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Darcy knows things are bad when she comes back to her desk after the four pm briefing and finds the box of cookies in her inbox. It's not that her dad doesn't send her cookies pretty regularly--he does, often enough that various members of the team materialize at her desk now within five minutes of her opening the box (apparently, the folks who gather intelligence for SHIELD really like cookies, because they are totally on top of it). But this close to Christmas, he's usually in full-on holiday baking mode, which means look but don't touch, Darcy, don't you want to leave some cookies for Santa?

When she opens the tin to find delicate folded fans of cream cheese dough filled with strawberry preserves, she knows it's bad. Avengers assemble at the bar to save Darcy's Christmas bad.

"These are fantastic," Bruce says. He generally doesn't join them when they go to the bar, given his need to stay on an even keel, but he's been trying to reverse engineer Dad's cookies since the first batch of We're Really Proud of You snickerdoodles arrived (he came really close with the Is Brooklyn Really Safe for a Young Woman Alone? oatmeal raisin cookies), and the preserves cookies are basically the jewel in the crown of Dad's recipe box. "Cream cheese, you say?"

"Who cares about that?" Tony asks through a mouthful of crumbs. "I want to know what these cookies mean. Are they, Sorry, We Didn't Get You a Pony, Darcy cookies or We're Running Off to Maui for the Holidays So You're On Your Own cookies or what?"

"No," Darcy says, looking up from where she's been texting furiously with her sister to confirm the terrible news. "These are You're Going to Be the Only Single Person at Christmas Dinner and Aunt Lucy Thinks You're Going to Die Old and Alone and Be Eaten By Cats preserves cookies." She knocks back the shot of Rumpleminze Clint puts in front of her and gives him a small but grateful smile.

"Pfft," Tony says. "That's not an emergency. Hire someone to be your boyfriend for the weekend."

"Do I look like Sandra Bullock to you?"

"Hell," he continues, ignoring her, "you don't even have to hire someone. I'll do it."

Darcy takes the second shot Clint hands her with a strained smile, this one meant to convey, "Please Help Me, But Don't Kill Tony in the Process." Clint grins smugly back at her and eats another cookie. Hmph.

"One, no, my dad would have a heart attack. Two, no, because you're only, like, five years younger than him, and three, no, because I would like Pepper not to kill me." She takes the shot, enjoying the minty burn down her throat.

Tony waves a dismissive hand. "I've slept with girls younger than you."

Clint claps a hand over his eyes, Bruce starts looking for the exit, and Steve leans forward and says, "Are you going to get arrested, Tony? Because if you are, we'll have to find someone else to fill in for you on the team."

"No," Tony replies. "At least, not for that." He takes another sip of his drink. "I still think I'm the best choice."

"Except for the part where you are very publicly engaged to another woman," Natasha says.

"Right, except for that. Okay, new plan. You can take Steve home. I bet there is no man in America better suited to meeting the parents than the captain here. He's practically engineered for it."

Steve ducks his head. "I don't understand why you're worried, but if you think it would help, Darcy, I guess we could do it."

She blinks, surprised and more than a little touched. "My parents would love that, but my sister wouldn't believe it. She'd think you're too virginal to date me." And then she claps a hand over her mouth as the others start laughing. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry. I did not mean that the way it sounded."

Steve waves off her apology with a rueful smile and she vows to send him cookies while she's home.

"I guess that means it's up to Clint to save you from Aunt Lucy and the hungry cats," Tony says.

They all turn to look at Clint, who's in the process of shoving cookies into his mouth and brushing crumbs off his shirt. "What?"

Tony shakes his head sadly. "Darcy, honey, you're doomed."

"Those are now Congratulations, You're Darcy's New Fake Boyfriend cookies," Steve says. "You better treat her right or you and I will have words."

"I'm not doing it," Clint says after he's swallowed his mouthful of cookies. "I know how these things go. I'll end up out on my ass in my underwear at three am on Christmas morning when mommy and daddy figure out I'm not really your boyfriend and I'm there under false pretenses."

"You know, I figured Steve for a romantic comedy kind of guy," Natasha says, "but this side of you surprises me, Clint."

Clint sticks his tongue out at her and she laughs.

"You'd have free access to all the cookies," Darcy wheedles.

"I already have free access to the cookies," he says.

"Jerk," she mutters. "See how long that lasts."

He ignores her. "The cookies are not the problem. It's you I'm not so sure about."

She smacks his arm and he pretends it hurts and then Natasha places another round of shots in front of them.

"The cookies would still be warm from the oven," she tempts, which is enough to make him look thoughtful for a moment, but he still shakes his head no when she asks again.

Two hours and four rounds later, Darcy is no closer to solving her problem, but she's practically sitting in Clint's lap. He pats her head warily, like she's a teacup Chihuahua he's afraid might bite him, and then pours her onto her feet and follows her out of the booth. "Come on, Rumplemess, let's get you home."

"Clint, I can't go home," she says, looking up at him with the saddest face she knows how to make (which is especially challenging at the moment, given she can't feel her face). "You don't know my Aunt Lucy. She's, like, the Wicked Witch of the West of aunts."

"I actually meant home to your apartment, but okay."

"Okay? You'll do it?"

"I'll do it, but you owe me so many cookies, you're going to be paying me back when we're as old as Steve over there."

Darcy throws her arms around him and squeezes. He's pretty solid and she holds on a little longer than she probably should. "You are the best fake boyfriend ever!"

Which is how she finds herself on the train with him three days later.

He's got his laptop open and at first she thinks he's playing some kind of game, or maybe reading comics, but when she looks closer, it takes her a moment to process what she's seeing.

"You can't seriously be thinking of wearing that in public," she says.

"Why not?"

She gestures vaguely at the costume sketches on his screen. "It's purple. And has random things on it."

"I like purple," he says.

"And I like hanging out in my PowerPuff Girls pajamas, but I don't wear them to work."

He glances up at her, ridiculous grin on his face. "Will I get to see these pajamas on this trip?"

"Maybe, if you play your cards right. Though my mom usually buys me special Christmas pajamas every year, with Santa or snow men or whatever on them." She pauses, then, "It's possible she might have bought some for you, too, when I mentioned you were coming." She doesn't let him get a word in about that. "You'll get to see mine when you sneak into my room at night."

"Um, you do know we're not actually dating, right?"

She sucks her teeth and shakes her head at him. "Of course I know that, but they don't, and they'll expect you to do it."

"Your parents are going to expect me to sneak into your bedroom? But they won't put us in one room together to begin with? Isn't that," he waves a hand, "counterproductive?"

"It gives my dad plausible deniability. If you're in a guest room, he can pretend we're not having hot, sweaty sex right down the hall from him."

