Across the street from SHIELD headquarters, there's a small, easily overlooked bakery that's been quietly chugging along for over three quarters of a century. The stores on either side of it have changed almost too many times to count—hardware, toys, clothing, a gym, books, and so on—but even as the facade fades and cracks, through a great depression and several smaller ones, as the world around it changes, the Broken Bread Bakery stays the same.
“It's about tradition,” Marty Lewis tells Nick one day while she's bagging up his order. “We keep things in the family here, from management to recipes. My father opened the shop, I've worked here since I was a girl, and one of my grandkids will take over when I'm gone.”
“Hopefully that won't be for a long time,” Nick says with a grin that would probably make more than a few of his agents shit themselves with fear; Nick Fury isn't exactly known for his warm, fuzzy personality. Marty just pinches his cheek and gives him an extra blueberry muffin.
“Such a sweet boy,” she says. There's an oxygen tank tucked behind the counter that neither of them acknowledge and Marty's hands tremble when she clasps one of Nick's between them. “My Darling's rather high spirited, which is no fault of hers. She takes after me that way.”
Nick glances at a picture amid a sea of family photos on the wall of a much younger Marty, radiant and laughing in a star spangled USO outfit, and winks at her. “Lucky her.”
Marty twinkles up at him, blue eyes still bright, and squeezes his hand. “She's off at college right now and it's not a done deal that she's going to want to take over, though she's my first choice. But if she comes, you'll look after her for me, won't you?”
There's really nothing Nick can do but bend to kiss her cheek and say, “For you? Of course I will.”
Less than five months later, Marty's gone and Nick meets a cursing, sweating Darcy, glasses slipping down her nose and ripped jeans too tight for decency, as she tries to haul a desk up to the small apartment above the shop. He wrangles up a few agents who needed to be taken down a peg or two and has them take over the heavy lifting while he and Darcy eat half the display case and trade stories about Marty.
It's not the same as before, not even close, but Darcy has her grandmother's mouth, eyes, and banana bread recipe.
Two Years Later
Darcy is standing at the front counter drizzling a lemon glaze over a batch of blueberry crumble squares when the bell over the shop door dings. The guy standing there is fit, handsome without being memorable, with the barest tip of a scar peeking out from under his shirt collar. Darcy's never seen him before in her life, but the nervous, squirrelly darting of his eyes is so instantly recognizable that there might as well be a flashing neon sign over his head saying 'NEW SHIELD AGENT, PLEASE DON'T HURT ME.'
“Phil's order is right there,” Darcy says, tipping her head toward the box of cheese danishes and oatmeal toffee cookies—Clint must be back from whatever 'business trip' he was way on this time—and wipes her hands off on her apron to pour two cups of the house blend.
“Phil?” The guy edges closer to the counter. It looks like he's casing the place for threats, and Darcy wants to pat him on the head. The younger agents are always so cute, thinking every errand Nick and Phil send them on is a trap. (It's a whole other story on the rare occasions when someone in HR gets drunk and assigns an agent or two to Clint, but Nick and Phil are pretty safe. Usually. Sometimes. Whatever, if you're part of an organization called something like SHIELD, you'd better be prepared to watch your back.)
“Coulson,” she clarifies. She eyes him for a moment, then bags up a blueberry crumble square and adds it to the box of treats and coffee cups on the counter. He looks like a blueberry crumble kind of person. He blinks, probably confused since he didn't actually order anything, then starts to reach for his wallet. Darcy waves the money away. “You look like you could use the pick me up,” she says with a grin. “And I can add it to Phil's tab.”
That startles a small laugh out of the agent, his mouth jerking a little like he isn't used to doing the action. His smile is a little rusty and a lot wry when he says, “Most of us were starting to think he only had the one name.”
“Yeah, our Phil's a regular Cher,” Darcy says.
Another laugh, this one over almost before it's started, and the junior agent clears his throat and looks away. He tries to put on one of Phil's poker faces, but it doesn't quite make it. “If you say so, Miss Lewis.”
“Darcy,” she corrects. “The only person who gets away with calling me Miss Lewis is Nick.”
That gets her another blank look.
“Nick. About this tall,” she says waving her hand over her head. “Looks like he just stepped out of The Matrix and lost a fight with a newly sharpened pencil?”
The agent blanches. “You mean Director Fury? You call him Nick?”
Darcy laughs and does go up on her toes to pat his head this time. “Go forth, little agent, and save the world from giant, radioactive lizards before you sprain your brain.”
“You're insane,” he says, equal parts awe and dismay coloring his voice, and when Darcy winks at him, he takes a half step back.
“So I've been told. I think I get away with it because of my brownies.” She stacks box, bag, and cups in the agent's hands and starts steering him toward the door. “Top secret recipe.” A pause to look at him sadly and pet his shoulder as she opens the door. “Sadly, you just don't have the clearance for it.”
“Right,” the agent says slowly, and Darcy smiles brightly at him and lets the door swing closed in his face.
Natasha, who's tucked into a dim, easily overlooked corner near the back of the shop, snorts into her coffee and flips to the next page of her magazine. Darcy refuses to look and see what she's reading, because she doesn't want to squash her firm belief that it's something awesome like Assassins Monthly.
Darcy leans back against the counter and pulls her phone out. She says, “I give him two weeks. He looks like a screamer,” and taps out a text to Phil that says, Stop tormenting the rookies. You're going to make one of them jump in front of a train one of these days, and that would just make an awful mess.
“He has a training session with Clint this afternoon,” Natasha says. She takes a dainty bite of her muffin. “He'll be lucky to last the rest of the day.”
“Put it on the board,” Darcy says, nodding toward the white board stuck behind one the display cases that tracks most of SHIELD's underground betting, and goes back to glazing her blueberry crumble squares. The shop is warm and fragrant and quiet except for the slight squeak of a dry erase marker, and Darcy smiles, her smile only getting bigger when her phone buzzes in her pocket.
I am not 'tormenting the rookies'. I've just been letting Clint borrow them.
Darcy laughs, replies, Same difference, Madonna , and settles in for another busy day.
Years of amateur and professional baking have apparently all been leading to this. Yeah, don't ask me. I don't know either.
There's a shift in the bakery, something so minute that it shouldn't even be noticeable, but Darcy, who's elbows deep in the flour bin, pulls back so quickly that a cloud of white powder erupts around her. It clings to her clothes and hair and eyelashes, and she can't even begin to care, because the customers who don't make the bell go off are always her favorites.
“Bastard!” Darcy smacks her hands on her apron and sprints out of the back. Clint's standing there with a shit eating grin and a few new stitches on his forehead, and Darcy punishes him for that by hugging him and covering his black clothes with white.
Clint just laughs and wraps his arms around her waist, lifting her up in an effortless swinging hug that makes her shriek and cling to him. She shoves his shoulder when he puts her down, knees a little wobbly and more amused than annoyed when he doesn't budge at all, and that's when she notices tall, blond, and wide eyed standing behind him.
“Hello,” she says, stretching the word out long and sweet like taffy. She lets go of Clint's bicep and wipes her hand off a little better on one of the few patches of shirt he has left that's more black than gray, then holds it out to the new guy. “And what do we have here? Clinton, you're not fooling around on Phil, are you?” She arches an eyebrow in Clint's direction and forces a straight face. “Because he'll shoot you. Remember the thing with the hand model last fall? When he shot you?”
Clint's hands are in his back pockets, his spine curved into a slouch, and he's slowly rocking back and forth on his heels, the very picture of energy at rest. “Nah,” he says. There's a hint of a Midwestern accent hiding in his words that might be real or might be an act, but Darcy likes it because she's only ever heard it show up here and at Phil and Clint's apartment. “I'm just doing the 'this is how you survive SHIELD without losing your mind' tour. Fury's thinking about adding it to the official orientation. And he did not shoot me because he thought I was fooling around on him. That was a completely unrelated bullet, put through my leg for completely legitimate reasons.”
“Sure it was. Just remember, you can't get out of an abusive relationship until you've actually acknowledged that it's abusive,” she says, her serious face dissolving into a giggle when Clint sticks his tongue out at her.
“Um,” the soldier—and come on, he may be in civies, but there's no way he's not a soldier—says and finally takes her hand with a surprisingly gentle grasp. His jaw works for a moment, then he flushes and ducks to press a kiss to the back of her hand. He looks a little more certain afterward, just a touch more settled in his skin, and some of the nerves melt away from the edges of his tentative smile when he says, “I'm Steve.”
“Oh, you're adorable is what you are,” Darcy says and puts her free hand to her chest. “I'm Darcy and you can have a free muffin.”
“I don't get free muffins,” Clint says. “Why don't I get free muffins?”
“Because you're lucky I still let you in here after the incident with the flame thrower,” Darcy says, grinning at Steve to try and pull him in on the joke. He still doesn't look completely comfortable, but his answering smile is steady enough, and Darcy waves them toward a couple of squishy armchairs and goes to get Steve a chocolate chip muffin and a few oatmeal toffee cookies for Clint.
Steve's staring at the wall of photos when she gets back over to them. “I recognize this place,” he says, even though his eyebrows are drawn together like he isn't completely sure he does.
