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I Once Was Lost

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She learns from her Gran when she was six; barely old enough to hold the plastic needles in her hands, but she is persistent. She's persistent and insists that her Gran teaches her all her tricks, because even then Darcy Lewis has the uncanny ability to read people and to understand the unspoken words in between

(whether or not she actually listened or followed through with those unspoken words has long been a source of contention with her mother. Then again, Darcy herself has always been a source of contention, and saw no point in stopping for the woman who incubated her for nine months)

and six-year-old Darcy Lewis knows that her Gran isn't going to be around forever. She knows that every second is precious and fleeting and that she wants as much of her memory as she can keep for when she leaves her

(and she does leave her, after eleven long years of love and countless battles with a horror Darcy still hates to think of, how it stole Gran's vitality, her spirit, eventually even her ability to hold the needles and yarn in her hands and magically create comfort and the feeling of home out of wool)

so she demands that Gran teach her how to knit and crochet, how to cook and sew and spin, how to quilt and sing and all the things that Gran can do, because Darcy wants to do them too.

They start small, with potholders and scarves and little table-runners for the different holidays, all in solid colors that gradually start to get stripes and patterns. Scarves give way to afghans and blankets, which give way to hats and sweaters, mittens to gloves and her skill increases until Darcy is fifteen and sits by her Gran's bedside, her hands busy with a prayer shawl in a beautiful pale blue angora that matches Gran's eyes. Music plays softly in the background, old rock'n'roll that makes her Gran smile and whisper about late night devilry, about boys with fast cars who liked girls in high-waisted jeans and leather jackets.

(Lewis women had a long proud tradition of devil-may-care attitude, a thirst for adventure, and a tongue sharp enough to cut)

Darcy hums and smiles at all the right moments, because Gran can't see but she can still feel her granddaughter's amusement,

(she has always loved her Gran's stories, always loved the tale of how she met her Gramps, a punch to the face after a spilled drink, followed by a long kiss under the moonlight and chasing the stars across the sky. When she was little, she would sit and listen and beg for the tales of her Gran's youth, and now she just listens to the last time she'll ever hear them)

and Darcy isn't going to leave her Gran hanging now, not when she is at her lowest and her loneliest. So she sits by her side and knits, and lets her know with noises and laughter that she's still there, still with her and all their secrets and time and memories.

(by unspoken agreement neither of them mention that the prayer shawl isn't for warmth, isn't for church, isn't for Darcy's future graduation, or even sitting on the porch in the summer sun.)

(neither of them mention that the shawl isn't so much a prayer as a loving goodbye)

-o-

When Gran passes away, Darcy doesn't have much to do. They sat down with the funeral director and lawyer months before, when the cancer first got worse, and set everything in stone. It's after that day that she begins the shawl, begins the long process of saying goodbye to the person she loves the most in the world.

Now, she packs away Gran's belongings and supplies. She keeps some; the ancient treadle sewing machine, bolts of wool for suits and the satin and lace that Gran promised to use in her wedding dress. She keeps the handmade basket full of knitting needles and the case of crochet hooks. She keeps the wooden sewing chest, neatly organized, full of antique buttons and needles and pairs of scissors older than Darcy herself but still sharp

(like Gran's tongue, even to the end)

and the embroidered quilt squares for the next Lewis baby, lovingly made but never sewn because another baby never came. Darcy plans to hold onto them, to make into a quilt with squares of her own to give to her eventual future child

(but if she turns out anything like her mother, she'll save the child the disappointment and give them up for adoption, because no one deserves a shit parent like that, no one, especially not a sweet innocent little baby)

all neatly stitched and pressed, later to be framed and hung on the kid's wall when they outgrow the need for a safety blanket.

She keeps the best of the yarns as well, the fisherman's wool, the delicate laceweights, the softest alpaca, the cheery cottons, merino and cashmere and angora and silk and bamboo. She shoves all that she can into one bag and hides it away in the corner of her room. She even keeps the ancient treadle spinning wheel, folded and stored in her closet with the spindles hanging from their hooks next to it. The loom is too big to store, too big to move, so she pats it goodbye and marks it for Evie.

She keeps Gran's cookbooks and recipe cards, all neatly organized and alphabetized, waiting for her to take to her new home. She keeps the best of the copper pots, keeps the old cast iron skillet and the sharpest of the kitchen knives. She takes the old crockery mixing bowl, the ancient wooden spoon, and the kerosene lamp that sits on the kitchen table. All of them are seasoned with time and memories, and value of antiquities be damned, she won't give those up.

She keeps all the vinyl records, and all the old photographs. She keeps the blankets and the hats, the last few bits of home that Gran made before the cancer got too bad and hides them away in the antique cedar chest, a hand-carved wedding gift from Gramps. She takes the books of old poetry, of homeopathy and gardening, soap-making and sewing techniques and moves them all with the cookbooks to her room. She takes her favorite throw pillow

(faded blue silk, embroidered with tiny wildflowers and delicate beaded trim. Gran made it for her when she turned thirteen and cried over her first broken heart)

and Gran's favorite pillow,

(the same blue silk, less faded with age but splashily embroidered with a big bright songbird. Darcy made it when Gran first received her diagnosis)

puts them in the rocker that survived four generations of Lewis women rocking their children to sleep, and carries it all upstairs.

She saves the silk robe and nightgowns that her Gran wore when she was younger and thinner. The garments fit beautifully and smell so strongly of lavender and camphor and home that for a moment it all threatens to overwhelm her. She shakes her head clear of emotion and moves on- dresses and suits from the fifties, skirts and blouses from the sixties, shirts and pants from the seventies and eighties and ninties. Some of them are ugly, others are too big or small, and still others are in near-perfect condition and just her size. Those she takes into her room, hangs them in the closet before packing the rest for donation.

She even goes as far as unlocking Uncle Lindsey's room, unchanged since Vietnam

(and even though she's come in before to clean and dust and make sure this room is spotless and timeless, it never fails to steal her breath away)

and her eye is practiced, practical. She never knew Uncle Lindsey, only that he was Gran's little brother, that she loved him dearly, but Darcy is neither blind or foolish. She takes the most important pieces- his war medals, his shirts from his favorite bands. She takes his records and his photographs, takes one of his old uniform shirts and packs it all into a duffel she found in his closet. She even takes the picture of him and his sweetheart, Evie Harris

(Evie Davidson now, Gran's best friend and the woman who held Darcy's hand at the funeral, who sat with Darcy when she was sick and Gran had to run to work or lose her job and the house they lived in)

and slips it into her shirt pocket, because that picture is not hers or Gran's, and she will be damned before Evie loses one more piece of her life as well.

Bit by bit, Darcy saves the most important, most treasured pieces of her Gran. She keeps the heirloom jewelry, of course, and the family silver, but those are in a lock-box at the bank so it's not so much that she's keeping them as waiting for the day she's allowed to have them

(which is when she's about to be married for the first (and only) time, so she can set the table with her family treasures and wear her family finery, so that Lewis' long past know she's still one of theirs, still a Lewis and proud)

unlike the rest of the belongings she's taken into her room. Those are hers and hers alone. She donates the rest to the church or to charity, leaves the furniture and electronics and the rest of the housewares and food in the cupboards. The acrylics and cheap wool are put into the donations pile for Gran's old craft circle. It's not much, and they'll probably use it up faster than Darcy can blink, but it's a way for them to honor Gran and she won't deny them that.

Her mother will be here soon, she knows, fresh on the news of Gran's death and more than hungry to sell what she can. It isn't so much that she wants to make money off of Darcy's grief as it is that she just wants money. Marilyn Lewis may be her mother, but she is not Darcy's family, and only family has the right to Gran's treasures. The mere thought of Gran's loom going to a stranger makes Darcy tremble with anger and fear; anger on behalf of the last person who loved her, and fear for what her future holds.

-o-

Darcy tries to make things work between Marilyn and herself. Marilyn didn't plan for children, didn't think she'll fall into the trap of fast-living. She sough to escape her small town life, to get away from her tiny Midwest hometown and the achingly slow death she imagined waited for her. Death of spirit, death of soul- she claims she saw it hiding in the shadows, around the corners. She saw it in the calluses on her father's hands, in the weariness of her mother's eye. She saw it in the smiles of her friends, in the way they accept proposals right after their diplomas. She raged against what she saw as injustice, the death of light and life and spirit.

(It was a soldier from Ft. Leonardwood that was her ride out. She didn't know him, didn't care. He had a car and a full tank of gas, and was willing to take her as far as Springfield for twenty bucks in gas, a case of beer and her Lynyrd Skynyrd records. She gave him all that, and more, and when she woke up the next morning she found she didn't regret a thing.)

No, what Marilyn regrets is not taking care of her issue, before it became her problem. She's older then the teenager that left Devil's Elbow so many years ago, but she's still not much wiser. She still seeks to escape her past, escape to someplace more lively, more electric, and she can't do that with a child. Darcy doesn't fit in with the life she's created for herself, she didn't then and definitely doesn't now.

Their conversation is stilted, drawn, and Darcy finds herself wishing it's over and Marilyn is gone by the end of the first day. She crawls into bed and cries, cries because she begrudgingly admits Marilyn tried, at first, but she was never meant to be a parent, never meant to take care of anyone or anything beyond herself. Leaving her with her Gran was the kindest thing she could do, the most responsible for all involved, but Darcy still seethes, still cries, still fears that she wasn't enough, would never be enough.

-o-

Darcy wakes early, the sun barely peeking over the tops of the trees. She's not surprised; lately she's been a terrible sleeper, but there's something burning in her heart and head. She's not sure what makes her open her laptop and start searching for colleges, but she does. She's not sure what makes her look up Culver, but she does. She looks at admissions requirements, at financial aid options and campus tours. She looks at the different programs and curriculum and chooses one at random.

It's been years since she's felt something like this, but she doesn't question it, doesn't fight it.

(“This is right,” she whispers.

The wind seems to whisper back, Yes.)

After a month of waiting, a month of watching everything she couldn't save be sold off to the highest bidder, she receives the envelope in the mail. She opens it and her eyes go wide; she has so much to do, so little time to do it. She knows Evie will help, that Marilyn will be overjoyed at the news, but for now she's content to stare at the papers in her hands.

She's been accepted, and a part of her breaks while another soars.

