Actions

Work Header

Rule Number Nine

Work Text:

Steve notices Jane's friend Darcy right away, because he's always had a weakness for brunettes, and Darcy is smart and confident and sassy, which are all things that appeal to him. From the beginning she treats him-and all the other Avengers-like they're no big deal, but Steve supposes if the first Avenger she met was Thor, the rest of them really aren't any big deal at all. He likes her immediately, in the way he's always been drawn to pretty girls, feeling almost shy about it, and careful not to stare so she doesn't misinterpret his interest.

They see each other now and then, usually when there's some kind of group social thing, but eventually the Avengers all move into Tony's big fancy house, and Darcy is there sometimes. She even spends the night or the weekend once in a while, in the red bedroom at the back of the house, the one Tony calls the "small bedroom" and Darcy swears is bigger than her entire apartment. Steve comes across her in the kitchen making mugs of tea with Jane, in the den watching movies with Bruce and Natasha, in the garden jumping on the trampoline with Clint; she's around enough that it's not a surprise to see her, and they talk sometimes about nothing much in particular. She's part of life at Avengers Mansion, which is never going to be dull, Steve knows that for certain.

Then Tony's latest assistant quits. As long as Steve has known Tony, that job has been filled by a rotating cast of flustered people, both men and women, none of whom Steve ever sees more than twice. Which doesn't surprise Steve, exactly, knowing Tony. After the last one leaves in a fiery huff, Pepper and Jane get together and convince Tony to give Darcy, who is newly graduated from college and unemployed, the job.

Steve is surprised by this. He thought they liked Darcy.

~*~

Darcy is actually great at being Tony's assistant, as far as Steve can tell. He isn't completely sure what the job entails, though he does know that she spends some of her time updating Tony's official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Surprisingly, she lasts longer than a week, and she doesn't look like she wants to murder Tony every time Steve sees her, which may be a low standard for success, but that's Tony Stark for you. She's at the house a lot more, usually ambling along behind Tony or sitting at the huge wooden desk in Howard's old office, with pens sticking out of her hair where it's haphazardly pinned on top of her head, her cute little glasses sliding down her nose.

Tony talks really fast and says a lot of things that don't make any sense at all to Steve, but Darcy must be able to translate his rambles into instructions, because Tony seems happy with her. After a few weeks, Steve notices there's been a visible shift of power, and more often it's actually Darcy telling Tony what to do, rather than the reverse.

One Monday morning during Bruce's weekly pancake breakfast, Tony tries to wiggle out of giving a presentation that's been booked for months. Darcy doesn't look up from her pancakes-she barely even appears to be listening to Tony's transparent excuses, actually-and says, "Happy will be waiting with the car at 6pm tonight, Pepper will have you in the navy pinstripe suit, and the only choice you get to make is if you willingly get in the car or I send Thor to put you in it. You have three seconds to give me your answer."

Tony turns to Pepper, who is smearing raspberry jam on a pancake that nearly covers her entire plate, and says, "You were right. She's perfect."

~*~

Steve's room is next to Thor's, which Steve doesn't really mind, except, well. Thor and Jane have sex a lot. Thor is kind of loud, and seems to enjoy narrating the proceedings, so even though the house is expensively built and the walls are thick, sometimes Steve hears them anyway. Sometimes they even wake him up out of a sound sleep.

Steve is just about to while away a few hours reading by his window when the thumping sounds start next door, and it's not long before Thor begins describing what's going on, and good Lord, it's the middle of the day. Steve decides to take his book down to the sunroom, his second favorite reading spot, but when he gets there Darcy is sitting cross-legged in one of the chairs, flipping through what looks like Tony's mail. She smiles at him when she sees him hesitate in the doorway, and drops a big manila envelope on top of the one of the piles on the floor next to her chair. She's wearing her cute glasses and a T-shirt with a piece of cartoon sushi on it.

"Hey!" she says brightly, which always makes him feel good, like she's happy to see him, but she's usually happy to see everybody. Except Agent Coulson, who obviously did something in the past to get on her bad side. Steve's not sure what it was.

"Hi, Darcy," he says, unsure what to do. If he sits down and reads where she's working, will it seem rude? But if he walks away, obviously changing his mind about sitting in the sunroom after seeing her there, will that seem rude? He's always been so hopeless around women. Skull-faced Nazis are so much easier to deal with.

"Are you coming in?" she asks, raising an eyebrow at him. He waited too long to decide, and now she's noticed.

"I was going to read in here, but if you're working…" he trails off, hoping she'll give him a clue what to do.

"No, no, it's fine. Sit," she says, waving him in. Then she gives him a knowing look. "Jane just got back from Toronto," she says. "A little noisy in your room?"

"Yes," Steve manages to say. He'd rather not discuss it. Thankfully, Darcy doesn't continue with that uncomfortable line of conversation, because her phone makes a little noise, like a rooster squawking. She picks it up, frowns at it, and then types something, so fast her thumbs are almost a blur, and puts it back down. Steve grabs a spot on the chaise while she's doing that.

He doesn't get much reading done. While he doesn't mean to watch her work, she's more interesting than his book, and he can't seem to forget she's there. She talks to herself a lot, mutters scoldingly at people who aren't even there--mainly Tony--and chews on her lip and blows wisps of hair out of her eyes. Her phone keeps making the rooster noise every couple minutes, often enough that Steve guesses it's the ringtone she's assigned to Tony.

"So," she says, after a while. "Are you going to the Gotham Hall thing?" She doesn't look at him, just keeps sorting through a sheaf of papers in her hands, but Steve gets the feeling it's false casualness.

"I have to, I guess," he says. The Avengers are getting some kind of award, with a big fancy dinner and little glasses of champagne. And probably many embarrassing speeches. Steve really dislikes the speeches.

"Oh, good," Darcy says, looking relieved. "So am I, and since I don't have a date and you don't have a date, we can hang out together. Everyone else will be paired up."

"How do you know I don't have a date?" Steve asks, feeling a little stung by the assumption.

Darcy has the decency to look embarrassed, and he immediately feels bad for doing that to her. "Well-I thought-you usually don't-um, sorry? Do you?"

"No," he admits, and then laughs when she glares at him. "You, I guess," he adds, unable to stop himself from smiling at her.

"It's not a date!" Darcy says immediately, pointing at him with the papers. "We're just going to be in the same place together."

Steve holds his hands up in surrender. "Okay, not a date, got it," he says, still grinning, but he feels pretty good about it just the same. It'll be nice to have someone there he's supposed to sit with and talk to, rather than feeling like he's lost in a sea of strangers, or hovering around his friends.

"I'm sending an email right now," Darcy says, grabbing one of Tony's computer tablets off the floor, "so we get seated at the same table. We'll be with Thor and Jane and Clint and Natasha."

"All right," Steve says. He doesn't much care where they sit. "Are Clint and Natasha…together?" he asks once the email is sent, because he's been wondering that for a while. It's rude to gossip, but he honestly can't figure it out, and since they're all friends, he figures it's okay to ask Darcy.

"Well, you know," Darcy says, shrugging, which doesn't help at all. She's already absorbed in Tony's papers again.

"Not really," he says. That's why he asked.

"Oh!" She does a finger snap that ends with her pointing at him. "That's right! You probably don't know about fuckbuddies."

It feels like Steve's eyes bug out of his head when she says that word, and it must look a little like it, too, because Darcy winces apologetically. Steve still hasn't gotten used to the prevalence of casual profanity in modern culture. He can swear with the best of them-he was in the army, after all-but he usually needs a pretty good reason to drop the f-bomb. These days, it seems to be more of an adjective.

"No, I don't know about…that," he admits, feeling a little reluctant to hear more.

"It's when you're friends with someone and you have sex with them, but you're not a couple," Darcy says breezily. "I think that's what Clint and Natasha do when they aren't dating other people." She peers at him. "Are you shocked?"

"Not too much," he says honestly, and it really is true. It's not like sex didn't exist back in his day, and people were certainly having their share of it, whether married or dating or whatever. Steve used to say that Bucky was getting his share and Steve's. But being so casual and open about it is certainly not what he's accustomed to, though he'd probably be less put off by it if it were called something a little less crass.

"You'll get used to it," she says, and goes back to Tony's mail.

Steve's not quite sure about that, but he's willing to keep an open mind.

~*~

Darcy was right, Steve admits to himself later that day, once he's back in his own now-blessedly quiet room. He never has a date for anything. He's self-aware enough to realize it's becoming an issue.

It's not like he has any shortage of options-people, both male and female, are not shy about letting him know they're interested-but for a long time after he woke up he was still in mourning. What he had with Peggy wasn't in the distant past for him the way it was for everyone around him; it was yesterday, last week, two months ago. At the time, it was hard not to feel trapped between two different time periods, the past he desperately wanted to get back, and the future he was struggling to join, and sometimes it still seems like he's made a mess of both.

He's ninety-five years old, a war hero, an Avenger, and he's never done anything more than kiss a woman. The idea of admitting that to anyone is embarrassing, and so he's been avoiding it, and then the longer he avoids it, the more time passes and the more embarrassing it gets. He's going to die a virgin if he doesn't figure out a way to face it.

Which is a whole lot of leaps to take from going on a Not Date with Darcy, so he decides to think about something else.

~*~

What he doesn't anticipate, though, is that once they agree to go on their Not Date, it changes things a little. They talk a lot more, and sit next to each other on pancake day, and he notices all over again how pretty she is. He tries not to think about it too much, or focus on her more than he ought to, but now they have a thing that's just between the two of them, whereas before they simply shared a circle of friends, and he's enjoying it too much to try too hard.

The talking is nice, though, because one thing Steve values now more than ever is being able to have a conversation like a regular person. A lot of the people he meets now treat him like a celebrity or a curiosity, or want to flirt with him. Steve is bad at flirty banter, and he knows it.

Tony makes it look so easy, and he does it with everyone-with all the other Avengers, with waiters, with random people on the street, even with his robots-and it seems like every other word that comes out of his mouth has some kind of hidden sexual connotation. If Steve had to do that all day the pressure would drive him crazy. He appreciates that Darcy is enjoyable to be around and interested in what he has to say without making him feel like he has to come up with witty replies or watch out for double meanings all the time. It's the closest thing he's had to his friendship with Bucky since he came out of the ice.

Steve shares his black licorice with her when they watch movies, because she's the only other person in the house who likes it, and spots her on the trampoline when she practices doing mid-air somersaults. When the Avengers get offered-through a convoluted set of events involving a train derailment, a clown college, and ten thousand bees-the chance to tour an elephant sanctuary, he makes sure Darcy gets invited, too. As neat as the elephants are, Steve thinks watching her have the time of her life is nearly as fun.

Darcy gives him-with Tony's permission-a yellowed scrapbook she finds in the office, filled with fragile newspaper clippings about Captain America's WWII adventures, and grainy black and white photos of Steve and the Howling Commandos, everyone still young and strong and alive. She leaves him alone in the sunroom to page through it, hands shaking, heart lodged in his throat, and then comes back later with two bowls of mint chip ice cream, and shows him a video of otters holding hands, and doesn't say anything at all about his eyes being red.

~*~

There's a knock at his door one afternoon a few days before the Gotham Hall event, and Steve immediately puts down his book and goes to open it. He once made the mistake of simply calling out to whomever was knocking to come in, and ended up with Hulk and Volstagg in his room; he's never doing that again.

This time it's Tony. He's dressed in a suit, but his tie is missing and he's wearing sunglasses, even though he's in the house.

"Hey, you free?" Tony asks, not looking up from his phone. "We need to go jewelry shopping."

Steve thinks maybe Tony knocked on the wrong door. "We do?"

Tony finishes whatever he's doing and shoves his phone in his pocket, then finally looks up at him. "Yep. For Pepper and Darcy." When Steve stares at him blankly he adds, "For the Gotham Hall thing?"

Steve suspects he does a bad job of hiding his surprise that Tony knows about Darcy and the Gotham Hall thing. There's no reason it should be a secret, really-especially since everyone will see them there together eventually-but they've never discussed it in front of the others, and Steve's been careful about taking his cues from Darcy. "I…" he says, and then has no idea what else he intended to say.

"You are going with Darcy, right?" Tony asks, really slowly, as if Steve were three years old.

"Yes," Steve says. "Or, well. No. We're not going together. We're just going to be in the same place together." It's a distinction that seems important to Darcy, so he wants to make sure Tony knows about it.

"Uh huh," Tony says. He pulls his sunglasses down enough to look at Steve over the top of them, then pushes them back up. "Well, I have it on good authority she's wearing a black dress and red shoes, and has no expensive jewelry, so let's go. Bring your wallet."

The people at the jewelry store are thrilled to see Tony; it's Steve's experience that people in stores of any kind usually are. A balding man with a little round belly comes out of the back and makes a big fuss over Tony, clapping him on the shoulder while he shakes his hand, which Steve happens to know Tony hates. Several other employees immediately begin pulling out special pieces from the little cabinets under the display case, fluttering around Tony like excited birds while Steve hangs back, reluctant to be the focus of that much fawning.

Steve, who has never bought a piece of jewelry for a woman before in his life, has no idea what he's supposed to buy, so he wanders around and looks at everything, feeling increasingly confused. He notices nothing has a price tag on it. That can't be good.

Tony seems to be deep in the process of happily buying out the place within minutes, but Steve doesn't see anything that looks like Darcy would like it. All the necklaces-Tony said a necklace would be his best bet-seem too big or too small or too fancy or too boring. And he doesn't really know Darcy all that well, not like Tony knows Pepper. Tony may need Jarvis to remind him of Pepper's birthday, but the man can pick out jewelry for her like nobody's business. Steve knows this because Jane and Pepper both say so.