“We've been around for forever, it seems like.” Darcy nods at some of the older pictures as she tucks herself into a free chair, careful to keep the worst of the flour from smudging the upholstery. “My granny ran the place for over fifty years, and before that her dad was in charge. That's her there,” she says, pointing at the picture of Marty that she'd always been especially proud of from her USO days. Darcy looks at it fondly, leaning up a little to touch her fingertips to a corner of the frame. “She was about my age then. Gorgeous, wasn't she?”
There's a silence that stretches almost uncomfortably long, and when Darcy turns back to Steve, there's a complicated, bruised look around his eyes. He swallows with a dry click, his Adam's apple bobbing sharply, and his voice is thick when he says, “You look just like her.” From anyone else, Darcy would think it was a pickup line, but Steve's eyes are too shiny, the corners of his mouth too tight, and he looks downright lost when he follows it up with, “And you have her laugh.”
“Oh,” Darcy says, looking between the picture and Steve. Marty's with a trio of other girls, their blue and red skirts short (gray on gray in the photo, but Darcy has the costume tucked away in back of her closet and the colors are still bright despite their age), white gloves stretching up to cover arms to their elbows, starred hats tipped jauntily on top of curled hair. The camera's caught them in a laugh that's so infectious just looking at it makes Darcy's lips twitch up without her permission, and they're so incredibly alive and free and happy that it makes her breath catch in her throat.
And there, almost unnoticeable in the background, is a sliver of a man's face, half turned away as he speaks to someone else, the very barest curve of an iconic round shield sneaking in at the edge of the frame.
“Oh,” she says again, a little louder this time. Clint's watching them with the tiniest beginning of a smirk, but Darcy keeps looking at Steve. “Oh, fuck. You're Steve Rogers, aren't you?”
Steve's—Captain freaking America's— eyes snap back to hers, and he's floundering, eyes bright and mouth gaping, and Darcy's at a loss, so she defaults to her normal reaction.
She pushes his muffin into his hand and closes his fingers around it.
“Eat,” she says. “And then you can tell me everything granny never wanted me to know about her 'wild youth'.”
He looks at the muffin, glances over at Clint, who just quirks an eyebrow and takes a bite of his cookie, and takes a careful bite. He still looks lost, and Darcy lets her fingers rest on his armrest so that they're just touching his elbow, and after a few long, painful moments, some of the tightness goes out of his shoulders.
“Okay, Clint,” Darcy says without taking her eyes off of Steve. “For this? You can have a free muffin.”
“Sweet,” he says, and bounces to his feet. Darcy would yell at him for going behind the counter to pour himself a glass of pineapple lemonade, but she figures he's earned a little wiggle room. Well, for the rest of the day, maybe. “If you could not tell Fury that you know, that would be great.”
Darcy huffs and leans closer to Steve, pressing their forearms together on top of the armrest since he didn't pull away before. He tenses for a heartbeat, then leans almost imperceptibly closer, and something in Darcy's chest clenches and makes her want to wrap him up in blankets and feed him forever. “Leave Nick to me,” she tells Clint. “Last time he tried to yell at me, he ended up adopting a kitten instead.”
“You're a scary, scary woman,” Clint says, one hundred percent approving. “Not quite to Natasha's level, but definitely scary.”
“It runs in the family,” Steve tells him. There are chocolate crumbs on his chin that somehow manage to make him look a little less breakable.
Darcy just grins at them both, unaccountably pleased with everything this day chooses to be.
“Come back any time you want,” Darcy says, tugging Steve down by the shoulder so that she can peck his cheek and press a box of cupcakes into his hands. “You're always welcome, even if you don't buy anything.”
Steve rubs the back of his neck and gives her a little half grin. “I'd be happy to, ma'am,” he says, and Darcy can't even get annoyed over being ma'amed, which has to be his real super power.
“Are you free tonight,” Clint asks, bumping his arm against her shoulder. “Phil's making chili and he DVRed the latest Toddlers and Tiaras. If you don't watch it with him, that means I have to.”
“Sorry,” Darcy says. “It's date night.”
Clint makes a face at Steve and says, “You still haven't dumped the accountant yet?”
“Don't call him that,” Darcy says, wrinkling her nose. “You make it sound like a bad thing when you call him that.”
“He's an accountant,” Clint tells Steve, like he's telling him that her boyfriend works for HYDRA or something. “He's boring.”
“And isn't it great that nobody's making you date him.” Darcy flashes her biggest smile and shoves them out the door. “Buh-bye now.”
“Boring,” Clint calls at her as he starts to cross the street backwards, Steve jerking him out of the way before he can step in front of a cab. “Boring!”
Darcy flips him off and retreats back to the kitchen to finish mixing the dry ingredients for the raspberry shortcake she has planned for that afternoon. After all, she thinks, it's not like everyone can spend their lives saving the world, and there's nothing wrong with being a little bit boring, right?
“Nope,” Darcy says, dancing back behind the counter where she's safely out of reach. “Not a chance in hell, buddy.”
Tony pulls a face that's one degree away from a pout and Darcy plants her free hand on her hip and dangles his coffee over the trash can.
“If you lay one finger on my espresso machine, I will ban you. I will ban you so hard that the illegitimate child you probably don't know you have will feel it all the way to the tip of his or her toes. Your great-great-great grandchildren will be hanging out in the future, feel a shiver go down their backs, and they will say, 'Wow, that is one gorram nasty banning.' Do not test me, Stark.”
“You know,” Tony says as he takes a step back from the counter, “most people would kill to have me offer to upgrade something for them. I get paid truly ridiculous amounts of money for what I'm offering to do for you for free.”
“Most people haven't had you 'modify' their oven and nearly had their head taken off because of it,” Darcy says and opens her hand until only her thumb and index finger are keeping the coffee from dropping.
Tony opens his mouth like he's going to protest, pauses with a finger lifted in the air, then lets it fall and closes his mouth. He shrugs. “Point taken.”
“Chair,” Darcy says, pointing him toward the corner table where Pepper is snickering into her apple turnover.
“Chocolate rum cupcake,” Tony asks, pulling out his puppy dog eyes. Darcy rolls her eyes and passes his coffee back to him.
“If you sit down and stop making the other customers nervous, sure.”
“Could buy the entire building with less hassle than this,” Tony mutters and Darcy throws a sugar packet at the back of his head.
“Just you try. I own the building and Nick had Natasha go after the last guy who tried to force me out of it.”
Tony sighs noisily, an entire thesis on exasperation written in the set line of his shoulders. “You've been giving her lessons, haven't you,” he says to Pepper as he settles into the seat across from her. “You're a terrible traitor, teaching the enemy all your tricks.”
Pepper just takes a bite of her turnover and hums happily.
Darcy motions for Barbara to take Pepper another turnover when she takes Tony his cupcake, then turns back to the espresso machine. She pokes at it and it emits an alarming amount of steam, lets out a hiccuping hiss, and sprays her apron with a stream of lukewarm milk. Darcy eyes the espresso machine suspiciously.
“He already got to you, didn't he,” she asks, and in the murky reflection of its chrome finish, she can see Tony slipping what looks like a wrench into his jacket pocket. “I hope you know I'm totally going to bill you for this,” she calls over her shoulder.
“You wouldn't have to if you'd just let me fix it,” Tony says. Darcy arches an eyebrow at Pepper, who scrunches her mouth to the side and shrugs, and she sighs, because there's no way this is a good idea.
“If I see a single laser or if it starts talking or developing a personality, I will totally make your life as uncomfortable as I possibly can.”
Tony snorts, but he bounces up to his feet and darts across the shop. It's like giving her five year old nephew a toy, Darcy thinks, and then has to immediately wipe that thought from her mind, because it's fucking scary to think of Shawn growing up to be Tony.
“What would you do, get Natasha to harass me? Because I'm pretty certain she already does that for fun.”
“No,” Darcy says, crossing her arms over her chest and smirking. “But remember the thing with Nick and the purple leggings?”
Tony pauses and looks up at her, completely wide eyed. “That was you?”
Darcy just whistles innocently and winks at him as she passes him on her way to the kitchen.
“I thought we agreed you were going to throw those out,” Jesse says. Darcy glances at his reflection behind her in the mirror as she's fixing her eyeliner. He's looping a plain, shiny blue tie around his neck, not a stripe or check or hint of any kind of interesting pattern in sight, and looking at her behind with disapproval. Which, what even. Darcy has a fabulous behind, the kind of behind that inspires spontaneous sonnets and sexy spankings. This is not a behind that deserves to be disapproved of.
“No,” Darcy says. She smooths on a little more eyeliner and wriggles a bit in her comfy, ripped jeans. Yeah, those fit just right. “You thought I should throw them out, and I thought you should worry about what goes on your body and leave mine to me.”
Jesse heaves a sigh—the one that means he thinks he's being reasonable that always grates on Darcy's nerves a little bit—and comes up behind her to put his hands on her waist. “I'm just trying to be helpful, Darling.”
“I like these jeans,” Darcy says, ducking out of the way when he tries to kiss the side of her neck. “They're comfortable and perfectly broken in, and I've had them forever.”
Jesse's smile goes rigid and plastic looking. “Yes, I can see that. The holes attest to the their age and they seem rather molded to your figure. I'm just concerned that they...” He trails off, and when Darcy turns to arch an eyebrow at him, he shrugs and says with a trace of insincere apology in his voice, “They make you look somewhat low class.”