-o-

Evie, bless her, takes control. She enlists the help of her sons and grandsons to take Darcy's treasures and pack them away, safe and sound, in her spare room. She takes up a donation to help cover the cost of travel to Willowsdale. She promises Darcy a place to stay, a place to call home if she ever needs it

(Darcy thanks her, but she doesn't think she will. Home is Gran, a house of laughter and light and song. It's the smell of lavender and pine, of fresh-baked cookies and gardenias blooming in the summer heat. Home is love, unconditional love, and Evie's house will never be home. Not now, not ever)

and sees Darcy off at the train station herself. There are promises to visit, promises Darcy will keep, but not now, not for a while. It's still fresh, still raw, and she tucks herself into her corner with her iPod

(the last gift from Gran, so that Darcy always remember to sing and will always sing of home. It's so battered it's falling apart and she has to make it a small little holder out of sock yarn so it doesn't shatter in the bottom of her purse)

and cries. She's truly alone now, and she feels her broken heart shatter, and she doesn't think she'll ever put the pieces back together again.

-o-

It's years before she can touch her needles again, and she's afraid of what the passage of time has done to those precious items stored away at Evie's back home. She should have known better, Evie loves her Gran's memory as much as she does, and all her treasures had been packed away in airtight containers with mothballs and lavender to keep them whole. Even the yarns are safe from devastation, and Darcy offers a prayer of thanks as she pulls two small skeins of deep green angora

(something crawls under her skin until her hands tremble and she packs up the yarn and her favorite needles to take back to her dorm, a rush of memories and whispers jumbled together in the breeze that make her wish Gran were still alive to translate)

and her needles from her bag. She sits in the sunlight shining through her dorm window and makes her hands relearn how to knit.

Her fingers are rusty at first, but gradually the stiffness falls away and the aches fade to a distant throb as the memories come rushing back. She hums to herself at first, the songs her Gran used to love, but it doesn't seem right here, in this tiny Culver dorm room. She stops, puts down her needles and goes to her computer. A few clicks and music begins to play, soft guitars and guttural gravel voices and she sighs in bliss, because this, this is what she needed. Something new, but still old-feeling, and she spends five minutes rubbing the pains from her joints and singing along to the words. She picks up her needles with a sense of purpose and continues her work until she's left with a mess of yarn

(it's loopy and her tension is off but she can't bring herself to rip it out and start over. It's ugly and loose and she hasn't been this bad since she was seven and learning how to use multiple double points. It's not quite a scarf or a cowl, not quite a shawl or a shrug and she loves it. It reminds her of home in a way she hasn't felt since before she wrapped Gran in her new shawl and kissed her goodbye)

that she wears proudly around her neck everywhere she goes. Her fingers haven't forgotten, but they do ache, so she splurges a little on a gardenia-scented bath bomb and lets her wrists and hands soak with the rest of her that night. She uses Epsom salts when she can't afford bath bombs and scented lotions

(what she misses most is Gran's concoctions for sore muscles. Lotions and salts and oils, all made by hand and completely wonderful but so hard to mix up in a dorm, so she waits to move into new accommodations. Even then, a used car dealership in New Mexico isn't conducive to homeopathy. Once again she packs away the remedy book and buys cartons of Epsom at Wal-Mart)

and then she's buying discount yarn and thrift-store sweaters to get cheap materials for new projects. Her projects become legendary on campus in an interesting way, ugly and warm and thick and perfect for harsh Eastern winters and even cold desert nights, but unobtainable. She refuses to sell anything, slowly rebuilds her wardrobe with handmade creations and thrift store selections that look hideous but sing to her so strongly

(and no one understands, not until much later, when her heart is full to bursting with love and light, when she speaks with laughter and happiness bubbling on her tongue)

that her hobo-chic wardrobe becomes a sort of weird mix between envy and bitter humor, and she doesn't care.

-o-

When she sees the posting for the internship with Dr. Foster, she knows that she has to take it. The fact that it gives her the six science credits she needs is secondary; her head is swimming and her heart is pounding because somehow, she knows her path lies out in the desert, out under the stars

(it always has, she thinks, hands shaking as she reads the posting, always has)

So she applies and waits with baited breath, waits until she sees the little notification in her student mail that yes, she got it, start packing, here's a list of your duties, that she feels the knot loosen in her chest and the rush in her veins still, the pounding in her head go away. Something is waiting for her out in the desert, something is waiting under those stars, and she thinks of laughter and home.

-o-

It's a tiny astrophysicist and her grumpy old mentor in a broken down car dealership-turned-lab that convinces her that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't shut everyone out, that maybe she should let others in, that they weren't going to break her heart and leave like Marilyn did,

(Gran is laughing, she can hear her laughter in the wind and it's affectionate and loving and so goddamn proud that Darcy loses her breath under the night sky for just a moment, but that moment is enough)

so she stops by the craft aisle in Wal-Mart and stands in front of the shelves, lips pursed and foot tapping along to her old battered iPod as she browses the limited selection. It's not clicking in her head though, not like it used to with her Gran, and she feels a pang somewhere under her breastbone before it hits her like lightning. It's not the right music, not the right emotions, because she's using memory and not instinct and she's better than this. A few quick swipes, the song changes, and suddenly she has it, she knows what she wants, and she plucks up a skein of daisy yellow, then pink, then a soft grey- and suddenly her cart is full of all sorts of different colors of yarn, and she has hooks and needles and scissors and even floss and aida cloth and cheap plastic embroidery hoops

(and she's grinning like a fiend and her bank account suffers, because college students aren't meant to buy this much and not make a profit, but she never cared about that, only cares that this is done right)

and she hides all of it away when she returns to the dealership. She knows all the spots to hide things, knows where Jane and Erik won't find her new supplies,

(she hesitates to call them treasures, because they're really not, not yet, anyway, but they will be. They will be)

knows when and where to be so the surprise isn't spoiled. It takes her weeks, collating data one minute and scouring patterns the next, running errands for Jane and Erik while chatting with Evie via spotty cellphone reception, until one day her brain settles down and things just click into place.

Darcy has never been one to spoil her surprises. She prides herself on the reactions her gifts have always gotten, and she refuses to change that now. It takes effort; sometimes she works by the light of monitors, other times she sits in the dying light and knits to the sound of coyotes. She works to the murmurs of Jane and Erik, to the beat of her music.

It takes her a month, between reading reports and collating data and making edible meals for her scientists, but she's done.

Navy, pink, and silver swirl together and form patterns she doesn't remember charting, doesn't remember making, but Jane takes one look at it and draws a shuddering breath because it looks like her stars

(“How did you do that?” Jane whispers and Darcy shrugs because she doesn't know, and she'll never be able to recreate the pattern ever again, but it doesn't matter because Jane's eyes fill with tears and Darcy is crushed into a hug full of love and the scent of pine and lavender and coffee)

(and her heart aches for a small house in a small town, far east of here, until she shakes Jane free with a smile and tells her that acrylic shouldn't shrink in the wash but please don't use boiling hot water anyway)

while Erik watches with a fond paternal eye.

-o-

Erik warms to Darcy after she makes Jane truly smile. It's not until later, when Jane is passed out in their trailer with a Post-it stuck to her forehead, that he explains why.

(“So you kinda looked after her cause her dad did a ghost?”

“I wouldn't put it so... crudely, but yes.”

“How else are you gonna put it?” Darcy shrugs and picks at her jeans. “Marilyn- my mom- did the same. Except she flat-out abandoned me, left me with Gran and didn't stop by until the funeral. So yeah, I get it. You're her Gran.”)

They reach an understanding, Erik and Darcy, and while it's not as comfortable or as energetic as her and Jane, Darcy's happy with it. She's missed having a paternal figure, missed having someone to worry over her when she swans off to the bar because she can't take a moment more of science and stars,

(she doesn't really go to the bar, but he knows that. She can't explain it to him, can't explain why she goes to the desert and sings to the sky instead of cutting loose over beer and pool, but he doesn't push)

and she loves him for it. It's trickier, now that they know what she can do with needles and yarn,

(she has a sneaking suspicion that Jane is spying on her for Erik)

but she's always relished a challenge.

His sweater is thicker, warmer, a button up cardigan instead of a pullover like Jane's, and far more orderly and organized. The buttons are hand-carved wooden things she found at a roadside stall, and feature tiny symbols that look vaguely Nordic but probably aren't. There is an intricate pattern of crisscross lines that wind around the back to turn into the branches of a Tree, a Tree stolen from his childhood myths. The base is a muted earth brown, but she knows of his secret fondness for bright colors and so she weaves in light blue and daisy yellow and grass green, to twine with grey and black and brown, and it gives him a bit of his homeland to carry with him wherever he may go.

(“Darcy, how did you even know?” he trails off as his fingers trace Yggdrasil, eyes wide and shocked, and her heart warms.

“You mentioned it once,” she shrugs and smiles, “I listened.”

She sees him, later, carefully fold it and place it in his bag and grins in triumph)

Her whirlwind of crafting finishes with a fittingly hideous touch. The van has a new blanket, crocheted squares and appliques, all with different colors and motifs and all of it is so bright and cheerful and ugly that she laughs out loud whenever they pull it out. They're all incredibly fond of it, and Darcy smiles when she sees Erik use it to tuck Jane in one night.

(this is what her heart was missing, the feeling of love and safety that she's been missing for so long)

Darcy's happy with her new home, however temporary it may be, and so her remaining supplies are packed up in a box and she doesn't touch them again. Not until after the mess, until Jane is sobbing into her shoulder one night and she can't keep humming and singing to her. She has to show Jane that she believes in her

(the red and grey wool has been sitting untouched, and she never understood why she bought it when every time she looked at it, she got the sense of not now, not yet, so she would put it away and find something else to use, but now she sees it and she knows)

so she picks up her needles again and begins to work, this time in the middle of the lab, with her music loud and pumping, so loud it shakes the supports and Jane and Erik can feel it on the roof, hear it out in the RV. She makes it big, too big, looser than it should be, and when she's finished knitting, she starts the next step. She washes and dries, washes and dries, and it grows smaller and thicker until by the time she's finished it's more like armor than a sweater,

(it's more than armor against the cold, it's armor against the world, and it's perfect)

which she gives it to Jane as a promise. Jane takes that promise with her when she takes Darcy to Norway, and then on to London, even if tt's not until years later that the promise is fulfilled and Thor returns in a flash of brilliant light. He sweeps Jane off her feet, addresses Erik as a fellow warrior, and Darcy can awkwardly welcome him back home. The look on his face, the heartbreaking happiness when she finds the sweater and presents it to him, red and vibrant and warm like his laugh, with grey linked through the chest like scales on armor.

