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Rivers and Roads

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It’s been three years, all told, that they’ve been in Puente Antiguo, shouting at the stars. Three years minus a month or so that the stars started shouting back. Then there was a brief detour through Tromsø and a much briefer and much angrier detour through New York and then they were right back where they started.

She’d grown accustomed to it, grown accustomed to the pleasing juxtaposition of the highest of the highbrow and the lowest of the low, esoteric trans-dimensional theory combined with pop tarts and thrift store sweaters. What did finishing her college degree have in the face of that?

She’d even grown accustomed to the loss of Eric Selvig and the addition of a rotating roster of jackbooted thugs.

But three years after they showed up here, a little less than that since Thor shattered everything she thought she knew, a bit more than two years since Tromsø and New York, and a little over three months since Jane had finally found the key to the inter-dimensional lock, it was all over. All of the haphazard half-broken glued together machinery and all of the slick and shiny metal that had been added to it over the years eventually broke down to a set up that could be packed away in a medium sized crate that could open a bridge to Asgard.

It was a little anti-climactic in the end.

Although she was happy she was there to see Thor realize exactly what his Jane had accomplished. For most of the others present, that accomplishment had something to do with science or easy access to thunderbolts. For Jane and Thor, it was pretty clear, it was about easy access to something else altogether.

So she was smiling, sometimes, as she packed up her life. Mission accomplished. Everything she had been working for was finished, all the loose ends tied up.

All the loose ends, that is, except for her. Jane was the astrophysicist who had just opened a portal to another dimension. She wasn’t exactly short on job offers. She had already packed up and headed for New York after a tearful goodbye. All the jackbooted thugs rotating through were already doing their jobs.

And here she was, three years of hard labor and nothing to show for it but a half-finished degree and a freakish knowledge of both physics and Norse mythology for a political scientist.

There was a knock on her door.

She wiped absently at the melancholy tears drifting absently down her face.

“Come in,” she called.

“Lewis?” she let out a heavy sigh as she heard the voice at the door.

Three years in a place meant that everyone on the roster with any free time rotated through more than once. Some, especially those who were treading carefully after having their insides commandeered by Loki, rotated through a lot. And did a lot of silent glaring. And probably a lot of judging.

“Barton,” she answered shortly, “you on the clean-up crew?”

“No,” he answered, and she looked up at him sharply. This may not have been her best move, because his eyes narrowed in on her face like she was a target.

“You alright?” he asked carefully, immediately scanning the room.

She sighed. “Fine, Barton, you can scale back the red alert. This place had just started to feel like home, you know.”

He nodded once, stiffly. But she thought maybe he got it.

After a moment, she tried again, “So what are you doing here?”

“On leave,” he said, his eyes fixed on her like he was forcing himself not to look away. “Thought you could use a hand.”

She blinked at him for a long moment. She took a deep breath. She had no better idea what the hell he was doing here.

“You could start on the kitchen, if you wanted?” she finally managed evenly.

It made a strange and unsettling day even stranger, but she didn’t think it was a bad thing.

They didn’t talk much, beyond him asking for directions and her pointing out where things should go.

When her whole life was packed up in the back of a U-Haul, she handed him a cold beer, all that was left in her undersized fridge. They sat there on her porch, and somehow all the piled up silence never became uncomfortable. It was sort of comforting actually. It mirrored almost all the time she had ever spent with Agent Barton. He was a solid presence, helpful without ever being asked. Dependable. Sometimes he actually cracked a smile when she was being ridiculous. She never ever saw him smile otherwise.

And he had come here on his leave to help her pack. She had no idea what to make of it. And she was just about finished her beer.

“Thank you,” she finally managed. “Don’t know what I would have done without you.” She wasn’t sure if she meant today or for the last three years.

“So where are you headed?” he finally asked quietly.

“Home, I guess,” she said after a pause, “then maybe back to school. I never finished my degree.”

“Sometimes shit happens,” he agreed.

She couldn’t hold back a very undignified snort, “Yeah, you know, you run out of funds, you need a European vacation to ‘find yourself’ you taser a Norse god, whatever.”

He didn’t look at her, but she could see the corner of his mouth turn up, and her stomach did a slow flip. The unexpected feeling pushed her a little further off balance in an already precariously odd social situation. If it was even social at all. For all she knew, he could actually be here quietly assessing her threat level, whether she needed to be silenced or not.

But all he did was reach out with a very deliberate motion and grab her phone from where it was sitting next to her.