“And we can't have that,” Darcy says flatly, stung even though she knew it was coming. Clint keeps threatening to hang out on the building across the street from Jesse's office and use him as target practice, and sometimes Darcy doesn't quite know why she keeps stopping him.
“Don't be like that,” Jesse says. He's in her closet, rummaging through her hangers, and Darcy bites her tongue and reminds herself that pretty much everyone who isn't Clint agrees that he's one of the good ones. “Where's that sundress I got you for your birthday? You look charming in that.”
“I'm not wearing a sundress to bake in. It's such a non option that I shouldn't even have to be saying it. Again,” Darcy says, deliberately unclenching her teeth so she doesn't sound strangled. “So we are not having this argument.”
“I'm not trying to argue,” Jesse says, obviously hurt, and Darcy knows he means well, which makes it hard to stay mad at him. “I just want to help you look a little more respectable.”
And then he goes and says things like that.
“You're being an asshole right now,” Darcy says. “And what's worse is that you don't even realize it.”
Jesse goes from hurt to stricken, and Darcy sighs and lets him put an arm around her waist and kiss her cheek when he says, “I'm sorry. You know I'd never intentionally hurt you, right?”
Darcy says, “Yeah, I know,” and doesn't turn her head away when he brushes his lips over hers in a chaste kiss.
“But you'll wear the sundress when you meet me and the guys after you close up the shop tonight, right?”
Darcy drops her forehead on his shoulder, ready to agree, because it'll just be easier than the alternative, and that's when she happens to turn her head enough to look out the window and see the sky ripping open and hoards of flying creatures pouring out.
“Oh fuck,” Darcy says.
“Really, Darcy, language,” says Jesse, but that's easy to miss, because Darcy already has him by the wrist and is running for the stairs, her other hand frantically pressing the panic button Phil gave her disguised as a charm bracelet for her last birthday.
Sorry for the complete lack of anything actually happening in this chapter. Things will start to pick up in the next one.
There's a black SUV already sitting at the curb when Darcy and Jesse hit the street, door open and a hand sticking out that Darcy doesn't think twice about grabbing.
“What do you think you're doing,” Jesse balks and tries to pull her back when the agent it's attached to yanks her in. “Vans and strangers, Darcy, do you not know anything?”
Darcy looks over her shoulder at him and snaps, “Do you really think this is the time for that? They're friends, they're trying to help us, and I don't have time to explain all the ways you're being stupid, so either you get in the god damned car already or I'm telling them to leave you behind.”
He blanches, clearly ready to argue, but then something explodes closely enough that Darcy can feel the tremor in the entire SUV around her, and his face gets impossibly paler. He gets in the car and says faintly, “Language.”
“Right,” Darcy says, turning back to the agent, who, oh, hey, is her blueberry crumble friend. Looks like she lost the pool on that one. She grins at him, because it makes him look uncomfortable and it's the little things that make everything worthwhile when the world is literally blowing up around you. “Am I allowed to know where we're going?”
“You don't know,” Jesse asks, his voice rising to almost hysterical heights. Darcy puts her hand on his knee and digs her nails in. There just isn't time for that right now.
“Would I have asked if I did?” She ignores his sputtering and smiles at Agent Blueberry. “Well?”
“You're supposed to be out of the country,” he says. He doesn't quite have Phil's bland disapproval down yet, but he's made a lot of progress since she met him. Darcy internally wipes away a single tear, because her little agent's growing up.
“Is that what those tickets were for?” Darcy crosses her legs and leans back in her seat, hands bracing hard on her armrest when another explosion rocks them onto two wheels for a moment. “I had a big catering order due last night. There was no way I could have made that flight.”
“You're making this one,” Agent Blueberry says and leans forward to say something to the driver that Darcy misses. Whatever it was, it makes him floor the gas pedal, the SUV jerking forward violently enough that Darcy bumps her head on the headrest. Agent Blueberry settles back down into his seat and tips his head at them. “Miss Potts is currently boarding Stark Industries' private jet and has agreed to take you with her.”
“Aww, Pepper,” Darcy says fondly. “She's a good egg. I'm gonna make her a muffin basket.”
“Maybe include some of those pumpkin scones Agent Sullivan brought in last week,” Agent Blueberry suggests.
“Oh, did you guys like those?” Darcy smiles. “It was a new recipe and they didn't sell all that great, so I wasn't sure if I'd make them again.”
“No, they were amazing. Maybe if you tried selling them in the fall?”
“Huh,” Darcy says, because that kind of makes a lot of sense. “Yeah, if I--”
“Wait, you actually know Pepper Potts?” Jesse breaks in, gaping unattractively. “The CEO of Stark Industries? One of the most powerful people in the country whose company has sent my resume back six times, the last time with a note that said 'Seriously, this is just getting embarrassing' on it? That Pepper Potts?”
Of course that's the part of this whole day that Jesse's having the most trouble believing, Darcy thinks. “Yep,” Darcy says. “And she likes my jeans.”
Agent Blueberry gives her a discreet once over out of the corner of his eye. “It's a good look on you. Very grunge chic.”
“Thank you,” Darcy says primly, then winks at him and inwardly preens a little when his ears color up.
Jesse just crosses his arms and glares at them both.
“Oh, good, you made it,” Pepper says, glancing away from the cabin's television to stretch a hand out to Darcy and offer a quick, distracted smile. Darcy takes her hand, lets Pepper pull her down into the seat next to her, and leans against her shoulder when a blur of red smears across the screen.
“Thanks for the lift.” Darcy squeezes Pepper's hand. Her face is smooth, the picture definition of unflappable, but her nails are sharp against the back of Darcy's hand and getting sharper with every breath.
“Miss Potts,” Jesse says, awkwardly sinking into the seat on Darcy's other side. “It's a pleasure to finally meet you, though the circumstances leave something to be desired.”
“Not now.” Darcy glares at him, because she can see him pulling up his resume on his smart phone.
“Is this the accountant,” asks Pepper. She looks away from the television again, closing her eyes briefly when the screen flashes with an explosion that they can feel through the plane's wheels as it takes off.
“You and Clint seriously need to stop hanging out,” Darcy says. She drops her other hand over Pepper's wrist and smooths her thumb across the rapid rabbit beat of her pulse. “There has to be someone else you can have Scrabble nights with.”
“He played asphyxiation last week. Do you know how hard it is to find someone who can play asphyxiation in Scrabble? Very hard.” Pepper lifts a glass of water to her mouth, though Darcy doesn't think she actually drinks any of it. “Does your accountant realize he only has one shoe on?”
“I wasn't going to mention it.”
“What?” Jesse looks at his feet, goes strawberry red, and slumps a little deeper into his seat.
“Are those Scooby Doo socks?” A slim, pretty woman leans around Pepper and looks down at Jesse's foot. Her eyebrows are climbing so high that Darcy thinks they might disappear into her hairline. “That's a daring choice.”
“She hid my dress socks.” Jesse's definitely sulking now, and Darcy's going to pay for this later, she knows it, but for now she just smiles with as many teeth as possible. It's not a nice smile.
“He called my peach cobbler soggy and tasteless.”
Pepper sits up a little straighter and gives Jesse a long, unimpressed look. “I question your taste level, as well as your judgment.”
“And even if it was true, that's not the kind of thing you really want to go around saying to someone who has access to your underwear,” the other woman says. She narrows her eyes at Darcy. “You look familiar.”
“Darcy Lewis,” Darcy says and disentangles one of her hands from Pepper's so that she can offer it for a handshake.
“Jane Foster,” the other woman says, reaching across Pepper to pump Darcy's hand once. “You didn't happen to major in astrophysics in college, did you?”
“Nope,” Darcy says with a growing grin. She lets go of Jane's hand and slings an arm around Pepper, who's looking at the television again and shaking almost imperceptibly against Darcy's side. “But I think I might have applied to be your research assistant during my last semester?”
“Oh,” Jane says and points at her. “The political science major, right? I was actually going to offer you the position. And not just because you were the only applicant who could even try to claim that what they studied was science. I ended up with an English major who always burnt the coffee. Why did you withdraw your application?”
“Eh,” Darcy says and lifts one shoulder in a half shrug. “We lost my granny and I dropped out of college to run her bakery.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry.” She looks stricken, one hand fluttering at the base of her neck and her eyes wide, and Darcy waves away her concern.
“No, nothing like that. She just took off to Florida and refuses to take our calls.” Darcy laughs and tugs on a bit of Pepper's hair that's escaping from her bun. “We get emails from her every week or so, but she says she's spent decades with the family and wants some time with people whose stories she hasn't heard ten thousand times.”
“She's basically insane,” Jesse mumbles. Darcy kicks him.
“Why are you even with him,” Pepper asks.
Darcy shrugs and says, “He has his good points,” because the more she can distract Pepper from the way Iron Man is getting his ass handed to him right now, the better. “Granted, it's not so easy to remember what they are right now, but he does have them.”
“You're not the easiest person to be with either, you know,” Jesse says, then immediately shrinks when all three of them turn matching glares on him.
“I'm going to chock that up to you having a stressful day,” Darcy says generously. Jesse huffs and starts scrolling through his phone.
