It had been a long twenty-eight hours in the lab. Two Red Bulls, a packet of Twizzlers and the fate of an Avenger were the only things keeping Darcy going. Being Jane's fulltime assistant was a great job, most of the time. A bit of adventure, a bit of filing and plenty of study time towards her second degree; an astrophysics science major this time, just to help her understand what Jane was talking about. Sometimes though, Darcy's job was just holding Jane together, as dating an alien god brought its own set of perils that weren't covered in the usual Cosmo advice column. Tonight was one of those nights. Twenty-eight hours ago, Thor had been in the middle of transporting back to Earth from Asgard when he, Mjolnir and the Tesseract that powered his travels blinked off the radar. Immediate panic stations.
Jane and Bruce had gone straight into scientist mode. Darcy might now be in her second year of a physics degree but what those two talked about; most of it flew over her head. But the general gist was Jane had a theory that the energy burst from when Thor disappeared indicated the portal had split in two. One part of the split had reached Earth and they needed to track the residue from that wormhole, or Einstein-Rosen bridges as Darcy was supposed to refer to it, to find the other branch of the portal where Thor had theoretically gone. Bruce had some experience in calibrating tracking systems and with some help from Tony Stark, they'd poured all the Avengers resources into searching for Thor across every dimension they could reach. Big stumbling block – there was a lot of dimensional space out there. The tracking program had started working fourteen hours ago and Jane had sat by the monitor ever since, waiting for a response. And Darcy stayed with her.
So it was now 4 am. Darcy was tired, running on caffeine and a little distracted with worry. So she momentarily forgot what was on her neck when she stretched out her arms and rolled her head around to release some tension. And Jane was only even looking vaguely in Darcy's direction because she was reaching across for some Twizzlers.
"Darcy," said Jane slowly. "What is that?"
"What's what?" Darcy said through a yawn.
"That... is that a hickey?"
Darcy immediately dropped her arms and snapped her head upright, making her hair fall again over the conspicuous bruise. "No."
"Yes it is. Darcy, really? You're 25, not 13."
"It's not a hickey Jane." Darcy rolled her eyes. "I burnt myself with a curling iron."
"That's the worse excuse I've ever heard."
"It's not an excuse." There was silence for a brief pause while both women reached for a Twizzler and chewed, eyeing each other up.
"Who is it?"
"JANE!" Darcy threw her half eaten stick at Jane in frustration. "Aren't you supposed to be watching the screen?" And then Darcy felt bad, because Jane's face fell. As if for a second, Darcy's love life had been a welcome distraction. So Jane went back to staring at the monitor and its never-ending cycles.
Luckily for Darcy, the awkward silence didn't last long. Bruce returned to the room, two cups of coffee in hand, closely followed by Tony and Clint. Clint at least brought a fresh bag of sugary snacks. Tony just looked like he'd rolled out of bed, which was quite possible. A few hours ago, Darcy had suggested that at least some of them should be ready to go into action mode, just in case Thor did need rescuing. Steve and Natasha had reluctantly agreed. Tony had left, though whether to sleep or find some diversion from the crisis in Pepper, Darcy could only guess.
"Anything yet?" asked Bruce as he looked over Jane's shoulder at the screen.
"No," was the small reply. Bruce deflated, looking at his watch and a frown creasing his brow.
"Chin up Dr Forster," said Tony as he sprawled in a nearby chair. "I'm sure Thor will come home from his bogus journey sometime soon"
"And then," Darcy added, trying to cheer Jane up. "We'll create an Everett phone so next time he gets lost, he can just phone home."
"When did you learn about an Everett phone?" Tony asked with an amused tone.
"A couple of months ago," Darcy replied with a slight tilt of her chin. "At my lecture. You know, that college place that those of us who aren't super geniuses go to so we can learn stuff." Clint snorted in amusement while handing Darcy another can of Red Bull. Jane however was sitting up straighter.
"Darcy, you're brilliant." Jane said slowly.
"And I'm brilliant... why?" Darcy asked in a puzzled tone. But Jane had spun in her seat, looking at Bruce.
"An Everett phone – a device designed to communicate between dimensions. Phones operate on a frequency to locate each other."
Bruce leaned forward intently. "You think we should change to a frequency search."
Jane shook her head urgently. "No, we should change to a frequency triangulation. Because I know Tony has data on Thor and how he calls for Mjolnir as part of an experiment to create automatically retrievable weapons."
"And Thor needs to start reading his disclosure agreements," Tony added with a resigned sigh. "But yes Dr Forster, I have that data."
"Then go get it," Jane said sharply. "And we can get something rigged to copy the frequency and bounce it back through the wormhole, seeking for those multiple points. If it works, we'll speed the search up by a factor of over a thousand."
"Nice job Miss Lewis," said Tony with a nod before he shoved himself out of the chair, calling on JARVIS to transfer the data and sticking his head between Bruce and Jane, adding his input to the calibrations.
