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The Apple

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Darcy meets Tony Stark for the first time in an elevator.

She has her headphones on, because Tony Stark’s elevator music is aggressively bad.  Most elevator music is boring, but harmless about it-- Tony’s is weapons grade boring.  It is as if he spent time carefully focus grouping to find music that made being in his elevator as excruciating as possible.  The first time Darcy had to take one to the sub-basement level they had stuck Jane on, she’d started to fall asleep while leaning against the side of the elevator.  

Now she had a system.  First, a full 8 ounces of black coffee.  Second, a further 12 ounces of coffee with milk in a tumbler.  Third, her iPod, cranked up to ‘this is going to cause hearing damage’ levels.

Darcy had also learned not to make eye contact with anyone in the elevator.  So it took a while for Darcy to realize that anyone was talking to her, or to realize that that person was Tony.

He’s staring at her iPod, gesturing and opening and closing his mouth, so Darcy pops out an earbud.

“--shouldn’t be able to function inside the building.” He finishes.  After a moment of silence he raises his eyebrows at her, like he’s expecting some sort of response.

“I didn’t get like the first half of that dude.”  Darcy says, stating what should be the obvious.

“Damn kids and their loud music.”  Tony mutters, not actually under his breath but as if Darcy can’t hear it.  “I said,” Louder now, “How does that work on the lower levels?  Nothing that isn’t StarkTech should be able to function below the lobby.”

Darcy looks down at her iPod, then shrugs.  “Well, I have no idea.  It always works.”

When he puts his hand out like he expects Darcy to give it to him, she does it with a certain level of resistance.  It had taken a lot of effort to get it back from Coulson after the whole Jackbooted Thugs Stealing All Jane’s Stuff incident.  She didn’t want to risk losing it again.

On the other hand, this was Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist and her current employer.  So Darcy handed the iPod over, but she resented it.

To her, it didn’t look like he’d done anything to it, but after thumbing through something on the screen, Tony’s face went really white.

“This-- Where did you get this?” His voice sounded like it wanted to be demanding but it actually came out kind of scared shitless.  It took Darcy from a bit annoyed to starting to get freaked out in record time. Even though she’d never met Tony before, he had a reputation for being sort of boundlessly confident.  He’d had a casual conversation with Loki and offered him a drink.  

Darcy’s iPod should not be the sort of thing that threw him.

“My dad gave it to me.  So look, you’re making me kind of a lot nervous right now with your whole Edvard Munch face thing.”  She gestured to his face, which was, if anything, getting paler.

“You got it from your dad.  Okay.  Okay.”  Tony said, completely ignoring everything else Darcy had said.  He had her iPod in some kind of death grip, staring with a facial expression one would expect from an actor on The Walking Dead.

Darcy had no idea where Tony was getting off, but they were pretty close to her floor, and despite the way he was acting about it, Darcy wanted her iPod back.  It seemed best to extract it now.

“Yes.  And now, I would like to have it back.”  Darcy said, speaking slowly and putting her hands palm up in front of his face.  “Please place the offending object into my hands, and we can both leave this elevator and never speak of it again, okay?”

Tony seemed to have gone somewhere else, mentally.

The elevator opened to her floor, and they both stood there with the door open for a really long time.

“Okay.  Well, I’m gonna let you hang on to that. You can just get it back to me whenever.”  Darcy said, finally, and even though she loved that iPod like it was the only thing her dad had ever given her (and it was), she got off the elevator.  

The doors closed, leaving her standing alone in the dark corridor that led to Jane’s lab.  Where she would be working, today and for the foreseeable future, without any auditory stimulation.

“Son of a bitch.” She swore, digging into her purse for her phone.  Which, hey, Tony was right, does not work.

Chapter Text

The second time Darcy meets Tony, it’s when Ian comes to visit.  It’s not like they’re in a long distance relationship, because that would imply that they had been in a relationship to begin with.  But, they’d kept in touch, so when Ian says he’ll be in town for a few days interviewing for a job, Darcy lets him stay on the couch in her suite.

They’re going for mid morning coffee together (because Darcy doesn’t really trust Ian to leave the building alone) when she sees Tony in the lobby.  He’s having a conversation with some military guy that seems to involve a lot of wild gesticulating.

She’s glad he’s recovered from his impersonation of a living statue, but as he still hasn’t returned her iPod, Darcy isn’t exactly happy to see him.

This is a feeling that Tony doesn’t seem to share.

“Darcy!” He says, projecting his voice way louder than the size of the room and their relative importance to each other requires.  Even so, Darcy is prepared to pretend not to have heard him until Ian stops.

Darcy gives Ian her best approximation of the Fry meme in a real life situation.

“So, I still have your--”

“Tony.”  His friend interrupts, putting his arm in front of Tony's body like he needs to physically restrain him.

“iPod.  Which I have, here, and am returning to you.  I lost the earbuds, but these ones are better.”  He continues, as if there has been no interruption, pressing her iPod into her hands.  It looks relatively unscathed.

The new earbuds are purple and blue, which are her two favorite colors, and look a hell of a lot more expensive.  Darcy remembers only a few minutes before, when she had not liked this man.  It seems like a long time ago.

“Cool.”  She says, and shows the earbuds to Ian, who mouth shrugs at her as she has trained him to.

This drew Tony’s attention to his existence, which did not seem to be a good thing.  “What is this.”  He demanded, looking at Ian with squinty eyes as if staring into a bright source of light.

Darcy checked to make sure he was definitely looking at Ian before answering.  

“That is an Ian.”

“What is it doing here?”

“Ah, I’m interviewing for a position?  Not for you, sir, although obviously I’d love--er.  In town for a couple of days.  Darcy-- she said I could stay here, for a while, and no one would be bothered.  So, I hope you’re not. Erm. Bothered.”

Tony looks like he may have become the embodiment of every time Darcy’s mother told her that her face would get stuck that way.  Recognizing the signs from the last time Tony seemed to have had a total systems crash, Darcy gets while the getting is good.

“Ian. Coffee.”  She says, and walks towards the door.  Ian follows immediately, because Darcy had ruled her intern with fairness and firm cruelty.

As much as Darcy digs the new headphones, which are excellent, she decides to avoid Tony from now on.  He is seriously weird.

Chapter Text

The third time Darcy meets Tony, it’s during the apocalypse.  Well, the attempted apocalypse.  Whoever built the whatever the hell it is that chases her and Jane out of the building is probably not going to win.  Huge robotic squirrel things do not exactly scream ‘successful super villain’ plot to Darcy.  The Avengers can handle it.

As she and Jane are not Avengers, Darcy’s plan is to get somewhere less like a battlefield and more like a mall.  If the world ends they’ll be in a mall, which movies have taught her is the best place to be.  If the world doesn’t end, well, they’ll still be at the mall, and Darcy can visit the puppies.

The sidewalk outside the tower is all rubble and screaming pedestrians.  Darcy and Jane should get lost in the shuffle, but it seems like whoever programmed the robot squirrel things took the trouble of adding a priority list.  

They’re getting cornered by three of the things when Iron Man swoops down and repulsor blasts the things.  "Darcy.  Get back in the building." Tony orders in his weirdly distorted voice, and flies off.

Darcy has no problem abandoning her puppy plan for this alternative.  She definitely likes Iron Man, although she’s still not so sure about Tony.

Chapter Text

The fourth time Darcy meets Tony, she’s kissing Captain America. 

She had considered hitting on the hot archer guy, but he seemed a little taken. Like, the ostensibly single but emotionally invested in another girl type, and Darcy did not have time for that level of angst in her personal life.  She spent too much time battling the angst in Jane’s personal life.  Darcy is in the market for a little no-strings fun, and she’d found that Steve was good for it.

They weren’t dating in the modern sense of the word, with sexy sleepovers.  They were more like buddies that kissed sometimes.

It had taken Darcy three dates to be sure that they actually were dates.  The first time it could have been an accident-- Darcy’d run into Steve at one of the delis near the tower, and they’d made small talk over pastrami.  

Then later, he’d come through the living room on his way to the gym and decided to stay through the end of Sabrina.  Darcy was a blanket burrito on the couch with a pint of ice cream.  She'd offered him a spoon to be nice, only to watch in horror as he finished the entire thing without taking his eyes off of Audrey Hepburn.

The third date was him buying her apology ice cream.  When he kissed her goodnight, his tongue was still cold and he tasted like chocolate.

When Tony walks in on them, it’s date twelve, and they’re on Steve’s couch.  For once they seem to be progressing past a chaste kiss, possibly because he’d been in DC for a while and he missed her.  Or maybe it’s like in the movies, and when people almost die they feel the need to have life affirming sex.

Darcy’s sure that sex with Steve would be pretty goddamn life affirming.  The Captain is rounding second base when Tony ruins it.

He walks in without knocking, because ‘privacy’ and ‘personal space’ are concepts that he needs to work on. “Hey, Cap, did you--” This is when he sees them, and makes a sound like a penguin drowning.

“Hi Tony.”  Steve says, completely deadpan.  “No, I’m not busy, go ahead and walk right in.  To my personal quarters.  Which I locked.  I don’t mind.” His hand is still resting under her shirt, cupping her rib cage, a hopeful sign.

Or not, because Tony seems to live to ruin her life.

Instead of leaving, like a normal person, he just stands there.  Staring at them.  It’s not like his frozen staring -- it’s a judgemental kind of staring, and Steve is starting to get a little pink in the face.  

When he shifts her off his lap, and Darcy knows that she can pretty much just go back to her rooms right now.

She has a pretty good night binge watching everything Catherine Cookson on Netflix anyways.  Still, Darcy takes the time print out a picture of Tony’s face to shoot rubber bands at.

 

Chapter Text

The fifth time Darcy meets Tony, she’s stealing from him.

Stealing might be a harsh interpretation of what she’s doing, really.  One of the terms of her employment is ‘room and board’, so if she happens to have a little store of food in her room, is that so wrong?

Re-selling it to people in lab might be pushing it from an ethical standpoint.  But what Tony doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

She’d gotten too complacent about it, in retrospect.

When Steve and Tony walk into the kitchen, Darcy is filling a tupperware container the size of a laundry basket.

There’s a moment, when she sees the shock on Steve’s face, that Darcy considers lying.  If only to avoid seeing that look, the one he gets when someone disappoints him.

“Hey guys,”  She says casually, still filling her tupperware.  It has been her experience that sometimes when you got caught, if you just pretended you had been doing nothing wrong you could get away with it.  

So Darcy smiled, like it was a joke.  The orange in her hand, the food in front of her-- nothing serious, not what it looked like.

He didn’t get the look she was dreading, though.  Steve just looks sad, like she’s breaking his heart right now.  He walked over and puts his hands on her face.

“Darcy,” He said softly, “You don’t have to do that.  We have enough food here.  It’s okay.”

Darcy didn’t know if he meant that she didn’t have to steal, or that she didn’t have to pretend that wasn’t what she was doing.  It shamed her either way, because of course Steve understood.  He’d grown up during the Great Depression.

Darcy buried her face against his chest, and he put his arms around her.

They had both completely forgotten about Tony.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘we have enough food here’.”  He said slowly, staring at the container on the table.  “What are you doing?”

Darcy, still leaning against Steve, sighed and decided to go all in with this honesty thing. “I may sort of… moonlight by making some of lab staff lunches.”  Darcy admitted.  “I-- look, it’s great living here, I’m sure that if Jane was paying me that whatever I could afford would be way shittier.  Sometimes I need stuff that is not food, though, so.”  She shrugged.

Tony’s glance was so sharp Darcy almost flinched.  “Foster isn’t paying you, yeah, but why would you need money that badly?  Your family has money.  Your mother has money.”

And that was a weird thing for him to say.  Darcy tries to put her finger on what is so strange about it.  Maybe it’s his certainty, like he has all the facts about her life.  Darcy wouldn’t really put it past him to have looked her up, but if he had he wouldn’t be so wrong right now.

“...Tony,”  Steve said reproachfully, “Darcy’s an orphan.  She grew up in foster care.”

“Woah, Steve, way to just put my business on the street.”  Darcy said, giving him a look that communicated mild annoyance.  It wasn’t exactly something she hid, she just didn’t talk about it much.  Whenever she told childhood stories that she thought were funny, everyone else seemed depressed.

Well, except Steve, but that was because his childhood stories were even more pathetic.

“Sorry,”  Steve said, checking her expression to see how mad she was.  Darcy gave him a kiss, and he smiled at her.  Then he glanced over at Tony, and his eyebrows drew together.

“Tony?”  Steve asked, dropping his hands from Darcy’s waist.  He looked like he was seriously ill, his face completely drained of color.  Steve took a step toward him.  “Are you okay?  Is it the arc reactor?”

When he reached out to touch his arm, Tony started violently.  He stared at Steve as if he had never seen him before, and found him to be terrifying.  Then turned and fled.

Steve hesitated, and then followed him.

 

Chapter Text

The first time that Tony sees Darcy, she is 9 months old and he makes her cry.  

When Christy Lewis called and left a message with his assistant, Tony hadn’t really known who she was.  One of a hundred girls at a thousand parties.  He let the lawyers deal with it.  Her name went into a file, with all the other girls who’ve claimed they’re carrying Tony Stark’s child.  

It was very, very unlikely that any of them were.  Tony wasn’t father material, he knew that.  He’d known it since he had been a child.

The first time he’d had sex, it had been with a condom.  And every time after that, it had been with a condom and a vasectomy.  He had laughed in the faces of women who’d said it was okay not to use protection, because they were ‘clean’, or ‘infertile’ or it would ‘feel better’.

Tony liked to feel as good as much as anyone else.  Maybe more than anyone else.  But he wasn’t careless.

Darcy is as statistically unlikely as two identical snowflakes, but she happens anyway.  When Obie sarcastically congratulates him, squeezing his shoulder with one huge hand, Tony smiles and laughs.  On the inside all he feels is panic and self loathing.

He pushes the thought of her away, but it eats at him.  The lawyers have taken care of it, of course-- the paternity tests, the non-disclosure clauses.  His name isn’t even on the birth certificate.  But she’s still out there.  He wants to see her, even if it’s just once.

The mother had been trying to get Tony to visit.  Obie tells him it’s all about the money.  That she hopes that if he sees the baby, he’ll be so overcome with paternal love that he’ll shower them both in way more money than the modest settlement she’d been forced to accept.  

How she had been forced to accept it had not been gone over in detail.

 

When Darcy is placed in his arms, he has no idea how to hold her.  He’d looked it up, he knew to support the head-- he just doesn’t know how to relax while he does it.

And like bees and horses, it seems that babies can smell fear.  Darcy doesn’t feel secure, and she fusses and struggles until he hands her back to her mother.  Even that isn’t enough to placate her, and she starts to wail.  It’s like the siren on a fucking fire truck, piercing, and Tony feels it like punch in the stomach.

“Sorry,”  Christy says, jogging his daughter against her shoulder.  “She’s kind of vocal.  I swear, when she was born her mouth opened and her head disappeared.”  She gives him an apologetic smile.  It’s a nice smile, really.  He doesn’t remember her, but she’s seemed… nice.  Very blonde, very conscious of her clothing-- the baby is wearing something that looks designer.  He’s not completely sure he trusts her.

But he trusts this baby.  She is loud and demanding.  Somehow, he can’t see anyone getting away with neglecting her, not with this banshee scream.

She’ll be okay without him.

Chapter Text

The second time Tony sees Darcy she’s moving away.  

Christy’s family is in Virginia, and she wants to move back to ‘give Darcy a sense of community’.  It’s strange to imagine a child of his growing up like that, with aunts and uncles and cousins.  Running around barefoot and going fishing.  But it’s nice.

She pulls up in one of those huge moving vans, looking a little rough.  Her hair has about an inch of roots showing dark brown, and her eyes are red-rimmed.  But when she smiles, it’s still a good one.

“Hey Tony.  Thanks again for sending those guys to help, I have no idea how I would have gotten everything loaded up without them.”  Christy says, hopping down from the driver’s seat.  Darcy is one and a half, looking sullen in her car seat.

“This has all been a nightmare, I hope I never have to move again.  And she’s a little cranky.”  Chisty reaches over to tweak Darcy’s foot in its bright purple sock.  “Every time I have to hit the breaks she starts screaming.  Must not like the way it jerks.”

“It’s the sound.”  Tony says automatically.  “Um.  High pitched noises like that, always really bothered me.  I had my hearing tested, wider range than most people.  Maybe it’s the same thing.”

Christy frowned, pushing her bangs up off her forehead.  “I guess I could see that.  Nothing I can really do about it now though, everything’s already loaded.”  She sighs.

“Hey, I hate to ask but can you watch her for a sec while I use your bathroom?  I just need a second to wash my face or something.”

She looks flushed and sweaty, and Tony agrees without really thinking about it.  And then he’s alone with Darcy.  He opens the car door on her side and leans against it.

Her hair is pulled up in a pair of pigtails with aqua blue plastic balls on the elastics, and she’s staring at him.  Now that she’s a little older, Tony thinks he can see something of himself in her face.  The nose, her chin, the same dark hair with a little bit of curl to it.  “Hi.”  Tony says, awkwardly raising a hand.  She looks at it suspiciously, then reaches out to tap in it a high-five.

“Hi.”  Darcy says, and smiles at him.

And this, this is why he didn’t want to see her.  Because what she deserves is those hot lazy summers, laying in the grass with her cousins.  That’s what he wants her to have.  Not kidnappings and long hours alone in an empty house.  Not paparazzi and death threats and corporate takeovers and blackmail.

Not his life, the life that he would have to give her if she was his.

There’s one thing he can do for her, though.

He’d been working on a prototype for the Starkplayer, working off of a Mac OS.  It’s not exactly an iPod, and not exactly what he wants the Starkplayer to be when it goes to the marketplace-- it has some tweaks that only he would really need.

He fishes it out of his pocket and tightens the collapsible headphones down as small as they’ll go, then flicks through his music until he finds something calm enough for a kid.  He doesn’t have a lot that fits that description, but blues seems as close as they’re going to get.

“You wanna listen to some music?”  He asks, and Darcy nods.  He fits the soft foam pads over her ears, and taps play on 'God Bless the Child'.

Her mouth goes into an immediate ‘O’.  Darcy flaps her hands, slapping her thighs in her excitement, and Tony grins.  “Okay, so that’s a ‘yes’ on Billie Holiday, good to know.”

Christy is back way too soon, apologizing for making him stand out in the sun for so long.  Tony doesn’t know how to tell her he wishes she’d taken longer, so he just tells her to keep the ‘iPod’.

“I thought maybe some music.  Block the sound out.”  Tony said, gesturing to Darcy’s wide-eyed, enraptured face.  Christy looks surprised, then greatful.

“That’s a good idea, thanks Tony.”  She reaches out to shake his hand.  Her skin is cool and a little damp from being washed.  “I know that you didn’t want… well, this.  But you’ve been a really good guy about it anyway.  I’ll tell her that, when she asks.”

Tony thinks of the lawyers and the settlements and feels disgusted.  And Christy must see it, because she tilts her head at him.

“Hey.  We don’t know each other, we never did.  If it wasn’t for this,” Christy made a gesture encompassing Darcy,  “I don’t think we’d have ever spoken again.  So you don’t owe us anything.  I’m grateful.  We can have a good life with what we have right now.”

To his surprise, she leans forward and kisses his cheek.  She smells a little like vanilla.  “Goodbye, Tony.”  She says, and circles around the front of the vehicle to climb in behind the wheel.

Tony gives Darcy a wave, and she lifts her hand, still focused on the music.

When he shuts her door, he finds himself staring at his own face.  At an expression he didn’t know was on it.

Christy starts up the moving van and Tony can still see Darcy through his reflection.  She has one fist tucked in her mouth, the headphones slipping down a little as they start to pull away.

And he lets her go.

Chapter Text

The third time Tony sees Darcy, it’s in that fucking elevator.

He has no idea how long he stands there staring at the closed doors before his brain catches up to reality.  “J.A.R.V.I.S, bring up all available information on the girl who was just in this elevator.”  

“Sir, I’m afraid I cannot access that information without an override code from either Colonel Rhodes or Ms. Potts.”  J.A.R.V.I.S. responded.  “Would you like me to contact them?”  

Tony groaned and leaned his forehead against the cool metal of the doors.  “Call Rhodey.”  He mumbled, because Pepper would be worse, Pepper would definitely be worse.

 

Tony was pacing and gutting some travesty of an engine for Fury in the lab when Rhodey walked in.  He was wearing casual clothes, his shoulders loose and relaxed.

“Hey Tones, what’s up?”  Rhodey said, sounding almost suspiciously cheerful.

“Hey, Rhodey!”  Tony said, and winced because he definitely sounded suspiciously cheerful.  “Could I get your override code?”

“...My override code for what?”  Rhodey said, immediately transitioning into his I recognize your bullshit voice.

“Ah, nothing really, I just need you to take the child lock off of something.”  Tony said evasively, flicking one of the exhaust ports out of the hologram just to have something to do with his hands.

“Tony, what do you need the ‘child lock’ taken off of?”  Rhodey asked, leaning against the counter so he could stare at Tony through the projected blueprints.

“...My child?”  Tony said, and turned around to examine a second set of schematics.  (Not to avoid eye contact, or anything, he really needed to look at those.)

“Your… Tony, you don’t have any children.  You had a vasectomy.  When you were like, fifteen.  There was a party.”

Tony had a vague memory of birthday hats, fireworks, and some weird liquor that had smelled like strawberries with flakes of gold floating in it.  There had been some very sparkly vomit.

“I did,” He agreed,  “and yet somehow one brave little sperm managed to do the thing.”

“Pepper’s pregnant?”  Rhodey asked, his eyebrows shooting up to his hairline.

“Please, like Pepper would trust me with our birth control.”  Tony scoffed.  “No, this was a while ago.”

“Define a while.”

Tony turned back to his other set of holograms, the ones that he totally needed and that were not at all part of an avoidance strategy. “23 years ago this May.  You know, unless we’re taking a ‘life begins at conception’ standpoint, then--”

“You have a 22 year old child.”  Rhodey interrupted, and there was nothing left of that cheerful mood.  “That you have contact with?”

“No.  I just met her in an elevator, and now J.A.R.V.I.S. won’t let me look her up.  So I need your code.”

“You have a 22 year old child, that you just met in an elevator.”  He repeated again, “And instead of talking to her, you want me to give you my override code so that you can electronically stalk her.”

Tony didn’t know how to respond to that.

Rhodey sighed.  “No.  Tony, if you’re curious about her, why don’t you do what normal people do, and go talk to her.  I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how…”  He trailed off, holding his hands up helplessly before letting them fall back to the counter.

And that, at least, Tony had answer for.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, please play my most viewed video.”

The blueprints on the table between them blinked out of existence, replaced by something much more one dimensional.  The security footage was grainy, pirated-- not a level of quality that Tony would have accepted from any of his own cameras.

When a little girl with long, dark hair walked on screen, Rhodey leaned forward.  “Jesus, Tony, she looks just like you.”  He said, and then a little boy walked up to Darcy, and shoved her into the dirt.

“Give it.”  His tinny voice demanded.  Darcy lifted her chin, the spitting image of Tony when he was about to get the bit between his teeth.

“Give it.”  He said again, and Darcy glanced at someone off screen.

“Rob, cut it out.”  A man’s voice said, without any weight behind the command.

Thus encouraged, Rob turned back, his hand raised.

And then Darcy reached up, and slapped herself.  “Ow.”  She said loudly, and started to wail.  “Help!”  She yelled through her sobs, and brought her hand down against her arm with a loud crack of skin-on-skin.  “Someone help me, heeeelp.”

Rob was standing with his hand still in the air, stock still.  A man ran into frame.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”  He demanded, grabbing Rob by the wrist.  “I swear to god, it’s always something with you.”

“But-- I didn’t--”  Rob protested, struggling as his father drug him from the the playground.  Behind him, Darcy was calmly slapping her skirt to knock the dirt loose.  Rob turned to look back, and she blew him a kiss.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, stop.”  Tony said, and the screen froze with Rob still staring back at her, his face a complete blank of shock.

“Rhodey, do you remember, oh, about 17 years ago, when I bought that power company in Virginia?  And everyone thought it was weird and no one could talk me out of it?”  Tony said, with exaggerated casualness.  “It was because that kid’s father worked there.  I bought it, and then I had him transferred to Arkansas.”

He stared at the still image of his daughter, hand in the air from blowing the kiss like she was waving goodbye.  

“And you know what?  I didn’t need to do that.  Look at that kid, Rhodey, he’s terrified, she’s like a 5 year old Tyler Durden.  But it was like a compulsion, I had to do something to him.  And this,”  He pointed to Rob, “Is not the only person I did something like that to.”

“That’s… almost sweet.  I mean, incredibly fucked up, but.”  Rhodey said, and he looked at little Darcy.  “If anything you probably did that kid a favor, he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.”

Tony paused.  “Hmm.  Well, I’ve always liked terrifying women, glass houses.  The point is, I cut myself off.”

“You met her in your elevator-- she work in the building?”  Rhodey asked, and Tony considered how Darcy had looked when he’d met her.

“Yeah, I think so.”  He decided.

Rhodey nodded.  “Right, well.  Looks like you’re going to have to get more familiar with your employees, Tony.  By talking to her.  In person.”

Tony sighed dramatically and flopped onto a couch as if in a dead faint.  “Rhodes, you’re killing me here.”

“Or, option two-- doesn’t Pepper have an override code?  I’m sure she does.  Why don’t you call Pepper.”  Rhodey offered, grinning.  And Tony hated him.

“Would you like me to contact Ms. Potts, Sir?”  J.A.R.V.I.S offered.

Tony, still enacting tragedy on the sofa, didn’t open his eyes.

“Is that sarcasm, J.A.R.V.I.S.”

Because if this was what Rhodey did, Jesus Christ was he not telling Pepper.

Chapter Text

The next time Tony sees Darcy it's because he’s been stalking her.  Well, Tony thinks that’s a strong term for what he’s been doing.  He prefers to think of it as conducting some preliminary recon.  

“No, Tony.”  Rhodey says, when he sees the secondary surveillance system that Tony has set up.  “This is stalking.”

“Well, if someone would give me his override code,”  Tony started, and Rhodey threw up his hands in exasperation.

“Tony, even if you were using J.A.R.V.I.S right now, this would still be stalking.”

“This is all just a temporary work-around.”  Tony said, waving his hand at a monitor that displayed Darcy sitting at her kitchen table, scrolling through tumblr on her laptop.  “She’ll leave to get coffee soon, and then I can give her this.”

Rhodey looked at the white iPod in Tony’s hand in complete bafflement.  “...So, I assume that’s not what it looks like, but I have no idea what giving your daughter an iPod will accomplish.”

“You are correct, this is not an iPod.  It was actually one of the first Starkplayer prototypes, but now it is a portable surveillance system.  It will hijak and transmit any nearby video feeds.  It’ll capture its own audio feeds, of course.  And it has all of her music.”  Tony said the last part like it was an afterthought.

Rhodey shook himself out of his horrified silence.  “Tony.  No.

Tony glanced at the monitor.  “Oh, she’s on her email, that means we have about five minutes.  We need to get to the lobby.”

They argue in the hallway, and in the elevator.  They’re still doing it when Darcy walks into the lobby, and Tony bellows her name at a volume that makes everyone wince.

“So, I still have your--”  Rhodey makes a last ditch effort to stop it, throwing his body in front of Tony like he’s holding a grenade instead of an iPod.  But it’s futile.

“iPod.  Which I have, here, and am returning to you.  I lost the earbuds, but these ones are better.”  Tony continued, handing it to her, and Rhodey gives up.  He takes his first really good look at the girl.  He can see Tony in her face--she has his nose-- but it’s something more than that.  There’s a kind of tiredness to her face, like she doesn’t sleep much, and her smile when she sees the new headphones is as sudden and joyful as any of Tony’s.

He’s so occupied tracing their resemblance that he almost misses Tony’s nervous breakdown.

“What… who was that.”  Tony asks, watching out the window as Ian trails after Darcy like a duckling.

“Apparently, that was an Ian.”  Rhodey says, looking amused.  “Tony, she’s 22, you think this is the first guy in her life?”

“I… Why would you say that to me?  Why would you want to put those kind of thoughts into my head?”  Tony demanded.  When they get in the elevator he starts pacing it like a caged lion.

“See, this is why I’m not giving you my code.”  Rhodey said, as they got off on Tony’s floor.  “You’d be hunting down every bad middle school boyfriend the girl ever had right now, wouldn’t you.  Some poor guy who left a mean comment on her myspace page in like, 2005, would be getting transferred to his company’s newly built facility in Antarctica--”

He stopped, because they had reached the lab.  Where Pepper was watching a monitor that showed Darcy bullying Ian over a mocha.

“Tony, what…”  She held her hands up.  “What is this?  Who is that?”

“Ah…”  Tony says, looking helplessly at Rhodey, who shakes his head.

“What… Tony, are these cameras in someone’s home?”  She demanded, and Tony realized how many of the feeds he’d left live-- Darcy’s kitchen, Darcy’s living room, the lab.  All on their own monitors, all there for Pepper to see.

And she does, because now that they have their coffee, Darcy and Ian are walking back into the tower lobby.  Then into the elevator.  And then she’s walking into the monitor that displays her living room, dropping her coat on the floor next to the door.

Ian tries to pick it up.  “Ian.  In my house that is where we keep the coats.  On the floor.  Respect the house rules, Ian, first rule of couch surfing.”

At the sound of her voice, Pepper brings a hand to her mouth.  “Oh.  Tony, she sounds just like you.  Is that Darcy?”

What?”  Tony and Rhodey said at the same time.

Chapter Text

The fifth time Tony sees Darcy, she almost dies.

Some shitty Dr. Doom wannabe has made what can only be characterized as deathbot squirrels, which are hilarious in theory until you realize how fast they are.  Their tiny razor claws don’t do a thing to the Iron Man suit, but they manage to rip a pretty impressive hole in Captain America’s arm. They seem to be programed to prioritize anyone in ‘official clothing’, and they’ve found more than one mailman or waitress gutted on the sidewalk.

“So, should we go with ‘Death Squirrel Bots’, or ‘Deathbot Squirrels” on the reports? Because I think an argument could be made--”

“Tony, keep the coms clear.” Steve interrupted, sounding at least a little amused.

The streets seem a little full this time of day, even for an area with as much foot traffic as downtown has, and Tony realizes why when he sees his first dead scientist.

These are his people.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, where is my daughter.” Tony demands, before remembering that he can’t tell him. He pulls up the tracker in her iPod, and feels simultaneously relieved and terrified when he sees her location blip to life on his screen.

Outside of the tower.

He spots her from a block away, surrounded by three of the squirrel things. She doesn’t turn and run, and he can see her making the same stubborn face he’d seen the 5 year old version of her make every day for years in that security footage. Right before she slapped herself. And Tony knows what she’s going to do, because he might not be the one to make the sacrifice play-- but she is.

Darcy rips the labcoat off of the woman next to her, and steps in front of her.

He’s there so quickly that the air he displaces knocks them over.

Darcy, sitting on the sidewalk, takes in the in the wreck of circuitry in front of her, and tilts her head. “I feel that this would have been an embarrassing way to die. ‘Here lies Darcy Lewis, murdered by Squirrel Deathbots’.”

She paused. “Death Squirrelbots? Deathbot Squirrels? You know, I’m going with Death Squirrelbots.”

"Darcy. Get back in the building." He says, and inside the helmet he can hear how pissed he is. But the modulated voice comes out without much inflection.

 

The cleanup is relitively quick, over before Tony can work out any of his rage. He’s in the lab taking a hammer to a dent in his armor when Pepper finds him.

“Tony, why are you…?” She says, baffled. Because today hadn’t been a bad one. It had been robot squirrels. She had expected to find him in a good mood, not knocking loose pieces of metal from his armor that left little cuts all over his arms.

“What I want to know,” Tony said tersely, “Is why the sidewalk outside of my building was full my employees. This is why we have safe rooms. Is there some reason, some very important reason, why basic safety protocols aren’t being followed around here, Pepper?”

Pepper frowned. “No, there should be more than enough room… maybe the newer employees didn’t know about them? Did you get any names-- oh. Tony.”

She wrapped her arms around him, leaning her weight onto his back.

“Tony, I think you need to tell her.” Pepper says, squeezing.

“If I tell her, she’ll leave.” Tony said.

And maybe that would be a good thing.

Chapter Text

Pepper finds out about Darcy while she’s escorting one of his ‘guests’ from Tony's suite.  

She's putting his jacket away and contemplating her life choices when she sees it.

On the top shelf of Tony’s closet, there’s a white shoebox, which would be unusual on its own.  All Tony’s shoes are in a little stand in his closet, polished and organized according to color and formality.  And this shoebox looks… Old.  The corners are worn, and it has black smudges on it from ink or motor oil.

This is something that Tony is keeping secret-- the man who leaves sex toys out as ‘art pieces’-- so Pepper isn’t sure what she’s expecting when she opens the box.  But it’s not newspaper clippings.

Because Tony doesn’t read the news.  She’d be surprised to even find regular paper in his house.  J.A.R.V.I.S. aggregates the news and distils it down to its salient points for him every morning, and that’s it.  That’s his contact with anything approaching a newspaper.

The first clipping is of a story hour at a library-- barely a blurb, with a picture.  Five or six kids, the biggest girl holding a lamb in her lap.  It doesn’t make any sense until Pepper fits it into the context of the other clippings.  They’re all about this little girl.  Mostly tiny mentions-- her time in a recent track and field meet, or her name in a list of members of a girl scout troup who cleaned a river.  But there are a few longer articles as well.  Science fairs, a letter to the editor, a first place ranking in a singing contest.  

She gets a little older in each photograph, and as she does Pepper can’t shake the feeling that there’s something familiar about her, until she reaches the bottom of the box.

She’s crouched down next to what looks like a huge mess, grinning, above the headline ‘Local Senior Builds Ketchup Robot’.

And if that doesn't scream 'Tony Stark's Daughter', Pepper doesn't know what does.

 

After that she notices a lot of little things-- old purchases of companies in Virginia, the weird way that Tony stares at groups of teenagers.  Pepper realizes that before this she would have thought he was ogling 14 year old girls and been disgusted with him.  Now… well, it’s a little heartbreaking.

With all the interest he seems to have in Darcy, Pepper can’t really understand why he doesn’t seem to have contact with her.  He seems to be engaged in this weird form of long distance parental stalking.

And then Fox News gets ahold of some old footage of Tony and runs with it.  It’s from a kidnapping when he was 12.  They’d kept him in a dark room for a week, and fed him so rarely and so poorly that when he tried to eat a hamburger afterwards, he’d vomited.  They’ve spliced it together in a montage of other times that Tony has been sick or drunk in public.  As if it’s funny.

A lot of people seem to think that it is.  When Pepper watches the it she can see quite a few times when Tony’s not intoxicated-- where the effects of a battle have hit him hard, or the arc reactor was malfunctioning.

Tony makes a joke out of it and calls her a wet blanket, but there’s something about the way that he looks at her when he says it that tells her he doesn’t think it’s funny either.  “Just part of being a Stark,” He says, winking at her.  And like tumblers falling into place, Pepper gets the Darcy thing.  That Tony thinks that as long as he stays away from her, Darcy doesn’t have to be a Stark.  She can be something else.