(It makes it worth the wait, she thinks)

-o-

She leaves Ian behind in England, because while he was sweet and smart and gentle, he doesn't fit with the jumbled mismatched jigsaw of her heart.

(They both know it's cruel to pretend otherwise, and he doesn't fight when she says this, not really)

They had their moment in the middle of the Convergence, but he's too mellow and mild, and Darcy says she's too full of fire and life

(It's funny, she thinks, that she says that, when really her heart is made of wind and starlight. Jane would be the one people say is full of stars, but Jane is earth and love. She's earth and love, Thor is sun and heart, and they make each other blossom and bloom)

to really make the moment into something more. He puts up a token protest, says he's never met a girl like her, and that they could have something together, something real. She sees the relief in his eyes, though, hears it in his stammered words, and she tells him that he's a good kid, but there's nothing there for her, and to get on with his life

She doesn't mention she's never had the urge to make him something, make him family. Never had the urge to make him remember her with warmth and a smile. They part on good terms, with a promise to keep in touch that fades as soon as she boards the StarkJet. There's no use in pretending she's anything but broken, a mixed-up mess, and just because she has a new family now, it doesn't mean she has a home to go with it.

She hides her face behind her hair, forces herself to breathe deep and try to drown out Jane's babbling. She loves Jane, she's happy for her and Thor, but she can't handle her plans for the future and families, not right now. Darcy knows that as soon as they're set up in their new lab, things will start happening, events will go like lightening, and she gets a thrill in her stomach when she thinks of the new ways she might help change the world

(right now, though, she just wants to disappear.)

-o-

Thor comes to her when the others are asleep. She's playing Candy Crush on her iPad and singing along to an old folk song when he appears at her side. He's surprisingly silent for such a large man, but she's still on edge from killer Elves and flying cars and sees him coming her way.

(“Lady Darcy, may I speak with you?”

“Uh, sure, big guy. What about?”)

He asks her about Jane and Erik, about how they've weathered the past two years. He asks about their research, about their health, and he laughs and cries with her when she tells him all she knows. He doesn't comment on her brittle smile or her trembling hands, but she knows he notices. He's always been more observant than he was credited, and she kind of wishes he wasn't

(“My brother... he has...had, much to make amends for. Do you think...” he trails off and swallows, uncertain. “Do you think they will allow me to make them in his stead?”

“I dunno, man. I mean, he did kind of kill a lot of people and hurt like thousands more. I'm not sure anyone can apologize for that, not even a god.” She shrugs and takes a sip of bottled water. “It's not your fault, you know that, right? It's not your fault or your place, no matter how much you think it is or how badly it hurts.”

“I know,” he sighs. “My lady mother said something similar before she- she passed. I just-”

“I know.” Darcy smiles and spreads her hand in a “what can you do” gesture. “Believe me, I know.”)

They fade into silence, but it's comfortable and warm. She offers to make tea and Thor accepts, watching as she sways to her music and hums along. He asks her about the music when she returns with two cups of chamomile tea

(warm and golden, fragrant and soothing and something she can focus on instead of the concern shining in Thor's eyes)

and she tells him about folk music, the different kinds available and her personal favorites. She sings him a few verses of Galway Girl, teases him with a snatch of a drinking song, listens when he tells her about Asgardian music

(“There is no way you need that many horns!”

“I speak the truth! My lady mother is...was not overly fond of them either, but it is tradition.”

Darcy sees the pain that crosses his face at the mention of his mother, and squeezes his hand in sympathy)

before they fall into another silence.

It's not until the plane is getting closer to New York that he speaks again, voice quiet and soft, and asks about her.

(“What about me? I mean, I've pretty much been with Jane the past few years-”

“Something troubles you, Lady Darcy,” he exhales and meets her gaze, eyes warm but sad. “I would hear of it, if you would share.”)

Something in her breaks, and she finds herself babbling, words tumbling out and over each other as she tries to explain how she doesn't seem to belong, doesn't seem to fit, how she's been chasing the stars and the wind and how she doesn't think she's ever going to land, and through it all, Thor remains quiet, attentive and solid and there in a way she hasn't had in years.

When the words finally taper and die off, she's hiccuping and her face is red and blotchy and she's pretty sure she smells like sweat and tears, but Thor doesn't complain. He pulls her into a brotherly hug, one arm around her shoulders, humming what she suspects is an off-key Asgardian lullaby. Neither of them pull away, even after her trembling stops and she's breathing easier. Thor's voice is rumbling in her ear, and she realizes that he's repeating something over and over

(“Dæll, systir, dæll.”)

in time with her breathing. She falls asleep with her head on his shoulder, and when she wakes up in New York, everyone is wearing the sweaters she made them

(even Erik, who apparently forgot his in his old apartment in Willowsdale and managed to not lose it in the Loki-fiasco)

and she laughs through her tears.

-o-

Tony Stark is nothing but generous when it comes to his friends, and Darcy discovers then when the elevator doors open onto Thor's floor at the Tower

(Thor has his own floor, and she gets a suite of rooms completely free, how is this her life now)

that Thor is supremely pleased with his friend's generosity. He immediately takes them on a tour, and while Darcy tries to pay attention (seriously, a whole floor), she's sidetracked by the sight of a fully stocked, gleaming kitchen. Her jaw drops and she starts digging around, inspecting the pots and pans, taking note of the appliances, and goes through the cabinets to get a feel of the layout. She grabs a notepad

(she assumes it's meant for groceries, but she doesn't think Thor is much of a cook)

and immediately starts writing. Thor doesn't have much in the way of fresh food, just non-perishables, and almost no spices outside of salt and pepper. She figures he probably goes to the common floor for food, or orders out on Tony's tab, but she refuses to let Asgardian tastes dictate her own. It's like she's building a pantry from scratch, and by the time she's done, there are two pages, front and back, of all the items she's going to need to make this kitchen right.

(it's no secret she's been missing her Gran's kitchen. Jane finally had a taste of her cooking in London, once they had an actual kitchen and Darcy could convince her to spend more than $20 a week on food. She's been making Darcy cook every meal since, which Darcy doesn't mind so much. Ian was there to help with the science part of her sort-of-job, so she was able to actually do something she both talented at and enjoyed)

She follows it up with a list of things that she knows her new family is going to want but won't necessarily think of. It's mostly junk food, but she knows both Thor and Jane's metabolisms and Erik's penchant for Swedish candies that he thinks she doesn't know about (but she totally does). Another page is added to her list, and she sets them aside for later. She knows she's not getting out of here without a security escort, knows that she's going to need to sign a billion more forms and NDAs and whatever, but she doesn't care.

Erik appears just as she puts the pen down to stretch and casts an eye at her lists.

(“Already hard at work, I see.” he smiles, and Darcy's heart thuds when she sees it's closer to his old grin, and not the shaky-weak smile he's been sporting since the last time he was in New York.

“Duh. I mean, dude, have you seen this kitchen?” she waves her hand around in an exaggerate circle. “It's like heaven!”

Erik's expression softens, and the look he gives her is both paternal and sad. “No, not heaven,” he muses, “not heaven, but maybe it's a home.”)

She shakes her head and tosses him an apple, beating a hasty retreat to the suite of rooms Thor had announced would be hers. There's another kitchen in there, smaller, less extensive, but she falls a little bit in love anyway. She finds another notepad, another pen, and sits down to write her final list of all the things she wants for her own personal use. It's nowhere near the amount of things for the main kitchen, but it's enough for her. She pins it to her new fridge with a magnet

(why her fridge is covered with Avengers-themed magnets, she has no idea, but she loves the little Mjolnir and takes great delight in making magnet-Thor throw it at magnet-Captain's shield)

and goes to unpack. Erik might consider this place home, but she doesn't. Home is more than safety and funding, home is still lavender and gardenias and the smell of pine. It's summer nights on the porch, laughter in the sun, and even with her new family, she doesn't feel comfortable enough in these rooms to bring what's left of home here.

(she swears she feels Gran's disappointment, hears her sigh in exasperation as she hangs her clothes, but she shakes it off. She can't think like that, can't keep dreaming, even if she desperately wants it to be true. She has a feeling the stars aren't done with her yet, and she's terrified of where they're going to lead her before it's all over)

-o-

After an awkward introduction to JARVIS, Darcy gets her kitchens up and running. She even requested an extra freezer and a year's supply of tupperware, which everyone raised their brows at until she filled both with pre-cooked meals, ready and able to be heated at any time of day, with clearly marked labels and a book of instructions next to the microwave.

(She's pretty sure Jane's responsible for the “thank you” cake pop bouquet that shows up on her desk in the labs, but she's not really sure. She splits it with the three of them and they laugh over stories of cooking misadventures.)

She takes over all the cooking again, making sure that scientists and gods alike had fully-balanced meals in between battling the laws of physics and super villains, respectively. She changes up the menu every week but keeps a few staples and favorites in regular rotation. They make it a “family rule” that every Thursday is Family Dinner Night, and everyone has to be present or no one gets to eat.

She freezes what she can, and puts what she can't in the common floor's fridge with a note saying “help yourselves!” before scampering back to the labs.

Darcy isn't ashamed to admit they all intimidate her, the poli-sci major with no chance of understanding their science or hacking her way through a government agency or taking down a mob of highly trained operatives. She sticks to her new family's space and small suite of rooms, until one night when some crackpot scientist is unleashing bolts of something on the city and the Avengers are called out. She's watching the action on CNN when there's a knock on her door, and it opens to reveal a frantic Jane and a jittery Pepper. Darcy can only nod before she grabs the RV blanket off her couch and follows them to the TV room on the common floor.

They sit on the couches and watch the news reports come in, shaky camera footage accompanied by screams. Jane is shivering and Darcy's world is titling. She feels cracks forming in her foundation as she watches Jane, splitting and widening as Thor is slammed into a building, and she hates it. She slips away into the giant kitchen and starts pulling out all the supplies she needs. She has sharp knives

(some stamped with little hourglasses, others with little eagles, and even one utterly gorgeous antler-handled fillet knife that separates flesh from bone beautifully)

and steady hands, copper pots and fresh herbs. Memories of Gran singing as she cooked float in her head, so Darcy sings as well as she slices chicken and chops the vegetables; soft hymnals, raspy old country tunes, bluegrass melodies she remembers from county fairs and late night fires. She rolls out dough and cuts out biscuits while a homemade stock simmers, and soon the kitchen smells like home and her nerves are calmed, if only a little. The kettle whistles and she plucks fresh mint to drop into a pot of chamomile tea. She turns the stock into a stew while her tea steeps, places the biscuits into the oven and gathers up a small tray with leftover cake from lunch to take into the other room.