“It's not a day I ever want to live again,” Pepper says so quietly that Darcy doesn't think anyone but her or Jane hears it. Jane slips her hand into Pepper's free one and holds on.
For several long, tense minutes, they watch the explosions, the violence, the insanity, and even though she saw the beginning with her own eyes, Darcy still has trouble believing that she's watching the news and not some Joss Whedon movie.
Then Jane leans forward, points at a really, really ridiculously good looking wannabe bodybuilder who's flying around in what looks like an out of season Halloween costume and swinging a giant hammer, and says, “Huh. I think I had a one night stand with that guy last year in New Mexico.”
“Nice,” Darcy says and discreetly high fives her behind Pepper's head.
They're passing over Oklahoma when the portal closes, and Pepper melts back into her chair, closes her eyes, and calmly says, “There will be an entire Wikipedia page devoted to the new and creative way I'm going to kill that man.”
“Which one,” Darcy asks, combing Pepper's bangs back off of her forehead. The blocked off back of the cabin is empty except for the four of them—Jane's been on her phone for the last half hour talking what sounds like gibberish with someone from SHIELD and Jesse's riveted to the footage that's being replayed, one hand idly tapping at his phone and the other tangled with Darcy's—and Darcy thinks that's the only reason Pepper lets herself really lean into the touch as much as she does.
Pepper waves a lofty hand in the air and says, “All of them. Does it really matter? I'll kill all of them and laugh while I do it, because they are horrible bastards who are probably going to get keys to the city for being stupid and reckless and too damn dangerous to themselves and others.”
“I have a basement,” Darcy says thoughtfully. “And I know where we could get a lot of duct tape.”
“No sound proofing, though, and your neighbors are close,” Jesse points out, swallowing hard when a particularly torn up stretch of street is shown. “You'll need gags or something to paralyze their vocal chords.”
“We'll leave that part to you,” Darcy says while Pepper opens one eye just enough to give Jesse a disbelieving look. She squeezes his hand and doesn't pull away when he absently lifts hers to his mouth for a quick kiss. “The hardware store is closer to your place than mine.”
“It might not be anymore,” Jane says, dropping back down into her seat, a deep furrow forming between her eyebrows. “The city's going to be cleaning up for a long time after this.”
“What, uh,” Darcy clears her throat and forces herself to ask, “What's the death count so far?”
“Inconclusive,” Jesse says a little too quickly, which probably means he's trying to protect her again. Just this once, Darcy lets him.
Pepper books them rooms for the night in the nicest hotel Darcy's ever stepped foot in. She half expects the concierge to toss her out on her ass—and from the pinched look on his face as he takes in her jeans that are more holes than whole, berry stained sweater, and open gaping, the battle not to is one he only narrowly wins—but instead she ends up in a suite that's bigger than her entire apartment. Jesse collapses down on the bed, long limbs sprawled out over the sides, and when Darcy sits down on the edge of the mattress, he catches the hem of her sweater and tugs.
“Hey,” he says quietly.
Darcy leans back so that the back of his fingers brush against the bare skin right above her waistline. “Hey.”
“So, you know how sometimes I'm an asshole?” He tugs on her sweater again, and Darcy falls back onto the bed beside him, rolling until she's tucked up against his side.
“Oh, not that I've ever noticed,” she says dryly. She bites the side of his chest, the ticklish spot below where his arm meets his torso, and Jesse jerks against her.
“I'm really subtle about it.” Jesse presses a kiss to the top of her head and strokes his fingers down the line of her neck. “I'm sorry. I fucked up today, and I'm so sorry.”
Darcy pinches below his belly button where he's going just a little pudgy and says, “You should be.”
Jesse pulls her closer and kisses the corner of her mouth, soft and sweet. “I am. Of course you should wear whatever you want. You could wear a dress made from a newspaper and still look amazing.”
“Well, I know that,” Darcy says and tips her head back in a silent request for neck kisses. Jesse obliges and trails hot, open mouthed kisses down the front of her throat to nip at her clavicle. “Does this mean you'll stop ragging on the jeans?”
“If I can keep being the one to take them off of you” Jesse promises. “I think they're partially my fault anyway. I swear half the holes in them are from me clawing them off of you to get at your skin.” He flicks open the button of her pants with a practiced twist of his wrist and slides his hand beneath the waistband to curl his fingers around her bare hip.
“Diabolical.” Darcy shivers at his touch and lifts up off of the bed so that he can strip the jeans off of her. “So you are plotting to destroy my jeans? You fiend.”
“You've uncovered my evil plot,” Jesse says, and Darcy can feel the twitch of his smile against her shoulder. He's stretching the hell out of her collar, but she figures that means he can't complain about being seen with her in that either now. “Is this the part where I reveal all the details until Pepper Potts comes in and beats me with one of her frankly alarming high heels?”
Darcy laughs and pulls her sweater off. It gets tangled around her arms, but Jesse yanks and she twists, and then she's free with Jesse laughing over her and looking closer to eighteen than twenty-eight despite the fine webbing of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. “She really doesn't like you,” Darcy says and hooks a leg up over Jesse's hip. “You're going to have to do some major sucking up to get back in her good graces.”
“None of your friends like me,” Jesse points out. “Which just isn't fair, because all of my friends like you more than they like me. Hell, even my crazy roommate likes you more than me.”
“I'm a people person and you have a habit of putting your foot in your mouth.” Darcy twists her fingers in Jesse's hair and pulls him down for a slow, searching kiss. “It's funny when you do it to other people,” she says against his lips. “But you need to cut back on doing it with me or we're going to have problems. Also, and I know this might hurt your feelings, but that sundress was hideous on me and I gave it away months ago.”
Jesse pulls back and quirks an eyebrow at her. “Seriously?” When she nods, he groans and drops his head into the curve of her neck. “I should really stop trying to buy you clothes.”
“I'll make a wish list just for you on Amazon,” Darcy says, taking mercy on him. “Though I'm still not baking in a dress. I need something I can feel comfortable getting messy in.”
“Understood.” Jesse slides a hand up over her ribs and strokes the underside of her breast, but despite the getting her undressed and mild groping, he doesn't make a move to push things any further. Darcy wraps her arms around his shoulders and just holds him against her. Normal, this is normal, the kind of conversation they've had a hundred times over a hundred different nights, and if there's a slight tremor in Jesse's hands on her, she doesn't say anything about it.
“I don't get why you wanted me to dress up to begin with. We were just going to the bar.”
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” he mumbles. Darcy makes a questioning noise and he sighs noisily and elaborates. “I was going to take you to that little Italian restaurant you like, not the bar.”
Darcy frowns and tugs on his hair until he lifts his head from her shoulder and looks at her. “That's very sweet and all, but you do realize that by the time we actually got to the restaurant I probably would have been so pissed at you that it would have ruined the entire night, right?”
“I'm starting to get that,” Jesse says with a wince. “You think I can get a do over when we get home?”
“I think that can be arranged.” Darcy cups his cheek and tries for a smile that doesn't really make it. “Hopefully the restaurant is still there.”
“Tomorrow,” Jesse says firmly, bending to kiss her again. “We'll worry about all of that tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Darcy agrees, and with no little amount of effort makes herself turn off that part of her brain and just feel.
“Darling Clementine Lewis, just you give me one good reason why I shouldn't hop on the next flight out of Florida to kick your ass for not calling me after huge chunks of your city were blown to fucking rubble so I'd know you're okay!”
Darcy groans and curls into a ball under the fluffy hotel comforter. For a moment she considers turning off her cell phone, throwing it out the window, and pretending it was lost in the attack. Cell phone? What cell phone? Haven't seen that thing in days. Instead she tucks her cold toes under Jesse's ankle and says, “This is not okay behavior for before five in the morning, Susie. And you promised you wouldn't full name me anymore. You know gran's the only one who can do it without making me break out in hives.”
“Good, you deserve hives right now,” Susie says, because she's a horrible sister and human being. “Are you okay? Do I need to call someone to dig you out from under a building? Do you have a head wound or anything, because god knows the last thing you need is to lose more brain cells.”
“Love you too, Susie,” Darcy says and hangs up on her. One. Two. Three. The phone blares out a twangy banjo line and Jesse grumbles and pulls a pillow over his face.
“If you answer that, it'll reenforce her bad habits and make her think this is acceptable sibling behavior,” he says, voice muffled by what Darcy swears are goose feathers. Or, considering the price of the room, maybe bald eagle feathers. Darcy bumps her heel against his shin and rolls out of bed, bending to snag his shirt from where it's tangled with his pants, and sliding it over her shoulders as she punches the 'accept call' button.
“Hello, Broken Bread Bakery, how can I spit in your scones today,” Darcy chirps with as much perk as she can infuse into her voice. Jesse makes a pained noise and adds her pillow to the growing pile on top of his face, and Darcy takes pity and pads out of the bedroom into the sunken living room that makes her want to clap her hands like a five year old.
“Real mature, Darcy,” Susie says. “You're always such a class act.”
“It's early and yesterday was a long day. It's not that I don't love you, but I really don't have the energy to deal with your particular brand of charming condescension right now.”
“Hey,” Susie says, voice gone quiet and soft, the harshest noise on the line the faint crackle of static from the tenuous connection. “Really, I just wanted to make certain you're okay. You are, aren't you?”