Chapter Text

 

The first time Steve meets Darcy, she’s belting out a Peggy Lee song.  He’s wandering through the labyrinth that is the lower level labs, trying to find where in god’s name they’ve hidden his new uniform.  All the hallways look the same, the lights a bluish tint that Steve finds a little disorienting.  They were better than the florescent bulbs that seemed so common now-- there was something about florescents that was so harsh-- but they gave him the impression that he was underwater.  

He can hear something down one of the hallways, though.  A clicking, like someone snapping their fingers, so he follows it.  Then there's the suggestion of a voice, and he realizes he’s hearing music--a woman singing.

“...I light up when you call my name…”  

He turns left, and the voice cuts off, so he backtracks.

“...you give me fever…” It's louder to the right, and he thinks he can see an open door near the end of the corridor.

“...Julie baby you’re my flame…”  Steve taps on the open door, but no one answers.  When he pops his head into the lab, it’s empty except for a woman organizing a shelf of pipettes and beakers.  She has her headphones on and her back to him while she sings, and even though he has no idea where he is, Steve is about to leave without disturbing her when she turns around.

“Now that you’ve listened to my story--” She sees him and drops her iPod.  It clatters against the laminate floor, but doesn’t seem otherwise damaged.

“Oh, holy shit.”  She says, putting her hand to her chest.  “Whew.  You scared the crap out of me.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”  Steve said, holding up his hands in an attempt to seem more harmless.  As far as she’s concerned, a strange man just barged into her lab, and she might actually be afraid.  “I got a little turned around down here.  If you could just tell me the way to the elevators, I’ll be out of your hair.”

“It’s impossible to find shit down here.”  The girl says ruefully, picking up her music player and wrapping her headphones around it.  “It’ll be easier just to show you.”

“Ah-- alright, thank you ma’am.”  He says, feeling more awkward than usual.  He’s interacted with a lot of people since waking up, but this girl feels more ‘modern’ than any of them except Tony.  At least he could compare Tony to Howard and find something familiar.  She’s wearing baseball shoes that are a brand he recognizes (PF Flyers), and she has long hair, but otherwise there’s nothing about her that’s like a girl from his time.  He can’t imagine a woman in the 40s going to work in jeans and a T-shirt, with her hair secured in a bun by pencils.  

Not to mention her near-constant and casual swearing.

“Don’t worry about it--I have a system.  I’ll teach it to you.”  She says, walking out the door.  Steve trailed in her wake, listening to her explain something about UV light and highlighters-- and then he can see it.  There are small dots on the corners of the walls that flash different colors when you get close.  It’s like a numbered grid, with the colors in rainbow order.

“Some paranoid asshole decided not to label any of the corridors, so that it would be ‘harder to infiltrate’, although I don’t know who would want to.”  She said, her mouth twisting wryly.  “There’s basically nothing down here.”

“Wow, that’s a really sw-- a really good idea.”  He said, honestly impressed by the subtle ingenuity of it.

“I tried putting up like, actual labels, and someone had a shitfit about it, but they haven’t noticed this.”  She shrugged.  “So for now, Jane’s lab is at the corner of blue and purple.  And,”  She flourished, “The elevators are at green and red.”

They were standing in front of the bank of elevators that Steve had started from.

“Thanks a lot for your help.  I think I walked around for about ten minutes before I heard you singing.”  Steve said.  He felt like he should shake her hand or something.   “Ah… What song was that?  Haven’t heard it before.”

“Oh, that’s probably because I was butchering it.”  She said, sticking her hands in her back pockets self-consciously.  “It was ‘Fever’.  Peggy Lee version.”

Steve nodded, like that meant something to him, because that’s what he’d started to do when someone made a reference he didn’t understand.  She seemed to pick up on it.

“Um, older music, sorry.  I’m kinda into jazz and blues.”  And she shrugged a little self deprecatingly.

“Oh,”  Said Steve, perking up a little, “What was the name again?”  He pulled out his notebook.  “I’d like to look her up.”

“Peggy Lee, Fever.  Um, if you like that sort of thing, do you want a couple other recommendations?”

Steve handed over his notebook, and she scrawled down a few more names, some of which he actually knew.

“Thanks.  I know some of these,”  He said, tapping his thumb on Billie Holiday,  “But it’ll be nice to hear them again.”

“Not a problem.  See you around.”  She says, giving him a quick wave and disappearing into the maze of white walls.

It’s an interesting paradox, this girl who couldn’t be any less old fashioned and her list of old music.

And when he looks it up later, he likes the Peggy Lee song she was singing.  It's kind of... sexy.

Chapter Text

 

The next time Steve meets Darcy, they start dating.

Steve likes going out for lunch.  It’s not that the food in the Tower is bad-- Tony always keeps the kitchen stocked, and there’s a cafeteria if he doesn’t feel like cooking-- it’s that he likes to see the city, like a normal guy might.  Tony had given him some kind of grand tour when he first moved in, but that had only made Steve feel a million miles from his old life.  There were a lot of things about the city that had changed-- that was fine.  New York had always been a fast town, quick to try new things and just as quick to throw them out again.  If things had stayed the same, that wouldn’t have made Steve happy.

But with Tony everything is all champagne and expensive restaurants, and it's nothing like being poor in Brooklyn.  Steve thought that half of his culture shock isn’t the technology-- the cell phones and the holograms-- but the money.  All of a sudden, everyone he knew was rich.  Even people like Bruce, who didn’t think of themselves that way, had had enough money to get a Ph.D. when Steve had barely been able to pay for a few semesters of art school.

He likes going to the deli, and sitting next to a construction worker who was complaining about his kid’s dentist bill.  It makes him feel grounded. 

The third time he has lunch there, the girl from the labs walks in.  She looks a little different from the last time he saw her-- not more ‘put together’, exactly.  He gets the impression that these are her normal clothes, and that what he saw her in before was her dressing conservatively.

He kinda likes it, even though it’s not what he’s used to.  For one thing, they look like they’ve been through a few washings.  As lovely as Pepper and Natasha and the rest of the women he knows look, there’s something intimidating about the way they dress.  Like their clothes wouldn’t dare get dirty.  This girl’s clothes have the look of something worn into softness.

The deli’s crowded for lunch, but somehow Steve always ends up with a table to himself.  He sees her scanning the area for an open seat, and he lifts his hand to get her attention before he really thinks about it.  She hesitates, but then takes the chair opposite him.

“Hey,”  She says cheerfully, unwinding the scarf around her neck.  “I didn’t know you liked this place.”

“I just found it,”  Steve admits, “But I like their pastrami.  I’m Steve Rogers, by the way.  I’d shake your hand, but,”  He looks down at the honey mustard running down his wrist.

“Hey, great minds,”  She says, opening the butcher paper around her sandwich to reveal an identical sandwich.  “Darcy Lewis.”

“So, when you’re not rescuing guys like me, what do you do for SI?”  Steve asks, watching her take a bite that looks too big for her mouth.

“Alas, I am but a lowly intern.  This sandwich is actually a really big deal for me.  Usually I just eat at the tower because it’s free, but,”  She gestured down at her lunch.  “How could I not?  It’s like this wonderful world of meat that I never knew existed.”

“Well, next time you get a craving, you should let me pay.  I think lunch would be a fair price for leading me out of that maze.”  Steve offered, and then almost wanted to take it back.  He liked Darcy-- she seemed so easy to be around-- but he wasn’t really looking to date anyone right now.  He didn’t even have his footing in this place yet.

“Eh, you would have gotten out of there eventually.  If anyone can pull a Theseus it’d be Captain America.”  Darcy paused.  “Wait, does that make Tony Stark King Minos?  Hmm.  I could see it, actually.”

“Ah-- you recognized me?”  Steve asked, taken aback.  Darcy raised her eyebrows.

“Dude, everyone recognizes you, why did you think you had this table to yourself?”  She asked.  Steve frowned.

“But yeah, I could use a lunch buddy.”  Darcy admitted.  “Jane is very unexcited about food, it’s very discouraging.  Like when someone has the same reaction to a pop tart as she does to my grandma’s apple pie recipe… I don’t even know to deal with that.  It’s like, this is why we can’t have nice things.”

“That good, huh?”  He asked, wiping his hands on a napkin.  He wants to go wash them, but for some reason he feels reluctant to get up from the table.

“You don’t even know.  I’ll make it for you sometime, you seem like someone who can appreciate a culinary masterpiece.”  Darcy said, carefully wrapping up the remaining half of her sandwich.  They walked back to the tower together, and Steve feels hyper-conscious of every detail-- the way his hands smell like meat and mustard, that it’s a little windy.  It all feels weirdly significant.

When they get to the lobby, he has no idea what to do.

Darcy studies him for a moment, her head tilted.  “We should seriously do this again.  Not to be like, weird about it, but I don’t really know anyone in New York but Jane, and I get enough Jane working with her all day.  You seem like you’re maybe in the same boat.”

Steve hesitates, wanting to say yes and no at the same time.  Darcy smiled at him.

“Not looking to get married, dude.  Just want to get a sandwich sometime.”

He can almost hear Howard saying ‘Fondue is just cheese and bread, my friend’.

“I… yeah.”  Steve says, finally deciding.  “Yeah, let’s do this again.”

Chapter Text

Steve realizes that he’s serious about Darcy after the whole robot squirrels thing.

The first time he’d kissed her, and her mouth was cold and sweet from the ice cream, he’d probably fallen in love.  It was hard to see it like that at the time, though.  He just knew that he liked being around Darcy, and that when something good happened he wanted to tell her first.

After any kind of a battle, there’s a little bit of a high-- even after the bad ones-- and he’s riding it when he goes to see her.  It crosses his mind that he should change out of his uniform, that the blood might look bad.  He can almost hear her swearing, her face animated, her hands holding onto his arm while she examines the wound.

When he gets to her room, the door is sitting wide open so he knocks and lets himself in.  Darcy is sitting on her bed scrubbing at her hands with a washcloth, but as soon as she saw him she stood up.

“Oh, shit dude.  That looks serious, do we need to like, bandage it or something?”  She asked, and it’s not quite like how he imagined it.  There’s something pinched to her face, and instead of reaching out to touch him she’s holding her hands awkwardly in front of her.  It takes him longer than he’d like to admit to put it together that she’s injured.

“Darcy, what happened to your hands?”  Steve asked, turning her palms over.  There are indents in her skin from gravel, and scrapes.  Most of it looks pretty superficial, but there is blood.

“Oh, I fell down on the sidewalk.”  She says, shrugging.  Like it’s any other day, and she slipped on a patch of ice.  All of the adrenaline in his system started to channel itself in another direction.

“What were you doing outside?”  Steve asked, trying to keep his tone even.  He's picturing the five people who died today, one of them a dark haired girl in a waitress uniform who could have been Darcy.  He’s still holding her hands, and he can feel the slightest tremor.  He doesn’t know if it’s from him or her.

“Um, running away from Death Squirrelbots?”  She said, and smiled at him the way she does when she’s inviting him to be in on a joke.  It’s such a familiar expression, and Steve wonders how many times she’s done something like this to him.  How many times she’s taken something serious and made him think that it was nothing.

He kissed her, and it felt different.  He had always liked kissing Darcy-- but it was just another part of what they did, simple and fun.  

There’s nothing simple about this kiss.

Even while it’s happening, Steve feels sort of outside of himself.  Like he’s watching some other man put his hands on her face and pour himself into her mouth.

If he was looking at anyone else, he’d think they were in love.

Chapter Text

The next time Steve sees Darcy, she’s in his bed.

After the kiss, Steve doesn’t exactly run away.  There are good reasons for him to go to D.C.-- more than he knew when he agreed to it.  Still, on some level, he knows why he’s going.

It’s because he’s terrified.  

This, she, is exactly what he didn’t want.  Another person for him to lose, like Bucky and Peggy.  Or god, even Howard.  Somehow the Commandos hurt a little less.  Maybe it’s because they were all soldiers, and when you fought with a man you loved him in a different way.  You knew that tomorrow he could be dead.

It was why he could connect with the Avengers-- they were friends, sure, but they were soldiers first.

Peggy had been a soldier too, of course, but somehow she had always felt indestructible.  It was in the way she walked, with her shoulders back and her eyes straight ahead.  And she really had been indestructible-- she had outlasted them all.

Darcy wasn’t fragile, Steve knew that-- but she was so open.  He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her, but he could imagine how easy it would be to do it.

Steve gets an apartment, and a gym membership.  He tries to convince himself that he lives in this apartment-- that the Tower is not his home.  That he doesn’t read Darcy’s text messages over and over again all day.  

He can’t bring himself to date any of the women Natasha keeps pushing for him to see, though.  Even if it’s just fondue.

Bucky sends him into a tail spin.

He can’t go back to that apartment, and SHIELD has gone to ground-- there are a hundred good reasons to go to New York-- but just like with D.C., Steve knows why he gets on the plane.

It’s early afternoon when he walks into the lobby with a suitcase and takes the elevator up to his room.  He tells himself that he hasn’t told anyone else he was coming back to New York, and so it doesn’t mean anything that he hasn’t told her.  It wasn’t like that between them anyway-- it wasn’t serious.

Then he walks into his bedroom and finds her sleeping in his bed, holding one of his old shirts close to her face like a teddy bear.

He sets the case by the door, kicks off his shoes, and crawls in beside her.  As soon as he inhales, he knows how much he’s been lying to himself.  If she was the one who’d run away, he wouldn’t have been honest enough to lay in her bed so he could smell her-- but he would have wanted to.  

The way the mattress shifts when he lays down wakes her, and Darcy blinks at him a few times before she smiles.  Like she’s not sure if he’s really there.

She opens her arms and Steve pulls her into him before he can question the impulse.  And it’s everything he wants, and everything that scares him.

He remembers Sam, in that hallway outside the support group, asking Steve what makes him happy.

It’s this.

 

Steve wakes up hours before Darcy and tries not to feel creepy for watching her sleep for so long.  He’s jet lagged, and it feels like early morning to him even though the clock’s pushing 7 pm, so by the time Darcy emerges from his bedroom Steve has made three different versions of breakfast for dinner.

“Ooh, bacon,”  Darcy says happily, padding barefoot into the kitchen.  Her toenails are painted red, white, and blue. “What?”

“Nothing,”  Steve says, handing her a plate and leaving the room.

Darcy follows him into the living room and sits cross-legged on the couch with her food.  He’s always been a firm believer that food stays in the kitchen, but Darcy will eat anywhere.  She gives him a look that says she knows she’s getting away with something.

Steve takes her plate away, and she makes a noise of protest until he kisses her.  It’s just like the last one, something that he can’t control.  It’s hard to find a reason to stop himself when it seems like Darcy wants it as much as he does, making little noises and crawling into his lap.  She has her hands buried in the front of his shirt, holding him against her with surprising strength.  

He puts his hands on Darcy’s hips, just to steady her, and finds bare skin where her T-shirt has started to ride up.  He lets his hands wander up her back, over her ribs, until his fingers brush the edge of her bra.  The way that she pushes against his touch is more than an invitation, it’s a demand.  

And for once, Steve isn't thinking about what he should do.  He's thinking about the way that Darcy's back feels when she arches against him, about the places he wants to kiss her.

Of course, that’s when Tony walks in.

Chapter Text

The next time Steve sees Darcy, he thinks she might have been sleeping with Tony.

It’s not just the weird way that Tony stares at them until Darcy rolls her eyes, mutters “Typical”, and leaves the room.  It’s everything he says afterwards, and his body language.  

Tony spends the next hour pacing Steve’s living room, trying to talk to him about some mission--but he keeps making these weird comments about ‘morals’.  By the time he leaves Steve has no idea what the mission is, but he knows that Tony is really, really angry with him.

He spends a half hour cleaning up the kitchen, his mind lighting on all  the things that he could have done to upset Tony, but he keeps coming back to Darcy.  The way he'd stared at her.  

They hadn’t ever talked about their relationship-- what the ‘rules’ were.  Maybe she and Tony had... done something.

Steve tried to see it in the best light.  There really hadn’t been time to talk about it properly tonight.  She’d been planning on telling him.  He’d been gone for a while, and he hadn’t told her when he was coming back.  It was understandable that she would be lonely.  

He thought about the way he’d found her, sleeping in his bed, and felt like someone had just kicked him in the stomach.

It’s way too late to go to her room.  They could talk about it in the morning.

 

When Steve knocks on her door around midnight, he knows that he’s acting crazy.

“...Steve?”  Darcy says, her eyes heavy and sleepy.  She’s wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt that has been washed so many times the logo is just a blue smudge.  Steve feels like he’s never seen her look more beautiful.

“Are you okay?  You look kind of…”  Darcy trails off, looking at where his hair is sticking up.  He can’t stop running his hands through it while he tries to compose himself, tries to think of what he can say.

“I’m sorry I left.”  He blurted out.  “I love you.”

Darcy stared at him with her mouth a little bit open.  “I’m sorry, I think I just hallucinated.”  She said, rubbing her forehead with one hand.  “What?”

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have just… run off to D.C.”  Steve said, gripping a handful of his hair.  “I love you.”

“Wow.  Okay, I need a minute to like, process this.”  Darcy said, walking back into her living room like she expected him to follow.

She sat down on the couch, drawing her legs up to her chest like she was protecting herself from something.  “So.  Okay.  You… love me.”

“Yes.”  Steve said, sitting down next to her with his hands in his lap.

“Okay.”  Darcy repeated.  “Okay.  That’s… Okay.  So are we like, a serious thing?”

“I-- Do you want that?”  Steve said, feeling his heart start to pick up speed.

Darcy gave him an exasperated look.  “Steve, anyone would want that with you, you’re basically perfect.”

“So, that’s a yes?”  Steve asked, and Darcy let out a long, exaggerated sigh.

“Ugh, why are you so adorable, come here.”  She said, opening her arms, and Steve immediately pulled her into his lap.  Possibly with too much enthusiasm, if her laugh was anything to go by.

When he held her like this, the whole idea felt ridiculous.  But he had to ask.  “So,”  He said, planting a kiss in her hair, “That thing with Tony today was weird.”

“God, I don’t know what his problem is.”  Darcy said, her face buried in the front of his shirt.  “He has been weird to me from like, day one.  Like every other thing I say, he just stands there and stares at me without saying anything.”

"Hmm," Steve said, stroking Darcy's back absently.   He has a hard time coming up with a reason that Darcy would make Tony Stark speechless.  A reason that would explain how angry he had been tonight.  He can't think of one.

But he wants to figure it out.

Chapter Text

The first time Pepper meets Darcy, she finds out about Steve.

It’s not that Pepper wasn’t interested in meeting her before-- it’s just that pretending Darcy’s just another SI employee is not the foot she wants to start that relationship out on.  Tony is still stalking her and complaining about it, despite the fact that he was the one who’d locked himself out of monitoring her in the first place.  And while Pepper thinks that Tony using J.A.R.V.I.S. would make very little difference at this point, she agrees with Rhodey that not giving him their override codes might frustrate him enough to force him to actually interact with his daughter.

So she doesn’t meet Darcy intentionally.  She’s waiting in the lobby to for a board member who was fifteen minutes late before he got stuck in traffic, and she’s bored.  When Steve pulls up on his bike, Pepper is especially glad to see him.

She’s always glad to see Steve, really.  He and Tony butt heads a bit, but it’s the constructive kind of conflict that seems to end in growth for them both.  Pepper’s all for anyone who can challenge Tony that way.

She’s raised her hand to say hello before she realizes he’s not alone.

Steve waved to Pepper, taking his helmet off the girl behind him and lifting her off the bike.

Pepper would have known she was Tony’s daughter even if she’d never seen photographs of her before.  She has his body language.

There are some things that are her own-- the way she shakes her hair back from her face when she smiles at something Steve’s said, the shape of her mouth.  But her smile is Tony’s smile, and the way she fidgets with her hands is so familiar.

She and Steve have an air about them, like they’re used to each other, and Pepper wonders how long this has been going on.  Whatever this was; she was having a hard time reading it.  Steve was so universally polite and considerate-- he might give any girl his helmet, or hold open the door for her.  But there’s something about the way that he looks at Darcy as he does it that makes Pepper think that this might be more than a friendship.

“Hey Pepper.”  Steve says, hitting the button for the elevator.  “Are you waiting for someone?”

“Board member.”  Pepper said, making a little face.  Like this was an ordinary conversation, and her heart wasn’t hammering out of her chest.  “Who’s your friend?”

“Oh,” Steve says, rubbing the back of his neck, “This is Darcy.  Darcy Lewis, Ms. Pepper Potts.”

Darcy gave a little wave and god, it’s exactly Tony’s gesture, just a little less awkward and distracted.  Hi,” she said, and smiled.

The elevator door opened, and she turned back to Steve.  “See you later.”  Darcy said, and gave him a kiss goodbye.  It’s chaste, an ordinary leavetaking, but everything about it screams ‘relationship’.

She boards the elevator, leaving Pepper and Steve alone in the lobby.

“She seems nice.”  Pepper said, because she has to say something to keep herself from laughing hysterically while she pictures the look on Tony’s face when he finds out about this.

Chapter Text

The first time they take her away from her mom, Darcy is seven.

It’s the grocery store’s fault, in Darcy’s opinion.  Her mom has never liked them.

“They’re watching us.”  She told Darcy, pointing out the glint of a lense near the ceiling.  “They can see everything.  So we have to be careful.”

Maybe someone else would ask why anyone would care what they were doing, but when you lived with Christy Lewis, there were some questions you stopped asking.  Why do we have to open the door five times before we leave?  How do we have money, if you don’t have a job?  Who is my father?

Darcy didn’t need to ask why her father wasn’t here.  That part seemed pretty obvious.

Christy looked pretty good today, though.  Pretty normal.  Sure, she had used one of Darcy’s My Little Pony hair scrunchies, but she was a mom.  Moms probably did stuff like that all the time.

Darcy has almost started to relax when it happens.  They’ve gotten almost everything they need in their cart, and are heading for the checkout, when someone spills an entire bag of peanut M&M’s.  Not the kind of bag you can pick up next to the cashiers as an impulse on your way out the door-- one of the big ones that weighs like five pounds.

“Shit.”  Darcy says, and no one scolds her for it.  They’re all looking at Christy.

As soon as the first piece of candy hit the floor, she had started to panic.  Usually if you could just pick them all up, if Christy could sit and count and recount them, it would be fine-- but there was no way that was happening here.  There were too many pieces that had rolled way too far away, the grocery store’s slick white floors carrying them into corners and crevices.  They’d probably be finding them for weeks.

By the time the manager comes, Christy is having a full on meltdown in aisle 3.  Darcy imagines that going over the announcement, a different sort of cleanup, and almost feels like laughing.  Her mother told her once that she got her sense of humor from her father-- Darcy hadn’t known if that was a good thing or not.

The manager looked young, her hair pulled up into a braid with a plain black elastic.  That was how grownups were supposed to do their hair.  Darcy made a mental note of it.

Darcy was sitting on the floor next to her mom, holding her hand while she sobbed uncontrollably.  It had been hard to get her even this calm, hard to stop the screaming, but she’d done it.  When the manager reached out a cautious hand, Darcy shook her head.

“Don’t touch her.  She doesn’t like that.”  Darcy explained.  The manager took them in;  the way that Christy’s clothes didn’t match well, the way that Darcy’s pants were a little too small.

“This happens a lot.”  She said, and Darcy nodded because she didn’t know to lie yet.  Next time, she’d know better, but this was the first time.

They called a lot of people-- the police, first, and then Child Protective Services, and then Darcy’s grandmother who didn’t like her and smelled like ammonia.

“It’ll be okay,”  The manager had promised when they were waiting outside of her office for Darcy’s grandmother, smiling in a way that was meant to reassure.  

But Darcy knew that it wouldn’t be.

Chapter Text

The next time Darcy sees her mom, she’s still living with Grandma Lewis.  It’s not that bad, probably, but Darcy doesn’t like it.  Grandma doesn’t do the things that Mom does.  She doesn’t sit by Darcy’s bed and sing to her when she can’t fall asleep, or teach her how to make cookies-- mostly she seems to want to pretend that Darcy isn’t there.  They have breakfast and dinner together, and the rest of the time, Darcy is left to her own devices.

That Darcy doesn’t mind so much.  Grandma’s house is pretty near the river, and it has a lot of weird, closed off rooms to explore.  So really, it’s not that bad.

When they let her mom out of the place, the whole family comes over.  The place has a name, but no one wants to say it.  They just say that her mom had gone ‘some place’ to get better.

When she comes back, it’s strange.  Christy looks nice, her hair curled in neat ringlets that Darcy wants to touch, but she feels shy.  Christy doesn’t seem to know if it’s okay to touch her, either.  

It’s the family picture that finally breaks the ice.

Grandma Lewis wants Darcy to sit on Uncle Ronnie’s lap, and Darcy really doesn’t want to do it.  She doesn’t know how to explain why she doesn’t, just that she doesn’t.  Normally Darcy would make a fuss, but she doesn’t want to ‘ruin’ it, like Grandma always says she does.  She’s screwing up her face to just let Ronnie hold her, even though she doesn’t want him to, when her mom snatches her up.

“Jesus Christ, Mom, Ronnie?”  Christy said, giving her mother a disgusted stare.  “Are you crazier than I am?”

“Mom,”  Darcy started to protest, hugging her around the neck.  Christy stroked her hand down Darcy’s hair to quiet her.

“You do not get to do that.  You do not get to make her do something like that.  If she doesn’t want a stranger to touch her, she doesn’t have to.”

“He’s not a stranger, he’s her Uncle.”  Grandma Lewis said stoutly, giving Christy that scornful look she always gave Darcy.  The one that said that she thought every word out of her mouth was a lie.

Christy opened her mouth, then looked down at the child in her arms.  “Come on sweetheart, let’s get you something to eat.”

Darcy wasn’t hungry, but she nodded anyway and let her mom carry her into the other room.  She smelled different than usual, like something fruity, and Darcy buried her face in her shirt.

Christy put her down in the kitchen and pressed her hands to her face, trying to compose herself.

“Grandma said...”  Darcy began, not sure how to explain all the things that Grandma had said.

Christy looked over at her sharply, and Darcy thought she probably knew the kind of things Grandma said.  She knelt down on the tile floor so she could look Darcy in the eyes.  

“Adults aren’t right all the time.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.  Ever.  And if anyone tries to make you, I want you to promise that you’ll make a scene.  Act crazy, scream-- I know you know how to do that.”  Her mouth turned down in a quick, self-deprecating smile.  “I want to tell you that I’ll be here no matter what, that you’re always going to have an adult to turn to who can help you.  But,”  She swallowed, pushed her hair behind her ears.  “I might not be.  So it’s good for you to get practice taking care of yourself.”

“Grandma says I ruin stuff by being ‘willful’.”  Darcy admitted.  Christy’s face went hard.

“Well, Grandma knows a lot about ruining stuff.”  Christy muttered, then winced.  “Don’t repeat that.”

“Okay.”  Darcy agreed.  Christy kissed her on the forehead.

“I’m going to fix this.”  She promised.  “I’ve been trying to call… There’s someone I’m going to go talk to, okay?  Just hang on with Grandma for a little longer.”

“Okay.”  Darcy said again, and Christy started going through the refrigerator for something Darcy might like.

“...Why did you say that?”  Darcy asked.  Christy raised her eyebrows, waiting for her to go on.  She was slicing up stalks of celery and filling them with peanut butter.

“That Grandma’s crazier than you are.”  Darcy said, climbing up one of the bar stools so she could she could sit at the counter and watch.

Christy hesitated.  “I… well, you know.  Sometimes I want to do things that don’t really make sense.  They make a lot of sense to me, but…”  She paused, biting her lip.  “I feel like something bad will happen if I don’t do it, but usually that’s not true.  I just get scared.”

“Yeah, I know.  Like the counting.  I don’t think that’s like Grandma.”  Darcy told her.  “Grandma’s not scared, she’s mean.”

Christy laughed, then covered her mouth.  “Grandma… Well.  You know what, let’s stop talking about Grandma for right now.”  She handed Darcy a plate, and Darcy started pulling the pieces of celery onto it with two fingers.  “I guess I used that word because I figured that was the word you were going to hear people call me.  ‘Crazy’.  But no matter what I am, I’m always your mom, and I love you.”

Darcy took a bite, her mouth sticking from the peanut butter.  “I don’t think you’re crazy.”  Darcy said, and she really didn’t.  The things that scared her mom didn’t scare her, but she could sort of see how they could be scary.  It was like when the shadows crept across the wall of her room at night-- she knew there wasn’t anything there, but there could be.  It didn’t seem that crazy to be scared.

And even if it was crazy, Darcy still loved her.

Chapter Text

The next time Darcy sees her mom, she’s eleven and she has to take the bus to New York to do it.

No one seemed to know why Christy had gone there-- or at least no one ever explained it to Darcy.  They’d lived there before, when Darcy was little-- maybe she’d wanted to see a friend and gotten lost, Grandma said.  But Darcy’s mom had always been a good navigator.  She’d check and recheck the routes whenever they had to drive someplace, just to make sure that they’d get there safely.

The bus ride is long and weird, but Darcy has her iPod so she can pretend that she doesn’t notice when people try to talk to her.  She turns the volume up really high, puts her backpack on the seat next to herself, and watches the country roll by outside the window.  She sleeps a little, but she’s too… something.  Excited, or scared maybe.  All she knows is that her stomach is upset, and she feels like her eyes are too wide open all the time.

After the bus station, where Darcy walks fast and doesn’t make eye contact, she gets a cab.  It costs more money than she’d thought, but she has enough to get to the hospital where they’re keeping Mom.

They do weird things when they search her-- look inside her shoes and her ears, like anything useful would even fit in there-- but they let her go into a white room where her mom is waiting, jiggling her knee nervously.  

When she sees Darcy she stands immediately, and Darcy runs to her for a hug before anyone can stop her.

“I’m sorry, no contact.”  The nurse, or guard, whatever she is, says apologetically, pulling Darcy back.  “At the end of the visit, you can give her a hug.”

As soon as the woman had moved, Christy had put her hands up to show that she wasn’t resisting; now she sat down.  Darcy followed suit, the chair not made for someone her size.  It left her feet dangling, but she didn’t want to kick.  That seemed too childish, and she was a big girl now.

“God, you’re so big.”  Christy said, unconsciously echoing Darcy’s thoughts.  She had her hands in her lap, the knuckles white where she was squeezing them together.  “And you’re okay, the bus was okay?  You didn’t talk to anyone.”

“I didn’t talk to anyone, I sat in the front by the bus driver.”  Darcy assured her, and Christy seemed to relax a little.  “I did it just like you said.”

“Good girl.”  Christy murmured, smiling like she wanted to cry.  “I wish you didn’t have to… I should be able to get out of here soon.  They said they’re going to review my case.”

“You seem okay to me.”  Darcy offered.  Christy looked a little different, her hair dark brown and short instead of the long blond that Darcy remembered, but her eyes were clear and lucid.

“I feel okay.”  Christy said, and looked away.  “I’m sorry about this, baby.  I don’t know why he-- why this happened.”

“Why did you come here?”  Darcy burst out, the years of not-knowing pressing on her vocal cords like a weight.  “No one will tell me anything!”

Christy looked around the room, at the camera in the corner, and bit her lip.  “I wanted to see your father.”  She whispered.  Darcy sat bolt upright, shocked.

“Did you…?”  Darcy asked, and Christy shook her head.

“I couldn’t get in to see him, they thought I was some-- crazy person.”  Christy smiled wryly.  Darcy let herself imagine it, just for a moment.  Her father, coming to take her away from Grandma.  Everything that had happened in the last four years disappearing, like smoke dissipating in the air.  She swallowed.

“Can’t you-- can’t I talk to him?  If you tell me who he is, I can…”  Christy was already shaking her head ‘no’.

“He’s a very important man.  I can’t--”  She glanced at the nurse standing nearby.  “It’s not safe for everyone to know.”

She studied Darcy’s face.  “I know.  What you’re thinking, that there are a lot of things that I don’t think are safe, but I promise you, this one is real.  There are bad people in the world.  Even some in our family, who would use you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not that easy to use.”  Darcy said, thinking about the taser in her bag.

Christy smiled at her.  “I know.  You’ve always been a strong girl.  I’m so proud of that.”

She leaned over the table to pick up a piece of paper that Darcy hadn’t noticed before.  “I wanted you to come because I’ve done something, for you.  I know Grandma reads your mail.”

“And listens to my phone calls.”  Darcy muttered, feeling resentful.  Christy shrugged, like that was all part of the territory.

“Your dad,”  Christy said, handing the paper to Darcy,  “Gave us a lot of money, so that I could take care of you.  Since you’ve been living with Grandma, she’s been allowed to draw from the accounts, but.  I looked at the kind of transactions that have been going through since you’ve been there.  And they’re not the kinds of things your Grandma would buy.”

Darcy tried to think of Grandma ever saying anything to her, about money.  “I don’t think Grandma uses our money,”  Darcy said, slowly.  “I can’t remember… she said something one time about how ‘expensive’ I was?”

“Grandma doesn’t use your money.”  Christy confirmed.  “She has ‘moral objections’ to it.  So, I’ve locked the accounts.”

She pointed to something on the paper, near the top.  “This is your lawyer.  You’ll need to talk to him if you ever want any of this money, and you can only have it for a few very specific things-- it can pay for college or trade school-- and if you have children, you get full access to it.  But before that,”  Christy paused, studying Darcy’s face.  “There’s no housing allowance, or food stipend, nothing like that.  That’s how Ronnie got in, in the first place.”

Darcy made a gross-out face.  “Ugh, it’s Ronnie?  What kind of stuff does he buy?”

Christy grimaced and closed her eyes.  “Trust me, you don’t want to know.  You stay away from him.”

“Obviously.”  Darcy said, rolling her eyes.  “He’s like, clinically disgusting Mom, I know that.”

“ ‘Clinically disgusting’,”  Christy mused,  “I like that.”

She tapped her finger against the paper again.  “So.  You keep this safe.  I know it doesn’t seem like it, but college is going to happen sooner than you think.  You might have to get a part time job to pay for other stuff, but there’s enough here… you can go to whatever school you want, Darcy.  Don’t limit how you think about yourself.  You can go to whatever school you want; and this’ll cover university housing and your meal plan, school insurance.  It just… you have to be in school to use it, it’s the only way I could do it.”

“I’m already in high school.”  Darcy pointed out.  “I’m going to go to college.  Don’t worry, Mom.”

“It’s not you I worry about.  You keep that safe.”  She nodded at the paper.  “Your eyes only.  No Grandma.”

“No Grandma.”  Darcy agreed, folding the paper into fourths and tucking it into the inside pocket of her jacket.  If she had to guess how Ronnie had gotten into their money, Grandma Lewis would be at the top of her suspect list.

When the visit is over and the nurse lets them hug, Darcy tries to memorize the way her mom smells.  Like starch and kool aid, or something else artificially sweet.

It’s the last time that she sees her.

Chapter Text

The last time Darcy talks to her mother, she’s calling from a police station in Virginia.

It’s not that easy to run away to New York when you’re twelve, Darcy has discovered.  Mostly because you’re really obviously twelve years old.  Darcy didn’t even get to board the bus this time-- they must be passing out her picture to the drivers.