"But we're not having hot, sweaty sex anywhere."

"Oh my god, can you just get into the swing of things and pretend? Maybe I should have brought Steve. He wouldn't have argued so much."

Clint huffs. "I'm not making the headboard bang into the wall or anything."

"What is your problem? Most guys would be thrilled to bang my headboard."

He opens his mouth and then closes it again. "Right. I'm just gonna go back to my uniform redesign."

She watches him for a few seconds. "Yeah, no," she says, shaking her head, "I'm gonna have to nix the purple. It's ridiculous."

"Steve dresses like the freaking flag, Tony looks like a Christmas ornament, and Bruce is twelve feet tall and green."

"All the more reason for you to be classy and understated in basic black. It works for Natasha."

"It certainly does."

She ignores that. "You can keep the purple accents if you must, but I think if you called Tim Gunn, he would agree with me."

"When I was in the circus--"

"SHIELD is not the circus!"

"You'd be surprised."

That startles her into a laugh. "Okay, maybe you're right, but nobody is going to take you seriously in that." She jerks her chin at the purple costume on his laptop screen.

He snaps the laptop closed and pouts at her, which she absolutely does not find adorable. "Let's agree to disagree."

"I can do that. We can go over all the stuff we should know about each other so they'll actually believe we're dating."

"What did you tell them?"

"Not much. That we met while I was doing my internship and then we met again when I got the job at SHIELD. That you were swept away by my charm and beauty and couldn't help but ask me out."

"Seriously?"

It's her turn to pout at him. Even though they're not actually a couple, she can tell it has an effect. Score one for her. "You don't think I'm charming and beautiful?"

He groans. "Come on, Darcy, don't be like that."

"See, it's already like we're dating," she says, letting her smile show. "Seriously, though, I told them we met in New Mexico, and then started going out when we met again in New York. We've only been together a couple of months, but because you don't have anywhere to go for the holidays, I took pity on you and asked you to come home with me."

"Pity?" he sputters.

"Figure of speech," she says, backpedaling quickly. "I know you're helping me out, Clint. I haven't forgotten. I didn't think--did you have somewhere else you wanted to go?" She'd checked the vacation calendar the morning after he'd agreed and he hadn't put in for time off, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.

He shakes his head. "Nah. I was going to pull some extra duty shifts."

Darcy lets out a relieved breath. "Okay. Okay. Look, it's only four days. My parents are really into Christmas, and they'll mostly be preoccupied with decorating--I should warn you, they'd hang lights in the shower if they thought we wouldn't electrocute ourselves--and cooking and watching all the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials--"

"Even Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey?"

"Even Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey." She fiddles with one of the earbuds lying on her jacket collar. "Year Without a Santa Claus is my favorite. Just so you know."

He grins at her. "I'm partial to Heat Miser, myself."

She laughs. "You would be. Snow Miser is where it's at."

"What else do I need to know?"

She gives him a brief sketch of her family--Dad, retired; Mom, history professor; Lizzie, six years older and married with two kids. "And of course, Aunt Lucy, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. She's not going to be impressed by anything you say, so make sure you play up the whole ran away to join the circus thing. It'll make her pucker up like she's been sucking lemons."

He snorts. "Yeah, okay, I can do that."

"I know you can."

"Anything other deep, dark Darcy secrets I should know?"

She leans in puts her lips up close to his ear. He smells of soap and fabric softener. "I don't like eggnog."

His eyes are bright as he smiles down at her. "I think I can handle that."

"You'll protect me from the eggy-noggy grossness?"

"That much I can promise you. Though if Aunt Lucy's a pincher, we might have to renegotiate the terms of this deal."

"She's never been a pincher before, but she might be overcome by your handsome cheeks."

"This face is pretty irresistible."

"I meant your ass."

"You're an ass."

She sticks her tongue out at him and then cracks up. She laughs so hard she ends up slumped against him, her head on his arm. He shifts, wraps it around her and it's so comfortable, she can almost believe he really is her boyfriend. Almost.

She's sleepy after laughing so hard (and getting up at o'dark thirty to catch the fucking train), so she closes her eyes and dozes off, warm and comfortable with Clint's arm around her.

Darcy wakes up as the conductor announces that they're heading for the last stop. Clint offers her a bite of the chocolate bar he's eating. She glances at the laptop; this time, the redesign is black with purple accents, similar to what he already wears, but with more useless straps. She doesn't ask about them; maybe there's some good archery-related reason for them.

"Much better," she says, pointing at the screen.

He smiles down at her, chocolate in his teeth.

Darcy feels a pang of alarm. Her family is going to love him. What the hell has she done?

***

The outside of the house is all decorated already--has been since the day after Thanksgiving if Darcy knows her parents--but Mom and Dad are out on the lawn arguing about the order of the reindeer.

"You can't just switch Vixen and Cupid," Mom is saying. "It throws the whole team off."

"They do know they're not actually flying reindeer, right?" Clint murmurs.

"I think so," Darcy answers, "but this close to Christmas, I really can't be sure."

"Darcy," Dad says, noticing her and using her presence to end the argument with Mom. "And your young man. Wonderful. Look, Suze, Darcy and her young man are here." He gives Mom an unreadable look, then swings Darcy into a hug and before passing her over to Mom while he shakes Clint's hand.

"Nice grip," Dad says. "Interesting calluses."

"Archery," Clint replies.

"That'd explain it, yeah."

Mom looks like she wants to ask more questions, so Darcy says, "Is Aunt Lucy here yet?"

"No, you're safe until tomorrow morning," her sister says from the doorway. "Come inside and get warm. Dad, you know Mom's right. Leave the reindeer in the order they came in. Nobody's going to care that Cupid's looking a little frayed around the edges once they're lit up."

They all go inside and Darcy introduces Lizzie and her husband Mark to Clint who nods and smiles and shakes hands like a good fake boyfriend. Darcy can see the moment it hits him, and since he's never been someone whose brain to mouth filter actually works, he blurts out, "Wait a minute, your sister's name is Elizabeth? And you're Darcy?"

"Mom and Dad are big Austen fans," Darcy says, watching him process it.

"And your best friend is named Jane."

"That was a happy coincidence," Darcy says. "We did find it kind of amusing, though."

Clint cocks his head and looks thoughtful for a second. "As long as I'm not Wickham, I guess it's okay."

"Maybe I should call you Bingley."

He shrugs, grinning. "Just don't call me late for dinner."

Darcy rolls her eyes and makes "ta-da!" hands in his direction. "The comedy stylings of Clint Barton, everybody. He'll be here all weekend. Try the veal."

