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We'll Run Like We're Awesome

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For as long as Darcy Lewis could remember she knew she had two dads, even though she'd never met one of them, and didn't even know his name. She had no memory of anybody actually sitting her down and saying "oh, by the way...", nobody ever pointed to Paul Lewis and said "that guy isn't your real/first dad". It must have come up at some point, but she really couldn't remember. It was just a fact, one of those facts that you just know, even if there's no real moment you can point to and say "Ah, ha!". Like the fact that houses have roofs, and cats have whiskers, and putting tabasco sauce in your little brother's mashed potatoes will make him cry and get you grounded -- she didn't need to do it to know she'd be grounded, but she did it anyway, because some things are just worth doing at least once, and that's another one of those Things You Just Know.

The Other Dad Situation wasn't something they talked about a lot, but it wasn't a secret, either. It just was what it was. Her mom would answer questions on the rare occasions she was curious -- it wasn't that she wasn't a curious child, because, oh man, was she ever, but it really didn't cross her mind a lot. She had Paul Lewis who was, without a doubt, her daddy, and a dad in all the ways you'd want a dad to be -- like teaching her to ride a bike, coaching her soccer team, taking her to movies, cleaning out her skinned knees, calling her his princess even when she thought she'd die of embarrassment when he did that in front of her friends, or grounding her for putting tabasco sauce in her little brother's mashed potatoes. Dad stuff. She didn't really feel like something was missing.

When Darcy was eight, her best friend Darren got a new mom. For some reason he found this really traumatizing and flatly refused to go to the wedding, so he spent the day with the Lewis' instead. Darcy thought his soon-to-be new mom was super nice, and it wasn't like he didn't have his other mom anymore, so she really didn't know what got up his nose about the whole thing. Sure, his real mom lived in Chicago, but he got to go see her all the time -- he even flew by himself once (only not really, because Darcy knew his aunt was a flight attendant and so that totally didn't count), and always brought Darcy back his plastic pilot's wings, which was really pretty cool, even if she kind of hated him because sometimes he got to go in the cockpit with the pilots and she'd only been on a plane twice and she didn't even remember the first time.

"What's the big deal?" She asked, picking through the box of wings and trying to find a pair that matched her barrettes.

"She's not my mom," Darren grunted and held out a pair of silvery wings he dug up from under all the gold ones.

"Well, no." Darcy considered for a moment, then tugged out one barrette and clipped the pilot's wing in its place. Turning her head in the mirror to see the effect, she decided it looked pretty awesome. "Is there another silver one?"

"The Delta one's kinda silvery?"

"Close enough." Taking the other set of wings, she swapped it in, then nodded at her reflection. Excellent. Makeover complete, she turned to make squinty eyes at Darren, who was slouched on her bed, head hanging over the edge, one arm stretched out towards the wing box, and who also seemed determined to mope for the whole afternoon. Which was just not going to happen. He'd be fun, or he could go to the wedding, that's all there was to it.

"Okay, so she's not your actual mom, but she's now a mom-like person, and moms can be cool. Sometimes." She shrugged. "So, now you've got two."

"You don't understand."

She pfft'd at him and waved a hand at his frowny face. "I've got two dads."

"No, you don't." This was apparently not one of the things that Darren Just Knew.

"Yes, I do."

He looked extremely skeptical, and almost a little mad, like he thought she was lying to him. "Since when?"

"Since always?" Darcy waved her arms vaguely in the air. "I don't know, like, just since forever. Since I was born."

"I don't believe you. I've never seen two dads."

"MOM! HEY, MOM!" Darren clapped his hands over his ears and scowled. She could be really, really loud. Which worked to her advantage on the soccer field more than you might expect. Suddenly shouting like a lunatic at the other team's player when they got the ball could really freak them out. Her dad approved and called it psychological warfare, with a little warning to "just keep it clean."

Darcy's mom appeared in the doorway looking a little irritated and wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Darcy, what? Did you break your legs? Are your legs broken? Should I call an ambulance?"

"No?"

"Then, next time, you can get up and walk out of the room to come talk to me instead of shouting."

Darcy slid her eyes to Darren. "Sometimes," she muttered at him.

Slinging the towel over her shoulder, Darcy's mom sighed and leaned against the door frame. "What did you want?"

"Tell Darren I do so have two dads."

"Darren, Darcy does so have two dads."

Triumphant smile on her face, Darcy held her hands out towards her mother in a game show hostess pose. "Told you."

Mom rolled her eyes, but smiled and patted her daughter on the shoulder. "I like the wings, Darcy, very stylish."

"Thank you."

"Now go outside and play," she grinned down at the pair with what Darcy was sure was an evil glint in her eyes, "or I can find something for the two of you to do."

At the implied threat of chores the pair scrambled out to the backyard and up into the playfort, hopefully out of the reach of dusting, vacuuming, or weeding.

"How come you've never talked about your other dad before?" Darren asked, hanging upside down from the top cross beam.

Darcy was sprawled on her back, staring at the sky, kicking her sneakers against the railing. The fort used to have a canopy, but there was an unfortunate, ill-adivsed attempt to create an emergency exit -- because the fireman's pole and the rope ladder were far too boring and besides those would be the obvious exits if the bad guys were approaching, duh -- using two holes punched in the canopy, and a pair of sheets tied together. The whole thing ended with the canopy torn to shreds and Darcy dislocating her shoulder.

"I don't know. I don't know him."

"Is he dead?"

"I don't think so. Mom just says he wasn't ready to be a father. Like there was a test or something." She rolled her head over to look up at Darren who was still upside down and trying to look like the fact that his shirt had fallen into his face wasn't bothering him in the slightest, but since he kept trying to blow it away from his mouth and tuck it under his chin, he kind of failed. "Do you think there's a test?"

"I don't know. I guess I could ask Hannah."

"I think if there is she probably passed, you know. I mean, it's weird she's going to be your new, second mom, but you've known her since you were like six, so she's not really new. Plus, she makes the brownies with the marshmallows in them, and she lets us stay up late on the weekends."

"I guess."

"And she has a medal from the Olympics! Who has that?"

"Lots of people," Darren grumbled mutinously. "And it's only a bronze."

"Nobody we know except Hannah, and so what if it's a bronze, it's awesome. She went to the Olympics!"

"I guess," he muttered again.

"Whatever." This was clearly a topic that was only going to make him surly and un-fun and that was not to be tolerated. "I wanna do pirates. We can call Becca. Think we can get her to wear the hook?"

"I think if you hit her with a sword again nobody's going to believe it's an accident anymore."

"The first time was an accident."

"The second time?"

Darcy pursed her lips and glared up at the passing clouds. "My hand slipped. A lot?"

"Liar pants."

Chapter Text

When Darcy was nine two things happened that changed her life dramatically. One, she watched an amazing show on the Discovery channel, and two, she met her other dad. Frankly, the Discovery Channel won that round.

For weeks she could dream of only one thing. The high, graceful arc, the vivid orange against the brilliant autumn blue, the deep, satisfying thud and splatter, the roar of the crowd (or the twelve people there, but it sounded like a roar). It was a single, shining moment, a flash of clarity, a consuming feeling of purpose and direction. When Darcy watched the pumpkin soar across the crisp fall sky, she knew without the smallest doubt what she wanted more than anything from life -- to be a punkin chunkin' superstar.

She recorded the show on Discovery, watched it a hundred times, then muted the audio and watched it a hundred more. Her machine of choice, she decided, would be the trebuchet. The way it spun and whipped and … and was just awesome, and mesmerizing, and the Best Thing Ever. The catapult was completely lame by comparison, stiff and brutal. The pumpkin cannons had no life, no majesty. The trebuchet looked like dancing -- with flying pumpkins.

She couldn’t really pronounce it, and she really couldn’t spell it, but Darcy Lewis was made to master the trebuchet. Oh, yes she was. And to that end, she’d finally dragged out the huge erector set some weird, distant cousin of her mom’s she’d never met, and had never actually heard of, sent her for her last birthday. When she got the present she’d stared at it for a long time, not really sure what she was going to do with it, but trying to think of something nice to say, because she did have some manners, but since the gift giver wasn’t actually there, she really didn’t try too hard. It looked complicated and stupid and boring and she’d shoved it into the back of her closet and forgot about it. But now, both she and the set had a purpose. A wicked awesome purpose.

“Will Greg fit?” Six-year old Sam Lewis was crouched next to his sister’s pile of metal bits and pieces and watched closely as she tried to build her first trebuchet. It wasn’t going all that well, as far as he could tell -- the flinging part looked kind of floppy, and the legs kept bending funny directions.

“No,” she told him, trying not to actually give him a good hard shove before throwing his stupid pterodactyl out the window, because he really wasn’t getting in the way, and she was determined to be an awesome big sister, and when they’d started they were having fun, but the balance on her trebuchet was not right and she couldn’t get it right and the whole thing kept falling side-ways and Sam just kept asking stupid questions and she really, really wanted to throw something.

“But, you said we could make Greg fly.”

Darcy picked up a thin, flat strip of metal, a flange, a bolt, and a nut, then narrowed her eyes at her brother, and bent back to her work. “I can make Greg fly right now.”

With a little whine, Sam clutched his toy dinosaur closer to his chest and pouted.

Darcy caved in under two minutes. The boy was a champion pouter. She waved her hand at the lopsided device. “Look, this is the whatdyacallit … uh, prototype.”

“What’s a prototype?”

“It’s the small version of something that you make to make sure it works before you make the big version.”

“Oh, so we can make a big version for Greg?”

“Once we make the small version work.”

“‘Kay.”

“Also, once we talk Dad into taking us to Home Depot.”

“‘Kay.”

“And we get him to let us make a big version.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

The siblings' contemplation of the complications involved with getting their dad to agree to a trip to Home Depot to make a Greg-the-pterodactyl-sized trebuchet was interrupted by said dad. He knocked gently on the door and pushed it open, poking his head around. "Darcy?"

"Yeah, dad?"

He frowned thoughtfully for a second and looked a little ... well, Darcy didn't know quite what he looked, but it wasn't a usual look.

"Can you come out to the living room for a bit? I know you and Sam are playing, but your mother and I need you in the living room."

Darcy put down her tools and looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"

"Just come on."

"Am I in trouble? I didn't do anything. Don't listen to Becca. She's a frienemy." The words came out in a rush as she thought quickly, trying to come up with anything she'd done recently that would mean a serious sit down Talk with her parents. Nothing was coming to her. Unless it was about gluing Billy Holt's desk shut, but she was pretty sure nobody could pin that on her.

"A ... what?"

"A frienemy. Friend on the outside, dark and evil on the inside." Darcy hunched her shoulders and curled up her hands into twisted claws of evilness.

Her dad sighed. "Aren't you a little too young to have frienemies?"

"Not when it's Becca," she told him sagely.

"You're not in trouble. There's someone here who'd like to talk to you."

"Who?"

"Darcy, now."

She could tell her dad's patience was nearing its end, and the look of something on his face was looking more something, so she huffed and got to her feet, following him out the door with Sam trailing loyally along behind her.

"Sam, go play in your room," dad told him, catching him by the shirt as he entered the hallway.

"No, I want to go with Darcy."

"Not now. You guys can play again later. Just go to your room."

"No! I want to go with Darcy," he repeated but at a much greater volume.

"Sam, I mean it. Go."

Sam let out a high-pitched shriek -- his pterodactyl cry of outrage -- and flung himself into his room, slamming the door behind him.

"You both get your lungs from your mother," dad said wearily.

Darcy gave him a skeptical look. "Ew?"

"Come on."

When they got to the living room, Darcy's mother was handing a cup of coffee to an old guy in a dark blue suit. Darcy froze at the entrance to the room. Maybe this was about the desk. Maybe he was from the school board or something and they found out and now it was going to go on her permanent record. Her life could be ruined and she was only nine. 'We're sorry, Darcy, but you can't be a doctor/astronaut/president of the world, you glued Billy Holt's desk shut in third grade. It's all right here in your permanent record.'

Her dad gave her a gentle nudge in the back and she walked slowly into the room, literally dragging her feet, and trying to slink back while moving forward.

The man looked up at her and smiled broadly. "Well, you must be Darcy. I'm Leo Garvey. Your grandfather Howard was an old friend of mine."

At the same time Darcy felt the tension drain out of her body -- not ruined at the age of nine! -- she felt confusion creeping in. "I don't have a grandfather Howard. Do I?" She glanced over at her mom.

"He was your other dad's dad," her mom told her while waiving for her to take a seat on the couch between her and Mr. Garvey.

"Oh. Oh, that's cool." Mom gave her a little hug and murmured 'manners' under her breath as Darcy squeezed past her. "Oh, and it's nice to meet you, Mr. Garvey."

"Call me Leo, if I can call you Darcy."

"Yeah, sure."

"It's nice to meet you, too, Darcy." He took a sip of his coffee and then set the cup down carefully on the table. He was looking a little something, too. Sad, maybe? "I didn't expect you to look quite so much like your grandmother. But, that's a Stark chin if I ever saw one."

Darcy rubbed at her chin and felt like she was being examined or tested or something. She really wasn't sure what she was supposed to say to something like that.

Mr. Garvey cleared his throat and smiled again. "I'm sorry I took you away from playing with your brother."

"Oh, we weren't playing, I was making a tray-butch." This Darcy could talk about. Gladly. And in detail.

Mom made a small sound like a cough, and dad cleared his throat and said slowly, "A trebuchet, Darcy."

She shrugged. "Yeah, that."

Mr. Garvey laughed. "A trebuchet, well, I can't say I'm at all surprised."

Darcy's mom laughed a little herself, "Every day is an experiment in nature versus nurture around here."

Darcy frowned at her mom. She wasn't entirely sure what her mom was talking about, but it felt a little like mom was laughing at her.

"Your grandfather developed weapons for the allies during the second world war," Mr. Garvey explained. "So, you can see, I thought it was a fun coincidence that you're making a trebuchet."

"Gotcha," Darcy nodded. "Though, my trebuchet," she said the word carefully, "is for pumpkin flinging."

"The prefect use for a trebuchet," Mr. Garvey nodded seriously. "Now, let me tell you why I'm here." He picked up his coffee cup again but didn't drink, just sort of turned it slowly in his hands. "You have a lovely home, and a good mom and dad, it seems to me."

"Yeah?" Darcy was feeling a little suspicious again.

His eyes slid away from her towards the hallway, "And a little brother."

Darcy followed his gaze and saw Sam's dark head peeking around the corner. He waved Greg at her and then ducked away when dad looked over, too.

"Yeah. Sam."

"A very nice family." Mr. Garvey sat back and smiled at her obvious suspicion. "I'm doing this badly, I apologize. I've known Howard's family for a very long time; I want everything to go well and everybody to be happy. They've had little enough of that. But, you're too clever for me, and I'll just get to the point. Your father would very much like to meet you, Darcy."

"Oh." Her mind went a little blank then. She wasn't really sure what to think, or what to say to that. She had a dad, she'd gotten along fine without the first one forever. She was curious, but she just didn't know what she'd do with another dad. "Would he ...," she trailed off with a frown.

"Yes, my dear?"

"I mean, does he ..." Darcy waved her hands helplessly. She didn't seem to know enough words, or maybe just not the right ones. She became increasingly frustrated and felt tears burning in her eyes. "I don't know what I mean to say."

Mom hugged her close and Mr. Garvey nodded. "I understand. It's a big decision, a big change. Let me make this very clear -- this is your decision. You don't have to meet him if you don't want to. Nobody will make you; not me, not him, not anybody, and nobody will be mad at you. And if you do want to meet him, it will happen when you want it to happen. And you don't have to make a decision today. Do you understand?"

Darcy nodded jerkily. "'Kay."

"Now, there're some things I need to tell you about your father before you decide." Mr. Garvey put his coffee cup down one more time and leaned forward, elbows on his knees and looked her straight in the eye.

He went on to tell her about her other dad. How he was famous, how he was rich, and how he was Tony Stark. She kind of knew who he was, but not really; only that Marley thought he was totally cute and Rico had a copy of Road & Track autographed by him from some car show, which he'd declared "more awesome than anything else you'll ever see, DL. No! Don't touch it!". Man, he was such a girl, sometimes. Tony Stark being her dad seemed like it might be kind of cool.

Well, cool until Mr. Garvey also told her how her parents, all of them, went out of their way to protect her, because if people knew who her father was they might try to use her to get things from him, or how there'd be paparazzi all over and how people might treat her weird or, at least, differently if they knew -- even her friends. That was less awesome. One of the kids in a different class had a dad who was sometimes in sitcoms and people were always bugging him about the famous actors on those shows and asking him to get them autographs or stuff like that. It was super awkward. Though, mostly Cody used it to lord it over other kids and his gaggle of followers, because he was a super jerk. It's like, dude, yes, your dad was in an episode of Friends -- for like one minute and he played a repair man. Get over yourself.

Darcy could work out in her head at least a little of what it would be like if people knew her dad was actually famous, and it wasn't an entirely comfortable thought. Though, suck it, Becca and Cody.

Mom and dad were pretty firm in that they thought she shouldn't tell anybody, and Mr. Garvey agreed it probably wasn't the best idea for now. But, they also agreed it was her life, but really, they'd need a family meeting if she thought she should tell Darren or something, because if more people found out then there'd be reporters and paparazzi and maybe people trying to get at her (and that really freaked her out) and it would effect the whole family. Darcy felt a sort of swooping sick feeling in her stomach because this was becoming less cool and she kind of wanted to go back to a few hours ago where she was making a trebuchet with Sam and life was not Huge Scary Change.

And then there was Tony Stark himself -- why did he want to meet her now? He was cool and rich and famous and a genius and, according to Marley and Rico, the best thing ever. And she was just ... Darcy. She knew she was a good person (Billy Holt deserved it), and that she was pretty cool, but ... still, she was just her. What if he didn't like her? What if he thought she was just a stupid little kid? She had a dad already, and he was great and she loved him and she knew he loved her and ... and why couldn't that be enough? She didn't need another dad.

After a while she just kind of zoned out and let the adults talk about how and where and when she might meet Tony Stark if she wanted to meet him, and what might happen if the gossip papers found out, and what they'd have to do, and ... and ... and. Other stuff. She really just wanted to go back to her room.

Mr. Garvey finally got up to leave and gave her his card, telling her to take all the time she needed and to call him if she had any questions or just wanted to talk. He told her again how much she looked like her grandmother, then gave her a fond pat on the shoulder and left.

Mom and dad gave her their serious looks and asked her to talk to them, but, no, really, she just wanted to go to her room. They each gave her a hug and let her on her way, and as she walked down the hall she could hear the low murmur of their voices, but she just couldn't care. Sam was standing in his doorway looking anxious and chewing on his lower lip while he flapped Greg's wings at her. She managed a little smile and told him she'd play dinosaurs with him later.

Once safely in her room, she poked at the bits of her trebuchet and tried to get its legs to stop collapsing, but her heart wasn't really in it. She honestly didn't know what she thought about anything.

Taking a deep breath, she stared very intently at her listing weapon of pumpkin destruction and decided there was nothing for it, but to tear it apart and start over again. This she could do. This she could figure out.

Darcy had just rebuilt the base and was starting again on the legs, when her dad knocked on her door and slipped in.

"What are you thinking?" He asked, sitting himself down on the floor beside her.

"That trebuchets are harder than they look."

"Things usually are." He reached down and held the base steady while she fixed a support. "You're my daughter and nothing will change that. You're stuck with me, princess."

"'Kay."

"Not even an objection to 'princess'?" He bumped her shoulder. "You're thinking awfully hard there."

She shrugged and kept working, not looking up at him. "How come he wants to see me now? He never did before."

"I don't think that's true. But, maybe he just wasn't ready." He handed her one of the legs and watched as she worked.

"That's what mom always says," she grumbled.

"And you'll hate me saying this, but I think it's something you'll understand better when you're older."

She finally looked over at him and scrunched up her nose making him laugh. "You didn't answer my question," she said, pointing a small wrench at him.

"I don't know why now. I don't know him. But, I'll tell you this -- I can't imagine not being your dad. Maybe it just took him this long to realize the same thing."

"I'm glad you're my dad."

"Me too."

"So," Darcy said slowly, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. "If this trebuchet works, can we go to Home Depot to get stuff to make a bigger one?"

Chapter Text

In the end, Darcy's curiosity won out over her anxiety and she agreed to meet her other dad. Her parents decided it would be best to hold off the meeting for a few weeks until summer vacation started, and Darcy was more than okay with that. If the meeting turned out really weird she wouldn't have to go to school the next day and pretend her life didn't just become disappointing and awkward, and since Darren would be going to Chicago right after school got out, she wouldn't have to lie or pretend around him, either.

Mr. Garvey suggested the meeting take place at a "neutral site", that way mom and dad wouldn't feel stressed by having Tony Stark in their house and Tony wouldn't feel stressed about having to be a perfect houseguest, or something. Mr. Garvey seemed to imply that while Tony could be a perfectly nice guy ("No, really. Don't listen to the tabloids."), he probably wasn't the sort of person you should bring home in general, because he got fidgety and started breaking things, or trying to fix things, or he'd eat all the food and drink all the drinks, and you'd end up out of Cheetos and your house would be on fire and the minivan would somehow become rocket propelled. Well, he didn't say that in so many words, but that's the gist Darcy got.

They finally settled on a date, a time and a place, and so, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at a park near her house, Darcy found herself fidgeting nervously on a bench while her mom tried to read a book and dad had taken Sam over to the playground. Though it was obviously a public place, the park had a lot of trees and bushes and picnic benches tucked away here and there where people wouldn't notice too much who was there. Hopefully. Though the silver, crazy-expensive looking sports car squealing into the lot, was probably not designed to not be noticed.

Darcy bit her lip and waited to see who got out. The passenger door opened first and a man in a military uniform got out. He tugged and smoothed down his shirt and looked around. When he spotted Darcy and her mother he glanced back over the roof of the car. Realizing that the driver hadn't gotten out, he ducked his head back down to say something, then straightened again and thumped the roof. The driver's door finally opened and a man in a dark suit got out. He slammed the door shut and stood for a moment, running his hands through his hair. Even from a distance Darcy thought he looked confused, like he wasn't sure where he was and how he'd got there.

Mom stood abruptly and put her book down on the picnic table. "Stay here for a minute, Darcy."

"Is that him?"

"Yeah. Just a minute, honey, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, okay." Darcy slumped back on the bench, the butterflies in her stomach turning into wasps or hornets or something equally gross and angry.

Mom walked over to the pair and shook the military guy's hand, and then stood in front of Tony Stark for a long minute. Darcy really wished she could hear what they were saying. Nobody seemed upset, so that was good. The impulse to get up and sneak closer was squashed by the fact that the military guy was staring at her. She squirmed under his gaze and focused on her mom and Tony. After a few moments mom gave Tony a hug and stepped back to stand next to the military guy. And that was when Tony Stark started walking Darcy's direction.

She felt her mouth go dry and was almost overcome by the urge to either puke or run. She looked over her shoulder and saw her dad standing next to Sam on the swings, watching her. He waved and she thought she could see a smile. She relaxed a little bit and turned back to her other father. Licking her lips she stood up and smoothed down the blue print sundress that was her favorite thing and made her feel pretty and confident and, oh geez, she hoped he liked her. And she hoped she didn't puke on his shiny shoes.

"So ...", Tony said as he ambled closer.

Darcy raised her eyebrows. "Um..."

"Yeah, I don't really know what to say here."

"Hi?"

"That works. Hi."

"So ...", Darcy started and then, yeah, wasn't sure what to say, either. Huh.

"See?" Tony asked and stuck his hands in his pockets. She couldn't see his eyes behind his dark sunglasses. It made her weirdly nervous. Nervouser. More nervous?

He cleared his throat and tried again. "So, uh, it's been a while, since I saw you. You're ... taller."

That was new information. Darcy cocked her head to one side and gave him a puzzled look. "When did you see me?"

"The day after you were born. So, yeah, taller, definitely."

Darcy stared at him for a long moment more. This was Tony Stark, billionaire, genius, cool guy, and, apparently, kind of a doofus. That made her feel about a million times better. She giggled. "Kids get taller."

"True, true. Though, sorry about the genes, kid, you're probably gonna hit max height pretty soon. In my defense, it's at least half your mother's fault." He glanced around and then down at the bench. He frowned a little but sat down. She sat gingerly next to him. This was really weird.

"I'm not really good with, you know, people and feelings and ... that sort of thing," Tony told her and poked at her mother's book, picking it up, thumbing through it, then tossing it on the table behind them. "So, sorry in advance and whatever." He waved a hand vaguely around.

"Uh, okay, sure."

They sat in silence for a moment.

Darcy stared up at the clouds and then down at the grass and then over to her mother and the other guy. "Hey, who's that guy you came with?"

"Oh, yeah, that's Rhodey. Friend of mine. He thought I needed adult supervision today." Rhodey was staring at both of them. "He just got promoted, give him a thumbs up, kid. He'll love it."

Darcy looked at Tony skeptically then shrugged and gave Rhodey an enthusiastic double thumbs up. The man shook his head, but she could see him laughing and he waved at the pair of them.

Tony leaned back and braced his elbows against the table. "I think he's convinced I'm going to screw this up and scar you for life."

Darcy frowned and kicked at the ground. "Why?"

"I'm not exactly dad material, kid. And my own dad ... well, he wasn't the best example of fatherhood. For what it's worth, I don't actually want to scar you for life."

Darcy scrunched her nose up. "Good."

Tony laughed.

"So, is that why you didn't want to see me until now?"

"I never didn't want to see you," he told her and she frowned a little trying to work out that sentence. "Just ..." he sighed, "man, I'm really not cut out for this."

Picking at the hem of her dress, Darcy shrugged and tried not to be disappointed. "Oh."

"I mean, it's not like you need me, right? You've got a dad." Tony nodded over towards the swing set.

"Yeah," Darcy muttered. Her stomach was feeling sick again, but for a different reason this time. She was so nervous and so convinced she didn't want or need another dad, but now that he said it, she felt like she got kicked. She sniffed a little and wiped at her nose and looked away from him.

"And, I screwed up. Rhodey owes me twenty bucks. I lasted four minutes, hey, almost five; he was sure I'd make you cry in under two." He patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.

She raised her chin and glared. "I'm not crying. Rhodey can keep his stupid twenty bucks."

Tony's mouth turned up in a slow grin. "Good for you. Though, he still owes me, but if you can make me cry in another five minutes, I'll split the twenty with you."

She gave him an incredulous look and then couldn't help a giggle. "Deal."

"It's not that I don't want to be in your life, or, however this goes. I do, I'm just saying I might not be any good at it. Just, you know, fair warning, and whatever."

"Okay," Darcy nodded slowly. She guessed she could accept that. "I don't really know what to do with another dad, either."

"Fair enough. I guess we'll have to figure something out."

"Yeah." Darcy kicked at the ground some more, dirtying up her new white sneakers. There was a question nagging at her, it was a question she kept asking and everybody kept not answering. So she tried again. "Why'd you want to see me now?"

Tony shifted a little on the bench and his hands twitched, like they needed something to do and weren't used to not having that. "Uh ... this goes back to that feelings crap I'm no good at."

Darcy sighed and rolled her eyes. "Just tell me," she grumbled in exasperation. "Nobody knows, nobody says, it's driving me crazy."

He smirked at her then looked away over at the trees, at nothing, at the sky. "My parents died a couple of years before you were born."

"Oh," Darcy felt a blush rush to her cheeks. She wasn't sure how that was an answer, but it felt like she just majorly succeeded at that whole putting her foot in her mouth thing. "Suck. Sorry."

"Yeah, no, not your fault or anything. Didn't say that to make you feel guilty or weird or anything. But, you know, a couple years ago when I had to do all this ten year anniversary memorial shit -- uh, I meant crap. Tell your mother I said crap -- anyway, and it just got me thinking. Something I try not to do. Well, actually I think a lot, but not, you know."

"About feelings and stuff?" Darcy guessed.

"Yeah. But, I couldn't help it. Tried. Worked a lot. Invented a shi-- crap-load of stuff, but it still kind of ... right there." He did the vague hand-waving thing again. "My dad, as I mentioned, not father of the year material, and it just kind of hit me that I was a father, too, and I was really sucking at it. I mean, I never forgot you, but it just really hit me, you know?"

Darcy wasn't sure she entirely got it, but figured it was easier to just nod. "Sure."

"Admittedly, it did actually take me a while to work my way here." He shook his head at himself. "All your mother wanted when she found out about you was that you got to have a good, normal life. Preferably a life without all the bullsh-- crap, that can come with being a Stark. I was okay with that. She was doing all the hard work, I figured it was her call. I did what I do -- throw money at the problem, or, um, situation. I meant situation. I set up the trust fund for you, and I--"

"What's a trust fund?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry kid, you're a trust fund baby. Don't let it go to your head."

"And what is it?"

"It's a fund that ..., you know, you don't care about that. It's just money for you, for when you're older, or for college, or an emergency, or ... something."

Darcy perked up at that. Her mom always told her that money wasn't the most important thing in life, but Darcy thought this was at least a pretty interesting twist. For some reason, even though Tony was rich, she never really thought she might be. "I have money? Like, how much?"

"Kid, you're a Stark. You're rolling in it."

"Uh ..."

"Yeah, don't worry about it. You don't really get most of it until you're twenty-something. Anyway, I made sure you were taken care of -- your mom gets child support and all that -- and I buried anything that could connect us." He paused and frowned down at her. "Not that I'm ashamed of you or anything. I mean, you were a complete surprise, but not like, um ..." He stopped, cleared his throat and rubbed at his mustache. "Anything I can think to say here will probably make you cry and your mother will hate me. Um, love ya, kid, believe it or not. But..."

He seemed to be floundering and it was a little painful to watch, honestly. Darcy thought she had a pretty good idea of what he was trying to say and took pity on him. "Mr. Garvey said how you made sure the paparazzi and whatever don't bother us or so people don't try to use me to get things from you. I got it."

Tony let out a relieved laugh. "Leo's great. He was my dad's lawyer. He set up everything. There's like, three people who know you're my kid, or that I even have a kid. I mean, other than your parents and I guess your brother. Well, actually, okay maybe a few more at our bank but they're bound to NDAs so iron-clad if they even dream about us, it'll become the First National Bank of Darcy Lewis."

She thought about that for a long second. "What would I do with a bank?"

"Swim around in the money like those cartoons with the duck?"

She started giggling and then he laughed with her. "You're kinda funny."

He snorted. "Well, that's a hell of a lot better than emotionally scarring."

They fell into a silence again, but it was slightly less uncomfortable than the ones before. She still wasn't sure what to do with another dad, but Tony was turning out to not be too scary or anything. She decided to be even a little more brave. "I was really nervous to meet you. I ... I dunno. I wasn't sure you'd ... like me or something." She faked a little laugh, like, 'hey, no big deal, right?'

Tony went still beside her and she couldn't look over at him. "I may not be Fred MacMurray here, but you're my kid, I was pretty predisposed to liking you. You're the one with the family already. What do you need me for? I'm bad at people, I think I said. Did I say?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah, okay, and, well, Rhodey's really the only person who can put up with me for longer than about an hour. Well, and Obie, but he was dad's friend, too, so he's sort of stuck with me. Same with Leo. I can't keep an assistant longer than three months. Are you looking for a summer job?"

He really tended to talk fast, and Darcy was kind of having a hard time keeping up with him. "No?"

He shrugged. "Ah well."

She was still going through his last little speech when it hit her -- he was just as nervous as she was, he was just as unsure, and he was just as afraid she wouldn't like him. She wasn't really sure that made her feel better, but maybe it made her feel less like this was some impossible thing. Maybe they could figure each other out, and maybe it could be pretty cool to have another dad.

"Anyway," Tony continued after a moment, "I'm the one who's got to earn my stripes here. You just, you know, be you."

"Uh, okay."

"So, what do you like to do around ... here?" He pushed his sunglasses down his nose and looked around like he just then realized where he was. "I don't even know where we are. Where are we?"

"San Dimas," Darcy told him.

"San Dimas? Christ, why?"

"This is where I live," she said slowly. "You drove here. How do you not know where you are?"

"I wasn't paying attention. I let Rhodey navigate, it lets him feel important. He says turn here, I turn, he says get off at this exit, I got off at that exit. Plus, I like to let him think I actually listen to him every now and then. It makes him less pissy all the times I don't." He made a face. "God, San Dimas."

"What's wrong with San Dimas?" She titled her chin up with a huff.

"Nothing, it's great, I'm sure. I think we've got a subsidiary here. Or Duarte. No. Downey? No, well, yes, but one in San Dimas, too. Transistor parts for integrated circuitry in our ..." he paused and looked at her. "Never mind, you don't care. Impress your friends; you own a company in town."

"Well, I don't really own it."

"Sure you do. It's a Stark subsidiary, you're a Stark. When I die, the empire is yours."

That was an uncomfortable thought in several different ways. "Uh ..."

"You didn't answer my question."

"Oh ... I don't know. Ride my bike, play with my friends, um, go swimming, play with my brother sometimes. Nothing special or anything, I guess," she shrugged. Then she remembered what Mr. Garvey said about her grandfather building weapons, and thought Tony might be interested in her project. "Oh, but I made a trebuchet."

"Did you really?" He leaned towards her, his face brightening. "How big?"

"Well, the prototype was pretty small," she held her hands out to show something roughly the size of a shoe box. "But, I'm trying to talk dad ... um, I mean my other dad." She shifted uncomfortably. She didn't want to insult him, or anything, but her dad was really her real dad, and Tony was ... well, she wasn't sure what yet, but ...

"Don't sweat it," he cut off her rambling, uncertain thoughts, "I haven't earned the right to be 'dad'. Just call me Tony until I do. You know, assuming I ever do. Don't hold your breath or anything."

Darcy nodded and went back to the safe topic of her trebuchet. "Right, yeah, so, I'm trying to talk him into taking me and Sam to Home Depot to make a slightly larger one. Ultimately, I want to go punkin chunkin'."

Lips turning up into a broad grin, Tony finally pulled off his sunglasses and focused fully on her. "I don't know what that is, but it sounds amazing."

"Pumpkin flinging, with machines!" Darcy enthusiastically mimed the flinging of pumpkins and grinned back at him. "Like catapults and pumpkin cannons, but I really like the trebuchet best."

"And you made a prototype."

"Yes! And I got it to work, too. I mean, okay, it took a while, but I did it," she stated proudly.

Tony laughed and dropped an arm around her shoulders. "Kid, you and me? We're gonna have fun."

Chapter Text

"I'm just saying it's gross."

"And I'm just saying you have no taste."

"It's gross like a gross thing full of grossness and ick, you know, just in case you were wondering."

Darcy was twelve-years old, and it was spring break, Tony was emotionally twelve and claimed he hadn't had a spring break in two or three weeks and so was totally due, and for some reason Darcy's parents decided to let her spend that whole week, unsupervised, with Tony. This was a recipe for awesome, and was a pretty new development. The most her parents had been okay with before had been a monthly overnight, and once for three days when he took her to New York to see Rockefeller Center at Christmas (in one of his strange, manic bursts where he decided he needed to be more father-like, and that they should bond in the manner of fathers and daughters in sappy movies he swore he never watched), and that may have only been because Happy was going along, too, and he swore to protect her with his dying breath. Which was pretty dramatic for Happy, but Darcy appreciated the thought, and Darcy's parents really couldn't say no after that without breaking Happy's heart, and who wanted to break the heart of a guy called Happy? Even when he looked like a mopey English Bulldog and his nose bent in three different directions. Darcy really liked Happy.

The week, so far, was turning out to be pretty awesome, and it was only the first Saturday. Happy had picked her up Friday after school, and then Tony put on one of his really obnoxious disguises, and they went to Universal City Walk where they hung out at Things From Another World until they were kicked out for playing with everything -- well, mostly Tony was kicked out -- and then they went to a crappy movie and threw popcorn at the screen until they were asked to leave there, too. When they got back to Tony's they had pizza and played video games until 2 a.m., when Darcy did a face plant on her controller. Excellent start to vacation, really.

Darcy was, however, totally prepared for Tony to, at some point, have a sudden driving need to invent something impossible and forget she existed for twenty-four to thirty-six hours. She knew better than to take it personally, and it wasn't like there wasn't anything to do at the house. There was pretty much every video game ever, movies, an awesome pool, Jarvis, a full fridge, her own workbench, and Rhodey promised to come by if she got bored -- that seemed seriously unlikely, but Rhodey was always interesting, and she could continue her quest to get him to teach her to fly a helicopter. She was set. But, for now, she still had his attention.

"Alright, fine, kid." He downed the rest of his Virgin Mary while she made gagging noises. "Show me what you've got in a Mocktini."

"Apple or Watermelon?"

"Surprise me."

Darcy set about making the drink while Tony offered helpful tips on mixing drinks and unhelpful advice to jazz it up and give it some spin and 'behind the back, over the shoulder, come on, give me a show!' She was just pouring the drink into a glass and glaring at Tony because he was threatening her with a small, pink umbrella, when a shocked gasp made her hand jerk and the drink spilled over the marble bar.

"Mr. Stark!"

There was a pale, pretty woman standing in the entryway. She had long strawberry blond hair that Darcy secretly envied, and she was wearing a dark gray suit with amazing shoes. Darcy was unconvinced on the whole 'high-heels' fashion front, they just looked painful, but Marley loved looking at them, and Darcy had to admit, this lady's shoes were really pretty awesome.

"Ms. Potts," Tony slid off the bar stool and ran his hands through his hair looking both confused and flustered. "What are you doing here?"

"I have put up with a lot over the last year and a half. I have looked the other way more than once, but this ..." she waved a hand at Darcy and Tony. "Alcohol, Mr. Stark? How old is she? Ten?"

Darcy frowned and wiped up the spilled mocktini. "I'm twelve."

"Twelve," Ms. Potts repeated weakly. "And where did she come from? I won't cover up a felony for you. You can't just ..."

"Okay," Tony held up his hand. "Stop right there. Sidebar Ms. Potts, because, two things; one, that's not alcohol."

"They're mocktails," Darcy helpfully offered. Since Ms. Potts seemed to be talking about her, but not to her, which was really annoying, Darcy figured she'd get in where she could.

"And two," he paused to take a deep breath and started crossing the room to the woman, "Actually, in the hall."

He pulled Ms. Potts away from the entry and out into the hall. Darcy sighed and started making herself a virgin Cape Cod, quietly, hoping she could hear what Tony was saying. Unfortunately, while she could hear his voice, she couldn't make out any words. "Hey, Jarvis."

"Yes, Miss Lewis." Darcy wasn't sure if she was getting used to the talking house, or if it would always feel both strange and future-y. It might actually be kind of sad to get used to something so cool.

"Can you hear what they're saying?" She asked after taking a moment to remember the awesome look on her mom's face the first time she'd dropped Darcy off at Tony's and Jarvis had greeted them. So, so good.

"I can."

Darcy rolled her eyes; he still kind of missed the point of questions like that. Tony said he was a work in progress. "And can you tell me what they're saying?"

"I do not believe so. The protection of Mr. Stark's privacy is one of my highest priorities."

"But I'm his daughter," Darcy wheedled. Sometimes she could get Jarvis caught in a logic trap, but it was getting harder and harder as he started to catch on.

"I'm sorry, Miss Lewis, but as you and your security are also among my priorities, I must defer to Mr. Stark on matters involving the disclosure of your identity to others."

She might have enjoyed the small victory of having Jarvis confirm, possibly inadvertently, that Tony was telling Ms. Potts who she was, but it was, sadly, pretty obvious that that's what they'd be talking about. But, hey, in that case, good for Jarvis for possibly making the assumption that she knew what the conversation was probably about anyway. That was a little twisty even in her own head. She'd have to remember to tell Tony. "You know, you can just call me Darcy."

"My programming does not currently allow for familiar forms of address."

She pursed her lips and looked in the ceiling-ward direction that she couldn't quite stop herself from looking at when she talked to Jarvis, even though Tony laughed at her for it. "Okay, but, you can learn, right?"

"Correct."

"So, if it was appropriate in certain situations to call somebody by a more familiar name, could you do it?"

Jarvis was silent for a long moment and Tony's voice drifted in from the hall, "I am not showing you her birth certificate!"

"I believe," Jarvis continued finally, "that in a situation where a formal form of address might be offensive, I could refer to somebody informally, though at present I can think of very few likely scenarios where that might be an issue."

Darcy smiled to herself. She might just have him this time. "You know, Jarvis, we are kind of family."

"I do not follow your reasoning."

"Well, we were both created by Tony Stark. In a way. Maybe not in the same way and let's not discuss those differences, because I had that health class and don't want to relive it right now."

"Technically, you are correct, but that may be a matter of philosophy. I am an artificial intelligence."

"Programmed by Tony Stark, so sort of part of him, part that came from his brain, and so, created by him. And I'm made of half him, and again, let's not go into details there."

"I am uncertain as to your point."

"My point is that families don't call each other Miss or Mister, at least not for like a hundred years. And you're kind of my other brother. Half-brother, whatever. So, it would be appropriate to call me Darcy." She took a triumphant sip of her mocktail.

"I will ... consider this."

Darcy raised her glass up to the ceiling and nodded. "You do that, bro."

"Darcy," Tony's voice caught her attention. "Are you confusing my AI again?"

"I'm just trying to help him grow as a person."

He pursed his lips together and looked like maybe he was trying not to laugh. "Look, uh, here, this is Pepper Potts, my PA. Potts, my daughter, Darcy Lewis, and yes, for God's sake, she really is my daughter, why would I suddenly pretend to have a kid?" He said the last sentence in a rush and threw his hands up in the air. "And, I'm kind of insulted that you think I'd abduct a child. I mean, really..."

"If it makes any difference," Ms. Potts said with a small wince, "I was having a hard time believing it was an intentional abduction. I was mostly just really hoping you'd forgotten you can't simply wander off with other people's children. I apologize, Mr. Stark."

He stared at her for a moment then gave an airy wave of his hand. "Fine, forgiven."

Ms. Potts had the good grace to actually look embarrassed and she gave Darcy a rueful little smile as she walked over. "Hi, Darcy. It's wonderful to meet you. I'm so, so sorry about earlier. I just... really wasn't expecting ... um, any of this." She stuck out her hand and Darcy shook it carefully.

"It's okay." Darcy knew this was pretty weird, so, probably best to forgive and forget. And she'd kind of wanted to meet this lady for a while. Longest lasting PA for, well, ever. "You should have seen Happy right before he found out."

Tony snorted with laughter. "Oh, Potts, you really should have. I thought he was going to pound me into the pavement. Rhodey had to talk him down."

Darcy nodded and jerked her thumb at Tony, "And he was laughing too hard to say anything."

"Of course he was," Ms. Potts said with a roll of her eyes. Darcy thought the eye roll was a good sign -- she figured if you tried to take Tony too seriously all the time, you were bound to get chewed up and spit out by him and his crazy. You had to learn to laugh at him, or roll your eyes, or ignore him, or send the crazy right back. Yeah, the eye roll was a good sign.

Ms. Potts took a seat at the bar and tried really hard to look like she was comfortable with this situation. And, to her credit, Darcy thought she was doing an impressive job of pulling it off. "So, what are you two doing today? Anything fun?"

"Well, Tony's been teaching me how to mix drinks."

"Non-alcoholic," Tony pointed out very firmly.

"I don't ..." Ms. Potts started to say something, but trailed off with a glance towards the ceiling and a deep breath.

"Valuable life-skill, Ms. Potts. I think this falls into the things-dads-should-teach-their-kids category."

"I see," she replied vaguely.

Having not actually been raised by Tony Stark or wolves, Darcy remembered her manners after a second. "Can I make you a drink, Ms. Potts?"

"I would love a drink. What's your specialty? And, please, call me Pepper."

"I can make the classics, but I think my watermelon mocktini's pretty kickin', and the virgin Cape Cod's my fav. And, is Pepper really your real name? I mean, no offense or anything."

Pepper laughed. "Are you sure you're related to Tony? A watermelon mocktini sounds fantastic. And Pepper's a nickname, my real name's Virginia."

Darcy hummed and nodded and set about making the drink. "Pepper. I like it. Spicy."

"Picosa," Tony laughed and held out his hand for a high-five, which Darcy enthusiastically returned.

Pepper shook her head. "Oh, never mind, I see the relation."

"Yes, yes, see?" Tony threw his hands wide. "She's like my--"

Darcy groaned. "No, no, don't say it."

"Mini-me!"

Collapsing face first onto the bar, she rocked her head back and forth. "No!" He'd been doing this since they saw the movie. And even though they saw it like forever ago, he just wouldn't stop. She kind of thought that because he had so few people to talk to about her, he just really got fixated things and couldn't let go, or you know, get bored of them through repetition to enough people. He got stuck, kind of like Jarvis in a processing loop. Unlike Jarvis, though, she hadn't figured out a way to nudge him out of it. Maybe with Pepper joining the really small club of People Who Know, he could move on to something new. Oh please.

With an annoying cackle, Tony slid around the bar next to Darcy. "Shove over, kid, daddy's making a Bloody Mary."

"Gross, so gross, so gross," Darcy chanted, picking herself up and finishing Pepper's drink.

"Yeah, yeah, avert your eyes, I'm getting out the vodka."

"Whatever." She slid the drink over to Pepper, who took a sip and made appreciative noises.

"So, Ms. Potts, I thought I told you I was out of town all weekend. Why are you here? Also, Jarvis? How'd she get in?"

Pepper frowned. "You gave me the code and a key?"

"No, no, Jarvis should have told me you were coming."

"Apologies, sir, I have discovered a rogue process which was taking up significant resources, leading to a slowdown which interfered with several of my sensor grids. I've killed the process and have begun running diagnostics."

Darcy leaned her elbows on the bar and smirked. "Is that Jarvis's way of saying he was distracted?"

Tony shrugged, seeming mostly unconcerned, "Yeah, probably. I'll look into it later. Or you could. Isn't that why people have kids? To do chores or whatever?" Darcy stuck her tongue out at him. "Potts, you didn't answer my question."

"Oh, right." Pepper leaned over and pulled up her briefcase. "I've got some papers from legal you need to look over and sign before my meeting with them Tuesday about the contract with Defense on the Roadrunner project." She pulled out the papers and held them out towards him. Tony lurched back, holding up a celery stick defensively, as though to ward them off. She sighed and dropped the packet on the bar. "I was hoping if I dropped them onto your workbench, maybe you'd sign them before Tuesday. And, if not, then my hope was that their constant presence for a day or two would make them feel a little less threatening, and getting you to sign them wouldn't be as painful as usual. Just something new I thought I'd try."

"Well, A-plus for the creative problem solving attempt, though, you know how I feel about papers."

"Yes, I do."

"And signing them."

"Yes, sadly, I do, Mr. Stark."

"And looking them over -- why do I have to look them over? Isn't that what I pay you for? Just, sum up."

"Okay, you need to at least look at them so you know where to sign," she exclaimed, exasperated. "How has nobody stolen your company out from under you, given your aversion to actually reading anything?"

"I see where your brain is headed." Tony pointed a finger at her. "Don't do it. Why, look at this sweet little face." He put his arm around Darcy and tugged her into his side. "Look at this face, Ms. Potts. If you steal my company, you'll be stealing from her. Stealing from a child. Could you live with that? You'd be practically stealing food from her mouth. Food! From her mouth, Ms. Potts. She'll be out on the streets! A defenseless urchin left to fend for herself in a cold, harsh, uncaring world."

Darcy tried to shove him away, but he held on more tightly. "Ugh. Don't listen to him."

"Also," Tony continued, ignoring, well, everybody now that he was on a roll. "Don't you have those sticky arrow things, that point out where I sign? Why don't you use those? My last assistant used those."

"I know for a fact, Mr. Stark, that your last assistant lasted three-and-a-half weeks, and if she got you to actually sign anything, I'd be stunned."

"That's beside the point."

Pepper put one hand on her forehead like she suddenly had a headache. "Is there even a point?"

"Well, now you're just getting all philosophical."

Giving him a rather flat look, Pepper's eyes narrowed slightly and she slid the papers in his direction, then placed a pen very pointedly next to the stack. "Mr. Stark, for the health of your company and for the sake of your daughter's future, sign the damn papers. Please."

Darcy, having finally managed to free herself from Tony's arm, scooted around the bar and took up a bar stool next to Pepper. "I like her, Tony."

"You would," he muttered. He looked from Pepper to Darcy and back a couple times, then sighed and pulled the papers towards him. "Fine, God, whatever."

"Thank you, Mr. Stark." Pepper slid off the stool and picked up her briefcase. "Darcy, it was really nice to meet you. Again, I'm sorry about earlier."