Jane is too caught up in the action on the screen to notice her absence, but when Darcy moves to put the teapot on the tray, she sees Pepper, expression slightly uncertain, is watching her whirl around the kitchen from her place in the doorway,

(she later tells Jane it was the scariest thing since Thor and the Destroyer, but not the scariest thing to happen in her life)

Darcy's struck by the tremors running through the older woman's frame, the tension in her shoulders, so she smiles and sings the last few verses of a song directly to Pepper, who cracks a tremulous smile. It's not much, but she offers a cup of tea and Pepper accepts

(“A slice of that cake too, if it's not too much trouble.”

“Not at all, lady of the House Stark.”

“....I can't tell if that's from Game of Thrones or from Thor, but please never call me that again.”

“Will it make it less weird if I tell you it's seriously because Thor and I enjoy making up titles for everyone? No?”)

while Darcy grabs a bar of expensive chocolate from the cupboard. They sit at the kitchen table, sipping tea and picking at their snacks in silence. It's quiet, at first, good but uneasy, until Darcy can't stand it and starts to hum, loud and badly done, serenading Pepper with AC/DC and the blonde laughs from nerves and relief.

Pepper is intimidating in all the right ways, right down to her slightly vulnerable expression when she finally speaks, haltingly, about how awful it is sometimes, to wait while they're out there and she's in here, and while she's not happy that others are suffering like she is, she's glad that she's not alone anymore

(“No, man, I get it. It sucks cause he's out there zapping crazy-psycho Fronkensteens-”

“Fronkensteen? Really?”

“Gotta go with the classics. Anyway, it sucks, because he's stupid and in danger and you love him, and now you feel like, double-awful because now Thor's got Jane and me here, and while it's not the same cause Thor's a god and more impervious to whatever the hell Fronkentwit is flinging-”

What?”

“-than Tony is, it's kind of the same, and you're glad someone else can understand, but you hate it too, and feel awful that you're glad, right?”

“I'd explain it with less Mel Brooks references, but yes.”

“Usually I'm good at explaining with less references, and words in general, but I'm off the clock and trying not to tear my hear out in worry or burn the biscuits, so yeah, it's a mouthful. But hey, look at it this way-”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes, because unless Thor dumps Jane and Jane drops me, which will never happen, I swear to his dad those two are going to make things randomly explode into cartoon hearts one day, we're here with you, and it's always better to suffer with friends than to suffer alone.”

“That's... surprisingly grown-up of you, Miss Lewis.”

“Just call me Darcy. If I feel comfortable enough to quote the Brooks, we're on a first name basis.”)

but while she appreciates the food, she didn't think there would be enough for all of the team when they get back. Darcy merely smiles and shakes her head, her hands wrapped around her own cup of tea, and says that it will be enough

(because just coming home to those you love is half the battle, half the feast. She doesn't have to explain the exhaustion, the tremors, the smell of sweat and smoke and death that hovers when they return)

because Pepper knows, knows how it saps and steals their strength and vitality, and that the food is more comfort than sustenance. They drink their tea in silence until the biscuits are done. Right as rain, as soon as she pulls them out of the oven and onto the racks to cool, JARVIS announces the arrival of the Quinjet and all personnel on-board. A few quick trips to the cupboards and places are set around the table, more tea is brewing and Darcy is plating the biscuits as the elevator opens and the Avengers stumble out.

Tony greets Pepper with a smirk and a quip, while Thor merely sweeps Jane into a hug and whispers softly into her hair. The others- Captain America, a de-Hulkified Bruce Banner, Black Widow and Hawkeye- merely move around their teammates and into the kitchen where they stop, caught up at the sight of her with a plate of fresh biscuits in her hands.

(“Um, hi. If you wanna sit, I'll have the rest of it on the table and be out of your way-”

“You cook?” Hawkeye asks, and she can't tell if he's suspicious or surprised.

“Well, yeah, I mean-”

“You're why Foster gained weight.” Widow announces with the air of solving a puzzle.

“Probably, a steady diet is-”

“And why Thor has stopped raiding the communal fridge.”

“Um-” Darcy is too flustered to speak and shoves the biscuits at Captain America. “Here! I'll grab the butter and the honey and the apple spread-”

“Apple spread?” Hawkeye straightens up and she gulps nervously.

“Um, yeah, I had JARVIS order it, it's just something my Gran used to-” she babbles, and it's all she can do to dart to the fridge. She grabs the butter and the spread, the honey resting on the counter nearby, and she arranges them on a small plate just as Thor and Jane enter.

“Ah, Lady Darcy, you've outdone yourself once again!” Thor announces as he grabs a biscuit from Captain America. “I admit, I was looking forward to our evening repast, but this shall do nicely.”

“You're the one responsible for the mystery leftovers.” Bruce Banner's voice is surprisingly clear in the increasingly-louder kitchen, and Darcy gulps as all eyes turn to her. She forces her hands not to shake as she deposits the condiments on the table and nods as Pepper and Tony join.

“Yeah, I am. It's mostly stuff that won't freeze well and I hate to waste food, and you guys don't seem to cook a lot, so I just thought you might like them, and oh god of course you wouldn't eat surprise mystery food oh my god I'm so sorry, Pepper watched me make most of this, I can sample it if you're worried about like poisons or something” she babbles and Tony starts to laugh.)

Hawkeye and Widow are still studying her and she's feeling worse than nervous, she's feeling panicked. She attempts to speak but finds herself too flustered, and she just motions to the table before high-tailing it across the room to the sink. It's soothing to wash dishes by hand, and she finds herself idly listening as the team sinks into chairs with groans and sighs and a few curses. There's not much noise after that, other than the sounds of eating, and she finishes up rather quickly, taking special care with the knives

(especially the antler-handled one, it really was a piece of art)

before putting everything away. She wraps a hug around Jane and Thor's shoulders, and leaves. It was a rough fight, and she sees it in their faces as she passes, the concern for Thor, and by proxy Jane, as she leaves. She's not a superhero, not a scientist, but comfort is her forte, so she slips away and lets them have their time without interference. If there is one thing that Darcy Lewis understands, it's the need to keep the feeling of family and home close and safe.

-o-

She thinks it begins then, the feeling of eyes on her as she makes her way back to her rooms, but she isn't sure. It worries her at first, because JARVIS is-was-will-be everywhere and she's never felt like this before, but no one says anything and neither does she. It becomes sort of familiar to her, a sense that someone is always looking out for her, always watching, and she sleeps better when she feels those eyes at least once a day.

(It doesn't occur to her that she sleeps better when she feels them then when she doesn't feel them at all)

-o-

Maybe it begins with Pepper, when the CEO sees Darcy crocheting a literal daisy chain on the couch one lazy Saturday. In between questions and answers about all of her hidden hobbies and talents

(Pepper praises her stew and biscuits and she blushes, because those were not stew and biscuits, those were emergency rations and she doesn't like getting credit for half-measures)

and favorite foods and, of course, shoes, Darcy begins to see beyond the woman that conquers board rooms and billionaires alike, and instead sees the woman beneath; the one who kicks off her shoes and prefers 90s bubblegum pop to 80s hard rock but puts up with her boyfriend's taste in music anyway.

(Virginia is an innocent soul at heart, even with all that she bears on her shoulders, and Darcy is not ashamed that she begins to plot ways to make that innocence shine through)

Pepper is surprised when Darcy offers to teach her any of her skills but accepts after little cajoling and is a willing student. She's more willing when it turns out that when you know quality clothing, you already know some of the differences between fiber blends. If there is one thing Virginia Pepper Potts-Stark excels at, it's the art of quality

(Darcy is ecstatic when Pepper hands over a Stark Black card and tells her to go insane at the yarn shop, and she positively squeals in joy when she discovers their mohair laceweight. If there's one thing Darcy has missed most about living with Gran besides Gran herself, it's that her yarn stash has been sub-par since her passing)

and so they pass the time together between scientific breakthroughs, end-of-the-world shenanigans, and regular Tuesday explosions with a weekly stitch and bitch. Pepper finds crochet more to her taste than knitting, she's absolutely hopeless in the kitchen

(she can barely make toast, but her humor is wonderfully acerbic and her wardrobe is to die for, so Darcy figures she can forgive her)

but loves to watch Darcy cook. In between discussions of favorite yarns and spices, Pepper becomes something else, something more than just a friend in a time of need, and she relishes in her new-found sense of sisterhood in between glasses of wine and giggling at the ridiculous Avenger theories on the television.

It solidifies one night after Pepper leaves the living room. Darcy finds herself listening to something other than their usual soundtrack, a woman with smoke and whiskey in her voice. The day was long and the wait for the team's return even longer, but a sense of something hits her and she knows what she has to do. She goes to her rooms and requests new supplies from JARVIS, requests he keeps her plan a secret, and the AI respectfully delivers on both counts.

A soft, airy white silk becomes a new lace scarf that drapes in elegant folds against Pepper's suits. A California king-sized blanket, done in shades of dark red and deep gold with metallic glints throughout, to wrap around both Starks and keep them safe and warm when the missions are over and the dreams won't stop. An incredibly soft and lush latch-hook rug in shades of white and pale blue, to hide under Pepper's desk where she can bury her toes into the strands and think of arc reactors and the glow of her husband's heart.

Pepper's face when presented with her new gifts is as close to speechless as Darcy has ever seen her

(she frames the picture of Pepper holding the blanket in one arm, Darcy held in the other and hangs it in her suite, next to pictures of her and Jane and Erik in New Mexico, next to pictures of Gran and teenage Darcy knitting on their porch together)

and she can barely speak herself from the rush that fills her heart. The whispers of Midwestern summers and memories of New Mexico skies begin to blend and blur with New York smiles and her new sister-friend's laughter.