He puts an arm around her and squeezes her against his side, and it feels good. He's already got them eating out of his hand. "You love my comedy stylings."

"Yes," she says, "it's absolutely your comedy stylings that made me say yes when you asked me out." And before anyone can ask for any kind of cute story about their first date, she looks at Lizzie and asks, "Where are the twins?"

"Downstairs, playing Nintendo."

"We'll see about that." Darcy goes to the top of the stairs that lead down into the basement/family room, and hollers, "Where my boys at?"

Her nephews come tearing up the stairs and barreling into her, making her stumble back into Clint, who puts a steadying hand on her waist. "Aunt Darcy! Aunt Darcy!" Darcy loves being an aunt, even if it sometimes means almost getting knocked down. It's also been pretty good training for dealing with Tony and Thor.

She hugs and kisses them and ruffles their hair, and breathes in the little boy smell of them. Then she straightens up, one arm around each of them, and says, "Clint, this is Kevin," she puts her right hand on the top of his head, "and this is Billy." She puts her left hand on top of his head. "I'm pretty sure that they're going to try to trick you into thinking they're each other. Good luck with that."

They giggle as they shake Clint's hand like little gentlemen, and Kevin says, "Do you work at SHIELD, too?"

"Yes," Clint says.

"Aunt Darcy says she knows Iron Man," Billy says.

"Captain America, too," Darcy says.

"They're not as cool as Batman," Kevin says scornfully.

"Hey," Darcy says. "They're real superheroes, not pretend ones."

"Nobody's as cool as Batman," Billy says.

"I wanted to be Batman when I was a kid," Clint says. "That's part of why I ran away to join the circus."

"Batman wasn't in the circus," Darcy says.

"But Robin was," Billy says. "Were you a trapeze artist like Robin?"

"No," Clint says. "I used to throw knives."

"That is so cool," the twins say in unison. "Can you teach us?"

"No!" Lizzie and Darcy say.

"Maybe when you're a little older," Clint says, patting each of them on the shoulder. "And your mom says it's okay."

"I hope you know they're going to follow you around until you give in," Darcy says as she leads Clint through the living room and up the stairs to the bedrooms. They leave the twins in the kitchen beseeching Lizzie to let them learn how to throw knives.

"I'm a little more afraid of what you'll do if I teach them than I am of what they'll do if I don't."

Darcy smiles up at him. "Smart man." She drops her bags in her bedroom--thankfully, they painted over her She-Ra wallpaper when she graduated high school--and then leads Clint to the guestroom. "And this is where you'll be staying." She watches him react to the abundance of Christmas decorations, and bites her lip to keep from laughing at the way he frowns for a second before he forces a smile. "Remember, I'm two doors down on the left. I'll be expecting you tonight."

***

They go into town to do some last minute shopping; she buys a couple of small toys for the boys, though she's pretty sure the autographed photos of Iron Man and Captain America, along with limited edition action figures of them, will make her their favorite person in the universe, at least until Clint teaches them how to throw knives, which will hopefully happen never.

She points out the places she hung out as a teenager, the bar where they used to go to the occasional all-ages shows, and, because it's cool, and she knows her parents will ask him about it, over to the little park in Eastport.

The bench is empty when they get to it, and they arrange their little proliferation of shopping bags at their feet.

After a few minutes of watching the harbor, Clint says, "This is nice. Chilly, but nice."

She smiles. "You wanna see something cool?"

"Always."

She reaches down underneath the bench, and yeah, it's still there. "Check this out." She shows him the waterproof journal, the pages of notes people have written to each other. "My parents leave little love notes for each other here all the time," she says. "I used to be so embarrassed when I was a kid."

"You know that's why they did it."

"Oh, totally." She slips it back beneath the bench. "It is very romantic, though."

"Or a good way to pass information to an asset."

"You have no romance in your soul."

"Nope. I'm pretty sure that, just like the Grinch, I've got garlic there instead."

She laughs and swats him lightly on the arm. "Speaking of, I'm pretty sure the boys are gonna wanna watch that tonight. We should get back, see if my mother needs any help with anything."

When they get back to the house, Dad's making cookies and Mom's wrapping presents. Darcy gathers her packages--both the ones she's carried down by hand and the ones she'd had shipped directly--on the dining room table and joins her.

"So, is it serious?" Mom asks after a few minutes of cutting and folding and taping candy cane wrapping paper.

Darcy shrugs. "I like him," she says. It's true. Truer than she'd like, really. She'd had a crush on all of the Avengers when she'd first met them--they're ridiculously attractive superheroes and she's only human--but it had mostly faded after working with them and learning how human they really were. Except she still gets that little lowdown tingle sometimes when Clint touches her, and she's secretly glad it's him and not Tony or Steve playing Nintendo with the twins. They would have made perfectly adequate fake boyfriends--well, Steve would have; Tony would have gone way over the top--but it wouldn't have been quite as believable. Clint fits in with her family, somehow. Which is a dangerous thought she pushes away.

"I can tell. You're always full of talk about him."

"What?" Darcy's head jerks up and she totally ruins the piece of wrapping paper she's trying to cut by tearing it roughly.

"Whenever we talk, it's Clint this and Clint that. I mean, you also talk about Pepper a lot--I can't believe you're friends with Tony Stark's fiancée--but mostly when you're not talking about your boss, you're talking about Clint."

"Well, clearly that has got to stop," she jokes. "I will absolutely talk more about Thor from now on."

Mom gives her a knowing look. "He makes you happy?"

"Thor? I'm sure he could if he wasn't in love with Jane."

"Darcy."

"Yeah," she says, and if she hesitates a little over the lie, finds herself wishing it could maybe be true, well, hopefully, her mother doesn't know her as well as she thinks.

"I know you're anxious about Aunt Lucy's visit. And I would tell you not let her get to you, but I also know that's useless. But your father and I are very proud of you. You don't have to care about what Lucy says. She's always been a bit of a pill."

That's probably the nicest description of her anyone could come up with, Darcy thinks. "I'm good," she says. "I'm going to remind her that I know Tony Stark's fiancée and also the Norse god of thunder if she tries to get up my nose about not going to grad school."

Mom smiles and pats her arm. "That's my girl."

***

They order in for dinner that night, "Since we'll be cooking all day tomorrow," Dad tells Clint as he spears another dumpling out of the container.

"I'm not really much good in the kitchen," Clint says. "I can make a pot of coffee, and scramble some eggs, but it's not really a skill I've developed."

"Spend any time with a Lewis woman and you will, strictly out of survival," Dad replies.

"Hey," Darcy says, though Mom and Lizzie don't deny it. "I'm doing all right on my own."