Darcy breathes in slowly, exhales a little too fast, and ignores the way her hands tremble minutely when she crosses to the sink and fills a glass with water. “I'm okay,” she says steadily as she watches the ripple of tiny waves breaking the surface. She casts about for something to say, something reassuring, and adds, “Jesse's here.”
“Oh, well, if you have a pressing need to do your taxes, that'll work out just peachy.”
“Come on,” Darcy says. “Don't be that guy. You know I hate it when you're that guy.”
“Right, right, you're being all fragile now,” Susie says with an eye roll that Darcy can hear. “I'll wait until next week to tell you about how Calvin said he wants to feed your boyfriend to one of the tigers after our visit last month.”
“That's big of you.” Darcy flops back onto the couch, legs flung over the armrest. “I'll save my comments about your husband's dickery until then. You don't even want to know about all the places I'm still finding pasta.”
The shop's still standing when Darcy gets back home, the worst of the damage a long crack drawing a line down the middle of the front window. Jesse's apartment isn't nearly so lucky.
“So,” Darcy says as they stand on the sidewalk across the street from where his building used to stand. She tilts her head to the side and whistles lowly. “Probably no chance of getting your deposit back, then.”
“I don't think my renter's insurance is going to cover this,” Jesse says sadly.
A burst of wind gusts down the street, funneled by the buildings, and the one remaining wall quivers, then topples over. Darcy tilts her head to the other side.
“Right,” she says shortly, taking Jesse's hand in hers. “You can stay with me.” She pauses. “If you want to.”
“Yeah,” Jesse says, voice faint. He blinks, shakes his head hard. “I mean yes. Thank you. I can pay rent until I find a new place.”
Darcy leans against his side, says, “Nah, save it. You'll need every penny you can get your hands on. There's a housing shortage in Manhattan. You thought rent was high before?”
“Just don't throw away my jeans while I'm sleeping and we're good,” says Darcy.
“I really hate those jeans,” says Jesse.
“I know, baby.” Darcy goes up on her toes and kisses his cheek. “I know.”
Sometime in the week between Darcy coming home and reopening the bakery, Tony apparently manages to rewire her door chime to play Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars. Darcy doesn't know how he does it or why, but so long as he's the only one it plays for, she honestly can't be assed to make him change it back.
“I don't care how strong the force is with you, my freezer is not the droid you're looking for,” Darcy says without looking up the baklava she's putting in the display case.
“I hear Pepper got to meet your accountant,” Tony says, and if Darcy didn't grow up in a family of bullshitters, she'd swear the hurt in his voice is real. “Why don't I get to meet him?”
“Because Pepper doesn't make me want to toast her with a kitchen torch.” Darcy looks up at him and smiles as widely as she can manage. There's a guy standing to Tony's right—fluffy hair, startled eyes, and the fashion sense of a tenured professor—who takes a half step back, lips parting slightly when Darcy flutters her eyelashes. “And because you were too busy playing Batman to be on the jet.”
“I'm so much cooler than Batman,” Tony says. He turns to the other man. “I'm cooler than Batman, right?”
“Don't answer that, bright eyes. You'll only encourage him, and I'm all out of newspapers to smack him on the nose with.” Darcy smirks and points at Tony. “And nobody's cooler than Batman. He's darkness and the night.”
“Hey now, you're not allowed to talk to him. If I can't meet your accountant, then you can't talk to my friends.” Tony takes the coffee Darcy slides across the counter at him. “Never listen to Darcy, Bruce. The ponytail and pouty lips might make her look all sweet and innocent, but she's about ten kinds of crazy and isn't afraid to break out the rolling pin.”
Darcy holds up two plates. “Baklava?”
Bruce looks between Darcy and Tony, then the corners of his mouth tip up in a small smile, and he takes the plate from her. His fingers just barely brush hers, and Darcy feels a rush of heat to her cheeks without really knowing why. “Thank you. I haven't had really good baklava in months.”
“This is highly unorthodox,” Nick says. Disapproval is thick in his voice, but his hand at the small of Darcy's back smoothly steers her through the seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors and he glares at an agent who pauses to do a double take at them. Darcy snaps a mock salute at the agent—Foster, she thinks her name is; very fond of key lime bars and dirty chai lattes—and looks sweetly up at Nick.
“Keep calm and think of the brownies,” she says, leaning back into the firm press of his fingers. “So many brownies, all yours and all free.”
Nick turns his glare on her and Darcy tries to make her eyes as wide and guileless as possible. “Don't even give me that look, Darling. You made a mistake when you taught it to Fuzzbutt. He's desensitized me to it.”
“Lies.” Darcy waves a dismissive hand and introduces a hint of quiver to her lower lip just to watch the way the muscle in his jaw jumps.
“You could drive a saint to blasphemy,” Nick says wearily and comes to a stop so quickly that Darcy stumbles over one of her shoelaces that's come undone. He looks down at her and that ever present gleam of fondness is still lurking in his dark eye, but he's as serious as she's ever seen him. “By all means, be your usual, charming self, but tone down the snark for once in your life, alright? The last thing we need is you raising his heart rate.”
“Yeah, of course.” Darcy swallows roughly and straightens her shoulders. “Nothing but sweetness and light out of me from here on out.”
“Well, no need to upset him by making him think you've been brainwashed,” Nick deadpans, which is really kind of a bad, tasteless joke considering. He ignores Darcy's scowl, though, and absently plucks a loose hair from her sleeve. “You have twenty minutes.”
She nods and turns toward the plain, unmarked door, her hand steady on the knob, then wheels around and throws her arms around Nick's waist. Something clatters a little way down the hallway, followed closely by a muttered stream of profanity, but Darcy just holds on. Nick is thick and solid, smells of earthy leather and gun oil mixed with the Old Spice he claims Luke Cage coerced him into buying. He's comforting, grounding, a presence grown as familiar as home, and Darcy waits until his hand settles between her shoulder blades and his mouth grazes the top of her hair in a touch brief enough to be easily denied, then she whispers, “Thank you,” and pulls away to escape into the room.
Phil's far too pale and there are more tubes attached to him than Darcy's strictly comfortable with, but he looks up with a weak smile when the door closes with a snick behind her.
“I'm disappointed in you,” he says. His voice is little more than a sandpaper rasp, and Darcy smiles through the pinprick of tears that spring up in her eyes. “It took you this long to worm your way in here? You're slipping, kid.”
“Hey, Nick's been busy, and you know how hard it is to get Maria to cave.” She pauses by the side of his bed, shifts between the bed and a chair angled toward his head. After a moment, he pats the sliver of space next to his hip, and Darcy gratefully sinks down to sit on the edge of the mattress, careful not to jostle him. “It only took about a half hour of working on Nick to get him to sneak me in.” She laughs hoarsely and threads their fingers together. “I feel like 007.”
“Tony's not going to buy you that car, no matter how many times you ask him.”
“He might.” She tosses her hair, down from her ponytail for once, and raps her knuckles against Phil's knee. “My birthday's coming up soon and Tony really likes my brown sugar cupcakes.”
“The ones with the candied bacon garnishes?” Phil snorts. “Somehow I don't think those quite equal out to a car worth over fifty grand.”
Darcy pouts at him and says, “Don't go crushing my dreams like that. Why ya gotta crush my dreams, Phil?”
“Because your dreams involve coercing a car out of the most irresponsible billionaire I know.” Phil breathes in a little too quickly and chokes on an ugly, rattling cough. There's finally color on his face, two bright splotches of red high on his cheeks, and Darcy quickly pours a cup of water from the pitcher on the side table and smooths a hand over the back of his neck while she holds the straw up to his lips.
“I think it's good to have goals,” she says as Phil's coughing starts to ease. His shoulders are trembling the slightest bit under her palm, his eyes are bright and wet, and the harsh wheeze of his breathing is painful to listen to. Phil hums and sucks down another few swallows of water.
“Realistic goals, maybe,” he croaks. Darcy cards her fingers through his hair. It's greasy and clumpy from too many sponge baths and not enough showers, but she just fondly tweaks it a little bit and sits down next to him again when he's finished drinking.
“Like your goal of meeting Captain America? You were kind of shooting for the spangly, spangly stars there.”
“It happened, though,” he says, and the way his eyes glaze over this time is more from hero worship than pain. “He's going to sign my trading cards.”
“Steve's cool like that,” Darcy concedes. “But in what universe did you ever think you'd actually get to meet him?”
Phil shrugs, then immediately winces like he wasn't expecting that to hurt. He's mostly off of the drugs now—she knows because Clint spent an hour complaining about SHIELD and its inhumane treatment of its 'best goddamn agent ever' to her before glancing at his watch, saying 'Thank fuck, the ban is over', and darting out of the bakery—but he must still have something in his system that's making him groggy or he wouldn't have made a mistake like that.
“I brought the newest episode of Dance Moms for you,” she says quickly, dipping down over the side of the bed to snag her messenger bag off the floor. She keeps her eyes on the bag, rummaging through a stack of burned DVDs until she feels the sting in her eyes start to abate, then fans the selection out in front of him. “Toddlers in Tiaras, Super Nanny, Nanny 911, Dog Whisperer, Hoarders. I assume they let you have a laptop in here? Something to watch these on?”