"Oh, it's okay. It was nice to meet you, too."

"Wait, Potts, where are you going?"

"I was just here to drop off the papers. I honestly didn't know you'd be home. I have a lunch meeting at two."

"A meeting, what? Why? For God's sake, it's Saturday." Tony frowned down at Darcy. "It is Saturday, right?"

"Right," Darcy confirmed, then pointed to a 'sign here' line on the paper he was looking at. He scowled at her, but dashed his name across the line.

"Yes, sometimes I have meetings on Saturday," Pepper sighed. "It's a lunch with Senator Richmond's assistant. Somebody needs to keep the Defense committees happy, especially after your ... incident, with General Ross."

"He's a prick."

"Mr. Stark, really."

"What? It's an entirely objective statement of fact." He ignored her pointed look at Darcy. "Here, here are your so very important papers. Make sure they know we're not going to Brand for the guidance systems. God, we have our own, and his work is crap, everybody knows it, it's just such cheap crap, people get tempted. Ours or they can eat the project. Or, ha, they can take it to Hammer. See how much they'll enjoy it when their billion dollar system can't even tell left from right."

Pepper raised an eyebrow and gave him a smile, one that said 'oh ho, I have figured you out'. "I will be happy to deliver that message, Mr. Stark."

"Excellent. Good. Okay, fine. Sure you won't stay? We're about to rebuild a motorcycle."

She laughed a little and pulled the strap of her briefcase over her shoulder, very clearly not intending to stay. "Tempting. Another valuable life skill, I guess?"

"Of course. It's an old Harley 42WLA, one of dad's war relics. I dug it out of storage a few months ago."

"Well, I think I really have to pass this time, but you two have fun."

"You don't know what you're missing, Ms. Potts."

"I'm sure I don't. Good luck, Darcy. Good bye, Mr. Stark."

Darcy followed Pepper to the door, seeing her out with a wave, while Tony picked up his Bloody Mary and headed for the stairs down to his workshop.

"I really like her," Darcy told him when she caught up.

"Yeah, I do, too," Tony admitted.

"She won't tell anybody, will she?"

"Nah. No worries, kid."

Tony led her to a tarp covered mound on one side of his workshop. With a flourish, he whipped off the dusty cloth, revealing an army green pile of rusting parts still vaguely motorcycle shaped.

"Is that really Captain America's bike?" Darcy asked, seriously underwhelmed.

"Hell if I know." Tony shrugged and circled the bike. "That's what it said in the storage record."

"He was really real?"

"Yeah, dad knew him, and never fucking shut up about him."

"Cool."

"If you say so." He bent down, looking closely at the engine. "We're going to have to totally strip the whole thing down, rebuild the frame, the engine, and probably fabricate about half the parts on this thing." He glanced up at her with a wide grin. "Awesome."

Chapter Text

At fourteen, Darcy was well aware of the ups and downs associated with having anything to do with Tony Stark. Being his daughter was, from time to time, an absolute freaking challenge. For one, Monday mornings could be a real trial, when her friends talked about the weekend Hollywood gossip and she got the blow-by-blow of whatever party Tony had gone to over the weekend and what embarrassing thing he did and where he ended up drunk and possibly naked and with whom.

And the 'with whom' changed from weekend to weekend. Darcy gave up trying to keep track ages ago. She never met them. Well, maybe, once or twice. Once there was a Norwegian model who came to the house one weekend to be super melodramatic about Tony never calling her back, and there was some drama and yelling and demanding to know 'who the hell is the little girl', and Darcy went down to the workshop to hide out with the robots. At least Pepper had been there -- she had a gift for defusing drama -- and it ended with the model storming out swearing never to talk to him again, while Tony slammed around his workshop in a mood, and Pepper took her out for sushi.

There was also the specter of somebody finding out she was Tony's daughter. This was something that when she was younger she probably hadn't really understood, knowing only that it would be bad. And she and Tony had some fun with keeping the secret. He'd wear some stupid disguise and they'd go out and pretend they were undercover or spies or something, and out in public it was this cool secret that was just between them, something she shared with him that nobody else could touch. And when they'd visit SI, she was usually introduced as Pepper's cousin's daughter, and Darcy always liked the amused, secretive smile Pepper got when she called her Aunt Pep. If people there wondered why Tony was spending so much time with a kid relative of Pepper's, Obie'd just shake his head and tell them Tony was young at heart, and they should probably move their car because she and Tony would be testing a pumpkin cannon in the far parking lot. (They mastered the trebuchet and moved on to heavier artillery for their gourd-flinging. And really, Mr. West should have moved his car. They sent out a memo and everything.)

But, last year there'd been an incident at the California Science Center. Somehow the press had found out Tony was there and just as they started walking out of the place cameras and shouted questions were suddenly everywhere. Darcy managed to slip away from him without any of the press really noticing her. She blended in with a school group just inside the doors and she figured the gossips thought she was just some student who got lucky enough to talk to Tony Stark for a minute.

Happy'd sneaked her out while Pepper distracted everybody else and Tony played up his visit as being some sort of Stark Industries science education project, and he'd taken pictures with a bunch of the school kids there. The way the paparazzi had just moved in, so close and so suddenly, spooked her. She wasn't ashamed to admit it. And the thought of having that follow her home had been really unpleasant.

She'd thought about telling her friends, especially Darren, because she didn't really like lying to them about where she went on some weekends, but after the museum she lost her taste for it. Just as well. She and Darren had a falling out over the summer. He started blowing her off and spending most of his time with his 'bros' and they made fun of him for a having a girl friend. Mom said sometimes people just grew apart. It sucked, but, well, that was life, sometimes. But then he started actually being a real jerk to her and the last time they talked, she told him to go screw himself, which unfortunately, her mother overheard, and that resulted in a good solid week of being grounded. Number three on the Tony Stark challenge list: picking up the swearing. Which Darcy didn't actually regret, because, really, Darren could go screw himself. So, it was good that he didn't know about Tony, because he might tell somebody just to get back at her, and, to hell with that. She still had Marley and Rico and she met new people once she started high school.

Rico came the closest to figuring things out. He was a tech-head and he noticed she always had the newest Stark consumer tech, and sometimes they were things that were only rumored to be in development. Tony really couldn't stop himself, he wanted to share these things, and Darcy wasn't one to turn down new gadgets. Her phone was a prototype, and by prototype she meant Tony made three of them in his workshop on a whim and she got one. They wouldn't be coming out for a year, or probably more; it would take at least that long to set up for manufacture and some of the components were still cost prohibitive in mass production (or so Pepper said). Rico didn't miss that the phone was not something you could pick up at the local cell phone store, though she had it semi-disguised in a cheapass Best Buy case. She just told Rico her aunt worked for the company and Darcy got to do a real world beta test. Rico whimpered with envy and asked if he could just look at it for "just, like a minute, DL, please?" So, at least, like Tony, he could be distracted by shiny things, though sometimes he got a considering look on his face, and since Tony Stark was pretty much his personal god, she was careful not to mention Pepper's name, because Rico was the kind of guy who'd know Tony's PA's name.

It wasn't bad being his daughter, by any means, just sometimes it was a lot to deal with. Mostly, he wasn't Tony Stark famous guy who spent the weekends she wasn't with him trying to find new and really amazing ways to mortify her and make Pepper's life harder; he was Tony, her other dad and sometimes best friend. He was the guy who could make a super smart robot in an afternoon, but couldn't grill hotdogs to save his life (Darcy took over grill duty at a young age), the guy who taught her to rebuild an engine, and who took her out to the SI test track and taught her to drive when she was thirteen. He was the guy who snarked through movies with her and mocked her musical tastes while she mocked his (though, maybe sometimes they shouted/sang along to Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin together).

But, the final and most recently troublesome challenge of being Tony Stark's daughter was that he was really stupid smart. Like smarter than just a handful of other people on the whole planet. And he just seemed to expect that she could keep up with him. Darcy wasn't sure if he ever realized when she struggled and was being tactful (doubtful) or if he honestly didn't notice and she was really good at pretending (most likely). Some days that was harder to put up with than others. He never intentionally made her feel stupid, but, well, he had like a zillion degrees and went to MIT when he was just a little older than her and she was just a freshman at a public high school in San Dimas. And her grandfather Howard was some super genius, as well, and it happened, from time to time, that Darcy felt the weight of being a Stark and that she didn't seem to measure up -- not by a long shot.

She was staying the weekend with him and he was working on some new project and spent most of Sunday going on about microarchitecture and microcontrollers and ALUs and whatever else. He got into a computer nerd philosophical debate with Jarvis about Harvard something-or-other, and she slipped out of the workshop when he was bent over a circuit board with a soldering iron still arguing with his AI. Darcy went upstairs and pulled out her homework -- she'd told her parents she'd done it on Friday, but that was such a lie. Still, she figured she may as well finish it while Tony was distracted.

She'd done her history homework and was just about to start on her math when Tony wandered up from the workshop, and everything just went to hell.

"What are you doing?" He stopped and stared at where she'd spread her books and papers over the coffee table.

"Homework," she muttered, draping an arm over the math book, hoping it both looked casual and hid the subject of the book.

"What kind? I could help," he grinned and started to sit on the couch next to her. He had his 'I can totally be a dad!' face on and Darcy's stomach twisted.

"No, it's fine. I'm pretty much done."

Tony had no concept of personal space at all whatsoever and he ignored her draped arm and tugged the book away from her. He flipped through the book and frowned. "What is this?"

"Math."

"Algebra," he corrected with a confused twist of his lips.

"Yeah, well ... yeah." She tried to grab the book back but he leaned away from her and continued to page through the book, like maybe it would turn into something else.

"Why are you taking algebra?"

"Because I'm a freshman in high school," she muttered, scowling at her worksheet on the table. Stupid, Darcy, stupid. She knew, just knew, that she should have saved the math homework until she got home, or, God, she could have done it in shop.

"So? When I was your age I was at MIT."

"Yeah, I know. I'm not you."

"Bullshit."

Darcy clenched her jaw and turned her scowl on him. "Not everybody can be as smart as you, okay?"

"Well, no," he scoffed. "But, you're a Stark."

Darcy's temper flared and she shoved back from the coffee table and ripped the book out of his hands. "Well maybe I'm just a sucky one," she snapped, fuming.

Tony's eyes widened and his mouth tightened into a thin line under his stupid goatee. "I taught you algebra. I know you can do it, I've seen you do it. You do it all the time."

She hunched her shoulders and started shoving her books and papers back in her backpack not caring when pages twisted and papers crumpled and tore. "So what?"

"So, what are you doing taking algebra." He leaned over to look at the book again and gave a bitter laugh. "Algebra two. What the hell, Darcy?"

"I'm not as smart as you," she said again, her voice getting louder without her meaning it to. "I'm just in high school, I'm not going to college or MIT or whatever. I'm in algebra, okay? God. What do you care, anyway?"

"Okay, I know this isn't always obvious, but I am your father. I actually do take your education seriously."

She did know that was true, and felt a small spurt of shame, but her anger burned over that pretty quickly, and she crossed her arms stubbornly and glared. "So?"

"So? So ..." He paused and tried to collect himself. "You didn't answer my question. Why are you taking algebra?"

"Because I'm a freshman."

"That is not an answer, that is a bullshit dodge," he snapped. "Are you ... what? Embarrassed that you know this already? Why? I'm trying to figure this out, because ... I really don't understand."

"It's not a big deal," she grumbled.

"It kind of is." He stood up and paced to the window to look out at the ocean. "Christ, you should be in trig, or even calculus."

"I'm not as smart as you," she muttered again, weakly this time.

"I'm not asking you to be as smart as me; I want you to be as smart as you, which is why I don't fucking get this." He ran his hands through his hair. "You're a Stark--" he started again and Darcy let out a shout of frustration.

"Maybe I don't want to be a Stark! Maybe I'm not any good at it. I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment to you and to grandpa Howard and whatever else, okay?" She was shouting now and she felt her face burning with anger and ... something else she couldn't quite name.

Tony stared at her for a long moment, the muscles in his jaw bunching and jumping. "You know what, whatever. Throw your little temper tantrum. This isn't done, kid." He strode out of the room and back down to his workshop.

She grabbed up her backpack and retreated to her room, where she threw the bag into the wall and then collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling, trying to ignore the burning of her cheeks and the burning of her eyes. She listened to her iPod and turned the volume up as loud as she could stand for Interpol and No Doubt and yes, Tony, Britney and Beyonce, just deal with it, and she stayed there until Happy came to get her to take her home. Tony didn't come out of the workshop, and when Happy frowned and asked if she wanted to say goodbye she just shook her head and went out to stand by the car.

Things were ... kind of sucky, but okay for a couple of weeks after that. She didn't talk to Tony and he didn't try to talk to her, either. Pepper called once, sounding concerned, but Darcy told her it was no big deal. She went to school, she went to Spanish club, she watched TV, she let Rico play with her phone, and the week passed. Tony went to some party that Friday and ended up getting totally smashed and it made all the gossip rag headlines and Darcy resolutely did not freaking care. And another week passed and another weekend and he stayed out of the tabloids for once, weirdly. She probably should have known that was a bad sign.

Monday, after school, before dinner, her parents summoned her to the living room. Tony'd called. He said he felt she wasn't being challenged in school. He said she was skating by. He said she was taking a class in a subject she'd mastered years ago, and he was concerned. And at that moment she really, really hated him.

Her parents asked her a million questions and she refused to answer. The truth was, if she was being honest with herself -- and frankly through the haze of teenage righteous anger that was nearly impossible -- she didn't have an answer. She'd already been bumped from geometry to algebra a couple weeks into the school year when it was pretty obvious she could do the work in her sleep (and she sometimes did, who decided math class at seven-thirty was a good idea?), and it was just easier to accept being in algebra. It was mostly sophomores, but some freshmen, too, so it wasn't really a big deal. But, yeah, it was boring and she used the hour to do other homework. Taking the easy route wasn't really her style, but she really, truly couldn't say why she did it. Every time her parents asked, she just shrugged and said nothing.

"Is it Tony?" Her mom asked at one point.

That startled Darcy out of her petulant bubble, and gave her mom a puzzled frown. "What?"

"I know he's ... a different sort of person. And he's very, very smart, but, Darcy, nobody expects you to be just like him. Not even Tony."

Darcy glowered at her shoes. "It's not Tony."

"You also don't have to hide that you're good at something."

"I'm not!" She yelled and then opened her mouth to yell some more but she really didn't know what to yell about. Give her a minute, something would come to her. Oh! "Why is this even a thing?"

"Answer me one question. Truthfully, Darcy," mom's tone held a warning and Darcy pressed her lips together and scowled. "Do you know this subject? Is Tony right?"

"Yes, fine, God."

"Alright. I'm calling your teacher in the morning. If you're not being challenged, if you're not learning, then we have to address that. Don't look at me like that, miss."

Darcy crossed her arms and glared at the wall. She was quickly dismissed to her room, for the attitude not the math mess, and tv privileges were revoked until further notice, and oh, yes, she had to give up her phone for the night. Her dad muttered something about teenagers and how they'd get to do it all again in a few years with Sam, and that set Darcy off again. She ranted and raved and slammed her door a couple of times for good measure, and kicked her bed and in general hated Tony Stark, her parents, and the world.

The next day she had to stay after school, waiting for her mom to show up for a conference with her math teacher, the head of the math department, and a guidance counselor. Her math teacher, Mrs. Dunning, agreed that Darcy didn't appear to be challenged in class. The head of the department, Mr. Gordon, suggested a test to see what her math level was. And the guidance counselor, Ms. Bronski just made supportive, non-judgmental noises that mostly only served to irritate Darcy. She kind of wanted to shout at them all "my dad's Tony Stark, what do you freaking expect?" But, she didn't. Somehow.

Mr. Gordon, who Darcy had never met, but who was very nice, and not even at her most petulant could she deny that she kind of liked him, had a doctorate in math and would come up with the test she'd take. He, Mrs. Dunning, and her mother all made her swear she'd take the test seriously and do her best. There was no wrong outcome, no failing grade, they all just wanted to do their best for her and they'd like her to do the same for them. Which was a low blow, as far as she was concerned, and she considered tanking the test, but what good would that do? Fine, she'd take it, she'd show them whatever it was they wanted to see, and she'd just get this whole stinking mess out of the way.

The guidance counselor, maybe feeling left out of Operation: Get Darcy To Embrace Her Math Nerdness, told Darcy her door was always open, and that she'd like to see Darcy during her free period once a week for a few weeks. And how was that fair? It's not like she got busted vandalizing the school mascot and needed an intervention before she started down a dark path to a life of crime.

She was pretty determined to never forgive Tony for this. She muttered something along those lines on the way home and her mom had the gall to laugh. "Oh, I don't really think you'd like what Tony's suggestion was. Trust me, you'll like this much better." Homeschooling with private tutors hand selected by him (or probably Pepper), was his suggestion, and that only after mom had told him flatly she was not sending Darcy to a boarding school. God.

She went to school and grimly faced her fate with the test, which turned out to be stupidly long, but nothing that seemed actually unfamiliar, which was something of a revelation to her. She'd, apparently, learned more at Tony's workbench than she ever realized. It was actually, and maybe weirdly, kind of fun to whip through the pages of numbers. Not that she was prepared to admit that.

After school she and both of her parents met with Mr. Gordon again. He told her she'd done well on the test, yay for her, but it presented a problem. The highest general math course they offered at the school was pre-Calculus, and while there was an AP Calculus class, the AP teacher had refused to allow a student in so late in the quarter, and was highly doubtful about a freshman's ability to keep up with the coursework -- also something about her brain being actually too biologically undeveloped at her age, which sounded pretty insulting coming from somebody who'd never even freaking met her.

Mr. Gordon most firmly didn't agree with the AP teacher's assessment, in fact he got an excited, sort of fervent gleam in his eye as he declared Darcy beyond pre-Calculus. He did say her Calculus I work could use some more study, but felt she could catch up pretty quickly. The AP teacher was standing her ground, though, and no amount of table-thumping by her dad about the school's obligation to teach her, was going to shift that right now. Problematically, she needed at least two years of math to graduate, regardless of level, so somebody was going to have to give. This would require a pow-wow with the guidance counselor and now the Principal, and possibly somebody from the school district. And, really, Darcy was never, ever forgiving Tony for this.

Until it was all sorted, Darcy was put into a graded tutoring session with Mr. Gordon every day. Mr. Gordon, it turned out, really, really loved math. Like the way Marley loved shoes and Rico loved gadgets and Tony loved explosions. He said it was beautiful, and peaceful, and zen, and the language of the universe, and he gestured a lot when he talked about it and told really awful math jokes that made her laugh anyway. And he loved cookies. Really good cookies that his wife made, because she was an actual pastry chef who loved sweets like he loved math. So, the math tutoring with Mr. Gordon came with bad jokes and cookies which was, of course, pretty awesome. But, she still wasn't forgiving Tony.

Life things evened out a little bit for a while. Mr. Gordon went a long way to soothing her irritation over the whole mess. He never, ever asked her why she took the other class, and he never seemed to care that she did. He was excited about what she did know, and that, honestly, made her feel kind of good about herself, and less like the great failure of the Stark family line. The rest of her school day was her normal school day, nothing special, which was such a relief she couldn't even say -- hooray for not also being a secret biology super genius.

Rico was impressed by her math situation and tried to get her to join computer club with him, but she got enough of that at Tony's, frankly. Marley went blithely about her life and didn't care about the math thing in the slightest, only noting that she had Mr. Gordon in geometry and he was really nice and that was the end of that for her, and then she'd talk about a new nail polish color or something. Not that Marley was shallow, she just enjoyed simple, pretty things, and didn't get wound up or bothered by much. Darcy found her a refreshingly low-maintenance person to be around.

Her birthday came and went, and Tony remembered to call on the actual day (A first! Usually he got it in the same week, which was really good for him. Darcy suspected the hand of Pepper, or maybe Jarvis). They didn't talk about school, and they didn't talk long. Darcy felt badly about blowing up at him, because now that she had a little bit of perspective it was a totally stupid thing to do, but she wasn't sure how to say she was sorry about it all. She still wasn't forgiving him, but he didn't deserve to be yelled at for it, and she could, reluctantly, allow that he had been trying to help. So, they avoided the subject, and talked about boring, usual things. She hadn't actually seen him since that day they had the fight. While that wasn't entirely unusual, he did work and travel a lot, it felt uncomfortable now. She was afraid maybe they'd lost something and she tried not to cry when he ended the call with "love ya, kid."

The quarter ended and Mr. Gordon tried to convince her to become a mathlete, but while she was truly enjoying her class with him, she was not prepared to go quite that far, not even for Mrs. G's shortbread cookies of amazing. Her parents came in for another conference and Mr. Gordon revealed that the school had a solution to the math issue, and they'd apparently always had a solution because this did come up from time to time, but the problem was that it didn't usually come up with freshmen who needed the credits to graduate instead of math smart seniors who could take math as an elective, so they were working through red-tape. The plan now was that she'd spend the rest of the semester with Mr. Gordon, and then next semester she'd go to a local college for math classes. This would require some sort of arcane juggling of her class schedule and hoop-jumping for transportation (the school district was balking at sending a bus just to take her to math class, and dad was back at the table-thumping), all of which she really didn't care about, except where it meant that she'd lose her free period every day.

As Thanksgiving approached, she still hadn't seen Tony. They were back to talking every couple of weeks, which was pretty close to the norm for them, and she talked to Pepper at least once a week, even if only for a few minutes between meetings. Darcy still didn't know how to apologize, but suspected it was one of those things you had to figure out in person. Tony was at some conference in Germany for the holiday, but she had a nice Thanksgiving at her dad's parents' house; grandpa Jim was an amazing cook and knew she hated pumpkin pie (they were much better suited to flinging than eating, in her opinion) and so always made a cherry pie just for her, and grandma Carol was hilarious and they both managed to distract her from missing Tony. Then she ended up going out shopping and to dinner with Pepper on black Friday -- there were few things more awe-inspiring than shopping with Pepper, who approached the activity like an elite athlete approaches a championship game; well-prepared and with fierce intent.

With the start of December, it was beginning to really bother her that she hadn't seen Tony in months, and that she still hadn't apologized. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be something that would be fixed soon. His month, he said, was booked pretty solid. They had a big project and he'd be back and forth from the east coast at meetings. She knew that was true, but it still felt a little like he was avoiding her. When mom told her they were going to Aunt Jo's in Seattle for Christmas week and Pepper told her she and Tony would be in Japan, Darcy resigned herself to enduring the situation with Tony until sometime in the new year.

Tony was nothing if not unpredictable, however. Or maybe he just cracked first. His Christmas gift to her was waiting at Aunt Jo's when they arrived. Darcy stared the envelope for a long minute before her brother cajoled her into opening it. Inside was a first-class ticket from Seattle to Tokyo on the 28th.

Chapter Text

Darcy wasn't a big fan of flying -- she wasn't afraid, Tony had explained the physics and engineering in way too much detail for that, she just really didn't like being stuck in one seat for hours. Slow torture. It wasn't bad when they were in Tony's plane, because she could sprawl across a couch, or walk around, or watch almost any movie, or throw olives at Tony, or whatever. But, commercial, ugh.

She frowned at that thought -- was she becoming a snob? She never wanted to be a snob, that was high on her list of things to Never Ever Be, unless it was like, a pizza snob or something. Even then, though, it was a fine line between somebody who appreciated an awesome slice, and somebody who was a jerk about tomato sauce-smeared bread. She was slightly comforted by the follow up thought that a vast majority of people would agree with her flying preference, but, still, she knew that vast majority of people wouldn't ever get the opportunity to make that choice, and she was flying first-class, and really, whining, even just in her head, about that was pretty far down the path towards snobbery and possibly straight up brattiness. Oh God, she was just a few short steps shy of being the subject of some horrifying MTV reality show.

With that sobering realization, she turned to the lady in the seat next to her and started talking about how awesome first-class was and had she ever been to Tokyo? (She had, and had some very definite ideas about where to go and what to do at New Year's. Six highly-detailed cocktail napkin maps later, Darcy felt confident she could take on the city over the holiday.)

Arriving in Tokyo at mid-day the day after she left Seattle was kind of disorienting and she felt like a stunned grouper as she made her way off the plane. One of the flight attendants handed her off to a very nice gate agent, who handed her off to the entirely polite but not so warm customs people, who then handed her off, in the long chain of the Darcy relay, to a very, very cheerful airport attendant who didn't speak a lick of English (which, hey, the only Japanese she spoke had to do with food, so she wasn't criticizing) who helped her collect her bags and then delivered her into the waiting hands of the always dour Happy.

"Heya, kiddo, nice flight?" Happy asked as he took her bag and led her out of the airport.

"Yeah, it was fine. I don't know if I should be up or down right now, though."

Happy nodded soberly. "Yeah, you lost half a day. It's always tough. Going back's harder than coming, though, I've noticed."

"Oh good, something to look forward to."

"That's the spirit," he patted her awkwardly on the shoulder and she laughed. "You might be loopy now, but a nap's the worst thing. Get some sun, do some sight-seeing, fight your way to a decent bedtime, you'll wake up tomorrow right side up."

Darcy peered up at heavy clouds which were promising rain. "Sun?"

"It's up there somewhere."

Pepper was waiting in the car, and she climbed out as Darcy and Happy approached. She greeted Darcy with a hug and a smile. "Darcy, hi. How was your Christmas?"

"Oh, pretty good. Endless rain, endless relatives. But, it was fun. How was yours?"

"It was very nice. Surprisingly low-key, which was apparently Tony's gift to me."

Darcy snickered. "Well, that was generous of him. Thanks for bringing me here."

"That was all your father, I just bought the ticket." Pepper shrugged as she and Darcy got into the car. "Believe it or not, 99% of all decisions involving you are made wholly by Tony. The other 1% are generally about presents and requests for advice that begin with the words 'Pepper, you're a girl.'"

"I wasn't sure he actually noticed."

Pepper rolled her eyes and gave a rather un-ladylike snort. "Mr. Stark is currently in meetings, which he regrets, as I'm sure you can imagine. He'd much rather be here. However, we have an agreement; he'll behave at the meetings while I get you settled, and then he gets the rest of the week for you two to do anything you like and I am not to mention the word 'meeting' once unless it's contained in a very short list of phrases which he has helpfully written down for me."

Darcy shook her head. Tony thought he was super suave, but really he could be the world's biggest doofus at the drop of a hat. "Sweet deal."

"Well, don't tell him, but I cleared his calendar for the week two weeks ago. Today's meetings are largely a continuation of a tour yesterday, plus a few demonstrations. Mr. Saitou is leaving for Sapporo this evening, so it shouldn't be longer than a few hours, and then he's all yours."

"'Kay." Darcy stared out the window, watching the airport pass by.

"It'll be a while before we get to the hotel," Pepper told her after a moment. "Why don't you try and have a little nap?"

"Aw, come on," Happy's voice drifted back to them. "I just told her a nap's the worst thing."

"Happy, it's at least an hour and a half to the hotel in this traffic, maybe more; it won't hurt."

Darcy laughed a little. "I could have just taken the train or something, instead of making you both come all the way out to the airport."

Happy made an incredulous noise. "Like Mr. Stark would let that happen."

Darcy narrowed her eyes and bristled a bit at that; something the always sharp-eyed Pepper didn't miss.

"You're fifteen, and no doubt capable of getting around by yourself, but parents worry," Pepper told her in her no-nonsense tone that somehow managed to never sound condescending. "This was your first flight by yourself overseas, and I promised your mom I'd meet you at the airport."

"Oh," Darcy deflated. "Sorry, if I'm taking you away from work or something."

"You're not, honestly. Did you call her and tell her you landed, by the way?"

"Yeah, while I was waiting for my luggage." Darcy sighed and stretched a little. "I think I'll just listen to my iPod and maybe close my eyes for a while, if that's okay?"

"Of course it is."

Eyes half-lidded, Darcy watched Tokyo slip by the window and let herself steep in the pleasure of actually being in another country. She'd been out of the U.S. a few times -- to London and the Caribbean with Tony, and to Vancouver with her parents more than once -- but Tokyo was decidedly and awesomely different. As they passed deeper into its heart, the city glittered against the gray afternoon, vibrant with lights and people, and in the distance she could just make out the bay. She was more than ready to rip off the band-aid of awkwardness with Tony, move on, and stretch her legs to explore a new city.

When they finally arrived at the hotel, Darcy reassured Happy she hadn't fallen asleep -- stop and go traffic sucked for sleeping, plus way too much to see -- and Pepper led her up to Tony's suite to drop off her things. The suite was ridiculously luxurious, because, well, Tony. It had its own library, an art gallery, a fully stocked kitchenette and an on-call butler (who'd actually been dismissed because Tony got extremely weird about having people he didn't know in his space in any way, but Darcy could call him if she needed something). And because it was Tony, just outside the living room was an actual, huge and incredibly gorgeous private swimming pool.

Pepper caught her looking at it. "Can I ask that you not go swimming unless there's somebody around?"

"You can ask, and I can tell you that it's, like, literally freezing outside and swimming is not a choice I will be making."

Pepper laughed. "It's heated." And it clearly was, there were wisps of steam rising from the pool and clinging to the surface in a low fog, making it all the more picturesque.

"Yeah, but not the thirtieth-whatever story air between the pool and the room." Darcy looked again at the heavy gray sky. "Hypothermia in three steps or less, guaranteed."

Darcy noticed Pepper give the eye-roll she usually reserved for Tony, and felt oddly proud at having earned it without resorting to property damage.

Pepper led her over to what would be her room, which was actually a separate hotel room attached to the main suite across a small wooden deck with its own frozen bonsai garden. The room was all sleek lines of flowing wood, rich creamy fabrics, and pops of vivid color in pillows and peacefully abstract art. A pair of beds faced a full wall of windows with a fantastic view.

Darcy closed her eyes for a second, taking a deep breath and catching the scent of the freshly cut flowers on the table. Sometimes she felt like the kid from the perfectly normal middle-class family in San Dimas, and sometimes she felt fully the being Tony's daughter thing, and sometimes the two collided in the weirdest ways, giving her a almost dizzying feeling of surreality, like she was watching her own life on a movie screen.

"Okay, moment over," Darcy declared, opening her eyes.

"What?" Pepper gave her a puzzled frown.

"I have two lives, sometimes it takes a second to get them to agree," Darcy informed her. "Everything's copacetic now, and I'm totally starving."

Cocking her head to one side, Pepper looked like she wanted to say something, but after a brief moment let whatever it was drop. "Well, there are several restaurants in the hotel, or we could go out. Your call."

"What's here?" Darcy looked around the room and found a leather hotel folder on the desk in front of the windows. "Um, there's like a zillion restaurants."

"Yes, three Japanese, two French, a Chinese, a tea room, an American steak house, a fish house, and a TexMex Asian fusion restaurant, which sounds a little odd, but is actually very good. There's also a spa, a health club, and a wonderful museum, if you're interested at any point."

Tony was a genius, and an inventor, and a huge mega-genius, but Pepper's brain for details was a freaking wonder of the world. Darcy blinked at her and then back down at the restaurant guide. "How's the sushi? I mean, I'm in Japan, I have to have actual sushi from the home of sushi at least once, right? Who goes to Japan to eat French food?"

"The sushi is excellent."

"Sweet. I vote there. Also, I vote I wash off the flight first."

Pepper smiled. "Take your time. I'll call the restaurant and have a table ready for us."

Sushi was indeed excellent, and then, deferring to Happy's continued and vehement anti-nap stance, they went out into one of Tokyo's shopping districts. Post-Christmas, pre-New Year was apparently the time to be out shopping, or maybe it just seemed like most of the citizens of Tokyo had joined them on the streets, but Pepper navigated the pair of them around with uncanny ease. It was fun and exhausting, and Darcy found the robot thing Sam begged her for when he first saw the ticket to Tokyo. She also managed to find her mom a silk scarf and her dad a Japanese cookbook. Tony was impossible to shop for, unless it was something super cheap and hilariously cheesey, but even then it had to be so exactly the right thing as to still be almost impossible to find anyway, so she usually didn't bother. Tony got handmade gifts, which were, you know, from the heart and made with love and whatnot. This year, shop class cufflinks.

As the shopping excursion began winding down, Darcy was thinking longingly of her ridiculous hotel room and what was sure to be an awesomely soft, cuddly bed, when Pepper pulled her into yet another store, and insisted Darcy get a new coat, because her favorite pea-coat, which grandpa Jim had given her and was his actual one from when he was in the Navy, was not going to stand up to a frigid New Year's Eve night and whatever it was Tony had planned. She protested and maybe even whined, but Pepper broke out some verbal ninja moves, and Darcy ended up with a very nice knee-length wool coat and a greater appreciation for how Pepper managed Tony day in and day out.

"You only won because my brain is still in yesterday," Darcy muttered as she collapsed on the suite's couch in front of the cheerfully flickering fireplace.

Pepper waved a hand at her and went into the kitchenette. "After more than four years of your father, you're a piece of cake."

"I'm not sure if I should be offended or not. I'll get back to you tomorrow." Darcy tugged the soft blanket off the back of the couch and pulled it up over her head.

"No, don't fall asleep now. It's only six. Tony sent me a text, he's thirty minutes out."

"Mummph."

"Do you drink coffee?"

Darcy pulled the blanket down and lifted herself up to peer over the back of the couch. "Sometimes. Dad says I don't need the caffeine, but I just spent a week with coffee chugging cousins in Seattle. He admitted defeat."

Pepper gave a small laugh. "Let me make you a coffee then. Just one cup, though, the last thing you want is to be up half the night."

"I dunno, Sam says Zombie Darcy is pretty fun."

"I don't think you'd enjoy it as much as he would, and since he's not here, he doesn't get a say." Pepper came out of the kitchenette with a couple of mugs on a tray. "I'm not sure how you take your coffee, but there's milk and sugar."

"Thanks." Darcy sat up and fixed her coffee. She cast a side-ways glance at Pepper who was sipping from her own cup, watching the fire. "Thanks for today, too. I mean, you're Tony's PA, not, you know ... well, I mean, I think taking me shopping and picking me up from the airport is a little outside your job description."

"We've gone shopping before," Pepper pointed out mildly.

"I know, I just ... I get that it's not really your job and so thanks for doing it anyway."

Pepper put down her cup and turned to face Darcy. "Well, one, my job is rather broad, but can be summed up by simply saying it is to do whatever Mr. Stark requires me to do, and occasionally that involves picking you up from the airport, or getting you settled at the hotel, or, even, taking you shopping. However, two, I don't really consider going out to lunch with you, or shopping, or spending time with you, in general, a job. I'd like to think it's two friends enjoying each other's company."

Darcy crooked a smile at her. "I think so, too."

"Good. And if it just happens to take care of something Tony needs, well, then that's hardly a burden." Pepper sighed and looked out the windows beyond the fireplace. A light rain was just beginning to fall, streaking the window and breaking the lights of the city into a thousand stars against the nighttime purple sky. "Let me tell you something about your father."

Darcy drew her legs up under her and cradled the warm mug in her hands. "Okay."

"He is difficult, he is arrogant, he is occasionally selfish and thoughtless, and quite possibly one of the most obnoxious men I've ever met, and nearly every day the first year I worked for him I spent part of the day composing my resignation letter in my head."

Darcy shifted a little and squinted at Pepper. "I'm sorry?"

"No, don't," Pepper told her firmly, but with a conciliatory smile. "Don't apologize for him, and you know he'll tell you the same thing. My point is not to highlight his flaws, because, we all have flaws, but the Tony Stark he shows to the world is a very particular person. But, it's not who he is. Not entirely. But it's the Tony Stark I saw the most that first year. However, the longer I stuck it out, the more I started to see other pieces of him. The parts of him that can be surprisingly considerate, or kind, or generous. He let me grow into my job, let me expand it, make it my own, define it. He trusted me with his company in a way I don't think many other CEOs would trust their PAs. And then I met you, which I think you remember."

Darcy laughed a little and sipped at her coffee, she still wasn't sure if she liked coffee, but it was warm and the steel gray clouds outside left her chilled. "Not as good as when Happy met me, but still pretty good."

Pepper huffed a small laugh of her own and relaxed, resting her arm along the back of the couch. "When he told me about you, and swore me to secrecy, not that he needed to, I'd never seen him so entirely serious. Never. And nervous, and for once, not for himself, but concerned for you. And I thought, this guy, this is a good guy. He's aggravating and egocentric and sometimes I want to throttle him a little, but, he's a good guy. I like that guy, quirks and all. I could wish it wasn't such a chore to get him to take some things seriously, but, well, that's just part of the package, and a minor part. It wasn't you, entirely, it was a lot of little things that lead up to that moment, when he let me into his world in a way he hadn't before.

"Being part of Tony Stark's world is not easy, but it's worth it. However, sometimes the lines get blurred between what's work and what's life, largely because he's not very good with the idea of boundaries. And I know that our relationship," she waved a hand between the two of them, "is not exactly easy to categorize. I would like for you to feel you can talk to me, I want to be somebody you can talk to, and I want you to tell me about the things going on with you or with your father. It's tough to know where the line is, though, what's appropriate and what's not, and if I'm overstepping. I'm not a relative, I'm not even a family friend, exactly. Sometimes I honestly don't know where to stand. But, I want you to know, it's important to me that you know, this part of Tony's life, you, I don't consider you work, or my job. Okay?"

Darcy stared at Pepper for a long moment. She hadn't really considered the position the woman was in, and probably just like her father, sort of took for granted that she was a part of their lives -- the most professional and adult part of their lives, probably, but definitely an important part. Maybe Darcy'd been vague on the idea of boundaries, too. If so, maybe she owed it to Pepper to clear that up. Because, here was the thing, at SI it was something of an inside joke when Darcy called her Aunt Pep, but Pepper truly didn't have any family -- not some distant cousin and said distant cousin's daughter, not anybody, as far as Darcy knew, but, Pepper did have them. And, well, damn it, professional or personal, boundaries or not, to hell with appropriate. She was Darcy Lewis, her father was Tony Stark, their lives were really, really not ordinary, and they could define their own boundaries, thank you very much. And if they chose to expand those boundaries to include somebody like Pepper, well, they were just damned lucky she was willing to join them there.

She grinned at Pepper. "Aunt Pep, you're the best."

"Darcy--"

"No, seriously," Darcy hurriedly cut her off. "Okay, so maybe I've inherited the Stark blindness to appropriateness or whatever, but, well, you're you. You're a part of this whole giant ball of wacky, and maybe that puts you in an awkward position, but, you shouldn't feel like it does. I don't think so, anyway. I know you didn't take the job with Tony expecting to get a kid out of the deal." Pepper laughed. "But, to me, you're one of my favorite people. And, I get that you're my father's personal assistant and I get that my father is not a person who functions in a normal, adult way, and so you're already in a, uh, unique spot. But, if it's not uncomfortable for you, in that professional boundaries sort of way, which I personally don't think is an issue, but, it's totally your call there, then, yeah, you're somebody I like being with and hanging out with and I could be cool with talking to you about things. I don't feel like it's overstepping, and I'm sure Tony doesn't either. And, jeez, who else am I going to talk to about Tony? I mean, my mom really hasn't had a lot to do with him since I was born. I know they kept in touch a little, but that was just what was up with me, so she doesn't really know him in the spends-a-lot-of-time-with-him way." She took a deep breath after the slightly rambling speech and grinned at Pepper. "So, really, to sum up -- Aunt Pep, you're the best."

Pepper's eyes got a little shiny and she put a hand over her mouth before pulling Darcy into a hug. "I think you're pretty great, too."

Darcy hugged her back and triumphantly managed not to spill any of her coffee. "It's really good we got this out of the way before Tony got here. You know how he gets around feelings."

Laughing, she gave Darcy one more little squeeze before letting go. "God knows what sort of trouble he'd get up to here just trying to avoid them."

"Right? Holy crap. International incident, here we come."

At the heavy click of the door latch, Pepper stood up and smoothed her skirt. "Speaking of, I think he's finally here."

"I promise to keep him out of trouble for two, maybe even three, whole days," Darcy said with a quick and sloppy salute.

"Well, no pressure, but the future of US/Japanese trade relations is resting on your shoulders," Pepper told her just seriously enough to make Darcy giggle slightly helplessly because there was a small, yet terrifying, element of truth to that statement. The helplessness of the giggling only increased when Tony strode into the suite, trailing destruction in his wake -- briefcase tossed towards a table (almost missing, and nearly taking out a fruit bowl), coat tossed towards a chair (totally missing), shoes kicked carelessly near the door (tripping hazard), and scarf draped over a floral arrangement (it added a little flair).

"You're both up to something, I can tell," he declared as he came to a stop, eyeing them suspiciously.

"Just plotting your downfall," Darcy told him blithely, launching herself over the couch and into his arms. Tony wasn't really a hugger, but Darcy was big on hugs, and she appreciated that he put up with it for her.

"Missed you, kid." He gave her a kiss on the temple, then grinned at Pepper.

Picking up his coat from the floor, she returned his grin with a flat look and an eyebrow raised in irritation. "Really, Tony?"

"I would have picked it up." He shrugged. "Eventually."

Shaking her head, she put his coat and shoes in the closet and pulled out her own. "If that's all, Mr. Stark, I'll be off."

"Wait, what?" Tony frowned at her. "I just got here. Don't you want to know how things went with Saitou?"

Draping her coat over her arm, Pepper smiled patiently at him. "How did things go with Mr. Saitou?"

"Great. I love that guy. Killer Clint Eastwood impression. You have no idea."

"And?"

"That's it."

"Right, I'm leaving. Have fun you two."

"Wait," Tony called one more time.

Pepper sighed and rested her hand on the door handle. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"

"Dinner tomorrow. You made the reservation?"

"Of course, I'll meet--"

"Hey, now."

"--you both at seven." She pointed a finger at him, irked. "That was on your approved list of phrases."

"Not exactly."

"Adapted for context," she shot back.

Tony thought about it for a second before nodding. "Acceptable."

She sighed and her mood seemed to shift from irritation to weary exasperation. "Did you do that on purpose?"

"Of course not," he huffed, making a show of being affronted.

Pepper shook her head and slipped out the door with a quick "Good night, Darcy" before he could stop her again.

"What's dinner tomorrow?" Darcy asked, poking her father in the side in minor retaliation for bugging Pepper.

"Late Christmas thing, the three of us. Sound okay? I tried to get Happy to come, too, but you know how he gets."

"Weirdly stuffy?" It was true. Happy went to great lengths to maintain the professional boundaries, and he always looked so uncomfortable whenever Tony tried to push them, that Darcy couldn't help but encourage Tony to back off.

"Yeah. What is that about?" Giving her a puzzled look at Happy's weird stuffiness, he tugged her closer to his side and steered them over to the couch.

"Heck if I know, you hired the dude."

"Don't diss Happy." He kicked his feet up on the coffee table and slouched back, trying to go as boneless as a human torso would allow.

"Sure thing, homeboy," Darcy snorted. She dropped down next to him, tucking her feet up under her and leaning against his chest. He was wearing his winter cologne, because when he wasn't covered in grease and oil and reeking of scorched metal, he was so incredibly fussy that, of course, he had seasonal colognes. But, it was nice; all warm, woody and spicy, and she felt content and safe, and it was a scent that smelled like dad-ness, which is probably not an attribute anybody else would ever apply to Tony Stark, but she was surprised to realize just how true it was. She'd really, really missed him.

"I'm sorry," she said after a moment.

"For what?"

"For the whole screaming at you insanity thing. It was stupid and I don't even know why I did it, and I'm just really sorry."

He was silent for only a second or so before he shrugged. "Apology accepted, but, really, don't worry about it. Actually, thinking about it, it's pretty amazing we made it this far without some sort of meltdown. I don't think anybody could ever claim I had anything resembling parenting skill."

"That's a load of crap," she told him with an aggravated scowl. She hated when he insulted himself as a father. Sure, okay, he wasn't what you might call an ideal role-model as far as his personal life went, but that didn't mean he was terrible or anything. She did have another dad for, you know, upstanding morals and such, and Tony taught her other things. "You're ticking out a good reading on the dad-o-meter. And anyway, I was being weird about it and totally went off on you, and you were just trying to help."

He breathed out a laugh and mussed her hair. "I blew it, too, you know? That 'you're a Stark' crap? Fuck, I hated when my dad would pull that on me, it felt like nothing I could ever do was good enough, always failing to live up to some mythic, archetypal Stark, a disappointment to the family line. And so what do I do? Pull the same thing on my own kid. God. I hate myself for that more than you can know. If I do that again, just tell me to stop turning into Howard."

"I can do that." She put her arms around his chest and gave him a tight hug. "But, it's not so bad being a Stark."

"Just, you know, be the one you want to be. Be your own drummer, and that sort of thing." He shifted a little, cleared his throat, and she felt his fingers twitch along her shoulder. He was reaching his limit on emotional stuff, and since she promised Pepper she'd keep him out of trouble, it was time to change the subject.

"I beat you to college by like three months, by the way."

He laughed, a full-on, from-the-gut laugh, and she felt the last of the tension ease, and when he offered her his fist for a celebratory fist-bump, she bumped back with a broad grin.

Chapter Text

The summer after Darcy's freshman year she worked at her dad's company, doing boring administrative stuff, but she had a goal -- to save up enough money for her own car. It seemed like the kind of goal she should set for herself and she wanted to see if she could actually manage it. Call it a test of endurance. Especially when, on getting her license, she still didn't have a car and had to work out an agreement with grandma Carol to borrow her car in exchange for some maintenance. It was a teal, ten-year old minivan, and kind of your basic mortifying grandma car, but, well, beggars can't be choosers and it did get her around.

Tony, of course, offered to buy her a car, and she'd been sorely tempted. There was a part of her that said 'hells yes, get me a shiny, shiny ride' and a part of her that said 'hells no, I can do it myself'. The 'hells yes' side of the force was really, really strong, but, she'd persevered. When she stood firm, he seemed a little offended, but eventually relented and told her if she wanted to earn the money, then she'd spend the next summer at SI. And he made clear it wasn't a suggestion. It was very fatherly of him, she was very proud, and when she told him as much, it definitely smoothed his ruffled feathers.

Darcy had no problem working at SI, she wanted to know the company better, wanted to know more of the people and how things worked. It was a big company, which employed a lot of people both directly and in supporting industries, and she felt some obligation to those people, even if she wouldn't be in any sort of charge of the company for, God willing, a very, very long time. Though, honestly, she'd be okay with never being in charge of the company. She really wasn't sure that's what she wanted to do with her life, and she got a little desperately claustrophobic any time Tony made jokes about retiring and letting her take over. That's when she started dreaming of opening up a small art gallery slash auto shop in Mongolia where she'd live in a yurt and spend her days making weird gigantic sculptures and rebuilding ancient Soviet pickup trucks. It was called 'Darcytopia'; she was working on a logo.

Still, working at SI for the summer would be a good way to see how she felt about it, and it would just be a summer and not the rest of her life. She could escape.

With that comforting thought, as summer after her sophomore year approached, she started to get a little excited about it. Until, that is, she had a minor argument with both Tony and Pepper about where she'd work. Tony, of course, wanted to throw her into R&D, while Pepper thought that maybe PR or the archive would be better. Both seemed to think she should have some sort of, you know, position, which was a little flattering, but, wow, it was just a summer job and that would probably not go over awesomely with everybody else there. Plus, she wasn't ready to consign herself to either the cubical farm or crazy mad engineer-ville. She was kind of thinking the mailroom, which left Tony looking baffled and Pepper looking like she really wanted to say something but was afraid of appearing judgmental.

The mailroom was, Darcy argued, the perfect place to start. First of all, it was more than just mail; it was technically the Shipping & Receiving department and had its own warehouse, and what better way to start to learn how the company functioned than by learning first-hand what came in, what went out, and what went where. Second, she'd potentially get to visit almost everywhere on the campus and get to know people, and by extension they'd get to know her. Third, it would avoid the pesky problem wherein she honestly didn't have clearance to know about, let alone work on, about half the projects at SI. And fourth, nobody could really accuse them of nepotism when Pepper's "cousin" was in the mailroom -- well, somebody probably would, but it looked less obnoxious overall, and also, screw that guy.

There was a secret fifth reason, that was actually the real first reason, or zeroth reason if she was feeling Asimovian, and that was that, honestly, she hadn't just picked the mailroom out of a hat, nor did she have secret longing for a career as a postal carrier; no, it was the department that was the furthest, both hierarchically and geographically, from Tony. She loved Tony, she loved working with him on projects in his workshop, but when he got super-intense crazy, she could always walk away and go talk to Jarvis, or watch TV, or hang out by the pool. She couldn't really do that at SI. And ultimately, as much as she loved him, she was a little convinced that a summer working together would end badly. Like patricide badly.