Dad points his half-eaten dumpling at her. "Have you progressed beyond microwave popcorn and cup o'noodles yet?"

"The microwave is a very useful appliance," Darcy says, but even she is laughing too hard to really sell it.

"It's okay," Clint says. He wraps an arm around her, pulls her close, and presses a brief kiss to her temple before he lets her go. "I've survived worse."

Darcy swats ineffectually at him, but she can't ignore the fact that the spot on her skin is still tingling and she's got a huge, goofy smile on her face.

After dinner--Clint earns more points by helping Mom clear the table and load the dishwasher--they settle in for a night of Christmas specials. The boys do indeed want to watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas--"The classic cartoon," Dad says, "not that crappy Jim Carrey version."--and then they're sent to bed and Dad puts in Scrooged.

"They own every version of A Christmas Carol ever filmed," Darcy tells Clint. "One year we watched them all back to back. By the end, I thought I'd been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."

"Do you have the Mr. Magoo version?" Clint asks, leaning forward.

"Of course," Mom says. "We also have razzleberry dressing with Christmas dinner."

"God bless us, every one," Darcy intones solemnly.

***

Darcy puts on her PowerPuff Girl pajamas and waits impatiently for Clint to show up. Her parents have been in bed for a good forty-five minutes, and they're probably waiting for him to slink down the hall as impatiently as she is. She's almost ready to give up on him--she would have expected Steve to balk at sneaking into her room to pretend to have sex, but Clint's never seemed all that uptight about, well, anything--when there's a soft knock on her door.

She opens the door to find him standing there in a pair of gray sweats and a faded black Misfits t-shirt, looking sheepish. "Come on in," she whispers, and he winces at how loud she is.

"Please tell me your dad doesn't have a gun."

"You've fought Skrulls and power-hungry mutants, and you're afraid of my dad?"

"Can't hurt civilians," he answers, settling tentatively on her bed, mostly because there isn't anywhere else comfortable to sit.

She grins at his discomfort and says, "Good, then you'll have to take the beating I'm about to deal out." He jerks back in surprise and she can't choke back a laugh as she sets the Scrabble board between them. "I, Darcy Lewis, challenge you, Clint Barton, to a Scrabble duel."

He blinks at her slowly. "You are such a freak."

"But you love me anyway," she answers before she realizes that one, he does not, and two, there's no one around for them to pretend for. She feels herself flush and hopes he doesn't notice.

"Yeah," he says, and her heart does this weird stuttery thing, and then he continues with, "okay. I accept your challenge."

And that would be her heart dropping in disappointment. She really needs to get a handle on this...thing she's feeling before they get back to work.

Darcy starts out with some dirty words, but Clint just quirks an eyebrow and says, "I ain't Steve, honey. I'm not gonna be fazed by words for ladyparts."

Darcy huffs, annoyed, but admits that it was a long shot.

They play quietly for a little while, until she puts down "squee," which he argues is not a real word.

"It's not on m-w.com, so it doesn't count," he says, showing her the screen on his phone that says the dictionary does not contain this word, maybe she meant sequel or square.

She pouts at him but he just leans back, arms folded over his chest (and really, it should not be legal to wear sleeves when you've got arms like that), and waits for her to give in. "Fine. Be that way." She takes the s-tile back, rearranges the others, and adds a second u. "Queue. Eighteen points plus a triple word score, so fifty-four points for me. In your face, jerk."

Scrabble's not her best game--that'd be Trivial Pursuit--but when he adds up the points at the end, she's won by five.

"Yes!" she shouts, and then freezes, hand clapped over her mouth.

Their gazes meet and they both start laughing hysterically. She tips over and knocks into the board, making the tiles scatter all over the bed and the floor, which makes them both laugh harder.

He helps her clean up, in between sporadic bouts of laughing, and hey, at least her parents will think he's showing her a good time.

The game cleaned up, she turns to him and says, "I'm not sleepy yet. Are you up for more Christmas specials?"

"Seriously?"

She grabs her laptop from her bag. "How about the one with the mice in the clock?"

"I don't think I know that one."

"Oh yeah, it might be a little after your time," she says.

"Hey, now, Buttercup, no need to get personal. And anyway, you obviously like older men, so just shut up."

"I do like Steve," she answers, tossing her hair and starting the cartoon.

She falls asleep slumped against him and wakes up in the morning curled up under his arm, stupid mouse-Christmas song in her head.

There's a knock on her bedroom door, which then swings open, and Lizzie says, "Rise and shine, sleepyhead." She takes in the two of them and then says, "Or sleepyheads, I guess. Aunt Lucy and Grandma will be here by two."

Darcy looks at the clock. "It's only eight-thirty."

"You know how Dad is."

Clint raises an eyebrow (she tries to ignore how cute he looks all bedheady and flustered) and she says, "You know how Coulson always wants you there five hours earlier than the two hours early you plan to be somewhere? Like that."

"Okay."

She jerks her head at him and they follow Lizzie down to the kitchen. Darcy tries not to blush when Lizzie gives her an appraising once-over and a thumbs-up. She forgets that when she sees the Saran-wrapped plate topped with a big red bow sitting on the counter.

"Honey balls?" She reaches out and Mom playfully slaps her hand away. "I missed Mrs. Vincenzo?"

"Who is Mrs.Vincenzo?" Clint asks.

"She was the receptionist at Dad's garage. Oh, man, I'm sorry you missed her. She's, like, The Nanny, except Italian instead of Jewish."

"A real character," Lizzie says.

"And she makes the best honey balls," Dad says. He's got flour in his hair and he's rolling out the pie crust. "That's one recipe I've never been able to get perfect for some reason."

"Wait, there's pie, too?" Clint says.

"Apple crumb, and apple raisin with a lattice top," Dad says.

"Ugh, raisins," Darcy says. "You better keep them out of my apple crumb."

"As you can see, my daughter has no idea what's good."

"Raisins have no place in pie. They are everything not good when they are in pie," she insists.

Clint doesn't seem to understand the importance of having raisin-free pie, though. "Wait," he repeats, "You're making apple pie? In addition to all the cookies?"

Darcy taps the back of his head lightly. "Geez, Clint, keep up. I've never known you to be slow on the uptake."

Dad cocks his head and narrows his eyes. "You like my cookies?"

"I do indeed, sir," Clint says fervently. Darcy rolls her eyes at him.

"Be straight with me, Clint. Are you dating my daughter for the cookies?"

"Sir, if it were legal in the state of Maryland, I would marry you for the cookies."

"That could be arranged," Mom says, laughing.

"But seriously, I like your daughter a lot. Life is a lot more fun with her around."