Another employee, this one a tall, graceful woman with the tiniest eyebrows Steve has ever seen, walks over to him, smiling and friendly. After introducing herself as Margot, she asks him what he's looking for, which doesn't really help, because he has no idea. Tony's got three necklaces, several pairs of earrings, and a pair of cufflinks on the counter already.

Steve says, "I need to buy something for my-"

"Date!" Tony yells.

"-for my friend," Steve corrects him.

Margot gives him a little smile, the kind that might be holding back a laugh. People make that face a lot when Tony and Steve go out in public together. "What is your friend like?" she asks.

Steve thinks about that for a second and then says, "Quirky."

"I would have gone with 'busty,'" Tony says from where he's trying on watches. Steve shoots him a disapproving look, which Tony either doesn't notice or plain ignores.

Margot still manages to not laugh. Steve gives her a lot of credit for this. She looks up at the ceiling for a second, tapping her finger on her chin, and then motions for him to follow her along the counter, which he obediently does until she stops and takes out a velvet tray of necklaces.

He knows exactly what he's going to get Darcy the minute he sees it: a silver chain with a sparkling red ladybug pendant hanging from it. Darcy has a scarf that has ladybugs on it, Steve's seen her wear it during the winter. And the necklace is red, which will match her shoes, which he assumes he's supposed to keep in mind.

After he points to it, Margot explains it to him in detail, something about diamonds and rubies and white gold and whatnot, but he just nods and says, "I'll take it." It's the only thing in the store he can picture on her. He hands over his credit card, because it's doubtful he has enough cash in his wallet to pay for it that way.

Tony wanders over and gestures at Margot as she's putting the necklace in a fancy box, and she obligingly hands it over for him to look at. Steve thinks he's going to scoff, or make fun of his choice, but Tony just says, "Good call." It's the least flippant Steve's heard him sound all day.

Tony isn't done yet, so Steve waits around while he decides to get some extra rings, two more watches and a money clip, even though Steve's never seen him carry actual money. The man behind the counter doesn't bother to tell him the total, and Tony doesn't bother to ask, just hands over his card. Steve didn't get his total either, so when he gets out to the car and looks at the receipt, he feels a little faint.

~*~

The night of the Gotham Hall event, Steve puts on his dress uniform with a little more anticipation than he usually feels when getting ready for an award ceremony, taking even more time than usual with the buttons and the medals and the way his shirt is tucked. He combs his hair and checks his shoes for the slightest speck of dust, and then carefully retrieves the necklace from his desk drawer. More nervous than the situation probably warrants, he combs his hair one more time and then tells himself to stop being ridiculous and leave already.

Darcy is spending the night at the house, so Steve waits patiently outside the red bedroom, leaning against the wall, trying not to fidget with the necklace box too much, until the door opens and there's Darcy in her dress, holding a really sparkly, really tiny red purse. She obviously didn't expect him to be waiting there, but smiles and says, "Oh, hey!"

Tony was well-informed about what Darcy was going to wear. Her dress is black and tight and seems very…well-constructed toward the top. A big portion of the back is entirely sheer, and the whole thing covers quite a bit of her while still managing to be more revealing than anything else he's ever seen her wear. It isn't exactly low-cut in the front, but, well. Steve makes himself look somewhere else before he gets caught staring.

Her shiny red shoes are a style he recognizes from his time, with little peep toes and dainty straps around her ankles. She's got her hair twisted into a pile on top of her head, but much more tidily than it usually is when she's just hanging around the house telling Tony what to do. Her lipstick is also red-another thing he likes, and will probably always like-and she's wearing delicate silver earrings, but no necklace, he's pleased to see. She looks beautiful.

"You look beautiful," he says, without really meaning to. Darcy actually seems a little embarrassed by the compliment, if the uncharacteristically shy smile is anything to go by; Darcy rarely looks shy. Steve belatedly wonders if compliments are allowed on Not Dates. He may have already committed a faux pas.

"Thanks. You look pretty nice yourself," she says, and thumbs the captain's bars on his jacket, which pleases him. He's proud of the bars, even if he doesn't always agree with the policies they represent nowadays.

"I got you this," he says, and holds the box the way Tony showed him, opening it so she can see what's inside.

Her eyes widen when she sees the necklace. "Oh, it's adorable!" she says, and when she looks up at him, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, their gazes lock for a second, and Steve feels his breath catch. For a moment he suddenly sees her like he's never seen her before, not as fun Darcy who's always around the house, but as someone else, someone both strange and familiar he'd like to know a lot better. He looks back down at the necklace in its box and hopes none of that shows.

She loves the necklace, and Steve is pretty proud of the job he did choosing it. When she turns around so he can put it on her, he's momentarily distracted by the back of her dress, and just how far down the sheer part of it goes. He tells himself again to keep his eyes up, but that turns out to be just as distracting.

The nape of her neck is pale and soft, and feathery wisps of hair tickle his fingers as he tackles the unexpectedly complicated job of getting the necklace in place. She smells really nice, too, of something slightly flowery. He manages to get the necklace on her, only fumbling the clasp a little-it's so tiny-and when he finally settles the chain against her neck, smoothing it lightly with one fingertip, he has an almost overwhelming urge to kiss her there, press his mouth to her silky skin and breathe her in for a moment. He takes a step back and clears his throat. "All done."

Darcy turns, two fingers touching the ladybug where it rests above her cleavage, and practically throws herself into his arms. He manages to keep them both on their feet as she hugs him around his neck and pecks him on the cheek. Once she lets him go, she supervises while he wipes the lipstick away with his handkerchief, both of them laughing.

When that's all done, he gives her his arm. She slips hers through it and says, "Off we go, Captain Rogers."

It's been a long time--nearly a century, even--since Steve's looked forward to an evening as much as he does this one.

~*~

The whole group rides over to Gotham Hall in several different cars, then congregates in a special room set aside for them, where they all tug at their nice clothes and adjust each other's ties. Thor is dressed in some kind of Asgardian ceremonial thing with an extra-long cape, though he appears to have left his helmet at home this time. Pepper is wearing a shimmery green dress, and an emerald necklace Steve recognizes from the day at the jewelry store. Tony gives Darcy and Steve an appraising look, checks out the ladybug, and gives Steve a thumbs up. The only two people who seem surprised to see Darcy with Steve are Clint and Bruce.

It's probably the least painful award ceremony Steve's been to since, well. Ever. There's a cocktail reception first, where he has to mingle and talk to people he doesn't know and doesn't particularly care to know, but Darcy sticks with him the whole time. She probably doesn't realize this is his least favorite part, and that having her at his side makes it a million times more tolerable, but that doesn't make him any less grateful for it.

He introduces her to everyone as Darcy Lewis, without any kind of qualifier like "friend" or "date," because that seems easiest; more than once, he sees other men give her an admiring glance. Jane and Pepper and Natasha-and probably Darcy herself-would give him a lecture to end all lectures if they knew he was succumbing to old-fashioned masculine pride, but he feels a bit smug all the same that Darcy is there with him.

They circulate as is expected of them, and talk to all the right people. Darcy knocks it out of the park, in Steve's opinion. He knows she's young, and that she hasn't been to many functions of this sort, but her naturally outgoing nature and her indifference to titles and positions that intimidate a lot of other people turn what's normally excruciating small talk into a source of entertainment. Steve finds himself unexpectedly charmed by her all over again.

He keeps his hand on the small of her back, gets her as many tiny glasses of champagne as she wants, and enjoys the feel of her arm bumping against his ribs as they talk to politicians and business people and military bigwigs. The reception part is over before he knows it.

Steve and Darcy are, as promised, at a table with Clint and Natasha and Thor and Jane. The food is the usual beautifully crafted stingy portions always served at these events, but the conversation at their table is lively, because anything that includes Thor is lively by default. Every once in a while Steve can't help but glance at Darcy, sitting next to him in her figure-hugging dress, wearing the necklace he bought for her, laughing and threatening to shove Thor's face into his wasabi mashed potatoes if he doesn't quit making bad jokes about his "hammer." At one point, Clint catches Steve staring down at the too-tempting swell of her cleavage, and winks at him.

The main course might have been nothing to get excited about, but dessert is cupcakes decorated in Avengers colors, and they are delicious. The server tries to give Steve a Captain America version, but he politely declines and takes a Hulk one, which is purple and green. Darcy's is Iron Man red and yellow, and Jane teases her about not being able to get away from her boss. Steve notices that Clint gives Natasha the cake part of his, and she gives Clint her frosting, without even discussing it. For a moment he's envious of the years they've had together, and all the things they know about each other, but that feels a little ungracious when he's had such a lovely time so far with Darcy, so he puts it out of his mind.

Finally, there's the award part, which includes the standard montage of Avengers news footage set to soaring music, and several tedious speeches that are mainly used to score points with the public in an election year. At least this time the award is just one very pointy crystal trophy rather than individual medals, so they all don't have to get up on stage. Tony accepts the pointy award on behalf of the Avengers and gives the thank you speech, which means he mostly just talks about himself in his usual hilariously arrogant way.

At one point during the speeches, Steve realizes he's got his arm across the back of Darcy's chair. She doesn't seem to care, so he leaves it there until Tony struts off the stage, high-fiving all the dignitaries clustered on the stage as he goes, and it's finally time to head home.

For what is surely the first time ever, Steve thinks a mandatory social function has ended too soon.

~*~

They're barely through the front door of the mansion before Tony announces he isn't nearly drunk enough yet, so they all go out to the back patio in their dressy clothes, where Tony makes huge drinks with sinister sounding names like "Kamikaze" and "Liquid Death." Everyone but Steve gets noticeably tipsy, there's the usual off-key singing of Asgardian drinking songs, and Steve kisses Darcy.

The kiss doesn't actually happen out on the patio in front of everyone, of course, or even right away. At first, Steve makes a concerted effort to stay away from Darcy-the award ceremony is over, which must mean their Not Date is over, too-but once everyone has a drink in their hand, she sits down next to him on the bench rocker and offers him a taste of hers. It's fairly awful.

She must like it fine, because she keeps drinking it as she takes off her shoes and tucks her feet under her on the rocker as best she can in her tight dress. Bruce and Pepper walk over and they all discuss the "Fury had a tonsillectomy yesterday" rumor that was going around the Gotham Hall thing, until Tony feels like he isn't getting enough attention and barges into the conversation.

The topic changes to something called Hungry Hungry Hippos, which Steve doesn't know anything about. Based on what they're saying, it might be one of those games people play on their phones, like the one with the angry birds, which is something Steve has very little interest in, so he pretends to follow the conversation while actually thinking about the way Darcy's bent knee is pressing against the side of his thigh, and the way her arm brushes against his every time she lifts her glass. It's not an unpleasant way to pass the time.

Tony's deadly drinks start to do their magic in earnest, and jackets and ties start coming off, and eventually Clint's in the pool, possibly naked. Natasha, Betty, and Pepper are bouncing on the trampoline in their expensive dresses while Bruce and Tony argue about some incomprehensible science stuff. Jane is sitting on Thor's lap, and his hand is starting to creep up her leg. It's likely Steve will be sleeping on the couch in the den again tonight.

Darcy sets down her empty glass and starts plucking at her hair, and once Steve realizes she's trying to take out the bobby pins that are still holding her hair up, he goes to work on them himself. There are a lot of them, and her hair-do is a lot more complicated than he realized, so it takes a while.

He drops the little pins into her hand one by one, and her hair slowly comes loose, falling down over her neck and shoulders in heavy waves. It's really soft and smells really good. When he's done, she rolls her head on her neck, and sighs dramatically. "Thanks. I was starting to feel like my skull was going to crack in half."

"You have a headache?" he asks. He hadn't realized wearing her hair like that could be uncomfortable. On impulse, he slides his fingers up along the tempting skin of her neck, skipping lightly over the necklace chain, and gently rubs the back of her head.

She leans into his touch and makes a purring sound that makes his belly do a little flip inside. "Oh, that feels good," she breathes. "Keep doing that." It's no hardship, so that's what he does for a while, working his way up to the top of her head and back down, then over to each temple, pausing at any particularly tender spots, until she finally settles against his side. "You better stop or I'm going to fall asleep," she says, half laughing and half yawning. His hand slides out of her hair and down around her shoulder, and he tugs her a little closer.

Darcy nearly falls asleep anyway, head tipped onto Steve's shoulder as he pushes his toes against the ground to keep the rocker moving just enough. Neither of them says anything much, but it doesn't feel awkward at all. It might be Steve's favorite part of the night so far.

Eventually the impromptu party starts to wind down, and it doesn't escape Steve's notice that everyone's breaking off into their original pairs again. Betty drags Bruce over to a chaise where they sit together and laugh at the photos Darcy's been posting to Tony's Facebook page all evening. Tony sits on the ground in front of Pepper's chair, heedless of his expensive tuxedo, and leans his head back so she can run her fingers through his hair. There's some laughing and splashing over by the pool, and a few seconds later Natasha chases Clint into the gazebo. Clint's still naked.

"I think that's our cue to leave," Steve says. Bruce and Betty must agree, because the words are barely out of Steve's mouth before they're up and gone.

"I think that's our cue to bust out the night vision goggles," Tony says, and then, "Kidding! I was kidding!" when Pepper pretends to grab him by the earlobe and haul him to his feet.