"Very nice job," added Clint. He was standing just behind Darcy, so no one was able to see him graze his fingers up her spine before cupping the back of her neck in a reassuring squeeze. And the smile she offered up to him was purposely just genial and friendly. The rule was no touching or anything if other teammates were around. But they'd rushed a hug in the hallway a few hours earlier. Clint had murmured in her ear that he wished she could get some rest and Darcy had told him to get enough sleep in for the both of them. And they'd hugged each other tighter. So Clint taking the risk to give Darcy some tactile comfort right then; it meant the world. They were still going to have to talk about love bite placement, no matter how carried away they got in the heat of the moment. But that was something for later.
So Darcy was careful not to let her gaze linger on him too long as Clint left the room. Even one stupid look could give them both away. What Darcy didn't quite appreciate was that at 5am in the morning after no sleep, her judgement was a little impaired. So she might've kept her eyes on Clint a little longer than a friend would. And despite all the focus on finding Thor, someone else did notice.
Steve sat at the kitchen counter, absently chewing on a slice of toast. The toast was on the cold side but he didn't really notice. His mind was elsewhere on a moral conundrum.
"Morning," said Natasha as she slipped through the door. "Or afternoon, I guess," she amended, glancing at the wall clock. "Didn't realise how late it had gotten."
Steve gestured to the empty seat across from him on the counter. "I think everyone's body clock is a little off today. Especially the team who stayed up all night getting Thor back here."
"And now he's home, I'm sure they're all in bed by now." Natasha slid onto the counter stool, a glass of water in hand. She didn't expect her fairly innocuous comment to make Steve cough on his toast. "You okay?"
Nodding, Steve reached for his OJ and took a gulp. "Yes. Just... you're right. They're probably all tucked up, safe and sound." Steve swallowed down the last of his juice and dropped the glass on the counter a little hurriedly. "But maybe I'll go check. Make sure."
Steve knew Natasha was eying him up as he washed up his glass and plate. But she didn't ask why he was pouring a mug full of milk or why he was zapping it in the microwave. And she just nodded politely when Steve left, taking the cup of warm milk with him. Steve checked over his shoulder and when he was sure Natasha wasn't following him, he went straight up to Darcy's room.
Normally, Steve made sure to keep well enough out of other people's business. But it had been bugging him all day. He'd gotten up during the early hours of the morning after a few hours sleep and gone to check on how the search for Thor was going. He was just by the door to the lab when he'd seen two things: one was a burst of excitement about the search for Thor and the other was Clint with his hand on the back of Darcy's neck while she looked up with a smile Steve hadn't seen on her before.
Darcy's range of smiles was something Steve was familiar with. They'd spent a large amount of time together over the last couple of years, after Darcy had learnt of Steve's avoidance of reconnecting with the outside world. She'd pressed and pulled and forced him to see all the bright things still out there and in that time, with her equal kindness and tendency to push buttons, she'd become like a little sister to him. Steve knew the smile Darcy got when she was trying to persuade him to watch a movie that might be terrible but was oh-so-important in his pop culture education. There was also the wide beguiling grin she'd unleashed to get people to help her move when she'd decided the cost of the rent wasn't worth it when there was a spare bedroom in the Avengers tower. Though for Steve, his favourite was the way she'd beam, all her teeth showing, when she'd appear in the gym or hallway just to show off the latest grade her physics paper had gotten. But the smile she'd had for Clint – this was something new.
This wasn't some jealously thing. Steve also knew how Darcy looked when she was vulnerable. A little over a year ago, there had been an attack on the Stark building where Darcy and Jane were working on assignment. They'd escaped with minor cuts and bruises, but in the quiet of her bedroom, Darcy had cried on Steve's shoulder. She'd become friends with one of the other scientists, a girl her own age who was getting married in the fall. And then the roof had caved in and Darcy's friend was gone. So Steve had held Darcy and when Stark had identified the group responsible for the attack, Steve remembered the promise he'd made to Darcy, with her red-rimmed eyes, when she demanded he go beat the living crap out of the bastards. So he did.
And here Steve was now. He was hesitating outside Darcy's bedroom door. Because right now, he was fairly sure she was in a situation that was going to get her hurt. That would leave her broken hearted and while Steve wasn't a violent person by nature, he knew he'd be restraining the urge to do something painful to the guy who hurt her. And since in this case, it would be his teammate, Clint Barton, Steve could only imagine where that would leave everyone.
But maybe he had just imagined it. Everyone had been stressed and tired. He could've jumped to the wrong conclusion. So he'd just check in Darcy, make sure she was OK. Seeing if Clint was there... nothing to do with it.
Steve kept telling himself this as he knocked softly on Darcy's door. Just enough so she'd hear if awake but not loud enough to disturb her if she was asleep. But Steve heard the shuffle of Darcy's footsteps as she approached the door and the click as she unlocked it. She looked out blearily then smiled when she saw who it was.