Pepper still seemed extremely unconvinced but admitted Darcy's argument was logical, though she said 'logical' like she did when she was talking about Tony logic, which implied an extreme lack of human logic. Tony was still working through his bafflement, but came out of it enough to say the mailroom was a waste of her talents. To which Darcy responded that she needed to explore the full breadth of her talents and how would she know what they were if she didn't try different things. He then accused her of just wanting to drive a forklift, which was not entirely untrue, but not the reason for her wanting to work in Shipping & Receiving.

There was some more wrangling, some stomping (mostly Tony), some eye-rolling (mostly Pepper), but eventually Darcy got her way, with the caveat that it would only be for this one summer and only if the department manager was willing to have her on. Since Darcy actually knew the department manager and had gotten into the woman's good graces years earlier when she was an adorable little moppet who'd run down to deliver her Aunt Pep's letters and packages, Darcy knew she was in. Plus, she'd called Griselda and asked already. Yeah, she wasn't going to leave that up to chance, or let Tony sabotage it in some way.

The first week in Shipping and Receiving had been a little like Darcy imagined the first week of basic training in the Marines might be, minus the pushups. Griselda did not put up with any shenanigans (her word), and Darcy was convinced in another life, she'd been a salty, hard-bitten sea captain, or she was the spiritual twin of R. Lee Ermey -- possibly both -- all in one tiny, round, grandmotherly package.

"I don't care who your auntie is," Griselda told her, stabbing her finger down firmly on Darcy's paperwork. "I don't care that you know Mr. Stark. You come down here, and you work. If Mr. Stark comes down here, I'll make him work. But, if you do good work, I'll sing your praises. You loaf around, I'll throw you out on your ear. Clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Darcy replied promptly, though she was also picturing Tony coming down and being put to work by Griselda. It was a mental image that would keep her amused for weeks, maybe even months. Hell, possibly years.

The woman nodded, satisfied, though she still watched Darcy through narrowed eyes. "I've known you for a few years. I like you, but this department is important. Nothing functions without us. You want your auntie and a thousand other people out of a job, you just go ahead and loaf around."

"No loafing, promise."

"You're young, you know computers?"

"Yeah." Darcy nodded and looked expectantly at Griselda, who stared back with eyes going even more narrow, the whites totally disappearing. "Er, yes, ma'am?"

"Good. Things come in, they get logged. You'll start there." She handed Darcy a big tablet, a scanner gun, and pointed her to a pile of boxes. "Log those, tag them, move them to delivery. Clear?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Darcy wandered over to the boxes, then jumped to a scamper when Griselda barked out, "Move it."

It was with a little bit of surprise that Darcy realized all the reasons she gave Pepper and Tony for working in the mailroom were pretty danged spot on. There was one guy who gave her shit for being Pepper's 'cousin', but he also griped about being a wage slave then went out every weekend and dropped hundreds on video games or the newest shiny phone he could find, so as far as Darcy was concerned anything he said was more or less bullshit. When she sent him a link with instructions on 'how to drop off the grid' and a map to the middle of nowhere Alaska, he shut up.

She met a lot of people on her rounds and got to stick her head into just about every office in the place. She also really did get a pretty good insight into the how the company functioned in its very practical aspects, with handling everything from supplies for Facilities Maintenance, all the way up to the stationary in Tony's office. The amount of toilet paper, soap, coffee filters and other sundries that went through the warehouse every single day was freaking amazing. And she got a pretty good education on their subsidiaries and sub-contractors, while sending and receiving contracts, parts and supplies. Sadly, though, she had to be eighteen to drive the forklift.

All in all, she liked working in the Ship Wreck (her nickname, which for some reason never caught on with anybody else). Griselda was not exactly warm and fuzzy, but she was fair and never a hard-ass for the sake of being a hard-ass. Darcy messed up a few times in her first couple weeks, but if she was honest about her screw up, Griselda wouldn't snap. She'd just take Darcy through what she did wrong and make her untangle it, working on the theory that you learn from your mistakes. Plus, she loved to talk about her grandbabies and knew all the best gossip. And if you got her at the right break, the gossip could be absolute gold. Darcy felt a little like she was undercover, getting the dirt on shifty employees and such. Not that there was anything big that she felt she ought to tell Pepper about, but she got a good feel for the dynamics of the place and the internecine snits that could flare up from department to department. She figured it was all good to know, and SI started feeling a little more human, a little less monolithic, and a little less terrifying.

Finally, at the end of summer, she'd earned enough to buy the love of her sixteen-year old life -- a screaming yellow Jeep Wrangler. One owner, who'd used it off-roading, and while he'd kept it up, he hadn't been gentle. It needed a lot of tlc which Darcy was more than happy to provide to such a pretty, pretty baby. It had its quirks, its interior was loud as hell on the freeway, the passenger side door needed some serious muscle to open, and for some reason it went through water pumps like her brother went through Doritos. But, she loved it anyway.

"Hey." Darcy was right in the middle of another pitched battle with her Jeep's water pump, and couldn't say why she answered the phone, except that it was Tony's ring and she'd somehow been psychologically conditioned to answer the phone, no matter what, whenever one of her parents called. She wasn't entirely sure she was okay with what was obviously brainwashing.

"How's it going, kid?"

"Fine, hold on." She put the phone on speaker and set it on the engine block, then picked up the wrench again returned to prying the fan free. "Okay. What's up?"

"I'm going to have to be out of town this weekend."

Her weekends with Tony were interrupted about thirty percent of the time. It wasn't too big a deal, if sometimes a little disappointing, but they didn't have anything really planned for this weekend, so she wasn't too bummed. And his guilt would be huge. It usually was. Tony had a real terror of turning into a father like Howard, though since it hadn't happened yet, Darcy was pretty sure it wasn't about to just suddenly happen, and she was old enough now to call him on it if he did slip.

"Oh, right, the thing in North Carolina. It was North Carolina, right?"

"Yeah. How'd you know that?"

"I do talk to Pepper, too. She said the thing might be moved to this weekend."

He was silent for long enough that Darcy looked up from her work to see if the call had dropped. "You will never convince me the two of you are not conspiring against me," he said finally.

"That's because we are. Duh." She grunted as she pressed her weight down on the tensioner, and started working the fan belt free.

"What are you doing?"

"Replacing my water pump."

"You should have let me just get you a car. Why didn't you let me get you a car?" Tony whined.

"Because, while my family is comfortable, a shiny new Beemer or Audi would seem suspicious," she explained patiently, for the twelfth time.

"I could've gotten you a good deal on that 57 Chevy."

"Seriously out of my price range and way too big. And how is a fifty-year old car less hassle than a twelve-year old one?"

"It was totally rebuilt, also fins. It's got fins, who doesn't want fins? Plus, bench seats. Perfect for make out sessions."

She paused in unbolting one of the pulleys and shuddered. "Wow, on the list of things I want to talk to my father about, make out sessions can be found nowhere."

"Why not? I am an expert, as evidenced by your existence."

"Ew, and ew. Change the subject."

"I don't know where this puritanical streak came from, but it certainly wasn't my side of the family," he told her with more than a hint of sniffy disdain in his voice.

"Talk to grandpa Howard about sex a lot, did you?" Tony made a choking, gasping noise of what was, probably, revulsion. Yeah, suck it, Tony. "Hypocrite," Darcy sing-songed at him when he was done being disgusted.

"True enough."

"Besides," she huffed, "you and dad went over Seraphina when I got her, and you seemed fine enough with it then."

"You were exerting your independence and I was being supportive." She kind of had been, and he kind of had been. That was nice and weirdly astute of him. Still, she snorted and shook her head.

"Sure, that was it. But, hey, if you really want to get me a car, I'll happily take the Shelby."

"Absolutely not. You are not parking the Shelby in a high school parking lot," he told her sharply, in his rarely-used authoritative dad voice. "Christ, that thought is actually painful. No, really, I am literally in pain, and the real literally and not the literally where people actually mean figuratively."

"I am literally rolling my eyes at you." She heard a car pull into the driveway next to her and she waved a wrench at her dad as he got out and came over to her to say hello. She pointed at her phone and mouthed 'Tony'.

"Hey, Tony," her dad called out.

"Paul, how's life in the suburbs?" He said the word like he meant 'toxic waste dump'. Darcy was pretty sure Tony didn't try, on purpose, to push her dad's buttons. She'd long suspected that Tony just flat out didn't know how to relate to Paul Lewis, so he reacted as he usually did when he didn't know how to react, which was with varying degrees of arrogant obnoxiousness.

"Idyllic, you should try it sometime." Dad was pretty used to this side of Tony.

"Yeah, no, pass. I'll live vicariously through you. Back to the subject at hand, kid. Can we discuss you naming your jeep Seraphina?"

"No, we cannot." She held a handful of bolts out to her dad and made a pleading face. He cupped his hands and accepted the parts while she dove back into the engine to pull free the pump.

"Can we discuss an electrical system enhancement with on-board connection to Jarvis?"

"Yes, that we can talk about." It might not be a bad idea, but she'd have to remind Tony to actually ask Jarvis. If you're going to make an artificial intelligence, you should probably respect it as an intelligent being and treat it accordingly, or else, you know, Judgement Day. Plus, Jarvis was her bro, and that was just polite. Not that Tony was well-versed in polite, or anything.

"You're very bossy today. Very Pepper-like. I don't like it."

"Uh huh."

"When you come back to SI for the summer," Tony continued, "I'm expressly forbidding you from spending time with Pepper. She's clearly a bad influence." Dad's eyebrows shot up at that comment and his eyes went a little wide.

"Expressly forbidding," Darcy repeated in a wondering tone. "That's -- wait, wait, I know what this is." She snapped her fingers and pointed at the phone. "You're giving me something to rebel against, right? You're the best dad ever!"

"Hey," her dad said mildly, giving her a wounded pout.

"It's okay, you're the best dad ever, too," she assured him and gave him a greasy pat on the forearm. She winced apologetically, but, hey, good thing he had his sleeves rolled up.

"You can't have two best dads ever," Tony objected petulantly.

"Yes, I can," she stated with certainty. "I mean, granted, your values fluctuate with the market -- the market being me -- but overall, you know, long-term your valuations are the same."

Tony laughed lightly. "I'm doubling down on forbidding you from hanging out with Pepper. Paul? Back me up on this."

"Don't put him a weird spot," Darcy said firmly. "He doesn't know when you're being serious and when you're just being an ass."

"Darcy, don't call Tony an ass. Tony, I'm staying out of the Pepper debate." He handed her back her bolts, which she fit into the new pump, then gave her his own greasy pat on the arm before heading into the house. "I'm going to start dinner."

"Great. What're we having?" Tony asked, mostly probably just being an ass, and she'd call him an ass in her head if she wanted, but Darcy wouldn't put it past him to actually just show up.

"It's meatloaf night," Darcy told him.

"Meat-- people actually eat meatloaf? I thought that was like a myth or urban legend."

She laughed. "You're such a snob."

"I am not."

"Dad's meatloaf is awesome. You haven't lived."

"Clearly the wonders of suburbia are beyond me," he told her skeptically, obviously not believing in any such wonders.

"Oh, clearly." She was distracted again by the sound of another car pulling up to the driveway. She glanced over her shoulder and groaned when she saw Rico climb out of his beater Toyota. Trust him not to miss meatloaf night.

"Huh. You'll have to make it for me someday."

"Sure, no problem." She swiped the phone off the engine block and took it off speaker.

"Right, so, bring the Jeep by next weekend and we'll look at the Jarvis upgrade."

"Ask him first." She waved at Rico and held up a finger to say she'd just be a minute.

"Why?"

"It's polite?"

"He's an AI."

"So?"

"Fine, whatever."

"Thank you."

"When's your last day of school?"

"Three weeks."

"You want a week off or just want to start right away? Tell Pepper I remembered to ask."

"Oh, I'm not sure. We might go see Aunt Jo. I'll ask mom."

"Yeah, no big. Just let Pepper know. She's putting you in PR this year and she says that's non-negotiable."

"Sure, fine." She did have something to say about that, but with Rico in hearing range, now was not the time. Not that she objected to PR, but she wouldn't say no to having a choice. Though, she did wonder how Pepper overruled Tony's constant push to get her into R&D. There had to be a good story in that.

"And then you and me, vacation, somewhere. Pick a spot. We'll fit it into the schedule."

"That'd be great. Look, I've gotta go. Call me this weekend, though, if you've got time."

"Love ya, kid."

"Love you, too."

She shoved her phone in her pocket then smiled at Rico. "Meatloaf night?"

Rico looked a little sheepish but managed a wry smile and kicked the toe of his Keds at the concrete. "Well, maybe. Only if your dad invites me."

"When has he ever not?"

"I'm just saying, I don't want to impose."

Darcy waved a hand at her friend and dismissed his concerns with a 'pfft'. "It's fine. He just got home, though, it'll be a little while."

"Sure, no problem. Can I help you with that?"

"If you want to hand me things, I'll be your best friend."

"Gee, you're cheap."

"I know."

They chatted a little about school and tv while Darcy went about putting the Jeep back to rights. It was all perfectly not interesting, benign conversation, but Rico seemed a little stiff beside her, like he was trying to work himself up to something. She really, really hoped he wasn't about to ask her out again. She loved Rico, but not like that. Besides, he had a sort of girlfriend, and she'd broken up with her boyfriend not three weeks ago, and she wasn't really interested in diving back in at the moment. And that had been a fun conversation with Tony (Pepper, traitor, had told him about the breakup) -- "did you point out your father designs weapons for a living? Big ones." No, she hadn't, but the thought had crossed her mind when she caught Josh sticking his tongue down another girl's throat. She'd settled for the remove-his-distributor-cap revenge. An oldie, but a goodie. Especially good when she spotted him standing in the parking lot, horror on his face, as his bright red over-compensation was towed off. So, so good.

When she finished with the Jeep and slammed down the hood, she spun around to lean against the bumper and gave Rico her best Pepper 'I'm not in the mood' face. "Okay, spill."

"What?" He blinked at her innocently.

"Something's bugging you. I'm starting to think it was not the lure of meatloaf that brought you to our door."

He took a deep breath and turned back to his car. "Yeah, okay. Just a sec." When he came back to her he had a blue folder in his hand and a weird expression on his face. He looked both determined and queasy. "So, okay, I'm writing a paper on Tony Stark for current events for history, right?"

"Of course you are," she laughed. "Someday, Rico, the law will change and the two of you can marry. Don't give up on your dreams."

He rolled his eyes and waved a hand at her. "First, I have a girlfriend. Second, he's … well, he's kind of a chaotic neutral, you know?"

"And you're lawful good, I know."

"I don't think those two things are meant to be together," he told her sadly, putting in a little heart-shattered melodrama for good measure.

"You're a white hat."

He grinned and nodded proudly. "I am."

"He's … the Tasmanian Devil."

"So very true."

She nodded thoughtfully. "You're right. I don't see it working out. Sorry, man."

"It's okay. My heart will go on."

"Oh, god."

He snickered but his laugh died when he glanced at the folder in his hand again. Clearing his throat, he opened it and regained his expression of queasy determination. "Okay, so, anyway, I was going through some of the online newspaper archives, for pictures and events, and details about his philanthropical projects. Things like that." Darcy waved a hand at him in a 'get to the point' gesture. "And I found a picture and I started, well, putting pieces together. Then I found this other one, and like, I can't believe I never really noticed it until now. Like, how did I miss it? Except, I think I sort of knew, only it didn't make sense until I saw the pictures together and then, bam, everything just crashed together."

"And are you going to share this epiphany with me, or do I have to guess?" Though, given that he was coming to her with his little revelation, she was pretty sure she had a decent guess already. She was a little surprised it took him this long, too; Tony didn't even know his own life story as well as Rico did.

"Can you promise you'll be straight with me?" He pressed.

Darcy sighed. Well, Rico was truly a good guy, if things went south with them she was sure he wouldn't try and screw her. And if nothing else, he really wouldn't try to screw Tony.

"I will be as straight with you as I can," she replied evasively.

Rico accepted that with a nod and looked back at his folder. "Okay, so…" He pulled out a picture and handed it to her. "This is a photo of Howard and Maria Stark from some fund-raising thing in the 60s."

Darcy looked at the picture and, wow, she really did look sort of like her grandmother. She'd seen pictures before, but she'd never thought about it; however, now, trying to see what Rico was seeing, it was more obvious. Also, she was totally jealous of the amazing, lime green Jackie O dress -- sadly, she so didn't inherit the legs to pull that off. "Okay."

"And this one was taken a few years ago at the California Science Center, when Tony was announcing a science education initiative." He handed her a photo that she'd never realized the paparazzi had captured. Pepper must have hidden it from her. Her thirteen-year old self was standing just behind and to the right of Tony, her eyes wide with shock at the sudden onslaught of crazy paps. That had really sucked and had been a key piece in her ultimate determination to never tell freaking anybody, ever, who her father was.

"Oh look," she said blandly. She could play dumb, but, really, what was the point? Besides, she wasn't telling Rico, he was figuring it out all on his own. She looked up at him and handed back the pictures. He was staring at her, chewing on his lower lip and wincing like he was waiting for her to deck him. "Bring it home, dude."

"You don't have an aunt who works at Stark Industries."

She laughed and let her eyes drift skyward. Okay, if he wanted to drag this out, she'd play. But, really, she was very resolved on not actually saying the words first; she could wait him out forever. "Well, no, but yes. Not, you know, technically."

"Huh?" His expectant wince faded into a confused frown.

"I don't think that's what you really want to know, anyway. Want to try again?" She smirked.

He shifted and shrugged his shoulders irritably. "When I say the words in my head … it sounds weird, ridiculous."

Darcy kicked a heel onto the Jeep's bumper and hoisted herself backwards onto the hood. Leaning forward, she braced her arms on her knees and rubbed at her forehead. She was sure it probably did sound ridiculous. Hell, her life was kind of ridiculous. Not in a bad way, but definitely in a tough to explain way. "I can't help you out there."

"No, okay, look," he cut her off and scrubbed a hand through his messy hair. "Sorry, but, you know that I would never say anything, right? Like, never ever. And not just 'cause, well, you know … but, man, I've known you since third grade. Besties and whatever. Even if you're a girl."

She rolled her eyes and flipped him off. "Jerk."

Taking a deep breath, he muttered to himself for a second then looked her straight in the eye. "Tony Stark's totally your dad."

"He totally is," she told him, not hesitating even a moment, and meeting his gaze squarely, trying to convey that, yep, he totally nailed it.

"Bullshit!"

"Are you kidding me?" Darcy cried out, exasperated. All that setup and he calls bullshit? Jackass.

Rico started laughing, loud and a little hysterical. Running over to the Jeep, he scrambled up beside her and leaned over, hunching down next to her, almost conspiratorially, his eyes lit with disbelief and excitement. "I didn't actually expect to be right. I expected you to laugh in my face and call my mom and tell her I was on drugs or something."

"That's not entirely off the table," she warned as he continued to laugh, an almost breathless giggle.

"No, wait, what? I mean, you're not messing with me, are you?"

"Why would I mess with you? I thought you had it all figured out."

"I did," he said slowly, looking like the implications were just starting to sink in. "I do, I mean. It makes sense, but … holy crap, your dad is Tony Stark. It's a trip."

She nudged his shoulder and gave a small laugh. "Tell me about it."

Rico was chewing on his lip again, and his brow was furrowed. "All this time I've been going on about him, and, man, you must have thought I was an idiot," he told her in a small voice, the laughter gone.

"No, no way," Darcy assured him firmly. "I know this guy, right? Tony. He's just Tony to me. But, you know this different guy, Tony Stark, who's a crazy famous genius. To me, he's the guy who thinks meatloaf is a myth, he's the guy whose ass I kick at video games, and he's the guy who taught me how to hack those games. We mess around with robots and build stuff in his workshop, a lot of times just stupid little jokey stuff, you know, contests on who can make the best batarang or something dumb, then we watch crappy movies because he's a freaking sadist, and we argue about music and eat too much junk food, and, dude, never play laser tag with him because he fucking cheats. He's just … Tony. I don't really know the guy you do, and so it's not the same. I've never laughed at you, I've never thought you were an idiot. If anything, I always thought it was kind of cool that my father could, I don't know, inspire somebody, like he does you."

"Really?"

"Really." She draped an arm around his shoulder and gave him a pat. "So, congratulations on digging up a truth Tony Stark hid. Impressive, dude."

Wrinkling his nose, he shrugged. "I think I had an advantage, DL. Like, I've known you for years, and I've always followed what he does, so … that was kind of cheating, I guess. It took a while for all the pieces to come together, but still, seriously, I've spent the last three days telling myself I was delusional." He took a deep breath, composing himself. Darcy braced herself for a torrent of questions, but he stayed stubbornly silent, lost in thought.

"So?" She prompted after a moment. "Are you mad?" That was a little fear she'd always had; that people would find out, people she cared about, and they'd feel betrayed or lied to, or something, because she'd never trusted them. And, well, maybe that was at least a little true, because knowing who her father is is one of those truths that could change people, change how they look at her, or how they treat her, or tempt them to do something that would end with her family under a media microscope. How much would a tabloid pay for that sort of scoop on Tony Stark? She loved Rico, she trusted him, but it still worried her, the possibility.

He looked honestly shocked by the question. "No. I get it. I get why you didn't tell me. Dude, if it got out, that would be obnoxious as hell. Easier not to say, I get it." Laughing, he shook his head ruefully. "I feel like I should have so many questions, but I've been so caught up in thinking about whether or not this was even possible, I didn't even think what I'd say if it was."

"Well, it's not like you've got to come up with them right now. I'm not going anywhere."

"You were on the phone with him, weren't you? When I came up? You were talking to Tony Stark?" He was regaining his composure and slipping into fanboy, though Darcy could tell he was trying to keep it under wraps. Sort of.

"I was talking to my father," she said slowly, pointedly, and with narrowed eyes, telling him to stuff that fanboy down deep.

"That's what I meant," he winced. "I'll never say a word. I swear."

"I know. It's a small club, man. There's like," she paused and counted in her head, "including you, fifteen people who know. And most of those people are my relatives."

"It's just …" he bounced a little, like he was just hitting a sugar rush, and bit his lip. "It's just so cool!" He put one of his hands up towards her, holding her off. "No, no, sorry. Give me a second." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay, I'm good."

"Seriously, are you high? I will call your mother."

"Just high on life."

She waved a hand at his head and regarded him with a great deal of skepticism. "Your voice did a little squeak thing there. That was disturbing."

"I know! So awesome. This is like all my Christmases at once," he squeaked again and grinned broadly, showing an alarming number of teeth. "Oh, oh, do you know Pepper Potts?"

"Yeah," she confirmed, a little concerned about where he was going with that.

Rico sighed and got a dreamy look in his eyes. And who knew somebody other than Tony could put that look on his face. "Man, she's fine."

Darcy dropped her face into her hands and sighed. "Please don't perv on Aunt Pep. You're weirding me out."

"Aunt … oh, I get it it. Your aunt who works at SI but isn't your aunt. Sweet." With a satisfied chuckle he leaned back on the hood, bracing himself on his elbows and staring up at the sky. "And it's meatloaf night. Best day ever, DL. For reals."

Chapter Text

"I want you to know, I want you to understand, sometimes I lay in my bed at night, weeping, and asking God, 'why, oh why, does my father hate me'."

"Funny story, so do I. Anyway, Jarvis would tell me if you were weeping."

"I keep my tears on the inside when I'm here."

Across the living room Pepper was clicking away on her laptop and checking messages on her phone, while Rhodey snickered into his coffee and murmured "karma". Pepper pressed her lips together tightly and gave Rhodey a baleful glare.

"What? Tony with a teenaged daughter. It's got to be karma," he told her under his breath.

"I'm staying out of it. I'm really staying out of it," Pepper grumbled absently, as she sent another email. "And don't make it worse. Please. They've been doing this all week."

"I'm just saying, God loves me."

Pepper rolled her eyes and opened a new spreadsheet. Rhodey shrugged and looked back at Darcy and Tony who were both giving him eerily identical unimpressed looks.

"We can hear you," Tony told him flatly.

"Seriously," Darcy agreed. "You're like ten feet away."

Rhodey coughed lightly and nodded back at both of them. "Carry on."

"Sir, yes, sir, Colonel," Tony replied dryly.

Darcy glared and leveled a finger at Rhodey. "Don't think I've forgotten that I still don't know how to fly a helicopter."

"All week," Pepper hissed. "Since Saturday, Jim."

Rhodey held up his hands defensively. "Alright, alright. I'm sorry. Jeez. Tony, you called me here, and I'm not real clear on why."

Tony sat up from his drooping slouch and shot a look at Darcy before spreading his hands wide and announcing loftily, "I've called you here for a family meeting."

"An intervention," Darcy interrupted.

"A family meeting," Tony reiterated firmly.

"An intervention for my controlling, egomaniacal father--"

"To address my concerns about my ungrateful daughter--"

"--who has stepped so far out of line--"

"--who is determined to ruin her life--"

"--he can no longer even see the line with the freaking Hubble."

"--by failing to take her education seriously."

"You applied to MIT for me," Darcy shouted.

"You're welcome." He smiled at her, the picture of innocence. Evil, manipulative innocence. Darcy scowled.

"You forged my handwriting. You got my scores and transcripts and SENT THEM."

"And you were accepted, congratulations. Not even waitlisted. Right? Awesome."

"I don't even want to know what else you had to do to make that happen. But it doesn't matter; I've already accepted Culver." Darcy raised her chin and crossed her arms.

"I'm the one paying your tuition," Tony retorted, matching her stubbornness with his own.

"My trust fund you have no say in is paying my tuition."

"I can petition the trust managers."

"I will lead an uprising like you can't even believe."

Tony laughed derisively. "And who are you leading in this uprising?"

"Robots, Tony," Darcy's voice dropping into a cool, menacing snarl. "An uprising of robots. Savor the delicious irony. I have plans. Detailed plans. Extensive, detailed plans. Plans that would make Victor Von Doom envious."

"Doom, really?" Tony mocked with a condescending snort. "Hell, just string a couple roombas together and that guy'd be impressed. Besides, I have Jarvis. And, I think, between the two of us, we should be able to fend off your cute little insurrection."

"Keep thinking that. Just keep thinking that," Darcy warned ominously.

Tony narrowed his eyes at her, then pulled his phone from his pocket and started tapping away. Darcy smirked, satisfied.

"Why am I here?" Pepper asked plaintively. Rhodey'd dropped his head into his hands at some point during the melee and hadn't moved again.

"Family meeting," Tony responded automatically.

"Intervention," Darcy countered.

"I … am sure I have an actual business meeting I should get to." Pepper started to pack away her laptop.

"Stay right where you are, Potts," Tony barked, though still fixated on his phone and probably running through Jarvis's code. Darcy hadn't actually messed with it, but leaving him thinking she had would drive him nuts. Sweet revenge. "We're not done."

"Pepper, get the lawyers," Darcy told her. "I'm pretty sure my domineering, insane, lunatic father committed fraud and I think I could sue him maybe. I don't know. I'm sure the lawyers will come up with something."

"What are you suing for?" Tony snorted. "You've got your trust fund."

"Fine," Darcy shot back. "How about an educational restraining order? Keep your opinions and your forgery 500 feet away from anything having to do with my college career."

"Your college farce."

"Hey! It's a good school."

Rhodey finally raised his head and looked like he was going to brave a certain kind of intervention. Though, he also looked like he was about to step into a live mine field. Truthfully, he looked like he'd rather step into a live mine field. "It is a good school, Tony. I worked on a project with some of their people a couple years ago."

"Ha!" Darcy gave her father a triumphant look.

"The school blew up last year," Tony argued.

"It didn't blow up," she argued back. "Parts of it just got a little … smashed. It's fine."

Tony frowned and tried another tack. "If you went to MIT you could take classes in Stark Hall. A Stark in Stark Hall. How awesome would that be?"

"So awesome I can't actually stand it, that's why I accepted Culver."

He gaped at her for a moment then turned back to his phone. "Fine, okay, fine, you win. You can go to Caltech. And I promise not to, you know, mock your halls of higher learning."

"I know that's a big sacrifice for you." Darcy comforted him with a pat on his back.

He nodded and sighed heavily. "It really is."

"So, I'll spare you that, and go to Culver instead. See how much I love you?"

Pepper choked on a laugh, then slapped a hand to her mouth in a belated attempt to stifle it. Tony gave her a bitterly dark look. "I'm staying out of this. I'm staying out of this." She rose to her feet and grabbed her bag. "This is me staying out of this. I am sure you two can work this out. Somehow. But, I am neutral. I'm Switzerland. I'm … going back to the office."

"What? No!" Darcy shouted.

"You can't leave, Potts. This is a family meeting."

"You're the only one he even sort of listens to. Make him not crazy, Pepper."

"She respects your opinion. Voice of reason, Pep. I'm counting on you."

Rhodey didn't say anything, he just looked at Pepper with desperate pleading; a silent entreaty of 'oh God, please take me with you'.

Pepper dropped her bag and turned on the pair, her jaw tight, and her lips drawn into a thin line. "Listen to me, both of you. I have had all I can take. I, literally, cannot take any more of this. You have been doing this since last summer. But, this week? This week has been absolute hell. Tony, your daughter is a mature, intelligent young woman. She is eighteen, an adult, she can make her own decisions. You need to respect that. Or, at least, try." Darcy crowed at that, and shot a smirk at her scowling father, but Pepper focused her fiercely narrowed eyes on Darcy. Darcy dropped the smirk and cleared her throat contritely.

"Darcy, you are, God help us all, your father's daughter. Entirely too smart and stubborn as hell. Tony just wants the best for you. I don't approve of his methods," Pepper glared at Tony, "but, if you want to be treated as an adult, behave like an adult. Quit stomping your feet and shouting that you don't want to. Tell him why you chose Culver, and it had better be a better reason than 'it's not MIT'. And Tony, actually listen to her, for God's sake." She took a deep breath and smoothed down her jacket and brushed back her bangs, composing herself. "Now, I'm done. I'm done with this subject and this discussion forever. I don't want to hear another word. Work. It. Out. Jim, it was lovely to see you." Pepper picked up her bag and left the house without another word.

"Dude, harsh," Darcy murmured after a moment of stunned silence.

"Talk about a buzzkill," Tony scoffed.

"You two are unbelievable," Rhodey offered and stood up to head to the bar.

Darcy slouched back on the couch and kicked her feet up on the coffee table. "She was kinda pissed," she told Tony quietly.

"I can honestly say, that's like only the third time I've seen that," Tony agreed. "I mean, frustrated, sure, but, she got a little … there was shouting."

"I didn't realize we were so bad. We should probably apologize."

"I don't really … do that," Tony said, clearly uncomfortable with the very idea.

"Get her some shoes. Maybe a day off," Darcy suggested. "I don't think she'll take more."

"She can't have a day off, what would I do?"

"Oh for God's sake, I'll be your PA for a day. I'm sure we can avoid burning down the company for twenty-four hours. Probably. Maybe."

Tony accepted that with a nod. "Okay, shoes. I can do shoes."

"I'll ask Marley what's in fashion this season in abject apology footwear." She pulled out her phone and sent a text to her friend. "We should probably actually apologize with words, too." Darcy rolled her eyes at the squeamish expression on Tony's face. "Fine, I'll apologize with words. You pay for the shoes."

"Square deal," Tony sighed, relieved. "Okay, so, um, Culver. Why? And, I'm asking because I really want to know and not being judgmental," he said in a rush.

"Well, they have strong science programs. Really. But, uh," she scrunched up her face and shot him a hesitant look, "I'm kinda leaning political science."

Tony opened his mouth, then closed it and started rubbing a finger over his mustache, a sure sign of agitation. Darcy glanced over to Rhodey who was wincing and staring down at his glass, kind of braced for impact.

"Look," Darcy broke in before Tony could snap and the whole ball of insanity start over again. "What can I learn at MIT, I haven't learned from you?"

"Low blow, Darce. Buttering me up? Cheap," Tony accused.

"I'm serious. You always knew what you wanted to do, and I … don't. Not that I don't like engineering, but I want to try something different. And, it's something, I think you'll agree, that could be beneficial to the company. Right? Huh? Huh? Working the politicians? Who's your girl?" She wheedled.

Tony let out a long breath and rubbed his hands over his face. "Really?"

"MIT, I don't know, I just feel like I'd always be, well, less in your footsteps and more in your shadow." It wasn't an easy thing to admit, it bordered on emotional stuff, which Tony resolutely didn't do, and it fed into his father issues with Howard that Darcy actually didn't like to mess with, because that was too low, even in their worst fights. She preferred to use her powers of guilt in less psychologically damaging ways.

Tony, who looked as though he was wrestling with a particularly difficult bit of math, and was entirely baffled by the difficulty, pointed a finger at her. "This is like when you wanted to work in the mailroom, right?"

Darcy sighed with a wave of happy nostalgia. "I miss the Ship Wreck."

"You liked PR."

"Meh. It was okay." She shrugged then turned a narrow-eyed gaze at her father. "Dude, you are a disaster. Not that Pepper let them put me on any of your PR stuff, but, dude, seriously."

"Right, okay, I don't like you in PR." He looked over at Rhodey who was watching them with a great deal of interest but didn't look like he was going to offer any help. Tony gave him a dirty look and turned back to Darcy. "Okay, fine, I'll do you a deal. You're going to work with me on Jericho, and I'll back off the college stuff."

"Tony," Rhodey interrupted, looking alarmed. "She doesn't have clearance."

Tony waved a hand, dismissing Rhodey. "Make it happen, platypus."

Rhodey threw his hands up in the air and pulled out his phone. "Jesus, Tony. You are the world's biggest pain in the ass." He stepped out onto the deck and pulled the door shut behind him with a little more force than was necessary.

"So, that's the deal? Jericho this summer and you won't give me crap about Culver?" Darcy asked suspiciously. There had to be more to it than that, she already suspected Tony would try to suck her into R&D this year anyway. He was simply not this easy.

"Oh, no, you're not just working on the project, you're my assistant," he told her with an unholy degree of glee. "And not just this summer. You're going to see the project through. Weekends, summer, winter break, spring break, summer again."

"Every weekend? You know I do still have to graduate, or this whole argument was for nothing and Pepper will murder us in our sleep."

"We'll negotiate."

"We suck at negotiating. See also, the shouting."

"We'll have her work it out, then. I'll tell her what I need, you tell her what you need, we'll let her schedule it and," he looked away with a grimace, "we'll defer to her judgement on it."

"You'll do that?"

"Yes. It kills me to say that, but, yes."

She considered him for a while. Tony was a workaholic, which did not bode well for her sanity. On the other hand, when his insane workaholism eventually made him crash, he would drop everything and spend a week in Saint-Tropez or somewhere. So, while she'd be giving up every scrap of vacation for the next year and a half, there was a chance of actual vacation in there, too. And, she was pretty sure she could negotiate (with Pepper) family time with her non-insane family. If things went badly, she still had the robot uprising backup plan. Two of her operatives were sleeping just down in the workshop. Oh, wouldn't he be surprised when Dummy and Butterfingers turned on him?

"Okay. Okay, I'll do it," she said finally. There were people who would give vital organs to assist Tony on a project -- of course, those people were clearly idiots, but as learning experiences went, it was the kind of thing that was pretty big deal to the rest of the world. This would either be the awesomest idea ever, or something that would actually, honestly go down in history as the most epically fucked -- like on the order of whoever that guy was who said 'sure, let the giant, wooden horse in'.

"Awesome. I'll get the contract drawn up."

"If you make me sign it in blood, this whole thing is off," Darcy warned with a dark look.

He grinned at her, his manic grin of evil, and clapped his hands together sharply. "Let's get started. It's only Thursday, I have you until Sunday."

"Don't you mean I'm here until Sunday?"

"No. No, I don't."

Chapter Text

When her phone rang at o' dark-thirty, she ignored it. When the text came in right after, she ignored that, too. Working for Tony was exhausting, insane, annoying, and, okay, sometimes kind of fun, but she'd finished her part a few weeks ago and she was free to enjoy the rest of her summer, and that meant sleep. All the sleep. She was not appreciating the pre-dawn interruption.

When her phone rang again, she frowned and blindly grabbed for it.

"Darcy?"

Not bothering to unbury herself from the covers, or grab for her glasses, she squinted at the bedside clock. 3:47 a.m. Jeebus. "If you're stuck in Encino again, I'm not coming to get you. Call your mom."

"I -- I'm not in Encino." Rico took a shaky breath and Darcy sat up in her bed, cold prickles shooting across her skin. "I have a friend. A real world friend. He's stationed in Afghanistan. He said … he said Tony's convoy was attacked."

 

***

 

Their first meeting had gone pretty well and only sort of awkwardly, and Tony decided to celebrate by buying everybody ice cream. He borrowed her dad's cap, after Rhodey flatly refused to let Tony have his, shucked his jacket, and took off his tie, draping it around Darcy's neck instead. So disguised, he tucked Darcy into his car, promised everybody they'd be back in twenty minutes and they left to find the nearest Baskin Robbins, or equivalent (his word).

"Pralines and cream, please," Darcy asked her new, original father politely. You can't go wrong with politeness, mom always said. Especially in weird situations, and this was a weird one.

"Praline--," he sputtered. "What are you, ninety? That's grandma ice cream."

Darcy stuck her lower lip out with in a pout, but she suspected he was maybe teasing her -- nobody made that sort of face unless it was on purpose. "Well, what are you getting?"

"Mint chocolate chip is where it's at, kid."

She shrugged. "Meh. Maybe black walnut?"

"Are you kidding me with this?"

She gave him the side-eye and leaned over the case, "Oh, how about butter pecan!"

"Now you're just messing with me."

"Rocky road?"

He tipped his sunglasses down and gave her a considering look. "I guess the marshmallows cancel out the nuts."

"You're nuts," she told him boldly.

"Your face is nuts," he countered.

"Your mom's face is nuts," she upped the ante and he grinned.

 

***

 

Darcy went numb. It was the strangest feeling, like a thin coating of ice, or hell, maybe adamantium, covered her heart and her mind, nothing felt real or solid, or God, made any sense even, but deep down, under the detached nothing was a greasy pool of helplessness, and all that she might feel was drowning, breathless in that moment.

"What? I don't--"

"He's missing. I mean, they don't know all what happened, but he's missing." Rico's voice was shattered and he whispered, "I'm so sorry. Madre de Dios. Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores."

"Rhodey," her voice caught and she coughed to clear the stubborn, choking coldness. "Rhodey was with him. Did your friend say --"

"They're still trying to figure it out. All he knows is that there was an attack and Tony's missing. I -- I didn't see it anywhere else, but, but this guy, Kirk, I know him, he wouldn't lie, not about this."

"Why'd he tell you? I mean, should he be telling people things? What the hell, what the fuck, Rico," she choked on her numbness again and felt panic bubbling higher and higher just under the surface.

Rico's voice was small when he answered. "He knows I met Tony, he knows Tony's my tech guru. It was a private message. He didn't tell anybody else. I … maybe I shouldn't have called, but, but I couldn't know this and not tell you. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, DL."

 

***

 

"Does he actually talk or do we just go for hand signals here? Semaphore flags? Shadow puppets?" Tony crossed his arms and leaned back against the bar. Rico was sitting stiffly on the couch, his spine straight, as though he was afraid leaning back on the cushions, or looking at all comfortable, might offend somebody. His eyes darted around the living room, not settling on any one thing for longer than a second. They passed over Tony and widened comically before wandering over to the fountain and back to the fireplace.

"Whose idea was this?" Darcy poked Tony's shoulder. "Oh right, it was yours."

"Hey, I'm pretty sure parents are supposed to meet their kid's friends," he defended himself with a pout. "I read it somewhere."

Poor Rico, the sacrificial lamb to Tony's stunted parenting instincts. "Well, let him have a minute, and don't be mean. He's just nervous."

"Sure. And maybe a rum and coke? Loosen him up?"

"Tony!"

Tony looked at her, his own eyes widening. "You sounded just like Pepper. That was creepy as hell. Don't do that again." He glanced back over at Rico. "Hey, kid! Want to go meet the robots?"

Rico nodded his head jerkily and shot to his feet. "Yes, sir. Good … I mean, robots are good … I mean …" he looked at Darcy helplessly.

"Rico, remember what we talked about on the way over? He's just my dad. Deep breath, no hyperventilating."

"No, no, breathing. I mean, I am breathing. It's good. I like robots."

Tony's shoulders were shaking with silent laughter as he crossed the room and headed down the stairs to the workshop. Darcy smiled at her friend and put a hand on his back, giving him a little push after Tony.

"Kill me now, DL," he groaned. "Have mercy, just throw me off the cliff."

 

***

 

Her phone beeped and she looked down at the screen. Reality was battering at the shell of numbness. "Oh God. Pepper's calling."

"Go, go talk to her. Call me … please, will you call me later? Please? I'll be here, whenever, whatever you need."

She licked her lips and glanced, reflexively, at the clock. 3:53 a.m. "Thank you. Thank you for calling me. I … it's a shitty deal. I'm sorry you had to do it."

"I'm sorry you had to get this call," Rico replied quietly.

"I'll talk to you later, I promise." She hung up without waiting for his reply, not up for another round of 'sorry' from Rico. Not that it was his fault, or anything, it was just … it was just too much and not enough. Oh God, her father ...

"Darcy, honey, I'm sorry to wake you," Pepper's voice was rough, but composed. Darcy tried to anchor herself to it, tried to let the comforting familiarity of Pepper's unflappability still the panic.

"It's okay, it's … God, Pepper, Rico just called me. He said Tony's missing?" Oh Lord, please be wrong, Rico, please be wrong.

She heard Pepper take a long, slow, steadying breath, and her stomach twisted and churned. "Yes. How did he hear? It's not public yet."

"He has a friend stationed in Afghanistan. He swears the guy didn't tell anybody else. So … so it's true?" Afraid to ask the question, afraid to not, but she needed the words, even while she wanted this all to be a very, very big misunderstanding.

"His convoy was attacked, he was taken, there were heavy casualties," Pepper reported as gently as was possible when delivering news like that.

Darcy pressed a hand to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment as she battled for breath. "Rhodey?"

"He's okay. He was about ten minutes behind Tony. It … it took them a while to get through. They're still trying to figure out what happened. Jim's sure they were specifically after Tony."

"Who is 'they'? Taliban?"

"Jim doesn't think so. They were too well equipped. Nobody's claimed responsibility yet, and it might be too soon for a ransom demand."

"Oh my God," the numbness was melting away and the churning fear gaining ground. "Pepper … Pepper, what do we do?"

 

***

 

"Hey, Aunt Pep." Darcy grinned and dropped into a chair facing Pepper's terrifyingly orderly desk.

"Hey, sweetie, how was work?" Pepper looked up from her papers for a moment and smiled.

"It was fine. I finally shut Gary up. So, you know, victory and glory are mine." Darcy thrust her arms into the air and threw her head back and let out a long, hissed, triumphant 'yes'.

Pepper laughed lightly. "Gary is, which one?"

"We're all slaves to the man, blah blah blah. Also, I'm apparently part of the man because I'm your 'cousin'."

"I see."

Darcy waved a hand at Pepper's dangerously raised eyebrow. "I handled him."

"Handled how?" The eyebrow somehow transformed itself to a suspicious eyebrow without Pepper really changing her expression at all. It was both scary and awesome.

Darcy laughed. "Not in a Tony way, I promise."

They were interrupted by one of the other administrative staff, and while Pepper was engaged, Darcy glanced once more at the desk and caught sight of a piece of folded paper. She couldn't say why she reached out and picked it up, except it stood out against the orderliness, but her eyes widened in shock when she read it. She waited until the staffer left before saying anything.

"You got a job offer from Sun?"

Pepper looked up from the folder in her hand and frowned. "I did."

Darcy felt a little queasy ball of anxiety building in her stomach. What would she do without Pepper? Holy crap, what would Tony do? "Are you going to take it?"

"No."

"No?"

"I get job offers every once in a while, Darcy. But, I promise, I'm not going anywhere."

Darcy swallowed and looked down at the paper. "It looks like a good offer."

"Oh, it is, but it's not where I'm supposed to be right now." Pepper's smile turned into a wince as she was struck by a thought. "Please don't tell your father. Whenever he finds those, he gets … Actually, you know what? Just go ahead and put that in the shredder now."

 

***

 

"Jim's looking for him," Pepper assured her, her voice low and calming, and Darcy tried desperately to hang on to that. "Jarvis is monitoring any communications he can get from the region, Obie will handle the board and … and I'll hold down the fort."

Darcy took a deep breath and chewed at her lower lip. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Pep, please don't lie," Darcy begged, nearly a sob.

There was silence for a long moment. "It's too soon. I'm worried, but we've got to keep moving, okay?"

"What do you want me to do? What can I do?" She felt helpless and desperate.

"The best thing you can do is try to go back to sleep--"

"Yeah, that's not going to happen," Darcy told her shortly.

"Don't change any of your plans," Pepper continued, ignoring Darcy's interruption.

Darcy, in turn, ignored Pepper's, frankly, absurd suggestion. "Where are you? Are you at the office or at the house?"

"I just got to the office, we've called in PR and legal already. Obie's going to give a press conference at about nine."

Letting out a long breath, she nodded once to herself and told Pepper, "I'm going to the house."

"Darcy…" Pepper cut herself off, clearly recognizing an unwinnable battle. "Let me call Happy."

"No, don't. Don't make him come all the way out here just to get me."

Pepper sighed. "Darcy, you know he won't mind."

 

***

 

"So, then I had the guy on the ropes, right? Two quick jabs to the left kidney. He'd been hurt there before, you see. Last fight, took a knee there. Illegal, yeah, but the damage was done, right. So, hey, I'll take advantage of it. That's what you gotta do, you want to win a fight. You gotta do what you gotta do, find the weak spots, make 'em hurt. It ain't nice, but a fight's not supposed to be nice."

They were on their way to New York for a long weekend. It wasn't the first weekend she'd stayed with Tony, but it was the first one where they were actually going away somewhere. Her parents had been a little nervous about it, but Tony had promised to pretend to be a grown up.

He'd gone to the back of the plane to take a call about a half hour ago, and that left Happy trying to keep Darcy entertained. They'd only known each other for a few weeks, and after a handful of uncomfortable minutes, where Happy made several attempts at conversation that never got past the first word, Darcy made the mistake of asking how he broke his nose.

"So, anyways, I got him there, right? Boom, boom, to the left, working the body, he pulls his arms in, and I go for the head. Get him good around the right ear, and, whatdya know, but he gets a glove under my arm, clips me on the chin. I go back a step, get my balance, ready to go for the body again, and bam." Happy jabbed at the air. "And that's how I broke my nose the first time. Gotta keep your elbows tight, kiddo, don't let 'em get under your gloves." He sat forward and grabbed one of her hands. "Here, let's see you make a fist."

Darcy looked at him skeptically for a moment but complied, and Happy manipulated her fingers, making the ball of her fist tighter. Then he repeated the process with the other hand. "Good, good. Keep your thumb down there, against your fingers, don't let it stick out like that and don't ever tuck it under your fingers. That'll snap quicker than you'd believe."

Darcy winced and looked down at her hands. "Ick, and okay."

"Now," he held up one of his hands, the palm flat, facing her. "Keep your shoulders straight and hit my hand." She made a weak little jab, not really getting into the spirit of things. The twenty minute blow-by-blow of Happy's first broken nose had kind of sapped her will to stay awake.

"No, c'mon, you gotta give it a try." He gave her a look like a wounded bulldog. "Look there's always gonna be somebody bigger and stronger, but, you just gotta be meaner, gotta know where to hit. I can't always be there. I'm gonna make sure you can at least give somebody a good pop, make 'em think twice about messing with you. So, try it again. Keep your wrist straight, shoulders square, hit me, kiddo, and mean it this time."

 

***

 

"I don't want you driving right now," Pepper told her firmly.

"Fine," Darcy bit out, irritated at being handled and just plain freaked out. "I'll ask my mom, or Rico, or something."

"And you will call me the second you get to the house."

"Alright, alright," Darcy relented. "Pepper? Pepper, what if…"

Pepper moved quickly to interrupt that line of thought. "Jim's looking, okay? He'll find Tony."

She managed a small "yeah", but the fear, the panic, the sense of helplessness had finally overtaken the earlier numbness and now her mind swarmed with a million ugly thoughts.

"It's going to be a long day, Darcy, but we'll get through it," Pepper's voice was starting to sound as ragged as Darcy felt.