When the cops bring her to the temporary children’s shelter, Becky is trying to make lunch while the rest of the staff plays basketball in the back yard.  Darcy doesn’t know any of the kids, but she knows everyone who works at the shelter well enough to treat the plate of food that Becky hands her with suspicion.  Becky is still in college, and her parents had never made her cook when she lived at home.

“Like, seriously,”  Darcy said, poking the brown mass,  “What is this?”

“It’s meatloaf.”  Becky says, but Darcy noticed that she wasn’t eating it either.

“No, if it was meatloaf, it would have been in a pan.”  Darcy disagreed.  “Like a loaf.  This is a meat muffin, which is not an actual thing.”

Becky sighed.  “Look kiddo, I have to make what they put on the menu.  I’m not that excited about it myself.”  She made a face at the muffin tin with its individual ‘meatloaves’.  “There’s this whole thing about portioning needing to be fair, I know it makes it all dry, but I don’t know what else to do.”

Darcy likes Becky more than some of the rest of the staff, but she really can’t do it.  She can’t eat this meat muffin.  “...Grilled cheese?”

“Go for it.”  Becky said, gesturing towards the stove.  Technically the staff wasn’t supposed to let the kids cook, but Darcy’s a regular.  She and Becky have come to a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell understanding as far as food is concerned.

Darcy sliced up enough cheese and tomatoes for the both of them, while Becky surveyed her cooking in a defeated way.

“Man, now everyone else has to eat this.”  Becky complained.  “I’d just order a pizza but I think it’s actually illegal?  I don’t know, I did it once and I got in trouble.”

“Did you pay with your own money?”  Darcy asked, flipping her first sandwich.  Becky was giving its golden brown surface a longing look.

“Yes, not that I can afford that, but look at this.”  She said, poking her meat muffin.  “This is a like a human rights violation.”

“Hmm,”  Darcy agreed, cutting the sandwich in half with the spatula and handing it to Becky.  She took a bite so huge it didn’t seem like it should fit in her mouth, and made a garbled noise of pleasure.

“See, this is why I’m always glad to see you.”  Becky said with a full mouth, and then swallowed.  “Not that I’m ever ‘glad’ to see you… You know what I mean.”

“I’m your favorite, it’s fine, we don’t have to tell anyone.”  Darcy said modestly, sitting down with her own sandwich.  

“So, how far’d you get this time?”  Becky asked conversationally.  Darcy shrugged.

“Not even onto the bus.”  She admitted, and Becky winced.

“Do you get a refund?”  Becky asked, and it was actually a good question.  The greyhound to New York wasn’t the cheapest thing, and Darcy’d had to be very resourceful to come up with it.

“No idea.”  Darcy said, considering the potential.  “I should call them and see.”

“Do it.”  Becky agreed.  “I can talk to them if you want, I’m really good at phone stuff like that.”

“Do we have time?  I thought you already called my grandma.”  Darcy was pretty good at phone stuff, but sometimes people took an adult more seriously.

Becky shrugged.  “Yeah, well.  You have my number.  Don’t tell anyone, but for you, I’d do it for free.  On my day off, even.”

Darcy tipped her face back.  “Ah, yes, let me just bask in the warmth of your favoritism.  It’s so nice here, Becky.  In the sunshine of your love.”

“You’re a massive weirdo.”  Becky told her.

“Well, her mom’s a nutter, so what else can you expect?”  The front door had been left propped open, and Ronnie had walked in without knocking.  He nodded at Darcy.  “Hey kid.  Get a move on.”

“Where’s Grandma?”  Darcy asked, standing up.  She could feel her heart beat in her chest.  I’m scared, she realized, a little surprised.  Ronnie didn’t usually scare her.  She tried to shake it off.

“Grandma’s sick of coming to get you.”  Ronnie said, smiling the way that always made Darcy feel like he was looking through her shirt.  “She’s old, she doesn’t like to drive anymore.  You’re stuck with me today, kid.”

Becky was looking between them uncertainly, grilled cheese crumbs still on her pants.  “Darcy, you know this guy?”

Ronnie gave Becky the seeing-through-your-shirt look, and it was almost worth it to see Becky’s face morph into comedic levels of disgust.

“Unfortunately.  This is my Uncle Ronnie.”  Darcy said, gathering up her backpack with a sigh.  The car ride home was never the most pleasant-- it was the only time that she and Grandma were alone together, and neither of them really had anything to say.

Darcy had started to think that it wasn’t that Grandma Lewis didn’t like her, it was more that she didn’t know how to have feelings like a normal person.  She didn’t like other people.  She only took care of Darcy because she was family, and that was what you did.  If she liked anyone, it might have been Ronnie, but maybe he was just more familiar.

A car ride with Ronnie was infinitely worse, because Ronnie liked to talk.

“So, not even past the bus station.”  He said as Darcy slammed the passenger side door.  “You’re losing your touch, kid.  Thought you were some kind of genius.”

He always brought that up like it was a bad word, ever since the school had tested her and made her skip a few grades.  ‘Can’t believe you can’t cook better than this, kid.  Thought you were some kind of genius.’ ‘If you’re such a genius why can’t you remember to turn off the porch light?’

“I keep hoping you’ll just get lost, save us all the trouble, but you keep turning back up.”  He commented, shifting gears.  He kept his hand on the stick shift, drumming his fingers on the metal shaft.  Darcy noticed that a few of his rings were missing, his skin a little whiter where they had been.

“Like a bad penny, I know.”  Darcy muttered, resting her head against the glass of her windshield.  

“Oh, I think you’re worth more than a penny.”  Ronnie said, his voice casual, but there was something nasty underneath it.  “Millionaire, genius… must be nice.”  He shifted again.  “Guess your mom’s nuts though, so maybe that’s you too.”

And Darcy realized that the car was slowing down.  She shifted her hand inside of her bag without thinking about it.  “Keep trying to run off to New York, like you got someone waiting for you.  Gotta wonder how you keep getting money to buy all these bus tickets.”

He kicked the parking brake on and turned to look at her, smiling.  It wasn’t his usual smile.  “You got a friend I don’t know about, kid?”

“Like you said, I’m a genius.”  Darcy said, smiling back to try to defuse the situation, looping the string attached to her taster around her wrist.  “I can come up with a few hundred bucks.”

Ronnie shrugged.  “Maybe.  But I gotta think, crazy as your mom is, she’s not gonna really lock all the accounts.  You’re her precious little baby, right?  There’s gotta be at least one open, just for you.”

Even though she’d felt it coming, it still shocked her when he grabbed her.  Ronnie’s hands pressed into her neck, pushing Darcy’s head hard against the glass.  “I want that account, kid.”

The last time her mom had been home passed through Darcy’s mind.  I want you to promise that you’ll make a scene.

It was the kind of thing that you could never take back.  Darcy had never hurt another person before.  It was more terrifying than Ronnie was--the strength in his hands pressing against her throat, the look in his eyes-- that was nothing compared to becoming the kind of ‘crazy’ girl who would hurt someone like that.  But she couldn't breathe. 

Ronnie slammed her head against the glass again, and Darcy pressed the metal prongs into his neck and pulled the trigger.

 

At the police station, Darcy dialed the only number she knew by heart.

It took them a few minutes to transfer her to her mom’s room, and she tried to look calm, like she made phone calls from this desk all the time.  Like this was her dad’s office or something.  As soon as she heard the line click as the call connected, she started to talk.

“Mom, I kind of electrocuted Ronnie.  Well, tased him, whatever, but I’m at the police station.  I’m not really sure what’s happening?  Like, what they’re gonna do.”

There was a pause, and Darcy could hear the murmur of the other officers at their desks, taking statements, making jokes.  “Okay,”  Her mom said, and Darcy tightened her grip on the phone.  “Don’t say anything without a lawyer.  Not anything, Darcy.  I know you know these guys from all of the bus stuff, but they’re not your friends right now.”  Darcy remembered the officer’s face when he’d put her in the back of the squad car, and nodded to herself.  “Get a pen, write this number down.”  Her mom said, rattling off a phone number.  Darcy grabbed a pen out of the cup on the officer’s desk and wrote it directly onto her arm.  “That’s Matt Murdock, that’s your lawyer for the trust.  He’s New York based, but maybe he knows someone in Virginia.  I’ll try and make some calls too.”

Across the room, Darcy saw one of the cops looking for her on the bench where they were holding the adult criminals, his eyes scanning the room until he found her.

“Mom,”  Darcy said quickly, “They’re coming over, I can’t call the lawyer--”

“I’ll call him, I love you.”  Her mom interrupted, and every day afterwards Darcy was glad that the last thing she said to her mom was, “Okay.  Love you too.”

Chapter Text

Matt Murdock was the last person to speak to Christy, according to the hospital staff.

“I guess that makes me the prime suspect,”  Matt had said, his jaw set the way it had been during the trial, “But I doubt that I’m really the last person to see her.  Someone is lying-- a lot of someones.”

They were waiting on a bench inside the Justice building for Darcy’s new foster mom to show up.  Grandma Lewis hadn’t been Darcy’s biggest fan after things with Ronnie, but when the conviction had come down she’d washed her hands of her.  Somehow it seemed like she would have forgiven Darcy if something bad had happened to her, but that she couldn’t forgive her for being right.  Darcy wondered if Grandma was going to visit Ronnie in jail, bring him her horrible leek soup and her sympathy.  She thought that she probably would.

“The thing to keep in mind with this placement,”  Matt said, looking steadily forward at the wall behind his red glasses,  “Is that it’s temporary.  You’re very advanced, Darcy-- you’ll be in college before you know it.”

Darcy nodded.  “Yeah, I’m gonna-- I’m working on finishing high school earlier.  If it’s… I shouldn’t have to live with them too long.”

She bit her lip, nervous to meet whoever it was.  Her caseworker had left them alone in the hallway with a wink, which had seemed strange.

“I think you’ll like her.”  Matt said, smiling like he was in on a joke.  Since he couldn’t see it, Darcy made a face at him.  Something twitched in his face, like he was pushing down laughter.

Someone was coming down the hall, their heels clicking on the marble floor, but when Darcy looked over it was only Becky.  She saw Darcy and waved.  She looked a little dressed up-- not like she had in court, but she was wearing makeup and earrings with a dark green blouse and slacks.  Darcy wondered if she was there to hit on Matt-- it seemed like they’d gotten along pretty well.  Darcy waggled her eyebrows at Becky, and she burst out laughing.

“Oh good, you’re here.”  Matt said, standing up and offering Becky his hand.  “Darcy, meet your new foster parent.  Well, you’ve met before, I think.”

Shut up.”  Darcy said, looking from Matt to Becky, pretty sure they were messing with her.

“You should know that I’m horrible to live with.”  Becky informed her, shaking Matt’s hand.  “I leave everything on the floor.  And I can’t really feed myself, it’s pathetic.”

Darcy swallowed.  “That’s okay,”  She said, happy that her voice came out reasonably normal.  “I can feed you, I’m good at that.”

Becky smiled.  “I know you are, kiddo.  That’s why you’re my favorite.”

Matt turned toward Darcy put his hands on her shoulder.  “There aren’t any leads right now, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be.  I promise, I won’t forget about your mom.  And if I ever learn anything, you’ll be the first person I call.”  He gave her shoulder a squeeze.  “I look forward to hearing from you when you pick a college.”

“I’m thinking about going to Culver.”  Darcy said, looking at Becky.

“Oh, do you want to be dorm buddies?”  Becky said, and wrinkled her nose.  “Because, ugh, but I’ll do it.”

Darcy hugged her so that she wouldn’t cry, pressing her face into her blouse.  “Because I’m your favorite.”

“Because you’re my favorite.”  Becky agreed, ruffling Darcy’s hair.

Chapter Text

The second time Pepper meets Darcy, she’s just shoved Tony into a broom closet.

Pepper had been waiting for Tony to find out about Steve with something like anticipation.  She knew that it was going to be a mess, a huge, glorious mess, but she thought it might be the thing to break everything wide open.

Tony had to find out his daughter was dating someone someday, and you couldn’t do better than Captain America.  Even Tony had to see that, once he was done being hysterical.

So Pepper was prepared for the pearl clutching, and the rampant hypocrisy.  She was almost eager for it.

What she wasn’t prepared for was a lot of information about Howard Stark’s sexual orientation.

“--definitely up her shirt.”  Tony ranted, gesturing with a wrench in the direction of the ceiling, and Pepper felt a jolt in her stomach.  Still, she walked calmly into the lab.  

“And then, and then…”  Tony didn’t seem able to articulate the next thing, swinging his wrench emphatically.

Pepper cleared her throat, eying a very expensive piece of glass lab equipment that was definitely within his range.

Tony spun around and pointed the wrench at her.  “You.”  He demanded.  “How did this get past you?  You know everything, how did you miss this?”

Pepper looked at him with a polite, curious expression.  Tony examined her face more carefully.

“You knew.”  He accused, as if he had caught her selling weapons on the black market.  “Why wouldn’t you tell me?  Why wouldn’t you put a stop to this… atrocity?”

“Tony, it’s not genocide in Rwanda.”  Pepper said, repressing the urge to roll her eyes.  “Your daughter is dating a very nice, decent man--”

“He is not-- that.”  Tony protested.  “It’s wrong.  Out of anyone I’d think that Captain America wouldn’t want to date Howard’s…”  He trailed off, like he’d just recognized the flaw in his argument.

“I have to tell him.”  He said, swallowing.  “If I tell him, he’ll stop dating her.  Cap can keep a secret, he’s-- I’ll just tell him.”

“Tony, why would telling Steve that Darcy’s your daughter make any difference?”  Pepper demanded, and then held up her hands,  “Not that I want to dissuade you.  You’ll tell Steve, he’ll tell Darcy, and this ridiculous farce will finally be over.”

“I’m not going to tell him that Darcy’s my daughter, I’m going to tell him that Darcy is Howard’s granddaughter.”  He said grimly, as if that was an explanation that Pepper would immediately understand.  When she looked at him blankly, he sighed.

“Pepper, my father was in love with him.  With Steve.”  He clarified.

“...And?”  She asked, wondering when the rest of the explanation would come.  Tony blinked.

“He loved him.”  Tony said it with utter conviction, and Pepper wondered what Howard had said or done to give him such certainty.  “He was in love with him, Pepper.”

Pepper crossed her arms.  “Tony, I don’t really see where the problem is.  So Howard loved him!  Everyone loves Steve.”

“I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to not want my daughter to date the man that her grandfather was in love with!”  Tony said, and sat down on one of his lab stools, suddenly tired.

“Did anything happen between them?”  Pepper asked, trying to remember if she’d ever seen any indications that Steve was less than straight.  He didn’t seem gay.  As courteous as Steve was, she’d seen him look at women.  But he’d had a very strong reaction to things with Bucky.

Tony rubbed his hand over his eyes.  “I hope not, but god knows with Dad.”

“Hmm.”  Pepper considered this.  “...I still don’t see the problem.”

Tony didn’t respond in words, just made a sound like a wounded cow.  Pepper didn’t realize he was going to make a break for it until he was halfway out the door.

But if there’s one thing that Pepper has learned in her years with Tony, it’s how to run in high heels.

When she caught him with her forearm and slammed him against the door of the hall closet, he looked more impressed than surprised.  “Wow, Pep, you’re really strong, what kind of--”

“Tony, you are not going to ruin this for them because you’re uncomfortable with the fact that your father had a crush on a man that literally everyone has a crush on.  I forbid it.”  Pepper said, staring at him with her most serious face.

“Wait, does that mean that you--”  Tony started, and they both froze at the sound of voices approaching.

Pepper shoved him inside the closet on instinct as Darcy rounded the corner, hand-in-hand with Steve.

“Oh,”  Said Steve, taking in her slightly disheveled appearance.  “Hey Pepper.  Everything okay?”

“Fine,”  Pepper said, smiling sweetly as she adjusted her skirt.  “How are you today, Steve?  And Darcy, it’s lovely to see you again.”

Steve glanced over at Darcy and smiled, like he couldn’t help it because he was so overjoyed to be looking at her.  Darcy looked down, and then at him, smiling a little shyly.  “I’m really good.”  Steve said finally, turning back to Pepper.

It was so obvious they were in love, Pepper wanted to hug them.

“I’m glad to hear that.  It’s really nice to see you looking so happy.”  She said sincerely.

“Thank you.”  Steve said, looking at Darcy again.  “I am happy.”

Pepper heard Tony moan inside the closet, and coughed to cover the sound.

Chapter Text

The day that Tony finds out about Darcy’s childhood feels very ordinary.

It’s not like the apocalypse usually announces itself-- that you wake up with a feeling of foreboding the morning before aliens invade or your oldest friends rip your heart out.  They usually feel like ordinary days.  And this one is more ordinary than most.  

The Avengers were in that sweet spot between incidents, where there’d been enough time to recover and repair, but they hadn’t had time to get bored.  There was nothing major going on with Stark Industries.  It was just… quiet.

Tony even socialized with Steve, which Pepper called ‘progress’.  (She also called his very understandable and necessary period of adjustment ‘sulking’.)

Walking into the kitchen, Tony thought that maybe he could do this-- He could live with Darcy forever, and he’d never have to tell her.  Because as uncomfortable as he was with the whole ‘Captain America is putting his All-American hand up my daughter’s shirt’ aspect of things, Steve seemed to be genuinely serious about her.  If anyone could take care of Darcy the way she deserved, it was him.

Not that he’d stop keeping an eye on her.  Tony didn’t know if he could at this point.  He’d aligned his day to hers.  They drank their morning coffee together.  He fell asleep to the second hand music from her bedroom, the monitor by his bed glowing with the light from the iPod in the dock on her nightstand.

If this was a woman he was in love with, the level of dependence would have terrified Tony.  Darcy still terrified him, but there was no way to stop.  She was inside him too deep.

Because he loved her, he felt like he knew her.  Of course, he didn’t.

Like the day, this revelation came in a very ordinary way.

Darcy was elbow deep in a tupperware container, biting her lip in concentration as she balanced an orange on top of a loaf of campagne.  She was dressed the way she usual was on non-lab days, in a Chat Noir T-shirt with her hair pulled up in a messy bun.  Tony didn’t know how many times he’d seen her in that shirt, lying on her couch in her pajamas on a lazy Sunday.  The logo had worn well, but it was obviously an old favorite.

When she noticed them, she smiled, and Tony smiled back.  He didn’t pay attention the nervous way Darcy had brought her hands together until Steve spoke.  He’d crossed the room in an instant, his hands cradling her face to keep her from looking away.

“Darcy,”  He said, and the way Steve said her name should have been enough for Tony to know that something was wrong, so soft and sad.  “You don’t have to do that.  We have enough food here.  It’s okay.”

Darcy looked down before she closed her eyes, and in that moment Tony recognized something of himself in her face.  He had always liked finding echoes of himself in her-- the shape of her nose, her chin-- but this wasn’t something he had ever wanted to see.  

Tony knew what shame looked like.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘we have enough food here’.”  He said, but some part of his mind was putting it together.  The careful organization of the tupperware container screamed 'habit'.  

“What are you doing?”  He asked, but he already knew.

Darcy sighed, her head resting against Steve’s chest.  “I may sort of…”  She paused, looking for the best word, and Tony noticed a line in her forehead.  A worry line, on his 22 year old daughter.  “Moonlight by making some of the lab staff lunches.”

Whatever she saw in his face seemed to make her nervous, because she continued hastily, “I--look, it’s great living here, I’m sure that if Jane was paying me that whatever I could afford would be way shittier.  Sometimes I need stuff that is not food though, so.”  She shrugged, her shoulders tight.

She’s afraid of me.  The thought hit him, and Tony felt like he might be sick.  His daughter thought he would throw her out for taking too much food from the kitchen.

Then the sick feeling was swamped by rage as he really looked at her.  The way he would look at someone on a mission, taking in the holes in the knees of her jeans.  They were really worn out, not ‘distressed’.  Maybe she was just comfortable in old clothes, but Tony remembered the careful way that Christy had dressed, a baby in designer clothing, and he blamed her.  Somewhere, she was drinking a mai tai on a beach, or some other fucking cliche, while her daughter made lunches so she could afford cab fare.

“Foster isn’t paying you, yeah, but why would you need money that badly?  Your family has money.  Your mother has money.”  Tony said, because he had no doubt in that moment where that money had gone.  The word ‘mother’ almost tasted bad to him.

He expected her to complain about Christy, to make a wry face and tell a story about how flighty Mom was, but Darcy’s face was puzzled.  And then sad.

“...Tony,”  Steve said, and Tony watched his body language change from comforting to consoling, one hand rubbing Darcy’s back as if she were crying.  “Darcy’s an orphan.  She grew up in foster care.”

“Woah, Steve, way to just put my business on the street.”  Darcy said, smiling a little, to take the bite out of it.  Like it wasn’t serious, the way that everyone joked about things so close to their heart that it would kill them if you laughed.

Tony heard it distantly.  His vision had actually tilted, and in the dizzy moments while it righted itself he indulged in the idea that he had hallucinated what Steve had just said, the certainty of it.  It was a joke-- she was smiling, like it was a joke.

But it was a smile he knew, the one he gave to the paparazzi.  It was a smile to hide behind.

“Tony?”  He heard Steve ask and he was taking a step closer, examining Tony’s face.  “Are you okay?  Is it the arc reactor?”

When he reached out and touched Tony’s arm, it was like someone turned the sound back on.  Everything seemed so loud, the soft high pitched sound of the water in the walls like a scream, and Tony could feel the panic attack coming.  It always started this way, with his sensing flooding him with too much information while something heavy pressed against his chest.  He always felt like he was going to die in those moments.

It wasn’t like actually almost dying.  That had happened to Tony more times than he really cared to remember, but the moments before real death were much simpler.  He’d almost died while full of quiet acceptance, or stubborn anger, or just exhaustion-- but it was rarely really terrifying.  His survival instincts had no time for terror.

Terror was his face plunging into the water in the cave, over and over again, feeling like he was going to die and knowing that he wouldn’t.  Terror was looking at his daughter, and realizing that despite watching her put cream in her coffee every morning, that he didn’t know her at all.  That absolutely anything could have happened to her.  

And it probably had.

He was running for his lab before he made the choice consciously, screaming at J.A.R.V.I.S that he needed Pepper, to get her to the lab, get her on the phone.  He couldn’t breath, but he ran.  He didn’t know if it was away from Darcy, or towards the truth.

He’d gotten too distracted by the little things about her-- the way she gestured, how her hair curled the same way his mom’s had.  He hadn’t noticed the big things.  That her clothes were all well used, almost to the point of shabbiness, her favorite T-shirts full of little holes.  That her computer was eight years old, and her only piece of electronics besides the iPod.

She never went out for coffee by herself despite how much she seemed to like the mochas Steve brought her.  She bought shampoo from the grocery store.  When he looked for it, there were a hundred things that should have told him that something was wrong.

His daughter had grown up in poverty.  Not without luxuries like ski trips to Aspen-- without luxuries like health insurance.

He didn’t notice that Steve had followed him until he burst into the lab and Pepper, white faced, glanced behind him.

Tony ignored him.

“Pepper, I need your override code.  Now.”  Tony said, and she didn’t hesitate.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, P-MAY-DAY-3964.”  She said, swallowing.

And J.A.R.V.I.S opened the Lewis file.

Chapter Text

It takes the phone call to make Steve realize how he has failed.

After Pepper spoke, the room burst to life with streams of information, holograms, flat monitors playing security camera footage.  It made Steve feel like a grenade had gone off, the flash and bang leaving him stunned for a moment before he could pick out threads of the audio.  Tony touched something in the air, everything else faded to a whisper as a young Darcy ran across a white room to hug a woman in blue scrubs.  An orderly interceded, and her voice echoed in the silent lab.  “I’m sorry, no contact.  At the end of the visit, you can give her a hug.”

Steve opened his mouth, then closed it on all his questions about what this was.  It seemed like they’d forgotten about him.  Tony was sorting through an endless parade of blue text, discarding pieces in tight motions.  He looked almost shell shocked, his face blank, but his breathing still hadn’t evened out, the movements of his chest labored and visible.  Pepper stood a few feet away, afraid to be very far from him.  Her hands were tightly clenched in a strange mirror of the woman in the video.

“God, you’re so big.”  The woman said, and her voice was instantly familiar, low and a little husky.  Pepper put her hand over her mouth, and Steve couldn’t believe it took him this long to see it.  That she has Darcy’s eyes, Darcy’s mouth.

This is her mother.

“And you’re okay, the bus was okay?  You didn’t talk to anyone.”  Christy said, and Steve could hear how worried she must have been-- how worried any mother would have been, even without Christy’s issues, to put an eleven year old girl on a 9 hour bus ride.

“I didn’t talk to anyone, I sat in the front by the bus driver.”  Darcy says, her little voice a strange version of the girl he knows.  The one who teased him about not liking it when she took the subway.  “I did it just like you said.”

“Good girl.”  Christy murmured, and smiled to try to reassure her daughter.  There was a tightness around her eyes, like she was holding back tears.  “I wish you didn’t have to… I should be able to get out of here soon.  They said they’re going to review my case.”

Steve had heard about Christy, but it had come in pieces.  Darcy was all too willing to tell Becky stories, because Becky stories were funny.  He knew all about the time that Becky had broken three kitchen appliances in one day trying to make gnocchi for Darcy’s birthday, and that her favorite ice cream flavor was dulce de leche.  He knew that Becky liked glitter nail polish, and that she could do a reverse french braid.

What he knew about Christy was that sometimes, she had sat by Darcy’s bed and sang to her.  She’d had long blonde hair that she dyed, and after she was eleven, Darcy had never seen her again.

This is it, Steve realized, as the little Darcy on the screen smiled at her mother, this is the last time she saw her.  “You seem okay to me.”

“I feel okay.”  Christy said, and Steve examined her.  She looked healthy, lucid-- not like someone who should be committed for 4 or 5 years.  He knew mental illness wasn’t something that it was easy to see, but this didn’t appear to him to be a dangerous woman.  Maybe a nervous woman-- he noticed that she was tapping her hand lightly against the table in front of her, in serieses of five-- but not a dangerous one.  “I’m sorry about this, baby.  I don’t know why he-- why this happened.”

Tony, scrolling through data on another screen, looked up, mouthing the word ‘he’ to himself.

“Why did you come here?  No one will tell me anything!”  Darcy burst out, and all three of them winced in unison at the undisguised pain in her voice.

Christy glanced up at the camera, as if she knew they could see her right now.  Her whisper was like a shout. “I wanted to see your father.”

Tony’s hands frozen, the flow of words in front of him scrolling by unheeded.  Pepper made a quick, aborted movement, like she wanted to touch him but didn’t dare.

“Did you…?”  Darcy whispered, and Steve remembered the night they had talked about their fathers.  There were stories you told yourself about your father, when you’d never met him.  They were something you grew out of, but Darcy was 11, and he could see it in her eyes.  She still had those dreams.

“I couldn’t get in to see him, they thought I was some-- crazy person.”  Christy said, and Tony’s hand spasmed, the holographic screen in front of him exploding in a little shower of imaginary light.

“Can’t you-- can’t I talk to him?  If you tell me who he is, I can…”  Pepper made a soft noise in the moment of silence between Darcy’s words and her mother’s, something not quite a sob.  Her eyes had a shine that Steve had never seen before, and he was shocked to think that she might be crying.  Pepper was a wonderful woman, a caring woman, but how could she possibly know what this moment meant?  She’d only met Darcy twice, and that in passing.

“He’s a very important man.  I can’t--”  She glanced at the orderly, as if she thought the woman was eavesdropping.  “It’s not safe for everyone to know.  I know.  What you’re thinking, that there are a lot of things that I don’t think are safe, but I promise you, this one is real.  There are bad people in the world.  Even some in our family, who would use you.”

Tony’s hands were clenched into fists so hard that the veins in his forearms were visible, and Pepper finally ventured to touch him, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder.

It was as if he didn’t even feel it.

“Yeah, well, I’m not that easy to use.”  Darcy said, sticking out her chin, and Pepper let out a watery laugh.

“I know.  You’ve always been a strong girl.  I’m so proud of that.”  Christy said, and Steve had no doubt that she was completely sincere.  He could see so much of what he loved about Darcy in her mother in that moment.  She was strong because her mother had given her permission to be strong.  “I wanted you to come because I’ve done something, for you.  I know Grandma reads your mail.”

Tony unclenched one hand to pull up a new screen, and he saw new videos spring to life behind the one they were watching, all featuring an old woman. “And listens to my phone calls.”

“Your dad gave us a lot of money, so that I could take care of you.  Since you’ve been living with Grandma, she’s been allowed to draw from the accounts, but.  I looked at the kind of transactions that have been going through since you’ve been there.  And they’re not the kinds of things your Grandma would buy.”

Tony turned to pull up a bank statement, and Steve knew that J.A.R.V.I.S. had access to all the computer databases in the world, but this seemed like a lot of information to have in queue, waiting for Tony to access it.

This wasn’t the work of minutes, this was the work of years.

“I don’t think Grandma uses our money,”  Little Darcy said, and Tony raised his eyebrows, flicking through another page of numbers.  He didn’t seem to have calmed down, exactly-- it was more that he had focused through whatever was wrong.  “I can’t remember… she said something one time about how ‘expensive’ I was?”

“Grandma doesn’t use your money.”  Tony’s eyebrows raised even higher, flicking through more numbers.  “She has ‘moral objections’ to it.  So, I’ve locked the accounts.  This is your lawyer.  You’ll need to talk to him if you ever want any of this money, and you can only have it for a few very specific things-- it can pay for college or trade school-- and if you have children, you get full access to it.  But before that, there’s no housing allowance, or food stipend, nothing like that.”

This, Steve knew about-- that Darcy had a trust somewhere for school expenses.  Judging from the numbers he was seeing Tony flip through, he had vastly underestimated the amount of money in it.

Those didn’t look like thousands.  They looked like millions.

“That’s how Ronnie got in, in the first place.”  Christy said, and Tony shifted, new videos popping up.  Some of them seemed to be from prison security cameras.

“Ugh, it’s Ronnie?  What kind of stuff does he buy?”  Darcy’s tone was scathing, but not more so than Christy’s.  “Trust me, you don’t want to know.  You stay away from him.”

There was something about her voice that made the hair on the back of Steve’s neck stand up.  Tony must have felt it too, because the video froze, and different audio overtook the silence.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency.”  The operator had the calm, almost bored tone that all emergency personnel had.  

Darcy’s voice was nowhere near that calm.  “Yeah, hi, I just tased a guy, and someone should come get him before he gets up.”

Steve felt his hands clench.  She couldn’t be much older than the girl in the video that still hovered in front of them, just a little girl in sneakers and jeans.  Not old enough to take the bus alone.

Steve thought about when she’d told him about tasing Thor, the way she had shrugged and said, ‘He’s not the first.

He hadn’t asked.  Why hadn’t he asked?  Because that was when he thought Darcy was something fun to do on his days off?  Steve swallowed down the stomach acid he felt creeping up his throat, opening and closing his hands to try to loosen them.

“Can you tell me where you are?  Is he still breathing?”  The operator asked, the clicking of her fingers on her keyboard audible.  Tony seemed to be looking at whatever her report entailed, the words generating in the air in front of him to the rhythm of her keystrokes.

Pepper had sat down, her back still immaculately straight, but she was crying quietly.

“Um, near Ashworth and Peachtree?  Blue Caddy.”  Darcy answered, sounding a little more in control now that she had a job.  “He’s breathing, I’m not-- I don’t wanna go over by him right now, but I think he’s fine.”

“That’s okay sweetheart, you don’t have to.  You’re doing fine. Could you describe the man to me?  Did you know him?”

“Yeah, he’s-- it’s my Uncle Ronnie.  Um, Ronnie Lewis.”  She said, and Steve heard her swallow before she said his name.  He felt himself go strangely cold.

In his memory, Darcy was laying with her head in his lap, showing him how to do cat’s cradle with a piece of string.  ‘For a while I lived with my Grandma and my Uncle Ronnie, but after that I lived with Becky.’

Darcy with her palms scraped, shrugging. ‘Oh, I fell down on the sidewalk.’  Trying not to be any trouble.  Trying to be someone fun to be around.

“Okay.  And what’s your name, how old are you sweetheart?”  The operator asked.

“Darcy Lewis.  I’m twelve.”  Darcy said, and the silence stretched out for a long time before Steve realized the Tony must have stopped the call.  

He’d sat down and was breathing fast, his head between his knees.  Steve moved to check on him automatically, although he’d seen these symptoms before.

Pepper blocked him.  “Please, Steve.  I know you probably have a lot of questions right now, but just… don’t.  Not right now.”

“I just wanted to make sure he was okay.”  Steve said, holding his hands up innocently.  Pepper nodded, glancing down at Tony and then back up.

“He’s not.”  She said, and swiped at her cheek surreptitiously, like it wasn’t obvious she’d been crying.  “I know… could you give us some time?  I promise, we won’t do anything without you, but could you just wait outside for a little while?”

“Ah--Sure, Pepper.”  Steve agreed, looking at Tony’s grey face.  As he turned to leave the room, he felt like he could understand what was happening to Tony better than ever before.  Because he was terrified of sitting in the hallway, where it was quiet, and he’d have to be alone with his thoughts.

He’d failed Darcy, more profoundly than he could have ever imagined.  It had been so easy to be with her, so easy not to ask.  And he hated himself for that.

Chapter Text

In the end, no one had to tell Steve about Tony.

As soon as he left the room Pepper knelt down next to Tony without touching him, with no idea what to say.  It wasn’t an experience she often had.  

Tony was predictable, in broad ways.  Not Tony the Avenger, or Tony the Futurist, Tony the Inventor.  His mind was always open, always moving in new ways, coming up with innovative solutions to problems that no one else had even noticed yet.  It was his behavior that was predictable, at least for someone who had been with him for as long as Pepper had.

Tony the man… That was a Tony that Pepper knew well.  She’d spent decades learning when to curb him.  Learning when some collateral damage was unavoidable, and picking up the pieces.  Right now that man was in a lot of pieces, and for the first time in years, Pepper didn’t know what to say to put him back together again.  She watched him breathe, each one a struggle as if the air was too heavy, and hoped that he knew how to fix himself.  The arc reactor was proof enough that it was possible.

She had no idea how long they sat there.  Eventually she let her hand rest on his back, lightly, while she tried to calm herself down.  She remembered opening that shoebox and seeing the little girl with the lamb in her lap, a little girl with her mother’s eyes and her father’s smile, and felt sick.  Because if anyone could have done something, it was her.  Pepper was the best at what she did-- and what she did was manage people.  She could have taken care of this, if she’d wanted to.

But she’d thought that he was right.  Even before Iron Man, it had never been safe to be a Stark.  Pepper was still haunted by that awful footage of Tony, and that hamburger when he was twelve.

The same age Darcy had been when she’d tased her uncle because, according to the police report, he had been bashing her head against a window, demanding access to her trust funds.

It turned out that it wasn’t very safe to be a Lewis either.

When the door to the lab opened, Pepper was so startled she felt her hand twitch.