-o-

Tony falls into her family almost immediately after Pepper does. According to him, the Pepper Seal of Approval was all that was necessary for her to be adopted as an honorary Stark

(none of them mention the blanket and how it never leaves the Tower, not even when they retreat to Malibu for surf and sand, but Darcy knows it stays, knows it never leaves)

which comes with benefits of having her every wish catered to. Darcy nods and smiles along, but confides in Pepper that she doesn't want every wish, just that she could bring what was home to New York with her, but home doesn't exist, can't exist anymore. Pepper smiles enigmatically, if a bit sadly, and the next day Darcy comes back to her suite to discover her spare room was turned into a craft area. A finished spinning wheel sits in front of a comfortable chair in the corner, a new cork-top table for pinning fabric and patterns is placed across the back wall. A industrial sewing machine waits on a new sewing desk, and the new shelves are filled with bolts of fabric and yarn in her favorite colors and textures.

(she cries into her hands that night, because if there was ever proof that she no longer belonged to that little old house in that little old Midwest town, a personal craft room in Avengers Tower, full of only the best materials and equipment, is all the proof she needs)

She says thank you in the way she knows best, and the heavy cotton-wool blankets

(color-coordinated to each vehicle, of course)

make their way into the trunk of every car Tony Stark owns, even the limos and SUVs. Each of them are stylish and classic in their creation, each have matching pillows and can easily be folded and stored for quick transport. Pepper tells her they make for lovely picnic blankets, and Tony leers and waggles his brows

(which Darcy ignores, because he's trying to show his emotions and feelings in a way that he can handle, and she respects that. She's cloaked herself in sarcasm, armored herself against emotions for years, she can forgive Tony more easily than he can forgive himself)

when Pepper says thank you.

The tug on her heart isn't nearly as strong this time, but she thinks it's because this one is expected. Before it was just Pepper, and while Pepper fills spaces that Jane and Erik couldn't, now it's Pepper and Tony and they fill more of her heart and home, seal more cracks in her foundation, and she finds she doesn't regret it like she thought she would.

-o-

Tony cajoles her into spending more time in the common areas, claiming he likes her verbal sparring and her acerbic wit. Pepper claims she likes her quiet company and their kitchen time. Jane just grins and throws another pen at her when she asks

(“It's about time they noticed how amazing you are, Darcy.”)

and slowly, she starts to fall in with the others, and they with her. It takes time, a lot of time, but she begins to see and know the rest of the team. She likens it to knitting lace- it takes forever, but the results are worth the effort and time. Her heart never quite settles down, the feeling of not-home always lingering, sometimes faint, sometimes so strong it almost chokes her

(when that happens, she cooks or bakes in a frenzy, food serving to be her words when her voice fails her, fails her new sisters and brothers and all she can do is turn her talents to comfort everyone can enjoy)

and she forces herself to keep breathing, keep standing, keep living. She starts to see that while they're dysfunctional, the Avengers care for each other in their own ways, and she's bound and determined to share in that too.

-o-

For all the stories surrounding her, all the danger and mystique, Natasha is surprisingly simple to understand. She slips into Darcy's sphere one day and then never leaves, always on the periphery if not front and center. Privately, Darcy compares her to a very sleek and deadly cat

(later on, she tells Natasha and watches the assassin giggle at the comparison. It transforms her face, and Darcy makes it a personal mission to make Natasha laugh more, just so she can see to the center of her storm)

that wants you to know its ignoring you. So she treats her exactly like her Gran's old cat, and ignores her attitudes and jewel-like eyes. Darcy doesn't push, doesn't charge, just lets her be. There's a wildness in Natasha's eyes, something dark and feral and Darcy would rather be on the good side of the animal lurking under the Widow's skin. Instead, Darcy goes about her day and her work like she usually does, and eventually Natasha moves closer and closer, until one day she's just there

(her heart is pounding, adrenaline is pumping, her hands shake and all she can think is “this is the end, this is the crossroads, choose your demon wisely”)

on the couch, head cocked slightly to the side as she watches Darcy knit with a set of wooden double points and soft blue linen. She thinks to make a summery dress for Pepper, or maybe for Jane, and merely nods to Natasha before reaching the end of her row. The spy nods back, silent and watchful as Darcy digs into the bag by her side before making a small noise of triumph.

Natasha arches a brow at the small leftover half-skein of cream colored tencel as Darcy holds out her hand.

(“What am I to do with this?” she asks softly, and underneath the toneless calm Darcy hears a slight waver, uncertainty and nerves that pull at her.

“I'll teach you, if you like,” Darcy matches the Widow's calm with a shrug, “but only if you move closer. It's harder when you're five feet away.”)

It comes as no surprise that Natasha prefers knitting over crochet, or that she sniffs at the aluminum needles in disdain before picking up the pair of bamboo 8s Darcy bought at a local store. They begin slowly, knit and purl and garter, before Darcy is moving her onto cables and moss and seed and drops. The silence between them is companionable, easy, and it shatters one night when Natasha returns from a mission

(bloody, bruised, her eyes dark and haunted and the finest tremor in her limbs that she does her best to hide)

to stare at Darcy from the edge of the couch in a way she hasn't done in months. Darcy's heart is in her throat, but she forces herself to calmly finish the edging of a lily before she puts her needlepoint down. Natasha is still watching her, still slightly feral, but something else lurking underneath the wildness that calls out to Darcy, something vulnerable and scared.

(she thinks she can hear Gran whispering advice in her head again, tumbling and colliding with memories of comfort and safety and home, and Darcy thinks of the skittish old tom that lived on their porch, how he didn't know how to live inside all the time, how she won his favor by just letting him creep to her lap in his own time, in his own way)

She lifts her project off her lap and hums a ballad, her arm held out in invitation. Slowly, gradually, Natasha slinks over until she's inches from Darcy's face, body tense, eyes dark and frenzied, and Darcy keeps humming, arm still outstretched until Natasha shudders. The tension drains from her as she all but burrows into Darcy's lap, seeking comfort and warmth

(she whispers for JARVIS to turn off the cameras, to erase this moment, and he quietly acquiesces to her request, as well as informing her that he has barred access to the room. She thanks him, and feels another shudder as Natasha lets go of even more tension and she's in the AI's debt)

to chase away the cold and the dark of her last mission.

The RV blanket, now a staple of the living room, is draped along the back of the couch and Darcy reaches for it, slowly and cautiously so as to not spook Natasha anymore than she already is because she is spooked, spooked and broken and hurting in a way that Darcy can't help, can't heal. All she can do is run her fingers through Natasha's hair, down her shoulder and arm in long languid strokes

(like Gran used to do, like when she first discovered how mean boys could be to girls they liked)

as she drapes the blanket over Natasha's trembling form. She continues her ministrations until the trembling stops, until the sobs turn into gasps and the gasps turn into soft exhales. JARVIS dims the lights without her asking

(that brilliant, brilliant machine)

and she settles back into the couch cushions for a long night.

Darcy wakes up to jewel-green eyes watching her from the edge of the couch the next morning and gives a sleepy smile in return. She struggles out of the blanket to stand up and stretch, her back popping, and holds out her hand to the assassin. Bemused, Natasha accepts the invitation and stands, blinking, until Darcy smile-sighs and tugs on her hand to follow.

Natasha has never been in Darcy's suite before,

(that Darcy knows about, anyway, and she's not going to think of the Widow creeping around in her space because she's curious about the former intern, even if it's a very cat-like thing to do)

and stands awkwardly in the doorway of Darcy's crafting room. Darcy doesn't press, doesn't charge, instead she digs around in her supplies until she makes a noise of triumph and holds out a skein of black silk. The assassin reaches out, fingers the texture and the glide, and gives a small nod of approval that turns to a crease of confusion when Darcy takes it back and puts it in another bag.

(“Can't have you making your own present, now can I?” she teases, and Natasha gives a rusty chuckle.

“No, I suppose not,” she murmurs back, and Darcy's eyes crinkle as she grins)

It takes her a while to complete the entire set, but then Natasha is called out once more, and Darcy has the inspiration she needs. She's up late, singing and cursing and screaming along with a new song that sears through her bones, burns through her blood, and when the Widow returns but Natasha knocks on her door

(Widow and Natasha are different, and she feels honored she can tell the difference between them now, honored that Natasha has let her see)

there's a box tied with a green bow that matches her eyes. In between layers of creme-colored tissue paper rests a pair of delicate knit stockings and a matching pair fingerless gloves, each with a strip of drop-shaped holes running up the length

(“They're, uh, raindrops. I got the idea from a book on knits for vampires, but they called them blood drops-”

“Tears.”

“What?”

“They're not blood or rain. They're tears.”)

which, Darcy figures, is sort of fitting and poetic for Natasha. There are more gifts, knit from the same delicate black silk; a pair of shorts that sit low on her hips but still provide a full range of mobility, a slinky camisole that hugs Natasha's curves but doesn't reveal anything beyond a bit of toned stomach, delicate clavicles and shoulders equally shaped by dance and war.

Natasha doesn't thank her, but she doesn't have to. Darcy goes to bed that night and wakes up when she hears a slight noise. Moonlight is streaming through the windows and there are jewel-green eyes watching her from the dark. She smiles, and there's a slight press of Natasha's lips to the top of her head, and then she's gone, melting back into the shadows and Darcy is melting back into sleep, content with her new sister's unspoken love.

-o-

Tony's face is priceless when they start using ridiculous pet names around the others. Steve turns red and Clint nearly falls off his chair from laughing so hard at the Captain's expression. They keep it up for a bit, until the leers and innuendos from Tony get to be too much and Darcy tells him off. There's cursing and yelling and possibly the waste of good scotch in the process, but at the end of it, they're both laughing and crying and hugging, and Pepper is rolling her eyes while pulling Tony away from Darcy and off to bed.

Darcy loses track of what happens next in the haze of drunken happiness. Jane and Thor have been off somewhere diplomatic all week, Steve turned in hours ago, uncomfortable once the screaming turned into crying, and the only ones left in the room are Natasha and Clint. She thinks they settled down to watch a movie, but her eyes are heavy and her skin is warm and she dozes off under the blanket to the sounds of Spinal Tap and Natasha's hand in her hair

(she thinks she hears Natasha whisper, but she's not sure. She knows she was carried to her room, but she's not sure if she really did nuzzle and lick her benefactor's neck, or if she just dreamed it. Her shirt smells spicy and woodsy in the morning, but she doesn't recognize the scent and it puzzles her to the point she doesn't register that the feeling of ever-present eyes has disappeared)

but the next time she sees Clint, he doesn't quite meet her eyes before leaving the Tower.