“Yeah, over there,” he says, waving vaguely at a jumble of newspapers open to the crossword puzzles, books, and magazines that are nearly obscuring a laptop so shiny that it had to have been Tony's contribution to Phil's recovery. At Darcy's raised eyebrow, Phil adds, “Not that I've been using it, really. Clint's mostly been reading to me, but it'll be nice to have something to watch while he's out.”
“So,” Darcy asks, gesturing at the DVDs. “Where do you want to start?”
Phil shakes his head and curls his long fingers around her wrist. The callous on his index finger is rough against the inside of her wrist, but Darcy doesn't mind the scrape of it. “I'd rather just talk right now. Tell me about the bakery. I know it's still standing, but how are the girls?”
Darcy clears the DVDs away and eases down until she's stretched out next to him. “Well,” she says as she carefully settles her head down on his shoulder, “Barbara was out of town on vacation with her fiance, but she said they only had some cosmetic damage to their building. Steph and Cassie lost their apartment. A friend of Barbara's fiance—Tom or Tim or Todd, I think—is going to put them up for a while since he's apparently got enough money to have a couple spare rooms, but they lost pretty much everything in the attack.”
“That's rough,” he says, and his voice is already starting to slur with the beginnings of fatigue. Yeah, Darcy thinks, he's definitely still on something.
“They'll be okay,” she says. “They're strong like that.” She tips her face into Phil's neck, which smells weirdly musty and sterile at the same time and is slightly tacky with dried sweat, and flutters a butterfly kiss there. He squirms away from her a little bit, and Darcy rolls her eyes at his swallowed snicker.
“Stop that.” Phil sounds half asleep. Darcy pats gently a stretch of his side that looks more or less safe.
“It's more fun if I don't,” she points out. There's no response to that except for a low, rumbling snore, and Darcy curls her fingers in Phil's hospital gown over the reassuring beat of his heart and listens to it until a freshly showered Clint comes in to take the next watch.
Two quick clarifications.
1. It's come to my attention that some people don't know what a butterfly kiss is. A butterfly kiss is basically when you blink against someone's skin and it tickles like a butterfly's wings.
2. I've been meaning to say this for the past several chapters, but every time I've either forgotten or chickened out. Here's the thing, guys. I know a lot of you are reading for Darcy/Bruce--which is great, I love ALL my readers for whatever reason they're reading the story--but there's something you should all keep in mind. While Darcy/Bruce is a big part of this story, it's not actually my primary focus for it. I wrote Things That Shine in an attempt to work through all of my Darcy/Bruce feels, and I think that really shows in the story. On a similar vein, I'm writing this to deal with all my Darcy feels. I want to explore Darcy and how she interacts with all these amazing, unbelievable characters in a world she shouldn't really even know exists, yet seems to fit into anyway. There WILL be romance, but at the end of the day this is a story about Darcy and all of the people in her life, not just Bruce. I hope you'll all keep reading anyway. <3
“I love working here,” Steph says through the pass through window as Darcy hands her a tray of cupcakes from the back. “Tony Stark was just in? He's offering to buy Cass and me an apartment.”
Darcy pauses, looks over Steph's shoulder at the front—where the couple handfuls of tables and armchairs are pretty much filled with happy, munching customers, but nobody's actually waiting to be served—and hooks a thumb over her shoulder.
“Back of the house,” she tells Steph, eyes narrowing. “Now.”
“It's not like I'm sleeping with him or anything,” Steph says as she steps back into the kitchen.
Steve looks up from scrubbing dishes to arch an eyebrow. “It concerns me that you have to clarify that.”
Darcy takes the scouring pad out of his hand and replaces it with a scrub brush. “Those are nonstick pans,” she tells him, then turns back to Steph. Cassie just keeps molding gum paste into implausibly realistic looking flowers and ignores them all. “As pleased as I am that you aren't going to be on the next 'who my baby daddy?' episode of Maury with Tony, can we get back to where he's buying you an apartment? Because you're nineteen and have spoken to him all of four times. That is not okay behavior.”
“The way I see it,” Steph says patiently, “is we're yours and you're his, so in effect we're his too. And Pepper's always said that he's good about taking care of his people.” She pulls a face and shrugs her blonde ponytail back over her shoulder. “It's not that big of a deal.”
“It really kind of is,” Darcy tells her. “How did he even know you're looking for a place?”
Steph shrugs again and puts a rack of brownies up on the pass through window's counter. “I might have mentioned how Cass, Tim, and I are all crammed into an apartment together when he asked how I was doing.”
Darcy only resists the urge to smack her forehead into her palm because that would mean having to wash her hands again. “Tim has a top floor penthouse that overlooks Central Park. You're not exactly living the hard life.”
“Hey, nobody twisted his arm or anything,” Steph says, a defensive edge to her voice, and when the door chimes, Darcy waves her away to deal with the customer.
“And you're okay with this,” Darcy turns to ask Cassie.
Cassie scrunches her lips to the side and drops the gum paste she's been magicking into a peony to sign, “Depends. Is it a walk up?”
“He does seem to enjoy putting people up, even if he tries to deny it,” Steve says thoughtfully when Darcy throws her hands up in exasperation. “The entire team and a few agents are staying at Stark Tower right now.” He pauses, a look of disturbed confusion creasing his handsome features. “Did you know Agent Hill has Captain America pajamas? That was awkward at breakfast this morning.”
“Well, with Loki escaping and everything, it just makes sense to have you all more or less in the same place,” Darcy points out, strategically opting to stay mum about the fact that her bra is polka dotted with little Captain America shields. “It's easier to assemble if you're not spread out all over the city. Plus, I can't see Tony turning down the opportunity to have a little eye candy lounging around the house.”
“I'm fairly certain you're not supposed to know about Loki,” Steve says, a little concerned furrow forming between his eyes; it's a toss up whether the furrow or the slight flush on his cheeks is more adorable. Darcy adds another stack of baking sheets to the dish cart and pats high on his bicep where he hasn't managed to splash himself yet.
“And I'm pretty sure that Nick knows better than to leave classified information that he really cares about me knowing right out in the open when I'm over for pictionary night.” Or, okay, in that one locked drawer in the desk in his home office, but he totally knows about every single time she's picked that. If it's in there, it's like he's practically leaving her an engraved invitation to peek. That's her drawer.
Steve blinks. “Director Fury plays pictionary?”
“Yep.” Darcy grins. “Maria and Nick are both scarily good at it, but Natasha can barely draw a stick figure.”
Steve nods uncertainly, then looks back down at the sink full of sudsy water. He shuffles his feet a little, eyes shy, and Darcy pauses for a moment, then adds, “You should join us next time. I'd love to have you on my team.”
Steve smiles, a sweet, tentative little curl of a thing, and says, “Thank you, ma'am,” in that perfectly earnest way he always pulls out when he's playing at poking fun at her. Darcy grins and elbows him in the side as she passes by him.
“You're not buying my employees an apartment,” Darcy tells Tony when he and Bruce stumble into the bakery about fifteen minutes before closing.
“Coffee,” Tony groans. Bruce just makes a sad, pathetic noise and flops into one of the plusher chairs. Darcy looks at them both blankly, then pours Tony a decaf.
“Do I need to call Happy to pick you up?”
Tony takes a sip of his drink and makes a horrible, open mouthed face that has his coffee dripping down his chin and back into his cup.
“I said coffee, Lewis, not whatever crap this is.” He tries to shove the cup back at her, but she rolls her eyes and sidesteps around him to gently kick Bruce in the ankle.
“Nope, I know those puffy, sleep deprived eyes of yours. You're cut off. It's not worth the pain Pepper would inflict on me to be your dealer tonight.” She smiles at Bruce when he blinks sleepily up at her and says, “Hi, long night, bright eyes?”
“We made a break through,” he says, his eyes already starting to fall shut again. “On a, a thing.”
“A thing we won't be able to finish without coffee,” Tony says darkly. Darcy darts over to put a restraining hand on the caffeinated carafe when he makes a move toward it, and Tony takes another assessing sip, grimaces, and puts the cup on the counter, pushing it carefully away with the tip of his index finger.
“You're a brave woman,” Bruce says, his words stretching around a yawn. “Aren't you afraid he might bite you? Because he bit someone in the break room earlier today.”
“Tony and I have an understanding,” Darcy says, cutting Tony a hard look. Tony widens his eyes, the perfect picture of innocence, and Darcy rolls hers back at him. “Menace,” she says and pinches his cheek.
Bruce snorts and apparently falls asleep sitting up. His glasses are slipping precariously down his nose, and Darcy slips them off and puts them on the table. When Tony arches an eyebrow at her, she flaps a dismissive hand at him—because it's not like she wouldn't do the same for any of her other customers—and pretends she doesn't notice how obscenely long Bruce's eyelashes are.
“I'm calling Happy,” she tells Tony. “You're not in any condition to drive.”
Tony tches disdainfully and sprawls over the chair across from Bruce's.
“And we're talking about the apartment tomorrow,” Darcy adds, though she's pretty certain he's already crashed and out for the count.
“Right,” she says to herself, and hits number three on her speed dial.
I'm sorry this chapter took so long, everyone! Here are some things that've been happening in my life. I'll start with the fandom related stuff first since more people are interested in that than my personal life.