“Here,” he said, handing it back after a moment, “in case any other shit happens” he paused, she thought she saw a muscle in his neck twitch and clench, “or if you’re ever missin’ this place.”

He wasn’t looking at her.

“I should go,” she said finally, standing and pocketing her phone.

He nodded sharply, standing, that long distance stare falling flat across his face again.

She didn’t like it. She liked it less than she could remember ever disliking anything else.

So she took a step towards him, and she rolled up onto her toes, and she pressed her lips against his temple.

She could feel him freeze solid, but he didn’t move away.

“I’ll be seeing you,” she said finally, not sure if it was true at all.

“Yeah,” he agreed, with the tiniest hint of loosening in his expression, “drive safe.”

She made it two states before she pulled over for the night. Without stopping to wonder what she was doing, she pulled out her phone, scrolled through until she found “Barton” and texted him so he knew where she was and that she was safe.

It wasn’t five seconds until he had replied with the best place to go for breakfast.

They were the best goddamn waffles she had ever eaten in her life.



Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, pulled over on the side of the highway for a rest, she pulled out her phone, took a photo of the sun setting low over the horizon, uninterrupted by any marks of civilization other than the dark ribbon of the highway. It reminded her of Puente a little bit, if only in its isolation.

She sent it to Clint without even thinking about it.

He came back immediately with a short message.

“Add some scientists in a car dealership and it could be home.”

She smiled to know that he had understood it that well.

“Plus a few jackbooted thugs,” she sent back.



She lasted all of three weeks at home before she was ready to tear her hair out and go to whatever crappy unlicensed college would take her.

She found herself texting Barton often. He didn’t always answer right away, but whenever there was a delay, there was a reason that essentially sounded like “top secret”.

It wasn’t so much that she didn’t get along with her parents, but they were parents in a way that most of her friends parents had stopped being a long time ago. She was ready to scream. Her frustration must have become really obvious, because after her last text, she didn’t get a reply. Instead her phone started ringing.

“Hello?” she picked up cautiously.

“Lewis?” and then after a pause, “Darcy? Everything okay?”

She let out a shaky breath, “Yeah, sorry I didn’t mean to…”she trailed off, making an inelegant gesture which she realised he couldn’t see, but he seemed to get it anyways.

“It’s okay,” he said quickly, “don’t worry about it.”

There was another long pause.

“You wanna talk about it?”

“Not really,” she said, somewhat grudgingly, “because it will make me feel like an asshole for complaining about supportive parents who love me but can sometimes be really overbearing.”

“How’s the escape plan going?” he asked, and he almost sounded like he was amused.

“Six different applications sent off this week,” she said in a weary tone, “much good may it do me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Grad programs generally like you to actually have a degree before they let you in.”

“I’m sure the notation from SHIELD doesn’t hurt though.”

“Maybe,” she sounded unconvinced, even to herself.

“Where are you applying?”

She paused. “Berkley, Austin, NYU, Cornell, and Columbia.”

“That’s a lot of New York schools.”

She blew out a breath. “Is it weird that I kind of miss the madness?”

“Yes,” he agreed immediately, “But I know exactly what you mean.”

“Plus,” she stretched just a little farther, “I have some friends there.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

And the tiny hint of warmth in his voice when he said it made her smile.



One time, she woke up late at night, or early in the morning, and found her phone had just lit up with a new message. It was a picture of desert, as far as the eye could see. Definitely not Puente, but not so different either.

It was from Barton.

“Just in case you were missing the desert,” was all it said.



She called him at what she knew would be way too late in New York. But she was getting complacent in how dependable he was.

“Darcy? Everything okay?”

“I got in,” she said breathlessly.

“Of course you did,” he said with an easy confidence that made her think about when was the last time she had trusted someone to pick up the phone at 3 am. She was drawing a blank. “Where?”

Everywhere,” she could barely manage to get it out.

“Oh,” he said, “well I’m not surprised.” But he sounded a little tense. Well, tenser. He wasn’t exactly a talkative phone buddy.

“I sure as fuck am,” she couldn’t help but let out, her surprise and elation making her giddy “You didn’t, like, literally strong arm anyone did you?”

He actually laughed out loud at that. “No, that was all you.” He paused, “any thought as to where you’ll go?”

“You know anyone in the city who might know about apartments?” she asked immediately. “Close enough to get to NYU but preferably outside of the target area for aliens and super villains.”