-o-

Darcy and Clint dance around each other at first, unsure in their standings with each other until Natasha fondly knocks Darcy into his lap and calls them idiots. There's laughing and teasing, and gradually they relax, bit by bit, in each other's company. He discovers her love of terrible sci-fi movies; she discovers his 80s hair metal obsession. They trade off, him teaching her how to read lips, her making him taste her experiments in the kitchen.

Darcy is still shy around him, memories of him in New Mexico and New York floating in her head, and now there's an unusual tugging in her heart whenever she sees him. She brushes it off as nothing, strives to make him comfortable, and then one night finds herself knitting him a silly mohawk hat in black and purple, just because. She frowns but finishes before packing it away, something telling her not yet, not yet.

-o-

She feels guilty whenever she delivers gifts to her new family, because she knows that things are uneven, but she can't force inspiration and she can't force completion, just because. She strives to make up for it in little ways- baking favorite treats, having food ready whenever they come back from a mission. She even takes up her homeopathy again,

(she's grateful the book was with her in New Mexico, because the thought of having to send for just one of her belongings from Evie, no matter how small, makes her sick to her stomach with worry. It's been years since she's been back, been years since she's had a home, and she's not sure how much longer she can go on)

fluttering around her kitchen with an apron and bottles and buckets and pots of flowers and oils, salts and minerals and goat milk and all sorts of things that Tony sneers at but Pepper, Jane and Natasha regularly visit for.

(thanks to the Potts-Stark Connection, she has a constant supply of materials, even the hard-to-get seasonal ones, and she purposely makes sure to always have honeysuckle bath salts for Pepper out of gratitude and love)

Her soaps and lotions become the standard for Tower occupants, and Bruce starts to come out of his lab to visit her and study the liniments and balms she makes in her tiny little kitchen. It's not much, but it's a start, and she'd be foolish not to take it. She talks to him about her brands of science,

(“Seriously! Baking is science for hungry people!”)

about her knowledge of herbs and oils. They talk of chemistry and biology and botany, and discover a mutual love of Thai food and red curry. She starts to keep takeout menus pinned to her fridge with Hulk magnets, and he brings recipes from his time abroad.

Homeopathy turns to home-cooking, science turns to snark

(although sometimes Darcy swears they're one in the same here)

and Darcy sneaks her way into Bruce's life. It's different than how she's approached the others, quieter, less flashy and more aromatic, but it works. She's in the common kitchen one night when she tells him that she had planned to surprise him with dinner in the labs, but since he's here now, would he mind helping her cook for the team? She doesn't expect for him to say yes

(when he does, she nearly drops the pan of tikka masala on the tiled floor in surprise)

and Darcy isn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. She has him setting the table while she monitors the saffron rice and mixes up a yogurt sauce. He doesn't stay all through the team dinner, a mumbled excuse of over-stimulation, and her heart aches because she knows what it's like, to be displaced but belong at the same time.

She makes him up a container of leftovers and takes it to his suite. It takes a bit of persistent knocking

(if there's one thing Darcy Lewis is good at, it's being persistent)

but he finally opens his door, and a bit more persistence gets her across the threshold and she stops in disbelief at the state of his rooms. It's barren and lifeless and she shakes her head in denial at him

(“It looks like you don't live here, like no one lives here.”

“Well, I don't, really. It's hard to keep roots when they could get ripped up-”

“No,” she says, and shakes her head again, “no, you have roots, and I'll make you see it.”)

before handing over the container of leftovers. She leaves with a quick peck on his cheek and then rushes off, in desperate need of Pepper's shopping mastery but secure in what she needs.

(she knows he won't wear anything handmade, in fear of ruining it with his “party trick”, so she thinks and questions and finally she has her answers)

Hours later, she sits at her sewing table, the sound of the needle pounding away like a jackhammer, at odds to the soothing music she has piping through every speaker in her suite. It doesn't fit the brightly colored sari silk she's feeding under the needle, in fact it's continents away from what it should be, but it somehow twists together and works to make something uniquely perfect for Bruce.

She chooses colors that are bright in tone but still soothing

(pale lilacs, sky blues, soft greens, all embroidered with darker shades to provide contrast and texture without being overwhelming)

for the bedspread and curtains, and goes with warm splashes of gold and bronze for the pillows. She takes scraps from her cutting and uses a loom she had Tony build her in his labs, a small table-sized wooden thing. It's small but perfect for rugs and place mats and wall hangings, and she sings drinking songs while her shuttle goes back and forth, back and forth.

She arranges them in his rooms the next day while he's with Jane and Tony. Pepper and Natasha help, finding carvings and wooden utensils and chunks of amethyst and amber and quartz to arrange around his books and papers. She feels almost drunk when it's all done, and takes him coconut rice as a treat to announce her happiness.

(his eyes grow wide behind his glasses when she drags him to his door and makes him look. There is shock, yes, but a sense of familiarity underneath it all, and he cuts off her babbling with a slight, tentative hug that reminds her of a butterfly's wings)

She keeps it up, mixing amd making curries and stir frys, coconut and lemongrass tea, spices exotic and familiar that dance on the tongue and bring a smile to his face. She packs it with mineral bath salts that smell of sandalwood, candles of beeswax and jasmine, and leaves them outside his door or on his desk, and his smiles become more common and less strained.

She's spent so long thinking of the Man that she forgets about the Beast

(foolish, she knows, but she's always been foolish, always been headstrong, and it seems that's what the entire team needs in their lives)

until one day when Hulk shows his appreciation. One minute she's entering notes into the database, the next there's shouting coming from down the hall, followed by noise and heat and then a riot of green that wraps around her, as delicate as a butterfly's wings. Tony is babbling on the other side of the glass, something about containment and fire and Darcy. She smells curry and coconut, jasmine and beeswax and something feral and strong, and she looks up to grace the Hulk with a smile.

(JARVIS just orders prints of her favorite pictures now, and she grins in delight whenever she sees the picture of Hulk cradling her in the smoking debris of the lab)

-o-

Inevitably

(but not surprisingly, given her sharp tongue and devil-may-care attitude)

Steve is eventually drawn into her circle as well. She sees him walk by the labs, he politely nods to her in the halls, and her heart goes out to him. She knows what it means to lose everything close, everything you love, and to be haunted by the memories of what could have been and what is. It becomes her mission to bring him out of his shell, into the warmth and love that shines through Jane and Pepper and Thor and even Tony and Clint and Natasha and Bruce

(she can hear Gran humming in the wind again, soft and delicate and oh-so-heartbreaking to catch, so she spends a night under the stars and city lights, wrapped in the RV blanket, humming and whispering back)

which she does with smiles and easy charm. Gran and Evie used to cluck and tell her that the way to a man's heart was indeed through his stomach, and she uses all of their tricks (plus a few of her own) to make herself a place in his. For Steve, heavy casseroles with soda bread and local craft beers with sassy names and bright labels, homemade pies and stews

(Steve is the first to crack, thanking her for all the meals waiting for him at the Tower, but he doesn't think a workplace romance is appropriate especially given her age and his. She shakes her head and laughs before he even finishes his sentence.

“If I wanted to seduce you Steve, you would know, and it damn well wouldn't be with casseroles.”

Darcy!”

“Trust me, Cap, no man alive can turn down roasted chicken with all the trimmings.”)

and a smile to go along with. There are whispers at first, between Jane and Thor, but she shakes her head at Jane and the whispers die away. She doesn't blame Jane for hoping for her. Steve is a good man, a great man, and while he looks like he would make a perfect husband and a fantastic lover,

(Pepper, Natasha and Jane all agree with her on that, when they're all gathered together for Ladies' Night. They spend at least half an hour debating his refractory period and comparing it to both Thor and Bruce (who would die of embarrassment if he ever knew about this conversation, so they swear JARVIS to secrecy) before agreeing that it would probably be ridiculously short)

he needs a friend more than romance right now. She supports him as best she can, loaning him her political science textbooks, her fiction novels, biographies and comics and anything she can. She queues up movies and music, starting from the year he crashed on up. She helps him live through seventy years of history in months, and he rewards her with little doodles and his deadpan humor.

He starts to take her out to movies and hole-in-the-wall diners, citing something about protection details and safety until she teases him about how he's just avoiding his more zealous fans

(“Seriously, they're not that bad.”

“One of them threw her underwear at me, Darcy. Her underwear.” His face is pained. “Darcy, they were still warm.”)

and their propositions of marriage and sex and things he just can't handle right now, possibly not ever. She shrugs but doesn't press, instead directs their conversation to safer topics like their favorite ridiculously-themed villains, and he slides over the last of his M&Ms in thanks.

(After that, she doesn't talk about marriage, doesn't think about it, because marriage to her means life and death and laughter and tears. It means something wild and crazy, startling and encompassing and promises that heroes like Steve can't keep and for some fucking reason, there's Gran's laughter again, light and teasing because she always knew something Darcy didn't. She's reminded that Lewis women have always had a thirst for danger, but Steve, while close, isn't right)

She drags him to the kitchen and makes him tell her about his USO tours while she pulls out ice cream and the apple pie she made last night, waving a spoon at Clint when he wanders through in search of leftovers. He tries to steal a slice of pie, she smacks his hip with the ice cream scoop, Steve intervenes before it becomes a food fight, and they somehow find themselves sitting on the floor, leaning against the cabinets and each other as they eat pie from the tin and ice cream from the tub. They all share stories and laughter until they're almost sick and exhausted. They make no move to get up when they're done, instead dozing off with her head on Steve's shoulder and Clint's head on her lap. They're woken by a camera flash to see Natasha and Pepper standing above her with a camera and smug smiles

(“I want a copy of that.”

“No worries, the whole team's going to get them.” Pepper grins and Darcy thinks it's almost as terrifying as Natasha.

“JARVIS has already sent copies,” the spy adds, and Darcy laughs and runs her fingers through Clint's hair)

before the rest of the team stumbles in and demand breakfast and caffeine.

-o-

When the news comes of sightings of a man long-dead, she feels her world start to crumble all over again. She wraps Steve in her arms before he leaves, no longer her friend but the Captain. He takes the Widow with him

(her poor Cat, she thinks, and thinks of the unfinished shawl sitting in her basket upstairs, black with green sparkle to match the mischief in Nat's eyes)

and Darcy sees them off, watches them from the windows as they leave in an unmarked SUV, a fist pressed to her lips and tears in her eyes. She's so distracted she doesn't notice she's not alone until the blanket is draped over her shoulders and she nearly shrieks in surprise.

(“They'll be alright, you know.”