Dad smiles. "Good. I have to say, when Darcy said she was dating you--" He pauses and looks like he's trying to find the right words. "You're a little older than the boys she's dated in the past, and the whole SHIELD thing is kind of difficult to wrap my head around. But I like you, Clint. If you come back next Christmas, maybe I'll share some of the recipes with you."

Clint looks honestly pleased by that, and as Darcy smiles happily at him, she realizes that she is completely and utterly fucked.

She drags him back upstairs under the pretense of getting dressed for the day and says, "We are completely and utterly fucked."

"What? Why? How?" Clint asks, lounging on her bed. "There's going to be pie. And I thought Aunt Lucy didn't arrive until two."

"No, you don't understand!" Darcy paces the short length of her bedroom in agitation. "They like you. They really like you. They never like anyone I bring home! We can never break up now!"

"We'd have to actually be dating to break up."

"Would you please take this seriously, Clint? We are going to end up fake married. Except it won't be fake married, it will be real married, because otherwise my dad will kill you."

He straightens up from his easy lean. "Maybe you should have thought of that before taking advice from Tony Stark."

She flops down onto the bed next to him and hugs her pillow to her chest. "Shut up and help me think of good ways for us to break up when the time comes."

"I'm sure you'll think of something. Work will interfere, so we never see each other. The next time I get injured, you'll realize it's all too scary and break up with me."

She frowns. She doesn't like it when he gets injured, but she focuses on the more pressing issue. "You don't seem that bothered by the idea of ending up fake married but for real."

He shrugs. "I can imagine worse fates."

She slaps him with the pillow. He grabs it and pushes her onto her back, his legs coming to rest on either side of her hips, warm through the thin cotton of her pajama pants. She stares at him in surprise, meeting his suddenly intent gaze, her chin already tipping up to kiss him.

Kevin and Billy, having seven-year-olds' abilities to detect the beginnings of a pillow fight (or just a really fraught moment), come barging into the room and bounce on the bed next to them, completely unaware of the tension in the room.

"Clint, Clint," they say excitedly and in unison, "are you gonna teach us to throw knives today?"

"Didn't I say when you were older?" he asks, swinging himself easily off Darcy, like they weren't just millimeters away from kissing. Maybe they weren't. Maybe it's all in her imagination, which sucks even more than being interrupted.

"We're a day older today than we were yesterday," Kevin says, and Billy nods along decisively.

"Well, I have to give you points for trying," Clint says, "but I'm afraid your mother and your aunt might kill me if I teach you how to throw knives on Christmas Eve."

"Now get out of here," Darcy says before they can start begging. "We've gotta shower and get dressed and stuff before Aunt Lucy and Great-Grandma come."

The rest of the morning is uneventful. Mom and Lizzie run out to do last minute shopping, Dad frets over the pies, and starts breading the chicken cutlets for dinner. Darcy finishes wrapping her presents. Clint's off with the twins, but their father is with them, so they can't be getting up to too much trouble.

At least, that's what she's hoping, but then Aunt Lucy comes storming into the house--through the back door because the front is for special occasions and Jehovah's witnesses--and starts yelling about how some strange man almost killed her with a knife.

"The knife didn't come anywhere near you, Lucy," Grandma says, stumping into the kitchen with her walker. "It hit the target dead center, as he no doubt intended. Your young man, isn't he, Darcy?"

"Yes, Grandma."

"He's quite handsome. You obviously take after me. I had all the young men after me when I was your age."

And when Clint and Mark and the twins come in from the backyard, Darcy can see why. Grandma is an aggressive flirt, talking about how she used to cut a rug when she was a girl in Baltimore, and how she's sure a man like Clint is a fine dancer. Darcy thinks it's a good thing she didn't bring Steve, or it's possible he'd have ended up her step-grandpa.

Clint allows Grandma to monopolize him with an indulgent smile on his face, and the twins occupy Aunt Lucy long enough for Darcy to escape.

"It's time to put our gifts under the tree," she says, running upstairs to gather everything she'd spent the morning wrapping

When she comes back down, Mom and Lizzie have returned and Grandma is directing them where to hang the mistletoe they brought with them, so she can kiss Clint.

"I think maybe Darcy should kiss him first, though. I don't want to spoil him for her," she says, with a broad wink that makes Darcy laugh.

"Thanks, Grandma. I appreciate that."

She takes the mistletoe and dangles it over her head, then leans up to press a quick kiss to the corner of Clint's mouth. He grins down at her in a way that makes her want to kiss it right off his face, but that would be inappropriate.

"Hmph," Grandma says. "I think you need to slip him a little tongue, Darcy."

"Grandma!"

Grandma smirks and shrugs, leaning back, challenge delivered.

Fuck, but Darcy hates backing down from a dare, especially one from her seventy-eight year old grandma. She looks up at Clint, who gives her that same smug grin, and a brief nod. With that permission, she wraps a hand around the nape of his neck and draws him down for a real kiss, wet and hot and open-mouthed. The first touch of her tongue against Clint's is electric and she makes a soft noise that is not the kind of thing you want your parents, let alone your grandmother and seven-year-old nephews to hear, so she starts to pull back, and then Clint's hands are in her hair and his mouth is slanting over hers, hard and hot. She melts against him, gasping into his mouth, until the sound of her mother clearing her throat penetrates past the roaring in her ears and she pulls away, slightly dazed.

"Now that's what I call a kiss," Grandma says approvingly. "Now you can kiss me. On the cheek, though. I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea, Clint." Clint gives Grandma that same shit-eating grin and kisses her softly on the cheek. She beams at him, pleased, and everybody, with the possible exception of Aunt Lucy, is happy, and since Aunt Lucy is never happy, Darcy's not sure why she cares what Aunt Lucy thinks, now or ever.

***

After a light lunch and some energetic, if slightly off-key carol, singing, everybody but Clint and Darcy packs into cars to go to five o'clock mass.

"Gotta get there early," Dad says. "Otherwise all the handicapped parking spaces are gone and your grandmother will have to walk. Also, we need to get the seats furthest away from the speakers. Last year, I thought they were going to blow my ears out on 'Angels We Have Heard On High.'"

"And we need to give Darcy and her young man a little alone time," Grandma says with another exaggerated wink and an added elbow in Clint's ribs that makes him grunt and Darcy choke with laughter.

Before they leave, Dad gives them a detailed set of instructions for what goes into the oven when and at what temperature, and Darcy writes it all down. Sometimes she thinks the best training she ever had for working for Coulson was growing up with her father and his persnickety attention to detail.

They relax once everyone's gone. They bring out their laptops and check their email and Facebook in companionable silence.

"How come you don't have to go to church?" Clint asks after a while.