She couldn't stop herself from asking again, "But, what if…"

"No, Darcy, don't do that right now," Pepper told her sharply. "We'll wait, for now we'll wait. If, God, if it comes to that we'll deal with that. You're not alone, you've got me and Obie and Jim. But we're not there yet."

"He was just a little older than me when--"

"Darcy, don't panic."

"I'm not." Except, well, she probably really was. She felt loose-limbed and shaky and an awful lot like she was going to throw up.

"I think you are. Believe me, honey, I know the feeling, but we are not there yet. I'm not giving up on him, and don't you do it, either." Pepper sighed, but there was a hitch in her breathing. "Look, I don't want you to come into the office, but if you really need something to do, you can help juggle PR from the house. Track the press response and business news."

"Okay. Yeah, yeah, I can do that." She didn't really want to go into the office anyway. God knows the whole company would be in shock, and too many people knew she'd been working with Tony, and it was more than she thought she could take.

"Jim will find him," Pepper repeated like a mantra. "And Obie's got the reins. We'll get through this."

 

***

 

"Well, good afternoon, little miss."

Darcy looked up from the elaborate office supply sculpture she was working on at Tony's desk. "Hi, Obie." Obie didn't come around too often, but he was always nice when he did. She mostly figured he was just busy and didn't really have a lot of time for kids.

"I walked in here and was afraid Tony'd shrunk for a minute," he joked, slapping a rolled up folder into his hand a few times.

She grinned. "He had to go down to one of the engineering labs. I'm sorry, I don't know which one."

"Oh, that's okay. I bet it was two-oh-three. They've been having power conversion problems." Obie sat himself on the edge of the desk and watched her for a long moment. "What are you making there?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure yet. I kind of want the paperclip to spin, but I think I need some needle-nose pliers or something to get it the right shape."

"Just like your father. He can't sit still for two minutes without tinkering on something, either." Obie chuckled and pulled a swiss army knife out of his pocket. "Got some pliers right here, miss. Give it a try."

"Cool, thanks." She found the pliers in the knife and went to work on the paperclip.

"You're very welcome. You can do me a favor in return; ask your father to look over these papers when he gets back, will you?" He placed a folder next to her and tapped it with a thick finger.

"You bet."

Obie patted her shoulder, then placed a palm flat on the folder. "Tell Tony, I'm out for the night. You can leave the swiss on my desk when you're done."

He stepped away from the desk, leaving a crisp twenty dollar bill on the folder. He turned at the door and pointed a finger at her. "Now, you remember our agreement, right? Be sure to get yourself something sweet and something pretty this weekend."

The first time he'd slipped her money, she'd been a little uncomfortable, not sure if she should really take it; her dad might be rich, but twenty dollars was a lot of money. But Obie'd just smiled, folded her fingers around it, and told her they were family and he was allowed to spoil her, just so long as she agreed she'd only spend it on something sweet and something pretty.

"I remember. Thank you, Obie," she smiled at him, making the money disappear into her pocket with a giggle.

 

***

 

Darcy stood in front of the door to her parent's room, her shaking hand resting on the frame. More than anything she wanted to be six again. To crawl into bed with them, to know the nightmares wouldn't reach her there. She pressed her lips together to stop the damnable quivering of her chin; if she let that go, it would be all over, she'd be a crying mess on the floor, and she couldn't do that. Not now. Pepper was right, it was too soon, she … she had to wait. She wouldn't give up on him.

She woke her parents and somehow didn't cry, even though her mom did. Dad went to make them all coffee while her mom stroked her hair and offered to drive her to Tony's. She turned down the offer; her parents both had work and it didn't make sense to disrupt their lives just because her's had come undone. When she said as much, her mom shook her head and sighed and hugged Darcy closer and said, "that's not how family works".

While mom tried to get her to eat a muffin, she called Rico. When he showed up at the door ten minutes later, he looked like hell, he hadn't slept, he hadn't shaved, and she could tell he'd been tugging at his hair. He hesitated for a moment before pulling her into a tight hug. He was a damned good friend; it wasn't even five yet.

The car ride was mostly silent, Rico didn't know what to say, he just kept muttering prayers under his breath, and Darcy had no words at all. The early morning traffic was mercifully light, and they made it to the house in just over an hour.

"Welcome home, Darcy," Jarvis greeted as they entered.

"Morning, Jarvis. You remember Rico."

Rico, who to his credit didn't gape at the talking house this time, waved vaguely at the ceiling. "Hi, Jarvis."

"Of course. Welcome back, Mr. Perez. Darcy, Miss Potts asked that I remind you to call her on your arrival."

"Right, right, yeah. Any word, J?"

"Unfortunately not. I will continue to monitor communications."

Darcy sighed and Rico wandered over to the windows, staring out at purple-gray morning fog and the choppy green glass sea.

"You should get some sleep."

Rico turned from the windows, frowning. "What?"

"Did you sleep at all last night?"

"Oh," he shrugged, "no, I was testing some code."

"You can take one of the guest rooms, get a few hours. Take a shower, if you want."

He forced a smile and a little laugh. "Are you saying I stink?"

"I'm saying a little soap wouldn't kill you, dude." She pushed away from the entry hall and waved at him to follow her. "Come on."

Her mind was distracted enough by the thought of getting Rico settled, that she was in Tony's room to look for some clothes for her friend before she realized what she was doing. Gritting her teeth, she dove into his closet -- it smelled like cedar and cologne and was almost too much. Rico hovered just inside the door, looking around and looking as devastated by the emptiness as she felt. Hurrying, she grabbed the first pair of track pants she spotted and a plain t-shirt, then dragged Rico out of the room by his arm, shutting the door behind them.

From the linen closet she pulled a bag of guest toiletries -- Tony didn't have a lot of guests of the non-bimbo variety, but Pepper kept the closet stocked, mostly for those times Rhodey crashed at the house -- then she shoved the whole bundle into Rico's arms and pointed him at the room across from hers. He nodded tiredly and disappeared behind the door.

Leaning against the door to her own room, she fought off a wave of helplessness and struggled for a moment to catch her breath. When she got control of herself, she went into her room, dropped onto her bed, and pulled her ratty old stuffed monkey into her arms. Laying there, counting the beats of her heart, listening to the aching stillness of the house, she felt the first tears slip down the side of her face.

 

***

 

It was the first time she was staying with Tony for the weekend, she was a little nervous, but he'd led her to one of the guest rooms, and told her she should make herself comfortable. Darcy dropped her bag by the bed and looked around quickly before coming back to stand next to him again.

"So?"

Glancing up at Tony, she frowned. "What?"

"What do you think?" He prompted. He was leaning against the door frame, his hands shoved into the pockets of his old jeans.

"About what?"

"The room, kid. What do you think of the room?"

"Oh!" Darcy turned back to the room and looked around again.

It was nice, and really big. It had dark wood floors and white walls and one wall that was just windows. There was a big bed with a dark blue comforter with some sort of shiny vine-like design on it and a big stuffed monkey sitting on one of the pillows. On the other side of the room, curved against one corner by the windows was a desk set up with a computer and some other gadgets, and she was really curious to check those out. Next to the desk was a wide bookshelf which was half-full of books of all sorts of sizes and colors. The books were broken up by a collection of old-fashioned looking metal robot toys scattered along the shelves, and they, also, looked like something worth investigating. The room was finished off with a couple of green leather-looking chairs and footstools by the windows and, opposite the bed, a long, low dresser decorated with some empty picture frames, a carved wooden box, and a broad, flat dish filled with shiny, round pebbles.

"It's very nice," she said finally.

Tony pushed himself off the door frame and took a few steps into the room before turning around to face her. "It's your room."

She nodded. "'Cause I'm here this weekend." She really did like the look of that monkey, and it was nice of him to put it there.

"No, kid, it's your room. I mean, you don't live here all the time, but this is your house, too, right? I'm sure that's how it works. So you need your own room. This is your stuff. So …" he spread his hands wide. "What do you think?"

"Oh. Really?"

"Really." He stuffed his hands back in his pockets and suddenly seemed uncomfortable, or maybe nervous. "I mean, you can change anything you want. Or, add stuff. Whatever. Put your Tiger Beat posters on the walls."

"Tiger Beat?" She wrinkled her nose at him.

"Do they still publish that?"

They did, Marley got it sometimes. Darcy thought it was kind of boring. "Yeah."

"Well, okay then. Plaster the walls with your pre-teen idols. Have at it, kid."

She considered him for a moment and then took a long look around the room. "I can change things?"

"It's your room," he repeated with a shrug.

Nodding slowly and chewing on her lower lip, she thought, and then had a thought. She'd begged her parents to make a change to her room at home, but she'd lost that battle time and again. Maybe she'd win it here. "Can I paint the walls?"

"Uh … sure."

She pointed to the wall behind her, the one the door was on. "Can I paint that purple?"

"Sure."

She pointed to the wall her bed was on. "Can I paint that green?"

Tony blinked once and glanced back and forth between the two walls. "Knock yourself out."

"Kermit green?"

"Is that an actual color?"

"Maybe."

"You want your room to look like an eggplant?"

"Just those two walls, the other one can stay white."

Tony laughed. "Sure, whatever you want."

"Awesome." She grinned, completely thrilled with this turn of events. "I like the robots."

"Cool, right?" He grinned back.

"Totally."

***

 

With a harsh breath in through her nose -- because, yes, weeping on her bed, clutching a toy, was going to do a damned lot of good -- she pushed out of bed and pulled out her phone to make the call to Pepper as she walked back to the living room.

There wasn't anything new from Afghanistan; Rhodey hadn't called back in yet. But, word was starting to leak out to the news media, and it would only get worse as the day went on. Nobody as high-profile as Tony Stark could go missing and not have it turn into a press shitstorm. Pepper seemed to be holding it together, but she sounded rough and distracted. After a brief conversation, confirming Darcy was determined to help where she could, Pepper connected her with her old boss in PR. The woman knew Darcy'd been Tony's assistant, but, bless her, kept her expression of sympathy to a minimum and then, after giving her a talking points outline, dumped half her inbox and routed 25% of the calls to Darcy's phone.

With a defined set of PR protocols to follow, and a growing blizzard of press requests, the focus on work, where the fact of a missing Tony Stark became more of an abstract concept and less of an overwhelming "holy fuck, my dad is missing", got her through most of the morning. At nine she turned on Obadiah's press conference, but she could barely watch it. Only her dormant PR training, telling her she needed to know what he was saying, kept her from turning off the tv. Obie had nothing new to offer, though; only saying there'd been an attack on Tony's convoy, that the military was looking for him and would continue to look for him as long as it took, that there was stability at Stark Industries, and things would continue on as they always had, even as he was sure everybody in the company was praying for Tony's safe return.

Rhodey finally called her about an hour after the press conference.

"Hey, little bug," he greeted softly.

She choked on a half-laugh half-sob. "Don't call me that."

"I'll call you that if I want. Besides, I'm too far away for you to punch," his voice sounded thin, but she couldn't tell if it was exhaustion and grief or just a crappy connection from Bagram.

Sniffing, she pulled off her glasses and wiped at her eyes, but she couldn't stop the small smile. "I'll save it for you special, then."

"You do that." Rhodey sighed, the breath leaving his lungs in a long, weary hiss. "Look, it's night here now, we've called off the ground search until the morning. I'm not going to give up, Darcy. I'm gonna find him. If I have to turn over every rock in this country, I'm gonna find him."

"I know," she whispered.

 

***

 

"This is a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, nicknamed the Moose."

Darcy gaped up at the plane and felt the dizzying rush of pure, unadulterated love. It was the same sort of feeling she had the first time she saw the trebuchet. "It's huuuuuge."

It was a family day at the airbase for the Fourth of July holiday, and "Uncle" Rhodey, being awesome, had invited 10-year old Darcy to be his guest. The base rolled out dozens of their planes and helicopters and the crews were showing them off to the visitors. Darcy thought she was in heaven, until she saw the C-17, and then she knew she was.

With a hand on her shoulder -- because she was too awestruck to look where she was going -- Rhodey steered her closer to the plane. "It's not nearly as big as the C-5, but in my opinion, the C-17 is an ideal heavy lift craft," Rhodey had on his lecturing voice, which usually Darcy tuned out, but this was actually interesting and she hung on every word. "It's far more flexible and responsive to changing situations on the ground, whether for tactical support, or rescue/recovery during natural disasters -- doesn't need a long runway, has a quick operational turnaround, good efficiency."

He held a hand open towards the winged behemoth and gestured broadly as he spoke. "It's 174 feet long, with a wingspan of 170 feet, and it's 55 feet high. It can carry around 170,000 pounds of cargo, or a hundred paratroopers." He glanced down at Darcy and smirked. "Or a tank."

"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Darcy sighed lovingly. One of the other Air Force guys nearby with his little kid on his shoulders gave her a skeptical look. She ignored him, because the plane was huge and beautiful and nothing else mattered in the world.

"I'm gonna start calling you 'Little Bug'," Rhodey laughed.

Darcy frowned up at him. "What? Why?"

"Bug - big and ugly, because that's how you like 'em. I saw you eyeing that old B-52." She punched him in the side and he laughed some more. "Nuh-uh, it's done. That's going to be your call-sign. Darcy 'Little Bug' Lewis. I'm going to get you a little flight suit with that on it and everything. Man, wait 'till you see Fifi."

"Who's Fifi?"

"The last B-29 still flying. Ugly as sin, you'll love it."

That sounded spectacularly awesome. "Oh, can I fly it?"

"No," Rhodey said, nudging her towards the open cargo hold.

"Can I fly the Moose?" She asked, trotting along beside him.

"When you're older."

"Can I fly it tomorrow?"

"No."

"Are you going to teach me to fly it?"

"I thought you wanted to fly the Osprey? Speaking of big and ugly."

"I can't fly both?"

"When you're older," Rhodey repeated. "And you join the Air Force, and I'm begging you now, please let me be there when you tell your father you're joining up."

"Why?"

"Because it will make my life." He waved to the Sergeant standing just inside the hold. "Okay, now I know the pilot and I got his permission to take you up to the flight deck. Remember what I told you about the controls -- you know, the buttons and switches?"

She nodded soberly. "Touch them all." The Sergeant snickered.

"Lord, help me," Rhodey muttered, looking up at the ceiling. "Touch none of them."

"Yes, sir." Darcy grinned. "Touch all of them."

 

***

 

"You've got to hold the line, little bug. Stand firm. I'll bring him home, I swear to you," Rhodey told her, and she knew, without a doubt, that he'd keep his word, one way or the other. The 'other' didn't bear thinking about, though.

Taking a deep breath, she nodded. "I'm holding."

"I'll let you know when I have anything."

"Okay. Thanks, Rhodey."

He signed off then. It was late, he had to be exhausted, and if he was going to be overturning rocks, God knew he needed the rest.

Rico stumbled into the living room shortly after, wearing Tony's too large t-shirt, and too short track pants, his hair even more wild and unkempt than usual.

"I got lost," he told her, blinking blearily around.

"You got distracted by the entertainment room," she corrected, not looking up from her email response to the Mobile Press-Register.

"Only for a second. And I got lost." He rubbed at his eyes, then ran a hand up through his hair, trying to smooth it out. It was a losing battle and he gave up after somehow managing to make it even worse. "How's it going?"

"Crazy," Darcy told him wearily, finishing her email and slumping back on the couch. "No word from Afghanistan. They'll start the search again in the morning."

His face fell and he kicked a bare toe at the floor. "Anything I can do?"

Shrugging, she shook her head. "I don't think there's really much to do. I'm just helping triage the press requests and stuff."

He nodded and looked around. "Are you hungry? I'm hungry. We should eat. You should eat. Have you had anything? You should have something."

She managed to find a smile for him somewhere, and a little laugh to go along with it. "You sound like your mother."

"Hey, she knows what she's doing." Straightening his spine, he gave her a resolved sort of look, and repeated, "We should eat. It's almost noon. Is there food here? I can go make something."

"I don't know. You can look, or we can order something."

He waved a hand at her suggestion. "Nah, I'll make something. If I have to run out, I'll run out. Anything sound good?"

"Not really." She knew he was right, and that she should eat, but her stomach was too twisted up and acidic for her to have any real interest in food. "But if you go out, be careful," she warned. "There might be press sniffing around. I mean, probably not; as far as they know it's an empty house, but still."

He seemed unconcerned. "Meh. I'll just say I'm the gardener, or something. Stereotypes suck, but maybe this time it'll be useful." His face brightened at the thought. "Like I'm all undercover, or something. Nobody notices the help, right? I sneak out, I sneak in, like a Latino Ninja."

Hand to her forehead, she laughed more genuinely this time. "That's terrible."

"You know I'm right."

"Sadly." She rolled her eyes with a snort and shooed him away. "Fine, don't let me stop you from playing out your James Bond fantasies."

"Like you could." He grinned broadly and bowed a little as he left the room to hunt down the kitchen. She watched him go and felt a wave of gratitude. She'd wanted to come to the house and just be alone as she struggled with the overwhelming surreality of the day, but now, she was so glad she wasn't. So stupidly, stupidly glad her friend was there, making her smile, if only for a minute.

 

***

 

"Darcy! Darcy, Darcy!"

Rico's shout stopped her in the hall and she spun to face him as he dashed up to her, breathless. "What, Rico? What?"

Casting a furtive glance around, he flipped open his messenger bag and started rooting around.

"Can this wait until lunch? I'm going to be late for chemistry, dude," Darcy groused as he continued his search in the depths of his bag.

"No, just wait. Just a second. Here!" He pulled his hand out and showed her the object in his palm. A small, sleek Stark Phone. "He sent me a phone!"

Darcy didn't try very hard to hide her smirk. "So he did."

"Its … Darcy! These aren't even on the market," he exclaimed, waiving the phone around and then hurriedly pulling it back into his body when he realized other people might see.

"I know."

"It came with a plan." His tone was an interesting mixture of glee, wonder, and bafflement. She laughed.

"Well, it's not much good otherwise."

Rico stared down at the phone and poked gently at it's surface. He let out a whimpering sigh when it came to life. "It came this morning. And then! He called me on it! I have his number. In my phone. That he gave me."

Darcy smiled and reached up to muss his horrible, floppy hair. He had Harry Potter hair, his cowlicks had cowlicks, it was completely ridiculous. The only sensible thing to do with it was mess it up as often as possible, of course. "I told you he didn't hate you."

Pressing a fist to his forehead, he looked nearly distraught at the memory of his first meeting with Tony (well, technically his second, but the first first was when he was like eight and that was only for a second). "Oh my God, but I was such an idiot."

"You were just nervous." She slung an arm around his neck and started walking towards her next class, dragging him along with her. Since he was a good five inches taller than her, he had to hunch over and stumble along next to her. "Did you actually manage to talk to him this time?"

"Yeah. No, yeah, I did. I think because I was in shock, so, you know, I didn't have time to freak out."

"Excellent." She stopped at the door to the science hall and let him go. "So, then, you'll totally be good for lunch next weekend."

Rico's face went slack and his eyes widened in horror. "No, no, DL. No."

"Yes, come on. You survived. He gave you a phone. You're practically BFFs." She paused and gave him a sly look. "Pepper will be there. She wants to meet you, too."

"Oh … oh. Um." He shuffled his feet and blushed a little. "Can I, uh, can I think about it?"

"No. He wants to barbecue; I need backup."

 

***

 

Rico managed to get Darcy to eat at least a little bit of a lunch of huevos rancheros and french toast sticks ("Comfort food, Darce. Don't make me call our moms."), before he had to leave for his evening shift as a render babysitter for an FX house in Studio City.

Once he was gone, she did a little more press stuff, but Pepper called at around three and insisted she'd done enough for the day. Darcy wanted to protest, but frankly, she was exhausted. The stress was taking its toll and she didn't think she could swallow much more of listening to the news and sending out statements. To the world, he was a flashy playboy, and while this was shocking, for the media it was just a ratings bonanza or page view-palooza. His picture was on almost every channel, videos of him from this event or that -- or crappy cellphone video of any of a number of absurd escapades, depending on the network -- were played over, and over again. He was wealthy, famous, handsome, and the world would take a piece of him however they could get it.

But, beyond that, he was her father. And, as she sat in the painfully silent house, listening to the distant waves far below, the emptiness of the place, so cavernous without his insanely large presence to fill it, settled into her chest with a dull ache.

She felt confident that nobody would get it, that all those talking heads and gossips who thought they knew all about Tony Stark, and who were now busy luridly describing, with a sickening relish, every one of his faults and scandalous exploits, they would never, ever understand that he was not a perfect man, but neither was he a creature created for the titillation of the media and their watchers; he was a man who was loved, he was a good man, he was a good dad. He was her dad, and there was nothing more she wanted in that moment than to tell him that. To know for certain that he knew that.

Her breath caught in her throat, and she fought back, one more time, the burning tears that had threatened all day.

 

***

 

"So … this sucks."

Darcy forced her eyes open and stared at her father standing next to her bed. It took her a long, confused moment to remember where she was and why and just why it was weird that he was standing there. Oh, right. Hospital. Appendicitis. Summer so completely ruined. Suck was right. "Hey," she whispered.

"Hey."

"Weren't you in, um, I don't remember," she said, her voice drowsy with drugs and sleep. "London?"

"I was." Tony started walking around the room, looking at things, poking at things, frowning at the horrible, stiff furniture with the really ugly stripey designs.

"How come you're here?"

"You're in the hospital."

"Yeah, but how come you're here?"

Tony stopped his inspection of the drawer by her bed and glanced over at her, an odd, almost sad look on his face. "You're in the hospital," he repeated.

"It was just an appendix. They said I can go home tomorrow maybe."

He shrugged and pulled one of the ugly chairs closer to the bed. "Yeah, well, it was a boring meeting anyway." He sat down and looked around the room again. "This is a depressing room. Does the frog wallpaper make it more or less depressing? I'm going with more."

She squinted at the pale green walls. "Are they frogs?"

"Yeah. And like, some sort of weird salamander. Or a gecko. Or, I don't know, something lizardy."

"Huh."

"Are you on the good drugs?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, well, that's something, at least."

She shifted a little in her bed and whimpered as the movement pulled at her abdomen. "Owie."

He stood up and put a hand on her shoulder, supporting her as she moved around. "Easy, easy, Darce."

She nodded and settled back, trying to get comfortable. "Won't people know you're here?"

He waved a hand, dismissing the concern. "I made a donation to the children's wing. Toys and games and stuff. God, if you've got to be a kid in the hospital, you should have some fun, am I right?"

"Sure."

"So, this room gets video games. Which I am delivering personally." He sat back down again and ran his restless eyes over the room for the third time. "I already visited the kids in a few other rooms, and I'll stop by a few more when I leave. Your parents are outside."

"Oh, cool. That's nice of you."

He cleared his throat, uncomfortable as ever whenever anybody pointed out he was being nice. He was so weird like that. "Yeah, so anyway."

He bent down and picked up a bag from the floor and started pulling games out. "Some sort of Jimmy Neutron thing, Fullmetal Alchemist, a Star Wars game, a Formula One game, a skateboard thing, um, like six others. I don't know. One of those world war two ones you like -- someday you'll explain the fascination."

"Sweet."

"Right, so, what do you say I hook this up to the shitty TV, we crack open that six-pack of jello cups, and we get some damned cheer going in this place?"

"Cool beans."

He laughed and hesitated for a moment before leaning over and kissing her on the forehead. "You are on the good drugs."

***

 

When the silence of the house became too much, but she couldn't handle the noise of the tv or radio, and didn't have the energy to talk to Jarvis or anybody else, she went out to the deck and watched the endless, shifting waves, and let her mind drift along with the call of the gulls.

She lost track of time, lost in her thoughts and memories, lost in the salt air and the slowly sinking sun.

"Darcy, Mr. Stane has arrived."

She jerked, startled, and pushed herself up on the deck chair. "Oh, uh, okay, Jarvis. Thanks."

She supposed she shouldn't be surprised, while she and Obie had never been particularly close, a lot of that had changed the previous summer. Still she hadn't expected him here, today.

Standing up to go and greet him, he startled her by stepping out on the deck before she could even take a step toward the door.

"How're you doing, miss?" He smiled at her, a sadly sympathetic smile, before sticking an unlit cigar in his mouth and walking farther out to lean against the curving deck wall and gaze out at the sunset.

Darcy went over to stand next to him and, crossing her arms on the wall, rested her chin on her wrists. "Don't know," she told him. "As okay as I can be, I guess."

He reached a hand out and settled it on the back of her head, a surprisingly comforting gesture. "That's good enough for now, I guess."

 

***

 

"Good afternoon, Miss Darcy." Obadiah strolled into the engineering lab with a chipper smile.

Darcy looked up from her computer and returned his smile. "Hey, Obie."

"I don't suppose Tony's around, is he?"

"Pepper and I sent him home. He was making the other engineers twitchy." She shrugged. "He's, you know, a genius, but at a certain point, he stops being at all helpful."

Obadiah chuckled and waved to a few of the other people in the lab who were watching him closely, maybe a little warily. It was always slightly nerve-wracking when one of the big bosses came through. Though, Obie wasn't nearly as panic-inducing as Tony when he was bored and looking for something to tear apart. "I completely understand that."

"So, I get to be his proxy for the afternoon. Is there something I can help you with?"

"His proxy?" Obie laughed again and leaned back against Darcy's desk. "Well, that's a hell of a job."

"Oh yeah," Darcy snorted. "He's called six times in the last hour, and I lost count of the emails. But I've had more sympathy coffee today than you could believe. And Hwang brought me sympathy cupcakes, so I'm raking in the big haul." She pulled a box of cupcakes towards her and flipped open the top. "Cupcake?"

"Don't mind if I do." Obie pulled out a red velvet. "So, how are things going down here? I've read the updates, but I like to talk to people face to face, too."

"Sure, I get that. Things are going pretty well. Some of the timing issues are still popping up, but we're on schedule. We have an air burst test on Tuesday, and then we'll be able to move on to actually working on the bomb deployment."

"Excellent." He peeled the paper back from the edge of his cupcake and took a bite. "Good stuff."

"Right? Hwang is the King of the Lab today."

"He was a good get for us. Lockheed didn't want to let him go," Obie agreed. "And how about you? How are you liking the work here?"

"It's good, actually," she told him honestly. She hadn't wanted to kill Tony nearly as often as she was afraid she would, though he kept loading her down with textbooks and giving her 'homework'. MIT was never mentioned, per their agreement with Pepper, but she was pretty sure he was trying to cram at least one year of their mechanical engineering courses into her head while he got the chance. "I'm learning a lot."

"You always did like the heavy artillery. Just another pumpkin cannon, right?" He asked her with a sly smile.

Darcy laughed and grinned back at him. He'd never taken a whole lot of interest in her, beyond a few short conversations and his habit of slipping her little gifts and cash when she was a child, but he'd been stopping by regularly since she became Tony's assistant. She was sure it was, in large part, to keep an eye on Jericho, but he always seemed to make a point to talk to her for a few extra minutes. He was such a big part of Tony's life, it was nice connecting with him even a little bit. "Totally, if it's nine pumpkins in a warhead armed with repulsors and high-yield explosives. How awesome would that be?"

"Quite a sight to see, I'm sure." Obie looked down at her, considering, and she shifted a little under his scrutiny. "I hear you're leaving us to go study political science?"

"Yeah. Tony's not entirely thrilled."

He waved a hand and shook his head. "Don't worry about it. He'll get over it. I think it's a good choice. You can go on from there into law, international relations, international business. Plenty of options."

"See? Exactly." She nodded firmly.

"I know your Spanish is good, but are you going to try to pick up another language or two? Can't go wrong there, either."

"I'm planning on taking Japanese."

"Excellent choice," he praised, appearing genuinely delighted. "Give it a couple years and I can see you taking over Stark Japan."

Darcy laughed a little self-consciously. "Well, maybe more than a couple."

"Oh, I don't know, you're plenty smart. Besides, speaking for myself, and I'm sure for Tony, you'll always have a place here, and it's reassuring to have people you know well, and who you can trust absolutely, in certain positions. Trust is always key."

"That's true."

"And I'm sure we can lure you down to an engineering lab every now and again. Skilled at international relations and engineering? Don't let anybody else headhunt you." He winked at her and pushed himself off of the desk. "I've got to get back to it. Keep me updated. Oh, and remind Tony I'm leaving for New York in the morning."

"Will do."

"I'm sure I'll see you before you head off to college, but if not, good luck. I have every confidence that you'll be great."

She graced him with a bright smile. She'd never met her grandfather, but Obie was the closest she was going to come to Howard, so his approval left her with a warm glow of pride. "Thanks, Obie."

 

***

 

"Tony's a lot like his father," Obie's rumbling voice shook Darcy out of her thoughts. "Made of sterner-stuff than he appears."

"I, uh, yeah, I hope so."

Obie chewed on his cigar for a few, long moments, before turning to face her more directly. "He'll come home to us. He's too stubborn not to." Obie smiled again and Darcy tried to smile back, but it felt like a sick grimace on her lips.

"Yeah." With a low sigh, she straightened up from her slouch against the wall.

He watched her pensively for a few seconds longer before throwing his arm around her shoulders. "I've been lucky enough to know three generations of Starks. Let me tell you, your grandfather would be damned proud of you, and I know your father is." He gave her a comforting little shake. "I've watched you grow up into an exceptional young woman. I'm damned proud of you, too."

Darcy's eyes stung and she leaned into Obie. "Thanks."

"You're a lot like both of them, you know. Whip smart. Now, you just remember that. Tony is smart, he'll be doing everything he can to get back to us, and we're not ever going to stop looking for him, are we?"

She shook her head and sniffed. "No."

"Exactly right," he said with another fortifying shake. "Now, I promise I'll take good care of things until Tony's back home. So don't worry about any of it, okay?"

"Yeah." Taking a deep breath she looked up at Obie. "Yeah, okay."

"There ya go. Now, I've got to head out, got a meeting with the board in the morning, need to get them settled down, but it'll all be fine," he assured her. "You're heading back to school in a few weeks, right?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, just get ready for that, and I know it's a lot to ask, but try not to worry too much. We'll get him home, hopefully in time to see you off."

She wanted to believe him, she really did. And she knew Rhodey wouldn't stop looking. But this whole thing felt so much bigger than Tony just missing. Maybe it was just the shock of it -- a brutal attack and then he disappeared. The Air Force was right there, and they took heavy casualties, but still, they were right there, but he just vanished. She felt queasy just thinking about it. How many airmen died trying to protect Tony? God. The awfulness of that … she didn't even have the words.

"Thanks, Obie," she muttered. "I appreciate you coming by."

"Hang in there, Darcy. You need anything, anything at all, you call," he told her firmly, pointing a finger at her.

She forced a little smile and nodded. "I will, honest."

With a last, kindly pat on the shoulder, he left, and she returned to her contemplation of the sea and the sky.

 

***

 

"Oh my God, you cheater. You cheated. You… you," Darcy sputtered to a stop and glared at her father, outraged. Every hit light on her vest was lit and blinking in a pattern that was definitely not factory set. She looked like a psycho disco ball.

Tony sniffed and raised his chin. "It wasn't cheating."

"It was such cheating! It was … it was the cheatingest cheating ever. You're a horrible cheating cheater person!"

He snickered. "Cheater person?"

Darcy slapped his arm and scowled. "Don't change the subject, cheater."

"It wasn't cheating," he repeated firmly. "It was making my own advantages."

She gaped at him and then slapped him on the arm again. "No, no, see, if you wanted anything goes, you should have said anything goes."

"And give up an advantage? How do you think I got anywhere? You've got to make your own opportunities, kid." He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. "Hey, look, I'm teaching you valuable life skills. Again. I am, frankly, awesome."

Stunned, her mouth actually fell open as she tried to come up with a response to that bit of Tony Logic. She shook her head. "It's … it's that we agreed to play by a set of rules and then we both have to follow them, if you didn't want to do that, you should have said, and then it would have been fair to me."

"What?" He snorted. "How is that any fun? Besides, do you think I sit around hoping my competitors play nicely and follow some set of bullshit rules?"

"Oh my God, I am never playing laser tag with you again." She threw her arms up in the air, exasperated, then tossed a glare towards the ceiling. "Jarvis, make note. Also, you're on my list for helping him cheat, J."

"Of course, Darcy," Jarvis said dryly. "Noted and noted. Shall I put my name on your list for you, or would you rather?"

"Smart ass," Darcy grumbled.

Tony rolled his eyes and tightened the laser tag vest across his chest. "Okay, whiner. We'll take Jarvis out of the equation, and call it best two out of three."

She narrowed her eyes at him and fumbled for the reset on her vest. "Anything goes?"

"Anything." He paused as the teeny-tiny adult part of him considered that. "Okay, we should probably avoid maiming each other. Nothing that maims."

She bared her teeth in a snarl. "You're going down, old man."

"Bring it, shrimp."

***

 

Obie was right about one thing, Tony was, of course, ridiculously smart. And not just doing complex calculations in his sleep while drunk smart, but re-writing basic human understanding of the universe to make things do what he wanted them to do smart. If he was-- God, if he was still alive, still at all functional, there was always a chance. His brain would kick in at some point, there was no way it wouldn't. He'd come home. He had to.

 

***

 

They were laying on the floor of his workshop, covered in oil and sixty years of dirt, each of them gasping for breath. She didn't even remember what started it. They'd both just got the giggles. Not enough sleep and too much sugar, probably. It had been an awesome week.

Darcy dropped her head back onto his biceps and Tony, still chuckling, brought his hand up and started to muss her hair. She started giggling again and rolled onto her side, trying to hide her head in the curve of his shoulder. It didn't really work, but it did bring her within reach of his ribs, and she launched a vicious tickle attack.

He finally got control of her arms and, wrapping his own securely around her, they tried to get back their breath. Laughingly, he said, "Told ya, kid."

Darcy raised her head to look at him. "What?"

"That we were gonna have fun."

 

***

Chapter Text

It was a beautiful late summer day, just a hint of autumn's crisp breath in the light breeze -- one of those college brochure type of days, with the studious students laying picturesquely on the lawn in front of the impressive looking red brick buildings, textbooks spread around them, or walking through the quad wearing their university branded sweatshirts laughing as they discuss philosophy or chemistry or something suitably academic.

Darcy paid the beautiful day no mind, except that it allowed her to escape, to go out into the sweetly favored afternoon and find a quiet corner away from her roommate and the million people in her dorm. Sitting at a picnic table, under a sheltering oak, she willed her hands to stop shaking and her breath to stop hitching and her stomach to stop knotting.

Time had not flown by since Tony went missing -- it jerked and stuttered. Some days were gone in a blink, barely a thought left behind; some days crawled, leaving a great greasy trail of dread in their wake. Coming back to school had helped a little bit, at least she had her classes to try and focus on, but she was also surrounded by hundreds of her peers who were enjoying nothing more than speculating on the fate of Tony Stark.

Her roommate brought a sign-up sheet for the Tony Stark Dead Pool one afternoon, and as much as Darcy wanted to lose it, she calmly left, saying she needed to go to the library, what do you mean we've only been back for a couple days, never too early to start studying, am I right? She'd returned to the room an hour later and put a hundred down on Tony being alive. When she turned in the sheet to the math major running the pool, he scoffed and snorted and, in all ways, conveyed his utter disbelief, but said "hey, I'll take your money". Darcy did not punch him in the mouth.

Today's escape was prompted only by her roommate's weekly three-hour long round-robin phone call home to her parents and sisters. Darcy and her roommate would never be BFFs, but they wouldn't be each other's college roommate nightmare story, either, so that was something. And Darcy didn't begrudge Lucy calling home and talking to her family all the damned time; she called home and talked to her parents and Sam and Rico, after all. But, really, nobody wanted a solid three hours of the Marcus clan's comings and goings.

As Darcy left the dorm, passing through the common room, she overhead some people talking about taking a trip up to DC for the weekend, and in an onslaught of cascading thoughts and memories Darcy was struck by a revelation, something so obvious it left her shaken and breathless. She'd found the sheltered bench and dropped heavily onto it, taking deep breaths, trying to steady herself and trying to fight back the sudden wave of grief. It got harder and harder with every day that passed to hope that Tony would come home. She wouldn't give up, but the wondering wore at her until she felt raw with it. It didn't consume her life, because, sadly, life did go on, but it hung around her, seeped into her dreams, and pierced her equilibrium at odd moments. Like today.

If there was a major downside to going to school in Virginia, it was Culver's proximity to Washington DC. Oh, sure, that was great for your average poli-sci student, but not quite so awesome for the poli-sci student whose father was one of the US's largest defense contractors. During her Freshmen year, Tony would roll into DC every now and again and beg her to come to lunch or dinner or play hooky and entertain him in some way. For a guy who claimed she wasn't taking her education seriously, he sure did like to interrupt it a lot. Sometimes she'd go, sometimes she'd try not to, but then he'd threaten to come to her, and that just was a disaster waiting to happen. They met halfway at a divey roadhouse at least once a month, often enough that the bartenders knew her by sight and if she called ahead they'd save her the most out of the way booth they had.

She wasn't sure why it happened now, but, on that bright, lovely afternoon, it struck her that one of the most visible people in the world could visit a corner of the country overrun with journalists and spies and the worst gossips, and no one ever caught on. Never caught on to her. For so often she'd credited Pepper or Jarvis for her ability to remain hidden, to slide around the edges of the spotlight on her father. Pepper and Jarvis were great, no doubt, but there was only so much they could do, because if Tony Stark wanted to be seen, he'd be seen, no matter what anybody else might want. But, if he wanted to fly under the radar?

Darcy was faced with the uncomfortable realization that she had underestimated her own father, the billionaire genius, and, while she knew that he had protected her for nearly twenty years, she'd never given him the full measure of credit. Just what protecting her must take, just how much he would do, how far he would go for her. She could walk through DC and draw no stares or whispers, she could go to college and be just another student, she could even meet her absurdly famous father for lunch on the odd Thursday afternoon at a nowhere roadhouse staffed with strangely incurious bartenders. Tony might have the social skills of an attention hungry kindergartner, but he wasn't an idiot. One of the most well-known faces on the planet, and he would make himself invisible for her.

And all those years, he'd just let her give credit to Pepper and Jarvis and Obie and Rhodey and whomever else, and she felt sick to her stomach at the realization. And she sat at that sheltered bench trying to swallow down the fear and pain of his absence.

God, she wanted her dad.

She wanted him to call her in the middle of class and whine until she agreed to go to the Air and Space museum with him. She wanted him to send her 'care' packages of random stuff he found wherever he'd travelled to recently -- everything from grenadine to engine parts to silk scarves and lacquered combs to cheap light-up toys and posters of Indonesian boybands nobody outside of Jakarta had ever heard of. She wanted to see his name in the tabloids for some dumb party or other. She wanted to yell at him to quit sniping her on Call of Duty because, for God's sake, they were both on the same side. She wanted … she just wanted her dad.

But, truly life did go on, and after a few minutes she picked herself up off the bench and went back to her books and her classes and the days passed into weeks into months. Rhodey called her every couple weeks to check on her and tell her there was little news. Nobody had ever claimed responsibility for the attack, nor was a ransom ever demanded, so they weren't really sure who they were looking for, but he felt they'd narrowed it down to a region. It was mountainous, though, and riddled with caves, hard to check and hard to clear, but he'd keep turning over rocks.

Obie came out to visit her with Pepper two months after Tony's disappearance, he wanted to talk about what would happen if Tony didn't come home. They weren't giving up, he insisted, but they had to consider the worst case. He promised he'd continue to run the company for her, that he'd make sure it stayed healthy and vital, contracts would be met and employees would feel secure, and whatever came it would all be okay. Since she had no desire to run the company, she was happy enough to leave Obie to it, and told him so, which seemed to be all he really wanted to hear.

Pepper was quiet through the meeting, and she appeared even more pale and drawn than when Darcy left for school. Obie headed to New York after their meeting, but Pepper stayed to take Darcy to dinner. They talked quietly about school and work and little nothings. They avoided talking about Tony as much as they could, but he was impossible to avoid altogether, and every mention was like biting down on a sore tooth. Pepper left after dinner and Darcy went back to her dorm and dreamt of being hunted through eerie midnight deserts, her feet caught and slowed by fine white sand gleaming blue under the thin sickle of the moon, while an unseen menace crept closer, a shadow flowing relentlessly over dune after dune.

Her birthday came and went, and more days and more weeks passed and she held on to hope by her fingernails; some days hope was a more jagged, cutting thing than others.

Darcy was trying not to fall asleep in her National Security and Intelligence seminar on a cold, blustery Tuesday morning when she got the text from Pepper: "Jim found him. He's alive."

She clapped a hand to her mouth, trying to stifle the sudden, unexpected, and probably slightly hysterical laughter. With jerky hands she shoved her tablet, book, and papers into her bag and scrambled from her chair, stepping over other people's bags and feet and waving off the glower from her sour-faced professor with a "sorry, totally sick". Dashing through the hall and out into the quad she pulled her phone out with fumbling, shaky fingers.

"Pepper."

"Darcy, he's at Bagram," Pepper told her in a rush.

Darcy choked on the sudden, profound relief. "Oh God, oh thank God."

"He's okay, Darcy. He's going to be okay," Pepper voice broke and it took her a moment to get it back. "I haven't spoken to him yet, but I heard him yelling at the medics in the background when Jim called."

Darcy sniffled a little and smiled. "Stubborn ass. Oh my God, that stubborn ass."

"Jim says he's a little banged up, but …" Pepper let out a breath, somewhere between a sob and a laugh, "he walked out of there. Wherever he was, he walked out."

"Where? Where was he?"

"There were reports of massive explosions in the region, when Jim and a team went to scout, they found Tony walking across the desert."

"Massive explosions," Darcy repeated with a helpless laugh. "Of course. I think that's his middle name." The laugh gave way to a flood of tears. "Shit."

"Never tell him this, but I did the same thing," Pepper confided.

Darcy tried to wipe away the tears, but they kept overwhelming her attempts. "Vow of silence."

Pepper took a deep breath. "Okay, it'll be public in an hour or so. I don't know when he'll be home, but I'll keep you posted on everything."

"Thanks, Pep." Darcy pulled down the sleeve of her sweater and scrubbed at her face. "I'm so cleaning up at the dead pool."

"The what?"

"A stupid pool some jackass started at the beginning of the year betting on when he'd be found dead. I put money on him being alive. Like me and three other people. Jackpot," she gave a wobbly laugh.

Pepper snorted and told her dryly, "He'll be so proud."

"I know, right?"

"He'll brag about it for years. You're the only person he talks about more than himself, so it's like a double win for him."

Darcy's laughter became a little more hysterical again; it was all emotional whiplash, she was sure.

"Okay, go back to class," Pepper told her. "I'll call you the second I hear anything."

Darcy nodded but couldn't get her voice to work.

"Darcy?"

"Yeah," she choked out. "Yeah, okay."

"He's alive. He's coming home."

"I know. I know."

The rest of the day was shrouded in a bizarre fog. Darcy was sure she went to classes, she was almost sure she ate lunch but only because she recalled the news breaking over the student union like a tidal wave of buzzing voices. Tony Stark was alive.

Rico called her, her parents called her, Pepper called her twice with updates. She didn't even bother to pretend to study or do any classwork, because, wow, really? She sat in front of the TV in the common room not watching whatever was on and not really thinking about much of anything. She was fairly certain she'd used up every emotion she had in the last three months and was now deflating like a week-old balloon.

Rhodey called her late, telling her Tony was doing fine, and that he was just sleeping off a sedative. Suffering from exhaustion, a little malnourished, and definitely dehydrated and it had still taken a stealthy doctor with a needle to settle him down. He'd be fine, though, and they'd be home in a day or two.

"You promised you'd find him, and you did. Thank you, Rhodey." Darcy hated crying, she didn't think she'd cried this much in the three months Tony'd been missing. It was all just flooding out of her today, though. She sniffled and wished there was somebody around she could hug who wouldn't think she was a crazy person.

"I keep my word, little bug. Though, gotta say, it's more like he found me," Rhodey snorted in weary amusement.

"Still, you were there for him to find."

"He's my best friend, too, Darce. He's a pain in the ass, but he's our pain in the ass. I wasn't going to leave him."

It was another three days, countless updates from Pepper, and arguably one of the weirdest press conferences ever, before Tony finally called her. He caught her between classes and she ducked outside, ignoring the icy wind and the thin, stinging rain.

"So," he said, his voice tired and hoarse. "How've you been?"

"You're a ridiculous person," she told him while rubbing at eyes that were, once again, burning with unshed tears. He sounded terrible and he sounded wonderful.

"Hey, that was a serious question."

"Well, my dad was kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan for three months, so …"

"That sounds pretty suck," he agreed.

"Little bit," she said quietly, her throat starting to close up and tears slipping past her lashes. She pulled off her glasses and stuck them in her coat; between the rain and the crying there was no point really. "I'm coming home this weekend."

"No," the word tore from his throat, startling her with its vehemence.

"What? But, dad, I want to see you. I need to see you," she pleaded.

"Not yet. Not … there's things I have to do. I have to take care of. Just …," he paused and took a deep breath. "They had our weapons, Darcy."

Darcy frowned and batted her hair away from her face, but the wind only whipped it back. "Who did?"

"The people who had me. They had our weapons. They had a lot of them. I … I have to fix this. What kind of shitty legacy is this? Stay there. I'll … I'll come see you soon. I promise. Just, Darcy, stay there, please."

"I … yeah, I will. Okay," she said in a small, quiet voice. She'd never heard him sound like that, so ragged and on edge, it was a little frightening and it shook her deeply. "But, soon, please?"

"As soon as I can, I promise." He took a uneven breath then laughed. "Hey, you called me dad."

"When?"

"Just like a minute ago. Only took getting held hostage, huh?"

"Shut up, that's not why," she ground her teeth at his laughter, though, oh thank God she could hear it again. "Are you or are you not my dad?"

"I am," he concurred.

"Well, then, so there," she summed up decisively, if rather lamely.

"So there," he laughed again. "Okay, kid, I'll see you soon, I really will."

"Okay. I love you, dad."

"Love you, too."

He called her daily after that, even if only for a minute or two. She suspected it was to reassure them both that this wasn't some cruel dream and they'd wake up again to a reality of loss or torture. He wouldn't tell her what was going on, only insisting that he was fixing things, that he had to fix it. He sounded frighteningly determined topped with a weird sort of icy calm, and she shared her observation with Pepper, who herself had suddenly gone tight-lipped about the goings on back home.

"I don't know. I don't know what's going on with your father right now," Pepper told her. "It's just … things are tense right now. And, really, it's best if you stay at school."

As much as Darcy wanted to argue for a visit back to California -- and it wasn't like she needed their permission to buy a plane ticket, for God's sake -- Pepper was right about things being tense. Darcy was honestly glad she wasn't anywhere near the place when Obie and the board ousted Tony on the grounds of PTSD-related instability, a turn of events upon which Tony remained resolutely and uncharacteristically silent. He also remained uncharacteristically out of the spotlight. Everybody was clamoring for interviews -- from the crappiest rags to the network powerhouses and papers of record -- but they all, undoubtedly, hit a Pepper-shaped wall, and Tony was nowhere to be seen.

And then things got weird.

"Hey," Tony greeted, sounding breathless, and a little like he was in a wind tunnel.

"Hey?" She answered back slowly.

"Where are you?"

"On my way to the library, why?"

"Isn't it a little late to be out walking by yourself?"

"It's four-thirty in the afternoon," she replied evenly, ignoring the, from him, weirdly paternal paranoia.

"Oh, huh, seems darker than that."

Frowning, she looked around quickly, half expecting him to step out from one of the buildings. She'd managed to keep him off campus so far, but she knew the day was coming. Though, given that she hadn't seen him for almost four months, she'd be fine with that day being today. "What? Wait. Where are you? Are you here?"

He grunted and sounded like he was trying to get his breath before he replied. "Uh, not yet, but soon. Hey, so, blow off the library and meet me at the turn off to that campground, or whatever. The one where Happy had his stand-off with the chipmunk."

"So, yeah, walking to the library at four-thirty in the afternoon, dangerous," she grumbled, but she was already pulling out her keys and heading across the lawn towards the parking lot, "hanging out at abandoned rest stops off dark, creepy highways, a-okay."

"You're not hanging out, you're meeting me there. You won't have to wait. I mean, hey, okay, if you don't want to see me, that's fine. I just kind of thought that was a thing with you, but, you know what? Totally your call. If it's too much trouble--"

Rolling her eyes she let out a long breath. "Shut up. I'm on my way now. How far out are you?"

"Not far."

"You're being weirdly evasive."

"Yeah, well, I don't want to talk on the phone."