As Darcy sits up, yawning against the back of her hand, Steve reluctantly admits to himself that the evening really is over this time. The thought of going back to his room alone is a little depressing, but Darcy puts her shoes back on and looks at him expectantly, so he finds his tie and threads her arm through his. He'll walk her back to her room, at least.

When they get to her door, she hugs him again, for a long time. "Thank you," she says against his chest. She's a lot shorter than he is, even in her nice red shoes. He thinks he's probably hugging her a little too hard, and his hands are maybe a little too interested in exploring the silky back of her dress. It's like all the lines of their friendship are blurring and he can't tell if he's crossing them or not anymore.

He doesn't plan to kiss her, and definitely doesn't mean to, but he's been feeling a pull toward her all night, a pull he kept telling himself meant he was getting too invested in their date that isn't really a date, but with little success. He's maybe not very good at going on Not Dates.

She takes a step back and he reluctantly lets go, but then she looks up at him, and it's suddenly like he's on auto-pilot. He's not even sure how his arms get around her again, but they do. She leans in, lifting her pretty face up to his, and it just…happens. He bends his head and touches his mouth to hers, a kiss that's barely a kiss, and his brain tells him that's it, that's enough, let go of her, but he doesn't, because her mouth opens under his, teasingly slow, and now there's no denying that he's been wanting to do this all night, so he does.

He tentatively touches his tongue to hers and she responds instantly, the insistent heat of her mouth sending a tingle down his spine. He pulls her flush against him, nearly groaning when he feels the soft press of her breasts against his chest and the delicate edge of her shoulder blade under his fingers. One of her hands slides up the back of his neck, leaving goose bumps in its wake, and her fingers gently tug his hair, which feels surprisingly nice.

All of Steve's prior experiences with kisses have been rushed and too far in between, so with Darcy he takes his time and makes it count, holding her tightly against him and coaxing her mouth open a little wider. The kiss gets deeper and hungrier, and he feels like his whole body is lighting up, ready for more.

She breaks the kiss first, slowing it down, and turning it back into something light and teasing. Even though he'd like to do this longer-much, much longer-he follows her lead. When he opens his eyes, she's smiling up at him, a smaller, softer smile than he's used to seeing.

"I guess I wasn't supposed to do that," he says, after he clears his throat, but he doesn't feel very sorry, and he doesn't let her go.

"No?" She bumps her nose against his. "Why not? It was nice."

He's thrilled she thought it was nice. "Well, this isn't-we're not really on a date." Though he may as well admit at this point, at least to himself, that he wishes they were.

"No, we aren't," she says quietly, and even though he's known that all along, hearing her say it leaves him feeling inexplicably disappointed. "But, you know, we're both attractive people, and we're both single, so there's no reason why we can't…you know." She kisses him again, touching his upper lip lightly with her tongue, but just as he's about to say, yes, he'd love to, she tucks her face against his neck and says, "Be fuckbuddies."

It's probably a good thing she can't see his face, because it gives him a second to recover and figure out how he feels, which is a confusing mixture of thrilled and disappointed. For a second, he'd thought she was going to say she wanted to go on a real date with him, and he wants that. Oh, does he want that. That she doesn't is a letdown, there's no denying that. But she does want something with him, something he thinks he wants, too, like lots of kissing and…other things. Things she's offering.

"Okay," he says, impulsively, before he can talk himself out of it. He has one condition, though: "But only if we call it something else."

She huffs a laugh against his throat, which makes him laugh a little, too. He knows she probably thinks he's hilariously uptight, and he guesses he kind of is, but he doesn't really feel that way at the moment. Her fingers are still twisting in his hair, sending hot little sparks of sensation down the back of his neck. He'd probably say yes to a lot of things right now.

She pulls back a little and looks up at him, making a funny thinking face. "Hmmm. How about…fuddies? How's that?"

He thinks that isn't the greatest word either, but it's better than the alternative. "That's a little better," he concedes.

"All right. Let's shake on it," she says, and he sees the glint in her eye. He's not stupid, so he kisses her again; now that he's started he can't seem to stop. This time there's a lot more heat in it, maybe because now they both know this is going to go somewhere.

"Best handshake ever," she says fuzzily when they finally come up for air again. Her eyelashes flutter a little as she sways in his arms. Steve thinks he might be a pretty good kisser for a guy who's only done this a handful of times.

"So, uh, now what?" he asks. He's not sure if this means they're going to have sex right now or not.

"Come over to my place tomorrow," she says, nipping playfully at his chin, rubbing against him just enough for him to know it's on purpose. "We'll cut the ribbon on this thing. Sound good?"

"Sounds good," he says, relieved they'll be somewhere a little more private, even if it means waiting. He doubts he'll be as loud as Thor, but he's not sure he'd be completely comfortable knowing all their friends are nearby, and will probably realize what they're doing.

Her phone starts crowing at her from inside her little purse, and Steve reluctantly lets go of her again as she scowls and mutters, "Tony, I'm off duty, what are you doing?" She kisses him on the cheek before she goes into her room, then turns and takes a step back toward him and grabs him by the collar and pulls him in for another, less innocent kiss that leaves him dazed and blinking when she finally lets go of him. As she turns away, she takes her phone out of her purse and glares at it.

Steve had planned, back before the kisses, to tell her how much fun their evening together had been, and thank her for suggesting it in the first place, but all he can do now is grin at her like a fool as she winks at him and shuts the door behind her.

He stands there for a few seconds, waiting for the fog to clear from his brain, and then leans his forehead against the expensive wood of the door and wonders what the hell he just did.

~*~

When Steve gets back to his room the next morning, there's a text message from Darcy waiting for him, sent shortly after he gave up on trying to ignore the noise from Thor's room and dragged his pillow and blanket downstairs. So last night really did happen, and she really does want him to come to her place, Steve thinks, as he stares at the message. When he woke up with his face mashed into the back of the couch, it almost didn't seem real.

The text is simple, her address and a time to meet, and he almost replies and tells her this whole fuddies thing is a really bad idea, but when his finger starts typing it comes out Thanks, see you soon.

The house is unusually quiet for most of the morning. Even Tony, who seems to need very little sleep and almost never suffers from any kind of hangover, no matter how much he drinks, isn't up and around. Steve goes for a run in Central Park, churning out the most distracted five miles of his life. As he's standing on the curb across the street from the house, winded and sweaty, he sees Darcy come out and get into a waiting cab. She spots him and gives a little wave as the cab pulls out into traffic. He barely has time to lift his own hand before she's gone.

He spends the rest of the day vacillating between excitement and dread, unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I'm going to Darcy's to have sex with her, he thinks to himself, and can't get over how strange it feels to know that. Bucky made this kind of thing look so easy, but everything having to do with women seemed to come easy for Bucky.

Steve changes his mind about a hundred times before he leaves for her apartment, and then twice more between her stoop and her apartment door, but in the end he knocks and she answers. Some of his nervousness subsides when he sees Darcy standing there, looking a little nervous herself, but still undeniably cute in a bright purple sweater and the kind of yoga pants all women seem to wear now, whether they actually do yoga or not. Her hair is falling loose over her shoulders, like it was when he kissed her the night before.

He almost says, "I don't think we should do this," or something equally stupid, but before he can speak she grins at him and tugs him inside by the front of his jacket. He's barely over the threshold when she kisses him on the mouth, and he suddenly remembers why this seemed like a good idea.

"Hi, Darcy," he says, against the corner of her mouth, a little surprised to find his voice sounds mostly normal, even though his heart feels like it's beating at a ridiculous speed.

"Hi, handsome," she says, and gives him another quick kiss. It's almost embarrassing how happy that makes him feel. He knows, objectively, that he's good-looking now, but he'll always remember what it was like to be the short, skinny guy women didn't look at twice. It still surprises him, sometimes, when other people find him attractive. He's beyond pleased Darcy does.

He looks around a little as she takes his hand and leads him over to the couch. The apartment is a lot like Darcy: an interestingly shaped space with a lot of personality. She's right, though-the red bedroom at the mansion really is bigger than her apartment. The place is filled with colorful, mismatched furniture and odd little tchotchkes, the kitchen is basically just an alcove, and the bedroom has a curtain for a door. It's a comfy, welcoming place, and he notices with delight that she has a crowded shelf of actual paper books. It seems like no one has real books anymore.

The couch is small and beat up, and a weird orange-brown color, partially covered with a fluffy yellow blanket. He sits down on it and tries not to look surprised when she straddles his legs and kisses him some more. This is what he came here for, after all.

The sleeves of her sweater are, like almost all of Darcy's sleeves, way too long, coming down to over her hands, and the fuzz tickles the sides of his face when she runs her thumbs over his cheekbones. "I was afraid you'd change your mind," she says, between kisses, and he must look guilty, because she stops kissing him and makes an exaggerated shocked face. "You were going to back out!"

"I'm not backing out," he says, and he's never meant something so much in his entire life. Now that he's here and she's in his lap, it would take an alien invasion to pry him away from her. Which is always a possibility in his line of work, so he hopes that won't happen for at least a few more hours. She nudges at his jaw with her chin until he tips his head back, and then she leaves a line of hot, sucking kisses along the tendon in his neck. "Definitely not backing out," he chokes out. "Um. Oh, that's--"

"Good to know," Darcy says, her breath on his wet skin sending shivers through him. She uses her hand on his cheek to turn his face until their mouths meet again, and whatever response Steve might have made is lost in the kiss, and the kiss after that, and all the kisses that seem to blend into one long blur of her mouth on his, and her hands in his hair.

Her purple sweater is really soft and fuzzy, and it feels good under his hands when he slides them around her waist and up her back. She makes a pleased sound into his mouth and presses down on him, where he's already hard and ready for her. It makes him suck in a breath and lift his hips to meet her as he slowly tugs the back of her sweater up, trying to get his hands under it, until she says, "Wait, wait."

He stops kissing her and lets his hands fall to her hips, feeling inexplicably guilty about what he was doing, even though they've already agreed to do that and more. She leans her forehead against his as they both catch their breath.

"I forgot we should probably talk about the rules," she says, sitting up a little. "Since I guess you don't know them."

That wasn't at all what Steve was expecting to hear. He had no idea there were rules. If he didn't already feel over his head, he would now. "Right," he says, trying to focus on what she's saying and not how eager he feels and how gorgeous she looks right now. It's not an easy job, especially with her fingers still slipping through his hair, making a mess of it.

"First rule," she says. "Condoms always." Steve nods. He has no problem with that. Theoretically. He knows some guys-jerks, in his opinion-complain about it, but he wouldn't know the difference, so it's nothing to him, and he knows it's the responsible thing to do.

"Second: no spending the night unless invited." This one brings him up short. He hadn't realized that wouldn't be allowed. He nods anyway, even though he's a little disappointed. He's never spent the night with a woman before, obviously, but the idea of it had been appealing.

"No one can know," she says. That one he is on board with, 100%. He's still not even sure if he's totally comfortable with what he's doing, and he feels like he'd mostly be embarrassed if everyone knew. Not embarrassed by Darcy, but that people would know something so private about them. He nods again, vigorously.

"No public displays of affection, especially when we're around our friends. We can talk to each other, act normal, but no kissy face stuff," she continues, and then rattles off the rest more quickly. "Anyone can call it quits at any time, no explanation necessary. No holiday gifts. Always call or text before coming over, no drop-ins allowed." Steve just continues to nod along until she gets to the last one: "And no feelings."

"Feelings?" he asks, taken aback. He already has feelings toward her. That's why he's here.

"Like, romantic feelings," Darcy explains, flipping her hand in the air. "You're my fuddy, not my boyfriend. So no hearts and flowers stuff."

"Ah. Got it," Steve says, and then, because he's finding he doesn't really like this conversation very much, he pulls her down into another kiss. That must be all the rules, because after that the talking stops completely.

The kissing gets a little messier, and he slides his hands up under her sweater and cups her breasts, which makes her squirm pleasantly in his lap. He can feel her nipples poking up through the silky material of her bra, so he circles one with his thumb, which makes her squirm even more, and tip her head back so he can kiss her throat at the same time.

"We should go in the bedroom," she murmurs, sounding gratifyingly short of breath, and Steve couldn't agree more.

Once they get to the bed, it doesn't take long for clothes to start coming off, and his shirts join her sweater on the floor in no time. After she shimmies out of her pants, Darcy rolls him over onto his back and straddles his hips, just in her bra and panties, her hard nipples showing through the nearly transparent pink fabric. Her hair is curling in dark swirls against the skin of her shoulders, and her mouth looks even more lush and tempting than usual, pinked by his kisses. She's even more beautiful this way. He feels like he can't stop touching her.

He's not sure how long it's polite to wait before he tries to take her bra off, so he works around it for a bit, sitting up so he can kiss her neck and the center of her chest where he can feel her heart pounding under his mouth. When he finally works the hooks on her bra loose and gently pushes it away, she's rolling her hips against him, and she guides his head down to suck gently on a nipple. Her breasts are beautiful, round and heavy in his hands, and unbelievably soft. He spends a few minutes concentrating on them, figuring out what makes her moan.

Just when he feels like he's getting the hang of it, she suddenly pushes him down onto his back, rubbing against him, and the skin on skin is a bit of a shock, a sensation he's never felt before. It's wonderful. But then she reaches for his belt, and it's time to come clean. He closes his hands over hers, stopping her. She gives him a questioning look, and there's no turning back now.

"I need to tell you--I've never done this before," he says.

"You've never…." she trails off, eyebrows raised.

"I've never done any of this before," he clarifies. There, he said it.

The shocked look on her face makes him feel even more ridiculous. "Are you joking?" she asks.