“Well, that can be unpredictable,” he answered reasonably, “but I might know a guy.” He paused again. He did that a lot, now that Darcy thought about it. “And you know that anywhere you land, you’ll be safe, right?”

She laughed, “I could hardly avoid it. Thor gets awfully protective of his Lady’s lab assistants. Plus, I’m pretty sure Captain America checked me out that one time he came by Puente.”

“Right,” but there was a tight silence before it, and she thought maybe she had missed his point entirely.



Loading up the U-Haul hadn’t been nearly as difficult this time, since most of her things from Puente were still sitting boxed in her parents’ garage. It didn’t stop her from texting Barton with a photo of the pile to be moved along with the text “A convenient time not to have any leave, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it convenient,” was his response along with a photo, blurred by splashes of water, of what looked like a dismal squall on a fairly expansive body of water that looked like maybe it had been taken from a low flying helicopter.

Jesus, was she even allowed to see this stuff? She sometimes had no idea how her life had ended up in this really weird place.

“Stay safe,” she responded.

“I’ll be back in the city when you get there.”



She didn’t really expect him to be quite so literal, but she smiled anyways as she pulled the U-Haul up to an old brick apartment building, a little run down but right near a subway, and saw him leaning against the wall waiting for her.

She wasn’t exactly sure how this greeting should go, though. The last time she had seen him in real life, she didn’t think he’d ever been within three feet of her personal bubble. But now she had texted him photos and talked to him for long stretches of time while lying in her bed.

When she got out of the truck, though, she could see that while maybe he’d gotten better at talking, he was still physically closed off, arms crossed, making no move to come closer.

“Hi,” she tucked a strand of her behind her ear, almost self-consciously. “I didn’t expect you.”

“Thought you might need some help,” he said evenly, “plus the freight elevator in this place is…unreliable at best.”

“You know that building that well?” she asked. She had sort of got the impression that the apartment he had found for her was a friend of a friend kind of thing. The photos made it look roomy and the price was unbeatable so she hadn’t asked too many questions.

“Uh, I live here, actually.” He said uncomfortably, “I hope that’s okay.”

She raised an eyebrow, but could feel a corner of her lips turning upwards. “So that guy you know who owns a building?”

“It’s me.” He confirmed.

“Well at least I’ll know how to get a hold of the Super, ”she said lightly, walking around to the back of the truck. “You gonna put all that training to good use and lift the heavy stuff for me?”

He grinned, an honest to goodness unhesitating grin, which pleased her more than it ought to, and pushed away from the wall.



Jane announced, in what was a really truly unsurprising piece of news, that she didn’t really have any friends in New York outside of work, so probably most of the Avengers were going to be at her birthday party.

Darcy laughed and told her she would try to contain herself.

But when she hung up, she felt oddly nervous. Not because the idea of hanging out at Stark Tower with the likes of Captain America, the Black Widow, and Tony Stark himself was intimidating. Not that it wasn’t either, but she could handle that.

It was really Hawkeye that was the problem.

Problem was the wrong word. Words like apprehension and confusion were probably closer.

She would have thought that living three floors down from him would have meant they’d talk a lot more often. She would have been dead wrong. They didn’t talk on the phone or text much anymore, because that seemed silly to her when they lived in the same building. And, she had come to realise, while he would text back immediately and always pick up the phone, he almost never initiated a conversation. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Sometimes she thought about just stopping by his apartment, offering him a drink, essentially just barging into his life. But she thought the better of it, thinking about the closed off and haunted look she always caught in his eyes when he thought she wasn’t looking. The man didn’t need anyone else barging into his life.

Once, she had thought she had heard someone outside her door, shuffling and hesitating. She had thought, with a hopeful lurch, it might be him, but when she had opened the door there was no one there.

She spent far more time than was good for her pondering what all this meant.

Eventually, she gave up and just knocked on his door the night of Jane’s party. It was as good an excuse as any.

“Darcy,” he opened the door with some surprise, “is everything okay?”

“You know,” she said wryly, “I have been known to want to talk to you when the world isn’t ending before.”

“Sink not working again?” but there was more humor to it this time.

“Just wondering if you’re going out to Jane’s birthday thing tonight.”

“Oh,” he paused with an unreadable look, “is that what it is? I…yeah, I guess I am.”

She raised an eyebrow, “You’re going, but you didn’t know why?”

“Well, Nat just told me I should…that I didn’t get out enough.” He shrugged, “She’s probably right.”

