Anytime, Darce,” Clint replied, and Natasha hummed in agreement. Then the subject was dropped - until Thor came into the room and saw her.

Darcy!” he exclaimed. “You are restored!”

I am!” she replied, accepting his warm hug and returning it as well as she could from her seated position. “Thanks for taking me flying!”

His booming laugh filled the room. “You are most welcome! It was an enjoyable experience for us both.”

Yeah, only now I'm in all kinds of trouble,” Darcy replied, winking at him before looking slyly at Steve. “I'm not allowed to have dessert after dinner.”

Oh, that's a shame,” Bruce said, grinning. “I got tiramisu because I know how much you like it.”

Then I'm having dessert anyway,” Darcy said, and she gave Steve a filthy little grin. “Guess I'll just have to have a spanking instead.”

He pointed his fork at her. “Don't tempt me.”

She fluttered her eyelashes at him until he leaned over and kissed her. They shared a piece of tiramisu after dinner was over. And then they disappeared again when nobody was looking, and neither of them was seen again until the next afternoon.