"No." God, this is so humiliating.

"But you're-Look at you!" she says. "How did no one hit this, ever?"

That's at least a term he understands-Tony uses it all the time. "It's a long story," he says, and then, when it looks like she might want to hear it, he adds, "And not a very happy one."

"Oh," she says in small voice. "I'm sorry."

Her fingers stop clutching at his belt and instead thread through his and squeeze. It's a sweetly comforting gesture.

After that, there's a long, excruciating silence. Finally, Darcy asks him, "Do you want to do this?"

"Yes. Absolutely," Steve says immediately. Even this painful conversation has barely made a dent in the hard ridge nudging persistently against his belt buckle. There's no way she can miss it.

"Good," she nods. "Me, too." She gives him a reassuring smile. "Listen, I just want to have fun and make you feel good, okay? No pressure. So don't worry about it."

He doubts it's possible for him to not worry a little, but he appreciates the sentiment. "Okay." After another extended silence he asks, "I killed the mood, didn't I?"

"A little," she admits, but she's smiling again, rubbing her thumb against him through his pants, which makes his hips roll up to meet her touch. "But I'm glad you told me. You want to take off your pants now?"

Does he ever.

He feels a little shy about it for a few seconds, mostly because he's unaccustomed to the frankly appreciative look she gives him as he stands and strips. She reaches for him as he crawls back up onto the bed, lightly running her fingers up and down the hard length of him, a teasing touch that makes him shiver. No one's ever touched him there before.

He kneels on the bed between her knees and hooks his fingers under the lacy edge of her panties, then slowly eases them down. She's bare down there, completely, and his surprise must show.

"Yeah, that's another thing about the 21st century you'll have to get used to," she says with a small laugh. Her fingers are still rubbing him gently, making him twitch in her hand. "Wide variety of styling choices for the nether regions."

"Fine with me," he says, and his voice sounds a little more gruff than usual. "Fine" is probably an understatement.

He reluctantly takes her hand off of him-it's too distracting-and nudges her thighs up and apart with his hands so he can finally touch her. She obligingly reaches down and uses two fingers to spread herself open a little for him, and the sight of her touching herself makes him feel like he's been hit in the back of the head, right down to the ringing in his ears. He really-he really likes that. A lot.

Most of his fevered imaginings involved him touching a woman, or a woman touching him. He'd never thought to picture a woman touching herself, and in hindsight that seems like an unfortunate lapse in judgment because holy smokes.

"It's okay, you can touch me," Darcy says, nudging him with her knee, and he realizes he probably looks like an idiot, staring at her with his mouth hanging open. Or maybe she thinks he's hesitant to touch her, which he certainly is not. He shifts a little closer and slides his palm down the inside of her thigh.

He's never seen a naked woman up close like this before, and definitely never one this naked everywhere. He's an artist; he's seen nudes, even drawn nudes himself, and of course there's always been pornography around, no matter what decade he's been in, but this is different. Darcy is live and in person, and right there for him to touch. There's nothing hidden at all.

He runs the pad of his thumb along a delicate pink fold of flesh and hears her suck in a breath as she pushes up towards his touch. She's warm and wet, and not afraid to tell him what feels good as he explores her with his fingers. Once he has the lay of the land, he holds himself over her with a hand braced on the bed and kisses her as he touches her, and slowly slides two fingers up inside her, where she's even hotter and wetter, and unbelievably soft.

She feels impossibly small and tight around his fingers as he works in and out of her body, and when his wrist bumps against her, she moans and says, "Yes," so he changes the angle of his arm until she says, "Right there." Her hands dig into his shoulders, and she arches her back and bears down on the heel of his hand as he presses forward again and again. At the end she gasps and shudders, and he feels her squeeze tightly around his fingers in a fast rhythm. He had no idea that would happen.

They kiss for a while as she catches her breath, him trying not to push himself down into the soft skin of her belly, until she taps her knuckles on his chest and says, "Ready for the main event?"

He really, really is, but he kind of had other plans. "Can I-with my mouth?" He'd been looking forward to it before, and is even more so now.

She looks pleased that he wants to do that, but shakes her head and says, "There'll be time for that later," as she reaches for a box of condoms on the table next to the bed. Steve hadn't even thought to buy any, he realizes much too late. He's lucky Darcy did.

He expects her to hand the little packet to him, but she doesn't. She tears it open, pointing with her chin where wants him, so he kneels between her thighs while she gets the condom out and rolls it onto him with confident fingers. It's snug but not uncomfortable, and she strokes him a couple times after she gets it on, watching his face. He already feels a little-lightheaded.

"C'mon, handsome," she says, urging him down with her knees against his hips. "I think you've waited long enough."

He agrees with that sentiment, so he carefully settles between her legs, propped over her on his arms. His heart is pounding and he's incredibly nervous; he hates that he doesn't know any of these things, what exactly he's supposed to do. The aching part of him slides against her, where she's slick and ready for him, and he shivers.

She reaches down and takes hold of him, guides him into place, much to his relief, because he doubts he would be able to find his own way. He's not prepared for how it feels, how tight she is around him, how hot she feels, even through the condom. He sinks into her with a shuddering breath and says, "Oh, my God."

Darcy doesn't say anything, just gives him a minute to gather his wits as she slowly strokes his sides with her hands, kisses his temple. She's so patient with him. He wants to kiss her face, hold her tight and tell her how much he appreciates it, how much it means to him, but the words get tangled in his throat and he can't. Words are quickly becoming an after-thought anyway, because his body is over-riding his mind, demanding action. He rocks his hips a little, and it feels fantastic, so he does it again, pulling back a little more this time, which makes the slow slide back in even better.

"Mmmm, just like that," Darcy breathes, clutching at his back. "Just like that."

He has no plans to stop, so that's an easy request to follow. He thrusts into her over and over, trying not to go too fast or too hard, but it feels so good it's hard to concentrate. She starts moving with him, tilting her hips up to meet his downward stroke, and that makes it even better. It's indescribable, not at all like he'd imagined, and he's imagined this quite a lot. He's not going to be able to hold out.

He pants, "I don't think I can-"

"It's okay, just do what feels good," she says, urging him on with her hands on his backside. He drops his head next to hers and moves faster, gets maybe a dozen more thrusts in before he's done, breath caught in his lungs as his hips hitch against her in jerky little thrusts. It's so intense his vision swims a little, and he sort of half-collapses on her as the last tremors work through him.

Afterward, he's winded and sweating, like he just ran ten miles, and her fingers are combing through his hair where it's sticking to his neck. He lifts his head and she kisses him, laughing against his mouth and he laughs, too, which kind of ruins the kiss, but makes him feel better, less awkward.

"See? First time out of the way, and you did great," she says, taking his face in her hands and kissing him again through a smile. He knows it wasn't actually great for her in the same way it was for him, but he'll make it up to her as soon as he can.

He's wondered, a time or two, if it wouldn't be easier-and less humiliating-with someone he didn't know, someone he'd never have to see again. At times he's been tempted to treat it like a necessary burden and just get it over with, like getting a haircut. Now he's glad he didn't, because it's nice this way, with Darcy and her smiles.

As relaxed as he is, he's still conscious of how heavy he must be, so after a few minutes he reluctantly lifts off of her. There are a lot of instructions involved in pulling out of her and dealing with the condom.

"You're still totally hard," she says, sounding surprised, as he sits back on his heels, handful of tissues at the ready.

"Yes." He thinks he might be blushing, even after everything they just did. "It usually takes two or three times before--"

"Oh my God, we are going to have so much fun," Darcy says, before he can even finish the sentence. She hands him another condom and says, "Suit up, you're goin' in again."

The second time lasts a lot longer, and he doesn't feel so overwhelmed by sensation, and can pay a little more attention to what's going on, and to her specifically. She bites her lip and says, "Slow, slow," so he goes as slow as he can. Based on the noises she makes, he figures out a gentle, languorous rhythm with a little pause, as deep as he can get, and then an equally slow retreat. That seems to do the trick, and he's able to keep going much longer, and then she starts really talking, telling him yes, like that and now a little faster. He does everything she asks, determined to let her finish first this time, gritting his teeth when she digs her fingernails into his biceps.

It's close, so very close, but finally her thighs tremble against his hips, and she tips her head back and makes a sound that reaches right into his gut and twists. Her orgasm feels amazing, all her little muscles contracting around him in a fluttering pulse, gripping him even more tightly as he rides it out, wanting to wring every inch of pleasure out of her. He watches her, thrilled, until he can't hold back anymore, and then he squeezes his eyes shut and finally follows her.

~*~

Steve feels terribly guilty for thinking it, but there's no denying that he sort of dreads seeing Darcy at the house for the first time the next morning. Even more so when he belatedly realizes that his home is her place of employment--he's been to the SHIELD workplace sexual harassment seminar, he knows the rules. Also, Tony might not be thrilled that Steve is fuddies with his assistant, though Pepper used to be Tony's assistant, Steve remembers, and, well. Tony should understand.

Eventually he also remembers that Darcy is Jane and Thor's friend, and that having sex with her could complicate everyone's relationships with each other. For several uncomfortable minutes, Steve's horrified that he's managed to simultaneously break so many rules.

Then Darcy walks into the kitchen and nonchalantly punches him on the shoulder with her phone and says to Bruce, "I'll take one with blueberries, please." She sits down next to Steve and smiles, nudges his knee lightly under the table before becoming completely absorbed in updating Tony's Twitter account, and none of that stuff matters at all.

After that it's fine. They're both really good at being discreet, and both aware that Jarvis sees everything, so there are no stolen kisses or secret liaisons, even when they're alone in the house. But there are a lot of kisses and liaisons when they're elsewhere. A lot.

Steve thinks that if he had known just how great sex is, he wouldn't have waited quite so long to have some. And Darcy appears to know a lot about sex, and lot of different ways to have sex, and she seems perfectly comfortable-and very enthusiastic about-showing him all of it.

They spend a whole day on oral sex alone, which is a glorious day as far as Steve is concerned. First she teaches him how to use his mouth on her, which he enjoys immensely. For long, long minutes she lays open in front of him and tells him what feels good and what doesn't, moaning encouragement when he gets it right, and gently nudging him elsewhere when he doesn't. She hangs onto his head and arches up against his tongue, which makes him so hard he can barely see straight when he finally levers himself up and guides her hand to him. It doesn't take much before he's gasping for air and striping the gentle curve of her belly, barely done before he collapses next to her.

For about half an hour or so, it's the most intense sexual experience of his life so far, and then she completely flattens him with his first blowjob.

After that they spend several visits on all the variations of her on top of him-Steve had no idea there were so many-and then she gives him an appraising look and says, "Super strength, huh?" and they try a few more acrobatic positions. A few of those end in laughter, and only one in bruises.

It seems there's no end to the things they can try, and even the ones he thinks are just okay are still pretty darn good. But many of them are absolutely fantastic. He kneels on the bed and pushes into her from behind-a favorite, because he can span her waist with his hands, smooth his fingers over the rounded curves of her hips, watch himself moving in and out of her. He holds her up against the wall of the shower and blinks water out of his eyes and thrusts up into her; curls up behind her and presses inside while his fingers work between her legs; kneels next to the bed and makes her cry out over and over again with his mouth, hands pressing her thighs open until she begs for a break.

As much as he enjoys the sex, he likes the parts before and after it nearly as much. He likes going to her apartment and cuddling on the couch a little beforehand, catching up with each other before they move to the bedroom. He likes standing in the kitchen, naked and pleasantly tired, eating cold pizza from the refrigerator. He likes the way she sometimes pushes his damp hair off his forehead and kisses him there when they're done, and he likes dozing in her bed with his arm slung over her between rounds. As much as he hates to leave, he likes kissing her goodbye at the door, pinching her lovely bottom on his way out, just to make her laugh and smack him on the arm.

But he does hate to leave before morning. He hates it more as time goes on, really, but he respects her too much to try to talk her into letting him stay. He thinks it would be nice, though, if she wanted him to. He'd like to wake up together in the same bed, naked and warm. He'd like to make her moan, and watch her hands clutch at his shoulders in the early morning light, and then eat breakfast together, just the two of them at the crooked little table under the window. He's not sure she would welcome the suggestion, though, since there's a rule against it and everything. It's better to not say anything about it at all.

~*~

At first they see each other once a week or so, and he leaves it to Darcy to initiate, but their lives being what they are, sometimes plans fall through, and after a while he gets more comfortable sending her text messages and asking if he can come over when he's free. He never breaks the "no drop-ins" rule.

They go on some more Not Dates to official things, and he buys her more jewelry. This is very obviously against the rules, but he decides that it will seem suspicious if he stops--Tony will definitely ask why--so he keeps doing it and she lets him. The first time he shows up at her door with another velvet box, he has a whole argument in favor of jewelry purchases ready to go, but she doesn't bring it up.

So that's one rule broken right from the start, but there are seven more, and he'll stick to those.

Darcy is a text messaging fiend, sometimes sending several in a row faster than he can respond to them, even if he's got his phone in his hand already. She sends him pictures of herself, of interesting or funny stuff she sees while she's out and about, and sometimes embarrassing photos of Tony doing things like getting his facial hair dyed. Other times she sends him sweet messages like Good morning, handsome that end with something that looks like a little sideways butt, or maybe an ice cream cone: <3. He has no idea what that means, but the words stay with him all day, and he often re-reads them when he needs something to cheer himself up, so the sideways butts hardly matter.