"Hey," she said warmly, even if there was a tired rasp to her voice. Her hair hung in damp tendrils and there was a slight hint of soap in the air. "What you doing up here?"
"Just checking in. I thought I'd bring you some milk. Just in case you were having trouble sleeping."
Darcy gave a dopey smile as she took the mug between her hands. "You know me too well. I've been trying to catch some Zs but think I had maybe one too many Red Bulls at the 4am mark." She'd only opened the door enough to stand between it and the doorframe, hiding the view of the rest of the room. But she was wearing her favourite flannel pyjama set; an oversized red tartan print with sleeves and legs that swamped her frame. Steve might not have the widest range of experiences with women, but he was pretty sure Darcy was dressed for sleeping, not for romance. No, Steve was becoming more certain he'd just been paranoid.
"Then drink up and get to bed. I'll make some hamburgers and put them in the fridge for you for dinner." Darcy's smile turned into an excited grin and she went up on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.
"You're the best brother-from-another-mother a girl could ask for," she said softly. Steve resisted the urge to ruffle her hair and just simply wished her sweet dreams as Darcy slipped back into the room, closing the door with a click.
And Steve might have gone about his afternoon, happily content, if he hadn't passed the room Barton normally crashed in post-mission. The door had been left open and some of Clint's gear was spread around the place: jacket on a chair, sunglasses on the desk. Enough to make it clear he hadn't gone to his normal off-site apartment. Equally as clear was that the bed hadn't been slept in and as much as Steve wandered around the tower for the rest of the afternoon, he didn't find Barton anywhere.
Darcy blinked her eyes slowly as she woke. Clint's arm was wrapped around her side, the length of his body spooned up behind her and the heat of his skin seeping through her PJs. She vaguely recalled Clint stripping to his boxers before he'd crawled into bed with her, though the need to sleep had overruled any hint of lustful urges for both of them. Now though, the slow rise and fall of his chest told Darcy he was already awake. She wriggled her hand beneath the duvet until she'd intertwined their fingers together.
"Hey beautiful," he murmured.
"Hey sexy man," she replied softly. Clint pulled Darcy a little closer, stretching his leg to capture Darcy's thigh beneath him. She gave a contented sigh, snuggling back. She only glanced briefly at her phone, propped upright against the lamp on her bedside table, out of habit but the time showing on the screensaver made her groan. "Babe... I thought we'd set an alarm. If anyone notices you've been AWOL for the past six hours..."
Clint gave her a gentle squeeze. "Most of the team are in bed themselves. I don't think they're focused on what I'm getting up to."
"That's what we thought when you decided to bunk over and look who turned up on my doorstep. Steve almost busted us!" she retorted, keeping her voice low.
"But he didn't." Clint calm tone would've infuriated Darcy, if not for his laconic charm being so ridiculously attractive. "Lucky I remember how to hide in a girl's bedroom before her big brother comes bursting in."
Darcy snorted. "And I'm sure when they trained you in concealment skills in sniper school, this was totally the situation they were planning for." Clint laughed softly, muffling the noise against Darcy's shoulder. "And speaking of concealment," Darcy continued. "Hickeys. Jane noticed that giant love bite you left on my neck. I swear it's like you're trying to create a neon sign pointing to us blinking the message 'these two are totally boning.'"
And in one of those trademark Clint moves, he'd rolled Darcy onto her back with her thighs still trapped beneath his leg and brought their intertwined hands above her head before she'd even blinked. "Well, we are Darce. Or at least, we will be very soon."
"Don't use your sex god tricks on me," Darcy cursed her voice for getting breathy, trying to temporarily ignore his free hand as it began unbuttoning her pyjama top. "We talked about this. The others can't know."
"I did go read the Stark disclosure policy about employee relationships. I don't think he can extend that to one of his Avengers teammates."
"But I'm not an Avenger babe. I just get to hang around because I'm a glorified lab assistant. And if Tony or any of the others decide that I'm too young or too much of a distraction or some other disapproving stupid reason we shouldn't be together, you know I can be kicked out faster than a Kardashian wedding."
Clint paused in his removal of Darcy's shirt. Propping his weight on his elbow, Clint leant down and captured her mouth in an unexpected kiss. It was brief and urgent and when he broke it off, he kept his lips just a fraction of an inch from hers. "I wouldn't let you go," he said, eyes locked onto hers.
Darcy lifted her head to kiss him lightly before dropping back to the pillow. "I know. But I don't want you to have to make that choice. We just need more time to figure something out. 'Kay?"
Clint looked down at her for a little while before nodding. "Okay.
With a smile, Darcy slowly shifted her gaze towards where Clint's hand was resting on her chest. "And babe... any hickeys down there... totally acceptable."
Clint didn't need any further encouragement. With one hard tug, he yanked her shirt open and as his teeth grazed over the soft curves of her exposed skin, the opinions of their teammates became the last thing on their minds.