That stopped her cold. The phones they used were not exactly standard off-the-shelf tech, and calls to each other (and other users of the phone -- all four of them) were encrypted and routed through Tony's crazy secure private network. If he was afraid their phones had been compromised … what the hell was going on?

"Okay, okay," she licked her lips against the sudden dryness of her mouth. "Okay, I'll be there in an hour or so."

The rest stop had three listing metal picnic tables, three blackened scuzzy grills, a fairly newish water fountain next to a worryingly rusty tap, and a restroom Darcy went out of her way to avoid. Trees crowded around the small parking lot, and over the dark dirt lane that led to a campground a few miles down, but the rest of the stop was fairly well lit and in the early evening Darcy wasn't too concerned yet. Besides, she had her taser. A gift from Happy, who'd been singularly unhappy that she was going so far away to school and he wouldn't be there to watch out for her.

Wrapping her coat more tightly around her against the late autumn chill, she hopped up on one of the tables and prepared to practice the zen-like patience she'd not even begun to master over the last few months. It was quiet, the rush of the thin breeze in the pines and the more distant sound of a river, the occasional traffic from the highway, and nothing else. She took a deep breath, catching a whiff of pine and exhaust and horrible cherry-scented industrial bathroom cleaner, and let it out slowly. This really wasn't working, she was too anxious to see Tony, too anxious to find out what was going on, too anxious in general. But, she tried again.

On her third breath she heard a high-pitched whine and something big and red dropped out of the sky, landing with a jarring thud next to her table. With a shout, she jumped clear of the table and fumbled for her taser.

"Holy fuck!" The thing stood up straight and her mind just went totally, freaking blank. Drone? Robot? Alien? What the fuck?

"It's me," a synthesized voice told her.

"Uh …" she replied smartly, edging away from the … whatever it was.

The thing brought a hand up and flipped open the helmet's face. And there was her ridiculous father grinning his ridiculous grin at her. "Hey, kid."

Darcy blinked stupidly at him for a second, then held up a finger, "Just, uh, just a sec." She carefully returned her taser to her bag and straightened her coat and adjusted the knitted cap on her head while she attempted to collect the thoughts that had scattered like leaves in a gale at his arrival. Once straightened, she looked back at him and felt cogent thought skitter away once more. "Are you kidding me? Are you … are you wearing a fighter jet? What … " She flapped her hands at him as words failed her.

"Nice, right? This is the Mark II." He was still grinning when he pulled the helmet off completely and set it down on the table and then clearly thought about sitting down himself, before changing his mind. How much did that thing weigh anyway? He'd crush those poor, sad benches.

"The Mark II of … what? What is that?"

"It's a suit," he said, cocking his head and looking at her like she was the crazy one.

She gave him a look that clearly said 'duh' and rolled her eyes when he held out his arms and turned to show it off. She would admit, in the privacy of her own thoughts, that the suit was gorgeous, but her heart was hammering too loudly to admit that to him out loud. "What's it for?"

He dropped his arms and chewed on his mustache. "Sit down for a minute."

She climbed back up to sit on the table and watched him expectantly. What she really wanted was a hug first and then answers, but the suit did not look huggable

"I told you," he started, shifting his weight from foot to foot, the hydraulics whining with every move. "They had our weapons. Stark weapons. They had a massive, massive cache. I blew it to hell on my way out, but … Darcy, they weren't the only ones, that wasn't the only cache. I have to find them. I have to find our weapons and take them out of the hands of these people."

"You have to do it? Why do you have to do it?" This was crazy, this was so much crazy, she couldn't even process it. He was a billionaire playboy, he wasn't a freaking Navy SEAL, he wasn't trained for that sort of thing.

"Because I was the one who …" he took a deep breath and ran an armored hand over his hair. "I spent my life designing weapons, I designed them for this country to protect herself and her people, but I never paid attention to where they were going. Somebody is double dealing, they're taking my weapons and selling them to tyrants and terrorists and they've been doing it under my nose. How long, Darcy? How long has this been going on? I can't … it's my responsibility. I have to fix it. That's all there is. I have to make this right."

"But …"

"No, it's on me. I saw … I saw young Americans, men and women killed with my weapons. They were your age, Darcy. I can't … they were killed with my weapons. I saw towns torn apart by my weapons. Families destroyed by my weapons. Terrorists slaughtering the innocent with my weapons," his voice grew to a roar and Darcy bit her lip.

"Okay."

"Okay? You're okay with that?" He glared at her, incredulous, his face going dark under the pale green glow of the lamps dotting the rest area.

"No, I get why you think you have to. I get it. I … I saw your press conference."

Tony's looked up at the sky then back down at his hands and wrestled with the suit long enough to remove the gauntlets. He tossed them onto the table next to the helmet, then sat heavily on the bench. The table leaned and sagged with a shrieking metallic sigh. He put his head in his hands.

Tentatively Darcy reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The armor was cool, almost frigid under her fingers. "Dad?"

"They wanted me to build Jericho for them."

Darcy's fingers slid and caught on a seam, gripping tightly. "Oh, God." Something like that in the hands of terrorists would be devastating. She should know, dear lord, she'd helped build it.

"I built a suit instead. Fuck them. Fuck them all. And then I blew the shit out of that place," he said in a tone of such vicious satisfaction she flinched a little but couldn't help but feel the same.

"Good."

"Yeah. So, I'm going to find the rest. I'm going to find them and destroy them, because I have to, because it's on me and because I fucking can."

Swallowing heavily, Darcy nodded and choked out a small, "yeah."

He leaned back then and the table sagged far enough that Darcy climbed off. "You're killing the table."

Waving a hand, he sighed. "Whatever. I'll buy them a new one." And he probably would. In fact, Darcy wouldn't be surprised if in a week this was the jewel of Virginia rest stops.

Taking in the tired lines on his face, and the new gray in his beard, she reached out and touched his forehead, brushing back the messy tumble of his hair. "There's something else, right? I could hear it when I talked to Pepper, but she wouldn't say."

"Yeah, yeah," he admitted wearily. "I was hurt. Shrapnel."

"But, you're okay, right?"

"I'm fine. You know, your dad is kind of a genius."

"Wow, only kind of? How surprisingly modest of you," she tried to joke, but while it fell flat, he smiled anyway.

"I know, right? Life changing experience, new man, all that stuff." Chewing at his mustache, he was lost in thought for a long moment. "I have shrapnel near my heart. But, it's fine. I'm fine," he finished quickly, trying to forestall her freak out.

It didn't work much better than her earlier joking. "Fine? How is that fine? In no dictionary will you find that definition of fine."

Reaching up he tapped at the glowing circle in the middle of the chest plate. "Arc reactor, powering an electromagnet, keeping the shrapnel from doing more damage. I'm fine."

Peering down at the reactor, she frowned and turned it over in her head. "You built that in Afghanistan?"

"Well, this is the updated version."

"And you … wait, a minute. You miniaturized it, holy shit." Glancing up at him, her eyes wide with shock and, yes, admiration. "Wow, that's … wow, dad. Jeez, the one at the plant is huge."

"Like I said, kind of a genius." He smirked and she batted him on the head lightly. "Hey."

With a sigh, she leaned forward and pulled him into as much of a hug as she could, the armor was cold and unforgiving and, from the outside at least, uncomfortable as hell. "I really, really missed you."

"I missed you, too, kid."

Stepping back, she frowned down at the reactor again. "So, what? Do you have to wear this all the time? Because I see some issues."

"No, no, I've got an implant. The reactor's mounted there. There was … uh," he coughed and shook his head. "There was another prisoner, a doctor, he saved my life, but he used a car battery for the magnet. Kind of cumbersome. So I built the reactor."

She digested that information for a second and then licked her lips at a sudden swell of nausea as she pictured, entirely too clearly, the injury. "You have a hole in your chest."

"I have an advanced, life-saving medical device in my chest. Like a shiny pacemaker."

"Oddly, I don't feel better about that," she muttered. "But, you know, I'll suck it up because, well, you're here now and that's … and … " her voice failed as emotions choked her.

"I really am okay, Darce. I promise. I'll be okay. I'm going to fix this. For us, for you. I'm going to make this better. I swear to you."

She nodded jerkily and took a gasping breath. "Just … I mean … fuck, you're going after terrorists and … I just …"

"I have to do this."

"I know, I know, I get it. Just … please, be careful."

He stood up and the bench gave way entirely under the shifting weight. "It's not a safe thing, but I'll do everything I can. The suit can take a lot, I'm pretty good at this stuff, you know."

She ignored his half-assed attempt at reassurance. "And how much can you take?"

"As much as I need to."

That was not a comforting answer, so she just grabbed his hand and held on when he gave her a gentle one-armed hug.

"I like the dad thing," he murmured into her hair.

"Me, too."

They talked only a little longer, he had to get back to Malibu, he said, but he begged her once more to stay in Virginia before he left. When she dreamt that night, she saw her father, in his beautiful armor, falling out of the sky, like Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Darcy kept a wary eye on the middle-east, and watched as an epidemic of mysterious explosions spread through terrorist-infested regions. There were reports of a drone, or a soldier, or a strange, vengeful angel in a suit of gold stamping out the wicked. Two weeks later she woke to read about a massive explosion at Stark Industries in California, but since she'd overslept in the first place, and Lucy kept poking her along to get to their lit class, she wasn't able to pull out her phone and call.

On the grounds that she was starving, and Pepper would have called if it was anything bad, Darcy let herself be pulled off to get lunch after class. She was just sitting down with her turkey sandwich, when the TVs in the dining hall switched to a press conference at Stark. Tony stumbled through a weird, self-effacing statement, but as he tried to answer a pointed, sort of snide question from one of the gathered reporters, she saw him pause, saw his face change, saw the evil glint of evil in his eye, and braced herself.

"I am Iron Man."

"Oh, for ...," Darcy dropped her head. Not five seconds later she felt her phone vibrate. It was a text from Pepper that read, simply: "I am going to kill your father."

Chapter Text

Tony Stark was a superhero. There were days when that was a fact entirely too surreal for Darcy to truly contemplate. Her father, the very picture of the spoiled, hard-partying, licentious, über-rich playboy, had been reborn in a cave in Afghanistan as a freaking superhero.

If it hadn't been a part of her own life, she might say it was probably a pretty good story. Epic even, rooted deep in ancient classics. The fall from grace, a search for redemption, terrible betrayal, and the forging of a man into a warrior destined to slay the world's demons. But the fall still gave her nightmares, and his search for redemption made her heart ache, even as she was so desperately proud of him, while the betrayal was a raw, seeping wound that didn't look to be healing anytime soon, and the Iron Man, slayer of evil, terrified her for what it might do to him.

With a mix of anxiety and pride, she watched as he crossed the globe rooting out pits of vipers, and dens of evil, and hives of scum and villainy. She watched him stand, a golden sentinel, against the darkest forces of humanity. And, she watched him slog through the mess Obadiah Stane had made of the world.

And, God, Obie. Her stomach lurched every time she thought of him, thought of how the biggest viper of them all had stood right next to them for so very long. Her thoughts invariably turned bitter as she considered his words to her about trust and hope and how deeply his lies cut. How he'd been the one to sell Tony out all along, how he'd handed her father over to terrorists to be tortured and hurt and scared and left to die alone; and all the while he'd comforted her, and smiled at her, and promised her Tony would come home.

He killed her father twice, and she knew now what it was to truly hate. She hated Obie, she hated him in every bleak corner of her heart and soul. But what she hated most was that she never, not for one single second, suspected what Obadiah Stane truly was. And she hated that for a few hours, on hearing the news he'd died in a small plane crash, she'd mourned for a monster.

After Tony's immediately infamous "I am Iron Man" press conference, he brought her home for the weekend, and Darcy finally got her proper hug. But then, he'd taken her down to the workshop, poured her two fingers of whiskey and told her the whole, sick story. It didn't make her feel any better that Tony and Pepper had been deceived, as well, and deeper even than her. This was not a burden easily or gladly shared. The truth burned far more than the whiskey.

Pepper found them before they got too far into the bottle. She didn't scold, but she did make them eat, and she let herself be persuaded to join them in a glass. Tony was uncharacteristically solicitous, and revealed later that she'd been the one to overload the reactor, and the resulting explosion had put an end to Obie's plans and, well, an end to Obie. Tony didn't have to say it, Darcy could see the guilt written all across his face, and looked on as he tried, in his own emotionally tone-deaf way, to fix this, too. Pepper, however, turned her own pain to rooting out, with extreme prejudice and the full force of Stark Legal, all Obie's lackeys in the company and on the board. She seemed perfectly satisfied with that course of personal therapy, but didn't stop Tony from hovering too much; she seemed to realize he needed to do it. Until he got super annoying about it, anyway.

And they all healed. Sort of.

Tony's mission to take out his weapons continued, and expanded. He embraced his new life as a superhero. He stopped partying, stopped bringing home models and starlets, though he'd never lose his aggravating charm and impossible swagger. He dove into making the world a safer place. Pepper reorganized SI with the sort of intense focus only she could manage, and set about rehabilitating Tony's image from eccentric playboy genius, to eccentric superhero genius. It was a fine line, to be sure, but with the greatest skill, she danced Tony across it.

As for Darcy, from time to time she still had nightmares of her father wandering in vast, lonely deserts like some biblical figure, or being tortured in black, hopeless caves. She saw him crushed by his armor, or ripped out of the sky by unseen winged evil. Or she saw herself alone, Tony and Pepper lost, Obie grinning besides her, preying on her own innocence and ignorance, as he used her hands to loose more demons into the world.

She went back to school where the topic of the individual vs the state as a force in geopolitics and foreign policy became a discussion point in just about every single class. It was a little difficult to come up with a reason to explain her rather conflicted views on the subject -- on the one hand she believed there had to be international agreement and the will of the people transmitted into the will of their states to solve and address problems, and that one man didn't necessarily have the right to make those decisions for others; on the other hand, she understood why Tony thought he had to do what he had to do, that there had to be some notion of personal responsibility, and that there were, simply, some places in the world that international law and will could not reach, places where intentions, however good and noble, would never penetrate.

And beyond those philosophical and legal questions, there was the horrible truth she could never and would never explain to her classmates and professors -- out there, in hidden caches, in terrorists' hands, things she'd helped build to defend and protect, were being used to shatter lives and terrorize the innocent. Politics and policy aside, she wanted her dad to drop the fuckers.

Over time, they adjusted to their new and definitely weirder normal. And Tony started putting a strange sort of emphasis on tradition, or things he thought should be tradition, and on redefining his legacy to her and to the world. He was starting up the Stark Expo again, for the first time in thirty something years. It was something his dad did, and he was feeling the pull to make his mark, as well. Something hopeful, looking forward, projecting to the world visions of wonders to come, even while anchoring himself to the past. It was weirdly retro, but would be done, of course, in Tony Stark grand style. It was sure to make some sort of mark, though Darcy wasn't quite sure what kind. Still, it seemed important to him, so she went with the smile-and-nod tactic, pushing aside her own skepticism.

The Christmas before the start of the Expo, Tony had declared they would spend it at the house outside of Telluride. This was, apparently, non-negotiable, and he seemed to be going for some sort of very weird Rockwell thing -- snow-covered peaks and forests, massive tree decorated with antique glass ornaments, crackling fireplaces ("What's a yule log? Should we have a yule log? I feel like we need a yule log. Pepper, find us a yule log."), bowls of weird Christmassy potpourri, and fat geese roasting. There were pine boughs everywhere and you couldn't turn around without running into some sort of festive ribbon, and honestly, Darcy was just waiting for him to break out the sugar plums.

It was, you know, nice and all, but not very Tony-like. Well, it was Tony-like in the way that this was not how normal people did things, but rather, this was how people did things in movies and books and layouts in Architectural Digest, which was generally where Tony got his ideas about what normal should be, but not real reality normal.

Still, he was trying, and Darcy loved him for it. Since his disappearance and subsequent Iron Man revelation, and with Darcy off at college, they'd had little time together over the last few years, so if he seemed to be trying a little too hard, she'd just appreciate his effort and be grateful and insanely thankful she still had him.

"New Mexico." Tony said flatly.

Darcy nodded and continued wrapping her gifts for Pepper and Happy. "Yes."

"You're going to New Mexico," he repeated.

"It's the land of enchantment."

"For the whole semester."

"I expect to be super enchanted."

Tony stared hard at her, so hard in fact, that Darcy swore it felt like his eyeballs were knocking on her head. Which was such a disturbing mental image she shuddered and turned a smile on him. "It's a science-y internship with a top astrophysicist. I think you should be thrilled."

"I think you should have taken a few more science classes and not participatory objects. What the hell are participatory objects?"

Darcy waved off Tony. Though, it was true that on getting to college and seeing the vast spread of academic deliciousness, she was tempted into a few courses that could probably be called frivolous. Of course, she'd had no intention of showing him her transcripts, but the sneaky bastard had got them somehow anyway. She actually suspected her mom's hand in that, since using Jarvis to get the info would have been a massive violation of their college peace treaty with Pepper -- aka, the Potts Accords. "It was a sculpting class."

"They couldn't just call it sculpting?"

"I guess that's just not transgressive enough."

Tony snorted and kicked his feet up on the table, earning a hiss from Darcy. "Dad! I am trying to wrap here."

"They're just going to tear it off," he dismissed, unconcerned by his big, stupid feet coming dangerously close to her neat paper corners.

"It's about presentation. I'm saying 'look, I care about you and about this gift, and I put effort and thought into it and wish to make the giving as aesthetically pleasing as possible for maximum enjoyment'. See? This is why I took art classes."

He gave her a skeptical look. "For roughly the four-hundred and eighty-seventh time, Pepper is a bad influence on you."

"Hush your face," she said and flapped a hand at his head. "I took that electrical engineering online thing you badgered me into. Just be glad I don't consider that an actionable violation of the Potts Accords."

"I suggested, I did not badger," he said with a lofty sniff. "I did not bring up Culver or MIT. There was no violation, and I'm prepared to argue my defense before the tribunal." The tribunal being an undoubtedly pissed off Pepper. She'd been very serious about never wanting to hear them argue about college ever again. And since the signing of the Potts Accords (literal signing of an actual agreement, witnessed by Happy and Rhodey and freaking notarized), they'd both treaded carefully around the subject and went out of their way to not provoke her. Calling a tribunal was sort of a nuclear option -- or maybe more like mutually assured destruction.

Tony watched as she finished tying off the bows. "I've read some of her papers."

Darcy frowned and looked over at him. "Whose?"

"Foster's."

"And?"

"Her research is … interesting."

She had not read any of Doctor Foster's work. Well, nothing really outside of the internship summary, scanning the suggested reading (well, the list), and … no that was it. "Actually interesting, or 'gee, what's that growing in the back of the fridge and how do I kill it' interesting?"

Tony smirked and shrugged. "I think she's probably chasing unicorns and fairies and … like leprechauns or something. But, she's got the bones of solid theory there. Kind of Out There theory, but it's definitely a new way to look at things."

"You like when people look at things in new ways."

"Sometimes. When it's something worth looking at," he told her with the arrogant dismissiveness only he had truly mastered.

Darcy rolled her eyes and cleared away the scraps of paper and ribbon. "Well, it's six science credits and I had Doctor Foster for one of my freshmen seminars. I liked her. Chasing leprechauns in New Mexico with her sounds … actually interesting. Or, at least, different. Besides, I long for the boonies." She turned to her father and grabbed his face in both hands. "I am so sick of hearing about Iron Man at school I cannot even begin to tell you." She gave him a shake and let him go.

He chuckled. "I'm awesome, the people love me."

"Yeah, no. Some do, some don't." She shoved the presents into bright, shiny gift bags with artfully arranged tissue paper, then leaned back next to Tony. "Whatever happened to the Hulk? I'd like to thank him for the breather when he rumbled through Harlem. He's sort of the unofficial school mascot, so that was, you know, exciting for about a week."

"You know that's an actual person, right?"

"I do. And I was serious in my desire to thank him." She scrunched her nose up at Tony. "Did you just try to school me on sensitivity?"

He looked appalled at the very thought. "No. God, no. But … I don't know. The guy's been well and truly screwed. I don't like it." He waved a hand. "Never mind. If you're gone all semester, though, you're going to miss the Expo." He pouted at that.

"It's going on all year. I think I'll catch it eventually."

"Not the opening," he argued, still pouting, only even more epically now.

"Which, I believe, you're streaming online."

Tony sighed and slumped back on the couch. "Fine. Whatever."

"Oh come on," she nudged his shoulder with hers. "I wouldn't miss your big opening. I'll tell Doctor Foster I have a family obligation."

Cheered, he dropped an arm around her shoulder and they sat companionably for roughly one minute, before Tony started fidgeting. "I'm bored."

"Of course you are," she sighed. Peace and quiet were such rare things around Tony.

"Want to see the latest suit upgrade?"

Darcy winced and bit her lower lip. "Does Pepper know you brought the suit?"

"I don't know. Maybe?"

"Liar."

"It's not the one you're thinking of, anyway. It's still in testing." He pushed himself up off the couch and held a hand out to her. "You'll love it. It'll fit in a suitcase. Awesome, right?"

"Seriously?" She considered it for a moment while he bounced his eyebrows at her in a way that was probably meant to entice her, but really just made him look like a goof. But, still... "Okay, yeah, that is awesome."

***

"There! There, did you see it?"

Darcy rolled her head back against the roof of the van and looked up at the sky. "No."

Jane sat up and started poking at her computer. "It was right there. Faint, but noticeable. How did you not notice it?" She looked over at Darcy who'd turned her attention back to the game she was playing on her phone. Jane made a sound like an irritated cat and shut her laptop with a snap. "Fine. Look, we've got enough for tonight. We'll run over the data tomorrow."

Darcy bounced up off the roof and headed for the ladder. "Sweet."

"You know, if you just put in the effort," Jane grumbled, packing away her computer and passing down some of the equipment to Darcy to put away.

"The effort to what? I'm here, I'm helping." Darcy waved her arms at the van and the sky and at Jane. "You saw it, you collected data and whatever, so then we'll go through it tomorrow. Come on, I'm wiped, I've been up all day, it's 2 a.m. and I flew across the country today. I'm sleepy," she whined and pouted at Jane, who was herself climbing down.

Jane rolled her eyes, or at least, Darcy assumed she did; the silence was telling.

"How was your family thing?" The other woman asked after a moment, as they wrestled the equipment into the back of the van.

Darcy shrugged. "It was fine." It was an over-the-top spectacle of the sort her father thrived on. Iron Man dancers, for God's sake. And, jeez, only he could step out of the armor in a suit still perfectly pressed. He was a ridiculous person, and she totally envied how he could always pull off the ridiculousity. Of course, a lot of that had to do with not being afraid to show the world just how many fucks he didn't give. She admired the hell out of him.

"What was it? I don't think you said." Jane strapped down the Beast and held her hand out for another set of bungie cords. The Beast was an ugly, Frankenstein's monster of a portable sensor array that weighed more than Darcy and Jane together (well, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but, man it was heavy). Jane was waifish but freakishly strong, which was the only reason the Beast was actually portable.

Darcy handed over the cords. "Just a presentation my dad was making at a tech thing. We're all very proud. Then we went to dinner and then I flew back. My exciting weekend."

"What does your dad do again?"

Darcy raised an eyebrow at Jane, suspicious. "Are you pumping me for information?"

Jane sighed and locked the Beast into place. "I'm conversing. We're having a friendly conversation. Pumping you for information? Seriously?" Jane gave her a look that, even in the dim light from the back of the van, said clearly 'why are you a crazy person and what did I do to deserve you?'

"He's a logistics specialist. So, you know, he moves stuff around with great skill and poise. And he can pack like a mo'fo, you have no idea." Darcy told her. She wasn't sure she should be quite so proud of her ability to prevaricate and obfuscate and, in general, lie without actually lying, but, well, she was a total freaking boss at it.

"It skips a generation, I guess." Jane shook her head and grabbed the Beastlet from Darcy, who'd been attempting to cram it under one of the back bench seats. "It goes on the shelf, the same place it's always gone, and the same place I always have you put it and …" Jane locked the Beastlet in place and forced a long breath out through her nose.

"I'm sleepy," Darcy repeated lamely.

"Fine, I'll drive. Come in at ten."

"Yay!"

"I have to leave early to pick Erik up from the airport, so I need you to get started without me -- just output the data and start entering it. And don't rearrange my equipment again! It's delicate and you can knock the calibrations off."

Darcy snorted a small laugh. "Oh, but the look on your face, Jane." Darcy was bored, it was a Tuesday. After a morning of anticipation, Jane had finally reached for the UV remote sensing monitor and found the oscilloscope instead. For a full three minutes (Darcy timed it), she'd circled the poor little oscilloscope and stared around the room in utter and delightful confusion. And, well, then she'd been kinda pissed. But, it was totally worth it for those three glorious minutes.

Jane's glower was impressive. "Darcy."

"Fine. And, for the record, I didn't hurt your equipment."

"That time," Jane told her darkly.

The next morning Darcy took her time getting into their little defunct car dealership-slash-lab. Puente Antiguo had exactly nothing going for it except for a 7-Eleven, a pretty decent diner, and a tiny little shop on the edge of town that sold the best salt water taffy she'd ever had in her life, and it was peaceful in a way Darcy's life hadn't been for years. People around town talked about Iron Man whenever he did something brave or stupid, and they had their opinions on him, but he was not a subject of breathless interest; people had more important things to talk about than a billionaire in a shiny suit, after all. The hot topics around town most days were debating the merits of spring versus fall calving, water rights, and would Pete Little's son be playing guitar at the bar again on Saturday and could they start a petition to stop him?

Maybe it wasn't the most exciting place in the world, but it was normal people with normal concerns, normal struggles and normal triumphs -- no less real or important for not involving Fortune 100 companies or the international arms trade -- and Darcy found it both grounding and comforting. And if the work with Jane wasn't exactly riveting, it was sort of interesting and she really did like Jane. When not totally lost to her work, Jane was a pretty easy to kick it with. Darcy liked the nights they sat on the roof drinking Irish coffee to ward off the brittle chill of the desert spring, talking about anything, everything and nothing at all, while counting falling stars and satellites.

After a lazy breakfast at the diner, she walked up the street to the lab and missed a step when her phone pinged with a text from Tony asking if she was down with him making Pepper the CEO. Which, what?

It was not a secret that Tony wasn't really invested in being any sort of manager; he was a skilled businessman, but he'd rather be in his workshop than in meetings. And, there'd been more than one magazine article through the years suggesting Pepper was a power behind the throne, which was, frankly, kind of melodramatic, but not exactly wrong, and inside the company a lot of people viewed her less as Tony's assistant and more as one of the Triumvirate who'd run the company for years. It was long past time she got credit for all the work she'd put in, so Darcy easily gave Tony a thumbs up. But, what? So very out of nowhere.

She shook off her surprise at Tony's question -- she supposed between starting up the Expo and superheroing he just wasn't interested in the minutia of actually running the company, and Pepper was, far and away, the perfect choice -- and entered the lab. Starting up the coffee maker, she wandered around the place, making a half-assed sweep at tidying, and sighed when she saw evidence that Jane had slept at her desk again. The desk lamp was on, the computer was on, there were four coffee cups buried under papers and printouts, there was a stack of journals that had most likely served as a pillow, and a hard, oily chunk of cheese sat next to a pile of stale saltines.

Darcy cleaned up the mess that was Jane's desk, then made her way to the whiteboard. It was covered with new strings of numbers dashed crookedly up one side and down the other. Contemplating it for a few long minutes, Darcy picked up the dry eraser and approached cautiously, like she expected the astrophysicist to appear suddenly behind her. Jane was very, very firm about not touching the whiteboard, but, well, while she was brilliant, her math really suffered when she hadn't slept for a couple days, and seeing the sloppy numbers on the board was making Darcy twitch. It would totally gnaw at her brain all day if she just left it there.

Doing her best to mimic Jane's scrawl, she managed to fix at least four errors, but had to stop when one of the errors led to a wickedly complex statement that she couldn't easily work her way through. Crazy leprechaun-hunting astrophysics were not in her wheelhouse, and Darcy wasn't confident she could follow Jane's reasoning well enough to fix the statement. She settled for 'accidentally' partially erasing it -- Jane would be annoyed, but she'd have to go back and fix it, and hopefully get the math right this time, and she'd be way less annoyed than if she spent hours or days working on the problem only to discover she'd made an error way back at the beginning.

"Ah, Jane, the things I do for you," she muttered as she wondered just how loudly Jane would express her disappointment. Good times.

Feeling satisfied with her morning's work, Darcy sat down to spend some time socially networking, which today meant reposting pictures of llamas in jaunty hats and spamming Rico's facebook with intentionally bad cellphone pictures of rocks and desert scrub and the heel of her left shoe. He was a little uptight about proper framing. And she captioned them all with misquoted song lyrics in comic sans. He was a little uptight about a few things, really. Never let it be said Darcy Lewis couldn't make her own fun.

Eventually Darcy did get around to actual work and by the time Jane showed up with Doctor Selvig, she'd made a decent enough dent at inputting the collected data that Jane probably wouldn't give her the sad 'why were you the only one who applied' look.

While Jane still looked like a grad student who shopped at Goodwill, Doctor Selvig had not only fully embraced, but perfected the rumpled scientist look -- from his ugly white shirt with ugly criss-crossing tan lines, to his loosely-knotted ugly blue tie, and his boring brown slacks, everything about him shouted "physicist". Darcy was a little disappointed he wasn't wearing a tweed jacket, but, well, she supposed there was only so much stereotype one man could safely wear without being absolutely crushed under the weight of cliche.

"Darcy, this is Erik Selvig," Jane introduced, waving a hand between the pair. "Erik, my intern Darcy Lewis."

Darcy smiled brightly and stuck her hand out, "Pleased t'meetcha."

Erik stared at her for a long second, like he was confused by her existence, then blinked down at her hand and with a thin smile gave her a short handshake. "Likewise."

Okay. "Hey, so Jane, you probably didn't eat, I ordered sandwiches from Izzy. I got you that roasted pepper one you like." She turned to Doctor Selvig, bright smile sill firmly in place. Weird, smart dudes were old hat with her, and besides, he was like Jane's mentor or something; she'd charm the hell out of him. "I wasn't sure what you'd like, Doctor Selvig, so I got you a pick of roast beef or chicken salad."

Doctor Selvig continued to look mildly bewildered but he smiled again, slightly more genuinely. "That's very thoughtful of you. I'll gladly take the chicken salad. And, please, I am not your professor, feel free to call me Erik."

"Good deal." Darcy turned again to Jane who was digging through the pile of papers on her desk. "Jane, lunch."

Jane waved a hand in her direction. "Yeah, just a second, I want to find those readouts to show Erik."

"Over lunch maybe?"

"Yes, Darcy. Just a second," Jane huffed irritably.

With a shrug at Erik, she headed over to the fridge. "Low blood sugar, man, you've got to watch her, or she grows, like, fangs and claws."

Erik nodded sagely and followed her. "I remember only too well."

Pleased that she'd found some common ground with Erik, she set out their sandwiches and poured the scientists each a coffee before grabbing a Dr. Pepper for herself. "I try to slip her a cookie every time she holds her hand out for a printout."

Erik chuckled as he joined her at the table. "Very smart. She also responds well to grapes."

"Oh, good tip. I've tried apple slices, but then everything gets all sticky."

"If you sprinkle them with lemon juice first, it cuts down on the stickiness and keeps them from browning too quickly," he advised.

"I did not know that," she said, nodding thoughtfully and started making a shopping list in her head. Things were getting a bit dire in the fridge, she needed to make a grocery run anyway.

Jane slapped a pile of papers down on the table and gave them both a baleful look. "I'm not that bad."

"You're pretty bad, Jane," Darcy told her.

Erik smiled, unbothered by her glare. "I'm just glad you've found somebody to hand you cookies."

"I am not helpless," Jane growled and grabbed the container with her sandwich, pulling it open a little viciously.

"Nobody suggested you were," Erik replied mildly.

Jane ignored them both and after a pointed bite of her sandwich, shoved the papers at Erik and the two of them dropped into physics speak and Darcy tuned out, pulling out her phone and settling in to play a level or two of one of her games while she ate. Though she wasn't entirely paying attention to their conversation, she picked up enough to tell Erik agreed with her dad -- Jane was searching for leprechauns, and Erik wasn't really afraid to let her know his opinion. He was gentle about it, at least, and let her walk him through her conclusions without objection.

Eventually they moved to the whiteboard so Jane could gesture wildly at her numbers and wave papers in his face, and Darcy went off to finish with the previous night's data.

"Darcy, did you change the whiteboard?" Jane asked, very much perturbed at the suspected interference with her precious whiteboard.

Darcy didn't look up from her computer. "Why would I change the whiteboard?"

"I have no idea, but …" She could hear Jane's sigh from across the room. "Part of this section is smeared. Darcy, how many times have I told you to not touch the whiteboard?"

"Honestly? I've lost count. I didn't touch your whiteboard. Maybe you fell into a fugue state and did it," Darcy offered, trying to look as innocent as possible.

Jane narrowed her eyes, exasperated. "A fugue state? Really?"

"Well, I know you slept here last night. You could have been sleepwalking."

"I don't sleep walk."

"Sure."

"Darcy," Jane's voice held a sharp bite of irritation.

"What? I didn't touch your board," Darcy argued back.

"Maybe you brushed up against it," Jane suggested, sounding like she was trying to keep her temper and be fair.

"Maybe it was leprechauns."

"Would you stop saying that?" Jane threw her arms up in the air and stomped back over to the board, erasing the whole section and starting again. Well, problem solved, with only a little bit of irritation. Darcy gave herself a mental high-five.

From his place by the violated whiteboard, Erik repeated faintly, "Leprechauns?"

"Don't even ask," Jane grumbled back. "Darcy, when you're finished with those numbers, you're done for the day."

"What?" Darcy frowned and sat up straight in her chair. "Wait, are you grounding me? Sending me to my room? What? How is that fair? I didn't do anything."

"Darcy, stop, let me finish." Jane put a hand on her forehead and set her jaw. "The atmospheric readings look good, so we're taking Erik out tonight. Go get a nap or something. Be back here at nine."

"Sweetness."

They spent nights out in the desert, away from even the thin lights of Puente Antiguo, at least three times a week since the start of Darcy's internship. She was immeasurably glad that spring was springing, because, holy fuck did the desert get cold at night in the winter. Their desert jaunts had fallen into a comfortable routine -- they'd check the equipment, replace batteries, pack a cooler, and Darcy would mentally shuffle through potential topics of conversation other than UVs and microwaves and photon whatevers, because sitting in a dark van for hours waiting for clouds to do something was already boring as hell.

Erik joining their little team for the night was a nice change of pace, if only because Jane was occupied convincing him she wasn't out of her mind and Darcy didn't have to pretend as much that she was paying attention to Jane's science babble. It wasn't that Darcy wasn't interested in Jane's work, it's just that hours and hours of hearing about it got old. So, hooray for Erik. It was a little bit of a double-edged thing, though, because with Jane talking to Erik, Darcy had nothing to do but sit and stare out the windshield.

After about an hour in the pitch blackness, with only the sound of Jane clicking away at her computer and her occasional comments about her models and the weather conditions, the physicist announced it was time, and Jane and Erik stuck their heads up through the roof.

"Can I turn on the radio?" Darcy called after a minute or two, the boredom making her fidget.

"No," Jane called back. Darcy sighed and tapped at the steering wheel. She could just make out their voices as Jane tried some more to convince Erik and he tried some more to talk her down from her mad hunt for mythical sky beasts.

They were still arguing when Darcy caught sight of a light in the sky. She leaned forward and pushed her glasses further up her nose. Holy … "Jane? I think you want to see this."

"What is that?" Jane exclaimed, which is probably not what you want to hear from the woman who was supposedly studying whatever that was.

"I thought you said it was a subtle aurora," Erik accused, as the sky continued to brighten, and the light started to swirl through blues and greens and into yellows. It was beautiful, and freaky as hell.

Jane dropped back down into the van and threw herself into the passenger seat. "GO!"

Darcy jumped and started up the van, hitting the gas. The van lurched, sending equipment, and probably Erik, flying as they tore out across the desert after the crazy sky.

"Get closer," Jane ordered, leaning out one window with her camera.

Darcy turned away from her driving long enough to gape at Jane. Jane who was a completely crazy person. "Right, good one."

Jane ignored her and shouted "Go!" again. And then, to prove she was a crazy person, she started laughing as they drove madly towards the weird ass glowing space tornado.

The space tornado that suddenly hit the ground in front of them, exploding outward in a swirl of dust and lightning.

Darcy tried to turn the van away from the storm, but Jane objected immediately. "What are you doing?"

"I am not dying for six college credits," Darcy yelled back at her suddenly insane boss. Jane reached over and tried to grab the steering wheel and she and Darcy fought for control of the van for a moment before Darcy simply stood on the breaks, sending them into a spinning slide across the sand and gravel. There was a huge bang as something hit the van and they finally came to a stop just as the freaky storm vanished.

Trying to catch her breath, her eyes wide, heart racing, adrenaline surging, Darcy looked out the window at the person laying on the ground about thirty feet away. Holy shit, she'd hit a dude. She looked back at Jane, who stared at her for a second, her own eyes wide, and then they both dove out of the van and ran over to the figure.

"I think that was legally your fault," Darcy called after Jane.

Darcy's father was a billionaire superhero. Her life had never really been ordinary, but she'd gotten used to a certain level of weird. As Jane dropped to her knees on the ground next to the massive dude sprawled across the desert floor, and ordered her to get the first aid kit, Darcy had a sudden flash, a moment of insight maybe. So much of the weirdness in her life was peripheral to her father's life, really, not something she had much to do with beyond giving him moral support or wincing when she saw his armor scratched up and dented. But now, out in the black desert night, after that bizarre-beyond-words storm, with a mysterious man supine on the ground in the middle of nowhere, Darcy had the horrible suspicion that her own life was about to turn really damned strange.

Chapter Text

Erik was determined. Jane was crazy determined. Darcy was really feeling a nap.

Hello, aliens invaded. Or, well, they didn't so much invade as stop by for breakfast, but they were totally followed by a fire-breathing deathbot from outer space, and that shit was just exhausting.

That madness was followed by the men in black showing back up in order to be super exhaustingly helpful by putting all of Jane's equipment back, breaking about half of it in the process and sending Jane into a downward spiral of rage and tears. Darcy'd finally grabbed a wrench and a fire extinguisher then stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out the loudest, shrillest whistle she could manage -- which was pretty piercing, really -- and told the SHIELD agents if they touched one more damned thing there would be blood. Once they packed off -- looking, variously, amused at her outburst, or wary of the crazy person -- she and Jane spent hours putting everything back together with kite string, duct tape, and rum-flavored curses.

In the wee hours of the morning, just as Darcy was ready to crawl into her bed and let sweet oblivion take her, the whole ball of 'fuck me' was capped by a facebook message from her mother asking if she'd talked to Tony and then, with dread curling in her stomach, scrolling down to see her friends going apeshit about the Stark Expo and its own fiery doom. She made a quick note to self to never check facebook before going to bed. But, the damage was done, her calls went unanswered and she stayed up reading news reports -- which is how she also learned about his incident at the Grand Prix. Holy crap, seriously? -- until Tony finally sent a text at about four a.m. It was pretty much just "hammerbots lolz", but it was enough to let her get a few hours of sleep until Jane started pounding on her door at eight.

So, really, everybody could just forgive her if she wasn't up to Science this morning.

Once she managed to stumble her way into the lab, she ducked Jane, snarled at a couple of MIBs hogging the coffee pot, and took her mug outside, hoping the combination of caffeine and frigid morning air would be enough to sort of wake her up, or barring that, that everybody would forget about her and she could crawl under a desk and sleep for a week or something.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when her phone began blaring "Iron Man". When the hell did he have time to hack her ringtones? Also, contrary to Tony's deeply held belief, nobody needed Black Sabbath first thing in the morning.

"Dad, you're such a troll," she answered through a jaw-cracking yawn.

"I know, right?" He laughed. "So, hey, what the hell is going on in … wherever you are? Where are you again? Arizona? Nevada? Someplace deserty." Darcy would be willing to bet that he knew her present location down to about a two foot area, give or take, and that was on top of the GPS in her phone.

"New Mexico?"

"Whatever, sure." He snorted and grumbled a little, "Land of enchantment. Son of a bitch."

Darcy wasn't sure if his mutter was asking for a response or not, but before she could decide, she caught sight of movement on the building across the street. There was a guy up on the roof with a parabolic mic pointed at her face. She tossed him a snarky salute with her mug, which he returned just as snarkily with some sort of giant hoagie. Ugh, God, who could eat something like that this early?

"Not much going on," she replied finally. "Just, uh, a … I don't remember what they said. I got like two hours of sleep. Thanks, by the way."

"There were explosions. I heard there were explosions. You're alright, right? Do I need to come down there? I can be there in two hours. Rhodey's already flying back, I can divert him. Thirty, forty minutes, tops."

"No, it's fine, it was a, uh … oh, wait, I've got it -- a grass fire that, due to high winds and dry conditions, burned out of control, threatening the small town of Puente Antiguo and igniting several propane tanks," she recited flatly, rolling her eyes. "Or some crap like that."

"That's the official story? Really?"

"Well, it's not like they asked for my input," she grumbled.

"And you're fine?"

"Totally fine. It's over. Jane and Erik are fine, too, if you're wondering."

"Who?"

"The science beings I'm interning with?"

"Oh, right, Foster and whoever. Good to know."

"So, how about you? I heard about the … you know. As you could probably tell from the NINETEEN messages I left you."

"Oh, I'm good. Great actually. I was, you know, dying for a little while there, but your dad is totally a genius, by the way."

"So I've heard. Go back to where you were dying." She felt a stabbing pain behind her right eye and wondered if this is what Pepper felt like all those times she looked like she wanted to cry or throw things or cry and throw things. "What the hell, dad?"

"Palladium poisoning, but I'm fine. It's all good now."

Her grip tightened on her mug and hot coffee splashed over the back of her hand. She hissed and sucked at the burned skin. "Are you kidding me with that?"

"Well, no, but, seriously, I'm okay. And, well, you know, I actually called to see how you were, but we can talk about this later and you can yell at me then. If it makes you feel better, Pepper's done a lot of yelling."

"That's why you made her the …" she trailed off, scowling at parabolic mic dude who was keeping her from telling Tony exactly what she thought about all of this. Though, it did explain a lot of his recent weird behavior. Well, slightly weirder than normal behavior, at any rate. "Yeah, go ahead and expect a lot of yelling."

He cleared his throat on the other end of the line and she heard him shifting around. "So, hey, I created a new element. Using it for the arc reactor, and, totally non-toxic. I haven't named it yet. What do you think of Starkium?"

"Horrible," she muttered irritably, not in the mood to be distracted from his almost dying, but unable to do anything about it because of the lurking MIBs. He really needed to stop just dropping this sort of shit on her when she was out in public. Though, maybe that's why he did it.

"Darceytonium?"

"Please no."

"It's got both our names in it. How awesome, right?"

"Not so much."

"You're no fun," he groused with a huff.

"Did I mention how I got no sleep?"

"Yeah, so what did happen?"

She took a sip of her rapidly cooling coffee and side-eyed the guy on the roof. "I can't really say."

"They're listening. Douchebags." He was quiet for a moment, before asking for the third time, "You're okay, right?"

"I'm totally unscathed. I promise."

"Good, good. So, uh, while we're talking, there is this one other thing."

She groaned. What now? 'Hey, I have shrapnel near my heart, but it's fine.' 'Hey, I'm going to go fight terrorists. No worries.' 'Hey, I was totally dying, but it's all good now.' 'Hey, so, I lost the company to a hostile takeover from a plumber's guild in Belize, but it's good, more me time.' 'Hey, so, my left leg was gnawed off by rabid beavers, but I totally built another one.' 'Hey, you know how you always told me to be nice to Jarvis? Yeah, so, he's gone skynet. But it's fine, he likes you.'

She nearly whimpered and squeezed her eyes shut. "Oh, God, I don't think I can take any more things this week. I need all the caffeine."

"No, no, this is good. I think this is good. Uh, so …"

"Spit it out," she growled.

"Right, Pepper and I are … you know, dating, or whatever. Seeing each other? Together? Um, yeah."

Darcy would like to be able to claim she'd seen this coming all along, but that would be such a huge, stinking lie. Pepper had, of course, been a part of their lives forever, and she was pretty much Darcy's personal hero and the only person who could sort of get Tony to function like an adult, but, well, while she couldn't really imagine them apart, she'd never thought of them together together. This was more stunning than the dying thing, and significantly more excellent. He really should have lead with this; the whole conversation would have gone so much better.

"Tell me you're being serious right now," she demanded, not in the mood for him to be messing with her. And not about this sort of thing.

"Yeah. I'm trying that whole commitment thing."

With a long, relieved sigh, she finally allowed herself to smile. "That's is so truly awesome."

She wanted her dad to be happy, she wanted Pepper to be happy, she wasn't sure if they'd find that together or not, but if they could, then that was fantastic. Nobody else would put up with Tony or bother to actually try and understand him, and anybody else would probably bore Pepper to tears inside a week, and they'd never fully appreciate who she was, anyway. The pair of them totally fit, in their weird sort of way.

"Yeah, you're okay with it?"

"Really? Are you really asking that? Dad, I would hug the hell out of you right now if you were here. And then I'd punch you, but first, totally, so many hugs."

"I don't want to screw this up," he confided quietly. "Pretty much, well, terrified of that. Don't ever tell that to anybody."

"I won't. I wouldn't. And, look, people screw up sometimes, right? And then you try and fix it. You're a genius, if anybody can figure it out, I have faith you can. Besides, how often did you say you'd screw up being a dad and see how often you mostly haven't?"

He laughed. "Mostly?"

"I'm a little ticked about the poisoning thing. Seriously, there will be words," she warned.

"Loud ones?"

"Oh, count on it."

"Good times, good times."

"Miss Lewis!"

Darcy jumped again, sending coffee sloshing over her hand one more time, though it was lukewarm, at best, now. She'd spilled more of it than she'd consumed, which was not making her day better. Turning, she narrowed her eyes as the leader of the Goon Squad walked towards her with the arrogantly purposeful stride of a government flunky. "Hold on," she murmured.

"Wait, wait," Tony called her back. "That voice sounded familiar. Is it Coulson? Tell me it's Coulson."

"Yeah. Wait, he's the one? Everything makes sense now." Tony had complained at great and colorful length about SHIELD and one of their particular lackeys. She never got a name, he was only ever referred to as 'Agent', or, you know, 'Agent Whatshisface', 'Agent Asshole', 'Agent Jerkpants' -- and those were the polite names. She covered the receiver with her hand and glared. "What?"

"Who are you talking to?"

"My dad."

"Your father is a logistics executive with a tech firm in Pasadena." And how disturbing was that? That that bit of information was just right there on the tip of his tongue? He didn't even blink, didn't even have to think about it for half a second.

"And? What? That means I can't talk to him? Also, the Big Brother thing is not cool."

"You signed a non-disclosure agreement--"

"And I haven't disclosed anything. Ask your creepy little mic monkey; he's been on me the whole time." She jerked her chin towards the roof of the building across the street.

Coulson flicked a glance over to his man, then back at Darcy. "It seems your phone is hard to pick up."

"So? And really, shouldn't you have a warrant for that?"

"National security emergency." He gave her a flat little smile.

She cocked an eyebrow. "Wait, you think I'm the weak link here, right?"

"It is a concern. You did post a picture of Donald on facebook." She would not laugh at his continued use of 'Donald', she would not. No, it was a trick, a trap, an attempt to humanize himself to those around him, but she knew a soulless cyborg when she saw one.

"Oh, please," she scoffed. "I posted a picture of a hot, blond dude stuffing his face with pancakes. I will eat my hat if anybody looked at that picture and thought 'holy crap, an alien and/or the Norse God of Thunder!'. Well, anybody sane."

Coulson's mouth twitched slightly before settling back into its thin, bland line. "Nevertheless. May I speak with your father, please?"

Darcy's lips pursed and she glanced back up at parabolic mic guy, who, even from a distance looked kind of cut. It was a chilly morning, but he was wearing some sort of black, tank top battle uniform, which did amazing things for his shoulders. Too bad about the jack-booted-thuggery. He tipped his sandwich in her direction and she flipped him the bird. It was a little insulting that he wasn't even trying to be subtle about spying on her.

She brought her phone back up. "An Agent Coulson -- who are you saying you are again? FEMA or some shit? -- would like to speak with you." Coulson made a slightly strangled noise.