As time goes on, more and more often he finds himself seeking her out after a mission, either looking for her in the house if she's working, or asking if he can come to her place if she isn't. At the house they can't ever to anything more than talk for a few minutes, but sometimes that's all he needs. At her place they always have sex, but sometimes he naps with his head in her lap for a while first. Just seeing her makes him feel better, and while there's no rule in particular against what he's doing, he suspects there should be, because he feels like he's becoming dependent on it.

There are a lot of things about his friends he understands so much better now. He understands the way Tony acts toward Pepper, the way he focuses on her and defers to her in a way Steve rarely sees him do with anyone else. He understands the look on Thor's face when Jane walks into the room, and Betty being Bruce's first phone call after he de-Hulks.

Before this, he'd never known what it was like to have a beautiful girl waiting for him when he took off his uniform and went back to being Steve Rogers; not during the war, not during his stint with the USO. Back then he'd spent months with only the thought of Peggy, the hope Peggy represented, and one black and white picture of her, torn from an article in Stars and Stripes, and nothing more. It had felt like enough at the time-it had felt like everything, more than he'd ever had up until that point-but this is different. He and Darcy have so many of the things he never got a chance to have with Peggy, but wanted to so badly. Some days he can barely believe how lucky he is.

People like the Avengers work hard to make sure people like Darcy never have to know just how truly terrible human beings can be, and never have to suffer it first-hand. That's all Steve's wanted his whole life, was to do what he's doing now-to push back, to protect people. He had never imagined the cost, of course. He'd naively thought the worst price he'd pay would be his own life. Now he knows there are worse things to lose.

When he's with Darcy, he doesn't feel like a man whose body was created to go to war. A man who has seen the worst of humanity, who has killed more people than he cares to count, or even can count.

He feels good, he feels happy. He feels almost normal.

~*~

Summer passes, then turns into fall, and they slowly start doing more things together that aren't official Avengers functions, but are still Not Dates. They go to a few movies, and out for meals a couple times, all things that can be passed off as friends hanging out. Darcy always insists on splitting the bill, which offends all of Steve's sensibilities, but he lets it go.

She goes to Brazil with Tony for ten long days, and Steve nearly loses a thumb to a guy with four arms and three swords, but he doesn't tell her about it. He's fully healed by the time she gets home anyway, which is a good thing, because she texts him as soon as she's back in New York, a little smiley-faced invitation to come over, and practically tackles him at the door.

He doesn't even get his jacket off before she's pushed him down onto the couch and opened his pants, and as she leans over to dig a condom out of her bag, he sees she's not wearing any panties under her skirt. She's soaking wet and swollen when he touches her, and she sinks down onto him hard and fast, moaning in his ear that she couldn't wait to see him, couldn't stop thinking about this, and he pants, "Me, too, Darcy. Me, too," and manages to wait until she comes twice before he uses his hands on her hips to hold her down as he thrusts up into her and muffles his cries in her neck.

Two days later they have their first real fight, which seems to spring up out of nowhere. Steve swears one minute they're having a normal conversation and the next they're arguing, about something so pointless he can't believe he's not just letting it drop, but it escalates until Darcy invites him to leave, and that's what finally brings him up short.

"Okay, wait," he says, spreading his hands placatingly between them. "I don't want to fight about this, and I really don't want to leave when we're mad at each other."

"Well, I'm not leaving. This is my house!" Darcy says. Her cheeks are flaming red.

"I meant I don't want either of us to leave," he explains, after he takes a deep breath. If there's one thing he's learned so far in his life, it's that every time you walk away from someone, it could be the last time you see them. He's not going to storm out of here while they're both still angry.

He doesn't tell her this, because he doesn't want to come across as manipulative. One thing Steve hates is being treated differently or pitied because of the way his life has turned out, both good and bad. What he says is, "I don't even know why we're fighting about this."

She glares at the television, which isn't on, and chews on her lip. "I don't either," she admits grudgingly. "I guess."

He spreads his arms. "Let's hug it out," he says, which is what Tony uses to get hugs even when no one is arguing with him, and that dispels about half the tension in the room right there, because she cracks up.

"Seriously, don't say stuff like that," she says, shaking her head as she walks into his open arms. "I can't handle you talking like Tony." But she grabs on tight anyway, and he folds himself around her as thoroughly as he can.

"I'm sorry," he says against the top of her head, and he doesn't mean for talking like Tony.

She gets it. She gives him a squeeze. "Me, too."

"You should have seen him today," Steve tells her when it becomes clear they're going to be standing here hugging a little longer. Tony is a safe subject right now. "Someone put an 'Intel Inside' sticker on the back of the suit while we were waiting for the police to get the perimeter set up." Even Steve knows Tony considers this a grave insult.

"Oh my God," Darcy says, sounding awed. "Did you get a picture?"

"Clint did," he assures her.

She lets go of him long enough to do a double fist-pump. "That's totally going on the Twitter account!" she crows. "I bet it makes Boing Boing, too!" Darcy gets a five thousand dollar bonus every time Tony gets mentioned on Boing Boing. Steve's been to that website and it seems like a lot of stuff about bananas and zombies, but Tony thinks it's a big deal.

He grins at her, relieved the fight's over, and also just naturally pleased to see her so happy about something; Darcy's enthusiasm tends to be contagious, especially where Steve's concerned. She grabs him by the hand and tugs him over to the couch, which is another good sign. Her cheeks are still red, but now it's from excitement, and probably the warmth generated by imagining what she'll do with five thousand dollars.

"So, are we cool?" Steve asks, after they get settled and exchange a few kisses, just to make her cover her face and laugh. It works.

~*~

"Hey, are you coming over tonight?" Darcy asks Steve as she bounces in a circle around him. She's convinced him to jump on the trampoline with her while she waits for Natasha to finish cleaning up and get downstairs. Natasha's teaching her how to do a backflip in the air; she's already mastered the somersault.

Thor and Bruce are likely crashed out in their rooms, and Tony has already climbed into his helicopter and left for a conference in Seattle, much to Darcy's obvious relief. Natasha got held up at SHIELD with a couple necessary stitches, which is how Steve beat her home.

"Absolutely," Steve says. It's become a more or less regular weekend thing now, or as regular as it can be when he's an Avenger and she works for Tony Stark. But Saturday has sort of become their night, if they're both available. He looks forward to it all week.

"Good, because we're leaving on Monday, and I need to get my fix," she says, giving him the little teasing smirk that makes his whole body feel hot. She's going to China with Tony and Pepper for two weeks, on some combination of business trip and vacation. She's been looking forward to it for months.

Darcy doesn't travel with Tony every time he goes somewhere, but when she does it tends to alternate between being a complete blast and a constant heart attack, from what she describes. She seems to like it anyway, and loves telling Steve all about it, complete with what has become a spot-on Tony impression. Steve actually enjoys these insights into Tony's life, which oftentimes is even more absurd than Steve realized. Rich guys are weird.

"I think we should get tacos," she says, bouncing so high he's looking at her knees. "And a giant basket of tortilla chips."

"Uh huh," Steve says, distracted. It's really hard to not look at her shirt when they do this. He can feel himself starting to respond to her already, which is pretty normal, but right now that response is being accelerated by thoughts of seeing her later. Specifically, of what he wants to do later. He recently confessed to his fondness for watching her touch herself, and she's been extremely accommodating in that regard.

He's a little shocked, sometimes, by the sex. Before Darcy, he'd spent a lot of time imagining sex in general, but he never pictured it being as fast and hard as it sometimes gets, certainly never imagined the things she says-the things he says-or how good it would feel to just forget everything and thrust into her over and over, let his body do what it wants.

But he also didn't expect it to sometimes be slow and almost lazy, when he feels like he could keep moving inside her forever, and he makes her clench around him again and again, as many times as he can. Or expect her to tease him with her mouth or her hands, until he's shaking and desperate. Once she even made him say, "Please," which he did, over and over again, until he spilled over her fingers and onto his own stomach. He hadn't expected that at all.

He's not sure how long they're going to continue to be fuddies, but he thinks he could keep doing it for a long time yet. He loves the way she looks, the way she tastes, all the different noises she makes, which he's learned to differentiate as time goes on. When he doesn't see her for days at a time he wants her so badly he can barely think of anything else. Sometimes it's a little frightening, how much power this thing with her has over him, and how much he needs it.

He smiles at her as she bounces on the trampoline in the afternoon sunlight, hair wild, laughing as she flings her arms over her head, and it almost feels like he didn't watch someone else's blood swirl down the drain in the shower less than an hour ago. He's so grateful for that, he wouldn't even begin to know how to tell her.

~*~

Winter comes, and she wears the ladybug scarf. They go ice skating, and to see the Rockettes, which they both love. When the sun shines and the air is brittle, they go window shopping and drink hot chocolate, and he wishes he could hold her hand, and squeeze her fingers through her thick red mittens, but doesn't dare try. He's happy with what he has, he really is. He's happy with what they agreed on, even if it's not perfect. Nothing ever is.

There's a holiday party at the house, just for the group, and everyone exchanges presents. Steve gives Darcy a pair of sapphire earrings, and a coin purse shaped like a monkey's face. She gives him a beautiful book about the Louvre--seven hundred pages in all--full of some of the most gorgeous reproductions he's ever seen. Everyone exchanges gifts that night, and Tony's are preposterously extravagant-a few people get cars-so their gifts to each other don't stand out at all.

The next night, they go to an official holiday ball, for a charity that's a pet project of Bruce's. Before they leave the house, Steve gives Darcy the second part of her Christmas present, which is a necklace that matches the sapphire earrings. Her dress is a pale, icy blue, nearly white, and the jewelry is perfect with it. She looks like a sliver of winter itself, except when she smiles and the warmth of it isn't wintery at all.

The ball feels like it has an even bigger crowd than usual, and for some reason Steve's finding his tolerance for the dog and pony show is wearing thin. When he's reached his limit, he smoothly guides Darcy out of the ballroom and they go for a walk in the atrium, which is deserted. It's full of tropical flowers and fruit trees, welcome in the middle of winter. There's also a small waterfall, but it reeks of chlorine, which kind of ruins the illusion of being in a rainforest.

They sit down at a small bench by the waterfall and she scoots under his arm. This technically breaks the "no public displays of affection" rule, but there's no one else here to see.

"Are you okay?" she asks him. He can feel her eyes on him, and gives her a reassuring smile. She reaches up to where his hand is cupping her bare shoulder and threads her fingers through his.

"I will be. I'm just a little tired, I guess. And I never know what to say to people at these things," he confesses.

She does an almost comical double-take that makes him stifle a laugh. "Really?"

He's surprised she's surprised. "Yes, really." He supposes he should be glad his discomfort isn't obvious, even to someone who knows him as well as Darcy does. He's gotten good at pretending.

"I would never have known," she admits. "You always seem so…I don't know. Confident. Like you always know exactly what to do. And it's not like you have to impress anyone, anyway. People love you."

"People love Captain America," he says with a little laugh. "They don't even know me."

"I know you," she says, leaning in a little closer. She bumps her nose against his. "And I-" Steve's heart feels like it just flat out stops "-like you plenty."

It's close enough, Steve tells himself as he smiles and kisses her on the cheek and tells her he likes her, too. Close enough.

~*~

Steve hears the sigh as he walks past the rec room, because it's hard to miss a Hulk-sized sigh. He backtracks enough to stick his head in the door, and sees Hulk hunched on the couch, chin propped on his hands. As Steve watches, he sighs again.

A quick check of his watch confirms it's been over four hours since they got home from their last mission, which is on the outside of Bruce's reversion period. Every once in a while he gets stuck, usually because something is bothering him. So far he's always come out of it within a day or two, and no one really worries about it much, because he isn't a danger to anyone anymore. Hulk loves everyone in the house now. Maybe a little too much sometimes, as Clint's ribs can attest.

Steve's just about to say something, ask what's wrong, when Tony and Darcy come around the corner. Tony's waving his hands around and rambling nonsense that probably makes some kind of sense if you can parse it, while Darcy follows along behind him, carefully out of accidental poking range. Her arms are loaded down with bound reports and file folders, and she's flicking through something on her tablet and saying things like, "Right, got it. Uh huh. Whatever you say, Tony." She always sounds a little like she's mocking Tony when she does that, but he doesn't seem to care.

As they pass the doorway Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve, then sees Hulk and stops short. Darcy, focused on her tablet, walks right into his back.

"Hey, a little warning next time!" Darcy says, glaring at him as she straightens her glasses.

Tony pays no attention to her. "What's going on?" he asks Steve as he takes in the scene in the rec room. "Someone let him watch Lilo & Stitch again?"

"I'm not sure," Steve says. "I just found him." Hulk sighs again.

Darcy peeks around Tony's shoulder and says, "Oh, poor thing," which isn't something a lot of people say about Hulk. She brushes past Steve and Tony, and heads straight for the couch. It's the special reinforced one, the only one Hulk can sit on. She pauses to carefully set everything in her arms, plus her phone, down on a nearby table, because they've all learned Hulk can break things without meaning to, and that'll only make him feel worse.

Expensive electronics safely stashed, Darcy sits down next to Hulk, looking hilariously tiny in comparison, and asks, "What's the matter, big guy?"

"Hulk sad," Hulk says glumly, as if that weren't already obvious.

"Sir, Director Fury is on the line for you," Jarvis says suddenly, startling the crap out of Steve. He loves Jarvis, he really does, but he's starting to think Jarvis enjoys making him jump.

Tony pulls his phone out of his pocket. "Darce, come see me when the therapy session is over," he says, and then walks away, phone to his ear.