Steve walked in, looking calmly determined, and Pepper thought he had flipped the switch he seemed to have to ‘Captain America Mode’.  

“Steve,”  Pepper said, starting to stand.  She felt Tony’s breathing speed up under her touch.  Steve shook his head and looked at the ceiling.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, do you have any videos with Becky Dawson in them?”  Steve asked.

“Yes, Captain Rogers.”  J.A.R.V.I.S replied,  “Are you looking for a specific video?”

“No.”  Steve replied.  “Just play one.”

“Who’s Becky Dawson?”  Pepper asked him, but it was Tony who answered.

“Foster mother,”  Tony said, his voice close normal even though his breathing wasn’t.  Pepper could feel him trying to pull himself together in front of Steve, pushing it all down inside.

It never stayed there.

“Why?”

“Because,”  Steve said, boosting himself onto the counter so he could sit, “Becky stories were always funny.  Seems like it might help.”

The video J.A.R.V.I.S projected into the air was dimly lit, but surprisingly sharp despite that, focusing on what looked like a high school auto shop

“--greatest thing I have, or will ever, do with my life.”  Darcy was saying, walking into the room backwards while she talked to someone.  She was older, but still young-- maybe fourteen, wearing a brand-new Chat Noir T-shirt and white shorts, red Keds on her feet that had obviously seen some hard use.  Her hair was pulled back into two smooth french braids.

The woman with her looked younger than Pepper would have thought she would be.  Maybe even the age that Darcy was now.  She was dressed casually, in jeans and a Culver university sweatshirt, her light brown hair pulled up in a ponytail.

Becky surveyed the room with her hands in her pockets.  “Okay, so, where is it?  Because I’d like to do this thing before we get arrested.”

“If we get arrested, then you can see Matt.”  Darcy said, leaning against Becky and fluttering her eyelashes.  Becky rolled her eyes in an exaggerated way.  “And we’re not going to get arrested, he gave me the shop key.”

“You’re a really bad liar.  Like, D+ grade liar, please see me after lying class.”  Becky sat down on one of the workbenches and made a ‘hurry up’ gesture.

“Okay, okay, hold on.”  Darcy said, scrambling for a controler.  It had long cords trailing from it, one connected to the outlet, and the other connected to a… something.

"Ketchup robot."  Tony said, sitting up.  His eyes had been trained intensely on Darcy, but now his focus switched to Becky.

Darcy flipped a switch, and it started to move across the floor.  There was a strange sound, over the noise that its wheels made crunching across the floor, a kind of sputtering.

“Okay, so now, like, imagine there is just a row of things that need ketchup.  Hotdogs, or burgers or some shit.”  Darcy said, circling the robot so that it was spitting ketchup on the other side, sending up little plooms of sawdust as it hit the floor.

Becky looked a little scared.  “Um,”  She said, and bit her lip, trying to think of something diplomatic to say.  “I’m just... not sure it’s going to be very effective, kiddo.”

“That’s what’s so great about it!  It’s trying so hard, and it’s going to fail every single time.”  Darcy said, and did something complicated with the controler.  The robot whirled, the little legs that stabilized it struggling noisily, pointed its ketchup spout into the air, and fired.

Whatever Darcy was using to provide air pressure to the machine was more powerful than Pepper had anticipated, and a blob of ketchup sailed the full length of the shop to spatter noisily on the window of a partially disassembled Mustang.

Becky followed its progress with her entire head, and strange look on her face.

“That’s the finale.”  Darcy informed her.

She broke with a horrible noise, laughing the way you did when you’d been trying to hold it back and it had crawled up your throat to freedom.

“You troll,”  She finally gasped out, leaning her upper body on her legs while she recovered.  “I was horrified, I felt like ‘Oh god, it doesn’t work at all and she doesn’t know’.”

“I know, and you were really bad at faking it dude.  Like, D+ patronizing, see me after parenting class.”  Darcy said, grinning, and Becky swatted at her in a gesture that was obviously intended to miss.

“Child abuse!”  Darcy said in fake outrage, driving her robot back into the corner it had come out of.  “I’m planning on pretending that I have no idea that it doesn’t work.  Like it’s gonna just be shooting ketchup everywhere, and the whole time I’m going to be really into it, like ‘Look at how the sensors just knew that Trevor needed ketchup, it’s amazing!’”

“Trevor who snapped your bra strap last year?”  Becky asked, raising an unimpressed eyebrow.  “Because I think the statute of limitations on that grudge has run out.”

“Nooooooooo, it has not.”  Darcy disagreed, tucking the controller away lovingly.

“You pushed him off the bleachers in the middle of an assembly.”  Becky pointed out.  “You don’t think you’re even?”

Darcy sighed.  “Becky, this is not about something petty like who won.  Because obviously it was me, I won, but I still hate him.”

Becky stood up, and they started to walk out of the shop.  “Well, what do we always say about things like that?”

“Don’t get caught?”  Darcy suggested, her voice already sounding distant.

“No.”  Becky said, amused, and the video ended.

Pepper, absorbed in the video, glanced over at Tony.  He had a strange smile on his face.

“You know,”  Steve said casually, his hands braced behind him on the counter,  “I’ve been trying to figure out what your deal was with Darcy for a while.  Especially after that thing in my apartment.  I thought maybe the two of you were sleeping together, actually, but it didn’t quite fit.”  Steve shrugged,  “I mean, she’s young enough to be your daughter.”

Tony closed his eyes, and let out a breath.  “Got it in one, Cap.”

Steve nodded.  “So.  What’re you gonna do about it?”

Chapter Text

It’s the bank accounts that lead them to it.

Before his meltdown, he’d thought there was something off about them, but he hadn’t been able to focus.

The numbers just didn’t add up.  With the investments that had been made by the firms that handled Darcy’s trusts and only her tuition and expenses at Culver being withdrawn, the accounts should have held more than Tony had originally given to Christy.

The first account made sense-- just under a million, with regular withdrawals from Culver University for five years.  Those numbers added up.  The second was a very different story.

Tony frowned, pulling up another account.  “This can’t be right,”  He murmured, because there were only withdrawals from colleges-- but there were too many different schools.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, can you track these withdrawals back?”  Tony demanded, pulling up another screen.

“Certainly, Sir.”  J.A.R.V.I.S said calmly, and a list of names appeared in glowing blue.  Most of them were unfamiliar, but there were a few he recognized.

“Steve,”  Tony said, fixating on one of the most recent,  “How long has Darcy been putting Foster through grad school?”

Steve looked utterly confused.  “Jane?”  He said, walking over to look at the screen.  He raised his eyebrows.  “And Ian?”

Tony smacked that table.  “That’s why she’s still her intern.  Quid pro quo.  Looks like Foster’s almost done with her program, could be issues with the legality of this… ‘scholarship’, if she started paying Darcy.”

“Darcy seems like the only one who knows how some of the equipment works…”  Steve said, thinking it over.  “I think she just likes working with Jane, really, but the work would be a lot harder to do without her.  Maybe impossible.”

Tony didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry.  “Stupid kid.”  He muttered, rubbing his hand in his hair.

It doesn’t take long to find Darcy’s recruitment video.  She looks incredibly young to Tony, a fourteen year old girl in what are obviously her nicest clothes sitting crosslegged on her bed.

“Hello everyone!  If you’re watching this video, it means that you are eligible for a very special opportunity.  Believe it or not, I have a lot of money, and I want to give it to you.”  She took a deep breath, a little tick in her cheek betraying her nerves.  “My mom,”  She said, and Tony felt guilt crawl up his throat again at the affection in her voice.  He pushed it down ruthlessly.  “Told me never to limit how I think about myself.  That I could go to whatever school I wanted.  At the time, I didn’t realize what that meant-- to know there was a future waiting for me, if I could grab it.  Because that’s not something that everyone has.”

Darcy looked down at her blouse and quirked a smile.  “I know I don’t look like I have a lot of money:  Well, there’s a catch.  My money can only be used to pay for an education.  But here’s the loophole: it doesn’t stipulate whose education.”  She spread open her hands.  “So.  This is what I have to offer you.  An opportunity to be limitless.  It’s a little unusual,”  Darcy shrugged, and a curl worked itself loose from her braid to cling to the side of her face. “But, if you’re seeing this video, you’re probably a little unusual already.”

She started to reel off more information about how to apply, emails and phone numbers, but Tony had stopped listening.  He was watching her gesture while she talked, like he did when he was explaining something he was passionate about.

“Oh, Tony.”  Pepper said, and he saw to his discomfort that she was crying again.  “That she would even think to do something like that…”

Steve was staring at the video, which had looped back to the beginning again.  “How old is she?”  He asked, surveying the bedroom she was in.  “Fourteen?”

“Right before she started college.”  Tony said, and grinned.  “Beat me by five months.”

Steve shook his head, still staring at her.  “She said she’d graduated early… I didn’t ask.”

Tony shrugged.  “No one likes that guy at the party telling everyone about his seven Ph.Ds.”

Pepper raised her eyebrows.  “...Tony, you just described yourself.”

“Yes, and no one likes me.”  Tony pointed out, and Pepper frowned.  

“Tony, do you really--”  She started, then glanced over at Steve, and seemed to think better of it.

Steve seemed to shake himself out of his fugue.  “What I really want to know is what happened with Christy.  She seemed… I know you can’t tell just by looking at someone what their mental health is like, but she didn’t seem dangerous to me.”

Tony grimaced, remembering how he’d thought she looked a little overwhelmed before that move to Virginia.  “Having a mental breakdown while trying to get into contact is a little too convenient for me.”

Pepper took a deep breath.  “Tony, I hate to say it, but…”

“Obie.  I know.”  Tony said, unconsciously rubbing his arc reactor.  “I want to look into this Ronnie character… there’s something… I can’t put my finger on it.”

Steve nodded, his eyes hooded.  “I would like to know more about Ronnie myself.”

Tony immersed himself in Ronnie’s finances, Ronnie’s police record, picture after picture making something inside him itch with recognition.

“Tony,”  Pepper said, pointing to something on his screen, “Does Ronnie seem like the kind of man who would take his wife’s last name?”

“Uncle by marriage.”  Tony said, and he knew where he’d seen Ronnie before.  In old pictures, Howard Stark had his arm slung over the shoulders of a young Obadiah Stane.

They looked exactly the same.

Chapter Text

The first time that Christy meets Ronnie, it’s at her sister’s wake.

It’s not impossible to see what Deanna had seen in him, because he’s handsome, and there’s a certain charm to him if you’re the sort of person who needs to be flattered.  His compliments never seem to reach his eyes; it’s like he’s reading off of some mental script about how to win friends and influence people.  After a while, Christy thinks she can see a pattern to it-- he always starts out with something mean.  A backhanded compliment, so that you’ll work for his approval.  So you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something when he seems to like you.

So you won’t question why you should like him.

But he’s gregarious, and Deanna had always been shy.  Christy could see how he could have wormed his way in by undermining her confidence-- she’d had so little to begin with.

Darcy is stumbling in her new black shoes and trying to put everything in her mouth.  After her second attempt at unplugging the television so she can chew on the cord, Chisty gives her some silverware to play with.  The little girl is arranging them happily on the rug, chewing on a spoon, and Ronnie looks over and laughs.

If it had been anyone else, Christy would have thought he was just laughing because Darcy was being silly.  There was something about Ronnie’s face when he looked at her daughter, though, that made Christy think he didn’t like children.

“What’s funny?”  Christy asked, smiling down at Darcy when she looked up at the sound of her mother’s voice.

“Silver spoon,”  He said, shrugging.  “Seemed funny to me.”

Christy tilted her head at him.  “Why?”

Ronnie raised his eyebrows, leaning back against his chair, and Christy clocked how wrong his body language was.  It was a funeral for his wife, and he was surrounded by her family, whom he had never met.  He should have been tense, his shoulders drawn forward, and yet he was so relaxed.  Almost cocky.

“Well, she’s rich, isn’t she?  Or her daddy is.  That’s what Deanna seemed to think.”  He glanced down Christy’s body.  “Must be nice.”

On his right hand side, Christy’s mother made a dissatisfied noise.  “Oh, I’m sure many people would agree, it’s nice.  I suppose I should be thankful she even knew who the father was.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Mom.  So glad I moved back to Virginia to be closer to the family.”  Christy muttered under her breath, and covered Darcy’s ears.  “Mom, please don’t say things like that in front of Darcy.”

“Babies don’t understand sin, unless you’ve been teaching it to her.”  She said, and looked at Christy the way she had the first time she’d left the house in a short skirt.  Like she was something disgusting.  

“Babies understand a lot more than you think.”  Christy said, and kissed her daughter’s hair.  “It’s Deanna’s funeral.  Let’s get along today.”

Her mother stopped talking, but her mouth was tight with disapproval.  Christy saw Ronnie glance between them, calculation on his face.

There is something very wrong here.  Christy thought, and tried not to pick at the idea of this man and her sister, and what that might mean about her death.

But Christy’s mind has never been good at leaving things alone.

Chapter Text

The next time Christy sees Ronnie, he’s moved in with her mother.

It’s not an issue of money, or so they both say.  Whatever Ronnie does for a living requires a lot of travel, and he just needs a home base where he can spend a few days every month and get a 'home cooked meal'.

“But Mom, we barely know him.”  Christy pointed out, trancing shapes in the ceiling tiles with her eyes.  Her mother’s kitchen reminded her of Deanna more than any other room.  If she was still alive she’d be here, stirring sauce on the stove with a wooden spoon in a long skirt and a cardigan.  “And you’re letting him have the whole garage, what does he even need it for?”

“Men need their own space.”  She said, making a dismissive motion with her hand.  Christy’s father had practically lived in his shop, smelling like sawdust and sweat.  All her best memories where there.  

And her mother had just given it away, with a wave of her hand.  To the man who had killed her sister.

Christy didn’t have any proof of that-- at least not anything that would be acceptable to another person.  They’d only met one time.  She couldn’t say that she’d counted how many times he had said Deanna’s name at the wake (twice).  That there had been loose threads in the cuff of his dress shirt where a monogram had been picked out, and the initials that had been there looked wrong.  (She thought it was an ‘ES’.)  And he wore five rings on his hands, but none of them were his wedding ring, if he’d ever had one.

She didn’t know what he was, but he wasn’t a man grieving over loss.

“So, what room did you give him?”  Christy asked, trying to sound casual about it.  Her mother gave her a scornful glance, as if the answer should be obvious.

“Deanna’s.”  She said, and Christy took a deep breath, and checked the number of ceiling tiles one more time.

 

For years afterward, Christy couldn’t believe that Ronnie had left the door to her sister’s room unlocked.  But he had.

It still smells like Deanna, vanilla and sugar, but it doesn’t look like her room.  There’s a pile of his clothing in the corner that she would have never tolerated and a man’s wristwatch on the nightstand.  

And a laptop on the bed.

Christy sat down on the mattress and opened the computer.  It was lighter than seemed possible, thin as a deck of cards.

Underneath the icon of a chess piece, it asked for a password.  Christy bit her lip, and clicked the ‘forgot your password?’ link.  The screen faded to black, and for a moment Christy thought that it had shut down, but then words appeared in acid green text.  HINT: Who Are You.

Christy tried ‘Ronnie Davis’, his name before he’d married Deanna.  The screen flashed black again, and the text changed.  One more chance.  HINT: Initialism

Christy let out a breath and thought about that picked out monogram.

She typed ‘ES’, and hit enter.  

The screen faded out, and into a desktop with an operating system she didn’t recognize.  The background was patterned in black and white like a chessboard, icons of pieces scattered around the board.

When she clicked on the white queen, a file opened with a picture of a pretty woman Christy recognized.

If the queen was Pepper Potts, she knew who the white king had to be.

In the hallway Christy heard a floorboard creek, the way the last step on the landing always had, and she shut the laptop with a snap.  If he was that close to the room, there was no way to get out the door without being seen.

But this had been Christy’s house before it was his, and she knew its secrets.  Without hesitation, she stepped into the closet.  Deanna’s church clothes were still hanging inside, smelling a little like drycleaning and a lot like camphor.  Christy ducked behind them and winced at the small tink the metal hangers made against each other as they shifted.  Outside she heard the bedroom door swing open.

When her father had built the closet, he’d taken them aside, his face serious.  “You know that your mother doesn’t like it when you girls sleep together.”  He said, and Deanna had nodded solemnly, her hands clasped nervously in front of her.  “But I think it’d be okay sometimes… if it’s a secret just between us.”

And he’d shown them how to open the door he’d built between their rooms.

Christy was easing it open slowly hoping that the click of the latch was too quiet for him to hear, when Ronnie spoke.

“Careless,”  He muttered, and Christy froze before she realized that he was talking to himself.  Afraid to breathe, she slipped into her old bedroom and closed the door softly behind her where it blended smoothly into the wall.  She leaned against it until her heart wasn’t hammering in her chest, tapping her fingers to her breastbone to calm herself.

The icon above the password slot on Ronnie’s computer had been a black queen.  If he was the black queen, who was his king?

Chapter Text

The next time Christy sees Ronnie, he tries to upgrade her phone.

Christy was in the kitchen making Darcy a snack when she spilled the toothpicks and had to count them five times.

There used to be other numbers.  Nine, for the number of full fingers on her father’s hands.  (He’d cut the tip of his index finger off with a jigsaw making her crib.)  Christy used to count to nine a lot.  Or two, for the way her sister liked to do her hair, in braided pigtails down her back.  But now it was always five, for the rings on Ronnie’s hands.

Don’t let him touch us.  Christy chanted in her mind, as she picked each toothpick up off the floor.

Darcy was sitting at the kitchen table, coloring on the back of her worksheet from preschool with the intense concentration of small children.  Her hair was in pigtails, two, like Deanna.

Tomorrow, five braids.  Christy thought.  She knew that what she wanted to do was irrational, but Christy had grown up Catholic.  Crossing yourself seemed just as superstitious.

Christy grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, kissed Darcy on the head, and went into her bedroom.

She had written down everything she knew about Ronnie after she’d opened his computer, even the details that seemed unimportant.  That was what they told you to do when you had an abusive husband, or a stalker-- to document it.  So she opened her journal, and wrote down that on the last phone call she’d had with her mother, she had heard a faint beep, like someone was recording it.

It sounded paranoid.  It was paranoid, but that computer had been real.  That chessboard had been real, and Christy was smart enough to know what her place on that board would have been, if she’d had time to look.  She was a pawn-- and so was Darcy.  Something to use against Tony, strategically valuable.  But as far as Ronnie was concerned, they were ultimately disposable.

Pawns didn’t get to the end of the game by being bold.  They got there by being forgettable.

Slipping her journal under her pillow, Christy walked back into the kitchen and clapped her hands.  “Okay!”  She said cheerfully.  “It’s time to do our drills again.”

Darcy sighed, but put aside her crayons dutifully.

“So, when I say, ‘Darcy, are you going to be okay without your bear’, what do you say?”  Christy asked, keeping her tone upbeat.

“I say, ‘No mommy, I need it before we leave, I need my bear’,”  Darcy answered, a little bored.  “Then I run to my room, and I take the pink backpack, and I climb out the window.”

“Good, great memory sweetheart.  And then what do you do?”  Christy pressed, picturing the scenario in her mind.  Darcy, calm, running to her room, climbing carefully onto the grass, her pigtails bobbing.

“Then I go over to Joey’s house, and I give his mom the pink envelope, and I stay there until you come get me.”  Darcy recited, and Christy knelt down and kissed her on the cheek.

“Can we do fire drills now?”  Darcy asked, and Christy nodded.

“Help, the building is burning down and we’re aaaaaall gonna die!”  Darcy announced at an earsplitting volume, and she ran out the front door.  Christy was taking another drink of water when there was a little ‘oof’ sound, and she heard Darcy call for her.

Just outside the door Darcy was sitting on her rear in the grass, looking up at Ronnie, whom she had obviously plowed into at full force.  He was staring down at her as if she was a mosquito he was thinking about swatting.

“Okay, enough fire drills for today sweetheart, back in the house!”  Christy said, picking her daughter up with one arm and setting her inside the door before blocking it with her body.  “Hi, Ronnie,”  she said, and smiled.  “What can I do for you?”

“Fire drills?”  He asked, raising his eyebrows.  "Seems a little paranoid to me."  Then he glanced down at the water bottle in her hand.

Christy shrugged.  “It’s something the school wanted us to do at home as well, so that they’re not scary for them.”  She lied.  Ronnie nodded, still fixated on her water bottle.  “So,”  Christy said,  “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, right,”  He said, snapping back to her face.  “I just came by to see if you want my old phone.  I know you’re not a huge technology person, but it’s one of the best out there.  I just got an upgrade.”

Christy wondered if Ronnie hadn’t ever bothered to look up what she’d done before she’d had Darcy.  Maybe he didn’t think that computer networking was a very complicated job.

“Oh, that’s such a nice thought, but I’m happy with the phone I have.”  Christy said, smiling.  “Nice of you to stop by.”

Ronnie examined her face.  “...You don’t like me.  Do you.”

Christy laughed, trying not to tighten her grip on the water bottle.  Trying to stay relaxed.  “Well, like Mom always says, you’re family.  I’m duty bound to like you.”

“But you don’t.”  Ronnie said, scanning down her figure.  “That’s a shame.  Well,”  He said, putting his hands in his pockets and walking backwards away from the door, “If you change your mind.  About the phone.  You know where to find me.”

“Okay, thanks!”  Christy said, waving.  She put the deadbolt on the door when she closed it, and took a deep breath.

“Mom?”  Darcy said, watching her uncertainly, and Christy turned with a smile.

“Okay sweetheart, next drill.  What do you do if I say, ‘Fire alarm’.”

“I get the red backpack from by the door,”  Darcy said promptly, relieved to see her mother smiling, “And I take the back way into town, and I go to the police station.  I give the man at the desk the red envelope, and I wait for you to come get me.”

“Good job!”  Christy told her, and Darcy grinned up at her.

“...Can I go color now?”  She asked, and Christy nodded.  As soon as her daughter had left the room, Christy touched the doorknob five times.

Please don’t let him touch us.

Chapter Text

After that there's no way to get away from Ronnie.

Christy had harbored some hope of running away, but it seemed impossible now.  He must have some kind of surveillance on them, because he always shows up when they’re in public places.  He doesn’t approach, but he’s constantly present, reading a magazine casually in the grocery store or returning a book to the library at the same time Christy takes Darcy to story hour.  

And then Christy noticed there was something wrong with the tap water.

It’s the kind of thing that crazy people say on reality tv shows, but there’s a strange smell to it now.  Something sweet and artificial, like splenda.

At first, she’d only stopped drinking it, but after a few days of coming out of the bathtub feeling oddly calm and floaty, Christy had stopped using it for anything other than watering the lawn.

She started to buy bottled water instead.

Darcy hated it.  She missed her bubble baths, and her little box of water toys went sadly unused.  When Christy washed her hair with bottled water she had boiled, Darcy would cry.  Looking at her miserable face made Christy feel like she was doing something abusive, but she didn’t stop.  She couldn’t.

The cashiers at every grocery store in a five mile radius recognized her as that weird water lady, but more importantly, they were starting to recognize Darcy.  “Oh, she’s so adorable!”  They’d comment, and Christy would say something like, “Yeah, sometimes she’s a lot for one person to handle”.  Not because Darcy was hard to handle, but so that they all knew that Christy was alone.

He can’t touch you here.  Everyone knows you.  Christy thought, looking at Darcy.  She was kicking her feet silently against the metal mesh, pouting about the addition of another case of water to the cart.  

Christy tried not to look at the cameras, to seem focused on what she was doing, tapping the handle of cart five times for luck.  You can see me, She thought.  I know you can see me.

The cashier gave Darcy a smile and a piece of candy, and helped them load their water into the back of the car.

When they pulled up to the house, the gravel looked scattered, and she felt her heart kick up, anxiety making her feel sick to her stomach.

As soon as she opened the door, Christy could tell that he’d been in the house.  The pattern of the carpet was off, and she’d left the door at a 45 degree angle instead of a 37 degree one.

When she spotted the first camera, Christy felt like laughing.  They were wirelessly connected, there was no other way she could imagine a system like this working.  Ronnie honestly hadn’t looked into her background, at least beyond the surface level.  She was just another blonde slut in a short skirt to him, or he would have never done it.

Because this was what she did before Darcy-- networking security systems.

She started stacking the water bottles in her cabinet without looking at the camera, counting them out loud as she put them away.  But for the first time in years, she wasn’t thinking a prayer.

She was thinking, I could do it.  I could hack his servers.

Chapter Text

The next time Christy actually speaks to Ronnie in person, he’s driving her to a mental hospital.

As soon as the M&M’s hit the floor, Christy knows exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s why she can’t calm down, a part of her brain screaming that if she could just say her prayers, Ronnie wouldn’t come.

Of course he does, with her mother in tow, ready to take Darcy.  It takes everything Christy has not to start screaming.

She latched onto Ronnie’s hands with the strength of her panic, and he looked shocked.

“Officer, could my brother-in-law take me?  I just--”  She swallowed,  “It would help me so much, to stay calm.”

The cop looked between them and his expression softened just a little.  “If your mother can take the little girl home, ma’am, I think that would be just fine.  Gonna take some time to find a car to do the transport anyway.  If you’ll sign something for our records?”  This last was directed to Ronnie, who shrugged.  

“Sure, anything for you, sis.”  He said, and let himself be escorted into the other room.

Christy knelt and put her arms around her daughter.  Darcy clung the her neck as tight as she could, but she didn’t cry.  

Christy tried to carve into her memory how it felt to hold her, how soft her hair was.  She pressed her lips to Darcy’s ear.  “When they take you back to the house, don’t forget your marbles.  You understand?”

Darcy nodded.  “I’ll get it.”

“No Grandma, or Ronnie.”  Christy added, still whispering.  Then she pulled back, and kissed her forehead.  “I love you.  I’ll call as soon as I can.  Every day.”

“Okay ma’am,”  The officer said, bringing Ronnie back into the room.  “You’ll all set, and your brother-in-law know where you’re going.  So you have nothing to worry about.”

“Thank you,”  Christy said, smiling at him.  “You have no idea how much you’ve just helped me.”

She watched her mother take Darcy, and had to take slow breaths to hold it together.  She’s not like Deanna, Christy thought fiercely, she’s like me.  Mom can’t ruin her.

Christy followed Ronnie out to the car, the florescent lights of the grocery store buzzing so loudly that she wanted to cover her ears.  Christy reached into her pocket, grabbed the Lithium she’d stolen from the psychologist they’d brought to evaluate her, and swallowed it dry.

Maybe it was the placebo effect, but she started to feel a little calmer immediately.

Ronnie waited until Christy shut the passenger side door to talk.

“Alright, sis, what’s your game?”  He asked, amused.  She wondered what he was expecting her to do.

Probably to beg.  She thought, and now the medication really was kicking in, because she felt like laughing.

“Chess.”  She said, grinning at him.  “My game is chess, ‘ES’.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Ronnie said, and Christy almost had to admire his recovery.  How fast he was able to smile again in that smug, condescending way.  He started the car and drove with one hand on the steering wheel, his free hand sitting between them.

“It means,” Christy said, and smiled back sweetly.  “We’re playing chess.  I’m a little white pawn, and you’re a big black queen, so you didn’t notice me.  And you got a little careless.”

“Did you want to be noticed?  Because I think we’ve still got time for that.”  Ronnie said, looking at the shape of her breasts through her shirt.

“You never looked at my background.”  Christy said, and even through the haze of the antipsychotics, she felt her heart start to beat a little faster.  “Pretty careless, installing a system like that in my house.  I’m in your servers.”

His face went still, and then Ronnie laughed.  “Nothing’s been downloaded from my servers.  But nice try.”

“See, that’s always the problem with designers,”  Christy mused, leaning her head against the window so she count cars in her head.  “Very linear thinkers.  Always want a self-contained system like it’s even possible.”  She smothered a yawn.  “I didn’t download anything, I just made all your connections two-way.  Well, potentially.”

“I don’t know where you’re drawing the rest of your information from.”  Christy said, shrugging, “But I’m guess that some of the people you’re getting it from are the sort to notice a connection like that.”

There was a flash of another facial expression on Ronnie’s face that Christy thought might be fear, but he laughed at her again.

“You said ‘potentially’, Christy.  Which means you have to do something to make them connect.”  He pointed out, leaning back against his seat the way he had at her sister’s wake, relaxed.  “What makes you think I’m going to let you do it?”

“Oh, it doesn’t happen if I do something, Ronnie.  It happens if I don’t.”  Christy responded.  “I have to enter a code every 24 hours.  You better make sure I get to make phone calls wherever you’re taking me.”

He gave her a sideways glance, and then snorted.  “You think I can’t get it out of you?  Or guess it?  You’re not that smart.”

“No,”  She agreed easily, “You’re smarter than me.  But I don’t think you’ll get it.  It cycles, and each cycle uses the last code in its algorithm.  So unless you know what the original base number was, and how long the system’s been active, I think it’ll be pretty difficult.”

Ronnie considered this, drumming his fingers lightly on the steering wheel.  “You can’t have had it long.”

“Well, time is relative.”  Christy agreed, and let him have some time to think it over, watching trees pass by outside her window.

“What is it you’re hoping to get out of this little piece of blackmail?”  He finally asked, and his face gave nothing away.  Christy wondered how much it would hurt him if she opened those data streams.

“Darcy.”  Christy said simply.  “I get to call her once a day, and she can call me whenever she wants.  And you don’t touch her.  At all, ever.”

Ronnie checked her face to see if she was joking.

“No catch.”  Christy told him, as they pulled into the parking lot.

Ronnie gave her a long stare, and the side of his mouth quirked up bitterly.  

“I think,” Ronnie said, pulling into a parking space near the main entrance, “You’ve earned a promotion, little pawn.  What do you want to be?”

“I think a knight.”  Christy murmured, watching the orderlies come from the building in uniforms so white it was uncomfortable to look at them.

“Why not a queen?”  Ronnie suggested generously, waving the orderlies over. “Well, then Stark would have two, but I'm sure Pepper's used to that sort of thing.”

“See, that’s your mistake, Ronnie.”  Christy said, stepping out of the car and letting a man in a white uniform take her arm.  “You’re playing against Tony, but I’m playing against you.”

Ronnie raised his eyebrows.  “What’s the difference?”

“The endgame.”  Christy answered, and let them take her into the building.

Chapter Text

The third time Pepper meets Darcy, she’s escorting her to Tony’s lab.

As soon as Steve had walked in with Tony, Pepper had known that the metaphorical cat was out of the bag.  But she hadn’t expected to have to bring Darcy into the middle of things before they’d even finished sorting through her file.

“This isn’t right.”  Steve said, gesturing to the monitors covered with Darcy’s bank records, Darcy’s school transcripts, Darcy’s life.  “We can’t just sit here, and look through all this without her input-- especially when now we know there could be a real threat to her safety that she isn’t aware of.”

“Oh, I think she’s aware of him.”  Tony said, a muscle in his jaw ticking.  “Steve, there’s nothing much to tell her about Ronnie at this point.  I don’t know who he is.”

“But we know what he is.”  Steve reiterated stubbornly,  “He’s a threat to her safety, and she needs to know.”

Tony ran a hand over his face, and Pepper could see a little tremor still present in the gesture.  “Okay.”  He muttered, and snapped back to the screen in front of him, his fingers flying.  “Whatever, do it.”

“Tony, we can’t have her just walk into this.”  Pepper protested, remembering how appalled she had been when she’d found the cameras in Darcy’s room.  If they had been cameras in her own room, Pepper couldn’t imagine how she would have reacted.  “We need to explain…”

“Explain what?”  Tony demanded, not looking up.  “There is no explanation for this that doesn’t end in her hating me, Pep.  Might as well get all the spying and subterfuge out into the open at once.”

I don’t know this girl at all, Pepper thought, glancing at the muted video that Tony had let play on repeat.  Darcy sitting crosslegged on her bed, offering someone a chance to be ‘limitless’.  Maybe she was the type to hold on to a hurt, but that wasn’t what Pepper saw in her.  She seemed compassionate.  She seemed understanding.

Please be kind like that.

“Let me talk to her first.”  Pepper tried again, and Tony shrugged.  Already compartmentalizing, pushing everyone outside of himself away so that he could do the work in front of him.

Not this time, she thought grimly, heading for the door.  She was surprised when Steve followed.

“If it’s just you, she’ll think she’s getting fired.”  He explained apologetically, opening the door for her.  Pepper looked at him blankly.  “For the food.”

“What food?”  Pepper asked, her heels loud in the silent hallway.  

Steve rubbed the back of his neck.  “Ah.  Well.  Darcy makes lunches sometimes, for the lab staff.  I don’t think… I mean.  It’s not stealing.”

Oh, Tony.  “That would do it.”  She said, nodding.  Steve glanced over, a little notch between his brows.  There was nothing about his gait that betrayed nervousness, his hands open at his sides, but Pepper thought he seemed worried.  His face was too still.

“What does Tony want?  From Darcy.”  He clarified as they reached the elevator banks.

Pepper tried to smile.  “I think he wants her to love him.”

Steve nodded, his face impassive and he entered in the floor number.  “So.  He does want a relationship.  He wants to be involved.”

“I don’t think he imagines that to be possible.  But yes, I think he would want that.”  Pepper confirmed, hope stirring nervously in her stomach.

Steve nodded again, and the elevator doors opened.  She could feel her heart in her chest as they approached Darcy’s door.

Please be that girl, Pepper prayed silently as Steve knocked.  Be that girl on the bed.

Darcy’s smile when she saw Steve morphed into wide eyes when she noticed Pepper.  “Hey,”  She said, eyes darting between them uncertainly, “What’s up?”

Steve smiled briefly, like it was difficult for him.  “Hey Darcy.  We need you to come to the lab.”

Darcy shifted the door in front of her defensively.  “Which lab?”

“You’re not in any trouble, Darcy.”  Pepper assured her, glancing at Steve for help.  “Tony has some information that he wants to share with you.  About your uncle, among other things.”

“Ronnie?”  Darcy asked, going pale.  Pepper felt Steve tense beside her.

“Nothing is going to happen to you.”  He promised.  “There are just… some things you should know.”

Darcy gave him a slanted smile.  “Right.”  She said, sounding a little bitter.  But when she shut the door behind her, she took his hand.

Chapter Text

Darcy found out that Tony was her father without anyone telling her, unless her mother counted.

In the elevator to the lab Darcy felt like she was holding Steve’s hand way too hard, but he didn’t seem to care, rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand.  

I never told him much about Ronnie, she thought, trying to remember what she had said.  Ronnie was one of those things Darcy knew better than to tell people about.  They never wanted to hear it, as much as they might say the things people were supposed to say.  ‘You can tell me anything’ (you couldn’t) or ‘I’ll always be there for you’ (they wouldn’t be).

Becky was.  Darcy reminded herself, looking down at Steve’s hand in hers.  She still didn’t feel sure of him, but… maybe.  Maybe he could be like Becky.

She didn’t know what was scarier: that she’d have to tell him everything, and he wouldn’t believe her-- or that he would.  

Ronnie had started to occupy a nightmare space in Darcy mind, mixed up with her mother’s warnings and her own intuition.  It was impossible to explain that.  Her fear was instinctive, and explaining it made her sound insane.