Hawkeye stands behind her, his gaze sharp and focused on her trembling hands and blurry eyes. “Steve and Nat, I mean. They'll be alright.” He shrugs when her lips part and her voice fails. “She won't let them be anything else. She'll bring them all back, through hell itself if she has to.”)

Darcy nods in thanks, the Lewis tongue still for once, and when the wind rattles the glass so fiercely behind her

(the trembling starts to fade but leaves something else in it's place, something just as harsh and ugly that it almost drives her to her knees)

she gasps and he takes a step forward. She catches a whiff of a scent, spice and woods and heat that makes her eyes widen and her mouth go dry. He watches her carefully before dipping his head in acknowledgment and slipping away, footsteps silent on the tile. She gives in to her wobbly knees and sinks to the floor in a daze, clutching at the blanket until Thor finds her later in the evening. He sees the blank look in her eyes and somehow, he knows, and amused pride twinkles in his eyes. He helps her to her feet before scooping her up in his arms to carry her

(she tells herself not to swoon at the gesture, it's something he'd do for any of his friends, hell, he'd even carried Tony home from the bar one night)

back to her suite.

He tells her on the way, his voice a low rumble, that she has the look of ghosts and the mysteries of the stars in her eyes. How it reminds him of his mother, now lost but guiding him still. He tells her how Brother Clint is formidable in battle, a noble warrior, and a fine, albeit troubled, man. He tells her that magic is all the stronger when the intent is pure, that healing and love are the strongest magics of all, and leaves her at her door to go find Jane with an oddly sad smile.

-o-

Frenzied and desperate, she tears into her crafts. The music is pounding and she's probably keeping everyone up but she doesn't really care, she can't. It's angry, dark, growling, pulsing. It doesn't match the personalities of her Captain and her Cat, but it matches her. In this moment

(her fingers are sore and bleeding. Her joints ache, her vision is blurred and memories are colliding. All she can see now is Gran laughing, Gran singing, Gran still and silent in her shawl, and her heart aches for the home she's lost and the home she's just might maybe beginning to find)

that's all that matters.

She's noticed that no one asks if Steve really likes the red white and blue, but she knows he doesn't. He likes dark blues and browns and olives, muted and respectable and old-fashioned but so him. She makes him a blanket that's heavy and thick and weighs almost as much as she does. It's dark blue, brown and olive and red stripes running through in a type of odd plaid, but it works for him, somehow, and the weight is solid and good, so she makes him a few throw pillows to match and then a small doily for his coffee table, just to make him feel more at home.

She thinks of stopping, once the blanket and pillows are done, but something tells her that she's not done yet. She finished Natasha's shawl hours ago, so she finds a royal blue wool, light and thin but soft and eager to be used in something, and she knits and knits until the sun hits her eyes

(Jane is tugging the needles from her hands, worry in her eyes and she goes with her meekly to eat and then back to knitting until she's done and she can sleep, until she's woken by a pounding in her head and on her door, and even before she opens it to Thor's smile, she knows)

and she packs her new gifts into bags and takes them down.

Natasha accepts her shawl with an inaudible noise of thanks, and Darcy merely bumps her forehead against her shoulder in acknowledgment.

Steve is wide-eyed, frantic, almost apologetic as he tries to refuse

(“I thought you said-”

“I did.”

“But these-”

“Are for my friend, a dear friend, who needs to stop babbling and just say thank you.”

“Darc-”

“Say thank you, Steve, it's polite.”

“Natash-”

“You were always crap with the ladies, Rogers. Just shut up and say thanks already.”

Bucky.”)

The new man is thin, worn and haggard and more feral than she has ever seen Natasha. Curiously, she isn't afraid, and presents him with the royal blue afghan as if it was completely natural that he receives a gift the very first meeting

(and it's curious, because she knows this is right, even when Natasha and Steve tense next to her, ready and coiled to spring and she can't explain that it's okay, that this is right)

 when it takes months for the team to receive anything from her, when all she knows of him is his past as a merciless killer. Curiously, he takes it without a fuss, whispers thank you as he wraps it around his shoulders, and suddenly the pressure in her chest finally eases and she smiles brilliantly at James Buchanan Barnes.

(“Welcome home, buster,” she winks, and Steve chokes behind her)

(JARVIS later sends the picture to her computer, and she prints it out and frames it. It goes between the picture of her and Natasha, sitting side by side on the couch and knitting matching scarves, and Steve grinning sheepishly as he hands her an empty pie plate)

-o-

Clint finds her later on, when she's wavering and blurry and barely cohesive on the edge of the roof. He pulls her close, away from the edge, and she sighs into his shoulder as his warmth seeps into her bones. She can barely move, she's so relieved that whatever this new existence of hers is hasn't broken like S.H.I.E.L.D., hasn't crumbled away into the cold. She's so relieved she hasn't lost her not-home that she doesn't register the danger she was in just moments before.

(he whispers to her, words soft and strong and sweet that she can't make out over the static in her head. She idly wonders if this is what it's like for him sometimes, the whisper-quiet that comes before the shot)

He wraps her in his jacket, soft faded leather that smells of spice and woods, and she melts into his arms until she wakes in her bed the next morning, wrapped in sunlight and a jacket she doesn't own.

(she learns later that he held her through the night, first on the roof as she sang about stars falling from the sky, held her as she whimpered and cried for things long gone and still to come)

(JARVIS holds onto those pictures for her until much later, says that Agent Barton didn't want to scare her away before they even had a chance to begin, and she sighs dreamily at the whisper in her heart)

-o-

Sam starts to come around more, mostly to hang around with Steve and Natasha after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., but she comes to cherish his visits. He's bright and cheerful and doesn't let the seriousness of the others weigh him down. He's got his own demons, but he's healing, and Darcy takes a bit of strength in that. Her heart feels so full now, almost bursting with happiness, and occasionally she has to tell herself that she's alright, that she's safe, she's home and where she belongs

(it's not home, though, and she doesn't know when it will be. Her heart is healing, pulling itself back together and the cracks sealing up, but it's a scarred mess and there's still pieces missing.)

She doesn't ever make him anything, not really. Instead she sews Falcon plushies for his sister's kids, makes them little hats and matching mittens, red with silver chevrons that make him beam when he shows her the pictures. They're always grinning, always happy, and it sends a jealous pang through her , that she doesn't have what they obviously have, love and stability and faith, and in self-recrimination for being jealous of children, stays up one night to knit him a pair of boot socks. She works them in cotton-wool, Army green camouflage, and he laughs himself sick at the tiny falcons she's hidden in the splotches.

-o-

He finds her on the roof one night. He's still dressed in uniform, his quiver empty and his gaze focused and intent but pure Clint, only Clint. Neither of them speak when he pulls her close and she sinks into his arms with a sigh. He whispers into her hair again, words still too soft and sweet for her to hear, but his actions speak louder than his voice ever will

(and she's not surprised, not really. He is the Hawk to Natasha's Cat, and animals always speak in actions and touch)

so he holds her close, keeps her safe. She fades in and out of consciousness but comes to with her head on his chest, listening to the steadiness of his breathing and the thumping of his heart

(and more pieces jumble together, the pieces mixing and not matching up with the rest, but still others fall into place)

-o-

She tries to approach him, but he's had too much time to think, too much time to run. He's gone as soon as she turns around, but she feels eyes on her and knows it's him,

(she's never wanted to push, wanted to charge, as badly as she does with him. But hawks are even harder to catch than cats, even harder to entice, and so she has to wait until he deems it fit to land)

knows that he's there, watching and protecting and waiting.

Natasha chuckles at the two of them and says that he's still shy, still intimidated by what Darcy represents

(“He's never had a home, not like you,” the spy shakes her head as she shapes the armholes for a sweater for Bucky. “He's scared, and he's hiding it, because the thought of home is so foreign he can’t handle it. Not like you.”

“You're handling it well, though,” Darcy objects, “You're handling it and you were-”

“Am,” Natasha corrects, eyes glinting dangerously. “I am worse than he is, yes, but I'm also more, when it comes to this.”

Darcy falls silent at the unspoken threat in Natasha's eyes, but jumps when the assassin places a hand on her knee.

“Do not give up on him, Darcy. He will come around. He has already started, and so have you.”)

to the point he doesn't trust himself to speak. She finds her hands working mindlessly at night, forming projects she doesn't remember in the morning. She has piles of hats and gloves, scarves and sweaters. She finds her bins overflowing with skirts and dresses, lacy shawls, wraps and shrugs. Her living room is a mess of afghans and blankets and brightly patterned throws, pillows, filet crochet curtains. Her loom shows a half-finished tapestry, while rag rugs and placemats spill to the floor beside it. All of her handkerchiefs are embroidered, her bedsheets all have hand-sewn trims, and things are beaded when they didn't use to be. Her sewing area is filled with bits and pieces of clothing and costumes- somehow she managed to make an entire burlesque costume

(she doesn't even do burlesque, but thinks she might if she can make the costumes look this good)

complete with purple and black cincher, without even realizing it, and she starts to think she may have a problem.

-o-

Pepper tries to help, in her own way. The year is gone, and Darcy's birthday has come around again. Her last few birthdays hadn't gone so well

(invading robots and alien armies, to name a few)

but Pepper isn't discouraged by the past. She suggests a birthday party, full of food and comfort

(she even tells Darcy that she's not allowed to cook, that for one day she doesn't have to take care of them, let them take care of her)

designed to bring back the smiles and cheer that have been lacking lately. Darcy agrees, if only because Pepper's face is so earnest she can't say no. They begin to plan for after the next time the team is called out, and it comes in the form of some kind of mutated sewer monster that has all of the Avengers groaning in disgust. She isn't allowed to contribute to her own party, as per Pepper's instructions, so while Jane and Pepper plot and plan, Darcy slips away to her rooms. She digs through her belongings to find her loopy green mess of a scarf. She wraps it around her neck before stealing up to the roof. Before leaving, Clint had wordlessly shown her his favorite spot to sit and think. It's high, but sheltered, and while the lights of New York are still too bright, Darcy pretends to see the stars. She sits with her legs dangling over the edge and whispers to the wind, asking-begging-praying for advice, wishing that Gran was still here, still able to help guide her through the storm.

-o-

She dreams of Gran.

It's summer again, and the elder Lewis is sitting on the porch with a smile, a song on her lips and some knitting in her hands. She calls Darcy over to join her, to take up the needles in her hands and the song in her voice, and it's all dream-Darcy can do to not throw herself on dream-Gran and cry.