Steve's not sure if he should stay or go, but Darcy meets his eyes and tips her head to let him know he should come in, so he walks over and squeezes into what little space is left on Hulk's other side.

"You wanna talk about it?" Darcy asks Hulk. Sometimes he needs a little coaxing to fess up to what's bugging him.

"Hulk not a freak," he says, and opens one hand. In the center of his big green palm is a jagged rock the size of an egg.

"Oh, boy," Steve says, ashamed that he didn't realize.

Darcy leans forward, craning her neck so she can see Steve around Hulk's massive bulk. "What is that?" she asks him.

Steve feels a little ill. "Some people threw things at him today, as we were leaving. They said some things, too."

Hulk had handled it well, actually, simply snarling as he turned away. The rest of the Avengers hadn't been so sanguine. Thor had given the guys-a group of Long Island smartasses-the most regal scolding of their lives while Clint, Steve, and Tony stood behind him and glared. Natasha hadn't said anything, but had unnerved them all by perching on Hulk's shoulder and staring fixedly at them as she reloaded her guns.

Once the tongue-lashing was over and the smartasses had skulked away, Steve hadn't given it another thought. He sometimes forgets that Hulk's a lot more vulnerable on the inside than he is on the outside. Just like the rest of the Avengers.

Steve gives Darcy an abbreviated version of what happened, not wanting either himself or Hulk to relive it. The look on Darcy's face accurately reflects what Steve had felt at the time. She's upset and angry. "Why would they do that? He was helping."

"They were just...being jerks," he says, which is the simplest answer. It's a universal constant, and he of all people knows this. "They're just jerks, Hulk. They aren't half as brave as you are."

Darcy picks up the thread immediately. "That's right. They probably don't help people like you do. And they definitely don't get to live in a house with a bunch of awesome people like Steve and Thor, right?" She reaches up and ruffles his hair, and Hulk dips his head toward her and closes his eyes, like a dog getting its ears scratched. Steve thinks it's one of the sweetest things he's ever seen.

"Hulk have friends," Hulk rumbles as he loops an arm around Darcy and pulls her into a hug. She nearly disappears into his arms. Steve hopes she can breathe.

"That's right, we're all friends," Steve says, and the next thing he knows, he's being pulled into a hug, too, and squished against Hulk's massive chest next to Darcy. Her glasses are crooked again, and her face is pink with laughter and maybe from being squeezed a little too hard. She's the best, and Steve adores her so much right then he can barely stand it.

Hulk mashes them together a little more, and Steve risks a quick kiss, their first one in the house since the night they agreed to be fuddies, but there's no one to see them here, safe and hidden in Hulk's arms. She kisses him back, and grins against his mouth, and then maybe it's more than just one kiss. Hulk's making a pleased rumbling sound that tickles as it vibrates through Steve's whole body.

"Okay, you think you can let go now?" Steve asks after another minute ticks by. Hulk's hugs are kind of sweaty.

When Hulk lets them go, Darcy and Steve are both a mess, and Steve thinks his cheeks are probably as red as Darcy's, and not just from being squeezed by Hulk. He tries to pat his hair back down and straighten his clothes as Darcy fixes her glasses. Hulk is still holding the rock.

"You know what?" Darcy says, after appearing to consider their options. "I bet Clint's fish would love that rock." Clint has an enormous three hundred gallon fish tank in his room, full of plants and miniature Easter Island heads and a little diving man that actually swims around. It has a single goldfish in it, named Clementine.

Hulk's face lights up at the suggestion. He loves Clementine. "Hulk give rock to Clementine," he says, and heaves himself up off the couch and lumbers out of the room while Steve's still trying to tuck his shirt back into his pants; at least it didn't get torn this time.

Clint is shirtless and toweling his hair when he opens his door. As Steve explains the point of their visit-Clint's eyes narrow briefly when he's reminded of what happened earlier-it dawns on him that he's standing there obviously just out of the shower, but the shower is still running. Then Steve notices the bed is unmade, and a pair of boots he recognizes as Natasha's are part of the pile of clothing on the floor. And that purple bra probably isn't Clint's either.

"Actually…we can come back," Steve says, but Clint starts shaking his head before Steve even gets all the words out.

"C'mon in, buddy," he says to Hulk. "I was just thinking Clementine needed something new to look at."

"Are you sure?" Steve asks, as Hulk nearly flattens him against the doorframe as he pushes past him into the room. Clint doesn't bother to answer, which isn't a surprise. Once Clint's stated his opinion, he doesn't waste time reiterating it. He just stands back and motions Steve and Darcy in, too. So they all tromp into Clint's room and gather around the tank just as the shower stops.

"Hang on," Clint says, as he digs some clothing out a drawer. He opens the bathroom door for a second and tosses the clothes in, then tugs a T-shirt over his head as he joins them at the fish tank. "She'll be out in a minute," he says.

Steve just nods, embarrassed they interrupted them during a private moment, but also a little jealous. Clint and Natasha can be together right here in the house, and they don't have to hide what they're doing. Steve very carefully does not look at Darcy, afraid his face will give too much away.

They stand around admiring Clementine's many decorations until Natasha joins them at the tank, fully dressed, hair wet. Darcy gives her an abbreviated version of the reason for their visit. Natasha, who has the softest of all the soft spots in the house for Hulk, loops her arm around one of his big green ones and leans against it as Clint opens the top of the tank.

Hulk pokes at the diving man for a bit, his favorite thing in the tank after Clementine himself, and then they all watch in respectful silence as Hulk gently and solemnly drops the rock into the tank. It sends up a tiny cloud of sand when it lands. Clementine swims over almost immediately to investigate, which pleases Hulk to no end.

Everyone admires the rock for a bit, and also Clementine's intelligence, as explained to them by Clint. Eventually Clementine loses interest and swims away, disappearing into the maze of plants and other adornments in his tank.

"Okay, everyone!" Steve says, clapping his hands together. "Time to give Clint his room back." He hasn't forgotten they interrupted him and Natasha.

Darcy gives Hulk what would be a shoulder bump but is more of a shoulder-to-elbow bump on the big guy. Steve wonders if he even feels it. "Hey, you need some ice cream?" she asks, bumping him again.

That breaks Hulk's Clementine watching-induced trance. "Ice cream," Hulk rumbles, sounding pleased, and he's out the door and gone. Once Hulk decides he's going to do something, he does it. Steve and Darcy hurry to catch up, because leaving Hulk alone in the kitchen is never a good idea. He once ate an entire restaurant-sized jar of Greek olives.

"I could use some ice cream, too," Natasha says, and Clint starts hunting around for his shoes, so it looks like everyone's having some.

After a quick trip to the kitchen they return to the rec room, where Hulk takes his usual place on the Hulk couch. Clint slouches into a big recliner with his ice cream sandwich already starting to drip down his fingers, and Natasha sits on the arm of the chair with her feet tucked between his legs, relaxed and easy with each other. Clint says something that makes her laugh, and she feeds him a spoonful of whatever ice cream is in her bowl, something chocolately.

It's skirting the edges of rule-breaking, but Steve sits next to Darcy, taking advantage of the fact that Hulk occupies most of the couch and they're kind of squished together. She doesn't seem to mind, and even flings one leg over his knee and starts swinging her foot as they eat and talk. This is a first, either of them displaying this much closeness and familiarity in front of other people.

It lasts a few happy minutes before Darcy's phone crows at her from the table. She hands Steve her empty bowl and gets up to check it, then gathers up her files and her tablet. Tony must need something, Steve realizes, and then remembers this is actually a work day for her. She probably had all kinds of stuff piling up while she was doing this; Steve's seen her email inbox and it's frightening. But she took the time to do this anyway, because Hulk was upset.

Next to Steve, Hulk is now humming happily as he slowly works his way through a gallon carton of strawberry with a wooden mixing spoon. He's actually a very fastidious eater.

"I gotta run," Darcy says, sounding apologetic. "We have to go over this week's lawsuits." One of the more surprising things Steve has learned about Tony is that at any given time he is being sued by half a dozen people who claim he stole their ideas. So far no one has been able to prove that's true. It's doesn't seem to bother Tony very much.

"Hey, thanks for hanging out," Clint says, as Natasha nods, mouth full of ice cream. "And taking care of stuff," he adds, glancing over at Hulk.

"No problem," Darcy says. She pauses on her way out to give Hulk a one-armed hug. He doesn't stop eating, but does tip his cheek down for a kiss, as Steve sits there next to him, trying not to feel envious.

"You feel better?" Steve asks him, as Darcy walks away, though the answer is obvious.

Hulk nods as he licks the back of the spoon. His taste buds are really dark green, Steve notices. "Darcy make Hulk feel better."

"Yeah," Steve agrees, as Darcy looks back over her shoulder and gives them all a little wave before she's gone. "Me, too."

~*~

Tony and Pepper are out of town, vacationing someplace warm, but Pepper sends him a text that says, Darcy is sick please check on her if you can, so Steve sends Darcy a text, and then a few hours later sends another one when he gets no response. Another hour later, despite the fact that he's spent most of it staring at his phone and willing it to chirp at him, he still has not received anything from her, which is unheard of when it comes to Darcy. Finally, with rising panic, he calls her.

She sounds groggy and miserable when she answers the phone, but agrees to let Steve come over after he reminds her he can't catch whatever she has. While he's getting his jacket, she texts him a request for cold medicine, and also some orange juice. Happy is already waiting with the car when Steve gets downstairs-Pepper texted him, too-and they head into the night full of grim determination. When Pepper says jump, everyone asks how high.

Steve nearly buys out the whole drug store, because the array of medicines is overwhelming-shelves and shelves of them-and he's not even sure exactly what Darcy needs. He ends up grabbing a little of everything, and then they stop at his favorite deli for some chicken soup. Three blocks later, he makes Happy stop again, and buys a pint of ice cream, because that seems to be Darcy's cure for everything. Happy drops him off at the curb with orders to call when he's ready to come home.

Darcy answers the door with a blanket around her shoulders, bleary-eyed and slouchy, and shuffles back to the couch, leaving him to kick the door closed while trying not to drop anything. Her hair is a tangled mess and she's wearing two different colored socks. Steve wants to cover her whole face with kisses.

He puts some soup in a bowl, and then lets her dig through the bag from the drug store, belatedly embarrassed by how many things he bought. She laughs a little, though, which he's glad to see, even if it leads to coughing. After she drinks some Nyquil and eats some soup, she nestles in the crook of his arm and lets him push her hair back, kiss her hot forehead.

She dozes off after a while, and Steve gently eases down onto his back so he can settle her on his chest. He's not sure if he's comforting her or taking advantage, but he can't seem to make himself stop, so he gives into the temptation and holds onto her and thinks thoughts he's definitely not supposed to think, until he sleeps, too.

~*~

The next morning, Darcy doesn't say anything about the fact that Steve spent the night, but that may be because she feels even worse. He intends to spend the whole day doting on her, but he gets a summons from Fury and has to leave in a rush and spend a few hours rescuing some hostages from a group of very bad people who are all named after snakes.

That evening, he goes back to Darcy's with some more soup, plus a change of clothes and his toothbrush, just in case. He feels a little guilty about it-that's two rules broken now-but he'd be foolish to not take the opportunity to stay over again if she wants him to.

It does not go at all like the previous day. Darcy is surly and cross and does not want to be cuddled at all, and Steve can't seem to do anything right. He almost gives up and goes home so she can get some rest without him in the way, but when he suggests it she gets even surlier, so they watch a movie instead and Steve tries not to say anything that will get him in trouble.

Eventually, she inches over to sit next to him, and he cautiously puts his arm around her, holding his breath until she snuggles against him. She doesn't feel as feverish anymore, but she's clearly still miserable.

"You don't have to do all this, you know," she says, just when Steve is starting to wonder if she's fallen asleep. "It's not like you're my boyfriend."

"I know," Steve says quickly, though his lungs feel so pinched he can barely draw breath to speak. When she finally does fall asleep, he carefully slips away from her and takes her forgotten soup back to the kitchen. He keeps his back to her while he rinses out the bowl, so he doesn't have to see her curled up on the couch, his to touch but not to have. He knows he isn't her boyfriend, never forgets it for a second, and he's not sure how much longer he can stand it.

~*~

Steve knows there's really only one really obvious choice for whom to go to with questions about sexual relationships, casual and otherwise, so he prepares himself to talk to the expert.

Tony is in his shop welding something when Steve finally works up the nerve to approach him. He waits out of the range of the sparks until Tony notices him and lifts the torch away. "I need to ask you something. Uh, confidentially," Steve says.

Tony takes one look at Steve's face and says, "Sure." He kills the torch and slides his goggles up onto the top of his head. He waits patiently-extremely patiently, for Tony-while Steve clears his throat and gathers his courage.

If Steve were wearing a tie, he'd tug on it, but he isn't, so he looks at the floor and scratches the back of his neck instead. "So I was wondering about-well, is it possible to go from being fuckbuddies with someone to being, you know, in a relationship?" He still hates that word, but he isn't sure Tony will know what a fuddy is, so he has no choice. He finally looks up at Tony, who doesn't seem surprised by the question at all. "Does that ever work?"

Tony crosses his arms and squints at Steve. "Is this about Darcy?"

Steve has a moment of absolute horror and panic, and only barely manages to not immediately deny it all and flee back upstairs. A third rule, smashed to pieces. None of their friends are supposed to know. "How do you know about Darcy?" he asks instead.