“Well, whoever Nat is, she sounds pretty wise,” she tried to grin casually, “I thought maybe we could share a cab?”

“You’re goi…oh, yeah, of course you are.” He trailed off for a moment, picking at a non-existent spot on his sleeve. “I’ll drive you.”



Nat, it turned out, was the Black Widow.

It also turned out, based on the very very intense looks of surprise they received when walking in together, that Clint Barton wasn’t just keeping things from her.

She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about, apparently, being his dirty little secret.

Especially when there was nothing dirty about it at all.



One good thing had come out of the evening though. It had given her another excuse to go up and talk to him. She was beginning to get that low down uncomfortable feeling when she thought about how much she missed their constant contact and why exactly now that they lived three floors away from each other he was avoiding her like the plague. Or she was avoiding him? Maybe? She didn’t know.

“Darcy,” at least he didn’t look like he expected her to be there with some sort of emergency this time.

“Hey, you have a minute?” she kept her hand tucked firmly in the pockets of her sweater. He would notice, she was sure, if he saw her fidgeting.

“Sure,” he sounded a little wary as he gestured for her to come in.

It was a nicer place than she had expected. It looked like he probably actually cooked his meals rather than microwaving them. That made her feel better, for some reason. The bow hung on the wall though, that was exactly what she had expected.

“So I’m curious as to why the Black Widow has my phone number and then called me to make sure I got home safe last night.” She said abruptly as she sat on his couch. “Especially since you drove me home and also live here.”

Clint closed his eyes for a moment, pausing by the door.“Aww, Nat,” she thought it was probably not meant for her at all.

“She’s just…nosy.” He ran a hand over the back of his neck, sliding low in a chair across from her. “And I didn’t tell her anything about…you. I shoulda known, really. Sorry.”

“So,” Darcy parsed over this slowly, “you’ve given the Black Widow a shiny new mystery to solve?”

“Something like that,” said Clint.

“Boy is she going to be pissed off when she finds out it’s just a bunch of texts and a landlord/tenant thing.” She paused, “you don’t think she’ll kill me if she’s disappointed do you?”

Clint let out a grudging laugh. “No, I don’t think she’s going to kill you.”

That made her wonder whether it was just that the Black Widow was a little less lethal than she thought, or if she wasn’t going to be disappointed. And that made her wonder just exactly where the Black Widow had thought she would be at 1am after Clint had driven her home.

The idea made her palms sweaty.

Okay, it might be time to admit to herself that she wasn’t exactly disinterested in that train of thought.

It didn’t seem the time to bring it up though, as Clint’s arms were still crossed, his body language closed off, his eyes never really showing much of anything at all.

“Well that’s good. Plus, now I theoretically have the ability to send obnoxious text messages to the Black Widow.”

It was meant to be funny, but Clint didn’t smile.

“You never even text me anymore,” his tone was light, but his expression heavy.

“Oh,” her mouth felt a little bit dry, “well, it felt odd, with you living upstairs. And I didn’t want to…impose or anything.”

“You could impose a little bit,” he said evenly.

He looked at her steadily as the moment dragged out.

“Okay,” she said finally, “Where do you keep your beer?”



It turned out Clint Barton owned a shocking number of really terrible action movies.

The Die Hard movies, she was willing to admit, were okay.



“Hey Clint, d’you have a spare….oh!” Darcy walked into Clint’s apartment, the front door unlocked as it often was he was home. Or at least, when he knew she’d be coming by. It was a pretty regular occurrence these days.

Today, though, there was another woman in his apartment.

A really young other woman. She had to be younger than Darcy by a few years anyways.

“He’s on the roof, if it’s urgent,” the woman said breezily, apparently unperturbed to be found there, “something wrong in your apartment? You’re a tenant, right?”

“Uh, yeah…I mean, no there’s nothing wrong in my apartment, but yeah I’m a tenant…” she felt flustered and off balance. She knew Clint kept a lot of secrets, but she would have thought he would have told her about a girlfriend. Especially given the amount of time she had been spending alone with him in his apartment these last few weeks.

“Katie, did you ever find the…” Clint came barreling in and then stopped short, his surprisingly loose posture tightening up the moment he saw her.

The other woman, Katie, looked at her now with a sharper, considering expression.

“Oh,” she said finally, a slow grin stretching across her face. “That tenant.”

Darcy cocked her head curiously, but Clint just muttered what sounded suspiciously like a curse under his breath, gave the girl a tight glare, and then turned back to Darcy. “Darcy, this is Kate Bishop. She is…also Hawkeye. Katie, this is Darcy.”