Even Becky had looked doubtful when Darcy had told her, although she hadn’t voiced it.  ‘I’m sure your mother was very frightened.’  She’d said, squeezing Darcy’s hand with a serious look on her face.  ‘With reason.  But you’re safe with me.

It was seductive to imagine that her mother had been just an anxious woman.  Sometimes Darcy wanted it to all be something her mother had dreamed up.

The elevator opening startled her, and Darcy laughed at herself.  Steve looked at her strangely.  “Darcy, are you… It’s okay.”  He gave her hand a firm squeeze as they walked into the elevator and Pepper entered the number for Tony’s lab near the top of the tower.

“J.A.R.V.I.S, please inform Tony that we are all on our way, so he should prepare for company.”  Pepper told the ceiling as they raced upward.  She couldn’t feel the speed, but going up instead of down made Darcy aware of how fast they were going in a way she had never been before.  It wasn’t until Steve put a hand to her face that she realized how fast she was breathing.

“Pepper, we need to stop.”  He said sharply, then glanced at the ceiling.  Outside the world slowed to a crawl, and although they were still impossibly high, it didn’t seem frightening.  They were above it all, behind metal and glass while the world stayed at a safe distance.

Darcy shook her head, feeling ridiculous, and smiled at Steve.  “I’m fine.”  She said, and instead of smiling back, he gave her a long look before pressing his lips to her forehead.

“I’m not going anywhere.”  He said, and Darcy tried to determine what was on his face.  There was a stillness to his expression that she wasn’t used to, as if he were bracing for something.

“...Steve, what’s going on?”  She asked, glancing over at Pepper, who seemed to be trying not to watch them.  Steve’s eyes traced the same path.  

“It’s… complicated.”  He said, looking uncomfortable, “I don’t think I should be the one to explain.”

Darcy turned to look at Pepper, not sure what to say to this woman.  She seemed nice, polite, but there was a distance to her manner.

“Ms. Potts?”  Darcy asked cautiously, and Pepper turned and smiled pleasantly.

“Why would… Tony... know anything about my uncle?”  Darcy said, feeling uncomfortable with the informality of his first name with this woman.  She saw the pale column of Pepper’s throat as she swallowed.

“We believe that your uncle may be… connected, to an old enemy of Tony’s.  A former friend of the family.”  Pepper said, her voice hesitating over the word ‘friend’.  “There is a very striking likeness.”

Darcy licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry.  “I need to go back to my room.  I forgot something.”

Pepper murmured something to the elevator, and it reversed its course, picking up speed again.  Darcy found she didn’t mind it so much now.

“What did you forget?”  Steve asked, pressing his palm over the back of the hand he was holding, as if her skin felt cold.

“My ‘marbles’.”  She murmured, and he gave her a look of confusion.

They left Pepper to hold the elevator, while Darcy ducked into her apartment and grabbed the backpack she always kept by the door.  Its contents had evolved over the years, but there were some things she’d never been able to discard.  She slipped the straps over her shoulders and took Steve’s hand again, only to find that he wasn’t moving.

“Darcy, have you--”  He seemed to change his mind, shaking his head.  They walked back to the elevator in silence.  

Once they were inside, she thought he would let go of her hand, but now he was the one holding too tightly.  I’m sorry, she thought, looking at his fingers because she was afraid to look at his face, I didn’t know how to tell you.

Darcy had never wondered why her father hadn’t wanted them.  No one wanted you if you were crazy.  And what was it but that, to always keep your most precious things by the door in case you needed to run?

She wasn’t, Darcy thought fiercely, She wasn't crazy.

She was so lost in herself that she didn’t notice they had stopped until Steve pulled lightly at her hand.  When Darcy smiled at him, he looked relieved, and something tight loosened in her chest.

Tony’s lab was a different species from Jane’s.  Jane’s lab was messy, all coffee mugs on counters and disassembled machinery pushed into corners; Tony’s was clean with wide swaths of open floor space and air littered with flat holographic screens.  It was like walking into the future.

When the door closed behind them, Tony froze with his hands in front of a keyboard.

“You’re here,”  He said rhetorically, and wiped his hands against his shirt before turning around, “Okay, yes, they’re here, you’re here.”

He looked even worse than usual, pale around the lips and sweating.  Darcy thought of the way he had run out of the kitchen earlier, how sick he had seemed, and she wondered if there was truly something wrong with him.

“Yeah,”  Darcy said, when it seemed like no one else would be speaking, hooking a nervous hand around the strap of her backpack, “They said that you had some information.  About my uncle.”

Tony gave Pepper a startled glance, then fastened his eyes back onto Darcy’s face.  “I-- that’s a place to start.”

He pulled up a screen in front his face, pulling up an image that made Darcy take a step back, hitting Steve.  He put his hands against her shoulders to steady her.

It was an old picture, black and white, two men with their arms around each other smiling into the camera.  She knew Howard Stark on sight, but the other man… he wasn’t Ronnie.  But he could have been.

“Who is that.”  She asked, her voice quiet but carrying in the quiet room.  Tony rubbed at the place where his arc reactor glowed through his T-shirt.  “That’s Obadiah Stane.  He was my father’s business partner.  And mine.”

Darcy tried to remember what she had heard about him on the news.  “He’s dead, right?”

“Yes,”  Pepper said, and there was something hard to her face despite how soft and pretty she looked, with her hair swept gracefully up, “I can confirm that he is dead.”

Tony grimaced.  “Before his death, Obie… put a lot of things into motion.  Things that I’m still cleaning up.  I think your uncle might be one of them.”

Darcy took a deep breath, and swung the backpack from her shoulders.  “I have something that might help.  I’ve never been able to figure it out, but.  Maybe you can.”

She pulled a small black moleskin from a pocket in the back and bit her lip, loath to part with it.  “This was my mother’s,”  She said, holding it out to Tony, “She kept a lot of notes here, in some kind of code.  I think they were mostly about Ronnie.  There are a few that aren’t in code, that I think she meant for me to read, but.  I think it’s some kind of cipher.”

Tony took the book from her hand, frowning as he flipped through pages filled with nonsense.  

“It’s not a Playfair, I tried that first,”  Darcy said, working a piece of hair nervously around her finger, “Mom always liked the number five, so, but yeah, it’s not that.  I think it’s something with a key.  I tried everything I could think of.”

“Yeah, definitely keyed...”  Tony murmured, laying the book open under a scanner,  “Vigenere autokey?  J.A.R.V.I.S?”

“Analyzing.”  J.A.R.V.I.S said calmly, and made quick work of the first page, displaying the code next to the solution.

La in xg irpx zwqq cpb kkc pbg uyf Inqxuqp rpyn, Hptg.  Ig ro’y Qhmdy Q jbtc vjlfnn dlvwb, dpl sd lo qi Ohfninj… Kisw, S quaa xjkw xau nzr.

R dlen jmpp df mlmznh ti ludncr.

 

It is my hope that you are the one reading this, Tony.  If it's Darcy I have failed badly, and if it is Ezekiel... Well, I will hope for you.

I know that he killed my sister.

J.A.R.V.I.S had only displayed the code, because that was all Tony had asked him to do, but Darcy had memorized every word she had been able to read in that book.  And her mother had outlined them, in a dark black box at the top of the first page.  

Give this only to your father.

Chapter Text

By the time Tony realizes his mistake, Darcy is already gone.

He had really intended to show her everything, even after J.A.R.V.I.S had relayed Pepper’s message.  But the moment had stretched out too long.  He’d had time to panic and hide the evidence.

She walked in holding Steve’s hand like a lifeline, a little pale, but her chin looked stubborn.

“You’re here.”  He said stupidly, and wiped his hands against his shirt as if the movement would calm him.  “Okay, yes, they’re here, you’re here.”

When he turned he saw her eyes catch on DUM-E, interested, and for a moment Tony imagined what it would have been like to have raised her.  The things they could have built together.

It would have never been like that, he told himself ruthlessly, thinking of Becky laughing in that autoshop.  Half his age, and still a better parent than he could have ever been.  He realized with a jolt that Darcy was wearing the same T-shirt as in that video, the Chat Noir logo faded from years of hard use.

She glanced at Pepper and then Steve uncertainly before she spoke, the hand gripping the strap of her backpack tightening.  “Yeah, they said you had information,” Tony noticed the slightest pause, as if she wanted to avoid the next sentence, “About my uncle.”

He thought of the shaking in her voice on that 9-1-1 call, and remembered his own, after the kidnapping.  They’d gotten careless, after so long.  Tony seemed like he’d settled down, and he was weak from the lack of food.  He’d been able to climb out of the basement window once he’d popped the screen loose with the wrench he’d found, thin enough to fit through the scant space.  He’d cut himself on the glass, a deep slice around his hip, that left a trail of blood back to the crime scene.

He’d knocked on the first door with children’s toys on the lawn and asked to use the phone, babbling everything he could remember to the operator while he bled on the carpet, the homeowner watching with wide eyes.  Her name had been Karen, and his father had remodeled her entire house.  He thought she’d looked a little like Pepper.

Tony shook himself out of the memory.  “I--That’s a place to start.” He muttered, and pulled up a photograph of Obie.  He saw her react immediately, her pupils dilating as she stepped back into Steve.  Tony felt an intense wave of gratitude when Steve rubbed a hand over her shoulder.  It seemed to steady her.

“Who is that.”  She said it like a statement.  Tony rubbed his arc reactor unconsciously.  “That’s Obadiah Stane.  He was my father’s business partner.  And mine.”

Darcy tilted her head, like she was thinking, and Tony recognized the gesture.  “He’s dead, right?”

“Yes,” Pepper said, “I can confirm that he is dead.”

Because you helped me kill him, Tony thought, grimacing.  “Before his death, Obie… put a lot of things into motion.  Things that I’m still cleaning up.  I think your uncle might be one of them.”

Darcy took a deep breath, her expression pained as she opened her backpack.  “I have something that might help.  I’ve never been able to figure it out, but.  Maybe you can.”

She offered Tony a little black notebook, and he noticed how short and practical her fingernails were, like she was used to working with her hands.  “This was my mother’s.  She kept a lot of notes here, in some kind of code.  I think they were mostly about Ronnie.”  Tony opened it and started to thumb through the pages.  They were obviously structured like english sentences, with periods and apostrophes, but without a one-one alphabet ratio.  “There are a few that aren’t in code, that I think she meant for me to read, but.  I think it’s some kind of cipher.”

“It’s not a Playfair, I tried that first,”  Darcy continued, talking a little fast, “Mom always liked the number five, so, but yeah, it’s not that.  I think it’s something with a key.  I tried everything I could think of.

“Yeah, definitely keyed…” Tony muttered, pulling up a keyboard to enter a few ideas while J.A.R.V.I.S scanned the pages.  “Vigenere autokey?  J.A.R.V.I.S?”

“Analyzing.”  J.A.R.V.I.S replied, working through the most likely keys easily.  The first was ‘Stark’.

It should have been no surprise that the second was ‘Stane’, but Tony’s stomach still lurched.

When J.A.R.V.I.S displayed the first page, Tony saw Darcy blanche white.

La in xg irpx zwqq cpb kkc pbg uyf Inqxuqp rpyn, Hptg.  Ig ro’y Qhmdy Q jbtc vjlfnn dlvwb, dpl sd lo qi Ohfninj… Kisw, S quaa xjkw xau nzr.

R dlen jmpp df mlmznh ti ludncr.

 

It is my hope that you are the one reading this, Tony.  If it's Darcy I have failed badly, and if it is Ezekiel... Well, I will hope for you.

I know that he killed my sister.

He wondered how well Darcy had known her aunt.  When he pulled a picture, Deanna looked like a soft woman, standing in a kitchen in a cardigan with her sleeves rolled up and flower on her arms.

He didn’t pay much attention to the way that Darcy was watching him, moving close enough to see some of her information still displayed on the screens.  J.A.R.V.I.S left the first page up, displaying the second right beside it.

Sig xuep zn xnfug uglovig.  Yx C lgq gr vwmto W't eay xm iphqljyu gw rug dgdooj cvcb quq wzxyr, saj A dwlcj Q'be jwuo pyik xukzwu tw felze nn.  Zw mtpwf.  Su'g ipa loosrjzcg rn qat qlxsiroul.  Ya tgkut slq lalurlar.  I ajayn iq epk yawr sdippsaz qe wgeda na.  J ijg't yvksjax Fplcyf kkn p rdbeka iu cqv, pu sdpeqg.  Nfz basi qome gawhm fefyehrbp pbj

 

She died of heart failure.  If I had to guess I'd say he injected an air bubble into her veins, but I doubt I'll ever know unless he tells me.  He might.  He's too confident of his abilities.  It makes him careless.  I think he was just supposed to watch us.  I can't imagine Deanna was a threat to you, or anyone.  She must have found something out.

Darcy reached out to tap one of the screens, and the flicker of movement caught Tony’s eye.  When he turned, he saw her watching a video with the sound off, her face pale but expressionless.  

Steve, positioned behind her, looked baffled at first.

“Tony,” Steve said, and Tony winced at the disappointment in his voice, “Is this… You put cameras in Darcy’s rooms?”

“I-- yes, but they’re not there now.”  Tony said, glancing at Pepper for corroboration.  “I didn’t… I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

Darcy laughed, then covered her mouth like the sound had surprised her.

“He removed them.”  Pepper agreed, shooting Tony a look.  Steve was just shaking his head as if he were too appalled to speak.

“Tony, I know you’re used to having surveillance on people, but-- This?  On your own--”  He stopped himself, but Darcy looked up sharply.  She took a step backwards, towards the door.

“I-- this is a lot.  I need some air.”  She said, and tried to smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

Steve took her hand, and Darcy looked down at it like she wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Then she nodded to herself.

“Let’s go get some coffee.”  Steve suggested, running a soothing hand down her arm.

If Pepper hadn’t been there, he would have watched them leave, but when he reviewed the footage later, there wasn’t much to see.  Nothing that would have clued him in to the fact that when he returned to the tower, Steve would be alone.

Chapter Text

The first time Steve meets Matt Murdock, he’s putting Darcy into a cab with him.  He wants to argue about it.  He's blind, how can he protect you like I can?  Please, don't do this.  Stay with me.

But she trusts this lawyer, in a way that she doesn't trust him anymore.  In a way that, maybe, she never trusted him.  

As soon as he shuts the car door, he wanted to sprint after it and beg her to stay.  But he doesn't.  He walked back to the tower slowly, his drink lukewarm in his hand, watching the other people on the street who all seemed to know where they were going.  Everyone had a plan.

That must be a nice feeling.  He thought, trying to settle the roiling in his stomach with another swallow of coffee.

When he got back to the tower, he didn’t bother to go to the lab.  Tony would find him.  

Steve made it halfway through the common room before Tony showed up.

“Where is she?  What happened?”  He demanded, a little out of breath, as if he’d sprinted from the elevator banks.  He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, pulling at his hair and running them over his hips, feeling his pockets like he’d lost something.  Steve recognized the same sort of panic in his movement that he’d seen in the lab before Tony had collapsed.

“Darcy is fine.”  Steve told him, sitting down on the couch with the latte in his hand.  “She decided she needed some time outside of the tower, and I agreed with her decision.”

“I-- No.”  Tony said, pulling a small tablet out of his back pocket,  “Why would you-- it’s not safe.

Steve reached into his own pocket, and set Darcy's iPod very deliberately on the table next to the couch.  Tony froze, his thumbs hovering over the screen of the tablet.

“You’ve been spying on her.”  He said bluntly.  “Not watching her on the security cameras.  You put cameras in her bedroom, Tony.  And you put a tracker in her iPod.  Didn’t you.”

Tony opened his mouth to speak, then closed his mouth and swallowed.  “I couldn’t use J.A.R.V.I.S with her.  I’d locked myself out.  Privacy protocols.”  His mouth twisted.  “Kind of ironic now.”

“Ironic is not the word I would use for this situation.”  Steve commented, taking a swig of his coffee.  Tony glared at him, at the relaxed way he was sitting.

“So, what.  You just dumped her off at some hotel?  With no protection.  And then you weren’t even going to tell me?”  He wasn’t shouting, but Steve could hear the edge of it.  How close Tony was to freaking out.

“Of course not.  I just thought this would take a while,”  He gestured to the couch,  “And I might as well be comfortable.”

Tony made a disgusted noise.  “Well, I’m glad you’re comfortable leaving Darcy somewhere neither of us can protect her.  I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“There is nothing about this that I am comfortable with, Tony.”  Steve said vehemently.  “I would love to have Darcy here, right now.  Where I could help her with this.  But I can’t, because of you.

Steve paused, rubbing a hand over his forehead.  “That’s not entirely fair.”  He admitted, “I should have paid more attention to her.  Asked more questions.  But, Tony… I almost don’t think this could have gone worse.

Tony sat down on the sofa armrest, looking tired.  “No.  It is my fault.  Where is-- is she someplace safe?”

“She’s someplace safe.”  Steve said, and looked at his hands.  “I do know where she is, Tony.  But I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.  Not if I ever want her to trust me again.  And you can’t… Don’t look for her right now, okay?”

“You took her there?”  Tony demanded, starting to pace.  Steve shook his head.  

“Couldn’t, since I had to bring this back.”  He gestured to the iPod.  “But someone came to pick her up.  That’s all I’m telling you, Tony.  I’m sorry.”

“She needs to-- the journal.  There’s a lot of information in there.  About Ronnie.  Or ‘Ezekiel’, or whatever his name is.  Stane.  All of her stuff…”  Tony protested, looking less panicked and more devastated by the moment.  “She doesn’t have anything she’ll need.”

“There was some other stuff in that backpack.”  Steve admitted, his stomach still twisting at the thought of what must have happened to her in the past if she felt like she had to keep her valuables in a bag by the door.  “And she let me give her some money.”  Not enough.

Tony reached for his wallet.  “How much?  She’ll need more.”

Steve shook his head.  “Tony, I don’t think… She’s not going to take that from you.”

He closed his eyes and let out a slow breath.  “I know what you’re going through right now.  But if you push it, I don’t think either one of us will ever find her again, Tony.  Please don’t do that to me.  I can’t…”

“You love her?”  Tony asked, searching Steve’s body language for clues.

“I do.”  Steve said immediately, meeting Tony’s eyes steadily.  Tony nodded, his eyes darting back and forth as he pursued some thought.

“I still have to do something.  About Christy, and Stane.”  He said cautiously. “If you’ll-- if you promise me that you’ll take care of her.  I can leave her alone.  If that’s what she wants.”

Steve nodded.  “I think that would be fine.  I don’t think she expects…” He shrugged, “Well.  Maybe I have no idea what she expects.  But I promise I will do whatever I can for her.  Whatever she’ll let me do.”

Tony laughed, the bitterness in his voice hard to listen to.  “Can’t even trust Captain America.  I really fucked her up.”

Ronnie really fucked her up.”  Steve disagreed.

Tony shrugged.  “Same difference.  He only wanted her because she was my daughter.”

“Well.  Like I said before: What’re you gonna do about it?”

Chapter Text

The first time that Natasha meets Darcy, she’s naked.

She’d been aware of her while she was in the tower, in a vague way.  A girl she’d seen with Steve, walking through the lobby with a cup of coffee and her hand through his arm.  She’d looked into her history, and dismissed her as a threat months ago.

Darcy is far more conspicuous in her absence, however.

It’s difficult to get Tony to leave his lab for almost any reason, and Steve is… deeply distracted.  Neither of them are dangerous yet, but they’re toeing the line, constantly exhausted and tense.

Still, she’s prepared to wait it out, until she walks into the kitchen to find Steve holding Tony to a wall, his hands pinning his wrists.

“Stop it.”  Steve said, his voice low and serious.  Tony struggled, still trying to punch him.  “I told you, I haven’t heard from her.  It’s only been a week, Tony.  Give her some time.”

“This is why you haven’t found Bucky yet.”  Tony accused, the muscles in his arms starkly visible as he pushed against Steve’s unyielding grip.  “You’re too afraid to push people.  Wouldn’t want to be the bad guy, even if it’s what they need.

Steve’s jaw tightened, but when he responded his voice was calm.  “I think that it’s up to Darcy to tell us what she needs.  Right now, she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the tower, and frankly, I don’t blame her.”

“With the tower, that’s an interesting way to put it Steve.  Why don’t you just say you got dumped.” Tony hissed, going limp to see if he could slide out of Steve’s grip that way.

“Because I didn’t get dumped.”  Steve replied, shifting his hands to get a more secure hold.

“Just a matter of time.  You think she’s going to keep dating you, if she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me?”  Tony said, and finally, he’d said something that hit home.  Steve let go abruptly.

“Don’t make me choose between her and the Avengers, Tony.  Because I already know what I’ll do.”  He said, turning to leave.

Natasha made sure they didn’t see her when she slipped from the room

 

She finds Matt Murdock’s apartment, lets herself in, and waits.  Everything is meticulously arranged, nothing extraneous, with clear walkways.  Natasha approves of it, the easy access to every exit.

His couch is quite comfortable too, black leather with forest green pillows in each corner.

When Darcy walks out of the bathroom and sees her, she’s so startled she drops her towel.

“Oh, shit.”  She says, snatching it back up to cover herself.  Her hair is still dripping, forming a puddle on the wood floor around her.  “Sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here.”

“That’s alright.”  Natasha said pleasantly, her feet resting on the coffee table.  “If I’d known you were in the shower, I would have waited.”

Darcy’s eyebrows raised, and she looked more closely at the other woman.  “...You’re Black Widow.”  She said, taking in the casual way Natasha had dressed for the encounter.  “Did-- Who sent you?”

“I sent myself.”  Natasha replied.  “Tell me.  Is there a reason why you’re not speaking to Steve?”

Darcy’s body language changed, her shoulders pulling in protectively.  “I-- I don’t know how to do it.  Safely.  I don’t know what Tony can track.  I guess it doesn’t matter now, since you obviously found me.”

Natasha raised her eyebrows.  “What makes you think I’m going to talk to Tony about this?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”  Darcy asked, wary.  

“Because, if I tell Tony, he’ll do something even more stupid than he’s already done so far.”  Natasha said, some of the annoyance she felt towards Tony bleeding into her voice.  “You’ll run, because that’s what would do if I thought a man with almost unlimited resources wanted to control my life.  And it will destroy our team.  Tony will completely self-destruct, and Steve will disappear with you.”

“...You think Steve would go with me?”  Darcy said, something vulnerable in her expression that Natasha latched on to.

“I do.”  She assured her.  “If I could give you a way to talk to him-- a safe way-- would you do it?”

Darcy bit her lip, thinking.  “I-- yes.  I want to.  I would.”

Natasha nodded, reached into her pocket, and pulled out what looked like an old flip phone.

“His number’s already in the speed dial.”  She said, setting it on the coffee table before letting herself out through the window.

Chapter Text

The first time Darcy calls, it’s the middle of the night.

Steve wasn’t really trying to sleep, although he was in bed.  In a few hours he could get up and take a run, but even he could admit that 3am was too early.

It wasn’t the longest they’d ever gone without speaking.  But in the past, he had been the one out of touch.  He’d always known where she was, that she was safe.

This must be how she felt.  Steve thought, staring up at the ceiling, picturing the way she’d looked when he’d found her here, sleeping in his bed.  He imagined what it would be like, to have her here now.

When his phone rang, he’d progressed mentally past holding her, and the interruption embarrassed him.

No number displayed on the screen, but that wasn’t unusual.  He answered it on the second ring.  “Hello?”

“Steve?”  Her voice was shaky, as if she’d been crying.  Steve sat up, his heart beating so fast he could feel it.  Be normal, he coached himself, don’t make her afraid to call again.

“Hi, sweetheart.  Are you okay?  You sound upset.” He said, and felt good about how had come out-- concerned, but not too much, still calm.

“I-- yeah, I’m okay.  I’m sorry, it’s so late.  I kept trying to call earlier…” She trailed off.  He pictured her almost dialing his number and then putting the phone down, over and over again.

Steve shook his head before he remembered they were on the phone.  “I wasn’t sleeping.  You can call anytime, I always want to hear from you.”

“I wanted to, I just-- but this phone’s supposed to be untraceable.  I guess we’ll see.” He could hear bits of background noise, and air, as if she were outside.  “I wish I could see you.”  She admitted softly, and Steve closed his eyes.

“You can, anytime you want to.”  He promised.  There was silence on the other end of the phone.  “I know you think that Tony can track me, but I think you’re underestimating me.”

Darcy laughed a little.  “I might be.”  She hesitated.  “Maybe… I mean.  You know where I am.”

“You want me to come over?”  He asked, already starting to climb out of bed.  

Darcy made a little noise of hesitation.  “It’s three in the morning.  Won’t that look suspicious?”

“I usually go for a run around five.”  He reminded her.  He could hear her breathing on the other side of the phone, someone shouting faintly in the distance, and he remembered what a bad neighborhood she was in.

“...Okay.”  She agreed, her voice muffled.  “If you think you can do it… I mean, if it’s safe.”

“I can do it.”  He promised.  “I’ll see you in a few hours.  I love you.”

“I--yeah.  Me too.”  She said awkwardly, and hung up.

 

Hell’s Kitchen is about as bad as he’d expected, but when he jogs up to Matt’s brownstone, Darcy’s sitting on the stoop cradling a cup of coffee as if there’s nothing for her to be worried about.

She stands up when she sees him, but doesn’t otherwise move, and he can read tension in her shoulders.  In the way she clutches the warm mug protectively to her chest before she sets it down.  It makes his heart ache.

He pulled her into a hug before he decided if that was a good idea or not, but the way she relaxed against him was answer enough.  Darcy sighed and burrowed her face in his chest, her fingers digging into the material of his sweatshirt.  She felt a little cold from sitting outside in the night air for so long.

“You’re very warm.”  She observed, her voice muffled by his chest.  Steve wrapped his arms around her a little tighter, rubbing her back.  “How long can you stay?”

As long as you want me to, he wanted to say.  “I think I could be gone for at least another half hour before anyone thinks twice about it.”  Steve said into her hair, trying to breathe the smell of her in as deeply as he could.

“M’kay.”  Darcy loosened her grip to circle her arms around his waist, and they stood silent for a few minutes.  Finally she sighed and pulled back to look at him.

“Thank you.  For not asking me to come back.”  She added, reading his confusion.  Steve shrugged, still chafing her back to keep her warm.

“I don’t know that you should come back.  Right now.”  He amended, and kissed her hair.  “Not that I wouldn’t like to have you closer.”

“It’s probably safer there, although Matt’s… capable.”  Darcy admitted.  “But when I think about it, it’s like I can’t breathe.  It’s… I mean, Steve, he had everything about me just on display.  I get uncomfortable when someone else does my laundry.  I feel…”  She shrugged instead of finishing the sentence with the right word.

“Ashamed.”  Steve said, nodding.  Darcy looked down.  “Darcy.  You think I don’t understand something like that?”

Darcy’s mouth twisted at the thought of all of the Captain America books that had been written over the years.  About his mother, and his father, every personal detail they could find about Steven Rogers on display for the entire world.  There was no part of his life they hadn’t picked apart, down to the smallest detail.

“Yeah,”  She agreed, “That.  And, like, how long has he been doing this?  If he knew about me, then why…”

“He definitely knew something.”  Steve admitted, thinking back to Tony’s meltdown in the lab.  “But I think a lot of that was new, especially the stuff with Ronnie.”

“Maybe, but… I don’t know.  I’m so angry with him.”  She said, hiding her face in his shirt again.  “I didn’t think I would be.”

Steve thought of how Tony had been the last week, constantly on the edge of an explosive outburst of anger.  “He seems pretty angry with himself as well, if it’s any consolation.”

Darcy laughed humorlessly.  “Well, good for him I guess.  Would have meant more to me when I was twelve.”

Darcy winced, hearing how bitter it sounded out loud  “That was probably uncalled for.”  She muttered, shaking her head.  “I hate feeling like this.”

“What was that thing Becky always said?”  Steve asked, although he already knew.

“ ‘We’re living in the future, so what’re you gonna do about it’.”  Darcy quoted.  “Yeah, I know.  Like, what’s happened has happened.  It’s just hard.”

Steve’s watch started to chime a warning, and when he shut it off he was surprised at how much time had passed.

Darcy glanced back to catch sight of the time.  “You need to go?”

“Probably.”  He admitted, reluctant to move.  Darcy nodded.

“Okay.”  She agreed, and pulled him down for a kiss.  Steve felt like he was trying to memorize her, holding her body to his too tightly until he lifted her completely off her feet.  Darcy didn’t seem to mind.

“I love you.”  She said after he set her back down, looking away like it made her uncomfortable to voice it.

Steve kissed her on the forehead, mouth warm against her cool skin.  “I know.”

As he jogged away he saw her sit back down on the stairs to take a sip of her coffee and make a face at the flavor before finishing the mug anyway.

You really are like your father.  Steve thought, and put his headphones in for the run home.

Chapter Text

The second time Natasha meets Darcy, she’s trying to break into Matt Murdock’s apartment.

It’s not that she didn’t expect Darcy to tell Matt that she’d stopped by-- he was her lawyer, and she seemed to trust him completely.  But she hadn’t expected his new security measures to be quite so effective.

After being mildly electrocuted touching the windowsill, Natasha sat down on the fire escape to examine it more closely.  She could see Darcy inside, lounging on the couch with her laptop open and her headphones on, apparently oblivious.

She’d dismissed Murdock as a threat, which was a mistake she recognized when his cane slammed into the hand that was trying to jury-rig his window open.  He’d managed to climb the fire escape from one of the lower windows without her even feeling it.

“Maybe this wasn’t the stupidest place for her to run to.”  Natasha admitted, getting out of the man’s range.  “Look.  I just want to talk.”

“Shockingly, most people who want that knock.  Or call-- Darcy’s unlisted, of course, but I’m in the book.”  Matt suggested, his tone helpful.  He’d drawn his cane back, ready to be offensive, and Natasha recognized the training in his movements.

Interesting, she thought, filing Matt Murdock away for further study.  “I’m out of the habit.”  She admitted, shrugging.  “I guess it doesn’t occur to me anymore.”

“That can be a problem.”  Matt said, nodding.  “Once you’re accustomed to a little casual home invasion, well, it just starts to feel natural.

Is that something you would know about?  Natasha wondered, adding it to her ‘Matt Murdock’ file.  She reached into a pocket to withdraw a flash drive.  “There’s some information about Darcy’s… uncle.  Tony thought that she might want to see it.”

“And what made Tony decide that you were the most appropriate person to make such a delivery, as opposed to Captain Rogers?”  Matt asked, still not relaxing his posture.

“He didn’t.”  Natasha admitted.  Matt made a noncommittal hum.

“So, Ms. Romanov.  What is your agenda here?”

“My agenda is team unity.”  She answered truthfully.  “When you do what we do… the stakes are high.  I can’t afford to have anyone distracted.  And right now, this is a huge distraction.”

If he hadn’t been blind, Natasha would have thought he was trying to read her face behind his glasses.  Eventually he nodded.

“You’re being honest.”  He said, and opened the window with a level of ease that Natasha found faintly insulting.

When they stepped into the living room, Darcy removed her headphones.  “Well.  I see you’ve made friends.”  She observed.  Matt smiled non-committally, but walked into the attached kitchen as if he might be planning to be hospitable.

Natasha sat down and was immediately distracted by what was on display on Darcy’s laptop.

“Yes, I’m internet stalking Tony Stark.”  She said, following Natasha’s gaze.  Natasha raised her eyebrows.  “What?  He did it to me first.”

“And, what have you discovered?”  Natasha asked, scanning the open tabs on Darcy’s browser window.  Most of them were obviously youtube videos, but a few looked more informative.  

Darcy shrugged. “Not that much I didn’t know before I guess.”

Natasha waited for her to elaborate.  In her experience, silence often got more complex explanations than questions did.

She wasn’t disappointed.  “I mean, I already knew about the whole wunderkind tech genius thing, and the whole Iron Man redemption arc thing.”

Very interesting.  “Why did you focus on those?”  Natasha asked, and Darcy’s forehead wrinkled.  “You could have mentioned his weapons manufacturing, or his drinking, his sleeping around…”

Darcy pulled her knees up to her chest.  “I don’t know.  Doesn’t seem fair I guess.  I read that he got a vasectomy when he was like, fifteen-- seems like he was trying his best not to have a me.  And the weapons thing.  Obviously he feels bad about it.  Not that I necessarily think that waging an extrajudicial one-man war of conscious is the best approach, but, he’s trying, I guess.”  She shook her head.  “I don’t know.”

Natasha nodded, thinking about the constant distancing language Darcy was using; I don’t know and I guess.  She was uncomfortable with her opinion of Tony, which was more positive than Natasha would have ever hoped for at this stage of the game.  “Would you like to read his SHIELD file?”

“I-- Why?”  Darcy asked, stunned.  

Natasha shrugged.  “He did it to you first.  You might find it informative.”

She withdrew the flash drive and offered it to Darcy.  “Everything from your mother’s journal.”  She explained.  “And a few other things that I thought you might be interested in.”

Darcy gave Natasha's hand a sideways glance, as though a stranger was offering her drugs at a rave. 

“What’s your agenda here?”  She asked, and Natasha heard Matt laugh faintly to himself in the kitchen.

“I would like you to make an informed decision.  So, I am informing you.”  Natasha said, still holding out her offering.

And Darcy took it.

Chapter Text

The second time Darcy calls, Steve’s sitting three feet away from Tony.

He really hadn’t meant to broadcast the fact that he’d seen her, but apparently he had.  It was hard not to-- despite the fact that he’d known intellectually that she was fine, that they were fine, it was something entirely different to see her.  To get to hold her.

And even though he really had known that she loved him, it had meant something to hear her say it.  A knot of tension he hadn’t felt himself carrying had loosened in his shoulders, and his smiles came easier.

Steve doesn’t remember what he was laughing at when Tony throws a wrench at his head.

“Tony,” He said, staring at the dent the tool had left in the wall after he’d ducked, “Why would you do that?”

Stop being so fucking happy.”  Tony hissed, stalking over to retrieve his wrench.  “I get it, Steve, she talks to you, you’re all blue birds around your head in love, you get to know everything, I get to know nothing.  Can you stop fucking rubbing it in?”

“I--” Steve almost lied.  “Yes, I was able to see her recently, and she’s just fine.  In a safe location.  Isn’t that what you want?”

Tony grunted, which Steve decided to translate as agreement.

When his phone vibrates against his hip and comes up unlisted, his heart lurches despite the fact that this would be the absolute worst time for her to call.

“Hello?” He answers, and he knows that it’s Darcy even before she speaks from the way the phone sounds like she’s outside.

“Hey,” She says, and he can’t help smiling at the sound of her voice.

“Hi,” He says, and even he can hear how stupidly smitten he sounds.  Across the room, Tony’s head snapped up.

“So, I’ve been internet stalking Tony, and I have a question.”  Darcy said, and even though he knows it’s a tell, Steve looks at him.

“Sure, what?”  He replies, trying to sound relaxed and obviously failing, because Darcy’s tone changes.

“...He’s listening to this.  Isn’t he.”  She said, inflectionless.

“No, not like that.  I mean, he’s in the room…”  Steve admitted, and now Tony’s stare was painfully intense.