Tony snags a stool with his foot and rolls it over so he can sit on it. "Who else could it be?" he asks as he picks up an incomprehensible tangle of wires and goes to work on it with a pair of pliers. "I can't imagine you being anyone's fuckbuddy at all, really, so it would have to be someone you've known for a while, because you're one of those sensitive nice guy types-which some women love, so don't feel bad about that-and I know it's not Pepper or Jane or Betty, so that leaves Natasha or Darcy. If it were Natasha, you'd probably be limping a lot, even with the super healing thing, plus it looks like she and Clint are back on again. And you've been paying a lot of attention to Darcy lately." He frowns at the wires. "Who, by the way is my employee, so I hope you're not fucking her on my time."

Steve doesn't even know where to start with all that, so he addresses the most offensive part first. "We never did anything while she was work-"

"I was joking," Tony says, grinning at him before he goes back to fiddling with his wires. "You know how many assistants I've fucked on company time? My own and everyone else's?"

"Uh, no," Steve says. "But a lot, I guess?" He wishes Tony would quit saying "fuck."

"A lot," Tony says, looking pleased with himself.

"Okay," Steve says, not very comfortable with the turn this conversation has taken. He really just needed some advice.

"Anyway," Tony says, giving up on the wires. He spins on the stool to face Steve. "To answer your question, yes it can be done. I've never done it myself, mostly because I've never wanted to, but it's not impossible." Steve is momentarily encouraged by this, until Tony continues, "The problem is, if you bring it up and she says no, then you've screwed yourself, because if she's not interested, she'll probably break it off once she knows you're getting in a little too deep. So you run the risk of ending up with nothing."

Having nothing sounds even worse than having what they have now, despite how bittersweet it's turned out to be. Steve tries not to let on that the answer isn't what he wanted to hear. He just thanks Tony, who nods and says, "Anytime." He's back to his welding before Steve even gets up the stairs.

By the time he makes it back to his room, Steve's decided not to do anything rash, to take some time and think about it for a while. He won't stall around. He'll just give it some thought before making a decision.

So that's what he does. For two more months.

~*~

"I'm thinking you should let me buy you dinner," Darcy says, leaning against the door in the gym. She's got what Steve knows is a Stark corporate credit card held up between two fingers. This usually means she's had a particularly trying day and either Tony or Pepper told her to go out and spend some money on herself. "Someplace expensive."

"I'd be glad to," Steve puffs out, doing one last chin-up before he drops back down to the floor, arms burning. He gingerly flexes his fingers, which don't want to uncurl right away. He was up there a long time.

"Good, because I need a martini the size of your biceps," she tells him, as her eyes travel appreciatively up and down his body.

"That's a pretty big martini," he says, giving her a sly sideways glance as he grabs his towel and wipes his face. Flirty banter is actually not that hard when you really like the person you're bantering with, he's found. They're lucky his shirt is soaked with sweat, or he'd be tempted to kiss her right here in the house, and that would be against the rules.

Jarvis has a car waiting by the time Steve's showered and dressed. They walk out to the curb with a perfect two feet of distance between them, but as soon as the car door closes behind Steve, Darcy slides over and under his waiting arm. Her hand rests on his thigh as the car pulls out into traffic. The windows are blacked out, and the divider between them and the driver is up. They have a modicum of privacy here.

"That bad?" he asks, once they've pulled out into traffic and are crawling toward the restaurant. He knows there was a press conference today for Tony's company, which is why Darcy is dressed all in black; it's what she does when she has to deal with a lot of reporters. Steve doesn't think it makes her look particularly intimidating, but that's maybe because he knows her too well. Her hair is twisted into a knot on top of her head and she's wearing tall leather boots. Steve really likes the boots.

"He told the entire press conference about the nanotech," she says, leaning her head back on his arm and closing her eyes. "Even though he swore he wouldn't. But I knew he would, so I had the handouts with the specs ready."

This isn't surprising news--Tony is impulsive and prone to making big promises and saying things he's not supposed to say. But it's hard to hold it against him, because he almost always delivers on his promises, and the press loves his theatrics. And Darcy has learned to be ready for anything, like she was today. Steve never gets tired of hearing about Darcy outwitting him.

"You're the perfect antidote to sixteen hours with Tony," she says, squeezing his leg. She's wearing her ladybug bracelet, a matching piece to that first necklace he bought her. He got the bracelet for her when they went to a big fundraiser for Citymeals-on-Wheels.

"Am I?" Steve asks, amused. "Does that mean I'm boring?"

"Captain Rogers, you are far from boring," she replies, a little flirty, and Steve flashes back to the last time he was at her place, a little mini movie whizzing quickly across his brain before he makes himself pay attention again. "And you're way less high-maintenance, too."

"I would hope so," Steve laughs. Everyone is less high-maintenance than Tony, except maybe newborn infants. Tony expects the world-and his world in particular, which includes his company, Iron Man, and the Avengers-to revolve around him. In all fairness, the world often seems to be happy to do just that. And being around Tony can be invigorating, and Bruce is one of the people who seem to thrive on it, but at a certain point it tips over into exhausting. Darcy has the look of someone who has reached that tipping point.

Since he already knows back seats of blacked out cars don't count as public, he tips her face toward him with a finger on her chin and kisses her mouth, gentle and lingering.

"Mmmm. I feel better already," she says when he breaks the kiss and nestles her back against his shoulder. "And I haven't even had a martini yet. And I am definitely only allowed to have one. Hold me to that."

"Busy day tomorrow?" Steve guesses.

"Yes. He has a photo shoot with Pepper for French Vogue, then an interview with Men's Health. Then he flies to L.A. for the Leno thing." Tony's filming some kind of comedic bit with Jay Leno and his cars. Organizing it has been a giant hassle, to hear Darcy tell it. "The marketing guy had a few questions about the presentation and the choreographer needs to know how many fog machines she needs to work around. But I'll worry about that tomorrow. Tell me about your day."

Darcy probably doesn't want to talk about work anymore. That's fine with Steve.

"Well, Hulk got tossed into a tanker truck that turned out to be full of honey," he tells her. "And then a lady's dog started licking him, and he tried to pet it." Darcy's already laughing, and he hasn't even gotten to the best part yet. "When Tony tried to unstick the dog, it bit his suit and broke a tooth, so now Tony has to pay for a dog dentist and Bruce has to speak at the lady's son's preschool graduation ceremony."

"Please tell me there are pictures," she says. "Please."

"Of course," he says, and reaches into his pocket for his phone. "You can probably count on that bonus."

"Awesome," Darcy says, and squeezes his leg again.

Steve spends a lot of time doing heroic things that make the world a better place, but nothing makes him feel as good as making Darcy laugh when she's had a rough day.

~*~

The Avengers get another award, and Steve and Darcy go on another Not Date. This time her dress is a deep burgundy color, and Steve buys her a chunky black and silver necklace that costs more than he earned in all of 1943.

There's more drinking afterward, as usual, but they go to a dark and noisy bar to do it, because Tony insists. They're dressed way too nicely, and are also the Avengers, so even in a place as jaded as New York they attract some attention when they descend on the booths at the back of the place. Someone orders two entire bottles of tequila, and several trays loaded with teetering haystacks of onion rings, because the food tonight was even worse than usual. Steve gets a beer, because he likes the taste of it with the onion rings.

He gets into a conversation about baseball with Agent Coulson, who has a frankly scary level of recall when it comes to baseball stats, and it's pretty interesting. The game really has changed a lot since Steve's time, just like everything else. It isn't until Coulson slips out of the booth and leaves him alone that he notices Darcy is at the bar talking to a guy Steve doesn't know.

He's one of those oily Wall Street types with the crispy hair and a Bluetooth permanently stuck in his ear, and he is absolutely hitting on Darcy. As Steve watches, the guy touches her on the shoulder and smiles at her. Darcy smiles back and laughs at something he says. Steve is certain Darcy does not like oily Wall Street types, but he's finding it hard to trust his judgment at the moment.

He's already half out of the booth when suddenly Tony's there, face grim, pushing him back down with a firm hand. Without the Iron Man suit, Tony's no match for Steve, and they both know it, but Tony says, "You're about to make a big mistake," and that brings Steve back to reality.

He lets Tony shove him back into his seat, and reluctantly slides over a little when Tony flicks a hand at him. The oily guy is still talking to Darcy. Tony shoves at Steve's shoulder again, until Steve finally makes enough room for him to sit down, trapping Steve in the booth.

Tony sets his drink down, smiles at him as if they're doing nothing but having a friendly conversation, and says, "Don't look over there."

It's almost impossible to not look, but Tony taps his finger on the rim of Steve's beer glass and Steve's eyes automatically snap toward the motion. Now all he has to do is not look back over there. He closes his hand around the sweaty glass, fingers clenched so tight they squeak.

"Atta boy," Tony says, still smiling. "Relax. Darcy has better than taste than that."

"I know," Steve says, but he feels sick inside, like all his guts are squirming around. This is the first time he's been confronted with the worst of what being fuddies means-he has no say in what she does, and he can't even speak up, because he agreed to this, and besides then everyone else might figure out what they're doing, which would break another rule.

He hates all the stupid rules, every one of them. She could take some guy home with her any time she wanted, do all the things she's been doing with Steve, and he'd have no right to protest. He'd even have to act like it's okay. It's not okay at all.

"Wow, this is worse than I thought," Tony says, looking uncharacteristically concerned. "You need to do something about this, Rogers. You're going to make yourself crazy."

"I know," Steve says gloomily, and pushes his beer away. He feels a little more in control now. "What's happening over there?" he asks. He feels pathetic, but he can't help himself.

Tony casually looks over his shoulder and winks at Pepper, as if that's what he intended to do, and then turns back toward Steve. "I think she gave him the brush-off. She's talking to Bruce now."

Steve's relief is immediate, but short-lived, because it's clear he has an even bigger problem on his hands, and it's one he can't avoid any longer.

Up until now he's only been partly honest with himself about what he's doing with Darcy and how he feels about her. Seeing someone else express interest in her, and knowing he's powerless to do anything about it, has left him little place to hide from his feelings.

And now he can't hide them from Tony, either, so it probably won't be long before he can't hide them from the others, too. And eventually, from Darcy herself.

~*~

The next time Steve makes his way to her apartment, it's with a growing sense of dread, but he's determined to quit avoiding the issue. It's time to let Darcy go.

He plans to say something to her right away, but instead he kisses her, desperate and sad, and they end up in bed. He moves inside her for a long time, propped up over her on his forearms, cradling her head in his hands so he can kiss her over and over again, breathe in every whispered plea for more. When they're done, he slides down the bed and opens her knees, presses his mouth to the soft skin at the top of her thigh before making his way to the center of her. He's as gentle as possible, knowing how sensitive she is now, slowly coaxing a long, rolling orgasm out of her.

He spoons up behind her afterward, and her fingers twine with his where his arm is curled around her waist. "Mmm. That was nice," she says.

"Yeah, it was," he manages to say. He tries not to think about it being the last time. She falls asleep for a while, but he doesn't. He holds her in the dark and wishes things were different.

Steve feels her breathing change when she wakes up, and pulls her a little closer, gathering his courage. Before he can get his words in order, she arches her back and rubs the curve of her backside against him in invitation, and his body responds, as it always does, but he knows he has to stop now. He could keep doing this forever: just one last time, and one more last time, and another. That's how two months have already passed. That's how a year has already passed.

"I think it's time to stop doing this," he says, mouth moving against the back of her head. He doesn't elaborate. That's one of the rules: either one of them can break it off, no questions asked, at any time. And he'd rather not explain why.

"Sure, no problem," she says immediately, her voice light. She's already put a couple of inches of space between them, as soon as he said the words. The hope Steve hadn't even realized he was holding onto evaporates. She's not going to argue with him, or try to change his mind. They're done.

She doesn't turn over when he reluctantly pulls away. She doesn't look at him at all, in fact, until they're dressed and standing at her door. There are no goodbye kisses, no pinches, no swats, nothing. He says, "I'll see you tomorrow," and she smiles at him, and says, "Yep, see you then," and closes the door behind him.

He walks down the stairs a lot more slowly than usual, finding he has to force himself to take each and every step that leads him away from her apartment forever. It's one of the hardest things he's ever done, lifting his feet one at a time, over and over again. They feel like they're made of lead. It feels like his whole body is made of lead. Mostly his heart.

~*~

He doesn't see her the next day, though, or the day after that. It's cowardly, and he's not proud of it, but he can't make himself talk to her, or even be in the same room with her. It'll get better, he knows, with time. He just needs to wait a bit, let the sting go away a little first. Jarvis makes it easy to avoid her. If anyone notices he's suddenly not around when Darcy is, they don't mention it. Not even Tony mentions it.

It's only then, with a lot of extra time and solitude suddenly on his hands, that he faces what a truly crappy situation he's gotten himself into. He and Darcy will have to see each other all the time, plus now he's lost-at least temporarily-his close friend, and the person who went to all the boring functions with him, as well as the sex, and the talks on the couch and the pizza in the kitchen, and someone to touch him with gentle hands when he gets home from fighting people who want to kill him.

Now he has nothing, just like Tony predicted, though it's by his own choice.

He thinks maybe he made the wrong choice.

~*~

The Avengers have a really awful three days where they're fighting crime all over the place, and getting their butts kicked every time they do it. Tony gets hurt, Natasha gets hurt and won't admit it, Thor actually gets knocked unconscious, and that's just the first day. The bad guys get away, and then there are more bad guys, and then Hulk loses it and runs off into a forest in Vermont and no one can find him for two hours. The last thing that happens is one of the bad guys yanks one of Clint's arrows out of her dead accomplice and stabs Steve through the shoulder with it.