(“I've missed you!” she cries, and Gran only shakes her head with a sad smile.

“No, sugar, you've missed what I meant. I was safety, I was security. Now you're drifting and lost and caught in what's old instead of what's new, and it's all wrong, isn't it?”)

“Yes,” she breathes, and Gran laughs and tells her of a stolen kiss in a fast car beneath a starlit sky. She's singing a song that's all wrong, too new, too rough and dirty and not-at-all what Gran would have sang if she was still alive. She holds up her project to the light, as if it holds the secrets to the universe and life itself, and Darcy sees black mohair and birch needles and a delicate lace that twists and twines and blooms into flowers and feathers

(there is a pain in her heart again, the pain of loss and sorrow and the taste of tears)

that begin to run and blur. Gran is still singing, but gospel is mixing with bluegrass is mixing with rock'n'roll is mixing with folk and then Darcy is awake and gasping for breath. JARVIS immediately inquires after her health

(“I'm fine, J, just a bad dream,”)

before he turns on the lights and her music. She shakes her head at the soft Celtic that she used for Bruce, and requests something different. It changes to a smoky gravel voice and she's off, digging through her baskets for that black mohair Pepper allowed her to buy all those months ago and a pair of delicate bamboo circulars. Gran may not have given her the keys to the universe

(even if she had, that was Jane's department, not hers, and she would have thrown them to her without a second thought)

but she did give her the keys to a man's heart, and she wasn't going to let something like distance stop her now.

-o-

The needles only still when Natasha forces her to stop with gentle pressure. She slides a finger beneath Darcy's chin and forces her to tilt her head back. There is a calculating look in those jewel-green eyes, and Darcy blinks when Natasha's hand falls away. She retreats to a corner of the room to watch Darcy until she finishes the last row and binds off, and then she moves like liquid. She takes Darcy's hands and guides her to the bathroom and pushes her towards the shower. Darcy dutifully strips and steps beneath the spray, only to come out and find a hot bath waiting

(gardenia-scented, with lotions and creams and all sorts of things Darcy has dreamed of, never truly mentioned, waiting by the side and her eyes fill with grateful tears)

for her to sink into. Natasha leaves her while she soaks, her wet hair pinned up in a messy bun, and only returns with a plush terry rob and slippers. She lets Natasha push her into her bed

(“You will sleep, for at least six hours, and then I will retrieve you. Pepper and Jane are most insistent, and you will be ready for your own celebration.”

“But my birthday is over, Nat, there's no point-”

“There is always a point where you are concerned, little one. Sleep. I will come for you in six hours time.”)

and falls into sleep like a stone. She wakes to the sound of humming in the next room, something soft and sweet that makes her close her eyes and smile into her pillows. Natasha enters and pulls her from her bed, pushes her back into the bathroom where her new dress waits for her

(“How did you-”

“It is easy to see, if you know how to look. When it comes to Clint, I have always known.”)

next to a silky burgundy slip and her beat-up Docs. The slip comes to mid-thigh, the lacy hem of the dress only a fraction longer. Both cling to her form, outline her curves, and she smiles as Natasha wordlessly pins a gardenia in her curls. There is lipstick in her hand, wine-dark and new, and she thinks of hawks and cages, of home and songs.

-o-

Not everyone is present when she makes her way down to the common areas, but Pepper is fluttering around nervously and the sight is endearing. She joins her in the kitchen, sipping a glass of something golden and smoky-sweet, and talks as the rest of the team gradually join them. She ignores the pang in her chest when she doesn't see Clint, but she supposes it only fits their new dynamic

(even if it twists her stomach, even if it breaks her heart, he's only human, only human)

of steps forward and back. She accepts a plate from Steve, lets Tony top off her drink. She gives her cheek for Bruce to kiss when he tries to slip away, and accepts a complicated fist bump from Sam. She wraps Jane in a hug, bumps Thor with her shoulder and squeals when Bucky dips her. She laughs with Pepper and thanks Natasha with her eyes. She eats a bit of everything there is to offer; Pepper had all of her favorite foods prepared, just because, and Darcy has never been one to turn down good food. She talks, she laughs. She smiles when she sees how happy Jane and Thor are, how Natasha and Bucky seem at peace, how Tony and Pepper speak sarcasm instead of poetry. Steve and Bruce and Sam seem to be happy as well, and she smiles to see her friends so content.

Natasha disappears before the others cajole her into the living room for gifts. She's shaking her head, laughing, because she doesn't need presents, has never needed them, not when she's got all she's wanted right here

(“Not everything,” Tony mutters, and Pepper shushes him and gives Darcy some kind of nervous look that she pretends to miss)

so why did she need things when she has them?

It doesn't work, and she finds herself surrounded by piles of gifts, courtesy of Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D. paychecks and otherworldly artistans. There's delicate Asgardian jewelry, golden and deceptively heavy, set with amethysts and garnets and rubies. There's a new StarkPad, which she is delighted to discover has a picture of all of the Avengers, plus her and Jane and Pepper and Sam, sitting at the dinner table and laughing over something, set as the background. There is a pair of beautiful sky-high heeled boots, soft black tooled leather, and a pair of sinfully smooth silk stockings. There's a hand-painted portrait done in soft watercolors, and she smiles at a bashful Steve. A chest full of gourmet spices from all over the world, with scientifically precise measuring tools, sits next to a complete Broken Lizards box set. In between the meaningful gifts, she finds silly things like monster-themed finger puppets, Garbage Pail Kids, novelty cookbooks with twisted sense of humor

(she particularly loves the vegetarian Babe the Pig country cookbook, as it makes her giggle in both horror and humor)

and skeins of luxury yarns, soft and shining in the light. There are bolts of silk and wool, sets of needles and hooks that are hand-carved and polished to a smooth glow. A ream of butcher paper for her cutting table, a pair of new shears specifically for the delicate silks. Decorative stitch counters for both knitting and crochet, books and patterns she had been curious about but never purchased.

She's set to open the last gift, a small bag from Natasha that's been releasing lovely lush scents ever since she picked it up, when a still comes over the room and she feels the eyes watching her again

(his eyes, they were always his eyes, why did she never see it before now)

but they feel softer than before, hesitant, unsure.

She places the bag to the side and stands, mindlessly accepting the kiss on her cheek as Natasha brushes past, her attention fully on the man standing in the doorway.

-o-

She barely takes a step before he's striding towards her, focused and intense in a way that steals her breath and leaves her shivering. He doesn't speak, and she has a moment to register his clothes- black and burgundy, just like her- before he's pulling her close and his mouth is on hers, soft and questioning in a way that makes her tremble. She kisses him back, parting her lips and the kiss changes. His hands slide into her hair and she's sighing, melting into his arms. She's not sure how much time passes before he moves his lips to her throat and she's clutching at his shoulders to stay standing, a noise low in her throat when he sweeps her up and over to her previous seat

(which has remained suspiciously empty, the room suspiciously quiet, but her brain stops working somewhere between his first and second kiss.)

He settles down with her in his lap, his lips still moving over her throat and collarbone, and she's shuddering and gasping whenever he nips the delicate skin. She tries to kiss him back, tries to put into actions what she's been trying to say, and somehow she's laying down the cushions, Clint solid and warm above her. He tastes like whiskey, dark and smoky, and something distinctly him, and she can't get enough. She arches against him, he moves against her with a muffled groan, and then his hands are everywhere.

She tries to match his fervor, tries to keep up, but she's no match for his intensity and all she can do is thread her fingers into his hair, try to pull him closer when he moves the slightest bit away. Theirs is a language of their own, of lips and teeth and tongues, and she silently thanks Natasha

(“Stop thinking,” he growls into her ear, and she shivers at the heat in his voice.

“I was-”

“Don't care.” he nips her earlobe and she gives a soft cry of pleasure-pain. “Stop thinking.”)

before she sinks into a haze of heat and pleasure and Clint. He pulls the gardenia from her hair, and gives her a slow grin before he's kissing her again. His hand is on her hip now, holding her close and she's beginning to burn-

The klaxon alarms are like a dash of cold water over both of them. They both sit up, her with a gasp, him with a curse. He pulls her to her feet and begins to run, dragging her behind

(she's irrationally grateful to Natasha for picking out sensible comfortable footwear for her tonight)

to the main hall, where the rest of the team is assembling. Natasha gives her a once-over and she blushes at the unspoken congratulations in the Russian's gaze, turning her attention back to the screens, full of smoke and explosions and screams. She can't make sense of what's going on, but Steve is suddenly barking orders and there is a flurry of activity around her. Clint is gone and Jane is tugging her away, towards their rooms and her face is pale under the lights. Darcy thinks that perhaps it's worse than it looks and then she's alone in her room, with mussed hair and slightly-bruised lips the only proof this evening wasn't a lie.

The noise is back in her head, discordant and jangling and oh-so-wrong and she finds herself stumbling to her bathroom. She reapplies her lipstick before she picks up a cotton handkerchief, embroidered with her initials and a border of tiny forget-me-nots, and presses a kiss to the fabric. She neatly folds the fabric to hide the stain and asks JARVIS to show her the way to the hanger. She's never been before, but she knows that she'll soon be more familiar than she's ever wanted to be.

Steve is there in full uniform, still barking orders and arguing with Bucky over something. Thor is standing to the side with Jane, heads bowed as they whisper back and forth, and Bruce is talking quietly to Natasha near the door. Tony and Pepper aren't here, but then again, their goodbyes were always private, always on the roof. She slips between them, heading towards the open Quinjet and where she knows Clint will be.

He looks up when she enters the cockpit and stands, his face hard. She's forgotten in her daze that here, Hawkeye reigns, so she doesn't complain when he escorts her out, jaw clenched and eyes blazing. He only lets her go when she's off the jet but she doesn't let him speak, stepping close and pressing the handkerchief into his hand and her lips to his. She doesn't relent, doesn't back away, and one of his hands comes up to tangle in her hair, the other gripping her hip and she thinks that she'll have bruises when she looks

(“Come back to me,” she breathes against his lips, and takes the crash of his mouth against hers as his answer)

and it doesn't matter, will never matter, as long as he comes back to her and them. He only lets her go when Steve is ordering everyone on board, is shouting for Hawkeye to get behind the controls, they need to go now, and she's left standing, watching with Jane as the Quinjet roars away.

(“Come back to me,” she whispers, and Jane squeezes her hand.)