“Hi,” says Darcy, a bit taken aback. “You’re…also Hawkeye? Is it, like, transferrable? Or are you both Hawkeye at the same time?”

Clint ran a hand over his face and he looked like he was hiding a smile. Kate Bishop, it turned out, hid absolutely nothing. She laughed, bright and infectious.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” she said, collecting a bag along with a bow and a quiver from the kitchen counter. “I’m just waiting for the day when I’m the Hawkeye and he’s the washed up retired old Hawkeye who’s only claim to fame is training me.”

Clint rolled his eyes and pushed the door open behind him, “Get outta here Katie. And leave that arrow you pilfered behind.”

She grudgingly pulled an arrow out of her quiver, “But it explodes,” she whined, “I need it.”

“Talk to Stark, maybe he’ll make you your very own. But that one’s mine.”

It seemed very quiet in the apartment after she had gone.

“She seems…kind of awesome,” said Darcy after a pause.

“She’s kind of something,”said Clint with a long suffering sigh, but he was smiling in a relaxed sort of way. It was an expression that Darcy had never seen on him before. She couldn’t help feeling a little bit jealous. Maybe a lot. But she was still trying to keep a lid on this thing, whatever it was.

“So you and her…” she trailed off, not meeting his eyes.

“Oh! No, absolutely not. No way,” Clint was flustered and took a step towards her.

“Oh,” she answered with a tiny nervous smile. “Good.”



It was a slow and gradual thing they had going on. She wasn’t sure where it was headed, really. But it was headed somewhere, because the tightness and distance in Clint Barton’s face got a little looser and a little closer every time she saw him.

And she grew a little more attached.

She wondered if maybe he would end up breaking her heart, because he was never obvious about anything he felt, especially anything he might feel for her.

But he was starting to sit closer to her, and every once in a while his hand would brush her arm, or he’d push past her, a firm grip on her waist, as they moved through his kitchen. And he smiled at her more often now.

These were silly things to hang her heart on, she knew, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.



It was well past three in the morning, and there was a sharp ringing coming from somewhere near her head.

“Hmmlmmgh?” she mumbled into her phone once she had managed to get her hands on it.

“Darcy,” the voice was sharp and purposeful.

Darcy slowly pulled the phone away from her ear to check the caller ID. The screen read “beware of spiders.”

She slowly put the phone back to her ear.

“Agent Romanov?” she asked carefully.

“It’s Natasha,” the other woman said firmly, “and I need you to do a favor for me.”


“Clint said he was going home. Not sure if he actually made it. He’s not answering. Can you go make sure he’s there?”

“Is everything okay?” she said, immediately more alert, scrambling to find some clothes to pull on.

“Classified.” Natasha said shortly, “But it was a tough day for Barton.”

“Oh, yeah, hold on a minute, I’ll run up there and check.”

She clicked the phone off and found sweatpants and a sweater which she pulled on over her tank top and panties and hurried up the stairs, not bothering to wait for the creaky old elevator.

She had her phone in her hand, ready to call out the troops if he didn’t answer her banging on the door. She slumped against the door in relief as she heard him swearing and shuffling from inside. She sent off a quick text to Natasha letting her know.

“What!” he pulled open the door roughly, barking at her in a gravelly voice. He immediately softened when he saw her, “Darcy? What’s wrong?”

“That’s my line,” she said, taking one look at him, still in uniform, looking worn and bruised and hunted. There was a long smear of fresh blood down one of his arms. “Natasha called me, wanted me to make sure you were home. I now suspect she wanted me to come check that you were actually alive. Jesus, Clint.”

She reached out without thinking, her fingertips brushing the purpling bruise on his cheekbone before thinking the better of it and pulling away.

He caught her hand before it could fall. “Could you…” he tugged her inside, “I might need….I need some help.”

Darcy thought it was the first time she had seen an unguarded expression on his face. She nodded, swallowing heavily, “what can I do?”

“I can’t…I can’t get this damn thing off,” he tugged at the Kevlar vest he still wore and then winced.

“Okay,” she said quietly, closing the door behind her, “Just hold still.”

It took her a while to figure it out, there were some complicated buckles at the back that had to be twisted and pulled before the top layer could be unzipped. It came away from the under layer with a sticky pulling sensation which, she realized when she looked down at her hands, was because he was bleeding.