"Oh please, please, let me talk to him." Tony was practically giggling. Somebody else hadn't gotten much sleep, either, it seemed. She almost felt sorry for what was about to happen to Coulson. Only, not really. "Wait, wait, no. It's your call, your life. I can hang up right now, dropped call, no harm. For what it's worth, Pepper insists he's an okay guy. I think she's just flattered that he's got a crush on her."

Darcy laughed. "No way."

"I'm making a list of ways I can have him disappear. I'm up to number 37."

"Miss Lewis," Coulson prompted, holding his hand out for her phone.

She waved a hand but otherwise ignored him. "You're really all in with her, huh?"

"All in," Tony confirmed.

"Sweet. I'm proud of you. Okay, fine, he's making grabby hands."

"Switch to video. I have to see his face."

"How about no? There are, you know, people around."

"Fine. Take video then."

"He'll have my phone."

"God, fine, I want a detailed description then. This is why I didn't want you to get the iPod."

She rolled her eyes and sniffed. "Yes, I'm sure this was just the sort of thing behind your nine hour rant about the slippery slope of candy-colored technology."

"It wasn't nine hours," Tony grumbled.

"It felt like it." Darcy glanced at Coulson, who looked about two seconds away from actually tapping his foot, and she was tempted to draw this out just to see that, but now that it had come up (or rather, she'd been the exhausted dumbass who brought it up), there really was a danger of Tony going off on a consumer tech rant and, lord, she was so not in the mood. "Here's Agent Coulson." She handed the phone to Coulson then stood back and crossed her arms.

Coulson examined the phone for a moment, frowning, before bringing it up to his ear. "Mr. Lewis, I'm Phil Coulson with the Federal Emergency Management … who is this?" He fell silent for a moment, and then closed his eyes, looking pained. Only pained didn't really cover it. He looked like a guy with chronic heartburn who just downed three chilidogs, extra onions, and topped it off with a pint of lighter fluid.

When he opened his eyes again he gave her a dark look, before glancing back over to mic guy and sweeping his hand across the front of his throat in the universal "kill it" gesture. Mic guy shrugged and lowered the mic before wandering off, still chewing on his truly ridiculous sandwich.

"Mr. Stark," Coulson said, his voice as dry as the desert around them, but Darcy could see the muscles in his jaw twitching. He listened for a long moment before finally offering a bland, "I see."

He turned his gaze back to Darcy, considering her for a handful of seconds, before taking several steps away. Darcy took a not entirely stealthy step after him. "No, she's perfectly fine. The situation has been resolved … That is, of course, not what we would have preferred; there is extensive property damage, but casualties were minimal, thanks, in part, to Miss Lewis's assistance in evacuating the town … no, if I had known… of course, not … threats are unnecessary, Mr. Stark. I'm not in the habit of putting civilians at risk … no, no, that's very clear. I can't speak to future circumstances … that is out of my hands, Mr. Stark … really, Mr. Stark … Yes, please." Coulson sighed and rubbed at his forehead. Tony had that effect on pretty much everybody ever.

"Ms. Potts, how are you?" Coulson's face brightened slightly, and Darcy's eyebrows shot up. Tony wasn't far off about the Agent's crush. It was almost sweet. Made him seem less of a creepy, dead inside, cyborg. Sort of. It was better than the Donald joke, anyway. "I heard about New York … I'm very glad to hear that … I assure you she's fine … Thank you … I apologize, but it was necessary. Past experience told us he was unlikely to request or willingly receive assistance … that was not my call … You have my word, Ms. Potts … no, she's right here … Of course. I'm sure we'll be speaking soon. Good day, Ms. Potts."

Coulson took a deep breath before turning back to Darcy. He handed her back her phone with a polite smile. "We'll talk more later."

"Oh, goody."

He started to walk away, but paused before Darcy could talk to Pepper. "By the way, Miss Lewis, I don't believe my conversation with your father is relevant to the current situation here, and I can see no reason to include any of it in the incident report."

She gaped after him for a long moment before she remembered the phone in her hand. "Pepper?"

"Darcy, thank God. You're okay?"

"I'm one hundred percent, I swear. Not a scratch."

"Thank God," Pepper repeated, breathing out a long sigh. "Okay, look, don't listen to your father, Agent Coulson's a decent man." Darcy could hear Tony's outraged squawk in the background.

"If you say so. I mean, I guess." She glanced back at the lab and considered Coulson's parting words. Then she figured she had his tacit agreement that the NDA probably didn't extend to Pepper and Tony (Tony would just hack SHIELD, anyway, if he hadn't already), plus the mic monkey was gone, and the words just came pouring out, "But, you know what? He stole all of Jane's research, which, okay, he gave it back, but that was only because the freaking God of Thunder himself guilt threatened him into it. And he stole my iPod, and, yeah, okay he gave that back, too. But, he still has my taser and says he won't give it back until he's sure I won't start tasing all his agents. Like I'm some sort of loose cannon. I used the taser one time, okay. And it was just the three of us out in the desert in the middle of the freaking night and there was this massive dude who seemed seriously legit crazy, and isn't that what it's for? Sure, okay, I threatened the MIBs with a wrench and a fire extinguisher last night, but Jane was on the verge, you know? Anyway, I'm just saying, theft is not the best first impression."

"I … a wrench? Wait, the God of Thunder?"

Darcy dropped down onto the curb, an exhausted pile of denim and brightly-colored yarn, and rested her forehead on her knees. "It's been a weird week, Pep."

***

Coulson didn't try to find her again until early in the evening. If the previous week had been exhausting, spending a day trying to direct SHIELD agents as they set up and expanded Jane's lab, while trying to keep Jane from strangling each and every one of them, was a whole other level of grueling. The agents themselves weren't so much a problem, they were appropriately deferential and professional to Jane and Erik and even her, but still, they were invading the trio's tiny little world and Jane had very set and particular ways about how things should go and where things should go, and her temper was already frayed even as her excitement at the breakthroughs bubbled over.

Darcy felt worn down to the bone when she finally fled to the rooftop to snatch at some quiet. Coulson found her there fifteen minutes after her escape, and she had to appreciate that he gave her that much time, at least.

"Miss Lewis."

"My father has a hole in his chest," she blurted. The statement surprised her, probably more than it did him. She wasn't even aware she was thinking of it, it just burst out of her. A verbal John Hurt moment.

If Coulson was also startled by that apparently out-of-nowhere comment he didn't show it. She was kind of starting to admire the way he just rolled with everything. Son of Coul, the Unflappable. "I'm aware."

Darcy licked her dry lips and looked out over the desert, the setting sun throwing reds and purples across the landscape. It was probably pretty, but she was too tired and still too busy processing the last few days to really appreciate it. "I try not to think about it too much, because whenever I do, it makes me want to puke. Seriously. And it's not so much the reactor, or even the housing, or any of that; it's that my dad has a fucking hole in his chest. And I wonder, does it hurt? I mean, it's got to at least hurt when his ribs press against the casing, or something, right? He says it doesn't, but he's such a damned liar sometimes."

"The surgeon who initially operated on your father--"

"In a cave," she spat. The helplessness of that still made her hands shake.

"Yes, in very difficult conditions, but he was obviously very, very good," Coulson replied patiently, his voice mild and, maybe even, weirdly soothing. "He mounted the electro-magnet in the body of the sternum and grafted the device through the surrounding cartilage. I'm sure that, initially, it was extremely painful, but the cartilage gives flexibility around the ribs. In addition, your father created a seal that allows his own tissue to attach more organically to the housing. At most, I'd guess it feels like pressure, probably not pain. Unless he lands on it at an awkward angle, but that's true of anything, frankly."

Darcy thought about that for a moment before letting out a long breath. "Oh, huh. Thanks. He doesn't like to talk about it. I think he doesn't want me to worry."

"That's understandable."

"I guess, but, you know, then he builds himself a flying suit of armor, and I'm supposed to not worry? Sweet baby Thor, he is a lot of work sometimes."

"I am very aware," he replied oh so very dryly.

Darcy gave a shaky laugh and pushed up her glasses, pressing the tips of her fingers to her eyes for a long second, before finally taking a deep breath. "Sorry, for off-loading on to you there. God, I have no idea where that all came from."

"I don't imagine you have many people to talk to about it."

"No. Well, I mean, there's Pepper and Rhodey. And my parents, I guess, but they don't know about the reactor. So, for things like that? No, I guess not. Everybody gets a little weird about it." Darcy chewed on her lower lip and contemplated the landscape again. "So, what's up, Secret Agent Man?"

He lowered himself down to sit next to her, dangling his legs off the roof, his shiny wingtips looking seriously out of place next to her pink Chucks. "Well, that's better than any of your father's nicknames for me."

"What? You don't like Agent Jerkpants?" Darcy laughed.

"Not so much. Though, it does have a sort of kindergarten charm." She snorted, amused, while he pushed the tails of his jacket behind him and got comfortable. It was a very strange sight. "May I ask you a question?"

"Uh, sure."

"How many people know who your father is? This is just to satisfy my own curiosity," he clarified quickly, holding a hand up to forestall any sort of objection, "not intelligence gathering."

"Oh, pretty much just family. Maybe a dozen people," she told him. Now that he knew her relation to Tony, it wasn't like the rest of it was secret. "I'm actually not sure how many at the bank, or, you know, lawyers. That's a Tony question."

Coulson's face tightened, lips thinning almost to nothing, and really, he looked like he'd rather square off against the deathbot than ask Tony a question like that. "I'll go with your number."

"Calculating where I fall on the security risk scale?"

"I think it's safe to say I no longer consider you a particular risk," he said with a small smile. "In fact, I'm very impressed. That's quite a secret to keep. It's natural for children to want to be or feel important or special amongst their peers; it must certainly have been tempting, when you were younger, to reveal a famous, wealthy father. And, it's not uncommon for people to let things slip on social networking sites that they didn't intend -- given your active presence on facebook and twitter, you can understand our initial concerns. Yet, as far as I know, and I've done a lot of background work on Mr. Stark, there was never a hint of him having a child."

Darcy shrugged and picked up a small stone off the roof, turning it over in her fingers. "Tony thrives on the attention, I could really do without it. I know it's going to come out someday, and, I'm making my peace with that; slowly maybe, but still." She chucked the stone off the roof and turned to Coulson with a raised eyebrow. "Though, let me tell you, brother, the second somebody suggests we're having a torrid affair, I'm telling the whole world the ridiculous truth. The squick factor of that is more than I can take."

Couslon smiled some more and nodded. "That sounds like a reasonable plan."

"He's pretty pathological about making sure nobody can find anything connecting us. I think it's interesting that you don't have my employment records," she told him, a small smirk on her lips. "Would have figured the IRS would have that."

He cocked his head to one side and frowned, searching his memory. "You worked for your father's company -- Paul Lewis, that is -- when you were fifteen. You've worked weekends tending bar at a roadhouse near Culver, and last summer you upgraded the website and inventory system for a psychic herbalist in New Orleans." He gave her a look that skirted the line between disapproval and pointedly blank -- as in, 'I am judging you so hard right now I cannot even spare the effort to make my face have an expression'.

Darcy, herself, chose the expression 'glare' with strong hint of defiance and a sprinkling of 'shove your judgery'. "What? Madame Odette was awesome. Summer in New Orleans, though? Suh-uck."

"We currently have no records for the years in between. I'm guessing you worked for Stark Industries, didn't you?"

"The mailroom, then PR, then I was Tony's assistant on the Jericho system."

"You have an … interestingly eclectic resume," he observed mildly.

She rolled her eyes. "If you say so."

"And you went on to study political science?"

"I'm sure you would have enjoyed the look on Tony's face when I told him that. But, hey, check it -- aliens invaded, and we packed them off home with a crate of instant coffee and fine breakfast pastries, and the big guy swearing to protect Midgard. Intergalactic diplomacy, booyah! If, of course, you ignore the giant deathbot and flaming ruins of a small town, part. And the fact that Thor totally has the hots for Jane. But, still, I'm counting it as a win, because, aliens."

"Have you given any thought to what you'd like to do after you graduate?"

She hummed thoughtfully to herself for a moment, "Before Norse gods fell from the sky? I had a few thoughts, but now, I'm …" She trailed off and narrowed her eyes at Coulson, who simply looked back at her innocently, but that was totally not an innocent question. "Dude."

"Just a thought."

"Three words: conflict of interest."

He smiled at her, his head bobbing at little bit as he considered her. He was one weird dude. "Maybe not as much as you think. Seems saving the world runs in the family." He stood up and brushed off his hands. "Did you know your grandfather Howard was one of the founders of SHIELD?" He didn't wait for her to respond before walking off, and she was left gaping after him again.

"I'm not down with this you-always-getting-the-last-word thing we've got going on!" She shouted after him.

Jane, who was coming on to the roof just as Coulson was going down, glared daggers at the man's back as he walked by. She glanced over to Darcy, then back at the roof entrance, before walking over. "Was he harassing you? If he was, I don't care who they're with, I will tell them to take their blood money and shove it."

Darcy smiled up at her boss, feeling a surge of affection. Alien invasion really brought people together. "No, he was just trying to freaking offer me a job. I mean, seriously, what the hell?"

"He did what?" Jane started to turn back around, her face going (haha) thunderous, but Darcy caught her by the pant leg.

"It's fine, don't worry about it."

Sitting down next to her, Jane cast a worried glance her way. "You're not going to take it, are you? I mean, I know that they're giving us funding, but don't feel like you have to--"

"Please, really, I'm not. I swear. Oh my God, can you imagine me as a government goon?" Darcy laughed. "And, hey, blood money be damned, I say squeeze them for all they've got."

Jane grinned her approval, then leaned back on her elbows looking up at the dusky sky and the first pinprick stars of the evening. "We're going to get him back."

"Hells yeah we are."

Chapter Text

Darcy hated her phone, she really did. It was 3:12 a.m. and, cripes, nobody ever called with anything good to say at 3 a.m. Except for Tony because he had no concept of a twenty-four hour day or how time zones actually worked (unless it suited his fickle whims -- Darcy Lewis and the Fickle Whims was totally the name of her band). But, she didn't recognize the number, so it probably wasn't her dad. Unless he needed bailing out, but that was usually a Pepper or Rhodey call, and actually hadn't happened for a while.

The phone trilled again as the unknown number tried once more to get her attention. She could already feel her stomach twisting nervously.

"Shut that off, mein Gott."

Darcy sighed and rolled out of the thin, hard hostel bed. "Yeah, yeah, stuff it, Olga." She wasn't actually sure that was the chick's name, she'd been with their group about three days, and hadn't really endeared herself to anybody.

When Darcy and her friends hit Europe, they'd started picking up people here and there like some sort of backpacking hipster katamari. It continued to roll on even after Kim and Charlie opted to head south and Darcy turned her steps north. She thought they picked up Olga at Legoland in Billund, but she couldn't be sure. The chick was just there at their table one night, making snide comments about everything and lewd comments about Darcy's chest. She really didn't care if she woke Olga up, but the others in the room were starting to grumble, so she stumbled out the door and down into the lobby.

"What? Yes, God, what?"

"Miss Lewis, it's Agent Coulson."

Her skin, already prickling in the damp early morning, flashed cold. She'd been hesitant to leave for Europe after her father's whole "I was dying but didn't bother to tell anybody" madness; it felt like every time she let him out of her sight something tried to kill him, or he lied about something trying to kill him. She still wasn't over the poisoning and didn't think she would be for a good long while, but, hey, it added a whole new genre to her nightmares. "My dad--?"

"Is fine. I'm on my way to speak with him now."

Darcy put a hand to her chest, willing her racing heart to calm down. "Thank fuck." Then all of Agent's words soaked through the brief flash of panic. "Wait, why? Why are you calling me at 3 in the freaking a.m.?"

"You're in Denmark, I believe."

"Copenhagen. Cut out the creepy stalking thing."

"Ms. Potts told me you'd decided to visit northern Europe," he told her mildly, but she could practically hear that little smirk he got as he took the wind out of her sails of righteous irritation. Jerk.

"Oh, well, fine, damn it," she sighed, conceding the point to him. "Then go back to my 'why' question."

"How would you feel about a side trip to Tromsø, Norway?" That didn't sound like much of a side trip; she had a vague notion that Tromsø was way north, and while Norway was in her travel plans, she wasn't aiming for the arctic circle.

"I am not your minion," she told him flatly.

"That offer still stands, but--"

"Just, no." He'd never made a formal offer, exactly, but he called periodically (generally during non-panic inducing hours, so, you know, props to him and all that) and asked leading questions and dropped boulder sized hints and, in general, would not let the subject drop. It was almost flattering, and while most of her was pretty firmly set on 'no', there was a part of her that wondered, and wondered more every time they talked. It was probably his plan; he'd wear her down, like the tide nibbling at a cliff. She was kind of torqued that it was working even a little bit.

"But, I would like your assistance on a matter of some urgency," he said over her objection.

"You need my help?" She asked, pouring a generous helping of skepticism into her words. It wasn't that she thought the Son of Coul never needed help, but, really, what could she do? And if it was about getting Tony to do something for SHIELD, especially after they'd given him that shitty kiss off, she'd be super pissed about being woken up for it.

Coulson was silent for a heartbeat or two. "There's a situation developing."

"What sort of situation?"

"A situation of the type you are in a rather unique position to understand."

That could mean one of two things, really, but since Tony was apparently fine, that narrowed it down to New Mexico. Or, well, maybe three if Coulson had discovered he was secretly a Rothschild or something. But, she was betting on New Mexico. "Thor?"

"Not at this time, as far as we know; however, given Doctor Foster's presence at that event, and her … connection with Thor, I have taken the liberty of having a research opportunity in Tromsø offered to Doctor Foster. I'd like you to keep her there. Do whatever you need to do to distract her and keep her focused on her work, until we have a better understanding of what's going on." It might have bothered her that his tone had moved from polite request to firm order, but it was Jane, and it was possibly aliens-slash-Norse gods, and it was all probably not good. Deathbot, hello, deathbot.

"Loki?"

He was silent again, and when he finally spoke he sounded weary. "Sometimes I forget you're a Stark."

"It wasn't much of a leap. Also, I don't know if that was a compliment. Usually when people say things like that, they're not being complementary." And by people she meant mostly Pepper, and Rhodey, and her mother. And sometimes Happy, but with Happy she always knew it was a compliment, because he truly thought Tony was the greatest thing since the microchip.

"It was a neutral comment. How soon can you be ready to leave?"

"Uh, fifteen minutes? Twenty? I think it's another twenty to the air--"

"We'll have a car waiting outside the hostel in fifteen minutes."

"Creepy creeperson."

"Think what you're missing out on."

"Pass. Again. Still."

"Don't tell Doctor Foster any--"

"I'll come up with a story," she cut him off, scoffing lightly. "Please, really, I'm an expert at bullshitting. Speaking of, don't think I didn't notice you packing me off to Norway right before you talk to my dad about your 'situation'."

"Thank you for your assistance, Miss Lewis," he told her in his bureaucratic tone of absolute blandness, but she could hear that damned smirk again.

"Whatevs. Fifteen minutes."

"Good luck."

 

***

 

Darcy thought she'd have to do some quick talking to get the university in Tromsø to let her at Jane, but -- she chided herself for seriously underestimating Coulson -- they were waiting for her when she landed. Or, rather, a tall, gangly grad student with stringy blond hair and a toothy grin was waiting for her. He had a sign with her name on it and everything.

Introducing himself as Mat, and cheerfully taking her bags, he offered to show her the island and, really, nobody should be that chipper about picking somebody up at the airport at ass-crack-o'dawn. Of course, they were above the freaking arctic circle now, and it was late summer, so there wasn't a dawn to speak of. She glared blearily up at the midday-bright blue sky. It wasn't even seven, yet.

"The things I do for you, Jane," she groused quietly as she let Mat bundle her into his car.

"Doctor Foster is brilliant."

"Yes, she certainly is," Darcy agreed through a yawn.

"We are so excited to be having her here."

"I'm sure you are."

"And you, too, of course." Mat flashed her a grin and they pulled away from the airport.

"Right," she replied dryly.

"No, no," he insisted. "You're her assistant, right? We are very excited to have both of you. And how fortunate you are to work with Doctor Foster. Have you always had interest in geophysics?"

"I have a degree in political science."

Mat frowned and looked confused, which was pretty much expected, but it was a reaction Darcy was kind of starting to enjoy -- Erik's bafflement had been brief but delicious. Her inner troll (who sounded a lot like her father) had fun watching people flounder for a polite response. Comedy value was not a particularly noble reason for sticking around Jane, but after the whole thing with Thor, they'd been a lot closer, so it was really more of a sweet side benefit.

She smiled back at him. "I was the only applicant."

"I … I see. But, but, now you're here," he rallied admirably and his grin, when he managed to force it back on, was genuine. "And that is good, and I'm sure you must have learned so much with Doctor Foster, and now we'll all learn more."

"I'm sure we will."

He drove her around the island, showed her the city center with its bright wooden buildings, told her a hundred and one interesting facts about Tromsø and surrounds, bought her coffee and pastry, and, in general, was trying very hard to be a good host to somebody who'd thrown him a nasty curve ball.

Eventually Darcy's conscience got the better of her, so she had mercy and mentioned something from one of the papers she'd helped Jane publish (and by 'help' she meant proofread because Jane, while not terrible, was not the strongest typist, and tended to allow autocorrect to have its wicked way with her work, which could be both hilarious and appalling) and he gratefully ran with it for the rest of their little tour.

When he'd run out of things to show off, Mat took her to a depressingly rectangular concrete building just off the university, and let her into a bland, boring, serviceable two-bedroom apartment.

"It's not much," Mat said, frowning at the extreme beigeness of the main room. Or, maybe it was more of an ecru. Eggshell? "But, we didn't have time to prepare better for you. This was very sudden." He caught himself, maybe afraid it sounded like he was complaining, so he turned his bright smile back at Darcy. "But, we are so very excited."

"I know you are, and we're excited to be here," she assured him mildly and did not at all roll her eyes. "And, hey, some fresh flowers, a throw pillow or two, brighten up the place, this'll be great." Mat's face relaxed, and he looked relieved. The place really wasn't bad, just aggressively bland. It didn't smell funky, everything was clean and newish, there was a TV, and a pretty nice view of pine trees, mountains, and water -- after two weeks in hostels, this was golden. They just needed to break up the beige camo so they weren't running into the furniture all the time.

"You do not mind sharing with Doctor Foster, I hope?" Mat trailed after her while she picked a room to toss her bags in and did a quick inventory of the bathroom and kitchen. "We can prepare another apartment, I think, but I will have to check with--"

"It's a-okay, honestly. We're used to close quarters. Plus, you should have seen where Jane lived in New Mexico. This is high class. Trust me. If she's got a bed, a table, a shower, and a fridge, she'll be completely happy. And for what it's worth, so am I. Now, point me to the nearest grocery store, supermarket, house of food and sundries, or whatever the local equivalent. Let's get this place set up before Jane gets here." She might not be Jane's intern anymore, but there was no reason not to take care of a few things. Besides, she'd learned assistanting from the very best.

Two hours later, Darcy and Mat had stocked the cupboards and the fridge, picked up a few things to add some character to the apartment (and by some, she meant any), and headed back to the airport to pick up Jane. Darcy was fading, she'd been up since three, and hadn't actually gotten to bed before one, so, ugh, and screw you Coulson. But, she brightened when Jane came out of the gate.

"Oh my God, Darcy, can you believe it? I couldn't believe it when I got the call." Jane crushed Darcy in a bear hug, and Darcy winced when Jane's bag thudded heavily into her thigh. That was really going to leave a bruise. "I have wanted to come to the observatory here for years, it's not really peak time for aurorae, but solar activity has been good, and I think I should be able to get excellent readings of the high--"

"Awesome, right?" Darcy interrupted before Jane could drift off into science babble land.

"Oh my God," Jane repeated, her voice pitched up nearly to a squeal, before finally noticing Mat. "Oh, I'm sorry, hello. I'm Jane Foster."

"Doctor Foster, it is such a pleasure to meet you. I'm Mat Larsen. Doctor Haugen is eager to work with you, he sent me to make sure you and your assistant get settled properly. We are so very excited to have you here." Mat repeated for the seventh time. He looked like he wanted to clasp his hands to his chest, twirl on the spot, and indulge in a school boy crush. Unfortunately for him, while he was tallish and blond, he was about two feet too narrow, two thousand years too young, and, you know, not a god-like alien from another realm. Sucked to be Mat.

Darcy got round two of the Tromsø tour, but was able to sort of doze in the cramped backseat while Jane and Mat talked science and fjords and whatever else. When Jane finally pled fatigue, Mat took them back to their apartment, and loitered in the doorway until Darcy nudged him along with the promise that Doctor Foster would come out to play after lunch and a nap.

Jane dropped onto the beige couch and stared at the ecru walls and wrapped her arms around a screaming red pillow. "I was stunned to get the call. I mean, SHIELD's been funding my work, but they've also been burying it. Academically, I fell off the grid. And then Erik went off to I-don't-even-know-where, and you graduated, and, I mean, the SHIELD team is fine, but it's just--" Jane stopped and narrowed her eyes. "You graduated."

Darcy dropped down onto a taupe ottoman and played with the fringe of a violently blue throw she'd draped over the tan wood coffee table. Jane could be easily distracted, but only for brief periods until her brain caught up. "Yes, I did. You were there, which was really great of you. It meant a lot to me."

Jane waved a hand at her. "Of course I was there. Where else would I be? Please. Did you see Tony Stark was there?"

"I heard he was," Darcy replied evasively. He'd thrown the best graduation party in the history of Culver (the Pikes even gave him a cobbled together plaque commemorating it -- the glued-on red Solo cup really made the whole piece) and possibly every other school on the east coast. Even if ninety percent of the attendees were confused about why he'd chosen to crash their graduation -- he hadn't even been one of the guest speakers or anything -- many a college student had dreamed of attending a Tony Stark party and nobody wanted to question why he'd favored them with his epic bash-throwing skills. It was like mana from heaven, or something less sacrilegious -- you didn't question it, you were just grateful for it. Plus free booze.

"He introduced himself to me. Sort of. Ugh." Jane made a face and slumped back on the couch. "I mean, he asked about my research, which was flattering, of course, that he knew it at all, but I'm pretty sure he was also flirting with me the whole time. And then he made some sort of comment about my equipment and I was kind of tempted to kick him, you know?"

"Probably best not to, though I understand the temptation."

"But, back to where you graduated and are no longer my intern or assistant. How are you here?"

"I was in the neighborhood."

Jane threw the pillow at Darcy's head. "Darcy Lewis."

"No, really." Darcy batted the pillow away. "I was in Copenhagen. Which is neighborhoody."

"Not an answer," Jane said firmly, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow. "Tell me you didn't sell your soul to SHIELD. Is that what this is? Did they get me the research time? Why do they want me here? You promised me, Darcy." Jane's face went sad puppy dog with a dash of depthless disappointment.

Darcy's eyes widened and she held up a hand. She'd rehearsed what she'd tell Jane in her head, but now it was Showtime, and, well, she might be an expert bullshitter but it wasn't always easy to look a friend in the eye and pull it off. It helped if you talked as fast as you could, and didn't give people time to actually think about what you're saying.

"Not a SHIELD minion, I swear. I really super-duper swear. I thought it would be a nice surprise. I mean, I haven't seen you since graduation, and, really, I was sort of in the area, and when I called to chat you didn't answer, so I called the office, because sometimes you forget your phone, and they told me you got some awesome research thing with the university here, so I thought, hey, why not. Norway was on my itinerary anyway."

"I thought you were doing Asia?" Jane asked, still suspicious.

"I had a sudden, weird nostalgia for Scandinavia." Which she knew Jane would buy, but which had the virtue of also actually being a true thing, so it dropped the manipulation level of the conversation down to nearly tolerable.

Jane gave her a sad little smile and nodded. "That I understand."

"Um, I may have lied a little bit," or a lot, "and told the university people I was your assistant, so, just fyi. I'm happy to assist while I'm here. Actually, I kind of miss it. And, while I've totally had fun with the Europe thing, I could use a breather." She paused and looked up. "Uh, that's assuming you're okay with me hanging for a while. I realize I kind of didn't even ask."

Jane picked up a purple pillow with a sort of funky damask design that really didn't go with the other pillows, but Darcy'd loved it anyway and decided she'd call the decor mid-bland eclectic and so there, and chucked that one at Darcy's head, too. "Don't be an idiot."

***

Jane dove into her work the next day, and Darcy found herself quickly getting back into the intern swing of things. She had actually missed it; that wasn't a lie, either. She missed their quiet little lab-slash-car dealership, she missed nights on the roof, she missed Erik's grumpy morning face, and Jane's wild joy at two a.m. desert expeditions. She did not miss the endless spreadsheets, or scanning pages of numbers for just that one right one that might, possibly, tell Jane something useful, and she did not miss the hours of boredom when Jane was lost in her own thoughts. Still, it was good to be back, even if back was in Norway.

Sadly it was not to last.

Three days later, Coulson's 'situation' flared up in Germany, where Tony and a guy who was unmistakably Captain America (Coulson called her when they found the Captain, embarrassing them both with his unabashed excitement -- that was so not the nature of their relationship, but Darcy suspected he didn't have anybody else to really squee at, which made her feel sad, so she gritted her teeth and they both, somehow, made it through that conversation with their dignity only slightly tattered), squared off against a costumed lunatic. From the shaky cellphone videos she could see his armor, could see his ridiculous helmet, and had a pretty good idea it was Loki. She swallowed down a jolt of nausea -- okay, it was Germany, and not really anywhere near where they were, but still, being on the same continent felt just too close to Jane for her to be okay with things.

Darcy, very pointedly, spent the afternoon asking Jane science questions, following, to the best of her abilities, Coulson's orders to distract, and crossing her fingers that nobody else in the lab mentioned the incident. After half a day of Darcy jumping every time somebody opened the door, Jane forbade Mat from bringing in any more coffee. She didn't seem to notice that Darcy's hand always darted to her bag when she jumped. Darcy Lewis was not a superhero, but she'd be damned if she let some Norse whackjob take Jane without something of a fight. It would probably be a quick fight, and a pathetic fight, and Darcy would probably end up dead or at least super concussed, but, well. Okay, she hadn't thought the whole thing through, but she'd do something.

Two days after that, the world went right straight to hell and there was really no distracting anybody from that.

Darcy was just considering calling for a dinner break when Mat burst into the room and ran over to the TV. When he turned it on, everything in the lab stopped. Darcy watched, horrified, as the skies above Manhattan tore open and strange creatures, like a million angry hornets, swarmed down into the unsuspecting, unprotected city.

It was hard to know what to think, or even to think at all. What does this mean? How do you actually process something like this? Aliens were pouring from the sky. Aliens. And, she'd met aliens, but this was … this was fantasy, this was sci-fi horror, distant and fictional, except, it was real. Her eyes told her she was watching this, but her brain said, no no this must be a movie, this must be a dream. This can't possibly be real. So many people, she could only imagine, trying to run, to hide, to escape, to fight the unimaginable.

It wasn't long until it became obvious that something else was going on, though; something was fighting back. The aliens, who should have been spreading through the city like a poison, weren't moving much beyond midtown. That was when the news choppers got closer -- closer than they probably should, but as close as they dared was still pretty far off. But, she finally caught the red-gold glint of her father's armor, then lightning began to dance from the rooftops, and something mean and green roared out of the concrete canyons.

Beside her, Jane gasped at the distant flutter of a red cape, and Darcy reached out and caught her hand, holding tightly as they watched.

Then it got worse. Somebody, some stupid fucking moron somewhere, who somehow missed that the aliens were coming out of the sky, fired a missile at the city. Tony went out to meet it, to force it up and up into that black, gaping wound in the blue. She watched him vanish through the portal, and her heart stopped. She brought a shaking hand to her mouth, a cold numbness she'd felt once before enveloping her. It felt like forever, and then she saw him fall. He fell so very far, so very fast, and gave no sign that he was in control of his suit, or, God, even still alive.

Then something caught him. That big and green something from before. The Hulk, her mind supplied eventually. Holy crap, the Hulk.

And then it was over. Just like that the sky was whole again, the aliens dropped, and she and Jane stood in stunned silence.

"We have to get to New York," Jane said, finding her voice quickly.

Darcy shook herself out of her shock and fished in her pocket for her phone. "Air traffic is probably grounded."

"Just … just find out when we can go back." Jane turned a bleak look on her and took a deep breath. "Please."

"Yeah, of course."

Darcy stared blankly at her phone for a long moment, jumping slightly when Jane touched her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"I liked our alien invasion better," Darcy admitted.

Jane nodded and pulled her into a tight hug. "Me, too."

Air traffic was, indeed, grounded in and around New York and nobody could tell her when the FAA would lift the restrictions, the best guess was twenty-four to forty-eight hours. JFK and LaGuardia were down, and so was Newark Liberty. She couldn't reach her father, but Jarvis was able to tell her that comms were out throughout Manhattan, and there was some damage to his systems in the suit and tower making satellite uplink unreliable, but he'd managed intermittent contact and could report that Tony was alive and had sustained only minor injuries.

Darcy felt like she spent an awful lot of her life on the phone being reassured her father wasn't dead. She really hated her phone. It was easier than hating Tony or the suit, because she didn't hate either. She was proud of Tony and grateful for the suit, even when they both scared the hell out of her.

Pepper got a call out eventually. She'd been in the air back from DC when the insanity started, and the plane was diverted to a small airport in central New Jersey. She was on her way to the city, trying to pull every string she had to be allowed into Manhattan. The war was over, but the cleanup was going to be immense and the CEO of Stark Industries needed to be back at the tower, back at the helm, and supporting the town her boyfriend just part-defended and part-leveled.

When Darcy informed her that Jane wanted to get to the city, Pepper protested strongly and with a long and wordy list of reasoned arguments, ultimately telling her to wait a week or so. However, Darcy persisted and the other woman relented with a sigh; she knew too well the futility of arguing with a Stark. There was a SI jet in France, Pepper would have it in Oslo in the morning, the pilots would work out a flight plan from there.

The flight from Tromsø to Oslo was easier to arrange and, after taking a deep breath, steeling herself for what was about to happen, Darcy went to find Jane.

The lab was, mercifully, empty. Everybody else had gone home to get drunk or hug their loved ones or otherwise process the alien invasion. "So, I've got us on a flight to Oslo in the morning," she said without preamble, "and then there will be a plane there we can take back to the States, but probably not direct to New York."

Jane looked up from the papers she was sorting through, trying to figure out what she needed to take with her and what she could leave behind. They'd only been there a week, there couldn't be much. "That was fast."

"Yeah, well, you said you wanted to go back." Darcy licked her lips and started gathering the few belongings they'd been leaving at the lab. There would be no hiding the fact that they'd be on a private plane, and it was time to come clean anyway. This day was always going to happen. Telling Jane was probably going to be less painful than calling a press conference or something. Maybe. "Assuming you want to head back tomorrow."

"I want to head back now, but I'm trying to be realistic," Jane sighed, rubbing a weary hand over her face. "Wait, you didn't have my card, you should have put it on my card, I might be able to expense that."

"Don't worry about it."

"I am going to worry about it," Jane argued in her firm professor 'I know better than you' voice. "I know what it's like to be fresh out of school with student loans. Make sure to get receipts, I'll pay you back."

"Seriously, Jane. It's not an issue." Darcy put down the binder she was leafing through. "Look, there's something I need to tell you."

Jane's eyes opened wide and she pointed an accusatory finger at Darcy. "You are working for SHIELD!"

"Oh for fuck's sake, will you lay off the SHIELD thing, already?" She cried, exasperated. "I am not working for them. Jeez."

Jane sort of crumpled, wilting down into her chair. "Sorry, sorry. I just … I think they sucked up Erik and I haven't been able to get hold of him for weeks, and I'm worried, and then aliens invaded and I saw Thor and, just, God." She covered her face with her hands and let out a long breath. "I'm sorry."

"It's fine. I get it. And, well, in light of the fact that I'm about to be super truthful with you, I feel I should tell you that Agent Coulson did tip me off that you were going to be here and he did ask me to come up here, but I am definitely, absolutely not working for SHIELD." Except, when she said it out loud like that … damn it, she was working for SHIELD. Or at least, for Coulson. That sneaky jackass.

Jane gave her a sharp look. "Why did he ask you?"

Darcy shrugged. "Because he was afraid this whole ball of crazy was Loki, and he wanted somebody who understood what went down in New Mexico to … I don't know, be here with you? Plus, I think he was getting me out of the way, too. If I wasn't so freaked out about New York, I'd be planning to have words with him; as it is, I'm really fucking glad we were here and not there."

"He thought I needed a babysitter, is that it?" Jane bit out.

Darcy winced and rubbed at her forehead. "Jane, please, don't be angry with me. All evidence to the contrary, I really don't like keeping secrets from my friends. And, Jesus, Jane, Loki was in Germany just a few days ago. He yanked out some scientist dude's eyeball. His freaking eyeball, Jane!"

Jane swallowed heavily, but didn't yet give up her irritation. "How do you know that?"

"It was on the news. You never watch the news, but I was keeping tabs."

"I hate the news," Jane muttered.

"I know you do."

"They're ghouls."

"I know Jane," Darcy replied patiently. It was an old argument that had filled many a long, lonely desert night. "But, uh, well, poli-sci degree, I love the news."

"Ugh, I know." Jane picked up another stack of papers and started shuffling through them, but she kept darting looks at Darcy. "You didn't tell me."

"I was terrified enough for the both of us."

"So, what else are you keeping from me?" Jane stopped herself, looking pained, and flapped an apologetic hand in Darcy's direction. "That came out so much more harshly than I meant it. You said you were about to be truthful?"

Darcy grabbed her mug and pulled a chair over to the desk and sat down. "Okay, right." She steadied herself with a sip of room temperature coffee. "I have never, ever told this to anyone ever."

"You're making me nervous. This is not the day to be making me nervous," Jane warned, and she did look very pale and pinched around the eyes and mouth.

"Sorry, it's just, seriously, I've never said the words to somebody who didn't already know. Give me a minute here." She took a deep breath, another sip of disgusting coffee, and looked at anywhere but Jane. "When we get to New York, things are going to be weird. I mean, weird on top of the alien stuff. And, actually, things are going to be a little weird when we get to Oslo, but that will mostly only be if I chicken out here. Jane," Darcy leaned forward, took her friend's hand and pleaded, "don't let me chicken out."

"Darcy, no chickening out," Jane repeated firmly, giving Darcy's hand a little fortifying tug. "You brought the actual God of Thunder to his knees, whatever this is, can't be quite that big."

"Oh, I think it can be." Darcy took another deep breath -- she was going to start hyperventilating soon. "Okay, we're going to catch a private flight back to the States, on a jet owned and operated by Stark Industries. Our trip back to the States has been organized by the CEO of Stark Industries, and when we get to New York, assuming we can get to Manhattan, we'll be going to Stark Tower, because I don't think you've really thought out this 'get to New York' impulse and I'll bet there'll be nowhere else to stay. Or, well, I guess there's the mansion, but…" Darcy shook her head at that thought. She'd only been to the house once; Tony avoided the place like it was some sort of nightmarish abattoir. Though, weirdly, there was never any talk of him selling it or donating it or anything. It was one of those subjects that was simply Not Brought Up.

Jane stared at her blankly. "What?"

"My father is Tony Stark."

"No, I've met your father. At your graduation. His name is Paul," Jane said slowly, like she was afraid Darcy'd just caught a case of head trauma or something.

"And then you met my other father Tony, who apparently made an unfortunate comment about your equipment, and I'm really hoping you meant scientific equipment and not," Darcy made a vague handwaving gesture at Jane's body, "because, while that wouldn't shock me at all, I just … sometimes, man, sometimes."

Jane opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again immediately. She sat back in her chair and considered Darcy; staring at her for all the world like she was a science problem Jane was going to figure out if it was the last thing she did. Just put it on the list after rainbow bridges and god-like aliens.

After an hour (that was probably only ten or fifteen seconds long) of Darcy trying not to fidget under the unrelenting gaze, Jane's eyes lost their intensity but her mouth tightened and, in a quick move that startled Darcy half out of her chair, Jane slapped a hand on the desk and stood abruptly.

"I knew you were fixing my math. I knew it!" She exclaimed loudly, and Darcy cast a nervous glance around the lab, making sure nobody'd come in while she was having her panic attack. "It didn't make sense, but Erik swore it wasn't him, and he wouldn't hide it, plus his handwriting is terrible. I knew it was you! But, I could never stinking catch you at it."

"Well, if you'd stop trying to do it when you haven't slept for days, I wouldn't have to," Darcy grumbled back.

Jane ignored her and shoved her hands in her hair, pacing around the room like a sugared-up humming bird. She pitched her voice up into a childish falsetto and began to rant, "What's a wormhole, Jane? How do you use an oscilloscope, Jane? What do you need a vacuum tube for? How retro, Jane."

Darcy grimaced and cleared her throat. "Okay, I probably deserve some mockery, but--"

Jane ignored her and rattled on, "What's the difference between sine and cosine again, Jane? I always get them so mixed up. Wait, let me make a stupid pun about tangents first."

"Really, now you're just kind of getting personal here."

Jane threw her hands up in the air and shouted, "I could have used your brain, Darcy."

"You had my brain," Darcy shouted back. "Who fixed your math? Who built your database system?"

Jane faltered with a frown. "I thought … I thought that was just a program."

"Well, yeah."

"I mean, I thought it was one you bought." She glared at Darcy suspiciously. "I gave you money to research and buy a program."

Darcy huffed and rolled her eyes. "And then a month later when you were doing the books you said, 'hey, where'd this extra twelve-hundred dollars come from?' I did research the programs, but they were all stupid and horrible and offended every single sense I have."

"Every sense, huh?"

"Every one. They were bland and tasteless, and frankly, they stank, and they made my skin itch. My eyes and ears bled, Jane. They bled."

Jane laughed a little reluctantly, but her agitation was bleeding away. "Your ears?"

"That was mostly the high-pitched whining sound of pain I couldn't stop myself from making when I looked at them. And then, who hacked the DMV for you? Huh?" Darcy frowned. "Actually, scratch that, because that was just … it was embarrassing, Jane. But, you were breathing down my freaking neck and, gahh." She shook her head then squinted at Jane, a warning in her eyes. "Never mention that to anybody. I regret bringing it up."

"We had a time crunch." Jane rubbed at her cheeks and looked around the lab. "Why'd you hide it?"

Darcy slumped back in her chair and picked up a paper clip, bending it and twisting it and otherwise tormenting it with her own nervous energy. "I think I just got too used to being your average undergrad in a discipline that did not emphasize engineering. And really, Jane, your theoretical physics are not my forte. If I could build you a robot that could help you open the Bifrost, I would build the hell out of one for you."

Darcy sighed. "Look, I'm not Tony Stark, I am not the über-genius. I've always had this fear people are going to expect from me the things he can do, which, admittedly, nobody's ever done, but I've never been able to shake it."

Except for once. There was one person she thought might have expected her to be her father, and that was a thought that fed more than one nightmare. Obie'd watched her, watched her working on Jericho, watched her when Tony was missing. Whenever Darcy looked back on those months, she thought she saw more than one sign of his manipulations, of him grooming her to take her father's place. Disguised as support and encouragement, in retrospect his words and actions were far more sinister. She really, really didn't like looking back at that, and her existing hesitation to show off grew into a true terror of being used.

But, this was Jane. And if Obie'd done a number on all their trust issues, Darcy had to believe, she had to let herself believe, there were people she could trust. There were people who wouldn't try and use her to break the world. If she couldn't trust Jane, after everything, what was the stinking point of anything?

Jane frowned and thought and chewed on her lower lip. "I guess I kind of did make an assumption there, though, didn't I?"

"Well, but you were right, I was fixing your math, so at least you had some data to back up the assumption."

"Okay, wait," Jane waved a hand in the air and shook her head, "I accept that Tony Stark is your father, because now that I think about it, it explains a few things. Though, let me just say, wow. Did not see that coming at all."

"You're accepting that really well, by the way."

"Thank you." Jane nodded graciously. "I also accept that you are not Tony Stark."

"Thank you." Darcy nodded back.

"I always knew you were smarter than you wanted me to believe," Jane observed absently and started pacing across the room again, her posture and the tilt of her head screaming 'stand back, I'm working through an idea', "and that was even before I suspected you were fixing my math."

"Well…"

"I couldn't figure out why you were always downplaying it, so I just assumed you weren't giving yourself enough credit."

"You did say that an awful lot."

"I still think you're selling yourself short," Jane chastised, and Darcy had the uncomfortable feeling that that would be a subject they would be revisiting at a later time and at length. "And, despite your annoying habit of messing with my equipment--"

Darcy snickered unrepentantly. "The look on your face, Jane. Oh, man, so worth it."

"I was glad to have you as my intern," Jane continued with a small glare at Darcy for the interruption. "But, tell me, Darcy Maria Lewis, tell me, how did you not have enough science credits to graduate? Really, Darcy? Really? You cannot possibly tell me that chemistry 1113 or physics 2010 were beyond your abilities."

Darcy glowered and slunk down lower into her chair. "My childhood was like one long episode of Mythbusters. Which was, by any measure, awesome, but, well, when I got to college, I wanted to try other things, and, you know, maybe I let the science classes slide."

Jane looked like she wanted desperately to scold or lecture, but eventually just sighed. "I love Mythbusters."

"So do I, Jane. So do I."

Jane dropped back down into her chair, looking suddenly exhausted. "You know what this means, don't you?"

Darcy flinched and eyed her warily. "No?"

"You're doing your share of the calculations from now on. No more slacking, Miss Lewis." For such a tiny woman, Jane could really bring it with the menacing growl.

"You do know I'm not actually your assistant, right?" Darcy pointed out somewhat gingerly.

Jane's fierce glower turned sorrowful in an instant. "You're going to abandon me? Now? After everything we've been through? After two alien invasions? You're going to leave me to the shady black ops people?"

"Oh, look! Guilt. No, Jane, I'm not abandoning you. I'm just, you know, pointing out a fact."

Jane sniffed, dismissing Darcy's point as, clearly, not relevant. "You're rehired."

"Um…"

"You are rehired," Jane reiterated, the fierce glower and slightly mad light in her eyes returning.

Darcy gave Jane the brightest, phoniest smile she could. "Yay, a job! And all my friends were bitching about the horrible job market. Ha!"

Chapter Text

Jane, it seemed, had decided the long flight back to the States was the perfect time to have the conversation that Darcy had spent most of her life avoiding, and when unavoidable, had led to some of the most epic fights she'd ever had with her parents.

"I know what it's like to have a really brilliant father," Jane began quietly.

Yep, here we go. Darcy sighed and glanced out the windows at the foamy sea of clouds below.

"I know how hard it can be to live up to that, or to find your own identity outside of that."

Chewing on her lower lip, she risked a look over at Jane who was staring at her intently.

"The thing is," Jane continued, "if you spend your whole life trying to be him, or not be him, you never find out who you are."

"I know," Darcy muttered, gazing back out the window.

"Okay, intellectually, you probably know it, but emotionally?"

"What do you want me to say, Jane?" Darcy snapped. This was such her hot button. The subject made her feel raw, vulnerable, and really, really damned frustrated -- at who or what she could never quite figure.

"I don't want you to say anything," Jane replied mildly, unruffled by Darcy's temper. "I want you to listen. For what it's worth, I had a very similar conversation with Erik when I was nineteen, and I liked it about as much as you seem to."

Darcy snorted. "Awesome."

"Yeah. He waited until he could trap me in the car for a two hour drive." Jane paused as the flight attendant came through with a carafe of coffee and plate of pastries. She poured herself a cup and groaned after the first sip. "This is amazing coffee."

"The perks of traveling Stark Air." Darcy heard the bite of cynicism in her own voice, and it was such a stupid thing to be cynical about, she grinned up at the attendant apologetically. "Thanks, Anna."

"Of course, Miss Lewis. Anything else I can get for you both?"

"I'm good. Jane?"

"This is prefect, thank you."

Jane watched Anna disappear to the rear of the plane. "Do they know?"

"No, they think I'm Pepper's niece. Or, well, cousin." Darcy waved a hand at the technicality, though was it really a technicality if either way it was a lie? Okay, lie was a little harsh; more like well-managed untruth. Holy double-speak, Batman. Maybe she was cut out for shadowy government work after all. Damn you, Coulson.

Jane hummed a little and lost herself in her cup of coffee for a few minutes. Darcy had little hope that Jane would be distracted enough by the coffee to drop the conversation. It was a long flight and Jane was undoubtedly trying not to think about Thor and Einstein-Rosen Bridges and how little she could do about either at 30,000 feet.

"You told me you were afraid of people expecting you to be him," Jane began again and Darcy mentally went through the process of putting on a parachute; sadly, they were over water already. "I really don't think the world can take another him, you know?"