“You know what, that’s fine, I’m gonna ask anyway: Does Tony have some kind of undiagnosed mental illness?” Darcy demanded.

“Um,”  Steve said, trying to decide if he should say anything about Tony’s PTSD or his panic attacks while he’s standing right there.  Luckily, the question seems to be largely rhetorical.

“Because right now, I’m looking at probably the worst picture that has ever been taken of a human being, Steve.  He’s wearing like, highwater sweatpants, boat shoes with no socks, a shirt that is the exact same color as his sweat pants, and what I’m pretty sure is a woman’s cardigan sweater.  Which is striped, and he is wearing a beanie with a completely different color scheme of striping.  And round sunglasses like he thinks he’s a Beatle or something.”  Darcy paused for breath.  “And you would think, Steve, you would hope, that he would be drunk for this, because at least that would be a reason, but, no, Steve.  This photograph was taken in the middle of the day, he’s carrying like three lattes.”

“So, what I want to know,”  She said in summary, “Is how in god’s name this could have happened.  He’s a billionaire.  Can’t he just pay someone to make sure he doesn’t walk out of the house looking like an asshole?”

“Um,”  Steve said again, “Well, it was just the one picture, maybe--”

“But that’s just it, Steve, that’s the thing, it’s not one picture, there are like, hundreds of them, this is the tip of the horrible outfit iceberg.  I distinctly remember an entire suit made out of that weird shiny pvc stuff, over a mesh shirt.  A mesh shirt, Steve.

“Darcy,”  Steve said, trying not to laugh, “I think you need to stop googling Tony and go for a walk or something.”

“Ooh, I love it when you speak all future-y to me, say something else.”  Darcy teased, but he could hear her shutting her laptop.

“Trolling, catfish, sexting, lol.” Steve listed obediently.  “Now go for a walk.”

“Okay,” She agreed.  “See you in the morning, same time same place?”

“Absolutely.  I love you.” Steve said automatically, and Tony looked a little pained.

“Ditto. So, is it starting to be endearing when I can’t say it back, or is this going to be an issue?”  Steve could hear a jangling on her end of the line, like keys hitting each other.

“Everything you do is endearing.”  Steve said, feeling a little giddy from what anyone would agree was her not actually saying ‘I love you’.

“I’m totally working on it.”  She promised.  “Okay. Bye!”

“Bye.”  Steve said, hanging up.

“...She’s googling me?”  Tony finally asked.

“Yes.  I guess there are some bad pictures of you?  In silly outfits.”  He added hurriedly, seeing Tony tense.  “She said something about a mesh shirt.”

Tony winced.  “Yeah, that was not my best move.”

He cleared his throat.  “But, she’s googling me, that’s good, right?  She’s interested in me.”

“Tony, of course she’s interested in you, you’re her father.”  Steve said, a little exasperated.

Tony shrugged, not meeting Steve’s eye.  “Could be worse than a few… possibly ill advised fashion choices.  But at least she’s interested in me.”

“I--yeah.”  He agreed, wishing he could give Tony a hug without getting another wrench thrown at him.  “She’s interested.”

Chapter Text

The third time Natasha meets Darcy, she calls first.

When Matt meets her at the fire escape window he has a split lip and a fading bruise on his left temple.

“I walked into a door.” He said, answering Natasha’s silent stare.  From his movements, it seemed like the door may have also cracked one of his ribs.

“Right.”  Natasha agreed pleasantly.  Matt smirked and walked into the kitchen to offer her a drink.

“Darcy’s out,”  Matt informed her, setting a beer and a bottle opener on the counter by Natasha’s elbow.  “She’ll be back soon.”

“Where is she?”  Natasha asked, opening the bottle and leaving the cap next to the opener where it would be easy for Matt to feel.

“Now, Ms. Romanov,”  Matt said, raising an eyebrow, “You wouldn’t expect me to violate the sanctity of attorney/client privilege.”

“Is this a matter of attorney/client privilege?” Natasha said, taking a drink.  Matt shrugged noncommittally, getting himself a glass of water.  He was very sure of the space around him, going smoothly through the motions, and again Natasha found there was something familiar to the way he was aware of his body.  Like a dancer.

Or a spy, she considered, before discarding the idea.  He had too much history in the area to be a plant.

Matt’s face jerked up suddenly, and he was out the door before Natasha could register what he was reacting to.  Far down the stairwell, there might have been the faintest sound of footfalls, but even with the door open, it was the barest whisper of a sound.  Natasha had slid next to the entrance with a knife in her hand when Darcy reached the apartment with Matt in tow.

The collar of her shirt was ripped open, and she looked pale, but there weren’t any other visible injuries.  When she saw Natasha with her back against the wall, she startled, then relaxed.

“I told you, I’m fine.” Darcy said, and when she turned to look at Matt Natasha saw a faint red line on her neck, as if a knife had been pressed against her throat.  “Also, I met Spiderman, he seems weirdly young?”

Matt ignored her, running his hands over her throat and pausing at the mark Natasha had seen.  

Darcy sighed.  “You are going to mother hen super hard now, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”  Matt agreed, disappearing into a coat closet and returning with a suspiciously well stocked box of first aid supplies.  He pulled out a bottle of liquid bandage and started to apply it to Darcy’s neck, the smell of clove oil bleeding into the air.  

Darcy looked sideways at Natasha, but kept her head still.  “You gonna tell everyone about this?  Because I would rather that you, you know, not.”

Natasha slid her knife back into its sheath and studied the girl.  “What would that accomplish?”

Matt finished painting the bandage onto Darcy’s neck and pulled a needle out of his box to start working on the torn collar of her shirt.

“Well, if you tell them, Steve’s going to flip out.  I assume Tony would flip out too?  I don’t really know him like that, but he seems like the type.”  She touched the line on her neck to see if it was dry before she moved her head.  “And if they do that, they’re kinda gonna blow my cover.”

“Your ‘cover’.”  Natasha repeated, and Darcy made a face.

“Okay, that might be dramatic.”  She admitted.  “Ruin my anonymity, how about that.  There are some things my mom mentioned… It’s hard to explain.”

“There are some problems that are not best solved with a hammer.”  Natasha acknowledged.  “That’s usually my area.”

Darcy hesitated.  “I-- Are you offering?”

“I’m offering.  Not a blanket yes, without more intel, but I’m offering.”  Natasha had read Christy’s journal, but she assumed there were clues that would only be accessible to Darcy in the text.

“Why?”  Darcy asked bluntly.  “I mean, no offense, it’s nice of you and I’m sure you’re better than me at this, but you don’t know me.  Why would you bother?”

“Because you’re right.  This isn’t a nail.”  Natasha said, her eyes tracing the almost repaired line of Darcy’s collar.  “And I don’t think you’re the right tool for the job either.”

Darcy chewed at her lower lip, thinking it over.  “...Okay.”  She agreed reluctantly, offering Natasha her hand, and they shook on it.

Chapter Text

The third time Darcy calls him, Steve’s in the medbay.

There’s rarely anything they can do for him when he gets injured, but you can’t expect your subordinates to obey rules that you show your own disdain for, and Steve has a hard enough time getting the other Avengers to get checked by medical as it is.  So he dutifully presented the broken arm they can’t do anything about and allowed the doctors to poke at it painfully before they shifted his bones into the best position to heal and let him cool his heels for a few hours.

He almost groaned with relief when the phone rang.  

“Hello?”  He answered without looking at the caller id, willing to talk to anyone to distract himself from the deep ache of the serum knitting his bones back together.

“So, why am I looking at you on the news, with one of your arms dangling like a spaghetti noodle?”  Darcy demanded, and even though she was yelling at him, Steve felt himself grin.

“I don’t know.” He said honestly. “That was hours ago… must be a slow news day.”

“It’s tragic how funny you think you are, because, spoiler alert, you’re not.” Darcy said, and Steve could hear her keys jangling together, like she was pacing.  “Where are you?”

“Medbay.  Darcy, it’s not serious.”  He said, trying to pitch his voice to be reassuring.  “I’ll be done here in another hour, maximum.”

Don’t you use your talking down crazy people voice on me.”  Darcy hissed, and then sighed, sitting down.  “Okay, I’m being unreasonable, yes, and I’m yelling at you, and I’m sorry.  I’m a little freaked out over here.”

“Do you want me to come over, when I’m done here?”  He offered, and then thought of Darcy sitting on a stoop in Hell’s Kitchen after dark to wait for him, and wanted to take it back.

“I-- Won’t someone notice?” She said, her voice a little muffled.  He could practically see her teeth sunk into her lower lip.

“Yes, but Tony’s promised…” Steve paused to consider his wording,  “I know you don’t trust him.  But he gave me his word that as long as I was looking out for you, that he’d leave you alone.”

“And you believe that.  You trust him.” Darcy stated, sounding more curious than skeptical.

“Yes.  I do.”  Steve reiterated.  “I trust Tony.  And if I’m wrong about him-- well.  We’ll figure it out.”

“...Okay.”  Darcy agreed, still biting her lip.

“Don’t wait for me.  Sit inside.”  He instructed, flexing his arm to see if he was mobile yet.  It still ached, but he thought it felt solid enough.

“Oh my god.  Fine, Mom.” Darcy said, and he heard a faint wet noise on the other end of the line.

“Did you just stick your tongue out at me, Darcy Maria Lewis?  Is that how you treat your mother?”  Steve pulled on his jacket, feeling his pockets to make sure he had everything.

“Oh, you’re pulling out the full name on me, am I grounded now?” She teased, and Steve almost walked into Tony.

“Yes, you’re grounded.”  Steve said, taking in the tablet in Tony’s hand, his posture.  

His tone must have shifted because Darcy was suddenly serious.  “Hey.  I’ll stay inside until you get here, okay?  I love you.”

“Okay.  I love you too.”  Steve said, and hung up the phone.

“Okay, this looks bad.”  Tony said as soon as Steve closed his phone.  “I was just coming to get your input on something, scout’s honor.”

“And you thought well, while I’m here, might as well eavesdrop.” Steve commented, but he thought Tony was telling the truth.  That he’d just frozen when he’d realized who Steve was talking to.

“Exactly.  I mean, it’s done so much for my life so far, I thought, why not?  Maybe this time you can move out and never speak to me again.”  He handed Steve his tablet.  “Someone’s been hitting up a lot of banks.  You wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Steve frowned, looking at the highlighted locations.  “Looking for the lockbox from the journal?”

Tony nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets.  “Yeah.  Security cameras were all disabled, but, I hear it’s a woman.”

Steve’s heart stopped.

“I am hoping,” Tony emphasised, “That you can take care of this situation.  So that I don’t have to do something about it.”

“Of course.  I’ll talk to her.”  Steve promised, taking another look at the places Tony had marked on his map.

Chapter Text

The next time Natasha meets with Darcy, they stakeout a bank.

It’s clear very quickly that the girl is not designed temperamentally for espionage.  She fidgets constantly, eventually pulling a piece of string from her pocket to start playing some sort of children’s game.

It’s strangely fascinating to watch, the patterns evolving as Darcy works through motions she’s obviously been practicing for years-- a jacob’s ladder, a star.  A holdover from a sort of childhood Natasha couldn’t imagine.

But then, she kept a bag by the door, so perhaps it wasn’t that far from something Natasha could imagine after all.

Darcy doesn't complain about the temperature or the wait, her shoulders hunched in against the cold.  The skin of her hands goes white, but she doesn't tuck them into her pockets, seeming to need some sort of movement to stay calm and focused.  Natasha thinks of Tony constantly tapping at a screen, gesturing with a wrench in his hands. 

Around midnight something finally turns up.

She’s not bad-- not up to Natasha’s standards, but more than a match for the simple security of an average bank.  

They don’t interfere.  This is a surveillance op, and the woman leaves empty handed anyway.  There doesn't seem to be a need for intervention.

“So.”  Darcy said, when the building is clear.  “One of yours?  Anyone you know?”

Natasha glanced at one of the photos, just to renew the visual.  She’s young, with long brown hair and something asian to her features that Natasha leans towards calling Chinese.  She’s not familiar to Natasha, but there is something familiar to her and her movements.

“...Hammer.”  Natasha said slowly, phasing the woman’s face over this new woman’s in her mind to trace the the resemblance.  “Justine Hammer.  This isn’t her, but--” She taps the image thoughtfully.

Justine Hammer?”  Darcy said, making a face.

“Justin Hammer’s daughter.”  Natasha explained, still examining the picture to try to assess her age.  “She seems a little young to be another one… granddaughter?”

“I’m still stuck on him naming her Justine.”  Darcy said, tucking her string back into her pocket, and starting to follow Natasha down the street.  “‘Yes, child, I’ve named you for the greatest person I know.  It’s me, I’m that great’.”

Natasha was amused in spite of herself, until she realized that the girl’s loud commentary seemed to have drawn an audience.  A dark shape darts quickly between the buildings across the street from them, and it chills her to realize that she has no idea when the tail started.

It’s not something that happens to her often.

Darcy doesn’t protest when Natasha pushes her back, but she does look confused.  Natasha indicated the dark shape now silhouetted against the skyline, and Darcy smiled.

“He’s okay.”  She promised, giving Natasha look that is one part amusement and one part reassurance.  As if she’d known about this all along.

“Friend of yours?”  Natasha asked, putting Darcy in front of her for the rest of the walk back to Matt’s brownstone.

The girl just smiled, her shoulder loose and relaxed in a bad part of town after midnight.

Natasha thought about how silent Matt had been on the fire escape, the small injuries that seemed constantly present on the man.  How sure he seemed of the space around him.

Interesting, she thought again, watching the shape keep pace with their movements out of the corner of her eye.

Chapter Text

The fourth time Darcy calls Steve, she talks to Tony instead.

He’s eating his third bowl of oatmeal while Tony pokes his and refuses to call it anything other than ‘old man mush’, stirring in so much brown sugar Steve can’t imagine he can taste anything else.

When he answers the phone Steve doesn’t even get out a greeting before Darcy starts talking.

“Make Tony stop buying Becky shit.”  She demanded, a faint clicking noise in the background like the sound of typing.

Steve set his spoon down with a sigh.  “Tony, have you been buying things for Becky?”

“No,” Tony lied immediately, and then shook his head,  “Well.  Define ‘buying’.”

“Tony wants you to define ‘buying’.”  Steve relayed, and Tony waved his hands at him as if trying to erase the words magically.

“Okay.” Darcy said, her voice dry.  “Tell Tony to stop secretly fixing things.  Like her car, and her heater, and her electric bill.  Tell Tony to stop putting surveillance on people, because it’s a super fucked up invasion of their privacy.”

The last part was so loud that Tony could hear it across the kitchen counter.  “Hey!  I didn’t put surveillance on her, I follow her on twitter.”  He protested.  “She’s been complaining about her apartment a lot, I just sent a maintenance guy over.”

“Tony says he follows her on twitter.”  Steve repeated, and Darcy made an inarticulate sound of annoyance.

“Well, tell Tony-- you know what, hand him the phone.”

Steve glanced over at Tony.  “Uh-- are you sure?”

“Steve.  Hand him the phone.”  Darcy said again, and he complied.  

Tony’s face went from sullenly defensive to terrified, but he took the phone, handling it with the care normally reserved for live grenades.

“Hey kid.” He said, and then looked horrified-- whether at himself or at whatever Darcy was saying it was hard to tell.

“No, of course--” He started, and was overwhelmed by a flood of talk on Darcy’s end of the line.  “I wasn’t trying to gaslight her, I-- Look, I figured she wouldn’t even have to know.  It just sounded like she had a carbon monoxide leak, and then once the guy was out there, he sort of ended up fixing some of her wiring--”  He stopped again, and Steve tried to read his face as Darcy talked.  There was tension around his eyes and mouth, but there was also, occasionally, the faintest hint of a smile.

“Right.  Yeah, her internet security has holes the fucking Hulk could walk through.” Tony agreed, taking out a pen to take notes directly onto his arm.  “That’s what I was thinking.”

“ Okay kid.”  He said, hanging up.  He made an apologetic face at Steve.

“Sorry Cap.”  Tony said, handing back his phone.  “Got kind of caught up in, you know.”  He held up his arm, which seemed to contain a list of things he was and was not allowed to do for Becky.

“That seemed like it went well.”  Steve ventured.  Tony shook his head, looking at his notes.

“I-- Yeah.  She’s gonna let me do something for her.  Well, not for her, but,”  He nodded to himself, “It’s a start.”

Chapter Text

The fifth time Natasha meets with Darcy, they let Sasha Hammer steal her mother’s lockbox.

They watch the bank from the building next door, Darcy drinking hot chocolate from a thermos and generally not appearing to take things seriously again.  Natasha notes the knife in her boot and the weight of what is probably a taser in her jacket pocket-- the girl's not entirely defenseless-- but she still feels out of sorts.  Maybe that's just because of Matt.

Natasha hasn’t noticed a tail this time, but she no longer trusts that she doesn’t have one.  The last time she’d been in his apartment, Natasha had closed her eyes and listened for his footsteps in the kitchen, trying to see the world like he did.  She hadn’t been able to sense him coming at all, the soft sound of a bottle being set on the coffee table a few feet away the only thing that alerted her to his presence.

The irony of a blind man being the only person Natasha seemed to have a blind spot for was not lost on her.

When Darcy offered Natasha a cup of cocoa she snorted, but drank it.  It was good, thick with chocolate and spices-- homemade.  She found herself finishing it with more relish than she anticipated.

Darcy was filling a second one when the girl slipped in a window on the second floor of the bank, a brief flash of white light as the alarm was deactivated the only clue to her presence inside the dark building.

When she slipped out again with a black pack bulging on her back, Darcy sighed and stretched her arms wide, as if she were relieved.

“Thank god that’s over with.”  She commented, yawning.  “I thought she’d never get the right bank.”

“If you wanted her to have the information, why not give it to her?”  Natasha asked as they started to descend to street level, although it had taken her days to come up with the idea herself.

“If this mess with Tony has taught me anything, it's that no one trusts information they get from other people.”  Darcy said, giving Natasha a sideways glance.  “They need to feel like they’ve figured it out on their own.”

“You accepted information from me.” Natasha pointed out, helping Darcy to the pavement.

Darcy raised her eyebrows.  “I did, but, we’re not enemies.”

“Hmm,”  Natasha said, considering the things she’d discovered about Justine Hammer and how her life had ended.  “So you believe this girl to be your enemy.”

Darcy bit her lip, sticking her hands deeper into her pockets for warmth.  “I don’t know.”  She admitted.  “I mean, she’s definitely working with Ronnie.  Er, Ezekiel Stane.  But, she’s pretty young…”

And you pity her, Natasha thought, but kept it inside.  There was something about this girl that felt familiar to her.  It was easy to see herself in Sasha, easier than it had been to see herself in Darcy, who played games on stakeouts and made them both hot chocolate.

It was a little fascinating to be around her, because as much as Darcy’s mother had trained her to observe and prepare, it wasn’t her default setting.  Relaxation was a conscious action for Natasha, something she had to decide to do, but it was Darcy’s natural state.  Walking in the dark, while people shouted in the distance, she wasn’t tense, and her hand didn’t curve automatically around her taser.  She seemed defenseless, and yet there was something about that intrinsic sense of safety that Natasha found herself envying.

Matt was waiting on the front steps, his black glasses glinting in the streetlights, and Natasha studied his posture.

He wasn’t like Darcy, loose and open.  She thought, again, that he was like her.  Not afraid of the things that could happen-- ready for them.

He smiled at their approach.  “Ms. Romanov.”  He greeted her, nodding.  Darcy paused on the step above him and let Matt take her arm, guiding him up the steps.  Natasha found it infuriating.

You don’t need her help, she wanted to snap.  Stop pretending to be less than you are.

It was absurd, to resent him for maintaining his cover.  And so all she said was, “Goodnight, Mr. Murdock,” watching until the front door closed and she heard the deadbolt latch.

Chapter Text

The fifth time Darcy calls Steve, she lets him take her back to the tower.

He’s in the gym, his legs hooked around the top of a weight bench while he does sit ups, a medicine ball in his hands, and the phone rings twice before he can answer it.

“Hey,” He says, smiling, already sure it’s Darcy.  No one else calls him from outside all the time, and he can hear the wind across the mouthpiece of her phone.

“Steve.”  She says, and it’s enough to make his heart speed up, because it doesn’t sound like her.  Darcy’s voice never breaks like that.  “I need you to come get me.”

That was all Steve needed to hear to send him running from the room. “Where are you?”  He was faintly aware that his voice was too loud and sharp, the one he used in the field, but Darcy didn’t seem to mind.

“Not sure.”  She says, and he hears her swallow, trying to wet her rough throat so she can describe the buildings, the street she’d been on before she’d been dragged into the alley-- and it’s somewhere Steve knows, near Red Hook.  Most of the details are different, but there’s a building he remembers in her description.

“I know that area.  I’ll be there soon,”  He promised, trying to soften his tone to reassure her-- and then the call cuts off.

He takes his bike and almost causes three accidents weaving through cars.  For a few insane moments he considers mounting the sidewalk, but he grits his teeth and rides out the traffic without endangering pedestrians.  She was able to call, he tells himself, so she’s okay.

He almost misses her sitting on the curb because she’s so still, staring at a spot on the asphalt with a blank expression.

“Darcy?”  He asks, and when he reaches to touch her she flinches.  And he can see what was wrong with her voice now-- the skin of her neck is red and swollen, the first hint of bruising beginning to purple in a pattern he knows will become fingerprints.

She seems able to breathe, and when Steve runs his hands gently over her neck her windpipe feels intact-- but her skin is very cool.

“Darcy, I’m taking-- Will you come back to the tower with me?”  He asked, helping her to her feet while all his instincts scream at him to pick her up and carry her.  “You need a medical examination.”

Darcy nodded, and then shook her head, frowning, as if it was difficult to gather her thoughts.  “Matt,”  She finally said, and coughed.  Pulling a silver flask he’d never seen before from her jacket pocket, she took a long drink.  “I need Matt.”

“He can come to the tower.  Okay?” Please let me take care of you.  When she nodded he felt something loosen in his chest.

Darcy looked a little exasperated when he put her in front of him on the bike, but he didn’t trust her to hold on.  The way she sank back against him was worrying, although she didn’t seem to be losing consciousness.

“Why do you need Matt?”  He asked, just to say something to keep her alert, and Darcy tilted her her back to look at him, the stretch on her sore neck muscles making her grimace.

“We killed someone.”  She said in her hoarse voice.

Steve’s first thought, even before he wondered who ‘we’ was, was Good.

Chapter Text

The fourth time Pepper meets Darcy, she’s in the medbay.

They were in the middle of a board meeting when Tony looked down at his phone and his face went chalk white.  He walked out without another word.

“Tony, you can’t--”  Pepper began, following him out into the hallway, but he didn’t turn-- didn’t respond.  Something is very wrong, Pepper realized, watching the way Tony walked.  Like he was on autopilot.

He didn’t register Pepper beside him until she touched him.  “Tony, what’s wrong?”

Tony looked down at her hand on his arm.  “I need to go to the medbay.”  He said hollowly, looking down at his phone again.  When Pepper reached for it, he let her take it.

In the video feed Darcy was sitting on the edge of a cot with her head tilted back while one of the nurses shone a penlight down her throat.

“He left her here.  He brought her in, and then he just-- left her here.”  Tony said, running a hand through his hair.

“Who?  Steve?” Pepper turned the phone to get a better look at Darcy’s neck as the nurse pressed it lightly with a pair of gloves on.

Tony nodded tersely.  “Carried her into the building, brought her to the medbay, and then-- right back out.”

“I’m sure he must have had his reasons…”  Pepper trailed off as she caught sight of the bruises that were purpling Darcy’s throat.

When the elevator reached the medbay and he hesitated, Pepper took his arm firmly and all-but dragged him into the room.

Darcy looked up at the clack of Pepper’s heels and waved, glancing hesitantly at Tony.

“Ah, hey kid.” He said, clearing his throat awkwardly.  “It’s good to see you.  Not--”  He pressed a hand over his eyes.  “You’re going to stay now.  Right, you’re staying here, you can’t--”

“Darcy, where did Steve go?”  Pepper interrupted, giving Tony’s arm a quelling squeeze.  “I can’t imagine that he would leave you here under the circumstances unless it was important.  Is there anything we can do to help?”

“No,” Darcy said, and at the sound of her voice she felt Tony stiffen, “I’m just waiting for my lawyer.”

“Is Steve bringing your lawyer here?  Is that where he went?”  Pepper pressed, and Darcy nodded, still looking at Tony.

He tried to smile.  “Hey, well, legal advice.  Who couldn’t use some legal advice.  You know who has a lot of lawyers?  A lot of really good lawyers?”

Darcy tilted her head at him, opening her mouth and then closing it, like she wasn’t sure what to say.  The elevator doors opened before she had to decide.

“Matt,”  Darcy said, getting to her feet.  It took Pepper a moment to notice the man letting Steve lead him into the room.  He looked very ordinary-- just a slim man in a suit, with dark glasses and five o’clock shadow.

It wasn’t until Darcy threw her arms around him and he dropped his cane that Pepper realized he was blind.  

Matt rubbed her back like it was a familiar gesture.  “You’re hurt.  What happened?”

Darcy pulled back to look at the nurse who was still hovering on one side of the room.  “I need some privacy.”

“Yes, of course,”  Pepper said, escorting the woman from the room.  She hesitated at the elevator banks, until she saw the lost look on Tony’s face.

When she took his hand to lead him away, he looked down at their clasped hands, then at Darcy.

“Stay,”  She said, and coughed.  “You can stay.  If you want to.”

Steve handed Darcy a plastic cup of water, and she drank half of it before she continued.  “I’ve been looking into some things with Mom.  Trying to be discreet, but, I guess someone caught up to me.”  She touched her throat.  “I met Bucky.”

Steve made a wounded noise, and Darcy shook her head, giving him an intent look, “No, he didn’t hurt me, he helped.”

“What you said to me before…” He began cautiously, examining her face.

“I-- yeah.”  She said softly, looking at the floor.  “He said he’d take care of it.”

Steve nodded, and reached out to touch her face.  “Okay.  Then he will.  Are you… Will you stay here, tonight?”

Darcy opened her mouth, then looked at Matt, who answered for her.

“If you don’t mind.”  Matt said, giving her a small smile.  “I believe there’s something wrong with my water.”

Darcy swallowed hard.  “Does it smell sweet?”  She whispered.

Chapter Text

The first time Natasha meets Matt alone, she breaks in.

He can smell her two floors down, drinking a glass of his good scotch.  Curled up on the couch with her shoes off, like she’d been there long enough to get too comfortable.  

She hasn’t.  There’s no amount of time that would make Natasha relax unless she wanted to.  But that’s the impression she wants to create.

When he opens the front door Matt walks into the kitchen to get himself a glass, and he hears Natasha make a small sound to herself-- something not quite a laugh.

He expects her to say something-- about how she’d gotten past his security, or comment that he’d noticed her even though the house is silent and dark.  Instead she just pours him a drink, and they sit together until both their glasses are empty.

“There are other people,”  She finally said, giving them both a couple fingers of liquor, “Looking out for her now.  Bigger people.  This could be someone else’s fight.”

Matt felt himself smile.  He’d had expectations about Natasha-- about the Black Widow, really.  But nothing she’s said so far has been a lie, and that’s her genius.  It’s not a whole truth, but it’s so much more palatable that way.

“No,” He said, taking a sip, “It can’t be.  But I like to think I work well with others, when the occasion calls for it.”

“You’ve known her for a long time.”  Natasha said thoughtfully.  “You’ve gotten attached.  She has a father now-- a father who might like to know where she is.”

“I think,” He set his glass down unfinished, “That if Tony Stark was trying to find her, he would have done so already.  And that this would be one of the first doors he knocked on.”

He hears her shift her position just a little, surprised.  “Why would you make that assumption?”

“Because as soon as he got access to her bank accounts, he would have seen that most of her money is channeled through Nelson & Murdock.” Matt began unlacing his own shoes.  “I don’t doubt that Tony Stark would be astute enough to read between the lines.”

“And what lines are those?”  Natasha asked, but Matt could hear in her voice that she’d already begun to put the pieces together.

“Ms. Romanov, I’m a defense attorney.  Estate management is not something I would ordinarily agree to do, and yet, in the case of Christy Lewis, I did.  Why do you think that is?”  He tucked his shoes under the lip of the couch.

“I think you knew something about her.”  Natasha admitted.  “And you didn’t think anyone else could be trusted.”

“And what do you think that ‘something’ was?” Matt asked, because he wanted to hear what she’d say.  How this time she’d tell him a truth that was still a lie.

Instead, she ignored the question completely.  “How did you know Darcy’s mother?”

“Another of my clients spent time in the same mental hospital as Christy Lewis.”  Matt replied, almost amused.  He had the sense that Natasha rarely asked questions she didn’t already know the answer to.  She would have made a good lawyer.

He remembered Christy exploding, while an orderly tried to force a pill down her throat, screaming ‘That’s not my medication,’ clawing at the woman’s hands who held her down, ‘He’s done something to it, it smells wrong’.

And it had-- whatever it was, it hadn’t been Clomipramine, or Lithium, or a dozen other psychiatric drugs.  It had a strange overlay to it, chalk and sugar, like those bottle cap candies.

“And what was it that attracted you to her?” Natasha asked, finishing her drink and setting the glass on the table beside his.  “A paranoid woman with a conspiracy theory… not that unusual.”

“Call it intuition.  A gut feeling.” He said, shrugging his shoulders.

She laughed. “Intuition.  It doesn’t exist, Mr. Murdock.”

He listened to her get to her feet and walk to the window, disabling his alarms before she opened it.  “Intuition is what you call it when you think the man sitting across the poker table has a card up his sleeve.  You know he has it because you saw it, in his body language.  You didn’t feel it-- you observed it.”

“What I want to know is how you observed that Christy Lewis was someone you should listen to.  And how she observed that you were the right man to tell her secrets to.”  Natasha said quietly, and slipped out of the window.

You don't want to know why she trusted me, he thought, cleaning up the glass she’d left behind, you want to know if you can.

Chapter Text

The first time Darcy meets Sasha Hammer, she’s holding a knife to her throat.

Christy’s journal had half a dozen places where she’d left something, but when Darcy opens the post office box and finds the same thing for the third time, she begins to wonder if they’re all just redundancies.  There’s an abbreviated copy of the journal, a small notebook of numbers, and a flash drive with a program Darcy doesn’t know how to open.

Tony would know, she thought, shutting the locker without removing its contents.  He’d had the journal decoded in minutes.

That was part of them problem-- how easy it had been for him.  How the whole thing was addressed to him, like Christy thought he was someone she could trust.  Someone who would help.  

It wasn’t intimate in tone, it was almost... business-like.  As if they were partners together.  Parents together.  And thinking about him like that made her angry.  If he was just a guy, Darcy could see Tony as someone worth sympathy, but as soon as she put him in the role of a parent-- as the person who was supposed to help her, and take care of her… It was a horrible feeling, like something crawling up her throat.  I don’t care if you’re sorry, she wanted to say to him, it doesn’t fix this.

She couldn’t say that to him.  He already seemed so damaged.  That she even had that impulse at all shamed her.  

She hoped she would never see him again.

While she was thinking this, someone grabbed her from behind.

“If you move I’ll slit your fucking throat, Stark.”  They whispered into her ear.  It was a woman-- or even a girl, from how small and slim the body at her back was.  The knife felt sharp enough, regardless, and her hand held it steady.  

She’s hurt people before, Darcy thought, noticing her own physical reaction with a distance that felt almost academic.  Her whole body had a low-level shake to it, as if she were deep-down cold.

“Third place you’ve gone.”  The girl continued, her other hand tightening on the bare flesh of Darcy’s upper arm.  She was wearing leather gloves that exposed her fingers, and her hand was oddly cold.  “What’re you looking for?”

“I don’t know.  I’m just following my mom’s journal.”  Darcy said, trying not to swallow.  She smelled like perfume, but underneath that there was something metallic.  Iron filings and oil.

 “Your mother.”  The girl tapped the blade of her knife against Darcy’s throat absently, like she was thinking.  “Where’s it tell you to go next?”

“A bank.  I don’t know which one,”  She lied, “Just that it’s under the name Justine.”

The girl’s hand jerked and Darcy heard a ripping sound as her shirt collar tore open.  “You’re lying.  She didn't know her.”

“No, that’s what it said.”  Darcy said, her breathing shallow to stay as still as possible.

“If you’re full of shit, Stark,”  The girl breathed, her mouth so close to Darcy’s cheek that later she’d find a lipstick mark on her face, “I’m coming back for you.”

And then she was gone.

Darcy sat down on the sidewalk and felt the line the blade had left on her skin, the gaping neck of her T-shirt, and wondered who the hell Justine was.

And why the girl had kept calling her ‘Stark’.

Chapter Text

The second time that Natasha met Matt alone, she called him from the fire escape.

She had her feet up on the railing, staring up at the sky when Matt opened the window, the sudden influx of cool air from outside bringing with it the smell of her hair.

“You called again.”  He commented, leaning against the sill with his chin resting on his folded arms.

Natasha shrugged, still laying on her back on the metal grating.  “You were in the book.  You wanna tell me how you broke your ribs?”

“I only have one broken rib.” He corrected.  “You want to come in?”

She turned her head to study the bruise on his temple, his split lip, and rolled to her feet.

It was quiet and warm inside of the apartment, but Natasha didn’t seem to mind waiting on the couch in the dark for him to get them both a beer.

“You’re not wearing a suit.”  She commented, working her shoes off so she could tuck her feet under one of his throw pillows.

Matt shrugged.  “Come by at two am more often, you’ll get to see me in a lot of things that aren’t a suit.”

Natasha raised her eyebrows but didn’t comment, taking another swig of beer.

“So,”  He said after the silence stretched out for a few minutes, “Is this a purely social call?”

“What makes you think this is at all social?” She said, but without much heat behind it.

“You waited until Darcy fell asleep.”  He pointed out.

“She should get more sleep.”  Natasha observed casually, “If she’s getting up at five am to meet Steve.”

Matt grinned.  “I think it’s charming.  He seems nice.”

“Steve’s a good man,” Natasha admitted, talking into the bottle so that her voice had a hollow echo, “He’d go with her, I think.  If she wanted to run away.”

“So is that still your only agenda here, Ms. Romanov?  ‘Team unity’?” Matt asked, swallowing his first sip of beer.

“You’d make a good agent, Mr. Murdock.”  Natasha observed.  “You know what questions to ask.”

Matt thought of his own musings on her as a lawyer and wanted to laugh.

“She can’t be left alone.”  Natasha continued.  Matt remembered the shallow cut across Darcy’s throat and all the amusement drained out of him.

“No.”  He agreed.  “You said you wanted to help.”

“I will.”  Natasha agreed, shifting in her seat to get more comfortable.  “But I can’t be here all the time.”

“As long as she’s in this apartment, I can take care of her.  If I’m at work, or she goes out…”  He lifted his free hand.

Natasha nodded to herself.  “That’s acceptable.  I’ll speak to her.”

She was almost curled up on the couch now, resting her head on the arm rest.  Matt wondered how much of her time she had to spend pretending to be something else.  If she found it as tiring as he did.

“Why do you care about this?”  She asked quietly.