"Because you're here." He looks surprised at that and she shrugs. "Well, a little bit. Mostly because someone has to be here to make sure dinner is ready to go on the table when they get home, or everybody gets a little cranky.

"I used to love going to church on Christmas Eve. It was probably the only time I liked it." She smiles in recollection. "It'd be all decorated with wreathes and lights, and they'd have the Nativity scene set up, and after Mass, they'd slip the baby Jesus statue into the creche, and my mom would take me over there and we'd sing Happy Birthday to him." She shakes her head, dismissing the memories. "I haven't thought of that in years."

"That's adorable," he replies mockingly, but his gaze is soft when he says it.

"Anyway, we should probably turn the oven on and start boiling the water for the pasta." She sets the oven temperature at three hundred fifty degrees, just like her notes say, and then pulls out the big stock pot and starts filling it with water.

"I can't believe they're leaving dinner up to you."

"Us. You were included in those instructions, too, mister." She pokes him and is kind of fascinated by how flat and solid his belly is. So she pokes him a couple more times. And then she lets her hands wander a little, trying to find ticklish spots. He's warm under her hands, even through his henley, and he flinches once or twice.

"So you are ticklish," she crows in triumph, and then has to eat her words when he responds with a tickle attack of his own. She'd planned to never let him know how ticklish she is, but he's got her backed up against the counter in no time flat. They're both laughing and panting, and then his hands go flat on her sides and instead of tickling her, he's touching her, and that's a whole new proposition. She can't catch her breath and she thinks he's leaning in to kiss her when she realizes that the water in the stockpot is overflowing. "Crap," she says, twisting away from him so she can turn the faucet off and pour some of the water out.

She keeps her distance for the rest of their kitchen prep time. It's safer that way.

"I thought you couldn't cook," Clint says as Darcy drops the linguine into the boiling water.

"I can boil water and heat a tray of chicken cutlet parmesan." She looks at the box and then sets the timer for eleven minutes. She digs the colander out from under the tupperware and sets it in the sink. She glances at the clock. "And I think I've timed this exactly right. Help me set the table."

As she sets out the silverware, Darcy can't help herself; she starts singing along with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" at the top of her lungs. Clint stares at her for a second and then joins in. Apparently even he approves of Christmas music when it's being sung by the Boss.

They're done with three minutes to spare on the timer. As Darcy checks the pasta for doneness, she turns to look at Clint. "You haven't said anything about what you used to do for the holidays."

He shrugs and looks vaguely uncomfortable. "Nothing like this. When I was a kid, it was board games and beer until bedtime. And then when I was in Afghanistan..." He trails off, not meeting her gaze. "It wasn't exactly festive."

"Clint--"

The timer goes off and he says, "Here, let me do that for you." So she hands him the oven mitts and lets him dump the pot of linguine into the colander. The steam hides him for a moment, and when it dissipates, he's wearing his usual half-smirk.

She can hear the car pulling up in the driveway, and since he clearly doesn't want to talk about it, she lets it drop. For now, anyway.

Dinner is excellent, right up until Aunt Lucy starts in on the litany of things her daughter has done with her life: grad school, a job at the State Department, an upcoming June wedding to her corporate lawyer boyfriend. Darcy should be used to it, and she's glad Donna's having a great life, but she hates being held up as a failure in comparison, hates the pitying glances and the huge fake sighs about how she's going to be alone for the rest of her life because she didn't get an MBA and an engagement ring on the same day.

She excuses herself during the description of the ring, and heads outside. It's chilly and she wishes she'd stopped to get a hoodie, or that she smoked so she has something to do with her hands. She paces the back deck and tells herself it's okay, she doesn't care, trying to get back to that zen place she was in earlier.

She jumps when the screen door bangs shut and then Clint is coming to her with a black hoodie. He wraps it around her shoulders and says, "Hey, hey. Darcy, it's okay."

"I know." She flings her hands out in a helpless gesture. "I know."

"You can't let shit like that bother you. Everybody's always going to tell you what they think you need to be happy, and ninety-nine percent of it is bullshit."

"Only ninety-nine percent?"

"The other one percent is probably true." He squeezes her shoulders and presses a warm kiss to her temple. "Are you happy?"

She actually takes a moment to think about it. She has an interesting job with a bunch of kickass people she actually likes, and she contributes, in her own way, to saving the world every day. She has a nice apartment in Brooklyn with a mostly absent roommate, and a boss who, despite seeming like the most uptight guy in the universe, actually understands the need for Pop Tart breaks and accepts that occasionally Darcy will shout, "I love this song!" and start singing out loud at her desk.

Would she like a hot guy (and not just any hot guy, but Clint specifically, though she's trying not to focus on that) to come along and have regular and spectacular sex with her, and then cuddle on the couch while drinking hot chocolate and watching Year Without a Santa Claus? Sure, but she's only twenty-four. She has time. Mom and Dad were both twenty-eight when they got married.

"Yeah," she says. "But--"

He puts a finger to her lips, and normally, she hates that kind of paternalistic bullshit, but the shock of his touch makes it hard for her to come up with a quick, let alone witty, brush off.

"Then be happy." He tips her face up and puts his hands on her shoulders. "Close your eyes."

"What?"

"Just do it."

"Fine, but this better not be some weird lock Darcy out of the house trick," she says, laughing anxiously, and closes her eyes.

"You have to be present in the moment," he says. "Nothing else exists but the target, and tonight, the target is your happiness. And you're gonna hit that target dead center if you just take it easy and believe in yourself."

She breathes slowly, deeply, and listens to the sound of her own heartbeat. Then she opens her eyes and says, "That is such a load of horseshit."

"Maybe, but I had you going, didn't I?" He puts his arm around her and draws her up against his side. "I don't understand why you care so much about what that woman thinks of you, but I think I can say that even after only being here for a day, that your parents aren't like that at all. I don't understand why I'm even here, to be honest."

"I think we can safely blame Tony and the Rumpleminze," she says.

He huffs a soft laugh. "Sounds good to me."

"I just thought it would be easier to lie to everyone than to make something up and ask them to lie for me." Darcy looks down and fiddles with the zipper on the hoodie. "I guess you're trying to tell me I shouldn't have lied at all."

He shrugs. "Family makes you do crazy things. I understand that. But I think you've got a pretty good deal here. Maybe better than you know. They don't really deserve to be lied to like this."

She looks up at him, her head cocked inquisitively. "You think we should tell them?"

"Oh, hell, no. At least, not until after the pie."

That makes her laugh for real, and if it's a little shaky at first, it's okay. Clint's still got his arm wrapped around her and he's a warm and solid presence at her side when they go back into the house.