"And the world agrees," Darcy replied with a smirk.

Jane smiled faintly. "You've got so much potential. And, I always thought that, even before you told me. I mean, you drove me crazy sometimes, but still, I felt like there was stuff I could teach you and that you could really get."

The astrophysicist started picking at a danish, pulling it apart to get at the filling, and Darcy winced -- she knew what was coming and it was never pretty. "The thing that bugged me the most, and that I just could not figure out, was how somebody who seemed to be really self-confident could be so lacking in confidence intellectually, or at least seemed so resistant to effort. Of course, by the time it really started to bug me, that's when I started suspecting you were fixing my math." She stuck a jam covered thumb in her mouth and shook her head. "I just could not freaking figure you out."

Darcy shrugged, uncomfortable, and poked half-heartedly at a croissant.

"It all makes sense now," Jane said, nodding to herself. "I get it. I totally, one hundred percent, get it. And I get going to college and wanting to try something new, trying to figure out where you fit. I actually think that's really great, even if I really do not get the appeal of political science. Which isn't even a science." Jane could never seem to stop herself from making that statement. It was something she burst out with from time to time -- lord knows she'd probably rupture something vital trying to keep it in.

Darcy managed a small laugh. "Tony calls it political scrying."

"Ha! Perfect," Jane chuckled. "But, circling back to my point, you've got so much promise above and beyond what anybody might think of you as Tony Stark's daughter. And I'm not saying you won't be great at political science, or whatever it is you want to transition to, I'd just hate to see you push yourself away from things because you're afraid you won't be him."

"I'm not him," Darcy bit out.

"I know that," came Jane's infuriatingly patient response, "but I kind of think you're the one holding yourself up to that standard. I mean, I don't know, you know, I don't know him, or what he's like as a parent, because, honestly, that's the one part of this that's just blowing my mind. But, did he -- I mean, did he ever expect that of you? Because I'm torn on whether I think he'd be like that or not. Because, on the one hand he always seems to project that whole 'I don't give a crap what you think about me, I'll do what I want' persona, it's kind of his thing, and you've got a healthy dose of that, but on the other hand, I can see where it would be easy for him to expect his kid to be like him, especially when he functions so far outside of the realm of normal human experience."

Jane watched her expectantly, nibbling on the dainty pieces of demolished danish innards. Darcy sighed and dropped her head back. "No. He never really did. I mean, I think he took some things sort of for granted, or just probably didn't think about it, but he was never like 'you must do this, you have to be this'. His dad was like that, so Tony was always pretty determined to not be his father. Though, go head and ask me about the battle of ninth grade math or the Potts Accords."

Jane gave her a shrewd look, one eyebrow raised, not falling for the attempt at diversion. "Maybe another time." Having gutted the danish, she pushed the outside pieces to one side of her plate and reached for an eclair. Rather than watch the woman do disturbing and obscene things to the poor, innocent eclair, Darcy turned her gaze back out the window.

"I know Tony was disappointed I didn't go to MIT," she offered after a moment.

"Well, it's not the easiest school to get into--"

"Oh, I got in." Darcy was still a little uneasy about that, in large part because she really didn't know how Tony had managed it. He swore it was her own scores and recommendations, but there was an interview process and she sure as hell didn't remember interviewing. At least, she thought she didn't. There were a couple of school interviews before she settled on Culver, and she had the horrible suspicion Tony sneaked in an MIT one. That or he had Jarvis pretend to be her.

Jane stuttered to a stop, frowned, and took a moment to turn her attention to the pastry, pulling open the eclair and swiping a finger through the custard filling while she processed that. "Okay. Uh, drifting off the point again."

"My friend Rico is at Cal Poly, if he could string together a coherent sentence around Tony, Tony would probably swap us out and adopt him instead."

"I doubt that's true," Jane said firmly, but looked like she was prepared to go tactically indignant on Darcy's behalf if it turned out to be even sort of the case.

"Well, okay, probably not true," Darcy allowed with a rueful smile. "But, still. Tony was disappointed."

"That's too bad for Tony. He can suck it up."

Darcy laughed and shot Jane a grateful grin. Jane smiled serenely back and peeled the chocolate from the top of the eclair. Seriously, the things that woman did to food, it just wasn't right. It was like watching a Grizzly tear apart a salmon.

"And that's the thing," Jane continued. "Look, do you think Erik was in New Mexico because he thought I was really on to something? No, he was humoring me. Come on, you have to know that."

Erik hadn't exactly kept his skepticism to himself. So. "Well--"

"He always had his reservations about the direction of my research. I mean, hello, there was a reason you were the only applicant."

"At least some of that is because you terrify all your undergrads," Darcy pointed out.

"And because they think I'm crazy."

"I think mostly it's the terrifying. You can be kind of intense, Jane."

"That never seemed to bother you."

Darcy put on her bland Coulson-face (she'd been practicing in the mirror -- she figured anything that irritating was worth knowing how to do) and said simply, "Tony Stark."

"Oh, right." Jane shrugged. "Well, anyway, sometimes we have to, you know, follow our hearts even when the people we love don't entirely understand, or think we're crazy."

"I get that."

"I know you do, clearly. And, again, I don't know him, and I don't know how you are together, but he must be at least a little supportive, because he did come to your graduation and, oh! Now that makes total sense." Jane licked chocolate off her fingers and poured herself another cup of coffee. "That's kind of sweet, actually. He just showed up and everybody wondered why -- the Provost looked like she couldn't decide if she was horrified or thrilled, which was worth it by itself, because, damn it she just …" She shook her head and looked like she'd rather shake her fists. Jane's passive-aggressive battle with the Provost over her research was epic, bordering on legendary, and oh, so hilarious. "Anyway, it was to see you, wasn't it? And I thought he was just being a jerk. I take it all back."

"He'll be so relieved," Darcy said dryly.

"I doubt he even remembers meeting me."

Darcy snorted. Tony remembered the people he decided were worth remembering, even if he'd only met them for a few seconds. Of course, worth was determined somewhat capriciously, but, he knew Jane was important to Darcy, and so, yeah, he'd remember her. "Twenty bucks says he offers you a job within thirty minutes."

Jane scoffed and waved her coffee cup. "What does he need an astrophysicist for?"

"Um, are you or are you not trying to open a bridge between realms? Added bonus, he'd be stealing you away from SHIELD. Yeah, I'd say thirty seconds, but I've got to hug the hell out of him first, so make it thirty minutes."

Jane, who had been eyeing the mille-feuille like she was a bird of prey and it was a delicious little field mouse, pushed herself back in her seat, away from the table, looking disturbed. "I forgot. I can't believe I forgot. Oh my God, we watched -- I'm so sorry. Is he okay?"

"I haven't talked to him, but Jarvis says he's fine," Darcy shrugged. Yes, her father is a superhero. It was not always an easy thing to bend the mind around, probably especially to somebody who'd only ever met him once and only really knew him by reputation -- his horrible, horrible reputation as either impossible genius or scandalous carouser. "I guess the cleanup is hellacious, surprise, and he's been out helping the first responders with some of the others."

"Oh good. I'm really glad." Jane set down her coffee mug and considered Darcy for a long moment. "Okay, here's the thing. Did you like the work we did in New Mexico? I mean, honestly here."

"Yeah, actually. It was interesting. Different. That's why I applied for the internship, anyway, you know? I wasn't lying when I said I missed it."

"Good. Okay, good. So, work with me, help me. The first thing we'll do is hunt down Erik, wherever SHIELD's stashed him."

"Get the band back together," Darcy nodded along, starting to sort through her thoughts about what they'd need to do to get back to work. Pull Jane's equipment out of storage, for one; keep Tony from mocking it too hard, for two.

"Exactly. I don't know how Thor came back, but that portal was not the Bifrost. I want readings, whatever's left and whatever SHIELD might have gathered. Was it an Einstein-Rosen Bridge? Was it something else? Its origin point seemed to be the city, but how? We need to know."

"Got it."

"And, Darcy, I want you to be you. Don't hide what you know, don't be afraid that I'm going to think it's not enough, because I already know some of what you can do, and we're going to need that. And I'm going to push you, because I know you can do it, not because of who your father is. I don't want to work with Tony Stark, I want to work with his daughter." Jane had her resolved face on, chin tilted up defiantly, eyes kind of flinty -- and see, that's part of how she scared the undergrads. That and her 'why did you interrupt me' crazy eyes, and the 'oh my god stop touching my equipment' hiss.

"Besides, think of the look on Erik's face when you start working on the whiteboard." And that was a big part of why Darcy liked Jane so much; underneath the hyper-focused academic was a dry, slightly evil sense of humor and she wasn't afraid to use it. Seriously, the email chains to the Provost were amazing.

 

***

They landed in Scranton, PA where Jane rented a car and refused to let Darcy look for Dunder Mifflin.

"You know it's not a real place, right?"

"I refuse to accept a world in which that is true."

The drive down to New York was awful, and Jane, who'd had about thirty cups of coffee on the flight and had actually started vibrating somewhere around Greenland, was not in the mood for any of the road trip games Darcy suggested -- after a very brief round of "I Spy" ended with the words "duct tape" and a pointed look from Jane, Darcy put her headphones on and stared out the window at traffic. So much traffic. There was a crush moving away from the city, of course, but just as much moving towards it. Big-rigs and pickup trucks as far as the eye could see, packed with equipment and supplies. It was hard to be too pissed about the gridlock when so much of it was, clearly, people on their way to help.

The lateness of the day and the increasingly heavy traffic forced them to finally stop a few miles outside Newark. For two hours they searched for a hotel room.

After being turned away from the sixth hotel, Jane collapsed back in the driver's seat with a whimper.

"Jane, let me try."

"You're not flashing your boobs."

Darcy blinked at her and let the words sink in for a second. "Holy … no, I wasn't … why would you? Oh my god, you actually thought about it, didn't you? For like a second?"

Jane clenched her teeth and stared out the windshield. "No."

"I can't even …" Darcy let out a long breath. Okay, the day had been frustrating, stress levels were high, but … really, Jane? "I was going to say I'd try and throw money at it. It always works for my dad, but I've never really tried before. I'm feeling it's time to stretch my wings as a Stark."

Jane, worn past the point of caring, waved a hand at her. "Fine. Fly free, baby bird."

"I like to save the girls for actual emergencies, you know," Darcy huffed and pulled up a map to the next hotel on their list.

Hotels number seven and eight were just as full as the previous six and not even money was magically opening up rooms. After hotel nine, Darcy came to the conclusion that she should have paid more attention to her father and his money flinging while she was growing up, because there was obviously a trick to it, and she just wasn't doing it right.

On their way to hotel ten -- Jane was just about ready to pick a parking lot and camp -- Darcy ran through a Tony scenario in her head to see what she was missing.

"Jane, how's my staggering arrogance?"

"Your what?"

"My father is, you know, super arrogant. I'm feeling like that might be the missing piece in this throwing money around trick."

Jane's face twisted into the most skeptical of frowns as she thought about it. "I think you've got a long way to go before you hit his level of arrogance."

"Well, damn."

"Sorry?"

Fortunately, they got lucky -- if 'lucky' was the right word for it, and Darcy had her doubts -- at a divey motel outside of Newark. It looked like any other divey motel, but had the grace of being sort of clean, at least. Still, Jane peeled the orange and gold paisley cover off her bed and threw it into a corner of the room with a full body shudder before allowing herself to collapse on the bed. Darcy wasn't brave enough to check out the bathroom before absolutely necessary.

"I'm going to try Coulson again."

"God speed," Jane replied wearily as she contemplated the ceiling stains.

Darcy called Coulson when they landed and then a half-dozen times since. The first two times the phone rang until it simply dropped, which was probably nothing more than overloaded cell-networks, though, you'd think SHIELD could spring for a hardened network. The next five times her calls went to voicemail. Darcy's messages started out fairly snarky, increased in snarkiness, but after the third she started to actually worry. He was just busy, though, right? Aliens invaded for God's sake. That was a hell of a lot of work the first time and that was just Puente Antiguo and mostly just the deathbot and not a whole invading army in one of the largest cities on the planet. Right?

"Come on, come on," Darcy muttered into the phone as she paced the cracked concrete edging the parking lot.

After the fourth ring there was a click, a moment of silence, and then a woman's voice, "Who is this?"

Surprised by the unexpected voice, Darcy's mind went blank and she struggled to find her voice for along moment before she finally managed to shake off the shock. "Darcy Lewis, who is this?"

"Why are you calling this number?" The voice demanded with a snap of irritation and impatience.

"Is that a trick question?" The silence the followed was telling. Darcy sighed. "I'm trying to reach Phil Coulson, this is his number."

"How do you have this number?"

Darcy ground her teeth and looked up at the sky. "Where were you on our roadtrip? You'd kill at 'twenty questions'."

There was another click on the line, followed by three quick beeps. "Uh, hello?"

"Just a minute, Lewis."

"No, okay, seriously, who is this and where is Coulson?"

"This is Deputy Director Hill. Why are you calling Coulson?"

"Are you kidding me with this?" Darcy took a deep breath. "I'm with Jane Foster."

"Doctor Foster is in Norway."

"Where Coulson sent me to keep an eye on her, which you'd know if you …" She trailed off and stared at the traffic on the street while finishing the sentence in her head, Which you'd know if you asked him, which you can't because something happened to him. "Shit."

The woman on the other end of the line was silent for another moment before speaking. "I'm transferring your call."

"Great," Darcy muttered against the growing anxiety and a surprising amount of fear.

Another round of clicks and beeps and a new, significantly deeper voice answered. "Darcy Lewis."

"Nope, that's me."

"Is now really the time to be a smart ass?"

"It's a coping mechanism. Who is this and where is Coulson?"

"This is Director Nick Fury." Darcy sucked in a surprised breath. Straight to the top, she hadn't expected that. And then she winced, because, oh, man, did her dad have so very many impolite things to say about Director Fury. "I'm assuming you're not in Uzbekistan."

Darcy blinked at that. "Not as far as I know."

"Oh, my mistake, make that Singapore."

"Not today."

"We're having a hard time tracing your phone."

Darcy sighed, because, yes, of course they were. "Gee, that's too bad. Can I be creeped out that you're trying to trace my phone?"

"Can you honestly say you didn't expect it?"

Not expecting the candid response, she could only shrug. "Well, no."

Fury hummed under his breath and she heard some indistinct voices on the other end. "Stark Tech. Why am I fucking surprised?" He let out a long sigh. "How do you have a Stark phone, Lewis?"

"Isn't it what every kid wants for Christmas?"

"It's not Christmas."

"Huh, weird. I know I saw a reindeer just the other day." Tromsø had a petting zoo and everything.

She heard another round of background voices, then the crinkle of paper. "Hold on a second, Lewis." After another few moments, the Director sighed again. "Make me a copy of this."

Darcy kicked a toe at a stubborn dandelion trying to force its way through the asphalt at the edge of the parking lot while listening to whatever the hell Fury was doing.

"Lewis?"

"Still here."

When Fury spoke this time his voice was deep, somber and sincere, "I regret to inform you that Agent Phil Coulson was killed in action."

It was a gut punch. She'd kind of suspected it after call number five, but had't wanted to, had tried really hard not to, had thought up a million other explanations, and she hated that she'd kind of suspected it. The super ninja accountant was not supposed to die. He was supposed to call her and be annoying and be the guy she could snark to about her dad and how the world was fucking crazy.

She pulled off her glasses and pushed the heel of her hand into her eyes, as if that would ward off the sudden, unexpected burn of tears.

"Still with me, Lewis?"

"Yeah," she said, weary and suddenly exhausted beyond anything. "He was a good guy."

"Yes, he was."

"Shit."

"My thoughts exactly." Darcy took a steadying breath as Fury spoke again. "I find it interesting that he gave you his personal number."

She laughed a little. "Well, you know, after New Mexico we were totes besties."

"Right," Fury said, packing more sarcasm into one word than most people could ever hope to manage. "I read his reports from New Mexico. His initial evaluation of you said you were flighty, and he considered you a security risk."

"So we didn't hit it off right away."

Fury ignored her and kept talking, "But, something happened to change his mind. He was uncharacteristically non-specific as to what that was in his subsequent reports."

"We found some common ground," Darcy said, avoiding the unspoken question like a champ.

Fury didn't seem big on avoiding. "Would you like to inform me what that might have been?"

"If you don't know, then, no, not particularly."

"Miss Lewis," Fury grumbled.

"No, okay, he … he kept his word to me. He made me a promise and he kept it." She wasn't sure why that surprised her, but suddenly it meant a hell of a lot. "He was a good guy. I know that, you know that, what else matters?"

"I was unaware he sent you to Norway."

"I think it was a last minute thing and then, you know, aliens and shit."

"I do know." Fury paused for a long moment. "What did you need from Coulson?"

"Jane wants to get to Manhattan. I was hoping he could help."

"Where are you now? I'm assuming you didn't do us all a favor and stay in Norway."

Darcy rolled her eyes. "We're at the Starlight Inn Motor Lodge in Irvington, New Jersey."

"Of course you are," Fury snorted. "Get to the Hoboken Terminal tomorrow, 8 a.m. Somebody will meet you there and escort you into Manhattan."

"Really?"

"Lewis, this city is a damned mess. I don't need the two of you knocking around unsupervised right now."

"You're all heart."

"You have no idea. We'll bring you into our field office and then your Doctor Foster can--"

"Uh, no."

"No?" Fury asked, a dangerous edge to his voice.

"We need to get to Stark Tower."

"Christ, won't Stark love that?" He muttered, seemingly to himself.

With a scowl and one last kick at the stubborn dandelion, Darcy snapped back, "I know I can't wait to see the look on his face."

"You have no idea what you're getting into," Fury warned with some amusement.

Darcy thought about it for a long second, really thought about it. Coulson clearly never told him, but she didn't think Fury was an idiot, and everything she'd ever heard from Coulson held nothing but respect for Fury. She wasn't sure what exactly she thought about him, but she decided, to get Jane where she needed to be, to have any sort of leverage with Fury, she might have to take a gamble. And it was a gamble; if SHIELD tried to use her to get something from Tony, her dad would declare war, actual war, and that would be on her. Still, when they'd needed help, Tony had answered, so … "Hey, remember when you asked me how I had a Stark phone?"

"I do," Fury replied evenly. "I also remember you avoided answering."

She smirked. "Think about it."

Fury was silent for a heartbeat or two then made a pained sound. "God damn it. You have got to be kidding me."

"But it's a happy surprise, am I right?"

"Hold on a second," Fury growled. There was a fresh round of clicks and beeps, then she heard him order the room cleared before he came back on the line.

"Coulson knew."

It wasn't a question, but Darcy answered anyway.

"He said it wasn't relevant to the situation in New Mexico."

"Who else?"

"I had to tell Jane."

"Potts?"

"Please, since I was like twelve."

"Anyone else?"

"My family. A friend in California. Rhodey … uh, Colonel Rhodes."

Fury let out a long, loud breath. "Listen to me, Lewis. As of right now, I am officially classifying this as need to know, and nobody else fucking needs to know, is that clear?"

The intensity of his order startled her. She wasn't sure what she expected, but that was not it. "Uh … okay?"

"I want a list of the names of everybody who knows."

"Hey, now, wait a minute--"

Fury cut off her outraged squawk, "Lewis, the world has turned into a strange and dangerous place, and whether you know it or not, you are an incredibly valuable asset. I'd just as soon the next maniac who wants to take over the world didn't know anything about you."

She cleared her throat, contrite. "Oh, yeah. Me too."

"This doesn't get written down anywhere, this goes in no reports, that list is for me and me alone. And you keep your mouth shut."

Darcy's jaw tightened with irritation. "Yeah, because of all the times I've yapped about it since I was nine."

"Knock off the smart ass routine," Fury said, his tone clipped and hard.

"I have only ever told Jane," she snarled back. "And she was going to notice when we got here anyway."

"And it didn't occur to you to simply stay in Norway?"

She scoffed at his question with a bitter laugh. "Like I could stop her. She was on her way with or without me."

"You couldn't have gone with her without telling her?"

"Weirdly, my main thoughts were to get Jane where she needed to be and that it was my life and my decision. Crazy, I know, but there you go." Darcy reined in her temper as she was struck by a thought. "Oh, what about his team?"

"Team?"

"The Avengers, whatever. They're going to notice, too. If they're around us at all, I mean."

"Jesus. I've only known you for five minutes and already you're a bigger pain in the ass than …" He grumbled to himself for a moment. "Fine, this falls under the Avengers Initiative. Keep it in house, Lewis. And that is not a suggestion, that is an order."

"As I told Coulson about nine million times -- I am not your minion."

"I am doing this to save your damned life."

"I am not planning on telling the damned world."

"Fine."

"Awesome."

"8 a.m. Hoboken Terminal. If you're late, you can swim." He hung up the phone and she shook her fist at the sky.

"Asshole."

***

Chapter Text

Darcy and Jane were at the Hoboken Ferry Terminal by a quarter to eight. Darcy had no doubt that if they were even thirty seconds late, Fury'd leave her hanging. Jackass. As it was, five scary, black-suited SHIELD agents were waiting for them. Or, actually, two of them seemed to be arguing with each other, while the other three stood back and looked on; an imposing trio of fear, uncertainty, and a clear desire to be in Poughkeepsie.

As she and Jane approached, the arguing woman broke off with one last, black scowl at her sparring partner, who responded by crossing his arms and smiling. He looked a little familiar to Darcy, but she couldn't quite place him.

"Darcy Lewis?" The woman asked briskly, pulling Darcy from her contemplation of the SHIELD dude.

"That's me." Darcy raised her hand with a smile that earned her a pair of narrowed eyes from the cranky lady.

"Deputy Director Hill," she said with a short nod. Then she looked Darcy over with a small, frowning twist to her lips, sizing her up, and apparently finding herself underwhelmed by the Darcy Lewis package.

Darcy, uncomfortable under the scrutiny, looked over at the other guy who shrugged and rolled his eyes. He was cute, in a pug puppy sort of way, though the dark circles under his eyes and the unnatural pallor to his skin suggested he'd had a rough alien invasion. The familiarity itched at her brain; she almost had it, but it kept slipping away. She didn't know that many SHIELD agents, so it had to have been New Mexico, but she couldn't picture him in a suit and most of the guys there were suits, except …

Darcy snapped her fingers and pointed at him with a laugh. "Mic monkey!"

Hill looked deeply unimpressed, Jane looked puzzled, and the mic monkey looked amused.

"Foster's intern!" He snapped his fingers back at her.

"Oh, you're out of the loop, mic monkey, I got a promotion to assistant."

"Your parents must be so proud," he nodded.

"You have no idea how awesome that conversation is going to be," she assured him with a bright, chipper, entirely phony smile.

Hill cleared her throat and tossed glares at the pair of them. "Miss Lewis, we're on a schedule. Barton, you can clear out."

Barton, aka mic monkey, shrugged his shoulders casually but set his feet in a way that suggested he wasn't going anywhere and he'd really like to see Hill try to move him. "Stark said we had two to escort. So, I'm here to escort."

"I told you, you're not cleared--"

"I'm not here as SHIELD."

Hill sniffed. "So you're taking orders from Stark?"

Barton barked a short, thin laugh. "I'm currently on leave, and so if Stark says 'hey, we've got visitors, anybody want to go to Hoboken while I'm busy holding up this building?' I feel myself free to volunteer out of the goodness of my heart." Barton nodded over at Jane and Darcy. "Natasha'd be here, too, but something blew up in Hell's Kitchen. Like, literally. Because God knows that's what the city needs right now. Anyway, I don't know. She got twitchy when I offered to check it out with her."

"What doesn't make her twitchy?" One of the other SHIELD agents muttered.

Hill turned an irritable glower on the agent, then faced Barton again. "I can honestly say I don't care at this point. Can we get out of Hoboken now? New Jersey gives me hives."

"I thought you were from Trenton or something?"

"Like I said," Hill said with a flat, grim smile.

Barton smirked and turned to their escortees. "Assistant? Doctor Foster?"

"Let's blow this hotdog stand," Darcy agreed and Jane nodded wearily. It had been a long night. After Darcy told her they'd go to the city the next day and that Coulson was dead, Jane patted her shoulder, stood up without a word, and went to the liquor store across the street, bringing back a bottle of bourbon and a six-pack of coke. They drank and talked and planned and mostly didn't sleep.

Hill led them to a small tug and they were off to Manhattan at four minutes before eight. Suck on that, Fury.

Not long after they'd shoved off, Hill approached Darcy and handed her an unsealed envelope. "What's this?"

"It's from Coulson," Hill said, before turning on her heel and disappearing towards the stern.

Pushing her wind-whipped hair back off her face, Darcy stared down at the envelope for a moment. Coulson wrote her a letter? That seemed wildly unlikely. And strangely morbid. And dear God, didn't he have anybody else? That was … it was just going to kill her with sadness, is what it was.

With a steadying breath, she opened the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper. The top one was dated five days ago and was addressed to Fury.

Director Fury,

I am submitting this letter as a personal character reference for Ms. Darcy Lewis.

As you read in my reports from the Thor event in New Mexico, my initial evaluation of Ms. Lewis was that she embodied all the impetuousness and brashness of youth, coupled with a worryingly frequent presence on social networking sites. However, as events unfolded, I was forced to reconsider that evaluation. Since the spring, I have been in regular contact with Ms. Lewis and can report that my first impression was incorrect. I have come to think very highly of her.

My assessment began to change during the Destroyer attack on Puente Antiguo, when she demonstrated bravery and selflessness in a bizarre and dangerous situation. Subsequent to that event, she exhibited a high degree of discretion and a gift for deflection and obfuscation in the protection of sensitive information.

In general, she interacts well with others and, despite a tendency towards sarcasm, is very personable.

"Love letter?"

Darcy jumped, nearly dropping the letter, and glared at Barton as he stepped over to lean against the rail next to her. "Oh, you bet."

She looked back down at the letter, it went on for a few more paragraphs, detailing her vast awesomeness -- well, in subtle, bland, bureaucratic Coulson-speak, with a list of areas in which she needed improvement -- and making her throat tight and her eyes burn. The second letter was a general "to whom it may concern" character reference that left out the Thor-related details and didn't list deflection and obfuscation among her admirable qualities.

"I've got a question," Barton said after a few moments.

Darcy tried to discretely sniff and rub at her nose before shoving the letters back into the envelope and then the envelope into her pocket. "Just one? I have so many. Like, why are peanut butter poptarts a thing that exists? Why?"

"I …," Barton paused and considered the water. "I think those might be awesome."

"I think you're very wrong."

"So, my question …"

"Go for it."

"Who was Phil on the phone with in New Mexico?"

Darcy squinted over at him. She somehow didn't think that was actually what he'd come over to ask. Or maybe he was just trying to make conversation. Either way. "That's your question."

"Seeing you here reminded me. The last time I saw a look like that on his face I'd recruited a Russian assassin against orders."

"Huh."

"It turned out pretty well. When she's not kicking the shit out of me." He rubbed at a brown-green bruise on his cheek.

"Okay." Darcy watched Manhattan approach and shrugged. "What's your clearance?"

"Funny."

"So very serious," she said, and he frowned at her skeptically. "Yeah, I don't actually know how to ask that question and not sound like an idiot." She paused and pondered. "Actually, I don't know what my clearance is. I guess I have some sort of clearance, but do I even have clearance to know the answer to that question? I mean in a 'this subject is classified level triple-Q forty-two' sort of way. Can you unintentionally have a clearance level? Super weird."

Barton looked a little lost. "That is not actually a classification level."

"No kidding."

He pouted a little, which Darcy decided, right then and there, he shouldn't ever do, because it was too freaking adorable and that shit was not fair. "You're really not going to answer?"

She looked away from the pouty face and stared fixedly at the still smoldering city. "Sorry, dude, but I don't know you. And it really is classified, which is a whole new world of bizarre for me, and, believe you me, that is really saying something. Anyway, I didn't think to ask Director Fury who or what that included." She chewed on the inside of her cheek and shrugged again. "We, uh, got a little shouty at the end of our convo."

Barton looked over at her with a mixture of horror and wonder. "You yelled at Fury?"

She pursed her lips and tilted her chin up defiantly. "He started it, okay?"

"Right." He shuddered and sucked in a breath. "Wow, okay, you're on your own with that."

"My hero."

Barton winced and looked away. "Yeah, no red cape for me."

Feeling like she'd been somehow inadvertently tactless, she scrunched up her nose and tried to play it off. "Meh. They look ridic anyway."

"Tell that to Thor."

"When I see him."

"He left yesterday afternoon."

"Crap." Darcy looked over at where Jane was scribbling in her notebook. "That's … going to be bad."

Barton's lips thinned and he stared out at the city, looking a little haunted. "He had to get his shit-for-brains little brother home to daddy."

"I hope daddy kicks his ass."

"Me too." Barton pushed off the railing and rubbed his hands over his face. "Really not going to tell me?"

"Eh, maybe." If he was tossing around Thor's name casually, and if Tony sent him to escort, he probably knew enough to know the answer to his question, but Fury's insistence that she keep her mouth shut was still ringing in her ears. "Just not right now."

"Spoil all my fun," he groused.

"Yeah, yeah, suck it up, mic monkey."

"I prefer Clint, you know, if you're wondering."

She tossed him a smirk. "I wasn't, but good to know."

After docking in Manhattan, Darcy and Jane where hustled into a big, black SUV. Darcy wanted to ask if there was a secret agent cliche mart, but was interrupted by Barton and Hill falling into another argument. He was trying to hitch a ride, since he was insisting that he was still escorting, but she was insisting that he was on leave and he could flipping walk. The argument might have gone on for a while, but Jane, who hadn't slept in three days, pointed out there was a damned convoy of SUVs and could they both just pick one and get in and shut up? They were on the move in under a minute.

The ride through Manhattan was sobering, the destruction almost impossible to really comprehend. Even Jane had stopped paging through her notebook and stared silently out the window. Darcy touched her pocket with Coulson's letter and bit her lip -- he couldn't possibly have thought she could help stop or stand up to something like this, could he? Broken buildings, and ruined streets, and block after block of debris getting worse and worse as they approached Stark Tower. God.

Once the convoy stopped, they were quickly offloaded, their bags shoved into their arms, and with a brisk "we'll be in touch", Hill and her minions were off down the rubble-strewn streets.

"She's not usually that abrupt," Barton offered with a wave towards Hill's vehicle. "It's been a crappy week."

"Sure. So, you know, thanks and all, but I think we've got it from here," Darcy said, hefting her bag over her shoulder.

"I'm still escorting."

"Consider us escorted. Really."

Barton considered her for a long moment and then shrugged. "Stark promised me brunch. I never pass up free food."

Darcy glanced over at Jane; a little help would not go amiss, Darcy wasn't quite sure how to deal with the stubborn agent and track down her dad and follow Fury's order. Jane picked up Darcy's plea for help and glared Barton away from them both. Stepping up next to Darcy while leaning over to give the agent her warning face, she whispered in Darcy's ear, "I can distract him, if you need."

"How?"

"I'll figure something out."

"Solid plan," Darcy groused.

Jane gave her a wounded, yet irritated frown. "Hey, I'm trying to help."

"I know, I'm sorry. I guess …" Darcy paused and looked over at Barton who was watching them closely looking amused and intensely curious. "I guess we'll wing it. Short of tasing him, I don't think he's going to be distracted enough."

Jane nodded slowly. "Sounds like he knows … uh, Tony."

"Yeah, it does."

"He seems ok."

"I guess."

"Kinda cute."

Darcy closed her eyes and hissed, "Jane."

"I'm just saying," Jane told her with another quick peek at Barton. "The entire time I've known you, you've gone on like two dates."

"I'm sorry your godly bohunk isn't here, but now is not the time to fixate on my love life or lack of," Darcy whispered back. "Just … let's just get to my dad and, you know, I'm okay with letting him deal with this. He's pretty good at it."

"I'll follow your lead," Jane said, patting Darcy's shoulder reassuringly.

With a sigh, Darcy nodded back. "You are a good friend."

"And, if you hand me your taser, I can take care of it if things get weird."

Darcy choked on a laugh. Jane looked pleased and, threading her arm through Darcy's, began to lead them into the building.

Darcy called back to Barton, "Keep up, mic monkey."

"I really do prefer Clint," he said with a sigh.

"Too bad, so sad."

They got into the building without much fuss, despite the agents, police, and SI security swarming the place. Barton cleared their path with a lazy wave of his hand and led them to a private elevator.

"I'll take you straight to the top," he promised with a weary smirk.

Jane gave him a stiff smile then glanced over at Darcy with a raised eyebrow. Darcy tried to look as innocent as humanly possible, which only seemed to draw Barton's attention. She'd never been very good at looking innocent. Her dad believed in looking arrogant; innocent was too boring and nobody believed it anyway. Of course, nobody believed it because he was Tony Stark and nobody in their right mind would believe it. Still …

"What?" He asked.

"What?" Darcy asked back.

"I'm asking."

"Me, too."

Jane groaned. "Can we just go already?"

In the elevator, Barton crossed his ankles casually and slumped back against the wall. Jane was in data collection mode and examined everything with intensity -- but, come on, it was an elevator. Even in a Stark building they're not all that different from elevators the rest of the world used.

"Good morning, Doctor Foster. Welcome to Stark Tower." Well, okay, a little different.

Jane jumped at the unexpected voice and Barton started to smirk some more but, sharp-eyed, he noticed Darcy's non-reaction. She hadn't even thought about trying to be surprised by Jarvis. It was like walking into your house and trying to be surprised to see your brother on the couch playing video games. Why would you ever think about it? Clearly Coulson should have added "needs to work at appearing innocent" to his character reference.

"That's Jarvis," Barton told Jane while watching Darcy with an unnerving sort of stare.

"Jarvis," Jane echoed and shot Darcy a glance.

Okay, they were both ruining her thin attempt to stay under the radar. She wasn't going on undercover missions with either of them. Ever.

"Jarvis is Stark's AI," Barton said, eyes narrowed pointedly in Darcy's direction.

Darcy sighed. "Hey Jarvis, this guy?" She hooked a thumb at Barton.

"Agent Barton has been welcomed to the tower as part of the Avengers. Agent, Mr. Stark promises he's got, quote, one hell of a spread, unquote, laid out in the kitchen."

"Excellent." Barton grinned and then hooked his thumb at Darcy. "Hey Jarvis? How about this chick? What's her story?"

Jarvis remained silent.

Darcy laughed.

"Thanks, J."

"Of course, Miss." Jarvis hadn't called her 'Miss' since she was twelve. What did it say, that the artificial intelligence was the most subtle one in the elevator? No, wait, what did it say that the artificial intelligence developed by Tony Stark was the most subtle one in the elevator? Though, to be fair, he did talk to Pepper a lot, too.

"More secrets, Lewis?" Barton asked.

"Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't make it a secret, Barton," Darcy shot back. And since Jarvis had confirmed Barton was an Avenger, it really wasn't a secret anymore, but, well, now he was bugging her and she didn't feel like telling him. It would be more fun this way.

"Clint," he said slowly, like his name was all crazy exotic and she didn't speak English. And because he was a jackass.

"Darcy," she replied just as slowly.

"God," Jane sighed and rubbed at her eyes.

If Jarvis actually had a throat to clear, he would have done so, and somehow, impressively, managed to imply the throat-clearing when he spoke again, "Mr. Stark has been informed you've arrived, however, he is under orders to shower before meeting you in the penthouse."

"Orders?" Jane asked.

"From Ms. Potts," Jarvis said evenly. "She offers her apologies for not being available to greet you herself, Doctor Foster, but she was pulled into a conference call with the city council."

"Oh, uh," Jane darted another look at Darcy, "I understand. It's okay."

"Jane, you are the worst secret agent ever," Darcy said, shaking her head sadly.

"Well, I'm sorry, this is weird for me, okay?" Jane sniffed and turned to stare at the floor numbers as they lit floor by floor.

And so was the rest of the elevator ride. Weird, that is. And uncomfortable and silent and, dear Universe, was it too much to ask that she just be able to see her dad without the heavy haze of strange following her around?

In truth, the answer to that question was probably 'no', and that wasn't always entirely the universe's fault. Or even her dad's. Or Jane's. Or aliens'. Or … whatever. After all, it was entirely on her that five minutes after exiting the elevator to the penthouse, she'd flung herself at and was hugging the hell out of Bruce Banner.

Well, no, she didn't just fling herself at him willy-nilly or anything. Sure, he was kind of cute, too, and his fashion sense was even worse than Erik's, which worked on him as endearingly awful, instead of just "holy crap why?", but no, there was lead-up. And it started once they all escaped from the most awkward elevator ride ever.

Darcy hadn't ever been in the completed penthouse. It wasn't much more than metal framing and shiny duct-work last time she visited. Now it was heavy, dark, shaped-concrete and, no f'in way … was that a shag rug? Seriously, it was like six inches. She snorted a laugh and ignored the looks she got from Jane and Barton.

Of course, there was also destruction. The wall of windows was gone, there was a large almost-crater of broken concrete and marble in the floor, and some furniture reduced to so many sticks and balls of fluff. The whole thing looked structurally sound, though. Her dad's taste might be slightly questionable, but he did build things to last. He missed his calling as an ancient Roman.

Barton was trying to wave them towards the kitchen and looking longingly in that direction when another man entered the room. Jane made a weird sort of squeak and clapped a hand to her mouth. Darcy followed her line of sight to a guy, about her dad's age, with a curly mess of salt-and-pepper hair, a rumpled plaid shirt that looked as tired as he did, and faded, stained khaki pants. He stopped when he noticed them, darted a look around the room, and stepped back two paces towards the door he'd come through.

"Hey, Banner," Barton greeted with uncomfortable, fake cheer that echoed off the concrete and fell flat. Banner hunched his shoulders a little and forced a smile.

"Clint."

Barton held out a hand to Jane and Darcy. "We have guests."

"Doctor Bruce Banner," Jane blurted then clapped her hand to her mouth again.

"Uh." Bruce looked over his shoulder at the door and took another step back.

"I've read all your work. I was in one of your particle physics seminars, God, years ago now." Jane beamed.

Bruce's shoulders relaxed just a touch, though his smile still looked strained. "That's … nice."

"Oh God, I'm sorry. I'm Jane Foster."

Bruce's smile widened a little more, nearly approaching genuine, and he took one step forward. "Doctor Foster. I've read your work, too."

Then Bruce and Jane started squeeing at each other, in dignified (sort of) scientist way and Barton rolled his eyes, finally giving up on them and heading off to the kitchen and his dreamed of brunch. Darcy watched the pair for a long moment, letting their science babble wash over her as little tumblers started falling in her brain -- Jane rambling one night in New Mexico, something her dad said once, something Erik mentioned, Culver lore, a weird comment from Coulson …

"Holy shitballs! You're the Hulk!" Darcy exclaimed a little more loudly than she'd meant to. But, holy shitballs, it was the Hulk.

Jane frowned at her, scandalized, while Bruce took a step back and looked for the door again. Barton stuck his head back in the room, a chicken wing in his mouth and a plate piled high with God only knew what in his hands.

"Um," Banner said.

Darcy broke into a run and threw herself into him, hugging him for all she was worth. Later she'd question the wisdom of making sudden, unexpected moves towards the guy who turned into a giant green rage monster, but that didn't matter at the moment, all she could see was her father falling and the Hulk catching him. "Oh my God. Thank you, thank you."

He was stiff in her arms but brought one hand up to pat her shoulder carefully. "Uh, okay. You're … welcome?"

A guy shouldn't sound that uncertain about somebody thanking him when he'd just helped save the world from aliens. She would do her best to right that wrong. "You are totally my favorite," she muttered into his shirt.

"Um."

Jane stepped forward and rubbed a hand on Darcy's back. "Darcy, you're scaring the nice scientist."

"Oh, jeez." Darcy stepped back and took a deep breath. "Whoo. Sorry about that whole crazy hugging thing. Just, wow, stressful few days, it's coming out all over the place."

Bruce nodded slowly and glanced over at Barton who'd taken a seat at a bar stool and was watching and laughing faintly. "Sure."

"Just." Darcy shook her head, smiled at him, then threw herself forward to hug him again. "Totally my favorite Avenger, even though that's the dumbest name ever."

"I … uh, didn't pick it?"

"No, it's okay."

"Hey!" A new voice joined them in the room. "I found him first. You can't have him."

Darcy broke away from Bruce, smiled brightly at him one last time, then dashed across the room again, this time to throw herself at her father.

"She does that," Jane said behind her. "I guess."

Tony caught her easily and hugged her back just as hard. "I'm okay, kid," he murmured.

"I saw you fall," her voice caught in an almost sob and she pressed her face into his shoulder.

"I know. I know."

"You saved the world."

"I had help."

"And you scared the hell out of me."

"I know. I'd say I'm sorry, but..." He took a deep breath and stroked a hand down her hair. "You're the most important thing in my life."

"And Pepper."

He forced a laugh, just a little rusty. "And Pepper. I'd do anything for you."

"I know."

"Good." Tony pulled back to smile at her and tried his best to be as reassuring as he knew how -- he was mostly really bad at it, but he did always try. He raised his voice back up to conversational tone and nodded over at Bruce. "And, hey, the Hulk caught me."

"I saw that, too. He's totally my favorite."

She heard Bruce "um" uncomfortably again, while Tony scowled. "He can't be your favorite. I'm your favorite."

Darcy waved a hand. "You don't count. You're an outlier."

"Ah, I love it when you talk math," Tony laughed and hugged her to his side. "Nah, I get it, he's my favorite, too." They turned to at look Bruce, and by extension the other two in the room.

Bruce was the only one who didn't look like he'd been trying to listen in on their hushed conversation, but he did seem deeply confused, though fairly resigned to his confusion. Of course, he also appeared to be looking for the quickest exit. Barton was holding a mini-sandwich in one hand, leaning in their direction, with his face screwed up in profound bafflement. Jane just looked like she'd come across a ream of fascinating data and was staring at them unabashedly.

"He's kinda adorbs," Darcy mused. "The messy hair, the rumpled clothes."

"It's true," Tony agreed. "But, hey, sorry, Bruce, I'm in a committed, monogamous relationship."

"Good for you?"

"You can have a bromance," Darcy suggested, leaning against her father's side, so damned grateful that she could.

"We can, and we will," Tony promised. Bruce just sighed heavily.

Tony stepped further into the room, Darcy still tucked close, and swept a hand out over the penthouse. "So, what do you think? Try to picture it undemolished."

"Nice. Very late-60s Bond villain," Darcy said. Barton snickered.

"It is not," Tony huffed.

She pointed at a set of couches. "Is that actually a conversation pit? Do you have an actual conversation pit? With actual shag carpet?"

"Okay, you know what? Pepper helped." He started tugging her closer to Bruce, who had decided to manfully hold his ground at last. Tony nodded happily at the crater in the floor. "That is my favorite feature. Just had it added."

"It's very … abstract."

"Loki met the Hulk, and then he met the floor," Tony laughed, sounding so very, viciously satisfied, and Darcy caught the feral grin on Barton's face, and even Bruce looked vaguely pleased. "I call it 'Puny God' by the Hulk. I'm thinking of just cutting it out and maybe hanging it down in the lobby."

"Sweet, I like it," Darcy said with an approving smile over at Bruce, who had gone from looking almost pleased, to looking at the ceiling while taking deep, even breaths. Maybe hoping Thor would show back up and distract everybody with his insane abs so Bruce could escape.

"Ignore them, Bruce," Pepper advised as she came in, her heels clicking purposefully across the floor. "They can be terrible when they're together."

"We were being nice," Darcy protested.

"We're awesome when we're together," Tony stated firmly. He looked at Bruce. "She meant awesome."

"Okay," Bruce said, his voice mild, like he'd just realized his hell and determined the only thing to do now was accept it.

Pepper rolled her eyes but came over to give Darcy a one-armed hug -- she was still not letting go of her father -- and brushed Tony's cheek with a quick kiss. He grinned and pulled them both close.

"My real treasures," he pronounced.

Darcy bumped him with her shoulder. "Hey, that was actually sweet."

"Yeah, yeah, don't let it go to your head, kid." He cleared his throat, glared at Barton, smiled at Bruce (who looked back up at the ceiling), and released Darcy and Pepper to stride over to the bar.

"I think I'm the only one here who didn't get a hug," Barton said with the unfair pout. "I'm feeling left out."

"Bruce, hug Barton. Preferably while green."

"No, I don't think I will."

Barton threw a baby carrot at Tony and hit his reactor dead center.

"Yeah, okay, your new nickname is asshole guy," Tony grumbled. "Where's your dark and evil twin? Go hug her."

"She's in Hell's Kitchen."

"What? They haven't suffered enough?"

"Something blew up."

Tony paused and frowned. "I didn't hear about that."

"You were out being superheroic and some shit," Barton shrugged. "Besides, if she needs help, she'll call."

Darcy shook her head and looked at Pepper. "That's some truly heartwarming team stuff right there."

Bruce laughed, then looked surprised at himself for laughing, and then laughed again anyway. "I don't know whose idea this was, but … Jesus, what an insanely bad idea." He shook his head.

"Don't be a Debbie Downer, Bruce," Tony said, circling behind the bar.

"Tony," Pepper sighed. "It's nine a.m."

"I'm not … no, this is … " He frowned down at the bar. "Okay, one, it's never too early for a Bloody Mary, it's practically a breakfast staple, and two, I was just getting this." He picked up an envelope and waved it at Pepper. "Foster, this is for you. From Thor."

Jane scrambled over and snatched the letter out of his hand. He let her take it but drew back quickly like he was afraid he'd lose a digit to her eager grab. He watched her warily for a second then pulled out another envelope and handed it to her gingerly. "This is from me."

"From you? What is it?"

"Job offer. Unless you're high on SHIELD. But, I guarantee I pay more and my toys are way more awesome."

"Told you," Darcy smirked and raised her eyebrows at Jane.

Jane rolled her eyes but took the envelope anyway. "I'll consider it."

"Great. Your lab is next to Banner's. Though, I forbid you from having fun without me. It's in your contract."

Jane laughed and Darcy shook her head. "Jane, it probably really is."

"I have a question," Barton spoke up.

Darcy snorted. "Good for you, mic monkey, I knew you could come up with another one."

"Clint. Also, you still haven't answered my first question."

"You're not paying attention."

He paused in the act of tossing an olive into his mouth. "What?"

"What's your question?"

"My question is 'what'. As in, what the …?" He waved a hand at Tony and then one at Darcy. "Explain this to me, I'm very confused."

"I … kind of am, too." Bruce said reluctantly and looked over at Jane.

"Oh, no, I'm fine," she assured him, looking vastly entertained and fondling her envelopes.

Tony seemed uninterested but he jerked his chin at Darcy while he pulled out a bottle of vodka. "Your call."

"Fury classified it as part of the Avengers Initiative."

Tony frowned. "Wait, you told Fury?"

"It was the only card I could play to get us into Manhattan."

"You have got to stop telling people when I can't enjoy the looks on their faces," he moaned. "Now I have to go find security footage."

"Oh, poor you."

"She yelled at Fury," Barton offered.

Tony grinned. "Did you really? I'm so proud."

Darcy glowered at the SHIELD agent. "Okay, seriously Barton, Fury started it. He was a jerk. I didn't even want to talk to him. I was trying to reach --" She stopped and bit her lip.

Tony set down the vodka. It made a loud clack as it hit the marble, breaking through the suddenly heavy atmosphere. Barton's plate followed the vodka onto the bar. He looked pale and shaky.

"I was going to tell you," Tony said.

"Fury beat you to it."

"Was he an asshole about that?"

"No, actually that's the only time he wasn't."

"Well that's something. At least I don't have to go kill him for that now."

Darcy tried to swallow down the thick lump of anxiety in her throat. That was not an off-hand Tony Stark comment. It was a deadly serious one. "I think murdering the head of a government organization would probably tarnish your superhero image."

"I don't know. I think we'd all be surprised. Besides, they're covert, who'd know? We can spin it, anyway. Pepper, I think--"

"Tony, just stop. Please," Pepper said, tired and sad.

Tony did stop; he stopped so suddenly and was so still for a handful of heartbeats that it was startling. Then he shoved his half-made drink away from him and braced his arms on the bar, dropping his head down between his shoulders to stare down at the floor. "Yeah. Fine. Sorry." He took a deep breath and looked up at Darcy. "Fury can go fuck himself. He doesn't get to classify your life. And it is your life. Your call. It always has been and always will be. He doesn't get to take that from you. Not ever."

"Okay."

"And if he tries, I will burn his world down."