Matt gave his words careful consideration.  “Because Christy Lewis was one of my people.”  He decided at last.

“Vengence.”  Natasha said dismissively.

Matt shook his head.  “Justice.”  He disagreed.

She tilted her head at him inquisitively.  “You believe in that?”

Matt gave her a small smile.  “Yes.”

Natasha made a considering sound, and finished her beer.  “If you need to go out, I can stay.”

“Now, Ms. Romanov,”  Matt said in faux surprise,  “Where would I need to go at two in the morning?”

“I don’t know,”  She mused, getting to her feet,  “But I’m going to find out.”

“Please do,”  Matt said, entirely certain that he meant it.

Chapter Text

The third time Natasha meets Matt alone, they talk on the roof.

When Natasha opened the door, Matt was standing near the edge of the building as if he were appreciating the view.  Even here, with the grit that layered the cement, her footfalls were soft.  She had a way of distributing her weight that made her sound almost on tip toe, light and ready to move like a boxer.  

“Why up here?”  She asked, and for once Matt thought it was an honest question.  He turned to face her.  

It was one of those habits they trained you in, when you were blind.  To track people, turn towards the sound of their voice.  To look their way, because it made other people feel uncomfortable if they could see the way your eyes just stared.  He’d always prefered wearing glasses to having to fake that.

“Well, Captain Rogers is visiting.”  Matt said mildly, raising his eyebrows.  “I hear there was something of an incident downtown.”

“It was very minor.”  Natasha said dismissively, and there was the slightest hitch in her heart beat.  

From what he had heard on the news it had been something small, as far as things the Avengers dealt with went.  But from the sound that Darcy had made when she’d seen Steve’s broken arm, it had still been something.

“Was Captain Rogers the only person who was injured?”  He probed.  It didn’t seem as if anything was wrong with Natasha beyond some bruising and few small cuts.

“He was not.  A civilian.”  She said, and didn’t elaborate.

Matt nodded, and turned his face away to give her some privacy.  The next time he heard her voice, she was much closer.

“Why do that?” Natasha asked, reaching out.  She didn’t touch him, but her hand ghosted over the place where his face had been.  “Look away.”

“It makes people feel more comfortable.”  Matt gave her a wry smile.

“You’re good at it.”  She commented,  “Tracking people’s positions.  It always seems like you’re looking right at me.”

She doesn’t believe I’m blind.  “You’re welcome to check, Ms. Romanov.”

Her fingertips were cool against the side of his face when she removed his glasses, and she didn’t catch them on his ears the way most people did.  When he heard the click of her penlight he smiled in spite of himself.  He felt the heat of it pass quickly over his face, one hand holding him steady.  Her palm was like good leather-- soft and flexible, but not weak.

There were scars by his eyes, although they weren’t very noticeable.  Natasha started to examine them, her touch clinical, and Matt found it oddly relaxing.  His blindness was something most people either danced around, or were too interested in-- this was practical.  Unflinching.

“A woman in this area is robbing banks.”  Matt said conversationally, while Natasha felt around the edge of his eyelids.  “Tony Stark seems under the impression that it’s Darcy.”

“Darcy couldn’t rob a bank.”  Natasha said, and although there was laughter in her voice, she didn’t seem derisive to him.

“No,”  Matt agreed, “But you could.”

“You think I’m robbing banks.”  Natasha said tonelessly, sliding his glasses back on.

“No, I do not.”  Matt smiled at her.  “But perhaps you’d like to find out who is.”

She didn’t answer, but he could tell she was working out the possibilities in her head.  He turned back to the street, letting the more innocuous sounds wash over him-- the street noise, cars, people chatting as they walked by.

“Waiting for me to go?”  Natasha asked, leaning against the ledge.  He listened to the piece of gravel she’d knocked loose clatter down the side of the brick building.

“No.”  He said simply, joining her.

“Your eyes.”  She asked, looking out at the city,  “Did someone do that to you?”

“Accident.”  Matt waited for her to ask him all the other questions about it.  'How old were you?'  'Did it hurt?'  'What’s it like, being blind?'

But she didn’t ask any of them.  

Matt had never before been so grateful for silence.

Chapter Text

The second time Darcy meets Sasha Hammer, she's on her doorstep.

Learning about Justin and Justine Hammer was a lot like learning about Obadiah Stane-- to Darcy they were just names.  Everyone else heard them and got this look, like they were bracing to face some great evil.  Maybe someday Darcy would feel that way about them, but at the moment they were just a page in Tony’s file to her.

She spent the rest of the night after their first stakeout looking at pictures of a pretty brunette woman with a very Hillary Clinton wardrobe.  Most of them were publicity snaps-- Justine in front of a Hammer Industries building, at a press conference.  She reminds Darcy of Lana Parrilla, the same hair and the same face-- but maybe that’s just her subconscious casting Justine as the Evil Queen.  There are very few candids of her, odd for someone the paparazzi would theoretically have an interest in, and the only impression of the woman’s personality that Darcy can glean is that Justine likes to wear red, and prefers yellow gold to white.

Her SHIELD file isn’t much more illuminating.  There are a lot of ‘known associates’ that might mean something to someone else-- names like ‘Klaw’ and ‘Tiger Shark’ that sound like the second-rate minor villains they probably were.  The fact that they called themselves the ‘Masters of Evil’ wasn’t really helping.  It sounded like something you’d name your Black Sabbath cover band.

But Christy had left a safety deposit box in her name, and her daughter had called Darcy ‘Stark’ while she held a knife to her throat.  There was a bigger picture, but she had no idea what it was.

Asking Tony lurked in the back of her mind like an itch she couldn’t reach.  He’d known Justin Hammer for decades-- he had to know something about Justine.

But going to Tony for help felt like forgiving him.

When light started to bleed into the horizon around 4:30 am Darcy shut her laptop and took her coffee out to the stoop to wait for Steve.  He didn’t usually get to her neighborhood until at least 5, but it was a nice morning, cool and cloudless.  It felt good to just sit outside and eat the whipped cream she’d sprayed on top her coffee with her fingers, and watch the occasional car with its headlights on make its way towards a busier section of the city.  Darcy’d always liked watching things move in the dark-- trains, cars, anything really.  It made her feel less alone to know that someone else was awake, and that they were going somewhere.

She sees the girl from two blocks away, walking with her hands in the pockets of her red hoodie, her hair pulled up into a ponytail.  She doesn’t have the hood up to hide her face, and her walk is as leisurely as if she’s taking a morning stroll, but there’s something about her posture that puts Darcy on her guard.  It’s her right arm, Darcy realized, something stiff in the way she’s holding it.  As if there’s something in her hand that she needs to be careful with.  Her instincts shout ‘gun’, but Sasha’s pockets are too small to accommodate something like that.

There’s time to duck back inside the building, if that was what she wanted to do.  But Darcy stayed, trying to memorize everything about the girl in front of her.

She’s wearing all hot rod red, from her sweat pants to her sneakers, but it doesn’t strike Darcy as something she chose because it was her style.  Sasha’s red is a flag waved at a bull-- a provocation.  Her aping her mother.  There isn’t much about her appearance that doesn’t feel carefully designed with the viewer in mind.  Her hair is expensively cut, and her makeup is flawless, but… there’s nothing about it that feels personal.  When she reaches the bottom of the steps Sasha stared at Darcy with the same assessing gaze, taking in her well-worn slippers and plaid pajama pants.

“You put whipped cream in your coffee?”  Sasha asked, looking at the lingering shine of milk fat floating on the surface of her mug.

Darcy shrugged, taking another sip as if her hands weren’t shaking.  “I had a dream, and I lived it.”

For a moment, there was almost a smile, before Sasha reminded herself who she was talking to and wiped her face blank.  “You haven’t told your father.  About me.”

There was too much certainty in her voice for it to be a guess.  She doesn’t think that Tony doesn’t know, Darcy thought, trying to read the girl’s body language, her empty expression, she’s sure he doesn’t know.  

Darcy remembered the knife at her throat, and the whispered name ‘Stark’.  “My father and I don’t exactly see eye to eye.”  Darcy told her honestly.

The girl side-eyed her as if she found that too convenient, but everything about Darcy spoke of a life without many luxuries.  Her clothes were well worn and cotton, her fingernails short and unpolished, and she was sitting on a concrete stoop holding a cracked coffee mug of drip coffee.  

Sasha finally nodded, accepting it as the truth, and then stared at her in silence for a while.  Darcy looked at the shine of her red lipgloss, the perfect swoop of her eyeliner, and wondered who had trained this girl to get ready like she was going to war.  

“What do you know about my mother?”  The girl finally asked.

“Until I met you, I didn’t even know that she existed.”  Darcy said, and Sasha’s hand seemed to tighten on something in her pocket.  But she nodded again, and took a step backwards.

“Your father killed her.”  She said it like a throwaway line, like she couldn’t care less, and flipped her hood up with her left hand.  Darcy caught sight of something silver at the tips of her fingers, as if they’d been dipped in paint.  Or metal.

Sasha was half a block away when Steve jogged up, pulling his headphones from his ears.  He wasn’t even breathless from the run, and Darcy knew that if she only asked him to, he could catch that girl.

But she let him pull her into a hug, and didn’t say a word.

Chapter Text

The fourth time Matt meets Natasha alone, it's at his invitation.

He can sense her looking around his bedroom when she slips inside, casing for exits.  There’s a hitch in her breathing when she notices the false wall behind his bureau, and Matt feels himself grin at her.

“You said this was important.”  Natasha said, walking lightly over to sit cross legged on his bed.  There’s something to her tone that makes him feel like she would have come over even if it wasn’t.

“What do you know about Darcy’s finances?”  Matt asked, resolutely not examining the way she smelled for more evidence they she might be interested in him.

Natasha paused before answering, trying to gauge what it was he was really looking for.  “I know that she has limited access to her trust funds.  Pays for Foster’s education?”

“Are you aware of any other people in the New York area who may have had their education subsidized by Darcy?”  Matt asked casually, leaning back against his headboard.

“Where is this trail of breadcrumbs leading, Mr. Murdock?”  Natasha asked, shifting her legs out in front of her so that her feet sat near his legs.

He took the invitation for what it was and leaned a little to the right to make contact with her.  “Do you remember when Darcy ripped her shirt, and she said she’d met Spiderman?”

“You think one of her scholarship cases is Spiderman.”  Natasha said, raising her eyebrows.  “I fail to see why this is important, unless you believe he’s affiliated with Stane.  He’s just a kid.”

Matt tried to think of how to describe the problem without explaining that every time Darcy went out for a walk she came back too jittery.  That he felt like someone was watching the building sometimes, and there was a taste in the air like metal.

“She’s doing something when she goes out.”  He finally said.  “She’s not doing it alone-- and I don’t think she’s doing it with you, or Steve.”

“Spiderman’s not the only game in town.”  Natasha mused, tapping her foot against his leg as she considered the possibilities.  “I’ll look into it.”

“I’d appreciate that.”  Matt told her, and expected her to stand up and walk away, but she didn’t.

“Why do you have a painting?”  Natasha asked, studying the canvas above his bed.

He shrugged.  “Payment from a client.  And people tell me my apartment can be a little sparse.  I was thinking about buying something anyway.”

“ ‘People’ tell you your bedroom is a little sparse.”  Natasha’s tone was dry, and he caught the implication.

“People.”  He repeated, smiling.  “I’m sure you didn’t have the expectation that you are the only person who has ever been in this room, Ms. Romanov.”

“You aren’t dating anyone.”  She said dismissively, the next tap of her foot against his leg sharp, almost a kick.

“I’m not.”  He agreed, replaying every lecture Foggy had given him about respecting people’s privacy with his abilities.  He was right, it was creepy to smell people.  “Would you like to start calling me Matt, Ms. Romanov?  Mr. Murdock is beginning to feel a little formal, under the circumstances.”

She thought it over longer than the question seemed to merit.  “Fine.  You may call me Natalia, but not in public.  And now, perhaps you would like to tell me how you keep acquiring such interesting injuries.”

Matt clicked his tongue.  “Natalia, what fun will it be if I just tell you?”

“You think this is… fun?”  Natasha asked skeptically, and Matt mentally catalogued all the injuries he’d gotten in the time Darcy has been staying with him alone.

“Not usually, no.”  Matt admitted.  “But I think it might be, with you.”

He wished he knew what she was thinking as she stared at his face.

“...Maybe.”  She drew the word out long, tasting it.  “It could be fun.”

Chapter Text

The third time Darcy meets Sasha Hammer, she returns her thermos.

She’s at the park, sitting on bench with her headphones on, watching people playing with their dogs.  They’re not plugged into anything, but Darcy likes to pretend she still has her iPod to block out the rest of the city.  When she was walking somewhere alone and it was dark she used to turn the familiar weight of the mp3 player over in her pocket like a worry stone.  It had been a talisman.

Maybe it was the association with her father, as stupid as that seemed.  It had always felt like it kept her safe.

It’s safe with Matt, Darcy reminded herself, but it was safer with Tony.  Unless Tony was what you were in danger from, and even though he had been incredibly invasive, Darcy couldn’t classify him as ‘dangerous’.  Unless it was to himself.

Sasha sat down on the bench next to Darcy, as blindingly red as ever, and handed her the hot chocolate she’d left on the roof last night.  “You are pathetic.”  Sasha informed her, tucking her hands behind her neck.  There was something about her body language that reminded Darcy of Natasha.  Her relaxation seemed studied, a decision she’d made rather than a state she achieved naturally.

“Thought you might want something to drink.”  Darcy said, studying the girl’s hands, the way her skin was grey and shiny up to the first knuckle on most of her fingers.  It didn’t have the look of a prosthetic-- there were no joints to the metal.  Darcy wondered if it felt hard and cold, or if it still had the warmth and texture of skin.  “Bank robbing is thirsty work.  I mean, I assume.”

Sasha blew air out of her nose, annoyed or amused.  “You could have just given it to me.”

Darcy raised her eyebrows.  “Would you have trusted it?”

“I’m not an idiot.”  Sasha replied, and Darcy didn’t know if she was supposed to take that as agreement or denial.  “You know what the flash drive does?”

Darcy shrugged.  “No idea.  But it was under your mom’s name.  Probably means it was supposed to be for you.”

“It’s a program called ‘Limitless’.  Makes every data stream move both ways.”  Sasha said, and closed her eyes.  Her eyeliner was as perfectly symmetrical as if it had been done with a ruler.  “Anyone you’re taking shit from will start getting shit from you.  And vice versa.”

She opened her eyes and it was hard not to flinch from the expression in them.  “I used it.  He’s been watching me.”

“Who?”  Darcy asked, although the sick feeling in her stomach already knew the answer.  Sasha just shook her head with a frown, like her mouth had gotten away from her.

“I knew he was.  He’s always liked to do that.  His little cameras.  You were lucky your mom made her play.”  Sasha shrugged her hands into the pockets of her hoodie.  “Usually there isn’t such a thing as too young for Zeke.”

Darcy felt her whole body go cold.  “Sasha.”

The girl glanced at Darcy’s face and smirked, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.  “Don’t freak out, Stark.  I’ve got it under control.”

Darcy pictured this girl putting on her makeup in the morning like it was a ritual, while Ronnie watched her.  Getting dressed every morning in her mother’s favorite color because that was a talisman she could carry around with her, to feel safe.

She tried to swallow down the acid that was creeping up her esophagus.  “He’s not your father, right?”

“My father was Chinese.”  Sasha said, her tone dripping disgust.  “Thought you were supposed to be a genius.”

Darcy heard the whisper of Ronnie’s voice throughout her childhood.  Thought you were some kind of genius.

“I was just thinking about my Aunt Deanna.”  Darcy tried to breathe slowly.  “Because my mom always said that Ronnie killed her.”

“Probably.”  Sasha sounded bored.  “What’s your point?”

“Point is, I don’t know Tony that well, and he’s not the best.  In a lot of ways.  But I can’t see him just… killing someone.”  Darcy turned to make eye contact.  “I think Ronnie would.”

“I keep telling you I’m not an idiot.”  Sasha said ambiguously, but she met Darcy’s eyes.

She touched her neck and tried to remember everything the girl had said, when she held that knife to her throat.  That wasn’t when she’d said that Tony was a murderer.  That had come later, after she’d told her that she wasn’t on good terms with him.  Maybe she wanted me to ask him about it, Darcy realized.  To push Tony into looking into Justine’s death?  To get Darcy to move back into the Tower?  Or maybe to make her run, if she was actually afraid of her father.

Sasha wasn’t asking questions because she wanted the answers.  She was trying to force Darcy to get out of the way.

“Don’t they call that a ‘discovered attack’, in chess?”  Darcy asked, and Sasha stood up suddenly, looking spooked.

“Don’t play games with me, Stark.”  She spat, light glinting off of the diamonds in her earlobes.  “You keep thinking there are only two sides here.  See where it gets you.”

“Sasha--”  Darcy reached out to grab the girl’s arm and felt how cold her skin was through her jacket.  “You don’t have to be an enemy.  I don’t think that’s what we are.”

“Yeah?”  Sasha jerked out of her hold.  “Well, I’m not your friend.  Go home.  Back to your rich daddy and your All-American boyfriend, before something bad happens to you.”

She meant it to sound like a threat, but Darcy couldn’t help be hear it as a warning.

Chapter Text

The first time Darcy meets Bucky, he saves her life.

Whoever had hired the man hadn’t shelled out for someone with soft feet like Natasha-- it wasn’t that she didn’t notice someone was following her.  For the six blocks that she knows he’s back there, Darcy tries to find somewhere to duck into.  An open business, a full bus terminal, but he’d chosen his location well.  It must be an old industrial area, because as far as she can tell there's nothing nearby that isn't an empty warehouse.

When he makes his move he’s clumsy about it, all brute strength, but that’s all he needs with a girl a foot shorter than him who has nothing sharper than a door key on her body.  His hands wrapped around her neck overlap in the back, they’re so huge.  

She dig her heels in, kicks, and every detail of the alley he drags her into etches itself into her mind.  The initials carved into one of the bricks halfway up the wall, the clear glass bottle broken a few feet away.  The way it smells, something between barley soup and piss.

Darcy pushed at him, but there didn’t seem to be any strength left in her arms.  She felt in her jacket pocket, hoping for something useful-- a pocket knife, her taser-- but all that was there was a piece of string.  On the street she could hear the sound of footsteps, people walking past.  But they don’t see.  Or they don’t care.

Her vision starting to ring with black, she wrapped the string around his throat in a slipknot, her fingers feeling useless and rubbery.  Then she started to twist, the motion familiar as breathing used to be before this moment.  It wasn’t doing anything to him, she could see that, the cotton barely indenting his skin.

When he fell Darcy fell with him, grey spotting in front of her eyes.  It was hard to think of anything except the ache in her throat, but she drug herself a little away from the man and lay on the ground while the world spun.

Someone’s hands touched her face, checked her neck for a pulse.  They rolled her onto her side, and Darcy struggled to sit up, coughing.  She was gasping, nearly puking, when a hand shoved her head down in between her knees roughly.

“Don’t vomit.” A harsh voice said, and even through her dizziness Darcy knew she didn’t recognize it.  She tried to breathe through the panic, the old beer smell of the gravel she’d stirred up thick in her nose.  When she seemed to have recovered, the hand clamped on the back of her neck released her, and Darcy looked up to see the man she’d grappled with lying on the ground, the loop of yarn she used for cat’s cradle cut deeper than she’d thought into the skin of his neck.

“Is he dead?”  She asked, her voice raw and broken.  She turned to see who had helped her.

“...Bucky?” She said, her voice cracking.  His hair was long and lank, pushed under a dirty baseball cap the same khaki shade of brown as his jacket, and he looked like a man used to hard manual labor or sleeping on the streets.  But under that he still has the eyes she remembers from Steve’s photographs.

He ignored her and nodded towards the body on the ground.  “Nice improvised garrote.”  He said, as if he’s complimenting her on her outfit.  “You would have had him, with something better than string.”

“Is he dead?”  Darcy asked again, and coughed.  

Bucky gave her a short examination with his eyes before reaching into his jacket and offering her a flask.  “Yes.”

When Darcy unscrewed the cap and took a drink, it was only water.  When she tried to return it, he put up a hand, then looked over at the man sprawled in gravel.  “I’ll clean this up.  You go.”

By this, he means the body.  Darcy stops herself from asking, thoughts about fiber analysis and fingerprints crowding intrusively into her mind and drowning out the realization that she’s just killed a man.  Or helped to kill a man.

He’s not a man now, he’s a ‘this’.

Bucky takes in Darcy’s motionlessness and reaches into her pants pocket to withdraw her phone.  He hits the first number in her speed dial, then holds the phone up to Darcy’s face.

At the sound of Steve’s voice, Darcy felt the adrenaline rush out of her so suddenly she thought her knees would give.

“Steve.  I need you to come get me.”  Darcy said, and wonders if he’d even be able to understand her.  Her voice sounds a little better after the water, but it’s still harsh and broken.

“Where are you?”  Steve demanded, his voice sharp.  The Captain America voice, Darcy thought, and it seemed a little funny to her, although she couldn’t put her finger on why.

She looked out of the alley and described the street, the buildings.  Steve was on his way out of the tower before she'd even finished, his voice steady and a little breathless, like he was running.

Bucky ends the call in the middle of Steve promising he’ll be there soon and tucks the phone back into Darcy’s pocket, giving her a little shove towards the street.

“Go.” He says again, and she does, feeling a long way away from her feet.  It’s a relief to sit down on the curb, on the dirty sidewalk, and look at nothing.  She doesn’t know how long she’s staring at a smear on the pavement when Steve finally shows up, trying to decide if it’s a patch of tar or the remnant of some animal.

She startles at Steve’s concerned touch, his hands almost burning hot against her skin, then relaxes and lets him examine the bruised flesh of her throat.  His fingers are gentle, and she remembers Bucky, but when Darcy looks back at the alley, there’s nothing there.

Chapter Text

The next time Tony sees Darcy she’s sobbing on the bathroom floor.

Steve had taken her back to his rooms after they’d settled Matt into one of the guest suites, one hand hovering near her back like he thought he might need to direct her.  It seemed like a lifetime since she’d been in the tower, although when Tony thought about it, it had been less than two months.   A small part of him wanted to argue that she should stay in the medbay for observation, but he knew that was because he wanted to be able to observe her.  Steve had insisted on J.A.R.V.I.S maintaining the most minimal possible presence in his apartment, and it was doubtless the place that Darcy would be the most comfortable, but… he wanted to see her.

It was something he kept to himself.  He’d done enough to jeopardize her safety already-- he didn’t want her to feel like she had to run again.

He’d gone back to the board meeting with Pepper and smoothed what ruffled feathers he could, but the rest of the afternoon was a total wash.  He couldn’t concentrate on anything, the broken sound of Darcy’s voice and the bruises on her throat playing on a loop in his mind.  

He ended up pacing the halls with a pad in his hand while J.A.R.V.I.S took dictation, trying to come up with ways to protect everyone without freaking her out to run by Darcy in the morning, if she was willing to talk to him about it.  His instinct was to just do it and deal with the consequences, but as that was obviously what had created his current situation, Tony tried to tamp that feeling down.

He doesn't find her because he's monitoring her, because he isn't.  She's with Steve, and if he can’t trust Captain America to keep his daughter safe, there is literally no one he can trust.  All Tony knows is someone is making a smothered keening noise on the other side of an unlocked door, and he opens it.

And finds Darcy sitting on the tile floor with her hands covering her face, rocking back and forth a little to calm herself.

“Oh shit, kid.”  Tony said, kneeling down and reaching out before he remembers that she won’t want him to touch her.  But she turns into his chest like she’d been waiting for it.

“Hey, hey,”  Tony shushed, running an awkward hand over her hair while she clutches at his shirtfront,  “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

Darcy made a strange noise, between a laugh and a choke, burying her face against him.  Tony felt the most confusing combinations of emotions he had ever experienced.  That anything could have made her feel this way filled him with anger so intense it made him feel ill, but... that she seemed to actually be comforted by his presence was more than he had ever thought he would get from her.  He savors it, keeping up a steady stream of nonsense while rubbing her back, surprised at how easily she seems to accept being touched.  Maybe that was the difference between being raised by someone like Howard, and someone like Becky.  Becky struck him as a hugger.

He tried not to focus on Christy-- how affectionate she might have been with her child, what influences she had to have had.  It brought up too many dark feelings, guilt and anger and fear coiling in his chest… Becky was a happy place for him to go to, when he imagined Darcy’s life.  The place he prefered to imagine, instead of her with an indifferent grandmother and a dangerous uncle who might have been only too much like his father.

Obie was another thing Tony tried not to think about.

It was easy to see how Obie had treated him for what it was now-- he had been grooming him.  It had been almost textbook.

Tony had always been smart, and he had liked the way Obie treated him-- like an adult, who could understand adult things.  He seemed to actually want to spend time with him, unlike his parents, who seemed to oscillate between paying no attention to him and paying just enough attention to find him disappointing.  Tony talked too loudly when he was excited, he always looked dirty, he fidgeted too much-- there was always something wrong with him, in Howard’s eyes.  Maybe he had thought he was helping Tony, protecting him from a public that would rip into even the smallest imperfections, but it had felt like a rejection of any part of him that wasn’t perfect.  He had latched onto the scraps of affection Obie had offered him.

Obie had told him dirty jokes, and let him drink his booze until he passed out on the floor, and kept it ‘their’ secret.  It was impossible at the time to see how inappropriate it had been.  Those weren’t the kind of things adults were supposed to do with thirteen year olds.

They were supposed to talk to you about how to make friends, and show you how to do your hair for prom.  They were supposed to be Becky.

Darcy was down to occasionally sniffling, but she didn’t move away, her arms around Tony’s waist like it was the natural thing to do.

“Did J.A.R.V.I.S tell you I was in here?”  She asked, her voice scratchy, and Tony felt his hands tighten on her back reflexively.  

“No.  He’s-- I’m not keeping track of you.”  He promised.  She made a little ‘hmm’ noise to herself and sat up to wipe her face.

“Steve’s probably worried, since I said I was ‘going to get a snack’ instead of ‘going to have a small nervous breakdown’.”  She says, with none of the shame in her voice that he would experience under the circumstances.  Maybe well-adjusted people don’t find it humiliating to show weakness.

“Just tell J.A.R.V.I.S--”  Tony started, and then wanted to gag himself because why would she want to ask him for anything,  “Or I can, I can bring it to you, what do you want to eat?”

Darcy’s eyebrows drew in just slightly, trying to find something in his face.  “Okay.”  She agreed, shifting, and Tony scrambled to his feet to help her up.  “Is there-- can I have soup?”

“Yes, soup,”  He agreed immediately, already wondering what the hell he had been thinking not making sure she had everything she needed, just assuming that Steve would take care of it.  “Do you like crackers with it, because I was always iffy on those, unless it’s chili, which is not really soup, and not what you asked for-- Chicken noodle?  Pho?  Split pea?  Anything you’re thinking of, soup-wise?”

She just shrugged, looking sleepy and Tony decided he’d just order everything and sort it out later.

When she wrapped her arms around his neck, he froze, the contact new and intimidating now that he isn’t distracted by her distress.   

“Thank you.”  Darcy said softly, and gave him a squeeze before letting go.

After she goes Tony looks down at his crumpled suit and thinks that Howard would tell him that he looks ‘homeless’, but for once in his life, he can’t bring himself to care.

Chapter Text

The fifth time Matt meets Natasha alone, neither of them arranges it.  She just falls into step with him as he leaves the lobby behind.

As always, listening to her move is a pleasure.  She harmonizes with the sounds around her like a musician.  It’s not that she’s quiet when she walks-- it’s that she knows how to mirror.  When she follows him, anyone else would hear only their own footsteps.

“Aren’t you going to put on your suit?”  She asked after a few blocks.

Matt smiled to himself.  “I am wearing a suit, Natalia.”

He could almost see the look on her face, something between amusement and annoyance.  She wasn’t used to doing this, at least not with someone who saw it as a game.  

Maybe he should be taking his secret identity a little more seriously, himself, but Natasha didn’t trip any of his instincts as a threat.  She was smart, and capable, and dangerous… but not to him.  Maybe she had been right, that there was no such thing as intuition, only things you observed unconsciously, and there was something about the way she smelled or spoke or moved that told him this was safe.  Either way, he trusted it.  

“There’s something in the water, but it’s not in all of the water in the building.”  He told her as they mounted the front steps of his brownstone.  “It only smells sweet in my apartment.”

“Water lines run down to the basement?”  Natasha asked, bypassing how he knew that.  Just trusting him.  He smiled to himself.  

“Start at the bottom.  I’ll start at the top.”  Matt suggested, and felt the air move from her short nod.

He finds it on the first floor, from the faint shush the water makes as it passes through a filter that shouldn’t be there.  

“You have such finess.”  Natasha commented dryly when she found him kneeling in the hall to detach the device, leaning next to the hole he’d punched in the sheetrock.  

“I’m sure they already know it’s been tampered with.”  Matt murmured, carefully shifting the device to pull it from the piping intact.  “It’s broadcasting some kind of signal.”

There was a faint rustle, the sound of Natasha working her finger into a compartment in her clothing, and she reached around him.  The object in her hand attached itself to the metal casing with a magnetic click.  “Not anymore.”

The device was heavy but small, with a high electrical sound that was worrying from an object designed to be in constant contact with water.  Matt ran his fingers over the entirety of it before offering it to Natasha.

“It looks like a carburetor.”  She observed, weighing it in one hand.  “We should get it to Tony.”

You should get it to Tony.”  He corrected, straightening from his crouch.  

Natasha was silent for a moment.  “You’re staying.”  She stated, her tone neutral.  

Matt knocked his foot against the hole he’d left in the wall.  “This is my building, I need to fix this.  Can’t just go around destroying things.  There are other people who live here.”

Her fingers were cool against his hand when she reached out to brush them over his knuckles.  “You should change.  You’re covered in drywall.”

Matt closed his eyes to better memorize the feeling.  “I’ll put on my suit.”

“I would like to see that.”  Her tone was careful, as if trying to avoid giving some kind of offence.

“You could.  I’ve got nothing else planned tonight.”  He offered, concentrating on the far away sounds of the street to avoid her heartbeat.

She ran her thumb over the rough skin of his knuckles again before stepping back.  “Very well.  I may return.”

Matt ignored the ‘may’.  “Good.  It’s a date.”

She didn’t dispute it.

Chapter Text

Steve decides to marry Darcy when she crawls into bed with him that night, smelling like cinnamon and lentil soup.

Tony had shown up a few hours earlier with a hotel dining cart full of soup under metal lids, lingering in the doorway after he pushed it in like a waiter expecting to get tipped, and Steve had braced himself for it.  The look on Tony’s face when Darcy doesn’t want him to come in, the loss and hurt visible for a moment before he covers it with a smile.

But she invites him in instead, and they all sit around the coffee table with a pile of spoons and try all the soup, until Darcy finds the one she likes and settles in, eating while Tony watches her and talks too much.  It’s the good kind of talking too much, though, where he’s excited and moving his hands in the air.  Sometimes Tony talks too much when he’s afraid, but that looks different-- eyes darting around the room, smile tight.  

She leans against the sofa with heavy eyes, and smiles at Tony, and eats his soup.  

It's one of the ways she's like her father, giving too much even when she's spent.  By the time they go to bed she's stumbling with exhaustion, and Steve puts her in his clothes to sleep.  He’d meant to offer her options-- that they could go to her room, to sleep in her bed.  Or she could sleep alone, if she wanted that.  Darcy had never been shy about touch, but something had happened to her.  Sometimes things like that changed people.

He’d pictured what it would be like to spend the night together, especially after that day Tony had walked in on them on the couch.  Her hair spread over his pillows, his hands getting to finally trace down her hips-- something sweet and sensual.  

Darcy with her bruised throat, bundled in one one of his pullovers, is nothing like that.  

It’s so much better.  

They don’t even kiss-- what they do is more intimate.

He rubs his hands over her back, trying to be soothing, but soon he’s checking the line of her arms and ribs like he can detect an injury by touch alone.  He can’t stop running his fingers over the soft skin of her neck, even though there is a part of him that knows she might not want to be touched there.  He needed to feel her intact, the way her breath moves her chest.

"Steve, I'm fine."  She said softly, her voice still scratchy.

"I know.  Go to sleep sweetheart."  He buried his face in her hair to breathe her in, trying to calm his hands.

"Can I stay here?  Just for a little while."  She shifted a little closer until her nose rubbed against his chest.  "Just sleep here for a few days."

"As long as you want."  He promised, already dreading sleeping alone.  "Always."

Darcy made a little noise.  "You're fine with me just... moving in with you?  What kind of example will that set for the children.  All that presumed premarital sex."

"So, marry me."  Steve murmured.  "Then it won't be an issue."

Darcy pulled back to squint at the glowing numbers on the nightstand.  "It's two twenty seven in the morning.  Are you seriously proposing to me right now."

"Yes?"  Steve said sleepily, trying to pull her back into a hug.

She came willingly, wrapping her arms around his waist again.  "Do you need a yes or no?"

"No."  He told her, and felt her shoulders relax.  "Go to sleep."

"Okay,"  Darcy whispered.  He wasn't sure if it was an acknowledgement, or her answer.

Chapter Text

The fifth time Pepper meets Darcy, they make muffins.

She’s not really awake early so much as she’s still awake, which was unusual.  Pepper was used to listening to Tony talk himself out at the end of the night, flitting from idea to idea until he either fell asleep or climbed out of bed to pursue one, but it was never something she had to do.  Without him, in a set of clean, cool sheets, she could usually fall asleep in ten minutes.  

Pepper had slept the night that Tony had gone missing and woken up promptly at 5 am.  She could still remember the dress she had worn, white and checkered with nude heels.  The taste of black tea in the town car on the way to the office at 6.  

There were ways to fight without throwing a punch or blowing up a building.  

Tonight was like the night that they’d found Tony, when the fighting was over.  That was when she’d lay in bed for hours, cycling through her mistakes.  What she could have done to find him faster.

Tony had been glowing before he locked himself in the lab for the night.  Pepper had been prepared to roll her eyes, and remind him that Darcy had just been attacked-- that there was no way that Steve expected anything more exciting than cuddling, but… he didn’t complain that Steve had taken Darcy to his apartment and, presumably, his bed.  He seemed comforted that someone was with her, sketching something in the air with his hands while he talked.

He’d put a hand on her cheek for a moment before he’d gone downstairs, his face open in a way he was only in flashes, and Pepper tried to imagine what it would be like to see that Tony all the time.  It made her faintly anxious.  He had a bullet-proof ego only if you were on the outside with a camera and a list of questions.  Darcy could obliterate him completely, so easily.  

Pepper tried to believe in that girl, sitting cross legged on her bed, offering what she had to someone else.  Laughing in that workshop with ketchup on the floor.  

She tried not to take it further than that.  To imagine that twelve year old from the 911 call, or what it would have been like if Tony hadn’t run away from Darcy when she was a baby.  A little girl with wide, dark eyes, asleep in the back of a limo with her head resting on Tony’s lap.

And a young woman that Stane could have gotten his hands on after her father went missing.  Another Stark orphan for him to manipulate.