After it's all over and the SHIELD docs let him go, Steve drags himself home, feeling dispirited, and hurting a lot more than he's used to; even his accelerated healing can't keep up with the punishment his body has taken the last few days. As he gingerly strips down to his underwear and settles on his bed, he thinks wistfully of Darcy, and how much he misses her, and how much he would love to see her right now. That only seems to make him feel worse.

It takes him a long time to get comfortable, because something in his shoulder pulls, no matter which way he positions himself, and he finally ends up lying on his good side and curling his injured arm carefully over his ribs. He's just about to doze off when someone knocks on his door, and he feels unaccountably irritated. Steve's not one for self-pity, but he'd really like to just be alone right now to lick his wounds, both physical and mental.

Too exhausted to bother getting up, he calls out for the visitor to come in, dropping his guard just this once. That turns out to be a bad call, because his visitor is Darcy. No drop-ins allowed, he thinks immediately, and then wonders if the rules even apply anymore. They probably have a whole new set of rules to follow, and he doesn't even know what they are.

He tries to sit up, aware he's nearly naked and they don't do that together anymore, but moving hurts. By then she's already there next to him, sitting down on the bed in the space made by the curve of his body. He eases back down onto the pillow, trying not to grimace too much.

"Hey," she says softly. She doesn't call him "handsome." Steve's not sure if it's that or simply the familiar sound of her voice that twists his stomach in a knot.

"Hi, Darcy."

"I thought you might need some ice cream," she says, hefting the bowl in her hands. It has two spoons sticking out of it and smells minty. "Are you okay?" Her eyes drift over the bandage looped around his chest and up over shoulder.

"I will be," he says. He doesn't even try to smile at her. He can't make himself do it; seeing her is sapping the last reserves of his strength. She looks beautiful, as always, even in a T-shirt with a hole in it and mismatched socks. Maybe especially in those things, because they're what he's seen her wear at home, when it was just the two of them, laughing and cuddling.

Neither of them says anything else right away. She looks upset, which seems strange; he's used to her smiling when she's around him. She sets the bowl down on the nightstand and reaches out and pushes his hair back off his forehead, gently smoothing it into place. It's a gesture he recognizes, something she's done dozens of times, but never while looking this sad, and never while he was feeling this awful.

He's weak, he knows it, but he can't bring himself to care, or to fight it. As soon as he opens his arms, wincing a little at the pain in his shoulder, she comes down into them without hesitation, gently making a little spoon in front of him. She's careful not to jostle him as she settles her head on the biceps of his good arm. For a moment he has to squeeze his eyes shut and steady his breathing when he feels her against him, familiar and comforting. He needed her and she came.

Steve wishes it could be like this always, and wants it now more than ever, so he hides his face in her hair and holds on as tight as he can with his bad arm. He holds on to everything he feels but shouldn't, and everything he wants to say but can't. He's already made a huge mess of this whole thing; he won't make it worse if he can help it.

Instead, he says her name, tentatively, through a throat that feels raw and tight, but that's as far as he gets in his intended thanks. Her fingers thread through his, and he feels her soft mouth brush against his knuckles, a gentle kiss, and she says, "Go to sleep. I'm here," and his heart breaks in two.

~*~

It's nearly dark when he wakes up, the gray light of dusk filling the room. His shoulder feels a lot better and his bruises look mostly gone. Darcy is still there, clutching his good arm. He lets himself have a few more seconds, pressing his face into her hair and just taking her in; he hadn't realized how much he missed the smell of her. Then he marshals his resolve and makes himself slide his arm out from under her so he can roll onto his back and put some distance between them. He shouldn't have done this, because it will set him back days, maybe weeks, in his efforts to get over her.

As soon as he settles onto the bed she turns over to face him, slowly, so as not to bump into him, and carefully puts her arm across his middle, easing closer until she can rest her chin on his chest. His good arm wraps itself back around her shoulders before he can stop himself.

Her hair is loose, curling around her neck, down over her shoulder, tickling his bare skin. He's seen her like this plenty of times, but never in his own bed. And never will again, ever, anywhere. He feels unbearably sad.

She traces a small circle over his heart with the tip of her finger. "Why did you break it off?" she asks, with no warning at all. He's completely unprepared for the question.

"I thought I didn't have to-" he starts to protest.

She presses her finger to his mouth, shushing him. "I know I'm not supposed to ask, and you don't have to tell me, if you don't want to. But it seems like maybe it's bumming you out a little, so I don't get why you did it."

This will be the final humiliation, telling her why. The thought is so unpleasant that he's tempted to lie, and he rarely lies to people he cares about, about anything, ever. But then he remembers the first time he went to her apartment, when he confessed he'd never been with a woman before. She doesn't judge him, or laugh at him, and never has. She deserves to know the truth.

"I broke one of the rules," he admits, with great difficulty.

He hopes that answer will suffice, but she tilts her head and chews on her lip for a second, then asks, "Which one?"

"The one about-feelings," he says. His face feels immovable, expressionless. "I think I broke it a long time ago," he confesses, though he's only recently admitted it to himself. He liked her long before that first Not Date, where he gave her a ladybug and kissed her outside her door. He's probably always liked her more than he should.

All this time he's thought agreeing to be fuddies with her was some weird anomaly, some kind of out-of-character, throw-caution-to-the-wind thing on his part. But it wasn't. It wasn't at all. He's wanted more than she wanted to give him this whole time.

He'd rather not tell her any of that.

"Come here," she says, and cups his cheek with her hand, drawing him closer. She kisses him, a tender little thing, like the first one so long ago. And like that first time, Steve's body just does what it wants. His arm tightens around her and his mouth opens for her. They're not supposed to kiss anymore.

When she pulls back, she's smiling at him. He doesn't understand what's happening at all.

She bumps her nose against his, and says, "That's good to know, because I broke that rule, too."

Steve could swear his heart literally stutters in his chest. She doesn't mean…does she? "You did?" he asks. He almost winces at how hopeful he sounds.

"Mmm hmm," she says. Her smile's even bigger now. Bright and open, radiating happiness. "I broke it a lot. It's very, very broken."

"Oh, thank God," he says, before he can stop himself, pulling her into an awkward, crushing hug. He holds her so tightly his arm starts to shake, and she makes a sound of discomfort. Steve rarely forgets how strong he is, but this has done it.

"Sorry," he says immediately, and loosens his grip a little, but not too much. "I just…" He doesn't know how to finish that sentence.

"So," Darcy says, looking up at him from beneath her eyelashes. "You wanna be my boyfriend, Captain Rogers?"

He feels how huge his grin is, like his face is going to crack in two, but he can't rein it in even a little bit. "Yeah, I do," he says. "I really, really do." He kisses her again, confident of his welcome this time, and it goes on for a while, until they're both breathing a little heavily.

"It's too bad you're hurt," Darcy sighs, when they break apart. "We could celebrate."

"I'm not that hurt," he says immediately. Which is absolutely true. "You can be on top." There's no way she can miss how interested he is in celebrating; he's practically naked.

That makes her laugh, and he can't help but laugh, too. He feels so unbelievably happy, and has to pull her in for another kiss before she finally squirms out of reach and hops off the bed. She strips out of her clothes in seconds, then helps him when he struggles to get his underwear off with one hand.

"As long as we're breaking all the rules," she says as she hovers over him on all fours, "we can probably ditch the condoms."

"I'd like that a lot," he says. He knows this is kind of a big deal, and it's something he would probably never have suggested on his own, even though he knows Darcy takes those pills; she told him that when they started. "If you're sure."

"We've been together long enough," Darcy shrugs. "And I haven't been with anyone else. Have you?"

"Of course not," he says, and that's one more nagging worry he didn't want to admit to, gone for good. She wasn't with anyone else while they were fuddies.

He props himself up on some pillows so he's almost sitting up, because he wants to be able to reach with his injured arm. She climbs astride his hips and sinks down on him without any preliminaries, and he tightens his arm around her and gasps into her neck when he feels how hot and slick she is inside, the shock of it sending goose bumps scattering down his arms.

"Is this okay?" she asks as she starts to move, and Steve knows she means his shoulder, but he shivers at the feel of her, so wet, so warm, and can only nod his head and moan. He had no idea it would feel like this, even though he's touched her there before, with his fingers and his tongue. It's so good. So very, very good.

After that, it gets fast and intense. Maybe because they've been apart, maybe because they don't have to hide anything from each other anymore. Darcy grabs onto the headboard and rides him, and he snaps his hips up to meet her as best he can.

It doesn't take long before he hears the helpless little sounds she makes when the end is near. "God, you feel so good," she moans. "I'm really close."

"Me, too. Don't stop," he says, urging her a little faster, feeling his orgasm bearing down on him. The next thing she says is his name, a gasping cry as she furiously works herself on him, and he manages to hang on a few more seconds until he's sure she's done, before he lifts his hips one last time and lets himself come.

This time he doesn't have to pull out of her and deal with the condom when they're done, so they kiss for little bit while he rubs her with his thumb, lightly tracing a slick circle until they start again. They're in no hurry now, and he watches her ride him slowly, letting it build until her thighs are shaking and the hair at the nape of her neck is damp under his fingers.

Steve's not much of a talker, but he can't seem to stop himself now, when she's moving on him so slow and easy. "I missed you," he pants into her shoulder as she rocks gently in his lap. He'd always avoided saying things like that before, afraid of getting too close to the "no feelings" rule, but now he can say whatever he wants. "I missed you so much, and I wanted this for so long, but I thought you didn't."

"I missed you, too," she murmurs against his ear. "I wanted this, too." He holds her tight and kisses her neck, her nipples, the inviting space between her breasts where he once worked himself until he spilled across the pale skin of her throat. He's greedy to touch her, to put his mouth on her, after thinking he never would again.

At the end she's barely moving, grinding down on him, and he's got his fingers dug into the soft swell of her hip, watching her face as she comes apart around him, pulling him with her.

He collapses back onto the pillows, which are long since strewn all over the place, and he urges her down onto his chest, shushing her when she starts to protest about his shoulder. He feels fine. He feels fantastic.

They both groan when she moves enough for him to slide out of her. "That was great," she mumbles, flapping a hand weakly against his face. "We should do that again in a little bit."

"I think that's pretty likely," he says, laughing. He catches one of her fingers in his teeth and gives it a tug.

They cuddle for a few minutes, not saying much, and then take turns in the bathroom. Steve checks his shoulder and finds the wound is closed, so he pulls off the bandage. On his way back to Darcy he has to stop for a second and just look at her, there in his bed. He never thought he'd have this, or a hundred other things he's wanted so desperately. He dives under the blankets with her and gathers her close.

"Stay here tonight. Sleep in my bed," he says between kisses. He has plans for her in the morning, things he's been thinking about for months. And tomorrow is pancake day, too. They can walk into the kitchen together and not have to hide anything from anyone.

"Mmmm," Darcy hums drowsily into his mouth. "Definitely planning to sleep here a lot. I'm not letting you get away again."

"Me neither," Steve says fervently, sliding one of his legs between hers. He's going to buy her all the gifts he wants, and hold her hand when they go for walks, and have all the feelings he wants without hiding them from anyone. The next time they all go to some hoity-toity function, she can sit on his lap when everyone gets drunk on the patio afterward, and he can talk about her with his friends the way Tony talks about Pepper, and Bruce talks about Betty. He can introduce her to everyone as his girlfriend. He can do a thousand little things that his friends take for granted, but are a whole new world to Steve.

But right now he has something else he's wanted to do for a very long time. Something he wants her to know, words he's been holding in his heart for months.

"Darcy," he says softly.

She stirs in his arms and opens her eyes. She's so beautiful. When she touches his face she smiles, and says, "Hi, handsome."

He leans down and whispers in her ear.

The End

~*~

Darcy's Rules of Being a Fuddy

1. Always call or text before coming over.

2. No public displays of affection.

3. Condoms are mandatory.

4. No one else can know.

5. Never spend the night.

6. No holiday gifts.

7. Anyone can call it quits at any time, no explanation necessary.

8. No feelings.

9. In the case of Steve Rogers, none of the above apply. <3 <3

Notes:

  • You can see Darcy's shirt here!
  • This is the book Darcy gave Steve for Christmas: Paintings in the Louvre by Lawrence Gowing.
  • Because I wrote 99% of this before the release of the Avengers movie (I started it back in December of 2011!), they live in Avengers Mansion rather than Stark Tower, and Phil Coulson isn't dead and I'm sure there are a million other little inconsistencies, DEAL WIDDIT.
  • The first draft of this story had a scene where Darcy and Steve go to a revival theater to see The Wizard of Oz, and he mentions seeing it in the theater when it was first released. When I went to see the Avengers movie I was kicking myself all over the place for not getting this posted before the movie came out, because that would have been pretty damn awesome. I took the reference out of the final draft, since I missed my chance to look like a psychic. :)
  • The <3 confusion came from a co-worker, who once asked me why his daughter kept sending him ice cream cones in her text messages.
  • Yes, Steve does really think Tony is an expert at relationships. Isn't he adorable? (In his defense, as long as he's known Tony, Tony has been with Pepper, so the sample Steve's working from is horribly, horribly skewed.)

eiirene made a beautiful piece of art inspired by the scene where Steve gives Darcy the ladybug necklace! (Follow link to see the Tumblr post!)

[Image Description: Steve and Darcy and the ladybug necklace.]

Feanor_in_leather_pants drew Clint having a heart to heart with Clementine! You can also find it on Tumblr!

[Image Description: Clint with his goldfish, Clementine.]