Lizzie and Mark are clearing the table since she and Clint set it, so she lets him steer her to the living room couch and then she curls up against him. Nobody says anything about her little tantrum--it's not the most dramatic thing that's ever happened at dinner--though her parents exchange unreadable glances when they join her and Clint in the living room.

"Here," Mom says, tossing something red and fuzzy at her. It jingles as it flies through the air, and Darcy catches it with a happy squeal.

"Jingle hat!" She shows it to Clint--it's a velvety Santa hat with a jingle bell embedded in the pompom on the top--and then she puts it on her head. It gives a happy little jingle every time she moves her head. Clint gives her a look that's mostly indulgence mixed in with disbelief, and she shakes her head so she can jingle at him. "You know what happens every time a bell rings." She bounces up off the couch, bad mood banished for the moment, and loads up the DVD player. "It's time for It's a Wonderful Life."

***

George Bailey is running through Bedford Falls yelling hello to the town when Mom decides it's time for coffee and dessert. Darcy hands off her glass of eggnog to Clint with a grateful smile, and he slugs it back and chases it with coffee. She shudders and he shrugs.

"S'good." He can't stop stuffing his face with cookies. "These are the best chocolate thumbprints I've ever had," he says around a mouthful of crumbs, grabbing another two off the plate.

"Maybe you should come live in New York and cook for the Avengers," Darcy says. "I bet I could convince my boss to hire you. And Tony would absolutely pay you."

Aunt Lucy looks up from her plate of lacy florentines, and for the first time in as long as Darcy can remember, she looks hesitant. "I hope they're treating you well there, Darcy. From what your mother tells me, they have you doing some very interesting work."

Darcy almost drops her spoon. "Yeah," she says. "I mean, a lot of it is boring stuff like making sure expense reports are filled out properly and in a timely fashion, Clint--"

He mutters, "Yeah, yeah," and waves a dismissive hand.

"But I'm learning a lot." She smiles. "They're a great bunch of people. And they love your cookies, Dad."

"Clearly a mark of superior taste and intellect," he says, raising his coffee mug in a salute.

They exchange gifts with Grandma and Aunt Lucy after that, the twins excited to finally be allowed to open something, and Darcy can't help smiling when Clint gives her a curious look. He puts his hand on the nape of her neck and squeezes gently, and she leans back against him with a cheery jingle.

"You okay?" he murmurs while Kevin and Billy are running their new trucks around the room.

"Yeah," she says. "I guess the Grinch's heart really did grow three sizes that day."

He laughs and presses another of those warm kisses to her temple. A girl could get used to that.

Aunt Lucy and Grandma pack up after that, though not before Grandma makes everyone, including Clint, give her some sugar before she goes.

Once they're gone, Darcy flops back down onto the couch like a puppet whose strings have been cut. "I am totally ready for bed," she says, yawning.

Lizzie is trying to chivvy the twins upstairs, promising that the sooner they go to bed, the sooner Santa will come.

"And you're not allowed to wake Grandma and Grandpa until six am. Six," Lizzie insists, "so you might as well stay in bed until then." She and Mom exchange rueful glances.

"And here are your Christmas pajamas," Mom says, handing her a Target shopping bag. "Clint's are in there as well." She gives him a warm smile. "I hope I got the right size."

"I'm sure they're fine," he answers. "Come on, Darcy." He takes her hand and yanks, but she's tired now. She's glad she's not a parent and doesn't have to stay up after all the kids are in bed to put presents under the tree.

"Carry me." She gives him the full-on pout in addition to the up-from-under look, and he sighs in resignation.

"Upsy-daisy." He slings her over his shoulder easily, and while she should be annoyed he's not cradling her gently in his arms, she really can't fault the view. "Night, everybody. Merry Christmas."

He dumps her on her bed and she pulls out her new pajamas and hands him the bag. "Meet me back here in fifteen minutes?" she says.

"Okay."

Darcy likes this year's pajamas--the pants are red and white striped, and the top is red with a giant candy cane on it. She puts the jingle hat back on and cues up Year Without a Santa Claus on her laptop.

Clint knocks and then barges in before she can answer. "What the hell kind of pajamas are these?" he asks, gesturing sharply at the red and black plaid flannel pants and the red long sleeved shirt. "Why are there penguins on my pajamas? And why are these penguins wearing Santa hats?"

"It's Christmas, Clint."

"I don't think the penguins celebrate!"

"Aw, I think it's cute."

"This from a woman dressed up as a candy cane."

Darcy twirls. "What do you think?"

"I admit, I was hoping for more Eartha Kitt and less Cindy Lou Who, but you look cute."

She ducks her head, lets her hair cover her blush. "Thanks." She gestures to his outfit. "So do you."

"Penguins, Darcy."

"This from a man who wanted to wear a magenta uniform."

"It was purple!"

"Is that really the argument you're going to make?" She shakes her head. "Whatever. You have to wear them. My mom bought them for you." She grabs her iPhone and takes a picture.

"No, you can't put that up on Facebook. I will never hear the end of it."

"You wanted to go fight supervillains dressed like a Dancing with the Stars reject, but penguins in their Christmas finery is a problem?" She clicks and the photo is out there on Twitter, Facebook, and email; she makes a special effort to text a link to Tony and Natasha, who will get the most mileage out of it.

He lunges but he's way too late, and she knows he knows, knows he's not even trying that hard, but he tackles her to the bed and she lets him, enjoys the feeling of his weight pressing her into the mattress. The bell on her hat jangles until he pulls it off and tosses it onto the night table. He uses one hand to tickle her and the other to try to get her iPhone, but she's pretty sure she's got the advantage here, because every time she rubs up against him, he freezes for a second, and while she hopes it's because he's as turned on as she is, she's afraid it's because he agreed to fake dating, but nothing more than that.

He's been handsier today, and she wonders if it's because he feels more comfortable with her family, or if he's forgetting that they're pretending. She is, a little, because she'd really like it to be real and she'd like to believe he does, too, but that way lies embarrassing encounters in the cafeteria when he finds out she likes him and he doesn't feel the same, so she squirms out from under him, enjoying the way his eyes flutter shut and he bites his lip when her boobs press up against his chest.

"It's time for Snow Miser," she says, grinning.

He grumbles and rolls into a sitting position, pulling a pillow into his lap. Score. "Yeah," he says. "Okay."

***

Darcy wakes with a jolt. She's under the covers and her laptop is sitting on the floor, with her iPod, earbuds cord wrapped neatly around it, on top. The clock says five forty-five in bright blue LED.

"Merry Christmas," Clint says from the doorway. "The kids have been up since about four."