1. I have a tumblr now! Don't feel obligated to follow me, but I'll probably be posting sneak peeks of story snippets on it from time to time if you're interested in that kind of thing.
2. In a move that shows exactly how self indulgent I can be, I'm putting my never to be finished music degree to good(ish) use and recording my own Darcy/Bruce fanmix. Why, you ask? Because I just so happen to have come into a lot more spare time, which leads to three.
3. Some of you know that I was on vacation from the bakery where I work last week, but what only a couple of you know is that there was a problem that resulted in us losing everything perishable in the shop while it was closed and the owner decided to just cut her losses and not reopen, so I'm out of a job. That's the biggest reason this chapter was so late. I've spent most of my week sending out applications and comfort eating, which doesn't leave a lot of time to update. I'm getting out of my slump, though, so hopefully the updates will start picking back up.
Darcy's alarm goes off at an actual reasonable hour of the morning when the sun is already up and weakly shining instead of at ass o'clock, and she mentally congratulates herself again for giving Barbara that promotion and her own key last month. Unfortunately, since her body is hateful and evil, she feels hung over from too much sleep. Which, you know, isn't even fair. She doesn't know how it's possible, but she wants to find the reason and punch it in the throat.
“Ugh,” she says and literally rolls out of bed. There's a pretty substantial pile of throw pillows on her side, so it doesn't even really hurt. Jesse's standing in the bathroom doorway, not even pretending to hide his amusement, and Darcy would find it a lot more annoying if the way his toothbrush is dangling from his mouth didn't make him look like such a dork.
“You know,” Jesse says around a mouthful of toothpaste foam, “you'd probably have a much easier time waking up in the mornings if you'd start going running with me.”
“Blarg,” Darcy says, because she's eloquent like that, and pulls the comforter off the bed to cover her face from the evils of light. She can hear Jesse spitting into the sink and rinsing his mouth out, and she's seriously considering trying for another five minutes of sleep when Jesse comes out into the bedroom, gently pries the comforter away, and smiles fondly down at her.
“Seriously, babe. Exercise more. It'll get your energy levels up.” He bends to give her a mint flavored kiss, then laughs and backs away when she makes a disgruntled noise and swings a pillow at his head.
“Sngh,” Darcy says into the crook of her arm for variety's sake.
“Don't forget that I'm having dinner with my grandparents tonight, so I'll be a little late getting back to the apartment,” Jesse says over his shoulder as he carefully selects an impeccably pressed suit jacket from the sliver of closet space Darcy surrendered to him when he moved in.
“Yeah,” Darcy manages, because apparently Jesse wants to have a conversation or some shit. “Cassie did up some of those petit fours your grandma likes yesterday before she left. Don't forget to get them from Barbara on your way out.”
Jesse makes a small, pleased grunt around the cufflink he's holding between his front teeth—and why he can't leave one on the table while he's fastening the other one, Darcy will never understand—and bumps the side of his foot against her calf as he passes her on his way to the door. “You're an angel,” he says once the cufflink is out of his mouth. “But it's nearly half past seven, so you need to get up now unless you want to be a late angel.”
Darcy launches another pillow at his back, but it just hits the bedroom door as he closes it behind him. She's pretty certain she can hear him laughing.
She eventually drags herself off the floor, though, because she still has a business to run, and if she's not down in the next few minutes, Barbara will be left to the not so tender mercies of their morning rush all by herself.
There's a basket of washed and folded laundry that Jesse must have done last night after she went to bed, her favorite jeans placed neatly on the top of the stack like a peace offering, and Darcy smiles around a yawn. It's an unexpected gesture, she thinks as she rubs the sleep from her eyes, though maybe she's being ungenerous. Darcy sighs and scrapes her hair back into a ponytail, fastening it with the hairband that she needs to get off her wrist before it actually cuts off her circulation instead of just digging a furrow into her skin. She hesitates over the laundry basket, then huffs a small laugh at herself for being ridiculous, and pulls the undamaged, trouser cut jeans that Jesse had helped her pick out the last time she let him go shopping with her from a little further down in the stack.
“Good morning, Miss Darling,” Reed Richards says with a smile that stretches unnaturally wide across his smarmily handsome face.
“Morning, Mr. Richards,” Darcy says with her own brightly chipper smile.
“That's doctor, Miss Darling, doctor.” Richards gives the back of her hand an 'aren't you just adorable, what are we going to do with you?' kind of pat, and Darcy forces herself to keep her smile pleasant and not turn into something with far too many teeth. “It seems like I have to remind you of that every time I come in. Perhaps you should look into getting a check up. An inability to transfer short term memory to long term could be a sign of a serious problem.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Darcy says, and sends up a silent prayer of thanks for managers who are complete ballers, because Barbara's already bagging up Richards' usual order.
“You should probably write it down,” Richards says with what he probably thinks is a charming laugh. It isn't. Darcy doesn't know what Susan sees in the guy, but she could totally do better. “You wouldn't want to forget.”
“Ha. Ha ha. Uh, will do.” The laugh is short and disconnected, but Richards seems pleased enough that he finally hands over a twenty and accepts the bag of goodies. That's one point in the guy's favor; he always leaves good tips, even if they are occasionally accompanied by sly, sidelong comments about chemistry and real science. “You have a good one now,” Darcy says and tucks the change Richards makes a show of waving away into the tip jar.
“Oh, I plan for it to be...fantastic,” Richards says, and god help her but the unrepentant cheese almost makes her like him a little.
“It's kind of funny,” Bruce says from the far end of the counter where he's been examining the display case. He looks over at her from beneath long lashes, messy hair flopping charmingly all over the place when he tilts his head in her direction. “You're usually better at that.”
“Oh,” Darcy asks. She crosses her forearms on the counter, grins, and leans toward him as he moves away from the display case. “Better at what?”
“You know, pretending to like people when you don't. Pretending like you're something other than what you are.” He pauses, gives her a speculative once over that most certainly doesn't make a shiver zip down her spine. “How has no one else noticed at all? You do it a lot and that's the kind of thing most of them have been trained to pick up on.”
Darcy feels her smile start to slip, but she catches it before it can fall completely. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” she says as evenly as she can manage.
“It makes sense though,” he says thoughtfully, not seeming to care or notice what she's said. “This is a safe place for most of SHIELD. There are certain things they've come to expect when they come in and you excel at giving that to them. Why would they want to look for any cracks in the facade?”
Darcy pulls back, and she doesn't realize how hard she's been pressing her fingers against the polished wooden counter top until she feels her nails starting to bend. “Wow, you really know how to compliment a girl.” Her smile feels more like a grimace than anything now, and she takes a deep breath, exhales, and forces it into something more teasing. “Do you get a lot of dates using this method? Or just a lot of coffee thrown in your face?”
“Fascinating,” Bruce says. “I'm surprised Fury or someone hasn't tried to recruit you. You'd probably make a good spy once you've been given some actual training.” He pauses, looking at her the way she's seen Tony looking at her espresso machine, like she's a puzzle he wants to fiddle with until he figures it out, then adds, “Natural liars usually do.”
“Yeah, unless you're going to order something, then we're done here,” Darcy says, not even pretending to look anything other than pissed now. She crosses her arms over her chest, fingers twisting in the loose weave of her sweater's sleeves, and takes a step back. She takes another deep breath and shakes her head. “Actually, don't bother. You can have baked goods when you can be polite again, and not a moment sooner.”
Bruce blinks, almost like he's coming back to himself, and smiles sheepishly. “You're right,” he says. His hands are rough, but not overly calloused, completely missing the bump on either index finger born from too many hours with a gun that she's used to seeing on people associated with SHIELD. Darcy kind of hates that that's the thing she notices when he lifts them up placatingly. “That was out of line. I apologize.”
“Say that again tomorrow and maybe then I'll be willing to sell you a scone,” she says, and turns on her heel to escape back into the kitchen. If Barbara notices the way her hands are shaking, she doesn't say anything, just lets Darcy take over the cupcakes she's been mixing up and heads out to the front. Darcy makes a mental note to review her budget again and see if she can't afford to give her a raise.
“This day can be over at any time,” Darcy says as she opens the door to her apartment. She's been downstairs in the bakery for the last couple of hours going over inventory and placing orders, and even though Jesse's supposed to be the one having a late night tonight, she saw him slip upstairs about an hour earlier. She toes off her sneakers and says, “Seriously. Just one hundred percent over. My ultimate goal for the rest of the night is unconsciousness.”
“I think we can do a little better than that,” Jesse says, and the comeback Darcy totally had ready evaporates from her mind when she finally look up and sees him.
There's candlelight. There's wine. There's soft music. And Darcy's mouth goes completely dry and when she tries to wet her lips, her tongue feels sticky against the thin, slightly chapped skin there, because there's Jesse on one knee with what Darcy vaguely recognizes through her fog as what is clearly an engagement ring.
“I know things haven't been the best lately, and I know that a lot of that's my fault, but I love you more than I thought I could love anyone, Darcy.” He smiles, and when he tips his chin down a little in what looks like embarrassment, his hair is too perfectly gelled into place to flop anywhere. “I want to spend forever with you, and you know how much I hate doing this kind of sappy thing, so you have to know how serious I am that I'm doing all of this just to ask you,” he pauses, and his smile is a little uncertain at the edges and a whole lot dear. “To ask you to marry me.”