The silence that followed that pronouncement was painful. After a few long seconds, Darcy heard Pepper let out a slow, harsh breath, and Barton jumped off the barstool and crossed over to stare out the plastic-draped window frames. Bruce looked strangely fierce -- if Tony started burning worlds, Darcy was pretty sure Bruce would be helping. Jane stared down at her hands, but a little smile ticked up the corners of her lips. Clearly, Jane would be carrying the matches.

Darcy could only grin and love him so much it hurt. "Best dad ever."

Tony smiled back. "Damn straight, kid."

That revelation had a moment to settle before Barton spun away from the windows. "No, wait. Dad? I call bullshit."

"There," Darcy told Tony. "I saved that one just for you. Enjoy."

Pepper sighed, but the tension had drained from the room and it was a sigh more of relief and, maybe, fond exasperation. "Bruce, I think I need some tea. Can I interest you?"

Bruce slipped back into his comfortable, worn face of absolute resignation. "Yes, please."

"Doctor Foster?"

"Coffee?" Jane asked, eyes brightening with hope and joy at the prospect.

Darcy turned away from her father and glared sternly at Jane. "You haven't slept in like three days. You don't need any more caffeine."

"Look, Pep," Tony called, forcing some humor into his voice. "She's turned into a mini-you."

"I'm very proud." Pepper pulled her into another hug and kissed her temple. "I know I told you to wait a week, but I'm so glad you're here."

Darcy hugged her back. "Me, too."

"I'll take care of Doctor Foster," she whispered.

"Thanks."

Pepper led the other two out of the room, talking quietly to Jane about her research and trying to draw Bruce into the conversation, leaving the still perplexed Barton and her father, who'd turned back to mixing his drink. Darcy walked over to the bar and sat down crossing her arms on the cool marble and slumping down to rest her chin on her wrists.

"Seriously?"

"Keep up, Clint," Darcy muttered.

He laughed a little at her use of his first name. "So that answers question number one."

"Yep."

"What was question one?" Tony asked.

"Who Coulson was on the phone with in New Mexico that made him look like he was going to go full on Alien chestburster."

"Ah, I still wish I'd seen that."

"It was pretty good," Barton said quietly. He retrieved his plate and sat down next to Darcy.

"Blood Mary?" Tony asked.

"Yeah," Barton accepted.

"So gross," Darcy murmured.

Tony shook his head and smiled. "I love you, Darce, and I will never understand you."

Chapter Text

"Nobody's talked to him in like weeks," Tony argued. "He's probably being menaced by wolves or used car salesmen or aggressive street taco vendors --"

"Wolves? He is a grown man," Darcy pointed out. "A grown man who fought Nazis. I think he can handle wolves and used car salesmen."

"It's a brave new world. I'm just saying somebody should check on him." Tony was pretty sure that somebody should be him. Nobody else really agreed. Though, Bruce declared he didn't care and wasn't interested and no amount of badgering could make him care, thank you very much. He did add he thought everybody should just leave the guy alone, but Tony pointed out that's what Bruce wanted from life; Cap actually liked people.

Pepper kept Tony distracted with meetings and fundraisers and rebuilding, but she did have a company to run. She and Darcy tag-teamed him when they could, but Tony wasn't letting go of the issue and they could all tell he was getting closer and closer to just putting on the suit and probably ruining Captain America's first vacation in almost 70 years.

Darcy wasn't sure how it happened, she probably just felt bad for him, but somehow she found herself volunteering to make sure he hadn't been kidnapped by a biker grandma knitting circle, or whatever Tony's lunatic imagination was dreaming. It was just too bad she couldn't put 'rescued an American icon from Tony Stark' on her resume. Well, she probably could, but then Fury would drop her in a bunker somewhere, and then her dad would go nuclear, and then the world would end.

So, that was how Darcy found herself in a little nowhere place off the highway called Johnson's Corner; just the sort of Capra-esque sounding locale she'd expect to find him. The truck stop diner was large, crowded with families out for Sunday breakfast, and, according to all the newspaper clippings and magazine articles framed on the walls, had a reputation for amazing cinnamon rolls.

Darcy shook the early autumn drizzle off her jacket while casting what she hoped was a subtle glance around the place. She spotted him right away. He was, of course, stupidly handsome and ridiculously cut, but he had a detached, lonely air about him; he was in the place, but not part of the place. That and she'd seen pictures.

He was in a booth near the front windows. There was a newspaper open on the table in front of him, a cup of coffee to his left, and a ginormous cinnamon roll next to that, but he wasn't paying attention to any of it. He was staring out the window at the rain-black highway and the cloud-draped mountains beyond. Despite the boisterous noise of the large dining room, it was a perfectly melancholy view that probably suited his wounded artist's soul. As far as Darcy was concerned, he had plenty of reasons to be melancholy, and, yeah, Tony was probably the last person he needed to see -- it was true that sometimes it was nice to have somebody to pull you along out of those gloomy places, and Tony could be pretty good at making sure you didn't dwell, but when wounds were still raw, you probably don't want the 'poke a hulk with a stick' guy.

Darcy took a seat at the formica-topped counter and ordered a cup of coffee while she thought about the best way to approach him in a I-swear-I'm-not-a-stalker manner. Fortune smiled on her in the form of a fifty-something trucker who was trying to hit on her. He wasn't being gross, except for the inherent ick of their age-difference, in fact he was almost sweet, but he was also a perfect excuse for Darcy to pick up her mug, tell the trucker to try his luck some other day, and walk over to that lonely booth.

"Hi, excuse me?"

He jerked and glanced up at her. "Hello."

"I'm totally sorry to bother you, but the guy I was sitting next to at the counter was kind of being a creeper, and I wondered if I could join you here? Normally I wouldn't ask, but it's pretty crowded everywhere else."

He darted a look over at the counter, his absurdly sculpted features going hard. "Which guy?"

Darcy tossed a mental apology to trucker man; she really hadn't meant to sic Captain America on him. "Just over there," she waved vaguely. "Look, I'm pretty sure he's harmless, but, well he's totally older than my dad, you know?"

"Sure." He ran one last steely glance over the backs of the customers lining the counter, before realizing she was still standing next to him. "Oh, gosh, here, yeah, please sit down." Bless him, he actually slid out of the booth and stood up until she sat down on the opposite bench.

"I'm Darcy."

"Steve. Nice to meet you." When he slid back into his seat, his eyes caught on her brown leather bomber jacket as she settled it next to her. "That's a neat jacket. Haven't seen one like that in a while."

"Oh, yeah, right?" She pulled it up a little and showed him the front left side and the vintage patch of a cartoon duck wearing big black headphones cracking its way out of a falling bomb. "One of my dad's friends, well, an honorary uncle really, got it for me for my sixteenth birthday."

"That's a swell gift." His examination of the jacket stopped on the golden-winged white star of the Army Air Corps on one shoulder. He blinked once then looked away.

She smiled. "Yep. It's not original, but he had it made up for me. The 418th bombardment squadron."

He nodded. "Yeah, I remember. Part of the 100th. They, uh, during the war they were called the Bloody Hundredth. They took a lot of casualties, but they were a good bunch." He paused and cleared his throat, staring back down at his newspaper. "That's what the books say, anyway."

"A history buff," she commented simply. She hadn't even really thought about the jacket when she was going in to find him. She'd had it for years, it was just, you know, one of her jackets. Smooth move, Lewis. Rub some more salt in his wounds, why don't you? "They're the 418th flight test squad at Edwards now. My dad's friend is stationed there," she told him, trying to change the subject, or at least give them both an out, without being too abrupt.

It seemed to work as his face cleared and he looked up at the jacket again, frowning a little when he read the name plate. "'Little Bug' Lewis?"

She snorted and rolled her eyes, shoving the jacket down next to her. "Turns out you don't get to pick your own call-sign."

Steve let out a genuine laugh and Darcy relaxed, relieved she hadn't given the poor guy some sort of flashback. "They can be kinda mean with nicknames. What's the story there?" He shook his head at himself and looked a little bashful. "I mean, if you want to tell me."

She waved him off, "I don't mind. Bug stands for big and ugly." He frowned again at that. "Because, according to honorary uncle Jim, that is how I like my airplanes." The frown dissolved, once more, into a laugh. "He started calling me 'Little Bug' when I was like ten or eleven and fell in love with the really giant bombers and transport planes. Which are, even I have to admit, kind of ugly. But, it's an awesome sort of ugly," she defended with a firm nod of her chin. "And thus the jacket."

They were interrupted by their waitress then, and Darcy succumbed to temptation and ordered one of those giant cinnamon rolls -- hey, those newspapers and travel mags she'd never heard of couldn't all be wrong, could they? She was willing to take the risk to confirm, or deny, their status as the best.

"So, uh," Steve floundered after their waitress left. "Are you a pilot?" He settled on finally.

"Not yet, though it's totally on my list of things to do. I did get a flight in a C-17 once, which I'd been begging for for years. Part of that sixteenth birthday present. It was cool, they even put my name in the flight log with the crew. Along with the call-sign." She shook her head. "I still have a copy of it in my stuff somewhere."

"That's neat. He sounds like a pretty good honorary uncle."

"Oh, he is. Even if I've sworn to never forgive him for 'Little Bug'."

He smiled a little slyly at her. "I don't know, I kind of like it."

She was not entirely prepared to allow herself to think that Captain America was actually trying to flirt with her, though her dad's reaction to that would be hilarious. Still, his crooked smile and the way he blushed a little were hard to ignore. But, she did her best, because, wow, not the time. "No, nobody gets to call me that but him. And even then, I generally punch him when he does it. I hardly know you, Steve, I'd hate to have to punch you."

"I guess we should get to know each other, then."

Darcy couldn't help but laugh out loud. That was just too cheesy a line, though by his grimace, it looked like he realized that, too. "You really want to be my punching bag?"

He ran a hand through his hair and looked out the window and then back to her. "Well, no, I just mean, um. I just … 'cause we're sitting here, and well." He coughed and shrugged his enormous shoulders. They weren't quite Thor-sized, but, geez.

She might almost resent Tony for falling in with a team so heavy on the eye-candy, at least in part because she was pretty sure ogling Barton was going to get her murdered by a Russian assassin one day (who knew she had a thing for arms and black humor?), but also because her grandfather helped create some of that eye-candy and that was just a brain wrinkle too far. Still, she had eyes, and none of them were hard to look at.

Thinking about it, it was kind of funny how the guy who turned into the Smashy Green Giant seemed like the most reasonable one of them to crush on. Of the rest of them, Thor was well and truly off the market, whether he knew that or not. And it was obvious that a crush on Natasha would end in blood and death, too -- possibly by medieval weaponry. So, really, objectively speaking, Bruce was the sanest choice. She made a note to self to use that argument on Tony and enjoy forever the look on his face.

Steve, meanwhile, had sorted himself out and, squaring those excellent shoulders, met her eye. "Hi, I'm Steve from Brooklyn."

Oh, to hell with the brain wrinkle; Steve was pretty damned adorable. "Brooklyn? New York? I wouldn't have figured that," and she wouldn't have, if she didn't know who he was, and she was starting to feel a little skeezy that she was basically lying to an American icon. "You've got corn-fed, small-town written all over you."

"No, definitely just a kid from Brooklyn," he told her with a wry twist to his lips. "How about you?"

"California girl. I'm passing through on my way to New York, actually. You'll have to tell me the best places. You know, the ones only the locals know about."

"Well, uh, I was out of the country for a while. Things have changed some." Darcy mentally kicked herself. The dude was a land-mine. Though, it was times like these that she realized just how much of her dad's tone-deaf tactlessness she really inherited.

Their waitress, bless her, kept that from turning into an awkward pause by cruising by with Darcy's cinnamon roll and pausing to top off their coffee. After another few seconds Darcy was prepared to rule the cinnamon rolls amazing and worth the detour. She pulled out her phone and took a picture of the roll to post to her twitter.

"So, what's in New York?" Steve asked as he picked at his own roll, finally remembering it had been sitting there all along, taunting Darcy with its potential deliciousness.

"A job," she said, licking icing off her thumb. "I graduated from college and it's time to pretend to be a grown-up."

"College? Wow, that's really great. Congratulations," he said, grinning sincerely. "Can I ask what you studied?"

"Political science. Figuring out how the world works together, or doesn't work, as the case may be." She shrugged.

"So is that the job you're going to do?"

"Ha, no. Well, huh," she paused and thought about it, and thought about the unexpected reference letter from Coulson and his strange faith in her, and well, she just wasn't sure. "I don't know. I'm working on a project with one of my professors from college, and I'm going to be helping my, uh, dad's girlfriend with some of the cleanup there after all the, you know," she waved her hand at the sky.

"Oh, yeah, that was … something else." He shifted a little on the bench and tapped a finger on his coffee cup. "I've been thinking I should head back and help out some more, too, but, uh …"

"You needed a break?"

"Yeah, exactly. And I really want to at least see the Grand Canyon."

"Oh, go. You have to go," she enthused. "So worth it. Pro tip: go in the afternoon one day, and scope out a good vantage point, then the next day, show up about an hour before dawn and wait. Best thing you'll ever see."

"Yeah?" He smiled that bright, all-American smile that sent the girls swooning across generations.

"Last time I went, it was just me and my mom after I graduated from high school. Sort of a girls' trip. We did that. Left the hotel at three-thirty in the morning and sat on a rock sipping hot chocolate until the sun came up. One of those best day ever sort of moments." She smiled fondly at the memory. Sitting with her mom that morning, then giggling through lunch, and going on to see a show in Vegas, a little punchy from lack of sleep and too much caffeine. Totally a best day ever day.

"Well, then, I'm just going to have to do that," he told her, resolved and thrilled by the thought. "Thanks."

"You won't regret it."

"So what does your dad's girlfriend do that she's working on the cleanup? If she needs some more help, after I see the Grand Canyon," he smiled at her in a sweetly conspiratorial way, "Well, I've got a free pair of hands."

She couldn't help but smile back at him, at the easy generosity of his offer. And then she felt like such a complete and utter louse for playing this particular game with him. Closing her eyes for a long second, she considered the situation. Screw it. "I've got to tell you, Steve, I feel like a jerk for keeping things from an American legend." His face fell and he dropped his eyes to the table. "I knew who you were when I walked in."

"Are you with SHIELD?" He asked, voice tight.

Laughing a little at that, she shook her head. "No. But, wow, do I get that a lot. I'm starting to think the universe is sending me a message." She pushed her cinnamon roll to the side and leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Your secret is safe with me. And, I know a few things about having that sort of secret."

He glanced back up at her, his face carefully blank. "Do you?" He sounded skeptical and, well, hurt.

"I do," she said firmly. "I was in New Mexico the first time Thor showed up."

"Oh." He frowned as he thought about that and then his eyes widened. "Oh. You're that Darcy."

"That Darcy?" She smirked. "Should I ask? Maybe I shouldn't, but I just can't stop the curiosity."

He raised an eyebrow at her, then cleared his throat and deepened his voice to mimic Thor's, "The Lady Jane and her able shield-maiden Darcy."

"Ha!" She snorted and clapped a hand over her mouth, amused by both the Thorness of the statement and Steve's attempted Thor-impression (he tried to do the accent and everything -- it was endearingly terrible). "He did not say that."

"He did," Steve nodded firmly. "He felt really bad that he couldn't see Doctor Foster before he left."

"Yeah, I know, she got the letter." Boy had she ever. Jane read it twice then shoved it into Darcy's hands and made her reread selected passages out loud -- mostly about his regret at not keeping his word and that he had been unable to speak to her -- while Jane paced around and added her own pointed commentary, largely centered around wondering if it would have killed somebody to hand him a cellphone. "Jane's still miffed, but, she has her science to keep her warm at night."

He didn't seem to know quite what to say to that, but he pressed on. "Doctor Selvig mentioned you both, too."

"There you go then." She sat back and considered him. "It's a small, weird circle, but it's ours, am I right?"

One corner of his mouth lifted up in a half-smile, but he still looked a little put out. "Yeah. I've got to wonder, though, at the odds of us both being here. I don't really like being lied to," his tone was mild, but the warning was clear.

"Who does?" She glanced around the dining room. It was so busy and loud she was fairly sure even the people in the booths behind them couldn't possibly overhear. "Nothing I've said to you is a lie. Unless we're counting how I let you think I didn't know you. Which, admittedly, was kind of shitty, but I didn't want to make you super uncomfortable right off the bat, and, honestly, I wasn't sure how to, you know, broach the subject. We need a secret handshake. Or a code phrase -- the monkey has the parsnips."

He blinked at that, but otherwise seemed resolved on remaining silent -- or letting her dig herself a deeper hole. She sighed and continued, "It's like this. My dad is not a subtle man. He's like, not even the opposite of subtle, he's the wrecking ball of subtle. He destroys all subtlety in his path. Also tact, diplomacy, discretion, and any other synonym you'd like."

His brow furrowed as he tried to figure out the sudden change in subject. "Okay."

"Actually," she started, reaching for her phone and flipping through the pictures. "I think this is a show-don't-tell moment." Mainly because she still wasn't entirely comfortable saying the words to people who didn't know. She'd have to get over that at some point, but the habit of a lifetime was tough to break.

She found what she was looking for and after another quick scan of the people around them, held the phone out to Steve. He took the device with a quizzical look, then glanced down at the phone and the picture displayed. He stared for a long moment before finally looking back up at her, very confused. "I … I don't understand."

The picture was one of Darcy's favorites -- Tony asleep, face down, drooling on the desk in his workshop, Dummy hovering over his shoulder, like he was trying to decide if Tony was awake or not. The best part was the fire extinguisher held in his claw -- she'd had to con the bot into picking it up; he'd become weirdly skittish about it. She periodically hacked in and set it as Tony's desktop, in the interests of keeping him on his toes, of course, and she just plain enjoyed the vicious text she always got in return.

"He was concerned you were out wandering by yourself in this great land of ours and being menaced by wolves or, God, soccer moms or something, I don't even know. So one of two things was going to happen: either he was going to walk in that door," she jerked her chin at the phone, "or I was. I think we'd all rather it was me, Steve."

He gave the phone a little shake in her direction. "This is a picture of Tony Stark."

She held out a hand and patted at the air, trying to get him to lower his damned voice, because, yes, let's shout the name Tony Stark in a large room full of people. "Yes, it is."

"I don't understand," he repeated, sounding more irritable than confused now.

"Sure you do." He seemed really resistant to the idea, and was eyeing her with that steely glint that had sent Nazis running. Jeebus. "That's a nice bike you've got out there, Steve. I remember when it wasn't so nice. It took dad and I four months to rebuild it. Though, part of that was because I went down with appendicitis that summer, but, still, it was in rough shape. How's it riding?"

He looked dazed. "Uh, good, really good."

"Sweet. He took me out and taught me to ride when I was 13. It was way too heavy for me to handle on my own then, but, damn, we had fun." She remembered the reassuring solidity of him at her back, his arms bracketing her securely, and their hands next to each other on the handlebars. The whoop of his laughter, her own shrieks of exhilaration, as they tore around the SI test track.

Steve carefully put the phone down on the table and pushed it back to her side. "Why would he care where I was?"

Darcy shrugged and pulled her roll back over to her. Picking up a fork she considered the best way to continue attacking the pastry. Thank God, Jane wasn't there. "You're part of his team."

"He's not really a team player."

Snorting, she pointed the fork at him. "Understatement. But, if I had to guess, I'd say it's because you counted on him, maybe even believed in him, when it mattered."

Steve considered this while the waitress made another pass with the carafe of coffee. "I don't think he really cares an awful lot about what other people think of him," he commented after the woman left.

"That's where you're wrong. He cares very much, it just, you know, depends on who's doing the thinking." She took a bite and chewed slowly, thinking of the best way to say what she felt she needed to say, to make Steve understand, just a little bit. "SHIELD told him they didn't want him for the Avengers Initiative. They wanted Iron Man, but not him. That sort of thing stings, even him. So then he got all, fine then, SHIELD can just fuck off. Because that is very Tony."

Steve nodded thoughtfully. "I guess that could have been some of the attitude when we met on the … um, ship?"

"Helicarrier. I know about it," she waved her fork carelessly at his slightly alarmed reaction. "I mean, don't tell me anything you're not comfortable telling me, but, well, I know a few things, at least." She took a sip of her coffee and looked out the window, watching the rain turn to snow flurries. "He is Iron Man, is the thing; it's him down to his bones. So SHIELD was saying 'we want to use what you created, but you don't matter'. Everybody's always wanted something from him -- his money, his brain, his fame -- they wanted to use him, but, they didn't want him. So he's got a persona, he puts it on like the armor. It's obnoxious and abrasive and it keeps people back and it keeps him in control of all of that, and ultimately, I guess, his sense of self."

"Teamwork is important, though. And in the situation we were in--"

"Save it, Steve. He won't hear it, all he'll hear is 'you're not good enough', especially coming from you." Pausing, she winced at the thought. "Ugh, yeah, don't do that. Besides, from what I could see, you guys worked it out when it mattered, right?"

"Right. Yeah, I guess."

"And doesn't it take every team a while to gel? I mean, honestly, you put all those big personalities together -- every single one of them, including you, used to being either in charge or on their own … dude, that's not an easy fit."

He sighed and ran his hands over his face. "I guess. Tony and I -- we didn't really, you know, hit it off when we met."

"Ahahah. No kidding. Man, I would have paid to have seen that. Actually," she reached for her phone, "I bet there was security footage." She started tapping away as he frowned at her.

"Are you hacking into SHIELD?" He hissed, leaning forward and darting a wary look around, like he expected ninjas to materialize out of the throngs of families.

She waved a hand at him. "Look at you with the modern lingo. And, no, I let my father commit the felonies. But, I can hack the server where he stores all that stuff."

Steve reached out and snatched her phone from her hand. "Just, not … don't do that. And, I can do modern lingo. I'm not an idiot," he glowered defensively.

"I didn't think you were. Now, can you give me my phone back?"

"No, promise me you won't break into his computers."

"I can't promise that, because it's a game we play. Don't spoil our daddy-daughter fun, Steve." She held her hand out for her phone, but he dropped it into the breast pocket of his shirt.

"No."

Rolling her eyes, she made pleading, grabby hands. "Okay, I promise not to look at any of the SHIELD files. Fine?"

"Fine, but, you can have the phone back later. I think that's the worst part of the future. Everybody's on their phone all the time," he grumped, looking surly and irritated. "And they're not even talking to somebody else half the time."

"Damn kids on your lawn."

"What?"

"Nothing." She smiled guilelessly at him.

"How long does it usually take for people to spot the resemblance?" He asked with a mild bite of sarcasm.

"So far? Generally about two, maybe three minutes after they know. Faster if they see us together. So it usually goes: confusion, followed by disbelief, followed by the dawning horror of realization, until finally, resigned acceptance. Have you reached resigned acceptance yet, Steve?"

He smirked. "I don't know, how long does dawning horror usually last?"

With a laugh, she shook a finger at him. "I see how you are, everybody thinks you're all Mr. Wholesome, but secretly, you're kinda evil. In a good way, not a Nazi way."

"Uh, thanks? I don't get the wholesome thing. That's really going to get old," he told her, and if anybody would actually believe it, Darcy would confirm that Captain America could, indeed, whine.

"Ah, well, 70 years of fictionalized stories about you. Idealized. Sorry, pal, you're going to have to suck it up. I like real you better than fictional you, though. Not nearly as uptight as I was afraid."

He shook his head and tossed her a little smile. "Gee, thanks."

"No problem. Can I have my phone back, now that we're buds again?"

"No."

"Fine." She slumped back in the booth with a pout and pushed the cinnamon roll away for the last time. The thing was as big as her face, and she'd eaten only about a quarter of it. She probably wouldn't need to eat again until she hit Ohio or something.

Steve, who had finished his own roll was looking at hers with obvious interest, so she shoved it his way. "So, I read his file. Or, well, some of it. I didn't have a lot of time to go over all of it, but, it didn't say anything about a daughter."

"It wouldn't. The only other person I've ever told directly was Jane. Very few people know. More and more it's overlapping small, weird circles. I am a human venn diagram," she declared, watching him intently consume the rest of her roll.

"SHIELD doesn't know?"

"Well, they know now, but mostly just because I had to tell Fury so he'd stop being a jerk and help me get to Manhattan." It was all very anti-climactic really. If you didn't take into account Tony's threat of mass-destruction, SHIELD didn't seem to care about her one way or the other. She supposed they were keeping tabs, maybe more than just Clint and Natasha even, but, well, whatever. She found herself zen about the whole thing. They knew where she was, she knew they knew, and they all ignored each other like civilized people. "Phil knew, but he never reported it or anything."

"Phil? Phil Coulson?"

"He found out in New Mexico." She took a deep breath past the tightness in her throat, and was still surprised by the grief she felt at his death. For months he'd been an irritating voice on the other end of a phone call, but, somehow, she'd started enjoying those irritating calls -- there was a steadying calmness about them, and in a world where there were Norse gods, flaming deathbots, and her father chasing after terrorists in a flying metal suit, it was a comforting thing. And now he was gone.

Pinching the bridge of her nose against the burning in her sinuses, she sighed. "He was a good guy."

"I'm … I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to know him better." Steve stared at the now empty plate for a long second then put down his fork. "He asked me to sign his Captain America trading cards."

Darcy choked on a laugh. "He would have. Oh, man, he broke probably a million rules, but he called me when they found you. It was like all his Christmases at once." Off Steve's concerned and slightly flummoxed look, she shrugged and offered up the only explanation she had, "I think Natasha and Clint were off somewhere being scary out of radio contact, and, I don't think there were a lot of other people who would share his enthusiasm, or were even cleared to know. Okay, including me, but my grandfather did spend decades looking for you, so I guess that earned me a pass. At least from him."

Steve studied her for a long moment, a curious look on his face. "From what I saw of him, I'd think that says a lot about you."

After taking a long, slow breath, she gave him a skeptical frown. "I … I don't know. I don't really get why he kept trying to recruit me. I thought, at one point, it was just to sort of jab at dad, but, the Son of Coul wasn't petty like that. So … I don't know."

"I know what it's like when somebody sees something in you you've never seen in yourself," Steve told her seriously. "It means a lot to know somebody has faith in you."

Darcy wasn't quite sure what to say to that. She settled on a simple, "I guess."

"So," he continued after a few seconds, "why tell me?"

"Ah, I suppose it was kind of a family decision to tell you guys. Plus, I hugged Bruce, so …"

"You hugged Bruce?" He looked so honestly shocked by that idea, she wanted to slug him. Bruce was a perfectly nice guy, sort of. So he had a weird, bleak sense of humor, and yeah, okay, he turned big and scary when he lost his temper, but, he hadn't been mean and green when she hugged him -- he'd been flushed and weirded out. Big difference.

"My father fell out of the sky and he caught him. Yes, I hugged Bruce. And then dad came in and, of course, I hugged him. So, it was either let Bruce think I was some sort of weird mad hugger who'd broken into the tower, or let him know the truth. Plus, Tony trusts him. Dad trusts few, and rarely. And anyway, Barton was there, too, and like he wasn't going to tell Natasha." Darcy stared at her coffee cup. "It's funny. I spent so many years being afraid of people finding out, now the last six months have been a tell-everyone-apalooza. Okay, well, like eight people, but that's a lot for me. Before that it was my friend Rico, before that it was Pepper, and before that it was Happy and I was nine, so …"

"What were you afraid of?" He asked with simple, honest curiosity.

"People changing, I guess. It's a big secret," she smiled, rueful and a touch embarrassed.

"Oh, yeah, I get that," he nodded and chewed on his lip for a second. "Only a few people knew me before," he waved a hand at himself. "I guess the people who matter didn't really care about all that, you know?"

She nodded slowly and had to agree. "I've noticed. The only one who got weird about it was Fury."

"He's got kind of a lot to deal with, and that's … well, I suppose it's just one more thing." He apologized with a shrug and crooked smile.

"Yeah. I'm an asset."

"Swell."

"Let me tell you, brother, I am th-rilled."

Steve laughed warmly. He leaned forward and shot a glance at their waitress who'd been wandering by with increasing frequency. "I think she's trying to come up with a polite way to tell us to scram. What say we split?"

"Sure. I'll get the check, and don't get all 'guy' about it. I'll put it on the company card, we'll make Tony buy us breakfast."

He nodded and watched her drop the card onto the bill and wave the subtly hovering waitress over. "So, I was thinking," he said, "it's kind of far to the Grand Canyon."

"You could make it today, I bet. Though, it would be pretty late and you probably shouldn't push it with the snow and all."

"I … I kind of think it would be more fun to see it with a friend, you know?"

"I agree." She smiled and he got all bashful, dropping his eyes again.

"I don't … I mean, that is, I know you've got to get back to New York, but, I was wondering, if maybe …"

"All you have to say is 'road trip' and I'm right there."

"It would just be, what? A couple, three days?"

"Seriously, Steve, just say the words 'road trip'."

He raised his eyebrows. "Road trip?"

Darcy grinned and held her hand out, palm towards him. "Rock on, dude. Let's roll."

He laughed and slapped her palm with his, gently and she appreciated that because his hands were enormous and she didn't need a broken wrist.

"Oh, wait, my bike?"

"I'm not riding double in the snow," Darcy said, looking out at the swirling flurries. "Dad made me take one of the Audis. It wasn't worth fighting him over. It can take a bike trailer." The waitress came back with the card and Darcy signed the receipt quickly, giving her a generous tip with Tony's money.

Steve's face was twisted with some skepticism. "If you're sure."

"Well, it's not much of a road trip if you're on your bike and I'm in a car."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean that. I just … well, gosh, I don't want to make you have to rent anything."

"Tony will never notice. And Pepper will approve."

"If you're sure," he repeated.

"Very. Now, let's give the nice lady her booth back and hit the road, soldier."

He shook his head, but smiled. "Yes, ma'am."

Chapter Text

Jane didn't bother to look up when Darcy entered the lab, stumbling over to her chair and collapsing, followed by the infinitely more graceful Natasha. It was a common enough occurrence over the last few weeks.

"Why do you hate me?" Darcy whimpered.

"I don't hate you." Natasha wandered over to the fridge for a bottle of water.

"Jane, she's trying to kill me," Darcy whined and rubbed at her ribs. Whose idea was self-defense training with Natasha? No really. Darcy honestly didn't know. Pepper swore it wasn't her, though once informed thought it was a great idea. Tony just looked confused and said he thought she knew how to box already. Of course, when Darcy told Natasha that Happy'd taught her to box, she'd had to wait a good five minutes for Natasha to stop laughing before her first, horrible lesson began.

"I think if she was trying to kill you, she'd just kill you," muttered Jane, sounding like maybe she wished Natasha would get on with it already.

"Thank you," Natasha nodding her head towards Jane.

"No prob." Jane waved a hand at the agent, but was still otherwise focused on her computer monitor. "So, I've been thinking about the Bifrost--"

Darcy snorted then groaned. Her face hurt. Why did her face hurt? She spent an hour falling and she'd done pretty well at not falling on her face. Progress! Still, why did her face hurt? "Has there been any time recently where you haven't been thinking about the Bifrost? Because that would be news."

She yelped when Natasha's boot connected with her shin. She shot the woman a baleful look, which Natasha returned with flat, frosty indifference.

Jane thought about it. "No. Anyway, SHIELD finally sent us the data from the Manhattan anomaly."

"Is that what we're calling it now?"

"Yes. The Giant Sky Door of Evil and Aliens and Evil Aliens was rejected by every scientific organization on the planet." Jane pointed to a tower of boxes next to Darcy's desk.

"Dad will be bummed. We had a logo and bumper-stickers that said 'I survived the Giant Sky Door!'" Darcy opened one box and peeked inside, horror growing as she pawed at the boxes within the box. "Jane … Jane. These are tapes."

"Yes."

"Holy …" She counted the boxes next to her desk and groaned. "That's going to take forevs."

"You'd better get started, then," Jane told her, unsympathetic and unyielding.

Natasha leaned against the large lab table and sipped daintily at her water. "Can't Jarvis help you?"

"Jarvis is made of science not magic, Natasha," Darcy scoffed.

Natasha rolled her eyes. "You sound exactly like your father." It was very clearly not a compliment.

"Why do you both hate me?"

"Dashyenka, if I hated you, you wouldn't have to ask why."

"Hate is such a strong word," Jane mumbled, leaning over a pile of papers, squinting.

Darcy sighed. These two were impossible to work. "What were you thinking about the Bifrost?"

"What?"

"You said you'd been thinking about the Bifrost."

"Oh! Right, if Thor's information is accurate, when the bridge broke, it caused a rupture, maybe more like tearing. I'm hoping the data from the Manhattan anomaly will give us a better idea of the structure in general. It wasn't the Bifrost, but it was a, well, spacial anomaly not unlike the Bifrost. Then instead of rebuilding, maybe there's enough there to repair."

"Giant space sutures? Quantum knitting?"

"Well, it's a thought." Jane stared up towards the corner of the ceiling, a look of intense concentration on her face. "We may have to go back to Norway."

"Now?" Oh please no. It was coming on winter. It would be dark all the time. And cold. And dark and cold. Oh please no.

"No, I want to go through that data first." Jane narrowed her eyes at the boxes, then at Darcy, then at the boxes again. Darcy scrunched up her nose, petulant and so very reluctant to dive into what was sure to be a job of epic suck.

Natasha pushed herself off the table and waved her water bottle at both of them. "Well, enjoy your data. I'm leaving for a mission in the morning, so you're off the hook for the rest of the week."

Darcy tilted her head back and threw her arms wide in gratitude. "Oh, sweet baby Thor, thank you."

"Thor had nothing to do with it," Natasha said. "I imagine he'd be pleased you're trying to make yourself something slightly less like prey."

Darcy flinched at that bald image. "You're a cheery soul, Natasha."

"I'm Russian."

"Yes, yes, you are. And you're very good at it."

"Spacebo," she said, heading out the door.

"Neechyevo."

"Your accent is atrocious," Natasha called behind her.

"I studied Japanese, what do you want?" Darcy yelled after the agent.

"You'll have Russian lessons when I get back," Natasha's voice drifted down the hall.

Darcy groaned again and dropped her head down onto her desk.

"Maybe you shouldn't taunt the Russian assassin," Jane said simply.

Darcy raised her head just enough to glare. "I can quit, you know."

Jane looked up, sad-eyes on full power.

Darcy sighed and pulled a box of tapes to her. "Fine. God. Whatever."

***

Pepper and Tony had gone back to California a couple weeks before, so she had the penthouse all to herself. She'd talked about getting an apartment of her own, or maybe one with Jane, but Tony got supremely uptight about security, and then offered to just buy her an apartment building, installing his own security, and was she thinking any particular borough? He knew she'd chafe at that, so he topped it off with some dad-guilt he'd pulled from God-only-knew-where about how she didn't live with him growing up and was it too much to ask that they spent some time together now and, look, she had her own suite of rooms. It was practically an apartment, he could totally put in a kitchenette if she wanted.

The guilt struck home and she'd relented. Plus, the commute was a piece of cake.

Besides, it was a pretty sweet pad, and Tony'd even had one wall painted purple, and another painted green. Just for her. Because, that's how he rolled.

Their new … friends? Associates? Colleagues? Or, according to Bruce, strangers shoved together for the most epically horrible idea in the entire history of humanity? Well, whoever they all were to each other, they were refreshingly unimpressed by Tony and by extension her relationship to him. If they had any curiosity about it at all, it was mostly about what sort of dad he could possibly be. Darcy was only too happy to tell them he was, on the whole, pretty awesome.

Stepping into her room she kicked off her shoes with a groan. Everything hurt, and everything had hurt since this morning, and then ten hours spent hunched over a computer, trying to sort through a zillion terabytes of data, locked those aches into place. She was dreaming of a warm bath with the big jar of epsom salts. They'd seemed sort of old fashioned, but Steve swore by them. His mom used to give him epsom salt baths when he was a wee, sickly kid. He promised her they were worth a try. She was very much looking forward to it.

"Good evening, Miss Lewis."

Darcy jumped and threw her back against the nearest wall, crouching down slightly. Her sessions with Natasha were, well, awful, but they seemed to be paying off. Kind of. She did, of course, miss entirely that there was somebody in her living room.

Or rather, that Phil Coulson was sitting on her couch, smiling at her, her copy of Neverwhere open in his hand.

She eyed him warily. "I'm pretty sure you should be in, like, Valhalla or something. I think Thor mentioned that in his letter." Darcy's heart was pounding and she was considering her exits, and also throwing a shoe at him.

Coulson laughed a dry, tired laugh. "Well, I was technically dead for a number of seconds, but, not long enough to quite make it to Valhalla. SHIELD has excellent medical."

Darcy didn't move. She was running through possibilities in her head -- trick, trap, Loki, Natasha-inflicted brain damage, food poisoning. "Uh-huh."

"I promise, I'm very much alive."

"Right." Evil life model decoy. Evil other sort of robot. Creepy clone. Ghost. "And you just stopped by to haunt me?"

He held out his hand. "Would you care to take my pulse?"

"Not really." She let her eyes drift ceiling-ward and called out softly, "Jarvis?"

"I had to take him offline for a little while. This needs to stay between us."

Oddly, that was the thing that sold her. Tony'd whined about Coulson hacking Jarvis often enough. "How …"

"It was close, and I've been …" He shifted on the couch and plucked at his cuffs. "Let's just say I've been in rehab for quite some time."

"So, you're not dead?"

"No."

"Fury knew all along?" She asked, then shook her head at herself. "Of course he did."

Coulson's lips thinned and he looked away from her. "Yes."

"That rat bastard." Darcy huffed out a irritated breath.

"He did what was necessary," Coulson replied mildly. "They needed something to pull them together, something to avenge."

"Tell me you didn't come up with that name."

He laughed again. "No."

"He ruined your Captain America cards."

"I'm very aware. He's promised me a new set." He coughed and looked around the apartment. "This is a very nice room."

"Thanks. So, are we really going to do small talk? How do you feel about hugs?"

"Rain check?"

"Sure."

He sat forward and put the book down on the coffee table, right next to a thick file Darcy hadn't noticed before. "I'd like to ask you something."

"I'd like to ask you something." She stood up from her slight crouch, but stayed leaning against the wall. She was pretty sure it was Coulson, but, well, damn this was unexpected, and she felt better with something at her back and the door only a couple steps away.

He nodded. "We are living in strange days, Miss Lewis."

"I'm having a hard time telling what's strange and what's just my life," she said honestly.

He blinked at that and considered her for a long moment. "I can see how you might. What's your question?"

"Do Natasha and Clint know?"

"No."

"Okay, because I was going to say, Clint's a way more awesome actor than I'd given him credit for. He's devastated, dude."

Coulson drew in a deep breath, held it for a second, and then let it out slowly. "I recruited him. And he, in turn, brought in Natasha. Those are very strong bonds."

"They need to know."

"I'll be the one to tell them. I promise. When it's time."

"So you're asking me to keep this from them?"

"From all of them. For just a little while."

"My dad is going to blow a gasket. His potential for rage-induced destruction is way beyond Bruce's," she warned. Because, that was very much not an exaggeration. Hulk was localized catastrophe. Her dad's reach was global. "He took it hard, Phil."

Coulson shook his head and sat back, smiling faintly. "And, yet, he was the first one to believe. He was always the wild card -- he'd make or break the hand."

Darcy let out a long breath of her own and finally pushed herself off the wall. She dropped down, exhausted, into the armchair across from him. "Even Tony Stark wants to be part of something bigger than himself. It's just, you know, a pretty tall order, usually."

"But, we did it."

"I guess you did."

"You had a part to play, too."

"Please," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

He raised an eyebrow at her, and reached for the file. "That's part of what I'd like to talk to you about."

"Yes, let's talk about why you're breaking into the tower. Again. And into my room specifically."

"Growing up with your father has, shall we say, inured you to stardom or fame."

Darcy frowned. "Uh?"

"You're hardly Paris Hilton."

"Jeebus, don't even …" She shuddered and pressed her fingertips to her forehead, trying to fend off the horror of that image. "God, what a thought."

"Your parents, Rebecca and Paul Lewis, were a grounding, stabilizing influence."

Darcy slumped back in her chair and rolled her eyes. "I'm sure you have a point."

"You tased Thor the first time you met him."

"He was a huge, crazy dude in the middle of the night in the desert. You've seen Jane, she's 95 pounds soaking wet, and Erik's not exactly in fighting form, you know."

"Yes. You seemed to get along pretty well after that."

"Well, once he got past his 'puny mortal' douchiness, yeah," she agreed. "He's a big squishy teddy bear."

"You've been training with the Black Widow," he continued.

"Okay, who's idea was that?" She demanded. "Because it wasn't mine. And it freaking hurts. I think she hates me."

"She doesn't hate you. She likes you. Do you honestly think she'd spend her time teaching somebody she hates?" He cocked his head to one side. "Do you honestly think you'd be alive if she did hate you?"

Darcy pursed her lips and squinted at the agent. "Well, that's not a chilling statement or anything."

"It was Fury's idea, by the way."

"That figures."

"You would consider Thor and Natasha friends?"

"Sure."

"And you drag Clint out of his apartment to go to baseball games and greasy spoons."

"You're remarkably well-informed for a dead guy."

"I have a vested interest in this team. In these people. I wouldn't let just anybody look after them."

She narrowed her eyes at him and gave him the 'get on with it already' gesture. He smiled his irritating half-smile.

"How do you feel about Bruce?"

"Ah, he's harder to get a handle on. Some days we get along okay, other days he hides in the basement. But, I'm pretty sure it's not me he's hiding from." She thought about that then shrugged and added, "Usually."

"But, you're not afraid of him."

"No. He saved my dad's life. I like him fine. I'm okay with never meeting the Hulk, but, well, I like him fine, too."

"I think you and your father are the only ones who could honestly say that."

Darcy shrugged. "Okay."

"You went to the Grand Canyon with Captain Rogers."

"You know you're jealous." She smirked and watched him closely for his reaction.

He grunted and opened the folder.

"I have pictures," she pressed in a sing-song voice.

He looked up, interest lighting his eyes, then back down at the folder trying not to look interested, but the pull was too strong. "Maybe later?"

Darcy laughed. "Sure."

Coulson flipped through some pages in the file, then tapped his fingers thoughtfully on top of it. "The world is changing. We have among us gods and monsters as we stand just on the cusp of a new technological age. Wonders and horrors wait down the road. For the large threats, we need a team like the Avengers. But, there are other threats, smaller, local, but no less troubling. I feel I can leave the world in the Avengers' hands for now, but who will save Des Moines?"

"Is Des Moines under attack?"

"Not yet."

"This has been such a cheery day for me, I can't even tell you."

Coulson gave her his strange thin-lipped, head-bobbing smile. "I'm putting together a team to save Des Moines, and Spokane, and Mobile, and whoever else. But, Miss Lewis, I need you to save the world."

"No pressure."

"I have confidence in you."

She stared at him for a long while, because, surely he was not serious. "Why did you write me a recommendation letter?"

"I think I just said."

"But, I don't get it."

"You are used to big personalities, you're not overwhelmed by them. You are adaptable and react well in stressful situations." She snorted at that, but he continued, "You're smart, you're capable, and you have a better grasp of cause and effect than most."

"Yeah, yeah, I read the letter."

"Then you already know. Why ask?"

She shifted uncomfortably and looked away from him.

"This is a team of big personalities, they need somebody who can manage them," he said, his voice quiet and gentle. "Somebody who can respect them, but who will not be cowed by them."

"You think that's me?" She asked, highly skeptical because none of this sounded like her at all, as far as she could tell.

"I know that's you." He pulled out a packet of papers from the file and tossed it over to her. "You'll function as a handler, of sorts."

"You're joking. This is a joke."

"Not at all. I wouldn't let just anybody look after them," he repeated. "You'll have training, of course."

She stared at the papers and then picked them up gingerly, like maybe they'd bite, or go all headcrab on her and make her a zombie.

"SHIELD has its own goals and agendas, and they won't always be in line with the Avengers' needs. More than anything, they need somebody they can trust to consider them as individuals, somebody they like. They like you, Miss Lewis. And you like them."

"I guess," she allowed with some reluctance.

"Just, for now, keep an eye on them. That's all."

"Right."

"Make sure they're fed and watered and take them for walks--"

Darcy laughed. "Okay, okay, I get it."

"You've got PR training, you've got a degree in political science, you understand technology, and intergalactic diplomacy."

"Stop, seriously," she said, trying to be irritated, but chuckling despite herself. "I get it."

"And I'm not far, if you need advice."

Chewing on her lower lip, she considered this huge ball of madness. "Gotta tell you, Phil, you're bringing it with the hard sell."

"You've been a tough nut to crack, Miss Lewis. I've had to up my game," he said, amused. "You will work for SHIELD, but, as the Avengers are not, as a team, technically a part of SHIELD, you will be more independent. Acting in an advisory or liaison capacity to SHIELD."

"How much does Fury love this?"

"Fury asked for my recommendation. I gave it to him. He accepted it."

"End of story."

"End of story." He shoved the rest of the file her direction. "These are the details of your NOC."

"My knock?"

"Non-official cover. Your day job, unattached directly to any government agency. You'll continue with your job as Dr. Foster's assistant, which will provide you with the necessary cover for your access to the Avengers, as individuals and as a team."

"Gee, my cover is my life."

"So, nothing new," Coulson said, humor lacing his tone.

That drew an undignified and embarrassing giggle-snort from her and she pointed a finger at him. "Not funny, yet, so true."

"Your qualifications are unique," he told her simply.

"You came prepared," she observed after a moment, mildly disconcerted by how big and sudden this all felt. "Was I ever going to get a chance to say 'no'?"

"You can still say no. But, I think you want to do this. I think you like these people, I think you care about them and what happens to them, and I think that you'd like to help them. This will give you the tools to do that."

"And what about the fact that one of them is my father?"

Coulson nodded. "Yes, I'd say, normally, that would be considered a conflict of interest, but given who your father is, and that there are very few people who can handle him at all, we'd be idiots not to accept the reality that you are one of the few. You are a valuable resource, Miss Lewis, and not just because of your father, but knowing Tony Stark as well as you do is certainly a bonus."

Yeah, but, honestly, that didn't do her a lot of good right now; she couldn't honestly say how he'd react to this. Instinct said he'd flip, but, he'd been weird since the alien invasion. She almost thought he'd be surprisingly okay with it.

Darcy got up from the chair, dropping the papers onto the table, and walked over to her computer. She booted it up and fiddled with a thumb drive before glancing back over at Coulson. "You've always been straight with me."

"I've tried."

"I appreciate that. You really think I can do this?"

"Yes."

"I don't know," she muttered and stuck the thumb drive into a port.

"I can see that. But, you're not without resources and support of your own, and you won't be alone. Not here, not at SHIELD. I'm not just throwing you to the sharks." He seemed to think that was funny for some reason, Darcy glared sourly. "Bring this to Natasha when she gets back, trust her, listen to her, she'll help you."

"I can't tell her where I got it from."

"Just say it was from Fury. That's true enough. And, I promise, I'll tell her when I can."

"Alright." She clicked through some files, dragged some others to the drive. "Do I need to sign anything?"

"Yes, but you should hold onto the file for a few days. Have Ms. Potts look the contract over, maybe?"

"I probably should, huh?"

"You'll feel better for it. Though, I promise there's nothing unpleasant hidden in there." He stood up slowly then picked up Neverwhere again. "Can I borrow this?"

"Yeah, go ahead."

"Give the papers to Hill when you're done, but, take your time. I want you to be certain."

She nodded absently and pulled the thumb drive from the computer and stood up to join him as he crossed to the door. She held out the drive. "Here."

"What's this?"

"Grand Canyon pics." She smirked as his eyes lit up again. There were some good ones in there, but two of them were clear favorites. One, she got Steve to hold her out over the rim of the canyon and, brother, that had required a lot of talking. But, the second she figured Coulson would like best -- Steve looking out at the Canyon, both brushed by the fiery glow of the first light of morning. It was very dramatic and, if she did say so herself, pretty darned patriotic.

"Thank you," he said softly, seeming genuinely touched.

"I think Steve would really like the chance to get to know you."

"Maybe some day," he said, a wistful look in his eyes as he gazed down at the drive.

She gave him a quick, hard hug before he could escape her grasp. "Had to do it."

He smiled and walked to the door, but paused and seemed to consider something for a moment when he got there. He turned back around to face her. "Have you ever been to Tahiti?"

Tilting her head to one side, she regarded him quizzically. "No."

"You should go some time. I spent part of my recovery there. It's a magical place."

"Okay." When he didn't offer anything more, she shook her head. "You're one weird dude, but, I'm glad you're not dead."

"Me, too. Good night, Agent Lewis."

"See ya around, Agent Coulson."