“I need some scissors,” she said finally when she realized the under layer had no zipper and that there was no way he was pulling it off in the shape he was in.

“Top drawer to the left of the sink,” they both seemed to be observing some sort of unspoken rule for quiet.

It took some work to cut through the thick material, and blood had started to dry to his injury, which she could now see was a long, shallow slice down his left ribs. He winced as she pulled and she immediately froze.

“Just do it quickly,” he said through gritted teeth.

So she closed her eyes and pulled sharply, and he could finally shove the ruined material down his arms.

He stood quietly as she cleaned and bound his injuries the best she could. He was looking at her, almost unblinking as she wiped the last traces of grime off his face. She was standing too close, her head tiled up to see him. She thought she could hear his breath pick up. She wondered, if she laid her hand on his chest, if she would feel his heart racing like hers was.

She moved to drop her hand, to step away. But his hand caught hers, and before she could say anything, he was kissing her.

It was almost a gentle thing, her hand fell against his bare chest, his fingers loosely circled her other wrist. The cloth she had been holding fell limply to the ground. But the insistence of his mouth on hers wasn’t gentle at all. It was desperate and needy and broken. She heard a low noise from somewhere deep in his chest when she opened underneath him, pulling on his lip as he pressed into her mouth.

It was hard to focus, the way the hard ridges of his abdominals pressed against her curves, the way the skin of his back glided under her hands, the way she could feel him, hot against her thigh. But it occurred to her, eventually, that the noises he was making could be passion or pain and she couldn’t sort out which was which anymore.

She stepped back, pulling in a hasty breath, to look at him. It didn’t clarify anything.

“Clint,” she tried carefully, but before she could say anything else, the terrifying confusion of emotions that had been swimming across his face shut down like a light going off and he tensed underneath her hands.

He stepped away abruptly, and for the first time in this drawn out tightrope of a thing that they were walking, she was angry at him. Angry at him for always making her be the whole one, for being so damaged.

“Seriously?” she saw something like surprise register on his face at her aggressive tone, and she thought that it was probably good for him. “You’re just going to shut down and not say a word about this?”

“Darcy,” he started, and she was somewhat satisfied to note that his voice shook a little, like he was holding on to his closed of façade by a thread, “I shouldn’t have…I just can’t…I’m so sorry.”

“Fine,” she said tightly, “I’m leaving.”

He didn’t stop her.



She lasted a week. A week of holding on to her anger and her disappointment and her bruised heart, before the weight of everything that had gone before pulled her out of it.

She actually texted the Black Widow.

“Haven’t seen Clint since last week. Everything okay?”

She was surprised to get an immediate response.

“He’s been moody like a sullen teenager. We’d all be very appreciative if you could knock some sense into him. Yours is the only opinion that really seems to matter to him these days.”

She let out a sigh, rolling her eyes heavenward, asking whoever might be listening why she couldn’t get involved in things that were simpler than this. But, in the end, if he wasn’t complicated, he wouldn’t be Clint.

She banged resolutely on his door.

She was somehow unsurprised to find Kate Bishop on the other side of the door when she opened it.

“Darcy,” she exclaimed brightly, “Thank god. I was getting really sick of the old man’s sulking. I’m going to just conveniently vacate the premises. Good luck!”

She blew past like a hurricane, leaving Darcy alone in the apartment. Clint was standing at the door of his bedroom in loose pants and a t-shirt looking disheveled and tired and a little bit confused, which was not an unusual reaction to Kate.

Darcy closed the front door carefully behind her and turned to face him.

“You owe me an apology,” she said evenly.

“I’m sorry,” he said immediately, taking a few steps towards her, “I should never have…I was…not myself, and you’re so…”

She waived a dismissive hand at his ramblings. “Not for kissing me,” she said sharply, “for stopping.”

He stopped short.

“Or maybe more accurately for always stopping, shutting down like I can’t handle it.”

He took a few more steps towards her, almost close enough to reach out and touch.

“You shouldn’t have to handle it,” he said dully.

“Maybe let me decide that, yeah?” she asked, more gently now, because he was looking at her now, direct and unflinching.

He let out a long breath and slowly, as if asking for permission, he stepped closer, one hand resting on her shoulder in invitation. She gladly folded against him, the tension that had been riding along her spine all week melting away.

“You’ve wasted enough time on me already,” she could feel his words against her hair. She wound her arms around him, hiding a smile against his chest.

“There’s never been a second that was a waste.”