Darcy swallows thickly and faintly says, “Oh.”
The ring is heavy, antique gold that twists like vines around a bright, clear diamond that would probably cover a few months worth of mortgage payments on the bakery if it wasn't already paid off. It's borderline gaudy and more than a little bit funky, and when Jesse says, “It belonged to my great aunt, the one who was temporarily disowned for being friends with Betty Page,” Darcy laughs and says, “Well, obviously.”
“It's hardly practical with my line of work. All those crevices for dough to get caught in? I'd spend half my time taking it off and putting it on,” she points out just to be a pain in the ass, but she can't stop the grin that's pulling at the corners of her mouth. She completely loses control of her smile when Jesse pulls a delicate chain from his pocket with a smirk and lets it dangle from one finger in front of her face.
“When have you ever worried about practicality,” Jesse asks as he slips the chain through the ring and lifts it up questioningly. Darcy laughs and turns so that he can do the clasp for her, pulling her hair to the side so that he can bend and touch his lips to the ticklish spot where her neck meets her shoulder. “You were wearing a flower crown when I first met you, and that was for a business meeting. Frivolity is part of your nature.”
“It was the first day of spring,” she points out, tipping her chin up haughtily; she can feel Jesse's silent laugh in the slight tremble against her back, the quick tightening of his fingers at her hips.
“Well, as long as you had a good reason.”
Darcy turns to face him then, looks at him as seriously as she knows how, and says, “I always have a good reason.”
Jesse looks at her with such unguarded tenderness that it makes Darcy's heart clench, and lightly brushes his thumb over her lower lip. “And I want to spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what those reasons are.” He pauses. “Provided, of course, you ever get around to giving me an actual answer.”
Darcy lets her whole body tip backward as she laughs, trusting Jesse to keep her from falling, and somewhere in the middle of him pressing a kiss to her sternum where the ring is slowly warming with her body heat and her deliberately pulling him off balance so that they tumble sideways onto the sofa, she manages to whisper a happy, heartfelt, “Yes,” into the space between their mouths.
“I guess this is the part where I'm supposed to congratulate you,” Clint says. He's slumped on Barbara's usual stool in the back room while Darcy frosts cupcakes for an order.
“That is the usual response, yes,” Darcy says mildly, swatting Clint's hand away as it inches toward a bowl of purple glitter sprinkles.
Clint frowns and gestures silently for a long moment, then blurts out, “It's just that he's so boring.”
“Believe me, there are a few places where he's plenty creative.” Darcy shifts on her feet and grins to herself, remembering the night before. Clint's eyes flick over her and he makes an exaggerated grimace of disgust at her. Darcy rolls her eyes. “I've heard enough gross details about your sex life that you can listen to me confirm that I have one without pulling that face at me.”
“No,” Clint says, pointing a resolute finger at her. “You're untainted and untouched and all things pure. You're practically a nun.”
“Well, I do have a habit, but it's definitely not for religious purposes.” She ignores Clint's gagging noises and pushes a tray of frosted cupcakes toward him; she even reluctantly turns over the sprinkles. “Here, do those and earn your keep.”
Clint is still hovering at a borderline pout, but he dutifully rims the cupcakes with the sprinkles. The way the tip of his tongue is poking out of his mouth makes it more of an endearing look than anything.
After several long, quiet minutes, Clint says, “I'm just saying, I'm kind of fond of you and if he puts one toe out of line,” and Darcy cuts him off, says, “Yeah, I know, you're very muscly and intimidating and you carry sharp things on your person. It has been noted and is duly appreciated.”
Darcy leans over and pipes a small heart on the table near his hand. “You'll be my maid of honor, right?”
“Depends.” Clint shoots her a grin as he flicks some sprinkles at her. “Will I have to wear sleeves?”
“Not if you wear the dress I picked out for you.”
The rest of the morning is fairly quiet. There are no big cake orders this week, so Barbara is working the front counter, and once Darcy shoos Clint out of the kitchen after the cupcakes are done--“Don't you people ever work? How does SHIELD ever get anything done when all of its agents seem to spend all their time in here working on counteracting their daily workout?” “It's all a clever scheme to weaponize scones. Tony thinks he can figure out how to put little rockets in them and after a few days they're hard enough to concuss someone without us doing anything extra.” “Out!”--and takes care of some paperwork confirming that she's willing to take a local pastry student as an intern, she spends the next few hours experimenting with some chocolate truffle fillings.
The chocolates are sticking in their molds in the way they never seem to do when Stephanie's the one making the chocolates, and Darcy's wondering how bad of an example it would be to sit down and eat her whiskey ganache with a spoon to sooth her nerves when there's a tap on the door frame.
“Busy,” Darcy says without looking up, because eating half a dozen chocolates that came out with cracked shells totally counts as official business.
“I can leave the peace offering on the table and go.”
Darcy pauses, then looks up and wrinkles her nose. “I don't know, how can I properly berate you if it sucks if you just walk away?”
Bruce rolls his shoulders uncomfortably. His shirt and jacket are ill fitting, but she gets the impression that it's more like he's trying to settle into his skin and not quite succeeding. The small, hesitant smile he gives her makes her bite her lip to keep from smiling back, though, and that's without knowing what's in the small gift bag he's holding. “I don't think it would take too much for you to bribe my phone number or email out of Tony.”
“He is pretty addicted to my peanut butter bacon cookies,” she says. Bruce ducks his head in a short laugh. It's a nice laugh, warm and comfortable and inviting, if somewhat rusty. But then, Darcy can't imagine he's had too many things to laugh about for quite some time. She takes a deep, considering breath, then slowly slides one of the cracked chocolates in his direction. “Dark chocolate with a whiskey ganache filling and a candied bacon garnish,” she offers at his confused look, and he stumbles forward a step without seeming to realize he's done it.
“I thought I was supposed to be the one apologizing,” Bruce says, but he's reaching for the chocolate with his free hand and his eyes close on a blissed out expression when he bites into it. “Oh.”
“I know, I'm good.” Darcy grins at him and pops another chocolate in her mouth, licking a bit of melted ganache from the side of her thumb as she does. Bruce watches, his cheeks a little darker than they were a moment ago, but she pretends not to see. “And you are, because you were an ass, but I didn't exactly handle the whole thing as well as I could have.”
That small smile makes a reappearance. “That's big of you.”
“Yeah, well,” Darcy says, dragging her gaze from his smile back to his eyes. “Don't get used to it. It doesn't exactly happen often.” There's a short pause where they both just look at each other for a moment, then Darcy clears her throat. “Now where's my present? You said I get a present?”
Bruce makes an abbreviated movement that's halfway to a head shake—his hair is so curly and it bounces and Darcy is very proud of herself for not reaching out to play with it or at least making a comment—and holds out the bag in his hand.
“I wasn't certain, but Pepper said this was something you'd like, and I figured it wouldn't hurt.”
“Oh my god,” Darcy moans happily as she cradles the package of black cocoa powder. “Do you know what this is? This is the magic powder that makes things taste like Oreos. This is a five pound bag of deliciousness. This cocoa powder,” Darcy pauses to pin Bruce with a look, “is like the best kiss you've ever had; it's smooth and dark and deep without a hint of bitterness. All is forgiven, tell Tony he's back down to the bottom of the list—he knows what he did—and tell Barbara you get free tea for the rest of the week.”
Bruce laughs again, longer this time and a little more freely, and he puts a hand on the work table near her hip when he leans in to look at the cocoa.
“Maybe they should put that on the label. They're missing out on a potential marketing goldmine by omitting it.”
There's a perfectly propriety amount of space between the two of them, but Darcy is suddenly very aware of the way Bruce's eyes crinkle when he smiles and that he smells faintly of harsh soap, dry erase markers and something vaguely chemical that she can't identify, and she takes a step back, smiling as she does to soften the movement. She hadn't noticed Bruce relax, but he must have, because she definitely notices when he tenses back up again.
“I'll let them know that,” Darcy says. She absently touches the ring hanging from her necklace, and Bruce visibly tracks the movement.
He doesn't comment on it though, just runs his fingers through his hair, pausing awkwardly when he seems to hit a tangle, and says, “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but I was hoping we could start over and try this again.” The smile he gives her when he holds out his hand is a little more rueful than the last two, but it still makes Darcy feel a little warm and melty inside, which is something she's definitely not going to examine too closely right now. “Hi, I'm Bruce.”
A little voice in the back of her head is whispering that this isn't the best idea, that she should preemptively cut her losses and keep her distance. Darcy's never been that great at listening to that little voice. Instead, she breaks out her biggest mega beam smile and shifts the bag of cocoa onto her hip so that she can take Bruce's hand. “Hey, Bruce, I'm Darcy.”
I'm back! It's been a long, long, LONG time coming, but I'm back to seriously working on this fic.
For those who want an explanation, the biggest reason I had for putting this fic on hiatus is that it just hurt too damn much to work on it after the bakery I was working at went out of business. A lot has happened since then, though, and I'm at a good place in my life again, and I think it's time to make this happen. I'm just sorry it took so long. Thank you to everyone who's stuck with me and welcome to any new readers who might have shown up with this latest installment. :D