Pepper gave up on sleep around 4 am, making her way to the kitchen for a cup of tea.  

She found Darcy spooning dollops of tan batter into paper muffin cups with her elbows on the counter, staring at it as it dripped from her spoon with unfocused eyes.  

The room smelled amazing from the first batch of muffins already cooling on the counter, like apples and vanilla, assaulting Pepper with memories of her grandmother.  Darcy finished her tray and began picking listlessly at the halo of toasted almond slivers that had fallen off of the baked muffins.  

“Darcy?”  Pepper asked, beginning to be concerned by how unaware Darcy seemed.

Darcy looked surprised by the sound of her voice, but was amiable about it. “Hi.”  She waved, the oversized sleeve of her pullover covering most of her hand.  “Muffin?”  

Pepper took one, pealing the warm paper all the way down before taking a bite.  “Thank you.  It’s delicious.”

It was, sweet and dark with brown sugar and what tasted like grated apple.  She wasn’t sure what to call it, but it reminded her of apple crisp.

Darcy decapitated her muffin and began to eat only the top.  “The tops are always better.”  She mused.  “You know why?  Sugar rises while it’s baking, so the top is sweeter than the rest of the muffin.”

Pepper tried eating only the brown, crusty top of the muffin.  “It is better… I always thought it was the texture.”

Darcy shrugged, chewing slowly as if it took all of her concentration, eyes at half mast.  Pepper hesitated, then touched her shoulder.  “Darcy… it’s 4 in the morning.  Why are you making muffins right now?”

Darcy looked at the hand on her shoulder and blinked, but didn’t seem to mind the contact, shrugging up into it.  “I’m all exhausted but wired?   Couldn’t sleep.  I like to do stuff when I can’t sleep.”  She yawned, gesturing at her baking.  “Because of the soup.  Mom, and Becky-- they both liked these.”

Pepper frowned, trying to connected the disjointed threads of what Darcy had said.  “...Are these for Tony?”

“There’s a lot of them.  They’re for you too.”  Darcy assured her, pushing another muffin across the counter.  “Muffins for everyone.”

She yawned again, turning to examine the timer on the oven.  “Are you awake now?  Like, can you pull stuff out of the oven if I go to bed again?”

“Of course, I can pull Tony’s muffins.”  Pepper agreed, then shook her head.  “The muffins.”

“They can be Tony’s muffins.”  Darcy made a basket out of the front of her sweater and tipped a handful of warm muffins into it.  “There are a lot of muffins.  These are Steve’s.”

She wandered out of the room, holding the hem of her sweater up to her chest carefully to keep from crushing them.  

Pepper watched her go, then pinched a bite from her muffin and glanced at the ceiling.  “J.A.R.V.I.S, can you connect me to Tony?”

When Tony’s voice came through it was distracted, a faint metal clanking in the background.  “Kind of busy here Pep, what’s up?”

“If you come to the kitchen in…” She turned to check the oven timer.  “Twenty minutes, there will be muffins.  That Darcy made for you.”

“Why is she awake?”  He demanded, his tone sharp.  “And making… did she not have enough soup?”

“I think she just had insomnia, Tony.”  She reassured him, taking another mouthful of apple and vanilla.  “And needed to wind down.  She’s in bed again now.”

“Yeah.”  He said, something in his voice reminding Pepper of the way he had looked at the camera feed from the medbay, when the nurse had been looking at Darcy’s esophagus with a pen light.  “Hard to wind down from that.”

He cleared his throat.  “...She made me muffins?”

“Apple and brown sugar.”  Pepper confirmed, taking another bite.  “They’re good.”

“Wait.  What are you doing up?”  

Pepper raised her eyebrows, even knowing he couldn’t see her.  “It’s been a weird day for me too, Tony.  Come up.  I’ll make some coffee.”

“Yeah.”  He said again, and paused.  “You okay, Pep?”

Pepper smiled, brushing a handful of stray almonds into her palm to snack on.  “I’m fine.  I have muffins.”

“Are you-- Don’t eat them all.”  He demanded, instantly possessive.  “Those are mine, Pepper, are you-- I can see you eating them.

“Well, you better come up then.”  She leaned across the counter to pop the top off of one of the muffins.

“Don’t you-- The tops are the best part!”  Tony protested, and she heard the familiar whoosh of the elevator on the other side of the call.

“It’s because they’re sweeter.”  Pepper informed him, sinking her teeth in.  “Sugar rises.”

Chapter Text

The second time she meets Bucky, he gives Darcy a present.

In the timeline of her mind, after she leaves Pepper in the kitchen Darcy goes to bed.

She gives him muffins, though, so the chronology of the night is obvious later-- but in the dream logic of her brain that’s how it happens.  

She wanders out onto the balcony with the sense that she’s forgotten something important out there and then sits down because she’s dizzy.  It’s windy despite the high curved glass, and looking down makes her feel that if she moves she’ll fall through it.  

Tony likes everything slick and shiny and transparent, of course the balcony has a glass floor, but she didn’t think about that before she’d come outside.

Jarvis can probably hear her out there, and she considers asking him to wake up Steve, but decides against it and eats a muffin instead.  It’s steadying, and halfway through the sucking sound of the wind starts to fade to white noise.  Maybe that’s why she notices the faint clink of something metal touching glass and turns around.

He’s wearing a blue jumpsuit, like a window washer, staring at her without an expression on his face… but his eyes.  They’re wide, like someone else is looking out from behind them, and that person is scared.  He’s holding onto a harness with one hand, the other extended down in the act of setting something on the floor behind her.

Darcy scoots closer to him on her butt, partially because she doesn’t want to stand and partially because it’s impossible to seem threatening when you look like a dog wiping its ass on the carpet.  She holds out both hands, a muffin in her right, her left empty.

Something smooth slithers into her palm, a thin flexible loop of metal that she finds can go hard and stiff if twisted the right way.  It’s the right size to loop around her wrist four times, like a stack of bangles.

Darcy turns it in the light and thinks that it might be the prettiest weapon she’s ever seen.

When she looks back, Bucky’s examining the muffin with the same attitude she’d used on his gift, looking at the bite mark she’d left in the top in detail before taking a mouthful himself and then inhaling the rest of it.

Darcy passes him another muffin from the front of her shirt, taking a bite first, the way you give the first pinch of bread to the fire as an offering for some weird Jewish reason that her grandmother had never explained to her properly.  

When the muffins are gone so is he, and Darcy crawls back inside where Steve is warm and ready to wrap her in a sense of safety.  

In the morning It feels like something she dreamed, fuzzy and out of order.  She had dreams that night where she was falling in Tony's elevator, the glass tube hurtling towards the ground, very like how she'd felt on the balcony.  

But the garrote is still around her wrist, and her clothes smell like wind and apples.  

Chapter Text

It was on the tip of his tongue all morning, the key to the device Natasha’d pulled out of Murdock’s building.  Whatever it injected into the water was heavy, pooling on the bottom of every beaker he filled, which seemed counter intuitive for something intended it be consumed.  The viscous silver paste filming the water was familiar somehow, like a word he couldn’t remember, until he bit into the last of Darcy’s muffins and dropped a few crumbs into the water.  They clung to the surface of the water, migrating to the rim of the glass, and he heard Pepper’s voice in his head.  Inhaled the sweet aroma of apples and sugar, and felt the memory float to the surface.

Sugar rises.

 

The first--and only-- time Tony met Justine Hammer, she was unconscious on the floor of his lab.

The tile was streaked black around her body like the point of impact for a bomb, all his monitors reduced to shards of glass that haloed outward.  

The arm he lifted into his lap was heavy and cold, pulseless, but her chest rose and fell, and when he touched the warm skin of her neck it thrummed steadily there.

When she woke and pulled the red glove from her hands to show him the stiff, metallic curves of her fingers, her skin had smelled like like oil and something saccharin.  

Not sugar.  But something else that would rise.

 

“JARVIS, contact Matt Murdock.”  Tony said, already running for the elevator, Darcy’s skin bleeding silver in his mind’s eye,  “Tell him that we need to know if anyone in that building drank the water.”

It takes time, he reminded himself, trying to breathe deeply, large doses over time.  

He still ran, and pounded the door to Steve’s rooms like the building was on fire.  

“I need-- blood test.”  Tony gasped out, shaking the black case of a blood draw kit in Steve’s blinking face, as if that would have meaning for him.  

Steve stepped back to let him in all the same, tousled but sharp-eyed, instantly awake like any soldier would be.  Under other circumstances, Tony might have hesitated at the bedroom, but he knew before he opened the door that there would be nothing to see.

Darcy was curled in the fetal position, the covers rumpled in a curve around her the shape of Steve’s body, the marks on her neck almost black now that the blood had had time to pool on the surface of her skin.  

Steve squeezing his shoulder jolted him back to the present.  “This is important?”

Tony traced the parts of Darcy’s face that reminded him of his mother, the tangle of her hair, wanting to leave her that way.  “It is.”

Steve nodded and crawled onto the bed.  The mattress shifted her towards his weight, and she woke easily.  The way she woke eased something in Tony’s chest.  It wasn't the instant awareness of a soldier, but the slow complaining crawl to consciousness of a child.  She rubbed her face into the sheets underneath her head, making a small noise while Steve talked to her softly.  She woke up reluctantly, because she felt safe. 

Tony rolled up the sleeve of her oversized sweater and inserted a syringe in her vein while Steve rubbed his thumb up and down on her forehead.  She didn’t seem to need the comfort, ready to ball herself up under the covers as soon as it was finished, grabbing behind her back in Steve’s general direction.

“Let me-- Let us know what you find out.”  Steve asked, glancing at Darcy’s hand opening and closing a few inches from his chest with a look that was more than amusement and affection.

The vial of blood in his hand was still warm when Tony fit it into the case, precious and disturbing.  “When she's awake, come to the lab.”

Steve frowned, his eyes scanning Tony’s face, finding a pale cast to his skin.  “Tony.  Have you slept?”

He laughed, and Darcy rolled at the noise, Steve running a soothing hand over her shoulder.  “I’ll sleep when it’s over.”

Steve was still stroking a hand over her when he spoke, watching his hand.  “Wars are never over.”  He promised.  “You sleep when you can.”

When he closed his eyes, Tony saw dead people.  Christy in that last video, with her short black hair and her clear, lucid eyes.  Her sister in a photograph, holding a spoon and a mixing bowl.  

Justine Hammer, with her arms shiny and dead up to the elbow.

Tony nodded and knew that he wouldn’t, afraid that sleep would add other faces to the parade of women.

Chapter Text

Darcy had spent a lot of time imagining the first time she and Steve would sleep together.

She felt a little cheated that the only thing she could check off of that list was ‘cuddling’.  Not that she would have been up for much, but the part of her that had been dying for the opportunity to get Steve into bed was feeling mildly sulky.

But it was hard to get too worked up about it when Steve was warm at her back, a solid barrier from the rest of the world.  Darcy didn’t know if she’d ever felt this safe in her entire life.

She spent a long time just lying there, enjoying the way their breathing had synched up in the night, until Steve pressed a kiss into her hair.  It was soft, bracketed by the heat of his breath, and Darcy wondered how long he’d been awake and doing that.  

When she shifted her weight back his arms tightened around her waist, and Darcy could feel how it would be between them when this was their bed.  

It had always been too easy to imagine that, with Steve.  

It wasn’t something she was entirely certain she was cable of, but in moments like this, she could fall into the fantasy that she was that kind of girl.  She wanted to be-- maybe that would be enough.

“Tony wants to see us in the lab, whenever you’re ready.”  Steve murmured into the back of her head, and Darcy had the faint memory of a stab in her arm in a dark room.  “But you don’t have to get up until you’re ready.”

Darcy rolled in his arms to rub her nose against his neck, squeezing her arms around his stomach.  “I’m up.”  She promised, giving herself one more minute to pretend.

 

Darcy’d seen her own reflection in the bathroom mirror-- she knew that she looked like shit.  Even if her neck hadn’t been black with bruising, her lips were chapped, and she was starting to break out from stress.

But she looked like a spring lily in comparison to Tony.  

His skin was pallid and shiny with oil, the ways hers got when she didn’t sleep.  “Hey, kid,” He said too cheerfully, his eyes skating down to her bruises,  “You’re not sitting?  You should sit, Steve--”

“Okay, Tony.”  Steve agreed, smiling in a way that would be placating on anyone else, pulling two chairs close to the bank of monitors.

When she sat Tony ran a shaky hand through his hair, and Darcy was struck by how old he looked.  She wondered when he’d eaten, or slept.

It was easy to see how people fell into taking care of him.  He was like a puppy that had chewed up your shoes and was then devastated when you yelled at him.  

He’d abandoned her, and spied on her-- and she had been angry, so angry.  

But she’d still looked at those pictures of him in those stupid outfits and wondered who’d let him out of the house like that.  It was easy to worry about him.  

“Okay.”  Tony said, and rubbed his thumb and forefinger along the line of his goatee.  He didn’t seem able to still his hands or his eyes, his gaze darting to her face then away.  “Okay.”  He said again.  “I think I should just show the video.”

 

Some people looked different in photographs than they did in life.  Justine Hammer was one of those people.

Darcy’d looked at the photographs of Sasha’s mother and she hadn’t been able to figure out who that woman had been.  She was just a woman who liked to wear red.

Seeing her move in the video, Justine was real.  Her face was just as impassive as in the photographs, but in motion, it was easy to see what she was-- tough.  And scared.  

Just like with Bucky, her eyes gave her away even if her face was a mask.  

“Test serum 2.3,”  Tony’s voice intoned from the video,  “If you’re ready.”

Justine rolled her eyes, holding out an arm that was silver up to the elbow.  Her fingers were frozen in a curved ‘C’, and Darcy tried to remember if Sasha’s fingers had moved normally.  If the last joint had seemed stiff, or fluid.  “Just do it, Stark.”  

Then Tony was on the screen-- young, clean shaven, with the same pale, shiny face he had now, wrapping a hand around Justine’s biceps to pull her arm into the right position.  

Justine didn’t wince as the syringe slid home and something thick and yellow was pressed into her vein.  Tony massaged the injection site, staring at the line where her skin blended into the metal, waiting for something.

Whatever it was, it did not happen.

Justine seemed to accept it before he did, her eyes closing for a breath before her face went back to its still default.  

Tony swore softly, and the tape cut off, only to resume with the words, “Test serum 2.4.”

 

Tony let the video play through three other attempts, and Darcy watched the metal line creep higher up Justine’s arm.

She wondered how high it had gotten, before it had killed her.

“I think I could fix her, now.”  Tony said, his eyes still on the screen while he rubbed absently at his chest where the arc reactor nestled.  He tapped his screen, and a picture of Steve's shield appeared in its place.  "Now that I've had more experience."

“Vibranium poisoning?”  Steve asked, frowning.  “Why is it spreading like that?”

“Because it’s not just vibranium.”  Tony answered, picking up a vial of water with a layer of silver coating the bottom of the glass.  “It’s nanotec, made out of vibranium.  This--”  He gestured at the screen, “Was not its intended result, unless Hammer’s an even bigger ass than anticipated.  And I say this as someone who knows he did dangerous medical experiments on his own daughter, so you should not underestimate how big of an ass I think he is."

“What was it supposed to do?”  Darcy asked, swivelling her chair back and forth, as if the information didn’t matter to her.

Tony shrugged.  “I don’t know.”  He admitted.  “She didn’t know.  Justine wasn’t exactly a willing test subject.”

His fingers tapped over one of his keyboards, and the image on the screen changed to show microscope slides of something silver surrounded by blood cells.

“Here’s what I do know: it’s most likely introduced into the body as a powder dissolved in water.”  He shook the vial in his hand, one finger clamping down the cork, and Darcy watched as the silver paste disappeared.  

“When it’s agitated, it releases a compound that allows it to rise, so it doesn’t stay on the bottom of the glass.  Also it would be far less concentrated than this, naturally.  Don’t want it to be visible.”

“It’s easy to get into the body-- getting into a cell… much harder.”  The slides on the screen changed, and Darcy had a moment of 8th grade biology deja vu. “So you have to attach your little nanobots to something that can get into the cells you want to get into, and let it piggyback.  In this case, sucralose.”

Darcy blinked.  “...Splenda?”

Tony shrugged his mouth, tapping something on his keyboard.  “Sweet receptors are pretty indiscriminate.  They’ll let pretty much anyone into the party.  So, you’re doing good-- you’ve got your nanobots in, doing their thing-- but you’ve got to make them stop somehow, at some point.”

The slides on the screen changed to something else silver.  “Arsenic’s good for that.”  Tony continued conversationally, like he wasn’t talking about poison.  “It’s good at getting deep into the body-- nervous system, bones.  Shouldn’t be hard to introduce a little of that and shut everything down, as long as your nanobots respond to the cue.”

“What went wrong?”  Steve was concentrating on the visuals Tony was displaying, and Darcy could see him as a middle schooler, staring at his teacher with rapt attention and taking copious notes.

“What went wrong is that arsenic is a heavy metal, just like vibranium.  It bioaccumulates in the same places-- legs, fingertips.  Places with bad circulation.  And if any of those nanobots bump into any of those bits of arsenic--”

“They’ll turn back on.”  Darcy finished, swallowing down the memory of her mother filling carts with bottled water while the grocery store clerks stared in pity.

“They’ll turn back on.”  Tony agreed.  “Maybe along the way they’ll bump into some arsenic and shut down, but for obvious reasons, you’d want to avoid giving your subject too large of a dose of arsenic.  So you have a lot more nanobots than you do arsenic molecules, and the arsenic is imobile.  But your nanobots can move.”

“Okay.”  Steve nodded, still focused on the information Tony had displayed for them.  “So how did you stop it?”

“I didn’t stop it.  She died.”  Tony said bluntly, his face tight.  “We kept trying, but, it got into her lymph system, and… I think I could fix it now.”  He said again.

Good, Darcy thought, Sasha’s metal and oil smell fresh in her mind, because you’re going to have to.

Chapter Text

The fourth time Darcy meets Sasha Hammer, she's just electrocuted Captain America.

After their morning powwow, Steve had taken her straight back to bed, and even though Darcy knew it was a mistake, she’d let him.  There was work to do-- things to tell Tony, people she should be contacting-- pressing things.  But she didn’t want to do any of it.  She wanted to curl up in Steve’s clothes, and bed, and smell.

She wanted just a moment of respite, and god, Steve was a fantastic place to hide.  It was easy to let him take care of her.

He was better at it than she was, working lotion into her legs for her with big, warm hands and combing out her hair when she would have just fallen asleep with it in a wet tangle.  

Darcy had long considered taking care of herself to be an unpleasant but necessary task, and she tended to be careless about it.  Not in the ways that really mattered, of course, but in the little things.  She picked her nail polish off, and forgot to change her pillowcases, and ate in bed.

She liked it much better when someone else took care of things like that for her, although she didn’t like to admit it.  It felt like the behavior of a child.

When she really examined that, it was-- Becky had always liked to braid Darcy’s hair for her, and do her toenails.  

It relaxed her so much to have Steve rubbing her feet and smoothing her hair, loosened muscles she didn’t know were clenched.  She was limp and warm, with her face buried in one of Steve’s sweaters, when the lights went out.

There was a sound to it, a low powering down sound that seemed to come from inside the walls, and they both went still as a rabbit hiding from a lynx.  All they knew was that the lamp illuminating one corner of the room had gone dark, but that sound struck something instinctual.

“Something’s seriously wrong.”  Steve said unnecessarily, standing, barefoot in plaid pajamas but still somehow projecting a sense of battle readiness, his gaze sharp and alert in the dark room.  There were a few spots of light to be found in the room, emergency lighting lining the walls in a blue rim that outlined the door.  It was strange, almost phosphorescent, giving her the impression that she was underwater, surrounded by fish with sharp teeth and ugly faces that never saw daylight.  “That sounded like the arc reactor powering down.”

“J.A.R.V.I.S?”  Darcy questioned, sitting up, and was unsurprised at the silence that answered her.  

Steve’s jaw tightened, and he glanced from her to the door before reaching to lever her up from the mattress.  They didn’t dress, aside from quickly shoving their feet into mismatched socks and their sneakers.  Steve’s ability to do this with one hand while keeping a grip on her shoulder would have impressed Darcy under other circumstances, but the tension of the moment was bleeding into her, and she was too wide-eyed and tense for that.

She slid her backpack on at the door, and Steve pulled her into the hall.  His grip on her shifted fluidly from her arm to her wrist, changing sides, but he never left her untouched as they made their way through the common room and into the hall.  “Anything we say in here will carry.”  He warned, and pushed the door to the stairwell open with the loud crack of an underused door.

Their footsteps carried as well, and as they descended, the feeling of sinking into deep water only increased.  Her breath felt choked in her throat like a diver whose oxygen was growing low.  There were more than a hundred floors between them and the lobby.

They wouldn’t make it.

Darcy swallowed, and stopped, Steve’s hand jerking her down a step before he realized she wasn’t moving with him anymore.  “We can’t get there.”  She whispered, and heard the shushing echo of it reverberate around them in the huge, blank space.  “Whatever this is-- it’s a trap.  We can’t--”

Steve’s hand squeezed her arm in a quick pulse of comfort.  “We’re not going to the lobby.”  He murmured in reply, adding the rushing wave noise of his own low tones to hers.  “Tony’s got a lab a few floors down.  If anything’s going to work, it’ll be there.”

Darcy relaxed, some of the safety she’d felt in his room bleeding back in in spite of herself.  “I do love a man with a plan.”

“Love you too,”  Steve replied absently, automatic as breathing as he opened the door to the floor that Tony’s lab was on, and Darcy felt a pulse of blinding affection for him.  That moment pressed into her mind like a flower crushed in a book to dry, important even before she knew what followed it.  She thought she’d always remember what he looked like, right before he stepped through that door, the strong lines of his back and the distracted look on his face.

In the moment, it seemed like lightning had struck his body, and Darcy expected to see Thor, even though that made no sense.  It was wrong, anyway.  Thor’s lightning was white-- blue at most.

Not red.

She jumped back from his body as it fell, jerking, a pulse of pink electricity rolling across his skin, and a sickening mix of terror and anger shot through her.  

Until she saw Sasha.

Her face was as still and perfectly made up as usual, silver fingers spread wide to give the electricity she’d shot from them the best range.  The metal seemed to have crept higher, near the second knuckle on each finger, but they still seemed able to bend.

They stared at each other over Steve’s prone form.  Darcy wondered what Sasha saw in her mismatched pajamas and bruised neck, taking an odd comfort in the edge of a red shirt protruding from under the close black outline of a vest that looked bulletproof to her untrained eyes.  

Sasha let out a long sigh, the swoops of her eyeliner looking strange as she glanced down at Steve, already moving a little with a faint frown on his still unconscious face.

Sasha offered her hand, tips shining in the emergency lighting.  “Come with me if you want to live.”  

She said it without the slightest intonation of humor, but there was the tiniest quirk at the corner of her mouth that reminded Darcy of Natasha, and the jokes she occasionally made.

And that resemblance, more than anything else, was what made Darcy step over Steve and follow Sasha into the black corridor.

Chapter Text

The first time Steve sees Bucky since the helicarrier, he’s stroking his hair in an elevator shaft.

He comes to consciousness more slowly than he should have, under the circumstance.  It’s not the first time he’s been knocked unconscious in battle, and he’s accustomed to waking from that in a sudden, sharp burst.

It’s the hair stroking, he thinks later, that keeps him out and wakes him slowly.  It’s not the quick, clinical touch of someone checking his pulse or his temperature with their hand-- it’s what his mother used to do.  She’d sit on his bed, right by his head, and rub his temples with her thumbs.

The fingers touching him weren’t his mother's, but it was a domestic gesture, calm and unhurried.  Nothing about it spoke of danger.  

When he began to wake, the wrongness started to filter in; the smell of metal, the dampness of the air.  The cold press of something metal against his side, so different from the soft warmth of Darcy’s body that he’d felt only once, but that now seemed intrinsic to the feeling of safety and sleep.

Darcy, Steve thought, and jerked up fast, his head cracking against something hard.  The short, aborted sound of pain he made had an echo to it that he recognized-- a tunnel, or a vent.  By the time his eyes opened, he was expecting the blackness.

He wasn’t expecting the way the darkness reached out to touch the back of his head carefully where it was tender, checking for an injury.  The darkness that traced over his temples and forehead afterwards, like his mother had done when he was sick and sleepless with fever.  

Like Bucky had done, when he’d slept over at his house and they’d put the couch cushions on the floor because the sofa made his spine feel like something hot was stabbing into it.

It had been embarrassing to ask him for that, but it was the only way he could sleep.  Don’t be such a martyr, Stevie.  Just tell me what you need.

“...Bucky?”  Steve whispered, and heard it shudder up the elevator shaft.  The cold metal thing against his side tightened, and what it was clicked into place in Steve's mind.  An arm, that kept him from falling into the emptiness.

There was a soft wet noise, Bucky’s mouth opening and then closing, but no reply.  Every sound was so magnified that speech was a mistake, Steve knew that, but so many words were bubbling up inside of him that if Bucky had said one thing, the damn would have broken.

When he kept his peace, Steve swallowed his feelings and took stock of himself.  His body had a strange weakness, some of his larger muscles still twitching, but he could feel himself healing already.  By the time they reach the floor they’re moving to, he’ll be ready to run.  

Because they were moving.  

Bucky’s feet were making almost imperceptible scratchings against the metal wall, but now that he’s most himself, Steve can feel the rope that’s been tied to support his hips as they rappel downward.  His legs  wrapped around Bucky’s waist, fastened to him so securely that the arm’s support wasn’t necessary.  Every few floors there's a pause, and it released him to take a turn on the rope so that Bucky’s flesh hand could run over his face, pulling back when it encountered the brush of his eyelashes.

The second time he does it, Steve pins it to the lower half of his face and mouths one of his questions into the palm of Bucky’s hand.  Do you know where she is.

After he does it, Steve wonders if his words can even be distinguished, or if it is only a muddle.  A strange, open-mouthed kiss.

That same wet mouth noise, again, and then Steve’s hand was pulled to the side of Bucky’s face to feel him nod, his stubble sharp against the pad of his fingers.  It was an unfamiliar feeling outside of a foxhole-- Bucky preferring to be clean shaven, and only neglecting himself under duress-- but somehow more appropriate for that.  

What was happening now felt like a war, after all.

Chapter Text

The first time Tony tried to hack the Pentagon, he’d failed.

He hadn’t really been trying-- not enough to do research about the security beforehand, at any rate.  It had been a whim, because it was one of those things you were just supposed to do when you were young and stupid.  Like getting into a food fight, or licking a metal pole in winter to see what it was like to get your tongue stuck.  If he’d gotten in then, Tony wasn’t sure what he would have done.  Poked around their files until he got bored, probably.  He didn’t have any sort of agenda.

After he failed, though… Well.  That was a whole different matter.  

He couldn’t, despite years of thought on the subject, determine a better reason for the intense interest he developed in getting through their security after that, other than that it was a challenge and his mind at twelve had been thirsty for something to test himself against.  Like a mountaineer, he wanted to do it because it was there to be done.

Because of that, when Tony had built the firewall for the tower, he had taken twelve year old geniuses into account.

It became a bit of a joke, among programmers, how easy it was to get through Tony’s security.  Not too easy-- it still took skill and finesse, and you couldn’t get into everything without tripping a few alarms, but you could get in.  Riffle through the building schematics, the personnel records, see what the weekly cafeteria menu was like.

People said that the best firewall was one that was impenetrable.  Tony preferred the firewall that no one even knew was there.

It wasn’t his initial purpose, but he found that letting intruders explore a little was also a fantastic tool for gathering information.  The lookie-loos would do just what Tony imagined he would have done in the Pentagon files, that first time-- play around a bit until they got bored.  The corporate rivals made a bee-line for R&D.  It was all fairly predictable.

So Ezekiel Stane stands out.

He has a lighter touch than most, probing each system before he tries to breach it, which would be enough to get Tony’s attention on its own.  This is a hacker who can see the strategy of secondary defenses.

He wants to know about emergency procedures, and backup generators.   Where the people who live in the tower sleep.

He wants to know about Darcy.

Tony’s every instinct screams at him to bury her behind a wall of code so high it would make Rapunzel acrophobic, but he know what walls are.  Something to climb because you can.

And, really, none of the files on the external server are very accurate.

 

Once he lets Ezekiel in, someone else follows him.  They’re not quite as sophisticated, but there’s no need to be for what they seem to want to do.  And that’s to destroy everything.

“...J.A.R.V.I.S, what’s your bead on this?” Tony asked, watching years of meticulously created files delete themselves or garble into documents where only one word in five was readable.  “Distraction, or?”

“It appears so, Sir, but I don’t believe we are the intended targets.” J.A.R.V.I.S said, pulling up a visual of the areas the second intruder was decimating.  “The areas they are focusing on are not ones that would be of paramount importance to the continued functionality of the tower.”

“They’re hitting the maps, power grid layouts, but leaving the core systems intact.” Tony agreed, glancing through the data.  “It’s a smokescreen.  We may have an ally.  Estimated time until physical incursion?”

“Thirty three minutes, Sir.”

He really wasn’t supposed to be monitoring her, but Tony thought that under the circumstances, even Darcy would forgive him.  “Location of my daughter.”

“She remains with Captain Rogers in his rooms.”  After a pause, he continued.  “Would you like a status update on all other persons of interest?”

Tony began to close out of his files and shut the monitors down. “Yeah, hit me.”

“Agent Romanoff remains with Mr. Murdock; while there is some indication of hostile activity within the building, I do not believe outside assistance will be required.”  Tony started on the displays around the armor next, jamming the control panels before powering each display down.  “Ms. Potts and Ms. Dawson remain secure in Virginia, and appear to be getting on quite well.  Agent Barton has expressed several complaints about the vocalizations of the local insect population, but is in place outside of Ms. Dawson’s building should any intervention be required.”

There was a certain amount of ambient light in Tony’s labs, even when he wasn’t working.  Seeing it so dark and still gave him the feeling he’d had as a child when he’d gotten into bed without checking that there was nothing underneath it.

“Dr. Foster and Prince Thor are not present on Earth at this time.  Dr. Banner’s whereabouts continue to be unknown.”

As Tony slid into the bolt-hole he’d designed into every room, he thought that he liked it that J.A.R.V.I.S still included Bruce in his little updates, even though there was nothing new to report.

Tony edged carefully onto the metal ledge of the hole, trying not to focus on how far down the darkness of the tunnel extended. “When the reactor powers down, you need to go down too.” Tony said, aware that J.A.R.V.I.S didn’t need reminding but wanting to say it anyway. “Help out where you can, but keep it under the radar.  I don’t want them to know you’re still operational.”

“Of course, Sir.” There was almost an eyeroll there. “I do have a more than eidetic memory, but if there are any other instructions you would like to repeat?”

“Smartass.”  Tony accused, but when his voice echoed back from empty space below, he could hear there was no real heat behind it.  “No more voice protocols until this is over.  See you on the other side.”

“Indeed, Sir.” J.A.R.V.I.S agreed, and left him alone in the darkness.  Taking a deep breath, Tony pulled the panel to the lab closed and sealed himself in.  His feet and hands made small ringing noises as they made contact with the ladder.

He began to climb down.

Chapter Text

In the time it takes for Darcy’s eyes to adjust to the tower’s emergency lighting, she memorizes the sound of Sasha’s footsteps.  They’re heavier even than Steve’s, her boots hitting the ground with a thump that sounds more like Iron Man’s tread than the walk of a slightly built girl, and Darcy can hear Tony’s voice in her head.   Legs, fingertips.  Places with bad circulation.

She wants to think that it’s just the darkness amplifying sound, but once she can see in the pale blue glow of the hallway, Sasha’s feet still fall heavily enough that it’s hard for Darcy to avoid imagining stiff metal toes with silver creeping up her calf.  The idea that this girl might not plan to walk away from this encounter cemented its self in her mind.

“So,” Her voice had an unexpectedly breathless quality, and Darcy realized how fast they were moving, just under a run. “I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful to you for electrocuting my boyfriend--I assume with the nanobots?-- to take me on this exciting midnight stroll, but I’m hoping there’s a plan here.”

“Stark,” Sasha said in what was almost a sigh as she pried the panel off of the elevator controls, “I know it’s contrary to the core of your personality, but shut the fuck up.” A pink spark of electricity jumped from her fingertips, and Darcy heard the sound of the lift activating reverberate through the elevator shaft.  “I don’t have the energy to come up with witty one liners.  We need to get to the server banks before Zeke and your Daddy Dearest do.”

Darcy felt her body react to the name, flushing hot and then cold, but she felt oddly calm at the prospect of confronting him-- she’d been waiting for it for so long.  It felt unreal to step into the elevator and find it as brightly lit as ever, to let it hurl her downward like it was any other day and she was going to work for Jane.  She took a deep breath and tried to imagine it-- another sleepy morning with a tumbler of black coffee, her earbuds in.  Listening to her Stupid Love Songs playlist and thinking about Steve.  Kate Smith crooning ‘I Threw A Kiss Into The Ocean’.

She breathed out and looked out the glass back of the elevator, watching the city light blur as they picked up speed. “Zeke… I still call him Ronnie, is that weird?”

Sasha’s reflection shrugged, her face trying to look bored, but Darcy could see the tension around her eyes.  It occurred to Darcy that she should be getting ready-- pulling her taser from her backpack, at the very least-- but her hands were shaking too much.  She tucked them under the straps over her shoulder and counted her breaths as the floors sped past, wishing someone would stop it like the last time she’d been here and felt this way, but she’d left Steve behind.  

Darcy searched herself for why, and it was hard to pinpoint, except the feeling that she had to face this-- that it was about family in a way that he couldn't understand.  A blood feud.

“Stark,” Sasha said with the impatience of someone who’d been repeating herself, waving a hand in front of Darcy’s face with a flash of red nail polish.  “Move your ass.  We’re on a schedule here.”

All that red, Darcy thought, forcing herself to focus on the now of the sub basement level with its strange underwater feeling and blank, unmarked walls.   All that blood.

"It's Lewis." Darcy reminded her, stepping out of the elevator.  "As in Christy Lewis.  Deanna Lewis."

"Fine.  Move your ass, Lewis." Sasha rolled her eyes, but there was a glimmer of something like respect in them.  "We need the server room."

“I know how to get around down here.” Darcy told her, trying to keep her voice quiet-- she knew how far and fast sounds carried on the lower levels.

Sasha raised her eyebrows, an almost a smile ghosting across her lips.  “Why’d you think I brought you?  Your good looks?”

Darcy fluttered her eyelashes and smiled, a frisson of energy shivering up her spine as her adrenal glands started tip her past ‘flight’ and into ‘fight’.  “Aw, you think I’m pretty?”

“Pretty something .” Her tone made it clear that she was deciding between a few unfavorable options.  “Be serious-- we gotta move.”

Feeling the muscles in her leg jump with the urge to move, Darcy nodded.  She wondered if this was what the others experienced before missions, excitement skating a thin edge next to fear.  “I’m ready.  Stay close.”

Sasha snorted, as if the idea that she could fall behind was ludicrous.  “Try to lose me.”  She offered with a sharp toothed smile, and Darcy felt like they were about to start playing a very dangerous game of tag.