Darcy remembers those days, remembers when having to let her parents sleep past six on Christmas morning was the worst punishment they could come up with, when she and Lizzie would sit downstairs and stare in amazement at the array of gifts that had appeared like magic under the tree, waiting for the clock to tick over so they could go and jump on Mom and Dad's bed and wish them a Merry Christmas at the top of their lungs. They had rarely actually made it to six, at least not until Darcy was well into her double digits.

Either Lizzie's trained the twins better or Clint's been running interference, letting the rest of them sleep.

She grins sleepily up at him and stretches. "Merry Christmas. You haven't been teaching them to throw knives, have you?"

"They did inform me that they're now two days older, but no. It's too dark out. We've been playing Nintendo."

"Awesome."

"Also, I made coffee."

She gets up and presses a kiss to his cheek. "You are the best fake boyfriend ever."

He puts an arm around her and squeezes. "I know."

She snags her iPod (her Christmas playlist is so much better than the stuff the local radio station plays, plus, no commercials) and her Santa hat and says, "Let's go. There are presents to open."

"Not until six," he reminds her, which means he totally deserves it when she swats him on the ass. He jumps and lets out a little undignified squeak that is absolutely the most adorable thing he's ever done.

Downstairs, the kids are already bouncing around like they've had too much sugar, and Darcy eyes the ridiculous spread of gifts with just the slightest touch of exhilaration, even though she knows there's only one or two under the tree that are actually for her.

She plugs the iPod into the speaker base and scrolls through her playlists, stopping when she gets to "Merry Christmas, Darcy," which was not on there last night before she went to bed.

"I made you a mixtape," Clint says helpfully.

"Oh," she says faintly, blinking back tears as she scrolls through the songs. "Thank you." She uses the time she spends looking for the holiday mix she made to get herself under control. "And it's not the eighties anymore, Clint. We call them playlists in the twenty-first century."

He shrugs awkwardly and shoves his hands in his pockets (and why, she wonders fleetingly, do men's pajama pants come with pockets, while women's don't?). "Whatever."

She's about to go for it, just drag him under the mistletoe--now hanging from the lintel between the dining room and the living room--when the rest of the adults come straggling down the stairs.

The morning devolves into an orgy of ripped wrapping paper and shrieks of delight (not all of them seven-year-old boyish). The boys are ecstatic with their personalized, autographed photos of Captain America and Iron Man, along with the limited edition action figures (Darcy is declared the best aunt in the universe, a conclusion she can only agree with), and the Avengers Lego set that Clint got them. Mom and Lizzie admire the necklace she bought for herself but tagged as from Clint, and her parents both like the gifts Clint bought them (fancy hot chocolate for Mom, a bottle of single malt scotch for Dad). Clint looks pleased at the new arm guard he bought himself and then gave to Darcy to give to him, but now she's going to have to come up with something real, something meaningful.

"This is good coffee," Mom says, interrupting Darcy's increasingly frantic thoughts. Mom's got her hands wrapped tightly around her second mug of the morning and a sleepy smile on her face. "You should bring Clint around more often, Darcy."

"There could be cookies in it for you," Dad adds.

Clint gives her this smile like he's got a secret, which, well, they kind of do, but this looks like one he's keeping from her, and says, "It's up to Darcy."

Her heart does that fluttery-stuttery thing again, and she's pretty sure it shows on her face but she tries to play it cool. "I think that could be arranged."

Once all the gifts are unwrapped, they move into the dining room for breakfast. "I can make bacon and eggs if you want," Dad says, "or we could just cut into those pies."

A chorus of "pie" goes up from everyone else, and Clint looks like he just got the best Christmas present ever. "Pie for breakfast?" He puts a hand on Darcy's back, which is warm through the thin cotton of her pajama top. "Oh man, forget about coming back. I may just never leave."

Everybody laughs, and Darcy leans back into the touch, brain swimming with possibilities.

After breakfast is usually time for assembling previously unassembled toys or, in Darcy's case, napping, but today she gets herself showered and dressed quickly and drags Clint out on what she euphemistically calls "errands." Everyone but Clint gives her a knowing look; Clint just grabs a handful of Mrs. Vincenzo's honey balls and then lets himself be dragged into town, which is mostly empty, as nearly everything is closed.

The bench is unoccupied, so she doesn't have to wait to pull out the journal and scribble her note. She hands it to Clint, who raises his eyebrows before reading it out loud. "Dear Clint, I like you. Do you like me? Check one: Y? MFY? Less than three, Darcy." He looks up at her. "What is less than three?"

"It's a heart, dumbass."

"A heart?"

"Turned on its side." She tries to grab the book back to show him, but he doesn't let her have it.

"Ah, I see now," he says, with a smug grin that makes her realize he knows, he had to have known all along. "I can also see that my answer had better be MFY if I ever want to see any cookies again."

Her smile is so wide she feels like it's going to split her face in half. "Clint--"

"I know," he says, and kisses her.

His hands are warm (and slightly sticky) against the chilled skin of her cheeks, his mouth is hot when it opens over hers, and the touch of his tongue is electric. He tastes of honey and sweet fried dough. She shifts forward so she can climb into his lap and really get into it. He unzips her coat so he can get his mouth on her neck, and the brush of his stubble makes her shiver more than the cold air. Heat blossoms under her skin, pooling low in her belly and wet between her legs, and she rocks against him experimentally. He pushes up against her in response and they get a nice slow burn going. She murmurs vague nonsense sounds into his mouth and runs her hands through his hair, which is soft against her palms. He sucks a hickey onto her collarbone and she doesn't care that everyone will know what they've been doing when they get back. She wants everyone to know, wants to tell them that it might have started out as an act, but it's real now, and she's going to hang onto it with both hands.

They stay on the bench, exploring each other with hands and mouths, until Darcy's shivering from the chilly wind instead of the feel of Clint's lips against her skin.

"Come on," he says. "I don't want you to end up too sick to be any fun."

"Your obvious care touches my heart," she answers, but still, she can't stop smiling even though her mouth feels sore and swollen and her whole body is tingling. "I can't wait until Christmas is over so we can go home and have sex."

He stops and looks at her, head cocked in puzzlement. "I thought your parents were okay with us having sex in your room."

She grimaces. "Maybe? But do you really want to with them just down the hall?"

He laughs and pulls her into his arms. "Not really. Maybe next year."

And she feels a little thrill that this is just the start, that things are going to get better. She smiles into his kiss and when she pulls back she says, "It's a date."

They get back to the house, flushed and kiss-swollen and laughing, in time for the mid-morning cookie break. Forever after, Dad's preserves cookies are going to be known as Clint and Darcy's Best Christmas Ever cookies.

end

~*~